A Night That Gets You Through

Whatever Gets You Through the Night (Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts West End) was riveting from beginning to end. Written, directed and co-produced by playwright Nicky Peelgrane, and co-produced by actor Belinda Raisin, this production (February 24-26) was by turns funny, thought-provoking and joyful, and sometimes all these things at once.

The play starts with the three main characters – Kate (Crystal Arons), Fern (Belinda Raisin) and Kris (Kimberley Chapman) – all pregnant and going through the ups and downs of being bulky, sleepless and plagued by heartburn. The women use jokes and honesty to cope as best they can, and immediately it’s clear this will be an engrossing ride.

Things get even more lively with the birth of Kate’s child, enacted on stage with Arons playing the scene to perfection, balancing both realism and humour. When Kate’s partner, Toby, tries to advise her during the labour, and she fires back with, ‘Shut the fuck up Toby, next time you can fuck yourself!’ – a line and delivery that had the crowd in stitches (no puns intended).

The bulk of the action, however, takes place after the women have had their babies – in the aftermath. Life has changed forever and each woman is coping differently. They meet up for mother’s group, and soon dub themselves MBB – Mothers Behaving Badly. But while they laugh about being bad mothers, in fact the women are doing their level best to deal with crying babies, breastfeeding difficulties, uncertainty about their parenting skills, lack of sleep, and, in one case in particular, very little support from their partner. The women’s partners are played by the same actor, Matthew Filkins, who brings a distinctive and vibrant persona to each role.

Kris tries to support the others, and seems on the surface to be managing okay, though she’s obviously exhausted. Kate cracks jokes through her pain, and can be a bit abrupt, but is a genuine friend. And Fern, the earth mother with her organic foods, is the most reserved initially, behaving as if all is going well with her baby, when in fact things are not as they seem.

Each child is represented by a faceless calico creature, which emphasises the universality in the experience of parenting (these babies need so much, so often). Having anonymous infants also focuses the storytelling firmly on the new parents.

The show cuts so close to the bone that at times it is mildly traumatic, bringing back those early, raw days of parenting from my perspective as a mother of two. But in the next moment there’s a hilarious visual or brilliantly funny line, and the tough emotions recede.

There are some striking and poignant sequences in which the women stand across the stage and simply lift then fold a baby wrap – the floating white fabric catching the eye as the repetition of their actions touches the heart. These movements capture the mind-numbing tasks that are so often part of parenthood, and evoke the isolation that this work often brings.

Music is used unobtrusively yet powerfully. Composer and musician Anne Stanley sits at the keyboard to one side of the stage, yet she ‘disappears’ once the actors take their place, the music swinging seamlessly from sombre to sunny and back again.

Lighting designer Ben Shotton ensures the mood of each scene is captured on set through darkness, light and colour. Stage designer Georgia Cohen creates a sense of almost claustrophobic domesticity, with a couch surrounded by scattered baby clothing, toys and baskets – items which increase in number and disarray as the mothers’ lives became more complicated. Huge balloons spelling out ‘BABY’ appear celebratory at the beginning of the performance, but as the play progresses, these too became oppressive in their size and constant presence.

Humour and pathos alternate throughout this production, and at times are entwined. The audience roars with laughter one minute, and is hushed just moments later when one of the women admits her deepest fear – that she’s failing as a mother.

Whatever Gets You Through the Night was incredibly entertaining, and kept the audience spellbound throughout. I look forward to the future success of this play as it finds new and exciting homes.


Connecting/Reconnecting

During a recent book event I was asked, What’s the best thing about being published? My response was to sit speechless for several seconds. I found it hard to narrow down to one thing, as there have been so many wonderful experiences (as well as a few stressful/upsetting times too – being completely honest here!).

My mind jumped to a month or so before publication, when my dad read a story in the collection. I wondered if he’d be able to relate to the main characters, or even find them interesting. But his comment showed me he’d settled inside their heads, and empathised with them both. Dad said, It’s really about two damaged people, finding solace in one another. His words proved to me (yet again) that stories hold great power.

Another highlight was when my writing group came to the book launch, all dressed in yellow (or with yellow accessories). Having them there, and especially seeing them decked out in the book’s cover colour, was something I won’t ever forget.

High school friends and work colleagues and uni mates and relatives and fellow writers also came to the book events at Avid Reader bookshop, including people I’d only ever chatted to on social media. My brother flew in from interstate, and friends drove from the Gold Coast. The bookstore even sold a cocktail named Fiona’s Fizz 😊 All this was such a demonstration of human kindness and it floored me.

I’ve loved hearing from family and friends about their favourite stories – often ones I worried wouldn’t have enough appeal. I think what thrills me most about this is not their story choices (though that does fascinate me) but simply the fact they’ve done me the huge honour of reading my work.

It’s been incredible to see If You’re Happy in bookstores around Australia, with friends and Twitter pals sending me photos of the book in shops and libraries, or in their homes.

A good friend sent me a gorgeous ‘book necklace’ which is one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received (thank you so much Louise).

And something truly magical has been reconnecting with my high school English teacher (who must by now be in her late seventies or even early eighties). I sent her a copy of the book a couple of weeks ago, with a note thanking her for what she taught us – which was not to accept lazy work, not to write something adequate and then expect a good mark. She pushed us to do better, to extend ourselves beyond what we thought was possible. That work ethic is still with me today, and it helped me write the book.

I received a lovely reply from my teacher last week. She thanked me for the card and gift, said she was healthy and enjoying life, and that she was looking forward to reading If You’re Happy. It was an amazing moment – to discover my high school English teacher was well, and to know I’d been able to thank her for a lesson never forgotten.

Now to nervously await my grade 😜

Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

Schooled

I’ve been thinking about teachers lately. How some of them affect us for the rest of our lives.

I know there are some ‘bad apple’ teachers, and I haven’t forgotten the teacher who mocked my seersucker dress at Grade 8 camp, not naming any names Mrs Nichols (who would now be at least eighty, so I guess I can forgive her; also in her defence it was an extremely ugly dress).

But there are so many excellent teachers to remember – teachers who day after day gave their time, their effort, their kindness. Teachers who stood out for their enthusiasm (Ms Yanardasis). For how they made us laugh (definitely Ms Sothman). For their faith in us (dear Mr Sole, who had no children of his own but treated all the Grade 8’s like his beloved children).

I have a real soft spot for teachers. Several friends are teachers. Our lovely neighbour is a teacher. And both my parents were teachers.

My mother taught in special education. She worked hard, focusing on what would benefit each student, rather than striving for an arbitrary standard. For some children, it was learning to chew and swallow solid food. For others, it was discovering how to make a sandwich, or how to take turns in conversation. Mum knew that acquiring important life skills trumped adding 3 plus 4 (though she’d teach that, too, if the child was ready). She often took students home overnight, or for the weekend, to give their parents respite (not something that would ever be allowed these days, but something I remember as typical of Mum’s giving nature).

My father taught high school for most of his career. He was a different kind of teacher – often given the ‘tough’ classes because he had such an air of authority that kids didn’t muck up. But my father was dedicated to his job, too, spending hours at the university library researching his subjects (Geography and Earth Science), so he could teach the latest developments in each field. And though he was strict, he understood that different students had various capabilities. He wanted students to achieve their personal best.

Now my daughter tutors high school students, and I love how she caters to the individual. For one child who is constantly restless and touching things on the desk, my daughter has worked in short breaks for them to dance, or do jumping jacks, and she bought a ‘fiddle toy’ for the student to hold. I’m proud of her innovation and commitment.

But the teacher I’ve been thinking about most of all is my Yr 11 and 12 English teacher, Ms B. She wasn’t one of those teachers everyone adores. She was quieter, and more reserved than most. She struggled with controlling the class sometimes, and would get stressed and annoyed (understandably). And many of us, myself included, were shocked when we received our marks for the first piece of assessment. They were quite low compared to other classes, and compared to what we’d been used to receiving. Although my mark was one of the higher ones, I received a 15 or 16 out of 20. At first, I was irritated. Didn’t Ms B know I was a good at this subject?

She was absolutely right. That piece deserved the lower mark, because it was decent but lazy, like all my writing to that point. So the next time I submitted, I spent more time on the assignment. I got half a mark more. I tried even harder with the next one, and my result bumped up again (but only a little). By the time I finished Grade 12, I’d made it to 18.5 out of 20 and I was jubilant! Not at the mark, but at how I’d improved, little by little, by not being satisfied with ‘adequate’ work, when it was within me to do better.

A good teacher leaves a lasting legacy, and that may not be evident for many years. I hadn’t thought about Ms B much since leaving high school, but these days I think of her often and with great appreciation.

When If You’re Happy comes out, I hope to send a copy to Ms B. I’d like to tell her in a card how – over thirty years down the track – she helped me write a better book.

In the very end

Do you ever struggle with endings? I do. Sometimes a story seems to magically complete itself, but more often I become uncertain as I reach the conclusion. I wonder What happens now?

So what are my tips when this uncertainty descends? Here are my top five:

  1. Look back at your story so far. Have you written past the ending? I did this in one of my stories, Tempest. I was rambling on about other things, completely ruining the piece. I eventually stopped, knowing the ending was bad, but unsure what to do. I read back over the last few paragraphs and got a chill when I realised. There! Right there! In a simple description, I’d already written the final two lines. I cut the rest, and the story was done.
  2. Brainstorm possible endings using pen and paper. (This is something I learnt to do in a writing workshop run by acclaimed Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty). Write your question in the centre of a piece of paper – in this case it might be something very simple like How does this end? (this technique is also great for untangling plot issues, testing alternate beginnings, etc). Draw arrows away from the central question and fill in answers. Write down literally anything that comes to mind, even if it strikes you as ridiculous. Keep going until you have ten or twelve conclusions to your story. Chances are, one of these ideas will jump out at you. Problem solved.
  3. Go back to the beginning of your story or novel. What was the very first scene? Is there an important object, unusual weather, something the protagonist was musing at the start to which you could return? It won’t work for all stories, especially ones where there is a radical shift in the main character’s life, but there is something really satisfying in a story that circles back.
  4. Read the whole piece through, thinking particularly of themes, images and recurring motifs. These are aspects of our work we don’t always notice until we reflect. The ending may lie in deftly using one of these.
  5. Sit with your characters, especially the main character, as you write towards the ending. Know them as well as your closest friend. Imagine what they’re feeling in a physical sense – how their skin feels, what their stomach is doing, how they’re moving their limbs. Think what they’re thinking. See what they’re seeing. Be with them as if you’re inside their mind and body, then write what happens next.

If you, too, find endings tricky, I hope these suggestions help. And if you have tips of your own, I’m keen to hear them!

The Best of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of those ‘best books of 2020’ lists, lately. I know I have. I read each list, looking for the titles of writers I know, feeling a twist of disappointment if their book doesn’t appear. I can only imagine what it must be like to peruse the lists as an author, and in many cases, not find the name of your book. A book is a piece of its creator, something personal and almost sacred. The term ‘book baby’ exists for good reason.

Not only published authors feel downhearted, of course. There are many of us submitting and getting knocked back in multiple ways. We check longlists and shortlists and don’t see our title. We receive emails that contain that fateful phrase, ‘Unfortunately your (story/poem/essay/piece) was not ….’. We have to pick ourselves up and carry on, having faith that our writing has worth, knowing that the only way to eventually receive acceptances is to keep writing and submitting. This writing game is not for the fainthearted!

So to anyone, anywhere, whose story didn’t win a competition in 2020, whose essay wasn’t accepted by that literary journal last year, whose poem was ignored by an anthology callout, who toiled over a manuscript yet to find a home, or who had an entire book published, not recognised by any ‘best of 2020’ lists ⎯ I hope you can be proud. You created, and you achieved something wonderful in furthering or completing that work, or in being published, especially in a year of worldwide disruption. Your words were chosen with care, and others have the privilege of reading them ⎯ whether friends and family, a feedback group, editors or the wider public.

To all writers who carry on, who keep producing work, who persist despite setbacks ⎯ especially to those writers in countries badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic ⎯ congratulations.

You absolutely are the best of 2020.

Blasting out of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’re probably only just now catching your breath (and for those living in countries badly affected by COVID-19, I send you much empathy, and hope you’re keeping well).

You’ve likely been working all year at your other job (yes, very few of us can survive on the scant amount of money writing provides). So, hopefully you have at least a few days off, and some time to put your feet up. But before you do, you might want to consider these submission possibilities.

The Stinging Fly is accepting fiction and pitches for non-fiction pieces until January 8, 2021. This prestigious Irish literary journal publishes fiction from around the world. No cost to submit.

Asimov’s Magazine is an acclaimed American sci-fi magazine with a fast response time of around 5 weeks, accepting international submissions. Submissions free.

Overland is accepting non-fiction and poetry submissions from Australian writers at the moment, and also is running the Kuracca Prize which ‘encourages excellent and original works of Australian literature’. Aussie writers can enter poetry (up to 88 lines), fiction, essay, creative non-fiction and memoir (up to 300 words), cartoon or graphic stories and digital or audio storytelling. Entry to the prize costs $20 AUD ($12 for subscribers) and is free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes December 31, and is open to submissions from around the world. Entry isn’t cheap but prizes are substantial.

You can also submit poetry and fiction to The Moth Magazine for free, any time from September to April.

For those of you who write short short fiction (maximum 1000 words), you may want to try the American Short(er) Fiction Contest which ends on Feb 2nd, 2021.

There’s also the Retreat West Flash Competition on the theme of ‘bridges’ due by December 30, for even shorter pieces (maximum 500 words). Cost is 8 pounds.

If you have a story of up to 2500 words relating to food and/or drink in some way, you might like to try the Mogford Prize, winner receiving 10,000 pounds. Entries due by Jan 13, 2021.

The Fiction Desk in the U.K. currently has 3 callouts due by Jan 31 – general short stories, ghost stories and stories about music. International submissions welcome. Word count 1000-20,000 words (preferred range 2000-7000 words). Fee for submission 4 pounds.

I hope at least one of these options provides a possible home for your work. Wishing you a wonderful break & a Merry Christmas (for those who celebrate), and a healthy and happy 2021!

Christmas for nerds

Some of you may know I belong to a writing group called the Dead Darlings Society. We started as fellow writers wanting to improve, but over time we’ve become friends, too. They are all very good eggs.

Last night was our Christmas party, and there were the usual nibbles, champagne and platters. We talked about our writing setbacks and successes throughout the year. Then came my favourite part of the evening (because I am a huge writing nerd). We all took turns reading Christmas-themed ‘homework’ pieces, as set a couple of weeks ago by Dan the high school English teacher. Each story was pulled from a hat, so we didn’t know who wrote what, and after each reading we tried to guess the author. This year it was really difficult. Every story was enthralling, whether moving, suspenseful or hilarious. I was so proud of the creativity of my fellow writers.

The brief this year was to write a story with the first sentence containing 1 word, the second containing 2 words, etc, up to a 25 word sentence. It’s a lot of fun. If you’re feeling creatively stifled, you could give it a go. (Feel free to leave your story in the comments!)

Here’s mine, which no one guessed I’d written — partly because I pulled it from the hat myself, and deliberately ‘stumbled’ over a few words as I read, but also because it’s fairly light-hearted. No one expects that from me, evidently 😉

🎄 The Visit 🎄

Doorbell. He startles. Someone’s knocking downstairs.
Donald finishes his whisky. Lumbers to his feet, sways. Why hasn’t someone answered the door? Where’s Harrison, or Robbie or dopey Alan?
‘Hello?’ he calls from the living room, ‘Hello?’
He can’t believe this, can’t understand where everyone is. Melania’s probably sulking upstairs, but his bodyguards should be nearby. Apparently not tonight; maybe they’re scoffing Christmas cake in the kitchen downstairs. Or drinking whisky in the Mar-a-Lago gardens, laughing at him, doubled over.
The doorbell rings, and the knocking starts again and he calls, ‘Okay, okay!’ As he walks across the carpet and down the staircase, he sees no one. Suddenly the carols through the new Bose speakers sound a little creepy, and he shivers.
Donald approaches the front doors, slippers scuffing on the marble tiles, his forehead cold with sweat. He reaches a hand out, then retracts it, instead leaning to peer through the peephole, breathing fast.
On the other side is a man about his age in a crazy red suit, carrying a sack.
‘What do you want?’ Donald shouts, pulling back from the peephole as Jingle Bells pipes through the vast foyer.
There is a short silence, and he freezes, then a voice bellows from beyond the door, ‘Have you been good?’.
‘I’ve been good,’ Donald shouts, ‘I’ve made everything much, much better and if anyone says different they’re wrong, it’s fake news.’ He opens the door and Santa stands in the doorway and his face is sad and disappointed; he shakes his head.
‘Donald, Donald, Donald,’ Santa says as the Christmas music flows around them and something worms in Donald’s heart and he’s close to tears.
‘You’ve been very naughty, Donald,’ Santa says, ‘And now everyone is gone, because you treated them badly, and no one likes a Christmas arsehole.’
Santa upends his sack, and books fly out, titles like ‘Conquering Narcissism’ and ‘Make Yourself Great Again’, and Donald whispers, ‘Santa… you’re my only friend.’

A Burst of Sunshine: Review of How to Be Australian

The latest book by Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a burst of sunshine on a grey-sky day, a fresh take on life, love and this vast country we call Australia.

Strictly speaking, How to Be Australian is memoir, relating Kalagian Blunt’s experience of moving from her birthplace, Canada, to Australia, while at the same time adjusting to marriage with her husband Steve. The book details Ashley’s impressions and discoveries, and reveals how she and Steve cope with this geographical and emotional transition.

But How to Be Australian is more than straightforward memoir.

It describes intriguing facts and unusual incidents with bemusement, admiration or even horror; it analyses some of Australia’s foibles, brilliance and oddities. I was about to close the book when I flipped a page and saw the headline ‘Why I put a cracker up my clacker’.

It’s funny, but also sweetly tender. It wasn’t brazen or overt. His love was a quiet pat on the hand. It was the loyalty to come and sit beside me while I dripped my messy emotions everywhere…

It expresses Kalagian Blunt’s big, blossoming love for Australia. Taking in the busy splendour of Circular Quay, I felt like someone had handed me the crown jewels.

Yet it’s more than these things, too. The book asks questions about the concept of home. I lay awake, feeling homesick for a home I hadn’t yet found. It addresses the issue of fitting in, or not fitting in. It relates to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, or feeling unable to cope when anxiety rises. It’s about intimate relationships, how they fray, and how they strengthen. It seeks to understand friendship — sometimes a delicate dance, but even more so when there are cultural differences. I was earnestly — still too earnestly, after all these years — trying to understand this country…

How to Be Australian brims with acute observation, hilarious anecdotes and honest emotion. It’s a dazzling combination.

Review of ‘My Name is Revenge’ by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

My Name Is Revenge - cover

What if a book is gripping and gritty and deeply emotional, yet also informs you? Not in an obvious way, but so subtly you don’t even notice? Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s novella and reflective essay, My Name is Revenge—recently published as a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award—does just this.

The first section, the novella, is set in 1980, but flashes back to the past. It centres around Vrezh, a Sydney university student living at home with his parents, his older brother Armen and his invalid grandfather. Armen has become secretive of late, and Vrezh decides to find out why. He suspects his brother is involved in a secret Armenian group planning attacks on Turkish diplomats. Living up to his name, which means ‘revenge’, Vrezh also dreams of retribution for the terrible crimes committed against his grandfather’s family and countless other Armenian families during the Armenian Genocide—crimes that left his grandfather orphaned as a young boy, crimes that give his grandfather nightmares to this day. A foreboding atmosphere builds, layered with the pain and anger felt by everyone in the family. But Vrezh is not as single-minded as his brother, and he begins to realise that good and evil are not always black and white. He expresses this uncertainty to Armen, who treats him with disgust. ‘It was as if Armen had sliced through the flesh of his chest, peeling it away to reveal a heart that was Armenian, but not sufficiently so.’ It is this complexity of character and plot, the examination of right and wrong and all the gradations in between, that gives the novella its potency and poignancy.

The essay that follows is a wonderful counterpoint to the fictional world. It clarifies true historical events within the novella, and explains more about the Armenian Genocide. The essay also details how Kalagian Blunt is connected to the story, both personally and as a curious writer. This makes for heartbreaking but compelling reading.

As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. You begin to comprehend the horrors of what happened, and the repercussions for Armenian families as the trauma echoed through generations.

My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion. Ashley Kalagian Blunt has created a striking and important two-part work.