I am knee deep in snow.
I know, I know. Again, right?
I wish I could tell you it was literal. I wish I could say I was lifting my red riding hood over my plaits, pulling on my thermal gloves with the leopard print cuffs, and heading down past the fish factory to Samkaup supermarket for some skyr and harðfiskur.
But while my writing residency in a tiny Icelandic fishing village up near the Arctic Circle may be over, the inspiration I found there is making ink pour from my pen, straight into my notebook.
I’m working constantly on my novel, set in both Reykjavik and the village where I stayed, Ólafsfjörður. Elva is a half-Australian, half-Icelandic amateur taxidermist who works in a cabinet of curiosities, skinning small creatures, slipping on the ice, and hiding her growing obsession with a famous Icelandic book in the secret room of her attic apartment.
If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book, people.
So I have to finish writing it.
In ten weeks, I’m pulling out the red riding hood, packing up my pens, and heading north again. I’m going to research the colourful nature of Icelandic slang, the smell of the fish factory, and the exquisite sound of ice crunching under my army boots. Just like my protagonist, however, this is usually heard moments before those boots slide out from under me and I hit the ground. Thirteen years of dance classes and I’ve never quite found the grace necessary to remain upright in the snow.
I’m relishing writing about the differences between Australia and Iceland. Elva has one foot in each place, and ever since my first visit to Reykjavik almost ten years ago, when I watched the sun rise over this sculpture, so have I.
Elva sits under her skylight waiting for the northern lights. As I write, I’m barefoot in the summer sun, nursing a beer in my back yard. Elva’s ritual before leaving the house involves a thick woollen scarf wound around her mouth; mine is a thick coat of coconut oil over my 30+ sunblock. I eat kangaroo steaks with a blue cheese salad; she tries to get the hang of harðfiskur með smjöri, thin slices of dried fish smothered with butter. She has just about the same luck with that as I did, however…which is to say, none at all.
Both lands are polar opposites, in geography and climate. I grew up with bushfire sirens that made you shudder when they rent the air. With my father a firefighter, I remember as a child watching the ash land on my school desk, rendering me mute with fear. Icelanders have avalanche sirens that make each and every villager look up, warily eyeing the towering peaks surrounding their homes.
It’s not an easy position to be in when the land of your birth, and the land of your heart, are on opposite sides of the world.
But damn, is it glorious to write about them both, and lose yourself in your own novel.
Ten weeks and counting!
I may be alone in this sentiment, but for me, 2016 managed to sneak in great gold.
I’ve been hearing laments about the darkness of this past year, especially in regard to the slew of writers and artists we’ve lost. For a child of the 80s, as I am, this has been particularly striking. Don’t get me started on politics this year either. But what’s writing if not stepping stones out of the bleakness and into the gold? So here is my personal round up of a year that has been, to be honest, pretty damn rewarding.
2016 held performances at five literary festivals, three visits to the ABC studios, more writing paycheques than ever before, one gig as a short story competition judge, one interview feature with the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas here in Melbourne, and several emails of interest about my novel from a publisher. There were fourteen stories performed, recorded or published, and one exciting literary award that had me throwing a cocktail frock, notebook and passport into a bag, and jumping on a last minute flight to New York for the ceremony.
And we won first prize.
Winning the Sarah Awards for Audio Fiction remains one of my proudest professional achievements as a writer. Photos of me in the New York Times: one. Congratulatory messages from friends, family, editors, publishers and producers: about fifty. Dirty martinis in celebration: you don’t want to know! ABC producer by my side and in my heart: one lovely Lea. Two amazing friends to put me up, one in New York and one in Philadelphia. One extravagant lunch at the Waldorf Astoria with lobster, caviar and champagne held high. Years spent writing to my Philly penpal: about seventeen. Number of tattoos she’s got in that time: pretty much uncountable. One trip to Amish country, and numerous slices of divine Shoo Fly pie. Distelfinks on walls: two. Ribs cracked upon hugging both my US loves goodbye: at least three. What a joyful, ebullient, unexpected trip!
Flamingos sent my way to honour the story, ‘Almost Flamboyant’: about ten.
Four blood red trumpet lilies tattooed down my arm in long, painful sessions, to join the three already there. Delight at finding a trumpet lily tree outside my new house: immeasurable.
A move to the west of Melbourne, after 25 years lived north. One reason for this: my beautiful Wolf. Two arches of the iconic West Gate Bridge beckoning me home, seven bookshelves in our new house, and one writing studio. After a tiny kitchenette with only two burners for a decade, a new kitchen with huge stove allowing me to cook Jewish feasts of slow cooked Tzimmes, root vegies in a glaze of cider, cinnamon and golden syrup, til our house smelled divine and our bellies and hearts were full. One wary cat, still hesitant to explore her new home. Hours already spent on the sun deck, welcoming summer: dozens.
2016 saw many trips out of town, from the canola fields of Ninety Mile Beach to the sun bleached bones of rural Moyston. One trip brewing for next year…Iceland, I’m coming back!
One taxidermy workshop, nine meticulous hours of skinning and stitching, and a TV crew to film it. Uncountable headshakes from my man when I suggested our new home contain a tank of flesh eating dermestid beetles. Next year, perhaps?
Here’s to the joy and promise of 2017…may it bring you indulgent nights with friends, steps on welcoming soil, and always, always, words spilling from your fingertips.
Let me get this straight: I didn’t much like it at first.
I’d asked a friend who worked out west what the area was like and she’d told me ‘Well, it’s a bit stabby.’
A bit stabby. Oh, good. Northcote, my home of 25 years, had been that way when I first moved in, but was now resplendent with cocktail bars, vintage clothing stores, and tattoo parlours. It was known as being home to more musicians and lesbians than any other area of Melbourne, a fact which pleased me greatly.
The west, in comparison, was gritty and industrial, houses dwarfed by enormous petrochemical vats and factories, right at the base of the gigantic West Gate Bridge.
There was only one thing that could get me to make weekly visits out there.
His name was Chris.
Most of the men and women I’d dated were from my inner northern enclave of dirty martinis and bluegrass beer gardens. Chris lived in Sunshine, a suburb out west that I didn’t find quite as lovely as its name. Each Wednesday I took the train out there and waited at the station for him to pick me up. More often than not I would have a slew of essays to correct in my bag, a bottle of red wine, and a spring in my step that meant I would be seeing my lovely British wolf. And then a flash of blue, a door swung open, and a cheeky ‘’Ello darlin’!’ as I climbed into the car, and my new adventure.
I’d never dated a writer before. On our first meeting we spoke of the blissful solitude of snowy lands, with my novel set in Iceland, and his in Sweden. It wasn’t long before we were trading drafts, delighting in each other’s ink and talking long into the night about point of view, tense and setting. He shared my love of research, and we happily traded stories of pagan solstices, the sinister beaks medieval doctors wore when tending to plague patients, and ancient cartographer symbols.
I’m not sure when it happened. Week after week I would listen to the blues as I watched Melbourne’s city streets give way to the west, on my way out to Chris. Sometimes I’d meet him at his studio, which he shared with laughing and lovely dressmakers from the Ivory Coast. I got to know the African shops near by, and the best place to buy fresh Vietnamese rolls. And then one day I found myself leaning forward in my train seat, eagerly waiting for the first glimpse of the West Gate Bridge. When it came into view I felt a surge of familiarity and joy; an actual rush of pleasure. The bridge, and the red-ringed stack of the Newport Power Station below it meant I would soon see Chris.
These symbols of the west used to feel so alien to me after 25 years on the other side of the city. Somehow, at some point, they had become beacons of comfort, landmarks of an area that was no longer ugly and industrial, but edgy and exciting. Slowly, they’d come to feel like home.
And now they are.
I thought I’d feel the melancholy swirl in packing up my Northcote flat after ten years of living there, but it was mercifully absent. Once the bookshelves were empty, I knew I’d already moved. I did stand on Northcote hill with my favourite view of Melbourne to smile goodbye, but I didn’t linger.
We’ve been living in our new house out west for two weeks. There are still a few boxes in the garage, but my antique writing desk is set up, my taxidermy laid out, and my cat has finally come out from under the bed. After ten years with a tiny kitchenette, I’m loving cooking for my man and his son in our huge kitchen: tonight it’s a three hour slow cooked Jewish feast. I work on my deadlines while the boys fight with foam swords. We walk to the Stony Creek Backwash, an old bluestone quarry right under the bridge that’s now a wetlands sanctuary. And though it still surprises me, the industry and sheer scale of things out west brings me comfort and joy.
Chris just told me that from our lounge room window, we can see the Australian flag on the top of the West Gate Bridge. I had to stand on a chair to see it (his six foot frame greatly exceeds mine), but I’m going to take it as a sign anyway.
“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.”
― Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
These are the words you really don’t want to hear five minutes before your long distance train pulls out of central Melbourne: ‘We apologise, but due to defective brakes this service will be replaced by buses.’
All the way up north, interstate to New South Wales. In the teeming rain. With only one bar of your i-pod allowing you to share the journey with Howlin’ Wolf. And with a sold out gig awaiting you at a literary festival just over the border.
Thank god I shared the journey with Lisa, my partner in crime on many an adventure, from New Orleans to St Petersburg, New York to Lisbon. We had books and notebooks, liquorice to snack on, and potent ginger beer smuggled on board in an iconic orange Penguin Publishing flask I won in a writing competition, that would also serve us well on the train ride home later that weekend.
We were all set.
When the replacement bus spat us out into New South Wales four hours later, the rain was monumental. Our hotel was twenty minutes’ walk away, my leopard print umbrella quickly turned inside out, and my suede boots were so sodden I left marks on the carpet when we eventually trudged into the hotel we’d been told was a faux Tudor/medieval slice of magic that simply could not be missed.
Truer words had never been said.
I don’t know about you, but when I travel I expect there to be suits of armour in the lobby, and jousting sticks on the walls of the dining room.
And then we were ready for a walking tour of the gorgeous Art Deco architecture of Albury, and the Murray River.
We were in Albury for the Write Around the Murray festival, where I was performing as part of Stereo Stories. In a room full of literary names, I told my tale of visiting Jackson, Mississippi in honour of Johnny Cash, with a full band on stage singing the iconic song.
My second performance was based on the Tom Waits song that inspired ‘Almost Flamboyant’, the story of mine that had me flown to New York to pick up first prize in the Sarah Awards earlier this year. With the wonderful Jack Gramski growling the Waits song ‘Everything you can think of is true’, I told the tale of recording ‘Almost Flamboyant’ in the ABC studios, imagining flamingo feathers fluttering all over the console.
I was back in the ABC studios recently, recording three more of my stories for Radio National. To my utter delight, I was told that instead of entering their annual Pocketdocs competition, would I like to be one of the judges instead? And then this smile happened…
Two more publishing jewels to tell you about: This lovely volume of travel stories has just been published, with my words nestled within. ‘Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet’ (Vol II) is a gorgeous collection of tales from Norway to Samoa, Mexico to Morocco, with my love letter to Brussels on p132. You can get your copy from this link, and take a spin around the world from the comfort of your armchair.
And lastly, this is my most personal Stereo Story, written for a man with the sweetest mouth, most impressive vocabulary and kindest heart I’ve ever known, who has totally won mine in return. Don’t tease me! Just read it, if you will, and you’ll see that two writers together is a gift I never expected in my wildest dreams.
I sat with Lisa, an open atlas, and a glass of wine.
We were planning our trip to the US at the time, which has since swirled by in a glorious haze of blues music, swamplands, jambalaya and voodoo tombs. We gazed at the map of the Deep South and discussed the possibility of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A few more sips of wine and the realisation dawned: we could identify no real reason to visit, other than the evocative name. It’s the same impetus for setting my stories in Cunnamulla or Manangatang, for living in Street of the Candlesticks in Brussels, and last week, booking a holiday house in a tiny beachside town called The Honeysuckles.
Blessed with the luxury of two weeks off my teaching job, I headed for the waves. Yes, there were Elvis tunes on the radio, country opp shops to delve into, and a bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the car boot, but the pen was never far from my hand.
I’m applying for another writing residency, again in Iceland, where I plan to edit my (hopefully finished) novel, set in the snow up near the Arctic Circle. To my delight I’ve received some publisher interest, and am so enthused to keep pouring out ink. I’m booked into the ABC studios next week to record three more of my stories, working with the brilliant producer Lea Redfern, who shared the Sarah Awards first place prize with me in New York in April. And in early September I perform at my first interstate literary festival, heading over the border into New South Wales for the Write Around the Murray festival.
This year has been monumental for my ink, and I’m still smiling. I’m also, it has to be said, the proud owner of a growing collection of flamingos, despite my lifelong hatred of the colour pink.
My time in the Honeysuckles with my close friends and beautiful man was so regenerative. An open fire, crashing waves, rib cracking laughter, and dozens of ornamental fish…all well worth the drive.
I’m starting to think we should reconsider Tuscaloosa, after all.
It’s thirty two degrees
and they’re watching tv in bed
with bare feet touching
the bottom of the cracked
black and white screen.
The boy is watching Marilyn
kneel in the desert dirt
and press the roots of the flowers
back into the earth
with desperate fingers and
The girl’s gaze is fixed
on the corner of the screen
where Monty shields his scars
against the burning sun
with the back of a shaking hand.
The only sound in the room
is the purr of the fan
as the salt slick coats their bodies
and their ribcages fill
in gentle time
with each other.
And the boy doesn’t turn
as he murmurs to the girl:
that makes them so beautiful.
And she knows
who he’s really
as his little finger
hooks around hers
on top of
the white sheet.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
When every other person in Melbourne is looking out their window and cringing at the grass bent heavy with frost, the skeletal trees and the sky darkening with storms, I’m secretly beaming. When I can pull on my red riding hood coat, pour a glass of mulled wine, and reach for my leopard print ear muffs, it’s a fine day indeed. Born on the cusp of the Winter Solstice, this is my favourite time of year.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
I tore into my birthday presents and instead of wishing for jewellery or something silky to slip into, my eyes lit up at what fell out of my card. The exquisite image of a woodcut graced the outside of the card, and my Wolf had written such gorgeous words within that I almost forgot the present. But then I opened the paper that had fallen into my hands, and found a voucher to a taxidermy workshop that made my heart flutter.
The opening scene of my novel is when my protagonist, Elva, attempts her own taxidermy of a mouse on her kitchen table in Reykjavik, Iceland.
In the process of writing it, my flat has slowly acquired an Icelandic dove, a bedraggled duck, a deer skull with magnificent antlers, dolphin vertebrae, a bell jar of snake skins, a kingfisher skull, a birthday bat skeleton, a striped quail, and a snow goose suspended above my writing desk, his wings outstretched towards me as I type.
Knowing my beloved people have allowed me the privilege of experiencing the art myself, is such a blessing.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
I stood backstage and watched the hall fill. A sold out show of 260 tickets meant a hell of a lot of noise, and as people settled I straightened my little black dress, readjusted the red flower in my hair, and went over my story again. It was my second time performing at the Williamstown Literary Festival with Stereo Stories, and my excitement at striding onto the stage had just grown with time. I know public speaking is something most people dread, but I absolutely love reaching for the microphone, looking up at the lights, and telling my tale. It’s just as well, as on Saturday I’ll be repeating the performance at Melbourne’s Newport Folk Festival, with my spot at the Write Around the Murray Festival booked in September.
I like things I’m not supposed to.
Welcoming winter, flesh eating beetles and admiring bones. Army boots slipping on mud, hood up to catch snowflakes, bonfires warming frozen fingers. A watchful crowd, a waiting microphone, steps to a raised stage.
Solitude, snow and solstice.
And stories…always, always, stories.
I reached my hand under the flow of water, and somewhere in Romania a man burst into flames.
The pen has rarely been out of my hand since I returned from the Sarah Awards in New York last month, still amazed at having won. I keep meaning to write a blog post about my jaunt to Philadelphia afterwards, exploring Amish country with Erica, one of my most long-standing pen pals. We first met on a feminist punk mailing list almost twenty years ago, and seeing this wondrous woman stride towards me with tattooed arms outstretched at Philly’s Penn Station is still making me smile.
Steam dusted the bathroom mirror. I pinned back the damp curls of hair around my temples while high above Venezuela, two young women peeled the lids off trays of aeroplane food. They were armed with eight words of Spanish for their first step on foreign soil, in a land that would give one woman a broken collarbone and the other a green-eyed son.
I want to write about having four more audio stories accepted yesterday by the ABC, discussing possible recording dates and broadcast options. It’s a dream having producers who don’t baulk at stories of ventriloquist auditions at the circus, burst cloudberries in Helsinki airport or a rogue kangaroo hunter at war with his wife. I can’t wait to get back into the studio.
I chose the burgundy towel. I folded it over the edge of the bath as lightning tore the sky apart in Chennai, monsoon rain sending fish bones and cigarette ends coursing down faded stone streets. Two tourists stood under an awning advertising cola, jeans rolled up in the deluge, watching cats run along the gutters at the top of the houses as the night lit up.
I’d love to tell you about my forthcoming words in Press 53’s ‘Everywhere Stories’ anthology, and ‘100 Lightnings’ by Paroxysm Press. And when I find the time, I’ll fill you in on my appearance at the Williamstown Literary Festival in June, and the fabulous Write Around the Murray Festival in September.
I stepped slowly into the water and lowered myself, letting the heat creep up my skin. Three suburbs over, my next lover slid a finger inside the mouth of a woman with a short temper and a long memory, who would later stand outside my window and watch our shadows move behind my rice paper shades.
I also have an opportunity in late June to pitch my novel to several publishers and agents, so need my manuscript to be in the best shape possible. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll tiptoe back to my writing desk, pick up my new glasses, and get to work.
Somewhere in a desert country, a cat perched in the dust and wrenched the head off a mouse. It paused to lift its face to the sun, blood on whisker tips. Its tail flicked from side to side as I closed my eyes, and slid under the water.
Excerpts from ‘Step into the Fishbowl’, first published in Paper Darts
I was curled up on the floor next to Gate 53, drinking a weak airport coffee and gingerly touching the travel dreadlocks that had already begun to form in my unruly mane, after only two flights. I debated whether it was worth turning my phone on, given it was almost time to board my flight to New York. But I did, and scanned through the emails that had been sent while I was soaring about the Pacific, headed from Sydney to L.A. When I found one from the organisers of the Sarah Awards, my reason for travelling, telling me a photographer from the New York Times would be at the ceremony and asking my permission for them to take my photo, I placed my phone back in my lap and stared with wide eyes at the other travellers in the airport lounge.
The adventure had officially begun.
Earlier this month I had the amazing good fortune to be shortlisted for a literary competition showcasing ‘the best in audio fiction’, run by Sarah Lawrence College over in New York. One of my audio stories, ‘Almost Flamboyant’, was one of the top three finalists, and myself and my wonderful ABC producer Lea Redfern were both invited over for the ceremony. With travel assistance from the organisers and wildly enthusiastic encouragement from my people in Melbourne, I packed a bag with a week’s notice, took a deep breath, and leapt.
It’s easier to trust you’ll land on your feet when you have beautiful friends like Gretchen to welcome you with open arms, hand you a front door key to their apartment in midtown Manhattan, and mix you a dirty martini as you fox up and apply the red lipstick for the ceremony.
I adore New York: this was my fifth trip there, and returning on the basis of my writing was a tremendous experience. I swayed as much as my vintage high heels would allow as I headed straight for my favourite café on the Lower East Side, to wait for my producer and fellow nominee, Lea. When she walked in the door an hour before the ceremony, all we could do was laugh as we met each other for the first time, interspersed with hugs and strong black coffee.
The Sarah Awards were held at the headquarters of America’s National Public Radio, with a waiting list for tickets to the sold out ceremony. Jet lag was held at bay with sheer excitement as we mingled, watched the live performances, and chatted to the other finalists and the lovely creators of the Sarah Awards, Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson. And then we sat front row as silence fell, and the winners were announced.
In all honesty, I’d been so excited by even being a finalist that I hadn’t given much thought to actually winning. They announced the third place, and Lea and I clapped enthusiastically. Then they announced second, and it began to dawn that it wasn’t, in fact, us.
Our story had won first prize.
Lea and I turned to each other in slow motion, mouths open. And then I reached over and slowly, gently, pinched her in disbelief.
The night was incredible – I keep trying to pin it all down. I gave a dazed speech on stage in which I accidentally named my taxidermy, Lea holding the beautiful hand crafted award and grinning. When I texted my boyfriend in Melbourne to say ‘First place!’ I got an ebullient message back telling me he knew, as he’d been watching the live feed and sharing it with all our people back home.
There was euphoria, champagne, and an after party at a rooftop bar looking down on the East River as fireworks exploded over the Statue of Liberty. Poor Lea must still be carrying the bruises of my astonished fingers as I squeezed her and asked ‘Is this really happening?’
If I had any doubts about that, waking the next morning to a dozen messages that we were in the New York Times meant I would always have proof of this extraordinary, blissful night.
And that’s only part of the adventure. After a sublime celebratory meal at the legendary Waldorf Astoria courtesy of Gretchen, where we swilled whiskey cocktails and dined on lobster, caviar and oysters, I headed off to Philadelphia and another beautiful friend, Erica, waiting with open arms.
But that story will come, I promise. Until then, here’s an interview I did with the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas here in Melbourne, chatting about the awards.
And just in case you missed it, the above link lets you listen to the winning story itself, resplendent with a surly flamingo. I will never look at that creature the same way again after one pretty much flew me to New York.
Not literally, you understand…but what a story that would make!
There are some characters that are difficult to pour into a notebook, and then leave there.
I’ve been spending time with Elva, the protagonist in my novel. She’s a half Australian, half Icelandic taxidermist living in Reykjavik, hiding the darkness of her obsession between the lavish pelts and flesh eating beetles of her profession. Sometimes when I’m writing, I can hear her boots crunching on snow, and smell the sulphur of the underground hot springs.
My time in Iceland is never far from my mind.
Then there’s the foul tempered barmaid with a Welsh flower tattooed on her chest in ‘Early Dog Violet‘ and the kleptomaniac southern son in ‘Elvis Would So.’ I still smile at the Australian backpacker mistaken for a member of Lithuanian Big Brother in ‘I Like Your Deer’s Moustache, and Other Lithuanian Tales’, the sinister shadow puppeteer in ‘The Old Man With Birds For Hands’, the cherry beer swilling voyeur of ‘Street of the Candlesticks’ and the woman counting her rib bones on Rachmaninov’s old bed in Russia in ‘True, False and Floating.’
But I have a special place in my heart for my surly, splenetic taxidermy flamingo with a smoker’s cough, a foul mouth, and the inclination to sing Tom Waits songs on a Melbourne tram.
The resultant story in its ABC podcast, ‘Almost Flamboyant,’ will never be far from my heart now, as it’s just won a Sarah Award in New York. This competition from Sarah Lawrence College celebrating ‘the best in audio fiction’ is being advertised with the byline ‘Movies have Oscars, TV has Emmys…now audio fiction has The Sarahs.’ This definitely made all manner of exclamations fly out of my mouth, believe me.
I was on a packed peak hour tram to work when my producer, the amazing Lea Redfern, rang me to gasp that our story had been announced one of three finalists, with the first, second and third places being announced on Friday April 1st at the award ceremony in New York. Ahem. And did I, perhaps, feel like going with her to pick up our prize, with assistance from the organisers?
To my utter amazement, my flights are booked, my dress is laid out, and I’ve given Lea the address of my favourite café on the Lower East Side to meet her on Friday, just before the award ceremony. It’s being held in the Greene Space, in the New York Public Radio’s headquarters, organised by Ann Heppermann, a producer from This American Life.
The first thing I’ll do when I see Lea is reach over and give her a firm, ebullient, and utterly amazed ‘I-Can’t-Believe-We’re-Really-Here’ pinch.
So wish us luck! And as always…I’ll bring you back stories, people.