Tag Archives: Brenda Walker

Writers need discerning friends

Though writing is largely a solo activity, even the most experienced authors need appreciative responses from at least a few readers after a book emerges into the world. Without this occasional encouragement it would be hard to sustain the effort to go on writing.

Book reviews in media outlets traditionally helped to meet that need. But now that nearly all newspapers and magazines have imposed drastic cuts on their review space, many worthy books get scant public attention. There would often be a deathly post-publication silence if it weren’t for thoughtful comments by discerning friends.

Such comments are especially valuable when they come from accomplished fellow-writers who can be trusted to read with insight. Does friendship impede their judgment or lead to mere flattery? Unlikely. Tact doesn’t require them to say things they don’t mean. And after all, total objectivity can’t be guaranteed in any circumstances. Published reviews by purportedly independent critics may sometimes be coloured by undisclosed personal attitudes (friendly or unfriendly) towards an author.

In the lull following the launch of my new novel I’ve felt heartened by messages from several writer-friends. Without hesitation they have agreed to let me quote some of their comments here — which also gives me, in turn, an opportunity to mention appreciatively a few of the many things I admire in their own writings.

At an early stage there had already been encouraging evaluations of my manuscript. Among the people I asked to read A Thousand Tongues and tell me whether it seemed fit for submission was Dave Whish-Wilson. Dave had previously sought my opinion of the ms of his fine historical novel The Coves, so I solicited this reciprocal favour. Of all his books, I like The Coves best. Its storyline sustains a strong momentum, evoking mid-19th-century San Francisco’s ugly outpost of Australian gold-diggers with unforgettable power. The language is replete with acrid smells and gruesome sights of that frontier world in all its raucous, rancorous violence, and the young central character is surrounded by a great rogues gallery of mostly unsavoury adults.

To my delight, Dave had this to say about A Thousand Tongues:

What a pleasure it was to read your ms, and what a fascinating story set over three different but linked eras. Not an easy job to manage, and hold it all together! For this reader the structure is working perfectly. As well, I thought all of the characterisation was spot on, as was the integration of what must have been a significant amount of research into the different story strands.

Subsequently the person I asked to launch my book was Paul Genoni, co-author with Tanya Dalziell of Half the Perfect World — a really absorbing account of the talented international bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s and 1960s, in which Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston were pivotal figures. (The book’s cover shows them in the company of Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen, who also lived on Hydra; its title comes from one of Cohen’s songs.) Fittingly, Half the Perfect World has recently won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction, and will soon be made into a film.

In his launch speech (which can be read in full here), Paul praised my novel in terms that made the long toil of creating it seem worthwhile:

A Thousand Tongues carries all the hallmarks of Ian’s three previous novels—it is impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner. Ian is working at the top of his craft, and to my mind it is remarkable that this intricately crafted novel has been delivered in such a compact and constantly engaging form.

A few days after the launch I received a message from Nick Hasluck, one of Western Australia’s most eminent writers. I hold his work in high regard, and especially admire Our Man K, a novel that revolves around real-life Czech journalist Egon Kisch, who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Nick’s portrayal of Kisch imagines his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (whose own character ‘K’ becomes linked to Kisch), and also with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Like all Nick’s fiction, it is thoughtful and cleverly shaped. So I value his comments on my work:

I have now finished reading A Thousand Tongues and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your style, as always, is perfectly suited to the mood and theme of the story. Likewise, the historical background and related research were of considerable interest to me and handled deftly. The combination of these qualities is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary Australian fiction so, upon closing the book, I felt hugely rewarded.

Another leading fiction-writer in this state, Brenda Walker, has continued to express enthusiasm for my work since she saw a draft of the first novel a decade ago, and I’ve been buoyed up by her loyal support. Her own World War 1 story The Wing of Night made a big impression on me. It draws with great skill on a range of historical resources to create a moving tale about those who fought and those they left behind, evoking beautifully the resonance of linked events and the mystery of character. Within a few days of obtaining a copy of A Thousand Tongues, Brenda sent me this upbeat email:

I’m carefully reading your elegant book — very much enjoying the slight formality of the writing and the interesting shifts in time and location…. I think you have every reason to feel wonderful about this book and the next!

Also based in Perth is Tangea Tansley, but her books reflect the fact that she has lived in many parts of the world. These include the Middle East, where Out of Place is set, and Africa, the location for A Question of Belonging. I found the latter novel particularly memorable for its unflinching way of depicting the plight of a young widowed woman trying to maintain her independence on an isolated farm against the background of the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. I was very pleased to get an email from her about A Thousand Tongues:

Just to congratulate you on your lovely book. Your clever choice of epigraphs, which led so smoothly into the braiding of past and present, was right up my street. A book to savour in the reading and ponder thereafter. Very well done.

Another friend, Professor Bob White, is a distinguished literary scholar with an international reputation, especially for his numerous critical studies of Shakespeare. When I was at an early stage of developing my novel I read his wide-ranging book Pacifism and English Literature. Its discussion of Shakespeare’s attitudes to war and peace gave me much food for thought. So the following message from Bob about A Thousand Tongues delighted me:

A great pleasure to read. I admire the way you interweave so many strands together while keeping them all clear; and there are powerful moments. Thanks for the memorable literary experience, and keep writing!

Ken Spillman and I became acquainted when we were both guests at the same literary festival a few years ago, and discovered a number of common interests. He began his writing career as a historian, and then moved into the creation of books for children. Ken is probably best known for his series of Jake stories, which are immensely popular with young readers in several countries, but of his many books the one that stands out for me is an allegorical fable called The Circle. Every sentence in The Circle is beautifully balanced. Knowing that Ken is such an exemplary stylist, I was particularly happy that he said this about A Thousand Tongues:

It really is exceedingly well written — there’s a great eye for detail and your prose is so polished.

I’ve known Andrew Taylor well and admired his poetry for many years. I reviewed one of his early books way back in 1973, co-founded with him in 1975 the long-running Adelaide institution known as Friendly Street Poets, co-edited an anthology with him in 1978… It’s been a long association. Many of his poems have stayed with me, but I have a special fondness for those collected in one of his relatively recent books, Impossible Preludes. It contains beautiful lyrics – often witty, sometimes poignant, always with an unforced conversational directness. Over the years, Andrew has kept a friendly eye on my own poetry and fiction, making lots of encouraging comments. While reading this latest novel, he sent me an interim message, describing it as “utterly engrossing … powerful and confronting.” And then, after finishing the novel:

A Thousand Tongues is very impressive. It’s not the most cheerful of reads, nor does it need to be. It’s a relentless exploration of what is conscience and its varied consequences, and you play that out within an extraordinarily well-realised historical and geographical context. Well, contexts, because of the two fine frames. I was very impressed by the detail with which you establish all that, and when I saw your list of sources consulted I wondered how you had time to write the novel. I also like the way certain things are left without unnecessary explanation, such as the wall the conchies are forced to build, which underscores its pointlessness. Also the exploration of ancestry is not only very topical but also very well handled.

For my part, I’m deeply grateful for all these appreciative remarks from fellow-writers  about my new book — and for the pleasure that their own books have given to me. Writers need discerning friends!

Puss in Books

During the peak holiday season an injured cat dominated my life. On Xmas Day my grandson’s furry pet, having ventured onto a highway, was admitted with three pelvic fractures to a vet hospital and soon underwent surgery. For most of the next fortnight, until the ‘owner’ family returned from overseas, I spent many vigilant hours each day sitting beside this invalid, trying to administer medication, coax her to eat and drink, prevent her from licking or picking at the stitched wounds, etc.

Naturally my thoughts drifted idly through various depictions of cats in books.


Sometimes other cultural media disseminate what begins as literary material. Umpteen thousands of people who never read poetry have enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s versified portraits in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical settings.

As you probably recall, the whimsical gallery of whiskered characters includes Mr Mistoffelees the conjurer, who ‘produced seven kittens right out of a hat’; Macavity the elusive arch-criminal, ‘the bafflement of Scotland Yard’; and Gus the elderly theatre cat, who ‘suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.’ I first met them on the page, long before Cats was devised for the stage.

Unsurprisingly, cats feature in the work of several famous writers for children – among them Terry Pratchett, Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl and Lynley Dodd.


Some of these creatures have a repertoire of magical powers – as do Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire grinner in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, able to make itself invisible, and Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, a trickster whose tale liberated early childhood language learning 60 years ago from the inanity of Dick-&-Jane primers while exemplifying the value of phonics in reading.

And let’s not forget that master of deceit who cunningly presides over one of the best-known fairy tales, Puss in Boots.

 800px-Édition_Curmer_(1843)_-_Le_Chat_botté_-_1Puss in Boots is of French origin (appearing in Charles Perrault’s 17th-century compilation of traditional tales), and French writers seem to be especially impressed by cats. An example that comes to mind is La Chatte (1933) by French novelist Colette, which presents a love triangle: a woman, her husband and his Chartreux cat. The cat wins, of course.

Then there’s the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire, so infatuated with cats that when visiting a household he would often devote his attention entirely to the resident cat and ignore its human companions. His famous book Les Fleurs du Mal includes three cat poems, one of which I’ve just been re-reading, trying my hand at a translation of its final two stanzas, wrestling with the challenge of retaining their pattern of tetrameter quatrains, rhymed abba:

Quand mes yeux, vers ce chat que j’aime
Tirés comme par un aimant,
Se retournent docilement
Et que je regarde en moi-même,

Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales
Qui me contemplent fixement.

When drawn towards this cat I love
as if magnetically, my gaze
Turns inward in obedient ways
To look upon myself, then move

The line of my astonished sight
Back to those pale but glowing eyes,
Like living opals, which surprise
And fix me in their beacon light.

Baudelaire’s American counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe, was similarly preoccupied with depression and depravity, macabre stories, unorthodox sexuality, and feline companions. As a child I read his sinister story ‘The Black Cat’ and it scared me. A Perth writer, my friend Brenda Walker, has explored some of these themes in her unusual novel Poe’s Cat.

Being over-fond of cats may make some of us seem a bit crazy, but of all animals they’re perhaps best equipped to provide solace in one’s madness. In the mid-18th century, Christopher Smart’s sole companion during years of incarceration for insanity was his cat Jeoffry, to whom Smart devoted part of his idiosyncratic pseudo-Hebraic poem Jubilate Agno. Among other attributes, Jeoffry is admired for his ‘mixture of gravity and waggery’, and for the way he enjoys ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.’ There is, Smart observes, ‘nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest’ and ‘nothing brisker than his life when in motion.’


I have a cat friend just like that. These days, in her maturity, she’s more often ‘at rest’ than ‘in motion.’

And she’s a suitable companion for a writer because of her bookish inclination.