Prior to departing on a trip home to Australia to visit family, I fell into the web (or should I say tapestry), of Indie author, Prue Batten. Prue resides on a farm in eastern Tasmania with her husband. She writes historical fiction and fantasy. In a comment on Amazon regarding one of Prue's novels, a fan suggested that Prue could make her own version of the phone book or a dictionary and make it intensely readable. After reading Prue's historical fantasy novel, The Stumpwork Robe, I have to agree. Prue is to storytelling what chocolate is to truffles. At first I was taken in by the flavor, then, as it melted onto my tongue I became captivated, and as the last remaining droplets slid down my throat I craved more. Book two in the series has been delivered to my Kindle.
Intrigued by the quality, freshness and allure of the written word that flows onto the pages of so many of the writers residing in Tasmania, I contacted Prue Batten to see if she could spread some light on this small heart-shaped state of Australia and its abundance of creativity. I want to know how, and if, she feels the east coast of Tasmania influences her writing.
"Definitely. There are many beautiful places in the world but this area has the key to my soul. I'm not a city person, never have been. Café culture and crowds make me uncomfortable. Put me in the outdoors and I am happy. Put me by the sea or on the sea and I am content and when I'm content, I can write. When I am on the east coast, I can see over the top of the computer and beyond a bed of agapanthus (blue flowerheads in summer, green strappy leaves in winter), to a view of the bay, a headland beyond that and then my heart place, Maria Island."
I asked Prue where most of her creating takes place?
This is a little embarrassing although I believe Lord Archer was reported doing the same thing. My thinking is done in the bath! At night. Then I go to bed and often write until the wee small hours.
Prue chose to go the independent publishing route and it has served her well. Her books have a strong following in the UK, where her list has ranked unbroken in Amazon's Top 100 in various categories. Some for up to two years. Her website is attractive and easy to navigate around -- it's how I originally found her. I wondered if there is anything she would like to see change about the self-publishing/indie world.
It's an organic, ever-changing and exciting beast and I just want the mental and physical acuity to keep up. My only request would be that ACX open up to record independent Australian writers' books as soon as possible.
Being curious about education, I asked Prue if she felt her university degree (majored in history and politics) had been in anyway pertinent to her writing, and if so how?
Interesting question. On the one hand, yes. I formed a great love for medieval history at university that is the basis of my historical fiction and my fantasy novels. It also taught me to research. But on the other hand, I have always written, even in primary school. I loved it. So university or not, I suspect I would have written anyway as it was a compulsion. In terms of perfecting the art-form, I did a short creative writing course in my 50s, but one of the best teachers I had was Cornerstones' Literacy Consultancy in London. I consider everything I learned from them to be pure gold. The other "best teacher" is my editor, John Hudspith whose ability to understand the word and the method is innate.
While in Tasmania, I became lost amongst the words of another local writer: non-fiction author, James Dryburgh. Like Prue, James writes with such eloquence that I'm beginning to wonder if the Tasmanian air holds a magical element. Or perhaps the secret is hidden amongst the often wild and wicked waters that surround the coastline of this small southernmost state of Australia. Is it home to a myriad of muses? Considering the prowess and success of famed Tasmanian author, Richard Flanagan, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2014, this influx of muses would come as no surprise.
I'd heard of James Dryburgh and his book, Essays From Near and Far, many times via my godson, Richard, as he and James had attended the University of Tasmania together. A few of Richard's friends had visited my family and I in Los Angeles while they sojourned about the world after completing their degrees, but up until recently, I had never met James.
So on the evening of my arrival while a howling wind whipped around the tall Eucalyptus trees that border the edges of paddocks, and a torrential Tasmanian sideways-rain gushed from a sinister sky, I poured myself a cup of mint tea, curled up with a blanket and began reading Essays from Near and Far.
I read the first essay, The Nature of Death, three times that night and then stared out of the windows into the darkness beyond and thought a lot about death and dying. I knew of the young man James wrote about -- I remembered reading about the tragedy in online news articles. I had frantically looked for information regarding Leon after receiving a call from my sister telling me the devastating news that he had gone missing during a kayaking trip in the U.S. My godson often spoke of Leon when he recounted stories about his uni-buddies and their many back packing trips together. I could only imagine the many heavy hearts that had broken around the world when the sad news finally came that Leon's body had been found. James and Leon grew up together.
There is a gentle beauty that flows onto the pages of James' essays. His words and phrases remind me of brushstrokes that I've seen on my favorite paintings that hang in museums and art galleries around the world. By the time I had finished consecutively reading The Nature of Death for the third time, the image of Van Gogh's, Starry Night, lingered in my mind. The prose brought images of turbulence juxtaposed with serenity. I wanted to meet this young man, who, through his compassionate imagery, had caused tears to pool in my eyes and then splash on to the final words of his story.
On a cold Sunday morning I sat in a hip café in North Hobart called, Room For a Pony, and waited for James to arrive. I watched as a tall and fit young man glided his bicycle into the parking lot, took of his helmet, and strode into the café carrying his backpack. That recognition one senses when waiting to meet someone for the first time stepped forward. James and I said hello and hugged -- the travelers greeting. I asked if he would rather sit inside or out. He looked at me and grinned. "It's a bit cold outside," he said. "Thank God," I thought to myself -- Hobart winters can be brutal. And right now it's autumn.
We ordered coffee.
James is tall with eyes that mirror the cerulean waters off the coast of Central America. They hold sincerity, kindness, and warmth. He speaks with words filled with compassion, and his eyes sparkle when he speaks of the people of El Salvador who he, and his wife, Anna, befriended during their time in the small Central American country and continue to support with fundraising efforts supported by local on-line paper, Tasmanian Times and founder/publisher/editor, Lindsay Tuffin.
James and I conversed about the significance of nightly dreams, but mostly of the suppression and oppression of the people of El Salvador: of the gangs and their history. And of things closer to home -- his 18-month-old son, Santiago, and the bliss of parenthood. The hunger to write and constant use of journals to jot down notes and ideas. We move on to climate change, education, social justice and refugees. James speaks as he writes: with kind and educated rhetoric. He is a compassionate communicator.
Born in Scotland, James relocated to Tasmania, Australia with his family at the age of six. He studied at the University of Tasmania and the University of Sterling, Scotland. Because of his unique ability to write so articulately and with passion, I would have thought he had majored in creative writing or perhaps journalism. However, when I asked James about his education this was his response.
No, I studied geography and biology, and then did a Masters in environmental planning. When you're 16 or 17 years of age you really don't have a clue what to study. I loved nature and the outdoors and thought I'd be learning about all things related to the environment, the wonder of the natural world. But it was more about de-constructing and categorizing it. In retrospect, if I had a chance to do it all over, maybe I would choose journalism.
With a twinkle in his eyes and a childlike grin, James continues. "Anna's twenty-two weeks pregnant!" I congratulate him. He's glowing like the stars that shine in the Tasmanian night sky -- brilliant and bright. Before we say goodbye, I ask him to sign copies of his books for me.
I step out of the warmth of the coffee shop and into the chill of a Tasmanian Sunday morning feeling grateful for writers such as James. Non-fiction writers who remind us of why we are here and that we can all do something to make a positive change in this crazy world. And for the poetic prose of fictional writer, Prue Batten, who leads us on journeys of biographical discoveries and fantastical adventures.
Now, if I could just pluck up my courage and jump into the icy waters off the coast of Tasmania. I need to find my muse and remind her that it's time to head back to the other side of the Pacific. "Will we return?" she'd ask. "Of course," I'd answer, "We always do."