Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

Writing the Time of COVID-19

When I’m immersed in writing a book, I tend to utilise the wee, dark hours when there’s little chance of being disturbed or taken out of the world I am creating. I may change screens to research a quick fact, or display images that evoke a mood or scene I am writing, but I try to avoid anything that may cause a crack in my fictional universe and send real life flooding in.

This is why I do my best work before 6.30am. Children have the tendency to bring reality crashing down, and there’s nothing more damaging to crafting the fine fabric of a delicate sentence than squabbles over whose turn it is to feed the dog.

I write historical fiction and I love nothing more than diving into a period of time and discovering what life might have been like for my protagonists, from their clothing, the transport system, the food they ate to major events happening in the world around them. My books are always based here in Perth, which means it’s never far to go and visit the locations where my stories are set.

Fortunately, many of Perth’s beautiful old buildings still exist, and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to go and be physically present in the space where their story is taking place, even if the story and the writing of it are separated by decades or even a century.

My most recent manuscript, Letting Go is probably the most complicated story I have ever written. It consists of six main characters whose lives are interwoven and who are all implicated in a shocking event. It’s also written in the present, which is a first for me, because I love the concrete detail of history.

If I write about heeled housewives, black and white television, the Australian Dream, Korean War and the appearance of new electrical appliances into the home you immediately know I am talking about the 1950s. The lived experience of the time would be different for all, but there are major signposts which identify it as a specific historical period.

But for everyone who is currently living in the time of COVID-19, you will recognise that this will soon become a neatly packaged historical era in its own right, with its own terminology, apparel, social norms and dramatic world events.

The chance to write about history as it is currently taking place is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am embracing with both hands. Yet unlike working on other books where the ping of a microwave might pull me out of pre-WW1 Perth or the hiss of an electric train rouses me from the 1970s, there are no noises (other than squabbling children) that can disrupt me from writing about the present.

On the contrary, even the sounds that I am hearing (more sirens but less traffic) will one day become a marker for this unique time. So with my windows thrown open wide, I am listening to the world as I write it, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

The First Lines of Australian Novels Rewritten for COVID-19

I admit this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a very good idea. First someone decided to rewrite the first lines of ten classic novels for social distancing. I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the opening lines from 25 of my favourite Australian novels for the Time of COVID-19. Apologies to all concerned.

 

Invisible Boys – Holden Sheppard

There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town, but you can’t go either way until the regional travel bans are lifted.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. I’m really loving social isolation! But then again, I am an introvert.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft. It was all she could do to say hello from 1.5 metres away.

All That Is Lost Between Us – Sara Foster

It was only a memory now. Going to the gym and having a coffee afterwards with friends in the café.

The Sound – Sarah Drummond

My name is Wiremu Heke. But my Zoom name is Billhook.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Working from home was awesome. He could sleep till midday because no one knew when he started work.

You Belong Here – Laurie Steed

Jen sat sketching flowers on the footpath, the chalk worn down to a nub. She took a photo and quickly uploaded it to Facebook, hashtagging it #RainbowTrailAustralia.

The Sisters Song – Louise Allen

My memories of my father are scant and faded, and I only have two photos of him. His aged care home forbids visitors and it’s been too long since I’ve seen him.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine. They call me COVID-19 and I am but a wee virus.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to her cat Marie Antoinette. ‘All non-essential events over 100 people have been cancelled!’

Trip of a Lifetime – Liz Byrski

Later, even when she’d had time to think about it, she still couldn’t remember anything unusual about the evening; UberEats on the couch, a bottle of wine and Netflix. The same thing every night for the past six weeks.

Let Her Go – Dawn Barker

Zoe turned to look out to sea. She was glad they hadn’t closed the beaches in Perth. Take that, Bondi!

The Good Turn – Dervla McTiernan

The waiting room was ugly and neglected. It had been cleaned recently – the overpowering smell of disinfectant was testament to that. ‘Have you been overseas in the past 14 days or had close contact with a confirmed case of corona virus?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m just here for a pap smear.’

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

I’m flying down the Hume Highway at 130 kilometres an hour. Since everyone’s been told to stay home and isolate, there’s no one on the roads.

Postcards from Surfers – Helen Garner

We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Our flights have been cancelled and I’m mad as hell. I’d better get a full refund.

They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? That’s what you asked yourself when you first picked up this book, wasn’t it? Well he’s the guy who started Bin Isolation Outing.

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston (Ch 2)

Raymond. That was his name and he emerged from the mire with two small suitcases stuffed to the hinges with items hastily chosen; now he had two weeks compulsory quarantine in a city hotel at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones came to my window. Ever since we had to close the restaurant, drive-through has been going off!

Searching for the Secret River – Kate Grenville

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. During the lockdown you can’t get a drink any day of the week, and travellers, well – we hate ‘em.

The Shadow Years – Hannah Richell

It is the smallest details that come to her; the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. She’d spent more time in her backyard during the last month of lockdown than she had in the previous year.

Beautiful, Messy Love – Tess Woods

It’s funny what you remember about the biggest moment in your life. But I think in a year or two, we all will have forgotten the lessons we learned during COVID-19.

Fractured – Dawn Barker

Tony’s footsteps echoed as he hurried across the underground carpark and into the lift. He saw the look of alarm on the old woman’s face. Tony removed his face mask. ‘I’m not sick,’ he said, but she had already stepped out of the lift.

An Indecent Obsession – Colleen McCullough

The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the large cruise ship, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. An armed guard for the off-duty crew of a cruise ship? Were they going to sing and dance their way to escape?

If I Should Lose You – Natasha Lester

Patient care: stethoscope whispers, the lubdub or footsteps, but no huddles of family. Corona victims must die alone.

Sister Madly Deeply [Well Behaved Women] – Emily Paull

As I bring the clippers toward the soft dome of my head, all I can think about is how much I do not want to do this. But I am so bored in isolation and everyone else on Tik Tok is making videos of cutting themselves a fringe, so I’m going to do one too.

 

What other Aussie novels can you re-write the first line for?

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

It’s a Small World

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Many iconic locations form the backdrop of the book. How many do you remember?

Growing up in the 1980s, a visit to It’s A Small World in West Perth was always the highlight of my school holidays. I can’t say how many times we visited the Lilliputian world of magic, but the thought of it still brings a smile to my face: a six-foot tall dolls house with over 50 intricately decorated rooms and working lights, the fairy tale scenes the moving trains, the giant concrete frog out the front that greeted you on approach and didn’t always seem to stick to the script.

My memories are of stairs going in all directions, Hogwarts-style, rooms with creaking floorboards crammed with tiny treasures, many behind glass or just tantalisingly out of reach. There were buttons everywhere, to turn on lights or music, to make things move. There seemed to be something new and different every time we visited.

Reaching the shop where you could buy so many of the tiny pieces of furniture and miniaturised groceries and food, was a mixed blessing. You might be lucky to walk out with some tiny new gift to take home, but it also meant your adventure was almost over.

It’s a Small World opened in 1978 and operated for more than two decades, before closing in 2000. During that time, owner Shirley Putnin, who made most of the miniatures herself, saw her diminutive utopia grow from a single room to eventually taking over the entire sprawling house, which is how I remember it.

Increasing rents drove her from West Perth, but Shirley’s retirement was short-lived, and soon after opened a shop called Miniature World in Kardinya, which apparently is still open. I hope to visit soon with my daughters.

What is your favourite memory of It’s a Small World?

It's a Small World dollhouse image from Kate Hedley Firfax media https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/remember-it-s-a-small-world-west-perth-its-mastermind-is-still-making-memories-20190410-p51cz5.html

One of the 56 rooms from the It’s A Small World dollhouse. Image used with permission, credit Kate Hedley, Fairfax Media

 

The History of Daylight Saving in WA

I recently finished the first draft of a book set in Perth which spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s. Researching this time frame has brought back many memories – how many do you share?

For anyone who believes daylight saving was invented in the 1980s just to torture children, you may be surprised to learn that the concept of turning the clocks forward to extend the hours of daylight into the evening was first introduced uniformly across Australia during the first World War (1917).

It was used again across the nation during WW2 (1942-1944) but from the 1970s onwards, states have had free reign to decide.

Looking back on my childhood, with the dubious blinkers provided by decades of distance, I thought daylight saving was a constant. I have strong memories of being sent to bed in what seemed like full sunlight, my roller blind always jamming a few inches above ground level, the bright orange sunset bleeding around the edges of my curtains. If you had pressed me, I would have said that we had daylight saving every summer of my childhood during the 1980s, so strong are the memories of fighting with my parents about the unfairness of being sent to bed while the sun was still up.

Naturally, I’d be wrong.

During the research for my book, which is set in Perth during the 1960s to 1980s, I discovered that Western Australia only had daylight saving for two years of my childhood: 1983-84 (when I was six) and 1991-92 (when I was fourteen). There was an enforced trial for three consecutive years from 2006-2009, but by then I had grown up and my bedtime was no longer dictated to me by my mother, but by my newborn daughter.

Perhaps the reason daylight saving is so strong in my memory, although in reality it only directly affected me twice, was because it was constantly being debated in the press and around kitchen tables across the state.

Western Australia has held no less than four referendums on the issue of daylight saving, in 1975, 1984, 1992 and 2009. (As a side note, the only other state referendums carried out by Western Australia were in 1933 which was about seceding from the Commonwealth of Australia, and two separate referendums in 2005 about retail trading hours1.)

The first three referendums were held following a single year trial of daylight saving, and each time the voters returned a vote of ‘no’. Unconvinced West Aussies didn’t want daylight saving, the government then enforced a three year trial from 2006-2009 followed by the fourth and final referendum, which returned the highest ‘no’ vote of all.

The final vote was 54.6% no, 45.3% yes. Interestingly, it showed many of the people living in the coastal and inner suburbs of Perth supported daylight saving, but this was overshadowed by the overwhelming rejection of daylight saving by people living in the eastern suburbs as well as rural and regional areas.

It was decided by the Premier at the time, that the issue would not be raised again for another twenty years2.

sunset-2418090_1280

Sunset over Elizabeth Quay, which actually didn’t exist when I was a child

But even if Western Australia does not participate in daylight saving itself, we are still affected by it every year the Eastern States takes part. Daylight saving in the East increases the time difference between Perth and Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to three hours – sufficient to make it challenging for businesses, confusing when you need to call friends and family, and enough of a difference to wreck your sleep when you travel interstate.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that daylight saving formed a major part of my childhood, a brief straw polls among friends also showed many thought battling with parents about bedtime was a fixture growing up.

Turns out we were just being annoying kids, fighting with parents for the sake of it, and daylight saving had nothing to do with it.

 

Further reading: A recent National Geographic article looking at Daylight Saving in the US and its history around the globe.

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_in_Australia#State_and_territory_referendums
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20090521204833/http://www.thewest.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=77&ContentID=142031
Perth Modern School

What’s In a Name? The history of Perth Normal School and Perth Modern

It’s amazing the things you can learn from unexpected places and people. Writers always need to be ready for their next inspiration, because you never know when it will happen.

In 2019 I was shopping for tea-towels – not something I do regularly – and started chatting to the lady behind the counter. The tea-towels were gifts for my daughters’ teachers, and so the conversation moved from teachers to schools, and then we then got to chatting about a school she worked at in New Zealand. She mentioned the name of the school – Papakura Normal School.

I had heard this term before – in researching my novel I had come across Perth Normal School, which was in operation around the turn of the 20th Century. I had always noted the unusual name, but hadn’t investigated any further.

The woman explained that in New Zealand a ‘Normal’ school is one closely linked with the teacher training colleges, and while an average state school might have one or two trainee teachers, the Normal Schools, of which there are more than twenty in New Zealand, are considered the primary training grounds, and where most of the trainee teachers are based.

We laughed about this; if these were the ‘normal’ schools, then by default, all other schools were ‘abnormal,’ but then she mentioned that the name actually came from a French word.

I came home (with my bag of tea-towels) and went straight into research mode.

The concept of Normal Schools actually come from the French idea of ‘ecole normale’ (literally school normal) which was to establish specific schools in which the best practice of teaching was ‘normalised’ for student teachers. They have been around since the 16th century and you can find Normal Schools in the US and Canada, across Europe and also in Australia and New Zealand, including Perth Normal School at the turn of the 20th century.

There isn’t a lot of information about Perth Normal School, but that’s probably because it only existed for four years, from 1907 to 1910. It provides a two year high school program specifically designed for students wishing to train as teachers. If their grades were sufficient, they could then proceed to the Claremont Training College which was the tertiary training facility for teachers from 1902 to 1981.

Prior to 1907,  the pathway to becoming a teacher was a little more patchy. Students would first become a ‘monitor’ with classes at both Fremantle Princess May and Perth Technical School.

A monitor was typically aged between 14 and 18 years who had reached the maximum of education afforded by their own school, and was basically a system where the older and more experienced students helped the younger students. This was a paid role and the annual salary depended upon which examination the student had passed. In 1906 a male monitor who had passed the Junior Certificate would be paid £30, and a female would get £20. If they had passed the Senior Certificate, they would get £56/£40.

By 1904 the monitor classes had been combined at Queen’s Hall in Perth, and then in 1906 moved into new buildings in James Street under the name Perth Central School for Monitors. Finally, in 1907 the school was restructured and renamed Perth Normal School. This formalised and centralised the process, and while it was generally agreed it would lead to better qualified monitors and teachers, there were also those who believed it would dissuade students from outside Perth (in particular from the Goldfields) from pursuing a career as a monitor/teacher, as it required them to move to Perth for the two year program for very little allowance.

If, after the two year program a student’s grade were not sufficient to earn them a place at the Training College, they could stay on as monitors. Their annual salary would increase with experience, although females would always earn approximately 70% of the male salary. To put it in perspective though, a (male) monitor in 1909 could expect to earn only £50 where a (male) student who had passed the teachers B Certificate, would earn £150.

Perth Normal School was closed after only four years at the end of 1910, and unlike many other countries where older schools still retain the term ‘Normal’ in their title to show the historical significance of the role they played in teacher training, most traces of the Perth institution has long disappeared.

What I only learned recently, and thanks to the detective efforts of the ‘Ask A Librarian Service’ at the State Library, was that Perth Normal School and its entire student body of 200 students was simply re-opened in 1911 as a much more well-known educational institution: Perth Modern School, although at the time it was simply called Modern School.

Today ‘Mod’ is known as one of Western Australia’s best public high schools, fully selective and catering only to students who pass strict academic entrance exams. It has produced Rhodes Scholars, Prime Ministers, Governors and more.

When it opened more than a century ago, with its 200 students, there were only eight other high schools in Perth and all were single-sex (five for boys, three for girls). The ‘modern’ philosophy that the school took its name from was two-fold.

First, it was considered the first public co-educational high school in the state accommodating both male and female students*. Second, it would not allow any authoritative corporal punishment that was both common and expected in schools at the time. This very modern school, would instead expect students to manage themselves with self-discipline, not by teachers administering the cane and paddle. At the time, Mod was ground-breaking in its attitude to learning, a truly modern establishment.

Over time the focus on teacher training lessened, to the point today where it is an almost forgotten and unknown aspect of the school’s long history.

It goes to show that the unusual names we hear on a daily basis, often have a deep historical basis that have become forgotten over time, and it’s just those chance conversations, in random places that shed enlightenment.

Where have you found your most unexpected inspiration?

*Although Perth Normal School during its brief tenure was also co-educational.

 

A Whoop In The Dark

The year was 1994. The Wollemi fossil pine had been discovered, Australia experienced its first political assassination and the country had just moved to the eight digit telephone number.

It was the year I attended my first – and last – music concert.

Me, taken a few months later

Me, taken a few months later

For a girl who had a fear of large crowds and insufficient public toilet facilities, music festivals were never my thing. I preferred to listen to my music alone in the darkness of my room, incense burning, teenage angst keeping my parents at bay.

But in December of that year, the lure of seeing Tori Amos live in concert proved irresistible. Luckily for me, she shunned the cavernous and concrete Entertainment Centre and the portaloo parklands of the Showgrounds, and instead,
I found myself on the primly upholstered, blood red velvet chairs of the Perth Concert Hall.

From the opening chords of her debut album Little Earthquakes in 1992, a cassette that had cost me almost a fortnight’s pocket money, I had fallen in love with this cherubic faced, red-haired, foul-mouthed, passionate and sexy woman. I had kissed boys to her music. I had kissed girls to her music. She was in my head as I finished high school, and later, as I met the boy who would become my husband.

The Perth Concert Hall, by its very nature, does not support a rowdy audience. There is no room for dancing, no hope of a mosh pit. The very poshness of the velvet ensures you stay seated for the performance, restrained, undemonstrative. This concert was about Tori, it was not about us.

That is, except for one brief moment, when the entire audience’s attention was dragged – reluctantly – from the mesmerising twisted stance she took as she played the piano, the only prop on stage. As she sang ‘Me and a Gun’ a song about being raped, the line ‘so I wore a slinky red thing, does that mean I should spread…’ was still hanging in the air when a solitary male voice whooped in the dark.

A collective breath was drawn, and in that moment, the utter absurdity of this ignorant male, brought shame to our faces. We knew what happened in the next few lines of the song. We knew she was not offering herself to this man, or any man. We knew that she was crying out that just because a woman dresses sexily does not mean she is asking for sex. Her provocative pose, open-legged, which some would later describe as stimulating masturbation was not a come-on, it was a challenge to men, men like the misinformed moron in the back row.

But Tori did not flinch. She continued the set and we remained in our seats.

That moment has stayed with me for almost twenty years. We were all so passive in our reaction. The entire audience. What must have Tori felt at that moment, a thousand people unreactive to a sexist blunderhead mocking her most traumatic moment.

He was probably someone’s boyfriend, dragged along, not a fan. Almost certainly he did not know the context of the song. Did the stiffness of the chairs constrain us? Did the formality of the room prevent us from a more vocal and passionate response? If we had been in a loud, grungy pub would we have turned en masse and jeered him?

We’ll never know.

I’m sorry Tori.