Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Angela Savage is the author of the Jayne Keeney Mysteries, and Mother of Pearl. She also works with Writer’s Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, has run manty awards and runs writing workshops, some of which have been moved online during the pandemic. Like many authors, she has had events and launches, and many other things related to her jobs with the State Library of Victoria and Writer’s Victoria have been put on hold for now. She appears below to discuss all of these as part of my isolation publicity series.
Hi Angela and welcome to The Book Muse
Hi Ashleigh – thanks for inviting me along.
- You released a new book last year – Mother of Pearl. What is the basic plot and premise of that book?
Mother of Pearl explores family, motherhood, culture and power through the lens of international commercial surrogacy between Australia and Thailand. The story is told through the eyes of three characters: Anna, an aid worker; her sister Meg, who longs for a baby; and Mukda, a single mother in rural Thailand. The lives of the women and their families become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of trying to bring a child into the world across boarders of class, culture and nationality.
- What genre would you say Mother of Pearl is, and what genre do you usually write in?
Mother of Pearl sits somewhere between literary and popular fiction. My three previous novels were crime fiction.
- What events, launches and festivals have you had to cancel due to COVID-19, and which were you really looking forward to?
I had events lined up at the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival in Healesville, Queenscliffe Literary Festival, Melbourne Jewish Book Week and Willy Lit Fest, plus some good leads on festivals in the second half of the year. Amazingly, Yarra Valley Writers Festival went ahead online on 9-10 May and Willy List Fest 2020 Vision will go online from 21 May. While I’m sad to miss out on meeting face-to-face with readers and writers, I’m delighted to appear on these program rather than chalking up more cancellations. As YVWF Director Brook Powell put it, ‘No, it’s not the same, but it is of the moment.’
- How are you working with Writer’s Victoria to help artists during the pandemic?
Writers Victoria has offered online learning for several years as part of our mix of services, so we were able to quickly adapt to deliver the bulk of our workshop program online. We’ve also launched Spotlight, a suite of budget options to link emerging writers with experienced writers, editors and industry experts for personalised feedback on their work.
Aware that writers were likely to be feeling anxious and isolated, we ran our Flash Fiction competition in April, providing daily word prompts and inviting writers to submit 30-word stories based on the prompt. While many of the thousands of stories we received did reflect on the pandemic, writers also told us how much they appreciated the creative routine and having something other than COVID-19 to focus their attention.
For Writers Victoria members who are launching new books in 2020, we’re offering promotion through our social media channels, where we have a combined following of around 36,000. Normally worth $180, it’s free for members as part of our response to COVID-19. I hope that by the end of the year, social distancing restrictions will have eased enough for Writers Victoria to host a book fair/mega launch party for local authors whose books were released during lockdown.
- Alongside this, what are you, as an individual hoping to do, and encouraging others to do to support Australian arts and booksellers?
I read mostly Australian fiction and buy mostly Australian books for myself and as gifts, using social media to share books that I’ve loved and to reach out to authors. When people ask for recommendations, I recommend Australian books; and I also use examples from Australian works when I teach writing.
- Have you won, or been shortlisted for any awards for your writing?
I was very fortunate to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript in 2004 for what became my debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, which was later shortlisted for the 2007 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book. Both other books in the Jayne Keeney PI series, The Half-Child and The Dying Beach, were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards, with The Dying Beach also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Awards. My short story, ‘The Teardrop Tattoos’ won the 2011 Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Award. I’ve just had another short story, ‘The Black Feather’, longlisted for the Peter Carey Award.
- Where did the idea for Jayne Keeney, PI come from, and how long have you been writing her stories for?
Jayne Keeney first appeared in a short story called ‘The Mole on the Temple’, set in Bangkok, which won third prize in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 1998. With this encouragement, I started writing more short stories featuring Jayne, one of which grew into my first novel. People mistake Jayne for me (my fault for giving us the same dark curly hair), but she’s more of an alter ego: someone I might’ve been like if I’d made very different life choices.
- Jayne Keeney looks to be mainly set in South-East Asia – what was it about this setting that lent itself so well to the character and her stories?
I lived and worked in Southeast Asia off and on for over seven years, in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia as well as Thailand, where the Jayne Keeney novels are set. Working cross-culturally is a lot like being a detective: you’re always looking for the big picture from a small set of clues, trying to tell a reliable source from an unreliable one, constantly searching for meanings lost in translation. Creating an Australian detective character gave me the chance to explore these themes in fiction – the tension and the humour that arise when cultures collide. The choice of Thailand as a setting was a practical one: only in a city as big as Bangkok could an expatriate Australian woman set up a PI business and stay low enough beneath the radar to make a go of it.
- Do you have one publisher, or many, and what has the publishing journey been like if you have had multiple publishers?
Melanie Ostell, then a senior editor at Text Publishing, was on the judging panel when I won the Victorian Premier’s Award and subsequently offered me a publishing deal. Text published all three Jayne Keeney novels, but passed on Mother of Pearl. It was subsequently picked up by Transit Lounge, which was serendipitous as Transit Lounge boss Barry Scott administered the Premier’s Awards the year my manuscript won. Generally speaking, publishers don’t like it when their writers change genres as it messes with their ‘brand’. My risk paid off, but it was a nerve-wracking experience—not one I’d recommend.
- Apart from your novels, what other writing have you done, and where?
I’ve had a few short stories published in Australia and overseas, including my Scarlet Stiletto Award winner, ‘The Teardrop Tattoos’ (in Crime Scenes) and ‘The Odds’ (in Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women). I’ve been publishing non-fiction articles since the late-1980s, and had a regular column in AsiaLIFE magazine when I lived in Cambodia. I’ve also written several comics, drawn by my friend Bernard Caleo.
- When you’re not writing, what sort of things do you enjoy doing?
I love reading. I came to writing as a reader, and I’m compelled by a desire to give to readers of my work some vestige of the pleasure I derive from reading other writers. I also enjoy travelling, walking, cooking, knitting and singing karaoke with more enthusiasm than talent. One of my greatest pleasures is hanging out with people I love, drinking wine and talking.
- Did you have a career in another industry prior to being an author, and what did you do?
I had a 12-year career in international development, working on HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health projects in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, mostly for the Red Cross. I spent 12 years after that working in community development in Victoria. Since September 2017, I’ve been director of Writers Victoria.
- Did this experience, or any others have an impact on how and what you write?
Even though I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age, I made the assumption that to be a good writer, I needed to live an interesting life. Working on HIV/AIDS and sexual health projects in Southeast Asia was more than interesting, it was life-changing: confronting, enlivening, exhausting and humbling. When I set out to become a published author in my early 30s, it made sense for me to turn to that experience for creative inspiration.
Ironically, of all the jobs I’ve had, my current role in the arts sector is the least conducive to getting any writing done.
- Do you have a favourite furry writing companion?
Not unless you count my partner, with whom I share a study.
- When it comes to reading, which authors or genres are you always drawn to?
Asking me to name authors I’m drawn to is harder than asking about my favourite child! I read more Australian fiction than anything else. Some of my favourite local authors include Simone Lazaroo, Tara June Winch, Christos Tsiolkas, Carrie Tiffany, Laura Jean McKay, Kate Mildenhall and Alice Pung. Among my favourite international authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Ondaatje and Tash Aw, though I’ve recently read Hilary Mantel and I suspect she has a lot to teach me. I also enjoy reading crime fiction and will read anything by Sulari Gentill, Jock Serong, Emma Viskic and Robert Gott.
- How do you think the arts will recover after this pandemic is over?
The breadth, depth and diversity of the arts that survives the pandemic depends to a large degree on government and public support. As Benjamin Law noted in The Guardian, ‘In times of crisis, humans turn to art for help.’ Yet we are often unaware of the ecosystem needed to bring the work of artists—whether writers, film-makers, visual artists, performers, game designers, etc—to us. Organisations like Writers Victoria will continue to advocate for the health of the arts ecosystem but I fear that many organisations, publishers, theatres, galleries and studios will not survive this crisis.
- The book community is often urging people to buy local, buy Australian – which is what I always do. If people don’t do this, what valuable local markets and culture will we lose if the only access we have to books is international authors and international sellers?
Much has been said about the importance of seeing ourselves in what we read in terms of personal and cultural wellbeing. We will be diminished as individuals and as a nation without a local book industry.
- The book community and arts community in Australia are coming together during this tough time – do you think this will encourage people outside of the communities to buy and read locally?
A number of publishers are reporting increases in book sales during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is a positive sign, though I’m not sure what proportion of these sales are for specifically Australian books. Certainly, the community is deeply supportive of its members; whether this translates into a wider commitment to buying Australian books remains to be seen.
- Which local booksellers are you hoping to support during these tough times?
- Finally, what is next for your writing – another Jayne Keeney, or something else?
Right now I can only dream of writing. I somehow seem thwarted by not knowing how any of this ends. That said, I’m mulling over a few non-fiction pieces, percolating another novel (historical fiction this time), and my short story ‘The Black Feather’ was recently longlisted for the Peter Carey Award. So all is not lost.
Anything I may have missed?