Alumni Feature June 2010

Journey into the heartland of a novel

Alumna Gillian Turner was one of last year's Varuna visitors to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Ireland. She sent us this stunning report of her time there.

The view from Gillian's room at AnnaghmakerrigThere were men on the road with guns when I set off for my last walk around Annaghmakerrig.

The view from Gillian's room I heard the sound of riflefire deep within the forest, followed by piercing yelps and high-pitched screams.

A young lad in khaki camouflage watched me cagily from the other side of the white metal gates, at the end of the driveway. He shifted uncomfortably as I surveyed the large truck behind him, its trailer loaded with panting dogs.

I walked edgily towards him; behind me the beckoning safety of the Tyrone Guthrie Estate. A stroll through the country laneways and woodlands that cradle the elegant cluster of stone buildings and outhouses had become a ritual part of my daily routine. I wasn’t prepared to forego a final circuit around the permiter. I needed a proper sense of completion for one of the most intense, productive months of my life.

Although this had been my first visit to Ireland, Annaghmakerrig was a place of deep emotional resonance. In my haphazard, sometime diary I wrote: ‘I feel as though I have been coming here for as long as I can remember. Not coming here in the sense that you or I might normally use the words – as if I have stood in the grounds and looked up at the house, or ventured inside. But coming here in the sense that I set out on a journey that would one day lead me here.’

The lake bore an uncanny resemblence to one I had visualised in meditation. I understood intuitively that I had entered into a world of symbolism, a sacred space, where I would learn to journey into the flat uninhabited landscapes of my novel. No one had told me about the magical, frenetic quality of the energy that flows through the rooms and gardens of Annaghmakerrig.

Cottages and artists' studios at Annaghmakerrig I had arrived at Annaghmakerrig with a full-length readers’ draft divided into numbered segments that I had hastily finished in the weeks leading up to my departure from Sydney. I had a plan for my work, developed with guidance from Peter Bishop as part of a Varuna manuscript review and consultation. There would be much to rework and rewrite, and much to learn. Importantly Peter had stressed that a plan was a snapshot of what needed to be done at a point in time, that I should not allow it to become rigid.

An early walk along the shores of the lake on my first morning challenged my plan from the outset. I had laid out the segments of my novel across the floor of my room, intending to play with putting them in different positions, to search for a better flow. And yet I felt compelled to walk to the lake.

Annaghmakerrig from across the lake Gazing towards the far shore I understood that the task ahead of me was like the waters of the lake, vast and hidden. I knew I wasn’t ready to explore the dark centre. But the stones and small pebbles at the water’s edge were clearly visible. I would begin with what was immediate and apparent.

As I walked the narrow path that winds along the foreshore of the lake, I was overcome by unbidden feelings of despairing, helpless, hopeless, overwhelming love. It threw me; I couldn’t place it. I stood still and looked around, beside me a bank of tangling blackberries. I plucked a ripe fruit, savoured its delicious, remembered taste; noticed the thorns. Slowly it came to me that I was tapping in to the feelings of a character in my novel, a character whom I had had difficulty getting to know. Back in my room I typed furiously, recording and detailing the storm of feelings and emotions that was being unleashed.

It was the first of many such occasions where I experienced strange moods, elated feelings, deep melancholy or dark thoughts – sudden shifts that were foreign to my own sense of normality. Each one shed new light on a character in my novel – about the way they experienced their world and the way they related to the people in it. My task was to recognise the clue and interpret its meaning for the story, or the way I needed to write it. I could always tell I was on the right track when the mood or feeling began to lighten, and finally fell away as I wrote it out. I was beginning to understand what writers mean when they say their characters have taken over the writing of their story. And while I never felt I gave away my overall authorship I certainly saw how my characters breathed life and colour into the farthest corners of the narrative.

The boat house There were days when my novel wanted to block me out. At first I fought to get back in, until I learnt I was being shown the value of distance, and the importance of timing. After a week or so, I took to rowing on the lake, and wondered why I had left it so long. Had I really believed the stories at dinner about a strong current that might sweep me to the other end of the lake from where it would be difficult to row back?

In the middle of the lake, I pulled the oars in to the dinghy and leant against the ornate metal back rest. I waited, motionless. The echoes of daily life ricocheted across the water, clearer and more intense than the muffled sounds that travelled across the front lawn and into my first floor room. I heard individual birdcalls, dogs barking on the other side of the forest, the wind softly brushing against the surface of the water, and the clunk of machinery in the distance. The message for my novel, I knew, was that it was time to venture into the deep parts, the parts that looked dangerous, straight into the heart of the novel – and that I needed to do so from the beginning. Only in this way would I be able to cast the rest of the novel into proper relief. My opening was too soft, too subtle. It wasn’t a strong enough hook to draw the reader in. I needed to begin my novel where the story hurt, with the danger. It now starts with a rape.

In the local pub - Gillian in the gold jacket Annaghmakerrig wasn’t only about serious work, it was also about fun and friendship, and lots of laughter.

Evenings saw the artists in residence gather for dinner, which was often followed by impromptu performances of song and music, or writing – poetry and short stories. A couple danced on the table and we celebrated the 250th anniversary of Guinness with a potent cocktail of champagne and Guinness.

There was humour too, like the time a man barged into my room, looking for mice. What he actually meant, when I asked for clarification, was he was looking to see if the mice had taken the bait in the little black box beside the window, the one that was sitting perilously close to my permanently unzipped, open carry-on case.

I enjoyed the whimsical nature and the playfulness in the way some Irish went about their business. Like the driver who met me at the airport for my first few days, in Dublin. His fuel tank said empty, and the car wouldn’t travel above 30 kilometers per hour, but it was the electric window on his side (that wouldn’t close) he was at pains to apologise for. The fuel wasn’t a worry, he assured me, the car could travel a further fifty kilometers while registering empty, although it was true, he admitted, he hadn’t noticed when the gauge had dropped to empty. I liked him so much I booked him for the return trip to the airport – to pick up my rented car for the drive to Annaghmakerrig.

House of hemp and lime - fellow writer in jeans One of my fellow writers, a builder who writes incredibly funny and insightful short stories, and who knew of my interest in things environmental, took me to visit the nearby house of a friend – the son of one of Ireland’s best known writers. The man and his family live in a round house plastered with hemp and lime – a form of construction that makes a very significant contribution to combating climate change.

I was thinking of everything I’d seen and done, of the huge progress I had made in taking my novel to a new level, and of the introductions I had been given to agents and editors in London – people from whom I might seek guidance and help – when I set out for that last walk around Annaghmakerrig.

I turned right, past the large tree with its trunk festooned with creepers, and kept walking. A few days earlier a fellow writer had spied a hunter in the woods – hunting in the woods was not allowed. She had feared his prey was human, not animal. Fellow artists had begun to shun the far side of the lake – my favourite spot when I wasn’t rowing. Or writing.

The young lad scowled, and looked away. His dismissive stance suggested I had sealed my own fate.

A shot rang out. It sounded closer. Screams faded into whines. Had they scored a fox? Undaunted by the hostile glances of the men stationed at intervals along the road I kept on walking. I looked at the man ahead, his gun hung by his side. I smiled. I needed to show I wasn’t scared, and to register my presence within the radius of their guns. But I kept on walking.

Annaghmakerrig had taught me a new kind of courage. Courage in my own writing, in my self worth as a writer. The courage gained from reading aloud to published writers and artists, from receiving feeback that was considered and helpful. Feedback that told me they had listened. That what I had written was worth writing.

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NEXT MONTH: Challenges & Pitfalls of Memoir Writing

For a discussion of the challenges and pitfalls of memoir writing see next month's News & events. Here are some questions to get you going.


  1. Memoir has had a couple of cracking controversies in recent years - how are you dealing with the truth/memory/creative non-fiction bind?
  2. Authors including Lionel Shriver have spoken about the hazards of writing about real and oftentimes still living people - what is especially difficult, challenging or surprising about this aspect of writing your memoir? How do you feel about the notion of seeking 'permission'?
  3. To whom, if anyone, do you feel you are writing? And if the book's finished and living its own life, are you surprised by the company it's keeping, has it reached people whom you never expected to touch?
  4. What is your day-to-day writing process, and how do you progress the MS from draft form to the bookstore?
  5. Any juicy/harrowing/hilarious insights into your own path to publication?

Alumni News

We asked Fiona McGregor, now back in Sydney, to share a little of her writing life, her habits and hardships, and she’s rewarded us with this pensive piece we’re sure you’ll enjoy.

Wake into writing...

I’m a morning writer. When I’m involved in a book, I get up, take my breakfast to the desk, and wake into writing. The first couple of years are difficult, and I can’t write for long. The final drafts are all-consuming.

I’ll often start with reading a few pages of a book. Poetry can be good. Or else prose by a writer who is singing the kind of music that chimes with what I’m working on. Alice Munro, John Updike, Zola, Mary Gaitskill. It varies.

In Bondi, where I lived alone for many years, the sun came hard into my tiny sunroom/study, and I worked with the blinds down, bathed in slatted light. I learnt to surf late in life, and some mornings when I woke early, I would begin the days with a dawn surf. If the swell was smooth, and I caught waves, and the writing was smooth too, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. For a while there I got totally caught up in surfing and writing metaphors, so if the waves were really big and I got mashed, or it was gnarly and rippy and impossible to negotiate, I would start my writing day feeling very dispirited. Writers will use any excuse to not write. They will blame anything when it doesn’t go well – even the poor, magnificent, oblivious ocean.

I began meditating a couple of years ago too, and that was a great way to start the day, a great head clearer and calmative. Sadly, I don’t have much discipline and I keep losing the habit of meditation, even though I recommend it to everybody. I’m like Oscar Wilde: I give away the best advice instead of using it myself.

But most of my writing life it was just up, kitchen, breakfast, desk. Thinking, reading, nail filing. Occasionally writing. Another cup of tea. Sometimes a cup of coffee. More toast. Maybe a bit of writing. Conversations with cat, washing up, washing, gardening. A second and third breakfast. Anything to avoid the desk. But I would get the work done. Eventually.

Being so undisciplined, so dreamy and evasive and hyperactive and easily bored and a bit anal domestically, I kind of had to cordon myself off from the world in order to maintain the deep focus novel writing requires. I always thought that what most other writers could achieve in three hours, I needed ten to. It’s as though I never stopped taking speed, and my mind won’t stay quiet. So I never meet anyone for breakfast or lunch, I don’t get social till dusk, like a vampire. I never read the paper in the mornings unless I’m having the day off. For earning money, I always choose jobs that start late in the day or on weekends.

I’m also a workaholic.

In crucial writing times I can’t go out late, or get drunk, or muck around; I’m too engaged with the people in my head. I lived alone for about twenty years and habits like this meant a lot of isolation, and sometimes I wanted that, but other times it was very, very lonely.

I wrote Indelible Ink on an ancient laptop that had no online access. The computer with internet was banished to the living-room, but sometimes I cheated, and going online at the beginning of the day always fucked up my writing. I felt awful afterwards, like I’d eaten loads of greasy takeaway. In Berlin, where I wrote the last drafts of the book, I preferred living in places with no wireless. Wireless feels like constant surveillance.

Now everything has changed. I’m sharing a house in Redfern. I’m not going to live alone anymore. I want to be more social, but I’m sticking to my morning routine. I also had a five-week holiday this year, and I’m going to continue taking off as much time off as I can. My surfboard is inaccessible behind the box mountain in my storage unit: I haven’t surfed for nearly a year, and I miss the ocean savagely.

Fiona McGregor

HarperCollins likes it hot

Lisa Walker Alumna Lisa Walker recently completed her ten-day stay at Varuna as a recipient of a HarperCollins/Varuna MS Development Award, now celebrating its tenth year unearthing new Australian talent. Lisa says, “Being chosen for this program was the culmination of many years of effort. Liar Bird, the romantic comedy [that] won me this place, is the fourth novel I have written.”

For Lisa it has been a long road of important but incremental inroads into the publishing industry. She says, “While I have had increasing success with each of my [manuscripts] – getting an agent, winning a place in the Varuna Litlink program – none of these are yet published.”

Lisa’s HarperCollins win is the latest significant nudge in the right direction. “On the day the results were posted, I checked the website hourly,” she says. “At two pm, I realised I’d been looking in the wrong place. Seeing my name on the final list sent me into a spin. Only other writers would appreciate what this feels like.”

During the program Lisa worked with Stephanie Smith, editor of HarperCollins Voyager’s fantasy line. “Stephanie acted like a very curious reader,” Lisa says. “She had read my work twice – amazing – and knew my characters inside out. It was such a privilege and a surprise to work with someone who took my story so seriously. I also loved being with the other writers – all women.”

Lisa is keen to stress one point to her fellow aspirants: “Here’s a hot tip: editors want more sex. We were all working hard on this aspect.”

Aside from providing a steady supply of steamy scenes in the newly developed manuscripts, what’s next for the program participants? “HarperCollins has told us all to rest our manuscripts for at least two months before submitting them,” Lisa says. “Regardless of the outcome, it was a wonderful experience.”

After all that racy action, the characters might enjoy the brief reprieve too… Lisa, congratulations on your progress, and best of luck for the next stage of development!

Broken silence a weighty business

Catherine Therese & publisher Vanessa Radnidge
A slightly unusual piece now, as we look to the shortlist nominations for this year’s National Biography Awards, Australia’s richest award for biographical writing and memoir, dangling a crunchy carrot worth a cool $20,000.

On announcing the shortlist, Award judges noted that, “The shortlist reflects an amazing array of writing styles and treatments of biography, one of which pushes the boundaries of this difficult genre.”

That text was undoubtedly The Weight of Silence, Catherine Therese’s groundbreaking memoir, about which the judges had this to say:

As a coming-of-age memoir, The Weight of Silence contains its due measure of humorous anecdote, painful reminiscence, wry observation, and rueful reflection. Therese's account of a quirky childhood followed by a troubled adolescence fulfils the promise of the genre. What lifts this book up and above the melee is its excoriating exposure of the uncertainty and despair that blights the magazine-glossy pleasures of youth. Therese does not reflect on her girlhood with benign empathy; rather, she guts it and offers it to the reader, unadorned by excuse or therapeutic analysis. Importantly, however, Therese's consistently engaging and funny illustration of the peccadilloes of a generation and an era - from the music to the wallpaper - generates the pathos that transforms the painful reality into something bearable and a cause for optimism.

Upon hearing that Catherine’s memoir was mixing it up with rather more conventional fare (the eventual winner was Brian Matthews for Manning Clark: A Life), your News Editor emailed the author with an overwhelming list of rather nosy questions.

Catherine (pictured above at the awards night with her publisher, Vanessa Radnidge) replied that she was absolutely rapt to be shortlisted alongside such quality authors and their very fine books, but might she please call to discuss my request? But of course! These days I’m lucky to conduct a conversation a day with anyone who actually exists, so I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than shoot the breeze with Catherine, whose reputation as a supremo good sport well and truly preceded her. Here’s my number! Call me; call me now!

I wish I could adequately relay the content of our chat, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do Catherine justice, and anyway I don’t want to speak for her. I hope in a later issue to bring you her unique brand of smarts and funnies, but I do think it’s worth noting why that won’t be happening today.

In a sense, I’d hazard Catherine’s currently a kind of hostage to her broken silence, rather than emancipated from the one that motivated the writing of her memoir in the first place. Despite its cathartic properties, writing the memoir was also hugely confronting, not least for the people who found themselves featured in its pages, of course, but also for its author: now exposed, scrutinised, and judged. Memoirs are increasingly contested, treacherous territory, and Catherine admits she’s already amassed 100,000 words of new material covering her experiences promoting The Weight of Silence.

Once she’s recovered sufficiently from the effects of her debut, I predict Catherine’s new writing will make for riveting reading. Her observations to me over the phone had me both curling my toes and crying laughing, stories including Catherine’s mortified father arriving unannounced at one of her appearances, swiftly removing all the copies of her book to the boot of his car, and reams of hate mail pouring through her door from “The Sharons.”

The shape of things to come…

alumna Alumna Jewelene Barrile’s story The Geometry Lesson has taken out the prestigious 2010 Josephine Ulrick Literature Award, the $10,000 prize making it the richest short-story prize in the country.

Jewelene crafted the story from the opening chapters of her first manuscript, Find Me. Drawing together a compelling family portrait, in which the geometry of its members’ bodies betrays its secrets, the story was created “specifically for this award.”

Jewelene is pictured here, centre, with other prizewinners, clockwise from left: Nathan Curnow, poetry first prizewinner; Carmen Leigh Keates, commended for poetry; Krissy Kneen, short story second prizewinner; and Bronwyn Lea, commended for short story.

Jewelene has fond memories of writing the original chapters: “I’m sentimental about [them]. I always associate them with Varuna, as I wrote their first paragraphs there in Eleanor’s studio amidst her books.”

She describes the process of extracting a short story from a novel-length narrative as “interesting,” adding: “When you’ve been working on a MS for quite a stretch of time, I believe the writing gets both ripe and familiar enough for you to pull out the extract’s essential tenet. Once you have that, you can allude to it in a new opening. Whittle your story to home in. Throw it up high in the air for the reader to catch at the end. Sadly, not all extracts are co-operative.”

Jewelene was treated to star treatment during a long weekend of schmoozing, Queensland-style. Administered through Griffith University, the Josephine Ulrick – which includes a poetry prize and a lucrative total prize pool of around $40,000 – brings with it a diary of both official and informal events.

I was flown up to the sunny Gold Coast for four days,” Jewelene says. “After the main course at the Awards’ Dinner, I received my Literature prize and read 'The Geometry Lesson'.

While some writers wilt under the pressure of performance, dreading public appearances, for Jewelene it felt a natural fit. She says, “[Turns] out, I love reading aloud. In fact, the combination of the mike and podium plus the audience and intense lights - mixed with adrenaline – made the story visceral for me. I could feel audience response to my characters as I read. Saw their reactions in their eyes and the ‘geometry’ of their bodies. By the time I sat down from my first performance that long weekend, I knew I’d change the MS, Find Me, from first person POV to shared third. Other characters were bursting to speak directly, and I saw where the audience was curious.”

So what of the MS that spawned the award-winning entry? After such a rousing endorsement of its reworked opening chapters, does the win represent a timely inducement to return to the longer form?

This MS has been resting for a year while I’ve completed the first draft of my second MS, Close,” Jewelene explains. “Once I‘m happy with its second draft and [have sent] it to my agent for her response, I’ll leap into this revision of Find Me. I fell back in love with its characters as I read out their story.

Personal highlights included martinis with judge Frank Moorhouse (the other was Sally Breen) on the QDeck, Jewelene and runners-up enjoying its “spectacular 360 degree views from the surf to the hinterland and beyond.” She adds, “This was delightful, as I had read his Martini memoir in down-time back by the pool.” Another dinner with Breen and judging co-ordinator Nigel Krauth, both from Griffith University, was “truly inspiring, [because of] their support for Australian writing. As always, I learnt so much from late night dialogue about craft with other writers. I learnt from their amazing performances also.”

So what does winning such a significant prize mean to this Melbourne-based writer?

I feel wonder, and validation. I feel more confident in my own writing, my ability to hear what rings true. New hope that I’ll complete a truly beautiful work one day. Also I now realize how much I appreciate the precision and thrill of the short story form. From now on, I know I’ll always be working on one as well as a novel.

Have story, will travel

On the road to Papunya Heading now from Queensland across to the Northern Territory, Alumna Kathleen Epelde has won the travel story section of the 2010 Northern Territory Literary Awards. Kathleen describes winning for the best travel story as “a thrill.”

Sponsored by the Northern Territory Library, the awards were announced on May 13 at a ceremony held at Parliament House in Darwin. “As part of the prize,” Kathleen says, “I also received a generous cheque for $500 from the Charles Darwin University Bookshop, sponsors of the travel story award.”

The award ceremony was part of Wordstorm 2010, which Kathleen describes as “a lively festival featuring several Indigenous Australian and Southeast Asian voices, among others. So I also spent a few wonderful days meeting other writers, listening to stimulating panel discussions, and relaxing in the beautiful setting of the botanic gardens.”

The story grew out of experiences Kathleen had while “travelling out bush to teach literacy in Aboriginal communities around Alice Springs. What I found there was another world, one full of squalor, pathos, and beauty, and that is what I tried to convey.”

After all the solitary work – undertaken, as we all know, with little more encouragement than the anxious hope that the writing will eventually find its reader – Kathleen’s enjoying testing the old adage that winners are grinners. “Awards represent a form of validation,” she says. “It’s great to have confirmation that there are people out there who enjoy reading the words I spend hours sitting alone in this room stringing together. It has given me renewed energy to keep working on a memoir, which is almost ready for publication.”

Renewed motivation seems to be one of the best side benefits of any win, and we wish Kathleen all the best luck in harnessing hers and getting that memoir in the bag. Congratulations, K!

To read her award-winning - and very moving - travel story, click here.

New Works by Alumni

Indelible impressions

Indelible Ink cover
Recently returned from Berlin, multi-award-winning author and performance artist Fiona McGregor has just published her fourth novel. Indelible Ink, described as a ‘superb book…f**king gold’ by fellow author Christos Tsiolkas, tells the story of Marie King: fifty-nine, recently divorced, living a rather conventional life on Sydney’s affluent north shore. On a drunken whim, Marie gets a tattoo — and her staid life begins to transform.

Justice best served cold

Cold Justice cover
Cold Justice, the third novel in Katherine Howell’s Alumni Profiles series featuring police detective Ella Marconi, is bringing the author further acclaim and an ever-growing fan base, her Ned Kelly nomination moving the ABC’s Sue Turnbull to pronounce Cold Justice one of her top five favourites to win. Katherine sounds almost more excited by Turnbull’s tip than the nomination itself, saying, “This is huge - such great company! To beat Peter Temple, though ... hmmm....”

While the jury’s still out, we distracted Katherine with a few questions about Cold Justice.

I was absolutely thrilled with the book's reception,” Katherine says. “P&O Cruises' bookclub chose it as their first pick for 2010, and I got to go on a week-long Pacific cruise to talk about it with passengers; [next] it was selected as the Big Book Club's national read for March, and I went on a two week tour for that.

Katherine Howell

After hitting the Australian fiction bestseller list, the novel has already been reprinted and sold overseas. In other words, it’s a hit. “It's hard, though, to work out why this happens,” Katherine says. “What is it about one book in a series that seems to reach people more than the others? Is it the writing? The story? The characters? I don't know, but sitting here contemplating the start of book number 5, and thinking about book 4 – Violent Exposure, which is with the copy editor now and due out at Christmas – I sure wish I did.”

When Katherine is asked to name a challenge unique to writing a series instead of stand-alone novels, she cites what she sees as a perennial problem of all writing:

How do you make each book better than the last? What is better anyway? Readers have their own favourites, and different things appeal to different people. Sales alone aren't a good judge of value. Is it enough that you, the writer, aim to improve something in your work each time? But even then, how do you know if you've achieved that, apart from going by the feeling in your stomach? Which might just be hunger, anyway!

Averaging a Marconi novel a year and enjoying considerable success with Cold Justice, Katherine still says the doubts and insecurities show no signs of disappearing, unlike her fictional victims of crime.

A book's reception might be good because your writing and story-telling ability improves with each book,” she says, “but still you don't feel any more confident or able when you face the blank screen or page. The one thing I can truly say I've learned from the eight novels I've written” – Katherine has (count them) four stashed under the stairs, with the others either out in the world or soon to be – “is that it will always feel bad, but that doesn't necessarily mean the work's bad too. I suspect in the end there are no answers, and I suspect that all I can do is sit here, and talk to my friend Ella, and see where the two of us will go next.

If this is what not having the answers looks like, then who the hell needs their finger on the buzzer? Congratulations, Katherine, and best of luck with the Ned Kelly!

The Perfume River: portrait of a nation

The Perfumed River cover Alumna and Varuna board member Catherine Cole has assembled an impressive array of talent as editor of the new short story and poetry collection, The Perfume River.

The anthology offers perspectives on Vietnam from both inside and outside the country. Contributing writers are a mix of renowned authors of the Vietnamese literary canon, second-generation ex-pats (based in Australia and America), and non-Vietnamese authors who have special ties with the country and its culture, including such celebrated names as Nam Le, Andrew Lam, Bao Ninh, Pham Thi Hoai and Pam Brown.

The collection explores themes including origin, the rural/urban divide in Vietnam, family, generation gaps, lost love, the effects of war, migration, foreigner’s impressions of Vietnam and many more.

Pescador's plays to a full house

Katherine Johnson's debut novel, Pescador's Wake (Fourth Estate January 2009) was recently read to a full house at Hobart's Backspace Theatre, taking the story from the page to the stage. Michael Beresford adapted the novel, which was performed as a play reading by actors from the Tasmanian Theatre Company as an initiative of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre.

Katherine, who won a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development in 2007, said the event was exciting and rejuvenating. “It's a rare opportunity to hear your own words professionally read back to you, and to have the opportunity of hearing the audience response right then and there. Theatre is so immediate - a living interaction between the words and the audience.”

The verbal shift from written to spoken word produced some surprises for this debut novelist. Katherine says, “What's really fascinating is that, sometimes, sections are read with a slightly different interpretation than you intended, or the audience just interprets the words differently on that particular night. A couple of [times], the actors, and the audience, found humour in parts of the novel that weren't intended to be funny when I wrote them. But there was clearly humour there to be found, and they found it!”

Pescador's Wake cast While these reinterpretations might easily have been confronting, Katherine says they weren’t changes she resented. On the contrary, “it was quite liberating to realise the extent to which your own work becomes open to interpretation, either by an individual reader, an actor, or a theatre audience.” On one occasion, the actor confided afterwards that he hadn't intended that particular line to be funny either, but Katherine says the audience was clearly up for a laugh. She adds, “And then there are times when a line is read in just the way you wrote it, and the audience has just the reaction you hoped they might, and you actually witness it. Really the most satisfying moment for a writer – I thoroughly recommend it!”

Pescador's Wake play-reading at Hobart's Backspace Theatre. From left,: Charles Parkinson (Artistic Director Tasmanian Theatre Company), Robert Jarman (actor), Jane Longurst (actor), Guy Hooper (actor), Katherine Johnson (author), Chris Gallagher (Director, Tasmanian Writers' Centre), Iain Lang (actor).

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