Happy International Women’s Day

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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:

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Elizabeth Gilbert
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.

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Adele
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.

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Frida Kahlo
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.

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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.

'In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different' - illustration of Coco Chanel by Zoe Sadokierski for my book, A Life in Frocks

‘In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different’ – illustration of Coco Chanel by Zoe Sadokierski for my book, A Life in Frocks

Coco Chanel
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?

The path to publication: a timeline

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Inspiration for one of the historical chapters in Precious Things: Anna May Wong in the 1930s

Inspiration for an historical chapter in Precious Things: Anna May Wong in the 1930s

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.

One month to go…

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In the midst of seemingly endless proofreads and edits it’s been easy to lose sight of the fact that the publication date for Precious Things is almost here. Just over a month until the book hits shelves, and this is what’s happened since the end of last year:

Precious ThingsWe have a cover! Remember my post about working with the HarperCollins design team to come up with one? They ended up creating one version to send me, and it was love at first sight. They’ve tweaked here and there to come up with a more readable font (especially handy when online covers are no larger than thumbnails) but I’m thrilled with the design, what do you think? It should be even more lovely in the flesh with tactile spot gloss, embossing and gold foil features, and it’s going to be amazing holding it in my hands when it finally arrives …

My agent Jane Gregory has sold the rights to German publisher, Verlag Kiepenheur & Witsch and HarperCollins Holland so far. We don’t have a firm date yet for publication in those countries, but Precious Things should be international within the next year or so – I can’t wait to see the translated versions. ‘Precious Things’ in Dutch? Doesn’t quite translate. So they’re calling it De reis van de parels or The Travel of the Pearls. How gorgeous is that?

Australian company Bolinda Audio will be publishing the audio book worldwide, with an English accent! The narrator should be confirmed soon. With my main protagonist living in London this seemed fitting, although I have a feeling it’s going to make the experience of listening to it even more surreal (and I was only a wee bit disappointed they didn’t want to record my nasal Aussie brogue narrating it ;-).

HarperCollins sent the book out far and wide for pre-publication endorsements last year. Here’s some of the feedback that’s come in. I can’t tell you how wonderful and strange it feels to have people I admire saying such lovely things:

‘A sparkling, feminine narrative, highlighting that what is lost can also be found’ – Kirstie Clements, Author of The Vogue Factor and former editor of Vogue Australia

‘An intricate mystery… love, life and fashion intertwine to create worlds that set the imagination alight.’ – Julie Carrol, New Idea Magazine

‘The stories of the different women Doust imagines are so touching and poignant. I loved it.’ – Kristy Allen, Australian Women’s Weekly Magazine

‘A mesmerising and sublimely told tale about how our stories and secrets outlive us, intertwined in the threads of our precious things.’ – Jacinta Tynan, author of Mother Zen and Sky News Presenter

‘Captivating, mesmerising and an absolute pleasure to read, Precious Things does not disappoint.’ – Dijanna Mulhearn, Author of Wardrobe 101

‘We are drawn in from start to end; this is a novel to get wonderfully lost in’ – Pia Jane Bijkerk, Blogger and Author of My Heart Wanders

‘Wonderful storytelling – I was bewitched.’ – Charlotte Smith, Author of Dreaming of Dior

And the book got a special mention in the annual ‘novels to look out for in 2016′ round-ups in both The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

More to follow soon, with a blog post about the long and winding path to publication. Stay tuned!

Writing groups and getting into character

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An image to work from - my 1900s character, Rose

An image to work from: my late 1800s, early 1900s character

So I’ve joined a writing group. Our plan is to share a piece of writing – possibly a chapter, possibly a short passage – in the interim since we’ve last met, and we’ll reconvene each month. It’s not such a lot to achieve, but knowing that I’ll have to prepare something for the next meeting should keep me on track. Novel two is due on 1 May next year, and it’s already feeling a lot closer than it seems.

If you write, have you ever thought about joining a group? I’ve always been a bit nervous about it (the exposure!) but of course groups are fantastic for keeping you motivated. And we’ve set a strict rule of confidentiality – no sharing plots with friends or family, which have a way of turning up everywhere once you decide to write something.

We had our first meeting last Thursday. Although it’s early days, I’m feeling quite excited. There’ll be five of us – a big group – and I’m genuinely intrigued by the book ideas the other members shared. I think it’s going to be quite inspiring. Each of us is at a different stage with our novels and we’re all working on something completely different. Just to begin with, they suggested some ideas about how I might unfold my central mystery. I don’t think I would have hit upon this myself – five heads are definitely better than one.

For years I’ve been meaning to answer the famous Proust questionnaire for each of my characters, so we’ve decided to do this for our next meeting as well – at least with our main protagonists. It’s always illuminating reading the celebrity responses to these questions in the back of Vanity Fair, but I found this particularly fun when thinking about how my key characters would answer (read David Bowie’s answers here if you have a moment “What is your favorite journey? The road of artistic excess”).

If you’d like to give it a go yourself, here’s a (slightly amended) version from The Write Practice. One of my characters has answered the top ten:

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Being adored
  2. What is your greatest fear? Not making an impact
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Submission
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Artifice
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Emily Pankhurst
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Fashion
  7. What is your current state of mind? Confident
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Temperance
  9. On what occasion do you lie? When I feel cornered, to impress
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? My feet (do you remember when Naomi Campbell said this? It’s always made me laugh…)
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero of fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?
Evening dress of the 1800s

Evening dress of the 1800s

Another practice I’ve found helpful is finding likely pictures of my characters and what they were wearing on the interwebz. It helps clarify them in my mind and can also be nifty when it comes time to describe them. Descriptions change a lot throughout the course of a book, so clear images are a great grounder.

What are some of your best tips for characterization, and do you have any ideas for what we should do next? Please share!

Putting imagination into (cover) images

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Mood board for Precious Things

Mood board for Precious Things

HarperCollins is in the process of designing the cover for my first novel, Precious Things. I’m so excited to see it – it should be ready in the next few weeks, and hopefully in time to grace the cover of the reading copies, which they’re working on at the moment.

My publisher Catherine and I have been going back and forth for some time on ideas about how it will look. Firstly, I was asked to send through some book covers I liked with suggestions as to what I thought worked or didn’t work about them for Precious Things. I sent through about fifteen covers, some with heavily stylised photographs and others with illustrations. Then I was asked to put together a mood board about my main character, so that Catherine could brief the designer on what the book’s about.

Maggie vintage shambolic_Precious Things

This is what I came up with. The images aren’t meant to be taken literally. My protagonist – a warm, sensitive woman called Maggie – isn’t a model, after all, but she is gorgeous in her way and these are meant to give a sense of how I see her. I compiled the mood board with tear sheets taken from fashion magazines laid out on my kitchen bench and overlaid with some of the beaded, richly embroidered and quirky vintage pieces Maggie collects. There’s also a postcard painting in there of a circus setting, which reflects her fascination with costumes and unusual or special pieces.

Maggie going out_Precious Things

I loved doing this – it’s quite fun to be asked to contribute to the design of your book and I realised I had all the images I needed, already collected in a folder which accompanied me throughout the writing process. Whenever I saw an appropriate image, I put it in there just for my own reference, along with articles that seemed to evoke the mood or setting I was looking for.

The funny part about the cover process is that you can provide all sorts of background ideas and images to designers, but it often happens that inspiration strikes them, and they come up with something so unexpected, extraordinary and right – but completely different to what was envisaged. That’s the magic of what they do.

Stay tuned for news on the reading copies. I’m hoping to be given some extra to hand out to those of you in book groups, so you can spread the word in advance x

Maggie work_Precious Things

8 lessons learned

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Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, and me at my desk. Carrie Bradshaw we ain't.

Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, aka me at my desk. Carrie Bradshaw we ain’t.

I recently sent off the last big structural edit for Precious Things and it’s such a relief. It was the most fun edit I’ve done to date, because it feels like the book is so close to completion now… I can hardly believe it. Just one more copy edit and a proofread, then it goes off to print.

A friend asked me if I wouldn’t mind sharing with her writing group what I’ve learned. I’ve been mulling over what to say for weeks now, so here’s a few important points I wish I’d known beforehand, in case it might help you too:

1) Novels need conflict (it seems obvious, right? It wasn’t to me, not at first). I thought I could create a story about perfect characters who led fabulous lives and did everything better than me… That’s before I realised it would also make my book incredibly BORING. Cue putting them through the wringer in the name of good storytelling. Once I figured this out, it was more enjoyable throwing obstacles in their way than you might think.

2) It’s alright to create a bad first draft, but it’s also near impossible to do otherwise. Trust that you’ll get there after many rewrites and efforts at polishing. ‘Shitty first drafts’ is one of the tenets of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the best book on writing I’ve read. In fact, just read Bird by Bird and you’re already streets ahead.

3) Give yourself time between edits. This is one of those things I find hardest to do, but damn it works. I had about five months off between the last structural edit and the one before, where I forced myself not to tinker with it. The flaws just jumped out at me when I finally picked it up again. Some days I wish I could go back and give all my early books the same luxury.

4) There are hardly ever the perfect conditions for writing. There’ll be family dramas or house problems, or work issues going on at the same time, pretty much always. There’s only one option and that’s to ‘turn it on’ when you need to, no matter what the circumstances – even if your house is being pulled down around your ears like ours has been recently. If I waited for those days when inspiration strikes or everything was quiet and calm, I wouldn’t have written more than a few chapters. As Henry Miller put it when devising a writing plan to finish his first novel, ‘when you can’t create, you can work.’ It’s a good point.

5) Every sentence and every word should have a purpose. If it’s not giving the reader any new or important information, it shouldn’t be in there. You might need to ‘waste’ tens of thousands of words figuring it out (I did… maybe over 100,000) but that’s what it comes down to in the end; precise prose.

6) Description is necessary at the beginning of a book but needs to give way to action the closer you are to reaching the end. This keeps the pace ticking along nicely and spurs readers on. When it’s successful, they’ll feel like they can’t put it down. When it’s not, great swathes of description or unnecessary scenes should be cut out or shifted to earlier in the book to keep the story moving.

7) Similarly, each chapter should contain a miniature story arc that climaxes at the end so that readers feel compelled to keep turning the pages. Even if you’re not writing commercial fiction, this really works. I’m convinced the massive success of The Hunger Games trilogy is thanks to Suzanne Collins’ supreme understanding and mastery of this skill.

8) And this is more of a personal preference; every year I take a few days’ out to visit Sydney Writers’ Festival and see those sessions I think I’ll get the most out of. It’s like a cheap crash-writing course. Similarly, I listen to advice from other writers on what works for them, and am prepared to give anything a go when I’m stuck. I saw Graeme Simsion’s session at SWF this year and his answer to writers’ block is to a) focus on another scene or b) lower his standards, trusting that he’ll improve with the next draft. It’s so easy to get fixated on getting something right, you can waste days or even weeks ‘perfecting’ things. That’s a killer piece of advice and it really works – momentum is everything!

Some news

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Early artist's impression of the collar / coronet by my dear, talented friend, Jessica Guthrie

Early artist’s impression of one of the characters in Precious Things by my dear, talented friend, Jessica Guthrie

Exciting news, which I can finally share with you lovelies! This was published in today’s Bookseller & Publisher:

Two-Book Deal for Kelly Doust

HarperCollins is thrilled to announce that we have acquired Kelly Doust’s debut novel in a two-book deal for ANZ rights via Gregory and Company, UK.

Precious Things, to be published in May 2016, is a sweeping, absorbing and lush work of commercial fiction, telling the story of a beautiful embroidered collar and its journey through time in the hands of the women who created it, loved it, wore it and lost it—and the modern-day woman who can’t help but be intrigued by its mysterious past.

HarperCollins Publisher Catherine Milne says: ‘Kelly is well-known to booksellers as the author of the Crafty Minx books, and it’s wonderful to see this talented writer move into fiction—which as it turns out is her natural home.’

Kelly says: ‘I am delighted to be publishing my fiction with HarperCollins and thrilled to be working with Catherine Milne and the rest of the HCP team.’

I’m editing at the moment – more to follow soon x

Feeding the book

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Wise owl by Nathalie Lete

Owl by Nathalie Lete

Neil Gaiman calls it his ‘staring at the wall’ phase. Carrie Tiffany hosted a workshop at Faber Academy and described it as being like ‘a car without gas’. Kazuo Ishiguro writes like a madman before experiencing an almighty crash. I call it brain freeze; that time when you’re feeling all dense yet scooped-out inside, and the thaw seems like it could be months or even years away. When I’m like that, it’s probably more precise to say I don’t feel anything – at least, I couldn’t tell you what’s going on inside my head because there’s nothing much going on at all.

I think all writers must go through this process. That time after any period of intense writing where one feels totally and utterly spent. And not just writers; almost anyone after a huge project ends and before a new one begins.

That was a lot of last year for me and I was beginning to wonder whether I’d ever see my way through it. But I’ve realised they were all right; it does end, and all you can do when the car’s empty is fill up – totally gorge yourself on information and circle around, letting the ideas sift and settle, waiting to see which ones stick.

Will you look at this gorgeous woman? Artist Nathalie Lete, looking every bit like one of her paintings.

Will you look at this gorgeous woman? Nathalie Lete, looking every bit as lovely as her paintings.

I’m not quite ready to write yet, not properly. I have a new notebook (a very pretty one from French artist Nathalie Lete, almost half-full already) with a new plot and many more discarded ones and various ideas which will never see the light of day, as well as some that will. Some may feed into the following book, or the one after that.

There’s almost a fated process at work now. Ideas germinate from even the smallest daily encounters and a conversation, news story or non-fiction read comes at just the right time. Sometimes it feels like such a perfect fit for my next book, it’s hard to believe it’s only a coincidence. This can seem like pure magic, if you believe in such things.

Raining ideasWhen I was writing the last book I visited the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Francis Bacon exhibition. I knew I wanted to feature an artist in the book but had all these stale ideas about who the character would be, and how they would fit in. Seeing the works and reading about Bacon’s life, I started to picture her more clearly; where she might have come from, what drove her and how her story was different from anyone else’s. Similarly, I’m now reading a non-fiction book called The Last Curtsey, about the end of the debutantes, and I’m starting to get a clearer idea of who my next character will be. I know her lifestyle and the times that shaped her, so she’ll be more than just a composite of someone I want to write about. This is making her feel real to me, almost as real as people I actually know.

Other seeds of ideas come in conversations with friends or new acquaintances, snippets overheard in cafés, or a look between two people that I witnessed. And they all feed into some of the broader ideas I’ve been mulling over for decades, mostly on a subconscious level. About how to behave, how to treat people, how families work or don’t work and knotty issues such as narcissism, sibling rivalry and infidelity.

Because what is a novel if not a manifesto of sorts? A moral code by which the book is governed? Authors tell you how they think things should be, not necessarily how they are, but there’s a lot of real emotion being poured into their work. Readers can only read between the lines.

I used to have an old boyfriend who wouldn’t touch fiction, saying he didn’t want to read about things that weren’t real (no, it wasn’t a perfect match). The novel might be an amalgamation of clever ideas and gimmicks sometimes – outrageous characters and scenes amped up for dramatic effect – but the book’s soul is a real thing. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t connect with it at all. It’s also hard to see why the writer would bother with such an undertaking in the first place, given the effect on our poor brains following a novel’s completion (please refer to first paragraph)!

A few of my favourite things

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11057273_1538219093109222_6852092253340208011_nTO READ: THE STORIED LIFE OF AJ FIKRY
Bookish folk, this is for you. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a perfect novel about a failing bookstore, its cranky owner, a perky sales rep and a precocious foundling. Mostly it’s about love, though – love and books. Mr Fikry, you’re my kind of man.

TO WATCH: BIG EYES
The story of artist Margaret Keane and her domineering cheat of a husband is so extraordinary, it seems hard to believe it hasn’t been told sooner on the big screen. Tim Burton does the tale justice without going over the top on the magic realism and it’s a better film for it, but I loved the small touches that were present in the haunting eyes of Keane’s women and children. Don’t fret, Amy Adams fans… Oscar’s coming for her one day soon. Great 60s fashion and architecture, too for all the die-hard vintage peeps out there.

10305063_1541679779429820_54041439847273506_nTO LUST AFTER: NEW-SEASON GUCCI
Frida Giannini’s nailed it – this is all I want to wear in the coming season. I’m thinking 70s nostalgia is a-ok when I missed it first time round… just. I didn’t miss out on a very fetching bowl cut, though (all photographic evidence destroyed). How amazing is this jacket!?

AND SOME ACE TV: GIRLS SEASON 4
Lena Dunham’s comedy about four twenty-something women in New York just gets better and better, and this season was the pinnacle for me. Jemima Kirk’s Jessa is a joy to behold but man, she’s a piece of work!

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ALSO – VISIT: YOUR LOCAL ARTIST’S STUDIO
I recently made a trip to The Bakehouse Studio, workspace of Marrickville artist Lisa Holzl. I’m writing a clay sculptor into the next novel and got such a great feel for her character and life in this magical space.

Thinking visually: behind the scenes at Major & Tom

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Under the jacket, A Life in Frocks

Under the jacket, A Life in Frocks

Pages from A Life in Frocks: a memoir

Pages from A Life in Frocks: a memoir

It’s hard to imagine publishing a book that won’t allow me to use visual cues to get my message across. There’ll be a jacket image – either illustrated or photographic – and maybe even something extra inside, but the novel’s unlikely to be a hybrid of both. I like using a variety of mediums, and I’m going to miss it. Let’s see if we can cook something up…

If you’ve read A Life in Frocks, you’ll know I was lucky enough to have illustrations done by the talented Zoe Sadokierski and an unusual layout (Frocks won an Australian Publisher’s Association Award: Best-Designed Non-Fiction Book, 2010). Even in an age of digital publishing and e-readers, I still believe the book is a beautiful object people want to have and to hold. Such covetable objects will always exist, even in a rarefied form (we hope)!

With that in mind, I present you with a little snapshot of life behind-the-scenes at Major & Tom Propery St Peters, written by Naomi van Groll. Major & Tom provided some of the gorgeous vintage props we used to illustrate The Crafty Minx at Home, which were expertly styled by the wonderful Clare Delmar and photographed by Amanda Prior. A passionate publishing student and Major & Tom fixture, I thought Naomi could best explain what her day consists of and why stylists are so very clever for doing what they do…

The lovely Naomi van Groll

The lovely Naomi van Groll

“When I completed my tax return last year, the closest description I could find for my occupation was ‘furniture packer.’ And in fact, this is pretty accurate. If by furniture you include engraved silver cutlery, hand-dyed fabrics of every size and colour, any patterned cup or saucer you please or old French glass essence jars still faintly smelling of cinnamon. These are the items that are stacked to the ceiling of my workplace, and I will pack, unpack and restack them each day in the trove of kitchenware and vintage treasures that fills Major & Tom.

Behind the aisles of plates and jugs is Georgie, diviner of beautiful old bowls, creator of moody canvases and restorer of French dining tables. From her workshop filled with beeswax and paint, Georgie has created a warehouse from which food stylists and art directors can pluck just the right teapot for their roaring twenties-themed film set, or source a worn timber tabletop for the next issue of Gourmet Traveller. Travelling from Paris to Adelaide to Rozelle markets to find worn English biscuit tins and the latest in Danish design, Georgie’s eye is unparalleled. Her warehouse is an evolving display of possibilities for a stylist’s next brief.

Armed with such a brief, stylists pop in to Major & Tom and will often settle in for the day. They will set their bag and laptop on the long pine table that runs the length of the warehouse, and – if they are in at the right moment – will be offered a cup of tea to ease them into the hunt. First off, the wall of tabletops and surfaces is scoured, with questions like colour, texture and budget determining whether to choose a crackled teal cypress or a bright white oregan. Once the background and surface has been matched to the brief, the stylist will look at each recipe and shot in order to determine whether specific items are needed, like a cakestand or casserole dish, and what mood is to be achieved. It is here that the magic happens. I have a lot of admiration for stylists, who have to interpret the ideas of the art and marketing teams into a beautiful image that pleases everyone and looks delicious. Instagram filters may help me to jazz up last night’s bowl of soup, but after watching food stylists in action, I can assure you it is always going to look better when left to the professionals.

Surrounded by these beautiful things every day, I am very happy to call myself a furniture packer. Each day brings different stylists working on a huge range of interesting creative projects. As they peruse our colour-coded aisles, I am admiring their selections and learning the nuances of design briefs and shot lists, not to mention getting a glimpse of upcoming recipes in my favourite food magazines. As a student learning about publishing, I am extremely lucky to be able to quiz freelance stylists about how the industry operates, as well as having the opportunity to meet such talented creative people living in my own city. The more I learn about the industry, and the more lovely and passionate stylists I meet, the more excited I am about the future of food styling and photography, no matter what the medium.

Australia is the highest per capita consumer of magazines in the world, which is a reassuring statistic for a person hoping to break into the industry and stay in it for as long as I can. I must also come to terms with the fact that printed magazines face a decline in readers as more and more people share their stories and creativity on blogs, forums, apps and online magazines. This does not deter me from my confidence in the longevity of stylists, photographers and writers. I am more convinced than ever that creative individuals and industries will flourish as their content travels around the world via computers and the faithful print magazine. As long as people appreciate being immersed in beautiful things, as I do, there will be a place for wonderful places like Major & Tom.” – Naomi van Groll

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Organised vintage loveliness at Major & Tom

Organised vintage gorgeousness at Major & Tom