Launch Of ‘Turtle Reef’

IMG_2910

Kathryn Ledson (R) and me (L)

Last Wednesday was the official Melbourne launch of Turtle Reef at Readings Bookstore in Hawthorn, and afterwards at the Glenferrie Hotel. A great evening was had by all! For those of you who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of my Q&A session with the fabulous Kathryn Ledson, friend and fellow Penguin author.

Kath – Lawyer turned author – what happened?

Jen – This is a great lesson in following your passion.  I never had a burning ambition to be a lawyer. I simply chose law because I had high enough marks to get into it – and it made my mother happy. The course was great. Studying law is excellent training in critical thinking, and it teaches intellectual discipline. But when it came to practising law, my heart wasn’t in it.

When I was a child, I did have a burning ambition though – to be a writer. Ten years ago I remembered that, and thank goodness I did. Finally I’m doing what I should be doing. In his wonderful essay ‘Why I write’, George Orwell says, ‘If a writer escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.’ Well I didn’t escape from my early influences, and am very glad I went back to my roots.

Kath – Your fans must know how passionate you are about the environment. How did it come about? Has it always been a part of who you are or did a single incident get your attention to its plight?

Jen – A passion and love for the environment has always been a part of me. I think I never outgrew my childhood wonder with nature. Children are fascinated by caterpillars, and autumn leaves and ant nests. I still am. When people find out that I have animal characters in my stories, they often say ‘I didn’t know you wrote children’s books.’ This puzzles me. It’s as if for some reason we’re expected to outgrow our emotional connection with animals.

Kath – You write environmental or eco-romance. Do you think you’ve invented a sub-genre of the very popular “ru-ro”? Are you hoping more authors will join you in using fiction to highlight issues around the environment? (Or would you like them all to stay away :) )

Jen – It’s true that very few people are writing Australian rural fiction with environmental themes. But internationally, other authors are doing it, and very successfully at that. Take Barbara Kingsolver and her New York Times best-seller Flight Behaviour for example. She brilliantly weaves rural fiction with a climate-change theme, when the annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies goes horribly wrong. So I’m already in very good company.  I don’t know why more Australian authors aren’t writing adult fiction with animal characters and conservation themes. I think there should be more of it. Readers love these stories.

TurtleReef_coverKath – TURTLE REEF shines a light on some of the ever-present dangers to our Great Barrier Reef. Tell us about the story that shows this.

Jen – Well, simply put, Turtle Reef is the story of a love triangle between a farmer, a scientist and a coral reef. The main character, Zoe King is an unlucky-in-love zoologist who has sworn off men. She moves from Sydney to the Queensland sugar town of Kiawa, for a fresh start, and at first, it’s a dream come true, working at a marine centre, with the wildlife of beautiful Turtle Reef. But things quickly go wrong. First, she falls for Quinn, her boss’s boyfriend. Then, animals on the reef begin to sicken and die. Things aren’t exactly what they seem in picture-postcard perfect Kiawa. When her personal and professional worlds collide, she faces a terrible choice. Protecting the reef might mean betraying the man she loves.

Turtle Reef was inspired by my passion for the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It holds a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of most Australians.  I wanted to share my love of the Reef, and pay tribute to its unique wildlife. I wanted to showcase the important part it plays in the human and animal life of Queensland’s coastal communities. And I wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story. If Turtle Reef sparks debate about reef protection, that’s a bonus.

Kath – Your character Zoe is a force to be reckoned with but I admit I was sceptical when I first started reading TURTLE REEF. Even though I know and trust your skills as a writer, I couldn’t see how you could pull off what clearly needed to be pulled off. Sydney girl arriving in a tight-knit rural environment, tackling age-old standards to save the reef. Taking on the very beautiful and talented local girl and falling in love with her childhood sweetheart! (What were you thinking!!) But you did pull it off – beautifully so – so, what is it, do you think, that makes Zoe’s journey such a riveting and believable one?

Jen – Zoe is simply a fabulous main character – She’s brave, intelligent, honest and passionate and was inspired by a real life ocean hero, Dr Eugenie Clark, known as the ‘Shark Lady’ who died last month and did her last dive at the age of 92. She was a pioneering marine biologist who dedicated her life to shark research, and defied social expectations about women’s roles in science. But Zoe is also a flawed heroine. She’s naïve, almost gullible at times. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is far too forthright for her own good. And although she’s a zoologist, her knowledge of animals is almost entirely theoretical. In fact she’s actually scared of horses and dolphins. Yet life in rural Queensland, and her job at the Reef Centre brings her in daily contact with these very animals. Throw in a crush on the boss’s boyfriend and a mystery out on the reef, and Zoe faces some serious challenges. That’s always interesting. We can all relate to somebody being thrown in the deep end, so to speak. Fortunately, Zoe’s pretty resourceful.

Kath – TURTLE REEF doesn’t just address issues around the reef. You clearly have a very special place in your heart for children and horses and love to write about them. There’s a beautiful bond that forms between a damaged boy and equally damaged horse. Without giving away too much, can you tell us a bit about it?

Jen – Ah, you’re talking about Josh, and Aisha, the Arabian mare. And you’re quite right, I do have a special love for children and horses. The healing effect that horses have on children is a favourite theme in my fiction. However that positive impact can work both ways. In Turtle Reef, Zoe befriends Josh, a teenage boy with an acquired brain injury. Josh might not have good people skills, but he’s very wise when it comes to animals, especially horses.  He’s able to help the mare Aisha, as much as she helps him.

Kath – In TURTLE REEF I loved the character Einstein and learning about her very special attributes. Tell us about your eight-legged friend and the message she has for your readers.

Jen – I’m intrigued by Einstein as well. Einstein is an octopus. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in such an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan. Jet-powered, master of camouflage, shape-shifter, and highly intelligent. And if people want to know about Einstein’s capacity for maternal self-sacrifice, they’ll have to read the book …

Kath – I always learn so much from reading your books. How much did you already know about the reef, its inhabitants, stuffy old rural farmers and their outdated methods? Was much research required and how did you conduct it?

Jen – Oh, you know me Kath. I’m such a nerd when it comes to these things, an amateur naturalist from way back. I actually did know quite a bit about the reef already. But Zoe is a marine zoologist after all, and I’m not. So last year I took a research trip to Bargara, on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.

Zoe’s love interest Quinn Cooper is a fifth generation cane grower. I had a lot to learn about the joys and challenges of sugar farming. The cane trains were especially fascinating. Did you know that Queensland has 4,000 kilometres of narrow gauge track? And that these picturesque little locomotives still transport almost forty million tonnes of sugar cane to the mills each year? Breathing life into Zoe’s character was even more interesting. It involved some island hopping, some snorkelling on coral reefs, some whale-watching and sitting around on moonlit beaches with hatching turtles. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it!

Kath  Finally, you know so much about it all, but can you tell me this: if I punch a Tiger shark on the nose, will it go away?

Jen – It does sometime works. Sharks are reactive animals, big sooks really, and don’t like getting hurt any more than you or I do. Their noses are vulnerable because they bear organs called Ampulae of Loranzini which are used to detect slight water pressure changes like the movement of an injured fish flopping around. These organs are very sensitive and hopefully a good hit to the nose will work – or a jab in the eyes. Hope you never have to try it Kath!

BB14

Easter Sunday With Jenn J McLeod + Book Giveaway

Season Of Shadow And Light Please welcome author, friend and fellow animal nut, Jenn J McLeod, to Pilyara on this Easter Sunday. Her wonderful new novel, Season Of Shadow And Light, is coming out on May 1st. What a luminous cover! I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy and can tell you that readers are in for a real treat. Such a multi-layered, thought-provoking story about the best and worst of families, and it also features a horse! Over to you Jenn!

 

I was six the day a horse ate my buttons

‘We share so much more than a great name, Jen. For a start, we both love animals—all animals—and we hate seeing them neglected and mistreated.

If I had to pick a favourite animal it would definitely be dogs. And  I know you love dogs. But I REALLY, really, really love dogs. Every day when I wake up and my old (now blind) rescue baby is at the foot of the bed (staring and telling me to get up) I feel blessed and lucky to have her in my life, even though her vet bills are now slowly siphoning away my retirement savings!

Jenn J McLeod_54A1139 tI love dogs so much I wanted to feature one in a novel. So, the original Season of Shadow and Light plot featured a mangy mutt as the star of the story. That was until I started researching the world of animals as therapy and developed a fascination for the human/horse connection. Around the same time (coincidental or karma) I discovered a very personal horse-related project to test out a few theories—and it was almost next door to where I lived.

Looking at the final cover for Season of Shadow and Light, I hardly have to tell you that the horse theme, and not the mangy mutt, won in the end. My love of horses goes way back to when, as a young child, my Dad (a NSW Police Bandsman) would take me to the Sydney Royal Easter Show. He’d leave me in my special seat (ie in the horse float and hay stores area under the grandstand) to watch the NSW Police Band do a special performance called, The Musical Ride, in which the mounted police and the brass band would do a choreographed marching routine that weaved between the horses. When they finished several routines, the horses would return to the staging area while the band played on. It was all very thrilling—until the unthinkable happened.

One day a horse ate the buttons off my shirt! For some reason that incident traumatised me. I remember the moment as though it was yesterday—and as clearly as I remember the shirt that buttoned up at the back with little pearl buttons. After that incident, I still loved watching my Dad in The Musical Ride performance, and I still loved horses, but I couldn’t get up close to a horse any more. For years I was like a person who loves the beach but can’t be in the sun. In saying that, just as the might of the sea can still spellbind an observer, I remained awestruck by the magnificence of a horse.

I have since reconnected with horses and made a horse friend—all thanks to my research for Season of Jenn J McLeod Simmering seasonShadow and Light. Readers of Simmering Season might recall Maggie visiting an old horse that stood alone in a paddock in all weather—neglected, with no shelter, it’s blanket tatty and torn. There’s a bit of me in those scenes as it was a real horse that inspired that equine character. On my morning walk I would stop and chat to a lonely, neglected, nippy old horse being agisted on a nearby property. (Neighbourhood goss suggested the owner was not a local, nor a rider any more due to declining health.) Initially I called the horse, Ed (yes, the talking horse) and over a time (carrots helped) he let me get closer.

Jenn J Mcleod Horse 1I’d like to think that horse and I helped each other. He certainly helped me. When we sold up to hit the road in our caravan I was so sad to leave Ed behind I decided to write him into Simmering Season. As it turns out, Ed was no ordinary horse either. He was (more neighbourhood goss) once a prize-winning race horse and while his real name was Nevaeh, to me he will always be Ed. (Oh, and by the time I left the area, other locals had taken on the morning, noon and night visits and treats.)

Jenn J Mcleod Horse 2With trust and loyalty as the main theme throughout this novel I think it’s fitting that a horse be featured. Humans can learn a lot about both those qualities from horses (and from dogs). Animals put their trust in humans and I don’t think there’s anything sadder than a neglected animal. I do hope readers of Season of Shadow and Light will excuse my mini soapbox moment when I bang on about some animals being a life-long commitment, and with horses that life can be a very be long time. And look out for my tribute to Nevaeh.

With early reader reviews already in like this one “Jenn J McLeod is an author for all seasons  . . .  and all readers.” Shelleyrae, wwwbookdout.wordpress.com, I am super excited about this story of secrets and love, of family loyalty, and of trust—the kind that takes years to build but only seconds to wash away.

Cheers, Jen. I look forward to seeing you at my place soon for my #WriteRoundOz Author Series.’

Jenn J McLeod bannerI can’t wait Jenn, and thanks for dropping by today! Readers, for your chance to WIN all THREE Jenn J McLeod novels* simply leave a comment below. From now until the end of May, Jenn drops into some of her favourite author blogs to say hello to readers old and new. She’ll then collect the comment names from each author blog post, picking a lucky winner from one major draw and announcing the name at the end May of on her blog

If you’d like to find out more about Jenn and her contemporary women’s fiction about small towns keeping big secrets, head on over to her website or, like me, follow the Facebook and Twitter fun.

Website:   www.jennjmcleod.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JennJMcLeod.Author
Twitter:     @jennjmcleod
*Book Pack: House for all Seasons (#5 Top Selling Debut novel, 2013), Simmering Season, and Season of Shadow and Light. (Australian postal address only)

And now to announce the winners in my Turtle Reef prize draw! So many books to giveaway today :). Congratulations to Karla Oleinikoff and Kim Foster. I’ll email you soon for your postal address. Many thanks to all who left comments.

BB14

 

‘Turtle Reef’ Release and Giveaway!

TurtleReef_coverWell, it’s that time of year again, when I give my blog over to shameless self-promotion! My latest novel, Turtle Reef, will be released by Penguin on the 25th March. The official Melbourne launch will be at Readings Bookstore, 701 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn on Wednesday 8th April at 6.00pm. Free event. All welcome!

To celebrate, I’m giving away two copies of Turtle Reef. (Aust & NZ residents only) To go in the draw, just leave a comment on this post. Winners announced on Sunday 5th April.

This week I’m posting a Q&A I did for Penguin Australia.

  1. Turtle Reef Austhor copies 001

    Box of Turtle Reef author copies. Exciting!

    What is your new book about?

Turtle Reef is the story of Zoe King, an unlucky-in-love zoologist who has given up on men. Moving from Sydney to take up an exciting new role in marine science in the small sugar town of Kiawa is a welcome fresh start.

Zoe  is immediately charmed by the region’s beauty – by its rivers and rainforests, and by its vast cane fields, sweeping from the foothills down to the rocky coral coast.  And also by its people – its farmers and fishermen, unhurried and down to earth, proud of their traditions.

Her work at the Reef Centre provides all the passion she needs and Zoe finds a friend in Bridget, the centre’s director. The last thing she wants is to fall for her boss’s boyfriend, cane king Quinn Cooper, and so she refuses to acknowledge the attraction between them – even to herself.

But things aren’t quite adding up at the Reef Centre and when animals on the reef begin to sicken and die, Zoe’s personal and professional worlds collide. She faces a terrible choice. Will protecting the reef mean betraying the man she loves?

  1. Great Barrier ReefWhat or who inspired it?
    – Turtle Reef was inspired by my passion for the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It holds a special place in the hearts of Australians. I wanted my story to show the important part the reef plays in the human and animal life of coastal communities. It was also an excuse to write about dugongs and dolphins!
  2. What was the biggest challenge, writing it?
    – The biggest challenge was not letting the animals hijack the story. They wanted to hog the plot!
  3. What did you want to achieve with your book?
    – I wanted to share my love of the Great Barrier Reef, and pay tribute to its unique wildlife. I also wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story. If Turtle Reef sparks debate about reef protection, that’s a bonus.
  4. Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
    – The story of the black Arabian mare, Aisha, is loosely based on the life of my own mare, Starfire. And like Zoe King, I’ve always been fascinated by marine mammals.
  5. What do you see as the major themes in your book?
    – The main themes in Turtle Reef are: change versus tradition, the risks and rewards of freedom and learning to challenge your fears. The book also explores our relationship with animals and nature.
  6. Aust Marine Conservation SocietyTo whom have you dedicated the book and why?
    – Turtle Reef is dedicated to the Australian Marine Conservation Society. They provide Australia’s ocean wildlife with a vital voice.
  7. Who do you think will enjoy your book?
    – Anybody who likes horses, dolphins, or ripping yarns in magnificent settings.
  8. Describe yourself in three words?
    – Passionate, compassionate and nerdy
  9. What three things do you dislike?
     – Cruelty, indifference and greed
  10. What three things do you like?
    – Horses, the wilderness and champagne.
  11. What would you like to think people can get from reading your book?
    – I hope Turtle Reef can transport readers to the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, and immerse them in the lives of its unique people and wildlife.
  12. What do you think your life will be like 20 years from now?
    – Not very different from today I hope – riding horses and writing books.
  13. Crystal Dolphin 1What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
    – I always have a special good-luck symbol for each book I write. For Billabong Bend it was an unused bird-shot cartridge. For Turtle Reef it was a crystal dolphin on a piece of amethyst that my brother gave me.
  14. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books
    – Mainly from my own imagination, although I always undertake research trips to ensure settings are authentic. Google and the State Library also get a good workout.
  15. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
    – Write books and ride horses.
  16. turtlereef_inviteIf you were for sale the ad would say…
    – ‘Well-bred aged mare. Nice nature. No vices (well, hardly any!)  Quick on feet and loves bush riding. Can be stubborn. Needs experienced rider.’
  17. What is your life motto?
    – ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.’
  18. What is your most memorable moment?
    – Apart from when my children were born, you mean? Getting published for the first time of course.

BB14

Foreshadowing

cross blogIt’s the time of the month for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss the literary technique of foreshadowing.

SYDNEY:
Foreshadowing is the seeding of minor precursors to some greater event in a story. This is how believability is created. If you want the reader to believe an event in your story that might not seem altogether credible, foreshadow it and the reader will believe it. Even if the major event is already believable, foreshadowing will draw the reader in and make it even more convincing.

Snow FlowerFor example, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in Old China, where every aspect of life is arranged according to strict rules and customs. The narrator, Lily, has a special friendship with Snow Flower, one that was arranged especially to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. In fact, this friendship is dearer to Lily than the wealthy marriage she enters into as a girl of seventeen. But at the climax of the story, Lily humiliates Snow Flower out of jealous vengeance, and she loses the one relationship in her life that matters more to her than any other. Without foreshadowing, this climax might have been unbelievable, since Lily loves Snow Flower. Why would she do such a thing to the woman who matters most to her? Lisa See foreshadows it in a confrontation between Lily and her mother, one that reveals her vengeful spirit. She acts spitefully in this confrontation, and thus, her greater spitefulness in humiliating Snow Flower in the climax is foreshadowed. We have seen her behave vengefully once before. So at the climax, when the story needs us to believe it without question, we do thanks to foreshadowing.

JENNY:
Foreshadowing 1I see foreshadowing as a two-part affair―first the hint (or hints), then the payoff. If a jewellery store is to be robbed, there might be a suspicious customer in the day before. If a man is to leave his wife, he might be reluctant to make holiday plans. Keeping the hint and payoff firmly linked in my mind, will make the setup more straightforward. Sometimes I write myself notes about it. And the more significant the payoff event, the earlier I like to plant hints.

As a reader, I always love when crucial events are deftly foreshadowed. That Ahh, I get it! moment is immensely satisfying. The classics are full of them. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the killing of Candy’s old dog hints at the later killing of Lennie. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the witches and their prophecies to foreshadow events. They warn that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet complains to her nurse ‘My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.’ And in the wonderful Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider explains to Wilbur that all living things eventually die. This foreshadows the main plot conflict, which is saving Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. Charlotte weaves a web over the barn door with a message that startles the humans into sparing Wilbur’s life. In the process of spinning her web, Charlotte expends all her energy and dies, just as she had hinted to Wilbur at the beginning of the story.

foreshadowing 2I will often read a novel containing clever foreshadowing a second time, in order to fully appreciate the author’s skill. But as a writer, I find it a fine line to tread. Too blatant a hint might give the game away. Too subtle, and readers might not make the connection at all. These days I err on the side of subtle. Readers are clever and sophisticated creatures! Sometimes writers forget this.

Of course the wonderful thing about foreshadowing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time. It’s rare to nail it in a first draft. I’ve often gone back through a manuscript and added clues. That’s when a good chapter summary document – a road map – comes into its own. Sometimes too, my editor suggests I either tone down or ramp up the foreshadowing. It takes a lot of practice.

SYDNEY:
foreshadowing 3The funny thing about foreshadowing is that if done well, it happens all the way through. EVERYTHING is foreshadowed. You realise this if you study closely the favourite novels that you read again and again. I’ve been studying Snow Flower with one of my students and we keep stumbling across instances of foreshadowing. It becomes the cement that glues a narrative together. It makes the story stronger, more solid. It putties in the gaps.

Foreshadowing is not to be confused with predictability, though. Predictability arises out of clichéd characters who act in clichéd ways. Foreshadowing is the trail of breadcrumbs you follow, not realising they’re breadcrumbs. You think the forest is thick with trees, that the way stumbles right and left. But in fact there is a path, and that path is foreshadowing.

BB14

 

Tribute To The ‘Shark Lady’ on International Women’s Day

Eugenie Clark 1Today is International Women’s Day – the perfect time to celebrate the contribution women make to conservation around the world. In keeping with the theme of my upcoming release, Turtle Reef, I’m celebrating the life of an ocean hero. Dr Eugenie Clark inspired the character of zoologist Zoe King in my upcoming release.This wonderful woman, who died last week at 92, was an author and pioneering marine biologist known as the ‘Shark Lady’. She dedicated her life to shark research, while defying social expectations about women’s roles in science. When you see a shark underwater, you should say ‘How lucky I am to see this beautiful animal in its environment.’ Comments like this helped dispel widely held fears of this misunderstood predator.

During expeditions around the world since the 1940’s, Eugenie pioneered scuba diving for gathering scientific data and making observations. She beat Jacques Cousteau to the punch by several years. ‘Her work in Egypt prompted some of the world’s first shark Eugenie Clark 4protection policies,’ says Ania Budziak, Project AWARE Program Director. ‘That legacy lives on as Egypt emerges as a leading proponent of international shark safeguards, championed by people who still cherish their memories of working with Eugenie Clark long ago.‘ Dr Clark was also a pioneer in communicating her scientific work to the public. She shared the adventures and excitement of her research through lectures, television specials, and articles in popular magazines like National Geographic and Science Digest. She wrote three best-selling books: Lady with a Spear (1951),The Lady and the Sharks (1969) and The Desert Beneath the Sea (1991), a children’s book about a scientist researching the sandy bottom of the sea.

Eugenie Clark 3In 1955 she founded the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. This has grown into a major centre for shark, dolphin, dugong and sea turtle research. It’s educated countless visitors and launched careers in shark science and conservation. Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International, says, ‘Mote has certainly changed the course of my career by serving as a forum for ground-breaking discussion and collaboration on shark research and conservation.’

Eugenie ClarkEugenie Clark never lost her passion for diving, making her last dive on her 92nd birthday in the Red Sea. She continued lecturing up to the last few months of her life.She inspired thousands of young women to follow her footsteps, and raised the profile of marine conservation forever. In a world where girls often shy away from science at school, we need more ground breaking women researchers. Dr Eugenie Clark, on this International Women’s Day, I honour you.

 

BB14

The Animal Characters Of ‘Turtle Reef’

Today, author Sydney Smith interviews me about the animals in my upcoming release, Turtle Reef.

TurtleReef_coverSYDNEY: Jenny, your latest novel, Turtle Reef, will soon come out. As with Currawong Creek, the story contains plenty of animal characters and a child with an intellectual disability. One of the interesting things about your fiction is the theme of “wise” animals and children like Jack in Currawong and Josh in Turtle Reef―wise because they feel comfortable in their place in the world, comfortable with themselves, while adult humans stuff things up left, right and centre. Can you talk about how you see these wise animals and children?

JENNIFER: I believe children haven’t strayed as far from the animal, and thus instinctively understand the natural world and their place in it. I struggle with our modern disconnect from nature. Most of us live our lives so removed from the elemental that we rarely even touch the earth. We tell ourselves that we are separate from the natural world. But I worry about the cost to our declining environment. Not to mention the cost to our hearts. The rural fiction genre is so popular because readers are hungry to re-engage with nature, to ground themselves. Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild tapped into this vein. The wildly successful movie, Avatar, did the same. For me, losing touch with wildness means losing touch with ourselves. In a review of my debut novel, Wasp Season, Diana Jenkins (News Editor, Varuna National Writers’ Centre) put it this way :

Wasp Season cover‘Jennifer’s a changeling, in my mind, someone who’s not really human at all, or at least not in the conventional sense. She’s too alive to the possibilities and voices of other living things for that. But with what eyes does she see? How does she so convincingly inhabit the wasps? I think it’s because she’s somehow emerged with her childlike wonder intact. Remember foraging around at the bottom of every garden or wood or forest or glen you came across as a child? How fantastic it seemed, how secretive? How full of drama and exquisite beauty? I remember it really clearly, and when I think of Jennifer’s eye on the natural world I imagine that I just might be able to reach that magic garden again.’

SYDNEY: So when you started to think about writing Turtle Reef, how did you come to choose which aspect of the drama of the Great Barrier Reef to write about? Would you say part of your role as a writer is to educate readers about how to correct old mistakes in the management of the natural world?

Great Barrier ReefJENNIFER: The Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, holds a special place in the hearts of most Australians. As you suggest in your question, it has so many aspects that lend themselves to dramatic stories. I tell human and animal tales side by side, exploring how we exist together in one habitat. Choosing a cane farmer and marine zoologist as my main protagonists allowed me to look at the varied parts the reef plays in the life of coastal communities. It was also an excuse to write about dugongs and dolphins!

My aim as a writer is to entertain. It’s not my role to educate readers in any way. I simply present issues that confront people in regional areas on a day-to-day basis. However, we are so often on a collision course with nature. If my stories spark debate about conservation, that’s a bonus.

SYDNEY: Can you talk a bit about how you build an animal character? You’ve told me already about Einstein, the octopus. I was instantly captivated (and still think about inklets, baby octopi!). How much anthropomorphism goes into it? Or do you think the key to creating an animal character lies elsewhere?

JENNIFER: The first thing I do when building animal characters is to learn everything I can about their lives. This is my favourite part of the writing process. I’ve been an amateur naturalist for as long as I can remember, and love nothing more that immersing myself in the world of a brumby, or goose, or dolphin. Then I build my animal character much like I would any other, imagining its personality, back-story and motivation. In my view, anthropomorphism is a useful tool for navigating this planet that we share with other animals.

BlackfishTake the recent documentary film, Blackfish, for example. It tells the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca who killed several of his trainers. It’s an emotionally-wrenching, tightly-structured tale that relies on us empathising with the whale’s plight. Thoughtful, balanced anthropomorphism helps us perceive the kinship shared by humans and animals. Can I add, Only The Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey, has been long-listed for the Stella Prize. In this astonishing anthology, the souls of ten animals that died in human conflicts over the last century tell their own stories. The old taboo against anthropomorphism is lifting, and it’s a good thing too.

Only the animalsSYDNEY:  Hm. Only the Animals sounds like a must-read to me. Only, I’m scared I’ll bawl my eyes out! Getting back to how you build an animal character, you immersed yourself in the worlds of several marine animals. Have you got any insights to impart about your discoveries?

JENNIFER: Yes Sydney, Only The Animals may not be for you. It’s very confronting and you’d probably cry. I did!

Getting back to the animals in Turtle Reef, I too am intrigued by my octopus character, Einstein. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan of this jet-powered invertebrate. Master of camouflage, a shape-shifter, and with an intelligence approaching that of a dog. And when it comes to maternal self-sacrifice? Well, you’ll just have to read the book …

DolphinI also learned a lot about dolphins. Recent scientific research suggests they have a wider range of emotions than humans, a culture that is handed down through generations, and personal names. Unlike us, they are conscious breathers. This was discovered in the 1960s, when researchers tried to anaesthetise dolphins. As soon as they fell unconscious, they stopped breathing and died. Depressed captive dolphins have been known to commit suicide by simply deciding not to breathe. In fact, the more I learned about dolphins, the more firmly opposed I became to them being held in marine parks. For example dolphins have a sixth sense, sonar, which becomes problematic when they are confined. Sound bounces off the concrete tanks, confusing and irritating them. Sonar is dolphins’ most effective tool for learning about the world around them. Thwarting their ability to use this sonar is tantamount to blinding them.

SYDNEY: That is so interesting, Jenny. Isn’t it funny how suggestible we are. If we’re presented with an animal as a hostile being, we become scared of the whole species. But present us with a friendly version and we love the whole species. How much of the drama that unfolds in Turtle Reef is shaped by human preconceptions about certain animals? Maybe you can talk about the contrast between the way Josh responds to these animals and the way some adult humans do.

octopusJENNIFER: There are lots of preconceptions being made about the characters in Turtle Reef, some negative, some positive, but mostly unwarranted. The instant aversion people feel towards Einstein, the octopus, for example. The automatic assumption that Kane the dolphin, with his perpetual smile, is peaceful and happy in captivity. Josh has a brain injury, so it’s assumed he is slow. Aisha, the Arabian mare, is branded a rogue, and nobody challenges this. However, with one exception, Josh isn’t guilty of pre-judging the other characters in Turtle Reef. He takes them as he finds them. So does Zoe. This is their strength. They can see past these preconceptions to the truth.

Thank you for your thought-provoking questions Sydney, and I look forward to sharing the story of Turtle Reef with my readers very soon!

Pre-order Turtle Reef here at Bookworld, Booktopia and Amazon

BB14

A Tribute To Missy

Missy cropLast week I introduced our lovely new puppy Rex, just beginning his adventures in this world. Well, life has come full circle with the death of Missy. In this post I’d like to celebrate the life of a very special cat. This is her story. We run a small boarding kennel and cattery here at Pilyara, and one day fifteen years ago, a young couple arrived with a dog and six-month old kitten in tow, Max and Missy. They were going away for the Australia Day long weekend, and had booked their animals in for three nights. The boyfriend turned up on cue at the end of the stay – by himself.

‘I’m only collecting Max,’ he said.
‘Why?’
‘Me and my girlfriend broke up. I’m taking the dog and she’s taking the cat.’

The girlfriend didn’t come for Missy that day, or the next, or the next … She didn’t answer phone calls. Weeks passed. I began to feel sorry for the half-grown black-and-white kitten, languishing in the cattery. I brought her inside. Missy was a nondescript little thing – quiet and shy, with a tiny meow. She fell asleep on my bed.

Lofty's first day 006Nobody ever came for Missy. Lucky for us. Her unfailing good-nature soon won everybody over. The ideal cat – loyal, beautifully behaved and gentle as a lamb. Sometimes she would sway slightly when sitting, as if to some rhythm only she could hear. She never scratched the furniture, and always used her carpet post. She never made a mess and always used her litter tray. Unlike the other cats, she never scratched the kids during an over-enthusiastic hug, but patiently put up with their clumsy affection. She wasn’t a hunter.The native wildlife was perfectly safe around her. One day a mouse famously ran across the carpet and into her tail. Missy jumped a mile!

Missy 8I became her favourite. Wherever I went, so did Missy. If I was writing in the office, or dining room or in bed, she was with me. If I spoke to her, she always responded with a considered mew. My youngest son, Tyson, dubbed her my writing cat. If I was stuck in my story he would say, ‘You need your writing cat,‘ and unceremoniously dump her on my lap. Hey presto, the words would flow. I began to believe it myself – that Missy was my muse.

Missy 5She never cost me anything. She suffered no injury or illness, no expensive medications, or operations or special diets. She never caused us a moment’s worry, and gave our family enormous pleasure – a perfect life, well-lived. She even died well. That morning she had some breakfast, played with her toy mouse for a while, and went to sleep on the bed in the spare room. Fat and shiny, calm and happy as ever. Tyson went in to to cuddle her. It was still the first thing he did every morning, although he’s now nineteen. ‘Mum,’ he called, his voice urgent. I hurried in … Missy had passed away, still curled up in the blankets. Tyson’s tears flowed as freely as if he was four again. He wasn’t the only one. There was no sign of distress in her pose. Her expression was peaceful. She died in bed, in her sleep, which is more than most of us can hope for. She spared us that heart-breaking last trip to the vet, the sleepless nights because she was sick, the fears for her. She was simply there one minute, and gone the next – an angel even in death. Thank you Missy! Wonder if I’ll be able to write without you?

We have plenty of other cats and dogs to comfort us, but none like Missy. This post is to celebrate the life of a much-loved, humble little cat who we were proud to call our own. Missykins, you never put a foot wrong, darling! If I can live my life half as well, I shall be happy. Rest in peace. I miss you … Missy's Grave 002 BB14