Writerly gossip and a book discovery

This morning, I’m wondering when the box of books I sent home to myself will ever get here!  I collected a lot of books at the conference, of course, but since I was limited to that single suitcase and backpack, there was no room to carry books with me.   Two of those books are signed editions of the latest from Anna Campbell, who has a very sweet face and professorial knowledge of her period that belies her very dark and sexy Regency historicals, and Kelly Hunter (who is tall and willowy and gorgeous–also very witty and the new president of the RWofAustralia.   I hadn’t met either of them in person before, and it was a genuine pleasure to spend time with them.

I also spent time with the exceedingly intelligent and warm Stephanie Laurens, who kindly gave Jo and I a tour of her world (which is where we saw kangaroos for the first time) and her lovely, lovely home (the house that romance built!), which you can see photos of here.  It’s also meant to be on television, but I don’t have those details. We’ve all read her novels of course.  No introduction necessary to her passionate and single-minded heroes.

I did a great deal of reading, of course, on the many plane journeys.  Most of them blur now–there was a book of essays and an indifferent novel that I think I eventually left behind somewhere.  Most of the best books were mailed home (in that box that WILL be arriving soon).   But on the way out of Sydney, ambling through the small number of shops available to browse in my gate area, I found a winner:

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson, is a big, juicy novel about three young women who go to India in 1928.  There is trouble brewing, and the world is changing, and the way the three of them find their fortunes, discover love and trouble and eventually come to know who they are makes a compelling read.   I was going to post a link to the book in the US, but it doesn’t appear to have been published here (yet?), although it is a popular title in both the UK and Australia (where it was named a Great Read by Women’s Weekly).  Even if you don’t ordinarily go for India, or this time period, this is a fast, consuming read.   The narrative is flavorful, but also swift and uncluttered–you won’t find long, embroidered passages of description of clothes or scenery or poverty.  It’s like boarding a well-appointed pontoon on a big river–the view is rich and uncluttered and accessible and full of the beauty and danger and reward of such a journey.  The vision of a young girl dancing with “arms like saplings” lingers with me, and a taste of color and a world that is about to be swept away.  It was one of my favorite books this whole year and now I must find the author’s other work.

What is one of your favorite books this year?

Dusk at Ylarra

This became very long.  Sometimes, a musing requires more time.  I hope you’ll enjoy walking with me through the outback.

Since my return from Oz, the memory images that rise most insistently are about the days at Ylarra.    When I finally emptied my suitcase, the bottom was covered with a fine layer of red dust, and my black gloves and hiking boots are still covered with it.   The red dust of the outback, so fine and powdery and soft.  Astonishingly red, and I am a person used to red rocks and red landscapes and red earth.  I obsessed about the why until I think I drove poor Jo crazy–was it powdered sandstone? What made it so fine?  Until finally the cameldriver explained that it is so red because of oxidization. The red is rust.

It is important, when writing a blog like this, to be honest.   The final day we were in Ylarra, I wanted out desperately, but I wasn’t sure why.  The Outback freaked me out a little, that much is real, and there are good reasons for that.  It also took my breath away.

But I think that last day what I wanted to escape was teh claustrophobic astmosphere of the Ayer’s Rock Resort.  It’s an odd place, really, a whole little settlement that exists entirely to serve those who wish to visit Uluru.  Three hotels of descending grades, including a campsite and youth hostel.  Hideously expensive, as resorts are–even our very humble but servicable room was more than $200 AUD.   Although it’s hard to escape the industry of tourism while touring, I do make a genuine effort to do so, and it was just impossible here.   There is nothing there but the rocks (Katja is the other one, which I didn’t visit), the hotels, fleets of tour busses and an army of kids from around the world staffing the desks and bars and maid service.

There was excellent people watching available–Japanese boy rockers carefully coifed and costumed, weary backpackers from Europe and the US; families from everywhere, literally.   The food was all right, and one could choose to barbeque emu or kangaroo or croc, but I was weary of so much meat and tried to have some vegetarian days there.  But really–it was as gaudily touristy in its way as Times Square.

And yet… what comes back to me now is none of that.  I remember walking the first night we arrived through the big field between our hotel and the little camp grocery.   The air was quiet and still and cool as the sun started to get low, turning the sky that soft purple of evening.   Beneath our feet was the powdery red sand and all those exotic things growing, so much more vegetation than I expected, and in ways, very like the landscapes I know in southern Colorado.   Tough plants adapted to the arid lands–trees with all their networks below the earth, and tiny leaves on slender stalks.  Low scrubby bushes and needlely grasses.

And yet, so very different, too.  Strange leaves and strange patterns and harsh beauty.   At sunset, the desert awakes, and you could feel those rustlings.  A cluster of people topped the viewpoint, cameras in hand to try to catch the sunset, everyone longing for a more personal experience–and yet, there we all were, all of us come a very long way to stand there and have the honor of looking at the iconic Uluru.

I think, too, of the dawn ride on camels.  The camels themselves lined up in the dark, the predawn air still very cold.  The cameldriver herself, lean and tough and scrappy, with her cropped hair and good boots.  The thrill of riding up so high above the desert and seeing it so clearly–and safely away from anything scary that might crawl or leap or slither across an unsuspecting foot.  Again, I was enveloped by the deceptive quiet, the depth of time and history, the vastness spreading out all around.

That red earth.  So much of it.

When we returned to the stables that morning, to eat beer bread and vegemite and drink strong tea, I asked the woman for her email address so I might interview her for something.   She intrigued me.  How do you come to be leading camels through the desert?  How much do you love them?  A lot.

That day was overcast and threatening rain all day, so when I arrived to walk around the base of Uluru, it was possible to leave the tourists behind within just a couple of kilometers, and so I had it to myself.  Me and the rock and the desert and the signs warning tourists not to take photos.  Which I respected, as I respected their strong desire that no one climb the rock. Ever.  Though people still do.

A word on this: do not go to Uluru and climb it. I’m saying that very directly because I couldn’t tell, before I left, what was expected or allowed or even legal.   I like climbing things, and it would have been a big delight for me to climb this very well-known rock and see the world from there.   Before I left, I read that the climb was no longer open, so I put it out of my mind.

When I arrived, the tourist office had a sign that said, “The climb is open.”  And I said, “wait a minute. You can climb up there?”  She–being about 23–looked over my middle aged self and said, “well, you can, depending on your fitness.”  So I thought it would be cool and sort of planned on it.

But it turned out that the original inhabitants, the local natives or aborigines, do NOT WANT YOU TO CLIMB THE ROCK.  And as it is sacred to them and not to me, it’s a perfectly obvious thing to respect.  Catholics wouldn’t want people to go scale Notre Dame just to say they did.

I walked around the base, which is abound six miles, and that is worth doing.  A long, solitary, peaceful walk in beautiful country.  Probably not enjoyable in high summer, but in late winter, with plenty of water, it was fantastic, one of the great walks I’ve done.

Not, I will add, particularly holy.  Or rather, I suppose, no more than any other long and meditative walk.  The rock is beautiful and ancient and you do want to stop and admire it, and the sky and the clouds going over (our cameldriver spoke of how incredible it was in the rain, so I prayed for rain–I was prepared for it).   I did commune with my own spirituality.  I had (another) good cry over Leo, because he came walking with me.  I thought of the women who had their sacred rituals there and sometimes I made up stories about the formations–there were a lot that looked like screaming mouths, complete with teeth, a slightly disturbing that could get a little eerie after awhile.   What were they screaming?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Halfway around, the sun came out and I passed a pair of men who climbed up on the rock from the other side.  Tsk, tsk.  By then, I was fully into my walking meditation and my musings will stay private, though I will say the colors of red and sage and blue sky are powerfully nourishing.  I understood this landscape, even if it is a half a world from my own.  It nourished me.

Jo went to the other rocks that afternoon and evening.  I chose to stay back and nap and rest, and so at dinner, I took my camera like all the others and went to the top of the bluff overlooking both Uluru and Katja, and waited for the dusk to fall.   And again, there were a lot of us longing for our own private show, but we shared and respectfully didn’t speak much.   The red earth grew redder.  The clouds glowed.  And the ancient, ancient rock was washed tenderly by winter sun, setting into dusk.  And it was very fine.   As I walked back on that soft, soft earth, I shot a dozen pictures of a single tree trunk, and felt drunk on the colors of the desert and that evening, I sat on the top bunk of my little room and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, about death and travel and writing and life.

As I sort through all this, I realize that the outback frightened me a little because it is so very, very vast and ancient and overwhelming on so many levels.  I don’t know how to hold it all in my mind all at once, and I don’t know how to survive in that landscape.  (Which might not matter to you, but the girl scout in the basement always needs that information to feel safe–if we got left out here overnight, what would we need to do?).

But I also see that it moved me.  Powerfully.  It also occurs to me that there is a lot more out there to explore, that it is a vast, vast place and I can visit some other entry point that is not The Times Square of The Outback.   I don’t have to hold it all in my mind at once, and in fact, that’s the opposite of what one can ever do–with a landscape or a novel or a life.

Instead, I hold the dusk of a single evening in all of time, shining on a tree trunk, lighting the clouds.  I hold a walk one afternoon around the perimeter of a rock that will outlast all of us.  I hold the delight of a camel ride and the stillness of the desert filling me, touching me, giving me rest.

Have you visited a place that unsettled you?

Australian photo tour now up on Flickr

Internet access–and time–became severely limited the final week of our long, insanely wonderful Aussie tour.   Since last Sunday, I have been on six flights, covering thousands of kilometers, visited the Outback, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, and Sydney, and now I’m typing this from my own laptop while I await Flickr to upload the photos I’ve spent the day organizing and labeling.   It is the perfect task for a jet-lagged brain, and I’ve found that I will never get it done if I don’t do it right away. 

Uploading is finished.  I’ll be doing some more organizing and shuffling over the next day or two, but you can get a good look at the photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/60255232@N00/sets/72157606862035227/

I have many thoughts to organize into categories for you. Australia turned out to be so much more than I expected, and so astonishing, and so nourishing.  I feel like the girls in the basement have been on a wild shopping binge–each one rushing out every day to gather up all the things she most likes from the environment we found ourselves in, grabbing colors or culture or accents or food or characters according to her job.  Every night, they all dumped their stuff in the Room of Creativity, collapsed overnight, the rushed out again at daybreak.   All those bags and boxes and observations are piled up in a messy tangle in the middle of the floor and it’s going to take a little time to get them all sorted.  

A couple of things I don’t want to forget, raw material from the past few days:

The Great Barrier reef knocked my eyes out of my head.  Especially from the air.  You think you know about something, and then you see it for real, from an angle you never expected, and entire universes open up.  

I learned so much 18th century history!  Again, things you sort of think you know, and there is so much more to them.

I had a very intense reaction to the Outback.  I think I expected to like it, and instead, it kind of freaked me out.  More on that as I sort it out.

In regard to those questions I posed at the beginning of the trip: many intriguing conclusions.  The first one is:  Australia is not America or Britain or Scotland or New Zealand or any other place.  It is its own separate self, very unlike anywhere I’ve been.   There is, undeniably, a strong British influence (though the food is better), but lots of other things, too.   More on that, too, as I sort it out.

THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS will be out in an Australian edition in February, so I hope you Australians will look for it on your shores.  I had dinner with my publisher and sales force on Friday night, and I’m excited to let you know that I’ll post cover art as soon as I have it.  I also came home to the news that Lost Recipe has now sold to Denmark.  Yay!  May there be many more.  I love the books to go around the world.

Enough for tonight.   Check back as I sort out the stuff the Girls brought back from Australia.  (Oh, I am both happy and sad to be back home!)



Heavenly day

Uluru is a place you have undoubtedly seen photos of.   That big red rock in the middle of the desert, where herds of wild camels roam through the outback, and the land isn’t even slightly barren, and our fair heroines rode a camel through the dawn.

(Only none of them will upload, so they’ll have to come later.   At last….here it is!)

It was a lark, rather foolishly expensive for what it was, a ride on a camel through the early morning, but worth every frivolous dime.  Jo and I were in the lead, on a gentle camel named Alice. Alice has very long eyelashes, which help keep the sand out of her eyes, but it really just makes them look pretty, too.  She wasn’t noisy, like Jack, who complained loudly when his people climbed on, or slightly shady, like the one right behind me who kept pretending he wanted to nuzzle but really wanted to get into my pockets.   The rocking motion, the very high view, the exotic pleasure of riding a camel! was worth every minute.

After breakfast, we headed out to the rock itself.  I walked around the base, a distance of about 11km, all told, and it took three hours because you really can’t stop yourself from pausing to shoot yet another angle of sage green against red against sky.   It was a long, quiet, meditative walk, and I’m genuinely sweaty for the first time in a month.  It was also the first time I’ve done a long walk on my own since the Avon walk, and  I realized that I missed it.  Maybe three hour solitary walks are not everyone else’s cup of tea, but the training this summer showed me that they really are mine.

Just now, it is raining, a heavenly thing in the desert, and I’m feeling quite mellow and delighted.   I’ll have a shower then nip out to see if I can find some supper.  Tomorrow we fly to Cairns, our next to the last stop.  Can I bear to leave this amazing country?


Darling little devils

One more note on Tassie: we saw the famed Tasmanian Devils.   Check out these adorable little faces:

They were waiting for lunch, which was hunks of wallabee (fur still attached) and furry little baby chickens.   Watching them eat, you suddenly understand the Walt Disney Tasmanian Devil, swirling around in that whirlwind, all flying spit and no brain to speak of.   Savage and not all that bright.   

But still.  Really cute.   And endangered, thanks to a virus that has infected 90% of the population. They’re working on keeping one section of population uninfected, and will repopulate when the infected Devils die out.   🙁

Tall, tall trees

It occurs to me that I still have not posted anything about trees.  It is well known that i have a bit of a tree fetish, given that I was raised in place where we have three varieties.  Pines, aspens, and cottonwoods.  Very nice trees, of course, but still only three.  (Okay, there are elms, too, but they are not the most sturdy of trees in such a climate.  More power lines are downed in Pueblo over tree branches felled by snowfall than you can imagine.)

Anyway, there don’t seem to be that many species of trees in most areas of Australia, either.  This is also a demanding climate.    Many of them are thin, feathery things, with water-preserving leathery leaves.   There are the lovely tree ferns of course, elegant ancient things–in the Dandenongs, I saw a line of them, all in a neat little row, as if planted by a settler’s wife to line a driveway.  In Tasmania, the guide said the aborigines there ate the center of the trees, but only very rarely, because removing the tender center kills the tree.   

Which might be three hundred years old.  Give or take a few decades.

There are wattles, too, the tree of Australia, which is coming into delicate yellow bloom through out Victoria just now.   Also a pleasant variety of trees.   In the mountains, I saw mountain ash trees that were over 250 years old and some were 30 meters high (I am sorry not to translate for you into feet, but my brain is kind of tired of the constant conversions–why haven’t we made this transition yet again? It’s really confusing to figure out temperatures, especially).   That would be around 90 feet, I think.   Very, very tall.  

But most of the trees here are forms of eucalyptus, or gum trees, and there are many varieties.   They are wonderful trees!   The trunks are so artful, some of them smooth and white, shining in the bright light.  Others mottled in a dozen shades of spotted gray and white and black.   Some of them cast off their outer bark into great piles of shredded curls and tangles, all lying in piles like kindling.  

Which is exactly what it becomes in the dreaded bush fires, which burn so fierce and hot that people really do speak the word fire in a way I’ve never heard it spoken.  With respect and a bone-deep dread.   

Looking at the forest floor, knee deep sometimes in those cast-off curls of long, thinly shredded bark, you can understand it.  How hot and fast the fire would burn.  The sap of eucalypts is prone to exploding, making it even hotter and more fierce yet.

I couldn’t stop wondering what the biological purpose of the shredding was.  It nagged me through our time in Victoria and on to Tasmania, where I found a park ranger with the answer:  those trees are shedding that kindling because it is kindling.  Because they want the fire to burn.  They can stand it.  It gets rid of the competing trees and allows the sun-loving eucalypts to grow stronger. 

Nature is a miracle. 

The other thing about these trees is the ancient hugeness of them.   There are no doubt thousands of ancient, enormous trees all over Australia, since the species can live so long, but I didn’t take pictures of all of them.  Just these two in Port Arthur, in Tassie, so you can see what I mean. 


The lull that always arrives

There always comes a day during my travels when I have a little crash, emotionally or physically, or (often) both.   Suddenly, in the midst of all my pleasures I am suddenly aware of being 8000 miles from home, from my tomatoes and my morning walk and a phone I can pick up to dial just anyone.  My mother.  My writing buddies.  The bed where I know exactly how to plump the pillows.   The coffee maker that I can fill with exactly the right amount of grounds to water and the computer(s) that are set up the way I like them, with all my bookmarks and fast connections and my big-hand keyboard.

Not to mention CR and the dogs and Athena, who must be very lonely by now, missing both her boy kitty and her woman.

Yesterday was that day for me.  We spent the night in a bland little motel near the airport in Melbourne.  Tasmania was behind us–a place I loved and want to visit and explore in much more depth–and I was feeling a little blah.  Coldish, maybe, though I refused to speak it into existence, as my mother in law used to say, long ago.   I dosed myself with Vitamin C and zinc tablets and Jo insisted there should also be brandy.     Just a little blah.  It happens.  The world doesn’t come to an end or anything.   Every traveler knows these moments appear, and one just hums another song, something happy, and tries to remember all the reasons we wanted to come here, now, in these days.

On the plane to Alice Springs, my seatmate opened a newspaper and there across the front page was the news of Hurricane Gustav, which was–yesterday morning–bearing down on New Orleans and they didn’t know what it would do.  I suddenly felt very far away and anxious, as if it was my watch and I’d looked away for a moment.

Which is silly, of course.  But instead of trying to give myself a pep talk and paste on a false grin, I looked out the window at the waves of red desert below the plane and thought of the last hurricane and how much different life was, and all those people who were lost, and the things that we all learned about government and preparedness and (another) lesson in the vulnerability and possibility of catastrophe in our cities.   I gave in, ever so slightly, to self pity, to the vaguely headachy sniffles and the weariness, and ended up sleeping nearly all the way.

In Alice Springs, I couldn’t get an outside line on my phone card, which naturally added to my wallow, but I did get on the Internet to discover that New Orleans had been evacuated, and everything was ready.  In case.

It took a good long walk, which included the sighting of Uluru on the horizon, red and astonishing, plus a good solid beer, to restore my spirits, but the grumpies disappeared as quickly as they arrived.    The vitamins and rest have done their work.

This morning, we rode camels.   More on that in the next post!

Journeying inward

I’ve crept out out of the hotel room, leaving behind my sleeping roommates, and am writing this from the lobby of the Hobart Quest Hotel.  Last night, we sought out the Lark Distillery, where we sampled the local specialties, some whiskey for the others and a taste of the pepperberry (?) liquor, which one of the guides on the hike yesterday recommended.  He gave us all a leaf to sample, sweetly peppery and pleasant (also tiny red mountain berries, which tasted like the smallest apple in the world).   I tried an alcoholic ginger beer, which didn’t taste appreciably different from the regular, and we played cards.   Rummy, for which we had three different forms of rules (imagine that! A Brit, an American, and an Australian) and listened to the Celtic band that set up.   A good time all around.  You can also play bolles on the lawn, if you’re so inclined. 

We travel to see who we are as much as to see the world.  Hiking in the dark-and-light day yesterday, I was as peaceful as it is possible to be, my feet on the trail, my pack filled with heavier clothes and water and some rations, just in case.  A knowledgable pair of guides who spend their lives outside, who know what the bushes are, and the berries and the age of the trees.  A couple out of Melbourne, just in Tassie for the weekend, trying on lives to see where they might fit.  

Sometimes I forget I am not in America, and then I’ll hear the cadence of voices around me and think peacefully, “oh, yes, this is Australia.”

Where is the writing in all this? This morning, I noted that I feel like there is fresh lava moving in me, deep and rich and hot, full of power.  But I think it’s more like the growing forest, full of new birds and plants I’ve never seen before and 800 varieties of trees that offer oxygen to the skies. 

We are headed for Uluru in the morning.  Talk about contrast!

Still working on those photos. And I realize I haven’t blogged about the conference at all, which was absolutely wonderful. 

Red boat

Back from the hike, and I think I might finally have figured out how to upload photos, though not how to edit the size.  So here is one I took last evening:

IMG_4146 by you.

Most of the photos are still on my camera, but I’ll be adding them to Flickr as we go. 


Kangaroos and roast pumpkin pizza!

Writing from a clean and ordinary internet cafe two stops down from a backpacker cafe not far from the Flint Street station in Melbourne.  Haven’t had a chance to upload any of my own photos, but this one was taken last night from the Soul Mama Cafe on the bay in St Kilda–Mel, Freya, Chris, and Robin.  We had a blast.  I had one of the most intriguing dishes I’ve had here so far: roasted pumkin and feta pizza.  Yum!

Yesterday, Jo and I went up to the country, or out to the bush as they say around here, to see the new home of a local writer.  The house was lovely, the cats very happy to fill in for my cat-hunger, and then I met a border collie at a winery, who gave me a sad-eyed border collie cuddle to help alleviate dog-yearnings. 

The best thing was actually seeing kangaroos.  A mob in a field, so tall and smart and healthy looking, and then later, another group, which included a mother and her joey, who stuck his furry white head out and nibbled the grass from her pouch.   I have photos, but I think Jo shot some better ones of the mother.  They have such intelligent faces!

About Melbourne: this is a beautiful city.  It’s as if someone arranged it, carefully, so that you can view it from any direction or perspective, and it will be artistically pleasing.  Look this way and there is a triangle, then a dome, then an onion-shape, and a tree gracefully pointing out the contrasts.  Color and shape, gleaming modernity and graceful age, and the river and parks looping through, with the mountains ringing the distance and the bay, a thick line of dark blue in the distance.  

Not at all what I thought it would be somehow, but dealing with those expectations:  Melbourne feels very British in many ways, but also very European.  Cosmopolitan in the worldly sense, the global-city sense, very hip. I like it, in case you can’t tell. 

Now my minutes are ticking away, so I have to run before I lose my connection.  Cheers!