So, what’s the book about?

Heart of the Mirage is available in Australia – at least from some bookshops – as early next week.

The story of this book resonated with me from the moment I first started to build it up from the foundations of the idea, but I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about where the ideas came from, the ideas that fuelled the story…
It started when we were living in Vienna, Austria. I turned on the TV one Easter, and they were showing a made-for-TV film in Italian (which I do not speak) with subtitles in German (of which I understood about half because I tend to read a foreign language too slowly). So I was a bit hampered linguistically, but as far as I could tell, it told the story of a Roman official sent by Rome around 1 AD to find out why a man they thought they had crucified was being reported as having been miraculously seen after death. Sounds like a fantasy, I thought, and my mind was off and running.

I was at the time writing The Aware, so I never did anything about the idea just then.

In the years before and after I had been becoming acquainted with the Romans ruins around Europe – walking sites as far apart as Hadrian’s Wall and Roman roads in the UK to Nîmes in France, to the bits and pieces under Vienna itself, to so many major ruins of Italy (all heady stuff for someone from Australia where ruins go back 200 years if you are lucky).

I remember catching the last bus of the day with my sister, and getting off on a cold March evening under a louring sky so that we could walk and see the aqueduct at the Pont du Gard. Magnificent arches looped across a river valley. There was no one around, no traffic, just this ancient edifice of stone, the rushing water and the promise of rain in a dark sky in the late evening. This was the stuff of stories.

Then we moved to live in Tunis. There was a base of a genuine Roman column in our garden. Digging in the rose bed could unearth pieces of Roman tiles. My study where I did my writing had a window that looked out towards the Mediterranean. I could see the ruins of Carthage in one direction, and the Jebel Bou Kornine – the sacred double-horned mountain of Carthage – in the other. The Punic civilization that was Carthage was obliterated by Roman in 146 BC. More stuff of stories.

I have always loved the Australian inland. The colours, the savagely aged landscape, the stark and yet beautiful brutality of a land that has too little water and too much sun. My mother told me stories of dust storms she faced as a young wife on a lonely farm, stirring my imagination. In Tunisia and Algeria I saw a different desert. I felt the heat of the winds that blew out of the desert and dumped its sand onto our doorstep in summer. More stories.

During this time in my life, my children were suddenly growing up and going off to university, coming home in a rush and filling the house with friends and then gone again, so confident and busy and independent. They were a joy in my life, and I considered those mothers who had not had that joy – stories had emerged in the 1970s and 80s as my children grew, of Aboriginal children, the stolen generation, taken forcibly from their families to be raised among strangers in a strange culture for reasons we cannot now fathom.

Further away from home, in Argentina, there were other perhaps even more tragic, heartbreaking tales – stories of brutality, rape and murder – where a military junta took newborn babies away from women they then murdered, sometimes apparently by pushing them out of planes over the sea while still alive. Those who murdered the parents raised the children, steeping them in the very ideas the parents had fought against and died to resist. Tragic stories that resonated. That grieved me, as a mother.

And each story provided an idea that would become part of the base on which I built my own story, The Mirage Makers trilogy.

I had my ideas, and I began to plot the tale, my tale. It’s not a Roman story. Or a Punic one. It’s not that TV show, or the Australian desert, or the Sahara, or the Argentinian military junta. It’s my very own world, my very own tale. A tale of betrayal and war and love and courage, set in an empire called the Exaltarchy – an empire ruled by legions, based on slavery, and about to be torn apart by rebellion.

Read it. You can buy it online through Australian bookshops

Robbery, Roth and Rain

As we were about to leave the house at dawn for our walk, our nextdoor neighbour called us across to the fence to tell us they had been woken up just before five a.m. by the sound of a gas tank being heaved at their locked bedroom door. Before they could do anything, four men rushed into the room and held a knife to the throat of the woman. They were robbed of their handphones, laptop, camera, cash and jewellery. They were then tied up with their son and the thieves left.

They both seem remarkably cool about such a terrifying experience. As the couple are government pensioners, they are hardly rich and one of their concerns during the course of the robbery was whether they would be able to persuade the robbers that they really didn’t have scads of dollars and diamonds hidden in some secret place.

Such robberies have become a way of life. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear of another in our area. The perpetrators often appear to be Indonesian workers who think having a night job is part of the deal of an immigrant worker in Malaysia. We have had two recent unsuccessful robbery attempts during the day at our house (I startled one by coming back, my sister-in-law did the same thing to the other), followed by a devastatingly destructive robbery that resulted in four smashed doors and a cut grille, lost cash, laptop, camera and – because they took the whole dry box – the loss years of irreplaceable digital photographs. I’m just glad that no one was home. We now have an extensive, supposedly foolproof, alarm system.

It seems we pay the price for having a poverty-stricken neighbour across the Straits of Malacca that exports its thieves along with its hard workers.

The other kind of common theft – more probably committed by local drug addicts – is the theft of metal. People come home to find their gates missing; in the street everything goes – the metal covers to drains, signs, poles, fences, guard rails, even electricity pylons have been brought crashing down by such brainfried idiots…

The shame of this is that there must be so many local people willing to deal in stolen goods to make it all worthwhile. We are quick to blame Indonesians, but they are selling the fruits of their robberies to someone. The people who buy the metal, the cheap handphone, the laptop: you are just as guilty as the man who holds the knife to the neck of a terrified child. Be careful, my friend; next time it might by you woken up in the middle of the night, your children threatened with death. Think twice.

On the reading front, I am halfway through Roth’s Plot Against America, which leaves me, each time I put the book down, with a deep sense of sadness at the human idiocy of hope. I don’t mean the sort of hope that inspires, but rather the kind of hope that people hang onto in place of common sense and wisdom because they don’t think. Because it’s easier to hope things will turn out all right, than to do something to make it happen.

Just to round out the day, our roof is leaking. I called in someone to fix it. He came, did something, told us our whole roof needs replacing, and left.

Then it rained. Heavily. We now have two leaks instead of one. Or rather, we have the original drip into a bucket in the dining room, and a waterfall down the wall in the family room. What the hell did they do?

On Being a Writer: Making the Dream Come True – Step One.

I watched – with appalled fascination – some of the early trials for American Idol. It was eye-opening to see so many thousands of young people with impossible dreams: all wanted to be stars. There were so many of them that, if all succeeded, there would be no one left to listen. No audience for tens of thousands of singers…

And some of them were beyond terrible, yet didn’t seem to know it. Some were devastated when they were weeded out, as if life was now over. It was both pathetic and frightening. Rather like reading about the poll they did of British school kids some time back, asking them what they wanted to be. By far the most common answer was “popstar” or similar; even, with delicious vagueness, “celebrity”.

That was the sum total of their ambition? Do they have any idea of what they are asking for? Any idea that it’s not the fame that’s important, but the love of music? Any idea of the hard work it normally takes to be that successful? Maybe that’s one of the attractions of American Idol or similar shows – it seems like such a shortcut. Add water and stir: instant fame, without the hard stuff. Unhappily, there are also a lot of writers out there with unrealistic expectations too. Who want the fame without the work.

So, if you want to be a writer, should you hold on to that dream? Because here’s the first unpleasant truth: not all of you out there dreaming are going to make it. Not even those of you who work damn hard. Not even those of you who have talent. Not even one in five thousand of you.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming. But there is something else that is even more important, and you should never forget it: it doesn’t matter if the dream doesn’t come true. Why not? Because you are loving the journey. Because what really matters is the love of writing. If you don’t have that, then you shouldn’t be doing this. You’ll be like one of those young singers, dreaming not of the song, but of the celebrity.

So how can you make the dream come true?

Here’s step one and it’s the simplest one of all, and the most fun, and yet it is also the most important:

Buy New Books. Read. Teach your kids to read. Read to them at bedtime every night. Buy books for your grandkids. Give books as gifts to your friends and family. Ask for books as presents for yourself. Raise generations of readers.

Yeah, that’s right. Publishers are in a business. If they don’t make lots of money, they won’t sign up lots of new authors – of which you might be one. So that’s the first step you can take down the road to being an author.

Told you it was simple.

Covers again: gotta love ’em…

I have just seen the Russian cover of The Aware.

To appreciate this, you should know that when I was mulling over the idea for this trilogy, I made a very deliberate decision not to write books set in a medieval-type world, or in one filled with druids and Celtic or Arthurian-style heroes.

I love worldbuilding, and I hope it shows. (I’ve wondered if that is one reason why Havenstar is so popular.)

I like to describe the world of The Isles of Glory as somewhere between Captain Cook at Botany Bay (1770s) and the Voyage of the Beagle (1830s), and the first book, The Aware, is set on an island that is no more than a sub-tropical sand spit with one main port and not much else. No horses on this sand spit. No dragons either. See if you can separate the guys from the, um, ladies….

By the way, the other two books have very different settings again – but no Eurocentric cities anywhere. If you like your fantasy settings to be stone castles ruled by a king in armour with young princes learning to joust, this may not be the series for you. But I do have mangroves and bird stacks and carved cliffs and strange lakes and British Colonial-type towns and less than salubrious ports and tidal races and…well, go buy the books and read.

Borneo Blog coming up…!

My husband – that’s him there without the feathers – has just accepted a 6 month contract to be a Visiting Professor at the University of Malaysia Sabah (UMS), at the Institute of Tropical Biology & Conservation.

What, you may ask, is an ex Deputy Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna doing messing around with conservation in North Borneo? Well, he’s a man of many parts…

He’s particularly interested in beetles, moths, gingers and fungus. And teaching. And field biology, expeditions…you name it.

What does this mean for us? Well, in between visiting my daughter in the US, and doing some environmental work for the Malaysian Nature Society here in Kuala Lumpur on the mainland, I will also be living part-time in Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. And oh, yes, there’s a little thing of writing another 100,000 words of my latest book before the end of July. And going through the copy-edit and proofing of the one I just completed as well, sometime in this period.

And Malaysians retire at 56. Are they insane?

My husband is looking forward to being back in Academia, occupying that office with his name on the door, and I know that what my mother said to me when I told her I was marrying this guy is absolutely true: “You’ll never be bored.”

She was obviously psychic.

Sorry, don’t want that Hugo…

There has been a bit of discussion on some of the Australian blogs about whether one can opt to withdraw from consideration for an award.

And I say: No, you shouldn’t be able to.

An award is not a contest. It is not something that you, the writer, enter. It is something bestowed on you – or your work – for your excellence.

If Aloysius Muddlesworthy decides – because he is a really, really nice guy and he has been winning the Best Book of the Year Award for residents of Downunder for umpteen years – that he doesn’’t want his work to be considered any more, and the organisers agree to allow it, then he is short-changing both the award and his fellow Downunderian writers.

How can Scintilla Cuddlesbug, this year’’s winner, feel proud of her win if she knows that the Muddlesworthy book was not considered? She -– and everyone else -will be wondering if her book really deserved the win, or whether it just won by default. That’’s not fair to her, and it devalues the Award.

And what about Spyte Sickleton, you might ask? He had a different reason for not wanting his work to be considered. Maybe he thinks the Award is crap. Maybe he thinks the judges take bribes. Or maybe he just had a row with the organiser. He might be paranoid, or he might have a very valid reason. The actual reason doesn’’t matter – he feels that if his work is considered, he is being a hypocrite after he’’s spent the past year telling everyone the awards suck. So, you might ask – shouldn’’t he be allowed to withdraw his work from consideration?

My answer remains : No. For the same reasons as above. If you are going to have an award for The Best Book of the Year in Downunder, then every eligible book should be considered – or discarded -– by the judges or the voters. Not by the writers.

Fortunately, Mr Sickleton still has a choice. He can refuse the award if he wins. That’’s his privilege. He should not, however, have the privilege of withdrawing in the first place.

The Tooth Fairy Bird

Are you worried about bird flu?
You ought to be, not least because of the misinformation occurring –
prompted by fear or greed in the farming sector,
or perhaps even by the ignorance of researchers who don’t understand bird migration.

At the moment, evidence points to the real vectors NOT being wild birds.
In fact, wild birds seem to be the victims, rather than the cause.

So read on about the real culprit:
The Tooth Fairy Bird.

Surely one of the most startling of the flurry of new findings made during the spread of H5N1 avian influenza has been the discovery of the Tooth Fairy Bird – which we believe is the first bird species to have been initially described by virologists, and is remarkable for being able to survive and sustain and spread H5N1. Here, we present a review of information on this intriguing taxon.

Perhaps a single existing bird species, perhaps a closely or remotely related grouping of bird species, the Tooth Fairy Bird has never been certainly recorded, but like esoteric sub-atomic particles its existence has been inferred through a variety of indirect means. By drawing on reports from virologists, agriculture and health officials and journalists – though as yet, alas, not ornithologists and birders – it is possible to describe the behaviour of this unusual bird, whose Latin name is yet to be settled upon, though suggestions include Robwebsters petnotionas, Vectorius (mythicus) invisiblus, and Anas stealthbomberensis.

In brief, the Tooth Fairy Bird is capable of both surviving infection by a strain of H5N1 that is otherwise highly lethal to all species it infects, and of flying long distances, efficiently spreading the virus at only few places it visits. Curiously, rather than follow major migration timings and flyways, it often flies long distances when many birds are not migrating, and has a strong tendency to follow railway lines and roads. Further, once the Tooth Fairy Bird has introduced the virus to a new area, it then plays little or no role in spreading the virus there; indeed, it may quickly vanish altogether

— from Dr Martin Williams and Nial Moores

For the full text, click here.
And my apologies to Dr Williams. In the initial post, I gave him a new first name…

The mystery of the missing middle book …

I just got my royalty statements from HarperCollins Oz this week, and while chatting with another HC Voyager author on the same day, we both remarked that the third book of our trilogies had sold a whole lot better than the middle one. Huh?

So what we both want to know is:
Why on earth do so many of you skip the middle volume?
Is it that the middle book so often sucks, you decide to skip it on principle?
Is it that publishers have got it wrong – you don’t want trilogies, you want duologies instead?
Everyone gets the middle one from the library?
You buy one between you and pass it around?
Two is an unlucky number?

I really am intrigued. Especially as I thought that the middle book of mine, Gilfeather, was actually the best of the three. And I would have thought that it would be very difficult to understand book 3 without having read it.

So, can anyone tell me: what is it about middle books?

The Downside of Being a Writer

There are two things I dislike about being a writer.

The first is that I enjoy reading less. The second is that I don’t have much time to read anyway. And that’s tough for someone who started reading so young she can’t remember how she learned.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of reading. The joy of snuggling up in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night in one of those soft and lumpy armchairs with a book I hadn’t read. Waking up on a hot Christmas morning, the sun already heating up the unlined zinc roof overhead, knowing that there would be a new book in my stocking, (bestowed by wise parents who didn’t want kids waking them up too early).

Reading everything a zillion times because there were never enough books. Loving it when I was nine and new neighbours moved in on a farm half a mile or so away with a library of books that they didn’t mind lending. Loving it when I was ten and my sister started university and began bringing home all those lovely, lovely books by people I’d never heard of with wonderfully exotic Russian and French and Jewish and German names…

There was no T.V., of course, and we lived in a household that “went to the flicks” much less often than we visited the dentist. The only library was at school, and books were rationed like wartime coffee. We were allowed to change a single book once a week. (Perhaps it was reverse psychology on the teachers’ part – to inculcate a love of reading by making it an almost forbidden treat? If so, it worked. Reading was a wonder, a joy, and a new book was indeed something delicious to be savoured. Of course, being kids, we bookworms got around the rationing. We each took out one book, read it and passed it on.)

Now, however, whenever I read for pleasure, there is almost always part of me that is observing the tools used by the author. The plot devices. The dialogue tricks. The way they have built characters or shifted a scene, or foreshadowed an event. I note the clumsy phrase and think to myself, “Well I would have done that another way…”

It’s a pain. I want to get lost in a good book the way I did as a child. I want that sense of immersion, of being somewhere else, of being someone else. And very, very occasionally it does happen. There comes along a writer who whisks me away from this world with such a deft touch, not just for a page or two, but for a whole book. And I’ll read anything they write, any time. And I think, Ah, if only I could write like that…

The second downside to being a published writer are those things called deadlines. Terry Pratchett might get a kick out of the sound of them whooshing past, but all they stir up in me is a sense of guilt whenever I sit down to read. I feel like that same little girl who used to read under the bedcovers with a torch, long past her bedtime, devouring the Myths of Greece and Rome, or one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, or The Complete Plays of George Bernard Shaw – probably all in the same week. I didn’t discriminate back in those days. I just read.

Gull Ability

I hate sea gulls. They are born with one plumage and tend to look like every other species of gull when they are young, and then they spend anything up to five years getting to be an adult, looking different each year. It’s quite possible for them to have a first winter tail and second year wing patterns. And then, when they are adults, some of them cross breed just to confuse idiots who want to go look at them. I swear, they set out to deceive and the word gullible can’t be a coincidence. Only that’s a word to describe the birdwatchers trying to identify the gulls, not the gulls themselves.

I don’t have a photo taken this trip, but here’s one of me in the same area, heading towards a mud spit. Photo taken by Wetlands International (M).

So what the hell was I doing on Saturday out in the middle of the mud and mangroves, looking at a blasted seagull?

Because those guys from Wetlands International here reported a new species for Malaysia: Heuglin’s Gull, which breeds in northern central Siberia. I believe there will be some photos in The Star newspaper tomorrow.

Anyway, on Saturday six of us headed by train to Port Klang, then to Pulau Ketam (Crab Island)
by vaporetto ferry (decorated inside with plastic greenery strung down the ceiling, yet with splashes of red paint all over the windows no one had ever bothered to clean off – like the remains of a collision at speed with a flock of Heuglin Gulls…?)

After that, it was a locally-made speedboat for a ten-minute ride to the southern mudflats. Where the boat got stuck on the mud on the falling tide. Not that we minded: we had great views of Chinese Egrets in a selection of breeding and non-breeding plumages, plus waders fussily scampering up and down the edge of a mud spit, and terns flying past, elegant as always.

Then, after a couple of hours two things happened at once: the tide came in, and the damn gull came and sat on the mudflat. Our boat floated off, swinging around in all directions while six birdwatchers with telescopes tried to focus on the same bird and keep out of each other’s way. Chaos and curses. A couple of us abandoned ship, thinking to get a more stable view from standing on the mud, and ended up thigh deep in quickly rising water. Ok, so that wasn’t a brilliant idea after all. And of course, then the bloody bird flew off.

We consoled ourselves with a fish lunch on Pulau Ketam. If there had been sea gulls on the menu, I would have been tempted to order…

So, if you happened to be in K.L. Sentral on Saturday, and saw a disreputable group of muddy, wet people lugging tripods and optics as we dispersed to catch trains, that was us.

Back home it was time to look at the field guides and internet pix, and try to ID the gull. Ha. Whaddya know, it didn’t look like any of the pictures. Gulls never do.