The Butch Tales 2: The Boy King.

Well, Christmas has come and gone, and I’m still madly editing Turtle Reef to meet a January 7th deadline. Author and writing mentor Sydney Smith is guest-blogging for me over this period – about her cats! Here is the second instalment …

The Butch TalesThe Butch Tales 2: The Boy King

I left the shared house where I met Daka and the two of us moved into a flat in Brunswick. It had gardens for her to play in, with lots of places she could hide and spy on other felines. I left the lounge room window ajar to let her climb in and out as she pleased. She was an old cat and arthritic. I placed a chair outside the window, to help her get inside.

Two years later, Daka sickened. It hurt her to eat and she left messes outside the door of my upstairs neighbour. I took her to the vet, a man with wildly romantic looks and a sharp tone of voice. Though he was irritable with humans, he was firm and gentle with Daka. He told me she had to be put to sleep. He let me stay with her while he shaved her forepaw and injected the drug. All the strength melted from her body.

I cried over her. Then I went home, and the moment I lay down on my bed to grieve properly, a cat flea, one of Daka’s little tenants, jumped onto my arm and bit me. I cried even more. Inside that flea a little bit of Daka lived on, and that somehow was more heart-wrenching than her death.

It took me two years to get over Daka. It was lonely to live in my flat with no animal. But every time I thought about adopting someone new, that grief for Daka welled up again. But grief will go, if you let it, and after two years in mourning I was ready. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted a cat. Maybe I’d get a dog. Or a budgie. Whatever it was I’d call it Butch. In particular, Butch the Budgie tickled my sense of humour. But I wasn’t set on getting a bird. I would see what caught my fancy.

One day I was walking along Rathdowne Street in Carlton, one of the routes I took on my expeditions into the big world after a morning spent at my computer. A vet clinic there kept a big cage of kittens. I had often stopped outside the window to watch them climb the stairs inside their cage and tumble through the trapdoor. On this day, I went inside.

I wanted a female, but they’d all been taken. I was ready for an animal, and wouldn’t be put off by a little matter of butch 2gender. The vet nurse opened the cage. A black kitten with a bushy tail as big as he was stepped out and allowed himself to be carried, a boy king riding his human palanquin to the counter. From there he jumped to the floor and explored the reception area with such a singular air of eccentric personality that I fell for him.

His ragdoll mother had bequeathed to him the distinctive white markings on his black face, his white shirt front, the dab of white at the end of his black tail and his king-sized paws. I took him home. He meowed all the way.

Daka was my first pet, and she had come to me as an adult, set in her ways. I consulted my cat-owning neighbour. What should I do with a kitten? How should I train him? Where should he sleep? Daka had slept with me but I thought I ought to train Butch differently. ‘Shut him in the kitchen at night,’ she said. ‘He’ll learn to sleep by himself.’ I made up a bed for him with an old jumper in a cardboard box, and added a toy cat so that he wouldn’t feel lonely.

Butch had lived all his short life with his brothers and sisters. He had never been alone. A synthetic toy cat didn’t count as company. Moreover, he had a strong sense of what was due to him as a boy king. The moment I shut the kitchen door, he set up an imperious meowing. I hardened my heart for about ten seconds, and then gave in. From then on, it was Butch who trained me. He knew exactly what he wanted and would stop at nothing to get it.

In those days I was working part-time at the writers’ centre. Every morning when I went to work, Butch sprinted around the flat, screaming at the top of his lungs. After two such mornings, I couldn’t take it anymore. I packed his lunch and some kitty litter, put him into his carry case, and took him to work on the tram.

As Butch grew bigger he wanted to go outside. I opened the front door for him. I’d sit there reading a manuscript I was assessing while he ventured out into the big world of the garden. Every few steps he’d look back at me and meow. ‘It’s OK, Butch. I’m right here.’ Soon I stopped sitting at the open door and he would come and go as he pleased. Once I heard him plaintively calling. I went outside and found him in a tree. I thought he was stuck and climbed up to get him. He meowed his protests, and as soon as I put him on the ground, he quickly scaled the trunk and sat on a branch, singing.

Butch the catWhen Butch was confident in the garden, he wanted to go further afield. In the evening, soon after dark had closed over Brunswick, I took him for walks around the block. Was this normal? I knew of only one wandering cat, a Russian Blue who went for walks on the end of a leash. Butch seemed to think it was perfectly natural, and by this time, I knew better than to argue.

Other cats were out there, adult cats, big cats with territories. They hissed at him, but maybe because he was a kitten, they didn’t hurt him. One night we met a woman taking her seven cats for a walk to the local school playground, where they could run around. The beefy grey tom built like a rugby forward, who was really in charge of the expedition, strolled across the road to greet us with his round, smiling face. He looked benignly on Butch before sauntering back to his team.

One evening Butch demanded his walk twenty minutes before a show I wanted to see came on TV. I asked him to wait, but he insisted. The boy king had never heard of delayed gratification. I kept an eye on the time, thinking we could do the walk quickly and I could get back for my show. Butch had other ideas. He lingered in every interesting nook and cranny. He especially loved a rose garden up the street. At five minutes before my show started, I left him there and raced home. An hour later, riven by guilt and worry for his safety, I returned to the rose garden. ‘Butch?’ An answering meow. He had waited for me all that time, hiding under a bushy fuchsia.

Coming soon – The Butch Tales 3: Mouse-hunter.

A of N CoverSydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her website.

 

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MY TOP TEN AUSSIE READS IN 2014 WERE …

Write Note Reviews top 10 Aussie books for 2014, including Billabong Bend by yours truly! Some wonderful summer reading here …

Write Note Reviews

It’s been another big year for reviewing in 2014. I’ve managed to review more than 130 books, of which 56 were by Australian Women Writers. Of these, 13 were by West Australian writers. Not every book I read in 2014 has been reviewed, simply because I needed to make time for “just because” reads – who wants reading to become a chore, another item on ever-increasing to-do or bucket lists? Nor have I included cookbook reviews in these numbers. Genres have ranged from literary to crime, contemporary to historical, romance to young adult … I’m not an “all your eggs in one basket” reader.

So, how do I choose my favourites? Do I choose best by genre? Best overall? Since books by Australian writers featured most heavily, I decided to go with my favourite Australian books of 2014 (to link to my reviews, click on the images or titles). That…

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The Butch Tales 1: Daka

A of N CoverWell, it’s almost Christmas. Instead of relaxing into a new year, I’m madly editing Turtle Reef to meet a January 7th deadline. Author and renowned writing mentor Sydney Smith will be guest-blogging for me over this period. I gave her an open-ended charter: book reviews, publishing information, publicity for her upcoming writing craft book, The Architecture of Narrative – all great topics. ‘Or you could write about your cats.‘ Now we have six stable cats here on the farm, most of them acquired quite by accident. They are great characters, so I understand Sydney’s love for these creatures. Without further ado, may I present to you the first in a series of city cat stories – a little tale about loyalty, and how it needs to be earned.

 

The Butch Tales  1: Daka

The Butch TalesEvery time I think about writing the Butch Tales I think first of Daka, Butch’s predecessor.

Daka came to me late in her life, when she was twelve. We met when I was sharing a house in Brunswick with Nell. I had been house-sharing for years and was used to having a pet around the place. In these situations, there was never any question of whose responsibility the animals were. They were fed and walked and petted in the usual way, and I never gave it a thought.

But soon after I moved in with Nell I realised something was wrong. Nell had two pets, black, feline Daka and a white bitser called Gina, named after La Lollabigida. Daka is one of the nonsense words Indian musicians and dancers use to count out beats. Her full name was Daka Dimi, which is the four-beat mantra.

Nell used to let Gina into her bedroom first thing in the morning for some private communion and kept Daka, meowing angrily, out in the passage. Nell said, ‘Daka has to learn to be loyal.’ Every afternoon when Nell cycled out to her second shift at work, Daka crouched at the front door, waiting for her to come home. She waited for something that would never come, for though Nell never hit her animals, she didn’t pat or praise them either. She didn’t understand animals and their needs.

Daka was a shrewish cat who scratched anyone who tried to pat her. She’d take a swipe at people as they walked past. She’d squat in an armchair, a cranky look on her face, like a little devil waiting for some unwary mortal to stray too close. People were nervous around her. All animals need love, and her uncouth manners kept her starved of it.

The problem for me came to a head over food. Nell fed her pets once a day, sometimes at five o’clock, or nine, or midnight. She thought a cat could live on rice and vegetables cooked with a bit of mince. But cats are carnivores, and Daka used to go hungry. It caused me a lot of distress to see her starve.  I kept telling myself she was Nell’s cat, that it was none of my business how she treated her pets.

Then late one afternoon Nell packed her bag for an overnight stay with her partner and cycled over to Kew. She didn’t make provision for her animals. She didn’t feed them before she left. I waited for her to call and ask me to feed them. I didn’t know the number at her partner’s house. I waited and waited, watching Daka and Gina grow frantic with hunger. Every time I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water or to make dinner, they crowded around my legs. Finally, I fed them.

Once I started, I kept on doing it, every day on the dot of five o’clock. If Nell was home, I’d ask her permission. It felt weird. They were her pets, not mine; I had no rights over them. Yet she didn’t object. I’d trot up to the milk bar to buy some cans of food and fill the pet bowls at home. As Daka ate, I stroked her to help her associate human touch with something good.

I never felt comfortable about feeding Nell’s pets, but I felt worse not feeding them. Nell complained more than ever about Daka’s “disloyalty” while accepting with imperial serenity that feeding her pets was now my duty.

Before long, Daka took up residence in my bedroom. A curtain hung over the doorway, and whenever people came into the house, she’d poke her head from behind the curtain and meow. Nell would look at her, aggrieved, as if Daka had struck her a painful blow.

Daka never became a cat whom people could pick up or pat, but since she spent most of her time in my room, people could walk about without fear of her claws. After a few months, Nell went to live in Kew with her partner. She took Gina and left Daka with me.

Two weeks later, Nell returned to pick up some things. We sat on the glory chest in the kitchen to have a cup of tea and chat about her new situation. In strolled Daka. She froze at the sight of Nell, one paw in the air. After a little think, she walked over to Nell’s side of the glory chest, jumped up, trampled across Nell’s legs, and sat down beside me, her flank touching me, her Byzantine head turned away from her former owner.

Nell, looking more baffled than ever, said, ‘I don’t understand why she’s disloyal.’

Coming soon, The Butch Tales 2: The Boy King.

It is my great pleasure to announce the book giveaway winners – Karen McDermott and Laura Boon. I shall email you both privately for your postal address. Many thanks to those who commented and a very merry Christmas to all!

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The Wound (plus a book giveaway!)

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction. Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about that great character driver – the psychological wound. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board in the New Year)

SYDNEY –
Some characters in fiction have suffered a psychic wound before the story opens, or suffer it at the time the story opens. They spend the rest of the novel trying to heal it. This effort at healing is what the narrative is about, and is a great motivator.

The psychic wound and the healing activity are a common feature of crime fiction. Harry Bosch, for example, Michael Connelly’s series hero, suffered a psychic wound in his boyhood when his mother was murdered and her killer was not found. Thirty years later, now a homicide detective with the LAPD, he is driven to stand up for all victims of murder, no matter who they were, and do his utmost to find their killers. His work is his attempt to heal his psychic wound.

Jenny, your next novel features several characters who have suffered a psychic wound.

JENNY –
The Wound 4Yes, Sydney, in my next novel more than one character will be suffering from psychic wounds that have happened before the story opens. I like to call them their back story ghosts. Since I know what they are already, I can work backwards to give characters convincing and relevant emotional arcs. These wounds will determine their flaws, how they see the world, what they think they want, what they actually want, and how they go about trying to get it. Their search for healing will drive the narrative forward. They’ll go (hopefully!) from being haunted by ghosts, to resolution and living their fullest lives.

SYDNEY –
You make a good point, Jenny. There is a vast difference between what a character thinks they want and what they really want. They create plot by doing things in pursuit of what they think they want―and wonder why their wound isn’t healing. It’s only when they finally understand what they really need that they are able to start the healing process.

The Last CoyoteAgain, Harry Bosch is a good example of this. He thought what he really wanted was to solve the murders of people he has never met, doing it as part of his job. It’s not until he realises that he has been overlooking the one murder that matters most to him, the murder of his mother, that he is able to start the healing process by searching for her killer. He does this in The Last Coyote. The novel signals in the first chapter that something is wrong. He’s been placed on stress leave and must see a police psychologist three times a week. He’s having a breakdown. Michael Connelly shows it very powerfully and poetically (yes, crime novels can be poetic!) through his house, which has been irreparably damaged by an earthquake. Though it’s too dangerous to be lived in, Harry keeps trying to fix it. He’s doing the wrong thing to heal his psychic wound―that is, he’s trying to fix something that is broken beyond repair in order to go back to the old way of living. It’s only when he sets out to find his mother’s killer that he is able to begin the long and painful process of healing.

JENNY –
In my characters’ case the wounds will be big ones, but small ones can also be great motivators. A man may be ridiculed for being small, and develop a Napoleon complex. The story goes that Napoleon compensated for his lack of height by seeking power, war and conquest. A woman might have had to raise her siblings, due to the neglect of their alcoholic mother. The perfect recipe for a control freak who believes if she doesn’t do it, it won’t get done. It’s only when wounded characters develop some insight into their lives, that they can see the world as it really is and begin to achieve their goals. I’ve outlined my new book very roughly, and this insight will come in the middle, which I think is just about right.

SYDNEY –
I absolutely agree with you, Jenny. Insight comes in at around the midway mark. That gives the characters time to sort out all the mistakes they made and begin to set things right.

The Wound 3The wound can apply to antagonists, too. I love a good antagonist. To me, a novel stands or falls on the strength and complexity of its antagonist. The wound can be a great way to give this character a back story ghost that keeps haunting them. A wound they feel driven to heal. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Wickham has a wound. This was caused by Mr Darcy when he discovered at the eleventh hour that Wickham had plotted to elope with Georgiana Darcy. If Wickham had succeeded, he would have got his hands on her rich dowry, thus giving him a life of ease and luxury to the end of his days. His actions in the novel are his attempt to heal that wound by punishing Darcy. It doesn’t work. It never does for antagonists. Only protagonists are capable of insight and healing. But Wickham’s wound and his efforts to heal it through vengeance make him complex and formidable.

I suppose one of the many differences between a wound in a protagonist and a wound in an antagonist is that the former is sympathetic. It’s possible to imagine that Wickham felt wounded just because he was born the son of a steward and Darcy was the scion of a rich and illustrious family. It’s not very sympathetic, although in fact, I think this kind of wound to a person’s self-love is very common. A Napoleon complex might look different on the surface, but it comes from the same source, a wound to the sufferer’s idea of what is due to them.

But anyway, the point is that healing a wound is a great character driver, one of the best out there.

Thanks Sydney. Excellent advice as always! … To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.) Thank you to all my readers! To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.
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An Original Idea + Book Giveaway

story ideas 3I’m envious of other writers who have umpteen story ideas swirling around in their head at once. I was talking to an author friend the other day about getting inspiration. She has twenty different story outlines in her bottom drawer. ‘I can look at the headlines in a newspaper,’ she said, ‘and get three or four ideas for a novel then and there. My problem is that once I’m 150 pages into a novel, my mind is already ranging ahead to the next project.’ I looked at her askance and made some unfavourable comparisons. When I’m 150 pages into a novel I still have no idea what my next project will be about!

Story ideas 1But being a novelist means writing new books, so an idea is kind of essential. It’s the foundation for your new story, and I’m always overjoyed when it finally comes to me. I don’t mean a fully realised plot –  It could just be a theme, or a main incident. It could be a character, or scene. A line of dialogue or setting. It’s simply that first kernel of an idea, and for me it’s my guiding light. Everything else might change, but not this.Then I think about my characters, who emerge pretty quickly at this point. Who are they at the beginning and who will they be at the end? A little thought at this early stage ensures well-developed character arcs, and saves a lot of hit-or-miss writing. By this time a theme will be emerging, and I like to have it in mind before I start. It will keep the book heading in a consistent direction, and add emotional depth.

Story Ideas 2Then I play the ‘what if?‘ game. Your initial idea might be a selfish man decides to turn his life around. Then play what if. What if the man is a cat burglar? Better. What if he wants to put stolen stuff back? What if his plans are frustrated by a detective that is getting too close? What if he needs to put stuff back in that detective’s own house? The original idea is getting fleshed out.

Now, whenever I read a book or watch a film, I try to work out what was the original idea that the creator had. Babe – what if a pig was raised by sheep-dogs? The Verdict – what if an alcoholic lawyer took on a hopeless case against the best attorneys in the land? Gone With The Wind – what if it fell to a spoilt southern belle to defend her family’s plantation during the Civil War? The Wizard Of Oz – what if a little girl is stuck in a strange land and can’t get home? This game is fun, try it. It can also give you the tagline for your book, distilling the narrative down to its essentials. What if a repentant cat burglar decided to put everything back? Good idea. It’s probably been done before, but each telling of a story will be different.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for my next story, and Penguin have given it the nod. Now all I have to do is write it!

To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.)Thank you to all my readers. To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.

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Give Us Our Great Forest National Park!

Great Forest National Park 2There was an election here in Victoria on the weekend. It led to a change of government. Labor’s Daniel Andrews has succeeded Dennis Napthine as our Premier and I congratulate him on his win. A major issue was the creation of a Great Forest National Park, something very close to my heart. International luminaries like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall have campaigned hard on this. Their intervention comes as a survey found 89 per cent of Victorians support the creation of a new national park in the beautiful Yarra Ranges and Central Highlands, stretching from Kinglake to Mt Baw Baw, and north to Lake Eildon.

Leadbeater's PossumI urge our new Premier to embrace this vision for a multi-tiered parks system for bush users and bush lovers alike. It would host bike riding, bushwalking, fishing, bird watching, four-wheel driving, motor biking, camping, horse riding and much more. The tallest flowering trees in the world grow in this region. In their high canopies dwell Powerful Owls, Sugar Gliders and the tiny Leadbeater’s (or Fairy) Possum. Leadbeater’s possums are Victoria’s critically endangered faunal emblems, and they only live in these mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands. Here is a chance to provide Victorians and their children’s children with a unique natural resource, that will also bring lots of tourist dollars to the state. (You can sign the Wilderness Society’s petition here.) Come on Mr Premier – please give us this! 🙂

Great Forest National Park

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