Julian Leatherdale on creativity, place and never missing a deadline

Julian Leatherdale launching his novel at the Hydro Majestic

 Julian Leatherdale is a Blue Mountains novelist and I chatted to him about his new book, Palace of Tears, and his creative method. He was terribly generous in his response, and I think you'll agree that this is a fascinating Q&A:

1.    Has writing always been your passion? If so, have you consistently pursued it over the course of your life?

Yes, writing has been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I kept a diary when I was seven and can still recall the mock-leather cover and tiny lock and key on the front flap. With my best friend at primary school who was a puppeteer, we staged plays for our long-suffering parents. I wrote my first (very short) novel at 12, a pastiche of David Copperfield. A friend of my parents kindly read and critiqued it and I felt like a writer for the first time. The second time was when I had a poem read on ABC radio.

The lesson from my charismatic English teacher at a private boys’ high school was that writing was exciting, possibly even subversive. Catch-22 justified my dropping out of cadets while Lord of The Flies explained the behaviour of my fellow students. With my teacher’s encouragement, I contributed poems and short fiction to the slim ‘arts pages’ of the school magazine. Imagine my surprise when I recently reread one of these stories written when I was only 15: a tale of an elderly ballet dancer reflecting on her lost youth. And here I am, 40 years later, author of an intergenerational novel largely told from the point of view of women.

For the next few decades, I kept writing in many forms. I co-wrote a children’s musical with a talented musician followed by four satirical cabarets performed at fringe festivals in Sydney and Adelaide and even for a season at Downstairs Belvoir Street. With development funding, we worked for some years on a serious two-act music-theatre work.

My second partnership in the 1990s was with an experienced TV director. For Film Australia we researched and wrote two one-hour history documentaries shown on the ABC and overseas, both demanding and fascinating projects. I also had a longstanding interest in animation and collaborated with several talented animators in Sydney and London, writing scripts and proposals. Great fun!

I wrote an adult novel just before my son was born in 1999. In 2010, I turned to novel writing again, focusing on children and YA. I was flying solo this time and I loved it. My agent submitted two titles to publishers but without success. Given my love of history and imaginative storytelling, she suggested I consider adult historical fiction. The result was Palace of Tears, my debut novel published by Allen & Unwin in 2015.  It has been a long and interesting journey. I hope it continues. 

2.    Who have you met in your life that has inspired you as a writer?

There are a few but I will mention two.

The first person who springs to mind was not a writer though he enjoyed reading and respected writers. He was a neighbour and good friend, Peter Rushforth. Peter died two weeks ago at the age of 94, much admired and loved by a large community of friends and colleagues. He was a highly respected potter and teacher of pottery. His early years had been marked by suffering, orphaned by age 14 and then a prisoner-of-war at age 20 on the Burma-Thailand railway. Remarkably he transcended this experience by studying and teaching Japanese ceramics and working with Japanese potters after the war. In his essay The Good Pot (1979) Peter wrote “Myself, I have always been impressed with the advice of the Zen teacher ‘Develop an infallible technique and then leave yourself open to inspiration’.” I admired Peter’s serious commitment to his craft and his pursuit of beauty. In a small way I have been encouraged by his example to work hard on the craft and let the rest come.

The other person who has inspired me is my wife, Claire, a talented essayist, journalist, short-story writer and novelist whose book When We Have Wings was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011. We have been together for over 25 years and yet we still surprise each other with our work. It has been an amazing experience to watch Claire’s development as a writer from her early short stories and journalism to the major achievements of her novels – a second one is now well advanced – and her short stories, long form essays and journalism today. She is a generous advocate for other writers she admires and serious-minded about the entire project of writing. I am daily impressed by her discipline and hard work, the breadth of her reading and interests and by the genuine passion she takes in her craft. It is a privilege to be her first reader.

3.    Your new novel is set in the Blue Mountains – what is it about the Mountains that made you want to write with them as the setting?

I have lived in the Mountains for over twenty-five years and have always wondered why more fiction was not set here. I wanted to pay my own tribute to this place’s great beauty and mysterious ambience, always seductive but also at times sombre and unsettling. I relished the challenge of writing about somewhere I knew so intimately, of overcoming the blindness of the familiar (I think my description of the annual winter solstice festival, Winter Magic in Katoomba, may be a literary first). 

I had in mind a family saga, a thrilling ‘sensation’ tale with a strong Gothic flavour. The Mountains appealed as the ideal setting for such a novel with its dramatic and eerie landscape. It is here that people are drawn from around the world to commit suicide from the clifftops. It is here that visitors become lost and perish in the vast belittling wilderness. It is here in summer that the peaceful bush transforms into a deadly, blazing nightmare.

And then of course there is the Hydro Majestic, the grand and luxurious spa hotel opened in 1904 in the tiny township of Medlow Bath. Like so many locals I have always been fascinated by this unique, even eccentric, landmark building, a kind of antipodean madman’s castle. In my novel, I have created the Palace as a character in her own right, a fictional half-sister to the Hydro with historic people and incidents from the hotel’s real past enriching my own story. It was such a fitting and joyful experience to have the current owners of the refurbished Hydro recently host a high-tea book launch for me there.

4.    How do you capture your creative ideas? Do you take a notebook everywhere, keep a diary, use some kind of software or rely on memory? Or something else?

I have no magic tools, just piles of notebooks lying around where I jot down a few words here and there as an idea occurs to me or scribble notes as I read. I have sometimes even scrawled on the backs of envelopes or old shopping lists if I am worried it will slip away. Some of this handwritten stuff even makes it into computer files.

The timelines and story arcs are always done by hand in almost indecipherable arrows, doodles and scribblings – it is the only way for me to massage and visualise the shape of the story. It all looks rather chaotic when I look back and I realise how much my memory and idle dreaming has sorted out the wheat from the chaff. I have become much more accepting of this serendipitous nature of creativity, happy to grab whatever comes to my attention and sticks there as inspiration.

5.       Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a daily writing schedule?

For my bread-and-butter journalism and marketing work I am rigorously methodical because I am usually working on very tight deadlines and to specific client briefs. I record and transcribe all my research interviews for long form articles which is time-consuming but gives me time to absorb the material properly. I always feel terrible pressure but I have never missed a deadline!

The closest I got to a daily schedule on the three novels I have written is to try to start work no later than 10.00am. Both kids have been breakfasted and dispatched to school, I have had my morning coffee chat with Claire and taken care of adminis-trivia. Then I hopefully have five hours of solid work time until I pick up my daughter from school. The truly productive flow of writing can take two to three hours to start and then it is agony to be interrupted or have to switch it off. I try to pick up the momentum and work solidly again until about 6.00pm with a glass of wine as a reward. If the juices are really flowing I will do a night shift of writing until the well runs dry.

6.    Do you think writing has some kind of mystical or therapeutic purpose?

I am convinced there is something mystical in writing in terms of it serving human culture as a mirror of its own deepest currents of belief and value. We have so little insight into each other’s inner worlds, so few moments for exchanging truths that we are always second-guessing the mental landscapes of even our most intimate loved ones. Not to mention our neighbours, colleagues and communities. Stories describe and reveal those landscapes, even shape them. The way they do that is still profoundly mysterious to me.

Writing Palace of Tears was my strongest experience to date of a power beyond ego or calculation or intelligence or any conscious control in the writing. The Muse knows the shape of your story and must be served faithfully. At times intensely pleasurable, at others a painful struggle, the writing process is for me the closest experience I have had to communion with a spirit beyond my comprehension. 

Check out Julian Leatherdale's website
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My Favourite Travel Books

I have been asked a couple of times recently what my favourite travel books are, so I thought I would put it all in a blog entry.
Below is my own selection, naturally idiosyncratic and with a slight bent towards Vietnam, owing to my interests and attachments:

A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis - Lewis is seen by now as the great master of travel writing, and all of his books are highy accomplished, filled with attention to fascinating and small detail. Readable, entertaining and quite sensitive and intelligent, A Dragon Apparent was written in the early 1950s and captures a Vietnam and Cambodia that are just on the verge of collapse. I also like his book on Burma, Golden Earth.  

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux - The grand old curmudgeon of travel writing, I think Theroux is a great writer, almost because of his personal idiosyncrasies and apparent grumpiness. This is an account of his journey through Africa, where he rants about missionaries and NGOs and foreign aid workers. Wonderful stuff. I also love his The Happy Isles of Oceania and his odd fictionalised memoir My Other Life.

From a Chinese City by Gontran de Poncins - A French Count goes to live in Saigon's Chinatown in the early 1950s. This book is how I wish I could spend my life. He's largely forgotten now, but de Poncins was a beautiful writer. Check out as well his fascinating (and compelling) account of life among the Inuit, Kabloona.

Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley - Ackerley is these days a cult figure, though largely unknown outside the queer lit community.He writes elegantly in this early memoir of his time in India.

Catfish & Mandala by Andrew X Pham - Pham is a Vietnamese American who travels back to his homeland and discovers that he doesn't really fit in anywhere. This is such an amazing book, insightful, heartfelt and brutally honest.

Red Chapels of Banteay Srey by Sacheverell Sitwell - Of course, everything written by every member of the Sitwell family is lots of fun and always worth reading. In this one Sachie Sitwell visits Cambodia, and goes about being a tourist in the most elegant way imaginable.

The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown - An interesting re-invention of the travel book, Brown travels Britain and the world pursuing spiritual enlightenment and meets an amazing cast of characters while doing so.

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer - Iyer has always been an exceptional and totally uique travel writer, but I think  this is his best book, an examination of the metaphysical impications of tourism, transnationalism and belonging.

Twilight of Love by Robert Dessaix - Dessaix is perhaps Australia's best living writer, though vastly undervalued here. In this book he travels Russia in search of the novelist Turgenev.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor - Fermor, who died last year, was a great pal to many literary figures, and his own literary ability has been overshadowed somewhat by his famous acquaintances. His spare and stylishly written little books are all worth reading, but perhaps my favourite is A Time To Keep Silence, in which he writes an account of his time as a young man wandering through the monasteries of Europe.


Next week I am teaching my Travel Writing with Spirit workshop with Laneway Learning Sydney, and there are just a couple of places left.  If you are interested in learning about how to record your journeys and travel more meaningfully, why not book a spot? 

Travel Writing with Spirit
Only $14!!
Wednesday, August 5th 2015
7:00pm to 8:15pm
Waverley Library


In conversation with memoirist James Fry

Next week I'm at Balmain Library chatting to writer James Fry about his fascinating book That Fry Boy.

James' story is a compelling one about addiction and betrayal, and is a thoroughly honest and thought-provoking memoir. I very much look forward to talking to him about it, and I would love to see you there.

This is a totally free event, but it would be great if you could let the library know you were coming.

I hopr to see you there!


That Fry Boy with James Fry @ Balmain Library


06 Aug 2015

What time:

6:30 PM  - 8:00 PM 


Balmain Library
Balmain Town Hall, 370 Darling St
Balmain, NSW, Australia 

Event Details:

That Fry Boy serves as both a cautionary and educative tale of the impact that bullying can have on a young developing mind. 

Free event. Bookings - online or call 9367 9211.
More information:

James Fry is a Sydney-based author and commentator.

James works as a youth justice conference convenor; a role that has him tasked with bringing juvenile offenders and their victims together in a restorative justice process on behalf of the NSW Department of the Attorney General and Justice.

Free event - All welcome - Refreshments served
Bookings - online or call 9367 9211

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
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