Sixty Seconds: a book that demanded

business cardSome book ideas bang on the door. Some tap gently. In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert says that when ideas come knocking, they don’t hang around forever – you need to commit to them or they’ll move off and find someone else.

My new novel Sixty Seconds barged in and demanded to be written. I still remember the moment, driving home from Brisbane down the freeway one night. One moment I didn’t have an idea in my head. The next, I knew the subject of the next book I would write.

I didn’t know the form, or what the story was – that came later. But I knew it was about a family whose toddler drowned in their pool. As happened to my family, when my sister Lucie drowned in 1976.

Returning to that painful experience and creating a piece of writing from it was a terrifying prospect. But I wanted to do it. Not just because I knew it would stretch me as a writer, but because some forty years down the track, I felt I had enough perspective to return to that experience and learn something new from it.

I’ve just opened the first document I created, back in 2014. Here are the first words I wrote as I sat down.

Just listen, that’s all. Open your ears and your heart and let me tell you the story.

Because you’re still searching, after all this time. Still wanting to know how it could have happened, what became of her afterwards, and how those who were left ever lived with themselves. You think you’ve buried it, you think it’s done and put to rest, but it lives on inside you, deep down, less visible than it once was.

It’s traced its way through your life ever since, setting the course you’ve chosen, pushing you one way rather than the other, throwing up walls and blind spots so sometimes you’re not even aware of what it’s done.

The choice not to have a child, for example. You thought it was something else, perhaps. Your desire for independence. Your selfishness. Your wish to give yourself to being creative. Your wish not to be tied down.

It may have been all of those things, but don’t you think perhaps this sat at the very heart of that choice?

You find yourself now sitting by a pool of your own, plunging into the water, letting it run over your body, letting it cool you, seduced and entranced by the clear, glistening magic of it. You know it hides something, but whatever it is, is invisible.

Trust me. Let me take you there. There are things you still need to see. I will be with you.

Here is where it begins:

The boy steps into the day like he owns it…

And the opening scene rolled out onto the page, in a form very close to how it appears in the finished book.

Today – Monday 18 September – is publication day and Sixty Seconds sits here on the desk in front of me, ready to make its way in the world. I’m feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness about how it will be received. Will readers trust the book enough to embark on a story about a tragedy, to see where it takes them?

A couple of days ago Royal Life Saving Australia released its Annual Drowning Report. Twenty-nine children under five years old drowned in Australia between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017. Thirteen of those drowned in swimming pools.

To put it another way – somewhere in Australia a child drowned at least every two weeks. And on average, a child drowned in a swimming pool every month.

I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale, although if Sixty Seconds helps raise awareness of the risk of children drowning that will be a bonus.

What I did set out to do was draw on my own experience to write a story about a family’s path to forgiveness, with the perspective of time. I’m someone who reads looking for meaning and redemption. Sixty Seconds is centred on a tragedy, but it’s ultimately a novel about hope and resilience.

Thank you to those who choose to share the journey with me.

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in News | 9 Comments

A dream with wheels

In 2014, Dave Eggers – author, storyteller, publisher and radical ambassador for kids’ creativity (not to mention mind behind the best book title ever: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) visited Sydney and spoke about his work on youth literacy in the inspiring organisation 826 Valencia.

It galvanised an idea that had already been stirring insideIMG_1395 me. I dreamt of starting up a kids’ creative writing centre – like 826 Valencia, Sydney Story Factory and 100 Story Building in Melbourne – but here in Northern NSW. I was the first author to ever visit St Mary’s primary school in Casino, and I worked with kids in Lismore, Bexhill and Tuntable Creek, so I knew first hand how hungry they were for stories and creativity. On indicators including social competence, communication skills and general knowledge, Northern Rivers kids scored lower than other parts of NSW. But our regional schools didn’t have a culture or tradition of author visits.

IMG_3060I was on the Board of Byron Writers Festival. At our annual visioning day I presented the idea and got the board’s blessing to pursue it. I started a small working group and one of the volunteers – Hayley Katzen – put forward what became the founding idea of StoryBoard. We didn’t need a creative writing shopfront, much as we loved the crazy shops fronting the creative writing centres: the Martian Embassy (Sydney Story Factory), The Pirate Supply Store (826 Valencia, San Francisco), the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute (826 Boston) and Hoxton Street Monster Supplies (Ministry of Stories, London).

In a widely spread region, we needed a way to take IMG_8330authors and illustrators directly into our local schools to run the kinds of workshops that these organisations offer.

The idea of the StoryBoard bus was borne – a magical story bus embodying creativity and the ‘weirdness’ that Dave Eggers says is the key to making these places work for kids. We took the dream to Byron Writers Festival kids’ tent and asked them to dream with us – resulting in sketches of a five story bus that farted fairy floss.

Tristanimage2The real work began in 2015 – raising funds to make the vision a reality. Countless grant applications led to some seed funding from Arts NSW – enough to run a small pilot. In 2016 Byron Writers Festival appointed Coralie Tapper as the project manager, and we planned 25 school visits with two brilliant kids authors from the region – Tristan Bancks and Samantha Turnbull. StoryBoard was a reality- but without wheels.

cheque handover croppedMore funding applications. A couple of local politicians got behind our efforts: Ben Franklin MLC and Justine Elliot MP – thanks to their efforts, we raised enough money to buy a bus and fit it out. And then, just before Christmas the news came – we were awarded a $300,000 grant from Catalyst over three years. StoryBoard was a reality.

We had wheels and we had to get up to speed fast for 2017. Coralie doubled her work 20161020_143710hours, we called for design proposals to transform the iron grey Hastings Valley Community Transport bus into StoryBoard, and chose an incredible design presented by animator Justine Wallace. She set to work, and we began calling for authors, volunteer tutors and schools.

bus-reveal-043Last Friday it all came together with the launch of the StoryBoard bus in all her glory, by special guest Leigh Hobbs, author/illustrator and Australian Children’s Laureate. This year the bus will make more than 100 school visits – all of them free. Our authors and illustrators are paid at Australian Society of Authors rates.

And here is the moment it was revealed:

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, says: “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right… the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

It is the realisation of a dream for me. Can’t wait to see how StoryBoard ignites the imagination of our local kids – and some adults too.

Posted in News | 2 Comments

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.

IMG_0675 (1)

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.

IMG_5165 (1)

 

 

 

Posted in News | 2 Comments

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

img_0922

 

 

Posted in News | 3 Comments

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.

img_6705-2

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.

Posted in News | 2 Comments

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.

img_9781

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.

img_2669

More soon! Love Jesse xxx

 

 

Posted in News | 5 Comments

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.

Posted in News | 5 Comments