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.





Doin’ the blog hippity hop…

I have been tagged in a blog hop  by my dear friend, Emily Paull.  Em is a member of my writing group and I’m very privileged; I’ve had the honour of reading her work-in-progess, Between the Sleepers. I think it will be in good bookstores in 2-5 years.

Here goes:

1) What am I working on now?

I’ve put my novel on ice until next year, and I’m just aiming to write a couple of short stories in 2014.

So, right now, I’m writing a speculative fiction piece about Zephyr McBride, a young man who bands together with a group of survivors who were neglected and abused by their parents in the nineties and noughties. Together, they launch a class action suit against the government. They believe that they should have been removed from their dysfunctional families and provided with loving homes.

I guess I’m interested in this topical quandary, one that is so much informed by anxieties about the Stolen Generation. It’s such a grey area, but sometimes I look at friends with fertility issues who would do anything to adopt a child,  a child of any description- even one who is disabled or utterly broken as a result of their maltreatment. In my line of work, I meet kids like this all too often, and when I do, I think of these friends in want of a child, and I’m reminded of Plato’s Symposium. I imagine his four-legged being as an amalgamation of parent and soul-child, rather than as amatory soul mates, and I wonder if certain adults and children should be brought together…

I’m not saying that kids should be yanked away from their kin- children should always stay with their families where possible- but I’m very interested in exploring the complexities of the matter in fiction.

2) How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Dunno. I suppose I do a lot of genre-jumping, so maybe it’s different in that sense. As with all fiction, my particular voice and life experience makes it different.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Again, I don’t really know. Ideas come from the ether; usually as a result of thoughts that have been percolating for some time. I’ve noticed that I tend to write stories that explore things that I’m confused or ambivalent about.

4) What is my writing process?

My writing process has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. I used to write for 2-3 hours per day, Mon-Friday, while my youngest son slept. That was back when I was a stay-at-home mum. Now that I’ve returned to the paid workforce, I generally write on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the kids are still asleep. Sometimes I get up as early as 4am.

Obviously, my output has much diminished; I wrote the first draft of my novel in the year that I wasn’t working and this year, I’ve written a couple of short stories. Short fiction comes more naturally to me though; I find that I can belt out the bulk of the story in a two hour session, then spend the next couple of weeks/months polishing.

When I’m busy teaching and mothering, I type new ideas or sentences/phrases into the notepad in my iPhone and then email the notes to myself. This way, I’m never in want of a new idea for a story.

Here’s where the ‘magic’ happens…


I have been asked to tag people at the end of this post, and I have selected:

Annabel Smith

Dawn Barker

Claire Madeleine

Ladies, if you have the time, I’d love to read your responses!


Also, if you feel like smiling, say ‘blog hop’ out loud. It’s wonderful on the tongue and strengthens the funny bone…


My entre to literary land is going to be a slow burn: I think I established this in my recent (ish) post, ‘Silly Seasoned’, where I outlined my Mission Statement for 2014. I call it my post of ‘wise martyrdom’. Because you’ve got to lower your writing expectations when you’re raising small kids and working in a demanding job. Clearly, I have lowered my expectations…I haven’t blogged in more than a month. But I‘ve been dutifully researching; examining the human condition day in and out. There’s a lot to be learnt from interactions in the microcosm that is a school.

I’m lucky though, I’ve found a beautiful community of diligent, passionate writer birds, and I’m cruising on their wings. I met Emily , Louise  and Glen last year when we started a Writing Crit group. Without them, I’d probably be in free fall, hurtling towards a prose-less land. We are a cheer squad, and I have no doubt that I’ll be cheering these friends at their book launches soon enough. I’ve read enough of their work to know that they are the real deal. I feel very blessed.

The Gang of Four are heading off on a road trip in May. We’re going to the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival for a heavenly weekend of books and wine.  And we’re staying in a converted train carriage. What an adventure!



A key change…

I heard a memorable piece of experimental music on Classic FM recently. It was performed in a single key; the same notes were repeated over and over, endlessly, and it was painful. I was taking my overtired and delirious son for a drive to help him fall asleep; we were staying with friends at their beach house and I was ready for the day to end; ready to put the children to bed and enjoy a wine in the company of my girlfriends.

I drove along the coast, driven slowly mad by the repetitive melody. ‘Come onnnnn,’ I thought, ‘Change it already!’ But frustration gave way to something like curiosity and empty-minded meditation, and when the key change came, about ten minutes in, I was surprised, but somehow relieved in a strange physiological way. It was like my cells released a long-held breath and it made me smile.

The composer was interviewed later, and he said, ‘I changed the key because I was weak.  Because I am human.’

The simplicity of his piece, and the climactic key change, echo the rhythms of my life. The pace is steady and repetitive, but I inevitably encounter regular key changes. They are sometimes significant, mostly small. That particular day changed key when Lewis fell asleep; when the soundtrack of the day shifted away from a steady stream of, ‘Muuuummmm…’ and ‘I’m hungry….’

We resist change, but so often, when it comes, we are revitalised; we see the world anew. Sometimes we are responsible for the key change, other times it is suddenly upon us, unexpectedly. Soon enough it’ll be like Groundhog Day again: school life and work will be like the reprise of a song in a single key, and I will begin to feel that God awful itch. Thankfully, holidays and travel are the punctuation marks of this wealthy western life.

The school holidays always provide an opportunity for change. There is time and space to reflect on the past year and all that is forthcoming. In the last month, we’ve been to three different destinations: Melbourne, Mandurah and Palm Beach; we’ve had so many key changes that I’m beginning to crave the steady humdrum of home and routine. I am also a tiny bit anxious about the return to ‘normal’ life because this year, it’s going to be a new kind of normal. You see, my Lewis starts kindergarten for 2.5 days per week, and I am increasing my teaching workload. I won’t be very involved in Lew’s kindy experience and it makes me sad. Fortunately, my husband is going to pick up the slack, but we will still need to use before and after school care. The logistics  are enough to make my head spin. Fortunately, I’ve had the time to reflect on what I need to do to make this imminent busy life of work and family manageable.

I did some of my reflection here:


IMG_4422 IMG_4396  IMG_4361

And some here:


And more here:


Needless to say, a great part of my reflection involved gratitude and a real sense of ‘luckiness’. I feel so lucky at the moment.

I also realised that I need to simplify my life by cleaning and getting organised. I’m a bit scatterbrained and I need systems in place to keep everything running smoothly. I decided to do some renovating to make our home more inviting- a place to retreat and relax. I’ve organised my work space because I can’t write in a cluttered environment.

So, here is evidence of a key change:

I resolved to pull up our revolting stained carpet and polish the floorboards beneath. I’m going to tell you something about my ideas: they come shooting out of the ether when my mind is quiet, and when I’m doing menial labour. I loved completing this project, because I now have the seeds for three new short stories. This is how it went…

New Year’s Day:



And the following week..








So, my writing space went from this:


To this:




And my hallway:



I’m delighted with the result. I could write about the way I felt I was communing with my 1960s home as I lovingly worked on the floorboards, but I might sound like a weirdo.

Onto another topic:

I met a woman recently who made a profound impression on me. She made me feel like this:


We were at a mutual friend’s wedding and I’d prepared myself for encounters with exceptional people from all over the world. You see, the bride and groom met and fell in love whilst they were doing aid work in Haiti. Chad and Emma are two of the best people I know. I mean BEST: they are humble and funny and kind and they have their priorities straight. And everyone at that wedding knew it. Half of the guests had flown in from the Northern Hemisphere to be with the couple on their special day. I still have goose bumps when I think about the whole affair.

Back to this woman: Helen. She is one of those ‘shiny’ people you rarely get to meet in life. She emits pure goodwill and love and acceptance. I only spoke with her for a few hours, and I will never forget her. I’ve tried to figure out what her x-factor is, and I believe it is her attitude. It’s an: ‘I can do this, and I can do it with grace and humour!’ kind of outlook. It’s self-belief with humility and kindness. Lately, when I have encountered challenges in life, I’ve asked myself, ‘What would Helen do?’ And then I’ve tried to go forth with courage and kindness and laughter. What a woman!

Silly Seasoned

Carving out time for writing isn’t easy at this time of the year. I’ve been so busy and scatterbrained that I’ve resorted to an in-tray and filing system in my kitchen to keep track of my life.


Like most busy women juggling family and work, I tend to compartmentalise my commitments. Unfortunately, my juggling skills are sub-par and I’ve been dropping balls lately. I labelled my manila folders like this: my sons’ school newsletters, excursion details etc; medical and dental; piano lessons; bills and banking; social commitments; and work commitments. See what I did there? ‘Writing’ did not get a guernsey. Unfortunately, my favourite hobby is the first thing to go when things get hectic. So, I’m here, carving a space, feeling less well-oiled than ever.

I used to write every day, before I returned to paid work. And it was easier back then, because I was less stilted, less self-conscious. I’ve decided to write myself a mission statement for 2014. Here goes:

Kristen’s Mission Statement for 2014

I am first and foremost, a mother, partner and friend, and the well-being of my loved ones trumps all else. My paid job is important work too, and must take second tier. But I am a creative individual, and nurturing my desire to write contributes to the well-being of my family and makes me a more reflective practitioner at work. So, I am going to commit to short bursts of writing every day: ten minutes, minimum. I know it doesn’t seem much, but starting small is always a good idea. Exercise and healthy eating are integral to managing all of the above.

I haven’t yet nutted out my specific goals, but I know that I want to return to my novel, and I want to write some more short stories. I’ll get back to you on that front, because I know that achievable, ‘smart goals’ are important.


In other news, I went along to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Awards last weekend and came home with this:


There were 91 entries in the Open Section and I felt truly honoured to be named amongst writers such as Robyn Mundy and Annabel Smith. I am very grateful to my loyal and loving cheer squad (aka my writing group) who brought along noisemakers and blew them loudly when my name was announced! Thanks to Emily, Louise and Glen. A big congrats to Glen Hunting whose story, ‘Trolley Boy’ was commended in the Speculative Fiction section.

Another big thanks to my very supportive family. My mum, dad, grandmother, hubby, gorgeous sons and best friend (who happens to be over from Melbourne) all came along to support me. My very own Curious George (my son, Lewis) managed to contain himself throughout. Well done, George.

Here are some of the judge’s notes about my story:

‘I’d like to make a few comments on two of the Commended entries. Firstly, Kristen Levtizke’s ‘Beach Wedding’. It begins ‘I am about to have a wedding and I am dying.’ Now that is a first sentence that draws you in. You certainly start asking questions. It is a moving and uplifting story about a woman dying of cancer who decides to ask a number of her friends—many of whom she hasn’t seen for twenty five years— to her second wedding. Remarkably, given the content, the story is not without humour. ‘

                                                                -Richard Rossiter in the Judge’s Report

Friendship and Books

Warning: This blog post might induce extreme envy.

When I arrived home yesterday, I found four bulging Express Post bags on my bed. I knew immediately: my dear, darling friend, RedBec had been at it again. Redbec is one of my oldest friends and most treasured artistic comrades. We met at four year old kindergarten, then played on the same tee-ball team and went to high school together. I do not just love Bec, I deeply admire her. Artists need GRIT to endure the highs and lows of the creative life, and Bec is one of the most tenacious people I know. She studied acting at NIDA, and she now acts, writes, produces, and teaches. She is the co-founder of Red Rabbit Theatre Company. In her rather limited spare time, she manages to read at least a couple of books per week and engage wholly in political affairs. The woman is a machine, and I am always in awe.

I’m trying to be a writer, and yet, I find it near on impossible to represent RedBec in a paragraph.  She is dynamic and assertive and engaging. Actually, if she wasn’t such a humanist, she could probably be a cult leader; she’s that charismatic. RedBec is like someone you’ve never encountered before- statuesque, almost regal in appearance, with her fine facial features and long russet hair. I can’t believe that she hasn’t been cast as a queen yet. All in good time…

But, back to the parcels on my bed…

photo (2)

Go on, count them. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12…13 beautifully wrapped book-shaped presents.

Is there any better gift than a book? Is there any better way to show your understanding of a friend’s character? To honour the deep connection that you share? Each and every title shows that Redbec understands me, she knows me. She has communicated something valuable in every single choice that she has made. And this is the real gift.   I’ve wondered if the desire for this type of connection and understanding is the thing that really drives human beings.  I’m trying to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and where ‘love and belonging’ sits in the pyramid. I think it should probably be at the top, but who am I to argue with Mr Maslow?

Bec wrote: ‘All of these made me think of you for some reason.’ I’m going to unveil the books, one by one, so that you can have some sense of my experience yesterday, as I prised off the paper. In one word: delicious. And there was a little bit of girly squealing too, particularly when I opened this one:


Funny, I’d only been thinking about Judy Blume on Monday, when I was wondering if I’d be able to share my early love with my boys when they’re a bit older. I’m a Blume reader of old; I probably read most of her YA books at least five times.

I gasped when I opened the next one; I’ve been wanting to read it for a long time.


Now, Bec is an atheist, and I am safely straddling the fence, agnostic through and through. But I can’t wait to read this one. Hitchens and his insane intellect should provide an entertaining and thought-provoking read.


Bec has always encouraged me in my writing. In an earlier post, I referred to her as my ‘pushy mum on the sidelines’; indeed, Bec and my mum are the biggest champions of my writing and I’m very grateful. It’s a great feeling to have a friend cheering you on. The books I’m about to reveal are a gentle push. They say “Kristen, I know life is full with work and family, but you must not forget to write. Others have been where you are, and here is what they have to say. Keep going.”

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Bec and I are on the same page when it comes to politics. I’ve been trying to convince her to become the next great red-haired politician for years now. Australia needs her, especially at the moment.


It’s not all over-thinking and analysis- Bec and I love ripping yarn, a page-turner. I’m so excited about this one:


And, of course, this one is high on the agenda:


Bec often directs me to great TV series and films. I’m looking forward to finally watching this old classic:


I know nothing about this novel, but the first sentence is beautifully written.


Now, I have a dilemma: which to read first?

Bec, I know you’ll read this: Thank you my dearest old friend. xoxo

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas


Like many others, I had been excitedly anticipating Tsiolkas’ follow-up to The Slap. I wasn’t disappointed. Firstly, if you hated The Slap (and I know many of you did!) for its unlikeable characters, then you may take issue with Barracuda’s largely flawed protagonist, Danny Kelly. I feel like I need to write a 5000 word essay about Australian national identity to even begin to scratch the surface of this text. Chris Lilley’s satirical mockumentary, Ja’mie, Private School Girl, is working with the same themes; race and class in modern Australia. Artists of Australia are certainly grappling with who and what we are, here in Oz. We’ve never been more aware of our thoroughly ambiguous sense of national identity, of the ever-growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

I’m going to tell you something about myself, something that undoubtedly impacts upon my writing. I have straddled two worlds in my life: I went to public schools and grew up in a largely working class suburb. My parents gave me and my brother the option to go to elite private schools for high school. My brother went, and I stayed in my comfort zone, with a peer group that I loved. I was best buddies with children of butchers and hairdressers and tradesmen. But we don’t like to talk about class, here in Australia; I feel an odd sort of cultural cringe, even as I write about butchers and hairdressers and tradesmen, like their vocations mean anything at all. But the truth is, I’ve watched these offspring go forth and make good. For all the exposure to degeneracy and poverty (and in the surrounding suburbs, there was plenty of it), the great bulk of the people I know are leading good lives. I know, because I’m still good friends with many of them. Oh, and of course, Facebook told me. And the interesting thing, is that the great bulk of my cohort are firmly middle class, with a similar level of wealth and similar preoccupations. But some of them are as aspirational as their parents were, except they’re ready to climb the next rung; they want the elite private schools, the houses in the best suburbs; all the trappings that an individualist, capitalist society promotes. Very few of these peers went to university, but in Western Australia, with mining and endless urban development, a trade, or a PA job in a wealthy firm can take you a long way. Perth is a truly fascinating place at the moment. I can’t help but think of the ‘old money/new money’ discourse, the way terms like ‘cashed-up bogan’ have become an acceptable phrase in our vernacular. It is a loaded phrase, demeaning to the ‘new money’. Denigrating language is a missile; a symptom of age-old class warfare and power play.

Tsiolkas said in a recent interview, ‘People are going to ask me what this book is about, and I had a note that was above my desk at the beginning of writing this book and it’s how to be a good man’. But I would go a step further and suggest that Tsiolkas’ new novel is an adjunct to The Slap, dealing with the same themes, but with new insights: How do we raise good humans? How do we instil morals in our kids? What is more important: success or kindness? I’m particularly interested in this notion- I’m trying to raise two healthy young boys. Tsiolkas beautifully examines these themes within a distinctly Australian obsession: the world of competitive sport.

I loved this novel, but, as with The Slap, it was uncomfortable reading. It’s the kind of book I’d like to see on the upper-school English syllabus. Unfortunately, the graphic sex scenes might be an issue. I struggled with the more venal passages in the text; there were parts where I felt physically repulsed, but this makes me admire Tsiolkas all the more. He has a knack for delivering a resounding ‘whack about the head’, a punch in the guts, by showing us a world that is all too familiar.

If you’ve made it this far, here are some notes I wrote on The Slap, back in 2009.


The Slap is a morality tale that reveals the absence of absolute morality; of society’s constant state of moral ambiguity. Fractured by its narrative structure, this is a novel of postmodern torture where multiple realities have very real implications for each character. Christos Tsiolkas is masterful in his ability to make sympathetic characters out of those who can otherwise seem morally bereft. He so astutely examines the Australian middle class; the concerns and complexities that make the characters so very real and flawed. The characters and themes just felt so familiar- this text resonated with me in a profound way.

Tsolkias shows individuals struggling to connect with their community despite the fewer strictures that class and race may have previously imposed. I was interested by the way that he tackled class, how even those living on a meagre income have come to inhabit the middle class. Individuals, previously exiled, have gained access to a bourgeois lifestyle. It’s not all about money- it is about image. Rosie, a stay at home mother with a no-hoper, alcoholic, would-be-artist husband laments their inability to have their own home but is comfortable in the knowledge that her Birkenstocks, her purchase of Vanity Fair and ‘expensive, chic’ David Jones skirt gives her right of entry to the middle class.

The fluidity of class and race is never more apparent than in Bilal, an Australian aboriginal who has undergone a massive transformation. From alcoholic blackfella Terry to Bilal, who, despite his “unmistakeable black accent, a jaunty melody in the vowels, distinctly different from the close-mouthed thud of the white man’s tongue” has adopted a clean living, Islamic lifestyle. Through Terry/Bilal, Tsiolkias has beautifully tackled some very current Australian anxieties and misunderstandings about Aboriginal and Muslim identity. The hysteria and paranoia that surrounds these racial and religious differences is particular to our time. Tsiolkas doesn’t try to elucidate too much, just represents cultural difference in a way that often varies from the stereotypes perpetuated in the Australian consciousness. Bilal’s wife, Shamira (also an assumed name, she too has converted) and the other Melburnian Islamic women playfully refer to their parents as ‘Mussies’ (a term I had not encountered before this novel) and it is a joy to feel privy to the intimacies and the normalcy of a culture that is so often ‘shrouded’ in the popular media.

Tsiolkias paints ours as a highly misogynistic society. I’d love to sit down to dinner with this man, a Greek Australian gay male writer, and find out who he is and how he feels about things. If nothing else, this book reminds us that ‘gay’, ‘Greek’, ‘Australian’ and ‘male’ can mean everything or nothing. His take on women in contemporary Australia is pretty grim. In this text the concerns of motherhood are petty and women are divided by the choices that feminism has provided. Women are constantly objectified, most frequently, in the pubescent, waifish state that our society celebrates.

Harry, a successful businessman who beats his wife observes four young girls in thin strip bikinis showering in the park:  ‘…they had pert adolescent tits, they were blonde and lithe.’

Hector, despite his love for his wife Aisha, commits adultery with a 17 year old and would have no problem ‘...falling asleep in a girl’s locker room, surrounded by the moist heady fragrance of sweet young c**t.’

Gary exposes his four year old son to pornographic images in girly magazines.

And yet, it’s the mothers who really cop it in this book. They are often cast as weak and self serving- their maternal urge, or lack of it, seems to define them. Women are castigated in the usual way, the usual mother/whore archetypes rearing their head more than a few times. I think that the observations in this text serve as an indictment on the sorry state of affairs that is our confused post-feminist world where women are still defined by maternity and appearance.

Rosie breastfeeds her four year old, Hugo, and is vilified throughout the book for doing so. I have no major issue with sustained breastfeeding. However, in my opinion, Rosie does use breastfeeding inappropriately. It is basically her ONLY form of behaviour management. Maybe not the best idea for a four year old?  Hugo is the catalyst for narrative action; he is the little fellow who is slapped at the barbecue (for wielding a cricket bat a little too close to the offender’s son’s head!) and he seems to be the product of uber-permissive parenting. He is mollycoddled and there never seem to be consequences for bad behaviour. Rather, any type of offensive conduct is rewarded with a snuggly, warm breast.

Tsiolkas appears interested in the swing of the pendulum in terms of parenting: he examines the ramifications when parents practice permissive parenting and do not provide boundaries. Tsolkias asks: How do adults help to develop a sense of morality in their children? I read in an interview that he is continually appalled by a lack respect for the elderly in today’s youth. Parenting paradigms have changed so much over the last 60 years and Tsolkias insightfully tackles the current confusion surrounding the moral education of the next generation.


Julia Gillard said plenty of wise things during her televised conversation with Anne Summers last Monday, but one sentiment has really stayed with me.  Julia, responding to a young woman, spoke about the importance of self-image, about being okay with who you are and ignoring the perceptions of naysayers. Of course, there is a middle ground here: Julia certainly wasn’t encouraging egotistical self-love or narcissism. Julia Gillard herself is a testament to this; she is an idealist, measured and poised, but unashamedly altruistic. That’s the Julia I’ve observed anyway…you may beg to differ.

The interesting thing is this: I could not have publicly stated my admiration of Gillard five years ago. I was terrified of having people judge me. Something has shifted in my old age, and I have grown more resilient; more comfortable in my own opinions. I like to think that I’m always open to changing those opinions, given enough new information, but for now, I think it is a travesty that Gillard has left The Lodge.

We hear a lot about resilience these days; about nurturing it in our children, in ourselves. Sometimes I wonder about what exactly forged my new-found strength of spirit. Was it giving birth, twice over? Was it the pain of writerly rejection? Was it simply maturity? Or being too damn busy to worry about what other people think of me? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as self-conscious as the next relatively well-adjusted person, I’m just not paralysed by it. And self-reflection is valuable, just not the debilitating kind that I used to engage in. I care deeply about what the people I admire and love think of me: they are the ones who matter.

I remember a day in 2001 when I had my first taste of self-worth, or, at the very least, I felt ‘okay’ with being me. It was a fleeting moment, over almost as soon as it began. I was young and shy and profoundly insecure. I was messed up. I needed Headspace. I was so preoccupied by other people’s perceptions of me (real and imagined), by my appearance, that I could barely function socially; barely make an utterance without complete neuroses setting in.  I let the negative self-talk drown out everything else. I wasted so much time…

But, back to that day, in 2001:

I had been living and working in a backpacker’s hostel in Melbourne for about four months, attempting to work on my anxiety by taking a great leap into the wide world. I was nineteen and I went alone, in the hope that I could start afresh: be a new person. Regular evening drinking sessions allowed me to relax and forge friendships that carried over into the days, when even sobriety could not dampen the camaraderie of the night before. I felt that I was making headway.

On this particular day in 2001, I set my alarm for 3:30am and a group of us caught a taxi into the city. The bitumen on Princes Bridge was shining, damp, and the mauve light was starting to gleam on the horizon, nudging at the night . There were hundreds of people, waiting, whispering.

The man arrived with his megaphone and assistants, directing us, thanking us for being there.

We left our clothes in a hundred puddles behind us, and that moment always makes me think of a Patricia Piccinini exhibition: flesh, pink and white and deepest brown, errant hair, pimples and eczema, ribs and rolls, breasts that you could tie in a knot, wobbling dimpled buttocks: everyone, a little bit mutant in their own way. I’ll never forget the way people smiled at each other; there was a sudden absence of fear and, adrenalin aside, an odd comfort in being amongst our own with none of the trappings. The gonads, that were everywhere, suddenly became invisible; they were no longer loaded images.

And Spencer Tunick captured us this way; en masse, without fear or pretension; just us, as we were. It was a profound moment for a nineteen year old girl on the run from herself. It took another five years, and motherhood, before the epiphanies of that day really embedded themselves in my consciousness. Like everyone, I still occasionally grapple with my ego and my insecurities, but I’m okay with who I am and what my body is.

Funnily enough, I haven’t become a naturist but I will remember that day for the rest of my life, in all its vivid colour. I wish that I could impart some of that transient understanding to my own children and my students, but I tend to think that they’ll have those moments of discovery by themselves, as part of their own trajectory. I’ve learnt, that not only do we come in all shapes and sizes, but that we each arrive in the world with our own temperament and disposition. When I encounter low risk-taking personalities in my students, I recognise myself as a child, and I hope that their own process of discovery, of self-acceptance, is expedited in some way. If I could speak to my adolescent self, I would direct her to a wonderful role model:  Julia Gillard, a woman who endured the most vicious of personal attacks, and yet, emerged graceful, composed and strong.