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fbook icon 60Never Write When You’re Hungry

 

Breakfast 3 Cropped

Image: DOB

After a dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a writer, finished reading my latest manuscript, she said, ‘There’s a lot of food in your books, isn’t there?’ It’s not surprising, considering that food is one of my obsessions – eating it, cooking it, poring over cookbooks, planning dinner parties, even dreaming about meals. So I suppose it’s natural that delicious food should feature abundantly in my manuscripts.

Part of the problem is that I tend to write when I’m hungry – or more exactly, I become so engrossed in the writing process that I forget to eat. (Yes, I do know it’s not good for my health.) Most mornings I wake up, go straight to the laptop and write for a couple of hours, oblivious to the gurgling of a reproachful stomach. The missed breakfasts manifest themselves in my writing.

You can see the results in MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM and A PLACE OF HER OWN. Every morning my female protagonist, Angie Wallace, goes to the local café, and not just for a piece of raisin toast or a healthy bowl of muesli. Mostly she consumes big, hearty meals, incorporating all my favourites elements – sourdough toast, savoury muffins, corn fritters, crispy bacon, perfectly poached eggs and the sauce to beat all sauces – hollandaise. That sauce even permeates its way into a conversation between Angie and her rather prosaic landlord about the colour that she intends to paint the walls of the Old Manse. Naples yellow hue, she tells him, an artist’s colour (after all, she is an artist) and then she adds by way of explanation: ‘…the colour of hollandaise sauce’. 'You mean the stuff they put on my eggs Benedict,' he replies, 'that wouldn't be so bad.'

‘Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry’, the diet experts warn us. ‘You’ll end up buying chocolate bars and potato crisps’. It’s true, isn’t it? When your stomach’s full, you can summon up the willpower to proceed through the confectionery aisle with nary a sideways glance. But just watch how the snack food piles up in your trolley when you’re hungry. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes, I notice that a sentence I've just written contains a whole list of food items, almost as though I'm composing a menu, and then I know it’s time to stop and have something to eat. When I return to the laptop, I set about abridging that list. If I’m fully sated, I might even delete it altogether.

And what of the reader? Can reading about food make you hungry? Of course, it can. And not just reading cookbooks either. I recall my childhood encounters with Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. Although the food in those books could never be described as ‘gourmet’, it certainly hit the spot with a hungry eight-year-old. Invariably, after reading a description of a mouth-watering picnic, I would head straight for the kitchen to raid my mother’s biscuit tin, filled as it always was with home-made melting moments, or date and walnut slice, or jam kisses, or peanut cookies, or ANZAC biscuits, fragrant with golden syrup, or …

Actually, excuse me for a moment, while I just disappear into the kitchen … 

Deborah O’Brien

July, 2012

 


fbook icon 60An Emporium by Any Other Name …
What’s in a Title?

front mr chen web thumb

Some years ago, when I began writing MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, which is partly set in the Gold-Rush era and partly in the present day, I considered calling it Days of Gold, a phrase from the classic Henry Lawson poem, ‘The Roaring Days’. I’ve always loved literary references in titles. I think it’s because they impart a certain gravitas, not to mention a dash of magic. There are endless examples, of course, but among the best are Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past, an allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 30’, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (quoting Gray) and the recent Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger referencing Blake).

Even now, whenever I start up my laptop, I can’t help smiling at the file named ‘Days of Gold.doc’, which I’ve never bothered to delete. For a few weeks it served as the working title of my novel, until a quick search of the net revealed a couple of existing books with the same name. Damn! I really wanted something unique. Then it struck me that the centrepiece of my story wasn’t the Gold Rush at all. The real star was Charles Chen’s emporium, an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, whose presence would run right through the narrative as a potent force in the lives of the two female protagonists.

Much later, when I happened to mention the early title to my agent, she said that although it was worthy enough, it wouldn’t have grabbed her attention. And, of course, she was right. If my book had remained as ‘Days of Gold’, I might still be looking for an agent, not to mention a publisher!

Speaking of titles, here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order. By the way, not only are the titles wonderful, so are the books themselves. You’ll notice there are two from Mr Dickens, that doyen of memorable titles.

War and Peace

Atonement

Where the Wild Things Are

The Slap

Sons and Lovers

The Book Thief

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

A Tale of Two Cities

Gossip from the Forest

Wuthering Heights

Great Expectations

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Do you have your own favourites? Let us know. 

Deborah O'Brien

August, 2012

 


Why Is a Book Like a TARDIS?

 

 

‘Why is a book like a TARDIS?’ my husband asked me one day as we sat in our local café, drinking coffee. From a man who’s never been a ‘Doctor Who’ fan, it was a very odd question.

At first I thought it must have been a riddle he’d heard somewhere. While I was pondering the source of the question, he proceeded to answer it for me:

‘Because it’s bigger on the inside than the outside.’

Being both a writer and a ‘Doctor Who’ aficionado, I was delighted with the aptness of the metaphor. Just like the Doctor’s blue police box, a small paperback book can offer huge possibilities. It's only a matter of stepping inside. But what I like best about the TARDIS imagery is the concept of the Author as Time Lord, possessing the power to transport his or her ‘companions’ to strange and exotic worlds. Not only that, the Time Lord … sorry, Author can shift the reader back and forth between time periods with a blank line, a little icon, a change of font or the words ‘now’ or ‘then’. I do it all the time!

And speaking of ‘Doctor Who’, do you have a favourite Doctor? Mine is Tom Baker. I also like the current incarnation, Matt Smith, for his youthful exuberance and quirky charm. Let’s hope he has a long incumbency, but when his time is up, who do you think would make a good successor? I’ve always fancied Alan Rickman. His golden syrup voice would be perfect. Any other suitable candidates? 

Deborah O’Brien

September, 2012

 


fbook icon 60Happy Endings?

  

I have a love-hate relationship with happy endings. Whenever I watch a movie, I’ll be secretly hoping that the leads will fall in love and live happily ever after. Yet when the happy ending finally comes, I’ll condemn it as a cliché and an easy way out.

Do you remember the film, ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’? In the last few minutes of that movie, I was thrilled to see the dashing Richard Gere carry Debra Winger out of the factory and off to happy-ever-after-land, yet I also cringed at what seemed like a facile and stereotypical denouement. What does that make me? A sugar-coated cynic? Probably.

I blame it on fairytales. As a child, I would sigh dreamily at the happy endings, even though part of me (the nascent cynic) would also wonder why things, which had gone so badly all through the story, suddenly came right at the very last moment. Worse still, the ending invariably resulted in the demise or banishment of the most intriguing character – the villainous queen, the evil sorcerer or the wicked witch.

I find it hard to write happy endings, but I don’t want to write something dark or devastating either. So I find myself hinting at things, not tying up all the threads, leaving room for the reader to make their own judgments on what might happen to the characters in the future. You would expect readers to be cranky with me for doing that, but generally they’re not. Why are they so charitable? I think it’s because we all recognise that life is predicated on unknowns. None of us can foresee how things will play out. We wait. We hope. We fantasise. But we never know for sure. And they’re the type of endings that I like to write.

Deborah O'Brien

September, 2012