For Pity Sake Publishing

Red Sparrow - A Film and Book Review by Jennifer McDonald

Be the first to comment on this blog and we’ll send you Jen’s ‘one owner – low mileage’ print copy of Red SparrowHonestly, boring and predictable wasn’t quite the look I was going for with this blogpost, but it has to be said - the book Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is so much better than the film version starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.

This film story of Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose career is cut short by a horrific physical injury that’s not an accident. As the Bolshoi foots the bill for the apartment Dominika shares with her sick mother, and because Dominika can no longer dance for said ballet company, the two are about to become destitute when Dominika’s Uncle Vanya steps in. A high ranking official in the Russian spy bureaucracy, Vanya coerces his niece into Sparrow School where intelligence agents are trained, in the most sadistic and humiliating ways, in the art of ‘sexpionage’. (Just as an aside here, Charlotte Rampling plays the sadistic principal of this Dominika-described ‘whore school’ to a spine-chilling tee.) From there Dominika is sent to Budapest to become acquainted with CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who the Russian’s suspect is the handler of mole buried deep within their ranks.

The film gets a thorough bollocking from Luke Buckmaster in the Daily Review  who calls it ‘idealistically shallow’ and ‘intellectually putrid’. That’s certainly an eye-catching headline and one I’m not sure I agree with in total, but he does make some valid points. My vote for best quote in Buckmaster’s review is, “…maybe there is a bluff going on, or a double bluff, or a bluff of a double bluff. Boy, have we seen this movie before – usually with a modicum of chemistry between the two leads.” Ouch.

Kevin Fallon in the Daily Beast takes a slightly less pointy-ended approach in his March 1 article, questioning how it is Jennifer Lawrence is such a good actor when her films are so terrible.

I’m not a fan of overly graphic films. I guess that’s why I prefer books and loathe anything Quentin Tarantino. And while I’m not squeamish about blood and gore, I can’t un-see or un-hear the human responses to torture – and there’s a lot of physical, mental and emotional torture in the Red Sparrow movie.  While a number of those scenes are derived from Jason Matthews’ book, I’d go as far as to say they are gratuitous at best and downright grotesque at worst.

As is always the case with book-to-movie transitions certain scenes are merely embellished and others are fabricated to enhance the dramatic effect.  Unfortunately, the embellishments, fabrications and story changes in the movie version of Red Sparrow only serve to deplete any empathy the viewer might have developed for poor Dominika, a victim of an arcane, brutal, patriarchal system if ever there was one.  In his previously mentioned review Mr Buckmaster describes Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika as having an ‘eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour’. Ouch again and not entirely undeserved.

20180304 - Red-Sparrow BooktopiaThere is one scene early in the films that puts exclamation marks after this stark observation!! Remember how I told you Dominika’s ballet injury is not an accident?  Well, in both the book and the movie she is deliberately injured by her dance partner at the behest of his lover, another Bolshoi dancer who’d missed out on the prima ballerina role. When Dominika discovers her career-ending injury had been contrived, she sets her mind to exacting revenge.  Here’s where the book and the movie versions diverge.

In the book, the reader is made aware of the fact that the Bolshoi company strictly forbids its dancers from engaging in any type of extra-curricular relations. Dominika cleverly sets the lovers up to be discovered by a Bolshoi manager, which in turn leads to their expulsion from the company. She muses afterwards how little it took to ruin the lives of these two dancers, and how little remorse she felt for it.

However, in the movie there’s nothing clever about Dominika’s revenge – she bursts in on the lovers mid-coitus and beats the crap out of them with the walking stick she’s using during her own recovery. Any contextualisation of this act of unfettered violence (which, like many others in this movie, was overly graphic and drawn out) is confined to a moment when Dominika notices that the handle of her cane is covered in blood.

For my money, this is the starkest and the saddest example of how the movie fails to portray the complicated essence and motivations of our heroine/anti-heroine.

Clearly, there’s vastly more opportunity for nuance and context in Red Sparrow’s 547 print pages than in the movie even if the latter is two hours and 19 minutes long. In a bid to justify my boring-but-truthful ‘the book’s better’ opening comment I’d like to spend the last few paragraphs of this blogpost telling you why.

Red Sparrow’s author Jason Matthews is a retired officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now known as the oddly poetic-sounding National Clandestine Service.  As one might expect, the book’s descriptions of international intelligence gathering and espionage ‘tradecraft’ are detailed and compelling. Unsurprisingly, the book reeks of authenticity from start to finish. What did surprise me however, is the humanising and at times, amusing manner in which the book is written.

Don’t misunderstand me - there’s plenty of detailed descriptions of bloodlust, sexual violence and torture in Red Sparrow, but there are surprising moments of lightness and quirkiness too. A Russian operative ‘handling’ a high-maintenance US government mole in Washington fantasises about the good old days when informants who caused trouble where simply despatched in ‘accidental’ circumstances.

Or when our American spy, Nate Nash, apologises to our Russian spy, Dominika Egorova for inviting her to meet at an Afgan restaurant. ‘I was worried you would think I was being provocative,’ he said, to which she responds, ‘I do not think you are provocative.  You are an American, you cannot help yourself.’ But by far the quirkiest and most delightful thing about Red Sparrow (if one can call a spy thriller ‘delightful’) are the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter.  Yes, you heard right – recipes for something that has been consumed by one or more characters during the chapter.  ‘Blinis served at Vassily Egorova’s (Dominika’s father’s) wake’ appears at the end of Chapter 3. ‘MARBLE’s Rustic Tomato Pasta Sauce’ cooked in his own apartment no less, appears at the end of Chapter 30.

Once I got over the weirdness of seeing recipes in a spy novel, I realised how clever Matthews was to include them.  When all’s said and done, spies are still human beings who eat, drink, think and feel, despite their rigorous training and the daily skulduggery of their work. Humanising them in this way opened the door to a more thorough exploration of the characters’ underpinning beliefs and motivations for doing the shadowy, dangerous work they do.

Sheer genius in my opinion, and a pity this level of context and nuance didn’t have a hope of making it to the big screen.

 

 

 

 

Why For Pity Sake?

By Jennifer McDonald, our CEO and Founder. During 2017, I’ve had the privilege of launching three books – As the Lonely Fly by Sara Dowse, The Swan Island Connection by Dorothy Johnston and The Last Double Sunrise by Peter Yeldham.

Each of these authors have previously been published by larger and more established players and when I’ve fronted launch events as principal of a nascent, indie publishing outfit, I usually get asked two questions - ‘Why the name For Pity Sake?’ and ‘Why go into publishing now when the industry is so disrupted and uncertain?’

The answer to question one is easy - I blame my dad, Keith McDonald, an Australian media executive of some note who begat four lively, headstrong daughters.  He exclaimed ‘For pity sake!’ liberally on all manner of occasions while I was growing up, anything from spending too long on the telephone to crunching the gears during a driving lesson.

Keith McDonald cropDad was also a dyed-in-the-wool numbers man who started his long career in newspapers as a finance writer.  And while numbers dominated his working life, he retained an abiding love for elegant words, artfully strung together. Bedtime stories read by Dad were a fixture of my childhood as is the memory of him occupying his favourite chair in the lounge room, a pile of books and magazines on a side table, his head buried in The Economist. The way Dad peered over his spectacles at you when looking up from whatever he was reading is an image we’ve captured in our book stamp, affectionately referred to as ‘Keith’. You can read more about my wonderful father here in one of the first blogposts on www.forpitysake.com.au, dated 26 November 2014.

The second question about starting a publishing enterprise in an industry (and a world) where disruption is now the norm is a bit harder to answer.  Truth is, I only started For Pity Sake to publish my own stuff because I’m a coward and couldn’t face the inevitable rejections from traditional publishers. Weirdly though, as soon as the shingle was hung, previously published authors of no small notoriety started crossing my path.  While the eventual publication of these worthy writers’ works has come with its fair share of commercial challenges (read more about this here), I’ve never once gotten the message from the Universe that this is the wrong thing to be doing.

As a commercial boffin of newspaper publishing, my Dad may have questioned the financial motivations behind establishing a publishing company in such uncertain times. However, I believe he would have heartily approved of the books we’ve published to date in various formats (print, ebook and audio), the authors we support, and indeed, the notion that there’s no greater joy in this world than abandoning oneself to a good read. For pity sake!

Compliments of the season from all of us here at For Pity Sake Publishing. Let’s do it all again in 2018.

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Sitting on ‘The Fence’

‘The Fence’ by Meredith JafféPan Macmillan Australia 2016 Reviewed by Jennifer McDonald

I've never been a fan of reality TV shows, often calling them 'unreality TV' for their ridiculous propositions and scripted conflicts. It seems odd to try and pass off something that is highly orchestrated as being 'real' when most of the stuff that happens in everyday life actually is 'stranger than fiction'. In her debut novel The Fence, Meredith Jaffé achieves the diametric opposite of an 'unreality TV' show, deftly taking a fictional suburban scenario and making it all too real, highly believable and what’s more, compelling.

A small confession here, with apologies to Meredith. When I first read the back cover of the book the idea of a story centring on a dispute between neighbours over a fence didn't exactly inspire me.  I wondered if I could ever be drawn into a story about a suburban scuffle that, while fictional, seems so very real and prevalent to the point of being formulaic. These things occur in just about any urban locale one might care to name! 'Too close to home,' I said to myself and yet, all my misgivings quickly flew out the window of my own suburban lounge room within the first few pages of The Fence.

The story starts with Gwen Hill, a lady of advancing years who's raised a family, made life-long friends and established and nurtured an impressive garden in a quiet cul-de-sac on Sydney's leafy north shore. The decline and eventual passing of her next-door neighbour and best friend on the street triggers cataclysmic changes to Gwen's idyllic suburban existence, not the least of which is the sale of her neighbour's house and the arrival of the young Desmarchelliers-Boyd family.

This family is straight out of trendy inner-city suburb central casting with kindergarten-aged twins, a toddler and a babe in arms, two designer dogs, stay-at-home dad and career-oriented mum, the latter being the other key protagonist in the story. Francesca, or Frankie Desmarchelliers, is hoping this tree-change to the outer suburbs will be a new lease of life for her young family while serving the dual purpose of keeping her errant husband out of harm’s way, if you get the drift.

Nothing but a carefully-tended, much adored crab apple tree boundary separates Gwen's house and garden from that of her new neighbours, a boundary that's been more than sufficient for privacy in the past while allowing easy access from either property  From the moment they arrive the Desmarchelliers-Boyd children and dogs seem almost fatally attracted to Gwen's garden, trampling the garden beds, picking primulas without invitation and defecating on the pristine lawn (the dogs not the kids). And then there's Gwen's husband Eric's retirement man-cave which is brimming with word-working projects and dangerous looking tools, the always open door of which is like an enduring invitation to mischief and injury.

No doubt used to the cheek-by-jowl inner-city life where gardens and communing with neighbours are just this side of foreign concepts, Frankie is horrified at the 'prying' Gwen and the osmotic boundary between their properties. She announces immediately that a fence will be constructed between the properties to ensure the safety of her young human and canine brood.  What you might think will unfold as a predictable story of an unseemly suburban scuffle turns out to be anything but.  Small slights, spats and inconveniences quickly snowball into major dramas with life-changing effects, all while 'the fence' stands as a grim, metaphorical sentinel over the proceedings.

Meredith tells the tale in a seasonal fashion alternating between Gwen and Frankie's perspective and interspersed with timely, allegorical excerpts from a gardening column that Gwen writes for ‘Outback+Outdoors’ magazine. I found this 'dual perspective' approach incredibly beguiling and vexing at the same time. I dearly wanted to come down on one side or the other of the fence (if you'll pardon the pun), barracking for Gwen or Frankie depending on who's perspective resonated with me the most. However, I found myself unable to take one neighbour's side over the other thanks to Meredith's detailed (but not overbearing) descriptions of what was going on in both Gwen's and Frankie's minds at any one time. It allowed me to make up my own mind about when either character was deserving of sympathy or being totally unreasonable - a very cool technique, artfully executed.

Apart from learning an awful lot about seasonal gardening from Gwen’s fictional magazine columns, The Fence also sheeted home the message that when one walks a mile in the other person's gumboots (in the case of Gwen) or patent leather corporate heels (in the case of Frankie) it is nigh on impossible to do anything other than sit on the fence.

Click here to buy your copy of ‘The Fence’ by Meredith Jaffé from Booktopia.

 

For Pity Sake Publishing proudly launches new podcast!

If you’re a regular subscriber to the blog, you may have already noticed some new and shiny posts popping up in our feed. We’re proud to announce that we’ve officially launched the For Pity Sake Publishing podcast, and it’s off to a great start. You can download it now, for free, and receive an entire audiobook.

 In our first episode, we talk to Jennifer McDonald, the CEO and founder of For Pity Sake Publishing. In our recently launched second episode, we begin unveiling Vegetarian Vampires, Jen’s stunning first work on the teachings of Deepak Chopra. We’ll be putting a new chapter up every week, so subscribe now to receive the entire audiobook for free!

 You can find the podcast episodes through our normal blog feed (as you’re reading now). But you can also find us on iTunes. Just click here. We think the podcast will be the perfect companion to your daily commute, walk, or quiet time. Stay tuned for more interviews with writers, publishing news, and other goodies.

 If you’d like to buy a physical copy of Vegetarian Vampires, check out our store.

Romancing your readers: becoming a great romance author

So you want to be a romance writer?

Trouble is, you’re not the only one. Even before Fifty Shades of Grey pioneered a new era of pulp erotica, the romance marketplace was incredibly crowded. It doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, but it means you may have to work harder than you first anticipated. 

Romance writing can be fun and sexy, but it’s usually a lot more difficult than amateur authors first assume. Not only are your marketing skills going to need a decent polish, but writing a compelling romance story is trickier than it looks. After all, there’s only so many ways you can write a love story … right?

For a genre that’s defined by such a simple emotional exchange, it’s endlessly diverse. It can be overwhelming for a newbie approaching the romance industry. With that in mind, here are our three essential tips to navigating romance, and taking your first steps to becoming a romance writer.

 

Know your niche

Romance is a genre with a litany of sub-genres. And every decision you make when writing will dictate a lot about where your work is placed in the market. How explicit are you about sex? Is your lead protagonist a strong dominant type, or a quiet, tender type? Does your work take place in the present day? Are there elements of the paranormal? The questions go on. It’s worth spending some time at your local book store and online to fully take in the scope of the romance industry. Being specific about the possible niches you’re interested in writing towards is a great place to start.

 

To self-publish, or not to self-publish?

Writing romance should be a fun experience, but the publishing side of it can have an incredibly steep learning curve. Self-publishing is always an option for writers, but keep in mind that it’s not as simple as throwing a romance short story up on Amazon and watching the dollars roll in. It takes a lot of marketing heft and strategy to really start seeing your readership grow. If this is a path you want to go down, you’ll need to invest in some guides (there’s a heap available on Amazon), and spend some time researching your pathways.

 

Self-publishing is typically suited for those people who want complete and total control over their work, who are incredibly prolific in their writing, and who write shorter titles. A knowledge of the industry is also essential. If you don’t tick those boxes, than you might want to approach a more traditional publisher. (Like For Pity’s Sake, for example.)

 

Don’t forget character

In the mad rush of romance, inexperienced writers can often forget the glue that holds any story together: character. Your readers will hopefully stick with you for multiple books containing the same character, so you want to make sure you don’t skimp on providing a compelling, interesting pair of protagonists. How these two, or three lead characters interact, how their power dynamic shifts, will be at the heart of your novels. So make sure you’re laying the ground work for characters that can provide a rich story. 

 

If you’d like to dive into a particularly delicious romance story, try Diana Thompson’s Winterflood’s Passion, which you can find here. If you have a romance manuscript of your own, you may wish to try out our manuscript appraisal service for tailored advice. 

The Bowral Bodice-Ripper

When I read the first draft of Diana Thompson's just released Winterflood's Passion I dubbed it the 'Bowral bodice-ripper' a name that has stuck much to the bemusement of the author, I'm sure. An article in the Southern Highland News and the program of the Southern Highlands Writers Festival (where Winterflood's Passion was recently launched) both picked up on the term with unfettered glee at having a novel set in Bowral, a jewel of the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales. Who can blame them? It is a beautiful place and a very apt setting for the passionate love affair between the fictional young and beautiful widow, Charlotte Ranleigh and the dashing, playboy art entrepreneur, Daniel Winterflood. The bodice-ripper part is not so easily explained, except to say that, not being an aficionado of the romance genre; I had no idea before reading Winterflood's Passion that there would be so much explicit sex in a romance novel. Silly me! Hot sex is writ large here - and stirring stuff it is too without being kinky, dark or dysfunctional. The bodice-ripper term refers not so much to the timeframe (bodice-ripper inferring an historical or regency theme) but to the unbridled lust and its many earth-moving incarnations of which Diana writes so skilfully in this, her first novel.

It's certainly not my intention to leave you with the impression that plentiful, well-written sex is the only thing that attracted me to this book as a publisher and a reader. Like most things in life it is far more complicated and multi-factorial than that - so please, let me attempt to explain.

Firstly, Diana's work is very descriptive and I found that really drew me in.  From the herbs that Charlotte grows in her garden to the Aubusson rug and Margaret Olley painting in the living room, to the detailed description of the furnishings in Daniel's bachelor lair in Sydney and every meal they consume together - Diana's attention to detail is, dare I say it, very seductive. A vivid picture is painted around the main protagonists, how they look, feel and live, that I found myself quite spontaneously seeing them in my mind's eye – even wondering who might play them on screen.

The second thing I love about Winterflood's Passion is that Diana doesn't push the boundaries of fantasy too far.  Sure there's escapism here - beautiful, wealthy people living in luxurious surrounds with fabulous careers - what's not to like? But in amongst all that Diana deftly weaves in some strong correlations with anyone’s real life - a tragic death, misplaced guilt, thwarted dreams and self-doubt. All of these make an appearance and help to ground what would otherwise be fantasy characters that one only reads about in, well, romance novels.

And finally, the greatest appeal of Winterflood's Passion is the context of true love in which the mind-blowing sex is set. Call me old fashioned but reading about sadistic or violent sexual encounters that are way beyond my understanding or aspiration is not my idea of a rollicking good roll-in-the-hay read. Diana's novel strikes a brilliant balance between the raunchy, wanton, get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way sex and exquisite love-making between two people with a very deep connection.

Diana Thompson is a long-time friend of mine and a highly acclaimed jewellery designer in her own right.  To my way of thinking, Di epitomises the person who is strangely compelled to write and who's actually sat down and done it while carrying on with life as normal. She is the very type of writer we had in mind when we founded For Pity Sake Publishing and the fact that our fledgling publishing house has been able to produce her first novel brings me more joy that I can adequately express here.

Bowral bodice-ripper it is.

 

 

Buy your copy of Diana's debut novel Winterflood's Passion here!

Ideas

As an amateur writer, I am constantly coming up with new ideas for stories or blogs. The note section on my phone is filled with obscure one-liners and vague ideas waiting to be utilized. I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying a small notebook with me wherever I go, and dashing down whatever ideas pop into my head. Generally, they’re fairly obscure ideas that need to be heartily developed before they even come close to making sense. But sometimes, they’re massive ideas that have so much potential I can’t even believe they’ve come out of my brain. I think one of the hardest things about being a writer is accepting the fact that sometime an idea is simply lacking. It doesn’t matter how much work you may put into it, you can pour your heart and soul into a story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be any good. It’s all about the idea. The idea is the structure that has to carry your words on its back. It’s like a house, without a solid foundation it will crumble, and who can blame it?

While writing a ten-page script for my screenwriting class this semester, I discovered the importance of a strong idea. We were asked to develop the idea for our screenplays in the first few weeks of the semester, and I struggled, finding every idea I developed to be too long-winded or convoluted to fit within the word-length provided. So, I followed the simple path, choosing a more simplistic idea in the hope that I could make it both spectacular, and fit it within the guidelines (the joke was on me when it ended up being  five pages over the limit, leading me to spend a frantic three days attempting to cut it down). My story was focused on one key character, Henry. It was basically a four-day story about the terrible life of Henry, a man haunted by the criticism and hatred of his mother, struggling to make his way through his menial life. It’s not until he has a major breakdown on the train to work that he snaps and begins to be present in his own life, no longer letting bad memories of the past stop him from living.

As I said, my idea was simple. This simplicity was reflected in my feedback, where my teacher questioning the motivation for Henry’s sudden change of attitude. At first, I was insulted, I’d put almost a month’s worth of work into this ten-page fiend and my teacher is now telling me he doesn’t get it, seriously? But then I thought about it, and yeah, I put a lot of work into the assignment, and the writing was good, really good actually (not to toot my own horn, but after a month of work it had better be good, right?) but it wasn’t the writing that my teacher was commenting on, it was the idea. Henry’s story seemed unrealistic because it was. The idea itself was flawed and there was no way to fix that besides changing the entire concept.

I think there’s a kind of clarity in realising the importance of an idea. We all know that you can’t please everyone. Some people may love your work and other may hate it, but usually that can be chalked up to the fact that this world is made up of billions of people all of which have very varied opinions and preferences. For me, accepting the importance of the idea has taught me to doubt myself less. Previously, when getting bad reviews or feedback, I used to doubt my writing, spinning myself into a self-deprecating hole and telling myself that the only way to improve was to focus on the words themselves. But this isn’t necessarily true. It’s clear to me now that sometimes it doesn’t matter how brilliant the writing is if the idea is complete and utter trash.

 

Originally posted on annablackie.com 

Vegetarian Vampires- The Book!

My life was very different eight years ago, long before the Big Breast Adventure. I was working 10 to 12 hour days in-house with a huge, complex and demanding client who shall remain nameless (OK, it was Qantas). My mother-in-law had just passed away very suddenly sending shock waves through the family, my daughter was progressing through those challenging pubescent high school years and my son was struggling with an as yet unidentified learning difficulty. To say life was busy and stressed would be the understatement of the millennium.

Because I never had time to read anything other than newspapers and business magazines during the average working week, it wasn’t until we took a much-needed family holiday to Hawaii that I actually picked up and tried to read Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. In my haste to get through some non-work related reading material in my time off (oh, the pressure!) I skipped the introduction and started straight into the first law – Pure Potentiality. This chapter only runs for a few pages (as they all do) but it took me hours to read it, just trying to get a handle on what the man was on about.

Fast forward a few years by which time the work-life balance thing had become a complete joke.  By this time I’d abandoned the 12 hour days in favour of short-term in-house gigs for individual clients and had even had therapy for a while. Nevertheless, the stressed-and-running-around-list kept mounting with a dyslexia diagnosis for my son; the sharp deterioration of my Brisbane-based father’s health precipitating a move to a nursing home, and my widowed father-in-law in his 90s living alone in Canberra.

Somewhere in amongst all of this, the little book I had taken to Hawaii to read (only getting through the first chapter) literally leapt out and fell at my feet during an attempt to restore some order to the bookshelf beside my bed. Seeing this as a sign, I started to read The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success once again, not skipping the introduction this time.  This turned out to be the smartest move of all because the introduction frames the purpose of the book beautifully, just as the Afterword provided a neat summation when I finally reached it – I’ve been a fan of reading both ever since.

I also started carrying Chopra’s neat little handbag-sized book around with me reading each day’s law on the day it was meant to be read. I quickly found the daily texts that had me baffled on first reading were now providing tools to either face the day ahead, if I read it in the morning, or to make sense of what had gone down during the day if I happened to read the passage at bed time.

I guess I can credit this little book with kick-starting my blogging career, such as it is. In trying to make sense of the many guru-like recommendations in it’s pages, I started writing down my thoughts and the connections I was making between Chopra’s commentary and the tribulations of my daily life. By doing this I was merely trying to make sense of the Seven Laws myself and perhaps help some other people along the way. What these blogs became, however, is a sort of non-guru/normal person’s guide to applying these spiritual notions to real life  I’m delighted to tell you that they’re now available as my first book – Vegetarian Vampires and What We Can Learn From Them – the self-help book for people who don’t read, or even like, self-help books.

And I’ve learned two really big things on the path to getting my first book published – and I don’t mind sharing with you good people. Firstly, I wrote every blog post in the book except for the last, Saturday’s Law of Dharma or Purpose in Life – before I knew I had breast cancer.  I was editing the manuscript for publication last year when I was going through protracted chemo and radiation treatment. One could be forgiven for thinking this might have changed my perspective somewhat but it didn’t – and for that I am deeply thrilled and very grateful. I feel like I am walking proof that all this ‘woo-woo’ talk really does stack up when the chips are down. And as my writing coach and editor, Dave Burton, so eloquently put it in Vegetarian Vampire’s Afterword, “What good is any of this, after all, if it’s not useful when we most need it?” Now there’s a smart boy.

The second big thing I learned is that blogs can turn into books – and as the owner of a fledgling publishing company I think that’s truly awesome.

And now a special offer for my dear readers – buy a copy of Vegetarian Vampires and What We Can Learn From Them for A$30.00 and I’ll twist my publisher’s arm to throw in a second copy for free. I’ve even sign them both to whomever you want. Just leave a comment on this blogpost.

Oh, and one final thing – watch this space because now we have a taste for this ‘getting books published’ caper, the next one entitled The Dalai Lama in My Letterbox about (you’ve probably guessed) the Big Breast Adventure will be hot on Vegetarian Vampire’s heels.

All the breast!

The Art of Lying

I lied a lot as a kid. I think it stemmed from my paralysing fear of being in trouble, or disappointing others (I am a people pleaser, after all). I was usually caught out when I lied though, my downfall lay in the elaborate nature of the stories I told. I would begin with a simple enough lie, and then build on it until it was too ridiculous to be taken seriously. When I was younger, before my brother James was in the picture, I used to spend long weekends and holidays with my grandparents in Canberra. My grandpa Jim was the perfect companion for me on these trips. He was a menace, just like me. He’d entertain me by letting me play him in chess, teaching me his own unique set of rules (to this day I still play chess Jim-Blackie style).

I think the best example of my outrageous lying revealed itself on one of my trips to Canberra. Grandma had made one of her specialty chocolate cakes; it had sat on the table all afternoon, staring at me tantalizingly.  Grandma had made me promise not to touch the cake until after dinner, but Grandpa and I were struggling to keep our promise. Finally, we convinced each other to have a slice, hoping that maybe Grandma wouldn’t notice. Of course, later, when Grandma came into the kitchen and found almost half the cake missing, she knew exactly who the culprits were. When she asked me who had eaten it, I told her, ‘It was the Brown Bear’. I explained that a giant brown bear had found its way out of the forest across the road from my Grandparents home, broken in through the back window, come into the kitchen and eaten half the cake, then stopped as the bear didn’t want to ruin his figure. After this the Brown Bear became a fixture in my grandparents’ home, whenever something was broken or went missing, the bear would be to blame.

I think my propensity for long-running, elaborate lies was part of the reason I started writing. Once you get a story down on the page it’s a lot easier to see where its flaws are. After many, many years of writing terrible, unrealistic stories, I finally learnt how to control a plot without letting it get completely out of control. For me I think lying was a fundamental tool in exploring my creativity. It allowed me to create stories before I even really knew I was doing it.

 

 

Originally Posted on The Musings of a Blackie on the 15th of June, 2015. 

Anna Bligh, the Story so Far

Through the Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival As the title of this lively memoir suggests, former Queensland premier Anna Bligh is a dab hand with metaphor. The central one of breaking through walls is developed throughout, and there are others: winding paths, flying through lightning, hatching eggs, crashing through fortresses and more. A lifelong reader, Bligh is a clear and persuasive writer. In addition to the metaphors she has an instinctive ability to select the right anecdote to illustrate a point. Her story made compelling reading while enabling me to grasp complex material that in less skilled hands could easily have been turgid. The first point to make, then, is that Bligh is a consummate communicator.

Other things struck me as I read. In the very first chapter, for instance, Bligh notes the immense size of the state she was born in and governed for almost five years. Queensland, she reminded me, is big enough to comfortably accommodate Texas twice over. Not a patch on Western Australia but that only serves to strengthen the impact of the imagery. Australia is a bloody big country, and its two resource-dependent colossi are parts the rest of us can ill afford to ignore, particularly now that global demand for their coal and iron ore is plummeting.

I was also keenly aware that, without crucial reforms during the Whitlam era, we might never have heard of this Anna Bligh who has broken through walls and crashed into fortresses. Brought up in Burleigh Heads, an unprepossessing seaside suburb of mangroves and fibro cottages soon to be transmogrified into a hub of Queensland’s glitzy Gold Coast, in a family of modest means with more than its fair share of troubles, she was an unlikely prospect for university education. But two of the Whitlam government’s initiatives changed all that. The first was the supporting mother’s benefit of 1973, which enabled Bligh’s determined young mother to end an unhappy marriage and set up house on her own, with all four children in tow. The second was the government’s abolition of tertiary education fees, making it possible for Bligh to undertake a Queensland University arts degree five years later.

And as I kept reading it came forcibly home to me what a salutary impact Whitlam’s government, for all its troubles, had on the nation. It was nice, too, to recall how many of our current leaders benefited from that free education, even those eager to impose prohibitive costs and indebtedness on university aspirants today. Nor could I help but be overwhelmed by the changes that have occurred for women, many of which were facilitated by Whitlam’s program, even if they were already gaining momentum before he was elected. For what was seen in the seventies as some aberrant form of outrageous female ratbaggery took off like wildfire in this blatantly sexist country, lighting the way for women who came after, women like Anna Bligh. As with Queensland’s size, this should be bleeding obvious, but in a sense it isn’t. It took a generation after women’s liberation, feminism’s “second wave,” hit Australia for a woman to become prime minister, and nearly that long for it to be normal for women to be cabinet ministers, party leaders, governors and state premiers.

And yet when we marched the streets demanding equal pay, childcare, safe abortion and the like, the possibility of women holding such positions seemed a distant goal – too improbable to dream of, in fact. For it’s important to remember that to begin with the women’s movement was uncomfortable with the notion of power, until we reluctantly concluded that not a great deal could be achieved without it. The question then became who was going to wield it and why. We took this question very seriously, but still our imagination failed us – the power we tentatively acceded to was small cheese compared with the leadership to be enjoyed by the coming generation. The walls that were breached (or broken, as Bligh would have it) were in the higher ranks of the public service; we scarcely imagined heading a government, and the corporate world, for most us, was beyond contemplation.

Then, in September 1975, two months before Whitlam was dismissed, women from across the political spectrum gathered in Canberra for the government-sponsored women and politics conference, a key – though much-excoriated and now virtually forgotten – event that did much to foster women’s participation in the party system. And then, after its resounding defeat in December 1975, Labor began devising programs for affirmative action, both within its ranks and for governing, if it were ever returned to power.

Women in leadership is the overarching theme of Bligh’s memoir. As she states in her preface, “I’ve tried to capture some of what it’s like to be a leader, especially as a woman; to lead through times of peril and times of change; the lived experience of shaping history; and facing the unthinkable and unknowable.” To her great credit, and unlike many current male politicians, her blooding began in grassroots protests and organisations, with a spell in the women’s rights office of the student union at Queensland University, and later at a women’s refuge.

Her Labor affiliation came later, and with it she brought first-hand experience of women’s issues and, after a stint in Sydney, broad-based community work. On her return to Queensland she worked in the women’s policy unit under Wayne Goss, and then in the enterprise bargaining unit in the state’s industrial relations department. The move towards representing Labor in Queensland’s unicameral parliament came when her friend and mentor, Anne Warner, resigned her South Brisbane seat and encouraged Bligh to run for preselection.

Putting herself forward for this position didn’t come easily, and Bligh makes it graphically clear that with every step along the way towards leadership there were moments of high trepidation. Nor did these cease when, having achieved the goal, she was faced with its curly challenges. She comes across as unusually reflective and self-critical for someone in public life – an undoubted strength that she never let cripple her. Once she was in, she was in, and she gave it her all. Fortunately she had a family that provided the necessary back-up. Her mother Frances Tancred, her husband Greg Withers and her two sons, Joseph and Oliver, afforded the kind of support men in politics take for granted and even today only a few women can rely on. How different this is from the general experience of women of my generation, whose entry into public life, as activists, bureaucrats and, later, politicians, all too often spelled the end of intimate relationships.

After preselection came rapid advancement. When Wayne Goss’s Labor government was defeated and Peter Beattie took over as opposition leader, Bligh was appointed to the shadow cabinet with a watching brief on public works and public administration. With the return of Labor in 1998 following a one-term Liberal Country Party government, Bligh was a cabinet member, responsible for family, youth and disability services. She initiated a commission of inquiry into child abuse in Queensland institutions, arguably the first in the country. In 2001 she was education minister, overseeing a long-overdue overhaul of the state education system; in 2004 the arts were added to her portfolio; by 2005 she was Beattie’s deputy, responsible for finance, treasury, infrastructure and state development, essentially in charge of upgrading the long-neglected infrastructure in the two-Texas state. In 2007, after Beattie’s resignation, she was elected unopposed by the caucus and sworn in as premier just as the world’s developed economies were about to be gutted by the global financial crisis.

It was a difficult time to head a government that was already somewhat on the nose. Australians are more aware today of how the GFC served to shrink government revenues, and even with a raging Chinese demand for its coal Queensland was perilously short of money. Still, Bligh faced the electorate and won, the first Australian woman to be elected a state premier. After that she took what appeared to be the only option available, the standard recourse in our market economies, and that was to privatise many of Queensland’s assets, ever a risky and unpopular measure. Thus she led her government to its catastrophic defeat in the March 2012 election.

Yet the high point of Bligh’s premiership had come not much more than a year earlier, when she had led the state through the worst floods in Queensland’s recorded history. At the start of the deluge the state’s disaster management centre went into action, with Bligh at the helm, giving communities critical, hourly information about the movement of waters in their neighbourhoods. But no one at emergency headquarters could credit the reports that the main street of Toowoomba, centre of the Darling Downs and perched on top of a mountain, was in flood, as was the whole of the Lockyer Valley, with waters rushing towards Brisbane. When Brisbane’s river overflowed a restaurant was ripped from its moorings and transformed into a missile threatening the Storey Bridge until at the last minute it was heroically stopped. Finally the waters receded and people began cleaning up the mud and debris and what was left of their houses, but the rains came again and with them another flooding. Several times Bligh and her deputy risked their lives to be with the stricken people. At that moment premier Anna Bligh was their darling.

But the moment didn’t last. Years of Labor, anger over privatisations; the electorate was unforgiving. The Brits tossing out Churchill after the war comes to mind, even if the parallel is a little overdrawn. After seventeen strenuous years, Bligh resigned her South Brisbane seat; she needed a rest and time with her family. The boys were at university and there were plans to move to Sydney, where Greg grew up. For the first time in perhaps too long, Bligh could relax, travel and enjoy herself. But the reprieve was shortlived. Not long after settling into her new life she was diagnosed with cancer of the parotid gland and underwent a debilitating course of treatment that took a year of her life at the same time as it extended it. She was lucky; the tumour hadn’t spread, and after a full recovery she went to work for the community again, this time as chief executive of the YWCA in New South Wales.

End of story, so far. What did I take from it? Admiration for the narrator, certainly. More: genuine affection, although we have never met. It would be hard not to like Anna Bligh. Warm and unafraid to take the mickey out of herself, she is like Julia Gillard – and, also like Gillard, she is one of a generation of extremely accomplished women who took the baton our generation handed them (there goes another metaphor) and ran with it all the way to the next finishing line. She is gracious enough to acknowledge that she hasn’t run the race alone, that she couldn’t have done it without the support of family, friends, mentors, colleagues, staff, the party and the electorate. Yet the one group she hasn’t given due credit to are those who crashed through walls well before her and were “bruised and bloodied” in ways she could scarcely imagine, yet for whom the rewards have been few.

I’m speaking of pioneers of the second wave, women like Shulamith Firestone, who died young and crazed and alone in a walk-up tenement apartment; of Kate Millett, who suffers bouts of what others have defined as mental illness but she describes as resulting from years of social disapproval; of our own Pat Eatock, who has recently left us. I’m speaking about the poverty, loneliness and suicides that have afflicted so many – too many – of those pioneers. They were radicals, and served the function that radicals always serve, to bring to public attention ideas that seem utterly outlandish when first uttered yet prove to be prophetic, part of the coming zeitgeist, but rarely to share in the victory.

A woman is premier of Queensland again. It looks like we may have a woman in the White House. It may be churlish of me to insist that women like these, Bligh and Gillard and Palaszczuk, and even Hillary Clinton, splendid as they are and the hope of so many of us, have a debt to pay, a debt that, sadly, many have no idea of and few have even begun to acknowledge. A woman tells her story, but that’s my problem with women’s stories, when, as has happened so often down the millennia, they come adrift from the whole of our history.

 

The blog was originally posted on Inside Story on the 20th of April, 2015