Gifts

A few months after our father Haydn died, my brother Julian came across a shoe box among Dad’s things labelled ‘Europe 1963’. Inside were boxes of slides taken on the first of what would be many overseas trips Haydn would make during his lifetime: on this occasion, he travelled from Melbourne by boat on the SS Flavia to Europe via Egypt, touring the continent by car, before flying to New York and on to Tahiti.

Among boxes of slides showing Haydn partying, playing deck tennis and seeing the sights was a collection of images I’d never seen before of my parents with me as a baby. I was born in the analogue era, when taking photos was still a big deal. We had a camera–my father would’ve sold Kodak Instamatics along with film and flash cubes in his capacity as a pharmacist–but almost all the early photos of me are black and white. Until Julian unearthed the box of slides, I’d never seen a colour photo of me as a baby with my father.

And what a photo–such joy! Even peering at the tiny transparent rectangle, I knew it was a beautiful image. Julian subsequently managed to digitise the slide into the image above. It feels like a gift twice over: a moment of love shared by my father from beyond the grave, made possible by a labour of love on the part of my brother.

I assumed the photo was taken in Broken Hill, NSW, as there were other images among the slides that clearly date back to a visit my parents made there when I was six months old. My mother’s father, Mervyn Whelan, was stationed in Broken Hill as a policeman, living there with my grandmother, Olga, and at least their two youngest children, my aunt Dominica, who was around 13 years old at the time, and my uncle Michael, who would’ve been ten or so. There are other (black and white) photos of me with the four of them, and this shot with my mother on the edge of a lake.

On reflection, I wonder if the photo of me and Dad was taken a little earlier (I have less hair!), possibly in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens.

In truth, the location is not as important to me as the emotion in this photo. The laughter on my face, revealing a dimple in my pudgy left cheek. My father’s matching smile. The way he is holding me, which seems designed for my comfort and not his. I love the lustre of his hair and his chic white polo knit.

And the photo of me with Mum by the lake has always been a favourite. She looks so young and beautiful.

She was old and beautiful when she died.

Dad was still smiling.

I miss them both so much.

 

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Tweeters: The Birdman’s Wife

Artist Elizabeth Gould spent her life capturing the sublime beauty of birds the world had never seen before. But her legacy was eclipsed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. The Birdman’s Wife at last gives voice to a passionate and adventurous spirit who was so much more than the woman behind the man.

The book I reviewed in my previous Tweeters post, Budgerigar by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, led me to The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, an imagined account of the life of painter Elizabeth Gould, spouse of famous birdman John Gould. In a chapter entitled ‘The Goulded cage’, Harris and Baker briefly describe the specimen collecting (read, ‘shooting and stuffing’) journey made by John and Elizabeth Gould and their entourage to Australia. Departing in 1838, they left behind the youngest three of their four surviving children, had a son, Franklin Tasman, born in 1839 in Van Dieman’s Land, and returned to London in 1840. Of the menagerie of live birds and animals that accompanied them on the voyage home, only a pair of budgerigars–which Elizabeth painted from life–survived. Indeed, as Harris and Baker note, ‘these birds…survived the journey to England longer than Eliza herself.’

Published in 2016, The Birdman’s Wife had been on my radar for some time–I was a member of The Gould League of birdlovers as a child–and to be honest, I’m not sure why it took me so long to getting around to reading it: I absolutely loved this book.

Narrated in the first person from Elizabeth’s point of view, the story opens in 1828, when she first meets John Gould through her brother Charles, hired as a stuffer in Gould’s taxidermy business. Impressed with her artistic skills, John invites Elizabeth to draw for him and soon, as Elizabeth puts it:

…it was clear that Mr Gould’s feeling for me had grown; I imagined it as a thick-shelled egg he held warm between his stockinged feet like an Emperor penguin.
As for me, Mr Gould eased himself under the carapace of my heart.

Married in 1829, Elizabeth continues to paint birds for her husband, the Curator and Preserver of Birds at the Zoological Society, at one stage working alongside Edward Lear, who was a great admirer of hers. Between 1830 and their departure for Australia in 1838, Elizabeth gives birth to six children, two of whom die shortly after their births.

Each chapter is named for a different bird painted by Elizabeth. Indeed, when I could drag myself away from the story, I’d look up the images referred to in the book, which added to my admiration for this extraordinary woman.

Elizabeth Gould’s painting of budgerigars

Though I more or less knew what happened to Elizabeth before I read The Birdman’s Wife, the story lost none of its poignancy nor urgency for me. Ashley’s evocation of Elizabeth’s voice is skillful and believable; despite being described as ‘a woman ahead of her time’, Elizabeth’s narrative felt genuine and without anachronism. She is portrayed as a woman who hungers physically as well as intellectually, finding as much pleasure in her husband and children as she does in her work. The world building is seamlessly done, and I particularly enjoyed the account of the Goulds’ time in what was then Van Dieman’s Land, now Tasmania.

Winner of the Australian Booksellers Association Booksellers Choice Award and a Queensland Literary Award, and shortlisted for several other major awards, The Birdman’s Wife is a fascinating story, beautifully told, of a talented woman who neither received just recognition nor lived as long as she might have had she been born in a different time.

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On Reading, take #2

What makes a great read? What gives books their power over us? Have you ever read a book that changed you?

After being rescheduled due to Victoria’s snap COVID lockdown in February, I will be chairing the event On Reading with authors Kate Mildenhall and J P [Josh] Pomare for Ballarat Libraries — a wonderful opportunity to dive deep into the reading history and habits of two talented Australian writers.

Kate’s The Mother Fault was one of my favourite reads of 2020, while Josh’s In the Clearing kept me up late into the night.

The event will be held IRL [in real life] at Ballarat Library on Wed 24 March 2021, 178 Doveton St N, Ballarat Central, from 7.00PM – 8.00PM.

Tickets are free but you need to register here.

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Coming soon to a town hall, library, brewery near you

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve thought of the line from the Robert Burns poem ‘To a Mouse’ in the past 12 months: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” (often paraphrased as ‘The best laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry’ – though I like the Scots!). Especially in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the truth of Burns’s poem still resonates, more than 215 years after it was written.

Best laid schemes most recently gang a-ley as a result of a snap lockdown, called by the Victorian government in response to a disturbing outbreak of the highly contagious British strain of COVID-19 through the hotel quarrantine program. With less than 12 hours notice, the whole of Victoria went into hard lockdown for five days from 13-17 February 2021. Thankfully, it was only short-lived — a ‘circuit breaker’ to ensure the virus hadn’t spread too far — though I felt for the businesses that missed out on combined Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day celebrations on the weekend. My circumstances were not so dire as to be majorly inconvenienced by the snap lockdown, although what was to be my first live literary event in a year — On Reading at with Kate Mildenhall and JP Pomare at Ballarat Library — was subsequently postponed to later this month.

Meanwhile, we had made plans to hold a memorial service in Corowa, just across the border with NSW, to inter my mother’s ashes. Thankfully, lockdown was lifted just in time to go ahead with a ceremony that had already been long delayed by the pandemic. But the reason I mention this is, because in preparing the order of service, I came across a quote Mum had copied into a notebook from Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote: ‘You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and the best you have to give.’ This, Mum said, was her motto. I found it at just the right time.

On this basis, I look forward to the next wave of literary events, prepared to accept whatever comes with courage and the best I have to give, should my best laid schemes gang a-ley again.

(Touch wood) This Saturday, I will be running my ‘Write Here, Write Now’ workshop/inspirational session for the Town Hall Writers Group in Kyabram, together with acclaimed author Favel Parrett. The workshop is free, but bookings are essential. Book here.

Favel and I will also be on hand to help the Kyabram Town Hall Writers Group launch their anthology of local women’s writing, Celebrating Women, in the afternoon.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Favel and I will be appearing as a guest of the Campaspe Regional Library Service at an event on Sunday 7 March 2021, 2.15PM at Echuca Library, 310 Hare St, Echuca. Again, the event is free but bookings are essential to meet COVID safety guidelines. Book here.

On International Women’s Day itself, Mon 8 March 2021, which is a public holiday in Victoria (though sadly not for IWD), I’ll be appearing at an event at The Taproom in Castlemaine at event called, ‘Books at the Brewery’. Here’s the blurb:

Join us as we welcome some of Australia’s most iconic and highly regarded writers to The Taproom. Contributors to the collection Animals Make Us Human include Leah Kaminsky (editor), Toni Jordan, Cate Kennedy and Angela Savage and all three authors will be chatting about their stories from the collection. Melbourne writer, Anna George will be chatting about her new novel, Tipping, and we will drop in a reading or two from other authors throughout the mini-festival!

Monday 8 March 2021 at 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM, The Taproom, 9 Walker Street (The Mill), Castlemaine, Victoria 3450. Again, bookings are essential – book here.

Note that I will be appearing not as a contributing author to Animals Make us Human, but to showcase the #LiteraryCritters made to promote the book. There will be a slideshow, cuddle toys and maybe even be a furry door prize…

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Tweeters: Budgerigar by Sarah Harris & Don Baker

Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party. is an online community set up on Facebook by my friend and fellow Transit Lounge author Kirsten Krauth (Almost a Mirror, 2020). Kirsten established the platform up to give writers with works coming out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic a chance to still enjoy some form of book promotion at a time when public talks, launches and other associated celebrations were not possible. During a recent call-out for posts from authors directly impacted by COVID-era publication, I chanced upon a post from Sarah Harris with a link to a book called Budgerigar. I started reading a sample on Google Books, and was so hooked, I went out and bought the book.

Budgerigar, sub-titled ‘How a brave, chatty and colourful little Aussie bird stole the world’s heart’, is co-authored by Sarah Harris and her partner Don Baker, described in their author blurb as ‘veteran journalists’. This background shows in their writing, which is engaging, well-researched and accessible — and they clearly have an eye for a good story. The book’s 25 thematic chapters are interspersed with extracts from bird books, magazines and newspapers, creating a conversational tone to the work.

Budgerigar both outlines the history of the bird, and uses the bird as a lens through which to view historical events. A bird’s-eye view, if you like.

A chapter called ‘Budgerigar Dreaming’ describes the significance of the bird–known as ngatijirri in Walpiri, dingleyerung in Noongar, and gidiyirrigaa in Wiradjuri–to Australia’s First Nations people as bellwethers and food, as well as ancestral spirits and constellations. The shipping of vast quantities of budgerigars, live and dead, from Australia to the UK aptly illustrates the colonial project of expansion, appropriation and dislocation. We learn of the budgerigar as status symbol, as fashion accessory, and as vector of zoonotic disease that bears an eerie resemblance to COVID-19. Budgerigars played a role in Allied war efforts by being trained to chant anti-Nazi slogans and were renowned for alerting their owners to incoming bombing raids. There are celebrity budgies, therapy budgies, fortune-telling budgies and ‘Budgezillas’, birds so inbred as to be unrecognisable to their wild Australian (distant) cousins.

The roll-call of the rich and famous who were devoted to their budgerigar companions is impressive, ranging from Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama and Marilyn Monroe to Vita Sackville-West and Betty Cuthbert, the latter quoted as saying, ‘They are my only love outside of running.’ Among the photographs included in the middle of the book is a smouldering black-and-white shot of Clint Eastwood in a tight polo shirt with two budgerigars on his shoulder.

There are aspects to the budgerigar’s tale which are disturbing. As Harris and Baker note, ‘Generation upon generation of captive and selective breeding has produced, at best, a much-loved and cosseted companion and, at worst, a feathered Frankenstein that’s not so much a bird as a caricature of the original wild creature.’ But they are careful not to judge their subjects, allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions about the good, the bad and the budgie (sorry!).

The final chapter, ‘Wild thing’, may well find you, like me, adding ‘Witness a budgerigar murmuration’ to your bucket list.

Budgerigar by Sarah Harris and Don Baker is published by Allen & Unwin, 2020.

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Coming soon to a library near you

 

 

What makes a great read? What gives books their power over us? Have you ever read a book that changed you?

I am chairing event called On Reading with authors Kate Mildenhall and J P Pomare for Ballarat Libraries — a wonderful opportunity to dive deep into the reading history and habits of two talented Australian writers.

The event will be held IRL [in real life] at Ballarat Library on Fri 19 February 2021, 178 Doveton St N, Ballarat Central, from 7.00PM – 8.00PM.

Tickets are free but you need to register here.

Next month I will be appearing as a guest of the Campaspe Regional Library Service alongside author Favel Parrett for their International Women’s Day event on Sunday 7 March 2021, 2.15PM at Echuca Library, 310 Hare St, Echuca.

Again, the event is free but bookings are essential to meet COVID safety guidelines. Book here.

The day before, Saturday 6 March, Favel and I will be running a writing workshop/inspirational session for the Town Hall Writers Group in Kyabram — at the Kyabram Town Hall, naturally. We’ll also be on hand to help the Town Hall Writers Group launch their anthology of local women’s writing, Celebrating Women, in the afternoon.

On International Women’s Day itself, which is a public holiday in Victoria (though sadly not for IWD), I’ll be appearing at an event in Castlemaine…but more about that later.

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(Library) Love is in the air

In the midst of a sad and difficult year in 2020, I managed to start a new job that I love, as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria. As someone who loves reading, who knows that knowledge is power, who recognises the danger of ‘false news’ and the value of a reliable source, and who believes in inclusive public spaces, working to support the public library sector is a dream come true.

Valentine’s Day on February 14 coincides with #LibraryLoversDay. The theme for 2021 is ‘Make a date with your library’. While Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday this year, I’m sure libraries would be happy to welcome early ‘dates’. And with the availability of ebooks, audio books, movie and music streaming services, and remote access to information databases and programs like Ancestry, there’s always online dating.

I’ve been making a few dates with libraries myself. I visited the atmospheric St Kilda Library, with its wonderful painting by Mirka Mora and original 1970s light fittings and desks and, on the same side of town, the stunning, newly renovated Sandringham Library, complete with reading nooks, craft room and forested children’s area. Last week a colleague and I travelled to south west Victoria, meeting with library managers and local councillors in Colac and Warrnambool.

Biblio Art Prize Storyteller’s Prize Winner Dianne Jacono’s ‘After the Sea Rises – Nest’ inspired by Alice Robinson’s ‘The Glad Shout’

Our visit also involved a quick side trip to Port Fairy to see this year’s Biblio Art Prize exhibition at Blarney Books. The brainchild of bookshop owner Jo Canham, the Biblio Art Prize matches books with artists and exhibits the fruit of this inspiration. In 2020, Jo threw her support behind authors who published works in or just prior to 2020, when launches and festivals and everything else a writer relies on to promote their book were no more. Artists were randomly allocated a title to use as inspiration for their artwork, often being given books they wouldn’t ordinarily choose to read themselves. The artwork that results from this creative practice sheds new light on the literary work, while vividly illustrating in visual language the dialogue between reader and writer. I loved the exhibition — and not just because my own 2019 novel, Mother of Pearl, inspired one of the artworks. That said, I may just have bought Isabel Szabo’s exquisitely embroidery Pearlescent Mirage…

Later this month I will be appearing at an event at Ballarat Library, chairing a session called On Reading with authors Kate Mildenhall and J P Pomare. Ballarat Libraries produced a number of these sessions online during the COVID-19 lockdown and it’s a wonderful opportunity to dive deep into a writer’s reading history and habits. Pandemic permitting, the event will be held in person at Ballarat Library on Fri 19 February 2021, 178 Doveton St N, Ballarat Central, from 7.00PM – 8.00PM. Registration details to follow.

It will be almost a year between live literary events, my last being sessions with Tara June Winch and Miriam Sved at Adelaide Writers Week on 29 Feb and 1 March 2020. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Which reminds me of something I read yesterday in The Library Book by Susan Orlean: ‘In the library, time is dammed up — not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.’

Stay tuned for more dates with libraries…and be sure to make one yourself.

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Tweeters: Fly by Jess McGeachin

Welcome to ‘Tweeters’, a new series (I hope!) of monthly posts in which I write about books that feature birds in some way.

I’m starting off with a picture book Fly by Jess McGeachin, shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) 2020 New Illustrator award. Here’s the blurb from the publisher Penguin Books:

Fly is a beautiful story of determination no matter the odds, and love in the face of loss.
Lucy had always been good at fixing things, and Dad needed a bit of help. It was just the two of them after all.
So when Lucy finds a bird with a broken wing, she’s sure she can fix him too. But not everything that’s broken can be fixed.

Fly is a deceptively simple story. There’s a subtext about how children deal with loss, but the story’s magical quality means it is neither heavy nor didactic. And while there’s an injured sparrow at the centre of the story, birds are the heroes of the tale, too.

The illustrations support the narrative beautifully, Lucy’s world becoming more colourful and vibrant, the further she rises from the earth into the sky in her efforts to show her injured sparrow how to fly. I particularly liked the plates at the end showing different types of birds, many of them native Australian species.

I was introduced to this book when asked by Karen Fleischer’s to record a video for her Facebook page, Reading for Kids Gippsland. A link to the clip is below. My fabulous 15-year-old shot and edited the video (bless her!), which includes images of some of my ornithological #literarycritters. In a sign I should have done my homework, I incorrectly refer to author Jess McGeachin as ‘she’ instead of ‘he’. And I wish I’d recorded a day later after I had a haircut! But I hope you enjoy it all the same.

Can you recommend another kids’ book involving birds?

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Reading 2020

For the past few years, I’ve reflected on my previous year’s reading using Reading Bingo as a framework. But 2020 being the year it was, I’ve decided to go rogue.

I was surprised to find I’d read 13 fewer books in 2020 (total of 45) than I did in 2019, because I feel like I was constantly reading during the year. That said, I suspect I missed recording a few books, my powers of concentration not up to normal standards, given all that was going on.

As usual, I read more fiction than anything else (33 novels, six novellas and one short story collection), mostly by Australian women writers (29); of the 30 Australian authors whose books I read in 2020, 22 of them were known to me personally (which is why I’ve largely stopped reviewing books).

The novels I read fall into roughly two categories: books that resonated with the times, and books that took me away from those times. The books that resonated included The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean Mckay, The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall. All excellent reads.

And I made #LiteraryCritters inspired by Laura and Meg’s books.

Of the books that helped me escape at times from what was one of my toughest years on record, my stand out reads were: The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy (also a contender for a resonate novel with its themes of climate change and mass extinction), Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe, The Lucky Galah by Tracy Sorensen, The Crying Place by Lia Hills, The White Girl by Tony Birch and The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. The funniest book I read was Mammoth by Chris Flynn. And before the year went to hell, I read Tara June Winch’s two novels, Swallow the Air and The Yield, which led me to conclude that she is one of the finest writers Australia has ever produced.

A number of these books inspired #LiteraryCritters, too.

I also confess to reading a couple of books in order to make #LiteraryCritters to go with them, notably The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers (couldn’t resist the cute little Tasmanian Devil pattern by Paw Paw’s Studio). And then of course there was the whole Animals Make Us Human project (soon the subject of another post).

I read three books by American writers, an eclectic mix of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, all of which were excellent.

And I read one poetry collection, Turbulence by Thuy On, which inspired a crocheted koi fish.

I read more non-fiction than usual in 2020, nine books, compared with six in 2019. Included among these was A Better Death by Doctor Ranjana Srivastava, which I found incredibly helpful when my mother was dying.

Towards the end of the year, I felt strong enough to start reading about grief. My first of these books, and my last read of the year, was Melbourne Circle by my friend Nick Gadd. The book documents the ‘psychojogging’ that Nick and his late wife Lynne did of inner city Melbourne over two years, combining history, travelogue, pyschogeography and memoir. The book is a beautiful tribute to Lynne, a poignant reflection on loss, and a wonderful account of Melbourne’s more hidden history. It has also inspired a #LiteraryCritter (a work in progress).

Nick writes: ‘In grief, we act for reasons we don’t understand.’ I took up two practices in the wake of my mother’s death last year, which I continued through Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown and the death of my father: crafting #LiteraryCritters and birdwatching. For months I have not been able to make sense of this. But I’m starting to see how these activities, which occupy my mind and commandeer my attention, have provided a buffer against an immense sadness that might otherwise overwhelm me. Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk when her beloved father dies, which she documents with great poetry and poignancy in H Is For Hawk (my first read for 2021). She writes, ‘I had no use for history, no use for time at all. I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.’ Perhaps I read and craft (and go birdwatching) to make it all disappear, too.

That said, I am encouraged when Nick writes, ‘Change and loss are everywhere, but so are survival and regeneration.’ And for Helen, ‘There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now…the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.’

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A couple of things before the end

Photo by Edmund Blenkins (Sulari’s son) of bushfire affected landscape near Batlow, NSW

As I near the end of this sad, sad year, there is light at the end of the tunnel. After writing little more than a few blog posts and short tributes to my mother and father, I managed to write a short story, ‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, for ‘Dark Forest’, a installation initiated by my dear friend and fellow writer Sulari Gentill, as part of the Snowy Mountains Arbour Festival. The Arbour Festival is a response to the devastating bushfires of January 2020, which very nearly razed Sulari’s hometown of Batlow in New South Wales and destroyed the nearby iconic Sugar Pines Plantation. The Pilot Hill Arboretum survived, however, and the festival, running from 28 Dec 2020 – 15 Feb 2021, commemorates this history and celebrates hope.

Here’s the description of ‘Dark Forest’ from the Arbour Festival website:

‘Trees have always stood in the background of our lives, silent witnesses to our joys and tragedies. In the mountains we have taken their abundance for granted, but now, there are spaces where their shade once fell. This work gives voice to the trees of Pilot’s Hill, assigns them stories of their own beyond that of survival.

Dark Forest is not so much a collaboration, but a collective of authors each contributing their creativity and talent to make the trees speak, and to help the people of this region memorialise and celebrate. They are participating simply because Sulari asked them for help. This in itself is an echo of the generosity we of the Snowy experienced from across Australia and the world during the fires—and so Dark Forest nods to that overwhelming spirit of solidarity in its creation, as much as it commemorates the green giants we lost to the flames, and celebrates what survived.’

Sulari allocated trees to a group of her writer friends and asked us to write a short story from the perspective of the tree. I was given the Mountain Ash, eucalpytus regnans, the world’s tallest flowering tree. My story was dark and nihilistic, though with the suggestion of a redemptive ending—consistent with the tone of many of the stories, according to Sulari, which is not surprising, given the year we’ve all had. Local actors have recorded readings of the stories, which can be accessed by festival-goers using QR codes. The participating trees/authors are: The Elm, Robert Gott; The Montain Ash, Angela Savage; The Sitka Spruce, Karen Viggers; The False White Pine, John M. Green; The Red Spruce, Victoria McGrath; The Big Tree, Dan O’Malley; The Ponderosa Pine, Melinda Louise Smith; The European White Birch, Josh Langley; The Japanese Larch, Kaaron Warren; The Scots Pine, L.J. M. Owen; and The Incense Cedar, Sulari Gentill.

I also participated in Artists in Residence, a virtual exhibition and book published by my uber-talented photographer friend Suzanne Phoenix. During Melbourne’s Lockdown 2.0, Suzanne took the photos of 52 participating Victorian artists via zoom, then had us create our own artworks from the image, with text to accompany the final piece. My portrait was in large part a tribute to my mother, who had died not long before Suzanne approached me to be part of the project.

Image by Suzanne Phoenix and Angela Savage for Artists in Residence by Suzanne Phoenix

In terms of creative process, I pinned the photo Suzanne took of me to a corkboard and surrounded it with knitted and crocheted items (clockwise from bottom left): a kraken inspired by Meg Mundell’s COVID-prescient novel, The Trespassers; a kingfisher, adapted from Barbara Lennon’s kookaburra pattern, a critter I made for my mother years ago; one of two ‘COVID Hearts’, pattern by Rosina Plane, designed to be given to people separated from their loved ones due to the pandemic; a red poppy inspired by Pip Williams’s beautiful novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words; and a red-tailed black cockatoo, adapted from Barbara Lennon’s galah pattern (I often saw red-tailed black cockatoos where my mother lived on south coast NSW). The blanket that frames my portrait was knitted by my mother Olgamary Savage and sewn together by my cousin Mary Latham. Mum was still knitting squares for this blanket while in palliative care. It was intended for Wrap with Love, but I can’t bring myself to part with it.

Speaking of knitting and craft more generally, I was interviewed briefly on final episode of ABC Radio National’s Book Show for 2020 by Sarah L’Estrange about my literary critters (which I wrote about here), and specifically the work that a 31-strong team of crafters did to help promote Animals Make Us Human. Sarah paid me the great compliment of saying that my literary critters gave her ‘such joy during the deepest, darkest moments of lockdown’—which is precisely what I intended. You can listen here (I’m on at the 40:42 min mark).

And still on the craft theme, I was delighted that my novel Mother of Pearl inspired a work in this year’s Biblio Art Prize hosted by Blarney Books in Port Fairy. Established in 2009, this year’s competition focused on books published in the last 12 – 18 months, with local artists randomly allocated a title to use as inspiration for their artwork. Isabel Szabo of Williamstown North in Victoria created a piece called ‘Pearlescent Mirage’, comprised of two embroidered hoops, the images reflecting on themes in the novel to do with ‘longing and dreaming for more, despite already leading a seemingly flawless life’ (see catalogue entry below).

Incidentally, this blog post takes its title from Sean O’Beirne’s engaging, often funny short story collection, published in February, one of 45 books I read in 2020. But that’s for another installment.

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