Sunday, April 08, 2012

New blog

I've integrated my blog into my website, and will post there from now on.

Read my updates on

It includes the archived posts from this blog, but this blog will not be updated.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Notable - is that the same as infamous?

Delightful news today that Act of Faith has been listed as one of the Notable Books for Older Readers for 2012 by the Children's Book Council of Australia.
There are some fine books on the list, including Penni Russon's superb Only Ever Always and Vicki Wakefield's All I Ever Wanted, so I'm extremely honoured. You can read the whole list and the shortlist for Book of the Year here.

Virginia Woolf - in her own words

Her lecture 'Craftsmanship', part of a BBC radio broadcast from April 29, 1937.


'Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.' - Virginia Woolf

Monday, April 02, 2012

Vita Sackville-West - in her own voice

Reading passages from The Land, recorded by Columbia in 1931 for the International Education Society.

I find these sorts of thing enormously moving: hearing the voices of long-gone people I've heard in my head for years.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tudor plagues

What's the collective noun for the Tudors? A chalice of Tudors? A gauntlet?

A plague?

There are, at last count, 27,491* historical novels based in the courts of the Tudor kings and queens. It's not hard to see why. They were a fascinating lot. Sex maniac Henry. His six wives and their sisters. His children: irrational and frigid or possibly sex maniac Elizabeth, psychopathic Mary, frail little Edward and his cousin the bewildered Lady Jane Grey. There are captains with sparkling eyes like Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Priests in hair shirts. Head chopping. Rabid Scots. An Armada. There is even Geoffrey Rush. That's what they were like, right? Ask anybody.

It's time to enforce a moratorium.

From now on, nobody is allowed to publish any new books on the Tudors without proving to a committee (composed entirely of me) that they:

  • Undertake not to completely distort the historical record and their readers' sense of history without reasonable cause
  • Have something new to say on the topic.

We get the some thing over and over. That's right.  Elizabeth never married. I don't understand how that comes as a surprise to anybody. Mary, Queen of Scots was executed. So was Anne Boleyn. Henry had six wives. Amazing. Who knew?

But what you would never learn from many of the recent fictional portrayals is that these were among the best educated, most intelligent, influential people in Europe. That some of the most significant political and religious initiatives of all time took place under their reigns (alongside some disasters). That the Tudor queens dramatically altered the understanding of monarchy and leadership. That some of the alliances the Tudors forged and enemies they created resonate to this day.

Instead you can read about an Elizabeth who clings to her lover Dudley's manly chest while he makes the decisions, like Fabio on a Mills & Boon cover - or was that Essex - or perhaps Walter Raleigh?; about a fey Jane Grey or poor wee sickly Edward; about Mary who lived only to burn people and stalk the hallways like Mrs Rochester; and about a Henry who jumps from bed to bed without ever pausing to ponder economics or military matters or foreign affairs.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm very happy to see new interpretations that cast light on some of these people and those around them. I even think Jonathan Rhys Meyers never ageing as Henry is hilarious - although I can't quite bring myself to keep watching The Tudors. I don't mind the odd mash up (such as - a slightly different example - Sofia Coppola's stylish take on Marie Antoinette, another historical object of mass obsession).

What I hate is the same drivel over and over, poorly written books that only sell because they are about the Tudors, or work that utterly distorts readers' historical understanding for no good reason. So much of it is little more than fan fiction and bad fan fiction at that. They make me shout and scoff and snort, and that's not what you want from a reading experience. I refuse to read another one unless a jury of my peers assures me it's readable.

And as a result, we now have an entire generation of readers who think that one of the great dynasties of British history is just that: Dynasty without Joan Collins (and even she once played Bess Throckmorton).

Those readers now have a historical framework which includes the belief that Elizabeth had Mary of Guise either poisoned or killed by Walsingham's own hand (she died of dropsy), or that she had Bishop Gardiner murdered for opposing her (he died of natural causes well before she took the throne). Minor examples, but symbolic distortions. And why?

Sometimes historical fiction needs to bend the laws of time or truth and the responsible novelist will make sure readers understand this in an appropriate note at the end. Film-makers do the same. Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots never met, but who could forget Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots sparring with Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth? Katherine Hepburn as Mary also met Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth in 1936. Barbara Flynn as Mary and Helen Mirren's inevitable Elizabeth locked horns just a few years ago.

It's a gorgeous idea, if only for the casting - but always promoted as such. It's a 'what if?' fiction. That's different to swapping historical figures in and out of time or place or even marriages apparently at random.

But I fail to understand why, in your bog standard Tudor narrative, with real historical figures so wondrous, so entertaining, operating in a complex and sophisticated world, almost everybody feels they have to make anything up or add extra intrigue.

We also now have an entire Tudors industry, devoted to churning out trade paperbacks with sumptuous covers of women or girls in gowns but with no heads - which is, in a way, appropriate. (Hmm. Now I think about it, maybe all those headless historical fiction covers are subliminal nods to Anne Boleyn?)

Like Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, the Tudors are fascinating. They have what is known in LA as timeless appeal. You don't have to do much with them, because the historical figures do a lot of the heavy narrative lifting themselves. And there are so many popular history books written about them, too, you don't even have to do any really hard research. Easy.

That's how so many of these books feel.

It's not enough.

I'm doing my PhD at present, and to be awarded a PhD you have to make "a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding". That seems to me to be a very good guide for any book. Each novel, each short story, should be a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding. It may not be major, earth-shattering, but it should at least be unique.

There have been revelations of new historical material and new perspectives on the Tudor years in the recent past. Most of this has appeared in the work of historians, archaeologists or other writers of non-fiction, but some has and will come from fiction; from novelists shining a torch into the dusty corners of the past. Mantel's Wolf Hall is a brilliant example.

Find a legitimate way in. Focus on a character previously neglected. Shed light on a particular moment. Make a unique contribution. I know someone who is writing a novel about Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, and I feel sure it will offer unique insights, a different perspective and is impeccably researched. It will pass the committee appraisal with flying colours and satisfy both criteria.

To such authors I say, go forth and bring us as many fabulous new Tudor tales as you can imagine. More power to your arm.

Everyone else, step away from the keyboard.

*That's a historical distortion - in other words, I made it up.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

And then what happened was...

The day started with a workout, then after a much-needed and extremely strong recovery coffee I turned on my laptop to find messages of congratulations on email and Twitter, because the Barbara Jefferis Award shortlist was announced today and Act of Faith was highly commended.

It's such an honour and surprise because, apart from anything else, this is an Australian Society of Authors award for  'the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society'. That means a great deal to me. It is named in honour of the late Barbara Jefferis: novelist, founding member of the Australian Society of Authors and its first woman President.

And there are so many significant and terrific books this year that are eligible, I'm really quite delighted.

I mean, really - look at this shortlist:

  • Georgia Blain: Too Close to Home (Vintage)
  • Claire Corbett: When We Have Wings (Allen & Unwin)
  • Anna Funder: All That I Am (Penguin)
  • Gail Jones: Five Bells (Vintage)
  • Gillian Mears: Foal's Bread (Allen & Unwin)
  • Frank Moorhouse: Cold Light (Vintage).

Also highly commended were:

  • SJ Finn: This Too Shall Pass (Sleepers)
  • Meg Mundell: Black Glass (Scribe).

Chuffed. Me. Hell, yeah. And I don't care who knows it.

Hearty congratulations to all those commended and shortlisted. And happy IWD 2012.

You can read more about  the award on the ASA site.

Every day is women's day

Another International Women's Day.

First, let's celebrate all the astonishing change that has happened in the last few decades with a little Aretha.

I remember when that song came out. If you ever doubt that art can change the world, remember that song.

I remember the International Year of Women in 1975. I was in high school (yes, I'm rather old) and it had a huge effect on me, and on the world. I remember televised debates featuring Eve Mahlab. I remember the badges and t-shirts and rallies, and also the backlash.  I remember reading The Female Eunuch - God knows what I made of some of it, since I was 15 or so. I remember reading the poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Wright and Audre Lorde. I remember feeling like my life - the whole world - was shifting, and it was. I remember my great aunt Madge, a veteran of the women's peace movements in World War One, telling me: You're just like we were.

I remember so many IWD rallies of the 80s, remember speaking at one (it must have been 1983) in the pouring rain, and I remember our current Prime Minister in attendance. I remember being abused by bystanders as we walked down Swanston Street with our banners. I remember fighting with countless numbers of men in suits in boardrooms about childcare, about discrimination, about at least keeping their stupid bosom jokes to themselves.

And now look. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn't. So far.

(Here's Kirsten Tranter on Why Women Writers Get a Smaller Slice of Pie, for example.)

I feel like every day we need to focus on what more needs to be done, and that's just as it should be. But maybe we should keep this one day for celebrating and reflecting.

So today I'm remembering Madge and her sisters and my great-grandmother and her friend Vida Goldstein and that whole stroppy generation. I'm remembering the generations of strong women in my own family who  didn't want to make a fuss about it, but did change the world anyway - just by example. I'm remembering the women who marched beside me, then and always. I'm remembering the poets and the visionaries.

And I'm grateful.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The writer online

Complicated, isn't it?

In the good old days a writer wrote books, and if someone liked them, he or she might write a letter on a card or a piece of paper and post it off to the publisher, who would then post all the bits of paper on to the author to read and reply.

So a very successful author might need an assistant or a secretary to handle the correspondence and perhaps do a bit of research. They might have a few letters to sign at the end of a day's writing - letters nicely typed for them. With a carbon paper duplicate for filing. If they weren't Agatha Christie or someone of that level of stardom, they might even write their own thank you letters, perhaps even by hand.

I suppose some fabulously wealthy authors do have secretaries or PAs or even researchers - I remember Lynda La Plante saying at the Melbourne Writers' Festival last year 'My people see to that sort of thing,' with a wave of one be-ringed hand.

But everyone else does it themselves, especially in Australia and New Zealand with our relatively small markets, and nowadays it's almost a full time job. There's all the usual guff involved in running what is, essentially, a small business. I fit that stuff in at nights and the weekends.

And then there's talking to the world. No longer the bunch of envelopes. Now it's a constant whirl - you have to have a networked presence, and you have to maintain it, even if it means being witty at 7.30am or checking your emails at 10pm.

You know me. I'm bloody everywhere. I love the web and I love finding interesting information and spreading it around. So in spite of being a complete introvert who would happily never speak to anyone ever in real life, there I am on all the online networks, writing several blogs and just enjoying the medium. And the community. And then I do it all again for my day job, and for a few community groups, and as a civilian - on facebook with my friends and family, for example. Juggling my different profiles and personae keeps me on my toes. But that's life. Agatha Christie would have hated it.

I use Hootsuite to manage social media, which allows you to post from several different accounts in the one spot and also to schedule tweets so you can find stuff to share when you have time, but publish it later. At work, for a different set of profiles and platforms, I use Tweetdeck. I also like to use Tweetchat for specific chats (I drop by #PhDchat, for example, and #YAlitchat on Thursday mornings my time).

So here's where you'll find me:

Twitter: @kmjgardiner
Facebook: Kelly Gardiner - author page
Pinterest: My pin boards

I particularly like using Twitter and now Pinterest for gathering historical info and story ideas and sharing them. I've recently started using Pinterest to gather resources and images for works in progress - it's like a virtual pinboard. Usually, I'd just bookmark such things, but now I can share them with you.

But be warned. Pinterest especially is horribly addictive. And I have the lost weekend to prove it. Or at least I would. If it wasn't lost.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Next up (or not, as the case may be)

UPDATE 9/2/2012: THIS EVENT HAS BEEN POSTPONED. Will post new date when it is confirmed.

It's Words at the Warrandyte Cafe on 12 February, where I'll be talking about reading and writing, and perhaps a little about research.

Words at the Warrandyte Cafe is a new regular event organised by the Warrandyte Neighbourhood House - local author Corinne Fenton was the first speaker late last year.

It's from 4pm to 6pm at 61 Yarra Street, Warrandyte (that's in north eastern Melbourne, Victoria) or you can contact the Neighbourhood House for details on 9844 1839.

Ain't I a woman?

Poet and author Alice Walker reads the earth-shattering (and sadly still relevant) 1851 speech of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Appearances and residencies

I'm proud to appear in the Word is Out program this year, part of Melbourne's Midsumma festival.

I'll be reading a snippet from Tragédie in Works in progress: other times on 19 January. Makes me a tad nervous - nobody but my uni colleagues have heard or read it before.

Then on 22 January I'm part of a panel (in excellent company) called Truth, dare and promises: issues in youth literature. Here's the blurb:
Could Young Adult fiction be better described as ‘trauma’ fiction? Has it become too dark, or has it always been that way? If pressure on some writers, by agents and publishers, to ‘de-gay’ their characters is just about increasing sales potential, is this homophobic? Have supernatural themes gone too far? What ‘facts of life’ should young people be exposed to?
Sounds pretty good, eh? Wish I could just go along and listen but instead I'll be trying to either get a word in edgeways or sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Right now I'm blogging as the author in residence on inside a dog, the teen reading website of the State Library of Victoria. (That's where I work part-time, too - but the residency is part of my author life, not my day job. I know. It's complicated.

So over there you can find me rambling on about writing and reading and other stuff for the rest of January. Go take a look. Even if you're not a teen reader. You know you want to.

Now some residency announcements.

I feel both honoured and very lucky to have been awarded residency fellowships for 2012 by Varuna Writers' House and the May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust.

Both are precious and named in honour of some of the country's best loved writers. Varuna is Australia's national residential writers' house in the former home of writers Dr Eric Dark and Eleanor Dark, author of The Timeless Land. Varuna is in the Blue Mountains, and I'll be there in April working on Tragédie

The May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust supports writers and illustrators of books for children and young people by providing residencies in apartments in Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra. Its purpose is:
... to ensure that the high quality of work attained by May Gibbs in her time is achieved by contemporary Austrailan children's authors and illustrators; that they are able to retain the Australian voice and to develop the literary heritage of the future.
What better?

Thanks to the Trust, I'll be spending a month in Brisbane working furiously on The Sultan's Eyes over April/May.

So it's a big year. And we're only three weeks into it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Not rocket science

If it has horses and swords in it, it's a fantasy, unless it also has a rocketship in it, in which case it becomes science fiction. The only thing that'll turn a story with a rocketship in it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail. 
- Debra Doyle

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hemingway's Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "A writer should always try for something that has never been done, or that others have tried and failed".

Lately I've been...

In residence on inside a dog.
All January.

Albert Nobbs - Restrained Glenn Close playing opposite a hearty Janet McTeer. Always wonderful to see Pauline Collins, too. This time upstairs. Subtly and quietly tragic. The whole story. As indeed it must have been. And that's all I can say without spoilers. Though perhaps the screenplay is just wee bit Banville.

The Iron Lady - I'm sorry, but I can't feel a shred of empathy with Margaret Thatcher, I don't care what the script says. Nor am I comfortable with the bulk of the film's lionising of her, and the claim that her economic policies led to recovery. All bollocks. We get to the truth of the matter in a brilliant Cabinet scene in which she has clearly gone too far, but that's treated as if it's a one-off - a harbinger - whereas in fact she was a thug in Cabinet and out. But Meryl Streep is magnificent and it's worth seeing for the performance. And Giles is in it. As Geoffrey Howe, no less.

It'll be Streep versus Close at the Oscars. Close might win it, since if you wear men's clothes you're almost certain of a statuette. Unless you're actually queer, of course. Sad but true.

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol - Actually not bad for a blowing-things-up movie. Though why, in this day and age, the otherwise kickass woman agent (Paula Patton) has to get dressed up in a slinky evening gown to seduce a bad guy is inexplicable. And then there's Tom Cruise, who always does that stupid sprinting thing and yet never catches anyone. Not to mention the hair. But, you know, someone does blow up the Kremlin. And that's always fun. Holiday movies.

I Love You Phillip Morris - Jim Carrey. Why? Nothing more to say except Ewan McGregor is just beautiful. Always.

Damages - (on DVD) Glenn Close again, absolutely petrifying. But now she's freaked me out and I'm too scared to watch the rest. That means it is very effective TV.  Also I'm a wimp.

I was on holidays, so I've been on a binge, and not reading anything at all related to French opera or 16th century printing. Instead, I've been reading:

The Chanters of Tremaris, Kate Constable's YA fantasy trilogy set in a beautifully imagined world laced together by the magic of song.

The Old Kingdom, another YA fantasy trilogy, this time by Garth Nix. It's also perfectly imagined, but much darker: worlds of old magic held in place by necromancy and ... ooh, makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Mortal Instruments. Yes, one more YA fantasy series, this one by Cassandra Clare and set mostly in New York. I like the world, and the logic of it, and she's a dab hand with the snappy dialogue, but the characterisation is very thin. Still, what would I  know? She sells millions and they're making a movie and girls everywhere want to marry Jace and apparently that's what matters.

War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong. This was on my wishlist for Christmas and then it arrived and I was happy. Tolstoy, through the eyes of his wife Sonya. A wonderful premise. Then I read it.  I struggled, dear reader, I'm sorry to say, because I really wanted to like it. But the voice doesn't work for me, it's strained and clunky, the pace is inconsistent, all telling and then mostly awkwardly. Bits of it read like a university book review. And it's oddly lacking in passion.

Why be happy when you can be normal? This is Jeanette Winterson's memoir of the Oranges are not the only fruit years and their aftermath. Oranges, she has argued in recent years, was fiction or something between fiction and memoir. This is the real story and it is, as she says, even more bleak. It's Winterson in essay mode, sometimes fragmentary but not showing off, not trying to do anything but tell some truths and understand. (I don't mind it when she shows off, by the way - she's allowed.) It works, as an extended riff on life and religion and class - and honestly with a mother like Mrs Winterson she need only present her to us in all her glory, and you can't tear your gaze away. The only shocking new revelation: Winterson voted for Thatcher once. That's big.

The Last Jew, by Noah Gordon. Actually, this was vaguely research, as it's set in Spain in the early years of the Inquisition, but it didn't hurt my holiday brain too much. Well-written historical fiction and interesting for me because it's along the lines of a quest, but one in which there's no great crescendo of action or denouement. It is, like Isabella's quest in The Sultan's Eyes, about searching for home.

Which I'd really better get on to...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Radical lives

Fascinating mini-doc about Emma Goldman, her influence, and her 'resurrection' during Occupy Wall Street; it's also about the use of history and performance to influence, inform or - presumably - incite people now.

Emma Goldman and The East Village's Radical Past Final Cut from Chris Matthews on Vimeo.

You can read a bit more about it in the New York Times.