When you’re writing, do you sometimes go off at a tangent? Head off in some absolutely fascinating direction, only to discover later that’s not where you wanted to go? Or perhaps you decide the tangent is the new direction, and that what you wrote before is mostly irrelevant. (Maybe life is like that too?)
In this final blog of this series, which first appeared as guest blogs for Margaret River Press, I’d like to re-introduce the three people I interviewed for the earlier blogs and let them talk about tangents in a different way.
Each of them introduces a fascinating spin-off from their main area of work, a spin-off that in its own way tells us something special about writing and publishing in Australia.
Where the Wild Things Are – Fiona Stager
How big a market is there for children’s books in Australia? Big enough to generate a spin-off specialist bookshop alongside an existing one, according to prominent independent bookseller Fiona Stager.
If you’re a regular, you’ll recall that my second blog in this series was based on an audio interview with Fiona, co-owner of Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, Brisbane. In the audio extract below, she explains how a flourishing children’s ‘corner’ in that bookshop developed into a stand-alone bookshop when the property next door came up for rent.
It augurs well for the future of books and bookshops in Australia that 30% of sales are of children’s books.
Of the two passions Fiona mentions – cook books and travel books, I reckon sales of the former might have risen during the Covid-19 slowdown as locked-in citizens looked for creative in-home activities.
I’ve heard that banana bread was a hot favourite (perhaps literally), but no doubt there were some who pushed the culinary boundaries.
The sales of travel books, especially for overseas destinations, must have surely slumped this year, however, and Fiona was no doubt fortunate she expanded into children’s books instead 🙂
Ambassadors for editing – Karen Lee
If you’ve seen earlier blogs in this series, you may remember that Karen Lee, CEO of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd), told me that if you really want to upset an editor, then suggest to them that what they do is ‘just proofreading’.
To try to address what they see as a major misconception of their contribution to the writing process, IPEd developed an initiative to send out some of its members as ‘ambassadors’ to explain what they do.
Karen tells us the origin and purpose of this IPEd ‘spin-off’ in this video clip.
Funded by the Copyright Agency, access to IPEd ambassadors is free, and Karen encourages writing groups and classes of all kinds to contact the Institute if they are interested in hearing about how editors can help them.
Postcards from future Queensland – Kim Wilkins
In addition to being a well-published author of fantasy and historical adventure stories for women, Kim Wilkins is Associate Professor in Writing, Publishing, and 21st-Century Book Culture at the University of Queensland (UQ). You might have met her through video clips in the first blog in this series.
In April this year, Kim and a colleague, Dr Helen Marshall, launched an initiative from UQ’s School of Communication and Arts which invited senior high school students to imagine a better world, post Covid-19.
In this video clip, Kim talks about the project’s aims:
You can catch up with the progress of the postcards project and see some of the many postcards Queensland high school students have submitted on the project website.
I suggested to Kim Wilkins that asking students to use their imagination in the postcards project fitted closely with her own use of imagination in writing her fantasy and historical fiction novels.
You can see her thoughtful response to that suggestion in the video clip here:
I hope that your own imagination has been sparked by Kim’s comments and also by the insightful inputs from Karen Lee and Fiona Stager into this blog. I’m very thankful to all three of them for their willingness to take part in this series and for their stimulating responses to the questions I posed.
What impressed me overall was not only their openness but also the enthusiasm each one showed for their particular contribution to the writing and publishing world.
Through these four blogs I’ve learned a lot about writing, editing, publishing and bookselling and a little bit more about technology. I hope you enjoyed the ride.
If you haven’t yet seen the three earlier blogs in this series, you can find them on my Writesite blog: drdymock.wordpress.com
Author, editor and journalist Gary Kamiya said an editor is responsible for making a piece of writing ‘more like a Stradivarius and less like a woodchip’. He intriguingly suggested that the primary responsibility of an editor is not to the writer but to the reader.
Karen Lee, CEO of the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) sent me Kamiya’s short piece on editing when I first made contact with her about contributing to a guest blog series for Margaret River Press in August 2020.
So as part of that series I was interested to follow this up with Karen, and explore with her the purpose of IPEd and the role of editors in the writing process.
This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview with Karen. The short video clip below will serve to introduce her and give you some idea of her passion for what editors do.
I asked Karen how IPEd had come about. If I wasan editor, I said, why would I want to join IPEd?
Karen said that the majority of IPEd’s members are freelancers, sole traders, mostly working independently from home, and therefore potentially professionally isolated. She said the association came about when a number of smaller societies came together because they saw the need to network, to talk about professional standards and to consider professional development. Last year the Australian-based IPEd extended its reach to New Zealand, and is also seeking to better serve those working in-house in business and government.
Editors join IPEd for reasons similar to those of authors who join writing workshops and go to writers’ festivals, Karen said – to improve and hone their skills, and also to network, to get to know other writers. IPEd provides an opportunity for editors to get to know each other, she said, to form some connections. And sometimes there’s an additional spin-off – new business.
As a result of the various constraints and working-from-home requirements over the past few months, many organisations have moved to a new reliance on technology to keep staff in touch. It seems IPEd was already ahead of the game, as Karen explains in the video clip here:
While IPEd’s use of technology and its paperless office have helped the organisation cope smoothly with recent external changes, I asked Karen how members were faring under the Covid-19 slowdown. After all, editors, particularly freelancers, normally have a bit of ebb and flow in their work because they’re reliant on writers who also have ebb and flow. How had it been for them in recent times?
Karen said that they had undertaken a survey early in the closedown period, and from more than 200 responses, about half said it was too early to tell if there would be any effect on their business, and about the same number were already experiencing some downturn, with advance bookings dropping and workflows slowing. ‘But we’ve heard of some others,’ she said, ‘who say they’re going gangbusters.’ It seems that some authors were dusting off their manuscripts now that they had time to work on them again. At the time of this interview, Karen said IPEd planned to regularly monitor how members were going.
I also asked Karen about the impact the pandemic might have on IPEd’s future operations. You can see her reply here:
In reply to my question about how a writer might find an editor that’s just right for them, Karen assured me that the Editors Directory on the IPEd website is the way to go.
The next question a writer might of course ask is how much is having a manuscript edited likely to cost. It seems that there is no standard fee, and that IPEd members may use different criteria for a quote, as Karen explains in this video clip:
A major question for writers is, of course, whatever the basis for the fee, is it worth paying an editor to edit your manuscript. Is there likely to be sufficient value added to justify the cost and effort? Should we expect a Stradivarius? Karen Lee said that if you want to really incense an editor, suggest to them that what they do is ‘just proofreading’.
As a professional association, IPEd has to look inwards to serve the needs of its members. But at the same time, it extends its influence outwards into the community of writers through the activities of those members.
I asked Karen Lee the rather large question of what contribution she thinks the body of editors as a whole makes to the publication process. You can see her response here:
In that video clip, Karen Lee mentions that she is also a writer. I finished the interview by asking her whether she has a favourite author.
Karen said that of the authors she admires and who inspire her, Amy Tan is right at the top of her list. Also, recently she’d been introduced to the writing of Elif Shafak, a Turkish author who writes about religion in Turkey and the status of women in that country. Karen said that Elif Shafak’s writing reminded her of that of Isabel Allende, in that she writes very lyrically and very passionately, but also that she writes about issues that pick up on her country’s political nuances .
Another favourite is Yangsze Choo, a Malaysian author in America. ‘It was such a delight to read stories that were based in Malaysia with Malaysian-Chinese culture,’ Karen said, ‘and that had been well received at an international level.’
You will have seen even from her responses in this blog that Karen Lee is passionate about the role of editors and the purpose of IPEd.
In the short piece she sent me from Gary Kamiya, he admonished editors to ‘make it light and tight and strong so that it sings’. Writers and publishers alike would be glad to hear such a song.
Still to come
In the final blog for the Margaret River Press series, each of the three people I’ve interviewed adds another fascinating dimension to the writing and publishing process.
If, like me, your senses respond to the feel and smell of books in a bookshop, you’ll like Avid Reader.
This award-winning independent bookstore has been in the high street at West End in Brisbane for 22 years and has firmly established itself in the local community. In recent years they’ve spun off a successful children’s bookshop next door: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
But the past few months of 2020 have been tough for storefront bookshops, and I recently talked to co-owner Fiona Stager about how Avid Reader has coped. This is an edited version of that telephone conversation. It first appeared on the guest blogger page at Margaret River Press in August 2020.
First I asked Fiona about changes she’d seen in publishing in the past two decades. You can listen to her response in this audio clip.
The developments Fiona mentions in that audio clip were of course all before a certain pandemic swept across the world and turned many businesses upside down, including bookshops.
I asked Fiona how Avid Reader had responded to the constraints of Covid-19 measures. You can hear her reply in this audio clip.
Despite the limitations of Zoom-based events, Fiona says they will continue with them after the current restrictions have gone:
Using Zoom has really allowed us to engage with a much wider audience. Each time we’ve done a Zoom there’s been an interesting story that’s come out of it. After our first Zoom event we did a survey: ‘I’ve always wanted to come to your events but I live in Western Australia’; ‘I used to come to all your events but now I’ve moved out of Brisbane and with Zoom I can come to all your events.’
Fiona has also moved all her book clubs to Zoom. But despite the geographically expanded audience, she says that sales are down compared to walk-in events. With an in-store book launch, for example, people often not only buy that book, but they also browse the shelves, and pick up other books that appeal to them on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, Fiona says they will continue with Zoom even when face-to-face events restart because they know it does reach people beyond the immediately reachable community:
For any number of reasons people can’t come to the shop, but we’ve built such a strong reputation that people jumped at the chance of coming to Zoom events. It’s really opened up the world for us. It also means we can curate our program to even finer detail. So we’ve been able to match the best interviewer for the author, and they don’t have to be in the same city. For example one author was in Melbourne and the interviewer was in Sydney.
‘An ecosystem of small business’
Fiona actively fosters a sense of community, not only among the bookshop’s clients, but also among local businesses. She says that after such a long time in West End, she sees Avid Reader as an ‘anchor tenant’ which relies on other small businesses but has an obligation to them as well:
I made a commitment to our staff, our publishers and writers that we would be here after this [the Covid-19 shutdown]. But also I was really committed to being here for other businesses around us. It’s an important ecosystem of small business, that we all really need each other. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
And there’s been unexpected spin-off from the constraints:
I must say I’ve never been so pleased to be near a chemist. I’ve always thought it was important to be near good retailers, like a good shoe shop, good fashion, good food, a good bakery … . But now, I think it’s been really great to have been close to a chemist. People come out and go to the chemist for something, and then they come to us because the chemist is right next door.
Clearly Fiona is always on the lookout for ways her own business can survive alongside and with the other retailers in West End. But as a bookshop, Avid Reader faces particular challenges at this time.
I asked Fiona about her predictions for the future of publishing and book-selling in Australia in the coming months. You can hear her response here:
Fiona added that in the emerging sales climate, not all the books released later in the year will make it. And that’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, she says, but to the fact that they’re ‘competing for everything from our shelf space to media and what will get coverage and traction.’
As for Avid Reader itself, I asked Fiona how she was feeling about the bookshop’s future in the midst of this uncertainty. You can listen to her prognosis here:
Fiona’s response is the experienced and pragmatic voice of someone who’s been in the book trade for more than 20 years. It’s clear she sees some hurdles and unknowns ahead. As with the spread of the pandemic itself, retail businesses are in uncharted territory, with a compass we’re all learning to use as we go along.
Nevertheless, in the midst of predictions of retail gloom and doom, and her struggles to maintain a solid client base, Fiona maintains a pro-active and optimistic outlook. Not that she hasn’t had her doubts. ‘At one stage I was just too stressed to read anything,’ she told me. ‘But now I’ve got myself out of that hole.’
So, with the stock of a whole bookshop to choose from, what does Fiona like to read?
I read mostly new fiction. I read a little bit of non-fiction. It will often depend if I’m being any kind of book judge – if I’m judging a literary award, I will read fiction, non-fiction, children’s books as well, and a little bit of young adult.
You’ve probably realised by now that Avid Reader is not only a bookshop but a dynamic part of its local community. We need all the publishing outlets our pockets can sustain, and power to them, but independent bookshops seem to have a special place in our communities, whether you visit them in person or online. And at the end of the year, you might think of Fiona’s prediction that for authors, publishers and booksellers alike, ‘it will depend how Christmas goes’.
Until next time
In the next blog, I’ll bring you another perspective on writing and publishing: a video interview with a key figure in editing.
Kim Wilkins smiled when I asked her what the main stumbling blocks are for aspiring writers. ‘Some writers think that if they see a lot of Marvel movies, they can write a good book,’ she said. ‘ But you have to serve your apprenticeship.’
And Kim should know. She’s the author of more than 30 novels, the first one published over 20 years ago. As Kim Wilkins she writes fantasy – epic, paranormal and urban, and as Kimberley Freeman she’s the author of historical adventure stories for women. You’ll meet her in this video clip as she talks briefly about what she likes to write about.
For fantasy, try the first book in Kim Wilkins’ recent trilogy, Daughters of the storm , and if you want a taste of her historical fiction, Kimberley Freeman’s most popular book is Wildflower Hill.
When Margaret River Press invited me to be a guest blogger, I decided that the best thing I could do for a struggling publishing and bookselling industry was to talk to people in the frontline. I’m delighted that Kim, prolific author and Associate Professor in Writing, Publishing and 21st-Century Book Culture at the University of Queensland, agreed to be the first in the series. This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview.
Darryl: Kim, you write popular fiction and you also need to publish in journals in your academic role. Are there challenges in writing concurrently across different genres like that?
Kim:What’s been really interesting to me is how many of the techniques of creative writing I’ve been able to transfer across to academic writing. The further I go in my career and the more certain I am of my ideas, the more I like to write academic work a bit creatively. I think that if you do want to convey your message, you do have to write it well.
I would like my ideas to get out there, especially the stuff I’ve done on genre communities. Because I’m sure the genre communities themselves would like to read some of that. So I try to use techniques of levity, metaphors, etc.
You prove your intelligence in your ability to communicate your message, not in your ability to befuddle your reader. Big words that are hard to read don’t belong on the first page of a novel and they don’t belong where you want to reach your audience either.
I asked Kim where she thought publishing was heading and what changes she’d seen in publishing since her first book was published in 1997. In this video clip, she provides a succinct summary of the key changes she’s seen over that period:
Darryl: So, against those developments that you’ve just so nicely charted in that video clip, what’s your best guess about the future of publishing?
Kim:Instead of thinking about it as books and publishing, I like to think about it as storytelling. We always have told stories.
There’s heaps more room for writers to be published. There’s just not more money. The very definition of publishing has changed. You’ve got to stop thinking about getting published by a Big Five publisher. Contraction of big publishing is a story in itself that does not bode well for writers who have aspirations for a best-seller like Harry Potter.
Everything’s changed since that first Harry Potter book came out about 20 years ago. But it does mean you’ll be able to get your story out more easily. It will just look a bit different. And some people will still be best sellers.
What the publishing industry itself needs to do is recognise what its unique value proposition is, what it does better than any other industry. I’m a big believer in small regional presses. I believe that’s going to save the publishing industry.
I first met Kim Wilkins 15 years ago when she was a tutor for a Queensland Writers Centre course, ‘The year of the novel’. As a neophyte writer for a commercial market, I was in awe of her achievements and impressed by her teaching ability. Kim helped me realise how little I knew about ‘constructing’ a story, as distinct from simply telling one. Her course was also my introduction to the mysteries of the publishing industry and its quirks and expectations.
Given Kim’s long experience as a writing teacher, mentor and well-published author, it seemed appropriate to ask her what advice she had for aspiring writers.
Kim started off by telling me that Nick Cave once said that ‘all artists, writers included, are egomaniacs, with low self-esteem.’ She told me with a self-deprecatory laugh that she thinks that is one of the best descriptions ever.
In this video clip, Kim talks frankly about the sorts of attitudes and practices she thinks aspiring writers need to overcome if they are to take their writing to the next level:
Darryl: Finally, Kim, do you have a favourite author or book?
Kim:My favourite book of all time is Lord of the Rings . I love Marian Keyes – her Walsh sisters books are great. I read a lot of non-fiction – very interested in books about ideas and how people think, politics. I read omnivorously and I like to be surprised by books.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Kim Wilkin’s perspective on writing and publishing. If you’re a writer seeking publication, she has suggested that there are more opportunities than ever for writers to publish their work, but that they need to be looking outside traditional pathways. And she champions regional presses (as well as regional writers’ groups).
After many years of teaching and mentoring, Kim has also shown us a hard-nosed approach to the craft of writing – don’t expect instant success in your writing, she says. Do the hard yards, and don’t let social media distract you.
And in discussing her own writing, whether in fantasy, historical fiction or academia, Kim Wilkins makes it clear we can’t go past the old adage: good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes.
Until next time
Coming up on this blog: Watch for interviews with an award-winning bookseller and a key figure in Australian editing.
Buying a copy or sending the book as a gift would give support to a local publisher, or you can order through bookshops, also struggling at the moment. It sells at AU$35 post-free from Hachette or just AU$11.99 as an e-book.
Sorry, T-shirts sold out!
And of course I’d be happy as an author that my book is in more hands (or ears!). If any royalties come my way, I’ll donate them to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which I’ve long supported.
In case you don’t know the book, it tells the story of Bundaberg-born Bert Hinkler, the first person to fly solo from England to Australia. He also made an amazing loop from Canada to New York to Brazil to west Africa and to London. Although his superb flying skills took him across the globe, however, he was a complex man who struggled to make his mark in a fast-changing world.
Bert Hinkler came to a premature and controversial end when his plane crashed in Italy mid-winter 1933 during another record attempt. It’s an amazing story.
The author with Bert Hinkler memorial, Mt Pratomagno, Italy
Well-known Australian aviator and entrepreneur Dick Smith said: ‘Hustling Hinkler is a fantastic book and an absorbing read.’
Darryl R Dymock
Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
~ Leonardo da Vinci
My last post on this site was 4 March, and what a topsy turvy time we’ve all had in the days since then!
To think that just a couple of months ago most of us had never heard of coronavirus – now tens of thousands have lost their lives to Covid-19, and hundreds of thousands across the world have been stricken with the virus.
Distancing at the take-away coffee shop
Surely ‘social distancing’ will have to be the phrase of the year if not the decade.
In this not so brave new world, individuals, small businesses and corporations have had their lives turned upside down.
For writers, it’s sad to see bookshops struggling to survive as shoppers’ movements become restricted, because we know how much we depend on them to keep the printed word in front of readers.
A couple of independent local bookshops in my hometown of Brisbane have responded in innovative ways. Riverbend Books, where I launched Hustling Hinkler, has closed its physical doors but has introduced free local delivery and a ‘Drive Thru’ service. I can forgive their mangling of ‘through’ when I hear that ‘cars are rolling through the car park all day picking up orders’.
Suzy Wilson, Riverbend Books
Riverbend’s owner, Suzy Wilson, thanked customers for the many kind words that had come their way in the past week. ‘They’ve done much to keep our spirits up,’ she said.
Across town, Avid Reader bookshop, where I launched The Chalkies, has introduced a free local bicycle delivery service for the surrounding area, and promises same day delivery. Apparently it’s keeping Rachel (pictured) fit and happy. Win-win.
Avid Reader’s owner, Fiona Stager, is also encouraging customers to support other small stores in the area. ‘Every purchase at a local small business makes a big difference at the moment,’ she said.
Fiona Stager, Avid Reader
The challenge is of course, to sustain this support. As Ed Nawotka said in the Los Angeles Times on 25 March, the concern is that these responses to local initiatives are just a temporary show of collective goodwill. Let’s hope they’re not.
As I was writing this, on my playlist Ben Lee was singing, very appropriately, ‘We’re all in this together’.
Let’s continue to support each other each other in this weird and uncertain time, and believe that our bookshops will still be going when we come out at the other end.
I certainly hope so, because I’ve no doubt that writers across the world are taking advantage of their enforced isolation to churn out hundreds of thousands of words, and many of them will be looking for a publishing outlet. Let’s hope the publishers survive too.
I can’t claim to have had the sort of media exposure that major authors and literary prize-winners receive, but as an author I’ve done quite a few radio interviews across Australia and even one from New Zealand, so thought I’d pass on what I’ve learnt, in case it’s helpful to other ‘small-time’ authors.
ABC ‘Tardis’ studio Brisbane
Most radio interviews are set up in advance, so make sure you spend time preparing for the sorts of questions you might be asked. Once when I was interviewed about Hustling Hinkler, my biography of trailblazing Australian pilot Bert Hinkler, who died in 1933, the theme was ‘Do we still have heroes today?’ Other times regional radio stations were particularly interested in the times Hinkler visited their towns, and on other occasions the questions were broader, such as ‘Why was Bert Hinkler so famous in his day?’
Radio interviews are mostly leisurely and the interviewers tend to be supportive, keen to make their program interesting to their listeners, so you need to be interesting too.
Morning TV interview
Television is more demanding because unless you’re on a literary program you’ll probably get a few minutes to answer questions, and you might not get a lot of notice. In one TV interview I did, remotely for a morning show, I knew I would have about three minutes, and I took the advice of an experienced PR person to use the politicians’ strategy: Have a key point to make whatever they ask you!
When we’re nervous, which we usually are at the beginning of an interview, we tend to ramble on a bit. So it’s good if you have the main points in front of you (one of the advantages of radio is that the audience doesn’t know what prompts you have, even if the presenter does!), but don’t read from a pre-prepared script – it will sound unnatural and likely be boring to listeners.
Respond to the interviewer
Try to respond directly to the questions the interviewer asks, but be prepared for the fact that they probably haven’t had time to read the book, but may have grasped a few key points from the back cover or the introduction. Sometimes the program’s producer will have done some groundwork and prepared a few questions for the interviewer.
If your book is on a controversial theme or topic, the interviewer may ask probing questions, which you need to be prepared for and answer as calmly and firmly as you can – if you antagonise the interviewer, you may also antagonise your audience.
With my book, Extending your use-by date, I found that interviewers generally themselves connected positively with the theme. On one occasion, when a presenter on a major radio station in a large city gently queried my suggestion that people really wanted to stay working, they received calls from all over assuring them that some people did, including a truckie on a highway somewhere. This radio person was an experienced presenter, and not at all combative, and said on air that they were surprised by the responses from listeners.
Speak to your audience
In general, the audience will probably also not have read the book, so this is your chance to connect with them so that they understand the theme and plot and purpose – whatever is likely to be important to the sorts of readers your book is aimed at. This means using language that’s appropriate for that audience. And make sure you mention the name of the book a few times, without overdoing it.
I’ve done radio interviews by phone, face-to-face in a studio, and remotely in a studio, where the interviewer is in another city. One thing I learnt quite early is just because the producer who contacted you in advance says you’ll be on the air at a particular time doesn’t mean you will be.
When you do an interview by phone or remotely, usually the producer makes contact just beforehand and puts you on hold, so that you can hear the program live before the presenter gets to you. I quickly discovered that previous segments often over-ran their allotted time, or occasionally there’d be a significant news story that took over that day and it had to be covered before they got to me. No one apologises – it’s just part of the ebb and flow of live radio, which to me adds an exciting edge to the medium.
On the hop
I did a radio interview late last year where I didn’t have time to prepare. I was at an event at an Army Museum in central New South Wales where they were launching a special exhibition dedicated to the 300 conscripted teachers the Army had sent to Papua New Guinea from the mid-1960s to the early 70s. I’ve written a book about the experiences of those who went, The Chalkies, and after the opening ceremony I was introduced to Ian McNamara, the presenter of a well-known national Sunday radio show, Australia All Over, who asked if he could interview me. Right then and there. We went around the corner to a place that was slightly quieter, and the man who’s commonly known as Macca pulled a recorder from his pocket and off we went.
Macca interview for Australia All Over
The first two questions were excellent: What’s the name of the book, and what’s the subtitle? I didn’t have the book with me at the time, but I got the first question right; the second one escaped me for the moment but I made up something that was pretty close to it. After that it was a case of listening carefully to his questions and responding to them. Macca’s been doing this show since 1985, so he knows his audience and what he’s after. Five minutes later it was all done! And his last question was one that any author would appreciate: ‘What’s the name of the book again?’
Until next time
What writers say
[As a writer] ‘Janet Frame once likened herself to a “princess, shepherdess, waitress, putter-on of raincoat buttons in a factory … who chose rags from an old bundle, stitched them together, waved a wand and found herself with a completely new dress … I do collect bundles of rags and I like to sew them together: I suppose I must accept the fact that I have no wand”.’ ~ Margaret Drabble
I’ve recently been fortunate enough to make a second visit to Pratomagno, Tuscany, Italy.
That’s the mountain where pioneer Australian aviator, Bert Hinkler, lost his life when his tiny monoplane crashed in January 1933 while he was making another attempt on the England-Australia record.
Regular readers will recall that I wrote a biography of the famous flier, Hustling Hinkler (Hachette Australia, 2013). It was a spin-off from that story which took me back to the crash site in 2018.
When I first went to the mountain two years ago, Cesare Ciabatti, the owner of an excellent restaurant, da Giocondo, which now sits close to the top of the peak, told me that he would love to be able to give visitors a booklet about Hinkler’s long connection with the area.
That connection has been fostered through an impressive display Cesare maintains on his bar wall, and also through Hinkler memorials nearby that are linked by a walking track, the Hinkler Ring, initiated by Carlo Palazzini and friends in the Club Alpino Italiano (Arezzo).
After I returned to Australia, I decided late last year that I would put together a small publication that could be translated into Italian, which Cesare might be able to provide for visitors.
After much liaison with him and with Carlo (who kindly finalised the translation) and with a Brisbane contact, Kevin Lindeberg (who has a much longer attachment to the Hinkler story and to Pratomagno that I do), we produced a foldable double-sided A3 brochure, with text, photos and maps (above).
I arranged for the typesetting and artwork to be done in Australia, and Cesare generously sponsored the printing of the brochure in Italy, in both Italian and English.
Cesare Ciabatti and Carlo Palazzini with the new Bert Hinkler brochure September 2018
I had hoped we might have been able to organise some sort of ‘launch’ of the brochure on Pratomagno, but unfortunately my visit was planned for September, towards the end of the main tourist season, and Cesare needed the brochures several months earlier for his guests.
So I contented myself with a visit to da Giocondo to see the finished product, and a trek around most of the 8 km Hinkler Ring with family in the genial company of Carlo, where once again I was moved by seeing the Hinkler crash-site and memorial.
Carlo Palazzini at 2015 Bert Hinkler Memorial, Pratomagno
This tree on the slopes of Pratomagno may have been the last resting place of Australian pilot Bert Hinkler.
Afterwards I trekked to the top of the peak, which is topped by the giant Croce di Pratomagno (Cross of Pratomagno) and gives 360 degree views, which were spectacular on a warm sunny September day.
The author on his way to the Croce di Pratomagno
We ended a memorable visit appropriately with an excellent meal at da Giocondo, and a local beer. (Yes, I know Chianti is the specialty of Tuscany, but I wanted to try the local brew – it’s called Pratomagno!) Our transport for the day was expertly provided by Andrea from Very Tuscany Tours, and we were glad to see him again after our previous visit to the region.
But wait – there’s more! There’s an intriguing aside to this story that began some months before. When we visited Pratomagno the previous time, good friends from Armidale, New South Wales, Geoff and Judy Hinch, were with us. Sometime after we had returned to Australia, to her surprise and my delight, Judy found three poems about Bert Hinkler in a collection of poems penned on the family farm by her late paternal grandmother, Marion Parsons.
One was written in 1928, when Hinkler made his record-breaking flight from England to Australia; the second was from early 1933, when he had disappeared and was still missing.
The third poem was a tribute to the ‘Women of Strada’, an Italian town not far from Pratomagno. Soon after Hinkler’s body had been found, the women of the town sewed together panels of cloth, cut from whatever material they could find, to create a Union Jack (Hinkler lived in England) that could be draped over his coffin.
The poem concludes:
“Oh splendid Women of Strada
Did you feel when you made that pall
The kinships of wills and mothers
That maketh us sisters all.
And to us the greatest honour
Done for our hero’s sake
Is the flag that the Women of Strada
Tore up their sheets to make.”
Australian newspaper article in 1936, three years after Hinkler’s burial outside Florence
It seemed fitting that I should read that poem in the presence of Cesare and Carlo on the slopes of Pratomagno at the time of my second visit. The poem and its discovery seem to emphasise the significant historical and perhaps emotional connection the two countries have to Bert Hinkler, and why it continues.
Until next time
What writers say:
We occasionally felt that inside the book we read there was a better one – sometimes a thinner one- straining to get out.
~ Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chairperson, Man Booker Prize judging panel, 2018
Recently I stopped in the Victorian rural town of Corryong, and discovered something about a famous Australian poem, The Man from Snowy River, written in the 1890s by A. B. (Banjo) Paterson.
This stirring poem tells the story of a group of riders in pursuit of a valuable colt that had escaped and joined ‘the wild bush horses’ in rugged mountain country, and how:
When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy* took a pull,
It well might make the boldest hold their breath,
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.
Eventually this ‘stripling on a small and weedy beast’ turned the mob of horses around and ‘alone and unassisted brought them back’.
The poem’s continued popularity is due of course to the theme of an heroic individual beating the odds in a rugged environment where the rest of his mates had given up. No wonder there was a movie spin-off.
Paterson always claimed the story was created from several stories he’d heard, but over the years a number of people have claimed to have been or to have known ‘the man from Snowy River’.
A B (Banjo) Paterson
The town of Corryong sits attractively at the base of the Australian Alps, and it’s easy to see how the area and local characters might have inspired Paterson to set his poem there. (Corryong has claimed the poem as its own, as have a few other towns in the area, but Corryong also has an annual festival).
I learned in my stopover there that the poem was first published in The Bulletin magazine in 1890, but what interested me as a writer was that Paterson kept changing the original slightly, and that the one published in a collection of his poems in 1895 was probably the fourth version.
Apparently W H Auden was also known for continuing to ‘fiddle’ with the text of his poems between editions.
I don’t know whether any modern authors edit their material in this way when new editions appear, but I can’t imagine publishers are too keen on changing the text once it’s set up for printing.
Nevertheless, I know that feeling of sending off the ‘final’ version of a book or short story and later thinking of ways I might have improved it.
I guess the lesson for us lesser writers is that if we can’t make changes after publication, we need to do all the rewriting beforehand. (Except of course for blogs – Caution: This version may not be the original, or the final one …)
Until next time
Darryl R Dymock
*Clancy of the Overflow was another well-known Australian bushman created by Banjo Paterson.
What writers say
‘In my racket it’s so easy to tighten up and get all stiff and wooden. Then the stuff is no good. When it’s good it comes easy. Anything you have read or heard to the contrary is a lot of mish-mash.’ ~ Character Roger Wade (a writer) in The long good-bye by Raymond Chandler.