Featuring Michelle Saftich

Today I’m in conversation with Michelle Saftich, author of the acclaimed novel Port of No Return (Odyssey Books, 2015), a work of historical fiction I reviewed earlier this year.

 

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Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Brisbane, Australia. I have also spent time living in Sydney and Osaka, Japan. What I love most about each city – I love Brisbane’s warm weather, Sydney’s harbour and Osaka’s food!

So, where are you now?

I am still in Brisbane, living with my husband, who is an accomplished musician and singer/songwriter and who helped to edit the first drafts of my book, and my two school-aged sons; not to mention my demanding black cat!

When you you decide you wanted to be a writer?

By the age of six, I knew I wanted to be a published author and that dream never wavered. As soon as I could read, I fell in love with books and wanted to write them.

My grandmother is a playwright and I have always felt a connection with her. As a young girl, I would sneak into her writing area, ogling her huge, heavy typewriter, scanning all her press clippings about her plays and I longed to have such a space of my own. I can recall sitting on her lap at age nine, reading to her an eight-page story I had written, just for fun.

Authors love books. What are some of your favourites?

I have read broadly, exploring a range of genres and authors. As a younger reader, I loved historical fiction and romance. I treasure such books as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Jane Austen novels and I loved Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I have enjoyed biographical novels about Marie Antoinette and early writers such as Mary Shelley. I like stories about strong, inspiring women and works that inform and educate as well as entertain.

What inspired you to write port of no return?

I was greatly moved my grandparents’ true story of having to flee their Italian town, with their children, at the end of World War II. At that time, their city, Fiume, a beautiful portside city, was taken and absorbed into Yugoslavia – lost to Italy forever.

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In May, 1945, Yugoslav Partisans came down the hills into the city of Fiume and began rounding up those Italians, known to have worked with the Germans during the war, and executing them.

My father, a great oral storyteller, had told my sister and I a few snippets of his parents’ plight. He was fond of telling how his mother had stood up to the Yugoslav Partisans when they had come knocking on their door, seeking to arrest and kill her husband. She had shown great bravery in telling them that her husband had left her for another woman, and was not at home.

Inspired by these family tales, I decided to do some research about the city and came across a startling post-World War II conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Italians fled the region as the Yugoslav Army moved in, leaving behind their homes, their livelihoods, their friends.

I decided to write about their experiences.

How long did it take you to write?

It took two years to write. I talked to other Italians who had fled Fiume – ones who could remember being shot at trying to cross the town border to escape, ones who could recall the Partisans coming down the hills.

I have tried to capture their fear, their loss, their desperation – while informing readers of this little known conflict that affected so many.

Personally, it has been wonderful to write about and record my family heritage, while giving the people of this region a voice. I have felt honoured to tell their story and have loved every word of it.

There’s a whisper of a sequel. To find out why, read Port of No Return, and, like me, you’ll be left wanting more.

You can find Port of No Return at Odyssey Books

at Amazon and all good booksellers.

Meanwhile, here’s how you can connect with Michelle:

Website https://michellesaftich.com/

Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/msaftich/?fref=ts

Twitter  @MichelleSaftich

Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26102499-port-of-no-return

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taking flight

canary-islandsTomorrow begins a grand adventure, although it feels like it has already begun. I am flying to Lanzarote, Canary Islands after a twenty-six year absence, and I will be accompanied by my publisher, Michelle Lovi.

And  I have only met her once.

It is hard to say when this journey began. I could say it was the day I left my sleepy little village for Melbourne, a ten hour bus ride. But that is a trek I have done many times. Better to say  this adventure had it’s beginnings back in 2013 when I conceived an idea for a book that would be set entirely on Lanzarote. That idea turned into The Drago Tree, a tragi-comic romance released by Odyssey Books in September 2015.

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The novel has become my wings. I had been hinting on social media that I would love to return but it seemed like a pipe dream. After all, I hadn’t managed to visit after I left in 1990. Besides, I knew privately that I would never travel alone. I’m just not cut out for it. Months passed and The Drago Tree was launched. Then one day I posted how much I yearned to go back and I received a message from Michelle. It said, “Can I come?”

At first I thought she wasn’t serious. I said, “Yeah sure,” to be polite.

Two weeks later she repeated the question, which wasn’t a question at all. It was an offer of companionship and even though I had only met her the once, I wasn’t about to pass it up. Besides, Michelle is my publisher – what an honour that is! – and she has a sweet manner to boot. Perfect.

So we set a date and booked the flights and I have been saving my pennies ever since.

Tomorrow we fly to London. A couple of days later we will be on Lanzarote. And our adventure will begin. But of course it already has…

I will be blogging this special journey with lots of photos. My first ever travel diary. Travel with us if you wish and experience, albeit second hand, why Lanzarote is such an extraordinary island.

 

On continuity errors

9781922200365-Cover (1)I’m currently at work polishing a second draft of my fourth novel, in readiness for other pairs of eyes. It’s an intense process involving steady concentration and a decent memory. It’s about containing whole themes in my head and watching when they appear to ensure that what I wrote before, what’s right there before my eyes and what comes after in later chapters, flows along nicely. I haven’t put Saturday before Friday. At noon there’s definitely a sense of time flowing by after the last time I mentioned said theme, say at dawn. I might find that character x couldn’t have known said event had taken place unless I do something to make it possible. Worse, I haven’t allowed enough space between events one and two, for a third event to be squeezed in between.

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Evidence of a poor writer? Someone cobbling a story together in piecemeal fashion?

No.

Then where’s the planning? Surely these things shouldn’t arise. They wouldn’t arise if I’d planned it all out properly.

Not true.

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Perhaps some authors plan out every detail in advance. They have lists of scenes and detailed timelines. They are meticulous from the off.

I write differently. I start with a sketch of an idea, maybe a sense of a theme, and one or two characters. I might have a cast of characters thinly conceived. I always have the setting. Always a strong sense of place. And I will have incubated the story for years.

Then, within a paragraph, the muse has taken control of the narrative. Up pops a character with such potency and so much to say, she demands a parallel narrative of her own. New themes emerge. Events present themselves. Little twists. I run with ideas, stream of consciousness style. I write with only a dim memory of what I wrote before. And I don’t look back, I press forward. I don’t care about grammar or syntax. I trust to luck that I’m not stuck repeating myself. That the ideas are evolving. And the characters too.

Once I have the bones of a whole draft, I set it aside for a few months. When I come back to it I have to battle through a jungle, hacking out paths, weeding, planting and transplanting, grafting this to that. I scrutinise every paragraph on every page. I develop scenes. Flesh out characters. Strive to get the balance right between all the elements of story – action, dialogue, reflection, description.

I go over the story three times before I call what I have a second draft. I put in eight hour days. Sometimes twelve. I fix every single thing I can find. I don’t want to say there are five people at a table and only describe the four of them that were there, a flaw I discovered in a highly praised work of literary fiction I read recently, a flaw that had me flicking back the page and re-reading the scene several times. A flaw that had me thinking, how the hell did that get past the copy editor?

I read a popular work of fiction a few years back in which the author had gone to some lengths to describe the dim light of a wintry New Year’s Eve, then the character walked into a bright and sunny kitchen. Huh? In the same book, the character was swimming in a pond on a wintry day in January, at four in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky. Whoops!

I’ve softened my condemnations of such errors. They shouldn’t be there in published works, but I can see how easily they slip by. The author is so close to their own writing they can’t see it. When we make certain changes to one spot in the narrative, there’s a ripple effect. Every single related point has also to be changed. If you change Burt to Ed, he has to be Ed forevermore. No mention of Burt. It’s the same with place and time.

I think continuity errors are most likely to arise when the author makes small changes and forgets or misses the ripples. For example, there might have been five people at that table, and the author got rid of one of them. But overlooked the ‘five’ stated on the previous page. 

Just now in editing the middle of my story, I noticed the lack of development of the character of a frog. In my last round of edits I’d inserted the frog as a motif, thinking to add texture and interest. But I’d been lazy. I hadn’t tracked the development of the frog throughout the story.

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After posting this piece I shall return to the frog and do that tracking. Otherwise it might slip my notice. It’s that sort of meticulousness that fixes the continuity errors. And it’s up to authors to do that work because they are the only ones to know it that intimately.

After the fanfare

9781922200365-Cover (1)So, I’ve published a book. That’s fantastic news! All those years of slavish labour coming to a glorious culmination – the release. The Drago Tree is my second novel published by Odyssey Books in this auspicious year of 2015. My year! I’ve made it. Crossed that line that feels like the Grand Canyon. There’s the endorsement. There’s the kudos. There’s the fanfare of the press releases, the radio shows, the launches. Fans grab their signed copies. Friends congratulate me on my success. It’s such a high. Then…

You wait…and nothing happens.

No Google alerts. Nothing on Goodreads. Or Amazon. You run an eye down the urls in your daily book x self x review search and all you see is, ‘be the first to submit a review.’

Doubt kicks in – They don’t like it. They’re not even reading it. They’re using it as a door stop. They’ve left it, face down at page two, on the bus. They think it’s too long, too short, too, too, uninteresting.

You wait…

Someone writes a great review. You’re swinging from the chandelier. You post, blog, tweet, pin it. You get as much mileage out of it as you dare.

You wait…

You think of recycling that one review but pride won’t let you.

You wait…

Is the story really that bad? All those review requests you sent out last week and only one reply? Perhaps you haven’t got the review request tone right. Face it, you’re no good at this game. Then there’s the timing. Requesting book reviews at the end of the year is bad timing. All the prestigious blog reviewers have shut up shop for the year. But what’s to be done? The publishing calendar doesn’t end in August.

You wait…

…feeling jinxed. Review copies go astray in the post, no doubt making the journey from Canberra to Melbourne via Marble Bar. Anticipation has morphed into despondency. You wake each day feeling heavy. You no longer feel a frisson of optimism when you search for a book review.

You wait…

You stop yourself from searching for that one person who told you in a comment on Facebook how much they loved your book, and begging them to join Goodreads.

You wait…

Your local press and community decide not to join in your fanfare and launch promotion. ‘You’ve had a lot of coverage already this year with your first book, Isobel. Now it’s someone else’s turn.’ Turn? Ouch. You know it’s irrational but the rock-solid support you thought you had feels like gossamer. You begin to wonder if anyone will turn up to your launch. You begin to wonder who your friends are, or even if you have any.

You wait…

You bury yourself in your latest work. Tell yourself you’ve raised your expectations way too high and the world doesn’t revolve around you and your book.

Face it, you’re too impatient. It’s only been a few weeks.

You remind yourself of persistence, perseverance, resilience – that’s what it takes to be a writer. You tell yourself not to be so, needy.

You wait…

On Gilgamesh by Joan London

I’m about halfway through Joan London’s Gilgamesh and toying with writing something on Goodreads. Just now I scrolled through the reviews to read what others were saying but stopped when I realised there were over 1,800 of them. I really only have one word to add – bleak.

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And I realise much of the bleakness comes not from the story itself but from an absence of emotional reaction on the part of the main characters, along with a paucity of introspection. As is typical of much Australian writing the feeling in the story is embedded in the action as the main character, Edith, goes through the motions of her difficult life. She isn’t the responsive type and I’m left feeling empty.

The story is straightforward. In 1937, on a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, Ada. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the farm.

Alongside the myth of Gilgamesh, there is a motif of perversion running through the narrative, stated almost in passing in the most matter-of-fact manner. It’s a motif that evokes revulsion and a sense of doom. 

Overall the narrative is restrained. I think the idea behind this style of storytelling is that the reader is free to have their own emotional reactions, unimpeded by those of the characters. The downside is that the characters are more like automatons. The rich roundness of their beings duly muted in the rendering, they are at risk of appearing one-dimensional.

In it’s favour I have to say that the narrative is superbly crafted and poised, the prose elegant. Gilgamesh is definitely a book I would recommend.

Well, that was more than one word!

Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum

(‘Narrative as Navigation Through the Self: Isobel Blackthorn’s Asylum by Ness Mercieca was originally published in the October 2015 edition of  The Tertangala)

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They say the mind does not create, and that it only cuts and pastes the stimulus it receives from the outside world.

Author Isobel Blackthorn has a talent for this, in fact, I often get the feeling with her that she is cataloguing my idiosyncrasies. I suspect I am not the only one to suspect this, and that she has an arsenal of our traits and habits to be appropriated for the right character at the right time. It’s the literary skill that brought us Plath’s The Bell Jar, and it goes by the name of semi-autobiography.

When I asked Isobel about her creative process, her words confirmed what John Cleese (whose name my computer insists I correct to Cheese) once said about creativity, that the subconscious will reward you with an idea if you spend long enough contemplating a topic. Here it is in Isobel’s words; “I let the story brew inside me for a while, sometimes years, and when some other far larger part of me has it all figured out, I have a powerful irrepressible urge to write. And I go into lockdown and give that other self total freedom.”

The true art to Plath and Blackthorn’s (Plath-thorn’s, if you like) literary style, however, is dissecting the self. Most authors do it; a mood or thought is isolated. It becomes the embryo from which a new self germinates, and it becomes a complex character. (Ever wonder why writers think of their characters like children? Well, there you have it.) Entire books can be populated by these alternate selves of the author, and a narrative becomes the ship through which the self is navigated.

Who’s at the helm, you ask? Isobel speaks not only of smaller selves, but of a larger one who personifies her creativity; “I prefer to think of my source of inspiration as some other greater me deep inside,” she says, “and every time I write a first draft, I’m paying homage to her, to the muse.”

Isobel’s most recent book, Asylum, is the story of such an alternate self. Yvette Grimm speaks with an incredibly honest voice from the perspective of an illegal immigrant waiting to be told to leave Australia, but having no-where else to go. She has been given a personal prophecy that she will meet the father of her children in Australia, and her hopes of permanent residency depend on meeting him very, very soon.

What resonates the most with me, however, is the creative block that all of this brings about in Yvette. Blackthorn made me want something, as a reader, that a book has never made me want before; I wanted Yvette Grimm to paint. Blackthorn played on a knowledge we all have that when you find inspiration, it’s probably because you’ve found something else too.

Deliria – book review

Initially, with paperback in hand, I hadn’t anticipated that I would review Deliria by Chris Heffernan. Two pages in, I was excited by the fresh, lively voice, and by the way Heffernan, through the eyes of his protagonist, depicts Adelaide with acerbic wit.

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The plot is very simple. William is an intelligent twenty-two year old university student who falls hopelessly for the stunningly attractive eighteen-year-old music student, Deliria.

Deliria is trouble from the first. She tantalises William, lures him into her world of petty theft. She’s a femme fatale. And he’s besotted.

What ensues is a series of little adventures, escalating in risk.

Deliria is set against an urbane backdrop of twelfth-century French poetry, classical music and Thailand. Adelaide  portrayed as the antithesis: crass, and distinctly uneventful. William’s thirst for stimulation is met in Deliria, who represents the sort of adventuress commensurate with the uncouth cultural and social fabric of Adelaide that William sees all around him. With a twisted morality and a series of perverse justifications, Deliria is perhaps an inevitable product of an age of shallow, conspicuous consumption, and its nemesis.

In William, Heffernan portrays the absurdities and intensities of an young man caught up in ennui. Acutely observed, William’s narrative is a perfect balance of introspection and observation, with enough self-awareness to endear the reader.

To my mind, Deliria sits comfortably alongside Phillip Roth’s Indignation. It’s a loose yet apt comparison, both books tackling the consequences of an educated young man’s dogged attachment to a single idea, or feeling. Although each author tackles his subject in a markedly different manner.

I found Deliria a thoroughly entertaining read. 5 Stars

Deliria can be found at Odyssey Books and at all good bookstores.