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Wednesday, January 25th, 2017 | Author:

I once read an interview with the wonderful Australian writer Margo Lanagan in which she observed that many new writers approach the publication of their first novel in the same way that many new parents approach the birth of their first child: with all their anxious, exhilarated, terrified attention focused solely on the Big Event. That is, birth/publication. Whereas after publication there are still so many trials ahead for writers, just as there are for parents after childbirth – for decades to come…

At the time I read the article, I remember thinking Margo made a great point.

Now, however, I too can think of nothing beyond publication. I feel like the months I’ve spent polishing my novel, waiting to hear back from readers and agents, have been akin to enduring an unbearably long pregnancy. I’ve forgotten all the fun that comes with embarking on a creative endeavour, I’ve forgotten how sublime the feeling of flow I get from delving into a character’s head. I’ve forgotten that I’m in this for the love of it. For the process, not the product. Now I just want the labour pains to begin, and all this waiting to end.

Hopefully I’ll get some idea of a due date soon. Hopefully then I’ll be able to post more frequently on this website, to think about new projects, to remember the fun.

Sunday, December 14th, 2014 | Author:

 

Of late I’ve been having a number of people read my Behind the Shadows manuscript and oh my! it’s an excruciating process. Waiting for their opinions sets me on an emotional rollercoaster ride, a seesaw, a knife-edge of anticipation and dread… one moment I think the story is great, the next a load of you-know-what, and it all depends on the last comment I received. And I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s not the best idea to get people I know to read my works-in-progress. Maybe knowing my readers colours my interpretation of their comments. And maybe knowing me colours the sorts of things my current readers say.

It’s with these thoughts in mind that I’ve decided to sign up for a number of online writing critique groups.

Most online critique groups seem to operate in much the same way: you earn points for critiquing the work of others, and the more points you have, the more of your own work you can post to be critiqued. There are of course guidelines for how you critique the work of others, but mostly it’s an exercise in good communication. We aspiring writers are all deeply emotionally invested in our tales and we yearn for constructive criticism rather than insensitive attacks on our abilities. And after having some nasty experiences with hyper-competitive, brutal ‘critters’ early on in my writing life, I’ve tended to shy away from critique groups. But thus far, I’ve found the ones I’ve joined recently to be really useful. Scribophile especially has made a great first impression on me. The site itself is beautifully organised, with lots of helpful features for new members, and you can earn ‘karma points’ not only by reviewing work, but also by writing reviews that the recipient ticks off as being ‘insightful’, ‘constructive’, ‘thoughtful’ and so on. So you’re rewarded for the quality as well as the quantity of your critiques. I’m really hoping that having perfect strangers read Wolves will help me resolve some of the issues that are still bugging me.

I’d just like to single out two of my recent readers whose comments have really meant a lot to me. My dear sister-in-law, who with Lazar also went through the break-up of Yugoslavia, said of my story that she couldn’t believe it was written by an Australian, that parts of it were like reading her own memories! And Brett, fellow writer and fellow expat in China, is currently trawling through my typos and sending me regular questions about anything that doesn’t make sense in my manuscript, thereby helping me clarify my thoughts. So thanks Marina and Brett! I’m looking forward to one day being able to thank you in the published version of Shadows!

Tuesday, November 04th, 2014 | Author:

 

Well, I have of late completed what feels like one of the final drafts of When With Wolves. Now I’m taking a much-needed break from it to concentrate on other things, like polishing some old, unfinished short stories to submit to various anthologies. This past week I’ve submitted three; hopefully I’ll send another one off into cyberspace today. I’ve also shipped the Wolves manuscript off to several trusty reader and writer friends for feedback. And now I must wait, gnawing my nails, for their feedback… Still, it feels great to be at this point. It’s been a long, arduous slog through the ICTY archives and Lazar’s memories, but I’m incredibly proud of the story I (we) are crafting…

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

As well as the spectacular beauty of the places mentioned in my post The former Yugoslavia Part 1:  The Glorious… I also visited a plethora of tragic sights/sites while returning to the places Lazar once lived and while researching my novel. Here is my list of those I found most affecting. Knin and Sarajevo make it onto both lists, for reasons given below. Again, photos follow the list.

Knin, Croatia

The air of emptiness in some of the villages around Knin is really haunting. While driving through northwestern Bosnia towards Knin, we passed village after village with only a couple of houses still inhabited. The rest were burnt and looted ruins abandoned during the war. I was also stunned by how quickly nature has reclaimed those abandoned houses. Many are smothered in ivy, the gardens overtaken by stinging nettles… I couldn’t help but think it must be difficult for those who’ve stayed or returned to forget the conflict when confronted with such sights every day.

Please see also my new page Lazar’s Story: an Update, 2014 for some news about Lazar’s family house outside Knin.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Although Sarajevo is today a beautiful city whose inhabitants manage to exude an air of stylish nonchalance despite their economic woes, there are reminders of the war everywhere. Bullet and shell-pocked buildings still abound. Tour companies advertise drives down Sniper Alley and trips to the Tunnel of Hope museum. ‘Genocide tourism’, Lazar dubbed it. Is such tourism a good thing or a bad? Probably a bit of both, I guess.

Mostar, Bosnia

I’m glad the Stari Most (Old Bridge) has been rebuilt, but what a tragedy it was blown to bits in the first place! Once the new stones take on a bit of a patina, it should be less obvious that the bridge is not as ancient as its surroundings.

Srebrenica, Bosnia

Even discounting the Potočari Genocide Memorial with its 8372 white gravestones poking from the soil, there’s an air of desolation about Srebrenica. Would I feel that way if I hadn’t read so much about what happened there? I don’t know. Of late, another issue facing the residents of Srebrenica is that the recent floods have washed out many of the uncleared minefields, strewing mines in places previously thought safe. I saw several billboards around the town warning people to beware of shifting mines.

Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo

Lazar’s family lived for a year here in a kindergarten/refugee centre after fleeing Knin. Today Mitrovica is a divided city. The Serbs in the northern part are separated from the newly independent southern half of Kosovo by a bridge blocked to traffic at both ends by armoured vehicles and patrolled by international KFOR troops, Italian carabinieri and assorted other foreign peacekeepers. I saw more Serbian flags on the drive into Mitrovica than I did in all of Serbia: many Serbs and the Serbian government refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence because it’s seen as the heartland of ancient Serbia.

Nis, Serbia

Niš and much of the southern part of Serbia is noticeably poorer than the north. There’s a saying that the further south you go, the sadder things get. It rhymes in Serbian: što južnije to tužnije. Niš is also home to two pretty harrowing sites. The first is the Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp, one of Europe’s best-preserved Nazi concentration camps, right down to the graffiti prisoners scratched into the walls. Also in Niš is the Tower of Skulls, erected by the Ottoman Turks following a Serbian rebellion in which a Serb duke blew up the Turkish powder stores, killing 10 000 Turks, 4000 Serbs and himself. The Turks then beheaded and scalped 952 Serbs and plastered their skulls all over the outside of the tower as a warning to any other locals who might have been harbouring rebellious thoughts. Now housed in a chapel, the Tower was originally situated in open air. Apparently the whistling of the wind through the skulls’ empty eye sockets and lipless mouths was terrible to hear. Today there are only 58 skulls left, but that doesn’t make the Tower any less horrifying.

 

 

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

Having just returned to Australia from a 4000-km family reunion/research trip through 5 of the 7 countries that once upon a time belonged to the former Yugoslavia, I thought I’d list a couple of each country’s highlights. So here they are, in the order that we visited them. A few of my photographs appear afterwards.

Balkan Highlights

Sarajevo, Bosnia

We stayed in Baščaršija, the old part of the city. Imagine lots of tiny, cobbled alleys filled with brass and silversmith stores and courtyard restaurants where tourists and locals sip Turkish coffee and puff away on hookahs. And poking up above the minarets and steeples, the gorgeous fir-clad peaks that enfold Sarajevo. Magical.

Knin, Croatia

Knin itself is a pretty uninspiring place these days, but I loved wandering around Kninska Tvrđava, the enormous fortress that looms above the town. Parts of the fortress date from the 9th century; in the 11thcentury, it housed the King of Croatia. During the wars of the 1990’s, the Serb paramilitary captain Dragan Vasiljković and his Kninjas took up residence here, and war crimes allegations against Vasiljković hold that he tortured prisoners within the fortress walls. It’s a massive complex, replete with ancient latrines, dungeons and awesome views.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Boasting city walls that are perhaps the most impressive I’ve ever seen, the old city of Dubrovnik is a spectacular conglomeration of orange-tiled roofs, steep alleys and cobbled courtyards. It’s also packed with tourists. I heard more Aussie accents here than I’m used to in Sydney. Dubrovnik boasts some great museums; I particularly enjoyed the Ethnographic Museum, which features articles used in the production of various local staples like homemade wine, bread, olive oil and so forth. To escape the crowds, we stayed in a private villa in the far quieter but equally spectacular coastal town of Mali Zaton, 10 minutes outside Dubrovnik.

Kotor, Montengro

Set in the deepest, longest fjord in southern Europe, Kotor is a small town sandwiched between the cerulean waters of the Bay of Kotor and the ‘foothills’ of Mt Lovćen, the black mountain from which Montenegro gains its name. The mountains aren’t really black. But they are incredibly craggy limestone behemoths coated with cypresses, magnolias and patchy grass, through which goats and goat herders wind their way. Kotor features a walled Old City just as picturesque as Dubrovnik’s, although far more intimate in scale. The hike up the ancient walls to the ruined fortress above the city offers sublime views of the bay and city walls.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

So beautiful it doesn’t quite seem real, Sveti Stefan is a tiny island housing a former fishing village/former and present day resort, connected to the shore by a narrow walkway.

Montenegro’s roads

Definitely one of the highlights, given the endless twists and tunnels and the insanely reckless local drivers (many of whom, judging from the number of roadside crosses, pay the ultimate price for their recklessness). We drove from Cetinje, the 18th century capital of Montenegro, to Kotor via Lovćen National Park, along a road that has 28 hairpin bends in a row as it corkscrews down the mountainside. Each bend is numbered, so you can count how many more twists your bewildered stomach has to endure! Driving from Ostrog Monastery to Visegrad in Bosnia, we wound our way through more than 50 often dripping and unlit tunnels. That road snakes through the Tara Canyon, which is just 200 metres shallower than the Grand Canyon in the US!

Tara National Park, Serbia

Gorgeous alpine scenery and wonderful hiking country. One of the many benefits of having a husband for a local guide was that we enjoyed a private farm stay here, and partook of plenty of our host Obrad’s homemade rakija. The traditional steep-roofed wooden houses of this region are really picturesque.

Studenica Monastery, Serbia

Built in 1190 by Stefan Nemanja, father of the first Serbian king, Stefan Nemajić and of Sveti Sava, the saint who was the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox church, the two churches within the Monastery complex house some incredible frescoes. There’s a portrayal of a pregnant Virgin Mary reclining, smiling, while another lady holds her hand. There are also paintings of her bathing the infant Jesus and another of a man and a woman kissing. Scandalous! We stayed in the monastery’s guest accommodation — simple but adequate meals included in the price — and we were lucky enough to bump into a very enthusiastic local guide who shared with us his love of the monastery’s uniquely ‘human’ frescoes.

Belgrade’s Skadarlija district, Serbia

I spent my last night in Belgrade’s Skadarlija district being serenaded by Roma musicians in a restaurant called Tri Šešira which opened in 1864. Skadarlija is Belgrade’s cobbled, flower-bedecked Bohemian quarter, home to many writers and poets in the past. Today it’s filled with galleries, cafes and restaurants, many of which feature live Roma music as you dine. Perfect!

So those are the highlights of my trip. Please also see my post The Former Yugoslavia Part 2: …and the Tragic for my list of some of the most heart-wrenching places I visited in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

One of the most intriguing — albeit repugnant — real-life characters I’ve come across while researching the Yugoslav wars is undoubtedly Dr. Biljana Plavšić. Although she looks harmless enough — conservative garb, pearl earrings, silver-grey coif — this former Vice-President of Republika Srpska was a nasty old bird indeed. Numerous websites catalogue her litany of crimes. Prior to her political career, Plavšić was a biologist at the University of Sarajevo. Speaking scientifically, of course, she characterised Bosnia’s Muslims as genetically inferior peoples, as traitors and cowards who’d chosen to convert to the Islam of their Ottoman conquerors. She also looked down upon Serbs from Serbia, once declaring that evolution had forced the Bosnian Serbs to become tougher because they had to live in the midst of their Muslim enemies. Contradicting this, Plavšić was a rabid proponent of ethnic cleansing and sought to rid Bosnia of those same Muslims that had made Bosnian Serbs tougher than all the rest. She also idolised former international bank robber and paramilitary commander Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović, referring to him as the sort of hero Serbs need. After the war, and after Radovan Karadžic was banned from office, Plavšić served briefly as President of the Republika Srpska. She ended up getting something of a come-uppance when she was arrested for war crimes by the ICTY. She did some time but was subsequently released early on a plea-bargain deal.

The fact that website after website (my own included!) list the same tales about her brings me to my next point: namely, the perils of cyber research. I’ve read exactly the same tales again and again, undocumented claims copied and pasted word for word, and one of the most fascinating claims about Plavšić leads only to a dead end. Apparently, she was once ‘famously’ photographed stepping over the body of a dead Muslim to kiss Arkan. Countless websites say so, including Wikipedia. Yet this ‘famous’ photo seems not to exist. Surely, when there are so many other photos from the Yugoslav wars online, this one should be available somewhere? But even the footnote on the Wikipedia article leads only to another article that makes the same undocumented claim. There’s no sign of the photo in Plavšić’s case files on the ICTY website, either. Lazar has searched for it in Serbian, too. No luck. Is it just a myth?

If anyone can actually provide me with this photo, I’d be really happy. So happy I’d probably have to thank you in the acknowledgements of my book!

Monday, March 17th, 2014 | Author:

 

We’ve booked flights for a family holiday/research trip to the former Yugoslavia and to China.

After flying out of Sydney on the 24th of May, we’ll have one week visiting our second (or third, in Lazar’s case) ‘hometown’ of Wuyishan in China. Then it’s on to Serbia. From there, we plan to spend about four weeks driving through Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo before heading back to Serbia for our flight home on June 30th. Along the way, we’ll visit all the major settings featured in my novel — among others, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Priština and Belgrade.

As well as providing an opportunity to undertake further research for my novel, this will also be the first time our children have seen their father’s birthplace. There are so many cousins, aunts and uncles for them to meet. And of course, they’ll get to visit all the special places Lazar remembers from his childhood.

 All in all, we’re looking forward to an exciting and educational trip!

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013 | Author:

 

Last week I had the honour of meeting one of Australia’s greatest writers, Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List. Mr Keneally was launching a non-fiction book by Kevin Windle, entitled Undesirable: Captain Zuzenko and the Workers of Australia and the World, the biography of the fascinating Russian fellow who inspired Keneally’s novel, The People’s Train, and my husband’s Russian teacher invited us along to the launch.

Funnily enough, both Lazar and I had just finished reading Schindler’s List — again — a couple of weeks previously. I’m writing about the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Oskar Schindler is such a wonderful, flawed and compelling wartime hero that I wanted to read his story again. So I went along to the book launch with my ancient, dog-eared copy of Schindler’s List (it’s now 30 years since TK wrote it, and about 18 years since I bought my copy) and was incredibly thrilled when Mr Keneally signed it for me. I just wish I’d been a little less overawed and tongue-tied so that I could have told him so!

Friday, April 12th, 2013 | Author:

 

I am now 30 000+ words into the second draft of my new novel, set in the former Yugoslavia and present-day Australia. It’s early 1993, and my main character is about to leave Sarajevo and head to Belgrade, and from there the vagaries of life and war will conspire to draw him back to Bosnia at the worst possible time, in mid-1995.

I’ve found the perfect soundtrack for this novel: the heart-wrenchingly beautiful music of Slobodan Trkjula, a flautist who gives traditional Serbian music a modern twist. Check out his gorgeous song ‘Andjele’ (Angel) and the amazing singing of his group of Orthodox monks here.

Interestingly enough, some of the YouTube footage indicates that Slobodan Trkjula’s music is also huge in China!