Deborah Burrows – A Time of Secrets

On reading selfishly.
 Secrets
I’ve just finished reading Deborah Burrows’ A Time of Secretsa novel that I picked up because…well…the cover caught my eye. So yes, I did judge a book by it’s cover, but for very good reason. The woman on the cover is wearing a WWII era AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service) uniform and I am currently working on a PhD which will be a novel and exegesis focusing on some AWAS members. So of course I plucked the book off the shelf and added it to my ever growing ‘to read’ pile. At this stage of my PhD the majority of my reading has been non-fiction so it was wonderful to come across a novel set in the same era with similar themes.
A Time of Secrets is set in 1943 in Melbourne, with protagonist Stella Aldridge who is an AWAS sergeant working in the Australian Intelligence Bureau. Stella has two important mysteries to solve –  In chapter one she overhears some soldiers discussing a plot for a revenge killing which she determines to investigate, and then her work leads her to another mystery – who is leaking information from the Intelligence Bureau to the enemy? Weaved around these two key plots is romance, murder and the ongoing sense of good-guy/bad-guy with the reader constantly switching loyalties between Stella’s friends and love interests as more secrets are exposed.
This novel was a chance for me to read selfishly. While I read historical fiction quite widely and always take note of how research is woven into the text, I haven’t read any books that draws from the same (or similar) pool of research documents. The women I will be focusing on worked in the Survey Corps in Bendigo, so while there is a big difference in our plots and characterisations it was great to absorb the general mise en scene of WWII Melbourne – the rations, the music and of course, the Americans.
It also got me thinking about the publishing trends for a novel of this type. I’ve been lamenting the lack of representation of women’s war experience in Australia, in both popular culture and formal histories (by ‘lack’ I don’t mean that there is no representation, I just mean that it is minimal – but that’s a post for another time). So it was great to see that there was some shelf space for a novel like this and gave me some hope that mine might also find some space there one day.
Deborah Burrows, A Time of Secrets, Pan Macmillan Australia. 2015.

Manuscript Assessment

Last month I hit two scary milestones – my baby turned 1 and started childcare, and my novel went out on its own for a manuscript assessment. The first day of childcare happened to coincide with me dropping my manuscript off so of course I began drawing obvious parallels, things like recognising that my novel has been with me for the last seven years, in my thoughts daily as I work on it, helping it grow so it can go off one day on its own, just like a child. It’s kept me awake at night, and some days I’ve felt like all I’ve done is wipe excrement off it.

Of course you can’t really compare a manuscript to a child but I was equally as nervous dropping off my baby to his carer’s as I was dropping my novel off to the assessors. But I think manuscript assessment is an important step for a few reasons:

  • Writing is an insular activity. It’s important to share your work eventually, when the time’s right to make sure you are not heading down the wrong path with your editing and plot/character development.
  • It’s important to select an assessor that is right for your work. I’ve selected Jill Blee from Eureka House, as she has a background in Historical Fiction, including the era and location that my novel is set in.
  • I’ve done workshops will Jill before so I know that she will be blunt but honest. I want to know that I’m getting useful feedback, so that I can keep working on the novel to get it to its best stage.
  • I provided Jill with a range of questions that I’ve been wondering about for a few years. Is this character relevant? Is this character clear? Does anyone even care about the plot other than me? I’ve discussed some of the questions with my writing group but none of the other writers have read my novel. It’s important to get feedback on those questions by someone who has dedicated time to consider your work.

Will I take on all of the feedback that Jill provides? Well…I guess only time will tell. Will I be drinking champagne or gin? Probably both.

Please let me know about your experiences of manuscript assessment and how it has worked well (or not) for you.

Writing and Loss

Melville Caves  - A favourite camping place with my grandparents
Melville Caves – A favourite camping place with my grandparents

Over these last few months I have experienced the death of two people who were close to me. In the more contemplative moments of my grief I have tried to piece fragments of my loss into words. And while I have had little success in putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard as the case may be) I’ve though a lot about the act of writing and the triggers of imagination.

I attended the funeral of my father’s best friend, Graeme Clement, in June. He was a man that I had known for twenty years. He regularly commented on my blog, or facebook account. He knew that I studied literature, wrote poetry, was working on a novel. But what I didn’t know about him, was that he wrote as well. At his funeral some of his poetry was shared.

I wish I had of had the chance to discuss poetry with him. I can imagine how it would have gone. Perhaps sipping a Central Victorian Shiraz somewhere near a fire – but more likely drinking beer in Dad’s lounge room during the footy, comments only allowed at half time.  The discussion would have been antagonistic. I would have introduced something feminist, he would have scoffed. I would have introduced something political, he would have compared me to Julia Gillard. We would have agreed to disagree on most poetry, but I think we would have shared a love of Australian poetry.

So while we never had the chance to ‘speak a bit of shit’ about poetry, Graeme has taught me that while some poetry is great to read alone, sharing poetry with others (like-minded or not) is worth the time, you never know what you might agree on. (I can’t help but think that he’d smile reading this – me admitting that he taught me something).

My grandmother, Norma Watts, also passed away this year. It was sudden and I had only seen her days before where I had the chance to tell her that I was returning to Uni to commence a PhD. I could tell that she was pretty proud of that but, as she watched my toddler and six month old climb over me, that she was calculating exactly how I’d do it.

What I didn’t get the chance to tell her was how much she has inspired my writing. She wasn’t a writer, not a big reader, but she had an interest in family history. Not the ancestory.com type of thing, but more making sure that we had an appreciation of our ancestors. Every school holiday my brother and I would visit and my grandparents often took us around various goldfields towns showing us significant sights like the houses they grew up in. At the time I likely rolled my eyes.

However, I have just spent the last 6 six years working on a novel set on the Victorian Goldfields in the 1880’s. I can honestly say that I would never have written a novel like that if it wasn’t for my grandparents.

Just before Nan passed I had been working on a poem about her. It is about collecting her old Fowlers Vacola bottling kit, brining it home and trying to use it. The poem ends with me calling Nan a few months later when I opened my first jar of preserved Apricots. I haven’t worked on it since, but I will get back to it and try to find a fitting home for it one day.

Unfortunately I never read her a draft. But I can just imagine her if I had of told her about it. She would have given me one of her very common responses:

‘Nan, I’m writing a poem about using the Fowlers Vacola.’

‘Are you darling?’ She’d reply, eyes wide, smiling and nodding. She was never any good at faking her response and her tone of voice and facial expression would indicate that inside she was thinking something along the line of ‘I don’t understand these kids, why on earth would you bother spending your time writing about preserving fruit?’ Then she’d go silent and let me fill in the gap with my own rambling that she’d nod along to.

Poetry, farm life, bottling fruit, whatever your inspiration… share it.

Why I love Graeme Simsion

In October I had the good luck of meeting and Interviewing Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project.

He was a guest of the Ballarat Writers for one of our ‘Reading Nights’ where we host a guest author to discuss all things writing with our members. There was much excitement about Graeme’s visit due to the success that The Rosie Project has had this year. I held off buying the book so that I could get a signed copy on the night (I’m always secretly worried that our guests will travel from Melbourne and get zero book sales, a small turn out, then a long and lonely drive home.) I’ve had a chance to read the book now and I can see why it’s been a hit. However what I learned from my interview and Graeme’s presentation was more about what makes some people succeed. Continue reading →