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Character creation: Champika

NOTE: Written originally on 2 January 2015

It was late in the day and I needed food and so off I went to ____ down the road from me and up I went to the cashier thinking “Hey, there’s no one here, this should be a breeze.”

After initial confusion over what I wanted so much so that I had to pull the menu out and point because the girl doesn’t know what is served, she asks me if it is takeaway.


She rings it up and I pay. Then I ask “Ok, what do I do – do I wait here? Do you give me a number and call me?”

“It will take twenty minutes.”

I blink – ok, not what I asked but ok. “So I just sit down then?”

She does a half nod, half shake. I sit down and after a couple of minutes of wondering whether I should go over and say something like “Patiya, darling, I am new to this – you need to tell me how this works here.”, I decide to concoct a fiction.

Champika, for that is indeed her name, and I know it because it’s on my bill but she would be shocked if I were to address her, not making the connection – Champika is young, fresh out of school, maybe from Colombo but she lives with her parents and she catches the bus home everyday from work. She didn’t do well enough to get into university but the work gives her cash which is wonderful for her. She spends it at Majestic City, House of Fashion, Liberty Plaza and smaller boutiques on very glittery, bright and cute things like a butterfly slide for hair in a garish pink or some flat slippers with bright red sequins on the straps and she wears them with her jeans and t-shirts outside of work.

She wants to vote for Mahinda because Namal looks nice and they won the war and he has built things but she sometimes wonders if that’s right as she hears customers walking past her to Arpico or arguing loudly over their meals about things going wrong and accusations of corruptions and words that she realised are to do with economics but that don’t make sense to her and she recognizes the other names scattered in the chatter: Ranil, Hirunika, Maithripala, Chandrika.

She thinks that she understands that building new roads is good but she only knows money moving from her purse to a cash register and from a bank account to her purse. Anything bigger and they are no longer numbers belonging to her. That she can understand completely. There are things that don’t belong to people like her and she knows this. Big numbers would bother her anyway. So maybe she will not vote for the UNP. She understands roads – he built a road and now if she had the money she could go to Galle faster. That is a good thing. And Namal is good looking.

At least one of her friends is married, despite being just eighteen or nineteen, and she feels a bit happy that she has a job (where she gets to operate a computer and handle cash – it’s very important) and is an adult now. She is a romantic and she crushes on Shah Rukh Khan or another male member of the Khan family and possibly a cricketer though she won’t know anything about the game.

She dreams of a boy with a square jawline and good hair who will come in one day to have lunch while she is at the register and he will have a motorbike and a job, a good job, in a business somewhere, where he has just started but he will work his way up – maybe even in public service. Since she can’t take him home, they will meet after work in Viharamahadevi Park, just around the corner, walking and talking, maybe even in Independence Square after he treats her to an English movie in 3D – something from Pixar for kids and maybe he will treat her to a burger from Burger King as well. And one day he will propose and they will get married, maybe even at a hotel somewhere with a sari from India and he will give her a gold chain. I think he would be called Navin.

It would not be a bad life.

But until he walks in for lunch that fateful day, perhaps she will save her money to watch Bollywood movies (illegal copies burnt onto discs, encased in plastic bags, sold in tiny barely room to turn around shops dotted randomly down the sides of Galle Road heading towards Mt Lavinia) and to ask an astrologer when the day will be.

And she will be street smart as she walks to the bus stop in the evening but clueless and naive enough not to realise what sort of dodgy jokes her male co-workers make, her cash handling skills enough for her to concentrate on, freezing up when customers ask questions.

And completely clueless that a tired, starving stranger is making up a life for her while waiting for her food.

I like Champika – I think I will keep her. I just won’t order from her again. :)

(c) 2015 Marisa Wikramanayake

Surviving university as a journalism student

  1. Stay away from the guild. No guild I have ever known has been without its share of drama. You don’t need to recreate high school all over again. Be aware of what they do as story ideas abound but maintain distance.
  2. Find a viable university paper or magazine that drama free or not is likely to run continuously without a hitch for the duration of your degree and join it. Even if isn’t at your university. See if you can wrangle your way in.
  3. Start a blog. Especially on the one part of journalism that you want to practice. Go big with a domain name that matches your real name. By the time your degree is done you will be the first search result on Google for your blog topic and your name.
  4. Learn social media inside and out especially how to use programs to monitor it and to set up marketing campaigns and to analyse stats.
  5. Start freelancing. Anywhere and everywhere. You are building your resume from NOW. Also your survival skills for lean times in the future AND THERE WILL BE LEAN TIMES.
  6. Take classes at university or elsewhere so you learn radio, TV, print and photography. Then take classes that teach you the ins and outs of various beats/niches/genres and then the classes on media laws and ethics.
  7. If it’s not in your degree offering but patches up a hole in your journalism knowledge, check online for free courses or find a class or course you can take elsewhere.
  8. If you have space for electives, make sure you take a world history class, a politics class, a cultural studies class, an economics class, an environmental studies class and a communications/media theory class. Why? If you want to be a journalist these classes will give you the basics you need to know so you can hit the ground running when you go out to cover the big stories of today. These classes will help you figure out why and how things are happening and where to start asking questions and about what. Can’t take these in your degree? Brush up on them online.
  9. Join your union. Seriously. Do not underestimate the opportunities and the contacts you will make.
  10. Take all the internships and work experience you can even in your first year, through the university or not. Talk to your lecturers and professors about this.
  11. Buy a copy of the Writer’s Marketplace/ Writer’s Market and contact everyone in it. Pick their brains for advice and submit stories.
  12. Save your money for a camera, a recorder and tickets & fares to the media conferences. Yes I know you are excited about alcohol and partying but if you are so super keen you will be hanging out with professional journalists, learning lots you wouldn’t learn otherwise, networking and they will be so impressed they will buy you drinks and take you out. To me that beats the frat parties any day.
  13. Learn to wake up early or at least practice it and make your peace with it so that by the time you graduate, it’s one less thing that takes you by surprise.
  14. Go to all the networking meetings you can. Get au fait with city council meetings. Sit in on parliament sessions (state or federal) if you can. Print business cards with your name and details so people can find you. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t out of university or employed yet.
  15. Ask everyone you meet for a story idea no one else knows about. You never know when you will find one even if you have to wade through a few horrendous ones first.
  16. If you can, listen to the radio on your phone during your commute so you are easily up to speed on the news.
  17. Stop coffee and soft drinks. Swap them for water, coconut water, fish, tomatoes, spinach and bananas. Seriously. The sooner you eat more of these the better you will feel.
  18. Get the license but forget the car unless you are trapped somewhere in the US where no one has done anything about transport upgrades since FDR. The car is a money pit and you need the cash for other things.

Australian Love Stories

Anthology authors Susan Midalia, Danielle McGee, Natasha Lester, Sally-Ann Jones & Will Yeoman from the West Australian" align="left" lightbox="on" caption="Anthology authors Susan Midalia, Danielle McGee, Natasha Lester, Sally-Ann Jones & Will Yeoman from the West Australian
Anthology authors Susan Midalia, Danielle McGee, Natasha Lester, Sally-Ann Jones & Will Yeoman from the West Australian” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”Anthology authors Susan Midalia, Danielle McGee, Natasha Lester, Sally-Ann Jones & Will Yeoman from the West Australian


“It shows that we are capable of writing sophisticatedly about love as Australian writers. ”
– Donna Ward, publisher, Inkerman & Blunt

It’s a typical Fremantle evening and The Orient Hotel in Fremantle is slowly filling up. I have ducked into New Edition on the corner early on in the evening to get my copy of Australian Love Stories and I carry this and a few other literary treasures into the back room where everything is set up for the launch, sorry, celebration of this anthology.

Doe eyed, in a deep maroon fit and flare dress, a woman approaches me and I realise that this is none other than Danielle McGee, one of four West Australian writers to be included in the anthology.

Rose van Son & Danielle McGee
Rose van Son & Danielle McGee

“I need your picture,” I tell her and she obliges while I find out that she is finishing off an Honours in Creative Writing at the University of WA and that Susan Midalia, a former lecturer of hers, is also one of the four West Australian writers.

Later on, perusing the book under the blankets, I find that ‘Gen Y Love’, Danielle McGee’s offering is my favourite. It has a twist you don’t realise till halfway through and there is a hopeful ending and it’s about falling in love in ’90s Fremantle and not quite really knowing that you have.

“All the girls at school were obsessed with The Spice Girls. Ryan and I dutifully graffitied any posters, photographs or notebooks they foolishly left on their desks.Baby got a moustache. Posh got a monobrow. Ginger got a bad case of acne. Ryan and I got detention.” – from ‘Gen Y Love’, Australian Love Stories, Danielle McGee

Will Yeoman pops up. Books editor of the West Australian, he has shown up early to chair the panel for the evening and as guests trickle in and start crowding out the space, the other authors pop up.

The buzz in the crowd is such that they are all rather excited and I realise that there are a lot of writers here – those aspiring and those established, all eager to find out more and get their hands on a copy. Already books are being passed around and signatures scribbled down.

The stories themselves are varied. There are stories about what could have been, about childhood crushes fondly remembered, about how love grows over time, about the concept of lying to keep love alive, about how one needs to work hard to keep one kind of love alive when another moves into your space, about how one can love but also still need to let go, to move on.

The stories will tug at your heartstrings though not all will be loved by any one reader – some will make you sad, depressed, frustrated, commiserating with the protagonist. Others will make you giggle and still more will astound you and make you contemplate the lengths that people will go to for love or even the concept of what it means.

“I remembered the great fat tongue and the giant udders and telling him I loved him as he sprawled on the sofa with his blast of a poem. And so I wrapped my arms around him and mooed again, loudly, playfully, stupidly, to stop myself from washing him with tears. ”
– from ‘A Blast of a Poem’, Australian Love Stories, Susan Midalia.

During the panel discussion Sally-Ann Jones asks us: “Isn’t all writing about the emotions, about exploring that?”

It is apt – the characters in the stories feel real enough that after the end, you want to know more. Did X ever get over Y? Did what we assumed happened, actually happen? Did A end up in a better situation? Did B and C ever get together? Did F save the relationship?

B2zD1qkCIAACmr2445 stories were submitted and Cate Kennedy stuck in Vanavatu with cyclonic winds and supposedly a lot of gin, read and edited her way through all of them to pick 29 for final publication. One would commiserate except that it sounded rather more enticing than a hardship.

If anything, the collection reminds us why we need love in our lives. How even if we do not discuss it, it takes up center stage in our lives and drives our decisions and choices.

The panel discussion was livetweeted and the feed is below. But in the meantime grab a copy of the anthology. It is always lovely to fall in love with something new and be it one story or the entire collection, you won’t be disappointed or heartbroken.

Publisher: Inkerman & Blunt
Genre: Short fiction
Retail Price: $29.95

Here’s the livetweet feed of the panel discussion held at The Orient Hotel in Fremantle on Wednesday 19 November 2014. The panel consisted of Susan Midalia, Danielle McGee, Natasha Lester and Sally-Ann Jones, all authors included in the anthology and Will Yeoman, books editor of The West Australian

The Freeline Blog Swap: Robert Pepper on anti-vaccination, pseudoscience and the anti-anti-science movement

Freeline is a group for Australian freelance journalists. And this is a blog swap started over email where journalists somehow try to write guest posts for each other’s blogs despite the difference in specialisations, niches and beats. This is Robert Pepper’s swap with me – 4WD for science and he owns this material. You can also read my post on my love affair with the Jeep Wrangler on Robert’s blog: ‘Life’s Too Short For Boring Cars’

Freelance journalists are paradoxical people.  We love the freedom and independence that defines freelancing, yet our chosen profession is often lonely, interacting with the likes of editors only by fleeting email or hasty phone call.  That’s why freelancers form groups, for that inter-human interaction we all need, so we can share stories and build camaraderie.  As a side benefit we then find that despite a nominally shared profession we’re not actually competitors, and instead we can learn from each other.  For example I’m an automotive journalist and photographer, so I’m not going to be competing with Marisa who knows things about science, environment and health, but we both know about deadlines, word counts, blogging, dealing with publishers and freelancer fuel, otherwise known as coffee.

Yet despite a lack of subject matter knowledge, here I am, on her blog.  How’d that happen?

Well, after a rambling series of posts on a freelancer’s mailing list about collaboration I offered a blog swap.  I’d do my best to blog for anyone else, if they had a crack at my specialty of cars and 4WDs.  And Marisa was up for the challenge, so here I am.

Anyway, enough prevarication and introduction.  On with the blog, and out of Marisa’s many areas of specialty I’m going to pick science and popular culture because I think there’s an apparently  worthwhile crusade that is actually very dangerous because it is counter-productive.

Some background.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seems to be a general increase in the number of people believing in, or at least sympathetic to pseudoscience.  I speak of anti-vaxxers, chem-trail believers, homeopathy converts and the 1001 irrational beliefs that seem to be growing in popularity.  There is also, I detect, an equally increasing tendency to actually mock science to the point where “academic” is actually a term of contempt, as is “intellectual”, and an average person in the street is deemed to be possessed of a quiet, earthy common sense which somehow trumps years of diligent learning.  Remember Julia Gillard’s panel of normal Australians who were to decide policy?  I also think it’s fair to say that the current Government does not appear to put science at the top of its priority list.

And that’s just the passive side of the problem.  The active side is where anything science-y is deemed to have ulterior motives, the classic being pro-vax people obviously in the pay of Big Pharma.  Pick your science, pick your shadowy global power behind it, join the dots and repeat “ah, but they would say that, wouldn’t they!” with a knowing wink.  Wake up, sheeple!

If this trend continues we’ll have scientists meeting in secret underground lairs, swapping contraband textbooks, and burning their qualifications in case of discovery.  Ultimately, it is dangerous because we could lose knowledge, and before that point discourage the best and brightest from careers that could further mankind, or at least stop us sliding backwards.  I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read that in many cases humans have invented things and then slipped back into the dark ages.  Is this what’s happening now?

Maybe it is.  That would be why there’s an increase in anti-anti-science social media and websites, devoted to attacking those that attack science.

Which brings me to the point, finally.

Those sites have got it wrong, and they’re making the problem worse.

The average anti-anti site is nothing more than an echo chamber of like-minded individuals poking fun at those that don’t believe for their own amusement.  Look at the number of memes dedicated to explaining to anti-vaxxers how wrong they are.  But those memes serve only to provide a self-satisfied laugh for those that already agree with the sentiment.  OK, it’s possible one or two fence-sitters may be swayed, but for each one of those I’d bet there’ll be plenty more who just become even more rusted on, because that’s what happens when you attack people’s sincerely held beliefs.

Think about it.  If you believe something, then is mockery really going to change your mind?  If your belief is not founded on logic, how will appealing to reason help?  If all your friends do something, there appears to be evidence for it, and there’s doubt cast on other options, what would you think of some high and mighty unknown person telling you that it’s all wrong?  People that believe in this stuff aren’t necessarily willful, it’s very often an honest belief with roots that make sense to them, if not you who haven’t lived their life.


People that believe in this stuff aren’t necessarily willful, it’s very often an honest belief with roots that make sense to them, if not you who haven’t lived their life.
How many times have you heard someone yell in an argument  “You’re being unreasonable!” and the other party say “Well, yes.  You’re right.  I am being unreasonable, now you mention it.  I’ll change my mind.”.  Never, unless served with a helping of sarcasm.  Read any negotiation textbook – and being a rational science-y type person you would, wouldn’t you – and see what it says on the subject of persuasion.  I bet “create a funny meme” or “make fun of your opponent” isn’t in Chapter One.
So here’s the challenge.  We face a threat from the increasing number of people that are turning against science and learning.  The counter-backlash is only making it worse.  How can we create an movement so that logic, facts and true science are prized by society, and we don’t move backwards into the dark ages of no vaccines, everyone scared of naturally explainable phenomena and the like?  Save the world, discuss below!

Robert Pepper is a freelance journalist, author, photographer and driver trainer who enjoys most things with wings, wheels or sails. He has a website at and a Facebook page at

Aluthagma and the BBS

[ezcol_1third]Given that I am now living outside of Sri Lanka, I don’t often write about Sri Lanka on this blog because I acknowledge that there are limits to what I know about what is going on. Things I am not aware of because I am not on the ground in Colombo to hear or see them that might be factors for example and unreported online.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I am always interested in and affected by what happens in Sri Lanka. I acknowledge my position now as a member of the diaspora but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know or don’t care. I do.

Which is why the Aluthgama rioting horrifies me. Which is why the Bodu Balu Sena horrifies me. Three people have died and 78 have been injured according to this source.

When they first showed up it was obvious from the start that they had a racist agenda as Indi Samarajiva points out. And you can’t quite dispute that when there are videos like this where their leaders happily vilify and attack those who are different to them.

[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_2third_end]What you need to know:

  • The  BBS leader stated that Muslims would come to an end  prior to the rally on Sunday, June 15.
  • There was an alleged attack on a monk’s driver by a Muslim but no proof has been offered.
  • Tension broke out at the rally in Aluthgama on Sunday with Muslim owned shops and houses burnt down.
  • Government sources have stated that 3 have died and 78 have been injured.
  • Police protection has commenced at all mosques and the local media has been requested to refer to the situation as a “tense situation” to prevent reprisals. A police curfew has been placed over Aluthgama. [/ezcol_2third_end]

From the Colombo Telegraph, the speech:

For those of you who are not Sinhala speaking:

“This country still has a Sinhalese Police, this country still has a Sinhalese Army. It will be the end of all [Muslims] if a Muslim at least lays a finger on a Sinhalese,”

It’s not that hard to see how what he says could be akin to a threat of genocide. Sir, you are a disgrace to the religion, the country and you are an anachronism from centuries ago.

And from Kandy TV Official’s Youtube channel and the Colombo Telegraph, footage of the riots:

As Indi Samarajiva points out, it is hard to find any information on exactly what is going on from the local media outlets suggesting a possible media blackout with the reports that all Muslim mosques will now have police protection and that media outlets are now being asked to report it as a “tense situation”.

I can understand these moves as moves designed to prevent anything from escalating into another Black July like series of riots and pogroms. But as this post on how social media broke the news during the blackout makes the well justified point that ALL the people needed to hear from their leaders and have access to information not just the minority online on these channels.

I am NOT the only person stating that this something that could easily escalate into the equivalent and that it points to the idea that a lot of racial tension never just disappeared the way people expected it to with the end of the war. I made this point in 2009 – that we would have to rebuild and address a lot of socio-economic issues so that a civil war could never happen again before we could actually properly celebrate the war being over (because for so many people the effects of it are still ongoing) and I got attacked for saying so.

It’s hopeful to think that this event may finally convince people that inciting people to violence is a crime and not just something that can be tucked away under “freedom of speech” or the “right to voice an opinion” or the “right to political and religious expression”. You tend to lose those rights and freedoms the moment you incite people to attack others.

I often get a lot of vitriol in the comments if I blog about Sri Lanka stating that I am a liberal (oh and because I am a woman or because I am a member of the diaspora) and therefore some sort of threat and not really that important (make up your mind please – I can’t be both insignificant with my opinions and yet also dangerous).

But a lot of my ideas, though they may seem dangerous/insignificant to some who blame my liberal attitude, are actually in the Sri Lankan constitution. You know, ideas like equality for all regardless of gender, race, religion and so on.

And so the idea about losing your freedom of expression and speech rights due to the creation of political and racial tension and the disruption of others’ civil liberties? No, that’s not some newfangled Western invention. It’s the one we agreed on putting in the constitution when we became independent. A Western notion? Yes. Best (and possibly depending on your opinion and level of cynicism, only) thing we have done since independence to promote peace? Definitely.

So here’s Article 14 from our constitution:

Freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement, &c.

  1.  (1) Every citizen is entitled to -

(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;

(b) the freedom of peaceful assembly;

(c) the freedom of association;

(d) the freedom to form and join a trade union;

(e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching;

(f) the freedom by himself or in association with others to enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language;

(g) the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise;

(h)  the freedom of movement and of choosing his residence within Sri Lanka; and

(i) the freedom to return to Sri Lanka.

(2) A person who, not being a citizen of any other country, has been permanently and legally resident in Sri Lanka immediately prior to the commencement of the Constitution and continues to be so resident shall be entitled, for a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, to the rights declared and recognized by paragraph (1) of this Article.

So first off, the BBS has it wrong. Muslims are welcome. So are other races and groups and whatever religion they choose to practice. They are welcome and equal.

Here’s where the BBS slips up. Article 15 states that the government can by law restrict the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly of ANY group in Article 14 ONLY if it is a threat to public harmony.

Restrictions on fundamental Rights.

15. (1) The exercise and operation of the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 13 (5) and 13 (6) shall be subject only to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security. For the purposes of this paragraph “law” includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security.

(2) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

(3) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (b) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony.

(4) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (c) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests, of racial and religious harmony or national economy.

That would be NOT the Muslims but the BBS that would get restricted.

Article 14 and 15 of the constitution is hereThe entire constitution for thy reading pleasure and education is here.

I hope it does lead to an arrest of the BBS leaders but I now wonder if this is going to be tricky to navigate politically without creating more tension because frankly it should have been done when the BBS first showed up on the scene instead of letting the situation get more complicated. If they are arrested, will there be reprisals from their followers? Like it or not, they clearly have followers – people who agree with their ideas and agenda. And that is the scary part of this – it’s not just one or two or a handful of Buddhist monks with racist ideas, it’s a following that have come to believe in the BBS. Take away their leaders and you may leave them scattered with no organisation and no direction or you might have them reacting with violence.

As Buddhist friend once told me “Their name itself tells you what they want and it has nothing to do with Buddhist principles.”

It also makes me hopeful to see so many denounce the BBS because it means that people are openly against racists and racism. It means that there has been a shift in the mindset. Well, kind of.

It’s heartening that so many can clearly see the problem with the BBS including quite a lot of Sinhala Buddhists who are as horrified as anyone else is. But there are still people who think differently (not the least of which are the BBS followers) and that is equally as horrifying.

Because even if the BBS is disbanded and there are no reprisals from their followers, then what militant group with a racist agenda is going to spring up next to take its place? With plenty of followers to choose from who feel disenfranchised and disempowered enough that they will follow blindly the next person who, with rhetoric, promises them a better future that they have been cheated out of and they clearly deserve?

It won’t stop till we figure out a better way of making sure people don’t have any reason to feel disempowered or disenfranchised because they actually have the opportunities and abilities to have a better way of life. Which is why I think it’s important we think about tough things like whether we are actually doing well on the war reparations front, on development, on socio-economic policies that positively affect all levels of society.

You may choose to disagree. Plenty do. But right now it’s the BBS and their consequences of their actions that horrify me. That and the possibility that even if the BBS are disbanded, there will be something else to take its place.

A conversation with Fay

In case you missed it, I got interviewed by my Honours buddy, entrepreneur, day dreamer and all things film and marketing knowledgeable, Fay Ann D’Souza of Thousand By Ten Days. link

Apparently I managed to say something useful in the middle of all the rambling.

On what not to do:

I have also learned never to attempt the madness of three main characters again. Keeping things straight and not too confusing is a hard thing to do.

On being involved in the community:

And I’ll never forget being taken aside by one member on the second day of the conference and being told “See all these people – you did that.” And it really hit home to me – most people would dismiss me – I’m a stranger from another country with supposedly not much really of much value to others but I can (with the help of others of course) create a great deal of change. I had done a lot for a lot of people so I was thrilled – I felt rather maternal towards them. And I was tired. It was hard but worth it.

On the money side of things:

The point is it’s no one else’s business where the money comes from (save for perhaps the tax office) and it has to be something you are comfortable with and you need to get it sorted before you have enough mental space free in your head to make any real headway on your writing without worrying about bills.

On characters:

So basically they show up unannounced and do their own thing. I am quite visual. The scenes play out as a sort of interactive film where I can touch and smell and taste things as well. I just sit back and experience it.

Go have a read. Now.

My thanks to Fay.

So what about you? Is there something Fay forgot to ask me that you desperately want to know the answer to? 

Interview with Jane Rawson

Author Jane Rawson by Andy Maurer
Author Jane Rawson by Andy Maurer

When Jane Rawson’s book A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists showed up in my mail box, I was both thrilled and dismayed.

I was thrilled because the cover caught my eye and it had maps on it and I adore anything to do with maps and geography. I was dismayed because the book title was long.

And on checking the blurb I wasn’t entirely convinced. A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists is a) a cool plot idea which made me think I would be trembling with envy throughout reading it but b) is set in a dystopian universe which made me think I would be wanting to stab my eyes with pencils before too long.

I was wrong, and there was no need for a trip to the emergency room – Jane Rawson’s debut novel won me over quite quickly. I loved the plot idea so much that it wasn’t very long into the book before I loved its execution.

So in an insane burst of flurried activity I emailed Ms Rawson and asked her if I could interview her to which she graciously responded with much glee. This was mostly because she usually interviews other people while writing for Lonely Planet and she felt it was nice to be on the other side for once. It was a very hard thing to keep the envy in check but I managed.

I called the plot a madcap one and she seemed to agree. It came in bits and pieces and is actually three stories mashed up into one delicious smoothie of a whole.

“The story about Simon and Sarah was written first, from a conversation I had with a friend when we both worked at Lonely Planet,” she explained.

“We were trying to outdo one another – ironically, of course: it was 1999 – as to who had ‘seen’ the most countries. And he started talking about the idea of dividing a country up into squares to make sure you’d seen it all, and how it would be cool to make a mockumentary about someone who had done that.”

 Read the review
Jane Rawson's A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists

Jane Rawson’s shortlist of Australian female authors:

Ruth Park: Harp in the South,
Eleanor Dark: The Timeless Land,
Alexis Wright: The Swan Book,
Madeleine St John: The Women in Black,
Anna Krien: Into the Woods,
GL Osborne: Come Inside,
Josephine Rowe: Tarcutta Wake.

In the book, maps have power and the folds and creases over time mean something and connect you to places in time-space. This sends Ray and Caddy from dystopian Melbourne tumbling straight into Simon and Sarah in San Francisco in the 1990s.

“The maps: that’s from me and my good friend in Canberra always talking about how it would be great to fold the map so we could get between the two cities in seconds,” Rawson said.

“The setting for Caddy’s story is partly from a tour I did of some oil holding tanks near my old house in Melbourne, where one of the engineers described the results if the tanks should explode, and also from a three-month stint I did in Phnom Penh, as well as my imagination of a future climate-changed Melbourne.”

To write dystopia so well, one must surely love it? Or love reading it? But Rawson doesn’t count it as a genre.

“Dystopia is more a way of life for me than a genre. I thinking my reading genre is ‘literary, but not too hard, OK?’. I enjoy things that are mostly true (Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, for example, which I just finished for the second time), things that are entirely weird (Tao Lin’s ‘Eeeee eee eeee’ was super; so was his ‘Taipei’ which falls much more in the ‘mostly true’ category) and things which – bear with me here – appear to be entirely true but are completely made up (‘Rings of Saturn’ by WG Sebald is shattering genius as far as I’m concerned),” she explained.

“But the most important thing to me is whatever the setting, however weird, I really need to care about the characters: I want to feel what they feel. I love George Saunders for this, and also Elizabeth Jane Howard, who is entirely unweird and was just brilliant at making ordinary people who matter.”

Which brings me to the question of other reading choices. What did she read growing up? And who was the first Australian female author that she read?

“I know I was into AA Milne and Enid Blyton, as well as a brief flirtation with the Nancy Drew series, none of which helps. I’m going to cheat and say ‘Seven Little Australians’ by Ethel Turner, because I was absolutely obsessed with the 1973 ABC TV series and apparently it’s very faithful to the book.”

Reading aside, she’s been writing ever since she can remember. Save for that one moment when she wanted to play test cricket.

“I have always loved reading, honestly much more than anything else, and always wanted to make imaginary things. I did want to be a test fast bowler for a while, but gave up on that around 6th grade,” she said.

“Pretty much since then my mind has been set on writing in one form or another. And all my paid work has had something to do with writing.”

And of course there are the usual questions: now that’s she is published, are there more books to come? When is the next one? But those are all unknowns for Rawson.

“I always assumed I’d write a novel. I also assumed I’d be the anchor on Four Corners and that I’d have a three bedroom art-deco apartment with floor-to-ceiling built in bookshelves in New York City. I suppose the other things are coming. I first started actually trying to write a novel in 1997, I think,” she explained.

“Something changed inside my head once I had a book published; I felt justified in calling myself a “writer” and that has really got me enthusiastic again.”

And there are promises she cannot make:

“There are a lot more novels in me; or, at least, there are a lot of ridiculous ideas in me that are pretending they can be novels and will probably keep doing so right until I sit down to write them, at which point they’ll vanish”, she said.

“I’m working on some non-fiction at the moment in my “spare time” which is keeping me busy, but if anyone wants to give me a large grant so I can write instead of work I’ll get onto doing a novel as well. Otherwise I hope to devote 2015’s spare time to novel writing. Whether anyone should look forward to it is another matter altogether.”


The Writing Routine

 My routine is get up, go to work, come home, cook dinner/go to yoga/practice clarinet/waste time on the internet/drink wine/eat dinner, realise it’s 10pm, panic, read a book, go to bed, get up next day realising I haven’t written anything, go to work…
Once a year I try to make up for it by churning out 50,000 words over the course of a month, then devoting a few chunks of time during the year – say, taking a week off work and doing nothing but writing – to making it into something a bit more bearable. If you have to work full-time – and who doesn’t? – a writing routine seems to be a matter of desperately grabbing at whatever time you can get.

The Writing Advice

Just write. Don’t worry about it: just write. Your first draft is going to suck, but until you write it you can’t write the good version, so just sit down and shut up and go through the pain of realising how awful you are and get on with it.

Jane Rawson

Website | Twitter | Buy the book

Books read for the #AWW2014 Challenge: 

Tracy Farr: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt
Annie Hauxwell: In Her Blood
Elizabeth Harrower: The Watch Tower

I asked her about motivation to finish off the interview. She was refreshingly honest about it.

“I don’t think being published actually legitimises a writer at all. It’s just that I’m the kind of person who really needs a pat on the head and a “well done!” to push on, and publishing has provided that. A few nice reviews have certainly helped too.”

A couple of weeks after the interview, Jane Rawson tweets at me.  A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists was shortlisted in the science fiction section for the Aurealis Awards. It’s exciting news and come April 5, we will find out if she nabs the top spot.

In the meantime, Jane Rawson is also participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014 and apparently has finished off three titles and plans to read seven more. Add her book to your list and beat her goal of ten Australian female authors.

Maree Dawes' BRB

Half a lifetime ago the words “a/s/l” meant something to me – the start of a conversation with someone halfway across the world with whom perhaps you shared a desire for escapism.

But that was half a lifetime ago in the first iteration of the MSN chatrooms with its first attempts at keeping teens like me safe. It was the time of xanga, of dreamwave accounts, of thousands of girls learning to code in html so they could build websites for their favourites in boybands (a massive underground feminist triumph if there ever was one at getting girls interested in technology).

And escapism, choice, sexuality and expression are all bound up, somewhat nostalgically for me in Maree Dawes’ prose poetry offering: BRB.

In quick words on a page she outlines the housewife left behind with kids, alone with a computer and a connection, making her first foray into chatting and getting caught up in cybersex as a substitute for the sex she isn’t getting from her ever business trip taking husband.

Such is the obsession that as with this fallible narrator, we see nothing of her children and almost nothing of her husband, real life for her all but pushed out to the edges as she changes her username over and over and blinds us with a plethora of usernames for her cybersex partners. So much so that it is a direct downloaded experience from the narrator’s head to yours with no guide or index to clue you in as to who is who.

The poetry follows the pattern you would expect. In chatrooms people talk over each other, responses ordered by lag and bandwidth speed, not by logic and conversation, often punctuated by gestures and the logging in and out of users as they flag and revive.

Many will see this work as a reminder of how the internet can split up a family, change a life. But what it actually is, is a reminder that if you and your partner cannot give each other what you each need, we are geared as humans to fulfill those needs elsewhere.

Whatever odd form that might take, in the online world or the real one.

Author: Maree Dawes
Genre: Poetry/prose
Publisher: Spineless Wonders
Publication Date: 2013

writer, journalist & editor