Category Archives: Supporting writers

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 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.

Hard times for Australian writers

For years the right of Australian authors to receive fair payment for their work has been safeguarded by copyright law. But proposed changes, pushed by the Productivity Commission and reinforced by lobbyists for large organisations and big technology companies such as Google, will severely diminish these copyright protections.

The Australian Government is currently considering the Productivity Commission’s recommendations for change. If adopted they would be ruinous to literary creativity in this country. (For more information, click here.) Preserving copyright protections is vital not only for individual authors but also for the millions of readers who care about keeping Australian stories alive.

This threat to copyright comes at a time when the income of those who write books is already meagre and declining. A recent national survey of Australian authors found that their average annual earnings from all writing-related sources (royalties, copyright, fees for talks etc.) amounted to a miserable $12,900. The book market is overcrowded with new titles: more and more books are getting published, with shorter and shorter shelf lives and less and less publicity backing, while fewer and fewer people are buying what we produce.

So it’s timely that WritingWA, the peak support body for literary creators in Western Australia, will hold a two-day ‘Writing and Publishing Sector Forum’ on 31 July and 1 August at the City of Perth Library and History Centre, 573 Hay Street, Perth. There will be sessions on the publisher-to-bookshop supply chain, on self-publishing, on copyright and ‘fair use,’ on the recent state government review of writing and publishing in WA, and several other topics. My own invited presentation will be on authors’ incomes and pay rates. Program details and ticketing arrangements here.

Help to repel an assault on Australian writing

IMG_4888Since its inception more than half a century ago  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has gained very substantial benefits for this country’s writers, and so for readers of Australian literature as well. Right now its efforts are more crucially important than ever, because Australian writing is under heavy assault.

As its current slogan proclaims, the acronym ASA could just as well stand for the range of services that this organisation offers to literary practitioners: Advocacy/Support/Advice.

Fair copyright licence provisions and public lending right legislation are among its most impressive and tangible achievements.

I’ve written appreciatively about the ASA in a previous post. At this moment it’s in the spotlight as it valiantly fights the good fight against potentially disastrous measures proposed by the Productivity Commission, particularly a recommendation to remove existing restrictions on parallel importation of books. Anyone who cares about the future of Australian writing should take heed – and take action!

(In what follows I’ve abridged a statement sent recently to ASA members by its CEO, Juliet Rogers. I do so with her permission and in my capacity as an ASA Board Director.)

On Friday 23 September the Productivity Commission will deliver to the Commonwealth Government its final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements. It is unlikely to change the recommendations of its draft report, which would have these drastic effects:

The ASA is working with the Australian Publishers Association to submit to the government within the next few weeks a joint petition protesting against these changes . Although it already contains more than 16,000 signatures, there’s an urgent need to add as many signatories as possible so that politicians with the power to influence this decision receive a strong message.

Some loyal readers of Australian books are still not aware of what’s at stake. If you’re in that category, please go to the information links highlighted above – and then consider sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and a State Senator expressing your concerns.

Some Australian writers haven’t yet signed the ASA petition. If you’re in that category, please do so without delay by following this link. And if you’re not a member of the Australian Society of Authors, NOW is a very good time to join this vital organisation.

ASA colour logo

By the way, if you live in or near Perth you may like to attend an event on Thursday 15 September at the State Library of WA Theatre, 6-8 pm: Juliet Rogers, CEO of the ASA, will talk about ‘The Business of Writing.’ This overview of current challenges, hazards and opportunities for writers is sponsored by WritingWA – a great example of the kind of partnership in which both WritingWA and the ASA have excelled. It’s a free event, open to all, but registration is required.



Why should governments fund writers’ centres?

IMG_3898A recent article by Victoria Laurie in The Australian reported what some of us already knew: that government funding for literary activities in Western Australia has been slashed for 2016.

As the report notes, several cutbacks during the last year have substantially reduced financial support for authors, publishers, and associated organisations in this state. These include turning the WA Premier’s Book Awards from an annual into a biennial event – which, as WritingWA CEO Sharon Flindell remarks, ‘has essentially halved opportunities for authors and publishers to promote their work.’ Also stripped away has been some of the Australia Council funding for literature in Western Australia.

And now the unkindest cut of all has discontinued the grants previously provided by the state’s Department of Culture and the Arts for a number of vital operations, such as the magazine Westerly, the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), and – most astoundingly – the peak coordinating body WritingWA, which represents every link in the book industry supply chain through 80 member organisations.

Laurie’s article quotes statements of distress by a number of writers and others involved in the production and promotion of books. Although they all have reasonable things to say, I suspect that a casual observer would probably dismiss those concerns with a shrug, thinking it’s just a case of cottage-industry practitioners expecting the taxpayer to subsidise their individual pursuits indefinitely and having a whinge about the prospect of reduced privileges such as trips to literary festivals etc.

What doesn’t come through in Victoria Laurie’s article is the strong business case for supporting such activities because their demonstrable public impact is achieved so thriftily. Take WritingWA as the prime example: it has delivered an exceptionally good return on investment, stretching the value of every funding dollar by forming several very productive partnerships regionally and nationally. Its work has been almost as miraculous as the fabled feeding of the 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

I’ve written elsewhere about the enterprising ways in which WritingWA manages to maximise the range of practical benefits it confers not only on individual writers but on communities across the state. I’ve also spoken about this in recent radio interviews, locally and nationally. Examples are worth repeating here. WritingWA maintains strong working relationships with the following:

  • Westlink TV, resulting in an outstanding publicity vehicle for writers – Meri Fatin’s monthly “Cover to Cover” program, showcasing WA writers and reaching out through community centres to many regional locations.
  • Literary festivals. I’ve seen at first hand (e.g. in Geraldton, Kununurra and the Avon Valley as well as in Perth) how valuable this kind of liaison can be, not only for writers but also for diverse communities.
  • The Literature Board of the Australia Council, e.g. in a jointly organised workshop on Market Development Skills for writers – again, developing good business practice.
  • The West Australian newspaper, for which WritingWA works with its literary editor Will Yeoman to ensure prominent coverage of books produced in this state.
  • Public libraries, e.g. assisting with payment for writers who give library talks and readings.

It’s unfortunate that this point about leveraged business efficiency and the $$ multiplier effect, extending community access to cultural resources, wasn’t made forcefully in the newspaper report. Anyone outside literary circles who glances at it will probably not have taken away a clear message about the admirably resourceful way in which WritingWA has extracted extra value for the community from every invested dollar.

Support for solitaries

support-teamAlthough the act of writing is solitary, its ultimate purpose is to communicate – which a lone individual can’t achieve unaided. Reaching a wide readership requires concerted effort. So three cheers for organisations that give practical support to writers!

These are difficult times for the book industry. Most authors, publishers and retail outlets are struggling, and it would be hard for some of us to keep our heads above water without the reliable ancillary service provided by various support organisations.

At a national level several bodies do indispensable work, most notably the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the Copyright Agency, and the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve had good reason to be grateful to all of these. But it’s at least equally important  to find encouragement close at hand, in one’s own community. Even a writer who isn’t inclined to be gregarious will sometimes be glad of assistance from a group of other writers.

For those of us who pursue our literary vocation in Western Australia, at a daunting distance from the HQs of national organisations (most of whose facilities, meetings etc. are beyond reach), there’s a special value in the support that locally-focused groups can give. Several of these operate in and around Perth, where I live. Having been involved with most of them at some stage as member, workshop leader, guest  speaker or attendee at events, I respect what they do and I’m grateful for their  contributions to the literary scene here.

Among the organisations that come particularly to mind, two have now been around for a combined total of 50 years, which is all the more admirable in view of their heavy dependence on volunteers. In the hills east of Perth, the KSP Writers Centre has provided a range of development activities for 30 years, while the Peter Cowan Writers Centre is now marking the 20th anniversary of its similar work in the northern suburbs. Each recognises in its name a significant WA fiction-writer from the past – Katherine Susannah Prichard and Peter Cowan. Both Centres have enjoyed loyal backing throughout this period from stalwarts who contributed to their establishment.

Within the last couple of years I’ve given an invited talk at KSP and a workshop on editing at PCWC, and I could see at first hand what a nurturing ethos both groups have created for their members.

The literary organisation with the longest and proudest tradition of service to writers in this state is the WA branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, founded in 1938. As a member of FAWWA, I’ve given presentations (e.g. to the Book-Length Project Group), attended readings (e.g. by the Well-Versed poetry presenters), listened to notable fellow-writers such as Amanda Curtin and Nicholas Hasluck talk about their recent work, and chatted with many people at informal social gatherings. Through these interactions I’ve struck up friendships, received (and shown, I hope) collegial support, acquired useful information (in particular from the online newsletters), and generally felt the value of belonging to a literary community that is equally welcoming to tyros and eminent figures. The positive spirit engendered by FAWWA owes a lot to the energy of its President Peter Bibby, its Past President Trisha Kotai-Ewers, and its Administrative Officer Pat Johnson..

It takes nothing away from the work of FAWWA, KSP and PCWC to say that the advent of WritingWA has brought a higher level of statewide coordination, strategic thinking and energetic advocacy to our writers. It has many member organisations, including the three I’ve just mentioned, and represents every link in the whole book industry supply chain. WritingWA has been especially active in ensuring that regional writers and readers don’t miss out on services available to their counterparts in urban areas. For a state as large as WA, that’s no mean feat. The Board of Writing WA (chaired by Dennis Haskell) has worked hard to give CEO Sharon Flindell and Regional Engagement Officer Deidre Robb plenty of scope for their excellent efforts.

I admire the enterprising way in which WritingWA manages to maximise the range of practical benefits it offers through active partnerships with other local and national bodies. Here are five examples from my own experience:

Recording with Ian 1 copy

  • The strong working relationship between WritingWA and Westlink TV has resulted in an outstanding publicity vehicle for writers – Meri Fatin’s monthly “Cover to Cover” program, showcasing Western Australian writers and reaching out to many regional locations. As Meri’s interview with me is about to be telecast (next week), I’m particularly conscious at the moment of the value that this service brings to writers and readers.
  • WritingWA works closely with the organisers of WA’s literary festivals. As a guest of the Perth Writers Festival in recent years and Geraldton’s Big Sky event in 2013, I saw how productive this kind of liaison can be, and I’m sure I’ll see further evidence of it next month as a featured writer at other regional festivals in the Avon Valley and the Kimberley.
  • Last year I took part in a thoroughly worthwhile Market Development Skills Workshop run jointly by WritingWA and the Literature Board of the Australia Council. This was an exemplary partnership, and I’m sure other participants gained as much from it as I did. It helped me to think in more practical ways about commercial aspects of the work I do, and this has been a useful focus in the lead-up to the release of my latest book.
  • At a time when national newspapers and magazines are generally reducing the space allocated to literary reviews, I and my fellow writers have good reason to thank WritingWA for the way it links up with The West Australian to ensure that the paper maintains a good prominent coverage of books produced by authors in this state (including recently Will Yeoman’s interview-based article on my new novel).
  • WritingWA collaborates with public libraries to assist with payment for writers who give talks and readings in libraries. I’ve been glad of the fees generated in this way. (Incidentally, the fact that the WritingWA office is located in the State Library building, where I’m currently working on my Battye Fellowship project, has made it convenient for me to make more frequent personal contact with its staff. They are just a few paces away from the Library Theatre where I’ll be giving a public lecture next week.)

Through these and other leveraging partnerships, WritingWA extracts plenty of value from every dollar of funding it receives. At present it is holding its breath (like other literary organisations in WA) as it awaits the result of crucial funding applications. I trust it will receive substantial government grants so that writers and the wider public can continue to benefit from its vital work.