The Death of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

The story is simple. The language is simple but with purple patches – “silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in neverending space”: simple words describing a cosmic image. This and oft used Spanish words and names together with the present tense and an absence of contractions gives the narrative a strange tone, a mysterious placement. This is heightened by a curious grammatical pairing of pronoun with proper noun: ” …says he, Simón” (but only for this character, no other) hinting at a possible translated text from an old time. Halfway through the book you will discover that although this book you are reading is in English, the story is in Spanish. Only the 10 year-old boy has an English name: David, an orphan, who plays football well because he also dances. He is a strong willed and serious boy.

Unlike most novels there is a lack of detail. Clothes, the weather, the place, and surroundings are minimally described, if at all. This has a further curious effect of making the work sound like a fable.

He is in the care of Simón, also a dancer, and Inès; they try to behave like real parents. David becomes enamored of Dr Julio Fabricante, the proprietor of a local orphanage and football team, who has a liberal free-thinking but anti-book learning attitude to raising children. David is attracted to the idea of orphan-dom and decides to live at the orphanage. Simón can’t stop him and Inès is angry at him for not trying harder. Their relationship, tenuous but stable but only because of the boy, is further strained.

When David’s legs mysteriously stop working the orphanage gives him back to the couple. David is broken. In hospital his condition is mysterious but he gathers attention from other patients, visitors, and staff, including a reformed murderer of David’s early acquaintance working as a janitor. He tells them stories from his head about Don Quixote, the only book he has ever read and it remains the only book he reads. They all gather around his bed listening to him. He is called ‘Young Master’ and he has an old dog who, along with the reformed murderer, are the only ones who understand him.


What does it all mean? There are parallels with the life of Jesus: a boy whose parents are not his parents, a boy of a weak body but a strong mind, a boy who garners followers, a boy who befriends sinners, alianates authorities, and has a life infused by an old text.

Some writers, John Boyne, the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), in particular, have been heavily criticised and even beleaguered and verbally abused for not, according to his abusers, getting his facts straight. His detractors obviously expect a novel to be ‘in’ the same universe as they are. This is an unnecessary assumption. Made-up stories about witches and elves, vampires and blood-drinking, walking talking trees and ents are obviously NOT in the universe of the reader. Why then assume that other made-up stories must be? Just because the world of a novel ‘looks like’ the world of the reader, readers should not assume that it is.

Every made-up story exists in its own unique universe. It is an example of speculative fiction.

Coetzee’s The Death of Jesus (2019) is a made-up story. It’s universe is similar but not the same as ours. Strange things happen and strange ideas are championed for reasons that go to the heart of the work. Readers need to find their own unique meaning of what they read. This is part of the joy of reading fiction. This understanding, which few people understand, is the sole responsibility of the reader. It has nothing to do with the writer. When you read it and discover your own meaning it will be very different to mine. I’m sure.

Its futile wondering what Coetzee meant – it’s very likely, Coetzee being a novelist (a conduit of literary creativity), that he doesn’t know what he meant.

Although the title may give away how the story unfolds, it is not as one would expect. In fact the ‘end’ of the story loses narrative tension, but still the expectation of what you don’t expect serves the same purpose.

Whatever it is, it’s a bloody entertaining and intriguing read.

Recently established at the University of Adelaide is the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice where its namesake is the Patron. It is a research centre devoted to understanding creativity and a cultural hub where leading literary, musical and multimedia scholars and artists can learn from one another and collaborate.

You can hear the man himself pronounce his name here. (John Cortzee – jon kert SEE)

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here you can watch a short reading by J.M. Coetzee at the University of Adelaide’s Traverses conference in 2014.

The Boat by Nam Le

Vietnamese-Australian writer, Nam Le

The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.

When this book came out in 2008 the Australian literary scene lit up! The collection of longish short stories heralded a major new writer of extraordinary scope and skill. He was 27.

The first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice is as one would expect. The narrator, Nam, a Vietnamese Australian living in the US and studying writing at the Iowa Writers Centre is hosting his father, a Vietnamese war veteran whose relationship with his son has been fractious. It is now better but still not grounded and never easy. References to the other stories in this collection make this first story work like a preface to the book itself. When Nam, then a lawyer, told his father that he was quitting his job in Melbourne to go to Iowa to become a writer his father said ‘The captive buffalo hates the free buffalo.’ He was prone to talk in proverbs.


His description of peak-hour traffic: it’s rinse of noise.
His smile was as stiff as his suit.
… their amusement, coughing it around their circle like a wet scrap.


The second story, Cartagena, is set in Colombia and is very unexpected. It knocks your socks off!
The syntax is simple, no contractions, the occasional use of favela Spanish, restricted punctuation – no quotation marks, and a recurring misuse of a verb: ‘Luis, who had the same age,” makes it sound like a mistranslation. All these grammar tricks conspire to give veracity to this 1st person narrative. It feels authentic, belying the fact that the author is not a young Colombian thug, but a young Vietnamese Australian. The narrator is Juan Pablo, fourteen and a half years old, a sicario – hitman – who has been obedient, a faithful soldado and loyal to his agent, El Padre, except recently. He did not make his last hit. He said he could not find him. He lied to his agent whom he has never met. The hit is his best friend, Hernando. Juan Pablo is in deadly trouble. He knows this because he has been summoned. Everyone knows this can only mean one thing. No spoilers here but, well, a devastating climax. It was this story that was scorched in my brain from my first reading over a decade ago.


And then comes Meeting Elise. A completely different tone, more traditional grammar and another 1st person narrative: a middle aged artist whom women leave and who’s having trouble with hemorrhoids and colon polyps. He fucks things up by talking too much, mostly the truth, he reckons – too much verbiage, too much booze. He’s getting ready to meet his long lost 18 year old daughter, a musician, whom he hasn’t seen for 17 years. He’s exhilarated but scared, sorry but expectant. It all sounds like the work of a different writer.


Halflead High
This story is a 3rd person coming of age; a coastal high school student full of raging hormones, adult disappointments, and life getting in the way; an ill mother, high school jealousies, loves, lusts, and betrayals. It’s touching, recognisable, and insightful. 


His mother was dying and seemed torn between ignoring it and rushing towards it.


It’s lines like this, and those above, that for me cements a writer’s worth. Something clicks in the reader – it did with me – simply stated but describes an unrecognised truth made manifest in a line like that.

Story No. 5 is a 1st person narrative: this time a young Japanese girl in an evacuation centre sleeping “four mats away from the radio”. She and all the other children scrub the wooden floors of the temple till they shine and press their hands together for the glorious Imperial Forces who fought the reviled enemy China and now the cowardly enemy, America. Soybean rice with mugwort grass is better than pounded rice cakes. Do without until victory.  Honorable death before surrender. It’s the last days of the war. The text is dense, no delineated dialogue, just a stream of consciousness from a little girl. Short, plain sentences. Present tense. Subjects jump around: scrubbing floors, running during exercise, Big Sister, Mother covered in dust, rice soup, Imperial heros, the wind, the loud warnings, Big Brother who has gone to Confidential Place, sore knees, the sounds of  B24s, or is that a B27? cicadas, hunger. The rabbity mind of a little girl, named Little Turnip. The title, Hiroshima, is ominous.


The 6th story is the least successful; Tehran Calling follows a young American woman travelling to Iran to see her old university friend only to be caught up in youth unrest, Iranian hypocrisy, and self-deception. However, the syntax and form is different from each of the other stories. It’s as if Le is searching for his voice, his tone, his style, the work he feels most comfortable with. But astoundingly each story has a style that is different but authentic, authorial, with weight and verisimilitude.

Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. (2021) He certainly proves it.

‘Why do you write about Colombians, Japanese, and Iranian girls? What about us!” says his father in the first story. So he does.

The last and title story, The Boat; I was forced to schedule daytime reading time for it. Reading it before sleep was impossible. The opening scene of the view from the crowded bilges of an unstable refugee boat on the very high seas is terrifying. In appalling, almost unimaginable conditions where bodily functions are just part of the boat’s geography. Drinking water is rare and hallowed; human relationships based on nothing but instincts. A little boy obsessed with counting heads after every splash overboard. A little boy, like an old man squeezed within a skeletal frame.

It was a face dead of surprise. 

The range, skill, and boldness of these stories is breathtaking. Seventeen years ago a novel was eagerly anticipated as if short stories weren’t somehow good enough. How stupid is that? If Le writes nothing ever again what he has written here will cement his name in Australian literature as a voice to be honoured. Along with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, every Aussie home needs this book on their shelf.

Here you can watch Nam Le reading a short excerpt from the 1st story.

And here you can hear Nam le talk intimately about writing and why he does it.

You can buy the book is various formats here.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

Australian writer Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

I’d forgotten I had this book on my shelf. I read it when it first came out in 2008 with trumpets blaring and accolades galore. I remembered little about it. I don’t read much crime fiction but made an exception with this one. I lost my entire library on our move to Bali twelve years ago so don’t know how this copy got onto my shelf, nor what made me read it again.

Temple is famous for his Jack Irish crime series, but this is a stand alone work which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award: the UK’s Crime Writers Association’s best crime novel of the year (2007)

My copy is looking a bit faded and world-worn, a bit like its protagonist, Joseph Cashin. He’s a good guy cop, unambitious, world-weary, smart, a body racked with past injuries, but with a healthy disrespect for authority.

It was darkening when Cashin reached home, the wind ruffling the trees on the hill, strumming the corrugated iron roof. He got the fire going, took out a six-pack of Carlsberg, put on L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti, sank into the old chair, cushion in the small of his back. Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer.

Short sharp sentences separated by commas, semicolons too posh for Joe Cashin. It gives the narrative that staccato American punch epitomised by the famous American crime writer, Dashiell Hammett. But 3rd person here, not 1st.
His dialogue between Aussie men is perfectly obtuse, as if each alternative line has been omitted. I was surprised at the extent of the ‘foul’ language, although appropriate for these Australian male characters. The rural setting and tone belying its contemporary (2005) release.

A well respected and wealthy local is found dead in his home. What seems a simple break-in-gone-wrong, exacerbated by a botched police chase which leaves all three suspects dead, leads everyone to think case closed, despite or because of police efforts. All except Joe Cashin that is. The crime formula is honoured: tight-lipped family, newly exposed secrets, increased sinister misdeeds, a seemingly unrelated but vicious murder, a dead man proves not to be, lies and police corruption, a few red herrings, and a sexul dalience. Good crime fiction stuff. It’s staying on my shelf.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

A television movie was made of it in 2013 staring Don Hany and Claudia Karvan, directed by Rowan Woods from an adapted screenplay by Andrew Knight. You can watch the trailer here.


A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (2nd reading)

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

I first read and blogged about this book in June 2016. It led me to add Patrick Gale to my list of literary favs. I had read his Rough Music (2000) years before and read it again in 2019. Having now read most, yet not all, of Gale’s twenty one books, these two stand out, for me, as his best.

Recently I watched an interview with him in which he mentions that the devastating opening scene was based on a news item and it was this first scene that he wrote without any idea what was going to happen next … except that the two characters, the perfectly good man, Father Barnaby Johnson, and a young man, Lenny, had to be connected in some, as yet, unforeseen way.

This to me is the essence of what novel writing is: a strong scene that just has to be written and then the writer in the privacy of his own mind, experience, and in a space (room) of one’s own (thank you Virginia Woolf) lets the subconscious out for a walk and writes down what he sees and hears. This is how most novelists work; they’re called pansters (by some): they ride by the seat of their pants. I’ve yet to meet or hear from a writer who plans every detail before writing begins, although I hear that Gustave Flaubert was one.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: if you are surprised what you read on the page it’s highly likely that the writer was too.

For any would-be novelist this book is a must read. The idea of letting a strong novelistic event with only two characters and one setting plant the seed of the story of a man’s life spanning half a decade is tantalising. The timeframe of the action is segmented and re-arranged. Gale loves taking time and playing around with it. Hence chapters called “Lenny at 20” are followed by “Dorothy at 24” are followed by “Barnaby at 52” and finally, “Nuala at 52” is followed by the final chapter “Barnaby at 8”. This format makes each chapter not unlike a short story although all of them are preempted with known knowledge which allows the reader to understand and sometimes realise an important reason or revelation that is only known by the reader, and not by any of the characters. You feel privileged.

And that’s how you learn about the connection between Father Barnaby Johnson and young Lenny: it’s not stated, you work it out.

You can find many of Gale’s books, including this one, here.

In the Margins: of the pleasures of reading and writing by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante has always said that once a book is written it has no further need for its writer. She has never been seen in public. Some have even suggested that she could be a man, but the general consensus is that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym for an unknown female writer.

This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.

Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.

I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.

There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.

By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.

She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):

“And your novel?

“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”

“Yes, I’m 20 people.”

*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.

Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.

The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.

And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:

Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.

Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.

John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.

D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.

Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.

Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.

There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You can buy the ebook or hard cover edition here.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

American writer Wallace Stegner 1909 – 1993

In this semi-autobiographical novel, a classic of American Modern Literature and set during the Depression at the University of Wisconsin, it isn’t surprising that the first person narrator, Larry Morgan, is a writer and so there are many references to the art, misuse, difficulties, and frustrations of such a profession.

Are writers reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what?

Is the gift, the talent, its own justification?

The process of writing fiction is an expression of  self-discovery: being free and relaxed enough to let the sub-conscious out. And when it comes out you grab it and write it down. All the experiences of the world, the good, the bad, the insignificant, and the inferred make up one’s past life and the sub-conscious arranges them into memories which may or may not be accurate and can sometimes be perverse.

From these memories, the talent springs – the activity of imagining – but most of us, when the ‘talent springs’, do nothing about it. Scenes, conversations, ideas, rehearsed retorts, and wishful decisions occur to everyone all the time but only the writers write them down. But to write it down, you need to be practiced at writing things down, putting the products of your senses into words, and knowing the difference between a gerund and the infinitive.

Writing takes talent but it also takes practice. You can teach the practice but you can’t teach the talent.

Crossing to Safety (1987) tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Larry (the narrator) and Sally Morgan, young, poor, intelligent, and curious and a slightly older couple, Sid and Charity Lang, already ensconced in the English Department, and to the Morgans, a wonderfully urbane, astute, fascinating, devoted, and wealthy couple who take the newbies under their luxurious wings.

It’s easy for a first person narrator to slip into the third – they could tell a story, just like Terry Hayes does in I Am Pilgrim, – just as it is equally easy for the third person to get so close to a character that it a-l-m-o-s-t becomes the first. That’s why this more usual knack is sometimes called close writing. In more literary circles it’s called free indirect discourse. I prefer the less formal.
What is unusual here is that Larry, Stegner’s  first-person narrator, has only just met Sid and Charity and knows nothing about how their past unfolded, nor do they tell him. This is not a problem for Stegner. He imagines the meeting and early courtship of Sid and Charity;

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?” Suppose they are sitting …”

Yes, an audacious technique but one that works given that imagining is what fiction writing is all about.

It’s also audacious to let a character, Charity’s sister, keep the name Comfort. It’s likely Stegner didn’t choose it; it just happened. Things like that often occur when writing fiction. I know of a novelist who, at 83,000 words, thought he had nothing but a pile of poo until out of the mouth of a young character came, out of the blue, the title of the thing. Not only did the phrase give the thing a name, and its theme, it also turned the pile of poo into a novel and out of relief and gratitude the author burst into tears.

It’s moments like these that one could easily believe that fiction comes unbidden, from another place, from another being: fate, a muse maybe, or even a spirit or god. It’s also the reason why you might hear young writers foolishly say, “Oh, actually it wrote itself.” That’s nonsense of course, but the feeling is real.

Being a semi-autobiographical novel, the events may be part of the writer’s past but the intimate moments, the conversations, and minute-by-minute thoughts must rely on imagination; imagined and written down.

The fulcrum of this quartet of characters is Charity Lang. She is forceful, controlling, opinionated, always right, passive aggressive, and never backs down. Two major scenes stick in my mind and will for some time to come. I can’t describe them as that would give too much away but the first revolves around preparation for a camping expedition and whether a packet of tea-bags was packed, or not. Seemingly a trite scenario but in the hands of Stegner it’s a pivotal moment in the building of Charity’s character. The second, the devastating climax, is about who should or shouldn’t go on a family picnic. Here the character of Charity is at its most prickly, unbending, and cruel. However, the reader understands her point of view, and it’s a tribute to Stegner that you also understand the three other points of view. It’s a shattering scene.

This is a book of rich language with a commitment to nature, happiness, and the human foibles that shatter or uplift our lives.

Here you can view an interview with Stegner from the early 1970s.

And here is an hour long documentary “Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life,” narrated by Robert Redford and produced only a few years before the writer’s death in 1993.

The book in various formats can be bought here.

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes, English-Australian screenwriter and novelist

I think it was John Irving, the winner of both the National Book Award for a novel and the Oscar for a screenplay, who said that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. T.H.

I Am Pilgrim has to be the holiday read to top all holiday reads!

And despite living up to the hype slashed all over its covers, it is also not what I expected. But it is long: 888p.
It begins traditionally enough with a baffling crime seemingly unsolvable and then several chapters of interconnected back stories. Then in Part 2 another novel begins: the development of a young jihadist, simply known as The Saracen, and his decades long quest to bring down America and so similarly destroy its ally, the Saud family, rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose leaders murdered his father.
It reads like a film script; not surprising since Hayes is a noted screenwriter, with short chapters, each like a single-set scene with usually a stinger of a last line; I call them waterfalls: they link smartly into the next scene, or, in a writing trope, they lead you to hastily turn the page. Lines like, ‘I was in the North Tower when it came down’ and ‘It was time to enter the dark and brooding house’ and ‘… it was a terrible thing I ended up doing to him.’

And then there’s the simple lists of what he plans to do and the outcomes he expects, to be followed by another page turning device: predicated hindsight – lines like “but I couldn’t’ve been more wrong” or “I should’ve taken more notice of the photo but I didn’t.” And the interest level goes up a notch or three.

The plot is international: Manhattan, Bodrum, Berlin, Jeddah, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The threat is not nuclear, or extraterrestrial, but, ironically for the times, viral. Firstly there is the murder in a sleazy hotel in Manhattan: a woman’s body is found in a bath full of acid, face down but because of the acid she has no face, and her fingertips have been removed as well as all her teeth. She is unidentifiable.

There is the first-person hero: a spook, an intelligence officer, a spy, a detective, and all-round nice guy who isn’t adverse to doing unspeakable things but only because he has to. He has many names so you are never sure which name is real. The villain, The Saracen, you know as a teenager and understand why he becomes the deliverer of evil; you almost like him. However, his unspeakable deeds are worse.

But then there is a death in Bodrum, Turkey, which the local authorities are convinced was due to misadventure. Our man knows it’s murder but needs to prove it. And all the while we jump back to The Saracen who is consolidating his self-manufactured weapon of mass destruction, starting with medical school. His is a very long term plan.

The faceless woman in Manhattan. The Saudi teen with revenge via mass-death on his mind. And a drug dazed tourist falling over a cliff to his death in Bodrum. Are they linked? Of course they are but for most of the book it’s hard to see how. But the deadly virus is manufactured, tested, packaged into 10,000 vials, and posted; the Saracen’s job is done. Our man’s task is to find out how and where the shipment is and when it will land. The climax is unputdownable!

Terry Hayes was born in Sussex in the UK but his family moved to Australia when he was five. As an adult after working as a journalist and investigative reporter he was hired by George Millar to do the novelisation of the original film, Mad Max (1979) and then subsequently several other Mad Max reincarnations and worked as a producer and/or screenwriter for TV shows like The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984), Vietnam (1987) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) and several movies, including The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Dead Calm (1989), Payback (1999), and From Hell (2001). I Am Pilgrim (2013) is his debut novel and his second The Year of the Locust is yet to be released. MGM has acquired the film rights to Pilgrim with Hayes as writer but I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is re-done as a TV series; a far more suitable format for such a sprawling yarn, in my opinion.

Here is a very interesting, although over an hour long, interview with Hayes about writing I Am Pilgrim and where the inspiration came from.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Winifred Falls

A recent short story, part of the collection Social Distancing & Other Stories available here

‘So where are ya off to today?’ Jennifer asked. Marian’s next-door neighbour was sitting in her usual place, on her porch. She dropped her right hand out of sight; Marian did not approve of smoking.

Marian was a stylish woman. She dressed and groomed herself immaculately, not in the latest fashion, which had gone off the rails as far as she was concerned, but in a style, a rather expensive style, suitable for her age. She was proud of the way she looked. Today she wore a pale blue summer blouse with a blue and grey tartan skirt. At her front door she had looked at herself in the full length mirror, turning this way, then that. Fine. She had walked out of her front door to wait for the car.

‘Elsbeth and Mal are taking Mia and me on a picnic.’

‘A picnic!’

‘Yes. Is that so strange?’

‘Have ya ever been on a picnic?’

‘Of course.’

‘Dressed like that!’

‘Of course not. Don’t be silly. I think I was thirteen when I last went on a picnic. Why? What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?’

‘Well, first of all, Luv, those shoes! You can’t wear heels on a picnic.’

‘Why not?’

‘Luv, you’ll be walking through grass and stuff. You’ll sink in. Don’t ya have a pair of nice flatties?’

‘But then I will have to change my dress.’

‘And that too. Won’t ya be sitting on the grass?’

‘Why ever for?’

‘That’s what ya do at a picnic.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so. We’ll be on one of those wooden outdoor settings. The ones with the seats attached and supported on a slab of cement, installed and maintained by the local council.’

‘But ya still have to get to the thing. What about those beige trousers I’ve seen you wear?’

‘My gardening clothes!’

‘Well Luv, you’ll be far more comfortable in a pair of trousers, I reckon.’

Marian always thought of Jennifer as over friendly, but the kind of over friendly that could be construed as common. ‘I’ll be fine. Mia likes to see her Grandmother looking smart.’

‘Suit ya self Luv. How’s Mia’s leg?’

‘Oh, Jennifer, you keep mentioning that. That was ages ago.’

‘Was it?’

‘Yes. She’s almost ten now and not so clumsy. Quite the little lady.’

‘Jeeze she made me laugh!’

‘I’ve never seen the need for humour at someone else’s expense.’ Marian would’ve chided herself if she had been aware of the corners of her mouth sliding down in hoity disapproval.

‘Oh, I know. It’s just that when someone is being so serious like and then falls on their mush, it just cracks me up. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a sucker for a banana skin.’

Neighbourliness sometimes forced Marian to invite her neighbour into her apartment, although she would always try to arrange things so that it was Jennifer’s they chatted in, but when it was her place she would always, once Jennifer had left, use a soft disinfecting cloth to wipe down everything Jennifer came in contact with especially if she had used the bathroom. Marian knew it was snobbish but that wasn’t a problem as long as other people didn’t see or hear it.

The little round table and two chairs that sat on all the little verandahs in the line of self-contained units came with each unit. They were identical; Marian thought that was a pity. On Marian’s table was a pretty blue and white ceramic pot on a matching saucer, containing a large blooming red gerbera; on Jennifer’s there was a black plastic pot full of dirt.

‘Ah! Here they are!’ Marian exclaimed as Elsbeth, Jamal, and Mia pulled up in their car. ‘Bye Jennifer!’

‘Bye Luv!’ She waved at the car.

Marian walked down her little path past her neat beds of carnations – she had a lovely crop this summer – well aware of her tartan skirt swishing as she went. All women need to know exactly what their skirt is doing at any given moment, she liked to think.

‘She looks like she’s going to a party, not a picnic,’ Jamal said quietly behind the wheel. Elsbeth smiled at her husband.

Marian stopped at the car’s back door and waited for Mia to open it for her. ‘Morning darling, Mal, and you, you pretty thing!’ she cooed, smoothing her skirt under her as she sat.

‘Morning Grandma! Morning Marian! Good Morning Mum!’ they all chorused.

‘You must always open a door for a lady, Mia,’ Marian chided kindly.

‘Sorry Grandma.’

‘Aren’t you a little over-dressed for a picnic, Mum?’ Elsbeth said as kindly as she could manage.

‘Oh, you know me, Elsbeth. Doesn’t she, Mia,’ and she tapped Mia on the nose. Mia smiled. Elsbeth and Jamal shared a look. ‘So where are we off to today?’

‘To a pretty little spot on the banks of a creek in the Royal National Park, Winifred Falls,’ Jamal said as he maneuvered out of the drive-way and into the traffic.

‘Oh! Is it maintained by the council?’

‘I suppose so,’ Jamal said.

‘Didn’t you check?’

‘It’s where Jamal took me for our first date,’ Elsbeth said.

‘We want to show Mia.’

Oh, so I’m just along for the ride, am I? ‘How sweet,’ she said. ‘Look at all this traffic!’ She commented on the traffic five times before they got to the park turn off. ‘I thought your first date was to see that film, you know, something about chocolate.’

‘That was Chocolat,’ Jamal said realising too late that he seemed to be correcting her pronunciation. He made a sorry-face meant only for his wife.

‘Oh, sorry,’ Marian said turning to look out the window at the bland and uninteresting suburbs.

‘No, Mum. That was our second date.’

‘Dad was expecting there to be other people there, but there wasn’t,’ Mia said cheekily. ‘They were all alone,’ and then added, ‘Ooooooo!’

Marian turned sharply to look at her grand-daughter. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Mia ground the backs of two fingers against her lips and closed her eyes, ‘Mmmmmm.’

‘Oh stop it, Mia! You don’t know anything about it.’

‘I do so too,’ she said with confidence.

‘You’re only ten,’ Marian said looking askance at Jamal in the rear-view mirror.

‘I’ll be eleven soon,’ Mia countered. ‘Nearly a teenager.’

‘But not yet!’ Marian said. ‘You’re too young,’ she added while frowning again her disapproval at the back of Jamal’s head.

‘So, how is that neighbour of yours, Mum? Jenny, isn’t it?’ Elsbeth asked to change the subject.

‘Jennifer,’ Marian corrected. ‘She’s fine. Still smoking.’

And that seemed to be the end of the conversation as Marian returned to the nondescript view of grey-green bush now that they had left suburbia behind. Elsbeth rested her hand on Jamal’s thigh.

Marian Schiller, a third generation German Australian is fifty eight and a grandmother for the first time. Her daughter, Elsbeth (Elly) at twenty two married a journalist, Jamal (Mal) Aboud, a handsome second generation Lebanese Australian.

Marian had said nothing about her disappointment at her daughter’s choice of a husband, just like she chooses a hat, she thought, she fell in love and just had to have it; but she was self-aware enough to know that she had to control this feeling and that it was possible that other similar feelings might be lurking in her subconscious and that surfaced, like twinges in her lower back, when she least expected them. She wanted to be good. She had not been so good in the past, and at each slip the disapproving look from her daughter cut her deeply. Such looks were meant to only come from parents to children.

It wasn’t long before Jamal pulled into a small, graveled parking area.

‘Are we there?’ Marian asked with some alarm. The bush didn’t look anything like the park she was expecting.

‘Almost,’ Jamal said. We’ve got a little walk to the falls.’

‘A walk! How far?’

‘Only a few hundred meters,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Come on!’

‘Will we see a kangaroo?’ Mia asked as they all got out of the car.

‘We might,’ Marian said.

‘They’ll be asleep,’ Jamal said, opening the boot. ‘Pre-dawn and dusk are the best times to see them.’

How would you know? You’re not even Australian. ‘Where’s the path?’ Marian asked instead.

‘There,’ Elsbeth said, pointing across the road to a low gate. Jamal took the esky out and handed a bag of supplies to Elsbeth. ‘We might see some deer.’

‘It’s closed!’ said Marian with some hope. ‘Are we allowed to go down there?’ Recent summer rain made the path look extremely uninviting.

‘Just no car access,’ Jamal was carrying the esky and picnic bag. ‘I can help you over it, if you like.’

‘No, thank you. You never said we were going bush-walking.’

‘I said there’d be a little walk to the park.’

‘This isn’t a park.’

‘It’s the Royal National Park!’

‘I was expecting a park with grass, Mal, and a normal cement path not a bush-track. It’s just rocks and mud.’

‘I could piggy-back you.’

‘You will not!’

‘Come on Gran,’ Mia said. ‘It’ll be an adventure. Like explorers.’

‘It’s Grandma, young lady. One shortening is more than enough. There’s no need to shorten it again.’

‘Come on Mum,’ Elsbeth said with the rug and a bag of supplies. ‘We don’t have to hurry. We don’t have a train to catch.’

The four picnickers crossed the tarmac and stepped over the low gate. ‘If I break a heel ….’ Marian said with some force but then she needed all her concentration to navigate through and over, mud filled furrows, caked ruts, puddles and patches of gravel, leaf litter, and deer dung. The two adults and child had to wait for her many times.

‘Mum, take it easy’ Elsbeth said more than once.

‘Don’t you worry about me,’ Marian called back with eyes fixed on the treacherous ground. ‘You just keep your eyes open for snakes.’

‘Look Grandma!’ Mia shouted as she crouched by a layered clay bank at a patch of mossy soil. ‘There’s lots of sundews here.’

‘What!’ shouted Marian from a few meters back.

‘Insectivorous plants, Grandma! Sundews!’

‘That’s nice, dear,’ Marian said without looking up.

‘Can you see Dad?’

‘Yes, you’re right.’

‘But, they’re so small.’

‘And delicate. I wonder what they eat.’

‘Come on you two!’ Marian said having caught up with them. ‘If we don’t get there soon we’ll get there and have to turn around and come straight back again.’

‘You’re doing very well, we’re nearly there,’ Jamal said.

‘I’d believe you if it wasn’t for that smirk on your face.’

‘It’s just around the next bend, Mum,’ Elsbeth was ahead.

‘So is Christmas.’

Less than fifteen minutes later they came to a clearing overlooking a creek running over a low cliff of layered granite ledges. Little waterfalls cascaded into a wide, clear, and still pool, soft looking and tea-colored from the surrounding melaleucas and leaf detritus in its shallows.

‘It’s beautiful!’ Mia exclaimed.

‘We knew you’d like it,’ Jamal smiled at his wife.

‘Look Daddy! Caves under the waterfalls! Can I go look!’

‘You be careful Mia!’ Marian cautioned. ‘There could be things in there. And don’t get wet!’

‘Oh, Marian, I don’t think a little water will hurt,’ Jamal said as bright-eyed Mia headed for the shadowy caves.

Marian looked at her son-in-law askance. ‘Well, there’s definitely no picnic tables.’ And no grass.

‘Look Mum!’ Elsbeth said. ‘Over there’s a low ledge in the shade. You can sit there quite comfortably, I think.’

‘That’s a great spot!’ Jamal confirmed.

‘Getting there is the problem.’

‘Marian, you may have to take off your shoes,’ Jamal said.

‘What?’

‘Stay here. We’ll take everything down and Elsbeth can come back with my walkers for you.’

‘Your feet are much bigger than mine.’ And your walkers aren’t the cleanest either.

‘It’s just to get you down to the ledge. You can’t do that in heels.’

Marian waited. ‘Mia!’ she called. ‘Don’t go too far.’ She had to say something.

Elsbeth laid out the rug on the ledge and emptied the esky: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, drumsticks, bottles of juice and water, a container of cherry tomatoes, half a watermelon, cheese and crackers.

Marian sat on the edge of the ledge fanning herself with a plastic plate.

‘Mia!’ Jamal called. ‘Lunch is ready.’

‘Coming!’

‘Elsbeth,’ Marian whispered. ‘I can’t see any toilets.’

‘No,’ Elsbeth said. ‘But I‘ve bought a toilet roll.’

Marian stared at her, then at the surrounding bush, and back to her again. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘M-u-m,’ said Elsbeth. She handed her mother a drumstick wrapped in a napkin.

Marian lowered her make-shift fan and glanced around for the cutlery but saw none and so let Elsbeth put the drumstick on her plate. Marian picked it up like a non-smoker taking a cigarette.

‘Isn’t this wonderful!’ cried Mia as she joined her family on the rug. ‘Can we go swimming later?’

’Oh n …’ began Marian.

‘Sure,’ Jamal said.’

‘You can see right to the bottom,’ said the excited girl.

‘Do you know what creatures live in that water?’ Marian asked to suggest caution.

‘Fish and small crustaceans I expect,’ Elsbeth said.

‘There may be glass,’ Marian continued. ‘You know how people can be.’

‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I’ll leave my shoes on. They’re made for water. You can use Dad’s and come in with me.’

‘No, thank you very much!’

‘Would you like some juice, Mum?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘No thank you.’

‘Water?’

‘No thanks, Mal.’

Elsbeth smiled at her husband. ’Do you remember where we sat?’

‘In that cave, I think.’

‘Did you bring a picnic like this?’ Mia asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I think we had a bottle of wine, though’.

‘That’s right. Koonunga Hill Shiraz. It was your favorite, remember?’

‘I certainly do. Still is my favorite. But,’ he said to Mia, ‘we made sure we took the empty bottle back with us.’

‘You drank a whole bottle?’ Marian’s raised eyebrows were at their limit.

‘Between the two of us.’ Marian caught the cheeky look he shared with Elsbeth and then checked if Mia had seen it.

There was silence for a while as all four people took in the surroundings.

‘Isn’t it gorgeous, Mum?’ Elsbeth said.

‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ Marian said to maintain the peace.

After everyone had eaten enough Elsbeth packed away the left overs while Mia took off her shorts, she had red swimmers underneath, and leaving her sneakers on she waded into the water.

‘You be careful now, Mia,’ Marian warned. “Shouldn’t she wait at least half an hour after eating?’

‘That theory was debunked years ago.’

‘I think, Mum, that only applies for physical exertion. She’s just cooling off.’

‘Ooooo!’ shrieked Mia, ‘it’s so cold and so soft. It’s like silk,’ and she ducked under the water.

Marian stiffened but took some comfort as both parents were watching their daughter. All three had that shaky investment in an only child. After about five minutes Mia came back and lay spread-eagled in the sun on the ledge. ‘That was great!’ she said.

‘Shouldn’t she have some sunscreen on?’ Marian suggested.

But Mia preempted any reply by jumping up and asking, ‘Can I go for a walk in the bush?’

Marian, tight lipped, looked at her daughter.

‘Sure,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Do you want us to come too?’

‘No. I can manage.’

‘You can walk around the pool,’ Jamal said, ‘just keep us in sight.’

‘As long as you can see or hear us,’ Elsbeth added.

‘Goody!’ said the girl as she jumped up and picked her way across several ledges and into the grey-green foliage.

Marian looked concerned. ’Shouldn’t she be wearing a hat.’

‘She’s in the shade,’ Jamal said.

All three adults kept their eyes on the flashes of red through the distant foliage. ‘I can’t hear you!’ the girl called from the undergrowth.

‘But we can see you!’ her father shouted back.

‘You look like an explorer!’ added Elsbeth.

‘You know, Marian,’ Jamal said, ‘we’re so proud of her and how she’s recovered from that silly accident.’

‘She’s regained all her confidence and then some,’ Elsbeth said. ‘She’s been chosen to captain the netball team. Six months ago that would’ve been impossible.’

The chat continued with proud parents explaining the advances and set-backs of Mia’s fall outside Marian’s apartment almost a year ago. Each parent occasionally checked on Mia as they talked.

Mia had got to the head of the pool where another little creek entered but she couldn’t get across because of the steep drop to sticky mud so she took a fallen and jagged tree truck to get over the creek and jagged rocks some meters below.

Marian had only taken her eye from her grand-daughter for a second to find a napkin and take a piece of watermelon but when she looked up …. it was her sharp intake of breath that alerted Jamal who, in an instant, turned, clasped a firm hand over Marian’s open mouth and forced her, with both hands, onto her side onto the rocky ledge. He held her down keeping her silent – her eyes bulging with surprise, shock, and indignation – as both parents held their breath as they watched their daughter, deep in concentration, maneuver her way over the rickety log to the safety of the other side.

When Marian felt Jamal’s grip on her weaken she struggled against him; he let go of her, and she staggered to her feet and with all the outrage she could muster growled, ‘How dare you!’

‘Mum…’ began Elsbeth.

She turned to her daughter and spat, ‘Shut up!’

And all three watched Mia pick her way back to them on the opposite side of the pool but before she got there Marian retreated as quickly as was possible to a flat rock away from the family.

‘That was great!’ Mia said. ‘I saw a lizard! Where’s Grandma going?’

‘You need a medal,’ said her father. ‘We don’t have any gold, but we have some watermelon.’

Mia laughed and took a wedge.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Elsbeth said and headed off after her mother.

She found her leaning against a boulder brushing her clothes down.

‘Mum,’ Elsbeth spoke in as conciliatory a tone as she could muster. ‘Just a minute.’

Marian turned to face her daughter. Her face pink with rage. She had a twig in her hair. ‘That man attacked me!’

Elsbeth’s face lost all its attempt to pacify. ‘What do you mean ‘that man’?’

‘Your husband!’

Elsbeth matched her mother’s vehemence. ‘Yes, he’s my husband, your son-in-law, the father of your grand-daughter and he has a name.’ The two women glared at each other. ‘Well, go on!’

‘ … what?’

‘What is his name?’

Marian just stared at her daughter. There was fear and uncertainty in her eyes.

‘His name is Jamal,’ Elsbeth said.

‘I know that.’

‘Then why don’t you use it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You call him Mal. No one calls him Mal, except you. And I know exactly why you call him Mal: because it sounds more white!’

Marian stared at her daughter and she could feel terror creep into her veins. She turned and headed into the bush. ‘I’m going back ….’ she began but her throat closed up and deprived her of air and fight.

‘Is Grandma alright?’ asked a worried little girl.

‘She’s a bit upset,’ Elsbeth said as she started to tidy things up and repack the esky.

‘I explained a little bit,’ Jamal said.

‘She’s gone back to the car. We’ll have to go,’ Elsbeth said.

‘But, what …?’

‘Darling. We’ll explain when we get home. Let’s just pack up and save all your questions until then. You know we’ll answer them all, don’t you?’

‘Alright.’

‘And, Mia, that means not asking in the car,’ Jamal said. ‘It will really upset Grandma. It’s going to be a very quiet trip home.’

And it was. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Elsbeth turned the radio on but it didn’t help. Mia glanced over at her Grandmother who stared out the window, and saw her hair in disarray and a brown smudge on her cheek. She only glanced at her Grandmother once.

As soon as the car came to a stop outside Marian’s unit she opened the door and said with great difficulty, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. Thank you for a lovely day.’ She left the car door open and hurried to her front door, fumbled with the keys, opened it, left it open, and disappeared inside.

Jamal turned off the engine. ‘I’ll go and talk to her.’

‘Is that wise?’

‘I think so.’ Jamal got out of the car.

‘I don’t understand. Why is Grandma so cross?’ Mia began to cry.

‘Oh, darling,’ Elsbeth got out of the car and into the back seat to comfort her daughter. ‘It will all get better. Bad things always get better.’

Jamal entered Marian’s unit, closed the door, and waited in the middle of the neat living room. There was a framed photo of a smiling Mia and Marian on a little lace-covered table beside her chair. A bud-vase held a red carnation and next to it a pile of books whose spines were arranged in ascending order of size and all aligned with the table edge. He heard the toilet flush and then waited to hear the bathroom door open and close.

Marian appeared in the doorway and stopped. Surprise and then anger flashed across her face.

‘I want to explain,’ Jamal said.

‘There is nothing to say.’

‘Yes, there is. Will you let me try?’

Marian sat in her chair.

Jamal sat on the couch. ‘You were going to warn Mia.’

‘She was in danger.’

‘She was managing on her own. Concentrating.’

‘She could’ve fallen!’

‘Yes, if she had been distracted.’

‘I was only thinking of her.’

‘I know. So was I. I wasn’t thinking of you, Marian. Like you, I was thinking of Mia, maintaining her concentration.’

‘You attacked me.’

‘Yes. Because I was thinking of Mia.’

‘So I did the wrong thing.’

‘… yes; about to do the wrong thing.’

‘I see. I’m a danger to my own grand-daughter now, am I?’

‘Today. Yes, you were. Had you had time to think about it you would’ve remained silent. I’m sure of that; and hoped like us, that she would make it. But there wasn’t time. Reaction always comes before reason. Your reaction was wrong. I had to stop you. I had to. I hope I didn’t hurt you.’

‘Not that anyone can see.’

‘Mia is safe. No harm done. Not to her. Now, my focus is on you.’

Marian flashed a look at him.

‘I’m very sorry I did what I had to do. If I had time for reason I would’ve done it differently. But, like you, I reacted before thinking. We both reacted before thinking.’

Marian looked at him again, but only briefly.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marian, for what I did to you. But I don’t regret it. I was only thinking of Mia.’

‘So you’ve said.’

‘As you were. And I don’t want what happened today to be like a never-healing sore on this family. So, if there is anything I can do to make things right; like they were. I will do it.’

Marian looked at him. And looked longer this time. And her back slowly straightened. Finally, she spoke. ‘Yes, there is something you … something I would like you to allow me to do.’

‘Anything.’

She stood.

Jamal stood as well.

She walked over to him and slapped him hard across the face.

As Jamal closed the door on Marian’s unit, Elsbeth and a much calmer Mia, watched him walk down the path, around the car, and slide into the driver’s seat.

‘How did that go?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘ … fine,’ Jamal said without looking at his wife. ‘Everything’s fine.’

‘Well that’s a relief. Let’s go home.’

‘… naeam.’

The Novel Game.

The Novel Game - Aussie Rules pic
Australian Rules Football

After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.

But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that?  Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s)  and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win. 
 
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck.