Over on Writer Unboxed, I’ve had a post published which is about the wonderful experience I’ve been having, working on the marketing of A Hundred Words for Butterfly with the wonderful Spineless Wonders team. It’s been one of the best book marketing/publicity experiences ever, and in this post I wanted to pay tribute to the team and their inventiveness, imagination, passion and sheer hard work, as well as describe in detail what we did.
Here’s a short extract:
In Australia, Spineless Wonders are known and highly respected for their innovative and dynamic approach to publishing, and their marketing strategy for all their books and events has always been focused on imaginative community engagement. And as we worked on our plan for the marketing of A Hundred Words for Butterfly, that engagement became more important than ever, because a large number of Australians, including but not only in our two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, were (and still are) in lockdown due to an outbreak of the Delta strain of Covid19. (All of us working on it were in that boat). So it was even more crucial to come up with great ideas for activities that would offer people something fun, exciting and creative to do even when they were stuck in lockdown. After much discussion, we decided on three main themes/prongs for these.
On this Wednesday, September 15, at 6pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, we are going to be launching A Hundred Words for Butterfly with a fabulous online event, including interviews (of me and the narrator Sarah Kennedy), readings by the finalists of the #100words4butterfly comp, a virtual cocktail and pintxo party, games, and more!
You can join the event via the event page on Spineless Wonders Facebook or if you are not on Facebook, register via the booking link here (it’s free, but registering will mean you get all info, the link and a calendar reminder of the event).
My artist sister Camille Masson Talansier lives in the small town of Hasparren in the Basque country, 25 kms inland from Biarritz. In this charming video, made for the run-up to the release of my audio novel A Hundred Words for Butterfly, you get a glimpse of her life in this beautiful region, and the things that are important to her: art, food, family.
To check out more of Camille’s art, visit her Instagram page here, and website here.
At 5.30 pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on my You Tube channel, I’m premiering My Basque Country, a little video clip I made, which is about what the Basque country means to me. It’s linked to my audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly (coming out in September with Spineless Wonders Audio ) and gives you a bit of an insight into the setting of the story and my own strong connections to it.
It’s going to premiere at 5.30, and isn’t livestreamed, but I’ll be online at that time to answer questions and interact in the comments. All invited! Below is the link for the watch party. Hope you can join us!
And if you can’t–well the video will be available to watch on my channel any time after 5.30 pm today.
I’m really looking forward to the 2021 conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, which this year is fully online, and happening over two weekends, with bootcamps, manuscript assessments and masterclasses happening on the weekend of 16/17 October, and the main conference program on the weekend of 23 and 24 October. This is the first time the conference has been run online–it was a decision HNSA wisely made early this year, given the uncertainty surrounding the running of events.
HNSA runs absolutely wonderful conferences, and over the years I’ve had the privilege several times of presenting at these biennial events. This year is no exception, and I’m going to be appearing on both weekends, as part of an absolutely amazing program which I’m very proud to be involved in. Wearing my publisher hat, I’m going to be presenting the all-day Publishing Bootcamp on October 16, then, also wearing the publishing hat, I’ll be one of the judges in the popular First Pages Pitch Contest on October 23. Later on October 23 (quite late in fact!) I’ll be one of a group of people talking about translating historical novels in the Lost in Translation panel: I’ll be focussing there about the experience of being involved in helping to bring about the publication of a brand new English translation of the wonderful Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. Then on October 24 I’m chairing a panel called The Dark Heart, which looks at historical novels set in the 1830’s and 40’s in Australia, especially the convict period. It’s certainly going to be a very busy couple of weekends!
Check out all details of the wonderful program for the 2021 HNSA Conference here: it’s a real cornucopia of fabulous offerings! And of course, because it’s virtual, you can access it from anywhere. Registrations are open now: don’t miss out!
Today I’m posting the recipe for the final part of our Basque-themed meal. It’s probably the most famous dessert in the French Basque country, and is known simply as ‘Gateau Basque’. In A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters enjoy a slice or two of it more than once!
Rather than a ‘cake’ as such, the Gateau Basque is a pie with a yummy buttery, eggy pastry, filled with a lovely egg custard flavoured with rum. There’s also a less common black cherry-filled version in some areas of the Pays Basque which are known for their cherries. Today, the pastry sometimes incorporates almond meal as well as flour, but it’s more traditional not to use it, as almonds are not a traditional part of Basque cooking. But it’s up to you!
Found on family and celebration tables and in every patisserie across the region (with people flocking to the best examples of it in town and village patisseries and fervently discussing the relative merits of each!) it’s both simple and utterly delicious, a real treat to make and to eat!
Gateau Basque (this recipe serves 6-8 people)
Ingredients for the pastry: 300 g self-raising flour (or plain flour with one teaspoon baking powder), 125 g unsalted butter (chopped into pieces), 220g caster sugar, 3 egg yolks, grated zest of one lemon
For the custard cream: ¼ litre milk, 25 g plain flour, 60 g sugar, 3 egg yolks, one tablespoon rum
Method for the pastry: In a bowl, tip in the flour, make a well in the centre, add the chopped butter, the egg yolks, and the lemon zest. (Also add in baking powder now if you are using plain flour). Mix thoroughly, working the pastry into an elastic, homogenous whole. (You can add a little water—a very small amount!– if you have trouble making it stick). Let the pastry rest for about half an hour.
Method for the cream: While the pastry is resting, mix the egg yolks, flour, sugar and rum in a bowl. Heat the milk to boiling point. Pour the hot milk onto the egg mix in the bowl, stirring the whole time. Tip the mix into a saucepan, and heat carefully, stirring as you go, till the mix is nicely thick. Do not let it catch. Turn off the heat, let cream cool.
Putting it together: Divide the pastry into two parts, roll out each of them to make two circles. Butter and lightly flour a springform cake pan, lay one of the pastry circles on the bottom, then put in the thick, cooled cream. Put the second circle on top, crimp the pastry edges together so cream is completely hidden. With a fork, score the top of the cake (without going right through), brush with a little reserved egg white and put in a hot oven for 30 minutes.
Serve warm or cold (the cake keeps really well–that is, if you can hold off eating it all!)
Some years ago, in a little antique shop near the British Museum in London, I bought an extraordinary object–a Roman key-ring, that is, a key designed to be worn as a ring. Made of lead, it was dated to the 1st century AD. It wasn’t particularly expensive, because apparently such rings are not uncommon finds. But I was immediately fascinated by it when I saw it in the window of the shop: it was the kind of humble object that propels you straight into another world, another time. And when I looked at it more closely, I saw that the ring size was very small–on my own hand, it only fitted on the little finger. So either it had been meant for a very small woman or a child, or it had simply been meant to be worn around the neck, on a leather thong or something similar. And what lock would such a key open? Definitely not a door, but probably a box of some sort. A money or valuables box? A medicine box? I had no idea as to the truth of it, but immediately what ifs began bubbling in my head…I began to see, through the mists of imagination, a figure become clearer, a young girl living in the province of Brittania whose widowed Roman father is an oculist, an eye-doctor(they were commonly found in Roman times, especially in Gaul and Brittania). And when he dies, he leaves her this key, a mysterious key that does not fit any of the locks of his boxes. And he tells her not to speak of it to anyone, but to find her uncle, who will know what to do. And so she sets off…
I began writing the story not long after I bought the key. But for various reasons–mostly because I couldn’t get past certain plotting problems with it–it never got finished or even really properly going. I had set it aside and almost forgotten about it until just a few weeks ago, when trawling through documents in my computer, I came across the outline and sample chapters which was all I’d written of the novel I’d called ‘The Key to Rome.’ Instantly, it called to me again. I got the key itself out of the display box in which we keep it and I looked at it for a long moment, and then I knew: I had to write this story! And now I knew just how to write it, and what I had to change to make it work.
So that’s what I’m working on: the unlocking of the story, and the real meaning of ‘the key to Rome.’ And now, somehow, all the plotting problems have disappeared, the story is powering along, simpler, tighter, stronger than I’d originally seen it.
This week, the fully edited final ms of A Hundred Words for Butterfly went off to the publisher, Spineless Wonders Audio. It was an exciting moment, pressing ‘Send’. It’s been a real journey of discovery, writing the novel–or perhaps I should call it novella, given its length(just under 32,000 words)–and at times a bit of a challenge, but so enjoyable!
It’s turned out so well, pretty much exactly how I wanted it to be, and I think it will transfer beautifully to the audio form. I can’t wait for the next stage, as the book moves into production. And by the way, it was lovely recently to see it mentioned for the first time outside my blog, in an interview in Books+Publishing with Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Mehan.
I’m two-thirds of the way through writing my audio novel now and it’s going really well. I’m also exploring next steps to make the actual audio book a reality(more on that another time, when plans have firmed up) but something that’s happened recently is a pretty important change: the title of the novel.
A Turn off the Path was a good working title to begin with. It conjured up for me quite a few things: the path literal(ie the Camino) and the path metaphorical(ie the different turns we take as we go along our life’s path). But after discussion with other people who suggested it might perhaps not quite be the right final title for it–not strong enough or memorable enough or unusual enough–I decided it was time to think of something else. For a while, it foxed me–titles can be tricky beasts to catch!–and then quite suddenly it came. It was there all along, hiding in plain sight, in a text message conversation between two of my main characters, Helen and Tony, and Tony tells Helen that there are a hundred words for butterfly, in Basque…
I’d written that quite a while back, and just seen it as part of a conversation, though one that Helen really responds to, as an imaginative artist. But suddenly, I knew that’s what it had to be, the new title: A Hundred Words for Butterfly. It felt right, at once. It was simple yet enigmatic. Memorable yet not overdone. It could conjure up so many images in so many cultures yet was distinctively expressive of something from that place, that setting. I tried it out on other people, especially those who had expressed a certain dissatisfaction with the original title, and they confirmed their immediate affinity for this new one, too.
So that’s what it’s going to be. A Hundred Words for Butterfly…
When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.
You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)
The Ghost Ship
She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…
She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.
And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.
The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.
The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…
Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.
…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….
The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?
This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.
…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….
Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…
Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.
Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.
…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.
The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…
Fitton Howe, Monday
Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.