The Great Divide

”I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

That quote has been attributed to many people from Mae West to Gertrude Stein. It sounds like a no-brainer. Of course it’s better to be rich than poor. I’ve been dirt poor and I’ve been…..um…less dirt poor.

I have yet to experience what it is to be RICH in a financial sense. What the hell is the bench mark here, anyway? What is the test you must pass to be considered rich or poor? I’ve been hungry-poor, no-roof-over-my-head-poor but the closest I’ve come to being rich is getting a facial at a fancy beauty salon and slapping some Chanel No. 5 behind my ears. Both gifted to me. I am what could be considered comfortable and yet the foundations are shaky enough to warrant vigilance.

Last week I decided to go Gonzo journalist and give the extremes a good going-over. I signed up for the CEO Sleep-out for Vinnies, an annual event to spotlight awareness on homelessness. I had been invited to tell my story to the participants, as part of the presentation preceding a night of sleeping rough on the wintry city streets. I have slept in a tent with my children and bathed them in a bucket of kettle-warmed water. I’ve lined up for food parcels from Vinnie’s in the deep, dark past and it was my time to give back and say ”thank-you, I couldn’t have made it without you.”

Melbourne in winter is COLD. It is miserably cold. It is London-grey and squally. I grew up on the sunshiny Gold Coast. I don’t like bluster and frigidity. I also like my queen-sized, focaccia-like mattress and duck-down doona. I’ve done my time in the trenches of discomfort and starvation and now I’m running madly toward being rich … although it mostly feels like I’m on a comical treadmill.

I want to be rich but I chose to be a writer???? Cue clown squeezing a bicycle-horn.

So…I decided to do decadent ‘rich’ for a day, followed by desolate ‘poverty’ for a day. This would take place in the city of Melbourne.

Melbourne, like most cities, it is a place, a space, where designer shoes click past grimy, bare feet matted with chilblains, on most sidewalks. A woman in a camel-coloured mohair overcoat can blithely walk by a woman in a shop alcove, lying rolled up in a scabies-infested sleeping bag sans zipper. These people all share a post-code, human DNA and dreams, regrets, sorrows and passions. Too often we stride through our days automatically assuming a great cultural divide between these extremes. It isn’t necessarily something we spend time thinking about. We just don’t really identify with either – the one percenters in the mohair, or the derros in the mountain of scabby debris.

Day 1.

I sit in the Qantas lounge sipping my almond-milk latte and spoon my tasty quinoa and roasted veggie soup into my gullet as I watch planes coasting along the runway. I flick through a magazine, looking at the beautiful, skeletal people taunting me and decide to read a book, one without pictures. The flight to Melbourne from Sydney is comfortable and I quickly sweep myself into a waiting taxi to take me to my inner-city digs for the night – The Windsor – an historic pile of bricks that has put up the likes of Harry Houdini, Meryl Streep and that guy who plays Harry Potter not to mention various Prime Ministers and Princes.

A man in a top hat and tails who looks like a medieval town-crier opens the taxi door and takes my bags, ushering me into the warm embrace of the chandeliered foyer that smells like a wad of money and aged oak. My room is smug and confident, the linen sharp, the leather chair in the corner begging me to sit down for a fat cigar. Of course there is no smoking in the rooms and cigars taste like dried corpse so I settle for a glass of champagne instead. I cruise the net on my smart-phone, kick off my shoes, order in a take-away curry, flick on the television and crawl between the sheets. The champagne goes down nicely. The curry challenges my taste-buds and the bed feels cosy. Before sleep, I soak in a bath surrounded by wafts of minted green tea bubbles and walls of shimmering marble. I sleep well in the bed that may or may not have embraced Ellie Goulding and Kylie Minogue but presumably not at the same time!

The next day, I partake of really, really good coffee, sourdough toast, marmalade and an enormous goat-cheese omelette with a side of creamed rice, rhubarb and pistachio nuts. Classical music plays softly, crystal and silver-ware tinkle, and the spires of a church glower in at me through the dining room window.

I wander the streets of the city, passing countless homeless people. I stop sharing coins after the fourth because there are just so many. I sit in a cafe and have another famous Melbourne coffee while listening to street jazz. I window shop. I wander over the river, taking touristy pics. I meet up with two of my fabulously talented and interesting author-friends over lunch at a snazzy eatery. I chow down on a burger but it isn’t your run-of-the-mill McPatty. It’s Angus beef with caramelized beetroot or some such, with wilted flowers of the heart of a still-beating zucchini here and there. One friend signs her novel for my daughter. The other takes me to the art gallery and we stride about for a while admiring the ART DARLING and giggle at the sillier twaddle that calls itself ART but is really just stuff arranged somewhat interestingly.

VERDICT: ”Rich” is very, very comfortable and tastes good.  ( I wonder if Meryl Steep slept in the same bed as me. I decide ‘probably’. I take it as a good omen that I will one day win an Academy Award or seven.)

DAY 2.

I walk through the city streets with my heavy bag over my arthritic shoulder and finally turn up for a shift on the soup van run. I am given a visibility vest in chic fluorescent orange with velcro tabs. I meet a varied group of people who have spent hours donating their time to stock the vans with sandwiches, make huge vats of veggie soup, fill the hot chocolate and tea containers and pile sleeping bags, sanitary products, beanies and scarves into the trucks.

I’ve always thought of ‘volunteers’ as kind-hearted, retired people. That night I meet ex-school principals, a PhD student, a budding psychologist, ex-homeless people, young uni kids, mums, dads and everything in between. There is no stereotypical ‘volunteer’.

We hit the streets.

It is cold. Dark. The city is closed except for those who live in her shadows. They come out to meet the vans and stay for soup and conversation. I meet another varied group of people and I learn pretty fast that there is no stereotypical ‘homeless person’ either. I meet a man who spends his days in the city libraries reading everything that interests him. He was once an engineer and gives me a book tip. It’s a good one I plan to follow up and put on my TBR list. I meet a woman who has turned her life around in less than a year from struggling beneath a meth habit to being excited about her first pay-cheque. One man has a toothache so bad he is hitting his head on a wall, another man tells me things I did not know about the chemical make-up of air fresheners. I meet people who are living in crisis centres, boarding houses, community apartments and cardboard boxes on the street. Some have children, some have dogs, some are all alone.

I have a Styrofoam cup of street soup and you know what? It’s better than the one I had the day before in the Qantas terminal. It’s good. Very good. I laugh with the people I meet who seem to be much quicker to share a smile and a joke than most of the army of designer suits I passed on the street during daylight hours. There is the pervading perfume of mental illness but it isn’t as scary as I had feared. It is sad.

There is the problem of housing, for sure. Rents have become inaccessible to so many. But I talked with a team leader on the soup van run and he explained that the roof-over-the-head is just the tip of the iceberg in tackling this problem. A holistic approach is needed which addresses the individual needs – mental, physical, cultural, emotional, social, spiritual. The problem is that the funding just isn’t there. The problem is huge. The solution is complicated. The amount of interest in really getting things addressed is minimal and thus it falls to charities like Vinnies to muster what they can, to give help on the ground, where it is needed critically RIGHT NOW!

And then I turn up to the underground car-park at the Melbourne University for the Sleep-out. The place was the setting for a scene in the movie Mad Max and it does have an apocalyptic atmosphere; a subterranean concrete cavern with pulses of eerie light the colour of developing bruises.

Moving, gut-wrenchingly-moving speeches are delivered from key members of the Vinnies community and by the time I have to speak I am choked with emotion. I tell my story. It seems so insignificant in the face of the problems I have seen that night. My story is ancient history. I survived. I am now back in the seat of privilege. I stayed at The Windsor the night before…in Meryl Streep’s bed!

I eat soup again, without a price tag this time. I drink industrial-strength coffee. I am given a standard-issue sleeping bag and a pillow that does little to cushion my head from the concrete beneath. My mattress is a sheet of brown cardboard. I sleep in this bunker with 240 others, all trying to raise money, to do their little bit, to spend a night out of their comfort zones. It is cold and it is uncomfortable but nothing can prepare me for ….THE SNORING! Imagine many, many people snoring like hippopotamii with sinus problems…in a subterranean cavern with killer acoustics. It is a philharmonic symphony of epiglottal horror. THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

I suffer from Lupus. I ache all over. I am asthmatic. I am no spring chicken. I cope with the cold and concrete. But the snoring nearly kills me. Not one moment of sleep is had. To get me through the long horrible, torturous night, I focus on something one of the homeless women told me. She said it was safer to stay with the others in the light than to skulk off to the privacy of the shadows where bad things happen. So many women on the streets are assaulted. They feel safer under the streetlights with all the others, with the snores and groans and warmth of bodies. I spend the night fighting the urge to skulk into a far-flung dark corner of the car-park to get some quiet, private moments of sleep but in the real world, on the real streets, that is never a good idea. And so I lie, inwardly screaming for those motherf@#$&ing snorers to choke on their own tongues while I imagine rolling about in the sheets at the Windsor, playing with bubbles in the marble bath. I am dying a slow death-by-snore-torture in the dare-I-say-it Thunderdome!!!

It is hell. I have to use a porta-loo. Jeebus. In The Windsor you have people in starched uniforms cleaning your shit-stains off the porcelain bowl. I can only cringe at the thought of how women on the street manage. It is really unthinkable.

I go straight to the airport the next morning, shell-shocked. I smell bad. I look even worse and I am too embarrassed to ask for my flight to be changed to an earlier one because I know that I look like someone who has spent the night on some kind of debauched hen’s night pub crawl and I am afraid I’ll be judged or strip-searched.

And I guess in those long hours of waiting, I kind of understand why it is so hard to access any self-esteem after a night of sleeping rough. You feel like absolute crap.

Sure, being rich is better. There’s no doubt about it. But the crystal chandelier existence really is lacking something and that is 20/20 vision. It’s easy to walk the streets in good shoes and coats (something Melbourne is famous for) and feel a glimmer of displeasure at the homeless unwashed because THEY make you feel bad, begrudgingly guilty and you resent that, so you narrow your eyes or look away and try to think about something else.

The CEO Sleep-out is just one night where the ‘haves’ do it rough. It won’t change the world. It will raise some well-needed funds but it makes me ill to see politicians turn up to this event in cities around the country and don sleeping bags and smiles for the newspapers and then go straight back to cutting funding where it is needed most.

We were not faced with the dangers that many homeless confront. We had security. We had sleeping bags and shelter. Many don’t. We knew it was just for one night. There was light at the end of our little, snoring Mad Max tunnel. For many there is just relentless darkness.

It was a humbling experience for me… dare I say it… life-changing.

I have been reassessing priorities and examining myself and my life-view through a clearer, sharper and more discomforting lens.

We all need to do more. The first step is to open our eyes.

 

Books – plural

I love books. Ever since I lay in bed as a little girl and listened as my mother read ‘Robert the Rose Horse’ to me….books have been my magical land of possibility. At the age of five, I was inspired by Robert the rose-horse. Even though he had some serious allergy to roses, he kept persisting, until eventually a major sneezing attack finally cured him and he could smell roses without fear from then on. He also took out a group of bank robbers with his final almighty snot-burst so HERO.

As a teenager I fell in love with Heathcliff and danced on the moors in my imagination (wearing Kate Bush’s red dress of course!). I also fell in love with Atticus Finch although he was way too old for me. And then I discovered the titillating sexcesses of Judith Krantz and the like and sat in the costume cupboard in the drama department at school reading steamy passages from ‘Princess Daisy’ aloud to my horrified girlfriends. That eighties stuff leaves Fifty Shades for dead!

I always wanted to be a writer. I always wrote. So now that I have three published books I can finally say I am a real writer and loving it. It’s sometimes lonely and my body will probably kill me for being so sedentary (writing in bed in my pyjamas)…..but I am thrilled to announce that I have been offered a two-book deal for the follow on books to HEXENHAUS. This is new level of excitement.  Just saying ‘two-book deal’ makes me feel like a grown-up writer with real promise! Shame the advances aren’t like they were back in the eighties! I may not be able to buy a swanky Manhattan penthouse but I will be able to register the car!

Hexenhaus tells the story of three witch-girls (well they are ‘accused’ of witchcraft…) My next will feature three very strong girls who become through circumstance – warrior-women. In their fight against racism, war, colonialism and sexism, they find an inner strength that we all have but rarely need to call upon. The third book is in the works. It will introduce three young wordy-women.  All books will come under the trilogy umbrella of ‘The Systir Saga’. I do love writing for a young adult audience but I’m also moving into adult fiction…..stay tuned for more news there.

I am currently (yes in bed in the p.js) busily writing a screenplay, a novel of thought-provoking women’s fiction, entering short stories in competitions, about to start a second draft of my second memoir and I’ve just been diagnosed with some horrid auto-immune disease that is causing my hands to hurt like they’ve been dipped in boiling oil (lupus if you must know). So I am busy. And in pain. And extremely excited about the future. And scared.

Writing is my salvation. It makes all the bad bits better. When I write,  my characters become my family and sometimes I dream about things I have written and wake thinking they are real. I have even written scenes that soon after come to pass. Weird. But wonderful. Spooky fiction working its way into reality, crossing that invisible, diaphanous divide.

I’m also currently reading Jenny Valentish’s ‘Woman of Substances’ and loving it.

My teenage daughter just finished Fleur Ferris’s ‘Risk’ in a single-nail-biting sitting.

Books. What a wonderful world. Reading. Writing. Staying in bed.

Oh…and very uncomfortable hands.

That’s my check-in for Wednesday.

Nik x

 

 

 

POVERTY IS NOT A CRIME

I am heading to Melbourne soon to speak at the launch of the CEO Sleepout organised by Vinnies to help shine awareness on the plight of those living rough. I was really honoured to be asked to do this, as this is an issue close to my heart. I know what it is like to be dirt poor and the flashbacks of the deep sense of shame and humiliation still swamp me and wake me from sleep in a cold sweat, even all these years later.

I woke up today and looked in my refrigerator and like many mornings, it brought a tear to my eye. Not a sad tear like in those dark, lonely, terrifying days as a single mum with three little boys, when I would look desperately into our fridge (that sounded like an emphysemic wildebeest) to find it was bare. Once I had to feed the kids plain ice-ream cones because that was all that was left in the pantry apart from salt and a can of corn. Handout food parcels from the welfare agencies always contained lots of cans of corn. They were big in the donation barrels….for good reason. I got good at dressing them up into dishes, but on their own, I had trouble selling them as little ‘lollies’ to the kids. This morning, I could offer my youngest son and daughter, yogurt and berries, rye bread and grilled cheese and a freshly squeezed pineapple juice each for breakfast. Today’s tear was one of gratitude for making it out of the darkness. I walked the kids to school and reminded them again of just how lucky they are. Most kids take a decent breakfast for granted.

But some don’t.

There are kids everywhere, next door to you, not just in the trailer parks but in the rental houses in your suburb, who are hungry, who walk a certain way to distract from the gaping hole in their school shoe. There’s a look in their eyes. I’ve seen it. I saw it at the bus-stop this morning. And it broke my heart.

Having been there, I know how hard it is to ask for help. The first few times I asked for help from the back office of a church or for credit from the local supermarket for milk and bread,  I was met with that churled lip and raised eye-brow and a quick up and down assessment. Was I a druggie? Mad? Or just a loser? The judgmental attitude that many people adopt when faced with poverty and disadvantage is, I think, a safety shield. They want to pretend that those poor people are ‘different’ from them because if they were the same then the same plight could befall anyone through circumstance. There but for the grace of god go I and all that.  So it’s easier to believe that they choose to live that way, either deliberately or indirectly. That keeps everyone else safe. But the truth is that so many people live week to week, hand to mouth and exist only one disaster away from abject poverty and possible homelessness.

Our Western Society is built on rewarding the rich and demonising the poor. That’s the basic premise of capitalism. If you are an able-bodied, well-educated, mentally fit and finely tuned individual who managed to escape childhood without any form of abuse, neglect, poverty consciousness, physical or emotional set-backs and you have an appearance within the parameters that are judged acceptable by society, you might get yourself a job, have healthy relationships and start building the foundation for a successful life. But if death, divorce, illness, accident or cracks in your family relationships, sexual abuse, depression or sudden job-loss strike unannounced, you can be derailed quickly like a runaway train and then you find yourself hurtling to that tent in the park, begging strangers for loose change to eke out a few crumbs to exist on.

It is haughty and foolish to think that it could never happen to you. And when you do fall that low, it is very, very difficult to pull yourself up out of that deep, deep quagmire. Without help.

I reached out to welfare agencies like St Vincent de Paul in my bleakest days and never once did the volunteers, giving their time and hearts to the cause, ever make me feel like a ‘loser’. The food parcels, the assistance with electricity and phone bills, the friendly conversation and cups of tea, helped me gradually back on my feet.

I’ve written a new book about my years of struggle and hope to publish it in the near future. Hopefully it will serve as inspiration to those still struggling and raise awareness for the need to work as a village to help those less fortunate. We are all in this thing called life together! I am fortunate to be in a position as a writer with something of a platform, to be able to draw people’s attention to this issue. I have come a long way from living in a tent and eating ice-cream cones for breakfast and doling out kernels of corn as treats for the kids. And it was thanks to those who did choose to care and not judge.

When you donate your old toys, clothes and furniture to welfare agencies, you have no idea how much that can mean to someone who finds themselves without decent enough shoes to go to a job interview. And when your kids come home from school with a note around Christmas time asking for donations of cans of food or packets of pasta and whatnot….or toys for disadvantaged kids. Please donate.

When I read about those struggling with Centrelink debts and the stricter measures coming in to make welfare payments more difficult to access, it makes me cry. To see funding being cut from women’s shelters, to see pensioners losing some of their benefits, to see health care becoming more expensive, it all looks wrong. Really wrong. There were times when I couldn’t afford medicine for my children, even with a health care card and for politicians to dismiss the cost of medication as a cup of coffee from a cafe shows just how out of touch they really are. For those in dire need, that amount of money equates to a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, a packet of four bricks of noodles and a cheap packet of water crackers and a few days of eating…..not a strong latte!

No-one chooses to be dirt poor. Sure, bad choices can lead to some dark places but if you agree that it is morally right to sympathise with people dying or suffering from lifestyle diseases, then you must also find sympathy for those who made wrong turns along the way. No one is perfect. When you are in a maze of starvation, illness, terror, particularly if you have children, you can barely see any light ahead, the tunnels are everywhere. It is literally like being in a maze. If you are high above looking down at the maze, it’s easy to see which turns to make to get out, but in the maze, it’s much harder and you inevitably make wrong turns, sometimes many, before you escape. Having someone beside you, holding your hand and shining a torch for you can really help.

Go and donate to Vinnies, the Salvos, Red Cross, Lifeline or any reputable charity. Give warm clothes, sturdy shoes, books, pots and pans, blankets and food (just go easy on the cans of corn, eh?)

Nik x

Family Detox

My kids hate me. I’m sure they don’t deep down but this week they are saying it a lot because I have just gone all Gwynyth Paltrow on their arses! Yup. I am having a spring clean. Usually it’s just me that gets all detoxy after a big Easter chocolate binge and holiday laze-about but this time I’m getting the whole family on board. Did I mention that the kids hate me? Well my husband hates me as well and when I spout Paltrowisms at him he reminds me that Chris Martin ended up consciously uncoupling from G etc.

It’s not a big deal. It’s just some dietary/lifestyle housekeeping. You know, like no sugar, dairy, wheat, alcohol, caffeine, complimented with daily workouts and meditation and family bonding sessions and gardening (because apparently it’s good for the soul and also my garden is overrun with weeds and I can’t afford a gardener).  At first they climbed aboard begrudgingly, after I gave an impassioned speech about how this is a family project that will bond us all closer because our current arrangement has the grown ups working around the clock while the teens get home from school and plug into devices and stay there until they are asleep with drool running all over the headphones. I don’t want much – just the perfect family. Now that it’s sinking in and they can tell that I’m seriously serious, they all look a bit shocked and clammy and terrified.

My hip nags at me and I have something seriously wrong with my joints…it might be arthritis or perhaps carpal tunnel syndrome. I’m loathe to go to a medical practitioner as I’m pretty alternative and have always been able to heal things with dietary adjustments and my go-to for everything TURMERIC AND MANUKA HONEY. My teen daughter is a chocolate addict who will eat nothing but chocolate, white bread, pasta  and cheese. My son eats anything. He is more confident that he can pull off this detox fortnight. My daughter says she will die. My husband alternates between those two. His mouth says he’s up for it but the look on his face says he will also die.

I just made up this week’s shopping list and it looks like something the Goop-Meister would be proud of – I have sheep’s milk yoghurt, buckwheat pasta, every vegetable under the sun including Jerusalem artichokes. I have kimchi and blueberries and almonds ready to be activated (I’m not even being silly…I’m going to try that). I have quinoa up the wazoo and things like vegannaise and kombochu. I have so much produce there that I think I’d better stagger the shopping over the fortnight or I’ll end up with stinky, rotting veggies in the crisper, floating in their own soupy, moldy slime!

School lunches will be fun and I don’t doubt that my little darlings will beg or steal their mates’ lunch-time treats and lie to me…..to my actual face. Each one has been given an exercise pad to record their daily feelings about the process and every day there will be a creative drawing exercise…today we must all draw a tree. Drawing is also apparently good for the soul. Husband draws a stick figure tree and I think that’s a vulture sitting on the branch…that may or may not be symbolic of something.

I’ll keep you posted. Either this will be the making of us and I will change my daughter’s name to Apple and lose my round tyre of fat impersonating a belly (maybe Fat Bastard’s) and my opera-singing husband will release an album of emotional songs that all sound the same but sell millions and I will win that Academy Award and we’ll all look like those folks in knitted sweaters on Christmas cards or it will all go to hell and we’ll kill each other or there will be a mutiny and they will all gang up and kill me.

I’m really positive. I think it will be fun. Also my new book is rollicking along…okay it’s not really…I’ve written one paragraph and I’ve now decided that it won’t work to tell the story from the viewpoint of a Blue-Jay…so this detox can clear me of stupid ideas and fill me with some new good ones.

Don’t tell me to break a leg….you know….wishing me luck…because I think the demon of osteo might take it literally…..

Cheers. Clink glasses of goopy green juice with lots of KALE and ginger and other weird shit!

Nik x

I’M SHINING TODAY

ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WOK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY………okay I’m bored with this now.

SOWING STORY SEEDS

Today is the day that I start my new book. I’ve worked up to it for the last few weeks like a marathon runner limbering up for a big race. I know some writers (like Tolkien) take years and years to write a book but as I suffer from ADHD (true story) my concentration and focus won’t allow me to do that. I would lose my train of thought and all direction and end up with a patchwork quilt of thirty books that just go round and round in circles with strange squirrels appearing out of no-where in tutus singing opera because I’d get so bored and need to entertain myself and then I’d probably decide that the squirrel thread would make a good feature film and I’d embark on a screenplay, possibly scribbled in the back of my most recent journal and then I’d lose that journal and start another one and find a poetry competition and decide quite foolhardily to become a poet. You get my drift. I get distracted and bored very easily and THIS is not necessarily a good trait for a writer to have, particularly a novelist, because a book requires you to sit still, in solitude and write about eighty freaking thousand words….in order….that make sense and work to keep a reader glued to the page without getting distracted and running off to chase burlesque squirrels until the very LAST page after those magical words THE END get written.

I can bang out a short story in an hour. That’s like a cracker and cheese to me. A blog…that’s more like popping a grape into my mouth BUT A BOOK….a book is a banquet of words that requires a hunger, a gnawing aching hunger, for THAT particular meal and it will require menu planning for the entree, the main and the delicious dessert. One will need to make a list, check it twice and then go hunting for all the ingredients and for a really good feast you’ll need to seek out some impossibly exotic tit-bits that make your meal unique and so you may have to seek out unpronounceable spices from hidden alleyways. Then you’ll have to prep and cook and make sure you get it all right, so that the damn thing rises when it should, marinates all the way through to the marrow and has just the right, heady blend of flavours when it hits the plate, so that it will entice people to gorge themselves on your story. Not just nibble but gorge! At about two dollars a book…writers need readers who are ravenous and bring all their mates to the table!

For someone who finds boiling an egg unthinkably tedious, this culinary/literary ordeal is a challenge for me and so I have evolved and adapted my process around my diagnosis so that we’re all happy. Books get written and I stay pepped up and focused and don’t run off with the squirrels (except for Saturday night which is designated squirrel night).  And I do this how, you might ask? I do this at break-neck speed and all else evaporates from my life. I tumble down the rabbit hole of my book…..

I am a very lucky writer. I have the luxury and leisure of being able to write full-time. I have no other day job (other than being a wife and mother which is not to say that that doesn’t pose all sorts of challenges as well!) The advice most commonly given to budding writers is ‘to marry well’. That doesn’t mean you have to marry someone rich as much as it means you NEED to marry A SAINT! Writers, by and large, are an intolerable breed. We are emotionally needy and insecure and tortured with story-lines and characters that leak out from our heads into our lives and this can sometimes be disconcerting to those around us who can’t see KATHERINE AT THE END OF THE BED GIVING ME INFORMATION ABOUT HER CHILDHOOD IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY SCOTLAND AT THREE IN THE MORNING …CAN’T YOU SEE HER…SHE’S RIGHT THERE!!!!! That one freaked my husband out for days. But I am lucky, as I said, because I did marry a Saint. He’s not perfect, mind, he is a bit gassy and dances like an emu and inserts the words gloopy schmook schmook into the lyrics of every song and he plays WAY too much Forza but….he’s a keeper. He lets me write… and that means he puts up with the screaming lunacy, the complete gulf between me and reality and the fact that I make NO money. Writing is a thankless job. It is even less thankless (or should that be more thankless?) than parenting or wife-ing. Oh, sometimes you’ll hear something nice from a reader, get a nice review or an email, but the neurotic writer’s voice inside your head will tell you that they are just being polite and actually didn’t even finish your book and just feel sorry for you. Being a writer is a bit like sitting day in day out looking at a mirror, finding flaws while singing NOBODY LOVES ME EVERYBODY HATES ME I THINK I’LL GO AND EAT SOME WORMS. I think that’s what being a writer is like….or perhaps that’s just me….eeek….

Back to my process…I did tell you I get distracted and go off on tangents….

I write fast. I have to. I open a file …type the title (I always have the title first and work my way out from there)….and then it’s a race between my typing fingers and my ADHD. Who will win? It’s very exciting early on because I never know how it’s going to go. The thee hundred and eighty-seven unfinished manuscripts clogging up my Documents Folder in my laptop are testament to that. They are the ones that got outrun. They sit waiting for me to accidentally chase a squirrel past them one day and stop and go AHA I REMEMBER YOU. And then I’ll forget the squirrel and start up from where I left off and see how the replay race plays out.

When I say I write fast, I do not lie. I wrote my last completed manuscript in ten days. I do little else in those days other than write and I type at a speed of about a hundred and twenty words a minute and I tend to sleep in brief bursts, waking up to hammer at the keyboard again. I start with a seed. A simple seed. I don’t necessarily know what sort of seed it is. It will be an idea and a title. That’s all. I’m like Mr Squiggle. He was a television puppet in the seventies for those of you who are under a hundred years old. His nose was a  giant marker pen ( I know right…the seventies was like a festival of acid) and he would go to work in front of a piece of paper that someone had drawn a squiggle on and he would have to turn the squiggle into a drawing, upside down, and then ‘voila’ the pretty t.v presenter/hostess would turn it over and there would be a great drawing for the kids in the audience, most often a spaceship or a tree-house. So, yes, I start with a title and a premise. Little more than a squiggle.

So today I have my title and my premise. It’s not much to go on but I feel the swell of a wave under me and know that it’s a big one and I’m ready to ride it. That’s one analogy for the process of writing. Waves. Ocean. Swell. As for the story-line….that’s more like a regular seed. I bury it in the soil of my mind and the keyboard and coffee are the sunshine and water and we’ll wait to see what grows. Might be an oak tree or a fern or a patch of parsley or a weed. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.  But I’m excited. That’s all I’m saying. Exuberant, squirrel-chasing loony writer over and out….stay tuned for the progress reports.

Nik x

Raising my pen as a sword!

Today one of my own is being besieged! I am a writer. I am a woman. I am an Australian. This makes me me and it also makes me part of a small but powerful group. Women in this country who pick up their pens to change the world are a small force and when they have a bee in their pretty little bonnets well…..stand back and take cover….because they become a swarm!

Yesterday (in case you missed the public holiday, dawn services and two-up games) was ANZAC DAY. This is a national day of remembrance for our fallen soldiers. A day to sadly reflect upon WAR and the sacrifices and suffering that come from it. During these uncertain, worrying, tense times, days like ANZAC DAY summon up, not just remembrance, but important reflections of what we can learn from past conflict so that those who died did not do so in vain. The men and women of all colours and creeds who fought in wars past, did so to strive for PEACE, love and tolerance – you know…..the greater good. FREEDOM.

Yesterday, a young woman I have great respect for, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, made a comment on her Public Facebook Page. It read ‘LEST WE FORGET (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine).’ And the National Offence Brigade went freaking ballistic! The hate cannons and buckshot of outrage blew, they sharpened their bayonets and ran screaming for Yassmin’s blood. She quickly retracted the comment and left it as LEST WE FORGET and apologised to anyone she might have offended.  Never mind that other social commentators were busy writing articles in the mainstream media questioning the continued relevance of days such as ANZAC DAY. It was pointed out that the Indigenous Australians got one sorry day while we’re raking up a hundred to say thank-you for past military services. There are also many men and women who fought for our country who don’t march on ANZAC DAY. We are allowed to have this dialogue in this country, thank goodness because you know FREE SPEECH. I understand and respect those who honour the day and I understand and respect those who don’t for reasons of their own.

Now – I’ve only been called UN-AUSTRALIAN a couple of times in my life and each time it has weirdly enough been when I have been calling out racism. I once called Australia Day, Invasion Day (while not very original….it’s still kinda apt, eh?), and I got some poisonous spears and burning torches flung my way. So if every-time I stand up against racism I get given the red unaustalian card, does that mean, ipso facto, that to be a true-blue Aussie, I must be a teeny bit or a whole lot RACIST? Well, fuck that. I don’t roll that way.

I met Yassmin at a writers festival recently and fell in love with her energy, her passion and her infectious laughter. She is a woman who speaks out with heart and refreshing sincerity. The outpouring of HATE….(if I could think of a stronger word I would use it….maybe VILE-BILE would work)….toward Yassmin in the last twenty-four hours, has thrown and winded me. It’s really really sick! And it has nothing to do with deep national offence and the defense of ANZAC DAY or national pride; it has everything to do with RACISM and hate. It seems to me that those who sit at home, swilling beers and eating snags on ANZAC DAY, (most of whom wouldn’t lift an actual finger for their country and certainly haven’t fought any war outside of ones on social media of their own making) act like sharks who’ve come across an accidental school of tuna and work themselves into a frenzy. Opportunistic outragers!

A Muslim WOMAN pointing out that there are not only other victims of war outside of our diggers but that it IS STILL GOING ON RIGHT NOW! Holy fucking hell…..it becomes a battle-field and the drums start beating and the blood-lust bubbles. Seems also to me, that the army of ‘OUTRAGED and OFFENDED’ weaponed-up on social media, sit around just WAITING for something to be outraged and offended by (on behalf of someone else….always) and if that offense has been bristled by a MUSLIM WOMAN then they are become so hungrily frenzied that they are mouth-frothing on the verge of apoplexy. Someone call them a doctor! STAT!

It takes a lot to offend me… offence is a flimsy cloak to hide beneath and I don’t have much call for it. I’ve been eaten by a flesh-eating spider, I’ve given birth five times, I’ve been sexually assaulted, I’ve suffered profound loss but being OFFENDED has never caused me much concern because you CHOOSE to be offended. I choose not to be and I’ve been called a lot of things in my time. Not one toss was given.

My fellow AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS stand with me (mostly I hope) when I say that words are weapons and should sometimes only be wielded by those who know what they are doing. Social media is a platform where people say their bit. Freedom of speech. Debate is great. ANZAC DAY…still relevant? Worth a healthy discussion. But to use someone’s words against them with such vitriol, hatred and small-minded bitterness just because everyone else is throwing stones and flinging flint onto the burning mound is school-yard bullying and to my mind not only UNAUSTRALIAN but INHUMAN! Dick-heads should sometimes just zip it!

I showed my children what Yassmin wrote and then what the OFFENDED masses wrote and they were horrified. At 12 and 13 they could clearly see who was in the wrong…who was hateful. Yassmin didn’t incite that hate. She opened a window and inadvertently let the haters lean out and spew forth their hate. Yuk!

As a woman, a writer, an Australian, an atheist, a human being, a mother, sister, wife, pacifist, respecter of values and person with a deep regard and gratitude for fallen soldiers AND concern for those suffering because of war on Manus Island, Nauru, in Syria and in Palestine…..I stand with Yassmin!!!!!

JUST WRITE

It’s Monday. I am listless. I feel just a little bit sick. Not urgh sick. Just icky sick. I am a bit flat. I know that writing lifts me up and away from these human distractions. Once I’m in the flow it’s go-go-go and I can be anywhere and anyone. I can create characters and make them brave and daring and sometimes…sometimes I can kill them with one stroke of a pen. Writing makes me feel powerful. I walk around my empty house in my slippers and tattered p’j’s. My back aches. I’m jittery from too much coffee. There is mess. Dishes. Beds to make. But more importantly…there are words to write.

I made myself a promise about five years ago and that was to write something creative every day – no excuses. I’ve kept my promise to myself because writing is my one true thing. It is my life-raft, my safety valve, my very salvation. I am prone to the snarl of the black dog. It bares its teeth and growls at me from time to time. It bites and tears at my flesh and leaves me bleeding and ragged during particularly vicious attacks. But I’ve found that writing is my secret weapon and sends that dog limping away with its tail between its legs, whimpering, afraid.

I write, therefore I am.

Sometimes I feel that I would simply evaporate if I was not wrapped up and defined by the shape of letters and the smooth sleek lines of sentences. I shuffle down into paragraphs like a free-fall into quilted clouds.

Today I will write of laughter and majesty because writing is my magic, my mojo.

I write, therefore I am. What I spin onto the page is Rumplestiltsken straw into gold. I make things happen. I can take an icky day and make it gleam. I can save the world. I can move mountains with a few taps on a keyboard. I paint with words. I can make pictures. Moving, visceral, pulsing worlds of words. I can bring the impossible to life. I can be God.

As a little girl, I found comfort in books. My first love was Heathcliff. I learned to be the person I am from books. Now, I find that words are my breath and words keep me balanced. Someone asked me recently what my favourite word was and I couldn’t think of one. I think now that I shall choose WORDS. WORDS.

Today I am going to create a character that embodies everything I wanted to be when I grew up. I am going to invent my super-self. And maybe….just a little bit of this character will seep into my bones and make me stronger….happier…less icky. More Nikki.

WORDS. Thank-you words for reaching out and pulling me to my feet. I love you.

SOMERSET WRAP-UP

Well. I am exhausted!

I have just returned from my very first school literary festival and I was ‘literally’ (see what I did there) blown away by the enthusiasm, excitement and energy of the presenters, the organisers, the attendees and the volunteers. It was a huge success and I feel mighty privileged to have been invited. I was in some stellar company and have come away from Somerset College on the Gold Coast with a suitcase full of books to read and so many ideas my head is exploding with rainbow-coloured matter (as opposed to gray matter, you know, get it?).

I had tried to get some under my belt before the festival. And had some success. I read Fleur Ferris’s ‘Black’ while waiting for hours in the airport in Sydney (because I am that worry-wort Aunt Josephine who gets to an airport many, many hours early….just in case). I read it in one sitting and was ‘scared’ WITless. It was such a page-turning thriller. I also just finished Nova Weetman’s ‘Everything is Changed’. It packs a powerful punch to your solar plexus and gives you some tears (tissues essential). Nova and I share a publisher and publicist and we all met up for lunch on Day 1. Beautiful. Lots of laughs and some deep and meaningful conversations were had. And then I went op-shopping with Nova and I found a pair of HARRY POTTER PANTS! WINNER! Literary party pants. Tick.

As a writer who infamously never gets out of bed or her pajamas, this festival gig-thing was growing on me. I was out in the real world talking to real people who read books, some of whom had read/promised to read mine! I found my former Modern History Teacher and English teacher who popped in to my presentations to lend me some very welcome support. I won’t tell you how long ago it was that they taught me…or you would be gob-smacked by how young I look for my age!!!! Hmmmmm.

There was rain on day one and we all got muddy but thanks to things called warm showers at the luxurious Royal Pines Resort (although Benjamin Law had a bath in his room which I found out too late!), I cleaned up my act and so did the weather for the rest of the festival. I met some wonderful students. The girls from Brigidine College were a lovely audience along with the Somerset peeps. First session. First day. And my VERY FIRST SOLO PRESENTATION EVER! EVER!

I was swear-word nervous and just rabbited on about the best thing about being a writer -WRITING IN BED IN YOUR P’J’S OF COURSE … and the worst thing….the countless crushing rejections. But I managed to explain that the more rejections you aim for ….the more successes you’ll get and the better you will become as a writer by submitting and writing and submitting and writing and getting rejected and writing and writing and submitting and …then bingo success!  And then writing and submitting and on and on and on. I’m sitting on a six rejections to one success rate after five years of writing and  really, I’m pretty happy with that.  Because I write a LOT! I once wrote a book in ten days…..I am no J. R. R. Tolkien….I’m no Shakespeare….but I can bang out a book faster than most agents and publishers can read them! Of course then I have to go back and smooth it over and polish it up. I talked about banishing the dreaded ‘writers block’ (man flu for writers) with caffeine and chocolate (in huge quantities). I was asked some thoughtful questions and some randoms like ‘what is my take on pineapple on a pizza?’. I am fine with pineapple just hold the pepperoni because I don’t do meat….that did not go down well….being a vegetarian is apparently ‘lame’. I managed to have a lot of fun talking to them and did not swear once. Not once.

I missed my family…oh who am I kidding. I did not. And I didn’t miss cleaning up after them or making school lunches or cooking gourmet meals. And the reason MOST of all that I did not miss them, was the breakfast buffet by the pool with just the sound of birdsong for company…oh and the hilarious literary gossip over never-ending plates of food and cups of coffee so that there was no need to eat for the rest of the day. And someone made my bed for me! Bonus!

I had old friends come to say hello and pamper me with good food and wine. I saw my parents. Thank-you Dad for being my date to the Prologue Party. and thank-you Mum for the bizarre cookie jar present! The Gold Coast is my home town and she certainly made me feel welcome. I managed to catch some brilliant presentations by some other speakers and I learned so much about the process and the industry from them. Most of all I loved chatting to the students. It was so heartening to see kids fired up about BOOKS!

This was the most fun I’ve had since the Rock n Roll Writer’s Festival this time last year. I could dig a festival sort-of nomadic existence of hotel rooms, buffet breakfasts, stimulating conversations with award-winning writers, illustrators and film makers. (I shared an Uber with Rachel Perkins which had me a little star-struck).

Benjamin Law did the keynote speech at the impressive last-night dinner. A string quartet played. We dined on fine fare and drank champagne and talked books and books and laughed with budding writers, parents and staff from Somerset. It was brilliant. Thanks to all at Somerset. Particularly Desmond and Jack!!!

I came away stimulated to write a novel called THE WRITER’S FESTIVAL. It will be a chick lit tale about three women authors who attend a writer’s festival in a lonely small town in the middle of the red desert of Western Australia. The festival is being organised by a mysterious billionaire and has dashing writers from all over the globe attending ( and a couple of rich and famous John Grisham-types for romantic comedy/spice). None of the local townsfolk are remotely interested in books or literature and are dragged along reluctantly… but find themselves gradually inspired and intrigued by these strange writerly folk. These three lead women’s lives are connected in ways they do not realise. But someone knows. And that someone is at The Writer’s Festival. And they have been invited along for a reason! That’s the premise. It’ll probably be written in a week or three. I won’t be drawing from real writers that I met at Somerset. Or will I?? Nah. Would I do that? Writers NEVER draw fictitious characters from life. Never. Or do they? Mwhahahahaha….. 

 

TRUMP’S WITCH HUNT

     The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, looked at the appalling events of the witch hysteria in Salem but it was actually analogous to the times in which he wrote it. The Crucible was shining a light on the Red Scare, the communist hysteria that was being promoted by Senator Joe McCarthy and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover.

     My newly released novel (also based on historical events during the witch-hunting craze), HEXENHAUS, is similarly drawing a sharp parallel between the Early European witch burnings and the situation we find ourselves in today with government-endorsed racism and Islamaphobia sweeping across the globe. The Trump rhetoric that encourages a fear of ‘the other’ is encouraging another wave of hysteria. Policies that exclude minorities or persecute refugees are burning torches of hate stirring up the bonfire of fear and we are all poorer for it.

     This is history repeating itself. Wave after wave, the fear sweeps people up in hysteria, causing them to indulge in crazy behaviour that simply feeds the powerful and enslaves the common man and woman. The Inquisition, the burning of 100,000 witches across the globe for crimes, tried in courts of law, such as ‘riding to a coven on a flying black dog’ was a brutal reaction to an epidemic of fear. Eminent, intelligent, university-trained judges convicted people of such crimes because they had become so blinded by fear and hysteria that the ludicrous became real to them.

     We can look at this and say ‘how ridiculous that superstition ran riot’ but it happened again in Nazi Germany, it happened during the McCarthy-driven terror of ‘the reds’, the communists who were going to destroy the world as we know it. It is happening again in the Western world and like the frog in the boiling water, it is creeping up so insidiously that many don’t see it for what it is and can’t comprehend that they are being played by those in power.

     Fear, such as that seen in the witch hunts, the Jewish Holocaust, the Red Scare and the current Islamaphobia, sets off a chain of nasty behaviour, crushes civil liberties underfoot and limits everyone’s freedom. Lives of innocent people get turned upside down. False accusations. Blacklists. Political repression. Torture. Murder.

     Mark my words. There certainly is climate change going on. The climate of fear is hotting up.

     The anti-witch, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic fervour shrinks us as human beings.

My book Hexenhaus tells the story of three young women caught up in the hysteria of their times. They are persecuted for outlandish and dangerously absurd accusations of witchcraft. While researching those dark burning times, it seemed incredible to me that such a horror could be perpetrated again and yet it goes on and on, only the words change.      Witch. Jew. Muslim. Refugee. Mexican. Feminist.

Fear-mongers are hungry beasts and in their greed for power they destroy us all and rob us of the many freedoms those before us fought so bitterly for, throughout history.

My book Hexenhaus shows how it happens. Please world, don’t let it happen again!