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A story lost and found

A story lost and found

Growing up, I knew my grandpa wasn’t my real grandfather. It didn’t matter – I still loved him very much. All I knew about my mother’s father was a phrase, tired and worn from much repetition. ‘Your grandfather died on a Japanese boat that was bombed by the Americans during the Second World War.’ It meant nothing to me, and neither did he. Behind those words lay a story lost to time.

Then two years ago my sister happened to mention that during WWII my grandmother was evacuated from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, a few days before Christmas. She was over eight months pregnant and had to leave her husband behind. Invasion of Rabaul by the Japanese was thought to be imminent. When I was in my 20s, I travelled to America and made a dear friend there. One of those friends you feel a soul connection with. When I had to say goodbye to her, knowing there was a possibility I might never see her again, it was one of the most painful events of my life. I think that’s why my sister’s off-the-cuff comment hit me so hard. Imagine being close to giving birth and having to say goodbye to your husband, not knowing what the future held.

Where to begin?

So I began researching their story. My sister and I had my grandma’s memoirs, so I knew what her life had been like in Rabaul, but she wrote surprisingly little about Wilf Pearce, my grandfather. We knew this was because she had been traumatised by the events of those war years. She hadn’t spoken about Wilf in later years at all. But the more I started searching for information about him, the more I wanted to know.

Fortunately, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru is a well-documented event from the war in the Pacific. The Japanese war ship had 1053 prisoners of war on board, and was making its way to Japan, when an American torpedo fired at it on 1st July 1942. A small number of the crew escaped. Everyone else perished. They were mostly Australian, both soldiers and civilians. My grandfather would never make it home to see his new daughter, my mother, born days after Grandma arrived back in Australia.

The Montevideo Maru

I was able to start by reading several books about the Japanese invasion of Rabaul. These gave me an understanding of the war, the known events, and the key players involved. My grandfather was even mentioned in passing a few times, as the accountant or business manager of the Methodist Mission. One book (by Margaret Reeson) told the stories of the evacuated wives, and was based on a series of interviews with the women of the Mission. My grandmother had refused to be interviewed, so she was a secondary character, but at least I had a picture of the key events.

A story lost – a life unknown

I wanted to know more though. I wanted to understand what my grandparents had lived through. And I wanted to know more about Wilf. History always tells us about the major players in events, but it is so easy for others to fade into the background. Their stories disappear in the river of time, drawn unceasingly into the past (to quote The Great Gatsby).

Wilf Pearce (my grandfather) and Eileen Brabin (my grandmother) on their wedding day

Fortunately, Wilf had written articles about his life and work in Rabaul. My sister tracked these down through The Methodist Review, and I was able to hear my grandfather’s voice. He was clearly intelligent, dedicated to his work and the people of Rabaul, and with a great sense of humour. Then I came across other accounts that told me more about him. It turned out the Indigenous people of Rabaul had a special name for him, Kuskus. Other ministers were given the title Talatala, meaning teacher. Wilf’s name meant ‘father’. And whenever he was mentioned in accounts from the time, it was clear he was held in very high regard.

A startling discovery

As anyone doing family history research might tell you, it’s possible to start feeling like a detective. Which can be amazing when you make a discovery that changes how you understand things. I made two discoveries. When the Japanese invaded, most Australians were clustered together at a place on the edge of town called Refuge Gully. We assumed that’s where Wilf was. But then I came across a book by one of the ministers from the Methodist Mission. He had left Rabaul before the invasion, and came back afterwards. On his return, the Tolai (the Indigenous group of the area) told him they had seen Wilf leaving town on the day of the invasion with Harold Page, the town administrator.

Since Harold Page was one of the key players in the events of the time, his movements were well documented. This meant I was able to pinpoint exactly what Wilf was doing the day the Japanese landed in Rabaul, rather than making assumptions. (The second discovery is a story for another time.)

Remembering the lost

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. There will be a commemorative service and dinner in Canberra on the day of the sinking, 1st July. For my sister and I, attending this will be an important way of remembering and honouring our grandfather. Through my research, I’ve come to feel close to him. His is no longer a story lost to time. I’ve come to understand what he was like, how others saw him, how dedicated he was to his work and the people of Rabaul, and the tragedy of the end of his life. His death echoed through our family, even though I never understood why. I wish I had known him.

The Winter Dress: A Review

The Winter Dress: A Review

In 2014, on the island of Texel, North Holland, an incredible discovery was made. Local divers recovered artefacts lost centuries before in one of Texel’s many storms. Among them was a well-preserved silk dress. Dating back to the 17th Century, it is considered one of the most significant textile finds ever. For Lauren Chater, author of The Winter Dress, it was also the inspiration for a moving, beautiful story about the unstoried gaps in history.

The Winter Dress, by Lauren Chater

The Winter Dress is a dual timeline story. Dr Jo Baaker is a textile historian who lives in present-day Sydney. She has spent her life running from the pain of her past, including the loss of her parents. When an old friend asks her to return to Texel, the place of her youth, to examine a unique dive discovery, the lure of a strange, shimmering silk dress is strong enough for her to turn and face events she left behind.

In 1651, Anna Tesseltje’s journey begins in Amsterdam. Impelled by her own tragic loss, she travels to the Hague, where she begins a new life as companion to the famous artist Catherina van Shurman. All she takes with her is a valuable gold silk dress that belonged to her mother. The past haunts Anna too: she believes she has been cursed since birth to bring tragedy to those who love her.

As Jo seeks to unlock the secrets of the winter dress, Anna’s story unfolds in parallel. Both women find themselves in a new place, developing new relationships. Each faces an uncertain future and secrets held by others that might impact their lives in overwhelming ways. Like the faded pattern of the winter dress, Anna’s story emerges through Jo’s search. Unexpected clues offer potential truths as the dress, and the past, are exposed to the light of the present.

Lauren Chater has an intelligent, lyrical writing style. Some phrases are so beautiful they make me catch my breath. Chater weaves the two strands of story together impeccably. The story beautifully explores the inevitability of fate and the way we are shaped by our past. At the same time, unexpected twists and conflicts make this an intriguing read.

As someone who loves to wander antique stores, imagining the past stories of the items there, and the lives they were once part of, I loved the central premise: how much of the past can we really know from one object? Incredibly, the winter dress at the heart of this story will be placed on permanent display in Texel in 2022. There is a picture of it in this linked article, but the theories about its origins in the article have since been disproven. If you are interested in history, particularly fashion history, The Winter Dress will take you on an adventure and settle into your heart with its beauty and emotional depth.

2022 – My No-Spend Year

2022 – My No-Spend Year

Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels

This year I’ve started a no-spend year. To tell you why, I have to go back in time. In 2013 I completed my PhD. I looked at the way we talk and think about the earth in fiction. My key idea was that if we moved to a biophilic orientation we might take more action related to climate change. Biophilia means loving the earth as something we are part of rather than seeing it as a dead resource, or as a vengeful entity to fear.

My PhD was absolutely torn apart by one of my examiners, who declared my ideas naiive. As a result, I gave up any idea of putting the PhD, or its accompanying novel, out into the world. I put less effort into sustainability practices at home because after all, what difference would it make? I felt a lot of despair. Maybe he was right when he said stories can’t make a difference to the way people think and individuals can’t make a difference with climate change.

But in my heart I knew that was wrong. Fiction had been the cause of my own awakening to the issues of climate change. The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk reads as a documentary nowadays, with its talk of water wars, facist government in the US and eco-communities trying to carve out a different way of living. When I first read it, it was terrifying, instantly taking me to a new level of awareness.

Part of my autism profile is that I have always taken what people say to me as gospel truth. It’s hard for me to discern lies or to imagine that people say things because they have hidden agendas. So it took me a while to reject the ego-driven rubbish feedback of that male examiner, but I am reclaiming my climate concerns this year. Discussing my autism diagnosis publicly has definitely made a difference to others, leading some to discover their own neurodiversity. So I’m not going to hide my ideas away any more.

Climate Change and Consumerism

Photo by Leonid Danilov from Pexels

The issues around climate change are many, and I can’t cover them adequately in a short blog post. There are a lot of deeply vested interests who have spent a lot of time muddying the waters to make discussion of climate issues seem very complex. But one of the key drivers of climate change since industrialisation began is consumerism. There is a great video, The Story of Stuff, which sets out some of the issues very clearly. You can also look up Ted talks or George Monbiot on climate change and consumerism. The correlation is clear. We are destroying the planet for the sake of stuff we don’t need.

‘Supporting the economy’ by buying stuff is also framed as our moral duty, but in reality it’s a hamster wheel that helps the wealthiest 1% to accumulate more and more of the world’s resources. We are on this endless cycle of earning money to buy things in order for shareholders to make profits. But the basic assumption that we need to keep ‘growing the economy’ is fatally flawed, and also not the only way. (See Affluenza, by Clive Hamilton for a great takedown of this.) I don’t really want to support that system. And as someone with ongoing health issues, I also value time more than things.

No-Spend Solution

What all this means for me is that I’ve decided to have a no-spend year. I’ve never been a big shopper, but I do have a weakness for shiny things. The last 2 years have seen reduced opportunities to wander around shops, but online shopping is definitely a temptation. But if there’s one thing Covid has shown, it’s that life is unpredictable, and I’d rather spend my time as a creator than a consumer. And I really don’t need more stuff. I’m pretty happy with the ‘stuffness’ (or lack thereof) of our house. So… basically, there’s a bunch of reasons to do this. Less contribution to environmental destruction, getting off the hamster wheel, and more time for creating.

I tried to do a no-spend year last year, but after about a month I caved in. Buying shiny things was something of a consolation for the nightmare of lockdowns. But this year I’ve got my intentions straight – I’m not doing this to take something away from my life, but to add something to it.

I’m going to be blogging about it for accountability. To start with, I’ve decided to think in terms of having a no-spend day, each day. It’s easier to get through a day than a year. Next, I’ve set myself some rules for what I can buy. Since this is my personal choice, not my family’s, it relates to my spending. I’ll continue to buy groceries, essential toiletries, and necessary things for the household. My personal rules for what I can buy include:

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu from Pexels
  1. urgent clothing purchases (eg socks and underwear – things that have worn out). I buy most of my clothing secondhand anyway, and I’m definitely no fashion horse, so I generally don’t contribute to the nightmare that is fast fashion. But I have plenty of clothing, and stacks of fabric to make new stuff so if I really need something, I’ll try to make it.
  2. gifts. This one’s pretty self-evident. Although I think we should take the stigma away from regifting – if we have something we don’t want, and someone else loves it, why not regift?
  3. coffee or a meal out with friends or for sanity. It’s rare to go out in the middle of a pandemic, but community is important so having the option to share a meal or coffee matters. And sometimes I have to change up my writing space to freshen up my brain/creativity, so going out for a coffee is a mental health strategy.
  4. craft supplies that have run out. I enjoy crafting in my downtime, and I’m building a miniature mansion as a way to restart my creativity. I’ve got a pretty excellent stash of craft supplies, but occasionally I might run out of a particular paint or need more glue. So I’m allowing myself to replace these as needed.
  5. this is probably my most dubious ‘exception’ but I’d kick myself for not allowing it. If (and it’s a big if) we get a chance to travel this year, I’m giving myself the option of buying one or two small, one-of-a-kind souvenirs, preferably that support local artisans. The chances of this happening are pretty unlikely.

Alright, the reasons why are sorted, the rules are in place. Bring on the no-spend year!

Stranded Australians – History is repeating

Stranded Australians – History is repeating

As the pandemic continues to disrupt lives, there are many Australians overseas who are trying to return home. Barriers include skyrocketing travel costs, and caps placed on hotel quarantine that limit the number of people allowed into the country. There are regular media stories about stranded Australians in Covid hotspots. The situation is completely terrible for those who are experiencing it, but it is not unique. One of the articles I read quoted an ex-pat as saying the government wouldn’t leave Australians stranded in times of war. But the truth is, they did.

The Malay Barrier

Exactly eighty years ago, in 1941, a garrison of Australian soldiers arrived in Rabaul, New Britain. Known as Lark Force, they formed part of the Malay Barrier. This was a strategy by the Australian government to deter Japan from invading Australia. However, Lark Force and their counterpart garrisons in other countries only had old, damaged equipment. They, along with the government, knew they would be able to provide little resistance in real conflict. It soon became increasingly apparent Japan was planning to invade Rabaul as a stepping stone towards conquering Australia. Given how under-resourced they were, the Australian garrison expected evacuation would occur. They were not the only ones.

Rabaul had a thriving ex-pat Australian community at the time. Since New Britain was an Australian Mandated Territory, many missionaries, plantation managers and public servants lived and worked there. Most Australians in Rabaul did not consider Japan a credible threat. They greatly underestimated their technological and fighting capabilities. So when it was suggested in June 1941 that the women and children evacuate voluntarily, few did so. Not only did they not take the risks seriously, but the Australian government were also refusing to fund the evacuation.

Requests for Evacuation

However, by Christmas that year, it was clear the invasion of Rabaul was imminent. The Australian government finally ordered (and paid for) the evacuation of all Australian women and children. They told the male civilians to remain where they were. By this point, the civilian administration had largely moved to Lae, in Papua New Guinea. The acting administrator in Rabaul was Harold Page. His brother Earle had been a caretaker Prime Minister before Curtin took the top job. Earle was now part of the British War Council, and confidently told the Council the Australian government would ‘never stand our men being deserted’. The truth was rather different – the government had decided not to evacuate Lark Force. In fact, by considering them ‘hostages to fortune’, they were consciously abandoning them to their fate.

‘…it is considered better to maintain
Rabaul only as an advanced air
operational base, its present small
garrison being regarded as hostages to

Secret Cable from Prime Minister’s Department to Washington, 12 December 1941.

Meanwhile, his brother was sending urgent telegrams to the Australian War Council in Melbourne, requesting evacuation of the Australian civilians. At first Harold Page’s numerous requests were rebuffed. This was despite the availability of a boat that could have taken all 200 Australian civilians. In fact, the government ordered the boat to keep loading its cargo of copra instead of taking the stranded Australians. (Copra, from coconuts, was a key component in munitions production.) Page persisted with demands for evacuation. Finally, in late January 1942 Australia asked for numbers of Australian civilians. They would ‘consider’ evacuation. By then it was too late – there was no one to receive the message. The Japanese invaded early on the morning of 23rd January. All civilians in Rabaul were taken captive.

Stranded and Captured

Lark Force was also stranded. And when the soldiers asked about the possibility of hiding in the jungle and using guerilla warfare, given overwhelming odds, their commanding officers told them off for defeatist talk. No serious escape plans were made by those in command. Yet the Japanese heavily outnumbered the Australians, and defeat was inevitable. Following the invasion, the lack of cached food and other supplies meant the small number who managed to escape faced serious problems as they fled. Most of Lark Force became Prisoners of War. Some were massacred when they did not immediately surrender.

Politics and Life

In the end, only four of the more than 200 civilians captured by the Japanese were still alive at the end of the war. For Lark Force, the odds were a little better. Aided by the Indigenous people of New Britain and a fleet of civilian boats, some soldiers, and a handful of civilians, made it home eventually. But many more were taken prisoner or massacred. In the end, of 1339 soldiers deployed to New Britain, only 400 survived.

It’s depressing to see that eighty years later little has been learned from the invasion of Rabaul. Lives were lost then because the government was slow to act, and prioritised economic concerns (‘keep loading copra’) over the safety of Australians. Now, while politicians can travel freely to make trade deals, ordinary citizens are stranded and at risk. The time has come to bring them home.

Searching for Charlotte – Review

Searching for Charlotte – Review

The manuscript I’ve just completed writing is historical fiction. I’ve discovered it’s a fascinating genre to write in. I didn’t study history at university, so I didn’t understand how addictive it can be when you start researching the past. For those of us who don’t delve into the dark side of humanity by writing crime fiction, historical research also allows us to tap into our inner detective. You start by learning the facts, then a little clue leads you down a pathway to unexpected reveals. It can be frustrating, challenging, and ultimately exciting. When you uncover something you’ve been hunting for, there is real elation. In writing Searching for Charlotte, beloved Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell clearly went through this array of emotions.

Inside the book

This beautifully presented book charts Kate and Belinda’s emotional and physical journey as they uncover the life story of their ancestor, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the first Australian children’s book author. It is part travelogue, part detective investigation and part historical recounting.

Cleverly structured, the book follows Charlotte Waring’s journey, from England to Australia, and from governess to landowner’s wife to author. Simultaneously, it takes us on Kate and Belinda’s journey to learn the realities of her life. Kate and Belinda alternate writing the different chapters. They discuss their responses to discoveries, as well as describing parallels in their lives during the long process of research. From this angle, the book offers fascinating insights into the work process of two highly regarded authors. It also draws us into their inner worlds, as long-standing family stories come to life or are transformed by uncovered truths. We walk beside them as they become attached to Charlotte and her children.

Charlotte and her personal story

Book cover of 'Searching for Charlotte', with a lit candle and quill pen next to it.
The cover uses one of Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s own floral illustrations

I’ve discovered through my own writing that there’s a strange process of counter-transference that happens when you write historical fiction. Even though you know the events you are writing about happened a long time ago, the people come alive to you in the writing. Dr Diane Murray speaks about this in her PhD thesis, Unreal truths: the lies in every story. Inevitably this is traumatic when you know there are life experiences that had a terrible impact on their life.

Charlotte’s story, though one of resilience and strength, has at its core awful events whose effects rippled across the rest of her life. To write about these must have been incredibly difficult for Kate and Belinda. Escaping from domestic violence, Charlotte had to fight for her children at a time when women had no rights and no voice. She was put down by the men around her, and by the system within which she lived. The book contextualises the position of women at the time, both legally and practically. In doing so, it demonstrates how extraordinary Charlotte’s achievements were, both individually and for Australian women’s rights. Despite living through trauma and facing what must have seemed like impossible bureaucratic walls, Charlotte Waring Atkinson prevailed.

Charlotte’s legacy

In the midst of her extraordinary personal travails, in 1841, Charlotte wrote a children’s book – the first produced by an Australian author in Australia: A Mother’s Offering to her Children. Structured as a dialogue between a mother and her children, it was uniquely Australian in flavour, with detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. The author was not named, and for 140 years her identity was a mystery. Only after significant research did Marcie Muir unveil her as Charlotte in 1980. However, for Kate and Belinda’s family, her identity as the author had never been a secret.

The growing interest in Charlotte did, however, lead to new information coming to light, particularly through Muir’s research. It was through this information that Kate and Belinda made some of their own important discoveries about the true scope of Charlotte’s work. They discuss their theories in the book, and also include examples of Charlotte’s exquisite artwork.

Recovering a remarkable woman

Charlotte Waring Atkinson

Returning to counter-transference, when you are writing about historical figures, you begin to feel you really know and understand your character. Kate and Belinda draw parallels between Charlotte’s life and their own. They use not only their own experiences, but their vast writerly empathy, to reach into the past. They write about Charlotte with love, understanding and deep admiration. Reading this, it is impossible not to admire this woman from so long ago as well – and be glad this book has brought her remarkable story to light once more.

This is a book of depth and insight. It explores the realities of early Colonial Australia, particularly for women, opens the curtain on the writing and research process around historical fiction and offers intriguing and delightful insights into the lives, thoughts of imaginations of Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell. And ultimately, it tells two wonderful stories: of the restoration of an extraordinary woman to her rightful place in Australian history, and of Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s own story of creativity, tragedy, survival and resilience.

Fantasy World Building – A New Approach

Fantasy World Building – A New Approach

As a writer, I’m pretty familiar with building a fantasy world. In the Tarya Series I began with the Italy of the Renaissance, then added my own spin to it in order to build a rich magical place where readers would believe artists could manipulate dreams to create magic. I’m starting on a new kind of world building now though. And I thought I’d take you along with me, if you’d like to come. This time, the world is not just inside my mind…

It all began with a Christmas gift….

I’ve made 2 miniature buildings before now. One was a bakery and the other a coffee shop. Both came with everything you needed to make them, so there wasn’t much room for creating my own fantasy world. I was itching to create something with more scope for me to bring my own vision. So when I found a gothic mansion on Make CNC I purchased the plan.

Since I’m not great with the complexities of IT I asked my husband to organise printing the blueprint, as my Christmas present. This turned out to be complicated because I wanted it to be half the size of the original specifications, so I’m glad an IT geek was handling it! I used a Melbourne company, Knights of Dice, to print everything in 3mm thick MDF. (KoD do all kinds of constructions for table top role playing.)

Even though it had been converted to 1:24 scale rather than 1:12, the box was still pretty big when it arrived. My husband wrapped it and placed it under the Christmas tree. And I promptly failed to notice this giant box was even there! My fantasy world had arrived and I hadn’t noticed.

Eventually I saw the giant box, and I convinced my family to let me unwrap it on Christmas eve instead of Christmas day because I was so excited. I fought my way through the bubble wrap… then the shrink wrap…. and there it was. There were a LOT of pieces.

The first thing I had to do was check all the pieces against the plan to make sure I had everything. I laid them all out on the kitchen table according to their documents and it turned out there were 2 tables’ worth of walls, roofs, embellishments etc.. Some of the pieces were obvious, but others had me bewildered (and still do – hopefully as I build I’ll work it out!) The plan was well colour coded, so once I knew nothing was missing, I used their colour system to separate the pieces into 5 separate groupings (see the image above on the right). Now I could really get started.

I decided to work with one floor at a time, building and doing things like walls and floors. So I put the base together, and started putting the walls of the first floor in place. And quickly found a problem. As soon as I put any pressure on the walls to push them into their slots, the base would cave in, making it hard to get everything to lock together. I figured this would only get worse as I added two more stories. Fortunately there was a LOT of foam padding in the box the pieces came in. So I added foam to the inside of the base to give it support, but sstill a level of flexibility.

As I was doing this I discovered there was a piece missing that should support the front stairs. I checked every box multiple times and could only find one of the two pieces. So I improvised, using offcuts to create two extra treads at that end of the stairs. I like the effect. And I figure, since this is going to be a fantastical house, those smaller steps might be for tinier visitors, such as fae or goblins.

The next piece of prep for my fantasy world was to add a coat of primer to all the pieces I’d be using for the first floor. I figured it would be easier to decorate walls while they were flat, so I established a numbering system so I knew which pieces went where. Then promptly spray-painted over all the numbers. Luckily I had written them down and after I’d done the undercoat I made sure to write the numbers on them again.

Next would be the fun part – working out flooring and wall decorations….

(Clearly this will be an ongoing series of posts. It may take a while to update, depending on when I get a chance to work on the house. There may even be writing posts in the meantime.)

Autism: A message to my younger self

Autism: A message to my younger self

I’ve just received a diagnosis that I’m on the autism spectrum (with some inattentive ADHD thrown in for good measure). When I think about the difficulties I experienced when I was young, I want to go back and give that confused, sad little girl a big hug. Here’s what I might say.

Hey kiddo, I know sometimes things are pretty rough. You think a lot about how you’re not like the other kids. You spend a lot of energy trying to work out what you’re doing wrong, and how you can fix it. Or even worse, trying to understand what’s wrong with you. But here’s the thing. This isn’t about ‘wrong’. It’s just about different.

You see, the majority of people are ‘neurotypical’. Their brains work in a particular way, and because they’re the majority, that way is accepted as normal. Then there are people like you, whose brain works differently. There are a lot less of these ‘neurodiverse’ people. And when a group of people are in the minority, they are often pushed to the outside.

Not everyone is mean…

Some people don’t understand anyone who doesn’t think and act like them, which can sometimes make them act mean. I know you’ve experienced this. You have been labeled ‘bossy’ and ‘boring’, too ‘serious’ or ‘sensitive’. People have said awful things or played tricks on you. But you know what? The only thing ‘wrong’ is that you’re not like them. And you can’t ‘fix’ that. If they don’t accept who you are, that’s actually their problem, not yours.

Image: Hand with rainbow painted on the palm and heart outlined in black. 
Purpose: Accept and love diversity.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

There are people out there who do think like you. When you find them, they will be good friends, because they will understand you – and you will understand them. There are also neurotypical people out there who are not afraid of different. They will appreciate who you are. You will make good friends there too.

Is autism a disability?

The world is not set up for the neurodiverse. This can dis-able you, making it harder to do things. Being out there can be overwhelming. You’ll struggle to find clothes you feel comfortable in. Many places you go to may make you wish you could go straight home because of the pounding music or bright lights or crowds that make it hard to think. And most people think adults shouldn’t wear or be fixated by sparkly things. Which is pretty sad.

Some of your communication skills are different to neurotypical communication. Not everyone wants to talk endlessly about musical theatre or golden era Hollywood. Not everyone has your passion for making the world a fairer place. And a lot of people are fixated on small talk. It’s a thing. This means sometimes conversations don’t work out how you expect. The discussions where you dive deep into topics you care about will be pretty few and far between. And don’t bother joining committees – they will never work for you because you’ll find the lack of logic and over-abundance of self-interest frustrating! (But that’s advice for a long way down the track…)

Or is autism a superpower?

So being neurodiverse can involve difficulties in dealing with the world. But you have a lot to contribute. You care very, very deeply about making the world a better place for outsiders because you understand what it’s like. (Don’t believe anyone who says people with autism don’t have empathy – the problem is you have SO much it can be overwhelming!) You have an amazing imagination. One day you’ll create worlds other people can immerse themselves in. And thinking differently is awesome. It makes you very creative.

So there you go – there’s nothing wrong with you kiddo. Ignore anyone who tries to tell you there is. You’ll find your place in the world, and friends who love and appreciate you for exactly who you are. The world won’t magically be fixed so it’s suitable for neurodiverse people, but you’re smart – you’ll work out ways to deal with it. The most important thing you can do is accept yourself. And one final thing: wear whatever sparkly things you want to wear. The world needs more sparkle.

Image: Outstretched hand with sparkling stars on the palm. 
Purpose: Let yourself sparkle.
Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash
My childhood in books

My childhood in books

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what age my books are suitable for. I usually answer ‘twelve to one hundred and twelve’. Sometimes people follow up with a comment: ‘my daughter reads everything’, ‘he reads well above his age’, ‘she loves books by [adult author]’. And I smile, knowing my books will be going to a good home. Because that’s the sort of reader I was as a kid. One who loved intelligent, complex stories with layers of meaning. So of course those are the books I (hopefully) write.

My Dad was a copywriter and, eventually, a published author. I’ve talked before about how he was my writing inspiration. Words were his job, but also his love. And every Saturday he would take me to the library. And I read A LOT. So I worked my way through many different genres. Here’s a quick tour of my reading journey (in no particular order, because I can’t remember.)

Ghost stories

Cover of book 'The Ghost Belonged to Me'. Image shows a tram approaching a boy in pyjamas whilst a ghostly girl hovers in the sky overhead.

The little tingle of fear when you first see hints of something odd happening in the story… The slow build, waiting to see what form this haunting will take. A good story is like well-seasoned food – there’s not too much of the ghostly: just enough to flavour the atmosphere. And finally, the explanation, the reveal, the sad backstory. I devoured anthologies, I embraced Poe. Anything with a haunting. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghost Belonged to Me‘, by Richard Peck. A lost child, a mysterious (and damp!) dog and the exotic, faraway place of New Orleans. Delicious!

Asterix and Tintin

Cover of Asterix and the Golden Sickle. Asterix is pointing to a sign that says 'Lutece' whilst Obelix is behind him holding a menhir.

I can still picture exactly where these books were in the Hobart library, on a low shelf, near convenient cushioned seats. Being aspie, I couldn’t possibly read them out of order, so I was very inconvenienced if the next one was missing. My solution was to bounce between the pun-filled world of Asterix (the feasts! Dogmatix!) and the exotic, bejewelled adventures of Tintin. If the next Asterix was missing, it was time to read the next Tintin. When my kids were old enough to select their own library books, my eldest did the same thing, so it must be genetic!

Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books

gold fairy tale images embossed on 12 different coloured books
A rainbow of books. Two of my favourite things together.

As with other genres and authors, once I started on the (original!) rainbow fairy books, I couldn’t stop until I’d read them all. There were a lot of familiar fairy tales contained within the various ‘colours’, but also far less well known ones. Tracking them all down was a challenge, but I didn’t stop there – there were so many other fairy tale collections to discover, such as the beautiful, melancholic poetry of H.C. Andersen. At one point I discovered a book of modern fairy tales by a female author, and it still haunts me to this day because all I can remember is that they were marvelous – not the name of the author or the collection. Perhaps one day, with the good fortune of a secret fairy godmother, I will find those lost tales again.

Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl

My introduction to Roald Dahl was not through his children’s books, but through his adult short stories. Seeing how I had read my way through the entire children’s section at the Hobart library, one day my Dad took me to the adult stacks, and showed me these 2 authors. I was instantly hooked by the unexpected twists of their clever tales, and the way both could conjure so many images, ideas and emotions with so few words. I was transported to Mars and Mexico, shown conniving murderesses and deadly scorpions. It is because of these two writers that I began to aspire not just to be an author myself (that, after all was a decision I made at the age of 8) but to want to write well.

Libraries are hubs of magic.
Photo by Ivo Rainha from Pexels

Coincidentally, today I came across this quote from Ursula Le Guin: “To learn to write something well can take a whole lifetime, but it’s worth it.” The journey that began in the Hobart library many years ago is still ongoing. I hope one day I might be able to say I write well. All stories fall short of the dreamscapes in our heads. But reflecting on my childhood, I think my greatest hope is that my books might inspire young, avid readers who read above their age level. Because I am writing my tales for them.

Writing Inspiration: My Dad

Writing Inspiration: My Dad

It’s not every day that a goblin comes to your workplace – and has the same nose as you!

There can be all kinds of reasons why someone makes the fateful decision to become a writer. Or it may be no single thing – rather a number of them. One of the big influences for me was my Dad, Bob Larkins. I am thinking about family a lot at the moment. So let me introduce my Dad and tell you why he was such a key influence on me.

Dad’s London days

Bob Larkins lived a very interesting life. In his younger days he was passionate about acting, starting in repertory theatre in Hobart. He had great vocal versatility, which allowed him to move into voiceover work with 7HO radio. This was to open doors for him when he moved to London in the 1960s.

Timothy Dalton was the second James Bond Dad met. On Radio Caroline he interviewed Roger Moore. (Also seen here, Bill Collins.)

London was a place of great opportunity in those days. Dad took work in the office at the Mermaid Theatre, probably hoping to get into professional acting. However, it led in another direction. Through a friend he got the chance to move to Radio Caroline. This was a pirate radio ship moored in international waters. I love being able to legitimately say my Dad was a pirate!

Years later Dad would admit he fudged the truth to land the job. He told them he had worked as an announcer on 7HO. His job had actually been writing and voicing ads. The first interview he did for Caroline was with Alfred Hitchcock. Having fudged his way into the job, he was peeing himself. But he was passionate about movies, so he loved the chance Caroline gave him to meet big name stars.

Dreams on Hold

Once a family of four kids came along, Dad set aside his acting dreams, but not his love for movies and writing. Before I was born, my parents brought my brothers back to Hobart. Dad worked in copywriting there for many years, but did acting and film production on the side. Somehow, while also raising four kids and working full time, he also managed to write a Western novel. He was never successful in getting it published, but that didn’t stop him writing.

Dad’s love of words found another outlet though. Some of my early memories are of going to the library every week. We could pick out 2 fiction and 2 non-fiction books. I was a precocious reader so by the time I was in about grade 5 he started recommending books to me. Not your usual children’s books. I’d already read all those. No, Dad put me onto writers like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl. It was pretty exciting to sneak in among the adult shelves at the library and pick out grown up books.

Word Games

Dad was thrilled to meet Sir Richard Attenborough, director of Ghandi. Dad met few people whose knowledge of movies paralleled his own, but Sir Richard was one of them and the conversation was very lively.

Dad also taught me that words were fun. After ballet class Dad would meet me and we would catch the bus home. One of our regular pastimes was to play word games as we waited. When he lived in England, Dad got to hear the ‘My Word’ radio quiz show. In the final round regulars Frank Muir and Denis Norden would be given a phrase such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’. They would then spin a long tale to explain the origins of the phrase, but with a twist. For example, ‘Superacalifragilisticexpialidocious’ was explained as a shopping list: ‘soup, a cauli, fridge, elastic, eggs, pea, halitosis’.

Dad and I used to play our own version of this at that bus stop. I remember him telling a tale about a young Egyptian Pharoah who, after many obstacles, finally got to celebrate his birthday: ‘A Foo and his mummy, A Soon, partied’ (a fool and his money are soon parted). No doubt this sort of training is why I love writing filk and playing with words so much now.

Back to His Dreams

Long before IMDB was invented, Dad had an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies. He could tell you who was the gaffer on a 1960s Western, how many academy awards the director had won and all sorts of other obscure facts. For years he worked as a film reviewer for the Mercury (Hobart’s local paper), which meant we got free tickets to the movies all the time. Eventually he channeled this expertise into a book about the actor Chips Rafferty, which found a publisher (Macmillan), in 1986. This opened the door for a move to Sydney and work with Mr Movies himself, Bill Collins, as his researcher.

It was his dream job. Dad got to watch movies, write about movies and meet those involved with movies on a regular basis. Meeting Audrey Hepburn (left) was the highlight of his time at Channel 10. Later he moved to the ABC and undertook the same sort of film-based research work, his last job.

In 1999 Dad passed away from pancreatic cancer. His final writing passion project, a biography of soldier turned actor Audie Murphy, was published posthumously.

My Dad’s legacy to me was a love of words, wordplay, books and reading. He showed me being a published author was a possibility, not just a dream. There are two things that make me very sad though: that I never got to introduce him to his grandchildren, and never got to hand him a copy of Harlequin’s Riddle. It is, after all, dedicated to him.

Resilience and Oleanders

Resilience and Oleanders

Author AJ Collins

Today I’d like to introduce you to AJ Collins, a prize-winning, Melbourne-based fiction author. Previously a devotee of adrenaline sports (including bungee, skydiving, parasailing, sky-walking, sky-jumping, and volcano climbing), AJ is now happy to be settled at home with her hubby and two fur-kids, writing her adventures instead of living them. Perhaps her adventurous past has taught her the importance of resilience, a theme that resonates through her work.

At the beginning of March (which seems like a lifetime ago!) AJ released not one but two mature YA novels. The first, Oleanders are Poisonous, introduces sixteen-year-old Lauren, whose life is turned upside down by a devastating combination of circumstances. In its sequel, Magnolias don’t Die, Lauren has moved on and moved from the country to the city, but her past returns to upend her life again. You can find detailed descriptions and links to buy the books at AJ Collins’ website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

In my era of childhood, I’d say most children were entranced by Enid Blyton. My Grade 3 primary school teacher introduced us to the bright yellow hardback version of The Magic Faraway Tree. I still have my 1971 edition marked 15 pence. It’s a bit crumbly and held together with papery cellotape, which just adds to its character. Nowadays, I’m a huge fan of Hannah Kent’s evocative writings. Although I don’t write historical fiction, I love learning history through story, whereas my high school history teacher used to put me to sleep.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Two reasons: 1. The joy of escapism. 2. Vicarious living. The first, I would apply to the ability of fiction to draw us into another world, encouraging us to temporarily leave behind our own worries or mundane lives. The second, I’d apply to creative non-fiction and its life lessons, allowing us to witness trauma, adventure or resilience from a safe distance.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

Emotional engagement. For my stories to work, I need to feel each character’s pain, joy and growth myself. Then I know I’m being truthful and will move the reader’s soul, leaving them with a sigh of satisfaction at the end.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

The everyperson (formerly known as ‘everyman’). Ordinary, everyday people facing challenges they never dreamed they would encounter. I think most people can see themselves in this role, feeling unequipped to cope until they’re forced to discover their own strength.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Resilience. Overcoming emotional trauma and physical danger. One of my uni tutors once said that authors always write the same story over and over, and I think she was right; I’m always inspired by characters fighting their way through barriers, real or imagined, to discover their true selves.

In these difficult times resilience is something that I’m sure resonates with all of us. Many writers make a living out of appearances, launches and teaching. If you can support writers like AJ Collins and myself, who have had book launches cancelled as a result of the disruptions, please do. And enjoy some great books at the same time!

You can follow AJ on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.