Guest post: Elisabeth Storrs on Etruscan love

Today I’m delighted to welcome Elisabeth Storrs to my blog. Elisabeth is the author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, the first two books in the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy set in early Republican Rome and Etruria. The final book, Call to Juno, will be released in April 2016.Storrs-WeddingShroud-20148-CV-FT

00 ElisabethStorrsColor300Elisabeth has long held a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in Arts Law having studied Classics along the way. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two sons and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and governance consultant. She is the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Warding off Evil: The Power of A Loving Embrace.

by Elisabeth Storrs
I was inspired to write The Wedding Shroud and its sequel, The Golden Dice, when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Married Couple                                              Sarcophagus of the Married Couple
                                                            Late C6th BCE

Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives?
Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and even pornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

Tetnies Younger                                                       Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
                                                         Late C4th early 3rd BCE
The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.
There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Tetnies Elder                                                  Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
                                                          C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilgy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.
As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.
Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge. Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Tetnies Sarcophagi photographs © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Storrs-GoldenDice-20146-CV-FT

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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.


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

On comics and graphic novels: an interview with Bruce Mutard

Ever since I was a Tintin-devouring child, I’ve loved comics and graphic novels, so it’s a great pleasure today to be featuring a really interesting interview I did recently with Bruce Mutard, one of Australia’s most prominent creators in these genres.

Bruce has been writing and drawing comics for 25 years, producing 4 graphic novels: The Sacrifice (Allen & Unwin, 2008), The Silence (Allen & Unwin, 2009), A Mind of Love (Black House Comics, 2011), The Bunker (Image Comics, 2003) and a collection of short stories, Stripshow (Milk Shadow Books, 2012). He also has had short comics stories in Overland, Meanjin, The Australian Book DSC04353 copyReview and Tango among others, and has illustrated several books for Macmillan Education’s Stories From Australia’s History, series. He has just completed a Master of Design in comics studies on the interaction of words and pictures at Monash University. He has conducted many comic workshops, and given talks at Melbourne Writers Festival, NMIT, RMIT, Edith Cowan University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, and presented papers on comic theory at Oxford University, Loughborough University and University of Arts, London among others.

Bruce is an eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for comics and graphic novels generally, and holds the comics and graphic novels portfolio within the Australian Society of Authors. Recently, his passion has led him to a new direction. Read on!

Bruce, you’re about to launch a new imprint, Fabliaux. Can you tell us about it? What motivated you to start it? What has the journey been like so far? And what kinds of books will you be publishing?

The idea for Fabliaux started a few years ago when I was still thinking of self-publishing some of my own work that wasn’t suited or wanted by my existing publishers. This was primarily my short comics collection: Sex, Politics and Religion: Stories To Break Up Families By and Alice In Nomansland – a still unpublished graphic novel that is predominately naughty humour, and unlike any other I’ve done. Those books are still floating about, though I’d much rather other mutard alicepublishers took them on. Anyhow, I’d always nursed the possibility of publishing other people’s work if I thought it needed to take print form, and that there might be enough of a market to make the investment back. I chose the name Fabliaux because it has a literary pedigree and doesn’t have ‘comics’ in it, limiting the sorts of books I might be able to publish. I may one day do prose, poetry, artists books, art books or kids books. Anyhow, Fabliaux is a term given to a genre of ribald and comic tales told by jongleurs in France in the 12th and 13th Centuries; the precursors to similar bawdy tales in the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

from Roman de Renart, medieval French fabliau

So far the journey has been ‘artistic’, which is to say that I’ve blundered into publishing with the eye on the creative end-goal, satisfying my authors, but less concerned about the costs and how to market the work! To that end, my aim is to publish books that have a niche readership, but nevertheless one that is proven to exist, and to make sure the print quality is the best for the work. I’m an author first and foremost, so that is my main role, but since that often takes me to markets, fairs, conventions and the like, I might have an opportunity to sell some of these books. I won’t do mass-market books, as I have neither resources nor time to put into the marketing and administration of such an enterprise. I give my author’s contracts and generous terms, though no advances. I make no promises other than to publish and do my best to take the authors work to the world in my stumbling fashion. Don’t laugh, please.

The launch title of Fabliaux is the provocatively-titled Art is a Lie, by Carol Wood and Susan Butcher–a unique work indeed. Tell us about it–how did you discover it? What drew you to it so much that you chose it as the launch title of Fabliaux?

I’m pretty certain Art Is A Lie is unique. In short, it’s a collection of 1-3 page comics strips mostly first printed in a US art magazine, Artillery, over the past 9 years under the title, Dead or Alive. Essentially they are spoof biographies of famous artists, done in myriad of styles so no two Art is a Lie Dalistories look the same. Imagine Picasso as done by EC Segar (Popeye), Duchamp as a Dick Tracy story, Hieronymous Bosch as done by Don Martin (MAD), or the 5000 Fakes of Dr Seuss. Imagine Frida Kahlo as a Betty Boop cartoon, or if you can, Tom of Finland as done by George Herriman. You probably can’t imagine such things, but they do exist in this book. There’s fumetti of which a couple all the characters and backgrounds are intricately constructed models that Carol in particular, makes. The level of detail in these is astonishing. In short, they are brilliant and I think the world needs to know about it! As for discovering it, I’ve known Carol and Sue for perhaps 20 odd years on and off, so when they showed me the work they’dArt is a Lie Picasso been doing for Artillery, I was blown away – laughing. Since the magazine was not available in Australia, I wondered if there would ever be a collection of the strips so I could have a well thumbed, cup ring stained, annotated copy on my bookshelf. The magazine’s publisher was in no position to produce such a book, nor were the Pox Girls. For many years, nor was I, but as the old saying goes: ‘good things happen to people who wait.’

The rise of self-publishing has been talked about a lot in recent times, but not so much another phenomenon–the rise of small presses founded by creators: authors, illustrators, graphic novelists, who are publishing other people’s work. Why do you think this is happening? And do you have any thoughts on what it means for the literary landscape and the publishing industry?

It is probably a confluence of factors. Firstly, there is the general contraction of sales across the industry that has lead to a reluctance on the part of established publishers large and small to take on new projects, even from authors they’ve published. Unless an author has earned out their advances (assuming they got one), it’s hard to place a new work, especially something that is a challenging literary work. The old template publishers worked from by having commercially successful works subsidise the publication of works of merit has diminished. But those authors who have been fortunate enough to do well out of their literary career, generally love writers, good writing, good books and having been through the mill of building a career in writing, also know how much more difficult it is to get published today. So, I think their passion for literature means they are willing to set up imprints and publish those works that the established publishers have forgone, not to prove the latter wrong, but simply to ensure good work gets published, be it in print or digital. Some may have a better business head than others (like me), but I’m sure it’s passion for the art, craft and life of words and pictures, that drives them.

The comics/graphic novels scene has both expanded and contracted in recent years in Australia. There seems to be more creators than ever yet less opportunity for them to be exposed at the traditional showcase events, such as Comicon, Supanova etc. Can you comment on that? 

I would agree there has been a huge expansion in the number of creators and works being produced in recent years. The Ledgers committee (The Ledgers are the recently reinstituted annual Australian comics awards) had a long list of more than 250 to sift through last year, whittling that down to about 40 for the shortlist. There are so many more people considering comics as a medium with which to tell their stories or non-fiction. I would disagree that there are less opportunities to showcase their work; if anything, it’s the opposite. True, showcasing comics work is not overly rewarding at the pop culture expos like Supanova and Ozcomicon for the simple reason that they are nowhere near as popular as the other stuff on show. The main reason people to go to those is to dress up in cosplay, get photos and stuff signed by the stars, attend their speaking sessions, play some games, buy copslay merchandise, get prints, toys, books and dvds. It’s very rare that there is a comic guest that requires one to buy tokens in advance and line up for an hour or more to get something signed (Stan Lee is one such). stan lee signingAlthough comicons began with all comics, they have evolved with time to embrace all the pop culture that was largely born in comics, or spec fiction. It’s a case where the children of comics have gone and built a world that left its parents and grandparents long behind. Occasionally, these elders are known to express a little pique at being marginalised or forgotten. But there’s nothing wrong with that; evolution is healthy and the events bring joy to tens of thousands of people every time they are put on.

But in the last few years, a good number of comics only events have sprouted up which probably resemble the comicons of old in their early days. There’s Comic Gong in Wollongong (which may evolve to be more pop culture); Comic Con-Versation in Sydney in September, run across several library services; the Homecooked Comics Festival in Melbourne, put on by the City of Darebin; The Central West Comics Festival in Parkes; the Zine and Indy Comics home cookedSymposium in Brisbane, the Sticky Zine Fair in Melbourne and numerous zine fairs that are also very good places for comics creators to sell their work direct to the public. I suppose the biggest problem in Australia is that these forums are almost the only way most creators reach their public, for aside from those few of us whose work is published by mainstream book publishers, most are sold through a few local comic shops and/or online. There is no national comics distributor that reaches all the local comics shops, let alone high street bookshops that sell graphic novels. Most of the latter do not sell ‘floppies’ or mini-comics. The Australian comic shops buy 90-100% of their stock from Diamond Comics Distributors – a near monopoly comic distributor in the USA, where all the Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW and other popular titles come from. These stores very rarely set up accounts with anyone else, unless it’s manga, Anime, Dvds, figurines and other stuff they might sell. I know that you can’t find my books from Allen & Unwin in most Australian comic shops because they won’t set up accounts with Allied Distribution for a few local graphic novels. So, if you go to your local comics shop in your capital city (there’s a handful in major regional centres), then you’re most likely to find what is produced by creators who reside in that city, as they have personally taken their work to be sold there – usually on consignment. There have been a few attempts over the past couple of decades to create a national comics distribution system, but aside from one who failed at the first hurdle, the others foundered on the lack of support and interest from the comic shops. Australian comics are by and large marginal sellers compared to the American comics and Manga. The reasons for this are the simple fact that we don’t produce comics that compare with the slick overseas products (see question 6, below).

Tell us about your own books–and whether you’re working on something new.

The-SacrificeMy own books to this point, have been very specifically set in Australia and dealing with Australian themes, which has been at times appreciated for that fact because it’s uncommon. For instance, my novel, The Sacrifice, is set very specifically in Melbourne, during the years 1939-1942, following the travails, loves and life of a dedicated pacifist, whose unwillingness to enlist is corroded by a rapidly changing cultural and societal matrix as a consequence of war, and of course, the influx of American troops. The Australia of that period: ‘white’, xenophobic, English, colonial and still a bit cocky even after the bruising taken by participating in WW1, is evoked with considerable detail, to the point where due to the presence of the juxtaposed narrative images, it is a major character in the story. My next book, follows the daughter of the principal in The Sacrifice as she serves as an army nurse in Vietnam during 1970 to 1975. But there are plenty of extended parts set in Melbourne during this period, which will show the changes from the previous era, but also how much it’s changing for the better, even if it was barely perceptible during that period. I have been working on this book for the better part of 8 years and there is a considerable way to go, due to having completely revamped the story twice. On the side, I on occasion do smaller projects by commission, usually silencecover if they offer me a challenge to do something that I’ve never drawn before, or it’ll mean comics appearing in a place where they’ve rarely, if ever appeared. So for that reason, it is not the money that motivates me, but what I might learn by doing the work. Examples are the all-comics issue of Cordite, where artists adapted contemporary poems into comics. For me, the challenge was to take words that are usually so visually evocative and allusive, into something actually visible, but without simply illustrating them. I adapted A Frances Johnson’s poem, Microaviary (about drone warfare of all things) because when I read it, all these images by association flooded into my consciousness from my unconscious, and it was immediately apparent to me that I should simply put those images down. To that end, about half the actual words disappeared into the Mutard_panel_1images, and where they remained, the images added new contexts and layers, so that in a sense, it was a new work. I would love to do more such ‘collaborations’ and there is talk of such.

Aside from that, I have also recently completed my Masters degree, researching what it means to ‘write with pictures’ which is how I actually think of my craft. It is another way of saying that in comics, the pictures need to do the bulk of the work of conveying the story. In cinema, they call it ‘show don’t tell’. It’s about the most sagely three words of advice I could give any budding comics artist, only it’s also one of the hardest balances to achieve. Words are easy to put down, cut and paste and have a sort of precision about them, especially compared to the polysemous nature of images. What I really learnt from my research was how little study had been made into the formal properties of what I called juxtaposed narrative images. Much ink and pixels have been devoted to the content via all sorts of prisms (feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, structuralist, sociological, medical, Freudian, Friedman, etc.), but strangely, little has been done to place it within art theory or as a visual art. Rather than produce a new work for print, I took it into space as an exhibition, where there was no page  one, no need for the meta boundaries of the page – just walls, doors and of course, the space CD 01within the room itself. I really want to do a PhD and take this much further and develop a new theory of comics that starts with the proposition that it is a medium, not a genre of literature. So, this means technically, the answer to the question ‘Are comics literature?’ is actually, no. But I Stanley Bruce Mutard Space oddity 01try not to say that in polite company.

Is there a distinctive ‘Australian’ style and approach to comics and graphic novels? Do you see your own books as fitting within that?

While I wouldn’t say there was any overarching style in terms of appearance, such as manga has, or the ‘ligne claire’ (clear line) school of BD, or the sort weightless dynamism pioneered by Jack Kirby that signifies the superhero genre, I would say there is a characteristic idiosyncrasy in Australian comics. It may sound strange to say, but comics might be one area where the ‘tyranny of distance’ is still at play. By that I mean few creators here really think they have a chance of ever being able to make a living from comics, or getting hired to work for the big comics publishers in the USA, Europe or Japan. There are a number of writers and artists who comicozhave succeeded, particularly with the US comic publishers (speaking English helps). But since the Australian market is so small, and therefore the prospect of sales is limited to local readers, Australian creators tend to produce work that is not obviously aimed at readers in those other markets. They tend to produce comics for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, and garnering a few readers tends to satisfy them. Some might say that this elffin-cover-1displays a lack of ambition or professionalism, but it’s not. Those who really do want to make a living in comics doing work for hire, put in the long, hard yards at improving their skills, getting the feedback from industry professionals as they hawk their portfolios at the US shows (or European ones). As for selling ones own creator owned graphic novels to compare with say, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, David B, Rutu Modan, Art Spiegelman and so on, have a harder row to plough. Even in the US market, few creators make a living exclusively from their comics, but at least there are substantially more and much larger comic’s shows with which to showcase and sell their work. In the last few years, some Australian creators (including myself) have made the trek to North America to sell work at shows like Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the Small Press Expo, CAKE and the like. It’s an expensive way to showcase ones work, and I’m not convinced it’s worth it given that any follow up sales have to be made via ones social media or site, necessitating shipping hard copies overseas, which has a frightful cost, (normally more than the margin between retail price and cost of production). There is no question that building a big reputation in comics would be easier if based in the USA, Canada or perhaps in Europe.

That said, not too many local works are specifically Australian in content or character either, often being set in imaginary worlds, mining the tropes of spec fiction genres. There is a strong trend to autobio comics, which depict the prosaic and quotidian with some reflective humour. I find autobio comics to be interesting in that with the presence of the image, the authors often depict themselves quite unfavourably and viscerally – a trend set by Robert Crumb. For some reason self-loathing almost seems to be a requirement for autobio comics, where the body and its liquids seem to feature prominently. I guess there is a safety in ink, where it is not possible to Mutard comic 2transmit physical infectious agents, though it is very prone to spreading infectious memes!

I was brought up reading within the strong French tradition of ‘bandes dessinées‘,or BD, as comics and graphic novels are known there. That whole area of publishing is mainstream in France, the books are sold in every bookshop, creators are routinely invited to general literary festivals as well as the BD-oriented ones, and the books cover many different genres and age ranges .In America and Japan, the other two great traditional centres of comics and graphic novels, the art form is similarly respected and accepted in the mainstream of publishing. But not in Britain or Australia, where the mainstream either ignores it, or looks down on it. Or both! What’s your take on this?

Long have some of us looked to France and wished the cultural acceptance of comics there, was replicated here. In Japan, it is certainly a similar case, although I believe it is not a career too many parents would hope their sons and (few) daughters would take up, as it’s punishing work and pays badly. I would disagree that comics are a respected art form in the USA. The same pejorative connotations that have tarred and feathered comics here and in the UK, applies to the Anglophone speaking world in general. This view generally runs along the lines that  little-nemo-19060812-s comics are mostly for kids, are superficial, sub-literate, containing very little content worthy of literary merit, nor give cause for and reward consideration by academia, literature festivals and arts grants bodies. And for much of the history of Anglophone comics, including a fair proportion of what is produced today as ‘mainstream’ or superhero/action/spec fic comics, you would not find much to convince you otherwise. Despite revisionist historical appreciation of the skills of George Herriman, Winsor McCay, EC Segar, Walt Kelly, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines (as publisher), Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner and so on, very few people appreciated what they did at the time they produced their work, such that Roy Lichenstein could blatantly plagiarise comics artists work without attribution or reward.

It has only been since the revisionary comics of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Bill Sienkewicz, Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman in the mid 1980s, did a wider appreciation of comics as a form of literature to be taken seriously, take root and found fertile soil in which to grow. Now there’s an abundance of academic studies mining a new field of comics studies (why not; it was a new field with ground to stake like a new unfarmed fertile valley), mainstream book publishers suddenly taking an interest in a genre they hitherto ignored and republishing collections of comics, graphic novels and studies (but mostly only those creators who had V_for_vendettaxachieved considerable acclaim and attention within the comics market first). Literary festivals started to invite a few of the leading lights of comics to participate, though I think still in a way that shows they don’t get comics in the same way they don’t understand spec fiction; they are generally programmed as a separate stream, not integrated into the main program. Most importantly for me, is the sudden appearance of often substantial comics collections in public libraries (and some school libraries, though there is still an inconsistency in how to shelve it: ideally as it’s own section, not within general fiction or non-fiction). All of this points to the steady progress comics have made to enter the arts mainstream in the Anglophone world. There is still a long way to go to attain a mass readership like the Franco-Belgian world has, and it will probably never get there given the plethora of new competing forms of content (and their delivery) for the public’s attention, but it’s no longer considered a juvenile activity. There’s a level of immediate Mausrespect for the medium and its makers now that was largely absent as recently as 15 years ago. There is no better time to be making comics than now – even if it’s almost impossible to make a living at it. But that’s the same as being an author in general!

Recently, a librarian told me something that astonished me–she said that she had no idea how to read comics and graphic novels. It seemed to me to encapsulate a major problem: that unlike in the strong European tradition of comics and graphic novels specifically directed at children, young Australians rarely get a chance to ‘learn to read’ in those genres. And there is in fact very little for children published in those areas in Australia. Yet at the same time it seems a very natural art/literary form for children to respond to. Why do you think so few Australian comics creators write for kids?

There could be a number of explanations to the librarian’s difficulty: a structural cognitive deficit where her mind simply couldn’t interpret the iconic recurrence, and therefore ‘sculpt’ space and time within her mind in the additive way that comics requires; a kind of visual dyslexia if you will. Or, she can read words, but not ‘read’ images. It may be that she has grown up having absorbed the pejorative tag on comics and therefore, unconsciously resistant to them (when I appeared on the First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer Byrne, she told me she didn’t ‘get’ graphic novels, either).

But you’re right, it seems in the great effort of comics to persuade the Anglophone world that comics are NOT just for kids, we’ve forgotten to keep them. Once upon a time superhero comics were all suitable for kids thanks to the requirement to receive the imprimatur of the Comics Code Authority seal (and therefore, appear on American newsstands). In the mid 1980s, the revisionism of the genre allied with the bulk of American comics being sold in specialty comics shops patronized mostly by adolescent males of all ages, meant the arrival of mature readers labels on comics, which very soon grew to encompass all genre comics, as almost all the readers were adult males. Naturally, their interests are somewhat narrow, meaning the content was (and continues to be) largely a mix of violence, gore, swearing and captain congobadly drawn sexy women in contortionist poses to satisfy the male gaze. But that is modifying as the readership of comics expands to embrace women and a plurality of voices, there are now comics for everyone. Thank heavens!

Since most comic creators tend to love comics, there is no surprise that they write and draw the kind of material they like to read (for good or ill), which tends to the adult. I am one such creator; almost all the work I create is aimed at 15+ readers of all genders. Given what I said above regarding Australian comics and the book market here, there isn’t a lot of incentive to produce comics for kids in the way there is for picture books. But this is changing as there are few comics aimed at kids coming onto the market, like Gregory Mackay’s delightful Anders and the Comet , Sorab Del Rio’s Rudy Cool, Sarah Ellerton’s Finding Gossamyr, Ruth Starke and Greg Holfeld’s Captain Congo, (an adventure in the ‘Tin Tin’ mold).

andersThere has been a slowly building countervailing trend to produce comics for kids (like Toon Books, run by Francoise Mouly), especially in a pedagogical context, since many teachers I’ve spoken to are happy to find anything that kids will read. At long last the educational world has accepted that reading comics is still reading, and moreover, helps with reading by having words constantly associated with what they stand for, even emotions, smells, sounds, the sense of touch and the like. In that respect, the arguments put forward for picture books can be applied to comics as well. I hope this will lead to the presence of comics available to readers at all age groups in a manner found in Japan and Europe.

Guest post: Jan Latta, author and wildlife photographer

Today I’m delighted to welcome Jan Latta to my blog.cover 50% 72dpi222

Jan is an adventurous author and photographer who follows animals in their natural habitats to create her series of 14 True to Life books for children. She’s travelled to Borneo for orangutans, the mountains of China for pandas, Uganda for Dr Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees, India for tigers, nine times to Africa for the big cats, elephants, rhinos and zebras, and Sri Lanka for the endangered leopard book.

In this fascinating guest post, she tells the story about a day in the Maasai Mara, Africa.


AUTHOR AND WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER I hear a noise outside my tent I can’t identify – the rustle of leaves followed by munching sounds. I hold my breath and listen. Then I hear the deep rumble of a large animal’s stomach. I open the flap of my tent and see a magnificent bull elephant, and he’s only a metre away. I watch him eating and as I’m not in any danger, I go back to sleep.

5.0am: After my wake-up call and a mug of tea I open the zipper of my tent and wriggle my torch into the sky. This is the signal for the guide to escort me to the jeep.

6.0am: I watch the gentle beauty of a journey of giraffes in the golden sunrise. When they are close I can see the little Oxpecker birds clean the giraffe’s teeth and then ride on their mane. There is a lioness lapping water from a puddle. She looks at me and her eye contact is mesmerizing. She walks right up to the jeep, still looking up at me, then turns, walks beside the jeep and then into the bush. My guide says, “You didn’t take a photo?” I said no, because it was so special to have eye contact with her. My guide said it was the lioness we saw yesterday with her wildebeest kill and her two cubs.lena_the_lion_by_jan_latta_0980795869

9.0am: Fat hippos grunting, honking and farting their way up the river with their nasty habit of swishing dung into the next hippo’s face. A herd of elephants walk silently past the jeep and there is a tiny calf trotting along with its wobbly little trunk exploring everything. It’s adorable. Then I see my favourite animal, the cheetah. She is resting in the tall grass after her morning hunt.chipper-lge

11.0am: Drive back to camp for lunch and a shower. The guide calls the camp when we are close and a bucket of hot water is waiting for me. The bucket is tipped into my inside shower unit by a rope outside. I wash my socks but I have to stay guarding them because last year baboons stole all my socks from the tent rope. I wonder what they do with them?

3.0pm: On the way to see the lioness again there is a huge male lion walking towards her area. This is very dangerous because the male will demand the wildebeest remains, or he might kill the cubs to mate with the lioness. The guide stops and I hold my breath. What will happen? The lioness is rigid and stares at the male – but he just flops in the grass and falls asleep – plonk –he’s the daddy!

On the way back to camp I see a very cranky rhino on the horizon. 10 minutes later he thunders out of the bush, with dust and dirt flying everywhere. I yelp a warning and the guide accelerates. The rhino gets closer and closer to the jeep but finally we pick up speed and escape him.

7.0pm: I walk to the main tent to have dinner with the camp manager. During dinner we hear a loud bang, and unzip a section of the tent to see a lion chase a wildebeest right through the middle of the tent. Wow!! The Maasai run to help me and I try to calm down but realise I have to walk back to my tent with the pride close to camp. Two Maasai escort me safely back to my tent. The lions roar throughout the night and in the morning I hear the soft pant breathing of a lion right next to my tent. rufus

I’ve had so many amazing adventures creating my series of 14 True to Life books and it is a privilege to be so close to them in the wild. To be the “voice” to tell their story in both photographs and words.



Check out Jan’s website here. You can also buy her books and DVD direct from the website.

Watch her fabulous wildlife videos on You Tube!

Connect with her on Facebook here.

Contact her for exciting school and festival presentations:

Guest post: Claire Boston on creating characters

AllthatSparklesBTRomance novelist Claire Boston is a guest on my blog today as part of her blog tour, and she’s going to talk about creating fantastic characters with particular reference to her new novel, All that Sparkles, part of The Texan Quartet.

Claire was a voracious reader as a child, devouring anything by Enid Blyton as well as series such as Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. Then one school holidays when she’d run out of books to read, her mum handed her ‘Hot Ice’ by Nora Roberts and she instantly fell in love with romance novels.
The love of reading soon turned to a love of writing and Claire struggled to keep within the 1500 word limit set by her teachers for any creative writing assignments. When she finally decided to become serious about her stories, she joined Romance Writers of Australia, found her wonderful critique group and hasn’t looked back.
When Claire’s not reading or writing she can be found in the garden attempting to grow vegetables, or racing around a vintage motocross track. If she can convince anyone to play with her, she also enjoys cards and board games.
Claire lives in Western Australia, just south of Perth, with her husband, who loves even her most annoying quirks, and her grubby, but adorable Australian bulldog.

Welcome, Claire! HeadShot

Creating characters that talk back to you

by Claire Boston
It’s my belief that characters are at the very centre of any story. Without good characters, the reader won’t care enough to read on, no matter how good the plot might be. So when it comes to crafting characters my process has grown over time.
When I first began writing I started with the obvious – name and physical appearance:
– Hair length, colour
– Eye colour
– Height
– Weight
– Age
I added in their occupation, maybe a little about the family background and got to work. Needless to say my characters didn’t leap off the page for my early stories.
Then someone recommended Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. It’s a really easy read and I have gone on to recommend it to many others. I learnt my characters had to want something, there had to be a reason why they wanted it and there had to be something stopping them getting it. So the character’s goal, motivation and conflict were added to my character profile.
This helped me immensely and my characters definitely came to life, but last year I discovered Cherry Adair’s Writers Bible. This is a 59 page document that she uses to plot all her stories and is available from her website. She has ten pages dedicated to character development, which absolutely fascinated me. The questions she asks about her characters are in depth and comprehensive. Now, not all of it is relevant to my writing, but I’ve taken the bits I like and I’ve added it to my character profiles. I won’t go into detail about the questions because it’s copyrighted information, but I believe it has helped me shape my characters. (Oh and if you’re a plotter, you might love her 16 pages of plotting that’s also in the Writers Bible)
I really love to get involved with my characters and find out what makes them tick. Imogen and Christian in All that Sparkles were so much fun as was Imogen’s father, Remy. I know my characters have come to life when I’m writing dialogue and one of them says something and I think, “I didn’t know that about you.” Or they talk back to you and tell you they’re not going to do what you want them to do. (I don’t think I’m mad, as I’ve had other authors say that their characters talk to them as well!)
One of the reasons that All that Sparkles is part of The Texan Quartet is because I couldn’t bear to leave my characters behind and I had to find out what happened next with them. I hope you enjoy meeting Imogen and Christian as much as I did. You can let me know what you thought by contacting me:
Twitter @clairebauthor

You can buy All that Sparkles

More about All that Sparkles:AllThatSparklesCover

Imogen Fontaine is living every girl’s dream.

She is a fashion designer for her family’s haute couture label, lives in a mansion, has a great circle of friends and is the apple of her father’s eye. Everything is perfect.

Until the day that Christian, the boy at the center of her childhood heartbreak, walks back into her life.

From there her life starts to unravel, as long-kept secrets are revealed. Imogen learns that her past was built on lies and betrayal, shattering the illusion of her perfect existence. She must seek out the truth if she has any hope of forging a new path for herself and discovering true freedom.

But can she convince Christian that there is a place for him in her new life?

Guest post: Adèle Geras on retelling fairy tales

FEAgerasToday I’m delighted to feature the wonderful Adèle Geras on my blog. Adèle is a renowned British author who has written more than 95 books for children, young adults, and adults. Her best-known works for young people are Troy(shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal); Ithaka; Happy Ever After(previously published as the Egerton Hall trilogy) Silent Snow, Secret Snow, and A Candle in the Dark. Her novels for adults include Made in Heaven, Cover Your Eyes, and A Hidden Life.

This week, her latest book, Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France, with gorgeous illustrations by Fiona McDonald, comes out with Christmas Press, and to mark it Adèle has written about why she loves retelling fairy tales.

Retelling Fairy Tales

by Adèle Geras

 This week, two fairy tales, retold by me, are going to be published by Christmas Press in Australia.  The book is called Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France.  They have been beautifully illustrated by Cover.inddFiona McDonald. I love the look of this book. The designers have found a fairytale font that I’d never seen before and the whole production is gorgeous. I can’t wait for it to appear.

I’m a bit evangelical about fairy tales. I was brought up on them. Almost the first thing I can remember reading for myself was a version of Rapunzel. I can bring to mind even now, decades later, the look of my edition of Andersen’s stories ( which are not all traditional, of course) with Rex Whistler’s illustrations. I think it is important that children can still read the story, and not just look at Hollywood versions of these tales.

Retelling fairy tales is one of the things I like doing most as a writer. The reason I’m often asked to do this is, I think, because back in the 90s, I wrote a trilogy of novels based on fairytales, set in my old boarding school, Roedean. They are now published together as a book called Happy Ever After.  Shortly after they came out I was commissioned to retell some fairytales and that book (Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories) is the one from which my Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France  are taken. I’ve also retold The Six Swan Brothers as well as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. 

For a lazy writer like me, it’s a real pleasure not to have to think of a plot. I always find working out the plot the hardest thing of all. I  always have to scratch about a bit when I’m writing something original.  This is never a problem with fairy tales.  They are there, and the reason they have lasted for so long and have been passed down over the centuries is because they are very good stories, dealing as they do with the most basic aspects of human existence: love, death, ambition, jealousy, fear, etc. They teach us that good will triumph, that the wicked will be punished and that it never hurts to be polite….look what happened to the unfortunate sister who was rude to an old woman by a well and ended up spewing toads and vipers from between her rosy lips.

Wonderful characters abound in fairy tales. Princes, monsters, ogres, dwarves, dragons, beautiful damsels who turn out to be braver and cleverer than they know, dreadful mothers, wonderful nurturing mothers, horrible husbands (Bluebeard is a lulu!) and envious siblings. The writer has nothing to do but let the  narrative unfold and all is well.

This might be thought boring but it’s not.  Just as having a fourteen – line limit for a sonnet is liberating rather than restricting, so the fact that you can’t change things too much makes you concentrate on the language. And that’s where the fun starts. I strive to make the words themselves as resonant and beautiful; as suitable to the tale I’m telling as I possibly can.

I hope very much that everyone who reads my versions of Beauty and The Beast and Bluebeard goes on to read lots more fairy tales told by lots of other people.  And I hope that someone asks me to retell another fairy tale, one of these days….

Adèle’s website:

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