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It has been a fantastic year of reading, to the point that the thought of compiling a list of the books I have enjoyed the most is almost too daunting. But I am up for the challenge. As has become tradition around these parts, not all the following books were published this year; some were published in 2014 or even 2013. However, all have had a big impact on me one way or another.

So let’s do this.

Life After LifeLife after Life by Kate Atkinson – what a cracking piece of work this is, and as a reading experience it is sublime. Primarily set in London during the Blitz, Atkinson has her main character Ursula die regularly, often at the end of each chapter. As others have noted, Atkinson’s great achievement with this novel (and at 632 pages it is a whopper) is that we keep caring even though we, as readers, know that we are being toyed with. The writing is just so full of, well, life: humour and wit and intelligence and love. I am very much looking forward to the sequel, A God in Ruins, which apparently is even more extraordinary. Atkinson is a marvel.

Another work that has been getting a lot of international attention is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. The author’s beloved father has died so she decides to work her way through her grief by training a goshawk. The prose blew me away: like Atkinson (though the tone is very different), each and every one of Macdonald’s sentences is superb. Just open a page and pluck a sentence at random: ‘Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.’ Yes, superb.

The Golden AgeThe Golden Age by Joan London has been getting recognised in many of Australia’s highly regarded literary awards, including most recently being shortlisted in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. And so it should. It is a post-World War Two story set in Perth’s Golden Age polio rehabilitation facility for children. With great gentleness, but also with precision, London explores the world of the disease mostly through the eyes of two children, but we are also given a portrait of a migrant family and an exploration of an Australia that is still trying to find itself. So much of this novel lingers after the last page is turned.

In Tom Houghton, Todd Alexander explores the life of a young boy growing up gay in Western Sydney, the bullying he experiences, and the impact this has on him as an older man. What makes this novel remarkable is the linking to Katharine Hepburn’s teenage brother, who died in tragic (and potentially mysterious) circumstances. The interplay between the young and older Tom is beautifully done, and there is an appealing openness and honesty in the prose. Highly recommended.

Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award and it is not hard to see why. On the surface, we have been here before: an overweight and long-suffering mother, an abusive father, and a child with special needs. But the story, which is told from the child’s perspective, is artfully done – in a way this novel is a masterclass in voice. It is heartbreaking (in so many ways), but Laguna shows such care for her characters and her words on the page. It bursts with life.

The Natural Way of ThingsThere has been a real buzz around Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, and it is more than justified. A fable for our time, a group of young women wake from a drug stupor to find themselves entrapped in some kind of Australian desert prison; the commonality appears to be that they have all suffered some kind of sexual abuse, often in very public ways. This is a truly harrowing story, but it is also an important one: Wood unflinchingly reveals the misogyny that blackens the heart of contemporary Australian life. The Natural Way of Things is going to be all over the awards next year.

A similarly harrowing story is khulud khamis’ Haifa Fragments. Set in the Israeli city of Haifa, khamis refuses to allow her main character to be defined by boundaries. As it says on the cover, ‘Raised a Christian, in a relationship with a Muslim man and enamoured with a Palestinian woman from the Occupied Territories, Maisoon must determine her own path’. Haifa Fragments is a raw and vital piece of work published by Australia’s unstoppable Spinifex Press.

As I write this list I can see a theme emerging: harrowing books that have been artfully written. In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward is no different. It opens with ‘There is a grave in my family that was never visited’ and from that moment Ward takes us on a journey through her family, focusing on her mother’s mental illness and its long-term impact. It sounds disturbing, and it is, but Ward’s prose is thoughtfully turned. An important book.

The AnchoressThe same could be said for The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. In the thirteenth century, Sarah is seventeen and a holy woman who chooses to be shut away in a small cell attached to a church – for life. In a way, Sarah is like a good-luck charm for the church and the broader society. Cadwallader’s challenge is to bring Sarah to life and have her go on some kind of journey despite being trapped (it is interesting to think of the thematic link between The Anchoress and The Natural Way of Things). Amazingly Cadwallader’s novel is a rich and sensual experience, and the prose is full of compassion – the author does not judge. An original and thought-provoking piece of work.

It has been fascinating to observe the emergence of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, and perhaps the most prominent recent Australian novel in this genre (terrible word), is James Bradley’s Clade. Beginning in a year about now, Bradley takes us through various climate-change scenarios. If that sounds like polemic, it’s not: each interlinked story is very much character driven, and climate issues help to create the world rather than be an overbearing element. Reading Clade is a highly memorable and moving experience – the tone is hopeful and the prose luminescent.

I also enjoyed the wonderfully subtle The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton, We Are Better Than This, an important and timely collection of essays on Australia’s deplorable asylum-seeker policy (edited by Robyn Cadwallader), Gerald Murnane’s hilarious A Lifetime on Clouds (first published in 1976 but republished in 2013 by Text as part of its Classics series), and the poised poetry of Sarah Holland-Batt in The Hazards.

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A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.

The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.

Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.

With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.

Enjoy.

*

‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome

‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest

‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington

‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold

‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould

‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young

‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason

‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville

‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward

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