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05 Jan

Canberra novelist Sally Thorne’s rocket ride

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Canberra author Sally Thorne at her home in Gordon. Photo: Melissa AdamsSally Thorne remembers with shining clarity the moment she realised her life was about to change in a huge way.  “I remember going in to my desk at work [in the public service] and sitting down and just feeling like suddenly an escape hatch had opened in what was a pretty dry, corporate world,” she says. “And I spoke to the guy next to me and I just said, ‘I was given a book deal.'”
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This is a story of how the internet sometimes makes dreams come wildly true. In the space of a few crazy months last year, Sally Thorne went from public servant at Customs and Border Protection to landing a two-book deal with HarperCollins on the back of a romance novel which was first written in just six weeks. All from the comfort of the study at her home in Gordon in Canberra’s south, where she lives with her husband and pug. “I’m pretty much still in shock,” she laughs.

The romance novel, The Hating Game, is an office romp about Lucy, a young publishing executive, and her bitter rival Josh, who sits directly opposite her at work. Lucy is short and sassy. Josh is tall and smouldering. There is a lot of rapid fire banter, a swirl of sex, and a plot that touches on the boredom and gloss of the corporate world and the people who navigate it.

Thorne is a Canberra girl through and through. “I was the kid at Rivett Primary that was always standing up to read her short story out loud. And so I always loved writing and it was always my lifelong dream to have a book,” she recalls. But she put that dream aside when she went to university, studied law and entered the APS. She got married (they eloped). “I just kind of forgot about writing as a hobby completely.”

Things changed one dark, cold winter (really, you couldn’t make this stuff up). “I was trying to think of a new hobby… and I thought, creative writing, I could go back to that,” she says. So Thorne enrolled in a course at the Canberra Institute of Technology and started to write fiction for fun. She joined online writing forums, finding her voice. One day, a friend suggested that Thorne write a short story as a birthday gift. Thorne agreed but wanted a challenge. “I said look, you have to give me a prompt word or something to get me started,” Thorne remembers. “She said ‘nemesis’ and straight away I could see these two characters, a man and a woman, sitting in a silent office opposite each other, just completely hating each other’s guts.”

She started writing, with no plan, no outline, no idea of where this idea would take her. Inspiration flowed. Six weeks later, she’d finished the first draft of The Hating Game. “It was the first time I’d completed anything, and I gave it to the friend and she really loved it, which it was nice,” she says. Thorne put the novel on the back burner, revisiting it in her spare time to edit and polish. She thought of it as a project for her own amusement, to learn to write better. Then she turned to another pair of online contacts for more advice.

Thorne had become friendly with Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the popular  American romance novelists who write under the combined pen name of Christina Lauren.  “I’d known them online for a few years and they said when you’ve got something finished send it and we’ll have a read of it,” Thorne says. So she passed on a copy of her new piece, hoping to get feedback and constructive criticism from two successful authors. Instead, Hobbs and Billings came back with a very different request: they asked if they could send the novel to their literary agent.

This is where everything started to tilt gently into the surreal. “I said, sure, why not, still, like, just completely thinking it will come to nothing,” Thorne says. “I got a call probably a week later from [New York literary agency] Waxman Leavell and talked to an agent who said look this is really great, I’d like to be your agent, are you being represented by anyone?”

Thorne pauses because she’s laughing so much. “And I’m sitting in my study here in Gordon, ACT, you know, trying to play it pretty cool… I said, no, I’m not talking to any other agents. (I’d never spoken to an agent, I’d never done a pitch to an agent.) So I suddenly had this really amazing agent in New York.” At this point, Thorne was still feeling mostly disbelief. She played down her expectations, telling herself that nothing would come of the exercise but useful feedback. While the agent shopped the manuscript around New York in July last year, Thorne got on with her life as a Canberra public servant.

Within a week, she was offered a two-book deal with HarperCollins. “I basically died. So it was, I mean, I’m still in a state of shock.”

A large part of The Hating Game takes place in a slick, shiny office in an unnamed city. Thorne drew on her creatively unfulfilling day job to capture the sense of ennui faced by corporate workers. “I know what it’s like to be in a really silent office watching the clock tick past,” she says. But that’s the only thing she drew on from real life, thankfully for the man who sat opposite her at work in Canberra (“that would have been pretty awkward”).

What else was awkward? Her family and friends reading the novel. The book situation had escalated so quickly that Thorne suddenly had to adjust to the fact that her fun writing project was a real book, on shelves, in libraries, around the world. “I’ve read a few reviews where it’s been compared it to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, that style of rapid fire dialogue,” she says. “I guess I was mainly concerned with – was I actually funny or have I just been writing this, finding myself funny?” Luckily, it wasn’t just her – the novel was featured in People magazine and selected as top summer romance read by the Washington Post.

Thorne also had to start writing her second novel very quickly – completing a draft for the publishers in four months, a task she describes as “insanely stressful and challenging, because I don’t know how I did the first one, so it’s really hard to replicate doing it again!” To devote herself to the task, Thorne took a year’s unpaid leave from the APS to write full time and has nothing but praise for her department. “Everyone was so excited and so supportive. People love a dream come true type scenario.”

That year came up in June. “I found out that me working part time wasn’t going to suit them so well. And I had to make a pretty scary decision – on whether to kind of bank on myself and pursue this dream or potentially go back and maybe slip back into my old life,” she says.  “And so I resigned, which was terrifying because it was great people, really good salary. But I thought, you’ve changed your life already.”

Now she works part time in a bookstore. She goes to yoga, walks her little pug dog. She and her husband still live in Gordon. She writes all night if she has to. She’s polishing the second novel, which won’t be a sequel to The Hating Game but will be a romance. Everything has changed and the dream is real.

The Hating Game is published by Hachette Australia. $32.99.

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05 Jan

Lionel Shriver takes glee in being a ‘mischievous, scandalising provocateur’

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Lionel Shriver is appearing at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Photo: MediaxpressThe theme of Lionel Shriver’s talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the Melbourne Writers Festival is “Break a Rule a Day”. She’ll be responding to questions from Michael Williams, but she already knows what she intends to say: that laws should be adhered to only when they make sense, that verities are meant to be questioned, that dignity and self-respect are the preserve of the sceptic.
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“I am anti-authoritarian to my marrow,” Shriver says. She ignores red lights on her bicycle, fudges expenses on her tax return and regularly gets into rows with bureaucrats. In her novels, she prods and pokes and picks at complacent bourgeois assumptions, including her own. Received wisdom is a balloon to be pricked.

Her latest book, The Mandibles, is set in a near future United States of America in which the government has defaulted on its debts, the US dollar has been usurped by a rival international currency and the stock market has crashed, wiping out fortunes. Soldiers raid houses to confiscate gold, cabbages costs $20 a head and a shower lasting longer than four minutes is an impossible luxury.

Shriver presents two dystopias: an imploding society in which money is worthless and behavioural norms no longer apply and the terrifying totalitarian taxation state that follows. The alternative is a hard-scrabble libertarian republic with few laws to break, little tax to pay, no red tape and no safety net. It’s no utopia but it is closer to her anti-authoritarian heart.

In her imagined US, rampant political correctness mean people now dial 1 for Spanish and 2 for English. The country’s first Latino President, Dante Alvarado, conducts press conferences in his native language. Although she is adamant The Mandibles “is not exclusively an attack on liberal America,” Shriver enjoys ridiculing left-wing cant and does so expertly.

“I think my fears are widely shared,” she says, without fear of contradiction. Conservatives have been warning about inflation and out of control Social Security spending for decades. The Mandibles is a Fox News fever dream about what could happen if the government keeps running up colossal debts and printing more money at the first sign of trouble.

“Most novels are written by people of an identical political persuasion in this country,” she observes. “I’m actually only one of the only voices of departure in the entire literary community. So if I don’t at least introduce a political note that clashes or offers a counterpoint to the prevailing shibboleths, then who’s going to? It’s like my job.”

Her summer house (she and her husband, jazz drummer Jeff Williams, live in London nine months of the year) is on a pleasant cul-de-sac in flat white-drinking, Obama-voting, John Maynard Keynes-believing Brooklyn. She’s more likely to bump into another novelist running laps around Prospect Park than someone else who shares her views on the welfare state, which tend towards libertarianism.

Last November, in neighbouring Park Slope, activists gave out mock summonses to all the affluent white people riding their bikes on the pavement to make the point that in poor, black communities, people are much more likely to be ticketed for minor offences. Breaking the law is a luxury, the ability to do so unevenly distributed.

“I do not obey rules because they are rules, but because they make sense. When they don’t, I feel free to ignore them – although I am as prey as anyone to shit-eating terror, and if the consequences of being a scofflaw​ are too dire I’ll toady along with the best of them,” Shriver says.

Shriver had written seven novels, six of them published, before finally finding success with her eighth. We Need to Talk About Kevin described the relationship between a troubled child and his ambivalent mother, and asked whether she should be blamed for his psychosis. It won the Orange Prize for fiction, was adapted into a hit movie and made Shriver rich after more than a decade of striving. She chose not to have children herself.

“I have a tendency to be a little nostalgic about being a failure,” she says, pointing out that in the 12 years that she worked as a reporter in Belfast and wrote novels in her spare time, she was never interrupted by interviews or tours or literary galas, because so few people bought her books.

She is drawn to controversial, uncomfortable subjects – the more provocative the better. So Much for That examined the disastrous consequences of for-profit healthcare in the US. Big Brother tackled obesity. In Game Control, a character proposes murdering 2 billion people as a solution to overcrowding and scarce resources. “I like to craft characters who are hard to love,” Shriver once told Bomb magazine.

This appears to include her own persona. At 15, she changed her name from Margaret Ann to the traditionally masculine Lionel. In interviews and photographs, she sometimes plays along with the notion that she is stern. I found her to be charming, but smart, opinionated women often acquire a reputation for being intimidating, whether they deserve it or not. I suspect she quite enjoys it.

“I’m always talking to journalists who have formed some preconception of me as ‘scary’ – which I find absurd,” she says. “I don’t think I’m very difficult to talk to… I don’t think I’m harsh, in person, and mean to people. I sure hope I’m not. It is never my intention.”

Shriver has written herself into The Mandibles, in the form of Nollie, an expatriate American author in her mid-70s, living in France off the proceeds of her one hit novel. Although the line between public image and self-image, between self-parody and self-congratulation, is a tricky tightrope for any author to walk, she clearly had fun up on the wire.

Nollie gets bad reviews and publishes books that no one reads. She is “wildly opinionated” and fanatical about her jumping jacks. Shriver, an extremely sporty 58, does the interview dressed for her afternoon tennis match, in hot pink running shorts and a blue T-shirt.

Nollie has given up writing, citing book piracy and diminishing financial returns. She arrives at the house that will soon be home to the whole Mandible clan laden with crates of her novels, and is persuaded by her teenaged grand-nephew Willing, who understands the gravity of the financial crisis long before any of the adults do, to burn them for heat.

“The whole character’s supposed to be a wink and a nod to the reader,” Shriver says. Nollie is an anagram of Lionel. The names of the books tossed into the oil drum – Better Late Than, Virtual Family, The Stringer, Cradle to Grave – are all working titles Shriver abandoned.

“I had originally intended to take the mickey out of myself, and I hope I successfully did so – mercilessly, in some instances. The thing is, I grew rather fond of her. She became an independent character and not just a caricature of me.”

Nollie turns out to be the one Mandible with any tangible, portable assets. Towards the end of the novel, she reminds Willing that she came about them the hard way. “I earned it,” she tells him. “By staying up late at a keyboard when my friends were carousing in bars. By reading the same manuscript so many times… that I came to hate the sight of my own sentences. By appearing in public events and saying the same thing over and over again until I was senseless with self-hatred.” I put it to Shriver that this is nakedly her own voice. Fair comment, she says.

Consistently challenging conventional wisdom requires supreme self-confidence. It also takes discipline, to avoid crossing a line into provocation and contrariness for its own sake. Reading The Mandibles, I often wondered how much of Shriver’s mockery of middle-class platitudes is heartfelt, and how much stems from her desire to provoke, to be deviant, to break a rule a day.

When I ask if she gets into rows at dinner parties, she answers “yeah, I do” instantly. “And the thing is that I like arguing, as long as it’s good-natured. I don’t like getting into arguments where it gets very personal. I had an argument about Brexit shortly before I left London, and she just went crazy.”

I say I bet you were arguing that Britain should leave the European Union – a contrarian position in upper middle-class London. “Right. And she went crazy. The only thing that was interesting about it was watching somebody lose it and wondering whether I get that way. It was like ‘note to self: don’t do that. This is not effective. Keep your cool.'”

Nollie never loses her cool. I doubt Shriver does either. It takes some nerve to describe oneself as a “mischievous, scandalising provocateur” in print, but she has earned that right, too.

Lionel Shriver will appear at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House on September 3 and at the Melbourne Writers Festival on September 4.

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05 Jan

Canberra-based program aims to boost children’s literacy levels

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Naomi Thorn and daughter Mylee, 3 have participated in the Let’s Read program for the last three months. Photo: Jay CronanWhile literacy rates are on the decline in Australian schools, work is under way in Canberra to give children key reading skills long before they start school.
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Run by charity The Smith Family, the Let’s Read program aims at fostering a love of reading in pre-school aged children.

Its team leader in the ACT, Sally Duncan, said the program works by doing more than just reading stories.

“It’s not always about reading books, but introducing them and increasing the awareness of them to children,” she said.

“The main thing that we’ve found is there are a lot of families out there that don’t have an understanding of the importance of having books or reading in the home.”

Since starting in the ACT two years ago, more than 300 families have been involved with the program, with 23,000 children nationwide benefiting from Let’s Read.

A similar program targeting numeracy levels, Let’s Count, is being rolled out across the ACT in coming months, with training beginning for Canberra-based educators last week.

As National Literacy and Numeracy Week begins on Monday, The Smith Family says thousands of children are entering school without basic skills, causing them to be disadvantaged in future years.

Ms Duncan said learning literacy skills from an early age give them a head-start over their peers who weren’t exposed to reading.

Kambah resident Naomi Thorn has been participating in the program with her daughter Mylee, 3, for the last three months.

She said by reading to Mylee from a young age, other skills have developed.

“I read to Mylee before she could talk, and she showed her interest in words and learned to talk a lot earlier than most children,” Mrs Thorn said.

“There are a lot of other mums who are now becoming interested in the program who have never read to their children before.”

This year’s Literacy and Numeracy Week comes as the most recent NAPLAN results show there has been no significant improvement in literacy and numeracy levels since last year, despite a record amount of government funding.

The 2016 results saw ACT students record their worst results since the tests began in 2008.

While ACT students came first or equal first out of all states and territories in 14 out of 20 areas, it’s down from 18 out of 20 in 2015.

A spokesman for the ACT Education Directorate said while literacy results in the ACT were lower in 2016 compared to last year, it was similar to what is happening at a national level.

“Comparisons between ACT schools and similar schools in other jurisdictions suggest that there is room for improvement in the ACT,” the spokesman said.

“The directorate is committed to working with schools that aren’t performing above the peer-group average.”

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05 Jan

National Rugby Championship: Vikings put hands up for Wallabies selection

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Joe Powell makes a break for the Canberra Vikings against Queensland Country. Photo: QRU/SportographyWallabies selections may be the only disruption that will emerge for the Canberra Vikings following their dominant 58-20 thrashing of Queensland Country in their round one National Rugby Championship clash.
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The Queensland team selected a strong side but were no match for the Brumbies-ladened Vikings, who had 36 points on the board before their opponents finally scored deep in the second half on Sunday at Bond University Oval on the Gold Coast.

Rory Arnold was his usual powerful self in his return from an elbow injury, scoring two tries, as was Henry Speight, who also bagged a brace off the bench. And with another poor showing by the Wallabies on Saturday night, higher honours could be calling.

Arnold was partnered in the second row by Blake Enever, who said his side’s depth was equipped to cope with any players being withdrawn.

“That’s the goal, we want players to move on and take those honours. If it happens we have guys in the squad that will step up, but that would be awesome to see because that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to make people better,” he said.

Enever said the Vikings’ forward pack set up the win early, dominating the set piece.

“The forwards were dominant but the backs were finishing really well, they took advantages of the holes, ran well and supported each other,” he said.

“NRC is a different beast, there was a lot more rugby being played in the 80 minutes, so it was a lot tougher.”

Winger James Dargaville was also prominent, scoring the first try. However, he injured his shoulder scoring his second and will miss up to two weeks.

Scrum-half Joe Powell was instrumental in the first two tries and controlled the game superbly.

He passed with intent and created momentum for the Vikings with dangerous breaks around the ruck.

With five minutes remaining, Australian under-20s representative Jordan Jackson-Hope put the nail in the coffin, slicing through Country’s defence to bring up the half-century for the Vikings. Speight crossed for the final try on full-time.

Queensland Country coach Toutai Kefu said it was hard for his team to get in the match with so little possession.

“We have an attacking game plan based on possession and we weren’t able to control our own ball today, which made it hard for us to pressure the Vikings,” he said.

The Vikings will play their first home game of the season next Sunday at Viking Park against NSW Country.

NRC – ROUND 1

Canberra Vikings 58 (J Dargaville 2 H Speight 2 R Arnold 2 R Abel J Jackson-Hope tries N Jooste 5 goals) bt Queensland Country 20 (T Banks 2 I Perese tries M Mason goal) at Bond Uni, Gold Coast.

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05 Jan

Chris Waller believes Winx is the best she’s been heading to Chelmsford Stakes

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Best she’s been: Winx will race in the Chelmsford Stakes on Saturday. Photo: Nick MoirThe air of invincibility about Winx is scaring off rivals.
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The champion mare will face a small field again in Saturday’s Chelmsford Stakes at Randwick as trainers start to plan around her as the spring starts in earnest.

Winx will be looking for her 11th straight win and after her show of force in the Warwick Stakes two week ago, she is ready to take another step on the path to the Cox Plate.

“I know exactly where she is at now, that is the best form she has been in,” trainer Chris Waller told Sky sports radio on Sunday. “I just have to maintain her to next Saturday … and hopefully we’ll see another improvement.”

Godolphin will only have Warwick Stakes runner-up Hartnell in the group 2, while James Cummings is flirting with the idea of running three-year-old Prized Icon against the star mare and Entirely Platinum will be nominated by Team Hawkes.

Waller is likely to  resume four-time group 1 winner Preferment and have stayers Storm The Stars, Grand Marshal and Who Shot Thebarman continue to get miles into their legs for targets later in the spring in the Chelmsford.​

Kathy O’Hara has been put on standby to ride Prized Icon at 50.5kg in the weight-for-age group 2, which would be a drop of 10½kg from the Champagne Stakes winner’s return, but he will be entered in the Ming Dynasty Stakes and could still go to the Golden Rose.

Many will take the option of chasing the exemption from the Cox Plate ballot in Saturday’s Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes at Moonee Valley instead of coming to Sydney.

David Hayes will send Dibayani, which was runner-up to Winx in the Chipping Norton Stakes in autumn, to Sydney for the Tramway Stakes.

“He is probably not ready for a mile but you don’t want to be taking her on,” Hayes said. “He is heading to the Epsom and we will get there by avoiding Winx.”

Winx’s profile continues to grow and jockey Hugh Bowman signed colours for charities that connections have chosen to support on Saturday.

The ATC is hoping her presence will bring out another record crowd for the start of spring at Randwick on Saturday.

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