NEWS: Where have I been?

So… a lot has happened since the last time I posted on here. This is a long overdue attempt to get you up to speed.

Where I’ve been all this time

Right where I was the last time I posted. I’m still living and working in the Alpine Valley, and I haven’t been spending time in hospital or anything.

I have been avoiding blogging for the past few months, though. This year, I’m teaching primary full-time, meaning the weekends and holidays are my only real time to write. I was also slogging away at the new book every chance I got, which meant that the blog had to take a back seat for a while. The third reason I haven’t updated for a while is that WordPress made itself really annoying to use. I won’t go into details but it turned blogging from a fun hobby into a frustrating chore. It looks like these issues have partly been corrected by another update now, though, so hopefully it won’t cut out randomly on me anymore without saving my work. One of these days, I’ll switch to a new platform.

The situation with the new book

It’s called The Bookseller’s Apprentice. The new title tested better with the target demographic than the previous working title, The Weirdest Market in the World, plus it’s technically more accurate in terms of what the book is about.

I was developing some unhealthy habits and attitudes to try to meet my deadlines, as I hate to let people down, but a couple of weeks ago it became clear that I needed more time for Bookseller’s Apprentice. Fortunately, I have a fantastic publishing team who were very understanding, and don’t want me to drive myself into infirmity or insanity through things like avoiding exercise, refusing social outings and forgoing sleep – which is what I’d started doing, in order to try to reach my goals. Importantly, I told them well in advance. Writers are famous for missing deadlines, but that doesn’t mean you should.

So you should expect to see The Bookseller’s Apprentice in 2022, probably late in the year.

Why I switched to primary teaching

I’m trained for both primary and secondary. At the end of last year, I applied for the jobs available in my area and my new school happened to be the one where my application was successful.

That said, I am finding primary very rewarding, with more teaching time and less desk time. I’ve also got a Writers’ Club again, which I wasn’t allowed to do last year because of COVID restrictions.

And now for the main news…

How Book Award Season went

Well, I suppose winning isn’t everything. What’s important is to enjoy your art. The friends you make along the way are the only prize worth having, and what you learn from your journey is more valuable than any sticker on your book, trophy or monetary prize. To simply be published is a huge reward in itself, and in this under-funded industry full of worthy winners, in this relatively small market, isn’t it enough to…

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NEWS: Triple award listing!

As a teacher, I am essentially a Professional Knower of Things. Growing up, my family didn’t need Alexa because I was faster and more accurate. I have several fancy bits of paper that declare that I know things.

But also, somehow, I am pretty vague. I am generally oblivious to vital gossip. I struggle to follow geographical directions. I’m hopeless with remembering what acronyms stand for, particularly at work – which is a pity, because we always seem to be dealing with PLCs, PD, APT, XCT, CRTs, SWBPS, HST, LLS, LI, THINK, GEM, OHSC, OH&S, VIT, the DHHS, SMART goals, DRSABCD, BODMAS, BS, ABCDEFG and EIEIO.

So, until chatting with another writer friend of mine on the weekend, I did not know that it’s apparently Literary Award Season at the moment. (Between frantically teaching 120 students and frantically writing the next draft of my prequel, publishing news has fallen between the chairs somewhat.)

But it is! And I was very pleased to hear these acronyms this week: ABIA and CBCA.

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I’m featured on Perfectly Imperfect Girls!

When I started The Grandest Bookshop in the World – or ‘Grandest,’ as my editorial team has taken to calling it – I could not have imagined the phenomenal success it has achieved. I was seriously entertaining the possibility that I might never be published at all, because of a rejection I’d received just a month or two earlier. But at the risk of sounding gauche: Grandest has been out for four months and it has been nominated for as many awards, has had as many print runs, and will be available in as many languages this year. At this point, if I woke up to find the Obscurosmith lounging on my balcony railing saying, ‘you’re welcome for the accolades – now give me ten years of your life,’ all this might make a bit more sense.

As excited as I am about the massive response to this book, one of the biggest honours since this juggernaut got rolling was being interviewed on Perfectly Imperfect Girls.

Perfectly Imperfect Girls is a podcast in which the hosts, Sarah and Francesca, interview inspiring Australian girls and women in a range of fields. They uncover their guests’ origin stories, find out what drives women to achieve, and ask advice from successful women.

Oh, and by the way: Sarah and Francesca are ten years old.

My episode came out this week – you can listen to it here. I talked about my origins as a writer and some of the weird stories I wrote when I was their age. The hosts are pretty darn inspiring young women themselves, so go ahead and listen to support their show, and leave an encouraging comment if you’re so inclined. Let’s hope to hear many more episodes from Sarah and Francesca as their show grows!

Favourite Australian Book Awards!

Readers, I need you!

Fabulous things continue to happen with The Grandest Bookshop in the World – I don’t know how much I can talk about them, but I’m in the running for several awards and I’m currently discussing the particulars of the audiobook with my publishers. Meanwhile, I am one week away from submitting The Weirdest Market in the World for the first round of revisions, second-guessing everything (including the title), and trying to remember how to brain for make bigly good wordings.

However, one thing I definitely can share with you right now is that I have been longlisted for the Favourite Australian Book Awards by Booktopia! This is a people’s choice award for Australia’s favourite book of 2020 – so unfortunately, you Rest-of-the-Worldians can’t vote. But anyway, by voting, you could win a $100 book voucher and my massive gratitude – you just have to enter your email address to be included in the draw. Vote for The Grandest Bookshop in the World here!

Even better, you don’t have to choose between me and anyone else! In Round 1, you can cast multiple votes – so if you spot another book from last year that you really loved, you can tick the box for that one too. Just make sure you only click ‘submit’ once.

Votes close this Friday (the 22nd of January). I’ll post another update if I make it to Round 2!

If you voted for my book, then this giant lollipop is for you!

Christmas with the Victorian Victorians (or, Adventures in Trove)

Researching The Grandest Bookshop in the World took a long time, but it was not as difficult as you might think. The Coles were prolific writers, especially Mr Cole, and photography was getting better throughout the life of the Book Arcade. In contrast to the rather serious studio portraits of Mr Cole in his forties, the pictures of the family in the 1910s are more relaxed and spontaneous. We see grown-up Pearl, Vally and their siblings smiling in photos at Earlsbrae Hall (Cole’s home in retirement, after he was widowed). Photography, in this period, was comparatively cheap and easy – luckily for me.

Aren’t they cute?

For Grandest Bookshop, I had access to six books: the Turnley biography of EW Cole, the Williams biography of EW Cole, Cole’s Funny Picture Book No. 1, Cole’s Funny Picture Book No. 2, Cole’s Intellect Sharpener, and Pearl Cole’s ‘Novelty Evenings.’ I also had election records from Vally’s short and unremarkable foray into politics, family photos, Arcade photos, diaries and letters (which I didn’t even really need), Cole’s essays and pamphlets, online ancestry records, living relatives, Museum artefacts, Howey Place, and a plethora of articles from both now and then.

For Weirdest Market, I have a few pages from two books, a handful of sketches, one page of WT Pyke’s writing, a map, and Trove. Contributing to this dearth of material are a couple of factors:

  • It’s set longer ago; photography wasn’t as good or easy in the early 1870s, and there’s been more time for resources to get lost or damaged.
  • Mandatory, secular, free education was only passed in 1872. A good chunk of the people who actually frequented Paddy’s Market in 1871, when the prequel is set – and even beyond that, in its carnival heyday of the 1890s – probably couldn’t read or write. Paddy’s Market was seen as ‘a market for the lower orders,’ and the literate rich preferred to avoid it. The few accounts surviving of the place are deeply steeped in classism and racism – Little Bourke Street’s Chinatown being only a block away.
  • Bloody flippin’ bloody stupid bloody COVID. I haven’t been able to get into the State Library this year – in fact, my first proper visit (by appointment, no less!) will be next week. Six weeks before my deadline. A week and a half before the end of the year. Not an ideal situation!

So anyway, I’m heavily relying on Trove for this one. Fortunately, I’ve been able to dig up a few vital bits and pieces that have shaped Paddy’s Market as it appears in my book.

Newspaper cartoon/sketch of the market from 1867

Trove is a comprehensive free digital archive from the National Library of Australia. You can access all sorts of stuff there, but I’ve been using the digitised newspapers. These have taught me so much about Paddy’s Market, particularly the ones that complain about how rough, nasty and smelly it was. But researching with Trove is not a piece of cake:

– You have to fiddle around in advanced settings to use the ‘specific phrase’ function properly. Just chucking double quotation marks around them doesn’t actually work.
– Results automatically sort by relevance – except that they don’t. Sorting by date is my preferred method.
– The newspaper pages themselves are images of text. The searchable text appears in a panel on the left – but the image has been ‘read’ by an image-recognition AI. This AI does a pretty good job, most of the time. But occasionally its guesses about the rather small, smudgy letters it is looking at are way off. It mixes up characters like c, e and o; n, m and u; 1, I, ! and l; confuses S for $ and B; and so on. A word like purchasers might be rendered purohascra. Consumptive-looking might become ooasumptive-laokiBg. In extreme cases, I have finished my work will become X UAVC I1HIBHBU lily woia. This can make it hard to both interpret the text, and to find articles in the first place.

On the other hand:

+ Trove gives you access to primary sources you might not be able to get elsewhere. From the comfort of my cabin, I can find out what a market 150 years ago smelled like to the people who were there. I can only imagine the kerfuffle of trying to find the physical copies.
+ You can narrow down your search to really specific times and places. I’ve used a paper from the same day as one in my book to find out what jobs were being advertised for boys over 10 (the legal working age at the time).
+ Like a Google search result, it shows you a few lines from the article, so it’s easy to skim through results without having to click on useless ones.
+ It’s great for discovering the kinds of language people used. When I searched ‘as mad as a’ to see if people in the 1870s would have said ‘box of frogs,’ ‘cut snake’ or ‘wet hen,’ I found that these phrases only appeared in the mid-20th century. People in the 1870s said ‘hatter’ or ‘March hare’ – which isn’t a reference to Alice in Wonderland (it’s the other way around; the book references the expressions).

While I was searching Trove for descriptions of Paddy’s Market, I found some interesting descriptions of Christmas in Melbourne in the late 1800s. The Victorians (era) were still getting used to being Victorians (living in Victoria), and not Britons. They write about living in and loving Australia in a rather self-conscious way, as if they know they should say England is the bestest best country ever and Australia is a crappy alien wasteland… but don’t really want to, because Christmas in summer is actually pretty nice. Here’s one from The Herald, Friday the 24th of December, 1869:

Christmas has come upon us — not ice-bound Christmas, with hoar-frost wrinkling its looks; not with nipping piercing wind, that makes it necessary to pile on the Yule logs — but Christmas crowned with fruit and flowers; Christmas of sunshine and bright skies, the very antithesis of the Christmas of our youthful days. We may miss the carols and waits [street musicians], the frosted panes, the snow-covered ground, the mistletoe. The Christ-baum [pine tree] is not indigenous to Australian soil, and Santa Claus is not yet acclimatised.
Despite of these drawbacks, it will be a merry time. Our ferns will do good service instead of holly. Presents will delight Australians, young and old, without the necessity of hanging stockings outside bedroom doors. Happy families will enjoy the merriments of the season, and will think with affection of friends and relations in distant climes.
To-night in Melbourne there will be a foretaste of the coming morrow. The shops will sport their leafy decorations, and, brilliantly bright, will put forth a tempting array of fares to tempt the moving crowd that throng the streets. Paddy’s Market is indeed alive. Piles of luscious fruit meet the eyes, and fish, flesh and fowl are seen on every side. Pelions [mountains] of vegetables are there in all their freshness, seeming to beseech purchasers as they pass, and Cheap Jack will offer, with stentorian [powerful] lungs, all sorts of presents…’

It goes on to describe various amusements in different Melbourne attractions, suburbs and towns: cricket matches, picnics, pantomimes, parades and so forth. It also describes the train and steamer ferry routes around Victoria during the Christmas season, and the reduced prices of the tickets – but states that ‘no third-class tickets will be issued.’

Here’s another one that particularly struck me from the Melbourne Punch in 1867. I’ve cut it down a bit for length.

Mr. Villiam Vilkins (recently arrived from Shoe-lane, London).—This gentleman is “blowed if this ‘ere haint rum veather for Chrismas. No hice, no ‘olly, no Smiffel Cattle Show, no nothink.” Mr. V. V. is further of opinion “that Christmas in Horsetraley is reglar humbug and no mistake.”
Miss Cecilia Scraggs wonders why the Acclimatisation Society have not imported mistletoe, as it is the most correct thing for a ballroom at this interesting season of the year. In her pa’s house at home, a bunch of it always graced the festive hall, but here nobody appears to understand anything about the delightful old plant.
Mr. Phunnyman is inclined for the gay and festive. At home he ate his ducks at Christmas, here he wears them [‘duck’ is a kind of linen fabric]. Mistletoe may be missed by the misses, but he never thought much about it; not that he believes that the ladies care for it, as in England they all wished it to be hung… As for burning the yule log, a bush fire beats that hollow… And lastly, he would seriously impress upon all persons hampered with hampers of game, superfluous bags of oysters, duplicate Murray cod, or other such like trifles, to forward same to him without delay, carriage paid. Address, office of this paper.’

In case it’s not clear, the author of this article is engaging in the proud tradition of mocking ‘whingeing Poms.’ ‘Villiam Vilkins’ and ‘Cecilia Scraggs’ are caricatures, and ‘Mr Phunnyman’ is basically saying that if anyone doesn’t want their Australian Christmas (with all its delicious fresh food), he’ll happily enjoy it for them. It’s strange that 150 years later, we still have to defend our ‘upside-down’ Christmas against other people’s ideas of what’s proper for this time of year – although these days, the cultural imperialism comes from America rather than Britain.

This year, though, I’m just grateful that the year is over and COVID is basically behind us. I, for one, will enjoy our Christmas of sunshine and bright skies.

Unsolved mysteries from my research

Last time, I told you about some surprising facts I’ve learned while researching Cole’s Book Arcade and Paddy’s Market in Melbourne in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Today, we’re going to look at the unsolved mysteries!

The mysterious inscription
In the State Library, there’s a wonderful collection of photos from Cole’s Book Arcade. You can access it online here. But what the online copy might not show you is that three of the pictures have, written in pencil in the margins, the words: ZIGGY: NO.

I’ve not found one reference to a Ziggy in any of the Cole family’s books or letters; not in the Turnley biography; nor in the Broinowski biography. I do have a theory, though. The inscription appears on photos of rooms which seem to have a lot of delicate equipment, like the Photography Studio and the Laboratory (which I think might be part of the Perfumery). I reckon, therefore, that Ziggy is some kind of chaotic pet who might be at risk of upsetting the equipment. Based on what I know of the Coles and their pets – particularly Mr Cole – Ziggy would be most likely a dog or a monkey. I think it’s written in the album as a kind of family in-joke about the panic and chaos of trying to deal with Ziggy.

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Surprising facts discovered in my research

When I started writing, I thought the best thing about it was that you could make up anything you liked.

But it turns out that what I like is taking bits of the truth and arranging them in new ways. I’ve actually been doing this for about ten years, way back when the concept of infrasound inspired my seventeen-year-old brain with The Glass Street Ghost. I take an interesting bit of truth, and I decorate it with fibs to make it entertaining, and somewhere in there, you might find the theme – that is, the reason why I thought the bit of truth was interesting in the first place.

Today’s post is dedicated to a collection of interesting bits of truth I’ve discovered while researching The Grandest Bookshop in the World and its prequel (which I’m writing now). It was also going to be dedicated to a couple of interesting bits of mystery – because while the nineteenth century is not a long time ago in the scheme of human history, it’s long enough ago for things to get lost – but it ended up being so long that I’ve split the post in two, so check back in a fortnight for those.

The woman with electric hands
In the 1890s, Madam Zinga Lee was one of Melbourne’s many fortune tellers. Her real name was Annie – but she had many aliases. A circus runaway, she married a showman, Frank Cartwright, when she was in her teens, before turning to the carnie life as a fortune teller.
The Victorians, as I’ve no doubt mentioned, were folk of dramatic contrasts. A cultural fascination with ghosts, magic and fortune-telling existed alongside and in conflict with a rather serious attitude to religion and an insatiable scientific curiosity. At one point, fortune telling was actually made a crime – which may have been why Madam Zinga called herself ‘the old original phrenologist and character reader’ rather than a fortune teller.

I believe Annie is the one on the left, but check my source below to see some more, better pictures.

Frank, the husband, isn’t pictured here, but the electric hands were his idea. Electricity was still relatively new to the public (although my old pal Mr Cole was well up to speed on its many uses), so Frank and Annie rigged up a little trick to enhance ‘Madam Zinga’s’ mystique. By running a wire up her sleeve, Annie was able to give her customers a mild electric shock when she touched them. I have to wonder how many people actually believed she was magical, and how many were entertained by trying to figure out how the trick was done.

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NEWS: Four year anniversary! Plus, podcasts!

Can you believe this blog has been up for FOUR YEARS?

It’s survived a Master’s degree, my first year of teaching, a horrendous update to the WordPress interface, and 2020 in general. It’s survived switching from Tuesdays to Saturdays, cutting back to fortnightly posts, a whole bunch of ill-conceived comedy, and a dumb title that no one can pronounce. And over the past four years, you’ve watched me rise from an emerging writer blathering poems into the void to a debut novelist whose book makes the front window display of Dymocks in George Street.

Bloody magnificent.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to actually go there and see it, but Victoria had zero new coronavirus cases and zero new deaths for the third day in a row today, so hopefully the state borders will be lifted soon.

Anyway, it’s the first week of November, which is significant for a couple of reasons.

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Hear me read Chapter One of The Grandest Bookshop in the World!

Well, folks, The Grandest Bookshop in the World continues to go strong this week on Readings’ bestseller charts. I’m up there with Jessica Townsend and Garth Nix – both huge names in Australian children’s fantasy – which is pretty damn good for a no-name debut author during a pandemic!

Today is my favourite weather for writing: heavy, summery rain all day long. No one can whippersnip or mow their lawns, so I can open all my doors and windows to hear the running water, the currawongs’ rain songs and the frogs in next door’s dam. So, as I’m a bit behind on my word count goals, I’m going to spend all weekend working on the new book.

But fret not! I’ve updated my last post, and last night my video for Camp Quality was released. Camp Quality is a charity that gives kids facing cancer the chance to be kids again. Their services and programs are made to help children dealing with their own diagnosis, or the diagnosis of someone they love, by providing opportunities to create positive memories and change the cancer story.

I hope my book can be part of those positive memories for a family dealing with cancer out there! The Coles deal with grief and memory throughout The Grandest Bookshop in the World, so with any luck it might help someone through a tough time.

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The Grandest Bookshop in the World is… well, in the world now! I’ve been getting messages from total strangers, gorgeous reviews and great news from my publisher, Affirm Press. Here’s some of the media coverage it’s been getting lately.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Afternoons with Jacinta Parsons
Discover the strangeness of Mr Cole’s books, the inspiration for the Departments in the book, and why Vally has such an ‘unusual name.’ Start at minute 45 to catch my interview. (This one was a rush! Jacinta also really made sure people caught my name and the title, which was fantastic.)

My article in the Guardian: Cole’s Book Arcade was Melbourne’s literary funhouse, but its creator was truly inspirational
Even in a gorgeous emporium full of lollies, monkeys, music, funhouse mirrors, toys and talking birds, the best part of Cole’s Book Arcade was Cole himself. (I’m published in the Guardian! Can you believe it?!)

Mornington Peninsula magazine: Enchanting children’s tale revisits a grand chapter in our history
I grew up on the Peninsula so I’m thrilled to be featured in the MP Magazine.

Love Your Bookshop Day: The magic of bookshops
Here’s my post on the Affirm Press website about what made Cole’s Book Arcade magical, and how its spirit lives on.

Alpine Observer: Bright author launches debut novel for children
Another brilliant write-up in our Alpine Victoria newspaper! I reckon that makes me a true local.

ABC Goulburn-Murray: Breakfast with Sandra Moon
The inspiration for The Grandest Bookshop in the World, why I included magic, and some of Mr Cole’s futuristic predictions. Start at 2 hours, 50 minutes to catch my interview.

Review on Better Reading Kids: Cole’s Book Arcade comes to life!
A gorgeous review on Better Reading!

Dymocks Catalogue: Our Favourites for October – Children’s Book of the Month
‘A brilliant, whimsical book… I can’t recommend it enough.’ – Lucy, 13

Good Reading Magazine: Meet the Author!
A short and sweet Q&A with Good Reading Magazine about how the characters were inspired.