A bang and a whimper

The new year starts with both a bang and a whimper. The bang is the sound made as my (still quite new) Honda backs hard into a lamppost, crumpling into a shape that will take it off the road for three weeks. The whimper is my immune system trying to respond to the burrowing bite of a shellback tick behind my ear – a bite that lays me out for ten days.

All of which means, as far as I can tell, that I should have a quiet start to the year and take it easy.

I don’t blog all that much, as those of you following me know. Until I’m going on an adventure, and then I love to tell tales of the journey. So it’s that time. Since my last big adventure I’ve written several novels for kids and finished my Doctor of Creative Arts. Now I’m heading to Alaska again – returning to the Island Institute for a second writing residency. Four delicious weeks, this time during winter, to dive into the deep space that writing an adult novel requires.

A big difference this time: I’m not going alone. My aunt, Carol Birrell, applied with me for the joint residency. Together we’re going to write, create, paint, draw, sculpt and play for four weeks – alone, together, and with the Sitka community. We’ve added a week at the start to head up into the Arctic Circle to see if we can find the Aurora Borealis.

So – stay tuned. Adventures coming up.

Alaska 017

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The cover story

This weekend I discovered the extraordinary story of the photograph that appears on the cover of “Chasing the Light”, and as many people have commented on and asked about the cover, I thought I’d share it with you.

Many non-writers think that it is authors who design the covers of their books, but in fact it is the publishers. This can be quite a tricky process, because contractually the publisher has the final decision on cover design. Luckily HarperCollins has been a brilliant partner in this, taking my comments and suggestions very seriously and changing the photo in response. I’ve heard of other authors who have barely been consulted about their covers.

medium CHASING THE LIGHT coverAnyway, I really love the image of a woman suspended in the water underneath sea ice on the front of the book but all I knew was that it was a stock photo. When I studied the image I couldn’t imagine how it would have been shot, and so I presumed it had been Photoshopped. I even thought perhaps the woman in the image was a dummy.

It turns out, I was completely wrong. The photograph was taken by Victor Lyagushkin of Russia, a photographer for National Geographic and Nikon, and part of Phototeam Pro, a Russian group that specialises in extreme media projects in remote places. The woman under the water is Natalia Avseenko, a thirty six year old Russian who’s twice won the world freediving championships (in 2006 and 2008).

The shoot was done in the White Sea in Northern Russia, under ice, at a water temperature of around -2 degrees Celsius (salt water freezes at a lower temperature than freshwater).  Natalie was freediving below the frozen surface of the sea with a safety diver providing air when she needed it.

In another shoot that was part of the same project, Natalie swam naked with Beluga Whales, which was the realization of her childhood dream. (see more about this project HERE) This had more reverberations with “Chasing the Light” than I ever could have imagined – bringing in whales, ice, childhood longing and female courage.

So – below are some photos of the shoot, courtesy of Phototeam.pro, where Victor works. Please check out Phototeam Pro’s web post responding to my question about the cover HERE. If you have a bit of time, you can watch the half hour documentary about Natalie’s swim with the Beluga Whales on Youtube. It’s quite extraordinary to see her sitting naked on the edge of the ice while around her everyone is bundled in extreme cold weather clothing.






























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The Next Big Thing Meme

Hello folks. Counting down the sleeps until Chasing the Light hits the bookshops on 1 Feb. The lead-up is probably the best part of the whole thing, before any scary reviews come out or friends start crossing the road to avoid me. I can just sit at home clutching a copy, stroking the cover and muttering ‘my precious…’

I’ve been tagged by historical novelist Kate Forsyth (who incidentally is going to launch my book at Gleebooks in Sydney on 2 February) for “The Next Big Thing Meme”. I had to look up exactly what ‘meme’ means – and it’s a concept that spreads from person to person via the internet. I’m sure you all knew that.

Anyway, it means I answer ten questions about my book that you may not have ever thought to ask, and tag some other writers I know to do the same.


Oh yes, and my website has had a big update – check it out at www.jesseblackadder.com and if you’re not from Australia or NZ, pretend you are and click appropriately so you can read about Chasing the Light.

1. What is the title of your current book?

Chasing the light: a novel of AntarcticaCHASING THE LIGHT cover thumbnail

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The race for the first woman to land on Antarctica.

3. Where did the idea come from?

There is almost no historical record about the earliest woman to land on Antarctica, or the women who travelled there in the 1930s from Norway – in spite of the fact that hundreds of women applied to be included in polar expeditions including those of Scott, Mawson and Shackleton. Why weren’t these stories told anywhere?

4. What genre does your book fall under?

Historical fiction, literary-leaning, of the variety inspired by real events.

5. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

hilary swankThe story follows three Norwegian women who head to Antarctica in the 1930s. Lillemor Rachlew, the dashing one, would have to be played by Hilary Swank (think Amelia Earhart style). Ingrid Christensen would be a Tilda Swinton type but starting to get a little middle aged tilda-swinton2spread, and Mathilde Wegger would be Joanne Froggatt, that lovely maid from Downton Abbey – the sort that you don’t realise she’s sweet until you have a really good look. The dashing polar explorer travelling with them could be Ewan McGregor or Eric Bana, and Ingrid’s husband – well, he needs to look blonde and Nordic and rich. David Wenham could give it a shot, with some accent work. But probably better to be Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist. I have spent far too long on that question.

DowntonAbbey_JoanneFroggatt_400x445-303x338 220px-Michael_Nyqvist-cuB ewan

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?cropped ingrid and mathilde

Finding a picture of Ingrid Christensen and Mathilde Wegger on the way to Antarctica in 1931. Ingrid looked out of the picture enigmatically… how did she feel about missing out on being the first woman to reach the mainland, after four voyages? Why had she been forgotten by history?

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

US author Andrea Barrett wrote a superb novel called Voyage of the Narwhal about an 1855 Arctic expedition from Philadelphia (searching for the crew of John Franklin’s lost expedition) and the women who are left behind. In Chasing the Light, the women get to go along. I can only distantly aspire to her standard of writing.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is published by Fourth Estate, the literary imprint of HarperCollins and I am represented by Sophie Hamley at Camerons Literary Management.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

It includes original research, which I did as part of a Doctor of Creative Arts. Plus I had to fit in two trips to Antarctica and one to Norway. So the first draft took about two years. The second draft took two months, and the third took two weeks. That estimate may involve some poetic license.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

My research turned up new information about who really was the first woman to land on the Antarctic continent. But you’ll have to read it to learn more.

Now – over to the writers I’m tagging as part of ‘The next big thing’.

I’d like to introduce you to Katherine Howell, crime writer extraordinaire, whose sixth Australian crime novel, Web of Deceit, was published last week. Her work is unputdownable.

Erotic novelist Krissy Kneen’s third book Steeplechase is being launched in February. She says it’s not erotic. If you want the erotic stuff (which is amazing), check out her other books. Krissy is hiding under the bed as all good authors do in the leadup to publication, but I hope she’ll emerge for long enough to share something on her blog.

Everyone else I know who has a book out has already been tagged! So that’s it for me.

Hope to see you at one of the launches.

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The day the new book arrives

thumbnail Raven's Heart

It’s a long time between babies. In this case it’s two years since I unwrapped my first copy of The Raven’s Heart and held it in my hands, hefting its weight. It’s a girl! A bit over the 500 gm cutoff weight beyond which an Australia Post parcel gets more expensive. Fair complexioned. Representing far too many years of work.


CHASING THE LIGHT cover thumbnail

Here I am again, this time with a dark-complexioned baby who tips the scales at 5 grams over the Aust Post parcel weight (drat!) and is deliciously smooth to the touch. Chasing the Light: A novel of Antarctica is sitting on my desk looking graceful and alluring, thanks to the haunting cover imagery. I’m far too scared to actually look inside the thing – the terror of finding an error is extreme, as this is just the moment that any mistakes jump out and wave their horrible little arms.

The novel won’t be in the bookshops until 1 Feb next year, still about seven weeks away. So for now it’s my precious. Picture me, Gollum-like, stroking the cover and glaring at anyone who comes near. There aren’t even any frightening reviews yet, so I’m safe a bit longer.

thumbnail Raven's Heart

The Raven’s Heart, in the meantime, is making her way out in the wide world (this is the cover for the UK/USA version) and gathering some quite lovely reviews. For those of you not in Australia, you can WIN a FREE copy of The Raven’s Heart on my virtual book tour (hey doesn’t that sound relaxed? I don’t even have to leave the desk). Just click HERE and you’ll be swept away to a list of review sites where it’s being reviewed between now and 21 December. Most or all of the sites are running book giveaways, so throw your entry in. Adios!

email The Raven's Heart Tour Button FINAL



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Writer’s heaven

When writers die they hopefully end up at a place like Varuna The Writers’ House. This grand old 1930s home, perched on the hill above Katoomba Falls in the Blue Mountains, was owned by the Australian writer Eleanor Dark and has been a retreat centre for writers for the past 21 years.

Five at a time we come to stay, tucked into the cosy beds under the handstitched quilts, fed (some might say stuffed) by the elegant Sheila who arrives each day bearing far too much food in case we might expire from the mental effort of sitting at a desk all day. We’re given all we need, and then we’re left alone in peace and quiet to create, hopefully with a moody Katoomba mist swirling around us.

I first came here 20 years ago this week, a thought that’s hard to fathom. Back then, the centre had only been running for a year and most people didn’t know what to make of it. What do you do there? Do you get money? Is it a grant? Does someone teach you?

My 1992 visit to Varuna with Sally Swain, Jennie Swain and Carolyn Logan

The answer is no to those last three questions. What Varuna has done over the years is select writers and projects that have promise, and support them with fellowships ranging from one to three weeks. As the library downstairs attests, many many books have resulted and this lovely place has made an extraordinary contribution to Australian literature.

I’ve been five or six times, as far as I can recall, and several of those visits have been significant turning points in my writing life. I wrote my first novel here, and I edited my last book The Raven’s Heart, in the HarperCollins editorial program – which led to my current happy relationship with that publisher.

This week’s been rather a different beast. I’m here with four of my co-candidates from the Doctor of Creative Arts program at the University of Western Sydney and we’re working on our exegeses – the critical essays that each of us have to submit alongside our novels in order to graduate.

Working’s not quite the word in my case – it’s been more like wrestling with the thing, and I’ve struggled with that terrible feeling of ignorance and stupidity that I think must overwhelm many doctoral candidates at some stage in the process. I’ve had a few sessions of wandering the nearby bushland close to tears at the inability of my brain to understand what I want it to do.

It’s quite a contrast to my previous experiences at Varuna, which are all about lovely flowing creativity and productivity. But as I pack up this afternoon I think it’s been pretty important – even though I’ve had a negative word count, going away with less than I began with. I’ve been helped by great round the fire conversations with Michael, Irini, Claire and Felicity – four hugely talented writers/scholars who I’ve loved hanging out with.

Humbled, but with a better understanding of what’s needed to write scholarly work, I head back Northwards…



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Literary speed dating – and book giveaway – with author Paula Martinac

I feel a certain kinship with Susan Van Dine, a woman who ducks into an antiques shop to escape a downpour and discovers a scrapbook of photos of women from the 1920s. She becomes intrigued, just as I would, and starts a journey of trying to find out more about them.

The main difference between us is that Susan is fictional. She’s the main character in Paula Martinac’s novel Out of Time, a lesbian classic that won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and was a Finalist for the American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award. Twenty years later, Out of Time is being re-issued by Bywater Books as an e-book.

Paula says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t writing. ‘I started when I was seven years old, using a Tom Thumb typewriter. My second-grade teacher, Sister Antonia, had us write a short story; mine was about a little girl enamored of a nun. Eventually, I graduated to using my older sisters’ Olympia portable, tapping away on weekends, in the summer, anytime I could. At eight, I created a newspaper, filled with stories about my neighborhood. By age eleven, I was writing novellas; in my teens, chapbooks of poems.’

At the end of this post you can read the first paragraph of Out of Time and you can win an ebook copy by emailing jesse@blackadder.net.au and telling me in 25 words why you’d like one. I’ll pick the most imaginative. Let me know your preferred format.


Give me ‘You’ in 25 words.

Artistic, Bitchy, Cute (so my partner says), Diva (so my partner says), Earnest, Flirtatious, Genuine, Homo, Introvert, Jealous, Keen, Liberal, Mindful, Nutritionist, Opinionated, Passionate, Queer, Reader, Survivor, Tenacious, Unabridged, Vintage, Wishful, Yogi, Zealous — no “X” because it’s too hard and I’m only allowed 25!

If you were a book, what would it be and why?

Great Expectations – it’s just too fabulous a title.

Why would a reader love your book?

It’s got drama! It’s got humor! It’s got ghosts! It’s got New York City! It’s got sex! … It’s got sex!

When did you decide to be a writer?

When I was seven. My mother and father bought me a Tom Thumb typewriter. Later, I graduated to an Olympia portable.

What’s your most humiliating moment as a writer?

Once I was visiting a college literature class that was reading Out of Time and a student asked me about a plot point that I forgot was in the book! Now I’ve even forgotten what the plot point was she asked me about…

When, where and how do you write?

In fits and starts wherever I can. Always at the computer, although I wrote “Out of Time” in longhand in quadrille-ruled notebooks and a friend (OK, ex-girlfriend) transcribed it to a disk.

Did you find it hard to get published the first time?

For several years, I sent short stories to journals and never got accepted. But once the first story was accepted, the rest kind of fell into place.

Are you over-involved with your pets?

You mean my child, Lucy?

What writers do you admire most?

This question always trips me up. I immediately forget the names of any writer I ever read and admired! I’ve always been a Carson McCullers fan. More currently, I like Julia Glass, Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates, Emma Donoghue, Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, Richard Russo, Louis Bayard — I’m an eclectic reader.

What’s your favourite writing form?

Fiction and nonfiction are probably in a dead heat for me. Plays next, screenplays after that.

What inspires you?

Memory, photographs.

What’s your favourite procrastination when writing?

Checking Facebook. You gotta keep up!

What are you working on now?

A memoir in essays. Or maybe it will become more seamless and less essay-like as I go along. I am trying to write some tricky stuff about taking care of my parents, who both suffered from dementia. But I’m trying to do it with humor…

Opening paragraph of Out of Time

For a long time, I forgot the date that I walked into the antiques shop, but now I remember it again. For months, I was not even sure which shop it was. I could see the inside clearly— the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining one wall, the homey scattering of bric-a-brac over creamy lace doilies, the black silk evening gown trimmed with jet beads draped casually across a velvet-upholstered settee. But when I tried to find it again, I always ended up in the wrong place, with concerned salesclerks asking if I was looking for something in particular. No, I answered, because I was not sure what I was looking for, or what I thought I would find by being in the shop again. I ended up apologizing to them for my confusion and standing helplessly out on the sidewalk, looking north and south, and wondering if it was Sixth Avenue I was on that day and not Eighth.

For more about Paula Martinac, check out her blog at http://queerestplaces.wordpress.com/

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Literary speed dating – and book giveaway – with author Joan Opyr

US author Joan Opyr had immediate interest from agents when she sent out the first chapter of her novel Idaho Code. That is, until they found out the main character was a lesbian, and quickly delegated their PAs to explain why the book wasn’t suitable. However, the novel – and the rest of the series – found a happy home with Bywater Books.

Joan says she is a manic jack-of-all-trades. I’m not sure how she finds time to write – she is working on a new novel while pursuing a degree in nursing, working on an Alzheimer’s and dementia unit, and trying to teach herself Dutch and Serbo-Croatian. Plus she has a wife, two kids, two dogs and a guinea pig named Timothy. She has a BA and an MA in English from North Carolina State University, and is working on her PhD in Old English from The Ohio State University.

Joan has published two novels of her Idaho series with Bywater Books, Idaho Code and Shaken and Stirred, that bring a wry insight to the absurdity and devotion that holds families together.

At the end of this post you can read the first paragraph of Shaken and Stirred and you can win an ebook copy by emailing jesse@blackadder.net.au and telling me in 25 words why you’d like one. I’ll pick the most imaginative. Let me know your preferred format.


Give me ‘You’ in 25 words.

Expatriate Southerner living in Idaho. Restless, curious, eccentric, generous, tender-hearted, world traveler, dog lover, Democrat, partner, mother, butch who likes fruity girl drinks.

If you were a book, what would it be and why?

I wish I were Beowulf, but in fact I am Thud! by Terry Pratchett. Why? Because at the heart of that book is an abiding sense of the painful unfairness of the world combined with an obligation to make that world better. And it’s really, really funny. Plus, trolls, dwarves, a Nelson Mandela made out of diamonds, and a bitter, recovering alcoholic cop who keeps on trying.

What made you write your last book?

The death of my grandfather and my need to understand his life and my part in it. He made me the person I am today, for good or bad. Why is it fiction and not autobiography? Because I believe there is more truth in fiction.

Why would a reader love your books?

People tell me they’re very funny. Also, they don’t flinch from the most painful thing we’ll ever experience in our lives, having a family.

When did you decide to be a writer?

When I was in third grade. I began my first novel, The Monster, featuring Nancy Drew and Bigfoot, together for the first and only time.

What’s your most humiliating moment as a writer?

Rejection. That never gets easy.

When, where and how do you write?

I write quickly in fits and starts. I write compulsively. I do not have good writerly habits. I get subsumed (and consumed) by a story, and then I sit down and type until I have a first draft. It’s the editing that’s slow — it can take me years to get a manuscript ready for submission.

Did you find it hard to get published the first time?

When I sent out the first chapter of Idaho Code, I was asked to overnight the full manuscript five or six times by some pretty big agents. Then, once they’d figured out that the main character was not a man but a lesbian woman, all of the enthusiasm would dry up. It was beyond frustrating, especially as they’d hem and haw (or the agent’s assistant would be delegated to hem and haw) about the reason for not wanting to take on the book. I was lucky to find Bywater Books.

What’s the best thing a reviewer said about your last book?

That it was funny and honest.

Are you over-involved with your pets?

Name a lesbian who isn’t.

What writers do you admire most?

Chaucer, Terry Pratchett, Stella Gibbons, E. F. Benson, W. H. Auden, Sarah Waters, Mary Dorcey, Carol Ann Duffy … this list is going to get very long. I was an English major.

What’s your favourite writing form?

Poetry, actually. But I write novels. I can’t think of many novelists who are good poets and vice versa. They seem to be very different skills.

Did you learn anything useful when you studied writing?

Absolutely. The more I read and analyze, the more I learn. I studied with Lee Smith and John Kessel at NC State, and both had a tremendous effect on my writing. They also helped me to think of myself as a writer — to believe in my vocation.

What inspires you?

People. I love people. Interacting, listening, watching how we respond to one another, to hardship, to triumph, and to daily living. There is endless comedy in the human condition. Endless tragedy, too, but I think comedy prevails over the long haul.

What’s your favourite procrastination when writing?

Web-surfing. It’s dangerous for me to turn to Google when I need to fact-check because I’ll follow link after link. This is how you get from Ho-Ho’s to Hitler, and then the next thing you know, you’ve stopped writing and are watching The Longest Day while eating Hostess snack cakes.

What are you working on now?

The third and final book in the Idaho series, Wish in One Hand.


Opening paragraph of Shaken and Stirred

My surgeon lied to me. A hysterectomy is not like an appendectomy. No one misses a vestigial organ, particularly one that’s trying to explode inside her guts and kill her. There is also no comparison between a hysterectomy and having your gallbladder removed, your tonsils out, or your bunions shaved, and as for the friend who told me it was no worse than having a root canal, well, that’s just proof that friends lie, too.

For more about Joan Opyr, check out her blog at http://joanopyr.wordpress.com

Buy Shaken and Stirred from Bywater Books

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