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The Finishing Touches

In my early working days during the 80s and 90s, every time I moved house, it usually took me four or five months to get around to hanging up my pictures. Because I always rented, my choices were limited to where existing picture hooks had already been hammered in by previous tenants.

Only once, when I bought my own flat in Johannesburg in 1997, did I finally splash out on buying a drill and hanging my pictures exactly where I wanted them. Along with shower rails, curtain rods, pot plant holders and anything else that took my fancy.

When I moved to Durban in 2000, it was to rented accommodation again, but the landlords I was lucky enough to rent from in the next fifteen years were quite happy to let me put up whatever I wanted.

Even so, it always took me a while to decide on the correct look and atmosphere of each room before hanging the pictures. I had to be sure that everything else was in the correct place before executing those finishing touches.

In South Africa, you drill holes into brick walls, shove in plastic plugs and screw in screws strong enough to take the weight. Not so in Australia, where the process is a little more tricky. Here the houses are not built of brick, but of timber framing, covered inside with plasterboard, and outside with any kind of veneer you can imagine. This means the walls are hollow, with wiring and piping running through the gap between inner and outer cladding.

Believe it or not, I’ve now been in my new cottage for four months. Lately, I’ve been planning the placement of my pictures. Of course, I didn’t bring all of them with me; only the most significant and precious. Such as a set of five black and white photos of District Six, taken by Jansje Wissema back in the 1960s. After carrying these in a folder through two moves, I finally framed them myself in Johannesburg, before drilling holes in my own wall with my (then) new drill. Where I go, they go.

Likewise two of my niece’s paintings which I am hoping to frame; a beautiful water colour painted by a writing friend; a framed pencil sketch that I’ve had for twenty-seven years of a cat drawn by my friend Jackie; and a cute cat-shaped blackboard made by my friend Mandy before she left for Ireland in 1997. Other favourites include my four huge framed movie posters.

One of these bears the legend: “If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones” which became symbolic of my own adventure when I was packing up three years ago. Where I go, Indy goes too…

Last week I retrieved all these and more from the roof of my sister’s garage where they have been stored for the past three years. Some calculations and planning had already been done because I had most of the measurements among my immigration paperwork, but the real fun only began when I was able to unwrap them from their protective bubble wrap shrouds and let them live again.

Yesterday I spent the day putting up the larger ones. My cottage here has quite a lot of hooks in the walls, which was lucky for me because it meant I didn’t have to excavate new territory and risk hitting water pipes and live electric wiring. I also have a neat little device called a Stud Sensor, which detects both timber and metal frames, and has a red flashing light and a loud beep whenever it senses electricity.

Unfortunately, that little beep sounded a lot yesterday as I discovered that several walls which I had earmarked for pictures were more “live” than most power stations. Consequently I have had to keep some of my artworks in bubble wrap until I maybe one day move to a bigger place, or until I work out a way of attaching them to just the wall paint and plasterboard. Or doors, or ceilings. Or whatever.

Either way, for the most part I am pleased with the results. My cottage is starting to look more and more like the home I have visualised for so long.

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A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime?

Thirty-three years ago today, I was awakened early in the morning by a persistent knocking on my door in Johannesburg. I had worked later than usual the previous night, and desperately needed that extra hour of sleep, but it was not to be. Whoever was knocking just wouldn’t go away, so I got up and stumbled to the door, bleary-eyed.

There stood an old family friend of my father’s, with her husband, come to tell me that my father had died the night before. My mother had called her so that I wouldn’t be alone when I heard the news. They stayed while I phoned my mother. They made me tea and didn’t leave until they had helped me to make arrangements to fly home.

They’ve been on my mind this weekend, as have quite a few other people.

I spent most of Sunday with a friend who is about to leave Australia to live in New Zealand. She was the first friend I made in Australia. We connected because we were aliens from the same place, albeit via different routes, and we both related to the strangeness of our new situation in a foreign country.

It was great seeing her again on Sunday because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I felt sad afterwards and began to ponder the theory that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Will we ever see each other again? I’m sure we will, but even if it turns out that we were in each other’s lives for a season of only two and a half years, then we will be grateful that we formed our friendship at the time when we both needed it most.

Because I moved around South Africa a lot in my early years of working, I have had many fleeting connections with people. I always found it sad when we drifted apart. So many best friends faded from my life when I faded from their town, or they went overseas. In those days there were no mobile phones so we didn’t keep the same numbers when we moved, and most lost interest in writing letters after a short while.

It took me several years to stop resenting the lost connections, or blaming them. I eventually realised that not all people you meet in your lifetime will be there forever, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Most people come into your life and change it in some way – for better or worse – but either way you learn something from their presence at your side.

Some leave after a few weeks or months, some after a few years. Some you see again; some you don’t. Even our beloved pets don’t live as long as we do, but those seasons they spend with us are remembered fondly for the rest of our lives.

We all make connections, but just because people drift apart doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The short length of time we spend with each other doesn’t diminish the impact of the connection.

The friend who told me to read The Artist’s Way was a musical director I worked with eighteen years ago for the six month season of a particular show. I haven’t seen her since her now grown-up son was a newborn baby, but I do believe that she came into my life when I needed someone to tell me how to change my life’s direction. I’ll always be grateful that she did. And some years later I was in the life of another musician for a long enough season to give him a copy of the same book, because I knew he needed it too.

My father’s friend who came to tell me of his death was once his girlfriend about a decade before he met my mother. It hadn’t been a serious love affair, but they always enjoyed each other’s company and stayed friends all their lives. When I was a child we went to Johannesburg on holiday, and we visited her and her husband in their beautiful old house on the top of the ridge in Kensington, with its glorious view of the eastern suburbs. When they came down to the coast on holiday, they stopped and spent time with us on the way. Birthday cards flew via airmail between all four adults. She kept in touch with my mother after my father’s death, and after the death of her husband some years later. Some friendships really do last a lifetime, no matter the distance.

Today, thanks to email and the Internet, I have reconnected with two friends from primary school. When I was in high school, my friends and I had pen-friends in exotic places around the world. Now my high school friends are my email pen-friends in exotic places too.

Look at the people around you today and ask yourself: Are they there for a reason, a season or a lifetime? And then think about the reason why you might be in each of their lives. What purpose do you fill for them? Are you there for a reason, a season or a lifetime?

Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

A Cottage in the Country

Two weeks ago today, I answered an ad for a granny cottage. It was partly furnished and sounded perfect. I was able to go and see it that morning and everything about it felt good. The owners are a friendly, generous retired couple and I liked them both immediately. We shook hands on the deal and arranged that I would start to move in three days later, when my sister, brother-in-law and I all had the day off.

That Thursday was a long process and involved the hire of a vehicle to transport the larger pieces of furniture – my grandfather’s hand-carved dining table, the big book case my father made for me nearly forty years ago, and two tall solid wooden bookcases that I wouldn’t go anywhere without.

We also began to move my smaller pieces of furniture, and some of the boxes, in three cars. That carefully packed Move Cube I loaded with such precision three years ago contained a lot more stuff than most people would imagine. Somehow, when you are saying goodbye to the only life you’ve ever known, and the country of your birth, you manage to squeeze a lot of stuff into the available space, in the hope of replicating at least part of that familiar life, in a new country.

I guess most humans gather more stuff over time than they think they have, and I’m no exception. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in a room in my sister’s house for three years, I’ve managed to acquire rather a lot of things.

The next two days were spent at work, with a bit of cleaning and measuring of the new cottage to make sure I knew where everything would fit. I don’t like to shuffle it around physically, so I do it all on paper first to get the right fit. Scale drawings are second nature to me after a lifetime spent in the theatre.

Three days later we all had Sunday off, and the rest of the stuff was moved in the cars. The last two items to move were the most precious of all – my two cats. I unloaded them into their new home after dark, plied them with catnip and food, and waited while they sniffed, ran around and eventually settled down to sleep on the familiar duvet covering my bed.

By last night – a week after that final move – most of my books had been unpacked and my new place was looking like the home I always imagined I would have here in Australia. It’s a medium sized cottage on a large property, just on the edge of horse country, and yet only twenty minutes away from work.

All five houses in this lane are old and huge, and the neighbourhood is quiet. The trees are tall and the birds are gloriously noisy. A cottage in the country is what I have always wanted, and it’s what I’ve got.

Soon I will have no excuse not to pick up my novel and write…

What Road Trips Have Taught Me About Writing

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On all my holidays and road trips since 1982 I have written a daily travel diary, detailing each day’s events, names of places, what I saw, felt, did, bought, and so on. This has stood me in good stead when writing novels because with all those detailed memories plus whatever current info I can find about those places on Google, I can draw up a fairly accurate depiction of what life is like in that particular place today.

Hand in hand with the travel diary text, there are always photographs. Loads of them. Back in the days of using ordinary film, I was more careful about what I snapped. There was no instant viewing or opportunity for immediate retakes if you didn’t like the first picture, because of the delay in having the pictures printed – a process usually done once you reached home after the trip, and by then on an even more limited post-holiday budget.

When I hiked the Otter Trail back in 2003, I considered getting a digital camera to take with me, but when someone pointed out that, with no electricity for five days, I wouldn’t be able to recharge the battery nightly, I stuck to my trusty old Ricoh.

In 2011 I attended a writing seminar on adventure and travel writing, where one of the presenters advised us to invest in an ordinary digital camera and to take photographs of absolutely everything along the way. “You don’t have to print them all,” he told us, “and even if they’re not good enough to accompany an article in a travel magazine, they will always aid you in remembering places and incidents.”

Boy, was he right! I bought myself an entry-level digital Canon just before my first trip to Australia in 2012 and have used it to the nth degree ever since. The only downside is that the more photos I take, the more important it is to remember to recharge the camera’s battery before the next day’s excursion.

I’ve just returned to Melbourne after a two week road trip down the eastern side of Australia with one of my closest friends. Some days were so busy that we were too tired by the evening to write our daily notes, so this often didn’t happen until days later. Thanks to the photographs acting as reminders, not a single precious memory has been muddied or lost, from Arrawarra Beach to Mount Kosciuszko.

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Some days my photo count was over 140, particularly the day we saw the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge! Although only a handful of these found their way into Facebook, blog posts and tweets, they are all on my computer waiting to jog my memory when the time comes.

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I love being a writer because I can justify anything I do by calling it research. My recent road trip definitely holds fodder for a future novel. At the moment I have no idea what that next novel will be about – anything from a mob of  wild kangaroos to the story of Ned Kelly – but I’m certain it will be set somewhere in those 2400 kilometres we travelled through the south eastern part of Australia.

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I believe that being out of your comfort zone and travelling with an open mind are the two key ingredients for finding potentially limitless possibilities for the next novel.

If there is a common thread running through my novels, it is the fish-out-of-water theme. My novels are never autobiographical, but just like my fictional heroines, I enjoy being a single person in an unfamiliar place, ripe for experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.

Not knowing in advance what the next novel is about has never stopped me from gathering useless information for it. In common with other novelists, I have a system for filing away ideas, snippets of news, and notes about certain skills I will never personally achieve, but which my characters might well be masters of. Like a jigsaw puzzle where I can create my own pieces, the next novel will take shape when the time is right, and it will be made up of all sorts of previously unconnected pieces.

I firmly believe that part of any creative process is the melding together of various elements that would be unrelated in another context. The real trick is to find that elusive strand of gold that weaves it all together successfully and makes it shine for the reader.

It Started with a Picture

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Like most of my novels, this one started with an image, a setting. In this case, it was a picture in a travel book. Even back in 2011 I knew that my next novel would be set in Australia, because that was where my sister had gone to live with her Australian husband. They left South Africa in the middle of 2011 to settle in Melbourne, and I knew that I would follow them within a few years. Which I have now done, but that’s another story, so let’s backtrack a bit.

When my only sibling and her husband announced that they were leaving, my brother-in-law knew exactly where they would go – to Melbourne which was where most of his family lived. He had been to visit them there a few years before, but my sister hadn’t. She had no idea what to expect, and for both of us Melbourne was simply a place on a map.

As is my inclination when I need to research something, I headed into my nearest bookshop to look for books on Australia and, more specifically, on Melbourne. The book I found was a travel book, beautifully illustrated with loads of photographs of many places – Federation Square, Flinders Street station, the trams gliding through leafy streets, the Puffing Billy train that chugs through the mountainous area known as the Dandenongs, and an array of popular eating places, some of which were in a street called Lygon Street.

I realised that Melbourne was a beautiful city, filled with artistic, historical, sporting, culinary and cultural delights, and not some one-horse town in the middle of the vast red desert that made up the Australian outback in my mind. I bought the book and presented it to my sister.

The more she read it, the more she discovered and passed on to me interesting bits about her soon-to-be city. Before she left to live there, I bought myself a copy of the same book, so that we could both be on the same page, as it were, when she wanted to tell me about a place she had been to. It helped me to be able to picture her in a place that was accessible to me, even if only by book.

Lygon Street covers a relatively small area in Carlton, just north of the city centre, near the Melbourne Museum, but it’s tightly packed with Italian restaurants, Gelateria, fashion boutiques and gorgeous cake shops, interspersed with parks, trees and small lanes. The restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl, with their tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavements, their hosts declaiming about their mouth-wateringly delicious food to all passers-by.

My sister found it to be an exciting, unique place on her first visit and, during one of our Skype sessions, told me on which page of our books to find a photo of it. She promised that we would go there when I came out to Australia on holiday. I stared long and hard at the picture in the book, at its neon signs illuminating the leafy green trees spreading above the tables, and the inevitable happened: I began to imagine characters other than us hanging out there.

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I took my first trip to Melbourne when my sister had been there almost six months, but long before that I had created images in my head of how Lygon Street would look in reality, and how one of my main characters, Bobby, would run a bar set in a basement below one of the many vibrant restaurants there, and he would live… oh, I don’t know – in a house somewhere in the same area.

The reality, when I visited it with my sister, was quite different. There were no basements leading down from the street level, but most of the buildings were double storey. There were also plenty of small lanes between buildings, leading to other lanes and what had once been alleys, I suppose, but had been prettified. Best of all was a lane leading past a restaurant to an inner courtyard in which we found a modern clock tower and what looked like a set of upstairs apartments.

This was good. This meant that people actually lived in between all these restaurants. But it wasn’t quite what I had been hoping for. I liked the clock tower, though…

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Further in, we found a few gates and garages behind the clock tower, as well as homes above some of the shops. There was a whole world of quaint, attractively painted shops and small businesses rubbing shoulders with private dwellings, and this was just what I needed for Bobby. In my mind I appropriated the restaurant in the lane leading to the clock tower for Bobby’s piano bar, and I gave him an apartment above, overlooking Lygon Street itself.

The bar was small, but I needed the apartment to be large enough for Bobby to have a spare room that contained old family junk, so I obligingly created an Italian restaurant in front of the bar and a very large and well organised stockroom behind it, with the apartment stretched luxuriously over the whole lot. I also gave Bobby a hired garage a few lanes away for him to house his car which he doesn’t often use, but does need for one very important trip about halfway through the novel.

I’ve been back to Lygon Street many times, and on each visit I check to see that I’m still on track in my imaginary version of it. I usually take more photos too, which is probably silly, but I do like to be able to cross reference things.

It’s been a long road, writing this novel. There have been too many interruptions, too much upheaval in my life, but the novel is finally reaching the end of its winding road. All it needs now is a final read, a cover, some formatting for Amazon, and then it’ll be ready to go out in the world and carve its own path.

Watch this space…

Tea-Drinking Writer, Interrupted…

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What many people don’t understand about some of us old-fashioned writers is that writing can be a long process. Just like that fat lady who waits until the end of the opera before singing her most heart-rending aria, a novel isn’t ready until the writing of it is over.

I’ve said this before: I will never be the kind of writer who churns out a new book every few weeks or months. I am a mature writer who likes to drink tea while she works, or wine when she has something to celebrate. Both of these beverages require slow brewing, slow maturation, and slow sipping.

How can I put this another way? I’m not a person who believes in rushing anything. If I ever reach the point in my life where I can write and produce one novel a year, I’ll be extremely proud of myself. I have quite a way to go before I can achieve that, but I’m working towards it, despite the interruption of having moved from one country to another.

The last six to eight months have brought major disruptions into my life. For someone who is determined to continue writing against all the odds, I’m not succeeding at the moment, but I won’t give up trying.

In fact, the last five years haven’t been easy, since my sister and her husband made the decision to leave South Africa and move to Australia. From the moment of their announcement I knew I would do everything possible to follow them. If my family home-base was moving to the other side of the world, then so was I.

What I didn’t realise back then was just how difficult that would be; how disjointed and drawn-out the process was to become, how lonely and insecure I would feel left behind in an increasingly violent and potentially dangerous country, run by a corrupt, inept government.

As always, I turned to my writing to get me through the storms. When my sister left, my sense of urgency to get my unpublished books “out there” into the world increased. Up until then, my experiment at being a novelist had been – like the tea and wine – a long, slow process.

My first novel had taken me four years to write. The second took me less than two. Both of these (despite being complete) are never likely to be published unless they are extensively re-plotted and re-written, but they were a necessary part of the journey that honed my writing skills.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a theory that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written at least a million words. I think I reached my million about halfway through my honours creative writing module in 2009. The project I worked on for that course not only stretched me as a writer, but took me to places inside myself that I hadn’t bargained on finding.

After the project was finished, I turned my back on my first two novels, consigned them to a comfy virtual trunk on my hard drive, and began working on what I refer to as my Greek novel. The Epidaurus Inheritance took the whole of 2010 to write, and then it spent the next year with Penguin SA. In 2010 I tweaked my 2009 creative writing project, turned it into an historical novella and entered it into a novella competition, where it achieved third prize.

At the end of 2011, my Greek novel received a glowingly positive reaction from Penguin, but was ultimately rejected. By now I was tired of trying to convince South African publishers to take a chance on a romantic mystery that I knew was never going to be the next great political epic they all wanted, so I took the decision to self-publish it on Amazon as an e-book.

In the meantime, I had begun writing another romantic mystery in the same vein, but with an Italian setting. In mid-2012 I uploaded my historical novella – From Daisy with Love – onto Amazon, and a few months later I followed it with my now completed full-length Italian novel – Benicio’s Bequest.

Three books on Amazon within one year! The urge to continue writing never stopped, but unfortunately the available writing time diminished.

My current work-in-progress, which I call my Australian novel (I’ve yet to find the right title), was inspired by my first visit to Australia in early 2012. I wrote two chapters in Melbourne and then shelved it until later that year when I punched out the first draft in less than three months.

Although this draft was completed in January 2013, the re-working of it continued through the next two years. Despite feedback from beta-readers in the second half of 2014, I have yet to complete it. The fat lady had to postpone her big aria, because in January 2015 I received the green light to move to Australia.

This happy, welcome news nevertheless involved a lot of domestic upheaval! Amidst the sorting and packing, I drank the tea and gave away most of the wine, but unfortunately I’ve done no work on the novel apart from a three day session with one of my beta-readers a few days after I received the news. For the next five months everything else took a number and waited in line.

I’ve now been in Australia for two months, and to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on getting back into a writing routine. Somehow, amidst the months of packing my life into boxes, the endless lists and the closing of certain doors, making the big move to Australia has shortened my attention span somewhat.

So many things are still up in the air, so I haven’t quite settled here yet, but I know that’s to be expected. People have warned me that I won’t feel completely established until I have been here for at least six months, sorted out my employment options and found a place of my own.

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Last week my Move Cube container with all my personal belongings arrived, so that’s another door I’ve been able to close. A friend of mine suggested in an e-mail a few weeks ago that I needed a break – a sabbatical, she called it – and I think that’s a good idea. My writing life has been interrupted because the writer in me has been interrupted, and the Me who became that writer is worrying about treading water and trying to find her feet. Instead I should be slowing my breathing and floating for a while. We all need a few deep breaths before jumping into a new life and expecting to fit right in.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a person who takes time to adapt, and that’s what I’m doing as I sip my slow-brewed tea (or wine), listen to some of my newly-discovered classical CDs, and savour the process of adjustment while waiting for that fat lady to hit the high notes…

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