Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Black Inc.’s Gift Guide

Give the gift of great reading this year. We’ve got something for everyone.

The Best Australian Stories 
Edited by Cate Kennedy
RRP $29.95

The Best Australian Essays 2010
Edited by Robert Drewe
RRP $29.95

The Best Australian Poems 2010
Edited by Robert Adamson
RRP $27.95

The Best Australian Stories, Essays and Poems bring together the best Australian writing of 2010. On their own or as a set, they make a gorgeous gift.

Reading Madame Bovary
Amanda Lohrey
RRP $32.95

A brilliant collection of short stories from one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. A book sure to please any literary lover.

“Full of riches.” – The Age.

Australian Encounters
Written by Shane Maloney, Illustrated by Chris Grosz
RRP $24.95

Written by Shane Maloney and illustrated by Chris Grosz, Australian Encounters tells of 50 true encounters - public or private, ill-fated or fortuitous - between a renowned Australian and an international mover and shaker. Beautifully presented and highly entertaining, this is a perfect gift for the hard-to-buy-for friend, family or colleague.

The Family Law
Benjamin Law
RRP $27.95

A hilarious and moving collection of essays on life, love, family and growing up by one of Australia’s brightest new talents. If you know someone who likes David Sedaris, they’ll love Benjamin Law. 

“A writer of great wit and warmth.” – The Sydney Morning Herald 

The Sound of Pictures
Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity
Andrew Ford
RRP $32.95

An illuminating journey through the soundtracks of more than 400 films, including A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Cinema Paradiso, High Noon and many more. Perfect for music lovers and film buffs alike.

“A hugely enjoyable and revelatory read." —Margaret Pomeranz

The Indian Ocean and the Battle for Supremacy in the 21st Century
Robert D. Kaplan
RRP $34.95

In Monsoon Robert Kaplan shows how the rise of China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia represents a crucial shift in the global balance of power. A great gift for that friend or family member who is looking for thought provoking reading this summer.

How to Grow Your Own, Buy Local, Waste Nothing & Eat Well
Arabella Forge
RRP $29.95

An invaluable guide to eating and living well. This is a book destined to become a dog-eared kitchen staple, with fantastic recipes, tips and information on food that proves useful year-round.

Frugavore is that welcome rarity – a food book designed to be used.” – The Big Issue

Into the Woods
The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Anna Krien
RRP $29.95

Smart, powerful reporting on Tasmania’s forest wars from a brilliant debut writer. Into the Woods will capture you from the first sentence and sweep you along for the ride. For lovers of insightful non-fiction. 

“Anna Krien's intimate, urgent book pulsates with life and truth.” — Chloe Hooper

Love Poems
Dorothy Porter

Love Poems collects Dorothy Porter’s most powerful love poetry: portraits of longing and infatuation, of bliss, passion, uncertainty and devotion. A must for poetry lovers and anyone looking for that special gift for a loved one.

Quarterly Essay 40
Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the End of the Reform Era
George Megalogenis

In the aftermath of the 2010 election and an era of power without purpose, George Megalogenis considers what has happened to politics in Australia. This smart and engaging essay is the perfect gift for any political junkie.

The Well at the World's End
AJ Mackinnon 

The Well at the World’s End is an astonishing true story of a remarkable voyage, an old-fashioned quest by a modern-day adventurer. This is a great gift for an armchair traveler or anyone with a taste for adventure and whimsy.

 “One of the most enjoyable books I have ever read...a marvellous read by a travel writer with a unique style.” – The Canberra Times

For more great Black Inc. books, please visit our website.

Andrew Ford's Top 5 Sound or Music Moments in Film

Andrew Ford is the author of The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity. We asked him to share five of his favourite uses of sound or music in film.

1. The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) has one of those instantly recognisable cowboy themes by Jerome Moross, a popular hit in its day. It speaks to us of wide open prairies, mountains, canyons, tumbleweed – clichés, in other words, and fifty years on we might think of the music as clichéd too. But Wyler's most impressive use of the landscape has no music, indeed no sound. The dawn fist-fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston is shown from a great height and a great distance, physically and theatrically. We see little and hear nothing. Wyler refuses to allow us to get involved in this futile punch-up. A Cold War parable? You bet!

2.  There are dozens of examples from Hitchcock in the book, but here's one I didn't include. If the music Bernard Herrmann wrote (against Hitchcock's wishes) for the shower scene in Psycho (1960) is too well known to require comment, what happens next is very interesting indeed. As Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lies on the bathroom floor, we hear the distant voice of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – 'Oh God, mother! Blood!' – and then, for the next ten minutes, there is only music as we watch Norman mop up the bathroom, tidy the bedroom, wrap the body in the shower curtain, drag it out of the motel room, put it in the boot of the car, drive it to the swamp, push it in and watch it sink. During those ten minutes, something very interesting occurs. We change our allegiance. Having been hoping that Marion would get away with her theft, and been horrified at her murder, it takes only ten minutes for us to hope Norman will succeed in disposing of her body and to share his feelings of panic when the car roof pokes out of the swamp.

3.  The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964) has a strikingly bizarre score by Dimitri Tiomkin, but the sound that never fails to raise what remains of the hair on my head, is the voices of the Roman legions standing in a snow storm, moaning in chorus. They are bewailing the death of Marcus Aurelius, their mouths hidden behind their long shields. It is a chilling noise.

4.  The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) is based on the simple conceit that we are watching documentary footage shot on two cameras by three film students. They have disappeared, their cameras have been found, the film and video have been edited and this is the result. As they meet their sticky ends in the final minutes of the picture, we are shown images from one camera but hear sound from the other. The images are shot by Heather running downstairs into the cellar where Mike has been killed or at least knocked out. From the audio on his camera we hear Heather's screams coming closer.

5.  There are dozens of sonic masterstrokes in Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), some of them musical, some not. Beneath the freeway where Samson and Delilah camp out with Gonzo, the distant thumps of car tires hitting a join in the road form a continuous counterpoint to their fragmented conversations. My favourite moment, though, is when the film's sound design takes us inside Samson's head. As Samson (Rowan McNamara) lies on his mat, he has country music playing on the radio next to his left ear. Outside on the deck, his brother's band is going over and over its reggae riffs, an accompaniment in search of a tune. Samson covers his ears and the sounds become very distant. He uncovers first one ear, then the other, and we hear – in extreme stereo – the band, then the radio.

The Sound of Pictures is available now in all good bookstores.

A sneak peek at Australian Encounters

Here is a sample encounter from the new release Australian Encounters written by Shane Maloney and illustrated by Chris Grosz. Australian Encounters tells of 50 true encounters - public or private, ill-fated or fortuitous - between a renowned Australian and an international mover and shaker. 

Bob Hawke & Frank Sinatra

“A funny thing happened in Australia,” Frank Sinatra told a New York audience. “I made a mistake and got off the plane.” The plane in question – the private jet of one of Sinatra’s Las Vegas casino connections – landed in
Melbourne on 9 July 1974. Fresh out of self-imposed retirement, the 58-year-old Sinatra was visiting Australia for the first time in 15 years. His career was back on the upswing after a decade of poor record sales and crappy movies; his five shows, billed as the ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back’ tour, were eagerly awaited.
Trouble began the moment he set foot on the ground. Nobody was waiting to pick him up. As he headed to his rehearsal in a borrowed car, he was pursued by a journalist disguised as his then wife, the former Mrs Zeppo Marx. Sprinting through the rain to the venue with a media posse at his heels, he found himself locked out. Photos splashed across the afternoon papers showed a very cranky Frankie pounding on the stage door “like a demented fan”.
That night on stage, the Chairman of the Board let fly. In a prickly monologue, he described journalists as bums and “the broads who work for the press” as hookers worth “a buck and a half”. The crooner had bitten off more than he could chew.
When the journalists’ union demand for an apology was brushed aside, the ACTU slapped a ban on the tour. Its president, Bob Hawke, took personal charge of the campaign. The Silver Bodgie was then 45, a champion pisspot, notorious womaniser and the artful manager of Labor’s industrial wing. He declared that unless Sinatra could walk on water, he would be stuck in Australia until he said sorry.
With transport workers refusing to refuel his jet, Sinatra was forced to sneak onto a commercial flight to Sydney. Holed up in the Boulevard Hotel, he considered calling on the US Navy to rescue him. Eventually, he agreed to negotiate.
On 11 July, the two men met in Sinatra’s suite. Over four hours, an agreement was hammered out. In return for a statement that Sinatra “did not intend any general reflection upon the moral character of working members of the Australian media”, Hawke was prepared to green-light his remaining concerts.
Back in the US, it was joked that Sinatra was only allowed out of Australia because the union boss woke one morning with a kangaroo’s head on his pillow. Hawkie, meanwhile, did it his way. Eschewing the booze and broads, he became Labor’s longest-serving prime minister, until upstaged by Placido Domingo.

Australian Encounters is available now in all good bookstores. (RRP $24.95)

The perfect gift for Christmas!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cate Kennedy's Top 10 Tips for Writers

Cate Kennedy is the editor of newly released Best Australian Stories 2010. Cate is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection Dark Roots and the novel The World Beneath, and she is highly regarded as a teacher of short fiction and works as a mentor, editor and judge when not at work on her own writing.

To celebrate the release of The
Best Australian Stories 2010, Cate shares her Top 10 Tips for Writers.


For the moment, try to forget about marketability, prizemoney, fame, fortune, or who’s going to play you in the miniseries. None of these spurs will actually allow you to write a better story as you’re sitting staring at the blank page. Instead, try to visualise your unwritten story as something to approach with a respectful curiosity, something you need to pick up carefully in both hands.


You’re going to spin this out of thin air, so let your subject matter creep up on you from wherever it comes from, and permit yourself the playful mental spaciousness to pay it some non-judgemental, sustained attention. Get a good look at it.


There is nothing in the world you need to research or investigate at this moment, except what’s already bumping around in your head. Do yourself the favour of turning off the external, distracting stimulus for once. You don’t need more information – you need to see the patterns in what is already there.


Don’t worry too much about where it’s going, or the direction it’s taking you in. This is not a cerebral, analytical process. Your rapier-sharp judgment and compulsive need to solve it all can come into play later. Just trust that you will, at some stage, come to see the story that is emerging in what you are writing.


Feeling hesitant, nervous, queasy almost, about the raw revelation needed to give away your deepest secrets? That’s the way. Sit tight.


Try to see this as a two-stage process – the hot stage and the cool stage. That egotistical little voice on your shoulder, whispering about control and competence, whining for your attention? Gag them for the moment. They’ll have plenty of time to show off later, when you’re redrafting and have achieved, through this process, a little more detachment from your work. For now, plunge in. Nobody’s watching – you’re allowed to skinny-dip.


Don’t overthink this. A story is an offer, not a claim. Writing with something to prove – your extensive vocabulary, your arcane bits of knowledge, your cleverness – will trip you up like clown shoes. Learning to write wholeheartedly instead will let you gradually burn away the lurking pretention and self-regard which will choke your story to death.  Your inner voice is the one that has true pitch; your ego-ridden voice is dangerously tone-deaf.


An unbeatable combo for storytellers and writers keen on getting better.


Here’s the thing – at the other side of your boredom (and disillusion, and aggrieved sense of entitlement) lies your better, more honest self and your stronger, more powerful story. Mastering your distracted restlessness will get you there, solitary minute by solitary minute.


as you’ll quickly find as soon as you get to the end of your first draft. Stories are living, breathing entities; they refuse to be corralled by aphorism. So...


until you no longer get a stitch every time you try, until you feel like sharing it, until it becomes its own reward. By then, it’ll be knitted into your DNA, so it’ll be too late to even consider giving up.

 The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy is available now in all good bookshops.
For more information, please visit The Best Australian Writing website.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Andrea Goldsmith on Dorothy Porter's Love Poems

Love Poems is a collection of Dorothy Porter's most powerful love poetry. It was compiled by writer Andrea Goldsmith, the late Dorothy Porter's partner. We talk to Andrea about the collection.

Why did you decide on a collection of love poems?

Dorothy Porter – Dot – worked hard. With each new book, her poetry - which I always thought wonderful - seemed to get even better. Periodically over the years she would float the idea of a selected or collected poems. I would immediately dismiss the idea: collected and selecteds mean you’ve either run out of puff or you’re dead, I would say, and you, Dot, fit neither category.
With Dot’s death in December, 2008, everything changed. She left a nearly-completed collection of poems (The Bee Hut published by Black Inc in September 2009) and a long essay (On Passion, one of MUP’s little books on big ideas, published in May 2010), plus a number of unpublished poems. Dot and I often used to talk about the longevity of a writer’s work: who had it; whether their work warranted it, and most particularly what we would want for our own work. And Dot wanted what all serious writers want: for her work to live on. The time to consider a selected or collected had arrived.

I wish it hadn’t.

Given my long antipathy to selecteds, I knew I had to come up with a novel approach, one that was distinctly Dot. There are a number of themes that reoccur in her work from her first volume of poetry, Little Hoodlum, published when she was just 21 (with her looking like a little hoodlum in the cover pic) to her last poems. Primary among them was love. In fact love’s entire pantheon figures largely throughout her work: desire, sex, danger, flirting, humiliation, loss, rapture.
Love is Dorothy Porter territory.

How did you choose which poems to include in Love Poems? And the structure?

I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet. I gathered over the years an increasing number of favourite poems, including what Dot referred to as her Andy-poems, so from the beginning of this project there were certain poems that would automatically be included such as the sequence ‘Summer 92’, ‘Why I Love your Body’, ‘Lucky’, and many others. But making this selection took me deep into the whole of her work. Dot’s poetic imagination thrived on love. I found poems I had forgotten; I rediscovered old favourites. I had such a good time. And I discovered recurring patterns: when filtered through Dorothy Porter’s poetic imagination love always comes laden with risk, with edge, with the real possibility of humiliation and the eventual fall – even at the rapturous beginning. As I read through all her work it occurred to me to shape the poems to echo the arc of an affair: from the first excitement, through rapture, disillusionment and finally wisdom. Thus the sections in the book:

O flash! O honey!
The Big Sexy Risk
Hot and Cold
The Labyrinth of Intimacy

Throughout our seventeen years together I was closely involved with Dot’s work. I was her first reader and her last. Dot trusted me as a critical reader. Working on her work both in the past and now brings me enormous pleasure. I plunged into her work, all 35 years of it.

And the final selection? It was easy. Dot prized lucidity in poetry – and practised it superbly. I wanted lucid poems with punch and passion, and I wanted wisdom too. I wanted the collection to read with whoosh! I wanted people to experience the push and pull of love, the excitement and fear, the tremor and disappointment. I wanted readers to feel love.

I was faced with the problem of what to do about the verse novels. It just wouldn’t be right to have a volume of Dorothy Porter on love without the steamy affair between Diana and Jill in The Monkey’s Mask, the obsessive pull that Alex feels for Phoebe in Wild Surmise, and the charged eroticism in Akhenaten – between Akhenaten and Nefertiti and most particularly between Akhenaten and his brother Smenkhkare. Briefly I considered splitting up the verse novels and inserting individual poems into the appropriate sections of Love Poems, but this would have undermined the narratives (and by extension, the integrity) of the verse novels. So I have kept the selections from each verse novel separate, and have arranged them in such a way together with a brief introduction so that the poems can be read with a sense of the narrative.

And I have included many of the song lyrics written to Paul Grabovsky’s music and sung by Katie Noonan in their album ‘Before Time Can Change Us’. In fact, it was this album that gave me the idea for the structure of Love Poems.

Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?

The first poems of Dot’s I heard her read were from Akhenaten. ‘Scarab’, which is included in the Love Poems, remains one of my favourite poems of all time. At least once a year Dot would include it in one of her public readings as a private gift to me.

With her death it has acquired additional significance.

‘Lucky’, a recent poem, is another favourite. Dot wrote it as a private poem to me. As soon as I read it I saw that it had legs – that it could withstand a public outing. And it has. Many people cite it as one of their favourites.

Why is poetry important?

Dot, like many poets, placed poetry at the top of the literary pile. But then she would. I’m a novelist, I don’t. But I am a novelist who has always read a lot of poetry. Poetry concentrates and distills human emotion, indeed all of human experience like no other written form. It is this quality above all that lends poetry its mysterious power. And central to this effect is the use of surprising, sharp, flamboyantly imaginative imagery. Consider these images of Dot’s: Your kisses like ‘smashed glass’, or the wonderful ‘Strawberries Sonnet’ – all imagery, all edgy love.

You’re all bones
You’re all quicksilver skin
Rough as a wild night
You’re not strawberries.
Your hands are ice
Your tongue cuts my face
Into conquered turf
You’re not strawberries.
You’re a determined wasp
Dying on my sting
You’re my murder and my delight
You’re not strawberries.

Your fingers play my windpipe
You’re not strawberries.

Many of us reach for poetry in extremis. We do so because a single poem can illuminate an aspect of human experience with a clarity and punch that is without equal.

Was Dorothy inspired/influenced by any particular authors when it came to writing about love and desire?

Oh yes. Catullus. Sappho. Shakespeare. Lorca. Cavafy. Neruda. She returned to these poets over and over again. Dot read a huge amount of poetry. Her best poetry-reading time was in the morning while her mind was fresh. In 2003 she started learning Spanish in order to read her favourite Spanish poets in the original. And there she would be in the morning, propped up in bed, with a couple of dictionaries and a half-dozen volumes of poetry scattered across the quilt.

Do you see Dorothy’s love poems as part of a bigger tradition of love poetry?

Yes, I do. Her work is romantic without being sentimental; it’s lyrical, insightful and emotionally resonant. And it is sharply contemporary in its honesty, its imagery, its unwavering grasp of the jugular. Most of all it illuminates love, which is, after all, the most powerful of human experiences.

Love Poems is available in all good bookstores.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arabella Forge discusses Frugavore

We talk to Arabella Forge about her first book, Frugavore: How to Grow Your Own, Buy Local, Waste Nothing & Eat Well.

What is a frugavore?

A frugavore is a person ‘who loves all things frugal’. From a cooking perspective, this means that they shop locally, buy good quality produce, but waste nothing along the way.

What inspired you to write Frugavore?

I have a background in health sciences and am a registered Nutritionist, so I have always been interested in good quality, healthy food and the importance of eating well.

Yet, the real inspiration for writing Frugavore came after I had been teaching a series of cooking classes for kids in temporary housing estates out in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. I was forever in a debate with the co-ordinator of the class about how to shop and cook effectively on a low budget. They kept wanting to include processed and pre-packaged foods for their menu, and I kept arguing against it, stating that people could eat just as well, if not better on a low budget if they ate frugally.

So I decided to put together a guide on how to eat well and save costs. I wanted to communicate to people that nutrient-dense, healthy foods are within everyone’s grasp; it might involve starting a vegie patch, keeping some chickens or developing some peasant-style cooking methods in your home kitchen, but the end result is always worth it. I also wanted to alert people about many of the grass-root food movements that currently developing throughout Australia. In an effort to access better quality produce, people are creating networks such as land-shares, farm-shares or community co-ops. This can be a great way to access better quality produce at a cheaper price.

Can you tell us a little about your book, Frugavore?

Frugavore is a ‘hands-on-guide’ to everything frugal about food; there’s information on how to grow your own produce, keep chickens, start a vegie patch and compost all of your waste.

The recipes in Frugavore have been developed in my home kitchen and they focus on traditional cooking techniques that enhance the available nutrients in food. If you are going to eat frugally, you may as well choose the best foods possible, and make the most of what you have. Frugavore explains clearly what “healthy” food is – how to access it and prepare it in home kitchen, whilst simultaneously keeping the grocery bills down!

When did you become a frugavore, and how has your life changed since becoming a frugavore?

That’s a tricky one! I think I have always been a frugavore at heart. Growing up, I lived in a very busy household in the suburbs. We kept plenty of chickens, had our own vegie patch and despite my mother working full-time we cooked all our own meals and very rarely bought take out. My family instilled in me from a young age, the importance of not wasting food, never throwing things out, and always looking to buy the best quality produce possible.

Yet it was not until I was in my early 20s, when I was living in a busy household and doing most of the cooking and sourcing of food myself that these peasant habits of frugality suddenly became useful. I was keen for everyone in my house to be enjoying the best quality food (we loved organic and locally-produced produce!) but our food bills began to escalate with a big household and plenty of mouths to feed.

So instead of buying ‘cheaper’ food, I just made a decision one day that we were going to be more ‘frugal’ with what we bought.  We started by pulling up our front lawn and building a vegetable patch, then getting some chickens that were ‘on sale’ from a local battery farm. I also did some investigating and started to connect directly to a local farm for much of our produce. We invested in a large freezer and bought much of our food directly from the farm and kept it there in bulk.

In terms of my life ‘changing’ from this experience – I have to say it has changed for the better. If anything there is actually a lot less work involved in cooking and running a household once you become a frugavore. I find that shopping and going to the supermarket is incredibly tiring – particularly if you need to go there several times per week. As a frugavore, you are able to run your own mini-ecosystem in your backyard.

There are  always fresh vegetables on hand, some eggs in the chook-house, and plentiful storage in the freezer. So you need to plan your meals in advance, but with peasant-style thrify dishes and less contact with the supermarket, you actually can prepare meals that are a lot healthier, and easier to cook. As my grandmother used to say, ‘simple food, is always the best!’

Is being a frugavore hard work?

Yes and no. Sure, it takes a lot more energy and time to produce a meal instead of buying take-out but you also pay a certain ‘price’ each time you buy inexpensive, nutrient-empty food.

Ironically, I actually started writing this book as a means to save time and money when I was cooking and sourcing food in a busy household. I really hate driving to and from the supermarket or organic foodstore every few days – it is not only expensive, it also takes a lot of energy to pack the car, get the shopping, unload it home, then cook a whole meal! So I started developing habits of ‘frugality’, I started growing some of our own produce, keeping chickens, and buying meat, directly from the farm in bulk. With this change in cooking habits, our household started to eat the most nutrient-dense foods possible, but what’s more, these habits actually made it a lot easier to prepare simple, healthy meals for every night of the week.

I’ll give you an example – if you live in a small or standard-size block, you should or could have the capacity to grow some of your own produce, or even keep a few chickens – our house is the size of a postage stamp, and we’re still able to do all that!!

So, you get home late from work, you’re tired, exhausted and you start to reach for the phone to find your local dial-a-pizza, BUT, if you are a frugavore, you will find the answers much more easily at your fingertips. Last night for instance, I got home late, but I went to our chickens, sourced out 2 eggs, then I went to the vegie patch and picked various greens to make a delicious and nourishing omelet.
Just like our parents or grandparents used to do, I make a lot of nutrient-dense food in bulk, that I can store for these last minute dishes – I make a big pot of stock on a weekly basis, and store this in recycled containers in the freezer together with excess meat and sausages from our local farm (despite popular opinion, meat freezes and stores extremely well), there is always sauerkraut and pickled foods in my pantry and plentiful herbs and fresh greens on my doorstep.

So back to the question – is being a frugavore hard work?  Sure, setting up a herb garden initially takes time, making stock in advance takes time, visiting your local farm once per month takes time – but the result – you spend less time driving back and forth to your conventional retail outlets buying over-priced and nutrient-empty food, you become connected to your food source and have a better understanding of where your food comes from, and finally, you have less trips to the Dr’s, Dentist, weight loss clinic, and less days off work!

How can someone living in the city or in apartment become a frugavore?

People who live in inner city areas are showing an increasing demand for better quality food at more reasonable prices. They are using ‘frugal innovations’ to develop systems such as landsharing (where people build gardens on neighbouring properties), rooftop and community gardens and guerilla gardening (where people start planting in local parks or even on nature strips). Growing food in this manner – with little available space, but plenty of enthusiasm, is one of the best ways to be a frugavore and access better quality produce at lower prices.

Similarly, people who live in inner city areas are often craving a closer connection to local farms. I have plenty of frugavore friends who buy their produce in bulk from local organic farms and car-share the drive so that they only need to make the trip out there once every month or so. So even though they live in the city, they still have all the benefits of good-quality, local produce. Along this theme, there are plentiful farmer’s markets in inner city areas now.

There are also new systems of food access developing such as Buyer’s Clubs and Farm-Shares, which allow city people to buy food directly from farms from either a warehouse, or home-delivery. In many of these cases, these systems have developed to make certain foods (ie raw milk or farmer-made sauerkraut) legally accessible. They also allow city folk to enjoy the best quality foods possible, and avoid the added prices of going through a retailer.

What are benefits of being a frugavore?

The primary benefit of being a frugavore is that you are able to cook and prepare the most nutrient-dense foods possible. This means that you will feel healthier, stronger and have less days off work!

Being a healthy person and keeping my grocery bills down was my primary motivation for becoming a frugavore, but as my household and chicken coop developed I also realized that there were several other benefits. As a frugavore you can significantly reduce your waste output – which means that you will lessen your impact into local landfills. Did you know, that just by buying less processed and pre-packaged foods, and by keeping a compost heap or wormfarm, waste output can be reduced by 1 tonne per person every year?!

We are a society that is becoming increasingly aware of its environmental impact, but for us to truly make change, we need to think a lot more carefully about how we dispose of our waste. By composting or keeping a worm farm there is double benefit – not only do we reduce our waste output, we also create a superb garden fertilizer for our plants.

What kind of recipes will readers find in your book?

Frugavore is intended as an overall guidebook for the frugal kitchen, so the recipes are based on traditional style cooking methods that are thrifty and easy to prepare.

Readers will find recipes for vegetables dishes - using vegetables that are easy to grow at home, egg dishes -from your lovely hens, meat dishes – using thrifty cuts of meat and whole-animal cooking, grain dishes – using  traditional grain preparation methods such as sourdough bread making and leavening, milk dishes – using good quality dairy products, and of course wonderful and easy sweet dishes using natural sweeteners.

There are many frugal ingredients and cooking techniques, which are aimed at maximizing your produce and wasting nothing! For instance – peasant-style soups, stock-making and cooking with lentils, beans and pulses.

What are your favourite recipes in the book?

I love peasant style soups, as they are so nourishing and easy to prepare. I have plenty of recipes along this theme such as minestrone, stracciattella and pea and ham soup. But of course, I also love desserts – so my two ingredient chocolate mousse is always a winner!

If we looked inside your pantry right now, what would we find?

In my pantry you would find plentiful preserves that I made from last summer when fresh fruit and berries were in season. I also have large jars of sauerkraut, home-brewed beers and other fermented foods that I put together in winter. I also keep plenty of long-life storage foods in there such as dried beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are wonderfully economical foods to cook with.

Frugavore: How to Grow Your Own, Buy Local, Waste Nothing & Eat Well is out now in all good bookstores.

Arabella will be discussing Frugavore at 6.30pm on Thursday 16 September at Readings Hawthorn bookstore, 701 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn, Victoria. For bookings and further details click here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Anna Krien discusses Into the Woods

Photo credit: Jesse Marlow
We talk to Anna Krien about her first book Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests.

What’s your book about?

Into the Woods is about getting past the stereotypes, slogans and spin-doctoring that tend to swarm around most environmental stories. Specifically - my book is about the forests and the people of Tasmania. I wanted to investigate if it is reasonable – not just economically but also environmentally and socially – to be harvesting native forests for woodchips, and also why Tasmanians in particular, seem so entrenched in a vitriolic battle over 'their' trees. What was initially meant to be a story about activists versus loggers soon became a book about one woodchipping company's influence not just on the Tasmanian state government, but on the entire island.

What first made you interested in the forest debate in Tasmania?

Actually it was this footage that first drew me to Tasmania's forest issues. A warning – it makes for some ugly viewing.

The video (filmed by a forest activist hiding in a tree) shows Tasmanian logging contractors smashing a gutted car that is blocking a forest access road in the Florentine valley with sledge hammers. There are two young activists are inside the car. The loggers are yelling and grabbing them through the broken glass, trying to pull them out of the car.

An activist friend of mine working on the island sent me the footage and I booked a ticket within an hour of watching the video. I had intended on staying in Tasmania for five days, and was still there a month later.

What made you decide to write a book about this issue?

My dad is a newspaper editor and one of his favourite pearls of wisdom that he likes to share with me, is his response to journalists when they ask how many words he wants them to file on a story. What's the story worth? he likes to reply cryptically. This came to mind when I found the story of Tasmania's forests to be much larger than I'd expected. Initially I had gone down to the island and thought – 2000, 3000 words maximum – only to end up writing quadruple that without even touching the core of the issue. And unfortunately for me, once I've waded into a story, there is no going back, I'm mentally stuck in the story until it's finished. So, in a sense, the ongoing nature of the issues in Tasmania, the sausage string of political decisions and free kicks to forestry, the entrenched hate and division between the two sides, gave me little choice but to write a book about what I discovered there.

Who are some of the main people you interviewed for your book?

I spoke to so many people – there were the usual suspects such as 'Big Red' – also known as Paul Lennon, a former Labor premier and union boss, and Bob Brown, political leader of the Greens party. But as I often find in reportage, the known names don't give much away – and it was the ordinary Tasmanians – loggers, scientists, activists, foresters, police, vets, small business owners – who spent time with me and patiently explained the issues to me. Of note, I met with Bill Manning, a forester with Forest Practices Authority until he blew the whistle on what he saw as a completely negligent forestry agency in 2002. There were many people who didn't make it into the book but their help was crucial to the writing of it – such as Lindsay Tuffin – editor and founder of the online news site Tasmanian Times (which Paul Lennon described as 'fucking useless' after the site broke the story of renovations the then premier had done on his house by woodchipping company Gunns.) 

What’s the most memorable moment from the interviews you conducted for the book?

Possibly meeting a baby wombat rescued by Kevin Perkins, a well-known furniture designer. He had to use a chisel to pry open a dead mother wombat's pouch to free the baby and he and his wife took turns nursing the wombat throughout the night for three months.

What was the most surprising thing you learnt from writing and publishing a book?

I have learnt many things during the course of writing this book. I discovered the 'mess' thresholds of my partner and housemates. I learnt how many dishes I can use before being forced to wash up. I've had the unfortunate pleasure of learning about the ailments of my elderly neighbours – blood pressure, a shonky ticker, one eye isn't working, and sore calves. And finally I also have to acknowledge that my cat is obsessed with me and she is probably organising another book contract just so we can spend more time together on the couch, her purring and trying to crawl on top of my laptop.

What advice would you give to other aspiring, non-fiction writers?

I was asked this same question a few years ago at a student media conference and had replied 'Be Original' only to watch as 100 heads looked at their notepads and scribbled this down. I'm not against note-taking – but something felt amiss. The idea that originality is something that can be prescribed was naive of me. So today's advice? Maybe it's more a plea than advice but if you want to write non-fiction, then please actually write something that hasn't yet been published. The amount of content in newspapers that has simply been copied and pasted from other news sources, then tweaked so it appears relevant to a local audience, is obscene. The internet has invented the 'hyperlink ' for a reason – to send a reader directly to a source. There's no need to put out rehashed version.

Oh no, have I just written a long-winded version of 'Be Original'? I have, haven't I? My apologies!  

Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests is available now in all good bookstores.


Monday, August 30, 2010

10 Tips for Writing A Short Story by Amanda Lohrey

Author Amanda Lohrey shares her tips for writing a great short story:

It’s difficult to generalize about what makes for a good short story. I once sat on a panel of three judges for a short story competition that attracted over 400 entries. We whittled that number down to a short-list of twelve and all twelve stories were first-rate – and all were different. Here, however, are a few broad-stroke guidelines:

1. A story should lock into one of your obsessions or you won’t bother to finish it.

2. It shouldn’t be in any way predictable, including to you while you’re writing it. It’s good not to be sure where you’re going.

3. After a first, second or third draft, leave it to cook in the oven of your unconscious for at least a month, preferably 3-6 months (longer even).

4. If a story isn’t working try changing the voice from third person to first – or vice versa – or the point-of-view from one character to another.

5. Poets sometimes assert that poetry differs from prose because in a poem every word counts. They’re wrong. In a story every word counts as well. Even a simple thing like a sentence that has too many occurrences of ‘a’ or ‘the’ in it can wreck the rhythm of a paragraph. Be ruthless in purging cliché and lazy phrasing from your drafts (unless deliberately planted in the idiomatic speech of a character). Purging cliché helps to avoid flatness of tone. Flatness of tone is death to a story.

6. The ending of a story should be both surprising and yet feel inevitable. This is the paradox of what readers think of as a good ending. If the right ending doesn’t come to you then the story needs more cooking (see 3).

7. Be like a film director – work on several story projects at once. You never know which one(s) are going to turn out well.

8. A story is a message in a bottle and not everyone will get the message. Some of my favorite stories by other writers have been rejected by famous editors. If someone doesn’t like your story, don’t fret. Write another story.

9. Hold your nerve. Don’t censor at source and take at least one major risk of self-exposure in writing the story. Something has to be at stake, including that you might make a fool of yourself. If that’s not happening then the story probably isn’t worth writing. 

10. Don’t worry about what your mother will think. She’ll surprise you.

Amanda Lohrey's new collection of short stories Reading Madame Bovary is available now in all good bookstores. 

Father's Day Gift Ideas

Looking for a great book to give your Dad this Father's Day? Here are our suggestions:

The Well at the World's End by AJ Mackinnon is an astonishing true story of a remarkable voyage by a modern-day adventurer. Read more.

 Looking for Australia is a engaging collection of essays about Australian culture by historian John Hirst. Read more.

In A Game of Our Own, esteemed historian Geoffrey Blainey documents the fascinating history of the AFL. Read more.

The Skull is an irresistible true-crime story about Australia's most feared policeman, Brian “Skull” Murphy. Read more.

In Rise of the Ruddbot, Australia’s funniest, most incisive political commentator, Annabel Crabb, chronicles the last few years of Australian politics. Read more.

In The Family File, Mark Aarons tells the story of how his family became the most monitored family in Australian history: his father, uncle, grandmother and grandfather were leaders of the Communist Party of Australia. Read more.

In The Family Law, Benjamin Law writes a linked series of hilarious and moving essays about his weird but wonderful family. Read more.

In Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain, a leading science writer examines how the brain reaches its peak in middle age, and how to keep it there. Read more.

In Axis of Deceit Andrew Wilkie tells the story of how he resigned from Australia's senior intelligence agency in protest over the looming Iraq war in 2003. He was the only serving intelligence officer from the Coalition of the Willing - the US, the UK and Australia - to do so. Read more.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vanessa Woods on her memoir Bonobo Handshake

We interview Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo.

What are bonobos?

For the last forty years, we humans have compared ourselves to chimpanzees. It turns out chimpanzees have a type of culture. They make tools. They use gestures to communicate. They have sophisticated political systems and emotions that can only be described as love, grief, and jealousy.

Even the dark side of our nature that we thought was exclusively ours, such as hunting and war, is found in chimpanzees too. A chimpanzee community, similar to many human communities, is male-dominated. Females can be raped, infants might be killed. As a chimp, you have more chance of being killed by another chimp than by anything else.

But we have another closest living relative.

Bonobos look almost exactly like chimpanzees, except they have black faces, pink lips, and hair parted down the middle. They only live in one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their populations are so scattered that it is impossible to know how many there are, although current estimates are between ten thousand and forty thousand.

Most people barely even know there are two “closest living relatives” to humans. Like an embarrassing relative, bonobos are frequently missing from the family tree. According to Microsoft Word’s spell-check, bonobo isn’t even a word.

In the 1980s that Frans de Waal published a study of bonobos in the San Diego Zoo. He saw tongue kissing, fellatio, and a kama sutra of sexual positions. Before de Waal, people thought that nonconceptive sex, or “sex for fun,” was unique to humans. But bonobos were having sex in all sorts of crazy ways, including the missionary position, which no one had ever seen in an animal. De Waal also concluded that bonobos were female-dominated and that compared to chimps, they committed very little violence. He suggested that here was another model for human behavior, one that didn’t include war and bloodshed.

How did you come to find yourself studying bonobos in the Congo?

It was a series of happy accidents. Like most people, I had no idea what a bonobo was. Then I fell in love with an anthropologist whose dream was to study bonobos in Congo… so off we went!

In what ways are bonobos and chimpanzees different to work with?

Chimpanzees are so focused on the task. They’ll sell their soul for a banana. If they get the answer wrong, sometimes they’ll get so upset that they’ll refuse to participate. Bonobos are completely different. You usually have to have a quick ‘bonobo handshake’ before you start. And then they’re more likely to do cartwheels around the room for half an hour rather than do the test. So we have to make sure the experiments are fun, more like games than work. We can’t force anybody to participate!

Do you have a favourite bonobo?

Vanessa with Kata
Yes! Her name is Kata. She is the sweetest bonobo ever, and she gives me a great big hug every time I see her.

Why is protecting bonobos so important?

When I wake up this morning, someone might try to kill me. I live 10 minutes from a small town called Durham, NC, where according to the last statistics, 22 people were killed, 76 women were raped, and there were 682 cases of aggravated assault.

When a chimpanzee wakes up in the morning, they probably have the same thought. In fact, if you're a male chimpanzee, you're more likely to be killed by another chimpanzee than anything else. If you're a female chimpanzee, expect to be beaten by every adolescent male who is making his way up through the ranks.

People often ask me why humans are so intelligent, as in, what is it other apes lack that makes us so unique.

I'll tell you this: I would swap every gadget I own - my car, my laptop, the potential to fly to the moon - if I could wake up as a bonobo. No bonobo has ever been seen to kill another bonobo. There is very little violence towards females. The infants get an idyllic childhood where they do nothing but hang out with their moms and get anything they want. There is plenty of food. Lots of sex. And yet, according to one of our studies, 75% of people have no idea what a bonobo is.

This isn't really our fault. It's been 13 years since Frans de Waal published Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, and since then, there has not been one popular book published on bonobos until I wrote Bonobo Handshake.

But it's also because politicians, scientists, and the media have been trying very hard to pretend they don't exist. Why?

Bonobos have gay sex. For bonobos, sex is a mechanism to reduce tension. And you can't talk about two females rubbing clitorises together until they orgasm in documentaries, intelligent design classes, or to right wing demographics who believe homosexuality is unnatural.

Bonobos are not considered to be family friendly, despite the fact that children can see people cut up, blown up and shot before 8pm on television.

When it comes to scientists, even scientists who I like and admire, only ever refer to 'our closest living relative, the chimpanzee'. There is never any mention that we have TWO closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo.

If scientists do speak about them, they are constantly trying to neuter them. Bonobo researchers get annoyed by bonobos' reputation of being the over sexed ape, and are constantly downplaying the differences between bonobos and chimps. Even in cognition studies, despite Kanzi, bonobos are rarely tested for cognition because 'we've already done this in chimps, why should we do it in bonobos?'

As for politicians, bonobos never had a chance. Acknowledging the existence of an ape who shares 98.7% of our DNA (suggesting descent with modification i.e. evolution), has homosexual interactions, and is female dominated, is completely out of the question.

As a lemur scientists once said to me, 'So what? No one knows about sifakas' (the dancing lemurs, even though they do, because of the cartoon Madagascar) 'why should bonobos be any different?'

Because bonobos hold the key to a world without war. Their physiology, biochemistry, and psychology is set up to avoid violence. The fact that sex is their mechanism to reduce tension is irrelevant. We need to study the hell out of bonobos and use our big fat brains to find our own mechanism so we can live peacefully.

We've had 26 days without war since WWII. Right now, there are 7 conflicts throughout the world killing over 1,000 people a year. In Congo alone, 1,500 people die every day. Despite cognitively knowing that we need to cooperate and get along, our emotions get in the way.

We have to find a way to be more like bonobos. They share 98.7% of our DNA. What's in that 1.3% that makes them the way they are? And if we can use hummingbird flight to make helicopters and cat's eyes to make reflector lights, why can't we use bonobos to make peace on earth?

2010 is going to be the year of bonobos. With my book coming out, Sara Gruen releasing the first fiction about bonobos, and the bonobo genome due any day, expect bonobos to move to the front of public consciousness.

What made you want to write this book?

I wanted to write this book because I was puzzled by the scientific community’s rejection of the bonobo’s uniqueness, their sexuality, and their place in the wider question of what makes us human. I’m tired of meeting blank stares of people when I say I work with bonobos. I want everyone to know what bonobos are!

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m enjoying talking about bonobos to everyone, from the New York Times to the Adelaide Advertiser. I’m hoping as more people read the book, more people will realize how important they are, and why we should care about their future. Then I suppose it’s back to Congo☺

Bonobo Handshake is available in all good bookstores. To read more about Vanessa, you can visit her website or her blog.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

AJ Mackinnon on his new book The Well at the World's End

AJ Mackinnon, author of the bestselling The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow, has just released his second book The Well at the World's End.  We to talk to him about his new book.

The Well at the World’s End is about your travels from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona, what made you want to travel to Iona?

Ever since I first visited Iona as a 19 year old, the place has held a spell over me. In the book, I tell the story of bathing in the Well of Eternal Youth there, a little mountain spring with a long magical tradition, and how I mis-read the instructions in the old guide book and got it wrong. Ten years later, when I wanted to set off travelling from Australia and have adventures, it seemed a good goal to aim for - to go back and to the little enchanted island of Iona and visit the Well of Eternal Youth and do it properly this time. But even had there been no well, Iona is the sort of place that has a World's End feel to it. It is very reminiscent of all those old Celtic fairy tales where a traveller comes literally to the last shore, the place where a voyager sets out from in a magic coracle or barge, off to find the Land of Tir nan Og or the Blessed Realm. It is right on the border between mortal and fairy lands, the Uttermost West. It makes the perfect place to strive for.

You travel by land, sea, truck, train, horse and yacht – why didn’t you fly?

The answer to this goes back to something I've written in an earlier book, a bit about loving Doctor Dolittle as a child, and especially the fact that all his adventures seemed so simple, as he would set out in a little ship and just bump into places. I've always been convinced that flying has robbed travel of its true adventure. It is very convenient, very fast but very soulless as well... and terribly seductive. Once you buy into the air-route, it is very hard to get away from it again. Aeroplanes lead to airports which introduce you to more planes which deposit you at more airports... and even when these allow you to escape from the immediate loop, you find yourselves on shuttle buses to city hotels, lined with information counters and racks full of tour brochures... all of which offer a safe and easy return via shuttle bus back to the airport again. It is very easy to think that you are really seeing a country because all those airports and hotels have souvenir shops with Zulu woodcarvings or painted didgeridoos or Beefeater dolls... and before you know it, you have 'travelled' the world and never been more than 80 metres from a Tie Rack or a travelator.

Besides, the old guide book on Iona said, 'Pilgrims must come by land and by sea to find the Well of Eternal Youth,' and as I'd promised I'd do things properly this time, I forbade myself from flying.

You find yourself in some interesting situations on this trip, like the time you were chased by Komodo dragons. Were there moments on your travels when you found yourself in situations that made you wonder why you’d set out on this trip in the first place?

It was never the dangerous moments that made me question what I was doing. Those bits, even in the heat of the moment, invariably made me realise more than ever that this was exactly why I had done it this way. It is all to do with the power of story. I read the work of some scientist who said that the story-telling urge is so strong in human beings, and so important in having driven our evolution, that our scientific name really should be Pan Narrans - the story telling ape. (The idea is that making stories is really the process of trying to find cause and effect in random events, and this is the same process that drives our scientific minds and develops our brains. In stories, all the facts have to be relevant and contribute to the outcome - so too, any scientific theory as to what makes the thunder rumble or why a particle behaves as it does has to tie in with all the observable facts.) Anyway, if this is true, then I am pure ape with not much else in the mix. If something happens to me that can contribute to a good story to tell my friends later, then it is pure gold and worth all the danger or discomfort. It was only the long
periods of inactivity that made me question why I was doing things the hard way. In any travel, there are enormously long and tedious periods of sitting around waiting, or idle, discontented evenings of loneliness in city hotel rooms... and this trip was no exception. But for starters, these things don't make good telling so don't really make it into the book, and secondly, going back to the point about not flying, it is far nicer to spend three hours waiting on a sunny dockside in the Bay of Islands for a late yacht, or sitting under a flap of a tent in the Sahara Desert for a horse to be caught and broken in, than to sit in yet another airport lounge mishearing annoying announcements and wondering whether a fourth cup of Gloria Jeans coffee might be warranted.

Who is the most memorable character that you met on this trip?

I met a number of people who were memorable for the wrong reasons. Alec the psychotic skipper was unforgettable for his unpredictability and scariness, as were the Chinese policemen who arrested me and spent three days questioning me. But to balance these were some truly saintly people. Les McLeod, the long-suffering and infinitely patient skipper of a yacht that I lived on for five weeks in New Zealand not going anywhere, was one of the nicest people I have ever met. I was so incompetent in helping him with a paint job that he ended up repainting a section of the deck FIVE times to amend my botched work, and in all this never said anything but the warmest words of praise in his soft Yorkshire accent, commending me on my enthusiasm, my creativity, my flair, my doggedness... all the nicest euphemisms possible for my total bloody incompetence in getting the paint to go where it should and not all over the ropes, the portholes, my shoes, our washing and his sandwiches. Another favourite were the American yachting family, the Flying Dolphins, who took me into their hearts and lives as we sailed through the Indonesian archipelago. Still twenty years on, we still remain friends and I have visited them in the States on a number of occasions, most recently last year. The two children, Peter and Heath, are now grown up into lovely young adults, but I remember them still as beautiful children - adventurous, warm, avid for learning, wide-eyed when I told them a story or showed them some origami or taught them something extraordinary about mathematics or mazes. They were the best pupils I ever had, young Arthurs to my would-be Merlyn. But I am getting carried away...

What was your favourite part of the trip?

A hard question, but the highlights were probably the sailing through Indonesia and later my adventures up through Laos. This was back when very few western travellers made it into Laos and travel was very restricted. A lot of my travelling was done on foot along jungle roads through the mountains, and there were clouds of butterflies everywhere. The people of the villages I passed through were astonishingly gentle and kind, a little awed by seeing someone so different from themselves, and vying with each other to offer me hospitality for the night. This was the time I felt most like some 18th century traveller seeing the wonders of the world, especially when travelling up fierce rivers in tiny sampans and seeing great caverns carved into temples up remote gorges, lit by thousands of candles and with a glimpse of a golden Buddha deep in the recesses. I wonder if even today, travellers ever get to see these hidden treasures.

Do you have another adventure that you’re planning to set off on soon?

This is the commnest question that I get asked. I simply don't know. My past adventures have always been fairly spontaneous, with no great plans leading up to tem, so I imagine that if I do find myself off on another voyage, it will be a matter of being swept away again by the dwarves of adventure off to see Wilderland without even my hat or pocket handkerchief. However, next year I have arranged to take a year off work and live in my beautiful new house, just purchased, sitting right on a mountian trout river and with an acre of wonderful garden - plum trees, magnolias, candlebarks, apple trees, an oak, a corkscrew willow, and wide verandahs all around. The idea is to write another book but this time, a novel - something I've always wanted to do. I'm actually quite nervous about the prospect of doing this. True life travel books are one thing but a really good fictional story is another task altogether, and I'm not completely confident of being able to produce something worthwhile. This will also be a new experience for me in that it will be the first time of living settled in a house without my beloved students and a community of good colleagues at my doorstep, something I have always revelled in. Will I cope with the solitude and independence? But one thing that struck me the other day was this, and we have to go back yet again to Doctor Dolittle. Much as I loved the idea of Doctor Dolittle setting out on his travels, I also always loved the last paragraph of each book, his homecoming. After all the adventures, he always ended by coming up the lane and turning in at his own gate, unlocking the door with his own key and hanging his hat in the hall. In my past travels, this is something I've never had, as each voyage has been a stage to a new life abroad. But now, I love the thought of being able to go away on an adventure, knowing that I too have somewhere to come back to - a garden, a familiar stretch of river, a peaceful house, and my own desk waiting for me, to sit and write it all up for a new story to tell.

The Well at the World's End is available in all good bookstores.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An interview with Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law, a collection of hilarious essays about his family.

1. Describe your book in three words…

Heartfelt. Obscene. Slitoris.*

2. How would you describe your family?

I come from the Law family, a bunch of second generation Chinese-Australians: two parents; five kids. We grew up in Coastal Queensland, even though my mother hated how sandy the beach was, and my father believed that wearing thongs would unnaturally split our toes.

My book documents growing up alongside my four siblings as we all navigated our way through our parents’ divorce, amongst other things. It’s sort of like the Wonder Years meets The Squid and the Whale, crossed with David Sedaris, except everyone eats rice.
3. What made you want to write about your family?

The short answer? Well, my family makes for great material.

In all honestly, I didn’t actually realise this until I started writing for frankie, a magazine I’ve been with for the last six years. Louise, my editor at the time, asked all the senior contributors to write a column called “My Mother’s Advice.” This was my first paragraph:

As a Chinese immigrant, my mother often gave us kids advice that sounded horrific, weird or offensive when translated to English, or taken out of cultural context. One of the most mortifying examples is something she often said to my sisters if they hadn’t showered yet, which directly translated to: “Go have a shower now, or your vagina will breed worms.

Needless to say, it spoke to people, and I’ve kept on writing about them all.

Admittedly, I sometimes struggle with the ethics of writing about people in my life. But then one of my family members says or does something so intensely funny or foul that I think, “Hell, it would be irresponsible not to write about you.”

4. What was your childhood relationship with your older brother like?

My older brother Andrew is awesome, but we are poles apart.

He beefs up at the gym; I’m medically underweight. He’s sporty and über-heterosexual; I’m a book-reading poof. We were arch nemeses growing up, but because we were the only boys in our family, we were forced to share a 3.5m-cubed cell bedroom for 16 years. Growing up, my fights with him would involve him tickling me to the point of tears, and me spitting and scratching at him, cat-like. This is all documented in the book.

5. Has your family read the book? If so, what have been their reactions?

Because of my frankie articles, I’m quite used to passing drafts of my work to family if they’re depicted in a story. Partly, it's about getting their permission, but it's also a practical thing: I want to ensure I have details correct, or at least, have them verify what happened.

(I have a horrible short to medium-term memory. Everyone who knows me will tell you this.)

All of my family members laugh and say wonderful things about the stories. But inside, I’m sure they’re all completely and thoroughly horrified. As I would be too.

6. Your Mum is a very strong character in the book – can you tell us a little more about her?

My mother, Jenny, is one-of-a-kind. She’s probably the family member I write most about. She separated from my father when we were all really young (between the ages of four and 18), and decided to approach motherhood pretty much solo, with five kids in tow.

It’s only later in life that you start to appreciate what that actually means.

Nowadays, she’s feisty, quotable and incredible frank. If she discusses her vagina and childbirth within the first few minutes of meeting you, this means she likes you.

7. What is your favourite essay or story from within the book?

I can’t pinpoint my favourite piece from the book, but I really loved writing ‘Oceans Apart,’ which is about my father.

Ever since he moved to Australia, my dad has worked seven days a week, 365 days a year — right through Christmas. He’s an amazing machine, but it’s hard to really know someone who’s removed from your life like that.

Writing that story meant I had to interview him to fill in my gaps about his life. And once you read the story, you’ll discover (as I did) that what happened in those gaps is quite remarkable.

8. Can you tell us a little more about your father?

Like a lot of migrant fathers, my dad’s a workaholic both blessed and cursed with the heart of an ambitious, mad entrepreneur. He works like an goddamned ox, and has seen both dizzying successes and crippling lows in the world of retail and hospitality. It definitely made for an interesting childhood.

The workaholism extends to this day, so we all worry about him a lot. But it’s also made us all quite disciplined. Even though the five kids are different (school teacher; tender coordinator; photographer; two writers), we’re all sort of workaholics too. Dad’s probably responsible for that. Or maybe it’s just because we’re Asian.

9. You paint a very vivid picture of your younger self – was it difficult to be so brutally honest about your early life and early self?

Oh look, I basically see my life as a 27-year history of embarrassments and failures. Writing about all the horrid, unforgivable things I’ve done and said over the years is a way of spreading the mortification around, really.

10. What was it like growing up with so many sisters?

I have three sisters. As a result, I grew up amongst robust discussions about menstrual cycles, sanitary napkins and vaginal discharge around the dinner table. These discussions continue to this day. It goes without saying that I think my sisters are wonderful people.

11. What other works have influenced your writing?

Anyone who’s read my stuff could guess that I’m a big fan of David Sedaris. I remember first reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in my early 20s, and desperately wanting to be his friend. We’re from completely different backgrounds and generations, but he just spoke to me: big family; migrant parent; homosexuality; lots of sisters; quotable mother. So it won't surprise anyone that Sedaris’s entire back catalogue is stacked neatly near my desk.

I read a lot of fiction, but my first love is non-fiction. In terms of essay writing, I really love Joan Didion, Helen Garner, Zadie Smith, Augusten Burroughs, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.

But what I adore about Sedaris is how he walks that wonderful line between stand-up comedy and literary writing. For such a lightly spoken man, he’s a bad-arse genius.

12. What was the hardest part about writing the book?

Editing out all the poo jokes.

13. Who will enjoy reading this book?

Anyone who comes from a big, dysfunctional, migrant, Asian or foul-mouthed family should enjoy this book. Actually, scrap that: I hope anyone who comes from a family – period – enjoys this book. Although, if you’re easily offended by vagina and vomit references, perhaps this mightn’t be your thing.

* This will make sense after you read the first story.

The Family Law is available in all good bookstores.