Sex, Drugs and Meditation - could you choose?

The 10 day silent Vipassana retreat is one of those spiritual rites of passage that I have always been able to avoid. Don’t get me wrong, I have done other long retreats, including an even longer Vipassana retreat at a rural monastery in Thailand. But they have never been silent and I have always managed to bend the rules a little. I used to sneak out for deep fried bananas in the evening, for example, and a bunch of drag queens and I set up our own little dormitory of outlaws.

But I have been tempted. A certain kind of personality seeks out these more severe forms of spiritual training. They appeal to us, perhaps to our internal state of self-punishment. Certainly in Mary-Lou Stephens’ simply superb new book Sex, Drugs and Meditation there is a frank recognition of the psychic demons that drive this particular retreant to submit to an incredibly punishing schedule.




In a hot and dusty meditation centre in southern Queensland, Mary-Lou embarks on the famous course set out by the Buddhist teacher Goenka. This particular retreat marks a retreat, as well, from certain unpleasant factors in Stephens’ own life: a psychotic boss, an awareness of the approach of middle age, and a dull loneliness resulting from a misspent youth.


Mary-Lou Stephens


While meditating in complete silence for hours every day, Mary-Lou Stephens, an ABC radio celebrity and ex-country music star, deals with some much more tangible limitations. These included the extreme physical discomfort - and even pain - caused by sitting for extended periods, the irritations of a snoring roommate and the odd little tensions that arise in the hothouse atmosphere created by so many people intent on self-awareness.

Each chapter of this unique book is a day of this rigidly-structured ten-day retreat, and deals with the demons that arise as she meditates. It is a kind of sustained spiritual memoir that is rarely published these days, which is why it seems so very unique and makes for utterly compelling reading. It calls to mind some of the great classics of spiritual memoir, and will certainly appeal to anyone who has ever picked up St. Augustine’s Confessions or Therese de Lisieux's Autobiography of a Soul.





In a book which is, by any measure, a dangerous exercise in literary solipsism, the author Stephens manages to walk the tightrope between mawkish self-regard and bathetic personal misfortune very skilfully. She is warm, self-deprecating and retains enough sweetness and optimism to make me believe in her journey and leave me wanting her to succeed. A history of drug abuse, sexual misadventure and quite bitter personal jealousies have left her somewhat world-weary, but she retains a praiseworthy and impish pride in some of her excesses. Explaining her seeming lack of achievement, but ample life experience, by her early 40s, she says:

“...it was because I said yes.  I didn’t hang back and worry about security, even though on reflection I sometimes wish I had. I said yes and plunged into another new experience. It’s as though I’ve lived three lifetimes already. I don’t need to believe in reincarnation.”

I suppose it helps that this happens to fit in with my own personal philosophy, but I do believe that Mary-Lou Stephens speaks to so many people of a certain age who find themselves haunted by questions and uncertainties they had spent their youths denying. Throughout the book I was reminded too of Laura Dern’s exceptional HBO television series, Enlightened, though Stephens is a much more sympathetic character.

Sex, Drugs and Meditation has been my favourite read of the year so far, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who has attempted to create a more spiritual focus in their lives. Unpretentious, constantly recognisable and beautifully written, I think you should grab a copy, sit back and enjoy yourself. And wonder if you would ever have the fortitude to bear your own ten days of silence.

Cambodian Artist's Inspirational Story - Sydney Unitarian Church, May 5

‘Straddling 2 Worlds’ - a very special film and presentation
at Sydney Unitarian Church, Sunday 5 May

Cambodian cartoonist & activist Bun Heang Ung and his wife Phiny survived Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. But in the 30 years following they’ve had tough times surviving in Australia.




Bun Heang Ung


Tian Gerrand’s short film profile  ‘Straddling 2 Worlds’  will be screened to highlight  the heartaches and challenges that have tested the Ung family’s resilience and self-belief  since they landed here in the Lucky Country.

Cartoon by Bun Heang Ung




After all they’ve been through, ‘Cancer is a compliment,’ says Bun.       
So why is Bun so positive and accepting of his karma? And yet so angered by Cambodia’s fate since the end of Pol Pot ?



Monastery Verandah, Battambang, Cambodia


The short film and talk will be presented by James & Tian Gerrand
Sunday, 5th May 2013  at 10:30 am
Sydney Unitarian Church
15 Francis St., (off College St) ,East Sydney
Free entry.  
                                               Web site:  www.sydneyunitarianchurch.org

Walter Mason's appearances at Sydney Writers' Festival 2013



I am so honoured to be making three appearances at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival.
Here are the details:


Walter Mason



Book Launch: Jane Skelton - Lives of the Dead

Tuesday, May 21 2013         6:00 PM - 7:00 PM         Free, no bookings
Carrington Hotel, Katoomba, 15-47 Katoomba Street, Katoomba        
   
Universal Heart Book Club’s co-founder, Walter Mason, will launch Lives of the Dead, the haunting and lyrical debut short fiction collection by local writer and Varuna Alumna, Jane Skelton. Set in rural and remote farming areas, in the Blue Mountains bushland and on the coast, Skelton’s stories tell of characters captured by memories of the past, tied up inextricably in the Australian landscape. SpinelessWonders, Australia’s short fiction specialists, invites you to this entertaining hour of readings and refreshments.

Presented with Varuna, The Writers’ House.


Books to Live By

Thursday, May 23 2013         11:30 AM - 12:30 PM         Free, no bookings
Sydney Dance 2, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay       
John Purcell, Morgan Smith, Barbara Horgan, Walter Mason (facilitator)
  
A great book recommendation is indeed a wonderful thing. Booksellers, with their wealth of knowledge and eyes on the most exciting new books, are often the best people to tell us what to read. Getting the right books to the right people is their special skill. Three of Sydney’s most in-the-know booksellers and tastemakers, John Purcell (Booktopia), Morgan Smith (Gleebooks) and Barbara Horgan (Shearers), share some of their secrets with Walter Mason and recommend their favourite books.


The Power of Landscape

Thursday, May 23 2013         4:00 PM - 5:00 PM         Ticketed: $14/$10
Richard Wherrett Studio, Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay        
Melissa Lucashenko, Sue Woolfe, Walter Mason (facilitator)








BOOK NOW     $14/$10 Bookings 9250 1988, swf.sydneytheatre.org.au
   
Our relationship with our environment determines the identity of every individual and every culture. If we shift where we are, can personal or spiritual revelation come more readily? Melissa Lucashenko (Mullumbimby) and Sue Woolfe (The Oldest Song In the World), discuss the power and influence of the Australian landscape on their writing with Walter Mason (Destination Saigon).






Walter Mason at the Emerging Writers' Festival



I am, of course, one of the Ambassadors for this year's Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne.
In that capacity I will be swanning about everywhere, so do make sure you come and say hello if you catch sight of me on the weekend of the 25th & 26th May. I am also doing a couple of specific events, and here are the details:



 Seven Enviable Lines

Date: Saturday 25 May, 10am – 11am
Venue: Swanston Hall, Melbourne Town Hall
Price: FREE with Writers’ Conference Pass

Our Festival Ambassadors share the writing advice they wish they had known when they were starting out – in the form of seven incisive tips – that will provide guidance when you next sit down to write.

With KHARIANI ‘OKKA’ BAROKKA, MELINDA HARVEY, WALTER MASON, JENNIFER MILLS, JOHN SAFRAN. Hosted by SAM TWYFORD-MOORE.


Writing the Personal, Saturday 25 May 3pm

Blogs… Memoir… Biography… how does one write about oneself while making it interesting to others? What kinds of skills or techniques are required? These writers will give you the benefit of their wisdom about sharing the personal.

With ANNA POLETTI, WALTER MASON, LUKE RYAN and FIONA WRIGHT. Hosted by LILY MAE MARTIN

Anna Poletti



The Control Room

Step into The Control Room where you are in control of the conversation. We put the writer in a room and let you ask the questions. There is no host, no compere and no mediator. It’s all audience driven and a fantastic opportunity to get direct access to a writer. They bring the experience, you bring the questions.


Sunday 26th May 10am – WALTER MASON on self-help literature, travel writing and social media

Walter Mason, Ambassador for 2013 Emerging Writers' Festival



Dharma Rising

I have been immersed recently in Australian Zen teacher Susan Murphy's extraordinary - and thought provoking - new book Minding the Earth, Mending the World.




It is an examination of the Earth's ecological crisis from a Zen Buddhist perspective, and it is richly embellished with Murphy's warmth, wisdom and sense of place.


Susan Murphy Roshi


As well as being an educating and at times worrying read, it is also immensely interesting and engaging, and beautifully written.
Susan Murphy is a Zen Roshi, a recognised spiritual teacher, who leads a Buddhist community in NSW called Zen Open Circle, a group which is described as "a lively and very Australian Zen community that is open to every sincere enquirer, without exception."
In her book, Murphy somewhat controversially challenges the Judeo-Christian notion that the Earth was created for our use, and that its animals and plants are intended to be exploited by humanity. The creation myth many of us have grown up with has established the primacy of man (and she does mean man - the creation of Eve from Adam's rib intentionally subverting the natural creative power of women). But Genesis, too, can be re-read. The Edenic fall, Murphy writes, is rich in mythic symbolism and:

"...to look [at the Genesis narrative] from a subtler angle, so great is our shame at our persistent tendency to harm the bountiful earth and act towards it in bad faith that we cannot but see our guilty selves everywhere figured forth in 'nature red in tooth and claw'."

Susan has alerted me to a long interview with her which has appeared on the Ecobuddhism website (in two parts).  In these fascinating answers she alerts us to the difficulty of comprehending the truth and extent of global warming and talks about "the need to find a story that can carry us into forming a new relationship with the Earth."

But ultimately, I think, Murphy sees the possibility and hope in healing our world, not least through the exercise of meditative awareness and the establishment of spiritual community, In the interview on Ecobuddhsim she says:

"We are all moving together. Even the egregious things that are happening are a kind of testing of what is viable that is going to produce its own strong, perhaps dire, feedback: “This is not the way, go back. This won’t work. This is impossible and absurd.”" 




Both interviews make for fascinating reading, and can be read here and here.

If you'd like to read some of Susan's recent Dharma talks, click here


Susan Murphy





 


Ambassador for the Emerging Writers' Festival 2013


This year I have been honoured to be appointed one of the Ambassadors for the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne.
The Festival has become one of Australia's premier literary events, and 2013 marks the first year it is directed by young writer Sam Twyford-Moore.

Sam Twyford-Moore, festival director


The Emerging Writers' Festival 2013 runs from May 23 to June 2, and you will find me on the ground and running on the weekend of May 25 & 26.
If you are interested in exploring writing, or in deepening your writing experience and developing your craft, then the Emerging Writers' Festival is for you.
The full program for the festival will be launched on April 17, so watch this space and I will tell you about some of the fantastic events you can look forward to.
In the meantime, clear your calendar and book your tickets to Melbourne, and get ready to enrich your writing life at the 2013 Emerging Writers' Festival.

Walter Mason, Ambassador for the 2013 Emerging Writers' Festival

Lives of the Dead by Jane Skelton





I'm very excited to announce that I'll be launching Jane Skelton's brand new book, Lives of the Dead, at Berkelouw's Bookshop in Newtown on June the 1st.
Lives of the Dead is Jane Skelton's first published collection of stories, and it is a moody, evocative and brilliantly written work. I am immensely proud to be associated with it. It is published by Spineless Wonders, an innovative Australian publishing house that is breathing fresh air into our literary scene.


Here are the details:


Writers Live - Jane Skelton on Lives of the Dead


1st Jun @ Berkelouw Newtown

 

Bookings are essential. Please RSVP to newtown@berkelouw.com.au or 02 9557 1777
Where: 6-8 O'Connell Street, Newtown, 2042, Sydney, AU
When: Sat, 1st Jun
Time: 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM

Check out the fantastic book trailer that has been created for Lives of the Dead:







Walter Mason and Jane Skelton

Maggie Hamilton on creativity, inspiration and ways to be happy

Maggie Hamilton is an author and spiritual teacher who has only recently left the cut-throat world of modern publishing to concentrate full time on her creative pursuits. 

Author Maggie Hamilton


She has been a mentor, guide and friend of mine for a long time, so I thought I'd ask her a few questions about productivity, the gifts of friendship and her wonderful new book Secret Girls' Business


 
More about Maggie and her books at the end of this Q&A:

    1.       In your book Secret Girls’ Business you lay out a whole range of activities and projects for girls. When you were a girl, what were some of your favourite creative outlets?


Contents page of Secret Girls' Business (scan from 366books.blogspot.com)


I was lucky to grow up in a house brimming with creativity. On Saturday nights my little sister and I would put on 'shows' for my parents. We took great delight at leaping out from behind the sitting room curtains to sing and dance and twirl around. We were constantly off to somewhere interesting and unusual - to graveyards and junk shops, local museums and galleries, old ruins and walks in the woods.
We were fortunate to grow up at a time where kids had plenty of access to their elders, and the amazing yarns they'd share. Personally I loved to knit and spin, draw and paint, and collect lovely stones and shells, twigs and leaves, to lie on the grass and look up at the sky, to spend hours searching rock pools for signs of life during my early years.





Beautiful envelopes inspire thoughtful letter writing - image from Maggie Hamilton


    2.       What are some of the principles you live your life by now?

I've rediscovered the profound gifts of nature, and need regular time there for inspiration, solace and solitude. And I couldn't live without meditation. I guess we all need to find holy places and practices, to help us be more whole human beings. Beauty is so important to me also, because genuine beauty feeds the spirit.
I try to live sustainably - to walk lightly on this precious planet of ours, to be kind to other living things, to nourish those around me, as I always gain so much more than I give. And to find moments for joy and laughter - we've all got a bit too serious.



Create your own jewellery - image from Maggie Hamilton


    3.       Who do you think would most benefit from reading Secret Girls’ Business?


Girls in need of a little love, inspiration and encouragement, who'd like a creative injection, and new ways to be happy and feel good about themselves.






Store precious things in vintage suitcases - image from Maggie Hamilton

  
 4.       What was a great gift – a break or a piece of advice - someone gave you early on in your writing journey?

I had a wonderful drama teacher Berwyn who, along with my parents, taught me to live passionately, to do things for the sheer love of them and not to be caught up in whether or not you're going to be amazing. Passion is the juice of life. And, if we love something, truly love it, then chances are others will too.

    5.       Any tips for other creative people on how to think laterally when it comes to productivity and creative output?

Creative expression is a tender thing. Like a newborn child it needs love, patience, time and nurture. Many wonderful creative moments never see the light of day. They're crushed by expectations and self-criticism, by impatience and failing to give the time needed to make something truly sing.
And every creative journey is a spiritual journey too. There are the mountain top moments and the dark nights of the soul. Each journey, if we have the courage to see it through, teaches us more about ourselves and the world. It makes us wiser, more patient, more willing to be our own person, and to encourage others to do the same.

About Maggie Hamilton:


Maggie's many books include Secret Girls' Business,a one-stop fun guide to girls living more creative empowered lives. This sits alongside What Men Don't Talk About And Why, based on her research into the lives of real men and boys and how they see their world. What's Happening to Our Girls? based on two years' research into the twenty-first century lives of girls, presents an insider's view into the challenges girls are currently experiencing, and the solutions to these issues. In her book What’s Happening to Our Boys? Maggie puts the lives of our boys under the microscope, uncovering the issues they struggle with, and how best they can be supported. 
In Love Your Work, Maggie presents a philosophy of work that meets the challenges of increasing workloads, shrinking resources, retrenchment and takeovers, inspiring us to reclaim our lives within and beyond work.
Maggie has also published a number of additional books including Coming Home: Rediscovering Our Sacred Selves and Magic of the Moment.

She is passionate about life, ideas, creativity and ancient wisdom and you can read a fascinating book review she wrote recently for our Universal Heart Book Club here.

Anne Deveson's life of Waging Peace

I think the first author I ever heard speak at a writers' festival was Anne Deveson.


Anne Deveson speaking at Ashfield Library


I was so inspired by how she spoke about her struggles with bringing up a child with mental health problems, and I was somewhat starstruck too by the presence of this magisterial and very famous woman who had been such a towering presence in my childhood.
Deveson's books have all been intriguing, and her latest, Waging Peace is in many ways an exercise in reflection on her earliest memories.




For Deveson was a child of war, and she knew first-hand the horrors of life lived in a war zone. When she decries the effects of war and violence she is not engaging in dramatic, feelgood rhetoric. She is speaking of something she knows firsthand.
This new book reveals why she has spent her later years so much in pursuit of peace and healing, especially in those parts of the world where violence has been a savage part of everyday life for far too long. Hearing her speak recently at Ashfield Library, I was moved by her stories of being in Rwanda in the final days of the massacres there, and moving amongst the traumatised and the dispossessed.
In Waging Peace she details the poverty and suffering that befell her family in the years immediately following World War Two. From a once well-to-do middle class family, the Devesons were reduced to penury in a world that no longer held a place for them. Her elderly father was reduced to being a travelling salesman while her once proud and fashionable mother spent much of her time avoiding greedy landlords chasing the absent rent. 
Deveson's continued interest in politics, conflict and human suffering is palpable, and admirble in a woman who has reached the age where she could be forgiven for letting up a little. When I heard her speak she asked the audience if anyone had up to date news on the troubles in North Korea, and she allowed herself a little optimism aboput the state of humanity. People are, she recognises, much more likely now to seek conflict resolution and amity than at any point before us in history.
Like all her books, Waging Peace is an exercise in a particular type of memoir based around a theme, but her usual (pleasant) preoccupations with resilience, forebearance and scepticism in the face of power are still there and constantly make themselves manifest. She is surprised, she said, by how quickly memories begin to emerge when the author sits down and embarks on the journey of memoir writing.
Her work over the years has been exemplary, be it as a journalist, author, peace activist and lobbyist for conflict resolution to matronly purveyor of soap powder. Deveson is one of Australia's great Elders, a wise woman whose voice deserves to be more widely and regularly heard, reminding a youth-obsessed culture that the gentle wisdom of years is a great blessing, and a potentially great source of communal inspiration.





Waging Peace is a celebration, too, of the power and fortitude of women, particularly in the face of war and suffering. Deveson's own mother held her family together during periods of great suffering and tension during the war years, and she recognises this same quality of tenacity in the women she meets in Rwanda. Women who now govern, operate the law courts and clear the land mines in a land where so many men were murdered in a senseless confliuct.
As well as being a terrific read., Waging Peace is also a distillation of a lifetime's wisdom and reflection on the themes of war, peace and human suffering. It is an immensely important book, and one all Australians should read.

Zena Shapter on social media, getting more followers and what we should be blogging


Zena Shapter is a dynamic writer, teacher and one-woman publicity machine who lives on Sydney's Northern Beaches. I have bumped into her at several launches and literary events, and I was excited to discover that in May she will be leading a seminar on social media for authors at the New South Wales Writers' Centre


Zena Shapter in teaching mode




I thought I would take advantage of her skill and expertise in this area and ask her a few pointed questions about how to connect with my target readership. I am a great fan of free advice, and Zena has been incredibly generous in sharing hers.
If you'd like to know more, why not sign up for her workshop here.
More about Zena at the end of this Q&A, but let's hear from the woman herself:

1.    What do you think is the most effective social media channel for authors, and why?

Oh what a great question! The answer, of course, varies according to what the author wants to achieve. If they just want to get their name ‘out there’ and socialise with other writers, then Twitter is the best way to start. It’s a very welcoming community for writers and it’s easy to engage with Tweeps (so long as you keep your manners). Blogging, on the other hand, is a great way to give readers a taste of your interests and personality. If you’re already published and have fans, blogging is the perfect way to get them excited about upcoming releases. If you’re looking to increase your fan base, but don’t want to spend too much time writing blog posts, a Facebook fan page is a great idea.
As with all social media, though, your heart has to be in it – otherwise it won’t be effective. Readers and writers who use social media regularly can spot the fakes. They can smell a lack of enthusiasm and laziness from far far away. You really only get out of social media what you put in. The key is to find the one channel that suits you and your lifestyle best, then to embrace it entirely.

2.    How did you become so interested in social media?


I was a full-time Mum of two babies under two, deep in a world of drudgery, isolation and exhaustion. I didn’t have any family nearby (I’m originally from England), money was tight, and all my Aussie friends were working full-time jobs. When the kids took their day-naps, I was writing, writing, writing. The rest of the time I was simply lonely. I craved contact with writing others – any contact! When I started seeing blog and Twitter links appearing in friends’ email signatures, I got curious and looked into it. I read some blogs, lurked in Twitter, and realised both offered great ways to connect with other writers.
So I signed up to Twitter, started my blog, and fell in love with the currency of it all. Being online enabled me to find out about competitions and events promptly. As a Mum, any extra notification was invaluable. It meant I could get involved more and learn more. I had time to prepare for opportunities. Knowing people on Twitter made attending book launches or writing talks fun – we recognised each other! Writing is a very solitary activity. But with social media only a click or two away, I’m never lonely now.

3.    How can I get more followers on my Facebook author page, which is a disaster?

Do people know it’s there? My first piece of advice would be to make sure that friends and followers know your page is active. Email them the address and put it on your business cards. Comment on posts on other authors’ pages too, as supporting their conversations will prompt them to support you back.
My second piece of advice would be to ensure there’s fresh and interesting content on your page. As I’m sure you know, updates about the progress of your latest writing project aren’t enough. Talking about your interests is good for fans too. What television shows influence your writing? What books are your favourite? Do your fans like those books and television shows as well? Ask them! Engaging followers in conversation is a way to keep them coming back. It takes time, but then doesn’t anything that’s worthwhile?

4.    What should authors be blogging about?


There’s some debate about this. Some say writers shouldn’t blog about writing, because such blogs will only attract other writers, not readers. The viewpoint is a valid one, because not all readers are writers. However… absolutely all writers read! Also, if you’re interested in social media because you want to connect with other writers, then why not talk about writing?
The key is to identify whom you wish to connect with and tailor your blog accordingly. Your market is going to be different if you’re a published novelist as opposed to an emerging writer. Published novelists can talk about all kinds of personal things because they have a fan-base who just like to be let inside their favourite author’s head. Emerging writers, on the other hand, might lose followers if they blog too much about their everyday lives.
I’ve seen lots of bloggers switch their blogging focus as they become more successful authors, from blogging about their writing journey to being more personal. I can see it happening in my own blogging too and it’s good to adapt to the needs of your followers – it shows you’re aware of your fans growing interests and can respond appropriately. These days, publishers need all the help they can get marketing you and your writing. So pay attention to which of your posts sparks the most interest, then write more of those!

5.    Imagine I am a new author, unpublished but wildly enthusiastic – what three things can I do on social media right now to advance my career?

1. Follow me. Only kidding! They should make sure they’re following all the publishers and writing centres who interest them. This will help them stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the world of publishing and with writing opportunities relevant to them.
2. Support others. People remember those who help them. Comment on their blogs, tweets and posts. Forward on and share their links. Promote them where you can.
3. Interact. Converse with readers and writers online – it’s friendly, you might learn something, and will help you in the long run, sometimes in the most surprising way.

6.    Any books on social media or marketing more generally that you’d like to recommend? What about self-development?

I’m a big believer in learning on the job. For anyone interested in social media, who isn’t sure where to start – why not come to one of my social media courses? Then, have a think about what you like and what you don’t like about social media; what you’re happy to do and what you don’t want to have to do. Once you have that focus, it’ll be easy to start. Then all you have to do is be yourself. There are some general rules you should follow. Number one is to keep your manners. Number two is to keep spamming to an absolute minimum. Number three is to be true to yourself. So learn what interests you first, then blog/tweet/post away, comment on others blogs/tweets/posts too. You’ll win some and lose some. But that’s the learning curve we all have to weather.
As far as marketing more generally goes, just be yourself. There’s only one of you and that’s what makes you unique. Go with it!

7.    Where do you see yourself in five years?


The publishing world is a cautious beast. You have to stroke it, coo pretty names at it and let it sniff the air around you before it decides whether or not it likes you. In five years’ time, I’d like to be on the other side of being liked, with that happy beast called publication curled in my lap nuzzling contently. Isn’t that what every author wants?



Zena Shapter
Zena Shapter is an ex-lawyer, originally from the UK, and has published short stories, reviews and a legal textbook on intellectual law. She is the driving force behind the Northern Beaches Writers' Group, one of the most dynamic and active writing groups in Sydney. 

Meeting of the Northern Beaches Writers' Group


She is currently at work on a series of novels. 
Zena's seminar on social media for writers will be held at the NSW Writers' Centre on the 1st of May. You can book for that event here
On the 4th of June she'll be teaching an Introduction to Social Media workshop for the Mosman Evening College, and you can book for that here.

200 Years of Pride & Prejudice

Today I went to hear the wonderful Susannah Fullerton, Australia's foremost expert on Jane Austen, talk about the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice. Susannah laid out the tremendous cultural impact of this beloved novel, and told us how Austen's reputation, slight at the time of her death, has grown and grown over the years to reach the cult-like proportions it possesses these days.


Susanna Fullerton, author of Happily Eever After


To celebrate the anniversary Susannah has written the most exquisitely illustrated and painstakingly researched history of the novel. This history, Happily Ever After, is an extensive catalogue of all things Pride & Prejudice, and I have been poring over it. What a fascinating world of Austen-mania!




Susannah says that the Jane Austen Society is the biggest literary society in Australia by a mile, and I know I can count among my friends several Austen fans who can quote great chunks of the book by heart.

Happily Ever After really is the most fascinating piece of literary history, and is a tremendous read. The only other writer I can think of who is awarded this kind of poular examination of a single work is Proust. Fullerton divides the book into examinations of different aspects of this one novel, including chapters on critical reactions to Pride & Prejudice and on Austen's literary style.

She speaks fascinatingly about Austen's early champions, who included the playwright Sheridan, Mrs. Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson and, much later, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a short story about a group of Jane Austen fans fighting in the trenches during World War One.

Sheridan couldn't stop raving about Austen's novel


For Susannah Fullerton it is Austen's ear for dialogue which makes this novel so loved and so distinctive. This voice is equally apparent in her letters, which Fullerton also recommends.

Austen's legacy is still with us, and right now there are at least two films based on her work due for release. Pride & Prejudice has also inspired legions of imitators and fan-fiction writers, who have penned erotic versions, horror versions, sequels, prequels and even a gay re-telling of the familiar story.


Queer re-telling of Pride & Prejudice


I came away from this delightful talk with a renewed interest in Austen, who, I must confess, I haven't read in ten years or more. The last time I really spent any time with Austen's novels was while living in Taiwan, where the the only English-language books available at the local bookstore were the works of Austen, which I read obsessively. I will certainly be downloading the complete Austen onto my Kindle and renewing my acquaintance in this anniversary year.

One of Susannah Fullerton's earlier books on Austen


You can read more about Susannah Fullerton's history of Pride & Prejudice, Happily Ever After (also called Celebrating Pride & Prejudice in the US), here
In October Susannah is giving a talk at the Ashfield Library in Sydney, and you can book a place at that free event here

English Country Houses - Vita Sackville-West

My writing sisters might hate me for saying this, but I hold the unpopular opinion that Vita Sackville-West was the more talented writer of that most illicit Bloomsbury foursome. There, I've said it. It's like a whole load has been lifted from my back, though I'll probably never get a job in academia again.
As unlikely as it seems, I first fell in love with Vita Sackville-West's work when I was a young teenager. The BBC made a television production of her exquisitely simple novel All Passion Spent and I was utterly enchanted by it. It was such an odd little story that was quite unlike anything I'd ever encountered before. I carefully noted down the writer on whose book the series had been based, and I scrupulously ordered the book over the phone from a Christian bookseller in Brisbane. If only they'd known.
Of course, my 13 yo self had no idea who Vita Sackville-West was either, and it would be many years before I discovered just how wonderful a character she was.
All Passion Spent remains my favourite of Sackville-West's work, and it is the kind of book that makes more and more sense as you get older. I must have been a very old soul indeed to have been so drawn to it at 13. I also love her novella, Seducers in Ecuador (a strong contender for best book title ever).
But I have come to enjoy most her non-fiction, the books she wrote in her dotage when she became obsessed with gardening and with her home at Sissinghurst Castle, all the while pining over the loss of her ancestral seat at Knole. Her principal concerns in these later years was plants and religion.
One of the books I treasure most keenly is a lovely little hardcover by her called English Country Houses.



It is a slender and slight little volume detailing some of her favourite country houses. Of course, Sackville-West knew all of these houses well, and the whole book is a monstrous exercise in snobbery, but it is beautifully written and illustrated and I can't help but think that, in this Downton Abbey-obsessed age, a re-issue might find a very keen audience.




Printed in 1942, it is filled with enchanting colour plates of watercolours of the great houses, as well as many black and white engravings.




It is part of a series called The British Commonwealth in Pictures, and wouldn't it be heaven to get my hands on that entire series?




Today I was flicking through the latest catalogue from The Bookshop in Darlinghurst, and was delighted to discover that they have listed a delicious-looking new book called Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, which draws on the column she wrote about the house for the Observer in the 40s and 50s. So it looks like I'll soon be making a new addition to my Sackville-West collection.

Sackville-West's Hawthornden-winning collection of poems about the Kentish landscape

Reading Flashmob in Sydney for Patrick Ness' The Crane Wife

A rainy Sydney Readmob



Lord but it poured today! And as is my habit, I brought no umbrella.
Allen & Unwin had organised a truly unique event to publicise the  release of Patrick Ness' new novel The Crane Wife.



We all had to meet at a central location to approach a mysterious woman in a kimono.






By the time she arrived the rain had begun in earnest, but there were still plenty of keen readers around. We all grabbed our copy of the book and, stalwart souls that we are, we headed over to Martin Place where, standing beneath brollies, we read aloud a couple of pages of the book as a group.


My readmob companion, Angela


Even in the pouring rain it was a terrifically fun event, and I am hereby suggesting we create more reading flashmobs - hereafter known as "Readmobs." A great way to raise awareness and get people thinking about reading!!

Only the most important parts of Walter Mason protected from a rainy readmob


It worked as an event on many levels, not least of which was making a whole heap of keen readers aware of a book and an author they might never have previously encountered.
So what was the book?





The Crane Wife is a novel by Patrick Ness based on a Japanese folk-tale. Ness has previously written an acclaimed graphic novel, and his work has been compared to Haruki Murakami.

Author Patrick Ness


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