Friday, 30 September 2011

Anna Funder Event

Anna Funder is best known for her award-winning novel Stasiland – an investigative account of individuals who resisted the East German regime and others who worked for its secret police, the   Stasi. Funder’s interest in the East German resistance continues in her second book, All That I Am. This latest release, Anna’s first work of fiction, centres on a group of mostly Jewish Germans who opposed Hitler in the 1930s. From this group, Ernst Toller, the famous writer and freedom fighter, and Ruth Blatt become the two narrators of the story. Toller recounts the events of the 20s and 30s from a New York hotel room in 1939 while Ruth Blatt remembers the struggles of her past as a dying old woman in present-day Sydney.

Although Anna grew up in Melbourne, she was compelled to choose Sydney as one of her settings in order to create a visceral and stark contrast to Germany. “Sydney is so incredibly fertile and productive,” she said, adding that the novel is a kind of ‘love song’ to the city.

Setting is just one of the many contrasts in a novel that shifts between past and present, two narrative voices and history and fiction. To illustrate the wide scope of her novel, Anna selected two passages from All That I Am: one from a scene at a Nazi rally in the 30s and the other describing an incident that happens on a summer’s day along Sydney’s New South Head Road. Both worlds vividly came to life – a testament to the strength of Anna’s storytelling ability – captivating Shearer’s staff and customers alike. This was the first time Anna had read from her novel and she said it was nice for it to happen in ‘her local bookstore.’

When it was time for questions, many customers wanted to know more about the real life events and people that provide the basis for the novel. In addition to considerable use of historical archive, All That I Am is largely based on the life of Ruth – a woman that came into Anna’s life as the woman who taught German to her German teacher. As Anna spoke about the inspiration of her novel, the audience too became fascinated by the life of this remarkable woman asking many questions about the ‘true story’ behind the novel.

The line between history and fiction was a continual conversation point for the evening. Although All That I Am is fiction, Anna and many reviewers draw attention to the historical accuracy of the work, for example she pointed out that certain details in her writing were true - Nazi supporters did wear wonky swastika armbands and people were dressed and sent to rallies so it seemed like there were more Brown Shirts. Anna is in the process of writing about the relationship between history and fiction for The Times in London exploring questions like: How much do you take form real people or real events?  What do you use? How do you use it?

Funder rejects the old saying of, ‘write what you know’ preferring to ‘write what you are curious about’. With such a passion, respect and talent for historical research and the truth, why then did Anna move from the non-fiction of Stasiland to the fiction of All That I Am?

Providing some answers, Anna says All That I Am is inventing how people were connected. History sometimes stops at a point where no one can know what happened or how people felt or who their great loves were. Imagination in the form of fiction can go beyond this point. In a meeting with a journalist, Anna remembers that he had the memoir of Ernst Toller on one knee and a copy of All That I Am on the other. He flicked from one to the other saying that the date of a particular event did not match up. For Anna, he had missed the priority of the novel - she cares more about the internal narrative than the detailed accuracy of years. After all this is fiction.

Written by Natalie 

Stasiland and All That I Am are available now

October Books of the Month: 15% off the RRP!!

Available online or in store from Saturday, October 1st*
*depends on stock availability and various release dates.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Interview: Matthew Reilly

Hi Matthew, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?I am currently reading Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. I’m enjoying it immensely. It is grand in scale, with a cast of thousands and a world that is brilliantly realized.

Barbara from Shearer's is always very proud to tell people that she stocked your first self-published novel (Contest, I believe) before you had a publishing contract. What was it like to put yourself out there when nobody knew your work?
Yes, Shearer’s was there at the very beginning, back in 1996. I can only wonder what Barbara thought of this skinny young guy who thought he had a bestseller on his hands!

In all honesty, I guess I had the confidence of youth – I felt Contest had the goods, and that if I tried hard enough, it would be spotted. I like to think that one of the reasons for my continued popularity is that I had that initial “failure” with Contest. Success didn’t come easily. I had to put myself out there to get it.

Can you tell us about your new novel, Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves?

The new book is an absolute rampage from start to finish! It is huge, explosive, scary, and filled with big character moments – the kind of novel that fans of the Scarecrow have been waiting for since 2003.

Readers have been asking me for some time if I would be writing a new Scarecrow novel, but I had to wait for the world to change a little. I didn’t want to send him to Iraq or Afghanistan to fight terrorists or oil dictators; for me, a Scarecrow book has to be about “the balance of world power”; nothing less than the fate of the world has to be at stake.

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is set in the Arctic, at a remote, ex-Soviet weapons base that has been seized by a mysterious group calling itself the Army of Thieves. The Thieves are about to set off a top-secret weapon of terrible destructive force, and since they have a missile-defence system, the call goes out to find any troops in the immediate area who can stop them in time. Our friend, Scarecrow, happens to be in the Arctic, with a civilian equipment-testing team…and so he goes in against totally impossible odds.

This is the first full-length Scarecrow novel since 2003, was it challenging returning to the character, and had you always planned to return?
Scarecrow (and his loyal friend, Mother) is a lot of fun to write about, so I always planned to return. But as I said above, I needed the right global environment, and as the first decade of the 2000s came to an end, the right story came to me (I won’t mention what that is, as it is the key plot twist of Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves).

It was more enjoyable than challenging. Having spent the last six years writing the Jack West Jr series, it was nice to return to Scarecrow.

There are several key differences between the Jack West Jr and Scarecrow novels: the Jack West books are adventures, with heaps of action and thrills but with a sweeter heart behind them (think of Lily and Jack’s relationship), whereas the Scarecrow books are full-tilt thrillers, rocket-paced, with a much harder edge to them. And, importantly, the Jack West books take place over a longer period of time (weeks, even years), whereas all the Scarecrow books take place over a very intense, short period, sometimes just a day or two. Area 7, for instance, took place over the course of a morning. Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves reflects this.

What do you hope readers take away from Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves?
This book is about Scarecrow’s character. After putting him through hell in 2003’s Scarecrow (including the now-infamous “execution” scene) I felt that readers would like to know how he dealt with the terrible events that took place in that book.

So, in Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves we find out exactly what he did. That said, he’s going to do that while facing the toughest villain I have come up with yet: the Lord of Anarchy, the leader of the Army of Thieves, a man who may be perfectly suited to battling someone as emotionally damaged as our friend, Scarecrow.

How do you incorporate your writing into your daily life?
I like to write hard on Mondays and Tuesdays…and then play golf on Wednesdays. Since writing is very solitary and a rather “indoors” pursuit, it’s good to get out in the fresh air and socialise. Then, if I’m in the zone, I’ll write hard again on Thursday and Friday, and maybe golf again on the weekend. The result: the books remain top notch and my handicap has come down as low as 4! (I also try to get out with my wife as much as I can, too!)

Has your popularity overseas given you more opportunities to travel, and if so has that been an influence on your writing?
I did a lot of travel while researching the Jack West Jr series, Seven Ancient Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors. I have visited Egypt, Stonehenge, China, Easter Island and even Table Mountain in Cape Town. While some other authors get researchers to help them with research, I like to do it myself – it’s half the fun of writing a novel, as far as I’m concerned!

In recent times, I visited Istanbul, perhaps for a future book….!

As a writer, how do you walk the line between writing for yourself and writing for your massive international following?
Luckily for me, writing for myself is the same as writing for my international audience, because I like to think that I am my audience. I’m the kind of guy who would go out and buy “a Matthew Reilly book”: I see and enjoy lots of action movies; I love murder-mystery TV shows with lots of twists; and I love thriller novels.

You can’t fake this sort of thing, and I think it comes out in my writing. Authors who try to write something that they themselves don’t love are destined to fail. You can’t fool the audience.

I read that you own lots of cool movie memorabilia including a life size statue of Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Is there something in your collection that you prize the most and is there a 'holy grail' that you're looking for?
Han is pretty cool! He hangs on the wall of my office. My Jango Fett helmet is great, too, but I guess my most prized movie collectible is my DeLorean car, made famous in the Back to the Future movies. Since DeLoreans were never released in Australia, you don’t see many down here, so my “D” has some serious rarity value.

As for a “holy grail” item, hmmm, that’s a tough one to answer. I guess I’d like to get a toy from a movie that was based on one of my books – a toy based on something that originated inside my head!

Speaking of movies, I keep hearing about your books being optioned in Hollywood, is there a film based on one of your novels on the way?
It’s a long process, since my books would be so expensive to make (lots of special effects and exploding objects). Hover Car Racer is still with Disney, and I wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Scarecrow (which the film company would like to be the first film in a Scarecrow series; if it succeeds, they would then make Ice Station).

I’m pretty relaxed about it – chiefly because I write my books first and foremost as books, not movies. I want them to be enjoyed as books. The stories that I write as original screenplays (like the TV show I sold to Sony, Literary Superstars) are a different story: I would like to see them produced, as they are designed to be enjoyed on a TV or a movie screen.

Which movies have impressed you recently?
I have thoroughly enjoyed the last two Batman movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (I particularly loved the Joker’s scene where he made the pencil “disappear”; a great scene to see in a full cinema).

And I really liked Red Dog. I think it is the best Australian film since Strictly Ballroom. It is written well, shot with skill and originality, made with a decent budget, and what an ending!

What are you working on next?
I’m working on relaxing and chilling out! I need a break. I am thinking of pursuing a film project, a big sci-fi story that I like. But I can’t say too much about it at this stage!

In the end, I hope you all enjoy Scarecrow’s long-awaited return in Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves.

We have autographed copies of Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves available here!

Upcoming Event: Isobelle Carmody

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Interview: Pip Lincolne

Hi Pip! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, which I totally loved. And NOW I am re-reading James and the Giant Peach (as part of the Meet Me At Mike’s blog Retro Readers program!) and 365 Thank Yous by John Kralik.  I’m studying up lots about community, connection, belonging, happiness and friendship at the moment!

Can you tell us about Make Hey!

Make Hey! is a lovely colourful book, packed full of projects for the crafty-to-be. It’s aimed at people of all ages and it cheerily encourages creativity in all that it touches. I hope. Well, that is my plan anyway and I firmly believe that making things is as important as cooking or gardening or being sporty or breathing…!

I’ve included projects in all kinds of materials for all kinds of people, and the book is full of beautiful photos of ace things, be they mid-century, 80s throwbacks or lovely vintage pieces. My friends and I even compiled some recipes, a reading list and a Sunshiney Day playlist, in case you’re stuck for something to listen to! 

What should fans of your previous books expect from the new one?
This book is like the adorable cousin of the two that went before it. I think I’ve really hit my straps and this book is packed with the things I love to make, as well as lots of things from my house too. I got a chance to work once more with my editor Jane Winning, my favourite designer Michelle Mackintosh and photographer John Laurie, and I think our familiarity bred content! A wonderful team resulted in a super wonderful book, and I think it has a lot more Pip personality than the previous titles did. I am showing off a bit more!

How do you go about the process of putting together a book like this? Does the craft come first or do your ideas grow in the writing?
I start with a basic idea about the kind of book I want to make. Then I think of a title. Once I have a title, the book has life and I work really intensely on designing, testing and writing. Because craft books are technical books, I usually have to write each project once, getting the technical bits right, and then re-write a second time, adding a more friendly conversational tone. It’s super important to me that my books are not just about craft, so I make sure there are lots of little extra nice-life tips in there too. After all, my life is not ALL about craft, so I try and add some bits of Pip Life in there too. I must say, I really love working with our little gang to gather the right things to appear on the pages, betwixt the projects as well. 

You founded a craft group called Brown Owls that has become hugely popular. What is it that makes communal craft so appealing?
I think the deep, dark secret few people know about communal crafting is that the craft comes second!  Friendship comes first at a group like Brown Owls, and although we are all there under the guise of making things (and things sometimes do get made!), we are actually there to make friends with other nice people and to connect with others in ways that might otherwise not be possible. It’s a super chatty, creative, safe way to meet people you may never meet otherwise. And there is often cake!

Out of all the things you've made over the years, is there something that stands out as particularly special for you?

The Fox Quilt which appears on the cover of Sew La Tea Do is a favourite of mine. I love its simple lines, its graphic appeal and its nod to vintage illustration and kids lit.

Your shop, Meet Me at Mike's, sounds like a wonderful celebration of all things unique and vintage. What is it that inspired you to start the shop?

I wanted to work in a job which meant something to me. I was terrified about spending my life doing something which I didn’t really like doing. I had seen people working in jobs that they hated and it frightened the bejeezus out of me. We had an existing shop selling skateboards and tee shirts and sort of guy style stuff, so I decided to transform it into a shop selling all the kinds of things I loved. I sort of waved a magic wand and craft, vintage and cute replaced all the cool boy stuff. I was much happier and people really responded to the nostalgic creativity of it too!

There seems to be a growing wave of younger people discovering craft and handmade items, what do you think lies behind this?
I think young people are smarter than they ever have been. They are exposed to lots of ace technology and huge amounts of information every day. I think they realize that it is really important to get the most out of life. Rather than surface dwelling (going to work, coming home, watching telly, going to sleep) they are seeking more meaning, wider skills and deeper connections in their life. The familial legacy of craft, its sense of nostalgia, its creative rewards and the bespoke nature of crafting mean that there are wins all ‘round for those who craft. You get to choose what to make, you get to slow down and learn new skills, you get to share those skills with others and you get to feel part of a wider crafty and super creative gang. The kids know where it’s at!

Between the books, your blog, the shop, your columns and your family, where do you find the time to actually sit down and make something?

I am an avid crocheter and I have taught myself to crochet and watch TV at the same time. It’s an amazing skill! Sometimes I order a family road trip and crochet on the way. And very often I will get my hook and yarn out at the breakfast table. Make time to make, I say! There is really no excuse not  to!

What would you say to someone who wants to hand make things but has no idea where to start?

Buy my book and make the Paper Wall Quilt! It is super easy, looks really beautiful and will give you all kinds of Dutch courage in the crafting department you’re your Wall Quilt admiring friends and family tell you how clever and creative you are!

What's next for you?

A new Meet Me at Mike’s website! And I have just started writing a new book, too! OMG!

You can visit Pip Lincolne online at Meet Me at Mike's.

Make Hey! by Pip Lincolne will be published by Hardie Grant Books on October 1st.

Interview: Alice Pung

What are you reading at the moment?

I am reading a book called Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture Among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto by Barbara Myerhoff, who is an anthropologist looking into the ordinary but remarkable lives of some elderly Jewish people from Venice, California.

Can you tell us about your new book, Her Father’s Daughter?

Her Father’s Daughter is about an unspoken relationship between a father and daughter. It is unspoken because I wanted to convey that love is not always through words, but actions. Sometimes some of the actions of your parents are completely unfathomable to you as a young adult, and perhaps true maturity only arises when you can finally see your parents as people with their own fears and frustrations, rather than just your ‘parents’. 

My father is an incredible human being. He used to sit us on his laps when we were very small children, and brush our baby teeth with a small Colgate toothbrush. Years later, I realised those same hands buried bodies of loved ones in the killing fields of Cambodia. It was then that I came to realise how extraordinary this man was, to be able to love and care for impermanent things like our baby teeth, when he had seen so many parts of his world which he once believed were permanent, disappear. 

How did the book come about?
My father has anxieties over things which might seem excessive. For example, when one of my sisters got a blood nose, he called an ambulance. He has filed down the sharp tips of all the knives in our house. When I was overseas, he would call me up almost every evening to see that I was safe. It was then that we began to have long talks over the phone, and I realised that I was then the same age as my father when he survived Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And it was then that I knew I was ready to write this book.

Did you find it challenging to write about some of the issues in the book, such as genocide? 
Yes. When you think of it as a theme – the holocaust - it sounds monumental and depressing. But when you think about it in terms of the individual – a young man of twenty-seven, for instance, as my father was then, then it becomes a story. 

Writing this book must have been quite a journey of discovery for you and your family. Do you have a different perspective on life now?
I understand my parents a lot better, am more patient about their anxieties. Surviving the Killing Fields was not a miracle. The real miracle was being able to love afterwards, and I have come to understand that love is a verb and not a transient feeling.

How has your father reacted to the book? Did he help you along the way?
My father was very generous, he told me all about his experiences in Cambodia, which makes up the second half of the book. I kept showing him chapters as I progressed but he never told me whether he liked them or not. Then, at my book launch he got up to say a few words. The most moving thing he said was, “I learned a lot from my children. I learned about tolerance and forgiveness.”

Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter are very different books. Did you approach them in different ways?
I was nineteen when I started the stories in Unpolished Gem, so it has the voice of a young adult believing that wit and humour makes all things good and palatable. But as I’ve grown older, I realised that in laying these weapons down, a more pure voice emerges, and a more earnest one. While Unpolished Gem was written to understand myself, Her Father’s Daughter was written to understand another human being, my father. 

What do you hope people take away from your writing?
Hopefully, for survivors of genocide or children of survivors, a sense that they are not so alone, their parents are not so strange, and that the world is still filled with wonder. And for any reader, I hope that they will, even for a small moment, see the world with renewed gratitude for the things we take for granted every day, because that’s how I felt while writing this book.  

What are you working on next?
I haven’t yet thought that far!

Her Father's Daughter is available now. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Jonathan Franzen at the Opera House - Event Review

Jonathan Franzen visited Shearer's to sign copies of Freedom
The stage was set for a fascinating evening at the Opera House - Jonathan Franzen, considered by many to be one of the greatest living American novelists and definitely one of the most popular, was appearing as part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival. It was only his second visit to Australia since 2003.

The energy was palpable as people settled back into their ‘armchairs’ in the majestic Concert Hall anticipating a look behind the front cover of one of their favourite authors. Here was an opportunity for us to experience Jonathan Franzen talking about anything and everything that took his fancy in a relaxed and candid environment.

However, a rather different, but in its own way entertaining evening unfolded as Geordie Williamson, Chief Literary critic for The Australian took the stage next to Franzen. Williamson opened the ‘conversation’ in a nervously over-rehearsed manner and his lengthy questions tended to confuse rather than enlighten the audience. Fortunately Franzen was able to lighten the alienating intellectualism that Williamson seemed bent on straight-jacketing him into. There were some wonderfully long pauses and a genuinely perplexed expression as Franzen deliberated how to bring the questions into a sharper and more entertaining focus.

Franzen is a charming and engaging speaker who is self-assured and unapologetic about his opinions. While this was confrontational for some - one man loudly stormed out while Franzen discussed September 11 - the majority of the audience were instantly won over and captivated by what he had to say.

We meandered through his thoughts on the tyranny of choice which segued into healthcare issues in the US,  ideas on freedom:  “ I had a job, I knew what my purpose was - that’s freedom to me”, and the ubiquitous 9/11 subject which brought the surprising comment, for some, that he doesn’t accept the on-going and constantly verbalised mantra that “9/11 changed America forever”.

Franzen believes that you cannot be sombre and realistic about 9/11 at the same time. Rather than causing the US to look at itself and re-evaluate how it fits in the world, the White House and the media manipulated the event for their own cynical uses. Franzen claims he does not want to write about 9/11 because of the extensive written and visual media coverage - he doesn’t want to be “the little dog chasing after the truck of history.”

This was an interesting statement for an author whose writing is meant to reflect the state of the US and its people. Yet Franzen is adamant that he never intended to create a portrait of contemporary America. He is resistant to what a novel is ‘supposed’ to do and doesn’t want to justify the novel by making it socially useful. In any case, he says, writing a socially relevant novel becomes obsolete with the next news cycle.

In his last two novels, Franzen’s use of ‘interesting’ families - he insists they are not ‘dysfunctional’- shows his interest in the personal story and the psyche rather than social commentary. Franzen believes that writing about these things is the only way of reflecting the world at large. How he writes, however, has changed over the last ten years.

As an audience member pointed out, Freedom, unlike The Corrections, is not a satire. Franzen describes satire as an angry person’s game and one for which he felt over-rewarded for in the success of The Corrections. With time, Franzen saw that he had unjustly characterised his mother in life and in fiction and did not want to do that again. He now embraces a position of ‘no moral position’ on the characters in his books.

Such egalitarianism was not reserved for the likes of social media. Franzen’s views on technology provided one of the most humorous moments of the night. In a statement that could well be quoted for some time, Franzen declared that “Twitter is basically cigarettes in electronic form.” In the 90s, he thought television and DVDs were the enemy, but with the emergence of Twitter and Facebook he now wants to embrace TV and movies as family. With the high-standard of craftmanship that go into television series today (think HBO), Williamson pointed out that this genre can be seen as highly literary - the modern equivalent of, say, Dickens or Conan Doyle who were published in serial forms. Yet Franzen still believes that film or television can never achieve what a novel can. A novel will always be the master of point of view and irony and is still the best way to articulate moral and emotional shades of grey.

As to the future of the literary novel, how bleak it is depends on which perspective you look at it from. Franzen cheekily explained that when you ask an author how many people read serious literature today, they usually say it’s the same amount as the number of copies they sold of their last book. So if you asked Roth, the number is getting progressively smaller, perhaps around 50,000. If you ask Franzen, there’s millions.

Authors recommended and discussed by Franzen:

Paula Fox
Christina Stead
Alice Munro
Edith Wharton
Don DeLillo
David Foster-Wallace 

Written by Joanna & Natalie

We have a limited quantity of autographed copies of Freedom available here.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Guest Blog: Falling Through the Genre Cracks and Finding Wonderland by Kim Westwood

This post was first published on When Genres Attack

I know a writer who turns her books face out on the shop shelves wherever and whenever she can, and this week I admit I’ve done my personal equivalent of that: sneaking a copy of my freshly published second novel out of Science Fiction and into the Crime Fiction section of various local bookshops. If I had my druthers, I’d stash another copy under Australian Authors and one in Literary Fiction too, though usually, there aren’t that many copies to spread around—and it would make me too obvious in my nefarious activity.

So why bother? Because The Courier’s New Bicycle is a hybrid creature—a genre amalgam; but who would know from the bookshop shelf arrangement by genre, as if being in one category denies the possibility of the others?

My book rep tells me my real problem is that my surname begins with ‘W’. Chastened, I scuff my boot against her bag hung on the cafĂ© chair. If only I’d had the perspicacity of Jim Grant, who, with a clear and canny eye to his future as an author, carefully gathered together the correct letters and syllables to make his nom de plume, and turned himself into Lee Child.

About labelling, I remember the first short story competition I sent a story to. Its requirements were that the writing be ‘speculative’. I thought, well, my stuff’s that. At the time, I didn’t realise how the term was part of a highly structured system of categorisation: one that a writer and their writing could become permanently ententacled in, despite the term itself being a superfluity, all fiction surely speculative. Anyway, this first story won that competition, then one called an Aurealis, and my trajectory as a writer of speculative fiction was set.

My first novel, The Daughters of Moab, was published in 2008 by HarperVoyager, and so it came out with a science fiction label. I preferred to call it poetic apocalyptic, a descriptor I’d come up with in an effort to flag to readers something of the style and substance of its interior, which was a conglomerate of SF, mythology and the supernatural, all with a literary bent, its bedrock being the land—a post-apocalyptic Terra Australis—and its preoccupations being with humanity’s capacity for destruction and equal instinct to survive.

Fiction that crosses genre lines runs the risk of not being judged on its own terms, but according to the label it comes with, preconceptions firmly attached. The Daughters of Moab, viewed through the lens of science fiction, was critiqued accordingly—and more often than not it vexed expectations, the prose deemed too obfuscatory for the genre. And while I maintained that a broader readership might get something out of a dose of the poetic mixed with the apocalyptic, apparently the story’s SF label made it too lowbrow for literary inspection.

I remember how my first-time novelist’s ego plunged like a bungy jumper into a bucket when (I shan’t say a close family member) saw the book cover’s shout line, Assassin. Protector. Blood Sister… and said, ‘If you write something like that, you have to expect a lot of people won’t want to read it’. Sadly, my close family member wasn’t wrong—labelling and shelf allocation all but killing a broader interest; and alas, the novel fell through the genre cracks.

By now you’re thinking I’m dark on labels. In fact I like labels, and sorting things. Some (family members) would say it’s my anally retentive Virgo nature coming to the fore, but I think labelling was invented to help everybody, not just me, organise a confusing world.

One of my favourite activities as a kid was to put all the animals from my big bag of plastic creatures into groups. Sometimes it was according to kind—farm animal, wild animal, mythological animal, etc; other times it was by biggest to littlest or best to worst; and other times it was according to the new alliances and friendships each had made with the others while I was off eating my breakfast. Eventually abandoning my bag of animals, I went on to list making and room tidying, my clothes drawers organised by colour and my files alphabetically. This, I said to myself, was so I could find things. Little did I know that this entirely sensible rationale would return later in life to bite me in the bum.

Back to the genre amalgam that is The Courier’s New Bicycle. I’m happy to report Australian Bookseller+Publisher has described it as ‘a disturbingly credible and darkly noir post-cyberpunk tale’. This quote-worthy phrase opens up the field of interest: the ‘noir’ a nod to crime fiction, the ‘cyberpunk’ to SF, and the ‘credible’ to current societal aptness. Hopefully, it will spur a variety of readers into wanting to know more about a bike courier and accidental sleuth who has a mystery to solve in the alleyways of a dystopian Melbourne just around the socio-political corner from now, despite the book’s despatch solely to the SF shelves steering it too towards the genre cracks. Which brings me to Venn diagrams.

Unlike fractions (those sharp-edged and unyielding divisions that caused me no end of pain), the circles that I learnt about in primary school geometry class, their intersections alluringly shaded, hinted at a world with grey areas, ambiguities. These days I wonder if my fascination for Venn diagrams was because I knew from quite young that I was attracted to girls as well as boys, desire floating in an as yet unnamed place, and those grey areas speaking to me of the possibilities that might live inside me and at the interstices of things. This might explain, in part, the gravitational pull cross-genre writing has always had on me, and maybe now’s the time to mention that Salisbury Forth, the primary protagonist in The Courier’s New Bicycle, is happily gender androgynous.

I don’t remember when I stopped believing in the binary labelling system currently used to decide sex and divide gender, and began to see both as continuums with any number of identity positions along them; but a non-intersecting binary now seems as blunt and flawed an instrument of categorising as the labelling system used, say, to keep literary and genre content apart.

An either/or world is a brittle, lifeless creature. The pleasure that sorting animals gave me as a kid was also the pleasure of re-sorting; that is, the freedom to change perspective and make endless rearrangements in the order of things. In my fiction I go to the grey areas and in-between places because they hold the most promise. And for those willing to read a novel that slips between the genre cracks, there’s always the possibility of finding wonderland.

Written by Kim Westwood 

The Courier's New Bicycle and The Daughters of Moab are currently available. You can visit Kim Westwood at her website.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Interview: Kel Robertson

Hi Kel, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m currently having a “swords ‘n sandals” relapse; I’m reading the third of Robert Harris’s roman trilogy, Lustrum. I’m trying desperately to limit myself to one chapter a night, in order to maximise the pleasure.

Before that I read Nichola Garvey’s excellent bio of the gambling colossus, Alan Trip, Beating The Odds. Before that it was Liz Porter’s new collection of forensic stories, Cold Case Files. (Porter’s book is every bit as good as her previous, Written on the Skin, which won a Ned Kelly Award for “best true crime”. She captures the human drama in each unsolved case and has a remarkable gift for summing up complicated scientific stuff, without letting these explanations impede the narrative.)

Tell us about Rip Off.
I’ve been telling representatives of the media, post-launch, that it’s a work of undeniable brilliance by a tragically unrecognised master of the genre who - despite his extraordinary charm, obvious good looks and self-evident talent - has a pathetic need for public adulation. In return, I’ve been getting lots of “which village has lost its idiot?” looks. You feel the same way? Fine. To the book, then: a number of people connected to a property scam are murdered in Perth and Adelaide. AFP star-detective, Brad Chen, is sent west to keep an eye on the investigation. Despite being told not to get involved, Chen can’t help sleuthing his way into the thick of things. Seemingly unconnected deaths in Melbourne and Sydney see the public treating the killer as a hero; the same deaths prompt a dangerous outbreak of self-help justice around the country. The pressure is consequently on Chen to catch the killer(s) before all semblance of public order is lost.

You started drafting Rip Off in 2007, does that mean it was originally the second Brad Chen novel? What prompted you to come back to the manuscript?
My first publisher impressed on me the need to be producing a novel every twelve to eighteen months if I was going to sustain reader interest in a crime series ... and I took his instructions very seriously.  As soon as Smoke and Mirrors (S&M  - no smirking, please) was delivered to my editor, I started plotting Rip Off. So, yes, it was actually the third Chen book.

I shredded the early chapters and related research materials when it didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to publish a third book. However, after S&M won some prizes, I decided to resurrect the story.

A number of things lured me back to it: I kept seeing reports about fraudsters and conmen in the newspapers and found myself more and more fascinated by wrongdoing in the business world. I was increasingly bemused, too, by the fact that the victims of these corporate crooks rarely exacted their own vengeance, despite the inadequate penalties generally handed down by the courts. Finally, I couldn’t let go of the idea of Chen struggling against the popular will to track down the killer.

In Rip Off, Chen is chasing a murderer who is, in the eyes of many people, a hero. How did this aspect of the novel come about?
It occurred to me, while I was writing the first two Chen books, that most people at the periphery of violent death are grateful for the investigative efforts of the police; they want resolution and justice, in much the same way as readers of crime fiction want everything put aright by the final page. As someone who likes to tinker with aspects of the genre, I thought it would be interesting to invert these usual circumstances and have Chen chase a killer no one wants brought to book. For the general public to feel that way about a killer, they (the killer) needed to be doing something admirable eg. cleaning up white collar crime.

Where did Brad Chen come from, and how did you develop the character?
You probably won’t remember when senior Australians would talk very loudly and slowly to anyone who wasn’t white or in possession of a boomerang. However, Bradman (Brad) Chen is a direct result of my delight in the consternation on the faces of such people when their Asian interlocutors answered them in a broad Australian accent or in genteel Oxford English. Chen is also a result of a “self challenge” to rework the clichĂ© of the clever, inscrutable Chinese detective. I should say, too, that love the extra complexity that his superficial difference adds to many of the situations in which he finds himself.

What is it about the crime genre that you think makes it so consistently popular?
It’s entertaining, it doesn’t usually patronise and it’s flexible enough to accommodate a huge range of characters, sub-genres, writing styles and settings. Add to that the genre guarantee of restored social equilibrium … and what is there not to like about it?

What about the tropes of the genre, how much do you keep them in mind when writing?

Good question. I like to pay homage but I also like to stretch the rules. In summary, though, I write what entertains or engages me ... and if others “get” what I’m trying to do - as you clearly do - I’m delighted.

Do you watch crime on TV and do you think your books would make a good basis for a series (I do!)?
I don’t watch much crime on TV but I do have a number of important crime series – foreign and home-grown – on DVD.  I bought both of the Phoenix collections when the ABC released them (such good TV) and would like to complete my collection of Wild Side.  I’ve watched Ian David’s Blue Murder many times; it boasts a great script and outstanding performances. I’ve also enjoyed some of the Underbellies (sic).  I’m looking forward too, to catching up on East West 101 (recently recommended by Graeme Blundell in one of his Weekend Australian columns).

I suspect that Chen’s sardonic take on the world would be hard to translate to the screen but I hope that the books would, otherwise, make decent scripts. I often see the key scenes in the novels (before I get them down on paper) and I certainly try for climactic finales. 

I promised myself, a few years back, that if someone bought the film rights to one of the novels, I’d put the money towards the Australian Film and Television School screenwriting course. The screen has clearly been on my mind. (If there is anyone out there who hates my work and is prepared to buy my silence, purchasing the screen rights to Dead Set, Smoke and Mirrors, and /or Rip Off should pretty much do the trick.)

Which books or authors have influenced you?
Growing up, I read vast amounts of crime, mostly Christie, Marsh and Sayers but also Upfield and some of the hardboiled Americans. I suspect, though, that the influence of Raymond Chandler is the most identifiable in my work. I’d like to claim, of course, that my writing style also demonstrates the clear influence of Peter Temple (whose work I greatly admire) but that would be mere wishful thinking.

What are you working on next, and is Brad Chen going to find himself on further adventures in the future?
There are various Chen possibilities. There’s also a black comedy (part written) and a couple of books on Australian political history. Regrettably, I won’t be retiring from my day job or working a short week any time soon, so I’m unlikely to be back on Shearer’s shelves with anything new before 2013.

Thanks for answering our questions, and good luck with Rip Off!
Thank you. It was good to be with you, if only in a virtual sense.

Rip Off by Kel Robertson is available here

The previous Brad Chen novels, Smoke and Mirrors (winner of the Ned Kelly Award) 
and Dead Set are both available. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Extreme Cosmos by Bryan Gaensler - Book Launch

Bryan Gaensler, Australian astronomer and former recipient of the Young Australian of the Year Award, was at Shearer’s last Wednesday to launch his first book Extreme Cosmos.

As the title implies, Extreme Cosmos explores the extremes of space - the fastest, hottest, heaviest, brightest, oldest and loudest elements of the universe. Its achievements are not only Gaensler’s methodical research, but in his ability to write about astrophysics in an eloquent everyday language that everyone can understand.

Wilson da Silva, Editor in Chief of Cosmos magazine and winner of the 2000 Best Documentary AFI award for The Diplomat officially launched the book. Da Silva met Gaensler at Harvard – Gaensler was an associate professor there with a conspicuously Australian office replete with a large Manly Sea Eagles poster on its door. Jokes on Gaensler’s sporting prowess aside, da Silva said it is hard not to be impressed by Bryan who has consistently been a ‘brainiac at the top of his field, had a conscience (and been) a damn fine writer.’

As a child, Gaensler was more interested in astronomy than dinosaurs and planes. He was also a voracious reader. Gaensler recalls that his school library did not have any books on his preferred subject so his Grade 3 teacher suggested that he write one. Following this advice, Bryan traced pictures and copied texts form other astronomy books and presented the school with his work. So, to be accurate, Extreme Cosmos is not Gaensler’s first book, it is only his first published one.

After a summer job at the CSIRO Parks radio telescope, Gaensler fell in love with radio astronomy. Ever since he’s ‘been kinda obsessed with things that blow up or are extreme.’ The ‘extreme’ side of Extreme Cosmos also came from a running joke within his study group ‘Extreme Astrophysics’. While other groups had specific names and focuses like the ‘cosmology group’, Gaensler and co. worked on the fringes – on the extremes - of a diversity of things. He started to realise that if they were to literally be the ‘extreme’ astrophysics groups they had to investigate space’s ultimate nature.

Extreme Cosmos took two years to write with much of the research and gathering of information taking longer than expected. As Gaensler explained, ‘Behind every piece of information and every topic, there is a wealth of knowledge and amazingly smart people who worked out how to figure this information out.’ In order to arrive at the facts in the book, he had to work out which methodologies to use, sometimes do his own calculations and contact world experts to arrive at results he felt comfortable were likely to be accurate.

The outcome of his meticulous work is a exciting and engaging book for which you don’t have to be an astronomer to understand. In the words of da Silva, in Extreme Cosmos, Gaensler has ‘ … elucidated a concept beautifully – it’s not only science but a bit of poetry, but then that’s Bryan for you.’

Written by Natalie
 Autographed copies of Extreme Cosmos are available now.