The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Visit Leah’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook.

And on Twitter.

 

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A favourite Christmas memory…

Last year, at this festive time, I republished a piece I’d written in English and French for a magazine, about my childhood Christmasses. This year, as a favourite Christmas memory, I thought I’d offer instead a magical Christmas story, The Dolls’ First Christmas, which was published in the Random House Australia anthology, Stories for Seven Year Olds(, edited by Linsay Knight, 2014). It was inspired by my very talented friend Fiona McDonald giving me a beautiful handmade doll she’d created–and who I immediately named Esmeralda, after one of my favourite characters in a favourite childhood book of mine, Le Capitaine Fracasse, by Theophile Gautier..

Hope you enjoy–and the very best of wishes to you all for the festive season!

The original Esmeralda

The Dolls’ First Christmas

by Sophie Masson

Christmas Eve in the toyshop. In Miss Jeffries’ toy-shop, the last delivery had just arrived. Teddy-bears and tin toys. Puppets and pull-alongs. Rocking-horses and doll’s houses. And Esmeralda.

She arrived in an ordinary box, like the other dolls:

Sarah and

Donna and

Laura and

Clara and

Gloria.

 

Gloria, haughty queen of the dolls in Miss Jeffries’ toy shop, sat on her glittering throne in the window. Everyone gasped when they saw Gloria and said how beautiful she was. But no-one had bought her yet. She was too special. She cost too much.

Esmeralda was beautiful too, but in a different way. Her hair wasn’t golden, like Gloria’s, but black, in great long curls. Her skin wasn’t peaches and cream, like Gloria’s, but honey and tea. Her eyes weren’t sky blue, but nut-brown. Her stripy dress was splendid—but she did not have elegant satin slippers, like Gloria. Her feet were bare.

Miss Jeffries smiled as she set Esmeralda up on green velvet. ‘There, now, ‘ she said. ‘We’ll have two Queens. A snow queen. And a sun queen. You’ll be friends.’

But can two queens really be friends? Gloria didn’t think so. Esmeralda didn’t think so. Each thought she was better. Each sat in her splendour and looked haughtily away and thought she would be the first to go.

It was a long busy day. Sarah and Clara and Laura and Donna left and two boy dolls and six tin toys and eight teddy-bears and three puppets and two fairy dolls and a mermaid doll and two clowns and four baby dolls, plus a brace of Barbies. But not Gloria. And not Esmeralda, either.

At last, and very late, Miss Jeffries was about to close up. A man rushed in, shouting, ‘I work for Mr Darling, the millionaire. He sent me to buy a Christmas gift for his daughter Cherie. Her mother’s dead and her father has no time. I need your best doll. Your very best doll.’

‘There are two,’ said Miss Jeffries, calmly. ‘Esmeralda, and Gloria. Which one would Cherie like best? Sun queen or snow queen?’

The man stared.  ‘Oh! I have no idea. But I know she’ll have a tantrum if she doesn’t like what I choose. She’s always having tantrums. Blow it. I’ll take the two.’

‘Good choice,’ beamed Miss Jeffries, ‘they belong together, no question.’ She put them in their boxes and tied a pretty ribbon around them and waved a cheerful goodbye as the man hurried out, muttering to himself, ‘After all, if that brat doesn’t like one of them, she can always give it to someone else. Or throw it away. They’re only dolls, after all.’

Poor Gloria and Esmeralda! They had been made with such care. Their dresses were hand-stitched, their hair hand-knotted, their faces hand-painted. They’d been made to be loved. And now here was someone saying they might just be thrown away, like some cheap, broken factory toy.

Dolls may not talk in words and their red satin hearts may not beat but they have other ways of communicating. Gloria and Esmeralda sensed each other’s fear. At first, each thought it didn’t matter. Whichever doll Cherie liked best would be safe. But then– what if Cherie got sick of her? She might be worse off, then. While the other one might have gone to a good home. To a little girl who loved her.

Most dolls are airheads, the space under their pretty china or plastic skulls quite hollow. But Gloria and Esmeralda had cloth faces, pulled tightly over wads of stuffing. In the middle of the stuffing, each had a long, bright pin, left in by mistake. So their thoughts were sharp and they each thought the same thing at the same moment. They were queens. Snow queen, sun queen. They might not be friends, but sometimes queens put rivalry aside for the good of all. They would do something together, not apart. But how?

 

At the Darling mansion, the man gave the boxes to the housekeeper. She took them to a room where a tall, twinkling Christmas tree stood, with piles of presents under it.  The housekeeper shook her head, sadly. ‘More things going to waste on that spoilt child,’ she said.

The dolls lay under the tree for hours. No clever ideas came to them. Soon, they knew, it would be too late.

And then, just after midnight, there was a clatter of hooves on the roof above. Moments later a deep voice grumbled, ‘Why do I come? She has so much already!’

Now all toys, no matter how new, know what happens Christmas night. So Esmeralda and Gloria knew the grumbler wasn’t Mr Darling, or any of his staff. It was that jolly visitor, come from a magical world, whose job is to give every child in the world a present. The humans call him Santa Claus.

The dolls’ red satin hearts swelled and the sharp pin in their heads glittered as they tried to struggle out and beg for his help. They only made a tiny rustle, but Santa Claus’ sharp ears pricked up. And his kind eyes, that see into the heart of every child everywhere, saw right into those two red satin hearts. With a little chuckle, he opened the boxes. He gazed in at Esmeralda and Gloria. ‘A Christmas gift for you, little ones?’ he said. He touched each of them, very gently. A warm, golden stream of light seemed to flow from his fingers, into the dolls’ painted eyes. ‘Very well, then. I give you the power of love. And a very merry Christmas to you both.’

And with that, he was gone. The dolls heard the clatter of his reindeer’s hooves on the roof, then nothing. They waited in the warm piney darkness, filled with hope now.

Soon, it was morning. The dolls heard a man’s voice, trying to be jolly. ‘Well, Cherie, aren’t you going to open your lovely presents? Start with those two boxes.’

‘Yes, Daddy.’  A thin, flat, voice. Gloria and Esmeralda were afraid again. This child would not love them, no matter what Santa Claus said. All was lost.

Next thing, the wrapping-paper was roughly ripped, the lids of the boxes pulled off, so quickly that the dolls flipped helplessly out, onto their faces.

Mr Darling cried, ‘Really, Cherie, be careful! Look how beautiful they are! ‘

‘I don’t like dolls,’ shouted Cherie. ‘They stare and stare and they’re stupid! Stupid!’

‘Oh, nothing’s good enough for you, I’m tired of it, tired, do you hear!’ yelled her father. And he went out, slamming the door.

Cherie glared at the dolls. She picked them up, roughly. Gloria and Esmeralda thought their last hour had come. They would be torn limb from limb, their bodies shredded, their heads wrenched off. But as they helplessly looked up they suddenly saw in the child’s eyes, under the anger,  a sadness that  made their red satin hearts clench and their sharp minds ache. In that instant, something warm and golden and loving flowed from the dolls to the child, seeping into Cherie’s unhappy, lonely eyes.

She stared at them. Her lip trembled. She said, faintly, ‘I don’t like dolls..’ Shyly, she touched Esmeralda’s hair, then Gloria’s. She stroked their clothes. She held a doll in the crook of each arm. She whispered, ‘Most dolls are stupid,’ but then added, ‘not you,’ softly.

That is how Mr Darling found them when he came back, ashamed of shouting at his daughter on Christmas Day, wishing that he’d chosen her present himself, telling himself that he must try and understand, even if she made it hard.

But she smiled at him and said, ‘Daddy, do you know what their names are? Gloria and Esmeralda. I think they must be good friends, don’t you? Oh, Daddy, I love them already.’

And as Mr Darling sat happily with his daughter, Gloria and Esmeralda lay happily in her arms. Can two queens really be good friends? Why not? Anything was possible, on this beautiful Christmas morning.

‘Going over to the other side’ available on open access now

For anyone interested, my book chapter, ‘Going over to the other side-the new breed of author publishers’ which was published in the book ‘Publishing Means Business’ (Monash University Publishing, 2017) is now available through Monash on open access.

The rest of the book is also available, see here. You might also be interested to know that Chapter Two, by Dr Jan Zwar, explores some of the research findings from my 2014 book, The Adaptable Author. 

 

 

The Koldun’s Daughter

Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly  written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!

And of course, if it whets your appetite for the novel itself, and its predecessor, that’s a bonus 🙂

(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)

The Koldun’s Daughter

There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.

Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’

Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.

In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’

The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.

The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.

Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.

Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.

But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.

And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.

But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.

Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.

Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.

Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.

She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.

‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’

And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’

Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.

But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.

She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’

The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.

They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.

She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.

So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.

Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.

But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.

Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’

Copyright Sophie Masson

 

Jacky lizard–a children’s poem

I wrote this little poem after watching a ‘Jacky lizard’ the other day at our place.

Jacky lizard

by Sophie Masson

Little Jacky lizard,

Perched up on a stone,

Like a guard on castle walls,

Protecting his lord’s home.

 

Beady eyes survey the scene,

Head swings from side to side,

Soaking in the sun he likes—

But knows where to hide!

 

He hears a sound and freezes,

His tail goes stiff with fright.

Then little Jacky lizard

Is gone, as fast as light!

Photo from Museums of Victoria Collections website

Interview with Louisa John-Krol

Today I’m delighted to feature an interview with multi-talented composer, musician, writer and fairy tale aficionado, Louisa John-Krol.

Louisa, you have had an amazing career writing and performing music and words over a long period of time. Can you share some of your journey? How did you start, and how did your work develop?

 Thanks, Sophie. It began with a hum. Singing plants and poems into melody, and believing in dryads, I made a garden with a wetland, frog pond and flowering vines, ripe for solitude. Fantasy chronicles of Earthsea, Middleearth and Narnia inspired me, as did Faeries co-written by Alan Lee (who went on to design sets for Tolkien films) and Brian Froud (who later made a music clip ‘Muse’ for my music). Life hasn’t felt like a linear journey. More a kaleidoscope with jumbled swirls that sometimes form patterns, hint at echoes, or slide into oblivion. Foreign indie labels released most of my music from the age of 30 onward. I got to perform, compose or record with brilliant eccentrics here and overseas; just as well, for I was never a virtuoso. Less a prodigy than a pixie. (Funny how in some circles it’s a contest as to how early one masters an instrument. Infancy, anyone?) The cliche of singing before we can talk, of dancing before we can walk, of surmounting setbacks, haunts Romantic notions. In some underground neo-medieval/ baroque/ classical/ gothic modern-primitive tribes I’ve inhabited, it’s customary to bemoan corruption. Perhaps I still revel in Voltaire’s ironic ‘best of all worlds’. But being a paid artist was no more admirable than other jobs. It all meant being present with a vast cross-section of humanity. Whether fairy storytelling at carnivals, teaching at disadvantaged schools, writing press releases for parliamentarians, liaising with ecologists, singing at festivals, or tapping royalties from boutique recording labels, I learned to respect time. Not sure I overcame bullying or disappointment, which abounds in corporations or bureaucracies. Whatever lands on a page, or screen, or reel, or disc, is stardust floating long after explosions that elude comprehension. A couple of years ago I signed off my record deal and ceased all employment. I’ve been volunteering, reading, rescuing cats, grooming manuscripts, listening tomusic and educating myself on fairy lore.

You have performed your work across the world, including with other artists. What have been some of your favourite experiences?

In France 2003 I performed at La Loco in the red district of Paris, the stomping ground of legendary cult bands like The Velvet Underground. Adjacent was the Moulin Rouge, to which we found a peep-hole while drinking beer backstage on red crimson sofas with our Swedish headliners, Arcana. Afterwards we went out with writers including Alyz Tale, then Editor of Elegy Magazine, who published her story entitled ‘Louisa’ about my song ‘Blackbird’, in her collection Mon dernier thé. I also cherish memories of Clisson, the medieval town of my record label Prikosnovénie, by the river Sèvre.

In Belgium at Trolls et Legendes festival 2009, meeting the British illustrator Brian Froud was a highlight. We presented a video Muse that he and his son made for my song ‘Which of these Worlds?’ with Robert Gould of Imaginosis who flew me to Oregon, USA, that same year to perform with the band Woodland at Faerieworlds, where the Frouds were guests again.It was moving to receive a message from José Géal of le Royal Théâtre de Toone, which is as old as Bruxelles itself, thanking me for my song ‘Poppet Plum’ being dedicated to his puppetry that I’d experienced six years earlier.

In Italy, on the borders of Umbria, Lazia and Tuscona, I stayed in a medieval castle overlooking the medieval town of Orte, belonging to the ambient artist Oophoi (Gianluigi Gasparetti), haunted by ghost and a white owl. Gigi later died of a rare blood disease, bereaving a loving wife, but the sonic alchemist’s legacy remains strong on the web, as in his masterpiece The Spirals of Time and our collaboration I hear the Water Dreaming.

There were wonderful experiences in other enchanting places, such as in Greece and Germany, but if I cover them all we’ll be here awhile!

 The interplay between music, poetry, folklore and fairy tales is very strong in your work.  Can you expand on that?

Let’s start with poetry. I love how the subconscious resonance of metaphors, layered in iconography over time, allows the imagination room to move, like a muse engaging in dalliance, in diaphanous gowns of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’. Language can be musical, as with assonance or alliteration. How words ring together sometimes pivots on selection of synonyms, or arrangement. Just as a composer might let a melody leap from one player to another, so writers with an ear for melody recognise when a phrase sends a shiver down the spine. (A challenge in translation!) In folklore and fairy tales, as in poetry, I love economy of language: these modes are tightly packed seeds, full of symbols that leap across centuries and cultures with efficiency of memes. Hence the mother of Memory is the mother of Muses: Mnemosyne.

What’s coming up next for you, in terms of new work created and released?

A magic-realist novella and other manuscripts are bubbling, but my aim is to groom the Elderbrook Chronicles: a series of fantasy volumes. Musically, having recently released two productions after a long hiatus – Torlan (a compilation of water music from our various albums) and Elderbrook (a double-album soundtrack for my aforementioned chronicles), I’m preparing to reprint our discography that sold out on French, German and American companies: an opportunity to revisit mixes, add bonus tracks, include more illustrations and try new eco-friendly packaging.

As a lover of fairy tales, why do you think they still appeal to people? And do you have you any favourites? If so, which–and why?

Fairy tales do more than soothe worldly worries; paradoxically, they offer perennial wisdom for facing them. Wrongly, some view them as escapist, whereas on the contrary I regard fairy tales as a way to delve deeper into life. For me they’re about re-enchantment, of falling in love with the world. As Marina Warner asserts, fairy stories have ‘staying power’, for ‘the meanings they generate are themselves magical shape-shifters, dancing to the needs of their audience’ (From the Beast to the Blonde), a point that Athena Bellas revisits in her article ‘Contemporary fairy tales: Prohibition, transgression, transformation’ in the catalogue of an exhibition All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed that she directed at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. The title-essay by its curator Samantha Comte also cites Warner, further emphasising the adaptability of fairy tales; their fluidity, amorphousness and responsiveness to social context. My favourite tales are open-ended or layered. They emit a diffused lunar light, rather than a laser beam. I’ve often claimed to have a more poetic than polemic approach. That doesn’t mean I shy away from politics, it’s just that I won’t let didactic messages dominate. I’m partial to Wilde, d’Aulnoy, Dunsany, Byatt and Calvino. As to contemporary Australians: I particularly enjoy your writing, Sophie.

You are closely involved with the Australian Fairy Tale Society. Tell us about it and its work.

As a founding member and President of this national charity, I cherish our inclusive spirit. Our members are writers, researchers, educators, storytellers, illustrators, puppeteers and other fey folk. One of our committee members is a glass artist, Spike Deane, based at Canberra Glassworks. We’ve attracted such internationally acclaimed fairy tale authors as Kate Forsyth, Carmel Bird and you; I’ll never forget your launch of the thrilling Snow White re-spin Hunter’s Moon at an AFTS conference, flying away with a signed copy and reading it during a recording session at Pilgrim Arts studio while visiting South Australia; I later bought a copy for the producer Brett Taylor’s daughter. I’ve since reviewed more of your novels. A lot of fairy tale people in Australia are nourishing each other’s knowledge. We discuss sensitivities around colonisation, immigration and ways of seeking mutual ground, respectfully acknowledging differences while fostering intercultural collaboration. We are interested in exploring definitions of the very term ‘Australian fairy tale’ itself. I recommend Dr Rebecca-Anne’s spiel on this at our website: We are delighted that you have accepted our invitation to contribute to our forthcoming fairy tale Anthology, which we’ll have more to say about publicly soon. Meanwhile, we’ve already produced six editions of an illustrated Ezine, available exclusively to members. Thanks for all you do, Sophie.

Explore more of Louisa’s work:

Homepage of ethereal music & faerielore: http://louisajohnkrol.com/

Welcome portal to unfolding Elderbrook Chronicles: http://www.elderbrook.com.au/

Fairy record label in France: http://www.prikosnovenie.com/inde.shtml

Froud/Louisa ‘Muse’ video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahBe3Znj8lY

Fairy Blog: http://victorianfairytalering.blogspot.com.au/

Australian Fairy Tale Society: https://australianfairytalesociety.wordpress.com/

Connect with Louisa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/louisa.johnkrol

Word of Mouth TV: an interview with Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills

Today I’m delighted to bring you a great interview I recently conducted with writers–and now TV presenters!–Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills, who very recently launched a book show with a difference. The Word of Mouth TV concept combines some of Kate’s and Sarah’s favourite things: food, books and friendship, to create lively, engaging TV, delicious in terms both of body and mind! The first episode, with authors and husband and wife writing team Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, was most enjoyable, featuring great conversation, yummy food, and great literary–and cooking!-insights. I loved it, and am looking forward very much to the next episode. But while I’m waiting, I thought it would be great to talk to Kate and Sarah about why and how they’ve put together this excellent show with film-maker Claire Absolum. Enjoy! (And subscribe to Word of Mouth TV You Tube channel and website–it’s free!)

Photograph of Kate Forsyth and Sarah Mills by Claire Absolum.

Kate and Sarah, congratulations on the launch of Word of Mouth TV and the show’s first episode! It’s a fabulous concept–innovative and appealing, with so much scope for fun and warmth, and a great title too! How did you first come up with the idea?

Sarah: It was one of those ideas that took a long time to manifest. The idea struck me about six years ago when I was in one of my aimless dreaming phases. The idea kept revisiting me and I asked Kate about three years ago if she would be interested in doing it. We agreed it was something that the book industry desperately needed because there is so little good news and content serving this industry.

Kate: I thought it was such a brilliant idea, but I didn’t know how we would ever find the time to do it when we had such busy schedules. But we kept talking about it and tossing ideas around. We agreed we wanted it to have really good production values but we didn’t know how we would achieve that when we had no skills or experience in that area. Slowly the idea took hold of our imaginations, though. Once we had our title, it really seemed to come to life.

Sarah: We decided upon Word of Mouth as the title because the Sound Bites that accompany the show involve authors recommending the best books they’ve read lately and their favourite cookbooks – so viewers get their reading tips straight from the author’s mouth.

 Coming up with a great idea is one thing of course: bringing it to fruition quite another!  There must have been a lot of work involved in getting to the launch of the show. How did you get from concept to reality?

Sarah: Yes, well, the idea lay nascent for years because we were both writers and neither of us had camera or video-editing skills. Then former SBS and ABC producer Claire Absolum moved into my neighbourhood and we met through mutual friends. Claire was sitting with me on the day I called Kate: “Remember that idea we were talking about a few years ago about interviewing and cooking with authors? Are you still interested?” And to our relief, she said yes.

Kate: It was complete madness! I had such an intense workload and had sworn I would take on no new projects. But Sarah finding Claire just seemed like a sign from the universe. And I’d actually been thinking about how sad it was that there was no great book chat show anymore.

 Sarah: From there it was just a matter of putting everything together. We all have very complimentary skill sets. Claire obviously has the video production skills, I have creative direction and website production skills (I was a journalist for decades at Fairfax), and public relations, branding and marketing skills, and Kate had the contacts within the industry and styling skills from her time freelancing on magazines. And we are all reasonable cooks. We really liked the idea of three women working together to create the show – there is something magic about the number three. Perhaps we’ll be “Charmed”.

Kate: It just seemed to come together so well – I feel that we’ve found the sweet spot between people who love to watch cooking and lifestyle shows, and people who love to read. We’ve certainly had a great early reception!

The show has very high production values and works really well within its time frame. Not surprising, as you have such a skilled and experienced producer as Claire Absolum on board! Tell us what it’s like actually filming the show.

 Sarah: It’s fun and very tiring. It is only a 10-minute Youtube show but so much ends up on the cutting room floor. Particularly for the first episodes because we were a bit nervous and if it wasn’t one of us making bloopers, it was the other. Or the dog would start whining, or the neighbour would start up with a drill. It seemed a process of endless takes. We are still trying to hone the process.

Kate: We are really learning on the job, aren’t we, Sarah? It took us a while to work out a template for the show, and a balance between the cooking, the eating and the talking. We’ve learnt a huge amount in just a few months.

Sarah: It is also difficult because we all live so far away from each other (about two hours) and we are trying to shoot Word of Mouth TV in our spare time. On the upside, the food is divine and we are collecting recipes for a cookbook at the end of the year. And the champagne … it speaks for itself!

How do you go about choosing books, writers–and recipes? 

Sarah: Kate is plugged into the writing industry so this is her task. We try to interview a mix of authors from all different genres and levels of experience, and Kate is the best positioned to know who are likely to be producing good books.

Kate:  It helps that I have so many friends in the industry, and that I read so much anyway. It means I have a good general knowledge of who is launching new books and whether or not our audience is likely to be interested in it.

Sarah: If we don’t personally like the book, we don’t feature it because we have to review it and we want to be kind in our reviews – we are, after all, authors ourselves. We understand how much heart and soul goes into the production of a novel.

Kate: Our aim is to celebrate books and reading and writing, and to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone. This is after all, one of the great benefits of belonging to a book club.

Sarah: I occasionally suggest books that I think will fit the show too. We also recommend cookbooks on every episode. That process is pretty simple. We both have some well-used and well-loved cookbooks. Then we ask the authors to recommend their favourite books read lately and their favourite cookbooks.

Your motto is ‘food, books and friends’hip: it’s the perfect nurturing combination. What are you hoping viewers will get from it? And what’s the response been so far?

 Sarah: So far everyone who likes books has been really encouraging. We are steadily building a subscription base to the Youtube channel, the website, and to social media feeds such as Twitter and Facebook. The authors have been incredibly supportive as well. Mind you it is fun to be wined and dined and have the opportunity to talk about your book, and the subject of books generally, all at once.

 Kate: We hope to become an integral part of the Australian literary scene, a show that bookworms will love and recommend to their friends to watch. The show comes out every fortnight, so that means we are recommending books twice a month – our hope is that Book Clubs will start watching it together, or using it to help them choose books to read, or simply enjoy what we do on a regular basis.

How many episodes are you hoping to make in the series? 

Sarah: The first season will be 12 episodes, seven of which have already been filmed and the remaining five of which have already been scheduled. Hopefully, by the end of that time, we will have a big enough audience, and sponsorship, to continue filming. We really hope this happens as we’ve had more authors asking to be on the show and they are all so fantastic that we want to interview them all.

Kate: We hope there’ll be many more seasons to come!

 Anything else you’d like to add?

Sarah: Well, towards the end of the season, if we don’t get corporate sponsorship, we might run a crowd-funding campaign. In the meantime, it would be great if readers could subscribe to our Youtube channel www.youtube.com/wordofmouthTV000 because we need 1,000 subscriptions under Youtube’s new rules to be able to earn money from the site. If readers want to hear all the latest news, views and reviews, then they can also subscribe to our website at www.wordofmouthtv.com.au We also have a Facebook and Twitter page that we are having a bit of fun with.

Kate: Every fortnight we give away huge piles of books to our subscribers who help spread the word about the show. We want to foster an atmosphere of joy and excitement about the act of reading, and to support as many other authors as we can.