Pictures were an important part of my research process while I was writing and rewriting Out of the Cages. I wrote the first draft while I was living in Pokhara, Nepal, way back in 2006. I remember taking my camera and heading off for a long slow walk around the familiar places, photographing the ordinary and everyday things.
I wanted to remember the little things. The colour of the bananas in the fruit stand, the way bangles were displayed in the corner shop, the smell of singed chickens at the poultry butcher, the curtain in the tea shop.
For me, it was these little details that would help bring my story to life. That would remind me of what it felt like to be in Nepal, and to miss it.
Later, when I was privileged enough to visit India to continue my research, I did a similar thing. I wanted the capture the scope of Mumbai, the colour of the moon, the surprising sights, the fleeting images from a train.
Yes, I took notes, and I wrote in my journal recording sights and sounds and smells and the stories of the amazing people we met. But my photos captured the sense of the place and allowed my memory to tap back into those places, hunting for details to bring my story and its characters to the page.
We sat around a coffee table laden with supper treats. I held my mug of tea with two hands. My copy of Out of the Cages lay hidden in the bag beside my feet. A photo album next to it. The room filled up until all the seats were occupied and then there was a hush. A pause. A waiting. A few copies of my novel appeared, and then they asked me – ‘What inspired you to write this book?’
It was my friend’s Book Club. I’d been invited as the ‘guest speaker’ and ‘visiting author’. The group seemed a little nervous to have me there: apparently they’d never had an author join them before.
But I was nervous too.
After all, I’d written a YA novel and this was a room full of adult readers with questions and opinions and bookshelves full of titles I probably haven’t even heard of. And what if they didn’t like my book? Would they have to pretend they did because I was there? Wouldn’t it be easier to let them discuss it without me?
But I needn’t have worried. Like when I visited the Penrith YA Book Club earlier in the year, who would readily admit they preferred fantasy and dystopian type genres, I was warmly welcomed. (Maybe it’s a book lover thing?) Conversation flowed and meandered and relaxed. A few people bravely admitted they hadn’t wanted to read my book, and weren’t sure if they’d finish it. But they did. And they were glad they had. Others told me how angry they had felt while they were reading. Another wanted to know how much of the story was true. So I told them. I pulled my photo album out of my bag and answered as best I could. And then I asked them some questions. (And we posed for a photo.)
So often, as an author, I sit at my desk only imagining the responses a reader might have to a situation I write, or an emotion I have attempted to weave into a story. It was wonderful to be able to interact with the readers and listen to how they found the story, their take on it and what stood out the most for them. What a treat!
If you could have any author you liked come to your Book Club, who would you invite? And what would your number one question be?
My son is something of a Shaun Tan fan. (If you are not familiar with Shaun Tan, he's an Australian illustrator of picture books.) So when we happened to see a poster advertising Shaun's recent visit to Sydney coinciding with the launch of his new book, my Z was keen to attend. So I checked my diary and then thought, why not? We could do this. Drive into the city, figure out where to park, try out that sushi restaurant we'd been eyeing off for years and make an evening of it. Yep - I could support my son's interests this way.
But what I wasn't expecting was for the event to inspire me too. I'd thought it would all be about art and painting and drawing. I figured I'd just be the taxi driver. The dinner buyer. The friendly companion in lines at the door. I didn't count on having my heart tugged by wonder and the humble perspectives of creativity.
The event was hosted by Kinokuniya Book Shop and was a conversation between Shaun Tan and artist Nick Stathopoulos. The two of them talked about Shaun's art work, his habits, his interests, the stories behind the tales he tells (his most recent work is a collection of short stories and artworks called Tales from the Inner City).
I was struck by Shaun's humility, his thoughtful responses and the sense of wonder he carried with him about his craft. Although I'd thought I was there to support my son, I found myself inspired and encouraged in my own creative work (even though I work primarily with words).
My Z, himself a budding illustrator more often than not found hunched over his desk drawing, also loved it. Nothing better to inspire creativity that to hear someone you admire talk honestly about the very same struggles you are facing, and to offer their perspectives on how to keep going!
So, with sushi for dinner, listening in on the two artists in conversation, some of Shaun Tan's wonderful images floating around in our minds and a scenic detour in the city on the way home (otherwise known as 'getting lost') Z and I had an unexpectedly joyous time.
I'd recommend an evening like that any day!
I have to admit, one of the things I love most about being a children's and YA author is the opportunities it brings to visit schools and speak with students about writing, reading, books and stories!
Sometimes it's a simple assembly presentation. Sometimes it's a series of Book Launch visits. But this year I was invited to one particular school for an extra special visit. One where I wasn't even the star of the show!
It was for an awards ceremony, for the Picture Book of the Year Award run by the inspirational library team at one senior high school I'd visited this year.
I had first been invited to this school much earlier in the year, to teach a workshop for a small group of interested students from years 11 and 12. Working with students of this age group, I knew what a privilege I'd been given. It was great fun talking through the elements of picture books, the challenges of keeping a story under 600 words and exploring the magical interplay between illustrations and text.
After I'd left, many of these students then entered the picture book competition run by their library to celebrate Book Week. I was able to admire the results of all their hard work at the awards celebration. It was amazing to see how individual students, and some pairs working together, had taken the 2018 Book Week theme of 'Find your Treasure' and come up with unique and beautiful ways of telling a story.
The winner's book - which she both wrote and digitally illustrated - was wonderful. She'd exploited the strengths of the picture book form and told an inspiring story at the same time. I was thrilled to be a part of this Awards day, and will look forward to reading more from this budding group of authors in the future!
It was just over twelve years ago that I finished the first draft of the novel that was to become Out of the Cages. I was living in Nepal at the time and as my family prepared to return to Australia, I was cramming in research trips and writing days.
Since then, the research has continued, the writing turned to rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. But finally, on the 1st July, Out of the Cages was published and last weekend amid friends and family, and a number of anti-trafficking organisations, we officially launched Meena's story into the world.
The launch was lovely. We had supper - including some delicious Indian sweets and hot, spicy chai - and I was able to share some of what I learned as I researched this book. Katrina Roe, a fellow author and writing friend of mine, launched the book for me.
One of my favourite parts of the night - though it was also rather nerve wrecking - was the opportunity to actually read from the novel. I ummed and ahhed over which sections to read but finally decided to begin at the begining and read the prologue, followed by chapter three. Later, after Katrina had formally launched the book, I read a small section from chapter twenty eight where Meena, for the first time since escaping the brothel, begins to rediscover the power of her voice.
It's been a long journey for this book to come to print, but it's finally here. It's Meena's turn now; to tell her story, to represent the voices of those who have been trafficked and sold into slavery.
And although I doubt I'd sit back and do nothing, I'm excited to see where this book will end up.
Out of the Cages can be purchased via the publisher's website, your favourite local bookshop or by doing a quick online search.
We're 10 days away now. From the release date of Out of the Cages: the 1st July 2018.
How do I feel?
Like I've been holding my breath. Like dropping over the finish line of a race I never thought I'd finish. Like a kid, one hand in the popcorn bucket, waiting for the movie to begin.
It's exciting and oddly surreal too.
We're holding the official launch of Out of the Cages on the 7th July, at 7pm, in the Big Hall of St Marys Anglican Church, in St Marys, NSW.
We'll have book signings, chats, chai tea, and supper. And I'll share some of the journey behind this book; the research, the writing and what I learned along the way.
I'd love to have you there!
RSVP's are great (to assist with the supper preparations) and can be made by sending me an email, or via the Facebook event.
The countdown is well and truly underway for my new novel, Out of the Cages. Over the last month I've been doing those final little (and not so little) tasks that editors send my way: like slowly reading through the uncorrected proof and double checking details. The novel will be off to the printers soon, if it hasn't been sent off already. July 1 is the official release date.
I'm looking forward to planning a really special launch for this book - it's been so long in the making and so many people have supported me over the years and encouraged me to keep going. I'm excited to be able to share the celebration of this book with those who have helped along the way!
If you haven't yet read the blog Rhiza Edge asked me to write for their website, you can find it here. I share a little more about where the story for Out of the Cages came from.
And if you're a Goodreads member, you can now add Out of the Cages to your 'Want to read' list!
Can you see him? The tiny gecko? Hanging by his toes?
I'd been doing some jobs around my parents' home while they were away. Watering the pot plants on the deck, checking the fish were still swimming and clearing the post from the letterbox etc. It was time to add some scraps to the worm farms, so I lifted the heavy brick that had been keeping the worm farm lid secure. And I saw this little guy. So tiny. His chubby fat gecko toes gripping the black plastic. He glanced up at me with those big shiny eyes and made a run for it!
'Careful!' I called after him (yes, I have a habit of talking to lizards). But he didn't listen. he just panicked and leaped off the worm farm - dove off into oblivion - or at least that is what it must have seemed for a little guy that small.
He's dead, I thought. Surely he's dead. But I looked closer. Bent on my knees and there he was. Gripping for dear life by his back feet to the stalk of a stubborn wild violet.
Never have I been so impressed by such a small creature!
I wonder if we grab the opportunities we hurtle past with such incredulous faith?
When my daughter was one year old, my husband and I went to live in Nepal. We had gone to support the work of a local health and development organisation and ended up living in the city of Pokhara, west of Kathmandu, for five years. We were there in a challenging, yet important period of time for Nepal as they experienced the end of the civil war and their revolution. We had arrived in the Kingdom of Nepal and left the Republic of Nepal. It was a privilege to have been there at that time.
I have many, many treasured memories of our years in Nepal and made some life long friends. You cannot live in a place like Nepal without being changed by it, without it lodging in your heart. And for myself as a writer, it obviously had an impact on what I wrote.
This my first post for the new website.
And a big welcome to you.
I'm glad to have you along and to share some of my writing adventures as I launch my new site, under my new author name, in preparation for some new books due out soon.
But, a new author name? you ask. Well yes. Let me give you a little bit more info.