Novels for summer reading

January 1st, 2014

Let’s be honest – I don’t blog anymore (and anyway my students tell me blogging is ‘passe’), but this year I’ll be putting up notes about interesting books or articles I’ve read.

Right now, I’m reading in preparation for chairing some sessions at the Perth Writers Festival in February – and loving it!

I expected to enjoy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and I did. It is so well written; I found it enthralling. Jo Baker’s Longbourn is another a terrific historical novel, based around the servants in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Again, wonderfully written with stunning prose and a great story.

Next off the pile – some non-fiction.

Happy new year!

Not quite the Oscars

August 5th, 2013

So, I heard today that Peter Fitzpatrick’s book The Two Frank Thrings won the National Biography Award. Of course, I’d figured out I wasn’t winning it as the Award presentation was in Sydney this morning, and last week there was no suggestion that I fly over there from Perth. (In any case, my book was always a real long shot to win it.) I’d kind of hoped that Robert Drewe would win so that I could casually drop into conversations here in WA the phrase “Robert Drewe and I…” – he being a bit of a WA literary hero. I haven’t read Fitzpatrick’s book but it sounds terrific and fun, too. When you think how much research goes into a biography like this, I reckon he deserves the Award.

It’s really great to be shortlisted for an Award of this nature. Something like getting a great review from a critic you admire combined with a big hug! And I like the way the press release announcing the winner also had the Judges’ comments on all the shortlisted books. Here’s what they said about my book:

“Rachel Robertson’s gracefully written memoir about life as the mother of a child with
autism is a deeply moving, compelling narrative from a perceptive writer. Robertson’s
son, ‘Ben’, is one of an estimated 230 000 Australians with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

She writes of Ben’s life but her relationship with her son is bound up with her own past
and so this memoir is, in many ways, a relational biography: the lives of ‘Ben’ and
Rachel. Reaching One Thousand combines several elements: analysis of the latest
pedagogy about autism; discussion of daily life; descriptions of her son’s behaviour and
her own reactions; reminiscences of her own childhood. Robertson addresses the fear
we have of ‘strangeness of others’, by delving into what might be seen as her own
strangeness as a child. In contrast to some seemingly similar stories, this memoir never
positions ‘Ben’, the child with autism, as a problem or an object; the author tries
wherever possible to enter imaginatively into his mental landscape.

This memoir also interrogates narrative and identity. Autistic children are said to have
great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships. Robertson uses the vantage
point of her relationship with her son to critically evaluate the literature on autism at
every point. In this way the book becomes an outward looking conversation about autism
and the possibilities of management and interaction. Crucially, Robertson addresses the
ethics of life writing; specifically whether her use of ‘Ben’s’ life story constitutes a
betrayal, or an invasion of privacy, on her part. The issue of invading people’s privacy is
at the centre of all memoir but it is rarely so directly considered.”

I’m grateful to the Judges for engaging with my book so deeply, to the NSW State Library and to the Award sponsors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Michael Crouch AO.

Events and talks about biography are happening all this week at the NSW State Library, including the National Biography Lecture on Wednesday, which is being given by John Elder Robinson. Robinson has written several memoirs about living with Asperger’s Syndrome. To me, this really shows the way society has changed over the past ten years in terms of listening to and respecting people with neurological differences like autism. Promoting this change was the main reason I wrote Reaching One Thousand, so I’m happy!

By the way, a colleague at work asked me the other day if there was any news on this Award. I told her I was pretty sure I hadn’t won, but was fine about that. She said, “Yes, that’s right. You can be like Hugh Jackman at the Oscars when he didn’t win best actor!” I’ll go with that, I think.

National Biography Award shortlisting

July 8th, 2013

I was delighted to hear today that Reaching One Thousand has been shortlisted for the National Biography Award run by the NSW State Library.

The shortlisted books for the $25,000 National Biography Award 2013 are:
• James Button, Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business, Melbourne
University Publishing (VIC)
• Robert Drewe, Montebello: A Memoir, Penguin Australia (NSW)
• Peter Fitzpatrick, The Two Frank Thrings, Monash University Publishing
• Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: His Time, Melbourne University Publishing
• Rachel Robertson, Reaching One Thousand, Black Inc (VIC)

Following last year’s increase in prize money, a total of $30,000 will be awarded in 2013: the winner of the National Biography Award will receive $25,000 and each shortlisted author will receive $1,000 prize money in recognition of their achievement.

What a delightful surprise to be in such good company!2013 NBA shortlist-1

Grief and ballooning: on Barnes’ Levels of Life

April 28th, 2013

I first became a fan of Julian Barnes when I read Flaubert’s Parrot back in 1984. His latest book has a touch of Francophilia, and there’s a parrot mentioned once, but otherwise, it’s a long way from the playful, meta-fiction of his early novels. Levels of Life is a hybrid book: part fiction, part mini-biography and part memoir. The first section, ‘The Sin of Height’, tells the stories of the some of the early balloonists, including their attempts to take photographs from the air. The second section, ‘On the Level’, elaborates a fictional love affair between balloonist Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Bernhardt. The final part is ‘The Loss of Depth’, where Barnes plummets to earth and autobiography.

The first two parts, while nicely written and enjoyable to read, are really just providing an extended metaphor and ballast (pun intended) for the third part, which might best be described as a grief memoir. Here is the driving force for the book, the need to write about and, presumably, share the experience of losing Pat, his beloved wife of 30 years, to a sudden illness.

This is a grief memoir more in the pattern of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed than in the style of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (to take two of the most well-known and excellent examples of such books). It is philosophical and abstract, almost impersonal in its telling. Not that Barnes avoids revealing aspects of himself and his life – quite the reverse – but he seems to do so to explore grief and how it works rather than to create empathy with the reader or show us the details of his daily life. He describes the way friends stop talking about Pat and instead suggest he starts taking holidays and how that affects him. He discusses his thoughts of suicide, why he now values opera (all that drama and pain), how he has managed to get through the past four years. This section of the book is honest and illuminating and its references to the balloon metaphor give it variety and lighter moments. Mercifully, there is no advice on grief-work, no suggestions that there is a map for grieving, only one man’s reflections on ‘the universe doing its stuff’.

A final touching moment is seeing the inside back flap of the book jacket with the author’s photo and biography and, then, just below that, his wife’s photo and biography. It is as if Pat Kavanagh were ghost-writing the book with Barnes, a spectral co-author of his grief book, as she had been a partner in his life.

child lessons

April 4th, 2013

My review of the wonderful Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy (author of Piano Lessons) can be found in this month’s edition of the Australian Book Review. It’s a lovely book, worth reading.

My summer reading

January 5th, 2013

What bliss it is to sit down in front of a fan in the middle of the day in Perth and read a book purely for pleasure, not for reasons of research or teaching, but just for my own delight!

I started this year with The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker, the latest Bruno, Chief of Police story set in the Perigord. Of course, I had to drink wine and eat lots of soft cheese and pate at the same time, as food is so much a part of this book!

Now I am half way into The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt, a fascinating memoir that is also about neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. I’m reading it after reading her essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking, which I also found absorbing. As I read, I keep marking especially intriguing passages. I used to feel a bit guilty about writing in books, but now (if I own the book), I find it liberating to do this. If I go back to re-read a book and see my own marks or comments, I’m often amused to see how the same or different things catch my eye at different times.

The next book on my January reading pile is Theories of Memory: A Reader edited by Rossington and Whitehead, which a dear friend gave me for christmas – what an inspired choice!

And of course, I must recommend The Best Australian Essays 2012 edited by Ramona Koval, not just because one of my essays is there, but also because there are a lot of very good essays in this book, including Gillian Mears’ essay about writing the wonderful novel Foal’s Bread.

Happy New (reading) Year!

Writing and ethics

December 5th, 2012

I’m delighted to have an article in the latest Westerly magazine, which focuses on Writing and Ethics. My article ‘The Air that Falls’ is an exploration of writing about family, drawing on my own experiences and analysing Aftermath, a memoir by Rachel Cusk. Some of the press coverage of Aftermath was savage and this was one reason I wanted to write about the book. If she can write and publish a book about a marriage breakdown, can she really love her children? asked reviewers.

Also in this issue of Westerly are non-fiction pieces by Kim Scott, Alice Pung, Frank Moorhouse, Benjamin Law and Rozanna Lilley, as well as lots of new poetry and some great fiction. Here is how Moorhouse starts his essay:

“I tell new writers that the literary writer has three ever-ongoing negotiations in their life by which they gain the privilege of a literary vocation, that is, the privilege to write what one wants to write, in a way he or she wishes to write, and to spend most of one’s time doing it at one’s own pace.”

The first negotiation he speaks of is the negotiation with one’s family and friends – essentially a negotiation about resources and ethics. This, he says, is the most difficult negotiation. And this, I suspect, is why this volume (57:2) of Westerly will interest so many writers and readers.

Thanks for the contact

November 28th, 2012

I’ve not written a blog entry for ages (as I’m trying to write something new), but today I’ve been energised to do so by a wonderful email I received. A reader contacted me after finishing Reaching One Thousand, explaining that he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome some years ago. He has now written a fantastic poem, partly triggered by his reading of my book. I found it so moving to read the poem.

I’ve received a lot of generous emails from readers, giving me their responses to my book. It’s a real privilege to hear from people who have taken the time to read a book and then bothered to make contact. It wasn’t something I was expecting, but it has been quite moving at times. Parents, grandparents, teachers, interested individuals as well as autistic people have all been in touch. One of those lovely surprises in life.

Iceberg exercise

October 5th, 2012

This is iceberg as in the force that sank the Titanic, not the lettuce!

Talking to a student the other day about her (very good) work, I used the old iceberg analogy. This is where we say that a writer should only show the reader a small percentage of all that research and thinking that we do to get to the final product. The rest is sitting under the water, not visible but certainly holding up the work that the reader is enjoying. My student felt the desire to include all that she knew about the topic – and she knew a lot. I was asking her to cut some of that information out and trust that her writing would resonate with all that she knew, even though it might not all be specifically mentioned.

A good exercise for practising this is to take a scene that you’ve already written and rewrite it completely. This time, you have to leave out a key part of the scene or some key events (that’s the ice under the water) and make the scene you write (the visible ice) convey that part of the story through feeling or in some other way.

Why not try it?

Fear of the future

October 5th, 2012

When you have a child with a disability, it is easy to fear the future. I was thinking about this because Ben will be starting high school next year.
See my guest blog on how to handle this at Rhonda’s SillyMummy site.