Fabulously Creative - a free workshop at Ashfield Library - February 5, 2016

Ashfield Library is offering a wonderful opportunity to do a really invigorating and fun writing workshop with me - absolutely free!

My 3-hour 'Fabulously Creative' workshop has been held all around Sydney, but people have always had to pay - until now.

Do take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to renew your creative juices and really get some focus back on your creative work in 2016.

It's time to dust off the writing shoes and show the world just how wonderful you are! In this one-day workshop come on a creative journey with me as you explore your options, get daring and spend some time discovering that spark of sheer fabulousness that lies within us all. In a joy-filled workshop of imaginative discovery you will learn to say yes to your creative impulses and crash through the barriers – real and imagined – that have held you back till now. Walter will have you believing again in the wonderful world of possibility that makes you so special and your stories so unique. Whether it’s beating writers block, creating a truly tremendous new year or writing things down and making them happen, this workshop is just the thing to give you the tools to energise and inspire a creative new you.

This workshop will encourage you to:

-    Get out of your creative shell and let people know the value of your work and ideas
-    Build your strength and determination to truly lead the writer’s life
-    Develop  your skills, knowledge and attitude and get excited again about your craft
-    Open your mind and get writing seriously – every day, every week and always
-    Start some awesome projects with passion and conviction
-    Believe in your own talents and gifts


Writing Workshops for Adults: 

Fabulously creative with Walter Mason

Ashfield Library

Do book now, as Ashfield's free writing workshops are always very popular.

My Playlist for 2015

Here they are - the songs I listened to most in 2015. In order:

1. King of Everything by Boy George (89 plays) - The first single from George's 2013 album This is What I Do. Such a beautiful, bittersweet song that speaks to my anxieties about ageing.

2. Adult Education by Hall & Oates (85 plays) - Probably not their greatest moment, but there's something about the strange 80s-ness of this song that I've really come to love. It's the backing singers' "Oh-yea, oh-yea"'s that stay with me.

3. You've Got It by Simply Red (84 plays) - Slick and smooth, this Lamont Dozier co-written song is 1989 pop-sophistication at its best.

4. I Feel for You by Chaka Khan (76 plays) - For when I'm bored and want to do a bit of boogying, nothing can beat Chaka.

5. Let's Get Started by Gota (68 plays) -  Bossa Nova funk from the 90s Japanese master.

6. Rise Like a Phoenix by Conchita Wurst (65 plays) - It was love at first sight with Conchita, and this is a damn good slice of high camp musical melodrama. Conchita needs to be the next Bond girl!

7. Everything She Wants by Wham (64 plays) - Funnily enough, I was never that much of a Wham fan when I was a kid. But this bitter, funky tale of exploitation just seems so fantastic now. I still maintain that the one who wasn't George was way hotter. And yes, he still sounds incredibly camp in this.

Walter Mason in conversation with author Michael Costello, Ashfield Library, February 6

Walter Mason in conversation with 

Sydney author Michael Costello

Walter Mason, well known travel writer and interviewer, will chat with Dulwich Hill based author Michael Costello about his new book, Season of Hate.  

Season of Hate is set in a small wheat town in western NSW and addresses discrimination and injustice.

This ‘in conversation’ event is an opportunity to get an in-depth insight into Michael’s writing process.

 Michael is an established playwright with an ability to pen complex characters as featured in Season of Hate.


Location: Ashfield Library

When: Saturday 6 February, 11am to 12.00PM

My favourite books of 2015

You’ve got plenty of time for reading over the Christmas break and you want to catch up on something interesting? You have the Kris Kringle for that difficult relative and think that a fun book might be just the thing? Never fear – Walter’s 2015 list of the best books is here.

As always, I am not a slave to the new. This list will contain some old books as well as some new, because, like you, I am human and sometimes it takes me a while to get around to something. So here they are, the books that most thrilled me this year:


Live Your Bliss by Terry Cole-Whittaker – self-help with a capital S, Cole-Whittaker’s eccentric and wide-ranging book is exquisite and thrilling, and is the perfect thing to read at the new year. Unapologetically spiritual in focus, it is also completely accessible to even the most hardened materialist. I finished this book a much better person than when I started it, and I hope you give it a chance to change your life too.


Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – Every time I read a Barbara Pym novel I fall more and more into her tiny, elegant world of exquisite social anxiety and church flower rotas. This is possibly the best Pym novel, in which two old university friends maintain a difficult friendship though both have gone on to quite different lives. The glamorous spinster and the frumpy vicar’s wife who together attend literary afternoons and garden parties and incur the disapproval of almost everyone. Oh, what a delight! Read this and see why Barbara Pym is a cult.


Walking Home by Sonia Choquette – The famed psychic and intuitive has her marriage dissolve and so she goes on the Santiago de Compostela and her life is changed forever. This is not at all as clich├ęd as I have made it sound – it is a constantly compelling spiritual travelogue with a completely unexpected outcome. Choquette is not afraid to let herself look silly and spoilt, and she is completely honest about the pilgrimage and her up and down moments of spiritual awareness. To read while you are on holiday, anywhere.


Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz ChastChast is the New Yorker cartoonist whose slightly crazed characters have frizzy hair and unkind noses and are always skirting the edges of neurosis. In this book Chast has written a memoir of her parents ageing and death as a comic strip, and it is simply superb. A must-read for anyone reaching this stage with their own parents, it is sensitive, clever and naturally sad. Very funny too, in parts. In fact, this is a masterpiece.


The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer – Just the most inspiring book I have read all year. I have no interest in Palmer’s music, but heard her interviewed on a podcast and she was so engaging I got the book. From the start it is fascinating, a kind of manifesto of creative vulnerability and one that I think all writers, musician, artists and creatives need to read as soon as possible. Amanda is my new guru.


Masters of Wisdom by Edward Abdill – Have you ever encountered the Ascended Masters? These figures, ubiquitous in New Age circles, are mysterious and all-knowing. Abdill has produced a really fascinating and constantly readable piece of occult history which looks into the beginnings of the Theosophical movement and the universality of the idea of the great masters who live removed from the earth but somehow influencing its changes and shifts. A great one for history buffs and students of the history of religion and spiritual ideas. And, most importantly, a rollicking good read.


The Other Shore by Hoa Pham – Australian writer Hoa Pham won the Viva La Novella prize with this one, and it is a mysterious, lyrical and exquisitely crafted piece of fiction that appeals to the reader’s cleverness and sense of mystery. The story of a Vietnamese teenager who can commune with the spirits, in a community that is uncertain about the old ways and afraid of the new. Intriguing stuff from a great talent.

Sharon Livingstone on creating her first book

Our guest this week is my student and friend Sharon Livingstone. She recently published her first collection of flash fiction, Red Inks. I asked Sharon  to share how she got back into writing and the creative fears she had to face:

For a couple of years, I complained a lot about having writers’ block, a non-specific condition whereby a writer simply can’t get cohesive, wonderful words from their brain to the page. Or the creative cogs have rusted and the can of WD-40 is empty.

I even started a writers’ group to help me to get over this debilitating condition. It was only a short term solution, keeping me writing for a day or two at best.

I read every article I could find on my “problem”. Write everyday, even if it’s rubbish, keep writing. That was the common theme. Gave that a go - it lasted a day. I started a blog, with the theory that, if it’s public, I’ll be motivated to keep going. It lasted for a few weeks before drying up. Mary-Lou Stephens suggests that meditation is helpful. I’ve tried meditation many a time with patchy results.

Writers always seem to be wishing we were more successful, better writers, had the talent of J. M. Coetzee or the ideas of J. K. Rowling. Are we jealous when we hear about other writers having amazing success? Maybe not but it might be tickling our toes. More and more of my writing group were announcing their books had been published. I’m genuinely happy for them and I know how much hard work that each has put in to achieve this goal. I’d heard them read some of their writing and it was impressive. More success to them, I reckon. But it lit that green fire in my gut too.

Not that I had anything to be jealous about. They were constantly writing, were focused and determined. I was staring at a computer screen that invariably had my Twitter feed scrolling through or displaying something to throw my credit card at.

As they say in the classics, something had to give.

I had a look at my excuse list:

  • “I’m soooo busy with work.” 
  • “I can’t figure out how to manoeuvre my characters to the climax of the story.” 
  • “Social media is too addictive. Have you seen what they’re saying on Twitter today?”

Yeah, well, busy at work really is a rubbish excuse. I admire people like Fleur McDonald, who was writing while also being a farmer, a mother (one of her kids has autism), a spokesperson for women in agriculture and, at one point, she was a carer for a sick family member. Yet, Fleur still writes and publishes a new and intriguing book each year. I have nowhere near those kinds of demands on my time or mind.

Plot development issues should have been a red flag. The story wasn’t good enough. The story was too long. There were too many characters.

I’m so easily distracted. Ooh, look at this amazing food Walter is showing me on Instagram! Ahem.

 Apparently there are solutions: you can simply not log into the WiFi;  or you can use a social media blocking app (there are fistfuls out there).

That dealt with the excuses. I’m not even sure I had writers’ block. I’m pretty sure it was chronic laziness. So what got me writing again to the point where I could publish my own book?

A shift in mindset. Sounds so simple, right? Well, it is!

I’d been focusing my energy on writing novel length stories. But in the same way that an actor on stage feeds off the immediate reaction of the audience, I loved the response of an audience when I read out a story I’d written in ten minutes. That can of WD-40 was full again and the creative cogs were turning. What if I was supposed to write super short stories instead of a novel?

What do they say about light bulb moments?

Know your strengths, accept your weaknesses.

Hmm, but that still didn’t make me write every day. That took some commonsense advice. I’ve never been one for goal-setting. At least, not for sticking to benchmarks for the goals I set. But when it was suggested that I create some short term goals and put a completion date on each task, it worked. It really worked.

I gave myself three months to write 60 stories for a collection of flash fiction stories, which would be published one month later.

Off to the library! WiFi turned off, I wrote for two hours on each of my days off work. I made it more enticing by getting the coffee in and packing a snack. I can’t seem to write without something to nibble on. The library isn’t quiet and I like to sit outside near the cafe but the fresh air works wonders on the creative mind.

I booked myself into a Blue Mountains writing retreat for four days, too. I got my inspiration by bushwalking in the morning and, with a coffee, wrote all afternoon and later into the evening. There was no WiFi there at all. Writing was becoming fun again instead of something to dread.

Wouldn’t you know it? Being disciplined, with a fixed goal and methodology, I got those 60 stories written (two weren’t good enough to make the collection). Naturally, not everything went to plan and my beta readers, cover designer and editor didn’t have the same timelines/priorities as me, so publication shifted by three months in the end. I didn’t beat myself up over that because I’d worked in Defence industries and target dates always shift to the right. It’s normal. Besides, I’d told simply everyone I knew that I was publishing a book, so there was no way I was not going to finish this project. I mean, who wants to look like an idiot to their family, friends, colleagues and passing acquaintances?

I saw my book on the bookshelf this morning. A symbol of organisation, determination and focus.

That tiny thing needs some brothers and sisters.

Twitter: @SharLivingstone

James Fry on creativity and finding a medium

James Fry

This year I read James Fry's superb memoir of bullying, addiction and redemption, That Fry Boy. I was impressed by its maturity, its nuanced discussion of complex social issues and by James' ability to tell a frequently difficult story with great compassion and simplicity.

I jumped at the chance to work with him, and we had a really fascinating conversation about his book and his life at Balmain Library a few months later.

I thought I would ask James to write something for you all about his creative process and inspiration and why he decided to let it all out. Here's what he had to say:

Teenage drug addict and petty crim turned suburban father and university post grad whose only threat of overdose comes in the aromatic specter of one too many macchiatos.

My life story up until now may make it fair for some to surmise that not only do I dislike stereotypes, but at times—deliberately and sometimes by complete accident—I have managed to quash a few, too. Yet when it comes to the narrative that creative types are often driven by inner demons, it would seem I am someone who is at the vanguard of ensuring such a typecast isn’t lost.

Finding a medium to express my creativity was a search that didn’t present me with any real answers until I hit thirty. Only then did I begin to write with anything vaguely resembling a commitment. And not because I thought I might have any talent for the written word, but simply because I was so damn bored with my office job that I was willing to give anything a go. It’s not that I wasn’t appreciative of creative works up until that point. I had often found solace between the pages of a good book or strolling through the wings of a gallery. The creative works of others long spoke to me and my struggles in ways that I found little else could. The problem was, I could not speak back. And if I go too long without speaking back now, I begin to feel off kilter, fast.

As my children will be quick to attest, I have been bestowed with a set of fine motor skills that see even the simplest of requests result in catastrophic disappointment. When my daughter had just started to string sentences together, she asked me to draw her a bumblebee. A simple bloody bumblebee. Surely a father could deliver on the simplest of requests from a darling brown-eyed cherub who didn’t doubt for a second her dad wouldn’t grant this wish.   What she got was something that resembled a cow that looked like it had grown up on free-range grain from the fields of Chernobyl. She learnt quickly that her mum was the go-to for all future art-related requests. So when I finally took up writing, I was both surprised and deeply transformed when I discovered that I was able to produce something that others might find readable. No longer was I just a mere consumer of creativity; I could be a producer, too. I exhaled a long-held breath—one I had no idea I had been holding for all that time. The demons now had an outlet. The demons I had sought to quash with drugs, booze and sex during my years of active addiction.

Through my own experience, and now countless conversations with fellow writers, I have found that the love—and hopefully some accompanying talent—for writing often isn’t realised by most of us until we are well into our adult years. This is in sharp contrast to those with a capacity for the visual arts, for whom their potential is generally both recognised and encouraged from the earliest ages.

In a recent edition of the Tasmanian literary magazine Island, a spotlight was shone on the inspiring prison literacy initiative Just Sentences. One participant, who appeared under the alias Peter, hadn’t attempted creative writing until his sixth decade on earth. With just a small bit of assistance, not only did Peter’s general literacy skills rise remarkably, but also in the process he found a love for creative writing. ‘I’m a lot happier writing,’ he said, despite still calling prison his home. ‘I got my own way of putting my thinking—it may be mad to you all but to me it’s my way of saying things’. The discovery of a new way of connecting like Peter has, is something that I can deeply relate to.  A friend whose commitment to his writing only developed momentum on the steeper side of fifty, describes his drive to write using the Jungian concept of Eros versus Thanatos. The life drive versus death drive. He told me ‘if I don't now actively engage my creativity via Eros, it expresses itself via Thanatos in a kind of low intensity level guerrilla warfare, with my sanity and sobriety the target.’

Of course, neither age nor suffering, however common factors amongst creative types, are mandatory. The literary world alone is full of seemingly well-adjusted authors, some of who aren’t even old enough to vote.

Be that as it may, those writers who have experienced deep suffering often have a level of fire available to draw upon, in turn pushing them beyond that threshold where many others often decide they have had enough and down tools. A decision, which ultimately means that their manuscript, however promising, is never finished, or that potentially wonderful art work goes without those beautiful finishing brush strokes. Fortunately, suffering can also make for a highly readable story, too. When pain makes its way onto the page, it can strike a chord in the reader like nothing else. After all, if we live long enough, suffering will visit each and every one of us regardless of what our bank balance may be or what social circles we mix in. And not only is such pain something common to us all, it is something very few of us regularly talk about, at least not at a public level.

Finding someone else who has been able to articulate what we were either too afraid to say, or simply could not find the right words to describe, results in a powerful hook being unleashed upon the reader. Writer Andrew Solomon once told an audience, ‘The writer’s job is to say those things that appear unsayable, to cloak with language those volatile experiences that seem barely able to endure it’. F. Scott Fitzgerald sounded like he was trying to say something similar, though perhaps in a simpler term when he said, ‘What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story’.

With such an emphasis on suffering, you may be thinking that I spend my days in a depressive stupor of the kind that would give even Nietzsche a boner of Viagraic proportions. But as much as I may be driven at times by demons, discovering an outlet for these ghouls in the form of writing means I’m blessed with being able to transform something that was once utterly self-destructive into a source of creative inspiration. Something that rewards me even more is when I hear from readers that the very words born from the depths of my existence have left the page and have touched them in a way that has allowed them to acknowledge and release their own demons, too.

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason, Ashfield Library 17 October 2015

It's no secret that one of my favourite Australian authors is Charlotte Wood. I have been a fan of hers since her book The Submerged Cathedral, released in 2004.

Charlotte's new book, The Natural Way of Things, is released soon, and I will be chatting to her about it at Ashfield Library on Saturday the 17th of October. It's a free event, and I would love to see you there.

Full details:

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason


Ashfield Library

Saturday, 17 October 2015 from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM 

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason

Event Details

Saturday October 17 11am  Level 2 Local Studies Room
Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason about her new novel, The Natural Way of Things.
Book for sale and signing.

Bookings not essential

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
Like Julian Leatherdale's Facebook page

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?

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.

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