A unique book project: an interview with romance writer Jan O’Hara

jan-ohara-writers-digestOnce a family doctor who prided herself on providing her patients with birth-to-death healthcare, Canadian writer Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. She writes for the popular blog, Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children.

And today I’m interviewing her about her first novel, Opposite of Frozen, which has just been released and which is part of a unique and most intriguing series, the Thurston Hotel Books.

First of all, Jan, congratulations on the release of your novel, Opposite of Frozen! It’s the second in a unique, multi-author series. Can you tell us about that? How did it come about? And how did it develop?

Thank you for having me, Sophie. I’m honored.

My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (https://www.calgaryrwa.com/) has a reputation for facilitating independent publishing and hybrid careers within its membership. In December of 2015, word went out that our treasurer, Brenda Sinclair, was looking to launch a group project, for which she had a very clear vision. I was interested because Brenda had participated in a similar project before, and had internalized many of the lessons learned during that time. Also, romance is a digital-friendly genre, and I was leaning toward independent publishing.

Accordingly, in a somewhat cloak-and-daggerish moment, the interested parties met secretly in a Calgary restaurant. Brenda loosely outlined the series idea: 12 standalone contemporary romances set in a fictitious town in the Alberta Rockies, revolving around the Thurston Hotel, its employees and long-term residents. Each author would take ownership of one month in the town’s life to tell their story. In addition to writing our own story arc, each book would tell a portion of a long-running series romance.

Brenda had already begun construction of a series bible—which she maintained throughout the entirety of the project. She had thought through the project deadlines, the cover artist, and the series editor. Her level of professionalism was vastly reassuring to this writer!

When all was said and done, 11 authors signed on, and Brenda, herself, agreed to write the first and last installments in the series. coverfinalmedwithgreyoof

Writing as part of such a unique series must have presented its own unique challenges! Tell us about how you constructed your story. And did the writing of your novel differ to other fictions you’ve written?

Though I have been writing a long time, I have never completed a piece of long-form fiction to what I consider publishable standards. As you might imagine, I was nervous about my abilities to do so while adapting my story to the requirements of 10 other writers. So from the first, I looked for a way to keep my story somewhat self-contained within the Thurston world. I wanted to limit the number of moving parts.

That was the impetus for having my characters arrive on a tour bus and depart from Harmony within the month I claimed. Also, for claiming an early month in the year, when I’d have to adapt to the fewest changes possible due to other author’s requirements. (In my case, I volunteered for February.)

Happily, those constraints ended up creating some of the story elements of which I’m most proud. For example, I needed a tour group to populate the bus, and who would most logically have the time for a prolonged multinational tour, but seniors? (I so enjoyed writing my seniors!) What unexpected event could complicate their February trip, but a hypothermic stowaway? What elements about the seniors’ lives could bring my co-protagonists together, and facilitate their healing? Etc.

I must say, it was thrilling and confidence-inducing to see how my brain could come up with story ideas to match the project’s requirements.

Also, I was dealing with time constraints and a gargantuan case of the Impostor Syndrome. Without a commitment to the other writers in the group, I’m not sure I’d have pushed through to completion. I do know OoF would not exist in its present form if not for the project’s boundaries and invitations.

The books are all set in the same town, although around different stories and characters. How did you all plan the background of the books–and will that evolve over time, or will you all keep to the same basic framework?

Between our first and second in-person meeting, each author wrote a story synopsis and shared it with the group, via private Facebook page. We also found avatars for our characters and constructed one-sheets, when applicable, so that other authors could use our characters in cameo appearances without much difficulty.

For more intensive cross-pollination, when using another writer’s characters, we sent relevant passages to one another, to ensure we weren’t violating a character’s personality or mannerisms. The same held true for micro-environments. For example, I borrowed Ellen Jorgy’ creation—a bar known as the Wobbly Dog—for several scenes in my book.

We made a good many decisions together, in-person, like the décor of the hotel, the final design of the cover art, the name of the town. Other decisions were made individually, and then coordinated with the group via Facebook.

For instance, I needed a store that sold computers, so I constructed the Tech and Tock, and invented its proprietors. One of the series continuity editors, Suzanne Stengl, then added it to the map of the town, which she maintained throughout the project.

I should mention that various authors contributed their skillset to make the project work on the whole. Win Day, for instance, used her technical background to construct the Thurston Hotel Books website. Sheila Seabrook helped with formatting issues. Everyone helped with title selection.

Without their direction, Opposite of Frozen would have been called Hypothermia and the Hottie. (A title which still makes me laugh, and would have been great for SEO, but doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel.)

Do authors in the group have input into each other other’s stories? Who edits the novels?

Beyond the planning I’ve mentioned, the group also benefited from the hard work of two continuity editors: Brenda Sinclair, who wore about five hats during this project, and Suzanne Stengl. They both read my book for continuity errors. Twice.

Then we all used the same editor, Ted Williams, for a final appraisal. He used the series bible for guidance and reportedly enjoyed seeing how Harmony came to life within different stories, told by different voices.

Tell us about the publication journey for the series. Will the books be available internationally?

We intend to put out a print version of the series in the near future. At present, the books are available exclusively in ebook via Amazon and the Kindle Lending Library, wherever Amazon exists.

The first installment was released September 29, 2016, and will be followed by another novel on each of the following 11 consecutive Thursdays. (We are using the hashtag #ThurstonThursday on Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to follow along.)




More about Opposite of Frozen:

Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recovery from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/janoharabooks/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/

For more on the series itself: http://thurstonhotelbooks.com/

2BR02B: the journey of a dystopian film–an interview with Leon Coward

australian-artist-and-composer-leon-cowardI’ve known the extraordinarily talented young creator Leon Coward since he was a pre-teen reader/reviewer flatteringly enthusiastic about my books. Today, Leon’s love of creating art has  led him to work in many different fields–not only literature, but music, visual arts, and now film-making. Involved first as a concept artist for the short film 2BR02B–To Be or Naught to Be, a dystopian work based on one of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories, Leon went on to take a much greater part in the creation of the film.

The Canadian production, which has already been selected for no less than 15 prestigious short film festivals, has its Australian premiere today, in Sydney. To mark this exciting occasion, I talked with Leon about the creative journey behind the film.

Leon, how did you become involved in the creation of  2BR02B: To be or Naught to Be? 

My background is in graphic design and traditional illustration. The producer Artin John is a childhood friend, and he began co-producing the film and asked for me to create a poster… then concept art… then the mural and other artwork. I had no idea how involved I would later become.

The film is based on a Kurt Vonnegut short story which imagines a dystopian world in which babies are only allowed to be born if another life is terminated. What were the particular challenges involved in adapting the story for film?

The tone was a challenge. It’s easy to show too little or be too graphic, be too nonchalant or be too sombre. You can try to be as true to Vonnegut’s material as possible, but at the end of the day also you’re working with the material that you as a team have generated, not just Vonnegut’s, and that’s what you’ve got to make work. There were a few things from the original story that confused our test audiences – in one instance it was putting jazz at the end of the film, and Vonnegut gets away with it because as a reader you don’t hear it, but we realised it just sounded like cinema lounge music and it spoiled the audience’s mulling over of events.

2br02b_federal-bureau-of-termination-poster2BR02B has an ensemble cast, so an editing challenge was working out the balance between them. We’d all thought the film would centre on Wehling and his internal conflict, because his dilemma motivates his actions which affect the other characters – the problem was that while we knew what he was thinking and what he’s gearing himself up to do, the audience didn’t. The first edit was melodramatic simply because the audience was asked to feel for a character they didn’t know. So I shook things up and this was hard because I took an edit to the team and, although the story itself hadn’t changed, what was emphasized had changed. For a long time we were also going for an emotional ending, but after test screenings it was clear the audience were frustrated. My grandmother suggested a twist, and I incorporated it and showed the team without warning them – that way they got to experience it as the audience would.

My own big challenges were creating the fictitious ‘Federal Bureau of Termination’ set in Chicago and the Painter’s 16-ft mural. The FBT is represented by Leora, a gas chamber hostess – but other than her and a brief shot of a gas chamber, the FBT doesn’t appear. So to convey the fact that this organization dominated the society, we gave them a brand identity that pervaded everything – corporate signage, posters, banners, badges, tags, earpieces and costume motifs. Vonnegut described a symbolic design for their logo (an ‘eagle perched on a turnstile’), but I approached it as a new branding commission and researched federal seals and local symbols for Chicago. There are a lot of references – the stars and stripes on the US and Chicago flags, the Chicago municipal device (which is a Y for their shaped river), even the wings of their state insect the Monarch butterfly. But there are also a lot of differences to real seals which make it very impersonal, very geometric, skeletal & circuit-like, and no natural symbols.

The mural took 6 months to design and finish. It was digitally painted in Sydney, then printed in Canada. All the characters discuss its symbolism and pose for it – if the mural didn’t come across as a genuine work of art, it’d devalue the acting. Its design was driven by story needs and Vonnegut’s prose. It shows a false utopian garden where nurses and FBT staff, dressed in white and purple, symbolically turn soil, plant seeds, and control life and death. Purple is traditional for sacrificial robes, and Dr. Hitz, who is the architect of population control, is painted as a ‘Zeus-like’ figure. The mural had to be recognizably propaganda and contemporary, so our director Marco instructed me to look at Russian war posters, Art Deco and Cubism. At the same time, I knew the mural had to have religious overtones. I’d experimented with a mix of Expressionism and William Blake-esque styles – trying to avoid the ‘communist cornfield worker’ interpretations I’ve seen in student versions of the film, or any specific garden-type, but I was going too far in that direction. My new layout was Art Deco-inspired, using diagonals and circles – essentially it’s an ‘X’ drawing your eyes to Hitz, and the FBT logo acts like a sun, framing Hitz’s head like a halo. I blended Cubism, Futurism and Brutalism with religious styles. The concrete flats, which also mimic the FBT logo, overpower the barest of gardens and help narrow the viewer’s focus, and the floating flower made it futuristic. The style of plants and their millefleur treatment came from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry and the religiously-themed The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry. Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ pilgrimage paintings, and especially his Wedding of Psyche, provided the inspiration for the figures, their poses, compositional distribution and costumes (I also referenced medical scrubs). Hitz needed a recognizable inference of himself as a messiah – so Byzantine iconography provided the inspiration for his hands (which are Christ’s) and the haloed foetus, as well as the mural’s forced perspective. For Hitz’s costume there was also a bit of SS uniform and Nehru jacket, dentist and Jedi, and a more contemporary influence from Gehn in Cyan’s Riven, a character who also sees himself as a god. Everywhere you look the message is there, and it was hard to make the mural function as a finished work of art yet still be visibly ‘in-progress’. The aim was to show a society where there is no respect for religious heritage – God is dead, and the FBT is filling the vacancy – and the mural needed to be created that way. It took months of digitally painting and scanning paint textures and brushstrokes, since the mural had to withstand close-ups. Halfway through, Paul Giamatti had scheduling conflicts, and I had to repaint the face for our Hitz replacement, Mackenzie Gray. The mural was printed in strips of paper which overlapped; clear hard-drying gel was applied to give it a texture, and Ferrero-Rocher wrappers (which have a great canvas texture) were used for the gold highlights.2br02b_mural-by-leon-coward-1

The project was an international collaboration over 3 years between crew in Australia, Canada, UK, Mexico and the Netherlands. What were the challenges and advantages involved in such a big undertaking over such distances and different time zones? What did you learn from the experience?

We had cast and crew in Vancouver, myself and other crew in Sydney, an artist in the Netherlands, and a VFX school in Mexico which did effects as part of their professional training. Footage was flown to me in Sydney and I began re-editing with James Tarbotton. Then Martin Cantwell, our brilliant sound designer in London, came onboard. The time differences were okay as calls were early morning or late night, so we’d avoid each others’ work hours – which was important since the film was not a paying project. The separation was a technical disadvantage, since exporting and transferring files adds a lot of time. It’s also important to be able to see, at least once, the person you’re communicating with, in person or Skype, because it makes email writing a lot easier. While there were disadvantages, I think the distance for me and my collaborators in Sydney allowed us to approach the project in a way we mightn’t have otherwise – especially in the editing, where we could respond as a fresh audience without preconceptions, or even knowing what the actors were like out of character.

You worked on many different aspects of the film, as art director, composer, film editor and associate producer. How did you navigate all these different roles? Was there one aspect you preferred above all?

2br02b_left-to-right_jason-diablo-and-australian-artin-johnIn a sense it hasn’t been hard to navigate between the roles because they were prepared for – I had this idea that the Painter would have a gramophone, and that he was listening to Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. When gun-shooting later ensues, the song could provide a macabre serenade. I stuck the gramophone in my concept art, and waited for the idea to take hold – it was influencing the film’s music to some extent without having to be the composer, but ironically I eventually found myself in the role and this wasn’t intentional! There is a some incidental music, but I pushed to have it that the only music was the ‘live’ gramophone so that the music was simply part of the world, and not an ‘invisible’ emotional narrator as film scores often are. The film and the Ave Maria recording were designed and edited around each other: while films are often edited to an existing temp track of unrelated music, this film was edited to a pre-existing recording of Ave Maria, which was later replaced with a tailor-made recording, post editing and sound design. It enabled us to go for a different interpretation too, which would greater contrast the action. We were fortunate to have my sister Imogen Coward, who is both a skilled soprano and conductor, record the version for us that appears in the finished film. We wanted to avoid any artificial stretching or splicing, so we had the unusual challenge of recording in one take, matching the timing of the temp version. We had 2 frames wriggle room, and the edit didn’t have any room to be changed for different timing. It was tiring, but it was worth it because it has a quality that is lost when music, especially singing, is heavily edited.

The film has so far received 5 nominations and 14 international festival selections, including for its Australian premiere at the Sydney Indie Film Festival on October 19. That’s quite an achievement! What do you think are the special qualities of the film which have made it attractive to festival selectors?

While Vonnegut created the story, it’s also the way the cast and crew have interpreted, realized and communicated the story. Derek Ryan, our screenwriter and co-producer, did a good job of cutting away story material that couldn’t be cinematic – so from the start we were all working with a document that concentrated our focus. 2BR02B really takes a cross-section of behaviours in a society where life and death are pushed to absurdities, but there’s no obvious political or moral position in its telling – just the drama of human action, and I think it allows the viewer in on their own terms. I think one of the things that’s helped is how the film feels when you watch it vs what is leaves you thinking about – cinematically it is very static up to a point, and then there’s this burst of drama and the music making it madness, and then just desolation, and that hits the audience. Vonnegut’s narrative was influenced by his experiences as a P.O.W. in Dresden, and even though his story is fiction, the themes are relevant and resonate because the wars have cast such a long shadow. It’s subtle in our film, but the hospital cross is actually a swastika, and the banners flanking the mural are inspired by Nazi banners –  Wehling’s cry “It’s only death” was used on our banners, so instead of his line being spontaneous, it becomes him quoting propaganda which the audience saw earlier.


What’s next for you, in terms of films, after this one?

I’m independently developing my own film project – an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”, and am shifting between generating its music and visual material.

You are also engaged in doing a PhD on aspects of film design. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It essentially provides an analytical process which teases apart a film’s design (if it has one) – whether the story, visuals, acting, music, sound or all their combination. The method is quite straightforward, but its theoretical justification and demonstration is very demanding. The method has had encouraging support from many industry practitioners.

As a multi-talented creator and performer, you are also involved in music, visual arts and literature. Tell us about some of your projects in those fields.

My sister Imogen is director of the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, which was founded by my siblings and a group of our young musician friends who we’ve played music together with since childhood. Our concert profits go towards helping support the Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation. Our orchestra has just celebrated its second anniversary and second regional tour in Australia. It’s been a very exciting time for the group. We love playing Baroque music – Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli – but our concerts also include music from a wide range of eras and styles, from the 1500s to today, and the orchestra has premiered some of my music that was written specially for the members. A lot of my own solo projects are on hold until after the PhD, including fine art prints and two picture books, written and illustrated by me, one which has been endorsed by Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator).

I know that you come from a family where the arts are highly valued, and your siblings are both also working in the arts. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up, and what effect you feel it had on your adult career?

We’ve each ended up musicians – my sister  violin, viola, cello and voice, and she has her PhD in music. My brother has focused on violin, voice and guitar, and he’s also doing his PhD on music and magic performance (he’s been performing illusions for 10 years now). Our parents homeschooled us to university level, and were very keyed in to expanding our interests, skills and activities, but they didn’t try to turn us out as one thing or another and weren’t discouraging. My grandmother recently found some drawings from when I was 5, and I couldn’t draw for nuts. But I meet a lot of parents and kids who restrict activities because there’s no immediate interest or sign of potential. I think the effect it has had for my siblings and me is that we’re not afraid to venture beyond our immediate interests and skills, and that’s allowed us to develop the set of skills we have.

Leon Coward is a published artist and writer, and performed composer and choreographer. He performs on violin, viola, piano and voice with the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, and was recently art director, composer, editor and associate producer for the 2016 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be”. He is undertaking a PhD at the University of New England, Australia, and has presented his creative work and research throughout Australasia and internationally, including for the TATE Liverpool UK. Since 2007 Leon has edited and designed the e-zine “The Online Book Group”. In 2009 Leon illustrated “Vietnam Reflections”, by award-winning author Libby Hathorn. In 2011 he was awarded a mentorship by the Australian Society of Authors.


Writers reviewing books–an interview with Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras

Book reviewing is a real art, and one that in the last ten years or so has undergone many changes. In the past, most book reviews were published in print—in newspapers and magazines, as well as, occasionally on radio and TV. But today, as space in newspapers and magazines has shrunk, most book reviews are published online, on specialised sites, online publications, and blogs.

Today I’m interviewing three distinguished UK authors, Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras, who together have created a great new book review blog, called WritersReview. I was asked to be a guest reviewer on the blog recently, was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know more!


Left to right: Linda, Celia and Adele

Can you tell me about how and why you started WritersReview?

Linda: Recently I added a blog to my own website. I’d never had a blog before but I liked the idea of using mine for reviews, with maybe a post of two about my own work in progress or backlist titles, and contributions from writer friends. When I mentioned this to Celia, she came up with the better idea of a joint review blog. This appealed at once, as I knew that a joint blog would reach more readers and attract more contributors than I’d achieve on my own. Next time Celia and I met, we talked about how to organise the blog and decided to invite Adele to join us, knowing that she reads widely and enjoys reviewing.

All three of us have published widely for children and young adults but are now writing adult fiction, and our reviewing here is a way of extending our range. Collectively we have a great many contacts, which should make it easy to keep things turning over.

Celia: Linda and I don’t live too far from each other and we meet up every now again for a writerly chat. During one of our talks.  We started talking about reviewing, specifically online reviewing.  We both agreed that good reviewing sites were few and far between and that much of the reviewing was poor and unfair. We were both taken with the possibility of setting up a review site where writers could review other writers. Writers tend to be keen readers and are often experienced reviewers and would offer fairer, more balanced and better informed reviews than many to be found online. Linda went away and came back with some ideas for the review site. She suggested we invite Adele to join us as she’s an avid and omnivorous reader and highly respected reviewer. We would each invite other authors to make guest posts, to add variety, keep the posts current and gradually build the site. Adele and I are both History Girls and are familiar with Blogger, so that was the site we chose to use. Linda did the hard work, designing and setting up the site, sorting out teething problems and posting the first reviews.

Adele: It was really Linda’s brainchild and when she asked me to join in, and mentioned that she was asking no Celia too, I was really delighted. I’ve long felt that there were too few outlets for people’s opinions about books. Newspaper reviews and much that’s online concentrates on the eye catching, the best-selling, the obvious. Linda made her offer seem attractive by telling us we can write about what enthuses us, whatever it might be.

Another of her good ideas was to give us a chance to invite other writers to contribute as well. She did all the heavy lifting, setting up the site and making sure it looks as good as it does.

What is your vision for the site? And how do you think it might develop?

Linda: I’d like it to be wide-ranging and friendly. We, and our guests, can choose anything we like to review – anything, that is, other than children’s books (not because we have anything against them but because there are plenty of other sites that specialise in children’s). I’d like to include biography, nature writing and other non-fiction, possibly poetry – whatever we or our guests want to write about. And the books don’t have to be newly-published – part of the point is for writers to share their own enthusiasms and draw attention to books that have inspired or influenced them, or deserve to be read more widely.

I hope, as we go on, that we’ll build up a list of regular guests and that maybe people will even approach us, wanting to contribute. I hope, too, that readers will comment on our reviews and add their own opinions.

I’d love it if our blog became known and respected and if we saw our reviews quoted in publicity releases!

Adele: I’m hoping it’s the sort of site readers might go to a) to see what we’d enjoyed b) to get ideas about what they might enjoy c) to be able to comment freely about what they saw there.

Celia: From the first, we decided to review books for adults, rather than children’s or YA. That was the only rule. I guess we hope that the site will attract people who are interested in what we have to say about the books we review and to counterbalance some of the ill-informed and occasionally malicious reviews to be found in other places online. I would like to see Writers Review become a site that readers can trust and use as a guide to books that they might want to read.

How do you choose books for review? Are there types or genres of books you particularly want to concentrate on?

Linda: Many of the books won’t be chosen by us, but by our guests. We won’t, on the whole, allocate titles to reviewers, though there may be some exceptions.  I hope contemporary fiction will be well to the fore, but we’ll see how things develop without our intervention.

Celia: Other than the books have to be for adults, we can review what we like, any genre, fiction or non-fiction. The books can be newly published or old favourites. There is no pressure to review current books. Our choices are made on our own preferences, what we might be reading at the time, work we admire, books that we have enjoyed and think other readers might like, too.

Adele: It’s about sharing enthusiasms. Fiction or non-fiction, but books for adults. We are known mainly as children’s or YA writers, but wanted to go outside our perceived boundaries.

What do you think of the current situation for book reviewing today, against the background of the contemporary publishing climate?

Celia: I think that there has been a marked falling away in the standard of reviewing. The broadsheet newspapers remain the gold standard but book review space continues to be squeezed. The plethora of online reviewing sites is patchy at best and can be downright destructive and malicious. Real reviewing appears to be a dying art. Too few reviewers understand that a good review is more than an exhaustive synopsis and a few subjective opinions, or arbitrary judgements based on personal preferences, or trivial concerns like print quality or length. We have all seen shocking examples of books condemned, their star rating brought down for the most irrelevant and trivial of reasons and behind that is always the lurking spectre of sock puppetry. I’m also uneasy about the possible influence of the big publishing houses through the blandishments of their publicity departments, particularly on book bloggers. We might be swimming against a tsunami but I don’t think readers like to feel manipulated (I certainly don’t) and I hope that a site like ours might be trusted and valued by readers and publishers alike.

Adele: I think it’s very patchy. I’m not 100% sure how much reviews contribute to the success of a given book, but am sorrowfully concluding: not very much! How otherwise to account for so many LOW LOW sales for extremely well-reviewed books?

Linda: It seems that publishers have come to value review blogs, with space for print reviews so much in demand, and that online reviewing can be quite influential in passing on word-of-mouth recommendations. In the press, some books are widely reviewed while others get no coverage at all, and might as well be invisible. The ‘blog tour’ for a new book is now quite common, even for high-profile authors. So a blog like ours is likely to be appreciated by authors as well as by publishers.

Established writers and creative writing doctorates/PHDs

I’m delighted to announce that my academic research paper, Breaking the pattern: established writers undertaking creative writing doctorates in Australia, has just been published in the latest(October) issue of the prestigious journal TEXT. Here’s the abstract:

The focus of this article is an examination of the experiences of established writers who have recently completed, or are currently undertaking, a creative writing doctorate, against a background of change within the publishing industry. Is it primarily financial/career or creative control concerns that are influencing established writers to undertake creative doctorates in recent times? And how do these writers fare within the degree program? To explore these issues through individual stories, interviews were conducted, by email and phone, with six established professional writers who had recently completed, or were still undertaking, a creative doctorate as well as with four established creative writing academics, most of whom are authors themselves. Questions of motivation and experience, as well as outcome, are canvassed in this piece of original research, which provides an interesting snapshot of the current situation for established writers in Australia undertaking creative writing doctorates.

The full paper is available for reading here.

Interview with Kristel Thornell, author of On The Blue Train

on-the-blue-trainIn December 1926, Agatha Christie, already the famous author of several detective novels, disappeared for eleven days. The press and the public were agog as a massive investigation employing more than a thousand police officers was mounted, and after her car was found abandoned, great fears were held for her safety. As titillating details emerged about the traumatic events surrounding her disappearance–her husband’s demand for a divorce on top of his infidelity, and her beloved mother’s death–the public joined in the hunt, with hundreds of amateur detectives combing for clues. Even other mystery writers joined in the hunt, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers! Eleven days after she first went missing, Agatha was discovered in a spa hotel in Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she was staying under the name of Teresa Neele–poignantly, the surname of her husband’s mistress.

There have been many speculations, then as now, as to what really happened. Agatha herself never explained those missing eleven days. An intensely private, even shy woman, the trauma of the time when she was in the full glare of remorseless publicity never left her, even though she went on to become a mega-selling ‘Queen of Crime’. Even today she is the most best-selling novelist of all time, with literally billions of books sold.

Now young Australian author Kristel Thornell has written a novel which, with great deftness and sensitivity, imagines what those eleven days might have been like. Foregrounding both Agatha herself and the fictional character of Australian Harry McKenna, similarly bruised by life, she draws a convincing portrait of heartbreak, the beginning of healing, and the challenges and consolations of creativity. It’s a wonderful novel which is also a touching tribute to Agatha’s unique creative gift, informed by a great deal of research. And so today I’m delighted to bring readers a fascinating interview with Kristel Thornell, in which she talks about the creation of her novel, On the Blue Train (Allen and Unwin, out now).  kristel-thornekll-better

How did you first come up with the idea for the novel?

I heard a fragment of a radio program that mentioned Christie’s “disappearance” and I was very taken with the idea of a young writer living under a pseudonym for eleven days. Perhaps because writing itself can resemble living under a pseudonym, and this parallel intrigued me. I was particularly interested in the tension suggested between public and private selves. I found myself vividly picturing a troubled, resourceful woman arriving at a hotel in the north of England in an unusual state of consciousness. I thought it could be an interesting challenge to try to give fictional depth to such an experience, exploring the combination of disorientation and freedom she might have felt. I was attracted to writing a sort of psychological mystery. One that, without being a detective novel, would salute what I most enjoy in that genre – transporting atmosphere, a hypnotic flow, the heightened awareness of details, moments, and buried impulses.

What research did you do, and what were the challenges in researching such a famous, but also mysterious episode in Agatha Christie’s life?

I began with the biographies of Christie by Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, Christie’s autobiography, and her early novels. In the UK, I read newspapers covering her disappearance and the archive of her papers at the University of Exeter. A central part of the process was spending time in Torquay, where she grew up and loved to return, Newlands Corner, the area from which she “disappeared”, and Harrogate, where she lived for those days as Teresa Neele. In Harrogate, I stayed at the hotel she stayed at (which still exists), for the same period of time she was there, absorbing the ambience and learning to inhabit my character.

Agatha Christie in 1926

Agatha Christie in 1926

The blanks in the official record gave me a certain sense of being at liberty to invent, but it was a challenge to avoid preconceived ideas and put aside, as it were, Christie the icon, Christie the phenomenon. I had to avoid anachronistically projecting all of that symbolic weight onto my vision of a young writer. It also felt crucial to allow myself to freely imagine within the biographical contours, and to approach the biographical material itself in my own way.

You have deftly mixed your own imaginings with what’s known about what happened. How did you negotiate the intersection between fact and fiction?

This was somewhat more straightforward with “On the Blue Train” than it was with my previous novel (inspired by the Australian landscape painter Clarice Beckett). With the earlier novel, I worked with biographical facts quite loosely, sometimes purposely altering them. With “On the Blue Train”, I aimed to incorporate the known facts of Christie’s disappearance and life up until that time into the imaginary world of the novel. I didn’t consciously change anything factual that appeared significant to me. Though I was aware, of course, that simply to fictionalize a fact is to reimagine it. To shape it with language, frame and illuminate it in particular ways, give it a tone. So that even the biographical becomes semi-biographical, novelistic.

There have been many theories concerning Christie’s disappearance, ranging from amnesiac fugue to a cynical publicity stunt mixed with revenge against her unfaithful husband. In your version, Agatha is aware that she is not who she is telling the world she is, yet she cannot cope with the fact of who she is and what has happened–a syndrome perhaps like post traumatic shock. How difficult was it to portray the state Agatha is in?

Finding a voice to convey that state was the key to the whole project. Laura Thompson, who wrote the 2007 biography of Christie, sees her mental state during that episode as semi-rational, somehow poetic, and this rang true to me. Such a condition plausibly fit the omission in Christie’s autobiography. I saw the fictional Agatha/Teresa as fluctuating between extreme sensitivity and numbness, and, increasingly, a sort of playful, creative spirit, a reawakening sensuality. She was both guiding herself and drifting. I wanted the novel’s voice to reflect these complexities: to be hypnotic, slightly hallucinatory, and inflected, indeed, with shock, grief, shame, and anxiety. The voice actually came quite intuitively. I identified with it deeply.

The pain of what Agatha is going through as she struggles with the realisation that her world has come crashing down is exacerbated by her inability to write a word of the book she was planning–which of course ended up being Murder on the Blue Train. Was this episode in Agatha’s life a turning point in terms of her art as much as her personal life, and if so in what way?

Yes, it would appear so. It was at around this time that she came to see herself as a professional author. She had already been working in a determined, focused way, aware that her work could earn money. Earlier in 1926, she had published “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, which had done very well. However, in her autobiography she describes the experience of having to force herself to finish “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (which she was finally able to largely complete in 1928 in Tenerife) as transitional. This was the crossing over into the life of a true working writer, one who writes whether or not she feels like it. And there is the sense that she made something of a fortress of this new role, keeping her private self guarded within it. It was fascinating to me that her intense vulnerability and isolation during that time might ultimately have galvanized her, confirmed her independence and vocation.

The hounding of celebrities, the curiosity of the media and its readers in intimate details of their lives, is very much an element of your book, and also of contemporary relevance. How do you think a similar episode would play out today in the media?christie-paper

Yes, that aspect of the story struck me as extremely fresh and current. I imagine that such attention could feel even more traumatically claustrophobic today. It would certainly be amplified by recent technologies, and quickly become so much more international. And there appears to be an ever-stronger requirement for writers to be public figures. The Elena Ferrante phenomenon is interesting in this light: the novelty of her “hidden” identity, the emphasis on this and speculation over her “true” identity becoming a lucrative part of her brand, and the recent “unmasking”.

In France, Agatha Christie is regarded by critics as a popular fiction genius, with a succint elegance of style, a deftness of characterisation and an extraordinary mastery of plot. Yet in English-speaking countries she is too often dismissed as a mere purveyor of puzzles. I wrote about this disconnect myself some years ago: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/07/writers_choice__2.html

What do you think? Does the disconnect still exist? And why?

I’ve been curious about that discrepancy, too, and I enjoyed Houellebecq’s response to Christie. It does still seem to exist and I would agree with your impression that in English-speaking countries she can be seen to represent an outmoded fairytale Englishness – one that is more attractive and soothing to foreigners. No doubt this involves some discomfort surrounding her perceived conservative upper-middle-class viewpoint. Could it be the case, also, that when a cultural product is such a powerfully popular national symbol, it can provoke a certain embarrassment?

Incidentally, I’ve read several of her novels in French and Italian, as well as in English, to see if I could come at the “essence” of them. Reading her in translation, I found it interesting that the streamlined quality of her prose – the minimally evoked settings, the emphasis on concise, bouncy dialogue, the light movement, and so on – seemed to translate very well, very smoothly.

Has writing the novel made you think of Agatha Christie, and her work, differently to before you started?

It has made me wonder at the intricacies of her inner life, and admire her strength, self-discipline, self-confidence, and forceful creative drive. I often think now of how hugely sustaining writing must have been for her.

What are your favourite Christie novels?

First edition, 1926

First edition, 1926

I think I remember most fondly “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The first has a wonderfully fluid, clean elegance, and an intriguing, chilling mood lightly balanced between clinical and intimate. I am attached to “The Mystery of the Blue Train” partly, perhaps, because it was a triumph for her to finish it, after having struggled with it at that very difficult time. It represents a sort of survival-through-creativity for me. Despite all

First edition, 1928

First edition, 1928

she was going through, she managed to pull off a novel that is amusingly theatrical, evocative, and sprightly.




Kristel Thornell’s debut work of fiction, Night Street, was the co-winner of the Vogel’s award in 2009 and was much acclaimed when published in 2010. On the Blue Train is her second novel.

More about On the Blue Train:

What did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? Mixing fact and fantasy On the Blue Train is an entrancing novel of creativity and grief from a winner of the Vogel Literary Award

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it’s wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha’s lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

Thornell says, “We are drawn to the iconic aura of Agatha Christie, as well as to a sense of her tireless imagination and drive. We continue to find her blend of cozy comforting order and hidden dark forces tantalizing and highly addictive. Her “disappearance” – a brief escape from her public identity – seems such a unique act, unusually creative and psychologically fascinating.”

With verve and sensitivity, Thornell imagines what Christie could not write.


Across the Tasman 6: Sarah Davis

unnamedToday in my New Zealand series, I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with the wonderful illustrator Sarah Davis. Sarah began illustrating picture books in 2008, and is now, as she puts it,  ‘ruined for any other career.’ She has an honours degree in literature, and her love of language and narrative underpins her illustration work – as a self-taught artist, she is constantly experimenting with new ways to tell stories visually. She has illustrated more than 37 books with major publishers and been shortlisted for about the same number of awards in Australia and New Zealand. Sarah is an ambassador for Room to Read, and the Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Australia East/NZ) Sarah is represented by the Gallt Zacker Agency in the USA and Frances Plumpton Literary Agency in New Zealand.

Sarah, you’ve said you are now spoiled for any other career other than illustration! Can you tell us about how that career started? What first drew you to illustration? And who were your main artistic influences?fearlesscover-copy

I think I’ve always been heading towards illustration, actually, but I got temporarily derailed by Life. I actually majored in English literature and creative writing at uni, and haven’t had much art training, and had my son when I was only 20, so went into teaching English at secondary school because it was something i felt passionate about and the hours were also good to fit around being a sole parent. I’d always drawn for fun and wanted to do more with it, but couldn’t really find the time.  I started dabbling in art a bit more seriously when I was about 26, but had our two lovely daughters in 2001 and 2003, and was still working part time, so it was hard to fit it in! When we moved to Sydney in 2004, I took time off work and that’s when illustration started to take off for me. I decided I’d go with the “fake it till you make it!’ philosophy, and set up a profile on some online freelancing sites, and got a bunch of jobs that way which taught me how it all worked and helped me start to build a portfolio. Then I decided to have a go at picture book illustration. I applied to the Stylefile with some truly horrible art samples, and they very sensibly and very kindly rejected me. Their rejection was accompanied by an A4 page of incredibly constructive criticism, and I took all their advice on board and built a much better portfolio, which i took to a critique at a SCBWI conference, and it all took off from there, thanks in a large part to my fairy godmother Susanne Gervay, who was incredibly kind and supportive and enthusiastically made connections and opportunities appear for me.soundsspooky_cover_hbk

What draws me to illustration is the opportunity it provides for narrative – I’m a sucker for story. My artistic influences are pretty varied, I think – I spend a lot of time online gazing at the awe-inspiring work of superior beings. I don’t think I really have a style, and seem to shift my approach based on the demands of the text, which I suppose is why the people whose work I admire also cover a broad spectrum of styles and periods.

You’ve become one of NZ’s busiest illustrators, with many books published, and lots more on the go. How do you manage your time with all the different projects?

Very badly! I call my system “surfing the tidal wave” – that feeling where you’re performing a very tricky balancing act, only just staying afloat, and there’s a weight of thundering chaos surging at your heels waiting to crash down on you. So far I haven’t totally wiped out and I’m still juuuust ahead of the wave. I’ve illustrated 37 trade picture and chapter books since 2008, as well as taking on commercial projects, books for educational publishers such as Cengage, and speaking at between 20-40 schools a year. Balancing that and family time has been very hectic – we’ve got three kids and 6 months ago we acquired a lovely extra teenager. There were quite a few occasions over the last few years when I had a deadline looming and I didn’t sleep at all for days in a row. I wouldn’t recommend it! I’m much better at achieving work/life balance now. I’m being very selective about what I take on, and trying to be much more disciplined with planning ahead. My son actually introduced me to bullet journalling this year, which is actually a wonderful way to be mindful and deliberate about how you spend your days. (http://bulletjournal.com/)

hippoWhat ‘sells’ you into agreeing to illustrating a text? What sorts of things do you look for? And do you have contact with authors at any stage during the process of creating the illustrations?

The text has to come to life in my head and make me feel something – it has to make me laugh or cry. I like texts that feel unusual and a little unhinged, or that feel as though they haven’t been done before. Vivid, evocative language and appealing characters. To be honest, a lot of the books I’ve done have been sequels – so I’ve initially signed on for one book, and then ended up locked in to doing 3 or 4, which is a brilliant problem to have, but also a little frustrating. I feel like it’s forced me to mark time a bit and cover old ground, when I really want to be moving on and trying something new. But I think I’m just coming to the end of that now!

I usually don’t have a lot of contact with the authors through the process – the publisher usually liases with them, shows them the roughs, processes any feedback for me. It’s a bit odd, because that’s how it works even with authors I know quite well! Me and Juliette MacIver are a bit naughty though and we often have quite long consultations in which the publishers aren’t included, usually involving bottles of wine and ukeleles. (actually, we should include the publishers – they’re all great people and  good fun and can probably also drink wine and play the ukelele.)toucan-can-f-cvr-300dpi

You’ve illustrated both picture books and chapter books. What do you prefer doing? And how does the process differ between the two styles of books?

I much prefer picture books – there’s a lot more leeway for the illustrator to tell a story. Illustrating for chapter books is quite prescribed and proscribed – you basically get told what to draw and given a space in which to draw it on each page. It feels a lot more like  you’re just decorating the text. When you’re illustrating a picture book text you really have a huge interpretive role, and you have to bring the characters to life, draw out and enhance the themes of the text, work out how the action of the plot will play out visually. It’s much more challenging and fun. You can also subvert the text, add unexpected twists and turns and layers – then it becomes a wonderful sort of alchemy where the contributions of two creators meet and mix and create a new level of meaning.mdcc_hbk

You are published both in New Zealand and Australia, and your books have won awards in both countries. Do you see any differences between the two countries in terms of reception of books, and reader responses?

I’m not sure, really!  To be honest, I try not to think too much about how my books are being received, because it scares me! Best to keep my head down and just get on with it. Obviously, awards are always lovely – my favourite kind of award to get are the Children’s Choice awards. Kids are very wise and also really tough judges. As far as differences between the 2 countries go… um…. The Marmaduke Duck series became a really big hit in New Zealand and is a bit of a household name over there, but never really took off here. The quirky kiwi sense of humour might have something to do with that. I mean, it’s an entire 4 book series about a duck who makes jam! Doesn’t get much weirder than that…

mmd_wide-blue-seasDoes being a New Zealander impact on or influence your work? If so, in what way?

Well, I think it must, in the way that everyone’s childhood influences their work! I moved from England to Aotearoa when I was 6, and grew up mainly in Christchurch. The land had a huge effect on me. The mountains and bush and sea of Aotearoa have an really powerful presence – this brooding sense that the land is living, and aware of you.

I think for a little country it really punches above its weight creatively, and as a kid I remember there being a lot of emphasis in school on art and creative writing. I read voraciously, and a lot of my favourite authors were NZ writers. Gavin Bishop actually came to visit my school when I was about 9 or 10, and I remember he was working on Mrs McGinty’s Bizarre Plant, and showed us all his rough sketches – I was transfixed! (I actually wrote a blog post about it: http://sarah-davis.org/blog/2015/7/20/l0ef49s6lr8u1vcxogmnuqer1ommrd)

I should also mention my fabulous NZ publishers: Gecko Press and Scholastic NZ. Both extraordinary powerhouses of creativity and absolutely delightful to work with, and tireless in promoting their books and trying to get them out into the wider world, which is a necessity for NZ publishers since the local market is so small. An extra shout out must go to Julia Marshall at Gecko, who has built the company from the ground up and really does produce the most extraordinarily beautiful books.

What are you working on now?hoth

I’m working on a sequel to Be Brave Pink Piglet, published by Hachette, and a super-secret (and exciting!) project for Penguin, which is due in January. I also have a couple of educational titles on the go so that I can pay the bills. I’m working on a couple of series of paintings, too, and hoping to have an exhibition next year. But what I’m most excited about is that I’ve finally finished writing a picture book of my own, and am also going to be illustrating another that my son wrote. They’re both with a publisher now, going to acquisitions soon I hope!

Third Night published in Swinburne University journal

A creative non-fiction piece of mine, Third Night, which I presented as a reading at the Australasian Association of Writing Programs’ conference last year, has just been published, along with other conference presenters’ pieces, in a special edition, ‘Hauntings’,  of Swinburne University’s journal, Bukker Tillibul. I’m reproducing Third Night below, but you can also read it and all the other pieces here.


Third Night

By Sophie Masson

The first night, far from home, and a dream: a woman writing, at a desk in an old weatherboard cottage. The screen door creaks, and something hurtles into the room. A glimpse of a face, vivid in its sheer ferocity: a tiny thing, but deadly. The dreamer awakes in fright, to silence and friendly darkness, thinks on the dream, but does not understand.

Now it’s the second night, another dream. Two travellers, a woman and a man,  arrive at a lakeshore. The man strips, goes into the lake, and as he does so, the water turns his skin to bronze, he is becoming alien but doesn’t seem to notice, while his companion cries out in fear. The dreamer wakes, heart pounding, into the friendly darkness, and still does not understand.

It is the third night, in a Sydney suburb this time. The dreamer is asleep. All at once, dogs bark. The staccato sound that tells you their hackles are rising, that  something unexpected is out there. It is this that wakes the dreamer and gets her up to look out the window.

Outside, in the vacant lot next door, there is a man, standing in the moonlight, hair of black and silver, dressed in plain pale clothes—but exactly what colour are they?  He looks quite solid, there is no translucence about him, and yet..He has one hand on his hip, the other held out with fingers parted, a silent message. Otherwise, he is still, more still than ever any human can be: and his glance—what a cold, direct gaze!—is fixed at the wide-awake dreamer, standing transfixed at the window.

There is no fear. Don’t think that. Only an  eternal moment, suspended, the cold direct gaze, the silver glimmer, the silent calling.

Now the waking mind is rebelling, seeking to explain. There is an intruder! Something must be done. The dreamer rouses the household which stands there in its pyjamas staring bleary-eyed out at the night. The household shouts at the dogs, hoping to chase away the intruder. Then rubs its eyes, says, ‘But he’s not there! Look..’ And in the place where the man stood in the vacant lot, the dreamer sees…a tree. A small, stunted grey eucalypt. The dogs have stopped barking. The household goes back to bed, shrugging.

But the dreamer stands at the window and stares out at the tree. I’ve heard the dogs barking before, gone to the window to shout at them, and seen that tree. But not this night. The dogs barked, and I saw something else, which the first two nights had prepared me for. Not a dream.

For yes, this was my own story. What happened was real: but I may never be able to understand it. It does not matter. For all of us move in the world’s mystery as fish swim in water, because it is our natural element. Yet often without understanding, for fish are the last to know they live in water.