Am loving reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here at Varuna.

I have been meaning to read it for ages because I never have, and it’s the text on which the French Baroque composers based many of the operas in which La Maupin performed. Also because, hidden in among the exploits of Jason and Perseus is the story of Iphis, who was raised as a boy: a story La Maupin would have known well.

I don’t get much reading time, but it’s glorious, and one of those splendid, robust 20th-century translations (Rolfe Humphries, Indiana University Press, 1955).  I imagine Eleanor Dark reading this, while the wind rages around the house, as Juno (or whoever is in charge of the weather in Katoomba) decides to flood the earth:

… he turned loose

The South-wind, and the South-wind came out streaming

With dripping wings, and pitch-black darkness veiling

His terrible countenance. His beard is heavy

With rain-cloud, and his hoary locks a torrent,

Mists are his chaplet, and his wings and garments

Run with rain. His broad hands squeeze together

Low-hanging clouds, and crash and rumble follow

Before the cloudburst, and the rainbow, Iris,

Draws water from the teeming earth, and feeds it

Into the clouds again.

Writing together

I’m not much of an extrovert. Far from it. I’d happily stay home and never go anywhere, but that’s not how the world works. You adapt. Leave the house.  Talk to other people. Real people.

So it fascinates me how networked and interactive the writing community is, online and in real life, considering how many writers are introverts. There are those huge web communities where people pitch ideas, get draft feedback, agonise over rejections, beg agents for advice, just like the Writers’ Centres  and events we have in so many places now. There are courses and workshops and a whole lot of people (the extroverts, probably) creating careers out of connecting writers with one another and – of course – with publishers and agents. They scare me a little, but never mind.

The amazing thing to me is how communities develop organically, or when given a gentle boost. The Young Adult authors on Twitter, for example, many of whom have also met in real life at conferences or events, have proved with campaigns such as #YAsaves to be a force for goodness and niceness, able to be mobilised in minutes.

So this week and next I am in writing paradise: Varuna Writers’ House in Katoomba, in the gorgeous Blue Mountains in New South Wales. *

Image of liquidamber leaves

Dry stone wall under the liquidamber - Varuna

It’s autumn here, and some days it rains softly. There are five writers in the house, all working on different kinds of projects and at different stages of our careers. We each have a bedroom and a writing room, in a house filled with books and light. We wake up early most mornings. We may or may not see one another during the day. We slouch about, sit at our desks, proofread in the sunshine, go for walks, refuse to go for walks (in my case), browse the bookshelves, and write.

Mostly write. When we assembled on the first evening we all agreed there was some kind of magic going on. I’d written 5000 words that day – twice the usual rate. We start early (though it’s entirely up to the individual) and most of us are at our desks for 11 or 12 hours. But it’s not just that – somehow the mind becomes more focused, more productive. If there’s a writing zone, we are deep inside it. It’s quiet, respectful, peaceful, dedicated, and we are all conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being here – of being supported, as writers.

We help ourselves to the plentiful food supplies – in some cases every two hours – and then around 6pm we slowly assemble in front of the fire in the dining room, talk about our days, our work, the world and wait for the legendary Sheila to arrive and prepare a fabulous meal.  It’s a little writing community, of sorts: a temporary one, although I know plenty of people who’ve made lasting friendships here.

It’s quite different from my select and extremely rowdy writing circle back home. There are three of us. Most weeks we meet for lunch, for coffee and then go write. Together. We sit about with our laptops somewhere soundproof (for the safety of those around us) and we write in 25 minute sprints, and then for ten minutes we gossip, drink cups of tea, and laugh until we weep. Then another writing sprint. I haven’t been part of that kind of writing community for years, and it’s lovely. (Thank you, Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.) It developed naturally, in a way, but we are also all PhD students in a faculty of supportive people.

Online, I’m part of a community of writers and readers, many of whom I’ve never met. We share resources, articles, reading suggestions, outrage, shameless plugs, despair, jokes, favourite videos, support and encouragement. It’s called Twitter and it’s as much a part of my own professional development as – in fact more than, because it’s daily –  my membership of any professional organisations.

So you see – even an introvert gets out sometimes.

Image of Eleanor's studio, Varuna

Eleanor Dark's studio, Varuna

*Varuna was the home of author Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land)  and Dr Eric Dark, who served with the Medical Corps on the Somme and was awarded a Military Cross following Passchendaele. The MC citation, dated 15th August 1917, reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his bearers. He displayed great gallantry and disregard of danger in moving about in the open under the heaviest shell fire, collecting and evacuating the wounded. He worked continuously for thirty-six hours, by his energy and determination contributing largely to the rapid clearing of the battlefield.”

Their house must have been an oasis in their busy lives: both were at the forefront of contemporary politics; Eleanor was a feminist and social justice advocate, Eric a socialist and committed member of the Labour Left during those turbulent decades around the Second World War. Varuna was donated “to literature” by their son Mick and is now a year-round haven for writers of all persuasions. It has a range of fellowships and programs: I was lucky enough to be awarded a Retreat Fellowship.

Appearances and residencies

I’m proud to appear in the Word is Out program this year, part of Melbourne’s Midsumma festival.

I’ll be reading a snippet from Tragédie in Works in progress: other times on 19 January. Makes me a tad nervous – nobody but my uni colleagues have heard or read it before.

Then on 22 January I’m part of a panel (in excellent company) called Truth, dare and promises: issues in youth literature. Here’s the blurb:

Could Young Adult fiction be better described as ‘trauma’ fiction? Has it become too dark, or has it always been that way? If pressure on some writers, by agents and publishers, to ‘de-gay’ their characters is just about increasing sales potential, is this homophobic? Have supernatural themes gone too far? What ‘facts of life’ should young people be exposed to?

Sounds pretty good, eh? Wish I could just go along and listen but instead I’ll be trying to either get a word in edgeways or sound like I know what I’m talking about.

Right now I’m blogging as the author in residence on inside a dog, the teen reading website of the State Library of Victoria. (That’s where I work part-time, too – but the residency is part of my author life, not my day job. I know. It’s complicated.

So over there you can find me rambling on about writing and reading and other stuff for the rest of January. Go take a look. Even if you’re not a teen reader. You know you want to.

Now some residency announcements.

I feel both honoured and very lucky to have been awarded residency fellowships for 2012 by Varuna Writers’ House and the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust.

Both are precious and named in honour of some of the country’s best loved writers. Varuna is Australia’s national residential writers’ house in the former home of writers Dr Eric Dark and Eleanor Dark, author of The Timeless Land. Varuna is in the Blue Mountains, and I’ll be there in April working on Tragédie

The May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust supports writers and illustrators of books for children and young people by providing residencies in apartments in Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra. Its purpose is:

… to ensure that the high quality of work attained by May Gibbs in her time is achieved by contemporary Austrailan children’s authors and illustrators; that they are able to retain the Australian voice and to develop the literary heritage of the future.

What better?

Thanks to the Trust, I’ll be spending a month in Brisbane working furiously on The Sultan’s Eyes over April/May.

So it’s a big year. And we’re only three weeks into it.