The Magic Carpet revisited

And for the third and final(for the moment anyway) of my revisited original tales inspited by fairytale/folktale elements, here’s The Magic Carpet, which was published in The School Magazine and was inspired by my childhood love of The Arabian Nights.

THE MAGIC CARPET

by Sophie Masson

Once upon a time, a boy called Hamid lived with his uncle and aunt in the very middle of a great city. Hamid’s uncle and aunt kept the best-known carpet shop in that great city, and people came from near and far, just for a chance to look at their marvellous carpets.

Hamid’s uncle, who was as thin as a stick of cinammon, and his aunt, who was as round as a honey cake, greeted everyone at the door with a bow, and a smile, and a flash of gold teeth. They dressed in fine, silken clothes, and Hamid’s uncle wore a tall dark-blue silk turban, and his aunt a gauzy, spangled scarf.

But poor Hamid had no silken clothes, and no dark blue turban, and he was hardly ever allowed in the shop, only occasionally at night, when no-one was about. His uncle and aunt said he was very lucky, for they had taken him in when his parents had died. Hamid had to spend his days in the kitchen, cooking the nine different dishes his uncle and aunt demanded each evening.

Every afternoon, Hamid went to the market to buy the food for the next day. This was at the time when his uncle and aunt closed their shop and slept in their grand, silken-hung bedroom. But Hamid was never allowed to sleep or rest in the day. When he wasn’t cooking, he had to take bundles of laundry to the washer girl, or polish silver till his arms ached, or beat carpets until his face was covered in dust.

Yet Hamid loved the carpets. He would have stayed all day in the shop, if he had been allowed, fingering the rich stuff of the carpets and dreaming of the places from where they came. Sometimes, when he did this, there were pictures in his mind of another time, another place when he had been happy, when gentle arms had held him, and soft voices whispered to him. But the pictures were like shadows, or dreams; unable to be grasped. And if his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon or his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake saw him dreaming, they would shout, and order him back to the kitchen.

One afternoon, as he made his way back from the market, a figure came walking up the street towards him, with a parcel under its arm. As the figure came closer, Hamid saw that it was a woman, a young, lovely woman, though he could see only her eyes, and her hands. She was dressed all in dusty grey, and her eyes above her veil were of a most surprising colour, almost as blue as the lapis lazuli necklace owned by Hamid’s aunt. She stopped in front of Hamid. She did not say anything, but her eyes looked both sad and smiling, all at once.

Hamid’s heart fluttered a little as he looked at her; for he thought that somewhere, sometime, he had seen her. He said, “What is it you want? Are you a beggar? For I have no money. ” Still, the young woman said nothing, but she touched Hamid lightly on the arm, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Are you ill?” he said. She shook her head. She held out the parcel she was carrying.

“This is not mine,” he said, and he tried to give it back to her, but she shook her head, and put her finger to her lips. Then she stroked him–very, very gently–on the hair, and vanished, completely.

Hamid stood on the road, his heart thumping even louder. The touch of her hand had remined him of those dreams he had, those dreams of a happier time, when he was loved. As if in a dream, he walked back to his uncle’s and aunt’s place.

Alas! When he got back to his house, his uncle and aunt were both awake, and as bad-tempered as usual, only more so, because their midday sleeps made them feel hot and sticky. Hamid had no time to hide the parcel, and they ripped the covering off it, only to reveal an extremely old, faded, dirty carpet whose pattern could no longer be distinguished.

Hamid’s aunt boxed his ears, then, and his uncle called him sixteen different kinds of idiot. When they were out of breath, they told Hamid he was to stay in his room until the next day; they would go out to eat in a restaurant. And they tossed the old carpet out the back door, where it landed with a soft plop on top of a pile of compost.

Now normally, Hamid was a cheerful boy. But today, his cheer seemed to have deserted him. He lay on his straw bed and thought about his life, and how he wished…

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed and went outside to the back courtyard. Gently, he lifted the old carpet off the compost pile. Even though it was so old, and worn, it was the very first thing he had ever been given for himself. Perhaps, if he cleaned it well, it would look better?

And so, he fetched buckets of water, and soap, and a hard brush, and kneeling on the cobblestones of the courtyard, he began to scrub at the carpet. Scrub, scrub, scrub, he went, and soon he began to see a pattern emerging. “Oh,” said Hamid to himself. There was a curly golden pattern on a bed of deepest blue, and at the sides, something else, a red creature with a horn of purest white. Hamid kelt on the wet carpet and scrubbed gently at it, watching, absorbed, the colours, the patterns emerging from the old grime and dust. Why, he thought as he scrubbed, it was beautiful! He got a sponge, and tenderly began wiping away the soap from the other parts of the carpet.

He was so absorbed that he did not hear his aunt and uncle returning. They had gone into restaurant after restaurant and found fault with each, till at last the exasperated owners told them to go. So, dinnerless and more bad-tempered than ever, they had come home, intending to force Hamid to make something for them. What was their surprise and anger to find him not in his mean room, but out in the courtyard, wasting good soap and water on an old bit of rubbish! Hamid’s uncle reached over to pull his hair, and his aunt opened her mouth to call him twenty different kinds of rude names, till all of a sudden they saw the carpet properly for the first time.

Their mouths closed; their arms dropped. They stared at the carpet, and at Hamid, who did not even look frightened. He stroked the carpet, and said, “It is strange, it is almost as if I know this carpet, already. . ”

“Don’t be stupid!” said his uncle, fetching him a stinging blow on the ear. “Don’t be absurd!” said his aunt, pulling at his hair. Hamid, looking up in pain and surprise, saw that his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake had gone white as salt. He wiped a tear from his eye and stood up, sad but no longer afraid.

“You will put this old bit of rubbish on the fire!” his aunt commanded, her three chins wobbling like almond jelly.

“At once!” added his uncle, his eyes as round as if he’d seen a ghost.

But Hamid shook his head. “No,” he said, “it is mine. ”

His uncle and aunt goggled at him. “But,” said the uncle, with a cunning, cruel smile, “You are our servant. ”

“It is therefore ours,” agreed his wife, her cold eyes snapping.

“Give it to us,” said the uncle-as-thin-as-a-cinammon-stick, advancing on Hamid. “Yes, give it here,” said the aunt-as-round-as-a-honey-cake, clawing towards Hamid. But Hamid grabbed the carpet and held it tight.

And then came a voice from the back door. A tired, used-to-commanding voice. “Is there no one to help a customer, in this place?”

Instantly, the uncle’s and aunt’s faces changed. From being white-mean, tight-cruel, they smoothed out into smiling brown masks. “Oh, Your Highness,” simpered the uncle. “Your Gracious Lordliness,” wheedled the aunt. “It is only this silly boy of ours, who will not drop his bit of old rubbish. Come, Hamid,” she said in a silky voice.

The man at the door frowned. Hamid saw a short, grey-haired man, wearing splendid clothes and a vast white turban. There were lines on his face, of crossness and something else, something deeper and sadder. The man looked back at Hamid. He blinked, wiped his hand across his forehead, and said, “I came. . to buy a carpet. If this is the way you treat your. . ” but then he stopped. He said,still looking at Hamid, “Strange. . oh, you remind me so much of. . but no, it isn’t possible. . . ”

“Oh sir,” said Hamid, feeling a curious sort of emotion, which filled his eyes and his chest, but to which he cpuld not put a name. “Sir, it is only that I wish to keep this most beautiful carpet. . ” And before his startled aunt and uncle could stop him, he had unrolled it, almost at the man’s feet.

The man started violently. He looked at the carpet, at Hamid, at the uncle and aunt, and then he did the strangest thing. He burst into tears! Then he took Hamid in his arms, still crying, and said, “My son, oh my son. . ”

Hamid, clutched in the man’s arms, full of a warm, surging wonder, said, as if he were trying the words out, “Father. . is it really you, Father?”

They went on in this way for quite some time, but at last they thought of the uncle, as thin as a stick of cinammon, and the aunt, as round as a honey cake. And do you know, those two had simply disappeared, leaving everything in their shop, their money, their fine clothes, everything except what they had on them!

And then the man told Hamid that his son had been kidnapped as a small child. Although a huge ransom had been paid, the boy had never been seen again. His wife had died of grief, and he himself had become sad and empty and impatient of life. “And now, my son,” he said, weeping, hugging Hamid-who–was–his son, “here you are, and there is the carpet, the very carpet on which you had been lying, when you were taken!” And from the big pocket of his robe, he had taken out a miniature of a young woman, and shown it to Hamid–a young woman with a soft, round face, and amazing lapis lazuli eyes that seemed to smile right into Hamid. And then Hamid recognised her, and knew why his heart had been thumping, in the street, that afternoon. In his mind, came a picture of her–not sad anymore, but smiling, her sky-eyes sparkling as a spring morning. And in his mind, she held out her hand to him, and whispered, “My son. My son. My dearest son. ”

And when Hamid and the man-who-was-his father were back in the prince’s(for he was a prince, you see) marvellous marble-and-filigree palace, they talked long into the night of the wonderful and terrible things that had happened. And so long as they lived, the old carpet had pride of place in the most beautiful hall of the palace, under the portrait of the princess, Hamid’s mother, with her lapis lazuli eyes…

But as to the uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and the aunt-as-round as-a-honeycake, why, nothing was heard from them again, at least not in that country. But I have heard it whispered that in a cold and dusty and forgotten corner of a far-distant land, there is a greasy restaurant with a dirty kitchen where, day after day, a bent man as dry as a stick of thin grass and a woman as squashed as a melting cake stand in front of a vast pile of dishes, and wash, and wash, their arms up to the elbows in scummy suds.

 

The Old Woman and the Imp revisited

The Old Woman and the Imp is another of my original stories with fairytale/folktale elements, and like The Clever Thief, it was published both in The School Magazine and Cricket. It is a subversive riff on the story of Rumpelstiltskin, and I had a lot of fun with it!

The Old Woman and the Imp

by Sophie Masson

There was once an old woman, a rather hasty and clever old woman, who lived all alone in a small cottage.

Now this old woman had another important thing about her; for she was a champion spinner, as good as any you’d find on a long day’s walk; but ‘pon my word, she was a terrible cook!

That wouldn’t have mattered, normally, except for this small fact–that the old woman had just landed a job as a cook in the town, not far away.

I’m afraid to say that the old woman had been less than truthful when she’d been to ask for the job; she’d told the innkeeper that she’d cooked for the king, in her time, and as she could spin words as skilfully as she spun wool, she soon had him believing her.

When she arrived,on the appointed day, to take up her new duties,the innkeeper greeted her with a rather anxious face, and said, ” Oh, and it’s glad I am that you came! We are expecting several fine gentlemen to dinner tomorrow night, and you must start cooking the food at once!”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said the old woman, not to be flustered. “Show me to my quarters first, then I’ll start greasing your pans!”

Well, the old woman was taken to her room–the best in the house, with a large high feather bed, and soft carpet, and a mirror, for the old woman had let the innkeeper know, ever so softly, that the person who cooked food fit for a king must have quarters to match. .

Once there, and the door closed, she threw herself back on the bed, and dozed a little, without worrying overmuch about how she was going to cook this food, for all those fine gentlemen. Then she got up and started spinning; a-whir, whir, whir, and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn, and as she spun, she sang.

Suddenly, as she sat there singing and spinning, she heard the bedroom window creaking, ever so slightly, and the next minute, a strange creature had hopped through and was standing on the floor, grinning at her.

It was the size of a small cat, though not half as fat,and shaped more or less like a person–as if it had tried to follow a person-pattern, with not much luck!

And its grin was so large it seemed to split the creature’s face, so that its sharp yellow teeth winked, a one two three, a one two three!

The old woman looked at it for a moment,then calmly closed the window, went to the dressing table and began to unpin her hair.

“I’ve come to help you,” the little thing said, its grin fading just a bit, as the old woman kept ignoring it.

“Oh yes?” said she, and began combing her long grey hair, making smoochy faces at herself in the mirror. She was a clever old woman, as I’ve already told you; and she had a shrewd suspicion as to just who this little man-thing might be. But she was much too sharp to say so!

“I’m an imp,” the little thing said, trying hard to get the old woman to look at it. I”ve come to help you cook,” it continued, sounding a bit desperate. “For the fine gentlemen. “#”Oh, ah?” the old woman said, politely, but the imp was sure it had caught a twinkle in her eye.

It grew quite sulky. “If you don’t cook for these fine gentlemen, then you’ll be. . without a home,” it finished quickly. It had nearly said, “The king will have your head off,” before realising that was the wrong story.

The old woman turned around and looked properly at him. “I suppose you’re right,” she said at last.

“Well, then,” the imp said, rather put out.

“I can offer you a deal. I’ll cook for you for a year,invisibly, so it’ll look as if it’s you, doing it–and after that time, I will return and you will have to ask me three riddles. If I can guess all of them, you will come back with me to be my slave. If I can’t guess them all–even if it’s only one–you will be free. How’s that for a bargain?”#It grinned, and twirled around.

“Done!” the old woman said briskly. The imp looked surprised. “Are you sure?” it said. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” she said.

 

So, the next day, the innkeeper came into the kitchen to be met with an army of lovely smells: of wine and cream and onion and mushroom; of vanilla and cinnamon and chocolate. He opened cupboards and found pies, smoking delicately;dishes of fried chicken, of creamed potatoes and chocolate puddings, of butterscotch pancakes and pears in red wine. He was overcome, and sat down at the kitchen table, his legs wobbly from hunger and pride.

“Oh, my goodness gracious,” he said to the old woman, “You ARE a cook fit for a king! You will make my fortune!”#”I think I’ll make my own,” the old woman snapped, and he murmured, “Quite, quite,” because everyone knows that good cooks are like glass, and must be handled carefully.

Invisible, at the old woman’s elbow, the imp stirred and mixed and whispered recipes, tricks, fancies. All the old woman had to do was to pretend to look busy–and she didn’t even need to pretend that, when the innkeeper wasn’t in the room. She had brought her spinning wheel into the kitchen, and in quiet moments could sit and spin: a whir, whir whir and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn.

Well, the fine gentlemen came, and they ate. How they ate! Their fine white shirts were splashed with gravy, and their red and blue waistcoats were stained with cream, and their belts had to be loosened several times. They praised the innkeeper and his wonderful cook, and showered them with gold.

Things went on in this way for some time. Word of the wonderful cook at the inn was soon spread far and wide. The innkeeper’s moustache grew daily more bright, his hands rubbed together with joy, and he watched the old woman tenderly, yet cautiously. He’d got it into his mind that she would make a fine wife–and, faith, she didn’t disagree!#

But time must march on, and soon the year was up. One day, the imp’s voice squeaked into the old woman’s ear,”Tomorrow is the day! Tomorrow is the day!”

The old woman looked at the calendar. Sure enough, it was the last day of the year, and tomorrow would be the first day of the new one!”Remember our bargain,” the imp said, and it laughed.

That night, the imp disappeared on business of its own, and the old woman was left alone in her fine room, thinking gloomily about her bargain, and what on earth she was going to ask the imp. She racked her brains for all the riddles she’d ever known, and finally came up with two. But the third eluded her. She tapped her foot impatiently, thinking of being that little imp’s slave, and how he’d likely make her spin mountains of straw into gold.  Her eye fell on her own spinning wheel lying silent in one corner, and she went to it, and began spinning, just to calm her nerves.  A whir whir whir, and turn! A whir whir whir and turn! Suddenly, as she sat there, spinning, an idea came to her, and she laughed out loud.

 

The next morning, bright and early, the imp was there, grinning and twirling round and round.

“Well?” it said impatiently. “well?”

The old woman looked at the imp. She smoothed her dress. She stroked her shining silver hair. Then she said, “I lie in halls of ivory, I am all of gold and snow, but no good am I to anyone until I am cracked and done. ”

“Oh, that’s easy!” said the imp, jumping up and down and grinning. “It’s an egg, an egg!”

“Well, then,” said the old woman, and I must confess her heart felt a little fluttery,”I am so strong and mighty, I can tear down hall and town; and yet my strength will never take me up, for I can only go down. . what am I?”#The imp looked at the old woman in astonishment. “I learnt that when I was but a tiny imp!” it said scornfully. “It’s water, of course!”

“And now,” it said, grinning wildly, “Now for the last one, and you’ll be mine, my slave, for ever!” It chuckled, and rolled on the ground, laughing.

Not so fast, my dear, thought the old woman. She said, “Well, imp, tell me, then–why am I always spinning?”

The imp stopped its laughing. It stopped twirling. It stood still and stared at the old woman.

“Why you are always spinning?” it repeated. “Why?” It looked deesperately at the old woman’s spinning wheel, where neither straw nor gold was to be seen. The light in its eyes faded.

“Well, of course everyone knows. . ” the imp began. Its more or less ear-shaped ears drooped. “Well, of course that’s easy,” it said defiantly. “Of course. ”

The old woman smiled, and waited.

“Oh, I’m not answering such a stupid riddle,” the imp said haughtily, and, clicking its fingers, it jumped out of the window and disappeared, never to be seen again.

 

Although the innkeeper was a little disappointed when his new wife proved not to want to cook, he wasn’t too disappointed. For in that long year, he’d watched her as she moved from stove to table, from table to stove, and he had picked up enough recipes and tricks and fancies to become a good cook himself. Soon the fame of his cooking spread far and wide, and crowds of people filled the tables. Whenever guests came, they would notice the old woman, sitting in a corner of the grand dining room, spinning, and spinning, her wheel whirring and turning with a most soothing sound. And if they asked what she was making, she would smile, and put a finger to her lips, and whisper, “Who knows?”

The Clever Thief revisited

I’ve written quite a number of stories which are based on folktale or fairytale elements, but are original in storyline and concept. Several of these have been pretty popular, and published more than once, and I thought it might be interesting to revisit a few of them. This one today, The Clever Thief, which was published both in The School Magazine(Australia) and Cricket (USA)quite a number of is one of those tales centred around an underdog triumphing over a dangerous situation through sheer wits, and it seemed to really strike a chord back then with readers both young and not so young! Hope readers of this blog enjoy it just as much now.

THE CLEVER THIEF

by Sophie Masson.

There was once a boy who was captured by robbers. Now these robbers were the most feared in the whole country. They held up travellers and robbed coaches, and their cave was full of stolen gold and silver and precious stones.

It was the custom of the robbers to make all their captives steal, as well. In this way, the robbers kept adding new members to their gang, because no-one ever dared to refuse. And once you’d stolen, you were in for good, because you were marked as a member of the robber gang, and would go to prison if you were caught.

Now the boy I am telling you about was as bright as a dewdrop and twice as fast as the breeze. But in the robbers’ cave, he pretended to be dull and stupid, while he thought of a way out of his predicament.

One night, the robber chief said to him, “Boy, tonight, you will join our gang. I want you to go down to the high road and relieve all the travellers of their purses. ” And he smiled, his broken yellow teeth giving him a wolfish look. The boy, although he was very much frightened, nodded vacantly and grinned an idiot grin. The robber chief felt a little uneasy at that grin–was the boy too stupid to understand?–but he sent him out, nevertheless, and waited in his cave for the boy to return.

Now the boy went out on the high road, and he saw all the travellers passing by. As he had been told to do, he stepped out onto the road, shouting, “Your purse or your life!” He was a tall, thin, gangling boy, with eyes that shone like ice, and the travellers were frightened by his strangeness. So they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins, and gave them to him, trembling. He opened the purses, tipped out all the money into their palms, and took their purses, saying, “My chief has told me he wants your purses,” and then he’d give a grin, empty as an abandoned house. The travellers wouldn’t wait to hear more; they bolted, taking their money with them, full of his strangeness and their good fortune.

So the boy went back to the cave, loaded with silk and leather and cotton purses; some new, some old, some large, some small. And he said to the robber chief, “Master, here are the purses you wanted,” while he smiled his silly grin.

“Fool!” The robber chief called out, pale with rage. “Fool! I didn’t just want their purses, I wanted their money as well!”

“Oh,” the boy said, and his face drooped at the corners, as if he was sorry for what had happened. Inside his bright quick heart, though, a smile danced and sparkled.

The robber chief contained himself with difficulty. Then he said, “Tomorrow night, you will go out again. And this time, this time, boy, I want you to get all their change! Do you hear, all their change, boy!”

The boy nodded, eagerly, his eyes seeming as dull as dirty water. Again the robber chief felt uneasy, but he thought that surely no-one could be as stupid as that a second time.

So the next night, the boy went out again onto the high road. Again, he stepped out into the road, calling out, “Your change or your life! Your change or your life!” And his tall, thin shape, ghostly in the moonlight, made travellers uneasy and frightened, so they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins. The boy carefully tipped out the purses, counted out all the copper coins, put them in his large pockets, then, just as carefully, tipped back all the gold and silver coins into the travellers’ purses, and gave them back. Then he smiled at them with a smile that did not seem quite as dull and vacant, and told them to go on their way. Which they did, thoughtfully, this time.

Then, after a hard night’s work, he went back to the robbers’ cave, his pockets filled with copper coins. He emptied out his pockets in front of the robber chief, grinning like a pumpkin.

The robber chief couldn’t believe his eyes. “Copper?” he roared. “Where is the gold, where is the silver?”

“But you said change,” the boy whispered, as if he were afraid. “Change is copper, isn’t it?”

“Boy!” the robber chief screamed. “You will go out one more time and bring back everything. Everything, you hear! And if you don’t. . ” His broken teeth glittered, his wicked eyes flashed, his hand drew slowly across the boy’s throat.

The boy gulped a little, as if he were afraid. And indeed he was, but his bright quick mind was working like a windmill, spinning, sending ideas into his skull.

“Yes, master,” he whispered, and bent his head.

So the next night, the boy went out for the third and final time. He stepped out onto the highroad in the moonlight, his figure tall and straight, his eyes shining, and he stopped each traveller and talked to them. As he spoke, their eyes began to shine, their mouths to smile, their hands to tighten on their belts. At the end of the night, there were many travellers assembled there, with the boy in the middle of them, still talking.

As the sun began to edge over the corner of the world, they were all climbing up the hill towards the robbers’ cave, where the gang lay asleep. And working quickly, they gathered up all the robbers’ weapons, and put them into a large sack.

Wasn’t the robber chief surprised, when he opened his eyes to see the great assembly in his cave! He sprang to his feet, as did the other members of his gang, but it was too late. Every sword, every dagger, every knife and bow and arrow had gone into that huge sack which the boy held in his hand. Weaponless, helpless, the robbers and their chief looked at the boy and heard him say, “You told me to bring everything. Everything I brought, and everyone. ”

Now it was the turn of the robber chief to bend his head, as he and his men were led out of the cave, down the hill, and towards the town. Now and then, he lifted his head and looked at the boy, so thin and gangling, and felt his smile, as bright and fleeting as the dew on the grass.

The Blue Cat: an interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Today I am delighted to be interviewing dear friend and fellow writer Ursula Dubosarsky as she celebrates the release this week of her latest novel for children, The Blue Cat (Allen and Unwin) Set in 1942, it’s a beautiful, haunting novel whose limpid prose takes us into the mind and heart of an imaginative and observant child, Columba, as she experiences the disruptions of wartime Sydney with her bossy friend Hilda and forms a touching and tentative bond with a disorientated, motherless young refugee, Ellery. Perfectly-pitched, with a vivid portrayal of Columba’s small world, touches of humour and a subtle evocation of the horrors that Ellery and his father have fled from in ‘You-rope’, The Blue Cat is also a mysterious, even mystical work whose heart-wrenching, enigmatic ending stays in your mind long after you close the book. It is another triumph for one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of children’s fiction, and will no doubt appear on many award lists.

First of all, Ursula, congratulations on the publication of The Blue Cat! Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story came to you?

Thanks Sophie. Always nerve-wracking when a book comes out!  Like any story the ideas come at you from all sides until finally, mysteriously, you start to write it. When I was a child I was fascinated as all children are by the various tale their parents let slip about their own childhood. My parents both grew up in Sydney during World War Two, which is the time and setting of ‘The Blue Cat’. My mother told us once (and I think she only mentioned it once, or perhaps twice) about the arrival of a German-Jewish refugee in her class one day at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta. Perhaps that’s when it started…

The image of the blue cat is woven throughout the book. Uncanny yet real, creature of dream and creature of fur, it appears and disappears at various times, and seemed to me to bring a feeling both of protection and dread. Is that what you intended? Or did you have something else in mind?

The cat sprang in my mind on a very long flight home to Sydney from Berlin – in the form of the poem that is at the beginning of the book.  I have to say I’ve always been afraid of this cat. Right from the start I thought that there was something sinister, even evil about him,   but I realized when I re-read the book that in fact he’s more ambiguous than that. Sometimes he’s even almost a comforting presence, as you say. So perhaps he’s both. I know that people can be shocked at this apparent indecision of an author about her own work! But I’m afraid all of my books are like that – open windows, (oops! out jumps the cat) perhaps, rather than closed doors.

Columba’s voice is both sharp and dreamy. She sees a lot but doesn’t always understand what she sees. She is very much a child and yet at a certain level in her consciousness she perceives what Ellery and his father have gone through in a more empathetic and certainly more extraordinary way than the adults. How did you balance these different aspects of her character to create such a believable yet unusual presence?

When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve noticed that if there is one thing I seem quite UNABLE to articulate, that is how to create character. For me this is the most intuitive part of writing – or at least the most hidden and buried from myself. I always feel as if the characters simply exist somewhere else and I’m just putting them on stage. You’re quite right about Columba, who sees and doesn’t understand, but she feels and yet knows something despite that. “The Cloud of Unknowing” one might say – that by surrendering oneself to not knowing you might perhaps get a glimpse of some truth.

You have included authentic documents from 1942 in the book, such as ads, government pamphlets, a letter from the Free French in The School Magazine and an editorial in the Schoolboys Chronicle which I believe was written by your father as a young person! What do you think primary, contemporary documents add to the texture of a historical novel? And can you also briefly comment on some of the other extra material you’ve included, such as pictures?

The book in a way is a kind of collage. I note the definition of collage in Wikipedia:‘A collage may sometimes include magazine and newspaper clippingsribbonspaint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.’ In ‘The Blue Cat’ there is the story of course, written by me, but then there are all those bits and pieces of the past, pasted in between the lines.  I adored making collages as a child at school – that feeling of excitement with the blank page, the glue and all the little bits and pieces of things to be stuck on where and how you chose.

Again, as a student in history classes I always responded very strongly to “primary sources”, those original documents, often ephemeral, that speak directly to us from the period in which they were created. I wanted readers also to have that experience, of reading and seeing the same things that the characters would have read and seen. The editorial by my dad you refer to was from a newspaper that he created and edited at Neutral Bay Public School during the war – as soon as I read it (only a few years ago when it turned up amongst various of his papers) I knew I HAD to include it. I went into the Department of Education office of the School Magazine to read through all the issues of the period of the book. (Thanks School Magazine!) The photograph of Ellery’s watch – I actually bought a vintage watch of the period on the internet, to make sure it was the real thing. I also managed to get a copy of the original air raid advice pamphlet on ebay – as well as the little prayer card of Columba. The copy of Vergil’s Aeneid with those wonderful ghostly annotations in pencil I bought years ago at the Salvation Army in Tempe…

The Blue Cat never specifically mentions the Holocaust, yet it is inevitably in the subtext. How difficult was it to approach the writing of the story in a way that neither overtly flags the horror of what was happening, nor elides it?

When I was a child in the 1960s I knew nothing about the Holocaust, but we all knew that the word Hitler was terrifying. That was something we understood from popular culture – adults are not going to tell children the details of the Holocaust. After all it’s a natural and I think good instinct to protect children from the various horrors of human behavior. The Holocaust is something you learn about, piece by piece, as you grow up. The adults in Columba’s life are not going to tell her what they know, what they guess, about Ellery’s situation. But they are not going to tell her lies either. I suppose in this book I have had to tread that same narrow path.

There is a touch of fairy tale, in its most mysterious yet immediate aspect, in much of The Blue Cat, but especially in the final sections. Can you tell us something about that?

For me not it’s not so much a fairytale as a mythical landscape, some very blessed place.  When I began writing I had in mind this medieval poem by Petronius Arbiter, translated by Helen Waddell. It always summons up Sydney to me, and how the experience of its beauty is a gift that can never be take away from you.

 O SHORE more dear to me than life! O sea!

Most happy I that unto my own lands

Have leave to come at last. So fair a day!

Here it was long ago I used to swim

Startling the Naiads with alternate stroke.

Here is the pool, and here the seaweed sways.

Here is the harbour for a stilled desire.

Yea, I have lived: never shall Fate unkind

Take what was given in that earlier hour.

The Blue Cat is one of a trio of your recent novels, The Golden Day and The Red Shoe being the other two, which are set at very particular points in Australian history, and are focussed around children’s limited yet luminous understanding of the events going on around them. Can you expand a little on that, and what attracted you to writing about those historical periods in particular? And also, and forgive me if this is a silly question—given the ‘colour’ theme of the titles, did you intend them to be a triptych somewhat like the ‘Three Colours’ series of films by the French-Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski?

I started with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954, and this was purely the result of hearing a program on the radio. I’d had no thought of writing a novel set in the 1950s, but the idea appeared and I got to work. You are right to evoke ‘Three Colours’ – that was something I did have in mind – a dreamy thought of three novels, set in Sydney harbour,  each one a different colour and set in a different decade. In the course of history a decade is nothing! But for a child a decade is their whole lifetime.

Finally, you wrote part of this novel while in Paris, during an Australia Council-funded writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio—a wonderful experience for you I know as it was for me when I was there in 2010! Aside from mention of the fall of France, and the notorious photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is reproduced in the book, there is no obvious connection to Paris. But do you feel something of what you experienced in Paris got into the texture of your story?

Before I went to Paris I had imagined that Paris itself would be a more significant part of the book. It didn’t work out that way though, and I have no explanation for that. It just didn’t happen. But the flat we were living in was right next door to the Paris Holocaust Museum, which I visited often and I think perhaps that will be another book altogether.

 

You can see a trailer for The Blue Cat here and some very interesting snippets, including videos, about the historical background of the book on Ursula’s website, here. You can also read an interview I did with Ursula about her Paris residency on my blog, here.

The journey of a picture book text…

My picture book with Christopher Nielsen, Once Upon An ABC (published by Little Hare), will very soon be officially released(though we had a pre-release launch on March 18!) and to celebrate I thought I’d write about the journey of my text, and how it developed over the two years since I first scribbled down the idea in my notebook. Because picture-book texts may look easy; but let me tell you, they are not!

So–the first glimmer came on a car trip to Sydney in March 2015–I was, I hasten to reassure you, the passenger, not the driver–when I suddenly thought of a great idea: what about an ABC book featuring characters from fairy tale, folk tale and legend? Now anyone who knows me knows I love my traditional tales, but you may not know I also love ABC books, when they’re clever..my favourite being Colin Mc Naughton’s hilarious, brilliant ABC and Things, published in the 90’s. What fun, I thought, and as I always travel with a notebook, out it came and I started scribbling down a few ideas for each letter, as well as a working title, Once upon a Time/Storytime ABC… Below is what that first handwritten draft looks like:

As you can see, it was still embryonic, with a few letters missing and a long way from the final text. But when I got back home, I edited the scribbles, added bits, subtracted others, tweaked the title to ‘Once Upon a Time ABC’, then typed everything up, and here’s the result of that:

It was at this stage that my agent Margaret Connolly first sent the text to Margrete Lamond at Little Hare who responded very positively, loving the idea and the feel of it. But she had a few comments and suggestions to make, such as that I should rethink the mention of Alice at the beginning and Nutcracker at N–that it was better to stick to genuine fairytale and folktale figures, rather than literary ones like those or legendary ones like Robin Hood (The vampires and yeti, too, went) And to replace Alice as A, she suggested, how about Anansi, that wonderful trickster spider-god from African folktale? I agreed very happily–and that gave me the inspiration to give the text a much more multicultural flavour generally.

Over the next few weeks, Margrete and I batted the text backwards and forwards over email, to get it into the best possible shape before it would be presented to an acquisitions meeting. This was a fantastic opportunity for me and my text, for Margrete is an absolutely brilliant and inspirational editor, with a very fine ear. It wasn’t just the characters and wording we discussed, but scansion and metre–the music of a text in verse, without which it sounds banal or clumsy. And the title changed too, to the much better ‘Once Upon An ABC.’ During this time, quite a few of the original characters left the scene, to be replaced by others, but many remained all the way through: for example, Puss in boots at C (cat) Dragon at D, Jack and his beanstalk, Rapunzel, Ogre, Trolls–and Zero the hero! Here’s a new draft, much closer to the final, but not quite there:

After this draft more changes were made, such as that Issun-boshi would be changed to ‘Inch Boy’ which is what it means in Japanese, and Brer Rabbit got ‘tar-sticky ‘rather than ‘very sticky’ feet–so much better! The fairies left the scene and Grandmother and Fox were split up 🙂 The next draft was closer still, but still not quite right:

 

Still there were tweaks–Grandma in the wolfskin coat was, Margrete felt, too dark for the age group, so I had to think of a different way of putting it–and the ‘tricksy’ fox was changed to ‘crafty’ while the nymph would be brought out from hiding! Meanwhile, Margrete was looking for the right illustrator for the text, so as to present the book as a package at acquisitions–and soon sent me a link to a wonderful new illustrator called Christopher Nielsen who she thought would be perfect. And so did I! And very happily indeed, Chris loved the text!

By now the text was deemed ready enough to go to acquisitions–and in due and very exciting course, I got the good news that it had been accepted, and that Chris could start work on the illustrations!

With Christopher Nielsen at the Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft

But that wasn’t the end of the work on the text, which I kept tweaking here and there with suggestions from Margrete and from another excellent Little Hare editor, Alyson O’Brien, till the text finally reached its final form(and to read that you’ll have to read the book!). On his side Christopher was beavering away on the illustrations. Then one day I got a very exciting email sending me samples of what he had been working on, some of which you can see here at his website. To say I was thrilled by the gorgeous world Chris had created to visually express and extend my text is to understate my feelings as I pored over his illustrations, with their striking blend of retro and contemporary, verve and humour, colour and dynamic movement.

And so now, two and a little bit years from that first scribble in the notebook, my text is in its final shape: as part of the beautiful picture book, Once Upon an ABC, where text and illustrations work together perfectly to create a world of magic, fun, mischief and surprise. It was a wonderful journey, that journey of the text, and I learned a lot from it. But it also reinforced something else for me: how very appreciative of the input of inspired, sensitive editors we writers should always be!