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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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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