Finding my Author Identity: A Story of Alienation and Belonging

How many authors struggle with finding their literary identity? Some know exactly who they are and what they want to write and it never enters their mind to deviate. Others struggle to find their way. My story should be a warning to budding writers. It’s far better to have things all figured out in advance. Here’s my story.

It was early in 2009 when I first thought to write creatively. I’d already composed a memoir of the life I was leading then, a work since shelved. When that little seed of inspiration germinated in my awareness I was transported instantly to one of my former homes: The Canary Islands, Spain. A powerful, all-consuming energy filled me. I didn’t know what to make of it, other than that I knew it would radically change my life. By July that same year I’d left my home, my broken marriage, my friends, my whole life to chase this dream, this insatiable desire. I fled to Melbourne. It took many months to orient myself. I had no idea what I wanted to write.

In 2010, under the intensive gaze of my literary mentor, I wrote another memoir, Lovesick, which I self-published in 2011. Lovesick captures a decade of my life spent as one of Thatcher’s have-nots. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in the 1980s with about a third of the story set in the Canary Islands. With Lovesick written I turned my hand to short stories. An independent student for many decades (I even undertook my PhD by distance ed) I gleaned what I needed online, read Alice Munro and slaved over every word. When ready, I submitted to literary journals. Only one was published, in the USA. Two were shortlisted and I received some very nice rejections along the way. Eventually Ginninderra Press published all eight in 2012. It felt like progress.

#TheDragoTree - a tragi-comic love story set on the island idyll of Lanzarote. Literary fiction at it's most entertaining. "Held together with a mouth watering descriptions of the landscape and history."

At the end of 2012 I embarked on my first novel, The Drago Tree, a literary love story set in the Canary Islands. I drew on every skill I had. It was then that I realised my literary voice was distinctly British or European. I began to feel uneasy. Voice is everything. How would a British voice be received by the Australian publishing industry? In 2014, I submitted The Drago Tree to every publisher in Australia. It was demoralising. Most didn’t reply. I was thinking, should I emigrate? Then, in January 2015, Odyssey Books made me an offer. They were a tiny small press back then but what did I care? I leapt at the chance. It was my big break. Luck, at last! I was set.

Meanwhile, I’d already begun another three novels, each distinct. Little did I know the crisis that loomed as a result. For me, back then, all my stories were literary fiction or general fiction. It was only after The Drago Tree was published and book reviewers were asking me what genre it fell into that I started to cotton on to the importance of these literary categories. Until then, I thought I could bypass the genres and exist in a literary fiction bubble. Not, it turns out, if I wanted to sell more than a handful of copies of my books. Suddenly, writing became all about genres and markets. An author needs to be a social media wiz, have a strong online presence, and preferably write a series in a single genre. It’s Creative Writing 101. But I’m self-taught, and this was the gap in my knowledge.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

My aspirations came crashing down in August 2016 when I launched my little literary masterpiece, A Perfect Square, a work I’d poured my heart and soul into, actioning a huge amount of pre-release promotion, including co-opting my musical genius daughter to write the music to go with it. see https://isobelblackthorn.com/a-perfect-square/  We launched the book and music together at a café in Melbourne. That day, the city suffered a tempest. Almost no one ventured out. Only ten people made it to the launch, with a few stragglers arriving at the end of the event because they got the time wrong. I went home demoralised. Reality soccer punched me and I landed on the harsh, immutable  concrete of the modern fiction scene with a thump.

That’s when I started to take the genres seriously. I was already at work on a mystery set in my beloved Canary Islands, a work that was giving me gip. All the while I kept asking, what sort of author am I? Where do I belong?

 

In 2017, I had another lucky break when a small press, based in the USA, offered to published my dark psychological thriller, The Cabin Sessions, which I’d written thinking it was horror. On the strength of that delusion and that offer, I thought horror was my thing and proceeded to write a second novel, The Legacy of Old Gran Parks. HellBound Books have since released both titles and I’ve been networking in the horror scene ever since. But through HellBound Books, I have come to realise my writing is not horror. It’s more Noir, or dark fiction, but definitely not horror. Yikes!

So where does that leave me? I need an author identity to hold all my writing together. I can’t keep starting afresh with each new book, hoping it will attract readers. Like all authors, I need a following of loyal readers. That same year, I started shooting arrows into the dark, trying out different pathways trying to build a career. Drawing on my past life as a teacher, I delivered a creative writing course for domestic violence survivors. I applied for a creative writing fellowship with the National Library of Australia, for which I was shortlisted. I applied for, and secured, a mentorship to co-edit the Australasian Horror Writers Association magazine. I applied for travel funding for a new work, which I didn’t get. I thought if I shook the door hard enough, someone would let me in and then I would know who I was as an author. JK Rowling never had this trouble. It all seemed horribly unfair. Was I, am I, my own worst enemy?

Now, in 2018, it feels as though the forces of progress are against me, as though I’ve entered a dark phase, one of retreat and incubation. I have eight works in progress on my desk. There’s a noir thriller, the mystery set in the Canary Islands two and a half years in the making, a fictional biography of an occultist which I regard as my opus (it’s based on my PhD), and various other works, many gothic, most literary. What do all these works say about me? Should I answer in the negative and say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not a crime writer … How bleak! I want to say I won’t be pigeonholed. But I also want to say finding my author identity has proven astonishingly difficult and has evoked deep feelings of alienation. If I can’t find my literary home here in Australia, then do I even belong here at all?

I’ll end on a positive. There are two essentials readers can expect from me: I write about the occult and my favourite setting is the Canary Islands. The two are not mutually exclusive.

 

 

 

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Deep Diving into the Occult

For years I’ve been hiding a dark lamp of hidden knowing from public view for fear of being misunderstood. Thanks to the encouragement of my peers, this is set to change. On Sunday June 10, 2018, 4pm, I’m giving a forty minute talk at Continuum: Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction Convention on Representations of the Occult in Fiction, and I’m giving that talk from a particular standpoint. It’s one of deep understanding from the point of view of both an occult practitioner and a scholar of Western Esotericism.

Neither of these things make me an expert in this vast field, other than perhaps in my tiny little quarter of it. Whole books have been written on defining Western Esotericism alone and identifying the various currents. As for representations of the occult in fiction, this is another vast topic worthy of a PhD and I’ll only have time to touch on a few examples and open up a conversation, one that reaches into the unknown, the inexplicable mysteries of life, and leaves us pondering the ancient wisdom tradition that arises out of that place.

The talk has me dwelling on how I represent the occult in my own writing. All my novels to date contain an occult theme, one in particular, A Perfect Square , a dark mystery that explores various approaches to drawing on occult knowledge in the creation of art. As for my other novels: Asylum‘s plot is driven by a palm reader’s prophecy, the backstory of The Drago Tree is laced with childish occult dabblings, The Cabin Sessions is overshadowed by a Blood Moon harbinger of doom, and The Legacy of Old Gran Parks concerns a supernatural curse. So I guess it’s about time I started talking publicly about this stuff!

I’m a very private individual and I’m easily overwhelmed by crowds. For those reasons, I’ve never been to any sort of convention, and certainly not given a talk of this kind ever in my life. It’s a privilege and I will be giving it my best shot. If you are going to the Continuum convention, I hope to see you there.

 

The Drago Tree review to make my day!

Sometimes reviews are long and detailed and demonstrate a deep engagement with the story. Other times they are short and sweet, but the engagement is still present, in the words the reviewer chooses to convey how they feel. Which is why I am thrilled to share this review, just in via NetGalley, of The Drago Tree, my literary love story set on Lanzarote. Really, reviews don’t come any better than this!

 

 

You will find The Drago Tree in paperback and e-book formats worldwide in both English and Spanish. Here’s one of many bookstores:

https://www.bookdepository.com/The-Drago-Tree/9781922200365

THE LEGACY OF OLD GRAN PARKS – Isobel Blackthorn

Delighted to share this thoughtful review of The Legacy of Old Gran Parks from book critic, Ann Creber.

a good book, a good life

THE LEGACY OF OLD GRAN PARKS by ISOBEL BLACKTHORN- PUBLISHER:HELLBOUND BOOKS GENRE: CRIME WITH BLACK HUMOUR

WARNING: Don’t read this book if you are planning a trip to Cann River or if you are about to tuck into a pie!! (Oh, and maybe you’d better give it a miss if you are an admirer of Joan Baez!)

If none of these constraints apply, then you can settle to an entertaining, startling, violent and amusing (YES!) book, filled with the black humour Isobel Blackthorn enjoys sharing with her readers.

Its main characters are four very different women and the men and the situations they feel obliged ‘to deal with’.  We meet these women chapter by chapter and share their thoughts and actions intimately, while the ghost of Gran Parks hovers in the background!

Frankie is a large tough deer hunter (with a mullet haircut!) who ‘lives rough’ in the forest and…

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Book review: Wanderers No More by Michelle Saftich

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Port of No Return by Michelle Saftich, I am delighted to share my review of its sequel, Wanderers No More.

“The war may be over, but the fight to belong is just beginning.

Left homeless, starving, and almost killed by the Second World War, the Saforo family are refugees fleeing Italy for a better life. The shores of Australia are calling to them and they head off, packing dreams of jobs, a home and … soccer.

But from the moment they get off the boat, adapting to the Australian way of life is harder than

it seems. Their family doesn’t speak right, eat right or even look right. As they struggle to build a simple life against the backdrop of 1950s racism, they start to wonder if they will be outsiders forever.

A true family affair, Wanderers No More will make you laugh, remind you of your family, and warm your heart.”

My thoughts:

Stories of migrant refugees form an important part of the fabric of Australian, and indeed global society, as many many millions of us have been or are refugees, refugees of war, oppression, famine or environmental catastrophe. Port of No Return describes how a small group of families from northern Italy become refugees in World War II, and in Wanderers No More, Saftich portrays the everyday life for these families from the moment they set foot in Australia. The novels fall into the genre of family history memoir, as they are based on true events and real people.

Wanderers No More is an endearing coming of age story sure to put a smile on every reader’s face. Told mostly through the eyes of young Martino Saforo, who arrives with his family in Newcastle after spending four years in various refugee camps in Europe, the novel engages from the first page. The early part of the novel describes the harsh life for European migrants sent to government-run labour camps where they are bonded for two years, the men working on infrastructure projects, including the Snowy River hydro-electricity scheme, mining and roadbuilding. Or on farms slashing sugar cane and the lucky ones in factories. Accommodation was Nissan hut style.

Wanderers No More centres on the trials and tribulations of Martino, his brothers and their friends. The women in the story, the sisters and the mothers, have lesser roles which are not developed but provide texture nevertheless. The cameo role of Martino’s ever-present Nonna represents not only the female element, but Italy itself, with all of its traditions. Through Nonna and Martino, Saftich depicts the homesickness, the coping skills, the resilience and the determination to learn Australian ways and language with enormous sensitivity and insight. Simple acts of kindness are juxtaposed with relentless ethnocentric bullying, mostly in the schoolyard. For Martino, Australia seems a harsh and unforgiving land filled with harsh and unforgiving people. Yet hope is ever present, as is Martino’s passion for soccer, which consumes much of the narrative as the novel progresses. Tragedy is ever present, a ghost at first haunting between the lines, and when it finally manifests, it strikes hard.

Throughout the novel which spans two decades, Saftich deploys emotional restraint, the narrative voice commensurate with the heart and mind of a young boy finding his way, a boy who grows up lost, confused, alienated and hurting in so many ways. Anyone familiar with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff will understand the narrative approach. With its easy, engaging style, and themes of migration, alienation and belonging, this novel belongs on the set text lists in Australian schools.

Buy this book

Catch up with the author here

Book review: Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele

It is rare that I read a general fiction novel set in rural Australia. I thought I better spread my wings a little, so here’s my review of Return to Tamarlin by K. M. Steele.

“When Tamara Slender disappears from an isolated property in Western NSW in 1975, gossip runs wild with rumours she has run off with a local man, Roger Bryte.

Months later, Tamara’s teenage daughters, Nancy and Mary, realise they encountered Bryte in caves on their property the day before their mother disappeared. Despite their suspicions, their father refuses to involve the police, and the girl’s grief, fuelled by the town gossips and their father’s inaction, drives them apart.

In 2007 a stranger arrives at the farm seeking information about Roger Bryte. His questions give Nancy a reason to contact her estranged sister. The sisters are reunited, and their mother’s disappearance is finally solved when Mary returns to Tamarlin.”

My thoughts:

K. M. Steele has penned an intriguing novel of two sisters and the dark mystery that separates them. Return to Tamarlin is well-written, slow-paced and rich in sense of place. Steele’s rendering of a sheep farm in crisis as its owners battle drought and plague, along with the prejudices and gossip of a small country town are spot on. This social realism provides the perfect back drop for a story involving the disappearance of Nancy and Mary’s mother on the very day they decide to try to re-enact the disappearance of the schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock, at some caves on their property called the Limeholes. Two weeks earlier, another local disappears, a local the girls encounter when they visit the caves. Are the two disappearances connected? What is it about their mother and her past that troubles both her daughters, and causes one to fiercely defend their father, and the other to flee the farm for larger horizons?

Good characterisation and a well-crafted plot hold the story together and the various tensions within the family and in the local community are convincingly portrayed. Tragedy, loss, grief and belonging are the emotional themes underpinning Return to Tamarlin, themes many a reader will relate to. This novel will appeal to those who want to lose themselves in an Australian rural setting and re-visit Australia in the 1970s, with all of its social prejudices intact.

You can buy a copy here.

 

 

My #GranParks author interview on Jera’s Jamboree

Big thanks to Shaz of Jera’s Jamboree for inviting me to answer her interesting questions! Here I reveal the inside story of The Legacy of Old Gran Parks.

“Please summarise The Legacy of Gran Parks in 20 words or less.

In a lawless town in a coastal wilderness, four women encounter four deviant men. Gran Parks stands at the crossroads.

 

What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?

I started with the setting. A friend and former neighbour had relocated to a remote town deep in the forest on Australia’s south-eastern corner. I know the town as I have passed through it many times on my way up the coast from Melbourne. Cann River is a coach stop; it’s where tourists pull in for a rest after driving through the forest for about a hundred miles, before they tackle the next hundred. For years, I thought the town would make a terrific setting for a thriller. When my friend urged me on and I committed to the project, fresh ideas flooded in. I was after a unique tale, something that would speak to the heart of what Cann River feels like from an outsider’s point of view, while capturing some of the essence of the surrounds, for the area, known as Croajingolong National Park, is part of the Wilderness Coast and is a UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve.  The area is special for another reason, one I discovered when I started researching the story. On the coast nearby is Point Hicks lighthouse, where Captain James Cook first sighted land on the eastern coast of Australia in April 1770. Unable to pull in there or anywhere else for hundreds of kilometres, Cook kept heading north and arrived at Botany Bay and Australia was claimed by the British. My book is as far from historical fiction as can be, but there is truth in there regarding the local area, including Point Hicks….”

Read the full story here.