Paris literary studio 3: Tony Maniaty

Tony Maniaty in Keesing Studio Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Tony Maniaty in Keesing Studio Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Today I’m interviewing award-winning author, journalist, reviewer and screenwriter Tony Maniaty, who was resident at the Keesing Studio only four years after its lease was gifted to the Australia Council’s Literature Board by Nancy Keesing. (All photos © Tony Maniaty 2015)

When were you the Keesing Studio resident? And why did you decide to apply for it?

I was the Keesing Studio occupant for the first six months of 1989. I wanted to spend some time in Paris writing a novel, a long-held dream, so I figured six months would cure me. As it happened, I ended up staying in Paris for three years. I actually didn’t get the residency first time around, I applied but missed out – and then the person who was to go pulled out, and the Australia Council rang me and said, ‘Can you go?’ I was pretty much on the next plane, although the flight itself turned into a nightmare. As we approached Europe, the captain informed us that violent snowstorms were blanketing all major airports. We would have to divert to either Brussels or London; in line with French democracy, the passengers all took a vote, and Brussels won. We then took a bus through blizzard conditions down to Paris, where I discovered my luggage was lost. So I spent the first two days in Paris running around buying fresh underwear. But I was in Paris and that was all that mattered.

What did you work on when you were there, and did it change from your original vision as a result of the residency?

I had two projects. I was editing my second novel ‘Smyrna’, so had the very enjoyable task of sitting with my Penguin editor Bruce Sims in the studio fixing the book line by line. Since it was Paris, we also consumed a fair amount of wine. (I maintain the novel was the better for it, and I’m sure Bruce agrees.) Then I moved onto what was to be my third novel, titled ‘The Conduct of Arrows’, set in Brazil in the early 1960s. I’d been to Brazil for research in 1986 and brought copious notes and files to Paris, ready to crack ‘the big one’, the one that would really launch my career. I started writing about the tropics of Brazil in the depths of a miserable European winter, and by spring I had a first draft. Penguin wanted to publish but I wasn’t happy with it. My six months was up, and, out of cash, I returned to Sydney to work as a producer on the SBS World News desk, which quickly saw me turned around and sent back to Paris as ‘Dateline’s’ European correspondent, a gig that lasted until 1992. Paris again had me in its wonderful grip. Little did I know that the Brazilian novel would sit in a drawer for another twenty years or more before I tackled it again, with a new title, ‘The Fish Will Swim in Thy Dark Streets’. I’m just polishing what I hope will be the final draft now, but you never know…

What were your first impressions of the Keesing studio itself, and its neighbourhood, and how did that evolve over the course of your residency?

Kitchen, Keesing Studio 1989

Kitchen, Keesing Studio 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

When I walked into the studio it was pretty bare, there was virtually no kitchen bench space, and being of a practical bent, I immediately took the Metro to  the nearest timber yard, bought some wooden planks, discovered the location of the BHV store (a kind of Parisian Bunnings) and bought nails and cheap tools and got to work. For the first day or so I was building, not writing. I prowled the surrounding Marais streets by night and found some leftover furniture and set myself up in the studio like a second-hand king. I built a kind of folding screen to make a separate office space. The only thing that irked me was the single bed (since I was single) but the notorious Madame Bruneau – fierce moral guardian of the Cite des Arts – would not countenance swapping it for a double. There was a tiny TV set, black and white. Once I’d set up the kitchen I was cooking my beloved pasta and happy as Larry.

Did you go alone, or with a partner? In either case, what were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months, and your least favourite things?

I went alone but a strange thing happened: I met a French woman. This turned into a torrid affair, complicated by the fact that (a) she was married to an Englishman, and (b) she had an 18-month-old daughter. It was further complicated by the fact that their best friends in Australia had asked me to deliver a present for the girl, which I duly did. One thing led to another and I had to write back to my Australian friends to inform them that not only had I delivered the present for the baby girl but that I had run off with the mother. (The husband, I discovered to my relief, had recently left her.) So my Paris sojourn began to resemble a Feydeau farce. As spring came, Paris turned into the great outdoor city it is, and I came to love almost everything about it. The food, the markets, the bookstores, the art stores, the cafes,

Tony's desk, Keesing Studio 1989

Tony’s desk, Keesing Studio 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

even now I struggle to think of anything I didn’t like in that city.

What did you think about it as a writing/ideas environment?

The Keesing studio was a good place to work at night, but by day I found it gloomy; it was a relatively new concrete building in a wonderful old neighbourhood, the worst combination, and whenever I could I escaped to write in libraries and cafes, or along the quays if the weather was fine. But I wasn’t complaining; the studio was in perhaps the best location in Paris, it was clean and rat-free, and best of all, it was free. I did all my manuscript typing there. (This was in an era where typewriters were still considered practical tools, not curiosities.) I should mention that when I was awarded the residency, there was no living stipend attached; I explained to the Australia Council that I couldn’t live in Paris on love alone, and they agreed and came up with $10,000 for the six months, which thereafter became a fixture of the residency.

Tell us about your favourite Paris places–sites, culture, food.

I loved the Jewish restaurants in the Marais, which back then was not trendy by any means; there were still plenty of trades and working class people around, and the odd derro lying on the footpath, although by the time I returned to Paris, it was already starting to show signs of gentrification, and now I find the area insufferably self-conscious. Bars and cafes: my regular haunts were the La Tartine on rue de Rivoli in the Marais, said to be where Trotsky had written his radical texts (and where the toilets had not been renovated since) and La Palette on rue de Seine, filled with the bartered artworks of students from the the Beaux-Arts across the street. Food: my favourite restaurant when I could afford it was the Balzar, in rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne, where the dry old waiter got to know my order: cold lamb with green salad and fresh mayonnaise, and a glass of Morgon rouge. I loved the Metro too, and prided myself on knowing the shortest ‘correspondences’ between stations. Notre Dame did nothing at all for me, nor the Louvre very much, but the Musee Quay d’Osay housed possibly my favourite painting in all the world, Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Doctor Gachet’. It was always incredible to see it hanging there.

What experiences stand out for you in the time you spent in Paris?

I was invited by a new-found friend to her parent’s place one afternoon, they were ‘having a few people over’ for drinks. The ‘place’ turned out to be the entire top floor of a building in Saint Germain du Pres, an apartment of about twenty rooms, and the 200 or so people there quaffing Bollinger were attending the Paris Air Show, and were aircraft dealers, i.e. people who bought and sold Jumbos to airlines and fighter planes to African dictatorships. For a boy from Brisbane, even for a journalist and author from Sydney, this was a heavy crowd. Paris, behind its charming facades and lanes, was home to some of the richest people on the planet. At the other end of the spectrum, I loved sharpening my HB pencils in the Cafe Select and drinking my coffee and being left alone to create for hours on end. The fact that everyone in Paris saw this as normal adult behaviour was enlightening.

Do you think the residency has had a lasting impact on your work,and in what way?

Keesing Studio, 1989

Keesing Studio, 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Paris taught me the value of literature, and its social standing in a civilised society. I had in early 1989 had only one novel published by Penguin, and another about to be released, but the words ‘Penguin’ and ‘novel’ seemed to create some magical ether that opened doors at all levels. I met the head of the French equivalent of the Literature Board, and asked him if they had negative front-page stories in France about writers getting grants from the taxpayers funds – as we did at the time in Australia. He looked at me, just a little baffled, and asked how much money was involved. I had no idea, but I think I said something wildly extravagant like $5 million a year, hoping at least to impress him. He shook his head, unbelieving. ‘But merde,’ he said, searching for a metaphor. ‘That’s just… that’s just… the wing tip of a fighter plane!’ My time among the Parisians gave me enormous respect for French cultural values, not to mention their sense of theatre.

Paris literary studio 2: Ursula Dubosarsky

The street outside the studio--Rue Geoffrey l'Asnier, looking towards the Seine

The street outside studio–Rue Geoffrey l’Asnier, looking towards the Seine, December 2015

Well-known children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky is the current resident of the Keesing Studio in Paris, having started her residency in August 2015, and finishing in February 2016. Today, I’m featuring an interview with her about her experiences and observations during her stay so far.

Ursula, what made you decide to apply for the Paris residency?

Once I heard about it many years ago I guess it was always there in the back of my mind – a flat in Paris! What a wonderful thought, why wouldn’t I apply? But I had to wait for my children to grow up (you can only have one child under seven in the flat) and then they did grow up and one of them (daughter Maisie) moved to Paris. Then we noticed my husband Avi was owed six months long service leave, I had an idea for a novel brewing – so it all made sense and I applied.

​​What were your first impressions of the Keesing studio and its neighbourhood,and what are your impressions now?

The impression of the neighbourhood is – marvellous historic area, minutes’ walk across the bridge to Notre Dame – beautiful old streets, houses, museums, galleries, churches, cakes, tourists, restaurants, wine, traffic, soldiers, sirens, graffiti, rain and sun, beautiful clouds, street music, dogs, late nights and late starting mornings.  These impressions have remained from the beginning – I suppose now obviously I know the streets a little better and am a tiny bit more aware of all the depths beneath the surface.

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Part of main living area, Keesing Studio, 2015

Our impression of the Keesing studio is also the same as at the beginning – clean, warm and functional. (more about the Cité itself at the end)

What are you working on there? And have you found your plans for it have changed since you arrived?

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Keesing Studio kitchen, 2015

I’m working on a novel – I don’t know if my plans have exactly changed, but you can’t help but being changed by what you see and hear. I would find it hard to put into words though (hopefully in the book!)

Both for yourself and for Avi, what are your favourite things so far about living in Paris for six months–and the least favourite?

Well there’s no getting away from it, Paris is astonishing. The amount of cultural activity is staggering. Museums, galleries, parks, gardens, theatre, music – there is just so so so much, all the time. The beauty of Paris too is ceaselessly impressive. Avi roams around Paris on his motor scooter, whereas I prefer to walk. I walk for miles. Most of Paris is flat, you can walk anywhere with little physical effort.

 Because we know we are only here for a short time, there is an undercurrent of urgency about seeing and doing as much as we can and there is so so so very very much. So daily life is quite exhausting. But I find it hard to think of negatives about Paris, obviously they exist, but the positives are just so brilliantly shiny…

What do you think of it in terms of a writing/ideas environment? What are the pleasures, and the challenges? What influence do you think  you think your residency will have on your writing?

Ursula and daughter Maisie on Truffaut rail in Paris

Ursula and daughter Maisie on Truffaut trail in Paris

I have been writing, although perhaps not as much as I thought I would. The flat has a certain sterility, which makes you want to go out. People write in cafes, but I find it hard to sit still. I’m constantly walking and writing in my head, constantly thinking. The experiences here will persist all my life and inevitably influence what I write.

Tell us about some of your favourite places  in Paris–sites, culture, food, places,etc.

I think most of all I have loved going to the theatre. There is just SO much. So many small (indeed tiny) independent theatres as well as the larger theatres. You could go to something different every night of the week, classic and contemporary – in fact you could go to several different things every night of the week if only it were possible. It’s like being at a non-stop theatrical festival. The theatre is also very affordable – you can get tickets to most things for about 15 euros.  

Petit Palais

Petit Palais

Other things?  I love the church that is only a few minutes from the flat, St Gervais. Beautiful mysterious and so old. I love the Petit Palais. I love the Rue des Rosiers. I love Notre Dame especially at night.  I loved going out to Giverny, and the Orangerie. The weekend of the “patriomoine” (in September) was absolutely fantastic, when they open up hundreds of culturally significant buildings for you to wander into, with fantastic guides.  Talking of guided

Rue des Rosiers

Rue des Rosiers

tours, they can be so good too, accept every offer. I recently went on a a brilliant one of Truffaut’s Paris for example.

I love the cemeteries of Paris. Completely beautiful. 

There’s just so many things. Too many. I loved the squares and the gardens. The architecture. The cafe life. The sense of things constantly being created and recreated.

I have also loved improving my French. That has been a real and deep pleasure. 

Now you are heading towards the end of your residency, what stands out for you in what you have experienced?

Well our daughter Maisie got married while we were here (not anticipated when I applied for the residency) – that was obviously a wonderful thing for us to be there. On the down side were the November terrorist attacks which were a couple of kilometres from the flat. 

Ursula in Paris Salon du LivreI went to a very memorable and exciting annual festival of children’s books in Montreuil, the Salon du Livre de la Jeunesse. Met some great people – writers, illustrators, publishers, and foreign rights agents etc.

 It has also been such a pleasure having people we know from Australia and elsewhere drop by to visit, wandering, talking, eating and drinking together.

What are your top tips for writers and illustrators planning to apply for the residency?

That’s a hard one! I can only say, apply apply!

 I would learn as much French as you can before you come – then you can enjoy so many more things, like the theatre, guided tours, television, newspapers, public talks etc etc  as well as enjoying yourself more in shops and restaurants. The Cité (the institution where the flat is) does offer French lessons twice a week for a charge, but the class is so composite (complete beginners to advanced all in the same large class) we did not find it very helpful. We both found other places for French classes – Avi goes to the local council which have very good almost free classes and he also goes to a private college. I go to a small private group on Boulevard St Germain.

Ursula at pet cemetery in Paris(grave of Rin Tin Tin)

Ursula at pet cemetery in Paris(grave of Rin Tin Tin, canine star of many films!)

Finally, just a word about the Cité Internationale des Arts:  I think it’s important to be aware that the institution itself is not a community, but rather a building full of artists and musicians (very few writers), most of whom you will never see.

There is no common room or library, or outdoor area for people to gather and meet informally. The hallways are long, dark and empty and without decoration. (There is also a strange absence of a sense of history – hundreds, perhaps thousands of artists have lived here since the 1970s but they seem to leave not a single trace.) There is some communication between residents via email etc, alerting you to performances or invitations to visit their work in progress in their studio, and there is an occasional free lunch party in the car park for all residents, but these are fairly sticky occasions. So it is not an artists’ community as might be imagined, but more an accommodation facility. Worth remembering before you go

Paris literary studio 1: Introduction

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Working in the Keesing Studio, February 2010

One of the most wonderful experiences of my writing life was when I was awarded a six-month residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris from February-August 2010. The Keesing Studio is a flat whose residencies are administered by the Australia Council, but which is part of the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, a massive complex housing lots of studios where artists from all disciplines from across the world can live and work for residencies of specific time limits. (Incidentally, the Keesing Studio and other artist residency locations, including in the Cité, feature in some interesting research done by the Australia Council recently, which you can read here.)

As the Australia Council’s website indicates, the Keesing Studio was generously leased in 1985 for 75 years by the late author Nancy Keesing ‘to provide Australian writers with the opportunity to live and write in a new and stimulating environment.’ It’s certainly that!  The flat itself is small (40 sq m altogether, comprising of one main room–living, sleeping and working space–with separate but very small kitchen, bathroom and store-room) but it’s clean, warm and functional, and set in an unbeatable location, in the buzzy, bustling Marais neighbourhood on the Right Bank, full of interesting little shops and restaurants. It’s only a few steps away from the Seine, and very close to Notre Dame and many other places.

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

I went with my husband David (you pay a minimal monthly fee to the Cité for partners to stay) and we both had the best time there, getting to know Paris really well, walking kilometres across it, looking at everything, shopping in local shops and markets, eating wonderful food, both at home and in little local restaurants, going to the theatre, visiting friends and family and feeling like we were really part of life there, not just passing tourists.

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

The residency was also intensely inspirational: at least three books came out of that six-month stay, though my actual time there was taken up not so much with writing manuscripts as soaking up atmosphere, doing heaps of research, visiting lots of museums, galleries, and sites of interest in Paris, but also outside of it including not only other parts of France, but also Russia, Malta and Italy! And what was more, during the time I was there, the first–yes, the first of my books to be published in French–Three Wishes, written under the pen-name of Isabelle Merlin, and retitled in France as ‘Paul, Charlie et Rose’– was actually released in March 2010 and I got to see it in Paris bookshops and at the wonderful Salon Du Livre(a huge event which is a combination of book trade expo, literary festival and rights fair), as well as having to meet the lovely publishers at Albin Michel.

My book in a Paris bookshop

It was an absolutely wonderful time whose influence continues to inspire me. And I’m not the only writer to feel that.  So I thought I’d start this new year with a new series, Paris literary studio, interviewing Australian writers who have been residents in the Keesing Studio, and finding out what their experiences have been. Later in the week I’ll be interviewing the current resident, Ursula Dubosarsky, and later still authors who were there at various times over the years, but today, I’d like to post a short extract from a piece I wrote after coming back from the residency, which was published in Australian Author, back in December 2010. You can get the full article here. (Free to ASA members, tiny price to non-members!)

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum--Musee de la Chasse et Nature

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum–Musee de la Chasse et Nature

Despite my French background I did not set foot in Paris till adulthood, because of my father’s Southern dislike of it. Whenever we were back in France, Dad would delight in saying, as our flight circled over Paris on its way to Toulouse, ‘That’s exactly where it belongs—under us.’

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Seafood display, markets 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Parisien, tete de chien’ (Parisians are dogs) has always been the vengeful, wounded cry of provincials. For of course Paris adds insult to injury by ignoring the feelings of the innumerable ‘ploucs’  who have converged on it, whether eagerly or resentfully, from all corners of France over the centuries. Plouc is a bogan, a hick, an unsophisticated person–and shorthand for a provincial, as far as Parisians are concerned—an attitude with a very long lineage, for plouc derives from an ancient Gaulish word meaning someone outside the territory of the Parisii, the tribe which ended up giving the city its name.

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m Australian, too. I might carry the ingrained Southern prickliness in my genes, but I’ve been brought up in a culture which still regards the City of Light as a romantic dream, witness the many ‘I was in Paris and fell in love’ memoirs which have populated bestseller lists. So the opportunity to cast off my double plouc-ness as Australian and Southern French and immerse myself in Paris living and writing there for six months was irresistible, even though part of me was scared, wondering if I wouldn’t just end up hating the place. Months into my time here, I was still discovering just how disconcertingly wrong I’d been.

Thing is, nobody, not even a vengeful plouc, told me that the big city of big cities is actually not that at all, but rather a collection of villages….

Night walk, 2010

Night walk, 2010

Thunderbolt Prize winners: Susan Bennett, winner of the Fiction prize

Susan BennettMy final interview with a Thunderbolt Prize winner is with Susan Bennett, winner of the Fiction category in the Thunderbolt Prize.

First of all, Susan, congratulations on your win! Your winning story, Bittersweet, was described by the Fiction judge, Felicity Pulman, as ‘making use of all five senses’ and being  ‘perfectly shaped, with sensual descriptions.’  How did you come up with the central character, Tilly, the food writer? And how did you create the rich texture of the story?

Tilly?  Well, I like my women characters to be strong and complex – flawed human beings rather than representations of ‘the fairer sex.’  And I think in part the story was a reaction to the pretension that is sometimes associated with cookery.  Tilly is a lot less concerned with those aspects than she is with the joyous celebration of life that cooking and food represents.  But as much her food epiphany gains her access to high society, Tilly never stops being the girl who came from nowhere.  Among all of the new found sensuality that food awakens in her, she retains a hard streak and survival instinct that means she’s fully prepared to deal with the man who crosses her, even if she loves him.

In terms of the texture, much of it came from my own experience.  I got into cooking Mexican food in a big way – proper Mexican food, not Tex-Mex.  Living in Australia I couldn’t find the necessary ingredients, so I had to grow them myself.  I ended up with over eighty chilli plants.

I’m inclined to sleepwalk, and my former partner used to catch me wandering out the bedroom door in the dead of night.  When he asked me where I was going, apparently I would answer, “I’m just off to re-pot that chilli.”   On another occasion he reported that I was tossing and turning in my sleep, crying out, “Bugger it!  I’m not re-potting it, I’m not!  I’m not!”  I figure I must have made it outside some nights without him catching me, because I used to find chilli seeds in the bed when I woke up in the morning.  My chilli crop attracted the attention of the police helicopter, but that’s another story.

Suffice it to say that learning to cook Mexican brought a whole new dimension to my love of cooking.

What attracts you to writing crime fiction?

Sometimes I think it’s because I get to bump people off on the page.  A while ago it dawned on me that my stories kept ending with people dying even when I don’t mean them to.  I noted that so far I have killed men by staking them, poisoning them, shooting them and by one other method that probably shouldn’t be mentioned here.  And more than one mother-in-law hasn’t fared too well in my stories.

Crime fiction is an interesting genre because it is so varied, encompassing every style from the very literary to the hardboiled or cosy.  I like the fact that a lot of crime fiction aimed at the mass market is so well-written.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?

In terms of work I’ve done everything from selling knives and camping equipment to working in technical support in the early days of personal computers.  I’ve spent a lot of time in mercantile agencies (business reporting, credit ratings, debt collection) and in software houses.  I’m at a crossroads at the moment and I’m not sure what my next step will be.

I settled on the idea of writing as a teenager, or more accurately, I was blessed with an inspirational English teacher who encouraged me to aspire to write professionally, and I will always be grateful to her.  She personally selected books for me from the school library in her own time so that I didn’t have to read what the rest of the class was reading.  Unfortunately I think you have to be an adult to appreciate the gift someone gave you as a kid.  I wish I could thank her now and tell her how much it meant to me.

My writing career has probably taken a different path to most in that I started off writing novels then moved on to short stories, whereas many writers tend to do that the other way around.  Writing short stories at first I missed the wriggle space a novel gives you.  On the other hand with short stories, you get to play around stylistically in a way that I don’t think can be sustained over the course of a novel if you want it to be readable.

What do you hope winning the Thunderbolt Prize for fiction will do for you as a writer?

Specifically, the win pleased me because Bittersweet has been written for the general reader.  It isn’t a particularly literary story, and until now I doubted that stories for mainstream readers could win competitions, so that made me happy.

As far as prizes go generally, I have been through every stage I think it’s possible to go through.  At first I only entered competitions because editors, publishers and agents want to see prizes and commendations, and as those are the people I have to deal with, I felt it necessary to go after those prizes and commendations, but I can’t say I enjoyed the experience at first.  I swore off entering for a while because it was just another source of rejection that I found discouraging.

Conventional wisdom has it that we should keep sending our work out, but I’d argue that if rejection is impacting on your ability to work, then there’s a case for taking a break from submitting, so that’s what I did for a while.  It occurred to me that I just wanted a period to develop a relationship with my own work, without worrying what anyone else thought about it for a while.  I asked myself some questions I hadn’t asked before, like why was I writing, who was it for and what did I want to get out of it – me – not anyone else.

It was an interesting and fruitful exercise because my work opened up a great deal more.  It occurred to me that I had been writing defensively.  When I went back to submitting after that hiatus, I started winning prizes immediately, which has had a surprising effect on my writing.  I suppose it’s the encouragement.  My work has opened up even more, become more ambitious.  I feel more confident about realising the potential in the story.

What do you look for in a good story or novel?

One of the drawbacks to being a writer is that you are so accustomed to looking for faults in your own work, it can tend to make you more sensitive to the flaws in other people’s work too.  I’ve been through stages where I can’t read because the smallest misstep spoils a book for me.  You know you’re in trouble if you can’t read Bill Bryson without nit-picking.

I’ll read everything from Charles Dickens (a favourite) to Silence of the Lambs, but the writing always has to be quality.

You have a food blog, http://fudgingthemenu.blogspot.com.au/ How did that start?

Largely to support a cook’s organiser I have developed, but also as another creative outlet.  Cooking and writing come from the same place with me, but that can be problematic.  Cooking is more immediately gratifying than writing – I mean what’s not to love?  First it makes the house smell great, then you get to taste it, then it leaves you feeling happy.  It’s so much more straightforward than writing and a lot less subjective, but if it satisfies the creative urge too much then I’m inclined not to write.

Conversely, sometimes writing satisfies me so much that I don’t want to cook.  That can be a problem too.  Fortunately, wine is always on hand to solve it.

Thunderbolt Prize winners: Madeleine Gome, winner of the Youth Award

Madeleine Gome Author PhotoToday, I am interviewing the winner of the Youth Award in the Thunderbolt Prize, Madeleine Gome.
First of all, Madeleine, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning story, Scrap Metal?

My story was actually inspired by true events. I was with my dad, picking up our car from the mechanic. We gave the receptionist the numberplate and all he asked for was a credit card. Without needing any proof of identity we were given the keys and sent on our way.

What attracts you to writing crime fiction?
I don’t specifically set out to write crime fiction. I have never been especially attracted to traditional crime stories which follow the investigation of a crime. I’m more interested in characters and relationships, and the flow of words than creating a rigid storyline or structure.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?
I started writing before I could read, which seems slightly counterproductive. ‘How the Woodcutter Lived’ was apparently my first story. It was about a woodcutter, living in the forest with his partner and their children who got into all sorts of mischief. When I was seven, I wrote my own Harry Potter novella. The spelling was terrible—my parents only managed to translate it into English by reading everything I wrote with a thick Aussie accent! In terms of my writing career, I won the 2014 Hervey Bay Youth Writing Competition and a piece of my non-fiction will appear in an upcoming edition of The Big Issue.
Your mother, Emma Viskic, is also a crime writer(and winner of the fiction category in the inaugural Thunderbolt Prize in 2013). Do you read each other’s work?
Actually, no. My mum is not allowed to give me advice on three things: music, clothing and writing. Our relationship remains intact through a strict separation of powers! She is sometimes allowed to proofread my writing, for clarity and punctuation, but she knows not to comment on the content. I have read one of her short stories, which I loved, but the similarity between our writing was a little unnerving. We both like simple phrases and are interested in characters and relationships.
What do you hope winning the Youth Award will do for you as a writer?
Winning the Youth Award is incredibly thrilling. I have wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember, so receiving validation for my work is very encouraging. I see it primarily as encouragement to continue writing and continue putting my work out there, and to consider writing a viable part of my future and career.
What do you look for in a good story or novel?
I like novels that make me emotionally invested in the characters and their relationships. I enjoy writing which creates characters and situations I can relate to, and that I care about.  I have to want a certain outcome for the characters, and feel involved in their lives. I also love writing that makes me laugh.

Thunderbolt Prize winners: Lynne Cook, Emerging Author Award

Lynne CookToday, I’m interviewing Lynne Cook, winner of the Emerging Author Award in the Thunderbolt Prize. Her winning entry, Change of Plan, was also Highly Commended in the Fiction prize.

First of all, Lynne, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning story, Change of Plan?

Thanks, Sophie! The idea for Change of Plan came – as many writers report! –from a news item; in my case, the report of a fatal cliff fall. I wanted to write a completely different outcome for the story, one which acknowledges the strength and resilience of those in dangerous relationships. We read that Pammy has had a less than satisfactory relationship history but – even though the resolution of the story isn’t one I’d generally recommend! – she survives. She acts to take control of her story. It’s very tempting for a writer to put on a (generally ill-fitting) super-hero outfit at times and try to change the course of history …

What attracts you to writing crime fiction?

Who doesn’t love solving a mystery, putting the pieces of a jigsaw together? For me, crime fiction is the writer setting the reader a challenge; the fun (and thrill) is in joining the suspenseful ride of working out just what the hell is going on, predicting the next move. Crime fiction throws up intriguing characters. I love the psychological play.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?

I’ve worked as an English teacher and have studied and taught German literature too. In the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to complete my first novel (Finding the Words), to work on a collection of short stories and begin a second novel. In 2014 I was one of 5 lucky writers to win a place at Varuna, the National Writers House in Katoomba, to take part in the Short Story Focus Week. It was a terrific experience. I’ve also been involved with the South Coast Writers Centre for the past 4 years; a dynamic and creative bunch of people.

 What do you hope winning the Emerging Author award will do for you as an author?

I hope that winning this award will give me the confidence to trust my instincts and voice in writing.  It is wonderful to be able to list the Emerging Author award (and being Highly Commended in the Fiction prize) on my writing CV!

What do you look for in a good story or novel?

I’m into quirky. A character or situation can be, on the surface, accessible, likeable, even predictable. But then the expectations and predictions are subverted. Character layers are progressively revealed; the situation is thrown open to other perspectives. I love also the way humour can deepen the impact of a text, even in its darkest moments.

Thunderbolt Prize Winners: Tony Sevil, winner of the New England Award

Tony SevilToday, I’m speaking to  Tony Sevil, winner of the New England Award in the Thunderbolt Prize for his short story, The Disappearance of Buck. As well, the story received a Highly Commended citation in the Fiction category.

First of all, Tony, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning story, The Disappearance of Buck?

Thank you! Back in 2011 I did  an online creative writing course with the NSW Writers Centre. I found the course invaluable and the tutor, Laurine Croasdale, very encouraging.

One of the exercises in the course was to write a personals advertisement for an invented character. I invented the character of Alf Buccal, a competition brickthrower. He was looking for a ‘missus’, someone to settle down with. The exercise was designed to create a character’s voice. I got a bit carried away with the character and the story finished up longer than the guideline wordage.

Who knows where the character came from, but I have always been attracted to people who are passionate about what they do, no matter what that might be. I am a country boy whose family is still on the same property they selected in the 1840’s. I expect I am a bit of an observer and a listener, so I have probably picked up on the patterns of speech and mannerisms of people in rural Australia.

The tutor’s response was very encouraging:

“I laughed so much I nearly fell off my chair. It’s a hilarious piece! Love it!”

So I thought,”Well I think I will hang onto this character, store him away in the back of my mind.”

Tony Sevil's studio

Tony Sevil’s studio

Then earlier this year I saw the promo for the Thunderbolt Crime Writing Competition, and I started to think whether I might be able to weave my character, Alf Buccal, into a crime story. I decided to base the story around his favourite, precious brick, which is stolen. Then it is his search to try and find the culprit.

What attracts you to writing crime fiction?

This is my first attempt at writing crime fiction. It excited me. One part of the plot seemed to lead to the other rather seamlessly. It’s fun to write a mystery story where the reader might wonder “where in the hell is this story going”, especially when it’s just a story about a brickthrower whose special brick is stolen! It is fun to weave the story. Not giving too much away. Perhaps I am a bit of a trickster. I like telling verbally a story in a roundabout way so that people will listen to me!  And perhaps wonder what is coming next.

Crime fiction may not be where my writing future lies, but humour certainly will.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?

I studied Economics in the early 1960’s. Much later I did a Diploma of Social Science. I have worked in Market Research, Economic Research, public relations. I have been in selling. I have driven a cab and worked in restaurants. Coming from a farming background I have tried my hand at that. I worked and travelled in Europe and Africa for nearly three years. One of the more interesting jobs was taking livestock to South Africa. I was working on a Hereford stud farm in Hereford on the Welsh border. I heard that you could get a job as a stockman on a cargo ship taking animals to south Africa. An opportunity came up and for a couple of weeks I looked after 13 head of cattle, 3 horses and four dogs that were being exported to South Africa. The cargo ship dropped off cargo at the Canary Islands, Ascencion Island and Napoleon’s exile Island of St Helena on the way. Then I worked as a shunter on Rhodesian Railways for around 6 months. There were a number of other non economic jobs I took on.

When I returned to Australia I felt lost and found it hard to settle. Where do I go now? What work do I do? I felt mates from my school and Uni days were getting ahead with their careers, and I was floundering.

I eventually got a job as a public relations officer for a mining company at Gove on the north eastern tip of Arnhem Land. It was an escape for a couple of years. Just another job. Not really a career path.

tony sevil art 1In more recent times I worked as a care worker for what was then The Challenge Foundation in Armidale, which was the most rewarding wage work I have ever done. During this time I was also progressing with my art making things out of found objects. This eventually became a passion.  I have exhibited in commercial galleries and also been in group exhibitions and a solo exhibition at NERAM. I have an exhibition coming up at Gallery 126 in Armidale in November and another solo exhibition at NERAM in September 2016.

All the way through I have written or tried to write. I have had stories and articles published, but I have never , until now, had any fiction published. I tried writing fiction but my stories seemed embarrassingly naïve and stilted. I think I got caught up too much in structure and not enough in letting a story flow. The Disappearance of Buck story seemed to flow rather seamlessly so I feel I may have found my voice in writing humorous fiction.

What do you hope winning the New England Award will do for you as a writer? 

I know I will be writing with a lot more confidence now. I will certainly be more confident about writing tony sevil art 2more humour. I will probably go back over my life and expand on humorous incidents in my life. And drag out half done stories from my drawers and maybe re work them. Perhaps a collection of humorous stories some day. Who knows. The prize has opened up so many possibilities.

I have a rather interesting project going at the moment. I love Facebook-Seeing the art and reading the thoughts of friends from around the world. It is a wonderful way to test the water with my artwork.

I noticed drawings of cute fat cats that I really liked by an Iranian artist from Tehran (who has not been published). I suggested to her that we try and write a children’s book together on cat behavior. She liked the idea and for the last year we have been sending emails backwards and forwards with drawings and text. I wanted a Persian name for the cat. So I asked Bahare if she could come up with some Persian names for me to chose from. I chose a name. But she said it was a female name and she thought the cat was male. So we have chosen the name Homayoun. I asked Bahare to pronounce it so I could possibly work out a rhyme for it. Her husband sent me an audio with the correct pronunciation. With my regular correspondence with Bahare I always now ask her to say g’day to the man with the lovely voice.

There are two aspects of this that appeal to me. Firstly is it possible to collaborate in this way and produce a book? Secondly I like the idea of reaching out to someone on a personal level who is from a different culture and nation to mine.

You are an artist too as well as a writer. How do those two practices work with each other?

I think making art and writing can go well together, especially with the way I operate. With my art I like to have several, sometimes many, projects going at the same time. I like to move freely between projects. If I get to a point in a project that requires more thought I will move to another project and then return to the other one with a fresh eye. Writing seems to fit ok into this ‘routine’. I often write tony sevil art 3early in the mornings. I don’t really sit down and slog away at a plot on the computer. I usually have quite a lot worked out in my head before I tap things into the computer. And these ideas for stories often come when I am working away on an artwork.

The trouble is my mind can get a bit full sometimes and I can get a bit ratty. That’s when I walk or do a little meditation. I always take a break, read the newspaper, start the crossword and have a nap after lunch.

As a reader, what do you look for in a good story or novel?

I am not an avid reader at all. I do read the newspaper from cover to cover. However some wonderful writers have sort of landed in my lap at important times in my life. Back in my school days I remember being mesmerized analyzing some of the set texts. One was Silas Marner, the other two were Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I thought English was up there with my best subject at school but did a bad leaving certificate exam, even though my English teacher in the then 4th year asked me if I was going to study English when I left school. I only got a B. That threw me a bit. So I silas marnerstudied Economics. I got an A in that 🙂

After high school and for a number of years, I cannot recall reading much at all other than the newspaper from cover to cover starting at the back page, the sport page. After  11 years at boarding school I just wanted to party. I did not do much study at UNE but I had some very bright mates. Come essay and exam time I would visit them, pick their brains and often borrow their lecture notes. They didn’t seem to mind.

I don’t like saying it but I don’t seem to have a lot of time to read novels. I cannot read during the day. Perhaps it is my farming background. The day was for physical work. I read at night in bed…sometimes. I usually fall asleep after a few pages. I tend to wind down in bed at night with the Herald crossword. Not the cryptic…

Sometimes I find my mind is working overtime on new ideas for an artwork, working out how I will put something together. I cannot seem to concentrate on reading. My partner suggested we should read your books, Sophie. I said to her perhaps you could read them and tell me all about them!  🙂

However I would like to mention a few books and authors that have made a huge impression on me.  Books seem to have landed on my lap at the right time in my life. I loved The Snow Leopard by Peter snow leopardMathiessen. Other writers I cannot put down include John Steinbeck, and more recent writers, Annie Proulx and Barbara Kingsolver. I love their characters. I love being immersed in the environment of the word pictures they paint. I love their characters.

I was hugely inspired by Nelson Mandala’ autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Years ago I read a historical novel on Ghandi, Freedom at Midnight, by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, which I really enjoyed. It perhaps canonized Ghandi a bit. But he deserved it.

Tony’s website is here.

Thunderbolt Prize winners: P.S. Cottier, winner of the Poetry prize

Penelope Cottier

The New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing is a respected national award for unpublished short-form crime writing in three Open categories: Fiction, sponsored by the School of Arts, University of New England; Non-Fiction, sponsored by The Armidale Express; and Poetry, sponsored this year by the New England Writers’ Centre and the Armidale Dumaresq Memorial Library. There are also three special awards: the New England Award for a writer resident in New England, sponsored by Reader’s Companion bookshop, Armidale; the Emerging Author Award, for an unpublished writer over 18, sponsored by Friends of Tamworth Libraries; and this year, the inaugural Youth Award, for writers under 18, sponsored by Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard, Armidale.

The Prize, which in 2015 is in its third year, is run by the New England Writers’ Centre, of which I’m Chair, and as the results of the 2015 Prize have just been announced, I thought it would be interesting to interview each of the winning authors, and ask them about their stories, their writing careers, and what they hope winning an award within the Prize will do for them.

Here’s the first of the interviews, with P.S. (Penelope) Cottier, winner of the Poetry category in the Thunderbolt Prize.

First of all, Penelope, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning poem, Criminals who are no longer criminals?

Thanks Sophie.  I was thinking about the way we incarcerate asylum seekers offshore, including children, and whether this would be classed as a crime in the future (it may already be in breach of various agreements, and lead to inarguable crimes such as murder and rape).  From that I started thinking about laws that had once seemed necessary, at least to some, and which later seemed cruel, pathetic, or simply very odd, and which are now repealed.  These laws include those against homosexuality, witchcraft, eavesdropping, and laws about found treasure which I vaguely remembered from studies in first year law.  Finding out that just walking around at night was once a crime was a total bonus, so far as the poem was concerned. I had a vivid image of all those who had been subject to these laws meeting, as ghosts, outside a court room.

The poetry judge, Les Murray, commented on the evocative nature of your descriptions. How did you go about creating that texture?

I try to put aside too much thought when writing a poem.  I like to have a fairly strong idea of what I will be doing before I start, but when I am writing my best work it is as if I am taking dictation from someone unseen.  Not automatic so much as going through the gears in a manual car without thinking about it.  You only become conscious if you miss a gear.

This intense cruising was more difficult here because of the law lurking around like a bore at a party.  (The sort of bore who wears a ‘funny’ bowtie and can’t wait to assail you with stories of his most awesome success.)  But the poem contains more than a whiff of smell, has some sounds I like, word play, and an element of surprise, co-existing with a strong sense of sorrow.  I think I avoided being too preachy or tedious, despite the research wedged in there.

I’m glad that Les liked it!

Have you written poetry themed around crime before? What attracted you to do so?

I was about to say ‘no’, and then I remembered that a poem that was the joint winner of the Arts ACT David Campbell Prize dealt with a father who had murdered his children.  Again it had a element of the dreamlike to it, while dealing with an unfortunately real situation.  It was called ‘Visitation’ and the dead children appear to the mother in her dreams.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?

I was born in England, raised in Melbourne and live in Canberra, a place I now love, after a long and intense struggle.  My latest publication is a pocket book called Paths Into Inner Canberra, which is an essay with two poems, looking at notions of nature and the way that wild animals can be found a few kilometres from Parliament House.  (Insert politician joke here.)  It gives me great joy that a piece of writing can be produced and sold for as little as $4, and that Ginninderra Press produces this type of publication.  This book can be ordered here.

Of relevance to this award is the fact that I have a law degree.  I go months without remembering that!  I also have a PhD in Literature from the ANU, written on images of animals in the works of Charles Dickens.

I write as P.S. Cottier, which sometimes stands for Post Script, as I started seriously seeking publication relatively late. (I almost forgot.)  I have had three books of poetry published, co-edited an anthology of poems, and have even stooped to prose fictional and non-fictional, as noted above.

What do you hope winning the Poetry prize will do for you as a writer?

This may sound a little cute, but writing poetry is an end in itself, particularly when someone gets to read it.  I am pleased that the poem is being published, and that I managed to write a poem about law reform and the cruelties of the past (and by extension, the current limitations of the law).

I try my hardest not to think in terms of a writing career.  That probably means my view of poetry is hopelessly romantic.  If I want to have a poem I have finished read, I will post it on my blog at pscottier.com as often as submitting to a journal.

But I will certainly buy something cool with the prize money.

As a reader of poetry, what do you look for in a poem? Which poets have influenced your own work?

Invention and surprise are my favourite aspects of poetry.  I like unexpected combinations of words and play.  Huge slabs of self reflection, or emotions thrown at the reader like sodden hankies, are not my favourite things.

I love Emily Dickinson because she avoids easy translation into a single message.

Byron is a favourite because he lurches between tenderness and sarcasm.

I read as widely as possible in contemporary poetry written in Australia and elsewhere.