July 2020: A Song of Quarantine
It's been a while...
It has been a while since the last newsletter, but I have excellent excuses: surgery to correct previous surgery that went wrong; a fractured spine; bushfires and evacuations and hundreds of wildlife to feed and water during November December and January while still on crutches; then two floods which destroyed most of our roads; and we are still cleaning up and repairing from drought, bushfire wind and repairing. Oh, and the pandemic. And I fell down a wombat hole or rather, the hole collapsed under me. The wombat was not amused, and my hips turned purple for a few weeks.
Yet Bryan and I are as good as it is possible to be in July 2020. The creek is flowing, the Golden Whistler doing his thing outside my study window; the wombats fat again; the animals who escaped from the fires have returned as the areas grew grass and leaves.
Of course, we are impacted, personally and financially. However, we are more desperately worried for others, as well as for the libraries, the theatres, the animals facing extinction and so much else. But lockdown has meant a chance to recover a bit from the last three years of ‘managing’ to do things despite pain and the physical shock that came from what turned out to be over 100 fractures in my left leg. (That bone scan was a relief: aha! That is why I have felt so crook. Also it left no option but replacing all that damaged bone)
Life now is a balancing act: trying to fill each moment with joy while trying to do all I can to help. The first few lockdown weeks were overfilled so many Zoom sessions with classes or groups here in Australia or overseas that I found I was working from 7 am to 1 am with barely a loo break, much less a meal/conversation with my husband.
Hopefully I have finally learned how to juggle, with the help of friends who did some gentle yelling (thank you!) and the grandkids who are able to visit again, and who have saved up everything to tell me/show me while we feed the chooks, pick fruit, make fresh lemonade and I applaud as they climb up boulders. And I am extraordinarily, gloriously lucky.
5 Coping Mechanisms for The World As it Is Now
A friend and I were tallying the year’s traumas yesterday, shocked that it had held so much: the deaths of our mothers, of dear friends, the major illness of others, our own surgery and acceptance of a degree of disability, the private griefs and the traumas we have shared with thousands and with millions, and every one of us million has a different story of the past year.
As a child I retreated from boredom, neglect and abuse into books. The worlds I found there were wonderful. Now, sixty years later, books are still both a refuge and a hope: life can be good. Life is good, in I allow myself time to realise it in between waiting for the NBN repair technician to just possibly fix our internet – we are at the stage of the provider and NBN blaming each other – and trying to cope with tax or banking and working around quarantines.
So to everyone who is juggling and is only just managing to cope, I can offer five solutions, which work, if only you have time or energy to take the
2) The natural world, even if is just the branch of a tree or the sight of the night sky, a universe of stars that go on forever glimpsed from a hospital room.
3) Prayer, in whatever form that takes for you, because prayer is honestly, saying I need help, or what is the right thing to do? It’s an old-fashioned remedy, but it works. Call it meditation if you’d rather, a reaching out to something beyond and within ourselves.
4) Having wonderfully long bitch about the world to a friend, the kind where things are so bad you end up laughing and wondering what melodrama the soap opera writer is going to come up with for our lives tomorrow.
And the fifth is one an old woman shared with me, one who’d been through the blitz and explained how you kept going as the bombs rained down about your shelter and the world was full of dust, and when the bombs stopped you knew you would have to open the door and face impossible tragedy and loss.
She said ‘we sang, dear. All those songs weren’t just an accident. While you can sing you can keep going.’
And always keep an emergency book on hand, to vanish into. Just for a while.
During mid-January, when Bryan and I were dividing ember watch, I stayed up till 2am each night, watching for burning cinders, and putting out more food for the animals. The night skies were pulsing red, not black, so there was no need for a torch when a small black wombat staggered down the garden, and then collapsed, about ten metres from the water she so desperately needed. I took her a plate and put it next to her nose. She drank slowly, and I sat with her, and after a while she managed to stagger over to the food stations.
Perhaps a hundred animals were there: wombats, wallabies, possums, even quolls and sometimes snakes and others too. But every single one of them stood back to let the little wombat get to the food and water. She lay down to eat, to drink, and stayed there all night, eating and drinking just a little at a time. By daylight she had managed to move herself into the shade of the house. Her paws were charcoal, but not burnt – I think the embedded charcoal may have protected them. She did have a minor burn on her neck, but a veterinary nurse said it looked minor when I sent her a photo, and it healed after I applied cream.
She wasn’t tame, but knew I was trying to help her, and waited calmly while I applied the cream, or moved fresh food closer to her. Within a few days the dark colour vanished. It had been smoke. She was dark brown underneath.
Slowly she grew stronger, till finally she could share a wombat burrow nearby with two or three other wombats. And then one night Wild Whiskers – who is not a nice wombat – bit her when she didn’t allow the 2 metres either side that Wild Whiskers regards as her due.
And by then I had written her story, all except the end, which I hadn’t known then. It is also the story of the national (and international) effort to feed, water, raise money, crochet animal beds and much much else in those months. And at 2am, with Twitter and Facebook and hundreds offering help, I never felt alone. Nor could we have managed to provide as much food without the delivery during the worst weeks, as the fires burnt the valley ridges and up into the village.
The book is called The Fire Wombat, created with Danny Snell, and it is the first – and possibly only time – I have rung a publisher and said ‘I wrote a book last night and I have to publish it.’ It can be pre-ordered now.
And the other wombats? As soon as the grass grew after the rain they ignored us. They have kept ignoring us till a few weeks ago, when the cold meant that a few mouthfuls of rolled oats and some carrots would be welcome and WHERE ARE THEY???!!!!
There seem to be no babies in the pouches, but as everything else is months late this year, from spring apples fruiting in autumn to November wattle blossom in March, the wombats may be breeding late, too. Wild Whiskers is even crankier than usual, which often means she has pouch young. She tried to bite Bryan last week, but only got a mouthful of jeans instead. The jeans won.
But the wombats, too, seem subdued. Maybe it’s the lingering scent of so many strangers earlier in the year, though they accepted them with kindness and even hospitality at the time, sharing burrows and well as sweet potatoes. There have been no wombat yells and smells that indicate mating.
We’ll see, come spring.
The Fire Wombat (with Danny Snell)
Out: November 2021
Out: November 2021
This is the first of my books to be marketed as ‘adult’, not ‘YA/adult’, which was confusing. Young adults will read it too, I hope, but the next two books I’m planning in what isn’t a series, though will have overlaps with the Matilda saga, will be labelled ‘adult’ too. I’ve tried to give a new perspective on…I’ll save that lecture for next time, and nearer to the book emerging.
And look at that cover! It is truly, wonderfully perfect.
Out: April 2021
Lisa loves it!
I completed Miss Lily 5 three week ago, and sent off to her. Waiting for the editor to assess a manuscript is always terrifying, but especially for this book. It is the final in the Miss Lily series, the culmination when the reader finally sees the true ‘Miss Lily, and the other characters find the truth about themselves too. I’ve been working to this point for eight years: that time in history where women became ‘people’, not simply ‘female’, and the world of ‘people’ opened for them – a world we had to fight to join, and still do. But as my year 11 history teacher told us, revolutions don’t happen when things at their worst. They happen when people have hope.
Usually Lisa reads a new Miss Lily manuscript in 48 hours. This time she waited for a free weekend, and then emailed me on the Saturday night to say she loved it so much she was reading it as slowly as she could, as she couldn’t bear for it to end. Which as wonderful but what if all the carefully drawing together themes crashed in the second half of the book, and she hated the conclusion.
Lisa finished the book a week later, then began to read it again. She too, does not want to leave the world of Miss Lily. But the book works, and she says, magnificently. And thank goodness, as by then, for me, the final scenes for each character were inevitable. I’d known the fate of Sophie, Dolphie, for Hannelore and Violette and Daniel, and Ethel (I do love Ethel) and James Lorrimer long before I began to write the first book. I’d known, too, exactly who Miss Lily was all along, no matter what face was presented to the world as the books progressed. As Miss Lily told her students, she always told the truth – but rarely the whole truth, except now, in Book 5.
My editor Kate is still to see it, and to rip it into shreds and show me where it needs to be repaired, so there’ll be at least one major rewriting before it is released March next year. It’s a large book, with broad themes – there will be places where I need to add more detail, or even scenes to build up to the various dramas more slowly. But it works, it works, it works. I am longing to do the rewrites, while deeply sad to know that will be the final one.
Rewriting is only 'rewriting', rather than living in the world of the characters so deeply it is sometimes as if I am merely writing what I see, as well as I am able. I've never mourned finishing a series before, possibly because the ending of the Matilda series is not really an end. As with Tom Appleby, the characters are embedded in times and places I'll write about again, as is Gibber's Creek. But except possibly for a few short stories I won't ever return to the world of Miss Lily, to Shillings Hall, nor to Thuringa. The stories of each character are complete
Pandemic (with Bruce Whatley)
Out: November 2020
Scholastic Books had what we thought might be the final book in the Disaster series ready to go to print – Earthquake. Then COVID-19 hit. While in quarantine, we created this, and Scholastic books edited and designed it with similar speed and dedication.
It is the story of the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu pandemic, and again a true story, about my great grandmother, as well as the two heroes of a pandemic that finally vanished across the world: kindness and quarantine. Luckily we still have both those gifts to help us now.
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was released earlier this year – I’m not quite sure what crisis was occurring just then. I love the book, which I don’t say about all my books. Each review has focused exactly on the heart of the book, and why I wrote it – a coming of age for a girl, and a nation, where our nation’s first law was of racial division, forcibly removing Pacific Islanders who came as slaves, adventurers or indentured workers for decades to Australia, and their children for whom Australia was home. It’s about the fight for education for those with a dark skin as well as for women; how books can light a future; how battles might take decades to win, but we do, eventually, get there, or at least much further on the path.
It’s also the stories of my grandmothers, combined. And even the shipwreck, the secret school, and the treasure on the beach, are true.
All of Us: A History of Southeast Asia
(With Professor Virginia Hooker and artist, historian and cartographer Mark Wilson)
This is 120,000 years of Southeast Asia, our region, bound by the monsoon winds that make it the most culturally diverse region in the world. Children will study the ‘story maps’, older kids will read the poems that tell the story of a brother and sister across the centuries; scholars will pour over the timeline.
There was no one way to write a book to cover the immensity of the topic. This book tells history in six ways, all we hope fascinating and powerful, enticing the reader to the Teachers Notes and the references they will find there too. It has taken us five years’ collaboration and it is magnificent.
The Ghost of Howler’s Beach is your younger readers, the first in a new series, The Butter O’Bryan Mysteries, set in 1932. Butter O’Bryan lives in The Very Small Castle with his Aunt Peculiar, Aunt Elephant and Auntie Cake. There is a beach, a skelelton, three kids playing cricket - and keep vanishing. Who are these children and why do they refuse his help?Butter is certain they're hiding a secret and he's determined to uncover it.
Dippy and the Dinosaurs (with Bruce Whatley)
You cannot, of course, have a friendly Diprotodon living at the same time as dinosaurs.
But we did….
Lilies, Love and Lies is the most explosive yet on the Miss Lily series, based on two long lost archived letters I uncovered.
To my shock the NBN internet I thought too slow to upload more than 9 seconds of emailed video can cope with clear zoom sessions and other media. So I have been zooming across the world, with classes, whole schools, libraries, book clubs, festivals, as well as videoing sessions that can be used instead of physical appearances.
if we are very lucky, we might just be interrupted by the neighbour who's hole is two metres from my zoom chair.
Details are here, but basically, whatever you’d like, I can Zoom it. I’m now doing only one online session a day though, especially as it often takes a half hour or so to get the technology right at the other end, and only between 10am and 8pm AEST. Apologies to all those with a time difference that doesn’t allow sessions in these times, but 11pm to midnight sessions were too hard, and hard on the household too, and the only place I have access to the internet is close to the bedrooms, so everyone stayed awake till I’d finished..
The July Garden
The pomegranates decided to bloom even though it was February, not spring.
Plant. This year had taught us all that we can’t predict what is around the corner. But planting fruit trees, veg and flowers gives a reasonable certainly of a harvest and delight.
Onions; winter lettuce and other winter greens may be planted if the soil feels warm – but they’ll mature just as fast planted in spring; plant crowns of rhubarb, asparagus; berry roots, Jerusalem artichoke tubers unless the ground freezes – in which case wait till spring. Keep planting deciduous fruit trees and berries; put in rhubarb crowns, artichoke and cardoon suckers, asparagus sets…but spring seedlings will grow faster and be hardier.
Frost free climates
Plant: passionfruit vines and seeds mixed salad leaves, apple cucumbers, butter beans, huge New guinea beans, coloured capsicum, Chinese cabbage, chillies, chokos, sweet potatoes, long oval eggplant, melons, okra, rosellas, pumpkin, shallots, sweet corn, tomatoes. Try deep pots of parsley- the roots may rot in hot damp soil.
Cold to temperate
Plant: seeds of radish, onions, winter lettuce, silver beet, spinach, broad beans, peas, snow peas, winter lettuce, spring onions, parsnips, fast maturing Asian veg like tatsoi, pak choi and mitsuba. Seedlings of beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, leeks, lettuce, leeks, spinach. . Harvest: Root vegetables are sweetest now, after frost and cold nights. Try them grated into salads with lots of parsley, especially celeriac, fennel bulbs, Japanese turnips and long winter radish- lovely with a touch of sesame oil and soy. Winter fruit will be at its best now, too – frost makes citrus softer and sweeter, and seems to give late Lady Williams apples a unique zing.
Fruit: Apples (Lady Williams, Sturmer pippin, French Crab), navel oranges, kiwi fruit, limes, mandarins, citrons, grapefruit, bananas, avocados, tangelos, meddlers, custard apples, cumquats, tangors, Atherton raspberries, alpine strawberries, and cape gooseberries and coffee berries grown in a pot or sheltered spot.
Other jobs: Plant deciduous trees, rhubarb crowns, and asparagus. Daydream through seed and fruit tree catalogues, planning for next season. Clean up garden rubbish, including any dead stuff from the last few years’ drought, and make a final winter compost heap.
But also treat yourself too.
Hedged espialiered apples along the front wall?
A hedge of pomegranates instead of a front fence?
Turn the lawn into a potato bed, simply because it is fun and unexpected. The potatoes will also be delicious -- a home-grown spud, fresh from the ground, is a treat.
Cover back fences with passionfruit, or choko, or rambling roses.
But mostly, have fun. Being part of the earth’s generosity is one of the deepest joys.
Recipes for Extreme Treats
Others can use lockdown as an excuse for cooking and eating lavishly. I’ve been doing it since my first decent vegetable garden and chook shed began to produce. At the moment my favourite snack is dark rye bread topped with smoked salmon, avocado and a splodge of hummus. It’s not so much a recipe as an indulgence, just like slices of crisp winter apple with cheese.