elena ferrante: my brilliant friend (2011)

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Naples streetscape – copyright ilolab 2016

You have to love a novel that starts with the disappearance of one of its protagonists. When Elena discovers that Lila, her childhood friend, has not only disappeared, but also removed all physical traces of her existence, she gets angry. She resolves to write a novel in which she will record all she has found out about Lila over the past sixty years. Story-telling as a corrective, an act of vengeance.

Having thus framed the novel in the prologue, Ferrante takes the reader back to 1950s Naples, a gritty and at times violent urban environment, where being male is a distinct advantage, and being streetwise a necessity. Enter the unlikely protagonists: two six-year-old girls.

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emma donoghue’s room: terrific or terrifying?

2016-04-29 15.25.03This is a novel I dreaded reading. The story of a young woman imprisoned in a single room, told from the perspective of Jack, her five-year-old son, who was born into captivity and has never seen the outside world.

The person who recommended it to our book group had introduced the novel in terms of its philosophical implications, but I could only think of the depravity underpinning the plot. So, was I able to overcome my bias and finish the book? Continue reading

liane moriarty: the husband’s secret

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Photo: Wolf Soul (2007) by Romel, under Creative Commons licence.

In the opening scene of The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty introduces Cecilia Fitzpatrick as “a school mum and part–time Tupperware consultant.” Happily married, mother of three, memories of her younger self stored in the attic in neatly labeled plastic containers, checking off tasks as she moves through the day. As readers we know that so much control and organisation constitutes hubris; it is rattling the cages of the gods of narration. Continue reading

awkward moments with authors: meeting harry mulisch

I had just started working in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet in 1988 when a former colleague rang to let me know that Harry Mulisch would be visiting the University of Melbourne on 19 September. Harry Mulisch (1927–2010) was one of the towering figures in postwar Dutch literature and my colleague, knowing how highly I thought of Mulisch’s oeuvre, was kind enough to invite me to join the party for lunch at University House. I was blown away by the invitation and immediately went to see my supervisor to beg for a day’s leave. So far so good… Continue reading

happiness is a skill, not an emotion

Buddha’s core teaching, the Dhammapada, opens as follows:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.

The central thesis of Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness (2006) is that happiness is not an emotion, but a skill that can be learned and developed. It is, he says, ‘a way of interpreting the world’.

Matthieu Ricard has a PhD in biology from the Pasteur Institute and spent the last thirty-odd years as a Buddhist monk, and the last decade as the French interpreter to the Dalai Lama. He is one of a group of scientists who have been collaborating with the Dalai Lama to explore the commonalities between the teachings of Buddhism and the findings of modern science as to how emotions emerge in the mind and can be managed. Continue reading

newbie guide to digital self-publishing

My first experience with self-publishing was in the early 1970s. Think Jethro Tull and corduroy flares. I had written 30-odd poems and an uncle who taught young people with learning difficulties had run them off at work on a stencilling machine. His charges had created a rather lurid psychedelic pattern of bright red and teal blobs for the cover design. It had no discernible link to the contents of the slim volume, except that, like my poetry, it was a bit all over the place. It was all very high tech and professional, at the time. Distribution proved another challenge. The first five copies were easy of course (thanks Mum). As none of the local bookstores were interested, I ended up peddling my poetry at the end of pop concerts. That sort of worked, as people were generally in a good mood. I would target couples, handing a sample copy to the girl. If I was lucky she would say something profound like ‘oh, poetry’ and look up at her beau. The guy would then buy a copy, mainly to get rid of me I think. At least in those days you didn’t have to compete with long-stemmed roses. I think I sold some 60 copies and gave away another 25 (out of a print run of 100 copies).

Fast forward a couple of decades and I am once again contemplating self-publishing. This time, the whole publishing industry is in turmoil, with book store chains collapsing faster than you can say incunabulum. The likelihood of an unknown author landing a commercial contract for a novel is way outside the probability curve; just about as plausible as someone completing a PhD thesis on the Afghan Navy.

Yet, in a sweetly ironic way, the factors that led to this state of affairs, such as globalisation and the digital age, also contain solutions for aspiring authors.

I decided to ramp up my writing this year, as I have spent too much time on other people’s priorities and life is short. I also started thinking about publishing again and felt bewildered. Sure, I had downloaded and read e-books, but had never thought about them from an author’s perspective. Do you just upload a Word file? What about copyright, plagiarism and piracy? How could authors possibly survive with novels priced from $0.99 on Amazon?

I started googling and felt incredibly lucky that one of the first resources I came across was David Gaughran’s blog: Let’s get digital. How to self-publish, and why you should. The blog contains a wealth of information, including a link to David’s 180-page Let’s get digital guide published in July 2011.

The first part of the guide starts with an overview of the publishing industry in this era of digital revolution. David believes that ‘print is doomed’, bedevilled by rising costs, fewer outlets, short sale timeframes and reducing market share. The e-book, by contrast, will profit from an upward spiral driven by growing acceptance, low production costs and the capacity to maintain backlists almost indefinitely. David debunks a number of myths about self-publishing and shows, for example, that a self-publishing author can recoup production costs and earn royalties comparable to the advance offered by trade publishers.

The second part of the guide provides an overview of the self-publishing process. David explains how you can prepare your e-book for submission to different publishers (such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords) and emphasises the need to engage professionals for final editing and the book cover. He canvasses a number of pricing strategies and explains how you can use blogging and social networking to develop a marketing strategy that can continue to drive sales.

The third section consists of testimonials of more than thirty writers who have gone down the self-publishing path; and a final section provides advice on a range of issues including international markets, short story publishing and a list of writing resources.

This comprehensive guide testifies, not only to David’s professionalism as a writer, but also to his generosity of spirit in sharing this valuable resource – the product of hours of hard work – as a free download with anyone interested. As a fellow writer I seriously ask anyone downloading the guide to make a donation to David (there is a link to his PayPal account). The price of a long-stemmed rose maybe…