Ice Cream Social

Who likes ice cream? We do! Who loves an ice-cream social? We certainly do! So imagine our delight when we heard that American Writers Review is throwing one on Saturday October 30. And to add to the joy, Helen and Barry will be among contributors reading a selection of their pieces from the latest issue of AWR, Turmoil and Recovery. There’ll also be readings from Art in the Time of COVID-19. Both books are published by San Fedele Press.

Our Ice Cream Social at Wilkes University was a delight. While we can’t hand out the ice cream this year, we can share some of the wonderful work of our latest two books with you virtually.

San Fedele Press

Now, because this event is being hosted from the Jersey Shore in the US, we have to adjust the time to our location here in Australia. And it turns out that we’ll be enjoying ice-cream over an early breakfast on the Sunday morning. Even die-hard ice-cream fans Jennifer and Barry would struggle to eat any at that hour. It’ll more likely be a strong-coffee-and-Danish-pastry social for us.

San Fedele Press say that this event is of particular interest to ‘those who are interested in writing for our publication, new writers, and seasoned writers’. If you’d like to learn more about the publications and the event, go here. You’ll find the Zoom link at the top of the page you land on.

We might see you there. With ice cream, Danish, or otherwise!

Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for Life was held on the East Stage, a little to the East of the area around the sculpture. Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact – trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but, as she said at the beginning of her talk, she is always drawn back to Australia. We are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

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Michael Christie has written a novel, Greenwood. He was inspired when, at his home in Canada, he had to cut down a tree that was blocking his driveway. He looked at the rings in the trunk and thought of a family tree — ‘a map of time’. He used this idea to structure his book, which is about some wealthy tourists visiting an arboreal resort. I haven’t read Michael’s book and the interview didn’t venture into the detail. But there was illuminating discussion about the importance of trees and their value to mankind although, according to Michael, half of the globe’s trees have been cut down.

The next session I attended was titled ‘From Fact to Fiction’. Anna Goldsworthy and Anna Krien have both written novels after substantial careers of writing memoir and journalism. Both have written for Quarterly Essay.  Anna Goldworthy’s novel Melting Moments focuses on ‘an intimate portrait’ of moments in a woman’s life: 1940 to 2007. She said the idea emerged from stories told by her grandmother who had a late life romance after her husband, Anna’s grandfather, died. Anna made interesting comments about the 1950s, which she is too young to have experienced herself. She sees the time as a ‘whitewash’: straight after the Holocaust, we have Buddy Holly. The main character, Ruby, shows ‘female competence’. She ‘keeps everything nice’.


Anna Krien’s novel is titled Act of Grace — the term used for the compensation payment made to soldiers injured in war. Anna commented that these acts are far from ‘graceful’. The main character has PTSD — ‘a man trapped inside a nightmare’. As Anna said, ‘a man you look at, then look away’. She realised that there isn’t a literature based on the Iraq war. Anna said that she undertook an intense amount of research, but when you’re writing, she said, ‘you don’t really know what is going to come out’. Some accused her of writing about things she doesn’t know about. She disagrees with this. One of her characters has a conversation with Saddam Hussein.

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There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked about the line between fact and fiction. Anna Goldsworthy said that the idea for her book came from family anecdotes and both writers agreed that verisimilitude is more important than whether something in a novel is true or factual.

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Tony Birch has written a new novel, The White Girl. It addresses the former practice of  removing Aboriginal children from their families. Sometimes lighter skinned children were taken because it was thought they would assimilate better. But a brutal policeman, Sergeant Lowe must give her permission to cross town. Tony gave a beautiful description of a fictitious town that is divided by a levy bank. The wealthy live safely above it. The poor — including the Aboriginal families — are routinely flooded.

John Birmingham (famous for He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) and John Boyne (famous for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) gave a session ‘Reflections on Writing’. By this time it was cold and raining and we sheltered under umbrellas to hear their views. Both are very experienced writers. Raymond Carver has said that a successful writer needs ambition and luck. The writers agreed that you need some ego — a certain amount of boldness and arrogance, but luck is a huge component. As John Boyne said, you can make your own luck: seeing an opportunty and taking it. Don’t give a damn about upsetting people. (This comment came from his experience of writing about a transgender teenager when he, himself, is not transgender.) It wasn’t a case that he didn’t care about hurting transgender people — he didn’t want to do that — but he wanted to write about them, and the voice that tells the story is someone who is not transgender — so he doesn’t presume to know what it is like to be transgender. Nevertheless, he has received a lot of flak for this. He said that most of this was from people who hadn’t read the book! He now wishes that he hadn’t engaged with these people — they just wanted to be heard.

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Both men were asked about their writing process. John Birmingham, who is a ‘plotter’, has a clear blueprint. He goes to his desk at the same time every day and has a set program: 25 minutes to read through the previous day’s work (or a paragraph or two), a stretch, then 1 hour of writing. He then puts a red dot in his diary. A ten minute break, then another hour and another red dot. He aims for 4 red dots a day.

John Boyne writes more from the seat of his pants (what is known as a ‘pantser’) — sometimes in a frenzy, such as when he spent 60 hours straight, pouring out 50,000 words of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, because he knew he was onto something. He said, ‘something takes over you and you have to go with it’. He said that writers don’t talk enough about how enjoyable writing is, ‘It blows out of you onto the next page’. Along similar lines, John Birmingham said, ‘If a character wants to do something, let them do it!’.

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John Boyne

John Boyne writes eight to ten drafts. His favourite draft is the second — the first is just something basic to work from. He shows the sixth or seventh draft to his editor. Birmingham shows his first draft.

In terms of research, John Boyne said, ‘Get the book down, then research it’, whereas John Birmingham loves research and likes to know what he’s talking about before he starts writing.

I know that I’d love to be able to be like John Boyne and have the words ‘blow’ out of me onto the next page.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, which was a New York Times No.1 best seller and sold 11 million copies.

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John was here to talk about his most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The focus of this story is something that would intrigue most writers:  Maurice, an aspiring author charms a celebrated novelist, Eric, as Boyne says, he ‘reaches inside’ him. This raises questions such as, who do stories belong to? Do we own our own stories?  Do we have the right to tell other people’s stories? Boyne said, ‘There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art’, and ‘I read other people’s stories … that is why I write’. He says he was strongly criticised when he wrote a book about a transgender teenager — because he is not transgender. Boyne points out that the book was written from the point of view of the teenager’s little brother: it’s a novel.

John Boyne was asked, What does ‘success’ mean for a writer? For John , it’s not the winning of prizes (he has won some) but how well you have achieved what you have set out to say.

There is a section in a Sydney bookshop for ‘plotless novels’. John said that he believes the story is really important. He wants a page-turner. For him, a good novel is one where you need to want to know what will happen next.

In The Ladder to the Sky, young Maurice is ambitious — but he is ambitious for fame, not for the quality of the work. Clearly John Boyne doesn’t believe in aiming for fame.

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From hearing John Boyne, I listened to a couple of academics, Martijn Boersma and Justine Nolan, discuss ‘Modern Slavery’. I was reminded of how frequently we support the exploitation  of others — using palm oil, coffee beans, the fishing industry — apparently 95% of retail chocolate is not certified free of child labour. There is now a modern slavery law in Australia, but no penalties for not complying! There were a few encouraging examples given of powerful people, such as ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, speaking out against modern slavery — satellite imagery can survey workers at brick kilns, block chains can show the complete history of a transaction. But it was pretty depressing to realise that the world hasn’t progressed a huge way since the pre -1860s slave trade.

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Another fascinating non fiction book is by Hannah Critchlow, The Science of Fate. It used to be that discussions of Free Will and Determinism, were the province of historians, philosophers and theologians. Now, neuroscientists are important contributors. It has been shown that neuroplasiticity is an important factor in learning. We are aware of biological determinism through genomics — eg prediction of our Body Mass Index, schizophrenia, IQ, how long the natural course of a person’s life will be. Neural circuits can be studied from 20 weeks’ gestation to find whether a person will have, for example, autism or ADHD.

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There is now some serious study of Epigenetics — can memories be passed across generations biologically? Some studies with mice suggest that they can be. Maybe experiences of Holocaust survivors explain depressive illness in family members generations later.

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When I opted to go to a talk by Bart van Es, I was expecting to hear of another story like The Diary of Anne Frank. Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford, is recognised as a Shakepearean scholar. But this book takes a very different path. van Es, whose family is Dutch, was aware that something had happened in his family during World War II — there was some secret — not talked about. When a Great Uncle died, Bart van Es realised that history would slip away if he didn’t try to get to the bottom of what had happened. As he said, ‘without families you don’t get stories’. Lien was still alive, in her eighties. She had been sheltered from the Nazis by the van Es family and other families from 1942 to the end of the war. Bart tracked her down and visited her. He’d been told that she would be reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences but he said that when Lien opened the door of her apartment ‘it felt like family’. The resulting book tells Lien’s story, but not just that. It describes how difficult it has been for her to live with those experiences. How there was a family rift as recently as the 1980s, resulting from tensions accumulated from the time of the war. It questions why it was that the Netherlands society  in the 1940s was ‘unresilient’ — how do you respond when authority is not to be trusted? There had been no recorded anti-Semitic attacks from 1550 to 1942 — the Dutch people were not used to having to be resistant. Apparently the family friction of the 1980s revolved around the grandmother’s belief that Lien should ‘move on’ — forget that time. Lien’s parents had been sent ‘East’: that meant to a concentration camp. When, at the end of the war, she realised their fate, she let two rings her parents had left with her drop through floor boards to be lost forever. But of course that physical act could not expunge the pain of the separation. Many years later she visited Auschwitz and said, ‘It’s over’. The book is also about what it was like for Bart van Es to uncover this family story.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2019: the second day

In spite of the heat, crowds of people attended the discussion with Leigh Sales, popular ABC presenter of The 7.30 Report, among other things. Leigh started by saying that while she conducted her interviews, so often with people who had been ‘blind-sided’ by some terrible event, she kept asking herself, when is something going to strike me? And it did, in 2014. The birth of her second child was highly traumatic. Leigh and the baby ended up in Intensive Care — she didn’t see the baby for 3 days — the baby contracted viral meningitis among other things. Then … her 2 year-old had some problems, Then … Leigh’s marriage of 20 years broke up. Leigh mentioned ‘doubt and dread’ — how rapidly life can change.

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Leigh tried to gain control of her life by writing Any Ordinary Day. And she has realised that you can’t have complete control of your life. It isn’t a book about Leigh. She has interviewed a bunch of resilient survivors of all kinds of traumatic experiences. She has also looked at research into the brain, which shows that humans prefer certainty and predictability — we look for cause and effect. We think we can see cause and effect where there is none — because we want it so much.

Leigh spoke to the Vice Chancellor of Sydney university, to get a clear perspective of what to examine, where to go. He too had gone through a devastating personal experience. She spoke to people about the science of the brain and, although not a believer, to a priest. After speaking to these people she said she felt ‘strangely buoyed’.

There was discussion about how to interview people who have gone through severe trauma. Leigh said she tried not to cry in front of them — ‘it’s about them, not me’. There was mention of how important it is to talk to someone after they have been through some terrible ordeal — don’t make it worse by abandoning them, even if you think you don’t know what to say. There was mention of the different methods of interviewing on TV and for a book. On TV you have limited time — you interrupt to get to the point. When interviewing for a book it’s best just to ask a leading question and then let the interviewee talk: ‘How was that?’ rather than ‘that must have been awful’.

I hadn’t heard of Bruno Maçães. He was Portugal’s Minister for Europe. The government changed and he left the country (comments from the audience — a pity that more defeated ministers don’t do that!) and travelled — a long journey across Europe and Asia — he said you must go by road or train, not plane. You need to approach a city gradually. He started by saying that Australia could be the first Eurasian nation.

There was much discussion about what is the division between Europe and Asia. It has existed for centuries, yet it is artificial. Think of the difference between Japanese and Arabic people. Historically, Asia has been the ‘anti-Europe’. Does ‘Asia’ mean anything to Asians? Maçães described it as a ‘European myth’.

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There was discussion about how culture develops. A civilisation starts with trade and commerce. An infrastructure is built. Then culture develops.

Maçães now lives in Beijing. He said that arriving in Beijing is like arriving in the future. There is a love of technology and history suggests that technology is usually a basis for power — he reminded us of the superior technology of the 15th Century Portuguese, with their ship building industry. Maçães gave some examples of Beijing being like the future: you don’t use cash (we had come across this the previous evening at the Adelaide Festival Centre where we had to buy drinks with a card), there is now visual recognition at ATMs. New Chinese cities are being created. He described a gambling culture — your life is a gamble. According to Maçães, two big differences between China and Europe is that in China technology is embraced and English will not be the common language.

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Maçães compared the world today to the world of the 19th Century — but this time the world will not be led by the West. He said, we are entering ‘a world without adult supervision’. Asked about climate change, Maçães suggested that within about 30 years there will be trade routes through the Arctic (I wondered what there might be to trade — what will we be eating?), Arctic beach resorts with 24 hour sunlight.

I left the talk more pessimistic than Maçães seemed to be.


Elwood Writers at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2019: the first day

An annual event for Elwood Writers is attendance at the Adelaide Writers’ Week.  We are all over here in Adelaide — the first day was one of  40 degree heat. We particularly enjoy this festival because of its location on the banks of the Torrens, the excellent choice of speakers and … most events are free.

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The first event I attended was an interview with Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, former President of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, who has written a memoir, Speaking Up.  On the front cover, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Human Rights Barrister describes Gillian Triggs’ way of refuting her detractors as being ‘with reason not rancour’.  How true. Through heated, often mysogenistic battles, Professor Triggs manages a calm demeanour. She always refers to people with courtesy: Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott, Mr Dutton … Most of the talk was about her work in human rights, but there was some mention of her early life. Until 12, she lived in England. It was just after World War II. She said that the end of the war and effects of the holocaust ‘seeped’ into her life. From this childhood she remembers ‘the smell of poverty’ — TB, coal, bombed out sites.

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Professor Gillian Triggs

After a career in Law — particularly International Law, the invitation to become President of the Human Rights Commission came from Nicola Roxon, who was Australia’s first female Attorney General and happened to have been a student of Gillian Triggs. There was discussion about the weakness of Australia’s constitution and the fact that Australia is the only Western democracy that doesn’t have a charter of human rights.  The constitution is more to do with state powers than matters such as freedom of speech. As a model of what could be, Gillian Triggs held up the example of Dr H.V. Evatt, who, as Chief Justice of the High Court and leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1951 to 1960, linked the importance of human rights to world peace. Gillian Triggs reminded us of the Magna Carta (1215): no man may be held without the judgement of his peers. Yet in Australia we have held people in detention without allowing them to go before a court.

There was discussion about the ‘cycle of poverty’ for women — the gender pay gap in Australia is increasing rather than decreasing. For example, at present women retire on 46% of the superannuation that men have. The figures don’t match our perception of ourselves. Gillian Triggs  suggested that her own generation of women ‘played the game’ — of getting well educated, turning up for work on time, nicely dressed … and consequently lost the ability to challenge the rules. The more privileged women must speak up for those ‘at the bottom of the pyramid’.

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Gillian Triggs also said that we will never be a coherent democracy unless we engage our indigenous people. She finds ‘identity politics’ an offensive term.

It was poignantly relevant to then attend a talk by Kassem Eid, whose identity card is marked XXX for nationality and he has a Protection Visa from Germany. Among other horrific experiences, Kassem Eid was involved in al-Assad’s  Sarin gas attack in Syria in 2013. He has written My Country: A Syrian Memory.


Adel Writers 2019 Kassem Eid

Kassem Eid

Kassem Eid was born a refugee in Syria — his family having been ‘kicked out’ of Palestine in 1948. He described Syria as a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony before the military coup. Kassem Eid learned his excellent English from reading The Reader’s Digest as a child. During the military regime, Eid’s family lived ‘under an iron curtain of fear’. Before the revolution it was Eid’s dream to leave Syria but afterwards he wanted to stay there, to make Syria a better place.

Children wrote ‘freedom’ on their school walls and were arrested and sexually abused. You are ‘safe’ if you do nothing, he said. If not, the punishment is unimaginable. By 2012 there was a siege around Kassem Eid’s town (near Damascus). Power was cut off. There was no medicine. ‘They bombed the shit out of us.’ Kassem Eid and his remaining friends and family survived by eating grass and a few olives. He described old Soviet/ Nazi tactics that were used. A lot of journalists lost their lives, he said, trying to send out images of what was actually happening. Then came what he called ‘Judgement Day’ in August 2013. He described a most terrifying and unimaginably horrific gas attack — everyone was suffocating — ‘something I cannot describe in words’. He was thought to be dead but he survived. He picked up a gun for the first time. He had not wanted to resort to violence.  ‘All I could think of was revenge.’ He ended by saying, ‘refugees love life — if not they wouldn’t go through such danger to get the minimal things a human being should have’. Having mentioned the pain of civil war where a friend fights a friend, he said, ‘get to know people that you think you hate’. I walked out holding back tears. Why hold them back?

After this devastating presentation  it was a relief to attend a session that focused on writing ‘what you know’, although it turned out that what the speakers ‘knew’ was still pretty shocking. Joelle Taylor, a poet from the UK has written Songs My Enemy Taught Me. She said that you ‘own those dark spaces’. Her ‘dark spaces’ were particularly about being sexually assaulted: ‘No one notices/ That the daughter is eating herself’. Joel helps others to write. Asked, can you write successfully about the banality of life, Joel said, ‘we need those stories, we need to find the beauty and poetry in going to the shops.

Before flaking in 40 degree heat, I attended Toni Jordan’s session on her latest novel The Fragments.


Adel Writers 2019 Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan said that for her, the hardest part of writing a book is getting the ‘idea’ — by this she meant, the idea that will spark off the story. For this book she was inspired by the publication of a second book by Harper Lee, more than fifty years after her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was highly acclaimed and won the Pulitzer Prize, and also by the fact that the identity of successful writer Elena Ferrante was revealed — she found Ferrante less interesting once she knew who she really was. Thus formed the idea of exploring author identity.

Toni Jordan doesn’t enjoy doing research for a book. She says she does as little as possible: ‘readers just need to feel as if they are there’. She in fact does what research is needed after writing a first draft of her book. Then she finds Trove very useful. She prefers not to have to move away from her desk.

Asked how she built up the ‘architecture’ of the book, Toni replied that she is a ‘knitter’ rather than a ‘quilter’. A knitter must start at the beginning (casting on) and continue, writing in the order that the book will be read. On the other hand, a ‘quilter’ would write ‘scenes’ and piece them together later.

Speaking of description (eg of surroundings) — ‘the particulars’ must always relate to the character . For example, in The Fragments, James lives in an old tumbledown Queenslander — this tells us a lot about him.

And, apart from Toni saying that when she’s finished one book she thinks she’ll never have another idea, there’s another book on the way — a clue to it is a tattoo on Toni’s arm — don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with tattooing (or dragons).



Winter 2018 Soiree | Jennifer Bryce

Elwood Writers recently held its Winter 2018 Soiree at St Kilda Library in Melbourne. Over four blog posts, each of the writers will tell us more about the work they presented at the event. We begin with Jennifer Bryce.

Elwood Writers soiree, St Kilda Library.

It’s daunting to get up in front of 30 or so people – even when they are friends – to read your own work. Daunting because what you’ve written is something of your own creation; you are vulnerable – you can see the response of the audience – it’s more immediate than receiving a critique (or a rejection notice) for something you’ve written.

But the experience of reading in a public setting is extremely valuable. We usually read work out aloud in our writing group meetings because we find that hearing our words brings out different aspects of a piece. You might have read a piece to yourself several times – but things jump out when you hear the words rather than just look at them. And when you know that it’s to be a public reading, you go through the work with a fine tooth comb.

Earlier this year I started work on my second novel. It is connected to the first (which is at present doing the rounds of publishers), but not necessarily a sequel. Publishers would classify it as historical fiction. For our Soirée I chose to read the very beginning of this new book. One reason for choosing the very beginning is that it should make sense to listeners without requiring any explanation.

I love to immerse myself in early 20th Century history – I’m intrigued to understand the world that existed just before I was born. In my new book a young woman travels to London in the 1930s to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. So much happened at this time: World War II was brewing, Edward VIII was about to abdicate in order to marry a divorced woman (he also had Nazi sympathies), radio had developed and people liked to ‘listen in’ to news broadcasts and concerts.

My protagonist has completed a diploma at the conservatorium in Melbourne, but she is naïve to the extent that the trip to London on board the Strathnaver is indeed a rite of passage. She isn’t modelled on any particular person of that time although a few years earlier pianist Eileen Joyce had left Australia ultimately to become a celebrity known in films and on gramophone recordings as well as on the concert platform. Other young women, such as composer Miriam Hyde, also ventured overseas at that time because Australia was seen as a backwater and you had to study overseas to ‘make it’.

For the Soirée I divided the first chapter into two parts. In the first part, the ocean liner leaves Melbourne. The young musician is alone and she watches the coastline as the ship steams up Port Phillip Bay and through the heads. I have never travelled by ship, so I had to read memoirs and talk to people who had had the experience of a liner pitching in rough seas, sea-sickness, the layout of a large steamer. I found useful photographs on the Internet. In the second part, my protagonist has met one of her cabin mates (she is travelling tourist class and has to share a cabin with strangers) and they have dinner in the tourist class dining room. This part was assisted by an old menu I had from the time when my mother was taken overseas by her parents in 1939. Compared to today’s menus, the food was stodgy and plain – Brown Windsor Soup, roasts, caramel pudding.

I know, from experience, that this chapter will change a lot before I consider the piece to be ‘finished’ – indeed, is a piece of writing ever finished? But the challenge of reading at our Soirée meant that I gave the all-important opening chapter special attention.

My first novel took several years to write. I hope that the process will be a little shorter for my second. One thing I’m sure of is that in a year’s time the piece I read at our Soirée will be different. I hope that in a year’s time I will have finished a complete first draft of the novel. Even though I have a plan, it will change.

Duo con Brio, St Kilda Library.

At the Soirée I enjoyed the opportunity to play some music. Playing the oboe is an important part of my life and I’m in a chamber group: Trio con Brio. Our flautist has been unwell, so we were Duo con Brio: oboe and cello. We have found that some of Bach’s Two Part Inventions for keyboard work very well for this combination because Bach gives an interesting line to both treble and bass – it’s not a case of the cello plodding away and the oboe having all of the fun. We enjoyed playing some of these pieces in between literary items.

For more on Jennifer’s work, visit her website Little Smackerel.

All images HarrietClaire Photography

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we tell our stories, and pay our respects to Elders past and present.


All too soon the week that had stretched before us shrank to the last day; there were final dusty gatherings by the water tap and at our sanctuary – a little café we discovered on the banks of the Torrens. There would be no more shuffling around of green plastic chairs, trying to work out which way the sun would move, and no more casual chats, sharing opinions about the latest books.

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Thornton McCamish has written a book about the Australian writer Alan Moorehead – a writer I remember well from my late childhood and adolescence – I received The White Nile as a school prize. Thornton’s book, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead is described as a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Australian literary history. I’m sure I never met Alan Moorehead, or heard him speak, but it sounds as though he was one of those mid 20th Century Australian gentlemen who believed you had to sound plummy English. He was first known as a war correspondent (World War II). Thornton describes him as ‘an eye level writer’. Moorehead went to Europe in 1936 (those days when to make anything of yourself it was believed you must ‘go abroad’) and of course it was an ideal time for  a journalist to be there: the British abdication, the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War. When World War II started, Moorehead was there. He wrote in a morale-raising kind of way, leaving out the blood and gore (as one did in those days).

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Thornton said he finds fascinating ‘the time machine of the prose’ – it gives a lived experience of the past. To give the right effect, Moorehead wasn’t always firm with the facts, for example, he described tulips at a battle in Holland during a season when there couldn’t have possibly been tulips there. Thornton sums him up as a great travel writer. There was too much of him in his books for him to be a great fiction writer, but he was one of the first Australians to draw attention to the importance of conservation.

‘Homegrown’ was a session about the radicalisationof young Muslims. The session started with discussion about citizenship – how you can be summed up by how you look. Kamila Shamsie described how at her citizenship ceremony in London, holding the union jack, she felt ‘both the betrayer and the betrayed’. She had seen photographs of the union jack representing ‘empire’ in her birth country Pakistan, when it was still part of India and still part of the British Empire. She wanted British citizenship mainly so that she could travel with ease. She suggested that maybe ‘identity’ is what other people see you as being.


Kamila made the interesting suggestion that if you have grown up with a faith you may be more likely to reject ISIS, which appeals to young people who need something to follow – you are more easily brainwashed, she said, if you have grown up without religion. She said that when some young ISIS joiners were arrested, they were carrying copies of Islam for Dummies.


Laleh Khadivi reminded us that the young women who are radicalised have an even more difficult time than the young men, yet they are often making a ‘teenage mistake’ that they will never be able to turn away from.

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Robert Wainwright has written a biography of Miss Muriel Matters, an Adelaide woman born in 1877, who became a famous suffragist. Her life was incredibly full: goat lady, elocutionist, educator and a leader of the suffragist movement in London.  She travelled around in a caravan pulled by a horse called Asquith – after the prime minister –  and later, used a dirigible to drop leaflets on the day the king opened parliament, at a time when most people hadn’t ever seen an aeroplane.

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Kate Cole-Adams has written a fascinating book on anaesthesia – she spent 14 years working on it (although wrote other books during that time). Anaesthesia is described as an ‘unexplored story’ – and certainly it is unusual for a non-scientist to write about this subject. Kate cited researchers who say that anaesthesia is ‘more an art than science’. It is ‘getting rid of consciousness’ and consciousness is subjective. It seems that hypnosis can be beneficial – describing what we know of how anaesthesia works, Kate outlined three stages of conventional anaesthesia used today: 1. Hypnotic (you can learn things when under anaesthesia) 2. A strong pain killer 3. Muscle relaxants that paralyse (so even if you ‘wake up’, there’s no way you can do anything or communicate).

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One point stressed by Kate is that anaesthesia is different for everyone.

To her amazement, when working on this book, Kate discovered that her grandfather had worked on a book: Mechanics of Consciousness from 1942 – 1950. He died before he could finish it.

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Understanding birds is a better way of understanding ourselves – this seems very likely after hearing Jim Robbins discuss his book The Wonder of Birds. Once again, Jim is not a scientist, indeed he suggested that science might be a barrier to understanding the ‘mystical language’ of birds. However, scientists can learn a lot from studying the brains of birds.(The derogatory term ‘bird brain’ is clearly inaccurate!) For example, canaries can grow new neurons to a far greater degree than humans are known to. If we studied this more, we might find a cure for Parkinson’s. I wasn’t so surprised to find that there is Machiavellian politics in the society of Ravens. Apparently crows hold funerals: do they have a soul? It is also interesting that birds may be able to see magnetic lines. Throughout the talk I thought about how humans have always wanted to fly – we often fly in our dreams – we create entities such as angels and fairies. It is an area of great fascination.

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The final session I attended was inspirational. I have written about it elsewhere: Eddie Ayres, discussing his latest book, Danger Music.





I had heard of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst. His novel The Swimming Pool Library was openly gay at a time when such writing was still emerging from a murky, clandestine time and it was the height of the ‘AIDS Crisis’. In 2004 Alan won the Man Booker prize with his novel The Line of Beauty.

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He was in Adelaide to discuss his latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, which, in five parts spanning the time of World War II to the 1990s, tells the story of three generations of Sparsholts and hinges on an affair that takes place in 1966. What a great name, I thought, it sounds a bit sinister.

The book starts in Oxford in October 1940, when the war had been going for just over a year. Alan pointed out that Oxford was both convenient to London and a safe distance from it. The MI5 had a base there. He read the section where we are introduced to David Sparsholt, seen through a window, lit up at dusk, doing his exercises. Young students watching from an opposite window admire his body without making overtly gay remarks. The story is never told from David Sparsholt’s point of view, he comes over as a young man without an inner life. Alan described him as ‘locked into a muscular carapace’.

We see Johnny, David Sparsholt’s son, who is a young man in 1970s London. Alan read out a wonderful description of the ‘bright pulsing square’ of the dance floor of a gay nightclub of that time; brilliant.  It made me determined to read the book.

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There was an interesting discussion on writing about the past. Alan says that he tries to do this without giving a sense of what is to come – he aims to convey what it’s like to be alive at that moment. Asked about the extent to which he draws on his own life or the lives of his friends, he said that he never consciously uses a friend as the model for a character but, on the other hand, memory is a novelist’s main resource.

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As a writer of memoir I was interested in a session entitled ‘The Self in Story’. Participants were Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (The Fact of a Body) and Ashleigh Young (Can You Tolerate This?). Each writer was asked what was the starting-point for their books. Sarah had attended a conference. Ashleigh had asked herself the question: why do I feel so awkward in the world?, and Alexandria had been wanting to fight the death penalty in the US since childhood, and this motivated her to study Law.

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There was a lot of discussion about whether and when to show a manuscript to family or people directly involved in the story. All writers had waited until they were close to publication and then some expressed surprise at how little change was sought. It was agreed that even though you, the writer, may be in the book, you still need to craft a kind of persona for yourself.

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Ashleigh Young

Robert Drewe is a popular Australian writer and I went to a discussion of his latest book, Whipbird.

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‘Whipbird’ is the name of a vineyard where a family gathers for a large celebration hosted by Hugh Cleary. The family has been in Australia for 160 years (they missed out on celebrating 150 years, and 200 years is too far away!). Having a large family gather in a remote place provides a tantalising setting for drama and some unusual characters such as the ‘grimly worthy’ unmarried sister Thea (rhymes with diarrhoea). She is a doctor and announces to the family that they all have a condition where there is too much iron in the blood. Another interesting character called Sly (distinguished by being written in the 1st person) has a condition where he believes he is dead (a state of befuddlement originating from his participation in the 1980s and 1990s rock culture). Through this strange condition, Sly perceives the ancestor who started the Australian branch of the family.

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Drewe said he was inspired to write this from his own family history: a great grandfather who sired 15 children, his last when he was 70. But Drewe said that, while family is very important to him, he has never been to a large family gathering. Asked, what does your book say about modern Australia – looking at Australia as a family?Drewe considered that the family is safe, but elements can be very dangerous.

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A session entitled ‘Berlin Stories’ attracted me. Catherine Chidgey’s book gives a perspective of Hitler’s Germany from the point of view of young children living there at the time. David Foenkinos tells the story of an almost forgotten German Jewish artist who was killed at Auschwitz.

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Catherine lived in a farm in Germany when she was 16. Her host father had fought on the Eastern front and, although he hadn’t talked about it to his family, he told Catherine of some of his experiences. He described killing men and ‘carrying their ghosts’. Catherine went to school while in Germany and found that German history after 1933 was glossed over. When, much later, as a young adult Catherine returned to Germany, her partner dug up in their back yard tin soldiers in Nazi uniforms – as a result Catherine tried to imagine what it was like to be a child just before and during the war. She believed that although there are a lot of World War II stories, there was still a need to ‘breathe life’ into a story that had been forgotten.

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David had just arrived from France and it is his first time in Australia. When asked to read a passage from his novel (translated into English) he said it was the first time he had ever read out aloud in English. He did a good job.

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Why didn’t the Jewish ‘pillars of society’ see what was coming in the 1930s? David said that these families saw themselves first as German, secondly as Jewish. Would their own country kill them? Impossible! The pessimistic left and ended up in Hollywood. The optimistic ended up in Auschwitz. David’s novel is written in a form where each sentence begins on a new line. His book isn’t generally about the war at all, but a tribute to the artist Charlotte Salomon – he seems to have become quite obsessed with telling the world about this young woman who died in the gas chambers when pregnant at 26. He says it is not an historical book. David’s obsession with Charlotte started at an art exhibition in Paris in 2006. Charlotte knew she was in danger and gave her paintings to her doctor, saying ‘This is my life’. Hence her paintings survived.

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Charlotte Salomon

As David said, this is a novel, because you can’t really know Charlotte – you can’t know what is in her thoughts or her heart.

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Free Speech and Democracy: A Further Taste of Adelaide Writers’ Week

I go to Writers’ Week for a number of reasons. One is to identify as a writer and to get ideas about writing. Another is to give myself time to think, particularly about the world around me. Two sessions were inspirational for this latter purpose.

Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion: Chinese Influence in Australia received publicity recently because a number of publishing houses were not game to publish it. Just over a week ago the book came out, thanks to publisher Hardie Grant. In this book Clive Hamilton examines the influence of the Chinese government in Australia. At the talk, he paid tribute to his researcher, Alex Joske.

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Most of us are aware of the consequences of some of the more blatant instances of politicians/ political parties accepting money from China. Clive Hamilton was convinced of the need to write this book at the time when (then) Senator Sam Dastyari became embroiled with such events. In the preface, Hamilton says: ‘China and Australian democracy had collided again. Something big is going on, I thought. I decided to investigate and write a book so that Australians could understand what has been happening to our country.’

Most of us are aware of the cases that have made news headlines, such as that of Dastyari, and the selling of the Port of Darwin. But in this book Hamilton reveals some of the more insidious happenings: Chinese students in Australia being prevented from protesting, CCP agents observing Chinese at their church services in Australia, the role of the CCP and the Chinese military in funding (and therefore having control over) some research in Australian universities. He also draws our attention to instances of Australia supporting the Chinese military, for example by building aircraft components.

Hamilton implied that Australia should see itself as a bigger player in international politics. He drew our attention to the fact that the GDP of Russia is the same as that of Australia, yet, he said, we think of Russia as a bear and Australia as a koala!

It was encouraging to see that there was a huge audience at this talk and there was a sense of mutual support and agreement that the criticism and anxiety raised by Hamilton writing this book sends a stark message about freedom of speech in Australia.

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In another session, English philosopher A.C. Grayling and Australian journalist and political commentator George Megalogenis met to discuss Democracy and Populism. The introductory statement was that this is the 12th consecutive year that democracy has been in retreat around the world. How might this situation be reversed?

A.C. Grayling suggested that we must stop politics from being a career. As a ‘career’, the participants are more interested in keeping their jobs and their ratings than in thinking intelligently about the problems facing the country/ the world. He also suggested later that the role of a politician these days is not attractive to highly intelligent people, who can make more mark in the world and earn more money working in Silicon Valley.

What if the world just wants security and not the freedom of democracy? Grayling reminded us of the quote of Benjamin Franklin : Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Grayling reminded us that it is essential for people to feel that their vote counts.

George Megalogenis stressed the need for transparency in democracy, yet politicians now avoid ‘difficult’ journalists – they prefer to be seen doing the right things – it is easier to walk around a work site wearing high vis protection gear. Yet Megalogenis is hopeful that there is a new breed of younger politicians who can relate to younger people (under 45) because these politicians have grown up in the world that younger people understand.

Grayling finds encouragement in the young people in US currently campaigning for gun control.