18 Years of Notes and Cards

woman dressed as mermaid swimming underwater

The year is 2000. I’m slogging away at a Masters in Writing at UTS. I’d had two careers already, in film and television production at the ABC (an engine-room role) and as Principal of my own PR agency, but my dream had always been to become a writer. My children were grown up and living their own lives. One day towards the end of that year the phone rang and someone left a message saying they were Les Murray. Ha ha, I thought. As if Australia’s most famous living poet would be ringing me. I had sent a story titled Art and the Mermaid to the address on the Quadrant website. Imagine my disbelief and indescribable joy when I found out it wasn’t a friend playing a trick on me, but was in fact the real Les Murray, Literary Editor of Quadrant. He said he’d like to take Art and the Mermaid for Quadrant.

That phone call began an 18-year friendship and working relationship. It changed my life.

The thrill of seeing my work published regularly in Quadrant has given me credibility as a fiction writer and, more recently, as a poet. I’ve felt encouraged to continue to explore unique ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas.

Where would I be if it wasn’t for Les Murray? My writing career may never had started, or continued. To date, three books published, a fourth coming out next year – each book containing chapters that were first published in Quadrant.

Les’s inclusion of my work in the magazine has been instrumental in my development. He’s lifted my confidence, inspired me and made me proud of being a writer. Published in Quadrant was public validation and acceptance into the literary world.

We communicated about my stories and poetry through notes and postcards over all these years: I’d post him a submission and a short letter and he’d respond with either a chatty postcard to say ‘Yes’, or a note saying ‘Alas, …’

When Quadrant published my first story Art and the Mermaid in 2001, I had no idea the next 18 years would lead to 22 more stories and 4 poems published in Quadrant.

With the retirement of Les Murray as Literary Editor, it’s the poignant end of the era of Les at Quadrant. However, Les’s impact continues through the new and established writers he has fostered and who continue their careers. I am forever grateful that I was one of those writers. Congratulations. Literary Editor at Quadrant since March 1990.

Here is my story Art and the Mermaid, first published in Quadrant:

Once upon a time it came to pass, so it is said, that an enormous storm swept the coast of New South Wales, doing extensive damage to the ocean beaches – destroying jetties, breakwaters and washing away retaining walls.  Mountainous seas swept Bondi Beach and dashed against the cliffs carrying ruin with every roller.  At North Bondi near Ben Buckler a huge submerged block of sandstone weighing 233 tons was lifted ten feet and driven 160 feet to the edge of the cliff where it remains to this day.

One day a Sydney sculptor, Lyall Randolph, looked upon the rock and was inspired.  The sculptor was a dreamer.  Let us, he said, have two beautiful mermaids to grace the boulder.  Using two Bondi women as models he cast the two mermaids in fibreglass and painted them in gold.

Without Council approval and at his own expense he erected The Mermaids for all to see on the giant rock that had been washed up by the sea.  The Mermaids sat side by side on the rock.  One shaded her eyes as she scanned the ocean and the other leant back in a relaxed fashion with an uplifted arm sweeping her hair up at the back of her neck.  Their fishy tails complemented the curves and crevices of their bodies.

It so happened that less than a month after The Mermaids were put in place, one was stolen and damaged.  The Council held many meetings to decide if she should be replaced using ratepayers’ money.  The council had previously objected to the sculptor placing the statues there without Council permission.  The sculptor had argued that before placing The Mermaids in position he had taken all necessary steps to obtain the requisite permission.

The large boulder at Ben Buckler, upon which The Mermaids were securely bolted and concreted, he said, is not in the municipality of Waverley at all.  It is in the sea.  According to the Australian Constitution high-tide mark is the defined limit of the Waverley Council’s domain.  The Maritime Services Board and the Lands Department both advised me they had no objection to the erection of The Mermaids.

One Waverley Alderman said he wished both mermaids had been taken instead of only one.  Someone else said the sculptor didn’t need the Council’s permission to put them there in the first place and the The Mermaids had given Bondi a great attraction without any cost to the Council.  The sculptor said The Mermaids had brought great publicity to the Council.  They had been featured in films, newspapers, television and the National Geographic magazine.

The Mayor used his casting vote in favour of the mermaid and she was re-installed.

For over ten years the two beautiful golden mermaids reclined at Ben Buckler, attracting many thousands of sightseers to the beach.

Poised on the huge boulder they braved the driving storms of winter until one day one was washed off.  The Council saw its opportunity and removed the other.

Today, only the remnants of one mermaid remain – but not on the rock.  In a glass cabinet in Waverley Library at Bondi Junction all that is left of the two beautiful mermaids is a figure with half a face.  There’s a hole instead of a cheek, a dismembered torso, part of an uplifted arm, the tender groove of an armpit.  And there, down below, a complete fish’s tail.

Copyright © 2018 Libby Sommer

Header image:  Creative Commons

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Have You Tried Flash Fiction Yet?

books-bookstore-book-reading-159711.jpeg

Have you heard the term flash fiction? What does it mean?

‘A flash fiction piece is a self-contained story (beginning/middle/end), 1,000 words or less, that can entertain, intrigue, and satisfy a reader during an F5 tornado. That’s it. No genre restrictions, age requirements, or prior experience needed. Just quick, clean stories.’ – Writer’s Digest

‘Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fictionmicro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex.’ – The Review Review

‘Flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity that still offers character and plot development. Identified varieties, many of them defined by word count, include the six-word story, the 280-character story, the “dribble”, the “drabble”, “sudden fiction”, flash fiction, nanotale, and “micro-story”.’ – Wikipedia

I like writing in a short form. I’ve been told I have the sensibility of a poet because I have the ability to distill, so the short form suits me. You may be more of a long distance runner, rather than a sprinter, and prefer the long form of a novel.

Have a read of my flash fiction titled It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into A Unit, winner of the short short fiction UTS Alumni Competition. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into a Unit

A nice quiet weekend? the woman downstairs said.  What do you mean? I said, through the open back door, a bag of rubbish in each hand.  She smoothed her ironing on the board and said, They weren’t around over the weekend—with the baby.  She looked happy.  I’m lucky living on the top floor, I said.  She nodded towards the other side of the building.  Jim isn’t so luckyhe’s got the woman upstairs, she said, When he plays the piano and she thumps on the floor.   She put the iron back on its stand.  She’s heavy-footed, that woman.  Bang, bang, bang.   I hear her coming down the stairs every morning at six, and the slam of the front door. 

That night the wind knocked my vase off the window ledge.  I lay awake wondering if the noise of the smash had woken up the people underneath—the ones whose barbecuing sends smoke and disgusting meat smells into my unit.  Nothing clings to your furniture like the stink from last week’s burnt fat.   Sorry about the crash, I muttered to the floor, It was the wind.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2018

Why not try your hand at writing in this short form and enter a flash fiction competition. Good luck.

 

From acceptance to publication

 

tango-dancing-couple-dance-style-67238.jpeg

Over the weekend I finished correcting first proofs of THE USUAL STORY, a prequel to THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM and posted them back to Ginninderra Press in Adelaide. Final proofs next. We’re on track for a July release. An exciting time.

red and black book cover The Crystal Ballroom

This is my third book, so I’m getting used to the publication process. After acceptance of the manuscript by Ginninderra Press in July 2017, eight months later I received first proofs. These I’ve read and corrected.

In the meantime we have been discussing the cover image. Ginninderra Press is a small but prestigious publisher and I’m able to have a say in cover design. This doesn’t happen with a larger publisher. I am also in communication with GP about a quote to put on the front cover to attract sales and a blurb for the back cover.

Blurbs are very difficult to write. I had a chat with my good friend the talented author Susanne Gervay today about my blurb. She did a brainstorming session with me and I think we’ve got a few lines together that will make people want to read the book.

first proofs, The Usual Story by Libby Sommer

Actually, first draft of the blurb is:

‘Tango is the dance of passion, forcing partners into an intimate relationship. Sofia loves the tango, but at the dances she comes face to face with the truth of her aging in today’s culture that has very little use for anything that is not young.’

What do you think? I would LOVE some feedback on this blurb. Please give me your response in the comments section. I’m not a good big-picture-person like my friend Susanne. I’m more into observing small details, which is good for prose and poetry but not for writing pitches and blurbs.

I asked Les Murray, Nobel Prize nominee for Literature, who is also Literary Editor of Quadrant magazine, if he would read THE USUAL STORY and write a couple of lines for the back cover. He said yes. Wow! I’m so delighted. He knows my work well having published many of my short stories and poems. So first proofs have also been posted to him.

So that’s front and back cover. And then there’s a dedication page to be added, acknowledgements, etc.  Versions of three of the chapters in THE USUAL STORY were first published in Quadrant so this needs to be acknowledged.

Then comes final proofs. Professional proof readers are very expensive so I’m hoping my eldest son with the PhD will proof read for me this time. TBA.

Then comes Cover Release with a big beat up on social media. I post regularly on Instagram and Facebook and less regularly on Twitter and Pinterest. I think the cover looks terrific. It’s not all finalised yet. I asked two tango dancers I know for copyright clearance on one of their images that shows the two of them dancing the tango. It’s one of the photos they use to promote their classes at A Little Buenos Aires. They said yes, as long as I acknowledge copyright ownership. So that’s great. It’s an eye-catching pic and would look good beside THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM in book stores.

Next step is pre-release copies announcement. Social media again.

Then details of the release date of THE USUAL STORY. Champagne and balloons and a lot of brouhaha when the book is finally available to the public.

I am not planning to have a book launch. Unfortunately, I am a very shy person and hate being the centre of attention. I had a launch for my first book and it was very successful. However, I was so anxious I thought I was having a heart attack. So not doing that again. A shame because book launches are a good way to sell books. Because this book also features a lot of tango dancing, I am thinking I could have a soft launch at a milonga or tango dance. Just a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of champagne at half time. Or not.

The older woman in fiction

men and women dancing

My new book, The Usual Story (Ginninderra Press) is due for release mid 2018. Like The Crystal Ballroom, The Usual Story is set in the dance world and will add to a small pool of literature that addresses the issue of the older woman in fiction.

‘In this unusual book Libby Sommer puts women’s psyches under the microscope – their hopes and dreams, fears and foibles – yet always with a deft touch and a sympathetic ear.‘ –  The Crystal Ballroom review, Women’s Ink! magazine , November 2017

two tango dancers in red black and white

The Usual Story touches on the stages of a woman’s life:  childhood, adolescence, marriage, motherhood and grand-motherhood. It’s created from asides, snapshots, glimpses, encounters and memories. The numbered sections provide a container for the chaos as we meet this woman in mid-life change. How will she come to terms with the truth of her aging in a culture that has very little use for anything that is not young?

Set partly in a seaside suburb of Sydney the story is played out against a response to nature, using the poetry of the Australian seascape to celebrate the beauty of this country. The presence of the sea throughout suggests the enigma at the heart of all life processes, the fact that certain things can’t be captured in words, can only be hinted and gestured at.

Together with many other developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing. Over the course of the 20th century, the proportion of people aged 65 and over has tripled. The baby boomer generation form a prominent part of Australia’s population, and as most fiction readers are women over forty the book will reach a group of people who are increasing in number but who are often ignored in literature. Most novels, if they have a heroine at all, depict her as young and beautiful, whereas middle-aged women, the majority of the readership, have no role models.

Although publication of The Usual Story is still more than six months away, we are looking at ideas for the cover. It will probably have a similar look to The Crystal Ballroom, perhaps in red, black and white with a dance theme. The publisher will make the final decision.

So then comes reviews for the back cover. Any suggestions for reviewers?

Header image Pinterest:  Beryl Cook – Dancing the Black Bottom

 

 

Writing Retreat for One

 

houses and clock in Villefranche sur Mer
Villefranche sur Mer

Am preparing for departure to my yearly Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France.  I feel very privileged. A month to myself in Villefranche sur Mer, a little fishing village on the Cote d’Azur. I go to this beautiful part of the world to regenerate, to read and to write and to go for long walks along the coast to St Jean Cap Ferrat or up up up to Mont Boron. That is the view from the top of Mont Boron in my profile pic.  Italy to the left and Nice, France to the right.

‘Overlooking one of the world’s loveliest natural quaysides, a privileged anchoring spot for the most prestigious cruise ships, Villefranche-sur-Mer has maintained its historic cachet with its port, the colorful façades of the Old Town and its Citadelle. Jean Cocteau, amongst other artists, fell under the spell of this enchanting site. Bathers and divers especially appreciate its beaches lapped by clear waters.’ – Cote d’Azur tourist information

I am able to fly directly to Nice from Sydney, Australia so I don’t have to pass through big airports like London and Paris. The small apartment I rent in the pedestrians-only fishing village of Villefranche sur Mer is a 20 minute cab ride from Nice. All very manageable considering it takes 24 hours sitting in a plane to fly across the world to get to Nice.

It will be early winter in France (summer time back home in Australia) so rents are slightly cheaper. Also, booking for one month gives a reduced price.

Villefranche-sur-Mer
Riviera Cote d’Azur

I will be seeking inspiration on the French Riviera just like the many artists who’ve been influenced by the sparkling blue waters and scenic streets, many of whom are now regarded as the world’s most influential and important. These include Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. Cezanne was the first to arrive in the early 1880s.

‘Since the mid-19th century, the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) has been luring aristocrats, the rich and the famous, and esteemed artists to its picture perfect cliff-lined coastline. After France acquired this territory in 1859 and then with the arrival of the region’s first railway system, the Riviera rapidly evolved into a popular vacation locale. The Mediterranean seaboard’s mild climate appealed to socialites looking for a retreat away from the dreary winters elsewhere in Northern Europe, and this destination also captivated the hearts of numerous prominent painters. You too can experience the very same radiant sunlight, breathtaking countryside, and vibrant hues that inspired the great works of Cezanne, Monet, Munch, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.’ – auto Europe

We all need time out to regenerate. I’ll be taking with me a print out of the first draft of my novel ‘Lost In Cooper Park’. I hope to make some progress on the book at my Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France. The perfect place to call on the writing muse.

Path to Publication

Libby Sommer holding a copy of The Crystal Ballroom in book store

Interviewer: I would like you to tell me about your Path to Publication from first idea to finished book. I’d like to know your inspirations and how The Crystal Ballroom became more than an idea. I also want to know about your writing process. Do you sit at a desk 9-5 or at a cafe during snatched lunches? Did you write the book in a spurt of three months … how long did it take from start to finish? Did you have cold readers, send it to an agent or to a publisher? Were you accepted straight away? How many rewrites and drafts?

Me:  I usually write stories about places and people that I know well. I take real events and characters but change things around and shake them all about and make things up. So, for The Crystal Ballroom, I had been dancing Argentine tango, rock and roll, jive, swing, Latin American and ballroom dancing for many many years. I used to dance five nights a week. I’d drive all over Sydney for technique classes and to dance at different venues. The place, ‘The Crystal Ballroom’, is a fiction but this dance hall becomes a character in the novel. I was inspired by the people I met at the dances and the politics of the ‘dance scene’.

I don’t sit at a desk 9-5 but I am extremely disciplined with my writing. I write 7 days a week. I treat my manuscript like an old friend, someone I need to stay in touch with regularly. I also exercise 7 days a week. So my routine is to go to a cafe before the gym with a print out of the previous day’s work. I edit from this hard copy and write the next scene. After the gym I walk home, type out the revisions, print out, go to another cafe in the afternoon. Repeat the process. I only work in the AM on a Sunday 🙂

It took me 4 years to write The Crystal Ballroom. The chapters are self-contained, so I was able to send some of the discreet episodes out to Quadrant magazine for publication.

I belong to a weekly feedback writing group where we critique each others’ work. So I write to that weekly deadline. In the early years, when I’d finish a manuscript I’d pay an editor or mentor to read it and give me feedback. I’d also ask a couple of friends to read it and give feedback. I never send a manuscript to an agent or a publisher that hasn’t been reworked 20 to 100 times – that includes the rewriting along the way.

My Year With Sammy was my first published book. It was accepted straight away by Ginninderra Press, a small but prestigious publisher (thought-provoking books for inquiring readers). It was my fifth book length manuscript. I had sent the previous books to agents and large publishers. All my confidence had been knocked out of me by all the rejections leading up to the fifth manuscript. Now though, I have Ginninderra Press who seem to like my work. They also published The Crystal Ballroom this year. The Usual Story will be published by Ginninderra Press next year.

It’s an extremely difficult road to publication and some people decide to self-publish rather than continue to be rejected. But other people are able to write a best-seller, an airport book that sells lots of copies, so big publishers like their work very much. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my books are classified as literary fiction, so a very small market. Big publishers are not interested in books that do not conform to the norm. Not enough money in it for them.

I am very grateful to have my small but prestigious publisher.

2 Years Rewriting Short Story

close up of September Quadrant magazine cover

My short story On Valentine’s Day appears in the September Quadrant available now in newsagents and good book stores. It took two years of rewriting before the story was accepted for publication. In Friday’s mail I received my contributor’s copy and a generous cheque. My name is on the front cover. Always a thrill. It took many years of my stories appearing in Quadrant before my name made it to the cover 🙂

The first paragraph of On Valentine’s Day reads:

You had to get out of them occasionally, those Australian country towns with the funny names:  Wagga Wagga, Wee Waa, Woy Woy. Once, after a devastating week wiped out more than $4 trillion from the global stock exchanges, one of the local papers boasted a banner headline:  WAGGA WAGGA WOMAN WEDS WOY WOY TOY BOY. You had to make an effort from time to time to get out, even if it meant flying all the way across the Nullarbor to go to a Valentine’s Day party.

 

My critique group will recognize the first paragraph. We meet weekly at the New South Wales Writers Centre to give and receive feedback on two pages of our writing. I brought sections of the 4,000 word On Valentine’s Day many times to the Women Writers Network at the Centre. Two dear friends also read the  story and commented. Very much appreciated. More than once my two friends read the whole of On Valentine’s Day and offered constructive criticism. I couldn’t have got the story to a publishable standard without my writing group and my two friends. Lucky me.

Quadrant is a highly regarded literary magazine: http://quadrant.org.au/september-quadrant-now-sale/

Quadrant blue magazine cover

I can’t emphasize enough how useful it is to have a weekly writing group. I work to that deadline. We take a couple of pages each and have 12 minutes to read and receive feedback. I think of it as ‘off Broadway’ and ‘on Broadway’.  Famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen say they test their material out on an ‘off Broadway’ audience before performing ‘on Broadway’.

picture of the New South Wales Writers Centre with trees in foreground
New South Wales Writers Centre

What about you? Are you in a writing group? Do you find it useful?