In due season

September 15, 2014

9781742752440 (1)
It’s always a warm feeling to see a friend’s book at the airport, which is probably an appropriate place to buy How to get there, the welcome sequel to When it rains, the first of Maggie Mackellar’s memoirs. The airport was where I bought the earlier title, standing alone in a fairly low brow news agency, and also where I bought the second, four years on. It was a poignant moment. In a previous life, a life that ran the full length of the 1990s before stalling through tragedy in the 2000s, Maggie and her husband Mike were counted among my wife and my closest friends (“thick as thieves, old man” as Mike would say). Fast forward ten years, and here I am, a regular book buyer, re-entering Maggie’s story in the public space, at once a stranger and a friend.

Maggie was always going to be a writer. It was something I knew early on, through Mike’s Jay Gatsby-like updates, often mumbled as an aside through toast and chunks of butter, (“second in the HSC for English, old man”). And also because she read so constantly, grazing across a pile of journalism, history, fiction, memoir, her nose in something interesting whenever we lobbed into West Street or the yurt at Killcare. And also because I had another version of the same orientation, starting my earnest, carefully over-written and unpublishable novel in 1999, and carefully obstructing Maggie’s access to it, since I knew she’d see my training wheels, the crude sticky tape and the half rendered characters.

Maggie’s first two books (Strangers in a foreign land and Core of my heart, My country) serviced her academic work in history, but with a style and depth that marked her as a writer who lectured rather than vice versa. Around the time she was working in this vein, I remember she used to talk a lot about Drusilla Modjeska, who I think was a valued mentor who also identified Maggie’s vocation. I recall having to call Drusilla when I was a publisher at Macmillan, as a favour for Maggie’s now publisher, Nikki Christer, to offer feedback about a more educational work, the area I occupied. She was very humble, considering her status as one of the country’s leading literary writers. A rarity, I think, for having the basis for an ego without the interest in giving it rein, a quality that makes me think of Robbie Mackellar, Maggie’s mother, and now Maggie herself.

In When it rains, Maggie unfolds the quite brutal experience of losing both Mike and Robbie in close succession, having her second child (aka Charlie) and taking him together with her primary aged daughter (aka Lottie) to live on the extended family property in the central west of NSW.

Now, in How to get there, Maggie narrates another big change in her and the family’s life, finding love and a new life and home on a sheep property in Tasmania. It’s wonderful to think that this all happened because of the first book, because it was via Maggie’s, well, fame, and appearance on Australian Story that she and Jim, her current partner, connected. Through facing the storm, the ghosts, and writing on through it, Maggie gets to …well face another storm and more challenges to write through, yes, but also find what reads like redemptive love, and the reformation of true family for her and her children. Maggie’s courage in risking the move from NSW, and Jim’s largesse in risking its facilitation show just what kind of energy and spirit (and planning and horse floats) goes into making a fairy tale ending.

There are lots of highlights, both in the unflinching telling of this very personal story, the painstaking and beautiful language, and also in the equitable distribution of characters possessing four legs rather than two. There are about five horses: Will, Belle, Monty are some. There is a battery of hens, a corgi called Duke who knows how to work sheep and another one called Ethel who doesn’t, and, I’m pleased to note, an anxiety-recovering guinea pig called Rodney.

As with all very good writing, it’s no accident the emotional moments are hard to shake. Lottie wins a horse riding ribbon by an unconventional route (and the celebrations seemed, well quite rural – a special moment with all kinds of deep, shared feeling but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) . Charlie receives a set of home made goal posts as a welcome from Jim, an act of such symbolism and warmth, a bit of masculine genius. Maggie writes how, the ice broken, Charlie throws himself at Jim like a wave against a cliff. The redemptive power of both the relationship and the language seem to merge into the one thing, except that, for me, it’s the language that delivers the whole complex, deep, overwhelming shebang with a clarity and force that makes me so proud to be Maggie’s friend.

More about the book – from Random House.

Book Review

Open House Volume 3
By Sheridan Voysey
Publication Details

As the title suggests, Open House Volume 3 is the latest, but hopefully not the last in a collection of edited interviews conducted by Sheridan Voysey, the host of the radio show of the same name on 103.2FM on Sunday nights in Sydney.

Voysey’s sonorous name hints at the fact that he has the right kind of tonsils for radio, and whenever I’ve tuned into the show I’ve not been disappointed. To me he sounds a bit like a kindly headmaster that nobody ever finds ruffled. Its a soothing sound, a kind of steady hum – one you’d hope for from a psychiatrist or a counsellor if you had voices in your head. In this respect, Voysey seems perfectly suited to the medium of late night talk back radio.

The transition of a live radio experience to written form is surprisingly successful. Voysey’s radio voice becomes a writer’s voice of some resonance – and the thought that goes into his questions and retorts becomes more obvious in print, perhaps because the hypnotic intonations are absent, or more likely because he is also a genuine thinker. In this respect, the nearest comparisons to Voysey are, off the top of my head, Caroline Jones, Peter Thompson, and to some extent Andrew Denton. As a media performer and interviewer I think he can be listed alongside these names without discomfort. Having said that, he’s also unique in his ability to draw his guests into the questions of faith and spirituality in a way that doesn’t either promote or surrender his self evident christian beliefs, or demean the reality of his guest’s experience. That’s a pretty fine line to walk, and I’m pretty hard pressed to think of anyone else doing it so well. Actually, the only person I can think of is C.S.Lewis and he died quite a while ago.

Like all very good interviewers, Voysey has the ability to gently shuck the truth out of his guests like some shuck the meat from oysters. Its not an easy task-one that takes patient research, an eye for connecting history with what he sees in front of him, and an intuitive understanding of how and how far to push a particular line. Bryce Courtenay, who is no push over, betrays this skill at the end of his interview with “You ask such lovely questions”. To me, Voysey’s knack is to ask the right questions for the right guests at the right moments. The result is a book full of very compelling, often unadorned autobiography that offers readers a lot of pithy insights and food for reflection about whether they might want to live a little larger themselves.

I enjoyed all the interviews. Each of the guests has a big story to share, from a range of contexts. But several stood out to me because of my own interest in writing. These were the film maker Ralph Winter and the authors Bryce Courtenay and Marilynne Robinson.

Winter, who produces large budget Hollywood films (including X-Men II) really manages to condense the simple elements of what makes a good story- a hero and a journey. He quotes a mentor who told him, in respect to stories and film “If you want to send a message, use Western Union”.

Courtenay expresses a similar idea in defining his career: “Well, always a storyteller, Sheridan. Writing was just a medium.”

Robinson, whose career as a novelist is the antithesis of Courtenay’s prolific output (three novels in around thirty years) says. “Well, I just write what I want to write. And I write sort of under the cover of darkness-nobody knows what I am doing until its done. But if I’d told people I was writing a book about a minister dying in Iowa in 1956…you know that is the most unsaleable book that you could possibly imagine.”

Each of these nuggets of wisdom kind of jumped out at me as answers to questions I had rolling about in my brain about writing. I’m quite grateful I was able to find them in the one book. In a way, that is probably the best recommendation I could make. Its that kind of book – broad and teaming with ideas – a well realised snapshot of what life looks like right now through twenty different pairs of eyes. It serves up twenty slices of life. Twenty real life stories – each matching Winter’s definition of what he seeks in narrative.

“For me, the story has got to be a hero who is compelling, so compelling that I can’t stop turning the pages wanting to find out more about who this man or woman is, what they believe, what they value and why they’re doing the things they’re doing.”

The clink for the stout

September 6, 2010

Book Review

When it rains
By Maggie Mackellar
Publication details

There’s a song that the blacksmith stepfather Jo Gargery sings with his boy Pip in the forge in Dickens’Great Expectations that’s simple and beguiling and sung in turns.

…Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem!
With a clink for the stout – Old Clem!
Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem!
Roaring dryer, soaring higher – Old Clem!

It seems like an obscure reference but Maggie Mackellar’s new memoir When it rains reverberates with the strike of hammer on steel as she, in a very beautiful and courageous act of industrial art and humanity works her broken world back into shape, one memory, one word at a time. To look at the cover now all I can hear is the clink of the forge – the forge of a very big heart that’s still beating despite the pressure of other hearts stopping. The clink for the stout.

When it rains is a memoir about the loss of two pivotal people in Maggie’s life whose very beings seemed to be its fabric, patent, orbit and axis. First her husband, in tragic and confusing circumstances. Then shortly after, her mother, to cancer, in shockingly quick turn.

The narrative, which unfolds like a Helen Garner style examination of a tough issue, has its own relentless commitment to illumination that marks the best writing in this country and any other. It moves back and forth through the linear events of Maggie’s loss like a sheepdog – worrying, nipping, barking, until the whole broken mess starts to, not so much make sense, but fall into line. And, miraculously, and against the odds – beautifully – it does.

The writing is beyond self assured. It’s the performance of a seasoned athlete – graceful, underplayed and robust. Its also marked by humour often enough for us to really see the author’s journey has done her good. While I cried, I also laughed at lines like “My mother was a plumber. I could do anything.” Throughout, a supple voice guides the reader through the book in a way that is ironically soothing in the face of the subject matter.

I was amazed Maggie managed to get through the book without mentioning either her husband’s or her mother’s names. It occurred to me that had I attempted such a technique my grammar would collapse. But not on Maggie’s watch. There will be no collapsing, in spite of everything. The absence of names is powerful, reiterating Maggie’s purpose, like the book’s narrative structure and imagery – God love us, even its animals – especially its animals, have something to add to the question of how a single mother is meant to conduct a life in the aftermath of tragedy. That’s what Old Clem knew perhaps, watching the smithy work the fire. Maggie comes through suffering suggesting as much. The fire burns on as it must when the rain set ins, so vittles and warmth could greet the young ones when they awake. So we can continue, strong of arm and heart.

Astonishingly, while When it rains cost Maggie everything, it cost me $29.95. Do the maths readers – just go and buy it. A book like this is a must for anyone seeking inspiration from a true survival story.

Negotiating a book deal seems like the easiest step at the end of a hard road. You’ve written something, proposed the idea and an offer has been made. You can hardly believe its happened. A complete stranger wants to pay you for your book. Wow!

A great feeling though it is, a book deal, like any deal, requires you to become commercial in your thinking. Many authors, especially in the U.S. more often than not engage an agent to do this thinking for them. The agent does the commercial stuff for them and pockets some margin from the author’s earnings. This is kind of convenient – reaching the Publisher in the first place may have been facilitated by the agent – and the agent may have offered the author feedback and support key to the book’s eventual purchase. In large markets, like the U.S. Publishers may be too busy to handle proposals any other way, simply because of their volume.

However, the world is changing, and we can’t assume that the agency model will continue indefinitely. So, let’s consider what to do if you don’t use an agent. What differing opportunities are available from self-negotiated deals as compared to agent-negotiated deals?

An agent’s job, in a commercial sense, is to commodify your platform by auctioning your work to the highest bidding Publisher – and moving around Publishers (if necessary) to secure improved advances for future works. They are there, in the crudest commercial sense, to “show you the money” for each book you produce.

Partnering with a Publisher for the medium or long term is a different approach which creates mutual loyalty and allows strategic planning to prosper your career. This choice could be described as “show me the money tree”. Agents are capable of this as well, but good Publishers are paid to imagine your future books lining up behind the one they’ve offered to buy. Essentially, they don’t want to buy the golden egg that’s up for auction – they want to buy the goose who lays them – in the nicest sense of that fowl word!

So, agents are useful, and well worth talking to and dealing with. But I’d like to suggest that a creative partnership with one very good Publisher creates loyalty that can go a long way. When the sales team goes out to sell your book, are they selling out of the Managing Director’s brief to recoup the big advance – or are they selling the books of someone they know and respect?

Photo by Sumeetkanand.

You may think you have little chance of getting published. After all, the statistic on unsolicited manuscripts in Australia, a country of 20 million people (not counting boat people-who in my books are most welcome) is 1 in 5,000. In the USA, that would expand to 1 in 50,000. So, the question becomes, are you capable of becoming noticed in a crowd of unsolicited information?

Here are a three tips to getting noticed:

1. Do your category homework

Books are like cars. Are you a people mover (popular fiction), family wagon (childrens books) or painted bus (popular self help)?
Without category recognition, you’re goneski. Get into a mould and do your creative work within those parameters.

2. Be cool

When you query, propose or offer a manuscript, be super-easy to deal with. The person judging your chances is likely to be a very busy woman who had to crash through a glass cieling just for the opportunity to deal with your dream. Be respectful, expect nothing and pray. If in doubt, use a phone call no more often than fortnightly, 60 seconds a piece. Be you, be brief, be teachable.

3. Work your platform

Who will buy the first 3000 copies? If you can’t answer that question with confidence you are not ready to be published. You need to reach your audience with your value proposition by your own industry and persistence before you get published. Failing that, you are relying on talent and luck, which although well documented as a recipe for success, has a lower statistic on breakthrough deals.

Photo by gruntzooki

What’s your book idea? Comment here and I’ll reply.

I came across a handy listing of great first lines to novels. Here is the link to the top 100, originally published by ABR and found here at infoplease.

The line that hit me between the eyes was number 12 – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here it is:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

There are three very cool take-aways I’d like to share with you.

1. Twain uses the line to sell two books here – the prequel (Tom Sawyer) and the sequel (Huckleberry Finn). There are no groans of having to backtrack though – the book unfolding in this line is a stand alone story as well (“that ain’t no matter”).
2. Listen to the authenticity of the voice. You get the sense that Twain knows this boy better’n he knows his own writin’ hand. The voice is true and real enough to want to hear more-much more.
3. From a writer’s-tip perspective, I get the feeling its not the stumbling grammar that achieves the voice – the voice creates the stumbling grammar. Get the character from inside of you and and it just comes out – eventually.

Over to you

What’s your all time favorite first line and why?

Pushing the trolley

November 19, 2009

In Cormac McCarthy’s latest but hopefully not last novel, The Road, (2006) the action follows a father and son navigating the shell of an annihilated America. Each day, day after day, they push a shopping trolley with their handful of possessions, through unimaginable devastation. The landscape is bare. There is no encouragement but what warmth they can find inside themselves. The father drills the boy: “We are the keepers of the flame”. The boy takes this as law, and continues the journey, finally reaching help, family and hope.

When we set out to write, we face the same journey. Everything seems to stand opposed to us. But our job is not to find shortcuts. We simply push the trolley, until we reach the place we were destined to.