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Day's Break:

Praise the Lord and pass the royalties

ACTORS DREAM OF the Big Break, that one role to propel their name from extra list into neon stardom. Writers yearn for the bestseller, that one book of luminescence enough to dazzle pundits and punters. For most, such fantasies are crushed by reality. Rare is the person who achieves either, let alone both. Yet Sydney author Marele Day is poised to do just that, to breach the box-office and soar international literary charts.

Long identified as the creator of feisty PI Claudia Valentine, an inner-city gumshoe with attitude and a penchant for muscular blonds, Day has been an honest toiler in Ozlit's factory. Her four crime novels since 1988 attracted critical acclaim and sales enough to encourage full-time writing. Yet despite winning detective fiction's international Shamus Award in 1993, her route has been more Struggle Street than Bounteous Boulevard. Regular stints on the workshop/seminar/lecture circuit, the steady income from a couple of how-to primers (The Art of Self-Promotion, How to Write Crime, etc) and the occasional piece of journalism or editing have been needed to supplement survival.

Suddenly, at 50, she has become an overnight success. Her new novel, Lambs of God, released here this week, will make her a Big Name on the international scene. American and European agents and publishers have stampeded to sign her up.

But it was the early-morning phone call from US mega-agent Jerry Kalajian that really made her pinch herself. "L-o-o-o-ve the book," he said, or words to that effect. The short story? Hot young star Winona Ryder received the manuscript as one among a deluge and was so knocked out by it that she was on the phone within 48 hours to sign on as lead and co-producer. That really attracted attention.

In Hollywood terms, it's now as near as dammit to a done deal. Fox 2000 is certainly making the right noises (having a star like Ryder aboard carries clout, even if her schedule means it could be sometime before credits roll in our cinemas), the money-men are smiling (to the tune of a $US20 million budget) and the project is in preproduction. Meanwhile, the book is slated for a September British release as one of four debut titles for the new Anchor imprint while Putnam will publish the US edition towards the end of the year. Translation rights have also been sold into Germany and other European markets.

Day is matter-of-factish about it now, although she admits the whoop factor when the news started to break was high. "It was so unanticipated," she says, "although you always secretly hope for it. Primarily, though, I didn't write it for any other reason than it was the book I had to write. It was a great risk, and it's ironic that a work about belief and spirituality is the one that's netted the big bucks."

Today, she is wan from flu. Late autumn saw half the city go under, and the half-life after the attack is just that - and lengthily exhausting. A devotee of word puzzles and cryptic crosswords, and a punishing punster, she's earned a well-deserved reputation for wit and repartee. But the sniffles have swamped her normal buoyancy; she has rallied for our meeting, although the order of the Day is more soldiering on than verbal sharp-shooting.

Still, wintry sun is filtering restrained optimism onto the kitchen table in the unpretentious section of the old house she inhabits. More Balmain Bohemian than Beverly Hills 9210, her flat melds student bedsit with struggling artist chic. Functional, friendly, with a Spartan overlay.

Mementos of her many years of travel add exotic touches, while the whiteboard slumped against the end wall, complete with meticulous plotting of the novel's timeline, adds a writer-at-work reality. The phone lives on the floor, numerous cartons store reference material. Nevertheless, this the inner-city site is one of Sydney's best, glancing north from its hillside squat through treetops to a harbour bay of azures and azimuths and the occasional slap of sail.


So what's all the literary and cinematic excitement about? The novel's synopsis is deceptively simple, if off-beat. A trinity of nuns, their lives dictated by nature's rhythms, grow food and live communally with their sheep flock in a medieval monastery on a small island. Their days and seasons are measured by quasi-church rites. At night they tell stories as they knit, Gothic tales of personally-interpreted fairytales and myths.

They are marooned in a cloister of bucolic unity, the outside world unremembered beyond the thick walls enclosing the abbey grounds, the walls in turn hidden by wild overgrowth of brambles. But when an aspiring, cosmopolitan priest - the bishop's secretary - chances upon records of this "derelict, abandoned" monastery, he seeks it out to assess its suitability for sale to developers as a Club Med-ish resort.

Initially submissive, the nuns rally to retain their nirvana. "Richly allusive, vividly imagined, pungently erotic and often wildly funny" spruiks the back-cover blurb. Unusually, the copywriter has got it right. Almost. Lambs of God is certainly the first two, there are trace elements of eroticism (if not "pungent"), and the tale has a thread of gentle humour. More tellingly, the book's influence and nuances hang around after the covers are closed.

"It was 18 months in the writing," Day tells me as we settle down to business over a recuperative cuppa, "but the stewing process took several years. I first had the idea to structure a book like a knitted garment, and there is a lot about knitting in there - storytelling and knitting always seem intertwined somehow. I envisaged the kind of garment you can see the thread in, with patches of passion, narrative thread with separate little stories ... And I wanted to investigate nature and civilization, and how strong the hold is that nature has on us. What happens to a group of people in an isolated situation? Do you progress or regress, do you maintain civilized habits? How quickly does that veneer slip, what is retained?"

It's Sleeping Beauty meets Swiss Family Robinson, with echoes of Lord of the Flies, Misery and The Three Little Pigs. And much more. She started by using a hippy commune as a basis, but "it didn't work. Readers would just have said 'why don't they get in a car and go to the city?' When she hit upon nuns, she struck the motherlode. Literally. "They were an enclosed order, forcibly divorced from the outside world, they had a life that was very civilized in that it was structured around rituals, which they think they're maintaining. But they have regressed. They still worship the God in the Sky of Christianity, but they also worship nature.

"Their Catholicism has become a bit quirky, not traditional but deeply-rooted. The priest is a careerist, in a corporate structure, a bureaucrat. The nuns are divorced from modernity but their beliefs are more true to the spirit of Christianity."

Sounds complex but it's quite subtle, a straightforward narrative with strands of surrealism, magic realism, philosophy, theology, New Ageism and fairy tales, all wrapped in obvious - and less overt -allegory. "I see lots of strains in it - the thing about the land is crucial: this is a group of people who consider the land their home and their nurture, and then somebody comes in who sees it as a piece of real estate. Given Australia's history and the current debate ..."

And the religious aspect? "All conjecture. I was brought up a Protestant and knew nothing about Catholics except they seemed to have more holidays. When I had the idea of nuns, I thought 'research' - and that was fascinating. Compared to Protestantism, Catholicism is this fabulously baroque, hugely ornamented cathedral; Protestantism is a plain scrubbed pine shed on a beach somewhere."


Day grew up "equidistant from the GMH car plant and Kelloggs" in Sydney's industrial/suburban Pagewood with a younger sister. Her mother was a bookbinder, her father a road worker turned clerk. Both were bright but had to leave school early, probably why "they prized education, and encouraged us." Her time at Sydney Girls High was a watershed. "Strangely enough, it was almost glamorous. There were girls from the Eastern Suburbs there and some of them even wore jewelry, discreetly. Some were from wealthy families, some were well-travelled. It was an eyeopener." Her boundaries expanded.

Trained as a primary school teacher, she was lured by the ambience of the seventies into travelling "the best parts of the backpacker trail." A pitstop back at Sydney Uni saw her leave with an honours degree in French and literature for a peripatetic life. Her cv now lists a multiplicity of jobs, from fruitpicking to patent-searching to academic teaching, while her passport is stamped with the datelines of Nepal, India, Israel, America and Europe, among others.

At one stage, her journey almost ended in the Java Sea when she signed on as crew for a three-week catamaran trip to Singapore that took three months. "I was just a babe in the woods, I had no experience of sailing. My partner had recently died in a car accident and it was a terrible time for me, emotionally. It seemed to make me reckless, and take chances I probably would not have done in a normal state."

After battling adverse currents, "the boat started to split apart - we were sloshing around in water all the time, we were on rations, out of fuel, doing constant repairs. ... it was so desperate that we sent maydays on a couple of occasions. I remember when it was at its bleakest thinking 'we are going to die today, I hope I can be brave'."

It was while travelling that she started to write notes - a visual paragraph here, verbal picture there, and poetry. "I still remember the first line of poetry I wrote, about flowers in a field: "Spring dotting the grass like Claude Monet". Over time the poems became short prose, then short stories. "They just got longer and became novels." The first was Shirley's Song in 1984, a comedy set in Ireland (where she was living) which she now dismisses as "elementally and fatally flawed". Then came The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender four years later.

"The Claudia books had several constraints - that of the genre itself and that it was about a given place, Sydney, but they instilled in me a love and respect for storytelling. Stories are important for society - more or less everything we receive from outside comes in that form. But when I came to write Lambs of God, there were no constraints.

"That was so liberating: more difficult because there were four main characters and I had to keep slipping into different points of view, but I did feel I could fly. I was actually in another place - in the zone. It's almost impossible to articulate what it was like. It was as if I had no skin - I was at one with what was happening in that world. I'd never experienced that before.

"With Claudia, it was always the goddam plot that was the problem - everything else about them, the characters, the dialogue, the sense of place was easy. But this is narrative driven. Nine-tens of a writer's life is below the surface and invisible - I spent hours lying on the couch imagining their world so that I was very comfortable wandering around it."

Her last crime novel was The Disappearance of Magdalena Grimaldi. It's safe to assume it was also The Disappearance of Claudia Valentine. Day smiles. "I do have an idea for another Claudia book, but it might have to wait a while now that I'm out - I'd like to keep wandering a while."

* Lambs of God is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin. UK publisher: Anchor. US publisher: Putnam. This story was first published in The Australian magazine.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1997

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