Vale Bryce Courtenay

Australia said goodbye last week to one of our most dearly loved authors. Bryce Courtenay wrote an astonishing 21 books in 23 years. He has been rightly described by his publisher at Penguin, Bob Sessions, as Australia’s own Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Courtenay’s writing is remarkable for his larger than life characters, his complex plots and his broad popular appeal. And like Charles Dickens, Courtenay was willing to tackle social justice issues. Apartheid in The Power Of One, racial prejudice in Jessica, AIDS in April Fool’s Day – he wasn’t just a champion story-teller, but somebody who aimed to make a difference with his writing.

The Potato Factory trilogy was my first experience of reading Bryce Courtenay books. I loved them, and was inspired to begin writing again myself, after a break of many years. That’s the other thing he did – show people that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Courtenay began his remarkably successful publishing career at the age of fifty-five. As a one-time ad man, he was a master of promotion, but also most generous. For example, he gave away up to 2,500 books free each year to readers he met in the street.

So thank you Mr Courtenay, for being such an inspiration over so many years. How fabulous that your final novel Jack Of Diamonds, was released before you died. You’ve left us a truly remarkable legacy. And thank you also, on behalf of a grateful nation, for giving us Louie the Fly!

Changing Titles

‘STOP PRESS’ – Currawong Creek is the title for my 2013 release!

title 3Well, it’s official. My new novel, due for release in July next year, is to be renamed.

The title of a novel will often alter by publication date. There is a proud history of name changes. The baffling working title of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was equally inexplicably called ‘Something That Happened’. ‘A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis,’ became Portnoy’s Complaint. ‘First Impressions,’ became Pride and Prejudice. ‘Incident At West Egg’? – The Great Gatsby. ‘Private Fleming; His Various Battles’? – The Red Badge Of Courage. ‘The Dead UnDead’? – Dracula.

Title scribblings for Light Years by James Salter

These early title drafts seem so absurd to readers now, partly because they already know and love the book under its final name. Likewise, it can be difficult for authors to give up the title they’ve grown used to. But my publisher is the expert, and I respect her judgement. Meanwhile, I’m writing my new novel, with a working title I won’t get too attached to. Can’t wait to announce the new name once it’s finalised. Looking down the fascinating list of renamed classics, I must admit the publishers invariably got it right. That’s why I’m trusting mine.

The Birth of a Book

I’m a few thousand words into my new novel, bearing the working title of Kingfisher. For a novelist, the process of beginning a brand new story is many-faceted. Firstly, you have to leave the world of your last one behind. This isn’t as simple as it might sound. Particular characters and their problems become very real for authors, and forgetting about them can seem like emotional abandonment. But as with most relationship breakups, time tends to heal wounds. That’s why it’s important to have a hiatus between finishing your last book, and beginning the next one.

I gave myself a month-long break. During that time, the imaginary landscape of my last novel retreated into the distance, allowing a new one to emerge. I mulled a lot – in the garden, in the car, in the bath. I read poetry. I breathed life into shadowy characters, and tried different personalities on them for size, like a child with paper dolls and dresses. I played the ‘What if?’ game. Closing my eyes, I grew to know the Red Gum flanked river, so central to my narrative.

And gradually the story took form. Obstacles stand between novelists and their new narratives. Home made obstacles. What if I can’t find my voice? What if my protagonist is boring? What if the conflict just isn’t as interesting as I think it is? So, part of preparing is giving yourself pep-talks. Trust your imagination. Trust your characters. Doubts will stem the flow of ideas. Believe in yourself as a writer. Your story deserves it.

Here’s an excerpt from The Four Quartets by TS Eliot, the poem that helped inspire Kingfisher.

‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.’

Our New Wombat

We have a new resident here at Pilyara – a hard-working wombat, who is digging a grand new burrow beneath a stump along the drive, just metres from the house.

Bare Nosed Wombats (Vombatus ursinus) are endearing animals that abound here at Pilyara. They emerge at dusk to graze the paddocks, retiring during the day to the safety and comfort of their tunnels. I love wombats. Large and lumbering, they are the world’s biggest herbiverous burrowing mammals. With short legs and tail, rotund bodies and a cuddly appearance, they resemble little bears, but their closest relatives are actually koalas. Wombats are marsupials, but have hollow, rodent-like teeth, that grow in response to wear, and can gnaw through the toughest roots. Like living mini-bulldozers, they can be a problem for farmers when they meet obstacles such as fences. In winter, females produce a single baby which spends its first few months within her rear-facing pouch.

Common WombatWombats face multiple threats. Loss of habitat, dogs, traffic, unsympathetic land owners, and disease. It always saddens me to see a wombat out and about in broad daylight. Mostly these animals are suffering from sarcoptic mange, a nasty condition that causes hair loss, pain, scabby skin, starvation, blindness and ultimately death.

Wombats are also killed by cars, and their corpses are a common sight on local roadsides. Dedicated carers, like Reg and Jenny Mattingly of the Maryknoll Wildlife Shelter, rescue and rear dozens of orphaned baby wombats each year. They also provide burrow flaps to treat mangy wombats with a dose of Cydectin as they enter or leave their dens. Which brings me to our new, resident wombat. It’s nice to know that if he or she contracts mange, we know where the burrow is!