Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a child in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.
1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.
And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.
I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling out “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.
That’s what I thought, in the beginning.
Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.
As many of you know, I have a new picture book coming out very soon.
Once Upon a Small Rhinoceros will officially hit bookstores on 1 September. I’ve blogged previously about the inspiration for the book, and a little about the process of writing it. During that process, many things changed. Some were big – like the title. Others were small – a shift in phrasing that made a line sing, an ellipsis that opened up the ending.
And there was one that was both – tiny but enormous.
Here’s the last line as it appeared in one of the roughs:
If you’ve read the book, you should be able to spot the difference. If you haven’t, then know this: across many, many drafts, and until quite late in the process, my small rhinoceros was male. And then at a certain point, I said huh?
Because my small rhinoceros was male for no good reason. For no reason at all except that I had unconsciously defaulted to that without a moment’s thought. Continue reading
Last week two things happened:
i) This shiny trophy arrived in the post! A Single Stone won the Best Children’s Fiction category of the 2015 Aurealis Awards. This was a mighty fine thing and I’m very grateful to everyone involved.
ii) I was featured in The Australian Writers Centre’s “So You Want to be a Writer” podcast series, which was also a mighty fine thing and a lot of fun to do.
These two things are directly connected. It was the exposure generated by the award that put me on the AWC’s radar as a potential interviewee.
But they’re indirectly connected, too. During the interview, I became aware of a pattern in my responses. When the interviewer, Allison Tait, asked me how I became a children’s writer, I replied that it was sort of accidental. When she asked how it was that I started writing poetry, I replied that it was sort of accidental. We ended up joking about this; we even came up with a potentially excellent future book title: The Accidental Everything.
(Which I immediately claimed, so back right off, writers!)
And then I started thinking about the Aurealis Award, and how I’d said in my acceptance speech that I hadn’t set out to write speculative fiction, that it had just sort of happened.
Last week, I posted a little something about where I was ten years ago versus where I am now.
It’s a post I almost didn’t write because I was worried it would seem braggy. CHECK OUT ALL MY SWAG! AND THIS IS JUST IN ONE WEEK! NEXT WEEK I’LL SPLIT THE PUBLISHING ATOM!
It wasn’t meant to be like that. It was intended as a kind of self-talk, a rejoinder to the messy stuff that goes on in my head, which seems to focus almost entirely on how I could be writing faster or better or differently or just plain more, and never mentions – hardly even seems to notice – the good stuff.
When I shared last week’s post, I prefaced it with the comment: “A few things have changed.”
And that’s true. But here’s something that’s even truer: most things haven’t.
Kids often ask this when I go into schools.
It may be because I tell them that ideas are everywhere, that I’m gathering bits and pieces all the time, that just this morning I quietly filed away a funny thing their teacher said, or a cool-looking tree just outside their classroom, or the way their glasses make them look like a superhero in disguise.
It may be because I tell them I’m always collecting character names, that when they tell me theirs it sometimes starts things firing in my brain: Humphrey for a villain? Or a duck? A villainous duck! Charis for a small girl on an important mission across a magical land. Noah and Abby and Ella and Ruby just for the solid, satisfying ring of them.
Eyes light up. Will you put me in a book? they ask. You could write about our class!
And the answer is always no, because I can never plan to write about things or people in that way.
But the answer is also always yes, because things sneak into my work when I’m not looking, and the kids and the classes and the schools I’ve been to over the years are there when I think about it, when I look back on the work after it’s finished.
A while ago, I joked about having jumped on the dystopian bandwagon. But the truth is that post is a little disingenuous, because I don’t think A Single Stone is really a dystopian narrative. The furthest I would go is to describe it as “speculative fiction with dystopian elements”.
Oh, what’s the difference? Why split hairs?
In the first place, because if ever there is a hair to be split, I will pierce it with a fine-gauge needle. It’s just what I do.
And in the second, because the difference is important.
A true dystopia is exactly as it sounds, an anti-utopia, a “not-good place” to coin a literal translation. And I can categorically say that no world I ever write will be either utopian or dystopian. Because those terms imply a certainty about what’s good and bad, and those definitive, clear-cut divisions aren’t at all interesting to me.
What’s interesting to me are the shifty shades of grey, the ambiguities. I am categorically not interested in categorical statements, worlds, or characters; I want the stories that crawl out of the spaces in between, a world whose value system balances on their edge.
I’ve been thinking lately about creativity. About the complicated relationship between humility, confidence, and arrogance. About the precarious balance between the conviction that we might actually know what we’re doing and the gnawing fear that we don’t – a balance which is required to produce anything worthwhile. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.
I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome.
And I’ve been ironing. Usually a school uniform, in the morning, at the last possible moment.
Although I haven’t had much writing time of late, I’m always thinking about it – about stories and writing and the way words hang together. And in the midst of all the things that have been keeping me from writing – among them copyediting and proofing a forthcoming novel and continuing the grind of renovations we’ve been doing on the house – something occurred to me.
You see, I like these pavers.
I’m not housey. I’m not decoratey. I’ve been driven to the depths of frustration over having to make so many banal choices during the renovating process. I don’t care about tiles or paint or – god help us all – grout colour. But at the same time, you have to choose something. There’s a process you have to move through and perhaps not caring should make it easier, but it doesn’t seem to have worked that way for me.
On the weekend, I went down to Kakamigahara, in Gifu Prefecture. I was doing research for my novel, The Last Wild Thing, but while I was there, I was able to catch up with one of my host families, from my time as a high-school exchange student. In the usual spirit of Japanese hospitality, they treated me to many things, among them participation in a pottery class, a hobby my host father has recently taken an interest in.
When the class began, I was asked what I wanted to make. During the class, it was suggested that I begin working the clay only once I had a clear idea of what I was aiming for. After the class, I was asked what I had made.
Thinking about all of this later, I realised something interesting – that without thinking about it, I had approached the clay exactly as I approach the writing of a novel. That I had set out without any idea of where it was I was heading. That when I had stopped and tried to be ‘sensible’ and do some advance planning I had been completely at a loss. That there was no way I could make a plan without actually beginning the process. That what I needed to do was begin, to get my hands moving and the wheel turning and see what happened.
Bet you didn’t realise it was Poetry Week, did you? That’s because i) poetry-related events tend to pass most people by without notice; and ii) it’s only at my house, or more specifically, in my brain. Yes, it’s a self-declared Poetry Week in which I undertake to gather together the fragments of the many poems-in-progress (PIPs?) scattered here and there on my computer and my desk and in the dusty corners of my mind. I’m reading at Perth Poetry Club next Sunday and am weary of cracking open my little book Cleanskin to read the same poems over and over.
So I hereby resolve to complete one new poem a day between now and then. I know I can do this because I have so many poems that are ‘almost there’, that need just that final push of commitment to bring them to completion. And I’ve been resisting it – partly because I have a lot of other things going on and partly because bringing something to completion implies a sort of satisfaction with its final shape, a letting go I’ve found myself reluctant to participate in. It’s not quite a lack of confidence; though it can be confronting to declare something ‘finished’, laying it open to review, I don’t think that’s it in this case. I think it has more to do with enjoyment of the process. I like the openness of a poem in process, of the sense of possibility. Once it’s done, it’s done, and it feels like a kind of abandonment, a shutting down of the process of exploration and association I find so appealing.