The Man of the House

An excerpt from The Year of the Lilyweeds was published in this anthology…

Photo of book cover entitled Standing By
Standing By – Collection of award winning stories from Stringybark Publishers

Edited by David Vernon, e-book and paperback, Stringybark Publishing,

ISBN: 978-0-9925759-4-6

$14.95 includes postage within Australia.  Discounts for multiple purchases.

Thirty-one award-winning stories fill these entertaining pages. Written by Australian and international authors these stories explore Australian culture — sometimes funny, often poignant, occasionally unsettling, this anthology showcases the best of Australian contemporary short story writing.

When Jack came home from work that evening Bridie’s plan had firmed in her mind but she knew to bide her time. The leftover boiled potatoes from the night before had been cut into pieces and were now sizzling in a pan of dripping with bits of bacon rind that she’d saved from breakfast. She had boiled skinny green beans, the last few stragglers from the garden. Jack waited at the table, his knife and fork already in his hands.
“You kids come on. Your father’s waiting.”
The steak didn’t stretch to five people and so, as often happened, Bridie went without.
“No, I don’t feel like meat tonight,” she declared, fooling no-one. 

          — from “The Man of the House” by Gabrielle Gardner

Sweetmans Road – Synopsis


Bridget O’Brian, (Bridie) born 1913, is a woman repressed for all of her life by silence and secrets. After the death of her mother in childbirth, Bridie and her sister Mary are cared for by their maternal aunt, Kit—herself just a girl—and a fierce and superstitious grandmother. When Granny Byrne dies the two girls are taken away from their Aunty Kit and brought to live in the convent as charity cases of the church. Their father, the beautiful, music-loving and often drunk Connor O’Brian, is forbidden to see them and they lose contact with him forever. The two little girls remain in the convent until Kit herself marries some years later and they go to live with her and her husband in Burleigh Heads, Queensland. Mary, who has little in common with her sister, plans to enter the church as a nun.

When, during the Great Depression, Bridie falls pregnant to the hard-working but emotionally unavailable Jack Bowden, her already narrow options diminish even further, but she marries him anyway and ‘just gets on with it’ in the small house that Jack builds on the isolated hills of Sweetmans Road in northern N.S.W. Jack is a good and hard-working man but uncommunicative and unavailable to her for emotional nourishment. Her Aunty Kit, whom she now rarely sees, is her one great ally and the object of Bridie’s unconditional love.

Bridie is a woman of her time. She quietly longs for love, laughter and fulfilment but her circumstances offer her none of these. Her yearning is silent and even she is unable to identify what it is she longs for. She is resilient, dutiful and ultimately powerless.

As her three children—Danny, 15, Louise, 13 and Maddie, 10—grow up, Bridie becomes increasingly restless. She broaches the possibility of getting a job of some sort but Jack forbids this on the grounds that it would shame him to have his wife go out to work.

By chance, Bridie meets Jacob Elliot, a reclusive artist who lives in one of the timber huts up the top of Sweetmans Road. Jacob is a returned soldier who has his own secret history and recognises the unspoken yearning in Bridie Bowden. They succumb to a passionate affair in which Bridie discovers what true love feels like but both know that this relationship has nowhere to go. Jacob eventually decides to leave the district rather than disrupt Bridie’s life with her husband and children.

Twenty years later, Bridie is a widow and the lure of their hometown has brought all the Bowden offspring back to live in the district where they grew up. It is then the revelation of one stunning gesture by the long lost Jacob Elliot that changes the course of Bridie’s life and puts her within reach of fulfilment at last.


Spiders in the shorts

I have always believed that there’s a certain time of day when you are aware of where you really belong. Not every day, just sometimes. I originally opened my first manuscript with this assertion, even though it might have hit the cutting floor by now.
It happens, this feeling, “at that twilight time of day, just before the sun goes down… that lurching, heart swelling feeling that grabs you when you look out the window of a car, a train, a plane and long to be home.”
I’m still very attached to the Tweed Valley where I grew up and where many of my family members still live, including my sister and her husband, with whom I’ve just spent a week.
The mountain ranges, the river, the flowering trees, the way most oncoming drivers still lift one finger off the steering wheel in greeting as they pass— all these made me glad to be back.

Road leading to Mount Warning
Heading towards Mount Warning

But there’s a downside too.
One morning, hastening to get to breakfast, which my brother-in-law, Des, has on the table at 7.30, I grabbed the previous day’s denim shorts, stepped one leg in, went to put the other leg in, only to see a giant huntsman spider trying to crawl out from inside. Now, I don’t do spiders well but neither do I smash them with a shoe, and clearly this one was in trouble.
I took him outside, shorts and all, called Des and together we freed him from the cobwebs that had bunched up and stuck like Minnie Mouse’s shoes on the end of every one of his eight legs.(Lucky for me. This is what slowed him down.)
Then began the tales of other near-misses with the local critters. Des recalled how he pushed a foot into his gardening boot one morning and felt it to be unusually tight. Investigation revealed a cane toad inside, firmly ensconced up in the toe of his boot. (Have you fainted yet? I nearly did.)
So yes, there are indeed more critters up there than I’m used to in Melbourne—spiders, snakes, goannas, cane toads, ticks, to name a few—and they like to get up close and personal. The giant carpet snakes under the corrugated iron roof of their shed are spoken of with some affection.
But the views do indeed make my heart lurch and it’s hard to stop taking photos of the flowering trees as well.


Illawarra flame tree in full bloom
Illawarra flame tree in bloom

All of which leads me to think about writers who write about place and landscape so evocatively that you feel their love for the place in every word.
Tim Winton has to be top of the list. In all of his novels he evokes a sense of place that is almost palpable.

He urges us to feel the ground beneath our feet wherever we are, to see the landscape as a living entity and to stop moving long enough to hear what it’s telling us.
If I’d been listening it might have warned me about that big spider.



My ASA Mentorship

In 2015 I was awarded a year long mentorship by ASA – the Australian Society of Authors. I had spent ages perusing the many writers and editors available as mentors and finally settled on a Sydney based editor called Diana Giese . I studied her website and her history and decided she seemed like a person who got things done! And so she proved to be.

For 12 months I received the most wonderful support and insightful comment from Diana. I was invited to join the ASA as an Associate Member and they have been prompt, friendly and informative whenever I’ve had a question.

There’s no ‘but’ coming here. It has been an amazing privilege throughout. For a start Diana read my entire manuscript, which mentors are not obliged to do. From that point we worked on the manuscript together throughout the year – mostly via email with some phone conversations – negotiating changes, deleting parts that didn’t seem to go anywhere and adding a lot of material to expand the story and let the characters grow. I deleted about 30,000 words and added another 40,000.
It was such a thrill and a challenge to hear comments like ‘Your readers will want to know more about Jack’ or ‘I think Bridie and Jacob must get together’. As the story is an historical fiction I found myself researching  things like National Service in Australia, music of the Depression years, what might an isolated woman be reading in 1950—knowing that I had someone to be accountable to and that she wouldn’t miss a trick.
I have a very different manuscript now from what it was beforehand.

The ASA offers these mentorships every year and if you’re a writer seeking inspiration and support, I urge you to apply.


Ten Days at Varuna


In 2013 the manuscript of this novel was one of five awarded the Varuna Harper Collins Manuscript Development Fellowship.

This was so unexpected that I didn’t know where to start. I knew nothing about Varuna, other than that everyone I told seemed to be enormously impressed.
The plan was for the 5 of us from all around Australia to stay at Varuna for 10 days in May, writing and getting editorial input from one of the three participating editors who would visit each of us. T
he stay was a wonderful experience and the time spent with the Varuna staff and the other fellowship participants was invaluable. One of those is a great writing buddy still.

Anyone who aspires to be a writer will be able to imagine the luxury of having ‘a room of one’s own’ in which to write, in private, for most of the day and as long into the night as they wish. There was the suggestion that we refrain from knocking on each others’ doors to ensure that no-one’s writing was interrupted.

picture of a writer's desk with notes and laptop
Plotting & Planning at my Writer’s desk in Varuna

There are several opportunities to apply for residencies at Varuna during the year. Each participant is required to pay a sum towards their ‘board and lodgings’ and it is well worth paying for.

One of the bonus attractions of staying at Varuna, apart from the writerly companionship, is the gourmet catering, provided by the wonderful, dynamic Sheila, who would even leave us ‘a little something’ on the rare occasions when she couldn’t be there in person.

One of Sheila’s ‘little snacks’ left for us when she couldn’t be there.

Having a room of your own to write, uninterrupted, was a luxury yet to be matched.

My room at Varuna

It also goes down well, being able to cite a Varuna Fellowship on your bio as an aspiring writer.
The manuscript that got me there was The Year of the Lilyweeds.

By a wonderful stroke of serendipity, the manuscript was accepted this year by Cameron Creswell Literary Agents in Sydney where my agent in Jo Butler who was instrumental in selecting this manuscript for the Varuna Fellowship. Jo has given me endless guidance this year and once again the manuscript has moved forward and may soon be ready to face the world!