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

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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.

A Boat of Stars: an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior

Last week, I went to a very special launch celebrating a very special book: the beautiful multi-author, multi-illustrator poetry collection for children, A Boat of Stars, edited by renowned literary agent Margaret Connolly, 2017 winner of the Pixie O’Harris Award, and award-winning writer Natalie Jane Prior, author of many popular books for children. Published by ABC Books/Harper Collins, it’s a real joyful treasury of brand-new original poems for kids, by an amazing range of Australian authors and illustrators. I am delighted to say that yours truly is not only one of them–I am also lucky enough to have no less than seven poems in the book, illustrated by such wonderful illustrators as Julie Vivas, Lisa Stewart, Sara Acton and Cheryl Orsini. It was such fun celebrating this very special book with the editors and a great many fellow contributors! So today I’m very happy to bring readers an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior, about how the book came to be!
First of all, congratulations on an absolutely gorgeous book, Margaret and Natalie! How did the idea for it first come about?

Natalie had written two ‘picture book texts’, Owl and Mouse, which we realised were poems, and the book evolved out of a conversation about what we could do with them. We both love poetry, and fretted that there was no obvious way of getting them published. We knew that there were very few new books of children’s poetry being published, and suddenly realised that there was a gap in the market. By the next morning we were working on a proposal for what eventually became A Boat of Stars.

How did you go about gathering poems initially? And how did you make selections? What were you looking for in each poem?

We were looking for poems that modern Australian children would enjoy, and that reflected their experience of the world. We wanted poems that they would find engaging and amusing, and enjoy returning to, again and again. The book needed to be Australian in its outlook, so poems about Australian animals, and with indigenous content, were essential. When we’d selected about two thirds of the poems we looked critically at what we had, and where there were gaps, and also asked a couple of experienced teachers to identify topics they thought would be useful in the classroom.

You worked closely together as editors. How did the process work for both of you? What were the challenges and discoveries?
We’ve worked together creatively for many years, so it was a natural progression for us to start working as an editorial team.
Did you send particular poems to particular illustrators, or did they choose poems to illustrate, or was it achieved in a different way?

The format of the book allowed for sixty poems, each with an accompanying illustration, and we assigned illustrators to poems, trying to match style and sensibility. We were thrilled when Stephen Michael King agreed to illustrate the cover. We wanted the book to have a cohesive look, and using a core team of five illustrators helped achieve this, with variety from illustrators who worked on one or two poems.

I believe you also worked closely with ABC Books on concept, layout, design etc. It must have been a big job–and it certainly is a superb production! Tell us about how it all worked.

It was a massive job, but one we both enjoyed. We were very involved in the layout and design, including spending a very intensive day in an ABC office mapping out the poem order, and illustrator/poem choices. Chren Byng, our publisher, was wonderful, as was the whole ABC Books team. Chren trusted us to do what we felt was best for the book, but was there to guide and assist whenever needed. She shared our passion and vision, and understood the book right from the start. It was the happiest editorial and publishing experience.

What do you hope young readers and their families will get from A Boat of Stars? And why do you think poetry is important for children?

We hope that the anthology will give children a happy early experience of poetry, and enrich their understanding of words, and rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry, like music, is primal. It’s language operating simultaneously at both its most fundamental, and sophisticated level. Reading poetry teaches children to look sideways, to see the world and themselves from different angles. Modern children are growing up in a troubled world, and this is a skill they are going to need. It’s a weapon in their arsenal for life.

 If you had one line to describe A Boat of Stars–other than the lovely one on the cover, ‘New poems to inspire and enchant’– what would it be?
Australian children need more poetry.

Margaret and Natalie signing copies of the book at the launch at The Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft

The Neptune Clock: a short story

I wrote this story of unexpected magic quite some years ago, and it’s been popular with readers, so I’m republishing it here today. Enjoy!

The Neptune Clock

By Sophie Masson

The summer my grandfather disappeared, I had been with him, as was usual during the holidays. We’d spend the weeks just swimming and fishing and talking. Grandad was a great talker. Mum reckoned he could talk the hind flipper off a dolphin! It was a good picture to have of Grandad, if you know what I mean, because he was really a sea person.

He and Grandma, both. Every year, when she was still alive, they’d lock up the farm and head for the coast. Grandma was a wonderful swimmer; she’d nearly been chosen for the Olympics. It was hard for her, living at the farm; yet she loved it, loved Grandad, too, so she didn’t complain. But when she died, Grandad sold the farm and everything in it, and moved permanently to the coast. He said he felt closer to her that way; reckoned her spirit was in the sea, watching.

The only thing he’d brought back from the farm was the clock. His Neptune clock, as he called it. He had found it in a junk shop years and years ago before he and Grandma were married. I’d known it all my life. You just couldn’t imagine Grandad without it. That clock was a remarkable thing: a grandfather clock, with a glass front, a cedar case, and a carved brass face. Around the Roman numerals were all sorts of sea-figures: dolphins, seashells, a mermaid, seahorses. And the figure of an old man, holding a trident. Neptune, god of the sea, Grandad had said. When I was little, I used to think secretely that Grandad had been the model for Neptune’s face: kindly, thin, as filled with lines as a spider’s web. That clock ticked and tocked and bonged through all our days together; Grandad reckoned that it kept him going. He loved that clock, and used to polish it regularly. And when it stopped, he would open the case with a little key, a lovely brass key in the shape of a dolphin, and start the weights up again. And while he started it, he would tell me endless stories, stories of when he and Grandma were young, stories of the farm and the animals he’d had, stories of the sea. My favourite was that old Scottish story of the selkie–you know, the seal woman who is captured by a fisherman but eventually returns to the sea, leaving her family on land. It’s a sad story, and Grandad’s eyes always looked wet when he told that one. Sometimes I wondered if he thought of Grandma, then, Grandma, who’d so loved the sea, who’d seemed so at home in it…

I’m not sure when I noticed Grandad was a little different, that holiday. I think it started when I found him down at the beach, early one morning, without his beloved rod, just gazing out to sea. ’I saw the dolphins again today,’ he said. He turned to look at me, his blue-green eyes full of excitement. ’They’re coming closer!’ I nodded. I didn’t quite understand his urgency, his excitement, but it was nice to think of them out there, playing, leaping, the brilliant sea sparkling off their skin like scattered gems. Grandad sighed a little, and rubbed at his eyes. ’I don’t really feel much like fishing, these days.’ I looked at him sharply, but he had not sounded weary, only a little restless.

I watched him carefully for the next few days, but he seemed to be just the same as ever. Only occasionally he’d interrupt his talking and look out of the window at something I couldn’t see, but it was only a moment. Next moment he’d be back chatting and spinning yarns. And in its corner the Neptune Clock chimed out its creamy slices of days, chiming in with the rise and fall of his voice.

 

But then one morning–that morning!–I woke suddenly. The house was perfectly still; almost as if it was listening. Something in the quality of that silence made me jump up and fling clothes on. I ran from my room into the kitchen. No-one there. I looked in Grandad’s room. No-one there. The bathroom door was open–no-one there either. Behind the door, fishing rods, boots and all were still in place. But the clock was silent, its sound stilled, somehow adding to my fear.

There was no-one on the beach, and in the silver light of morning I ran and stumbled across the windswept sand, calling for Grandad. I ran and ran, my heart thumping and swelling with knowledge that I didn’t want to face.

It was near the end of the beach, as you go round into the next one, that I found them. His clothes, I mean. Even then, I shouted, ‘No!’ and looked around frantically for him, my eyes almost splitting from the enormous tears that ran all over my face.

Suddenly, there was an unusual movement in the long rolling waves uncoiling before me. Through the tears, I saw two backs, arching, sleek grey bodies slipping in and out of the silken water. Closer they came, closer; and then…People have told me I’m crazy, since then, that it’s just wishful thinking–but I swear that one of those dolphins’ faces was lined, as crazily as a spider’s web, with humorous, sea-change eyes, eyes that had so often been turned on me. And then I watched the dolphins, playing, leaping, looking for all the world like loving people who have found each other again after a long absence…

I can’t tell you how long I stood there, how long they stayed there. But after a while, I walked back slowly to Grandad’s house. And there, on the hall table was the clock key. I picked it up, and turned it over in my hands. ’It’s time, then,’ I whispered. I inserted the key gently into the keyhole.

It opened easily and there, under the weights, was a note in Grandad’s writing: ’This is your clock now, Jessie. It will be a good friend.’ And then followed instructions for starting up the clock. Carefully, I followed them. Then as the clock started ticking again, I looked up at it–and caught my breath. For the Neptune figure, the one which had once had Grandad’s face, stared back at me with a highly-polished grin, out of a face I knew well. Of course I knew it well. I saw it in my mirror every morning.

 

 

Fiction, prediction and diversity: an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today I’m very pleased to interview popular author Hazel Edwards about her new book for adult readers, Celebrant Sleuth, set in a country town and centred around the character of Quinn, an unusual woman who lives in a romantic but non-sexual relationship with her partner Art, and who as well as being a celebrant in great demand at weddings, funerals and other life rituals, also has a knack for solving mysteries of all sorts.

Hazel, how did the idea for ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ first come about? 

I’d observed celebrants in action at Australian weddings, name-days and funerals. Most are very personable.

They are problem-solvers. They have to handle dramatic situations with difficult people and heightened tension. Apt words in emotive ceremonies are their business.

The role seemed versatile enough for a sleuth character who needed to move into different settings and cultures to solve mysteries. For diverse age groups too.

Like many others, our family is spread across generations and cultures and friends are re-committing, divorcing or blending.

So I’d been to a few celebrations, commitments and an increasing number of funerals.

That seemed like a good starting point to research the role of celebrant. As a believer in participant-observation, I considered qualifying as a celebrant by doing the course, but then decided it was more effective to interview the experts.

In early 2016, well before the Same Sex Marriage law debates, I moved into serious interviewing.  More than twenty-five celebrants on phone or Skype or in person. But it wasn’t all serious, most celebrants had a sense of humour, which was vital because I was collecting anecdotes for my mystery plots.  I needed the absurd inbetween the tragic and the romantic.

Most fictional detectives have a ‘backstory’ but Quinn, the celebrant/detective in Celebrant Sleuth, has a most unusual one. Can you tell us how you came to create her, including any research you had to do? 

 Usually I create a detailed dossier for each of my characters. Quinn required a bit more research because I needed to get the gender vocabulary right as well as find out about the job of celebrant.

Earlier, I’d been invited to various literary festivals in connection with our co-written trans YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ (2010).

On a panel, I met an extremely articulate and thoughtful asexual in her early thirties, who challenged me to write about her gender circumstances. She was NOT a celebrant.  She was a park ranger. But the idea of juxtaposing a romantic personality in a longterm relationship within the character of a celebrant who had a job involving romance interested me.  ‘I prefer icecream to sex’ was one of her very quotable comments to me, as she explained the differences between being asexual  (feeling no sexual attraction to any gender) and being a ‘romantic’ desiring and giving affection which is different from being aromantic.

She became one of my ‘expert’ readers.  Along with the celebrants, actors, caterers, lawyers, mothers-in-law, actors and photographers I interviewed. And the multiple florists in fabulously perfumed shops.  The only problem was fictional time. Everything needed to happen in under an hour, just like in a wedding or funeral.

But it’s taken about 2 years to write in ‘real time’, between 6 am and 8 am daily. My brain was clear then and could cope with plotting clues. The mysteries are episodic, with celebrant Quinn solving problems in settings including the football hall of fame, retirement village chapel and a few inter-relationships of florist, caterer and media in the country township during an economic downturn. Millionaire retirement village owner, eighty-something Flora is feisty and falls for a younger man. I had to create a whole ‘fictitious’ township of intersecting roles. And get the street geography right.

There are several stories in Celebrant Sleuth: cases ranging from murder to theft to missing wills. Did you write them in sequence or not?

 No. I didn’t write in sequence.

The tight opening, Introducing Quinn, was written last as the viewpoint was always a challenge.  Initially I imagined a kind of voice- over which could adapt for television, but also the issue of asexual gender had to be explained indirectly for a mainstream audience but was not the central theme of the book. First person enabled less use of pronouns

I wrote each chapter as a separate ceremony with a problem or crime solved by Quinn the sleuth. But I didn’t want a murder per chapter. That seemed Agatha-Christie-ish, depopulating one small country town. The settings were a challenge because I needed to create a country town, small enough for the characters to bump into each other via their other roles like caterer or florist.

I tried to vary the mood and pace of the chapters and the type of ceremony, not all were weddings. And I had to check the facts about types of death… and set up the circumstances and motives. After trialling them with my test readers.

‘Celebrant’ is an Australian term and often confused with ‘celibate’ or ‘psyche’ or ‘Celebrity’ so I had qualms using it for the title.

Amused that my publisher BookPOD has used the meta tag Clean crime to describe ‘Celebrant Sleuth’.

‘I do…or die’…was the last minute subtitle to include all circumstances.

What has been the reaction of readers?

Really positive.  Celebrants are thrilled with their job being featured.  Diverse gender groups are delighted to have an asexual hero. Others like the small town mystery.

My expert test readers picked me up on a few technicalities. ACE as the name of Quinn’s partner was inappropriate as it is a term used by asexual groups. Pure coincidence I used that name as I was trying to give alphabetical and simple names to characters.  Ace became Art. Coronial and forensic pathology procedures.  Legal stuff.  Uniformity of retirement village streetfronts and use of ramps.  Youngest legal age of bride.

But the greatest legal challenge has been the Same Sex Marriage laws changing the terminology in my commitment chapter. Last minute updates.  So far I haven’t been accused of being politically opportunistic in using such a topical gender situation. The reality is I started writing two years ago. It was serendipitous topicality which had the law being changed on the day I was checking the galleys and had to change clues since wedding services differ from commitment in the legal wording and papers, but there will still be people who choose to commit rather than marry.

The cover has ambiguous and symbolic silhouettes and that was deliberate. Designer Lee Burgemeestre is multi talented and is also a celebrant so she brought an experienced eye.

My favourite anecdote relates to lost rings and metal detectors on the beach. Closely followed by dogs as Best Man.  And the professional afternoon- tea eaters who turn up as rent-a-crowd for the scones, raspberry jam and clotted cream provided by one funeral parlour, even if they didn’t know the deceased.

Some readers are intrigued by the blurb.

‘I buried my father, married my sister and sorted the missing will.’

Quinn, a celebrant with style and a few obsessions but a good heart, solves quirky problems, mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in her country town.

Ex-actor with a great voice who writes eulogies to die for! Not forgetting a few quotable ‘Quinn’s Laws of Relativity’. A romantic, but asexual, Quinn lives with her long term partner Art who runs community Channel Zero.

The workstyle of a celebrant is never routine. Fake I.D. Fraud. Fights, even to the death, over wills and inheritance … Mislaid rings. Lost bride. Food poisoning.   Clients of varied ages and cultures are well looked after. Even vintage millionairess Flora with the much younger lover who might be a con-artist.

Quinn solves most problems but not always in the expected way

Why have you included Quinn’s Theories of Relativity at the end?

To characterize Quinn as many celebrants do write their original material.

Most people only know Albert Einstein from t-shirt quotes, but …

I admit I occasionally adapt his ‘Theory of….’quotes for funerals or weddings. Not really plagiarism because I always mention Einstein, just an updated tribute to the most significant science philosopher (in my opinion). One of my heroes and gives a bit of gravitas to a service.

Quinn’s Theory of Relativity

The likelihood of the relationship ending in divorce is directly related to the number of arguments during rehearsals, obsessive preparation and the bride’s budget on self.

My favourite is: Quinn’s Theory of Funeral Secrets

‘At a funeral, we acknowledge the life of the person and maybe the many identities, actions and secret lives of which the family and friends were unaware. For some a shock, for others a relief.’

 Are you planning any more ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ stories?

Yes.  But only if optioned for television. I’m realistic about the number of options which are never made.

Currently there is a great demand for celebrants to perform weddings for same-sex couples who previously had commitment services or who had married under the laws of elsewhere.  But the demand for commitments, re-commitments, funerals and naming ceremonies will continue.

 

Celebrant Sleuth by Hazel Edwards is published by Bookpod and is available through all good bookstores. Formats: paperback and ebook.

 

2017 Book Discovery 6: Sandy Fussell’s pick

Sandy Fussell tells us about her 2017 book discovery today.

My 2017 Discovery Book is The Choke by Sofie Laguna, although to be honest, it’s more of a discovery trail that began in 2009 when I spotted the cover for One Foot Wrong in a bookstore. I read the blurb and was hooked.

A few years later, I read The Eye of the Sheep in August, and even though there were still four months of the year to go, I told everyone, even Facebook, that it was my favourite book for 2014. When it won the Miles Franklin the following year, I smiled a lot and said, “I told you so” whenever I thought I could get away with it.

Even though I write for children, I’d never read any of Sofie’s children’s books. So, I began to search backwards. There were lots of discoveries then. I was lucky to discover a copy of the out-of-print picture book Stephen’s Music, in a Canberra second-hand bookstore. It’s another favourite. Sofie has a magical way with words. For me words have always been a form of music. In Year 6, I asked for The Complete Works of Shakespeare for my birthday. Not because I was smart, in fact, I didn’t understand much of it at all. I just liked the music the words made when I read them aloud. That’s was Sofie does when she writes. She makes word music.

But back to 2017. As a reviewer, I received an advance copy of The Choke. It sat on my desk for a while because I wanted the luxury of reading it in one sitting. Most of my reading is very fractured, wedged into slivers of time in between things I’d rather not be doing.

For Book Week, I had a school visit that involved two-and-a-half hours train travel each way. I don’t mind that. It’s not travel time, it’s reading time. I read The Choke, all the way from the South Coast to Hawkesbury River Station.

The Choke is the story of ten-year-old Justine, who lives with her grandfather, a damaged veteran of the Burma Railway. The name of the book is a reference to a place on the Murray River where the banks narrow. Large chunks of my own childhood were spent on a narrow section of the Nepean River, with my sister and the girl next door. I would sit and read (no surprises there) and the others would fish, and we’d explore a little north and a little south. It was innocent fun. But for Justine, The Choke is place where good and evil happens.

Some parts of the story cut close to my bones. The isolation of being different and wanting different things with no-one to understand or help clear the obstacles. Recently, I read an interview where Sofie spoke about visiting the thin part of the Murray, how it always floods but the gums still grow under the water, like Justine does. Ultimately Justine’s issues were darker and more violent than my experience, and the story hurt on a level deeper than what I brought to it as the reader.

When I got to Hawkesbury River Station, I had one page to go. I’m always early for appointments so there was time to sit in the morning sun and read through to the end. And when I’d finished, I took a deep breath, and everything I’d read overwhelmed me. I was sobbing. Not crying. Sobbing.

So, here’s why The Choke is my 2017 favourite Book Discovery.  Adult books told through a child’s eyes always resonate with me, the language is beautiful, and the narrative is heartbreaking. Absolutely gut-wrenching.

 

 

 

Sandy Fussell is an internationally published children’s author who loves words, numbers and the Internet. Enthusiastic about school visits, cultural diversity in literature and ICT in education, she is often found in a school library waving her practice sword or teaching a Minecraft-based writing workshop. You can find her here www.sandyfussell.com

The language of astonishment: on being bilingual

I’m republishing here today a meditative essay of mine looking at how the experience of being bilingual, as well as my family history, has influenced my work.

(This essay was first published in Explorations, A Journal of French-Australian Connections, Number 50, June 2011, and subsequently republished at http://languageofastonishment.pressbooks.com/ )

 

Towards the end of Russian-French writer Andrei Makine’s hauntingly beautiful novel of childhood, memory and divided loyalties, Le testament français(1995), the narrator Alyosha, who all his young life has been shuttling between the visceral reality of his Russian Siberian childhood and his French grandmother’s poetic evocations of her past and her old country, has a sudden slip of the tongue which for a moment puts him in a disorienting position: that of being literally between two languages, between French and Russian, and understood by neither. But it is that very moment which transforms his life and his understanding of himself and his literary ambitions. The gap between the two languages which as a dreamy child he simply accepted and as a rebellious teenager he reacted against, is not what he once thought it was—a frustrating barrier to understanding or a comforting bulwark against reality, depending on his mood at the time. No, it is something far stranger and much more exhilerating: a prism through which everything can be seen and felt even more clearly, sensually and intensely, and not only because with two languages at your disposal, you have even more opportunity to ‘nail’ the world, as it were. It is because that between-two-languages phenomenon common to all bilingual people is actually a striking metaphor for the gap that exists between language per se and lived, sensual reality for all human beings. And it is in that gap that literature itself is born: literature, which in Makine’s beautiful words is un étonnement permanent devant cette coulée verbale dans laquelle fondait le monde: a never-ending astonishment in the face of the flow of words in which the world dissolved. (Le testament français, Mercure de France 1995, page 244.) And it is that very ‘in-between’ that universal ‘language of astonishment’ which will turn Alyosha into a writer, and by extension Makine himself, who included many autobiographical elements in the novel.

When I first read Le testament français, in the year in which it first appeared, and the language in which it was written—French–(the English translation, with the same title, appeared in 1997) I had already been published in Australia for five years, with several novels already in print. I was already aware subconsciously of many of the things Makine writes about. But I was immediately and viscerally struck by Le testament français. Makine had put his finger unerringly on the pulse of the bilingual writer; he had expressed perfectly something most of us knew and struggled with but I for one had never expressed quite so clearly, though I knew that my background and divided loyalties informed practically everything I had written, even those works which had nothing whatever to do with bilingualism in content, style or theme.

I write very differently to Makine, and in a very different field to his adult literary fiction. Though I have written three adult novels, the vast majority of my work is fiction for young people: children and adolescents. It is an area I much prefer, for all kinds of reasons, but principally because it is the area in which I can most express myself, in which I feel most free, whose very constraints in terms of what may or may not be permissible due to readers’ ages mysteriously allows my imagination a great deal more latitude, invention, freshness and subtlety than would be the case in adult fiction. Within young people’s fiction, I have written in all kinds of genres, from mystery novels to fantasy novels, family sagas to ghost stories, thrillers to love stories, historical novels to graphic novels. But the element of the fantastic, in one way or another, has been an abiding feature of my work. And now, after reading that book and thinking deeply about what it raised,  I began to see that my own abiding interest in the fantastical, ever since my earliest childhood: in fairytales, legends, myth, as well as modern fantasy, was in itself  not only a personal choice, because I was that way inclined and always had been. But also because the journey between worlds, the sojourn in strange places, and the sudden irruption of a different, disturbing reality into the everyday which is at the heart of fantasy was actually also at the heart of my own lived experience.

 

I was born into a long, tumultuous family history. A history which at least on my father’s side we knew very well, stretching back through the centuries, from the peasant villages of western France to emigration to Quebec as some of the first people to settle in ‘New France’, through centuries of Quebec life to the spectacular return to France in the early twentieth century as very rich and reckless dual nationals of the haute bourgeoisie. It was a history that was a mixture of grand tragedy, thrilling romance, Grand Guignol horror and high farce, and it was  always more than a bit player in all of our lives. The dead jostled the living, in our understanding of the world; the mad, the bad, the sad, the brave, the good, the cruel, the powerful, the poor wore our features, and answered to our names. Passionate love and murder and suicide and treachery and madness and  acts of courage and of cunning were all common currency in this history of ours, which crossed over often into the history of the countries my various ancestors lived in. And throughout the twentieth century (and beyond!)it has continued to unfold in instalments action-packed, terrifying, ridiculous, disturbing and exciting by turns.

We were always in the midst of drama, some a direct result of the past, others new episodes that would in turn generate their own echoes. People to whom I’ve told even a fraction of the extraordinary stories engendered by my family have said to me that one day, I must write them  down. They’re thrilled by it all; they say, No wonder you became a writer! But what often people fail to understand is that , for a child, and especially a child who tends to be more of an observer, such as young writers en herbe tend to be, such tumult can be fatal to peace of mind and even to the growing of separate identity. It can actually paralyse your faculties of observation and clarity, which you need in order to transform powerful emotions into good writing. In order to escape, to protect yourself,  you can only retreat, at the risk of being labelled a selfish dreamer, an emotionless blank, a weird changeling in the warm human world…

Perhaps I was just such a changeling. Perhaps my own destiny, as a child born to carry straight on with the quarrels and loves of a self-absorbed French family was irrevocably changed when first, I was born on the other side of the world, in Indonesia, where my parents were working; then, second, because of ill health, I was left as a baby with my paternal grandmother in France for four years, and did not see my parents or sisters in all that time. My grandmother, a great beauty with a turbulent past, was from a world that to me seems as mythically poetic as the past of Alyosha’s grandmother Charlotte Lemonnier seems to him. She had a fund of stories of that world, suitably glossed for a child’s ears, and one of my greatest delights was to listen to her or my aunts, her daughters, tell stories about the glamorous people in the elegant photo albums that filled one of the family heirloom cabinets in her bedroom. The Toulouse apartment where they lived, filled with the gracious and gorgeous relics of the past, its wardrobes crammed with evening dresses and furs and hat-boxes, was like a memory capsule of the vanished family fortune and long-ago histories of its more celebrated members, a place where a child could dream and dress up and imagine fairytale destinies. But it was also a space where I was the only and very cossetted and petted child in the house, the embodiment of the future, and with my grandmother, one of the twin centres of this very feminine world.

My grandfather was still on and off a part of my grandmother’s life; but their differences and a difficult history had made them drift apart so that he was away for long periods in his other world, one I never knew and still know of now only in very small hints. A world where he did not have to live up to the protocols and constraints of the gilded class into which he had been born, where his own troubled past could be forgotten, a world in which he felt more himself, though he was not the kind of man who would ever have put it like that. Elegant, impulsive and with a not-so-hidden streak of violence, he was not an analytical type, and was also no worshipper of the past; indeed, quite the contrary. On his infrequent visits back to the apartment, he brought a disturbing breath of masculine havoc with him, and a reminder that the past had also contained much darker things than the golden memories evoked by my grandmother in her stories. I was afraid of him; and also fascinated by him. I’d been so young when I left Indonesia that I didn’t remember my father at all, but I knew, from looking at photographs, that he looked very like his father, my grandfather, though I also knew that they didn’t get on.

All this vanished almost overnight when my parents came back from Indonesia, and the next stage of my border-crossing, changeling existence began. Suddenly I was no longer the only child, but the third of four children; suddenly I had to adapt to the rediscovery of my father and mother. We were not together long in France though; my father had been offered a new contract to work overseas again, this time in Australia. And this time, I would go along with them, with my second older sister Beatrice and my little sister Camille, while my oldest sister Dominique, who was on the cusp of high school, would take my place in my grandmother’s and aunts’ lives as the young centre of their lives.

I knew no English at all when we arrived in Sydney. I was five, ready to start school, and with Beatrice, who did know English, I dutifully trotted off. I don’t remember much at all about that first year in Australia. And I don’t think it’s because I was traumatised—from what my mother tells me, though she was worried I’d be upset, in fact I took to school very happily and babbled away in French and broken English to anyone who would listen, seemingly unconcerned with the strangeness of it all, and soon had several friends. Rather, I don’t remember that time because I didn’t have the words in which to ‘dissolve the world’ and fix my memories. Memory itself is dependent on language, and it is why we do not remember, as a general rule, our pre-verbal babyhood.

But I do very clearly remember that first English-language book I read by myself, as I mentioned; the Little Golden Book which recreated for me, in this new language, fairy stories I’d already heard and read, in my own mother tongue. For me, it was like a version of the feelings Alyosha has when he realises that the stories his grandmother tells him could be told in French, or in Russian, equally, because they are at the junction of the two, told in that ‘language of astonishment.’ And the fantastic is par excellence the discovery of astonishment, of surprise, of the strange, dislocating everyday reality in an unexpected way. Little wonder then that it was that element that spoke so deeply to me, why I took so to the whole idea of fairyland, of the otherworld in my reading. And the discovery of the extraordinary range of fantastical children’s fiction in English was one I made by myself; for as my parents had come to English as adults, they were not familiar with English-language children’s books. We had many books at home in French: rows of Tintin and Asterix and Babar and Bibliothèque Rose editions of the Comtesse de Ségur and Bibiliothèque Verte editions of Paul Berna and lots of 19th century adventure novels, like those of Dumas, Féval, Gautier, Hugo. I read them all, some of them many times over; but the English-language books I found for myself in the public library or the school library were very special to me because I came across them by myself. I was always attracted to titles that breathed of magical possibilities. The world beyond the wardrobe, in the cracks of the floor,  through a river, across the sea, in the hollow tree, through the looking-glass: it beckoned me. It offered space and time. Possibility. More than that, it offered the chance of transformation, so that one could re-emerge into the everyday world re-invigorated, newly ready to cope, understand, and overcome.

My parents never intended to stay more than two or three years in Australia; Dad always had it in his mind to get a job back home. But that didn’t happen; the contracts kept being signed, and we settled into a shuttle of Australia for the two or three year period of each contract, with a stay of several months back in France at the end of each. It became our way of life, this moving between countries, continents, and languages; and though Beatrice soon rejoined Dominique back in France for high school, the rest of us(including the three youngest born in Australia, Louis-Xavier, Gabrielle and Bertrand)stayed here. English-speaking at school, we were not supposed to use it at home, and didn’t, with our parents; but soon evolved, between siblings, a kind of private language, a franglais, or rather frangarou, as I’ve coined it now to evoke Australian English: an in-between patois that twisted and melded and that no-one else would understand. That too now I see fed into my apprehension of the world as a multi-dimensional thing, a reality that could be disturbed, whose known layers could be peeled back to reveal something else, something unexpected, familiar and foreign all at once. The languages coined by fantasy writers are no more strange than the weird mixtures spoken between children who are growing up with more than one language deeply embedded in them..

I was soon writing as well as reading stories. Head down in a book, or nose up in the air, dreaming; or bottom up, scribbling interminably: for me, stories were literally indispensable, as absolutely necessary as breathing. Away with the fairies, I could hold and control and understand and know. Outside it, I was just a child, at the mercy of forces, both personal and impersonal, which swept me into constant, yet unpredictable turmoil. But right from the start, the stories weren’t just private, not just written for myself; I had an audience in mind, the audience of my siblings. We younger five especially were very close; our parents’ fears about the cultural difference of Australia, and their own difficult war childhoods, meant that they did not allow us to do the kinds of things our Australian school friends could do as a matter of course. I’ve often read in the reminiscences of fellow Australian writers that they had a freedom in their childhoods that children today lack, hovered over as they are by anxious ‘helicopter’ parents. Well, in our case, we had more that ‘hovered-over’ experience; not for us bike rides down the creek or jaunts by yourself into the city. During the week, we trod familiar paths to school and back again; after school and on weekends,  we stayed generally within the—quite extensive–confines of the garden and the house. However, our parents did not attempt to program our days. We were thrown very much on our own resources, especially as there was no TV allowed in the house. And entertaining yourself often meant having to entertain the bored younger ones as well; you couldn’t just bookworm all day or you’d run the risk of armed revolt, both from siblings and parents. Telling stories—or rather writing them—was a good compromise. I’d be doing what I wanted, and still escape into other worlds; but also keep the family peace. More exciting, I could actually take other travellers into those strange and magical worlds of the imagination.

Sometimes, we children would sit under a big table in the living-room that we’d covered with a large dark pink velvet curtain that hung all the way down, making the space beneath like a kind of dimly-lit tent. In this space my younger brothers and sisters sat while I played Scheherazade, spinning as many stories as I could. Though I didn’t know it, I was learning not only the storyteller’s vocation, but also the craft of the writer, because there were times when my stories fell flat and I had to quickly change them, and build up suspense and a sense of style. I couldn’t just go, And then this happened and then this.. because the audience would rapidly get bored and one brother would start pinching one sister or vice versa and the resulting brawl would make our parents come running.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t a shared experience. One of my ways of coping with boring or uncomfortable situations was to imagine myself elsewhere. I could look at a stone, or a piece of wood, or anything really, focus on it till I felt as if I could crack its essence, and emerge into that parallel reality I’d grown to love deeply. It was an actual physical reaction, this sensation of being in another world: a kind of dreamy dissolving of the limbs, a swimming of the head, and yet a great clarity of mind, and a delight that was piercingly sweet.

This was possible anywhere; but even more so when on holidays we were back at our house in the rural south-west of France, west of Toulouse. The house, that had been renamed by our father La Nouvelle Terrebonne, after the original Terrebonne, the long-lost family mansion in Montreal, was a centuries-old place that with its nooks and crannies and secret places seemed to me to hide many different passages to the otherworld.  In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. It was a house my parents were happy in and relaxed, and from where we children could roam into the countryside, free of the anxious worrying which  in Australia kept us to our immediate surroundings. It was a good-fairy kind of house, the sort that is deeply loved by all who live in it, but that nevertheless had many strange, mysterious and even frightening stories associated with it. Stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the enormous elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers. The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers to every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own strange cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes, filigree jewellery, and two sinuous plaits of black hair, wigs made, so my mother told us in a thrillingly bloodcurdling tone, by cutting off the hair of corpses.

In Australia, I’d scribbled and told stories of fairies and knights and monsters. But  in La Nouvelle Terrebonne, and the rural world beyond it, we discovered the actual homes of those fairies and knights and monsters. We headed out on our bikes to neighbouring villages, past deep rustling woods, fountains and castles and ancient churches; we went to school in the little village school across the road where they still had ink bottles and slates; we found eighteenth-century books on the rubbish tip and picked cherries and apricots and greengages and figs in our own parkland. Looking back on it, and now that the house has long been sold on, there is a golden Le Grand Meaulnes nostalgia about it, an enchanted space which stayed forever not only in my own heart, but those of all of my family. We sometimes visit the village just to look at the house; and my mother told me recently, that of all the many houses she’d lived in in her life, all over the world, La Nouvelle Terrebonne was the only one she ever had dreams about.

Of course, for a budding writer, an enchanted space like that is very important. Stories don’t need to be looked for; they are thick on the ground, in the air. But if that space is only chronologically a small part of your childhood, then you must also find stories wherever you are. And that’s how a writer’s mind works—you see stories everywhere. Back in Sydney, we might be more restricted than in the village, but there were still lots of magical stories to be found, even in our small radius. Coming home from school, we passed a house on the corner that was covered in vines and creepers, its garden full of roses. A couple of elderly sisters owned it, and often in the afternoons they were out in the garden in flowery flowing dresses and girlish hats. One had dyed her hair lilac, the other pale blue; to me they looked just like the good fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty film, and we used to call their place the ‘Sleeping Beauty house’. Or there was the old lady who lived in the block of flats next to our house. Her late husband had been something important in India and her beautiful apartment was crammed with such things as a jewelled sword and a whole family of carved ivory elephants, arranged in a row from the large to the tiny. Once she took us for a ride in her ancient, magnificent Rolls Royce which scarcely ever poked its nose out of the garage. Though she was a tiny woman, she navigated the roads with great aplomb, sitting on a cushion at the wheel of the vast car that to me felt like a royal carriage in a picturebook.

I was always doing that as a child—transforming the world with the ‘language of astonishment.’ It didn’t even need to be as glamorous as a Rolls Royce or a fairytale garden to be turned into something magical. That technique I’d learned, about abstracting myself into imagination, came in very handy indeed-in maths lessons, long sermons, school assemblies, on unwilling bushwalks at the Blue Mountains block my parents bought; and just hanging around at home on a rainy day. My sister Camille said to me once that what she most remembers of her childhood is being bored; and that amazed me. Because boredom was something that I don’t associate in the least with my childhood; many other emotions, yes. But boredom, never. I was on journeys all the time, in my mind; whether in books written by other people, my own stories, or daydreams. Always escaping into other worlds…

As a child, though, the fact that even in reality I lived in two worlds—a French one at home, an Australian one at school—did not strike me as unusual, intriguing, or weird. It was just what life was like. I spoke in French to my parents, frangarou to my siblings and my diary, and English to my classmates and the exercise book I kept for my stories. I didn’t wonder at it, back then. I just switched effortlessly without thinking about it, just like the child Alyosha in Le testament francais. Yes, there were certain things I didn’t like, about times when the worlds collided, like the fact our sandwiches were different to our classmates’ or the truly cringe-making experience of the teacher picking me out of the class, saying to the rest of them, ‘Sophie’s native language isn’t even English and she writes it better than any of you!’ Yes, I might dream of having blond hair as well as magic powers(one of the characters I created as a child, Princess Alicia, had both!) But mostly, the differences didn’t worry me. I was simply hardly even aware I was different. Was I French? Was I Australian? I didn’t know and didn’t care. At home, my parents were always enjoining us never to forget we were French; at school we were always having it reinforced that this was Australia. At home, my parents sometimes talked about ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in disparaging terms; outside of home you sometimes heard disparaging—or conversely—adoring– remarks on the French, both of which surprised and confused me. But it didn’t really cause any conflict in me, as a child, it just seemed like one of those boring things that adults thought about but I didn’t. My mother would sometimes say, ‘Why are you always writing make-believe stuff? Why not write about what you know?’ but I had no interest at all in writing about my actual experiences, which to me were much too humdrum. Even if I was writing about the ‘real’ world it was always set in places I’d read about. Never places where I’d actually lived.

That all changed in my teens. I still loved fantasy but went from wanting to write dashing adventurous tales to dreamy meditations and mystical poetry which tried to express everything I felt about the mysteries of life. But I also became intensely self-conscious about the two worlds I lived in every day. Became aware that it wasn’t ‘usual’. I started questioning. Rebelling. And that meant challenging my parents, because it was the school culture—the cool Aussie teen culture I really wanted to belong to in those years. Like Alyosha in Le testament français, I really wanted to ‘expiate my marginality’ in the merciless ‘mini-society’ of adolescence. So I read mostly in English, at least where I could be seen, and my diary and my stories were always written in English, though I didn’t quite dare speak to my parents in anything other than French. When we went back to France on holidays, I took to calling myself ‘Australian’, to the sardonic jokes of my relatives who took all this teenage hoity-toitying much less seriously than my parents did.

And I laboured incessantly to keep my worlds strictly apart, impermeable to each other, an effort constantly frustrated by my father’s mischievous antics: for instance, I remember mortifying expeditions to the beach in the early morning—avoiding the very hot sun–and Dad, wearing on his head a clean but very shabby handkerchief knotted at the corners,  speaking loudly to us in front of the surfies I’d hoped to impress, and who would then, I just knew, dismiss us as a bunch of ridiculous wogs.  And neither of my parents always refused to bow to our pressures to hide, or reinvent themselves as Australians, New or otherwise. Stiff-necked in their pride, and determined to teach us a lesson in identity, they made us, instead, toe the line, and refused to change.

But at school it wasn’t always plain sailing either. Occasionally my wish to belong ran up smack bang against visceral feelings, such as in the mid-70’s when there was one of those periodic anti-French-nuclear-testing episodes which pepper the memories of many French Australians. Just as in the 90’s, the whole issue was personalised in a quite inappropriate way, with local French people targetted with things such as mail bans, and rude comments in the papers that appeared to make no distinction between an attack on French Government policy and the French themselves. My parents were up in arms: and though I shared my school friends’ anti-nuclear stand, it stuck sharply in my throat that we should be targetted in this way, and that even people I liked thought it OK to make sweeping generalisations about French people. But that was a rare if uncomfortable episode. Mostly, it wasn’t the fact of being French that caused me any angst; it was more a case of not being ‘mainstream’. Being a ‘frog’ was rather better than being a ‘wog’–there were many more romantic cliches attached to it–but most people outside those who knew us personally thought we were ‘wogs’ anyway, because of our olive skin and dark hair; so that made no difference.

But though I tried so hard to be a real Aussie, I began to see after a while that there were advantages in my unusual situation. Adolescence is often the time when budding writers, bilingual or not,  first learn that the storyteller has a special place, even amongst the cool groups, even amongst the scary types. And the skills they learn in the jungle of adolescent society not only help them to survive it, but can be carried right through into adult life and the honing of the writer’s craft. And so I soon realised that quite a lot of my schoolmates were actually interested in France, and Frenchness. To them, it was a glamorous other world, and they never tired of hearing stories about it and our periodic disappearances there. I began by recounting fairly straightforward stories of our holidays, of people we knew, of the family; and then expanded, embroidered, taking in stories I’d read, and ‘remembering all kinds of things that hadn’t happened,’ as my husband calls it. I wrote a good deal of it down, too. And as it does for Alyosha, France became for me material for storytelling, and gave me an unexpected cachet amongst my peers, especially in the last two or three years of high school, when peer-group pressure is towards individualism and not melting into the mass as it is in early adolescence.

But it also led me on to write not only about France, but about my life in Australia too. And not only focussed on me, either. I started keeping voluminous notebooks of observations of people I knew or had briefly come across or seen from the windows of the train on my way to school. I imagined how their lives might proceed in the future. I wrote down columns of descriptions of places and objects, for the sensual world, which I’d observed so closely in childhood through a fantastical prism, became ever more sharply important to me as a teenager. Going on several holidays to northern NSW—my first real contact with rural Australia outside of the books I’d read set there—I was utterly fascinated by its village life. At sixteen, I wrote an impressionistic short story called ‘Sketches’, about the lives of people in one small timber-milling village. To me, that place was as exotic as something I’d read about in John Steinbeck’s novels or Chekhov’s plays; but it also had an odd familiarity, not only because it was Australia but also because of its occasional, unexpected similarities with rural France and the village we’d known. Yet there wasn’t a single mention of France in this story, and I didn’t bring in my own experience at all. It was rich material for the ‘language of astonishment’, and it’s one of the things I wrote at that age which still remains with me. Indeed, Sketches eventually morphed into my very first novel, The House in the Rainforest. (UQP 1990).

Was I French? Was I Australian? I still wasn’t entirely sure, despite my efforts to fit in. But I wouldn’t have answered at that point as I might have done in childhood, ‘Who cares?’ I did care. Part of me wanted to reject France, to pretend I could only speak English. But another part refused point-blank. It was all part of the painful chrysalis process of adolescence. Every teenager asks ‘who am I?’  In my case, like that of so many others, it was complicated by the fact of those two worlds, that’s all. And as I wrote my way through mystical Celtic-flavoured poetry and Steinbeckian realism and French fancies and Russian-inspired sagas, I was also making my way through those questions without even knowing it. When I left home soon after leaving school—the strains between my two worlds had become too much—I took the big step of becoming an Australian citizen, something that my parents, who never came as migrants but on work contracts, had never encouraged. It caused a stir in the family. I was deemed to have chosen, to have turned my back on France(though I still had my French citizenship.) I knew they’d see it that way, though consciously I’d never intended it. But unconsciously? I don’t know. It was confusing, and all mixed up with the fights I’d had with my parents, or more particularly, my father, over our very different expectations about my post-school life. But leaving home actually meant moving in with my eldest sister Dominique who had come to Australia after she’d finished university. And she was much more French than I was, because she had spent her entire adolescence and early adulthood in France. Living with her, I couldn’t have escaped from the French side of me even if I’d tried! Not only that but I’d become very interested in languages generally—not only did I enrol in French at university, but also a range of ‘English literature’ subjects which in fact weren’t English at all—Middle Welsh, Old Norse sagas, and Anglo-Saxon. All, as you note, fodder for the ‘fantasy’ side of me, the side that also sent me to weekly Irish classes at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. But also fodder for that ‘language of astonishment’–the writing voice I was groping towards.

So I went to uni, patchily, and to work, patchily too, and wrote and wrote, very assiduously. At school, I’d never really tried to send anything out. Now I began blizzarding magazines and newspapers with ideas, outlines, finished pieces. I pestered my sister and her friends to read my work and offer advice. I borrowed umpteen books on how to get published and sent my verse to poets whom I’d read at school and admired—AD Hope, Judith Wright, and later, Les Murray. I will always be grateful for the generosity with which they responded to the naïve young enthusiast with her palimpset poetry modelled on ancient forms. AD Hope in particular went way beyond the call of duty, critiquing lines and giving advice, not just once, but three times. That was an important experience—my first exposure to the idea of a community of writers, and of the continuity of literature, too, as older, more experienced and sophisticated writers pass on hints and encouragement to a new generation. It’s something I’ve been mindful of myself, passing on those things, as my status has changed over the decades from ’emerging’ to ‘established’, and I get letters—or rather, emails, these days!–from naïve newbies myself.

But it took years, many more years than I’d have cared to imagine, as an impatient eighteen year old, to go from the occasional short piece in a student newspaper or the occasional poem in a local magazine, through short stories accepted for magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and through many rejections of the first two novels I wrote, to that magic moment when I got the letter which told me that an editor actually wanted my book. Lightning struck twice for me that year; for only a few months after getting that letter, I got another, from a different publisher, accepting another novel of mine. Both were published the same year, in 1990.

The first was The House in the Rainforest, that very realistic Australian drama with not a skerrick of Frenchness  in it; the other was Fire in the Sky, my first children’s novel which combined my love of the fantastic, of history, and which from the start melded France and Australia, past and present, as a modern French-Australian family is confronted through a time-slip with events in medieval south-west France. Domi and Tad in that novel have elements of myself at their respective ages—pre-pubertal, enthusiastic Domi, who doesn’t think or care about questions of belonging; and surly, frustrated teenage Tad, who’s uneasy in his own skin. But Kate in the first novel, though her background is nothing like mine, does carry elements of  my life, especially that after leaving home. By the time I wrote those books, in my late 20’s, I had still not answered that abiding question: Was I French? Was I Australian? But it no longer preoccupied me as it had done in adolescence. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, as it had been the case back in childhood. It was just that I’d decided it was a lesser question than the ones that had become much more important to me: was I really a writer? Did I really have an original voice that people would want to listen to? Or was I just kidding myself and day-dreaming again?

Being published, especially with two such different books in the very first year, settled those questions very satisfactorily indeed! But some of the reaction to those first books also re-opened those old questions of identity. My background was mentioned in reviews, and as time went on and more of my books for young people were published, they started appearing on lists of multicultural children’s literature. I was asked to speak at conferences on ‘writing from another culture’ and asked questions about what it was like to write in a language that wasn’t your mother tongue. And I found myself both welcoming and resenting these things. Just as in those long-ago primary school classrooms, I hated to be hauled out in front of everyone as some kind of demonstrative specimen. I squirmed at awards ceremonies focussing on ‘multiculturalism’, feeling I was getting stuck in a ghetto. But equally I didn’t want to pretend that it didn’t matter at all, that I’d come to this country without any English. Meanwhile, going back to France periodically, as I continued to do as an adult, meant that I could not clothe that part of my identity in either a rosy glow or a black veil, but had to deal with its reality.

Slowly, I came to grips with the idea that I was simply a hybrid. The answer to the question, was I French, was I Australian? was: both. And neither. I was in an in-between stage, unlike my parents,or my children. And I probably always would be. My parents never thought of being Australian; my children were, naturally. Though they acknowledged their heritage, it did not trouble them at all. It still did trouble me, a little. I was glad of my acceptance in Australia—as time went on and my books grew ever more varied in scope and genre, the ‘multicultural’ tag was no longer automatically attached to them—but I longed for my books to be published in French, in France. But that did not happen for many, many years: it appeared that though French publishers were mildly interested in Australian fiction, it was only of the kind that was ‘exotic’, i.e recognisably Aussie. An author with a French name writing in English about frangarous like Domi and Tad, or even true blues like Kate in The House in the Rainforest, was clearly not high on the agenda. Perhaps it was confusing. Perhaps it was deemed not exotic enough. In any case it wasn’t until 2010 that a book of mine appeared in French. And even then it was one I’d written under the pseudonym of Isabelle Merlin! But by then things had changed for me, and instead of being troubled by this as I might once have been, I found it amusing, for the last trace of that self-consciousness has quite gone.

For it’s one thing to feel you’ve answered a question. It’s quite another to feel comfortable with the answer. When I first read Le testament français, back in 1995, I had already accepted the fact of my hybridity, but I still wanted somehow to pin it down, analyse it, worry at it. Makine’s novel, with its extraordinary evocation of the essence of bilingualism and how it affects a budding writer, struck deep echoes in me. Because it linked those questions—the bilingual identity, the writer’s identity—and answered them with great simplicity and yet great depth. At the very end of the novel, in a spine-tingling and pitch-perfect twist, Aloysha discovers something about his mother which will not only show the past in a new light, but also propel him into the real discovery and mastery of the ‘language of astonishment’ by exploring that past and making it live again. The novel ends with the words: Seuls me manquaient encore les mots qui pouvaient le dire (Le testament français, page 309): Only the words with which I could express it were missing… And as the young man, on the cusp of becoming a writer, walked out of the pages and into this reader’s memory, I knew that was precisely what had happened to me, as a young writer. I had gone looking for those words; and I had found them. And ever since then, that knowledge has been with me. I don’t need to labour those questions of identity any more. The language of astonishment has become my native tongue.