Rat of the library

June 28, 2020 at 5:33 pm (Goth, Schubert, writers, writing)

I don’t know about you, but my quarantine creativity has been elusive. Even writing a monthly blog post has been a struggle. My studio is now my classroom and in all honesty, I can’t wait to leave it each day. Wherever in the world you are, I hope you’ve had more inspiration than me; that you’ve been picking up a pen, or a paintbrush, or a plectrum.

I’m relying on it.

I may not be producing art, but I am devouring it. I’ve never read so much in my life – and this is from a devoted bookworm. I even pulled out my old French and Flemish textbooks from when I lived in Brussels and was inordinately delighted to learn that ‘bookworm’ is listed as ‘rat de bibliothėque.’ ie rat of the library.

I’ve been reading feminist zines, punk lyrics, scientific explanations of phosphorescence, plague ‘cures’, German poetry, bass guitar tutorials and Solstice spells.

Birthday treats

Sylvia and champagne

Afternoon read with soup

Music brings solace too…as it always, always does. Chris Wilson blues and Betty Davis funk. I’ve been translating lyrics from Icelandic goth band Kaelan Mikla into English and howling along with them. I stumbled out of my comfort zone and straight into Schubert’s brilliant and beautiful Winterreise (winter travel) song cycle. Given that today hit only eleven degrees, it seems a perfect time to listen to songs detailing a man ‘falling asleep in snow and waking to the shrieking of ravens.’ I played it for my husband and he sighed with contentment and said ‘Sounds right up our alley.’ And then I drifted back into my comfort zone with Idles, a fierce and fabulous British punk band with excoriating and erudite lyrics tackling misogyny, toxic masculinity, consumer culture and so many more facets of our daily lives.

Melbourne blues legend Chris Wilson by artist Karyn Hughes

Ah, so I may have misled you. I did write a Stereo Story, and it sure felt good to get that pen moving.

Click here for my new Stereo Story (photo by Eric Algra)

And it sure felt good to get in the car when restrictions eased, and drive out of the city. I’ve needed green so much it made my fists clench. Last week saw my birthday, our first wedding anniversary and the Winter Solstice, so to the forest we went. Mist among the mountain ash and a Witch’s feet in soil…absolute bliss.

Kalorama misty morning

No surprises from a woman who had a Winter Solstice wedding/handfasting

There’s so much pressure to be productive. Through this pandemic I haven’t learned how to bake sour dough, or taught myself macramé, or pickling techniques for kim chi. Calmness has often been out of my reach, but kindness hasn’t, and I know which is more important.

I’m not currently producing art, but I’m sure as hell appreciating it. Soaking it in, learning from it, storing it away so that at some point, in some way, I’ll draw it out, dust it off, and write from it.

Wherever in the world you are, I hope you come up for air soon too.

Melbourne hope

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Plums, punk, pinot

April 30, 2020 at 8:11 pm (Uncategorized, writing) (, , )

I knew as soon as I saw the photos. Yes, this was definitely the one. The orange and brown swirls, the turntable with vintage vinyl, the five cats who liked to visit. This caravan was the perfect place to meet my publisher’s deadline for rewrites on my novel.

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I took the train two and a half hours north of Melbourne. The freedom and exhilaration of hitting the road always tastes so sweet. It would be my last taste for some time. I’m glad I didn’t know it as I walked through Bendigo, picking up a few days’ food and a bottle of spiced rum. The caravan was only twenty minutes’ walk from the centre of town. I remember the sun was hot, my bags heavy, my heart full. I would have a few days to write before my husband came up to join me: the perfect getaway.

The 70’s caravan was every bit as funky and fabulous as the photos. I popped the kettle on. I went through the records next to the turntable and selected Ike and Tina Turner. A snub-faced cat called Pearl sat on my lap as I pushed a cactus aside and set up my laptop on the table. ‘Nutbush City Limits’ filled the caravan.

Another self-imposed writing retreat, another step back into the Iceland of my novel. So just another week in my writing world, then.

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It’s six weeks later and I can’t stop thinking of that caravan. I had no idea back then what was about to hit. Back in March I knew there was a virus, but no-one really could have predicted….well, this. This world we’re now in. I am extremely fortunate to be living in a house with a small garden, and to be sharing it with my husband and stepson. I’m not lacking touch, or company, or even an income, at least at this point. There were a few frantic weeks of the college I work at moving everything online, and believe me, this little technophobe had more than a few issues. But I’m lucky, and I know it. I just need to remember how to breathe when the anxiety swirls.

I skipped last month’s blog post. Didn’t even try to write one. It seemed so pointless in the face of everything. But I’m drinking down every story I can get on how people are handling this, and drawing strength from them. One friend is a nurse in the red dirt of far northern Australia; another a punk-loving mum from Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I read everything they write. We do the grocery shopping for our immune-compromised neighbour, and trade stories over the fence with soul music and mint juleps. Everyone is coping differently, but every story is worth telling.

In writing this I’m trying to focus on the comfort so as not to get overwhelmed by the chaos. My altar and bell jars of snake skins. Punk music and pinot noir. Handwritten letters. Fresh plums. Episodes of ‘International House Hunters.’ Playing bass. Rilke poetry. Liquorice tea. My chonky cat. Icelandic band Kaelan Mikla. Halloween tonight in the southern hemisphere. Being able to understand my friends’ messages in Dutch and German. My favourite Kali chant. Sunshine in my writing studio. Supportive emails from my agent and publisher. Meeting their deadline for my novel. And imagining my next writing retreat, when we’re able to move again, when we’re able to breathe.

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I keep thinking about that caravan. The first thing I’m going to do when things stabilise, after rushing across Melbourne to sweep my beloved best friend into a massive bear hug, is to book this caravan again. I don’t even know what ‘stabilise’ means right now, so don’t ask me to clarify. But I do know I’m jumping on that V-Line train, and I’m going to open that retro door. I’m going to beckon in a cat or three, and open my notebook. And with Donna Summer crooning, I’m going to pour myself a rum, and start writing.

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Scalpel and sinew under the northern lights

February 29, 2020 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

My head is very much down, hands on keyboard, blues on the stereo. This month has seen meetings with my lovely publisher and agent, work on my manuscript, collating of ideas for the book cover, publicity photos, a writing retreat, and so much joy (which never really comes without stress, does it?). I took time out to read a Lit Hub article detailing a set of questions the author always asks writers with a new book out. The questions were intriguing, the answers illuminating. Of course I picked up a pen, and answered some myself.

Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Identity through isolation. Bird bones and snow. Regeneration through fragility. Icelandic sagas and Australian rainforest. Home and heart. Scalpel and sinew under the northern lights.

Far northen Iceland

Bird bones: anatomy of a thrush

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Big Mama Thornton’s voice. Feminist punk lyrics. My familiars of cat and snake. A one-month writing residency in far northern Iceland. My taxidermy teacher. Victorian memento mori. An Icelandic-English dictionary. Trumpet lilies in my garden. Snake skins. My agent’s wisdom. My husband’s chest. My history of agoraphobia. The photography of Petrina Hicks. My constant search for solitude in snow. Red birds.

My trumpet lily tattoo

Petrina Hicks

Taxidermy workshop

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Studied Icelandic and taxidermy techniques. Fell in love. Pagan handfasting on the Winter Solstice. Honeymoon in Brussels with Bosch and Bruegel paintings. Leaned into step-motherhood. Got an agent and a bass guitar. Pulled my hair out with rewrites. Learned I was part-Norwegian. Husband signed a book deal. Loved my coven of scribe sisters.

Bronco bass and Marlow muse

Handfasting

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Translator of Germanic languages. In my degree I did a double major in Linguistics and Germanic Languages, which is where I first studied and fell in love with Icelandic. It’s a notoriously difficult language and my love for it far exceeds my skill. Setting my novel in Reykjavik with a protagonist who takes Icelandic classes meant being able to shine a light not just on the beauty of the language, but my reverence for it. I’ve lived in Brussels several times and travel as often as possible to Berlin: I would absolutely adore dipping into English, Dutch and German as a translator. In a perfect world, Icelandic would follow (and then Russian, and Finnish, and Gaelic, and…and…).

Windowsill eavesdropping, Brussels

Have I procrastinated enough?

Head down, stereo on, and back to the keyboard.

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Up on the eighteenth floor

January 31, 2020 at 9:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

I saw the missed call. I was at work and couldn’t call back straight away. My agent had told me to be patient, to be calm. I was neither of those things. When I could call back, I had one of the most astonishing conversations of my life. How I went back into class and taught, I don’t know. I thought I was holding it together but one of my students asked whether I was feeling all right. ‘Absolutely,’ I told them, beaming. And it was more than true.

After work, I bought a bottle of champagne and went to meet my husband. It was his birthday the next day. As a treat I’d booked us a hotel room on the 18th floor, overlooking Victoria Market on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. The day was sweltering, over 40 degrees, and the eerie yellow sky was thick with dust. People I passed on the city streets looked wired and worried. I put my head down and pressed the elevator buzzer.

He was tired and tender after his own full day. I listened to him talk and poured him champagne. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to share my news; I just needed to hold it in my hands for a while, quietly, on my own. And then I did tell him. Today I was offered a publication contract for my novel, baby. I said the words I’d waited my whole writing life for. I said the words aloud, like a spell, and held my glass up. His face, and then his clink, and then the joy. The offer for his own novel had come only two months before, an email I’d met with hollers and he’d met with stunned silence. Different people, different novels, but the same path, and the same passion.

We headed into Victoria Market and ate a bizarre yet delicious Korean Mexican meal. I had kim chi quesadillas with grape soju that tasted like bubble gum. Afterwards we went to The Drunken Poet and sat under Guinness signs and framed portraits of Irish writers. I had so much to process I could barely hear the band. We went back into the heat and the wind. I kept trying to tame my wild fringe and he kept grinning at how badly I failed. We went up to our room, laughing.

On the balcony of the 18th floor the wind roared. My long hair whipped around me; my glasses almost flew off. In bed, it shook the windows. The din was so ferocious it sounded like a vacuum cleaner slamming down the hallway, but when I looked, there was no-one there. We did not sleep well. Chris kicked me in his sleep, fighting dream crocodiles. I woke at 5:30am and watched the sky turn cold blue, wishing like hell for rain.

I didn’t fall back asleep. Instead, I replayed the phone conversation, and tried to plan for what might come next. I thought of my manuscript, of my protagonist, and the white and wild Iceland that spellbinds us both. I watched dawn wake my city. And then I got up, and reached for my notebook.

I am over the moon to announce that I’ve just signed with Scribner at Simon and Schuster to publish my debut novel. I’m utterly delighted to be working with the amazing people there, and so grateful to everyone who’s had faith in me and my writing ❤ Exciting times ahead!

Footscray
(photo by Shannon McDonald)

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Nostalgia night

December 30, 2019 at 3:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

It’s old school all the way for me. I love placing a blues record on the turntable. I rely on hand-drawn maps to navigate new places. I write long letters to beloved pen pals in faraway countries. I hand write bass tabs to punk songs to pick out when nobody else is home to hear me play.

Bronco bass and Marlow muse

And I print out photos. I label them and place them in albums. I slide them into frames, tuck them into notebooks, and paste them into diaries. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you: I write diaries too, but I doubt that surprises you.

I’m sitting on the floor of my writing studio, photos of this past year spread out on the red shag rug around me. These are some highlights of my 2019.

I celebrated typing THE END of my novel manuscript by welcoming a small snake into our household of bird bones and deer skulls. She was a hatchling, tiny enough to wrap around my fingers and snuggle inside my bra while I wrote. We were so proud when she shed her first tiny skin. The Medusa tattoo on my left arm never felt so fitting.

Beautiful little Elva

I finished the first full draft of my manuscript at the urging of a literary agent, who then met me for coffee a few days later. I had my outfit all laid out; my hands only shook a little. When I smashed my foot into the couch on the way out, breaking my little toe, I didn’t even think about cancelling. I just limped all the way there, hanging onto lamp posts for support. Her feedback was extraordinary, her interest buoying. Signing with her agency is still one of the most exciting moments of the year, painkillers notwithstanding.

Signing with Melanie Ostell Literary

Waking up on the Winter Solstice and smiling at my Wolf on the pillow next to me, knowing that in a matter of hours we’d be married in a pagan hand-fasting ceremony, was a golden moment not just of 2019, but of my life.

Hand-fasting ribbon, broomstick and black cat.

My Wolf and cub

The first stop of our honeymoon was Brussels, my old home. So many memories, so many diary entries written with a cherry beer in my hand and the cobblestones below my window! Standing in the Great Place, my absolute favourite place in the world, with my husband, was something I’d never even thought to imagine. When we were joined by my beloved pen pal of twenty years, whom I first met in an online feminist punk collective in the early days of the internet, and her man, the joy was intense. Cue Jacques Brel singalongs, walks in the rain, more cherry beer, and the tightest of hugs.

Serenity

Contentment and cobblestones

A month later, back home in Melbourne, I was putting a record on the turntable in my studio when my man called my name. He was staring at his phone. The email was the one all writers wait for: we love your novel, and we want to publish it. We’re sending the contract tonight. I cried and wanted to shout it from the rooftops: he needed to sit in silence and process it. The following photo is at the train station on our way home from dinner and drinks to celebrate. I still love the look on his face.

Stay tuned for details of his upcoming novel!

Though my writing focus this year has been on finishing, honing and submitting my own novel, there have still been road trips to perform at literary festivals, as well as short story publications, residency applications and even planning books number two and three. My Icelandic spell book is still open on my desk; the snow is still all over my writing desk. And I will have some news to share very, very soon.

Iceland…setting of my first writing residency, and my novel.

In the meantime, I wish you a new year full of words and their wonder, in whatever form you prefer. See you in 2020.

Photo by Shannon McDonald

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Die Wende

November 30, 2019 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

We all jumped when we heard it. My teacher opened the classroom door and peered out.

Thirty years ago this month, I can still remember every moment.

We heard the loud and joyous exclamation repeated in muffled Flemish from other classrooms. When my teacher rushed out the door, the students in my class began to follow him. I didn’t join them, for one good reason.

I hadn’t understood the sentence.

As celebrations erupted around the school, I tried to work it out. I was four months into a year-long exchange program in Brussels, a city I’d instantly fallen in love with. The languages, however, I was struggling with. Belgium has three: French, Flemish and German, and for that extra challenge they sometimes like to mix them all up in the colourful but impenetrable Bruxellois dialect.

The walk home was equally puzzling. Drivers honked; people hung out of car windows waving and bellowing. The elderly couple who ran the fruit stall slow-danced in the street. It was only when I heard German being sung that the shouted sentence in my high school hallway finally made sense.

My god, had the Berlin Wall come down?

Line of the Berlin Wall

I ran the last few steps. My host parents were standing in their butcher shop with white aprons tied tight, holding a bottle of champagne high enough to touch the smoked hams hanging from the ceiling. Everyone burst into cheers when they saw me. A torrent of Flemish and French surged around my host parents and their customers. The joy was undeniable, but I still needed confirmation, and I needed it in English. I headed upstairs to the lounge room, and the BBC.

I knew next to nothing about politics. Until that point my only political participation had been singing along to punk songs excoriating Margaret Thatcher. But that last year of the 1980’s was an incredible time to land in Europe, with the mass demonstrations and revolutionary fervour sweeping across the continent. Watching footage of protests in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia was utterly invigorating. I was about to turn eighteen, and more than ready to see the world as an adult.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought that home. We’d heard reports of the demonstrations gathering force, but were not quite able to tell the rumours from reality. Watching footage of the West Berliners line the roads with flower and cheers, welcoming the incredulous East Berliners as they streamed across the united city, was a sight I’ll never forget.

I couldn’t shake the spell of that city. Not long after the wall opened, I went to a travel agent. He took one look at the age on my passport and shook his head. It was impossible to find anyone who’d book a seventeen year old on a 750km bus trip from Brussels to Berlin that soon after November 9. What if the wall went back up, and I was trapped there? For some, euphoria was still tempered by suspicion: the shadow of the DDR loomed large.

I settled for the Rhine Valley instead. I spent my eighteenth birthday in Cologne, sneaking into punk clubs and learning German slang beside the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral. I loved my taste of Germany, but the whole time my gaze was on the east, and the promise of Berlin.

That night in November 1989 when I sat cross-legged on my host parents’ floor, watching the news unfold, had sunk hooks deep within me.

They led me to a degree in Germanic Languages and Linguistics, where I studied Nietzsche with scepticism, Goethe with fascination, and Nina Hagen with admiration. The compulsory subjects based on Die Wende, the change of political systems that brought with it the fall of the Berlin Wall, were pure joy to me.

When I finally made it to Berlin, it was even better than I’d anticipated. The city was a revelation.

Berlin street art

On my first trip I went to Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazi book burnings took place. When I was told that Berliners brought candles and pillows every May 10, the anniversary of the burnings, and that they curled up to read their favourite passages from the books that were banned, I knew I would be back.

On my third trip to Berlin I met up with my Dutch pen-pal, and went to a feminist punk festival held in a squat in Kreuzberg where the black coffee was so strong we felt ill and had to go back to the hostel to lie down.

On my fifth trip to Berlin, I rented a flat with an ex-lover who’d flown in from Switzerland. Under a thunderstorm and with sticky glasses of Grand Marnier, he told me I could never be a ‘real writer’ until I’d studied all the French greats of literature. The liqueur left a sweet taste in my mouth; his words did not.

On my seventh trip to Berlin, I landed on the 50th anniversary of the barbed wire being rolled out that would become the Berlin Wall. At midday there was a minute of silence. I watched from my balcony as pedestrians stopped on the footpath with heads bowed. I joined them, honouring not just the people killed trying to cross the wall, but all those whose lives were overshadowed by the enormity of its presence.

On my latest visit I brought my husband. He fell under the spell of the city immediately, connecting, just as I do, to the regeneration and resilience on every street corner.

The landlord of our apartment showed us around. He handed me the keys and a map of the city.

‘Thanks, but this is my eleventh visit. I know this city well.’

He raised his eyebrows.

‘If you love Berlin so much, why don’t you just live here then?’

I didn’t have an answer. It’s a question I ask myself often, every time I visit.

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Thuis (home)

September 29, 2019 at 6:25 pm (Brussels, Goth, honeymoon, memory, writing)

When I was a troubled teen – and who wasn’t? – I was taken to a counsellor. Quite a few, actually. My all black armour, the punk anthems bellowed from my bedroom, my furious scowl and pentagram jewellery, were all causes for
concern. In many ways I was a typical teenage girl; I just didn’t know it.

One therapist wanted me to imagine my happy place, so I could transport myself there in the face of anxiety or depression. A sunny meadow; an azure beach. I chose an imaginary flat close to the Thames in London. I would be living there by myself, with the solitude and silence I already knew to relish, and needed to write. My happy place, when I closed my eyes, was envisioning myself curled up on the floor in a darkened flat, head against the window, watching the rain.

Although I was delighted to finally visit London, as a teen Goth my face was not permitted to show it.

My vision wasn’t exactly cheerful, though it was pure Goth. And it gave me great comfort, for decade after decade. Before a flight or a fight, a magazine interview or stepping on stage at literary festivals, I would close my eyes, and deep breathe as I listened to the rain against the windows.

Here’s the thing, though: London and I are no longer friends.

Earlier this month we took a honeymoon to Europe. Chris’ family all live in the UK, with a stop first in Brussels. The latter is my home away from home; I’ve lived there twice now, and adore it so much I tear up at the first whiff of cherry beer.

London used to charm me – it was the home of punk, and Doc Martens! What more could a surly teen require? This time, however, I stalked Regent Street with its gross consumerism, battled swarms of late summer tourists with their selfie sticks, and struggled to find the awe it had once triggered in me. Could this really still be my happy place? I walked down to the Thames and tried to imagine where my mythical flat would be, but narrowly missed being shat on by a pigeon and scolded by hipsters.

Trying to find London charm

Trying to find London charm

Brussels was another matter. Chris fell for its ‘sleazy charm’ immediately, installing himself on our balcony with a soundtrack of Jacques Brel. We gazed in awe at Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel paintings, and drank strong Duvel beer in an ornate Art Nouveau museum high above the cobble stones. We posed for photos in front of my old high school from my exchange year, a private Catholic girls’ school whose strict rules I’d hated with a passion, yet which now proudly flies a rainbow flag.

Cherry beer and old school Flemish

Cherry beer and old school Flemish

We scratched our initials into a weathered table top in a Flemish café where Brel drank, and the Belgian surrealists sketched. I brewed coffee and made pancakes in our warm and homey apartment with its red bordello walls and abundance of witchcraft symbols.

Brussels home for the week

Brussels home for the week

Sustenance

Crepes and coffee

Belgian cat medals at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

Belgian cat medals at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

We ate mussels at dusk and cherry beer for breakfast; we sat together in parks I used to write in, and with camera held high, Chris clicked the button at the same moment he felt me up. The surprise and delight on my face is a favourite souvenir.

Town Hall in the exquisite Grand Place

Maison du Roi in the exquisite Grand Place

Jardin du Petit Sablon

Jardin du Petit Sablon

And this, I know now, is my true happy place. I look over our week there together, showing the city I love most to the man I love most, and I try to pin it down.

And then I find it.

It was a midweek afternoon. We’d walked through the Parc de Bruxelles and had a gorgeous lunch under its trees, washed down by raspberry lemonade. We headed home when the rain began. It was light summer rain, with the air still warm, and the sunshine strong. We curled up in our comfy bed for a nap, with the tower of the Town Hall in the Great Place visible from the open window. Chris fell asleep before I did, a napper so dedicated he actually has a sleep crease etched into his forehead. His back was to me, and I reached out to stroke it. The sun caught the rubies in my wedding ring as I listened to the rain, my hand outstretched. And that was it.

With that memory, I knew I’d never need the Thames flat again.

The places our minds can retreat to when we need escape, when we need solace, are endless. The books we’ve read, the holidays we’ve had, even fantasies of the future. The trick is to recognise them when they’re in front of you, to catch them so gently you don’t break them.

Then they’re yours, whenever you need them most.

Serenity

Contentment and cobblestones

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Words on a winter wing

July 20, 2019 at 10:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I asked Emily which was her favourite in the museum. She led me back to a Monet water lily, the first she’d ever seen, from 1919.

This is when I let her in on a secret: it can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.

‘Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me’ by Bill Hayes.

This gorgeous passage in Bill Hayes’ memoir brought my favourite artwork instantly to mind: the Betrothal of the Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck. At the age of seventeen I flew from Australia to Brussels for a year-long student exchange, and began a lifelong love affair with everything Flemish; the painting, the language, the architecture, and the divine black cherry beer. The first time I stood in front of van Eyck’s masterpiece in The National Gallery in London, my septum threaded with silver, my ripped stockings and army boots below a tattered punk t-shirt, I was instantly catapulted back into the Middle Ages. Its power was startling to me; still is, in fact.

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‘Betrothal of the Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck

Ownership of your artwork does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening, and bring to it one’s full attention.

Van Eyck led me to delve into the witches of Goya, the intricate rabbit sketches of Dürer, the apocalyptic torment of Hieronymus Bosch, and the wry humour in Brueghel. As Hayes explains, it’s not just paintings that can provide these stories and their inspiration, but also books, songs, photographs, architecture…it can be anywhere, if you know where to look.

Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

rabbit

Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps the best part about possessing art in this way is that what’s mine can be yours, and vice versa. In fact, I would not be surprised if half of New York City has also put dibs on the Monet that Emily chose. This made it no less hers.

There are streets in Brussels that belong to me. Rue Chair et Pain (Street of Flesh and Bread) is where I bought my coconut incense in 1989, my backpack full of French homework I didn’t quite understand. Rue des Renards (Street of the Foxes) spills its cobblestones into the site of an old leper colony, then a flea market, where I haggled for a tartan ‘mini jupe’ skirt in 2002 that made a workman lay his pipes on the road to slowly applaud me as I walked past. In 2006 I often walked through the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés for a gingerbread salad and sweet rosé at Café Coco opposite the Jacques Brel museum, writing postcards home to Melbourne. And in 2011 I stood outside a red-walled house on Kandelaarstraat (Street of the Candlesticks) and beamed up at the window of the bedroom I dream I’m still living in.

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Brussels windowsill (photo by Lisa Jewell)

Which brings me to music. I don’t know if you can share ownership of a song, but if so, I’m going to claim Big Mama Thornton. I love her blues so much I wanted it played at my wedding a few weeks ago. Chris listened to the sultry sighs and moans in the song I’d chosen. ‘Is that really a wedding song, babe?’he laughed. ‘Your dad is going to be there.’ I hadn’t thought of that.

In the end we went with David Bowie’s ‘Word on a Wing’ as I walked down the aisle in my red velvet dress. I barely heard the songs we chose, I was so spellbound by Chris’ beautiful face waiting for me at the altar. We wrapped a red silk ribbon around our wrists in a witchcraft hand-fasting, and these two writers promised each other a life of words and their wonder. Etta James’ ‘Loving You More Every Day’ played as we signed our marriage certificate; Nick Cave’s ‘Breathless’ saw us back down the aisle and out of the chapel.

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Wedding photos by Rebecca Murray

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Our honeymoon is in Brussels in four weeks. We’re going to visit Brueghel’s house and play Jacques Brel songs. I’ll take him to the flea market, sit him down with a black cherry beer, and see if I can still haggle in Flemish and French.

I cannot wait.

But don’t be hasty. You must be sure you are besotted. When it happens, you will know. 

I brought Emily in closer to her new acquaintance: ‘Emily, meet your Monet. Monet, Emily.’ 

Words did not fail her. ‘Hello, beautiful,’ she whispered.

The morning of our wedding was damn cold in the mountains outside Melbourne. The witch in me had chosen the Winter Solstice, after all. I woke early, before him. We’d stayed up with whiskey and tunes the night before; our rings were ready on the bedside table, my dress hanging on the bathroom rail. I watched him sleep. His head was turned away from me on the pillow, his arms wrapped around himself.

I leaned down and gently kissed his sleeping shoulder.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ I whispered.

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My stack of spines

May 30, 2019 at 8:44 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

I’ve been writing, as usual, but I’ve also been reading.

Lord, have I been reading.

I’ve always been a bookworm but it seems to have kicked into high gear recently. There’s a stack of spines on my dresser, but also in my kitchen, and the studio too. I almost hold my breath when walking past The Sun bookshop in Yarraville, or Brown and Bunting in Northcote, lest my feet automatically turn and walk in, my fingers opening and closing in readiness. As conundrums go, it’s really not a bad one, hey?

Here are some of the books that I’ve slid from a stack recently, and devoured.

Saga Land’ by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows how much I love Iceland. Even my pharmacist, hairdresser and vet know how much I love Iceland. My novel is set there – currently getting stuck into manuscript revisions and edits, thanks for asking! I studied the language at university, and I’ve been there many times, including an incredible month-long writing residency in a tiny fishing village up near the Arctic Circle. Unforgettable.

novel edits

Editing advice from my Icelandic fortune cards: ‘Let go of it.’

‘Saga Land’ is deeply engaging. It offers twin strands of the authors’ personal history and travels across that wild, white land, woven in with tales of the sagas and their richly detailed insight into Icelandic culture and history. Definitely worth a read.

‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

I was a latecomer to this classic. In all honesty, my tastes run more to contemporary titles: I still resent English Literature classes and their force feeding of Austen and the Brontës. Du Maurier is one of my partner’s favourite writers, so when I found this gorgeous version of ‘Rebecca’ in Ampersand, Sydney’s revered second-hand bookstore, I couldn’t resist (their brunch of black sticky rice, coconut cream and caramelised bananas with crushed hazelnuts also got a huge thumbs up). I started reading this book at the airport flying home to Melbourne and could not put it down for a week. I kept sending my man texts along the lines of ‘I can’t believe Max de Winter did (spoiler)!’ or ‘Oh my god, Mandelay (spoiler)!’ This glorious Gothic suspense novel makes me want to visit Cornwall, and scan more bookshelves for du Maurier’s name.

Rebecca at Ampersand

Delights at Ampersand Books, Sydney

‘Angry Women in Rock’ edited by Andrea Juno

This book is an old favourite of mine. I bought it in the 90’s when I joined several online communities dedicated to writing and putting out feminist punk zines. These interviews are just so invigorating: Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Lynn Breedlove (Tribe 8), Joan Jett and my absolute favourite, the incomparable Val Agnew from 7 Year Bitch (one of THE best bands of the 90’s). I love the fiery opinions, the delicate artwork, the Goddess tattoos, and the reverence of metal and punk music. I often pull this off the shelves for a dose of feminist fire.

Juno book

Interview with the extraordinary Valerie Agnew from 7 Year Bitch

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

What the HELL just happened? This was my bellow to my bestie as I came to the end of just the first chapter (!) of this staggering, controversial and unforgettable book. I took it as a holiday read for a quick New Year’s jaunt to Tasmania, but I did not get much rest. The cover should have warned me, with its praise from other authors along the lines of ‘A haunting parable of contemporary misogyny…sly and devastating’ (The Economist) and ‘You can’t shake off this novel; it gets under your skin, fills your lungs, breaks your heart’ (Christos Tsiolkas). Ten young women are abducted and held in a makeshift prison in the middle of the stark Australian outback, the heat and desert a jailor in itself. The women come to realise that all they have in common is involvement in ten different sexual scandals with prominent men; kept away from society, they are all being punished and can either turn to, or against, each other. I will say the ending had me wanting to pull my hair out, but in all honesty, I hope a reader reacts with the same vehemence to one of my books one day.

Wood

Charlotte Woods’ astonishing ‘The Natural Way of Things’

There are many, many more books to detail! I would love to add:

  • ‘The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Culture of Longing’ by Rachel Poliquin (the first draft of my novel may have come to an end, but my love of taxidermy research that arose from it will never cease)
  • ‘The Tricking of Freya’ by Christina Sunley (more Icelandic stories)
  • ‘Beautiful Revolutionary’ by Laura Elizabeth Woollett (gorgeous writing about the startling People’s Temple cult)
  • ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’ by Jane Rawson (odd and engaging fiction that defies definition: part speculative, part cli-fi prose set around my area of Melbourne’s industrial west).

 

book store sign

Sign found in a bookstore in Kallista, the Dandenongs

Rebecca on Sydney windowsill

Windowsill bliss

And on my To Be Read list?

  • Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women.’
  • Daisy Johnson’s ‘Everything Under.’
  • Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s ‘Butterflies in November.’
  • Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn.’

And I am always ready to hear your recommendations, or your thoughts on any of the above books. My stacks of spines are tall, you know, but they could always get taller.

book stack

 

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Feasting season, with fire

April 30, 2019 at 10:46 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

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My beautiful snake familiar, Elva

It’s Hallowe’en tonight in the Southern Hemisphere, and I’m feeling it.

Our seasons are reversed from the Northern Hemisphere, so our Sabbats are too. Winter is almost here. Melbourne is chilly, with the sky dark before I even put my key in the lock after work. I cooked a gorgeous wintry meal for my man and stepson, fed and scratched my rotund and irascible punk rock cat, and am sitting here with a glass of pinot noir, working on a submission for a short story anthology.

This month has been extraordinarily busy in ink-spilling scope. I’ve been poring over the suggested edits by my agent for my novel manuscript, researching Icelandic sagas and skalds and taxidermy techniques to put within its pages. I applied for a UNESCO Cities of Literature writing residency in downtown Reykjavik, for which I had to update my CV. It took a lot longer than I expected and resulted in me staring at newly added publications and festival appearances, podcasts and prizes, with my hand on my throat and an odd little murmur of pleasure. I entered a contest run by a feminist literary magazine, and another by a prestigious Australian publication. I recorded several short stories for All The Best Radio about ‘Feasts’, set in Brussels, Melbourne, New York and Darwin. And I loved the mail telling me a monologue of mine is going to be performed as a theatre piece next month in Sydney.

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Recording for All The Best Radio, on the topic of ‘Feasts’

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One of my favourite places to write; in my friends’ studio in Moyston, Victoria

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For when you need to step out of the books and back into the body: Sunday afternoon archery sessions

So forgive my absence, but the pen is always in my hand. I also don’t think I’ve ever read as much as I have this past year, sometimes several books a week. They’ve moved, infuriated and impressed me, and on quite a few occasions made me thump the table in heated discussion with loved ones.

Those are always good nights, hey?

Winter is just around the corner. Here in Melbourne it seems to have already arrived, but just between us, I love it. I want open fires and mulled wine, snuggling and snow. I’m getting married on the Winter Solstice in the mountains yet still stubbornly insist I’m going to do it in bare feet, winter witch that I am. Let’s see how that goes, shall we?

This is just a little wave to say I’m still here, and still writing.

Happy Hallowe’en to you and yours.

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