Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Interview: Dean Crawford

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let's start with an easy one, what are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading The Lost Relic by Scott Mariani.

What was your journey from aspiring writer to published author like?
Long! I started writing in 1995, and my first deal was signed in 2010. It was a long journey to undertake, but I never once felt like quitting. For me, the end result was always going to be worth the effort no matter how many rejections I might receive from literary agents. In all, I wrote four screenplays and five novels before producing something that was ‘just right’ for the market. Sometimes it’s luck and timing that help you through. Two of my novels were historical fiction, for which I attempted to gain representation when that portion of the market just wasn’t selling. I had no idea at the time, but just kept plugging away despite being rejected. That’s what gets you there in the end – persistence. 

Can you tell us about Covenant?
Covenant is about the discovery of alien humanoid remains found in a 7,000 year old tomb in Israel. The revelatory remains vanish along with their discoverer, and it’s up to a weary former US Marine, Ethan Warner, to uncover the ancient secrets on behalf of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In doing so, he learns that human civilization did not develop quite the way we thought that it did: we were not alone.

Where did the inspiration for Covenant come from?
Covenant was my first original screenplay, written back in 1999 under the title The Nemesis Origin. I’d asked myself why mankind should be so superior in intelligence to other species, and wondered if we could have been genetically enhanced by technologically superior races, and that religions were essentially a distorted historical record of their intervention, as opposed to gods. It turned out that many non-fiction authors had reached this conclusion long before me, but by 2007 as far as I was aware there still hadn’t been a good fiction thriller about this possibility. I decided to adapt the screenplay into a novel, as I’d decided that getting a novel into print, hard as it is, was easier than trying to get a movie made.

What do you hope reader reaction to Covenant will be?
I hope readers love the combination of action and intrigue, but also the depth that I’ve tried to give to the characters, something that is sometimes missing from modern thrillers. Perhaps most of all, I hope that readers learn something, as although a work of fiction the vast majority of the science within the novel is factual. The true origin of life on Earth and throughout the universe is part of the message within the story.

Who are your literary influences?
I have many, as I find inspiration in all story-telling. Names that spring to mind are Willard Price, whom I read as a young child, Wilbur Smith, who writes great epic adventures, and Michael Crichton, whom I discovered in 1993 when I was blown away at the cinema by a movie called Jurassic Park. From that moment on, I was hooked on science and what it had the potential to achieve in the future.

I've spoken to several authors who wish that they could write sci-fi. Does it take something unique to write a book with an alien theme?

I don’t think so. It depends on the story itself: Covenant is a “what if” scenario, and so relies heavily on real science to be as convincing as possible, but a true sci-fi novel allows an author to let their imagination fly beyond the constraints of reality in the manner of Star Wars or similar. For an author contemplating writing something like Covenant, I’d say it takes a willingness to do a lot of research in order to hook the reader into thinking: “this could actually happen.”

What has been the best part of becoming a full time writer?
Everything. My friends don’t always believe it, but money wasn’t the main driving force behind wanting to be a full-time writer. My big dream, the image that I kept in my mind for fifteen years as an aspiring writer, was waking up on a weekday morning, looking out of the window and asking myself: “Okay, what shall I do today?” It’s the freedom that I love the most – if I want to work, that’s okay because I love writing. But if the sun’s out and I fancy taking a day off, it’s my call. Nothing beats that.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on book three in the Ethan Warner series, Continuum. I won’t give away too much, but it’s about one man’s ability to ‘move’ through time – and once again it’s based on real science and technology.

Covenant will be published by Simon and Schuster on the 1st of September. It is available to pre-order now.

Monday, 22 August 2011

National Bookshop Day

I wasn't working on National Bookshop Day. But that didn't stop me from visiting Shearer's to take part in the fun. After taking full advantage of my non-working status (making the casuals wrap gifts for me, getting the children's specialist to locate and order books for my daughter, and clicking at staff members when I wanted something), I settled in for a latte from Froth (and even though I asked the girl who made it to do a dragon on the top, she gave me a leaf, which was acceptable. I guess. My partner said I could imagine the leaf was a plume of flame from a dragon and I had to point out to her - not for the first time - that dragons shoot out jets of flame. Not plumes.)

We had authors coming in all day to unveil their names on our newly updated 'name wall'. The name wall features the names of authors we've held events with and we used National Bookshop Day as an excuse to update it, adding over 50 new names! Edmund Capon, Margaret Wild, Charlotte Wood, Walter Mason, Jacqueline Harvey, Kelly Doust and Angelo Loukakis unveiled their names in person and answered a couple of questions for everyone present. We asked these authors to come in as they are all special people to us - we consider them part of the Shearer's flock!

For our customers, we gave away the very popular 'Keep Calm and Keep Reading' posters, tickets to the film Beginners and had almost 300 people enter the contest to win the 5 pack of new titles from our friends at Text Publishing. The prize was won by a member of the Saturday morning book club!

National Bookshop Day is a great initiative that went spectacularly well. The general vibe in the store (and online, where many booksellers are these days) was overwhelmingly positive and we wound up feeling very loved. It just went to show that for an industry that's been getting a hammering in the mainstream media lately there is still energy, enthusiasm, innovation and - most importantly - community support.

Thanks to the authors who took time out of their busy schedules to visit us and thanks to the customers who chose to spend their precious spare time in our little corner of Leichhardt.

Written by Mark

Our front counter in celebratory mode. Don't judge us on the mess - we're an independent bookshop, remember?

Margaret Wild, with our children's specialist Rachel, talks about her work.

Margaret Wild unveils her name on the 'name wall'.

Edmund Capon with Shearer's owner Barbara talks about his life in art.

Edmund Capon unveils his name.

Walter Mason with Barbara, talking about his writing.

Walter Mason unveils his name.

Walter's name is now on the wall!

Angelo Loukakis with Barbara, chatting about his work.

Angelo Loukakis unveils his name.

Jacqueline Harvey with Shearer's children's specialist Emma.

Jacqueline Harvey unveils her name.

Jacqueline Harvey's name is now on our wall!

Charlotte Wood with Barbara from Shearer's having a good laugh.

Charlotte Wood unveils her name.

Kelly Doust with Barbara chatting about her life in craft.

Kelly Doust unveils her name.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Upcoming Event: Marieke Hardy

A Brief Chat With Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of the Otherworld, Darkest Powers, Darkness Rising and Nadia Stafford series. She is in Australia to attend the Romance Writers of Australia conference.

What was the last book you read and what are you currently reading?
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Currently: The Gangs of Chicago by Herbert Asbury (non fiction).

Which book from your bookshelf at home is your most treasured and why?
An old copy of Watership Down that my aunt gave me when I was young and hospitalised for surgery and it went on to be one of my favourite books.

Which fictional character do you most identify with?
Anne of Green Gables. While I don't share her outgoing personality, I can completely empathise with her penchant for getting into trouble when she has the best intentions.

What are you working on next?
I'm about to begin my long delayed concluding Nadia Stafford mystery novel.

 Kelley Armstrong's novels are available now.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Upcoming Event: Kasey Chambers

Tickets $15. Bookings are essential. Please call Shearer's on (02) 9572 7766 to book.

National Bookshop Day - Free Stuff and Prizes!

We've already announced that on National Bookshop Day (this Saturday August 20) we will have several authors unveiling their names on our updated 'Name Wall', details of which can be found here.

But wait, there's more!

For everyone who spends over $100 in store on National Bookshop Day, we will give you one of these much-sought-after posters absolutely free!

And if that's not enough, then everyone who purchases a book in store on National Bookshop Day will go in the running to win this magnificent prize pack, courtesy of our friends at Text Publishing! The books are all yet to be published so you could be among the first to own them!

So come along on Saturday, meet an author, buy some books & score a free poster, and go in the draw to win some fantastic books! National Bookshop Day is happening in bookshops all over the country, so be sure to visit your local!

Monday, 15 August 2011

Interview: Michael Ward

Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, let's start with an easy one. What are you reading at the moment?
Hi. Thanks for asking. I’m currently reading Packing For Mars by Mary Roach (all about the science of life in space) and a thriller by Don Winslow called Satori.

Can you tell me about the Talkin' 'bout your Generation Book of Everything Ever?
Yeah, the book contains 1200 questions split across 40 different subjects, with each subject divided into questions specific to Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Ys. There’s also a heap of made up stuff which I call ‘unfacts’ and well as stupid puzzles, dubious recommended reading and lots more kooky stuff.

What is it like working as a writer on Talkin' 'bout your Generation?
Most of the time it’s great fun although working with Shaun Micallef is extremely difficult. I’m not allowed to look him directly in the eye, must refer to him only as ‘your Majesty’ (and greet him each morning with a bow) and if Shaun’s tea isn’t made precisely how he likes it, he has no hesitation in throwing it back in your face. Many a minion has spent time in a hospital burns unit thanks to Shaun’s temper.

Which generation are you a member of and which generation do you understand the least?
I’m a Gen Xer, born in 1966. After working on TAYG and writing the book, I like to think I have an intimate understanding of the Baby Boomers and Gen Y. Although why Gen Ys like to get around with the tops of their undies on display over their sagging trousers in beyond me.

I understand that you also work on RocKwiz, is that a fun job?
Along with Brian Nankervis, I write the words for RocKwiz and occasionally some questions. It is a fun job, although I’m not allowed to look either Brian or host Julia Zemiro directly in the eye; I must refer to them as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ respectively and may not speak to them unless first spoken to. 

You've worked with Shaun Micallef for many years now, which project was your favourite?
Everything I’ve been involved in with Shaun has been great fun, but Micallef Tonight on Channel Nine was a particular favourite. The show only lasted 13 episodes but I dare say it changed the landscape of Australian television forever and paved the way for the success of shows like Masterchef and Q and A.

What should people expect from your new live show Bond-A-Rama: Every James Bond Film Live on Stage?
They should expect all the best bits of all 22 James Bond films shaken and stirred together live on stage in just over an hour. (Did you spot the Bond reference in that sentence?).  Four actors, over 40 characters, dodgy special effects, ludicrous props - Bond-a-Rama has it all. Actually, it’s probably finished by the time you read this - sorry you missed it.

Who has influenced you as a comedy writer?
I grew up adoring Monty Python, Woody Allen and TV comedy like Dave Allen and The Two Ronnies. I’m a huge fan of the actor / writer Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, the writer Graeme Linehan (Big Train, Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd) and the American humorist Jack Handey. I’ve certainly learned a lot from Shaun Micallef too (not least that he likes his tea white with one sugar).

How did you wind up working in comedy? Was it something you always aspired to?
It all began, as it does for so many performers, at university. The lure of Tracy Harvey and Wendy Harmer (then stars of The Gillies Report) running a workshop for the annual comedy revue drew me into the glitzy showbiz world and it went from there. After uni I travelled overseas a fair while, had a stint in radio and then was lucky enough to find my niche in TV comedy writing.

And finally, has there been a show or a sketch you've worked on over the years that has stood out as a personal highlight?
One of my favourite jokes from the book is ‘the beam from the world’s largest industrial laser is so powerful that it can cut through margarine like it is butter.’
If you could be bothered, a couple of favourite sketches I’ve written are on Youtube: One from The Micallef Programme and one from Newstopia

Thanks for your time!

The Talkin' 'bout Your Generation Book of Everything Ever is published by Hardie Grant Books and is available now.

Friday, 12 August 2011

France Month: Interview with Pia Jane Bijkerk

Pia Jane Bijkerk at Shearer's
Hi Pia, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
Last year my partner introduced me to author Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. I've never been that interested in fantasy until I started reading the first book in the trilogy,  Assasin's Apprentice, and since then I haven't been able to put Robin's books down - I've read the Farseer Trilogy, then Tawny Man, and am now reading the second trilogy in the series  - the Liveship Traders. She's a fabulous writer.

Can you tell me about the time you spent in Paris? Why did you go and what did you do there?

I followed my heart to Paris and have been back and forth every year for the last 5 years, spending 8 months full time there back in 2007.  My latest book, My Heart Wanders, is all about my time there, why I went, what I experienced, and my adventures getting to know the culture and lifestyle.

From your perspective in design, what is it about Paris that makes it such a fascinating place?

I think it's the history of the city that makes it so fascinating for me. I love the oldness of everything - the bridges, the stone buildings, the wooden parquetry floors, the antique fireplaces. There is no escaping the history of the place - it's so present, so alive, and for me I find that incredibly inspiring. I love old things, old design.

Photo courtesy of Pia Jane Bijkerk

Whereabouts in the city were your favourite haunts?
I have many, most of which are in my first book Paris: Made by Hand which is a guide book with chapters defined as 'wanders'  - in each wander I feature a number of boutiques and studios specialising in unique pieces made by hand, and I also mention some of the lovely little cafés and restaurants you might find along the way.

One of my favourite wanders these past couple of years has been in the 10th arrondissement - around Canal St Martin. It has a great vibe, there are lots of new, interesting shops and bars opening up all the time.

There are some beautiful posts on your blog where you describe weekends and visits in Paris, what would the ultimate-one-weekend-only Pia Jane tour of Paris be?
Thank you. My ultimate-one-weekend-only 'tour' changes all the time, according to new boutiques and cafes I've heard or read about and want to explore further. For me, I think the ultimate is to combine a bit of history, a lot of eating, and a bit of window shopping. My partner and I often revolve our weekend trips in Paris around restaurants we like or want to try out - so if there is one in Montmatre we'll spend the afternoon in the area, wandering toward our food destination. At the moment I don't have an ultimate weekend there, but my favourite arrondissements are the 10th, the 18th, the 6th and the 3rd.
Photo courtesy of Pia Jane Bijkerk

Do you think you will ever live in Paris again?
Who knows what the future holds, it might happen, although at the moment I'm more in love with the idea of living in the French countryside as I love being surrounded by nature, and I love french food - it would be nice to live amongst the fields.

You've released several books including Paris: Made by Hand, Amsterdam: Made by Hand and My Heart Wanders, is there one that is especially meaningful for you?
My Heart Wanders is such a personal, intimate story about my journey to follow my heart. It took me a couple of years to write, photograph and design the book, which makes it especially meaningful for me. But I have put my heart and soul into each book, so each one holds a special place in my heart - Paris: Made by Hand was my first ever book, and travelling around Paris, visiting each of the artisans, photographing their creations and interviewing them was an incredible experience. Researching and writing Amsterdam: Made by Hand was very special because although it's a foreign city, I felt I could call it home the moment I moved there at the end of 2007.

What materials do you find yourself most comfortable working with?
I think the camera is the most comfortable for me - as soon as I pick it up and have my subject in front of me, I enter a world slightly separate from this one… it makes me feel very much in the present, like nothing else matters. Pen and paper do the same thing, I can be completely absorbed in the present moment while I write.
Photo courtesy of Pia Jane Bijkerk

What are the biggest creative challenges you face when working on a project?
Time management! The creative parts are always the easiest, most free flowing parts of a project, but since I often do lots of different jobs for any one project - from writing, to research, to photographing, styling, and crafting, I find it hard to juggle each role and dedicate the time I want to each element as there is always a looming deadline. Somehow I manage, but it takes its toll on my everyday life.
Pia made a beautiful window display for us.

What are you working on next?
I have a few projects in the early research phases at this moment, but I won't persue anything until next year - I need this year to rejuvenate my creative energy.

Thanks for your time!
Thank you for having me!

My Heart Wanders, Paris: Made by Hand and Amsterdam: Made by Hand are all available now. You can visit Pia's blog here.

A Brief Chat With Caroline Brothers

Caroline Brothers visited us for a chat about her new novel, Hinterland.

What was the last book you read and what are you currently reading?
Believe it or not, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh at present. Previously, Gould's Book of Fish - Fantastic, magical imagination and an eye-opener into the early days of white settlement in Tasmania.

What inspired you to write a book about refugees?
Encountering these brave, unassuming, incredibly polite, candid kids. I was moved above all by their courage and by the simplicity of their desire to go to school.

What research did you undertake?
Before I knew I was writing the book I went as a reporter to the Greek border with Turkey, to Calais, to Athens and Venice - places along the migration route into Europe. As the novel took shape, I went to some of the places in between - Genoa and back to Nice and back to the places in Paris where I first met and spoke to these brave kids. I also read everything I could on Afghanistan to build up the back story of the boys' lives.

Was it difficult to switch between writing non-fiction and writing fiction?
No - because I'd been writing shorter pieces of fiction, but principally I had a big build up of emotional baggage from meeting these children that I was desperate to channel into some other form, so turning to fiction came as a great relief, a way to externalise all the things I'd been holding that couldn't be contained in journalism. Above all it was a great pleasure to write about these moving kids.

What are you working on next?
I have a few leads for a new novel but haven't decided which one I will stick with to fully develop. But I am dying to get fully involved in the next one.
Hinterland is available here.

When Genres Attack 3!

When Genres Attack 3 is part of the Sydney Fringe Festival!
Tickets $8.50, Bookings through Shearer's on (02) 9572 7766 or through the Sydney Fringe Festival here.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

National Bookshop Day - Saturday August 20

National Bookshop Day is fast approaching and we can finally announce what we've got planned. Regular visitors to the store will be familiar with our 'Name Wall':

The wall features the names of many authors who have visited us for events in the past. It's in need of updating, and what better excuse than National Bookshop Day?

On the day (Saturday August 20), we will be unveiling 50 new names on our wall! And the exciting part is that several authors will unveiling their own names and answering a few questions about their work. They'll then be available to mingle and sign books. Below is the schedule so that you can time your visit in order to meet your favourites!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

France Month: Review - The French Wallander...

I recently listened to a podcast from the books section of The Guardian. Their literary reviewer was on a quest for the French equivalent of Henning Mankell's Wallander series, he believed he had found it in Fred Vargas. So I decided to have a look at Vargas' first novel, The Chalk Circle Man.

The story introduces Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, a unique detective who has just arrived in Paris. While he deals with his usual cases he takes an interest in a series of chalk circles that have started to appear on the streets of the city. Nobody knows who is drawing them or why, they are always centred around objects on the pavement and appear in the dead of night. Adamsberg is convinced that they will lead to something sinister and soon enough a murdered woman is found within one.

The story is short, tense and enthralling. Adamsberg is a wonderful character whose methods and habits irritate his fellow officers, but he's a natural detective. He works more on instinct than deduction, which on the surface may seem frustrating, but his mind is brilliant and unique. The other characters that populate the novel are wonderfully eccentric including a marine biologist who likes to follow people and an antisocial blind man. I especially like Adamsberg's partner, who confesses his alcoholism at their first meeting by telling Adamsberg that he'll be 'no good after 4 o'clock.'

I must at this point reveal that I've never read any of the Wallander novels, so I can't comment on the comparison. But I can report that The Chalk Circle Man introduces a great detective in a great story that's perfect for anyone who loves a good detective yarn. It's a credit to Fred Vargas that she created a novel that's funny, dark, unpredictable and original.

Written by Mark

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

France Month: Interview with Jane Paech

Hi Jane, thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for our blog. Let's start with an easy, French-themed one, what's your favourite cheese?
It’s difficult to choose just one…Perhaps a perfectly ripe, rich and creamy Délice de Bourgogne. I would pair this melt-in-your-mouth, triple-cream cow’s milk cheese with a crusty baguette and a glass of Champagne.

Can you tell me about your book, A Family in Paris?
A Family in Paris is a mix of memoir and travel guide. The collection of anecdotes, travel tips and insights highlight the joys and difficulties of an Australian family relocating to Paris and adjusting to la vie parisienne. It’s an insider’s guide to food, shopping and museums - packed with information and woven with traditions and history, it’s filled with things I wish I knew on that sunny April day when our family arrived in the city.

What is it about Paris that makes life there so unique?
I believe what is truly unique and captivating about French life is that so many elements are elevated to an art form. Great thought goes into the simple line of a scarf, the display in a perfumery window, the exquisite packaging of a raspberry tart. This culture of elegance and beauty extends to all corners of life. Quality, good taste, style, attention to detail and the art of living well are infused into the everyday. The French, rightly so, are very proud of their heritage and traditions, and aesthetics plays a big part in this pride. Everything is made as beautiful as possible, and to my eye it appeared that every resident made a monumental effort, every single day.

What attracted you to Paris in the first place?

My former husband, who was employed by a multinational wine and spirits company, came home from work one day and asked, ‘How would you like to live in Paris for a couple of years?’ Picture-postcard images leapt into my head: fashion, art, style, romance, the capital of food. Attracted to French culture and mad about food, I’d always had a fascination with France. 'When do we go?' I replied swiftly, the decision made in a flash.

Why did you decide to write a book about your experience?
My six years in Paris were spent with pen in hand, scribbling away in notebooks, on serviettes and café coasters. I was in awe of the place. Unable to restrain myself, I would stop to describe the ambience of a garden or an intricate doorway. I was constantly documenting a thought, a flavor or a dish. A box under the bed contained a growing pile of restaurant cards and menus, along with tickets to museums and galleries. Writing was my way of capturing the splendor of our new life and trapping the memories. Consequently, the initial stages of the book were created almost unknowingly. It wasn’t until I returned to Australia with a mountain of scribble and a stack of twenty dog-eared notebooks that the desire to convey our experiences to travellers and other ex-pat families kept snapping at me like a haughty poodle.

The book is presented in an everyday, scrapbook style, what lay behind this decision?
Having spent my days taking notes and scribbling down anecdotes and everyday observances it seemed like a natural progression for it all to come together in a warm, chaotic, scrapbook style with photographs tossed about the pages. I also wanted it to be fresh, accessible and real; for the reader to be able to dip into Paris as we had through a kaleidoscope of everyday moments. It was the small, repeated experiences and daily rituals - the rattle of the metro, the smell of the boulangerie and the whirl of the antique carousel that became a big part of our lives and memories.

If you had just one night to show a guest around Paris, where would you take them?
I’d hire a car and head straight to the Champs-Elysées to the grand tea salon Ladurée for tea and macarons (prime time for afternoon tea is 4-5pm). After a bit of a stroll down the avenue, we’d do a quick tour of the city and take in the main city sights including zooming up to Montmartre to view the city below, around l’arc de triomphe and along the Seine. We’d circle Place de la Madeleine and Place Vendôme, home to the Ritz, rattle across Place de la Concorde, past the Jardin des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre, then cross the river and peek into Notre-Dame before getting lost in the the heart of the Left Bank while gazing up at the Eiffel Tower as the sun goes down…Phew! Then we’d screech to a halt in the historic Marais quarter for the rest of the evening. First a relaxing apéritif at Au Petit Fer à Cheval, a tiny vintage café with a horseshoe-shaped bar and great people watching, before a promenade through the crooked streets and a late dinner at Le Petit Marché, a small, crowded and very French resto filled with locals. 

We can't not mention food, especially the famous things like bread and pastries. How is the French attitude to food different to ours?
Again, quality, good taste, style, attention to detail and the art of living well are paramount to French life, and this extends to food. From the exquisite pyramid of clementines in an open-air market to the antique rack of artisanal baguettes in a classic, old boulangerie, quality (and presentation) wins over quantity. Consumer expectations along with the demand for fresh, pristine produce are high, and France runs like clockwork. The arrival of various fruits, vegetables and produce in shops and markets mark the months and seasons, and indeed the passing of the year as plainly as turning the pages of your kitchen calendar. There is always something to anticipate and cherish.

What's the biggest misconception about Paris?
With one of the greatest café cultures in the world it is often assumed that the coffee will be of a very high standard. Unless you are a fan of the short black, prepare to be underwhelmed. Hanging out on the terrace is more about watching the world go by.

I once read a great quote about Paris: "Paris, pour te dire merci, avec mes pieds, je te caresse." If you could summarise your feelings towards the city, what would you say?

Paris, je t’aime à la folie.

What's next for you?

I am working on an intimate culinary travel guide to Paris that will comprise select, delicious afternoons in the city, and have a similar voice to A Family in Paris.

A Family in Paris by Jane Paech is available now

Guest Blog: M.J. Hearle on Writing, Perceptions and Genre

I was at a backyard barbecue recently – the sort of occasion one gets dragged along to by a partner where you don’t know anyone and spend half the afternoon introducing yourself – and got stuck talking to a stockbroker named Randall. His name might not have actually been Randall but if it wasn’t it should have been. Randall seems like the sort of name a stockbroker would have: strong, confident, and a little obnoxious.

It became clear quickly that we had little in common. Randall liked talking about money. I don’t have any money, so I couldn’t contribute much to the discussion. When he realised I wasn’t a prospective client, any semblance of polite interest began to fade from Randall’s eyes. It only flared up again when I told him what I did for a living.

‘An author, huh? Published too? What sort of stuff do you write?’ Randall asked, puffing cigar smoke in my face (he wasn’t smoking a cigar, but it feels like he should have been).
Clearing my throat, I answered without a shred of embarrassment, ‘I write supernatural fiction.’
Randall’s eyebrows twitched, and his top lip curled into a smirk. ‘Oh...really?’ he said, in the kind of patronising tone only the truly ignorant can muster. ‘Why? Why would you choose to write that junk? You’re a grown man. It’s all a bit silly isn’t it?’

I smiled and shrugged, biting back my reply that it was probably a bit silly to wear a three-piece Armani suit to a casual backyard barbecue, thanked him for his opinion and moved on. I think he was grateful to see me go. Men like Randall, creatures of facts and figures, have a hard time relating to people like me. I make them uncomfortable. Storytellers don’t fit easily into their carefully ordered, rigid view of the universe (which probably looks something like the Matrix – everybody and everything reduced to a flashing green number.)

Now, if Randall had nodded politely and told me that he personally didn’t enjoy reading about things that go bump in the night, I wouldn’t have minded (though I would have been surprised as such a response required a level of tact presumably beyond his reach). Books are like ice-cream, and not everybody likes strawberry mixed with their chocolate. I don’t like reading westerns – not because I have anything against cowboys on the high plains, it’s just not a flavour I particularly appreciate. What bothered me about Randall’s reaction was the way he dismissed an entire genre without a second thought, as though it was an irrefutable fact that supernatural fiction was terrible and those who wrote it, fools.

When we’re young we happily gobble up the fairy tales our parents read us, delighting at the monsters and the magical turns such stories feature. As we grow older, some of us begin to look down on these stories, locking them away with our old toys, leaving them to gather dust. We forget the power they have and our imaginations start to atrophy. Soon the only narratives we can tolerate are those that take place in a recognisable reality, and anything that challenges or pushes at the constrictive boundaries of this reality is regarded with suspicion, or worse, contempt.

I used to feel sorry for people like Randall and their shrunken, malnourished imaginations until I realised something startling – these people felt sorry for me. They looked at my ability to suspend disbelief, to indulge the impossible, as some kind of developmental shortcoming. A few steps removed from mental retardation or insanity.

Why choose to write about such things? – they ask me, and my response is always the same...
Why assume there is a choice?

What moves us, moves us. It’s a simple as that. A psychologist might be able to pick apart my predilection for the paranormal. Might be able to point to incidents in my childhood that helped shape my creative direction, but what it boils down to is, I dig this stuff. Not only that, but I genuinely believe supernatural fiction has literary merit. Of course there’s plenty of pap out there, but there’s enough genuinely good work that I’m always surprised the genre is given such short shrift.

You only have to look at the writings of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Block, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and that poor whipping boy of the critical community Stephen King, for evidence of great stories of the supernatural that hold up to literary scrutiny. All of these authors can weave tales that astonish and terrify, but most do so in the service of a greater message. They use genre conventions and metaphor to reveal basic human truths much more artfully than straightforward, realistic fiction. In other words, the spectral happenings are just the garnish on the meal, not the meal itself.

When I started writing my first novel, Winter’s Shadow, I knew I wanted to write about love and death. I wanted to write about that difficult transitional period between adolescence and adulthood. I also knew I wanted to write about monsters. So I crafted the tale of young woman named Winter Adams, who discovers there’s a whole other world beyond the one she can see with her eyes. A world full of magic and terrible things that wish her harm. One of those terrible things just might be the man she’s fallen in love with.

I wasn’t attempting anything profound, but I didn’t approach the story carelessly. While it’s true the surface mystery contains many supernatural twists and turns, it was the deeper mysteries of the book, those grounded squarely in the real world, that interested me: love and death. Winter learns a lot about both over the course of the novel, and her journey is all the more satisfying for it. If I’d left out the supernatural aspect I might have garnered fewer sneering responses from the Randall’s of the world, but I wouldn’t have had as much fun writing. And, I suspect, the readers who’ve picked up the book wouldn’t have had as much fun reading.

M. J.

 Winter's Shadow by M.J. Hearle is available now.

Friday, 5 August 2011

France Month: Literary Prizes

Have you ever wondered what the French equivalent of the Booker Prize or the Miles Franklin Award is? I did, and after a little bit of research I uncovered a treasure trove of literary prizes that are awarded in France every year.

Prix Goncourt
This famous prize was won last year by Michel Houeliebecq whose name I was fortunate enough to hear pronounced before I tried to say it at a party once.

Prix Alain-Fournier
This one is for relatively unknown authors who are early in their careers.

Prix des Deux Magots
Named after the famous Parisian cafe, this award is less mainstream that the Prix Goncourt.

Prix Décembre
Awarded each December, this is award is even less mainstream that the Deux Magots prize.

Prix Femina
The judging panel are all women but the prize doesn't necessarily have to be won by a woman.

Prix de Flore
For French-language literature, awarded in the Café de flore in Paris. The prize includes a free glass of wine every day for a year, making it the most competitive literary award in France.

Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire
Like the Nebula or Hugo award, but for 'speculative fiction' rather than 'science fiction'. Snobs. 

Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française
One of the oldest and most prestigious awards in France, it has been won by some of the heaviest-hitters in French literature.

Grand Prix de Littérature Policiére
For crime fiction, and is awarded for international writers too, past winners include Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and Camilla Lackberg.

Prix Renaudot
Runs parallel to the Prix Goncourt and is awarded at the same time. They always have a back-up choice in case they select the same winner.

That is by no means comprehensive as the Académie française awards over 60 literary prizes itself each year. Extensive lists of winners can be found here.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

France Month: My Obsession with Macarons

There are many many books out at the moment about those delicious little treats known as Macarons, biscuity/cakey treasures that originated in France and have since spread globally. In Sydney, Adriano Zumbo has an annual Macaron day where his shop sells 64 different flavours! His forthcoming book, Zumbo, is going to be filled with wonderful images and recipes for macarons and will be well worth a look.

I've plucked three different books off the shelf in our cooking section that are macaron related and I'm going to explore, drool and generally make myself really, really hungry. Unfortunately Froth cafe don't sell Macarons. Maybe I'll ask if they will make some for me?

Ok, no luck there. Secrets of Macarons by Jose Marechal is a lovely little hardcover book full of recipes and pictures. He focusses on the 'nine classic flavours', plain, vanilla, chocolate, coffee, caramel, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, and my favourite - pistachio. Bitesize features recipes for lots of little treats including blood orange macarons, which sould fantastic as do the peanut with salted caramel. Finally, my favourite is I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita, a beautifully displayed and fun book that really manages to convey the passion and obsession I feel whenever someone mentions the word 'maracon' in my vicinity.

From these books you get an idea of why Macarons are so popular. They're a challenge to create, but not impossible. Once you have the techniques perfected, you have the ability to be as creative as you want with the flavours, and as Adriano Zumbo has demonstrated you can get very creative indeed. Another great thing is that they are so popular out here that you don't need to pine for Ladurée or Pierre Hermé, it's easy to either get good quality ones locally, or simply take up the challenge and make them yourself.

Unless you're like me, and take more pleasure in things when someone else has done all the hard work.

Written by Mark