The launch of Cecile Yazbek's new book Voices on the Wind

This afternoon I headed over to Willoughby for the launch of Cecile Yazbek's first novel Voices on the Wind.

Cecile Yazbek and Walter Mason

Cecile has previously written a memoir of her life growing up as a Lebanese girl in South Africa, Olive Trees Around My Table, and an extremely popular and acclaimed vegetarian cookbook, Mezze to Milk Tart.

Voices on the Wind is her first foray into fiction, and it looks fascinating. Based on the story of her grandmother, it tells the story of a Lebanese family and their legal struggles in South Africa. Cecile has gone indie for this book, and she funded it through the sale of some beloved diamond earrings.

I am sure it has been a worthy investment, and I shall follow her new publishing journey with interest. As Cecile is an accomplished chef there was, naturally, a very impressive vegetarian Lebanese feast, and I tucked in while I was there. Good food makes a good launch I always say.

Voices on the Wind was launched by Sydney historian Dr. Shirley Fitzgerald, and author Rosie Scott was in the room, fresh from her own recent publishing victory (along with Anita Heiss) with the anthology on The Intervention, a book which features a contribution from my pal P. M. Newton.

If you'd like to hear Cecile talk about her new book, she is speaking at Turramurra Library at 10.30am on Thursday the 30th of July - details here.

Here is an interview with Cecile. And why not buy a copy of Voices on the Wind?

Walter Mason illustrated lecture on Sumner Locke Elliott's classic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You

I have been obsessed with Sumner Locke Elliott since I was 14 years old, and most people don't know that I wrote my honours thesis on him.

So I am quite proud to announce that on Saturday the 27th of June 2015 I am giving a lecture on him at Ashfield Library.

Even better, it's totally free, and all you have to do is show up.

Come along and hear about this elegant and utterly fascinating author who is almost forgotten now.

Full details:


Ashfield Library

Saturday June 27 11am-12pm Local Studies Room 

Level 2 Civic Centre

Walter Mason is giving an illustrated lecture on Sumner Locke Elliott's classic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You

Daily life at the family business - Salon Kien Nguyen, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City

Recently I've been in Vietnam, and have returned refreshed and renewed, as I always am.

The first 17 days I was leading a tour of Australians from Hanoi all the way down to steamy Chau Doc, and we all had a fabulous time.

Then I stayed on in Vietnam for some R and R at my second home, the family business on Bui Thi Xuan St in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

Looking out onto the street from inside the salon

Now, this is not any spectacular area of the city, though our street does these days feature a temple which has become reasonably famous. I am proud to say that what makes this little corner, right near Pham Van Hai market, notable is the family business we have built up over the years.

I say "we," but I really mean my nephew, Kien Nguyen, the maestro whose name graces the salon. These days Kien is an internationally trained hairdresser, having done courses in Italy, America, France and Korea. The man has travelled more than I have!

Salon maestro Kien Nguyen at work

And Salon Kien Nguyen has developed from a rather humble little one-roomed operation we opened on a shoestring budget 10 years ago to a glamorous, big beauty salon that employs a dozen or so people. I am so proud of what Kien has done, and every time I go back to Vietnam the salon looks more and more beautiful.

Naturally I can’t help but hang out at such a busy and social place, though with my bald dome I am hardly a waling advertisement for the place. Nonetheless, whenever I am around I build a little local interest as the strange fat foreigner somehow attached to the salon, and people really do come in out of curiosity.

Most of the business is done at night, so daytime there is lots of cleaning, chatting and even the occasional arm wrestle. I encourage such foolishness, and we are all reprimanded when Kien comes down and catches us.

I love knowing that at any time in my life I can throw it all in and go to Vietnam and shampoo heads for the rest of my days.

But for the time being Kien trains young people from all over Vietnam to become accomplished hair stylists, and many of them have gone on over the years to establish their own successful businesses. We now have a lineage.

Senior stylist Binh

I do get melancholy sometimes because I know that these lovely people I get to know will have moved in in a couple of years. Back to Dak Nong or Bac Lieu or whatever province they came from to open their own place. Or even sometimes just a few streets away with their own eponymous salons, and I am too shy to drop in and say "Hi."

With latest recruit, Son

Anyway, if you want a fabulous 'do while you are on holiday, I would urge you to drop by the grooviest salon in the North-western suburbs.


Salon Kien Nguyen
152c, Bui Thi Xuan, P3, Quan Tan Binh, Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh

(It's about a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown Saigon, and about 5 minutes from the airport)

Australian indie author Justin Sheedy on memoir, motivation and creative productivity

We never know where our life's journey might take us, and I never expected that I might be thrown back into the orbit of someone I knew in my days of youthful folly.

A couple of years ago I re-connected with Justin Sheedy, purely by chance, and we intstantly reminisced about our days of glamorous excess. Justin went one step further and wrote a whole book about them!

Even more to the point, Justin has established himself as one of the most energetic, productive and successful indie writers in Australia, and is the very model of a modern author. With the launch of his new memoir, I asked Justin to talk about how he went from aspiring author to publishing dynamo:

It’s exactly the same for any aspiring writer as it is for an author of world renown:  Being creatively productive is a condition they crave.  Utterly.  So it’s bloody lucky that being creatively productive is also something they cannot help.  They’re never not:  Even when they’re stuck on a page or stuck for an idea (absolutely freakingly, hopelessly STUCK), they remain creatively productive by getting up from the page, up from the desk and going for a good, long bracing, solitary walk until that point at just about 30 minutes into it every time when that literary light bulb goes ON, the idea comes, the problem is solved, and the marvellous page goes on.  At least, they bloody-well hope it’s marvellous…  Marvellous times 240 if it’s a 240-page book…  Marvellous or not will be revealed when people say “I think your last book was marvellous.”  Or not.  

I recently launched my 4th book.  It’s called Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer.  It’s 240 pages. 
Before the release of every book I am what is known in the literary world as shit-scared.  Yet being shit-scared apparently works for me.  Apparently…  Each of my first three books received a handful of readers assuring me that they will read the book more than once.  (And, yes, this could have been because the readers in question couldn’t understand my books and so need to read them again.)  In any case, after three well-reader-reviewed books I joked to my Facebook community that now at long last I might have qualified for a “Certificate of being Not Crap as an Author”.  In due course someone designed and sent me one.

Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer is the sequel to my first book, Goodbye Crackernight from 2009, my portrait of childhood in 1970s Australia when a child’s proudest possession was not a smart phone but a second-hand bike.  Go-Go Dancer is my portrait of 1980s teenage years under the threat of nuclear annihilation, before I ever kissed a girl let alone lose my virginity. We had The Grim Reaper. Other horrors featured include 1980s fashion, 'Perfect Match', 'Miami Vice' and the music of Kenny Loggins.  The book also features the iconic events of the decade such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bob Hawke’s ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not coming in to work today is a BUM’ moment.

It took me nine months to write, re-write and polish, and at the end of almost every page I said to myself: “I am buggered if I know where the next page is coming from.”  But each and every time I said this to myself I forced myself to answer, “Now Justin. This is your fourth book.  And at the end of every key bit of your last three you had no idea where the next bit was coming from but it always did, didn’t it? It will again now, so start having some bloody faith in yourself.  Experience at long last shows that you should.  Doesn’t it?”

And it did:  I remained creatively productive every day for nine months despite every second day thinking that I wouldn’t.

So what was my motivation to press on through all the “buggered if I know what to do next” moments?  My motivation?  Well it certainly wasn’t THE MONEY.  As a self-published author, even if this next book of mine is a raging success I’ll basically cover my costs.  My reward is something different.  My reward is when complete strangers say, “Your book made me laugh and cry and on public transport.  You’re a bastard, Sheedy.”  (You heard it here first:  My reward for writing and reason for writing is to make people I don’t know laugh and cry on public transport.)  But seriously, folks, my reward is what keeps me motivated.  And my reward is to be sharing Australian stories with Australian and international reading audiences.  Because that’s what my books have been so far:  Goodbye Crackernight and now its sequel, Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer, are celebrations of Australian social history.  I’ve also written two World War II historical fictions, Nor the Years Condemn and its sequel, Ghosts of the Empire.  These are remembrances of the stunning true (and untold) Australian story of how the best and brightest of a generation of young Australians flew against the forces of Nazi tyranny and won, albeit at staggering cost.  My books embody my passion: to share with others what I’ve seen, what I know, what I can imagine, and what I think MUST be told.  Nah, I just love making people embarrass themselves on public transport.  Motivation indeed.  To remain creatively productive.

If you’re an aspiring author (and even ‘great’ authors are still ‘aspiring’ authors) you will already know deep within you that writing isn’t just something you want to do; it’s something you have to do; something you cannot help.  You strive for the end-product bliss of getting something special between your ears down onto the page which, because it’s written with effective economy of language, is then read by a complete stranger who is, as a result, transported somewhere they have never before been.  This you will achieve, if you become any kind of decent author, as you’ll have caused your reader to have clean missed their normal bus stop: the noble result of your sustained creative productivity.

In any case, for any author, being creatively productive is the easy part.  Then you have to take your finished first draft, re-read and re-do it ten times, maybe twenty times, until it ends up the piece of writing it deserves to be.  But that’s your next stage in the writing process. 

Happy Writing,

Justin Sheedy

Ryan Holiday on blogging tactics, idea implementation and getting started on a limited budget

For some time now I have found that podcasts are my most important guide to book buying. Where once I relied on the Saturday newspapers for literary advice, I now keep an ear out for interviews, discussions and recommendations on the couple of dozen podcasts I listen to regularly. And I have found this a much more reliable guide.

This change could be bad news for authors who aren’t very good at chatting. I have certainly been put off a book I was previously interested in because of a pedestrian, grumpy or precious performance in a podcast interview. I have also been tricked. I won’t name names, but on a couple of occasions I have bought books by well-known marketing experts only to find that everything I needed to know about those books had been contained in the interviews that had so impressed me.

Fortunately, Ryan Holiday’s new little book Growth Hacker Marketing does not belong in that category. Holiday is a fascinating figure, and has become something of a cult leader in the field of online marketing. His work with American Apparel and Tucker Max and his fascinating book Trust Me I'm Lying have all lent him a certain amount of glamour and hipster cachet. But this book takes the reader a significant step further and is all about the doing, and not about the pointless speaking. It is packed to the gills with useful, actionable information and there is not a page wasted. It’s probably one of the best-value books I have purchased in a long time.

For those, like me, who may not be down with the latest terminology, “growth hackers” are those people – usually tech-savvy youngsters – who seek to grow their products and make a name for themselves using new technologies and very little money. They are finding new ways to get the word out and to get their customers and users to do the advertising and marketing work for them. Some examples he uses in the book are Instagram, Evernote and the venerable Hotmail (which I still proudly use).

Holiday’s background is in mainstream marketing, where big, expensive campaigns are launched to sell new products in time-honoured ways which are as much about tradition, superstition and ritual than any properly-measured results. He points out that that’s all changing now. As industries have less and less money to spend on those old excesses (and I’m in the book industry, which is suffering hardest of all) we are all looking for new ways to be successful, create popular products and services and let people know how to spend their money on them.

Enter the growth hacker. This book aims to turn us all into growth hackers, and as an author it helps that the principal examples he uses are in the launching of new books. I think that this is a book that every author (and, please God, publisher) needs to read right now.

Here are 5 great tips I got from the book – remember, there are many, many more, so get the whole book:

1.    Blog extensively before you publish – if you are putting together a non-fiction book start blogging on your subject now! Take notice of what blog posts get great responses and shares, and make sure those are a bigger part of your book. It’s about being responsive to your readership and giving them more of what they want.

2.    Question every assumption – just because you think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it is. For too long now we have just soldiered on blindly, hoping like hell people will like what we’ve decided to offer them. How about dealing with humility beforehand and actually asking people what they want? And then asking for honest feedback on what we produce and actually be willing to change it. Ask yourself: why would anyone want to read this? Who is this for? What value am I offering? REALLY ask yourself those questions, write down the answers and keep them in front of you.

3.    Create fun videos – videos that talk about your book, videos that instruct people, videos that show some of your personality. He quotes a number of online growth hacking successes that hinged on video content. It’s an area that’s going to grow, so get on the bandwagon now, and don’t worry about elaborate production values

4.    Seek out influential advisors and mentors – ask for their advice and guidance and follow it! Stop trying to be a one-man show. Take a risk and ask someone you respect for feedback. If they like what they see they might just become advocates for you and your work.

5.    Think viral referrals instead of costly marketing and promotion – give away your product to people who matter and who might influence the opinion of others. He talks about how Uber built its profile by giving out free ride vouchers at tech conferences. This is dirt-cheap promotion, and yet I see so many companies and providers balk at it. Instead of spending thousands on an ad that might reach no-one important, why not drop a couple of hundred on getting to a more targeted audience and building some buzz about you and your product.

My copy of the book is heavily underscored with multiple pages turned down – I simply want to put everything into action and I have made copious notes as well. It is rare I am so excited about a book, especially one with such a potentially dull subject matter. But please believe me when I say this is essential reading that will inspire all kinds of ideas. 

Caroline Ford's Sydney Beaches

For me, a beach is a beach. I didn't know there were different types, and I had never really troubled myself with their social history. But yesterday I was at the most fascinating talk at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, where I heard historian Caroline Ford talking about her gorgeously illustrated history of Sydney's beaches, and I realised the full complexity of the situation.

Ford has written a history of Sydney’s ocean beaches, from the obsession with sharks and nets in the 20s and 30s to the protests against sewage dumping in the 1980s. Researching the Sate records of NSW she has found the most fascinating files from Manly and Waverley councils detailing their attempts to erect shark nets not necessarily, as we would assume, in the name of human safety, but more for the economic benefits. People could be made to pay to swim in netted areas, and beachside councils have always been keen to make people pay more for access (witness the present-day parking fees charged at beachside areas).

In December 1929 Bondi had just finished its beautification project, which included the grand Pavilion, but it had proved to be something of a white elephant.

The Bondi Pavilion

The Great Depression had just begun, and people weren’t spending money on seaside entertainments. Stories like this are what makes Dr. Ford's book so utterly fascinating. She is telling the hidden stories of our beaches. As she says, it is not all "just people lying on sand." It is about people moving to beachside areas (the fascinating phenomenon of country people retiring to Manly) and the population laying claim to freely access the beach - not a given in 19th century Sydney where most of the beaches were privately owned.

Sydney Beaches: A History has lots of wonderful, nostalgic photographs of beach goers in years past. I was fascinated to see Manly's shark tower, a futuristic object which rose straight up in an almost occult-looking needle.

Manly shark tower

Sadly gone. The beaches have always been sites of dispute between state and local governments - just who owns the sand, the water and the foreshores. And who is responsible for their upkeep and the safety of the people who visit them? Such arguments continue into the 21st century, particularly when it comes to beachside developments, a hobby in Sydney as old as white settlement.

It's a remarkable book, and one that will be of enormous interest to anyone who loves Sydney and her beaches. A great gift, too. I look upon beaches with new eyes, more aware of the poltics, the assumptions and the different ways of managing them that have evolved over time.

Mary-Lou Stephens on writing, privacy and insane thinking

Mary-Lou Stephens

 A couple of years ago I heard by chance an author being interviewed on a Sydney AM radio station. She was talking about drug addiction, meditation, spirituality and creating a new life and I thought to myself, "Heavens, that sounds like a book I'd like to read." Unfortunately I was hanging my washing out at the time and when I went to write down the details I'd forgotten everything. That night I checked my email, and what should be waiting for me but a message from the very author I had been listening to saying, "Someone told me we should be in touch." It was, of course, Mary-Lou Stephens. Never let anyone tell you that synchronicity isn't at work in this universe.
Mary-Lou's first book, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, was just about my favourite book that year, and it remains one of my all-time favourite memoirs. And of course, her follow-up How to Stay Married was one of my Best Books of 2014 - a painfully honest look at marriage, relationships and travel.
Mary-Lou is one of the most fascinating writers at work in Australia today, and I wanted to ask her a few questions about why and how she wrote and published her new book, how she dared to write the things she did and how she has managed to remain happily married. Here's what she had to say:

1.    Can you tell us briefly about your creative journey - when were you convinced that you could publish your writing?

I never thought I’d be a writer - a songwriter yes, but not a published author. I trained as an actor and played in bands until I got a real job, in radio. It was after I’d been working in radio for a while that I went to the USA for a holiday. On my return friends asked to see photos of my trip. I had taken only twelve photos on a disposable Instamatic and three of those were blurry. A colleague said, “Clearly photography is not your thing, why don’t you write about your trip instead?” So I did. That led to me writing a weekly column for the local newspaper for five years.

When I was writing the column I became interested in pursuing writing as a career. My research told me that at the time, early 2000’s, most published Australian authors earned about $3,000 a year. I was earning that just from writing my column and I was published every week. So I kept working in radio and writing in my spare time. I wrote short stories, took many classes at the Queensland Writers Centre and began working on my memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

I joined a writing group, took six months leave without pay to write a novel, and quite accidentally received some interest from a literary agent for Sex, Drugs and Meditation. She thought the book had potential but wasn’t where it needed to be. Although I was a long way from being published at that point, it was the first time I really thought I could be a published author.


2. What are some of the barriers that held you back from more fully expressing your creative impulses?

When I was contacted by the literary agent it was still very early in my writing journey. (An acquaintance who liked my work had sent a sample to the agent without me knowing.) The agent asked to see everything I had written and naively that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t know back then that first draft material really shouldn’t leave the privacy of your room. As Stephen King says, “Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.”

Unsurprisingly the agent went cold on the book but gave me some invaluable advice. She told me that if Sex, Drugs and Meditation was going to work as a book then I had to get really, really honest. Up until that stage I’d been a bit flippant with events, more Bridget Jones’ Diary than the book it is today. The idea of being really, really honest, of baring all, terrified me so much I stopped working on the book and wrote a novel instead.

It wasn’t until many years later and after much more meditation that I gained the detachment and compassion to write the book that Sex, Drugs and Meditation needed to be. The agent was right. Once I was able to be really, really honest the manuscript buzzed with incredible energy and developed a life of it’s own. I felt as though it flew out of my hands when it was ready to go out into the world.

3. Do you think this is a good time to be a writer, or are you more gloomy about the future of books?

It’s a fabulous time to be a writer. There are so many avenues open to us. However it’s not a good time to be a paid writer. It’s a double edged sword. People who love reading have more books than ever to choose from and are, I think, reading more. However because there are so many ebooks offered for free or for 99 cents  it is tough for writers to make money.

4. If there's someone out there with a story burning inside them that they need to tell, what would your advice be?
Find a space where you feel comfortable to write. When I first began writing I was extremely self conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could do it in a cafe. It had to be somewhere private where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become more relaxed about it. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of How To Stay Married was written on the couch with The Hubby beside me. I still prefer privacy though and I hate being interrupted. I know it sounds really basic but without the confidence of being able to write freely it can inhibit your ability to get the words you really want to, really need to, down on the page.

If you’re writing memoir I suggest following Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s advice. She’s written a book called Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall. One of her precepts is the ten year rule - any autobiographical material needs to be at least ten years old. I had followed this precept without even realising it. Once your material has had the time to compost it’s much richer, more fertile.

5. Do you suffer from writer's block, and if so, how do you beat it?

It’s like trying to see a distant star. If you look right at it it fades away. If you look slightly to the side you can see it in your peripheral vision. Sometimes it’s best to write around the thing you really want to write but can’t. Take the pressure off. Write something different.

But the one tried and true method I have for boosting creativity and for coming up with a million ideas, characters and story lines, is meditation. Especially a silent meditation retreat. No distractions and a monkey mind! The idea of meditation is not to stop thinking, that’s impossible, but in the process of observing the thoughts when they come up you’ll be amazed at the concepts and ideas that arise.

6. Your new book How to Stay Married is about some deeply personal stories and events in your life. Do you ever worry about the things you expose while writing a memoir?

When I signed the contract for my first book Sex,Drugs and Meditation I was terrified. I woke the next morning in a state of panic. The whole world was going to know all those secrets I’d kept hidden. There was a real danger that I would lose my job, my friends and my family. But the energy around signing that contract was far greater than letting it slide by. The end result was that I didn’t lose my job, my friends love me even more and almost all of my family still talk to me.

With How To Stay Married I had already revealed so much of myself the process was much easier. I was concerned for my husband but he gave me his blessing to write whatever I needed to write. I gave him first right of veto when the manuscript was finished and he only requested a couple of very small changes.
There is one section in the book that was extremely hard to write. It shows the extent of how insane my thinking can be, and how damaging to myself and others. I gave the section to my writing group to read and asked them whether I should keep it in the book. They were deeply affected by it, to the point of tears, because they had all experienced the same kind of thinking but had never dared talk about it. They encouraged me to keep that chapter because it would help other people who had been through a similar situation.

7. This time around you chose indie publishing. Why did you do this, and at this stage of your journey do you have some tips for other people considering the same?

I knew I couldn’t self-publish Sex, Drugs and Meditation. I needed a major publishing house and their legal team to avoid getting sued. With How To Stay Married the only person who could possibly sue me is my husband and he’s promises not to.

I’ve interviewed many authors in my job with the ABC and increasingly they are self-published. Adam Spencer decided to self-publish his Big Book of Numbers because he wanted complete control to be as nerdy as he needed to be. I’m keen to investigate the hybrid model where some of my books are self-published and others are with a traditional publisher. Authors are doing this very successfully these days, including Stephen King.

My frustration with being published with a major publisher is with the pricing of ebooks. I would love to be able to play with price points and to do special promotions but that has not been possible. With so many inexpensive ebooks on the market it is hard to compete when your ebook is priced over a certain point. Having said that I am in negotiations to have my world ebook rights revert to me. When that comes through I can begin to play.

I wanted to explore the possibilities of indie publishing with How To Stay Married and it’s been an adventure and a great learning experience. The support from other indie writers has been overwhelming. There is a real community of writers who want to see other writers succeed. Their generosity has been an eye-opening and heart-opening experience.

There are expenses involved in self-publishing and I must admit it is nice to have all of them paid for by a publisher when you go the traditional route. However these are necessary expenses to deliver a book that serves you and your readers well. I have beta readers and I took their feedback on board but I also paid two editors to improve certain aspects of How To Stay Married.  Other costs included a cover designer and professional formatter for ebook and print.

Marketing an indie book can be tough but then marketing a traditionally published book can also be tough. It’s hard to gain traction. From what I’ve observed successful marketing is about creating relationships with your readers. That takes time and trust. You’re building emotional connections with people. You need to find a way of adding value to their lives. Think about giving them a gift from time to time as well. Everyone loves  getting a present, everybody loves to feel appreciated. This is very different from the sell, sell, sell approach. There’s so much noise out there, why not offer your readers a refuge, a place where they can relax and enjoy your writing?

8. If there was one thing everyone reading this could do right now to help them enrich their intimate relationships, what would it be?
There are Seven Tips for a Happy Marriage (and one from my mum) at the end of  How To Stay Married. The most important tip I ease the reader into gradually and have it as tip number three. It’s probably the hardest one to adhere to consistently but it is vital for a successful relationship. That tip is Own Your Own Crap.

If something annoys you in your relationship look at your part in it. Then look at why it annoys you. It’s your responsibility. It’s so easy to blame someone else for everything. I know, I spent most of my life doing it. But if I constantly play the victim where does that leave me? What can I learn or improve from that position of helplessness? Playing the victim may feel easy at the time but it’s a cop-out. In the long term, it kept me stuck and miserable.

Now when I feel bad and I want to blame The Hubby, I have the tools, thanks mainly to meditation, to turn it around knowing and really understanding that I am responsible for my own misery and my own happiness. I take him out of the equation and own my own crap. He can’t do anything about my crap and I can’t do anything about his, but to the best of our ability we don’t dump it on each other. That, my friend, is the one big not-so-secret secret of a happy relationship. Own your own crap. And do something about it so you don’t feel crappy.

You can follow Mary-Lou Stephens on Twitter @missymarylou
Join her Facebook Fan Page
Mary-Lou's website is

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