Author Q&A

Good Reading Magazine Blog


Q&A with memoir extraordinaire Patti Miller


Patti Miller is a bestselling novelist and memoir mentor. Her new book Ransacking Paris is an evocative and deftly written memoir of her one-year escape to Paris, a vastly different world from her baking and bushy hometown in Wiradjuri country, central NSW. She tells us about the most magical places in Paris, what makes an unforgettable memoir, and the philosophy of bees. 


How would you describe Wiradjuri country?

Wiradjuri country is my heart’s country; it feels as if it resides in the centre of my being. But it is also the country that my body remembers from childhood. As I’ve said in Ransacking Paris, ‘It doesn’t feel as if it is located in my mind, but in my body, imprinted as if pressed on wet clay, and when I look at that country, it’s as if I am looking at myself.’  

It is a landscape of low hills, plains, fertile river flats, ironbark and yellow box gums, grassy paddocks and dry creeks. It is green and welcoming in the spring in a good year, but it can be dry and harsh in drought years, the land burnt brown and dusty.

But while Wiradjuri country means so much to me and is still home to the child in me, I think Paris is home to me as an adult.


What was it like growing up there?

There were eight children in my family and we all lived in a ramshackle farmhouse on a few hundred acres of land. We were poor, the house was shabby with no running water or inside toilet – or even toilet paper, but we were not deprived of love, so it was a noisy, messy, warm-hearted childhood. We also had no television, so I joined the library in town and read most of the time, learning about a world of myth and imagination.

As I became an adolescent I discovered the world of European literature, especially French, so in my mind I was already living in Paris. When I wasn’t reading, I explored the countryside, walking for miles over hills and along valleys, dreaming. In the evenings, after reading, I told my sister stories as we each lay in our beds in the dark; it was then I started to think I’d like to be a writer.  It was a very different childhood to those of the French memoirists' - Simone de Beauvoir, for example - but I discovered when I read her memoir that our inner lives were very similar, because our inner lives were formed by reading.


Was there an exact moment you decided to escape away to Paris?

Perhaps it was the moment I first listened to Marianne Faithfull’s haunting voice singing ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’. Lucy ‘realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sport car with the warm wind in her air’.  It took a while and many more re-playings of the song, but I don’t think anyone could listen to that song without deciding, that no matter how difficult, how unlikely, they had to fulfil their dreams.


Comment bien parlez-vous français? (How well do you speak French?)

Je ne parle pas trop mal. I don’t speak too badly. During Easter this year, one of my sons married a French girl and at their wedding, I sat next to her mother who spoke no English. We chatted in French for three hours so I guess I could say that I am at ‘chat’ level. I don’t speak ‘comme de l’eau’, meaning ‘like water’, the French expression for fluency, and I know I regularly murder the tenses and genders, but I happily listen to the French news on television, and, if my listener is patient and tolerant of strange grammar, I can converse about most topics.


What are two similarities and two differences between Wiradjuri country and Paris?

Oh, that’s a difficult question! There are many differences, not so many similarities.  When I think on it, the two main differences for me are:

1.      Paris has a long written history and literature, which can be easily accessed, while Wiradjuri country has a long oral tradition that was ruptured by colonisation and is now difficult to find.

2.      The attractions of Paris are nearly all human constructions – Pei Pyramid, Musée d’Orsay, rue des Mauvais Garçons, Café Odèon, cathedral of Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, while the attractions of Wiradjuri country are nearly all natural – hills, valleys, creeks, bush, grasslands.

And the similarities:

1.      They are both beautiful! Both stir the heart with their presence, their celebration of the physical beauty of place, and both stir the senses with their sights and sounds and smells.

2.      They have both been invaded by different peoples, they have both resisted and adapted to the influences of different cultures – they are both what they are today because of the layering of history.


Why are you drawn to the writings of Montaigne?

I’m in love with Montaigne because his writing is so extraordinarily insightful, his understanding of the nature of the self so illuminating, his heart so compassionate.  He explores the nature of human beings with such penetrating observations and wit, honesty and openness that I am won over every time I read his ‘essays’.  His style is so fresh and his thinking so contemporary it is hard to believe he was writing over 450 years ago.


What’s the most magical place you discovered in Paris?

Oh, another difficult question! I’ve found so many magical places in Paris!  I could say it was the tulip meadow in the Bois de Vincennes, or the hidden garden in the rue des Archives, or all the back streets behind Montmartre, or the Roman arena in the 5th arrondissement, or the patisserie in the rue Montorgueil, or the Seine viewed from a bike.... I cannot choose.


Was returning home a disappointment or a relief?

Truthfully, I wanted to stay in Paris. I cried from the airport to my home in the Blue Mountains when I came back (about 60 km).  The suburbs of Sydney looked raw and ‘stuck on the landscape’ and even my beloved bush seemed harsh. I had become European in my sensibility in such a short time! But I am adjusted to the rare beauty (and much better weather) of Australia again now and happy to be able to return to Paris each year for a couple of months when I teach a memoir-writing course in the rue Montmartre.


Two bees are resting their wings on your front cover – why?

The bee design was inspired by the quote from Montaigne which gave Ransacking Paris its title: ‘Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there and then make a honey that is all their own.’  To Montaigne, bees are an image of the way a writer works; as a bee takes nectar, the writer takes from her observations and memories and from other writers’ insights to create a ‘honey’ which is all her own. The bee became an image which threads its way throughout the whole book, expressing a range of ideas from many cultures, particularly the idea that bees are messengers of truth and poetic awareness from the gods to humans – that is, that bees are a metaphor of the writer’s deeper process, drawing on what is hidden and perhaps not understood, to try to find a truthful expression of our experience.


What makes an excellent memoir?

There are many styles of memoir that I enjoy, from a simple, heartfelt story to a sophisticated literary memoir, but for me, an excellent memoir is one that enriches my experience of being here in the world. It lets me see out through another’s eyes so that I can live more than my own life, and it expands my knowledge and awareness of what it is like to be here in the mystery of existence. It doesn’t have to be a sensational or dramatic story, but it does have to be written with honesty and with a fineness of perception and language, and it does have to extend my world and enhance my experience and understanding.


10 Questions with Alan Carter


Alan Carter is a documentary director and writer of two Cato Kwong crime novels: Prime Cut and Getting Warmer. Bad Seed is the latest in the series, and Cato is lead to Shanghai in the chase for a brutal and elusive killer. We talk cyber dragons, cold murder, and rubber fetishism. 


Detective Cato Kwong is locked in a room. On a table, there’s a cup of hot coffee, a pair of chopsticks, and a gun with a single shot in it. Four armed thugs surround the room outside. Could he escape?

Why escape? The door’s locked and they’re on the other side. There’s a nice cup of coffee on the go.  Let’s just sit back and think about this.  Bullet + gun = one bad guy.  Chopsticks x 2 somewhere nasty = two more bad guys.  One left.  Maybe share the coffee and have a reasonable discussion about the error of his ways?


Is Kwong a team player? Is there a Watson to his Sherlock?

Kwong’s not good with the team thing.  It’s all those cryptic crosswords and that piano playing.  He spends too much time in his own head, obsessing and stubbornly going his own way.  Luckily he usually ends up being right.  But he keeps asking for trouble and finding it and often needs to be rescued by his colleagues.  Maybe he does need a Watson to his Sherlock, or a Robin to his Batman, or a Wallace to his Gromit…


Have you been to Shanghai? What are your thoughts on the city?

I was in Shanghai for two months late in 2013 on a writers residency supported by Asialink and Shanghai Writers Association.  It’s an amazing place. Taking Cato from Hopetoun, population around 2000 (Prime Cut), through to Shanghai with a population around 20 million was some journey.  It was a chance to explore further Cato’s limited sense of his Chinese heritage and begin to embrace it. But for all the cultural and population differences between Shanghai and small-town WA there are also the inevitable similarities – huge disparities in wealth and power but also a resilience and humanity founded in the universals of how we try to live.


What act of crime is Cato investigating in Bad Seed?

Murder, always murder.  But this time it’s the murder of a wealthy Chinese-Australian family with whom he has a long-standing personal connection and it’s tied in to the Chinese interest in acquiring Australian property, both rural and urban.


How is Bad Seed different to the preceding novels in the series?

It gets exotic with a trip to China.  There’s an amoral fun-loving spook called Rory who spices things up a bit. And there’s lots of personal family stuff particularly between Cato and his ailing father which interrogates his sense of connection to his heritage.  So Bad Seed is kind of deep and violent at the same time.  Hold on, so are the others.


Part of your blurb reads ‘In this world of spoilt rich kids and cyber dragons, knowledge is an exotic and dangerous commodity’. What’s a cyber dragon?

It’s actually an underpaid nerd who sits in front of a computer all day long and monitors the internet habits of friends and citizens and hacks its enemies.  Harmless enough you might think, but deadly in the context of Bad Seed.  Shanghai happens to be the home of one of the Chinese military’s most powerful cyber hacking units.


What kind of documentaries did you used to direct?

I still do direct them – it’s my day job until and unless Cato Kwong makes me an international bestseller. Probably the most well-known series’ I’ve been associated with would be “Who Do You Think You Are?’ and “Desperately Seeking Sheila” – an SBS forerunner to ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’ only deeper – no really.


What makes an outstanding crime novel?

Great characters, compelling plots, and, for me, the sense of some kind of point to it all.  I like crime novels to hold some kind of mirror up to society – be it the society of the novel’s setting, or perhaps a more general idea of the society of the reader.  I’m a fan of Graham Hurley’s ‘Faraday & Winter’ series set in Portsmouth, Malla Nunn’s ‘Cooper’ novels, The Martin Cruz Smith ‘Renko’ novels.


Tell us about a slightly unusual item you put up for auction recently?                             

To support the good work of Oxfam I recently auctioned off the right to be named in the next Cato Kwong novel – the rules were simple, you have no choice over the character you become, I own your body and soul, and if I choose to make you a rubber fetishist, so be it.  It went ballistic.  All these nice respectable Oxfam donors outbidding each other to prostrate themselves before me.  Maybe it’s the 50 Shades zeitgeist.  Anyway, ten minutes later Oxfam were $1000 better off and able to put the money to good use.


Will Cato Kwong be back soon for more action?

Absolutely.  I’m halfway through the first draft of book 4, tentatively entitled Heaven Sent. Cato should be back on the streets doing good and battling evil sometime hopefully in 2016.


Bad Seed by Alan Carter is published by Fremantle Press, rrp $29.99.


Ten Questions with Lisa Heidke


The author of It Started with a Kiss tells us about her character Friday Jones, the treachery of online dating, and a marriage gone sour. 


Can you tell us about Friday Jones? What would she be like if someone were to run into her on the street?

On the surface, Friday would appear very together and organised and greet friends with a hug and a huge smile. Underneath, she would be a mess of insecurities, constantly worrying that she was about to say something inappropriate.

What happens to Friday in It Started with a Kiss?

Friday’s husband leaves her and she’s suddenly faced with raising two teenage daughters alone. Devastated, she wonders if she’s destined to remain alone and unloved forever.

In your novel, Friday delves into the infamously treacherous world of online dating – what’s your take on the ever-expanding world of web romance?

Inevitable. In the modern world, many people work alone or in a small business. They don’t belong to community groups because they’re busy working and raising children. People are time poor. With the advent of online dating, they can sit in the comfort of their home and read through a potential mate’s profile at a time that suits them – whether that’s five pm or five am.

Are you familiar with the term ‘catfishing’, and can you tell us of any online dating horror stories?

Ah, not until I looked up the term a couple of minutes ago! (The phenomenon of internet predators that fabricate online identities to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships.)

But I have seen it. Yes, some people I interviewed definitely lied about their age, their height, occupation, relationship status... I was amazed at the lengths men and women will go to reinvent themselves. Surely they know that at some stage they’ll be caught out?

It Started with a Kiss begins with the sentence ‘I’ve been unhappy for a long time.’ spoken by Friday’s husband. Why are Friday and her glum spouse so miserable?

I don’t think Friday realised she and her husband were unhappy – well, unhappy to the point of Friday’s husband, Liam, wanting out. It’s only in hindsight that Friday realises that she and Liam had only been communicating superficially for many months, maybe even years.

Liam envies his younger brother, has a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), and is under the impression that the grass is greener on the other side. He wants to get out of suburbia and experience single life again.

How does living with three teenagers affect your writing?

Ha! Well, they like to eat. A lot! In many ways, it’s easier writing now because my kids are largely independent and can get out and about without supervision. In other ways, it’s more challenging than when they were toddlers and I knew exactly where they were at all times. Nowadays, I can’t sit them down in front of Hi5 for hours on end.

You’ve spoken in the past about your trepidation towards having images of women on your book covers that don’t necessarily look like the character you had in mind – is this still a concern you have to overcome?

Sometimes. But I like to think the woman on my covers is an ‘everyday’ person, someone whom readers can relate to. I think that once people start reading my books, they form a picture of the characters in their own mind regardless of who appears on the front cover. Having said that, I love the cover of It Started with a Kiss. It’s fresh and upbeat.

Did any particular books or authors directly influence the writing of It Started with a Kiss?

No. The inspiration for It Started with a Kiss came from real people and their stories, as well as my imagined idea of what Friday’s character would be going through.

Which of the novels on your bookshelf are the most tear-stained?

Tear stained? Hmm, the most recent one I can think of was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and then straight after that, John Green’s Will Grayson Will Grayson.

If your novel starts with a kiss … what does it end with?

Ah, to find out, you’ll have to read my book. You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?

It Started with a Kiss is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.


10 Questions with Crime Writer Sandi Wallace


Award-winning crime writer Sandi Wallace tells us about her life and the first instalment in her Rural Crime Files series, Tell Me Why


What intrigues you most about rural Victoria? Why do you use it as a setting for your novels?

Although born and bred in a suburb of Melbourne, I’ve always felt that I belong in the country. My hubby and I live in a beautiful village in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne and we escape to other parts of country Victoria whenever we can, with Daylesford being one of our favourite getaways. I get a kick out of showing off the places I love through my stories, so various locations in rural Victoria will feature throughout my Rural Crime Files series, although each book will link back to Daylesford and the characters from the spa region in some fashion.

Local readers of Tell Me Why are enjoying the authentic representation of places they know, albeit through a fictional story. And those who haven’t been there before, tell me that they have a great sense of people and place from the book, which is what I wanted to do. Not to write a travel guide, but to share some of the unique features about our landscape, wildlife and people – particularly rural towns and folk – within a compelling, believable crime story.


As well as your novels, you’ve written award-winning short stories – what are the main differences you find between these two forms of writing?

The main difference is that short stories are really hard to write! I take my hat off to those who specialise in short fiction, as condensing a story that people will care about and be satisfied with into say 5,000 words is challenging. Depending on the author and book, that’s say the equivalent of one chapter out of a novel for a complete story.

For me, writing full-length books isn’t exactly easier – each one definitely takes a lot more time and re-drafts than a short story – but novel writing is my main passion. I think that’s because I like to build relationships with my characters and stories, so I thrive when able to fully develop them and (sometimes) stay with them. That’s why I’m writing a series, but it doesn’t diminish the wonderful confidence boost and enjoyment I’ve received from my recent short story achievements.

I’d taken a break from short stories for several years to focus on writing books. But after I submitted my manuscript to a publisher in late 2011 and was waiting on a response, I realised it definitely couldn’t hurt, and could actually greatly benefit my goal, by going back to short stories and giving them my best shot. In 2012, I made finalist in an international short story competition in my niche of rural crime fiction, featuring police characters. Then in 2013, I was long-listed in the Ned Kelly Sandra Harvey Short Story Award and won the Best Investigative Prize in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards. The latter win coincided with the great news that Clan Destine Press wanted to publish my Rural Crime Files series, starting with Tell Me Why. This year, I was ecstatic when two of my stories won prizes in the 2014 Scarlet Stiletto Awards and I came home with the Great Film Idea Prize and a Special Commendation. So, I guess it comes down to practice, determination and perseverance, like everything that matter to us.


If you hadn’t turned to writing, you would have wanted to be a police detective – why?

Helping people and making a difference to their lives, whether in small or major ways, is a driving force for me, and I’ve always been on the side of law and order, rooting for justice or at least resolution for victims of crime and the prevention of crime. As a lifelong addict to armchair crime detection via books and film, and being great with people, I figured I’d make a good police detective, preferably in specialised units like Homicide or Sexual Offences. I came very close to joining the police force several times, but ended up taking other career paths. As a crime writer, I’ve found a safer way of fighting and solving crime! But all of this means the stories I most enjoy as reader and writer are ones where the main characters are fully formed, three-dimensional, the settings realistic, the crimes equally so, and the outcomes satisfying if not always happy endings.


Can you tell us about the main characters in Tell Me Why?

Georgie Harvey is twenty-eight in Tell Me Why and lives in Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne. She tells strangers she’s a writer and lets them draw their own conclusions. But in reality, she’s struggling to establish her career. She’s gutsy, empathetic, unpredictable and one-track-minded, which are all strengths and weaknesses, and all account for her determination to find the woman who is missing from Hepburn. Georgie drives a classic convertible, a 1984 Black Alfa Spider which she calls ‘the Spider’. She drinks, smokes, swears and speeds, is far from perfect and never boring, which is what readers love about her.

John Franklin is thirty-six in this first book and a cop based at Daylesford for over sixteen years. These days he’s less idealistic than when he first pulled on the blue monkey suit and unapologetically a cop; he supposes that mixes curiosity and helpfulness with arrogance. Franklin is also a single dad, in a struggle with fear of change and the need for it, while somehow surviving his daughter’s teens. That’s why his current case is both chilling and exciting and brings out his maverick cop side. Outside of work, he rides a very cool blue-over-white Kawasaki Ninja, when not behind the wheel of his older model SS Commodore. Several readers have admitted to having crushes on Franklin and have even asked for his home address.


What happens to them?

In Tell Me Why Melbourne writer Georgie Harvey is searching for Susan Pentecoste, a farmer missing from Hepburn, while country cop John Franklin is working a case that’s a step up from Daylesford’s usual soft crime; a poison-pen writer whose targets are single mothers. Harvey and Franklin collide on the woman’s disappearance and an earlier unsolved case surrounding her husband.


What drove you to write this novel?

I wanted to write a crime series that would feature country Victoria. Daylesford seemed the perfect chief setting, as it’s one of my favourite places, a pretty country town, popular with tourists, arty types and same-sex couples and that romantic perception contrasts well with a moody crime story. The inbuilt conflict of a town balancing permanent residents with regular influxes of tourists adds another element to the tension. Then I decided I wanted it to be contemporary, reflecting our times, our world, even though it’s fiction. After I had setting worked out, I gradually developed the main story, subplot and characters, angling this book as mainly a Why-Dunnit because many crime readers – including me – are intrigued by why crimes happen, the repercussions and outcomes. This book centres on the complexities of human relationships, how far we’d go, and what we’d risk, to find the truth. It just seemed the right place to start my series.


Did any particular authors or books influence the writing of Tell Me Why?

I guess all of the books and authors I’ve enjoyed, and even those that I haven’t so much liked, have combined to show me the type of books I want to write: contemporary, believable, gritty and unapologetically Australian, but I can’t credit any one in particular to directly influencing Tell Me Why.


Who’s your favourite fictional detective?

I have many! I particularly love serving or retired police detectives and series characters, such as Michael Robotham’s Vincent Ruiz, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and going back a bit, R.D. Wingfield’s DI Frost. But I also enjoy amateur or accidental sleuths or characters in standalone books. Robotham’s clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox and Jaye Ford’s journalist Miranda Jack (Jax) in Already Dead are good examples of investigators without a police ID.


Why is crime such a popular genre?

Crime fiction lets us live vicariously through exciting and dangerous situations, to play detective, or hero, to solve cases, discover how and why, and bring about or witness a sense of justice or resolution, all from the safety of our chairs or beds or beach towels…

There is also an enormous range of sub-genres of crime, which means there is something for every taste and mood. These include: cosy, traditional mystery, romantic suspense or romantic thriller, legal drama, police procedural, action blockbuster, comedy crime, medical or forensic thriller, historical crime, psychological thriller, political intrigue, crime with supernatural elements and more!


What’s next in the ‘Rural Crime Files’ series?


Black Saturday (Rural Crime Files: 02) is already in-house with my publisher and due for release in spring 2015. I have written the third book, Into the Fog, and started working on the fourth while on my summer break from my other job of personal training. January is my favourite time to crack open a new book! Thanks so much for having me in for a chat.

Check out Sandi's website for more info on her fantastic series!