In a deep, dark forest

Last year I had the privilege of being 'games mentor' in the development of this immersive children's theatre project. Probably my favourite small freelance ever. I'm thinking of getting business cards made up. In a Deep, Dark Forest was inspired by the German board game Waldschattenspiel, which I played with co-creators Roslyn Oades and Simon Bedford in a kitchenette at the Abbotsford Convent one spring afternoon. We had to wait for a slightly ruffled writer to finish making his tea so we could turn off the lights and lock the door. It was nice and dark in there. In Waldschattenspiel, a tea light is moved around a miniature forest, to try to find the hiding children. It's a simple but exquisitely moody little game. Roslyn and Simon have made it life-size and added a stronger narrative and more interesting challenges. In a Deep, Dark Forest incorporates a gently green fairy tale (if they do their job well, the children get to save the trees and animals), lots of scary dark, and a cool sequence of games and puzzles. These are a few of my favourite things. And I can safely say, having participated in a trial run, that it's as much fearful fun for adults as it is for kids. Coming to a woods near you...

Trees I've Loved

A couple of years ago ABC RN's Gretchen Miller launched a project seeking short submissions from listeners across the country on the theme 'trees I've loved, trees I've lost'. She got an enormous and heartfelt response. Tales of tree-cutters, and tree houses. Lone trees and black forests. Immigrants who maintained connection to their first home through a silent, living sentinel in their new backyard. Stories of abundance and of thirst. With 360documentaries Gretchen put together a radio show featuring 40 of these pieces and then last year Harper Collins published In Their Branches compiling 100. It's a dreamy little book full of micro-stories - perfect for dipping - and it was accompanied by an equally dreamy CD of old and new music that speaks of trees. I was in the midst of a three-year creative block when Gretchen's call for submissions came. A couple of hundred words was all I was good for. Below is the audio of my tiny piece about a beloved red gum standing solid through drought. It wasn't consciously allegoric but there you go. If you love trees, if you've lost them, I can so highly recommend this gorgeous little anthology.

Grrrrrr for Global Tiger Day

This is a short post I wrote for the A&U blog for Global Tiger Day...

Once I was king of the scarey [sic], towering, tangled green jungle where tigers are big and the way they should be. I growled and roared and snarled and ground my teeth and frightened all the other animals

Robert Vavra, 1968

So reminisces the tiny tiger with the soulful eyes that cannot scare any one, or any thing, anymore. A great wind has blown through the jungle and swept all the creatures and plants far, far away to a place where everything is inverted. Mushrooms tower, the birds are Jurassic, and the tiger has been reduced to the size of your index finger. It’s the ‘60s, so he has also developed a fetish for flowers.

I was captivated by this book as a child. Fleur Cowles’s paintings are gorgeous but most thrilling of course was the miniature tiger. In one painting it balances upon a blade of grass. I longed to hold and stroke it. Terrors are tamed in picture books and Tiger Flower was intended as a parable of peace – a place where tigers have been shrunk is devoid of terror, right?

My fixation with tigers started with my father. He considered it part of his job to scare us. The grimmest of Grimm. Erratic driving; a sometimes maniacal laugh. He took me to horror movies when I was still in primary school – The Shining, The Thing, The Unseen. I asked friends along but they never came a second time, even with the barbecued pork in Chinatown thrown in. And tigers. He took us regularly to the zoo and we would watch them together. It was something we shared – the mortal terror, but also: wonderment, reverence, and a sort of wordless remorse.

When I was researching Leap, I once again made regular visits to the tigers at Melbourne Zoo to try to embody my character Elise who is mourning her dead daughter. Her daughter was besotted with tigers so when Elise is with the animals she is communing with Jennifer, but Elise also identifies with the tigers’ captivity, feeling imprisoned herself by grief. In a more obscure way, I think Elise is drawn to the beauty and ferocity of the tigers, the handle they seem to have on life and death. The tigers are teaching her something.

I was taken back to earlier visits with my father as I listened in to conversations between parents and their offspring.  I was struck this time around by the homogeny of the human response to the predators. Even with those solid barriers in place, most of us approach with a light tread and slightly hushed voices, bringing our awe and our primal fear – try making eye contact with a caged tiger and not feeling those barriers melt away. Many (myself included) display a sort of condescending affection towards the cats but beneath this, and you hear it quietly expressed, lurks a sorrow with nowhere good to go. ‘Oh, it’s so sad,’ the mother mutters to her offspring. ‘That tiger should be chasing deer.’ I’m sure my father said the same thing.

In the past century alone the number of tigers in the wild has been more than decimated, through poaching and loss of habitat mostly. Three subspecies have become extinct and the remaining six are critically endangered. There are now more tigers in cages than in the jungle and a very real possibility there will be none left out there in a short few decades. I find it inconceivable that this could have happened so silently and swiftly. Talk about an ambush.

indrah at Melbourne zoo

indrah at Melbourne zoo

I still have Robert Vavra's gorgeous book but it reads less like flower power this half-century later than a fable of a place where humans have grown way too big, causing everything else to shrink. Look, Mr Tiger, you’re less than a tenth your size!

But today is Global Tiger Day, an opportunity to celebrate these beautiful terrors and give thanks to the excellent humans who are working tirelessly to stop poaching and the trade in parts, and to conserve the patches of tangled green jungle we have left and rebuild vital corridors between them. Because tigers are an umbrella species, their conservation protects hundreds of other species and the biodiversity of our planet.

King of the jungle, you scare us half to death; I hope you always will.

10% of royalties from Leap go to support tiger conservation. You can donate here to the WWF Save the Tiger campaign

Parlour games for Leap

Brother Alec is a most excellent cafe on High Street, Thornbury. The staff are warm and welcoming and serve up delicious house-baked things. Even the prices are friendly. And because it's only a few blocks from Joe's share-house in Leap, and slightly resembles one of his workplaces, co-owner Malia has agreed to sell the book over the counter with the coffee.

malia at brother alec

malia at brother alec

Leap in situ at Brother Alec makes me strangely happy. In part, it feeds my delusion that Joe is still just up the road – if only on paper, surrounded by mugs. But I also like the idea that local readers will be familiar with the settings in the novel, and so I set up the Brother Alec challenge – the first customer to find and photograph Joe's laundromat wins a prize.

I've always been one for quests, games and any breed of bonus. I was the girl by the rotary phone on Friday mornings trying to win obscure albums gratis EG; most were not to my taste but I listened gratefully. In 1992 I scored the hamper in a Community Aid Abroad raffle – that kasundi tasted so good for costing me nothing. Falling in love involved Backgammon and complicated stakes, leading to a house, a dog and two kids. And a few years ago I coaxed those living, breathing prizes around an English village using a self-guided treasure trail; racing to be first to find the brass knocker in the shape of a buck on the ancient basement door; entering our answers online in the vain hope we'd strike it big. If life is a game of bingo you might as well order nice snacks and play it. Legs eleven.

So, in the assumption there are others out there like me, I am throwing the gauntlet down again here:

The first person to stick a picture of themselves at Joe's bridge on my FB page will win a copy of Parlour Games for Modern Families (in Chinese or Italian if you want) and a batch of gingernuts to go with the games. I can package and post, just like your granny, or meet you at Brother Alec with the goods.



CLUE: If you start at the end, you're close. Very close.

NEWS FLASH, 13 July: KR of Northcote took home the goods. 'The end' was the Terminus Hotel on Queens Parade, Clifton Hill.

Five books of influence, and a few more

Culture Street asked me to select five books of influence. One of those shoe-horning exercises best completed on top of the doona on a Saturday afternoon, besocked for smoother leverage, with a laptop and White Rabbit (beer not magical friend). There are of course so many books I had to leave out but here are the ones I chose that day, all of which I feel deeply for: Myfanwy Jones selects Five Books of Influence

And here are another five beauties that were particularly useful while writing Leap:

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

We all know what a fantastic novel this is. The central character Tilly is smart, funny, beguiling, complex, and was one of the inspirations for my main man Joe. The Dressmaker is usually referred to as a novel of revenge but I somehow read it as a story about making good (fine line?) and the art of displacement - one of the central themes in Leap. Can't wait to see Kate Winslet trying on Tilly.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Just so brilliant on motive in action and the long haul of guilt. 

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Not only because of the tiger and fine writing but because the main character constructs such an elaborate, exquisite fantasy to avoid the pain of loss.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Truly LOL funny while also being incisive about family in all its oddity, beauty and dysfunction. I drew heavily on this book to construct Lena.

Judas Child by Carol O'Connell

Carol (with whom I share a birthday, incidentally) is an excellent crime writer. I read this about ten years ago when reclining on a beach somewhere and was appropriately thrilled by her twisty twist. Reread it while writing Leap to try to, well, copy, but you're not going to find any spoilers here.

Leap launch

The launch of Leap was a flippin' beautiful night. We sent the stripy little book on its way at the School of Clay & Art (where my sister Kate has a studio) with the combustion fire blazing and enough wine to pacify Brunswick. 150-odd people turned up to eat lentil soup, tiger salad and tiger cakes. Rosalie Ham spoke eloquently and generously about the novel and Noah Earp sang to us. And, in an exciting last-minute development, traceurs Harley Durst and Mike Snow came along to do a 'luv job', parting the crowd to do some actual leaping. It couldn't have been a happier birthday for the book - grazie mille!