Heading south… in a roundabout way

img_0765Two thirds through my journey home and wildly disoriented already. It’s late afternoon Wednesday in Honolulu, 26 degrees, and I’m sipping a cup of tea in bed, feeling zombie-ish and between time zones… In San Francisco where I spent the past two nights its 14 degrees and cocktail hour, back in Sitka it’s 3 degrees and nearly dinner time, and home in Myocum it’s just after lunch on Thursday at the end of a very rainy week, with about 120mm falling on our little patch to fill the dam before I arrive.IMG_9909

So – in honour of disorientation I’ll work backwards. I decided to switch around my homeward route, leave Sitka early and visit my lovely aunt – Dad’s sister – Margaret Rose and her husband Bennet in San Francisco, seeing as how I was on the continent. Rosie has had health issues in recent months and it was a great chance to swing by for a short visit and hang out together, even if briefly.

IMG_1075 (1)At the end of last week in Sitka I hit the goal I’d set myself for this time – getting to 40,000 words in my new manuscript. Not everyone writes like this, but setting a daily or weekly word count works
well for me. It gets the words down on the page, no matter how lame they appear, and that’s the way a book gets written – from the shitty first draft through to the final polished thing. What that word count really represents is good IMG_5108 (2)momentum – a head of steam that I hope will keep propelling it onwards when I get home and other distractions kick in. Oh yes, and the title has changed already – it’s now Five Ways to Kill a Fish.

Carol meanwhile has created a romantic comedy masterpiece called I Think I’m in Love with Richard Nelson, in which an entire relationship is lived out via the IMG_0955notes that a housesitter writes to her host, who she’s never met. Carol would read me the daily updates, which generally left me helpless with laughter. She’s instructed me to point out that any relationship to the real world is merely a coincidence.

Sitka’s cold snap continued for the bulk of our stay – we had wonderful glorious thick powdery snow that fell in magical flurries for several days, which gave plenty of opportunities to play. Then forimg_0888about ten days where the temperature remained below freezing (minus ten at night, around zero in the days) and the cold winds blew and blew across the bay. The snow ploughs created huge dirty piles of snow all around town, and the remaining snow was compacted onto roads and footpaths, turning them into terrifyingly polished ice rinks. It was impossible to leave the house without ice cleats on our shoes, and our 30 minute jaunt into town became more like a 60 IMG_0731minute mince, eyes fixed on feet. Luckily no spills.

Carol had been keen to reprise her Ship of Fools – a driftwood sculpture and related performance piece that she created some years back in Bermagui. In a very gung ho way we decided to just do it. We headed out to one of the “beaches” adjoining Sitka’s Totem Park, and started dragging around great hunks of driftwood to make a IMG_1079 (2)wonky and wacky ship. We worked on it over a few days, in sun and snow, and then Carol wrote a piece for the local paper on it – inviting people to join us at the ship on my last day in Sitka for a bit of poetry.

Well – within 24 hours we discovered we’d broken at least two local bylaws and the law enforcement arm of the park service was onto us – we were advised we could avoid a fine if we came down and dispersed our creation at once and cancelled our gathering. We rugged up well against the freezing wind and minced as fast as we could down to the park. What had taken days to create was spread out again in about 15 minutes and we ended up having a pretty funny yarn with the ranger, who saw the light hearted side of it, fortunately.

Gathering was shifted to the pub, and it
IMG_1016 (1)was great to have a final hang out with Sitka friends, not to mention more of those great parsnip and carrot fries. During our visit we had some wonderful times with Sitka friends old and new – particularly Blossom and her kids, Carolyn and Dorik, Mary and Lucas, Blue Canoe writers, Liz, John, and Peter – all of whom showed us such generous hospitality – with lovely meals, lifts, surprise food drops, radio programs, and a host of little adventures.

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It’s been an interesting time in Sitka – seeing how of course life changes in two years – some of our old friends have moved away, some new people have come, people’s lives have shifted, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Alaska doesn’t seem like an easy place to live these days – very expensive, and like the rest of the USA, people seem to struggle hard for work, healthcare and decent pay. There seemed a sombre feeling this time, which I think is at least partly due to the change of government. It’s tough – and some hard won gains are being lost in health, arts, funding and environment.

IMG_1132 (1)I’m looking forward to getting home. In spite of all my jaunts – maybe because of them – I’m a homebody at heart and every adventure comes with a dose of homesickness. I couldn’t wait to leave the January heatwaves in Australia, and now I can’t wait to get back to March’s autumn rains, and friends, and family, and of course my darling Andi, who’s not only kept the home fires under control, but has project managed painting and re-carpeting so the house will be all crisp and clean and sparkly when I get back. One more sleep – can’t wait.

Thanks for sharing the adventure.

Jesse xxx

PS – HarperCollins got in touch while I was away to bring forward the publication date of my already finished novel. It’s now called Sixty Seconds, and it will be coming out in October 2017.

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Alaska: bottom-on-seat-time

Arrived in Sitka late on Friday 17 Feb,img_0341 after a slow three-flight island hop around southeast Alaska –  enlivened by some superb Alaskan views from the plane.

Tottered up the frosty midnight path to our home for (nearly) a month – the abode of cultural anthropologist, author, radio personality and all round national treasure Richard Nelson. Richard’s an Alaskan who’s mad about Australia and is on his annual pilgrimage down img_0355under – giving Carol and me the chance to housesit.

And what a spot. His cottage sits opposite the water in Sitka, looking out to the islands, mountains and waterways of Sitka Sound, backing onto Verstovia – a steep forested mountain that begins in the back garden. A long time collector of fascinating stuff, Richard’s house is like a museum where the staff have gone home img_0372and left you to play. Bones, rocks, shells, carvings, teeth, jaws, feathers, artefacts, antiques, glass fishing floats and books, books, books. Not to mention ample evidence of Australia should we get homesick – 13 superb didgeridoos, Australian art, huge maps and even more books. There are more wonders and toys in the little boatshed across the road where I sleep sometimes when I’m feeling rustic, and even more down in the cellar and hidden behind secret doors in the attic.img_0455

So – time for Carol and I to settle in for some writing after our two weeks of Alaskan adventuring. Except that the weather on our first weekend was brilliantly sunny and glorious, so we were compelled to go and play and visit our favourite spots before cracking our knuckles and getting down to work.

My project is a novel called All the Bright Days set in Australia, Japan and Alaska. It’s a story about humans and whales, hunting and haunting, told through the journey of young Australian activist Bronte Walker, who travels to Japan to apologise for the death of a Japanese whaler in a skirmish with img_0415Sea Shepherd in the Antarctic.

Or something like that. At any rate, it’s in the very early stages, though it’s been quietly brewing for two or three years now. It’s exciting to be getting my teeth into it at last.

We’re here in Sitka under our own steam this time – unlike two years ago when we were joint writers in residence with the Island Institute. It’s very exciting and stimulating being a writer in residence – and Carol and I made the most of every opportunity that came our way – which meant we had a great time and brilliant adventures – but rather less actual writing. This time we’re living a few miles out of town, just that bit further away from distractions – and we have fewer bookings on our dance cards. We’ve still had catchups with friends from last time around, like the wondrous Blue Canoe Writers Group, and of course our good friend Blossom. But we’re both committed to words on the page.

It’s meant a much more productive writing time for me – in a fortnight I’ve written more than in the whole month of our 2015 residency.

Plus the weather is helping! Sitka isn’t known for heavy snow, and in Feb 2015 we barely saw any at all. However the snow blew in a few days ago and has settled – we’re delightfully cosied up in our cottage, watching the snow flurries come in across the water and taking too many snow photos out the window. There’s a good foot of snow on the ground – practically unheard of, I believe – and more coming over the next week or so. Not so good for exploring and hiking, but very very good for getting the arse down on the chair and getting the work done.

So that’s about it from the magical snowy north. Two more weeks and I’ll be home – hopefully with a good chunk of that novel down on paper.

Love Jesse xxx

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Islands, rocks and eagles

Ketchikan Airport (after leaving Wrangell) – whiling away a few hours between the short island hops needed to get img_9132from place to place in South East Alaska. A stuffed bald headed eagle watches me from a nearby glass case and there is, of course, a basketball game playing on the big screen in the little airport’s only food outlet. Two more hops tonight before we get into Sitka a bit before midnight and settle in.

Such a change to come from the ice and snow of upper Alaska down to the bottom of the state, not too far from Vancouver. The mountains still have snow on their heights, but there’s no snow in the towns. Temperatures have gone from minus 10 to minus 20C in Anchorage to hovering between -1 and about +10 in the day here in the south east – balmy to our hosts, still on the chilly side for Cas and me after the February heatwaves we left behind.

In Wrangell we visited Vivian and Howie, a couple we befriended in Sitka two years ago who’ve since shifted to Wrangell where Vivian grew up (and is related to three quarters of the small population). They live at Mickey’s Fish Camp (named for Vivian’s Dad who lives with them), five miles out of town, where the sea laps almost to the deck at high tide.

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Subsistence living is everyday life out here – fishing for salmon, halibut and shrimp, gathering the vast assortment of berries that grow here, smoking, preserving, bottling and – most importantly – sharing with family, friends and tribe. We saw Mickey smoking salmon chunks in the smoke house out the back, and ate platefuls of the resulting product, rich with alder smoke. Plus commiserated with Vivian and Howie over Alaskan problems like getting sick of shrimp and running out of recipes for halibut.

Vivian is an artist as well as writer and poet, and we were desperately hoping she’d take us to where she gathers material for her mosaics – the old town dump, decommissioned in about 1950, accessible only at low tide, a treasure trove of ceramics, sea glass and weird metal items. I collected about 10kg of vintage glass, patterned fragments of ceramics, and superbly rusted and twisted bits of metal. Then had to discard 9.5kg of it, but have kept some choice bits and pieces to bring home, customs permitting. We also visited Wrangell’s petroglyph beach – containing around 40 of these stone carvings, around 10,000 years old.

Crikey the Kangaroo came out of his two year hibernation and entertained kids at Head Start – the local preschool for Tlingit and Haida youngsters – with tales of Australia and requests for help – he needed to know how to get warm in Alaska, and who to make friends with. That visit was also a chance for us to meet some of the local Tlingit people

img_2140 and – led by Carol – ask permission to come onto their lands – a custom Carol feels strongly about, emerging from her work with Indigenous communities in Australia. The request was received very warmly and we were invited to come to a school celebration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day – marking the civil rights campaigner whose landmark speech in the Alaskan Senate in 1945 saw the passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act – the first of its kind in the USA.img_0871-2

When Vivian reported our activities on Facebook she called us the Australian Ambassadors – which led the local radio station to call and ask for an interview. It’s a small town – we obliged!

Daydreaming, beach-combing, fish-eating, strolling. Smelling sea, salt, smoke, spruce, hemlock, fish.img_6663Soon we board again and hop to Juneau, wait an hour, then hop to Sitka and fall into bed. Tomorrow the writing begins! Diving into the new novel. Wish me luck.

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Snow and Ice

img_9943Out of Australia’s sweltering February, a day’s skip through Honolulu’s temperate winter, and into the snowy landscape of Anchorage… yes, I find myself (along with aunt  Carol) back in Alaska – my third trip in ten years.

The plan: to make a solid start on my next novel during a four week stint house-sitting for a friend in beautiful Sitka, where I’ve been twice before on writing residencies. The prelude: a visit to the snowy middle of Alaska (Anchorage) and the south eastern island of Wrangell to catch up with friendships made two years ago.

We were lucky. Anchorage was a fairyland of deep powder snow (apparently last winter was warm and horribly icy). Our friend Lindsey whisked us out to her log cabin about 40 minutes from town in a valley called Eagle River.

To us straight-from-the-heatwave Australians this was utter utter heaven. The end of the road, forest and mountains all around, deep snow, hiking trails, frozen river.

We hiked out into the woods with Lindsey and the indefatigable Devito, crunching through the snow, a light snowfall dusting down on us. Saw the cabins where hikers can stay through the year (superb, but Spartan). Met my first moose. I went on alone after the others turned back, and on my own merry way home, re-encountered the moose blocking my path. Interesting moment – I’ve been warned how dangerous they can be. Eventually I was able to get around her without incident, except for quite an elevated heart rate.

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We headed over to meet Lindsey’s neighbours that night and had one of those magical evenings that sometimes happen while travelling – when a bunch of strangers feel like your best friends by the end of the night. We played a hilarious game of dice, laughed our heads off, made future plans to meet up in various world locations, and staggered home at 1am.

Next morning – up! With Lindsey and Rachael (from the night before) we headed out to see Matanuska Glacier – a couple of hours drive away. So fascinating were the conversations that we missed a turnoff somewhere and found ourselves almost back home again. Set out with renewed determination and arrived at the glacier by 3pm. Lindsey somehow talked the manager into giving us a summer-only tour rate and taking us out himself to hike to the foot of the glacier and explore its edges. The Alaskans skipped along merrily – Cas and I marched gingerly over the icy bits in our cleats and I was convinced my hands and feet were freezing off – but it was so powerful and awesome it didn’t matter.

I’ve seen glaciers and crevasses before in Antarctica, but never got up close. This time we walked into the temporary ice caves that form in the glacier’s foot during the summer/winter melting and refreezing. Blue, glassy ice sculpted into planes. Hard to describe. Divine. Unforgettable.

Rather more forgettable the next day – up at 5, into the airport, onto the plane for the hop-hop-hop trip south to Wrangell. Got through the first hop OK and then mid flight were diverted to Seattle. Went from being 1300km north of our destination to 1300km south. At least we had a nice hotel. My wallet, unfortunately, ended up in a different location all together, adding to the litany of lockouts and forgettings that have dogged me on this trip – clearly turning into a senior now.

Back on the plane in the wee small hours and here in Wrangell at last – no snow, plenty of rain, tall forests, coastline, bald headed eagles, ravens.

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More soon! Love Jesse xxx

 

 

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Five go down to the sea

Picnic is packed, lashings of ginger beer at the ready, Timmy the dog is waving his tale and five-go-down-to-the-seabarking madly, and Julian tells everyone to buck up and hurry, it’s time to go down to the sea. Yes, the school holidays have rolled around and the Famous Five are back together again and ready for their newest adventure.

Enid Blyton would, I hope, have thoroughly approved of the Five Writers, Five Towns, Five Days road trip adventure, taking Byron Writers Festival out to the regions, running free events for schools and communities in the Northern Rivers.

Although Enid might have scratched her head at the five of us – an historical fiction and fantasy writer (Kate Forsyth), slam poet (Miles Merrill), genre hopping novelist (yours truly – but you can call me George), an extremely IMG_3480elegant beat novelist from Western Sydney (Luke Carman), and a burnt out teacher with a fire in her belly for educational change (Gabriel Stroud). Plus our intrepid leader Zachary Jane, a tireless mix of roadie, driver, bookseller, author, chair/MC and all round holder-together of the thing.

First stop Coffs Harbour Library, with a large and enthusiastic audience of readers and writers who wanted to know EVERYTHING. Talking about beginnings – and each reading from the start of our works – we wooed them with 16th century Scotland, meandered through the origin of Hansel and Gretel, hit them in the guts with the voice of contemporary LiverpooIMG_5216l and left them weeping with a description of one teacher in the classroom and her despair.

Anyone not weeping was only there for the spread, which was awesome. The librarians treated us like old friends and bought out lunch of the best salad in the world.

[Resident poet Miles is AWOL – apparently this is what the 555 poets do – a late entry to make sure they’re noticed. He’s arriving by plane this morning and we’re planning the hazing ritual.]

Evening – Latitude 360 restaurant down at the Jetty and an intimate group that let us get up close and personal about where ideas come from, what drives you to write, if you choose the stories – or if they choose you. Luke says he doesn’tIMG_5964 even write stories – he wrote enough sentences to make half a million words and the publisher said yes, but cut it by 90% so we can publish a short book. That was the most amazing achievement on the table for our first day I reckon.

Then back to the bar for a yarn about the meaning of literature, can it be revolutionary, why are we writing at all, and should we order another round before closing time.

Zac is starving herself (too busy to eat), there are lashings of champagne, and we’re headed out for a scrumptious Enid Blyton breakfast this morning before being led, like lambs to the slaughter, to perform for children in the food court in a local shopping mall. Then into the Courthouse Hotel in Mullumbimby tonight for lively yarns, theatresports without the blood, and lashings of chips. More news tomorrow if I survive the experience.

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Last drinks in Scotland

temple1A very nice Bloody Mary – my drink of choice at airports – has gone down a treat and I’m whiling away the final hour until Andi, Ruth and I board the flight from home. Having IMG_6164covered the entire series six of Downton Abbey on the way over, I’m not too sure what I’ll watch, but travelling home with Andi and Ruth is an unplanned pleasure of this trip.

After our time at North Berwick – when we celebrated our tenth anniversary by relaxing, daydreaming, reading, and doing some Blackadder-related sightseeing in the Borders, Andi and I headed over to the West birthday1Coast to catch the last couple of days of our original holiday plan – joining our darling Mullum mate Ruth at Ardfern and hanging out with our mutual friend Lucy (Ruth, Lucy and Andi all worked together at Zentveld’s Coffee). What a gorgeous time. So lovely to be in the company of close friends. We stayed in a sweet B&B in the village, celebrated Ruth’s birthday, gently saw some of the local sites (one of the most significant
archeological areas in Britain) and gave kitchen1blessings and wishes for Ruth’s new house, laying a stone circle under where the hearth will be.

I’m glad to be coming home. It’s been an amazing time – huge highs, a few lows, changes of plans, unexpected activities, up time and down time. I know it’s hard for Andi to come home – she won’t want to rest, and will be wanting to DO things. But it will be great to be back in that lovely place we inhabit.

Thanks everyone for following our adventures. I know I’ve gone on about our fundraising for kids’ literacy a fair few times – you can get in now and give before 30 June for an IMG_6131immediate tax benefit, or wait a few days and give in the new financial year if you like. Your support is much appreciated. Please click here to donate – every small bit counts.

See you back home! Jesse xxx

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Let’s not have a short-fall

Well, we only made two thirds of the Southern Upland Way, but please don’t let this hold you back in donating to the kids’ literacy charities we are supporting through our hike – Room to Read and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Dig deep folks – think of it as a show of support for Andi – and a great outcome from our trip if we can raise a big donation for both organisations. Every little bit helps, so please click here to donate.

Hiking was, in fact, central to the formation of Room to Read – this guest post from Mihiri Udabage of Room to Read Australia outlines how our funds will go towards post-earthquake education in Nepal – and any funds given before 30 June will be matched by a sponsor. Please read on. (Photos courtesy of Room to Read)

Room to Read Nepal 1 Room to Read Nepal 2 Room to Read Nepal 3 Room to Read Nepal 4Room to Read started its work in Nepal in 1998 after Microsoft executive, John Wood, met a Nepalese education officer who invited him to visit a school high in the hills while he was on a hike. Taking a tour of the small school, John was confronted with the harsh reality of education in rural Nepal: a dilapidated schoolroom with little more than backpacker castoffs as reading material. Sensing his visitor’s dismay, the headmaster spoke the nine words that would forever change John’s life: “Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books.”

John started his mission with an email to friends. With the subject line ‘Books for Nepal – Please Help’ he commenced a book drive that would be the catalyst for his return to Nepal the following year, with his 72-year-old father and a train of eight donkeys bearing 37 boxes of books. What started as one man’s efforts to provide much needed books to a single rural community is now Room to Read, a global organisation transforming the lives of millions of children in ten countries in the developing world, by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Since then Room to Read has:

  • constructed 1930 schools
  • established 17,534 new libraries in schools and communities
  • published 1,158 original picture books
  • distributed 15,641, 734 books distributed
  • given long term scholarships to 31, 636 girls

While the organisation now has operations in ten countries, Nepal remains close to its heart.  In partnership with District Education Offices, Room to Read is donating books to over 4800 schools in 14 earthquake affected districts. The original book titles, published by Room to Read, will be used to set up Temporary Learning Centres. Room to Read Library Management Facilitators and Literacy Coaches will be conducting counselling classes and reading activities in earthquake affected schools to support the students to deal with the trauma of their ordeal and help them return to school.

When Room to Read Writer Ambassadors learnt of the devastation affecting the region, they rallied, dedicating the 2015 World Change Challenge to the children of Nepal. A goal of $40,000 will see 40,000 books distributed in Nepal, in support of Room to Read’s Literacy Program—a three-pronged approach to improve literacy by investing in teacher training, producing quality early reading materials and providing safe and productive learning environments.

Your support of the Writer Ambassador World Change Challenge 2015 will help Room to Read get the children of Nepal back to school and back to education. Thanks to Nuix, all donations from Australia until 30th June will be matched dollar for dollar. We stand by that promise made fifteen years ago to return with books. We cannot afford to let the fury of the earthquakes bury the hopes and dreams of Nepal’s children.

Mihiri Udabage

Room to Read Australia

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