The Great Debate

Further to my last post about saying yes to everything, in late November I found myself in the pulse-pounding position of being on stage before a live audience at the Village Roadshow Theatrette at the State Library Victoria for the recording of the Great Debate for Radio National’s The Book Show. The topic for debate was that ‘a writer’s only responsibility is to their art’, derived from a quote by William Faulkner. (As it happens, I used the same quote as the epigraph to a conference paper on the ethics of borrowing from real life for fiction).

With Wayne Macauley and Melanie Cheng, I was part of the negative team, taking on the debating might of Katherine Colette (whose latest fiction project involves toastmasters), Robert Lukins, and former barrister (and mate) Jock Serong, under the watchful eye of The Book Show’s Sarah L’Estrange.

It was an interesting exercise to put my case together, and I’m grateful to my debating coach and fellow author Nick Gadd for playing devil’s advocate during this process. While I stand by most of the points I argued, I’m not entirely sure about others — something I sense was shared by speakers on both sides of the debate. While we didn’t necessarily let our ambivalence show on the night, generally speaking, writers of fiction like us tend to dwell in the liminal spaces between black and white, right and wrong, positive and negative. Whether this makes us second-rate debaters is up to the listener to decide.

The debate will be broadcast on Mon 9 Dec at 10AM, or you can listen here to the podcast.

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Staying on fire

My friend Gail Chrisfield buying Mother of Pearl from my friend, writer Mark Brandi, on national Love Your Bookshop Day, 10 August 2019

When I was living in Vientiane in the mid-1990s, I visited a Lao friend who’d recently had a baby. Although it was April, the hottest time of year, my friend wore a woollen cardigan and beanie, her skin crimson and blistering with heat. Her baby’s red face was barely visible between his own woollen beanie and blankets, his hands fastened in draw-string mittens. The windows were closed, the ceiling fans still, and a brazier of hot coals burned beneath the mother’s rattan bed.

This custom, known as ‘staying on fire’, is practiced widely throughout Southeast Asia, based on beliefs about the ‘humours’ (heat, cold, damp, dry, etc) that make up the body and the need to keep them balanced. Childbirth results in a loss of blood, thus depleting both mother and baby of heat, which must be restored with warm clothes, hot coals and a diet that, from memory, involves generous amounts of chicken. Staying on fire is believed to promote mother and baby’s health and well-being.

My novel, Mother of Pearl, which is about surrogacy, is divided into three sections that resonate with stages of the story: Preconception, Gestation and Afterbirth. But it strikes me that there is a fourth stage that follows the release of the book, which I’m starting to think of as ‘staying on fire’. This is the period when the novel receives reviews and the author makes appearances in the media and/or at events such as writers’ festivals, providing opportunities to keep promoting the work to potential readers.

Thanks largely to the work of my publisher Transit Lounge and Quikmark Media, Mother of Pearl has been reviewed in print and online (I file the reviews here) and I’ve had opportunities to talk about the novel on radio and at public events, most recently at my local bookstore, Brunswick Bound. I did readings from Mother of Pearl at the Melbourne Writers Festival, as well as regional festivals in Horsham and Apollo Bay. I’ve made dates to talk at libraries and to book clubs, and I’m continuing to pitch the work to writers’ festivals in 2020.

Mother of Pearl on display at Moreland Library as a ‘Top 10 Two Week Loan’

I’ve been fortunate to receive regular feedback from friends and peers about the novel. Just when I wonder if anyone’s reading, I’ll receive word to lift my spirits. I’m genuinely grateful to everyone who reads Mother of Pearl. Time is precious and books are plentiful, and so I don’t take the choice to read my novel for granted. And I’m doubly grateful when readers make the time to let me know when they’ve enjoyed the book. I’ve been so touched by the emails, cards, Tweets, Facebook posts, Goodreads reviews and conversations, and by the photos I’ve been sent of the book spotted in libraries and bookshops.

At the same time, I wonder if there’s more I should be doing for this book. Should I be pitching articles? Writing more posts on my own and other people’s blogs? Doing more promotion more on social media? Pitching harder for events and festivals? When other people around me are talking up their books, should I be less polite, more pushy? Should I bust a gut to get the book into the hands of influencers? A big part of my job at Writers Victoria is to promote and connect writers, to provide opportunities for them to promote their work and give it the best chance of success: am I like the physician who cannot heal themself?

Perhaps I can never do enough, but I’m following author Mark Smith’s advice and saying yes to everything in order to keep Mother of Pearl staying on fire for as long as I possibly can.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has sent some warmth my way so far.

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A shell to your ear

Since releasing my new novel Mother of Pearl on 1 August, I’ve had the great pleasure of being interviewed for several radio book shows as well as my two favourite writerly podcasts.

The Garret: Writers on Writing is, as the tagline says, a podcast ‘by writers, for writers’, helmed by Astrid Edwards. I’ve been a fan since its inception and was thrilled when Astrid invited me to be interviewed. Astrid is an insightful interviewer and reviewer, and I was delighted (and relieved!) to learn that she’d enjoyed reading Mother of Pearl. In this podcast, we talk about the transition from writing genre to literary fiction, and discuss empathy and writing. I also talk about the most common questions I get asked in my day job at Writers Victoria.

My other favourite writerly podcast is The First Time Podcast, ‘one part reality series, one part writers’ masterclass’. Co-hosted by warm and talented authors Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, I spoke with Kate about:

With Kate Mildenhall in the RMIT studios for The First Time
  • Shifting from writing crime to literary fiction (which I riff on here)
  • Writing a novel through a PhD at Monash University
With Mel Cranenburgh in the 3RRR studio for Backstory

I’ve recently subscribed to 3RRR’s Backstory podcast, a show about books, stories, the craft of writing — and the people behind the lines. And I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Melissa Cranenburgh for Backstory in August. Talking books with Melissa, on or off air, is always a pleasure. You can listen to the podcast of our interview here.

On top of all this, I was delighted to be interviewed by Barbie Robinson in the lead up to the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival. Barbie is part of Living Arts Canberra, a not-for-profit arts media company, which is the official podcaster of the Terror Australis Festival. Our interview, together with Barbie’s pleasing review of my novel The Dying Beach can be found here.

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Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival 2019

I am stoked to be part of the inaugural Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, being held in Tasmania’s exquisite Huon Valley from 31 Oct-5 Nov 2019. With the theme of ‘Murder She Wrote’, Terror Australis is a celebration of women crime fiction writers past and present.

In addition to yours truly, the stellar line-up includes Tara Moss, Marta Dusseldorp, Sulari Gentill (live from the USA), Meg Keneally, and Shamini Flint. We will be participating in a range of incisive panels (Sat 2 and Sun 3 Nov), workshops (Thurs 31 Oct and Fri 1 Nov) and festivities (Thurs 31 Oct to Sun 3 Nov).

I’ll be giving two workshops as part of the program:

Workshop: Pillars of the Profession – Developing Your Creative Writing Practice, Dr Angela Savage
9.30am-11.30am, Thurs 31 October
You’re a writer. It’s your passion, your hobby, your obsession or your vocation. You’d like to build a creative writing practice. What does that look like? What are your options? How do you take care of yourself and your practice in the longer term?
Join Dr Angela Savage, Director of Writers Victoria, to examine the fundamental questions you need to answer when designing your career pathway as a writer.
Tickets here (scroll down). Facebook event here.

Pillars of Crime – Perfecting Your Crime Fiction, Dr Angela Savage
12.30pm-2.30pm, Fri 1 November
Crime fiction appeals for its compelling plots, vicarious thrills and flawed characters. Given how popular the genre is how do you create an innovative story with a captivating premise, characters and plot?
Join Dr Angela Savage, crime fiction author and Director of Writers Victoria, to explore the elements of crime fiction, the rules of the genre and ideas for either perfecting or breaking them.
Tickets here (scroll down). Facebook event here.

I’ll also be appearing at the following panel sessions:

8.45 – 9.35 am, Sat 2 Nov
What makes a writer turn to a life of crime?
Angela Savage and David Owen explore the motives of crime fiction writers with Chris Gallagher. What draws someone to create tales of wicked, craven or horrifying human acts? And invent fictional detectives to investigate them? Is it related to the attraction crime fiction holds for readers – now the best-selling genre worldwide?
Angela is the author of the Jane Keeney, PI series and Director of Writers Victoria. David is the author of Tasmania’s much loved long-running Pufferfish series.

2.45 – 3.35 pm, Sat 2 Nov
What are the challenges of setting your story in another country and creating an authentic sense of place?
Learn how Shamini Flint and Angela Savage imbue their storyworlds with the sights, scents and sounds of a culture and landscape not their own.
Shamini is a Singaporean lawyer, children’s author and author of the Inspector Singh Investigates series set in Malaysia and, most recently, The Beijing Conspiracy, set in China. Angela is Director of Writers Victoria and author of the Jane Keeney, PI series, featuring an Australian ex-pat living and solving crime in Thailand.

8.45 – 9.35 am, Sun 3 Nov
How diverse are crime and mystery fiction authors? Is there a difference between the diversity of those who are attracted to writing in the genre and those who are published?
Introduced by Sulari Gentill, Shamini Flint and Angela Meyer explore the question of diversity in crime fiction publishing from writer and publisher perspectives in conversation with Angela Savage.
Sulari is a Ned Kelly Award winning Australian crime fiction author originally from Sri Lanka via Zambia. A panel session on ‘The Usual Suspects’ began with Sulari’s desire to explore why there seems to be little diversity in traditionally published crime fiction authors.
Shamini is one of Singapore’s best loved children’s and crime fiction authors. Angela M. is an award-winning Australian publisher with a track record of publishing diverse voices. Angela S. is the author of the Jane Keeney, PI series, Director of Writers Victoria and an avid crime fiction proponent and teacher.

1.45 – 2.35 pm, Sun 3 Nov
Who is your favourite author from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction?
Joanna Baker leads a lively discussion with her co-panellists Lindy Cameron, Shamini Flint, Jack Heath, Meg Keneally, Angela Meyer, Tara Moss, L.J.M. Owen, Tansy Rayner Roberts, David Owen and Angela Savage on the best female crime fiction writers from the last century.

I do wonder about the 8.45am starts, especially after the Murder Mystery Party: Curse of the Sphinx scheduled on the Saturday night. But I guess the organisers know what they’re doing. Or they’re trying to kill me …


Books that changed me

Being a fan of the regular column, ‘Books that changed me’ in The Sunday Age, I was delighted to be invited to submit my own list, which I managed to whittle down from around 400 to four. This post originally appeared in The Age online on August 24, 2019 — 11.45pm.

Angela Savage is the director of the Writers Victoria and author of four novels. her latest, Mother of Pearl, is published by Transit Lounge.

The Magic Brush
Jane Carruth; illus., Kei Wakana
A gift from a beloved aunt for my fourth birthday, this “Japanese tale of long ago” tells of Mahrien, who is given a beautiful paintbrush that makes everything he draws come to life. Just as Mahrien’s brush brought his imagination to life, so the story sparked mine. While I dreamed of having a magic brush, at some point, I realised I could bring things to life with words. The Magic Brush opened my four-year-old mind to the power of art.

Angela Savage says reading The English Patient was an eye-opening experience.
Angela Savage says reading The English Patient was an eye-opening experience.Credit: Suzanne Phoenix

The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
While I loved the story of four disparate characters brought together at a bombed-out Italian villa in the late stages of the Second World War, the real power of this novel was its insights into racism. There’s a scene toward the end that was the proverbial light-bulb moment for me, when Kip, the Sikh British Army sapper, learns of the bombing of Hiroshima. As the scene is entirely missing from the film version of The English Patient, you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.

The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver
The kind of novel I aspire to write. Told from multiple viewpoints, this moving and powerful story set in the Belgian Congo sheds light on history, politics and culture through an intimate family saga. In her author’s note, Barbara Kingsolver says, “I spent nearly 30 years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to write this book”. As a writer, I am greatly encouraged by this admission and the idea that good writing takes time.

Simone Lazaroo
The first novel I read by Simone Lazaroo, who swiftly became one of my favourite Australian authors, Sustenance is set in Bali and tells the story of a group of hotel workers and guests brought together in violent circumstances. The novel poses questions about how vulnerable people damaged by insensitivity and exploitation can seek redress, while reflecting more broadly on grief and hope. Reading Sustenance was like a masterclass in fiction writing. It has inspired my own writing, both in terms of structure and themes.

What are four books that changed you?

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More reviews for Mother of Pearl

I am delighted by the reviews that my novel Mother of Pearl has garnered in the first month since its release. It’s particularly exciting when reviewers really get my book — ‘hear the murmurings of your subconscious’, as Jackie French so eloquently puts it.

Marian Woolf’s review A gripping story of surrogacy, sisters and power dynamics in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald is a case in point. She writes:

Surrogacy and the complicated moral and ethical questions around commercial reproduction is a minefield. The decision to use a surrogate, to become a surrogate, or to facilitate a surrogate pregnancy, are all examined in Mother of Pearl.
However, Savage is interested in more than the individual, and uses surrogacy as a lens through which to probe the differences between Third and First World choices. She tiptoes into frustration at the inward nature of Australian charity, our generosity towards our own relatively wealthy society while seemingly immune to the already poor elsewhere.

Woolf picks up on a theme, signalled by something the main Thai character, Mukda, says early in the novel, ‘Whenever you gain, you lose’, which she describes as ‘a truth that runs through the book, bristling like a spine.’

I also appreciate the way she describes the characters as ‘believable, flawed … trying to figure out how best to navigate their hopes and dreams’, and my approach to them as ‘both unflinching and kind’. (I recently read an author whose work I admire being described as ‘unflinching’ and thought it was such a compliment!).

The final line of Woolf’s review really nails what I think the book is about.

Ultimately … Mother of Pearl is a book about relationships – between people, countries and cultures – between those who have, and those who have not.

Linda Jaivin reviewed Mother of Pearl for The Saturday Paper. As a fan of Jaivin’s writing, not to mention her intellect, I was flattered to have her review my book in the first place. I admit I held my breath when I read the line, ‘At times, each character veers dangerously close to stereotype…’ releasing a sigh of relief when she followed with, ‘But author Angela Savage is too skilful a writer to deal in clichés. As the narrative of this, her fourth novel, develops, each of the women reveals herself to be more complex and capable than she first appears.’

My favourite line of Jaivin’s review is this one:

Savage, who writes with a tough mind and tender heart, tackles the moral and ethical issues around surrogacy with an unsentimental yet sympathetic eye: this is a novel, not a polemic.

I so want to use ‘Savage writes with a tough mind and tender heart’ as the puff quote for my next book!

There was also a tender and frankly humbling review from Ken Hayley in the Courier Mail, who writes:

‘Even a hard-bitten old codger like myself found certain passages of this work tearful going … Authorial attention to technical detail combined with raw emotional honesty and cross-cultural empathy has produced a narrative of resounding depth … This book is a window opening onto an intersection of economic choices and biological imperatives. We have here a rough literary equivalent of the Mexican movie Roma, except that Savage sees the view, with equal clarity, from both sides.’

And thank you to my friends, family members and fellow writers who have taken the time to share their responses to Mother of Pearl. To know that someone has enjoyed reading your work, even been moved by it, is frankly what makes the whole writing gig worthwhile.

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MWF19 – Watching them Grow: From Page to Screen

My Melbourne Writers Festival 2019 experience started early on Saturday morning with an email from US YA author Becky Albertalli, a panellist on the ‘Watching Them Grow: From Page to Screen’ session I was chairing that afternoon, to say she had completely lost her voice, and proposing to bring her laptop and quickly type her responses to questions on stage for others to read. Fellow panellists Christos Tsiolkas and Melina Marchetta were sympathetic and quickly volunteered to help. Becky and I figured we’d do a mix of prepared and real-time responses, so I emailed her a couple of questions in advance. I also got her to send me a video recording of her introducing herself so we could play that at the start of the session and encourage audience members to imagine the answers being delivered in Becky’s New York accent.

It all worked remarkably well on the day, thanks to Becky’s positivity and professionalism and Christos and Melina’s generosity and flexibility. Indeed, when we opened to questions from the audience, the first comment was how refreshing it was to come to a writers’ festival and see writing happening on the stage!

Becky, Christos and Melina are three talented and gracious writers, all of whom acknowledged their good fortune in having their debut novels (and then some) adapted for film. Becky was hands-off in terms of writing the screenplay for Love, Simon, the 2018 adaptation of her bestselling novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Though not directly involved in the writing for Head On, the 1998 film of his 1995 novel Loaded, Christos was subsequently credited as a script consultant on the television adaptations of The Slap and Barracuda and enjoys spending time in the writers’ room. Meanwhile Melina wrote an award-winning screenplay for the 1999 adaptation of her bestselling 1992 novel Looking for Alabrandi. Despite their different levels of involvement, all three writers had similar experiences of learning to let go of aspects of their work, and entrusting their vision to other writers. And all had positive things to say about what was gained in the process of adapting their books to the screen, particularly in terms of the kind of spectacle that film makes possible.

The commonalities in their experiences serve as great advice for writers who might ever find themselves fortunate enough to have their work optioned. First, don’t get ahead of yourself — ‘take it with a grain of salt’, as Melina put it. Getting optioned and getting funded are two different processes, and it can take a long time — or not happen at all. Second, be polite, professional and cooperative. A screenwriter’s biggest nightmare is a novelist who is precious about their work. Don’t be that person. Third, while not sweating the small stuff, do figure out what is most important to you in the adaption of your work — the non-negotiable(s) — and hold fast to that. For Becky it was not allowing her characters of colour to be ‘whitewashed’. For Melina, it was avoiding stereotypes that exoticised or de-contextualised the cultural practices of Italian-Australians (she quashed attempts to open Alabrandi with a salami-making scene involving the slaughter of a pig, for example, in favour of ‘Tomato Day’, the sauce making scenes that bookend the film). Fourth, be realistic about wider constraints. Christos also spoke of respecting the realities of film budgets (viewers couldn’t follow Danny to Scotland in the TV version of Barracuda, for example, the way that readers could in the book). And because ratings affect earnings, they present important considerations, too.

It was particularly lovely to hear Becky ‘talk’ about what she thought was gained in the film Love, Simon that was absent in the book. While she mentioned the Ferris wheel scene and Halloween party among others, she reserved her highest praise for a scene between Simon (played by Nick Robinson) and his mother (played by Jennifer Gardner) that takes place after Simon has come out to his family. In the scene, Simon’s mother describes watching him as if he’s been holding his breath and finishes with ‘You get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.’ I also loved this scene, and had noted that it wasn’t in the book. It was so lovely to learn that, rather than feeling jealous or threatened, Becky both loved the scene in its own right, as well as the thought of having written something that inspired further, beautiful writing.

That empathy, and the capacity to take joy in the achievements of other artists, is what made interviewing Becky, Christos and Melina such a pleasure.

Oh, and I just finished reading Melina’s latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, prior to our session, and it is wonderful. Made me cry twice! A script is currently in production.

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