Last weekend I returned from nearly a month in the USA.
It was the kind of adventure that shifts things. It shifted the way I think about America, the way I think about diverse books and our urgent need for them (the shortage is chronic), and the way I think about story.
While I was there I did three events to celebrate the release of the US edition of ‘Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean’, visited twenty-one bookshops, and attended the fabulous Bindercon.
I also sailed around San Francisco Bay, ate a crazy number of tacos and met a stellar array of Californians who inspired me with their energy and optimism. When you realise that San Francisco sits along one of the great fault-lines in the crust of the planet, you can’t help but be impressed by the millions of people who live there and embrace each day as it comes yet still plot and scheme for their futures.
Before I left for the US, a number of people asked me if I was afraid to travel there. When I mentioned this to friends in California, they were amazed and alarmed to realise how much Donald Trump’s election had frightened the rest of the world.
Fear is at the core of most of the stories that dominate world news. And of course there’s plenty to inspire fear in the current state of the world. I love that the US publisher made that the shout line on the cover ‘Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean’ – tales of imagination and daring. In an age where fear is crippling so many people, more than ever we all need stories of imagination and daring.
Yesterday I visited Camberwell Girls’ Grammar School to speak to the Year 8 students who are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended’. They had great comments and questions about the book and had obviously read it very closely. But during question time, a bright-eyed girl in the front row asked an impossible question, or at least one I couldn’t answer on the spot; had a real person inspired the character of ‘Ray”.
For an awful moment, I drew a complete blank. Ray? Who was Ray? The student prompted me – ‘Nette’s fiancé!’ Then suddenly, Ray came pounding to the front of my consciousness. Ray Staunton, husband of Nette Flynn, WW1 veteran who takes his bride to Cobdolga to farm marginal land courtesy of the Returned Serviceman’s Land Scheme. Poor gruff, tortured Ray with his damaged hand that’s missing three fingers, scarred in more ways than one, struggling away on his bleak acreage in the Riverland. How could I forget him? I invented him. I had even cried when I wrote the scene where he held his baby son for the first time.
It doesn’t happen often but, occasionally, I forget some of the minor characters from my novels. It’s excruciatingly embarrassing when it happens during a public lecture. How can a character I’ve created, someone that I have lovingly laboured to bring to life, someone for whom I have created character files and scenes and dialogue, someone who was so real when I was in the thick of the story, how can they disappear into the crowd of imaginary characters at the back of my brain? Other authors have shamefully admitted it happens to them, too, but that’s small compensation.
In the last twenty years I have invented literally hundreds of characters across eleven novels and many short stories and junior fiction titles. Sometimes I dream of them, long after the book in which they’re featured has been published. So there is always a particular sense of shame when I forget one of them. Sorry, Ray.
Tomorrow I’m heading into RMIT to talk about “my brilliant career” to students studying YA and Children’s Literature with Simmone Howell. When I started making notes for the session, I realised that 20 years ago, in 1996, I was a student at RMIT studying in the exact same course – Professional Writing and Editing. Back then, I never doubted that I’d eventually carve out a career for myself as a writer.
My father was a professional sculptor who made a living from his art. He always said that if you want a career in any area of the arts you have to expect to serve a 20 year apprenticeship. So now I’m finally at the end of my apprenticeship. Although I’ve lectured at literally hundreds of other universities, festivals, schools and institutions there’s something about returning to RMIT that really brought this home.
I’ve learned a vast amount about writing and publishing in the past two decades but perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned is that writing well means taking nothing for granted. Not making assumptions and staying humble is important. What makes writing worth doing is it forces you to never stop learning. To stay engaged with the world and to keep your work relevant you have to keep setting yourself new challenges.
One challenge I didn’t take up this month was participating in Instagram’s #authorlifemonth. But I have been following YA author Lilli Wilkinson’s Instagram posts and it made me realise that sometimes I do take for granted what I’ve learned. I love Lilli’s snapshots of her writer’s life. Those little insights into how she balances writing with domestic life and the real world are so important when you’re starting out as a writer – or even when you’re decades in. They put everything into perspective.
Next week I’ll begin teaching writing every Wednesday night at the Faber Academy in Melbourne. There’s nothing like communicating what I’ve learned to new authors to make me reflect on what it means to live an author’s life. Lucky me.