April 2014 Roundup: Diversity

These balmy (at least in Brisbane!) autumn evenings kept our readers out of doors over April, as numbers were down in the diversity department.  Yours truly is also to blame, as I’ve been chained to my desk with writing deadlines.  However soon I’ll unshackle myself and start reviewing the books that I’ve been reading.

MullumbimbySome of our reviewing stalwarts penned great pieces this month.  Marilyn of Me, You and Books reviewed Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby.  Through the protagonist Jo Breen, Marilyn writes, Lucashenko ‘challenges the assumed normality of whiteness … Her views and Lukashenko’s do not romanticize Indigenous life or view it as uniformly tragic.  They simply do not take European institutions and world views as the norm.’  Lucashensko’s use of language contributes to the creation of this world view, as the work is peppered with Bunjalung words.  Marilyn sometimes found herself stumbling over these phrases, but she didn’t mind that, for it helped her ‘move away from the English I assume is universal and into a world where I am the outsider.’

TiddasA few of AWW’s regular bloggers reviewed Anita Heiss’ Tiddas, about five Indigenous women in Brisbane who get together once a month for book club.  Michael, in the Newtown Review of Books describes it as a strong and meaningful ‘fictional account of the strong Koori connections to ancestors and land’ to which she gave voice in Am I Black Enough for You?  Lauren of The Australian Bookshelf admired the Indigenous women’s ‘strength, their connection with their Aboriginal heritage and their determination to be good role models and advocate for those who are underprivileged.’  WriteNoteReviews writes that ‘Readers will relate to the issues and challenges the five women experience, such as fertility, career, family and relationships, and sex – each of us can relate to one or all of them,’ and adds that Heiss takes these ‘issues further, using her strong ensemble cast to add social commentary on Aboriginal culture, identity and politics.’

TheSwanBookAlexisWrightIt was also good to see a review of Alexis Wright’s complex and multi-layered The Swan Book from Stephanie at Goodreads, who warns that ‘if you want your story told in a straightforward manner, then you should look elsewhere.’ The prose, she notes, ‘is often poetic, slipping into colloquialisms and stream-of-consciousness and back again, often within the span of one sentence.’ It isn’t a straightforward book, but that makes it refreshing, and the reader is rewarded with something new each time they return to it.

SafeHarbourHeleneYoungIn her Classics and Literary roundup for April, Sue commented on works with Indigenous content or characters by white writers, a theme on which she sometimes meditates in her blog Whispering Gums.  To Sue’s worthy mentions I’ll add Kat of Book Thingo’s review of Helene Young’s new work, Safe Harbour, which features an Indigenous character who is important to the protagonist’s back story.  Kat writes that ‘I’ve long felt that Aboriginal characters are severely underrepresented in this genre—at least, where rural fiction intersects with romance—so I hope this is something that we’ll see more of.’

AnguliMaAGothicTaleChiVuThere were also reviews from writers of diverse backgrounds. Nalini of DarkMatterZine wrote on Vietnamese-born Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale, set in Melbourne in the 1980s, when the flight of refugees from Vietname to Australia was at its height.  ‘Neither supernatural nor excessively bloody,’ she writes, ‘this tale has the potential to shock while illuminating the very real ramifications of disclocation suffered by refugees fleeing devastation.’ It sounds like a fascinating novella, and I’ve ordered a copy to my local library.

ABeautifulPlaceToDieNunn

Angie, of Projected Happiness, reviewed Malla Nunn’s popular crime novel A Beautiful Place to Die, set in 1950s South Africa.  Nunn’s work, she writes ‘is an education in race relations and culture mores, wrapped around an engaging whodunit.  Her language is to the point, while addressing the “jigsaw of people” who make up the nation.’

Foreign-soil-clarkeSean from Adventures of a Bookonaut reviewed Maxine Beneba Clark’s short stories, Foreign Soil, in which the majority of characters ‘are people of colour and the settings range from the West Indies, to England and Australia.’  Sean was hugely impressed with the collection, and commented that Clarke ‘has that knack of taking characters who you share nothing in common with (at least on the surface) and making you care desperately about them.’ That’s the sign of a good writer!  I’m looking forward to uncovering more of them next month.

 

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012).  I’m currently writing a book of creative non-fiction on Queensland novelist Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

Mystery and mirth making: An interview with Marianne de Pierres

Marianne de PierresA fan once told Marianne de Pierres that she was getting a tattoo of her book title because it was what turned her onto reading.

It’s not surprising that she engenders such a reaction from a large loyal fanbase – the first time I met her was at a convention where she was happily signing books, gossiping and offering advice to them.

Approachable is a good word for it especially since she readily agreed to be interviewed for Australian Women Writers and we have been teasing you about this interview for months.

She’s a long time supporter of all things AWW, often lurking in the background:

“I watch everyone’s blogs avidly and try and pick up new writers to read. I’m a big fan of the AWW Challenge, cheering from the sidelines.”

But where to begin?

Perhaps with the enticing news that her next novel Peacemaker is now out and with the information that she straddles two genres: speculative fiction, of which Peacemaker is the latest offering, and crime fiction.

She is also working on Dealbreaker which will be Peacemaker‘s sequel but Tara Sharp fans do not fret, there is more crime around the corner.

“I also have two crime novels that I’m gently pursuing, including Tara Sharp 4 and a new concept about a private detective who specialises in Art Theft.” she told me via email from over on the East Coast.

And two genres aren’t enough as she starts diving into the world of Young Adult fiction as well:

“Then there’s some other bits and pieces, like my YA novel Emo Trader and a SF near future thriller entitled Pharmakon. The latter are all in various stages of development.”

I asked if she was able to choose between the genres – if there was such a thing as a favourite. Her reply was interesting:

“My perfect genre is science fiction crime. I’m, at heart, a futurist, but I love mysteries and puzzles in stories.”

The reason it is interesting is because that’s pretty much what she does try to do when writing her speculative fiction works – the plots always have a hint of mystery, something to puzzle out and often quite a few characters who tend to kick various parts of other people’s anatomy and dabble in nomenclature. And when you pick up her crime fiction, Tara Sharp makes you laugh.

Marianne, herself, makes you laugh as well but she’s quick to get to the point about the important things. And the writing, anything to do with the writing is certainly one of those important things:

“Writing is very central to my inner peace and happiness,” she said, honestly. As a writer, I nodded very sagely each time I read this.

“It’s the meditation I need to get through life. It gets me excited but it also calms me down, if that makes any sense at all!”

It’s important, integral, all consuming perhaps and overwhelming and cathartic all at the same time perhaps but it also did take her quite some time before she put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard with any intention of serious storytelling.

“I never considered it as a career until I was about mid-thirties. Even then, it was more of a ‘let’s make a start and see where it takes me’, rather than a well-constructed plan.”

And before her thirties? Well, life had intervened and there was also a lot of growing up and learning to be done. Again the honesty came through:

“I spent my childhood and adolescence writing bits and pieces, inspired by the books that I loved, but it took me until my thirties to develop any self-discipline about it.”

And there were children as well to consider:

“At that point in my life, I was still very caught up in child rearing and writing time was a precious commodity.” she replied. “Maturity brings a lot to the writing table.”

It’s not just the sort of maturity where it brings depth to your characters and a sense of realism to your plot that she was referring to here. There was the maturity of realising just what needed to be done to get a book out. Including gluing yourself to the desk chair every day.

Her best advice came from Bill Congreve in the late nineties when she took it to heart:

“Finish what you start. Best advice I ever got, thanks, Bill! Sounds simple but you’d be amazed by how many writers have files full of partials, and very few completed manuscripts. No one publishes a story that isn’t finished!”

It’s now part of her steady routine. No magic, according to her, just a formula. And consistency:

“A little every day except Sunday. Sometimes only a paragraph, sometimes a thousand words. I’m not one to write huge amounts in a day, but I do write most days.”

I asked how she puts her crimes together. To me, this is a feat that is logically impressive – to keep track of all possibilities within a puzzle and to weave the solution, the crime and the clues all in together.

Her humour came through again. Marianne’s weapon of choice is a notebook and doodling – one that I have an urge to now look at, as I am sure many fans would. The doodles in particular sound intriguing. Once she has thought up the idea of course.

“I might start writing notes in a large note book. These will be basic dot points and are sometimes  accompanied by squiggly diagrams. That’s my plot resource! From then on, it’s just straight into the writing process.”

I am also keen to know what influences her. She admitted, as most any writer would, to a love of reading and started talking about why she thinks AWW is so important and who the first female Australian author she can remember reading was:

“Probably Elizabeth Jolley back when I was at uni in the late 70’s, but even then most of the writers on my course lists were male. The next time a female author stood out to me was Sarah Douglass back in the early nineties. Sad, isn’t it? All those years reading almost entirely male Australian authors.”

But there have been female influences, right? She listed them out, both male and female, for us:

  • Lilith’s Brood - Octavia Butler
  • Ash – Mary Gentle
  • Divine Endurance – Gwyneth Jones
  • Beggars in Spain – Nancy Kress
  • CrashCourse, ClipJoint – Wilhelmina Baird
  • Guns with Occasional Music – Jonathon Lethem
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Chaga – Ian MacDonald
  • Vermillion Sands – J G Ballard
  • Twilight Beach – Terry Dowling
  • A Separate Reality – Carlos Castaneda
  • Rama Revealed – A. C. Clarke

She does read other female Australian writers and she was keen to recommend names, though she refused to play favourites:

“I’d be lynched by all my friends.” She joked. “But some Aussie women writers whose work I’m quite partial to and never see enough of due to their infrequent publishing are: Maxine McArthur, Lucy Sussex and Leanne Frahm. I want more publishers to grab their work and wave it around!”

Which led to the question of being a female author in Australia and being supported by the industry.

“Publishing Science Fiction in Australia is hard full stop.” She explained. “The reading audience for it is small and the publishing industry doesn’t really support it currently. I’ve had to get inventive in the ways I manage this problem – but that’s for another discussion!”

It’s slightly different when it comes to crime fiction though.

“As a female crime writer, Sisters in Crime has been a godsend. Without them I think I’d be very disillusioned with crime publishing. They have made great progress in promoting the voice of Australian women writers.”

But what about the next generation of Australian female authors? What advice does she have for them? What heffalump traps should they avoid?

She was quite direct in her response:

“Head down, keep writing. NO. SUBSTITUTE. FOR. IT.”

The authoritative tone makes you sure that there is writing that should be getting done. “Other than the Internet, the worst trap is being overly critical of your first draft. That’s what leads to writers block and stagnation. Let yourself off the hook when you’re getting the story down.”

And if you do it right, you might find yourself with fans who get tattoos inspired by your work. As Marianne explained to me, it’s much more common than you think. But then again, she also had someone name their firstborn after her.

Marianne’s latest book Peacemaker is out right now and you can find out more at her website.

About me
Image
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 pens book reviews for The West and the ABR, science news and then writes and edits 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. Feel free to badger her at her blog at  marisa.com.au, onFacebook or tweet at her at @mwikramanayake

Q and A with crime author P M Newton

BeamsFallingPMNewtonP M Newton’s newest crime novel, Beams Falling, has been a favourite with challenge participants, having been reviewed eight times so far this year. It’s the eagerly anticipated sequel to Newton’s acclaimed debut novel The Old School. The Old School won both the Sisters in Crime Davitt Award and the Asher Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Indie Award for Debut Fiction as well as the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. If Beams Falling doesn’t attract similar acclaim, there’s something wrong with the state of Australian crime fiction. Both novels draw on Newton’s long career as a police officer, feature Vietnamese-Australian detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly and are set in a fraught time for Australian policing: Sydney in the 1990s.

Newton kindly agreed to answer the following questions for AWW.

Q. One of the central questions of Beams Falling for the central character, Nhu “Ned” Kelly, is “Why be a cop?”, a question she confronts and resolves while recovering from PTSD. Have you ever suffered from PTSD? If so, could you tell us about it? If not, how difficult was this aspect of the book to write?

After 13 years in The Job I was burnt out, depressed and fed up but I did not have PTSD and I am very aware of my good fortune to have avoided it. I researched the topic, I read memoirs, clinical texts, reports, advice from health services, and texts about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There’s a lot information and coverage about soldiers at the moment, but I specifically researched it in respect of how it affects police. I spoke with a counsellor about how you help people who are hyper-vigilant and paranoid to overcome those behaviours when their job is essentially unsafe and the people they deal with untrustworthy. I wrote a lot about the people in Ned’s therapy group much of which didn’t end up making it into the final version – so I know them and the tales of their individual traumas very well and was able to look at different answers to that question.

Q. You have mentioned one of your literary heroes is Sethe from Tony Morrison’s Beloved, a survivor of terrible trauma, citing “her courage to live on” as the reason for your admiration. You have also stated that your “worst job” was “running a court matter involving a young victim that, unlike a TV show but exactly like real life, ended badly with no justice, no satisfaction and no resolution.” Assuming that is the kind of courage you’ve attempted to depict in Beams Falling – the courage to live on when things may end without either justice or resolution – do you see any tensions in this portrayal of a hero-protagonist’s journey and contemporary popular expectations of fictional heroes? If so, would you care to elaborate? If not, how can the two be reconciled in your view?

I have always had problems with ‘happily ever after’ as the end of a story. Perhaps I was an especially melancholy child but those lines at the end of a story always left me deeply unsatisfied, asking, ‘But how? How do you live happily ever after?’ I guess my idea of romance cleaves more to Anna Karenina, which explored what happens to ‘happily ever after’ when society, culture, religion and emotions all conspire against you. The hero’s journey has a lot to answer for, I reckon! It’s why so many Hollywood blockbuster movies feel like the same movie, remade again and again and again. Why there’s no tension in serials where you know the protagonists are safe from harm, where no matter the lengths they are put to, there will be no lasting impact.

As a craft issue, I don’t want readers to be able to guess the arc of my story from the start, not from half way, not even right up to the end.

Beams Falling is very concerned with ideas of courage and bravery. Bravery, to my mind, only exists when there is fear. If you are not scared then your actions may be mad, reckless, motivated by revenge, but I don’t know that they are brave. And bravery can mean simple acts, getting up every day, going on, doing your job, being kind to strangers, when you have been broken apart. The courage of refugee communities in going on with their lives is a case in point. But this is courage that does not come without a cost, as some of the stories in Alice Pung’s collection Growing Up Asian in Australia testify. My characters are often muddling through, they are works in progress, like we are.

Q. You have stated that, “To me, a test of a great crime novel is that you couldn’t imagine the events happening anywhere else, at any other time.” You’ve also expressed concern over a possible growing lack of diversity in our reading, and the potential loss of local stories as our reading habits are shaped by e-reading and ties to particular internet platforms. Elsewhere you’ve expressed reservations about the “kill all the women and make ‘em suffer” aspect of popular crime writing, and what you’ve described as the “blockbuster mentality” in writing and publishing. What tensions, if any, do you see between the desire to write books of “literary merit” – books of significant cultural and personal value – and being a commercial success? Do you wrestle with the idea of author as entertainer versus author as artist? (This may be just another way of asking the previous question!)

I’ve worked out that you can only write the book you care about. It’s hard work (for me anyway) writing a book. So I go in knowing it’s going to take time, and that unless I’m really committed to the characters, to the story, to the way I want to tell it, then it’s pointless. Because writing it is only the beginning, then there’s the re-writing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want my books to find lots of readers – that’s why I write. I want to be read. And books that find lots of readers will also find commercial success. That means that you will have a happy publisher, you will have happy booksellers, you will have a bank account that allows you to pay a bill without checking the balance first. None of these things are bad things.

I believe that most writers write the story they care about and believe in. Some of those stories capture the zeitgeist. I don’t think anyone knows why, and even if they could work out the formula, I don’t think you could write that formula and make it work unless it really mattered to you on a story level. Romance is a good example. People often sneer that it’s so formulaic anyone could write it. They can’t. Readers can tell.

The move that the genre of crime fiction is taking into graphic depictions of extreme violence, usually perpetrated towards women, does disturb me. I’m uncomfortable with the connection being made that it is somehow more ‘realistic’ when the real situation of violence against women is not serial killers but husbands, boyfriends, fathers and sons.  At the other extreme I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of finding consolation in crime fiction.

Q. It’s years since I read any Graham Greene, but I had a sense while I was reading Beams Falling that you are similarly delving into morally ambiguous territory, and I wasn’t surprised to read that you consider Greene’s book The Quiet American as a pivotal influence. Can you say what it is about The Quiet American that strikes you, and what about the book, if anything, has influenced your writing in general or Beams Falling in particular?

The Quiet American was a book that purportedly contained more of Greene’s reportage than any other. His use of real events, the real time and place and moment of big social, political and emotional shifts is just inspired. To tell these momentous events through the deceptively small story of a love affair and a crime was a risk that worked magnificently. It’s a work to look up to, to aspire to.

Structurally it is so elegant. It’s not until you finish the book that you realise that it actually started right at the moment the crime was being committed, and that the narrator was culpable. Very slowly you realise you are witnessing a confession.

Greene’s world, his characters live in a morally ambiguous space. They don’t always behave well, but they behave in ways that are real, and emotionally true. He manages to treat the subject of the big choices people make about big issues like taking sides in a civil war, and the subject of what to do when your lover abandons you with equal weight.

Such a great book. I need to read it again.

Q. Before I read that the title, Beams Falling, is a quote from The Maltese Falcon, I assumed the beams referred to the structures of the “old school” way of policing. Was this ambiguity intentional?

Ha! No, I hadn’t thought of that. But I like it. I was always struck by those lines and by that story in The Maltese Falcon. I’m sure it came from Hammett’s own experience as a Pinkerton agent – it has that tang of truth to it. I see the sufferers of PTSD as people who’ve been living with the beams falling, and getting well means trying to learn to trust that they may have stopped falling.

Q. I note that you have great command of figurative language, rarely use cliche, use a lot of strong verbs, and often write in fragments or part sentences when in the deep point of view of your character (suggesting almost a stream of consciousness). To what extent does style come naturally to you, or how much of it can be attributed to rewriting and editing? Do you agree that one of the major differences between good and poor writing is the time spent crafting? How difficult is this part of the writing process for you? Who, if anyone, taught you your craft?

Thank you. I do think a lot about language, I rewrite, although some lines, like the opening line, came early and stayed. Because crime fiction does have a plot that needs servicing, I’m often thinking of ways to convey a piece of ‘information’ in a way that almost blindsides the reader rather than as a bald set of facts. Like the writer Chuck Wendig says, ‘Plot is Soylent Green, it’s made of people.’ I find it sometimes takes a few drafts before some of the minor characters start to feel like people for me, until that happens, I worry that the plot doesn’t haven’t enough Soylent Green.

I think about language, I want it to tell a story that allows people to read it, feel it, smell it, love it, hate it, take that leap into the character’s skin, into their head.

I started writing about travel and music before I attempted fiction. Maybe having to describe places and people and the emotional spaces that music opens up meant I struggled early with writing more than just facts. I was fortunate to have access to excellent tutors at UTS, writers who were writing very differently to me, but who exposed me to a lot of authors and gave me good technical advice: my tutors included Julia Leigh, Mandy Sayer, Jean Bedford, Catherine Cole, and I read widely. Discovering the technique of Free Indirect Speech opened up how to take the reader into my character’s head, without announcing it with a bunch of clumsy tags, and reading Peter Temple’s pared back punctuation and dialogue in The Broken Shore was like getting permission to write cops speaking the way I remembered it.

Q. You’ve been very generous in giving a shout to other female Australian crime writers, including Angela Savage, Malla Nunn and Sulari Gentill. You’ve also mentioned having read Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy (which could possibly be described as “literary crime”). Is there anyone else you’ve come across you’d like to mention – including writers outside the crime genre?

I really admire Anita Heiss for claiming a space in contemporary women’s fiction – a genre that reaches a lot of readers – and she is reaching them with her thoroughly contemporary Aboriginal female characters; which, I am sure, confound the expectations and projections of many of those readers in a wonderful way. Melissa Lucashenko’s novel, Mullumbimby was a love song to place told in a funny, passionate and totally unique voice that made me aware of how much tension I projected onto certain events in the narrative. Attica Locke is writing layered novels that use crime fiction to tell stories about place and history and race in America. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is another novel to read and re-read, to smell and feel the lush rotting landscape of the Caribbean and the tragedy of Jane Eyre’s ‘Mad Woman in the Attic’ – there are scenes in that book that never leave me. Stunning.

Q. What were the circumstances that led you to leave the police force? How hard was it for you to resign? Do you regret it? What do you miss? What don’t you miss? Was gaining your own “courage to live on” part of your decision to follow a different path?

I left because I just couldn’t imagine myself in that job in ten years, twenty years, thirty years down the road. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, the culture of drinking was still strong, and the work was grinding me down. I did finally realise I’d had enough of meeting people for the first time on the worst day of their life. When I started reading about Buddhism and read the description of the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth, death, it bore more than a passing resemblance to The Job. The never-ending parade of jobs, reports of crime, investigations, arrests, court matters, more reports of fresh crimes, like a conveyor belt.

You miss a memory of the fun, the comradeship, the jokes, but like most memories those are rather tinged with nostalgia. I don’t miss the stress. I don’t miss the unhappiness, of workmates, of victims, of criminals.

I’m not sure it was courage in the end. I think I was more afraid of staying because of how deeply unhappy I’d become than I was of leaving without any clear idea of what was going to come next.

Q. One other question I wanted to ask – which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere – was your decision to write from the point of view of a half-Vietnamese protagonist in Beams Falling. Could you tell me how that came about, what challenges and advantages it presented, and whether we’ll be in for more of Nhu’s story? And finally, is there anything you’d like to add? 

Re Ned being Vietnamese/Australian – that’s who she was when she turned up. It’s the best and worst explanation, because it’s true, she arrived to solve this crime I’d set myself, and she walked on as a senior detective in the Homicide Squad, she was already in her late 30s and she was fully formed. She was Vietnamese/Australian, her parents were victims of an unsolved murder and her nickname was Ned. When I worked out I had the right character in the wrong story I rewound back to the beginning of her career and unpacked her backstory. I didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning, so I didn’t know enough to realize it was a risky thing to do to be writing her and once I did it was too late. I knew her and wanted to tell her story.

P M Newton Photo Credit Peter Rae - Fairfax

Photo credit: Peter Rae – Fairfax (permission granted via author)

It means I know where she’s going, so yes, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell more of her story through the 1990s. I think she’s a perfect character to talk about what happened to us as a nation when we started giving people like Pauline Hanson a serious platform. I don’t think we’ve recovered.

A huge thank you to P M Newton for her generosity in replying to these questions. If you haven’t yet read any of her work – whether you’re interested in crime or a cultural portrait of a time – you’re in for a treat.

~

About me: I’m an aspiring psychological suspense writer, interested in social justice and mental health issues. One of my novels – a romance – has been accepted for publication by Escape Publishing and will be published under the pseudonym, Lizzy Chandler. I blog at Devoted Eclectic and have recently set up a new Lizzy Chandler site. With the help of the AWW team, especially Shelleyrae of Book’D Out, I founded AWW to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women.

NB. Interviews and Q&As referred to in these questions include:

Beams Falling was published by Penguin Books Australia in February 2014 under the Viking imprint.

ISBN-13:9780670074525
ISBN-10:0670074527

 

February/March 2014 Roundup: Diversity

Over February and March there were close to forty reviews of books by authors who have a diverse background, or who feature such characters in their works, which is simply stellar!

BeamsFallingPMNewtonMany of the reviews were of recently released novels.  P.M. Newton’s Falling Beams, the sequel to The Old School, led the charge, with her protagonist Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly keeping six readers glued to their books.  Nhu is an Australian, of Irish and Vietnamese heritage.  Angela Savage notes how Newton, ‘gently in the course of the story with evocative images and without preaching’ explores trauma, both Nhu’s and that of the Vietnamese who migrated to Australia.  Yvonne penned a review at GoodReads, detailing ‘the difficult moral tightrope the police are working on at the time’, the destructiveness of war (particularly the Vietnam war, felt particularly in Cabramatta), the ‘dark recesses of post traumatic stress disorder and the insidious tentacles of police corruption’.  This book, she continues, is ‘grimy’ and not for bedtime reading.  Now I am kind of desperate for all my writing deadlines to be done so I can sit down (in daylight) with a copy of the book.  For the other reviews of this work, you can check out our AWW Review Crime Listings page.

Deserving-death-howellKatherine Howell’s Deserving Death kept four people awake at night, including Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime, who also mentioned Howell in her a post on Sleuthing and Sexuality for our spotlight on lesbian/queer women writers last month.  Bernadette found that the story delivered more than a great plot, being ‘particularly struck by variety of topical human relationship issues the book explored. We see, for example, the complex mix of emotions experienced by Carly and her girlfriend, one of whom is fearful of her family’s reaction to the news she is gay while the other tries to cope with the fact that her part in her girlfriend’s life is a secret.’  Brenda at GoodReads loved the fast pace and action, but lamented that ‘I’ll have to wait another 12 months for the next episode of Detective Ella Marconi and her paramedic friends’.  We recommend more doses of Aussie women’s crime fiction in the interim!

If you’re interested, AWW contributing editor Marisa also interviewed Howell about her writing and lesbian characters.

TiddasThree people made themselves comfy on a couch with Indigenous author Anita Heiss’ new novel, Tiddas, about five tiddas (an Indigenous word meaning friends who are as close as sisters) in Brisbane on the cusp of 40.  Lisa Walker writes that ‘On one level this is a study of issues relevant to all woman of this age — sex, fertility, career and relationships. But the book also gives an insight, through the tiddas, into Aboriginal culture and politics.’ Bree of All the Books I Can Read loved the format of exploring issues through friends, and thought it ‘a great way to get an issue out there to a reader because it really lessens the feeling of being preached to’.  Shelleyrae of Book’d Out by contrast found ‘Heiss’s socio-political agenda’ a little overwhelming,but still ‘enjoyed spending time with the Tiddas, just as I do with my own friends.’

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin KwaymullinaThere were also 2 reviews of Indigenous author Ambelin Kwaymullina’s speculative fiction novel, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.  Jason of Vampires in the Sunburnt Country described it as ‘a story of community, of mutual care and understanding, as well as a plea to respect the planet and the beliefs that have formed it.’  Stephanie of GoodReads also liked the book and found Ashala a ‘fascinating character’, but would have liked more worldbuilding and backstory.

MullumbimbyMullumbimby, by Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko, gave poet Katie Keys ‘hope for the quiet revolution, the one that I have to believe is still ticking along beneath all the noise of Federal politics and policy backpedalling: a piecemeal reconciliation after a shared national shame as we all start working the way back to ourselves.’  The novel also compelled Sue of Discombobula to think about her own emotions about and connections to Australia.

TheSwanBookAlexisWrightThere was also a plethora of reviews of other interesting works, such Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (reviewed by Annette for the Newtown Review of Books, who opens with ‘What a ride!’), Love Like Water by Meme McDonald (reviewed by Marilyn of Me, You and Books, who describes it as ‘a wise and sensitive story about young people searching for their places in the world and falling in love, a love complicated by their racial difference), and Ina’s Story (a memoir by Catherine Titasey about Torres Strait Islander Ina Mills, reviewed by Marion of Historians are Past Caring).

thefirstweek_merrileesMeanwhile, Margaret Merrilees’ The First Week was reviewed by Sue of Whispering Gums, who also meditated on the politics of white authors writing on Indigenous subjects.

Unfortunately I haven’t the space to include every review of the books that have showcased diversity over the past two months, but it’s great to see our readers responding so intelligently to them.  Keep up the wonderful work!

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012).  I’m currently writing a book of creative non-fiction on Queensland novelist Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

AWW2014 Crime Roundup #2

With respect to reviews posted, the weeks since the last Crime Roundup for AWW2014 have been a two-horse race between a couple of new release novels: Wendy James’ THE LOST GIRLS and P.M. Newton’s BEAMS FALLING. In the end, both books garnered 8 reviews a-piece but I feel I ought to apologise to P.M. Newton at this point because if I hadn’t knocked my copy of her book in the full kitchen sink while I was only half-way through reading it she’d have ‘won’, numerically speaking :)

BeamsFallingPMNewtonIn BEAMS FALLING policewoman Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly is suffering the physical and psychological effects of the events depicted in the first novel in which she appears (THE OLD SCHOOL) and while on ‘light duties’ is assigned to an Asian crime unit in Sydney’s Cabramatta. All reviewers were positive about this book, commonly discussing the credible way various themes were depicted as well as the multi-layered feel to the storyline. Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling wrote

Firstly I was very impressed with the authentic voice of this police procedural and the harrowing accuracy of PTSD as it is presented in this narrative; life constantly on alert, hyper vigilant, hyper alert, anxious, breathless, paranoia…panic. I could feel this disorder blossoming in my mind and chest as I read on, the descriptions so real.

Among the highlights for Yvonne Perkins was the book’s depiction of Sydney

Newton excels in writing about place. Her books are not about the bells and sparkles facade that Sydney likes to parade to the rest of the world. They are about grungy Sydney, the real Sydney that most residents have to live in. There is no glamour here, but the truth of the parked car that expels over-heated, stale air when someone opens the door; the crowded train stations; the broken people; the ugly, unloved buildings of neglected suburbs.

For Lou Murphy at Newton Review of Books the book’s layers are singled out for a mention

Beams Falling is much more than an exciting crime thriller: it works on many levels. The personal story is about coping with trauma, about the questions Nhu needs to ask herself in order to function again. The process of repair is dealt with poignantly as she attempts to heal her physical and psychological wounds

WendyJamesTheLostGirlsDemonstrating the breadth of what constitutes a crime novel these days THE LOST GIRLS is a different kind of story, though it too focuses at least as much narrative energy on the impact of a crime as it does on whodunit. It is a standalone novel of ‘domestic suspense’ in which the decades-old murder of a teenager still haunts her extended family in the present day. A common theme among the universally positive reviews of this novel is its disturbing ordinariness, as highlighted by Angela Savage

James has a special talent for depicting everyday suburban lives and adding unexpected but entirely plausible drama. The suspense is driven not only by the characters’ predicaments, but by the fear that something like this could happen to us or someone we love

Jess at The Never Ending Bookshelf was taken by the way the story explores the notion of truth

It’s the kind of story that shows us just how many shades of grey are in our seemingly black and white world. How the past is sometimes different to our memories and that circumstances are sometime unfortunate.

and at Book’d Out Shelleyrae explores this concept further

The Lost Girls is told through memories, interview transcripts, newspaper articles and the story of the present day, revealing the events that led up to, and followed, the death of Angie. As the novel unfolds, moving between time, place and perspective, the reader begins to piece together a wider view of the tragedy, and those affected, than any one character has

If you need a bit more information about either of these great novels check out fellow writer Angela Savage discussing both books on a recent episode of Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily

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AWW participants were reading other books over the past two months though and some lesser-known titles deserve particular mention here.

  • At Whispering Gums Angela Meyer’s book of mysterious short stories, THE GREAT UNKNOWN was a winner, offering “a collection of stories that vary greatly in setting, voice, subject matter – and even tone. Some are funny, some sad, most are disconcerting and some, of course, are scary.”
  • At Books and Musings from Downunder Sally reviewed Kaz Delaney’s first young adult mystery, DEAD, ACTUALLY, high praise indeed “Excellent Stuff – a real page turner and hard to put down. I carved out extra reading time just so I could finish it. This book got carted into the bathroom with me, read over meals, read at work, and/or kept me up late at night. If this author has more work, I will certainly read it
  • While she was a bit disappointed with the amount of ‘fluff’ in the writing, Cait at Aussie Owned and Read found some things to like about Lucy Christopher’s THE KILLING WOODS, saying of the plot “Seriously, it’s not everyday that a plot takes me by surprise! I’d heard everyone saying “I never guessed the killer!” so of course I thought, “Pfft, I’ll guess straight away.” I didn’t. (I suspected everyone, but that hardly counts because I was on my guard.)”. I love the format of Cait’s reviews too.

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As part of a month in which the AWW challenge celebrated diversity I wrote a post on Sleuthing and Sexuality , the research for which surprised me in that it highlighted how few crime novels feature lesbian characters, while Marisa Wikramanayake interviewed Katherine Howell and Lindy Cameron, both of whom have written crime fiction which features lesbian characters


If you’re after some ideas of more crime/mystery/thriller or true crime books to read then head over to the genre’s reviews page for this year’s challenge to see what else is being discussed or check out the previous roundups for this review category


About Me

I’m Bernadette Bean. I’ve been reading avidly for as long as I can remember, blogging about reading since late 2008 at Reactions to Reading and co-hosting Fair Dinkum Crime, a site devoted to promoting and discussing Australian crime fiction, for the past couple of years. I read and reviewed 18 books as part of my own participation in the 2012 challenge. Some of them weren’t even crime novels!

‘Writing in the Light’: Roundup of Queer/Lesbian Australian Women Writers

Visibility, invisibility, ghosts, mirrors, shadows … all these are terms that have appeared in the posts by lesbian/queer Australian women writers this month.

Ghost WifeMichelle Dicinoski, author of the memoir Ghost Wife, commented that ‘when you are a gay or lesbian or queer or trans writer, or a writer with disability, or a writer of colour, maybe you are always writing in the light, always aware in some way of your own shadow.’  Performance poet Eleanor Jackson also wrote about being in the light on a stage.  She described the discomfort that comes from being aware ‘that what I look like, as a woman, as a queer woman, as a woman of colour (light-skinned or otherwise) says something to an audience that I cannot always control, let alone neutralise.’  Yvette Walker, author of Letters to the End of Love, describes how lesbian/queer writers dip in and out of vision,We appear. We disappear. We are in. We are out. Our history (such as it is) has mostly been made on the run, written in code, whispered from one generation to another.’ 

LettersToTheEndOfLoveWalkerThis history of appearing and disappearing, of glimpses and readings and mis-readings of identity, echo Terry Castle’s words in The Apparitional Lesbian: ‘When it comes to lesbians … many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them.  The lesbian remains a kind of “ghost effect” in the cinema world of modern life: elusive, vaporous, difficult to stop – even when she is there, in plain view, mortal and magnificent’ (2).  As Castle details in her book, this ghosting has happened for centuries, and our guest writers’ posts, with their meditations on appearing and disappearing, show that it’s still happening.

So, what can one do to increase the representation of queer/lesbian women writers?  How can one, as Eleanor writes, ‘eras[e] the kind of shame that has been appended to those categories’ and draw into question ‘the assumptions we all make about what is good, what is normal, what is acceptable, and what is valuable’?

You pick up a book.

You ask,’ as Yvette writes, ‘who am I, and somewhere, someone will answer you back.’  She found answering voices in Elizabeth Bishop and E.M. Forster, and I compiled a list of Australian lesbian/queer women writers so that there would be other voices for readers to find. 

redback-cameronThese voices were also to be found in crime fiction by lesbian/queer Australian women writers, as detailed in Bernadette Bean’s post on lesbian characters, and in interviews with two wonderful crime fiction writers, Katherine Howell and Lindy Cameron.

Lindy also suggested that straight writers shouldn’t ‘be nervous about including queer, gay, lesbian, trans and bi characters’, while readers can ‘read more widely. Don’t be put off if you think the book is ‘full’ of lesbians or gay guys.’

To this end, it was fabulous to see AWW participants reading and reviewing books by Australia’s lesbian/queer women writers.  Writer Amanda Curtin reviewed Andrea Goldsmith’s The Memory Trap, a work about the entrapment, the different faces of memory, and unrequited love.  She liked the book well enough to chase up Goldsmith’s other works – as she mentions, a good endorsement!

Deserving-death-howellSally from Oz loved Katherine Howell’s Deserving Death, writing that ‘I always briefly worry before I open a new Katherine Howell book that maybe this book is going to be the one that doesn’t quite make it when compared to the others, it never is – it’s always amazing.’  She also appreciated the way Howell made her characters human, by detailing their personal as well as their professional lives.  Howell talks more about this novel in her fabulous interview with AWW contributing editor Marisa.

AHandwrittenModernClassicMoorheadMarilyn of Me, You and Books reviewed Finola Moorhead’s A Handwritten Classic.  Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella is one of Marilyn’s favourites, and she also enjoyed this earlier book which is ‘a compilation of [Moorhead’s] thoughts and definitions during two specific weeks of her life and is full of spontaneity.  It is literately a visual reproduction of what she wrote by hand; meaning that the reader must figure out what words are before addressing their meaning.’  Moorhead is not, Marilyn notes, ‘an easy author to read, especially if you prefer writing that is clear, linear, and conventional’, but often this makes for more rewarding reading.

RupettaSulwayThere were two reviews of Nike Sulway’s speculative fiction novel Rupetta – one by Jane from GoodReads, who found the writing ‘liquidly delicious’, while the world that Sulway created was ‘brilliantly imagined and purely itself’, although she felt that perhaps too many ideas were canvassed.  I came across this book while compiling the list of queer/lesbian women writers and it knocked my socks off.  You can read my review hereI also reviewed Michelle’s beautiful memoir Ghost Wife, which I loved for its poignancy and humour.

All these stories contribute to the process of recognising and increasing representation of lesbian/queer women writers, although categorising writers like this is of course problematic.  As Indigenous author Anita Heiss commented at a salon at Avid Reader for the Stella Prize on International Women’s Day in 2012, ‘I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a black woman writer, I just want to be a writer.’  However, this takes time, and until then we need stories to, as Eleanor notes, ‘make “other” people, gay people, ethnic people, less unfamiliar’ so that ‘perhaps we will recognise their intrinsic humanity more easily.’

And as Michelle observes, ‘The world bubbles with stories about different kinds of lives, but often we don’t hear much about them’.  Thank you to AWW’s readers and reviewers for listening to those stories and increasing the knowledge and visibility of Australia’s lesbian/queer women writers – I hope you’ll keep reading their works.  Also, the winners of our book giveaway are Marilyn of Me, You and Books, and Sally from Oz!  I’ll be in touch about getting your books to you.

Thank you also to our wonderful guest writers, AWW editors, and to Katherine and Lindy for your contributions, which have made March an exciting and rewarding month!  I’ll be back at the end of April with my regular diversity roundup.

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012).  I’m currently writing a book of creative non-fiction on Queensland novelist Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

Interview with Lindy Cameron

Lindy CameronFollowing Marisa’s brilliant interview with crime writer Katherine Howell last week for our focus on lesbian and queer women writers in March, we have an interview with another crime writer, Lindy Cameron.

Lindy wears a number of literary hats: she’s the author of crime titles including the Kit O’Malley trilogy Blood Guilt, Bleeding Hearts and Thicker Than Water, and the recent Redback; she runs the publishing company Clan Destine Press; she’s a founding member of Sisters in Crime Australia, which promotes crime writing by women; and has edited the group’s magazine Stiletto for nearly two decades.  I’m impressed she found time to answer my questions!

Clan Destine PressLindy has a special offer for AWW participants who sign up to the Clan Destine GOLD newsletter.  If you subscribe, you can get 35-50% off all titles. See this post for further details.

Lindy has always thought of herself as a writer – her first ‘novel’ was a serialized mystery written when she was age 11. She suspects, like many Aussie crimes writers that it was Enid Blyton’s fault that she turned to a life of crime. Below, she talks about her writing, publishing queer/lesbian writers, her research, and juggling everything in between.

Does your identity as a queer/lesbian writer inform what you write and publish?

redback-cameronIt informs what I write. While the ‘story’ dictates the types of characters I need, I always have a least one gay – female or male – in every story. And they mostly just turn up. It’s not a conscious thing – except in the case of the O’Malley series; and in my scifi novella Feedback. Even in Redback – which is my kickarse, all-explodey action novel– the sexuality of my female protagonist Bryn Gideon is ‘queered’. But, as there’s no actual sex happening on the page, it was all in the subtext. I was looking for a different audience for my books and thought making the hero a woman was enough – for the first book at least.

Given the success of queer protagonists like Lisbeth Salander, though, I’m thinking I should ditch the subtext and get to the point. Then again, that series was written by a man… so there’s a whole other topic for possible-ranty discussion. Would the Millennium Trilogy have been relegated to being a women’s crime series, rather than an international phenomenon, if it had been written by ‘Stella’ Larsson?

Out of the Black LandIn terms of publishing I am actively looking for QILTBAG writers. I’ve been scouring the woodwork – looking for Aussie writers who identify with any of those initials. So far I’ve scored some short stories and novellas for Encounters – our erotica imprint – but I’d love some crime, specfic, and urban fantasy (please, some queer urban fantasy); and oh, hello!, gay and lesbian sci fi writers – where are you?

We do have Unnaturals, a terrific dark urban fantasy novel which includes action, romance, more action, lesbians, monsters, and polyamory, but some more historical writers too would be fabulous. The boys in Kerry Greenwood’s splendid Out of the Black Land are getting lonely, and would love some new characters to join them on the Clan’s history shelf.


How do you go about researching  your novels?

BloodGuiltAKitOmalleyMy5226_fIt depends. My character-based O’Malley novels sort of grew organically. As my hero, the lesbian ex-cop private investigator Kit O’Malley, began her fictional life in Blood Guilt by investigating an errant husband, there wasn’t a lot needed for research.  It was more along the lines of ensuring that one of my other main characters – the city of Melbourne – was accurate and interesting and vibrant. I did have a couple of drug and gun type things I needed to verify when the book was finished, so I asked an ex-cop I knew.      I didn’t really need to research the ‘lesbian’ part of the series, but it was my aim to create a lesbian hero/protagonist who was totally comfortable with who she was. And was also surrounded by completely ‘out’ lesbian and straight friends, none of whomever felt the need to talk ‘about’ their sexuality. Kit was falling in lust and love while solving crimes – but there was zero angst about who she was falling for – except in the best tradition of URST making the whole sexual tension last as long as possible.

Bleeding HeartsBy the time I was writing Bleeding Hearts and Thicker Than Water – the second and third books in the series – I had, and still have, a wealth of contacts within the Sisters in Crime membership to call on for research before, during and after writing. Sisters in Crime Australia – of which I am a founding member and National Co-Convenor – is the best organisation for authors, emerging crime writers and readers of crime fiction.

The research for my very first novel Golden Relic – which is an archaeological mystery adventure – I did mostly using library books and the fledgeling internet. And I mean ‘fledgeling’ – given Golden Relic was one of the first ever officially serialised books on the internet.

Redback – my most recent action adventure – however was researched almost entirely via the internet. It was the best way to find out about terrorist organisations, the White House, various kickarse weapons and how to blow up a train and a helicopter. As you do.

What was the spark for establishing Clan Destine Press?

The idea to start my own publishing company had been floating around my ‘in-your-dreams, Lindy,’  imagination for a long, long time.

thicker-than-waterI’ve been part of countless conversations and rants with many fellow authors over the years about the general state of publishing, and the lack of opportunities for authors in Australia. Too many of us were dissatisfied with the attention paid by the Big Publishing Houses to their own mid-list Australian authors. We were frustrated by those same publishers who pigeon-holed their authors into one genre and wouldn’t let them experiment with others. And we all knew emerging writers who just weren’t getting noticed because the big four or five Houses were too busy importing bestsellers from overseas to notice what was going on here. So the idea of wishing we could do something about it was a regular topic of conversation amongst my fellow writers.

And then, one day in 2010, I realised that I had the all the skills necessary to start my own ‘small’ totally-independent publishing company. I had been a book editor for many years, I knew layout, I new lots of authors and cover artists and designers. I had industry contacts. I had time.

Clan Destine Press was created as a genre fiction specialist.

We were looking for new Australian voices in crime, spec fic, historial fiction, horror, scifi, fantasy and horror – for adults, YA and kids. I also offer opportunities to existing authors to talk to us if they have a project that doesn’t fit their current publisher’s pigeon-hole. We publish many of our authors in paperback and eBook; and have a huge ditigal-only list, which includes the backlists of authors who have joined the Clan with their latest books. We now also have three (and counting) digital Imprints – Crime Shots, Encounters, Clan Destine Fictions – for our true crime; and for our novellas, short fiction, and short-story collections.

What can be done to encourage more representation of lesbian/queer characters in fiction?

QueermanceBlogs like this are a great way to start. And, as readers and writers, reposting this and other discussions about writing more-inclusive fiction. Also – even if you’re a straight writer – don’t be nervous about including queer, gay, lesbian, trans and bi characters. I’m sure you know one or two in real life that you could consult if you’re worried about ‘getting things right’. But then, you know, we’re humans first, so being gay etc., can be mentioned in passing in much the way as any of your straight characters who don’t acutally have sex in your book. Minor characters Bill or Jim can go home to Barry or Steve; and Linda can go on a date with Julia.

If you’re a reader the thing you can do is read more widely. Don’t be put off if you think the book is ‘full’ of lesbians or gay guys. Given the ‘hot thing’ at the moment is male/male romance written by women for women, that’s probably less of an issue than it used to be. (And possibly a topic for another blog.)

What are some great books we should be reading?

The Raven's HeartHmm – well, as the publisher of Clan Destine Press, I would naturally say all of our books.  In terms of the QILTBAG context of the blog I would say, all of my books; the aforementioned Out of the Black Land and Unnaturals; and the following from our Encounters imprint: Loveless, Homecoming, Standing Date, Perfect Timing, and the brand new Queermance Anthology.

Australian queer-themed books (by women) that don’t belong to Clan Destine Press: The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder; Kerry Greenwood’s latest Phryne Fisher novel, Murder and Mendelssohn; the fantasy duology Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman; and anything by the late, extraordinary Dorothy Porter, but especially The Monkey’s Mask.

How do your juggle writing with the day-to-day running of the press (or with life in general)?

I will let you know when I work it out.  My own writing fell by the wayside in CDP’s first couple of years, so I now have a weekly writing day, when I go to a cafe with a writer friend and work on my current book.

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We’re looking forward to Lindy’s next book when it comes!  In the meantime, you can read any of the titles by lesbian/queer Australian women writers that she’s mentioned to be in the running for a copy of either Michelle Dicinoski’s Ghost Wife and Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love.   You have until the end of March to link your review!

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
Image
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 marisa.com.au or on Twitter @mwikramanayake

Sleuthing and Sexuality

Continuing our focus on lesbian and queer women writers over March, AWW’s contributing editor Bernadette Bean has penned a post on crime fiction featuring lesbian/queer women characters.  As Bernadette mentions, it’s surprising, given the amount of crime fiction written by women or which has strong female characters, that there aren’t more portrayals of lesbian/queer characters.  Their lack of representation in texts contributes to the invisibility of lesbians/queer women in general, so it’s important that we promote books that highlight their strength and diversity.

If you’d like to read and review some of the books mentioned by Bernadette, you can be in the running for a copy of Michelle Dicinoski’s memoir Ghost Wife, or Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love.  Michelle and Yvette have written guest posts for this month’s spotlight, and you can read their posts here and here.  Simply link your review of the work by an Australian lesbian or queer women writer by the end of March, and I’ll select two names randomly.

Clan Destine PressOn another note, Clan Destine Press, which was established by Lindy Cameron (mentioned by Bernadette in her post), has a special offer for AWW participants.  CDP has over 40 titles in a wealth of genres, so you’ll be sure to find something you’ll like.

With so many incentives, now’s the time to go forth and read!

Lesbian/Queer Crime Fiction in Australia

Arriving on the mainstream mystery landscape shortly after pioneering, straight female heroines Sharon McCone’s Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski all burst onto the scene, Katherine V. Forrest’s former Marine and an LAPD homicide detective Kate Delafield is generally acknowledged as the first openly lesbian protagonist in modern, series-based crime fiction. The first novel in which she features is 1984’s AMATEUR CITY and it seemed to spark a flurry of activity in the sub-genre over the next decade or so, including Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon series in the UK.

LessonsInMurderMcNabIn Australia, Claire McNab (a pseudonym for Australian-born now LA-based author Claire Carmichael) took up the mantle with 1988’s LESSONS IN MURDER which introduced high-flying New South Wales Detective Inspector Carol Ashton, called in to investigate the death-by-power-tool of a teacher who is also the son of prominent figure on the political scene. In this first novel Ashton is still very much in the closet as far as her colleagues go, but her sexuality is on display to readers as she becomes involved with Sybil, a woman who is considered the prime suspect for much of the book. The series, which currently stands at 17 instalments, is as much concerned with exploring Ashton’s sexuality and how it impacts her life and career as it is with solving its myriad crimes. The complex story arc of Ashton’s coming out was not really complete until the sixth novel of the series, 1994’s BODY GUARD.

BloodGuiltAKitOmalleyMy5226_fLindy Cameron’s trilogy of detective stories starting with 1998’s BLOOD GUILT is in many ways the opposite of McNab’s series, although its heroine is also a lesbian. However Kit O’Malley is a private detective not a policewoman, her stomping ground is Melbourne not Sydney and the stories in which she features are largely unconcerned with the small-p politics surrounding her sexuality. Having set out to create Australia’s first angst-free lesbian PI Cameron achieves this aim with aplomb, depicting a physically clumsy but witty and acerbic protagonist who manages a hectic romantic life alongside her professional investigations, which start when a body is found in the fishpond of her latest client.

Other than in these two series, lesbian characters have not been prominent in the kind of mainstream, accessible crime fiction popular in Australia though occasional characters do crop up. For example Katherine Howell’s seventh novel DESERVING DEATH, published earlier this year, features a lesbian couple, with one member fearful of coming out to her judgmental family. The pressure this puts on the couple is explored as one of several topical relationship issues that form a backdrop to the main storyline.

There are other works featuring lesbian characters which can be called crime fiction though these tend to be more stridently political and/or experimental and are not always identified as being of the genre by readers or their authors:

  • Jan McKemmish’s A GAP IN THE RECORDS, published in 1985, makes a strong point about the invisibility of women in society in its deliberate attempt to subvert the traditional masculine spy novel by positing a world in which international counterintelligence is run by a group of middle-aged Australian women whose sexuality is but one of the big political themes explored. The book is subversive in form as well as content, being told by way of narrative snippets, extracts from records, postcards and maps.
  • still murderIn 1991 Finola Moorhead’s STILL MURDER was similarly unusual in telling its complex, grand story of murder, rape and war crimes with a mixture of diary entries, news clippings and detective’s notebooks. Its lesbian characters are angst-ridden, but no more so than its straight ones. Check out AWW Challenge star reviewer Marilyn Brady’s far more in-depth insights on this novel which generated a comment from the elusive author herself.
  • Perhaps the most subversive of all, at least in terms of its form, is Dorothy Porter’s 1995 novel THE MONKEY’S MASK which is told entirely in verse. Subtitled An Erotic Murder Mystery the book features lesbian private detective Jill Fitzpatrick who is hired first to find a missing university student but is soon looking for the girl’s killer instead. She becomes involved with the girl’s poetry professor who is drop-dead gorgeous and, of course, a suspect in the killing.

There is a lot of crime fiction published in Australia and a decent chunk of it written by women and/or featuring female characters in significant roles. It therefore seems somewhat peculiar how little of it features lesbian characters. In her 2005 work of literary criticism THE GAY DETECTIVE NOVEL Judith Markowitz wrote:

Despite the attempt to reach a crossover audience, gay/lesbian detective fiction remains ghettoized…. Furthermore, mainstream bookstores still allocate very little shelf space to gay/lesbian mysteries… The end result is continued invisibility of this body of literature which, in turn, restricts the visibility of lesbian and gay life as a whole” (p6).

Although Markowitz’s book generally refers to the American mystery publishing scene of nearly a decade ago it seems her premise could just as easily apply to the Australian scene in 2014.


About Me

I’m Bernadette Bean. I’ve been reading avidly for as long as I can remember, blogging about reading since late 2008 at Reactions to Reading and co-hosting Fair Dinkum Crime, a site devoted to promoting and discussing Australian crime fiction, since 2010.

January 2014 Roundup: Diversity

Welcome back to the monthly wrap-ups for reviews of books that showcase diversity!  2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year, with a focus on Australian queer women writers in March and on women writers with a disability in September, while in July we’ll bring you an interview with an Indigenous women writer.

We strive to draw attention to such diverse authors all throughout the year however, and over January the challenge kicked off with six great reviews.

theswanbook-wrightChris White reviewed Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, which is about a girl, Oblivia, surviving in a world altered by climate change.  The book inspired a variety of emotion, leaving Chris ‘deliriously happy, thanks to the beautiful combinations of brilliant prose and of the teasing, twisting poetry. It made me feel guilty, as a white Australian, of the Intervention and of our treatment of Aboriginals in general’.  Chris’ final recommendation – ‘If I didn’t feel like giving The Swan Book six stars was cheating I’d give it seven’ – should persuade anyone to pick up this novel!

channelling mannalargenna marksSue of Whispering Gums mused on an essay by English author Kathy Marks which won the Indigenous Affairs award at the Walkley Awards.  Titled ‘Chanelling Mannalargenna’, it discusses the ‘thorny issue regarding the definition of indigeneity in Tasmania.’  The essay reminded Sue of Anita Heiss’ Am I Black Enough For You? in that it, as Heiss writes in her book, pointed to the ‘complexities around individual and collective Aboriginal identity’.  The essay is available online through Griffith Review’s website and is part of their bestselling issue on Tasmania, and it’s well worth a read.

Old-school-196-300There’s been much excitement about the release of PM Newton’s second novel, Beams Falling, a sequel to her tightly-bound, plotted and paced The Old School.  Bree of All the Books I Can Read reviewed the latter, and ‘was engrossed … from the very first page and couldn’t wait for each twist to unfold and each new bit of information to present itself.’  The story revolves around Ned, a detective whose Dad was Irish-Australian and Mum was Vietnamese and who, as Bree writes, ‘seems to face judgement and preconceptions about her appearance every day with few people understanding that she identifies as Australian with no real connection or ties to her Vietnamese heritage’. The book was such a good read for Bree that she’s been persuaded to ‘read more crime’.  As an admirer, too, of The Old School, I’m also really looking forward to the sequel.

beloved-faulknerIt was great to see another review of Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved.  As reviewer Maureen writes, the protagonist Bertie’s encounter with polio leaves her ‘with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.’  Despite her disability, Bertie is determined to practice her art, an impulse which is at odds with her mother’s desire that she become a doctor.  The conflict is a plot device, as Maureen notes, and ‘the battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read.’

caleb-200-300Australian women writers such as Geraldine Brooks have  focussed on the encounters and histories of Indigenous people in other countries.  In Caleb’s Crossing, as Marilyn of Me, You and Books writes, Brooks’ depiction of a friendship between Bethia, a girl from a Puritan family, and Caleb, a Native American, contributes to the dismantling of the ‘widespread assumptions that all Indians were like those involved in the wars with settlers in the late 1800s.’  For Australian readers, Marilyn continues, it also ‘provides a comparison with their own nation’s initial settlement a century and a half later. And the book excels as simply an enjoyable novel.’

gil-scott-heron-parole-clarkeDiversity was also showcased in poetry this month, with poet Katie Keys penning a review of Gil Scott Heron is on Parole by poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian poet of Afro-Caribbean descent (also mentioned by Marisa in the poetry/short stories roundup).  In this work, as Katie writes, ‘Clarke highlights and re-writes stories from the convenient myths of colonialists, oppressors and misogynists to white-faced fairytales and out-dated definitions. The collection is at moments harsh and angry, sometimes shocking. But change isn’t always polite and the revolution will not be televised.  Overall, it is powerful, persuasive and justified’.

On the topic of things poetic, on Tuesday we will have the first of our guest writers for our spotlight on queer women writers, Michelle Dicinoski.  Michelle is also a poet – her first collection is the stunning Electricity for Beginners – and author of the memoir Ghost Wifeabout her journey to Canada to marry her wife Heather. Stay posted for further details!

 

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007) and Entitlement (2012).  I’m currently writing a book of creative non-fiction on Queensland novelist Rosa Praed and her deaf daughter Maud.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

 

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