Poetry, war and metaphor: Mark Dapin at the Crime & Justice Festival

C&J DapinI had the pleasure at the Readers’ Feast Crime & Justice Festival recently to see my partner Andrew Nette’s excellent interview with writer Mark Dapin about his new novel R&R.

Dapin is author of the award winning,  highly irreverent crime novel, King of the Cross, Spirit House, which focuses on World War II and its legacy, and several works of non-fiction.

He came upon the idea for R&R in the course of conducting research for his most recent  non-fiction book, The Nashos’ War, about the Australians conscripted via lottery to fight the war in Vietnam. A large number were stationed in the southern Vietnamese port town of Vung Tau, and the majority there never encountered the Viet Cong. This was part of the inspiration for the novel.

R&RMore significant, though, was a story about coffins rising from the cemetery in the monsoon rain and being washed into the town. It was, Dapin said in the interview, ‘the poetry of the rising coffin story’ that made him write another historical fiction novel, despite saying he would never do it again.

Dapin made some fascinating observations about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. That for some people, it was the best time of their lives — not just for the servicemen, but for the nurses, for example, who found it liberating. That for many Australians, going to war was about ‘doing a job’ — which put them at odds with the ideological motivations of their opponents. That Australia lifted the US experience of the Vietnam War and ‘put it on on like an ill-fitting coat’. He also suggested veterans’ politics is largely about a backlash against feminism.

Of the novel, which is told from multiple points of view — Australian, American and Vietnamese — Dapin says, ‘I wanted to create something that looks like pulp but reads like literature.’

If that wasn’t enough to make me want to read the book, he went on to describe a research process for his fiction, which involved reading Vietnamese poetry in order to understand local metaphors. He had only one example where he had used a poetic metaphor directly — the exquisite image, ‘the sky was white with butterflies’. For the most part, he lets poetic metaphors inform the mindset of his characters.

I loved this idea, and fully admitted my intention to steal it. Happy to say, I got Dapin’s blessing.

I’ll be taking R&R with me when I head to Thailand next month for the fieldwork component of my PhD research.

What’s on the top of your summer — or, for those in the Northern Hemisphere, winter — reading pile?


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GenreCon: Writers continuing to help writers

The energy generated among guests and participants at GenreCon continues apace. The Siren of Brixton wrote a great post about how GenreCon re-booted her writing practice; while David Witteveen, whose brilliant sketch I featured on a previous post, is rolling out a series of interviews with people he met at GenreCon on his blog, including yours truly. I decided to reciprocate by interviewing David here.

We first met online, I think.

Yes, via Twitter. I was livetweeting an event that featured your partner, Andrew Nette. Ever since, we keep bumping into each other at writers’ festivals.

Most recently at GenreCon. So, tell my readers what your genre is, and what drew you to that field.

I’m an aspiring Young Adult author.

When I was a teen, a friend told me “Stay you, David. Stay weird.” And that’s who I’m writing for: the teenagers who feel a bit weird and a bit different from their classmates. My adolescence was emotionally intense and confusing. Books helped me get through. My hope is that my books will help a new generation of teens.

The manuscript I’m submitting at the moment is a YA fantasy manuscript set in the ruins of an enormous library about a teenage thief, wizard and talking booklouse who try to stop two kingdoms from going to war. And I’m working on a contemporary YA romance about black metal and computer games.

“Stay you…Stay weird.” What wonderful advice. And I love the idea of a fantasy novel set in the ruins of an enormous library. So where are you at in terms of publication?

swans-coverI’m very much an aspiring author. I have a manuscript that I’m submitting to agents and publishers. But it’s a slow process, and I have to balance that with work and relationships and everything else.

In the meantime, I make zines and write songs about books, and I’m self-publishing my grunge-rock ghost novel for adults The Stray Swans in December.

The Stray Swans sounds amazing. Good luck with that.

In light of all you have going on, what’s the biggest problem or obstacle you currently face in your work?

I’ve had some serious health issues this year. And while I’m much better, I’m still recovering and still struggling to get back into my productive writing schedule.

You said up at GenreCon that writing is important for your mental health. I’m the same way. I need to feel that I’m making progress. If I don’t, I can get very down and frustrated. I’ve had to push and fight to make that progress. I wrote on my blog: I’ve needed to be a wombat to get better: blunt, stubborn, nocturnal, all muscles and claws and whiskers in the dark. 

Great work channelling your inner wombat — though I associate you more strongly with insects than marsupials…

Ah. You’ve read my zine.

We think of books as miniature worlds, right?

So: late one night I was idling through Wikipedia. And I stumbled across the entry for booklice. And I fell instantly in love.

Booklice are tiny little insects, the size of a full stop, that eat the mould that grows on the binding glue of old books. In turn, booklice are preyed upon by another insect called book scorpions.

I loved that. I loved that books, these miniature worlds, have their own self-contained ecosystem. Also, I think booklice are really cute. So when I started writing a fantasy novel set in a library, I knew I had to include booklice in it. YA fantasy novels often include talking animals. I thought, why not a talking booklouse?

The Booklice zine is charming. Your fascination for this tiny creature is as infectious as those other lice that torture primary school children and their parents throughout Melbourne…but I digress.

Let’s get back to GenreCon: what was the most useful thing you learned?

Do the work. Write the book. Submit it. Write the next one.

Conferences and festivals are a great time to reflect on writing, and to connect with other writers, and to recharge your creative energy. But at the end of the day, you had to go home and type the words into the computer. As Kylie Scott said in her keynote:

“You know the books that get published?”
“The lucky ones?”
“The ones that get finished.”

Visit David’s website: davidwitteveen.tumblr.com

I highly recommend following David on Twitter; he’s a master of the medium: @davidwitteveen

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Crime & Justice Festival 2015

The ninth Readers Feast Crime & Justice Festival, happening this weekend, has given me the perfect excuse to bump a few local crime novels up on my TBR pile.

picisto-C&J collage

On Saturday 14 Nov, 2.00-3.00 PM, I’ll be interviewing one of Australia’s most successful crime writers, Garry Disher, who has just released The Heat, his eighth novel to feature professional criminal Wyatt. Garry is always a thoughtful and eloquent interview subject. Having taught and written about creative writing, he has much to offer aspiring writers as well as fans of the crime genre. Tickets and further details here.

On Sunday 15 Nov, 12.00-1.00 PM, I’m chairing the ‘New Voices’ panel, featuring some terrific debut authors. Melbourne author JM (Jenny) Green’s novel Good Money features wise-cracking social worker and accidental PI Stella Hardy; the action moves between Melbourne’s inner west and Western Australia. Emma Viskic’s lead character Caleb Zelic has been profoundly deaf since early childhood; violent events in Melbourne see him return to his hometown, the eponymous Resurrection Bay, in search of the truth. By contrast, Paul E Hardisty’s debut The Abrupt Physics of Dying is set in Yemen, an eco-thriller largely based on true events, namely the horrific destruction of fresh water and lives by oil giants. This promises to be a cracker of a session. Tickets and details here.

The full program for the Crime and Justice Festival may be found here. I hope to see you there.

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GenreCon: Nothing gets wasted

GenreCon Wordle - PR Robson (final)Further to yesterday’s post GenreCon: Writers helping writers, I wanted to share this fantastic Wordle produced by emerging writer P.R. Robson after the conference. Her graphic manages to capture a great many tips and insights from the weekend. And in the spirit of writers helping writers, she agreed to let me share it.

Follow P. R. Robson on Twitter @ih_klek_tik


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GenreCon: Writers helping writers

Last weekend I had my first experience of GenreCon, a biennial, three-day conference for writers and writing professionals, held in Brisbane. GenreCon is an initiative of the Queensland Writers Centre and The Australian Writers Marketplace, but the brains and heart behind it belong to sci-fi and fantasy writer Peter Ball.

Peter used his opening remarks at GenreCon to emphasise the underlying philosophy behind the conference, namely, ‘Good things happen when writers talk to each other.’ In his post-GenreCon blog post, he shared what he called ‘the other half of that philosophy’, i.e. ‘Better things happen when writers help one another.’

From what I experienced, GenreCon totally lives up to that philosophy. Though ostensibly there a guest, one of two crime writers in residence, together with my friend Sulari Gentill, I went home feeling like I had two days of intensive and inspiring professional development.

#GCoz actually trended on Twitter, as the tips and insights flew thick and fast. Rivqa Rafael provides an excellent summary on Storify, while Peter Ball’s post-GenreCon thoughts are also worth a read.

I wanted to highlight two aspects of the weekend. First, I was blown away by the collegiality of the conference among both presenters and guests. In person and on social media, people were affirming and encouraging. Feedback on sessions was virtually instantaneous; and as a panellist, it was hugely helpful to know what resonated with the audience.

I was impressed and inspired by fellow headlining guests. Award-winning author and professional puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal was gracious, generous and practical with her advice, not to mention hilarious; and I’ve dined out on having met someone who once played Oscar the Grouch’s right-hand on Sesame Street. CS Pacat‘s sartorial elegance was matched by the eloquence of her speech and her razor-sharp intellect. Marianne de Pierres whet my appetite for fem-punk, including her own WIP about time-travelling feminists aiming to change history in women’s favour. The immensely entertaining Kylie Scott mixed philosophy and romance, while Kaaron Warren provided riveting and generous insights into her creative process. Sulari Gentill was her usual erudite and entertaining self; I seem to take away new insights each time we meet.

And it hadn’t actually occurred to me until I saw this that we were an all-female ‘panel of awesome’!

The other thing I wanted to mention was the practicality of writers supporting writers.  Peter Ball notes in his post-GenreCon wrap up:

Talent and hard work will get you a long way in writing, but there is often a staggering correlation between writers who are successful and writers who possess that innate understanding that helping those around them, possessing a generosity of spirit when it comes to their experience and knowledge, is an essential part of the writers toolbox. They’re the people who inspire a spirit of generosity in others, so that they’re [sic.] name comes to mind when someone like me says so, I’m looking for a person who can do X…

And Peter has written eloquently on the how-to of networking or, as he calls it, ‘helping out your peeps’.

I want to add the importance of recommending the work of other writers when asked — on a panel, in an interview, even in conversation. There was a moment at GenreCon when panellists were asked to recommend authors who wrote layered characters. Another question asked for examples of heartbreaking stories. In both cases, the panellists drew a blank. I’m not blaming them: it’s easy to get caught on the spot, especially when caffeine reserves are low! But I was reminded of the importance of putting thought into this in advance, coming prepared to events with a mental list of other writers to recommend.

I suggested on the final panel that such a list focus on Australian writers and writers who are under-represented, though that’s obviously a matter of personal choice. But I do feel passionately about seizing opportunities when they arise to draw attention to writers whose work, for reasons that have nothing to do with merit, may fall beneath the radar.

End of rant.

Sincere thanks to Peter Ball and his splendid team for making GenreCon such a wonderful experience. I will be conspiring to make it a regular feature on my festival calendar.

GenreCon sketch

Sketch of panel by David Witteveen

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At the Melbourne Museum

Earlier this week, I watched a short presentation by illustrator, artist and author Christophe Niemann on How to Overcome the 3 Fears Every Creative Faces. To avoid the fear of running out of ideas, Niemann (and others) suggest taking time for “silly, free-thinking experiments”, away from the desk, out in the world. Today I took his advice and dropped into the Melbourne Museum, which is celebrating its 15th birthday by displaying not a birthday cake, but a model of the cake used for Scott and Charlene’s wedding in the soap opera Neighbours (1987). The following (very) short story/’flash fiction’, resulted from some silly free thought.

Wedding cake 2What’s that, Mummy?

It’s a wedding cake.

Whose wedding cake?

Scott and Charlene’s.

Who’s Scott and Charlene?

People on television. They’re not real.

Why is their wedding cake here?

Because once upon a time, everyone wanted a wedding like theirs.

Wedding cake 1Who are the people on top of the cake?

The bride and groom.

What are they doing?

They’re kissing.

Why have they got their eyes closed?

Because if you opened your eyes, you’d never go through with it.

Why is the cake white?

I don’t know. In some countries, white is the colour for funerals.

Wedding cake 3Why is the cake so big?

It’s an illusion. A lot of it is just empty space.

Why are there flowers on the cake?

Because flowers are like love: they wilt and die.

What are those little white balls?

Pearls. Fake pearls.

Why are there fake pearls on the cake?

Because it’s all too easy to mistake rubbish for treasure.

Did you and Daddy have fake pearls on your wedding cake?

Are you crying, Mummy?

No, sweetheart. I’ve just got something in my eye.


Can we go and see Phar Lap now?

Visit the museum to see the cake. You can watch the wedding below:
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Mouth piece

I was asked to contribute to a piece for Sunday Life Magazine in which three writers tell of the parts of their bodies that consume their attention. I was tempted to write about my feet, but Fay Weldon beat me to it. So I wrote about my mouth. My friend Kirsten Krauth wrote about her ears and Michelle Law wrote about her hands (see here for the full article).
What about you? What body part would you have chosen to write about?


by Angela Savage

mouthEver since I started talking at the age of six months, my mouth has been my defining feature. I draw attention to it by wearing loud red lipstick and smiling a lot.

I’ve never considered myself a beauty, but I look all right when I smile – a teeth-flashing, eye-crinkling grin. I’ve tried toning it down, but end up looking either devious or half asleep. So I’ve never affected the cool, serious author photo beloved by crime writers. My grinning mugshot sits at odds with what one reviewer called the “hard-boiled quality of menace” that underpins my prose.

My mouth mostly stood me in good stead when I was growing up. Public speaking gave me confidence. Singing got me into school musicals – which, coming from a girls’ school, was essential for meeting boys. This enabled me to indulge in another favourite oral pastime, kissing, a skill honed role-playing with the girl next door.

Of course, I often put my foot in my mouth. I still cringe at the memory of having asked the neighbourhood bad boy to “just say no” to drugs. No wonder my love for him went unrequited. Looking back, I reckon most of the smiling I did in my teens was to mask my embarrassment or hide my heartbreak.

I taught my mouth new tricks by learning languages: in French, I became pouty; in Thai, I’d jut out my chin and part my lips to make new vowel sounds.

Living in Buddhist countries required me to get my mouth around a whole new lexicon of smiles – part of maintaining the social harmony so valued in the local culture. In Thailand, where I set my novels, I learnt to smile appreciatively (yim cheuun chohm), to smile while masking sadness (yim sao) and to smile apologetically (yim yaae yaae). At times I felt my mouth strain with the effort of forcing a smile (yim mai aawk).

I held on to my laugh, though. Despite living in countries where women stifle giggles politely behind their hands, my laughter remains loud and bright. I like to think it matches my lipstick.

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