The new Ann Patchett is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s always a pleasure to talk books with Better Reading but especially when it’s this good. Commonwealth‘s both funny, familiar and heartbreaking. Watch here for our live Facebook review last night (spoiler alert):
Precious Things will be published in Holland next month… squeee! More info below, and to order click here.
*POSTSCRIPT: I just found out this is actually being released in the European Spring of 2017 instead! A little pre-emptive but it’s on its way…
Normandië, 1891: een jonge vrouw naait kleine pareltjes op de kraag van haar trouwjurk. Ze huilt.
Shanghai, 1926: sensuele danssensatie Zephyr vindt een met parels versierde haarband op de vloer van een balzaal. Ze neemt de band mee naar Maleisië, waar ze een gevaarlijke liaison aangaat.
Istanboel, 1974: een model wordt op de foto gezet met een bijzondere tiara in het haar.
Londen, nu: Maggie – vrouw, moeder, stiefmoeder, medewerker in een veilinghuis – vindt in een nalatenschap een verkreukelde, verwaarloosde diadeem. Getroffen door de subtiele pareltjes wil ze achterhalen waar dit sieraad vandaan komt.
De reis van de parelsvertelt het verhaal van een prachtig sieraad en
zijn reis door de tijd in de handen van de vrouwen die het liefhadden en weer verloren – en de vrouw die betoverd raakt door zijn mysterieuze verleden.
‘Een betoverende en subliem vertelde roman over hoe onze geheimen verweven
zijn met onze meest dierbare spullen.’ – Sky News
We hear about people making big life changes all the time, but how do you know when you’re having an epiphany? In my experience, most lightbulb moments have been more like the faint glow that seeps in around the blinds at dawn, until it gets so bright you can’t comfortably hang around in bed any longer.
Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect your future.”
A couple of years ago some things fell away for me. I wouldn’t say it was as dramatic as life falling apart, but it certainly felt like some sort of momentous change was occurring, and it was pretty hard to accept at the time.
I’ve often thought that if I couldn’t write I’d be a mess, but I didn’t consider that it’s reading – not writing – that fills me up the most. Exercise is one of those things that I also really need. It helps me stay sane through fairly sedentary days in front of the computer, but two years ago I found myself in a rubbish situation: unable to write, unable to train and, most painfully, unable to read.
I’ve heard that sometimes what’s going on externally mirrors what’s going on inside. Well, back then I just seemed to keep having car accidents. Several accidents in a twelve-month period, and I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t see things coming; probably because I wasn’t looking or being careful enough, and I injured myself. It wasn’t too severe at first, but I kept exercising through the pain, telling myself it was fine, until things got so bad I couldn’t do much at all.
I practically couldn’t move – not without screaming. I spent several months mostly on my back, with spasms travelling up and down my spine after tearing a disc in my neck. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t write or hug my daughter or use a phone, and then I couldn’t read because it hurt to hold up a book, the pain travelling all the way up my neck and bringing me to tears. All the things that made life important were just beyond reach.
You’d think this would be indication enough that things had to change, but at first I just kept going, trying to do what I’d always done and work through it. Things got even worse before they got better, and they didn’t start improving until I simply gave up. Just released myself from the expectation that I would achieve anything in a day apart from getting from one end of it to the other. Thankfully my husband took up the slack and helped our household operate – I don’t know what I would have done had he not been able to.
Around that time, I started listening to podcasts. It was a way to stem the considerable boredom and made me feel like I was still learning something and taking part in the world. I’ve always loved listening to music and radio but I needed something meatier to sink my teeth into. I listened to a huge amount of podcasts – mostly TED talks and YouTube addresses and conversation hours – and then moved on to Serial and The Good Life Project and Dear Sugar Radio. Finally, I listened to a few audiobooks and marvelled at how enjoyable it was to fill up my spare moments with other people’s thoughts rather than dwelling upon the endless loop of my own which often preoccupied me.
I eventually got back to writing and finished my first novel, Precious Things, and I still kept listening to audio – almost as much as I used to read previously, because I could do it while I was doing other things, like walking and preparing dinner and tidying the house. I know I multitask too much, but it seemed more satisfying than having that nagging feeling I wasn’t getting enough reading in because life was just too busy.
Before my novel was published, my agent Jane sold the rights to turn it into an audiobook, which I previously wouldn’t have considered a possibility. And only a few months later, I saw a job advertised for an acquisitions person at an audiobook company. This is where the dots started to connect.
I started work just before Precious Things was published, which was brilliant because it meant I didn’t have time to stress about things I can’t control, such as the sales figures for my book or how it would be received. It also meant I could channel everything I’d learned from the audio I’d been listening to over the last couple of years into the books I started to acquire.
Now I spend my days reading and bidding on books I really love, which I know will make great audiobooks – especially for people who are blind or unable to read for whatever reason. But I’ve also learned that it’s not just the incapacitated who listen to a lot of audio. Did you know that it’s mostly farmers – male farmers – who download all those rural romance books which are so popular at the moment? I didn’t, but it’s true – the library figures support it. And it is truckers who will listen to pretty much anything while they’re pulling long haul journeys, bringing creativity and inspiration to what I previously considered a gruelling job.
My new position covers maternity leave, so it’s only mine until December or perhaps longer if my predecessor decides to take a full year off, but I’m enjoying it while it lasts and writing on the weekends and in the evenings. It strikes me as odd the way things have worked out – had I not listened to so much audio while I was injured, I’m not sure I would have applied, and I’m finding it really rewarding.
Which is proof that the biggest challenges have some meaning, beyond just messing with your head. That period also forced me to think more laterally about what constitutes a decent life, and the ‘proper’ way to do things. I think I may have been in a bit of a rut beforehand, but it opened up wider possibilities. All grist to the mill for novel two, methinks!
A few weeks ago I had a lovely chat with Canberra Times journalist Karen Hardy about writing Precious Things. Here’s the resulting article, which was syndicated across Fairfax newspapers last weekend:
By Karen HARDY
2 April 2016
Kelly Doust is the first to admit she has a weakness for vintage clothes.
She has always been intrigued by the history of a piece, who wore it, their story, and what first drew them to that dress or jacket.
“Ever since I was about 12 years old, I’ve been collecting old frocks,” says Doust. “I’d take whatever fashion magazine I could find to Vinnies and try and recreate certain looks.
“I’d find these amazing dresses which looked like they’d never even been worn and I’d wonder who the women were who owned them.”
But with the collecting comes the editing process – wardrobes “bursting at the seams” takes on a different meaning when it comes to fashion – and one day she was selling some pieces at a flea market and she found herself wondering about the new lives her old clothes might lead.
“One day I’ll write a book just like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, or the film The Red Violin, about a cheeky little frock who gets about and lives in more cities than I ever will. Wouldn’t that be fun?” she wrote on her blog later than afternoon.
A few weeks later, she received an email from a publisher friend asking her if she’d really be interested in such a project. And the seed for the novel Precious Things was planted.
As the author of several non-fiction books about vintage clothes, craft and recycling, including the best-selling A Life in Frocks: A memoir and The Crafty Minx: Creative recycling and handmade treasures, Doust had always dreamed of writing fiction.
“But I’m enough of a realist to know that fiction is a totally different process to non-fiction. I had all these lovely ideas and stories, but I didn’t have a solid plot, or any real idea of how to get from A to B.”
But then she stumbled across her hero piece. She was visiting her friend, artist Jessica Guthrie, who used to own a vintage clothing store, Coco Repose, and saw a beaded headpiece.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, it enchanted and inspired me,” Doust says.
“How many different adventures had it seen in its lifetime? It might have originally been a collar on a wedding gown, but then refashioned into a crown or a choker. It could have been worn as a bracelet wrapped around a girl’s wrist or added as a bodice detail to a latter-day dress. Or displayed as art upon the wall.”
In Precious Things, it becomes a collar, and we follow its journey from Normandy in 1891, as a young girl sews her wedding dress; to Shanghai, in the 1920s, where it belongs to a flamboyant circus performer; in the 1950s it belongs to an artist’s muse.
At the centre of the story, however is a totally modern woman, Maggie, an auctioneer, juggling marriage, children and a demanding job, who finds the crumpled, neglected collar in a box of junk and sets out to discover more about its past.
Doust loved researching the historical aspects of the novel, indeed is fascinated by how fashion reflects the changing lives of women through the ages.
“Through research I’d done for a previous book, Minxy Vintage, I’d already learned how intrinsic the link is between fashion and social change, and wanted to explore this further,” she says.
“It’s far more than just hemlines lowering or raising with the economy – the women of the 1920s chose to cast off the restrictive, corseted styles of the Belle Epoque in favour of a sportier aesthetic.
“This was championed by Coco Chanel in Paris fashion, but only occurred in the mainstream because women were finally entering the workplace and taking on men’s work.”
Doust is already working on a second novel which has many similar themes: family; women looking for love, direction and purpose; history and fashion.
“I think I’ll always weave my books around these themes to a lesser or greater degree because that’s what I love, and because the question of, ‘What am I going to wear today?’, is such an enduring, constant preoccupation for many of us.”
Is there any better time of the year in the book lover’s calendar than Sydney Writers’ Festival? It’s my favourite Sydney event; when authors, journalists and thinkers from around the world grace our shores and host sessions with my most beloved local authors about books, current affairs and all things important.
I’m thrilled to let you know that I’ll be appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival 2016 with a line-up that includes luminaries like Johnathan Franzen, Kate Tempest and Julian Barnes (pinch me now).
Here’s a little bit more about the event I’ll be taking part in:
‘If a character in a novel has ever made you laugh, cry or groan in frustration, there’s a writer somewhere who is secretly thrilled. Novelists Kelly Doust (Precious Things), Antonia Hayes (Relativity) and Inga Simpson (Where the Trees Were) are experts in the art of creating fictional figures you can’t help but care about. In this session they discuss the importance of emotional connection, getting the small details right, and how much material you should borrow from real life with Booktopia’s John Purcell.
For more details and to book a ticket, please click here.
Do you follow Culture Street? It’s a great site featuring reviews of the latest films and books, recipes, giveaways and interviews. I’m thrilled to be featured as their April Author of the Month, and wrote a short article recently about a few of the inspirations behind Precious Things which I thought I’d share with you here:
Desire, marriage and writing fiction
Clothes – particularly vintage and antique ones – are my weakness. I’ve always been intrigued by their history and am constantly fascinated by what we wear and why. That’s why I decided to write a novel about an antique French collar. Precious Things tells the story of the women who wore this special piece; those who created it, loved it and lost it over the course of more than a hundred years, and the crucial events it witnessed in their lives. There’s also a modern-day heroine who, like me, finds herself intrigued by the beaded collar’s mysterious past.
Let me explain: an antique travel trunk covered in peeling labels looking worn and scuffed around the edges isn’t just a rusty, damaged item that’s seen better days. To me it brings to mind tumultuous sea journeys, the smell of salt and gulls cawing, as well as the image of a fetching skirt suit worn to stroll a cruise ship’s upper decks. Or a stiff snakeskin purse with a long-ago tram ticket tucked inside its inner pocket – where was the woman who owned it going that day? Did she meet her lover for lunch, visit a gallery, or find herself fidgeting nervously in a job interview? This is what I mean; I love how old things give us a tantalising glimpse into other people’s lives – lives we can only dream of.
As I started to think about it more carefully, I realised I wanted to write a sweeping, romantic story that took in many generations of women and covered the significant eras of the twentieth century. I started envisaging how the collar – which is later transformed into a headpiece or a ‘coronet’, as I like to think of it – might have come into the various women’s lives.
My favourite part was researching the historical sections. I chose some of my favourite times and places, and my imagination was sparked by long-held passions and what I was seeing or reading at the time. For example, Bella – my 1950s goddess and artist’s muse – came from my love of Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, and the film’s star, Anita Ekberg who was famously pictured gambolling in the Trevi Fountain. Bella’s character was fleshed out for me when I saw an exhibition of Francis Bacon’s artworks. I wanted to feature an artist of some sort in the book, but when I read about Bacon’s muse, Henrietta Moraes, it got me thinking about what kind of world Bella might operate in. Henrietta worked as an artist’s model and became the inspiration for many artists of the Soho scene in the 1950s and 1960s. She was also known for her marriages, love affairs and hedonistic lifestyle, which saw her ending up in Holloway Prison after a failed burglary attempt.
There are other instances in the book where I wove in real-life events and embellished them to enrich the narrative. They say you should write what you love and that’s exactly what I did. I’ve visited each of the cities described – Istanbul, New York, Rome and Shanghai – and used to live in London, so there was also a huge element of nostalgia at play as I slipped into those different places in history and imagined the drama of what my characters were experiencing. Unfortunately my current home (Sydney) doesn’t get a mention, but I’m thinking of remedying that in novel two!
Precious Things will be available in all good bookstores across Australia on 1 April.
For more stunning illustrations by Jessica Guthrie and to follow the Colour of Whimsy blog, click here. The design shown above will be made into silk banners displayed in bookstore windows across the country. If you see one near you, do send me a pic – I’d love to see how they’re being presented!
I write about women for women. Marriage, motherhood and career, as well as art and fashion; these are the themes that most intrigue me and are what I want to read about myself. Let’s face it, the only men likely to read Precious Things are either in my group of friends or immediate family so I thought – given that it’s International Women’s Day – I’d share with you some of the women who most inspire me and why:
I went to see Ms Gilbert at the Seymour Centre for Sydney Writer’s Festival on Friday night, and she was just as warm, engaging and intelligent in person as I expected her to be after reading her work. The Signature of All Things was one of my favourite novels of recent years, but it’s her writing on writing in Big Magic that blows me away. It’s made me look at creativity in a whole new light and inspired me to change my own writing practice.
I think this British singer is the most talented woman in music today. She’s also willing to be raw but with real dignity – something we’re crying out for. The new album, 25, is all kinds of awesome. I heart it.
What a life this woman had. Whenever I’m feeling weak or in pain I think of what she went through with her health and tumultuous marriage, and how she transformed it into thought-provoking and powerful art. Her work is rich, colourful and an enduring symbol of Mexico. Frida was the bomb.
Tamara de Lempicka
The original glamour woman of the art world, de Limpicka’s works are sumptuous and sensual and, for my money, the best examples of the cubism movement. The most fashionable portrait painter of her generation, she was feted at salons across Europe and didn’t give a fig what people thought about her fluid sexuality. All power to living such a fearless and adventurous existence.
Because she emancipated women through the power of fashion. Because she was unapologetic and impeccably stylish. Because she was, no doubt about it, a glorious broad.
Some other women I’m going to fangirl in the name of IWD: Cheryl Strayed, Isabel Allende, Joanne Harris, Kate Morton, Nigella Lawson, Cate Blanchett, the sass & bide duo, Helen Mirren, Sarah Jane Adams and the rest of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style mob. There are many more examples in books, politics, charity and my own life (of course of course) but these very public women provide a blueprint for creativity, style and chutzpah.
Who are the women who most inspire you, either alive or from history?
One of the topics I’m always interested to hear other authors talk about is how their novel came to be published, and all the ups and downs along the way. So I thought I’d share with you the long, painstaking and rewarding journey that led me to write Precious Things.
October 2009: Initial seed of idea pops into head. Post throwaway comment on blog: ‘One day I’ll write a novel about a cheeky little frock who gets about and lives in more cities than I ever will – won’t that be fun?’ Don’t give it much more thought, but short while later publisher friend sends email asking if I’m serious and asks to meet. Happy accident makes me commit to starting.
Early 2010 – end 2012: Get busy with other book projects and freelance writing. Put novel aside. Ignore nagging feeling that I really should be writing fiction.
August 2012: Pick up novel again. Finish first few chapters and think it is brilliant, surely best first draft anyone has ever written. Feel great.
September 2012: Join writing course at Faber Academy at Allen & Unwin called Bootcamp for Your Novel, just to keep me motivated. Have to share work for first time and realise how totally awful it is. Plunged into pit of despair. Delete first 15,000 words.
February 2013: Have about 60,000 words I’m tentatively proud of. Pluck up courage to show them to another friend in publishing. She tactfully tells me it needs major re-writing and a whole new structure if it’s going to work. Plunged into pit of despair again, but get to work re-drafting. On a roll.
May 2013: Feeling on top of the world! Have 90,000 words and plan for last few chapters, and fairly certain all but done. Make insane mistake of saying this on Facebook page, thereby ensuring another full year of writing and re-drafting.
August 2013: Start sending ‘first’ draft to agents in Sydney and the UK, hoping they will take me into their author stable. Success! UK agent reads and loves book! Makes some big suggestions for re-working the structure and sends me on my way. Work solidly for next few months changing the book as per my fabulous new agent’s suggestions.
December 2013: Finally hear back from UK agent about last draft. She’s changed her mind. Tells me book is not commercial enough for her to sell as is. Wants me to re-write, cutting out my main protagonist, Maggie. Search soul. Decide she’s not the agent for me. We part ways.
January 2014: Have a small car accident and get spinal injury. Back in spasm and neck is messed up for next five months. Can’t write, can’t do much of anything. Feel miserable and become hermit. Take up meditation and try to become Zen master. Go on family holiday to Europe. Tentatively research places for book while I’m there but mostly forget about writing. Come home a new person with neck better, able to write again. Forget spurious promises made during injury to work with impeccable posture, and go like hammer and tong once I return. Send book off to agents again. Mostly silence, and then: rejection after rejection. In the pit again. Still not Zen master (clearly).
August 2014: Have email offers from not one but two agents in London on the same day, asking me to sign with their agencies! Have Skype calls with both, and finally decide upon perfect agent. More thrilled than thought was humanly possible. Agent asks clever in-house editor to help me refine novel. Spend next few months re-writing it.
January 2015: Agent helps me sign two-book deal with HarperCollins Australia. HarperCollins comes back with more structural advice. Re-work for next few months.
April 2015: Hand in latest draft. Start work on novel two.
June 2015: Lovely HarperCollins editor comes back with more suggestions. Re-work and submit again.
September 2015: Editor comes back with more changes. Hand in mammoth edit of un-typeset pages. Think phew, I’m almost done.
Publisher starts sending out book to other authors for pre-publication endorsements we can put on the cover.
Designers at HarperCollins start working on cover image.
October 2015: Agent takes book to Frankfurt Book Fair. Meets German publisher who wants to publish Precious Things.
November 2015: Go speak to the good people at HarperCollins about my book, begging their sales team to do their best job at selling it to major chains and retailers across Australia for next Mother’s Day. Cross fingers.
Australian publisher and agent convince HarperCollins Holland to publish there.
Pages are typeset. Editor asks me to look over them again. Finally hand in last big edit. Think phew, I’m done.
December 2015: Bolinda Audio agrees to buy the rights to publish the audio book worldwide. Love my agent. Pre-publication endorsements start trickling in.
January 2016: Final changes have been made but I need to do one last proofread and edit. Think phew, I’m done. Last endorsements come in from a bunch of authors I admire. Totally thrilled.
1 February 2016: Go to print – yippee! Really am done. Start publicity process same day, working on a ‘making of’ free e-book and answering media questions about the book. Not really done.
21 March 2016: Precious Things to hit bookstore shelves across Australia.
1 April 2016: official publication date. Media campaign begins. Hurrah!
Have you got a similar story to tell? Please share. Like I said, I’m fascinated by this process.