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North Melbourne Books: Jia Jia lives with her husband, Chen Hang, in their large Beijing apartment. One morning she finds her husband dead in the bath, his head submerged in the water. Nearby is a strange picture he has drawn of a man with a fish's body. As Jia Jia tries to piece her life back together again, she travels to Tibet and finds herself on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. What gave you the idea for the novel?
An Yu: I began with a vague story of an aftermath, of a widowed woman who didn’t love her husband but was nonetheless emotionally and psychologically dependent on him. And then I had the idea of a fish man (it came to me in a dream!). The eeriness of the image felt fitting to the story of Jia Jia and all the uncertainty she’s going through, so I began experimenting with it. The idea of this other watery world soon began seeping into the narrative; the fish man also founds its role within this world, and as that happened, the story also became more than an aftermath as it extended into Jia Jia’s past as well as to the lives of other characters around her.
NMB: As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream sequences where Jia Jia falls into a “world of water” – a place that could be described as a state of pure being, of almost nothingness. These parts of the story seem open to interpretation. What would you describe as the novel’s theme?
AY: This is such a difficult question for me since I don’t really write with a particular thread of theme in mind. I love the way novels can move through different ideas and spaces that all contribute to something more than the sum of its parts, so to narrow down a theme is quite the exercise. But having said so, there are things I do tend to write a lot about. Many of the characters in this novel are looking for a sense of belonging – of home. I think the idea that boundaries (between the real and the surreal, the past and the present, the physical and the psychological) are fluid and always shifting is incredibly enticing, and I love watching characters travel between these realms looking for where they belong.
NMB: There are elements of magic realism in Braised Pork. Are you inspired by any magic realist writers in particular?
AY: I’m a sucker for stories that incorporate the surreal in one way or another, whether it’s something as subtle as a strangeness in mood or something that is set entirely in another world. In this regard, I always enjoy reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, and Haruki Murakami.
NMB: You were born and raised in Beijing, then left to study in the US. You write your fiction in English. What made you decide to write in English?
AY: I write in both Chinese and English, and the experience of writing in each language is so different that I never want to decide to write solely in one and not the other. I wrote Braised Pork in English because the distance it gave me allowed for more clarity in the process. I also enjoy the process of trying to find English words for something that is happening in Chinese in my mind, so that what I end up writing down on the page feels like it has something from both languages. It’s a liberating feeling, to know that one language can capture the experience of another.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf has been wonderful company.
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: William Buckley (1780 – 1856) was sent to New South Wales for 14 years for receiving stolen goods. He arrived in 1803, but soon bolted, with three other prisoners. Buckley lived a desperate existence for several weeks until he made contact with local Aboriginals. He went on to spend 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people, until he returned to white society in 1835. He worked as an interpreter, saw many abuses of the people who had saved him, soon grew weary and moved to Van Diemen’s Land for the rest of his life.
What made you want to write William Buckley’s story?
Garry Linnell: I grew up in Geelong, which is right in the heart of Wadawurrung land. There was a marvellous series of waterfalls there called ‘Buckley’s Falls’ – and down on the coast is ‘Buckley’s Cave, which is set high on a windswept sandstone cliff beneath the Point Lonsdale lighthouse. But we were never taught about the man in school and apart from various stories about a towering white man with a long beard who lived with local aboriginal people for three decades, no-one seemed to know much about him. The story stayed with me for decades and when I finally got the opportunity to do some serious research, I was absolutely staggered to discover what an extraordinary life he’d led. He’d fought Napoleon’s army, been sentenced to hang until he was transported to Australia and then spent more time living with an indigenous people than any other European in history. It turned out the real story was far more exciting than the skimpy legends and myths I’d heard as a kid.
NMB: Buckley’s Chance is written in a fascinating style. The book almost reads like fiction, or an epistolary novel, as the text repeatedly addresses an imaginary Buckley, speculating on what he would have thought, felt and feared.
How did you approach the writing of the book?
GL: I was worried at the start that because Buckley was illiterate and had left very little on the record, there wouldn’t be enough detail to sustain a book-length story. But I realised pretty quickly that his story encompassed such a remarkable era filled with so many amazing characters that he could become almost a guide for the reader (and for me) and help explain a period in history that dramatically changed the planet. Buckley was born before Europeans first settled Australia and just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning. He became immersed in Aboriginal culture and so fluent in several dialects he forgot the English language. He then witnessed the remarkably fast destruction of that culture. So William kind of became my escort through the 19th century and its litany of rich characters and events. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a traditional non-fiction narrative style. But I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to convey the enormity of what Buckley faced – and what that period of time was like. So I scrapped it all and started writing in the second person and that seemed to bring so much more to life.
NMB: Your book is brilliantly researched. The quotes from Buckley’s contemporaries, and the way they are inserted into the text, help build up an intriguing portrait of a very reticent man. Was the William Buckley you had in mind when you began the book the same as the one you finished with? Were there any surprises during the research?
GL: I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the man during the early research. I could find so little about his personality – and what I did come across was hardly flattering. He seemed gruff, withdrawn, almost monosyllabic. But that was the way colonial historians and some of his contemporaries portrayed him – and they had their reasons for that. They never trusted him. They feared his close ties with the local aboriginal tribes. They never believed aboriginal people had any real form of culture or concept of history and so they figured that if a white man had lived among them so deeply for so long, he could not have been intelligent or curious. But the more I read, the more hints I came across that there was far more depth to the bloke. And let’s face it, to achieve what he did in one lifetime required huge reserves of physical and mental stamina, an ability to adapt and a willingness to embrace a completely alien culture. I’m not sure many of us would survive a similar experience. By midway through the book I actually felt as though he was in the room with me, telling me what he thought. It was a little unnerving. But my wife soon got used to sharing her life with two blokes…
NMB: William Buckley straddled two worlds – European and First Nations. He was a conflicted figure, one who didn’t reveal much of his inner life. What do you think his story has to teach modern Australians?
GL: I always think there’s a real danger when you look at people and events in history through a modern lens. But there is no doubt that William Buckley stands as one of the original symbols of reconciliation in this country. No other European before him had a deeper appreciation and understanding of aboriginal culture. He accepted the First People for what they were – and all their good and bad. He interceded on their behalf many times and even though he was eventually trapped in that no-man’s-land between two colliding cultures, he did his best to help them during a very difficult time. And let’s remember, too, that they accepted him. If you want to talk about Australia being a truly multicultural country, then surely the Wadawurrung’s decision to save a starving and delirious man from a simple rural town in England is the first example of multiculturalism in our history!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
GL: I’ve been doing a “retro tour” of some old greats. I’ve just finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Wow, what a novel. I don’t understand why it’s taken me 40 years to get to it. It’s the sort of book that reminds you why television, movies and all the noise of this digital age just doesn’t compare with a beautiful story told brilliantly. My next book is set in Australia in the second half of the 19th century and there are so many similarities between McMurtry’s West and our colonial society. Last month I went back to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and for the second time in a decade couldn’t put it down. I’ve also just started reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and I’m completely mesmerised by it. It’s another book – a futuristic one – that I never read when it first came out. It’s written in a language entirely invented by the author. It’s the kind of book that makes any writer say: “I wish I had written that…”
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. $34.99
North Melbourne Books: Maurice Blackburn (1880-1944) is not so well known today, but when he was active during the first half of the twentieth century as a barrister and Australian Labor Party MP, he was a key figure. Known for his integrity and socialist values, he also held views that could be controversial and often had major ideological differences with his own party. The Labor Party expelled him twice.
What made you choose Maurice Blackburn as a subject for biography?
David Day: Maurice Blackburn first crossed my path when I was writing the biography of John Curtin. I had a lot of admiration for Curtin and was surprised to find him being harshly critical of Blackburn in the 1930s, despite them having been colleagues in the struggle against conscription during the First World War. The cause of this antipathy intrigued me, but I wasn't able to pursue it at the time. When Maurice Blackburn, the law firm wanted to mark its centenary by commissioning a biography of their founder, I jumped at the chance to explore his life. It was during the research that I discovered Blackburn had been a serious contender for the Labor leadership that Curtin craved, which provides at least a partial explanation for the antipathy.
NMB: Your book paints a vibrant picture of the theatrical and very public nature of politics at the time. There are the street meetings in Melbourne's inner suburbs and rousing speeches on the Yarra. Do you think political communication has suffered in the age of the Internet and television, or did the old media have drawbacks of its own?
DD: What a wild time it was, with women brandishing red flags marching out of the then working class inner suburbs to smash the windows of posh shops and do battle with outnumbered police. The political action wasn't created just out of rowdy street corner meetings. There were plenty of radical newspapers and pamphlets that provided a different slant to the conservative newspapers back then. Now, those old media have been transformed into a new form by social media, which has allowed popular protests to be organised in a much more spontaneous way. Social media also has much greater reach, so that a 200,000-strong demonstration on global warming can bring people together quickly from across Melbourne and beyond.
NMB: Maurice Blackburn emerges as a politician and activist of great consistency and commitment. A rare beast in politics today. Do you think anyone has come close to him since?
DD: Of course, there are many politicians, from all parties and among the independents who care deeply about their political principles and wouldn't trade them for power. And there are even some who've grasped power without unduly compromising their principles. That said, it's hard to see anyone in recent years who could be said to exactly emulate Maurice Blackburn, who achieved so much on behalf of others without becoming prime minister, let alone a minister.
NMB: Great strides were made for worker's rights during Blackburn's time. People seemed active and ready to hit the streets for the things they believed in, gaining many hard won rights along the way. These passages in the book are quite inspiring. Do you hope your book will give today's readers optimism that positive change can happen?
DD: I didn't write it with that in mind. At least, not consciously. Instead, I wanted to understand Maurice Blackburn and his times. If his example inspires other, so much the better.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DD: For distraction, I like reading crime fiction, particularly the work of Don Winslow, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Heigo Higashino. At the moment, Elliot Perlman's new book Maybe the Horse Will Talk is on my bedside table. As for non-fiction, I was blown away by Kevin Hayes book about Thomas Jefferson's library, The Road to Monticello and also deeply affected by Behrouz Boochani's No friend but the Mountains.
Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, by David Day. Published by Scribe. $49.99
(photo credit: Lian Hingee)
North Melbourne Books: Eighteen-year-old Natalie’s world is coming apart. Out of the blue her parents announce they’re separating and two members of her close-knit group of friends have paired off. Natalie feels like the proverbial third wheel.
Then along comes Alex, who starts to take notice. Through a series of farcical mix-ups, the two get to know each other, but when Natalie finds out something from Alex’s past, she wonders if he can be the right boy for her.
The novel has an autobiographical feel. Did you use a lot of your own experiences for the plot?
Nina Kenwood: I definitely drew on a lot of my own neurosis and insecurities, as both a teen and an adult, to create Natalie’s internal voice. She is traumatised by her experience of having bad skin when she was younger, and I’ve had bad acne throughout my life, so that part definitely had autobiographical elements. Saying that, the plot and the characters are not autobiographical. Most of my friends and family have read the book, and while they’ve seen a few familiar moments or snippets of conversation, they didn’t find themselves in there! I think my sister was quite disappointed she didn’t feature in the novel, actually (I’ve promised her she’ll be in the next book.)
NMB: While Natalie has a smart sense of humour, she’s also quite introverted and obsessive. We don’t see that many clearly introverted characters in fiction. Do you think she’s quite original in that sense?
NK: I think she’s original in the sense that she’s got a distinctive voice and point of view, one that really carries the book. I assume a lot of writers (and readers) must be introverts, because you’re spending so much time on your own, in your head, so it would also make sense that a lot of characters in fiction must be introverts too.
I am a classic introvert, and I was interested in digging into what that means in my book, and exploring how introversion can be an excellent way to understand yourself and your limitations, but also how it can be used as a way of avoiding doing things you’re afraid of.
NMB: Jane Austen comes to mind when reading It Sounded Better in My Head. Natalie goes through a process of transformation throughout the novel. There’s also a touch of Pride and Prejudice, where Natalie thinks she likes the gregarious Owen (Mr Bingley) but soon prefers the subtler Alex (Mr Darcy). Did Jane Austen come to mind during the writing process?
NK: Ha! It did not, to be honest, but I love this and will take any comparison to Jane Austen that I can get. I like to think all books that focus on the everyday lives of women and their romantic interests owe a debt to Austen.
NMB: There are some hilarious, bedroom farce scenes in the novel where Natalie and Alex are thrown together. It’s all ingeniously done. How did you come up with these ideas for the plot?
NK: These were my favourite scenes to write. I love writing dialogue, and the appeal of writing a romantic plotline is, for me, figuring out ways for the characters to have to spend time together and then, inevitably, talk about their feelings. I knew I needed to throw Natalie and Alex together during this section of the novel, and I knew I wanted it to be nighttime, and I figured out the plot mechanics from there.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
NK: I recently had a baby, and as it turns out, she’s not the biggest fan of sleeping, so I have been a little bit too sleep deprived to read all the books I had on my to-read pile for maternity leave. I recently finished Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, which is a really interesting essay collection, and now I’m reading Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell, because I’m a Rainbow Rowell superfan. I read Mem Fox’s Where Is The Green Sheep at least once a day at the moment, as it’s my daughter’s favourite book. I’m hoping to read some more non-fiction soon including Inside Out by Demi Moore (in large part because it’s ghost written by Ariel Levy, and I love Levy’s work), and Fair Play by Eve Rodsky.
It Sounded Better in My Head, by Nina Kenwood. Text Publishing. $19.99
Idan Ben-Barak Julian Frost (photo: Matt Bates)
North Melbourne Books: Quog and Oort are on their way to Kevin's party, but the engine has fallen off their spaceship. They need to open the spaceship door and retrieve the engine. Oort is a gas cloud and has no hands. Quog is a blob and she doesn't have hands either. How to open the door? Quog decides to grow some hands, but finds it not as simple as that. She needs to learn a few things first.
The round, bouncy illustrations are a lot of fun and the spaceship is especially cute. It looks like a tumble dryer! How did you come up with the idea for the story?
Idan Ben-Barak: Julian did! This book is largely his brainchild. I helped. The relationship between us in making the book turned out, quite coincidentally, to be reflected in the relationship between the two main characters: one does all the heavy lifting and undergoes significant changes, and the other kinda floats around in the background much of the time.
Julian Frost: The way we make books isn't so much coming up with ideas, as remembering the ideas that blew our tiny minds when we first understood them. We're just trying to give that experience to others. Then we just add silly jokes and aliens, and there you go. (Compulsively adding silly jokes to everything turns out not to be an advantage in many areas of adult life, so it's lucky they let us make kids' books.)
North Melbourne Books: Argh! There's a skeleton inside you! is very interactive and science based, despite the main characters being an animated blob and a gas cloud. The reader has to perform various actions and learn about all the different components of the hand, such as bones, muscle and nerves. Did you have to do much scientific research, or were you already an expert?
Idan Ben-Barak: The essential concepts are fairly fundamental, and I was comfortable with them. I did spend a few hours making sure we got the facts right, especially in the final spread where we go into some detail about the body's systems, but (again) most of the work was Julian studying anatomical images to make his illustrations as accurate as possible.
Julian Frost: Idan and I both have hands, and we haven't forgotten that amazing feeling of realising that your body is packed tight with miracles, so we're pretty much experts! But we did look in some books too to make sure we drew the right bits in the right places.
North Melbourne Books: How do you both collaborate as a team? As the illustrator, does Julian get much input into how the story is written? And as the writer, does Idan get to choose colours or make suggestions?
Idan Ben-Barak: I can definitely suggest things. Our process for the two books we've written is very iterative - lots of conversation going back and forth between us. The first draft I write includes a lot of visual detail: picture books are primarily a visual format, the text is secondary and I try to have as little of it as possible. Then Julian takes over and reworks the entire thing, invariably for the better. I expect I'm allowed to suggest colours etc., but why would I? I don't value my own judgement in this field very highly, and he is demonstrably an expert in it. I stay out of his way as much as possible.
One area where I do sometimes ask for amendments is when the science of it isn't quite right in the story. When that happens we need to think about it, and ultimately come up with a solution that serves both narrative and fact. It's not always easy...
Julian Frost: Ignore whatever Idan says. We do everything together. Here's a picture of us writing the story:
And here's one of us drawing the pictures:
(Idan is left-handed.)
And here are the trousers we get into every morning:
North Melbourne Books: We learn that Quog is a girl blob, but what about Oort? Is it genderless, or non-binary or simply a floating gas?
Idan Ben-Barak: Don't go there, man. Trust me.
Julian Frost: Oort is actually a flock of microscopic pink space chickens. We all know that individual space chickens are dumb, but few people realise that when flying in formation their collective intelligence is sufficient to speak short sentences and see with x-ray vision.
North Melbourne Books: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Idan Ben-Barak: I have about ten books on the go at any one time; some take me years to get through. the most recent ones I've finished are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Under Milk Wood. Next up is The Writer's Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
Julian Frost: Red Mars, and The Unwomanly Face of War
Argh! There's a Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost. Published by Allen & Unwin. $19.99
North Melbourne Books: Australians eat roughly three times more meat than the global average. The main argument of On Eating Meat is that Australians should eat less meat, of a better quality that is also ethically produced. This would provide a win for the environment, animals and human health. Sounds easy, but there are many impediments to achieving this goal, mainly seductive cheap prices and a lack of information about how commercial meat production works. What are the most effective steps consumers can take to bring about the sort of change you advocate?
Matthew Evans: The nice thing about this change is that we are all (well, all meat eaters), empowered through our purchases. And because we eat three times a day, and have to eat, we’re all given this opportunity to make better decisions quite often. I think the first thing to recognise is that all meat isn’t equal, that all farming systems aren’t the same, and that every time you make a better decision you encourage better farming.
That’s true whatever you eat. Farmers only do things because we ask it of them. If we want better quality housing for pigs. If we want less antibiotic use. If we want animals to be able to express their instincts, then farmers will do that on our behalf, but it might have an in built cost. That cost can be offset by buying less meat, but better quality higher welfare meat. It might involve wasting less of what is produced. But ultimately, it’s small decisions by meat eaters that has the greatest potential to change the momentum in our farming systems.
For most of us, eating less meat won’t destroy our gastronomic and cultural well being, it could well be better for our bodies, and it is potentially a great thing for animals, the planet and the farmers who grow things in our name.
NMB: It was alarming to read how much secrecy there is around intensive animal farming. You tried to get access to these big farms but were frustrated at every step. So much secrecy makes you wonder what there is to hide. Isn’t there enough government regulation to ensure intensive farming operations are being run to community standards, or do we need more?
ME: Government regulation is about keeping industry running, and the day to day inspections and checks are governed by people who are part of a very small clique. What their standards are don’t necessarily match community standards. Most Australians would be appalled at how some of our animals are raised, how confined they are, how restrictive the conditions are in terms of normal, instinctual behaviour. Leaving it to the industry groups, who hold power in many settings relating to regulation, and the people who don’t necessarily share general community standards because they are steeped in the industry, is a recipe for disaster.
A good example is the sow stall, essentially a tiny pig cage that doesn’t allow the mother pig to turn around or walk, but only stand, eat, defecate, and lie. These are still used routinely in about 30% of Australian piggeries, and the mother pigs live in them virtually all their adult lives. You and I would see them as a cage, a jail. The industry sees them as a way to stop sows fighting.
Do they meet general community expectations? No, according to research, and according to one of our largest supermarkets, Coles, who insisted that all pork sold under the Coles brand was sow-stall free a few years ago. The industry resisted, but Coles knew their customers cared, so forced the change on the farms. There is no way this would’ve happened if the industry was left to decide it for themselves. Because of this change, based on small customers (you and I), and large customers (Coles), 70% of mother pigs in Australia are now more able to express social behaviour and at least move in more ways than just standing and lying down.
NMB: Your book has a wealth of fascinating research that will amaze and shock eaters of all persuasions – carnivore, vegetarian and vegan. As a consequence, the book also raises a lot of ethical questions, giving On Eating Meat a philosophical aspect. Did you change your mind about anything during the writing process, or learn anything that came as a complete surprise?
ME: I think the biggest surprise came in the complexity of farming systems, and discovering the research which points to animals being part of a good farming system in some cases, and able to produce more variety, more nutrient dense food, in the broader picture. I guess it makes sense that an ecosystem, which a good farm should be, is reliant on animals as well as plants, and that to exclude animals is arbitrary and goes against ecological principles. But to see it on our farm, and in the research that is now emerging, made more sense of our historic and cultural attachment to using animals for food.
All farming land isn’t the same, and while we’ve ignored basic principles in much of the way we grow food (both plant and animal based) in recent history, the future is not necessarily meat free. But it has to include a much cleverer use of land and fossil fuels than we currently practice. The other thing that really surprised me along these lines is that 70% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders, small farms, (and much of this by women). We tend in Australia to think of big monoculture farms as the norm (partly through our geography and partly because so much of the media and talk around animal production is tainted by American stats), but the reality is small, multi-species farms are often the norm, feed much of the world, and can provide a blueprint for how we can feed a growing population nutrient rich food in the longer term.
NMB: It seems like you have a love-hate relationship with vegans, as they are both praised and criticised in your writing. In essence, you’d like to work with the vegan community to bring about better animal welfare standards. Are you confident the book will open out the debate a bit more on this front?
ME: Not really love/hate relationship, but yes, I do bring up some criticisms of some vegans. I also praise and criticise farmers. I think some vegan principles are great, but I don’t see militant veganism as helpful. It’s a belief system, just as some paleo people have strident belief systems, and as do Buddhists and Christians and Hindus. But trying to force your belief systems on someone else is doomed to failure. Some activism is helpful in motivating those already converted, but it’s a proven strategy that attack, threats, and anger don’t change minds.
The problem isn’t that some people don’t want to eat meat, and some people want you to eat a whole lot of meat, it’s about those at the radical ends imposing beliefs on others. We don’t force people to ride electric bikes (probably a lot better for the environment than a car). We wouldn’t put up with people lying on the street in Melbourne stopping traffic to condemn all those that don’t use wood that is Forest Stewardship Council approved. It wouldn’t be okay for 2% of the population to insist that we all home school our kids because moving kids around in buses and cars lead to wallaby deaths and greenhouse gas emissions. It isn’t appropriate for me to write death threats and abusive emails to people who eat processed food no matter how much I think it’s an abomination, and I don’t think that people who practice anti-social behaviour in the name of veganism should be let off the hook either.
Meat eating is a small impact in terms of all human impact on the world, and if you want to have no impact on animals and the environment, the only way is to not exist. We have to recognise that everything we do has an impact, and that we all have different priorities, based on our income, our geography, our ancestry, our history. We can all make our own choices around ethics, based on our own belief systems, but being preachy about someone else’s meat eating while you’re wearing non-organic cotton, or have bought cherries where the nets kill thousands of birds each year, smacks of the hypocrisy that those very people rail against.
The great news is that most vegans, like most of the rest of us, don’t define themselves by their diet or one aspect of their belief system. Most vegans define themselves as humans, who would like to see us do better for the animals in our care. And so it’s easy to work with people willing to have grown up conversations about the best way forward, about lives won and lost, and the best way to build communities, societies, nations, while not buggering up the world in the process.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
ME: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, a brilliant look at what we do, and don’t, know about plants. Like how they talk to each other. How they emit sound. How they tend to sick neighbours. How they have memory despite no recognisable central nervous system. It’s a good way to start to understand what we don’t understand about forests and the environment we so readily take for granted. A more esoteric read is Thus Spoke the Plants by Sydney based researcher Monica Gagliano, which explores some similar themes in a more personal, mind altering way (and yes, while Monica is a scientist by trade, she does take a few mind altering things along the way).
Rusted Off, by Gabrielle Chan, about how the bush feels alienated from the city, and from the political cycle. Written by a journalist who moved from the city a long time ago, she has insights into the widening gulf between the bush and the suburbs, and what that means for all of us.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Well, I’m excited about it in anticipation! I'm just about to launch into this one. I reckon Tim captures the landscape of WA beautifully, and he paints characters so well that there’s hardly a book of his that hasn’t left me really moved. He captures our flaws, our hopes, our strange alliances so well, and does it with a good Aussie voice, which is all too rare.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Murdoch Books. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Last birthday Henry Bear made a wish, one he regrets. He wished his parents were more fun. As a result Mama Bear and Papa Bear now encourage him to eat cake for dinner and stay up late watching TV. Mama Bear scoffs that school is boring. As a result, Henry Bear is always late with his homework and is falling behind. When Henry Bear meets new girl Marjani at school, he tells her his troubles. She has an idea. With another birthday coming up, why not make a new wish?
Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a delightfully told cautionary tale about the perils of getting what you want. What made you want to create this particular bear story? Are you very fond of bears yourself?
Liam Francis Walsh: I wouldn't say I'm unusually fond of bears - especially when I'm all alone in a deep forest trying to peacefully enjoy a blueberry pie. I may be more fond of them, now, than when I started; they're fun to draw! I'm a great fan of Richard Scarry, so getting to draw any animals wearing clothes is always a treat.
That said, in the book's earliest incarnation the bears, who live in a charming bear cottage and are referred to as Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Little Bear, were kind of satirical, kind of a send-up of a very cliched, twee type of picture book. The book itself was a sort of meta-story about a harried children's book author trying to finish the hackneyed bear story as the reader is reading it. In other words, the real story was the story of the tardy author, and the bears were kind of circumstantial. When I showed that story to my editor he saw more promise in the adorable bears than in the balding author (clearly this man knows nothing about kids), and encouraged me to explore that part of the story more fully. He was right, and I love seeing how the story came together.
One of my favorite authors in any genre, Alan Moore, said about writing that (and I paraphrase) you can start with an idea, or a character, or a scene, or a plot, or a line of dialogue, or a world, but no matter where you start you still have to do all the rest of the work. Make a Wish, Henry Bear is a perfect example of how a story is often grown, more than it is conceived.
Finished artwork from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The story has a lot of humour. It's hilarious how Mama Bear urges Henry to eat lollies and chocolate cake for dinner. Does your work as a cartoonist sometimes influence your children's books?
LFW: Absolutely. And in many different ways: from finding the right composition and the right gesture, to timing a joke, to trying to predict and control the reader's expectations in order to subvert them to humorous effect, and on and on.
My wonderful literary agent, Dan Lazar, encouraged me early on to try to think of each page or spread as a cartoon, in order to make sure that each one could stand on its own, and to avoid having any boring beats (like characters just going from one place to another), or wasted space. I don't separate cartoon ideas and story ideas; they all go in the same notebook and then I see what they develop into when I start playing around with them. Humor never stops being fascinating and slippery.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: Henry Bear's new friend, Marjani, is an interesting character. She appears to be wearing a hijab. Did you make a conscious decision to add some cultural diversity to the story or did Marjani simply appear on her own, a more spontaneous creation?
LFW: I've been consciously trying to create diverse worlds in my cartoons and stories for some time, now. When I lived in New York City I used to be able to duck the question by saying that was just the world I saw around me, but now that I live in rural Switzerland, which is quite homogeneous, I'm regularly reminded how easy it is for people to fear the unfamiliar, and that makes it feel more imperative than ever that I use my soapbox (be it ever so small) to take a stand for tolerance.
When I was writing the book, in 2016, the refugee crisis in Europe was headlining the news, and some of the neighborhood kids told me refugee children from Africa were beginning to appear in their classrooms. Now, I'm not someone who pretends that migration is an uncomplicated problem with obvious solutions, and I have little use for religion, but (having been the outsider arriving at a new school several times in my life) I really hoped the children in the Swiss schools would be welcoming.
That's how the line, "Henry knew you should always be extra friendly to new students," got in the book, and stayed in, in spite of my editor's occasional hints that it might be a little clunky. To me, it's the heart of the book. If Henry hadn't been kind and welcoming to Marjani, in spite of her other-ness, he'd still be facing a revoltingly huge slice of chocolate cake every morning for breakfast. So, that's a round-about way of saying Marjani was originally just a new kid, but she became more interesting and poignant to me when she put on her hijab.
Original sketch from Make a Wish, Henry Bear
NMB: The township where the bears live looks wonderfully inviting, with its gorgeous townhouses, cobblestoned roads and sumptuous cake shops. It looks like a very nice place to live! Is the bear town based on any real place?
LFW: Four years ago I moved with my wife to the canton of Ticino, in Switzerland, where she's originally from. Ticino is located at the southernmost tip of Switzerland, and is surrounded on three sides by Italy. Both geographically and culturally it's more Italian than Swiss, and the official language is Italian. It's absolutely lovely, and I delighted in sourcing elements of the bears' world from scenes and details I've seen on my frequent long walks. The cobbles, the bakeries, the arches and tiled roofs: they're all here, but of course I tossed them up and elaborated on them and rearranged them to suit me.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
LFW: I was just at my parents' home in Wisconsin (USA) and started rereading the Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel, which were my favorite books as a beginning reader. Boy, are they wonderful! Little, funny gems, each and every one. I had a fun time reading Philip Stead and Matthew Cordell's Special Delivery (2015) aloud to my 5 and 7-year-old nephews (I can't think of it without wanting to shout, "Chugga-chugga-chugga! Beans-beans-beans!"), and the three of us had a ball going over every detail on every page of Full Moon Soup, by Alastair Graham. That book is just jaw-dropping. In my grown-up time, I'm enjoying the Delilah Dirk series of graphic novels, by Tony Cliff, and the wonderfully moody supernatural detective thrillers of John Connolly.
Make a Wish, Henry Bear, by Liam Francis Walsh. Published by Roaring Brook Press. $26.99
North Melbourne Books: It's been twenty years since we've had a biography of Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister. What made you want to take up the challenge? What appealed to you about researching Menzies' life?
Troy Bramston: The discovery of a series of interviews that Menzies gave in the 1970s for his official biography that was never completed was the motivation. I was lucky to secure access to them at the National Library of Australia and when I sat down and read the transcripts and listened to the tapes, I was stunned. This was a Eureka moment for a historian and they deserved to go in a book that told the story of his life and examined his legacy. So many historians have ignored his papers at the National Library - 650-plus boxes - so I went through them and found lots of new material: diary notes, letters, memos, photos and verse. I wanted to make sure what I wrote was written as much as possible on primary sources and would be fresh.
NMB: Robert Menzies uses new material, most notably previously unreleased interviews with Menzies. You also conducted many interviews yourself with people who knew Menzies. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt?
TB: I interviewed the surviving ministers, several of his staff, some public servants and his daughter, Heather Henderson. They all knew different aspects of Menzies, which was useful in unpacking what he was really like in cabinet, in the party room, in his office and at home. I was struck by his shyness and his kindness towards staff, which is not the Menzies that the public got to see. He had a friendship with John Curtin and Ben Chifley - two Labor PMs - which was much deeper and genuine than I had realised. The Menzies-Curtin letters are very affectionate. I discovered that Menzies cried the night Chifley died, and did not mind who saw him.
NMB: Menzies can be a divisive figure, yet your portrait remains balanced and judicious. We learn of a man both brilliant and flawed. What's your view of Menzies' character and legacy?
TB: This is a great story of a man born in 1894 in a small country town in Victoria who became prime minister. He wasn't from the born-to-rule set or the establishment. He was a man of decency and integrity, and he was in politics because he believed in public service. That matters. He has some big achievements such as expanding universities, funding non-government schools, developing Canberra, the ANZUS treaty and signing a trade deal with Japan. But there are significant misjudgements such as the Vietnam War and he maintained the White Australia Policy, was reluctant to condemn South Africa's apartheid regime and had retrograde views about Aboriginal Australians. But he reflected the views of many people born in the 19th century. So I tried to provide a balanced account of his life and legacy.
NMB: Federal politics today is particularly volatile in turning over prime ministers. What can today's politicians learn from Menzies?
TB: He lived a long life with many ups and downs and he was often written off but he always learnt from his mistakes, rebuilt his standing and consolidated his position. So how he did it and became the longest-serving PM makes for a compelling story. The most relevant aspect of his legacy today is how he practiced politics rather than the enduring nature of his policies. Politicians can learn a lot from him, such as how to manage a party, run a proper cabinet process, articulate values and communicate effectively, and develop and implement policy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I'm reading Robert Caro's Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, which is terrific, but of course his fans (like me) would rather read the concluding volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography! I enjoyed Jon Ward's Camelot's End about the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1980. And I recently read Sally Young's Paper Emperors about the newspaper industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Scribe Publications $49.99
(Author photo Julian Dolman).
North Melbourne Books: When eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother goes on a short holiday, she is left in the care of her fabulous and fun Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Suddenly a grisly murder happens in their small town, Riverstone, causing Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by their joint love of Nancy Drew mysteries.
The story is a mixture of glittering comedy, great characters, a gently ironic, sometimes droll narration by Tippy and a page-turning crime mystery. It's quite an original book. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
R.W.R. McDonald: It started in 2006 with an internal thread of thought from Tippy (before I knew it was Tippy). The thought was this kid talking about her friend Todd Landers and her looking for clues in a murder. It really followed on from that. I wanted to know who this kid was and why and how she would be investigating a murder. From there her irresponsible babysitting Uncle Pike came into focus and his new boyfriend Devon and it led on from there. For ten years they rattled around and formed until I started writing the first draft. I was discovering them, the other characters, and the story as I went along.
NMB: Tippy is a great character. She's only eleven, but is mature beyond her years, still dealing with the grief of losing her father. Was she based on anyone?
RM: My two incredible daughters are around Tippy’s age and similar in some ways but I had made a conscious decision from the beginning of writing The Nancys not to plagiarise their childhood or dialogue. For research though my daughters were fantastic sources of information and for running lines with, for example asking them whether they or their friends would use certain words or phrases etc.
I never base my characters on real people. For me they are their own entities, they may share a similar trait to someone, or sometimes I can recognise a part of myself but otherwise they seem to come into their own as I write further into the story.
I got to know Tippy over many re-drafts. Early on I was very protective of her, not wanting her to feel any pain. It wasn’t until I let go and allowed her character to experience the world that I got to know her better.
NMB: We learn that Uncle Pike fled New Zealand for Sydney as a teenager and when he returns to Riverstone, there is still emotional baggage from his past that needs to be sorted out. It's tempting to ask, did you add any autobiographical elements to the story?
RM: I guess all of the novel has some part of my lived experience in one way or another (except for the murder of course!). I did leave home for boarding school as a teenager and from there never returned home to live except to visit my family. As I grew older and travelled I slowly began to see the beauty in a place I once described as a “dump” – albeit only in my teenage years!
What I did not anticipate in writing a novel was the almost meta-data effect. Seeing patterns in the story which I had not consciously intended. I think it is fascinating tapping into the subconscious through writing, things appear on the page that at the time you have no idea what they mean or why they are there – for example a line of dialogue from a character which makes no immediate sense but you just know it’s important - and it is only much later, sometimes a couple of drafts later, that suddenly something clicks and you realise why it was there the whole time. It really is a type of magic.
NMB: The Nancys has many comic elements. There are so many brilliant characters, especially Uncle Pike and Devon. You have an ebullient style. It reminded me a bit of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, perhaps crossed with The Wizard of Oz (Tippy does overcome a lot with the help of her mercurial uncle and his boyfriend). Who are the writers that inspire you the most?
RM: All of them, published and unpublished, but that is probably cheating the answer. Writers who have informed and challenged my idea of story are across genre and form. This list really is only the tip of the iceberg: Roald Dhal, Virginia Woolf, Dr Seuss, Margaret Mahy, Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, e. e. cummings, Carolyn Keene, Victor Canning, Ngaio Marsh, Marianne Keyes, Ben Okri, Sylvia Plath, Maurice Gee, Toni Jordan, Salman Rushdie, Emily Bronte, Agatha Christie, Paddy O’Reilly, Kerri Hume, Witi Ihimeara, Toni Morrison, Charlie Kaufman, Stevie Smith – really the list goes on and on!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RM: The Shining Wall by Melissa Ferguson and Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic with Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng and Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone lined up next. My to be read pile keeps growing!!!
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99
(Author photo by Sonja Sones.)
North Melbourne Books: Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian. He has been sent by spymaster Lord Clivers to the neighbouring goblin kingdom to make peace. Upon arrival, Spurge is welcomed by his goblin host, Werfel the Archivist. Both men are historians and should hit it off, but they quickly start feuding. Goblins and Elves have been at war for over a thousand years and each party is keen to blame the other for starting hostilities. When Werfel's countrymen suddenly accuse him of being a traitor, the historian and archivist put aside their differences and work together, eventually developing a friendship.
It's a wonderfully imagined and executed story, and so believable, despite being a fantasy novel. How did you come up with the idea for the story?
M.T. Anderson: Well, I met writer/illustrator Eugene Yelchin for lunch -- and he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a book where the pictures didn't ILLUSTRATE the story -- they actually CONTRADICTED the story told in words. I said that sounded fascinating. He asked me if I had any ideas off the top of my head.
I said no.
But a month later or so, I began sending him all sorts of plot fragments to see which one excited us most -- things from across history and across the globe. I'm a big fan of travelogues by those ancient travelers who went to far-flung locales and tried to make sense of the world -- Herodotus, Marco Polo, Xuanzang, ibn Fadlan -- and so I suggested a kind of fantasy travelogue where an elf was going into the traditional land of a "Dark Lord" like Sauron and trying to describe what he saw ... but of course, he's filled with a thousand years of prejudice, so his view is pretty cockeyed.
This also allowed me to investigate goblin culture, which I always wondered about as a kid. The poor goblins get such a bad rap.
NMB: One of the book's main themes is the absurdity of war, and how often history is not written in the service of truth, but to reinforce national myths. When you started out writing, did you have these themes in mind, or did they develop along the way?
MTA: They came out pretty naturally. Eugene and I had met because I'd written a big nonfiction book on Soviet Russia (Symphony for the City of the Dead) and Eugene had actually defected from Soviet Russia. We're both fascinated by Cold War spy stories and propaganda ... so the story just naturally started to wander in that direction as we wrote it.
NMB: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is essentially a brilliant, witty comedy. There's even a touch of Cervante's Don Quixote in its spoofing of courtly manners. Were there any writers that were a conscious influence when you were writing it?
MTA: Yes! Those travel writers I mentioned above ... and John LeCarre ... and, um, P. G. Wodehouse.
NMB: Your collaborator on the story, Eugene Yelchin, provides the amazing illustrations. There are whole chapters that are devoted to Yelchin's drawings, integrating beautifully into the whole book. What was the collaborative process like?
MTA: We would set ourselves an assignment for a part of the book -- "Ok, I'll get the elfin historian to the kingdom of the goblins. You pick it up from there, and do the scene where he's greeted by the goblin archivist." Then Eugene would draw sketches and I'd write something, and we'd trade. We'd massage everything so that it fit together ... or so that it didn't fit together.
The cool thing about working this way was that it meant the book took us in directions neither of us would have gone on our own.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MTA: Well, I'm still a big fan of medieval literature, so I'm reading a medieval epic ("Sir Ysenbras") ... and I'm reading Edward Carey's wonderful novel about waxwork maven Madame Tussaud's bizarre life, Little ... So much great stuff out there to read!
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick Press. RRP: $24.99