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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reviewing reviews

Hark! What's that?
It's the sound of someone blowing her own trumpet.

Since everyone else ON EARTH is reflecting on highlights of 2011, I'm gonna jump right on that bandwagon.

It seems like a very short year. Feels like I lost track of a few months somehow, starting a new day job, building up to and then focusing on the release of Act of Faith, and then spending October in France obsessively hunting down historical details for the Tragedie project.

If 2011 has flown past in a blur, luckily I have several artifacts to remind me: blog posts and social media updates, manuscripts and photos, a very handsome book out in the world and apparently going gangbusters, plus a whole range of people's reactions to it.

Here are a few recent reviews, important to me because they are from industry journals; from librarians or teachers or YA/children's book specialists who are passionate about writing for young people:

‘In the world of contemporary young adult fiction, Act of Faith runs against stereotype… A fine book for the classroom, especially at a time when religious tolerance, and tolerance of religion, is at a depressing low… a work of scholarship as well as a work of fiction. A novel that begs for a sequel.’
- Viewpoint 
'This is a very exciting and thought-provoking book which may very well open up knowledge for today's adolescent readers about what the world was like when such religious intolerance pursued everyone...'
- Reading Time (Children's Book Council of Australia)
'A good read for lovers of books and historical adventure stories.’
- Magpies journal

And I was deeply chuffed to be listed by Holly Harper amongst Readings' best YA books for the year, in some dazzling company.

Thanks to Readings, and to booksellers everywhere - large and small.

And of course to everyone who has had faith enough to read my book.

May yours be a happy new year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

This is a challenge born of something approaching despair.

Last year, VIDA in the US released its survey of publishing data which showed exactly what anyone with half a brain already knew: dire levels of representation of women at all levels; the number of books by women that got reviewed, the number of female reviewers and book page editors, and women in senior positions in the industry.

Throughout 2011, more and more incidents came to prominence (as if inequality was a new thing!) including the lack of women writers on a number of key literary prize judging panels and shortlists.
My personal favourite moment was when Jennifer Egan  won the Pulitzer, and the LA Times reported instead that Jonathan Franzen had lost the Pulitzer, and ran his photo on the front page - not the winner's. Laugh? I nearly...

Of course, this is not unique to writing and publishing. Like nursing, librarianship and education, it's a field in which the majority (which happens to be female) are dominated by a minority, with males traditionally taking positions in management in publishing, libraries, writing courses, festivals and writers' centres (although the normally rowdy community is often strangely silent on those last two categories, I notice).

That's not to diminish the many amazing women in positions of power in the writing world. It's just a thing.

But unlike those fields, something unique and profound is also afoot, because the issue is also about how literary worth is assessed: which issues, what settings, language, topics and characters make up the sort of books that win prizes. It's about our culture.

I won't bang on about it: others have already done so very eloquently, and anyway it seems like the kind of no-brainer thing most of us have been saying since 1975. Or since we could speak.

But what to do?

Short of coming over all Emma Goldman (and don't tempt me), here's one wee thing we can all do, no matter what our gender: make 2012 the year you read a few good books written by Australian women.

The challenge has been issued. It runs as follows:

Goal: Read and review books written by Australian women writers – hard copies, ebooks and audiobooks, new, borrowed or stumbled upon.

Genre challenges: 
  • Purist: one genre only
  • Dabbler: more than one genre
  • Devoted eclectic: as many genres as you can find
Challenge levels:
  • Stella (read 3 and review at least 2 books)
  • Miles (read 6 and review at least 3
  • Franklin-fantastic (read 10 and review at least 4 books)

You can read more about it here.

My response?

I'm going to undertake the devoted eclectic challenge (of course, because that's how we roll here, at the best of times), and at least the Miles level.

I'm not sure of all the books I'll read yet, because there are some beauties coming out, but the first few are:
  • Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley's Secret in the Victorian Metropolis, by Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi

  • Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden, by Kate Llewellyn

  • Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short


And no doubt I'll read some YA titles, including the forthcoming:

  • Queen of the Night, by Leanne Hall 
  • The Howling Boy, by Cath Crowley 
  • Pulchritude (or whatever it ends up being called) by Fiona Wood.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happily ever after

On a recent school visit, the teachers asked me to talk a bit about book reviews. Good timing, because I've been thinking a lot lately about the way the reviewing world has changed with so many peer-to-peer recommendation sites and a gazillion book blogs.
I love book blogs: this started out as one, in a way, many years ago. There are reviewers on blogs who are so perceptive about books, they astonish me; some who write beautifully; others who may do so one day, or who write perfectly good thoughtful pieces; others who write as fans - especially in genre - and unashamedly so.
Good on 'em all, I say.
Sites such as Good Reads, Library Thing and inside a dog* make it possible for all of us to share our thoughts on books we've read as, increasingly, do online library catalogues and book stores.
There are dangers, sure, and the occasional scandal, but the more the merrier.
Communities of book lovers, talking about books. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing much, really.
But there is one thing I've noticed over and over again in discussions about books on Good Reads and facebook and various blogs: people really hate it when the book doesn't turn out how they expect. It makes them furious.
They equate this with failure - the plot doesn't unfold the way they imagined therefore the book sucks. And they will often take it out on the author, either through reviews, or more directly in a chat or forum, in a tone that can make your hair curl right up and slide off your head.
I've never been in that position myself but I hate to think what it does to an author.
Let's take a famous example: the death of the beloved Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The world was shocked. The death of "a major character" had been foreshadowed by JK Rowling prior to the book's release and it was even in all the media, but Dumbledore's death led to an outcry. Readers believed he wasn't really dead, and would reappear like Gandalf (of course he does, but he's still dead). As was usual in the Potterverse, complex theories were developed to explain it, dead or alive, and the discussion continues to this day.
But Rowling as the author was always quite clear, and why wouldn't she be? Apart from the fact that it's her book world and she can do whatever she likes, there were myriad plot twists wrapped around the death and, most critical, Harry's character development and quest (and Hermione's too)  required it.
That's not how many fans saw it: they saw it as a betrayal, as a failure of the logic they had established for themselves, as a mistake.
They have invested so much in the story - what a wonderful thing! But what else is going on there? We all love to have a theory about what will happen next. Part of the fun of online discussion of books, film and TV is that very element.
I reckon part of it, too, is the expectation that there will be happy endings. That there will be romance, and everyone will live happily ever after.
Sometimes that does happen. In life, and in art. But other things happen too - people disconnect from one another accidentally, or never connect; they argue about stupid things; they annoy you; they get scared when they should be brave; they falter and bicker and fall out of love and die. 
I remember well the shriek that went around the cinema when I was a kid watching Doctor Zhivago at the Anglesea Luxury Cinema and Lara DIDN'T TURN AROUND AND OMAR SHARIF WAS RUNNING AND THEN HE CLUTCHED HIS CHEST AND OH MY GOD AND SHE NEVER KNEW!
I nearly spat my Marella Jube into the hair of the person in front.

So if you feel betrayed by an author or a film-maker when that happens in your favourite book or series, don't take it out on them or the work they've created.
What it means is that they have created a world so engaging that we, as readers, are lost in it. We are annoyed because the author wants us to be annoyed, upset because that person we loved is gone and we just don't know what will happen next.
And that's a good thing. Right?

*Disclosure: I work with inside a dog as part of my day job, but these comments are my own.

Friday, December 09, 2011

We will fight them in the bookshops

Boy reading 'A History of London' - bombed bookshop during the Blitz (via The Atlantic)           

Tips for new authors: school visits

This morning I'm off to read my one and only (so far) picture book to a kindergarten class.
I love talking to the littlies. They ask such wonderful questions:
  • What's your favourite colour?
  • Do you have a dog? Why not?
  • Did you write Thomas the Tank Engine? Why not?
  • Are you married? Why not?
  • I went to the beach once.
  • Why is the sky?
Ever so easy to answer.

It got me thinking about what makes a great school or bookshop visit; for the author and especially for the kids. I can still remember the day Ivan Southall came to my primary school. That's the day I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Now, I'm no big expert, but if you're just starting out, maybe this practical list will help - it includes things I've watched others do and need to work on too:

  • If you're going to read from your book, practice reading out loud, at home, and slower than you think possible.
  • Ask the teachers if there's anything specific they want you to cover - any topics being discussed in class, or queries about your own work or process?
  • Ask yourself why you're doing it. If the answer is that your publisher wants you to, that might not make for the most gripping speech the crowd has heard. So ask again. What do you want to share? Encourage? What have you got to say? Why did you write the book in the first place? Why do you write books at all? Why would anybody read them?
  • Make sure you are agreed and clear on all details: where, when, what year level, payment (if any), tech requirements.
  • It's work. A professional appointment. Dress respectfully.
  • Pose yourself a few sample questions (eg, someone will always ask: 'where do you get your ideas?' so your reply to this impossible question would be...?)
  • Allow time to get lost on the way or stuck in traffic, arrive, find the right room, cool down/warm up.
  • Take a bottle of water.

The big talk
  • Say thanks for having me - it's an honour and a privilege to have readers, and you have the opportunity to tell them so.
  • Start with confidence, even if you don't feel it. You are the ultimate authority on your own books. Shine.
  • Make sure everyone can hear you.
  • Move around a bit, if you can. You don't need to pace the stage, but try to present a relaxed body language that invites engagement.
  • Slow down. Breathe. Look up. And again.
  • Ask them a few age-appropriate questions: favourite books, films, X-Box games, characters - who likes Harry Potter? 
  • Some of those present have dreamed of becoming a writer or illustrator one day - target a few comments at them. 
  • Remember: one of them may be the next you, and this may be the day they decide what they want to be when they grow up.
  • It's OK to ask people to sshh, but if they are getting a bit too ratty (hot day, hard wooden floor, long talk) get them to stand up and have a stretch or play a little game. 
  • Take note of the room - feel what's happening as you speak, and adjust your tone and pace as best you can.
  • Look around you, make sure you appear to be making eye contact with people all around the room. And actually do it.
  • Don't go overtime. It's kinda selfish. If there's no clock, ask someone to warn you when you have three minutes left, and then wrap up fast.
  • End with a bang - even if it's just a big thank you, a call to action as simple as "Keep on reading", and a round of applause.
  • Enjoy yourself. Yes, really. 

  • Don't use it if you're not utterly comfortable with it - or coping without it if there's a technical hitch.
  • Powerpoint is great to give structure, present images and embed video. Handy for people who are visual. That's all. Don't rely on it.
  • You don't need to put everything on the slides. Images, maybe a few bullet points - not your whole talk.
  • Try not to look at the big screen, or even at the monitor or laptop - know the slides so well that you don't even have to look. It's your story. Just tell it.
  • Take the concept of each slide as the jump-off point for that bit of your talk, then have a chat about that concept. What you say should be different to the points on the slide - don't read the words out loud. 

  • Repeat audience questions or incorporate them into your answer, in case nobody heard it.
  • Ask people their names when you select them to ask a question and say hello.
  • If it's a complicated or hard question, ask the group if they have any ideas or experience of it - on some issues, more than one perspective is handy.

If you can, take something along you can leave with the bookseller, teacher or librarian - it might be a poster you can sign, or some bookmarks for them to give out later. That will help the kids remember your name and your book title after you've gone. Offer to sign the library's or bookshop's copies of your books.

Be happy if kids want you to sign books, posters, arms - anything. Ask them questions about themselves as you sign, check how they spell their names if there's nobody there to help you.

Over the years, I've watched world-famous authors (who shall remain nameless) at festivals and events not bothering to engage with kids at all, grizzling about signing their own books, gossiping with their publicists while kids are clamouring to ask them questions, blanking staff members, or getting volunteers up on stage and then humiliating them in front of the whole group.  You don't want to be that person - no matter how famous or rich they are, they probably won't get invited back.

On the other hand, I've watched amazing writers like Margaret Mahy, Antony Browne and Jacqueline Wilson (and closer to home the likes of Andy Griffith, Richard Newsome and Sally Rippin) really engage warmly with a group of kids, then do it all over again - just as genuinely - an hour later.

You may not be a big name. You may be shy. You may feel nervous. You might not be the person who cracks jokes and works the room like a US President.

But you might be the person who changes someone's life.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autumn on the Somme

Overgrown trenches

Last month I visited the Somme battlefields to do some research for a work in progress, War Songs. It's a manuscript I began some years ago, and need to rewrite. One day.

War Songs is the story of an ambulance driver and a nurse in a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme from 1916 to 1918, the years of the great battles on that stretch of the Western Front, and since I was in France I took the train north to Amiens to get a better feel for the country and the memories it holds.

Amiens Cathedral is one of the wonders of the Gothic world, as vast and glorious as Notre Dame in Paris, but without the crowds.

It was an appropriate place to start my journey, to stop and reflect and light a candle, with memorials to many of the forces that defended the town, including the Anzac force which stopped the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

During the war, the cathedral was piled high with sandbags to protect the precious stained glass windows, the carved choir, and the ethereal stonework. The town and the cathedral were bombed, and again during World War 2, but saved from the utter destruction suffered by many of the smaller towns in Picardy and Flanders which, to this day, have never really recovered.

One such town is Albert, a few kilometres east of Amiens. I have set most of War Songs in an encampment outside Albert, a town through which so many soldiers and ambulances passed on their way to the front line. It was also famous for its cathedral - or basilica - the spire of which is topped with a golden statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus aloft. The spire was hit by a shell in 1916, and the statue spent most of the rest of the war dangling precariously. The soldiers believed that if she ever fell, the Germans would win the war. The Australians, of course, had many nicknames for the Holy Mother, including Fanny Durack - one of our Olympic swimmers.

The statue did fall eventually, blasted off its pedestal, although that didn't seem to affect the outcome of the war. Albert itself was slowly beaten into dust by shells and bombs, and taken by the German Army in its Big Push of 1918. The basilica and the statue were rebuilt in the 1920s, and it remains - as it was then - a landmark visible across the battlefields, so you can always see where you are, and how near you are to Albert.

I hiked to the outskirts of Albert, to two small cemeteries. One was Bapaume Post, once on the frontline. Here, as in so many other sites, I was the only visitor, walking silently between the rows of graves, pausing every so often to ponder the eighteen year-old Tyneside Irishmen, the 45 year-old stretcher bearer, the four friends buried with their headstones close together, the rows and rows of human beings who share the same final day. 1 July, 1916. 23 July, 1916.  24 April, 1918. 4 July, 1918.

From here you can look back towards town, or out across what was once a contaminated mess of barbed wire, smashed vehicles, pulverised dirt, cast-off boxes and bottles and tins, and too many small wooden crosses or nondescript mounds of earth.

Cross of sacrifice

Like Gallipoli, the countryside is dotted with cemeteries, each with row upon row of simple white headstones, and edged with close-trimmed lawn and flowers, and the last few poppies of the season. Your eyes can trace the positions of the front lines and key battles by the placement of the cemeteries and memorials that mark the skyline - the high ground. Always the high ground.

Cemetery behind Thiepval memorial

You can also see, especially in autumn or winter, the marks of war scattered in the fields: the shattered white clay coming through the topsoil in circles (shell craters) or lines (trenches) or surreal blotches (all hell broke loose here). The earth still bears scars, nearly a hundred years on. Each year, even now, the farmers find more shell casings, belt buckles, water bottles, and - yes - bones. The locals call it "the memory of the earth", or "Somme harvest".

View from Australian memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

One day, I was very fortunate to have the services of Olivier Dirson from Chemins d'Histoire, a softly-spoken French battlefield guide. Olivier took me to Heilly, the site of a casualty clearing station by the railway line, its presence marked only by a small cemetery. It was just as I had imagined the setting of War Songs, but immeasurably sadder in real life. We travelled to Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australians checked the German advance, and where the school, famously, was rebuilt with funds raised by Victorian schoolchildren; to the mine crater at La Boiselle; to the old trenches at Beaumont-Hamel; to Pozières and the site of the windmill, which, according to Bean, "marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth".

From Pozières you can gaze across the few hundred metres to Mouquet Farm and a few hundred metres further to Theipval - to Lutyens' magnificent Memorial to the Missing.

All these place-names, learned in school and on many Anzac Days, read in countless books.

It's easy to do, easy to write: I stand on the remains of the Windmill and look towards Mouquet Farm. But in that field, the AIF suffered more than 23,000 casualties between 23 July and 5 September 1916 - just over six weeks.


Like Lone Pine, the distances between the sites of these horrific battles is sometimes just a short stroll. Just like the Nek, in places the opposing trenches were only a grenade lob apart. And yet ... and yet men were expected to climb out of those trenches and run across that thin stretch of shell-pocked ground towards the machine guns, the wire, the other men. And yet they tried. Over and over.

The numbers, the facts, are literally incomprehensible. 30,000 British casualties, just to take Mouquet Farm, a small red-roofed building on a hill. The number of names listed on the Thiepval Memorial: 73,367. And that's only the names of the British Empire and South African people who served here in these few miles of the Front and whose graves are unknown. Most of them died in the first few months of the Battle of the Somme.

Medical staff were among them: there were many RAMC headstones in the cemeteries I visited. 3000 nurses - women - died in the war. Stretcher bearers and orderlies were amongst the casualties far too often (including my great-grandfather who returned from Flanders, gassed, and ill for the rest of his life).

The brain dodges around these numbers, tries to think about them logically, then flinches away: there is no way to properly understand them. 74,000 missing. That's the entire population of Darwin. Or New Plymouth.

74,000 people.

Numbers too big to comprehend. But they hold enormous meaning: individually and collectively.

Then. Now. Always.

It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

It wasn't.

La Boiselle, above Lochnagar crater

Remembrance Day, 2011
Selected archival photos: Australians on the Western Front, Musée Somme 1916 (Albert)

Busy hands, etc

Got a few things on over the next couple of weeks.

This Saturday, I'll be at Eltham Festival, telling pirate stories and making pirate hats and doing pirate stuff.  (3pm, November 12.)

School visits: next Tuesday I'll be at Manor Lakes in Wyndham - there'll also be a performance of some scenes from Act of Faith, which will be kinda strange but wonderful. Then a few days later I'll be at Lowther Hall. Looking forward to meeting everyone at both schools.

Also looking forward to talking to the folks from Victorian public libraries next week, about writing and research and, of course, reading.

Then it's up to Byron Bay, with my PhD hat on (actually, I don't have one of those yet) to present a paper at the annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs.

Unfamiliar familiar worlds

Don't you love that feeling of reading a book set in a world that is eerily familiar - but not quite? A world, perhaps, that seems like ours but where everything is unexpected, different - foreign?

In expert hands, it can be one of reading's great pleasures.

Here are two cases in point, in recent YA literature.

This is Shyness, Leanne Hall
Set in Melbourne (kind of), along Smith Street (maybe). Or not.

This is Shyness is the story of one night in a suburb, Shyness, where night is all there is. The sun doesn't rise, wild kids roam and ravage, creepy men in black suits cruise the streets, and Wildgirl meets a dark, handsome howling boy just at a moment when they both need to escape.

It's a spooky place that feels like a world we know, gone badly wrong. It's not even dystopian fiction, really - just a beautifully imagined parallel universe of inner city bars, government flats, gangs and music and darkness.

Looking forward to the sequel, Queen of the Night, due early next year.

The Leviathan trilogy, Scott Westerfeld
Goliath (just out last month) is the satisfying final instalment of Westerfeld's re-imagining of World War I into a steampunk world of Clankers versus Darwinians, of enormous - living - flying machines and sea creatures pitted against mechanical clanking monsters spitting bullets, of a girl dressed as a boy and a prince dressed as a commoner, of a world caught up in war and espionage and intrigue.

For younger readers, it's a non-stop action adventure of the very best kind: intelligent and fascinating.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Vive la France

I have gathered memories, images and notes of so many favourite things during my time in Paris, most of them to do with my research project, Tragédie; others accidental or incidental. Here are a few of the other things I noticed along the way.

Maquis motorbike
A fold-up motorbike, still in the steel container in which it was parachuted into Occupied France.

Also at the Musée d’Armée, best window frames ever.

I had been worried about Napoleon: he seems seriously out of fashion here nowadays, which seems a little unfair, given the education and legal systems and all that. But also I'd seen photos of his tomb, and it seemed very small. I know he was only little, but a weensy casket seems a bit sad.

I needn't have worried. It's as big as a bus.

But here is the thing that really stopped me in my tracks:

Paris is as beautiful and wild as ever. Men no longer urinate in the streets (though they still keep that time-honoured tradition in Marseille, we noticed). There are a million more tourists than last time I visited: you can't even get into Notre Dame without waiting in a 200 metre queue. But it still feels like a spiritual home to me.

Always will.

For the first time, I walked further down the island and visited Sainte-Chapelle, an ancient jewel-box in stained glass. I gasped. Really.

And also for the first time, I visted Versailles. Twice. It was all just as opulent and dazzling as you imagine, but the most poignant, in a way, was Marie-Antionette's little hamlet that she had built so she could play at being a milkmaid or simply get away from the rest of the Court. And there, having a lovely time, was a pukeko. Who knew? I always thought they were Antipodean.

There are so many museums in Paris, and I only visited those related to my research, but they included some gems, such as the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris:

The Musée Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages:

And in the National Archives I saw documents such as Marie-Antoinette's last letter, the proceedings of the Parlement as they discussed the matter of Jeanne d'Arc, and the Edict of Nantes. Right there in front of me. The actual Edict of freaking Nantes. Revoked or otherwise. Consider me flabbergasted.

The Archives has a strangely moving exhibition called Fiches. It is focused on the different types of files the state or authorities hold on people, and in particular since the advent of the photograph: ID cards, mugshots, registers of varying kinds. I was just walking through on my way elsewhere in the building and got caught by the sight of ID cards for Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein (who famously stayed in France throughout both wars in spite of being American and Jewish), Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, whose file has ANARCHISTE stamped in red across it. Then I was sucked right in, by agonising images of young Jewish people in 1938 smiling at the camera - just before JUIF is stamped on their file, of forged papers used by the Resistance and Allied airmen, of photos of nuns and criminals and apprentices and men going off to the trenches and Verdun.

Speaking of which, I'm headed north to the Somme now, to do some research for a different project, War Songs, which is a manuscript that's been sitting in the drawer for years and which I will have to get to - one day.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

New research log

From the end of this week, I'll be in France for a month, researching Tragédie.

I've set up a specific blog for that research: here, on tumblr.

You can follow it on tumblr, or find me on Twitter or facebook.

Normal raving will continue on this blog, no doubt.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lately I've been...

Plotting world domination.
(Clearly, it never works. Must try harder.)

I have to admit I am mostly reading books for a conference paper and my thesis generally, tracing a line between representations of Sappho through the millennia and La Maupin over the centuries. Long bow? We'll see. Anyway, it has reinforced my belief that Margaret Reynolds should probably rule the world. Or Emma Donoghue. I can't decide.

Sulky Sappho

I'm also flicking endlessly through books about France in advance on next month's research trip. There are piles of travel guides, architectural tomes, history texts and maps and I am on the verge of tipping over into some research-based abyss. There was no clear space to eat breakfast this morning so I just stood there staring at it. (Dodgy laptop webcam shot - my house may be eccentric, but it isn't really built on that angle.)

So that's the other main thing I've been doing, besides blowing my nose and coughing...

Planning research
I have a month in France. It seems like a long time but there is so much to do I'm feeling a little anxious about it all.
But I now have a day-by-day task list so I make sure I cover everything I need to do, although of course I can't yet tell what I'll find in some of the archives, museums and libraries, so I don't know how long I'll need at each.
I have to make sure I visit each actual site mentioned in any of La Maupin's biographies (where they still exist) and understand what those places looked like at the time. For example, I don't what to describe something in the church where she threatened to blow out the Duchess of Luxembourg's brains (bless her, she was cross), if that feature or window wasn't actually there in 1701.
So I'm also making a list of a whole lot of streets and buildings that haven't changed much since 1707 so I can visit, photograph and get the feel of them.
The feel of the thing. That's probably the most important part. How did Paris feel/smell/look, what did the opera sound like, how high were the heels, how low the ceilings?
It's  the part that's impossible to plan, the serendipitous part of research, when your turn a corner and breathe and know.
I love that bit.

I've posted earlier about my experiences with Chambermade Opera's libretto writing workshop. I can't say I have suddenly turned into a librettist, but I can say that it has helped focus my mind on how I'm writing dialogue, on how to refine and distill.

In the meantime, I'm hoping to finish draft zero (that's PhD talk for the version you do before your proper full first draft) of Tragédie by the end of the year. It's mostly sketched out now, in time to go to France, so I know everything I need to fact-check on site.

Here's a little extract from the current ms:

— Are you happy, Mademoiselle de Maupin?
— At this moment? Yes.
— Other moments?
— It depends.
— On what?
— On the moment.
[there'll be a bit of fencing in here but I haven't decided on the sequence yet]
— And you, Marquise? You are married?
— I thought it would make me happy. I was misinformed.
— A pity. You’re wealthy. You could have chosen anyone.
— I have. It’s just taken me a while.

That's right. There are no personal pronouns in the dialogue. Anywhere.
The voice switches from a first person recitative to the third person, present tense, and with dialogue as brief and as pointed as I can manage, and no olde worlde ye gods wench get thee to a nunnery talk.
But now I am imagining every word sung, on stage, it helps me refine what is most essential. If I had to get it down to twenty words, or five, what is the thing that must be said? So there will a lot be redrafting and rethinking to do. For example, now I look at the dialogue above, I know I can't use any of it. Or maybe five words. The rest is headed for that cute little waste paper basket icon on my desktop.

Luckily, I still have six years left to finish the PhD. I might manage it, too, if I can stop driving myself mad with research.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On romance and friendship and Mr bloody Darcy

One of the questions asked most often about Act of Faith concerns the likelihood of romance between the characters Willem and Isabella (the heroine of the piece).

I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens in the book, nor what happens in the next one. Instead, I'm thinking about expectations of romance in historical fiction for young women. It's something I've pondered a great deal and have chosen to treat quite specifically.

But first a story.
When HarperCollins first accepted Act of Faith, we went out for The Lunch to have a chat about it. I should say right now that I was never asked to write it as a romance. Instead, I got this very sensible advice:
"It doesn't matter what you do, people will read romance into it, so you may as well make Willem worthy of Isabella, just in case."

I get that.
I have, personally, never quite recovered from Teddy marrying Amy March and Jo ending up with the boring old Professor, and it's only been about forty years since I first read Little Women. I may get over it one day. Because - and I know exactly how this feels - you can read ANYTHING and imagine romance into it. Or whatever you want into it. That's a good thing.
I hope that in my writing I leave room for readers to use their own imaginations, to wonder what they would do, how that would feel, how things might look or taste or be, without being told.

But back to the story. At that point, before the final redraft, I must admit that Willem was a pretty gormless young chap, and my sensible publishers didn't want the lovely Isabella to be projected into any kind of romance with a drip like him. So Willem got rewritten to be a bit more likeable and - I hope - actually a bit more convincing as the zealous young Protestant stuck in a changing world he doesn't really understand.

All good. Everyone liked Willem more, including me, and off we went.

Then it came to writing the blurb: "Isabella finds work with an elderly printer, Master de Aquila, and his enigmatic young assistant, Willem."

Well. Yes, Willem is a little puzzling. He does have a secret. He is mysterious. But is he enigmatic? We wavered about that. We went back and forth, wondering if we should change it. But to be honest, there really aren't too many other words for enigmatic. So enigmatic it is.

And the cover is gorgeous, glamorous, historical and there is pink on it.

Pan out a little to the broader market. People expect romance in historical fiction - perhaps in all fiction. Let's unpack that a little.
  • Is romance a critical component of every book? Must it be? Should it be?
  • Do you always want to read about romance (or if not romance, some kind of simmering tension)?
  • Is historical fiction is the same as  historical romance?
There is some very fine historical romance, and although historical and romance are not the same genre, it's easy to see how they become conflated with each other (thanks for that, Phillipa Gregory). The two also get confused in our minds with novels that we read as historical now, although at the time they were written as contemporary fiction. If there are long swishy frocks, it must be a kissing book. Right?

That expectation has changed, somehow, in my reading lifetime and with the advent of historical fiction and YA as genres - and indeed as publishing phenomena. Maybe I'm slow to catch up. One of my writing heroines is Rosemary Sutcliff (it shows, I know) whose books were always historical - sometimes there was romance and sometimes not, depending on the demands of the plot and characters. Some stories lend themselves to romance, some don't. Some require it. But not all.

So then I was sick in bed and watching Pride and Prejudice on DVD (as I usually do when I'm sick) and realised that of course there is another word for enigmatic: Mr Darcy.

Doh! Enigmatic is code for 'mysterious, handsome and romantic stranger'. For Willoughby. For Heathcliff. For Mr Rochester. For a young Colin Firth in anything but a hand-knitted Christmas pullover.

That's not what Willem is. Bless his little clogs.

He is, no matter what might happen between them in the future, Isabella's friend.  Her first ever real friend of her own age. What a miracle that is for her. She has been surrounded her whole life by older men who admired her intellect, or younger men who thought she was a freak.

Act of Faith is about friendship. It's about freedom, too, and books and ideas. But most of all, just like every other book I've written, it's about friendship and the courage you find when you and your friends are in danger.

That doesn't mean there will never be any romance in Isabella's life or in the sequel. God knows the poor thing could do with a cuddle.

Please don't get me wrong. I could read about Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester over and over - and I do. I read as much Georgette Heyer as Rosemary Sutcliff when I was 12 or so.

But in Act of Faith I wanted to do something else. After all, there are millions of books in which a young woman meets an enigmatic young man. In many - but by no means all - of them, straight romance is the thing that ends up defining both characters and the book, and as a result, other plot and character developments are subsumed into the overarching romance narrative. It often also means that the male characters can end up being less defined than we might wish.

Young women protagonists deserve lovely romances of diverse and wondrous kinds, but it doesn't have to be what makes them who they are.

Nor have I ever been convinced about the old Hermione/Ron model, in which the brilliant young woman adores the less spectacular but worthy hidden qualities of the sturdy young man.

Rubbish. She'd be bored to death within months.


Or perhaps I should have had Isabella run off into the sunset with Signora Contarini? Now that would put the cat amongst the San Marco pigeons.

Image from TripAdvisor

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On opera

This week I've been on planet opera.
It's a pretty wild place, let me tell you.

The idea was simple - gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.


I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it's the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.

And because, clearly, I haven't got enough going on.

Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn't hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:
  • There doesn't need to be a narrative (arguably, there should not be a formal narrative)
  • Sounds of words may matter as much as meaning
  • Leave room for the audience - and the music - to do the work
  • Distill. Write essence only. Then distill again.
So I won't tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.

Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose - specifically, in Tragédie - how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That's not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.

I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin's life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I'm left wondering what to do with that idea. And that's good.

The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.

Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.

Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:
  • People aren't interested in stories. They want experiences.
  • Shakespeare's ghosts are silent for a reason.
  • Opera is slow - it's a meditation.
  • It's also a blunt instrument.
  • It's never going to be what you [the writer] imagined.
  • Write simple stories.
  • Contemporary opera done well can be very powerful in conveying the big ideas.
  • Music takes the ideas to the heart and bypasses the head.
  • Let the audience members make up their own minds.
  • If the composer isn't weeping while she writes, nobody else will feel it either.
  • Intuition is quicker than the brain at figuring things out.
  • Each scene has its own self-contained logic and idea that contribute to the overall.
  • A breath can convey as much as a word.
Also, as with most forms of writing, it's almost impossible to get work produced. But that's never stopped me before.

I could go on, but I won't.

Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)

Will now attempt to float back to earth.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

Every great writer is a writer of history, let him treat on almost any subject he may.  

~ Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Conversation: Diogenes and Plato

Sage advice

That's all.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Historical fantasy?

I've wasted years of my life.

Happily I'm in good company.

A US writer - let's call her M* - whose book for younger readers is just out, has advised a group of young aspiring writers not to bother with such feeble-minded tasks as research when writing historical fiction:
M said she didn't know enough and had to write about what she didn't know. ''To write a book about the past [as she has done], there is a saying that you read only two books and then close your eyes,'' she said. That was all the research required.
(Quoted in The Age.)
Just like that. Magic.
In fact, that's what happens in M's book. Just like I, Coriander, halfway through, everything turns into magic or fairies or elves. Fantasy, as we all know, doesn't require any research or detailed planning either (just ask anyone who writes fantasy - and then take a few steps back to avoid the explosion).
It's hard to decide which aspect of M's advice is most worrying: that an author of historical fiction thinks the historical bit of it doesn't matter; or that perhaps it just doesn't matter when you're an adult author writing their first kids' book; or that an author has no duty of care to readers of any age or to the past; or that you would leave your editors to do your fact-checking ... or that you would actually say that - out loud - to young people who are looking for guidance.

Now, I'm not sure whether it's true. I suspect that M did much more than read two books, and I'm really hoping she's been misunderstood.
But I've been brooding about this all morning, in part because I read M's book in manuscript form several months ago and found in it several glaring mistakes which I assumed would have been removed in later versions. Not by the author, obviously, who apparently can't be arsed looking anything up, but by some long-suffering editor.
This is what almost any other author of historical fiction would have told that crowd: it takes months, sometimes years, of research to accurately portray the past - even just to make as few mistakes as possible. Then you only put about five percent of it into the text. Many of us will tell you that the research is the fun part. It continues up until the point the ink rolls on the presses, and even after that there are breathless moments when you rush to the nearest computer or book to check something you suddenly imagine you got wrong.

That's just as it should be. Because it matters. History matters. Truth matters, just as much as closing your eyes and imagining, and especially for young readers.
Because your publishers require you to know what you're writing about.
Because your readers trust you, and they matter - most of all.

[*Later: names deleted to provide benefit of the doubt, because surely it isn't what she really thinks. Surely.]

Sunday, August 21, 2011


I've been hearing a lot of voices lately, but that was the plan. Part of my PhD project is about the quest (or lack thereof) for authenticity in voices in historical fiction, and now I can't read anything without seeing through that lens. It's a bit like when you're going to get a new car or a new dog, and suddenly the world is filled with that model or that breed. Except this will last for years. And is, thankfully, rather more interesting than ten year-old station wagons.

So here are some initial thoughts on a few voices I've heard recently.

Bethia Mayfield is the narrator of Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing. Brooks can enable her readers to hear a voice from the past with sublime felicity: her March is a tricky and unsympathetic narrator whose weakness and selfishness are difficult to bear but a joy to read. Bethia, on the other hand, is the opposite. the character is engaging, but her voice - I am very sorry to say - is uneven. I heard Brooks speak about the book recently, and she mentioned that she makes great use of the Oxford Historical Thesaurus. It shows*. The reader is happily meandering around the island with Bethia when we all trip over a word, and then another, which seem to be perfectly accurate in a historical sense but somehow out of time - out of tune - with all of Bethia's/Brooks' other words.

It's a very very tricky business, maintaining a voice that is palatable to the modern ear but somehow historically accurate - what Sarah Waters describes as "right enough - for us". Brooks almost always gets it right. Just not this time. Not quite.

In Room, Emma Donoghue's narrator is five year-old Jack, who lives in a small room with his Ma and that's the only world he knows. Hard to imagine a more difficult task for a writer - a credible five year-old voice, but also one whose world is so confined he simply doesn't realise, at the start of the book, that the things he sees on the television are real - and yet convey the entire action of a book, including some genuinely thrilling action - in that voice and world view.

But Donoghue manages it, beautifully. There may be the odd word that seems out of place, one or two concepts that Jack couldn't possibly know but it doesn't matter; it doesn't throw you out of the story. Anyway, as Jack says, "I know all the words".

Finally, a TV series: Downton Abbey.

I love it. I do. But please: there is no way on earth that upstairs and downstairs ever collided and colluded so often and so intimately. After the Great War - perhaps. As people's lives were shattered by grief and missing, and as the men and women at the many Fronts discovered they could be friends or enemies across class and that death really didn't distinguish; then the social - if not economic - barriers in British society began to crumble. Or in a crisis, such as a corpse in your bedroom, yes, one might feel a trusted maid is the only place to turn.

Sybil: can't touch this

But it really does reek of narrative reshaping history for upstairs characters to confide in the servants, for maids to offer unsolicited personal advice, for there to be such informality and idle chatter in the house of an earl. An earl! Not a minor baronetcy, but one of the great titles in the kingdom. Perhaps I wouldn't mind the inaccuracy it it managed to be consistent, but it isn't. Some of the voices and relationships are consistent and some aren't. I don't mind the lovely daredevil Sybil being too egalitarian, but other characters on both sides waver in and out.

Yes, I am one of those people who shouts at the television or scoffs in the cinema at blatant rewriting of history. Don't get me started on Shekhar Kapur's versions of Elizabeth I, for example.

As if!

And if I huff "As if!" several times in one viewing, we are in trouble.

I'm afraid there have been many "As ifs" during the otherwise winning Downton Abbey, though it won't stop me watching it.

* [Later: that sounds more brutal than I meant it to. It's a terrific story.]