Once, after watching a poignant TV miniseries called The Lost Prince – I went to my bookshelf to look for information on this tragic boy, Prince John. I found there a memoir by the Duke of Windsor, one of John’s brothers. John gets but two passing mentions in the text which is a book I bought at a church fete. On the flyleaf the price – twenty cents – is written in pencil. The thing that drew my eye was the handwriting and the name of the original owner. In a fat and fluent uncontrolled almost-copperplate she has written her name in dark blue biro – Valda Goldbloom. I lost interest in poor little Prince John and went off on a search for Valda. In the Melbourne phone book there were two V. Goldblooms. Perhaps one or even both of these are Valdas. And Valda did not then have a presence on the world wide web. She is there now, although which of the web manifestations, if any, is my Valda, remains to be seen. Perhaps someone here in the audience is her niece or grandson.
What’s the connection between Valda and the Duke of Windsor? Where are Valda’s love letters?
Not that I have any real desire to see Valda or to speak to Valda. Her name, discovered on the yellowing page of an old Pan paperback, is a delicious source of inspiration, a bright invitation to give her a childhood, a romance, a large family of amazing children, a secret lover, a fondness for a particular shade of pistachio, a deadly vice, a winning smile, a garden in the Open Garden scheme, a career in television – well maybe not a career in television – but you see once I have been gripped by the notion of her, she is mine and I can make her. Did I find her or invent her? In a funny kind of way I think I was gifted with her. I feel that she came to me, trailing quite a bit of context and mood. She is somehow mingled with the exquisite nostalgic doom of the miniseries, with the battered old book, with the church fete (how did a Goldbloom book end up on the stall at St Barnabas – how did I end up at St Barnabas for that matter). Mind you Valda has only come as far as the Blue Marquee at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, but give the woman time, she needs to buy a wardrobe and have her hair done and maybe get a PhD in Business Management. Or a facelift. Not only do I love to feel a character stirring like this, but I also revel in the invention and/or discovery of titles for fiction – such as ‘Valda Goldbloom in the Blue Marquee’. That has a certain appeal. You see, perhaps as I speak Valda is sitting beside you, not knowing which way to look.
Maybe she breeds cocker spaniels. I chose cocker spaniels because there are many other breeds of dog I can’t confidently spell. Her husband is an orthodontist dedicated to Valda and to the accumulation of wealth. Valda is so depressed that she is contemplating leaping from the top of a tall building. How did Valda get into this mess? Well, I think that is for her creator to discover in the process of her creation. I will have to get on with the process of making Valda up – for that is what she is now – made up. That’s what fiction is – a made up story with its own life. Whatever the inspiration, whatever the ingredients, the final thing is an invention of the writer’s making.
I sometimes hear students and teachers of writing complain that lectures and workshops and text books purporting to be guides to writing fiction do not actually explain how to create a character. They do not reveal the secret and the rules. Now I suspect that there is something here that can not really be reduced to rules. And if there is a secret, it is like one of those secrets that can only be revealed to the seeker by the seeker. It’s Zen. Like most aspects and elements of writing fiction, there seems to me to be no straight answer to the question of how it is done. It is not exactly technical – it’s – well, kind of spiritual. If you listen to the many writers speaking at this festival, I think you will find that every now and again one of them will say something that hints at the fact that way back behind the stories there lies a certain attitude or disposition – the writer is a person who constructs fictions, fables, narratives – whatever you call them – and the writer sits at a particular angle to the world, with a particular kind of alertness to the shape and possibilities of people and events and experiences, with a keen eye and ear for the way things work, the way things might work, the way a character and a series of events might intersect and work together and unravel and wind up and so forth. I sometimes think that maybe the fiction writer lives half in reality and half in fantasy, forever playing with the elements of so-called real life and consciously or even unconsciously constructing new narratives – just in the course of everyday life. The writer’s pleasure is then to translate all that into written language for the pleasure of readers. And so as the writer writes, the characters form and develop. The whole process is in a sense on-going – so that when a character emerges in a story, the plot, the character, the mood, the meaning – these are all mixed up together, all part of each other.
The critics and the reviewers often come at the thing from another angle again. They say – this character is convincing, or flat, or tragic, or hilarious – or whatever. They are not so interested in how any of it came about, as in what the final effect was on them as readers. Which is of course fair enough. But behind all this, behind the reader, the reviewer, the wondering would-be writer – at the back of the fiction is the writer. How did the writer create the character? Found, invented? Well, I think bits of them are found, bits are invented – maybe the point is that the writer is there at the centre of it all, or at the back of it all – with that particular attitude, that state of mind, that readiness and willingness to fabricate the fiction – maybe that is what matters. I really am saying that I don’t think there are rules and formulas for this. All I think you can do is examine what other writers have done with characters in order to nourish your own process of the creation (and finding) of characters in your fiction.
I think it is so important to realise that the characters are part of the fabric of the fiction. Sometimes writers speak of characters who have arrived all by themselves in the narrative, and have proceeded to take over, leaving the writer wondering and marvelling and following as if from a distance. That does happen, it happens often, and it is truly one of the joys of writing fiction. You think you are writing such and such a story with such and such a set of characters, and then suddenly you find yourself typing something that is said or done by a character you had not thought of, and all at once that character starts to speak and act and change the direction of things. This is part of the glorious magic of writing fiction.
Perhaps the most fun incidence of this in my own case was the appearance of Vanessa the talking cat in my two thrillers – Unholy Writ and Open For Inspection. I certainly never set out with a talking cat in mind. I might write a third book in the series, this one written by Vanessa. Another example in my work is the character of Virginia O’Day who wrote all the letters in Dear Writer. Another way of looking at this is to say that there might be a lot of me in Vanessa and Virginia, but because they are their own characters I don’t have to take full responsibility for what they might say or do. So they are very liberating for me.
Fiction is of course very bound up with the real world, and when characters are created they may have their genesis in who knows what part of reality, but then they take on their own being. Recently I read that Tom Keneally was inspired by a real live journalist called Caroline, and he created a character called Alice . Apparently he said that as soon as she became Alice she ceased to be Caroline, he forgot she had been inspired by Caroline, and she took on a life of her own. Tom made Alice up. Maybe Caroline doesn’t think so. But Tom thinks so. Who is in charge here? Well, that’s another matter for debate.
Actually, I sometimes think at this point, of the legal questions of the algebra of a baby’s genetic heritage.
Let X equal a baby
Let A equal a woman
Let B equal a man
Let C equal a woman
Let D equal a man
Let the egg of C and the sperm of D be hatched in the uterus of A to form X
Let X be fed and clothed by B What is the value of X?
So who owns that story?
Above my desk hangs this picture of Charles Dickens sitting in his chair surrounded by his characters who float about in the air. Are they the creatures of his dreams? Or are they spirits who have arrived from some unknown world of the imagination, spirits who have decided to visit Dickens for the purpose of becoming flesh as his creations. Or are they fragments of the life, the experience of Dickens, transformed by his heart, by his imagination – these are all such inexact terms – created, in the end by the use of words, by the music of his language.
I don’t actually think there is any answer to the question posed to the panel – not that that matters of course. I think the creating of characters is a truly mysterious process bound up with the mystery at the heart of storytelling. People love to hear stories. People love to tell stories, and yes, stories are inhabited by characters, but the music that is a story is so complex, so thrilling, that it seems to me it does not easily tease out into its parts. Not from the inside, anyway. You can take Wuthering Heights and examine the characters from the outside in all their amazing diversity and drama. But you won’t ever know where Emily got them from, and I doubt that Emily could have told you. They are integral to the thing the writer was doing. They are part of her gift to the reader. And the readers, all the millions of readers of Wuthering Heights make the characters again as they read. So perhaps there is not only the question of where they might come from, but the matter of where they are going.
My Heathcliff probably is not your Heathcliff. My baby X is not your baby X. As I read I make over the characters again and again, and so do you. And so does Valda Goldbloom. Bless her.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Monday, July 2, 2012
Friday, May 25, 2012
Go to this link to read a review of my novel Cape Grimm.
Review is by Dr Gerardo Rodriguez Salas of the University of Granada
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Monday, April 30, 2012
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
This novel is available only as an ebook, published by the author.
Readers of the weekend 'Australian Magazine' will be familiar with the back section of the magazine which is filled with coloured images of Tasmania in all its astonishing and beautiful moods. The Freycinet National Park is frequently featured, and is one of the island’s most pristine and treasured beauty spots. ‘Wineglass Bay’ has echoes of Nabokov, and the naming of the mountain peaks ‘The Hazards’ carries its own warning.
The novel, a thriller, is rich in lyrical yet ominous descriptions of the landscape. This is not exactly the place Tourism Tasmania is promoting in the 'Australian Magazine'. The epigraph is taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Dream Within a Dream’, and references this to the character of Miranda in Joan Lindsay’s novel 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'. Where Lindsay’s novel offers (at least in its first publication) no answer to the mystery of the disappearance of its girls, 'Freycinet’s' final pages give the solution which is a grisly twist. The narrative develops in an atmosphere of weird danger, very weird indeed. The story of love, obsession, hatred, jealousy and hideous crime develops through the insights of dreams and visions, while following the procedure of a police investigation. Indigenous myths as well as European fairy tales play a role in the construction of this psychological thriller.
You can buy the ebook 'Freycinet' on Amazon for $US 4.99.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Fabulous Finola Fox
A children’s picture book, published in May 2012 by Penguin. The text is by Carmel and the illustrations are by Kerry Argent.
Carmel was inspired to write it when she read that urban foxes often collect shoes which they hoard in their dens.
Finola is a bright young fox, planning to open a gallery where she will display her collection of designer shoes.
She longs to find the pair to a beautiful green shoe.
Helping her in her quest is Frederick Fox.Will romance blossom between these two gorgeous creatures?
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Every working work of fiction, regardless of length or genre, is to some extent a kind of mystery offered to the reader; every work of fiction has its plot. Every work of fiction in some way troubles its reader, and tries to bring some form of solace, whether bitter or sweet. It is its own kind of question and its own kind of answer, taking the reader into itself as part of the fabric, part of the business that fiction has with the world.
This year is the sixty-fifth anniversary of Tove Jansson’s first Moomin book. One of the great treasures in my bookcase is a 1953 copy of a picture book called The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Moomintroll, in the course of carrying home a can of milk, helps Mymble to discover her lost sister, Little My. There is one episode per page, and the question is, will they find Little My and get the milk home to Mother? You are dealing with a page-turner, since each page ends with the question ‘What do you think happened then?’
Here is plot reduced to its simplest elements. Situation, character, danger, resolution. Not quite the regulation sometimes put forward: situation, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (which don’t have to happen in that order). But near enough. You get the question and the tension as the answer comes in steps, as new dangers are put in the way. In case you are wondering, they do get home safely, but unfortunately the milk has curdled. As a cute coda, Mother says they will have strawberry juice instead. Always, as it happens.
It is the repetition of the question ‘What do you think happened then?’ that often comes back to me when I am thinking about plot in fiction. Because I love the way the reader is involved in the business of it all. And in this particular story, the reader is constantly taken by surprise and thrown off balance by the trademark Jansson mixture of mild terrors and delicious, whimsical beauty.
I often find it difficult, analysing fiction in hindsight, to separate plot from other elements, such as character and situation. It is even more difficult when I am the creator of the story, on the other side of the business, to separate them during the process of writing the work. I sometimes talk to groups who are studying the art of writing fiction, and I find that frequently there is a deep-seated notion that fiction writers begin by writing an outline of the plot of their short story or novel. Perhaps some writers do this, and do it successfully, but I am inclined to agree with Stephen King who, in On Writing (2000), expresses a strong opposition to this view. And I think there is much for a student to lose by trying to begin with a plot outline. When the work is finished, it will be possible to look back on it and analyse the plot, if that is something required by teachers and supervisors. But not before.
Stephen King speaks of writing fiction as the act of digging out fossils, discovering part of an ‘undiscovered, pre-existing world’. He is vehement, saying that to make plot outlines is ‘clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative’. He points out that writing fiction is not a fully conscious and mechanical process, that much of what goes on is located in the writer’s unconscious.
But it is also useful and instructive for a reader (and a prospective writer) to analyse the plots of fiction when the fiction is complete. Hold up the fossil to the light. I mean, you can analyse the things you read, and I also think that in doing so you can gain insight and inspiration for your own Kingean excavations of the fossils from that pre-existing world.
An analysis of the psychological horror novel Misery, for example, is instructive in the light of what its author says about plotting. ‘Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible.’ But of course there is a plot. He just didn’t put it there – he dug it up from the matrix of his own fertile imagination and let it loose.
EM Forster talks about plot in Aspects of the Novel (1927). He is, though, discussing the thing after the event, not what happens in the early stages of the writing process. He explains that there is a difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’. He says that plot tells what happened and why, and gives meaning to it. But when speaking of ‘story’ his language grows ugly, and he says that story is ‘the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time’, it is ‘mindless time-killing curiosity’. Ouch. Story, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died.’ Plot, he says: ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief.’ All he has really done there is show how to make two facts interesting by making the second one consequential, something people do regularly when telling tales anyway.
I think Forster was splitting hairs by dividing up story and plot like that; however, his assertion that plot is a ‘writer’s arrangement of events’ that will express that writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is fair enough, I suppose, if a bit grand.
Plot can often be boiled down to a very simple question like: Who killed Cock Robin? Who stole the tarts? Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr Darcy? This is not plot summary, but rather quick-fix plot essence. Some questions are more complicated than others, some answers more interesting than others. The how and why of the things that happened are what readers (and writers) love to know. Readers love the shocks and surprises, the twists and turns, the magical mystery tour of a well-managed plot as the writer’s ‘attitude to the human condition’ is gradually revealed. Main plots and sub-plots often have fun with each other too.
Just as the Moomin line ‘What do you think happened then?’ pleasantly rings in my mind when I think about plot, so does the title of an old song I used to love playing on the pianola when I was a child, ‘Who Put the Overalls in Mrs Murphy’s Chowder?’ See how the situation and the character are beautifully bound up in the question. You want to know, don’t you? You want the terrible mystery solved. The matter arose from the rather horrible fact that Mrs Murphy did her washing and her cooking in the same vessel. She left the overalls in the pot by mistake, and then made the soup, and when she dished it up the overalls were discovered. She had the decency to faint.
I speak here of mystery. Plot always, I think, involves mystery, however slightly, and therefore will invite suspense. Satisfaction comes with some form of resolution.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
FACT OR FICTION
REMEMBERING THE FACTS OF SILVER AND GOLD
Among the fifteen people in my memoir-writing group at Writers Victoria in January there were two sisters. I set the group a writing exercise where they would recall a significant clock or watch from their early lives, and write about it for ten minutes. After this I invited people to read out what they had written. Both sisters, without consulting each other, wrote about their grandfather’s fob watch. As we all listened to the second sister’s account, we could recognize the grandfather, but the funny thing was that one sister recalled a lovely golden chain, while the other remembered a silver one. Since the chain is now lost, we will probably never know whether it was silver or gold.
Workshops are often enlivened by moments not unlike this one, but I thought this textbook example of the behaviour of memory was worth noting. If these sisters can’t agree on the nature of the chain which they observed in the relatively recent past, just how much can ever be believed? And how much does this matter? When you are writing memoir you are in one sense fabricating a new past from the materials your memory offers you, you are constructing something like a piece of fiction, in some ways, while trying (I suppose) to stick to the truth. The truth as you know it.
Also worth noting is the fact that the group, as groups frequently do, decided to keep in touch with each other by email after the workshop.
I have been astonished by the energy and commitment of this particular group. They continue to write and to share their work with each other, and to offer clear-eyed yet always encouraging criticism of the writing. I think most of them will persevere and will write various kinds of memoir, some for general publication, some for family and friends. And I know they will all remember, in one way or another, the lovely lesson of the gold and silver chains.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Do you have a manuscript in development, or even completed? Are you looking for a first assessment? Picture Book, Young Adult, General Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir?
Authors Glenda Millard and Carmel Bird will host a
SATURDAY of consultation and assessment
AT GIRRAHWEEN in MALDON
On May 5th from 10am to 4pm
GIRRAHWEEN is a enchanting Victorian house filled with books and pictures and vintage toys in the gold-rush town of Maldon, a place that has for years been a source of inspiration to writers and artists.
Girrahween looks serenely out onto a garden of native and exotic plants. This blissful haven has become a favourite destination for writers and illustrators.
The permanent writer-in-residence at Girrahween is Glenda Millard whose many picture books and young adult fiction are among the most beloved of readers, teachers and librarians. Glenda will be joined by novelist Carmel Bird to offer you clear and creative assessment of your work.
A weekend in Maldon places the visitor in the heart of a leisurely world of luxurious B&Bs, fine food and wine, galleries and specialty shops in the goldfields region. One of the literary and artistic events at Girrahween can be the focus of your visit.
The fee for the day is $250 (includes lunch)
GIRRAHWEEN is at 108 High St Maldon