From the depths of winter to The Peacock Summer

There is a general consensus that broken hearts are fertile ground for creativity. The break-up album. The affecting, painted canvas. The revealing memoir. Joan Didion wrote eloquently about loss and grief after her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds wrote the dark and dazzling album, Skeleton Tree after the tragic death of Cave’s young son. Sir Francis Bacon produced some of his most important and moving paintings after the suicide of his lover. Meryl Streep once famously concluded a Golden Globes acceptance speech with, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There is a clear sense that the experience of deep emotion can be somehow as transformative and productive as it is painful.

Not so, for me. In the earliest days of loss my feelings were out of control. Everything felt sharp and hyper-real. I was on the edge and capable only of emotional outpourings in my diary. Real life had become more scary and far less predictable than any plot twist I could envisage. I was holding on by a thread, focused on the nuts and bolts of living, of getting out of bed in the morning and facing the days. I was trying to fathom life as a suddenly-single parent, with all the responsibility that brings. I had a half-finished first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop and a looming deadline, but frankly, writing fiction felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford.

It turns out, however, that just as we cannot hold on to perpetual joy, we also cannot spend our days at the coalface of raw emotion. Feelings are ephemeral, cyclical. After the emotional overload of the early months, I sank into a different state. Numb paralysis. The empty heart. I fell into the depths of winter. It was, in a way, worse.

I once said in an interview that as a writer, it’s important to try and feel what your characters are feeling. If you don’t feel it, your readers won’t either. After months of heightened pain, I realised I wasn’t feeling anything. My senses were dulled. And the half-finished first draft of The Peacock Summer sitting on my laptop? Well that seemed to belong to a different writer, from a different time. Not me.

So how do you return from the empty place? How do you find your creativity again, when it feels as though it has been lost for good? Well, as so often in nature, it involves a long, slow thaw. It takes time. And it takes work.

I carried on writing in my diary – private excerpts of sadness, as well as more hopeful pieces about the life and love I still glimpsed around me. I joined a closed writing group for fellow broken hearts led by widow and writer Megan Devine. A month of writing prompts allowed me to explore my feelings in a safe place with fellow grievers. I slowly began to return to reading, dipping in first to those books that mirrored my experience and made me feel more sane for echoing my emotions. I took advice from other writers, particularly the late Penny Vincenzi who reassured me that I would get back to it and that writing could become a kind of therapy, in time. I read all the Harry Potter books with my children, religiously, night after night. Together we explored love and loss through the words of J.K. Rowling and slowly, gently, I rediscovered my love of fiction and the escape it could offer. I began to pick up novels again, and fall in love with the power and beauty of the written word. My own writing became a personal release. It offered escape. It was a chance to leave my life and immerse myself in another’s. Slowly, the numbness faded and the feeling returned.

Just as ‘you can’t hurry love’, I think it’s fair to say that you also can’t hurry grief. You can’t fast forward through pain. It’s a gruelling exercise of endurance. A little like writing a novel, it simply takes as long as it takes. Until, one day, you raise your head and realise that the fog has cleared a little and there, in the distance, is a path. Not the path you thought you’d be taking, but a path none the less, and with the arrival of the path comes the renewal of something else: the curiosity to step onto it. Just as in writing a novel, you may have a rough map in your head of where you hope the path will lead, but you also have to be open to the unexpected twists and turns ahead. Both the joy and the sorrow that you know will come.

For today at least, I feel like the depths of winter are behind me. Today sees my third novel, The Peacock Summer, (that half-finished first draft I once couldn’t bear to look at) published in Australia and New Zealand. In another two days it will be released in the UK. I have just signed the contracts for several more countries to publish the book next year. On a perfect English summer’s day like today, with the sun falling through a window onto my desk and the sky a holiday snapshot blue, and with a book on the cusp of release, it’s almost easy to forget the personal and professional work that it has taken to get to this point. It’s almost too easy to forget that these are events I truly thought were beyond my reach even just a year ago. And it’s also a little too easy to skip forward and to focus now on the worries of publication … the anxiety of reviews, promotion, events and sales.

But today I won’t future gaze. Today, it feels important to take a moment to recognise the person I have become and the work that has gone into getting here. I am remembering exactly what it took and just how many people were involved in helping me. Today, I acknowledge the painful – but real – transformation that has occurred. Not necessarily a better version of myself; but certainly a different one.

Because I am now a person who knows that grief will never leave me. I understand the ebb and flow of it. I know that just as it can retreat and soften, it can also surge back, sharp and painful. I know that it will always be a part of me – just like the love it stems from. I know I will keep living and writing … changed in ways I never could have imagined … my heart more broken yet more capable of feeling both sadness and joy than ever before. And as I write these words, I do shed a tear for the man I loved deeply and unconditionally, and for the person I was who loved him. And I take a moment to acknowledge him, before I hit the ‘publish’ button on this post, close the window and turn back to the new document sitting on my laptop, ready for the work ahead. Creativity as release. There are worse things to throw your bruised heart into.

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The Peacock Summer

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(First glimpse: Australian Book Cover)

I’m very happy to announce that I have a new book coming out this year.

The Peacock Summer, will be published on 28 June 2018 by Orion in the UK and Hachette in Australia and New Zealand, with translation rights already sold in Germany, France and Sweden.

If you’re interested to know more, you can click here for Hachette Australia’s recent acquisition press release.
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/…/hachette-acquires-…/

I’m so happy and relieved to have finally found my way back to fiction writing, and even more pleased to say I’m well into the planning and writing of the next novel. Thank you for being so kind and supportive and giving me your much-needed boosts of encouragement along the way. I promise not to keep you waiting as long next time.

Roll on publication day!

Laura’s Bench

… So I go for a walk and I find a bench with a view and sit for a while looking out over the countryside, staring at a patchwork valley of hills and fields, watching the summer swallows dancing in a blue sky. And as I sit there on the bench thinking about you and all the many memories I hold on this sad-strange anniversary day, I notice the brass plaque nailed to the wood beside me. In loving memory of Laura Kinsella who died at birth, 19 May 2005. Laura Kinsella, a girl who didn’t get to live one day in this world. And you, who lived 41 years and whom we still feel robbed of. And I think of the pain of the family who lost their Laura and I feel a sudden rush of love for them, strangers who know what it’s like to hold the ache of loss in their hearts. An ache that never leaves you, but shifts and changes – changes you – as the days roll by. And I lift my head and I say thank you to the sky, because it’s the only place I can think to look for you now. I say thank you for the years I got to spend with a man who loved me like I was a vital part of him, and who let me love him like he was a vital part of me. And I say thank you to the Kinsellas, whoever and wherever they are, for Laura’s bench, which was exactly where I needed it to be, today …

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‘I accept’

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I am a writer. I spend my days stringing words together to create stories. It’s a lovely job and I’ve been lucky that publishers have wanted to share a little of my work.

Only my writing hasn’t been going so well lately. In recent months, the days I’ve spent at my desk have felt hard. Broken even. The parts of my brain that used to allow me to daydream and wander the maze of my imagination have not been functioning. I have felt stifled. Devoid of creativity. And the words I have written have not been good words. There has been no momentum, as if the story I’ve been trying to tell doesn’t fully belong to me. I’ve become a writer who cannot write. A storyteller without a story. An imposter.

Amidst this struggle, I have found myself thinking about my identity as a writer; about how bad it feels to be a writer who can’t write. I miss the ‘flow’, that point when you lose sight of yourself sitting there at the desk and the words just fall over themselves onto the paper and you are so lost in the flurry of them that you don’t lift your head from the keyboard for ages. I miss that welcome loss of self that comes when  you are fully connected to an idea, committed to its creation.

Lately, when I have sat at my desk, I’ve felt judgement. There has been a voice on my shoulder whispering criticism and prodding my self-doubt. Chatting about this struggle with a wise person recently, I was offered some simple advice: accept. Accept the bad writing days. Relax into them. Allow them to just be. The wise one suggested I go so far as to write ‘I accept’ on a post-it note and stick it above my desk where I can see it. Every day. I nodded, and tried to look enthusiastic but listening to her advice, I felt sceptical. A post-it note? Right.

Acceptance. It’s a word that I have been thinking about a lot recently. It’s certainly something that I have discussed before with close friends, in relation to loss and life. It’s also something that was addressed in an evening class I attended on the Buddhist approach to unwanted loss and change. Late last year, on a steamy Sydney night, I attended a gathering at a local church hall, crept into the back and sat on an uncomfortable creaky chair to listen. The teacher that night told us how we humans, when facing unwanted change and loss, often fight the event. Our brains’ automatic response is an internal shout of, ‘No, no, no‘. We fight and resist. We feel in every fibre of our being: I don’t want this. The teacher pointed out that by reacting in this way we add to the stress and mental trauma of a situation. After all, the ‘no‘ doesn’t change anything. Instead, the Buddhist way is to observe the emotion and the pain, and then to simply say, ‘I accept.’

A little like my friend’s post-it note suggestion, this teaching at first seemed bewildering and, if I’m honest, a little offensive. Accept the pain of loss and change? How could it be that simple?

But time does strange things to the resistance in our brains and after a while, I realised I had nothing to lose by trying. So more recently, whenever I’ve felt overwhelmed, or had to face something I really don’t want to be happening, I have tried to fight the ‘no‘ instinct and turned to face the situation, whatever it is with a deep breath and an, ‘I accept’. Long traffic jam: I accept. My child having a massive tantrum: I accept. Feeling unbearably lost or sad: I accept.

And remembering this, I did write that post-it note and I stuck it above my desk … And of course, since then, something strange has started to happen. I have experienced something of a change. Slowly, I feel my heart and my head filling with stories once more. I recognise the itch to lay them down. I sit at my desk more readily and lift my head after a couple of hours at the computer, surprised at the new word count sitting in the corner of the screen. And it’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that with these feelings comes a new return of ideas and imagination and the first taste of that wonderful flow.

It’s a flow that I think extends beyond my writing too. I find myself daydreaming once more of travel and adventures – of the freedom that faces me to create a new life. I say ‘yes’ more quickly to friends and opportunities that are coming my way. I laugh more frequently. I am seeking out new experiences, new friends, new ideas. I feel open and accepting of whatever might be coming my way. In whatever form.

My heart no longer feels like an empty void. It is as if a door has opened and I can feel the world rushing in, in the most exhilarating way. Suddenly, every day feels like a gift – every morning a beginning. It feels a little like falling in love – falling in love with life. With possibility. With the smallest moments in my days that make me feel happy and alive. Accepting the good moments when life seems to make sense … and accepting those moments when life feels more pointless and dark, knowing that by accepting it all, the light does return. It’s as if I can suddenly bear my own my life again. The good and the bad. It is mine – my story – and I can carry it. I don’t always like it, but I own it and it has become a part of who I am.

I recognise the need to show up each day and invest in the things that hold the most value to me: writing, friendship, love, art, connection, life. I am gently reaching for more: for something greater than my own experience. It’s a relief to feel greedy for life again – for all of its joy and emotion. This is part of a larger transformation; but I also recognise it as a surrender. I am opening myself up to being vulnerable once more – to failure, to the potential for more hurt and pain. It is scary, but as the saying goes, a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.

I am a writer. And I am writing again. I am ready to own my stories again – both the one I am living, and the ones I want to tell through my writing. Some days I stare at the note above my desk and think, ‘I accept’. And some days I don’t even notice that note, because I am head down and lost in a world of ideas. And it feels good.

I have been so grateful for the messages and comments some of you have sent me in past months, asking about my writing. On the darker days they have been a reminder of who I can be, and what I am capable of and I hope that, all things being well, I might post more details here soon of what I am working on. In the meantime? I accept that these things take time, hard work, and patience.

I accept.

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Great Trees

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The finest of words written by Maya Angelou…

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
 fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
 of
dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

― Maya Angelou

A belated happy New Year to you all. I hope the year ahead brings adventures, kindness and much love to you all. H.

Hope takes flight

Last night saw the culmination of months of hard work from a great many people when the very first winner of the Richell Prize for an unpublished writer was announced at a drinks reception hosted by Hachette in Sydney. Sally Abbott was awarded the Prize of $10,000 and a mentorship with Hachette Publisher Robert Watkins for her wonderful, dystopian submission ‘Closing Down’.

It was an emotional night – touched with sadness, of course, but also full of hope. It felt like a night not just to honour Matt and all he stood for in his publishing work, but also a night to look to the future and the promise of what is to come. Which is exactly how Matt would have wanted it. It was inspiring for me to sit on the judging panel and read the work of so many talented Australian writers. There were other entries on the longlist we judges fought hard for individually, but collectively, the panel were in agreement that the five shortlisted writers – Brodie Lancaster, Ellena Savage, Jonathan O’Brien, Lyndel Caffrey and Sally Abbott were exceptional contenders for the Prize – a wonderful shortlist for its breadth in subject matter and style.

Richell Prize shortlist, from left to right, Brodie Lancaster, Ellena Savage, Lyndel Caffrey, Sally Abbott and Jonathan O'Brien

Richell Prize shortlist, from left to right, Brodie Lancaster, Ellena Savage, Lyndel Caffrey, Sally Abbott and Jonathan O’Brien

For anyone wondering why the swallow motif for the Prize, there is a very simple, very personal explanation. Matt and I shared a spring morning in a park a few years ago. Our daughter was still a baby, a warm dumpling lying in my lap. But our son was off, zigzagging across the park, haring about as three-year-olds will. There didn’t seem to be much logic to his haphazard running until Matt turned to me, a smile dawning. ‘He’s racing the swallows,’ he said. And he was. He was chasing the birds as they performed their dazzling acrobatics out of the Morton Bay Fig trees and swooping low across the grass. We watched our son for ages that morning. Sitting in the sunshine. Happy. Together.

When Matt turned forty, I bought him a voucher for a local tattoo parlour. It was a bit of a joke. I’d been teasing him about his mid-life crisis. I didn’t think he’d go through with it; but he surprised me by returning one Saturday morning with his arm bandaged in clingfilm. When he revealed the results, he showed me two small swallows inked onto his bicep. I knew instantly what they represented: his love for our children … that morning in the park … the joy of the small things in life … recognition of how those simple moments of presence and togetherness are the thing to focus on in life … how these are surely the definition of true happiness.

Since Matt’s death, I’ve seen swallows everywhere. I notice them easily. I searched online for the historical meaning of swallow tattoos and found that sailors used to have two tattooed to their chest. The belief was that if they drowned, the birds would carry their soul into the heavens. Swallows also represent hope and homecoming … a sailor at sea would know land was drawing near at the sign of the first swallow.

It seemed appropriate that a new prize, set up in Matt’s name, should carry the swallow motif. The Richell Prize is all about hope. It’s about writers spreading their wings and taking flight. It’s about launching talented new voices and helping their work to find a home. I’m so grateful to design agency JOY for translating Matt’s tattoo into such a striking design for the Prize.

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I’m also very grateful to all at Hachette Australia, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Guardian Australia and Simpsons Solicitors for converging to make this Prize possible. When good people come together with good intentions, wonderful things happen. I know Matt would be proud (and a little embarrassed) to know writers continue to be encouraged and supported through his name like this, and I know there are exciting things ahead for the five shortlisted writers of the Prize. I congratulate Sally, Brodie, Ellena, Jonathan and Lyndel and I watch and wait with anticipation. Today I focus on the promise of what is to come.

Harper’s Bazaar

Harper’s Bazaar magazine asked me to write something on grief for their August issue. This is what came out – some reflections on a year of mourning, with echoes from my recent blog posts.

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Riding for the Feeling

Sometimes I play a stupid game with our iPod. I put it on shuffle and ask Matt to send me a song. I know it’s ridiculous. I know ‘shuffle’ is a piece of apple software – an algorithm – rather than the ghostly hand of my husband reaching out to send me a sign. I know in these moments I’m a mad woman clutching for evidence of something beyond death. But it’s surprising how often something meaningful comes up. Of course it does. It’s our iPod. It’s full of music and memories. What’s a little more strange is the raft of new albums Matt bought in June last year, just days before he died. He never mentioned them. Just downloaded them and left them there for me to find. This morning I played the iPod game and the track that arrived was Bill Callahan’s ‘Riding for the Feeling’ from the Apocalypse album. It’s one that Matt bought in his last download session. I hadn’t heard it before, but the first lines, as they came through the speakers, stopped me in my tracks:

It’s never easy to say goodbye To the faces So rarely do we see another one So close and so long

It’s a really beautiful song. As I listened, it made me think of many things. I saw my son’s joyful face as he flies along on his bicycle … my husband emerging from the waves after a surf or a swim, drenched and happy … and my daughter on a swing giggling, ‘Higher, Mummy, higher.’ All of them ‘riding for the feeling’. It also made me think about goodbyes, and how hard they are. There is an intense, bittersweet longing that comes now with a farewell. I say ‘I love you’ a little more frequently, a little more easily. And thinking about goodbyes, I was reminded of a piece of writing, “The Light that Shines When Things End”, featured on one of my favourite blogs. It starts with these words: ‘I hope that in the future they invent a small golden light that follows you everywhere and when something is about to end, it shines brightly so you know it’s about to end.’ I like the idea of this light — of being able to consciously appreciate the final moments of something for the last time. But the thought of it also terrifies me. If it had shone on that last morning with Matt, I know I never would’ve been able to let him go.

Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. All this leaving is never-ending.

This week is the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death. Anniversary feels an odd word to use in this context. His death date is one of pain. There is nothing to celebrate. We have endured a year without him. We are still here. Yet somehow it feels important to acknowledge the day. I plan to greet the sun at the ocean’s edge and will be hoping for clear skies that night so that the kids might look at the star named for their Dad (by a very thoughtful friend: thank you Vanessa) through the Observatory telescope. I hope we are able to ride the big feelings the day will bring us. I know we’re still learning how to say goodbye to a face we were lucky to see, so close and so long. And I suppose whether there there is a small golden light or not, it doesn’t really matter. Bill Callahan is right: when goodbye comes, it’s never easy.

The Richell Prize

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Hachette Australia has announced a new Prize for emerging writers, set up in memory of my husband and their former CEO, Matt Richell. Established in partnership with The Guardian and The Emerging Writers’ Festival, The Richell Prize is an exciting new initiative designed to offer financial and practical support to some of the very best unpublished writers working in Australia. It is a fitting legacy for a man who found such joy in nurturing writers and whose untimely death last July devastated so many of us in the book industry. Our hope is that through this annual Prize, many exciting new voices and authors’ careers will be launched and, as Matt’s family, our gratitude to the people involved is boundless.

Writing requires great courage, a leap of faith, intense dedication to the craft and the support and encouragement of others. If you feel you are ready for this support, please take that leap and submit your work to The Richell Prize. You could win $10,000 prize money to assist you with your writing, as well as a one-to-one 12-month mentorship programme with a Publisher at Hachette Australia, to help you shape your manuscript. The Prize also includes the opportunity to have a portion of your work published in The Guardian and attendance at their Guardian Masterclass series.

All the details on how to submit to The Richell Prize can be found here. So please, be brave. The Richell Prize is actively looking for new writing talent and this could be the start of your exciting new career.

You can also read more about The Richell Prize on The Guardian here.

** I would like to personally thank Hachette Australia, The Guardian, The Emerging Writers’ Festival and Razor/Joy for making this Prize possible. I am also immensely grateful to Simpsons Solicitors for assisting The Emerging Writers’ Festival with the administration of the Prize.

Illumination

These days I am so full of feelings. It’s as if someone has turned a dial to amplify my emotions — good and bad. I feel them reverberate more deeply within myself. Moments of love and joy make me soar and tingle. Moments of pain and sorrow make my chest ache and tears pour uncontrollably. I feel my feelings more fully.

Last night I caught a ferry to Circular Quay. I saw the Vivid Sydney lights turn a city already bright and dazzling into an amplified version of itself – all colour and movement. Flickering patterns, spotlights, imagery illuminating this city on the water. I drank champagne in a bar then went to a Sufjan Stevens gig at the Opera House – a Birthday present to myself.

I woke this morning still thinking about the music – the experience of the concert. Five musicians moving about the stage, playing an array of instruments, and Sufjan Stevens’ incredible vocals. More lights and imagery beamed onto panels hanging like stained glass windows behind the musicians, and all of it illuminating a dialogue on life and death I feel as though I have been having with myself in various guises these past ten months. It was mind-bendingly, heart-soaringly good. I feel so privileged to have been there; to have experienced this moment of internal illumination. Sometimes, when the emotions are running high, it seems it doesn’t hurt to turn the dial a little louder.