Category Archives: Books

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.

Two camps at Australia’s Picnic

I RECENTLY came across a first edition of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock at a country market, and an early print-run of the book’s last chapter, The Secret of Hanging Rock, published two decades later.

“Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing?”

With the new television adaptation out this year, my interest was piqued and I purchased both, eager to pick over the evidence of one of Australia’s enduring literary mysteries. Not what happened to the missing schoolgirls and their governess on a volcanic outcrop in the bush at the turn of the 19th century, but why the original publishers thought Australians, in the 1960s, weren’t ready to know the end of the story.

The copy of Picnic is rather dog-eared, having been purchased for a secondary school library soon after publication in 1967. The borrowing slip in the back reveals the book was enthusiastically loaned in the years before Peter Weir’s groundbreaking screen adaptation of the novel in 1975.

NOW A MAJOR FILM Penguin’s 1975 film tie-in paperback.

I own a very well-thumbed paperback published by Penguin in 1975 as a film tie-in, but this is the first time I have ever seen the iconic F. W. Cheshire Publishing Ltd. hardback, with its lurid green, psychedelic dust jacket illustration oozing a 1960s vibe like Rosemary’s Baby. I checked online and found that even in this condition, my battered, plastic-covered survivor is worth hundreds of dollars. Not a bad buy on my part, for just five.

Despite Cheshire’s and Penguin’s apparent reluctance to publish it, The Secret of Hanging Rock emerged in 1987. This slim volume is Lindsay’s final chapter to Picnic, padded by literary essays from members of a lucrative cult that grew out of Lindsay’s only successful novel.

MYSTERY AUTHOR Joan Lindsay’s name is mysteriously absent from the cover of her last published work.

These can be broadly defined as utilising humour, whimsy and academic analysis to justify the decision to keep the solution to Joan Lindsay’s mystery from the international (paying) audience of book and film. What none of them countenance is that the original story — if you keep Chapter Eighteen intact — is hardly a mystery at all.

What was strangely missing from the front cover of The Secret of Hanging Rock was the name of the woman who ensured Picnic’s final chapter saw the light of day: Joan Lindsay herself.

Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing? Truncated stories and omitted credits… it’s as though Lindsay wasn’t ever to be trusted with her own work. Luckily she ensured we got to see Chapter Eighteen regardless of all the hullabaloo.

Although at least four reprints of this chapter were released in 1987, the title quickly disappeared from high-street bookshelves. Eventually, it started to garner very high prices on the second-hand market.

AUTHOR, REINSTATED Joan Lindsay finally got cover credit in 2016.

That all changed in 2016 when it was re-released by ETT Imprint with an extra essay penned by Mudrooroo, who towed the cult’s line by nixing any hint of Lindsay’s final chapter containing a solution.

The eBook edition reached No. 1 on Amazon in its category, Joan Lindsay finally made her own front cover, and everyone, including her estate, got their portion.

This was hardly a surprise. In 2016, a stage adaptation of Picnic premiered in Melbourne, and a new television series was announced.

But outside the machinations of publishing, this new outbreak of picnic fever has arrived with something of a reckoning.

Lifting the gossamer veil

In 2015, the fortieth anniversary of Weir’s film, which hit our screens during Australia’s constitutional crisis around Gough Whitlam’s sacking, a few journalists marked the milestone with reminders of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s enduring cultural significance.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

I called for a remake to reinstate Lindsay’s final chapter and acknowledge the bridge that she built between European settlers and Aboriginal Dreamtime in her truncated last chapter. Australians were ready to have the mystery solved, I reckoned.

An ongoing protest titled Miranda Must Go was on a similar trajectory, started by Melbourne artist and PhD student Amy Spiers, whose ultimate aim is to “decolonise” Hanging Rock and allow its Indigenous meaning to re-emerge.

But there are those who want the Edwardian gossamer veil to remain in place.

In 2017, a new biography of Lady Linsday, including an analysis of her Picnic oeuvre, came in the form of Janelle McCullough’s weighty tome Beyond The Rock.

It’s a very good read (check out my review) for those wanting to know more about Joan Lindsay, and it sheds a little more light on the origins of the story, but Lindsay’s bridge to Aboriginal Australians was not analysed.

Picnic camps

Walking the line between these two Picnic camps is Fremantle Media’s television adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, currently screening on Foxtel with its astonishingly youthful cast.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Despite decades of calling for more roles for older women in popular culture, it was a shock to read that iconic middle-aged characters like headmistress Miss Appleyard and mathematics teacher Miss Greta McGraw (thoroughly well-portrayed by Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray in Weir’s production) were cast with actors barely older than the schoolgirls.

This decision seems, at least partially, to cloud the “feminist lens” producer Jo Porter (director of drama for Fremantle Media Australia) claimed the production has at its core.

Pre-production on the series was dogged by protests from the Australian Directors’ Guild about engaging an offshore director instead of looking to Australian creatives, particularly since the production is financed solely by Australian backers.

What’s clear is there’s a strong sense of ownership around Picnic at Hanging Rock. The book, the place, and all cultural expressions of it have become critical to ongoing discussions about reconciliation between colonising Europeans (and others) and Aboriginal Australians.

One territory was drawn on Joan Lindsay’s behalf by her publishers when the decision was made to remove the last chapter in 1967, and ongoing attempts to besmirch its content as “unfilmable” and an unsatisfactory end to the story.

But another camp has settled into this Picnic. Around it, people are speaking (and listening to) the truth about Hanging Rock, its Indigenous heritage and significance. The conversation does not start, or end, with Joan Lindsay.

Right on cue, Penguin has re-released a new TV tie-in edition, staunchly entrenched with its blind-spot on what Lindsay’s final chapter might add to the reconciliation conversation.

But that will never be the end of this story…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.