For the Love of Books
Growing up on an Australian farm with my father and younger brother, I lacked the female influence that so many girls take for granted. Cooking and sewing, still very much ingrained in most girls’ education at the time, served only to highlight the things I was incapable of. And still, I was expected to master these skills. One birthday I received no less than three cooking books and an apron.
Is it any wonder I sought refuge in books?
My harmless flirtation with Robert C. O’Brien, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Johanna Spyri, Enid Blyton blossomed into a debaucherous fascination with the Virginia Andrews saga by the tender age of 11. I devoured her sordid tales with the sort of devotion that you can only imagine when a text whispers something to you in a language you thought only you spoke. Ms Andrews broke the mother mould in Flowers In The Attic. She shattered the mother myth that I was convinced everyone else was privy to.
There’s little I can remember of her stories now. But I never forgot that feeling of an intimate connection with someone else’s words, and I sought it out everywhere. I read and reread our English texts. I had my own conversations about our life on the land with Tom Joad. I yelled at Mr Loomis.
And one year, not the year I got my apron, I got a stack of blank A4 paper and a typewriter.
I’d like to say I started then, and never stopped, but the truth is I went to uni, I fell in love, I started work, I had my heart broken. Countless things kept me from writing, until I found myself in a comfortable foothold in a regional newspaper and decided, I can do more than this.
So I enrolled in a creative writing class where the major assessment was to have the first few chapters of a full novel ready to be sent to publishers.
My assessment piece was called Wedding Etiquette For Ferals. I wanted to write something light and fun with the kinds of people I had in my life. I wanted to create people who were hilarious, sometimes obnoxious, but who ultimately cared. I wanted my heroine to not only fall in love, but to realise her dreams. All the things I’d wanted for myself and all the things I’d feared, I wanted her to experience too.
The first five chapters earned me a scholarship at the prestigious Varuna Writer’s House where I was able to finish the book and start a sequel.
The real slog was pitching it to publishers and agents and after several years of this – and a marriage and two children later – I got an email from one agent who told me the landscape of women’s fiction was so nebulous that it would be very hard for me to be picked up. Ever.
So I stopped sending out my manuscript and, at the behest of a friend, started to research self-publishing. I told my husband “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this how a publishing house would do this.”
I approached the State’s largest bridal expo and together, we launched my book before hundreds of people. I toured Queensland doing book signings and media interviews wherever they would have me. After some months that same friend talked of a new book distribution company that was looking to take on new authors. The woman in charge? Rachael Bermingham – one of Australia’s best-selling authors of, wouldn’t you know it, a cookbook. Four Ingredients, to be precise.
I was convinced that this entrepreneur, this shining beacon of all that says ‘woman’ would see right through me. But she rang me one afternoon to tell me how she loved it. She wanted to change the title to something more marketable, but she wanted me on her team.
I shed actual tears. And I considered briefly that, if I can hit the mark with a woman as remarkable and accomplished as her, perhaps my discourse touches a nerve that every woman has – that speck of insecurity that can assail the best of us from time to time.
Peta-Jo is the author of Feral Bells which is available through Bermingham Books.