Elaine Forrestal

The Shaun Tan Exhibition

Shaun Tan is a storyteller who doesn’t need words. Asked to talk about his book, The Rules of Summer, he said, ‘This is not a linear story. It is a collection of images from which stories can be made by individual readers and viewers.’

The book is about two boys who interact with each other during their long summer holidays from school. Perhaps they are brothers. Perhaps not, according to the way you read the book. Their body language, the colours used in the art work, the various environments the boys are placed in, all have the potential to mean different things according to the life experiences the viewer brings to

SCBWIs in the stacks at SLWA viewing the Peter Williams Collection

the ‘reading’ of the book. Shaun describes this process as ‘leaving gaps’ and I for one believe that every story needs them. These gaps serve to invite the reader in to the story and allow them to make it their own, to apply their own personal interpretations and meanings. In the same way Shaun places anomalies and visual question marks within his pictures. He juxtaposes odd images and out-of-place creatures in the scenes leaving little puzzles to be solved – or not. Whether or not readers notice these metaphors and symbols doesn’t matter. The core image is enhanced, not diminished, and that particular reader will bring other meanings to the story. Meanings that are more relevant to their own needs. They will expand the story in their own way and make the experience more satisfying, not less.

It takes a certain type of genius to do what Shaun Tan does. I feel privileged to know him and have access to his work.

Family Histories

Creating family stories

‘Families. Where would literature be without them?’

When I first read this line from Stephen Romei’s column in Review magazine (The Weekend Australian, 13-14 April 2019, p21) I thought, ‘Not another family history.’ In the past these tended to be self indulgent, long winded and needing some slashing and burning by a professional editor. I had forgotten just how far this genre has come and how many of our best authors have been able to mine their family stories, reshape and burnish them until they have become absolute gems of Australian literature. For example Kate Grenville’s Secret River and Amanda Curtin’s Elemental are two of my all time favourite books.

Then I thought about Parallel, the new manuscript I have been working on for the last few of months and … ‘Wait a minute. Didn’t that idea originally come from a casual comment my daughter made about one of our own ancestors?’ I have fictionalised the story of a sixteen year old girl, living in England in 1819. So much so that it is almost unrecognisable. And I’ve linked it to the parallel story of a contemporary girl. The girl’s stories take place two hundred years apart. The challenges faced by both girls are very different, but human nature basically hasn’t changed. Hopefully, when I have finished the book, readers will be able to experience the lives of both these young women and see how they face similar challenges in their very different worlds.

Meanwhile, Clara Saunders is still making her presence felt in the stark desert world of the gold rush of 1892. Stay tuned.

Fantasy or Magic Realism

Reading is my secret power

I have sometimes wondered why, as an avid reader of everything, I couldn’t get as excited about reading fantasy as some of my friends do. This week I found myself in a position where I needed to analyse and explain, mainly to myself, exactly why this is and has always been the case. Having read a currently popular fantasy novel rather quickly the first time around, I thought that a careful re-read might help me appreciate what everyone else was on about. Instead I found it just as difficult to relate to the characters as I had before.

Although the book was well written, the plot tight, the action fast paced I didn’t ever reach a point where I felt the necessary empathy with the characters to care deeply about them. They were interesting enough and the action often placed them in mortal danger, but I couldn’t shake off the knowledge that whenever something incredible threatened them their array of magical powers would come to the rescue. There was not the deep emotional engagement on my part because I already knew that, no matter what sort of incredible monster threatened the main characters their powers would be stronger than those of the monster.

I admire the hard work and imagination of writers of fantasy. They build their own incredible worlds and live within the rules they have created. However, I do find I relate much more easily to Magic Realism. The characters live in our world and the every-day events that happen to them are entirely  possible. It’s just that the writer allows the character, and therefore the reader, to see those events in a different way. For example it is entirely possible to see a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow on any ordinary rainy day. Perhaps a pot shaped rock happens to be lying at the end of the naturally appearing and disappearing arc. Suspension of disbelief is not so difficult, for me at least, because I know that within the laws of physics such a thing can happen. But whatever the problem that character was planning solve using the gold from that pot must now be accomplished in some other way. Or perhaps not at all because the pressing need for the gold, which was creating the narrative tension the writer needed, has been met in some other way. Fantasy, on the other hand, demands a much greater suspension of disbelief. The writer can simply abandon all pretence at logic and simply wave their magic wand. Of course fans of fantasy novels would say that the writer has already woven a magic spell by creating their own world. But for me it is the deeper human emotions that are not so easily stirred.

Certainly there is a place for fantasy as a genre. It has a huge following and all those readers can’t be wrong. I would like to be one of them, but I suspect I am a lost cause.

Make them Laugh, Make Them Cry: Part Two

Our old dog, Munch, close to death

Making them cry relies on the reader feeling a deep personal empathy for our characters, which in turn relies on knowing and caring about them ourselves. For me, getting to know my characters is the fun part. I begin by getting to know them, making friends with them, or in the case of the villains finding out what makes them tick. There comes a point when I find them running around in my head most of the time. Even when I’m busy doing other things I know they are there. When I relax they become much more demanding. It’s like catching up with a friend I haven’t seen for ages, talking to them and listening to what they have to say. And it’s not always the sad things that make me cry. Sometimes it’s hearing about, or witnessing an act of great courage, the return of a loved one after a long absence or the birth of a baby against all the odds.

I’m renowned for crying – in movies, while reading books, even songs will make the tears run down my face and my voice refuse to work. Sometimes I am left exhausted by the depth of feeling I have experienced. At other times I feel refreshed and uplifted by stories of ordinary people performing extraordinary acts of bravery or simple, thoughtful acts of kindness.I still cry.  It’s a spontaneous thing.

Just as there is no recipe for making people laugh, there are no rules for what makes us cry.



Make them Laugh, Make them Cry: Part One

Was it something I said?

Making our readers laugh and cry, engaging a range of their emotions, making them care about our characters, these are all essential ingredients in successful novels. Firstly, let’s try making them laugh.

Humour is such a personal thing. What makes one person laugh out loud can leave another staring blankly in total bewilderment. For me, humour needs to be subtle, ironical and often self deprecating. Sometimes a bit of slap-stick works, but only if there is a real surprise for the reader embedded in it. Forced humour, like forced rhymes in poetry, is the absolute pits. Really there are no hard and fast rules about how to make someone laugh. Even face to face it is hit and miss. Sometimes during workshop presentations the audience laughs when you least expect them to. When that happens it’s like a gift from the gods. You grab that moment with both hands and try, later, to work out how you did it so that you can do it again. And if it’s difficult face to face, how much harder is it going to be translating that moment into writing on a page? Then there’s the task of making it come to life again to produce peels of laughter – or even just a giggle here and there.

I guess at the end of the day you can only be yourself. There is nothing more embarrassing  than watching someone trying too hard to make people laugh. Which, of course, is what makes it all the more satisfying when it does happen.