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Deborah Swiss Headshot

A Writer's Journey Through Oz

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What makes a reader race to a comfy chair ready to curl up with a new book in hand? It's the same magical sense of surprise, discovery, and inspiration that keeps us writers writing.

Australia has just launched the National Year of Reading. Aussies proudly read more books per capita than anywhere in the world. Despite this impressive statistic, Australia is aiming to fill its literacy gaps and extend the rewards of reading to every citizen, including the 4.5 million adults who still struggle to read a newspaper.

Readers need writers as much as writers need readers. In celebration of Australia's National Year of Reading, I'm looking forward to a resurgence in first-time writers who are captured by the wonder of words and put their heart and soul into poetry, short stories, blogs, plays and books. Since it's more challenging than ever to make a living at any form of art, I wanted to share a few responses to the question "Why do writers write?"

It opens portals to other worlds.

Not too long ago, I found myself perched in an elaborate three-story tree house located along the Tweed River in Banora Point, New South Wales. My Aussie friends, descendants of one of the women in my book, brought me to meet two of the kindest, most upbeat blokes on the planet. True-blue mates Boydie and Rube constructed the ultimate gum tree getaway after each had survived personal tragedy, Rube having been burned over ninety percent of his body.

As I warmed myself by a handmade pot belly stove, Rube offered me a cold drink from a refrigerator built into the giant eucalyptus tree that overhangs the riverbank. With a wink and a grin, he handed me a cozy from a tube that extends two stories into the branches. Boydie arrived in style via a gangplank he lowered from the Hunk-o-Junk, an abandoned oyster boat he refurbished to look like a miniature African Queen. When Boydie asked if we'd like some fresh-shucked oysters, he pulled a cord that brought a tray-full from the river. My son was so entranced by the one-of-a-kind whalebone table that he forgot he'd never eaten seafood in his life and politely swallowed an oyster whole.

The two rugged mates revealed a soft spot when we admired their artwork. Boydie pressed a dolphin carving into my hands, claiming it was a second that could not be sold. We all knew better but the generous host could tell that we loved his work. He quickly found another "second" as a gift for my son that now sits on his desk half a world away and reminds him of his introduction to the real Australia.

In this moment of unadulterated contentment, I forgot about the typical trappings of the writing life: stacks of rejection notices, the 3:00 AM caffeine fix, and the deep under-eye circles that surface from years of writing books alongside a "regular" job.

It takes you on journeys that will transform you.

Writing is often a solitary, lonely, and frustrating process, but once your words are out there, they come back to you in unexpected ways. A reader recently told me that learning about the resilience and determination of the convict lasses in The Tin Ticket inspires her to keep fighting as she manages an incurable disease and heads to work every day. Writing is humbling and heartening all rolled into one.

You never know where your words will take you. High on my list of rewards for being a writer is my friendship with Mary Binks, a descendant of Irish convict Bridget Mulligan who was exiled to Australia for pilfering a petticoat and a milk tin. The indomitable Mrs. Binks was the first female mayor of her city. In her retirement she runs Gran's Van, a soup kitchen for the needy and homeless in Devonport, Tasmania. Sitting around her kitchen table where I enjoyed her homemade three-berry pie and being treated like a daughter, Mary talked about how her clients find dignity in poverty and the life lessons they've taught her. Here I felt the sense of awe and wonder carried in experiences that seem to defy time and borders.

It's the unexpected power of words.

The written word often connects people who were destined to meet. I was delighted to learn that groups of convict descendants located one another through reading my book, reconnecting threads in their family tapestry thought to be long lost. A reunion in a village coffee shop brought together newly-discovered descendants of Ludlow Tedder, a London widow transported to Australia with her young daughter for stealing spoons after falling on hard times. Ronnie, a charming octogenarian, thanked me for telling Ludlow's story and with tears in his eyes, said: "I lost my dear wife two years ago and today you've brought me a whole new set of 'relies.'"

Words can surprise us with their potential to ignite courage and optimism. A few weeks ago I received a note from an Australian who teaches reading to prisoners in the UK. She told me that her students feel encouraged to turn their lives around, having been introduced to nineteenth century women like Ludlow Tedder who found hope where none had the right to exist. She described a new reader in her class: "One lady, introverted and depressed, hasn't complained for a week, and now volunteers to read your book in front of the whole class!" That's about the best answer I can give to why writers write and why readers read.