Australian Society of Authors National Congress 2013

National Writers Congress



Anna Funder gave a brilliant – and blistering – opening address at the first National Congress of the Australian Society of Authors held in Sydney last year.

Now the ASA has uploaded a link to the whole two day event. I particularly recommend the Funder (check out her maths equation) and her argument about paying writers — always. Melissa Lucashenko’s lecture is also a cracker. My session was with the formidably talented Anthony Lowenstein.

Enjoy! And remember that writers earn one of the lowest living wages — most still have to supplement their incomes. Writing contributes to the vast wealth of cultural identity, as well as bringing financial wealth to economies. Please support our writers.


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ABC612 Brisbane Hot Ticket

Richard Fidler, Jillian Whiting and me

Briefly out of hibernation yesterday to do a quick gig on ABC Brisbane’s 612 with Tim Cox’s Drivetime. Basically a chance to talk about what everyone is reading, seeing, watching. I am totally out of the GAME OF THRONES hysteria — Richard sang its praises long and loud and Tim reckons its Shakespearian in its proportion and depth — but I was pleased to know Jillian Whiting was with me — she hasn’t seen it either.

Other things I mentioned were the wonderful Christos Tsolkias. I reckon he’s the best writer writing in Australia today — the psychological acuity, the reach of his vision, the vigour of his prose. I recommended BARRACUDA, despite the fact that I have not really read the whole thing through. I’m not reading fiction (when you are some 57,000 words into your own novel it is death to read other writers — either you (meaning me) unconsciously parody them, or else you feel like jumping out the window because they are so good and you are so bad, or else it just completely puts you off your stride because you need to hypnotise yourself into believing that finishing your book actually matters. Very easy for a writer — sitting alone in a room day after day — to lose faith and confidence). I read non-fiction when I am writing, and so I also mentioned the John Cheever biography by Blake Bailey (who wrote the wonderful Richard Yates bio).

The other book I mentioned was Kristina Olsson memoir BOY LOST, a beautifully wrought, very moving story about the absence in the life of her late mother, and the child wrenched from her arms. Recommended. I hope this will be a regular monthly gig — it was fun. And most refreshing to remove myself from my lonely chair in my lonely room. Now, back to that lonely, growing book.

Posted in 2014 Susan Johnson new novel, ABC612; Tim Cox; Richard Fidler; Gillian Whiting; ABC Brisbane Drivetime; Hot Ticket, books; authors; Australia, QWeekend; journalism; Susan Johnson, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Border despatch

Hello from the frontline of novel writing. Now approaching the forty thousand word mark, which is starting to feel like half way.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a week at an empty house by a lake, a gift kindly bestowed by a friend, who not only donated the house but looked after my feckless teenage children (nothing personal, boys, but all parents of teenagers will recognise the conjunction between the words “feckless” and “teenage”. They are lovely children I hasten to add, but not yet fully house trained).

I got 10,000 words down, earplugs in, no internet connection, my trusty guard dog, Lucy, at the ready to unmask any intruders. But not a soul came, only Lucy and me, the whole wonderful week, and my characters, who I love. When I am not writing about them I picture them suspended, as in a movie, the projector temporarily stopped.

Writing is not often an enjoyable activity for me. Like most writers, one is always conscious of the press of great writers above, and how far one has to go to kiss even the hem of the great. But, one must work with what one has. It is the strain of reaching for something other than that word, that image, which springs first to mind which is what makes writing — in the words of the wonderful author, and sometime New Yorker writer Francine Prose — such a “nerve-flaying” activity. To make the world appear fresh, and yet intimately known, is my great struggle.

But — what a privilege to be able to do it! Hail the mighty Australia Council for allowing this old writer to keep writing. A GOOD MAN is growing, word by agonising word, the recipient of everything I have. It might be small, it will certainly not be great, but it is mine and — as Henri Matisse says, my guide for this book for some reason — what is the point of trying if you are not aiming to do something at least half way good? In the meantime, a picture of a boat by the lake, where I was quiet, and blessed to be.



Posted in 2014 Susan Johnson new novel, A Good Man, BrizVegas; home; travel; life, Queensland, Susan Johnson; Australian fiction, writing | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

A Country Too Far

Book launch for A COUNTRY TOO FAR

Last week it was Queensland’s turn to celebrate the wonderful anthology A COUNTRY TOO FAR, with its editors Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott, at Brisbane’s Multicultural Development Associaton. The launch was timely: the same week it was reported that an asylum seeker from Myanmar was returned to a detention centre and separated from her ill new-born baby in the Mater Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Her crime? Seeking asylum in a country that once prided itself on its humane and compassionate approach to displaced persons after the Second World War, Vietnamese boat people and students fleeing the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Some of Australia’s finest writers contributed to the Keneally-Scott edited anthology, examining in different ways Australia’s response to what Rosie Scott calls “one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.” In prose, essays and poetry, the collection manages to wrest back the discussion from hysteria, reminding everyone that what is at stake here are people’s lives, real people, with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, real people, just like us.

I urge everyone to buy a copy of this book, with all proceeds going to various groups helping newly settled migrants, and refugee groups. I was MC for the Brisbane night, but the book has already launched in Sydney and Melbourne, and events are planned for cities and towns all over Australia.

Here’s a review here from Guardian Australia but the collection has been excellent received everywhere. It would make an excellent Christmas present, most especially for those who perhaps need to understand the other side of the story. Highly recommended.

Posted in A Country Too Far; Tom Keneally; Rosie Scot, Book launches, book reviewing; Meanjin, books; authors; Australia, multiculturalism; asylum seekers, Queensland, writing | Tagged , , | Comments Off

On faith

THIS WEEK I AM leaving journalism (again) for the perils of fiction. I’m returning to that trackless place, without the guide of who/why/when/where (the four “w’s” we were told as cadet journalists we needed to put into our stories).

Unlike journalism, where the story is already in front of you, there is no story until you make it. Every life is a story, of course, but it is the job of a writer to pluck the beginnings, middles and ends of life and give it shape.

There are many definitions and interpretations of what writing is, but I like Sylvia Plath speaking of writing as an urge to excel in “one medium of translation and expression of life.” (Best of course to omit the madness that comes with an overarching desire to excel, but in Plath’s case it’s arguable whether the madness and the excellence can be separated).

I published my first novel, Messages From Chaos, in 1987. Nine books (seven novels and two non-fiction works), and twenty-six years later as a committed writer, I can only leave once again the luxury of a monthly pay cheque, superannuation, sick pay and holiday pay, because of the wonderful chance of being awarded a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

Like most writers, my writing life has been full of ups and downs. It didn’t start blessed (I entered my first novel in the Vogel Award but it failed to get even a shortlisting for the 1986 award. That year the Vogel was won by a writer called Robin Walton for Glace Fruits, and as far as I know she has not published another book since). Since then, a number of my books have been shortlisted or long-listed for practically every prize going, from the Miles Franklin to the International IMPAC Award to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Gold Medal to numerous Premier’s Prizes, but none have won.

I’ve been lucky in other ways: getting not one but two stints at the Nancy Keesing Studio at the Internationale des Arts in the Marais in Paris. I’ve been published by big publishers or by prestigious ones – Faber, Simon and Schuster, Actes Sud among them – and I am still being published (unlike some of my fellow writers who cannot get published at all after several mid-list books).

I’ve also attended big, starry dinners at The Ivy in London where I sat between Jayne Anne Phillips (who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best – and least known – novels about war. Machine Dreams. Google it) and Ian McEwan. I’ve eaten with Peter Carey and drunk with the late, great Seamus Heaney and travelled on a train through Canada with Margaret Atwood and her lovely partner Graeme Gibson (his mother was born in Adelaide).

But I’ve also survived the shock – and let’s face it, the humiliation – of having a novel rejected, a novel that represented more than three years of my life. I’ve had the bad luck of Faber – who was the rejecting publisher – decide on a two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy (despite excellent UK reviews, with one hailing me as “the best thing to come out of Australia since Peter Carey”, my two Faber books failed to sell in huge numbers nor were they nominated for the Booker).

I’ve left journalism three times now, too, with the aim of making a go of it as a full-time writer, and – as far as good and bad luck goes – I haven’t had too bad a time of it. I’ve spent most of those twenty-six years earning my living from my books, with only occasional journalism and part-time editing and teaching stints.

The first time I left journalism – as Queensland correspondent for the late great National Times – was in 1985 because I got my first ever grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. I cannot sing highly enough the praises of Australia’s arts funding system which – since it was first introduced by Whitlam in the ‘70s – has largely remained intact, whatever the political persuasion of succeeding governments. After my experience of living and working and knowing artists and writers in the UK and France, I think Australia still offers one of the best models of arts funding anywhere in the world.

The second time I left journalism – this time as editor of Saturday Extra at The Age – was because I got a stonking US advance, in the days of stonking advances, when the American dollar was worth two Australian dollars. I lasted several years on that, but when I handed in the new book to my US publishers on the first-nibs-at-second-book clause, they declined it. Swings and round-abouts.

Most people in publishing know about how hard it is to make a go of writing. The media loves the success stories rather than the more usual stories, which is that it’s bloody hard to make a decent living out of fiction (insert obligatory “with the exception of Tim Winton” clause here – and maybe Alex Miller and definitely Christos Tsiolkas following the serendipitous success of The Slap but don’t forget his long years of working as a vet assistant, and then of course there is my old Sydney Morning Herald colleague, Geraldine Brooks, who has had the most stellar of literary careers).

But the stories about writers getting million dollar advances (way to go Hannah Kent for proving that it really does happen) or taking baths in bank notes (here’s looking at you, Erika Leonard, aka EL James) inevitably corrupts the way that readers – and some writers – think about books and literary life.

The writing life has little to do with starry dinners. It has little to do with making the pages of Vanity Fair (here’s looking at you, Salman) or, indeed, whether you have “made it”. The reality is – as anyone who has been writing for a reasonable amount of time knows – is plainer and rougher.

I’ve been around long enough now to see the rise and fall and rise of various writing careers, as books come and go in fashion. I’ve seen David Ireland discovered, or re-discovered, and David Foster sadly forgotten. I remember a 1980s book everyone was reading, a big hit by McPhee Gribble, who were predicting big things for Margaret McClusky and Wedlock: a novel (don’t bother googling, it appears to have fallen down the plughole of history). Justine Ettler was everywhere in the late 80s and 90s.

So as I muscle up for yet another bout – which may or may not end well – why do I do it? I was gobsmacked, and on-my-knees-grateful to be awarded a grant, but I have to say that a part of me is slightly ashamed to be applying for a grant at this late stage of my writing life. Part of me still fights the old capitalist myth about the market finding the true worth of things. You know the argument: surely there must be a reason why things – books, albums, dresses, stuff – don’t sell? Er, maybe folks just don’t want ‘em enough?

My fellow author, that young starting-out-thing Annabel Smith, discusses this point on her blog, where she takes she addresses the “most obvious explanation for such a low income might be that I have written a bad book.” She continues her theme here.

A more rational part understands, too, screen-writer William Goldman’s point in his classic Adventures in the Screen Trade that the secret about hit films (or hit books) is that there is no secret: if anyone knew what made a best-seller, he or she would simply do it. No-one knows what is going to be a hit until it’s a hit (Fifty Shades anyone?).

In the end, writing is what I do. I’m all right with being on the B team of Oz lit. I won’t lie and say I wouldn’t be ecstatic to actually win something, but I am all right with starting another book even though chances are I never will. I’m all right with beginning a new novel, even knowing that the shelf life of novels gets smaller and smaller (three weeks, tops) and that writing is more than ever a giant leap into the unknown, an act of faith.

I don’t write for myself. I wouldn’t write if I wasn’t published. I have a journal for my inner personal life. I write because if I connect with just one reader, it’s enough. I would, of course, like to connect with lots of readers – that would be my preference – but, hey, at this stage of my writing career a handful of readers is enough.

I don’t write for money (obviously). I don’t write for the glory, for the starry dinners at The Ivy. I don’t write for ego (although every writer has to have a certain amount of ego to think anyone else could care less about what he or she has written).

I write because I wish to express something of an expression of life. I write as a way of bearing witness to this passing existence. Helen Garner once wrote to me about writing that one has to feel the joy of once again putting on the harness.

In putting on the harness, with joy, I need to go deep into quiet. No social media, no Face Book, no yadda yadda. The Italians have a proverb that between the saying and the doing many a pair of shoes is worn out, so no more saying from me for a while.

Thank you, Literature Board of the Australia Council for giving me another go. I’ll be posting on this blog from time to time but not doing any social media for a while. The rest is noise, and all that. Adios, for the moment.

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Mudgee Readers’ Festival 2013



Mudgee Readers’ Festival 2013

Just a shout out to anyone within cooee of Mudgee this weekend August 10-11. A small group of authors including Stephanie Dowrick, Sarah Turnbull, Bettina Arndt, Katherine Howell, Tara Moss, Peter Goldsworthy and me will be at this pretty little town doing some talking. All welcome.



Posted in books; authors; Australia, Katherine Howell;Bettina Arndt; Sarah Turnbull; Stephanie Dowrick; Susan Johnson, Mudgee Readers' Festival, My Hundred Lovers | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Voting for the Courier Mail People’s Choice Book of the Year is open!

And My Hundred Lovers is on it….

Very chuffed indeed to be on a list that includes the wonderful Kristina Olsson and Matthew Condon. I’m a big fan, too, of Melissa Lucashenko — haven’t read the other books, but wish all the other short-listed authors the best of luck.

So, it’s over to you, people! You can vote here….

Courier-Mail People\’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year

Posted in books; authors; Australia, My Hundred Lovers, Queensland, Queensland Literary Awards, writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Still standing


WHEN MY BOYS were small, they loved a story I used to read
to them about an adventurous mouse who went to sea. When the mouse was young he
stood in the harbour and watched the boats sail away, and longed to sail with
them. Every day is the same, he thought, I brush my teeth, I comb my hair. Finally,
when the mouse was old enough and brave enough, the day arrived when he could
sail away too and everybody came to see him off. What about the pirate cats? Asked
his mother. What about the water rats? Asked his father.

But the mouse sailed away anyway and had many adventures of
his own. He encountered pirates, huge seas, strange people and strange lands
but one day – I can’t remember how – he washed up back where he stared, on his
own beach, in his own harbour. He was a changed rat now and now – even though
every day was the same in that he cleaned his teeth and combed his hair, he
enjoyed telling tales about everything he had known. For as long as he lived,
he was never bored again. He said something like, “You know, every day is

This story came back to me yesterday as I passed the block
of flats where I set my first novel, Messages
From Chaos
(Harper and Row, 1987). It tells the story of Anna Lawrence, not
yet thirty, a woman caught between the romance of everything her mother, and
her mother’s generation, had taught her about what she might expect from
marriage and a husband, and her own generation, which did not believe in
marriage. Anna is a “free woman” – as described in Lessing’s The Golden Notebook –except that she
cannot quite free herself from her own expectations.

I interviewed many of my closest friends for Anna’s story
and of course used many of my own feelings about being confused about love. The
first line “If I were honest, and I am not, I might confide that I have always
regarded myself as special” came from one of my dearest friends (not spoken
quite as arrogantly as that in real life!) but certainly I wished to convey the
idea of entitlement that many of my generation of baby-boomers possessed –
which sat oddly with their sense of bewilderment and pain. How to live? How to
love? In that book I tried to puzzle out some of that confusion.

As I passed the block of flats, one of the last remaining
old-style, unrenovated blocks left in New Farm – and moreover one on a prime
real estate site, with spectacular views of the new shiny BrizVegas – I wondered
if Anna was still living up there, her view of the sparkly bridge at night
strung like stars. I wondered what had happened to her if she had in fact
stayed in Brisbane, whether her life had moved on. I imagined that probably she
had left like a lot of my generation left – for Sydney or Melbourne, London or

There was a vacant block next door, and I’m certain the
block’s days are numbered. I hoped she still wasn’t there, growing bitter,
older. I hoped she had moved out long ago, and had re-invented herself as a
screenwriter in LA or as an interpreter in Paris. I hoped she had worked out
how to love.

And then I walked on to the flat I live in now, which has a
tiny view, too, of the Story Bridge. I live there with one of my sons, just
around the corner, not 200 metres, from the house where I first began to write.
It was a big share house, large enough for me to have one of the little spare
bedrooms as my writing room. It was the first time in my life I had set up a
special room in which to write – it must have been 1984 or 1985 I think, just
when I was beginning to formulate the idea for my first novel.

So, here I am, twenty-six years and nine books later. I’m
still standing and every day is interesting. I know that time has transfigured
me just as it transfigures everyone. I know too that what will survive of us is

Posted in books; authors; Australia, BrizVegas; home; travel; life, Life; birth; marriage; divorce, Queensland, women and ageing, writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

I’m not a chick lit writer but….

Fifty Shades of Chick Lit at the 2013 Perth Writers Festival, ABC Big Ideas

Anita Heiss, Zoe Foster and me discussing why there is no such thing as men’s writing. Was Jane Austen the world’s first chick lit writer? (Answer: no). Why was Sylvia Plath’s merciless novel THE BELL JAR given a lipstick print cover for its 50th anniversary? The Stella Prize, the ranking of women’s fiction and other matters all get a look in….



Posted in Anita Heiss; Zoe Foster; 2013 Perth Writers Festival; Fifty Shades of Chick Lit, books; authors; Australia, The Stella Prize; gender and fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Add your own lover!

Mingus, one of Pam's hundred lovers

Inspired by the beautiful photographs that readers have sent me regarding their own hundred lovers, I’m inviting anyone who cares to send to me a pic of a lover, and I’ll post it here.

And here’s the first pic, which Pam Bourke of Brisbane kindly sent me. She reckons it’s two loves with the one stone: her cat, Mingus, named for her other love, the jazz musician Charlie Mingus.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Pam’s two loves, Mingus and Mingus! Please keep ‘em coming!

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