A Bali Starling in New York

Bali Starlings, white and blue and gorgeous, are truly rare in the wild. Caught and sold for the captive bird trade, they ended up in cages round the world, but almost extinct on their native island. A captive breeding and release programme has had only limited success and wild birds are still subject to poaching. I’ve been to Bali, twice, but I just saw my first Bali Starling last week – in New York.

I love New York. Great, wild, untidy, luxuriant…the scenery of another planet!
In the face of the exuberance of Manhattan life, you forget to see the dirt, the ugliness, the seamier side; only the splendour of the whole is obvious. Superlatives abound: buildings lour over Central Park, impossibly tall, like comic stereotypes; some streets truly are canyons; Fifth Avenue really is packed with the trappings of the obscenely rich. Stores are bigger, wealth is greater; life is larger; poverty – when seen in the world’s most famous city in the world’s richest nation – is sadder. Manhattan pulses, a living breathing dragon lying there beneath your feet…

Yeah, quite. See what the place does to my writing even?

Would I want to live there? My daughter wants to, even though she already has, for two years when she was a post-grad student. She had a tiny shared apartment with a single window that looked out onto a brick wall. You couldn’t see the sky. I would have hated it.

But ah, the other things. To walk everywhere, as New Yorkers do, and be so close to everything. To have the theatre and museums and music and the restaurants…

But not this trip. This trip we went to the children’s playgrounds where the maids bring the kids to play, except at weekends when it’s mum and dad’s turn. We went to the children’s museum (ditto). We went to F.A.O. Schwarz, which is a toy store that has to be seen to be believed. We went to the Central Park Zoo, where I saw my first Bali Starling living in the rainforest exhibit. We breakfasted in diners, where no one is going to say much if an almost-two ups his scrambled egg all over the floor; we dined in the evening on pizza brought back to the room…

And I went to the Darwin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History, while my daughter was dragged off by the almost-two to see lots of skeletons and stuffed animals. Especially large ones.

Much of my Isles of Glory is framed by the letters of an ethnographer who has visited the Isles. His character was his own, but his world was partly that of Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook (as did an ancestor of mine), and partly that of Charles Darwin and the voyage of the HMS Beagle in the following century. Thus this splendid exhibition – also a statement recognising the reality and wonder of the evolution of life on earth – was something very close to my heart. Ah, yes, there are times when I would indeed love to live in New York, to have access to exhibitions like this.

“The land is one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself. How great would be the desire in every admirer of Nature to behold, if such were possible, the scenery of another planet! Yet to every person it may truly be said, that the glories of another world are opened to him.”
(Charles Darwin, on seeing a tropical rainforest for the first time: condensed from the “Voyage of the Beagle”)


Well, I’m back in Selangor again, but won’t be off to Sabah for a day or two yet.

I shall be posting a bit about my NY trip in the coming days…

And hi to all those romance writers (must have been at least 60 of you by the look of it) who dropped by my blog last week. Dunno who sent you, but lovely to see you here!

COINCIDENCE: in fact and in fiction

The plane was full from New York to Kuala Lumpur. The man sitting next to me was American.

‘Your first trip to Malaysia?’ I asked at some point, one of those casual questions you tend to ask of a fellow sufferer on a long flight.

No, he said. He had been an American Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, back in the early 70s, he explained, and named the institution where he had been a lecturer.

I was startled. My husband had been one of the Malaysian initiators of that programme at a time when the country was short of tertiary science teachers prepared to teach in the Malay language and when many local educatonists and some politicians were scornful of the idea that science could ever be taught in the national language at university level. (From a modern perspective, this attitude seems incredibly strange. The past truly is another country.) A few dedicated Malaysians, a handful of Indonesians and members of the American Peace Corps proved the doom-sayers wrong.

Several among the Corps had become good friends to my husband and me. During the initial Malay language learning period, one American family was hosted by my in-laws in their village home. Much later, another – I’ll call him K – asked my husband to be his wakil (negotiating rep) for his engagement and marriage to a Malaysian. He’s looked us up on a more recent visit to Malaysia.

‘But you must know my husband!’ I exclaimed to my fellow passenger, and gave the name. ‘In fact, you and I have probably met before.’

He did indeed remember my husband, and yes, we probably had met a few times thirty-five years ago. ‘You’re an author, aren’t you,’ he said, ‘and you have a daughter in the US, and another who’s a musician in the UK.’

I was staggered. ‘How on earth did you know all that?’

‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘K drove me to the airport this evening, and he was telling me about you.’

K, of course, had no idea I had been in N.Y., let alone that on the plane I was going to be sitting next to the friend he had so kindly driven to Newark Airport. (Years before, he’d done the same good deed in reverse – he’d picked up our newly-arrived daughter at the airport and taken her to the Cornell post-grad campus in Manhattan.) Out of all the 300 plus people on that plane, none of whom I recognised, I was seated next to someone I had once met – who had been talking about me on the way to the airport!

Now that’s a coincidence.
They do happen. And many real-life coincidences are even odder than this one.

And yet coincidences are dangerous things to include in a story because, written down, they seem so trite and contrived. They jerk the reader out of his belief. The person who comes across them in literature tends to curl his lip up in a sneer, and mutter something about writers who think their readers must be pigeon-brained poodles to believe that sort of rubbish…Life Is Not Like That, they state.

Well, life is like that. But the good writer also has to be beware of writing too realistically. Sometime you can be too real for your own good.

There are ways of getting around the unbelievability of the coincidence, of course. Not confusing the unlikely with the impossible is a beginning. Having your characters comment on the unbelievability is (illogically) another way. Or you can, like Dan Brown, keep the action going at such a frenetic pace that the unlikely bits don’t have time to register on the reader…

A writer’s dream…

Tomorrow we set off for New York city.

I have “done” New York in several different ways. My first trip was the real tourist thing. You know, guide book in hand, trying not to look as if my eyes were popping out, head always tilting upwards. My first visit to the Twin Towers.
And then there were the more erudite and leisurely trips, when my daughter was doing her post-grad in Manhattan – museum visits, shows, weekends in Central Park; even birdwatching – and in case you didn’t know, Central Park is a great place for birds. Another trip to the Twin Towers.
Then a trip where I bypassed the city, but had great views as we flew in and out of Newark airport. On the way home, the plane banked at just the right moment to show the whole of Manhattan basking in a late summer evening sun. I remember thinking how the World Trade Centre dwarfed everything else…
Three months later my daughter rang me from Virginia. ‘Mum, turn on the TV,’ she said. Just that. I did – and from Kuala Lumpur, on the other side of the world, I watched the towers fall as it happened.

My last trip was somewhat lonelier – merely passing through with an overnight stopover, just long enough to fulfil a dream. I stayed in an amazing Manhattan hotel (supposedly cheap, but for that price back in K.L you could just about have got the presidential suite in a five star hotel) that had “themed” rooms. Mine was the Salvador Dali room. Imaging waking up to find yourself staring at a rather amateurish reproduction of a Dali painting covering the walls and ceiling… Ok, that really was surreal.

So what was the writer’s dream?
To have lunch with my New York editor. It does have a certain ring to it, you’ve got to admit…
I told her that she might not have known it, but she was the answer to someone’s fantasy! On this visit, I have another appointment with her, which I am looking forward to with almost as much anticipation. Meeting one’s NY editor still has that ring to it even second time around… ok, I’m a sucker for symbols or something. I’ll admit it.

Most of this visit, though, is going to be ‘New York with a stroller’ and that’s a two-year-old’s mode of conveyance I’m talking about.

Oh, and I doubt that I will be online again till I get back to K.L. in about five days.

Springtime in …

Springtime where I grew up in Western Australia meant field mushrooms (which we just loved and went to pick each day to have for breakfast). They came with the first rains and studded the fields like miniature pale brown umbrellas, We could tell the difference between them and toadstools by the time we were three or four.
Springtime meant brown grass suddenly disappearing under a swathe of green. Springtime also meant wildflowers. And West Australia probably has more wildflowers than any other place on earth. I remember visiting a flowermarket in Amsterdam and seeing buckets of morrison and kangaroo paws and boronia and leschenaultia all those other flowers of my childhood on sale. I felt immensely saddened – as if they had somehow stolen part of my Australian-ness by growing something so quintessentially Ozzie on the other side of the world with a sign saying : Produce of Israel.

And then I moved to Malaysia, and spring meant nothing where weather or plants were concerned. It did mean birds on migration…great flocks on the move, unnoticed by almost everyone except the rice farmers and the coastal fishermen. How many Malaysians have I spoken to who had no idea that birds came and went through their land? It has taken bird flu for awareness to grow!

Then came six years in Austria, and suddenly Spring had a capital letter and put a spring in your step after the grey cold bleakness of a city winter.

Now here I am enjoying the colour of a Virginia spring without having gone through a winter. Now that’s the way to do it. And soon – less than a week – I shall be heading back to the tropics and home.

Champagne breakfast…

Mother’s Day here…and we started the day with a champagne breakfast, courtesy of my lovely son-in-law (see r.). My first ever. Come to think of it, the tyranny of distance has decreed that it has been a good many years since I had a Mother’s Day with even one of my children, and of course this is a first – Mother’s Day with a grandchild.

My writing is going just great – 2,400 words done yesterday. Book 3 of the Mirage Makers, Song of the Shiver Barrens is about to enter the final leg of the first draft…and it is just galloping along. It doesn’t happen often, but just occasionally a writer gets into a stride where the right words seem to flow onto the paper, and this was it. With me, it often seems to happen with the gut-wrenching emotional scenes, and I have just been putting my hero through the wringer.

When readers get it wrong…

I take pride in writing fantasies that can be read on several levels. If you look, there is more there than just a great (I hope) story.

So what do I do when I see a reader’s comment that says something like, “A good entertaining story, but no great depth”? Get all huffy and mutter about readers that can’t see past the drip on the end of their noses?

And what about the opposite: the reader who talks about the deep dark meaning of my work and how I have commented on the connections between Donald Rumsfeld, the Da Vinci Code and the melting of the icecaps? (And no; no such book or reader exists…yet.)

Once a writer’s work gets out there into the public domain, what happens to it is largely beyond their control. And no matter how a reader might have mangled the subtler meaning, the writer has to grin and bear it – and to a degree sometimes even take the blame. Perhaps your writing lacked the clarity you thought it had?

Mostly though, I don’t think that’s the point. Each reader takes something different from a writer’s work. Perhaps the book did no more than entertain them for an hour or two. Perhaps it made them think about deeper issues of morality and ethics. Maybe it made them re-examine their politics, their environmental concerns, their relationship with their significant other, or how they feel about their dog. Perhaps it made them happier. Perhaps it even inspired them. And the writer will never know these things unless the reader sends an email or a letter or writes a review.

What does matter is this:
The writer has tried to let others see the world through the lens of his own eye. Each writer brings his own joys/fears/politics/ethics/morality to his writing. If, for a moment in time, the reader has been transported somewhere else, to see ( figuratively or literally) something they would not have seen otherwise, then the writer has done part of his job. If the picture the reader sees is not quite the one that you the writer intended, well – at least you have made them think. And that can never be a bad thing.

So if the reader doesn’t “get” what I have written, I smile, maybe learn something, and move on. I’m just glad there are people out there who read my work.

The “Ten things I hate to see in a book” meme…

1. A character who looks in a mirror (shop window or whatever) so that the author can then describe them. So done to death.

2. A dream sequence where the reader is misled into thinking it is real, only to have character wake up and “Oh, it was all a dream.”

3. Women characters who all seem to be weepy and incompetent in a crisis. Geez, women have kept the human race alive through the worst of times – very few are hysterical in a real crisis.

4. Rip-off plots. Books written to coast along on in the wake of a bestseller. You know, Da Vinci Code look-alikes. Someone writes a bestseller about being a drug-addicted, one-armed juggler living on the streets of London with a pet giraffe, and next thing you know there are dozens of books about drug-addicted, one-armed ju…

5. A mass of truly horrible characters none of whom I can empathise with, doing truly horrible stuff, none of which I can sympathise with. You’ve gotta offer me something better than that to keep me reading.

6. Women characters who, when together, never talk about anything but their relationships with men and clothes/fashion.

7. Male heroic figures who never care about all the killing they do.

8. Villains who have no purpose to their villainy except to be villainous. Why? What’s the pay-off ?

9. A character that is too like me. Please, I wanna read to get away from it all…

10. I don’t mind books that make me think. I don’t mind books that leave me up in the air to draw my own conclusions about how everything turned out. But I do loathe books where I simply don’t understand what the hell is going on and where I don’t have enough clues so that I can even guess. And no, I never did get past the first page of Ulysses…

More on that HotM review…

Fellow Voyager author and special friend Karen Miller very, very kindly chased down Jason Nahrung for me and I have now seen the review from the Brisbane Courier-Mail.
Apart from the bit I’ve already quoted, Jason also said:

Larke provided a refreshing approach in her previous Isles of Glory trilogy, and her new release, Heart of the Mirage (Voyager, $20.95), continues to engage.

At the end of the review he adds this:

Larke presents an examination of the ethics of imperialism and disenfranchisement. It is no accident the story is dedicated to Australia’s Stolen Generation and the Disappeared Ones of Argentina.

He’s actually the first person to have made mention of this acknowledgement to be found at the back of the book. If you have a copy, do read this. I don’t believe in being preachy in fiction, but nonetheless, this story is my (inadequate) tribute to people who suffered in a particularly heartrending way.

Anticipation. For ages.

Jason Nahrung of the Brisbane Courier-Mail wrote a review of Heart of the Mirage this last weekend. Alas, I haven’t seen it yet. It is not online that I can find. I am told that it was a good one, and my lovely publicist is posting a copy to my home address – but I won’t be home for another two weeks! So this pathetically insecure author has to scrounge up a dose of patience…

All I have to sate my impatient soul is this:
‘Glenda Larke…. has again managed to add a thoughtful twist to the fantasy genre.’

All of which makes me think that in this connected world of instant gratification, we have actually forgotten how to wait. I wonder if we have thereby also denied ourselves one of the joys of living: anticipation.