The people will sing their way through the forest

August 29, 2017 at 5:07 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

My writing studio is small, but lovely.

It’s home to Icelandic fortune telling cards, a deer skull with pearled antlers, and a plush rug the colour of blood that my cat loves to bask on in the last of the winter sun. On the floor sit my scratched punk records and a vintage turntable. On the wall, a huge framed photograph from my beloved friend Jessica Tremp, of her bare back as she kneels in the forest, tendrils of hair cascading down her spine. The lush green vegetation in the image melds perfectly with my animal bones and snake skins, as though the forest has slowly crept out of the frame and begun the process of taking over my room.

Like I said, my writing studio is small, but lovely.

I’ve been writing about space – and the spaces in which we write – for a non-fiction submission. I’ve been thinking about my windowsill in the Street of the Candlesticks in Brussels, where I’d sit and swill black cherry beer as Belgian life paraded below me. They never thought to look up at the window, and my pen rarely rested.

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Brussels

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Click on this photo for my ABC audio story, ‘Street of the Candlesticks’

I’ve been writing about my studio at my first artists’ residency in far northern Iceland, where Viking tomes lined the shelves and snow hit the window so fiercely that one morning, the front door wouldn’t even open. My second artists’ residency was in the forest in Finland, where on my very first night the whole household – six artists, two owners and three cats – rushed outside to the sculpture garden to watch the northern lights snake across the sky. My studio there was flooded with late autumn sunshine, scattered with turpentine and stiffened paintbrushes, and often resounding with Big Mama Thornton or Elmore James’ sweet blues keeping me company as I wrote.

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Ólafsfjörður, northern Iceland

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Joutsa, Finland (Photo by AmyMAndersonArt)

 

Then there are those places that are even more transient; tram stops where a first line just has to be written, hunched over in my woollen hood against Melbourne rain; my classroom desk when the students are doing an exam and my fingers are itching to spill words; a gold wall at the Moat next to State Library with mulled wine served in tea cups; and as assortment of train carriages, hotel rooms, café tables and park benches that can hold my notebook on my lap, feet curled under me, even just for the fifteen minutes it takes to get a title, an idea, a paragraph down.

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Mulled wine at the Moat, Melbourne

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Beautiful domed Reading Room of the State Library, Melbourne

Far back in my late teens and early twenties, agoraphobia took me away from the world for two long years. My space became only the walls of my house. It was a slow, painful kind of death – of my confidence, my social skills, my friendships – and even though I’ve walked back into the light and am now a professional writer, travelling the world with a full heart and high spirits, my indoor years have left an irrevocable shadow. My need for solitude is intense. But it’s done wonders for my appreciation of safe spaces, of looking up at café posters or soaring fir trees or medieval architecture or library shelves and thinking, yes, I feel good here: let’s get the pen out. Let’s write.

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Pearled antlers with coronets – my studio

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Snake skins and kingfisher skull – my studio

My studio here in Melbourne has a fat black cat at my feet, snoring gently in her basket. It has an antique station master’s desk with a fold out shelf to write on, inlaid with cracked brown leather. Today there’s Edvard Grieg’s recording of the music to Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ on my turntable, and a cup of tea just brought to me by my ever supportive Wolf. The trees outside my floor to ceiling windows are still winter skeletal, but one day soon I’m going to look up and see that spring has brought the passion flowers back.

My writing studio is small, but lovely.

 

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If your life is burning well

February 28, 2017 at 9:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

They say that on a list of fears, public speaking would rate highly for most people.

Here’s the thing: I love it.

Seeing audience seats fill is a beautiful sight. The butterflies generally kick in at this point, watching just off stage. But they’re the joyous, I-can’t-believe-I-get-paid-for-doing-something-I-adore flutters of excitement that make me reach happily for the microphone.

No, my list of fears is markedly different from most. It includes, just so you know, an absolute horror of people who walk on stilts, and a case of trypophobia that renders me mute in the face of crumpets.

But that’s another story entirely.

Noir Exhibition

Performing ‘The Old Man with Birds for Hands’ with Michael Madden on cello

I hit the road again last weekend as part of the wonderful Stereo Stories. I perform regularly with this talented and dedicated troupe of writers, singers and musicians, and love every moment. We tell the tales of why a song resonates for us; whether it reminds us of our first lover or our last birthday, the people who’ve bruised us or the places that have nestled under our skin. On stage we have a full band performing the songs as we read, or sometimes a lone singer/guitarist. This combination elicits heartfelt responses from the audience, with many appreciating the songs with a fresh perspective, or even hearing them for the first time.

And when they approach me after a performance, I often ask them ‘What songs would you write about?’

My own writing pieces on the Stereo Stories website cross genres, ages and moods. I’ve written about wanting to see Babes in Toyland in concert in my feminist punk obsessed 20’s, yet being held prisoner by my agoraphobia. I wrote about sitting in a karaoke bar near my artists’ residency in a tiny rural village 200 km from Helsinki, listening to a poignant Finnish version of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’

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The Pitkospuupolku through the forest, Joutsa, Finland

There’s a tale of mine about narrowly escaping sexual assault my first night living alone while listening to Ike and Tina Turner, and another about dragging my suitcase along a U-Bahn platform blissfully humming my time honoured return-to-Berlin song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

I once ended up in Jackson, Mississippi only to realise I was there purely for the Johnny Cash song. And I had the unique experience of watching a character of mine come to life in an ABC recording studio, in the shape of a surly taxidermy flamingo singing a gravelly Tom Waits songs.

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Berlin Wall

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My latest addition to my flamingo collection

My most personal story on the website, however, is a tribute to both Leonard Cohen and the man who’s changed the course of my life with his gentle yet wolfish ways: my partner and fellow writer, Chris. It was at times daunting in its intimacy, but what are songs if not conveyors of human emotion and experience? Listening to ‘Undertow’ by Leonard Cohen in our first flush of love is a gorgeous memory, even more so now that Cohen has left us.

For all my Stereo Stories, click here.

On this latest road trip for Stereo Stories, Chris and I hit the road with the Rolling Stones on the stereo, bad petrol station coffee, and excited thigh squeezes. Australia is made for jaunts like this with its wide open roads and sun bleached landscape. We passed kangaroo and koala road signs as we drove 250 km north, before hitting Wangaratta and our motel.

Rehearsals gave way to quick pizza and beer refreshment before the stage lights lifted. And it was, as always with Stereo Stories, a joyful experience. The Wangaratta crowd was warm and welcoming, the band and readers hit their stride beautifully, and then there were long and lovely chats back at our motel well into the night, discussing life, love and everything in between, with glasses of shiraz and shared slots on the stereo.

Stereo Stories (Tony Proudfoot Photography)

And there you have it. Be it Williamstown Literary Festival, Newstead Short Story Tattoo, the Emerging Writers Festival, Brimbank Readers and Writers Festival, Newport Folk Festival, Write Around the Murray Festival or any future adventure, it’s always a joy to climb on stage and reach for the microphone.

So in closing, let me ask you…what songs would you write about?

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Hex signs at midnight

December 27, 2016 at 6:23 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

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.

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

With the wonderful Lea Redfern, producer extraordinaire

The link to the New York Times article

The link to the New York Times article

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!

Manhattan martinis

Manhattan martinis

Amish country, Pennsylvania

Amish country, Pennsylvania

Amish county with Erica

Amish county with Erica

Distelfink hex sign in Philly

Distelfink hex sign in Philly

Flamingos sent my way to honour the story, ‘Almost Flamboyant’: about ten.

My latest addition

My latest addition

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.

In progress...

In progress…

Completed...for now.

Completed…for now.

Bella donna trumpet lilies

Bella donna trumpet lilies

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.

Back yard bliss.

Back yard bliss.

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!

Moyston, rural Victoria

Moyston, rural Victoria

The Wolf in Moyston, rural Victoria

The Wolf in Moyston, rural Victoria

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?

Scalpel and shiraz at taxidermy class

Scalpel and shiraz at taxidermy class

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.

To 2017, and all its stories.

To 2017, and all its stories.

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Can I borrow your rat comb?

May 7, 2014 at 11:40 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

‘So you make the first incision just above the rat’s womb – did I mention this one’s a female?’

The man next to me sucked in his breath as he listened.

‘After we’ve skinned it, we’ll remove the organs for analysis. The fur’s come off in places because we froze her, but no problem, folks: she’ll be a fine looking wrap once we’ve finished with her.’

The enormous screen in front of us showed a close up of the scalpel, digging into the rat’s belly. The man next to me audibly groaned. I’d lost my friends as soon as we walked in, but nothing could tear me away. By the time the Senior Museum Advisor popped her little rat tail from its sheath – ‘just like peeling off a sock!’ – I was leaning forward, my wine glass clutched to my chest and my eyes huge.

I’m fascinated by taxidermy. Did I mention that?

Julia Deville

Julia Deville

 

And so, it seems, is just about a third of Melbourne. On a freezing night, the queue stretched out in front of the museum surprised me. They’d better not get in between me and a snake, I scowled. I’m quite a scowler too, but you probably already know that. After a few swigs of spiced Czech liqueur to warm us up we were in the door, and heading straight for the seminar.

Yes, true words: a taxidermy information night at the Melbourne Museum, one of many reasons I love this quirky and unpredictable city. And it was packed. There was music and wine too: had they thrown in a cowboy or Bessie Smith blues number, it would have been a night custom made for me.

There were trestle tables with plump birds, an ebony bat and even a coiled snake, all ready for stroking. For the less faint at heart, you could watch an actual procedure right in front of you, with, I have to say, the coolest rock and roll taxidermists I’ve ever seen, right down to peacock tattoos and rockabilly fringes. I was mesmerised…the wine glass barely left my chest all night.

My interest in taxidermy is relatively new, typically obsessive, and utterly reasonable – the main character in my novel is responsible for acquiring and maintaining it in the Cabinet of Curiosities where she works. I do tend to throw myself into the research stage of stories (you don’t want to know what I got up to in Kaartinkaupunki in Finland, for example) so it didn’t take long for me to start delving into the art of skinning and stuffing creatures.

This in no way clashes with my love of animals; in fact, it enhances it. After twenty years of vegetarianism and sharing my life with an assortment of fangs and fur, I see it as a way to honour the animals. The days of showing off the spoils of the hunt are long gone, and most taxidermy these days comes in the form of beloved pets. The rat being prepared in the seminar was part of a previously undiscovered species in Sulawesi, and the museum scientists were keen to learn more.

Julia Deville

Julia Deville

And lord, were they proud of their work. When he’d finished with the rat, the scientist put his tools down and held her up for the camera, beaming. He placed her back on the tray and then picked up a small brush and slowly, tenderly, began to stroke the sawdust from her fur.

‘Grooming is the key to a smart looking rat’, he told us proudly.

Good to know, I nodded, reaching for my pen.

Good to know.

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Swings & roundabouts

July 18, 2013 at 9:49 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I dance a lot.

Just so you know.

You probably wouldn’t think so, to look at me. I’m not a perky person; in fact, my fingers didn’t like even typing that word. I’m quiet, but with a redhead’s temper, and extremely high heels that make dancing wildly impractical.

But just between us…I LOVE it.

I do several classes of partnered swing dancing a week. We listen to music from the 30s, 40s and 50s, and my wardrobe is showing the influence. We whirl around the dance floor doing the lindy hop and the shag, throwing down Johnny Drops and Tacky Annies like you wouldn’t believe.

I didn’t make those moves up, I swear.

I’m building myself up for aerials; being thrown over the man’s shoulders in true jitterbug style. And I cannot wait.Swingandthecity05

 

The man decides which moves to do, and the woman follows. This is not in my nature. The unpredictability of it –stepping onto the dance floor and giving up all control – used to make me sick. I’m the kind of person who needs to know what’s coming next, in class and in life. But being spun around to dirty, swampy blues, not knowing which move will follow and just giving in to the joyous freedom of it, is absolutely intoxicating.

I also tend to drink champagne during class. I should probably mention that.

swing-dancing

When I finish a story and prepare to submit it, I do everything I can to make it ready for the world. But I have to accept that once I send it, I have absolutely no control over how it’s received. Hitting send is like stepping onto the dance floor, holding your breath and nodding and saying, Ok, I have to trust this will work.

There have been several ouchy rejections this month, and more than a few frowns. But then the emails come through saying Yes, yes, we want this, and you feel as though you’ve just done five swing outs in a row to Big Mama Thornton with your eyes closed, laughing.

So here we go:

Stereo Stories is a wonderful new Melbourne online magazine specialising in the personal tales behind songs. They’ve just published my story about the Babes In Toyland song ‘Bruise Violet,’ and accepted another about Johnny Cash’s ‘Jackson,’  coming soon. They’re looking for more authors, if you’re interested, so go ahead and click on the image.

stereo stories

A very short story has just come online in literary journal Carnival, full of all manner of gems…you can read ‘Jawbreaker’ here.

Another story, ‘Falling Under the Rabbit,’ has been selected for an American anthology, and my ‘Street of the Candlesticks’ audio story has been chosen for a festival in Chicago.

To top off this wondrous month, I did a spoken word version of ‘The Old Man with Birds for Hands’ at a Melbourne exhibition opening last week, accompanied by my lovely friend Mikey Madden on cello. I also exhibited artwork based on my story, which took me totally outside of my comfort zone.

But that seems to be what 2013 is for, and though it doesn’t always work out, lord does it feel SO damn fine when it does.

Noir Exhibition

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Melbourne calling

June 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Melbourne is a damn fine city.

Not only do we have exquisite coffee down many a stencil art covered alleyway, an abundance of secondhand bookstores and live music venues on every corner, we also have the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

If you’re a Melbourne writer and you haven’t been there, shame on you.

I regularly borrow books from their extensive library, attend seminars, and even had the pleasure of hearing my work read there as part of last year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival.  It houses the Victorian Writers’ Centre and I can’t recommend becoming a member strongly enough. They send you weekly emails filled with writing opportunities, as well as a wonderful monthly newsletter.  I’d say about 90% of the stories I’ve had published came from information from the VWC. They also have a wealth of books to borrow on the craft of writing, as well as a staggering array of Australian publications such as Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging etc  – absolutely invaluable if you’re thinking of submitting to them.

Recently I sat in the back row of a seminar at the Wheeler Centre, my red notebook open in my lap as I tried to stop my hand shaking from the ambitious double shot coffee I was wading through. The speakers were Zoe Dattner  from Sleepers Publishing and Laurie Steed from SPUNC, and I came out with pages of notes, lashings of inspiration, and a need to run home and spill ink.

Some of the lines in my notebook that ended up circled, underlined, and decorated with ‘come back and think about this!’ stars and asterisks include:

50% of your reading should be outside your comfort zone – write outside that zone too.

I realised I’m guilty of this – I’ll read Gorky and Nabokov til the cows come home, but when my fingers trace over the spine of a Palahniuk or a Bukowski, I’ll make the same face as when I’m offered sardines on toast, and turn away. I do need to read authors whose style I’m not at home with, if only to know why. And I know I need more practice writing male characters too.

A writers’ group that makes you feel uncomfortable is probably a good thing.

Sitting in a workshop, watching people’s eyes scroll down the paper that houses your story and realising you’re holding your breath, is quite an experience. I don’t enjoy it, as such – but god, do I appreciate it.

The goal is to become a better writer, not a published writer.

I recently sat on the floor with a glass of wine and counted the spines on my bookshelf that held my name within; and damn, did it feel good!  There’s nothing in the world like holding a book with your story in it, but those early pieces are not ones I’d write anymore – I can already see the change in my style, and my voice. At the end of the day all I really want is to be able to nod at a story and say, yep, I like this one.

A story has as many words in it as it takes to tell the story.

I love this sentence. The catch with online publishing in particular is that flash fiction has taken hold – internet attention spans are notoriously short, and I’ve realised this can affect the way I write.  I’m not exactly proud of that. So whether you’re crafting a six word story, flash fiction, long short story or a novella, just keep writing, and put your pen down when it’s good and ready.

Steph Tout Photography

I wouldn’t be in the same place without the Victorian Writers’ Centre. I know some people are simply not joiners, and I do understand – but you can read the newsletters, watch online interviews with authors, or sit up the back of a seminar with your collar up and dark sunglasses on.  Although, it has to be said, it’s somewhat difficult to go incognito in a room full of people whose very job it is to notice the details!

Andyway, at the very least you can get to chat about all things inky with likeminded scribes…what’s not to love?

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