The Possibility of Magic
I have been hesitant about sharing this, in case you think I’m ‘bonkers’ but I feel we could all do with a bit of magic in our lives at the moment.
The following is a true story.
The morning Beneath the Mother Tree went to print, I was beyond tired. I had been up all night proof-reading over last-minute changes. A walk into that soft early morning light when the world is full of new possibilities was all I could do with a heart that was pumping fast with the terrifying truth that all was unchangeable now. My words would be trapped there forever in black and white, then distributed for the public to ridicule or find fault. I was so wired I felt as if I would never sleep again and I kept fighting the urge to ring my publisher to tell her I had changed my mind – I didn’t want to be published after all.
I jogged to the beach trying to outrun my racing thoughts, pushing through the panicking mind barrier into the physical to calm myself. I hit the edge of the scrubland and stepped onto the sand to hear the soft sound of a flute in the distance. I was so tired, at first, I thought it was my imagination jumping through hoops like a trick pony. But no. It was real. Someone was playing a flute. I had never heard flute music while standing on my local beach and I have not heard it since.
If you have read Beneath the Mother Tree you will know that the book begins with the protagonist, Ayla, standing on a beach, hearing someone playing a flute. She follows the exquisite music to its source with her head full of the Far Dorocha – her favourite Irish myth in which a black-haired man lures mortals with his flute playing, only to trap them in the faery realm.
When full comprehension washed over me – here I was standing on my local beach hearing the sweetest flute music, reality mirroring the opening scene of my book which was scheduled to go to print in the coming hours – I started to laugh in utter, crazy delight at the unfathomable coincidence.
Of course, I had to follow the sound, with thoughts of Ayla dancing in my head. My skin was on fire with the magic of it. Who would dare to play a flute so early in the morning with the valley so quiet? Was Far Dorocha about to appear in my own life? Had I summoned him by writing that opening scene in my book which had sprung entirely from my imagination?
When I located the source, of course it was no Far Dorocha, it was an elderly man sitting on the veranda of a usually empty holiday house two streets back from the beach.
I smiled most of the way home though, knowing suddenly that all was going to be fine. I chose to see this wonderful coincidence as a sign that my book, even though its feet are placed firmly in reality, would fly like the sound of a note on the wind, piercing and strange and otherworldly for those willing to open their hearts to it and start reading.
I am happy to report, a year and a half later I continue to receive beautiful messages from readers who have done just that.
(The accompanying image is by the phenomenal photographic artist Brooke Shaden. www.brookeshaden.com)
I would be on my own, trapped without a car – so no possibility of a fast get away – for seven days in a small town at what looked like the end of the world on the map, the end of Australia at least. This is how I started to think after the exhilaration of learning I had been chosen as one of the 2019 Gooluwatu Writing Retreat recipients had worn off. The little black dot on the map which represented Goolwa in South Australia (where the residency would take place) began to take on sinister qualities. I became convinced there was a local serial killer who watched for lone travellers to arrive, who had a garage full of black plastic barrels waiting to be filled (it wasn’t that far from Snowtown!) I gave my overactive imagination a good talking to and booked a fifty-dollar flight from Sydney to Adelaide before I could change my mind.
By the time the residency came around, I arrived in a frost-bitten Adelaide marvelling at how I could blow fog rings with my breath and thankful for my thermals. There is one bus to Goolwa which leaves daily from the central bus station in the middle of the city. It cost me $12 and weaved through postcard winery country before arriving in the cute seaside town of Goolwa as the last rays of sun bled crimson across the sky. The bus stop closest to Gooluwatu is conveniently positioned near a shopping centre, so I bought my supplies for the week and then the lovely supermarket lady who served me offered to order me a cab. There is only one cab in Goolwa and this lady appeared to have an intimate relationship with the driver. Goolwa was proving to be friendly and welcoming, far from the ‘Wake in Fright’ imaginary town I had dreamt up.
When I arrived at Gooluwatu – a two-minute cab drive away – I was so impressed with the quality of accommodation, I broke into a spontaneous dance. Was I really going to have this large, luxurious house all to myself for a whole week to write, write, write? I cooked up a huge pot of soup which I planned to live on for the rest of the week. Who had time to cook when there was writing to do? I had a first draft to finish – forty thousand words to write in six days and my initial day was already over! The next six days proved to be the most productive writing time I have experienced. What a valuable exercise it is to isolate yourself physically from your family and friends, from all other work and responsibility and immerse yourself in your writing work. I lost track of time, often waking in the middle of the night with ideas and working for a few hours, knowing I could sleep whenever I wanted or write when the urge came. If I became stuck on a plot snag, I would ride the bicycle to the wild windswept beach and walk the shoreline. This was Storm Boy country. I could feel Colin Thiele sitting on my shoulders. Sometimes I would ride into the historic village and have a coffee at one of the groovy little Cafés. Goolwa embodies the word picturesque and everything is within bike riding distance. Some days the tourist in me fought with the writer in me, but the writer always won, and I would return to the keyboard with the plot knot unlooped and teeming with ideas.
On my last day, as I locked the door behind me for the final time, then dragged my feet toward the bus stop, my heart was full of gratitude. In my laptop and backed up on a USB was a complete first draft of my second novel. It was surprising and fast paced and I had fallen deeply in love with my characters. I will be forever grateful to Lynette Washington for granting me the time and space to achieve this. Applications for 2020 retreats close on the 31 October 2019. Apply here.
Walking on Cut Glass
The week my debut novel was published, something terrifying occurred – I was invited by ABC Radio National to ‘continue the conversation’ for the up-coming Q and A program on ABC TV. I would be unscripted, answering caller’s questions live on national radio and live-streamed on Facebook.
My gut reaction was to scream – ‘no thanks’ – and run away to hide in a hole, but the publicity it would mean for the book was too valuable, so two weeks later I found myself feeling like I was going to vomit, sitting in the ABC Sydney studios as I watched the panel of highly accomplished Australian novelists (pictured) grapple with the question – ‘How can diversity and insight in literature be provided by writers if they are restricted only to write about their own culture and are not able to express their understanding and empathy of other cultures in their society?’
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of the award-winning ‘The Lebs’ argued vehemently that no one had a right to fictionalise or write from another culture’s perspective. Trent Dalton in reply, posed a very relevant question which went something like – ‘But Mohammed, what if I researched really well, spent a whole year living within that culture, immersed myself in that other person’s shoes?’
This issue of cultural appropriation proved to be the most explosive aspect of the night, and I noticed the Anglo-Saxon panellists answered it as if they were walking on cut glass. When this question was asked of me as we ‘continued the conversation’, I, also, felt unsure as to how to answer such a complex question in the limited amount of time available. If I could go back to that moment without the time restraints and debilitating nerves, I would have answered like this –
Yes, Beneath the Mother Tree contains Aboriginal characters and I am not Aboriginal. However, my Aboriginal characters are only ever depicted through the eyes of my non-Aboriginal characters – i.e. through my perspective. I knew from the start, that I, as a privileged, middle-class white woman, could never understand in that flesh and bone level, the complexities of what it means to be Aboriginal in Australia today. I am more than happy to leave that to wonderful Indigenous writers like Melissa Lukashenko whose phenomenal Too Much Lip has just been short listed for the Miles Franklin.
My initial desire for the book was to balance the Irish mythology with the traditional Quandamooka mythology, but I soon realised, after speaking with Uncle Bob – my Indigenous content advisor and facilitator – to do this would be problematic. There were certain things Uncle Bob couldn’t tell me, because he didn’t know himself, things to do with women’s business. There were certain aspects of Aboriginal lore and law which are meant only for certain individuals within the hierarchical construct of their community. There were different versions of the same myth. Whose version do you tell without causing offence? There was another Minjerribah Elder who said to me in no uncertain terms – ‘These are our stories to tell, not yours.’ So, out of respect, I backed away.
At the same time, my research was taking me into the ancient history of the Quandamooka tribes and their connection to country in relation to the landscape. It was this aspect I began to focus on in the book, not in an overt way, but it is there in a subtle almost subterranean level, just as it is for the contemporary non-Aboriginal Australian walking over landscape today – for those of us aware enough and informed enough to tune into it, because Beneath the Mother Tree is, after all, a contemporary tale. For instance, in the book it is never stated outright but implied – through the fact that the birthing place on the island would need to have had a constant supply of fresh water close at hand – that the mother tree was the birthing place for the original inhabitants. For the astute reader, this gives the action that occurs beneath the tree at the climax of the story a whole new reading.
But finally, it was when I discovered the true, shocking history of what happened to the original inhabitants of the Quandamooka during colonisation that my eyes were opened to the fact that the mob on Minjerribah weren’t sitting around talking dolphin dreaming, they were too busy surviving, healing, working together to fight against ongoing systemic racism and generational effects from this initial trauma and all that followed. It was this history that began to hang like a shadow over the action in the book and which I began to weave throughout the contemporary setting.
As a ‘white’ writer in Australia publishing a book which contains Aboriginal content, there is always a certain amount of apprehension involved, but I took solace in the fact that I had written my story, not anyone else’s and I had written it from a place of love and respect. The book has been out in the world for ten months now and the overall critical response has been, to my utter relief, overwhelmingly positive but I did meet a reader recently who was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t write from an Aboriginal perspective and didn’t include more Aboriginal content. I replied that the real problem here, I think, probably lies in the marketing of the book. Including the word Indigenous on the cover blurb set up a certain expectation for her – that this will be an equally dominant part of the narrative when really the story is about an Australian woman of Irish descent struggling with her sense of belonging within this haunted landscape. I explained that my publisher and I felt it was too important an aspect not to include in the blurb, because as far as we can ascertain, Beneath the Mother Tree is the first traditionally published novel to depict some of the horrific events that took place within the Quandamooka during the early days of colonisation. I apologised that I was unable to include more Aboriginal content and pointed her in the direction of Melissa Lucashenko’s brilliant Too Much Lip. Here’s hoping it wins the Miles Franklin!
Success and self-doubt.
As I look back on this remarkable year, I realise how often my goal posts for success shifted and how this was determined by the demon of self-doubt who continually rose up to undermine my confidence. I always thought being able to hold my book in my hand, to see my words in print would be the pinnacle of success…and at the time, it was. My heart burst with joy at the sight of her when I pulled her out of the box – opening pages at random, stroking her cover, sniffing her like a pervert. This was soon followed by paralysing anxiety as we waited for the reviews. I believed the book would be vilified and I would be ridiculed. For the first time, I found I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even concentrate on listening to an audio book in the car. When the reviews came, I was overwhelmed with tear-filled relief, until the demon of self-doubt began to dance in my mind again – undermining my confidence, filling me with the thought that ‘people were just being polite.’ When random readers began to send kind messages, part of me danced and sang in ecstasy, while another part had her eyes narrowed, arms crossed, never quite believing. To top the year off, my book made it onto a top Australian fiction reads for 2018 list, making me want to hire a sky writer to blaze across the endless blue – ‘Heaven is on earth.’ Until the demon of self-doubt began to whisper her sweet nasties in my ear. ‘Your book only made one of those lists. Most papers didn’t review it because it wasn’t good enough.’ Etc, etc and so forth. How I would love to kill her this demon who always tears the edge off my bliss. I want to drive a stake through her heart. All I can do in the face of her is write.
And as I return to the daily act of placing one word after another, it dawns on me that this is success. It lies there in the process – the outcomes are irrelevant. I am doing what I love…the rest all falls away and is actually not important.
The Authorial Hat.
Now my first ever author talk, meet and greet, book signing circuit is over, I have had a chance to reflect on the whole nerve-wracking experience, and I realised that I quickly developed some coping mechanisms – one of which was wearing a hat! So when I recently heard author, Alison Tait, on the ‘So You Want to be a Writer’ podcast mention the authorial jacket she likes to wear when doing author talks, I knew exactly what she was talking about. My hat wearing happened accidentally, but it has become an emotional prop – to the point that if I don’t have a hat on, I don’t feel like D.M. Cameron. It isn’t a particular hat, any old hat will do – it gives me somewhere to hide and makes me feel safe. It began at my first author event in Adelaide where my publisher is based. It was the middle of winter, so before I left for Adelaide, I threw a hat into my bag at the last moment thinking it might be freezing that far south.
At the first book store we went to, they wanted to take photos – which to my horror, I didn’t realise would occur as frequently as it did – and my hair was a mess, which is often the case, so I grabbed my hat out of my bag and plonked it on to cover up my unruly hair. My publisher, Anna Solding, said ‘The hat looks good. You should wear it’ – and so I continued to do so.
I have found it serves many purposes –
1) I never need to worry about my messy hair. I can’t be bothered with product and blow drying and styling. Who has time when there are so many words to write and stories to tell? One can simply pull a hat out of the bag and like magic, messy hair disappears.
2) It helps me step from shy Donna Cameron, into confident articulate D.M. Cameron…at least that is what I try and convince myself is happening, and most times it works, except for my first ever Q and A at Yankalilla Library where I completely froze, and my mind became a blur of white noise. After what felt like a ten-minute silence, I asked the interviewer to please repeat the question. Nothing could save me in that moment, not even a hat.
3) I am by nature quite an emotional person, so when I do feel shy or overly emotional, which has happened a few times – I blame it on the glass of wine I am always handed on arrival – I tilt my head, so the audience is blocked out and I take a moment to gather my thoughts. This came in very handy at my Avid Reader event when Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson dubbed me as an honorary Oodgeroo (paperbark) woman. I was moved to tears and was able to hide under my trusty hat to pull myself together in order to speak.
Now if I know D.M. Cameron needs to make an appearance, I don’t step out of the door without first throwing a hat into my handbag. If you, like me, at times find the whole author event phenomenon slightly overwhelming, I highly recommend the use of an authorial hat.
‘Country lives too, it arrives and yearns and changes. And maybe it remembers, for the past is never over. Not even for stones and water.’ Tim Winton. Island Home – a memoir.
When I read these words by the insightful Mr Winton, I remembered the first time I sensed memory in the landscape. I was camping at Red Rock on the New South Wales coastline. I had walked out of the campground to the end of a dirt road and discovered a sheltered beach. To the right of this beach was a headland made from a distinctly red rock. There was a track, which I followed to the top. The South Pacific Ocean appeared to have no end. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the view, I looked into the crashing waves below. The white foam swirling over and between the red of the rock inexplicably filled me with an incredible sense of melancholy. I knew if I didn’t walk away I would start weeping, so I followed the path down the other side of the headland back towards the campground and came across a plaque.–
In memory of the victims and survivors of the blood rock massacres. Understanding their sacrifice will make us stronger. We as Gumbaingirr people have survived many conflicts over ownership of our traditional lands, including a massacre where many were driven off the headland at Red Rock (Blood Rock). Gumbaingirr descendants, especially women, still avoid this headland.
I was shocked by the fact that I had sensed the tragedy in the landscape before knowledge of it. Years later, when I started writing Beneath the Mother Tree, which is set in the Quandamooka area, I was equally shocked that I had never sensed the tragedies that had occurred in this landscape so familiar to me. Here I was, now in my forties, hearing stories of the Quandamooka massacres for the first time. Suddenly I saw this place, my heart country, through the eyes of the local Ngugi, Nunukul and Gorenpul people. There was heartbreak and violence scattered through-out the land. Unlike at Red Rock, however, these stories aren’t officially documented. There is no plaque on any of the massacre sites. These truths were passed down orally through the generations. My Indigenous mentor for the book – Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson told me how his own grandmother Winyeeaba Murriaba, as a three-year-old, hid in the bushland and witnessed one of the massacres that occurred on Mulgumpin (Moreton Island) in 1832, when soldiers shot down at least twenty of her people. Uncle Bob writes about this in his book History, Life and Times of Robert Anderson Gheebelum, Ngugi, Mulgumpin. The more I sat and yarned and the more I researched, the more I started to see this landscape in an entirely different way. As the world of my book formed in my head, I found the red ochre of the Quandamooka merged with the Red Rock of the Gumbaingirr people’s massacre site to form the headland of Mud Rock in my novel. I realised, all over Australia there were death spots yet to be uncovered, yet to be written about. There are still many plaques to be unveiled. I found myself asking – how can we move forward into a new future where we respectfully live together, if we are emerging out of different pasts?
Irish Myths in the Australian Landscape.
As a new mother, I observed myself teaching my children the myths I had absorbed as a child. As a fourth and fifth generation Australian of mainly Irish descent, I taught them to look for signs of faeries in the coastal scrub or hollows in the mother trees. When the curlew cried, I asked…was that the banshee wailing? I was also inadvertently passing on Indigenous myths I had picked up along the way from Aboriginal friends at school. ‘Three curlews…someone’s about to die,’ or ‘Don’t go into the swamp, the bully man will get you.’ I became aware that not only had I transmogrified my ancestor’s myths to suit this new ‘bright scraggly landscape’, but I had also taken on some of the local mob’s folk lore. Was this mongrel mythology I had created the right way to teach my children to connect to this country? Was I transgressing boundaries? Were my ancestor’s myths still relevant in this foreign landscape? I became haunted by a question I had subconsciously been asking myself most of my life, a question I feel many Australians wonder about. ‘How should we connect to this country, the only place we have known, when our ancestry is from a country on the opposite side of the world?’ Many of us are, after all, aliens in our own home.
On reflection, I think this was what I was doing in the writing of Beneath the Mother Tree – examining my own connection to country through the form of a fictional story, in the hope that I would find an answer to this question.
Pictured is a bush-stone curlew that was nesting on the footpath outside my parent’s house the last time I visited. The curlew features heavily in my novel. The cry of this bird at night is blood curdling – like that of a woman in pain.
Science in fiction.
This image is of a moss covered mangrove root system. One of the Quandamooka breeding habitats of the mosquito.
Unless you have lived on a sub-tropical island and experienced the full extent of every season you can’t begin to imagine the ferocity of the mosquitos at certain times of the year. I knew in Beneath the Mother Tree, which is set on an island peppered with tea tree swamps and a large mangrove habitat, mosquitos were going to play a major role in the story…just how major I didn’t realise until I started writing. My research on these blood sucking winged killers led me to liaise with one of Australia’s leading entomologists, Stephen L. Doggett, who is the Director of Medical Entomology at NSW Health Pathology in Sydney. Stepping into Stephen’s world was like entering through a door into another planet. Touring around his work space in the research department at the Westmead hospital was eerie and surreal as we entered humidified rooms full of ticks and flies and mosquitos, even sections devoted to the growth of maggots (excuse me while I vomit). I saw hardworking scientists hunched over large microscopes studying the minuscule innards of the microscopic as I manoeuvred past terrifyingly large canisters of liquid nitrogen.
It has been an absolute delight getting to know Stephen. When we first spoke about my manuscript I remember he asked if it was a romance. I replied that there was a love story involved. He rolled his eyes and said that he ‘hated that kind of thing.’ I felt awful that I was going to force this poor clinical scientist to read my novel full of myth and romance. A few weeks later I heard from him, he had been up most of the night reading my ‘damn book’. He couldn’t put it down, he said, and he particularly liked the love story. The next day he sent through two pages of notes on the entomological sections. Beneath the Mother Tree would not be the book it is without Stephen’s expert entomological guidance. Thank you, Mr Doggett.
And if you are interested in bed bugs, he has written some books of his own on those ugly little bloodsuckers!
Working with Uncle Bob.
Even though I knew the Aboriginal characters in my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ were only ever going to be told through the gaze of the non-Indigenous characters, I still wanted the guidance of an Aboriginal consultant, to ensure I, as a person of mainly Irish heritage remained culturally sensitive. Growing up in the Quandamooka area, I already had connections to the vibrant Aboriginal community which still exists on Minjerribah so it was a natural step to consult with revered Ngugi elder Uncle Bob Anderson of Mulgumpin. Uncle Bob was very interested in what I was trying to explore – my own Irish heritage sitting within this wild landscape. He literally embodied my exploration, being Aboriginal on his mother’s side with Celtic heritage on his father’s side. It was always an honour and a privilege to sit and yarn with Uncle Bob and his lovely wife Cathy. Uncle Bob, over the years, without realising it, led me on a journey of self-discovery, revealing to me how ‘white’ I was in many of my expectations. He also revealed the landscape I had known and loved most of my life in a transformative way. I learnt how vital it is that all Australians come to this deeper understanding of our country for true healing to occur…and on reflection, I think this is one of the main themes that emerged in ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’.
This picture is of Uncle Bob and I outside his house on Minjerribah, taken by his wife Cathy Boyle. As you can see I am a bit enamoured.
The Quandamooka Nation, where I spent most of my formative years, and where my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ is set, consists of the waters and islands of central and southern Moreton Bay and the coastal land and streams between the Brisbane to Logan Rivers. The original inhabitants consisted of three clans – the Nunukul and Gorenpul of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) and the Ngugi of Mulgumpin (Moreton Island). The first recorded contact with outsiders occurred when Mathew Flinders stopped at Minjerribah for fresh water in 1802. He was shown by the Nunukal people where to find water, and then went on his way. However, by 1824, a military regiment with convicts had moved into Quandamooka and relations between the original inhabitants and the colonisers continued to deteriorate. The first Moreton Bay mission for Aborigines was formed on Bribie Island in 1877 but the mission was moved to Minjerribah by 1892. This meant Nunukul and Gorenpul Aborigines who had been transported to the Bribie mission, were then brought back to their island to be placed into another mission with a mixture of Ngugi clan, Pacific Islanders and any other mainland Aboriginals or dark-skinned person the government chose to send there. It was a very controlled life style with a Superintendent or Bully Man (as the locals called him, and still do to this day) who enforced the many rules. No one was allowed to leave the mission without the Superintendent’s written approval. This mission, labelled by the government as Myora, but known by the residents and locals as Moongalba (sitting down place), officially operated until 1942.
Because of the remnants of the mission, there continues to be a strong Aboriginal community on North Stradbroke Island, and Native Title for the Quandamooka Nation was finally recognised on the 4th July 2011 by the High Court of Australia.
I had Nunukal, Gorenpul and Ngugi mob in my life because the high school I went to was the only school for miles around, so all the islander mob attended the mainland school where friendships naturally occurred. I didn’t think twice about it, until, as a young adult, I moved away from this area, and every new place I lived, the same questions formed on my lips – ‘Where’s all the mob? How come there’s no mob here?’ It slowly dawned on me how fortunate I had been growing up where I did.
My debut novel, ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’, I realised at the end of the writing of the first draft, was my love song to the Quandamooka nation, a place very dear to my heart.
(Sources for this post include ‘Moongalba Sitting Down Place’ by Bernice Fisher, and ‘History Life and Times of Robert Anderson Gheebelum, Ngugi, Mulgumpin.’)
Who the hell is MidnightSun?
MidnightSun Publishing is a small Adelaide based press run by Anna Solding, a talented author in her own right. MidnightSun receives hundreds of manuscripts every year, but only publishes 5 to 7 books per annum, including Y.A and children’s books. This year ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ is the only adult book in their new releases. Solding’s selectiveness has paid off, because MidnightSun’s books have been shortlisted for the Varuna Manuscript Awards, the Penguin/Varuna Scholarship, the Unpublished Manuscript Award at the Adelaide Festival, the Most Underrated Book Award, the CBCA Award and the Adelaide Festival Awards. Their books have been longlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Dobbie Award. Their books have been selected for the One Book One Burnside promotion, the Honour Book in the CBCA Awards, for Queensland Reads and one of their short story collections won the Saboteur Award for best short story collection. I decided to sign with MidnightSun after being impressed by the quality of the books they are producing and the fact that they work with a major distributor. Solding says – ‘We often publish books that bigger publishers would find difficult to market…because they fall between genres’, which is exactly where my book, ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ sits. Thank God for the small publishing houses in this country, like MidnightSun, who are brave enough to take risks on unusual books written by first time unknown authors, like myself. It is no surprise that the smaller publishing houses are now often the ones taking home the big awards such as the Miles Franklin. All hail the small press!
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover. Yeah right!
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ they say, but when negotiating with your publisher the image for the front cover of your book, the upmost thought in your mind is how people are going to judge it by its cover. A good cover needs to jump off the shelf and grab the potential reader’s attention. It needs to indicate the type of story contained within and be culturally sensitive to its contents. It should look good as a thumb nail, and work with the title to intrigue and seduce the reader. But, for me, the best cover is the type you fall into, that you flip back to and stare at intermittently to discover the image contains new meaning as you advance into the story. I adore the cover MidnightSun’s designer, Kim Lock, created for my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree.’ It is not the mother of a tree as described in my book, but it works on other levels which only become evident as the story unfolds. I am so grateful to my publisher Anna Solding, who was sensitive enough to listen and work with me on the decision for the final imagery on the cover. I have heard horror stories from novelists without agents to negotiate for them, who ended up with broken hearts over the cover of their book. My heart is captured every time I see this cover. Hope it makes your heart intrigued too. Feel free to leave me a message or contact me on Facebook, Instagram or Goodreads to let me know what you think.
When I received the news that I had been selected for a Litlink residency at Varuna, the National Writer’s House, I thought they had made a mistake and I waited for the email stating this was the case. After a few days, when another email arrived confirming the residency, the truth of the fact settled inside me like bubbles trapped in a bottle of champagne – I found I could hardly eat or sleep from excitement. I wanted to randomly run and scream and leap in the air at inappropriate moments. Was I really going to spend two whole weeks in a beautiful mansion where I didn’t have to cook or clean or be a mother? Where amazing culinary delights would be provided every day? Where I would be with other writers – real, already published writers who could share their wisdom? Was I really going to be allowed to spend two whole uninterrupted weeks working on my book?
As the residency drew closer, my excitement turned to nerves. I am a very private and at times neurotic person, so thoughts of the four other writers started to erode at what was left of my sanity. I was about to be trapped in a house with four ego maniacs I wouldn’t be able to stand, and worst of all, I wouldn’t be able to get away from them. How big was the house anyway? The picture on the web site made it look large, but we all know how misleading real estate photography can be. What if I ended up feeling suffocated? I wouldn’t be able to work under those conditions. Or even worse, what if they all knew each other and didn’t think I would be worth talking to, because I was new to the industry and not yet published? They were going to ignore me and leave me out. I was about to feel so lonely and rejected, I wouldn’t be able to write. What an absolute nightmare this was going to be! I wish I had never applied for this damn residency!
Of course, my imaginings were unfounded. The four writers I had the pleasure of sharing my stay with were beautiful, down-to-earth, like-minded women, each talented and accomplished, and all five of us were mothers.
I found as the residency unfolded, I had made four new life-long friends. All of us began to look forward to coming together in the evening. Over our gourmet meal we would laugh and drink wine and share industry secrets…well they shared, I listened, fascinated, wondering if it would be rude to take notes.
I worked hard during the day, in the peaceful solitude and comfort of the enforced silence. When I wasn’t working, I floated in a state of utter gratitude, not quite believing I was living the writer’s dream. When the editing became too hideous, I would walk, either to the national park along the spectacular cliff face of the gorge, or into the village of Katoomba where I discovered a scattering of the most wonderful opportunity shops. Winter was turning to Spring. I found myself and the world around me began to blossom, we opened to find the sun, expanding in warm delight. Ah Varuna…how I dream of you still.
Every Writer Needs a Nicola O’Shea
I now live in NSW, but when I was writing the first draft of my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’, I was residing in Queensland, in the Redlands on Quandamooka country, where I was lucky enough to grow up. Queensland regional creatives have access to the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF), in which Arts Queensland partners with local governments to support regional artists. Sadly, in NSW no such fund exists, and no unpublished manuscript awards exist either. NSW writers are greatly disadvantaged in this regard. (The Queensland Literary Awards, the Arts South Australia Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award, the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards are all state based categories for unpublished manuscripts. It does make one wonder why the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards doesn’t have a section for unpublished manuscripts).
Forgive me, I digress. As I was saying, because I was based in QLD at the time, I was able to obtain a RADF grant to work with freelance editor Nicola O’Shea. In 2004, Nicola left her senior editing position at Harper Collins to go freelance. Her clients now include Pan Macmillan, Random House, HarperCollins, Allen & Unwin, Hachette Australia, and freelance writers who are fortunate enough to secure her services. She is always booked up at least a year ahead. There is a reason for this. Nicola weaves magic.
She took my skeletal first draft and turned it into a suspenseful mystery. Working with Nicola was a crash course in novel writing. She seized my flimsy story, cut it up into little pieces, repositioned everything and put it all back together again like a spellbinding puzzle. I remember staring in awe at her pages and pages of editing notes, wondering what kind of brain can do that? What kind of brain can hold a story with parallel strands in their head, reposition all the events of the plot and place it all back together without losing a strand, without making one big ugly mess?
I took her detailed structural edit in hand and reworked, filled out, cut, layered, fell in love with my characters and found magic.
I hope to work with Nicola now for the rest of my days, and if she dies before me, I will recommend her brain be dissected and studied, so future generations aren’t disadvantaged, so her wisdom can be passed on…because, let’s face it, every writer needs a Nicola O’Shea in their lives.
The terrifying prospect of putting yourself out there
When I was in grade two I wet my pants standing in line waiting for our class to enter the library. I had been busting all morning but was too shy to ask to go to the toilet. I didn’t speak to anyone at school until year three and I remember many excruciating lunch breaks sitting alone eating my jam sandwich, waiting for the play bell to ring so I could disappear into the library and into a book. My mother was so worried about my shyness, she considered taking me to see a child psychologist. She has a theory I became an actor to cure myself of my shyness. Just over a year ago, I was advised to join some social media platforms in order to build my ‘author platform’. The amount of anxiety this produced in me brought to mind my grade two self standing in a puddle of pee while the rest of the class gasped in disgust. But I persevered with Facebook, Instagram and Goodreads, and now find I am enjoying the interaction with a very supportive on line community. The next step was to build a web site…and so, here it is – the WEBSITE. It needs capital font because it has been upper case in my mind in the last few months. It is terrifyingly confronting to trawl through the contents and memories of one’s life, to collate it into some kind of definitive statement of who you are and what you have achieved. It is to package one’s self, to ‘stake a claim of real estate’ in the World Wide Web. It is to consider a big question…who am I? I am not Donna Cameron because the domain name was already taken. So hello world. I am D.M. Cameron and I love telling stories. Big breath as I hit the publish button…
I have signed!
After much deliberation and some negotiation, I am delighted to announce Adelaide publishing house MidnightSun will be publishing my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’ in August 2018. With the last two Miles Franklin Award winners coming out of independent publishing houses, now is the time for the small press, so I am very proud to be joining the MidnightSun family. The quality of work this rapidly growing press is producing is outstanding. Anna Solding, the founder of MidnightSun, is a talented writer in her own right and because of this, I feel and hope she will have an inherent understanding of the writing process. I can’t stress enough the importance of meeting your potential publisher in the flesh before signing with them, if you can. I almost didn’t sign with Anna because our initial phone conversation was quite rushed and disconnected. Because of this, I arranged to meet with her in person, and then felt very differently. I discovered a down to earth, intelligent and passionate woman with a similar belief system to my own. Here’s to a joyous and fruitful journey together!
Books & Publishing Magazine
- Press release
As a child, I was amazed when I overheard the old lady who lived down the road talking to my mother about growing patience in her garden. As an adult, I discovered it was a hardy plant that would grow almost anywhere and survive neglect. Even though I successfully grew and continue to grow patience in my garden, I have never been able to cultivate it within myself. This new venture into the world of publishing, however, is proving to be a lesson in patience. Several people warned me as I started on this journey -‘Things move at a snail’s pace in the publishing industry.’ I see now, I have no choice but to grow patience. Focusing on my second novel also helps with this waiting…waiting…waiting…waiting.
Happy! Happy! Happy!
Can’t stop spinning for joy. Three publishers want my manuscript! What a long meandering road it has been to reach this point. After a series of seemingly endless rejections, I suddenly have three publishing contracts on the table and now feel overwhelmed and out of my depth. Thank goodness for the Australian Society of Authors. With the help of the ASA and Alex Adsett Publishing Services, I will be able to compare and review the fine print. For anyone else who may find themselves in this fortunate position, I have been advised to research the quality of the books each house is producing and to also enquire about their distribution abilities. But above all, I need to find the publisher I connect with, as it is going to be a very important ongoing relationship in my life. I can’t help feeling it is similar to choosing a midwife – someone I can trust to safely bring my precious baby into the big wide world.
Originally an actress, I fell into writing scripts by default, working with director Scott Croll, who was looking to commission someone to write a script for his next Theatre-In-Schools tour. I invited him to a play reading of ‘The Fantasy Factor’…my first solo attempt at writing a play. To my horror and delight, he commissioned me and started taking bookings for a play I was yet to write! Nothing like being thrown into the deep end. I had no time for self-doubt and went on to write many more plays.
I often heard the character’s thought process or interior monologue, which I sometimes turned into direct audience address, until one of Australia’s best known playwrights and Artistic Directors informed me that was ‘cheating’ and what I should be doing is revealing information through dialogue and conflict with another character. From then on I edited that interior voice, turning it into dialogue before it hit the page. Consequently, I began to feel stifled in the form.
It wasn’t surprising then when the drama department at ABC Radio National began to show interest in my work. On radio, simply through a different recording technique, I could switch freely between interior monologue and dialogue, which is what occurs in a novel.
But it was landscape that finally drew me to the form. I agree with Hannah Kent, who states – ‘There is little I find more satisfying in a novel than landscape.’
My first novel sprang out of a familiar and beloved landscape, and the characters are defined by the landscape. The same creative process is occurring in the next two books. The novel, I feel, is the most powerful form for exploring landscape in words.
Here is an image from the landscape which inspired Beneath the Mother Tree. Bent she-oaks feature heavily…bent to horizontal from wind exposure, they hang across the sand and into the water on the high tide, providing delicious shade on a hot summer’s day.