Many strings to my bow

A few months ago during the Q&A session of one of my library talks, I mentioned that I had a day job. One of the attendees promptly asked me whether, in that case, my novel writing was just a hobby.

I have to say, the comment stung a little. I replied that, no, it was not a hobby. That in fact many Australian writers could not afford to write full time and therefore had day jobs as well as writing novels and short stories. Some are lawyers, academics or office workers. We squeeze in our fiction writing around our jobs and families. We get paid, even if it’s not always a lot of money. For every writer who also has a day job, writing is not ‘just a hobby’.

The fact is, my day job is part of my work as a writer. I’m very lucky that I get to be a writer for my living as well as my vocation. I generally contract my skills out these days, so I have done all kinds of writing: external communications, advertising copy, editing of content for the web, report writing, copyediting.

At present I edit training materials for grammar, punctuation and style. It may sound dull to some of you, but i’m getting paid to be pernickety about grammar, so I enjoy it. I learn a lot too, so it is helping me becoming a better writer in other fields.

Those other fields include writing content for iPhone apps. My app, Melbourne Literary, was done in partnership with the US tech company Sutro Media. They provided the platform (the content management system, basically).  I pitched the idea of the app to them and then wrote everything and sourced all the pictures. I’ve pitched another app idea since then and am in the process of writing that one too.  We share the profits of the apps sold through iTunes (and hopefully one day soon through Android). So that’s another little bit of income from my writing.

I have my fiction writing, too. So far I’ve had four novels published, one short fiction story and one non-fiction essay. I wrote a one act play once, and was paid a royalty by the little theatre that performed it in WA a few years ago.

Another writing-related activity I do is public speaking. I talk to libraries and organisations (and very occasionally schools) about different aspects of writing and reading. Of course, being a writer, pretty much everything I do counts as research. Travel, theatre, reading, shopping. It’s a good life.

There are so many things to being a writer, especially these days, when diversifying your skills is so important. All writers, these days, also need to be marketers, PR people, public speakers, educators, mentors and more.

I consider myself so lucky to be a professional writer in so many parts of my life. I pay the bills, I nourish my creative self and I have opportunities to meet and encourage other writers and readers. And every different type of writing (or speaking about writing) that I do adds to my knowledge and skills, and makes me a better writer.

Really, I have the best life!

(But I confess, if no-one paid me to write, I’d write anyway.)

F2M: the boy within – The book that scared libraries

Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

In mid-2010, I reviewed a fabulous book by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy called F2M: the boy within. It’s a warm, moving coming of age story about transgendered Skye who is becoming his true self, Finn. Co-author Ryan himself transitioned from female to male in his 20s. He brought that experience and courage to the collaboration with his long-time friend and respected children’s author, Hazel Edwards. Together they have produced a work that is both an excellent story and an important insight into what life for transgendered people and their family and friends. F2M: the boy within is also about friendship, punk rock, secrets and truth.

Bloggers wrote about it, and psychologists and gender counsellors have picked it up. In talking about the reaction to the book, Edwards and Kennedy noted “We assumed that YA librarians would welcome the fictional opportunity to encourage ‘distanced’ discussion of gender, including gay issues although our Skye-Finn was not gay. Suicide occurs in trans communities, and maybe we could save a few lives by reducing ignorance and fear of the unknown. Suicides also occur in gay communities, due to family, religious and social pressures. Maybe our book could prevent ignorance contributing to further deaths.”

Unfortunately, regardless of how sensitively, intelligently and well written it is, it seems that libraries are frightened of F2M: the boy within. Ford Street Publishing was willing to bring this book to the world, but school and public libraries, spooked by the spectre of controversy, have shunned it.  The risk of backlash from conservative groups has kept the book from shelves that would otherwise normally carry Hazel Edwards’ books. Literary awards have likewise overlooked it, in spite of  Edwards’ long association and regular appearance on such lists.

Recently, I spoke to Hazel about the book and its reception.

Narrelle Harris: Hazel, you and Ryan have known each other for a long time. What made you decide to do this project together?

Hazel Edwards: I knew Ryan as a family friend from about age 9 and had kept in touch across his adolescence and early twenties. I enjoy his mind and sense of humour.  He is around the age of my adult children. I’d also done some gender research in connection with a medical project about children and was aware that transitioning  was a controversial subject about which little had been written in fiction. Even the appropriate  vocabulary ( or pronoun) was a challenge.

Since Ryan is NZ- based, I hadn’t seen him since his ftm transition, but he came to Melbourne for a computer conference in connection with his work. He looked so much happier. Simultaneously we decided to co-write, via Skype and e-mail , a YA novel utilising his experience, but it was not to be autobiographical.

f2m The Boy Within

Ryan had experienced what it would have taken me years to research. As a published author, I was able to place our book proposal with Ford Street Publishing and gain a contract before we started the intensive year-long writing and about 30 drafts. I knew Ryan was a hard worker. But he was also far more IT skilled than me. It has been an equal collaboration. We were aware that ours might be the first  ftm YA novel internationally co-written by an ftm, but we also wanted to write ‘a good read’  of a ‘coming of age’ story. Thus, I had to learn punk music, another area in which Ryan is far more skilled.

Fiction provides the opportunity to discuss issues, at a distance, removed from the individual. Family can be given a book like F2M: the boy within as a ‘gentle’ introduction  and an informed  way of  handling prejudices

Narrelle: F2M: the boy within has received excellent reviews, but it has also met with reluctance from libraries and schools. How do you feel about how the book has been received?

Hazel: We knew the subject would threaten, especially libraries and schools who fear even one parental complaint. Often it is the anticipatory anxiety about potential complaints that cripples possible exposure to a ‘mainstream’ story where the subject is controversial, but not our handling of it. We have no ‘bad’ language. But we do have the opportunity to learn a new vocabulary and diplomacy about how gender issues might be phrased. Not just whether you say ‘He’ or ‘She’.

I have been shocked by the ‘ignoring’ by groups whom I would previously have  expected to be open minded. Some of the reactions have been aggressively negative, and they haven’t even read the book.

I now realise how courageous Ryan has been in co-writing.

Fan art by Rooster Tails

Narrelle: Given the difficulties you’ve encountered getting the book to its readership, do you have any regrets?

Hazel: No.  If we’ve saved one life, it’s been worthwhile. And if we’ve enabled readers to view from our 18 year old character’s perspective for the length of the novel and beyond, it’s been worthwhile.

We knew that some readers would expect F2M: the boy within to be like my picture books for young children like the cake-eating hippo series. It isn’t. But I have also co-written a psyche text on Difficult Personalities , including sociopaths, and written of scientific material from an Antarctic expedition.  An author can write in multiple fields. What matters is how well they write.

I also have growing admiration for some of the volunteer gender counsellors I’ve met. My regret is that I haven’t known about some of these issues earlier.

Narrelle: What is the best response you’ve had to F2M: the boy within so far? The worst?

Hazel: Ryan has received poignant e-mails about how significant this book has been to individuals and how they wished it had been available earlier. I’ve had much favourable contact from parents of gay children (even though our character is not gay) who are grateful for the opportunity to open family discussion via the novel. Being listed for the 2011 White Ravens, top 250  children’s and YA books internationally. Word of mouth recommendations  are slow but genuine and significant. Being recommended via the Safe Schools Coalition was helpful.

My worst experience was at a literary festival  where a student from a Catholic school reported that his teacher had put ‘that disgusting’ book and the brochure  in the bin, in front of all the students. Being ignored or ‘left off’ lists where my works would normally be included, thus depriving readers of the opportunity to even know the book existed.

Narrelle: Since both public and school libraries have been reluctant to risk controversy by getting it in, what do you think the best way if for people to get hold of it? Would it help if people specifically asked their library for it?

Hazel: Yes to all of the above. And our websites have material and links which are useful for Book Discussion Groups. One soccer parents book discussion group read and recommended it.

I still think this is the most important of all my 200 books, and hope it gets a fair reading in the future. It is not just bibliotherapy about gender, it’s a novel novel. At times, Ryan has had to make difficult decisions about refusing some kinds of highly paid magazine interviews which wished to concentrate on his private life rather than the book. That takes courage too.  Working with such a courageous man as co-author has been the other bonus of this novel.

**

If you think anyone can benefit from F2M: the boy within, whether they are a transgendered person, their family or friends, or just people you think would enjoy a coming of age story with a difference, you can get F2M: the boy within via the following links.

Ask your library to order it in for you or recommend it to your book group.

You can download a study guide here or from Hazel Edwards’ website.

Read more:

GaryView: Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood

Gary and LissaLissa: That was a bit of a history lesson. I remember reading about a flu epidemic after the First World War, but I had no idea that it was so bad, or that it shut Melbourne down like that.

Gary: Yeah. I think one of my dad’s uncles died of the flu around when this book is set.

Lissa: This book really brings it home, doesn’t it? The historical setting really works, and I liked Eleanor as well. She’s working through all this grief, but she really wants justice, whether or not the dead guy deserves it.  I like it that the truth was more important to her than staying comfortably out of it.

Gary: You don’t think she should have left the murder for someone else to investigate?

Lissa: I think I have amply demonstrated that keeping out of things isn’t always an option.

Gary: I guess you have. I liked Sister Jones too, though that might be because she reminded me of my mum. Mum was a nurse too.

Lissa: A nurse detective?

Gary: Not that I know of, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. My mum was pretty cool in a crisis. That’s how she met Dad, actually. During the war, she was stationed in Greece. Dad had been wounded and she looked after him on the ship during the evacuation from Crete. They kept writing after he was shipped home, and when she got back to Australia they got married.

Lissa: That must have been hard for him, waiting for her.

Gary: They never talked about it much. Not to me, anyway. Dad had got shot in the leg, though, and they wouldn’t let him stay in the army. He went home and did his teaching degree instead, so he’d have a steady job for when Mum got back.

Lissa: Every time you tell me about your folks I think how awesome they were.

Gary: This book made me think of both of them. They both went through a lot. For years as a kid, whenever I saw someone my dad’s age, or my grandad’s, I wondered whether they had bullet scars too. My mum kept on nursing, too. She used to say the only thing worse than the old air raids was working on the children’s wards.

Lissa: I bet.

Gary: Yeah.

Lissa:. So. Death and the Spanish Lady. Did you work out the killer before the end?

Gary: No. I never do, though. Not even when I was alive. I used to try making notes as I read to see if I could work it out, but I never could. Mum said it was because I wasn’t devious enough.

Lissa: I guess crime stories aren’t really like maths equations. Otherwise all crimes would get solved by the scientists.

Gary: All crimes are solved by the scientists on some TV shows.

Lissa: I like this kind of murder mystery better. And it’s not as gritty and realistic as all those Underbelly-type stories, so I like that better too. I have enough gritty realism in my life. But this has a different kind of realism. That sometimes you succeed in something but it’s not necessarily a triumph.

Gary: I know all about that, too.

Lissa: You and me both. Hey, how about we cheer ourselves up with a musical. <grins at the look on his face> Or a werewolf movie.

Gary: Can I vote for a werewolf movie?

Lissa: Only if it’s the original Teen Wolf.

Gary: Teen Wolf it is.

* *

You can get Death and the Spanish Lady in paperback from Readings, or as an ebook from Booki.sh or Amazon.com.

A story in steam

Of all the modes of transport in the world, my favourite is the train. Trains are more spacious and comfortable than either a plane or a bus (or a donkey cart). They lack the equilibrium-disturbing sway and roll of a boat, or the lurch and petrol-stink of a coach.  I love the fact that trains are almost exactly the same technology now as when they began operation in the 19th Century. I love catching trains through Europe and feeling the miles role away underneath me, and seeing the landscape slide by. And of all trains, the steam train is my very favourite.

On 1 October, I made my way by suburban rail to Belgrave station to catch the Puffing Billy to Emerald to give a talk at Emerald Library.

Doesn’t that sound magical? Belgrave. Puffing Billy. Emerald. Library talk. For me it evokes those wonderful whistle-stop tours undertaken by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clements across America. Trains have other literary associations for me, too. Holmes and Watson rattling across the English countryside to investigate some macabre murder; feckless young men in PG Wodehouse comedies fleeing on the milk train from ferocious aunts; the Pevensie children at the station before their last great adventure in Narnia; the Hogwarts Express; the Little Engine that Could.

Puffing Billy reminds me of all those things, and has its own special place in the heart of Victorian. I grew up in several states, so I don’t think I ever went on the inevitable school trip as a kid, but the same sense of adventure and excitement is still there for adults. Travelling by steam train in the modern day to a local library had a wonderful steampunk sensibility about it.

The Saturday that I travelled was a bit cold and wet, but people still braved the weather to sit with their legs handing out the windows as they hung onto the metal railings. We chugged through bushland, over bridges, through hills, periodically wreathed in smoke and steam.  As we rose in altitude, the air got crisper (and chillier). I could see flashes of colour from native parrots darting between trees, and see distant, mist-shrouded hills and lakes. The notes of the whistle as it blows is like a call to adventure on our way to Emerald.

There’s another literary association for you. Emerald City. Emerald is actually a lovely little country town, one of the stops on Puffing Billy’s route. After recent rain, the town is as green as its name implies. Tim even found a great new café serving excellent coffee just over the road from the library where I delivered my talk on Building Believable Fantasy Worlds. I love those talks. I’m no Clements or Wilde, but I thoroughly enjoy talking to readers and writers and sharing my love of the written word with them. This Oz did not have a man behind the curtain, but it was full of people asking wonderful questions about how to start their own great adventures in writing.

After the talk, we walked back to Emerald Station to catch the Puffing Billy back to Belgrave, this time from the warmth and comfort of the dining car. While pumpkin juice was noticeably lacking, there was lashings of tea, biscuits and fruit cake, the cheerful attentions of the lovely staff and more of those luscious green views before our return to the Big Smoke.

And so ends a day steeped in literary memories, bookish discussion, an appreciation of the Australian countryside and the delights of Victorian-era technology in a hyper-connected cyber world. In other words, a pretty perfect day.

Tim and I travelled as guests of the Puffing Billy Railways.

Words are like oxygen