Enviable advice for new writers

Last weekend I had the great honour of being one of the Ambassadors for the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne.
The opening event was a fascinating one. Each of the five Ambassadors presented seven pieces of advice for new writers in a session called Seven Enviable Lines. I will be blogging my own seven tips later, but here are the items that I found most interesting from my fellow presenters:

Melinda Harvey

First up was academic and critic Melinda Harvey, who said:

  • There's no such thing as "made it" - we can never afford to rest on our laurels

  • Go out and ask literary editors for review work - constantly pitch. No-one is about to come knocking on your door.

John Safran

Television personality, radio host and soon-to-be true crime author John Safran said:

  • Keep coming up with new ideas - don't be in love with that one great idea. Always have new projects in the wings.

Performance poet, Okka

Indonesian Performance Poet Okka urged us to:

  • Just keep going, even when you know it's shit

  • Type up the things you scribble down 

  • Go through your archives occasionally

Fiction writer and reviewer Jennifer Mills told us:

  • Always try to get paid - she has a project called Pay the Writers. It is up to us to make sure that creative work is valued in our culture.

Carlson Cheng - Affection

I am just back from Hong Kong, and one of the things I love about that place is its incredibly vibrant, and often rather quirky, music scene. I always head to the big music stores (yes, they still have a few left) and check out what's hot. I am especially enamoured of the whole bossa nova/easy listening genre, which is hugely popular throughout Asia.

So this time I made a new discovery - Carlson Cheng's CD of acoustic renditions of pop music favourites, Affection.

Now, I won't pretend my eye wasn't caught by the stylish design of the cover and by Carlson's rather fetching visage.

There is no doubt that he is an incredible hunk, and if he ever comes to Australia I am getting front row tickets. But fortunately there was a listening station (remember those?) in the store, and so I flicked straight to his laid-back and bossa-nova-ish version of the New Order classic Bizarre Love Triangle. This is a much-covered song, with exemplary versions done by Australian 90s pop group Frente and Hong Kong pop superstar Sandy Lam. But I was instantly taken in by Carlson's heart-melting baritone and frankly adorable accent. I knew I had to buy it straight away.

Affection is a wonderful CD to pop on and do your work to, its warm sounds occasionally drifting the listener into moods of acute nostalgia as you suddenly realise that this charming acoustic guitar-backed tune is a much-loved song of your youth. I keep listening over and over to his Manilow-esque version of Ronan Keating's When You Say Nothing at All with its gorgeous piano accompaniment. And the opening track resurrects Michael Learns to Rock's soaringly camp That's Why (You Go Away), reminding me of Asia's abiding affection for Boy Bands.

Affection is a delightfully idiosyncratic discovery, and tremendously enjoyable. I think you should get a copy. I have become a Carlson fan.

Jane Skelton on memories, newspapers and unpublished novels

Jane Skelton was one of my fellow students at the Writing & Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, where she recently completed her Doctorate of Creative Arts. I remember reading a rough draft of some of her work and being struck by how wonderful it was, so I made sure we became friends after that. It always pays to have talented people on your side! Now Jane has just launched her first collection of short stories, Lives of the Dead (I am launching it in Sydney on Saturday June 1 at Berkelouw's in Newtown), and what a remarkable and original collection it is (published by Spineless Wonders). 

I thought I would ask Jane a few questions about reading and writing life:

Jane Skelton

Do the stories in your new book follow one particular theme?

I don’t think they follow any one particular theme, though when they were put together I could see they had things in common. The characters are often captured by memories, and these memories are tied up with the land they are living in or travelling through.

I like to write about the landscape and so the stories are rich in that kind of imagery. There are many watery Images, which are juxtoposed with scenes of dryness and drought. Characters often meld with the landscape, for example the hermit in ‘the stones’ has creased hands which resemble the land seen from high above. The land resists the characters, if they seek to control it or use it, but at the same time it flows into them and becomes a part of them. The collection begins and ends with road trips, which are also journeys into the past and memories.

Are you one of those people who is a news obsessive, or do you prefer to avoid newspapers and television? What kinds of magazines, newspapers or websites do you like reading?

I don’t watch television, I mainly listen to radio news when I’m driving. I wouldn’t say I’m a news obessive, though I like to know what’s going on.  I love the newspapers with breakfast on Saturdays and tend to spread them about all over. Then I store them in the shed to use for mulch, and they stay there forever. Newspapers have diminished a lot and I’ll be sad if the paper and ink form disappears completely. You can’t get that ink and paper smell from an ipad. As for magazines, I read The Monthly, and various literary journals. I like some of the literary websites though I get tired of looking at screens as I’m often staring at one all day at work. (I do like walterblog though, and Noodlies, though I get jealous of the pho, we only get faux pho in the mountains.)

One of the things we hear a lot about on the Australian literary scene is the place of women in Australian letters. Who is your favourite woman writer?

Gillian Mears. I think her latest novel, Foals Bread,  is wonderful - I’ve read it twice. She evokes the people and animals of One Tree Farm, and all the gory and gothic detail of early 20th century country life, the dew of the cobwebs of the windowsill, the colours of the river and skies, the intricacies of spaying cows, the hardship and glory of the high jumping life. Although it is so sad. Nearing the end, I kept saying aloud, “don’t do it Noey Nancarrow!”

Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?

I would love to have my two unpublished novels published and be on my way to completing a third.

Do you keep a journal? If so, do you follow any method or have any particular rituals surrounding it?

I seem to have several going at once. A couple of small Chinese hardcover notebooks to carry around in my bag. And a more special one, a moleskin one which has to be black. Pens are very important too, they have be black and have a good ink flow.

Can you offer a word of advice to new writers starting out?

Be sincere, and don’t copy fashion

The Unification Church

Rev. Sun Myung Moon

If, like me, you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you were probably aware, at least on some level, of the presence of the Unification Church, more commonly known in those days as The Moonies. They served as scary exemplars of the worst excesses of brainwashing religious cults, and brainwashing religious cults were popular in the press during this era. The mania extended into broader popular culture, and any number of shock-horror books were produced about “my time in the Moonies,” and I remember one of the sub-pots of the trashy Australian soap opera Sons & Daughters was the deprogramming of one of their characters after their exposure to a Moonie-like cult.

In truth, the Moonies didn’t do much to help their cause. They started a bizarre series of mass weddings, huge choreographed affairs where thousands of couples would be married at the same time in football fields, most of them complete strangers until their wedding day.

Unification Church's distinctive mass weddings

As you could imagine, this made for great TV, and I still have vivid memories of a 60 Minutes expose of the Moonies.

People were genuinely scared of this stuff, and believed that an unsuspecting youth could be handed a pamphlet in a public street and within hours be swearing undying adoration to an oriental guru and living in a bus, spreading the word. I don’t think any other religious body was subjected to such a sustained and widespread campaign of abuse as the Unification Church and, as many scholars of religion pointed out later, it was mostly unwarranted.

The recently deceased Rev. Moon, founder of the church, was in every way an eccentric and a crackpot, and it is hard to know if he believed his own hype or not.

Rev. Moon

He styled himself Emperor of the Universe and the second coming of Jesus Christ. He wore elaborate clothing and engaged in bizarre rituals of his own invention, he kept a retinue of mistresses and he spoiled and eventually destroyed his closest family members with the incredible wealth he collected as a religious leader.

Rev. Moon in "King of the Universe" mode

One of the most fascinating books on the subject is his daughter-in-law’s book In the Shadow of the Moons, in which she relates her horrendous years as part of the inner circle, subject to the violent abuse and sexual promiscuity of Moon’s ordained favourite son.

In the 90s the Unification Church went underground somewhat, feeling, probably quite rightly, that they were subjected to unfair abuse. Rev Moon, a violent anti-Communist who had been born in North Korea, established the Washington Times and turned it into America’s premier right-wing newspaper. The church pursued a policy of obfuscation and subterfuge, creating hundreds of front organisations with innocuous names like “World Peace Council” and “Global Families Unite.” These fronts then busied themselves around the world creating peace prizes and charity concerts and establishing a name for themselves in third world countries like Cambodia, where nobody had any idea who they were.

I actually knew someone in Sydney who became quite involved with one of these front groups, and she had no idea they were Moonies, and they never mentioned it to her. I must say that this technique seems fundamentally dishonest and reflects badly on the church. I think you should have the courage of your convictions and stand by your name, if that is what you really believe.

But in general I don’t believe the Unification Church is especially evil or manipulative. I do believe they follow an extremely peculiar theology, and that they are in most respects a right wing extra-Christian sect that is relatively harmless. I give no credence to the ideas of brainwashing potential new followers. If that actually worked they’d be the biggest religion in the world, instead of an exceedingly minor one whose numbers are falling rapidly. I expect the death of their founder and inspiration, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, will hasten this shrinking process.

The BBC recently had an excellent and balanced program on the state of the Unification Church post-Moon, and it is well worth a listen. I was impressed that they gave one of the followers a place on their panel, and I was impressed with how he acquitted himself. I also note the release of an absolutely intriguing new gay novel set amongst followers of the Unification Church – looks like a must read.

Certainly, the Unification Church marks a fascinating moment in religious history. And I expect it will come to exemplify many of the hysterias and myths of the 1980s.

Sam Twyford-Moore on Emerging Writers, building community and finding time to write

I am headed down to Melbourne this weekend to fulfill my role as one of the Ambassadors for the Emerging Writers' Festival, one of the most important events on the Australian literary calendar.
Before I left, I thought I'd ask the director of this year's festival director, Sam Twyford-Moore, some questions:

Sam Twyford-Moore

 What is an “Emerging Writer” and who is the Emerging Writers’ Festival intended for?

The Emerging Writers’ Festival is the festival for writers – in that a great deal of the programming is focused around the creative and professional practise of writers. But there are plenty of events for readers to come along and check out the most exciting new writers this country has to offer. Events like Sweatshop Stories, Turn The Words Up Loud, Poet CafĂ© and Wild, Wild Life: An Evening of Animal Stories are intended as showcases of some exciting new work and thinking.

I like that everyone has a different take on what an emerging writer might be. The keynote address on our opening night – given by the terrific Astrid Lorange – is really going to look at an emerging writer is. I think it’s a writer who is engaged with the culture around them, constantly evolving their work and ideas, and striving towards something.

Why do you think the Festival has become so enormously popular?

It’s interesting being a first time director on the tenth festival – there’s been a lot of brilliant community building and the festival has provided so much terrific support for writers over the last ten years that the word spreads. I think the EWF is at the forefront of considering the everyday needs of the writer, and that’s why people keep coming back, or new people starting hearing about us.

Do you think it’s a good time to be a writer? Are the book industry changes good or bad for us?

I think it’s an exciting time to be a writer – the opportunities that have been opened up by digital spaces are just incredible. I wouldn’t want to be in another era – it can be hard to keep up with the changes, but it’s also a giant playground out there and there are new audiences out there everywhere, who are looking for something new themselves.

Can you maintain your own writing when you have such a busy job and high profile?

Peak festival times mean that I don’t have so much time for my own writing, but I know when I do get back to it – and I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on in the second half of the year – having come in contact with so many different writers is only going to be good for it.

What books would you recommend for someone starting out in writing?

The books you love the most. I think those will be the books that will make you want to be a writer, and you have to find them in your own way. But if you’re thinking about being a writer, go back and visit them and keep them close to you when you’re writing.

What advice would you give someone to free their inner writer?

Don’t put pressure on yourself to perform and don’t spend too much time comparing yourself to other writers – use the digital space as a place to practise and experiment and have fun.  Find other writers who have similar values and work towards a collective goal.

Pilgrimages: Memories of Colonial Macau and Hong Kong by Maria N. Ng

I am always reading things out of order.

When I am away in a foreign country I buy books about it, but while I am there those books always end up hidden in my suitcase and I spend my leisure hours reading the books, manuscripts (yes, I travel with manuscripts!) and magazines that I brought from home. Then, one wet winter’s day back in my dreary room in Australia, eighteen or so months later, I will pull out those glamorous foreign books and start reading about a place that is by now the merest memory. And all of those little details, those places I must follow up and research, are lost to me because who knows when I will be going back there?

Not this time. I was poking about in the Livraria Sao Paulo, the little Catholic bookshop run by the Sisters of St. Paul right near the Cathedral in Macau. It is actually one of my favourite bookshops in the world, a tiny little place staffed exclusively by Chinese and Indian nuns and filled with a surprisingly thorough collection of books. Perhaps not surprisingly, that collection leans toward the Catholic, but if you are anything like me you are always behind with your Catholic reading.

Anyway, it was here that I picked up a beautiful little book by Maria N. Ng called Pilgrimages: Memories of Colonial Macau and Hong Kong, published by the Hong Kong University Press. Something told me I had to read it now, though I also picked up some self-help books printed in India, Therese de Lisieux’s Story of a Soul and a little biography of the new Pope that the Sisters made me buy because it had been published in Macau.

Indeed, I headed straight to the steps of St. Paul’s Ruins – a most apropos place to be reading this book – and began at once. Maria N. Ng is a Canadian academic born in Macau and educated by the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong. In this thoroughly original memoir she takes apart the various strands of colonialism that made up her childhood and holds them up for analysis. She also investigates the dysfunctional female line of her family, using the shortcomings of her grandmother and mother to analyse her own discomfort with traditional Chinese culture. She sources the problems of the anti-woman culture in which she was raised in the teachings of Confucius.

While the book works extremely well as a conventional memoir, it is also an affecting and quite enchanting travelogue, one of the very few in English that covers Macau. Of course, I wanted more of Macau, but Ng’s own strange relationship with the place of her birth stops her from feeling qualified to write extensively about it. For her Macau is as much a romantic memory as it might be for any foreign visitor.

While published by a university press (and very handsomely at that), Pilgrimages is in fact a very accessible, even charming book. Ng’s skill as a writer, and her incredible thoughtfulness, make even the academic exegesis that is affixed to the memoir itself a delight to read. In many ways it is essential to read this brief final chapter to realize that, along with struggling with the ghosts of family, youth and place, the writer Ng is struggling with an academic discourse surrounding postcolonialism which she feels she might be betraying by writing so warmly and affectionately of her upbringing.

So if you are headed to Hong Kong and, particularly, Macau, I do recommend you get a copy of this lovely book. A truly unique, honest and beautifully rendered look at a lost time that is now a part of the discourse of picturesque tourism in the region.


Pilgrimages: Memories of Colonial Macau and Hong Kong by Maria N. Ng
Published by Hong Kong University Press, 2009

Walking With Gods and Goddesses

You never really need an excuse to visit the always-fascinating Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival.
But just in case you wanted an extra prompt, my pal and inspiration, the wonderful Modern Witch Stacey Demarco, will be there over the weekend, exhibiting at her stall, giving special readings and hosting talks and workshops.

Stacey Demarco

I am most excited about her Walking with Gods and Goddesses seminar on Saturday the 18th of May at 3.30 pm. Make sure you get to the seminar room nice and early, as there is sure to be a crowd for this one.
As you are probably aware, Stacey has created two incredible Oracle Card sets: the Gods and Titans Oracle

and the Goddesses and Sirens Oracle.

I should imagine she will be drawing from the wisdom of both of these exquisite decks for this seminar.


Stacey Demarco at the Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival
Her permanent stand is #E82
Her seminar Walking with Gods and Goddesses is on Saturday the 18th of May at 3.30 pm at Seminar Room A (I advise you get there nice and early in order to get a seat). Seminars are free with entry to the Festival.

Novels that have inspired me

Being involved with the Emerging Writers' Festival got me thinking thinking a lot about the books that have inspired me to be a writer.
So I thought I'd share with you some of the fiction that I have read many times, and which I turn to whenever I need to be reminded just how wonderful books are:

The novels of Nancy Mitford - Yes, it really is hard to single out one. I think they do have to be considered, and read, as a body of work. So, when I decided I wanted to introduce my sister to Mitford's genteel and very funny world, I had to buy her the complete collection of the novels in a paperback re-issue from Penguin. If you were to hold a gun to my head and tell me to pick one, it would probably be The Pursuit of Love. I've said it before and I will say it again: Nancy Mitford is one of the great masters of the English novel, and deserves a lot more serious attention than she gets.

The Lucia novels of E. F. Benson - These were, of course, the books that inspired a later generation of comic writers, principally Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward. Exceedingly camp, excrutiatingly perfect and very, very addictive, Benson is the true master of the English comic novel (forget Wodehouse).

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - Ignatius J. Reilly is one of the great characters of American fiction, and this is one of those books that, once picked up, simply cannot be put down. Hilariously funny, bizarre and frequently very sad. I have to be careful with this book, or I'd read it over and over again in the course of a year.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers - Probably technically a novella, but I think it's still long enough to sneak in. This is the freak's manifesto, though in McCullers' world the freaks and misfits aren't necessarily the heroes. In fact, I adore all of McCullers' work, but I think this is her masterpiece. And Simon Callow's film version is one of the rare cases where the movies is as good as the book.

Aldo Busi

Sodomies in Eleven Point by Aldo Busi - This truly wonderful (homo)sexual romp is Aldo Busi's paean to unbridled promiscuity, most of it taking place in North Africa. Hard to categorise this book, really, but heavens it's good fun.

The Married Man by Edmund White - Clearly this is White's masterpiece. A long journey through Paris where a middle-aged gay American falls in love with a married Parisian and they attempt to form a life together. It's actually a good old-fashioned romance, but White has never written as well, before or after.

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott - I wrote my Honours Thesis on Elliott, and I have loved this book since I was fourteen. An elegant and unique vision of Australia during the depression era, it is a largely autobiographical account of a young boy whose family is at war over his custody in a time when such things were quite uncommon. Really, really lovely. Elliott should be better remembered than he is, though I was happy to see they did a reissue of this a couple of years ago.
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