Ep 341 Meet Katherine Firkin, author of ‘Sticks and Stones’.

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In Episode 341 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Katherine Firkin, author of Sticks and Stones. Discover what you need in an author newsletter template. Impress (or baffle) your friends by casually dropping the word ‘autarky' into a conversation. Plus, we have 3 copies of Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell to give away.

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Show Notes

Why You Need a Template for Your Newsletter (and What to Put in It)

Kindling by Nigel Featherstone

The Fire Star by A.L. Tait

Writer in Residence

Katherine Firkin

Katherine Firkin is a Melbourne journalist, currently with CBS New York.

She has over a decade of experience and has worked across every medium – print, online, television and radio.

Katherine has been writing fiction from a young age, and she studied literature and journalism at university. Her debut novel is inspired by the many criminal trials she has covered.

Her debut novel is called Sticks and Stones and is published by Penguin Australia.

Follow Katherine on Twitter

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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN: ‘Utopia Avenue' by David Mitchell

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers' Centre

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo 

Katherine, congratulations on your book. This is so exciting. For those readers who have not yet got a copy of Sticks and Stones, tell us what it's about.

Katherine Firkin 

Well Val, it's a police procedural that is set in Melbourne. It basically follows lead detective Emmett Corban, who is head of missing persons. When we first meet him, he's a little bit bored and feeling a bit resentful because his unit is so under-resourced and understaffed, and he's stuck with these really banal cases which he thinks local stations should be handling themselves. But then he comes across this case of a missing mum. He discovers that she left her two children at a childcare centre. And it all looks extremely suspicious. And we see him go from one extreme to the other, from being really bored and feeling quite lost to suddenly having his hands full, and ending up chasing a serial killer through the streets of Melbourne.

Valerie Khoo 

Now, what drew you to writing about crime?

Katherine Firkin 

Well, it's a funny thing. I actually always wanted to write women's fiction. In fact, ever since I was a little kid, I knew I wanted to be an author. And this was my absolute passion, to write women's fiction. I have quite a few failed manuscripts in my drawer still, from attempts I made in my late teens and early 20s. But then, in my work as a journo, I got sort of pulled into covering the death and funeral of underworld figure Carl Williams. And that really drew me in, that whole underworld that's going on, and sort of often right in front of our eyes. And I became quite obsessed with trying to understand the mind of a killer. And my book really does, I think, take you into the mind of a killer and sort of understand motivation and behaviour.

Valerie Khoo 

I think that's interesting that you say, “I really became obsessed with understanding, you know, the mind of a killer.” That's not like a normal thing people would want to understand. So how did you go about doing that?

Katherine Firkin 

Well, I ended up, I was initially working as a sports reporter. And I sort of said to my boss after I covered, particularly the funeral of Carl Williams, that really shocked me because it was in a suburban place. He was, by all accounts, this suburban guy who had this whole secret life going on around him. And I said to my boss, “I really want to get more into crime and court reporting.” And particularly in court reporting, you can apply for documents afterwards that give you a lot more detail even than what you necessarily have heard in court. And I started to do that with quite a few cases and build up almost little case files of my own that I would read through and chat to police about and chat to lawyers about and just try and understand, you know, how did this person get to this point where they became a killer?

Valerie Khoo 

And so you wanted to write popular women's fiction initially and then you started getting interested in crime. Did you make a conscious decision – “I'm going to change the direction of my fiction” – at some point? I assume so.

Katherine Firkin 

Well actually, I'd actually sort of given up on writing a novel. It was something you know, as I said, I wanted to do since I was little. It's pretty much been my lifelong dream. But I really did have these terrible manuscripts and I didn't need to show them to anyone else. I just knew they were rubbish, like, they truly were rubbish. This is not me being humble. And I sort of came to the realisation that I'm just not meant to be a writer. It's, you know, I'm a journo, but I can't creatively write.

And the idea for this particular book actually came to me as I was walking along a creek where a lot of the book is set. And it came in this really strong vision. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I saw the crime, I saw a body lying there. I even saw police coming and chatting. And I raced home and jotted all this down on my computer. And the funny thing is, the next day I completely forgot about it and I let that scene just sit there for a few years. And it was only when I came back and I was cleaning out my…

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

Katherine Firkin

Yeah. It was only, I came back and I cleaned out my laptop and I started writing this thing I'd written. And I thought, wow, this actually is okay. I'm meant to be writing crime. So it all sort of happened, yeah, quite strangely.

Valerie Khoo 

So obviously, that was a scene. And after that, what did you do to flesh it out into… Obviously, a novel is much longer than that. So what were the steps that you took next in order to turn it from a scene into a fully-fledged novel?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, it's funny you say that. I was so naive when I got going. And I had this scene that was, I don't know, maybe 1000 words, maybe 2000 words. And I was so excited by it. And I really naively thought, “great. I can just, you know, turn this into a novel. I'll have it done by Christmas. It'll be on the bestseller list by, you know, January.”

I was such an idiot about the whole thing and I had no idea how long this was going to take me. It really, I sort of just wrote a rough draft and I did that by setting myself a goal of having 400 words a day, which I know is small, but it was something manageable that I could do.

And I got to the end, and I was so excited, I took myself out to a fancy restaurant and I printed out all the pages and I hadn't told my husband. So I presented it to him and said, “I've written a book, and I'm gonna set send it to publishers.”

And then I had the horrible shock of re-reading it and discovering that, again, I had written absolute rubbish.

Valerie Khoo 

So can you give me an idea of the timeline. You gave yourself 400 words a day. So how long… Just give me sort of a timeline of the entire gestation period from when you started, when you rediscovered the scene, so to speak, and then how long it took you for the first draft. And then how long it took for the subsequent drafts before you ended up sending it to a publisher, and so on.

Katherine Firkin

The whole process, so when I had the idea, I let it sit for a couple of years. When I rediscovered the scene, I did my first draft in about a year. And then that was rubbish. And then I started rewriting it. And that would have taken at least another three years, I think.

Valerie Khoo

Wow, really?

Katherine Firkin

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I did seven full rewrites of this book before I gave it to my agent. Because I… One thing I am good at is self-evaluation. And I could read it and go, okay, it's starting to turn into something that I want, but I knew it wasn't quite where it needed to be. And I'm, I am a perfectionist, like a lot of writers. So I just kept redoing it and redoing it and redoing it. So the whole process has been years in the making.

Valerie Khoo 

Now, it's a police procedural and with that there are so many things that you need to get right in order for it to be authentic, and so that people don't go, “Oh, that doesn't happen.” But also you need to, as you say, understand the criminal mind or the murderer's mind. So what research did you do to make sure you got all the information you needed to make it real?

Katherine Firkin 

So you are exactly right. It took a huge amount of research and insight and knowledge to make this book happen. And I very naively thought that just being a journalist meant that I would have enough sort of intel on how police operate on a day to day basis. But I quickly realised as soon as I got started that I was going to need a lot more help. Luckily, I had met quite a few police and detectives on the job and I reached out to quite a few and, you know, organised coffees and dinners and things like that. And pretty much begged and pleaded to get sort of a bit of help. Quite a few were a bit reluctant, as you would understand, but I did manage to find a couple of really good contacts who were so wonderful. They emailed me back and forwards whenever I'd say, “what about this? What would you do in this situation? How would you handle this?” They were just fantastic. I was very lucky.

Valerie Khoo 

Now, you said that you aim for 400 words a day, which is a nice sort of compact amount because it's manageable. So tell us on a practical level how you achieved that. Did you set aside a particular time of day? Did you just fit around whatever? How did it work?

Katherine Firkin 

Well, that was for my first draft. Yeah, I set the goal of 400 words a day. Being a journo, as I'm sure you would know, my days are not the same and I often work weekends, I often work overnights, it depends what's happening with the news. So I can never really say I'm always going to write between, you know, nine and 12 or something. That's also why I kept the amount so small because I figured I could squeeze it in. Even if I got home really late after a long day, I can always bash out 400 words.

But I have to say, I stopped using a word count from my second draft onwards, because it really didn't work for me, either as a motivator or for the quality of writing. I found that I would just get to the word count, but I didn't necessarily… The quality wasn't necessarily there. So I've changed my methods quite considerably.

Valerie Khoo 

Right. So did you know what was going to happen? Like, essentially, were you a plotter or a pantser?

Katherine Firkin 

Definitely a pantser. Once I had…

Valerie Khoo

Really?

Katherine Firkin

Yeah, once I had the first scene, everyone's surprised, particularly when you've read my book, because there's a lot going on. There's lots of different narratives and everything has to kind of obviously join together.

Valerie Khoo

Yes.

Katherine Firkin

But I really, I've tried, I've tried sitting down and planning and I actually just finished my second manuscript for my second novel, and I tried to plot that and I just couldn't, and I had to throw the plot out the window. And again, just go by gut. I'm a big believer in letting my characters tell me where they want to go and what they want to do. And I'm also a big believer in writing through things. And I just find when I just keep writing it kind of it works itself out.

Valerie Khoo 

And so when you got to your second, third and up to the seventh draft before you even sent it to a publisher, you say that you are good at self-evaluation, but what sort of framework did you apply? Or how did you… How were you able to put on that self-analysing kind of hat in order to look at it objectively?

Katherine Firkin 

I think I'm naturally very critical. Not in a bad way. I'm naturally an optimist, but I'm naturally quite critical. I'm a very good editor at work. I can always edit other people's work. And I really just took it as this isn't my own writing. I'm reading this as an outsider. The moment I was bored, the moment I was a bit confused, any little inkling… And you do know in yourself when you're reading something and you start to go, ooh! And a lot of the times the natural instinct is just to kind of ignore it. But if you stop and think, “No, that's not really good enough” and you cut it… I mean, also I am a ruthless editor. I love nothing more than cutting paragraphs out of my work. I do! I don't save things. I am not a believer, I literally will just wipe a page and delete it. And I don't save it.

Valerie Khoo

Oh my god! I'm just having a stress attack just hearing that.

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah. I love the idea of just, “No, that's not good enough. Get rid of it. Start again.” Yeah, I know a lot of people don't, but I'm really ruthless. And I think that's why I was able to get it to a point without too much assistance.

Valerie Khoo 

So a book of this nature does need, as we've already mentioned, a considerable amount of research. Did you do all the research first and then start writing in a flow, or did you research as the need came up?

Katherine Firkin 

No, I definitely researched as the need came up. I think you can fall into a trap if you sort of think you have to research everything beforehand. But you really just end up putting off doing the work. It's sort of almost like another procrastination trick.

And also, again, because I was writing on gut, and letting my characters tell me, quite often I didn't know quite where we were going with particular things. And I would get to points and then go, “Oh, I need to ask someone, what would they do here?” Or look through some of my files from other cases or things like that. So I don't know. It works for me to…

Valerie Khoo 

So when you say you let your characters kind of tell you and let your characters drive this story, as opposed to plotting it out, how well do you know your characters at the outset? Or are you actually forming them as you write the story?

Katherine Firkin 

I'm so glad you asked that question because one of my favourite things to do and one of my, I guess, tips for anyone who's trying to start writing, before I write anything of the actual novel, I always have a strong idea of who my main characters are going to be. And I spend a lot of time just jotting down thoughts about them. It doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful writing in what I'm doing here, but I'll just start, you know, rambling, almost like diary entries for someone. I start to think what they might have done last year, what their favourite board game is, what sports team they follow.

And I start to just create a little bit of a picture about them in my head. And only when I really feel like, okay, I know who these people are, then we get going. And I think that's why I kind of trust them. I know that sounds really silly, but I trust that they're going to lead me through the story.

Valerie Khoo 

And what do you think was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Katherine Firkin 

Oh, definitely just getting my bum in the seat and doing the work. And I think that would be the same for everybody listening, just, you know, turning up day after day, putting in the work. Particularly when it's your debut, and you really don't know, is this ever going to see the light of day?

I mean, I had big goals for this. I'm not gonna lie. I wasn't just writing for the fun of it. I really wanted this to be a published work. I had a goal from the outset. I in fact had labelled my document with the name of the publisher that I wanted, which turned out, so I'm lucky. I called it Penguin as the filename.

Valerie Khoo

Great.

Katherine Firkin

And I thought, yeah, I had this sort of one track mindset the whole way through that I am going to work on this, no matter what, until it gets published. But it is one thing to say that and another thing to sit down and do it day after day after day.

Valerie Khoo 

I'm curious to know on a practical level, did you write in Word or Scrivener or you know, were you writing on devices because you were out? You know, being a journo and needed to write on an iPad or something? Or did you dedicate it to a particular computer? Like what did you actually record it on?

Katherine Firkin 

I just use Word. And I just use my laptop. And I always have my laptop with me when I go out working anyway. And there were quite a few times, I'm in the car with my cameraman driving to a story and I have my laptop on my lap and I'd just be tapping away. I sort of took whatever time I could to get it done.

But I'm not a real tech person. I don't even like the sound of Scrivener, because my brain just, I haven't even looked at it. I don't want to. I'm like, I know I'm not that old. But I don't like technology. I struggle enough with basics. I just, yeah, that's why I write. I'm not good at anything else.

Valerie Khoo 

All right. So when you are writing sort of fairly dark scenes or gruesome scenes from time to time, that sort of thing has to be described well for the reader, and you've done that successfully. But does that mean those sorts of scenes are playing around in your head on a regular basis so that you can write them? Because, you know, that's essential. And what does that do to your psyche?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, that's probably a really good question. And I probably need to see someone about this. But you're right, there are those scenes in my head. And I think it's… I have covered a lot of court cases. And I've covered a lot of very gruesome court cases.

There's one that stands out in my mind, which was in 2014, there was a murder of a woman called Renea Lau in Melbourne. And the details of that case and the evidence photos we saw in court, I will never get out of my mind. And I think in some ways, it was almost a little cathartic to put these thoughts down on paper. And again, try to make sense of how people end up in these situations. There's never obviously an excuse for it. It's never actually that pleasant imagining the crime. But I do get a lot of satisfaction out of working out the motivation, behaviour, and also treating it a bit like a puzzle. And then I sort of have to work out how I can get all the pieces to fit together.

Valerie Khoo 

For a crime book, you'd need to have that element of suspense and mystery. What did you do to build that, to make sure you kept the reader turning the page?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, I really did want my book to be – I know it's a cliche – but a page turner. I did want it to be a fast-paced read. A lot of the feedback I've got from people so far is that it's almost like a TV series which I like because that means that it's lots, you know, lots going on and shifting perspective and things.

Valerie Khoo 

And it means it might be a TV series.

Katherine Firkin 

Cross my fingers, yes. But I was very, very… It was also quite natural, I have to say, but I ended every chapter with a definite sort of, I won't say cliffhanger, but that feeling of, ooh, something's about to happen.

You know, I've heard you talking on your podcast about, you know, not starting at the start, but sort of starting in the middle of the action. I also would say the same is true for the end of these sort of chapters, for these type of books. I always try to end almost in the middle of the action, so that you knew there's more to come.

Valerie Khoo 

Now you're currently at the moment in Melbourne because you're here to launch the book, but you usually are based in New York. Tell us what you normally do in New York?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, as of last year, I went over to New York and started working with CBS. One of my big roles as a journo there is I've actually started working on 48 Hours, which is a true crime show. And it is right up my alley because I again, I get more detail and more insight into some of these crimes. And as much as I think Melbourne might be bad for crimes, when you go to the States, you see a whole nother level of crime.

And the day to day work, you know, I do a lot of other stuff as well. I've done a lot of politics and general breaking news. But I have to say, working on 48 Hours behind the scenes and with some of the most experienced people like Erin Moriarty and things, it has just been a dream.

Valerie Khoo 

So this book is very Melbourney and Melbourne, you know, with the whole Underbelly series and books, yeah, there's lots of crime happening in Melbourne. Does that mean your second manuscript, your second novel is set in New York?

Katherine Firkin 

No, it's not. So the second one is… And I guess I'm trying to make a series out of this. So the second one continues where we leave off. It's actually set in Blairgowrie which is a coastal town about an hour and a half drive from Melbourne. But same detectives, they head out there for the day and do what they need to do and come back.

I keep getting a lot of pressure to try and consider writing for the States. But I will say one thing, I do love Australian fiction that is Australian, whether that's outback or whether that's as mine is quite urban. I think there is a lot of pressure to write internationally also because you might be considering international book deals. But I would love to see people buck that trend a little bit and try to keep things Australian. Also because they may potentially be giving Australian actors jobs in TV and all the rest of it. So I hope I will stay writing with things set in Australia.

Valerie Khoo 

Unless they do things like with Big Little Lies, which was set on the Northern Beaches of Sydney but the television show is set in Monterey, California.

Katherine Firkin

Yes. Exactly.

Valerie Khoo

So have you finished the second manuscript?

Katherine Firkin 

I have just finished it. I haven't sent it to Penguin yet. I'm sort of having a bit of a play with it still, but it is it is all done. It's pretty much good to go.

Valerie Khoo 

So with that, because it's a different experience when you write the second novel, because your first one took years, literally, because, you know, you had to find it on your computer again, then you took three years to write the first draft, and then, and so on. So I imagine that your second novel was a much shorter, much more compact time period. Can you just talk us through the timeline of when you got the idea for that? And how long for your first draft?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, I started writing this pretty much about 18 months ago. The lead up to this book getting published was quite long. So pretty much once I signed the deal with Penguin for Sticks and Stones, I started writing the next one. So it's been between 12 to 18 months of solid work.

I already had the idea in my head. In fact, I have about four books sort of started in my head.

Valerie Khoo

Great.

Katherine Firkin

So it wasn't hard for me to think, what am I going to do next? It was just more hard again to get myself going and go through the process. And in a way, it was harder because I knew how hard it was going to be, if that makes sense. I just knew that long hours that it involved, and there's so much more. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't put in the work, it's not going to happen. So I sort of had to psych myself up and do it.

My actual writing method has changed quite a bit in terms of, as I said, I don't use a word count anymore. I have a timer on my phone that I use. And I set it…

Valerie Khoo

Oh.

Katherine Firkin

Yeah, I set it for one hour, 33 seconds every time. I'm clearly a bit Type A but I really like, that's what works best for me. I set the timer and I don't let myself move or think about anything else or distract myself for that hour. And I find that my quality of my writing is a lot better because I'm not worrying about what I'm actually getting out in terms of words, but I'm just focused on it for that time.

Valerie Khoo 

So how many words do you think you achieve on average during that period?

Katherine Firkin 

On average, I couldn't tell you. You know, sometimes I can walk away and have done 2000 words, and I'm really proud of myself. Sometimes I've done three words because all I've done is cut paragraphs and fix things that I've already written. I really edit as I go, as well. I'm a massive editor as I go.

Valerie Khoo

Really?

Katherine Firkin

Yeah, if something's bothering me back in chapter one, I cannot move forward until I go and fix it. I know I'm breaking all the rules. So I'm probably not being very helpful.

Valerie Khoo 

No, no, it's whatever works for you. Absolutely. So when you live with a book for as long as you did for the first manuscript, for Sticks and Stones, when you live with that in your head for so long, your first draft, seven drafts, you know, over years, when you finally finish, do you feel a bit: what do I do now? A bit bereft?

Katherine Firkin 

A little bit. Not really, to be honest. I just knew, because my goal was always to establish myself as an author, not just to get one book out, for me, it just felt like this is the start of the journey.

I've heard you talk about it on previous podcasts. But I really do think it's important you have a goal in mind. And mine was always that this was the start of a journey not: I've just got to get this one book in me out. It was always: this is the start. So really, once it was done, it was more just, okay, now I've got so much more work to do.

Valerie Khoo 

You said before we started recording that this podcast got you through drafts two and three. How did that happen?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, I mean, it's a lonely thing when you're starting out. And all your insecurities and everything else play out because you really don't know, Am I ever going to get this to see the light of day? And particularly because I had already quite a few failed manuscripts that I knew were terrible.

I was going through a patch, I don't know if it was my second or third draft, where I was really questioning if this was the right thing for me to be spending so much time and energy on. And I discovered your podcast somewhere in there. And it was just a little bit of light. I used to take the dog and put the podcast on and go for a walk. And I loved hearing everyone's stories about the different ways that they found publication and they got through.

And the thing that really struck me was that everyone seemed to have a different path to getting there, which made me realize that maybe mine is not wrong. It's just taking a bit longer than what I had hoped.

Valerie Khoo 

Now I just want to circle back to something you said about when you did finish that first draft, you then said to your husband, because you hadn't told him, “Hey, I've written a book.” Are you serious? You hadn't told him? I didn't hear that right, did I?

Katherine Firkin 

No, I hadn't told him. No.

Valerie Khoo

How can you not tell him? What did he think you were doing?

Katherine Firkin

Well, that's exactly the first thing he said to me was, oh, that's what you've been doing in the study all this time? Yeah, no, I'm a big believer when you have a big goal of putting your head down and quietly doing the work and not announcing it to the world. Because I do think sometimes, I mean, I'm lucky, John's extremely supportive. But sometimes if you tell too many people, you can let all their doubts and their concerns and their ideas get in your head and you sometimes need to first do the work and then show people.

Valerie Khoo

That is so true actually.

Katherine Firkin

Yeah, but it was, he was shocked.

Valerie Khoo

It's kind of hilarious. Like, is that what you've been doing? Oh my god.

All right. So now that you've, you're just in the final throes of your second manuscript, when are you going to start on your third?

Katherine Firkin 

Well, the plan is once I'm happy with this second manuscript, and I send it away, the plan is to get started on the third. I've already sort of written out the opening, what I think will be the opening scene of the third. But then again, I'll probably take a bit of time just to start thinking about the characters again, like I like to do. And I'll definitely take the dog for a few walks before I get completely stuck into it because he's here with me at the moment.

Valerie Khoo 

Okay. And finally, what's your advice to aspiring writers who hope to… Your top three tips for aspiring writers?

Katherine Firkin 

Yeah, well, my first one is treat your writing as work. So make it a priority, not a hobby. I think it is so important to understand at the outset that if you want this to happen, the amount of work and time that you think it's going to take, you pretty much need to quadruple that. And the only way you're going to get to where you want to get, if we're talking about a novel and if we're talking about people who want to be published, is to take it seriously. Make a commitment to yourself, even if it's 10 minutes a day. Quite seriously, you can do a lot in 10 minutes a day. But make a commitment that every day, 10 minutes, I'm going to put in the work. I'm going to do this. I don't care what else is going on in my life. Treat it as a job and you will be amazed. You'll get it done.

Valerie Khoo

Great. Really good. Was that three?

Katherine Firkin 

That was one sorry.

Valerie Khoo

Okay, what are your other two?

Katherine Firkin

My second tip is it doesn't have to be fun. I see this on your Facebook page, your podcast Facebook group, quite often people sort of comment that if you're not enjoying it, you shouldn't do it. And I understand people mean well, but my big comment to that would be that, you know, I was going through my second and third draft hating myself, hating life, hating my writing, and I just pushed through because I had made that commitment to myself to get it done. It doesn't always have to be fun, and it's not always going to be fun. And again, if you're treating it as a job, there are going to be days you're going to have to drag yourself to the desk and get it done.

Valerie Khoo

Okay. And your third one?

Katherine Firkin

The third one, I would say, I don't know if it's so much a tip, just general advice is, there's only one thing that is going to stop you from getting your book completed and getting it published and that is procrastination. You really need to, again, make that commitment and decide for whatever amount of time, make it tiny to start, that you are going to be there every single day. It's my biggest tip, is just day after day, get the work done. And I promise if you're listening to this podcast, you will absolutely get to where you want to get because there is no skill that can't be learned from a course. There's, you know, no amount of talent or ability that you can't actually practice alone yourself. It's purely: are you actually going to get the words on the page?

Valerie Khoo 

Well, congratulations on pushing through. Congratulations on beating procrastination. And congratulations on your new book Sticks and Stones, everyone, by Katherine Firkin. Thank you so much for your time today.

Katherine Firkin

Thanks, Valerie.

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Phone: (02) 9929 0088 Email: [email protected] Head office: Suite 3,
55 Lavender Street, Milsons Point NSW 2061

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