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.

camus

 

 

A secret garden

wendy whiteley garden

Just beyond Clark Park in Sydney’s Lavender Bay, down a set of unmarked steps, and on past a tall white house with an intriguing turret room stands a little piece of heaven. I think it’s thanks to Frances Hodgson Burnett that I find it hard to resist the idea of a secret garden, and yet it’s taken me eight years of Sydney-living to make it to Wendy Whiteley’s beautiful creation.

According to various internet sources, Wendy, wife of the artist Brett Whiteley, honed the garden from a derelict, refuse-strewn piece of public land beside their home (the aforementioned white house) to honour her late husband. She poured her grief and her love into its creation and it is a gorgeous welcoming spot –  less neat National Trust perfection and more rambling, natural artistry. Below the huge Morton Bay figs tiered steps and paths lead you up and down and around into the lower glade that eventually butts up to a railway line. As you meander, there are glimpses of harbour and city skyline, as well as benches and sculptures to discover.

I sometimes look to nature for inspiration and the overwhelming feeling while wandering about this unpretentious space was one of patience and love. There was a sense of deep and personal intimacy about the garden, even though we stood there on a plot of public land. (As if to emphasise this, just as we were leaving I felt my husband’s gentle nudge as he pointed out Wendy herself, elbow-deep in a flowerbed pulling weeds.)  If you find yourself on the north side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I highly recommend a visit.

 

 

 

February Reads (and a little bit on the side)

Looking back on the past month, I realise two things:

I haven’t read as much as I would’ve liked because I’ve had my head buried in my writing … but what I have enjoyed has been massively eclectic. So here’s a quick snapshot of what’s been entertaining me in February – this time with a little film and TV thrown in for good measure, because well, why not?

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The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton

I read Kate’s first novel, The Shifting Fog/The House at Riverton (UK title) back in 2007. I really enjoyed it, but for some reason I skipped her last two books – not because I didn’t want to read them, just that I never got there for some weird reason. So it was time to put things right with her latest novel – a huge, sweeping mystery which darts back and forth in time from pre-WW2 to the present day and unravels the violent secret buried at the heart of one family. I so enjoyed this book. All of Morton’s characters are beautifully drawn and as well as some killer twists, there were also many touching moments, particularly between Laurel and her ageing mother, Dorothy. Morton does an amazing job of conjuring the different times and places woven into her novel – she’s a true master of her genre and it’s no wonder she’s a MASSIVE international bestseller. All hail Queen Kate.

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Poem for the Day, One – by Wendy Cope, Nicholas Albery and Peter Ratcliffe

Given to me by a wonderful friend, I have been dipping in and out of this book all month. It’s an absolute treasure trove of poems and such a fun concept to be able to to turn to a particular day of the year and discover a new poem or meet a familiar, old friend. The collection ranges from modern verse to absolute classics. I’m loving it. I can recommend this as a great gift.

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Romantic English Homes – Robert O’Byrne

I stumbled upon this book while browsing the shelves of the Macleay bookshop in Potts Point – an absolutely gorgeous store. I’m a sucker for coffee-table-style books with gorgeous pictures of English landscapes or interiors and I hoover them up in the name of research. This book is proving to be fantastic inspiration as I write my new novel.

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True Detective

OK, so other than the writing, perhaps the other reason I haven’t read as much as usual this month is because I’ve become rather obsessed with the amazing American crime-drama series, True Detective. I have one episode to go and I cannot wait to see how the show wraps up. Starring Matthew McConaughey (so hot right now!) and Woody Harrelson, it’s a very dark, very twisty show about two cops on the hunt for a serial killer. God, that really does boil it down to the absolute basics, but it’s hard to write about this show without giving spoilers or reducing it to something way below the sum of its parts. The dialogue is smart, the filming beautiful, the performances electric, and there is a dark, eerie tension that has me teetering on the edge of my seat each week. Don’t watch it if you can’t do dark and ominously scary. Do watch it if you love American drama at its absolute best.

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About Time

Lastly, for a complete change of pace – a romantic comedy! I’m aware I’m probably the last person on the planet to see Richard Curtis’  About Time. To be honest, I thought it looked a tad cheesy and the trailer told me it involved time travel of which generally, I’m not a fan. I find it hard to suspend my disbelief in things like that and prefer my drama grounded in reality. So I waited for a quiet night, home alone, with nothing else on offer to indulge in. However, I take it all back. I REALLY loved this movie. It was sweet and emotional and yes, at times, a little cheesy (but good cheesy, in that way that found me grinning inanely at the TV screen) and so full of heart that I was actually cross my husband came home early and interrupted the properly weepy bit near the end. Yes, it’s full of perfect English idylls and posh, privileged people navigating matters of the heart … but sickly-saccharine and annoying, not so much. I actually think it’s one of the sweetest films I’ve seen in ages and I reckon I’ll be watching it again, someday soon – this time with the hankies at the ready.

So how about you? Did anything great in film, tv or books grab you last month? I’d love to hear your recommendations …

H x

Debbie Millman: Courage and the Creative Life

I recommend the following course of action for those who are just beginning their careers, or for those like me, who may be reconfiguring midway through: heed the advice of Robert Frost. Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be undoubtedly what you deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now, not twenty years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Click here to read more from Debbie Millman’s inspiring speech at brainpickings.org

Childhood Memories As Writing Inspiration

I have had the good fortune to tour around Australia recently with Get Reading, talking about Secrets of the Tides and The Shadow Year, meeting lots of readers, booksellers and librarians. I’m not a great fan of public speaking – I’m of the sweaty-palms-thudding-heart category – but the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. Plus it’s incredibly satisfying to speak to people who have not only read your work but also engaged with it on some level.

One of the things I am asked most about is where my ideas come from. Over the course of the tour, my response to this question has become quite automated – I give a quick snapshot of of a place from my childhood that evoked powerful memories in me (Dorset) and talk about my own journey to motherhood, as well as my relocation to Australia … and how the three combined in some magical way to create the seed that grew my first novel, Secrets of the Tides. It’s become such a stock response for me that the other day I found myself wondering if it was even true, or something convenient I was just spouting in public.

So I was amazed (and reassured) when my Mum sent through THIS photo last week.

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

My sister and I on the pebbled beach below Golden Cap, 1983 ish

I haven’t seen this photo for about twenty years and it took my breath away because it could be a scene lifted directly from Secrets of the Tides, right down to the overcast sky, the flapping welly boots, and the craggy cliffs towering in the background. I’m the girl in the foreground in the red boots. I wonder if I’ve just tried to skim a pebble across the waves.

Since I began writing, I’ve come to understand that childhood is a powerful place from which to draw inspiration. Tapping into the truth of an experience and the emotions that surround it … building upon them … letting them grow into a new, fictionalised idea can provide amazing fodder for a writer. It took seeing this photo after all these years to remind me of that and convince me that Secrets of the Tides is a more personal book than even I truly understand.

ps. How funny is that man, slumped on the beach behind us? I hope he’s OK!

Writers Ask Writers: The Books That Changed Your Life


‘A very long time ago, in the Golden Age, every one was good and happy. It was always spring; the earth was covered with flowers, and only gentle winds blew to set the flowers dancing …’

And so begins the book that changed my life.

I’ve been pondering which book to write about for this post ever since Dawn Barker asked if I would contribute this month to the ‘Writers Ask Writers’ initiative, set up by six talented WA authors. I was delighted to be asked (thank you for having me, Dawn BarkerEmma ChapmanAmanda CurtinSara FosterNatasha Lester and Annabel Smith) but when the topic was emailed through, I was a bit stumped.

The books that changed my life.

I have no doubt that words carry power, for every book I’ve loved has affected me in some way; tears, anger, joy, inspiration – I’ve found them all between the pages of a good book. But is being affected by a book the same as being changed by one? I wasn’t sure. I started to feel a bit worried about how to contribute to the topic and studied my shelves, nervously scanning the spines … until suddenly, there it was, right in front of me: a book that really had changed my life.

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I was about eight-years-old when my Grandmother gave me this book. ‘I think you might like it,’ was all she said, passing me the dusty volume from her own bookshelf. It didn’t look a bit like the Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and E. Nesbit books I was so enamoured with at the time, but I accepted it (graciously, I hope) and started to read that night.

Inside were the Greek Myths, stories of brutal gods and powerful goddesses, fallible mortals and amazing, mystical creatures. They were fairy tales on steroids, filled with the sort of racy content that boggled my young brain and left a lasting impression. I read them over and over, often by torchlight, and returned to them many times throughout my childhood.

At school a few years later I chose to study Classics and Latin, hoping for similar excitement and inspiration. The reality was, unfortunately, a little disappointing (Caecilius est in horto, anyone?) but I persevered and I can see now how those myths not only steered my education, but also fed my passion for language and words, as well as my ongoing yearning for stories with a real sense of tension and drama at their heart.

Later, I went to university then found a job working in publishing and I forgot all about that tatty orange book. But ten years on, when I began to write my first novel, I was reminded of it all over again.

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Writing Secrets of the Tides had me thinking long and hard about why terrible things happen, and about what’s left behind for a family when the very worst has occurred. Re-reading the myth of Pandora brought me a new level of understanding, and by referencing the myth in a small way within my novel, I felt able to add an extra layer to the story. It’s no mistake that the three key female characters in the book are named after famous classical women (Pandora, Cassandra and Helen), nor that the character of Helen is a Classics Lecturer. Their names say a lot about their experiences as women.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see quite clearly the big role this book has played in my life. I don’t think I’d be travelling the writer’s path now if it weren’t for that early grounding in storytelling, and I honestly don’t know if I would have found the inspiration to continue with the earliest draft of Secrets of the Tides if it hadn’t been for rediscovering the myths again, at exactly the right moment.

My grandmother’s book looks a little sad and worn now, and while I don’t think it would hold much value to anyone else, I’m wondering about having it restored.

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Perhaps, one day, I will take it down off my bookshelf and hand it to a grandchild? They’d probably think me an eccentric old woman, but just maybe they’d give me the benefit of the doubt and open it one night by torchlight, surprised to find their own world changing, word by glorious word. Wouldn’t that be nice?

‘Writers Ask Writers’ is a group of six authors living in Western Australia who blog about a bookish question a month and then link to each other’s pieces, sharing their ideas, processes and inspirations. It’s been fascinating to be a guest with them and see everyone’s life-changing book selections, as well as to note how many favourite books we all share. 

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Amanda Curtin has picked some of my favourite children’s books, as well as two non-fiction titles I didn’t know. I absolutely love the image she paints of the ‘brittle flower’ falling out from between the pages of an old text book. Read more from Amanda here.

Emma Chapman has chosen, amongst others, The Magic Faraway Tree. Yes, yes, yes! If there was ever a book to set a child’s imagination alight it is this one. I loved Silky and Moonface like old friends and I am in complete agreement with Emma. Read more from Emma here.

Dawn Barker has chosen a list of books that could be pulled from my own bookshelves. I completely relate to her experience of reading We Need to Talk About Kevin – it was so visceral and it’s for that reason I haven’t watched the movie. I’m not sure I could take it! Read more from Dawn here.

Sara Foster‘s list of life-changing books includes a section of ‘inspiring, absorbing, twisty fiction’ which includes some of my most favourite contemporary fiction reads – we’re clearly on the same page when it comes to a good page-turner. Read more from Sara here.

Natasha Lester has cleverly broken her selections down to various stages of her life. I share her love of Judy Blume and am now intent on searching out Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem after her fervent endorsement. Read more from Natasha here.

Annabel Smith has chosen three books that she says ‘you will probably never see grouped together again because they couldn’t be more different from each other’. Want to find out what they are? Read more from Annabel here.

And finally what about you? Will you share the books that have changed your life? Feel free to comment below … we’d all love to hear from you.

Things to feel happy about

I’m happy. I’m just beginning to surface from the depths of my second novel and while it’s been intense, its also been incredibly exciting.

I’d heard a lot about ‘second novel syndrome’ before I sat down to attempt mine, although I’m not sure I was quite prepared for all that came with it … the crashing self-doubt, the weight of expectation, the deadline-induced panic. Don’t get me wrong; I love this new career and I feel incredibly lucky to be doing something that fills me with such joy – but in recent months my most frequent desk companions were nothing more than a mug of cooling coffee and a sneaky voice of self-doubt whispering in my ear: ‘You, a writer?’ followed by loud guffaws.

The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I stumbled through the first draft of a very different story before I finally hit upon the novel I actually wanted to write. I think I rushed it. Instead of being patient – of finding an idea and letting it breathe – of making sure it was the right story – I grabbed at an idea and dived right in. But something was wrong. I realised quite late on that it didn’t feel very me. It didn’t feel authentic. Abandoning 100,000+ words is not a pleasant experience – certainly not one I intend to repeat again in a hurry – but once the right idea had arrived and I understood where it was going, I threw myself back into it and with it came all the joy I remembered feeling as I wrote Secrets of the TidesWhen the writing’s going well and the ideas are coming thick and fast, there really is no other task on earth I’d rather do.

It’s strange. I still don’t understand where the inspiration for a story comes from. For me it’s the seed of an idea that with gentle nurturing, grows and takes shape. There are dead branches to lop off along the way and lots of nervous moments where I bite my nails and wonder if the bloom I first envisaged really will grow from the mud of my imagination, but with careful tending things seem to eventually grow and take shape. Secrets of the Tides grew from a very personal place, one wrapped up in motherhood and my own childhood memories of Dorset. This latest story – currently titled ‘The Shadow Year‘ – also began with the idea of a place, a setting which brought with it its own unique mood. As I mulled on the place (a fictional lake hidden in the depths of the Peak District) an idea evolved and so began my story. Some days it flowed, but others it felt as though I was setting out with a butterfly net to capture an idea as vast and unwieldy as an elephant. To be honest, right now, I’m still not sure I know what it is I’ve caught in my net, but I do know that I’m feeling excited about it. The Shadow Year is an emotional and dark and twisty tale. It has another back-and-forth structure and hopefully a few unexpected surprises along the way.

While writing is something I love doing, it also feels like a rather selfish pursuit. It’s a solitary job and it takes me away from my family and friends. Mentally, I become very one-track. Fortunately, (and I’m sure mostly for the sanity of my long-suffering family) I was aided this time by the Varuna Writers’ House. Varuna is a retreat for writers nestled high up in the Blue Mountains (about 2 hours from Sydney). I went there for a week of wintery solitude in August and sat at my desk in the sunny Bear Room and wrote intensively. It was my first visit to the House and I quickly found there is nothing to do there but write and eat and sleep and read. It was both inspiring and productive and became the week that got me through the difficult hump of my novel.

winter snowdrops, the Bear Room, the drive leading to Varuna

Now, I’m just going through some edits with my UK publisher, correcting a few errors and reviewing the structure one last time (to prologue or not to prologue, that is the question) but the intensity of the past few months is easing and I feel myself coming round, tuning back into real life and finding a million different things to feel happy about: the smell of my husband’s Christmas cake baking in the oven; the sight of purple jacarandas blossoming all across Sydney; a stolen moment to enjoy books and coffee in the sunshine; cloud-watching; hide-and-seek with my daughter; a steady flow of much-loved friends and family arriving from overseas; beautiful family photos taken by the inspirational Tim Coulson; sand between my toes; my son’s feet dangling from trees; the Japanese maple we thought we’d killed springing miraculously back to life; the salty-whiff of the harbour drifting up our street and promising hot summer days of family togetherness. And of course, equally exciting, the chance to let my mind roam freely for a while as it seeks inspiration for another story …

Clockwise from top left: books in Berrima, a fish cloud, hide-and-seek with my daughter, jacaranda blossom, my son tree-climbing

How would you really enjoy spending your life?

The Sydney Writers’ Centre tweeted a link to this lovely video earlier this week. It really struck a chord with me for being both inspiring and eminently sensible.

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

I wanted to save it and share it here.

Creativity

One of the most creative people I know (yes, that’s you @auriolb) pointed me in the direction of this very thought-provoking talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Definitely worth a watch.