fbook icon 60Recreational Sewing in Cesarine


sewing1 small 

Recently, while I was browsing through some boxes of memorabilia, I came across my old primary school report cards. They date back to an era when the subjects (now known as learning areas) were: Reading, Composition, Spelling, Writing, Arithmetic, English (i.e. grammar), Social Studies and something with the odd name of ‘Recreational Sewing’.

Suddenly all the memories flooded back. Sewing had been the curse of my primary school days, followed very closely by arithmetic.  I had tried a couple of ploys to get out of needlework. The first was to offer to spend the sewing lesson doing extra maths. To my childish way of thinking, that seemed like a very reasonable exchange. The school, however, didn’t agree. According to my class teacher, the curriculum required that I undertake two hours of ‘handcrafts’ a week and there was no room for negotiation.

So I convinced my mum to write a note asking if I could do basket-weaving instead of needlework. (You see, in that long-ago pre-feminist era, girls did sewing lessons and boys made waste-paper baskets.) But that ploy failed too when the headmaster sternly reminded me that girls needed to learn how to sew. ‘It’s a foundation for your future life as a housewife,’ he said. After his pronouncement, there was no further court of appeal. Ahead of me lay four years of compulsory sewing. Four years of torture involving needle and thread.

Back in the present day, I continued to trawl through the boxes of memorabilia, only to find the document which held the record of my inglorious needlework career from ages seven to eleven – my sewing exercise book. It was still intact and neatly covered in wrapping paper decorated with flower fairies.

So what did I find inside? Well, the book begins promisingly enough with a pretty title page. (Title pages and lettering were my specialty.) ‘Excellent work’, the sewing teacher had written at the bottom of the page, accompanied by a penguin stamp. It was the last ‘excellent’ I was ever to receive in needlework lessons. 

The next few pages are set out in columns headed ‘Article’, ‘Material’, ‘Start’, ‘Finish’ and ‘Marks’. In the ‘material’ column, the word ‘cesarine’ appears again and again. Cesarine? It sounds very Sixties and synthetic, doesn’t it? I Googled the word and discovered it was the ‘wonder cloth’ of the post-war years developed by a Sydney company called Caesar Fabrics. And it wasn’t synthetic at all but a kind of thick cotton which didn’t wrinkle and was popular for uniforms.

Using the aforementioned cesarine, I had made (in chronological order): a pin wheel, a needle case and a bag for my cotton thread. The bag must have been a mammoth task because I'd started it in September and didn’t complete it until December. The finished product received a mark of 5 ½ out of ten! Oh dear! No trace of it remains, nor of the other items.

In the subsequent years it appears that I made the following: a desk cover (whatever that was) an apron, a petticoat and panties, a huckaback guest towel, a throw over, a tray cloth and the piece-de-resistance of Grade 6, a ‘frock’. At the end of the year there was a fashion parade in which we modelled our ensembles in front of our parents. I don’t think I ever wore that ‘frock’ again – I hated it so much!sewing2 small

Now back to the sewing book. Each of the subsequent pages features samples of different stitches and techniques sewn on rectangles of the ubiquitous cesarine, the edges trimmed with pinking shears. The samples are covered in rusty marks which are most certainly ancient blood stains - the result of accidents with a needle or even a stray pin. How peculiar that my DNA is forever embedded in that cesarine.

Here are some of the tasks we were required to master: running stitch, top sewing, tacking a hem, chain stitch, rosebuds (rusty smudges everywhere), a French hem, sewing on of tape, a run and fell seam, shell hemming, blanket stitch , herring bone variations, backstitching, a continuous placket, buttonhole stitch, bias binding and darning a thin place (yes, that was the exact heading).

I seemed to be the only girl in the class whose cotton thread formed itself into a Gordian knot at least once every lesson, requiring me to go up to the sewing teacher’s desk and beg her to untangle it. ‘Deborah, how could you possibly get your thread in such a mess?’ she would ask in an exasperated tone. Which brings me to the teacher herself. One of the scariest people I’ve ever met. She never smiled. Well, at least, not at me. I can see her dour face even now.

Did I ever overcome my dislike of sewing and transform myself into an embroiderer or a quilter? I’m ashamed to confess that I didn’t. Instead, I did deals with my talented friends. I would paint a portrait of their child and in return they would make me a quilt, cross-stitch a sampler or embroider a cushion. My house is filled with exquisite needlework – none of it made by me!

And there’s an ironic twist to this story. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. You can see some of my youthful efforts on this page. I could draw the outfits on paper, but there was no way that I could ever make them. Sewing was anathema to me. That’s why my fashion design career ended before it began !

Deborah O’Brien

October, 2012

 


 


fbook icon 60Inspirations for 'Mr Chen's Emporium'

 

mce building coloured

 

When I was a little girl, I loved to listen to my grandmother’s stories about growing up in the Central-West of New South Wales during the early years of the twentieth century. At thirteen she left school but continued her education by reading everything she could get her hands on. Although novels were banned in the O’Brien household, she read them anyway, hiding in the barn for hours on end, immersed in Dickens or Thackeray. Sometimes she would tell me about her Irish grandparents who had settled in the area at the end of the Gold Rush era and made a new life for themselves, running a sheep farm. All those tales lived in my memory for decades, but I never thought to write about them. Not until several things came together in my life at the one time.

After years of searching for a country weekender, my husband, son and I fell in love with a little cottage on the banks of a creek frequented by platypuses. Two months later the place was ours. Meanwhile, I had begun work on the novel that my mother had been encouraging me to write, ever since she first read the stories I used to pen as a teenager. The fact that I myself was a ‘blow-in’ gave me the starting point: two women recently arrived in a rural town. Worthy, but not too exciting unless … there was a dual narrative – then and now.

I decided to set the ‘then’ storyline in the Gold Rush era and to make its leading lady the teenage daughter of a dour Scottish clergyman. She would be a lot like my grandmother, a girl from a strict family, who is feisty and just a little rebellious. In the present-day, my heroine would be a ‘woman of a certain age’, who moves into the house where the girl from the past once lived. No ghosts or time travel though. Just real connections, which unfold as the story progresses.

As to what the connections might be, I wasn’t sure, apart from the obvious – the town and the old manse. I never like to plan things beyond the initial idea. I just let my characters run loose and see what happens. And in the case of ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, the parallel storylines became interwoven in ways I could never have imagined possible. 

 

Deborah O’Brien
September 2012

 


 

 


fbook icon 60Anatomy of a Gold Rush Town

DOB MCE 10 

 

People sometimes ask me if there really was a Gold-Rush-era emporium owned by a Mr Chen. I’m sorry to say that both the building and its owner are simply products of my imagination. As for Millbrooke itself, although it has echoes of many localities including my own town, I see it as a mythical place rather than a real one.

I was amused when an acquaintance from the Southern Highlands told me she was certain that Millbrooke was really Berrima. Someone else thought it might be Beechworth; my publicist said it reminded her of her hometown in south-eastern Queensland, while another friend suspected it was Coolamon, largely because they have a wonderful old emporium there, which has been preserved as a heritage centre. Anyway, I’m really delighted that the town I created possesses a universality which can be applied to many places.

Because the Gold Rush towns of south-eastern Australia all boomed at around the same time, most of them have a common architecture, characterised by cast-iron lace, striped metal awnings and fancy parapets topped by Grecian urns. There will almost certainly be several pubs with big verandahs, their libertine pasts balanced by a similar number of gracious stone churches. You might even find a school of arts building, old-style stores and rows of charming cottages.

Many of these towns also share a similar climate, very different to temperate, coastal locations like Sydney. There are four distinct seasons, producing blossoms in spring, warm (but not humid) summers and golden-leafed autumns. Depending on how you feel about cold winters, that particular season could be described as either ‘brisk’ or ‘harsh’. Don’t get me started on frost. I’ll save that for another time.

The other thing that these gold towns have in common – and this applies to rural Australia in general – is a sense of community. I recall seeing a little photo of a teddy bear on the front page of our local newspaper with a caption asking for the owner to come and claim it. To me, that encapsulates the ties that bind a rural community. Even the little things are important. And everybody counts.

Deborah O’Brien
September 2012

 


 


'Mr Chen's Emporium': An Aladdin’s Cave

Items  from Emporium 

 

As someone who loves to shop, I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘emporium’. An emporium isn’t just an ordinary shop – it’s storehouse of possibilities, a veritable Aladdin’s cave filled with treasures. That’s why I was thrilled when I first saw the finished cover of ‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’, featuring the building itself, a mix of Oriental and European, with its cast-iron dragon brackets, Chinese-red doors and classical urns perched on the traditional Victorian-style parapet. Through the open doorway I could glimpse an array of wondrous wares, vases, plates, jars, figurines and silks, all highlighted in gold. It was exactly as I’d pictured it.

 

The notion of an emporium gave me my male protagonist – the shop’s owner, a man who would be articulate, dignified, entrepreneurial and, of course, handsome. Someone with echoes of the revered historical figure, Quong Tart, who, among his many achievements, ran the famous tearooms in the Queen Victoria Market Building. I tried many different names before I actually decided on ‘Charles Chen’. Instantly a picture of him formed in my imagination, dressed in a brightly coloured silk waistcoat, embroidered with dragonflies. I have to confess that I fell in love with him right from the start. As the French say, it was a coup de foudre.

 

Once I had the metaphor about the ‘Aladdin’s cave’, I just knew I had to weave Aladdin into the storyline in some way or another. I wasn’t interested in the familiar character from modern-day books and films. No, I wanted the original Aladdin from Antoine Galland’s eighteenth-century French fairytale, part of his Mille et une nuits translated into English as The Arabian Nights or A Thousand and One Nights. (Nobody knows for sure whether the Aladdin story actually had Arabic origins, as was the case with the other tales in the collection, or if it was invented by Galland himself.)

 

When I found the old French text on the internet, I scrolled down the first page, expecting to be put off by the archaic language. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that it was both charming and remarkably easy to read. (Thank goodness for those three years of French I did at uni.) I wasn’t sure how I would thread the eighteenth-century Aladdin into my own story, and I certainly didn’t want the fairytale allusions to seem contrived, so I just started writing and let Aladdin himself lead the way. Sometimes there are parallels between Aladdin and Charles; at other times their lives take very different directions. But no more details here – I don’t want to spoil it for you!

 

Deborah O’Brien
September 2012

 

 


 

 


fbook icon 60Old-fashioned Heroes

 

Gregory Peck - Image courtesy of Wikipedia - Public Domain


In these days of dark and deeply flawed protagonists, you don’t find too many old-fashioned heroes in fiction any more. I’m not necessarily referring to dashing swashbucklers or ruggedly handsome cowboys, although my concept of a hero can certainly encompass a good-looking one.

   What I’m thinking of is an upholder of justice, a thoroughly decent person, someone you know will stand up and be counted, even though it might involve some sacrifice along the way. You’ll notice that I’ve used the word ‘person’. By heroes, I also mean heroines, but for now I’ll focus on the heroic male protagonist.

My favourite fictional hero is Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Anyone who’s seen the movie will no doubt visualise him as Gregory Peck, tall, square-jawed and gentle, yet assertive when he needs to be. Atticus is a man of great compassion, not afraid to show his vulnerability, particularly when it comes to his love for his children.

Another favourite of mine (who just happens to be a cowboy) is Tom Booker from Nicholas Evans’ novel, ‘The Horse Whisperer’. He’s kind, intuitive and manly – the perfect ‘metrosexual’, except that he lives in far-flung Montana, not the city. The character of Tom Booker is now so enmeshed in my mind with Robert Redford’s performance in the film that I’m a little biased about this one. But I remember thinking Tom Booker was the kind of hero I’d like to see more often in books.

In my own small way, I’ve tried to create an old-fashioned hero in the person of Charles Chen. I wanted him to be a man of strong convictions without being self-righteous. I fell in love with him at the same time Amy did. I’m not sure that it was a wise thing for an author to do. Feeling that way probably clouded my judgment about him. Then again, I couldn’t help myself! I’ll be interested to hear what readers think of Charles. Let me know your thoughts.

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

 

 


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 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