Three Authors Offer Advice for Writers: Rodney Hall, Maeve Binchy and Peter Carey

On March 1, 2010 I posted the first of the Ten Terrifying Questions interviews. Since that date I have posted over 200 interviews with authors ranging from mega selling global stars like Jackie Collins and Lee Child to brilliant, relatively unknown debut authors such as Favel Parret and  Rebecca James. On the way I’ve interviewed Pulitzer Prize winners, Booker Prize winners, Miles Franklin Award winners, scoundrels, saints, loonies and one winner of Olympic Gold. But it all started on March 1, 2010 with Australian novelist, Kylie Ladd who inspired the questions and who still, to this day, remains my favourite.

I have long thought the advice offered to aspiring writers in answer to question ten deserved a vehicle of its own. Well, here it is. Every Friday evening I shall post the advice of three very different writers…

Q. What advice do you give aspiring writers?


‘Read. Read. Read. Read books that challenge and stimulate you. Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments. Love the language and use it to the full, stretching it if you are able. Find out everything you can about words, their origin and use. Think about them. ‘Feel’ them. Feel the rhythms they create. Experiment to create different emphases by changing word order or choice of vocabulary. Get the best dictionary you can afford and a Roget’s Thesaurus (and if you’ve already got a thesaurus arranged as a dictionary, throw it away, it’s rubbish). Like anything, if you want to be good at it you have to practise. And remember that what you read will shape what you write. Choose well and aim high.’

Read the full interview here

Click here to buy Silence from Booktopia Australia’s No.1 Online Bookshop


“Believe in yourself. Take your work seriously but never take yourself seriously, that way you can become pompous. Try to enjoy it and not worry. It’s a lovely world to be in. You’re welcome to come and join it.”

Read the full interview here…

Click here to buy Maeve Binchy’s Treasury from Booktopia Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop


“Don’t take advice from anyone.”

Read the full interview here…

Click here to buy The Chemistry of Tears from Booktopia Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop

Silence by Rodney Hall and East of the West by Miroslav Penkov or how to get out of a reading slump by Toni Whitmont

OK, it is time for me to fess up.

Over recent months, I have lost the urge to read. The thrill has gone. Instead of reaching for a book in every spare moment, I have been reaching for, (sigh), my iPod.  I don’t know if there is such a thing as reader’s block, but I have it. If there is such a thing as a reader’s muse, I have lost it. This is both a professional and a personal tragedy. It’s pretty hard to do my job if I am not on a constant drip of pre-release titles but that constant supply has suddenly left me with a saccharine taste in my mouth and I just can’t read one more big, important, must-have book. The trouble is, if I am not reading them, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what to do. It feels like someone has taken me over, like identity theft, only I am the perpetrator.

I have however, finally come good.  The cure for reader’s malaise? Not Jeffrey Euginedes’ The Marriage Plot, not Murakami’s IQ24, not even Stephen King’s 11.22.63. No, the cure, is the short story collection. Thank goodness I have finally  got my reading mojo back.

In the world of fiction, short stories are the perpetual bridesmaids. Every now and again, there is a collection like Nam Le’s The Boat, that hogs the limelight for a little while. Most of the time however, they play support for the main event, the novel. It is a great shame, because a finely crafted, beautifully written, disciplined short story, one in which every word counts, is, I have discovered, the perfect thing for the reader jaded from way too much of a good thing.

Go here for details or to buy

Recently, I was given Miroslav Penkov’s East of the West collection. Never heard of him? Either had I. Penkov is a young Bulgarian born writer who now is an assistant professor of English in Texas and an editor of American Literary Review.

Set mainly in Bulgaria, his stories are lovingly crafted pen portraits of a hidden world. Makedonija, about an elderly couple in a nursing home, is one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of love and war that I have ever read. In fact, I had to read that one twice – once to myself, and then again, out loud, to a friend.  East of the West, about a village stradling the border of  Serbia and Bulgaria, is funny, sad, insightful with knock-out original imagery and a brilliant end.

Want to know more? Here is what Penkov writes about himself.

When I was a child, I did not much like to read, because I was lazy and preferred to play soccer outside. I did not like to be read to either, because repetition bored me and because my parents were really good story tellers – for years my mother told me about the adventures of two little hippos (brother and sister) who we’d send around the world and get into all sorts of trouble, while my father told me stories about Bulgarian history: khans, tsars, rebels fighting the Turks.

As a college student in the US, I wrote stories of my own, pseudo-American stories influenced by my teenage love of Stephen King, a writer I still admire greatly. It became apparent, very quickly, that the fake American stories I wrote were unconvincing garbage. Taking a class in Western History, I was amazed to find out that the professor was writing his dissertation on janissaries in the Balkans. He asked me if I could translate a Bulgarian text for him. I was mesmerized, the way I’d been as a child, by our own history. How could I have forgotten it? Why was I not writing stories like these, packed with heroism, betrayal, courage and cowardice, freedom and death?

Miroslav Penkov

And so I began this book. I wanted people to listen and be moved by our tales, and to show them that Bulgarians are not all car thieves and prostitutes, though there are plenty of those too. As a boy I’d listened to my father and felt calm and safe, and twenty years later I wanted to feel that same way. Writing about Bulgaria was the only way I knew that would get me back to Bulgaria – not just my family, whom I miss greatly, but also our muddy village roads, black fields, blue mountains.

In EAST OF THE WEST we have stories that speak of Bulgaria as it was during the Ottoman years and then as it was during the fights for liberation from the Turks. There are stories that speak of the Balkan Wars, of the chokehold and fall of Communism. There are stories that speak of what became of both Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria when regimes changed. Then finally there are stories that show the reader what’s happening now, while so many young people leave for the West in search of a better life.

The stories in EAST OF THE WEST tackle all these upheavals of history individually, and through individuals, but I believe that when read together the stories complement each other, like pieces in a puzzle adding up to reveal a larger picture.

Today, more than a million Bulgarians live abroad, and I have seen countless parents (my own included) encourage their children to leave, to seek a better life away from home; and I’ve seen Bulgarians change their names, abandon their language, take on new beliefs, new ideologies and identities, forget where they came from. Yes, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun, but history can be forgotten. With this book, I wanted to remember.

While Penkov is a debut author, Rodney Hall’s latest collection comes to us from the pen of a true master.

His newest book, Silence, comes with a cover quote by David Mitchell – “I read Silence in a single day. Brilliant. Brilliant”.

Both men are known for their very fine writing, and yes, Silence is “brilliant. Brilliant”.

Go here for details or to buy

I couldn’t possibly,  however,  read it in a day. Or maybe I could, if I was alone, in a profoundly beautiful place, but I would have to be completely relaxed and completely solitary. And I would have to have the right tea to hand. It is not that the book is too long. In fact, at less than 200 well-spaced pages it is almost the length of a novella.  No, the reason I couldn’t complete a reading of this shimmering collection of short stories is that that would leave no time at all to savour, to contemplate and to reflect.

Silence deserves so much more than a day. It deserves being approached completely in the present moment, senses attuned to the sounds, images, and emotions that are evoked by this master story teller. Each of the 20 or more tales deserves your undivided attention, each deserves its own space and time. Each is as satisfying (or in my slump, much more satisfying) than a whole novel.

Rodney Hall has won the Miles Franklin not once but twice. He has been shortlisted another three times. He is a poet, activist, essayist and author. Sadly, and inexplicably, most of his earlier books are very difficult to track down these days. I still remember the palpable excitement of reading Just Relations in the mid 80s. It is currently not stocked in Australia. Last year he wrote a memoir, Popeye Never Told You, which was garnered enormous praise.

At the time he commented  (in his answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions) “All my novels aim at one thing, really: to engage the reader, moment by moment in the experience. Vivid and intense experience is of central importance to me. That’s what illuminates us for one another”.

And that is exactly what he does in Silence – he engages us, moment by moment, vividly and intensely, in his imaginary worlds.

Rodney Hall

The stories in Silence cover continents and ages. They are told from the points of view of rulers and minions, victors and vanquished, even occasionally animals (well, a dreaming bird). The stories are not linked, other than perhaps thematically. Most seem to be about spaces in between, different kinds of emptiness, the gaps between the narrator and the other. Reading Silence is like chasing a rainbow – it illuminates everything but it remains tantalisingly just out of reach.

After I finished reading the stories, sipping at them over a couple of weeks, I saw Hall’s notes and acknowledgements.

“A contributing factor to the silences being explored is that most of these pieces engage with a ‘silent’ partner”.

He then pays tribute for inspiration to Sir Jospeh Banks, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Wolfgang Borchert (who enormously influenced his writing style over the decades – see Ten Terrifying Questions), Gabriel Garcia Marquez amongst others.

“Of course, these tributres do not pretend to be more than echoes, intonations and the structures of reason”.

I would like to re-read Silence , given this new interpretation, but I wonder if it will take away from that first pass at it. I came to the book unprepared, and I was completely overwhelmed by the tapestry of its imagery and the echoes of its stillness. And I still wouldn’t want to read it in a day.

So, blessed with two marvellous short story collections, I am now however up for the big book again.

With thanks and gratitude, Toni Whitmont, reader of novels, and short stories.

Rodney Hall, author of Popeye Never Told You, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

Booktopia Book Guru asks

Rodney Hall

author of

Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War

Ten Terrifying Questions


1.  To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born at Solihull and Warwickshire, England, where my early childhood was spent during the Second World War. All through the bombing, my mother promised us we would return to the family farm in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. I was 13 when we finally got back to Australia. As for school, I’m not sure this matters much. It was okay. The main thing about school, in my view, is learning to be among other kids and finding your way in the world. I left school in Brisbane at 16, so I did not have and HSC or equivalent. I went out to work and did various jobs, none of them interesting. I just wanted to get on with my ‘real’ life, which I saw as a life in the arts and a life of travel.

2.  What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, with the war having finished only 3 years before, I think I probably just wanted to be alive long enough to grow up. At eighteen I was acting, playing music (classical – baroque), painting and writing. Any of these would have been fine by me. At thirty what I wanted was to be free of debt.

I have never been a commercial writer and that raises a problem because I haven’t had a day job since the age of twenty-two , nor have I written as a journalist. I am just a writer, writing poetry and novels.

3.   What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That the world was too big a place for the individual to make any progress without being corrupt. I don’t believe that now. And if I didn’t have my international editions in the USA, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden, I would never have been able to scrape a living together. (BBGuru: Shame Australia, shame!)

4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

1: Way back in 1971 I had the privilege of seeing a group of Aboriginal dancers from Arnhem Land. They had never performed in a theatre and never seen a city. Their dancing was electrifying. By that stage I had already been involved in the Aboriginal rights movement in Queensland for ten years, but the integrity of their culture and the virtuosity of their dancing was an eye-opener. One young lad was destined to become famous: David Gulpilil. I still remember his brolga.
2:  When I first saw Michelangelo’s statue of the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms, the Pieta, in St Peter’s, Rome, it impressed me as the greatest work of art I had ever seen. I was 23. The miracle was (and still is) that Mary’s flesh is living – and Jesus’s flesh is dead. All carved of a single piece of marble. How did he do it? Don’t ask me. It’s beyond explanation. A miracle of art.

3:  I was 18 when I first encountered the short stories of Wolfgang Borchert – a German writer who died at 27. He wrote forty short stories and a play. His entire output fits into a 250 page book. But the power of what he wrote made him a major writer by any standard. He transmogrified the experience of war into words as no other writer did before him and none since. These stories changed my vision of what literature can be and what it can do – that the kind of writing I hoped to achieve was not an entertainment but an exploration of the meanings of life. He wrote prose that is timeless and that speaks deeply of human nature.

5.  Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why do you choose to write books?

Really that was chance. I was acting and making music and painting as well as writing – I think I could have gone in any of these directions. What happened was pure chance – I met a published writer, John Manifold, who was twenty years older than me. He became my mentor and encouraged me. If a music mentor had come along, I might have ended up a composer. If an artist mentor had come along I might have ended up an artist. But it was John and he became the key. I will always be grateful to him. (BBGuru: Now that’s the answer I was seeking!)

6.  Please tell us about your latest book.

Popeye Never Told You is a memoir. I have published 36 books, or so, but this is my first attempt at putting autobiographical material on the page.

I have chosen to turn my back on the usual method of writing autobiography – I do not reminisce or theorise or explain anything. The book reads more like a novel. What I do is to get the experiences I remember as clear and straightforward as I can.

It covers the war years, from age 5 to age 9, as nearly as possible capturing the actual experience of being a child. A lot of the experience for the reader is ‘between the lines’, because the adult reader understands what is going on better than the child himself. We moved to another town straight after the war (and then to Australia), so I can date these experiences pretty accurately. I hope readers will find the book touching and funny despite the seriousness of the wartime setting.

7.   What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

All my novels aim at one thing, really: to engage the reader, moment by moment in the experience. Vivid and intense experience is of central importance to me. That’s what illuminates us for one another. With Popeye Never Told You I want to reader to come away knowing just what it was like to be a fatherless child at that time.

8.  Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

The greatest book written in my lifetime is The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The language is the richest, the most free from the shackles of explanation or the plodding Realism of cause-and-effect of any book I can think of. It is free of story – that overrated and formalistic structure. It ranges from first person to second to third and back again in a single sentence. The images tumble out in a cataract of the most brilliant inventiveness ever put on the printed page. And his passionate and compassionate insight into people, the good and the evil, is second to none. A great, great book about the death of a South American dictator. (BBGuru: Must buy this book!)

9.   Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To embody experience in words so that it ‘actually happens’ in the reader’s imagination. The reader is central to me. I want to take my readers into a world they have never been in before – even if it is the simple world of a child in a small country town.

10.  What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read. Read. Read. Read books that challenge and stimulate you. Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments. Love the language and use it to the full, stretching it if you are able. Find out everything you can about words, their origin and use. Think about them. ‘Feel’ them. Feel the rhythms they create. Experiment to create different emphases by changing word order or choice of vocabulary. Get the best dictionary you can afford and a Roget’s Thesaurus (and if you’ve already got a thesaurus arranged as a dictionary, throw it away, it’s rubbish). Like anything, if you want to be good at it you have to practise. And remember that what you read will shape what you write. Choose well and aim high. (BBGuru: Don’t waste your life on time-filling entertainments! And remember that what you read will shape what you write..! There is a god. Rodney be thy name.)

Rodney, thank you for playing.

Note from Toni Whitmont, editor of Booktopia Buzz.

Rodney Hall was born at Solihull, Warwickshire, in England. He came to Australia as a child and, as a result of the enchantment of embarking on that six-week voyage by sea, he suffers from a lifelong addiction to travel. After leaving school in Brisbane at 16 he worked professionally as a musician and for a while as an actor, but since 1961 he has lived by his writing, being the author of over thirty books and countless articles. He has won the Miles Franklin Award twice and many of his novels and poems have been published internationally. He lives in Melbourne.


* The Ship on the Coin (1972)
* A Place Among People (1975)
* Just Relations (1982)
* Kisses of the Enemy (1987)
* Captivity Captive (1988)
* The Second Bridegroom (1991)
* The Grisly Wife (1993)
* The Island in the Mind (1996)
* The Day We Had Hitler Home (2000)
* The Last Love Story (2004)
* Love Without Hope (2007)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,962 other followers

%d bloggers like this: