Tag Archives: writing trauma

Barb Biggs: The Accidental Renovator. A review

A Paris Story

How do you accidentally buy a Paris apartment?

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This is a smart, snazzy, witty story set in the romantic city of Paris. As I expected, I am really enjoying reading Barbara Biggs’ latest book The Accidental Renovator. It is a sassy, ironic, exuberant book that holds your interest from start to finish. Smart, funny and written about the real world in a way that will make you sit up and take notice.

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Barbara Biggs is also author of In Moral Danger, The Road Home and Chat Room. At 14 Barbara’s grandmother sold her to a pedophile; at 16 she was in a psyche hospital; at 18 she was a prostitute in Japan; at 19 she escaped Cambodia weeks before it fell to the Khmer Rouge; at 21 she caused national headlines and received death threats; at 30 she became a journalist. By 40 Barbara was a property millionaire. Just imagine her life in the years following. So how did Aussie Barb end up writing about renovating an apartment in Paris?


Incorrigible romantic, writer and renovator Barbara Biggs thought she knew about sex and real estate. Then she went to Paris. The self-described ‘foot-in-mouth Aussie chick’ can’t help ‘just looking’ at apartments for sale. Big mistake. She speaks little French, knows no one in Paris and has never thought of living there. But when the agent assures her the owner will insist on the asking price, she makes a low offer ‘just for fun’. It is accepted—and her life goes haywire. Biggs smuggles in a handsome Australian builder to renovate the apartment.
But he doesn’t speak French, doesn’t have any tools, and when the budding romance goes sour he vanishes and Barbara’s dream renovation becomes a nightmare. Undeterred, she joins the Lazy Pigs Millionaires’ Club and is soon lunching in grand chateaux, partying until dawn and learning about continental men in the nicest possible way. Then she writes about it.

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Imagine my surprise on reading the fist page of The Accidental Renovator to see, ‘I’d come to visit my French friend Lucy in Nancy, a university town three hours east of Paris.’ I was immediately back in Novel Writing Class, along with Barb and Lucy Mushita in the Professional Writing and Editing Course at Holmesglen TAFE. At that time Barb  was busy writing  In Moral Danger. Later, Lucy published her novel Chinongwa and I launched Pickle to Pie.

In Moral Danger

Biggs’ first book was a 2003 autobiography about her life up to the age of 22. The book tells of her sexual abuse from the age of 14 by a well-known criminal barrister. It explains the damaging after effects following her abuse, including time spent in a psychiatric hospital, escaping Cambodia weeks before it fell to the Khmer Rouge and being a prostitute in Japan. It also describes how she attempted suicide four times, received death threats and caused national headlines – all before the age of 22.

In Moral Danger   The Road Home: What Price Redemption?      Product Details

The Accidental Renovator shows how far Barb has come, not only in her life but as a writer. Both Lucy and I wish Barb good health, joy and every success.

Erika Madden: Year of The Angels and Cries From The Fifth Floor

What happens when the sweet magic of childhood mixes with the grimness of war?   

 Erika Madden is the author of historical fiction novel Year of the Angels paranormal novel Cries from the Fifth Floor.

Year of the Angels is the type of book I love. Based on Erika’s personal experience it is a beautifully written story of a year in the life of a close-knit German family struggling to survive during the devastating conflict of Wold War Two. This unique book has heart, originality and is beautifully written. I read once that  ‘A good book entertains, a great book informs’, or something similar to that. For me, this is a great book.

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Erika was born and raised in the small town of Mainbernheim, Germany. As a young woman she moved to the Pacific Northwest where she raised her family. When her husband retired they moved to Camano Island, Washington, where she wrote a novel, Year of the Angels, a firsthand account of growing up in Germany during WWII. This was a surprisingly emotional journey for her. As an escape, she decided to write another book simultaneously a paranormal thriller, Cries from the Fifth Floor. Both books are available on Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com.

A member of the Hard-nosed Zealots Writers’ Critique Group of Stanwood/Camano (USA) Erika is a close friend of Gloria Mackay. Like most writers she finds invaluable the support and encouragement that exists between  kindred souls. As writers we manage to remain sane when we meet regularly with fellow writers who are prepared to give positive feedback on our latest project. Especially if we are trying to write about deeply personal issues and traumatic memories.

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Erika, like so many writers deals with the death of her supportive, imaginative brother, Deiter who helped her survive the trauma of being a child in Germany during Word War Two. Right at the start of Year of the Angels  I knew that I was in the hands of someone I could trust with my complete attention as a reader. I was immediately fascinated by the story about her childhood in Germany during 1944 and desperately wanted to know what happened to children during World War Two on the opposite side of the world to my personal  experience as a three year old  child of German descent living in Australia . I knew first hand what a terrible affect war can have on fathers and how this impacts on the whole family.

What happens when people return in later life to the country of their childhood? ‘The deserted house welcomed an older Lisl and her memories were waiting.’ After marrying and raising a family in America, she found her thoughts were still in English, not German.

Erika’s childhood during World War II in Germany was one of deprivation and challenge. With the war effort of the mid-1940s, food, heating fuel, and clothing were becoming increasingly scarce, and the German citizens increasingly desperate. The Allied Forces were advancing on the small Franconian farming community where Madden’s family lived. Her father was away at war, and the future of her family uncertain. Madden called upon these childhood experiences as inspiration for her historical fiction novel, “Year of the Angels.”

“I didn’t want my novel to be just a war story,” says Madden. “I wanted to show the softer side of children and how they escape emotionally from the terror and hate. I thought I would show the war through the eyes of a child. I needed to write in the simple language of a child and of that time, minding not to let modern language creep into the story. Although written in third person and as fiction in consideration to the people living in my town, it is a true account seen through the eyes of ten-year old Lisl-me. It was an emotional journey to go back after so many years in America and experience the war all over again. To get away from the sadness I wrote a second book simultaneously as a relief and as far removed from reality as possible ”

I can’t wait to read Erika’s latest book Cries From The Fifth Floor available at Amazon as a kindle ebook or paperback

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Why are the coma patients on the fifth floor calling silently and persistently to hospital worker Claire Reed? Why do they draw her–against her will–to their bedsides? And why does she feel their pain and unrest, see fragmented visions of their last conscious moments?

Claire enters a terrifying world as she tries to unravel the mysteries that tie her to the fates of five strangers. The Claire Reed of yesterday no longer exists and her erratic behavior has her questioning her sanity.

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It’s a cold Melbourne winter’s day and a lazy wind is blowing straight from Antarctica. It goes straight through you. Best to stay indoors curled up with a good book. I’m going straight to Amazon.com right now to get my copy of Cries from the Fifth Floor. 

Writing from Mourning

The dead leave us starving with mouths full of love. (Michaels 1997: 20)

Much of my writing is autobiographically based. Pickle to Pie, although published as a novel was based on my father’s life. This second book is about my thirty-five year pen-friendship with an older American poet. I was three quarters through writing our story when Mickey died.

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My writer’s journal remained closed; the novel frozen. How to write the unsayable—to write through silence into a safe space? My mediated text, balanced between fact and fiction, meant that half of my writing was in the real world. I was telling another woman’s story as well as my own. I had worked through many writing issues, and told numerous stories of literary and personal goals, but I came full circle when faced with Mickey’s death. At the heart of the novel were two real women. Now, one was lost and I was grieving.

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I am a writer and writing is the way I make sense of the world. Therefore I could not understand my inability to write. Mickey’s death was not my first introduction to grief. I had grieved for aunts, uncles and close friends, and the ultimate orphaning loss of both parents. During those difficult times, writing had been my salvation.

I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colours of memory. I write because I believe it can create a path in the darkness. So why was I suffering from writer’s block? Because, when Mickey died I was in the middle of writing a fictionalised account of our friendship. I was immersed in the autoethnographic exploration of the memories encompassing both of our lives. This grief was different from any others I had experienced. As Didion reveals in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) each individual grief is ‘a place none of us know until it happens’ (Didion 2005: 188). T

The voices of others. ‘She was ninety-three years old’. ‘She had a long life’. ‘She didn’t suffer’. ‘You’re still upset?’ ‘Get over it’. ‘Move on’. ‘Mickey who?’ (Journal 4 2010: 126)

Before I could bring myself to write, however, I had to come to terms with my recent loss. Over ninety years old, recently hospitalised, Mickey had refused to eat; she had willed herself to die. I found this out by chance a week after she had died and my creative drive faltered. There was no funeral to attend nor a healing ceremony, just a hole that could not be filled. I gathered black around me and grieved.

I returned to my journal. When I did not want to write, when I was feeling brain-dead, writing about the ordinariness of life without sorting, sifting, editing, connected me with the living and with the dead (Adams 1998: 4). It created a place to be in ordinary conversation with anyone—from myself to my old penfriend. It connected me to Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Jolley, Margaret Atwood and Margaretta Jolly. I could smell, see, touch and taste the story waiting for its ending. T

he earphones hurt my ears and my fingers tremble as I turn on the tape recorder. Mickey’s highly opinionated deep voice permeates my being. Informal conversations we had in 2002. There are so few. When the tape recorder was on, she rarely wanted to talk, and the best conversations were when I turned it off. For me, it is the sound of her strong, opinionated voice that is important. It triggers deep emotions. I must believe the writing will come to life in her voice. Not mine. Yet woven within the writing is my story. Mickey and I in context with history, revealed via my recollections. (Journal 4 2010: 233)

Life is a tapestry and death leaves a hole. I looked at the empty space and realised I had never willingly allowed any empty spaces in my life. Life had been about hanging on to what you had. Anything I had ever let go had claw marks on it. Yet this empty space was different. With wonder, I began to see it as a creative space, an opportunity to move on through the process of creating (Riggs 2007). It became filled with possibilities. I began to weave the tapestry bigger so the hole was less obvious. Writing the ending to the story allowed me to make visible the size and shape of my grief and through language I could give substance to Mickey.

In May, in water-cooler conversation with another PhD candidate, for the first time I talked about Martha the character in the novel and thought of her as Martha, not Mickey. At that point I realised that a huge shift had taken place: a distancing.

There is a break between friend and character. I can write Martha, talk about Martha, think Martha and keep Mickey, friend and mentor safely tucked in my heart. I’m remembering the woman and writing the character (Journal 5 2011: 29)

But was I writing from an idealised memory of Mickey? Had my grief and mourning turned the novel into a representation of somebody perfect and had I ignored imperfections? ‘Hens Lay, People Lie’ was once again in danger of becoming a hymn of praise—until I remembered Mickey’s opinionated honesty. The character Martha now strides through the pages of the novel warts and all.

A motivating factor in my decision to include Mickey’s death within the novel was the belief that writing about my own experience would not only create a way through grief for me, but would also enable other bereaved writers to ‘witness the experience of reconstructing [their] own map’ (Frank 1997: 17) for writing from mourning. Louise DeSalvo’s writing (1999: 206) reinforced my belief that my story would help others to cope with grief and mourning. It was emotionally challenging to follow Caroline Ellis and the other exponents of emotive autoethnography, and reveal a vulnerable self. Whenever I wavered I thought of Hélène Cixous, Virginia Woolf and Laurel Richardson.

To me my texts are elements of a whole which interweaves my own story, are the seasons, days in the Great Year of my life. (Cixous 1994: xv)

Writing is what I do, in spite of the problems. What I had to reclaim was the sheer joy of writing; the intimate relationship between me and the page. Through this practice I hold communion with my deepest self. I did not want to bury Mickey or to praise her, but ‘…to exalt her exceptional contribution to my own happiness and belief in the worthiness of life itself by the testimony of her own’ (Barthes 2010: 260). Perhaps this is the gift of every daughter—even a proxy one. The blackness of loss and grief woven through the text added depth to the colours already woven through the story.

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I have always wanted wings. To fly where I belong, to become who I am…winged and moon-swayed. (Griffiths 2011: 3)

Ultimately I learnt to trust myself and find my own safe space to write from mourning. On my magic carpet I let my imagination soar—to follow Jay Griffiths and fly to the moon, to live in my imagination, to experiment with plot and characters, to swoop and fly and write from multiple stray moons.

Morning sun gilds the topmost leaves of the melaleuca gums. I drag my kayak out onto the lake. Suspended between water and sky, my oar dips into reflected clouds. Between two worlds I find the end to our story. (Journal 5 2012: 233)