The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Leah Kaminsky. Leah is an award-winning Australian writer whose published work includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, has just come out with Penguin Random House Australia. Set just before World War Two, The Hollow Bones tells an extraordinary, gripping story of obsession and ambition, recreating a bizarre SS-sponsored expedition made by German scientists to Tibet, aimed at proving the Himalayan origins of the ‘Aryan race’. With its beautiful evocations of nature and complexity of characterisation juxtaposed with chilling depictions of Nazi racism and lunatic ideas in action, this is a potent novel which explores many disturbing themes, with a light yet deep touch.

First of all, Leah, congratulations on the publication of The Hollow Bones! It’s an amazing and memorable novel and must have taken a great deal of work. Can you tell us something about its genesis, and how you went about researching the background of the novel?

Thanks for those kind words, Sophie. It really has been an interesting journey researching and writing THE HOLLOW BONES over the last 3-4 years. I first came across the material that sparked the idea behind the book while researching my last novel, THE WAITING ROOM, in which I touched on the critical role physicians played in the Third Reich during WWII. As a doctor myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of science, so I was gobsmacked when I stumbled across World Ice Theory, or Welteislehre, a pseudoscientific idea postulated by a steam train engineer, Hanns Hörbinger, that became the platform of the Reich in the 1930s, embraced by the German populace as well as high ranking politicians such as Himmler and Hitler. The Nazis banned the teaching of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the basis that it was considered ‘Jewish science’. The ice crystal became known as the building block of the universe, based on a bogus belief that the sun was the only star in the sky. Hörbinger postulated that an icy moon crashed to earth thousands of years ago, destroying the civilisation of Atlantis, which lay buried under the Himalayas. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of a German expedition to Tibet of a group of SS scientists, sponsored by Himmler himself, sought to uncover the true origins of the Nordic Aryan race amongst the Tibetan peoples. This little-known story of their leader, 26- year-old zoologist Ernst Schäfer, drew me in as I tried to imagine what sort of man would go to such lengths in the pursuit of academic success and admiration of his peers.

Main character Ernst Schäfer is a complex person—a lover of nature and a ruthless hunter, a man who can show a kind of tenderness towards people like his wife’s disabled sister Margarete, yet whose cold ambition leads him to appalling acts; a man of science who dissents privately about the ridiculous ‘scientific’ theories of the Nazis yet who is quite prepared to serve the regime for his own benefit. Tells us something about how you created his character.

I wanted to look at the complexity of someone growing up in pre-War Germany, and the inherent moral choices confronting individuals as they witnessed the dramatic changes taking place around them. Ernst Schäfer, a forgotten character in history, spent most afternoons of his childhood exploring the forest of Thuringia which lay on the edge of his tiny village. Early on, he became a keen collector and hunter, filling his room with a menagerie of creatures. I was interested to see how this childhood innocence and passion for nature could go so terribly wrong. I read widely, looking at the history of the Third Reich and the SS through personal stories. I painstakingly translated Schäfer’s books, field diaries and letters from the original German, my research taking me to dark places I have always been fearful of exploring. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I went way past my comfort zone in an attempt to examine what leads a man to tread the treacherous terrain of moral compromise. I trawled the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, finding photos, documents and even detailed equipment lists and invoices for Schafer’s earlier expeditions to Tibet.

‘Science is pure and elegant in itself, not a pony to be ridden around a circus ring,’ Ernst tells a scoffing Bruno, a fellow researcher and member of the expedition, at one point. Yet despite this lofty private attitude, Ernst publicly kowtows to Nazi pseudoscience to further his own obsessions and ambitions. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the line between science and politics is blurred too far. Can you expand on that?

Yes. I think that’s what struck me so much about these little-known events. Even though it all happened in pre-war Germany and Tibet, it is so relevant today. The story of the corruption that occurs when science and politics become bedfellows is still palpable today, with contemporary debates raging around climate change and sustainability, as well as animal rights. 

The juxtaposition between Nazi Germany and traditional Tibet is very striking: how did you go about evoking those very different settings and atmosphere?

I initially applied for funding that might enable me to travel to Berlin and Tibet to help with research. When the funding didn’t come through I thought I might need to drop the project. Then I remembered the words of my dear, late friend, the painter Yosl Bergner, who told me he could never visit the places he painted as it would ruin his imagined vision of them. I realised then that the places I was writing about no longer existed – their histories couldn’t be suspended in time. So, I set about visiting Tibet and Germany of the 1930s through books, photos and old film recordings, in a kind of virtual tour of the imagination. This brought my settings to life for me. In a strange way, I think literature lets you visit places that no longer exist. I think visiting modern-day Tibet and Germany may have spoilt my initial vision.

The passages featuring the enigmatic and touching figure of Panda, taken from Wild to be in the Glass country, lend a touch of whimsical fantasy which nevertheless has a serious purpose. Can you tell us something about that?

I visited the library at Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia while I was on my US book tour for The Waiting Room. While I was there, I walked around the dioramas and was shown through the archives and storage in the basement. I came across a four-month-old taxidermied panda that Ernst Schäfer had shot on one of his earlier joint American-German expeditions to Tibet. I felt so sad learning about the background to how this panda ended up at the museum. Several months later, I was at Varuna, the Writer’s House, on a fellowship I was awarded by the wonderful magazine Griffith Review. The tiny voice of Panda insisted on being heard. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking it was a bit strange to have a stuffed animal’s POV I the book, but it took over and became the beating heart of the novel.

Most of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures—not only Ernst, his team, and his wife Herta, but also major Nazi leaders of the most monstrous kind. What kinds of challenges did you find in recreating encounters such as those Ernst has with Himmler and Göring?

The biggest challenge really was to find the voice of Schäfer’s first wife, Herta. I found so much information about all the other real-life characters, which enabled me to inhabit them relatively easily. I was very aware of not wanting to make them caricatures – they needed to mirror my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. Herta was the only one who seemed to have disappeared entirely from history. This was in reality a gift, because it allowed me to imagine who she might have been – a woman with a moral conscience living inside an ideological nightmare, watching the man she loved make choices she disagreed with. She and Panda are the only true fictional characters in the book, and also play the role of moral commentators, checking the emotional temperature of those around them.

Many prominent Nazis, especially but not only Himmler, were greatly influenced by fringe and occult elements: by esoteric mish-mash philosophers, quack anthropologists, amateur mythologists, self-proclaimed psychics and mystics and so on, as well as pseudo-scientists. How did you research this aspect of the regime, and how do you think this occult attraction fed into their racist, supremacist ideology?

Reading about the wackiness of all these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs, held by leaders such as Himmler and Hitler, sometimes had me laughing out loud. Until, that is, I began to understand the powerful impact these ideas had on the Reich’s platform which upheld expansionism, racist ideology, genocide, as well as forced sterilisation and involuntary euthanasia of those with mental health issues and disabilities. The Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral heritage organisation, established in 1935 under the auspices of Himmler as an offshoot of the SS, was dedicated to proving that Germans were direct descendants of the Nordic Aryan race, which fed directly into Nazi ideology and its gruesome results. The existence of a school that trained dogs to ‘talk’ and tap out the alphabet, so they could participate in espionage for the gestapo, sounds like something straight out of a comedy, but Hitler took all this very seriously. The slippery slope of #fakefacts into popular belief is especially evident today.

The Nazis became, at least in the West, an image of pure evil, an aberrant and alien phenomenon. That image could distract from the reality of what happened—and make people complacent. And sometimes was evoked inappropriately, lessening the impact of that reality. Today, as the generations to actually go through that period die and revisionists attempt to re-interpretations, how do you think society can guard against the threat of forgetfulness? Can we really learn from the past?

I don’t believe in the concept of pure good and pure evil. The most dangerous state to my mind is complacency and indifference. I think we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. It frightens me that recent surveys show that 5% of people in the UK are outright Holocaust deniers. In the US, 65% of millennials and 41% of the general population have never heard of Auschwitz. I think education is the key to understanding our differences and engendering tolerance and compassion. And of course, as a writer, I believe in the power of literature to change people’s lives. The Nazis understood the power of the written word, so much so that they burnt books that didn’t fit their twisted world view.

 

Visit Leah’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook.

And on Twitter.

 

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Winter of the White Bear: a forthcoming picture book by Martin Ed Chatterton

Today I’m delighted to bring you a very interesting and thought-provoking interview with award-winning author and illustrator Martin Ed Chatterton, about an unusual project he’s been working on: Winter of the White Bear, an extraordinary picture book to be published by Dirt Lane Press this October. You can watch a compelling trailer for the book here.

Martin, I believe that Winter of the White Bear is a book that grew out of several inspirations: your PhD, your previous collaborations with Margrete Lamond, now publisher at Dirt Lane Press, and no doubt other things. Can you tell us something about how it came about? 

The starting point for Winter Of The White Bear was my PhD which I completed at the end of 2017. That had, at it’s core, a polemical examination of the toxic legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade in my home town of Liverpool in the UK. I wrote my doctorate in part see if there was a way in which I could simultaneously access the slavery story in both a contemporary and historical way and the result was The Last Slave Ship, a novel with a dual storyline, one set aboard the Uriel, the final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809 and a narrative following a present day race hate crime which results in large scale rioting. The two storylines intersect at the end.

The PhD came about partly through curiosity about my family tree. On my wife’s side of the family, the maternal line is ‘black Liverpool’. The apparent ‘invisibility’ of ‘blackness’ in that side of the family got me asking questions and that led to (sadly) the growing realisation that I’d been raised in the most racist city in the UK and that my wife’s family had undoubtedly arrived in the city via Liverpool’s armpit-deep involvement in the genocidal Atlantic Slave Trade. In this case ‘we’ (white Liverpool) played the role of the Nazis, stocking, crewing and profiting hugely over 120 years by selling people. Over half of all the slave ships that sailed from Britain sailed from Liverpool. The city grew rich on the back of slavery. Present day Liverpool racism, both institutional and cultural is, I believe, directly traceable to residual guilt about the city’s blood-stained past, and denied thorough examination by an overpowering cultural ‘Scouse’ identity, described by American academic Jacqueline Nassy-Brown as ‘brutally localised, excruciatingly white.’ It’s not going too far to say that if the novel is published in the UK (as it is due to be), there could be trouble ahead. Liverpool does not take criticism well. If you’re interested, you can download the PhD exegesis here: https://epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/572/

Anyway…all that is by way of background. Winter Of The White Bear not only arrived because of my interest in slavery but because of the direct involvement of the very wonderful and most excellent, Margrete Lamond, my publisher (and editor) at Dirt Lane Press. Myself and Margrete go back a long way: to 2004 to be exact when I first moved to Australia. At the time she was working at Scholastic and commissioned me for my first Aussie book (I illustrated Ogre In A Toga by the lovely Geoffrey McSkimming). Margrete kept in touch when she moved to Little Hare books and she published The Brain Finds A Leg, a blackly comic surreal teen comedy set in a thinly disguised Byron Bay where I was living at that time. The book did decently, getting shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (where we lost to the picture book of Mao’s Last Dancer…still bitter, although I do love Anne Spudvillas’ work). And then we did other books: a follow up to The Brain, a series about William Shakespeare as a ten year old boy, a novelty book about a nude Santa. All the usual stuff.

Then, about six or seven years ago I wrote a crime novel on spec and Margrete was kind enough to do a broad structural edit on it before my agent shopped it around. A Dark Place To Die was published by Random House here and in the UK and was then optioned as a TV series (still ‘in development’ with Escapade Media/Mam Tor). The book led to a series, all set partly in Liverpool (and Byron Bay, Berlin, California…) and, to close the circle, The Last Slave Ship is also set in the city. When I met Margrete last year she suggested doing an offshoot from my PhD for Dirt Lane Press and I jumped at it. I’d been seeing what they’d been doing for a year or two and loving the social commitment and aims of the company. I do a fair amount of what you might call ‘mass market/commercial’ writing and illustration. Probably the best example of this are the co-writing gigs I have with James Patterson, the US publishing behemoth. So Dirt Lane and Winter Of The White Bear are as far from this as it’s possible to be (note: I am by no means sneering at the idea of White Bear doing well commercially!). And it’s the best/most satisfying thing I’ve done (in books) in a while.

What has the story’s journey been like? Did you need to do many drafts? Did you work with Margrete from the start on it, or has the process been different to that? 

I wrote the first draft very quickly. Having worked so much in the past with Margrete on so many disparate books we both have confidence in each other. That confidence gives me free reign to try things out, as I know Margrete will spot when it works and when it doesn’t. Perhaps the title (for Margrete) might be more accurately that of ‘producer’.

There were a couple of things I knew I wanted right from the outset. The first was no comedy. In my children’s fiction I’m primarily, and proudly, comedic. However, there’s no room for that here. So, no funnies. Secondly, I wanted this to be absolutely international. This wasn’t about Liverpool, or about the Atlantic slave trade. At least not in the specifics. This was about stripping back slavery to it’s evil essence: coercion for gain. Margrete and I had a couple of arm-wrestling moments, most pointedly on the issue of making this a white bear against a black bear. My view was that there needed to be a stark difference in the two bears as this introduces, in simple form, the idea of ‘the other’. Defining another group as ‘other’ is key to being able to enslave. And the clearest, most unequivocal example we have of that is white enslaving black. Of course there have been multiple (and ongoing) examples of slavery where that ‘otherness’ is less clearly defined but I felt strongly that the ‘not all slaves were black’ argument has been hijacked (erroneously) by the right. Besides, the genesis for this book lay in a specifically white/black arena. I didn’t want anyone to be in any doubt.

There were quite a few drafts but all following a principle I knew would be there. I started big and went small. The first draft came in around 2000 words; clearly too many for a book of this kind. But, as I knew that at the outset, and, as Margrete was the editor, I was confident we’d whittle down. Which is exactly what we did. The final word count is around about 700 words.

How would you characterise the visual narrative of the book? 

Being a writer/illustrator often has it’s advantages, but nowhere more so than in a picture book. The visual narrative of this book emerged from two sources: the first are the paintings I do for pleasure. I don’t sell them or exhibit: they are for me and they are a long way from my ‘normal’ work. I began my professional life as an illustrator and that’s still very much an important part of what I do. Winter Of The White Bear is an opportunity for me to swing hard at the ball and make some of those gestural, free marks I make in the comfort of my own (secret) studio.

The second part of the visual thrust for the images is digital. Everything has been produced on screen. I’ve been drawing with the cursor, using collage, overlays, brushes, effects and photography to make the images. I forced myself not to draw anything and ‘import’ it as I would do normally. This has, I hope, resulted in a fresh approach, albeit using techniques honed over the years. I think this imagery will be seen as different for me…but it’s always been there.

With its fable/fairytale form and light touch, Winter of the White Bear can be read on many levels, and by readers of many ages: what do you hope people will take away from it?

I’m glad you think it has a light touch. It would have been easy to slip into a preachy tone so I think using fable helps prevent that. Allowing the reader to join the dots is something I try and do in all my writing. Using fable also helps blur the age lines. We’re so used to the fairytale form that it can become a Trojan horse in which we can smuggle in meaning. Another aspect of the fable/fairytale as form is that it allows darker themes and narrative. While Winter Of The White Bear deals with hard subjects it barely comes near to the horrors in, say, Hansel And Gretel.

I made the decision to echo the Atlantic Slave narrative in several key ways in the book. For example, when Little Bear reaches a point of desperation she chooses to allow herself to sink beneath the waves. ‘If she sank far enough she would no longer have to catch fish for White Bear.’ Slaves taken from West Africa frequently committed suicide as a means of escape. One of the first acts for the Liverpool slavers on arrival in Africa was the installation of suicide netting around the ships. Slaves were valuable and the more of them alive at the end of the voyage, the higher the profit. The hideous conditions aboard ship were finely calculated to ensure that as many slaves survived as possible at as low a cost as possible. Profit overruled morality at every turn. Slaves also saw suicide as an act of resistance so it was important for Little Bear to reach this point. Of course, I don’t make this explicit. This is a book for children so Little Bear’s ‘death’ is deliberately ambiguous. The appearance of her (murdered) father also speaks to the importance of ancestors in African belief systems. Little Bear’s subsequent ‘campaign’ and escape from her oppressor can be viewed as what happens to her in the afterlife, or as wish fulfilment, or simply as a magical reality.

I hope that young readers take one very simple message from this book. Namely that using force to enslave anyone is wrong and that we have to remain vigilant to prevent this happening.

 Winter of the White Bear comes out in October, but you are already performing readings of it in schools. What other events are being planned in the lead-up to its release? 

After starting work on Winter Of The White Bear I decided to make a ‘rough cut’ audio of it as a work in progress. I then showed that rough cut reading to schools I visited in Australia and China in late 2018. I always saw the book as something that would translate very well to the screen and I have made a full reading for the 2019 school visits.

I’m keen for Winter Of The White Bear to get ‘out there’ in as many forms as possible. I co-opted a French actor/producer friend of mine, Michel Duran, to do the reading for the video of the book. Michel is based in Vancouver and, I think, adds an extra flavour of ‘the international’ to the project. We have worked together on a number of film and TV projects (as Sugartown Media) and we are developing Winter Of The White Bear as a potential animated feature film. We’re also working with Angela Salt, another friend of mine in the UK who runs a creative children’s content company called Salt Content. Pat Davern, of Grinspoon, is also involved in writing a suite of songs for the project. He has provided the theme music for the project and we are at work on the ‘hero’ song, You Will Find A Way, right now. Pat and I have worked together on a number of projects beginning with Pat’s Alexander The Elephant picture/music book in 2015. We’ll be putting out a video for the song in the lead up to Winter Of The White Bear being published.

We have also partnered with The Freedom Hub (thefreedomhub.org) in Sydney for this book after meeting with Sally Irwin, The Freedom Hub’s founder. The Freedom Hub was formed specifically to combat modern day slavery in Australia. Using two cafes (one in Sydney, the other on the Gold Coast) as the ‘hub’ element around which programs of aid for people caught up in human trafficking are rolled out, the organisation is an important beacon of hope. It’s a real shock for many people to realise that there are an estimated 4,300 slaves in modern day Australia and The Freedom Hub are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of this and giving practical help where possible. They are also committed to doing what they can to ensure slavery is eradicated around the globe. We are super proud to have them on board with Winter Of The White Bear and will be flagging them up at every opportunity. The book will be launched on October the 17th at The Freedom Hub by Benjamin Law who has kindly agreed to do the honours.

 I understand that two other books came out of your PhD, including an adult novel and a graphic novel: can you tell us a little about them?

The Last Slave Ship, the novel I wrote for my PhD was due to be published last year but sadly the publisher went bust just prior. The nature of the novel (hard-hitting, experimental to a degree, polemical) meant that it wasn’t a good fit for my usual (commercial) publisher, Penguin Random House, so finding a good home for it has been a priority. My agent in London has been scrabbling around and we are pretty sure it will be out this year with Dead Ink in the UK who are another socially conscious independent publishing house. That’s by no means a given as yet but we think it will happen. I’m pretty keen on it being released as, along with Winter Of The White Bear and Archangel (the graphic novel I’ll discuss below), it would mean that three very different  ‘slavery’ stories have emerged from the research, covering all age ranges.

The novel itself tells the story of the doomed final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809, sailed by a hard-bitten crew conscious that this is their last opportunity for a big payoff. Slavery has been outlawed in Britain so it is a risky, but potentially profitable, business. Running parallel to this story is one that revolves around the aftershocks following a vicious race hate killing in contemporary Liverpool. The central idea behind the book can be summed up by my ‘pitch line’: ‘The last slave ship didn’t leave Liverpool in 1809, Liverpool is the last slave ship’. And another: ‘What do you do when you’ve witnessed a crime committed by an entire city?’

In a spot of cross-pollination, I’ve mixed in characters from my three previous  ‘Liverpool’ crime novels (A Dark Place To Die, Underland, Remission) and narrative themes of memory/amnesia, ‘saying the unsayable’, witness and guilt. There are intertwined sub-narratives in there too about Hillsborough, about Scouse identity and the importance of Antony Gormley’s Another Place as witness: a sculpture installation sited on a beach in north Liverpool which has been something of an obsession of mine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw_WO8Y5a8s).

At the beginning of my doctorate, I was interested (and still am) in the notion of cross-media. Something that ‘fell out’ of that was me writing a piece of faux fan-fiction, imagining a fan response to The Last Slave Ship…which was, at that time, unwritten. That became a YA novel called Archangel which is a re-imagining of the slavery narrative, set in a future post-industrial north American hunter-gatherer settlement built on the remnants of a vast shopping mall centuries after Earth has been abandoned by the ruling elite. The climate is frozen for large parts of the year and the growing of harvesting of timber occupies much of the time for the ‘tribe’. This isn’t a dystopian vision: the population functions in harmony with their surroundings until the humans who had abandoned the planet return to ‘harvest’ labour. Dirt Lane Press asked me to develop Archangel as a graphic novel. As a first step I’ll be rewriting the story as a screenplay; the thinking being that will be a format more easily adaptable to the graphic novel format. I’ll let you know how we do!

An interview with author Marina Osipova

Today, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with award-winning historical fiction author Marina Osipova, whose first novel,The Cruel Romance, I read last year and loved. With its elegant writing, deeply evocative setting in wartime Russia, richly-drawn characters and tragic yet affirming story, it is an accomplished and memorable work. Marina has just released her second novel, How Dare the Birds Sing, and to celebrate I asked her a few questions about the book and her writing in general.

First of all, Marina, congratulations on the publication of How Dare the Birds Sing! It looks fantastic–I’ve just bought a copy and can’t wait to read it. Can you tell us about the novel and what inspired it?

Thank you, Sophie, for buying my book and for your readiness to allocate time in your extremely tight schedule to read it. I hope you’ll find the story interesting.

What inspired me? A difficult question for me to answer. It just happened. I was not yet done with The Cruel Romance when the story of Lyuba started germinating in my mind, or more accurately, in my heart. Unfortunately (you have to see me smile), it happens again and again. How Dare the Birds Sing was not published yet and already three other stories began pressuring me.

What was the road to publication like for this book? And how have readers responded to it so far?

The road to publication was not easy. First, and it was a month of thrilled anticipation, two editors from the Big Five requested The Cruel Romance and the ms of How Dare the Birds Sing for consideration. It was not out of the blue: one of my friends, an amazing author, recommended my work to them. Though they praised my writing and the stories . . . you can anticipate what their verdict was. Then, a small press publishing company from the UK expressed interest in How Dare the Birds Sing, but we did not agree on the terms. After spending tons of time researching possible publishers for my book, I chose Draft2Digital. Unfortunately, they help with e-publishing only. So, the process is not over for me. Despite that, I’m glad I decided to self-publish, which offers me more flexibility throughout the process. I like having control over all aspects of my career.

I am very pleased with the readers’ response to my newly published book. And the reviews are great. I’m humbled by praises from readers like: “A riveting WWII novel,” “A truly fascinating tale,” “The writing is excellent,” “Hard to put down.”

Your earlier novel, the wonderful, bold, memorable and tragic novel, The Cruel Romance, is also set in wartime and about the dreadful effects of war and occupation on people’s lives and potential–in all kinds of ways, including the possibility–or impossibility–of love in such circumstances. What draws you to tell these stories?

I hear this question time and again. It is known that wars are the most dramatic time in the history of humankind and WWII was the most brutal of them, full of universal and single-person drama. That’s what readers expect from fiction books—drama, right? Why WWII? I think, as a Russian, I inherited the horror and memory of that time. It’s in my blood. Besides, in the Soviet Union, preservation of the memory about the heroism of its people was a part of the broad propaganda. I, though, would call it nurturing patriotism and am thankful that the official policy of the state was to instill in the youth the feeling of respect and appreciation for what the prior generation sacrificed to preserve our life as an independent nation.

There is another reason for me to write about the Great Patriotic War: Thanks to The Nightingale, Lilac Girls, The Indigo Rebels, and other brilliant books, the stories of European women in their fight against the occupation of their countries has become broadly familiar. I believe ordinary Russian women who had to endure four years of Nazi invasion deserve the same.

Telling stories of unsung heroines is my humble tribute to the women who worked on the home front producing armaments, like Serafima from The Cruel Romance, or who were fighters on the front or partisans, like my heroine Lyuba from How Dare the Birds Sing who, after being captured by Germans, was subjected to slavery in the Nazi labor camp as hundreds of thousands of others were.

As a writer of Russian origin, you are no doubt influenced by the extraordinary literary heritage of your native country—how would you characterise that influence in your own work?

The influence was and is enormous. Starting with Alexandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki and the writers who wrote about the Great Patriotic War, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman, Lev Kopelev, Konstantin Simonov, Yuri Bondarev, to name a few, all of whom shaped (and continue shaping) me as a writer with their brilliant ability to look beyond the time and human psyche.

You have also lived around the world, both as you were growing up, and as an adult–how do you feel that cosmopolitan experience has influenced your work?

This is another highly interesting question of yours, Sophie. Living abroad gave me not only the factual knowledge and experience of different cultures and political systems but also the feeling of how much unites us—the same everyday problems, the same sources of joy and love. But most importantly what influences my work is that I can feel for both protagonists and antagonists in my stories. As one reviewer of The Cruel Romance said, “There are no good liberators or bad invaders—there are good and bad people.” This is my credo as a writer—no prejudices.

Did you always want to be a writer, even as a child? And how did you get started on your writing career?

To be a writer? No, as a child I wanted to be a doctor, maybe because my dolls didn’t object to my sticking them with needles; then a fisherman (that is a fisherwoman)—I lived with my parents on the Volga River then—later, an operetta singer-dancer (without having any ear for music at all although I endured three years in a music school); then my small child’s interest in learning German and the love of this language overwhelmed all my other numerous interests and I decided my future profession must be related to anything that would involve the German language. And it did until I immigrated to the United States in 2001. That’s when I started writing (first, some flash fiction). My English language teacher, who I fed a story to every week, was impressed and suggested I “must publish” them. I published my first book in 2016.

You have won many awards for your writing–can you tell us more about them?

Yes, to my delight, my first submissions to literary contests, most of them to Romance Writers of America, were well received. Every one of them, big or small, are dear to my author’s heart. The list of them can be found on my website, www.marina-osipova.com.

But I’d like to tell you briefly about one in particular. It was my very first manuscript, which title had undergone several transformations from Margarita and her Master to Ark of Hypocrites to Garden of Weeds. I sent it to Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest and, surprisingly, happened to find myself among the finalists in the mainstream category. At the conference in Seattle, in the huge hall during the announcement of the winners, the chair asked the finalist to rise to their feet one category after another. Mine was the very last. Eight finalists stood up. The chair congratulated us and offered us our seats again but immediately changed her mind. “Wait, get up again.” We stood up. “All men and only one woman among the finalists!” I remember she sounded incredulous. When my category came up, I held my breath. Then, “And the first-place award goes to Marina Osipova.” Later, another finalist told me I exclaimed loudly.

What’s coming next? What new projects are you working on?

There are so many stories I want to tell! After my WIP, which is the sequel to How Dare the Birds Sing with the working title, I’ve Got to Know Who I Am, there will be a third book, and I already have a clear idea about another story outside of the series.

Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to participate in your interview. A big honor for me. I can’t help but express my admiration of you as a brilliant writer and a wonderful person who helps other writers achieve their goal—to be a good author. Congratulations on your astounding and well-deserved achievement, the Order of Australia for services to literature.

 

New site for my writing and publishing presentations

Some exciting news: I have a brand-new site, Sophie Masson Presents, focussing on the presentations I can offer to schools, libraries, writers’ centres, writers’ groups, teachers’ and librarians’ associations, and festivals and conferences, amongst others. These range from author talks to workshops on writing and publishing, aimed at different ages and interests. The site features pages on each type of presentation, with sample themes and topics listed, but presentations can also be tailored for individual requirements.

You can book directly through the site or through booking agents I also work with. There’s also a calendar of already-booked events to help with planning schedules.

 

Small but beautiful: the myriad possibilities of folk and fairy tales

Today I thought I’d republish an updated piece that  I originally wrote for a presentation a couple of years ago, and which focusses on my love of folk and fairy tales, as a child reader, an adult writer, and a new small publisher!

Small but Beautiful: The Myriad Possibilities of Folk and Fairy Tale

By Sophie Masson

Three is a powerful number in fairy tale and folklore. And so in this piece I’m using it as a motif, to speak to you in three guises: as a young reader, an adult writer and a new publisher.

Once upon a time…

As a child, at my grandmother’s Toulouse apartment.

I dearly loved fairy and folk tales as a child. I was very lucky in that my very first literary mentors were oral, in fact, the very tradition fairy tale comes from: for I was told stories from a very early age. First by my paternal grandmother in Toulouse: as a baby, after I got very sick in Indonesia, where I was born and my parents were working, my parents took me back to France and left me with Mamizou(Marie-Louise), my glamorous, kind grandmother, and my two lovely, and lively, aunts, dark-haired Betty and blond Genevieve.  In that fairytale setting of the ancient city of Toulouse, surrounded by stories held in its very stones, I was nurtured on tales of fairies and witches, monsters and heroes, tricksters and innocents. The tales of Perrault and those of Grimm jostled those from local folklore and those from far away: from the beginning, fairy and folk tales from around the world featured in my imagination. Then, after I’d left my grandmother’s home at five years old, with my parents and siblings and we arrived in Australia, the fairy tale tradition continued, for we had so many illustrated books based around tales from across the world, and my father used to make some up for us too, and give his own(sometimes scary!) retellings of famous ones. Our mother also took us to see Disney animations such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and I still love those Disney films–they are made with such delicate, sparkling artistry, they are little gems in themselves. But of course, given my deep background in the original fairy tale, they were never the be-all and end-all for me, just another way of entering into that enchanted world. And the very first book I read by myself in English, at the age of six or so, was a beautifully illustrated Little Golden Book called The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, which included Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and Toads and Diamonds. I found a copy of that book in a garage sale a few years ago—and as soon as I clapped eyes on it, I was instantly transported back to that childhood reading experience! I knew the stories already, having heard them; but to decipher them for myself, in a language that wasn’t my native tongue, added an extra dimension of magic…Later still, I read more collections of fairy and folk tales from all over the world, both in English and French, in gorgeous illustrated editions. I couldn’t get enough of those sorts of stories. They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when frequent family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. I loved myth and legend too, but in a different way.

Fairy and folk tales are less grand than myth, and less ‘serious’ than legend, but they are, in a way, more approachable. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. They privilege the world of the village, the cottage, the everyday, transformed by luck, wit, kindness, courage…Most of all, they offer possibility: of escape, of justice, of hope. And of course of adventure. People say sometimes that it’s a pity fairy and folk tales are ‘only’ seen these days as suitable for children. While I understand what they mean, I think that it’s a patronising mistake to imply that something ‘only’ for children has no intrinsic value, in itself. Children understand folk and fairy tales, instinctively, without analysis. They understand without articulating it what it is that is so rich and nourishing in these ancient tales. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, laughter to grief, they are humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure, and all in one concise and distilled package, for the tight framework of folk and fairy tale allows the imagination to run free. They also impart extraordinary and complex truths about human life and human nature in ways that are much more potent than if they were expressed baldly. You understand them with your subconscious, with your imagination, well before you are able to articulate them.

Turning the page, to adulthood…

I’ve never lost that love, that instinctive attraction to fairy tales–to me they are both intoxicating and refreshing, they lodge in your bones and your blood and in your dreams. And for a novelist, they are just a gift! As a writer, I love taking fairy tales and myths from around the world and playing around with them, re-inventing them to create fresh and lively new stories which whilst staying true to their essential core. I’ve explored quite a few fairy tales in my books: Aschenputtel(German form of Cinderella) in Moonlight and Ashes; The Scarlet Flower(Russian form of Beauty and the Beast) in Scarlet in the Snow; Rapunzel in The Crystal Heart; Snow White in Hunter’s Moon; Sleeping Beauty in Clementine; Puss in Boots in Carabas; (Tattercoats(English version of Cinderella) in Cold Iron; Breton fairy tales and the Arthurian fairytale of Dame Ragnell in In Hollow Lands; Celtic stories of underwater realms in The Green Prince; and the Russian story, the Tale of Prince Ivan and the firebird in my novel, The Firebird, as well as the Arabian Nights in my four-volume El Jisal series: Snow, Fire, Sword; The Curse of Zohreh; The Tyrant’s Nephew and The Maharajah’s Ghost. I chose each of those tales as inspiration because I felt they each had wonderful paths to explore, characters I could embroider on, magical backgrounds that were enticing…And so it proved to be!

What to me makes traditional fairytales particularly suitable as a basis for modern fantasy fiction is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it’s all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way.

And it’s not just the folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s collections and Perrault’s that are so inspirational. Original fairytales can also work this way: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, a story which has inspired countless writers, including me with Scarlet in the Snow!

The biggest challenges of basing your original work on such well-known tales is that, of course, people have certain assumptions about the characters and the way the story goes. But though in my fairytale novels,  I keep to the basic inspiration of the tale, it’s my story I’m creating and I make it  very much my vision of the central character, the story arc etc. In fact the challenges are what makes I think the story so good to write as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery. In the classic fairytales of course, things just happen–because they do, and that’s the meaning of them in the tale if you like–but in a novel of course you do need to ask, why? who? what if? And so on. And that is exciting. It’s like following a detective trail, burrowing deeper into the heart of the tale, and finding your own new meanings within them.

And finally:

My love for these traditional tales has led me recently into a wonderful new adventure.

In January 2013, working in partnership with two other creator friends in my home town of Armidale in northern NSW, illustrator David Allan and author/artist/designer/dollmaker Fiona McDonald, I became one of the founders of Christmas Press, a new children’s publishing house. Why did we do that? Well, we all love the gorgeous classic picture books that we grew up with, the kind which featured retold traditional stories and beautiful illustrations, opening children–and their families–to a wealth of wonderful tales from around the world, and we felt that such books were now difficult to find. But rather than complain about it, we decided to do something about it–and so Christmas Press was born! And why Christmas Press as a name? Well, we all remembered the special excitement of getting those beautiful books under the Christmas tree. But our founding motto, ‘Books to cherish every day’, also tells you that these books are certainly not just for special occasions!

Though our first title Two Trickster Tales from Russia featured my retelling of two fabulous Russian folktales, David’s illustrations and Fiona’s design, we only started with our own work as we knew we were taking a risk dipping a toe into the publishing water at all, and it was better to take that risk with our own work than gamble with someone else’s!  The first book was certainly a lot of work and a very steep learning curve. But it was great to work through the process, first of concept, then layout, then design, over many lively working meetings. The printing costs for the first print run were partly funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which received fantastic support from fellow authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, readers, booksellers—and even other publishers!

Since then, we have published seven other books in the ‘Two Tales’ series. The wonderful authors who have worked with us to create these retellings of classic stories include Ursula Dubosarsky, Kate Forsyth, Duncan Ball, John Heffernan, Adele Geras, Margrete Lamond, and Gabrielle Wang. We were thrilled that they enjoyed working with us, and that they didn’t mind that as a tiny press, our advances are very small—though we pay standard royalties. The opportunity to work in an area they really love but find difficult to interest big publishers in, was often mentioned as a great drawcard by authors. A big plus for us in attracting such talented and well-known creators!

Though most of our illustrations for the Two Tales series were done inhouse by David or Fiona, we also worked with other emerging illustrators: Kate Durack, whose powerful work illustrates John Heffernan’s magisterial retellings of Mesopotamian tales; and Ingrid Kallick, whose magical pictures illustrate Margrete Lamond’s engaging retellings of Norwegian tales.

In just five short years, Christmas Press has acquired a reputation for beauty, fun and high quality, with excellent reviews in national publications, shortlistings for awards, international sales, and even a mention for one of our titles, Kate Forsyth and Fiona McDonald’s beautiful Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, in the most recent edition of the very prestigious Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.

Christmas Press also publishes anthologies of original Christmas-themed stories, poems and illustrations, and in 2016 we debuted two new imprints: Second Look, for republications in print on demand form of out of print titles by well-known Australian children’s author; and Eagle Books, which concentrates on adventure fiction for readers 11 and up, whose launch title, also in 2016, was the first translation in over a hundred years of Jules Verne’s great classic adventure novel, Mikhail Strogoff, and was followed by, to date, two other fabulous adventure novels by contemporary authors, with more to come.

But although, after eight titles published in the Two Tales series, we have decided to concentrate on other types of books, we are immensely proud to have helped to bring these small but beautiful tales to a new generation of readers. That is truly something to celebrate!

www.christmaspresspicturebooks.com

 

Ho, ho, Hippo–an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today, I have the great pleasure of presenting an interview I did recently with Hazel Edwards, to celebrate the publication of a very special picture book: Ho! Ho! Ho! There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Christmas Cake. It’s the seventh and final title in the well-loved Hippo series, written by Hazel and illustrated by Deborah Niland, which since the publication of the very first Hippo book in 1980 has been a firm favourite with families all over Australia–and well beyond (even royal families, as you’ll find out!)

This book’s as warmly and engagingly written as ever, with the familiar charm of the bold, colourful illustrations and a sparkly Christmassy feel as well. You can also get an activity pack which includes all sorts of fun Christmas activities–and cookie cutters, including one in the shape of Hippo of course, to make gingerbread biscuits just like the little boy does with his grandmother in the book. Indeed, Hazel’s dedication in the book is to her grandson Henry, the third generation to make friends with Hippo, as she explains in the interview. Read on!

First of all, Hazel, congratulations to you and Deborah Niland on the publication of Ho ho ho, there’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating Christmas Cake! It’s the seventh and final book in the much-loved Hippo series which have enchanted generations of children and their parents. Can you tell us a bit about how this new book came about?

Extract from Santa Skylight gift book page

 Grandson Henry Garnet  ( to whom “Ho! Ho! Ho !…is dedicated) inspired this hippo story. Henry had just moved with his parents and big brother to an older house which has two chimneys. He was concerned that his grandparents’ house had only skylights, and the lack of chimneys would mean Santa might miss us on Christmas Eve.  Since I write a story gift of the imagination for him each Christmas, that became his photographic story, with his older brother suggesting a webcam and GPS to redirect Santa.

As with many picture books, the story was later ‘tweaked’  but is still about the logic of fantasy, especially when you have a ‘fantastic’ hippo and a Santa who might co-exist on a roof. And I especially wanted Hippo to strut a cake-walk on the roof , which later became a dance and carols by cake-light. So all ideas are moderated in the creation of a picture book like ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’

The hippo biscuit cutters have attracted the attention of reviewers , who are avidly baking gingerbread hippo biscuits.  I feel a bit of a fraud as I’m not a great cook, but the grandkids and I will make hippo biscuits this weekend.

I wanted the emphasis to be upon the ‘giving’ of creativity at Christmas, not a ‘gimme presents’ attitude.  So within the text and illustrations are many ideas which readers and families can create for themselves.

Hazel’s grandson Henry reading Ho Ho

Instead of a ‘launch’, readers are making the other ideas Deborah Niland has hinted at in the visuals.  And hopefully next year will be the touring musical again with Garry Ginivan productions. Last year’s  national ‘Hippo Hippo the Musical’ inspired from the books, was one of the most satisfying aspects for me of this history of the imagination. To sit in the audience with enthralled children who were the third generation of the original readers of the 1980 edition was special.

And they were all reacting to the hippo character on stage as if he were part of their own imaginative world.

Lovely as it is to see a new Hippo book out, it must also feel rather poignant for you and Deborah, as this is to be the last. Tell us a bit about the journey of Hippo, from the start to now. Where did the idea for Hippo originally come from? Did you imagine 38 years ago that Hippo would capture the hearts and imaginations of so many people? And why do you think young readers take so warmly to Hippo?

 Originally our new roof leaked and our then 4 year old thought the workmen fixing it were the cake-eating hippo thumping around.  Now the nephew of the original 4 year old has been concerned about the same roof: only this time , the skylights being a Santa -barrier is the worry.

The original ‘Hippo’ trio in 1978 when Hazel first wrote the story: Kim (Henry’s mother) Lani (neighbour) & Trevelyan (Henry’s uncle)

Because the big friend has all the answers, especially when you are doing something for the first time and are apprehensive, the hippo books are reassuring. Situations like starting school, going to hospital or acquiring a new baby in the family are easily identifiable.  Christmas is also shown as a time of family sharing of traditions and is Australian, rather than snow laden.

I remember you saying in an interview that for the anniversary edition of the first Hippo book (There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake) you chose to tweak a couple of things in the text. Can you talk a little about that? And how has the reception of the Hippo books changed over time?

 Food is the sex of children’s books, so the sensual delight of adding a themed food to a book for literary events is on-going.

Most readers enjoy the absurdity of juxtaposing cake with hippos who are actually bad tempered in real life, not cute and cuddly. But across the years I’ve had requests  to make the cake gluten –free or a healthier alternative like celery sticks. Real hippos do eat carrots, so I’ve suggested carrot cake as a compromise, but generally the cake is a chocolate mud one which is apt for muddy hippos. Or even just roof tiles, which are easier to design than the challenging hippo cake shape.

The original ‘smack’ was edited out at the publisher’s suggestion but many readers, especially young dads had firm views on retaining the original wording as a point for discussion with their families. I tend to agree that stories should remain in the cultural context in which they were written and that readers are intelligent enough to discuss interpretations. I do NOT favour child abuse, but ‘smacking is a highly emotive issue for some parents. The publishers changed the wording to ‘Daddy growled’…so earlier editions are now collector items.

Picture books are of course always a collaboration between words and pictures, author and illustrator. Can you tell us a bit about your own collaboration with Deborah Niland over the years?

We live in different states.  Deborah adds her visual interpretations to the text and I’m always willing to change the wording if the picture already conveys the concept. But I keep the rhythm of the reading. I love the ‘joyous’ aspect of the ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’ illustrations due to Deborah Niland’s ability to draw so appropriately for this age group. But it’s also a book which can be shared within families and many nostalgic readers love collecting copies, even if they are no longer children.

Hippo has become a classic figure in Australian children’s literature. What are your favourite anecdotes about how readers from 1980 to 2018 have responded to him?

Literary Speed Dating in my memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake; Being an Author’ is where the hippo (via Hazel) answers fan questions  in character.There’s also 100 things which have happened in the history of the cake-eating hippo friend.  Readers’ responses are often poignant. And some children with health issues have responded to the books, using them as a kind of therapy, that if the hippo can cope, so can they.  A book can offer reassurance that others survive, just like the young person in the original book (whose family has grown across the decades) but who is sort of in charge, with the help of hippo.

Here are a dozen memories:

  1. Knock at my front door. Small child. ‘Excuse me. Is this the house where the hippo lives on the roof?’ Answer. ‘Have a look.’
  2. Danish Palace note of thanks (with gold crown) from Princess Mary for autographed Hippo book Australia Government sent as official gift of the imagination for the birth of her daughter.
  3. Fan letter addressed to: The Hippo, Blackburn South, and delivered in person to author by the smiling mailman.
  4. Principal, an ex rugby player, accepted challenge to eat cake on school roof, in hippo costume, and read the book aloud if his students surpassed their reading quotas. They did. And despite being scared of heights, he kept his promise.
  5. Hippopotamuseum created by gifted educator to demonstrate physics principles e.g. falling, related to Hippo character.
  6. Rural prep mother who could not read, but wanted ‘Another easy book like Hippo which I’m learning to read with my 5 year old.’ Brave woman to ask in front of other parents.
  7. Parent’s letter from children’s hospital, thanking for the reassurance of ‘ Hippo on the Hospital Roof’ read in casualty waiting room and in ambulance en route.
  8. In Nepali Montessori School, in Kathmandu reading through interpreter, with hippo music and dancing, and Himalayan mountains as a backdrop.
  9. Feelix suitcase of book and stimulus for blind pre-schoolers. Also had hippo cake tins, an audio and Braille copy. Helped name Feelix project. Felix means happy and ‘feel’ related to the textures felt by blind children.
  10. Collage of memorable fan letters touring as ‘Corridors of Characters’ with Hippo responses by ghost-writer Hazel exhibited at the former Fremantle Maximum Security Jail.
  11. ‘Us mob like your stories. We laugh at the funny bits.’ from an online webchat with a remote outback school.
  12. After a literary festival, the over-loved hippo needed cleaning. Dry cleaners wouldn’t touch it because the head had paper inside. Too big to fit in washing machines, hippo had to be ‘emptied’ of the filling of polystyrene balls and the ‘skin’ washed by hand in baby soap flakes. Experts advised removing the filling either in the carpark or in the bath. …I found out why. The polystyrene balls went everywhere, even clung to our underwear. I handwashed ‘skinny’ hippo in our bath and a visitor freaked on opening the bathroom door to discover hippo hanging from the shower, to dry.

One of the most heart warming aspects of being a long term children’s author is having a three generational readership. ‘Ho!Ho!Ho! There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Christmas Cake’ is being shared by the grandparent generation too. And I also have grandchildren who are reading books inspired by their parents when children. And even learning to read from Hippo books.

Henry Facetime-reading with Hazel

Another special moment with grandson Henry was when I gave him the advance copy and he read it through with expression. Earlier we used to read on Facetime each night, (he taught me Facetime and I helped with his reading) but he always chose the books we shared.

The first Hippo book was adapted for a musical recently--what was it like, experiencing your characters on the stage? And will Hippo pop up in other adaptations, whether for stage or screen?

While children’s theatre is my greatest love, I’d like the cake –eating hippo to have his own television program. In that way he could reach more children and also encourage them to pick up the books too. Although there have been translations into Mandarin, Japanese and other languages, the one I value most is the Braille translation in Vision Australia’s ‘Feelix project’ for children who are sight impaired.

Hazel at a performance of ‘Hippo! Hippo!’ the Musical

Note from Sophie: As Hazel’s publisher Penguin Random House kindly sent me the Hippo cookie cutters with a review copy of the book, I had a go at making some biscuits myself, as a trial run for the visit of certain special little people who are coming to see us in a couple of weeks’ time! I didn’t make gingerbread biscuits as I’m not keen on gingerbread., instead making a vanilla butter biscuit mixture which has a similar consistency and is easy to shape and cut out. Here, below, is the result–the biscuits just made, before they went into the oven, and the final, brightly decorated product with some bonus stars! Fun to make and taste pretty nice too–and I know some little people who will love making them too 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Hazel Edwards:

Hazel Edwards writes quirky, thought-provoking fiction and fact for adults and children. Coping successfully with being different is a common theme. Co-written ‘junior novel ‘Hijabi Girl’ and YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ explore cultural diversity.

Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series, recently touring as a musical, Hazel has grandkids for whom she writes a story each birthday. ‘Outback Ferals’ her YA novel set in Darwin, is a sequel to ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’, researched during her 2001 Antarctic expedition.

Hazel runs book-linked workshops on ‘Authorpreneurship’ and ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’.

’Trail Magic; Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail ’ with her son Trevelyan is an adventure memoir. He did ALL the walking.

A National Reading Ambassador, in 2013 Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature. Her memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake-Being an Author’ explores long-term creativity.

‘Celebrant Sleuth;I do or die’ an adult mystery with an asexual sleuth is her latest fiction and ‘Almost a Crime’ , short crimelettes are available on Kindle.

Hazel’s website is here.

You can find her on Facebook here.

The Girl on the Page–an interview with John Purcell

Today, I’m delighted to bring you a frank and fascinating interview with John Purcell, whose gripping new novel, The Girl on the Page, I read recently with much pleasure.

First of all John, congratulations on the publication of The Girl on the Page–and on writing such a gripping and immersive read! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I know many other readers have done. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you?

I didn’t know it but the idea for the novel The Girl on the Page had been with me for years. This idea had been in my preference for reading literature as a young man. It had been in the way I had run my little second-hand bookshop where I had to sell recent commercial fiction to pay my rent, when all I wanted to do was sell people beat up old Penguin Classics. It was in my decision to work for online bookseller, Booktopia after my shop closed. And it was certainly around when I signed a contract to publish the erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma under the pseudonym Natasha Walker. The idea is a simple one, What is the cost of selling out?

What was the road to publication like? And what has reader response been like so far?

The road to publication was long. After publishing The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy in 2012-13, I returned to a novel I had been working on for years called, A Gentleman of Sorts. This novel was set in 1815 in northern England. And although I was very happy with it, no one wanted to publish it. Like a fool, I persisted trying to get it published. I wrote nothing new between 2013 and 2017, I just kept working on the novel no one wanted. The spell was broken when a leading publisher offered me a contract for the book. It was a lukewarm offer. The book would be published, but it would sink like a stone. It was over. I rejected the offer and put A Gentleman of Sorts to bed.

Days later I started writing The Girl on the Page. The words came in a torrent.  Over the next six months, writing on weekends only, due to my full time job, I finished the book. My agent sent it out to publishers and we found ourselves in the middle of an auction with three major publishers bidding on the book.  HarperCollins were victorious and with the help of my publisher Catherine Milne, and her brilliant team of editors, we knocked the book into the shape it is now. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

Publishers send out proof copies to reviewers before the final edits of the book are complete. So, with my head still in editing mode, the first reviews came in from booksellers. They didn’t hate the book, which was a relief. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, too. Overall, since publication, the response has been positive. I love that readers love Helen and Malcolm as much as I do. Though I have been punched by some readers for that bit at the end. You’ll know what I mean when you read it.

The story is told in many voices: in Amy’s, Helen’s, Malcolm’s, Daniel’s and a little in Max’s. Quite a lot of juggling, but carried off very successfully! How did you balance the different voices?

The characters of Helen and Malcolm have been loitering around in my imagination for years. They are result of my interactions with all the Helens and Malcolms who used to frequent my second-hand bookshop. The old journalists, retired academics, and quarrelling novelists.  I found their voices were already quite defined and easy to write.

The character of Daniel had to be of Helen and Malcolm, but defiantly different, too. He is their son, but estranged. You can’t stop genetics, and so I had to make sure Daniel displayed some of the attributes of his parents, while his resentment and self-loathing coloured nearly everything he said and thought.

Amy strode onto the page. Hers was the loudest and surest of the voices in my head while writing. I had to restrain her. She had a tendency to dominate scenes and conversations. I surround myself with strong women. I wanted Amy to have a truckload of confidence around her work but needed her to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. My time with Amy was spent turning the volume down on her attitude and turning the volume up when she spoke from the heart.

Knowing the characters well helps with balancing the different voices. I sketched out backstories for these characters which don’t all make it into the novel. I knew them well before I let them speak.

You took quite a risk in making two of your main characters–Amy and Malcolm–rather monstrous really (though always human!) They made me think of the ‘monstre sacré’ concept we have in French–a term which describes a person given a free pass on selfishness and outrageously bad behaviour because of their talent and/or personal charisma.  And the more ‘likeable’ characters–Helen, Daniel and Max–face a great disadvantage when in the orbit of those ‘sacred monsters’, each in different ways. Do you think that’s a fair take, or do you have a different interpretation of those characters?

The funny thing is, many readers relate to Amy. They cheer for her. I have noticed a generational divide in the response to the novel. Younger readers in general have seen it as an Amy novel. Amy’s ambitions, her needs, her desires are those of her own generation. They align with her from the start and live the novel through her, thus she is absolved of all sins. They certainly don’t see her as a monster. In fact, the question of principles at the heart of the novel is largely overlooked by younger readers. There is no such thing as selling out to them, as of course you always take the cash. Every time. Older readers talk almost exclusively about Helen and Malcolm. The choice Helen makes and the consequences of that choice. The old novelists’ relationship is the central hub of the novel to older readers but the relationship between Helen and Malcolm and their son Daniel also figures in the discussion of the novel.

Daniel is reviled by younger readers. He and Julia, the publishing director, share monster status for them. While for the older readers, they find Malcolm to be the most difficult character to deal with. They understand Daniel, forgive Helen, put up with Amy but they find it hard to forgive Malcolm. I think Daniel would see both his parents as ‘monstre sacré’, while the reader only sees Malcolm.

I hope what I have done here is create characters who are as flawed as we all are. I certainly like how a character can be one reader’s heroine and another’s villain. That a book can be about one subject for a reader and be a completely different book for another. If I have done that, I will think myself extremely lucky.

The book revolves around a conflict between two extremes of the book world: the short-term gain of bestsellers versus the slow burn of ‘serious’  literature..Yet of course many of the writers we think of as great–Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc–had large mass followings and were seen primarily as entertainers in their day. Do you think the distinction between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’ books (a cogent term employed in your book) is not as simple as someone like Malcolm might see it? And with your own book, which depicts the tension between the two, making the case for more thoughtful books whilst successfully adopting the suspenseful thriller mode–do you see it as part of the conversation around these things?

Even Malcolm doesn’t see it as a simple distinction, it’s just a convenient way for him to explain the differences between certain types of books. We all divide novels up into easy reads and more difficult ones. Some novels just ask us to think from page one, they require concentration, and if you aren’t in the mood, if you’re tired, for example, you will put them down. In that same mood you might pick up a thriller and read late into the night. Malcolm points out that we aren’t talking about a large percentage of the population when we talk about readers. And when we talk exclusively about novels we are talking about a fraction of the small fraction of the population who reads regularly. Most regular readers of novels have the capacity to read ‘uphill’ but prefer ‘downhill’ novels because such reading offers a form of escape that appeals to them.

The Girl on the Page is a ‘downhill’ book about ‘uphill’ books, said one reviewer. Which I found interesting. There is no doubt in my mind that my novel is being labelled ‘commercial fiction’ by some readers and many booksellers – that is, fiction which is easy to read and is expected to have a large readership. And yet, as one reviewer said, the blurb on the back made it sound really boring. The blurb actually described the content pretty well. But it doesn’t give any indication of the way it is written. And this is definitely part of the conversation, as you say. I have written one of those books Helen and Max hate.

I made a conscious decision to open the door to my book as wide as I could to let any kind of reader in. I wanted to involve people in my story from page one. So I wrote short sharp chapters which dropped the reader into the middle of the action. I want readers to become invested in the story and for them to turn the pages quickly. How else was I going to get people into a book where the big question is, should a literary writer publish a commercial book for cash? The result is readers are reading the novel in a few sittings and the end of the novel knocks them sideways and leaves them thinking about some pretty hefty things. Which is cool, right?

I was struck by your (very accurate, in my experience) observation of the ‘book-loving millenials’ who nevertheless don’t read in the same way that people of Helen and Malcolm’s generation might have thought proper. Can you expand a little on that?

The way people consume information today is completely different from any other age. We absorb so much more information in a day, through so many different screens, mostly in small bite-sized chunks. It’s only natural that the way a millennial reader approaches a book would be different. They have grown up in an informational soaked, entertainment overloaded world.

A physical book is an ingenious device which exists separately to the internet. It is its own ecosystem for the time you’re reading it. It has one overall argument, or subject, or story and it is told outside time. This is very attractive to those who are almost always connected and who don’t often enjoy the luxury of concentrating all their attention on one thing.

As a book industry professional–both as an author and bookseller who has frequent dealings with publishers and editors-you have an insight into the publishing world which comes over very strongly in the book, in various amusing–and sometimes depressing!–vignettes. The post-takeover shenanigans at  your fictional publishing house and the short-termism it engenders of course strikes many echoes in other book industry insiders/observers of course, including me 🙂 Putting on your prophet’s hat, what do you think might come of such developments within publishing?

Publishing has one great advantage at the moment, they still publish physical books. For a while there it seemed likely that printed books would go the way of video cassette tapes. Thankfully this was averted by the ubiquity of the smartphone which seemed to kill off the ereader and ebooks before they really took hold. And since then something even worse happened. Donald Trump. His cry of fake news has made many people notice just how difficult it is to find answers on the internet. And here’s where publishers of physical books come in. Over hundreds of years they developed a vetting process whereby they force writers to proof, edit, fact check and better their writing before they will publish it. There are checks and balances because publishing physical books is an expensive business. Of course, some publishers are better than others and of course they don’t get it right all of the time. But a vetting process is better than no process, as we are discovering to our shame online. As such, I believe publishing will still have a very important role to play in the coming decades.

Finally,  I thought that the title, ‘the Girl on the Page’ mischievously echoes an element of various bestselling titles, as alluded to in an aside in your book–is that the case? And can you expand a little on that?

The Girl on the Page was my working title. The sheer number of novels about women that were being published with ‘girl’ in the title was absurd and many people in the book industry were getting sick of it. So calling the manuscript The Girl on the Page was a bit of joke between me, myself and I. But later, as I wrote the scene at the book signing where the characters discuss books with ‘girl’ in the title, I realised that The Girl on the Page kind of worked for the book. So when I sent it to my agent I left it there. I really didn’t expect HarperCollins to go for it. But they saw the irony of it, and loved it. So, there you have it.

About The Girl on the Page:

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

About John Purcell:

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing.
Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines.
Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.
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