A book to scare the living daylights out of you

OK, I know monsters don’t exist. There are no vampires, bogey men or Frankenstein’s creatures. These are monsters of fiction, and are not real.
There is no space monster as depicted in the films Alien and Aliens and it will not come crashing through the bathroom window at night to get me.
There is no longer a big bad wolf living under my bed, as there was when I was a child, with enormous teeth all the better to eat me.
Shape-changers cannot slip under the door and lurk in the shadows, waiting to spring.
Ghosts of poor unfortunates who died in a sinking ship in the 19th century are not haunting people and leaving icy footprints on the stairs.
Oh but they are, they are.
At least they are in the American writer Keith Donohue’s masterful horror novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters, and while by day it all seems like a bit of nonsense, by night, every creak and bump in the house announces that there could be a bit of truth in that fiction…
It is, of course, the power of an excellent and accomplished writer to make you believe the unbelievable.
There will be no spoilers here, but I can say that The Boy Who Drew Monsters focuses on two 10-year-old boys, friends whose lives changed when they are both nearly drowned in the sea three years before. Nick becomes a loner but manages to function fairly normally, while Jack Peter is diagnosed with autism and refuses to leave the house, spending almost all his time drawing pictures.
Then strange things start to happen. Jack Peter’s parents start seeing creepy apparitions and hearing noises as if something is trying to get into their house. The horror escalates, and then they discover their son has been drawing monsters…beings that somehow seem to be coming to life. Then they discover that a ship sank in the sea in front of their house in the 19th century, and the bodies of some of the drowned were never found.
There has been some criticism of the end of the novel but—again without any spoilers—I thought the ending was great. Why? Because I can’t stop thinking about it. Donohue makes you question your beliefs about what is real and what is not, the power of the imagination and the power of suggestion. Granted, there are holes in the plot and certain plot points that remain unresolved at the end—but this leaves the reader to make up her or his own mind.
While verdicts on The Good Read website of The Boy Who Drew Monsters  are mixed, acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub wrote a glowing review in The Washington Post. According to Straub, “This novel is beautifully carpentered, and its effects are perfectly timed. The sheer professionalism here, an achievement which should never be undervalued, is felt on one’s nerve ends.” You can read the full review on Donohue’s website here.

I’ve been a fan of Donohue’s writing since his masterful first novel, the magical reality story The Stolen Child (2006), inspired by the Yeats poem of the same name. The novel went on to become a NY Times bestseller.
Donohue lives in Maryland, and by profession is an archivist with a PhD in English—Irish literature, to be precise. He was 47 before his first novel was published and despite large success, he still has a day job as the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the US National Archives.

Actually, horror is not usually my choice in novels. I prefer non-gory crime, historical romances and stories of everyday life, but Donohue’s compelling literary prose and ability to build tension in the narrative hook me every time.

Although I found the book terribly scary, I could not tear myself away from it, save to gingerly look up the stairs or behind the door to make sure there really wasn’t a monster hiding there. Thanks, Dr Donohue: with The Boy Who Drew Monsters, you have scared the living daylights out of me!

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The art of science or, the science of art

 

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

I was walking through the science faculty’s section of my university campus the other day, impressed with a state-of-the-art new building and renovated classrooms with their “collaborative learning hubs”— round tables for tutorials with connections for charging electronic devices, and even laptops provided.

It’s so far away from the arts building, in both distance and facilities, it’s like a separate world.

It seems whenever I hear talk of a “clever country” in Australia or calls for more money for research, they’re talking only about the sciences.

I wonder how we got to this point in which our society so deeply divides arts from sciences, and “arts people” from “science people”, even at school. After all, sciences developed from arts, from those with the imagination and bravery and tenacity to investigate the world and how it works.

It seems to me that investigating the world and how it works is also the work of artists. In great artists, I see scientific qualities, and in great scientists, highly developed artistic qualities, too.

Leonardo Da Vinci, artist AND scientist, had it right. In art he found science, and in science, he found art. He appreciated the qualities in both and understood that the line between them was a blurry one, if it existed at all.

piano-tunerIn reality, beyond stereotyped media and ideology-fuelled governments, there are many artist-scientists. I was reminded of this recently when reading the novel The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason (Picador 2002). The novel, inspired by a true story, takes place in the 1880s and is set in the remote highlands of the Shan States of Myanmar (then Burma). A British piano tuner is employed by the War Office to travel there from dreary London to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer. Apart from being a wonderful adventure story, the novel is interesting in that its author, Mason, was a medical student at the time of publication. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard, and had written much of the novel while working for a year along the Thai-Myanmar border on malaria research . I googled Mason and found that he went on to specialise in psychiatry, but is still writing fiction. He’s combining both careers effectively, as this recent event shows.

Other artist-scientists who come to mind are the Australian writer Colleen McCullough, who studied neurophysiology and worked in research and teaching at Yale University in the US; and the great British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was a qualified apothecary assistant.

And in our cultural life, various practices are a mixture of art and science. Think of gardening and cooking, for example.

When did we start making such strong divisions between science and arts, or even thinking that one field was “cleverer” than the other? In my last year of school, I studied English, German, history, geography and…chemistry. It took me a lot of insistence at school to be allowed to do chemistry, because it didn’t “fit” the rest of my course, but I wanted to have a science in there. When I was doing my bachelor of arts degree in the 1980s, you could still do a BA majoring in mathematics or psychology, interestingly. On the other hand, the engineering faculty was overwhelmingly male, as was the field of higher degrees in any of the sciences.  There’s a photograph of my mother in her PhD graduation day march with the other graduates in medical fields: she is the only female in the photo, yet it was the late 1980s.

In the 1980s, too, some vocational degrees started trying to introduce and acknowledge the validity of arts. For example, engineering students had at least one arts unit as part of their BE, albeit one specially adapted for them. Sadly, these arts units were the subject of scoffing and ridicule among engineering students of the time who had, they thought, more important things to do. I was told bluntly by one engineering student that “anyone” could do an arts degree, whereas an engineering degree was much more difficult.

This attitude remains, particularly in the press and in government circles. I think it’s time to revive the arts, to correct assumptions that arts subjects are easier than sciences, or are for people who aren’t good enough to get into science courses. I’d like to see the arts and science overlap much more.

And while it’s not impossible for an arts major to do a science unit or two, or even to do a double degree in some disciplines, it’s not common. But it should be encouraged. Why not a double-degree in physics and comparative literature, for example? French and chemistry? History and neuroscience? Or just cherry-picked electives for the sake of a rounded education. I don’t think it would hurt student doctors, for example, to do a couple of units of English literature, writing, art history, French or politics, say.

And me? I’d like to revisit high school mathematics and I’d like to learn physics.

That book, that book…what was it?

The other day at work, some of the ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers were trying to think of the title of a great English-teaching text they remembered from the 1990s. It incorporated stick-figure drawings on flash card-like pages that were ring-bound.

There used to be a copy hanging round the old staff room, one said, but we had moved to a new building, and the little flash-card book had been forgotten (and had probably been thrown out). No one could remember the title or author.

It made me think of a book I had as a child to help me learn German. My father had visited Munich in Germany not long after the 1972 Olympics and had brought me back a poster for my wall. I was very young and thus didn’t know anything about the violence that had occurred there. But I had become entranced with teaching myself German (and went on to study it at high school and university).

The book I’m thinking of was a small paperback and it was part of a language series. It has long gone from my library, unfortunately. I also had a hardcover Berlitz book that I loved.

In my final year at school, I won a prize for German speaking from the Goethe Society. The prize was two lovely volumes of German fairy tales and songs. The song book was illustrated, with music, and I had it until recently. Now I can’t find it anywhere. I can only think that I must have given it away with a lot of others, in a fit of needing to make room in my bookcases. Why does it always seem that the book I give away is the very one I want not long after?

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 8.20.10 AMThere are websites that can help you identify books whose titles and authors you’ve forgotten. One is What Was that Book? Many of the postings on that are novels people read as children and half-remembered.

And what do you know? Today, I did a search for my German Through Pictures book and found it straight away! It was by I. A. Richards, I. Schmidt Mackey, W. F. Mackey and Christine Gibson. Itwas first published in 1953, though mine was a 1972 edition. Amazingly, I found a blog post  which reproduced some pages from German Through Pictures here. Thanks, Mary Caple from Montreal!

I could also buy the book via Amazon, priced from $7.92-$221.95, depending on quality and collectibility, if I wanted.

I think we should bring back the  series, as it’s so easy to learn from. There was also a French version—and perhaps there were other languages available, too.

Oh, and if anyone remembers the ring-bound English flash-card book with the stick-figure drawings, please let me know!

 

Book review: The Dressmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Llewellyn

GetPageImage.aspxIn a media-soaked world obsessed with lifestyles of the rich and famous, we are in danger of forgetting that the most intriguing stories are those of so-called “ordinary” people.

I believe that every life is extraordinary, but it takes a real story teller to write it down in a way that is exciting, yet which readers can identify with.

This is what Kate Llewellyn does in her autobiography The Dressmaker’s Daughter: a memoir (Pymble: Fourth Estate). From the beginning, I could hardly put this book down. And yet, I’ve had it since it was published in 2008, sitting in the bookcase, waiting for me. I bought it at a writer’s festival where Llewellyn was speaking, and I was so fascinated by her that I bought her book of memoirs. Then I forgot to read it.

In 2008, I didn’t have an ereader, but I’m glad I have the hard copy. For a start, it has a lovely tactile cover, like a piece of lace festooned with a maroon ribbon and dressmaker’s pins holding up old photographs on front and back.

On the back cover is an enticing quotation: “The feel of the cold steel of her scissors clipping around my armpits felt dangerous and lovely. The cloth fell in slivers around my socks”.

Llewellyn was born in 1936 at Tumby Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. She started her adult life as a nurse, then married and went into the art gallery business with her husband, Richard Llewellyn. That sounds interesting enough, but add to that the fact that her husband had been paralysed by polio as a young man and was in a wheelchair, and you know their life together must have had extraordinary challenges.

Intriguingly though, in her matter-of-fact style, Llewellyn shows that at its essence, it is the story of two people and the path of their relationship, regardless of whether they are disabled or able-bodied. First is romance, then disapproval from many around her who think she is making a mistake in her choice of partner. They marry anyway, then there are children and the trials of making a living, Llewellyn’s mental illness and recovery, and, ultimately, the sad breakdown of the marriage. It’s not what you might expect: Llewellyn’s husband fell in love with someone else and ended it.

That is not the end of the story, though. After they divorced in 1972, Llewellyn went to university, graduating in 1978 at the age of 42 with a BA. While still a student, she became a poet and went on to write about 20 books, including non-fiction works on gardening and travel. Her path to becoming a writer is inspiring and shows we don’t know how good we might be at something until we try it.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes at the beginning, and is the evocative description of a hot summer at Tumby Bay in 1941, when “day after day it was forty degrees”:

“There were no angles except where the jetties joined the beach. Everything was curved and everything was bright. The light went on all day and the sun bore down, peeling our noses, bleaching our hair and, when we played in the sea in our bathers, turning the tops of our shoulders red. My brothers seldom wore shoes and everybody learnt to swim without being taught. One day, we could dog-paddle and the next we could swim.” (Llewellym 2008: 4).

This book is 427 pages, but when it ended, I wished it were twice as long. I think it’s because Llewellyn never gets bogged down in details. It is, rather, scenes from a life both ordinary and extraordinary, told in a simple, honest style. Llewellyn doesn’t big-note herself, but nor does she put on a self-deprecating or insincerely humble manner.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who are trying to write their own memoirs.

 

I would read anything you wrote…

FullSizeRenderUsually, when I’m looking for a new novel to read, I go by topic, setting and storyline. I might read some reviews from trusted sources, though they don’t necessarily sway me.

But there are just a few authors whose work I will read regardless of its plot. Just the byline is enough to get me in.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favourite authors right now, who have me at the mention of their name, and why I love their work:

Geraldine Brooks

This US-based Australian journalist-turned novelist and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize writes extraordinarily beautiful prose, meticulously researched but never slow or boring in its detail. She’s one of those writers who makes me sigh to myself and mutter, ‘Why would I ever bother to write’?

I can recommend March (2005), her story of the US Civil War experience of Mr March from the classic American children’s novel Little Women; and Year of Wonders (2001) set in the UK in 1666 during the bubonic plague.

Keith Donohue

When I read Donohue’s riveting novel The Stolen Child (2006), a modern take on the ancient tale of the changeling, I was astounded. For me, it was one of the most imaginative novels I had ever read. The story transports you to a parallel world where two realities can exist side by side.

His follow-up novel, Angels of Destruction (2009) is also intriguing, concerning the case of a child who turns up at a woman’s door claiming to be her daughter who went missing nine years before.

Angela Savage

OK, here’s a disclaimer: Savage is a friend of mine. But that’s not why I read her books. She and I got to know each other only after I started reading her novels and determined that I would read everything she wrote.

I’ve read and can recommend all three in her crime series featuring Jayne Keeny, PI, Behind the Night Bizarre (2006), The Half-Child (2010), and The Dying Beach (2013). If you like gritty crime thrillers with integrity, set in the fascinating culture of Thailand, these novels are for you.

Savage lived in South-East Asia herself for many years before returning to Australia, and this shows in her authentic descriptions. Her books are set in the near past, around the same time I was living in Thailand, so they’re of interest beyond their engaging plots, as well.

Paddy Richardson

I’ve discovered Richardson’s books this year, thanks to my blogosphere friend Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Richardson comes from the same part of New Zealand’s South Island as I do (Dunedin), which is what first peaked my interest. Once you start one of her crime novels, I assure you that it is very difficult to put it down or to think of much else.

I can recommend her fabulous series with TV journalist Rebecca Thorne as the protagonist, the latest of which is Cross Fingers (2013). While set in the present, the book has Thorne researching a cold case during the tumultuous events in NZ during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. This writer has an uncanny ability to put pace into her narrative, and to take the reader to the scene.

Incidentally, you won’t find a picture of Richardson’s book cover above, because I’ve read her books on my Kindle. But such is her skill, the medium on which you are reading is immaterial, because you are soon immersed in the story.

Mitch Albom

I resisted reading Albom’s books for ages, because everyone was reading them and raving about them. But they were right. When I finally took the plunge, I found them to be real page-turners. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (1997) didn’t even sound like my sort of book, being a sort-of modern day twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s fabulous, believe me—just read it.

What I like also about Albom’s books is that they’re short and easy to read. You can finish one within a few nights of bedtime reading. Tuesdays with Morrie (2003), about a young man who has the opportunity to glean the wisdom of his former professor as he is dying, is extraordinarily wonderful, too.

Kate Morton

The big, meaty, atmospheric historical novels by this Australian novelist are set in the UK among the castles, ruins and family secrets of bygone eras. She manages to get me in from the very first page of each of her novels.

The Shifting Fog (2006) is set in two time zones, 1999 and 1924, which is a plot device that always intrigues me. The story concerns a film director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at a manor house in 1924, and who discovers that a housemaid from the time is still alive. So the film maker travels from the US to the UK to interview the 98-year-old. The plot involves a perfect Edwardian summer, a shocking secret and its revelation.

Equally riveting is The Forgotten Garden (2008), concerning a young woman who inherits a cottage with a secret garden on the Cornish coast, and discovers a mystery concerning a missing girl from nearly a century before.

Alexander McCall Smith

One of the world’s most prolific authors, I first came across McCall Smith when I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), set in Gabarone, Botswana. There are now at least 15 in the series, of which I’ve read 12, and they are all delightful, particularly for their wonderful titles, including The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (a bit of an in-joke for readers). The series concerns the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, who sets up a PI agency with a small inheritance from her father.

The stories have been called ‘gentle’ and ‘delightful’, and that they are. However, I think they are deceptively simple: McCall Smith deals with some of the harshest and most difficult problems affecting the world today, and his novels always make me think. I’ve also read and loved several of his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie, Professor Dr von Igelfeld and 44 Scotland St series (of which The Importance of Being Seven, pictured, is one), and have enjoyed them all. But No. 1 is his best.

How thrilled I was to discover that Ursula Bischoff, the writer who translated my own novel The Occidentals into German, was also McCall Smith’s translator for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

 

I have to read a lot for work, so for recreational reading, I have time for only about 20 books a year (sometimes more, depending on my workload). So, everything I read has to engage me, because reading time is so precious.

If all your stuff was packed away, what would you miss most?

NeedleI have access to 5% or less of my stuff at the moment, because most of it is packed into boxes awaiting our big house move on Tuesday.

Do I miss that other stuff in the 60 boxes? Well, yes and no.

Books aside—because I still love mine (though I’ve given loads away) and I’m a specialist collector—do we need the ornaments, piles of kitchen gadgets, knick knacks, souvenirs, shoes, bags, bathroom paraphernalia, cushions, pictures, 25 wine glasses and 20 towels?

The answer? I think it’s no. We just kind-of acquire this stuff and then become attached to it, because we think it has something to do with identity.

I’m still me without the ceramic cats from Thailand that hang over my bookcase, without the enormous glass fish I bought cheap at auction when a favourite bar closed, without the three wise men statues I bought in Beijing, and without the coloured-light replica of The Space Needle building I bought in Seattle (pictured, above). But actually, I do want these things, because they’re sentimental.

But there are some things I could happily divest myself of.

Ninety percent of my clothes are sealed in a box now, but I don’t care, because I wear only a small proportion of my clothes regularly.

I think about it this way: last year, I went to the US for about four weeks and I took a small bag the size of carry-on luggage (though I always check mine so I don’t have to carry it). That was fine, as long as I remembered to find a washing machine every three days. So, if I can survive for four weeks with this small bag of clothes, why not forever?

The other thing we’ve done is not replenished the food in our fridge or cupboards as we usually do. We’re down to loaves and fishes-type dishes now, if you know what I mean, but they’ve worked out just fine.

We spend a lot of extra money on whims with food, and we end up throwing some of it out. In fact, I’ve read government statistics that say about 40% of the food Australians buy ends up being thrown away because it goes off before people can eat it. You can read more about that here.

And the thing I miss most about not having access to my stuff? My art equipment! I wish I’d put aside my little travelling paint kit to keep me company this week. Oh well, I’ll see it all next week on the other side of the city.

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

Why an autobiographer can never tell the whole truth…even Agatha Christie

I’ve often thought that if I were famous, and a publisher wanted me to write my autobiography, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Writing about one’s life would require a degree of candour and honesty, a revealing of certain personal events and private thoughts that I just wouldn’t be prepared to share with the world.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The other option is that you are in control of what you leave out of an autobiography.

Contrary to the idea that you get the true story of events ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, an autobiography is just another version of a life. As a journalist or a biographer has an agenda—to titillate and draw in readers in order to  sell newspapers or books, or to get high ratings—so the autobiographer. That is, to present themselves as they want the world to see them.

Add to that the fact that, especially as we grow older and farther away from the events we describe, our memories often aren’t precise, particularly childhood events when we might not have understood everything that was happening around us. I remember at my father’s funeral, I related some stories that were exactly as I remembered them happening, yet my mother said I had got the facts wrong in several of them.

I could swear, for example, that when my father and I watched the Apollo lunar landing on TV in 1969 when I was a very little girl (this is my first memory of television), we did so in our flat at Heslington, York, in the UK. But no, if I look at the date of that landing, we would have been back in Auckland, New Zealand by then. Strange.

a-christieDame Agatha Christie’s autobiography

I was prompted to muse about autobiographical writing when reading this month the 551-page tome Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, kindly given to me by my friend, the crime writer Angela Savage (whose blog you can read here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/).

It’s a fabulous read, quite possibly the best autobiography I have read, beside Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986). I couldn’t put it down, in fact.

It is intriguing in its description of a Victorian upper-middle-class childhood in an age that seems so strange these days. Born in 1890, young Agatha Miller was brought into a world of apparent privilege—gracious mansions, servants, extended trips to France. Yet,  as she explains, it was not full of luxuries, at least not in the way we would expect today. There wasn’t much cash, and her father was always on the brink of financial ruin, relying on an inheritance. He never worked, and eventually depleted his inheritance by a combination of bad decisions and bad luck.

daily-mirror-agatha-christieA mystery fit for the little Belgian detective

Coincidentally, while I was reading Christie’s autobiography, there was a TV special on her life hosted by David Suchet, who played her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot from 1989 to 2013. Part of the show looked at what happened when her first marriage broke down in 1926, and her husband left her for a young woman he had worked with. During that time, Christie disappeared for 11 days, kissing her daughter Rosalind goodbye, leaving late at night, then deserting her car by the side of the road and disappearing. The media speculated that the by-then famous author had killed herself, perhaps by drowning. Eventually, she turned up, and it transpired that she had been staying at a hotel under an assumed name.

Christie never spoke about the incident, completely skipped it in her autobiography, and it remains something of a mystery.

So why didn’t she tell her side of the story? The only thing she says in the book is that it was well documented in the news media and she doesn’t want to say any more: and that’s the answer. She didn’t want to revisit it. Of course, in the 1970s when this book was published, readers couldn’t then look up the internet to view news archives: you would actually have had to go to a library with British newspapers of the time, and few readers would have taken the time to do that. Nowadays, you can simply google it. Speculation continues, as evidenced in this recent article: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

Second marriage and life in Iraq

Some of her views, such as those on transportation of criminals to Australia and on empire would not be appreciated by many readers today: she must be read as a product of her times and class, however.

Christie travelled extensively and adventurously, and tales of these travels are another intriguing part of her autobiography. With her first husband, she travelled round the world in the early 1920s, surfed in Hawaii and visited Australia and New Zealand, all of which she describes in the book with relish. She travelled through the Middle East on her own after her divorce, and met her second husband, Max Mallowan, at Ur. He was an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than Christie. They married when he was 26 and she 40, and the marriage lasted until she died in 1976.

They had an interesting life, living for years in Iraq, at Ur, Ninevah and Nimrud for Mallowan’s archeological digs. Christie even joined in the archeological work, including photographing and drawing it for classification purposes.

Through it all, Christie kept writing, and became very wealthy. She was prolific, sometimes taking only a couple of weeks to write one of her mysteries. But she had to slow down: as she says in the autobiography she had to cut back to writing only one book a year, because writing any more resulted in such high tax that it wasn’t worth doing. She also wrote books under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. They sold well, too, and for years no one knew Westmacott was really Christie.
Interestingly, although Christie and Mallowan were both knighted in their own right—he in 1968 and she in 1971—this is another thing Christie doesn’t mention at all in her autobiography—see “At the end”, below, for the reason.

“Thanks, Grandma!”

In her later life, instead of writing cheques for her family and close friends, she would sign over the royalties of a certain work. For example, her grandson, Mathew Prichard, got the rights to The Mousetrap (then later inherited the bulk of her estate after his mother, Christie’s daughter Rosalind, died in 2004). At the time she gifted her grandson the rights to the world’s longest running play, Christie had no idea that it would be the phenomenal success it was. Read more here about Pritchard and how in 2010 he found long-lost tapes of his grandmother dictating her autobiography.

For the record, Christie’s books have sold about four billion copies—as an author, she is outsold only perhaps by Shakespeare.

At the end

While Christie writes enthusiastically of her young life and middle years, she rather trails off after the late 1940s, and only a small section at the end of the book talks about the 1950s and 1960s. The book was published posthumously in 1977, but she was clear that she would not write about anything after 1965. Although she was still working in the last 10 years of her life, she ended the book at age 75 because “it seems the right moment to stop. Because, as far as life is concerned, that is all there is to say” (Christie 1977:7).

The book is rather haphazard in parts, skipping across vast decades and back again, contradicting itself along the way. But this is part of its charm. I will leave the last word to Christie herself, who explains why the book is like this, after recovering from an illness in the mid-1960s:

“Returning from the valley of the shadow of death, I have decided not to tidy up this book too much. For one thing I am elderly. Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way round. I am perhaps talking to myself —a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, or all the offices one ought to have visited, talking to oneself hard—not too loud, I hope—and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.”

Long-Ago Interviews: Lord Jeffrey Archer, author

In a previous career, I was a journalist who specialised in writing about the entertainment industry, celebrities, books and authors. I did this from the 1980s until 2008, when I became a university lecturer in media studies and journalism. In this series, “Long Ago Interviews”, I want to share some anecdotes from some of my more memorable interview subjects.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I was books editor at the Sunday Star newspaper in New Zealand (now the Sunday Star Times). I had moved back to the big city, where I was brought up, after paying my dues from the age of 17 working at rural newspapers at Waipukurau in Hawke’s Bay and Warkworth, north of Auckland. I was still only in my early 20s when I became books editor of this major newspaper, but in those days, because we started so young, we were quite accomplished by age 23 or 24.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview.

An example of my Sunday Star books page from 1986. Unfortunately, I no longer have a clipping of my Jeffrey Archer interview

Books editor

When I say I was books editor, this was an extra duty. I was primarily employed as the TV-page writer/editor, and before that the arts writer/editor of the Auckland Star Monday to Saturday. When the new Sunday edition was being planned, I sent the Editor—the big man upstairs who we lowly reporters barely ever saw—a proposal for a books page in the Sunday Star, because management had asked for ideas from staff and were prepared to give everyone a go. My proposal for a weekly books page was accepted, but it was additional to my role as arts editor then, later, TV editor. They paid me an extra $50 a week, but as all book lovers would know, it wasn’t about the money. I would be thrilled with anticipation every day as boxes of new books were delivered from publishers hoping to get a mention on the page.

Each week, as well as reviews by myself and other journalists happy to grab a free book (they got paid for reviews too, by the way), I wrote a news story about the book industry and did an interview with an author. It was a broadsheet newspaper, so there was lots of room.

As you can imagine, I was very busy, basically doing two jobs. As TV editor, every day I had to write a page of interviews and stories about local TV, and I also had to type out the program guide with witty comments! On Saturdays, I produced a TV lift-out. Then Sunday was thrown into the mix, though I’m not sure now if it was a dedicated TV page or just a news story or two.

“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him”

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

Jeffrey Archer in 1998. Picture courtesy London School of Economics.

One of the interviews I remember vividly from this time was with the British author, Jeffrey Archer (now Lord Archer, but back then, plain old “Mr”). Before I write further, let me say I do not agree with his politics at all, and I wouldn’t comment on his private life, of which there are many versions (for an interesting article on truth versus fiction in his life, click here). Nevertheless, I have to say he was a most charming interviewee, humorous and talkative. In addition, he is one of only a very few among hundreds of authors I have interviewed who sent me a personally signed letter  after the interview, thanking me for my time. I still have that letter.

Jeffrey Archer was extremely famous in the 1980s, and few authors could match his sales. He is perhaps best known for Kane And Abel, of which a 30th anniversary edition was released last year, and which alone has sold 37 million copies, according to Archer himself on his blog. I’ve read several of his books and enjoyed them immensely.

Anyway, Archer’s publishing company’s publicist had called me to set up an interview time, assuming I would go to his hotel. When I said that I was actually too busy to go out to an interview that day and that Mr Archer would have to come to the Star building to see me, the publicist was aghast:
“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him,” she said.

I said that unfortunately, then, I would have to pass on the interview. She then got back to me with the exciting news that the author would indeed go to the journalist.

He duly arrived. I met him in the foyer, and up the rickety elevator we went in the ancient but quaint Auckland Star building, to an interview room on the editorial floor. He was with a young male assistant, who I prefer to think of as a sort of manservant (and I’ll tell you why in a moment).

Now, when I say interview room, think monk’s cellar. These rooms were just cubbyholes, really, with only a small table and a couple of chairs inside. Nothing on the drab grey walls, rather musty smelling, no windows. They were like interview rooms you see in those old hard-boiled cop movies. Nevertheless, I got him a bad cup of instant coffee in a paper cup and away we went.

Ask a rude question…

In the 1980s, young people still mostly lived by a lot of rules about how to behave in company and, especially, to have respect for their elders. You did not talk about money, religion or politics, as a rule, and you never asked a woman over 30 her age. But as journalists, we had to forget these rules, and we used to have to ask what I saw as tough questions, which you always kept until last. For Jeffrey Archer, the tough question I had to ask was, “How much money do you earn from your writing?”

He laughed and told me he had no idea. I don’t believe that for a moment, but he qualified it with some good material for my story. This is not the exact quotation, as unfortunately, I no longer have the clipping, but he answered something like this: “Let’s just put it this way. I have enough money to go anywhere I want to and to buy anything I want without having to check if there is enough money in my bank account.” He told me he had Louis Vuitton luggage, which was very impressive. He also told me that the sole reason he had started writing his first novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, was because he desperately needed money to stop himself going bankrupt.

One’s manservant has the pen

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch.

Archer signs books in Bangalore, India, 2009. Picture: Mike Lynch

Another thing that has changed in journalism is that, in those days, you would never ask a celebrity for their autograph if you were a professional reporter. You would never show that you were “star struck”. This is the one time I broke the rules: I asked Jeffrey Archer if he would sign my paperback review copy of his book First Among Equals, which was what he was in New Zealand to publicise. He agreed, then held up his right arm with palm outstretched. Immediately, the “manservant” took a pen from his pocket and placed it in Archer’s hand. Archer signed the book, and handed the pen back to the assistant. I still have that signed paperback: you can see Archer’s signature and find out what happened to my copy of the book here.

I say “manservant”, because in New Zealand, we had nowhere like as rigid or apparent a class system as existed in England. No one else I knew or had interviewed had ever had someone else to carry their pen for them, including the then-Prime Minister, David Lange, who I met at the Beehive (as the Parliament Buildings executive area is known) in Wellington in the 1980s. Well, whatever the real reason the assistant had the pen, it makes a good story and is something that has stuck in my memory all these years.

The Books That Were: my 2013 top reads

I’m what you’d call an eclectic reader: I’m just as happy reading a literary tome that’s won the Man Booker Prize as I am reading a “chick-lit” novel.

I want different things from different books. Sometimes, I want to read beautiful writing for its own sake; sometimes, I want to read classics because I should; sometimes, the location interests me (this is why I liked Twilight—I thought the location of Forks was a great choice, no matter what criticism could be levelled at the writing); sometimes, I’m interested in what on earth a mega-selling author could write next; and sometimes, I just want to have a laugh and a “good read” that doesn’t tax me too much.

There are some authors whose works I will read whatever they publish. There are some subjects I will read no matter who they are by.

Anyway, here are my top five novels of 2013 in no particular order. To note: four of them are historical novels set in the 19th century, and the fifth, The Dying Beach, is set in the 1990s. Two are set during 19th-century gold rushes, one in Australia, the other in New Zealand. Three are murder mysteries, though I don’t set out to read crime fiction: it just kind-of happens. Four are by New Zealand or Australian writers. I read three of them on my Kindle, and the other two as trade paperbacks (the bigger format paperback).

Books-MarchMarch, by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate, 2005, 346pp)

This is set in the 1860s during the American Civil War. The protagonist, Mr March, is the father from Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women, who barely appears in the original book. But Brooks has cleverly modeled the character more on Alcott’s real father, an abolitionist, educator and writer.

The book is compelling and, although violent in parts, it also has moments of joy and sensuality. It taught me much more about the complicated issues surrounding the American Civil War—and their legacy—than history books I studied at university.  The novel is something of an antidote to the overly moralistic Little Women, which I re-read in preparation for March.

Interestingly, Brooks is an Australian journalist who now lives in the US, and this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It is a superb work of art that is among the best books I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading more Brooks novels, and her Year of Wonders is sitting in my bookcase, waiting its turn.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (Granta, 2013, 834pp)books-luminaries

This historical murder mystery, the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, is set in New Zealand in the Otago goldfields, mainly in and around Hokitika, in the mid-1860s. Its brilliance lies in its clever structure and its exquisite use of language. The plot is actually quite simple—a man is found dead and another disappears, and a woman collapses in the street after what is thought to be a suicide attempt. The rest of the book considers what might have happened to them and why, but it is far from a simple book. The complexity of characterisation is a triumph for Catton, as is her ability to speak believably and primarily in the book from a male point-of-view.

The author, Eleanor Catton, 28, is the youngest recipient of the Booker, and only the second New Zealand writer to win it. I was literary editor of the Sunday Star newspaper in Auckland when Keri Hulme won the Booker for The Bone People in 1985. The Bone People had been published by a small feminist publisher, Spiral Collective, but was later released by Hodder & Stoughton. I wish I had one of the original small-print-run copies!

Much against her liking, Hulme became a celebrity overnight, everyone wanting to interview her, quote her, find out how she ticked. Hulme avoided the limelight as much as possible, and lives a quiet life in Okarito on the West Coast of the South Island. She has written and published short stories and poetry since winning the Booker, but has not published another novel, although she currently has two in progress.

I emailed Hulme in 2007 and asked her if I could interview her for a story I was writing for Good Reading magazine on the state of New Zealand publishing. She declined, graciously, saying a 2000-word article wouldn’t do NZ literature justice and that, anyway, she didn’t want to be “quote fodder”. Fair enough.

Books-1Mr Chen’s Emporium, by Deborah O’Brien (Bantam, 2012, 352pp)

Set in the fictional Australian gold rush town of  Millbrooke, New South Wales, in the 1870s, this is the riveting story of Amy, a young woman who falls in love with a Chinese man. Their tragic story is interspersed with another set in the present, concerning a middle-aged woman, Angie, who comes to live in the manse where Amy once lived, and who is given a trunk containing clues to Amy’s life.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read—one of those books you can feel lurking on your bedside table, begging you to pick it up again.
I’ve always been attracted by stories that take place in two different times. Two of my favourites from long ago are The Lady of Hay (1986) by Barbara Erskine, and, when I was a child, The Sunbird (1972), by Wilbur Smith (not a child’s book, but, nevertheless, cadged from my dad’s bookcase).

 

The Dying Beach, by Angela Savage (Text, 2013, 334pp)Dyingbeach

This is the third in Savage’s series about Jayne Keeney, P.I., an Australian detective based in Thailand. This time, Jayne has a mystery to solve at Krabi. She is accompanied by her partner, Rajiv, a wonderfully drawn character who is turning out to be a star of the show. Rajiv appeared in the second book, The Half-Child, when he was working in a second-hand bookshop, and he has now become her partner in business and in love.
The book tackles some serious issues, including environmental problems, corruption and the negative side of tourism. Savage has an adept style that brings in these issues almost by stealth, because all the time the reader is being carried along by the fast-paced story.

Savage knows her subject very well, having lived and worked in Southeast Asia for many years, though she is now based back in Melbourne. She is currently working on a fourth novel in the series. For more on Angela Savage, see my interview here.

Death-comes-to-PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James (Knopf, 2011, 304pp)

This is a brilliant sequel to Pride and Prejudice, written masterfully as a tribute to Austen’s style of writing but with satirical elements, with a wink to fans of Austen, who will get the in-jokes, and crossed with the crime thriller genre. James also further develops Austen’s characters in this page-turner that is hard to put down.

As the quotation on the UK cover says: “Dazzling…A book that combines the grace of Jane Austen with the pace of a thriller” (Sunday Express).

The novel was published in 2011 when Baroness James, as she is otherwise known, was 91. It’s interesting that P. D. James herself admits that writing the book was self-indulgence. You can read more about her reasons for and process of writing the book in a story she wrote herself for The Telegraph here.

The book is now a three-part BBC series screened last month in the UK, so let’s hope it comes to Australia soon! It has had mixed reviews—some scathing—as has the book, but I loved this novel, and I hope she does more sequels to Austen novels.

Honourable mentions: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling; Possession, by A. S. Byatt; The Castlemaine Murders, by Kerry Greenwood (one of three Phryne Fisher books I read this year, as well as viewing the ABC series); The Girl You Left Behind, by JoJo Moyes; A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams.

 

 

Writers on Writing #1: Angela Savage

I’ve always wondered why the most dreadful crime, murder, is attractive to audiences, whether readers or TV/film viewers. None of us would want to have to deal with a murder in our own family, yet so many of us love reading about it.

This carries over to real life stories as well. When I was at journalism school in New Zealand, I did some work experience at a radio station in Auckland. One morning, the news editor came in rubbing his hands in glee: “There’s nothing like a good homicide to start the day,” he said.

I love a good murder mystery on page and screen as much as anyone else, though I don’t like too much graphic description. I wouldn’t describe myself as a devotee of the murder mystery genre particularly: but when I looked at my book diary for last year, I discovered that 50% of the novels I read in 2013 were, in fact, murder mysteries.

One of the writers I follow is the Melbourne-based novelist Angela Savage, whose blog you can access here. I started reading her books when her first Jayne Keeney, P. I. novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, came out in 2006. Anyone who knows me also knows that reading books about Thailand is my passion (and I’ve also written two myself). When I heard that a novel set in Thailand had won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, I couldn’t wait for it to come out. It didn’t disappoint, and I have eagerly awaited each new book in the series since then. Now there are three, with the publication of The Half-Child (2010) and The Dying Beach (2013).

Last year, through the magic of social media, Angela and I became friends, and we’ve met several times to chat about reading, writing and publishing. We have also discovered that we have at least two other friends in common, and were even invited to the same New Year’s Eve party! Small world, indeed.
Angela kindly agreed to take time out from her extremely busy schedule to answer some questions for this blog. I think you’ll find her answers most interesting, even if you haven’t yet read her novels.

 Angela Savage.

Angela Savage.

1. Why are so many readers fascinated by the crime of murder?

Angela: “Agatha Christie suggests there is an instinctive human need that is satisfied by terror, and Stephen King calls fear the ‘finest emotion’. Murder has always been part of the great narratives, from the ancient Greek myths and Chinese ghost stories, to the Norse sagas and Shakespearean tragedies. In these forms as in crime fiction, we get to experience our fear of death—especially sudden and violent death—through the safety of stories.”

 

2. You are familiar with many parts of Asia, so why did you choose Thailand as the setting for your books?

“Of all the places I’ve lived in Asia, Bangkok is the only location I could feasibly base my expatriate private detective character. I needed a city large and liberal enough for a farang like Jayne Keeney to fly beneath the radar. This could never happen in communist countries like Laos or Vietnam, where I also lived; and Cambodia in the 1990s was simply too dangerous for a lone female PI of any nationality to hang out her shingle.”

Dyingbeach 3. Although Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, it is a more difficult location to use in novels—many more best sellers are set in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan. Why is this?

“That’s a good question. It strikes me that both China and Japan were subjected at one time or another to occupation by Western powers, making them perhaps more ‘known’ to Western writers than Thailand, which has never been colonised by the West. But this is pure hypothesis on my part. I’d love to know others’ thoughts on this.”

4. This is one of the reasons I was so delighted when I heard an Australian novel set in Thailand had won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2004. What effect did this prize have on your life as a writer?

“The Victorian Premier’s Award proved to be my pathway to publication. A member of the judging panel was at the time a senior editor at Text Publishing and she made an offer on the manuscript following the awards night. It took 18 months and another four drafts, but the manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006. I’ve since published two more novels in the Jayne Keeney PI series, The Half-Child in 2010 and The Dying Beach in 2013.”

the-half-child5. Your books have a lot of integrity. You don’t buy into the usual stereotypes. There are no excuses for and no glamour in the drug or prostitution trades, for example, in your books.  Has your work for aid agencies been influential in the themes of your books?

“Thank you for those compliments, Caron. It means a lot to me as I my writing is motivated in large part by a desire to challenge the usual stereotypes. While mindful of debates about voice appropriation and writing about other cultures, I try through my writing to rise to the challenge Edward Said put forward in 1994’s Culture and Imperialism: ‘to think concretely sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others…not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how ‘our’ culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).’

“To answer your question, yes, my work for aid agencies has been influential in the themes of my books. In Behind the Night Bazaar, for example, I gave Jayne’s Canadian friend Didier my previous job as a HIV/AIDS educator. The Half-Child drew on the experience of expatriate volunteers I met in Asia who’d worked in local orphanages. And the environmental themes in The Dying Beach rely heavily on my partner’s experience working for an environmental advocacy organisation based in Thailand.

“But my interest in Asia and the politics that underpin my novels predate my career as an aid worker. Indeed, I was drawn to international development as a way to nurture those passions. Nowadays I nurture them through my writing.”

btnbazaar6. What can we expect next from Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel? Please tell me they get married!

“As if I’d let slip a spoiler like that! That said, I do have long-term plans for Jayne and Rajiv—which is ironic, seeing as how before I wrote him into The Half-Child, I told someone in response to an interview question that Jayne would never have a partner.”

7. Is there any question you wish interviewers would ask you, but they never do? (If there is, please write an answer to it, too!)

“Having just read Stephen King’s On Writing, I’m tempted to quote Amy Tan and say, ‘No one ever asks about the language.’ But that’s not entirely true. I do get asked about my use of Thai language and idioms. I was also asked recently about my favourite thing I’d written. I’m still searching for the answer to that one.

“I have to say you’ve asked some great questions in this interview, Caron, enabling me to touch on topics that I rarely get to talk about. Thanks for that.

“Last year I was on a panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival called ‘Scene of the Crime’, one of several similar sessions I’ve been part of over the years in which crime writers talk about place and setting in their work. The session chair kicked off with an excellent question about why it is we seem to talk about location in crime fiction more than any other genre. My response was: ‘Because it prevents us from having to talk about the crimes.’ Everyone nodded, then went back to talking about place and setting.

“To paraphrase Amy Tan, no one ever asks about the crimes.

“I would love to talk more in interviews and on panels about the crimes in crime fiction. Why do authors choose to write about specific crimes? How do their theories or perceptions of crime and criminality underpin their work? To what extent does the author see crime in terms of individual morality/psychology versus system failure?

“I definitely fall into the latter camp. I studied criminology as an undergraduate and came to understand crime in terms of various systems failure: in economics, education, mental health, etc. But given the popularity of serial killers  and psychotics in crime fiction, I suspect I’m in the minority in this regard. Still, I’d jump at the chance to have the debate.”