Danger At Safe distance - and How animals set a high standard of life
Crime has always been wildly attractive to me. Being a middle-class private school teenager who spent my time mooning over Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street and dancing in my bedroom, I also learned that reading a book a day didn’t create the basis for a full and exciting social life. I was, clearly, a criminal in the making.
Nicking a pack of Burger Rings, being late returning library books, and learning to smoke (only to accept a ‘jazzed’ cigarette and ending up at the local beach, trying to ‘return all the seaweed to the ocean’) merged to create a foundation of ‘fine line’ mistakes that saw me unemployed, at twenty three, with only my vast collection of books and a maxed out credit card to distinguish me from the other bewildered over-educated kids in Adelaide. Or the nearest street kid.
Until one night…
It was the most boring party I’d ever been to. Fifteen drug-addled Goths sitting around a fire staring at the visions within. A girl with a white rat on her shoulder was talking monotonously about her crappy life. And I was sinking into an emotional funereal dirge.
And then something happened to change it all.
The mix of tequila, raspberry cordial and Savoury Shapes began to have an unexpected effect on me. While everyone else was slumped in personal torment, I got lively. And a little chatty…
I told the pink-haired smell-bomb on my left about the day I broke into Leyland Brothers World (a theme park wedged inside a fake Uluru in New South Wales) and had my photo taken with my head stuck through dozens of celebrity cardboard cut-outs before the cops arrived. She smiled (tightly, but it was something).
Spurred on, I told the tiny shrunken child/man on my other side about the sad day I drank the bong water. He seemed unsurprised, but at least he was looking at me.
And so was the spunky guy in a dented top hat. I moved seamlessly on to the time I drove my friend to her gigs as a sex-worker before she abruptly left town owing me a thousand bucks. Now even the shaky host was watching. Someone laughed.
Drunk on popularity and not a little Stone’s Ginger Wine that Edward Clammyhands thrust at me, I scrabbled around in my brain - which suddenly felt large and unnaturally shiny – for more stories.
I told them about buying drugs in a motel, only to have to climb out the window as the local drug lord kicked in the door to eliminate the competition (either that or he was just keen to buy some speed so heavily cut with Ajax I had a nose bleed for two weeks).
And soon, every single red-stained, black-rimmed eye in the room was focussed on…Me.
And then the funereal dirge girl opened some chips. The spunk changed the music. A tall bloke looked like he might start dancing but he was just adjusting his hair.
However, a strange thing was happening in the world’s most negative of places - there was merriment at a Goth party. Okay, so this was mostly because I was happy to reveal myself as a gormless simpleton but I realised something else. Sure, I’d done a lot of totally stupid things in my life, but somehow in the retelling they seemed less sad and directionless and more - if I was very, very careful - entertaining.
And, just so you know this wasn’t in any way an epiphany or pivotal moment, five years later I used some of these stories in my first novel. And then, not the next month, or even the next year, Wakefield Press published it as Lady Luck.
And thus encouraged, I wrote another one. And it got picked up by another publisher. So I wrote another. And another.
And since then, I have been asked if there is a secret to getting published.
Mostly I tell people that there is no secret. If you write a book that’s good enough to make people want to read the next page then you’re doing well. And if most pages in the manuscript do this, then the manuscript will be published.
Writing is not just self-expression. It’s the skill of communicating to someone else; of touching someone (not in a rude way) through your words. And my awareness of the (rather large) gap between what I liked reading, and what I’d previously been writing, helped me immeasurably.
Here's my one-eyed Galah - Bernie 'Boo' who, to me, defines the determination, endless hope and love of what you do - somehow despite the setbacks - that you need to become a successful writer. He was given to me after several potential carers didn't like his one-eyed-ness.
As it turned out, it was their loss as he's the perfect writing bird - sitting on my shoulder and shouting out words if I get forgetful or tired. Telling me who's left messages on my answering machine (I hate the phone and struggle the check messages each day ) and just defines affection, devotion and fun. so I've put him in here, no connection with this article except that my intention, always is to but to make you think about all the animals who might need your help and to think of how tough life is for an animal who has much to give - and never get the chance to give it - who can't find the right person - or is stuck in a cage with no one to talk to. He's so good he came to my TAFE lecture last night to prove this point of determination and hope to my wonderful students in the Write Fiction - The Novel class.
End of Interval
The night at the crap party changed my life. And not just because I pashed the spunky guy.
Because I did have a secret to getting my writing published.
And it was this.
I learned to consider who I was telling stories to. I learned to think of what I would like someone to talk to me about at a suicide-inducing party. I would want to be distracted, I’d want to learn stuff, (even if it’s just ‘Don’t throw Leyland Brothers merchandise at the police’) and with some careful editing, a story becomes more than an anecdote. It became entertainment.
And this insight became a window into things that my somewhat sharper readers might not be as crazy or brave or careless or stupid enough to get involved in. It’s danger at a safe distance. And, with a nod to the Goth party, it’s also not entirely unlike The Smiths’ lyric – ‘I can laugh about it now but at the time it was terrible’.
And terrible things intrigue people, not just because they are engaging, but because we are glad we aren’t there, and so we can (hopefully) also laugh, or cry or empathise, but because for a lot of people, danger is limited to leaving their bike helmet unclipped or putting their recycling in someone else’s bin. Crime fiction is alluring for the very reason it’s fiction, readers can escape into it, or away from it. The very nature of crime - the uncontrollable threat - is now in the reader’s hands. It has been tamed.
See, here’s the thing. Editors want to buy your manuscript. They want you to get published as much as you do. But this will only happen when you write something that other people want to read just as much as you want to write it.
Crime fiction could be called the ultimate voyeurism because it deals characters a bad hand and then lets us watch while they try to make the best of things. And if the basic premise of good fiction applies (that characters prove themselves in situations of conflict, both internal and external) then crime fiction offers up some amazing opportunities.
But this tag of voyeurism applies to most genres of fiction. Reading books, from biographies to SF, is a form of nosiness. We’re poking ourselves into other people’s lives; peering into their lounge-room, bedroom, coffin or headspace.
And in making the most of my (more apparent in hindsight) total disregard for personal safety I found a great basis for my writing that helped a lot in creating my ‘screwball’ crime novels and I have since written five, with three more under contract.
I love writing characters who struggle with the concept of good and evil, who have unusual lives, and with this mix I’ve slid neatly into a sub-genre that sees my books categorised under Chick lit, Humour, Crime, Popular and Romance Fiction.
In fact, every bookstore seems to shelve my books differently, but as long as they’re there, I’m very lucky, and happy. Because this is the best job in the world. It’s not just about sharing what’s in your heart, or mind, it’s about connecting with readers through the pages of a book. And knowing who my reader is has helped me reach her (and increasingly, to my surprise, him).
Crime fiction is created to divert, entertain, and go somewhere we’ve not been before, whether that’s into the mind of a killer, the house of a victim or the dressing room of the local Peek-a-boo cubicle.
And I can promise you that it’s a hell of a lot more fun than doing that stuff for real.
End of article - beginning of small aside.
Here are three of my birds - finches who started out with problems - Almondine (black and red finch) only had one half leg but adapted by being an amazing flier. The Dude (black and grey) couldn't fly and was always falling off his perch, so he made an excellent nest from where he ruled over the aviary. Tiny tiny (Firetail red and grey finch) escaped in and out of the bars of my aviary and eventually took longer and longer trips, Now he leaves for weeks and then comes back, has a feed and sits with the other finches and seems to tell them all his adventures. They all figured out ways to make their lives better.
I try to take a tip from them every day, look at my life, how I write, what my unconscious routine is, and try to find ways to make it easier, more pleasant, more efficient - usually so i have more time to do the things I love - play with my animals, read, write, etc. So now I wash my dishes with a book propped up on the window sill in one of those recipe holders made of clear plastic and have my meditation music playing - because I hate washing dishes. I used to let them stack up until I was using plastic cutlery. Now I do it every day because it gives me a chance to read and relax. (p.s Am also getting a small dishwasher to fit into my camper sized kitchen will also make that process easier...Soon I hope, as soon as I pay for my clear hanging bubble chair for the front verandah)
This article (without the asides or pictures) was first published in the VIC Writers’ Centre newsletter and then the Sisters in Crime newsletter - Stiletto.
Listening to: having just returned from Port Fairy (a wonderful relaxing, quiet and warm hearted town in victoria for a sisters in crime panel at the terrific Blarney books I listened to the audio book of A.M. Homes' novel 'This Book will Change Your Life'
Eating: Argh, ye gods... Honestly it's just far far too much traveling makes me eat sweets. 'Lady' week makes me eat sweets. Being happy makes me eat sweets (and both the holiday - possibly first holiday I was actually relaxed in for years, and returning to my excellent cuddling animals did this - Pedro the white rabbit hopped up into my lap this morning and got snuggled so much there's rabbit hair all over the place. Lucky that Shannon, my favourite cleaner is coming tomorrow) - I got addicted to the muesli at Spoons, a wonderful Port Fairy cafe and even got some to take home. am not usually a muesli person but this was heaven.
Also 'Frantic Whisk' biscuits bought at the car wash before returning 4WD Kluger - terrific fun to drive long distance) to my mum. Especially good are the Nougat Rounds. Getting excited about easter and accompanying chocolate, also worried about not fitting into clothes. which emotion shall will? Only time - and quality of chocolate - will tell. Personally, despite living in town with both excellent Bracegrindles and Haighs chocolate and a weakness created twenty years ago for Swiss Gloary white truffles, I'm a sucker for the Red Tulip Elegant Rabbit. they're just so... damn elegant.
Thinking About: How lucky I am to love going on holidays and look forward to coming home too. I missed Marshall starting at the end of the bed and ending up in my arms. I missed Bernie boo cuddling and commenting on everything. I missed the constant song and chatter and tweet and whistle of my canaries, finches and cockatiels outside my writing window. I'm looking forward to three or more baby finches emerging from a nest up top of my aviary.
Unlike my canaries (who sometimes just toss the babies if there's something wrong with them - and I try to save them with mixed results - they're usually right). The finches are great parents and Hamster is always there as baby sitter/surrogate mum if anythign goes wrong - I posted a film I made onto Youtube of her doing her thing feeding adopted baby finches - quite a remarkable sight) I missed Monty trying to Woo Opie and Opie doing the equivalent of swatting him over the head by sort of batting him with a wing and going to the next branch, where he continues to serenade her for hours. He's a great singer but he needs a new song.
I missed cuddling my rabbit Pedro and having her make little happy noises and then leap about, bum high in the air, ready for chasing and hide and seek games. I didn't miss the mess of a backyard as we're in the baby steps of getting the whole thing redone - with my design that I have to finish and clear with the landscaper.
Watching: Nothing on TV except Animal Rescue show - usually on Wednesday, but it's been off the last couple of weeks so I must restrain myself. Old eps of Ned and Stacy that I found in perfect plastic wrap condition in the opshop for $2. Finches outside my window making nests with such industry and ingenuity.
Wearing: The KB Innovative Nightie/Dress(TM). I bought a bunch of excellent/almost flattering/soft dresses a couple months ago. As a gormless aside I also hate socks and wearing shoes at home (something Radio National caught in a picture they took during their Writers' Rooms' series - who knew they'd take pics for a radio interview?)
The first thing my mum said was: 'Why aren't you wearing shoes! You look like a bum!'- Anyway, I was constantly getting caught out in the nick by a handy man when our house was getting work done on it (an old, gorgeous, beachy looking flat/triangle roofed ranch house) as I don't like wearing nighties - I get all caught up in them, but these were different, maybe dresses are the key! So now in colder weather I can get out of bed and 'Be Dressed Already' - Hair and make up aside - this lazy approach to fashion also helps me work and write more efficiently and I can shower when I want to - which is often after I've got my work done for the day and can do less essential stuff (like this), etc.
The joys of working from home.
And believe me because I have asked - I do not stink. Clean your teeth, wear deodorant, drench yourself in perfume, you might get away with it. The teeth thing is essential, especially after a meal. and make your hair not stand up and your eye shadow and lipstick should be wiped from out of your ears and nose or wherever it goes during the night if you're not a good face washing person before you go to bed. If you do, as I do, often crash face first into bed, sometimes not in The KB Innovative Nightie/Dress(TM) but a glitter mini-dress with stacked party shoes still on.
Reading: Just finished '61 Hours' - the latest Lee Child Book. I am most frustrated by the 'to be continued' tag. Hate it on TV, hate it in books. Still, he promises another book later in the year so I'll have to not get too cranky when I go hear him talk in April. Also some real crime books on importing exporting illegal drugs in Australia for writing' The Tequila Bikini'. At the writers' panel on Sunday in Port Fairy I fessed up to trying to do my own research - especially the fun stuff - but this import/export bit is out of my league, sadly. I read a chapter this morning where there was a Glut of Cocaine in 1992, i.e. They couldn't get rid of it... Cripes. Just that sentence was a heart-starter.
Oh, and I forgot, another thing...
Rabbits and baby chicks at easter
And don't buy a rabbit or baby chicken for Easter unless you are prepared to care for them like your own children. And if you regret buying it because you realise this rabbit is too good for you and you made a Bad Decision, admit to it (and don't do what people I've seen do - which is a myriad of things but these are the kinder ones - if you can believe it - they drown them, leave them to live out their sad lives in the bathtub with crappy pellets, leave them out in the hutch and expect them to live on the dry dead grass and rain that falls in their feed bowl, leave the hutch open hoping they'll escape, kill them and eat them for dinner. etc) Yes, this is true and worse. Sometimes you might understand why I like animals more than many people, but I persist in trying to believe that the world, and humans are essentially good. I try, I really do. I have chickens and a rabbit and they are cool, but you need to be cooler. Being cool means knowing yourself and being able to reach inside your heart and understand if you really can care for a fully grown chicken or rabbit for the rest of their lives.
And if you still decide to get a Rabbit, desex it. And if you really think you don't want it anymore - take it to a proper shelter, or email me... Yes, you might incur my wrath but then I'll give you some advice or take it off your hands. Remember, most rabbits don't like being picked up and played with. chocolate is much better for you than my disapproval. BUT, if you sincerely want a rabbit. Go to the Small Animals Rescue Sites that dot the internet, there are loads of excellent rabbits who are desperate for homes.
Here is a picture of Pedro, who is great. She (Yes, I thought she was a boy until I got her desexed) sleeps during the day and is lively just when I am lively - i.e. night time. But I carried her around and and watched her and tested her out and made sure she was the kind of rabbit I wanted - which was a house rabbit (i.e small hutch inside, but roams the house, has kitty litter trays where she needs them (in three small corners of the house) and fresh leaves, thistles, and special hay each day, corn on the cob and her fancy pellets.
She rewards me by running towards me, cuddling up to me, and licking my arms and playing with me. I clean out her litter trays, water and feed bowls each day and clean her area, make her new cardboard box houses to destroy and hide in (they must have two doors or they won't use them) and like any animal, they involve work as well as fun, but she is also very funny, loving and kind. I crouch down to hug her and if I have to carry her, I use both hands to hold her tight to my body so she knows she's safe.
Well, Ciao, my little rays of sunshine, my lovely pals. Go do something good today. One good thing for you, one for someone else. you'll be amazed how much better you feel about the latter than the former. Trust me.