Willy Lit Fest 2017

 

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It was a good couple of days.

Saturday I saw Leah Kaminsky, Rachael Guy and Andy Jackson talking poetry, the body, chronic illness and disability. It was interesting and moving. All smart people with brilliant things to say, and all gorgeous readers of their own – and other – work.

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Then it was my session, The Age of Experience, chaired by Jane Rawson and also featuring Christy Collins and Paul Dalgarno. We talked about how it’s possible to write while old – no, really. We talked about how being an older debut writer is not so bad, in fact it can be really positive and maybe even better/easier? It was a great session with a good audience who asked questions, especially a certain Mr Kakmi.

I don’t have a pic but here we are afterwards, the best one is with my eyes closed. So be it!

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I look like I’m just so pleased but a bit tired.

Sunday I was in at the festival early to catch Dmetri Kakmi talking to Richard Cornish about his Year Without Meat (book and actual year). I laughed and I cried and this is the truth. It was a confronting chat about where the meat we eat comes from and whether it’s ethical (answer: probably not). Richard Cornish has a blog here and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I eat meat, I love meat, but I don’t want to eat meat in a way that perpetuates the terrible conditions and killing practices of most commercial meat producers.

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After that session I had about half an hour break before starting my two-hour The Editing Hat workshop. It was booked out quite quickly and there were 20 participants, which made it more like a lecture. I had a whiteboard. I had my notes. And I had keen listeners, ranging in age from a Year 9 schoolgirl (so 14, 15 at a pinch) who had already completed 30,000 words of her fantasy novel, to two delightful older sisters. Everyone was interested in writing something – whether for publication or not – and therefore wanting to learn about the editing process, how things work, how it sits within a publishing ‘flow-chart’ and lots of other things. When to stop, when is it too much? When to show to someone else. Who should that someone else be?

The time flew, and everyone seemed happy.

So. Today I had a quiet day with my own manuscript, continuing my structural edit. This Thursday I’ll spend my first day in my new writing studio, which I organised last week. So lucky and feel very happy. It doesn’t have wifi which is a huge attraction.

 

And that’s about it.

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How beautiful have the skies been lately? I remember the skies this time last year, they are stunning.

 

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My last week: 5 extraordinary reading/listening days

Happy Good Friday.

A bit later in the day, I’m off to listen to some Bach, and I have hot-cross buns cooking (recipe: Nigella’s one)*. Tonight, the family does a usual GF ritual. We play a board game (Settlers of Catan is the choice du jour) and watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. We’ve been doing this for years – the board game, the film that is. The Bach is an addition this year, as is the me making the buns.

But last week was a pretty extraordinary one for me. I read or listened to something significant each day, Monday through Friday. It wasn’t planned that way, it just worked out, but by Thursday I was thinking to myself ‘what will it be today?’

Here’s how it went:

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On the Monday it all started with a George Saunders piece in the Guardian about what writers really do when they write. I haven’t read his Tenth of December, nor have I read Lincoln in the Bardo. I have both books though and just need to devote some time to George. After reading his article, and getting a little teary in one part (where he mentions empathy, and the connection between writer and reader – I found it very moving as a reader) I realise it is truly time to get serious about George.

Tuesday I started the S-Town podcast and became immersed right from the beginning. I think I listened to three ‘chapters’ lying in bed. On Tuesday I also read an article by climate-change scientist James Lovelock *great name, by the way… the family in my upcoming novel are Lovelocks*. Lovelock the scientist says that we need to enjoy life because in twenty years ‘it’ will hit the fan. I found reading the article both depressing and uplifting. You can find it here.

Wednesday I finished S-Town. As I said on twitter: I’m not going to even try to form a précis about it; what it’s about, what it does to and for the listener. But I will say I cried (again!), that it is very literary and novelistic in the way it’s edited, how it’s character-driven, concerned with ideas and that it makes you see empathy in the world of John B McLemore in such a deep and moving way.

Thursday I woke up thinking: what’s in the day ahead? Turned out to be a Brainpickings post about the art of walking and perils of a sedentary lifestyle. Henry David Thoreau published a book called Walking. He wanted to remind us of how the ‘primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness’; that ‘everything good is wild and free’ and that it’s not about transport or exercise but some much more than that. I have loved Thoreau’s quotations for years, and I loved Into the Wild that was based on his words and philosophy.

And on Friday it was a TED talk, on emotional correctness.

Any one of the above would have been significant and singular. Cumulatively it made for a hell of a week. These things made me think, and feel, deeply. And realise things. That yes, I will just go for it and really plan and book that trip for next Christmas. Yes, I will make sure I keep my walks going, make them longer, and continue to look up, down and around. Yes, I will continue with my gut health and food adjustments. Yes, I will read those classics that I keep putting off.Yes, I will continue to attend to my writing and really devote to it, keep on prioritising it and try to reduce distraction, the static that gets in the way.  Yes, I will install the Freedom App that I’ve known about for years and have been intending to get onto. And yes I will use it. And finally, yes, I will delete Goodreads.

*  The buns are good!

2016 Wrap Up.

Books

I feel I’ve read very little this year. I am always reading something, or several things, so it’s not as if I’m reading less, but because I didn’t keep a list, and because there weren’t that many books that I loved, it feels sparse when I cast my mind back over the year.

  1. My Year of Reading India. On one hand it was a failure as I only read a handful of titles, and started a few but didn’t finish. On the other hand, it was a mega-success because I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I think I will claim it a success for that reason, and also because now I have a lot more titles on my shelves that I didn’t before. Maybe without putting pressure on myself I will get to more.
  2. I don’t have a favourite read for the year, and can’t turn my mind to trying to pick one, or even a top 5 or 10. Here are some titles I really liked: Leap by Myfanwy Jones; The Sound by Sarah Drummond; The Windy Season by Sam Carmody; The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper (so so funny); Nutshell by Ian McEwan; Swimming Home and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. In addition to Midnight’s Children, which I ended up loving and think is a masterpiece. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting but these are the ones that come to mind.
  3. Biggest reading disappointment for the year was EASILY Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall. And it should have been fantastic as it is the part of his life when he ‘becomes a writer’ but it was dull and tedious and boring. Other people will say all the books are dull and tedious and boring, but I have been held in his tight grip for Books 1 through 4. And then 5, uh oh, ummm. But I will read 6, oh yes I will.
  4. My first book for Reading India was A God of Small Things and I liked it (but straight after I began the Rushdie, and thought hers a paler version of something similar) but I am happy to read she has her second novel coming out next year… A God of was her debut, and released in 1997, so that’s a gap of 20 years.

 

Television

  1. The TV mini-series of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda was amazing and great. I loved it a lot.
  2. Game of Thrones, naturally, we were all over it. I even dressed up as Cersei for the final episode and if I say so myself, looked pretty damn good. Here I/she am/is:

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2. Other shows that we enjoyed: Stranger Things (nostalgic, pacey, original/familiar); The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (funny, boundary-pushing, poignant); Broad City (fantastic female characterisation, and different). GIRLS, yes I like it, no I don’t care that you don’t. One show I did not enjoy and stopped watching after first episode of new season: Walking Dead. We are now watching Westworld but my daughter is in Japan so I have to wait until she is back. I like it. Again, I’m sure I’ve missed some but…

 

Radio

I was on live radio twice this year, at the ABC, for my day job (the teaching). The first was with David Astle chatting about sex education and parents answering the tricky questions from their kids; the second was a couple of weeks later with Clare Bowditch.

with david astle 774 ABC

 

Film

Imagine tumble-weeds rolling through a cinema. I can only remember one movie and that was last week: Rogue One. I have plans though for Paterson, Arrival and maybe La La Land. And seeing Rogue One again next week because: blended family.

 

Blogs

The blogs I’ve most visited and enjoyed (and maybe commented on, although that has been sparse) are: Lisa Hill’s ANZLitLovers (I did an author appearance there earlier this year: Meet an Aussie Author) and Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best. They are disciplined and consistent, fantastic ambassadors in bringing the goodness to our screens. I also pop into a couple of other blogs, including Sarah Drummond’s lovely lovely one, where sometimes you get a slice of delicious prose that may or may not be part of a work in progress. And the photos – divine. (See The Wine-Dark Sea).

 

Animals

We got a kitten in July, just when the Tour de France was starting. His name is Alan, he was a rescue baby, abandoned or found at about two weeks old. Here are before and after (current) pics. We LOVE HIM SO MUCH.

 

Writing news

It was a good year, even though not much actual writing happened.

  1. I signed a publishing contract just before Christmas for my second novel. So that is exciting and a relief because: second novel syndrome (even though it’s my first ms, so I kind of avoided the problem of writing something after the first one was released, and published second ms first. How canny, lol, I had no choice in it).
  2. I received a grant from Creative Victoria, to help me develop a manuscript I’m working on. This is what I’m calling the circus novel, or more accurately the circus/abortion novel.
  3. I got a booking to be on a panel at a writers festival next year, and then when I’d given up on a pitch to another – much larger – festival, received word that I will be chairing two events there. This is almost the most exciting writing bit from this year.
  4. I made a 2016 best reads list! The lovely Charlotte read about The Secret Son on Lisa’s blog, got a copy, reviewed it and put it on her list here… I was pleased, it’s so hard to get on these damn lists. (Charlotte’s original review here and her 2016 list here.)

 

Finally, the biggest surprise of 2016? My favourite experience not just of the year but maybe ever? The thing that awakened me to something new and wondrous and deeply thrilling? Me seeing Wagner’s The Ring Cycle in Melbourne in November. I have a friend, he writes opera reviews for the Herald-Sun and tweets about it as Opera Chaser and blogs here. He has been an opera chaser for 30 years but has only started writing about it in a formal sense for the last two or so years. He has taken me to a couple of productions, offered to take me to more, but I’ve declined, saying ‘sorry, it’s really not my thing, it’s a wasted ticket, take someone who appreciates it.’ So yes, I was a hypocrite when he was over for dinner on a Saturday night and asked if I’d be interested in seeing at least the opening opera Das Rheingold two nights later, on the Monday night. YES I would, I said. (The Ring Cycle has been on my list of things to do before, well, you know, ever since my mother saw it three years ago, here in Melbourne. Ever since I went to a talk with her, as part of the Wheeler Centre program, and heard Peter Rose talking about seeing Siegfried in Germany somewhere, and the stamina required of the singers, who ‘staggered around the stage’, swigging water from plastic bottles in the heat. It’s details like this that make me sit up, also hearing that ‘it’s as much an epic feat of endurance for the audience as the performers’. I am intrigued by obsession, and love listening to people talk about their obsessions. I learn about human nature, about the extraordinary in the ordinary.) So I went on the Monday night, and was lucky enough to go on the Wednesday (for Die Walküre), the Friday (Siegfried) and the Monday (Götterdämmerung). By the time it was all finished, and I was sitting stunned and grateful outside the Arts Centre, with my viking helmet on, taking a selfie, feeling changed and other-worldly because I had been converted, something big had passed through me. I’d sat in an audience, for four nights, enthralled. At times my jaw had dropped open, and I mean that literally. I would become aware of my open mouth and close it, then realise a few minutes later it had fallen again. It was visually spectacular, of course, but the music. THIS is why I didn’t like opera before. It wasn’t Wagner. It was an extraordinary experience and I feel lucky lucky lucky. It was a production where the performers transported you; where the sets delighted (the steps up to Valhalla; the little house with snow; the helical ramp for the Gods). The conductor refused to take a bow on any of the nights, and instead repeatedly applauded his orchestra, and on the last night got them up on stage for the standing ovation. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be on a stage for such a thing. Just magnificent. I bought a box set of the CDs and have been playing them every time I’m in the car. The music, incredibly, is familiar, after only one viewing of the Cycle. It’s as if it entered my body that one time, Wagner’s repeated motifs taking up residence inside of me. My only wish now is to be able to take my daughter – who IS an opera fan – to the next production. I hope they do the same one just once more, so we can go. Hopefully in three years. And with my mum too. What a dream!

So that was my 2016. Elsewhere I would indulge in the other matters that have rocked us, the deaths, the politics. I’ve decided though that part of psychological survival, for me, is to try to see the positives and keep the negatives in their place, keep them at the front of the back of the mind, while the beauty and art and achievements and privileges are kept closer to the heart, in gratitude.

Next year, from April I will have something new on the blog, a series you could say, about books and reading, and how it will shape up I’m not sure but stay tuned for news on that.

Happy 2017, and stay safe and well.

In preparation for end of year flurry of bookish posts …

the sound

You’ll notice my sidebar to the left <<< has a new image, of Sarah Drummond’s beautiful novel that came out this year, The Sound. It’s a book that should be read widely, get mentioned in the awards (maybe win some, fingers crossed) and one that I really loved this year in a year when I didn’t love a lot. I also loved Sarah’s first book Salt Story which was published a couple of years ago. Salt Story would make a great pressie for anybody interested in fishing, boats, nature, sustainability of the fishing industry out west, but also for people with absolutely NO interest in any of these things. For people who love beautiful, simple prose, a bit of humour, salty characters and like reading about things – it almost doesn’t matter what – as long as it’s written well. You know, the way people seem to feel about Helen Garner’s writing. I wrote a tiny not-review on this blog about The Sound earlier this year, and this is what I said then:

Finished the last few pages in bed last night. … I paced myself with this book because it’s a dark look at the history of Maori and Australian indigenous people ‘working’ with colonial sealers in the west of Australia. I use the quotation marks because working sometimes meant enslaved, forced, used, stole, abused, violated and terrorised. The prose is beautiful, you learn history at the same time, but it’s not overloaded with it. I was entirely satisfied with the ending as well, another reason why I think I was stalling. Another brilliant book from the wild west fisherwoman.

 

Another Australian novel I liked this year was Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season, a really good debut.

My final mention is for a novel I ADORED this year, and it’s Myf Jones’s LEAP. I wrote about it on goodreads I think, let me find it…

Here it is. True to form, it’s rambling and gushy:

*** UPDATE BELOW *** I’m cogitating on my response but you can see how much I loved it from the stars. Not often I give someone I know 5 stars – it doesn’t seem the done thing for Aus writers to give Aus writers 5. But I’m not gonna beat around the bush with this one. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Stay tuned for more.

*** Well, here is the more I promised above. Here are my notes for this book, some of the things I wrote down while reading. It’s not a review because no time, but my impressions. BEWARE POSSIBLE SPOILERS:

Pliers to turn stove on – we did the same when I was a kid, but it was the television knob that had come off

The complexities of young sexuality, the intimacy between Joe and Jen, there is so much in this book. So deft the reveal of grieving parent and Joe’s grief and guilt. Mates Sanjay and Jack are well-formed characters; Sanjay with his beautiful teeth and his tender care for Joe. We don’t often see tenderness in male friendships. We need more of it, and boys and men need to read more of it too.

I am scared for Joe half way through.

There are so many threads to enjoy in this novel but I never feel overwhelmed as if too much has been stuffed in.

This is a deeply literary book… Leap is a perfect title I think.

So much truth in everything including the things I’ve never experienced, eg page159 you realise or it’s confirmed because you’ve suspected that Joe is going to make a jump. “The jump is pressing up in him” amazing and true and deep.

P 166 just beautiful writing amazing

It’s about art too, the painting of the Tigers, and Elise makes bread but the starter on p 167 is “more dead than alive” such beautiful symbolism as Elise is more dead than alive as well. So sad. The question is I don’t know what will happen, nothing is predictable, but there is no sense of the tricksy here, I am not being manipulated, I am fully immersed and with the characters in the story.

And noticed on p172 that he calls the nurse ‘the nurse’ not by name. Will he ever ? She is at a distance – unnamed – even reminding him of Jen? She is mysterious but so subtly drawn and layered in.

It’s a resonant depiction of the poignant time of turning and becoming, when boys are changing into men. There’s Sanjay with his girlfriend and Jack with the law… Joe has done so well to stop drinking and stay alive you can feel the strength there, and the effort, but there is still an aura of risk about him, slipping, there is a cross-roads psychologically for him, and maybe it will play out in a physical sense too.

I am left with the feeling that for Elise and Joe to heal they need to meet, they need each other so they can move on and perhaps they are moving in that direction.

It’s months since I finished LEAP and it is staying with me, and has become part of my imagination now. It’s a beautiful novel, highly recommended, and while the cover might suggest something light and in the vein of popular fiction, it’s a literary novel that crosses over easily for commercial readers as well. Fantastic book.

UP NEXT: Saturday will be my final four Saturdays in a row not-review, for Ian McEwan’s NUTSHELL.

My second novel

Last week was a good one.

  1. On Tuesday, my second novel manuscript was being pitched at my publisher’s acquisitions meeting. I knew this and yet I still managed to last the day.
  2. Wednesday I was teaching all day and was walking to the car afterwards and checking my emails. There was one from my publisher Jane saying it is a go. IT IS A GO.
  3. Thursday, I was walking on air, apart from a sprained ankle from the evening before when I couldn’t find the dog and went running outside in a panic in terrible faux crocs from Big W. I confess to a glass of champagne while I was cooking which didn’t help when I was in that frenzy.
  4. Friday was good because I flew to Sydney for a dance party. A dance party!
  5. Saturday was good because I walked around Newtown, and met an old blogger friend, and we went to a beautiful cemetery, and we went to a shop that sells clothes made from kimonos, and we had a beer in a beer garden and it was all summery and warm.
  6. Sunday was a good day because I checked out of my funky, industrial, hard-edged hotel and walked from Newtown to the Opera House and Circular Quay via a terrific gallery in Chippendale (cue jokes about male strippers and furniture) that had a contemporary Chinese art exhibition on. I loved it. It was themed VILE BODIES and here are some photos. 

 

On rejections

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Michael Hauge and Larry Brooks on story engineering

 

I’m writing this mainly I guess for any writers who might be reading. Rejections (note the plural) are part of the game. And it is a game, not a fun game or one of manipulation, but of patience, perseverance and professionalism. Another thing: it’s a long game.

I wrote about rejection here, for author Lee Kofman, and how me submitting a terribly-written travel article back in 1990 (and getting rightly rejected – and in retrospect it was a LOVELY ‘No’ letter, I have the feeling it came from Jonathan Green) meant that I didn’t submit anything for years. I didn’t stop writing, I’m not that precious or thin-skinned, but If I’d known then what I know now, a slow-dawning awareness that started building once I started writing seriously with a view to publication from 2008 onwards, I would have seen that not only was that piece a draft, wholly unworked and not worthy of appearance outside of my diary pages, rejection does not mean you are shit.

Now, as I am sitting with a completed second novel manuscript, the first draft of a third ready for next-stage development, and fourth in its early stages, I am so glad that not only was that pathetic travel piece denied its place in the canon lol, but also that the first few submissions I made to literary journals were nixed as well. I know now that my novels need a long, long time in the oven, with the preparation of them like one of those crazy recipes that have so many ingredients you almost decide not to cook the bloody thing, but then you think, well, give it a whirl, it’s the weekend, I’ve got the whole day, and you make the hugest mess of the kitchen, use every pot and pan, and you kind of enjoy it but kind of think ‘why am I even doing this?’ And it took me a while to realise that if  I can manage my impatience by thinking ‘the thing will improve, take your time, this is nowhere near finished’ and resist rushing it to readers, an agent, the publisher, then the pressure comes off a bit.

Another thing that helped me with my manuscript development is the idea of a conscious structure and deliberate story points. There are a bunch of people who have written about these (American screenwriting guru Syd Field; Michael Hauge; Larry Brooks) in ways that are clear and helpful. I consider myself a literary fiction writer, but reasoned there was no reason why I couldn’t also incorporate some of these dudes’ systems. (And the story points don’t have to be big obvious clunky ones; they can be subtle shifts, emotional changes or realisations).  It seems there is a move happening, driven by readers, booksellers and therefore publishers, away from novels that are ‘only’ beautifully written, interior and character-driven (all such hard things to do well in the first place) to books that have all those elements but with extra elements of storytelling that publishers believe will sell the novel to larger numbers of readers (cross-over books). I wonder whether this is because of long-form television and how people are accessing their preferred narratives. It’s also possibly because of how we are distracted by our phones and cannot settle to fiction in the way we used to. (Noam Chomsky talks of the perfect dyad between a man and his television set. I think it’s true, but between a human and their phone.)

Wonderful woman and agent Virginia Lloyd (who represented my first novel and sold it to Allen and Unwin two years ago – two years ago on Melbourne Cup Day it was acquired), has written about attracting the attention of a publisher here:

Advice on how to attract a publisher

Virginia is super professional and smart, lovely to deal with and has extensive experience – she worked as an in-house editor for PanMac before setting up as a literary agent, in Brooklyn NYC where I met her in a very hip bar, and now in Sydney. She represents some authors, as well as offering editorial services: mentoring/coaching; manuscript assessments; editorial and structural development.  You can read more about her services here. While she no longer represents my work, occasionally I send a (panicked) email to her and she talks me down, and for people who might feel they need some help and are happy to pay*, I can’t recommend her highly enough. Like I said above, it’s a tough business and it is important to try to build a group of people who will champion your work, be in your corner, make you feel supported to keep going. Much of it is about endurance and not cracking under the strain, not giving up.

Finally, I came across this article about the reasons a manuscript gets rejected by agents, written by an agent’s reader (an agent is often the first person a writer will be submitting their novel manuscript too, although in Australia they are harder to get than a publisher it seems!)

I’d love to know if any writers are reading. I know I have some readers who are readers, and as I still work out what I want to do with this space, in terms of blogging, I’d love to know what people would like to read about. It’s clear my book ‘not-reviews’ are sporadic at best. I do the 6 Degrees posts, and occasionally share articles of interest I come across. It’s a bit of a mess, really, but I guess it’s okay.

 

* Virginia is very clear on her website about how the fee structures work, in terms of literary representation (where there is no upfront fee) and other services. A reputable literary agent will never ask for money upfront, or to take on a client. Lit agenting is done on spec, and sometimes, if you are lucky, they will put in a lot of unpaid work with you to develop the manuscript before approaching publishers with it. This is what happened with me and Virginia, on not one but two novel manuscripts. You can see why I love her so much, she stuck with me and believed in me, even though it took two years to get a book contract.

Hello.

I am back from hols and happy to be home. I do love Melbs, even though it’s chilly and grey. This week I have to hit the ground running; teaching three gigs, getting a thing cut out of my back on Friday and then a mighty Tour de France dinner with my sister and her husband on Saturday. We do this every year, cooking and eating Franch* food, naturellement.

While away I read Questions of Travel (review to come, even though you rightfully probably don’t believe me); began Olive Kitteridge (OMFG it is as WONDERFUL as people say), watched the Tour every night a full two hours earlier than here and was introduced to commentators Carlton Kirby and Irish mumbler and ex-rider Sean Kelly.

We swam and ate and walked not very far. One day we went to a volcano and had lunch (the same volcano I climbed in the dark before sunrise 27 years ago with two boy backpackers I didn’t know and never saw since). Strange moment to be perched on the rim in the extremely touristy restaurant for a buffet rip-off-lunch (rip-off to the tune of a whole $10 a head) with my family. Then we went to the Monkey Forest in the rain and because it was wet and I was wearing thongs (natch) but no Bingtang singlet I can assure you, AND because I wasn’t wearing my glasses because the bastard monkeys can grab and steal and break, I FELL OVER ON MY ARSE AND NOW I HAVE A HUGELY PURPLE BRUISE THERE.

Nice.

So we’ve had a great holiday but back to reality now of course and how quickly it all wears off.

* Not a typo. This is an homage to Fronck, the delightful wedding planner played by Martin Short in Father of the Bride.