I’m reviewing something a little bit different this time.
The Balfour Correspondent is not a novel. It’s a collection of letters sent by 14 year old Sylvia M’Arthur from Balfour, on Tasmania’s West Coast, to the ‘Young Folks’ page of Launceston’s ‘Weekly Courier’ in 1912, and interspersed with replies from James Dryburgh, writing from Hobart one hundred years later.
Through Syvlia’s letters there is a glimpse of a world and time completely different from our own. At the time of writing, Syliva and her family had just moved to Balfour, a small town consisting of a handful of shops and a small school. They’d moved there because of the mine, where her father had work.
Now, there is almost nothing left of Balfour. It’s been reclaimed by the forests that surround it, and James Balfour’s response to Sylvia’s letters speaks of this, and of what has changed in our world in general in the hundred years or so since Sylvia lived, and what has stayed the same.
It’s a fascinating, and in some places, terribly sad read. And it makes me wonder what other gems are lurking in our newspapers, waiting to be found.
This is a bit different to my usual read. I don’t usually read memoir, but I’ve heard Tony talk about his book a couple of times now, and he read a section of his book out at the Little Laneway Festival, in November last year, and I had to read more.
The story is heartbreaking. Tony and his wife Sue are travelling through South America when Sue suffers from a brain aneurysm while they’re in Bolivia. Bolivia is a poor country, and so of course it’s hospitals are not equipped as well as the hospitals Tony is used to, here in Australia.
Even when Tony manages to break through the language barriers and make it understood that his wife needs a hospital, it takes time to get her there, and as the weeks drag on it’s uncertain whether she will ever leave.
From the start, Tony’s writing propels the reader back to that terrifying moment when his wife has a seizure in the bed beside him, and carries the reader back and forward through his and Sue’s history, and the painfully long 14 weeks before Sue can finally come home, now suffering from a condition very much like dementia, putting Tony in a new role of carer.
Extremely well written, I highly recommend this story.
This story has been on my ‘To Read’ list for such a long time, and I’m so glad I finally got to read it.
It’s a beautiful love story/folk tale of a River Wife – fish by night, human by day – her human father, and the human man she falls in love with.
The River Wife has no name: “I have found in the naming of things, something happens,” she tells the human, Wilson James.
“There are times now in the forest when a flower appears, berries grow, a certain fungus blooms, and if I name it I can pass it by as if I have seen it already. I do not want to pass it by… The bark of each tree has a pattern that is unique, a constellation of small creatures and plants which grow there and make it home, and it may have a neighbour which stands also in bark of a similar cloth, but it is not the same because its name is the same.”
The River Wives have always lived in this river, and this particular River Wife has been here for many many years – so many years that her human father has turned into a tree so that he will always be nearby.
“My father once said that any story of a place was a story of sadness, because everything changed. So a story of belonging would always be a story of losing.”
She’s warned against humans by her father, and she does try to resist the lure of Wilson James for a while, but she’s curious, too. He shouldn’t be able to see her, for she exists across a veil that humans cannot cross, but he can. How?
In the end her curiosity proves the better of her, and she succumbs to meeting him, and ever so gradually reveals the truth about herself.
But then something happens to Wilson James, and the River Wife has to make a dangerous journey to find the oldest ones and see if they can save him.
“‘What do hearts get mended with? ‘
‘Sunshine, kindness, the touch of your child’s hand in yours, spring rain, the green wings of dragonflies, rainbow scales, the webs of spiders, the voice of a woman who loves you.'”
For someone who prefers to be a hermit and hide away at home this year has pushed me miles outside my comfort zone!
I’ve home schooled my children through grades 4 and 6, and started sporadic lessons a lot earlier than planned for my 4 year old who is insistent that she be taught how to read and write, NOW! While this is mostly, obviously, at home, we’ve done excursions to all sorts of places, visiting a whole bunch of different historical sites, bushwalking, swimming, getting lost in mazes, attending theatre productions, experiencing our local Indigenous culture at the Naidoc week celebrations, visiting Writers Festivals and Sustainable Living Expos, and so many other things!
I’ve chauffered the above mentioned children to a bajillion activities (no… I don’t know if bajillion is a real word, and yes it certainly felt like there were that many!) – dance,drama and music – lessons,rehearsals and performances. I spent a good deal of the year sitting in the car reading/writing while waiting for said children, or doing laps around our beautiful river.
I’ve made hundreds of Tasmanian beeswax candles; melting and colouring and pouring and levelling and packaging to send off to the handful of shops who stock the candles my husband and I make (with the children’s help, when they are feeling particularly keen).
And I spent some time volunteering – transcribing convict records. That was a fantastic experience – there was a new, fascinating, real-life story at every turn, some of which I hope to share with you all next year.
As for my own writing, 2018 has been a huge year for me.
I’m not sure if I’ve written about this before, but for the last few years I’ve had a goal to submit on average one piece of writing each and every week. Now, I need to specify that I don’t necessarily mean one new piece of writing per week. Most of my submissions are older short stories that haven’t found a home yet. However, some of my stories are brand new, and this year, amongst the 56 submissions I made 18 of them were new stories, written just this year.
It started last year, really, with the invitation in December to submit my work to The People’s Library. That resulted in the editing and polishing of my novella ‘What the Tide Brings’, to bring it up to scratch, followed by months of checking and re-checking emails as news on the project dripped in – dates, covers, and most importantly – edits, while myself, Pearl and Isabel (two other members of my writers group who were also invited to include their stories) planned events to make sure we made the most of this fantastic opportunity!
When September hit, it seemed everything happened all at once.
I had a drabble (a story that is exactly 100 words) published on September 1st, and then on the 7th writers from all over the state made their way to Hobart for the opening of the library – what must have been the biggest book launch ever as 113 books were launched.
That was just the beginning. This reading was the first of three public readings, the next held a fortnight later in Deloraine (although I had lost my voice, so Isabel did my reading for me), and another approximately 6 weeks after that, at the Little Laneway Festival, also in Deloraine.
Throughout the year I’ve also been posting regular stories on my rarely mentioned Patreon Page. While most of these stories have been published before, most are not easily available – if at all, and I’ve started branching out into some newer, only-available-on-Patreon short stories. (If you’re interested to see what I’ve written, there are some free stories on the page, and for $1 you’ll have access to the entire backlog of stories for a whole month.)
And my year has ended with the acceptance of another of my flash-fiction pieces ‘Tea with Grandma’ on a new Australian website – Lite Lit One. This story was written for a ‘Zine’ my local writers group planned, but which unfortunately fell through, so I’m so glad to find it a home!
I have so much to write about this weekend, I almost don’t know where to start!
I attended seven sessions:
Learning to Fly: Emerging Authors
Garments of Time: the many Guises of History
Numbers Never Lie! Writing a Bestseller
Matters Fantastical: Speculative Fiction
Moment of Launch: Emerging Writers
Honourable Mentions: do Literary Awards help or hinder?
Blessed Disguises: Dressing up fact as fiction
There was some common advice shared in many of the discussions:
Write from your heart. I don’t know how many times I heard this during the festival, but I’ve written it at least 4 times in my notebook. The general consensus was that the joy you have from writing what you love flows out onto the page, and makes the reading much more enjoyable, and therefore it’s more likely to be picked up. Also – the books publishers are publishing now were usually picked up several years ago, there is no point writing to a current trend – publishers will have already moved onto the next one (which could be your book).
Enter everything. Awards, grants, competitions – even if you don’t win, the feedback can be invaluable. This was the focus of the ‘Honourable Mentions’ panel, where the general answer to the question ‘Do Awards help or hinder’ was two-fold: winning is a great affirmation that you’re on the right track, and can also be good advertising.
Develop a thick skin. Rejection is the norm. You could be rejected for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with you, or your writing.
Be persistent! This follows on from the above – rejection is the norm, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting! (But always remember to be professional).
I tried distilling my weekends worth of notes down to something brief and easy to read, but I found with my favourite two sessions, I just couldn’t – so here’s an overview…
‘The Garments of Time: the many guises of history’ with Rebe Taylor, James Dryburgh, Margaretta Pos, Louise Evans and Stephanie Parkyn.
#TVWF Session: The Garments of Time: the many guises of history – Rebe Taylor, James Dryburgh, Margaretta Pos, Louise Evans and Stephanise Parkyn
I love history, so this was probably my favourite session of the entire festival.
There was so much to take from this session!
Rebe Taylor pointed out that we can never step into the past – it’s never clear, and that to write history we must be as present minded as possible. She quoted Graeme Denning who said that to study/write history we must be ‘anthropologists of ourselves’.
James Dryburgh notes that History changes clothes (going with the theme of the panel title – ‘Garments of Time’) depending on who tells it, and how they gather their information. But history is not seperate from the present, threads from the past join with the present.
His book ‘The Balfour Correspondent’ contains actual letters written by a 13 year old girl living in Balfour, in North-West Tasmania, to the Weekly Courier (a Launceston newspaper), about her life in Balfour. As James pointed out, we rarely look at history through the eyes of a child, what we have instead is a very narrow view of history. There have always been dissenting voices.
Someone asked a question about how the authors decide on the historical ‘truth’ when there are so many stories. The authors seemed to be all in agreeance – there is no single, universal truth, if you ask a group of witnesses of the same event what they saw, everyone will have a different account, because we all view the world through our own understanding, which has been formed through our own experiences.
Matters Fantastical: Speculative Fiction chaired by Lyndon Riggall, with Amie Kaufman, Jodi McAlister, and Paul Collins
What a fantastic panel this was! I have three pages of notes for this one – a sure sign it was loaded with information! This post is already quite long though, so I’ll try and be concise…
Amie spoke about writing a series: in book one the obstacles/crisis feels immediate and terrible, but by book 3 those problems need to seem minor in comparison with what’s going in the book 3.
Lyndon commented that carrying a narrative in your head gets exhausting – living in another world for half the time. So that’s why I’m so tired all the time!!
Amie said it was really important to take time out from writing – you have to ‘put stuff in’ in order to ‘get stuff out’, and Jodie was of the importance of compartmentalising life: work/writing/life.
Jodi writes ‘Intrusive Fantasy’, where the fantastical intrudes on reality, which is a term I’d never heard of before, and really describes my writing.
Amie pointed out that fantasy allows us to examine our world from a distance, and that sci-fi/fantasy is where we get to rehearse the future.
For writers the advice was that you should always know more about your world/story than you share, that you need to make sure the story starts in the right place, and – for fantasy writers – always make the map first!
There were so many other wonderful little snippets of wisdom, but I’ll try to note just a few:
Adam Thompson (whose brilliant short story ‘Honey’ was recently published in the Kill Your Darlings Tasmania Showcase) spoke about the use of stories in educating people, how when reading fiction people tend to have their guard down, they’re more willing and able to see another’s point of view. He spoke about how readers want a unique voice, they aren’t after another Stephen King, for example.
Louise Allan spoke of the process she went through with her book ‘The Sisters Song’, which had at least 30 full redrafts (that made me feel better – I’m only at about redraft 24 with my novel), and the struggles she’s having finding the same authenticity with her second novel (Second novel syndrome is real, people!).
Cheryl Akle said the magic of fiction is that every person in the room could be given the same idea, and yet every story would be different.
With regard to writing a bestseller, the general consensus of this panel of writers was that you can’t actually sit down and write a bestseller. There are things that will help; like writing from the heart (see above!), and making sure you know the craft (spelling/grammar/structure etc). Having a publisher with good distribution channels is crucial – a book needs to be available online as well as in your local bookstore and the big chain stores. But really, so much of the process is down to luck, you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
So last year, in that gap while I wasn’t blogging, I was still writing, and submitting my writing, and being published, though not in the usual sense.
Every year in November, the little town of Deloraine plays host to the world renowned (is it? I’m sure it must be!) Tasmanian Craft Fair. Deloraine I’m sure must be the creative hub of Tasmania – or one of them at least – and among the many artistic and creative endeavors are the sculptures scattered along either side of the main street.
Last year, writers from Deloraine and across Northern Tasmania were invited to pick a sculpture and write a short piece (short being the key – we were given an approximate figure of 30 words) in some way linked to the sculptures. There were all sorts of pieces – fiction and non-fiction, lists and stories. I was lucky enough to have two of my pieces chosen:
There were so many wonderful interpretations of the sculptures – I’m hoping they repeat the idea this year!
As I writer, I am also a reader, and among the many many books I read, of course, are the books on writing, and of course there are many different methods of writing a novel, and the writing of a novel can change from one book to the next, even for the same author. Here’s my writing process, for this novel.
Working title: ‘On Demon’s Shores’, a play on words of the location ‘Van Dieman’s Land’, started 3 and a half years ago on a bushwalk with my now-husband. That was December 2012. A woman – Elspeth – standing over the grave of her infant son. I knew straight away it was a historical fiction, and, having a Masters in History, I thought I knew what areas I was familiar with, and what areas would need a bit more research. I planned to write my novel during Nanowrimo* the following year and spent the following eleven months reading in the areas I knew I needed to brush up on; like Scottish folk magic, and colonial history – especially the interactions (good and bad) between the Aborigines and the settlers.
By November 2013 I had a folder thick with notes, as well as the odd scene that came to me through the year: One from the point of view of Elspeth’s daughter, another from her dead husband. Scenes of Elspeth’s childhood had filled several pages, and it was from these scenes I started to write: born with a caul – a sign of one with the Sight – Elspeth followed her grandmother’s footsteps and became cunning-woman of her village. How she got to Van Dieman’s Land was easy – as a convict – but why? What did she do? And why did she do it if life was following a path it should?
That draft brought up many more questions than before, and really revealed how little I knew of the tiny details that would bring my story to life. 2014 was back into the research again, writing the odd scene here or there all the while researching those odd little points that would make my story ‘real’: like what period the colonial government offered land grants to former convicts, and when the Queen’s Orphanage first opened, and what happened to the children of convicts who were brought out with their parents.
Big changes were happening in life that year too – the birth of my third child, and the closure of my older children’s most wonderful little school.
When Nanowrimo 2014 began I was a Nano-rebel for the first time in my 5 years of taking part, almost completely re-writing that first draft, keeping only the few scenes I liked.
2015 was more a mixture. More research, several redrafts, and always reading – both fiction and non-fiction, anything to help me connect with my characters, experience life as they may have known it: Elemental by Amanda Curtain, Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller, Roving Party by Rohan Wilson, That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott.
Another re-draft over the 30 odd days of Nanowrimo, squashed into the gaps between homeschooling and caring for a now walking toddler (and achievable only with a supportive husband). But Nanowrimo that year I had a different aim. By now I’d been over the story so many times, and removed the dull, unimportant bits, and clarified the story, and really felt I knew where it was going. Now I needed to polish it to the best of my ability, ready for the outside input. Late January 2016 I sent the story off to beta-readers, mid-March I received 3 different readers comments, and reworked the story yet again. Next step was to send it to a Manuscript Assessor [The Tasmanian Writer’s Centre offers affordable manuscript assessment]. The Manuscript Assessment was everything I needed. I reworked the story, changing some sections completely (sections which, incidentally, I knew weren’t right, but I thought I didn’t know how to fix, and so I was taking the lazy way out. But as I worked through the minor changes the way to fix the larger problem came clear. A re-read confirmed what I suspected at the end of that process – the story is as good as I can make it at this point in time. And so I sent it off.
So now I wait. But the waiting is not with twiddling fingers, no. Since I submitted my manuscript the idea for my next novel burst, fresh and exciting, onto the page, and now I’m pondering where this journey will lead me.
* National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar with the term. And if you are a writer – check it out, it really is an amazing resource for writers, and a great way to get a good start on a novel.