Michael McMahon on creating illustrations for Two Rainbows

My latest picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by the wonderful Michael McMahon, came out this month with Little Hare and to celebrate I asked Michael to share his creation process for the book, which he’s done in this very interesting post. Enjoy!

I was first given a draft of Sophie’s Two Rainbows by my publisher Little Hare and was asked to imagine this little world of words becoming illustrations. When reading the story for the first time there were two things that I was struck by. One was the stories unique look at colour, and the other was Sophie’s original choice of words.

Stepping through the colours of a rainbow the reader follows a little girl as she begins to notice all of the colourful differences between the city where she lives and the memories of her home in the countryside. Sophie’s words give life to a simple story that highlights both the obvious and the subtle. Comparing the vibrance of the farm meadows to a muted bus-stop poster gives the story both a realistic and idealistic twist.

Illustrations are often simply coloured in, either to express emotion or create emphasis, but it’s rare for colour to sit at the forefront of a narrative. In that sense it was a nice change of pace to wonder how colour could be used in each scene. I often sketch and then start to put together each illustration, with colour naturally following on from this somewhere near to the end of the process. However, it was interesting that colour was now going to be considered first before touching pen to paper.

 

After reading each page, I would very quickly draw the first things that came to my mind, not thinking it through too much. I would then read the next part of the story and do the same. I like the spontaneity of this. After considering each page separately, I’d then start to sketch the story again and consider it as a whole – crossing things out and moving things around until it starts to form something I feel is working well.

This is how the messy sketches begin…

 

 

After the initial sketches, I find it important to start each book with a little bit of research. In a way, I feel it’s good for storytellers to know and imagine the world of their characters, a sort of ‘reading-before-the-lines’ not just between them. I imagined the little girl in the book growing up and spending her childhood in the countryside and then suddenly having to pick up everything and shift into the heart of a very far away city. I took my time photographing the inner suburbs of my own city to get a sense of where the little girl might live. I also went through troves of old photos of famous cities to create a kind of made up metropolis. I took inspiration from a lot of different places.

This is how the sketches start to take on a little more shape…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the sketches are finished and placed alongside the text, I then start to put together the illustrations by adding more details and slowly refining each one until we have the finished book.

 

 

Does writers’ creative process change if they’re working on a PHD?

It’s been a bit of a trend in recent years: established writers undertaking PHDs within their own creative field, and in 2015, I joined their ranks, starting a PHD in Creative Practice at the University of New England(Armidale, NSW, Australia). This means I’m writing a novel, The Ghost Squad, plus an associated exegesis, or mini-thesis. Last year, I published a paper in TEXT about the motivations and experiences of established writers undertaking PHDs/doctorates, which was based on interviews with authors and academics. (You can read the paper here) And an issue arose during it: whether a writer’s way of working, their creative process, changes as a a result of undertaking the PHD. It was an issue which I found fascinating and which I decided to expand into another paper, by interviewing a different set of authors and academics on that precise point. My research came up with some interesting results, and great insights into how writers work.

This month, the paper was published in New Writing, the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. And the full text of the article is available here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/maXQXJny9PXPBkQgRGiB/full

Do feel free to comment!

 

Claire Corbett and Watch Over Me: blog tour interview

Today I am delighted to welcome Claire Corbett to Feathers of the Firebird, to answer questions about her extraordinary, genre-bending new novel, Watch Over Me, as part of her blog tour for the book.

First of all, congratulations on Watch Over Me, Claire! It’s an absolutely superb novel, highly-charged, atmospheric, passionate and thought-provoking, and I was gripped from the very beginning. How did the idea first come to you, and how did it develop over time?

Thanks, Sophie. It’s probably hard to know the true answer to that question. I’ve been thinking about elements of the story for years, probably since I was a child and heard stories about the war experiences of my grandparents and their families, especially my great-uncle, who was shot down over Belgium and hidden by a farming family that was part of the Resistance.

The ideas in it also grew out of so many things, from the family stories to feminist ideas on the roots of violence both personal and political and partly crystallised by what Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel Bluebeard, that one of the main purposes of war, which is rarely admitted, is to put women in that vulnerable, desperate position, depending on men for protection and even food.

It’s amazing how this is celebrated, you know, all the valorisation of American soldiers handing out stockings and candy bars. Australian soldiers used to boast about how cheaply they could buy Japanese women during the Occupation of Japan: ‘a girl will go all night for one bar of chocolate,’ they’d say. As if exploiting a young girl’s hunger was something to be proud of.

My parents grew up under the German occupation of France, and the stories they told about the complexities of it and the interactions of their families, friends, neighbours, whether willing or not, whether positive or negative, with the invaders, have always haunted me. I found many echoes of those complexities in Watch Over Me, and in fact at one stage you make a specific reference to the famous retort by the actress Arletty at her post-Occupation trial, defending her sexual history during the Occupation. In recent years there has been a great deal more subtle exploration than there used to be in France of the themes of collaboration/resistance, with publications such as Suite Francaise and screen-based narratives such as Un Village Francais. All this is a longish prelude to asking you, was the Occupation a major influence on the themes of your book, and in what way?

Yes, it was a huge influence and I’m pleased it resonated for you. It’s the example that looms so large in our psyches of a complex Occupation between two peoples who have culturally similar backgrounds – it’s not the same as the Occupation of Japan or Americans in Saigon or Baghdad. The French and the Germans understand each other in quite a different way and have so much shared history and I wanted that ambivalence in Watch Over Me. Hiroshima Mon Amour blew me away when I was younger. I didn’t know you were allowed to admit that a French girl could fall in love with a German soldier. Films of treachery and collaboration or even just having to live alongside each other such as Au Revoir Les Enfants, or Lacombe Lucien were a big deal. And that incredible documentary Weapons of the Spirit about the little Huguenot village of Le Chambon whose people hid and saved around 5,000 Jewish kids and adults during the war.

Also, I knew a very interesting French Jewish artist who grew up during the German occupation of Paris and he had many striking stories about that. Again, with the love and hate – they took his father away to Mauthausen concentration camp but the German officer down the street brought his hungry family food and so on. So, his feelings were mixed, to put it mildly. Like so many French people he reserved his real hatred not for the German Army but for the French government and its over-enthusiastic cooperation which he felt went far beyond what they had to do. He’d point out to us the bullet holes in the walls of houses near where he’d lived, show us where the American tanks had only just been able to fit through the narrow streets. As a kid he’d been given food by both German and American soldiers, he saw some of those correspondences.

So, you can see traces of that in the book and of course my reaction to the way women who had relationships with the occupiers were treated after the war by a nation which had done far worse than have sex with the Germans. I recently found out that Norwegian women who had relations with Germans – and the poor kids that resulted – were treated viciously after the war. I was shocked by how victimised the children were.

There are also many other cultural/historical influences I could see in Watch Over Me: American occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, hints of Russian adventurism in Ukraine and the Arctic, (and if I’m not mistaken, a saying or two from Russia!) Inuit and Sami influences…How did you go about weaving these threads together to create the particular cultural atmosphere of your fictional society?

Yes, you’re right about the Russian sayings! Well, of course the Russians and Ukraine and the Arctic is all real and happening now and shows the plausibility of my story but the funny thing is that I’d written much of it and worked the story out before events in Ukraine. It was weird and kind of scary watching my story come to life. The energy geopolitics underpinning the tale are real – the Lomonsov Ridge, the jockeying for the resources of the Arctic, that is all real.

In terms of cultural atmosphere Port Angelsund has to be a Scandinavian city. I began with my own memories of growing up in Canada – I’m a person with a northern heritage too so I understand some of that – but then I did a lot of research. I made it as real as possible. Every detail is as true to my fictional city’s real location as I could make it. Reflector Awareness Day is real, how they deal with the light and the dark winters, the names of the cakes – all that reflects the reality of the place.

Having said that, it has a mythic quality too. The one violence I did to my city to make it mine was importing the great castle of Prague, which became the Berg. I had good reasons for that and anyone who knows their World War II history will quickly work out why. My real model city for Port Angelsund does not have a castle but some Scandinavian cities do, of course. One way I wove my cultural threads, as the Berg shows, was by layering time – my novel is a book of modern war but it also reflects on wars that affect the history of the West, so there is The Iliad and echoes of WWII and the Balkan wars.

Recognition of the Sámi people was important – there are Indigenous peoples in Europe too and they have lots to teach us about occupation. Again, that reflects my growing up in Canada and Australia – these vast settler societies that base their modern existence on taking entire continents away from their original peoples. We cannot forget that and it shouldn’t be forgotten in Europe either.

The world of the novel mixes glancing mentions of real places—Paris, Finland, for instance—with the much more delineated fictional places, especially ‘Port’ of course, but also the Sequestered Forest, Heartland etc. Though the fictional places have echoes of real places—Scandinavia, the Arctic, the US—they are also very much themselves, jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place. This also occurs with the opposing forces, Garrison and Coalition, which are never associated with any particular ‘real’ nation. Why did you choose to do this, and how did you go about the landscapes and histories of your world?

In a way you’ve answered the question very well – ‘jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place.’ That’s exactly right. I wanted the nations to be unnamed because it could be any nation. All nations are capable of war crimes but we seem unable to think about the morality of actions free from the bias of nationalism. It’s still controversial to call the way Germany was bombed in WWII, the firebombing of Dresden and so on, a war crime but it was.

The My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War was not an aberration, for example. Equivalents to My Lai happened if not every day than every few weeks. In fact there were far bloodier massacres than My Lai but they were covered up http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23427726 . The scale of the slaughter was industrial because the US had no other measure of success than body count: kill anything that moves, was the motto of many US commanders. Dead civilians were counted as dead enemy combatants to keep the kill counts up.

If you read what happened at My Lai, over five hundred civilians – women, children and old people – were rounded up and gunned down in a ditch, women raped, toddlers crawling away being dragged back to be shot, entire families, three generations, wiped out http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/the-scene-of-the-crime. What kind of soldiers and what kind of war crimes does that remind you of?

Over a hundred and seventy children were executed, including fifty-six babies. We want to believe My Lai was an aberration but it was not and there are tens of thousands of pages of formerly classified documents proving it was not. And yet in a presidential proclamation on the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration website, President Obama described American soldiers in that war as ‘fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.’ That same site refers to My Lai as an ‘incident.’

People are still whining about popular protests against the Vietnam War. They don’t say that ‘incidents’ like My Lai are what people were protesting about. Protesters didn’t want babies and pregnant women being gunned down and having their skin burnt off by napalm in their name. Imagine that. Those who criticise the protesters choose to ignore that many leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement were veterans themselves, returned soldiers who knew exactly how bad the war was and what evil was being done.

And this is not even to mention the drenching of those Vietnamese provinces in Agent Orange, which is still causing birth defects. Are we interested in labelling any of this as criminal, as evil? Are we interested in holding anyone to account? Clearly not. There are many more examples that are more current, from the suffocation of hundreds or thousands of Taliban prisoners in shipping containers at Dasht-i-Leili to the agony going on now in Syria and Yemen.

When the US uses napalm or phosphorus or depleted uranium or massacres over 250 civilians in a strike on Mosul or bombs a hospital somehow we’re okay with this. I’m not sure why. But when the ‘bad guys’ do this kind of thing we are shocked. Shocked and angry.

So, I wanted the reader to be uncertain. To suspend judgement. Surely that’s the only way we can learn anything.

I went about the landscapes and histories of my world as I described above – I made every bit as real as possible, based on research on the city that was my model for Port as well as real wars happening now. When I made a big change, like the Berg, I had specific reasons for doing so.

Like your earlier novel, When We Have Wings—which I also loved—this novel is a rich, heady hybrid, blending aspects of speculative fiction and realism. Watch Over Me also stirs in elements from historical fiction, Scandi-noir and highly-charged, and disturbing, romance. How did you keep all these elements in balance?

With a lot of research and writing and then a lot of cutting, including the help of my wonderful editor, Ali Lavau, whom I trust completely. It was the hard work on the editing that made balancing all those strands complement each other.

Watch Over Me unflinchingly yet never simplistically explores the complicated relations between men and women in wartime, and the way in which ‘normal’ gender relations are both upset by it and yet reinforced. This happens both between occupier and occupied, and between the occupied themselves, including the Ultras, with their macho rage against the occupier turned all too often against their own countrywomen. The vulnerable position of children is also poignantly explored. All this is brought out powerfully through the characters, not only the central ones of Sylvie, her family, friends, and her Garrison lover and his mates, but also through a host of beautifully-drawn minor characters, brought to very human and complex life. Can you tell us more about your creation of your characters? Were there any that were particularly hard to portray?

I loved all my characters and found them so fascinating that it made them easy to write – Max the pompous but passionate journalist, brave Erik, sturdy and gifted engineer Gull, my poor forest wild child Goran, the chorus of young single mothers, troubled Vick and even more troubled Captain Elias. I had difficulty with my confused rich girl Karin until I hit on her rebellious support for the Ultras. Of course she would be like that, it came to me, and all at once she came to life. I did have some lovely animal characters too but many things had to be cut.

Will was the hardest to portray because I had to create such a balance of attraction and anger and resentment on both sides. He has to be believably arrogant and capable of violence and full of self-confidence as a young, cocky officer. He is Special Forces, after all. As an occupier he is experiencing what it’s like to be one of the Lords of Creation. And he is young. It is going to go to his head. It would’ve been too easy to make him hateful but I wanted the reader to understand his magnetism for Sylvie, how much she wants to feel his power not so much over her but enveloping her. I wanted to open a gap between his institutional power as an occupier and the sense of him as a person too.

But then there was the opposite danger of idealising Will. Too many novels written about these kinds of relationships try to soften it by making the occupier, the soldier, into a romantic paragon so that it’s okay for the heroine to love him – there’s a bit of that in Suite Francaise. The German officer is too good to be true – a sensitive composer and so on. I made Will a real soldier; he’s not some poet in disguise. It’s heart-breaking that Irene Nemirovsky, who was killed in Auschwitz, writes sympathetically about the German soldiers, sees them as people, people alas who did not see her as a person.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I love how much Port Angelsund itself is a character in the novel. I think we can all relate to that – how a city in wartime – London say, or Paris, becomes even more beloved, and that it changes irrevocably and is both mourned and celebrated. These cities wear their layers of history like geological strata. I felt so grateful, visiting Kyoto, that it hadn’t been hit with a nuclear bomb. Apparently, it was top of the list of targets for atomic weapons and the story goes that American Secretary of War Henry Stimson took it off the list, arguing its cultural importance, and the military kept reinstating it as a target and finally Stimson had to go directly to President Truman to take it off. Some say he’d visited the city, even had his honeymoon there, and understood what would be lost by bombing it.

Paris of course has a similarly incredible story, told in the book Is Paris Burning? Hitler wanted the city destroyed out of pure spite as the Allies advanced. The city was wired to be detonated – TNT in the crypt of Notre Dame! We need to remember how evil the military mindset can be. According to the book, Paris was saved by German General von Choltitz who kept stalling on Hitler’s increasingly furious insistence that the city be blown up. Some dispute this version of events, pointing out von Choltitz had been a ruthless Nazi up until that point http://cultureandstuff.com/2010/02/12/is-paris-burning-did-a-german-general-save-the-city-of-light/. Whatever the truth, there isn’t much doubt that he could have followed Hitler’s orders and left de Gaulle and the Allies to face the French capital’s blackened ruins. And he didn’t.

And that’s finally the point of fiction, of writing, isn’t it? To show the variability of the human heart, to show how critical each and every individual decision is: not to destroy Kyoto, not to destroy Paris, even in the face of so much tragic devastation. That is so important to remember. Even if you are part of great evil, you can still do a good thing. Hundreds of millions of people owe so much to Stimson and von Choltitz yet they will never know those men’s names. How I wish our current crop of politicians would take that idea to heart instead of doubling down on all their horrendous decisions.

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

More about Watch Over Me:

The pressure of my blood, the beat of my heart, is a message to you. You read each second of my body’s life.

It is the present day. The foggy northern city of Port Angelsund is under occupation by the soldiers of Garrison. Sylvie is a young woman just trying to survive. When she is singled out for punishment at a Garrison checkpoint, a young lieutenant rescues her from torture. Though she knows the terrible risks of collaboration, she cannot stop herself from falling in love. Watched by Garrison’s vast machinery of surveillance, Sylvie discovers she is also under the protective and suspicious gaze of her lover. When her older brother returns on a terrorist mission that will throw the city into chaos, Sylvie’s loyalties are tested beyond breaking point. Her deep bond with her brother and her illicit passion for her Garrison officer are loves that cannot coexist. Whatever she does is betrayal.

In the spirit of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Suite Francaise, this sensual and heart-breaking novel brings the classic conflicts of war and occupation, devotion and treachery, up to the present minute. While the unimaginable power of modern warfare advances, Watch Over Me reminds us that the things at stake—survival, refuge and love—remain the things worth fighting for.

More about Claire Corbett:

Claire Corbett was born in Canada and has worked in film and government policy. Her first novel, When We Have Wings, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award and the 2012 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Her recent fiction and essays have been published in a range of journals, including The Best Australian Stories 2014/2015, Griffith Review, Southerly and Overland. She has written on defence and strategy for The Diplomat, The Strategist and The Monthly.

Website: www.clairecorbett.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clairecorbettauthor/

Twitter: @ccorbettauthor
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The Magic Carpet revisited

And for the third and final(for the moment anyway) of my revisited original tales inspited by fairytale/folktale elements, here’s The Magic Carpet, which was published in The School Magazine and was inspired by my childhood love of The Arabian Nights.

THE MAGIC CARPET

by Sophie Masson

Once upon a time, a boy called Hamid lived with his uncle and aunt in the very middle of a great city. Hamid’s uncle and aunt kept the best-known carpet shop in that great city, and people came from near and far, just for a chance to look at their marvellous carpets.

Hamid’s uncle, who was as thin as a stick of cinammon, and his aunt, who was as round as a honey cake, greeted everyone at the door with a bow, and a smile, and a flash of gold teeth. They dressed in fine, silken clothes, and Hamid’s uncle wore a tall dark-blue silk turban, and his aunt a gauzy, spangled scarf.

But poor Hamid had no silken clothes, and no dark blue turban, and he was hardly ever allowed in the shop, only occasionally at night, when no-one was about. His uncle and aunt said he was very lucky, for they had taken him in when his parents had died. Hamid had to spend his days in the kitchen, cooking the nine different dishes his uncle and aunt demanded each evening.

Every afternoon, Hamid went to the market to buy the food for the next day. This was at the time when his uncle and aunt closed their shop and slept in their grand, silken-hung bedroom. But Hamid was never allowed to sleep or rest in the day. When he wasn’t cooking, he had to take bundles of laundry to the washer girl, or polish silver till his arms ached, or beat carpets until his face was covered in dust.

Yet Hamid loved the carpets. He would have stayed all day in the shop, if he had been allowed, fingering the rich stuff of the carpets and dreaming of the places from where they came. Sometimes, when he did this, there were pictures in his mind of another time, another place when he had been happy, when gentle arms had held him, and soft voices whispered to him. But the pictures were like shadows, or dreams; unable to be grasped. And if his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon or his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake saw him dreaming, they would shout, and order him back to the kitchen.

One afternoon, as he made his way back from the market, a figure came walking up the street towards him, with a parcel under its arm. As the figure came closer, Hamid saw that it was a woman, a young, lovely woman, though he could see only her eyes, and her hands. She was dressed all in dusty grey, and her eyes above her veil were of a most surprising colour, almost as blue as the lapis lazuli necklace owned by Hamid’s aunt. She stopped in front of Hamid. She did not say anything, but her eyes looked both sad and smiling, all at once.

Hamid’s heart fluttered a little as he looked at her; for he thought that somewhere, sometime, he had seen her. He said, “What is it you want? Are you a beggar? For I have no money. ” Still, the young woman said nothing, but she touched Hamid lightly on the arm, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Are you ill?” he said. She shook her head. She held out the parcel she was carrying.

“This is not mine,” he said, and he tried to give it back to her, but she shook her head, and put her finger to her lips. Then she stroked him–very, very gently–on the hair, and vanished, completely.

Hamid stood on the road, his heart thumping even louder. The touch of her hand had remined him of those dreams he had, those dreams of a happier time, when he was loved. As if in a dream, he walked back to his uncle’s and aunt’s place.

Alas! When he got back to his house, his uncle and aunt were both awake, and as bad-tempered as usual, only more so, because their midday sleeps made them feel hot and sticky. Hamid had no time to hide the parcel, and they ripped the covering off it, only to reveal an extremely old, faded, dirty carpet whose pattern could no longer be distinguished.

Hamid’s aunt boxed his ears, then, and his uncle called him sixteen different kinds of idiot. When they were out of breath, they told Hamid he was to stay in his room until the next day; they would go out to eat in a restaurant. And they tossed the old carpet out the back door, where it landed with a soft plop on top of a pile of compost.

Now normally, Hamid was a cheerful boy. But today, his cheer seemed to have deserted him. He lay on his straw bed and thought about his life, and how he wished…

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed and went outside to the back courtyard. Gently, he lifted the old carpet off the compost pile. Even though it was so old, and worn, it was the very first thing he had ever been given for himself. Perhaps, if he cleaned it well, it would look better?

And so, he fetched buckets of water, and soap, and a hard brush, and kneeling on the cobblestones of the courtyard, he began to scrub at the carpet. Scrub, scrub, scrub, he went, and soon he began to see a pattern emerging. “Oh,” said Hamid to himself. There was a curly golden pattern on a bed of deepest blue, and at the sides, something else, a red creature with a horn of purest white. Hamid kelt on the wet carpet and scrubbed gently at it, watching, absorbed, the colours, the patterns emerging from the old grime and dust. Why, he thought as he scrubbed, it was beautiful! He got a sponge, and tenderly began wiping away the soap from the other parts of the carpet.

He was so absorbed that he did not hear his aunt and uncle returning. They had gone into restaurant after restaurant and found fault with each, till at last the exasperated owners told them to go. So, dinnerless and more bad-tempered than ever, they had come home, intending to force Hamid to make something for them. What was their surprise and anger to find him not in his mean room, but out in the courtyard, wasting good soap and water on an old bit of rubbish! Hamid’s uncle reached over to pull his hair, and his aunt opened her mouth to call him twenty different kinds of rude names, till all of a sudden they saw the carpet properly for the first time.

Their mouths closed; their arms dropped. They stared at the carpet, and at Hamid, who did not even look frightened. He stroked the carpet, and said, “It is strange, it is almost as if I know this carpet, already. . ”

“Don’t be stupid!” said his uncle, fetching him a stinging blow on the ear. “Don’t be absurd!” said his aunt, pulling at his hair. Hamid, looking up in pain and surprise, saw that his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake had gone white as salt. He wiped a tear from his eye and stood up, sad but no longer afraid.

“You will put this old bit of rubbish on the fire!” his aunt commanded, her three chins wobbling like almond jelly.

“At once!” added his uncle, his eyes as round as if he’d seen a ghost.

But Hamid shook his head. “No,” he said, “it is mine. ”

His uncle and aunt goggled at him. “But,” said the uncle, with a cunning, cruel smile, “You are our servant. ”

“It is therefore ours,” agreed his wife, her cold eyes snapping.

“Give it to us,” said the uncle-as-thin-as-a-cinammon-stick, advancing on Hamid. “Yes, give it here,” said the aunt-as-round-as-a-honey-cake, clawing towards Hamid. But Hamid grabbed the carpet and held it tight.

And then came a voice from the back door. A tired, used-to-commanding voice. “Is there no one to help a customer, in this place?”

Instantly, the uncle’s and aunt’s faces changed. From being white-mean, tight-cruel, they smoothed out into smiling brown masks. “Oh, Your Highness,” simpered the uncle. “Your Gracious Lordliness,” wheedled the aunt. “It is only this silly boy of ours, who will not drop his bit of old rubbish. Come, Hamid,” she said in a silky voice.

The man at the door frowned. Hamid saw a short, grey-haired man, wearing splendid clothes and a vast white turban. There were lines on his face, of crossness and something else, something deeper and sadder. The man looked back at Hamid. He blinked, wiped his hand across his forehead, and said, “I came. . to buy a carpet. If this is the way you treat your. . ” but then he stopped. He said,still looking at Hamid, “Strange. . oh, you remind me so much of. . but no, it isn’t possible. . . ”

“Oh sir,” said Hamid, feeling a curious sort of emotion, which filled his eyes and his chest, but to which he cpuld not put a name. “Sir, it is only that I wish to keep this most beautiful carpet. . ” And before his startled aunt and uncle could stop him, he had unrolled it, almost at the man’s feet.

The man started violently. He looked at the carpet, at Hamid, at the uncle and aunt, and then he did the strangest thing. He burst into tears! Then he took Hamid in his arms, still crying, and said, “My son, oh my son. . ”

Hamid, clutched in the man’s arms, full of a warm, surging wonder, said, as if he were trying the words out, “Father. . is it really you, Father?”

They went on in this way for quite some time, but at last they thought of the uncle, as thin as a stick of cinammon, and the aunt, as round as a honey cake. And do you know, those two had simply disappeared, leaving everything in their shop, their money, their fine clothes, everything except what they had on them!

And then the man told Hamid that his son had been kidnapped as a small child. Although a huge ransom had been paid, the boy had never been seen again. His wife had died of grief, and he himself had become sad and empty and impatient of life. “And now, my son,” he said, weeping, hugging Hamid-who–was–his son, “here you are, and there is the carpet, the very carpet on which you had been lying, when you were taken!” And from the big pocket of his robe, he had taken out a miniature of a young woman, and shown it to Hamid–a young woman with a soft, round face, and amazing lapis lazuli eyes that seemed to smile right into Hamid. And then Hamid recognised her, and knew why his heart had been thumping, in the street, that afternoon. In his mind, came a picture of her–not sad anymore, but smiling, her sky-eyes sparkling as a spring morning. And in his mind, she held out her hand to him, and whispered, “My son. My son. My dearest son. ”

And when Hamid and the man-who-was-his father were back in the prince’s(for he was a prince, you see) marvellous marble-and-filigree palace, they talked long into the night of the wonderful and terrible things that had happened. And so long as they lived, the old carpet had pride of place in the most beautiful hall of the palace, under the portrait of the princess, Hamid’s mother, with her lapis lazuli eyes…

But as to the uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and the aunt-as-round as-a-honeycake, why, nothing was heard from them again, at least not in that country. But I have heard it whispered that in a cold and dusty and forgotten corner of a far-distant land, there is a greasy restaurant with a dirty kitchen where, day after day, a bent man as dry as a stick of thin grass and a woman as squashed as a melting cake stand in front of a vast pile of dishes, and wash, and wash, their arms up to the elbows in scummy suds.

 

The Old Woman and the Imp revisited

The Old Woman and the Imp is another of my original stories with fairytale/folktale elements, and like The Clever Thief, it was published both in The School Magazine and Cricket. It is a subversive riff on the story of Rumpelstiltskin, and I had a lot of fun with it!

The Old Woman and the Imp

by Sophie Masson

There was once an old woman, a rather hasty and clever old woman, who lived all alone in a small cottage.

Now this old woman had another important thing about her; for she was a champion spinner, as good as any you’d find on a long day’s walk; but ‘pon my word, she was a terrible cook!

That wouldn’t have mattered, normally, except for this small fact–that the old woman had just landed a job as a cook in the town, not far away.

I’m afraid to say that the old woman had been less than truthful when she’d been to ask for the job; she’d told the innkeeper that she’d cooked for the king, in her time, and as she could spin words as skilfully as she spun wool, she soon had him believing her.

When she arrived,on the appointed day, to take up her new duties,the innkeeper greeted her with a rather anxious face, and said, ” Oh, and it’s glad I am that you came! We are expecting several fine gentlemen to dinner tomorrow night, and you must start cooking the food at once!”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said the old woman, not to be flustered. “Show me to my quarters first, then I’ll start greasing your pans!”

Well, the old woman was taken to her room–the best in the house, with a large high feather bed, and soft carpet, and a mirror, for the old woman had let the innkeeper know, ever so softly, that the person who cooked food fit for a king must have quarters to match. .

Once there, and the door closed, she threw herself back on the bed, and dozed a little, without worrying overmuch about how she was going to cook this food, for all those fine gentlemen. Then she got up and started spinning; a-whir, whir, whir, and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn, and as she spun, she sang.

Suddenly, as she sat there singing and spinning, she heard the bedroom window creaking, ever so slightly, and the next minute, a strange creature had hopped through and was standing on the floor, grinning at her.

It was the size of a small cat, though not half as fat,and shaped more or less like a person–as if it had tried to follow a person-pattern, with not much luck!

And its grin was so large it seemed to split the creature’s face, so that its sharp yellow teeth winked, a one two three, a one two three!

The old woman looked at it for a moment,then calmly closed the window, went to the dressing table and began to unpin her hair.

“I’ve come to help you,” the little thing said, its grin fading just a bit, as the old woman kept ignoring it.

“Oh yes?” said she, and began combing her long grey hair, making smoochy faces at herself in the mirror. She was a clever old woman, as I’ve already told you; and she had a shrewd suspicion as to just who this little man-thing might be. But she was much too sharp to say so!

“I’m an imp,” the little thing said, trying hard to get the old woman to look at it. I”ve come to help you cook,” it continued, sounding a bit desperate. “For the fine gentlemen. “#”Oh, ah?” the old woman said, politely, but the imp was sure it had caught a twinkle in her eye.

It grew quite sulky. “If you don’t cook for these fine gentlemen, then you’ll be. . without a home,” it finished quickly. It had nearly said, “The king will have your head off,” before realising that was the wrong story.

The old woman turned around and looked properly at him. “I suppose you’re right,” she said at last.

“Well, then,” the imp said, rather put out.

“I can offer you a deal. I’ll cook for you for a year,invisibly, so it’ll look as if it’s you, doing it–and after that time, I will return and you will have to ask me three riddles. If I can guess all of them, you will come back with me to be my slave. If I can’t guess them all–even if it’s only one–you will be free. How’s that for a bargain?”#It grinned, and twirled around.

“Done!” the old woman said briskly. The imp looked surprised. “Are you sure?” it said. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!” she said.

 

So, the next day, the innkeeper came into the kitchen to be met with an army of lovely smells: of wine and cream and onion and mushroom; of vanilla and cinnamon and chocolate. He opened cupboards and found pies, smoking delicately;dishes of fried chicken, of creamed potatoes and chocolate puddings, of butterscotch pancakes and pears in red wine. He was overcome, and sat down at the kitchen table, his legs wobbly from hunger and pride.

“Oh, my goodness gracious,” he said to the old woman, “You ARE a cook fit for a king! You will make my fortune!”#”I think I’ll make my own,” the old woman snapped, and he murmured, “Quite, quite,” because everyone knows that good cooks are like glass, and must be handled carefully.

Invisible, at the old woman’s elbow, the imp stirred and mixed and whispered recipes, tricks, fancies. All the old woman had to do was to pretend to look busy–and she didn’t even need to pretend that, when the innkeeper wasn’t in the room. She had brought her spinning wheel into the kitchen, and in quiet moments could sit and spin: a whir, whir whir and turn; a whir whir whir, and turn.

Well, the fine gentlemen came, and they ate. How they ate! Their fine white shirts were splashed with gravy, and their red and blue waistcoats were stained with cream, and their belts had to be loosened several times. They praised the innkeeper and his wonderful cook, and showered them with gold.

Things went on in this way for some time. Word of the wonderful cook at the inn was soon spread far and wide. The innkeeper’s moustache grew daily more bright, his hands rubbed together with joy, and he watched the old woman tenderly, yet cautiously. He’d got it into his mind that she would make a fine wife–and, faith, she didn’t disagree!#

But time must march on, and soon the year was up. One day, the imp’s voice squeaked into the old woman’s ear,”Tomorrow is the day! Tomorrow is the day!”

The old woman looked at the calendar. Sure enough, it was the last day of the year, and tomorrow would be the first day of the new one!”Remember our bargain,” the imp said, and it laughed.

That night, the imp disappeared on business of its own, and the old woman was left alone in her fine room, thinking gloomily about her bargain, and what on earth she was going to ask the imp. She racked her brains for all the riddles she’d ever known, and finally came up with two. But the third eluded her. She tapped her foot impatiently, thinking of being that little imp’s slave, and how he’d likely make her spin mountains of straw into gold.  Her eye fell on her own spinning wheel lying silent in one corner, and she went to it, and began spinning, just to calm her nerves.  A whir whir whir, and turn! A whir whir whir and turn! Suddenly, as she sat there, spinning, an idea came to her, and she laughed out loud.

 

The next morning, bright and early, the imp was there, grinning and twirling round and round.

“Well?” it said impatiently. “well?”

The old woman looked at the imp. She smoothed her dress. She stroked her shining silver hair. Then she said, “I lie in halls of ivory, I am all of gold and snow, but no good am I to anyone until I am cracked and done. ”

“Oh, that’s easy!” said the imp, jumping up and down and grinning. “It’s an egg, an egg!”

“Well, then,” said the old woman, and I must confess her heart felt a little fluttery,”I am so strong and mighty, I can tear down hall and town; and yet my strength will never take me up, for I can only go down. . what am I?”#The imp looked at the old woman in astonishment. “I learnt that when I was but a tiny imp!” it said scornfully. “It’s water, of course!”

“And now,” it said, grinning wildly, “Now for the last one, and you’ll be mine, my slave, for ever!” It chuckled, and rolled on the ground, laughing.

Not so fast, my dear, thought the old woman. She said, “Well, imp, tell me, then–why am I always spinning?”

The imp stopped its laughing. It stopped twirling. It stood still and stared at the old woman.

“Why you are always spinning?” it repeated. “Why?” It looked deesperately at the old woman’s spinning wheel, where neither straw nor gold was to be seen. The light in its eyes faded.

“Well, of course everyone knows. . ” the imp began. Its more or less ear-shaped ears drooped. “Well, of course that’s easy,” it said defiantly. “Of course. ”

The old woman smiled, and waited.

“Oh, I’m not answering such a stupid riddle,” the imp said haughtily, and, clicking its fingers, it jumped out of the window and disappeared, never to be seen again.

 

Although the innkeeper was a little disappointed when his new wife proved not to want to cook, he wasn’t too disappointed. For in that long year, he’d watched her as she moved from stove to table, from table to stove, and he had picked up enough recipes and tricks and fancies to become a good cook himself. Soon the fame of his cooking spread far and wide, and crowds of people filled the tables. Whenever guests came, they would notice the old woman, sitting in a corner of the grand dining room, spinning, and spinning, her wheel whirring and turning with a most soothing sound. And if they asked what she was making, she would smile, and put a finger to her lips, and whisper, “Who knows?”

The Clever Thief revisited

I’ve written quite a number of stories which are based on folktale or fairytale elements, but are original in storyline and concept. Several of these have been pretty popular, and published more than once, and I thought it might be interesting to revisit a few of them. This one today, The Clever Thief, which was published both in The School Magazine(Australia) and Cricket (USA)quite a number of is one of those tales centred around an underdog triumphing over a dangerous situation through sheer wits, and it seemed to really strike a chord back then with readers both young and not so young! Hope readers of this blog enjoy it just as much now.

THE CLEVER THIEF

by Sophie Masson.

There was once a boy who was captured by robbers. Now these robbers were the most feared in the whole country. They held up travellers and robbed coaches, and their cave was full of stolen gold and silver and precious stones.

It was the custom of the robbers to make all their captives steal, as well. In this way, the robbers kept adding new members to their gang, because no-one ever dared to refuse. And once you’d stolen, you were in for good, because you were marked as a member of the robber gang, and would go to prison if you were caught.

Now the boy I am telling you about was as bright as a dewdrop and twice as fast as the breeze. But in the robbers’ cave, he pretended to be dull and stupid, while he thought of a way out of his predicament.

One night, the robber chief said to him, “Boy, tonight, you will join our gang. I want you to go down to the high road and relieve all the travellers of their purses. ” And he smiled, his broken yellow teeth giving him a wolfish look. The boy, although he was very much frightened, nodded vacantly and grinned an idiot grin. The robber chief felt a little uneasy at that grin–was the boy too stupid to understand?–but he sent him out, nevertheless, and waited in his cave for the boy to return.

Now the boy went out on the high road, and he saw all the travellers passing by. As he had been told to do, he stepped out onto the road, shouting, “Your purse or your life!” He was a tall, thin, gangling boy, with eyes that shone like ice, and the travellers were frightened by his strangeness. So they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins, and gave them to him, trembling. He opened the purses, tipped out all the money into their palms, and took their purses, saying, “My chief has told me he wants your purses,” and then he’d give a grin, empty as an abandoned house. The travellers wouldn’t wait to hear more; they bolted, taking their money with them, full of his strangeness and their good fortune.

So the boy went back to the cave, loaded with silk and leather and cotton purses; some new, some old, some large, some small. And he said to the robber chief, “Master, here are the purses you wanted,” while he smiled his silly grin.

“Fool!” The robber chief called out, pale with rage. “Fool! I didn’t just want their purses, I wanted their money as well!”

“Oh,” the boy said, and his face drooped at the corners, as if he was sorry for what had happened. Inside his bright quick heart, though, a smile danced and sparkled.

The robber chief contained himself with difficulty. Then he said, “Tomorrow night, you will go out again. And this time, this time, boy, I want you to get all their change! Do you hear, all their change, boy!”

The boy nodded, eagerly, his eyes seeming as dull as dirty water. Again the robber chief felt uneasy, but he thought that surely no-one could be as stupid as that a second time.

So the next night, the boy went out again onto the high road. Again, he stepped out into the road, calling out, “Your change or your life! Your change or your life!” And his tall, thin shape, ghostly in the moonlight, made travellers uneasy and frightened, so they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins. The boy carefully tipped out the purses, counted out all the copper coins, put them in his large pockets, then, just as carefully, tipped back all the gold and silver coins into the travellers’ purses, and gave them back. Then he smiled at them with a smile that did not seem quite as dull and vacant, and told them to go on their way. Which they did, thoughtfully, this time.

Then, after a hard night’s work, he went back to the robbers’ cave, his pockets filled with copper coins. He emptied out his pockets in front of the robber chief, grinning like a pumpkin.

The robber chief couldn’t believe his eyes. “Copper?” he roared. “Where is the gold, where is the silver?”

“But you said change,” the boy whispered, as if he were afraid. “Change is copper, isn’t it?”

“Boy!” the robber chief screamed. “You will go out one more time and bring back everything. Everything, you hear! And if you don’t. . ” His broken teeth glittered, his wicked eyes flashed, his hand drew slowly across the boy’s throat.

The boy gulped a little, as if he were afraid. And indeed he was, but his bright quick mind was working like a windmill, spinning, sending ideas into his skull.

“Yes, master,” he whispered, and bent his head.

So the next night, the boy went out for the third and final time. He stepped out onto the highroad in the moonlight, his figure tall and straight, his eyes shining, and he stopped each traveller and talked to them. As he spoke, their eyes began to shine, their mouths to smile, their hands to tighten on their belts. At the end of the night, there were many travellers assembled there, with the boy in the middle of them, still talking.

As the sun began to edge over the corner of the world, they were all climbing up the hill towards the robbers’ cave, where the gang lay asleep. And working quickly, they gathered up all the robbers’ weapons, and put them into a large sack.

Wasn’t the robber chief surprised, when he opened his eyes to see the great assembly in his cave! He sprang to his feet, as did the other members of his gang, but it was too late. Every sword, every dagger, every knife and bow and arrow had gone into that huge sack which the boy held in his hand. Weaponless, helpless, the robbers and their chief looked at the boy and heard him say, “You told me to bring everything. Everything I brought, and everyone. ”

Now it was the turn of the robber chief to bend his head, as he and his men were led out of the cave, down the hill, and towards the town. Now and then, he lifted his head and looked at the boy, so thin and gangling, and felt his smile, as bright and fleeting as the dew on the grass.

The Blue Cat: an interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Today I am delighted to be interviewing dear friend and fellow writer Ursula Dubosarsky as she celebrates the release this week of her latest novel for children, The Blue Cat (Allen and Unwin) Set in 1942, it’s a beautiful, haunting novel whose limpid prose takes us into the mind and heart of an imaginative and observant child, Columba, as she experiences the disruptions of wartime Sydney with her bossy friend Hilda and forms a touching and tentative bond with a disorientated, motherless young refugee, Ellery. Perfectly-pitched, with a vivid portrayal of Columba’s small world, touches of humour and a subtle evocation of the horrors that Ellery and his father have fled from in ‘You-rope’, The Blue Cat is also a mysterious, even mystical work whose heart-wrenching, enigmatic ending stays in your mind long after you close the book. It is another triumph for one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of children’s fiction, and will no doubt appear on many award lists.

First of all, Ursula, congratulations on the publication of The Blue Cat! Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story came to you?

Thanks Sophie. Always nerve-wracking when a book comes out!  Like any story the ideas come at you from all sides until finally, mysteriously, you start to write it. When I was a child I was fascinated as all children are by the various tale their parents let slip about their own childhood. My parents both grew up in Sydney during World War Two, which is the time and setting of ‘The Blue Cat’. My mother told us once (and I think she only mentioned it once, or perhaps twice) about the arrival of a German-Jewish refugee in her class one day at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta. Perhaps that’s when it started…

The image of the blue cat is woven throughout the book. Uncanny yet real, creature of dream and creature of fur, it appears and disappears at various times, and seemed to me to bring a feeling both of protection and dread. Is that what you intended? Or did you have something else in mind?

The cat sprang in my mind on a very long flight home to Sydney from Berlin – in the form of the poem that is at the beginning of the book.  I have to say I’ve always been afraid of this cat. Right from the start I thought that there was something sinister, even evil about him,   but I realized when I re-read the book that in fact he’s more ambiguous than that. Sometimes he’s even almost a comforting presence, as you say. So perhaps he’s both. I know that people can be shocked at this apparent indecision of an author about her own work! But I’m afraid all of my books are like that – open windows, (oops! out jumps the cat) perhaps, rather than closed doors.

Columba’s voice is both sharp and dreamy. She sees a lot but doesn’t always understand what she sees. She is very much a child and yet at a certain level in her consciousness she perceives what Ellery and his father have gone through in a more empathetic and certainly more extraordinary way than the adults. How did you balance these different aspects of her character to create such a believable yet unusual presence?

When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve noticed that if there is one thing I seem quite UNABLE to articulate, that is how to create character. For me this is the most intuitive part of writing – or at least the most hidden and buried from myself. I always feel as if the characters simply exist somewhere else and I’m just putting them on stage. You’re quite right about Columba, who sees and doesn’t understand, but she feels and yet knows something despite that. “The Cloud of Unknowing” one might say – that by surrendering oneself to not knowing you might perhaps get a glimpse of some truth.

You have included authentic documents from 1942 in the book, such as ads, government pamphlets, a letter from the Free French in The School Magazine and an editorial in the Schoolboys Chronicle which I believe was written by your father as a young person! What do you think primary, contemporary documents add to the texture of a historical novel? And can you also briefly comment on some of the other extra material you’ve included, such as pictures?

The book in a way is a kind of collage. I note the definition of collage in Wikipedia:‘A collage may sometimes include magazine and newspaper clippingsribbonspaint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.’ In ‘The Blue Cat’ there is the story of course, written by me, but then there are all those bits and pieces of the past, pasted in between the lines.  I adored making collages as a child at school – that feeling of excitement with the blank page, the glue and all the little bits and pieces of things to be stuck on where and how you chose.

Again, as a student in history classes I always responded very strongly to “primary sources”, those original documents, often ephemeral, that speak directly to us from the period in which they were created. I wanted readers also to have that experience, of reading and seeing the same things that the characters would have read and seen. The editorial by my dad you refer to was from a newspaper that he created and edited at Neutral Bay Public School during the war – as soon as I read it (only a few years ago when it turned up amongst various of his papers) I knew I HAD to include it. I went into the Department of Education office of the School Magazine to read through all the issues of the period of the book. (Thanks School Magazine!) The photograph of Ellery’s watch – I actually bought a vintage watch of the period on the internet, to make sure it was the real thing. I also managed to get a copy of the original air raid advice pamphlet on ebay – as well as the little prayer card of Columba. The copy of Vergil’s Aeneid with those wonderful ghostly annotations in pencil I bought years ago at the Salvation Army in Tempe…

The Blue Cat never specifically mentions the Holocaust, yet it is inevitably in the subtext. How difficult was it to approach the writing of the story in a way that neither overtly flags the horror of what was happening, nor elides it?

When I was a child in the 1960s I knew nothing about the Holocaust, but we all knew that the word Hitler was terrifying. That was something we understood from popular culture – adults are not going to tell children the details of the Holocaust. After all it’s a natural and I think good instinct to protect children from the various horrors of human behavior. The Holocaust is something you learn about, piece by piece, as you grow up. The adults in Columba’s life are not going to tell her what they know, what they guess, about Ellery’s situation. But they are not going to tell her lies either. I suppose in this book I have had to tread that same narrow path.

There is a touch of fairy tale, in its most mysterious yet immediate aspect, in much of The Blue Cat, but especially in the final sections. Can you tell us something about that?

For me not it’s not so much a fairytale as a mythical landscape, some very blessed place.  When I began writing I had in mind this medieval poem by Petronius Arbiter, translated by Helen Waddell. It always summons up Sydney to me, and how the experience of its beauty is a gift that can never be take away from you.

 O SHORE more dear to me than life! O sea!

Most happy I that unto my own lands

Have leave to come at last. So fair a day!

Here it was long ago I used to swim

Startling the Naiads with alternate stroke.

Here is the pool, and here the seaweed sways.

Here is the harbour for a stilled desire.

Yea, I have lived: never shall Fate unkind

Take what was given in that earlier hour.

The Blue Cat is one of a trio of your recent novels, The Golden Day and The Red Shoe being the other two, which are set at very particular points in Australian history, and are focussed around children’s limited yet luminous understanding of the events going on around them. Can you expand a little on that, and what attracted you to writing about those historical periods in particular? And also, and forgive me if this is a silly question—given the ‘colour’ theme of the titles, did you intend them to be a triptych somewhat like the ‘Three Colours’ series of films by the French-Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski?

I started with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954, and this was purely the result of hearing a program on the radio. I’d had no thought of writing a novel set in the 1950s, but the idea appeared and I got to work. You are right to evoke ‘Three Colours’ – that was something I did have in mind – a dreamy thought of three novels, set in Sydney harbour,  each one a different colour and set in a different decade. In the course of history a decade is nothing! But for a child a decade is their whole lifetime.

Finally, you wrote part of this novel while in Paris, during an Australia Council-funded writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio—a wonderful experience for you I know as it was for me when I was there in 2010! Aside from mention of the fall of France, and the notorious photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is reproduced in the book, there is no obvious connection to Paris. But do you feel something of what you experienced in Paris got into the texture of your story?

Before I went to Paris I had imagined that Paris itself would be a more significant part of the book. It didn’t work out that way though, and I have no explanation for that. It just didn’t happen. But the flat we were living in was right next door to the Paris Holocaust Museum, which I visited often and I think perhaps that will be another book altogether.

 

You can see a trailer for The Blue Cat here and some very interesting snippets, including videos, about the historical background of the book on Ursula’s website, here. You can also read an interview I did with Ursula about her Paris residency on my blog, here.