2017 Book Discovery: introduction to a new blog series

Today’s the start of a new series featuring the reading picks of writers and illustrators: their book discovery of 2017. It can be a new book out this year, or an older one discovered for the first time, or an old favourite re-read and re-discovered. And in the introduction today, I’m featuring a book I hadn’t read since childhood, but which I re-discovered, in a new edition, after this year visiting the place where it was actually set: the place which is so much more than a setting in the book, but is a character in its own right. Having been there now, I understand exactly why that is.

The name of the book? It’s The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M.Boston. And the name of the place? It’s the Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire. I always remembered reading that book with its dramatic wintry opening in the middle of floods and snow as seven year old Tolly, whose parents are overseas, arrives to stay for Christmas with his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, the ancient family home. And there he gets to know and love his great-grandmother, the ancient, friendly, extraordinary house and the secret life of its ghostly inhabitants, the children of Green Knowe who lived there through the centuries and who are there still.

There was nothing frightening about this evocation of a haunted house; instead it was enchanting,  comforting and beautiful. I took to it immediately as a child not only because it’s very well-written and engaging and vivid but also because I think unconsciously it reminded me of our own ancient house in rural France, with its haunted yet warm atmosphere. Getting there for a holiday was always so exciting and I could totally identify with Tolly’s feelings. The book stuck in my head all those years because of it, but I had no idea that Lucy Boston had written it around an actual place.

It was when we were staying in Cambridge for a month this year that my friend and fellow writer Adèle Geras, who lives in Cambridge, told me about the house. So one beautiful June day we set off for

Green Knowe, aka the Manor, Hemingford Grey

Hemingford Grey and there, in that 900 year old house–the oldest continually inhabited house in Britain, apparently!–the book I’d loved came to life again in the most magical way. There, right there, was what Tolly had seen when he arrived that wild winter’s night, what he’d found when he explored that extraordinary house from top to bottom, what he’d seen when he looked out of the window at the glorious garden(though, granted, it was summer when we were there, not winter–but the Green Knowe series continued for another 5 books, and the summer garden certainly appeared in them.) Lucy Boston’s imagination had, it seemed, made visible what was there in those ancient stones, waiting to be evoked. And the fact that not only had her son Peter created the charming illustrations for the books on the spot as it were, but that his widow Diana still lived there and acted as tour guide for the pilgrims who came to the house, added to the wonder of it all. The strange thing was though that of all the people in the motley group Diana took around that day, we were the only ones who’d come for Green Knowe, for Lucy Boston the writer: all the others, mostly Americans, had come for Lucy Boston the patchwork artist! Her patchworks were famous it appeared…as famous as her books. At first it was disconcerting to me–and then I remembered Mrs Oldknow making patchwork by the fire and thought how extraordinarily apt it all was–a patchwork book of stories about a patchwork house whose elements from different centuries did not jar but worked as a harmonious whole..

I bought a new edition of the book from Diana at the Manor shop, as well as a couple of other books in the series. She told me that though the first two were still in print, the others had fallen out of print and so she’d taken the step of republishing them herself, and they sold ‘like hot cakes’. Back at our Cambridge flat, I re-read The Children of Green Knowe, and found its re-discovery deepened enormously by the experience I’d just had. Yet the original enchantment remained too. True reading magic indeed.

(I’m not the only one who loves this book; see this lovely review in The Guardian.)

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Kangaroos: a memoir piece

 

Childhood, Australia. Left to right: younger sister Camille, brother Louis-Xavier, little sister Gabrielle, and myself holding baby brother Bertrand! Older sisters Dominique and Beatrice were in France.

And to follow up on the previous memoir piece I republished earlier this week, here’s another. Titled Kangaroos, it’s about the experience of being a schoolchild suspended between two school cultures, in Australia and France.

Kangaroos

In Sydney, school plodded on, seemingly never-ending. Every day, walking down the hissing shore of the Pacific Highway, we followed the same path, exclaimed over the same landmarks. Down the highway, plod, plod, till you came to our street, then down its eerily quiet and shady length to our house. On the way was a house, covered with creepers and with a magical garden full of beautiful old-fashioned flowers, presided over by two old sisters in cardigans, twinkling spectacles and blue-rinsed hair, whom I thought looked just like the good fairies in my favourite Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. And there was a creepy bit past which you had to run, before the mythologised figure of evil that might be lurking in it, caught you.

There was the block of flats, next door, filled with rich old people who mostly tried hard to ignore us noisy woggy interlopers in their hushed retirement. (Once, amusingly,  Dad got an anonymous letter, which had been shoved through our letterbox, and which asked ”the Frenchman with the loud voice” to ”kindly desist” from shouting too early in the morning at the kids! He didn’t obey…) There was one notable exception, though, a lively old lady whose late husband had once been an important diplomat. She owned a huge, ancient Rolls Royce that she once took us out in for a ‘spin’–actually a sedate procession– down the street, magnificent as a ship, with her tiny figure behind the wheel. She liked us so we were also invited back to her flat to exclaim over all the quaint souvenirs she’d collected in her long life, over all the continents. I remember particularly a flotilla of beautiful little ivory elephants of different sizes. She’d give us a piece of cake and say to Maman, “Well, you people really have been places, too, haven’t you?” And I’d think, well, but just to Empeaux, really, and Biarritz, and Toulouse–places mostly familiar, a little mysterious, sometimes. But mostly familiar. Not like her, with her exotic list of postings!

Whenever it came time for us to go away on our French holidays, other kids at school would be envious. “It’s not fair!” they’d chorus. It was one of the few times that I was pleased to be different, to have a chaotic, unusual family scattered every which way.”You lucky things!” the kids would moan. “Missing out on school!”

And I’d say, “Yes, but we have to go to school there,” but nobody really believed that. France was a mythical country. There could be no real school there, with teachers and chalk and homework. My friends merely indulged my repeated assurances that indeed there was a school in the village, and that we had to go there, at least some of the time.

But school there was, set just across the road from the driveway at the back of our house. The school consisted of a rendered brick building of two storeys, the first storey being the schoolroom, the top storey being the teacher’s house. There was a courtyard, fenced in with wire and cement, and discreetly to one side, a couple of ghastly, smelly squat toilets. In the schoolroom, there were rows of desks, pegs to hang up your coats and hats, maps, and a large blackboard.

At the beginning of our time there, each desk came equipped with ink bottles. As a small child, you first had to write on slates, with chalk, then progress to the ink. You had to write with pens dipped in the ink. We never used slates in Australia, or ink pens–those had gone out before our time–just pencils and later biros, and I struggled, especially when it came to the ink pens, for my writing wasn’t of the tidiest–eager, yes, but not tidy. In France, you had pieces of pink or blue blotter to work with, as you formed the unfamiliar curly letters in the exercise books whose pages reminded me of check aprons. Even the exercise books were different, with their thick glossy covers and their checked-apron pages. And if you smudged, oh heck! Madame Lafforgue would be behind you, sharp words at the ready, maybe if you were persistently hopeless, a clip around the ear, too.

One of the things that made our friends in Australia suspicious about the existence of the Empeaux school was the fact that no-one wore uniforms. Instead, you had to wear a nylon overall over your ordinary clothes. How I hated those things, which seemed to me the height of dagginess, worse even than school uniforms!

To the other children in the school at Empeaux, we were known as ‘les kangorous’. Barely believable, rather comic figures who suddenly bounced into sight, and just as inexplicably, bounced away again.

In Australia, I was sometimes singled out for cringe-making praise by the teachers(‘See, English is not even her native language, and yet see how well she speaks and writes it!’)In France, Madame Lafforgue often singled us out for special mention, too, so that in both places, we had the sense of being there, and yet not quite there. We could not be the same as the others, here or there. To the children of Empeaux, the very notion of school in Australia was as ridiculous as French school had been to our Australian friends. Those who knew where Australia was–and there were very few of them–imagined something that we couldn’t even begin to picture in our minds, let alone recognise.

The school was full of farmers’ children–Gisele, with her bright red cheeks, her voice which was an uncanny younger imitation of the way the older people spoke, as if they had a mouthful of the rich cake called fougasse in their mouths; Raymond and Alain, two strapping boys who marked time in the last grades of primary school–no way did they want to have to go to the town high school; Veronique, who was really friendly until the day I discovered she was copying all my work. I’d stared at her, rather embarassed, but Madame Lafforgue had noticed. Her withering tongue made poor Veronique cry, so that I felt cold with reflected humiliation, myself. I tried to show her that I didn’t care if she had copied my work, but she wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, after that.

And then there were the others. Children as foreign as we were, and yet less. Their parents had come to the village, attracted by the work in the ceramics factory. There were two Portuguese families–Antonio and his two brothers; and Maria and Manuel. And then there were the Algerian boy, Mohammed, and his little sister, Aisha. Antonio and his brothers were as rough as the crewcut hair on their heads, dressed in tattered blue clothes, voices grating and harsh.

Maman, whose father was from Portugal, smiled and said they were from the ‘fin fond du Portugal”, the depths of Portugal, the harsh, distant, backward countryside. They lived in a dilapidated old barn on the outskirts of the village, without electricity or running water. Some of the villagers turned up their noses at them, even though it was barely 20 years since they’d got these self-same conveniences.

But it was no good feeling sorry for Antonio or his brothers. They would hit out wildly in all directions, and were much feared. Antonio protected his little brothers through thick and thin, and his attitude to us was of aggression mixed with fear. Just when he’d sorted out the French, thought he understood, along we came, of the place yet not of it, smelling of privilege and a life he could not even imagine.

So I came home one day with a tooth smashed in by Antonio, violence I hadn’t courted or understood. He’d been in the playground and had brought out his snack, a vanilla pod carefully wrapped in brown paper. I’d said, “What’s that?” And then he’d hit me. I didn’t understand, and the shock and pain of it was almost as frightening as the blood running down my chin.

Papa had waited for Antonio, the next day, after school. “Come here, boy,” he’d called out, in Portuguese, and after one horrified glance at him, Antonio fled. It wasn’t just the threat of retribution that had frightened him, though; he gave the impression of someone well-used to kicks and blows. It was the fact that my father, that stranger, the senior kangaroo, spoke Portuguese! Antonio never bothered me again.

The other Portuguese children, Maria and Manuel, lived in the village, in Monsieur Martin’s old house, when the latter died. They were from Northern Portugal, Maria never tired of explaining to us, waving a deprecating hand towards Antonio and his brothers from the ‘fin fond’. In her descriptions of her life there, their old home was a marvel, a place of marble floors and stone courtyards and fountains. “We were so rich!” she’d sigh, stroking our dolls’ hair. Because she and her brother were quiet and well-behaved, they were allowed to come to our place to play, and Maria would tell us stories of the wonderful places they used to live in. I half-believed her, but wondered why she and her family had come to live in Empeaux. One day, though, she was in full flow, telling us these stories, glancing around her as she spoke, so that her Portuguese palaces took on the atmosphere of our house. Then Maman came in, and said something to her, in Portuguese. Maria flushed scarlet, and stammered something.

I thought then that Maman had made a tart comment; but no, it had merely been to ask her what time their mother was expecting them. Like Antonio, she hadn’t expected my parents to speak Portuguese, and this sudden discovery withered her tall tale-telling. I was sorry; I’d liked her stories, and even though I hadn’t really believed in them, I missed the perfumed gardens and the almonds always in blossom, and the marvellous kinds of sweetmeats done up in silver or gold foil, that she’d told us about…

The Algerian children clung to each other, stepping carefully in the minefield of village society. They were the first of a new wave of settlers, and even the Portuguese children knew, in the instinctive, cruelly defensive way that all children soon learn, that they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Most of the children ignored them, but one or two, like Antonio, were actively vicious.

Mohammed was small and thin, his sister with a great shock of black hair, frightened eyes, and a nose that seemed to be always running. Of course, the children seized on this as a visible sign of difference, a reason as to why it was alright to persecute them, with Antonio as the ringleader. They were careful, of course, not to do it within earshot of Madame Lafforgue, who couldn’t abide bullying, but in the playground away from her eagle eye, it was a different matter.

You couldn’t help seeing it, hearing it, and I wished often that I  could be brave enough to stop it. And then, one day, quite suddenly, it did. I still don’t know what happened, but one morning, there were Mohammed and Antonio in the playground, throwing a ball at each other. At recess, they joined up again, and Mohammed’s little sister followed them. I said to Gisele, “I wonder how they managed to patch it up,” and Gisele, incuriously following my glance, shrugged her shoulders. She never wondered about other people. She couldn’t understand why anyone might do so.

My paper introducing contemporary YA afterlife fiction

I’m very pleased to announce that my paper, Mapping the undiscovered country: a brief introduction to contemporary afterlife fiction for young adults, has just been published in the excellent journal The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature. It is a short overview of some of the books I’ve been examining for the exegesis part of my PHD, and introduces some of the work I’ve been doing as I look at this fascinating sub-genre of YA speculative fiction.  (By the way, the paper only looks at that part of it, not at the creation of my own novel The Ghost Squad–the exegesis deals with that as well, it’s just not covered in this paper.)

Would be very interested to know what readers think, so do feel free to let me know!

For whom the bell tolls–a memoir piece

Another of my memoir pieces that I’m republishing: this one’s about the house and the village in south-west France where we lived through parts of my childhood.

Back then: La Nouvelle Terrebonne from the back, with the castle and church seen in background

For whom the bell tolls

My childhood and adolescence were spent bouncing between Australia and France as my expatriate French parents never emigrated formally to Australia. My father worked for a big French building firm in Australia, after having worked previously in Indonesia and Africa, and a part of his contract entitlements was a regular paid trip back to France for the whole family. So every two or three years, we’d up Sydney sticks to spend two or three months in our French home, in the tiny village of Empeaux, in the Haute-Garonne departement of south-west France, thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse.

My parents had bought our beautiful eighteenth-century house in Empeaux, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as a dilapidated shell in 1959 and proceeded to restore it to its former glory as the second finest house in the village(after the castle)through many years of huge builder’s bills.

The village was dominated by the castle, the church and, surprising in such a bucolic setting, the factory. Empeaux had been declining for many years when the new owner of the castle decided to open a ceramics factory. It was built at the far end of the village, right away from its main street, which was lined with thin, tall stone houses on one side, and on the other, our own large house, flanked by two much less imposing houses. Further down was the church with its pleasant, most unghostly little graveyard. Up on the hill at one end of the street, surrounded by a high fence and the barking of what we assumed were ferocious guard dogs, was the castle—not an ancient medieval fortress but a beautiful seventeenth-century building done up in the nineteenth century, all silvery-topped turrets and narrow windows.

The people who lived in the village’s main streets were old-time residents; the new ones who poured into the area, after the ceramics factory work, lived down the hill, away from the centre–Portuguese and North Africans, and young people from other villages.

On one side of our house lived the Vaccaronnes, peasant farmers; on the other, Remi Peres and his dog. Monsieur Vaccaronne had emigrated from Italy many, many years ago, so long ago that he often forgot he ever had. In fact, he was the epitome of the French peasant–canny, suspicious, pale blue eyes full of calculating hospitality, beret jammed tightly on his balding head. He and his wife had two grown up daughters who married quite late, and a great love of the variety singers in spangled suits who proliferated on French television screens. He would ask us into his kitchen, and, proferring a tiny finger of gnole, the fiery bootleg liquor that everyone made in defiance of the authorities, would point proudly at the television, where Claude Francois or Johnny Hallyday crooned or yelled. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he would say to my father.

Papa hated TV. We knew that. We didn’t have one at home, either in France or Australia. But he contented himself with an ambivalent  murmur, while old Monsieur Vaccarone hummed along with the singer on television. Then he turned to us with a wicked smile. “I want to show you something. Come and see!”

In the clean whitewashed wall of his kitchen there was a door, set well into the wall. He opened it. We knew what was beyond it, we’d been there before. But still, each time was a shock, like a passing from one time into another. Here the walls had been left plain, the smells were not of daube or saucisse de Toulouse, as in the kitchen, but a rich full, deep smell, both repellent and warm, the smell of familiar animals.

In one corner were the stalls for the Vaccarones’ two cows, which were driven off to pasture every day by Rose Vaccarone, calling out shrilly to her dog, “Euh! Mizette! Euh! Euh!” We’d walked to the pasture once or twice, and found Rose sitting there with her cows, her feet snuggled into the warm flowery grass.

But the cows weren’t there, this time, and the hens were out, scratching in the main street near the pump, squawking indignantly at birds landing near them. But the pig was there, an enormous, huge, nightmarish sow with evil eyes and an obscenely displayed belly, as several tiny shapes bustled and squealed at her teats.

“Beautiful,” said Monsieur Vaccarone, in the same admiring tone that he’d used for the singers. “She’s a wonder, that one. Always has so many piglets!” He looked at them in silence for a while, while I wrinkled my nose, thinking that it smelt of bacon and sausages in here, a thought that made me feel horrid. There was something disgusting about smelling the food on the living animal.

Monsieur Vaccaronne cackled, unexpectedly. “She’s a bit of a witch, though. I have to watch her. She’s as likely to eat her piglets as not. I’ve come in here sometimes and. . ” But Camille and I didn’t wait to hear any more. We raced outside, into the sunshine near the pump. “Yuck!” Camille said, and made retching noises. “How revolting!”

I could hardly answer. The idea of the cannibal sow eating her babies disgusted and terrified me. It reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, a story I’d always hated. I would see the sow’s small eyes in my dreams, I thought…

 

the Empeaux church today

Instructed by Maman, who wanted some peace, Papa often swept us along in his wake when he went to visit neighbours. To visit, for instance, the public telephone facility which was in Monsieur Martin’s house. Monsieur Martin lived over the street in one of those tall thin houses, and he was paid by the PTT to provide this service for the whole village. The PTT, like postal and telecommunications services the world over, had a probably undeserved reputation for casualness, a certain indolence and indifference to customers’ needs. Disgruntled customers maintained that its acronym stood for ‘Petits Travaux Tranquilles’ (Quiet Little Jobs’), maintaining that they’d once stood in a post office queue for ten minutes while staff discussed what they’d done on the weekend!

Be that as it may, Monsieur Martin was the representative of the PTT in Empeaux, and he took his job seriously. No PTT jokes in his presence!He was extremely well informed on the ins and outs of  everyone’s business in the village, and when we got our own telephone, Papa missed the snippets of gossip at the Martin house. Monsieur Martin, to my eyes, looked just like the other old men in the village, with his big flat beret, and soft speech full of succulent patois words, but he, too, wasn’t the storybook peasant we’d seen in books. He’d been a Communist in his youth, and had stood as a candidate for the Party in local elections, and he wasn’t married to the woman we all knew as Madame Martin, but lived with her in sin! I was amazed that a white-haired woman with a wispy bun and the traditional black floral pinafore of the region could possibly be a source of scandal. Like our other neighbour, Remi Peres, Monsieur Martin had little time for priests. “Oh—those ones!” he would say. “Those ones–like vultures, they are, waiting for you to be dying, so they can pounce, with their nonsense talk of heaven and hell!” I would watch Papa covertly, then, sure he’d be shocked, horrified, for religion means a good deal to him, but he would merely smile, shrug his shoulders. Yet if we’d said that. . .

Neighbours like champion gossip Monsieur Penain, who appeared on the dot, outside his door, every time any vehicle was heard in the village. He always came out with two buckets, as if he’d been just about to go and draw water, or scrub his step. You could see him, his eyes busy with speculation, suspicion, imagination, every time. Especially if it was a vehicle drawing up outside our house! At the time, my two older sisters, Dominique and Beatrice, respectively seven and five years older than me, kept a flock of admirers around them, and every time they came to visit, pop! Out would come Monsieur Penain and his buckets, just like one of those weather houses where the little man comes out if it rains. In fact, we had one of those weather houses, at home, and guess what the little man was called?

And the middle-aged woman who lived down one end of the village, Madame Lascours—she was a witch, from a long line of witches. People went to her for the curing of warts, of small ills, for counsel in love affairs and a spot of fortune-telling..

It seemed strange to me, as an adolescent: the village with its mixture of anticlericalism and piety, its acceptance of television singers and supernatural powers. It wasn’t consistent, I thought. And without consistency, how could you map the world, find your way around it?

You could listen to the stories of old Remi Peres, for instance, whom Papa called Remi but whom we had to call Monsieur Peres. He lived right next to the church, in an ancient, incredibly filthy hovel which looked as if it had survived from the Middle Ages. He’d been married, but his wife had taken off decades ago, with their child, grown-up now but who never came to see him. Now he lived with an old, blind dog, whom he treated alternately with extravagant affection and heedless cruelty. He drove a battered old 2CV, and lived on an army pension. Every week, he would drive to the nearby village of Saint Thomas and drink away a good portion of his pension in the cafe. And talk! How he could talk! Papa would invite him into the house, and he would sit there, firmly grasping a glass of some fiery spirit and talk, in a mixture of sardonic humour and menace. “When the Revolution comes, my dear sir,” he would say, “Ah, when it comes, all this will be ours!”

Papa wouldn’t bristle, his nostrils would stay pink, not pinch with white rage. He would say, softly, looking him in the eyes, “Ah, but then, Remi, I will be ready for you!”
Honour satisfied, Remi would start in on one of his stories. Scandalous stories, all, which he’d recount with a sly twinkle. Maman hated those stories. She would call out to us, curtly, “Come on! I’ve got some work for you to do!” and later, when he’d gone, she’d say to Papa, “Honestly, Georges, I don’t know why you encourage him. He is not a nice man, not a nice man at all. . ”

Most of the time, I saw him as a harmless teller of amazing stories, but we all knew there was another side to him. We’d seen him kicking his dog, and that gleam in his eyes when he talked about the Revolution wasn’t all make-believe. There was a harsh judgment, there, the pitiless resentment of the peasant. Once or twice, too, there had been another thing in his eyes, something as he looked at us, the girls, something creepy. But despite all this, his stories were amazing, evoking a bygone world, a world of folktale where the rich and powerful got their come-uppance, and the poor, but clever tricked them, easily!

Like the stories about the inhabitants of the castle. Remi said that the castle brought ruin and bad luck to whoever lived there–a fitting fate, in his opinion, for anyone who’d have the money to live in a castle. Before the present owners, there’d been an aristocratic young man who’d lived there–a pedale, as Remi called him, using the colloquial word for homosexual. ‘That one, he thought his crap didn’t stink,’ said Remi, ‘he lorded it over everyone. But then, well, you see, ‘ went on the old gossip, with a sly wink, ‘one of his servants, his cook, in fact, was also a pedale and he was in love with his boss and very jealous when the young chatelain would invite his other friends for their..er frolics. So, you see, one day, fed-up of it as he was, he poisoned the young chatelain’s dish, and the young man died, and then it all came out, all of it. . Such a to-do there was! ‘ And Remi would laugh, and we sat there, fascinated yet repelled, not only by the story but that someone should actually find it funny! He had lots of stories about priests, too, and what he said was their hypocrisy and how he himself, Remi Peres, had caught one in flagrante delicto with his housekeeper. It was Papa’s turn to frown at us, then, and say, “Haven’t you lot got something you should be doing?”

Because there were no shops in the village, mobile shops came once a week. There was a baker, an ordinary butcher and a horse butcher, and a grocery van. The vans would draw into the main streets, horns sounding, and people would pour out. All of them–the Vaccarones and the Penains, the Lascours and the Peres, and the other people who lived further down in the village.

But not the inhabitants of the castle. Occasionally, you’d see the son tearing out in his new sports car, doing wheelies down the street, and disappearing in a cloud of dust, but he never stopped to speak to anyone. His father, who owned the ceramics factory, was also a doctor, and Remi’s story of the Castle Curse seemed to be vindicated when several things happened to the castle family. The son, coming home late at night from a party, knocked down and killed a child on a bike. He was arrested, sent to gaol, and his mother declined visibly. And then his father was arrested for fraud and sent to prison himself. .

But that was several years in the future. Now, the village stands around the mobile shops, gossiping, passing traditional compliments and insults with the shopkeeper. “Call that a sausage?”

“Well, madame, that is the best sausage in the region, that’s all!”

“Navel oranges. . hmm. .  foreign, aren’t they?”

“Yes, of course, they’re from California! And look, madame, the best apples. Golden Delicious, no less!”

It seemed that everyone wanted the new, the strange, the foreign. I saw Remi Peres’ raised eyebrow when Maman said to the grocery man, “Golden Delicious? Horrible, floury things! Where are our good, traditional apples, the reinettes?”

She was several years too early, in her desire for the traditional, the old-fashioned, the crafted myriad varieties of apple as against the mass-produced EEC fluff. The others shook their heads.

“You have to move with the times, madame! These are modern times!” And Maman would give an angry, small laugh.

And then there was the glas, sounding out over the village. The glas, the ringing of the bells for the dead, the bells tolling, strange, portentous, somehow chilling. It rang several times when we were there, for the old, reaped by age, the young, felled by accident. Another grave in the cemetery, already filled with carefully-maintained graves and sepulchres. Everyone came to the burials, everyone, even those who hadn’t really known the dead, even those who despised priests and religion–for the burials were always attended by a priest–and for a long time I thought it was to show solidarity, the ancient togetherness of the peasant community. But then, one day, with the glas sounding, tolling, over the village, the procession wending its way down to the graveyard, we heard a conversation between two mourners. Remi Peres and Madame Lascours, or maybe it was someone else he was addressing.

“Who is it that the bell is tolling for?” she said. “Who has died?”

And he looked at her, the sly smile in his eyes. “I have no idea, madame, no idea! But if it is not for me, and it is not for you—why should we care, who it’s for?”

The creation of Building Site zoo, part two: the illustrations

In Part Two, here’s Laura Wood’s great post about how she went about creating the visual world of Building Site Zoo. And  it includes samples of her roughs, storyboard, and work as it developed–thanks so much for sharing them with us, Laura!

Creating the illustrations for Building Site Zoo, by Laura Wood

The first time I read Sophie’s manuscript, I thought it was one of the most original picture books I was ever asked to illustrate.

I knew it would have been a fun text to bring to life but also quite challenging… which is always a good thing! I knew it would be hard for me to draw all those buildings and machines, since it’s not something I’m very used to!

Anyway, it didn’t take me long to decide to accept the challenge.

The first things publishers want to see are always the main characters of the story, so I started from there. The story doesn’t say explicitly who the characters are, which I personally love, since it gives me a lot of freedom to play around. I decided to go for brother, sister and grandpa.

After that, I started doing lot of research about cityscapes, buildings and machines before sketching ideas for the storyboard. I knew I needed to becoming familiar with the shapes of the machinery before getting the ideas out.

The idea I finally came out with was to approach the whole book, as a dual reality kind of thing: basically having two very similar spreads, the first one with the animal – the world made up by the kids – and the second one with the corresponding machine – the real world. This way, I thought the reader could make a connection easily between the text, the animals and the machinery in action. Mmm… I think written down sounds more complicated than it is, anyway here are some early storyboard sketches.

 

 

Some more storyboard sketches. As you can see, spreads developed and changed.

 

 

Once all the spreads have been approved by the publisher, I work on the final lines. For this book in particular, since there were a lot of overlapping elements on each spread, I preferred to draw some of the elements separately (background, animals, machines, characters, etc…) and put everything together in the computer.

I then proceed to colour everything. Once the internal spreads are coloured, the cover is always the last thing that gets done.

There were lots of different elements I wanted to fit in this particular cover, so I tried a few ideas but it took me quite a while to get the composition working…

 

 

The creation of Building Site Zoo, part one: the text

This month, Building Site Zoo, my picture book with the wonderful illustrator Laura Wood, is published by Hachette Australia, and to celebrate we thought we’d tell you about how the book came about and what the process was like for both the text and visual narratives. In Part One, I talk about the genesis of the text and how it developed, and in Part Two Laura will describe her process, in both words and pictures of course! Hope you enjoy reading both!

The text, by Sophie Masson

It so happened that one day in late 2014, I was in Sydney, in Ultimo, in fact, having just gone to an ASA meeting. I was sitting by myself having a cup of coffee in a quadrangle near the ASA office, and happened to look up at the cranes high above: that spot is very close to UTS where new buildings were under construction at the time. A line suddenly popped into my head: The cranes are fishing up in the sky…As soon as it did, I knew I had something. Cranes could be birds as well as machines, so in that vein I started to think about other machines that could also be seen as animals. So I pulled out the latest incarnation of the cheap little notebook I always carry in my bag, and started scribbling lines down. ‘Building site zoo,’ the title, came almost straight away, but the full lines took quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and crossing-out and rewriting.

My initial thought with Building Site Zoo was that it would make a great poem, so that’s what I worked on, when I was back home. I then sent it off to The School Magazine–to my delight it was accepted and published in the April 2015 Countdown issue.

By then, I’d started getting picture book texts accepted–Once Upon An ABC and Two Rainbows--both of whom had started as poems(in the case of Two Rainbows, two poems!) so I began to think about Building Site Zoo and how it might work as a picture book text. I spoke to my wonderful agent Margaret Connolly about it, whose ideas and suggestions are always incredibly helpful no matter what the literary project, AND who really understands picture books. We discussed how the text could be tweaked to make it more like a story and less like an impressionistic piece, which works well for a poem but not for a picture book–and yet leave the poetic central concept of the machine-animals intact. I went away and thought about it and worked on first the beginning, to introduce some characters–the child’s point of view was very important, because in fact that’s how I’d seen the whole thing from the beginning. I didn’t want to make the characters fixed: there would be a first-person point of view, but it would also encompass other family members, so it wasn’t just ‘I’ but ‘we’.  So the new opening would start:

Every morning on our walk/ We see an amazing zoo/Full of the most amazing animals/Come and see them too!

I would also identify each machine-animal, not as part of the text, but as indicators for editor and illustrator: so the bulldozer’s a bull, the jackhammer a kangaroo, the concrete mixer a hippo, etc.

Margaret loved the new revised text and sent it off on its rounds to publishers in late 2015. And in April 2016, she emailed me to say Suzanne O’Sullivan at Hachette Australia really liked the text but had a few suggestions for minor changes. These related mainly to tweaking a word or two, but the biggest change was in dropping some lines from that stanza that had started everything off, about the cranes fishing! She felt there was a change in metre which didn’t work, and that the concept of ‘firing’ also didn’t work for the age group. Looking at it, I could see just what she meant, so I dropped those two lines.

After revising the text, I sent it back–and in June 2016, it was accepted for publication. I was of course thrilled!  And even more delighted when Suzanne confirmed that the illustrator would be the wonderful Laura Wood! It was so exciting to see her roughs, and the progress on the visual narrative as it went on, and she added all kinds of fabulous details and so beautifully fleshed out the characters whom I had deliberately left undescribed. I never get over that extraordinary pleasure, of seeing my text expanded and transformed by the illustrations, producing a true creative collaboration which is immensely exciting and satisfying.

The editing of the text didn’t end there of course–with great suggestions from Hachette editor Tom Bailey-Smith and Suzanne, more words were tweaked, an extra stanza was added at the beginning, and the ending you see above was dropped in favour of a simpler and more satisfyingly cyclical one, bringing it nicely back to the beginning.

Every morning on our walk/we see an amazing zoo/full of astonishing animals/Are they in your street too?

And here too, before inviting you to turn to Part Two in which Laura talks about her creation of the illustrations, I’d like to thank and pay tribute to the publishing team at Hachette and the fabulous designer Ingrid Kwong. What a beautiful book we have all produced!

Read on!

 

 

 

Crossing the Lines: interview with Sulari Gentill

Last Friday, I published my interview with Anthony Horowitz about his brilliant crime novel/metafiction, The Word is Murder. Today I’m interviewing Sulari Gentill about her equally brilliant crime novel/metafiction, Crossing the Lines. Well-known for her popular Rowland Sinclair series of detective mysteries set in the 1930’s, Sulari has broken new ground with this novel. It feels like wonderful serendipity to me, that two such gifted authors should have created these bold new explorations of the writing experience and creative process, within the tight, gripping framework of a great crime story.

First of all, Sulari, congratulations on Crossing the Lines, a brilliant and inventive work which works really well both as a gripping crime novel and as highly effective metafiction. How did the idea first come to you?

Thank you, so much Sophie.

This was one those ideas that grew out of idle speculation.

I’ve always allowed myself the indulgence of believing in my characters when it suited me.  It makes the act of writing less lonely in a way.  I’ve always known that I played close to the line between imagination and delusion.  Interestingly, it’s this aspect of my process (if you can call it a process) that I am most asked about at festivals etc. I’ve found myself speaking often about the “the line” between imagination and delusion, confessing to those times I’ve ventured a toe across it.  I suspect it’s a game that both writers and readers play to greater and lesser extents.

I do wonder what Rowland Sinclair thinks of me.  Does he like me?  Would he read my books?  Does he find me unnecessarily sadistic?  I do, after all, visit all sorts of pain and trouble upon the poor man… and yet I feel he trusts me; that we’re working together.  I can help but think about what it would be like to be him, to have the circumstances of my existence controlled by someone else’s narrative.

Of course it’s a writer’s practice to extrapolate, to take things to their natural end, and so I have on occasion found myself pondering what would happen if I crossed the line completely, if I allowed the people I made up to take over, if I permitted them to control my life as much as I do theirs.

And somewhere from the midst these muddled musings came the story of Madeleine and Ned, who write each other and entwine the lines of their stories and their lives.

You use a very interesting and unusual narrative process, by switching back and forth between Madeleine and Edward, sometimes even within the same paragraph, which further blurs the boundaries between them–crosses the lines, in fact!–yet never becomes confusing. How did you go about doing that?

I wanted to echo the way my mind works when I write, the way in which the novel’s voice both merges with and takes over from mine—sometimes in the midst of a sentence or a thought.  I wanted to reflect that fluidity but also maintain the individuality of both voices.  To be honest, I thought it would be a great deal more difficult that it was.  I wrote this novel as I do all my novels, without a plot or plan of any sort and I wasn’t really consciously doing anything in particular.

The novel is written in third person, and the voice tends to change at a point when Maddie and Ned have the same thought or disagree, which is, I think, why the transition is smooth and not confusing.  Again, I didn’t do this consciously when I was writing – the changes were instinctive and responsive to the narrative rhythm, but, in hindsight, I see that those pivot points occurred when Ned and Maddie engage directly with each other. For a moment, at these places in the narrative, the reader’s mind is in the head of both Ned and Maddie, allowing them to move seamlessly from one point of view to the other without jarring.

You play with literary concepts and conceits–such as the ‘lines’ between genre fiction and literary fiction–with great deftness, and Crossing the Lines can be seen as a riposte to that artificial boundary-setting. Can you expand a little on that?

My reputation in Australia is primarily as a crime writer.  It’s a genre I love and respect, not just because it engages the reader in a tale of peril and intrigue, but also for its ability to hold a mirror up to society, to make social commentary in a way that is subtle and incidental but, for that, no less insightful.  The crime novel, at its finest, has many layers; it talks about the worst and best of humanity, about fear and courage, discrimination and justice.  And yet there seems to be a line, in this country particularly, that arbitrarily divides genre from literary fiction with the implication that literary fiction is somehow inherently worthy and, conversely, genre is not. To me, the line is an artificial prejudice and whether or not a novel has worth has scant to do with its genre.  With Madeleine being a crime writer and Ned a literary novelist, it seemed natural that they would have this conversation.

In the novel, you have mixed aspects of your own lived and literary experience with cameo appearances by other literary figures–such as respected author and director of Writers Victoria Angela Savage–and completely fictional elements to create a disconcerting–and fun!–hybrid narrative. Can you tell us about how you juggled all those different elements?

Whilst her circumstances sound familiar, Madeleine is not me and Crossing the Lines is a novel, not a memoir. In writing this book, I wanted to concentrate on Madeleine’s inner world and so I gave her an outer world that I knew—one that’s very similar to my own.  A familiar baseline from which I could extrapolate. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, but for this book which is all about crossing those lines between reality and imagination, it was right.

It also seemed right for a novel about crossing existential lines to allow real people from my own life to play a part in the novel (also not something I’ve really done before).  Angela Savage, the character, is Madeleine’s dear friend and trusted colleague—the real Angela is that to me.  My old friend and confidant, Leith Henry is cast as both Ned’s and Maddie’s agent.  I felt like she anchored the three of our worlds (Ned’s, Maddie’s and mine) together.

To be honest, it felt more like weaving than juggling.

Crossing the Lines is a very different kind of book to your other crime fiction, the very popular Rowland Sinclair detective series, set in 1930’s Sydney. What was the experience of writing it like, compared to those?

In many ways the experience was similar—intense and immersive.  But for the first time I was writing without a scaffolding of history, and I was writing a story that was quite internal.  It didn’t deal with larger issues of political movements and social justice.  Everything in this novel looked in rather than out.  I do remember feeling quite lonely when I wrote this book in a way that I’m not when I write Rowland.  I suspect it’s because I didn’t have as direct a link to Ned and Maddie as I do Rowland.  I am Rowland’s writer, so he speaks to me.  Ned and Maddie were each other’s writers—I just eavesdropped on what they said to and felt about each other.  I do realise I sound quite mad.  Sorry.  Sometimes it’s difficult to explain the way my mind works without sounding at least a little insane.

I’ve heard you speak at events where you have said you don’t like to look too closely at your own creative process in case it withers the magic. Yet in Crossing the Lines you have performed another act of magic: incarnating the creative process in the story of Madeleine and Edward. I can imagine it must have felt spooky at times! How did you focus on that aspect of the novel without becoming too self-conscious?

I just tried to be as honest as I could about the experience of writing as I understand it.  I think Crossing the Lines works because it doesn’t try to forensically analyse and explain the magic, simply to recreate it.  I did get self-conscious once the novel was written…I panicked that it would be read as a memoir rather than a fiction.   I even tried to talk Pantera out of wanting to publish it because it made me feel exposed and awkward.  I think I might to the only writer ever to tell a publisher, “All right, you can read it if you really insist, but I promise you’ll hate it…”  Fortunately, despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage to dissuade them.

While I was actually writing though, self-consciousness was not a problem.  I tend to lose myself when I write, I stop being so aware of me.  It’s just all about the story.  I don’t get embarrassed till later.

How have readers responded to the book? 

Pantera tells me CTL is selling much better than they had expected (but I’m not sure what that really means – maybe their expectations were low  😮 ).  I’ve had some lovely  messages from readers, especially readers who are writers, and it’s received some glowing reviews.  It’s doing well on Goodreads, but while some people really love it, there are a few who don’t get it at all  (which I did expect – it’s not your standard crime novel)  My US Publishers tell me they have very high hopes for this book… but again I’m not really sure what that means.  People (including you) whose opinion I have come to really respect, have liked it.  So I’m happy.  I know that’s really vague but it’s really hard to know as a writer… at this early stage anyway.

Yours is the second new metafiction/crime fiction novel I’ve read this year–Anthony Horowitz’ The Word is Murder is the other–which brilliantly illuminates the creative process in a highly original way. There have been other earlier works which play with those elements, such as French author Guillaume Musso’s La fille de papier (Girl on Paper) and Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden(which was made into the film Secret Window) but though they are gripping mysteries, they both ultimately ‘explain’ the apparent boundary-crossing in a way that disappointed me as a reader(and writer). Not so with your book, and Anthony’s, which stay most satisfyingly within that narrative world. Can you expand on that, and why you decided not to explain?

As a historical fiction writer and a lawyer I’ve learned that what people think happened is as important to consequences as what may actually have happened.  To me, what Ned and Madeleine believe is enough.  The story is about them, their reality.  I didn’t feel the need to rationalise it with any conspiracy or plot or illness etc.  The story is purely about the lines that writers may be tempted to cross, and why doing so is both seductive and dangerous.