Women Writers and Aussie Rural Fiction

International womens dayNext Tuesday is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is gender parity. Worldwide, women contribute more than their fair share to social, economic, cultural and political life. Yet progress towards gender parity is slow, including in the literary world. Australia’s Stella Prize and Britain’s  Baileys Prize are attempts to redress this inbalance. In one literary field however, I can proudly say the achievements of women authors far outstrip men – the hugely popular genre of Australian Rural Fiction

All The Rivers RunThe books in this genre are overwhelmingly written by women, most of us living and working on the land. (Head over to the Australian Rural Fiction website and see for yourself. You’ll find many current and upcoming releases) Publishers point to this as a new phenomenon, but of course, Australian rural literature written by women is not new. Quite the contrary, it’s steeped in tradition. From Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes Of Richard Mahoney, Nancy Cato’s All The Rivers Run through to Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, the drama, difficulties and romance of the Australian bush has long been the stuff of great narrative tales.

JourneysEnd_coverFrom the earliest days of white settlement and before, the bush was central to how we became Australian, how we identified ourselves as Australian. Yet during the second half of the twentieth century, it fell out of literary favour. We weren’t a bush people any more. We lived around the urban coastal fringe, and saw ourselves as urbane, cosmopolitan and civilised. But thanks to a talented cohort of women authors, the bush once more looms large in the literary landscape.

Why the massive popularity of this genre, that regularly outsells all others? I believe readers are craving a relationship to country. They’re asking the age-old question – what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is, that we come from this place. Our identity comes from the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means regional Australia. That means the bush. That means the climate, landscape and geology that has shaped our culture.

JE Proofs 1I’m so very proud to be part of this immensely supportive group of Australian women writers. I’ve just finished proofreading the pages for my new book, Journey’s End, out with Penguin at the end of May. It’s set on the Great Eastern Escarpment, and pays homage to the men and women who strive to conserve and restore our natural environment. Thanks to the hard work of so many talented women, the story has a ready audience. So let’s hear it for the Aussie rural writers – a shining example of achievement on International Women’s Day!

Australian Rural Romance

Launch Of Billabong Bend + Giveaway!

Launch of BB 2Last Thursday evening at Readings Carlton (Melbourne) I was thrilled to launch my latest novel, Billabong Bend. Penguin publisher Sarah Fairhall did the introductions, and friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson did a Q&A with me about the book. Here are Kath’s questions and a rough transcript of my answers.

First, please give us a quick run-down on what Billabong Bend is about.

Billabong Bend is a star-crossed love story between a floodplains farmer and a cotton grower, set in the heart of the NSW northern riverlands.
For riverine farmer Nina Moore, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River is the most precious place on Earth. Her dream is to buy Billabong Bend and protect it forever, but she’s not the only one wanting the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric Bonelli returns to the river, old feelings are rekindled and she thinks she has an ally. But a tragic death divides loyalties, tears apart their fledgling romance and turns her dream into a  nightmare.
On one level, Billabong Bend is a novel about first love. That original, blinding passion that is never forgotten. When you believe that anything is possible. When you first believe in something bigger than yourself. But it’s also the story of a river, of water use in a thirsty land, and the division and conflict it inevitably causes. And if you love birds like I do, particularly our magnificent wetland birds, you’re in for a real treat!

Your character Nina has some intriguing relationships and friendships with the ageing Eva, the child Sophie, a couple of blokes vying for her attention. But those she seems to treasure the most are with non-humans. In particular, there’s a passionate affair with a river. Can you tell us about that?

Launch of BBI call Billabong Bend a star-crossed love story. But some people have called it more of a love triangle, between Nina, Ric and the river. I think there’s some truth in that. Nina is in love with the river that flows through the landscape of the novel. And no wonder. For a floodplains farmer like Nina, the river means life itself. She depends on it to flood, to overflow into the little dry creeks and billabongs, to revive and nourish her land.
Without water lying on the floodplains once in a while, they die. That’s how they’ve evolved. As a fifth generation flood plains farmer, Nina has learned to live in harmony with the river’s ebbs and flows. It’s second nature to her.Thirsty cotton farms and their vast water allocations threaten more than the river. They threaten Nina’s whole way of life.

I was intrigued by the detail. The river really is a character in its own right. How do you know so much about the environment surrounding Billabong Bend?

– The idea for the book arose many years ago, during long, lazy days spent in the riverlands. I’ve always been an amateur naturalist, and there are also some wonderful books out there about the Murray-Darling Basin. The River by Chris Hammer comes to mind. But no amount of research beats time spent in a landscape. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Statistics can’t show you the beauty of the river at sunrise.
– Last year I took some trips back up the Murray and saw for myself the changes wrought on habitats and wildlife by drought and low flows. I wanted to write about what I saw.

I love that Nina is her own woman. There’s a romance in this book – actually, more than one – but we get the sense that Nina doesn’t need any man. Do the men measure up?

It’s true that she doesn’t need a man, and yes, the men don’t measure up, at least not in the beginning. Nina is fiercely self-sufficient, and inclined to try to do everything herself. Part of her character arc is learning to accept help, when it’s freely given for the right reasons. And part of Ric’s journey is to rediscover his roots, remember who he is, and what the river once meant to him. Only then might he become the man Nina wants. But he can never become the man she needs. Nina’s far too independent to let that happen!

Nina has a particular interest in a 9yo child called Sophie. How does Nina help bring Sophie out of herself and the house?

Little Sophie is one of my favourite characters. She’s had a difficult life, growing up without her father or grandparents, being raised by a mother who suffers from depression and mental illness. When Sophie first comes to the farm she’s defiant and unhappy, spending all her time in front of the TV.
– Nina takes an interest in Sophie. After all, she’s a lonely little girl who loves animals, very much like Nina was at the same age.They connect through their mutual love of horses and the local wildlife, and of course Nina is eager to pass on her knowledge of Billabong Bend. In a way, Nina needs Sophie more than she needs anybody else in the book.

Launch of BB 3I suspect there’s a lot of Jennifer Scoullar in Nina. Is this true?

– Nina is far more practically competent than I am. She can service a tractor or use a rifle, just as easily as she can fix a pump or fly a plane. One thing we do both share however is a passion for rivers. Hardly surprising, since Billabong Bend was inspired by my own love for the northern riverlands, and for the Murray Darling basin in general.
River stories are central to bush culture, and have been ever since the Murray-Darling was carved from a mythical landscape by the Rainbow Serpent. I’ve always been fascinated by the river’s place in literature, and I’ m in fine company. Rivers are revered by some of our finest writers.
Mark Twain for example,  had a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi. And the great poet TS Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets

‘I do not know much about Gods: but I think 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 conveyer of commerce;
T
hen seen only as a problem for the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown God is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever implacable,
Keeping her seasons and her rages, destroyer, reminder,
Of what men choose to forget.’

– Nancy Cato in her classic trilogy All The Rivers Run compared the Murray to ‘ a … dark stream of time which bears all living things from birth to death.’ Rivers are romantic, mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and achingly beautiful. I’ve tried to touch on some of these themes in my latest novel Billabong Bend.
(Thanks to Troy Hunter for the photos)

Leave a comment telling me about your favourite river, and go in the draw to win a copy of Billabong Bend! (Aust & NZ only) Competition closes June 23rd.

BB14

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly There …

Gwydir Wetlands

Credit: Daryl Albertson – Gwydir Wetlands

My new book (working title Billabong) is due for submission to Penguin on Monday. I’m putting the final touches on the first draft … and it’s good, if I do say so myself! The story is set on an imaginary river in the Murray-Darling basin, somewhere in north-western NSW near the junction of the Namoi and the Barwon – land of the Kamilaroi nation.

Brolga 2It’s a star-crossed love story between a cotton grower and a floodplains grazier. For riverine farmer Nina Moore, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River is the most precious place on earth. Her dream is to buy Billabong Bend and protect it forever, but she’s not the only one wanting the land. When Rocco, her childhood sweetheart, returns to the river, old feelings rekindle and she thinks she has an ally. But a tragic death divides loyalties, tears apart their fledgling romance and turns her dream into a nightmare. Will Nina win the battle for Billabong? Or will the man she once loved destroy the wild wetlands she holds so close to her heart?

Egret 3It’s a story about first love – that original blinding passion that is never forgotten. When you believe that anything is possible. When you first believe in something more than yourself. But it’s also the story of a river, of water use in a thirsty land, and the division and conflict it inevitably causes. And if you love birds like I do, particularly our magnificent wetland birds, you’re in for a real treat!

Rural Romance AuthorsAnyway, I’d better stop talking and go back to polishing that first draft. I’ll finish with a bit of  Aussie rural author-watching, instead of bird-watching. This photo was taken at a recent conference, and is courtesy of Cathryn Hein. How many can you identify?

BB2013_Nominee

The New Romantics

The New Romantics

L-R Kate Belle, Me, Jan Bull, Kathryn Ledson and Margareta Osborn

I’ve joined forces with authors Kate Belle, Kathryn Ledson and Margareta Osborn to form a panel called The New Romantics. Together we present a fresh and modern take on Aussie love stories. Though none of us write traditional ‘romance’, we all have strong romantic elements in our books.

 

 

CC 1 003Yesterday was our very first gig. It was in celebration of National Bookshop Day, and we were warmly welcomed and entertained by the gorgeous people of Foster and South Gippsland. Many thanks to Jan and Bob of Foster’s Little Bookshop, for organising and hosting the event!

 

Rough Diamond Front Cover FinalI talked about how a modern romance may be all about passion, but it’s not just about the passion between two people falling in love. The medieval concept of romance always involved some sort of a quest, and so does a modern love story – it is a character’s search for herself. I also talked about how my passion for the environment is channelled into my stories.

 

 

Hope's RoadMargareta (author of Bella’s Run and Hope’s Road) talked about her own, marvellous brand of rural fiction. As a fifth-generation farmer, her ties to the land are very strong and her books convey a sense of place, community and belonging. Kathryn (author of Rough Diamond) gave us her hilarious take on romantic comedy. Kate (author of The Yearning) discussed whether or not that happy-ever-after ending is an essential element of a modern romance novel, and much, much more.

Yearning lo resAll in all it was a fabulous day, and an encouraging beginning to our life together as an author panel. We are available for events and festivals! Contact the lovely Kate Belle (ecstasyfiles at gmail dot com), who has become our de facto organiser. I look forward to many more stimulating authorly discussions and would love for you all to join us sometime in the future!

BB2013_Nominee

Q&A with Pamela Cook

Pamela Cook PicPlease welcome fellow rural author, Pamela Cook to Pilyara. She’s also  a fellow horse lover, which makes her doubly welcome. Pamela is a writer, teacher and mother of three gorgeous daughters. She also manages a menagerie of dogs, rabbits, birds, fish and horses and her favourite pastime (after writing) is riding her handsome quarter horse, Morocco. And now it’s over to Pamela, to answer some questions about her wonderful debut novel, Blackwattle Lake.

Hi Jenny and thanks so much for having me on your blog.

1. Tell us about your call story Pamela. How did you receive your first offer of publication?

BLACKWATTLE_LAKE_CoverI’d been writing for just over ten years and had spent more than five of those years working on a literary style novel. In November 2009 I took part in Nano – National Novel writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. I put that one away and went back to my original which I entered in the QWC/ Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2010 but had no luck. I entered again in 2011, submitting both novels and was lucky enough to be chosen to attend the program with my nano novel, Blackwattle Lake. This was an amazing opportunity – a one on one with a publisher, who had read my book. After taking Vanessa’s advice on board I revised the manuscript and sent it back at the end of April 2012 and was ecstatic to receive a phone call about 6 weeks later saying Hachette wanted to publish it. although I hadn’t heard of rural fiction in 2009 when I wrote it this genre had become hugely popular in that period of time, which no doubt helped me get my novel over the line.

2. What is your novel Blackwattle Lake about?

Blackwattle Lake is about Eve Nicholls, who inherits the property where she grew up. On her return to the farm she has to deal with the ghosts of her past – both the dead and those still living but is also drawn back to her love of the land and of horse riding. A series of unexpected events force Eve to confront her painful memories and find the courage to re-connect.

Pamela Cook pic 33. What or who inspired this story?

It began with the image of a woman standing at the gate of a rural property, unable to get in as the gate is locked. My daughters and I have 6 horses between us, so I decided to follow the old advice “write what you know”. Doing it as a nano forced me to keep writing and not stop to revise along the way so the story just flowed and came out pretty much as it is in the published book – with a few tweaks and revisions of course.

4. Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?

The property Eve inherits is based on Darkes Forest Ranch where we keep our horses, just south of Sydney. That’s the place I pictured in my head as I was writing. We also have a holiday house on the south coast of NSW which inspired parts of the setting and the town. The horse scenes are pretty special to me – I didn’t take up riding until later in life and it has been an amazing experience to share with my three daughters.

5. What do you see as the major themes in your book?

Eve’s story is about courage, forgiveness and belonging. It’s a huge step for her to return to the farm because of a past tragedy and the fractured family relationships that ensued. But once she’s back there Eve re-discovers her love of the land and of horses and also the sense of being part of a community, all of which she had completely forgotten about – or at least chosen not to remember. In facing the past Eve not only has to forgive others but must forgive herself.

Thank you for visiting Pamela, and telling us about your terrific debut novel. It’s funny, but I didn’t realise I was writing rural fiction at first either! I really relate to that part of your call story. Forgot to ask you what’s next, but I believe your second novel Essie’s Way, is due for release in December 2013 – just in time for Christmas. Congratulations!

BLACKWATTLE_LAKE_CoverFor Eve Nicholls, walking up the driveway of her childhood home brings up many emotions, and not all good. The horses that she loved still dot the paddocks but the house is empty, and the silence inside allows her memories to flood back. She’s glad to have her best friend Banjo the kelpie with her . . . and a bottle of bourbon. Her plan is simple: sell the farm, grab the cash and get the hell out.

Despite Eve’s desire to keep a low profile, within days of her return she runs into all the people she hoped to avoid. At the house she is surrounded by memories and worse. But with a lifetime of clutter to sort out, there’s plenty to take her mind off it all. Slowly, she begins to discover the girl she used to be: Angie Flanagan – adventurous, animal-loving, vulnerable. When tragedy strikes, Eve realises that changing her name all those years ago in an attempt to hide from her past has not changed the truth of what happened or who she really is.

Blackwattle Lake is an engaging debut for those who long to uncover who they used to be, and who they might still become.

Contact details:

Website: www.pamelacook.com.au

Blog: www.pamelacook.wordpress.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PamelaCookAuthor?ref=hl

Twitter: @PamelaCookAU

BB2013_Nominee

Brumby’s Run Q&A

CC 3The launch date of my new novel, Currawong Creek is fast approaching. Penguin Books (Aust) is offering a digital price promotion ahead of the new title’s release. The ebook of Brumby’s Run (usually $12.99) is available at $4.99 until the 28th June. For those who haven’t read it, today I’m posting a Penguin Q&A about Brumby’s Run for your information. Here’s the link for last week’s Currawong Creek Q&A

Penguin Q & A with Jennifer Scoullar, author of Brumby’s Run

What is your book about?

2nd BR CoverBrumby’s Run is a story about a young woman named Samantha. She discovers she has a twin sister, Charlie, who is critically ill. City girl Sam soon finds herself running her sister’s farm, high in the Victorian alps. This new life, Charlie’s life, intrigues her. Bit by bit she falls in love with the mountains, the brumbies and with handsome neighbour Drew Chandler, her sister’s erstwhile lover. Sam begins to wish that Charlie might never come home.

What or who inspired it?

Originally I was inspired by the classic Banjo Paterson poem of the same name. It is one of my absolute favourites. But I was also inspired by the magnificent wild horses of the high country, and the fine work done by Australia’s various Brumby welfare associations.

90px-Penguin_logo_svgWhat was the biggest challenge, writing it?

My biggest challenge was finishing the novel in time to pitch to Penguin at the 2011 RWA Conference. I only just made it!       

What did you want to achieve with your book?

I wanted to share my love of Victoria’s beautiful upper Murray region, and pay tribute to the fabled wild horses of the high country. I also wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story.

What do you hope for your book?

I hope it may be widely read and enjoyed.

Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?

The horses are based on my own, favourite animals, past and present.

Do you have a favourite character or one you really enjoyed writing?

I have a soft spot for Charlie, and really admire her spirit.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?

One of the major themes in Brumby’s Run is our search for personal identity. The book also explores our relationship with animals and the environment.

high country horses

What made you set it in Victoria’s high country?I have a great love for this region, and it is where the Brumbies are.

Did the title come instantly to you or did you labour over it?I’d always wanted to base my novel on Banjo Paterson’s classic bush poem, Brumby’s Run, so the title was a given.

To whom have you dedicated the book and why?I’ve dedicated the book to Australia’s various Brumby welfare associations, in acknowledgement of the wonderful work they do protecting our wild horses.

Who do you think will enjoy your book?

Anybody who enjoys passionate love stories, set in Australia’s spectacular wild places.

Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home? (If so, describe it)

Home Office I have a small office space off the lounge room (no door!), but with a noisy family, this isn’t always ideal. My favourite spot is over at the stables. Horses are good listeners, and don’t mind you reading aloud.

Do you like silence or music playing while you’re writing?

Silence. I’m easily distracted otherwise.

When did you start writing?

As a child I was an avid reader and loved writing stories and poems. I began my very first novel when I was eleven years old.

Did you always want to become an author?

I did, but then I grew up, and life kind of got in the way. There was long gap before I returned to my original passion for writing.

Tell us a bit about your childhood?

I was a horse-mad child. My family had a house in Melbourne as well as a property in the mountains. At every chance I escaped to the farm to be with my horses.

If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?

I graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Law and Jurisprudence, and worked for a while as a solicitor. I have also raised four children, with the youngest one still at school. Now that’s a job!

Describe yourself in three words?Passionate, compassionate and curious.

capricornWhat star sign are you and are you typical of it?

I’m a Capricorn. That’s an earth sign, and I do feel a deep spiritual connection to the  earth. Typically Capricorns are ambitious and serious, with a strong work ethic. I suppose that describes me. They are also supposed to be neat and tidy. That definitely doesn’t describe me!

What three things do you dislike?

Cruelty, greed and indifference.

What three things do you like?

My family, my animals and having the opportunity to write, in that order.

Have you a family, partner or are you single?

As I said before, I have four wonderful children.  I am divorced and do not have a partner. Maybe no real-life man can measure up to my fictional outback heroes!

BB2013_Nominee

Currawong Creek – First Sighting

18th birthdayIt was my youngest son’s eighteenth birthday yesterday – a cause for much celebration! I also received an advance copy of Currawong Creek. It’s always a thrill to see your imaginary story in the form of a physical book for the first time. So all in all, a great week.

Today I’m posting a Penguin Q&A about Currawong Creek.

What is your new book about? Currawong Creek is the story of Clare Mitchell, a young Brisbane lawyer who is very caught up in her career. CC 1 003When she takes on the care of problem foster child Jack, her ordered life is turned upside down. Her partner’s betrayal is the final straw. She takes leave of her job and takes Jack to Currawong Creek, her grandfather’s Clydesdale stud at Merriang in the foothills of the beautiful Bunya Mountains. She arrives to find part of the property leased by local vet, Tom Lord, an advocate of equine therapy for traumatised children. Jack falls in love with Currawong’s animals, and Clare falls in love with Tom and the life of a country vet. But trouble is coming, in the form of the Pyramid Mining Company. Trouble that threatens to not only destroy Clare’s new-found happiness, but the tiny town of Merriang itself.

What or who inspired it? – I love Clydesdale horses! Also, I fostered kids for fifteen years, and saw many young mothers who needed help almost as much as their children did. There’s such a desperate shortage of foster carers in our community. Often, no suitable place can be found for a child after being Clydesdalestaken into care. So I thought I’d explore that problem in my story. There is so much evidence to show that animals can help to heal traumatised children. I had to give little Jack that chance!  The setting was inspired by Queensland’s Darling Downs, and its beautiful Bunya Mountains. A growing national concern about our land and water has led to a realisation that agricultural land and underground water are finite resources that should be protected. This is another issue explored in Currawong Creek. The characters though, are entirely fictional. I loved the idea of throwing a young, single, professional woman in the deep end with a difficult child – and a German Shepherd puppy! How would it change her? What problems would it cause? How would she cope?

What was the biggest challenge, writing it? – My biggest challenge was writing the relationship between Clare and Jack’s birth mother, Taylor. These are two women from very different worlds, yet they share a strong common bond. They both love Jack. Emotions naturally run high in that sort of a situation, and I wanted to show each of their positions with sympathy. It needed a delicate balance, and a lot of rewriting.

What did you want to achieve with your book? – I mainly wrote Currawong Creek to be an entertaining story. Along the way, it may raise awareness about the challenges and importance of fostering. It may encourage somebody to explore equine therapy as a healing tool for a child. That would be good. I also hope it may help spark debate about land and water conservation in Australia.

What do you hope for your book? – I hope my book will be widely read and enjoyed.

CurrawongAre there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you? – Samson, the German Shepherd puppy, has particular personal resonance for me. I raised and trained German Shepherds for many years, and he is a composite of my most intelligent and charming dogs. My father also passed on to me a particular love of Clydesdale horses, and I’ve always had a soft spot for currawongs!

Do you have a favourite character or one you really enjoyed writing? – Harry, Clare’s grandfather, was without doubt my favourite character. Such a sweet, old man with a great deal of courage and very fine principles. I’d love to know him in real life

What do you see as the major themes in your book? – I suppose one of the main themes is finding the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Also forgiveness and an exploration of the different kinds of love – love for a child, a lover and a grandfather.

What made you set it in …..? – The Bunya Mountains? They’re a magical place, Bunya Mountains 1like an island, surrounded by the plains and cleared farming land of the Darling Downs. A refuge of biodiversity, harbouring ancient plants and more than thirty rare and threatened species. Iconic Bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) tower over tall, moist rainforests along the crest of the range. Their distinctive dome-shaped crowns rise above the canopy, as they’ve done for millions of years. It’s a truly mysterious and romantic setting.

To whom have you dedicated the book and why? – Currawong Creek is dedicated to the Wilderness Society, as a tribute to the wonderful work they do, protecting and restoring wild places across Australia.

Who do you think will enjoy your book? – Anybody who loves kids, animals, the bush and a ripping love story.BB2013_Nominee