Five Favourites 5: Adele Geras

Today, it’s the turn of Adèle Geras to tell us about her five favourites.

Is there a woman writer of a certain age who won’t have LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott among her favourites? I don’t think so. They generally love the book because of Jo, and her burning ambition to be a writer, but for me the attraction was more the four sisters living together through good times and bad and getting irritated with one another but still remaining loving throughout.  I am an only child and this book paints a portrait of life with siblings that felt magical to me when I was very young and still does.

TALES OF TROY by Andrew Lang.  This book was given to me in 1951  when I was 7. It has coloured my entire life. It’s the story of the Trojan War with the most beautiful illustrations by H.J. Ford. I knew whole passages of it by heart by the time I was 8.  It was the beginning of my love affair with the legends and stories of Ancient Greece and then later, Rome. But this was the start of it and I still have the book on my shelves. It’s been a huge inspiration to me, leading directly, I think to my own books set in Ancient Greece: TROY, ITHAKA and DIDO.
 THE MALORY TOWERS series by Enid Blyton.   I had to re- read one of these books about twenty years ago for a conference at which I spoke about them. And I was shocked to discover that (unlike Little Women and Tales of Troy) they did not stand up to adult scrutiny. They struck me as paper thin, rather shoddily written and clichéd in every way. But….but but but. I loved them with a passion as a child, and this passion didn’t dim when I went to boarding school myself and found it to be not a bit like Malory Towers. Blyton has created a world that swallows up young girls and transports them. She fills it with characters who are readily identifiable and when I was about 8, this was so enchanting that I hold the world the books made in my head  quite separately from the rather thin gruel of the actual text. That is Blyton’s magic. She created more readers than anyone before or since, except for J. K. Rowling.
BALLET SHOES by Noel  Streatfeild. Oh, my goodness how I adored this book! I’ve also read it as an adult and it’s just as good as it ever was because Streatfeild was such a wonderful writer. Here again we have siblings, albeit not birth siblings but three girls collected by an eccentric explorer with a kind heart. The whole set up struck me as thrilling. The grown ups were amazing: different from most other grown ups in books. They were bohemian and strange and did unexpected things. And the dramas of the ballet classes and the fact that one of the sisters went on to become a pilot…it was, in every way, a brilliant wish -fulfilment book and also beautifully written.  When I first read it I was determined to be a STAR and I identified with  that side of the novel  completely.
Nowadays, we have box sets. Back in the late 50s and early 60s we had series of books. I loved John Galsworthy’s FORSYTE saga but mostly at school the books that kept us  going, that we passed around the class, discussing every turn and twist of the plots till we were blue in the face, the books that preoccupied us most were the WHITEOAKS books by Mazo de la Roche.  They were set in Canada and the house the Whiteoaks family lived in was called Jalna. I can’t now recall how many books there were but they seemed never to stop. My own favourite character was Rennie, who was a dangerously attractive red-headed man and RENNIE’S DAUGHTER was my favourite of the series, though I also loved FINCH’S FORTUNE. Finch was the pale, rather more weedy and intellectual brother of Rennie, if I remember correctly. These books were, in the words of my elder daughter: heaven on a stick. Big house, slightly tyrannical matriach, lots of different siblings and assorted in – laws. Difficult children. And lots of romantic sexual simmerings. Fabulous stuff!  I have never revisited these books. I daren’t…I want the spell to be unbroken. I doubt if anyone under 60 will ever have heard of Mazo de la Roche. Sic transit gloria…

Five Favourites 2: Libby Gleeson

Today’s selection of childhood favourites is by Libby Gleeson.

 

The Story of Ferdinand Author: Munro Leaf. Illustrator: Robert Lawson
        This one of a bull which didn’t want to fight in the bull ring but rather to sit and smell the flowers really delighted me. He grows up to be the biggest and strongest bull    in the field but still remains one who would rather smell flowers. He sits on a bee on one occasion and the sting sends him leaping and charging around the field and so he’s seen as aggressive and is taken to the bull ring. He still only wants to smell flowers and so those organising the bull fight are thwarted.

Anne of Green Gables. L M Montgomery

       I loved this story of a red headed outsider who was determined to make her way. Anne had been adopted by Mathew and Marilla to help on their farm but they had  thought they were adopting a boy. Despite initial difficulties, Anne – with an ‘e’ – stays and develops friendships. I loved her disdain for her classmate Gilbert, knowing they’d get together in the end.

A Little Bush Maid. Mary Grant Bruce
        This is the first in the long series of Billabong Books and I devoured every one. Norah Linton is growing up on a station in Victoria in the early years of the twentieth century. She is doted on by her widowed father and her brother Jim when he comes home from boarding school on holidays. He brings his friend Wally with him and  the three of them have fairly standard bush adventures together.  Old fashioned values towards race and class persist and I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable but   I envied Norah, wild on her horse, and so I ignored them when I was a child.

The Enchanted Wood. Enid Blyton
        I read all the Enid Blyton books I could get my hands on but this is the one that stayed with me. I think it’s the best book she ever wrote – and she wrote hundreds. It’s the first in the Faraway Tree series and introduces us to Jo, Bessie and Fanny and their cousin Dick. (names are sanitised in modern editions.) The children find a tree in a wood and when they climb it they meet all kinds of fantasy creatures such as Mrs Washalot, Moonface and Saucepan Man. A ladder at the top of the tree  leads to lands that circulate so a different land may be at the top at any time. The children must leave before the land moves on from the top of the tree. I thought  it was brilliant when I was a child and I still do!

A Girl of the Limberlost.  Gene Stratton Porter
        This was my most favourite novel of my early teenage years. Elnora Comstock lives with her widowed mother on the edge of the Limberlost swamp land. Elnora is   bright and wants an education but her mother believes it to be a waste of time for a girl. Elnora fights and argues with her mother and pays for her education by gathering artifacts and moths from the swamp. She grows in her understanding of the world of nature and in her confidence as she becomes a woman. This is a dramatic, gothic novel, so unlike the sweet rolling green hills of much English fiction I read. I loved it.

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.

 

Across the Tasman 5: Brian Falkner

INSPIRE_Author and Writing coach Brian Faulkner pictured here at St Peter's Lutheran School in Brisbane today 17/2/2016. Pictures: Jack Tran

INSPIRE_Author and Writing coach Brian Faulkner pictured here at St Peter’s Lutheran School in Brisbane today 17/2/2016. Pictures: Jack Tran

Born and raised in Auckland, best-selling, award-winning writer Brian Falkner began college intending to study computers, but along the way he decided to shift his focus to something more creative. After gaining a diploma of journalism, he worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter.
Other jobs helped pay the bills and also expand the first-hand experiences that would later enrich his fiction, among them stints as a motorcycle courier, radio announcer, graphic designer, and Internet developer.
His first children’s book, Henry and the Flea, was published in 2003, and since then he has had fourteen novels published internationally. He currently lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland.

Today, I’m talking to Brian about his extraordinary YA alternative history duology, the Battlesaurus series ( Rampage at Waterloo and Clash of Empires), which reimagines the Napoleonic wars with the French Emperor victorious at Waterloo, thanks to his secret weapon–huge carnivorous dinosaurs! It might sound like a strange, even an offputting, concept–but take my word for it, it really works! Beautifully written and grippingly told, with no talking down to the reader at all and with fabulous characters and settings, it had echoes for me, in some ways, of the great sweeping adventure novels I loved as a young reader: such as books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece.. Grand storytelling, in other words, spiced with that very contemporary boldness of concept! And it’s been a very successful combination, with the first book, Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo, winning the Young Adult category in the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards this year.

Read on to learn more!

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Dinosaurs and Napoleon: what an amazing and unexpected combination! How did you come up with the concept?

The original concept was inspired by a book by Michael Gerard Bauer called ‘Dinosaur Knight’. While my book is very different to Michael’s, a seed was planted. What if dinosaurs had somehow survived the ‘extinction event’ 65 million years ago. If we shared our world with dinosaurs, in what way might that have changed historical events. That led to a lot of thinking about historical wars. I wanted something fairly recent (not medieval) but in the 20th Century weapons were invented that would make dinosaurs useless as a weapon. The Napoleonic wars seemed a good fit, and I have always been fascinated by the Battle of Waterloo.

The world of your book is richly depicted and very real in feel. How did you go about creating it?battlesaurus

I did a terrific amount of research. Not only into the period, but into the locations and into dinosaurs. The more I researched the more interesting facts I turned up that seemed to fit together in strange and unusual ways.

There aren’t just terrifying carnivorous dinosaurs in your story, but also a whole range, including the very touching little microsaurs (who wouldn’t want one as a pet!) In each case, there’s a relationship with humans–both good and bad. How did you go about developing those relationships?

Once I had decided on which dinosaurs would exist in the modern world (and with one exception they are based on real dinosaurs) I tried to come up with personalities for those dinosaurs. That enabled me to develop the relationship with humans.

Why do you think Napoleon still fascinates people today? And how did you go about adapting Napoleonic history to fit your own alternative history?

Napoleon was a polarising figure. He was a common man, during the fall of the French monarchy, who went on to led the country. He was a military genius, and almost succeeded in conquering all of Europe. I think we admire his strength and are fascinated by his failings. I changed very little in the history of the world, right up to the point where the dinosaurs charge out of the forest during the battle of Waterloo. Up to that point my book is historically very accurate (except for the existence of the ‘saurs’.) After that point of the book, of course, history is radically changed.

battlesaurus-2Though the story is mainly seen through the eyes of Willem/Pieter, the main character, there is a large cast of vivid characters–Belgians, French, English, both young and not so young. How did you go about interweaving their stories?

I realised early in developing this story that it was bigger than one person’s point of view. That led me to developing the characters of Jack Sullivan and Lieutenant Frost. They see things from the British point of view. One as an office, the other as a common soldier. I wanted also to show the French side of things, so included scenes from my main villain’s point of view.

The first Battlesaurus book has been very well-reviewed and has won a major award in New Zealand. What reactions have you had from readers as well?

It is interesting. There seems to be a disconnect between the title/cover and the story. The cover and title seem to imply ‘350 pages of non-stop rampaging dino action’ whereas the book is not like that at all. I have a concern that some people who would really enjoy the book are put off by the cover and title. Whereas those who are looking for ‘non-stop dino action’ will find the book is not what they were expecting.  I think the judges in New Zealand and Australia book awards have recognised the quality of the writing and the story, as have most reviewers. However it is a common theme of reviews that the book is not what they were expecting from the cover.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a novel set during the first world war. It is called 1917: Machines of War and it examines the technology that came to change the face of war. Aircraft and tanks. This time the technology is real!

An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

 

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First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, has his narrator say, ‘The translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation?

I can’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

Jessica Whitman writes about Wild One

Wild One Blog Tour posterToday, I’m delighted to be part of a blog tour by popular fiction author Jessica Whitman, featuring her new novel, Wild One. In this guest post, she shares an experience many writers can relate to!

My writing ritual is not as glamorous as my heroine

by Jessica Whitman

Before I had kids, I wrote a bit like Kat does in the book. I had a very specific ritual for my writing, and heaven forbid everything was not just exactly so. I had to have a clean house, the right pot of tea (and I always drank out of the same cup), a room solely devoted to my work, a view from my window, loose, comfortable clothes, and glorious, uninterrupted, hours of night time silence. But now, I write catch as I can. The one thing I still do is work at night – which used to be a choice, but now is a necessity. Because I do need uninterrupted hours to really go deep, and it’s just about the only time I can get it.

As for losing my mojo, ironically, having children and having other work, has shown me that writer’s block was really just an indulgence on my part. When your time is severely limited, when you have deadlines to meet, when you are fighting for the hours you need to get your work done, the idea of wasting time sitting in front of a blank screen in pretty much unfathomable. And so I am far more productive since I had kids and jobs to juggle than I was before, when I had all the idle time in the world. The pressure has actually made me a better a writer.

Wild One by Jessica Whitman is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

Thanks to Allen and Unwin, two lucky readers (Australian residents only) could win a copy of the book! Enter by filling in the contact form on my blog, putting in your name and street address(no PO Boxes please). Wild One cover

Read more about Wild One:

 

In the irresistible tradition of Jilly Cooper, Wild One is the second addictively readable novel in the glamorous, scandalous, romance-filled Polo Season series.

When Katherine ‘Kat’ Parker wrote and directed a blockbuster movie she became Hollywood’s ‘It Girl’ overnight – until with one flop she wasn’t. Now Kat is back living in Florida trying to find the inspiration to write what she hopes will be her comeback screenplay.

Despite being an exceptionally talented polo player, Sebastian Del Campo has never shared his famous family’s intense passion for the sport. He has, however, excelled at other polo-related activities – like partying hard and having liaisons with beautiful women.

When Sebastian meets Kat he finds her down-to-earth attitude refreshing. Keen to get to know her better, he regales Kat with stories of his trailblazing grandmother, Victoria, who was a pioneering polo player.

Kat’s imagination is fired by Victoria’s story and she realises she’d make a great subject for a screenplay. Seb agrees and the pair head to Hollywood to seek out funding for a film that could make or break both their careers – and their growing feelings for each other . . .

Wild One is a fun, sexy and entertaining novel about taking a risk to follow your passions in life – and love.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Whitman teamed up with the face of Ralph Lauren, world-famous polo player Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Figueras, to bring to life a romantic trilogy set in the glamorous world of international polo. ‘Nacho’ Figueras is the captain and co-owner of the award-winning Black Watch polo team. The ‘David Beckham of polo’, he has featured on Oprah, 60 Minutes and Gossip Girl, and was voted the second most handsome man in the world by Vanity Fair. Nacho lives in America and Argentina with his wife and their four children.

Where to buy the book: