Monday, August 21, 2017


 The Dead Aviatrix is an ebook published by Spineless Wonders in November 2017. It will be the first book of short stories in the Spineless Wonders new Capsule Collection series.

The eight stories in The Dead Aviatrix are not obviously connected with each other by theme or character or plot, although because they all originate in my imagination, they all reflect my interests and concerns. The ebook is a gathering of eight of my stories that have been recently published in various journals.

Here is an account of how the present collection came about:
The Story of the Stories
A few years ago I wanted to revise my book on writing, Dear Writer, and offer it as an ebook. I discovered the wonders of Spineless Wonders which was a small publisher specializing in ebooks. Dear Writer Revisited became an ebook, and Spineless Wonders also produced it in hard copy.

Since then, they have published my collection My Hearts Are Your Hearts, and in 2017 they began the Capsule Collections which are small collections of stories or poems produced solely as ebooks. They put eight of my new stories into a Capsule and this became The Dead Aviatrix, published in November 2017.
Every short story has its own history.

Story One : The Dead Aviatrix
The title story ‘The Dead Aviatrix’ was inspired by something that happened to me as the writer of a novel some years ago. It was an awful and troubling thing, and I wondered for a long time about how to write about it in a useful and interesting way. The narrative involved my surname and the surname of an Australian woman flier, and it was a story about publishing. Then one day I was reading online about the phenomenon of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the first book-packager for children, and I found there a story with a woman flier in it, and I was captivated by the sentence:
The aviatrix sat looking on through all this tumult with a happy smile.
Something went Ping! and suddenly I had the story. Maybe the use of the term ‘aviatrix’ was what did it. A word very much of its time. Female aviator. Not a word that is safe to use seriously any more because it is unfashionable to characterize women workers as being separate from men workers. You are not supposed to say, for instance, ‘actress’. So ‘aviatrix’ was horribly un-PC. In particular I loved the ‘trix’ part of it; I just liked saying it. The character of the intern invented itself. Since I wrote the story, the matter of interns has become the subject of government and media attention.

I chose the aviatrix as the title for the whole collection. When I began telling people about the ebook I was surprised at how many of them reacted to the title itself. The word ‘aviatrix’ set them off in various ways, and, curiously, so did the word ‘dead’. By coincidence it was at exactly the time of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart.  Although the story has in fact nothing to do with Amelia. This was one of those sweet moments of coincidence that sometimes flavour and favour the writing of fiction.

Story Two: The Whirligigge of Time Brings in His Revenges
When I was at high school, I played the part of Olivia in Twelfth Night. One of the lines in the play that sometimes comes back to me is ‘The whirligigge of time brings in his revenges’. Now skip to 2017. Social media rules. There is no privacy. Once upon a time publishers were often remote and powerful figures, shadowy even. But by 2017 some of them began to give in to the temptation to express themselves on social media.  Whereas once they might have mocked the writing in the ‘slush pile’ to their colleagues over lunch, now they could give the whole world a good laugh. I found this quite shocking, really. The lovely line from Twelfth Night leapt to mind, and there’s the story.

Story Three: Cold Case
‘Cold Case’ has its origins in a memory I have from childhood. I liked to pick flowers that hung over fences. Still do really. One day I picked a puffy greeny white viburnum bloom, whereupon a hideous red-faced man materialized and shouted at me that he would ram the flower down my bloody throat. I can’t really explain how the plots and characters of stories build from these old memories, but clearly the incident with the viburnum made a powerful impression on me, as did the line from Twelfth Night, and maybe because my project in life is to manufacture fiction, those things have the power to give birth to characters and narratives. I wrote the story in the first person, but the narrator is only partly personal to me.

Story Four: Cactus
In the goldfields region where I live there are fascinating little old towns that have in the past been been busy, grand and elegant, but that are now very very quiet, perhaps more or less dead. One time when I went to Tarnagulla, I saw vast areas of prickly pear gone wild in the middle of the town. It’s an introduced weed. It was beautiful, the proliferation, the sea of thick ears of green sprouting vicious needles and blooming with silky peachy yellow flowers. And the fact that ‘cactus’ is Australian slang for ‘dead, beaten, kaput’ appealed to me as a metaphoric description of the place. There’s a beautiful old bank building, and several handsome red-brick churches which I really love. All these buildings have been converted into residences, I imagine for people who have come from the city to enjoy life in the country. From time to time in towns like this, people set up shops to sell crystals, or to tell fortunes and so forth. Anyway, my visit to Tarnagulla inspired me to write the story ‘Cactus’. The lives of the characters in the story are pretty much cactus too.

Story Five: The Matter of the Mosque
I live in the Bendigo region of Victoria. In recent years there has been considerable controversy about the establishment of a mosque in Bendigo. The community is divided on the issue. I should clarify here that I am in favour of the mosque. Sometimes I am stopped in the street by strangers who rant about their belief that the mosque is going to bring violence and terrorism to the city, that land values will drop, that women will be raped, people will be slaughtered.
My most vivid experience of this irrational prejudice occurred in an unexpected location. I used to take my small grand-daughter to ballet classes. As the only grandmother among the mothers who waited in a separate room while the children took the class, I was invisible and ignored. The mothers talked among themselves, and every now and then they would interrupt their discussion of ordinary everyday concerns with expressions of rage and fear and disgust about the mosque. I simply told this story as a third person narrative, dramatizing and foregrounding the vicious intolerance that seemed to be as normal to the women as their talk about hairspray. I just allowed them to talk. The story is a portrait of the blindness and smugness of a certain section of local society in its own words.

Story Six: Surrogate
I wrote this story at a time when surrogate pregnancies were big news in Australia. When their surrogate baby son turned out to be ‘imperfect’, an Australian family rejected him and left him with his birth mother in a foreign country. Rather than meet this story head on, I explored the issue of surrogacy and imperfection as a type of fairy tale from the nineteen fifties. I think that some of the issues involved in surrogacy can be highlighted by shifting some of the emphasis, and by adopting an unexpected tone for the telling. Unlike many of my stories, this one has distinctive characters and a straightforward plot. Incidentally, it is set at a time when Europeans were arriving in Australia after the Second World War. The Dutch people in the story are of course figments of my imagination, but I knew several Dutch families in Tasmania in the fifties, and memories of them just entered the narrative.

Story Seven: Love Letter to Lola
I think extinction of species has been one of my preoccupations since my father told me that the last Tasmanian Tiger had died in the Hobart zoo a month after my older sister was born in 1936. My father had seen the animal, but I would never see it or its like. Small evidences of this interest have surfaced in my writing over the years, but ‘Love Letter to Lola’ is the probably only story I have written purely on the subject. In 2003 a friend asked me if there was a book I would like for my birthday and I said I would like Tony Juniper’s book about the extinction of Spix’s macaw. The friend was a bit surprised at the choice, but she gave me the book, I am happy to say.
In 2016 a publisher invited writers to contribute to a book of love letters. For some reason the idea that came to me was a love letter from the last Spix’s macaw. So I tell, through the voice of the parrot himself, the terrible story of the extinction of the bird. Tony Juniper told the history; I gave the parrot a voice.

Story Eight: The Tale of the Last Unicorn
In 2013 I was guest editor for an issue of Griffith Review. The topic of the journal that quarter was fairy tales, one of my particular interests. The notion of ‘fairy tale’ is still more or less lodged in the popular Australian imagination, possibly thanks to Walt Disney, in the narratives of the Grimms, and in other European traditions. At Griffith Review, it became clear that although there are glorious Indigenous foundation myths and other legends, and also stories such as ‘The Magic Pudding’, there is very little literature past or present that falls into the category of ‘Australian fairy tale’.

With this at the back of my mind, I began writing a new story. It’s always a mysterious process, writing fiction, and so I can’t really explain why the idea of the Rainbow Serpent and the Unicorn meeting in Tasmania occurred to me. But it did, and I began writing, and it turned out to be an end-of-the-world story. Extinction of everything. In a way it is a long-awaited response to the story my father told me long ago about the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Critics, Writers, Readers

Often in reviews of books, I read about a place called the Landscape of Australian Literature. Books and writers get placed in this landscape. When writing a book, you maybe should work out where you want to put it in the landscape. I think perhaps the critic is an ant in the leaf litter of the Landscape of Australian Literature.

Then there is a certain language that belongs to criticism.  The other day I saw on the cover of a new book:
‘The most intelligent, captivating, and exquisitely written book of this year or any year.’
For one thing I don’t know what that means. But I had to assume the blurb was trying to be funny. I didn’t actually investigate. Anyhow I looked the book up online and discovered it to be – I quote –
‘An original, poignant modern-day take on Wuthering Heights, as a high school senior searches for her teacher and meets a boy who may just be Heathcliff come to life.’
But back to critics.

The critic has a small role to play in the reception of a book.

I think the critic must somehow try to follow the project that the writer has set out to present. No use reading Shane Maloney and trying to make him into Jane Austen. But you do sometimes read reviews that accuse a writer of not being another writer. I have been accused of not being Shakespeare, and Marion Halligan has been accused of not being

Patrick White. There are really no rules by which a novel, for instance, can be judged. The reader/critic has to give over something to the terms of the particular novel itself. No use wishing you were reviewing the latest Ian McEwan if you are actually reviewing D.B.C Pierre.

I suppose you could say you need to ‘honour’ the work in hand. Give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe. But then critics also have to be able to give an opinion on how well they consider the writer has fulfilled the writer’s own criteria. In other words – what does the critic think the writer thought she was doing, and does the critic think this aim was achieved? And was it worth doing?

When a radio play I wrote was broadcast on the BBC in 1998, a listener from India called in with her response which was outrage. She vowed never to listen to plays on the BBC ever again because of the shocking racism of the first few minutes of my play. She had switched off after that. The play was a dramatic expression of MY outrage at violent racism in Van Diemens Land in the nineteenth century. This woman has gone into my vocabulary as Outraged of Bangalore, and she is an example of a critic who has no idea what she is talking about because she hasn’t paid fair attention to the whole work. 
The first thing any critic must do is consider the whole work under review. You might be surprised at how often this is not the case.

When I read a book review my first criterion is that it should not be dull. If the construction and tone and sentences of the review are dull, if the review itself doesn’t invite me in, I can’t take it very seriously. For an author, the dull review is worse than the negative review. Dull and negative – well of course that’s the pits. I want a review of any book by me or anyone else to give the sense that the reviewer has engaged with the work, reflected on it, and constructed a response that will honour the work and inform the reader-of-the-review. Does the reviewer like the book and why? If not, why not? I am a big consumer of reviews.

Way back in the early 1980s, before the internet, before book groups, before writers’ festivals, I started subscribing to the Literary Review which is an English monthly journal of book reviews written by selected experts in matters literary. I love the Literary Review and I still read it every month. I’ll read reviews anywhere and everywhere. If I start listing all the places, it will sound a bit ridiculous. But I will confess that once a month I go to the hairdresser and there I read the reviews in the Women’s Weekly and also The Monthly. I also get nice haircuts and good cups of tea.

I believe that the best way to learn to write in any form – novel, short story, poem, review – is to read and analyse many many examples of the chosen form. I can’t remember when I wrote my first review, or what I reviewed, or who published it. I’d like to read it, but I’m a poor archivist of my own work. So it’s pretty much lost, I think. I do know that my only information on how to do it was the reviews I had absorbed, since there were no courses or books I knew of on how to do it, and my formal education ended before the invention of the task called the ‘book report’. At school we used to study novels and analyse them and write essays on them. That was all. 

Because I also write novels and stories, I am familiar with having my own work reviewed, so I have at least two perspectives on the matter.

The reviewer and the reviewed. And another perspective is that of the consumer, the reader who reads reviews to discover how books are being received and described. 

Before a book is available for sale, there is much promotional activity that goes on. Some if it is kind of crypto critical – all positive of course. Also there is vigorous social media, and these days there are sometimes animations of the narrative.

But often the first piece of comment the book-buyer gets on any book is found on the cover. Such as the one about being the best book of this year or any year. The publisher provides a few words of praise from critics etc and offers them to the prospective buyers and readers. A recent collection of stories by C.K. Stead says the stories are ‘challenging, fun, urbane and brilliant’. On the cover of a selection of poems by Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy says: ‘Billy Collins is one of my favourite poets in the world.’ I actually prefer her kind of personal comment to the ‘brilliant fun’ thing. I suppose because her kind sounds alive, whereas the other one is just a collection of buzz words.  So there, at random from my bookshelf, are two different ways of presenting a book – with an authoritative list of adjectives, or with a completely personal rush of praise.

You can see that such things don’t really mean much. You wouldn’t expect to find negative comments offered by the publisher anyway. It is also fashionable for writers to be described as writing luminous or limpid prose, but I have never quite understood what kind of prose those might be.
In other words, book reviews are often collections of rather weird ‘review clich├ęs’ which glide past the eyes of readers as code for good or bad. You know when you see a reviewer, towards the end of the glowing review, saying ‘however’ that this is the signal for the fact that they are going to say something derogatory. They go: Searingly honest, poetic and visceral, monumental, luminous, brilliant, deeply uplifting, gripping like the jaws of a dingo… HOWEVER…says the critic …here are some REALLY BAD things that will put you off.

This is a dull and routine review rhythm.

Good good good – really bad. Where did the reviewer really stand on that book? Not sure.

The next earliest commentary on a book can be found in journals on publishing, produced for booksellers and publishers. In June you will read reviews of books that are going to be published in September. This gives the reviewer a chance to discover where the book will sit in that good old Landscape of Australian Literature. For one thing. Make no mistake – it’s really the Landscape of Australian Marketing that we are talking about here. The reviewer is a very small element in the grand plan of the marketing department of the publisher.

Anyhow – what you see after the stuff in those journals might be a blurb from a bookseller. Now these are always positive, because the bookseller is selling books, but they do give you some insight into the kind of book you are dealing with. Of course these things are not without commercial support from the publisher – so they will never be altogether without bias. There exists a blurry line between criticism and promotion.

Then come the reviews in local and international newspapers, and in journals, on radio. There are the blogs, some useful, some not – it’s a given that these days anybody can publish a review, and that much of what is written online is by any average standard just rubbish – but I think the most reliable reviewing is still found in places where editors have selected experienced reviewers who know what the whole thing is about. The best things are often longish essays in which the critic has been given the time and space to deliver thoughtful and careful analysis. The Sydney Review of Books is such a place. You also get panel discussions – on TV and at Festivals and so on. Somewhere in this maelstrom of words is the critic.
The critic plays a small part in the complexity of the life of a book, and is as I said, probably an ant among the leaf litter in the Landscape of Australian Literature.