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ImageLast night, while feeding my newborn baby at 3.30am, I finally finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I feel quite relieved in a way, as it’s been a long time coming. I bought the book when it first won the Man Booker prize in 2009. Everyone was raving about it; it had won a huge literary award; it dealt with a period of history that I love. It sounded like a book I would love.

I began to read it, but then I gave up. It just didn’t grab me; I found the writing quite dense and the huge cast of characters confusing. I made excuses then put it aside. A few months later, I tried again. Then I tried again for a third time. Finally, I put it back on my bookshelf along with other books that I have abandoned, unread: The Children’s Book by AS Byatt, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Street Sweeper by Eliot Perlman. These are all books that I should like, if reviews and prizes and hype are anything to go by, but I don’t.

When Bring Up The Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall was released recently, I found myself reaching for it on the bookshelf. I’d read interviews with Hilary Mantel, seen pictures of her at the Tower of London, the place of Anne Bolyn’s execution. The reviews have been fantastic and the hype was huge. But I put it back down again: it was ridiculous to buy a the sequel to a book that I had found unreadable. I was determined to give Wolf Hall one final chance. This time, I flicked to and from the list of characters and family trees at the front of the book, and I concentrated. This time, once I adapted to the voice of the book, it was compelling. It was still challenging, but I loved the style of writing, the complexities and density of the book and the politics and personality of the main character, Cromwell. I certainly didn’t find it an easy read, but I ended up enjoying and respecting it.

I never would have read Wolf Hall if it wasn’t for the accolades and the hype. I’m glad I did.

Thinking of hype and marketing brings me to another book…Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. I haven’t read this book, and I don’t intend to: it’s just not something that interests me. Friends of mine have bought this book, and many say it’s not very good, but they still read the second and third in the trilogy. Some say the ‘writing’ is poor, and the responses remind me of the reaction to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or even the Twilight trilogy. There seems to be a need to cut down an author who has sold squillions of books. Is it envy? Is it snobbery?

And so we’re left with the two sides of hype. First, the literary blockbuster that everyone says is brilliant, the thick novel that sits in prime position on our bookshelves, possible unread, because it’s a book that we should read and should like. Second, the book that sells millions and millions of copies on hype and word of mouth, but it’s a book that we feel the need to criticise and tear to pieces. Neither would be as successful without the publicity they have attracted.

With all the concern about the demise of books and the publishing industry, we should be celebrating anything that gets people into bookshops and into the pages of a novel. A flurry of new ‘erotica’ books is now on the shelves in the same way that vampire stories were popular after Twilight. This is good for authors, good for publishers, and good for bookshops. And of course, good for readers who may come across a book that gives them entertainment, escapism and even education.

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I recently read The Good Father by Noah Hawley, a book that attracted me because of its focus on parenting and personality development.  The eponymous good father, Dr Paul Allen, is a rheumatologist whose son, Daniel, is accused of murdering a presidential candidate. As a child, Daniel’s parents divorced, and his father moved to another city and started another family: his presence in Daniel’s life was largely distant and sporadic. The novel deals with how this father tries to defend his son and find out the truth about what happened, while he also deals with his own guilt and sense of responsibility for the trajectory Daniel’s life has taken.

Like other books before it, perhaps most obviously ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver, this premise brings the nature-nurture debate to light: are our characters born or made? How important is parenting when it comes to personality development, particularly if that personality is deemed to be disordered, or even criminal? Is a very common occurrence, such as parental separation, enough to make someone commit a crime when thousands of other people who experience the same event do not become criminals? These are the questions that the book wrestles with.

I find in my own work as a psychiatrist that there is an emphasis on motherhood and parenting. There are good reasons for this: mothers are usually the primary caregivers and attachment figures for children, and there is good evidence that maternal mental health has a profound effect on a child’s mental health and security. When a child is taken to see me, it is usually the mother who brings the child along, while the father is often at work. However, I always try to meet the father too as whatever their role, they are a huge part of a child’s life too. When I talk with young people, they talk about their fathers as much as they talk about their mothers, and sometimes it is the fact that fathers aren’t as present as they could be that preoccupies young people – and this is one of the central issues of Hawley’s The Good Father.

While reading the book, I found myself wondering what I would do – as a mother – in this situation. I wondered whether men and women, fathers and mothers, deal with stress and grief differently. We traditionally expect men to externalise their emotions, to need to do something, whereas women tend to internalise more, although these stereotypes are not necessarily true. This novel is interesting because it does focus on the role and emotions of a father: Daniel’s mother plays only a very small role in the book. While Dr Allen does experience many strong emotions, including guilt and denial, he also uses his usual coping mechanisms of intellectualisation and logic – useful in his medical role – to avoid dealing with his true emotional journey as he tries to find out what happened to his son. This is mirrored for the reader by some short chapters which are quite factual with little emotional content. We do however start to see more of the emotional impact on Dr Allen as he has to accept that there is a limit to what he can control, and it is at this point that the book really captured me and was genuinely moving.

I have written before about Donald Winnicot’s concept of the ‘good enough mother‘, a well known concept in psychology. Mothers do not have to perfect, they just have to be good enough at giving their child what he needs, and recognising that this changes over time. At some point, a mother has to stand back and allow their child to become independent, make choices, and learn from the consequences of them. I wonder if this theory is what Hawley had in mind when he chose to call his book The Good Father. Ultimately, Dr Allen is not so much concerned with whether he has been good enough, but in a much more black and white way, whether is he a good father. By inference, if he is not good, then he must have been bad. In the same way, Daniel must be either good or bad. This is what keeps the reader interested: will this father be able to reconcile with himself and accept doubt and shades of grey? Will we find out the truth about whether his son was good or bad? Or is he, like most people, somewhere in between?

You can find out more about the author at http://www.noahhawley.com

*This book was an Advance Reading Copy provided by Random House/DoubleDay (US publisher). The book is published in Australia by Hodder & Stoughton

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I am thrilled today to be interviewing Phillipa Fioretti, author of ‘The Book of Love’ and ‘The Fragment of Dreams’.

Phillipa was born in Sydney and studied Humanities, Visual Arts and Museum Studies and went on to work and exhibit as a printmaker, as well as teaching part time at tertiary level. She currently writes fiction full time and was selected for participation in the 2008 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre’s Manuscript development programme . (I have blogged about my own experience of this in 2010 here)

Her first novel, The Book of Love, published by Hachette Australia in April 2010 and the sequel, The Fragment of Dreams, has been released in May 2011. When Phillipa is not writing or reading she’s cooking or watching films, cleaning out the chook shed or walking, travelling, looking at other people’s beautiful gardens and enjoying time with family and friends.

1.Your manuscript for ‘The Book of Love’ won you a place on the Hachette/QWC Manuscript Development Programme in 2008. Do you think that ‘The Book of Love’  would have made it to publication without this opportunity?

Now that’s a tricky question! I never submitted it to anyone before entering it in the Development program so I can’t get a feel for whether it would have sunk or swam. It is a good story and it had a very light edit, so it was ready to go into the world at that point, but so much of publishing is subjective. Someone has to love it, really love it, to get it through the acquisitions meetings. I was incredibly fortunate that it fell into the hands of a publisher who did love it, but others – had they seen it – might have loved it but had no room on their lists. There are a thousand other reasons for a mss not getting through to publication so it’s hard to say. What I can say is I think it’s a good story and compares very well to its peers. It’s sold to Germany and Romania and done very well in Australia and I’m quite proud of it.

2. What has been the most enjoyable part of the publication process? Has anything surprised or disappointed you?

The most enjoyable part and the most painful part are one and the same – the structural and copy edits! It’s a rigorous and confronting process, but the thing you have to keep reminding yourself is that the editors want the best for the book, we all do, and that’s what we are working toward. I guess what I love the most is nutting out problems with people who understand and love the characters as much as I do.

3. ‘The Fragment of Dreams’ is a sequel to’ The Book of Love’. Did you find writing a second novel easier or more challenging that the first?

The Book of Love was easy to bring into the world. I adored the little universe I’d made, loved spending time with my characters, took my time with the dialogue, polished and polished and was immersed in it all the way through, it had a very light edit, a beautiful cover, great reviews, sold internationally and then POW! I had to write another one, and I had to do it to a schedule and it had to be good, even better than the first, and I had no idea if I could do it or not. It was as painful as the first was pleasurable.

I had a severe case of Second Book Syndrome and nearly crashed the whole project, but I pulled that damn rabbit out of the hat at the end, with my publisher calling it a ‘beautiful novel’ (and she does not give praise lightly). I really earned my writer’s stripes with this one, but I’m not complacent. Every book is hard to write, every creative endeavour is hard and you start from a position of fear and self doubt, always. When I received my first copy of The Fragment of Dreams in the mail I got a little misty eyed – all that agony and triumph packaged down to a pretty blue package.

4. Do you have any tips for emerging writers?

Another tough question. Read all the time, work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life and cultivate a group of like minded souls as companions for the journey. Only other writers know what it’s like and they can be a great comfort along the way.

5. What does the future hold for you as a writer?

I really want to get better at it! At the craft side, I mean. I want to tool up so I can tell the stories I want to tell without being too handicapped by technical issues. I have three books that are taking shape in my head now, plus some distant projects as well, but let’s face it, this is the leisure/entertainment industry and subject to the vagaries of the market.

I don’t know what the future holds because one is only as good as the last book. It could all go pear-shaped with the next, of course I hope it doesn’t, but you have to be psychologically prepared for it. A writer’s career is not like signing up for a tenured position. Getting published once, twice does not guarantee third and fourth, and I don’t think many unpublished writers really understand that. I’ve tried to learn from and enjoy these publishing experiences as they are. I hope for more, but try to be in the moment!

You can find out more about Phillipa at her website http://www.phillipafioretti.com.au


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I am thrilled today to be interviewing Favel Parrett, author of ‘Past The Shallows’ which will be published in May 2011 by Hachette. In 2008, Favel won a place on the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre’s Manuscript development programme (I have blogged about my own experience of this here), and then she subsequently won an Australian Society of Authors mentorship. ‘Past The Shallows’ is already receving fantastic reviews and Favel has kindly given up some of her time to answer a few questions…

 

Where did the idea for ‘Past The Shallows’ come from?

The south coast of Tasmania had a huge influence on me when I was young. It is isolated and wild – a place I will never forget. The story grew out of my memories and feeling for that place.

Where did Harry and Miles come from? I wish I knew. It feels like they were some kind of wonderful gift. I fell in love with them and they will be in my heart always.

 

Your manuscript won you a place on the Hachette/QWC Manuscript Development Programme and an Australian Society of Authors mentorship. Do you think that ‘Past The Shallows’  would have made it to publication without these opportunities?

I would love to think yes, but it would have be so much harder without these opportunities. The Hachette /QWC Development Programme gave me the confidence to keep going and believe in my writing. It also gave me a very supportive contact at Hachette Australia (Vanessa Radnidge). The ASA mentorship allowed me to work with the wonderful editor Julia Stiles. She has an incredible talent for seeing the big picture. By moving a few scenes around, she gave me a concrete outline to follow.

It is so incredibly hard to get published, but it is possible!

 

What has been the most enjoyable part of the publication process? Has anything surprised you?

Seeing the beautiful cover of my book for the first time is a moment I will never forget. Reading the first reviews and being so surprised that people liked my book – that they found something moving in the words. That has been lovely.

 

Do you have any tips for emerging writers?

Keep going. Keep writing. Be the hardest working writer you know. See yourself as a professional. Say ‘I AM A WRITER’ – because you ARE a writer, published or not.

 

What does the future hold for you as a writer?

I am back at the beginning. I am writing a new novel, finding a new voice. I am at the start, with all the unknowns and all the unanswered questions. I am problem solving.

That is all we can do as writers. Turn up and do the work. I will continue to do that for as long as I can.

 

You can find more information about Favel and ‘Past the Shallows’ at her website (www.favelparrett.com)

Thanks for your time Favel, and I look forward to reading ‘Past The Shallows’!

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Today I drove with my baby to a local, independent bookshop which is also a coffee shop. There is a cafe at the end of my street, but I preferred to go to the effort of driving to this specific place because I love the atmosphere of being surrounded by books. While I waited for my coffee, I browsed the shop, and afterwards I browsed again and bought myself something new to read.

There has been a lot said recently about the end of bookshops since the collapse of REDgroup and the closure of Borders and Angus and Robertson stores. Ebooks have been blamed, as well as internet based companies such as Amazon and Book Depository who are able to sell books much cheaper. I am a very active reader and spend hundreds of dollars a year on traditional books. I also have a Kindle and read e-books, and I have to admit that I do also buy books online from the websites I have mentioned. As a writer, I am aware about the need to protect the publishing industry and the bookshops, and from this, the authors.

When I write, I like to think of myself as a typical reader, and therefore a typical book buyer.  I have been thinking about the way I buy books, and what this could mean for the future.

It has been a long time since I bought a paper book from one of the chain stores. For me, the shops are often not very welcoming, their stock is often not to my taste, and the staff are not obviously book lovers who can help me and recommend appropriate books. There are times when I have shopped there: mainly if there is a particular book that I have decided to buy, eg as a gift. I tend to use them more for non fiction books too.

Most of my books come from the independent bookshops, and here in Australia, there are some fabulous ones around. These are shops that welcome browsing, they have a great selection of books other than the top 10 genre fiction which seems to dominate the chain stores, and they do ‘extras’ for their customers such as running book clubs, author events, gift wrapping, handwritten book recommendations etc. The staff have actually read many of the books and clearly love to help you find the perfect book. I almost never leave one of these shops without opening my purse. These are the shops that give me a thrill: other women may get excited about a shoe shop, but show me an independent bookshop and I am there.

As I said, I do also buy e-books. I have a Kindle, and really like it: it’s great for travelling; if I finish a book at 11pm and want a new one, I can download it instantly; and it’s perfect to read while I’ve been up feeding the baby at night. The books are cheaper, yes, but the downside is the loss of the physical book in your hand and on your bookshelf. I am getting annoyed with comments associating ebooks with some kind of evil. The reality is that the technology is there, and we use our computers/phones/tablets for everything in our lives, so it is naive to expect books to lag behind. We as authors, and publishers, need to think how we can use it to our advantage rather than whingeing about it. I am also going to get the new iPad when it is released, and one of the selling points for me is that I have seen some wonderful animated ebooks for children on it that my daughters would love: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, etc.

Ebooks for me will never replace physical books, but they are an adjunct to them. I will always buy my favourite authors and local Australian books on paper, the kind of books that I am either proud to display in my bookshelf, or will probably read again, or will pass on to others. I will also buy beautiful books, such as special editions, books with illustrations, and hardbacks. But if there’s a book that I want to read, but that I suspect will not be ‘special’ to me, then I’ll buy the e-book.

With online purchasing, I think that the main attractions are convenience and cost. If I am buying a gift for someone who lives interstate or overseas, I will almost always buy it online as it saves me having to go to the post office, and pay for postage costs. And as much as I agree with the arguments about parallel importation, it is really hard to go past the fact that some books are about 50% cheaper online from overseas including delivery.

I don’t think that the bookshop is dead, but rather than the book industry, like every other industry, needs to adapt to the changing world. It reminds me of the outcry when MP3 files and iPods became popular – now most of us download music when we want a new CD; and increasingly we can now download movies and TV shows from the internet rather than going to the video shop. Times are changing, and we need to keep up.

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I have always been interested in how mental health is depicted in literature. Shakespeare was brilliant at it, and throughout the history of literature, psychiatric illness has provided rich material for novels and poetry. Some of my favourite novels have mental health as a major theme: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; and We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It is novels like these that initially inspired me to write my own novel, in which an ‘ordinary’ family is changed forever by mental illness.

In my early psychiatry career, I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It was the first book that I had read that was able to really make me live a patient’s experience of mental illness and treatment. While she wrote this as a novel, it is accepted that much of the story is autobiographical. Infamously, Sylivia Plath died of suicide, after a long struggle with severe mental health issues.

I always remember her description in the novel of receiving ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) as a treatment whilst in a psychiatric hospital:

 

 

“Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strsp that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite.

I shut my eyes.

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.” (p 151)

 

I was reading Ted Hughes’ book of poetry Birthday Letters yesterday. Ted Hughes, himself a great poet (and poet laureate to Queen Elizabeth),  was married to Sylvia Plath, and this book of poems are almost all about his life with her. In one, The Tender Place, he writes about his experience of seeing her having ECT. The poem needs to be read as a whole to appreciate its power, but this excerpt shows how moving it is:

 

 

“…Somebody wired you up.

Somebody pushed the lever. They crashed

The thunderbolt into your skull.

In their bleached coats with blenched faces,

They hovered again

To see how you were, in your straps.

Whether your teeth were still whole.

… Terror

Was the cloud of you

Waiting for these lightenings. I saw

An oak limb sheared at a bang.

Came up, years later.

Over-exposed, like an X-ray —

Brain-map still dark-patched

With scorched earth scars

Of your retreat…”

 

Of course, ECT now is done very differently, under general anaesthetic, and with muscle relaxants to stop the physical manifestations of the induced seizures. It is a very effective treatment in the right circumstances and I have seen some extremely sick patients respond amazingly to it. But these descriptions, through the medium of creative writing, describe the base fear and physical horror that a patient and her carer experienced in having this treatment in the 1960s. From what I’ve read, there is no doubt that Sylvia Plath needed this treatment, and it seemed completely appropriate – and worked at the time to improve her mood. But there is something in both her, and Ted Hughes’ use of language that describes it far more effectively than I have ever heard it described before.

In my own novel, one of my characters undergoes a similar treatment. Re-reading these works has reminded myself of why I write, and what I hope to achieve in my own creative writing.

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The 2010 Man Booker prize has just been awarded to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. I haven’t read it yet, though I did download the first chapter or so on my Kindle and enjoyed it. It has a great beginning and a very humorous and distinctive ‘voice’. I certainly intend on reading it once I get through the pile I already have waiting to read, whenever that is!

Literary awards are a funny thing. I have a confession to make: I still haven’t managed to get past the first few chapters of last year’s winner, Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall. It’s not for lack of trying.

I usually use literary prize longlists and shortlists to give me some ideas about what to read, because I read a lot so constantly need new material. To get to the stage of being listed for a prize such as the Man Booker, the book must have merit. When a shortlist is released, I will read the blurbs and reviews and pick some which sound like they may be of interest to me. It is rare that I don’t finish a book – I like to see things through to the end.

However, Wolf Hall is different. I bought it last year after it won and tried to read it, but gave up after a few chapters. I then tried again a few months later, but the same thing happened. And two weeks ago, I picked it up again and decided to see it through. I know that I should like it: it’s set around the court of Henry VIII, and I am a big fan of The Tudors which introduced me to the seedy world of his monarchy in a way that school history lessons never did. It’s had universal acclaim, it’s won the Man Booker prize.

I can appreciate that it’s written well, in a very original voice. It’s a beautifully thick book, and usually I can’t wait to start books that I know will invite me into their pages for weeks to come. But it failed to engage me. If I am honest, it bored me. I didn’t feel that it had enough narrative interest to keep me struggling though the politics and various Thomases that appear. And so, after about 1/3 of the book, I gave up again, for the third and final time. I’ve heard that life is too short to drink bad wine (and I completely agree!); I say that life is too short to read “bad” books.

And of course, it’s not a “bad” book: it’s just a book that isn’t to my taste, and that’s the thing about art. It’s subjective, and you don’t have to like – or pretend to like – something that you don’t, although I think it’s fashionable to do so. I really wanted to read it, and I wanted to like it, but just couldn’t.

But congratulations to Howard Jacobson. He must be feeling absolutely amazing today. And his publishers must also be over the moon…

 

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