A Chat with Mary Langer Thompson

Skink

As we go through life’s journey, there’s no shortage of lessons to be learned. Further, we never know who the messenger will be that’s going to deliver the advice and guidance we need to become our better selves. Sometimes it’s a parent or teacher. Sometimes it’s a total stranger. And who knows? Sometimes new wisdom comes to us in a completely unexpected form. A skink, for instance. Mary Langer Thompson, author of How the Blue-Tongued Skink Got His Blue Tongue, introduces us to her intrepid reptilian protagonist, Dinky, and shares insights on how her own journey as an educator and a writer first began.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Many an educator I’ve met chose to follow this particular career path because of a longstanding family lineage in academia or the influence of a favorite teacher when s/he was growing up. Who or what made you decide that becoming a teacher was what you wanted to do?

A: My mother was an elementary teacher, but it wasn’t until my 12th grade high school English teacher, Carroll Irwin of Hoover High School in Glendale, California, made me fall in love with English literature so that I became an English major in college and wanted to be a high school teacher like her. I corresponded with Miss Irwin before she passed away last year.

Q: As an adolescent and then a teen, was writing always your best subject?

A: No, some of my former English teachers used to read my papers aloud about what not to do, so it wasn’t until I mastered the five-paragraph essay and learned to give support for everything I said that I was any good at writing. Miss Irwin made us rewrite every single paper, and taught me that writing is rewriting.

Q: What books/authors might we have found on the nightstand of your younger self?

A: Nancy Drew books until I started sneaking into my older brother’s room when he wasn’t there to check out his bookshelf. I was in fifth grade when I discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti (this was poetry? Wow!), Allen Ginsberg, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and authors like James Baldwin.

Q: Do you have a favorite children’s book?

A: When I was about 5 or 6, I got Scarlet Fever, which was serious in the early 1950’s. My mother and I were quarantined. She read her childhood favorite to me, Alice and The Teenie Weenies by William Donahey, now out of print, about characters three inches tall. She found and gave me that book not so long ago.

Q: Is there a famous author (living or dead) you’d most like to have dinner with?

A: I was asked this question before I was selected for jury duty once, and my answer is the same: Helen Keller. Although deaf and blind, her achievements in writing and speaking were incredible, and I’d love to ask her about her memories of her teacher and later friend, Annie Sullivan.

Q: In what ways did teaching (high school English) influence your writing and vice versa?

A: I was privileged to return to teach for a time at my alma mater in the 70’s, the days of the electives and so broadened my reading.  I taught Science Fiction, Mystery and Detective, Mass Media, Short Story, and because the curriculum was new, I wrote articles for English Journal, Media and Methods, California English and other educational journals. That’s when I started writing for publication.

Q: You moved from being in the classroom to becoming a public school principal. Although the latter still gave you access to and interaction with students, what were some of the transitional challenges of overseeing the activities and ethics of teachers versus the daily responsibility of assigning and reviewing homework?

A: I had been an assistant principal and thought I was well prepared, having worked closely with principals, being their right-hand person. By the time I became a principal I think the challenges with teachers were mainly generational. The teachers dressed more casually, some had nose piercings, purple hair, tongue rings, and many of the parents, even the ones their age, objected. Plus, we were opening a brand new school!  I had to have a lot of kindly talks and many times felt I was more a mother than a principal. One union rep told me I had “crossed over” (from being a teacher) and the teacher didn’t have to listen to me. However, I was in a new-to-me, poverty area, so I sympathized with the teachers because their job was hard in many ways and I didn’t want to lose them. I believed I was there to help them grow and develop but some of my bosses didn’t agree! The district was low-scoring and they didn’t feel we had time for growth and development. There was a lot of pressure. I believe it’s one of the reasons why California has a teacher shortage now.

Q: Your impressive list of publishing credits is primarily in the arena of poetry and essays. What made you decide to write your first children’s book?

A: When I retired, I joined the California Writers Club, High Desert Branch, and no one claimed to write poetry, so in order to stay in my critique group, I brushed off a children’s story I had been toying with. The club was going to have a reading at our local Barnes and Noble and approached me. I said, “Sure, I can read some poems,” and the answer was, “We don’t want your poems, we want you to read that children’s story you wrote!”

Q: Dogs, cats, horses and rabbits have long been popular stars of children’s literature. Centerstage in your book is a skink. Though it sounds like a made-up word, it’s a real animal native to Australia. When did the story of Dinky the Skink first take shape for you?

A: Quite a long time ago, in the 90’s, a friend having financial trouble called and said they had sold a pet skink to make that month’s house payment. I had never heard of a blue-tongued skink, Googled it, and up popped one in a picture with its blue tongue aimed right at me. I remember I had visited Australia on one of my husband’s business trips in 1980 and shopped all the book stores in Sydney for Australian children’s books to bring home to my then 5-year old son. I used to read to him every night. There weren’t that many Australian children’s books. One I brought back about a dingo dog scared him silly. An animal having a blue tongue is exotic, and so I tried to imagine for a long time how a skink might have gotten a tongue that color.

Q: Tell us about the story’s setting and why it works effectively as Dinky’s adventure unfolds.

A: Skinks are reptiles which led me to think of snakes. Snakes may not be liked by everyone, but they are fascinating. I remembered how I was teaching John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” to a tenth grade Honor’s class once and the author refers to “The Garden” in the first paragraph. My Honor’s students didn’t get the allusion which I couldn’t believe because they knew all about other mythological stories. How were they going to understand American Lit in eleventh grade? So I decided to set my story in The Garden with a “Know What’s What Tree.”

Q: What do you want your readers to take away from your book?

A: Dinky the skink is bullied in all the ways kids and even adults are bullied—shunning, physical violence, name-calling, and more, yet he stands up to the bully, becoming a hero, and in the process obtaining a blue tongue. Dinky warns the bully that choices can go two ways, so I want to leave kids with the message that they can stand up to bullies and our choices in life are all-important.

Q: The title was recently made available in Spanish. Any particular reason? And are there any plans for future translations of a story with such a universal—and timeless—theme?

A:  In the second year of my principalship, I opened a Spanish dual-immersion school, a school within a school, that is now going into its 12th year and is the only elementary dual immersion school in the high desert. I translated the book mainly for Spanish-speaking children learning English. Because I taught in Glendale and was an English as a Second Language specialist there for a time, I am looking for someone to translate the book into Armenian as well.

Q: On your website you have a short list of favorite quotes. Among them is one by Carl Gustav Jung which states, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” How and why does this quote personally resonate with you?

A: I think it is frustrating to the point of agonizing to have moments of grief or joy or even entertaining things happen to a person and for them not to have someone to share their story with. It can even lead to anger. My essay for Christina Hamlett’s anthology, Finding Mr. Right, was the result of someone contacting me after 40 years to tell the story of our time together years before. He had led an adventurous life and was looking for people with the skills to help him write it. Within my writer’s club, I am the director of the Dorothy C. Blakely Memoir Project, which is going into its third year this fall. We help high school students tell the stories of the lives of people over 50, and then publish the stories. We have a book launch party at the end of the year and the “Memoir Stars” are so happy their life stories are so valued.

Q: Retiring from a day job and becoming a full-time writer obviously has an impact on one’s self-esteem, outlook, time management, creativity, etc. Family members, though, certainly aren’t immune to the ripple effect of a loved one suddenly spending copious hours at a keyboard and engaging in conversations with the characters in her head. How has your own family responded to your full-time career as an author?

A:  Striving for balance can be difficult. However, with the publication of my children’s book, my husband became a publishing partner and began Another Think Coming Press, and my grown son, Matthew, suggested kids eat blue raspberry Tootsie Pops while they read so their own tongues turn blue. Some kids have sent me pictures of their blue tongues. He also bought me a skink cookie cutter. So now the whole family’s involved with suggestions for future Dinky stories and we’re all feeling a part of Dinky’s success.

Q: When you’re not at the keyboard, what do you like to do for fun?

A: If I’m not writing, I’m reading or traveling with my husband, Dave. We’re planning a trip to Yellowstone this year. We traveled to Arizona to the Tucson Book Festival earlier this year to sell books and to see friends and family on the way.

Q: Tell us about your participation in the California Writers Club and how it supports and nurtures the wordsmithing of its members.

A: When I joined the high desert branch in 2009, we were about to lose our charter at 15 members, the minimum. Since then we have built it up to over 100 members. I have been on the   board, led critique groups and salons, and taught writing workshops in schools, colleges and the federal prison, in addition to directing the Dorothy C. Blakely Memoir Project. We meet once a month and have wonderful outside speakers like Christina Hamlett come and give us tips for writing and publishing. We support each other, and always have someone to call when we need advice.

Q: Any savvy advice for new writers whose journey on the road to publication is just starting?

A: Find a supportive critique group, don’t give up your day job, and get connected on social media.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I have another children’s book, another poetry book, a young adult novel and a memoir in the works. I’ll continue to write book reviews for Middleweb, an educational website for middle school educators and San Diego Book Review and Amazon.com.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: If you want to help authors of books you love, there’s no better way than to write a review on Amazon.com. Of course I appreciate this interview, as well. Thank you!

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: You can find me on Facebook and learn more about my poetry on home.earthlink.net/~ml_thompson/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Final Round: The Journey of a Lifetime

 

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Dave’s facing death. Sol’s truck runs into a tree. Two very different males are thrust together in the same ward with life-changing consequences for both. Such is the premise of Australian debut novelist Ross Barrett’s new book, “Final Round, The Journey of a Lifetime.”

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: There’s no question that your career path has taken a fascinating route – from scientist to playwright to published novelist. Let’s time-travel back, though, to the early years of Ross Barrett. When you were a lad of 10, what did you envision doing as your life’s work in the future?

A: When I was 10, I think I had an aspiration to be an electrician. After that, I thought about being a Bank Manager, and later a teacher. I was always interested in science, but had no idea you could make a career out of it. I was very naïve with regard to the professions, and my family was quite poor, so the initial plan was that I would leave school after completing my Intermediate Certificate at age 15. Two of my teachers came to visit my parents at home and explained to them that it would be a waste of talent if I didn’t stay on and go to university. It was financially very difficult for my parents but they managed to support me for the extra two years of school. Once at university, I had scholarships and bursaries and was self-supporting. I am very grateful to my two teachers, and to my loving and very proud parents.

Q: Were you an avid reader back then or only putting your nose in a book if homework required it?

A: I was a keen reader, but not fanatical. Books were not part of our family life. I borrowed books from the municipal library, which were a mixture of fiction and popular science. My childhood tastes in fiction were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Tarzan and Biggles. All of these are now regarded as politically incorrect. In my early teens I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and was attracted by the logical, i.e. scientific, methodology Holmes applied to the solution of his crimes. I read all of the SH stories many times. Later I based one of my plays on the relationship between SH and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Q: What drew you to the field of science and, specifically, what type of science was your calling?

A: One of my early teachers, when I was about ten, gave me a book detailing simple experiments that could be performed at home. I loved working through them, and trying to explain unexpected results. For instance, spin a boiled egg on a smooth flat surface, and you will see it quite suddenly rear up and continue to spin on its point. Why?

I began to read books on science, and had an array of useful equipment that I had gathered together: electric batteries, buzzers, bells, transformers and globes. I was a bit of a pain in the neck, developing booby traps that woke up the household when my sister came home late at night from a date.

At university I studied physics, chemistry, zoology and mathematics. Although I was the top student in Chemistry, I dropped it and majored in physics because I liked the more fundamental questions that physics posed into the nature of the universe.

My research interests have been experimental and theoretical nuclear physics, signal processing, underwater acoustics and sonar.

Q: Do you believe that science is an art or that art is a science? How so?

A: I wasn’t quite sure what this question was getting at, so I Googled it. Most of the hits seemed to imply that art is subjective, and science is objective. I think this is very simplistic. We might like to believe that the results of science are independent of the scientist who carried out the research, but that is often not the case. Scientists are just as prone to ego trips, jealousy of their peers, susceptibility to financial inducements, and other human frailties, as anyone else. These can influence their interpretation of their results, so that they too become subjective.

Q: Like a lot of my peers in high school, science was a class that you either loved (because of the chance to make smelly things blow up) or loathed (because of all of the formulas and tables of elements that had to be memorized). You recently co-authored a book called Physics: The Ultimate Adventure. The title alone suggests a glamorous side to a subject that many of us would otherwise run away from. What inspired this approach and who was the target readership you and your fellow authors had in mind?

A: One of the attractions of science at school was to get hands-on and carry out smelly experiments ourselves. In those days, the school science lab was often full of the highly toxic hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas), and the benches awash with Mercury. These days the students are kept at arm’s length from such experiments, to avoid law suits from their parents. Little wonder that science numbers are down.

One of the reasons I dropped chemistry is because I found organic chemistry full of the rote learning of formulas. For me, this was not the case with physics. If you understand the basic principles, the formulas can usually be derived, at least at the level taught in high school.

When we decided to write Physics: the Ultimate Adventure we wanted to present physics in a way that would enable non-specialists to enjoy the mystery and wonders of modern physics, without being submerged in mathematics. We hoped it might encourage students starting out on their careers to consider physics as an option, and those who had already gone down another road to gain a better understanding of the world they live in.

We believe that physics, far from being dry, can be, and should be made, beautiful, inspiring and enjoyable.

Q: In 1987, you began writing scripts for live theatre, a decision that subsequently led to not only seven of them being professionally produced in Adelaide but one of them selected as the best new South Australian play of the year in 1994. Tell us about your approach to the playwriting craft. For instance, is there a formulaic/outline structure that draws from your left-brain expertise as a scientist or do you allow your right-brain creativity to invite the muses in and see what they do?

A: I do not have any formulaic structure that I work from. I tend to have a broad outline of character, plot or theme that is the starting point. I start writing fairly early in the creative process, and it is this act of putting the material on the page that generates further ideas on where to go next. For me, the analytical, or left brain activity comes at the rewriting stage. Characters are then torn apart and extra traits introduced to give them more depth, the dramatic structure is analysed to locate the climaxes and make sure they are in the right place, and the dramatic conflict in every scene is studied to find the characters’ objectives and what is preventing their fulfilment. When all the problems of the script have been identified, I then return to the starting point, and let the muses prepare a second version. This cycle continues until a convergence occurs, and I have what I call my First Draft.

It is a time-consuming process, and probably not practical for a long work, such as War and Peace. However, if I try to plot everything out first, I find myself staring for ages at the blank page.

Q; Do you allow anyone to read your works in progress or does everyone have to wait until you have typed the final page?

A: After I have reached the First Draft stage described in the last question, I let others read it and offer critical comments. To let them read it before this stage would be to waste both their time and mine, because the script has not yet solidified enough. It is very beneficial to get a play script read aloud by good actors. They have much to contribute on characterisation and dialogue.

Q: What did it feel like the first time you heard applause for one of your productions?

A: It was very exciting. Even though not comedies, most of my plays have plenty of humour, and it is always rewarding to hear laughter come at the correct places.

It was a great surprise to me to see the different reactions of different audiences for the same play. This is the charm of live theatre. The audience is a part of the production, and the actors feed off their reactions, as much as the audience responds to the actors. Some audiences can be quite cold, while others respond very warmly to the same show. Psychologists could make a living studying the group dynamics of audiences. One of the best audiences I ever had was when the play went on after a cocktail party, and the audience was half sloshed.

I will always remember a comment I overheard at interval during my first play. I was walking past two young members of the audience who were outside the theatre with a drink. They did not know I was the writer, and as I went past I heard one ask the other: “what do you think of the show?” My ears pricked up because I was interested to discover whether someone thirty years younger than I was would get anything out of the play. His reply was one of my most satisfying moments. “That’s my life being enacted on the stage in there,” he said.

Q: Your first novel, Final Round, was originally conceived as a stage play. What was the inspiration behind the storyline?

A: This play began several years ago when I spent a week in hospital with a Deep Vein Thrombosis. “Look on the bright side,” everybody said to me. “It’ll give you material for a new play.”

When the character in the next bed learned of my condition, he comforted my wife with: “That’s what I’ve got, only worse. They may have to take my leg off.” Another member of the ward had a carotid artery that was 50% blocked. He was given aspirin, sent home and told to come back when it was 75% blocked. The fourth patient, who kept everybody awake at night with a hacking cough that we all thought was chronic bronchitis, was found to have inhaled a pea, which was now lodged deep in his lung.

A hospital ward is a place where people, who would normally power-walk the Nullabor Plain to avoid each other, are thrown together. Scars are opened, muscles flexed, secrets unlocked; all this in an environment where tragedy and death are often not far away. I realised I had the perfect setting for a play to explore the growth of a bond between two very different males who nevertheless shared a dark secret.

Q: What triggered your desire to adapt it to a different medium?

A: In a play, you are bounded in what you can present by the available time (in this case, 60 minutes) and by the limits of the stage. I wanted to explore the motivations and internal thoughts of the characters in more depth than was possible in a Fringe stage play.

Q: What did the adaptation to a novel allow you to do that might have been challenging/problematic in a live performance?

A: I structured the novel so that each chapter was written from a different point of view, cycling through the POVs of the three main characters. In this way the thoughts of the three characters about their life situations, and the others sharing them, are clearer.

The stage play takes place entirely in a hospital ward. Although this is still largely true with the novel, in the latter case there was more freedom in exploring the characters’ back-stories and other events outside the hospital environment.

Q: What would you advise other playwrights who may be thinking of adapting their stories to a different platform?

A: Go for it. If you have a successful play then you already have well-developed characters, realistic dialogue and a plot line with climaxes in the appropriate places. A novel enables you to go into greater depth with the characters, and explore issues that may only have been hinted at in the play. You have the freedom to develop sub-plots and take the action to exotic or surreal locations.

Bear in mind, however, that you must develop language skills that enable you to write clear, grammatical English. A play consists of dialogue and stage directions. The latter are read by nobody, least of all the director. A novel must carry the reader along with the artistry of the writer’s prose. This is a different skill from those possessed by a playwright.

Q: In writing for both the stage and the page, are there recurring or underlying themes that readers should pay attention to?

A: My writing has dealt with historical subjects (Billy Hughes and How We Beat the Favourite), science themes (Footsteps, Love in the Chook House, Double Blind) and more general explorations of the human condition (Suns of Home, Final Round, Rainbows Singing). My writing is about the themes that interest me.

In both my career as a scientist and in my writing, I have ranged over a fairly wide area. Probably more success comes to those who restrict themselves, e.g. the specialist who knows more than anybody in the world about the third digit on the African elephant’s left front foot, or the writer churning out the fifteenth book in a crime series. However, that is not what I enjoy doing.

Q: Authors oftentimes inject aspects of their own personalities into their characters. Would you say this is true of your own work?

A: Partially. I would say that there are parts of me in most of my characters.

If you are writing about a murderer, that doesn’t mean you have to be one. However, you need to be able to construct a believable murderer if your play or novel is to be successful. This might entail imagining what you would be capable of if some of your moral inhibitions were switched off. Character actors face the same situation when playing villains. Some decline to play child abusers because they are unhappy with the dark places in their minds that their research for the role takes them to.

I would say my characters are based on research, combined with exploring and exaggerating the parts of my own personality that are relevant to the character.

Q: Which comes first for you – the characters or the plot? Why does your chosen method best suit your writing style?

A: This depends on the play or novel. My plays, Billy Hughes and How We Beat the Favourite are the stories of two real characters, a former Australian Prime Minister and a poet/horseman. In these cases, the characters obviously came first. My play Sherlock Holmes and ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ asked the question: how could such an irrational person as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in spiritualism and fairies at the bottom of the garden, have created the most coolly rational character in fiction? The characters were already there, and I had to develop the plot. In the novel I am working on now, Double Blind, the plot came before the characters, as it was based on a fiction analogue of a real situation.

Q: When and where do you get your best writing done?

A: I write in my study at home in Adelaide, or at a beach house we have in Marion Bay on the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia. When I was working as a scientist, I wrote in the evenings after dinner. Now that I am retired, I write in the morning.

I try to write as a habit, and to produce a minimum number of words each day. This is not realistic when writing about science, as there is quite a bit of reference checking and research to be done with each paragraph.

Q: Do you self-edit as you go along or wait until the end?

A: Before beginning my day’s writing, I tend to read several of the last pages that I wrote at the previous sitting. I polish the prose while doing this. I treat it as a warm-up, in the same way that actors warm up before a performance. It enables me to get into the state of mind that I was in when I left off last time.

One thing that I do not do is listen to the critic on my shoulder who is whispering into my ear that what I have just written is rubbish. I know from past experience that although it may be rubbish at the moment, by the time it has been subjected to endless rewrites, it will at least be of an acceptable standard.

Q: What governed the decision to self-publish Final Round?

A: I was one of a group of writers who had submitted their novels to a small U.K. publisher, had their books accepted, and been offered quite generous contracts. However, the publisher became sick and when he recovered from an illness lasting over a year, he had lost interest in the fiction side of his company.

Rather than go through the whole hassle again, we all decided to self-publish, and provide each other with any tips that we picked up along the way.

My experience with Physics: the Ultimate Adventure was quite different. In this case, we submitted two sample chapters and a summary of the other chapters sequentially to three publishers. We received replies within a few weeks. In two cases, they said they liked the proposal but it was not the type of book they published, and they did not believe their readership would be interested. They were basically text book publishers. The third was more dismissive, but also replied quickly.

The fourth publisher we submitted the proposal to was Springer. I received their email reply 48 hours after the editor returned to her office from a week-long holiday break. The mail started off in a very positive vein. I skip read down the screen, looking for the paragraph beginning with “however”. There wasn’t one. They were going to publish it.

Q: What have you learned from the self-publishing experience that you’d like to share with fellow writers?

A: Self-publishing is a doddle and costs nothing. The resultant Print-on-Demand paperbacks and ebooks are of good trade quality. However, the marketing of the books takes time and effort. This is something that I, and the other group of writers I mentioned above, are working at.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: Possibly that I have played seven 1st grade rugby matches, and have had my photo published in the local newspaper more often as a rugby player than as a scientist or writer. Admittedly, this was half a century ago.

Q: Coffee or tea?

A: Both. I like a cappuccino in the morning, but prefer tea as a thirst quencher during the day. These days, however, I have to cut down on caffeine.

Q: Cake or cookies?

A: Cookies (we call them biscuits). However, they do tend to put on the weight.

Q: Early riser or night owl?

A: Certainly not an early riser.

Q: If Hollywood came calling to make a movie out of Final Round, who would be in your dream cast?

A: Geoffrey Rush for the older character. Rush was a member of the Adelaide State Theatre Company when we moved to Adelaide years ago. This was before he won his Oscar, his Emmy and his Tony. I saw him in many stage plays at the time, and thought he was brilliant. I saw him again last year playing King Lear in Sydney. Same verdict.

For the younger man, I would suggest Russell Crowe, but he would have to take off a few years.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Double Blind, which is my second novel, also based on a play script.

It is set in a science research institute. Linh, a Research Fellow at the Verdelho Institute in Melbourne, becomes worried that her supervisor has more than just objective scientific reasons in wishing to see a pharmaceutical discredited. She finds herself unwittingly caught up in a major scandal, and the steps she takes to extricate herself have consequences for her career, and for everybody else at the Verdelho Institute.

As you can imagine, my academic background came in useful here.

Q: Where do you hope to go with your writing from here?

A: My two Italian co-authors and I are planning a second book, exploring the limits of physics. Our first book raised a number of questions, and issues, that deserve further discussion. For instance, the two major 20th century theories in physics, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, are mutually contradictory. They can’t both be right. Also, there are about two hundred arbitrary fundamental constants in physics, and if the value of one of these were changed by a few percent, our universe would be so different, life as we know it would not be possible. We thought we could write something interesting on these, and similar, topics.

Q: With hindsight, what have been the most rewarding aspects of your professional life?

A: For a scientist it is exciting to be able to look at your work and say “I have just learned something that nobody else on the planet knows.” This is the ultimate adventure. It is exciting to look at Google Scholar and see that scientific work I published in 1990 is still being cited today, and used in fields, e.g. traffic control and the analysis of music, far-removed from where I ever imagined it being applied.

However, another reward is the variety of people I have met, and the places I have visited. To live in a non-English speaking country (Germany) for two and a half years, learn German, and appreciate the different perspective that an experience like that brings to one’s outlook, is broadening.

At my recent birthday party, among the guests were physicists, engineers, business managers, company executives, writers, actors, directors, musicians, teachers, and university professors. They were the friends I have made in the various phases my career has passed through. They are all very different people. I hope none of them recognises themselves on the stage, or in one of my novels.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: I have a web site at www.rfbarrett.com

Readers can read more about my work there, and contact me through there if they wish. I will be glad to answer any of their questions.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I think that about covers it.

She’s A Lot Like You

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Secrets, desires and betrayals…the perfect concoction for a fiery romantic novel. In Faye Hall’s soon to be released She’s A Lot Like You, one woman has returned to her roots, seeking revenge and faces an obstacle she hadn’t prepared for: the former love who broke her heart but left her with a passion she’ll always remember. Can old flames be reunited, despite a scandalous past?

Interviewer: Christy Campbell

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Tell us about your latest release. 

My latest release is She’s A Lot Like You, and it will be released in April 2014.  Set in 1860, in the town of Ravenswood, Queensland, Australia, it tells the story of young love torn apart by the deceitful lies of their families.  Reunited finally to reveal the truth behind their families’ secrets and to experience a love neither ever dreamed could exist.

How did you get started as a writer?

I started writing poems and short stories at primary school.  While most kids were in the playground, I’d be under a tree somewhere, or in the library writing little things.  Most of what I wrote was influenced by the people I knew, or certain people I saw that just kind of managed to stay in my mind.

When did you decide to branch out into the romance genre?

I would have been about 15 when I wrote my first romance.  It wasn’t really planned, though.  The words were all kind of just there in my head until I just had to write them down.  It was as I wrote the ending, were the two main character got to live happily ever after, that I realized this style of writing was definitely for me.

What kind of research do you do for your book material?

My books are all set in North Queensland, Australia in the late 1800’s so I’ve had to research a bit about the towns there at the time, and what the lifestyle was like.  The main bit of research I’ve had to do though is regarding the few mentions of native remedies used by the Australian Aboriginals.  That was extremely interesting.

Your books contain a fair bit of mystery and drama even though they are romances. Why did you decide to throw those concepts into the mix?

I grew up watching old Agatha Christie movies with my mum and I loved all the twists and turns and scandal they detailed.  But then I loved the old classic romance movies too.  I always thought if I could find a movie that contained all this it would be my perfect one.  As when I write I see each scene playing like a movie in my head, I thought maybe I should give it a go trying to write such a style myself.  And so I did.

You hail from Australia, as does the setting for your books. What’s special to you about this location?

I love my country.  I love the rustic realness of it all.  And I feel it isn’t a setting that’s been done to death.  I thought if I could maybe bring a little bit of Australian history out in my stories that could only be a good thing.

What’s a typical day like for you when you devote yourself to writing?

I have quite a large family so I rarely get a ‘day’ to devote myself to writing.  Most of my writing is done after my kids are in bed or early in the morning before they wake up.  But usually my husband makes me a cup of tea and I just sit in front of my computer and type whatever story is flowing from my mind at the time.  I have rough notes down about what I’d like to happen in the particular story I’m working on, but as I constantly tell my husband ‘it is subject to change’.

When asked to name three, short facts about Faye the person, not Faye the author, what would those be?

I grew up in a very small rural town in North Queensland, Australia.  Between my husband and me we have 9 children. And, here’s an odd one, I’m allergic to artificial blue food coloring.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on something a little more different than my other books.  It’s called ‘Passions in the Dust’.  It’s set on a cattle station in Bowen, Queensland, Australia, and is about a man who send for a mail order bride from England.  The woman who arrives was one of his mistresses back in England.  There’s some cattle rustling and cows being poisoned by native aboriginal ways and…well…the rest you’ll just have to read about when it comes out.

We all dream, of course, about seeing our books in screenplay format. If you could make one of your book into a movie which title would you choose and who would portray your characters? 

It would have to be ‘My Gift to You’. Chris Hemsworth (from the Thor movies & Rush)  to play Bailey and Anna Kendrick (from Pitch Perfect & Twilight saga) to play Rush.

Where can readers learn more about your novels?

My websites  http://www.faye-hall.com/

http://eredsage.com/store/FAYE_HALL.html

My blog http://www.faye-hall.com/?cat=16

My social media https://www.facebook.com/pages/Faye-Hall/174774709247649

https://twitter.com/FayeHall79

 

A Conversation with Loulou Szal

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Loulou Szal, a teacher and homeschooling mother, is passionate about advancing the vocabulary of children and teenagers, and inspiring the same love of reading that has been part of her life through a wide range of experiences. She makes a point to personalize the books she signs, to engage young readers in the story from the first page. She believes that “as adults, we should show children how precious books are” and she follows through on that philosophy in many ways. It was a pleasure to talk with her and discover her perspective.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

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Q: What inspired you to self-publish The Diary of Arnmore?

A: I had had my writing published in my high school newspapers and university papers. I loved having my work out there. After I graduated I went straight into teaching and so was busy.  I didn’t write as much ‘till my husband and I moved to Papua New Guinea for two years and ran out of books to read and borrow. He asked me to write something and read it to him, so I started The Diary of Arnmore.

When I finally asked family and friends to read it, they loved it and asked for copies when it was published. So, I began to look for a publisher. This is going back 24 years. The publishing market in Australia was small and limited. Back then you had to send printed copies by mail, with SASEs and this could take 6-8 weeks. I got some rejections and some encouragement from publishers who liked the story but didn’t publish what I wrote, which was fantasy [this is pre- Harry Potter].

So I decided to try overseas… it was even harder and more daunting to mail my story to people I would never see face-to-face and perhaps wait for a rejection. It was expensive and stressful. I didn’t trust an agent, was unsure of copyright, so I put it on the back burner.

We had children. Then came the Internet, so I tried to send my story off electronically, which seemed easier. One of the American publishers, Xlibris, kept up a steady contact. One of their reps called to say that they had been bought into by Penguin Books and would I be interested?

I checked the Internet for information of this merger and discussed it with my husband. He really believed the novel was a good one and we decided to go with self-publishing as it seemed to be fast and would cut out all the middle-men.

They had the published book in my hands within 10 weeks and it was a dream come true. It was just a long process and a mix of time, energy, emotion and trust to let the book go. Even to worry about what people might say. I had to be willing to take the good comments with the bad. So far, the comments have all been good.

Q: Congratulations. Your son, Jeremy Szal, is also an accomplished writer. What are some of the ways your shared passions have brought you closer?

A: My son is a great guy, he has always had loads of energy and so from the time he was a toddler, I always directed him to books to satisfy his restlessness and keep his attention. He is now 18 and writing is his hobby. We talk about books all the time. Books we are reading, writers and their styles, scripts, and books turned into movies. We talk about what we are writing, we critique each other and he often emails me his latest work to read. It doesn’t have to always be about books but the open communication is there. Since he was home-schooled most of his life, I have always been there and so we are close. He has other friends of course, but he and I are usually on the same page when it comes to books, even though he prefers Sci-Fi and I don’t.

He has actually thanked me on a few occasions for showing him how to enjoy books and writing and for sharing the high regard I have for these things, with him. I take it as a great compliment!

Q: That’s wonderful. I enjoyed your post “What I’m Reading…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/what-im-reading/) that shared some of your experiences homeschooling your daughter on the classics. As a school teacher, who also homeschooled your children, what are the benefits and pitfalls that you experienced teaching your kids at home?

A: Not many pitfalls at all really. When they were younger it was hard to make an appointment for a hair-cut or dentist for myself. Personal time comes only at 11pm, but we are a close family and that’s always meant a lot to us. I have been able to enjoy my career and be at home with my kids at the same time.

They also had the unique experience of traveling the world with us, exposed to tremendous culture: visiting places from the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Swiss Alps, the Pyramids, and the Colosseum. They completed a year of school in Europe and became fluent in German. The school system there was different and based more on how many ‘failures’ you made in class, not how many things you got  ‘right’; this is completely in contrast to my training and the sense that a child should be given positive reinforcement, not negative. It also curbed our sightseeing and so we took them out after a year [and they were grateful].

I have always taken care to see that my kids had the social activities to help their skills in that area. Hence my home has always been the base for group classes with other home schooled kids, and my kids were always involved in classes like piano, tennis, gymnastics, etc. for a decade, and we also held picnics in the park and the beach.
Q: Cool! Another fascinating post from your blog was “Reading and Writing Has Changed” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/reading-and-writing-has-changed/). How do you think our digital age has impacted education?

A: It certainly has. The digital age has had a huge hand in this. Of course, I want my information faster now too, but not at the expense of the beauty of the English language, or the written word in any language.

A friend, a young 21-year-old man, showed me a brilliant antique book he had bought in a sale, Cassell’s Household Guide of Every Department of Practical Life, being a Complete Encyclopaedia to Domestic and Social Economy, printed in 1869. It’s a step-by-step guide to daily living for the middle and upper-middle classes of British society. Guidance and instruction on every aspect of life, ranging in subject matter from bread-making to death in the household, even the treatment of insanity. It’s beautiful and hilarious at the same time but it is written majestically.

Page 49 discusses acceptable employment for women: “the opening of the situation of a librarian to educated gentle-women… in either public institutions or in private families of rank or wealth… the work is such that a lady of good attainments and education could undertake to enjoy. It requires no great physical exertion, no exposure to the weather and no hardship which the most delicate would shrink from.” Yes, the subject matter is outrageous, but how beautifully and poetically written. This quote is taken from a time when conversation was an art, which ranked quite high on the list of accomplishments. But today, children and many adults wouldn’t understand the way it is written, nor grasp the meaning. What is a “lady of good attainments?’ ” Yes of course, all this could today be said in a faster, more succinct manner, with words of fewer syllables, but what a pity.

As long as people are reading, it doesn’t matter, but we are losing the descriptive, larger words and replacing them with simple abbreviations, like LOL.

Here in Australia recently there was a lot of discussion about how students write essays for exams and whether they should be allowed to write in abbreviated form, just as they do in SMSes and emails. The answer was no, for now…. the world is moving too fast and many good things are falling by the wayside; good vocabulary and good spelling are some of the victims.

Q: It will be interesting to see where we go from here. In your post “Why Writers Write…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/why-writers-write /) you shared some of the reasons why you write. Why do you teach?

A: I love it, always have. I am the second child in a line of six children. I’m the oldest girl. My youngest siblings are younger than me by 8-10 years. I spent a lot of time looking after them when they were babies and playing with them when they got older. Our parents were immigrants and we never had much so our school holidays were spent in local areas and playing in the back yard. Funnily enough, I found myself building little huts and dragging a table and chairs beneath it and playing schools with my siblings. I must have been only 10 or 12 at the time but we all enjoyed it, read a lot, did maths, played games, and became close. We still are. So teaching is all I ever wanted to do (apart from writing).

Q: Having self-published books for the Children’s and YA markets, how do you promote?

A: It’s difficult now to promote my writing, I have a few distributors who represent me and take my books around to schools and libraries. This week I was asked by one of these libraries to join their town’s annual book promotion festival, called ‘Paint the Town Read’. It is designed to encourage young children to enjoy reading and so I am thrilled to be a guest and visit. They have asked me to read Hungry Mr. Croc. So at the moment I can do small things like that, but my priority is my daughter’s education and I don’t want to take away from that.

Q: What age group is Hungry Mr. Croc meant to be for? I usually think of picture books as the 3-5 or 4-6 range but per U.S. guidelines the language would be far too advanced.

A: It’s an interesting point that you brought up. The book is too advanced for 5-6 year olds to read on their own, but it is good for parents to read aloud to their children. I suppose the level of understanding would depend on how much the child has been encouraged to read by both parents and teachers by that stage.

When I initially discussed the illustrations with the publishers, I did specify that the illustrations should not be too cartoon-like as the book was not written with very young children in mind, even while the concept is simple.

We discussed the realism I wanted as the writing was not meant to be for very young children. They sent me some preliminary drawings and I actually loved them, so decided to go with it. I do however tell people that they should read it to their children first.

I feel that the larger words are set into the story in such a way that the meaning of the words can be discerned by the construction or syntax of the sentence. The writing itself was advanced and I did that specifically because I like to bring a child’s reading level up, encourage a wider vocabulary, not lower the standard to suit the common speech of everyday life as some school reading kits had been doing here. These books were not platforms to better reading, but were unimaginative and stagnant.

I based my work on examples of writers like Dr Seuss, whose books have great pictures and also great vocabulary, and are advertised as “classics with zany stories, silly rhymes and crazy drawings for young readers everywhere.”

Or even the beauty of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

These books were written when children read more and had a better vocabulary.

So I guess I’m old-fashioned like that, but as a teacher, I know it can be done: to raise the level of a child’s comprehension and reading ability by simply adding in a few new, bigger words. I read all of Dr Suess’s books to my son when he was a baby and I know that his comprehension of these books was good by the time he was 2 or 3. In fact by 3 he was reading The Cat in the Hat on his own. We took Dr Seuss with us everywhere (before iPads).

I just think we as adults aren’t trying hard enough or raising the bar, we have just lowered the bar and kept it there, from what I can see. There is nothing wrong in explaining the big words and reading on, the next time the book/ big word is read it, the child’s brain will make the connection.

Of course, I can simplify my writing, but I feel I would be letting the kids (and myself) down a little, when I know we could all do better.

There is my philosophy…

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. I love how you mentioned that writing allows you to travel in your head. How have your travels enhanced your writing?

A: I have always traveled in my head because in a crowded home (and quite a violent one) I needed my space and privacy and it was in my head. Better worlds where fathers were kind to their children and wives (hence a love of Enid Blyton stories). It’s calming to travel in your head and it’s a great escape with very little expense.

When I actually began to travel, I kept diaries. Traveling gives you the added advantage of really knowing a place, knowing the style, the customs, the smells—then you can bring them to life easier. I have written a novel about a school teacher working in The Solomon Islands in the early 1900s. Having been to P.N.G. I know how the weather is, the water, the customs, the lifestyle, the vegetation. Yes, I can Google it, but nothing beats being there. It’s like eating an apple and writing about it, or watching someone else on T.V. eat it and then trying to write about it.

I wrote another story about a holiday on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I know the town and even the street and house I set my story in. Traveling is a great investment for writing, it isn’t the answer to everything, but it certainly enhances your ability to be descriptive.

Q: Anything to add?

I wish more parents, adults, older siblings, and teachers knew the value of reading and the benefits in all areas of life that a good book can give… it is underestimated. No one read to me as a very young child, but I thank God for good teachers and libraries!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Assessment

art of assessment
Christina [Hamlett] introduced me to Magdalena Ball last month, as she knew that I had recently started publishing book reviews. I was familiar with Ms. Ball from her previous interview with Christina but I was not expecting Ms. Ball to be quite so generous (even though she refers to herself as “gregarious” and the tone of her book conveys that attitude as well). In addition to this amazing interview and her guide to reviewing, Ms. Ball offers a free e-course “How to be a Reviewer”).
For more information about The Art of Assessment, please check out my book review at http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-and-interview-the-art.  It has become my bible as a reviewer.

Interview by Joanna Celeste

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Q: Why did you write and assemble The Art of Assessment?

A: The Art of Assessment was actually my first book, written about 14 years ago. I wrote it initially as an adjunct to The Compulsive Reader to be used as a how-to guide for my reviewers to help them write more thorough and consistent reviews. It started off as a small, 20 page pamphlet, but as the interest in the site grew, I decided that it would be valuable to turn it into a full-length book and look at a range of reviewing, particularly since, at the time, I was doing a lot of mixed media (children’s videos, concerts, and CDs as well as books) and there wasn’t much out there in the way of guidance.

Q: How do you consider the skill of good assessment an art form?

A: I think that writing a good assessment is like any kind of writing—there is always an element of art in it—the sense of what works and what doesn’t; the “ear” that a reviewer develops by close, active reading. It’s also a skill, which can be learnt to a certain extent, but the creative element—the building of a new piece of writing; determining the overall approach; the theme of the review and writing something that does justice to the work itself—is art.

Q: What is the broader value of a well-written review?

A: Of course a well-written review is of value to both an author and a reader. But in a broader sense, as publishing becomes ever easier, the need for curation is vital. We need close readers who can help filter the good from the bad—applauding great work and providing critical judgment on work that isn’t so good. It’s important for society to have that, and I suspect that the demand will continue to grow dramatically.

Q: You wrote about the need to deliver balanced reviews, and to approach negative reviews with tact, but what about where the story is awful and there aren’t sufficient good points to balance the negative? (Such as with those books you simply cannot finish because the process of reading is too arduous, or where the author’s style is painful, or the book is ridden with so many typos you wonder how it ever got published in the first place.)

A: I feel quite strongly about the fact that, if a book can’t be read in full, that it needs to be put aside and a review bypassed. This is especially important when the author is unknown and the house is small. Writing a super-negative review of an amateurish effort is like kicking a kitten. It’s not only a waste of effort, it’s mean-spirited and can cut down a new author in a way that’s not helpful to anyone. I know this seems a little like a contradiction of my earlier statement, but I also feel that reviewers have a responsibility to remain professional and not use their reviews to put others down needlessly. Curation is one thing and bullying is another. It’s far better to just put a book aside and write a thoughtfully worded note saying that the book needs a professional edit or that it’s not working for you than to write an extremely negative review. I also think that it’s wrong to review a book when you haven’t read it all. It’s fine to not be able to finish a book but I think that if you can’t read it, you shouldn’t review it. Otherwise you’re judging based on skewed criteria. There’s nothing wrong with declining to write a review on the grounds that the quality is not up to publishable standards. I’ve done it a number of times.

That said, if a book is published by a well-known author and/or a reputable publisher and is error riddled or badly written (especially when you know the author can do better) then I think a negative review is most certainly in order. But the book absolutely must be read in full—even if it’s painful. Otherwise I don’t think you’re being fair to the author.

Q: Thank you. (That’s a relief; I have a policy of never writing harsh reviews of new authors as well.) Could you please give us a sample of what you would write to an author in the situation where you’re politely declining a review?

A: Yes. Here’s an example of how I have (on numerous occasions, both for myself and on behalf of another reviewer) declined a review: “Hi Joe, thanks for sending The World According to Cricket. I’m afraid that I’ve been unable to finish the book and therefore am declining the review. As I’m sure you know, the review process is subjective and I’m sure you’ll find another reviewer who will be able to review the book for you. In the meantime, I wish you all the best with the book’s promotions.”

You’re not obliged to give them a reason (this isn’t a paid-for critique), but if the book is rife with errors, you could indicate that. If they’re really dismally untalented, I wouldn’t mention it. There are readers who may well like the book, you’re just not one. You’re not obliged to do this either but if it’s a small/self-published book, I’ll sometimes offer to send it back to them, or even to put it into BookCrossing or donate it to the library—just to be nice—it’s a small world out there! But don’t let them draw you into a discussion. If they try to pump you for reasons (doesn’t usually happen) then be evasive or stop answering the emails altogether.

Q: How do you define the broad scope between the amateur reviewer and the professional reviewer?

A: This used to be a very clear distinction. A professional got paid for their work and an amateur didn’t. However, there are many forms of “payment”, one of which is publicity and books and some reviewers get paid sometimes and sometimes they work for the publicity, the sheer joy of sharing their opinions, or as part of a broader online presence/platform. So the distinction is now fuzzy. Also we’ve moved into a situation where everyone is a reviewer—when people buy a book on Amazon they’re encouraged to put up a review and it doesn’t have to be thorough or professional. There are a lot of opinions available—some useful and some not so useful. So I’d say that the difference between the two is that an amateur is not looking to put together a formal, professional quality review but is just voicing an opinion. A professional is someone who takes the ‘job’ seriously (whether paid or unpaid), and puts care and attention into the review—making sure it’s thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading.

Q: As someone with degrees in English literature (Your honors degree in English Literature from the City University of New York and your postgraduate studies of English Literature at Oxford) how valuable do you consider formal education in the pursuit of becoming a truly professional writer?

A: I do think that my studies helped me a lot in learning to read more complex types of texts. I’ve already been a big reader and I don’t expect that this would be any different if I did an engineering degree instead of a literature one, but obtaining an English degree requires a lot of evaluative writing (assessment at college/university level is almost all evaluative writing), close reading, analysis and synthesis and these are all relevant to the kinds of writing I do (particularly nonfiction—the reviewing work for example). However, I do think these days that “formal” education isn’t any more valuable than informal education. I just did a 10 week (free!)

Q: Wow! That course sounds amazing. Where can we find it?

A: ModPo was utterly brilliant. (I don’t know when the next one will happen, but they’re definitely planning another one.) Though it wasn’t part of a “formal” degree course, it was as good as anything I did in a formal setting and hugely valuable to my writing. There are many resources now available to students, and I use the term student very broadly. We’re all students and the learning process never stops. So while I think taking courses is certainly of value and can open and stretch even the oldest, most jaded writers, having a degree matters rather less I think than it used to.

Q: Most review sites have specific format and style guides, and The Art of Assessment emphasizes the need for thoroughness and depth (as illustrated by your sample reviews). How much can a reviewer deviate from those established formats and style in the fostering of their own “voice”?

A: Having a guide makes the writing easier and it’s always important to follow site guidelines when submitting a review, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. I’m not sure all sites would be so open, but I’m very open to novel formats. I’ve published reviews in verse form, in question and answer style, and even in multiple path options!

Q: Multiple path options?

A: I actually removed the multiple path review as the reviewer wanted to publish it elsewhere and it was a paid gig—quite a few years ago—but it went something like this: If you think that the review should talk about characterisation next, then click here. If you prefer it to talk about plot, click here.

As long as a review is, as I mention a lot (on my little soapbox), thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading, as far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to take any kind of format or structure. Of course it takes a lot of skill (or art if you like!) to be that creative. It’s far easier to stick to a template.

Q: Your book covered almost everything but a travel section. While the basic principles probably apply, could you direct us to any specific resources for learning how to deliver travel reviews (in addition to reading other reviews) and where we might get them published?

A: That’s a good point and maybe I’ll add it later (you’ve already given me a few new chapters to work on!). I guess one of the reasons I didn’t include travel is because travel writing is a whole genre in itself and encompasses a lot more than just a review—a whole book can be written around a trip or visit. But for those who love to travel, it’s a wonderful profession and there are jobs out there for it, too, especially for really good writers. You can also combine travel writing with other forms of writing. For example, Anthony Bordain is the travelling chef. Glenn A. Baker is the travelling rock and roller. Firstly, as with any other form of writing, I would recommend beginning by reading others, and getting a feel for the best kinds of travel writing. Michael Palin and Bill Bryson come to mind immediately. Also magazines like Conde Nast Traveler are a good source of shorter forms of travel writing: There is also quite a good online site.

Thank you. That’s very generous of you! In your book, you suggest new reviewers read up on good reviews to hone their craft. How would you recommend someone contact an established reviewer to request guidance or mentorship?

Well, there’s nothing like a little flattery. One easy way to get guidance and support is to submit work to an established site. This will often result in some excellent guidance and if you get a few reviews published and want more guidance or mentorship, it’s easier to ask for it. I do think a direct request for mentorship might seem a little odd. There are, however, formal mentorships available through almost every writers’ center and that might be a good place to start.

Q:Thank you. (I’ll hunt down those writer centers for my website.) You were born in New York City, studied in England and live now in NSW Australia. How does your international background contribute to your approach in reviewing (and life in general)?

A: I think that leaving the country I grew up in has broadened my perspective in many ways. I was pretty green when I went to England! There was so much I didn’t know—about geography, about history, about the world in general. I was quite an embarrassment, especially because, as a New Yorker, I naturally thought of myself as reasonably sophisticated and worldly and wasn’t backwards in making my uninformed opinions known. Having been exposed to a number of cultures I feel like I’m multilingual (in English!) and able to read across cultural boundaries quite well.

Q: As someone who has been exposed to a few different cultures around the world, I understand; you couldn’t have encapsulated the experience better. I love how you talk about “reading across cultural boundaries”. What’s an example of that from your life?

A: ln my life I work with a lot of different nationalities. I can often understand the subtle body language of an Australian versus a Canadian versus a New Zealander—or their colloquial expressions. It helps with communication. In reading, I feel I can more easily penetrate into the setting and context of a book. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, one of my favourite novels, is so inherently Australian, from the way people talk to the kinds of dreams they have and the way they relate to one another. I feel I understand that now, whereas I wouldn’t have gotten it to the same extent before I left.

Q: You received a Masters in Business from the Charles Sturt University and a Marketing degree from the University of Newcastle. When and how does this education and experience come into play as a reviewer (and in the direction of your various endeavors)?

A: I’m not sure that the business and marketing degree have had a dramatic impact on me as a reviewer—they were both done for the day job and certainly taught me some skills in terms of metrics, statistics, promotional processes, and analysis, which may have some positive effect on my ability to promote my work, my site, and my other writing (the novels and poetry books for example). Mostly though, they were time-consuming when I did them and impacted on my ability to spend more time doing creative work. Everything is a trade-off in terms of time.

Q: Tell us more about your work as a knowledge specialist in a multinational company. What does your job encompass and how does this feed into your passions?

A: Firstly, my day job supports my writing habit. Knowing that the money is coming in frees me to not worry too much about the overall financial situation with my writing—I’m free to do what pleases me and to not stress too much over sales figures. I’ve been doing this job in various guises for nearly 24 years (!), so I’m reasonably well-skilled at it and have managed to organize very flexible working hours which has suited me through the births of my three children, a range of life transitions, and of course my all-consuming writing passions. So I’m very lucky to have the job. Additionally, I work in R&D, managing the library, looking after a range of commercialization activities and am actually very stimulated by the science (as my poetry will certainly show). I’ve even walked out of a meeting with a few choice words or concepts in my head, and had to write an entire poem on the spot.

Q: Cool! How many poems from your Sublime Planet have come from this process?

A: They’re all kind of sciency! But at least 30% were directly inspired at work. Plasmonic nanobubbles, Dryland Salinity, Blind Deconvolution, and Plane Strain all came out of words that came up in real conversations and left me salivating! (I’m a little strange that way I know).

Q: (I don’t think that’s strange at all, but then I’m a bit of a closet geek.) ow has your work as a reviewer enhanced your authorship?

A: One of the key things my reviewing has done in a marketing sense is to give me a big online profile with readers. The Compulsive Reader has over 10,000 subscribers to our monthly newsletter and we get some 30,000 hits a day—all readers! That’s an amazing network of people who know me, have been reading my reviews for some 14 years and who I can promote my other writing work to. In addition, being in the habit of close-reading has really helped me to understand what makes for a good book—it’s “ear-training” that translates into a really good sense of what does and doesn’t work from a writing point of view. No class can teach that—it has to come from regular reading. Of course I also read how-to books and having a regular in-pouring of new material has not hurt my own writing (other than to distract me away from it since there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than curl up with a book).

Q: In your previous interview with Ms. Christina Hamlett in November, you mentioned you had nearly completed your next book of poetry [Sublime Planet], and that you were on your third novel—this one a science fiction/time travel adventure. Please update us on these projects.

A: The writing part of Sublime Planet is done. That’s a collaboration with my poetry partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson. The book is a full-length poetry book focused on environmental poetry. We’re currently editing and working with a wonderful artist who is doing the cover for us. The idea with that book is to release it for Earth Day 2013 (April 22). We’re planning to give a proportion of the profits to an environmental charity (yet to be confirmed), so the whole project is very exciting and bringing together a number of threads in my life that are of interest to me. There was a strong sustainability theme in Black Cow as well, so it’s a good follow-on.

My third novel will probably take a bit more time to finish! I’m not a fast fiction writer and am still hard at work finalizing the plot points and setting up my beat sheet (a step-by-step plot outline), but I’m pretty excited about the direction the story is taking—it’s a big change for me and working cross genre is proving very interesting.

Q: Please elaborate on how your work is cross-genre.

A: The work has elements of sci-fi (my poetry too)—there is time travel (sometimes in the poetry), aliens, and the new novel will also be historical fiction, but it’s all rooted in the psychological and more literary fiction than anything else.

Q: From my research into the publishing industry, I was advised against promoting more than one project at a time, but you manage to write and market across several genres (nonfiction, poetry and prose, as well as your reviews and blogging), seemingly simultaneously. What would be your advice to others who want to tackle a similar range of projects?

A: Sometimes across several genres in a single work! I think that it’s important to do what excites you and gives you pleasure as a writer and not take too much note of the market or what’s ‘hot right now’ (particularly because the buying public is fickle). That’s why I’m so grateful to the day job for freeing me from trying to do a ‘breakthrough’ work. I try to stay interested in what I’m doing and for me that means working in different media. When I’m finding the fiction is challenging and I need a break I’ll work on poetry (which is always pleasurable for me). Nonfiction (blogging, writing articles, etc) and reviewing is always there too—something I tend to do for enjoying as a second part of my reading. I think that it’s good for the writing mind to have different hats—keeps everything fresh. I also find that the exacting process of getting a single line perfect in poetry can make for richer, more vibrant and poetically powerful prose. Having a good sense of story and character development often makes for more interesting poetry and nonfiction. And of course the more you write the better you understand what others are writing and the processes behind them, so everything works together.

Q: You are a poet, writer, reviewer, mother, radio host, blogger, friend, wife and life-artist; how do you manage to juggle everything, be stellar at what you do, and keep your sanity?

A: I’m definitely a juggler (but not sure what ‘life-artist’ is—sounds good though!).

Q: I consider you a life-artist because you appear to handle everything with a certain grace, and you project the sense that life should be approached as another art form; something to be celebrated, played with, rather than endured.

A: I’ll take it (even if the grace part isn’t, um, always true). I credit my sanity (such as it is) to a few things—firstly, my husband, who most certainly keeps me grounded (sometimes kicking and screaming that I want to stay airborne!). My children also definitely keep me grounded. I guess if I’m giving advice on how to juggle so many things at one time and keep the sanity I’d say to try and focus on each one when it’s being done, or as my mother would put it, ‘be here now’. So if I’m reading a book, I’ll read it as if it’s the only thing I’m doing. Even if I’m dipping in and out a lot, because I keep getting interrupted, I’ll still read it with intensity; even when I’m not reading, I’ll let my mind play over the story, the characters, and the plot. If I’m writing, I’ll try to give my writing serious focus when I’m doing it. It may be only 10 minutes of focus, but that’s the thing I’m concentrating on for that 10 minutes and I try to make it like it’s the only thing in my life just for a little while. Otherwise ‘overwhelm’ sets in and nothing is done well.

Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?

A: For me, the block tends to come when I hit some problem—usually a fiction based one—such as how I work out a plot issue. I like to brainstorm through it—to just stop writing and do some mindmaps or talk to my kids about it; they’re a great source of plot since they all read a lot (don’t know where they get it from).

Q: That’s brilliant. I brainstorm with my family as well. May I ask, what are mindmaps?

A: Mindmaps are where you have your central idea in the centre and brainstorm related points around it.

I was really struggling with something the other day and I told my daughter and she just started throwing ideas at me at a very rapid pace—how about…how about…what if… She was really awesome (and I promised her a credit). By the time she had finished playing around with ideas with me, I was completely unstuck and ready to get back to it. For people without such a wonderful, in-house resource, using any kind of brainstorming method or working with a friend often helps. Another thing that helps me with block is to swap genres. So if I’m struggling with a poem, I’ll switch to my novel. If I’m having difficulty with the novel, I might just take a break and write a review. All writing has a tendency to free you up—getting the writerly juices flowing again.

Q: What is your favorite method of preventing burn-out (like when you read too many books)?

A: I never burn-out from reading too many books! Reading is almost always a relaxing pleasure for me. But I do have tendency to have far too many projects on the go at once, not to mention a busy family life and a full-time day job (see question above about ‘sanity’). I’m kind of energized by all the stuff going on around me (it’s all interesting), but if the noise levels start to get too much (I’m pretty sensitive to noise) or I feel I’ve got one too many projects going on and I’m not giving decent attention to any one thing—I become too abstracted and dispersed—then the best way for me to deal with that feeling is exercise. In my case, breathing-based exercise like swimming or yoga is ideal. 30 minutes of swimming laps, or an hour of yoga, will almost always settle me and help me get perspective or work out problems. It’s not always easy to take that 30-60 minutes when I’m so overloaded, but I try to do it nearly every day. If I don’t, I really feel it.

Q: This is very helpful, thank you. One area you were not able to cover in your book was that of organization (in terms of how to schedule deadlines intelligently, offering enough time for one’s own editing process, for the review site’s submission turn-around, etc.) as well as dealing with authors or people who consider a review has not accurately captured their product. Will there be a follow-up book that covers these subjects, or supplementary articles published through your blog?

A: Organization is a pretty big topic that extends well beyond reviewing, but perhaps I’ll take you up on your suggestion to look at how, for example, one might deal with the very likely scenario of having many books to review and setting up a priority system. I have to work it out myself first! Actually I do have a kind of system—I do try to do things in order, but sometimes there are really urgent deadlines. For example, Mike Scott of the Waterboys is in Australia this week, and I only got his book to review last week. He was pretty keen for me to include info in the review on his Australian tour, so I put aside everything else and just did that. Impending interviews will often require that a book gets prioritized as well. I always use a to-do list which I manage on an annual, monthly, weekly, and daily basis, ensuring that the big projects flow through from annual to daily so that I find time each day to work on them (otherwise they’d never get done…).

But overall, scheduling deadlines intelligently, leaving enough time for editing and review site submission turn-around all come down to general organizational practices, which may be beyond the scope of my book, and have been covered really well elsewhere. David Allen is a pretty smart guru on time management. He has a free newsletter, podcasts and lots more on the topic. I also like Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Productive People. It informs most time management philosophies that are out there and is still simple enough to just incorporate into a lifestyle. You can get the habits online.

In terms of dealing with disgruntled authors or marketers, basically I just try to deal with them professionally, but not too humbly. If you’ve read the whole book (or experienced the whole product—see my note above about not reviewing something you can’t finish), written [your review] well and substantiated your comments, you don’t need to justify your review in any way. You’re not a marketer, nor are you working for the author and it’s not up to the author to judge your review.

Your audience is primarily the reader and being honest is important. If someone wants a PR person, they’ll need to hire one. Otherwise, by all means, strive for thoroughness and accuracy and fix errors where they occur (and don’t review on a partial experience—I know I keep saying that!), but don’t feel the need to pander to author egos. Negative reviews are, unfortunately, part of the process (all authors get them), and a reviewer should never apologise for their review.

Q: You previously discussed happiness and optimism with Ms. Christina Hamlett. What gives you strength?

A: My family is my key source of centredness which, if it’s not too new-agey a thing to say, is the core of my strength.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: Joanna, this was such a thorough interview—I think you’ve covered everything! If readers want more, they can always drop by my website. There are some freebies there, as well as information on all of my books.

Black Cow

Since 2008, unemployment in the U.S. has escalated, the housing market has plummeted, wages have dropped, taxes have increased, and the national debt is $5 trillion higher. Is it, therefore, any wonder in light of America’s impending trajectory off the fiscal cliff and descent into socialism that so many people are feeling anxious, depressed and desperate for an exit strategy? While Magdalena Ball’s new novel, Black Cow, transpires an ocean away – in Australia – there’s no doubt she has crafted a compelling, insightful and topical message about survival that will keenly resonate with readers around the world.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

******

How did your spark of passion for the craft of writing initially catch fire, and who are some of the authors whose work you most admire?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. Books have always been a significant part of my life. So my passion for the craft of writing comes from my passion for reading – a passion for the written word and the way in which stories and meaning are made through the connection between reader and writer.  Again, I can’t remember a specific moment when I thought that I wanted to write – writing has always been part of who I am. I wrote poems and stories to augment my reading and create my own things from the first moment I could hold a pencil in my chubby hand (let’s say aged 3 or 4, though the transition from listener to reader to writer was a subtle and interlinked one).

There are so many authors I admire, and I keep discovering new ones but I find myself returning to James Joyce regularly, and every time I open Ulysses, I find it inspires my writing.  Another surprising, recent source of inspiration for me is Gertrude Stein. I just discovered Tender Buttons (which completely bamboozled me when I first came across it) and the impact on me as a writer has been dramatic. For modern authors, a few that I love that come to mind immediately are China Miéville, Peter Carey, and Julian Barnes for fiction, with Emily Ballou, Luke Davis and Dorothy Porter for poetry.  There are many, many others. 

When and where was your first piece of writing published?

The first thing I can remember was a series of poems published in a well-known (at the time) East Village NYC newspaper while I was an undergraduate at college.  I had the entire centre spread of the newspaper and didn’t even know about it until my cousin told me.  I didn’t save a copy (I have no idea why I didn’t save it, but I suspect it might have something to do with several international moves).

Do you ever go back and read it and, if so, what do you think?

I can’t even remember which poems they were, so no I don’t go back and read it, but I can guess that I would probably cringe! My writing was reasonably dark back then – sometimes ridiculously so – something to do with reading too many confessional poets or a teenager’s liking for the macabre and drama.

Describe your favourite place to write and why it energizes/inspires/comforts you.

I have to be able to write anywhere, so I don’t really have a favourite place to write.  I’ll write anywhere – even pulled over my car a few times to write something that was in my head.  I do enjoy writing outside though – sitting by the pool on a day that’s just warm enough but not stifling hot, with a little sun on my back but not so much it makes the screen impossible to read.  I just got a greenhouse and I have a feeling that it might be my new favourite place in the winter – since it’s lovely and warm, sunny and kind of inspirational with all that young growth and potential nutrition.

You’ve launched a fun website called The Compulsive Reader in addition to a companion radio show. How did these two creative ventures evolve and how do they interface with your daily writing schedule?

I set up The Compulsive Reader in 2001 – so it has been around a very long time in Internet terms. I had been doing some reviews for another website. The first book I got was Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis, which came in a beautiful hardcover set with Angela’s Ashes, followed by the opportunity, which later fell through, to interview McCourt.  As I was a heavy reader already this was a dream job for me – unlimited books, and the opportunity to use my writing skills and enjoyment of close readings (and talking about books) made it a natural thing to do.  So when the site closed, I decided I was hooked and instead of applying for jobs elsewhere, I just decided to start my own. 

If you were asked to describe your new novel, Black Cow, in a single sentence, what would it be?

The story of one modern family’s search, in the midst of recession and the inevitable changes that occur in mid-life, for a sustainable, meaningful life.

What was the inspiration to write this book?

I’ve long wanted to write a book that explored the notion of self-sufficiency: one that traced a family who decided to go ‘off-grid’ and produce their own food and live off their own land. It was something of a hobby interest of mine and I spend a lot of time reading magazines like Grass Roots and Backwoods Home. At the same time, as we moved heavily into the Global Financial Crisis, I saw many people I knew working harder, longer hours and at the same time, spending more (all this sanctioned by governments under the heading of “stimulus spending”).  It’s a vicious cycle – you work harder to spend more and as a consequence have to work even harder. I knew a couple of people who ended up having nervous breakdowns. So I decided to play with these two notions: a couple trapped in that cycle, wondering what they were working for and why they were spending so much, and what might happen if they were to just stop and actually leave the game.

And the title – what does it mean, both literally and metaphorically? 

There are many black cows in the book.  There are the Wagyus (a variety of cow) that James and Freya decide to raise on their Tasmania property. At one point, when James and Freya are looking at the property James goes over to one of the cows and whispers into its ear.  This represents a few things – both James and Freya’s desire to feel connected with the earth and with their lives again. It’s a creative longing.  Other black cows including the Steely Dan song, which James listens to in the car – it reminds him of his youth. Fear of aging and what it means for the couple is a key theme in the book.  There’s also the drink, which the song is about. Freya makes Black Cows in the kitchen in preparation for James’ 40th birthday. He arrives home late from work and doesn’t have time to drink his (or eat dinner). 

Your novel transpires in Australia and yet its themes – economic uncertainties, emotional stress, and the “for better or worse” hardships imposed on marriage – are relevant and relatable to virtually any part of the planet. How would you say that the events in the book reveal evidence of your own world view, including your emigration to NSW Australia after an upbringing and education in New York City?

I really wanted to write a book set in Australia – with the beauty and iconic nature of the Australian scenery that surrounds me, especially since my first novel was very much a New York book, but the themes are definitely universal, and maybe even more relevant for the U.S. where the recession hit harder than in Australia and continues to have a strong impact on the everyday lives of families.  All my family are still in the U.S., and I also lived in England for some years, so I do tend to write with a global audience in mind.

Who is your target demographic for Black Cow and what is the takeaway message you’d like these readers to embrace by the final chapters?

Black Cow is fiction, so I don’t necessarily want to say that they should have a takeaway message at the end. I’d like people to be moved and invested in the story of Freya and James. The underlying theme of the novel (and maybe all my novels…), is the critical importance of living creatively, thinking deeply about who we are, the meaning we are making in our lives and about the value in living sustainably – in all senses of the word, not just the ecological. I wouldn’t like to (ever) exclude any readers but I’d say that my target demographic would be people who are around mid-life, and who might see recognise themselves or those around them in the story – people for whom the story will ring true. Because the sustainability theme is strong, I find that the book tends to resonate best with readers who are interested in notions of creative, sustainable living.

At the start of the book the protagonists Freya and James are clearly in trouble. Are these characters based on real people?

Like many of my characters, they are amalgams of all sorts of things – people I know and my own experiences to be sure, though reworked and repurposed, but also ideas I wanted to try out, characters in films, in other novels, etc.  There certainly isn’t a one-to-one correspondence, though I’ve been finding that many people who read it will often tell me that they are indeed “James” or “Freya” and that I’ve written their lives.  Though it’s not necessarily a good place to be (at least in the beginning), from a writer’s point of view, that’s the best comment, because it means I’ve succeeded in verisimilitude or making the story real.

If Hollywood came calling for a film adaptation, who do you see in the lead roles?

Funny you should ask that. My mother is friends with Liev Schreiber’s mother Uma and we’ve been talking (dreaming) about how utterly wonderful Liev would be in the role of James and his gorgeous Australian wife Naomi Watts would be in the role of Freya.  She even encouraged me to send a book to Uma, which I did. Feel free to put it about!

Freya and James both suffer from stress-related conditions and yet they react in different ways. What was your rationale for the opposing perspectives they adopt?

Well they’re different characters, with different backgrounds and motivations. People do react in different ways to stress, and they bring the totality of their experiences into the situation that they’re in.  There are also a number of parallels – both have health issues, both are obsessive perfectionists in their way, and both are running so fast that they have forgotten who they are.

Insofar as the setting you’ve chosen, how does the transition from Sydney to Tasmania impact the story as well as the evolution and character arcs of Freya and James?

From a plotline point of view, the move to Tasmania marks a transition in the story. It was originally my part two.  However, and I don’t want to give too much away, the move from one place to another is not the real solution to Freya and James’ woes.  As the old Zen saying goes (and one of my wonderful reviewers pointed out), wherever you go, there you are.

There’s a small hint of Norse mythology in Freya’s lineage. How does this play out in terms of her character development and memories?

I’m so glad you picked that up :-).  I tried to be subtle with the Norse mythology, but Freya as a character is Norwegian and there are references to her grandmother’s home in Tokleskaret, the 24 hours of daylight, knitting, and her grandmother’s words “Av skade blir man klok.” which mean “injuries make one wise”. Finding the way back to those roots – the historical connections to our family – the DNA link – is a theme in the book.  Of course in mythology Freya was the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, and these qualities also play out in the book.

How do you define “happiness”?

Happiness is a shifting noun. It’s relative and notional and perhaps rendered meaningless by overuse, but in Black Cow, what the characters are looking for is a sense of peace (‘calm inner strength’), a sense of satisfaction that comes, to my mind, through creative work, and connectedness (with family, with friends, with community).  It seems to me that those things are worthwhile enough aims to count for happiness.

Do you believe that excess has created a false sense of security for most people?

It could be. I do suspect that the need to accumulate ‘possessions’ for the sake of the possession rather than from any real need is driven by fear and a sense that being able to afford so much is an indication of safety.  Of course the sense of security is nonexistent because the fear remains. The hunger remains because it isn’t satisfied by excess.

Is less more?

I have to admit that I’m personally attracted by minimalism. I don’t necessarily think that it’s right for everyone, but I get nervous by too much stuff around me. I’m completely willing to admit that this is just my own issue, and I wouldn’t like to turn that issue into a principle, but I’m definitely more comfortable when I don’t have too many things around me. That said, when it comes to time, less may not be more. Less time with my family is not more.  Less creative output isn’t more for me. It’s all about balance and finding time to do the things that really matter.

Identify three things that you are optimistic about and why.

Every time I go into my children’s schools and listen to the kids talk I become optimistic about the future. There are so many bright, intelligent, interested, vibrant children that I am filled with hope that the substantial problems that we’re facing in the modern world will be dealt with.

I know I’m biased, but my own children are pretty amazing too in so many ways, and they fill me with optimism.

I’m pretty optimistic about the future of books and literature in general. So many wonderful books keep coming out. You’d think after so many years of writing poetry, novels, and nonfiction that there would be nothing new to say but even yesterday I opened a new book and was shocked at the beauty of the language and the fresh talent in the writing.

What’s next on your plate?

I’ve been working on a poetry book and it’s pretty close to completion.  I’ve also got my third novel in the works. It’s looking like being a science fiction, with time travel, which is a very new direction for me and a big leap in structural terms, but I’m pretty excited about the direction the work is taking.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Just that more information about all of my work, including my Compulsive Reader website, my radio show, my poetry books, my blog, and lots of freebies, can be found at my website http://www.magdalenaball.com.  I love to connect with readers and other writers (I’m pretty gregarious – in person and in a social networking sense), so please do drop by and link up with me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc.