Bruny is shortlisted for Fiction Book of the Year in the 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards. It’s in excellent company. A shortlist will be announced on April 28th. The winners will be announced on Wednesday 13 May in a virtual event. More details to come here.
Bruny – Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
Silver – Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
During this long period of isolation I am keenly aware of what it will take to be a parent to young children. For many years, I’ve been going into schools and reading the Tuesday McGillycuddy series to primary school children. I also dress up as one of the main characters – Serendipity Smith.
So, to make a small contribution at this time, I’m going to read a chapter of Finding Serendipity at 4pm Australian Eastern Standard time on Facebook beginning Monday April 6th.
If readers want more, I’ll keep going. (In Australia there’s a long winter ahead.)
The series has been published in Australia, the USA and Germany. It has twice been shortlisted for Best Children’s Fantasy Novel in the Aurealis Awards. The books are fantasy but they’re also about creativity and family, love and courage. We also wrote them to encourage and support young writers.
If you have younger readers aged 8 – 12, I’d love them to join me. I’ll also suggest some creative exercises they can do beyond the reading to keep them entertained a little longer.
There may even be dressing up.
If you’re in a different time zone, I’ll be posting the readings to YouTube here. Subscribe if you enjoy.
Delighted to have Bruny make the Indie Book Awards shortlist for Best Fiction Book of the Year – in amazing company with my fellow authors Charlotte Wood, Favel Parrett and Christian White. Here’s what the Indies website has to say about this year’s shortlists across all categories:
Australian independent booksellers, members of Leading Edge Books, are thrilled to announce their SHORTLIST for the Indie Book Awards 2020 for the best Australian books published in 2019!
The Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner will be announced at the Leading Edge Books Annual Conference Awards Dinner to be held on Monday 23 March 2020 in Brisbane, QLD.
Established in 2008, the Indie Book Awards recognise and celebrate this country’s incredible talent and the role independent booksellers play in supporting and nurturing Australian writing.
Who will win in each category in 2020?
Who will take out the overall ‘Book of the Year’ Award?!
Without further ado…
Without further ado…
The Shortlist for the Indie Book Awards 2020:
There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia)
Bruny by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin)
The Wife and the Widow by Christian White (Affirm Press)
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (Allen and Unwin)
Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch (Allen and Unwin)
488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct by Kitty Flanagan (Allen and Unwin)
Tell Me Why by Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia)
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing)
Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden (Macmillan Australia)
Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel (Macmillan Australia)
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean (Fourth Estate Australia)
Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (Vintage Australia)
The Lost Boys by Paul Byrnes (Affirm Press)
Finding the Heart of the Nation by Thomas Mayor (Hardie Grant Books)
The Whole Fish Cookbook by Josh Niland (Hardie Grant Books)
In an Australian Light edited by Jo Turner (Thames & Hudson Australia)
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals by Sami Bayly (Lothian Children’s Books)
Into the Wild: Wolf Girl, Book 1 by Anh Do, illustrated by Jeremy Ley (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
The Tiny Star by Mem Fox & Freya Blackwood (Puffin Australia)
Young Dark Emu: A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books)
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
Aurora Rising: The Aurora Cycle 1 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Allen and Unwin Children’s)
It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing)
Monuments by Will Kostakis (Lothian Children’s Books)
This is how it works. The twenty-four shortlisted books, the best titles of the year as nominated by Australian independent booksellers themselves, will be vying for the top spot as the Overall Indie ‘Book of the Year’. Panels of expert judges (all indie booksellers and avid readers) will choose the winners in the six book categories – Fiction, Debut Fiction, Non-Fiction, Illustrated Non-Fiction, Children’s books (up to 12yo) and Young Adult (12+). Independent booksellers from around the country will then vote to select their favourite book of the year from the six category winners.
Since the Awards inception in 2008, the Indies have a well-deserved reputation for picking the best of the best in Australian writing. Past Book of the Year winners have gone on to be bestsellers and win other major literary awards. Previous winners include: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton; Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, The Dry by Jane Harper; The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood; The Bush by Don Watson; The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan; The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman; All That I Am by Anna Funder; The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do; Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey; and Breath by Tim Winton.
The Awards recognise and celebrate the indie booksellers as the number one supporters of Australian authors. What makes our Indies uniquely placed to judge and recommend the best Aussie books of the past year to their customers and readers, is their incredible passion and knowledge, their contribution to the cultural diversity of the Australian reading public by recommending books beyond the big brands, and their love of quality writing.
The Indie Book Awards would like to gratefully acknowledge the 2020 Awards Sponsors: Simon & Schuster Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia, Affirm Press, Thames & Hudson Australia, Allen & Unwin, Text Publishing and Awards partner: Books+Publishing.
You are a UN
conflict resolution expert based in New York. Your brother is the Tasmanian premier.
Your sister is the Tasmanian opposition leader. Your mother has cancer and your
father is sliding into dementia and speaks only in Shakespearean quotes.
Someone blows up
part of an almost-completed $2bn bridge joining Tasmania to its offshoot Bruny Island.
You, dispatched to the scene, spot a bloke who looks as if he’d know how to
handle explosives, but on the plus side he resembles Chris Hemsworth.
Welcome to the
weird, wonderful, sad, nervous, bold and hilarious interconnected world of
56-year-old Astrid Coleman, the lead character in Heather Rose’s new novel
Bruny, named after the 362sq km island at its centre, permanent population
“The whole book was
the most amazing amount of fun I’ve ever had writing in my life,” the author
says. “I laughed and laughed.”
Rose’s family has
lived in Tasmania for six generations and Bruny Island, accessible only by
boat, has been important to her throughout her life. It was a place of fun and
games for Rose as a kid and it has been a place of peace and quiet for her as a
writer. A lot of that laughing during the writing of the novel, which is part
thriller, part political satire, part romance, was due to Astrid’s formidable
presence in Rose’s life.
Some writers treat
their characters as galley slaves. They tell them when to row, where to go and
when to stop. Others live with their characters, have conversations with them,
are guided by them. Rose is in the latter camp. “Yes, my children think that is
strange,” she admits.
known as Ace because as a child she cheated at cards, even came to her in a
dream and suggested — perhaps demanded is a better word — an important
development in the plot.
“That night she
wiped me out with something so shocking it left me sitting up in bed,” Rose
Rose used to argue
with her characters and sometimes try to say no to them, but she has stopped
doing that now and is more comfortable with the relationship as a result.
“I think that’s the
trick, isn’t it? I’m so grateful that Astrid only came at this point (Bruny is
Rose’s fifth novel for adults). I might have tried to push her around if she’d
come earlier, but this time I just let her have her head, and I was shocked by
her so many times.
“She’s quite an
outrageous character and she says things about life, men, politics, ideology,
everything, really, and I would type it all out, look at it and think, ‘I can’t
say that. That’s terrible. And then I’d think, ‘Oh, well, Astrid said it.’ ”
Here’s a good
example, when Astrid, who has two grown children, is thinking back on her
failed marriage: “Everyone should have to get divorced from the person they’re
married to, just to see who that person really is.”
Bruny is Rose’s
first novel since The Museum of Modern Love, centred on Serbian performance
artist Marina Abramovic, which won the 2016 Stella prize. It is also the first
one she has been able to write full time, thanks to the Stella cheque and an
Australia Council grant. Rose, 55, dabbled in modelling and acting when she was
young but has earned her living as an advertising copywriter, then as
co-founder of an award-winning advertising firm, Coo’ee Tasmania. She has three
“The Museum of
Modern Love took me 11 years. It was a very long process. I wrote four other
novels in the meantime, and it was a tedious novel in so many ways. Sorry.
“There was a
gruesomeness to writing it. It was arduous. It took everything, that novel. And
then, it had all the success, which was such a surprise. Then on the back of
that, the Australia Council, for the first time after 10 applications over 23
years, gave me a grant to work on this novel.
“I had already been
coming up with a few thoughts about it and writing scenes and all of that. But
there was something so brilliant about being able to knuckle down with this
idea that the Australia Council had funded me to write a political satire about
explosive set-up, Bruny unfolds as a power and passion drama about family,
loyalty, home, place, politics, foreign investment and love. It is in part a
love letter to the author’s home state.
Yet Tasmania is a
familiar but estranged place for Astrid, who has lived most of her adult life
in New York. She returns to help her twin brother, John, the Liberal premier,
known in the family as JC, a man who can walk on water, who is set to go to the
polls in four months. He has asked her to bring together the opposing sides in
the bridge debate, the established Tasmanians and the greenies versus the
newcomers, the developers and the Chinese investors, so the bridge can be fixed
and opened before the election.
leader, Maxine, is their older sister. She is the one who has continued the
family tradition as she is the Labor leader. Their father, Angus, was a state
Labor MP for decades. JC switched sides.
“If this book is a
love story, it is a love story for my fellow Tasmanians,” Rose says. “There’s
no way I could do justice to this community without talking about the
spectacular visual beauty we live in every day and how much that colours our
“But I also can’t
help but observe Tasmania and what we’re seeing in terms of visitor numbers and
consider what that means in the next five years, in the next 10 years, in the
next 20 years.
“And when I was
writing the book, I was immersed in current affairs, to everything that was
coming out of the US, the UK and here in Australia. I do think it’s important
we have better conversations about our national security planning, about our
long-term economic planning … and about what on earth are we doing about
protecting ourselves from the climate emergency.
“Clearly we do not
have leadership on any of those fronts. One of the things that I enjoyed doing
was looking into the nature of democracy.”
The novel is set in
the near future, which turns it into a delightful guessing game for readers.
Who is the prime minister? (Hint: I think it’s a comeback.) Who is the king of
England? Who is the American president? Who is the bestselling writer-public
intellectual greenie camped on Bruny Island? (Hint: I don’t think it’s Richard
I’m not going to
spoil the fun for readers, so I’ll leave the possible name out in this example.
When I say to Rose that the federal minister for natural protection Aiden
Abbott, better known as Aid-n-Abet, is obviously … she laughs and nods. A
friend of Rose sitting with us chips in. “You’ve been very naughty,” she tells
the author, who laughs some more.
As well as the name
game, other tantalising questions linger from the outset. Who blew up the
bridge? Why? Is it an act of terrorism? Is the brother-sister political
opposition just a front that allows one family — Coleman Inc — to control the
state? Does China have Australia’s interests at heart or are we just part of
its “chequebook colonialism”?
And is Astrid
working for someone else other than the Premier? Early on she notes “I have to
hide the truth, that’s always been my speciality”, and wonders: ‘‘Would I ever
kill for an ideal?” A reader’s impression of what that ideal may be will shift
as the novel goes on.
quotes from Angus are not just there for fun. This novel has Shakespearean
undertones. Readers will think of Lear, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and
especially Hamlet, where one can “smile, and smile, and be a villain”. No one
is exactly who they seem to be.
“It’s beautiful as
a writer to be part of a lineage,” Rose says. “I think as a writer it’s very
hard to ignore the influence of great writing, especially what’s been given to
us in the dramatic realm. And of course Shakespeare is so political.”
intrigue at the centre of this novel is the result of a lot of research. Rose
spoke to friends and contacts who worked in, or had connections to, political
parties, security agencies, government authorities and the UN.
particularly nervous about the scenes where the bridge is blown up, worried
that readers in the know would tell her she didn’t understand the nuts and
bolts of it.
So she made contact
with explosives experts, people similar to her fictional former paratrooper now
bridge foreman who looks like Hemsworth.
“They did come back
to me,” she says, “and were willing to advise me, but on one provision. They
said: ‘This is for a work of fiction, right?’ ”
Bruny, by Heather
Rose, is published by Allen & Unwin (424pp, $32.99).
My first book tour is over. Bruny has been launched across Australia. Thank you to all the bookstores that so graciously and delightfully welcomed me and Bruny to author events across the country. It was such a pleasure to meet readers everywhere, brilliant booksellers, and to discover so many beautiful bookstores! Apart from the events below, there were also so many signings at independent bookstores and Dymocks stores in every city. Thank you all!
My thanks to the very dedicated and brilliant publicist from Allen & Unwin – Christine Farmer – who made all this happen … and visited endless shopping centres with me for signings. Also to Ange Stannard and Maria Tsiakopoulos in WA and Victoria who chaperoned me in those states. Also to the awesome Allen & Unwin team who designed all the Bruny collateral that decks windows and bookstores across Australia. So wonderful to have this kind of support for a novel.
Events were held at:
Hobart Sunday Sept 29 3.30pm Fullers Bookshop In Conversation with Literary Editor of the Australian, Stephen Romei
HobartTuesday Oct 1 6pm Official Bruny Launch Hobart RACV Hotel 6pm with Premier Will Hodgman and supported by Dymocks – SOLD OUT
Sydney Wednesday Oct 2nd 6.30pm Better Read than Dead In Conversation with Editor of The Guardian, Lenore Taylor
Published in The Good Weekend magazine – The Age/ Sydney morning Herald
10 stories by 10 big Authors
14 December 2018 — 12:19pm
At the beginning of the year, I wrote in gold pen “The Year of Wonder” on a white piece of card. I had been meditating and it was a feeling that bubbled up. The Year of Wonder. I had to write it down and put it somewhere obvious, so I stuck it on the fridge.
The definition of wonder, I discovered, is “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. I wondered, as I looked at those words, what would happen if I claimed a whole year of it.
“I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set.”
On Wednesday, November 29, 2017, I was in New York, meeting for the first time with Giuliano Argenziano, Marina Abramovic’s director. Abramovic is the performance artist at the heart of my seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Giuliano has been the lovely voice in the emails I’ve been receiving since I first approached Abramovic to appear as a character in my novel. She agreed to that invitation via Giuliano. It was Giuliano who received my updates, the drafts of the novel, and finally, years later, the news of publication. He had been unfailingly generous, kind and supportive. When I met him at the Abramovic offices in Greenwich Street for the first time, I was armed with 24 yellow roses. He was vibrant, handsome, Italian and delighted with the flowers.
During the course of our meeting, we discussed the launch of the novel in New York. I was also in New York to meet my US publisher. That, in itself, is a story of wonder. Some months before, I was introduced to a German publisher in Sydney. I spoke to him for less than four minutes. I learnt later that he obtained a copy and read my novel on the plane back to Germany but was unable to convince his publishing firm to take the novel on. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a month or so later, he saw a New York colleague. He took her by the arm, walked her to my book, put it in her hands and said, “This is for you.” It turned out he was right. My New York publisher, in another twist, lived in the same location as Arky, the lead character in The Museum of Modern Love. In all of Manhattan, the same location with the exact same view over Washington Square.
So there really was going to be a US launch. It wasn’t just a possibility that Giuliano and I had discussed from time to time as the years went by, and the book was rejected, then eventually bought in Australia, then in Greece, Israel, China, Thailand, Catalonia and the UK. The book was coming home to New York. So when Giuliano asked me my ideas for the launch, I said that my dream was to have it at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was the home of Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective and seminal performance piece, The Artist Is Present. That is the artwork that unfolds throughout the novel – Abramovic’s 75-day ordeal sitting opposite strangers and meeting their gaze. Abramovic is herself in the novel and there is a cast of fictional characters, including a ghost. The book, as you may be gathering, is a strange blend of fact and fiction.
At my words, Giuliano in his delightful Italian accent, with his hands gesticulating, said, “Darling, that is a very big dream.” Then he paused and smiled. “But you keep your dream, because we do not know what is possible.” He suggested I ask Abramovic to be part of the launch. “She loves the book,” he said. “We all love the book. Ask.” Then he shrugged. “And we will see.”
I write an email. I write an email to the very famous, very busy, on-the-road Marina Abramovic, asking her to be part of a book launch. She responds a few days later. She would like to be part of the launch. But she has a big international schedule. Her diary and the US publisher’s dates have to align. The publishers want November … We are waiting on an international biennale to confirm Abramovic’s dates, too …
How are we going to get MoMA? For a book launch? It’s like asking to be on Richard Branson’s first flight into space. But I keep seeing the launch there, in the atrium. One night in June, I’m at dinner in Melbourne with a group of old and new friends. One of the new friends is a big fan of the book. She is very excited when she hears Abramovic may be launching the book. “I think it’s going to happen,” she says. She asks me about the venue. I say it’s not decided. I say I would really like it to be in the atrium at MoMA. It would be a homecoming for the book. “I’m going to help make that happen,” she says, explaining that she’s a friend of the director at MoMA. She sends him a copy of the novel.
I receive confirmation that the international biennale dates are not a clash. Abramovic will be available for November 28. And she will bein New York. She is a yes to the launch.
We learn that MoMA bookstores do not stock novels. They do not stock any fiction. Even if my book is set in the gallery? Even if it was launched at MoMA? No, no, no.
MoMA’s director writes and says he will look into the possibility of having the launch at the museum. July, August and September go by. August is my birthday. I have lunch with four girlfriends at a Japanese restaurant in Hobart. They make me write my wish list for the launch. I write who I want as the MC. I write that the launch happens in the atrium at MoMA. I take this piece of paper home and prop it on a shelf where I keep other things that are sacred to me. Photos of my children, an Aboriginal bark painting, a small ivory netsuke of a man reading.
No news from MoMA. The publishers are getting anxious. Do we have a back-up plan if MoMA doesn’t come through? Am I sure Abramovic is confirmed? Famous people cancel, apparently, all the time. I assure them that if Abramovic has said yes, she is a yes. After 11 years of research, I feel it is something I can be certain about.
We have only met once, me and Marina Abramovic, and it was over in seconds. But I have written hundreds of thousands of words about her. I have more than 300 individual pieces of research about her work and her life in my files. This is over and above the collection of books I have, and all that I have read about her. I hadn’t wanted to meet her. To me she is a character in my book. Writing is a strange enough thing to do each day without your characters coming to life.
Time is running out. There is talk of alternative launch venues – the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library. Or simply McNally Jackson, the bookstore in SoHo. But Abramovic is confirmed and a book store doesn’t seem big enough for her presence. Since The Artist Is Present, her absence from the atrium has haunted me on every subsequent visit to MoMA.
I want this weaving of fact and fiction. I want the story to come home to its heartland, to the very place the novel is set. Abramovic spent 75 days of her life in the atrium. I spent three weeks there researching the book, then five years or so imagining that performance almost every day while completing the novel. But the MoMA atrium is one of the most desired locations in New York. It’s a place for high-end fundraisers and black-tie charity events.
An email arrives. The director expresses his affection for Abramovic, for our mutual friend, for the book, and for making it happen at MoMA. He’s sure, however, that the atrium will be booked. (It’s booked months and years in advance.) But he will get back to us with an alternative location for the launch. Three days pass. Then an email arrives: “looks like the atrium will be free!!!” Those three exclamation points are the moment of truth.
My publishers seem genuinely shocked that an obscure writer from Tasmania has pulled off a launch at MoMA, sponsored by MoMA, and in conversation with the artist (and character) Marina Abramovic. I am a little shocked, too. I tell friends and colleagues. I advise them that an official invitation from the publishers will be forthcoming. Twenty-eight friends confirm they will be flying from Australia for the launch of the novel. I would have been surprised if eight friends had wanted to come. But 28?
Abramovic agrees that we will do an in conversation. Via email we discuss the format. I need someone to make the opening remarks. I would like it to be someone Australian, with a connection to the book. Someone who can hold her own at MoMA with a world of international people amassed for a book launch with Marina Abramovic. I ask someone I deeply admire who has recently returned to New York. She says yes. When I pass that piece of paper from my August birthday lunch on the shelf, I see that I had written her name on the paper as preferred MC. I had completely forgotten.
My three children are flying to New York from their various homes in Australia and the US. My 84-year-old father is coming from Australia, chaperoned by my sister.
When I arrive in New York, Giuliano calls me from London. Abramovic is very unwell. She was due to travel to New York on Tuesday for the launch but instead is to be transferred to a medical facility in Austria. Giuliano flies to New York to be with me for the launch and Abramovic sends an audio message. She sounds exhausted.
“Good evening everybody. I’m so sorry I can’t be there but the doctor has forbidden me to fly to New York,” she says. She goes on to explain that she’s having high blood pressure caused by Lyme disease. I know her condition is erratic and dangerous.
“I’d like to tell you a little story about this book and me,” she says, recounting how she met me briefly some years ago. She knew I was writing a book, and then one day, the book arrived, dedicated to her. “It was so overwhelming. It lies on my office table and later next to my bed for a long time. I didn’t really have the courage to open it and see what I would find there. I also always believe that right time, right place, right situation is the best.
“So soon I am leaving for India and the only book I take with me is that one. And India was the right place, right situation, when I can read with ease and full concentration. I was so touched by this book. It’s not just that it was about me and The Artist Is Present … but much more important than all that, is the way it was written. It’s a really, really, great piece of literature. I hope you enjoy this evening and I’m so sorry I am not with you tonight.”
And so, on Wednesday, November 28, at a private event at MoMA, Marina Abramovic and I were not in conversation. Instead Anne Summers stepped in to conduct the interview. She is a fan of the book and a consummate interviewer. She had just returned home to New York after her Australian tour following the launch of her memoir, Unfettered and Alive.
She makes the evening look as if it was always meant to be this way. We discuss the book, and the writing of it, and the life of being a writer, while faces from The Artist Is Present appear huge on a screen behind us. Faces that include that of Abramovic, who is a very large, very still presence throughout the evening. Like the character within the pages of the novel, she remains silent, enigmatic and quietly powerful.
Perhaps it’s strange to say it, but I’m not disappointed. I was deeply saddened to hear of Abramovic’s health challenges. I understand well the challenges of illness. And like her, I am a great believer that there is a flow of right action in the world. Whatever unfolded, this too was as it should be. She has already made enormous contributions to both the book and my life. And she has done all that from a great distance. That is what artists do.
In 2010, I sat opposite Abramovic four times in the centre of the atrium during The Artist Is Present. I was just one of 850,000 people who attended that performance. Eight years later, I sat in the centre of the atrium and Abramovic’s image watched over the launch of a story drawn from that event. Perhaps one day Abramovic and I will get to have a conversation. Perhaps it will be far from an art gallery with wine, food and good health. For now, we remain creator and character, author and artist, author and muse.
A novel born of an idea first realised at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), written largely in Tasmania, and published in Australia, has arrived in the United States. A book that took 11 years to write, and was rejected many times over, has had its US launch at one of the most famous art galleries in the world. It is the first novel to be launched at MoMA and the first and only novel to be stocked in its bookstores.
It’s hard to explain how much wonder has happened since 2005, when I first saw a photograph in the NGV that made me consider Abramovic as a character for a book. This was before she was the world-famous artist she is now. Before she became a household name. In 2010 when I sat opposite Abramovic at MoMA in New York, she had already been sitting at that table for years in my mind. (That’s another story.) But it was at MoMA that I realised I couldn’t fictionalise her any longer. She was too magnetic, her story too real. That’s when I asked and received permission to include her as herself.
In 2015, the very same day I got the phone call telling me the book had finally been accepted for publication here in Australia, Marina Abramovic flew into Hobart for the launch of her retrospective at The Museum of Old and New Art. She hadn’t been to Hobart in 40 years. That was where we met, in that brief moment she referred to in her audio message.
When I looked for a venue for a post-book-launch gathering for 28 Australians in Manhattan, everything was prohibitively expensive or booked out. I tried numerous options and came up short. Then someone recommended a bar. I called and they were helpful, inexpensive, welcoming. Great food. It is in the street right behind MoMA. This is where we Australians and New Yorkers gathered after the launch to celebrate late into the Manhattan night. The pub was called Characters. Of course the pub was called Characters. That is what writing a novel is all about. It is about those elusive, ephemeral and powerful creatures who come to our writing minds as characters.
Writing is a long road and overnight success can take decades. I began my life as a paid writer at 17 for the Hobart Mercury. I’ve written millions of words learning my craft and I’m still learning every day. If I am lucky, I’ll be learning to be a better writer until the day I die.
My seventh novel is taking flight around the world. I don’t know how readers will respond to The Museum of Modern Love in America. I do know, however, that the book was launched at MoMA exactly one year to the day since I first expressed my dream to Giuliano. I also know that when we gathered for the event, with the image of Abramovic watching over us all, it was a dream come true. It was “something admirable or amazing caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar”. It was a wonder.
Heather Rose has published seven novels. The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, $20) won the 2017 Stella Prize.
To read more of Good Weekend’s 10 short stories by 10 big authors, visit this page.
SYDNEY, Australia — Heather Rose checked into the Chelsea
Hotel after a long-haul flight from Hobart, Australia, flung her bag in her
room and sped to the Museum of Modern Art.
This was the spring of 2010, and Rose had a mission: to
stare into the eyes of Marina Abramovic, the Serbian-born performance artist,
in the atrium of the gallery.
“I thought I could just walk up and be the next person,”
said Rose, the novelist whose new book, “The Museum of Modern Love,” will be
published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing,
in the United States on Nov. 27.
“I’d never seen people running for art,” said Rose, 54, who
remembers people racing to get to the front of the line.
Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s
75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors waited for hours
to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative
gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative
experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters.
Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,” is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently arrive.
Marina Abramovic’s art performance, “The Artist Is Present,”
is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all independently
Fremson/The New York Times
“It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally
seen,” Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the
crowds and saw others came back, too.
This atrium and this exhibition, with the silent Abramovic
at its heart, is where the lonely characters of “The Museum of Modern Love” all
independently arrive. Just as Rose was, they are inexplicably drawn to this
refuge of unspoken, intimate connection and stillness in Midtown Manhattan.
This part-fact, part-fiction tale of art, love, grief and
convergence is Rose’s fourth adult novel (she is also a co-author of the
“Tuesday McGillicuddy” children’s series under the pen name Angelica Banks) and
won Australia’s Stella Prize in 2017.
The characters — including Arky Levin, a film composer who
hasn’t visited his ill wife in months; a widow taking the vacation she and her
husband always meant to take together; and a grieving art critic finding solace
in an affair with a married man — move through New York yearning to be seen.
In one desolate moment, Arky believes his estranged wife has
left her toothbrush on the sink and searches high and low for his own,
realizing days later it was his toothbrush he had seen and that he “only
recognized it in relation to Lydia’s.”
Questions of loss appear throughout the book, but Rose
doesn’t feel the need to resolve them. “It’s not trying to be definitive,”
Professor Brenda Walker, the chairwoman of the 2017 Stella Prize judging panel,
told me. “It’s trying to be open and thoughtful.”
Wall/The New York Times
The book is narrated by an unnamed artist’s “muse,” an
incorporeal angel-like being that’s assigned to watch over artists. Different
muses have visited Rose for each of her books, she told me recently over dinner
at a Sydney restaurant. This one was patient, thankfully, as the novel took her
11 years to write. (Other times, she said, it’s a little old woman with a
bamboo stick whacking her on the back, saying: “Write harder! Write longer!”)
She had become used to writing “around the edges of the
days,” juggling family and running an advertising agency she co-founded in
1999. Thanks to various book prizes and a grant from the Australia Council in
2017, Rose is now writing full time.
As a proud sixth-generation Tasmanian, Rose orders the
Tasmanian pinot noir with our meal, and effuses to me about the landscape: “We
have the best clouds in the world!”
This novel is her first not set in Tasmania, but she spies
unlikely connections between Manhattan — another island, she points out — and
her home state.
Island culture “gives us a sense of identity, and maybe that
makes us more robust in our creative output,” she said. “Big Apple, little
apple,” she affectionately calls Manhattan and Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.
The spark of the book came five years before “The Artist Is
Present.” Rose had never heard of Abramovic until she encountered photographs of
the artist’s previous performance works at the National Gallery of Victoria in
Melbourne, Australia, in 2005. She saw images from the 1988 work, “The Lovers,”
in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more than a thousand
miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and
end their relationship.
Heather Rose was deeply moved by Marina Abramovic’s 1988
work, “The Lovers,” in which Abramovic and her partner, Ulay, each walked more
that a thousand miles from different ends of the Great Wall of China to meet in
the middle and end their relationship.CreditThe Marina Abramovic Archives
“Instantly I thought, there’s a character for a novel,” Rose
said. How could someone be so brave and courageous, she wondered, yet so
vulnerable and romantic?
She tinkered with the idea for years (she published her
third novel, “The River Wife,” in the meantime). But it wasn’t until she sat
opposite Abramovic in MoMA that she realized she couldn’t fictionalize her.
“She’s too powerful, she’s too magnetic,” Rose said.
“Nothing I could imagine would be more interesting than what she’s done with
Rose nervously wrote to the Sean Kelly Gallery, which
represents Abramovic, and got the artist’s blessing. Rather than relief, it
brought a fresh wave of anxiety for Rose. “I didn’t want to let her down in any
way,” she said.
Abramovic was not let down. “I really loved the story,” she
told me recently, and she wrote a glowing blurb that appears on the back of the
Rose never interviewed Abramovic for the book (“It’s a bit
like breaking the fourth wall,” she said), but researched her life
meticulously, thanks largely to the collection of materials belonging to David
Walsh, the owner of the MONA gallery in Hobart.
While immersed in Abramovic’s four-decade career, Rose
understood another reason she was drawn to the woman who had made an art out of
enduring extreme pain.
Rose has had an inherited arthritic condition since
childhood, which has, many times, left her unable to walk for weeks. She’s
never talked about it publicly.
“So actually, writing is really painful for me,” she said.
“And so pain is one of those things I’ve had to befriend. I think of it as a
house guest that’s stayed way too long.”
She ponders how much of herself she poured into the book
without even realizing it. Rose’s marriage ended six months before the novel’s
release in Australia, yet she had instinctively populated her book with
resilient female characters rising above grief, suffering and recurring
“I feel in retrospect that what I was writing was a kind of
blueprint for the sort of life I needed to live beyond the marriage, even
though I had no idea the marriage was failing at the time.”
The book is launching with an event this week where it all
began: at the atrium in the Museum of Modern Art, with Abramovic herself.
“I couldn’t quite believe that, honestly. I thought, she has a huge life, and this is just a little novel written by a Tasmanian,” Rose said.
“I’m still nervous to meet her,” she said, laughing. “I’m a
huge fan. The funny thing is, I wasn’t a fan when I first started. I was just
My guess is that you’ve never read a book quite like Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. I know I haven’t. This is the Australian author’s seventh novel, though it’s her first published in the United States, and it’s a real find. Rose celebrates the transformative power of art with an artful construct of her own — the profound response of a handful of fictional characters to Marina Abramovic’s performance piece, The Artist is Present, in which the Serbian artist sat perfectly still and silent at a table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a total of 736 hours over the course of the performance.
Between March 14 and May 31, 2010, more than 1000 people took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze, while thousands more came to observe from the sidelines. Rose places her characters among them as the exhibit’s time clock ticks down. Most are at a painful crossroads in their lives, which heightens their susceptibility to Abramovic’s performance.
Even if you’ve never cottoned to Abramovic’s transgressive, self-flagellating body of work and regard the lengths she has gone in her explorations of physical endurance and the relationship between the artist and her audience as more stunt than art, Rose’s passionate take on it opens readers up to a fresh look. That said, the knife slashes, razor blades, and Great Wall of China trek make for sensational reading, but The Museum of Modern Love wouldn’t work if Rose’s characters and their stories weren’t as compelling as her appreciative assessment of this controversial artist whose “metier [is] to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration.”
Central among the novel’s cast is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks and an “immensely sad” and limited — but sympathetic — human being who “didn’t know how to solve anything but music.” Rose writes, “It’s hard to imagine a man more capable of living in his own cocoon than Levin.” He loves solitude and “didn’t even like living on this planet particularly.”
But until 2010, Arky thought he was happily married. That’s one of many assumptions he has to reassess after his beloved wife, starchitect Lydia Fiorentino, becomes gravely ill. Shortly before we meet him, Arky has learned that Lydia made advanced legal arrangements to sequester herself in a nursing home, with a court order to keep him from visiting — having long doubted his ability to care for her should her congenital illness turn critical. But their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by draconian arrangements Lydia is no longer capable of overturning. At a loss, he finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.
Other characters converge with Arky as they, too, are mesmerized by Abramovic’s MoMA show. Jane Miller is a recently widowed middle school art history teacher from Georgia. Brittica van der Sar is a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic. Healayas Breen, a beautiful black art critic and singer raised Muslim in Paris, was a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner — who disappointed them both when he moved on to younger composers and girlfriends. Abramovic’s performance teaches each of them lessons about time and stirs a desire to catch some of her courage, daring, and resolve.
Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader.
Rose, who lives on the island of Tasmania, displays a deep appreciation of art and a deft ability to blend fact, fiction, abstract ideas, and sentiment that recalls Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. So, too, does her willingness to venture beyond the confines of reality with an omniscient, incorporeal first person narrator — a sort of art-angel muse who spans centuries. An offbeat exploration of Abramovic’s difficult relationship with her mother, whose ghost haunts the MoMA show, also evokes Smith’s novel.
Rose clearly believes in the redemptive, transformative power of art for artist and audience, writer and reader. Her narrator remarks, “There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work. They are as waterfalls shot with sunshine.” The widowed art teacher explains great art’s ability to touch deeply and expose something “indescribable … A kind of access to universal wisdom.”
Amid searching but never tedious discussions about what constitutes art, and reflections on Abramovic’s grueling performance, Rose posits, “Perhaps art was evolving into something to remind us of the power of reflection, even stillness.” Her viewpoint is best summed up in an epigraph from Stella Adler, one of many inspirational quotes that punctuate The Museum of Modern Love: “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”
Managing Editor Vern Field thought it was time to concentrate on the wealth of Tasmanian writing talent – and came up with the apple idea. So together with the wonderful Island General Manager Kate Harrison and photographer Jack Robert-Tissot we trucked off to the apple orchards of the Huon to Willie Smith’s great venue. The brilliant Sophia Pafitis helped me look glamorous, and Jack did the rest. There was also some brilliant post-production work done by Malcolm Proctor. (Thank you Mal!).
But it’s what’s within the pages of this edition that surpasses the cover entirely! So many great words, ideas and writers – James Dryburgh, Melanie Tait, Carmel Bird and many more – and there’s also the transcript of the conversation the gorgeous Benjamin Law and I had in Hobart following the Stella Prize.
If you’re not a subscriber, it’s time you were! And at the very least, run out and get a copy and support Tasmania’s brilliant literary journal and all it’s writers and creators.
Ways to connect with Heather
For all Australian media and event enquiries please contact Christine Farmer at Allen & Unwin, Australia – ChristineF (@) allenandunwin.com. For all other enquiries please contact Heather’s agent, Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary. Follow Heather on her Twitter, Instagram and You Tube accounts below.