All posts by Ian

Psychopomps, birds and language

What is a psychopomp? (Not to be confused with a pompous psych.) And what’s the connection between psychopomps, birds and language?

You can find the answer to that question and many others in the online creative arts journal Unlikely, an experimental transdisciplinary publication which “aims to open unexpected spaces for artistic exchange and scholarly conversations across mediums, disciplines and continents.”

The latest issue of Unlikely (#8), edited by Madeleine Kelly and Jen Valender, is on the theme of “Birds and Language.” It contains a fascinating range of international contributions including multimedia texts, creative non-fiction, scholarly articles, and more.

My own piece, “Words of Birds as Psychopomps,” is an essay that begins with aspects of mythology and goes on to link them with a couple of my poems. You can read it here.

Memorable speech

The following comments are not about any formal public address. Most speechmaking of that kind is totally forgettable.

No, I’m thinking of W.H. Auden’s succinct definition of poetry as “memorable speech.” I like the simplicity of this phrase because it touches on two basic truths. First, the stylistic quality of worthwhile poems lifts them above the ephemeral nature of ordinary language usage. Second, poetry is essentially vocal, having its origins in the spoken word and in song. In our culture we usually see it on the printed page or screen, but a written poem is fundamentally a score for oral performance. When it’s not read aloud, it’s at least something we should listen to inwardly.

To remark that poetry is speech is to recognise how it draws on elements already present in everyday conversation. To remark that it’s memorable is to recognise how (unlike most of our talking) it deploys those everyday elements in ways that intensify and sustain their impact. All language has rhythmic qualities, for instance; but poetry lifts them into auditory patterns that can linger in the mind.

Sometimes the auditory patterns are emphatically regular — often so in traditional high literary forms such as the Petrarchan sonnet, where metre and rhyme follow a strict scheme. But sometimes, especially in poetry of our own time, auditory patterns are less obvious; they keep closer to casual conversational phrasing. Here, for instance, is the opening of Caitlin Maling’s “The Drowned Man” from her masterly book Fish Song:

Perhaps he had a wife, three slovenly
lovely children, dreams of a down payment
on a red-brick two-by-two where the girls could share
and everyone would love the dog best.

The tone is colloquial and wry — no elevated diction, no overtly imposed structure, just the unassuming idiom you might hear in a pub or over the back fence. It evokes economically the micro-world of a family home. Yet the lines are shaped in an unobtrusively artful way. There’s that nicely timed line-break creating a crafty little pause between “slovenly” and “lovely”, adjectives whose unexpectedly apt pairing is reinforced by their assonance. And although it eschews rhyme and regular metre, this poem goes on to embody the general shape and heft of a sonnet: an octet (eight-line stanza) followed by a sestet (six-liner), marking a change of mood as the man whose snug home life we have glimpsed is then seen “splayed on Swansea beach / weed weaving through his hair.”

The coast of Western Australia and the timbre of local speech are memorably captured throughout Maling’s Fish Song. I expect that both will also be prominent at an upcoming event in Perth organised by WA Poets Inc: Love Poetry Under the Stars. I’m to be one of the featured poets, along with Miranda Aitken, Gillian Clark, Kevin Gillam, Rhian Healy, Soul Reserve and Rita Tognini. Details here.

Love Poetry Under the Stars is open to all comers; but in case you can’t attend, here’s one of the pieces I’ll be reading. (It will also appear at a later stage in my book Breaking the Surface: New and Selected Poems, to be published by Ginninderra Press.) In the voice of this poem I try to capture rhythmically the uncertain interplay of hesitation and hope that can sometimes infuse an incipiently erotic encounter between two people.

A beginning
(Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula)

Would it seem later like opening a dance, a book?

She turned with a lift of her shoulder. He shifted his feet
towards and away, until the old cave swung up
into line behind her, and then the toppling hill
and the tipsy posts of the jetty.
He sidled closer, glancing across at those eyes
past which the wind, insistent as fantasy,
kept shuffling strands of her hair. She shook her head
at what — an obliqueness of sunlight?
Was she losing her balance? Was he finding his tongue?

His foot was tapping the sand. Her smile tapped his desire.
The beach had become a floor to spin upon.
Cave, hill and jetty began to take their measure,
slow, slow, quickquick slow, her fingers keeping time
at a cool arm’s length. His gesture circled a cliché.
The sea riffled pages of pleasure.
For the moment much seemed possible, if unlikely.
Would she read him from step to step?
Would he dance her from cover to cover?

Poetry: why bother?

Most people today never read a poem. Though I do read plenty of contemporary poetry myself, I’m seldom persuaded to linger over it. What I look for but don’t often find is something worth more than passing attention. I want to be stopped in my tracks by a phrase or a line or (if I’m really lucky) by a whole poem that deserves to be read again, remembered and revisited. Too many of them lack this arresting quality.

But why bother to read poetry at all, let alone write it (as I also do)? Here’s my answer: it’s worth doing because poetry, at its best, deploys words with a startling impact that peels away from our perceptions what Coleridge called a “film of familiarity”. This eye-opening quality lets us see some aspect of experience more clearly. I’ll mention examples below.

Everyday language is too tired to make much of an impression on us. We’re surrounded by worn-out words, facile clichés, jaded expressions. While it’s not surprising that daily conversation hardly ever includes anything strikingly fresh and memorable, the written word should be chosen with more care — but most of what journalists write is instantly forgettable, and any statements emanating from politicians or business leaders (not to mention ‘celebrity influencers’) are almost always stuffed with stale platitudes.

Instead of inflicting on us the weary comparisons and dreary metaphors that riddle ordinary communication, a successful poem can jolt us alert with ingeniously crafted turns of phrase. Being (normally) segmented into lines, it has the potential to disrupt our usual habit of hasty reading, so we’re encouraged to pause and reflect. Poetry can devise inventive images and haunting rhythms that cause us to sit up and take notice.


Plucking phrases out of their context won’t give a full picture but may indicate the kind of thing I have in mind.

Here, then, are a few quotations from an excellent little book just published under the imprint of Recent Work Press. It’s by prize-winning Sydney-based poet Denise O’Hagan and its title is Anamnesis. As a footnote tells us, this ancient Greek word signifies “a calling to mind of past events, or recollection.”

In one of her most memorable pieces in this book, O’Hagan sustains a single perfectly controlled sentence through half a dozen three-line stanzas, each of which begins “If I could …” — like this, for instance:

If I could impart to you a tiny fraction
Of the shimmering strength of a single strand of spiderweb
Bobbled with dew, swaying in the early morning light

There’s descriptive precision in those lines, transmitting beautifully to a reader’s imagination what the speaker wishes she “could impart” — yet the poem’s point goes well beyond its portrayal of delicate details in the external world, and beyond a general sentiment of wanting to find words that would do justice to certain objects or scenes. What it gradually reveals is that every stanza’s heartfelt “If I could” is addressed to a particular individual who faces specific physical challenges, tenderly evoked, which the speaker would dearly love to alleviate — if she could.

Although any poem that deserves a reader’s close attention will normally contain vivid imagery, those visual or figurative elements are only part of what makes it memorable. It will also contain a patterning of sounds. This may include traditional auditory features such as rhyme and metre but in contemporary writing it’s likely to be a less obviously melodious kind of musicality, less insistently regular and more subtle. Here is how another poem by O’Hagan begins — it’s not dramatic in itself, just quietly conversational (like the voice in many of her poems), but has a steady rhythm that lays a foundation for what turns into a reminiscence about glimpses of love among the ruins of a former Roman city:

I tread the wide slabbed stone street, lined
With pines …

Through its sequence of monosyllabic words, this simple opening conveys a sense of measured footsteps pacing over the solid paving of an ancient yet durable pathway. So it’s genuinely pedestrian — not in the plodding sense, but in taking us with the speaker on an unhurried walk that will lead us back in time.

As a reader, I don’t like to be shouted at. The poetry of whispers is generally more to my taste, and that’s what I find in Denise O’Hagan’s writing. It often has the quality of murmurous meditations on seemingly small incidents, gently drawing out their significance. From the same book, I’ll give one further example: a fine understated poem called “Love was almond-shaped.” It recalls a cherished moment when a mother once showed a child how to split open almond shells —

… Holding both my hands in one of hers,
Steadying my palm, spanning my fingers
Across the stern metal jowls of the nutcracker …

The poem shapes other images succinctly around that central one of the small hands supported by a larger maternal clasp to help the child with mastering a skill and obtaining nourishment. Something so slight that it might ordinarily pass without notice has been lifted up, brought into the light and infused with warmth by the poet’s skilful choice of language.

I quoted earlier the phrase “film of familiarity.” It was coined two centuries ago by Samuel T. Coleridge, who remarked that the poetry of his friend Wordsworth achieved its singular power …

… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which (in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude) we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

In the poetry I value most, the shaping of words can reveal those little unspectacular “wonders” that heedless hearts would otherwise ignore.

“Short” is shorter than it used to be

How long should a “short story” be? Old question, but one I’ve been pondering again in regard to some of my own published fiction.

One of my pieces (“A Sinking Heart”) has just won a prize in the international Letter Review short story competition; another {“Listing”) was a finalist for the recent Armadale Writers Award; and another (“I dispettosi amanti”) has now appeared in the anthology Snatches of an Aria. These vary in length from just over 400 words to just under 2500.

“A Sinking Heart,” approx. 1320 words, was much longer when first drafted, and only came into sharp focus after I’d gradually whittled it down until every remaining word was essential to the narrative purpose. I’m delighted that the judges of the Letter Review Prize make the following comment on this story and the other two place-getters (one by an Irish writer, one by an American):

The winning stories moved us deeply, made us smile, gave us so much to think about, and inspired us with their astonishing mastery of craft.

You can read “A Sinking Heart” here.

And “Listing,” which the Armadale award judge found “poignant and compelling,” is here.

19th-century writer Edgar Poe, a pioneer of the modern short story, said it should be capable of perusal at one sitting in order to sustain “unity of impression.” But William Saroyan, a later practitioner, remarked that some readers can sit for longer than others. These days, when most of us have a touch of ADHD, very few people seem able to immerse themselves in a fictitious prose narrative without keeping a distracted eye on the time. So, catering for a fidgety society, stories have generally become shorter. Not a bad thing if it leads to more concise writing. The revision process for one of mine, “Promises,” brought it down from about 3500 words to 2000 — the form in which it was published in Backstory a few months ago — and that cropping strengthened its impact, I think. You can read it here.

Most contemporary novels now look skinny compared with those written a century ago — or would, if their actual slimness wasn’t disguised by large fonts and wide-spaced lines. Short stories, too, are shrinking. Many literary magazines and prize competitions now tend to favour “flash fiction,” a term that has been around for about 30 years to designate extremely short stories and has proved especially popular in online publications. But how short is “extremely short”? Editors usually stipulate a maximum word count for these micro-narratives: sometimes 500 words, sometimes 200, sometimes even less.

The shorter it is, the more likely to be read as closely as a poem — or so its author hopes! One of mine, “Cured,” published in Flash Frontier, is under 150 words and aims at a quasi-poetic compression: here it is.




It’s nice to find yourself on a shortlist. But lists, short or long, signify quite different things in different contexts.

If you apply for a job and get shortlisted, you can expect an interview — with a good chance of being selected for the position. Recruitment agents will have previously included you on a longer list of possible contenders, though you probably won’t know about that earlier deliberative stage.

It’s a purer process if you submit something you’ve written for a literary award. ‘Purer’ in the sense of being less affected by bias, because usually what’s being evaluated in such cases isn’t the author but the particular composition — story, poem, or whatever — and a ‘blind’ judging is normal. That is, the person or panel making the decisions doesn’t know who the author of any entry is until afterwards.

Having in the past been longlisted, shortlisted and occasionally emerged as a winner for literary prizes, and having at other times been a member of judging panels, I appreciate this conscientious process of focusing on the quality of the piece of writing. Of course subjectivity is still involved in any judging.

 I’ve just learnt that one of my poems is on the shortlist for the 2022 Poetry d’Amour award. There are six other poets (from several parts of Australia) on the shortlist, so it’s of similar size to the longlist that included my novel The Madwoman’s Coat for last year’s ARA Historical fiction Prize.

The Poetry d’Amour prize will be announced, and an anthology containing all the longlisted entries will be launched, at an event on 2nd October during the Perth Poetry Festival.

Copies of the anthology can be pre-ordered here.

Apples, oranges and literary awards

Comparing like with like is a relatively simple evaluative task. But that’s not what faces the judging panel of some competitions.

As a judge for the 2021 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, it was with mixed feelings that I sat through last night’s announcement and celebration of the winners at the State Library.

Of course I’m delighted that the shortlisted contenders in each category were so variously meritorious, and I admire in particular the work of those who emerged with the glittering prizes. The public recognition that these awards attract is enormously encouraging for writers.

But once again (for this isn’t the first time I’ve been a member of this kind of panel) I felt misgivings because it’s inevitably a matter of choosing between apples, oranges and a mélange of other literary fruit. Even within a category such as Writing for Children, we had to rank picture books for the very young in the same list as sophisticated novels for pubescent readers. The Emerging Writers category, too, required us to appraise works that are generically quite different: they ranged from collections of poetry to family histories, from historical fiction to novels with contemporary settings … and so on. Hardly commensurable!

However, I was impressed by the conscientious and thoughtful way in which the panel members engaged with this challenging diversity of texts and exchanged impressions harmoniously with one another during our meetings. In all, the deliberative decision-making process took several months.

Thank you to my estimable fellow judges: Rashida Murphy (an excellent chair), Jay Lachlin Anderson, Liana Joy Christensen, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Josephine Wilson.

And warm congratulations to all the following shortlisted writers:

Emerging Writers:

David Allan-Petale, Locust Summer
Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (category winner)
Cindy Solonec, Debesa
Emily Sun, Vociferate
Josephine Taylor, Eye of a Rook

Writing for Children:

James Foley, Stellarphant
Steve Heron, One Thousand Snapshots
Denis Knight & Cristy Burne, Wednesday Weeks and the Tower of Shadows
Shirley Marr, A Glasshouse of Stars (category winner)
Katie Stewart, Where Do the Stars Go?

Writers’ Fellowship [project]
Nandi Chinna (category winner) — Poetry
Julia Lawrinson — Memoir
Caitlin Maling — Poetry
John Mateer — Poetry/Prose/Fiction
David Whish-Wilson — Travel memoir

The resilience of libraries

In recent weeks, Russian barbarity has damaged or destroyed many libraries in Ukraine — along with hospitals, schools, universities, and residential areas. But the librarians of this battered nation have risen to the challenge. Libraries that are still standing are “buzzing like hives” day and night, according to the President of the Ukrainian Library Association.

Barricades protect Ukraine’s National Parliamentary Library. (Source: IFLA)

Some have become neighbourhood bomb shelters or field hospitals. Some have organised practical support for military defence, such as weaving camouflage nets. As far as possible, all are continuing and even extending their traditional functions. They are not only providing reading material for the families sheltering in libraries but also packaging books for transfer to adjacent countries where huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees are now arriving. And a particular focus is on actively countering the disinformation that runs rife in times like these.

The resilience of libraries in Ukraine is the latest episode in a long and fascinating story of devotion to civilised values by the keepers of institutionalised literary knowledge in the face of formidable challenges.

I’ve just finished reading two books that remind me how extraordinarily durable and adaptable, over many centuries, book-centred establishments of one kind or another have been. The Library: A Fragile History, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, traces permutations of this cultural phenomenon from ancient times to the present day. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, is an inventive work of fiction written (as the author puts it in an appendix) “to show how a book survives through time, both because of human technologies and because of human stewards.” In their different ways these two substantial volumes (over 500 pages each) are inspiring tributes to the ideals that libraries exist to cherish.

Pettegree and Weduwen record in great detail the long development of the library from ancient collections of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls to parchment codices, from small hoards of unique manuscripts to huge assemblages of printed books … and so on, through countless vicissitudes, up to the emergence of public libraries in the 19th century and our 21st-century information hubs dominated by digitally disseminated texts.

As this comprehensive chronicle’s subtitle emphasises, the ability of book repositories to survive has always been fragile: they have often faced the ravages of natural events — from insidious incursions of mould, rot and vermin to sudden accidental disasters like fires, floods and earthquakes — as well as the depredations of thieves, plunderers, censors (political or religious), book burners and warmongers.

The library of Holland House, London, after a bombing raid in 1940. (Source: UK Gov’t)

The two 20th-century world wars devastated countless European public collections across Europe. Priceless literary treasures were lost — bombed to smithereens, stolen by opportunists, cancelled by ideologues.

In Britain the Blitzkrieg of WW2 wiped out the complete library book-stock of city after city;  in a matter of days, more than a million books perished in Exeter alone, for instance.

On the other hand, a few memorable wartime images testify also to lucky escapes for some libraries and a keep-calm-&-carry-on stoicism on the part of their custodians and users, as in a famous photo of readers imperturbably browsing shelves in the ruins of Holland House.

Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is dedicated to “librarians then, now and in the years to come,” and its acknowledgements page includes the author’s “thanks to every librarian who helped me find a text I needed or didn’t yet know I needed.”

It’s an elaborate fictional work, a great feat of imagination and narrative ingenuity that sweeps through history from the heyday of classical Greece to an imagined future in which human initiative is almost subordinate to the dictates of artificial intelligence. The latter has become the controller of a purportedly infinite library of information – yet it turns out that this cannot meet all emotional needs, and so one resistant human, a young girl, secretly creates a personal library of her own, thus linking her situation to a chain of earlier storytellers. Similarly spirited, but at quite different points in time and place, several other youthful characters in this novel manage to defy the destructive and repressive forces around them with enough resourcefulness to ensure the transmission of an ancient text through centuries of hazard.

Attached to the end of this novel is a conversation with the author in which he salutes the fact that the world’s oldest extant stories have reached us only because they were conscientiously preserved and copied over many centuries in imperial, monastic and private libraries. Long live books, their creators and their custodians!

Between books

When a book appears in print, its author can bask momentarily in the satisfying afterglow. BringIng a full-length writing project to fruition will usually have taken years of hard labour, so one feels entitled to savour the pleasures of publication. But not for long. The OCD component of a writer’s temperament doesn’t permit much lounging around. A prospective next book may already be starting to make urgent demands, and in any case other ideas will probably have begun to bubble into words.

So what does the writing life look like between books? It’s a busy mixture of activities, I’ve always found. Post-publication events continue for some while in response to invitations from various groups. And the habit of writing doesn’t subside.

In the nine months since the release of my fifth novel, The Madwoman’s Coat, I’ve given nearly 30 talks that are directly or indirectly linked to it. Most of the venues are libraries, clubs or community centres. Another of these presentations, illustrated with an assortment of screen images, is coming up soon and is open to the public: details here. More sessions are already being scheduled for next year.

Meanwhile I’ve been continuing to write productively, with a current focus on short fiction and poetry.

Some of my poems have recently come out in Australia (in Burrow, Cordite, Creatrix), others overseas (in Shot Glass and Catalyst).

One of my short stories is shortlisted for the Southern Cross Prize, another is due out very soon in Backstory, and a short-short has just been published in the NZ magazine Flash Frontier.

In addition, accepted items will appear within the next few weeks, e.g. in Pure Slush (a special issue on the theme “Appointment at 10.30”, with a striking cover image) and Quadrant.

Several more poems are currently under consideration by various magazines. What would we do without all those labour-of-love literary periodicals to provide platforms for our work?

I’m also delighted to be included in the handsome just-released book Poetry for the Planet: An anthology of imagined futures.

Carefully edited by Julia Kaylock and Denise O’Hagan and published by Litoria Press, this brings together poems by scores of Australian and NZ writers united by a concern for our physical environment.

You can purchase a copy here.

So the writing life goes on steadily between books. Perhaps my own next book-length publication will be a collection of short fiction or poetry.

Virtual Conferenceville

In years gone by I’ve been to countless conferences. Haven’t we all? But a big upcoming event organised by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, for which I’m an invited speaker, will be different from those past occasions.

It’s a virtual event, taking place in what you might describe as ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ (Actually that’s a medieval definition of God, but it seems to fit the case!)

Long before anyone could envisage what a virtual conference might be, Australian author Frank Moorhouse depicted a typical talkfest forum of the traditional sort in his amusing book Conferenceville. Back then (1976), it seemed obvious that the raison d’être of any colloquium was face-to-face interaction, even when (like Moorhouse’s narrator) an attendee wasn’t sure whether direct contact would eventuate:

‘I found my way to a seat in the empty auditorium…

I wondered who would sit with me…’

That was conferenceville 45 years ago. Since then our world has changed utterly — especially since the pandemic curtailed our face-to-face interactions.

This HNSA virtual conference is not, of course, the kind of where researchers present formal papers on esoteric topics, nor the kind where people gather earnestly to make Important Policy Decisions. It’s really a literary festival, featuring diverse writers linked by a common interest in stories that imagine the past. And because its program is unimpeded by geographical constraints, this ‘online celebration of one of the world’s most popular genres’ (to quote the HNSA conference website) will include an unusually large number of participants from several countries.

I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel session chaired by HNSA Director Elisabeth Storrs on the subject of “Show and Tell: Weaving a Story around a Treasured Possession.” My novel The Madwoman’s Coat, longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize, lends itself well to discussion of that topic. Details here.

In excellent company: ARA Historical Novel Prize

To find one’s own novel in a select group of contenders for a major literary award is immensely gratifying.

The longlist for the ARA Historical Novel Prize has just been announced, and my book The Madwoman’s Coat is on it.

This ARA award provides the most significant prize purse for any genre-based literary prize in Australasia. In total it bestows $100,000 in prize money, including a first prize of $50,000. Books by any writers resident in Australia and NZ are eligible.

There’s a wonderful sense of public affirmation in being longlisted for such a prestigious award. My book rubs shoulders with novels by such highly esteemed writers as Kate Grenville, Gail Jones and Steven Conte. You can see the list here.

Beyond the immediate sense of personal pleasure, it’s also exhilarating to be associated with the ARA Historical Novel Prize because of what it stands for: it celebrates the great value of imaginary time-travel. Too much contemporary fiction seems cramped within the here-and-now, tending to reinforce current attitudes and assumptions. By inventing characters and episodes set within a well researched framework of times past, authors of the best historical novels can help readers to see aspects of our own world from a new perspective. That’s what the ARA award recognises.

Though I may get no closer than this to the prize, the longlisting still puts me in respectable company. Among last year’s finalists who missed out at the end were several notable authors including Christos Tsiolkas, Pip Williams and Tara June Winch.

The winner will be announced next month during the 2021 virtual conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. As the conference is being hosted online, HNSA has been able to create its most extensive conference program to date, with panels, interviews, workshops, and more. Recorded sessions will remain accessible to registrants for three months after the event. I’m to be part of a panel for the last session before the final Plenary on Sunday 24 October. I’ll post details nearer the time.

The value of loyal readers

If you google “reader loyalty” you can find plenty of online data. You’ll learn that “only 3.8% of readers are loyal, but they consume 5 times more content.” Or you’ll be told publishers have discovered the importance of loyalty because it “drives economic success.” But such breathless revelations belong to the world of digital commerce, where “publication” means website advertising and “readers” are merely website visitors.

For an author, reader loyalty has a different kind of value. It’s about the immense encouragement received from individuals who not only read each successive book that one writes but also respond personally by sending spontaneous messages of appreciation. Some of these unsolicited comments are brief; some are copious. Some may be from close friends; in other cases the bond is just a shared enthusiasm for literary storytelling.

As review space in newspapers and magazines continues to shrink, thoughtful comments that come directly from reader to writer are all the more valuable, especially when they reflect knowledge of the writer’s other work as a context for each new book.

Not long after the launch of my latest novel, an uplifting email arrived from fellow writer Nicholas Hasluck, who knows my earlier fiction well.

I have just finished reading The Madwoman’s Coat and am writing to congratulate you on having completed a memorable work. The first few scenes at Fremantle in 1897 are compelling. I was immediately captured by the presence of various mysteries to be fathomed, including not only the motive and the underlying cause behind the death but also the creation and meaning of the embroidered coat. It was then very pleasing to be drawn further back to the lives of the principal characters in England and the aspirations of Lucy/Isabella and those around her such as William Morris and his acolytes. Thereafter, the various links in the chain of causation were skilfully fitted into place, leading on in due course to the dire events in Guildford and Fremantle.

As the story proceeded I felt constantly rewarded by the presence of the various elements to be found in the best works of fiction. The style, as in your other novels, was consistently graceful throughout and perfectly suited to the era and social settings portrayed. The mood thus created, a mood of elation at times, but also of desperation, especially towards the end, kept me in suspense along the way. In doing so, it pointed to and eventually accomplished a powerful resolution of the drama.

I feel instinctively that The Madwoman’s Coat is in the first rank. It is a fine novel and should be widely praised.

Soon afterwards, this cheerful message came from a former colleague, Prof Helen Wildy, who had expressed enthusiasm about each of my previous novels in turn and initiated book group discussions of several of them:

Is this your best ever? I think so, totally captivating, wonderful background stories all knitted (sorry, embroidered) together, and a lovely Icelandic saga underlying it all.

American literary critic Edith Moore has written to me at length about each of my novels as they have emerged. She reads closely and discerningly. Her extensive remarks on The Madwoman’s Coat are very gratifying:

Thank you for this wonderful and extraordinary novel! The focus on women’s perspectives is an inspiration, because it is a story of resistance and not of submission to fate. In the midst of trauma, past and present, we have Lucy/Isabella’s fierce responses to violence and the threat of violence. So often we are frozen when violence comes at us, and if we are fierce we’re called crazy. (I was thinking of Gavin Staines in A Thousand Tongues — was his inability to speak out a response to fear of his violent father? taking as a guide his mother’s “defensive taciturnity”?) But here is Lucy whose response to panic is to fight back, against the madman in the train while all the men are frozen, against the odious Dr Oram, against poor bumbling Alice. And quick to fight in defense of her art, against Julius, against Ruth Fitch, passionate in her last moments. Not submissive, and as Lucy/Isabella insists, not to be pitied.

Sad that her protective fierceness and fear of closeness keeps her locked away from Julius who seems a gentle and perceptive man. Would she have been able to see him without fear if he’d been less physically looming? If she had been able somehow in her mind to remove his mummer’s animal mask? Her efforts to understand her “perverse slighting of Julius” are impossible without looking clearly at her father, as she is beginning to see when trying to find a “justification for her reaction to Alice — at the time only the merest inkling of an explanation” which implies she does come to understand, does finally allow the memories to come out of the shadows.

And with the coming of full memory comes the glorious embroidery of the coat, and a story of creative fire refusing to be quenched. The “sparkle and exuberance” we see when she’s with the Morris family, the fire her aunt sees in her, are subdued but not put out. So fitting that on the very day that tears a ragged hole in her spirit, she is given a gift of beauty which will allow her to make necessary repairs in her soul, what she calls her “romance” with colors, fabrics and threads, her vision of a “sunny silken world” filled with bird color, flower color, sky, “pigmentary splendor.” And with her memory fully recovered she is able to gather the power of beauty into herself to sustain her soul, as Morris said Icelanders must do in their harsh landscape. So that she can transform the terror and ambivalence of her father’s transgression, her grief at the “interwoven miseries” of Julius and Gerard, into her own design, her story seen from kestrel height, with dancing mummers tamed into heraldic forms, and the image of Lucy at the center in control of the stag, made harmless with his antlers caught in Aesop’s blossoming tree. And couldn’t help but wonder if the silk mill is productive again.

When the magnificent parrot, image of beauty of freedom, flies into the room where the inquest is held and crashes into a window, the people flinch, and then forget. We can’t help but flinch when each new violent blow comes, but we don’t forget! Lucy says “in our art” there are “no illusions of permanence,” but as Tilly says, the artistry of the coat is “remarkable and lasting.” As is this beautiful novel.

Heartening comments have come from other places overseas as well, including the following from a loyal Danish reader, Dorte Huerlin:

Much to the reader’s satisfaction, Detective Inspector Rowe disentangles the yarn at the end, exposing poor Lucy/Isabella’s murderer. His own dramatic story was told, of course, in The Mind´s Own Place, also set in the Perth area. You fuse imagined lives with meticulously correct historical and geographic facts in a way I would call luxurious, Ian!

It must be so rewarding to dig into history in this way. You have the enviable talent and perseverance to carry out what I can only fantasize about… By far the best way of studying the past is empathising via narrative — your novels open the eyes of your readers to all the myriad individual destinies that founded modern Australia and New Zealand…

Lucy’s decoration of her coat becomes symbolic of a new type of male and female unison: the heavy gentleman’s overcoat, no doubt tailored according to the original military style of such garments, is softened by the imaginative decorative powers of Lucy, the craftswoman.

Andrew Taylor, a longstanding literary colleague whose encouraging comments on my novels go back to his reading of the first one in draft form, has sent this response to my latest:

“I’m immensely impressed… I’d like you to know how much I liked it and also how very very good I think it is. Your historical and cultural detail is not only convincing and detailed, it also serves to develop and consolidate the characters of the main actors and, of course, particularly Lucy. Your mastery of needlework is astonishing (I’d never caught you at it, so this was a surprise); what I mean is that the detail of this too is never superfluous, but contributes to the rich (like the embroidery) texture and tactility of everything. I was impressed, too, at how Lucy’s story avoids cliché at every crucial point — she’s impressed by the handsome soldier, up to a point, but in a far more complicated and interesting way than one would expect, and his character too is very subtly understood. And the way she evades being embroiled in his death and manages to escape to Australia is not only intriguing, even quite exciting, but also fully believable. I could go on and on, Ian, but these are my immediate impressions.”

And Melbourne-based Dr Michael Stanford, another person familiar with my previous books, made these comments about his experience of reading The Madwoman’s Coat:

I thought you were pretty courageous as a man writing a central female character but this worked well. One could only have sympathy for her plight throughout, even combined with mixed feelings about some of her behaviour…

I found myself accelerating through as the storyline became more and more gripping. I genuinely think this novel ought be picked up as a TV series or even movie because of its many interesting themes.

The combination of women’s place in society (and in the end victimhood), history, arts, two countries, treatment of mental health, the injustice of the legal system, love and death, all seems powerful to me.

A statement attributed to Ernest Hemingway asserts that “there is no friend as loyal as a book.” Still, there’s nothing more valuable to a writer, nothing more sustaining, than appreciative messages from loyal readers.

Let’s hear it for libraries

This week, not for the first time, I was a beneficiary (with many others) of excellent support from a local public library.

Too often we tend to undervalue these institutions. We all know, of course, that public libraries provide resources to serve the general information needs of their citizens. We assume that any literate society has plenty of them. We may be aware that free lending libraries in Australia date back to the mid-19th century. Since then they have become part of our taken-for-granted social environment.

It’s easy, if we don’t give the matter much thought, to regard them merely as storage facilities for printed publications, electronic data and archival materials. But along with those basic functions and various other valuable services, they also give direct support to writers and readers.

The example foremost in my mind is the generosity of the South Perth Library in regularly organising events that bring together an author and a crowd of potential readers to celebrate a new book.

A couple of evenings ago it was my turn (once again) to have a novel launched in that congenial setting. It was part of the Library’s “Words with Wine” series. A large audience listened to local history librarian Anthony Styan interview me about The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth work of historical fiction. His subtle and stimulating questions ensured that our conversation flowed well. Afterwards a good number of attendees lined up to buy copies of my book.

I’m grateful to Anthony, epitome of the Ideal Reader; to Tamara Lampard, the Events Officer, who did a great job of arranging the whole show; and to the dozens of people who came along to hear about (and purchase) The Madwoman’s Coat. On such occasions, all the hard slog of creating a book seems wonderfully worthwhile.