A novel virus

When I first starting reading about the emergence of a ‘novel coronavirus’, my first thought was, ‘What? Books can get it, too?’

To think, only weeks ago, I was able to make light of it.

Since then, the virus now know as COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. I am reminded of a quote I read decades ago, during my generation’s other terrible pandemic — the HIV/AIDS crisis — from a Brazilian doctor, who said words to the effect that a pandemic of this sort ‘exposes the cracks and gaps in society’s injustices.’ Certainly the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the impact of inequalities in health care systems globally, also highlighting the vulnerability of the elderly, frail and immuno-compromised.

For me personally, as a writer, COVID-19 has meant the cancellation of much anticipated (and paid) festival gigs, talks and workshops that I’d lined up to promote my 2019 release Mother of Pearl. I got to do a wonderful event at Geelong Library with Enza Gandolfo in February, and to interview Tara June Winch and Miriam Sved at Adelaide Writers Week, before COVID-19 shut everything else down. I can’t deny the disappointment of not being able to do justice to a book that took me five years to write and publish. But several festivals I would have appeared at are exploring online options; fellow writers have been generous with resources like the Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party. group on Facebook, set up by my friend Kirsten Krauth (whose new novel Almost A Mirror was released yesterday); and the writing community is helping with blog tours, and pledges to buy local books. And I’m keen to find ways to promote the work of writers I would’ve been interviewing or appearing with on what was, for me, a dream program of events.

As the manager of a small, not-for-profit arts organisation, Writers Victoria, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant sleepless nights trying to figure out how to keep people in jobs while ensuring our organisation is still afloat once the maelstrom has passed. My staff team has been amazing, and I believe we’re doing an excellent job of adapting our program to the online environment, diversifying our services, and supporting our members — the aspiring, emerging and establish writers of Victoria. I can only hope that once the pandemic takes hold, people will have the money to renew their membership and continue to purchase our services to help ensure our long-term survival.

As a chronic extrovert who loves to socialise, I find social distancing (which I take very seriously) and particularly the current lockdown to be deeply challenging. Indeed, when my partner announced some weeks ago at the dinner table that COVID-19 could be transmitted by hugging and kissing, Miss Fourteen responded with, ‘Well, Mum’s f**ked.’ I’m grateful for the technology that enables me to drink wine with friends on Zoom, see my father’s face when I talk to him, laugh at the genius and creativity shown by others in response to the pandemic (the Marsh family being a favourite). But I miss not being able to hug my friends.

The last person I socialised with while it was still legal in Victoria (and at a safe social distance) was my cousin Mary, who shared with me a great idea to help get through these difficult times. Every time you wish you could do something that’s not possible due to COVID-19, write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a jar. Then once we get through this, start working through your wish list. I started mine on Monday with the note, ‘Hug Mary’. Four days later, there are already five slips of paper in my jar. Luckily I have a big jar.

Do you have any tips for getting through these troubled times?



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Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 Program

I’m thrilled to be part of the program for the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, to be held in Healesville from Fri 8 – Sun 10 May. The star-studded festival line-up includes Tony Birch, Helen Garner, Alice Pung, Christos Tsiolkas, David Williamson and Charlotte Wood–just to name a few.

I’m particularly excited about this festival as I will be appearing at three events,  representing different aspects of my literary career.

First up, toting my crime writing credentials, I’ll be appearing on the panel, ‘If I Tell You I’m Going To Have To Kill You’, part of The Crime Centre at Healesville Library, with the Godfather of Australian crime fiction, Garry Disher, and rising star Mark Brandi; Kylie Ladd will be our convenor.

In the afternoon, I’ll be joining Meg Mundell and Alice Robinson, two writers whose work I greatly admire, on a panel called ‘The Issues Novel’–an idea I pitched to the festival–where I’ll be talking about my latest (non-genre) novel, Mother of Pearl. Mark Brandi will be our interviewer.

For my third session, I’ll be wearing my  interviewer hat and talking with Christos Tsiolkas about his latest novel in a session aptly titled, ‘Road to Damascus‘.

In between, I’m hoping to catch sessions with Tony Birch, Jock Serong, Chris Flynn, Robert Gott, Alice Bishop, Charlotte Wood, Emma Viskic–assuming I can master the skill of bilocation before 8 May! You know it’s a great program when you have trouble choosing between concurrent sessions. Congratulations to Festival Director Brook Powell and Festival Programmer Hannie Rayson on putting together such a great program.

The full program is here and my session details are below. Hope to see you there.

Sat 9 May, 11.00AM-12.00PM
The Crime Centre @Healesville Library
If I Tell You I’m Going To Have To Kill You
With Angela Savage, Garry Disher + Mark Brandi
Convenor: Kylie Ladd

Sat 9 May, 3.00PM – 3.45PM
The Meeting Room
The Issues Novel
Angela Savage, Meg Mundell & Alice Robinson
Convenor: Mark Brandi

Sat 9 May, 5.00PM-6.00PM
MEMO Main Stage
Road to Damascus
Christos Tsiolkas
Convenor: Angela Savage

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Adelaide Writers Week 2020 Program

I am thrilled to be on the Adelaide Writers Week program as an interviewer for the third consecutive year. I’ve fallen in love with this festival since first attending in 2018 and look forward to participating both as a chair and as an audience member.

First up, I will be interviewing award-winning Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch about her latest novel, The Yield. I am currently reading my way through Tara’s breathtaking novels in preparation. Details:

Sat 29 Feb, 9.30AM, West Stage
The Yield
As Albert Gondiwindi’s family gathers to mourn his death, his returning granddaughter August is forced to confront past trauma, both personal and colonial. But she also discovers her Poppy’s last big project, the chronicling of his life through the language of his people, the Wiradjuri. Tara June Winch burst on the literary scene with her dazzling debut, Swallow the Air. Her stunning new novel, The Yield – sad and angry, wise and uplifting – documents both the power of Indigenous language, and, uniquely, the language itself.

My second session is with Miriam Sved, whose novel A Universe of Sufficient Size is set in Prague in 1938 and Sydney in 2007, with a couple of forays to Brooklyn in the 1950s. I loved this book about friendship, loyalty and sacrifice, and never thought I’d be so moved by a story with complex mathematics at its heart. I’m really looking forward to interviewing Miriam about it. Details:

Sun 1 Mar, 9.30AM, West Stage
A Universe of Sufficient Size
Alternating between contemporary Australia and a vividly evoked pre-war Europe, Miriam Sved’s interwoven narratives are linked by the compelling and brilliant Eszter. A young Jewish mathematician in 1938 Hungary and the irascible newly widowed mother of Illy in 2007 Sydney, Eszter is based on the author’s real life grandmother. The remarkable A Universe of Sufficient Size is simultaneously a generational saga, a study of trauma, an homage to familial love and a celebration of the mysterious beauty of mathematics.

If you’re heading to Adelaide Writers Week, feel free to leave a comment about what sessions you’re looking forward to.

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Out of the starting gate

Escher jigsaw: a distraction in troubled times

It has been a tumultuous start to the new year/decade, as Australia suffers through an unparalleled bushfire crisis, the fate of entire communities–human and animal–subject to the vagaries of a sudden wind change, a random lightning strike. Of course, for those who have studied climate change, there is nothing sudden nor random about the current crisis. And it feels as though everyone is affected. We have loved ones in bushfire affected zones (my mother has been evacuated from her home on the NSW south coast four times since New Year’s Eve; a dear friend’s family home miraculously survived the firestorm in Batlow). Even distant from the fires, we suffer the effects of poor air quality caused by smoke and transport restrictions. We try to stave off despair in the face of huge losses (including threatened extinctions) and do whatever we can to help affected communities.

For my part, I joined the #AuthorsForFireys initiative earlier this month, a Twitter-based auction devised by YA writers Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, which saw over 800 writers, editors, illustrators and other artists donate their time, works, support and skills to raise funds for the Country Fire Authority and other bushfire appeals. My own offering of a mentoring meeting raised $600 for the CFA.

I also successfully bid on a bespoke bag by Emma Bowd at DEED bags to be modelled on the cover of my novel Mother of Pearl, and a set of writing exercises devised by author Penni Russon. At the time of writing, the auction had raised nearly half a million dollars – an extraordinary outcome from a group of artists not exactly renowned for our disposable income!

My chief source of distraction at this time of year are jigsaw puzzles. Last summer, I tackled a puzzle of MC Escher’s ‘Bond of Union’, which took me 19 days and nearly did my head in. I swore I’d never try another Escher. But desperate times call for desperate measures – I needed something completely absorbing – and so to Escher’s ‘Concave and Convex’. This one only took 10 days – a new personal best. Solving puzzles like these provides me with respite from the chaos, and allows me to indulge in the brief fantasy that hard work delivers results.

My other escape is reading, and the year/decade is off to a great start in this respect, with three books by Australian women. Lucy Treloar’s exquisite Wolfe Island saw me out of 2019 and into 2020. Emma Viskic’s Darkness for Light was the perfect beach read. And Miriam Sved’s A Universe of Sufficient Size currently has me in its thrall.

In other news, my first author event for the year/decade is an Author Encounter at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre on Tues 4 Feb, 6.30-7.30PM, where I will be talking about my novel Mother of Pearl with Enza Gandolfo. This is actually my first event dedicated to this novel. I’ve done a couple of shared panels since the release of Mother of Pearl, mostly public readings. The Geelong Author Encounter will be the first in-depth conversation about this novel and its themes. And I’m delighted that Enza, a writer and thinker whose work I greatly admire, will be interrogating me. The event is free but you can book here.

I have a few other festival events coming up, but the details are under embargo until the programs are released. Watch this space…


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Reading Bingo 2019

It’s that time of year again: time to play Reading Bingo. For newcomers to this blog, Reading Bingo is a framework I use for reflecting on my year of reading. It’s a friendlier format for me than a ‘Best of…’ list, as heading up the state’s peak body for writers makes choosing favourite books inadvisable, if not impossible. The down side is that I don’t always get to mention every book I’ve loved.

To that end, I’ve decided not to be too bound by what’s in the squares, but to bend them a little to suit my purposes. Does this make me a bingo cheat?–I’ll leave it to you to decide.

For the record, I read 58 books in 2019, a jump on previous years, but nowhere near the number read by the front-runners in the competitive reading challenge that I’m part of at The Wheeler Centre.

A book with more than 500 pages
I didn’t read any books of more than 500 pages this year. Instead, I’m using this square to highlight a concise book that I was delighted to puff (write a brief cover quote). Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize, The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre is translated from the French by Stephanie Smee. Pitched as ‘the female Breaking Bad’, the eponymous narrator is 53-year-old widow Patience Portefeux, a French-Arabic translator, who, tiring of a life of financial stress, decides to intercept a drug deal she learns about during her phone tapping police work. Set in the multicultural maelstrom of the Paris suburbs, The Godmother packs visceral thrills and dark comedy into a mere 170 pages. I can’t wait for the movie version starring Isabelle Huppert.

A forgotten classic
I don’t know if Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds is a ‘forgotten’ classic, but it’s certainly a classic. I read both this and her 2019 release, Exploded View, before interviewing Carrie at Adelaide Writers Week earlier this year. I feel fortunate that we became friends before I read her work or I might have been too intimidated to speak with her. She is an unflinching writer, revealing tough emotional truth in exquisite prose. Described as a novel about ‘young lust and mature love’, Mateship with Birds is set in 1950s rural Australia and tells of the relationships that develop when lonely farmer and bird enthusiast Harry takes Michael, the son of single mother Betty, under his wing (no pun intended).

A book that become a movie
I had the great pleasure of chairing a panel at Melbourne Writers Festival called ‘Watching Them Grow: From Page to Screen’, which brought together Becky Albertalli, Melina Marchetta and Christos Tsiolkas to talk about the joys and challenges of adaption. It was a fascinating and insightful discussion, despite the fact that Becky had completely lost her voice. Instead, she typed her responses to questions, which Christos and Melina took turns to read aloud. (Someone in the audience later quipped that it was the first writers festival they’d been to where actual writing took place on stage!). I’d seen (and loved) the film Love, Simon, and the book on which it is based, Simon Vs The Homosapiens Agenda, is every bit as delightful: a gay teen romance with a lovable, flawed protagonist whose family and friends adore him.

A book published this year
More than half the books I read this year were published in 2019. One I had the pleasure of launching was Room for A Stranger, award-winning short story writer Melanie Cheng’s debut novel. In Room for a Stranger, septuagenarian Meg, last surviving member of her small family, takes in Andy, a 19-year-old overseas student from Hong Kong who is struggling with his medical studies. What Meg and Andy learn about themselves through each other has implications for relationships beyond the boundaries of Meg’s none-too-tidy house with ‘its armchairs with cushions moulded into the shape of ghosts’. Cheng writes with compassion and empathy about people who aren’t often protagonists of literary fiction. Room for a Stranger also has one of the best closing paragraphs ever.

A book with a number in the title
For this square, I’m nominating Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, edited by Michael Earp. A labour of love on Michael’s part, this engaging collection includes stories by Christos Tsiolkas, Claire Coleman, Benjamin Law, Marlee Jane Ward and my Writers Victoria colleague Jax Jacki Brown. The strength of the collection is in its diversity in all forms, including genre. I particularly enjoyed Marlee Jane Ward’s spec fic story ‘Rats’, set around (and beneath) the State Library Victoria building where I work ; and Claire Coleman’s ‘Sweet’ which imagines a future in which identifying as ‘gendered’ is a social crime. Christos Tsiolkas’s story ‘Laura Nyro at the Wedding’ may make you cry.                                                                                                                                          

A book written by an author under thirty
Vietnamese Australian writer Joey Bui first caught my attention with her writing in Voiceworks, the Express Media magazine devoted to publishing younger writers. Now, at a mere 25 years of age, Bui has published Lucky Ticket, an impressive debut collection of short stories, based on interviews with migrants around the world. With echoes of Nam Le, who is clearly a major influence (one story is dedicated to him), Bui’s stories are told in vastly different but distinctive voices, with settings ranging from Saigon to Melbourne at the United Arab Emirates. The writing is assured and fearless. The title story, ‘Lucky Ticket’ reminded me of living in Vietnam in the 1990s, while furnishing me with insights I could never gain as an outsider.

A book with non-human characters
‘Do we spend our lives managing the tensions between these two worlds of fantasy and the literal?’ asks the narrator in Tom Cho’s short story, ‘Cock Rock’. Cho doesn’t manage the these tensions so much as atomise them in his 2009 collection, Look Who’s Morphing. The stories feature multiple non-human characters. In ‘I, Robot’, the narrator, a low-income earner, is converted into a robot under a government employment program. In Pinocchio, the narrator is transformed into a Muppet. In the titular story, the narrator morphs into a ‘giant reptilian creature…exactly like Godzilla, except that I also had a combination of the best qualities of the world’s lizards.’ Bizarre, mind-bending fun.

A funny book
Another 2019 release I had the great pleasure of launching was Nick Gadd’s Death of a Typographer, a murder mystery about typography, featuring a lead character with a special sensitivity to fonts, a Dutch design genius, a hard-boiled private font detective, and a Benedictine monk among others. I read the novel while on holiday in Japan, which turned out to be a problem as my laughter kept waking the family members with whom I was sharing a hotel room. As I noted in my launch speech, there’s a high degree of difficulty involved in writing fiction that is both clever and funny, and in which the humour is entirely without malice–what I call Comic Sans cruelty (pun intended)–and Nick totally pulls this off. For crime fiction fans, as well as lovers of language, design and puns.

A book by a female author
I read more books than usual by male writers this year, though books by women writers still made up for than 62% of my list (36 out of 58 titles). One I’ll mention here is The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta, which centres around the complex relationship between two women, twenty-something Rosie Gennaro, and Martha, the woman whom Rosie’s father Seb married less than a year after the death of her mother. Seb’s death has left the two women at a stand-off, both living in the place on Dalhousie but by no means sharing it. Into this fraught dynamic comes Jimmy Hailler, who, when Rosie meets him earlier in flooded north Queensland town, ‘looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls’. Warm, compassionate and authentic, The Place on Dalhousie made me cry. Twice.

A book with a mystery
I read 17 crime novels in 2019, just under 30% of my total reads. Among a number of great books, Anna George’s The Lone Child is the one that has stayed with me most vividly, a tense, atmospheric and unsettling story set in coastal Victoria. The central character, Neve, is struggling to adjust to life as a single mother after her partner abandoned her during her pregnancy. Retreating to her beach-side holiday house with her infant son, Neve becomes drawn to a young girl, Jessie, whose own mother’s struggles include homelessness and poverty. A novel about class, judgment and the disorienting effects of motherhood, I was not surprised when The Lone Child was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award.

A book with a one word title
Fun fact: I read nine books in 2019 with a one word title. For this bingo square, I’m singling out Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, a novel that kept me enthralled, even as it unnerved me. Set in Tasmania, Wintering centres on the story of Jessica Weir, a glow-worm scientist (the descriptions of her cave worksite are exquisite), whose partner Matthew disappears on a rural road one night. The book’s Gothic, mystery, horror, erotic and social realist elements defy categorisation–one reviewer describes Wintering as ‘at once a supernatural thriller and a sharp meditation on the legacy abusive men leave behind’–while Kneen’s prose is breathtaking. Creepy never read so beautifully.

A book of short stories
I met Alice Bishop when we were both interviewed on 3CR radio’s Published or Not and, after hearing her read from A Constant Hum, I impulsively suggested we swap books–and I’m so glad I did. A Constant Hum is collection of short stories, some of them mere fragments, inspired by the events of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Somehow, Bishop manages to write beautifully about terrible events, bringing to life both the horror of the catastrophe and the reverberations that are felt for years by affected individuals and communities. ‘Soft News’ was a stand out for me, a single page of powerful storytelling. With bushfires raging throughout the country as I write, A Constant Hum is timely, if terrifying. Also recommended: Alice Bishop’s interview on The First Time Podcast.

A free square
This year’s free square is dedicated to the latest work by my partner Andrew Nette, co-edited with Iain McIntyre, Sticking It To The Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980. A gorgeous, full-colour production, Sticking It To The Man examines how major social and cultural upheavals–such as the civil rights movement, gay liberation, feminism, antiwar activism–manifested in popular fiction, by authors both in favour of and opposed to these social disruptions. The anthology includes profiles on individual authors, scholarly articles and reviews, offering fascinating historical and popular culture insights.

A book set on another continent
I read a greater proportion of novels by Australian authors in 2019 than usual at 39 out of 58 (67%), though 11 of these were set at least partly outside Australia. The next most common setting for novels I read was Japan, which I visited for the first time in September. But the book I want to mention here is Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, released this year. As sprawling and beguiling as the Thai capital itself, Bangkok Wakes To Rain is a multi-generational novel told across multiple periods in time, including a near future in which the city is permanently flooded. A novel about belonging and estrangement, memory and forgetting, Bangkok Wakes to Rain brings recent Thai history to life in exhilarating prose.

A book of non-fiction
I read six works of non-fiction this year, all of them so excellent, I am going to list them here: The Genius of Birds – Jennifer Ackerman, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire – Chloe Hooper, Imperfect – Lee Kofman, Sticking it to the Man – Andrew Nette & Iain McIntye eds; Close to Home – Alice Pung; and Axiomatic – Maria Tumarkin. Having just spent Christmas with my mother on south coast New South Wales, where I spent more time watching native birds in the birdbath (satin bowerbirds, crimson rosellas, king parrots, Eastern spinebills, fantails, etc) than watching TV, The Genius of Birds has a special resonance. Read this and you’ll never use the term ‘bird-brain’ as an insult ever again.

The first book by a favourite author
Christos Tsiolkas is one of my favourite authors (as well as one of my favouite people!). This year, I re-read his 1995 debut Loaded in preparation for our Melbourne Writers Festival panel on adaptation from page to screen. I later said to him I’d forgotten what a sad story it is. Christos’s 2019 release, Damascus, explores how Christianity took hold as a world religion through the story of St Paul and his contemporaries in the ancient world. At its heart, though, Damascus is a contemporary novel, in which Christos explores class, gender, politics and ethics—as he does in Loaded, albeit in the very different context of 1990s Melbourne. Also recommended: Christos Tsiolkas’s interview on The Garrett Podcast.

A book you heard about online
Host of Three Triple RRR’s Backstory, Mel Cranenburgh, raved about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman on Instagram. So when I came upon it in Tokyo’s fabulous Daikanyama Tsutaya Books (T-Site), I snapped it up. The story is narrated (not always reliably) by Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old, single woman who faces considerable pressure to aspire to something more than her job as a convenience store attendant, which she finds deeply satisfying. This witty, concise, quirky novel renewed my respect for both cultural outliers, and the significance of the combini (convenience store) in Japanese society.

A bestselling book
Boy Swallows Universe is one of those books I put off reading due to a (misguided) distrust of best-sellers. But when Brian Nankervis chose it for his book club session at Melbourne Writers Festival, I agreed to chair so as to have an excuse to read Trent Dalton’s much vaunted debut. And I’m not ashamed to say I loved it! Set in 1980s Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe is narrated by teenager Eli Bell, whose brother August refuses to speak, whose mother is in prison, and whose father might as well be. Eli’s babysitter, Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday (who gets some of my favourite lines), is an infamous ex-con. With memorable characters, evocative settings and a story filled with humour, pathos and narrative surprises, Boy Swallows Universe is a book with a huge heart, which dares to suggest that love will always trump violence.

A book based on a true story
The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic is based on the true story of the unsolved 1930 murder of Mary ‘Molly’ Winifred Dean. In an author’s note, Kovacic outlines the bones of the story, onto which she puts fictional flesh in this engaging debut. Set in Melbourne, the narrative alternates between Molly Dean’s last days in 1930, and 1999, when art dealer Alex Clayton comes across a lost portrait of Dean, painted by Colin Colahan, Dean’s real-life boyfriend. As Alex investigates the provenance of the painting and learns more about Dean’s untimely death, it becomes clear that she is not the only person interested in the portrait. Intriguing and convincing, with two Melbourne eras skillfully evoked.

A book at the bottom of your to be read pile
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins had been on my TBR pile/towering stack since it was released in early 2018, but a rave review by Sue Penhall (mother of Mindhunter creator Joe Penhall), who volunteers with me at Writers Victoria, bumped the book up the pile and into my hands. Set during a freezing winter in England in 1962, the story centres on 17-year-old Radford, who is sent to Goodwin Manor, an isolated country house for boys who have been ‘found by trouble’, all of whom–like Radford–have something to hide. Recommending it as his favourite debut on The First Time Podcast, author Ben Hobson called The Everlasting Sunday ‘a very profound and beautiful piece of art’ and I’m inclined to agree.

A book your friend loves
Less by Andrew Sean Greer was recommended to me by the above mentioned Nick Gadd. Arthur Less, nearing fifty, is dismayed to learn that his boyfriend of nine years plans to marry someone else. In order to avoid the wedding, Less accepts random invitations to attend literary events and sets off on a journey that takes him around the world and back again in search of love and understanding. Greer’s use of language is striking and beautiful (‘Freddie put on his red glasses, and in each aquarium a little blue fish swam’) and Arthur Less is a character you just want to hug–though you might have to settle for a pat on the shoulder. Both satirical and lyrical, the novel left me wanting more Less.

A book that scares you
The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson was one of my stand out reads for 2019. The reason it scares me is because it brought climate change to life in a more visceral way than anything else I’ve read. This is partly because, unusually for a dystopian novel, a relationship between a mother and daughter is central to the story–and I could imagine fighting for my own daughter the way Isobel fights for her three-year-old Matilda. It’s also a feature of Robinson’s narrative structure, which alternates between familiarity of contemporary Melbourne, and a near future in which climate change—in this case, catastrophic flooding—has caused the city to fail, transforming the MCG into a refugee camp. Winner of the 2019 Readings Prize for New Fiction, The Glad Shout is powerful, moving and all too real.

A book that is more than 10 years old
Double Indemnity by James M Cain was Robert Gott’s choice for ‘CSI: Crime Story Investigation’, a series that Writers Victoria ran in the first half of 2019 on classic crime fiction for writers. Published in 1936 (and filmed in 1944), Robert admitted that Double Indemnity ‘is not a great novel…but I love it.’ Cain himself was said not to like it and only wrote it to cash in on the success of 1934’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Whatever it’s problems, I greatly enjoyed reading this concise noir. After all, how can you resist a line like, ‘I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.’ Honorable mention, too, to Robert Gott’s 2019 novel, The Autumn Murders, which looks at the rise of extremism in 1940s Melbourne.

A book with a blue cover
There were quite a few books with blue covers among my 2019 reads, but the one I’m mentioning here is Past The Shallows by Pavel Parrettnot because of its blue cover, but because it is such a sad and beautiful read. Set on the remote southern coast of Tasmania, the story centres on three boys, Joe, Miles and Harry, and their volatile father, who ekes out a living as a fisherman. Joe moves out to avoid his father’s violence, leaving Miles to protect the youngest, Harry, whose sensitivity to the natural world only seems to inflame their father’s rage. The sense of place is deeply evocative, the tragedy all the more poignant due to the credibility of the characters. I read with my heart in my throat as the story built to a heartbreaking climax.

And that’s my Reading Bingo for 2019. But I can’t finish up without mentioning a poetry collection that I read this year, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, by Andy Jackson. In recent years, I haven’t been a big reader of poetry, though this could be set to change, thanks largely to Andy’s work. Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold is a series of portraits of people–both historical figures, some in Andy’s own circle–with or reputed to have had Marfan Syndrome. As Andy notes at the front of the collection, ‘Marfan troubles the boundaries between ‘disability’ and ‘extraordinary ability’, and illustrates the complex relationship between the individual body and the social world.’ It was a thrill to hear Andy read from this work on festival panels in Horsham and Melbourne in 2019, and to watch audiences come under his spell.

My summer reading isn’t a pile so much as three teetering towers of books. I suspect some cold-blooded de-cluttering is in order. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to are Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men and A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved. And I’ll probably be seeing in the New Year with Lucy Treloar’s wonderful Wolfe Island.

What about you? What are your stand out reads for 2019 and TBR toppers for 2020?


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2019 Literary Events In Review

Inspired by a tweet from my friend and fellow author Lee Kofman, I thought I’d tally up my literary events for 2019 in the interests of record keeping. I haven’t included events I attended primarily as part of my day job, although in some cases, I was invited in both my capacity as Director at Writers Victoria and as an author. Here are the stats.

1 = Number of books I launched written by me
4 = Number of books I launched written by other writers
5 = Festival panels where I appeared as a guest
7 = Festival panels where I appeared as interviewer
3 = Festival panels where I appeared as both interviewer and interviewee
3 = ‘In conversation’ events where I was interviewee
5 = ‘In conversation’ events where I was interviewer
4 = Keynotes/lectures given
6 = Radio/podcasts recorded
6 = Workshops delivered

All up, that’s 44 events for the year (a few short of Lee’s impressive 55!), an average of nearly four per month. Might explain why I feel a little tired!

The books I had the honour of launching this year were Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng, Death of a Typographer by Nick Gadd, Present Tense by Natalie Conyer, and Peace by Garry Disher–all books I can heartily recommend. And while Stuart Kells did the main honours, I was also delighted to help my partner Andrew Nette launch a wonderful new anthology co-edited with Iain McIntyre, Sticking It To The Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction 1950 to 1980. I celebrated a further 12 launches, sat in the audience at 25 festival panels, and attended 19 other literary events outside of work. I also conducted 12 mentoring sessions, including some on my morning commute on the train (we called it ‘Mentoring on the Move’).

Among my favourite events for the year were the ‘Celebrating Victorian Writers’ panels convened as part of Writers Victoria’s 30th anniversary celebrations. In Horsham in Victoria’s Wimmera region, as part of the Art Is… festival, I appeared as participating chair on a panel with Robert Gott, Andy Jackson and Ingrid Laguna. At Apollo Bay Word Fest on the Great Ocean Road, my co-panellists were Mark Brandi, Bram Presser and Anna Snoekstra. And at Melbourne Writers Festival, I got to share the stage with Melanie Cheng, Andy Jackson and Christos Tsiolkas. (These were only three of some 14 festival panels that Writers Victoria curated during the year). The ‘Celebrating Victorian Writers’ format entailed a brief Q&A with each writer to provide insight into their background, and context for a piece of writing they then read aloud. Audiences responded warmly to the panels, enjoying both the public readings, and the variety of work and genres showcased. Andy’s poetry readings had a particularly significant impact on audiences. Having started the year reading his exquisite poetry collection Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, it has been an unexpected delight to work with Andy at Writers Victoria and appear alongside him on these panels.

It was a treat to appear at the inaugural Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival in Cygnet, Tasmania, in Oct-Nov; and to return to festivals I love, such as Adelaide Writers Week, Queenscliffe Literary Festival, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, and Word for Word National Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong.

My final literary event for the year was one of my favourites ever, an ‘in conversation’ in Moruya, NSW, with my friend Christos Tsiolkas, talking about his new novel Damascus, my novel Mother of Pearl, literary friendships, writing processes and how to live an ethical life without religion. Moruya is my mother’s hometown, and I wanted this event to be special for her sake, not to mention for the sake of the 120 people who bought tickets to see us. And it was special: we enjoyed warm hospitality and the company of an attentive and thoughtful audience, and even managed to bring a brief dousing of rain to the drought stricken town!

Some of my best writerly times of the year, though, were not public events but lunches, dinners and other social gatherings with writer friends. Indeed, my antidote to the blues is to reflect on the wonderful writers I know, whom I’m honoured to call my friends. As Julie Andrews (aka Maria Von Trapp) would say, ‘Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.’

What does 2020 hold? — While I’m not at liberty to go into detail, I hope to appear at a few festivals as an moderator/interviewer and, if I’m lucky, as a guest artist, too. My first workshop for the new year is slated for 21 January, a motivation session to inspire participants to stop talking about writing and start actually writing.

Speaking of actually writing, I wouldn’t mind a bit more of that myself in 2020.

Stay tuned for a post on my reading for 2019 and reading goals for 2020.

Meanwhile, what was your favourite literary event of 2019?

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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 …