The enigma of the Pied Piper

WP_20150626_058[1]The other day, I went to Hamelin, the lovely Renaissance town on the River Weser in Westphalia in Germany which is famous for one thing all over the world: the spooky story of the enigmatic figure known in English as the Pied Piper and in German as the Rattenfänger, or ratcatcher. Everyone knows the story, so I will not repeat it, but it has always struck me as one of the most mysterious and chilling stories in the fairy tale corpus. People have tried to ‘explain’ it with reference to the Children`s Crusade or young settlers disappearing into Eastern Europe, but though unusually for a fairy story there is both a date–1284–and a place–Hamelin–definitely attached to it, in most other ways it has that shifting, mysterious feel of fairy tale and the Piper surely has most of the attributes of a faery being–the music, the bargain, the irresistible magic, the vanishing into a hill, and the snatching of children.

The Museum of Hamelin has some interesting displays around the story, and some striking set pieces including a wall of children´s shoes which sent a shiver up my spine as I remembered seeing a chilling, heart-clenching exhibit of abandoned shoes at Auschwitz..There is also a weird and creepy but effective performance piece, played by mechanical figures built out of scrap iron, and a montage of voices and music, with the vanished children represented by empty shirts floating slowly by..The horror which is so close to the surface in this story is clearly brought out there. But lest you get too overwhelmed,in the town there are also shops selling cheerfully tacky souvenirs, especially rats in all guises, made of felt wood plastic china and marzipan! And a couple of times a day, the glockenspiel bell array on the registry office plays a carillon to accompany the mechanical figures of the Piper, the rats, and then the Piper and the children, from behind metal doors high up on a wall. Hamelin has lived off the Piper for a very long time, and perhaps that was, in true fairy style, his final gift.

As an aside, it struck me recently that the theme of the Pied Piper runs like a silver thread trough several Australian novels: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, The Doubleman, by Christopher Koch, The Green Piper by Victor Kelleher, and The Golden Day, by Ursula Dubosarsky. A strange coincidence indeed, that this story should find so many echoes so far away..

Guest post: Dianne Bates on Buzz Words

Dianne (Di) Bates is one of the most hard-working and dedicated writers I know, and has been in the industry for decades. She has published over 120 books for children, some of which have won state and national awards, including two children’s choice book awards (WAYRBA and KOALA). She is married to award-winning children’s author Bill Condon; they share a website

As well as being a writer, Di is also the founding editor of the highly-respected industry magazine Buzz Words, an invaluable resource for anyone involved in children’s books. In this guest post she profiles the magazine. I highly recommend subscribing to it!

Buzz Words: All the Buzz About Books

By Dianne Bates

In 2006 I started a subscriber-based twice-monthly online magazine exclusively for people in the Australian children’s book industry, such as writers, illustrators, librarians, publishers – in fact, anyone interested in children’s books. As editor I gather material from many sources and sometimes commission material. Buzz Words’ aim is to keep readers abreast of what’s currently happening in the children’s book industry and to give them as many opportunities to get informed and possibly published.

Every issue contains industry news, publisher profiles, profiles of people in the industry, an interview (editors, publishers, designers, etc), opportunities, markets, competitions and awards, recommended books and websites/blogs, festivals and conferences, workshops, article/s, subscribers’ achievements, letters to the editor and children’s book reviews. Links are frequently provided to help readers.

Buzz Words is as subscriber-friendly as possible. Preference for interviews, articles, profiles, etc is always given to subscribers. Subscribers are also given the opportunity to advertise for free if they have a product and/or service.

The magazine also has a children’s book review blog where a new children’s book review appears every day. Reviews are also linked through the magazine to the blog. Buzz Words has 20 reviewers; we review for most children’s publishers in Australia.

I am happy to send anyone the latest issue of the magazine to see if they would like to subscribe. Contact Cost is $48 per year (24 issues). The magazine is distributed on the 1st and 15th of every month.


Writing journals

Just a small selection of my writing journals!

Just a small selection of my writing journals!

Writing journals: not all of us use them but many of us writers keep them, in one way or another: whether as a specific writing journal, as a diary, a notebook, or other. At various points I have kept, and continue to keep, all of these. I have diaries stretching back decades, amongst which is one dating from when I was 12. Amongst all the stuff about school and food(my mother is a fantastic cook and I was always writing down stuff about the cakes she’d made!) I also mention writing projects I’d undertaken, such as ‘The Twins’ Highland Holiday’ which I don’t remember at all but which sounds very much influenced by Enid Blyton! Meanwhile, a tattered  exercise book dating from around age 16-17 has notes and research as well as the first few chapters of a massive fantasy novel, never finished. Travel journals kept at various points have also included vignettes of scenes, ideas for stories, as well as observations of things I saw around me, many of which fed into stories later; while there’s piles of notebooks filled with often indecipherable scrawl about plots, characters, themes, sudden ideas, observations on chapters I’m working on, and more.

And in 2007, after having been given a gorgeous notebook by one of my publishers, Random House WP_20150612_004[1]Australia, I decided to start a different kind of writerly journal, which I call The Literary Life. This journal, which has now run into six volumes, is a chronicle of the literary life–my own, and within the wider literary world–and is an honest and unvarnished portrayal of life as a writer: the public and private, the festivals, launches, meetings with other authors and illustrators, publisher meetings, struggles and excitements of writing, challenges and pleasures of the publishing industry, emotional highs and lows, WP_20150612_007[1]talk about literary groups and news and yes a little gossip too! Though it isn’t strictly speaking a writing journal, keeping it has not only helped me to vent frustrations and express observations, it’s also helped to clarify my own writing trends and re-reading the journal’s back issues, as it were, has enabled me to reflect back onto projects I have worked on in the past.

Thinking about all that made me also curious about other people’s practices in this regard, so I emailed a few writer friends, asking them these questions:

Do you keep a writing journal? How long have you kept it? What medium is it in–hard copy or on screen?  And how useful do you find it? 

Here’s a selection of answers.

Kate Forsyth: 

Yes, I keep a writing journal … in that I keep a journal and all I really write about in it is my writing! I’ve kept my diary since I was 12 years old, and have always recorded my hopes, my dreams and daydreams, my disappointments, my ideas, my inspirations, my writing process … I use it to work out problems,  to make lists of things to do, to scribble down flashes of inspiration, to keep a record of the creative process. I write longhand in a notebook, and have about 60 volumes – I average 3-4 diaries a year. I also have a notebook for each novel, in which I keep a work every day as I’m writing – I stick in or draw  pictures, maps, diagrams – keep a record of my research … write character outlines … record word counts … all dated so I can see how long it takes me!
How useful do I find them – my diary and my notebook? I could not live without them, let alone write!
I have recently begun keeping a writing journal, just over the last six months or so. I have found it to be invaluable, especially in terms of reviewing my frustrations with time, what is hanging me up, and in terms of keeping track of some story possibilities that I might other wise lose. My journal is a hardcover, lined paper variety, which I much prefer to the computer for ease of reference. I also find it almost therapeutic to be able to put pencil to paper sometimes; writing longhand is its own form of creativity, I think.
I haven’t kept a journal for many years, though I think it’s an excellent thing to do. I stopped when I felt I didn’t need it any more … but it was my great salvation during my long, long period of writer’s block. After I’d failed to finish every piece of fiction I started for five or so years, I realised I had to write SOMETHING! So I began to keep a journal, setting myself not less than one page per day (but no maximum – some entries were 15-20 pages). Everything went into it – dreams, events, thoughts, self-analysis, pieces of description. I began it when I came to Australia – a new life in more than one way – and continued for ten years, plus a few shorter bursts after that. It didn’t see me out of my period of writer’s block, which went on for several years more, but it kept me sane and it kept me writing.
I don’t keep a journal now, but I do make notes on all sorts of ideas and experiences. Because I’m always planning books far far ahead, I can see where they’re going to find a fictional home by and by. So I’m not so interested in them as MY experiences – and although the kind of fantasy I write draws ultimately on feelings I’ve been through myself, it looks nothing like a memoir. Plus journal-writing takes so long! I need to give all my time to producing final stuff (after my 25 years of producing nothing at all)!
So, do I keep a journal now? No. Do I recommend keeping a journal? Yes, very definitely.
I don’t keep an actual writing journal, but I do have small notebooks – usually a few on the go at a time – where I jot down any random book-related thoughts. These tend to have to share space with other sorts of writing, though – generally of the domestic type, shopping lists, addresses, quickly dashed off school absentee notes etc. I also use the notes function on my phone. It’s great for those moments when brilliant ideas arrive unexpectedly – usually late at night when I’m about to drift off, and it’s too dark to write anywhere else. I’m waiting for a waterproof phone — so many good ideas lost in the shower, or while swimming.
I don’t keep a writing ‘journal’ but have several notebooks for different projects on the go at the same time. I write longhand in them but they are also full of post its, images, sketches, and random thoughts. Also loose pages and paper clips as I sometimes find I have the wrong notebook…In addition I  have an ideas ‘file’ on my computer. New ideas are jotted down so they can form an orderly queue…
I’ve done this for two years or so, and began doing so after going to workshops where several writers explained how useful they were.
They were right! I find them very useful both as a reference if I get stuck, or just to write longhand in. I find my style is a bit more relaxed using them in this way than it was writing exclusively on computer.


Kyle Mewburn on dragons and dinosaurs and boys who don’t read

Kyle Mewburn is the author of over fifty titles including two bestselling junior fiction series. Dinosaur Rescue – about the only evolved boy in a neanderthal tribe who joins a talking T-rex on a mission to save the dinosaurs from extinction. And Dragon Knight – about a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School. Originally from Brisbane, he now lives in a grass-roofed house in the deep south of New Zealand.

I met Kyle in person a couple of years ago, at the ASA Writers’ Congress–Kyle and I are both on the Boards of our respective authors’ organisations in Australia and New Zealand–and we’ve kept in touch ever since. On Facebook recently, he made some observations about boys’ reading which I found interesting, so I asked if he might like to write a guest post on the subject.

Welcome, Kyle!

DSC01530 (950x1280)Of dragons and dinosaurs and boys who don’t read

by Kyle Mewburn

Boys don’t like reading! Boys are falling behind! The sky is falling! Almost every day there’s another gloomy study, one more grim report and another grand theory on what we might do to avert catastrophe. Yet, when I recall my own childhood and the reading experiences of my peers, it always begs the question – was it ever any different? For some boys, reading was always a struggle. While for those like me, it was a wondrous escape – a delight.

As a writer of two successful junior fiction series broadly targeted at so-called reluctant readers, I think engaging this readership is akin to getting them to eat their vegetables. Take my mother. She was no Masterchef. She used to boil almost everything. For hours, sometimes. My lasting impression of broccoli was a slightly sulphuric-smelling mush with the consistency of gravel. She nearly put me off vegetables for life. If I hadn’t fallen in love with a talented, enthusiastic cook, I may never have recovered.

For lots of kids, especially boys, reading can quickly become something comparable to eating badly cooked vegetables. It’s something they’re supposed to do because it’s good for them. When I visit schools I’m regularly appalled by the diet on offer. Too often they are the literary equivalent of boiled-to-death cabbage.

In my experience, reluctant or struggling readers are by no means slow. And they’re certainly not dumb. More often than not the reverse is true – there’s a hell of a lot going on in their heads and their lives. If they only read under duress it’s often because they’ve got way more interesting things to do. Offering up trite, dumbed-down stories will turn them off reading for life.

Writing for this readership isn’t rocket science. Though a few rockets and some science never go astray. But nor is it as simple as some people think. Ever since my series Dinosaur Rescue came out, Dinosaur Rescue 1I’ve had lots of offhand comments saying basically – “If you want to appeal to boys all you have to do is add some fart jokes. They lap that stuff up.” Or “boys love anything with dinosaurs in it” – as though that explains everything.

That attitude really annoys me. For one, it suggests writing successfully for that readership is simple. Worse, it implies that readership, especially boys, are one-dimensional and an easy target.

All my stories are seat-of-your-pants stuff. I don’t actually have any idea what’s going to happen until I start writing. I think it’s important to retain a sense of spontaneity. My general theory is if I don’t know what’s happening next, then the readers can’t guess what’s going to happen either. That’s what keeps them turning the page – which is vitally important at that age. If they lose that momentum, their attentions can quickly wander off in other directions.

The series DOES contain a degree of scatological humour and some pretty gross stuff besides. I don’t make any apologies for that. It’s something most kids, especially boys, find funny. But stories with complex inter-personal relationships, especially friendships, are equally, if not more important.

Dragon Knight - Fire!In the end, re-readability is the key. The story has to be complex enough to sustain multiple readings. And it can only do that if it uses complex language, has multi-dimensional storylines, and various layers of meaning. A kid will only re-read a story if there is something new to discover with each reading. There needs to be thoughts and ideas which challenge them, with comprehension the reward for the effort of re-reading. If I can make them wet their pants laughing in the process, all the better.


The first Australian blockbuster: an interview with Lucy Sussex

blockbuster lucy sussexThe Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume, was Australia’s first blockbuster, selling out its first run almost at once, and in world terms too was a massive success, predating the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon and writing itself into the annals of detective fiction. Well over a hundred years after its first publication in 1886, it’s still in print–in many different editions, including worldwide–and the subject of a very successful ABC TV series. But its author, who due to an unfortunate decision, did not get to enjoy the fruits of his book’s success, is less well-known–until now, when Lucy Sussex’s new book, Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Text) lifts the veil on the untold story of both author and novel. The book is released next week, and as a great fan of Hume’s novel, I caught up with Lucy recently to ask her about it.

Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand. She has edited four anthologies, including She’s Fantastical, shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. Her award-winning fiction includes books for younger readers and the novel The Scarlet Rider. Lucy has five short-story collections, including My Lady Tongue, A Tour Guide in Utopia, Absolute Uncertainty and Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies. Her latest book is Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. She lives in Melbourne.

What first drew your interest to the story of Fergus Hume and his bestselling novel?

Hume said he ‘belonged to New Zealand’ but when I grew up there I never heard of him. That happened when I worked as a researcher for Stephen Knight’s history of Australian crime fiction. But I read the book then, and was intrigued—not least in the resonance it still had, and how people responded to it. For instance the 2012 telemovie was sparked by a Radio National program on the book, for which I was one of those interviewed. John Barnett of South Pacific Productions heard the program, bought a copy, read it on the way back across the Tasman, and decided to film it (with Ewan lucy sussexBurnett of Burberry Productions). Clearly there was life in the old Hansom Cab.

It happened I was working with Meg Tasker at Federation University on a research project about Australian and NZ writers and journalists in London at the turn of last century. We had a file on Hume, who moved to England in 1888, in the wake of Hansom Cab’s success. One day I started following digitised links re Hume across the web. It became very clear there was a book to be written on the Hansom Cab alone.

How did you go about researching the book?

The problem with Hume is that he left no diaries, there are few letters and the most relevant publishers’ records do not survive. Those who knew him are all dead now. I did use some archives, mainly in Dunedin, where his father ran the madhouse. But there was more than enough material using digitised newspapers—Papers Past in New Zealand and Trove in Australia, mainly. What was unclear in one source could be explained in another, across the Tasman.

And was there anything you discovered that surprised you?

Well, the people who kept asking me if Hume was gay! Which led me to queer theory, the history of rent boys in Sydney, and Little Buttercup from Gilbert and Sullivan, as performed in drag.

Another surprise was the rarity and value of first editions of Hansom Cab: only four survive, and even imperfect they go for five-figure sums. Go investigate your Granny’s attic!

The Mystery of A Hansom Cab predated the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and some mystery of hansom cab bookcritics have said that Doyle was influenced by Hume’s book. Does your research support that? 

A Study in Scarlet was not published until after Hansom Cab’s great English success in late 1887. Doyle read Hume’s book, and jealously wrote to his mother “What a swindle ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ is. One of the weakest tales I have ever read, and simply sold by puffing.” [hype]. The evidence is that he and Hume had been submitting to the same publishers, around the same time, and both suffered rejections. What happened was probably synchronicity, not uncommon in crime fiction: a literary idea whose time has come. But the Hansom Cab helped create the market for Sherlock Holmes. Without it the Sherlock story might have ended with A Study in Scarlet.

I have read that Hume was inspired to write his book by the success of Emile Gaboriau’s novels–but was he also inspired by Wilkie Collins’ groundbreaking The Moonstone, published nearly 20 years previously?

He certainly read Wilkie Collins, but a bigger influence is Mary Braddon, Collins’ great rival and contemporary. She, not Collins, is cited in the Hansom Cab.

What happened to Hume and his book makes for salutary reading. Can you describe the process that led to his selling his copyright? 

Fergus Hume

Hume wrote the book to draw attention to himself as a playwright. Although he wrote it with care and flair, he didn’t really take it seriously, career-wise. So he only registered the copyright months after the Australian success. Whether we believe the sales figures cited—25,000 copies in the Austral colonies alone, a huge figure for that time and market—the Hansom Cab was drawing attention from overseas. Thus the Hansom Cab Co. was formed to publish the book in England, and at that point Hume sold the copyright, disbelieving it would be successful outside Australia. He had taken the cultural cringe too much to heart. What he did hold onto was the dramatic rights, because that was what he thought would be more important. And yes, the play of the Hansom Cab was successful, but not in the phenomenal way of the book

Not much has previously been known about Hume and his personal life. What was your impression of Hume himself, based on your research?

I said to my initial Text editor, Mandy Brett, that he would have been fun to know. Apart from him being so utterly on the make, she replied. From various accounts he was witty good company. He liked women, supported their rights, wrote often for actresses, but there was never any suggestion of romance.

And the Melbourne–and global–literary/publishing scene at the time?

Melbourne was a major centre for reading, with high literacy, numerous bookshops, and a population with disposal income and an appetite for fiction, particularly crime. Hume networked furiously, but couldn’t establish himself as a literary man until after the Hansom Cab. When he got to London he was a literary lion, in social demand. It would have been very difficult for him not to meet Oscar Wilde, for instance. But to his annoyance people wouldn’t take him seriously as a writer because he was associated with pulp.

Do you think that the odyssey of the book’s publication, from semi-self publication onwards, has parallels in today’s changing publishing climate?

Not really. At the time you could publish in three ways, firstly by subscription, getting money from friends and the well-connected and going to a printer. Vanity publishing in our terms. The book publishers themselves used two business models. Commission was where the author paid for initial printing costs and the advertisements. If the book was a success, any profits would be shared with the publisher. Jane Austen’s first novel Sense and Sensibility was published in this fashion. The alternate model had the publisher buy the copyright, taking the risk, but also, if the book sold well, all the profits. Such was the publishing fate of Pride and Prejudice and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

For the first Australian edition Hume didn’t have subscribers, not for a book with disreputable crime content. 5000 copies were allegedly printed, a huge amount, when most colonial books had print runs of 200 or less. He needed a large amount of money to do so, thousands in our terms. It came from playing the stock market, with advice from a friend, Alice Cornwell, a budding gold mining magnate, the C19th equivalent of Gina Rinehart.

But Hume didn’t really self-publish. Frederick Trischler, who had worked in publishing in Australia and the US, had the business initiative and nous, and ran the Hansom Cab operation, using a Melbourne printer, Kemp & Boyce. After he and Hume quarrelled Hume wrote him out of the book’s history. But Hansom Cab couldn’t have succeeded without Trischler, who was an advertising and marketing genius.

Trischler saw the overseas potential of the Hansom Cab, and formed the Hansom Cab Publishing Co, with some enterprising but also dodgy local capitalists. Financier Jessie Taylor bought the copyright from Hume. In London the company did spectacular business: 25,000 copies a month were printed and sold for fourteen months. But it wasn’t crowd-funded—more like bank robbery!mystery of hansom cab tv

What do you believe is the place of The Mystery of A Hansom Cab, in Australian literary history–and in that of the English-speaking world?

It was the first book from Australasia to become a global publishing phenomenon. It awoke English publishers to the potential of local writing. It also showed them the gold in detective fiction, and helped consolidate crime writing as a major publishing category.

The translations were worldwide, and still happen, with a recent Chinese edition. Hume was among the first Australasian writers to be translated into Chinese.

I might add, to finish off, that THE HANSOM CAB, in its initial Melbourne appearance, shows how an author can get everything right: researching his market, writing a very good and commercial book, encountering someone who believed in it enough to hazard a large print run, producing a good-looking product, timing its appearance carefully, and conducting an effective word-of-mouth campaign. They had very little money for advertising, but they did what they could, ie hiring a hansom cab to deliver the books to bookshops.

The subsequent story shows how an author can get things VERY wrong.


Review of James Patterson’s Writing Masterclass

james-patterson-booksRecently I was approached by the people from Masterclass, a brand new online learning hub which features courses in different areas of the arts and sport, taught by world-famous masters of their craft–such as Dustin Hoffman for acting, Serena Williams for tennis–and James Patterson for writing. Masterclass asked if, as an experienced author, I’d be interested in checking out the course and seeing what I thought. I did some research, discovering Masterclass to be a start-up based in San Francisco that had debuted only a month ago–in May–and that it was themed around the concept that some masters in their field are also great teachers, and love to impart the knowledge and experience they’ve gained. I liked the idea and was also, I admit, curious to hear what the world’s highest-selling author had to say about his ways of working, so using the gift code provided, (the whole course costs $90 US normally, which seems very reasonable considering what you get) I set up my account, logged in and began exploring.

First of all, I want to write about how the course is structured, and then move to a discussion of whether it works, and for whom. There are four parts to the course: firstly a series of 22 videos in which James Patterson talks about different aspects of the craft of creating fiction: raw ideas; plot; creating characters; successful outlines; research; writing dialogue; building chapters, how to write good endings,  editing, and much more, through to post-creation issues such as titles, marketing–and of course getting published! There are also a few more personal themed-videos: one where the author recounts his own personal journey to publication and success; one where he rather amusingly recounts his brushes with Hollywood; and one on the experience of working with co-authors. The videos vary in length between 3 and 14 minutes, depending on the complexity of the theme, and all of them feature James Patterson talking directly to the camera, in a chatty, conversational style, truffled with anecdotes, examples, tips and pithy sayings(a favourite of mine: Passion and habit are key to a successful writing career). Secondly, there is a 72 page downloadable and printable workbook which is designed to complement and expand the videos, recapping on each theme, and providing practical exercises for students to complete on their own. The workbooks come in two versions: one which includes the very comprehensive outline Patterson wrote for his novel Honeymoon(which can be used in assignments) and one without the Honeymoon outline. Thirdly, there is a section called ‘Office Hours’ where the author answers questions video-recorded or written in by students(of course these are selected as otherwise it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed). Within this section also is a series of video critiques by Patterson looking at selected class assignments and how students have handled them–for example, he looks at a whole lot of potential book titles that have been sent in, and says whether he thinks they work, and why they do or don’t. Finally, there is a discussion facility on each theme, where students can interact with each other based initially on a moderator’s discussion question(he’s called a ‘community builder’ on the site) and exchange ideas, opinions and experiences.

So all in all, a very comprehensive structure. It’s well-thought out, very well presented and produced, easy to access and streamlined to work through. James Patterson has a direct, lively and unpretentious manner on camera which is very engaging, both in the main videos and in the critique snippets, and he’s generous with his practical tips and advice. As well, the workbook is thorough and has plenty of interesting exercises, and it’s also easy to download and print. As a self-directed course, it is worked through at your own pace, and it’s clear from the discussion boards that students have approached it in different ways, with the majority watching each video one at a time, and working on each associated exercise one at a time, while a few others report watching the whole series of videos right through, then going back and working through each individually. It’s also clear from the discussion groups and comments that it is mainly unpublished, aspiring writers who are taking the course–which of course is not a surprise–and the atmosphere seems friendly and collegial. As you might also expect, given the fact this is a very new course, there are lots more comments on the earlier videos than on the later ones.

So, that’s how the Masterclass is structured. Now,to the issue of  whether it works as a creative writing course. Continue reading

Translation pitches (and a revelation)

A year of reading the world


Last night, English PEN hosted an experiment at the Free Word Centre in London. As part of European Literature Night, which in the seven years it has been going has grown from a single evening to a festival stretching over several weeks, The Translation Pitch saw eight translators pitching eight novels that have not yet been translated into English to a panel of industry experts. At stake was a £250 PEN samples grant, which would pay for a chunk of the winning text to be translated and shared in the hope of attracting an English-language publishing deal.

The competing books were varied. They included a Danish crossover novel about a school shooting (Jesper Wung-Sung’s Proper Fractions, pitched by Lindy Falk Van Rooyen), a 640-page-long work of German metafiction (Verena Rossbacher’s Small Talk and Slaughter, presented by Anne Posten) and a prize-winning collection of interlinked Hungarian short…

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The inspiration behind Hunter’s Moon

Hunter's Moon coverAs this week saw the official release of my new novel, Hunter’s Moon, and next week sees the first of the launches celebrating the book, I thought I’d feature a piece I wrote about the inspirations behind Hunter’s Moon. I first wrote this for the excellent Teachers’ Notes my publisher, Random House Australia, have created for the book, which feature discussion points, ideas for activities etc. If you’re interested, you can download the full set of notes from the Random House website, here. 

Inspirations of Hunter’s Moon

by Sophie Masson

The main inspiration behind Hunter’s Moon is of course the classic fairy tale of Snow White. This Germanic fairy tale is one of my favourites, with its blend of suspense, drama, romance, dark magic and dark secrets. It’s also become one of the world’s favourite stories, and has been told and retold many times over in novels, poems, films and even TV series.

First written down in the form we know it by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812, the story was told to them by people who had passed it down throughout the ages. Some people think it may possibly have been partly inspired by the real-life story of the 16th century beauty Margaretha von Waldeck, whose jealous stepmother forced her out of her home to live abroad, only to die poisoned at the age of 21. It’s said that the dwarves could be inspired by the fact that Margaretha’s father Count Philip owned

Schloss Waldeck, home of the Waldeck family

Schloss Waldeck, home of the Waldeck family

several copper mines, where miners worked from an early age, becoming hunched from working in such confined quarters. Others say that the story derived from sources much earlier than that, and point to variations of the Snow White story to be found in many other traditions, such as in France, Albania, Armenia, Russia and as far afield as Malaysia. Like most fairy tales, in fact, the inspiration for the story probably derived from a whole mix of things, leading to the form we know and love today.

As with most fairy tales, there are many things behind the surface of the magical action and extraordinary characters in Snow White: intriguing motifs such as a magic mirror, a poisoned apple, a glass coffin, a huntsman who takes pity on the girl he’s supposed to kill. And there are many contrasting themes, too: betrayal and friendship; beauty and cruelty; appearance and reality. When as a novelist you are working with traditional stories, it’s important to find ways in which you can mine this rich material in an original way yet also respect the themes at its heart. And for me that lay principally in reinventing Snow White herself, to make her a more complex and interesting character.

In the fairy tale, poor Snow White has to learn the hard way that nothing is what it seems and that it is a grave mistake to trust to a fair face and honeyed words. And yet she is still trusting enough to blunder into the home of strangers in the shape of dwarves, and later accepting apples from someone who just turns up at the door; her essential innocence is untouched by the painful revelation of her stepmother’s treachery and cruelty. She is also quite passive: aside from her flight into the woods when the huntsman spares her life, she doesn’t do a great deal for herself.

My Snow White character, Bianca Dalmatin, isn’t like that though she certainly starts in a similar way. Just like Snow White, Bianca has been lulled into a sense of false security by the apparent kindness of her beautiful stepmother Belladonna; like Snow White, she learns the hard way that appearances aren’t reality. Her heart is broken by the revelation; but instead of just hiding and accepting her fate, she wants to kick against it, to change things, even if it is very dangerous. And she is full of hatred for the woman who has destroyed her world. And yet like Snow White in the fairy tale, she doesn’t altogether lose her trust in others. It leads her to make mistakes—but also means that she will not turn into someone like Belladonna. Similarly, I worked with other aspects of the Snow White story, such as the seven dwarves, the truth-telling mirror, the huntsman and the glass coffin, to transform the original material whilst keeping its powerful impact.

As with my other fairy tale novels (Moonlight and Ashes; Scarlet in the Snow; The Crystal Heart) Hunter’s Moon is set in a magical alternative world, a world inspired by Europe in the late 19th century, but where ancient magic exists side by side with modern technology. In terms of specific setting, Hunter’s Moon takes the reader back to the Faustine Empire, which first appeared in Moonlight and Ashes. However Hunter’s Moon is set in a different province of the Empire: in Noricia, rather than Ashberg. Just as Ashberg in the earlier novel was based on Prague and the Czech countryside beyond, so Noricia in Hunter’s Moon is based on Austria, and its main city, Lepmest, is based on Vienna. And the inspiration for the Ladies’ Fair department store empire owned by Bianca’s father came from the gorgeous 19th century department stores that you can still find in cities such as Vienna, Paris, Moscow and London—glittering palaces of fashion and beauty housed in elegant old buildings.

And finally, Hunter’s Moon also has influences and elements from those earlier fairy tale novels of mine, including a recurring minor character who in this book takes on a bit more of a role!

Fairytale novels combined