Forever telling stories: Interview with Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

I can’t imagine ever not wanting to tell stories.
– Annabel Smith

In case you have been living under a rock, our very own Annabel Smith, she of the interviewing and other exciting things on Australian Women Writers, is not only an Australian and female but also a writer herself.

And so over the past few months, we have been badgering her to tell us about her third book The Ark, which finally in the midst of writing her fourth book she relented to do. You can’t accuse her of not being organised or prolific.

And The Ark is important – not only is Annabel going down the self-publishing route via Gumroad for this book but she has also created an app for the readers who want to delve into the experience a bit more via the wonders of digital publishing.

It says something about Annabel’s view of digital publishing and about her personality as well: rather than wait to tell a story in a particular format, she has jumped straight into it instead and gone it alone. She called the debate over digital publishing a “no-man’s land”:

“We seem to be in a no man’s land, where publishers are frightened to invest in books that seem too old-fashioned, but equally frightened by newfangled iterations of the book. It’s a time of great uncertainty in publishing.” she said, quick to point that out that while the media might herald the death of the book, in her experience so far, publishers aren’t going to completely let go of print books for a while yet.

The Ark by Annabel Smith

The Ark by Annabel Smith

But The Ark is more than an experiment with formats, it’s also an experiment with the financial models that currently exist in the industry. Annabel may get more of a cut of the final sales of her work with digital publishing but she doesn’t necessarily have the resources of a traditional publishing house behind her to have the same level of sales or reach.

“Self-publishing The Ark has helped me to understand the prevailing fee structure in which publishing houses get 50% of the retail price, booksellers 40% and writers the remaining 10%,” she said. “Publishers take all the financial risk, and invest heavily to get a book out into the world. Increasingly, many books fail to break even.”

She even gave us figures to drive the point home:

“However, most writers can’t nearly make ends meet on a meagre 10% of retail sales. I sold around 1500 copies of my first two traditionally published novels, banking approximately $4000 a process, which roughly equates to $1000 for each year spent writing them.”

But she remains hopeful about what technology can do for the publishing industry:

I hope in the future there will be financial models which might be more mutually beneficial for authors and publishers.

- Annabel Smith

The Ark can be read as a standalone book but then readers get to use the app if they want to learn more about the world the story is set in, want additional information or want to create content of their own related to the book.

Readers can contribute to the world of The Ark via the app & website

Readers can contribute to the world of The Ark via the app & website

“Advances in technology are presenting new ways for people to consume, connect with and interpret ‘fiction’,” said Annabel. “I wanted to play with some of these emerging options and discover for myself exactly how they might enhance the experience of reading a book.”

For other authors out there considering creating apps for their titles, be forewarned. It’s different and it seems to require a lot more organisation and is not as fun as it sounds:

“After the initial creative phase in which I developed my ideas, it basically became a project management task, involving meetings, emails, spreadsheets, budgets and timelines, etc,” Annabel explained. “It was time-consuming and sometimes dull. On the plus side, I worked with a fantastic team and enjoyed taking part in a collaborative project, compared to the solitary nature of most writing.”

But that’s the app. What all those who dream of following in Annabel’s footsteps want to know is, what’s the writing process like?

Annabel’s process has changed greatly over the years and from book to book. With her first two, she wrote in longhand but this changed with The Ark: “I wrote my first two novels longhand, switching to writing straight onto the computer for The Ark, because it felt counterintuitive to handwrite the text of a digital document like an email or blog post.”

The biggest change has been her shift from a “pantser” to a “plotter” – she now writes with a plan. In the case of her current work in progress, Monkey See, it’s with “an eight point story arc”: “Writing Monkey See I discovered Scrivener which I’m sure has changed my process in subtle ways, simply because I feel I can ‘see’ my book so much better now, and view it through a variety of filters.”

Monkey See is about, well, monkeys and tsunamis and of course one’s mind boggles a bit when trying to figure out what the plot could possibly be. It involves a cult that a spider monkey, Chaco as he is named, and his friends, must overthrow before a tsunami destroys their city. If that doesn’t appeal to the inner child in you then what will?

And there may be more than one book:

“He [Chaco] is a wonderful character – smart, loyal and super-tough,” Annabel explained. “I have written 60,000 words, with perhaps another 10,000 left to write, so I’m close to the end, but this is the first book in a trilogy, so in the bigger picture there is still a long way to go.”

So with three books on both the real and virtual bookshelves and one more, with possibly two others eventually, on the way, what advice does Annabel have for other writers?

“Think of it as a long game, and enjoy the process – and by that, I mean all of it – the writing, the learning, the reading, the conversations with other writers,” she wrote in her email to me. “The external outcomes such as publication and awards are much less important than the joy you take in the process.”

She also recommended writers’ groups:

“It is wonderful to have a space of trust in which to first share a fledgling work, as that is a very nerve-wracking experience,” she said. “I have no doubt that the feedback of these writers has improved all my manuscripts, and has honed my writing skills in general.”

The act of close reading another writer’s work has also taught me a great deal.

- Annabel Smith

And as all writers do, she reads widely. Voraciously, even. Her childhood was full of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High amongst classics like Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and Little House on The Prairie but her current favourites include Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love and Emily Bitto’s The Strays.

But that’s the past, what about the future? How many stories does she have left to tell? Or is there a never-ending supply?

“I can’t imagine ever not wanting to tell stories,” Annabel said. “I love how writing is not like a job – it’s not something people retire from – most authors are working on books when they die and I hope I’ll be like that.”

Telling stories seems to be something that always has been on her mind and despite her claim of probably being a master chocolatier if she couldn’t be a writer, her admission of a childhood ambition to be an actor seems more in tune with her need to spin a tale.

This childhood dream was set aside in favour of something that would be more lucrative as a career.  Which kind of makes you wonder why choose to write but she fell in love with writing during her undergraduate degree in English and went on to work on a PhD in creative writing.

Love may be the right term for it – Annabel claimed an addiction:

“The first book was difficult to write but by the time I had finished, I was hooked,” she said.  “Now I am unhappy if I’m not writing. Though it is sometimes – often – difficult, it is also strangely soothing. This is terribly unoriginal, but writing is a way for me to make sense of my world, to dig deep into the parts of life that puzzle or worry me.”

Which may go some way to explaining why there seems to be a theme of sorts of grief and loss that has run through Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of The Universe. According to Annabel this is somewhat accidental and completely unplanned:

“I never consciously consider theme when I’m writing a book,” she said.  “The themes evolve organically, from the characters and their stories. In hindsight, it is easy to see there is considerable thematic overlap between my first two novels; both deal with unresolved family issues, with loss, and grief.”

Her view is that perhaps themes in writing reflect the author’s unconscious, possibly unresolved issues:  “I seem to have moved on to other themes now so fingers crossed I have healed some childhood wound.”

But there are stories to be told, be they in the digital or traditional space and format, whether they come with optional extras or not, whether they have thematic similarities or differences. And Annabel Smith, taking the plunge and exploring her options is an author to watch if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of what is changing in the publishing industry.

Because when there are stories to be told and you aren’t daunted by the prospect of an eternity in which to spin tales, you will spin them any way you can.

To jump into the world of The Ark and contribute to it by creating additional characters, documents and stories, you can check out The Ark‘s website for both the book and the app.

Short fiction & Poetry roundup: July and August 2014

Ok, here’s the obligatory Game of Thrones joke: Winter is not coming. Winter has come and will soon be gone.

Right. Now let’s never mention this again. On to the main event.

Picture this: tropical weather, verdant green as far as the eye can see and a gin and tonic.

Sounds good?

Ah, but there’s something missing from the picture. A book. Or two. Or three.

And I know you are scratching your heads and wondering why I am going on about tropical weather when we are almost done with winter and are about to take on spring here in Australia – but I flew north for the winter to sunnier climes. And limes. In my gin and tonic.

But I had no books. And so on my return I was most anxious to see what you turned up that would be perfect to dip into and read in short, sharp bursts in between either cuddling in front of the heater (or fireplace if you are in Tasmania and/or are allowed to burn wood) or sunbathing on the sand. Ah, the pursuit of warmth and something to engage the mind.

I digress. You found me four collections of poetry buried in the sand and fellow adventurer Sean the Bookonaut, ever trusty spade in hand, dug up two of them for us: Thread me a Button edited by Jude Aquilina and Joan Fenney and The Duties of a Cat by Jenny Blackford.

Of the former, Sean states that it was a fantastic idea not just to create a collection of poetry around the concept of buttons but to leave the authors anonymous till the last page so that you could just enjoy the poetry itself, which he commends as very accessible and engaging. I, for one agree that it is an absolute point of fun to have a collection themed around an object and I would like to see more of the same (editors, please take note). Throw out your suggestions for themes in the comments, sartorial or otherwise. It will be interesting to see what poets come up with.

With the latter, well let me tell you, the title alone makes me want to re-negotiate household rules with my moggie – I was unaware that cats had duties. They are cats. It seems odd that they should be coupled with the concept of duty (though I admit mine gets treats for declaring war on cockroaches) but Sean reassures us that the titular poem is a bit tongue in cheek. He also, however, admits his bias in recommending this work as he is a cat lover (ok, who on the internet and in the literary world, isn’t?) so perhaps what we need now is one of you lovely readers, fervently on the side of all things canine, to have a read and let us know what the verdict is (though preferably not in the form of a hairball).

See? Journalism work and crowdsourcing at it’s finest, right there.

Onto the next treasure in the sand: The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson has resurfaced amongst the lovely nutritious kelp and driftwood after a little paddle out to sea, coming right back in with the backswash and was reviewed by S’hi D’Amour, who totally and completely coincidentally thinks Lisa Jacobson is a national Aussie treasure herself. You may remember that The Sunlit Zone first meandered out from the dunes onto the beach during the actual Australian summer of 2013-14. S’hi D’Amour tells us that The Sunlit Zone is a metaphor for connection or rather our fear in connecting to one another, in having to accept that we get both joy in doing so and yet open ourselves up to pain as well and most of all in having to accept that we often need to learn to let go.

Somebody’s thrown a party on the beach. The last poetry collection for these past two months is Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne, reviewed by Marilyn. And it has a bit of everything – back in Ancient Rome, the Empress (yes, probably that Empress) has thrown a party which the Curatrix (female museum curator) is organising and on the guest list are women from across the world but also from across time (so clearly one of the Doctor’s companions has been arm wrestled into providing transportation). Some have descended from ethereal planes to attend. And as the women gather they talk, they laugh, they do what women usually do at such gatherings and the story is told through a series of poems. It’s serious and funny, riotous, freewheeling and not at all rooted in historical fact but rather merely attached to it slightly and I think you will understand what I mean when Marilyn tells us that the foreword by Monique Wittig asks women to remember a time when they were strong and happy and if they cannot remember one, to invent it.

And that’s a lovely thought to end our pirate like treasure hunt with – if it doesn’t exist yet, build/create it.

But fear not, just because I was in the tropics did not mean I forgot you. So with the weather bringing winds and rain down upon you, what tiny fictions did you lose yourself in.

What were the words that kept you warm?

Apparently, you found four works that swept you away with dreams of… wait, for it, being elsewhere. Maxine Beneba Clarke‘s Foreign Soil reappeared as if she had a multiple entry visa and you were waiting to swap wet for dry. Lou Heinrich (who sounds like a jazz musician and therefore here’s a shirt tail ending for you, darling) reviewed it for the Newtown Review of Books and what we are reminded of is how Clarke‘s writing emulates the vernacular and begs to be spoken out aloud – loud enough perhaps like Dorothy so you can go home. Or at least somewhere warm.

Sorting out your baggage is Anna Maria Dell-oso with Songs of the Suitcase reviewed by S’hi D’Amour though unfortunately like most luggage, the review link is broken and therefore the luggage is lost, presumably vacationing in the Caribbean with your new swimwear and those lovely new shoes you bought with all the gin and tonics while you shiver in your jacket over here. Typical. If you’re S’hi D’Amour, please do send us the link again. Or post it in the comments so we can see what said suitcase has been upto.

But never fear, Escape by Bronwyn Mehan is up next (and I swear she was around last year too or is that my imagination?). Lynette Washington of The Clothesline has reviewed this collection (edited by Mehan) of short stories by several different and very well known authors. She tells us that some are shorter than expected, some redefined what story means for her and some made her giggle. With 29 in the collection, you have nearly thirty different places to be transported to so have a read of this anthology.

And finally, as we wait for water to boil so we can warm ourselves with hot chocolate and mope till September comes around, we have Helen Garner‘s True Stories, reviewed by S’hi D’Amour. And as we nod to ourselves and pick it up to pass the time with, we find that she has something important to tell us – that it is winter and to those of us who aren’t winter people, it’s wet, dreary and miserable and cold. But, she reminds us, others find it a welcome change and while we may dream of leaving on jetplanes, in truth our lives are journeys too, taking us to new places in more than a physical sense and we don’t buy souvenirs, we tell stories instead to remember, commemorate and celebrate where we have been.

And where we will be.

Especially when winter is over and a September spring graces us.

And my apologies for the slight delay – some of us may still be mentally in other timezones. *looks innocent*

About me
Marisa Wikramanayake is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She published her first book at 17, has lived on three different continents, been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice and is currently hibernating in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run a national publishing conference for the Society of Editors (WA) and currently sits on the WA Media Alliance committee. She is dangerous when bored, having terrorised educational institutions to finish an Honours thesis on Archaeology and a Masters thesis on Neuroscience and Science Communication. She penned book reviews for The West and science news and now writes and edits novels and dreams of fun cross platform media projects in the spare time that’s left over after painting, dancing, gaming and mentoring. She contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project. Feel free to badger her at her blog at, onFacebook or tweet at her at @mwikramanayake

If you aren’t part of the solution…

12th Planet Press logoAlisa Krasnostein from Twelfth Planet Press discusses the impact of AWW and recent exchanges about gender bias in SpecFic.

From the start, the Australian Women Writers Challenge has been a bold and important undertaking. It has become a vital tool in countering the sentiment that it’s everybody else’s fault that Australian women are ignored, underrepresented and under-recognised. The AWW Challenge is a powerful opportunity to take a step back and interrogate one’s own reading prejudices and biases – we all have them!

To take on the challenge of exploring why we might not have considered reading certain works can be confronting, it’s not a nice thing to deconstruct about yourself – what and who you read and why (or why not). For women writers, the AWW Challenge is even more valuable as it takes this a step further and encourages the participants to share their newly discovered works with others. By more of us taking a part in the discussion, we work to counter the cloak of invisibility and boost the profile of women writers who otherwise get ignored by mainstream media, reviews and book promotion (as we know from the statistics we see each year from VIDA  and similar calculations).

Twelfth Planet Press has directly benefited from the AWW Challenge in exposure through reviews and book discussions that have increased the awareness of many of our authors and their work, and has brought to the attention of a greater audience our press’s existence. As a press that publishes Australian women, we’ve found many readers interested and sympathetic to our work through the Challenge. It’s not a coincidence that readers who find us via this challenge tend to be readers who really understand what it is that we do at Twelfth Planet Press. We have several objectives:

  • to publish fresh, original, well-written work that seeks to interrogate, commentate, inspire or provoke thought
  • to provide opportunities for female writers by publishing and showcasing new work
  • to advocate for fiction written for, by and about women
  • to raise the awareness of women’s voices in science fiction, fantasy, horror and recently, crime; and
  • to showcase and demonstrate the depth and breadth of Australian fiction to a broader audience.

Recently I wrote a blog post titled “Why Your Words Matter” addressing my response to a nonfiction article in an online magazine. The article was presented as an authoritative commentary on the Australian Speculative Fiction scene, yet failed to mention authors who are winning international awards and accolades for their work in horror. Because those writers were women, and because other women writers named in the article were originally referred to as “world class”, rather than “world class horror writers”, I objected to the piece as being factually inaccurate and for rendering those women writers invisible.

My piece, “Why Your Words Matter”, attempted to explain why it’s not necessarily the intent, nor whether this omission was deliberate, that’s the problem. The problem is that women writers have been omitted from commentary on “the scene”. That’s it. They have become invisible.

The piece I chose to critique was merely one example of where this happens. One of many. If it were the only example, this wouldn’t be an issue. And the one or two times the omissions are made wouldn’t matter. They’d be the outliers, they’d be noticed as factually inaccurate or incomplete, and other texts would be used as references. The problem arises when most criticism or commentaries or histories fail to mention women, either by design or by error.

In the case of the article I called out, the writer and I later engaged in a constructive dialogue and we were able to see each other’s points of view. He updated the piece and his publisher edited the introduction to state that the piece was not intended to be “100% comprehensive or a survey of all speculative fiction in a very active part of the world”. One might argue that the title “State of Play of Australian Speculative Fiction” says differently but that was that.

However, in the May edition of this publisher’s newsletter, the editor wrote a piece summing up this incident. Aside from somewhat emotional language used to describe what was actually just my pointing out of a factual error, and then a correction of this, the editor wrote the following two statements:

“I mention this incident because part of the discussion included the accusation that [the] omission of Twelfth Planet Press was associated with treating female writers as invisible (as Twelfth Planet Press’ publisher is female, and they have a very high percentage of female authors).”

And further:

 “Correlating any form of gender bias on the article with this omission is pure conjecture, and in my opinion, unfounded. This statement in no way relates to the broader discussion on bias, sexism and misogyny, which, in my opinion, is unfortunately alive and well in our industry.”

I find these comments interesting as they were written after my piece about why the words matter. The words are what matter. Not intent, not motive. What is written is all there is for the reader to read. To omit is the action. And that was what my commentary addressed. I find it problematic that the editor decided to attribute the words “accusation” and “treatment” to what was a call of factual error. Women who should have been mentioned were not. Thus they became invisible.

So, too, the idea that the piece of work sits somehow outside any discussion of the field is problematic, both because it was specifically intended to be a discussion of the field and because it is indeed a part of our field. If bias, sexism and misogyny are alive and well in our industry, as the editor acknowledges, then who or what is “this industry”, if it is not made up of the individual actions and reactions, responses and contributions of each and every one of us?

If you aren’t part of the solution…

Reviews and discussions of work are important to authors, editors and publishers. They create book buzz, draw interest and raise awareness of work that might otherwise go unnoticed. The work of the AWW Challenge is greatly appreciated by this boutique publisher.

As a thank you to all the readers and reviewers in the AWW Challenge, we’d like to offer in return for every review of one of our books, a free Twelfth Planet Press ebook of your choice, for the rest of 2014. Simply send us a link of your review and the title of your ebook (and format) of choice. Because we are especially keen to boost our discoverability on Amazon, we’ll put anyone who mirrors their reviews on Amazon into a hardcopy book hamper draw – to be drawn Dec 31, 2014. Our hamper will include 1 hard copy book of your choice, a Twelfth Planet Press tote bag and chocolates!

You can send us your review links by email via or Twitter to @12thPlanetPress or Facebook at Twelfth Planet Press.


alisa1-e1316349378987-150x150Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at independent Twelfth Planet Press, a freshly minted creative publishing PhD candidate and recently retired environmental engineer. She is also part of the thrice Hugo nominated Galactic Suburbia Podcast team. In 2011, she won the World Fantasy Award for her work at Twelfth Planet Press. She was the Executive Editor and founder of the review website Aussie Specfic in Focus! from 2004 to 2012. In her spare time she is a critic, reader, reviewer, podcaster, runner, environmentalist, knitter, quilter and puppy lover. And new mum.

Diversifying in death: Interview with Katherine Howell

Katherine Howell

Two years ago, I slipped through a door into a convention room in Perth and sat down to listen to Katherine Howell. What intrigued me was part of the blurb for the session – Katherine Howell had been a paramedic for fifteen years before she had her crime fiction published.

That, to me, seemed impressive. She had all she needed to know about the system right at her fingertips in order to write a believable plot. And she still did research.

March is Diversity month here at Australian Women Writers and Ms Howell’s seventh novel to feature her detective Ella Marconi, Deserving Death, is now out with a lesbian as one of the main characters.

“I’ve had gay and lesbian characters in my books before but not as point-of-view characters, so I really enjoyed writing both Carly and Linsey,” Katherine tells me via email from over East where she’s got one week left on a writing deadline.

Deserving Death by Katherine Howell

Both plot and characters worked together in her favour in Deserving Death – the relationship creating issues that were central to the story.

“Carly is a paramedic and is out, while Linsey is her closeted girlfriend,” Katherine explained.

“I’m always looking for ways to put the characters under more stress in the stories, so using that issue of their relationship having to be secret, and Linsey desperately wanting to tell her family but being so afraid, was a good way to do that while also having Carly under pressure with her work situation and her suspicions about the crime.”

Web of Deceit by Katherine HowellWriting crime fiction is difficult and weaving a web, much like the sixth novel in the series titled Web of Deceit, where the detective can solve the crime and yet it still isn’t a cakewalk for the reader is a tough ask. And that’s assuming you have an idea in the first place. But for Katherine, inspiration exists everywhere.

“I think it’s the same for me as for many other writers,” she writes, quite candidly.

“A little seed of an idea appears, maybe in a newspaper article, or something we overhear, or something that pops up in our heads, then we start to think about where that could go, and what could happen next, and next, and next. I think about who’s dead and who killed them and why, and then about ways I can hide that from the reader and have them suspecting different people along the way and busting to find out the truth. It sounds quite a neat process there, but it’s not – there are lots of mental dead-ends and scrawling of notes on sheets of paper. Lots of frustration too.”

It’s nowhere near a neat process. Not for Katherine Howell, the steady routine of some other writers. It’s almost a relief to hear that she is quite human about the way she writes.

“I waste a lot of time dithering and feeling anxious,” she confesses, making it all the more amazing that she has graciously taken time out to answer questions despite having a deadline.

“Once I make myself get rolling I try to do one or two thousand a day, and sometimes that takes just a couple of hours, sometimes many more. I write best in the afternoon and every so often will write late into the night if I get into the flow of it.”

And then there’s humour: “Every year I promise myself I’ll be more disciplined. So far I haven’t been.”

But while it all seems quite normal so far, there are certain facts that leap out at you that speak a lot about how dedicated she is to writing.

Frantic by Katherine HowellShe wrote four manuscripts while studying, the last of which was sent off to an agent who returned it saying she needed to understand how to craft suspense. She then turned around and enrolled in a Masters degree to study how suspense was created in fiction and applied it to her own manuscript. When she graduated she sent it back to the agent and the first Ella Marconi novel Frantic was published in 2007 and won the 2008 Davitt Award for best crime fiction.

“I’ve always loved reading, and even as a child loved the thought of writing my own stories that would draw a reader in just as I was drawn into the books I read. That’s what I still love about it now, and when I write I think about what the reader might suspect is happening, or be expecting to happen next, and try to turn that on its head to keep them guessing, and reading.”

And would she ever stray from the love affair she seems to have concocted with the crime fiction genre? Would she ever write other stories? She admits to the affair readily enough:

“I love crime fiction! I read a lot of it and it seemed quite natural that that’s what I would write. I’d certainly be open to writing something else if I had the urge, but so far there hasn’t been one.”

Perhaps that’s because there is no need for that urge when her current one is uniquely hers and still going strong – Ella Marconi is the mainstay throughout the series but the paramedics differ. It’s a strange setup but nevertheless a useful tactic providing something both familiar for readers and yet introducing something new each time. But it came about because she wanted to use her fifteen years of experience riding in ambulances and dealing with blood and death firsthand.

“I couldn’t work out a way to write a crime series with just paramedic characters, so developing a detective character was really the only option to make it all work,” she writes.

Ella herself was baptised from a baby book and the White Pages: “I knew she had to be tough, as a woman working in the male-dominated police for so many years, and that she’d be idealistic — which can get her into trouble — at the same time as being cynical, frustrated and bored of the red tape,” she says.

“I chose a first name from a baby name book, a name that was not masculine/ambiguous. I wanted something distinctly female – then went through the White Pages for a surname that felt right.”

My last question is whether she has advice for other writers. For her, that’s an easy answer: “To never give up.”

She clarifies: “It’s easy to think that a first draft is awful, and to give up right there. The people who succeed are the ones who’ll work on it to make it better, and edit over and over again, put it aside and write something new and then edit that over and over.”

Tenacity. Persistence. Determination. With seven novels under her belt, a range of diverse characters scattered through them, a personal history of using a Masters degree to teach herself how to improve her writing, this is a writer who knew what her goal was from the start and puts everything into her work.

And now you have seven novels to read and review for Australian Women Writers while we wait for Katherine Howell’s next book.

Which presumably she is pulling all nighters to write, right now.

You can find Katherine Howell’s novels at her website. Her latest novel Deserving Death is out right now.

About me
Marisa Wikramanayake is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She published her first book at 17, has lived on three different continents, been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice and is currently based in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run national publishing conferences and currently sits on the Society of Editors (WA) and WA Media Alliance committees. She writes book reviews for The West and the ABR, science news for Science Network WA and writes novels in the spare time that’s left over after painting, dancing, gaming and mentoring. She contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project and the Society of Editors (WA). You can catch her on her blog at or on Twitter @mwikramanayake

Big Increase in Reviews for Australian Women Writers!

In 2013 Australian women writers received a large increase in online reviews. The number of reviews entered in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge increased by nearly twenty percent compared to 2012.

In its second year the Challenge demonstrates that the groundswell of enthusiasm for books written by Australian women is increasing. This is a trend that traditional literary publications need to adjust to. Readers expect to see as many reviews of books by women as they do of men. All genders are equally capable of quality writing. All genders write about a wide variety of interesting topics.

In 2013 over 1,800 reviews were written about books written by Australian women writers. Nearly forty percent of the books reviewed were published in 2013. The most popular books were:

Title Author Publisher No. Reviews
1 Burial Rites Hannah Kent Picador 21
2 Fractured Dawn Barker Hachette 14
3 Dark Horse Honey Brown Penguin 12
4 The Railwayman’s Wife Ashley Hay Allen & Unwin 11
4 The Girl in the Hard Hat Loretta Hill Random House 11
5 Web of Deceit Katherine Howell Pan Macmillan 10
5 The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth Random House 10
5 The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty Pan Macmillan 10
5 Half Moon Bay Helene Young Penguin 10

Most reviewed books for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013.


Over seven hundred authors had their work reviewed by Challenge participants.

Yes, there are over seven hundred Australian women authors. The number would be even greater as we recognise that despite the volume of books that were reviewed, there were still some authors who published in 2013 but missed out on reviews in the Challenge.

The most popular authors were:

Author Name No. Reviews
1 KENT, Hannah 21
Most Popular Authors, Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, 2013.
2 JOHNS, Rachael 18
3 HILL, Loretta 17
3 BROWN, Honey 17
4 OVERINGTON, Caroline 16
5 HOWELL, Katherine 15

A feature of the Challenge is the fact that anyone can participate. There are no educational or work experience requirements. Reviewers don’t have to live in Australia. No-one ‘vets’ the reviews before they are linked. This may be a reviewer’s first experience of writing for the public.

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is a grass-roots positive action by people from all walks of life. The one thing in common is all reviewers believe that the books they read which are written by Australian women are worthy of a review. The time and effort the reviewers put into writing the reviews is an unspoken comment on their views about the writing of women authors.

Over two hundred reviewers wrote at least one review for the Challenge in 2013. Some of the Challenge reviewers were prolific:

Reviewer No. Reviews
1 Brenda 121
Top 10 Challenge Reviewers 2013
2 Bree 110
3 Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out 100
4 Lauren @ The Australian Bookshelf 72
5 Tsana 42
6 Sally From Oz 40
7 writereaderly 37
8 Shannon (Giraffe Days) 34
8 Jess @ The Never Ending Bookshelf 34
8 Mel @ Adventures of a Subversive Reader 34
8 Helen 34

There is still considerable work to be done to change the attitudes of major, traditional book reviewing publications. Both the international and Australian statistics for 2012 still showed too many of these publications prioritise reviewing the writing of men over the writing of women.

Our statistics reveal that only seventeen men wrote a review for the Challenge in 2013. Women’s writing is for everyone just as men’s writing is for everyone. The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is keen for more men to participate.

Renewed impetus for the campaign to change attitudes has emerged from the United Kingdom since the New Year. Writer and illustrator, Joanna Walsh, has started a Twitter hashtag, #readwomen2014. It has quickly become a vibrant conversation with many people committing to reading more books written by women. American literary magazine, The Critical Flame, has committed to a whole year of reviewing the work of women writers and writers of colour.

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is part of the growing world-wide movement to raise awareness of excellent writing by women. It helps readers to challenge the subconscious stereotypes that govern our choice of books to read. We are excited to be entering our third year and hope that we can help you do something about this issue.

Participation in the Challenge is better than whingeing. It is better than waiting for old, traditional publications to move into the twenty-first century. The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge gives everyone the opportunity to take positive action to change our world.

Commit yourself. Sign up today and write your first review!

At a Glance: The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013 2013 2012
Number of Reviews 1822 1526
Books Reviewed 1079 876
Authors Reviewed 763 596

The Challenge: A Mid-year Overview

We are only half way through 2013 but a review of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge has revealed some impressive figures.  In just six months participants have written 1,100 reviews, reviewed the work of over five hundred Australian women authors and read nearly seven hundred books.

It is the participants of the Challenge who have generated this groundswell of interest in the writing of Australian women authors.  In the first six months 187 volunteers have taken the effort to write about the books by Australian women authors that they have read and share their reviews online.  These reviewers range from those who have little experience in reviewing to those who are published authors and/or reviewers.  Everyone is invited to participate in whatever way they can.

Most books have been reviewed just once but 26% of the books have received more than one review. Our ‘Top Five’ list shows the most popular books so far this year:

Books Reviewed: The Top Five
Title Author Number of Reviews
1 Fractured Dawn Barker 12
2 Dark Horse Honey Brown 11
The Girl in the Hard Hat Loretta Hill
3 Paper Chains Nicola Moriarty 9
The Railwayman’s Wife Ashley Hay
The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth
4 Hope’s Road Margareta Osborn 8
The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty
House for all Seasons Jenn J McLeod
Web of Deceit Katherine Howell
5 Sea of Hearts Margo Lanagan 7
Shallow Breath Sara Foster
Beneath Outback Skies Alissa Callen
Saving Grace Fiona McCallum

Understandably most of the books in the top five most reviewed books for the last six months have been categorised by the participants as contemporary fiction but there are also several historical fiction books, some romance, and a speculative fiction book in the list.

Genres-1st-6-mths-2013The chart above demonstrates the range of genres that are covered in the Challenge reviews.  Participants decide what genre(s) the book they have reviewed fits into.  Nearly two hundred reviews were of books that Challenge participants regarded as ‘literary’.

The top five most reviewed authors by Challenge participants were:

  Author Number of Reviews
1 Honey Brown 16
2 Loretta Hill 14
3 Katherine Howell 13
Kate Forsyth
4 Dawn Barker 12
5 Liane Moriarty 10
Nicola Moriarty

It is notable that there are many other authors and books which are very close to being in the top five. Seven authors have received nine reviews and many more are just two or three reviews away from the top five.

Challenge participants like to review newly published books.  Books published in 2013 received the most reviews of any publication year.  43% of reviews were of books published in 2013 and 94% of the reviews were for books published this century.

The aim of this Challenge is to increase the reading of books written by Australian women and foster conversation about these books.  Through this we hope to raise awareness of the extent and depth of Australian women’s writing.  The statistics for the first half of 2013 demonstrate that the Challenge has contributed to raising awareness of women’s writing in Australia this year and encouraged discussion about books written by women.

At a Glance: the first six months of 2013 Number
Reviews 1,100
Books reviewed 689
Authors reviewed 516*
Participants who have published reviews 187

* This total does not count the women authors contributing to multi-authored collections.


About Me

DSC_6276 Yvonne PerkinsI’m Yvonne Perkins.  For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I.  In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past.  I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.

Feature: Global Women of Color Challenge: Interview with Marilyn Dell Brady

Global Women of Color Logo

Global Women of Color Challenge Logo

In this special feature, retired professor of US women’s history, and founder of the Global Women of Color (GWC) Reading Challenge and Blog, Marilyn Dell Brady, speaks about founding the challenge, her career in academia, a love of reading, and a lifelong connection with feminism. Paula Grunseit reports.

Marilyn Dell Brady says the desire to change her view of the world goes back to her days in grad school (university) where African American women writers, along with various feminists, helped her envision what it meant to be a woman. “They gave me alternative visions that allowed me to move beyond the helpless, white lady I had been raised to be,” she says. “I had two black women friends who were focusing on African American History. Like others, we realised that in Women’s History ‘all the women were white’, and in African American History ‘all the blacks were men.’ So we got a grant to research and write about Black Women in Kansas. While my major interest remained Anglo women, I have continued to read and research African American women’s history and literature. I wrote a couple of articles and taught a course on the subject, as well as including them and other non-mainstream individuals in my Women’s History classes and other courses I taught.”

Inspired by feminism, Dell Brady returned to grad school in her mid-thirties to get the PhD she had always wanted. “My specialty was US Women’s History and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies. I taught and published in those fields. My MA thesis was about Quaker women in Philadelphia in the 1790s and my PhD dissertation was about perceptions of motherhood in the early 20th century.”

Taking a job at a small liberal arts college, she then created a variety of courses focusing on those left out of traditional history. “For example, I taught a course on Immigration to the United States (starting with the British) and one about the American Revolution (asking ‘Who was there besides George Washington and why does it matter?’). I also taught a senior seminar on Women’s Studies, focusing on the challenges that feminism raised in various academic disciplines.”

GWC Header

Having developed “a fierce love of reading” in her childhood, Dell Brady says that what she read then was limited to the contents of the children’s section of the small library in her home town. “College expanded my exposure immensely, and later in the 1970s I devoured everything I could find (fiction and non-fiction), about feminism. While in grad school, massive reading was required, but I also continued to read novels by women. By then I had access to Spinsters, a radical, lesbian bookstore which kept up with a wonderful selection of what was being published, including books by women of colour. They and their books helped shape me. During my grad school years, I not only read but had a variety of people with whom to discuss books and ideas — something I have missed ever since.”

Desert mountains

Dell Brady now lives in the desert mountains of far west Texas, a place she and her husband (a librarian), have long been in love with and it’s not hard to understand why when she describes it: “Pink granite mountains rise up out of the desert and near-desert landscape. They are sometimes called ‘desert islands’ because their height creates an entirely different environment where pine trees grow. The most dramatic examples are in the Big Bend National Park, about an hour south of here. We live outside the small town of Alpine in a large valley created by the pink granite cliffs, not as high as in the Park. There is lots of space.”

MDB with Agave

Marilyn Dell Brady and Agave. Agave grow only leaves for thirty-five to forty years then suddenly shoot up their stalks about a foot a day and bloom

Retirement, more time for leisure reading and a desire to connect and share were all catalysts for founding the GWC says Dell Brady. “I decided to move out of my ‘Americanist’ cocoon and was still particularly interested in women’s experiences, but expanded that interest globally. Starting to blog a year and a half ago, helped me find some amazing novels by women of colour. These are the books I still seek out and read most often. I started GWC to share what I had found and learn about more of such books.”

A rainy year

A rainy year

Feminism is also still a strong driver for Dell Brady as she explains. “It is easy for women to embrace feminism because it validates their own desire to live fuller lives. But feminism claims to be for all women. Too often women in westernised nations, like America and Australia, assume that women everywhere are just like us. They need and want what we do and should follow our lead. African American women and others globally have eloquently pointed out how narrow and self-centered such a view is.”

If feminism is to be global, as it must be, we need to listen to women without our privileges and cultural experiences. What is better than reading books by women of colour for learning what other women’s lives and concerns really are?

So, how have Dell Brady’s reading habits changed since founding the GWC? “Most of the books I have read and reviewed on my blog are by women, but not all.  Generally I am a bit bored with reading books as told from male perspectives. I do read some men’s books and have found a few that do an amazingly good job at creating fully developed female characters. So far the best examples of these are men outside the western literary mainstream — Thomas King, a Native American author, has great interesting and strong women in his books. He is sympathetic to both his male and female characters but he describes the ways the men frustrate and neglect the women. Amit Majmudar, whose family migrated from India to the USA is another man who does a fine job with women characters.”

I also still read some fiction by white mainstream women, especially novels by favourite authors, but I am also bored with white suburban housewives. I really like memoirs and read them when I can. Few of the books are ones I would have casually found on my own. Some reading highlights have been: Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshavar, Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samaran, Ghana Must Go by Tauye Selasi, A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam.


“And I read some history. Australian historians, whom I have found through AWW and via Yvonne Perkins have re-awakened my interests in my field, especially with their interests in the historians’ craft, Indigenous history, and in transnational history. The way in which Australia’s history is both like and unlike ours is fascinating to me.”

Running the GWC Challenge has mainly been a positive experience both in general, and on a personal level. This year, seventy-two reviews have been listed and most of the books being reviewed are fiction with a sprinkling of memoirs, essays, and histories. “We’ve also had a couple of classics, such as The Red Chamber, reviewed by our Chinese reader. I am pleased with how GWC is doing, but I’d like to improve it,” says Dell Brady. “Fifty-nine people are following it as a blog and about twenty signed up listing the books they planned to read. They were from all over the globe, and they included both a woman who described herself as an Algerian feminist and a specialist on Indian literature. A much smaller and narrower group of eight or ten regularly submit reviews to share. We include a recent arrival to the US from China (who delightfully shares the traditions she and her family continue), a Canadian woman from India, a woman in England who has lived in Cuba and Galicia, an Hispanic American woman, an African woman, a couple of Australians, and several others from the US.”



“Personally, I have gained from GWC and have found new friends, engaged in new discussions, and expanded my list of books to read. Many of the gains, however, have come as I subscribed to the blogs of those who have signed up rather than through simply reading their entries on GWC. I have gotten nothing but compliments about doing GWC, just not much follow-through. No men have responded in any way.”

As for challenges, refining technical processes is an ongoing task and it is never easy working in isolation online; it can sometimes feel as if no-one is listening (or reading) and Dell Brady has found this aspect difficult. Going forward she would like to introduce a more team-based approach (along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge) and would like to see more interaction and discussion with bloggers, readers, and reviewers. So, head on over to GWC, have a look around, sign up, subscribe to the blog, or drop Marilyn a line — your suggestions are welcome. We wish Marilyn all the best for the continuing success of GWC!

In the same spirit of inspiring readers to pick up books by women of colour, as Marilyn Dell Brady has done, Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers will be hosting a challenge for readers of Indigenous literature during NAIDOC week (7-14 July). We will also be encouraging AWW challenge participants to review books by Indigenous women writers throughout the month of July. You can read more about this and other initiatives in an upcoming post by AWW contributing editor, Jessica White, later this week.

Happy reading,


About Me

I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist and editor and have worked as a librarian for many years. I’m always feeling guilty about what I ‘should’ have or ‘should be reading.’ I signed up for the AWW challenge in 2012 and this year, as well as doing my own challenge, I will be posting updates about Literary Awards and writing features. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit

The forgotten women’s writing festivals by Susan Hawthorne

SHawthorn-post-May2013I’ve been involved in feminist writing, organising and publishing for around 35 years. In that time I’ve participated in numerous events around women’s, feminist and lesbian writing. I’ve attended international feminist book fairs, a conference on women’s writing in Israel, Sybylla readings, books launches, talked on radio, reviewed books and been published in lit mags and journals in many places. Given that this has been my life, I was somewhat surprised to be asked if there have ever been any women’s writers festivals in Australia?*

And I wondered, how soon forgotten we are.

Salon-A-Muse, March 1982-1985, Melbourne
This was a monthly gathering for feminist artists, writers, playwrights, musicians, comedians and others to present their work to women interested in the arts and culture. At the first meeting about half the potential audience had to be turned away with just 80 squeezing into a terrace house living room. The organisers changed venue several times with monthly audiences in the range of 100-200. It was an extraordinary culturally rich period which followed on from the Women’s Theatre and women’s rock bands of the 1970s. In Canberra Tilly’s became a focus for women’s cultural productions and performances.

Sydney, 1982: The Sydney Women Writers Festival, Seymour Centre
This weekend festival was the first writers’ festival I ever went to. It was an eye-opener to me, a budding writer with hardly any published work. There I heard Antigone Kefala, Anna Couani and met Robyn Rowland, Susan Hampton and Lee Cataldi for the first time. There were readings, writing workshops and panel sessions.

Melbourne, 31 August – 8 September 1985: The Language of Difference: Women Writers’ Week, Abbotsford Convent
In 1984 after being unemployed for 15 months, I applied for the job of the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival. Part of Victoria’s 150th invasion celebration. I put it that way because from the start I wanted to subvert the idea of Australia’s history of colonisation. On 26 February 1985, we had a one-off session in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, Doris Lessing Speaks. An event with 800 in the audience, 200 of which were standing-room only tickets.

In September 1985, after many meetings, lots of invitations sent out, the 9-day writers week took place. Opening with keynote addresses from Audre Lorde (USA) and Keri Hulme (NZ/Aotearoa) and session speakers such as Dorothy Hewett, Eva Johnson, Elizabeth Jolley, Hazel Rowley, T. Nappurula Nelson, Diane Bell, Sandra Shotlander and many others. The 9-day festival was filled with sessions on Aboriginal and Islander women’s writing, migration and the mother tongue, class and literature, erotic and lesbian writing as well as sessions on publishing, scriptwriting, experimental writing, the feminist aesthetic and about a dozen book launches. This event occurred a year before the inaugural Melbourne’s Writers’ Festival. An anthology, Difference: Writings by Woman was published and launched at the festival.

Australia wide, 1989 and 1991, Australian Feminist Book Fortnight, 1-17 September 1989, 6-22 September 1991
This national festival of books and writers took two years to organise. On each occasion more than 200 events were held across the country – from Broome to Burnie, Whyalla to Wagga Wagga – as well as multiple events in every capital city. I can’t find the full programs but on one A4 photocopied page there were 31 events in Sydney alone with writers such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Marele Day, Ruby Langford, Dale Spender, Maxine Hong Kingston (USA), Luisa Valezuela (Argentina), Janette Turner Hospital, Beth Yahp, Drusilla Modjeska and more. Part of the purpose of the Fortnight was to promote books written by women to booksellers. To this end we produced 15,000 catalogues containing information about approximately 300 books. Of the 300, 20 were chosen as Feminist Fortnight Favourites and had prominence in a coloured insert in the catalogue. We also produced a double A4 poster with those 20 books reproduced in colour. The catalogues and posters were distributed to bookshops around Australia (in the first year by Penguin, in the second by Random House). Booksellers created window displays, some ran events and readings as well. I recall that the regional events were incredibly popular and in Broome 200 people turned up to the event. I have no idea of the total size of the audience, but it was certainly many thousands.

IMG_0794lowres portraitMelbourne, 27-31 July 1994: 6th International Feminist Book Fair: Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing, Exhibition Buildings
In 1992 a group of us put together a bid to take to the 5th International Feminist Book Fair in Amsterdam to hold the next IFBF in Melbourne. I presented the bid and we won it. Previous International Feminist Book Fairs had been run in London (1984), Oslo (1986), Montreal (1988), Barcelona (1990) and Amsterdam (1992). Renate Klein had been involved in the 1st IFBF in London, and the London event had been an inspiration for the 1985 Women Writers’ Festival. With Renate’s input in Australia and having attended Montreal, Barcelona and Amsterdam, we were in a good position to organise this event. It was held over 5 days. The first two days were industry days to allow publishers to sell rights and share information with one another, followed by three public days. Over 200 writers participated coming from many countries including China, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Aboriginal Australia, Romania, Vietnam and publishers from New Zealand/Aotearoa, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Egypt, Spain, Germany, Canada, USA, India and more. Our estimate is that 23,000 people attended. There were book launches and panel session, readings and workshops, as well as the book displays of at least 100 exhibitors. Most events were at the Exhibition Buildings but Mietta’s and other venues also became places of feminist writing and performance. Sadly, there were no more IFBFs after Melbourne. The 6th IFBF produced a sampler booklet of work by around half of the attending writers, 46 international writers and 53 Australian. The anthology, Flying Bookies: International Feminist Writers edited by Sandy Jeffs and Natasha Treloar, was named after Judy Horacek’s cartoon characters which had been produced initially for the AFBF and subsequently on materials for the IFBF.

In addition to these events, I know of a number of small festivals run to highlight the work of women writers. The Lynx Festival in Footscray (late 1982, I think) was one of them. I’m sure there have been others in other parts of Australia.

IMG_0793lowresStory Passions, 3-5 March 2006, North Melbourne Town Hall
The most recent large event I organised was the 15th birthday celebration for Spinifex Press, Story Passions, which took place from Friday to Sunday with forty writers and performers. It began with a panel session on the future of feminism, followed with sessions by novelists, playwrights and poets, by activists, and writers whose focus is politics and health. On the Saturday night six performers presented Swirl which included theatre, monologue, aerials and opera. Sue Ingleton closed the event on Sunday with her wonderful comedy. All sessions were videoed.

This morning a friend told me she had found in a shop, with a closing down sale, a cup engraved with the words: Women’s Art Fair, 1907.

It is all too easy to forget the amazing events that women have organised. On the whole they (we) are written out of history. The Feminist Book Fortnights began in the UK following the 1st International Feminist Book Fair in 1984, Australia picked up the baton, New Zealand’s Listener Women’s Book Festival carried on in the 1990s, and in the mid-1990s, US feminist publishers began creating joint catalogues of feminist writing. In India today, there is a thriving feminist publishing scene, and such presses exist in many places we don’t ever get to hear about.

There are many names left out of this brief run-down, my apologies to all, you are not forgotten. It would be fantastic to get women around Australia to write up similar events that occurred in different states.


susan-hawthorneSusan Hawthorne was the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival in 1985. She was a member of the Management Committee of the AFBF from 1988 to 1991 and Chair of the 6th IFBF Management Committee from 1992 to 1996. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, a novel and two works of non-fiction. She is currently Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville and Publisher at Spinifex Press which she and Renate Klein co-founded in 1991.

Susan was recently interviewed by Rob Kennedy on Guys Read Gals blog here.

© Susan Hawthorne, 2013

* This question was posed to AWW by Michaela Bolzan, Creative Director of the Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival, which will be held in Sydney on July 20.

Gender bias in literary reviewing: VIDA Count 2012

It’s International Women’s Day this Friday, March 8, and the count is in.

According to VIDA  – Women in Literary Arts, several prestigious literary journals improved their representation of work by women in 2012, including The Boston Review, Threepenny and Poetry. But what of Harpers, The Paris Review, The New Republic, New York Review Of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Nation and The Atlantic?

The graphics speak for themselves.*



VIDA-2012-NewRupublicVIDA2012-New-York-Review-BooksVIDA-2012-TLSVIDA-2012-NewRupublicVIDA2012-nation VIDA2012-Atlantic

*Note: some of the selected charts above refer to a breakdown of the number of authors whose books were reviewed; others refer to, and are labelled as, “overall” contributions by men and women. The complete VIDA Count for 2012 can be found here.


Despite the VIDA count being in its third year, it’s obvious the trend of ignoring both books by women and women contributors has continued. Gender bias is real and it affects more than the careers and livelihoods of talented female writers. Ultimately it affects the way cultures are shaped and what gets recorded as history.

What can we do?

According to the VIDA group, “Improvements will happen with effort, not accidentally or by ignoring the glaring disparities”. They advise:

Count your bookshelves… Write seriously about works by women. Solicit and commission writing by women. Consider race, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories as well.
(Source: VIDA site: Frequently Asked Questions.)

To this, we’d add: contribute to reading and reviewing challenges such as the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Global Women of Color and the newly created South-Asian Women Writers Challenge (more about this soon).

Follow these challenges on Twitter, Facebook and GoodReads and tweet using their respective hashtags.  Look up the reviews of books already reviewed for the AWW challenge and take the time to comment. Mention what you’re doing – and why – to your friends and acquaintances. Get your local librarians, booksellers, and school and university teachers involved.

Even if traditional modes of reviewing continue to fail women, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. Together we can help to create a global online reading community which takes women and women’s writing seriously. And if you have any other ideas how to help, let us know.

Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers

In lieu of a monthly wrap-up, my offering is a belated write-up of an event held at the State Library of New South Wales last December. My co-blogger, Sue Terry, will post a wrap-up of literary fiction and classics next week.

Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers featured author/academic Jane Gleeson-White and author/Chief Literary Critic of the Australian Geordie Williamson in discussion. The chair was journalist and ABC broadcaster/producer Cassie McCullough.

Australian women writers were operating as subversives within the field of Australian literature as it is determined by a small and narrow clique and they are interesting and more interesting to us today, precisely because they did. Geordie Williamson

The focus of this discussion was the familiar, recurring story of Australian women writers who, for various reasons, struggled to find a path to publication. Many had their work heavily edited by male editors, and several only found their way to publication overseas. We heard about their frustrations, their difficult lives, their determination, their successes and failures. Many of their stories can be found in books written by the presenters: Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library and Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great writers and their celebrated works.

Australian Classics: 50 Great writers and their celebrated works by Jane Gleeson-White

The conversation opened with a reference to Jane Gleeson-White’s declaration in an Overland  blog post that 2012 was the year of women writers. Explaining that with the establishment of the Stella prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Jennifer Mills’s article on Classics and the domination of the fiction awards by Anna Funder and Gillian Mears, she felt that we were experiencing a “sea change”.

In response to a question from McCullough about whether outsiders have a keener eye for cultural products than residents, Williamson, who was born in Australia, went on to give us quite a personal insight into his background and how he came to write The Burning Library.

Speaking about his experience as “an outsider”, he described the period of his life where he spent five years doing postgraduate research in English literature in England. “I’m a really shocking academic,” he said. Having discovered that, he went to work for a bookseller and dealt with manuscript materials and rare books. Says Williamson: “I found myself living in the West Country, pretending to write a thesis, walking the dog along this shingly beach and thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I feel so homesick. I found a copy of Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown in a little shop and took it up to the The Undercliff.” Set in Australia and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Cardboard Crown is about an upper middle-class family who love both countries but are not quite at home in either. This revelatory read inspired Williamson to focus on Australian literature when he returned to Australia to become a full-time literary reviewer. “A presiding spirit of my book is Drusilla Modjeska,” he said and described her book Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945 as “a crucial work of cultural history.”


“Australian Literature and Australian Women’s literature is constantly under threat and exists in a state of crisis and I’ve come to the conclusion that that is its natural state. My book emerged out of a sense that it is embattled; that there are great problems in the way it is taught, published and disseminated and that there are problems generally in the reading community in terms of getting the information out there and raising enthusiasm levels,” he said.

An important thread of the evening’s discussion was one of the main obstacles faced by Australian women writers of a certain period: the masculine, bush tradition in Australian literature which was championed by the editor of the Bulletin, AG Stephens. Gleeson-White briefed the audience on this. “Masculine culture came about in the 1890s with the Bulletin and the first coherent promotion of a national literary culture even though we weren’t a nation yet. AG Stephens promoted this ‘bush writing’ to distinguish it from English and American literature. He published Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and so on. Although he didn’t publish My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, he did declare her book to be ‘the first Australian novel’ and it was published in the year of Federation in 1901.”

Gleeson-White says that she was not motivated to write her book on Australian Classics by a desire to promote women or men. “I wanted to give an accessible overview of Australian Literature and to make available to anyone who hadn’t studied it at university, some way in to literary culture which wasn’t a dense textbook,” she said. “I found it fascinating how many early women writers couldn’t find publication here. That includes Miles Franklin. The part of their work which was considered ‘too feminine’ was excised.”


As Gleeson-White went on to explain, a prime example of this is The Chosen Vessel by Barbara Baynton—a story about a woman living alone on her selection. “AG Stephens, Editor of the Bulletin published the story but omitted the second part. He left the first part, the realist bush part in but ‘excised’ the supernatural, religious overtones of the second part of the story, leaving in the bush realism to fit his vision for the Bulletin.”

It was very heartening to hear that after some hardship, Barbara Baynton’s story ended well. She and her squatter husband lived on a selection in the bush. When he left her for the maid, she moved to Sydney with her children. She then met her second husband, a wealthy doctor, who was well connected to the literary world and she began to write. No one in Australia would publish her short story collection. When her husband died, leaving her well-off, she went to London and happened to meet the critic/editor Edward Garnett, who had published Henry Lawson and others and was connected to the Bloomsbury circle. He loved all her stories and published them as they were as Bush Studies. I loved Gleeson-White’s description of Baynton as “a grand literary dame” living the high life, dressed to the nines and driving around in flash cars.

Judith Wright—one of Australia’s greatest poets had a similar experience, said Gleeson-White. Clem Christesen , founder of Meanjin, published her first book of poetry, The Moving Image. It was very successful critically, and in terms of sales. Wright sent him her second book of poems (Woman to Man), which she had written after having met and fallen in love with a man for the first time. “They were very intimate poems about her body, about pregnancy, about being a woman,” she said. “And she wrote to him saying ‘not sure if you’ll like this lot’. Well he didn’t like ‘this lot’ and he didn’t publish it because it was ‘so female-centered’. It was published eventually but didn’t do as well and one critic said it was ‘alienating for men’. It was AG Stephens who called Barbara Baynton ‘too obstetric’.”


M Barnard Eldershaw was next on the list but as Williamson explained, this was actually a formidable, two-woman writing team consisting of Marjorie Barnard (who, along with Christina Stead, was one of Patrick White’s favourite writers) and Flora Eldershaw. They wrote together because there was no literary community.

“This pair emerge out of the conditions Jane has described,” Williamson said. “We had a limited literary network at the beginning of Federation. It permitted women inside its ring- fenced circle but they had to be ‘sympatico’. Miles [Franklin] is fascinating in this regard because she takes on a lot of the rhetoric of the Bulletin school but we now have to recuperate her as something else. We read only one half of her experience,” he said.

Both writers went to the University of Sydney and Barnard graduated with First-class Honours and the university medal in History. She was offered a scholarship at Oxford but her father, a strict Presbyterian, prevented her from going. She stayed at home to care for her parents and became a librarian (topping library examinations in 1921). “A noble undertaking but it was for her a crippling time,” says Williamson. “Life is banked up in me for miles and miles,” she once wrote in a letter.

Barnard and Eldershaw wrote historical novels together. Williamson says that despite their writing seeming to be “very obedient to the norms of realism laid down by the Bulletin school”, the concerns of their novels are not with the “masculine realm of outward endeavour” but with the “feminine”.  Williamson says an example of this is the mercantile, rags to riches story about the rise of a British merchant, A House is Built (which won the pair the Bulletin Prize in 1928). “The men are lost, outside the novel’s frame,” he says.


And as the years go on, it is increasingly the social and domestic worlds which are at the heart of their novels. “And this seems radical and wonderfully sneaky. This is what inspired Patrick White’s vision of early Sydney and this is what White writes about—the feminine interior, the world of women as a place of wonder and bizarre, majestic otherness.” In this regard, Williamson asked us to think about the opening chapters of The Vivisector.

Williamson says when he was trying to do a 50/50 gender split of men and women writers for his book, it was easier to find women who “undermined the traditional, gendered version of Australian Literature laid down because the men were very much stuck in the realist, masculinist, rural mode.” He is not saying that he doesn’t like the men’s books or that they are not worthy of “recuperation”. Rather that: “Because they were moving in the direction of more national and political ideological currents, they were more obedient to them, they were more like propagandists than writers of literature in the way we think of it today.” He gave the example of Frank Dalby Davison (Man Shy, Dusty).

Williamson explained that as M Barnard Eldershaw went on to write more sophisticated books incorporating philosophy and modernism, and they became increasingly unpopular and more negatively reviewed.

As time went on, Barnard tended to write fiction (eventually writing her book of stories The Persimmon Tree), whereas Eldershaw wrote non-fiction Together, they produced a landmark volume of Australian criticism, Essays in Australian Fiction and wrote the first essays on Christina Stead and Henry Handel Richardson.

Williamson says that their vision was extraordinary for their times, the 1930s. “That there might in fact be a national literature, it might include women and that women might in fact be the preeminent practitioners.”

When introducing Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Barnard’s last book published in 1947, Williamson said it was written mostly on her own and it was heavily censored by the government because of its left-wing, anti-war stance. Barnard had joined the ALP and was an avowed pacifist. Many cuts were made to the book and this seriously affected its flow. It was republished uncensored in 1983, again fell out of print and Patrick White said it was one of the great Australian novels.


Gleeson-White then sang the praises of one of her favourite novels (along with Voss and Carpentaria): Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson. A gifted pianist, scholar, and translator, Henry Handel Richardson went to Leipzig to study as a music student and married a philologist she met there; he adored and promoted her. She was the first translator of Ibsen into English and James Joyce, an admirer of Ibsen, bought a copy of the book.

Says Gleeson-White: “She was this freaky, brilliant woman who read Freud in the original, before he was known to be a genius. She was obsessed with Wagner, steeped in European literature and music. All of that feeds into Maurice Guest. It is the most fantastic, overblown passionate novel, a devastating Wagnerian love story. There is poor hapless Maurice, the piano student, vying for the love of an Australian girl with the genius violinist, Nietzschean superman.”

It’s interesting as Gleeson-White says Henry Handel Richardson’s best known and loved stories are the ones based in Australia like The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which are part of what she describes as the “nation building canon”. She was very pleased to say that Maurice Guest has just come back into print (published by as part of the Text Classics series).

Discussion moved on to Christina Stead who was only reviewed once, and negatively, in the 2012 AWW Challenge. This was surprising to quite a few Challenge participants so it was interesting to hear Williamson say that he believed that the difficulty of being the expatriate as it applies to Maurice Guest applies to Christina Stead’s entire career and may help to partly explain her lack of appeal.

Many great critics have praised her as one of Australia’s and the 20th century’s greatest writers. She won the inaugural Patrick White prize and White set it up with her in mind. Stead in a letter to a friend says “my credo is intelligent ferocity”. And Williamson says she wrote like that during her entire career.

McCullough quoted from Jonathan Franzen’s piece on The Man Who Loved Children in which he calls it a “masterpiece” but also says: “I suspect that one reason The Man Who Loved Children remains exiled from the canon is that Christina Stead’s ambition was to write not ‘like a woman’ but ‘like a man': her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists, and she’s not enough like a man for everybody else.”

There was a slight digression here as Williamson apologised “as a man” for Jonathan Franzen saying that the author had “jumped the shark in literary terms” when conversation turned to Franzen’s comments about Edith Wharton in his essay Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy.

Angela Carter said: “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness.” Williamson asks: why is it then that, according to Nielsen Bookscan, she sold 199 books in 2008, and was taught on only one university course (For Love Alone at the University of Queensland). Williamson identifies two points: “She lived in Europe, America, and the UK. She never had an established relationship with any particular locale, or class or language group. She was an exile in the best 20th century tradition. And since she was married to a Jewish, communist stockbroker, the 20th century was not kind to them on either side of the Atlantic.”


He says that Stead’s reception was very much marred by the fact that she was unwilling to accept certain “boundaries” (she didn’t like being edited or editing her work). “She is our great genius, she wrote like no one else, she is a figure of world literature and her greatness is something which we don’t actually respect. We like our modernism light; we like our Booker novels well-tended, well-edited and we don’t want to be so ‘furiously explained’, with the great terrors of existence. It’s too much and she is too much and that’s why she’s such a splendid writer and it’s probably why it’s so hard to get people to read her,” he said.

Gleeson-White agreed that Christina Stead is not “easy reading” saying that she tried many times to read The Man Who Loved Children before she succeeded and finds Ulysses easier to read. She’s not even sure she likes The Man Who Loved Children although she loves Christina Stead.

It was suggested that Christina Stead “beach reads” would be For Love Alone or The Salzburg Tales described by Williamson as “folktales retold by a brilliant young woman who has just arrived in London who is going to set the literary alight. Everybody says it’s spectacular. The review in the New Yorker said it’s better than The Decameron.”

And what of Amy Witting? She was the first Australian writer to sell two stories to the New Yorker and when they asked for another, she refused because her second one had been edited without her knowledge. Williamson told us that Kenneth Slessor who had published her first story in Southerly said to Thea Astley (who was working as a teacher with Witting at the time):  “Tell her I would publish any word she wrote.”

Says Williamson: “Her story is the story of how hard it is to become a writer as a woman in the 20th century. You won’t find her on university courses or in print. She is not in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature.”


Recommending her novella I for Isobel which features the character Isobel, (who also appears in some stories and in a later novel Isobel on the way to the Corner Shop), he says Witting’s first novel wasn’t published until quite late in her life. Despite being called “the Australian Chekov”, her publisher didn’t agree and wouldn’t publish her in paperback. I for Isobel was set to be published when sales staff decided against it.

She was a teacher and may never have been published had it not been for one of her students who became a literary figure in London and shopped her manuscript around. Amy Witting’s work was recognised with the Patrick White Award in 1993 and she was posthumously awarded an AM in 2002.

Williamson concluded by saying: All these people are our Sleeping Beauties but Amy Witting is in “suspended animation”.

List of writers (I’ve no doubt missed some):

Drusilla Modjeska

Judith Wright

Barbara Baynton

Miles Franklin

Marjorie Barnard

Flora Eldershaw

M Barnard Eldershaw

Frank Dalby Davison

Patrick White

Henry Handel Richardson

Christina Stead

Amy Witting

Further reading:

Our Common Ground by Geordie Williamson

What we talk about when talk about Australian literature Kerryn Goldsworthy on Text Classics

Auto da Fé  Nicolas Jose on The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson

Write-up of this event by John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante who was also there but unlike me, wrote it up promptly!

About Me

I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist, editor and librarian. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit

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