2014 was a strange year for my family. An underground kind of year for me, though one in which some writing matters crystallised. I’ve been braver in some ways, less brave in others. Marooned, for a while, by the vagaries of misfortune. If you’re in need of some writerly insight/shoring up (and who isn’t from time to time) try The Atlantic’s 2014 roundup of advice. But for everyone, no matter your passion, Chuck Wendig’s post on being both big and small may resonate. Big in intent and purpose. Small in humility and graciousness. (Be warned, Wendig is fond of a swear word or two) Courage, then, for 2015. Courage, hope, and determination. May 2015 be the year you sing your own song, one of your choosing and creation.

PS The beautiful photo at the top is Landscape through Dragonfly Wings by Emili Godes from the website of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya of Barcelona, And because we have dragonflies everywhere at the moment, I’ll add a humbler, more domestic version: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Science Fiction Double Feature


I’ve been very happily reading a stream of wonderful science fiction lately. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Casual Angel, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, and now William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I’m just at the beginning of The Peripheral and what strikes me most is how Gibson throws you in. You really have no idea, except in the broadest way, what is going on. Not entirely lost, but not exactly sure either. I like that in a novel. There have been some wonderful interviews with Gibson just lately. Io9’s interview talks about cognitive dissonance and the need for a science fiction reader to develop a way of reading that allows them to go with the flow. And yet Gibson is so full of details. Especially of modern materials: polymers, resins, plastics, tech.

And, of course, I’ve seen Interstellar. No confusion there. (I asked my family, who haven’t and won’t see it, to predict in which order the four characters who travel into space die/meet their fate. They got it right.) It’s both magnificent and flawed. So relentlessly American. (Surely some other nations will be up there in space come the apocalypse or even, foolishly optimistic thought, an international team) But wonderful, nonetheless.

All this talk of science fiction and space makes me miss Iain Banks. There’s a 2010 interview he did with Jude Roberts up at Strange Horizons. Sigh.

The Humans


Matt Haig’s The Humans has a ludicrous premise and a close to laughable plot. But it is one of the most uplifting and beautiful books I have read recently. Perhaps it was because I was trapped at my daughter’s dancing competition which ran three hours overtime on a rainy Saturday night. There was nothing else to do but keep reading, listen to the rain on the auditorium roof and glance up from time to time at the preceding contestants. The room gradually emptied out, but there were still whole sections to go before my daughter’s trio was to dance. I read on!

I don’t think it gives too much away to say the plot revolves around an alien’s attempt to understand humans. At first he sees the obvious: cruelty, small mindedness, greed, mortality, self deception. But then he is sidelined by beauty, by courage and by love. How hard it is to write meaningfully about love. I think Haig manages it.

This is a difficult book to define, not really Science Fiction despite the plot. It does, of course, have resonances of the movie Starman. It also reminds me of a short story that I can’t quite place (although it feels to me like Ray Bradbury) of a woman living on another planet whose husband is replaced by an alien who looks just like him. She comes to realise this, but also to prefer the alien. And, almost inevitably, Haig’s alien becomes more human than other.

Haig has written that the seeds of the book came from a time when he was suffering from a panic disorder. He wanted to write about human life as he then experienced it, as if he were an outsider observing the strangeness. It is so often true that the overt expressions of human nature are the most ugly and violent. Right now the world is clearly demonstrating how strange and disconnected humans can be. But it is also true that softer, less noticeable expressions of care and connection and beauty happen all the time. We each of us contain something of the worst and the best. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a way to bring those demonstrations of love to the fore. I wonder if we humans can manage it.

Writing in circles


If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that when I start writing about a garden, I’m just playing for time. Not that I realise it in the moment, but later, yes, it’s because I’m stuck.

Of course, a grand book about a garden may yet reveal itself. A heartbreaking story set in a struggling vegetable patch. A wry commentary on the contemporary condition based on one woman’s struggle with a bush turkey and several possums. Nup, when my characters wander into the garden, it’s time to take a break and rethink.

Needless to say, there has been (at least) one great book about a garden. But that’s already been written.

The smiling woman


“There were always in me, two women at least, one woman desperate and bewildered, who felt she was drowning and another who would leap into a scene, as upon a stage, conceal her true emotions because they were weaknesses, helplessness, despair, and present to the world only a smile, an eagerness, curiosity, enthusiasm, interest.” Anais Nin
I leapt upon this quote when I discovered it. Though when I read it again, I’m not sure that I manage to present quite the facade that Anais Nin is describing. My own face is too readable, my own moments of despair and bewilderment too obvious. I do know something about the smile though. Recently, at midnight of course, the unexpected overtook our family. My husband collapsed and my daughters and I spent twenty minutes in limbo waiting for an ambulance. I was about to write an anxious twenty minutes, but I wasn’t anxious. I was at several removes, unbelieving. And in this strange state, I kept reminding myself: When they come to the door, don’t smile. This is a serious situation. They won’t expect to be greeted. And, when they arrived, I succeeded. I didn’t smile. Though neither did they, and it felt entirely strange. My daughter laughs at me now because I was urging her, even while on the emergency call, to tidy up the room. So I cannot claim to have entirely lost my feminine obsessions. But I didn’t smile, though I was polite. And very, very calm.
The ambulance whisked him away. My daughters and I waited the required hour. And then the final test — I answered more or less correctly the many questions (health insurance number, medicare number, medical history) that let us through to the cold, fairy tale night of the hospital grounds. We were found and rescued by a French man wearing a reversed white gown and smelling of many cigarettes. He delivered us to a ward in which my husband was sound asleep. Safe, for now. At least as safe as any of us can claim to be. I smiled at the French man and said thank you. But, for him, it was right. By that point there were no facades, polite or otherwise. It would have been foolish not to have smiled, at 2 a.m.

On being alone


I’ve just finished Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
I wavered before buying, drawn by the praise of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Ursula Le Guin, made hesitant by the memories of the Jane Austen Book Club (which wasn’t for me) and by the subject matter itself. (Fair warning: read no further if you’re not up for spoilers.)

But it was a compelling, harrowing, unputdownable read. I succumbed to tears just as many prior readers had done. Even though the last section of the book, where it all comes together, where the family lives as best they can with the past, was somehow unsatisfying. Though what else could Fowler have done? Any other ending would have been to deny the nature of Fern and to gloss over the realities of what had happened and what could be done. The last scene, though, was devastatingly sad and altogether beautiful.

But why was it so compelling for so many people? Perhaps because, like Rosie, we all feel a little of the Monkey Girl: out of step, misunderstood, misunderstanding. Wanting to be wild, but choosing the wrong moments to express that wildness. Perhaps this is a quite extreme version of a common story. And if that is so, how can it be true? How can so many of us feel like outcasts? To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?”

So it goes.

Where I write


This is the piece I wrote for Mapping the Words. Take a look. There might be a writer just around the corner from you.

The place I think of as my study is, in everyone else’s mind, the room where the best computer is kept and the place to turn on the WiFi. Our house is old, a child of 1969. We’ve not done a lot. The study has orange curtains. Very good, very solid orange curtains. The window sills are mission brown. The lightshade is a wavy beige thing something like an old fashioned hat at race day. The checked couch that came over the back fence when our neighbours moved to Singapore several years ago sits by one wall covered by as many throws and cushions as possible. The smell of after shave has finally worn off. There’s a toilet separated from the study by a sliding door. A toilet nobody uses, largely because it didn’t work for many years. Water would gush from the cistern merrily and without cease and because nobody could manage to turn the tap off, the float was held up by an old wooden school ruler. ‘That’s very MacGyver of you,’ said the plumber when we could finally afford him. I was both embarrassed and proud. But now nobody thinks to use the brand new toilet and I usually pretend it isn’t there.

So the study’s not that beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I want anyone else using the room. Doctor Who sits on my desk. (The Tenth Doctor, though I love them all.) He lost his sonic screwdriver a while back. There’s also a silver elephant and a Wangechi Mutu card with fox people. There’s an administrative pile of things to do. It only grows larger. And a notebook with Hokusai’s The Great Wave at Kanagawa on the front. There’s a bookshelf, of course, with knick-knacks and beautiful cards and lovely papers scattered around and about. And a green chair piled with writing notes and some relevant books I’m meant to read.

The view is mostly trees; lots of green with a bit of pool fence where, if I’m lucky, an Eastern Sea Dragon will defy the dogs. The dogs are usually in the sunniest spot on the deck. But they’ll come and sit outside the window if they’ve been inadvertently locked outside. Birds swoop across. Cockatoos, a kookaburra, sometimes a king parrot. Too idyllic? All that is often marred by the sound of a leaf blower or by the incessant rounds of renovation next door.

I don’t know that any of it inspires me. My inspiration’s as likely to come from a drive in the car or a supermarket shop. It finds its way into barely legible notes that, when translated to the page, seem less than imagined. But the study’s the place where my brain knows how to draw into itself. At least once it’s stopped requesting cups of coffee and a look at emails and twitter and a round or two of solitaire. The study’s a castle of mist with dreadful furnishings. And though nobody else knows it, it’s all mine.