Get a Grip on Life

Clare Forster from Curtis Brown Australia brings us an inspiring summer reading list of some of her favourite works of life writing as we edge towards the warmer months…

Some of Australia’s most remarkable and inspiring stories stem from true life. Told in voices plain, ornate, and everything in between, first-person accounts serve many purposes and begin from diverse places. A great number of successful books are sparked by the writer’s curiosity about a detail of family, which has always been puzzling or unspoken: a gap in the records. Others explore a powerful and cherished relationship. Yet others stem from a profound bond with place. And some stories arise from a terrible loss or tragedy.

Life writing finds expression in memoir, autobiography and broader creative non-fiction and can lead to a very personal story finding a place in the hearts of readers everywhere, even being adapted to stage, screen and radio.

Anna Goldsworthy’s ‘Piano Lessons’ is the unique memoir of her first steps towards a life in music. An award-winning classical pianist, Anna charts her relationship with family, friends and rivals through her musical development and most of all her relationship with her unforgettable teacher, Mrs Sivan. First published by Black Inc in 2011, ‘Piano Lessons’ has been embraced in Australia and the US, winning critical acclaim on both literary and musical grounds. Anna read an abridged version for ABC Radio National’s marvellous ‘First Person’ segment, and recorded a CD of works by some the wonderful composers featured in her book. The book is under option by a leading Australian film producer with a script in development. Anna also stars in her own two-person show also called ‘Piano Lessons’ which was first commissioned by the Queensland Music Festival and which will tour Australia again in 2015. Going on to write about the experiences of becoming a mother, Anna has published ‘Welcome to Your New Life’, an equally creative and eye-opening memoir. Anna Funder wrote of it: ‘This book does what great literature should: it tries to get a grip on life – the making of it, the living-and-loving it, the leaving it.’

Another dazzling memoir of the ‘making of it’ is Monica Dux’s eye-popping ‘Things I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting’ (MUP). 2015 sees Monica working as an editor of an anthology, commissioning and gathering the stories of other women becoming mothers, which will also be published by MUP.

Often memoir is sparked by a vivid journey or a cultural clash. In ‘Deranged Marriage’ (Random House), Sushi Das wrote powerfully and humorously of her own years growing up trapped by Indian tradition and a looming arranged marriage in order to shine a light on women’s and children’s rights. In ‘Otherland: A Journey with My Daughter (Vintage), Maria Tumarkin travels with her Australian-born teenage daughter, Billie, back to Russia and Ukraine to help her experience first-hand the seismic shifts of her family’s native country, the world her own mother comes from. The journey turns out unexpectedly, revealing that the past is not simply another country, but one that no longer exists. The story of their six-week trip traverses three generations, three lifetimes and three profoundly interconnected relationships between mothers and daughters. Robert Dessaix reviewed it through the lens of history and travel: ‘This is a book about ruptures – ruptured lives, ruptured families, a ruptured society – and about trying to make what has been torn apart whole again … By the end of this entertaining and instructive book a kind of healing has taken place. Maria Tumarkin … has come home to herself.’

Some of the great narrative non-fiction writers of our time have written powerful books about writing memoir. American nature writer Anne Lamont’s ‘Bird by Bird’ is a beautiful and inspiring handbook I often recommend to writers working with life stories. So too is Patti Miller’s ‘Writing Your Life’. After sending dozens of people to Patti’s book I wrote to thank her, and through this connection was fortunate enough to work with Patti on ‘The Mind of a Thief’. This is her landmark book examining the politics of her hometown in the Wellington Valley, NSW. ‘The Mind of a Thief’ has gone on to be widely studied in schools, and won a Premier’s history prize. Her fascination with place and home will see next Patti publishing her charming and restless memoir ‘Ransacking Paris’.

Another remarkable story about black and white Australia, which has really connected with readers, is Ros Moriarty’s very moving ‘Listening to Country’ (A&U), the story of her extended family and in particular of the Law women with whom she travels across the Northern Territory’s Tanami Desert.

For writer Alice Pung, life writing has taken her from Footscray with her much-loved memoir ‘Unpolished Gem’, focusing on her relationship with her mother, through a difficult journey through China and Cambodia in ‘Her Father’s Daughter’, with its revelations of her father’s story. Humour and freshness of language light up every page Alice writes, and it is exciting to see this author making the transition to fiction with her debut novel, the acclaimed ‘Laurinda’.

We’re always on the lookout for new and interesting life stories and narrative nonfiction. Do you have a story you want to tell? Or perhaps you know someone whose story should be told? Of particular interest are rural, country and historical stories. 2015 will see the publication of ‘Nellie’s Vow’, an extraordinary true story of three sisters separated by tragedy during Australia’s Great Depression, and reunited by courage. Successful novelist and birth educator Fiona McArthur will gather stories of Australia’s rural midwives in a collection showcasing our incredible baby-catchers and the women they work with. Gina Perry, author of ‘Behind the Shock Machine’ (also made into an award-winning radio documentary), takes us on another roller-coaster ride in experiments in America psychology in which she features as narrator. And while this quick survey has glimpsed some recent life-writing by women, perhaps there will be a further opportunity to look at life-writing by men: Michael McGirr, Michael McKernan, and Gideon Haigh, not writing memoir but delving into biography and another eternally interesting area, true crime…

Clare Forster is the Melbourne agent for Curtis Brown Australia, and a former book publisher.

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