Friday, May 20, 2011

A lovely poem I wish I'd written.

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Source: Poetry (December 2000).

Edsel Grizzler Book Gig

Great news! As part of this year's Brisbane Writers Festival WordPlay schools program, students from the Queensland University of Technology, under the direction of Carolyn Heim, will be doing two Book Gig performances of Edsel Grizzler. The dates for the performances are Wednesday 7 September (12.30pm), and Friday 9 September (12.30pm). I'll be there to answer questions and enjoy the show, so get along if you can! I'm also doing a whole bunch of other sessions with the festival. It's always a great program up there: all your details can be found here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NSW Premier's Literary Awards 2011

The venue was the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House. The date was the 16th May, 2011. And the event was the announcement of the NSW Premier's Literary Awards.

This was the first year that the winners haven't known prior, making it more like the Oscars, except that the presenter read something about the winner in each category before reading the name, thereby giving a ten second heads-up to anyone paying attention.

It's good to see this morning that the mainstream media has broken with tradition and published the names of the winners in all categories, rather than just the 'big' ones. And those big ones were Alex Miller for Lovesong, and Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons for Fraser's biography. But of most interest to many of us were the winners of the Ethel Turner and Patricia Wrightson prizes, won by Cath Crowley (Graffiti Moon) and Sophie Masson (The Hunt for Ned Kelly) respectively. Both shortlists were stacked with potential winners, but unfortunately there could only be one in each list. I have to say that those who missed out took it in very good grace. I admire their nerve - I don't know if I could have been quite so calm during the tense wait.

But the biggest cheer (and a standing ovation) was for Libby Gleeson who, in a huge surprise to her, won the $20,000 Special Award for her past and ongoing contribution not only to young people's literature, but the literary community at large, especially her efforts in establishing the Lending Rights scheme that we all look forward to each year.

It was also a great night for the Western Sydney Young People's Literature Project, soon to be renamed Westwords. This project, overseen by Judith Ridge, kept getting mentions all night, including from Libby in her acceptance speech. From memory, Libby (who chairs the project's board) said something like, 'Watch out for us - we're going to be big.'

Monday, May 2, 2011

A weekend in Gloucester

Seems a lot of new writers festivals are popping up all around the place. More and more schools are putting them on, mostly modelled on the marvellous Somerset Celebration of Literature on the Gold Coast. Then there are the community festivals, such as the new Bellingen Writers Festival.

And there's this one - the Gloucester Writers Festival, held for the first time during the weekend just past. It wasn't a bad lineup of presenters, either - Pamela Freeman, Pam Rusby, Anthony Lawrence, Les Murray and Barry Maitland, to name but a few.

We all had a great time, with a number of events on offer, including a poetry sprint, a young writers' short story competition, and a number of workshops in addition to the panel sessions. I met a number of new people, like the lovely Julie Ditrich, who presented on the topic of graphic novels, and Jesse Blackadder, as well as the organiser, Lindy Dupree.

Then there were the CWA ladies and their pumpkin scones.

And the place! Oh, the place! Anyone who's never been to Gloucester should do i
t, and do it soon. On the drive up there on Friday, I found myself driving past the first day of the Stroud show. Now, I just want to say this: I very rarely go to the Royal Easter Show. I pretty much hate it. Too many people spending money they don't have on things they don't need and food they don't really like while they look at things they don't really understand. But proper country shows are great. I spent a lovely hour wandering around, looking at the campdrafting and the cattle dog trials and the produce displays. They even had a competition for "Best afternoon tea tray with food for one".

And pumpkin scones.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Writing quote XII

The faster I write the better my output. If I'm going slow I'm in trouble. It means I'm pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.
(Raymond Chandler)

To some extent, this is why I write the way I do; unplanned, at least at the very early stages. To plan and follow the blueprint is, for me, rather unadventurous. Ergo, it's also pretty boring. I'd never heard it put the way Chandler put it here, but I think I get it. Pushing words means that you're forcing something to happen. You're being the primary agent for change, or for creativity. And of course, the urge to scratch that itch to create something is why we do what we do. But I think there has to more than that. There has to be the feeling of being taken on the ride with the characters. Because if we can't inspire ourselves to invest in our characters and their journey, what hope do our readers have?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reflections on the CBCA shortlist.

I do this every year. I do. I forget that the Children's Book Council Book of the Year Awards shortlist is due. Then I remember at the last moment, or someone mentions it in an email or on Facebook. Then I'm onto the website, and clicking Refresh every thirty seconds for the five minutes leading up to midday. Because as much as I claim that I don't care, I do. I really do. And let me heartily congratulate every one of the writers and illustrators and publishers and editors represented on those lists.

A couple of years ago I got in some trouble from Mo Johnson, when I suggested that it's of more value to a newish writer to be on the shortlist or notable list than someone who is properly established. And as much as that sounded like sour grapes for Hunting Elephants failing to get a notable listing, I certainly didn't mean it that way. I stand by what I said - that to someone with a gazillion books and half a gazillion shortlistings, one more gong isn't going to do much to advance their career. But when you're just getting established (as I was when Captain Mack was shortlisted for the CBCA in 2000) it does put you on the map.

Which brings me to one of the great disappointments out of today's shortlist announcement, quite apart from the fact that Anonymity Jones wasn't on it. And that is that a number of very fine books weren't even on the Notables list, not least of all the wonderful Saltwater Vampires, by Kirsty Eager, and the incredible Big River, Little Fish, by Belinda Jeffrey. The latter was particularly disappointing, since I predicted that Belinda's first book, Brown Skin Blue was going to win Book of the Year in 2010. Boy, was I wrong!

Those guys, and many others, are feeling pretty glum tonight. Others are feeling rather buoyant. And that's how it goes. Some feel cheated, some feel lucky, others feel like they got precisely what they deserved or even expected. But at the end of the day, it's down to judges. Human judges who are just trying to pick the best books they can. They don't have an agenda - they just want to reward the best books. The books that they deem to be the best books.

Earlier this year I was one of the judges for the Patricia Wrightson Prize in the NSW Premier's Awards. A number of the books shortlisted today were well down our list, and the list of the Ethel Turner Prize. And several of the books we chose didn't appear in any of today's announcements. So it's hard, and your choices as a judge will always be criticised. But to those who missed out today, I'd say this: none of us are entitled. None of us have a birthright to this wonderful thing we get to do for a living, not even those on the lists. So chin up, onward and upward, all that cliché and guff. We don't write for awards; we write because we have to, because we love to, because we love to tell stories, and we love it when kids' eyes light up with the glow of the stories we tell.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A night at Penguin Plays Rough

In a one-way lane in St Peters, a stone’s throw from the Saturday night Newtown crowds, is a reclaimed warehouse. This is where they gather, stinging for some old-school fringe art goodness. At the door - a slightly creaky metal security gate - a cheerful girl takes your five dollars and offers you a raffle ticket. ‘We might have something to raffle, we might not. But there is cake.’

And there is cake. Or peppermint slice, in fact, of the most Technicolor and mouth-smash variety. And wine, beer and cider, by way of set donation. (A hint for the newcomer - take your own wine glass if you’re not a fan of plastic cups.)

In the space itself, partitioned off from the various recording and rehearsal spaces by heavy, quilted, cushioned curtains, are several couches and armchairs, a piano, a small PA system with turntable (Miles Davis, in case you’re wondering) and in the far corner, the main stage.

Is it a stage? Kind of. It’s actually a large coffee table, onto which has been lifted a red velour armchair, a pedestal lamp, and a smaller coffee table, complete with spittoon/ashtray. I’m sure that to the more nervous of the open-mic readers it looks more like a scaffold. Does that chair - I call it the Chair of Truth - rest atop some kind of trapdoor?

The room gradually fills. Many of the sixty or so finding a seat on the floor or a spot against the back wall seem to know one another. Others introduce themselves. It’s been some time since I was in a room like this, and there seems to be a lot less of the… well, wankers than there populated these things in the mid-nineties, when the leather-clad neophytes sculled chardy at book launches in Darlinghurst galleries and pretended to know Justine Ettler.

The co-founder of Penguin Plays Rough, Pip Smith, introduces the first reader, who is one of the five ‘headliners’ for the night. He reads a travel piece about Burma. It’s not bad, a little one-paced, and his revelation of his interaction with a prostitute is… well, let’s just say that it possibly says more about him than about the prostitute. If the story is true. Which it might be.

But therein lies the beauty of an event like Penguin Plays Rough. Over the next two hours or so (with two short breaks to recharge glasses) we hear outstanding poetry from accomplished professionals like Miles Merrill, we see some performance art that borrows from Thelma and Louise, we hear some short poems of uneven quality, we hear a foreword from an upcoming short story collection, a ‘prepared statement’ by a stand-up comedian, and the faux-biblical text of an ‘illuminated novel’, complete with accompanying slides. And underpinning all of this, like any good fiction, is the feeling that even the fictional bits contain a kernel of autobiography.

It ends too soon. Leave them wanting more, I guess. And I do want more. It’s been a long time since I first met a newcomer called Melina Marchetta at the Harold Park Hotel, where they ran the wonderful and greatly missed Writers in the Park. I liked the intimate feel of the fringe-lit thing. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my great regret at never going to uni to do subjects I was interested in. But I like it, and I want more.

Next time I’m going to read. I wasn’t sure this time if I wanted to, and by the time I decided that I was brave enough, the open spots were all taken. In fact, the blackboard (or marker-pen on cardboard, in fact) was full before the second bottle of cab-sav had been popped. So the lesson in that - if you’re feeling brave, make sure you defeat your second-thought nerves before you open the security grille and pocket your raffle ticket. You might reveal something intimate about yourself to a roomful of strangers, but what’s so wrong with that?

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Deutscher Jugendliterapreis...

...which means, German Youth Literature Prize. And I'm on it! With the help of the wonderful Stefanie Schaeffler in bending my words into their German equivalent, Town: Irgendwo in Australien, (Gerstenberg Verlag) has attracted the attention of the selection jury! Let happy dancing abound!

So, having calmed down, let's examine what this news means.

I'm so glad you asked. First, the book may win some prize money, so there's that. Second, the prize has its own stall at the Bologna Book fair, which is the premier children's/YA event in the world for publishers looking to buy/sell their products internationally. So that's pretty good, too. Third, this will hopefully boost sales in what is a pretty major kidlit/YA market. And fourth, it may well help to crack open the door to the European International Schools. I've already worked in such schools in Singapore, Japan and China, but to use such a high profile shortlisting to do some work in Europe would be amazing. Could a publicity/schools trip to Frankfurt in October be on the cards? Watch this space...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Casey vs Richard

This morning I feel compelled to say a thing or two about the video that recently went public, in which Casey, a Year 10 kid at Chifley College in Mt Druitt, apparently after prolonged and repeated bullying, finally struck back, and struck back hard. Hard enough in fact, to break the ankle of his tormenter.

Now, I'm not into violence. I don't think it achieves much. I've always tried to teach my own kids that there is almost always a better way to solve their problems than beating seven bells out of someone. But it seems to me that Casey finally reached snapping point. We all reach that point sometimes, and from the evidence in the video, of a kid being hit, pushed, verbally taunted and antagonised, while others egged on his nemesis, it was all too much. I get it. I really do.

I've been to Chifley College. It's a tough place, no question, with committed and passionate teachers and staff who work under some difficult conditions. There's been a lot of criticism of the school for the lack of teachers seen in the video, for the way this conflict escalated to the point it reached over time, and most stridently, that both boys were suspended. All I can assume is that the school has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to schoolyard violence. And I also suspect that in time, once everything has been examined, the younger of the boys might find himself in a little more trouble than Casey. Which, to me, on the limited evidence we have, would only seem fair.
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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Meet the Blue-Footed Booby

I've never met a blue-footed booby. And juvenile jokes aside, I have to admit that I've never met a booby of any colour. Therefore I am, in most respects, utterly ignorant on all things blue-footed booby-esque. Everything I know comes from two sources - Wikipedia, and James Tate.

Let's start with Wikpedia. This critical mass of collective online wisdom tells us that the blue-footed booby (or BFB, as I now intend to call it) is a bird from the sulidae family, which comprises long-winged seabirds. It's a decent size - about 6kg, on average – and the lady-boobies are slightly bigger than the boy-boobies.

Also, this happy little guy was called a booby after the Spanish word for "stupid person", on account of its clumsiness. Nice.

So far, so good. We've got a clumsy seabird with an unkind nickname, and we have to assume it's got blue feet.

Wikipedia also tells us that the BFB tends to hang out around the islands of the South American Pacific coast, including (but not exclusive to) the Galapagos Islands. Which is cool. I've never been to the Galapagos Islands, but apparently they're quite an experience, what with the turtles and all. So our BFB is quite exotic, it would seem, and better-travelled than most.

Then the Wiki article heads into all sorts of semi-rude stuff, like mating dances and egg-laying. Plus there's a bit of parenting thrown in there, such as the need for the incubating pair (Mum and Dad both have a turn, so they're obviously quite modern parents) to actually use their famous feet to keep the chicks warm. Their famous blue feet, as it happens. Their famous blue feet that the show-off boy-BFB flaps around in an effort to get the girl-BFB to sleep with him.

Personally, I don't know what all the BBF fuss is about. Photos of this specimen portray it as a seagull with plastic Mr Potatohead webbed feet, which is cute and faintly ridiculous, and as such entirely supports the Spanglish nickname, in my view.

Then Wikipedia talks about the diet of the BFB, which is ... anyone? Anyone? Yes! Fish! Who'd have thought! Apparently it hunts for fish on its own, or in pairs, or in large groups. In other words, if it sees a fish, it doesn't stop to consider its current social situation - it just goes and gets it. So to largish, clumsy, exotic, faintly ridiculous, and fair-minded in matters of gender roles, we can add pragmatic. Nice.

The Wikipedia BFB entry has a sub-section entitled “Pop Culture”, within which there are only two references listed. One is in the wonderful book “Galapagos”, by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. The other is in the poem by James Tate, entitled “The Blu Booby”. It is to this poem that I now wish to draw your attention.

I won’t quote the entire poem – it is a very simple matter indeed to google “James Tate” and “Blue Booby”, and you’ll find that someone else will have cut and pasted it already. Besides, I only want to highlight part of the last stanza. This bit, in fact, which refers to the female blue-footed booby:

she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.

It’s a beautiful description of a mysterious and little-known bird. And really, when you think about it, it’s pretty much all we need to know.
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