Saturday, December 24, 2005

Writers in exile

Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing here, but it sounds better in French.

- Jerry (played by Gene Kelly), An American In Paris.

Fire flies

I'm flying to Melbourne today to see my family. Here in Auckland there's a gale force wind and it's been raining all week. You'd never know it's summer. Across the Tasman, three states have declared total fire bans and bushfire season is well underway.
A few years ago, I lived in the bush south of Sydney. On Christmas Day a huge firestorm swept through the National Park, burning three quarters of it (that's a lot of trees - a lot of animals). I was in Melbourne, as usual, for Christmas lunch, and watched the fire front get closer to my house - on the TV news.
So on Boxing Day (or maybe it was the day after) my brother drove me back from the beach house in the middle of the night to the airport, I jumped on a plane, and went back to Sydney to defend my home.
Our town was blocked off by the fire. I had to leave the car across the water and get a ferry. By then the fire front was visible from the roof, heading our way. The sun was blood-red, like Mordor. I was the hobbit.
One day I'll be able to describe what it's like to choose a suitcase worth of your life - just enough to carry - and make the decision to leave everything else: thousands of books, paintings, memories, stuff. I've got a lot of stuff. Your grandmother's sewing machine. The painting you did aged five that Dad had framed. Photos - hopefully someone else has the negatives. Gifts from lovers, from children, from friends. I've written before about choosing one book to save.
I had time to say goodbye. I had time to clear up the bush debris and soak the grass and climb on the roof with the hose to fill the gutters with water. I had night after night on watch, eyes streaming with the smoke, endless repetition on the fire warnings coming over the radio, endless hosing and raking and covering windows.
The fire stopped outside town. We were saved by a wind change and some very brave and dauntless fire fighters. We were driving through it for days, as the fire brigades mopped up: flames right next to the road, smoke spewing everywhere, until it rained at last.
It's no coincidence that I've been writing a story about the Great Fire of London for the last few months, about random flames, power, smoke, ferocity and dread.
So my thoughts are with everyone in that town tonight (since the bush will have just grown back enough for the leaf litter to have built up again) and every other town facing the possibility of an inferno over the next few days.
As we say in Aussie, avagoodweegend.
The blog will be off the air while I deal with a roast lunch and plum pudding (probably in 35 degree heat, but we're used to it).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Fantasy hero

There's an article on Slate right now which summarises some fascinating theories on why kids love fantasy (and therefore, why it's OK for kids to love fantasy, so the Pope can stop worrying about Harry Potter).
The crux of the argument is that theorising and fantasizing are similar processes:
... Cognitive science suggests that children may love fantasy not because they can't appreciate the truth or because their lives are difficult, but for precisely the opposite reason. Children may have such an affinity for the imaginary just because they are so single-mindedly devoted to finding the truth, and because their lives are protected in order to allow them to do so... The point is not that reading fantastic literature or playing fantastic games will make children smarter or more well-adjusted or get better grades in their chemistry classes...
But, still, since it's Christmas, we might indulge in a moment or two of sheer childlike pleasure in a beautiful reality. The spirit of possibility and play that leads children to read the Narnia books and watch the Harry Potter movies, and to just imagine, is at the heart of what it is to be human.

Einstein would agree, I'm sure, since he saw theory as inherently creative and imaginative. So, perhaps, would Tolkien.
As if to back this up, the New Yorker this week serendipitously features an interview with Philip Pullman, focused on his views on religion (with a nice bit of anti-Narnia spleen-venting thrown in for good measure):
In Lyra's world, the Bible isn't quite the same as ours: when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they see is the adult form of their daemons. "But it en't true, is it?" Lyra asks of the story. "Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn't really an Adam and Eve?" Lord Asriel tells her to think of the story as an "imaginary number, like the square root of minus one." Its truth might not be tangible, but you can use it to calculate "all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it." The metaphor is not just cunning; it helps explain why Pullman, a champion of science, writes in the fantastic mode.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Take that, you rotters

Well, well, well.
The much-maligned Enid Blyton strikes back. This week, British adults voted her Famous Five series as their own favourite books for children.
The series - which started 63 years ago - pipped Chronicles of Narnia to win first place in a national poll (by YouGov, commissioned by the National Literacy Trust). This is in spite of a couple of decades of derision directed at Mrs Blyton and her creations, and all the current hoo-ha about CS Lewis's Narnia stories.
In announcing the result, John Ezard in The Guardian still couldn't quite bring himself to be gracious:
The Famous Five are a group of clean-living, well brought-up middle class children who take pride in being "jolly good sports". Their adventures, fuelled by their inexhaustible addiction to ginger beer, lemonade and sandwiches ("Oh goody, cucumber," said George), were dismissed as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant by librarians and others in the 1970s.

Blyton's gentle fantasy, The Faraway Tree, came third, followed by Tolkien's The Hobbit and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Both of which, you imagine, ought to have had a bit of a boost from Hollywood in recent years). Blyton also took 16th and 17th place in the top 20 with the Secret Seven adventure series and the Malory Towers girls school series. There's no mention of my personal favourite, The Secret of Killimoon - my mother's old copy had some critical pages missing, and I nearly cried with the anguish of never knowing what had happened in them.
The Famous Five were Julian, Dick and Anne, plus their cousin Georgina (George) and dog, Timmy. It's fair enough to say that it's hard to tell Julian and Anne from Peter and Susan in Narnia, or any of them from the Secret Seven, but George may well be responsible for me never ceasing to be a tomboy. Still, we won't hold that against poor Enid. I'm sure she didn't intend it.
In defence of Enid Blyton, although I find it hard to read the books as an adult, at least her Five and Seven characters had interesting adventures - a new mystery to solve every time - and they were smarter than the police, brave and energetic, cycled everywhere, and never had to be saved by grown-ups. They were never sappy like dumb old Nancy Drew. They had dogs, which is always good, and big appetites. I remember most vividly the descriptions of High Tea which always came at some point towards the end and sounded terribly grand. "What's jugged hare, Mum?" I'd ask. "Can we have that for dinner? Can you please make scones? It's an emergency." The Famous Five might not have had the grand scale of Lord of the Rings but they were ripping good yarns, well told.
It must be said that adult memories of cherished childhood books are sometimes more faithful to the experience of the reading adventure, than the text itself. My bet would be that the order would be different if all those who voted had to read the books again. But never mind. The people have spoken, and here's the list:
Top 10 books
1 Famous Five
2 Chronicles of Narnia
3 The Faraway Tree
4 The Hobbit
5 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
6 Black Beauty
7 Treasure Island
8 Biggles
9 Swallows and Amazons
10 Lord of the Rings

Anyway, what's wrong with being a jolly good sport?

Real history

Robespierre famously announced in 1792 that, "History is fiction". If he'd known then how many times he was to appear as a character in later historical novels, he might have said rather more on the matter.
How very post-modern of him. I wonder what he would have made of Jeanette Winterson's imagined history, The Passion, where lines from TS Eliot pop up unannounced in Napoleonic Venice, where religion and romantic passion are both "somewhere between sex and fear", and where the beating heart of the beloved is always elsewhere - literally. Napoleon makes a guest appearance, the same character familiar to readers of Tolstoy (or more recently Gallo) and yet at once more heartless - in a story about passion, the Emperor's only great love is chicken. History as passion.
Tolstoy's Napoleon is the classic portrayal - he may or may not be a genius, he is lonely and certainly vain, he can lead his Army into hell and deserts them in the ice. Napoleon is a man who stalks the deserted corridors of the Kremlin.
History as gilt-framed portrait.
Tolstoy doesn't care about Napoleon (although he does care about Kutuzov). He cares instead about his families, his earthy weeping soul-filled Russians. They are the heart of his history - the rest is a wind that buffets, an inexplicable movement of armies and time (war and peace). But that's another story altogether.
Max Gallo's Napoleon (I've only read the first two volumes so far) is an altogether different person: fanatically focused, almost hollow, almost mad, almost explicable - but not quite.
History as the story, once again, of great men. Not the Great Men of Victorian history-making: the empire builders, the stalwarts of Rorke's Drift, the arrow in the eye, the honour roll of endless generations of Cecils or Norfolks. It is the history of great men, retold, from an imagined interior.
We know what the great man Bonaparte wrote, said in public, wore - even how he behaved. Except that he also lied, fantasised, exaggerated, and was famously inconsistent. Historians can argue details about his well-documented life, and yet here is a character real and imagined who is also unknowable. You can join the dots any way you like - and any portrait will still be a likeness. "What is history," he once asked, "but a fable agreed upon?"
If only the young Napoleon had been more involved in the Revolution and Terror, he might have figured in Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety. He might for once have been a real character, as fully formed as her Danton and Desmoulins, and chilling Robespierre, whose "history is fiction" she quotes, and plays with, throughout a novel that is and isn't history, that is written in past and present tense, that realises the lives of real people perhaps more perfectly than any other.
AS Byatt writes in On Histories and Stories that the experimental third-person narratives by Mantel (and Pat Barker in the Regeneration Trilogy) "can creep closer to the feelings and the inner life of the characters - as well as providing a Greek chorus - than any first person mimicry" (the historical narration she calls "ventriloquism"). Byatt should know - she's a dab hand at it herself. Barker and Mantel, she says, "tell us what we don't know... they imagine it on the grand scale - and we are richer as readers."

In children's historical fiction, the grand scale of history, of great movements or times of turmoil, provides the opportunity for young protagonists to face danger or launch quests or solve history's puzzles. They are cast out into history, and history allows them to operate outside their normal lives or fears (and those of the reader). They can be caught up in history, as innocent bystanders; they can be involved in history, winning battles or saving lives; they can observe and mature and celebrate history. History as adventure - history as a familiar pattern.
Great men (and sometimes great women) are always popping up to lend a hand, or wave a flag, like Sean Connery suddenly appearing as Richard the Lion Heart in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. I quite like that. It's a Victorian tradition that has never gone out of fashion - the Children of the New Forest grow up just in time to ride into London with the restored King.
That's history as finale, as reward to the young reader for sharing so many dangers. The historic moment, the celebration of victory - even in fantasy as history, magic as history - brings a tear to my eye every time. Luke Skywalker stands in front of all those Ewoks wearing his medal, in exactly the same way as Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund sit on their thrones in Narnia, the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, Harry returned safely to Hogwarts - it's Arthurian, and has a history and tradition of its own.
So history may be swirled around in fantasy or magic, or random, or circular, or parallel. You can live it or watch it or imagine it or jump through time into other histories. History as the unexpected.
Robespierre's complete sentence, made as always in the spirit of history-building, if not fiction writing, was: "Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction and I am convinced that chance and intrigue have produced more heroes than genius and virtue."
History as intrigue.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Best "best of" list

I take it all back. Philip Roth may have a point.
In his "Best quotes for 2005" list for the Sunday Times, John Dugdale ferrets out those lines in or about books that have made most readers squirm this year (beside the Bad Sex Awards, although Marlon Brando appears in both lists).
His gong for Most exciting academic project was awarded to this extract from the programme for Birkbeck College’s Dickens Weekend:
"A panel will suggest new ways of reading Great Expectations, using gendered contemporary discourses of dementia to propose an understanding of Miss Havisham as menopausal, deploying theories of memory and nostalgia to explore childhood in the novel, and interrogating the text’s various forms of bodily care, including homoerotic nursing."

So sorry I missed that.
My personal favourite is the quote from a TV interview with Jonathan Coe which gets the Worst timing award:
Q. If you could abolish one thing in the book world, what would it be?
A. Literary prizes — they wrongly encourage seeing literature as a contest or a news story. They've got to go.

You may agree with him on this, but not longer after Coe's biography of BS Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize. I haven't heard whether he gave the money back in protest at being part of a contest or news story.
Coe, funnily enough, has lectured at Birkbeck, so he's obviously a hilarious chap. Sue Tyley once wrote (in Birkbeck's journal), admiringly, that "Coe livens up his fiction as much for his own sake as for the reader's: he has confessed to getting bored easily while writing, to changing voices frequently because of losing confidence in them, and to breaking out of a conventional narrative line into email, letter or unpunctuated dialogue as much because he can't bear to do another chapter in the third person as because the subject matter requires it."
The Sunday Times list makes excruciating reading, except for the fact that most of the writers quoted are in deadly earnest, and you know perfectly well that within each of us beats the impulse to spout nonsense - hence the popularity of blogging.
Post script: I've just started reading Roth's Shop Talk, a book of interviews with fellow authors such as Primo Levi, Milan Kundera, and Edna O'Brien. They're more like discussions, since sometimes the questions take up a couple of pages. Still, I can't help thinking he must have forgotten writing it when he called for a moratorium on discussing books. It's hard to sound normal when you're discussing ideas and writing. It's not like talking about the weather.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Bundeena after the fire

(For Les Bursill)

A strand of tar threads through blackened bush.
Steam snakes up to meet the rain.
Somewhere hidden here
are flying fish and low-sweeping gulls,
burnt scrub, bandicoots,
and foul-mouthed hermits.
Waterfalls splatter across the road.
Under a cliff flank
an echidna etched in ochre
is three hundred years old and fading fast –
below it, in yesterday’s dust,
are tracks, and an ant hole scratched wide open.
On the beach,
bluebottles on the wet sand
deserted by an ebb tide
are left to desiccate
just out of the ripples’ reach.
Nobody knows what else there might be –
pale unseen orchids or
snakeskins or
ships’ ribs under sandbars or
bushfire sparks or
a whale’s fluke
just offshore.
But at night, and in the early mornings,
there is only the mist, the car radio, and the black road.

Don't mention the war

The long-awaited trial of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was adjourned on Friday amid concern in the European Union (EU) that the case could challenge freedom of expression.
Pamuk, author of My Name is Red and Snow, faces a possible three-year jail term for "insulting Turkish identity" by saying that a million Armenians were killed in massacres 90 years ago and 30,000 Kurds in recent decades. You're not supposed to mention those sorts of things in Turkey. Why they don't just blame the Armenian massacres on the Ottoman Empire and move on, I don't know (fear of compensation claims, perhaps, or because of the historic link to the more recent Kurdish insurgency).
But Pamuk's case comes at a critical time as the country begins serious negotiations about joining the EU - which doesn't look kindly on laws which limit freedom of expression, or on countries which jail writers and journalists for saying what they think.
Yet in a continent quietly celebrating the recent Austrian charges against Holocaust denier David "Did I really say that?" Irving, allowing membership to an entire nation that denies a genocide is undoubtedly tricky. On the other hand - how do you get a country to admit responsibility for alleged war crimes? And how do you admit your own complicity: when it was the European powers and the US which drew up the boundaries of modern Iraq and Turkey, denying the Kurds a homeland, after World War 1? The US, Britain and France aren't exactly famous for 'fessing up to their own colonial incursions.
I was in Turkey last year and people were largely very excited about joining the EU (they saw it as a fait-accompli) and the Euro was proudly encouraged. I loved every second of my time in the country, but when I started researching Turkey prior to my visit, I was confronted with a terse statement on the home page of the Government Ministry's websites denying any killing of Armenians ever took place. It's still prominent. You can read instead about "the killing of Turks by Armenians." It's at complete odds with Turkey's usually sensitive approach to the commemoration of the Allied 1915 invasion of their own land along the Dardanelles.
My impression was that there's a cultural gulf between central government in Ankara and a clamouring Euro-focused entrepreneurial class - particularly in Istanbul, one of the world's most exciting cities - and perhaps between traditional rural people and city folk. I imagine this will lead to divisions later on issues such as agricultural subsidies and trade tariffs. It's always been a country on the cusp of two continents, two histories, just as Istanbul has always been amongst the world's most cosmopolitan of cities, so these aren't new issues.
But I admit I wasn't brave enough to start engaging complete strangers in discussions about the Armenian genocide or the war against the Kurds. Like many issues of national identity, inside the country, even among friendly and invariably generous people, the belief in these events as "myths" appears fairly common. Every country has those. Ask a Tasmanian whitefella about the fate of the Aboriginal inhabitants. Ask the Japanese Prime Minister about the Sandakan Death March, the Rape of Nanking, or the Korean "comfort women". Indeed, just the other day I read an extract from a Southern US history textbook all about how the relationship between "masters" and slaves was one based on mutual respect and benefit. No mention of whips or lynching.
Pamuk's case, along with the dramatic shifts in Turkish society, will be critical not just to the question of EU membership, but also to the future political environment inside the country. While the hardline nature of the government has eased over the years, it's still concerned with keeping a certain kind of "peace".
The trial will restart on February 7, 2006, after a dispute as to whether the law under which Pamuk is charged can apply, as it was introduced after his statements in an interview. All very well, legally, but I can't imagine Pamuk shutting up about it now, whether new laws or old apply.
George W Bush banged on a great deal about the Kurds killed and dispossessed by Saddam Hussein - haven't heard him sticking up for Orhan Pamuk, though I guess he's got enough going on at present.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Shoot 'em all

I'm going to have to give up this blogging business. American author Philip Roth, in an interview with the Guardian, has called for a "100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk". Supporting his nomination for World's Grumpiest Writer (currently neck and neck with Tom Wolfe), he refuses to smile for the camera, insists he never smiles unless alone, continues to not smile, and says he wishes he could:
"shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot."

He can't be blamed entirely for sounding solemn - the interviewer, Danish journalist Martin Krasnik, focuses on death and the fear of dying. But clearly the writing life is tragic, so I'll have to give up on that as well:
It's a horrible existence being a writer filled with deprivation. I don't miss specific people, but I miss life. I didn't discover that during the first 20 years, because I was fighting - in the ring with the literature. That fight was life, but then I discovered that I was in the ring all by myself.

Quite possibly, everyone else was too frightened to get in there with him.

Friday, December 16, 2005


I believe that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
- Margaret Atwood

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Florence Nightingale's owl

There were two moreporks in the tree outside our kitchen window last night. Moreporks, for the uninitiated, are small, very owl-shaped New Zealand owls, with a distinctive call that sounds like someone calling out "More pork!". I think we have them back in Australia too, but they must have an accent, because they're called Mopokes or Boobooks.
Anyway they are rarely seen. We saw one close up the first day we came to inspect the house, and decided that an owl paying a visit was a sign, so we moved in. Never saw the little blighter again, until the other night, although he calls out often. Now he has a friend. They are as owl-like as each other. They were sitting on the branch, deep in conversation.

Florence Nightingale had an owl called Athena, which she carried around in her dressing gown pocket. She would perch on Flo's finger for treats, and make a bow and curtsey on the table. She must have been a Little Owl: Athene noctua.
Athena had been rescued from some naughty boys at the Acropolis, where the great carved stone owl of the original Athena perches (she's now outside the museum - I loved that owl, and scoured Athens' shops until I found a little replica to bring home).
When Florence left for Constantinople to nurse soldiers during the Crimean War, Athena got left behind in the attic. She died not longer after, they said, of heartbreak.
But that's not the end of Athena's fame. Last year she was rediscovered in a collection of Flo memorabilia (Floriana?) which was about to be sold off.
People fell in love with poor, stuffed Athena, and a campaign sprang up to raise the money to buy her. That gorgeous man from the Antiques Roadshow, ceramics expert Henry Sandon, had a special fundraising porcelain piece made for the Save Athena Fund: needless to say, it was a statue of the Lady With the Lamp.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Being Pinteresque

Harold Pinter was unable to be present to accept his Nobel Prize due to illness, but that didn't stop him addressing a few thoughts in a lecture last week, beamed into Stockholm on video. He got stuck into Blair and Bush over Iraq and even volunteered to be a speechwriter for Bush.
But he also had some interesting things to say about the nature of fiction and reality:
It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.
So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

He concluded by calling for an "unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man."

You can read his full speech here.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Historical fiction dilemma #2: Voice

How did pirates sound?
Nobody knows. But we can be pretty sure they didn't all swagger around snarling, "Ahoy, me hearties! Walk the plank, you scabby sea-dog!"
Pirate crews were quite cosmopolitan, especially in the Mediterranean, where men (and they were almost entirely men, with a few notable exceptions) from ports right around the Middle Sea and beyond could find themselves lumped together on the same ship for years.
How did their families sound? We do know something of the pronunciation of some classes of people in Britain, at least, because until Doctor Johnson's Dictionary set down standards of spelling, people often wrote words as they sounded. (There's a fascinating glimpse of this in Liza Picard's wonderful Restoration London.) But even those records, in letters and journals, only tell us how the literate classes sounded.
We have to imagine it. Historical novelists always have.
So here's the thing: If you're writing historical fiction, especially in the first person, should you aim to replicate the imagined voices of the time in which your story is set?
In an article in Solander, Belinda Copson posed the question more broadly: "Should characters think and behave in a manner authentic to the period, or are we happy for them to be modern teenagers in period costume?"
And if you try to create an "authentic" voice, would anybody read such a thing?
It can work - sometimes. Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is an example. But we've all seen it backfire badly into incomprehensible or laughable gibberish. You have to be very good to pull it off. Few of us are.
It's an issue if you're writing for younger readers, who won't skip over boring bits but either give up altogether, or plod on under sufferance - particularly readers aged 9 to 12, such a vulnerable time in anybody's reading career. A few impenetrable books and you'll be turned off reading for life.
I remember having to force myself to plough through Kidnapped at that age, since I had no idea how a real Scots accent was supposed to sound, and couldn't understand what anyone was saying for the first half of the book. It was the same with the broad Yorkshire voices in The Secret Garden - and yet Stevenson and Hodgson Burnett are amongst the best of their era. Kidnapped's thrilling plot, and The Secret Garden's gloomy atmosphere and brilliant characters, carried me through.
On the other hand, anachronism drives me insane. I'm one of those people who shouts out loud in the cinema if anyone in a period film set before about 1850 says, "OK". Keira Knightley's apparently 17th century character uttered it in Pirates of the Caribbean. I nearly had apoplexy.
I understand that it can happen unconsciously to one writer, and perhaps slip by an editor (it will happen to me one day, and you can quote this back to me), but not when there's a team of writers, directors, actors and a million other people on a project. Did nobody wonder: "Gee, that sounds a bit modern"?
Even worse are the supposedly groovy updated versions of old stories (Hamlet in a leather jacket, that kind of thing). I've only seen it work a few times on stage: Julius Caesar set in a corporate boardroom, with the august Robyn Nevin as a female Mark Antony; or in opera, such as Don Giovanni set in 1930s Tangier. Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary succeed as reworkings of Jane Austen because they are utterly different in everything but plot. Gwyneth Paltrow's Valley girl portrayal of Emma did not, because her body language was completely 20th century, even if her frock was Empire line.
So I've gone for the immediacy of a transparent (I hope) modern narrator's voice, without any (I hope even more fervently) glaring anachronisms. Somewhere between Copson's two extremes, but verging towards the modern.
Older characters may have a few little mannerisms (I have to admit that in my head they mostly sound like my great aunts and uncles), and people from other countries who are speaking English have a certain cadence that I hope has been conveyed.
It's the solution mastered by Geoffrey Trease in the 1930s with Bows Against the Barons and the Carey series, and it's certainly the style that most appealed to me as a young reader. I've been re-reading him lately and it's reinforced my belief that young people ought not have to struggle to read historical fiction.
It should create a sense of wonder and engagement. Anything that takes attention away from that is affecting the reading process - and the reader's enjoyment.

Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

Why Malta?

Since I posted my travel notes (they're silly things, really, not research findings), a few people have asked why I have set the Swashbuckler! novels in and around Malta. The reasons are many, but here are a few:
- Malta has a fascinating and unique history
- The Maltese fleet played a critical role in legal piracy for hundreds of years
- The Maltese people spontaneously rose up against the French invaders
- It's one of the most inspiring and historically compelling places on earth
- The sea there is a beautiful blue.
Perhaps most importantly, Malta's strategic position and maritime influence were critical in the Napoleonic era, and at many other times in history, including World War 2.
In 1801 Napoleon told the British Ambassador, "Peace or war depends on Malta. It is vain to speak of the Netherlands or Switzerland - they are but trifles. I would rather see you in possession of the heights of Montmartre than of Malta."
His nemesis, Admiral Nelson, wrote to London: "I now declare that I consider Malta as a most important outwork to India, and that it will give us great influence in the Levant, and indeed all the parts of southern Italy. In this view, I hope that we shall never give it up."

Two years later Admiral Lord Keith wrote, "Malta has the advantage over all other ports in the Mediterranean... the whole harbour is covered by its wonderful fortifications."
This was a time when empires were being created - a complicated time of upheaval, expansion and change that would become the basis of the modern world. And in the middle of it all, as always, was Malta.

Opening the mail

Nobody writes letters anymore, so we have to make do with the morning blink of the Inbox screen.
I still love opening mail. The post arrives early here, usually bringing a few boring bills and a reminder from my accountant that I still haven't done my tax return.
But you never know when the letterbox might instead be jammed full of surprises.
Yesterday was the monthly thrill of the arrival of the BBC History magazine (second only to the arrival of the Literary Review, both that much more welcome because they've had to travel halfway around the world).
And a parcel.
I love parcels.
I'm a compulsive buyer of cheap books in online auctions, and it has been suggested by someone who knows me far too well that I only do it so I get lots of parcels.
Parcels are especially good if wrapped in brown paper (sadly, no longer tied up in string ... These are a few of my favourite things). I can hardly get them open some days, mostly because of that infernally effective brown packing tape, but sometimes because it's just too exciting.
Yesterday's parcel was only a plastic Post Shop envelope, which are even harder to open, but inside was an omnibus edition of Rosemary Sutcliff's later King Arthur stories, which I've never read because I was grown up by the time they came out in 1979. This is the first sentence:
In the dark years after Rome was gone from Britain, Vortigern of the narrow eyes and the thin red beard came down from the mountains of Wales, and by treachery slew Constantine of the old royal house and seized the High Kingship of Britain in his place.

I've read that line over and over. I just don't know how she gets away with it. Sure, it's not her best opening line, but it's thrilling and sage-like and somehow plummets the reader through time, until you're sitting in the Great Hall at the feet of a bard, with the head of your Irish Wolfhound resting sleepily on your knee.
It conveys an entire world and a years-long phase of bloody British history in one crystal clear sentence. It gives you a sense of character, time, place and action.
You know you're in the Dark Ages, you know Vortigern's a spineless creep, "slew" tells you that there's going to be lots more swords and daggers and drama, and you know the stakes are high. You know you're reading a story about history and interesting people all at the same time.
She's not an easy read for young people. I notice that more now than I did when I was a young reader, perhaps because prose has been simplified in the last couple of decades (some would say it's been dumbed-down). She often breaks the supposedly cardinal rule of telling, rather than showing. She does sometimes bang on a bit about the bright light of Christianity shining through the Dark Ages - although she's not as missionary as Lewis.
And yet she's a master story-teller, a master of the craft of history and myth, and a spell-binder.
All that, in a Post Shop envelope. And I haven't even got past the first page.

Historical fiction dilemma #1: Ethics

History, no matter what they tell you in school, is not objective. Writing about history, or conveying history indirectly as part of a narrative, is even less so. Writing historical fiction for younger readers brings with it a whole range of questions that need to be answered and sometimes can't be:
- Conveying a complex international political situation in a few brush strokes
- Delving into age-old prejudices and divisions without taking a too-obvious position
- Dealing with critical issues (like slavery) without hectoring
- Balancing contemporary moral codes with those of history.
Why ask? I've written adventure books about a young girl who is kidnapped by pirates and then becomes one. Pirates, needless to say, are vile creatures. Does she become a vile creature? Does she kill anyone? Rob anyone? Do the people around her? Are they all horrible?
This isn't about levels of violence (that's a different dilemma) but about creating a consistent, credible, and appealing character.
Does she, who was once a slave, help take slaves?
What would a reader of nine or eleven make of a heroine who did or didn't behave in these ways?
The broader picture: Piracy in the Mediterranean from the age of the Crusades to the end of the 18th century was largely divided along pseudo-religious lines. The navies of the Islamic states and the Ottoman Empire attacked so-called Christian ships, and vice versa, with the Knights of Malta the most dramatic example of legal Christian pirate/Crusaders. (Except that most normal pirates were hardly religious types, and everyone seems to have attacked the poor old Greeks, who were seen as being far too Levantine in their Orthodoxy, and somehow responsible for the loss of Constantinople.)
So the characters in a book set in this era must present this world view, regardless of the author's position.
It's a situation that holds some resonance in the 21st century and it's impossible not to be conscious of that. I'm also conscious that any statements made by characters will be interpreted by young readers in the light of what they know about the world today.
It's an old dilemma, obviously. Flaubert argued that, "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere".
I don't know, frankly, if I've managed it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Rewriting history

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself... You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.
- Angela Carter

At the moment I've got my head stuck in Pax Britannia, the second in Jan Morris's imperial triptych.
I laughed out loud several times this morning on the ferry until the chap sitting next to me could stand it no longer and asked me what I was reading. I suppose he thought it was Billy Connolly or some such thing, because he looked at me as if I was an alien when I told him it was a history of the British Empire.
Jan Morris writes triptychs - other mere mortals write trilogies. (Have they made her a Dame yet? She'd probably decline, but it would be delicious. I shall suggest it next time I see the Queen.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Of pirates and pasticci

Today I'm posting my travel notes from a trip to Malta in May. My pirate books for young readers (Swashbuckler!) are set in Malta and its oceans, so the visit was to confirm the research I'd done from the other side of the world.
If you've read these before, my apologies: use the links in the right hand column to find something more interesting.

Here's my explanation about why I chose to set the books in Malta.

Day one
I really should not be left alone in a city of wooden boats, knights and really good door knockers.
I know I'm supposed to be doing very serious research but it's gorgeous and you can't help falling in love - the cities glow yellow, and sea and sky are ridiculously blue. The limestone is crumbling now, but it's warm and honey coloured, and even the most impressive ramparts seem somehow welcoming (unless you're a Turkish corsair, of course). Flew in a circle around the islands and it all seemed terribly familiar, except for the high rise apartments, which don't feature in my unique 1798 picture of the archipelago. Then the first things I saw when I arrived was a restaurant called Il Pirata and a house called Lily [the name of the main character in Swashbuckler!]. Mind you I have since seen houses called Eileen, Doris and Elvis.
Then I opened the curtains in my hotel room and a schooner sailed past.

Day three
Am resting up after a day of scrambling around dusty old forts. Having invented a series of secret tunnels under Vittoriosa for Swashbuckler! book 3, today I found some real life ones, and there was some very undignified squeezing through rusty iron gates and crawling along drainage ditches (which I'd also invented).
Tomorrow I have a guide, driver and car, courtesy of the Tourism Authority, so I'm going to make them climb up cliffs and trudge around fictional swordfight sites. The day after, I'm going to find myself a boat.

Trip notes continue here.

Malta research trip: Day four

One of the charming things I'd forgotten about Maltese people is that they are not the tallest people in the world, generally speaking, so I am a giant among women for the first time since grade six. Funnily enough, half of them speak English with a stong Brunswick accent, having spent decades in Melbourne - making my pasticci, no doubt - or they sound shockingly like Cilla Black, which is a little disconcerting when you feel sure you're in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Needless to say, the greatest collection of swords in the world is closed for renovation. But there are lots of boats, castles and cannons, baroque churches with illuminated manuscripts, medals, and '50s buses. And there are a few swords. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, see Visit Malta.

Day six
In a bad way: suffering cathedral neck from craning to see frescoes (lucky I have my binoculars and torch); walker's hip (lucky I have my father's long-distance knees); ancient temple-induced sunburn (unluckily I have my mother's pink nose); and most of all glutton's bloat (all my own fault after calamari at Il Pirata). But I'll cope, after days of fishing villages with more bright blue boats even than Turkey (luzzus, painted blue for the sea, yellow for the sun, green for hope and red for courage); chiselled stone temples more ancient than Stonehenge; palaces and cobbled streets and fortresses and bastions and vedettes and castles.
I have had a driver and guide for the last few days, who are very sweet, but I'm also suffering Travel Writer Grimace, from nodding politely. The guide's getting the hang of things now, though, and can now advise on pirate landing places instead of wondering if I'd like to buy some lace. He even laughed when I sidled up to the famous cliffs of Dingli, a jagged precipice which plays a key part in the finale of the Swashbuckler! books, looked over expecting to see raging torrents and jagged rocks, and found instead olive groves and terraced fields - and that is why I had to come to Malta to check everything...

Trip notes continue here.

Malta research trip: Day eight

A potted history of Malta, so you know what I'm doing here:
Settled first by Sicilians, who built miraculous temples of huge monoliths a thousand years before Stonehenge and worshipped a short fat woman who sleeps a lot. My kind of people. From then on, it's a Mediterranean hit parade of all the usual gang - Phoenicians, Ulysses (spent seven years in a cave on Gozo - no doubt eating crunchy bread and honey with Calypso the naughty nymph), Romans, Arabs, Normans. Then the Knights of St John, who'd been thrown out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, were handed the islands (they tried to hand them back - they'd have preferred a small European nation). They built the great fortress cities and set themselves up as pirate crusaders, that is, they took Muslim slaves and gold as a way of getting back at the Barbary states. In 1798 Bonaparte arrived, Nelson in his wake (and my imaginary pirates).
Most of what I knew about Malta, before I started researching the books, was about the World War 2 experience (I remember Mum telling me how everyone in Malta was so brave the king gave them each a medal - actually they got one to share, but they remain the only country ever awarded the George Cross). They got the hell bombed out of them, and nearly starved to death - and no wonder so many migrated to Australia after the war. The British influence is still evident in the classic '50s orange Bedford buses with names like Lady Diana and Vera Lynn and, rather
surprisingly, "Toon-Gabbie NSW".
I was shown around a palazzo which was built by one of the Knights and is still inhabited by Maltese nobility (my host was the Ninth Marquis, Nicholas de Piro). Oh the books. Oh the furniture. Oh the library. Oh the gilded sedan chair in which one would be carried by one's slaves to the palace next door - and up the stairs to the drawing room as well. And under the palace and all its 17th century glories are the WW2 bomb shelters, and the ubiquitous unexploded Fascist bomb that fell through the house one morning.
I spent all day yesterday back in Mdina, the Old City, since my guide the other day only thought we need an hour there, whereas I spent eight. Lots of pirate research there, as my books' narrator, Lily, and her crew have a few adventures there and I had to retrace all their steps I had made up. Luckily it all makes sense, and in fact it's a perfect pirate town. The laneways twist and turn, a bend every ninety paces, as that's the usual flight of an arrow, so you can fight a running battle in the streets.
This afternoon I've been out on the water, checking the fortifications from below (impossible, impenetrable - don't know how those pirates are going to break through).

Trip notes continue here.

Malta research trip: Day ten

Nobody but my niece Tess knows this, but in the second Swashbuckler! book there is a long sequence where the pirate crew goes into the Inland Sea - and today I did. It's a crack in the rock on the smaller island of Gozo, and you zoom through in a fishing boat (you don't row, lucky I checked) and the cliffs a sheer on either side and the water is... actually there's not a word for it... it's not electric blue, and azure doesn't even come close, it's just Impossibly Blue, that's all, and so clear you can see the coral forty feet down. I was in a little fishing boat with a grin from ear to ear (me, not the boat), although Max the fisherman told me I was crazy because you're supposed to do the research before you write the books. Thanks Max. And can I go visit his Aunty Maria in Springvale next time I'm home. She probably lives next to my Aunty Maureen.
Someone should really pay tribute to the Maltese Mullet (hairdo, not fish), and it may as well be me. It begins at the front with the short spiky Robbie Williams-style sticking up hair so beloved of eight year old boys and lesbians the world over, then cascades down to the shoulders, which are slouching rather theatrically. So far seen only on young men, some even verging on Rod Stewart circa 1976, but last night I went to see Kingdom of Heaven with about 300 of them, and they cheered so loudly for Orlando Bloom I have high hopes that he may inspire a comeback of long flowing locks. The Maltese are after all Crusader stock.

Trip notes continue here.

Malta research trip: Day twelve

All right. So I'm just a little bit sunburned. The baseball cap doesn't cut it here. But for some time now I have been coveting a new straw hat, of the style known in my family as Pop's hat. This is due to the unexpected windfall of an entire shipment of straw hats which fell off the back of a truck sometime in the mid-70s and lasted my grandfather (and me, and several other people) for many years. Things were often falling off the back of trucks in Port Melbourne. Or off the back of ships into waiting warfie hands. Anyway, the hat is the cool bookie kind of hat, worn by such luminaries of the racing fraternity as my Uncle Teddy - in his case with a Hawaiian shirt (he was an early influence on me) or snappy suit. It's the kind worn by Frank Sinatra on the cover of Songs For Swinging Lovers, if memory serves. You know the type.
Well, it turns out this is just the kind of hat for which Gozo is justifiably famous. So I'm at the market in the piazza and this is what happens...
Me: How much is this one?
Stallholder senior: No, no, signora, that is a man's hat.
Me: That's OK.
Stallholder's son: Perhaps this one would suit you better?
Me: I really like this sort.
Senior (to assembled stallholders): She wants to buy a man's hat!
Son: Perhaps this nice one with pretty flowers?
Me: Can I see this one in the mirror?
Senior (ditto): She's putting on the man's hat!
Me: Do I look like Frank Sinatra?
Senior mutters something in Malti like "Saints and angels preserve us"
Son: Well, it looks OK but it is still a man's hat.
Me: It's just like my Pop's hat.
Son: This other hat has a lovely vinyl trim. See? Real vinyl.
Me: They are all very nice but I still like this one. How much is it?
Senior: It must be for her husband!
Son: Why didn't you say it is for your husband?
Me: It didn't occur to me, but now you mention it...
Senior (playing to the gallery): It's her husband's hat.
There is cheering
I am at last allowed to buy the hat.

Trip notes continue here.

Malta research trip: Day thirteen

I'm sitting in the internet cafe, music blaring, as it does everywhere here - it's some really bad Europop this evening but anything is a pleasant change from Engelbert Humperdink's Greatest Hit And Twenty Other Songs that I've been listening to all day on the boat. What is it with the muzak thing in Europe? I have never heard so many Gloria Estafan songs in my life.
Today was the final research day, the bit I've been looking forward to - the circumnavigation of the islands. Did without the guide after yesterday ("What do you want to go down there for? Seen one catacomb you've seen them all") but we did have a sublime rabbit stew in Mgarr.
So I just booked one of those normal cruise boat things, filled with sunburned English people who all sound like extras from Bad Girls ("Wot's that then?" "Cliff, innit.") all unsuspecting that they are involved in a great pirate enterprise. They thought they were going snorkelling in the Blue Lagoon (with buffet). Actually, it wasn't blue today, just a crazy kind of aqua. Because today was the first cold day. Nobody told the Lobsters who were all in their swimming gear, all the better to get
After lunch came the coastline I really need to see, because I've decided on all these pirate landing places and my guide had put the fear of God into me by saying they are all hopeless - and of course he showed me the cliffs that were about as death-defying as a council drain.
The cliffs! From the sea, they soar. For miles. And the pirate haven I had chosen on the basis of book-learning only looked absolutely perfect to me, and there are grottos (in French, it's "La Grot") deep into the limestone and on every headland a Knights of Malta watchtower still stands, beautiful squat stone things they are too. The wind rose, the sea was heaving and a wonderful dark blue. I was grinning from ear to ear again, and then heard a rather disconcerting noise.
On the top deck, holding on for dear life in the wind was me, some Maltese-born Canadian women with their whole families so excited they pointed out every rock ("Look Derek, LOOK!" "Yes, dear, I see it, it's a cliff. It's the same cliff you pointed out two minutes ago.") and a few hardy Germans. We were all having a blast. Down below things turned out to be not quite so pretty, as the heaving seas had the Lobsters heaving up their buffets.
Worst thing that happened to me was that when I got back to the hotel I realised my hair had gone all Marj Simpson. Actually, it was more like the woman on the Bentley bonnet badge, streaming out behind me, very Art Nouveau. Well, it would have streamed, but since I don't have much hair it was streaming in principle. And I seem to be swaying in my chair from the after-effects of the swell.
I'm coming to the end of my time here, and it's been a bit mad, rushing around, and yet quite often I've found myself all alone in some of the best museums. In the Fine Arts Museum, for example, I was the only person there, which made me a sitting duck for Leonard The Bored Guard and Art Expert who physically dragged me from painting to painting and explained the Renaissance as the bit that came before real art (ie Baroque, in which Malta specialises). Bless him. He got so excited about one of
Preti's St John's that he gave me a hug. It's a bit like that here.
There are lots of boats, excitable people, cool buses (and hats), perfect cities and wonderful fortresses. And pirates. Even if I have to invent them myself.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lion roars

There's much excitement here in New Zealand over the imminent opening of the Chronicles of Narnia , a film made here, and directed by a Kiwi-born lad - for once genuinely a Kiwi, as opposed to people who stopped in once on a cruise or went to school in Grey Lynn for a term, and are therefore labelled by the local press forever as New Zealanders.
They are really the kinds of books that are best enjoyed as children - I never got the Christ allusions until I was 20 and read Lewis's essays. Like Enid Blyton, his writing and characterisation has dated in ways that the books of Rosemary Sutcliff, for example, or Stevenson, rarely do. The magic wears off.
Educators and critics may debate the virtues or shortcomings of CS Lewis all they like. He made one critical statement which has never dated and its wisdom resounds through the years:
"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Cabin fever

Got totally stuck this week. Couldn't write. Couldn't focus. Couldn't even concentrate on research. Sleepless. Tired. Had a couple of good solid writing bursts, but not like my usual marathons.
Walks on the beach didn't help. Extra coffee was no use. Watching Food TV made me hungry (there wasn't anything on the History Channel apart from endless hours of mummies or stupid US documentaries like "The Wonders of Engineering" - is the BBC on strike or is it just Mediocrity Month?).
Reading something completely off-topic or web grazing made no difference - although it did fill in the time and I know much more about Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations and Pushkin than I did last week. And you never know when that'll come in handy.
It's a new book, nothing to do with pirates, and so I tried to analyse my way around the blockage: behave like a fiction plumber. Connected to the fact that pirate book three was delivered last week? Need to let go before working on something else? Fourth book syndrome? Performance anxiety? Can't write about anything but pirates? Total loser?
Tried printing out the patchy draft and reading it on paper. Made lots of corrections. Bored even myself. Had another coffee.
Then yesterday I had to leave the rock (to go to the mainland cinema for Harry Potter). Sat on the ferry in the sun. There was a manta ray in the shallows.
Before we'd even left the pier, the notebook was out, novel subversion was underway, pipes unblocked and all was well with the fictional world.
Diagnosis: Simple case of cabin fever.
Next week I have to return to the land of the living for a couple of weeks to earn a crust. I'll spend the whole time cursing my wasted stuffed-up week.

"I love magic"

More excited than any kid there, I lined up for the new Harry Potter film yesterday (Goblet of Fire). It must be nerve-wracking to one of those pedants, of any age, with every line of dialogue and potion recipe crammed into your brain, sitting and watching and waiting for a directorial slip-up. That way, surely, lies madness and disappointment. There's been much Myrtle-moaning about various characters and sub-plots omitted from the screenplay, but the only essential ingredient missing for me was JK Rowling's wonderfully dry humour, which lights up the books and is often lost in translation to the screen. Key to her success, if you ask me, but funnily enough the pedants often ignore it in plot-obsessed film and book reviews. Chill out, giggle, and be scared. Much more fun.
Goblet of Fire is the best of the series in its special effects, narrative drive, the kids' performances, and the ratty school-like reality that was also a feature of the last. It creates a sense of wonder. Magic.
I'm easily scared, and jumped clear out of my seat a couple of times, having completely forgotten everything that happens in the book. My nine year-old friend Maddie gripped my hand really hard a few times, and admitted afterwards she'd thought it was so "freaky" her legs were shaking. She's going back tomorrow to see it again.
By the way, if you've never seen JK Rowling's website, take a look. It's fascinating, because it's designed specifically for the way kids scan the screen and use their mouse. For people like me who worked on the web for years and get grumpy about usability, it's a lesson in designing for a specific use. Kids run the cursor over everything to find links - their eyes simply don't do what adult eyes do faced with a computer screen - and Rowling's web design team has developed what is arguably the smartest kid-focused index page on the web. Of course.