Saradha Koirala

Tag: fiction

Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train

When I got my new job at the end of June, the hour’s commute was initially daunting to small-town me. I talked about moving to Richmond, I investigated cycle paths (and therefore a new bicycle), I accepted rides from kindly colleagues, but ultimately the silent hour each morning on a train with a book won me over. Here’s what I’ve been reading en route to work:

Cargo – Jessica Au

Cargo.jpgSet in the 90s and beautifully, gently written, Cargo tells the story of Gillian, Frankie and Jacob one summer by the sea. This is a coming-of-age novel in dreamy long sentences and alternating points of view (something I can either love or hate in a novel). Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and Cargo, her first novel, was highly commended in the 2012 Kathleen Mitchell Award for a writer under 30. http://www.jessicaau.com

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse fiveI had been meaning to read this for a while. Obviously it’s a classic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so post-modern in its telling (self-conscious narrator, leaps in time and perspective, historical fact mixed with absurdist fiction) and funny in that dark and quirky Vonnegut way. Not your average war story and probably hugely therapeutic to have written.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

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Somehow I have a class of Year 8s who are convinced I’m in love with John Green. It’s not even an English class! I guess I haven’t convincingly argued to the contrary, because seriously… he is wonderful. This book is so charming and funny and important. Written in alternating chapters by two outstanding young adult authors, the voices of the two Will Graysons are distinct and believable. It made me teary at times and the sweetness and bravery between the two boys who fall in love is pretty inspiring.

The Ties That Bind – Melbourne Social Writers’ Group

I’ve been so lucky to be part of two very active and supportive writing groups, both of which put together an anthology this year – no mean feat! The Ties That Bind is the second anthology from the Melbourne Social Writers’ Group and includes a range of work from writers at all stages of their craft. https://www.facebook.com/MelbWriters/

Wild Surmise – Dorothy Porter

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This is an amazing work. A verse novel in different voices, following the characters, Alex, Daniel and Phoebe. It has a marriage breakdown, astrobiology, space travel, poignant poetic references, explorations of sexuality, death, love. The verse style is almost operatic and allows the tone to shift from light-hearted to heartfelt to heart-breaking, page by page.

The Transmigration of Bodies / Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

Herrera.jpgTwo novellas from a Mexican writer, I confess I’d never heard of before. I found this a bit of a stretch for me and out of my usual realm of poetic stories about human interaction. It had a fable-like quality with the main character called The Redeemer on a journey to restore peace. It’s hard to put my finger on the actual style of this, but I’m always happy to be challenged thusly!

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

Funny Girl.jpgShout out to Nick Hornby in the title of this post, by the way (‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ is a phrase that belongs to him http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/stuff-ive-been-reading/ ). I enjoyed the lightness of this novel, which is both about and in the style of a 1960s sitcom. The main character is a determined young woman with a robust sense of humour. This is the kind of book most people probably read on the train – pure entertainment, leaving one with enough brain power to function effectively at one’s destination.

In the Dark Spaces – Cally Black and Because Everything is Right, but Everything is Wrong- Erin Donohue

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In the dark spacesAnother slightly-out-of-my-comfort-zone book, In the Dark Spaces is YA sci-fi, while Erin Donohue’s debut novel is a poetic, gentle treatment of mental illness. You can read my full review of both of these here at The Sapling.

 

Midnight’s Children –Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children.jpgI’m supervising a student who is writing an essay on the narrative voice of this novel. It’s so complex and clever and in talking to my student I have a deep appreciation for the way Rushdie has combined so many styles and techniques to create a character who creates a world. Describing the first 30 years of India’s Independence by personifying it through Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, the world seems to revolve around his every move. Every sentence is packed full and perhaps takes a little more concentration than standing on the train at 7am allows.

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How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

I’m a big Webb fan, as in Mitchell and Webb, as in Peep Show, as in Jez. This is Robert Webb’s memoir, interspersed with reflections on masculinity. Webb’s trademark humour is present throughout, but particularly in describing awkward interactions and encounters. Typically too, he is quick to acknowledge his privilege and careful not to come across as too complainy. An important read in this era of calling men out on their behaviour – I recommend this interview as a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4KHm3brJE&t=16s

A New Beginning – Women Who Write, Melbourne

A new beginning.jpgThe first anthology from the second writing group I feel so lucky to be part of! Another lovely collection and so much work has gone into making sure it’s a polished and cohesive range of writing, on the theme a new beginning. Women Who Write is a non-profit supportive group for women in Melbourne. They hold regular meet-ups and currently have over 600 members https://www.facebook.com/groups/wwwmelb/

 

 

Blackcurrant Honey

Here’s another little snippet of my somewhat-unwieldy current work in progress, called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1991.

(You can read another scene from this here, set in 1996)

I’m pretty sure Danny woke me, but he’s teasing that I woke him when I traipsed clumsily down the hallway. Mum’s out of bed now too and we’re all eyeing up the Christmas tree in the semi-dark.

Danny says he was just getting a drink of water.

‘Well I can’t sleep,’ I whine

‘It is technically Christmas day,’ he says pointing at the glowing digits on the microwave that shine out a time so unfamiliar it takes me a while to figure out.

‘It’s past three in the morning!’ Mum wraps her dressing gown tighter around her, frowns, and folds her arms.

‘Yes, technically Christmas day.’ Danny knows how to disarm Mum, with his cheeky smile that comes out so rarely these days. ‘And we are all up,’ he says.

Mum rolls her eyes, but it’s already decided and there’s no going back once she’s flicked the switch on the kettle. My brother gives me a wink.

We agree the first thing we should open is the gift basket from one of Mum’s colleagues, since it’s covered in cellophane and we can mostly see what’s in it already. The rustle of unwrapping wakes the butterflies in my tummy. Mum pulls out some boring looking crackers, a small bag of candied nuts, a solid brick of real coffee that smells horrible and some nougat. Pretty disappointing.

‘Where’s the chocolate?’ I ask, rummaging through the discarded cellophane.

‘Ooh this looks good though – blackcurrant honey,’ Mum reads from the label. ‘Yum!’ She leaps up suddenly with the jar in her hands and heads back to the kitchen, which is now full of steam from the franticly boiling kettle. She pops some bread in the toaster.

‘I’m having blackcurrant honey on toast!’ She calls out.

We laugh at her excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mum at three in the morning before.

‘Okay, well, me too!’ I call back.

‘Okay.’ She whispers loudly and peers around the kitchen door. ‘But, let’s not wake…’ she points to the ceiling which represents the couple upstairs. Our landlords.

‘Okay.’ I whisper back

‘Okay, okay.’ We whisper at each other and laugh.

I choose the next present to open and hand it to Danny. I’m grinning with excitement as he takes it and feigns complete shock at receiving something. I can’t sit still. He unwraps it carefully, knowing how long I spent in my room wrapping and compiling the items from my trip to the mall last week. He probably knows how long I’d been saving my pocket money for too, since he’s had to do the same. His reaction when he opens it is better than I could have hoped for.

By the time the sun comes up the three of us are a pile of shiny new things and ripped wrapping paper, sticky with blackcurrant honey. Mum’s beaming smile at every silly little gift she opened from us was completely priceless. She’s had a million cups of tea and no one’s even mentioned the gap under the tree where presents from Dad should’ve been.

See-saw

Here’s a little snippety-bit of a scene I wrote this morning, from a larger work-in-progress called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1996.

 

Harriet’s dancing self-consciously in the kitchen, still with bottle in hand and white dress looking only slightly worse for wear. Mark catches me watching him watch her and smiles, but only with his mouth. He pushes himself up from his doorway lean and moves over to me.

‘How are you still so compos mentis while your friends are completely wasted?’

‘Who said I was compos mentis?’ I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it doesn’t sound like how I’m feeling right now. The room is spinning gently and I’ve been standing at the kitchen bench gorging on corn chips like an animal.

‘You look very together. You can hold your booze.’ I can’t tell if it’s admiration or accusation as he looks me up and down.

‘I haven’t had that much to drink,’ I lie.

Mark leans across the bench towards me, which forces me to lean in too, his warm whispery breath is on my cheek and I close my eyes. The room spins more predictably now. Like I’ve tuned into the rhythm of it and it kind of makes sense. His voice is soft and low.

‘Most of the people here are morons, Sam Knox. Killing off their brain cells and flailing around.’

I smile, but keep my eyes closed, keep still. His breath smells boozey and smokey. He uses words no one else does.

‘I’m not saying I’m any better than any of them, Sam, but you probably are. You look like someone with better things to do.’

I open my eyes and shake my head, ‘No, no I’m having fun. It’s a good party.’

Mark grins at my protest, ‘you don’t have to be polite. Parties can be stupid. Wanna go for a walk?’

Outside I think about the cuddly jersey lying on the floor of my room. At least I have stockings on, but my skirt is short and jacket open.

‘Love the Soundgarden t-shirt, by the way.’ Mark says this without looking at me but puts his arm out just in time for me to grab as my shoe fails beneath me.

‘Thank you.’

Ant gave me the t-shirt for our four month anniversary, but something stops me from adding that piece of information. I mean it would be the perfect opportunity to mention my boyfriend. I let go of his arm.

‘Maybe walking wasn’t the best idea.’ He looks at me now. There’s that slightly creepy edge again and I wonder if it’s actually just how he smiles. ‘Those are very high shoes.’

It’s true, but his noticing makes me feel silly and girly. Who am I tonight anyway?

At the end of the street is a small park. There’s something invigorating about the cold air and starless night. Mark holds the end of a see-saw down for me and I get on, hitching my skirt high without even thinking about it. He gets on the other end and slowly bends his knees to lift and lower me. My feet don’t quite touch the ground when I’m in the air and that moment of lost control makes my stomach flip a bit.

‘So what’s your life like, Sam Knox?’ Up.

‘My life?’ Down.

‘Yeah, your life. Is it good, bad, has life been kind so far?’

I give it a moment’s thought as my legs dangle. How can I even be the judge of that?

‘I guess life’s been kind. I mean my dad’s a jerk, but he hasn’t come round in a while. My mum’s cool and my brother’s super smart.’

‘Ah family eh. What about you though? Who are you?’

‘Ha I’m Sam Knox!’ It comes out louder than I mean it to and I quickly cover my mouth with my hand, losing balance on my end for a moment.

‘Woah! Are you okay?’ Mark asks but simultaneously jolts the see-saw. I squeal and grab on tight. He jolts again and my heart starts to pound.

‘Wait stop!’ He doesn’t. ‘Stop! I said stop!’

‘Okay sorry, sorry.’ He straightens his legs so he’s at the top and I’m on the ground catching my breath. ‘You’re okay?’

I quickly clamber to my feet before he can move us again. My end of the see-saw rises and Mark ends up on the ground.

‘I’m okay.’ I look beyond him to the dark tree shapes, their leafy tops flailing gently.

‘Sam Knox.’ He says. ‘You’re Sam Knox.’ When I look at him he’s smiling, eyes and all. I almost smile back.

How does it feel??

Paige and Lily from Lonesome When You Go react to The Dylan News:

 

“Lily! You heard the Bob Dylan news?” I’ve run up behind her and grabbed her by the arm. I must be looking a little panicked. She whitens.

“Oh my god, Paige don’t tell me. Not Dylan. I’m still grieving for Bowie. I can’t…” her bottom lip quivers.

“No! God no! He’s still alive and he just won the damn Nobel Prize for Literature.”

“Oh thank god!” she breathes, “My Dylan life just flashed before my eyes – the first time we listened to Blood on the Tracks all the way through, every time I’ve been feeling low and then heard a Dylan song in a shop or café or from a busker… that road trip… he’s really been there for me.”

“I know.” I give her a hug, before remembering my excitement. “He won the Nobel! Holy shit! A song-writer – a musician!”

“You’re right, this is huge! Wow. I’m going to briefly ignore the fact that it’s yet another white American male being held aloft and also the fact that most of his songs in the last thirty years have been terrible and focus on the musician as celebrated poet part.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“It’s really cool.” she grins.

It’s Friday morning and we’ve just entered the school grounds. I have Like a Rolling Stone running through my head – “how does it feel?” – and whistle the next line of organ melody aloud. Lily stops walking and thrusts an arm out at me.

“Shut up! I was just up to that part in my head too!” Her eyes widen and we stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

“I guess it’s pretty appropriate,” I say and we start singing it together, loudly and horribly, straining our voices on the lengthened vowels and ignoring the bemused looks from passing juniors. They probably only know Dylan songs from Miley Cyrus covers and references in young adult novels.

Musician as celebrated poet. I walk into class feeling like anything is possible today.

dylanesque-nod-to-the-poets

Saradha’s Dylanesque nod to the poets and poetic nod to the man himself.

The Persistence of Fiction

I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.

I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.

And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.

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Photo by Richard Wise

Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.

I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?

When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.

Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.

Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.

‘Sylvie the Second’ Blog Tour – Interview with Kaeli Baker

sylvie cover copy.jpgSYLVIE THE SECOND is a daring new YA novel from Wellington publishers Makaro Press (Submarine imprint). Like Sylvie, it’s finding its way to being more visible and has even been spotted on the shelves at Whitcoulls next to teen favourites Johns Green and Boyne!

The book deals with some difficult but important issues that also need to be made much more visible in our society. I hope it will start some good discussions with young people and their families about what they experience and how they cope with the pressures and expectations of growing up.

 

I talked to author Kaeli Baker about teenagers, writing in airports and her own hopes for Sylvie:

SK: This novel tackles tough but very real teenage issues. What kind of reader did you have in mind for this book?

KB: I guess I was aiming for teens, particularly girls, who are struggling a little with finding their way, their voice, their values… So, basically teenage girls in general! Being a teenager is hard enough and then when you add extra stress to the mix (and everybody has extra stress in one way or another), it can become even more difficult.

SK: But there are some positive moments in this book too and the ending was particularly heartening. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

KB: Most of all I hope that readers will put the book down after the last chapter with a renewed sense of hope and faith in friendships, a clearer sense of how they are willing to be treated by their peers and where their limits are, and a little more confidence in seeking support if they need it.

SK: There must have been some difficulties in writing this – trying to give a sense of hope and ‘normalcy’ to Sylvie’s life, but not underplaying the very damaging and traumatic events she is experiencing. How did you handle this balance?

KB: I think Belle and Adam were significant for keeping the balance of normalcy and hope in Sylvie’s life. I felt like it was important to confront Sylvie’s hardships and trauma, but also give a nod to her resilience. Even when things are going wrong she gets up every day and has a goal in mind – to get through it. It’s just that some of the ways she learns to cope aren’t healthy. I think that if she didn’t have such a loyal friend in Belle, especially, things could’ve been much worse.

The brief interactions with strangers was another way in which I tried to weave some hopefulness into the equation. The woman on the bus, the little girl and the guy on Christmas day… Even Alannah, the doctor. Often we influence other people without even realising it. Our interactions can be so valuable and we give away pieces of wisdom all the time without realising that anyone’s heard it. I wanted to convey that, and also provide some faith in humanity – there are a lot of nasty people in Sylvie’s life, for whatever reasons, and I felt like it was important to remind the reader that most people are good, and not out to hurt them. As a teenager, as a woman, and in fact just as a human being, it can be hard to trust that sometimes.

SK: What other difficulties did you come across?

KB: The self-harm was something I thought a lot about. I didn’t want to glamourise it, or offer it as an effective strategy for Sylvie to cope with her distress, but I did want to address it head on since it’s a real method that some people use. I guess I wanted to write about it fearlessly but sensitively at the same time. Sylvie’s regret is clear throughout – she knows it’s not a solution for her. In saying that, I was cautious not to come off as preachy. I found it one of the most difficult things to balance.

SK: Belle is a lovely character and, as you say, a strong support for Sylvie. Is there a “Belle” out there for all of us when times are tough?

KB: I definitely think there is, in some form or other. She might be found in the shape of a friend, a family member, a counsellor, a voice at the end of a helpline or someone’s personal faith. It’s really important to remember that even when we feel like we have no one, there are still people who will help us, and things to hold on to.

SK: One thing that worried me about Sylvie was how easily she was able to get close to someone after what happened at Chris’ party. I wondered if this was her dealing with or failing to deal with things?

KB: Such a good question! It’s absolutely a sensitive situation, and everyone who has been through an experience similar to Sylvie’s will process it in different ways. So I think the answer to this question is really up to the reader’s interpretation.

Adam is an important person in Sylvie’s story in that he represents the good guy. It’s so easy to believe after you’ve been hurt that everyone is bad, and I wanted to put forward the idea that that’s not the case. Whether Sylvie letting him get close to her is a mark of dealing or not dealing is up for debate.

SK: What do you think the main differences are for this generation of teenagers compared to previous generations? Do these worry you or give you hope?

KB: I think one of the biggest differences is social media, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great at keeping people connected and it’s such a good platform for change. On the other hand it can be difficult not to compare yourself to other people’s seemingly perfect lives, and there are more social pressures, covert but constant bullying, sexting … I think it can lull people into thinking they’re in control, but social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat keep all of your photos – and so can the person you sent them to. It really worries me.

Having said that, I celebrate the fact that society is now better at having difficult conversations around mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other topics that are real and relevant but have historically been brushed under the carpet. There are so many amazing organisations working to help people experiencing these problems and encouraging society to keep the conversations going. Young people’s voices are being heard more now. That gives me a lot of hope.

SK: Your current work with teenagers has no doubt informed the themes of this novel, but have you always been a writer too?

KB: I didn’t set out to be a writer, but it’s always been something I enjoyed and did a lot of. I wasn’t great at a lot of subjects at school, but right from my primary school days I have memories of teachers raving about the stories I wrote. I also have journals full of poems that I’ve written throughout the years. 85% of them are absolutely terrible! It’s quite funny and also extremely cringe-worthy reading them now.

SK: And how did this novel come into being?

KB: The idea came to me one day and I immediately sat down and began writing furiously. It was like Sylvie had been waiting to tell her story for ages. It took me about a year to write the whole thing, usually after work in the middle of the night with many cups of tea.

Once I learned it had been accepted for publication the editing process was pretty full on. There were huge chunks taken out that were slowing the whole thing down and more dialogue added. It took a long time.

A lot of it was actually edited while I was overseas. I remember sitting in an airport in Birmingham editing it as a bunch of extremely heavily armed police traipsed past. That was an unnerving moment… I also did a lot of the editing in Wales, in this little stone cottage near Hay on Wye. It was quite a well travelled manuscript!

SK: Are you working on other writing projects you can tell us about at the moment?

KB: I’ve just finished up a collection of short stories and have started writing something new – a bit of historical fiction. I also have another story that I’m always adding to when the inspiration hits. I’m really never not writing. Except when I’m sleeping. And eating.

SK: What are your hopes for Sylvie – the book and the character – now?

KB: I hope that the book reaches someone who needs it. That’s all I can really ask for.

For Sylvie herself, I hope that she continues navigating bridges and finding her way. And I hope that she and Belle are old ladies sitting together on the front porch one day. With lots of cats.

Sylvie is on a blog tour! Check out these other blogs and dates for more reviews and interviews:

Mon 14 March: beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com
Tues 15 March: kidsbooksnz.blogspot.co.nz

Thur 17 March: booksellersnz.wordpress.com
Fri 18 March: bestfriendsarebooks.com
Sat 19 March: msblairrecommends.blogspot.co.nz

And leave a comment for your chance to receive a bookmark and copy of Sylvie the Second.