All posts by Michael Burge

Journalist, artist, author, designer, digital publisher and mentor

The year of independent reading

Wonderful things happen when you open a bookshop. Ours started as a single set of shelves in one corner of the studio-gallery my husband and I created, The Makers Shed at Glen Innes in the NSW New England region. A year on, we’ve expanded, and we’re about to present our first literary award.

But it didn’t just happen by accident. Our resident High Country Book Club courageously joined us on a reading project with a purpose: to decide the best book in a year’s worth of independently-published reads.

When we started out, Richard and I found ourselves explaining a lot about indie books, but these days we barely mention that these titles have not been backed by a traditional publishing/marketing team. This is mainly because what readers want out of a book is the same thing no matter where it sprang from, and that’s a well-told story.

The club kicked off with a visit from London-based author Patsy Trench, who’d come to chat about her new non-fiction title A Country To Be Reckoned With.

This title is Patsy’s search for her great-great grandfather George Matcham Pitt, one of Australia’s earliest stock and station agents. The journey of discovery sheds an engaging new light on the European heritage of Australia.

We moved onto fiction for our next read. New Zealander Jenni Ogden’s acclaimed debut novel A Drop in the Ocean is set predominantly on an island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It’s the story of an high-achieving American academic who hits rock bottom and decides to relocate to the other side of the world to work at a remote turtle sanctuary. It took me by surprise with its memorable castaways working out their lives on the edge of an ocean wilderness.

The ocean was a major theme of our next title, Nothing But Blue, by American author Diane Meyer Lowman.

The true story of her adventure while working on a German container ship as it sailed from New York to Australia and New Zealand in the late Seventies, this book bravely recreated the perspective of a 19-year-old thrust into several alien environments.

Nothing But Blue and A Drop in the Ocean were published by She Writes Press, one of the world’s biggest joint-venture publishing outfits assisting women to get their manuscripts published.

Australian author Kim Kelly paid us a visit in March to chat about her novel Lady Bird & The Fox and explained how creating the Indigenous protagonist of her book – Annie Bird – also encouraged her to courageously self-publish. After having her first few works published traditionally, Kim sensed her Gold Rush heroine might have languished while waiting for a publisher with enough courage in this #OwnVoices world.

The true story of a beloved dog who endured a spinal stroke was our next read. Nobody Told Me My Legs Don’t Work is a memoir with a difference by American writer Travis C. Yates.

A short but emotional ride, this publication sparked plenty of debate about animal rights and the ethics of domestic animal ownership.

Infants of the Brush by A. M. Watson is an historical fiction that recreates a real-life Eighteenth Century legal case and the gritty, challenging world of the boy chimney sweeps of London.

Amy kindly made us a video outlining the broad research she conducted which underpins the historical accuracy in her novel.

Euan Mitchell’s Feral Tracks brought us all back home with an Australian story about a teenager who leaves homes with a few dollars and some big issues to sort out on the road, as he hitchhikes across the country in search of purpose.

One of Australia’s most enduring self-published titles, this work was a confronting study of manhood in some tough Aussie environments.

English author William Blyghton provided plenty of contrast in his debut novel The House By The Marsh, which is also a study of manhood, but in a very different environment.

A story of grief late in life, this tale of human connection is set in several corners of evocative East Anglia, a county that we discovered was the birthplace of many novels, from works by Patricia Highsmith to Janet Frame.

We stayed in England for our read of Virginia Moffatt’s Echo Hall, a work of historical fiction set across multiple time periods in and around the same imposing home in another remote county of the United Kingdom.

With its ruminations on war and pacifism, Virginia’s intriguing, layered work explores the motivations of several families and their experiences of conflict, both domestic and between nations.

One of our country’s great marriage equality campaigners penned our next read, a very Australian read about human rights.

Shelley Argent’s memoir Just A Mum tells the story of her Brisbane upbringing and explores how this suburban wife and mother became an equality activist in the wake of one son’s coming out, and pushed this necessary social reform all the way to the gripping finale in Australia’s Parliament House.

We ended the year reading The Moor by English author Sam Haysom, a mystery story replete with characters facing enormous moral choices in and around a deceivingly simple wilderness walk.

Another intriguing debut novel, Sam’s book was created during 2015’s NaNoWriMo. (National Novel Writing Month), and published through Unbound. This crowdfunding publisher assists writers in bringing their ideas into life in book form, and is also the stable that Echo Hall sprang from.

All High Country Book Club titles are available for purchase from The Makers Shed, and can be posted to readers within Australia. Browse our online bookshop.

Congratulations to all the finalists in 2019… we’ve been thrilled, frightened, inspired, moved, angered, entertained and encouraged to keep reading by your engaging works of fiction and non-fiction.

Trophy handmade by Richard Moon.

The winner of the High Country Indie Book Award 2019 will be announced during the High Country Writers Festival on Saturday November 30, from 4 to 6pm at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, NSW, Australia. All welcome!

Cultivating storytellers in the rural heartland

LOCAL FANS OF good writing have every reason to celebrate, with a season of literary initiatives and acclaimed broadcaster Mary Moody — coming to the New England region between October 25th and December 1st for the High Country Writers Festival. As an author and journalist who learned to use the written word at Delungra Public School, I’m thrilled to be bringing wordsmiths together in a region that has always fostered storytellers.

RURAL HEARTLAND: Waterloo Station, Glen Innes.

Writers will have a unique opportunity to prime their skills and draw inspiration at iconic Waterloo Station between Glen Innes and Inverell when the festival kicks off at the High Country Writers Retreat from October 25th to 27th. Inverell resident Virginia Eddy (the force behind Boorama, her business strategy outfit, pictured above) is partnering with The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, to assist writers in adopting a micro-business approach.

Returning to the region after four decades has been huge for Virginia. “When I left my Melbourne world, a friend told me: ‘Don’t ever forget that there is a reason you are returning. Look and listen for it’,” she says. “Even though I’ve been here for six years, every time I drive out the Yetman Road north of Inverell, I’m imbued with the deep sense that I’m going home. Our family left the region when I was ten.”

Virginia believes that being a writer and being in business can be a comfortable coexistence. “Regardless of whether writers are published independently or by traditional means, business knowledge and acumen underpins their capacity for independence,” she says. “Micro-businesses should be built on the same primary foundations and frameworks as major corporations, except scaled accordingly”.

“I urge writers to imagine they are weaving potent little miracles of business around their output. These don’t happen with templates, or overnight. They’re a lifelong practice.”

TOUCH OF LUXURY: Waterloo Station Shearers Lodgings.

Despite one of the worst droughts we’ve seen in the New England, Virginia encourages writers to share Waterloo Station as a home-away-from-home during the retreat. “Whether they’re from the bush, the city, or both, it’s a chance to pause, absorb the landscape, the built environment, the past and evolving social history,” she says. “I believe the Station’s restorations (under the stewardship of Deborah and Don Anderson) will speak for themselves; but as a writer working on one of my own manuscripts, I look forward to hearing others’ perspectives.”

Being a regional-returner myself, I know what it’s like to seek a sense of place in a rural community. Growing up on a property out of Delungra prepared me for the profound tranquility of rural life, but living and working across the world has allowed me to bring home a host of skills.

I began mentoring writers after my independently-published memoir Questionable Deeds was selected for the Brisbane Writers Festival. I was so swamped by queries about how I managed it that I wrote the process into a short, accessible guidebook. Participants at the High Country Writers Retreat will be mentored on adapting these principles to their writing and publishing practices.

But there’ll also be plenty of writing time, one-to-one sessions and inspirational experiences at Waterloo Station. Virginia is well underway with transitioning into a literary writer, and I am always up for fresh insights into business and marketing, so we’ll be attending each other’s sessions at the retreat. Come and join us!

From the heart

The High Country Writers Festival continues on Saturday November 30th and Sunday December 1st at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, when Mary Moody, one of Australia’s most beloved and bestselling authors, launches her first book in a decade: The Accidental Tour Guide. She spoke with me about what inspired her to return to autobiography.

Mary Moody

“Memoir forces people to reflect on the events of their lives and to gain an understanding of how they reacted to those moments,” she says. “I have found that writing down difficult events somehow crystallizes them. The Accidental Tour Guide contrasts the highs of exploration and adventure against the lows of death and loss.”

Since the publication of a string of bestselling memoirs, bridging her life in rural France and regional Australia, Mary has relocated from the farm she shared with her late husband, filmmaker David Hannay.

“I now live with my youngest son and his family in the Blue Mountains. This supportive environment makes it possible for me to continue my adventure travels, knowing I have a safe haven to return to, every time,” she says.

Mary will also hold her popular ‘Writing from the Heart’ workshop at The Makers Shed during the festival. “I never cease to be amazed and delighted at the stories people tell me of their amazing lives. It’s just knowing where to start and how to keep those stories flowing. Often people want to write the stories of their parents or grandparents and these are equally as inspiring. I believe we will never tire of reading about other people’s lives. It helps us to make sense of our own.”

The tussle between nesting and migrating is a constant theme in Mary’s work, giving insights into the fortunes of regional communities in many countries. “It’s always the people that create a community, and it makes me sad to see regions where failing economics makes it impossible for people to live where they were born,” she says. “We need to encourage more young families to live in rural areas – the benefits of this lifestyle are many and varied.”

Described as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking, Mary’s new memoir is an inner and outer journey through uncharted territory. “I’m really looking forward to touring with this new book. I particularly love small independent bookshops and places where there are active and enthusiastic book clubs. Australians are great readers – they devour good books and it’s wonderful to know that here we have such a vibrant and viable publishing industry. At the end of the day I just love meeting people and talking.”

The High Country Writers Festival is an initiative of The Makers Shed. This article was first published in New England Living magazine.

Carol’s commonsense campaign

“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence.”

CAROL Sparks describes herself as an unlikely candidate for local government, but a desire for change in her community drove this former nurse into a political career that’s already made history in Glen Innes.

It was while co-ordinating state and federal elections for New England Greens candidate Mercurius Goldstein that Carol got a close-up look at public life.

“I went on the campaign trail and I spoke to lots of people,” she recalls.

“I realised I had a bit of a passion for it, to try and bring climate change to their attention, the problems with our waterways, and the environmental damage that was happening on the Barrier Reef.

“Then the council elections were coming up and I thought well, I could just keep talking to the people.”

Carol’s campaign for the Glen Innes Severn Council (GISC) elections in 2016 was conducted over a fortnight in a very grassroots manner.

“I just stood out on the street and said: ‘Vote me in for council’ and people liked that,” she says.

“There had been campaigning in this region in the past, but it had always been done in the newspaper.

“It was quite exciting and people were enthusiastic towards me. The community was feeling a little bit frustrated, they said we needed a change.”

A major driver for Carol was the under-representation of women in local government.

“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence,” she says.

“Dianne Newman was a councillor and she was feeling a bit isolated.

“I campaigned on health, women, water, and potholes. Unfortunately there’s still some potholes around, but we’re working hard on that,” she says.

Raised at Tathra on the far south coast of New South Wales, Carol’s mother’s family were dairy farmers and her painter father a Second World World veteran.

“I left school at fourteen and worked in a grocery store, before starting my nursing training at Bega,” she says.

“I went to the Keppel Islands on holiday and that’s where I met my husband, Badja.

“We sailed around the Whitsundays, got married, and lived in England for eight years where our children were born.”

After moving to the Glen Innes region in 1980, Carol and Badja established a local antiques and collectable business and a second-hand bookshop. The couple’s son Joe now owns The Book Market in central Glen Innes.

When asked about what sparked her political ambitions, Carol admits to having an internal drive that shocks a few people.

“I’m an old woman,’ she says, laughing. “And I wanted to have a change.”

“I was a registered nurse and working in palliative care here in Glen Innes for twenty years.

“There were needs in the community. We’ve got doctors on call, but it’s very different when you have a doctor right there when you present at a hospital.

“Towns in the bush tend to get poor services.”

Trial by fire

Carol served as deputy mayor from 2016 until September, 2018, when a majority of councillors elected her into the mayoral office. Looking back at her first years as a local representative, she describes the experience as a “trial by fire”.

“It still is,” she says.

“We had another lady who was president of Severn Shire Council,” Carol adds, referring to councillor Alice Clifford, who served prior to the amalgamation with Glen Innes Council.

“But we’ve never had a female mayor of the municipal council.

“That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves. I suppose that’s writ small here.

“But I’ve tended to be a person who goes against the grain, and it’s been very inspiring to look at Dianne, who is now deputy mayor, and notice the changes that have happened for her whilst I’ve been on council.

“We could do with a couple more women, I reckon, just to balance it up a bit.”

When asked what she imagines her legacy will be, beyond bringing more gender equality, Carol is very clear.

“I think renewable energy, happy kids, more community gardens, and more sustainable businesses,” she says.

“We do have a tendency to be a bit old-fashioned. I’d love to bring the rail trail here, for example, with lots of backpackers coming from overseas,” she adds, referring to a proposal to alter the use of the closed rail corridor that runs from Armidale to Wallangarra.

“Volunteering is also a big thing in Glen Innes. We cannot survive without our volunteers and of course they’re all getting older, so encouraging younger volunteers is something I’ll be looking to do.”

On the issues that divide country towns along political lines, Carol is firm.

“If we care for our waterways and our creeks, we should create biodiversity and plant trees instead of cutting them down,” she says.

“To have healthy waterways is where we find most in common with farmers. They need water too, so we need to look after the environment.

“We come together though common sense.”

This article first appeared in New England Living magazine.