Jesse and Andi’s great big walk – supporting kids’ literacy

andi and jesse

Thirty six hours until Andi and I head off to the United Kingdom for our long-awaited hike across Scotland (postponed from last year after Andi injured herself). Items are being crossed off lists, clothes chosen, whisky drunk (can’t be too prepared). Andi shivers every time she sees the weather forecast, but I’m encouraged that the temperatures are now at least in double figures, albeit at the lower end.

RtR logo, tagline underneathWe are taking the chance to support two wonderful literacy charities during our hike, Room to Read (the international organisation for literacy and gender equality – for which I’m an author ambassador) and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation in Australia. Our fundraising page is here.

What does our walk have to do with literacy? Nothing really, but I like to think our training and tramping efforts will have positive outcomes beyond our own enjoyment, and might inspire you to join us in supporting the cause of literacy for young people whose lives will be literally transformed by the efforts of these organisations. Also, those organised charity walks such as Coastrek and Oxfam Trailwalker – bravely tackled by other friends – are just too damned hard.

southern upland way map

The Southern Upland Way

Kids’ literacy and creativity have become my burning passions of late. I’d love to share this contemplation of literacy from Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations. He said:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

Final presentation small

Kids at My Story workshop last week, run by Goonellabah Library

Sums it up pretty well. Reading and writing aren’t just entertainment. They are game changers, particularly for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

World change starts with educated children, according to Room to Read, a non-profit organisation focusing on literacy and gender equality through education in the developing world.

Since delivering its first load of books to a school in Nepal in 2000, Room to Read has built more than 1800 schools, established 17,000 libraries and published 1000 kids books in 28 languages. I’m a writer ambassador for Room to Read and our team of Australian authors is working to raise $40,000 in 2015. Donating to the Australian chapter of Room to Read will support the recovery of literacy programs in Nepal after the earthquakes.

Closer to home – National Reconciliation Week runs 27 May to 3 June – coinciding with the start of our hike. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation works to raise literacy for Indigenous kids living in remote regions, through supplying books, literacy resources, publishing and visits. ILF is the Australian Book Industry’s organisation for supporting Indigenous literacy and its patron is the Honorable Quentin Bryce. Last year the ILF supplied 120,000 books to kids in remote communities. Donating to ILF will support its important efforts in remote Australia, and be a practical step towards reconciliation.

I’m kicking off the program with a donation to both charities and hope you’ll support one or both of them too.

southernupland waypicClick here to go to our fundraising page on Everyday Hero and choose your charity. Stay tuned for updates as we tramp nearly 400km from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland between 1-19 June. I’ll let you know how much money we raise.

Many thanks for your support


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When a book is born

Every now and then, a book is born from long labour, considered crafting, and the requisite time for it to ripen into something superb.

I’ve been lucky enough to witness not one, but two such books in short succession.

emma-ashmere-the-floating-garden-coverFriday 1 May is the official birth day of Emma Ashmere‘s debut novel The Floating Garden, a gorgeous piece of writing that I’ve seen evolve and coalesce over the last few years since Emma joined my writing group. The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press, a small, passionate publishing house in Melbourne that has been producing innovative, controversial and optimistic books for more than two decades.

The story unrolls in the 1920s as the Sydney Harbour Bridge is being built. I’d never thought about living in a suburb that was being slowly and noisily torn down to make way for the bridge, but that’s the scenario in which we meet the main character, Ellis Gilbey, struggling landlady of Milsons Point and secret gardening writer. Her gardening column isn’t her only secret – her past is full of them and through her we meet the charismatic theosophist Miss Minerva Stranks, and the delicate Kitty Tate – not to mention Rennie Howarth, highly strung artist and dissatisfied wife. Unforgettable characters in a fascinating era.

It’s an exquisite read. Emma is a master of superb prose and she’s been honing this book for some time. It shows. Early reviews have compared it to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Oh, and the gorgeous cover features the painting ‘The Bridge’ (1930), by South Australian artist Dorrit Black.

His Other HouseHis Other House by Sarah Armstrong is the other book I’ve watched grow and evolve over a long period into a beautifully crafted work of fiction. Sarah is also in my writing group and her first novel Salt Rain was shortlisted for awards including the Miles Franklin when it came out in 2005. His Other House, set in northern NSW, takes us on a journey of truth and lies, as the main character Quinn embarks on an affair and then must make a choice that reverberates shockingly though the lives of his wife Marianna and mistress Rachel.

I love this process of following a character through a moral conundrum. It’s a gripping read as we see disaster coming for Quinn. Even though I’d read the book in early drafts, when I sat down with the final product, I again found myself trying to work out what I’d do in Quinn’s position, racing through the story to find out what he chooses. Marianna and Rachel are also gripping characters and none of them acts predictably.

I’m reminded with both books of the great value in not rushing. They are complete, polished, superbly crafted and fully realised. I’m in awe of Sarah and Emma – and feel very privileged to share a writing group with these two fine authors.

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A call to (creative) adventure

scottish landscape_shutterstock_154718552Here’s an invitation to the writers (aspiring or otherwise) among you… an entire week, immersed in the craft of fiction, in the evocative surrounds of Edinburgh and the Borders villages of Scotland.

But first… thanks those of you who joined in my adventures in Alaska, San Francisco and Dubai through this blog. I’m now settled back at home on the rim of the extinct Mount Warning volcano, loving the powerful, immense landscape of northern New South Wales Bundjalung country and mindful of my good fortune in living here.

It’s not long until my next adventure and ed castle in the mist_amendedthis is one you may like to share in person. From 28 June – 6 July 2015 I’m running a one-week intensive fiction writing retreat in another beloved part of the world – Edinburgh and the Borders District of Scotland. Billed as a journey through history, the course is suited to all fiction writers, no matter what period interests you.

Jesse teachingI’ve done plenty of teaching before, but this immersion in creative writing for a whole week is new. It’s exciting – giving the chance to go really deeply into the creative journey. With a small group of writers, I’ll lead the way into the craft of writing dramatic, powerful fiction.

The course is for writers interested in taking their work to the next level, and wanting to deepen and extend their skills. Through tutorials and discussions we’ll explore the structures that underpin successful novels, and how to apply their principles to your own writing. I always use plenty of hands-on exercises to put ideas into practice, and these will help you find the best structure for your work, create memorable characters and vivid worlds, and polish your words and sentences until they glow.

We’ll share our writing, give each other constructive feedback, and set up ways of continuing creative practices back at home.

scotts-viewIt’s a delicious mix of work and play. We will meet each morning from 9am till midday for instruction, discussion and hands on writing exercises. The rest of the day we will adventure – with optional guided walks, excursions, and some memorable dinners. I promise there’ll be plenty of fun.

I’ve worked with Carol Crennan from Blackadder Castle ruinsboutique travel company Bookshop Travel, and Dougie Stewart from Scotland’s Make Tracks, to create an itinerary that offers a week of intensive writing, plus plenty of chances to walk and explore the magical villages and rich history of the Borders district – including an exclusive visit to the ruins of Blackadder Castle (on private lands), the inspiration for my novel The Raven’s Heart.

I’d love you to join me – and also consider sharing this with friends who might be interested.

Click here for the brochure, or here to go straight to Bookshop Travel for further information. Don’t delay – bookings will close soon. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

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Homeward bound

Dubai Writers centreSaturday night falls over a smoggy Dubai. Cars streaming along the freeway, the thud of music playing 15 floors below on the hotel forecourt by the water, and my last night in the United Arab Emirates. I’ve been away from home for seven weeks and I’m so ready to get back that it’s an ache in my chest.

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature wrapped up tonight (just the farewell party to go). It’s been amazing. My first big international multi-lingual literary festival, and in a part of the world I don’t know very well. I’ve learned a lot about the UAE – enough to realize how little I know. It’s a fascinating and mysterious place and it would take much more than a week to get a grip oopeningn it.

school3Through the festival I met a couple of hundred local kids – both expats and Emirates (the majority being the latter). One IMG_4915of the best parts of writing for kids is the chance to meet them – they let you know just how they’re feeling, bored or otherwise, so if it goes well, it’s a heady experience. The kids from the school I visited, Ras Al Khaimah Academy, sent a package of thank you letters to me via their teacher, who said “RAK academy boasts approximately 60 different nationalities amongst our students, most speaking English as a 2nd language, many as their 3rd. Your visit has provided an opportunity for children to tell their own stories of riding or looking after horses and camels.”

I had wondered beforehand if the festival mainly catered to the expat community, but it was inspiring to see how the organizers extended themselves to go much further than that. Many – most – sessions had translators standing by so that Arabic speakers could have a simultaneous translation into English (through IMG_2984headphones) and English speakers could have it into Arabic, as required. The poetry performed at Desert Stanzas was all in the language it was written in – Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and English. Deliberately, no translations were given. We were invited to listen and understand at a different level.

Some of you will have seen my Facebook photos, many coming from the cultural IMG_2921program organised for authors by the festival. Walking tours, feasts, stable visits and the incredible Desert Stanzas night made for an incredibly rich week. Being pampered in a swanky hotel was pretty nice too.

This whole trip since leaving Australia has been a feast – of friendships, landscapes, creativity and inspiration. I’ve had both the solitary writing time that’s part of this life I’ve chosen, and the busy external social time IMG_2981that’s also part of it – meeting other writers, meeting readers, speaking about my work, sharing the stories.

I’m sated, satisfied, tired. Ready for the air of home, for my own bed, for my beautiful smiling lover who has been looking after the place where my heart is. I’m so grateful for Andi’s love and support – it’s the rock that allows me to go out on so many adventures, knowing there’s a safe place to come home.

Dubai sunset

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Half a world away

dubaiI’m still half a world from home – but now it’s the other half. Flew into Dubai last night and my eyes are still adapting to bright light and flat horizons instead of the soft grey mist and green forested hills of south east Alaska.

carol and jesseI’ll back up a bit. Last Wednesday it was time to say my sad goodbye to Sitka – to new friends and old, to an adventurous time, and to my aunt Carol. We became even closer over the month, and although we had the odd bump along the way, our friendship grew and deepened and we delighted in each other. It was a precious time. We shared the story of our month in our final reading and presentation – a bit of a romp of conversation, photos and readings at the library.

And our last night was spent in the company bluecanoeof the Blue Canoe Writing Group – it felt as though we were leaving lifelong friends at the end of the evening.

treasuresI was badly organised and so spent my last day rushing around in a panic rather than making a measured farewell (thanks to Blossom who ferried me around on errands!). Wish I had allowed more space to wander outside and say goodbye to that beautiful land, but I had to let Carol do that on my behalf, and ‘release’ all of our rocks, sticks, pine cones, bones, shells etc back into the wild, in a gorgeous arrangement.

I hopped on a plane and headed to San Francisco. Two reasons – firstly to visit my aunt Margaret (Dad’s sister and my godmother) and Uncle Ben (there’s an auntie theme to this trip, isn’t there?) and rosie and bensecondly to find out more about 826 Valencia, the first in what’s grown into a network of centres across the USA and the world, teaching kids how to write and fostering a love of literature.

That sounds rather high-brow – the reality is anything but. You enter 826 Valencia through a Pirate Supply shop on the street front. Other 826 centres have set up
shopfronts including the Greater Boston 826Bigfoot Research Institute, the Secret Agent Supply Company, the Time Travel Mart and the Robert Supply and Repair shop. The Sydney Story Factory, which sprang from the same idea, fronts Redfern Street as the Martian Embassy.

The idea is that the whole experience, from the moment of walking in the front door, is wacky and fun. Author Dave Eggers who was one of the founders of 826 Valencia, said his main bit of advice for new centres: “Keep it weird”. Don’t let it become like school.
I’ve observed a class at Sydney Story Factory and
IMG_4700marvelled at how the Storyteller-in-Chief made every step of the process fun and relatively easy. Same thing at 826 Valencia. I joined a morning “Field Trip” in which kids from a nearby school came in – wide-eyed and excited through the shop – and spent two hours coming up with a story idea, including setting and characters, and working out their own endings. Helped by a bevy of adult volunteers (a scribe, an illustrator, the teacher and the never-seen Captain Blue who yelled out threats and instructions from his hidden office upstairs), they walked out at the end with their own printed and bound books. In the afternoon, 826 runs a homework support program. Kids get reading and writing time as well as help to complete their homework. And there are other programs too.

According to Dave, the project is neighbourhood-changing and world-changing. Listen to his acclaimed TED talk here if you’re interested.

My purpose in visiting 826 Valencia is a fact-finding mission. Can we start something similar in Byron Shire (under the auspices of the Northern Rivers Writer’s Centre)? We’re not San Francisco, Boston, or Sydney. Can it work in a small town? The Island Institute is early in the process of setting up the Sitka Story Lab – a kind of scaled down version of 826 Valencia – and it was great observing how it worked during my month there under the enthusiastic leadership of intern Sally Helm.

When I get back, it’s time for some serious conversations with the board of the writer’s centre. It needs vision, money and energy. There’s huge enthusiasm and excitement from all of us – the next question is can we make it a reality?

Today’s reality – I’m looking down from the 15th floor over the glassy waters of Dubai Creek. A yellow scull glides past, and behind that a throbbing highway. In the distance, in the pale light, a gaggle of buildings including the tallest one in the world. It’s a bit surreal. I’m here as a guest of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and feeling like a very small Australian fish in a very large pond – I don’t know anyone here yet. It’s exciting and daunting to be a guest of the largest literary festival in the Middle East.

Time to put my big girl plants on and meet the other writers. Wish me luck.

goodbye crikey

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Days Like This

IMG_4331How did it happen? The month has disappeared! Someone stole a week out of it somewhere. I have but two days left and many more things I’d like to do. Carol, who flies out a day later than me, is combing Sitka for a husband of convenience, and failing that, planning to go AWOL come Thursday. She has discovered her inner Alaskan and will never be the same.

Spring seems to be well and truly arriving in Sitka. Bushes IMG2_4609are budding, chickadees are chirping and yes, the bears are awake. We heard FIRST HAND from someone who saw a bear at the beach we visited by boat the other week. Yesterday our new best friend Blossom took us for a hike in the rain up to Heart Lake. Once we arrived at the lake she picked up a branch and started pulling the twigs off it. Yes, it was a bear weapon, she explained. You can wave it in the air to make yourself look bigger, or poke a charging bear in the eye with it when it gets close enough. Bears stink, she elaborated, and both she and Carol had noticed a strong smell at one point on the trail. We sang everything we could remember from The Sound of Music on the way IMG_4607back down, while I tried to get into the right frame of mind for poking a stick into the eye of a charging bear once it got close enough.

We’ve packed plenty of adventures into our final week (and a bit of writing too). At short notice we had the chance to go out on a marine debris clean up boat trip with Sitka Sound Science Centre. After a pretty hilarious time navigating the long, steep, IMG_4364frosty gangway to the dock (I went down by sitting on my arse and sliding and still could have ended up in the water), we motored out into glassy reflective seas and watched the volcano slowly turn pink as the sun rose. Cue the sea otters, sea lions, and humpback whales. We spent the day in a little cluster of wild islands dropping onto small beaches and blitzing them for litter.

IMG_4366It was beautiful and tragic at the same time. Snaring big pieces of debris is great, but many plastics in the ocean just break down and down until they turn into a soup of tiny tiny pieces. So when we started on those beaches, scrambling around the rocks and sea logs, we were confronted with ever smaller scraps of plastic and Styrofoam. You have to decide how small you want to go – you can’t get it all. I thought I was IMG_4368reasonably aware about not using too much plastic, but I realised there is so much more I can do – and having scraped up all those plastic fragments off the stunning wild beaches of Sitka Sound, I’m pretty damned inspired to try harder. Andi, I’ll never complain about you washing and reusing plastic bags ever again.

I tell you though, it felt great to clean up those beaches. Five of us managed to do about eight or IMG_4569nine beaches during the day, interspersed with laughter, great conversation, food and moments of utter awe of the landscape around us. In winter the water is so clear you can look down and see clams and kelp forests below the boat. It was sunny, and warm. When we finally headed for home in the afternoon, the boat stuffed with collection bags and bits of debris too big to bag (an inflatable boat, remnants of buoys and fishing nets, pipes, the base of a shower), Davey the skipper put on Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” and it truly was a day like this.

IMG_2441What else? Another visit to the kids of Sitka Tribes culture classes – they made us thank you cards and wrote stories about Stay, Dexter and Paruku – once I was able to explain that Stay was a fibreglass seeing eye collection dog who lived in Antarctica. A visit to the Science Centre to learn about marine debris and check out the ‘touch tanks’ where you can (gently) poke and prod local sea life – the robust ones that live in the intertidal zone and used to being tossed around. Improvised folk music at the Larkspur Café. Giggling in the back row of “50 Shades of Grey”. Throwing a dinner party with an Aussie roast (a few bad IMG_2467moments when the chook turned out to still be frozen just before it went into the oven). A night at Mount Edgecumbe High School watching the kids from different tribes perform their traditional dances on the basketball court. Last catchups with old friends and new.

Tonight we’re giving a reading – but we plan to make it more than that. With words and
images, it will be a reflection on our time here and what it’s been about for each of us. What we’ll take away and how it will touch our lives. I hope we can do it justice.

We’re planning to come back. It may even become an annual pilgrimage.


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More weekend whales

IMG_2607Sunday morning – I woke up early to a very pink pre-dawn sky – got out of my cosy bed and scampered out into the chill to try and take some photos, as anything to do with sun is quite rare here. Good weather was forecast and we heard from Island Institute Board Member Brooke Schafer that the boat trip she’d been hoping to take us on was a goer. Brooke and husband Paul have shares in a great little runabout boat, and by 11.30am we were kitted up in our warmest IMG_2620clothes, stuffed into lifejackets, and motoring out of Crescent Harbor into the waters of Sitka Sound, with Brooke’s Mum Elizabeth joining us too.

Sitka is on Alaska’s Inside Passage, a route for oceangoing vessels that weaves through the many islands of north America’s Pacific coast, from southeastern Alaska down to northwestern Washington state. Sitka is the only town that actually fronts the PacificIMG_2624 Ocean, so once you head out of the harbour you can see open ocean, dotted with the little rocky islands that scatter the Sound. At your back: snow capped mountains and hills forested with tall hemlock and spruce.

We sped across the water towards Kruzof Island, the large, uninhabited home of Mount Edgecumbe. This snow-capped volcano is one of the dominant features on the skyline – you look across to it almost IMG_2682anytime you face the water and I love picking it out from different viewpoints. We began to see whale spouts – we’ve been told several times that not all of Alaska’s humpbacks go to Hawaii for the northern winter – many stay around here, and there they were. They do feel like old friends with their familiar arching shape.

Paul took the boat close in to shore and we jumped barefoot into the shin-deep water. IMG_2732Feeling that chill on my ankles gave me a flashback to my polar plunge down in Antarctica. How was I ever brave enough to do that? But as I squawked and splashed for shore, I remembered we were with Alaskans – Brooke and Paul had been snorkeling the day before – and tried to be a little more stoic.

brents beach cabinApplied socks and boots to chilled white feet, ate two slices of cake to warm them (the Alaskans kept exclaiming about what a warm day it was and taking off too many clothes), and inspected the beautiful camping cabin on the edge of the beach. Of course there was a good bear story to go with it – apparently a bear once decided to rip the cabin to pieces, while people were inside.IMG_2694

With that story ringing in our ears we set out on the forest trail skirting the shore and emerged on a long black sand beach, fringed with forest. Carol and I have both been fascinated by stories of tsunami debris washing up from Japan in recent years. I read a novel before leaving home (A tale for the time being – Ruth Ozeki) about a north American author living on this coastline who IMG_4254finds a diary in a washed up lunch box, written by a Japanese teenager, and that really got me interested – and Carol did quite a bit of research before we left home. It was a weird feeling when one of the first pieces of plastic I found was a dispenser bottle for cream of some sort – battered, but with the Japanese characters still visible.

We would both like to work with local kids on art and stories around this debris – I’m not sure it will happen on this trip, but sounds like a good reason to come back, doesn’t it? The Sitka Sound Science Centre is taking local kids out for rubbish collection and science related to the debris – we hope to talk to them this IMG_2693week about incorporating art and creativity into that work.

Of course the beach was also full of exquisite driftwood, huge logs, stones, shells, seaweed – I could have beachcombed for days. Stuffed my pockets with treasures (which will all have to go back to the sea when we leave here) and found a pitted metal ball that looked like a buoy of some sort. Or an unexploded land mine. Don’t tell me I have IMG_4248an overactive imagination. Two hours was a teasing taste and Cas and I had to almost be yanked bodily away from it to go back to the boat – watched over by a noisy bald-headed eagle. Maybe he didn’t want us to leave either.

On the way back – a whale was close enough that Brooke cut the engine and let the boat drift so we could hear its explosive breath as it surfaced, and watch its smooth back
IMG_2730rolling under the water again. A sea otter let us come just a few feet away before it waved its flippers and dived. I tried to pick the island where I stayed in a shack for two nights on my last visit seven years ago – couldn’t quite spot it (though that experience is carved on my memory forever).

As we pootled into Crescent Harbour a sea lion dived a few times in front of us – just another Alaskan moment, of the sort this place is so good at putting on. Yes it has been a whale of a weekend.

Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Elizabeth was a Tlingit civil rights activist whose advocacy, and speech to the territorial Senate in 1945, were instrumental in the passage of the 1945 Anti Discrimination Act – the first law of its kind in the entire United States. Many of Sitka’s school kids will be marching in her honour today and we’re looking forward to joining the celebrations.

"Elizabeth Peratrovich" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Elizabeth Peratrovich” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

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