Irish Myths in the Australian Landscape.
As a new mother, I observed myself passing on to 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 in a similar position 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. The question solidified and demanded an answer, so I started to explore it by writing what would become my debut novel, ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’. By examining my own connection to country through the form of a fictional story, I hoped I would find the answer. Pictured is a bush-stone curlew that was nesting on the footpath outside my parent’s house the last time I visited them. 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 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, tattered 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 and made me realise how vital it is that all Australians come to this deeper understanding of our country for true healing to occur. This is one of the main themes explored 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’, is 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 trapped and 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). 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. My initial draft told all. It was one dimensional and quite predictable. 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 four and 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.