I no longer have my mum’s knees.
Every time I’d have a problem with my knees she’d say say, ‘ah, you’ve inherited my knees.’
No matter that my knee problems came from: falling down a cliff; sliding down a mountain when an old Chinese water race we had been tracing collapsed leaving my knee at a right angle that no self respecting knee should try to emulate; falling down large rocks; tripping over a bettong nest (the best way to know you have bettongs is to get your foot caught in their tussock nests).
My mother’s knees have never faced any of these mishaps. But she was sure that any problem they had was due purely to inheritance.
The last two injuries – one late last year and one in April – were due to the stingy negligence of two unnamed airlines. The first happened when I slipped down the steep ladder from a small aircraft during a deluge, nudged by the passengers above me, all of us eager to get out of the rain.
The second accident happened in severe turbulence in an even smaller plane. Flights for 600 square km were cancelled, but not our light aircraft, despite the pilot’s pleas to head office it.
It was ... actually I don’t think you want to know what it was like, not if you plan to board a plane again. But after that I had two knees that didn’t work.
Hopping with a stick was no longer an option.
So I have new knees! And these are mine, bought and paid for, not inherited from anyone.
It’s meant a fortnight break in writing. I had an epidural rather than a general, so I had less post-surgical fog. There are many things I can live with, but I reckoned a fortnight without writing was about as long as I could go. It also means that travel will be extremely limited for a few months, and long travel not possible till about November.
But in a week or two I am going to be walking up the mountain, and the crutches will be precautionary as already my legs are steady and actually hold me up. And as of today, suddenly I can write again.
Lots. There are many new ideas formulated in pain-filled nights in an attempt to survive and stay sane till daylight. It turns out pain relief doesn’t work for me. My mind just rejects the possibility that a tablet or needle can have any effect on the nerve endings exposed by surgery. (Wish I had known that before surgery, not after…)
But there have been times – especially in those 2 am agony hours – when I have wondered if I've done the right thing. Knee replacements are a first-world choice, after all; I could have lived my life well on crutches, as many have done and sadly still must.
Having a major medical procedure, I risked not just myself but those who depend on my being alive, whether through writing or helping them practically. And the cost of a knee replacement could pay for much more desperate surgery than mine.
There have been many hard choices in my life — which are different from hard things that have happened to me but that I haven’t chosen, like the illness or death of those I’ve loved. But choices?
Should I leave a secure job in the public service for life in a shed in the bush? Easiest decision I have ever made – and it turned out later that the job wasn't all that secure either.
Marry Bryan? A man who had never willingly read a work of fiction in his life but is one of the wisest people I have known. That was an easy decision too … but yes, in the weeks beforehand I (sometimes) doubted.
(I have never doubted since.)
Spend years working on a wombat diary when the idea was clearly impossible and no one wanted anthropomorphic books about wombats back then? Did it anyway. Definitely no regrets.
The last four medical procedures? Turned out they were unnecessary and might have been dangerous. Bad choices. I should have asked more questions of people who would have known the answers.
But I think this one was a good choice. I may be even surer about that in three months time. I think that I can be of more use with two knees that work. When I'm in less pain I can write more — and better. Then there's the logistics of living with crutches. Walking up mountains and following wombats in the bush has always been a source of fulfilment, inspiration and what might even be a form of prayer, of joy and gratitude and simply shutting out preoccupations and opening my mind to…
…and here words fail.
I think it was the right choice. If I were sure I wouldn’t be writing this. But I do know this: my knees, finally, are mine!
This is where the carrots come from, my child
The first baby wombat of the season is munching outside my bedroom window! And a well-grown, probably eight-month-old baby it is, too. The wombats have been so well fed on lush grass this year that they don’t bother coming out till late at night. This one is grey, like her mother, Grey Grey, the daughter of Wild Whiskers and Phil. And timid. And fluffy. And very, very cute. She or he does not have a name yet. One cannot call a self-respecting wombat ‘Fluffy’. Plus she/he will have normal wombat doormat-like fur by summer. Any suggestions? Phil has returned to us for winter carrots, and Grey Grey hangs around till we give her carrots too. The valley is filled with the sound of crunching for about two hours every afternoon. Wombats like to savour carrots, one crunch and then a long slow meditation on the flavour …
Books out now
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters — and I have never said that about my work before. Goodbye, Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan, of Heide who has now become Helga Schmidt, and Georg’s mother.
The book still has too powerful a hold on me to write about it. If I could summarise it I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. Perhaps this quotation from the last chapter might say what I can’t about the book, and why it is one that so many need to understand now, today, as the world begins another insane spiral that, as a historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
Age range: 11+
Passion, betrayal, battles and love: a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, true to the play, but told from the viewpoint of Annie, a village girl who became a lady-in-waiting at the castle of the local thane. Here the play is stripped of its superstitions; integrity and kindness are able to triumph over hatred; and for some there may be a happy ending.
Age range: 14+
A tale of love, espionage and passionate heroism. Inspired by true stories, this is a take on how the ‘lovely ladies’ won a war, the first in a new series that shows the changing concepts of what it means to be a woman – and a fulfilled one – beginning in 1913. The reviews have been wonderful, and the comments, too: ‘literally unputdownable’; ‘you HAVE to read this.’
I very much hope you do, and I am two-thirds through the next one…..
Age range: Everyone
With the glorious Sue deGennaro, we dreamed this up three years ago while watching her daughters explore the valley.
If Blood Should Stain the Wattle
Age range: 12+
The sixth book in the Matilda series, written for young adults 12 and upwards. This is Australia from 1972-1975, with the Whitlam government sweeping away twenty-three years of Coalition tradition as seen through the eyes of a country town. It was a time of intense idealism throughout the nation – even if many of those ideals differed deeply. In Gibbers Creek, Jed must choose between her old love, Nicholas, who is the new Labor Party MP, and Sam from the Half Way to Eternity commune; Scarlett dreams of becoming a doctor, despite her wheelchair; Ra Zachariah waits for the end of the world and the coming of a new one – and is prepared to be ruthless to make sure it arrives. And Matilda Thompson will see her father’s political dream from the 1890s made real; she will see mistakes, conspiracies, anguish and elation; and finally be proud that, even as the nation is torn apart in the Dismissal, no blood stained the wattle.
The Secret of the Black Bushranger
Age range: 8+
The third in the Secret History series. Barney has finally been given his farm, making him the youngest landowner in the colony. But is the escaped convict he helped a laughing villain or a freed slave who cannot endure chains again? Who was John ‘Black’ Caesar? The result of years of research into this previously unknown corner of our history, this book combines adventure with insight into the early years of our first colony.
Grandma Wombat (with Bruce Whatley)
Age range: Everyone!
Our grand-kids are always perfect. Even if you are a wombat. Especially if you are a wombat … and your grandson is as stroppy as you are.
Also look for:
Wombat Goes to School … perfect for kids about to start school or who need some extra enthusiasm for the years to come.
Books coming soon
Koala Bare (illustrated by Matt Shanks)
For too long koalas have been called 'bears', but one very stroppy koala decides to right this wrong. Illustrated by the very talented Matt Shanks, I hope this book is as much fun to read as it was to write!
This doesn’t include many other non-public events – it’s just meant as a guide to where I may be if there is anything else possible while I’m nearby. For bookings, check the terms on the website and/or contact Booked Out.
September: If Blood Should Stain the Wattle paperback released
6–9 September: Brisbane Writer’s Festival October: Koala Bare released
25 October: Children’s Day in Canberra
29 October: Launch of Goodbye, Mr Hitler at the Sydney Jewish Museum (and a chance to thank the extraordinary holocaust survivors who not just inspired the book, but my life). The next Monday and possibly Tuesday after the launch, PR events in Sydney: contact Holly at Harper Collins for details or bookings.
December: Facing the Flame released (Matilda Book 7)
The June–July Garden
Keeping the Harvest
Vegetable gardens have a special smell — over-ripe tomatoes on the soil, that faint bitter smell of lettuce going to seed. Most good gardens have surpluses. Few gardeners can bring themselves to pull up unwanted lettuce seedlings. Good gardeners like growing things, not uprooting them. There are zucchini that jump out at you when you're not looking; those innocent spring bushes suddenly become fecund monsters in autumn. Then there are the summer crops you want to store – tomatoes, capsicum etc. – to keep the taste and smell of summer for winter.
Every food has its season. Carrots are sweeter after a frost, cauliflowers are firmer in winter, tomatoes sweeter in summer. Out-of-season food is usually expensive and often elderly; it may even have been imported, and will probably be one of those modern firm varieties that 'travels well' and tastes of the styrofoam it was packed in.
We mostly eat fresh food. I preserve very little from the garden — once the beans have finished there are leeks; when the capsicums have finished it’s time to taste the root vegetables, beetroot and parsnips, or the cauliflowers you have kept for winter. The exceptions are tomatoes to add to winter stews, and fruit for winter puddings. Usually we preserve different foods each year, and they're made by the vatful and last for years, so there's usually enough variety stored.
There is no need to prepare for winter sieges in Australia. But some old harvest recipes are delightful in their own right, and besides, what else do you do with a zucchini bush that's never heard of birth control, the bags full of beans, the pumpkins quite sound except for a squashy bit on the end or the carrot bed uprooted for next season's broad beans?
Even if you don't have your own garden, it is still cheaper to buy fruit and vegetables in season and store and preserve them to provide variety for winter and spring meals. This is especially the case if you are trying to buy only organic or unpolluted food — you may want to save tomatoes, for example, while they are available.
A few harvest recipes
Pickled nasturtium pods that taste like capers