Reflections on Teaching

You know that old chestnut, ‘Those who can’t do, teach’?  It riles me. More than riles me; I feel the heat in my belly, even as I type.

But I have a confession: I used to think that way. When I completed my Bachelor of Arts, at age nineteen, I was loath to consider teaching. I was naïve and I thought I wanted a more glamorous vocation. It took years and life experience to recognise the flaws in my thinking. I do not have the temperament for those more glamorous occupations; I do not enjoy networking or ‘talking the talk’. I like to always be authentic and I’ve only recently realised that I was meant to be a teacher; that it makes me feel truly purposeful. Working in education is a great privilege and a wonderful pursuit for those who are fascinated by the human condition. Writers and teachers have a lot in common. They have to have a lot in common to be good at what they do.

Teaching is an exercise in improvisation because human behaviour is unpredictable and learning psychology is nuanced and complex. For all the lesson planning and forethought, you’re dealing with small humans and anything can happen. You must be skilled in the art of humanity to tune in to the mood and engagement level of your little learners. I don’t always do it well, but sometimes I do, and when the planets align, and small people are learning, it’s hard to believe I get paid to do what I do (when I collapse in my bed at 7pm, I remember why…).

Primary school teachers need to be generalists. They need to facilitate learning in English (grammar, semantics, comprehension, writing, spelling, reading), mathematics, science, technology, arts, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills, emotional skills. But they also act in loco parentis, managing behaviour, emotions and classroom dynamics. They’ll purchase clothes and food where necessary; even provide shampoo and a hot shower if need be. It’s not just a job.

I was raised by teachers. I work amongst them. And I know a secret: good teachers, are a special and unique breed. I’m not even half the teacher I want to be: it takes time, and endless reflection and professional learning, but I think I’ve got the makings, and it’s where I want to direct my energies for a while. So, my blog posts might be few and far between, and I imagine I’ll churn out fewer short stories, but Passion No.2 deserves a guernsey. Don’t get me wrong, I will continue writing, but it will probably be quietly, behind the scenes, without very much engagement in the online world. It’s where I’m at right now, but maybe over the school holidays I’ll have more opportunities to read blogs and pop in to Twitter and Facebook. Thank you to the Perth writing community (especially Louise Allan, Emily Paull, Glen Hunting, Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, Susan Midalia, Marlish Glorie, Richard Rossiter, Natasha Lester and Dawn Barker) who have always made me feel so at home.

A shout out…

…and big congratulations to my friend, Louise Allan. Her novel, Ida’s Children, has been shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award. It’s a wonderful story, and Louise is a beautiful writer. I’m very excited for her!


The Ark

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I loved the TV series, LOST. I love disaster movies and imaginings of dystopian futures. I’m obsessed with human behaviour and I find the psychology behind group dynamics compelling. When humans are thrown together in extraordinary circumstances, fascinating things happen. In LOST, a plane full of strangers are deserted on a mysterious and isolated island, and their lives intersect, their personal narratives drawn together by a twist of fate. In Annabel Smith’s newest offering, The Ark, an unlikely group of characters are locked down in a hidden bunker under the leadership of the charismatic Aiden Fox. It is 2041 and the peak oil crisis has precipitated The Chaos; it’s the end of the world. Fox, an employee of SynBioTec, invites a selection of his colleagues and their families to join him in the The Ark, a seed bank concealed in Mt Kosciuszko.

I found this novel truly compelling, not least because of the intriguing cult-like human interactions (did I mention I love cults?). You see, this is innovative storytelling: an epistolary novel, packaged in an aesthetically slick app designed for reading on your tablet. The story unfolds in a selection of documents: newspaper articles, emails and blog posts. Unreliable narrators abound; who can we trust? The reader must construct meaning as they go, their allegiances shifting as new information becomes available. It’s a thought-provoking novel, but it’s also an easy read, perfect for single sitting. My only beef is that I wanted MORE. I was so happily immersed in the characters’ lives, and I had to leave the world of the novel too soon. There’s real scope for a sequel; let’s hope Smith has something in the works, because my guess is that the The Ark will be a real hit.


Wonderful Women Series: Emily Paull

I know a number of very special, creative women and I want to share them with the world. These are the women who inspire me; they are driven by passion (and compassion!), and they have found ways to live authentically and thrive as artists. I should define my terms, because I intend to interview some wonderful ‘non-artist’ women too. Some of them are simply making the world a better place, because they have a vision and they have the courage to go forth and create; these are people who make beautiful things happen.

I met Emily Paull last year, and we’ve become fast friends. I’m inspired by her commitment to her craft and her natural wordsmith ways. Introducing blogger, editor, fiction writer and bookseller extraordinaire, Emily Paull…

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What do you do/create?
I am primarily a writer of historical fiction- my two obsessions are the 1930s/ 1940s and the Tudor/ Plantagenet eras- but I occasionally write short fiction. My short stories are usually about dysfunctional relationships or families in emotional crisis.

When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life? How did you get started?

I’ve wanted to be so many things, and I’ve always been so suggestible. If someone said to me, as a teacher once did ‘Oh you’d be a fantastic newsreader,’ then that would be what I would tell people I was going to be… but writing was always there as something I loved to do. My grandparents have a short story I wrote when I was around six which is about Winnie the Pooh finding 50c and trying to decide what to buy with it! It’s possibly the only bit of fan fiction I have ever written. At our old house, I used to have a publishing company set up in my bedroom, and I would write long short stories, make covers and blurbs and then have mum bind them. I kept all my books in a plastic suitcase and people could borrow them if they wanted. I don’t think anyone ever did though. For some reason, writing never seemed to be a job for me, and so I would always say “I want to be a Japanese teacher and write on weekends” or, “I want to be a chiropractor and write in my spare time (ha!)”. But then when I got to the end of year 12 and I had to apply for courses, I just decided that no, writing was the only thing I really loved and I was going to study it, even if I ended up teaching literature to pay the bills.

Did you do formal training as a writer? If so, where have you studied?

I did a Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Murdoch, where I majored in English and Creative Writing and Modern Social History. The history units were immensely inspiring in terms of things to write about. I loved studying there. My honours degree was all about what made Western Australian writing unique, and I looked at my favourite book of all time, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

Do believe that your training has influenced your process?

The number one thing that I have learned is that there is no one way to learn to write. But the ability to go to a space with other people who were starting out like me, under the guidance of someone who had a lot of theoretical and practical experience was really encouraging, and it made me form good habits. I don’t think I would have learned to keep discipline in my work without it. It would have remained a sometimes hobby, and I wouldn’t have produced as much work to date.

What is your process? Can you see the finished product before you begin or do you work more organically?

I’m a pantser, which means I fly by the seat of my pants. I have a genuine idea of what I want the story to say or mean, or sometimes I’ll know if I want the characters to get what they want, but I let how that happens come to me as I draft. With my novel, I typed the whole thing, just writing each bit as I thought of it, and then I printed it all, started a new document and typed it up again, changing things as I saw them more clearly. I have done that same process, with some professional input from editors and other writers, about eight times now. The draft I am doing this year will hopefully be the last.

Do you intellectualise your work before or after the act?

Before. Often I start the story with a grand idea. Sometimes that gets lost in translation though.
Do you do anything special to get your “creative juices” flowing? Please explain.
My best ideas come to me in the shower, so if I am frustrated or blocked, I take one. It doesn’t always work but it’s pretty helpful most of the time. If only they made waterproof writing implements…
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
I don’t. I could keep revising until the work was totally mangled. Usually when a piece is rejected, I revise it again before I send it somewhere else. But I have heard that a piece is done when the only things you can find to change are commas that you put in and take out again, endlessly. It also helps if one of the people I share it with can’t think of anything they need clarified or taken out.

Is your work mainly political or personal? Do you have a conscious agenda?

Personal. I still haven’t worked out what my politics are. I write a lot about people who have hurt me, or incidents of people not getting what they want through misunderstanding. I also (not so secretly) have a weakness for love stories.

What do you do when you feel discouraged?

Threaten to quit! I have had a few incidents this year where I have just thought ‘That’s it! I need to go back to uni and get a real job!’ And then I cry a lot, and inevitably someone says to me ‘Do you really think you could stop doing it?’ and the answer is no. So I pick myself up and start again.
What kind of jobs did you have before your career took off?
This list is still in production but I have:
Helped teach a children’s Tae Kwon Do class, worked in a fish market, worked the registers at a discount variety store, worked for a jewellers and worked at a fantastic independent bookstore, where I get to stare at shelves and remind myself of why it’s all worth it every day. Seriously, I love my job… well, most of the time.

How do you balance your creative life and work/home life?

I don’t always do a fantastic job, but I try to be very organised, and I set myself deadlines. I don’t work Fridays and those are usually my designated writing days. If I have a draft of my novel going, I try to do 1000 words a night on work nights, usually between dinner and my bedtime cup of tea. I just have to be careful not to write in bed because I fall asleep.

Who inspires you?

Margaret Atwood. I would read her shopping lists.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Please explain your choice.

Right now I want to visit Amsterdam, because I read an amazing novel called The Miniaturist and it’s calling me… I also want to try living on the East Coast of Australia, because that’s where most of the publishers are, and I want to live in Barcelona because it’s a beautiful gothic city and Hemingway drank absinthe there… but mostly I want to live here in Perth, because this is where my heart is.

How do you find the artistic life in Perth?

It’s slowly getting better, but it could definitely be more of a priority. I hope Colin Barnett is reading this.

Choose your favourite creative work (your own) or accomplishment. Why?

My first ‘win’ in three years of submitting things! I just got accepted to do a Young Writer’s Residency at the end of the year, at one of our local Writers’ Centres. I’m not sure if I am allowed to say which one yet. I’m pleased as punch.

What is your advice for someone starting out as a writer?

In Hitch-Hiker’s guide to the Galaxy, they say you’re always supposed to bring a towel, but I say always have a notebook. I have a tiny one now so that if my bag’s too heavy my journal can stay home, and the tiny one records lists, overheard conversations and lines of prose that dance into my head when I’m not even thinking about it.

Short, sweet and sour

I’ve had very little time for writing over the last few weeks, and no inclination to do anything but climb into bed with a book when the opportunity has presented itself. I get restless when I do not write, and I’ve learnt that these are periods of time when I must read. So I gave myself a mission: to read as many of Doris Lessing’s stories as I could. Lessing’s work has been a tonic for my busy mind, and I credit her for my renewed writing energy this morning.

A good short story is like a fine dining- it’s all about the balance of flavours, the subtle notes and nuances. There must be a good mix of sweet and sour. I’ve just finished the first draft of a short story that I’ve been working on for months. It will need some revision, but I’m pleased to say that I think it is sweet and sour in all the right places.

Thank goodness for writing. I love teaching, but it ‘drains my cup’- writing revives me. It’s nice to be back.

A snapshot of this writing life…

This school term has been wonderfully intense, because I’ve had a rather atypical travel spell. I’ve done plenty of writing: SCHOOL REPORT writing! But I’m back, and I’m renewed and excited.

First there was the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival with my writing besties, Emily Paull and Louise Allan.


It has been my long-held belief that writerly sorts tend to have a similar sensibility. We over-think, we feel emotions keenly, we resonate with the mood of others in a room. Well, the women in my writing group certainly have enough in common to fill a four-hour road trip with conversation. We’d intended to listen to the audio book of Marlish Glorie’s The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street, but instead, we told stories. The tales invoked laughter and solemnity, wisdom and frivolity. I fell in love with these women just a little bit more in those four hours. Yes, ‘fell in love’.  Isn’t that what we do when we meet kindred spirits? When they are generous enough to share their private thoughts? It was an idyllic weekend.


Then I went on a romantic getaway to Singapore with my beloved. I’ve been there before, and always thought it a bit sterile for my liking, but I saw another side of Singers this time around. My highlights: the architecture, Gardens by the Bay, and our public transport adventures.

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My last trip was a bit of a pilgrimage to my second home, Melbourne. My eight year old son played Auskick at the MCG, much to the delight of his footy-mad grandfather and dad. I’m not terribly sporty, and generally find my thoughts wandering when I attempt to watch a game of any code. But  this was different; I had such a special time with my menfolk: partner Justin, Dad, and my son Thom. I could say so much about my dad, but I might embarrass him. He’s a teacher and the type of man I hope my sons will grow to be. I think we both had a bit of a happy cry as we sat together and watched our boy kick a goal at the MCG.

Photo courtesy of Georgia Martin

Photo courtesy of Georgia Martin

I also had the opportunity to spend quality time with my long-time friend, and wonderful ceramic artist, Georgia. By golly, we laughed. SOOOOOO much fodder for new stories.


I made the trek out to Alain De Botton’s School of Life. Good stuff.


In terms of actual fiction writing…

  • In the midst of travel and reports, I did a frenzied twelve hour re-write of my novel. Crazy? Perhaps. But after such a long hiatus, I felt like I was meeting my characters for the first time. Twelve months ago, I cursed them and now I look upon them fondly.


  • There was also a reading at the Swanbourne Bookcaffe with the delightful Bindy Pritchard (read her story in The Trouble with Flying and other stories– it’s heartbreakingly beautiful), Rosie Barter, and my other lovely writing pal, Glen Hunting.



Photo courtesy of Amanda Curtin

Photo courtesy of Amanda Curtin


  •  It was quite a novelty to have my picture in the local rag; my boys, parents and grandmother were pretty thrilled.
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So, that’s my last few months in a nutshell. It’s nice to be back. I’m going to prune the roses and plant some petunias, bake something delicious, curl up in bed with a book, and generally just enjoy the simple magic of home.

It's camellia season!

It’s camellia season!


Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: The Bell Jar

I can’t be quite so verbose this month, as I have school reports to write! Here goes:


  1. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

I identified waaaaaay too much with Plath’s particular type of ‘crazy’ when I first read The Bell Jar. I’d like to think that it would be a different read these days, now that I have my head in order (somewhat!). I loved it; it was astute and funny and terrifying. Funnily enough, I doubt I’ll revisit this book. Poor old Plath.


  1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I can’t help but think of another female writer who succumbed to depression and suicide: Virgina Woolf. Mrs Dalloway and The Bell Jar  both explore mental illness and patriarchal oppression.


  1. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

I have a vision of Woolf walking into the water with stone-filled pockets and I’m reminded of Maggie Tulliver and her brother drowning in a flood. What an awful way to go. Plenty of tragedy and patriarchal oppression here!


  1.  The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Enough with the victims! Angela Carter appropriates elements of fairy-tales and folk tales to invert patriarchal power systems.


 Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

There are moments of perversity and sensuality in The Bloody Chamber, and I’m reminded of Winterson’s Written on the Body (amongst other works). Here, woman is object and subject, complicated by the ‘gender-less’ narrator.

 glory of woman

  1. The Glory of Woman

This is a very special family heirloom, passed down from my great- grandmother.  It is part 19th century self-help book, part female anatomy textbook. This tome provided many laughs during my formative years. It is prescriptive in its descriptions of romantic love, courtship and sex.


Can you tell I did a few units of Women’s Studies at uni?

The six degrees of separation meme is hosted by Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman. Feel free to join in! Here are the rules:

#6Degrees Rules


Wonderful Women Series: Simone Johnston

I know a number of very special, creative women and I want to share them with the world. These are the women who inspire me; they are driven by passion (and compassion!), and they have found ways to live authentically and thrive as artists. I should define my terms, because I intend to interview some wonderful ‘non-artist’ women too. Some of them are simply making the world a better place, because they have a vision and they have the courage to go forth and create; these are people who make beautiful things happen.

I’m starting my series with Perth visual artist, Simone Johnston.






It’s autumn in Fremantle; the quality of light particular to this season in this part of the world has transformed the streets and parks. The distinctive WA sunlight renders everything crisp and defined, but a cool breeze tells me that I’m by the sea. The earth is no longer summer-parched and the lovely buildings stand in high relief against vivid greens and blues. Walking hand in hand with my four year old son, I feel light. Someone has bleached and pressure-hosed the quintessential Freo limestone and it is a clean shade, no longer greyed by time, revitalised.


This is not the Fremantle of my childhood memories and it’s not just the autumn light and the building restorations; the ambience that existed 20 years ago, has given way to something new, something soft and subtle that I cannot define. The space has changed over time and it has nothing to do with the corporeal world; I’m engaging with the space differently, memories and sensory input intermingled. My physical environment is a construct, informed by my unique experiences and semantic codes.

Perth visual artist, Simone Johnston, explores these complexities in her latest body of work, It feels like we’ve always been here. She is interested in the distinction between space and place. Simone has made a slight departure from her earlier work that explored the politics of space in the public, urban environment; her new pieces examinethe manner in which we engage with the domestic environment, how we ‘imprint’ upon the spaces we inhabit. This is how her work reads to me, anyway.

We arrive at The Old Customs House, home of Artsource studios, where Simone holds a five year tenure. She’s recently returned from a residency in Sydney and when she arrives to collect us, I immediately sense her renewed artistic vigour. She’s excited, she’s buzzing with that special kind of energy that happens when the creative process is moving along like a song; fluid, shifting and circling in a gentle eddy towards fruition.

We arrive in Simone’s studio and I’m struck by the beauty of the space and the natural light. I’m immediately taken by her drawings: a deflating hot air balloon, and exquisite line drawings of an amorphous arrangement of elastic. My little fellow, Lewis, is interested too, and I can understand his compulsion to reach out and trace the shapes with his fingertips. I remind him that a visit to the Cicerellos aquarium is dependent on good behaviour; we DO NOT touch Simone’s art.




I plug the four year old into his iPad and Simone and I settle down to chat on the paint splattered floorboards…

K: I love these studios.

S: I feel really lucky to actually have this space- it’s a good, decent size and I like lots of natural light.

K: Tell me about Sydney.

S: What I loved about the Sydney studio was that we all worked with the door open and I just fell in love with the other artists; they were amazing, they were exactly what I needed. I got so much out of it and I was so inspired by them. We all felt the same way.

K: That dialogue with other creative people really feeds you…

S: And it makes the process less daunting because you’re constantly talking about your work in an informal way. You realise the people you look up to are just normal people; they all have the same worries and concerns that you have. The other resident artists and I are all at different stages of our careers but I was by far the least experienced and the youngest. Some of the other artists have work collected all around Australia in big National Gallery collections and library collections and they still have the same doubts about their work. And the nice thing is that they accepted me as a peer.

K: Around a year ago, you and I had a conversation about the beginnings of your ideas for this work- home and your recollections of home. What has your process been like since then?

S: In the past, a lot of my work has been focused on private and public space and to be honest, when I went away for the residency I was planning to further explore that; the proposal I submitted was focussed on urban space and navigating through it and being immersed in it and seeing what would come out of that. Then, I had a conversation with a friend who was moving house and that was probably the main trigger. It was a really intimate experience: packing up a friend’s house, having him tell me stories and experiences about the actual physical space. It was a sad sense of loss, as we were taking things down and packing them away. The spaces were becoming empty again and it was revealing walls that he’d never seen empty since the very first day he moved in and it was really interesting. So that got me thinking about domestic space and then I started collecting house plans from other people.

It was an experience with my Nan and Pop that became the second real trigger; they suggested they could draw the floor plan of their old house because they never had an original. That experience, of all us trying to draw this space that we had experienced so intimately, was interesting; it highlighted how differently the three of us remembered it. I was a small child when I was last there and I thought I remembered it very vividly but I only really remembered three of the rooms and they seemed massive. Even Nan and Pop who had lived there for the same amount of time as adults had very different memories of it; putting walls and doors in different places and such. So I was thinking about the distortions of collective memory.

I didn’t plan to do much with that in Sydney, but when I was shown around the building and stepped into the apartment that would be my living space and studio, I shut the door for the first time with nothing but my suitcase and instantly, I had that connection, feeling like I instantly knew the space. I remembered the conversation I’d had with my friend when he had moved into his new house and he said he thought he’d have a longing for the other space but that because of his familiar possessions, it felt like he had ‘always been there’.


K: When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life?

S: I’ve always loved making stuff… I don’t really know…it was probably in high school when I fell in love with it.

K: What sort of formal training as an artist have you done? Do you think the training has influenced your practice?

S: I did my Bachelor of Arts at Curtin University, followed by Honours. I loved it – it was a great experience. Some people went to uni and already knew what they were doing, but for me, the transition from high school to uni was huge. When I got to uni I was blown away by the things we would look at and study. It wasn’t until my third year that I knew what I wanted to do. Up until that point I was just experimenting with materials.

K: Can you envisage the finished product before you begin?

S: Not really. Sometimes I do but they don’t always work- you can have this really solid idea about what the work is going to look like, and what materials you’ll use and then something doesn’t work or you don’t get the quality you’re after, so you have to change it. A lot of my work, particularly a lot of what I did in Sydney was quite experimental. I mean, I haven’t drawn for years, I haven’t really done plaster work or video work, so I think for me, that three months of really ‘playing’ was amazing. When I made the elastic structure, I initially thought that would be a main component of the work but it’s now become slightly redundant. It’s filtered through into video and drawing so the actual structure isn’t as important-

K: -Which in a sense is like the domestic building- the physical structure isn’t as important as the memory or ‘imprint’ of it-

S: And I think also, the way I work is just interdisciplinary- I don’t consider myself an artist who draws or a painter or sculptor. It depends on the idea at the time, and the best way to represent it.

K: Do you intellectualise work before or after the act of making it?

A lot of my work starts with documentation. I started collecting people’s house plans before I even knew if I’d use them for anything and I’ve had photographs for months because it’s part of my process- when  I see something interesting, I’ll go and document it then sometimes it becomes work, sometimes it doesn’t. So, I think it’s not until you have something concrete that it all starts falling into place.  I don’t want to over-conceptualise it- I don’t want to over-analyse before I’ve even made anything.


K: What do you do when you feel discouraged?

S: I was feeling discouraged for a long time. There was a time when I wasn’t really making a lot of work. I think it’s trying to enjoy the making and if I’m not, I stop for a while and do something else. It’s about finding a good balance of stuff, so you’re not getting too absorbed in something that isn’t working and you can move to something else. I think you can’t force it- if it’s not working, there’s usually a reason. When I was away, I did more yoga and that sort of thing. Just speaking with other artists helps too- knowing that other people have the same insecurities as you. Since I’ve come back from Sydney, I’ve made more of an effort to go to other people’s studios. Sometimes having a discussion about something that’s not working helps you figure out what the problem is.

K: Who inspires you creatively?

S:  I love Rachel Whiteread’s work. And Anish Kapoor. Someone who has really helped me in the last few months is Richard Lewer; he taught me about the importance of showing your work to other artists and opening a dialogue. The other artists at the residency inspired me-seeing how dedicated they were to their work and watching everything from the creating to the admin to the applications- it was great to see how they fit their work into their lives.

K: How are you finding the Perth art scene after your stint in Sydney?

S: I think it’s a really interesting time to be in Perth. There’s lots of stuff going on. There’s a fair bit of funding for artists which is great if you can get it. We’ve got some fantastic artist run spaces popping up around the place and some really dedicated artists basically working for free so that they and their peers have spaces to show their work. They do a great job and they’re really professional. A lot of our commercial galleries have recently closed down so I guess it’s not really a buyers market in WA- apart from other artists there aren’t really many people who are buying and collecting here. But I think it’s a good time to be in WA. One of the good things about the art community in Perth is that it’s quite close. It’s quite a supportive environment.

K: What is your favourite work (of your own)?

S:All of the work I’m doing at the moment is too new, too raw, to decide. I was quite happy with the prints I did a little while ago, the ones in the Together Alone exhibition. It’s a hard question.

K: I loved that work. Especially this one:


K: I don’t think you consciously choose to make your work beautiful, but it is- I find your images beautiful.

S: It’s interesting you say that, because a lot of my work comes from a mundane place, a lot of the images are plain, sometimes boring, suburbia. Like this strange elastic sculpture- some people have said to me that it reminds them of a strange, awkward garment.

K: I suppose I perceive a lot of beauty in the mundane. The minimalism combined with attention to small details really appeal to my personal aesthetic. There’s a simplicity and elegance in your work that affects me deeply. Thanks so much for having us here in your studio, Simone.

Simone’s exhibition, It feels as though we’ve always been here, opens at 6pm Thursday, 8th of May at Paper Mountain Gallery, 267 William St Northbridge and runs until 25th May.




Six Degrees of Separation: From Burial Rites to The Secret River

Book chain

A big thanks to Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman for tagging me in their ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ blog meme. All of this ‘tagging’ might just restore my blogging mojo. Annabel says the idea was inspired by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story ‘Chains‘ in which he coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. On the first Saturday of every month, Emma and Annabel will choose a book, and then link it to five other books in a chain. Here is my effort…


 So, we begin with Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  I’m going to make a bit of a leap here, because it’s a filmic narrative that leads me to the next book in my chain. Lars Von Trier’s films are largely lost on me, but I thought Dancer in the Dark was exquisite. Like Burial Rites, the film follows the tragic trajectory of a woman condemned and sentenced to death (it’s utterly heartbreaking; witnesses might attest that a friend and I exhibited heaving paroxysms of grief whilst watching this film amongst the pines at Somerville Auditorium, circa 2001). In order to reveal the next book in my chain, I must reference another art form: music. I listened to the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack for months, so every time I hear a track from the film, especially I’ve Seen it All, a beautiful duet by Thom Yorke and Bjork, I think of the book I had in my handbag when I saw the film: Moon Palace by Paul Auster.


I have a confession: I don’t remember plots very often- when I read, I feel as though I am in a dream, and it all slips away when I emerge from the story. I’ve got the wrong kind of brain for remembering plots- I know people who can, and they astonish me. I remember characters; of course I do. They stay with me; they’re friends, and they emerge in a thousand subtle ways. They whisper in my ear when I’m privy to baffling behaviour; when the human condition seems a bit ridiculous. Characters colour my perceptions and judgments. I’m very grateful for them. I remember Marco Fogg (who could forget a name like that?), of Moon Palace, and while I barely remember what happened in the story, I know that it was one of those ‘coming-of-age/journey’ books that I love.

Moon Palace begins in New York, and I’m not immune to what I call the ‘Myth of Manhattan.’ All those artists who love that city have nailed me; I’m fascinated. I love Woody Allen (ahem…his films) and Lena Dunham’s Girls, and Gossip Girl and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all of those great crime shows set in New York City. But it’s not just New York itself- I feel like I’ve lived in that whole upper east coast area in America: New York to Connecticut to New Hampshire. I’ve been visiting that neck of the woods through books and film since I was six or seven; it all started with The Babysitter’s Club series, set in Connecticut.


Somehow, I’m about to jump from The Babysitter’s Club, to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.


I read American Psycho many moons ago, but at the time I thought it an excellent novel. It was unsettling and elucidating;  for me, it exposed the aspects of Western culture that I find troubling.  American Psycho explores the darker side of that ‘Manhattan Myth’. Apparently, Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt are good buddies, so my next novel is Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. Well, that heavy tome has given me wrist pain, and probably could have done with some editing. BUT in spite of the RSI and waffling sections, I LOVED the novel. It was rich with ideas, and compelling. Well done, Donna. Looking forward to another release in 2024!



The Goldfinch begins with an act of terrorism in Manhattan, so I am reminded of a novel I read a few years ago: The Submission by Amy Waldman.



This is a stunning novel; incredibly astute and poignant. The premise is clever: the council invites submissions for a memorial for the victims of 9/11, and the winning designer is Mohammad Khan, a talented Muslim architect. So begins an examination of the complexities and confusions surrounding race/religious relations in post 9/11 America. Well worth a read, if you haven’t already.


Since we’re talking race relations, I think we should leave Manhattan and head Down Under. I’m thinking of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, an imagining of the British colonisation of Australian land already occupied by Aboriginal people. I loved this novel, painful though it was, and I have visceral memories of it, because I also saw the play adaptation by my favourite Australian playwright, Andrew Bovell. The Secret River,at His Majesty’s, was probably the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

Well, that was convoluted, but I sense that this whole ‘six degrees of separation’ business should be stream of consciousness… and I’m rather good at rambling.  During this exercise, I’ve realised, that I’m a lover of narrative in all of its forms, and there’s no real hierarchy for me; literature, film, music, visual art or theatre- I love ‘em all!

In honour of my other loves, I had a bit of a visual ‘play’ with my book chain. Sometimes it’s nice to look at your favourite books as art objects…





As per Annabel’s instructions:

It’s your turn: If you blog, write a post and paste the link in the comments below, or briefly describe your six links in the comments.