Dugongs In Fiction

sea turtle 1I’ve completed the final edits for Turtle Reef, which is due for release with Penguin on the 25th of March. Hopefully I’ll be able to reveal the cover next week. Finishing a novel always evokes mixed feelings – excitement at moving on to a new project; regret at leaving much-loved characters behind. As readers of my books will know, I have animal characters as well as human ones, and sometimes they’re the ones I miss the most. Zenandra, the wasp queen from Wasp Season; Whirlwind, the mysterious brumby mare from Brumby’s Run; Samson, the loyal German Shepherd from Currawong Creek and the charming Magpie geese goslings from Billabong Bend – these characters stay with me long after the final words are written.

Turtle Reef is no different. Set at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, the story includes a wide range of marine animals (and horses of course). Some like Kane, the dolphin, and Einstein, the octopus, are characters in their own right. Others such as the sea turtles and dugongs fuel the narrative in more general ways.

Dugong 1Out of curiosity I decided to research the place of dugongs in fiction. It surprised me to discover that there are very few books about these unique animals, and all of them seem to be for children. Dabu Grows Up: The Tale of a Dugong is a picture book set in the tropical waters of the Torres Strait. Dabu is a young dugong whose mother is taken by hunters. Dabu learns about life, respect for the natural world, loneliness and friendship as he explores a tropical reef, finally deciding that to survive he must return to his herd. Denis, the Dugong follows the adventures of an Arabian dugong, and is enriched with details of the surrounding flora and fauna. The book is part of a series stressing the importance of conservation in the Arabian Peninsula. Dipanker the Dugong is a similar book set in India. That’s it – all I could find. Please comment if you know of any others. I’m thrilled to think that my new book Turtle Reef will help raise the profile of these enchanting and under-represented animals in fiction.

Dugongs 2Dugongs belong to the order Sirenia, named after the legendary sirens of the sea. Their closest living relatives are the manatees and they’re also distantly related to elephants. Dugongs are found throughout the Indo-pacific region, but over the past century many populations have disappeared. Australia is their last stronghold, but even here they are in dramatic decline. Threats to dugongs are all man-made: entanglements in shark and fishing nets, marine debris, loss of sea grass meadows due to dredging and agricultural run-off, traditional hunting and collisions with boats. I’ve always loved these gentle giants of the sea that have existed on earth for 45 million years. What a tragedy if after all this time they went extinct on our watch! 🙁

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A Sense Of Place

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about the role of setting in narrative.

KATH
This writing caper is full of surprises and learning curves. Even now, with two books published, I sometimes feel like I’m only just ready to graduate. From Novel Writing kindergarten.

When I wrote Rough Diamond, I planned to keep its Melbourne setting to a minimum. Why would I do this? Well, it’s about my own reading preferences. Firstly, I like a fast-paced plot with plenty of action, not lengthy descriptions. But mostly because my own taste is for exotic locations―places I’ve never seen or would love to see. Parts of the world that exude whatever isn’t Melbourne. Because Melbourne’s humdrum, right? It’s my city, where I grew up in my dull little life. It’s just an extension of boring old me. It’s all so everyday, routine, familiar. How could it be interesting?

Rough Diamond was released, and reviews poured in. Imagine my surprise that many of the positive comments were about the Melbourne setting! The setting I’d so determinedly kept vague (as I thought) with just a few snippets to place the reader: the streets of Richmond, the botanic gardens and tan track, South Melbourne market, Crown casino, Collingwood football club, the local pub. All those very boring, everyday, familiar spots. As it turned out, in my naiveté, I’d unwittingly yet convincingly set my novel in Melbourne.

Collingwood Football ClubUntil I read those reviews, I hadn’t realised―or rather considered―how enjoyable the familiar can be. In reading we relate to characters for various reasons; we share their pains, joys, experiences of all kinds. So, too, I’ve learned, can we relate to a novel’s setting and enjoy the company of familiar turf. Joggers who frequent the tan track, people queuing for those famous South Melbourne market dim sims, our love and hate of Collingwood football club.

 

Funnily enough, I appreciate Melbourne more now. In fact, I’m giving careful attention to place in my current work-in-progress, Grand Slam (working title, my publisher reminds me to add), which is set around the internationally famous Australian Open tennis tournament, hosted by my own beautiful Melbourne. My characters will spend time at the tennis and surrounds as well as thrilling, familiar spots like Southbank and Chadstone Shopping Centre (Chaddy!). And you know what? I’m feeling so excited about it, I might take a quick research trip now…

SYDNEY
I do get what you’re saying, Kath, about the allure of the exotic. But I also get the thrill of reading a novel set in a familiar place. The former is an escape from daily life. The latter makes me feel as if I’m IN the novel I’m reading. I could walk out my door and bump into these characters, pop them on the nose if they irritate me, hug them if I like them.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly – Crime Writer

I happen to like a good description. One of the things I love about early Michael Connelly, US crime writer, is the depth of characterisation of LA, where his novels are set. His series hero, Harry Bosch, lives in a house on the side of a hill, with scrub choking the arroyo below, scrub bearing Spanish names―that word “arroyo”, too, which conjures up the dry deserts of California and nearby Nevada. He usually spots a coyote trotting amidst the brush. The coyote is his animal, the battered loner struggling to survive in the increasing urbanisation of its native land.

Harry works in West Hollywood, a place seamed with porno shops, greasy hotels where rooms are rented by the hour, soiled junkies and prostitutes. The big Hollywood sign looms over the city, promising the dream, but it’s a damaged sign, a symbol you trust at great risk to your life and your heart.

That’s what a good description does. It gives the reader the feel of the place in which the story is set, and therefore, the mood of the story itself. The description should convey emotion. If it’s flatly realistic, it’s probably not doing its job.

JENNIFER
I’m with you, Sydney. I love good description. Teachers of writing craft often say that description is boring. Don’t you dare add more than a sentence or two on setting, lest you lose your reader. I think this rule screams out to be broken. A convincing setting helps make any story memorable. But as a writer of Aussie rural fiction, a vivid sense of place is even more vital. Readers of this genre crave a relationship with this country. They’re asking the question :what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is that we come from this place. That’s our identity―the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is completely different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means the regions. That means the bush.

CC 4In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literally geographical place) functions like a character in the story. It’s one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek, for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush.  In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by becoming grounded again he finds his future.

There must be balance of course. Don’t spend paragraphs describing how things look. Do what Sydney says. Describe how they feel. Use detail. Make it a sensory experience. Here’s an example from my own writing: a man is climbing a tree.

“That precious, familiar calm. Tree climbing. Different to rock-climbing. Trees lived. Even giant Pallawarra still gave with the wind. He moved. Matt moved too, away from the people and the cars and the ravaged earth. He moved into another dimension. For the first time in a long time, Matt focused on the moment. On his breath, his feet, his fingers. A meditation. There was no choice. Any slip was death.

The darkening forest lay in mysterious degrees of light and shade. The more Matt looked at the tree, the more he saw the tree. Its position, its size and form, its unique structure and balance. He saw through its bark-dangled camouflage. He saw its art. A shred of song popped into his head, even though, since Theo, music made him cringe.

‘If you plant ten million trees, none will grow like these.’

Now light rain began falling, deepening the colours. The auburns and browns, the greens and golds, the glistening, mottled curls of stringy-bark streamers. The birds of the upper canopy had long fled, leaving the forest silent. Except for the sound of a strengthening breeze, like the sea-shell psalm of a distant sea.”

And as Kath says, no matter how ordinary the place, assume that some of your readers will be unfamiliar with your setting. The smell of a South Melbourne dim sim that you take for granted, will be a revelation for readers who’ve never visited that market.

SYDNEY
That’s beautiful, Jenny. Place plus emotion plus atmosphere equals setting.

KATH
I take it back. I love lengthy descriptions if written by Jen Scoullar. Mind you, the above piece is also brimming with action and suspense, yes?

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REVIEWER SPOTLIGHT: Write Note Reviews

Interesting post from Monique Mulligan from Write Note Reviews – and she lists Billabong Bend and my mate’s book Mountain Ash (Margareta Osborn) as in her top five Aussie romances for 2014!

Bush Heritage Australia

Bush Heritage 2Since I dedicated my last book Billabong Bend to Bush Heritage, I thought I should write a post about it. Bush Heritage is a non-profit conservation organisation dedicated to protecting Australia’s unique animals, plants and their habitats for future generations. They have a simple and practical formula for protecting the bush – buy land of outstanding conservation value, then care for it

Liffey Valley Reserves in Tasmania – the first Bush Heritage Reserve. Photo: Wayne Lawler

Liffey Valley in Tasmania – the first Bush Heritage Reserve. Photo: Wayne Lawler

The organisation began in 1991, when Dr Bob Brown bought several hundred hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania to save it from logging. Using prize money from an environmental award as the deposit, he sought donations to gather the remaining funds, and Bush Heritage was born.

My fictional property of Billabong Bend is based in part on the beautiful Naree Station, acquired by Bush Heritage in 2012. Located on the inland floodplains of northern NSW, Naree sits at the head of the nationally significant wetlands of the Cuttaburra Channels and Yantabulla Swamp. During flood events it becomes home to an incredible fifty thousand breeding water birds and is rated as one of the twenty most important water bird sites in Australia.

Bush Heritage 4Bush Heritage currently owns and manages thirty-five reserves throughout Australia, covering nearly one million hectares. Reserves are managed like national parks – the land is legally protected, with the intention of safeguarding it forever. Bush Heritage also builds partnerships with farmers. These partnerships account for a further 3.5 million hectares of land under conservation management. Their long term goal is to protect more than seven million hectares by 2025. This will only be possible with our help.

Bush Heritage 2If you need a gift for someone who cares about the environment, how about sending a Bush Heritage WILDgift? Not only does your friend or family member receive a beautiful card featuring stunning photography from the Australian bush, but together, you also make a real and lasting contribution to nature conservation in Australia. For ten dollars you can provide a warm, safe nesting box for the endangered red-tailed phascogale. For twenty-five dollars you can save a slice of the outback, helping to buy one hectare of native habitat. Every hectare makes a difference!

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The Mighty Murray Cod

Murray Cod StampThere is a Murray cod character in my latest novel, Billabong Bend. So I’m dedicating this post to Guddhu, guardian of the river, charismatic fish of legend!

Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii) are the largest freshwater native fish in Australia. They were originally very common throughout the Murray-Darling basin. Mounted specimens and photos of long-ago giants are on display at almost every riverland pub in south-eastern Australia. After a few beers, old-timers come out with tall stories of fish bigger than a man, territorial lions of the river, big enough to drag unwary swimmers under by a paddling arm or kicking heel.

mc 5Murray cod are handsome fish, scales mottled with green and black roses and bellies silvery white. Their grouper-like bodies are deep and elongated, with broad, scooped heads and powerful blunt tails. They can weigh more than a hundred kilograms and measure over 1.6 metres. A long-lived fish, they’re known to reach at least seventy years of age. It’s likely they can live for much longer, a century or more. Murray cod are an ancient species and an animal central to Aboriginal mythology. Fossils have been found dating back twenty-six million years. They may well be as old as the Murray-Darling basin itself – sixty-five million years. That’s when the age of the dinosaurs was coming to an end.

mc 2Contrary to some fishery department literature, the first serious decline in Murray cod populations was caused by extreme overfishing by Europeans. In the latter half of the 1800s and in the1900s, they were caught in unimaginable numbers. In 1883, 150,000 kilograms of Murray cod were sent to Melbourne from Moama alone. This was a devastating blow to such a long-lived and slow-breeding species.

Cod mature at about four or five years old and breed in spring when water temperatures rise above fifteen degrees. They favour sheltered snags in the main channel of rivers. Males guard the eggs, and continue to watch over the newly hatched larvae for a week or more. The young fish then drift downstream.

mc 7Modern threats include exotic diseases, overfishing, pollution, dams and weirs blocking migration routes, and flood regulation for irrigation. Fifty percent of Murray cod larvae are killed when they pass through weirs, and cold water released from the base of dams stops adults spawning. Competition with introduced fish is also a problem, even though adult cod do a good job of eating carp.

It’s a great tragedy that these fabled fish are now  extinct in many of their upland habitats, particularly in the southern Murray-Darling. They’re listed as critically endangered by the ICUN, a United Nations organization that maintains the Red List of Threatened Species. We can’t protect Murray cod without protecting the rivers that they live in. Let’s make it a priority!

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Rocking Horse Hill

Cathryn Hein Author PhotoIt is with great pleasure that I welcome to Pilyara fellow Penguin author and horse nut, Cathryn Hein. She is here today answering a few questions about her new novel Rocking Horse Hill (love that title!) Congratulations on the terrific reviews Cathryn!

Thanks, and thanks for hosting me on your blog, Jennifer. A lovely place to be!

What is your story about?
Rocking Horse Hill is a rural romance with a strong family drama and an emotional lovers reunited story.
As a teenager, Emily Wallace-Jones made a mistake that has haunted her since. So when Josh Sinclair saunters sexily back into town and her life, she has a chance to finally put things right.
But there are dramas affecting both families. Digby, heir to the Wallace-Jones fortune, has arrived home with a fiancée no one has ever heard of. Em’s best friends both have troubles and her naughty donkeys are causing havoc. Meanwhile, Josh’s family are coping with heart-breaking news. Then there’s Rocking Horse Hill…

With their families’ struggles and so much baggage from the past, can Em and Josh really resurrect a relationship? Or will holding onto trust be impossible? Not just for them, but for everyone touched by Rocking Horse Hill.

What or who inspired it?
The original inspiration was a bit obscure. I’d read an article in a Sunday paper about women who fall in love with men serving long-term jail sentences and found it fascinating. The next day I was zoning out on the exercise bike, thinking about the article, when I had this idea for a thriller-type story. I was so excited I jumped straight off and scribbled it down. Being a totally different genre to my rural romances, I set it aside but my brain wouldn’t let it go, and there were things about the premise that I really liked – the family drama mostly but also the heroine. Over time, I kept reworking the idea until Rocking Horse Hill was born.

RHH cover - resizedAre there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
There are quite a few parts of Rocking Horse Hill that are special. Number one is the setting. The book is set in the south east of South Australia and much of the action takes place on a property right at the foot of an extinct volcano. Though fictional, the volcano is based on an amalgam of Mt Schank, a crater to the south of my home town of Mount Gambier, and Mt Elephant, near Derinallum in western Victoria. As kids, a brilliant day out was climbing to the top of Mt Schank and sliding all the way to the bottom on your bum, like a great big dirty slippery-dip.

I also gave the heroine Emily my beloved dog Cooch as her darling collie Miss Muffet. There’s also an Indian runner duck that was based on one my brother owned. Plus, being set around where I grew up, there are all sorts of little things that I love from the area that have made their way into the book.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?
One of the things that Rocking Horse Hill explores is how we judge others, and how our experiences influence that. Perhaps even blind us. Em comes from a very privileged background and there was a time in her past when that made her think herself special. As a result she caused immeasurable hurt and it’s not a mistake she’s going to make again, which is why she’s determined to welcome her sister-in-law to-be into the family.

I also wanted to look at how hard it can be for a stranger to find their place inside a tight-knit family. The tensions that arise when one of more family members don’t like the newcomer can cause major rifts. It doesn’t take much to find real-life examples: the boyfriend everyone thinks is a bad influence; the second wife everyone hates; the father-in-law no one trusts…

I think we’ve all had experience with families judging and sometimes misjudging people. And I love the sound of those animals! Looking forward to reading it Cathryn. Thanks very much for visiting today.

RHH cover - resizedROCKING HORSE HILL
by Cathryn Hein
Who do you trust when a stranger threatens to tear your family apart?

Ever since she was a little girl, Emily Wallace-Jones has loved Rocking Horse Hill. The beautiful family property is steeped in history. Everything important in Em’s life has happened there. And even though Em’s brother Digby has inherited the property, he has promised Em it will be her home for as long as she wishes.
When Digby falls in love with sweet Felicity Townsend, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Em worries about the future. But she is determined not to treat Felicity with the same teenage snobbery that tore apart her relationship with her first love, Josh Sinclair. A man who has now sauntered sexily back into Em’s life and given her a chance for redemption.
But as Felicity settles in, the once tightly knitted Wallace-Jones family begins to fray. Suspicions are raised, Josh voices his distrust, and even Em’s closest friends question where Felicity’s motives lie. Conflicted but determined to make up for the damage caused by her past prejudices, Em sides with her brother and his fiancée until a near tragedy sets in motion a chain of events that will change the family forever.

Rocking Horse Hill is a moving family drama and passionate love story from the author of Heartland. Follow these links to find out more about Cathryn and her terrific rural novels.  Website, Twitter via @CathrynHein, Facebook, Google+

And now, to announce the winner of the Billabong Bend draw. I received so many wonderful comments about people’s favourite rivers and why they love them, thank you. The winner of a signed copy of Billabong Bend is Sophie Grant. Congratulations Sophie. I’ll send you an email shortly.

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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.

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A Discussion Of ‘Place’ In Australian Rural Fiction

Willy Fest

Authors Margareta Osborn (top L), (bottom row L-R) Kathryn Ledson, me and Kate Belle (and star reader Ann Lee middle top!)

I was on a panel at the Williamstown Literary Festival yesterday. The theme was a sense of place. Here are a few thoughts on how place relates to rural fiction.

– In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literal, geographical place) is one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush.  In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by doing so he finds his future.
– Australian rural romantic 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. From the earliest days of white settlement, the bush was central to how we became Australian, how we identified ourselves as Australian.
BB High Res cover– During the second half of the twentieth century, the bush fell out of literary favour. We didn’t see ourselves as a bush people any more. We lived around the urban coastal fringe, and were urbane, cosmopolitan and civilised. Many popular books for women (chick lit) featured self-absorbed shopaholic characters in the Sex And The City mould. They lived in cities that were indistinguishable from each other.

But in the past decade the bush has once more loomed large in the literary landscape, and rural lit taps into this vein. Readers are craving a relationship to country, a connection to the land. They’re asking the age-old question – what is that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is, that we come from this place. That’s our identity – 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.

And here are a few thoughts about my new book Billabong Bend. At one level it’s 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 more than yourself. But it’s also the story of a river, of water use in a thirsty land, and the division and conflict that inevitably brings. And if you love birds like I do, particularly our magnificent wetland birds, then you’re in for a real treat! Billabong Bend is chock full of them!

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Billabong Bend Q&A

BB High Res coverTwo days to go until the release of my new novel Billabong Bend – an exciting time. It’s also the one time of year that I give my blog over to shameless self-promotion! Here is a Q&A I did with Penguin Books (Aust)

What is your new book about?
Billabong Bend is set in Northern NSW in the heart of our beautiful riverlands. It’s a star-crossed love story which sets Nina, a floodplains grazier, and Ric, a traditional cotton farmer, on a heart-rending collision course.

Nina’s dream is to buy Billabong Bend, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River and protect it forever. But she’s not the only one with designs on the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric Bonelli returns home, old feelings are rekindled, and Nina hopes they might have a future together on the river. 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 Bend? Or will the man she once loved destroy the wild wetlands she holds so close to her heart?

What or who inspired it?
This novel was inspired by my love for the northern riverlands, and for the Murray Darling basin. I’ve always been fascinated by rivers – by their unique habitats, and by their place in literature. Rivers are revered by some of my favourite writers. Mark Twain had a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi. 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,’
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 mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and achingly beautiful. They are also in trouble and need our protection.

Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
The idea for the book arose many years ago, during long, languid days spent in the riverlands. Last year I took several trips back up the Murray and saw for myself the changes wrought to habitats and wildlife by drought and low flows. I wanted to write about it.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?
T
he major themes in Billabong Bend are the power of first love, forgiveness and freedom. There is also a strong environmental theme, namely the importance of conserving habitats.

Who do you think will enjoy your book?
Anybody who can remember the fierceness of first love. Anybody who has marvelled at the grace of a waterbird in flight, or has enjoyed a lazy day on a river.

Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home? (If so, describe it)
I have a small office space off the lounge room and I’m adept at revising through the noise of a busy family. There is no window directly in front of my desk, but instead, a full length picture window to the side. I often gaze out across the mountains for inspiration. My favourite writing spot is over at the stables. Horses are good listeners, and don’t mind you reading aloud. In winter I sometimes write in bed!

Tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was a horse-mad child. I also enjoyed a deep passion for the plants, animals and birds of the bush.. My family had a house in Melbourne as well as a property in the mountains. At every chance I escaped the city to be with my horses. When I married I moved to the farm permanently and am still there.

Do you feel more of a sense of “community” amongst like-minded people as yourself since the advent of blogging?
Absolutely! Blogging and social media provide a real sense of camaraderie for writers, and for regional writers in particular. I might be typing away on my remote mountaintop in the southern Victorian ranges, but I’m connected on-line to writers and readers from all around the world. I love it!

What do you like to read? And what are you currently reading?
I have pretty eclectic tastes. I read books within the Australian rural lit genre of course: authors like Cathryn Hein, Nicole Alexander, Fleur Mcdonald and Margareta Osborn. But I love all kinds of fiction. Debut breakout Aussie novels Burial Rites and The Rosie Project were both fantastic reads. So was the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. I also enjoy natural history writing, and always keep at least one novel and one non-fiction book on the go. Currently I’m reading  The Reef by Professor Iain McCalman (non-fiction) and The Blue Dolphin by Robert Barnes (fiction)

What is your advice to budding authors?
Learn as much about your craft as possible and write every day. Network with other writers. State writer’s centres and Varuna – The Writer’s House are great places to start. When you have a finished manuscript get some expert feedback and revise, revise, revise. Then it’s time to learn as much about the publishing industry as possible. There are some great opportunities to get your work before publishers without an agent in Australia. I’m proof of that, having won a Penguin contract through a conference pitch. Give it a go, grow a thick skin and remember that persistence pays.

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Places In The Heart – Williamstown Lit Fest 2014

Places In The HeartIf you live near Melbourne, why not visit the 2014 Williamstown Literary Festival 31st May – 1st June? I will be there, along with my brand new release Billabong Bend which I’m excited to say has gone into reprint before it’s even been released!

This year the festival looks at books, stories and ideas around a sense of place. The theme picks up ideas of local community, landscape and our Billabong Bendattachment to home. It will explore our collective memory and myths around ANZAC and Eureka, the role and place of women writers in history and politics, the modern memoir and the fantastical realms of science fiction and gothic horror. Places in the heart will be played out through love poems, a new romantic movement (courtesy of me and my mates!) and creating family legacies via love-laden cook books. The festival boasts a stellar line-up including funny men Sean Micallef and Greg Fleet, comedian and writer Jean Kittson, demographer Bernard Salt and The New Romantics of course!

The New Romantics (a panel consisting of me and three of my author friends) will present a literary discussion of Places In The Heart. We’ll talk about the many facets of love and the important place romance holds in our hearts and in the literary landscape. We’ll talk about power and gender balance in romance, changing tropes of women in romantic fiction and the inspiration for our diverse work. My fellow panel members are:
Kathryn Ledson – suspense/thriller romance; author of the Erica Jewell series; Rough Diamond and recently released Monkey Business (Penguin)
Margareta Osborn – rural romance; author of Bella’s Run, Hope’s Road and recently released Mountain Ash (Random House)
Kate Belle – contemporary women’s fiction/erotic love stories; author of The Yearning and Being Jade to be released in June (Simon & Schuster)
(Can you believe that we’ve all been members of the same writing group for years?)

The New Romantics – Places in the Heart  is on Sunday 1 June, 12.00-1.00pm. Adults $15.00, Concession $12.00, Early Bird $10.00 (until midnight Sunday 11 May).

We’d love to see you there! While many of the events on the program are ticketed, there are also free events such as the People’s Choice Awards for prose and poetry, a festival tradition where local writers read their works and the audience votes for a favourite. The festival hub in the newly restored Williamstown Town Hall Ballroom includes a children’s reading area and there’ll also be author signings and book sales. The Willy Lit Fest runs from May 31 to June 1 at the Williamstown Town Hall and Williamstown Library. For program details go to willylitfest.org.au or phone 9932 4074.

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