The hive bites

* the following contains spoilers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if there’s anyone apart from me who hasn’t read the damn book

 

So yesterday I was working through a draft of my novel, which I started what, seven years ago? and have been desultorily hacking away at ever since, in fits and starts, leaving it to soak, coming back to it for a good scrub, leaving it to soak some more…I was just noodling through the draft, correcting words here and there, taking my time, enjoying the wonderful originality of my plot, my exceptionally interesting protagonist and my clever use of arcana.

And two hours later I was in a movie cinema watching ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and biting my fist in an effort not to scream. Or possibly vomit.

Because the plot suddenly included a mention of the Old Testament book of Leviticus, and quoted some passages from Leviticus. And two hours earlier I had been looking up passages from Leviticus to put in my novel. The same passages. The very same, particular, exact passages. Out of all the mad-ass, haphazard, random passages in that especially bizarre Biblical book: the very same ones.

Now, I have spent much of the past few years diligently avoiding Stieg Larsson’s famous trilogy, mostly on the principle (gained while bookselling and in charge of bookclub reading lists) that anything everyone in the world is reading must be shunned, at least for a few years til the fuss dies down. I’ve been told countless times how good the trilogy is and so on, but I managed to avoid reading any of the books, any excerpts, seeing any of the Swedish films, etc. All I knew was that it features a young woman who’s raped and is then very angry about it. That was it. Truly. That was all I knew.

So I go from working on my book that features a pale, misanthropic, boots-wearing, knife-carrying young woman who slips quotes from Leviticus under people’s windscreens before going on the hunt for the killer of ritually murdered bodies covered in tattoos (shut up, it makes sense in the telling)… to watching fucking Lisbeth Solander, a pale, misanthropic, boots-wearing, taser-carrying, much-tattooed young woman on the hunt for the killer of ritually murdered bodies which have something to do with Leviticus.

*SILENT SCREAM*

And no one, no one will ever believe that I didn’t read the fucking trilogy and shamelessly rip it off! No one will believe that I made up my dear character Bailey seven years ago. That I was including Leviticus just because of a vague memory that it contains some hilarious words about mould, had put them in the text but then wondered if there was something perhaps a bit nastier that I could include, and when I checked its text yesterday there were actually some more dramatic and apposite bits about ‘if a woman be a medium or a sorceress…’ which I REALLY WASN’T EXPECTING to find on the movie screen a mere hour and a half later.

FUCK. Well, that’s what you get if you dither and take seven years to write a book. Some dead Swede will write it for you.

Please consider this post date-stamped and evidence that I really, really didn’t know anything about Larsson, the hive mind is alive and well, genre fiction is, after all, a matter of rearranging hallowed tropes, and I can only wish that my Bailey ever becomes the tiniest bit as famous as Ms Solander. That is once I take out all the Leviticus quotes and give my heroine a tan.

The movie, by the way, was pretty good. Unfortunately.

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All the books I read in 2011

This year was a bit up and quite a lot down in terms of reading satisfaction. I seem to be getting (a) more impatient and less tolerant, or more optimistically (b) more discerning and sophisticated in what I expect from a book. There are just so many books out there, and when an average-length novel takes me five or six evenings to read I am increasingly offended by books that don’t seem to earn their time. There are a limited number of evenings and afternoons in my life to be spent reading, and I am sick of finishing a book only to realise that I shan’t remember it for more than a few more hours, and the time I devoted to it might have been better spent on another, more deserving book.

I felt that many books I read this year, especially novels, were bloated, presumptive, over-earnest, tediously posturing, lazily derivative, badly unedited or simply mediocre. On the other hand, as I worked on writing two novels myself this year, I have to give immense kudos to anyone who finishes and publishes one. I just felt so frustrated and bored by some books, and resolve in the future to piff any recalcitrant or pompous books if they’re not earning my love by page 20. It’s a sad thing to be disappointed by a book — and, of course, a very subjective disappointment. Mostly I would think, ‘Will my life be diminished if I put it down right now and never go back?’ and when I realised it wouldn’t, down would go the book.

But there were some books which set me on fire and made my heart race with sheer pleasure and send me to bed early every night to snatch up the pages and dive back in. They were all characterised by my sense that this was something I hadn’t read before, and that the author enjoyed writing it. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a book. Here are my top reads of 2011 (details of each one in the list that follows):

A Time of Gifts / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Indelible Ink / Fiona McGregor

Year of Wonders / Geraldine Brooks

Ghost Story / Peter Straub

Music and Silence / Rose Tremain

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon

The Sisters Brothers / Patrick DeWitt

You’ll be Sorry when I’m Dead / Marieke Hardy

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay / Michael Chabon

 

And the total list of wot I read:

Beauty of the Husband / Anne Carson

Anne Carson, a classicist as well as poet, wrote ‘The Autobiography of Red’ which is one of the most exquisite long poems/novels I know. This is beautiful also but didn’t stop my heart quite so much.

Beautiful Thing / Sonia Faleiro

An extraordinary non-fiction portrait of a bargirl in Mumbai, and the lives of poor women in the slums there. I got to interview Sonia at Sydney Writers Festival and it was a total pleasure.

A Time of Gifts / Patrick Leigh Fermor

I adore Paddy Leigh Fermor, and he is a long-standing hero to my family. My father met him and had lunch with him in the late 60s. This is the first part of the most incredible travel story from the 1930s when Fermor, who died this year at a great old age, walked from London to Constantinople.

Mani / Patrick Leigh Fermor

A book about the Mani area in southern Greece, full of tales, history, arcana and the spirit of a vanished world.

Pleasures of a Tangled Life / Jan Morris

Morris is another family hero(ine), and this is a collection of short essays about things she likes.

Palimpsest / Catherine M. Valente

Speculative fiction, very good but a bit overworked.

Roumeli / Patrick Leigh Fermor

A companion to ‘Mani’, similar, entrancing.

Reflections on a Marine Venus / Lawrence Durrell

Fermor’s friend, and a man my father also met (I might nearly have been Durrell’s granddaughter if my mother hadn’t been at lunch as well when his daughter made a pass at my dad). Memoir of his time on Rhodes after WWII.

The Witch of Lagg / Ann Pilling

Loved her earlier books in the series when I was a kid. Schlocky but well done children’s horror story.

Spirit of Place / Lawrence Durrell

Durrell’s letters and short collected works. Bit annoying, to be honest. These try-hard young men!

Bitter Lemons / Lawrence Durrell

This time, about his years on Cyprus in the 50s and political strife. My ignorance of Cypriot politics made it a little hard to follow.

In Tearing Haste / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Letters between dear Paddy and the Duchess of Devonshire, very arch and British, entertaining.

Meanjin 1 2011

Now under editorship of my friend and former editor at A2, Sally Heath.

Affinity / Sarah Waters

I adore Waters and I liked this but it wasn’t quite as wonderful as ‘Fingersmith’ or as scary as ‘The Little Stranger’.

Dark Roots / Cate Kennedy

I read this on the beach in WA after having shared a small writers festival and house with darling Cate. Impossible to believe the sweet, warm woman can write these tense, shadowed, brilliant stories: but no doubting her intelligence as well as generosity. One of Australia’s treasures.

Indelible Ink / Fiona McGregor

Read, also, on that beach, just before hanging out with Fiona at Perth Writers Festival. The Sydney ‘The Slap’ as it’s sometimes described, I loved it entirely, this portrait of a modern family, and was so fucking happy it won at the Age Books of the Year awards later.

Lambs of London / Peter Ackroyd

A slight novel by the promiscuous and prodigious Ackroyd, about Charles Lamb and his sister in the 19th century and a Shakespeare hoax.

Reading by Moonlight / Brenda Walker

Exquisite, pensive, moving and erudite discussion of reading and illness. Brenda is a quiet woman but a wonderful thinker about books and meaning.

Me and Jeshua / Eleanor Spence

Re-read this treasure from my childhood, about Jesus as a child, a surprisingly unsentimental and evocative portrait, beautifully written and full of the atmosphere of warm Levantine nights.

Harbour / John Ajvide Lindqvist

I love his stuff (author of ‘Let the Right One In’), just a great mix of violent horror and dark humour. Great for when you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere and make you flinch.

Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe / Douglas Adams

The classic. No words. The manifesto of my adolescence.

Your Voice in my Head / Emma Forrest

A scintillating, wildly written, astute and wrenching memoir by a young woman about her mental distress, a love affair, and her relationship with her therapist. I got to do a wonderful panel with Emma at Sydney Writers Festival and hang out with her: she’s great.

The White Earth / Andrew McGahan

I’ve had a crush on Andrew McGahan ever since ‘Praise’. Grand, gothic, melodramatic and haunted novel about rural Australia in the Mabo era. Kudos for just going for it without embarrassment.

Cloudstreet / Tim Winton

Re-read it for the first time in twenty years, still astounding. I wept at the end. It shimmers and shines.

Bereft / Chris Womersley

Less said about this the better. Sorry.

My Brother Jack / George Johnston

Couldn’t finish it, alas. I just didn’t give a shit.

Love Letter from a Stray Moon / Jay Griffiths

My total hero and role model, her first novel, a short and incandescent fiction about Frieda Kahlo, love and sorrow.

I Hate Martin Amis Et Al / Peter Barry

Read it for a review for ABR, unsettling, clever, challenging, brutal, rather unpleasant, sardonic novel.

Traitor / Stephen Daisley

I met Stephen at various festivals this year, he’s a sweet man. This is a delicate and sorrowful novel set in and following WWI and with a surprising friendship.

The Sooterkin / Tom Gilling

Recommended to me by its editor, a lovely change from the grim and earnest male Australian writing: a clever and original little tale set in early Hobart, with a woman who gives birth to a seal.

Presence of the Past / Penelope Lively

Lively, another of my role models as a writer, in rather serious mode about British landscape.

Museum People / Thompson

A delight of a book I picked up in an op shop, portraits of all the staff at the Smithsonian Museum in the 1970s. It made me want to go and volunteer at the Melbourne Museum. Fascinating.

Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds / Gregory Day

A lovely warm novel set on the Great Ocean Road coast by the delightful Greg. He writes various novels set in his fictional town and brings characters to life with sweetness and truth.

The White Garden / Carmel Bird

Strange, original, rather abstruse novel, dark and suggestive. Very 80s, but that’s not a bad thing.

Year of Wonders / Geraldine Brooks

Fabulous historical fiction, in crystalline prose, set in the 17th century during the Plague. Loved every word.

The Dress Lodger / Barbara Holman

Gothic historical fiction, not bad but not memorable.

Red Shift / Alan Garner

Stunning, stunning bit of 1970s time fantasy/mythos. Set the bar for everything else in the genre.

The Sea Kingdoms / Alaistair Moffatt

History of the Celtic kingdoms from Bronze Age to present. Part of my perpetual ‘Time Team’/British archaeology mania.

The Invention of Dr Cake / Andrew Motion

Odd, pleasant little fable about a dying old man who may or may not resemble a surviving John Keats.

Ghost Story / Peter Straub

A book like a nice rich casserole, full of inventiveness, good horror, twisting plots, and chewy scenes. A classic of horror.

A Leopard’s Kiss / Maria Fazio

Small and slight prose and poems based on the life of De Lampedusa, writer of  the classic ‘The Leopard’.

Music and Silence / Rose Tremain

Beautiful, beautiful novel, rich and plangent, sweet and sad, a great work of historical imagination and humanity.

Breath / Tim Winton

Re-read this for a Wheeler Centre bookclub gig, loved it the first time I read it, admired it the second time, and suddenly, in talking about it onstage, decided it was rather flawed. I don’t quite know why, but somehow I liked it less once I began to think about it. A book perhaps best absorbed and felt.

Melbourne / Sophie Cunningham

Read it for an Age review, a really nice portrait of urban Melbourne, especially those bits habituated by people like me and Sophie (*cough*artsytypes*cough*)

The Woman in Black / Susan Hill

Classic terrifying ghost story: actually, the 1980s tv version was even scarier, until I re-watched it recently and wasn’t as scared as I hoped I would be. But Hill does a great deal of good stuff in only a few pages. Incredible foreboding…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union / Michael Chabon

Fabulous, wonderful, energetic, original novel that helped salvage my opinion of fiction this year. A putative Jewish homeland in Alaska, not Palestine; and a noir crime story with Yiddish slang. Supposedly to be made into a film by Coen Bros – that would be perfection. Just fucking great.

Queen of the Wits: Life of Letitia Pilkington / Norma Clarke

My mum lent me this, a great (if rather lengthy) portrait of a now-forgotten legend of 18th century Irish and London letters, a woman who lived by her wits and her pen, despite perfidious male jealousy etc.

The Family Law / Ben Law

Ben’s delightful, fucking funny and surprisingly heartbreaking memoir about his family. I needed this book like a sherbet to wash down more glutinous fare, and it worked a treat. Just great stuff. And a smashingly nice bloke.

Change of Climate / Hilary Mantel

I have now read all of Mantel’s books, and my awe of her never grows any less. This is from her middle-class 1980s phase, probably my least favourite of her moods, but still, a perceptive and mordant family drama.

The Monsoon Bride / Michelle Aung Thin

I launched Michelle’s book at Readings this year, and as I said at the time, considering how grumpy I was with reading at that moment, I was really glad to enjoy her debut novel so much. Set in Burma in the 1930s, ‘steamy’ is a word that has to be applied to it, but also ‘elegant’.

Case Studies / Kate Atkinson

A friend recommended this to fix my reading malaise; good fun, shockingly dark in places, ultimately a bit silly but a good holiday book featuring one detective chasing four connected crimes.

Fair Cop / Christine Nixon

I read this for a panel on memoir I did with Christine at Brisbane Writers Festival, and enjoyed it more than I expected: a feisty, admirable and self-possessed woman. We need more of them. She was very nice company on the panel and gave me a hug after.

Street Fight in Naples / Peter Robb

A bit disappointing, much devoted to 17th century Naples, and kind of all over the place. Interesting stuff though, and made me want to go back to Napuli very much.

Meanjin 2 2011

Griffith Review: Such is Life

A Walk in the Woods / Bill Bryson

Ah, Bryson, he makes it look so easy. A nice ramble of a book about a ramble.

Danse Macabre / Stephen King

As I’m writing horror, I read this about the arts and wherefores of horror writing; very interesting, anecdotal, informed and perceptive stuff. I also highly recommend his book on writing in general.

The True Deceiver / Tove Jansson

As a life-long devotee of the Moomins, I am exploring Jansson’s other work (‘The Summer Book’ and ‘The Winter Book’ are both gorgeous) and this adult novel is quite dark, serious, strange but compelling.

Haphazard House / Mary Wesley

Apart from her adult novels she also dabbled too briefly in childrens’ fiction, and this is a wonderful, original time-slip take on ‘Last Year in Marienbad’-style fantasy of a peculiar old house in the country, featuring a complicated family. She never talks down to children and this book weaves a spell.

The Sisters Brothers / Patrick DeWitt

Shortlisted for Booker Prize, like a Coen Bros western in prose, just great fun, dramatic satisfaction, fantastic voice and a horse that made me actually cry.

Meanjin 3 2011

Among the Islands / Tim Flannery

Tim’s new memoir about his days exploring for mammals in the Pacific islands, full of interesting biology and funny stories.

Over Sea, Under Stone / Susan Cooper

I finally gave myself permission to just indulge in re-reading this series, one of my all-time favourites, a splendid, original, powerful mythic fantasy work for young adults. I was so happy that I loved it as much now as I did when I was 14. Stunning.

The Dark is Rising / Susan Cooper

The Greenwitch / Susan Cooper

The Grey King / Susan Cooper

Silver On the Tree / Susan Cooper

All That I Am / Anna Funder

I enjoyed the second half of this more than the slightly awkward first part, and emerged moved and informed about German anti-Nazi activists just before the war.

Travels with a Medieval Queen / Sileti

Following a 12th century Sicilian queen journeying from Germany to her kingdom. Nice travel stuff and a lot about the complicated history of that period in Italy.

You’ll be Sorry when I’m Dead / Marieke Hardy

Marieke’s bravura memoir essays, funny as hell, sometimes sad, very brave, and perfect for reading on a couch in one big savoury gulp.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay / Michael Chabon

The book that got me back in love with reading after a rough few months, totally energetic, imaginative, generous and both funny and terribly sad. Big and bolshy.

One Man’s Meat / EB White

Gorgeous columns from the 1940s by this master of style, lovely warm tales from his life on a farm in Maine and reflections on life and humanity. I learned a lot about column-writing from this, and got dozens of quotes to pop (credited!) into my own work. A delight to read slowly over many afternoons with a cup of tea.

The Secret History / Donna Tartt

Oh my god how I loved this book when it came out. It felt it was written especially for me, a classics student who wore men’s 1930s suits at a sandstone uni, was completely isolated and melancholy, and liked horror and ghost stories. Re-reading it this year was an exercise in complete delight and satisfaction, and envy of her confidence. Come on Donna, write another book already.

The Great Gatsby / F. Scott Fitzgerald

First read it as a uni student; began re-reading this year it as I keep hearing how it’s so many people’s favourite book in the world. Actually I found it mannered and a bit tedious, and put it aside half-way through (and it’s not even a long book). Oh well.

Griffith Review: Fiction

The Final Solution / Michael Chabon

A slight and wistful tale set in England with an elderly Sherlock Holmes. Quite different to his other big novels. Okay but not as wonderful as I hoped.

A Model World / Michael Chabon

Short stories/novellas, very carefully written, Richard-Ford-esque, beautifully turned but again, not as ebullient as Kavalier & Clay.

Gentlemen of the Road / Michael Chabon

His books seemed to get thinner and slighter as I went along! This is a historical picaresque, enjoyable but forgettable.

The Last Thread / Michael Sala

Memoir I read for a review for ABR, very nicely written, frustratingly self-conscious.

The Little Friend / Donna Tartt

Quite different to ‘The Secret History’, a big sprawling Southern Gothic novel about a young girl in a sinister world. I liked it very much, and more and more as I read, though I felt I could sense Tartt’s confidence creaking at times and there were (I can’t believe I’m saying this) too many adjectives. Still, I was sorry when it ended.

The Mortgaged Heart / Carson McCullers

The library didn’t have her classics so I tried this, short stories and bits and pieces from her beginnings, nice if self-conscious little stories with memorable imagery and suggestions of great things to come. I’d like to read her more famous works now.

As I Lay Dying / William Faulkner

Another famous classic that defeated me, just days before I saw Marieke on television extolling its virtues. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood.

Man in the Dark / Paul Auster

People keep telling me how great Auster is, and I keep trying him, and wondering what the fuss is about. Did I even finish this? I can’t remember.

Constantinople / ?

Some book about the fall of Constantinople (a perennial fascination for me), which sadly I ran out of time to finish and don’t remember the author’s name. It was interesting, though.

American Gods / Neil Gaiman

I bought this in the quest for sure-fire, bona fide good reads, and enjoyed it and its mixture of horror, mythos and picaresque, but began to get a bit tired towards the end (it’s a big book). I’ve only read a couple of Gaimans, funny since I write a bit in that vein myself.

To the Ends of the Land / David Grossman

Read this in a burst of interest in Middle East politics, and after an inspiring review in NYRB, and it was good, it was okay, following two friends going on a hike in Israel and talking about life and love and their history, but then one night I realised my level of interest was almost zero and there were another 200 pages to go, so that was that.

White Teeth / Zadie Smith

Managed to finish the year by finishing a book! I loved, loved ‘On Beauty’ and this was good too, though that first chapter wouldn’t have got a million-pound advance from me. Uneven, bit saggy and sloppy, but steadied by her fabulous ventriloquist rendering of dialect and voice, and her diligent summoning of her characters and all their perversities. I did enjoy it.

To sum up: read 29 works of non-fiction, and 57 of fiction, total of 86 books, though some of them I didn’t actually finish. That’s one book every 4.2 days! Well, some of them were short and some of them were long. Let’s see how many of them I even remember in a year’s time.

 

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Sydney Writers Festival 2011

Am back from Sydney Writers Festival for 2011 and phoar, what a festival it is. I went in 2006 and it was a stunner. Huge, martially organised, teeming millions of authors both domestic and international, many drinks parties, many drinks had til the wee hours and fabulous, fantastic conversations both in panels and in private.

I actually didn’t get to see a single event other than my own, due to most of the ones I wanted to go to being, inevitably, scheduled at the same time as mine, or just before or after (when I had to be in the Green Room or signing books). Shame. I heard there were some great ones: Sonya Hartnett, David Mitchell and others.

Mine were great — one where I interviewed Sonia Faleiro about her extraordinary account of bar dancers in Mumbai, Beautiful Thing; one on the so-called ‘Porn Wars’ which was a very, shall we say vigorous debate, chiefly between Gail Dines (author of Pornland) on one hand, and Catherine Lumby and Leslie Cannold on the other side, and me in the middle (it was filmed by ABC Big Ideas but isn’t online yet); then one solely on The Romantic, in conversation with Anne Maria Nicholson which was very enjoyable;  then a final discussion of memoir with Georgia Blain and Emma Forrest, author of Your Voice in My Head.

Here’s a quick interview I did with Sydney Writers Centre at the festival, talking about both my books, memoir writing and writing in general.

Dream-like hazy sunshiney warm weather, thousands of people lounging and strolling on the wharfs, constantly bumping into writers I know or was eager to meet. It was wonderful. Exhausting. A pleasure.

 

 

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The publishing thing

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who has a manuscript which is about to shopped around for a publisher, and I found myself offering (no doubt patronising) wisdom about this process, and thinking that in almost every signing/meeting-readers session after I do a talk someone will ask ‘so how did you get published?’ and that this is a subject a lot of people are interested in. And that, though from an utterly personal and amateur perspective, I actually do know a bit about the whole thing and how to handle it, so here is what I know (the brief version).

First, the story of how In My Skin got published. It is not the typical way, and I hasten to say I was very, very lucky in my circumstances. First, when I was still a sex worker, I was already thinking and saying aloud that I’d like to write a book about the experience. It so happened that around this time my father, who knew this, met a woman through his work who asked about his children, and my dad said Well my daughter is currently a sex worker, but I think she really wanted to be a writer. And the woman said Oh, my husband is a publisher, he might be interested in a story about that if she’s writing something. And (now I think: how bizarre! and what nerve I had!) so in the dawn hours after one shift I wrote up a few proposals of how I might write that something (I was so naive, I did it in fancy font and fancy language, oh my god how embarrassing) and sent it to him, and he actually rang me and said, I like the ideas, send me something when you write it and I’ll have a look. But I was too tired and too busy trying to survive, and I never did anything more except start writing fragments and think that there was definitely something in them.

A few years later I was clean, doing my writing course at RMIT and working on the manuscript of In My Skin. A commissioning editor from a big publisher  came to meet us and expressed interest in the book, and my lecturer encouraged me to send it out to other publishers; of course I thought of Michael Heyward, now impresario at Text Publishing, and how he really had first dibs as all those years ago he’d been so kind and interested. So, sure it was a shot in the dark, I sent the first chapters to him, and he rang me and said Oh my god! You! We wondered what happened to you, we were waiting for you to write something for us! So I showed him the rest of the what I had and he offered to sign the book. I say that rather calmly but I can say it was one of the more joltingly marvellous moments in my life. I ran down the street going EEEEEEE! EEEEEE! and then had to lie down and do yoga breathing.

Then I had a thrilling but totally nervewracking time with two publishers wanting to do a deal. But I wanted to go with Text and so I did. A happy day indeed. And Michael said, See, we kept this the whole time: and handed me the ridiculous sheets with my fancy font and smart arse proposals that I wrote up so tiredly back at the start with my hooker makeup still on and all the world asleep at 5am.

So, that’s my fortunate and not-typical way of getting published. But though I had the lucky contact with Michael early on, I basically did what is recommended, and made him a proper official proposal of a book, which is a well established protocol. Here’s how that works (and there are many websites and books which detail hints on how to do this):

The Agent I don’t have an agent and it is a much-debated issue in writerly circles, whether to have one or not. Many writers swear by them, the better deals an agent can obtain, the fact that agents form the main access corridor to publishers’ desks (especially when most publishing houses in Australia do not accept unsolicited manuscripts) and that it makes it easier for a writer to concentrate on creativity and avoid the awkwardness and ineptness of negotiating a contract directly. Myself, I jumped in the deep end on my own, frantically learned as much as I could about contracts, braved the meetings, and saved the agents’ fee with both my books. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t seek an agent in the future, but independence has paid off for me so far.

The Proposal This is the main wedge of your strategy, whether submitting it to an agent or directly to a publisher. (As I say, most publishers in this country don’t take unsoliciteds, so check their website to see if they do, and don’t waste your paper and postage if they say they don’t; also look for any guidelines they might provide.) The proposal is made of three parts: a cover letter, a synopsis and/or brief outline of characters or chapters, and a sample of the writing, usually the first three chapters or 10,000 words–NOT the ‘best’ bits but the opening which is, of course, well worked and already structured to seize a reader’s interest.

The cover letter is in many ways the most important part, even more than the book itself. I TOILED over my cover letter even to Michael whom I’d met; it has to be no more than one page in which to introduce yourself, the project, and cover some crucial issues: what the book is, why you are the person to write it, why it’s unique, how it fits in contemporary publishing and if it is similar to/different from any bestseller in the same frame, why it will be attractive to readers, which readers you envisage buying it, and why this publisher (do your homework) should particularly want to read it. This is your moment to grab the attention of a busy, jaded and judicious publisher or agent, or their paid manuscript assessor. Don’t be too arrogant, don’t be too humble, be confident, direct and take your chance as well as you can.

If this does its work (but remember that it might not; you can send your ms to several publishers/agents at once, but you must do them the courtesy of mentioning that you’ve done this) then you meet the publisher/agent and negotiate a contract. If like me you go straight into this with a publisher then there are some things to learn before that meeting.

The Contract. I nearly had a nervous breakdown doing my first contract negotiation. A lot rides on it but of course it is in the context of quite understandable emotional feelings. Massive, humble and unctuous gratitude to the publisher can make it hard to be a brass-nosed, steel-nerved negotiator; you don’t want to push too hard in case they change their mind; you think, Why quibble over film rights when I’ll be lucky to sell three copies of the book; and of course you don’t have any idea of what is reasonable and what is robbery. Educate yourself. Read books (the Victorian Writers Centre publishes an excellent one) about publishing contracts. Consider using a contact assessment service (again, VWC does this for a fee) or a lawyer to go over it. Get the Australian Society of Author‘s model of an ideal contract and compare it. Ask writer friends about their contracts. Learn the terminology. Take it seriously. You don’t know what will happen with the book; it’s better to peer at every clause and believe that one day the audio book rights will be applied, than ignore all of that and regret it later. You won’t look a fool, you’ll look like a serious author.

That said, there is give and take in contracts and compromises must be made. You might be offered a small advance but better royalty terms, or the other way around. Find out about rising royalty rates (where the rate goes up after a certain number of books is sold) and look carefully at the other clauses such as indemnity for the publisher (where you are responsible if there are any legal issues after publication, such as defamation suits), or delivery date clauses. Much of a publishing contract is ‘just how it is’ and you have to accept that you are somewhat at the mercy of a commercial proposition devised over a long time by the industry which itself, let’s remember, doesn’t make a huge profit. Authors have a rough time with contracts in general, but at least you can defend your right to be paid and respected as a significant part of the industry, not a humble serf who’s lucky to work basically for nothing.

You may be shocked by how little authors are paid (standard royalties are around 10% of RRP minus GST, and only after the advance is paid off; plus reserve-against-return means that for the first year or so 30% of your royalties are held back to be paid later). Get used to that. It’s a fact of writing that hardly anyone in the business makes much off a single copy of a book: not the writer, nor the publisher, the distributor, nor the bookseller. It’s possible to make good money from writing (despite what you hear) but it takes a combination of many sales and good contract terms. All the more reason to put a lot of effort and thought into doing the contract, and not just leap in crying gratefully ‘Thank you! thank you!’

And there you are, you have a publishing contract (I don’t know if all this applies to agent contracts as well, never having seen one). It’s a bruising but thrilling process, and at the end hopefully you’re happy and ready to go back to the writing part. It’s important though to remember that being a writer is not all about sitting, quill to pensive brow, in a shaft of sunshine cogitating profundities. A lot of it is about business, and authors seem generally to err on the humble side in this respect. We shouldn’t be humble, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, and we should do ourselves the favour of getting ourselves the best deal we can as well as getting our work published. And by gum, it’s an educational revelation!

Then after all that, you commence the editing process and moving towards having a book on the shelves. But that’s another story.

PS All this is absolutely my own personal experience and opinion, I’m not a qualified agent or lawyer and some might disagree with what I’ve written, but it’s what I’ve found to be true. The more you ask around, learn from others’ experience (which I certainly did before I did the second book contract) and try to be savvy, the better–even if, as I found, you end up with conflicting advice and more headache. Getting published is thrilling, getting smart about the business aspect is essential.

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Wot I read this year, with annotations

One of life’s little pleasures: counting up the books I read this year. I read a lot of good stuff though few things stand out. On listing them, I think ‘On Beauty’, ‘Saffron and Brimstone’, ‘The Winter Book’, ‘Age of Wonders’, ‘London: A biography’, ‘Malefice’, ‘The Inconvenient Child’, ‘A Woman in Berlin’, ‘Darkmans’, and ‘In the Cut’ were the standouts.

78 books read this year, down on last year but, well, I had to get up to go to the gym more often, less time for reading in bed!

The Lycian Shore / Freya Stark (I am a huge fan of Stark, who travelled and lived, an umarried woman, in Arabia in the 1930s and 40s and wrote fantastically cogent books about her experiences and the history of the lands she explored)

Magic, Myth and Medicine

Testaments of Time / Duel (about manuscript hunters through history)

Newton: The Last Sorcerer / White (went on a jag reading about Newton and the Royal Society in the 17th century)

Cures for Love /Stendhal (a brief little book but full of droll wisdom)

Ingenious Pursuits / Jardine (more Newton and his colleagues, wonderful)

The Anthologist / Nicholson Baker (amusing/sad novel about poetry)

The Beauty of the Husband / Anne Carson (I adore her ‘Autobiography of Red’ and translations of Sappho, this not so much)

Newton and the Counterfeiter

Age of Wonders / Holmes (my hero, Richard Holmes, here on the science and heroes of science in the Romantic era)

Poor Tom’s Ghost / Curry (beloved from childhood, time-fantasy)

Love Machine / Caward (good novel about Kings Cross, read for a review)

London: A Biography / Ackroyd (the incomparable Ackroyd in dream-state, dementedly and wonderfully compiling everything he knows about the Great Wen)

The Fellowship / Gribbin (more Royal Society)

Misfortune / Stace (an eccentric faux-Victorian novel about a transsexual)

My Dirty Shiny Life / Bragge (memoir, read for a review)

The Giant O’Brian / Mantel (I own Mantel, have been a fan for years, loooong before everyone else discovered her with ‘Wolf Hall’. Her ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is one of my two favourite-ever books. This one good too, not least for detail that her Irish peasants get to London and for the first time, walk up stairs.)

Imposture / Markovits (touching novel about Byron and Polidori)

Piano Shop on the Left Bank / Carhart (memoir about learning piano, made me want to go back to mine)

Darkmans / Barker (one of  the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever read, mad, haphazard, entrancing, totally original)

Beatrice and Virgil / Martel (read for an event; brilliant, hostile, unsettling, moving, ultimately infuriating)

The Imperfectionists / Rachman (discontinuous narrative tales of a newspaper office in Rome, very good)

Iran: My Grandfather / Alizadeh (read for a review; opened my eyes to history of Iran)

An Experiment in Love / Mantel (it stayed with me longer than I thought it would)

Selling Sex / Rae Francis (book about history of prostitution in Australia, features In My Skin in a chapter, invaluable addition to this topic)

Promiscuities / Wolf (reminded me why feminism is exciting)

Female Chauvinist Pig / Levy (had a conflicted response to this book, agree/loathe much of what she says but, respect)

Fire with Fire / Wolf (was writing an essay about feminism, hence all the Wolf)

Cat’s Magic (time fantasy)

Censoring: an Iranian Love Story (couldn’t finish it)

On Beauty / Zadie Smith (loved, loved, loved this novel)

Requiem for a Species / Clive Hamilton (sat and wept as I read this book about climate change)

The Nice and the Good / Iris Murdoch (I am a devoted Murdoch fan, she wrote the most macabre, odd, unsettling, original fiction though this is not her best)

Moon Tiger / Penelope Lively (I am also a paid-up lover of the tragically under-rated Lively, and this is one of her best)

The Salt Letters / Balint (met Christine at Varuna and read this there: exquisite, dissociative, original tale of a sea voyage)

The Silver Crown / Robert O’Brien (childrens’ fantasy, wonderful)

It / William Mayne (Mayne was a virtuoso of children’s literature, his actual pederasty notwithstanding, he writes children’s characters like no one else)

Story / Robert McKee (read fortuitously when I was plotting a novel; invaluable if doctrinaire look at building a plot that has inner momentum)

Sex and Stravinsky / Barbara Trapido (read for a review; enjoyable, aggravating novel)

The Inconvenient Child / Sharyn Killens (read for a review; amazing memoir about a woman who really went through the wringer)

Hide My Eyes / Allingham (old-fashioned mystery story)

Malefice / Lesley Wilson (wonderful novel about 17th century village)

King Death’s Garden / Hallam (time-fantasy)

The Pirate’s Daughter / Robert Girardi (strange and beautiful novel)

Stop Smoking / Alan Carr (I haven’t finished it yet and there are too many capitalised sentences but hey, it’s worth a try)

Fall Girl / Toni Jordan (Toni is a friend of mine but that doesn’t colour the fact that I liked this novel very much, a romantic and funny/sad tale of con-men–and women–in Melbourne)

The Italian Girl / Iris Murdoch

The Winter Book / Tove Jansson (oh what to say about this entrancing little collection of stories and memoir… the Moomins made my childhood magical, ‘The Summer Book’ enchanted me, this is precious beyond words)

The Fear of Samuel Walton / Roger Green (bless Amazon for letting me find again the books I loved as a child)

Rocks in the Belly / Jon Bauer (another friend of mine; a scorching, moving, muscular novel about childhood and adulthood and anger)

The Vintage and the Gleaming / Jeremy Chambers (published by my publisher; very sparce, confident debut novel but I didn’t finish it, am a bit sick of terse, tense, serious young-man novels these days)

This is Shyness / Leanne Hall (again, by Text; but a wonderful, original kind of fantasy/fable for young adults)

Rockling King / Hugh Tolhurst (poetry; Hugh is an old friend of mine and a very good poet)

Uncommon Arrangements / Katy Roiphe (biographies of various Bloomsburyites and their unconventional romantic arrangements; reminded me that we live rather dully, these days)

Naming the Bones / Louise Welch (loved ‘The Cutting Room’, this one good too)

A Woman in Berlin / Anonymous (memoir of a woman who was in Berlin when it fell to the Russians; an extraordinary account, beautiful, true, understated, devastating, everyone should read it)

Here on Earth / Tim Flannery (am a huge Flannery fan and this book, which I read too fast, is full of ideas and evocations to blow you away)

Night Street / Kristel Thornell (debut novel about artist Clarice Beckett, limpid, quiet, exquisite)

Kracken / China Mieville (wild insane hectic novel about a squid-god loose in London)

In the Cut / Susannah Moore (absolutely amazing novel, I want to read all her books now)

Unreliable Memoirs / Clive James (as they promised, I couldn’t read it in public from laughing too much, so clever and charming as they say)

The Glass Blowers / Daphne du Maurier (novel about a family in 18th century France, good)

Griffith Review, Annual Fiction Edition (am in it so am biased, but features so much excellent writing, esp Temple’s hilarious story and Eva Hornung’s strange and menacing tale of a forest)

Hand Me Down World / Lloyd Jones (I loved ‘Mister Pip’ and ‘Dancing to the End of the World’ and I wanted to love this. Most other people do, but I was estranged, somehow, and the book, though gorgeously done, just never got through to me… perhaps I should read it again)

Tipping the Velvet / Sarah Waters (reading ‘Fingersmith’ after really enjoying ‘The Little Stranger’ made me a wholly devoted Waters fan. She writes clever, masterful, imaginative, well-charactered, beautifully researched and sexy novels with twists and mysteries. I wish I wrote those novels! This one was not quite as good as the others I’ve read but I liked it anyway.)

Serpent’s Tooth / Robert Swindells (more of my quiet hobby of reading old time fantasy novels for kids; I wrote my MA thesis on this genre as it happens and I collect them madly)

Saffron and Brimstone / Elizabeth Hand (definitely the most stunning book I read this year, in that I read the whole thing in one sitting and it laid me flat on my back with awe and appreciation. Kind of New Weird, kind of just very excellent, grave, short stories, Hand is someone I was enthralled by in my 20s and am excited to rediscover in my 30s)

Great Expectations / Dickens (finally, my third-only Dickens, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would, and in fact got quite impatient to get back to it between bouts. I finished it in London, which was fitting.)

Last of the Wine / Mary Renault (I was brought up a Renault aficionado from childhood, with The King Must Die and this book totemic of my love of ancient Greece and historical fiction throughout my life. She writes brilliant, convincing, moving, stylish, impeccably researched, thrilling and transporting fiction and re-reading this one it was just as good as I recalled it)

Working the Room / Geoff Dyer (I must stand firm here and declare that I have been a mad Dyer fan since his very first novel back in the eighties, which I still have and which I recently got him to sign as he said, Wow this is old, and I managed to blabber incoherently with awe at my hero. His non-fiction is superb and his novels make you want to be his friend. This is a collection of essays and reviews, the photography ones are a bit smartarsey but the literature stuff is great and oh, Dyer writes memoir like no one else. He’s mine, get in line.)

Hill of Kronos / Peter Levi (more of revisiting my passion for things Greek, this memoir of 2oth century Greece is beautifully written and meditative)

The King Must Die / Mary Renault (a classic)

Fire Diary / Mark Tredinnick (this new book of poems came to me as a gift from the author and at just the right time to chime with my melancholy state that week and make me cry with the truth and beauty of his lines)

In the Forest of Forgetting / Theodora Goss (am now on a New Weird jag and Amazon suggested this so I got it. Short stories/fables with a Hungarian bent, good and gets better further through the volume)

Myself When Young / Daphne du Maurier (in this memoir, Daphne’s brave inclusion of her adolescent pretensions make this kind of annoying but she was amazing and it’s a perfect portrait of upper-boho life in the 1920s and 30s and the making of a young writer)

Freedom / Jonathan Franzen (loved ‘The Corrections’, loved this too because he makes it impossible not to love the gloss, the patient unfurling of personality, the tragi-comedy of his characters, the loving attention to them, the outlandish fixes they find themselves in. Could have been shorter but 600-odd pages were like chocolate cake.)

The Final Refuge / Paul Capon (old historical fiction about Byzantium, not bad)

Mortal Love / Elizabeth Hand (one of hers I hadn’t read before, mad beyond words, magical, unnerving, kind of unknowable novel about Victorian artists and a succubus)

The Road to Lichfield / Penelope Lively (Lively in very somber mood, one of her social novels, moving and judicious and full of her usual wonderful details)

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And so on(wards)

I’m in the strange limbo after a book release, still digesting and percussing from that experience, and yet kind of distanced. I’m also in strange limbo of coming back from a trip overseas where I have to collect up my normal life and remember what it is that I do with myself and that I’m a writer who is not, currently, writing anything.

I have been loudly announcing that I’ll spend the summer working on one of my two novel drafts (that is, two novels in draft) or even starting on one of the novels I’ve got notes and plans for but no draft. Hmm. An excellent plan. I really must think about doing it some day.

As often is the case, I can actually feel the bitey energy of writing coming up in me, but as is almost always the case, I resist it. Argh: procrastination, and fear. I am one of those writers who, apart from dutifully filing columns and other freelancing stuff, works only in great bursts a few times a year–I’m very fast when I do it, can turn out half a book in a week or so. Which is useful! But frustrating and disconcerting as well, because I think: if I can write a book in a month, why, I could write several books a year! But I don’t.

Apart from In My Skin, which was written in dribs and drabs over the course of a year during which I also did 5 subjects in a writing program and a lot of other writing for fun, all my books have been worked on when I was away at a retreat or a residency. But this is no way to proceed! Residencies are a privilege and a treat, not a modus operandi.

I’m reading Daphne du Maurier’s memoir of her youth, Myself When Young, and she relates writing her first book alone in her family holiday home in Cornwall, shut in a room with a fountain pen and rain beating on the windows, a housekeeper bringing toast and making supper by the fire for later. This sounds more like it. It reminds me of a blissful time when I stayed in my brother-in-law’s holiday house on the coast in Kent, days researching local history in the library, going for big thinky bike rides through the countryside, afternoons reading and writing in the house, solitary and cosy and utterly happy. Or Rome, when I arrived in August 2008 and it was so hot outside the only thing was to pull the shutters down, strip naked and pour glass after glass of blood orange juice and write my strange New Weird novel in a trance all afternoon (kudos to Because of Ghosts, Les Voix Bulgares and the soundtrack to The Fountain for musical inspiration).

I hate to say it but I think I am a princess and need a place to write that is not my office which is, of course, my workplace. My friend Alice and I have decided to spend days in the State Library this summer working on our books. It’s not quite the coastal town with housekeeper, but I must have a go. Am considering putting out a call for a spare holiday house out of season: surely some person with a spare house would love to let me have it for a month? Right? Oh, if only.

Meanwhile, the desk, the paperwork, the Scrabble games, the day going on, it’s already midday.

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Aftermath, or, after the math.

I’m sure I should write a post digesting the critical and readers’ responses to The Romantic and all that kind of morbid self-reflective thing (which I have made, indeed, a career out of) but frankly I can’t be arsed. At least not now.

The short version: baffling. People hated it who I thought would like it, and people loved it who I thought would be indifferent. ‘Feminists’ gave me a particularly hard time, which is frustrating since I am a feminist and I wrote the book with a feminist consciousness. Much attention on the sex, which is also frustrating since, though there is quite a bit of sex, it’s not because I am a slut or because I love sex. In fact, if you read the book, you’ll find the contrary. A sense of bemusement from reviewers that the book isn’t just like In My Skin, generally agreed to be a much more agreeable book. Resentment, too, from reviewers that my book was either too much like the ghastly and world-consuming Eat Pray Love or not enough like it. Acknowledgement in most reviews that The Romantic is nicely written.

On the other hand, the public is apparently buying it, bookshops stocking it and reordering, people personally telling me that they’ve enjoyed it very much, and online reviewers, noticably more than print reviewers, catching the cadences of irony and sorrow in the book instead of getting caught up on how many dildos and how many men I go through.

All in all it seems like years and years since the book came out. I can’t say I’m not disappointed, in the sense of frustrated, at how it’s been critiqued, because I think it’s actually a better-conceived book than In My Skin, more tightly written, more subtle and more challenging. But then I never have really understood what people saw in the first book! And the people who ‘get’ The Romantic are all getting elephant stamps  and Christmas cards, they deserve it.

You writes your book, you publishes your book, you lives with your book, you moves on from your book, you writes the next.

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And so it begins

First big interview was published today, in The Age and SMH, double-page spread and even the cover story on A2. Wasn’t expecting the cover!

I guess I should have expected that the sex gets the attention. The Age somehow managed to put a sidebar box featuring my picture and below a quote from the article: the quote about the type of sex in the book. Sigh. It’s really not what the book is about as far as I’m concerned. It’s a book about love and loneliness, which includes sex. I couldn’t have written a book about relationships without including the sex, it would have been only part of the story! But I really hope the sex aspect doesn’t get all the attention. What about my lovely adjectives??

Just, really, getting my head around the idea that the book is really out there. People are reading it. And as they do, it becomes something beyond my control or purview; it becomes a part of the world. I guess that’s a nice thing; it’s what I wanted. Weird, but.

I’ll be off all this week interstate doing media. Big radio interviews, events, press. Better get used to the idea that the book is out in the world: no use pretending it ain’t!

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The bastardy Second Book

Now that I am, phew, oh thank god, on the other side of the Bastardy Second Book trauma (only just), I would like to share my experience of the dreaded chasm between First Book and Second Book, and what I expect is not a unique form of psychosis.

It goes thus:

1. Publish first book. Be amazed by yourself. Amazed to find it is actually read by people. Desperately try not to believe compliments. Find that, secretly, you do, or would like to, since you keep getting them, and every time you brush them off you’re told you’re too modest. Feel good. Feel enthused about the next book now you’re off to a good start.

2. Start feeling freaked out by compliments and success of first book. It’s too good to be true. It’s building unreasonable expectations. You don’t know who you are any more, and you scarcely recognise your book in people’s descriptions.You really, really want life to quieten down so you can start the next book.

3. Start complaining about the dreadful pressures of having had a success. Watch as your friends roll their eyes, try to sympathise but really, start thinking of you as ‘that dickhead’.

4. The glow fades. Attention moves elsewhere. First book now a memory. You can’t remember how you had the nerve to write it.

5. You start a new book.

6. You try not to think of its future reviewers, or readers. You can only think of its future reviewers and readers. Everything about the first draft of your new book is shit. This only confirms what you secretly fear is true: You’re an imposter. And that first book will be the only one.

7. Slump into depression.

8. Be depressed.

9. Start another new book. It is also shit.

10. Remember, with grim disbelief, that in interviews you spoke confidently about the next book you were going to write. Remember the reviews of the first that said they couldn’t wait to see what you wrote next. Mentally vomit from nerves and bafflement.

11. Wait. Perhaps five years.

12. You have decided that you have nothing to lose. You can’t help what people expect, you can’t be arsed worrying about it, who are these people anyway and what do they want? The next book will be what it will be. Work. Work. Work at it.

13. Release! The new book is going okay!

14. Glorious day when you look at the new book and you like it.

15. Momentary smugness.

16. Doubt and terror.

17. Balance.

18. Launch day and you’ve come through the worst. They say that each book is just as hard as the previous. But you know, at least, that you never, ever have to worry about the Bastardy Second Book again. At least not until people start reading it.

19. Repeat.

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Stockings

I did a talk at Vermont South library this week. It’s five years now that I’ve been giving these talks, and to be honest each time it feels a little more like shrugging on a cloak made of the past, suffocating and too-well-worn. I think: My god, do I really want to still talk about this? I am always weirdly exhausted just before I do a talk.

But then I face an audience and they are looking at me and expecting me to say something, and begad, it turns out I have things to say. I’ll never get past the feeling of creepy narcissism (and amazement) that all these people are sitting there quietly for an hour just to listen to me talk about my life. It feels so one-sided! But I have a story, and I tell it. And I always, always, get wonderful questions and a feeling that people have been listening attentively and quite often there are people in the audience who can relate better than most to my experiences–either as themselves or as relatives of an addict or sex worker–and if they come up to chat afterwards it is the most incredible feeling, that something that lives inside me (my memories) has touched the life of someone else. I almost expect to hear it sizzle, like an electrical current.

These talks are such a gift to me, really. Every time I do one I leave feeling more energised than when I went in. I wonder if I’ll be doing many more after THE ROMANTIC comes out.

But this post is all really to say: a very nice couple sprang up as I finished the talk, and handed me a gift in red tissuepaper, and it was some stockings. Gifty people, if you read this, let me know so I can thank you?

Truly, when a writer steps out her door, quite nice things happen.

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