My latest post on Writer Unboxed

My latest post on Writer Unboxed is about integrating all kinds of narrative forms–such as for instance, newspaper articles, blog posts, transcripts of audio or radio, and more– within a novel, in order to extend the main narrative. Hope it’s of interest–read it here.

Teen Buzz: my workshop on writing YA fiction, next month in Sydney!

nswwcDelighted to announce that I’ll be once again presenting my one-day workshop, Teen Buzz: Writing Great Young Adult Fiction, at the NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney on March 4. I presented this course last year at the same venue and it seemed very popular with participants! So if you’re interested in finding out more about writing YA today–what’s hot, what publishers are looking for, and how you can best hone your writing to reach a YA audience, complete with fun and useful exercises–come along and join us on Saturday March 4, in the beautiful parklands setting of the Centre!

All details and bookings here.

Story behind the story 3: And Then authors on their contribution

Today in the And Then series we’re hearing from Alan Baxter (story in Vol 1),  Narrelle M. Harris, (story in Vol 1) and Michael Pryor (story in Vol 2)

alan-by-nicole-web-crop-smallGolden Fortune Dragon Jade, Alan Baxter

My story was a chance to finally write something in the style of the wuxia and kung fu epics I’ve always loved so much. And being a kung fu instructor, with the majority of my life embedded in that culture and all it entails, it seemed I ought to write something related. The two protagonists are cousins, he a Shaolin monk, her an accomplished geomancer. The Shaolin monk, Yong Fa, is named after my teacher in a subtle homage to him, and the character shares some of my teacher’s irreverence and cheekiness, but is otherwise an entirely made up person. The geomancer, Zi Yi, is altogether more serious and focussed, but an accomplished mage in her own right. Together their skills are complimentary and that’s just as well when they realise the scale of their task, the distance they have to go to track down their missing jade dragon, and the kind of unforgiving country they’ll be led to. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I hope people have a lot of fun reading it too.

narrelle-m-harris-midVirgin Soil, Narrelle M Harris
The germ of my story came from an old building in Fitzroy, and the name, Moran and Cato, high above the streets. They were once a well known grocery chain. The building now houses the excellent Naked for Satan bar. I just liked the juxtaposition of the names, and the characters grew from there. Cato – clearly a man/rat shapeshifter. Moran, clearly a magically inclined offsider. But they were murky. Not necessarily good guys, though not necessarily bad guys. The grey guys, really. That’s how the story grew – I wanted them to do be doing dark magic but not for dark reasons. I also love writing stories set in Melbourne, whatever the era, and I’d been researching the 19th Century goldrush and Melbourne for another story, so that was a logical extension of where to set their adventure, especially since the goldrush was such a time of contrasting fortunes and full blooded adventure on its own.
(Note: You can also read an excerpt from the story here)

pryor2-lo-resCross Purposes, Michael Pryor

I’d been doing some unrelated research on the 1930s, and got side-tracked into reading about Errol Flynn. I started imagining what this rambunctious, charismatic ne’er do well would have got up to if he’d stayed in Australia. Adventures, I suspect, of the slightly rakish kind, all with that charming grin as his final defence. When the opportunity to contribute to ‘And Then’ came up, with a few tweaks, I had a character based on Flynn ready to go. Add to that a timely visit to Cooktown in Far North Queensland, an introduction to the Railway That Goes Nowhere, and the elements for a rip-roaring tale started to fall into place.

Story behind the story 2: And Then authors on their contribution

Today, we’ll hear from And Then contributors Tansy Rayner-Roberts(story in vol 1) Sarah Evans, (story in vol 2)  and Jason Franks (story in vol 1).

tansybwDeath at the Dragon Club, Tansy Rayner-Roberts
My story is one I had been toying with for a while — about a pair of retired assassins and siblings-of-choice who run away from their violent profession and end up joining a circus full of dragons… only to have their old and new worlds collide all over again. This book was a great excuse to write that story, and I’m so glad I did. I hold Kurt and Inga Frostad, and their beloved dragons and their snarky dialogue, very close to my heart, to the point that I got all soppy and nostalgic while proofing. And then I promptly started planning the sequel…


profile-photo-1Plumbing the Depths, Sarah Evans

Plumbing the Depths began life as an experimental entry in RWA’s First Kiss competition. I loved the idea of a vegetarian-turned-reluctant vampire canoodling (against her better judgement) with a gorgeous avenging angel. But the judges didn’t. Ho hum. The story was all but dead in the water.

Luckily vampires don’t die that easily. When CDP publisher Lindy Cameron asked for submissions for the And Then… I decided to revamp the vampire-angel story and give it a fresh twist.

Sure, the vampire, Matty Peters, was still reluctant to embrace the dark side, but the angel took on a totally new persona. From a dark and brooding love interest with a hip name, he morphed into Ted, an over-weight, retired cop caught in purgatory with his salvation relying heavily on the number of souls he can collect, including Matty’s.

Consequently, there’s no romance and definitely no canoodling. Instead, the unlikely couple end up joining forces to become very dodgy vampire slayers.

The result is a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek adventure romp.


jf_c_300pxExli and the Dragon, Jason Franks
When Lindy approached me about contributing to And Then… one of the things I liked best about it was that the brief was so wide open. I decided to take that as a challenge when I came up with “Exli and the Dragon”.
I haven’t written science fiction for a few years, so that was my first challenge: to reacquaint myself with the genre. I went at it like a glutton, helping myself to all the best bits: high performance space ships, grumpy robots, pew pew lasers and some actual, proper science. I had been wanting to write a story from the point of view of a creature that is completely non-human, so that gave me one of the two protagonists. The second protagonist is a human–something rare and strange in the galactic society in which this story takes place.
I also challenged myself to write an action story without violence. So, while our two roguish heroes face plenty of danger as they attempt to escape from space prison, neither of them are equipped for combat and they must find other ways to reach their goals. Mainly, though, I just tried to keep it twisty and fun. I hope you fine readers enjoy it.


Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy, by Peter Taylor

Today I’m featuring an absolutely fabulous guest post by writer Peter Taylor, who’s also well-known as a calligrapher and artist-book constructor on how we can encourage children to create multi-faceted and unusual word magic. Enjoy!

Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy

Picture books are written to provide young children with a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Similarly, we plot a journey for the older reader, leaving spaces in the text so that they can use their imagination to see themselves beside the characters, but it’s by the way we tell the stories that we cause each reader to feel the characters’ pain, doubts and passion. In music, a simple change in key, harmony, melody or rhythm can shift a listener’s joy to deep despair (or the reverse) in a second, but it’s not so easy for a writer.  Perhaps it really is true that writers, who agonise over choosing perfect words, all wish they were musicians able to express themselves directly through their playing.

Calligrapher Ann Hechle has described how verbal orchestration in poetry also manipulates the depth of our feeling so that our mind, imagination and almost every part of us is engaged. The flow of Latinate words like ‘consider’ and ‘recognise’ contrasting with the thump in the guts Anglo-Saxon ‘gripe’, ‘groan’ and ‘grunt’; long and short vowels; tempo and stress; volume and density; onomatopoeia where sound shades into meaning–these are felt as physical sensations, stirring our brain’s deeper interpretation.

In such a world of feeling, it’s therefore surprising to me that children of all ages are not encouraged more often to interpret words visually, un-restrained by a standard size of letters and a requirement of regimented rows of words. Isn’t it natural to want to write about crashing waves by using letters and words that heave and tumble on …well …wave shaped lines, and in appropriate colours? And why not sometimes use larger and bolder letters for those words emphasised most in speech, as pioneered by Hechle in the 1960s? Such freedom may foster creative writing by children and adults alike, or engender an artistic response to any favourite text.


Text from Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov

In the beginning was delight. A depth

stirred as one stirs fire unthinking.

Dark  dark  dark. And the blaze illumines dream.

Vision sets out

journeying somewhere,

walking the dreamwaters.

Designing the layout for words as an outward spiral may be appropriate for stories that unwind, such as: ‘Will you walk a little faster,’ said the whiting to a snail, ‘there’s a porpoise just behind us and he’s treading on my tail.’ Conversely, some stories wind up and can be written as an inward spiral, for example: ‘This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that lay in the house that Jack built.’ And as you will see, I have used this spiral technique and others in my combination of biblical passages.


Not all children get hooked on reading and writing by initially listening to or reading stories. Some may arrive at the endpoint by predominantly first developing a love of words and of books as objects. When I stage a ‘Hands-on History of Books and Writing over 4000 Years’ experience in schools, even reluctant readers seem to enjoy handling a 2000 BC cuneiform clay sales docket, holding a hand-written vellum page from a 13th century medieval book without using white gloves, a page from one of the world’s first dictionaries printed in the 1480s, peeping inside Victorian picture books and deciphering a description of New York published in the 1679 that says that it has ‘…above 500 well-built houses’ amongst other treasures (and most then want to read more about early New York).












Some children may come to enjoy words and reading after calligraphic exploration. From playing with the word ‘rain’…taylor-4

…research could next find a poem that is fitting for similar presentation, with reading undertaken in the process enjoyed more than expected:


Poem: This Land by Ian Mudie

Designing calligraphic letter shapes can influence and add joy to creative writing, too. Letters with triangular serifs like webbed feet, for example, can give impetus to write about frogs, ducks or sea-gulls.

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Sea fever, by John Masefield

Sea fever, by John Masefield

We can arouse young children’s interest in books with colour and quirkiness. But what sort of books are teens excited by? What kinds of bindings and book structures do they explore? I taught ‘Book Cover Design’ workshops to children aged 7 to 17 at the Queensland State Library. Participants used pens, scissors, paste and coloured and decorative papers to produce dust-jackets for Reference books of their choice (that were later re-shelved in their new covers). The children created the most eye-catching bold designs, but I wonder what they would have produced if they had been offered a wider range of materials and allowed more time, especially to read the books thoroughly. Would they have created a quilt cover for a book of poems titled On Going to Bed or placed hamburger recipes in a container shaped and covered to resemble a Big Mac?


Would they have modelled or sculpted mountain ranges to sit on top of the pages of Lord of the Rings, as famed designer-bookbinder Philip Smith has done?


Or designed a ‘Book Stack’, as Mike Stilkey does?


Maybe the children would have produced something even more original.

How many books do teens smell? Are they encouraged to write, design and bind their own books?

Is it possible that first creating a book with a special structure can provide the stimulus for writing a story to fit inside it? Or will a story provide ideas for a unique and satisfying way to display the text?









I hope children of all ages (and adults) are encouraged to explore the totality of the world of words, of language, writing, calligraphy, exciting layout designs and books of every form and structure until these become a rich, integral and important part of their lives. Sustenance for their creativity and creative thought. Let us give them experiences to savour and help them to respond with joy in their own way …to the extent that they want to bungee-jump into, read and devour our offerings of all genres with relish.

Peter Taylor’s first book was published in 1987 and he writes wacky verses, fiction and non-fiction for all ages. His picture book, ‘Once a Creepy Crocodile’ illustrated by Nina Rycroft and pub. The Five Mile Press was shortlisted for the 2015 Book of the Year award by Speech Pathology Australia. Peter is also an internationally respected calligrapher and artist’s book constructor, has been the Queensland Newsletter Editor for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Co-ordinator of SCBWI Queensland and judge of the Dorothy Shaw Writing Competition for the deaf. He delights in sharing his extensive historical book and document collection and encouraging children and adults to love books, read, write and be creative. Peter offers workshops, talks and performances to libraries, schools and festivals.


An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.



First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, has his narrator say, ‘The translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation?

I can’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

Creative pleasures: an interview with Beattie Alvarez

Beattie AlvarezToday it’s my great pleasure to feature an interview with Beattie Alvarez, a brilliantly creative and dynamic young woman whose talents lie in many different directions. Beattie and I work together at Christmas Press, but she’s also juggling many other creative and professional roles, as you’ll soon discover in this fascinating interview.  (Oh and by the way, she’s also the mother of two young and very lively daughters!)

Beattie, you are involved in many creative pursuits–writing, illustration and toymaking. How did it all begin?


There are actually a few answers to this! I have always loved all of the above; my parents (Mum, Dad, and Carl, my stepdad) are all talented artists. I grew up at Julian Ashton’s art school, entertaining myself by shoving rolled up tissue paper in my nose while they drew naked people.

When I was four… or five… I saw Coppélia performed at the Opera House. I went home and wrote, illustrated and ‘published’ my own version of it while Mum sewed toys. By the time I was ten I had a whole shelf of self-published books!

I started writing as an adult when my favourite TV show ended abruptly, with a very dissatisfying ending. I was heartbroken! So I went out, sold my soul for a loan to get my first computer, and wrote my own ending. Then I discovered that it was actually called Fan Fiction and there was a website I could upload it to! The response from other fans was overwhelming. As of 2015 those stories have been read almost 100,000 times!

After that I was hooked!

Tell us about your writing. What have you had published, and what are you working on now? Do you write in particular genres only or do you like to try your hand at many things?

I’m new to being published and it’s so exciting! My first published story was in Reader’s Digest magazine… and it paid! Almost $1 per word! I thought I’d be rich in no time.

Since then I’ve had a few short stories, poems and illustrations published in anthologies and in November I was one of three authors with a story in ‘Three Dragons for Christmas’ by Christmas Press Picture Dragons Front Cover MediumBooks — I got to fully illustrate my story as well, which was a lot of fun.

I write anything and everything! Fantasy is my preferred genre, having lived in a fantasy world for most of my life. I’ve got one fantasy novel about the Queen of the Universe that will probably take the rest of my life to finish. I keep going back to add or change or edit.

When my brain is being stubborn I write, what I call, ‘mini murders’.  I write them to kick-start my brain — or when I’m in a particularly bad mood! They’re short stories where one — or many — people are murdered, ranging from twenty words to five thousand! One day I hope to be able to publish them in a book called ‘Murder on the Run’, the idea being that you can read one on your lunch break or between train/bus stops.

Then there’s the series of picture books I’ve written about Marguerite MacDougall… and my ‘magical murder’ novel that I’m working on!  I’m also waiting for responses from agents and publishers over a non magical, non fantasy YA novel that I finished earlier this year. It was my first attempt at something with no murder and no magic.

You are also an experienced editor of other people’s work. What effect do you think this has had on your own writing?

It gets me writing! I like editing for two reasons: the first is to help other writers out there polish their work and get the best manuscript they possibly can. The other is because sometimes it’s a hard job and I all I want to do is write my own stuff after weeks of writer’s block! Working on someone else’s manuscript that really needed a good edit BEFORE they sent it to me is the best way to get over an imagination blockage.

Tell us about your illustration work, and who has influenced you as an artist.

dragons beattie Christmas-Day-Brighter

From Three Dragons for Christmas

For years and years I refused to do art. Partly due to growing up at gallery openings and falling asleep under the food table when they went on too long and partly due to school. I hated art — and English — in high school. They tried to force me to see things that weren’t there and make assumptions about the artist. A curtain is allowed to just be blue! It doesn’t have to mean that the artist was depressed and in an unhappy marriage. It MIGHT mean that blue looked best there or that they wanted to open a new bottle of paint. So I butted heads with both my art teachers and my English teacher (who didn’t pass me once, for the record in year 12!) a few times over that. I became really disheartened when people with talent got lower grades than those who put a black spot on white canvas, twelve dancing princessesbut wrote an essay over why that was a real piece of art.

My parents, obviously, all influenced me when it comes to art and brambly hedgeillustration. But so did books! I love Ruth Sanderson’s ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and the ‘Brambly Hedge’ books by Jill Barklem, where you can see the full story in the pictures, but there are also other side stories going on, only visible in the illustrations.

As well as being a writer, editor and illustrator, you have also worked as a book designer and lay-out artist. How did you learn those crafts, and what are the challenges in those aspects of book production?

It turns out that I LOVE book designing! Carefully choosing where the words go to make the pictures stand out (and vice-versa!) is very therapeutic and rewarding.

I learnt on the job with David Allan from Christmas Press Picture Books when we were working on ‘Once Upon a Christmas’. Thankfully I picked it up quickly or we might have been in front of the computer UNTIL Christmas! Since then I’ve helped design several books for Christmas Press and can’t wait for the next book so I can do it again!

Mikhail Strogoff Cover Front Medium

A forthcoming book co-designed by Beattie Alvarez and David Allan

Seeing the finished book is the best part of that and knowing that I had a hand in bringing someone’s words to life is very satisfying.

That said, it requires a fair bit of coffee and chocolate, and maybe some naughty words slip out when Adobe and I disagree!

You also run a number of Facebook pages for businesses and organisations, including the New England Writers’ Centre, for which you also run the website. What is your key advice for businesses and organisations wanting to get the most out of social media and the Internet?

Do it! That’s my main piece of advice. So many creative types out there don’t use social media and I don’t know why! They say they don’t know how and what’s the point? There’s a saying from before the digital age ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Social media is free (unless you choose to pay for their ads). Your friends see it and like it. Then their friends see it and like it… etc! It’s about getting your work/business/organisation seen, the more people who see it, then the more sales/contacts you make. It’s simple!

The other piece of advice I have is to keep with the times. A website made ten years ago will probably not look as professional as one built now. There are a lot more options for web design now than there used to be. Buttons so that the user can interact with you and your business, so they can buy things, so that the site is user friendly. People are busy these days! They don’t bother with hard-to-use sites, they’ll just go somewhere easier and faster. So much is digital in this world that you have to keep up.

You are the deputy Chair of the New England Writers’ Centre, a non profit arts organisation. How do you view the issue of successfully steering a small arts organisation through challenging times?

Being willing to change with the times!  It’s very similar to what I wrote above, in that you have to keep up with what people want and need. This year the New England Writers’ Centre branched out and tried some new things, updated their website and Facebook pages and we did brilliantly! We’ve received several grants (yay!) this year to ensure that we can keep operating. That’s because we’ve had great grant writers, but also because we’ve changed and can prove that we’re willing to try new things.


You work with your mother, Fiona McDonald, to create unique hand made soft toys. Can you tell us something about that? beattie with toys

Mum and I work at everything together! And we work well. She decided to open a toy shop a few years ago and so we did! I didn’t really do any sewing before that, but now I do a lot! We felt there was a gap in the market for good quality toys that aren’t just for playing with, but for being companions for life. We like toys that can go into battle with you, have tea parties, sit quietly and read a book on a rainy day, toys that inspire play and friendship.


And we’re doing so well that I’ve got calluses on my fingers from sewing so much!

You also help to run the shop, Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard. What are the challenges and pleasures of running such a unique business in a regional town?

The pleasures far outweigh the challenges! Having a shop filled with beautiful, handcrafted toys, books, hats and all the like make going to work a treat! We’ve also branched out into some merchandise, having spotted yet another gap in the local market. We are now known as either ‘the dragon shop’ or ‘the nerd shop’! We have a great selection of Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Star Wars (to name a few!) merchandise that appeals to the ‘grown ups’ that come into the shop. Although, to be fair, those ‘grown ups’ also buy the toys!granny-fi-toy-cupboard-logo

It is hard in a small town to get a lot of walk by trade. The main pedestrian mall is sadly very empty of shops, mainly due to the exorbitant rents that the landlords are asking. Words that I don’t completely understand have been thrown around like ‘negative gearing’. Places like Centro, which was built off the main drag, have severely damaged the shopping strip due to its air-conditioning and under cover parking. People like the ‘one stop shop’.

And of course, there are people who just don’t understand us. We get questions like ‘but you just made this yourself, shouldn’t it be cheaper?’ and ‘but it’s not a real toy, it has no packaging’. Times like that are disheartening, but (after the first few times!) I no longer want to cry when people like that come in. Our toys deserve to go to homes that will love



What I have found very interesting is the response from tourists. Those that come from cities really DO understand us and our toys! They can’t believe how cheap our prices are and suggest that we open a shop in Melbourne or Newtown in Sydney.

But for all the hard times there are always more people that love what we’re trying to do in Armidale. They love our toys and the fact that 90% of what we stock is handmade in the area and that their money is going to support the local economy.


Maybe one day we will open shops in cities, but we will always be based in Armidale. It is our home and we love it.

Beattie's older daughter Isobel, with a hand-made friend!

Beattie’s older daughter Isobel, with a hand-made friend!

Joint ticket: An interview with Archie Fusillo and Josie Montano

Archie Fusillo Archie Fusillo and Josie Montano are two fabulous Italian-Australian authors of books for children and young adults. Separately, they’ve published many great books, but very recently they teamed up on a collaborative YA novel, Veiled Secrets. I met these two lively and engaging authors at the 2015 Story Arts festival in Ipswich, Queensland last month, and later asked them for an interview on the subject of their collaboration. Here it is–enjoy!Josie Montano

You’ve recently collaborated on a novel, Veiled Secrets, which tells the story of two Italian-Australian teenagers from two different families, Nick and Lia, who on a trip back to Italy with their grandparents, meet each other and discover they have a lot more in common than they could have imagined. How did you come up with the idea for the book?

When we first met we discovered that our families come from villages in Italy 10 kilometres apart, we grew up with similar traditions, culture, dialect and life-styles as first generation Aussies. We had a brainstorming session and strangely came up with the same idea! A story about teens going back to Italy with their grandparents. We knew we had a story to tell! One that no other writer in Australia has told, one that our 1st generation of Italian migrants needed to share.

How did two authors who describe themselves as fiercely independent manage to work together with the harmony required for successful story-telling?

We just found that from the very beginning we meshed quite well. Actually the ‘fiercely independent’ writing styles came in handy as we took on a character each and were able to write independently as Archie and Josie with Veiled Secretsour own character and their world.

Tell us about the process of constructing your novel. Did you plan it carefully beforehand, or was it more organic?

Although Josie is an over-planner and Archie just get’s into it and writes, we were still able to put together an initial plot line and main characters (to keep Josie happy!) Archie started as his character in chapter 1, emailed to Josie and Josie wrote chapter 2, etc. It was like one of those patchwork quilts where various people work on it, but the end result is a beautiful creation. The story did progress organically but also strangely in a way that both of us had with plot ideas and scenarios in our minds.

What were the challenges, and the pleasures, of joint creation? Did your find your writing voice was different in this to that in your own sole-authored books?

The only challenge we may have had was getting it published in the Australian market. One of the major publishers was very keen, we were wined and dined by their editor but in the end marketing felt it wasn’t the right time. So Josie sent it to her US fiction publishers and the next day a contract was emailed!

Re voice, actually a few times it happened that we would write something about each other’s characters that would spin the other off into revenge writing where eg: Archie wrote that Josie’s character had dimples and Josie was like ‘oh does she now!?’ and then she wrote that Archie’s character had a big nose! It was great having someone else to share the experience with and to cast a different editing eye over the manuscript.

Josie and Archie StoryartsAre you planning on more writing collaborations? And would you recommend the experience to other authors?

Josie has co-written fiction and non-fiction with other authors but admits this was the easiest collaboration thus far. As writing can be a lonely occupation, co-writing can at times bring a shared experience allowing for learnings and growth. And we are chatting about possible future collaborations on other projects!


Josie’s Facebook author page.

Josie’s Twitter.

Josie’s website:

Archie’s website:

Veiled Secrets Facebook page.

Guest post: Elisabeth Storrs on Etruscan love

Today I’m delighted to welcome Elisabeth Storrs to my blog. Elisabeth is the author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, the first two books in the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy set in early Republican Rome and Etruria. The final book, Call to Juno, will be released in April 2016.Storrs-WeddingShroud-20148-CV-FT

00 ElisabethStorrsColor300Elisabeth has long held a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in Arts Law having studied Classics along the way. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two sons and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and governance consultant. She is the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Warding off Evil: The Power of A Loving Embrace.

by Elisabeth Storrs
I was inspired to write The Wedding Shroud and its sequel, The Golden Dice, when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Married Couple                                              Sarcophagus of the Married Couple
                                                            Late C6th BCE

Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives?
Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and even pornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

Tetnies Younger                                                       Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
                                                         Late C4th early 3rd BCE
The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.
There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Tetnies Elder                                                  Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
                                                          C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilgy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.
As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.
Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge. Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Tetnies Sarcophagi photographs © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Storrs-GoldenDice-20146-CV-FT

Elisabeth’s website
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Writing journals

Just a small selection of my writing journals!

Just a small selection of my writing journals!

Writing journals: not all of us use them but many of us writers keep them, in one way or another: whether as a specific writing journal, as a diary, a notebook, or other. At various points I have kept, and continue to keep, all of these. I have diaries stretching back decades, amongst which is one dating from when I was 12. Amongst all the stuff about school and food(my mother is a fantastic cook and I was always writing down stuff about the cakes she’d made!) I also mention writing projects I’d undertaken, such as ‘The Twins’ Highland Holiday’ which I don’t remember at all but which sounds very much influenced by Enid Blyton! Meanwhile, a tattered  exercise book dating from around age 16-17 has notes and research as well as the first few chapters of a massive fantasy novel, never finished. Travel journals kept at various points have also included vignettes of scenes, ideas for stories, as well as observations of things I saw around me, many of which fed into stories later; while there’s piles of notebooks filled with often indecipherable scrawl about plots, characters, themes, sudden ideas, observations on chapters I’m working on, and more.

And in 2007, after having been given a gorgeous notebook by one of my publishers, Random House WP_20150612_004[1]Australia, I decided to start a different kind of writerly journal, which I call The Literary Life. This journal, which has now run into six volumes, is a chronicle of the literary life–my own, and within the wider literary world–and is an honest and unvarnished portrayal of life as a writer: the public and private, the festivals, launches, meetings with other authors and illustrators, publisher meetings, struggles and excitements of writing, challenges and pleasures of the publishing industry, emotional highs and lows, WP_20150612_007[1]talk about literary groups and news and yes a little gossip too! Though it isn’t strictly speaking a writing journal, keeping it has not only helped me to vent frustrations and express observations, it’s also helped to clarify my own writing trends and re-reading the journal’s back issues, as it were, has enabled me to reflect back onto projects I have worked on in the past.

Thinking about all that made me also curious about other people’s practices in this regard, so I emailed a few writer friends, asking them these questions:

Do you keep a writing journal? How long have you kept it? What medium is it in–hard copy or on screen?  And how useful do you find it? 

Here’s a selection of answers.

Kate Forsyth: 

Yes, I keep a writing journal … in that I keep a journal and all I really write about in it is my writing! I’ve kept my diary since I was 12 years old, and have always recorded my hopes, my dreams and daydreams, my disappointments, my ideas, my inspirations, my writing process … I use it to work out problems,  to make lists of things to do, to scribble down flashes of inspiration, to keep a record of the creative process. I write longhand in a notebook, and have about 60 volumes – I average 3-4 diaries a year. I also have a notebook for each novel, in which I keep a work every day as I’m writing – I stick in or draw  pictures, maps, diagrams – keep a record of my research … write character outlines … record word counts … all dated so I can see how long it takes me!
How useful do I find them – my diary and my notebook? I could not live without them, let alone write!
I have recently begun keeping a writing journal, just over the last six months or so. I have found it to be invaluable, especially in terms of reviewing my frustrations with time, what is hanging me up, and in terms of keeping track of some story possibilities that I might other wise lose. My journal is a hardcover, lined paper variety, which I much prefer to the computer for ease of reference. I also find it almost therapeutic to be able to put pencil to paper sometimes; writing longhand is its own form of creativity, I think.
I haven’t kept a journal for many years, though I think it’s an excellent thing to do. I stopped when I felt I didn’t need it any more … but it was my great salvation during my long, long period of writer’s block. After I’d failed to finish every piece of fiction I started for five or so years, I realised I had to write SOMETHING! So I began to keep a journal, setting myself not less than one page per day (but no maximum – some entries were 15-20 pages). Everything went into it – dreams, events, thoughts, self-analysis, pieces of description. I began it when I came to Australia – a new life in more than one way – and continued for ten years, plus a few shorter bursts after that. It didn’t see me out of my period of writer’s block, which went on for several years more, but it kept me sane and it kept me writing.
I don’t keep a journal now, but I do make notes on all sorts of ideas and experiences. Because I’m always planning books far far ahead, I can see where they’re going to find a fictional home by and by. So I’m not so interested in them as MY experiences – and although the kind of fantasy I write draws ultimately on feelings I’ve been through myself, it looks nothing like a memoir. Plus journal-writing takes so long! I need to give all my time to producing final stuff (after my 25 years of producing nothing at all)!
So, do I keep a journal now? No. Do I recommend keeping a journal? Yes, very definitely.
I don’t keep an actual writing journal, but I do have small notebooks – usually a few on the go at a time – where I jot down any random book-related thoughts. These tend to have to share space with other sorts of writing, though – generally of the domestic type, shopping lists, addresses, quickly dashed off school absentee notes etc. I also use the notes function on my phone. It’s great for those moments when brilliant ideas arrive unexpectedly – usually late at night when I’m about to drift off, and it’s too dark to write anywhere else. I’m waiting for a waterproof phone — so many good ideas lost in the shower, or while swimming.
I don’t keep a writing ‘journal’ but have several notebooks for different projects on the go at the same time. I write longhand in them but they are also full of post its, images, sketches, and random thoughts. Also loose pages and paper clips as I sometimes find I have the wrong notebook…In addition I  have an ideas ‘file’ on my computer. New ideas are jotted down so they can form an orderly queue…
I’ve done this for two years or so, and began doing so after going to workshops where several writers explained how useful they were.
They were right! I find them very useful both as a reference if I get stuck, or just to write longhand in. I find my style is a bit more relaxed using them in this way than it was writing exclusively on computer.