Feathers of the Firebird

Butterfly now available at several retailers

I’m delighted to announce that just one week away from official release and our celebratory event, A Hundred Words for Butterfly is now available to buy at several online audiobook retailers across the world, including Kobo, Nook, Google Play, Authors Direct, Libro, Apple, Booktopia, and others. Audible will follow shortly, and I’ll announce that when it’s available.

Here’s the full list so far, with direct links:

Scrib: https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/521946210/A-Hundred-Words-For-Butterfly-A-Novella

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/audiobook/hundred-words-for-butterfly-a

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/audiobooks/details/Sophie_Masson_A_Hundred_Words_For_Butterfly?id=AQAAAEC85Eak6M

Chirp: https://www.chirpbooks.com/audiobooks/a-hundred-words-for-butterfly-by-sophie-masson

Authors Direct: https://shop.authors-direct.com/products/a-hundred-words-for-butterfly-a-novella

Nook: https://www.nookaudiobooks.com/audiobook/1050161/A-Hundred-Words-For-Butterfly

Libro: https://libro.fm/audiobooks/9781667036939

Apple: https://books.apple.com/us/audiobook/id1583208746

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/search.ep?keywords=A+hundred+words+for+butterfly&productType=917510

The book is three hours and 10 minutes long, and superbly narrated by the wonderful voice artist Sarah Kennedy. Hope you enjoy it! And please do consider writing a review and sharing it on the retailer platforms, your social media, etc.

Cover reveal of A Hundred Words for Butterfly!

I am absolutely delighted to reveal the gorgeous cover of my upcoming audiobook, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, which will be published by Spineless Wonders Audio in just a couple of weeks: September 13. Isn’t it beautiful!

The cover is designed by the wonderful Bettina Kaiser, and later this week I’ll be publishing a fascinating interview with her about how she went about creating it. Today is all about celebrating an important milestone in the journey of my book: and I’m so thrilled about just how strikingly Bettina has captured the essence of the feeling and atmosphere of A Hundred Words for Butterfly!

Basque cookalong on Facebook Live: get ready!

On Friday August 27, at 7pm Australian Eastern Standard time, as part of the events around my upcoming audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, I’ll be doing a Basque cookalong, as a Facebook Live on Spineless Wonders’ page. During the cookalong, we’ll be creating a simple and delicious Basque fish soup, based on the version my mother used to make and which I grew up with. So that you can have everything ready before the day, I’ve made a video which explains all the ingredients to gather and prep to do before the cookalong.

To join the cookalong, register your interest here or simply join on the day.

Hope to see you there!

Simple Basque food: part 2

In a scene from A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters are in the charming village of Espelette and sit down to enjoy a very classic local dish: axoa (pronounced ‘atchoa’).

Traditionally served on market days, this simple and delicious Basque stew was popularised in Espelette, and in fact in recipe books is often called ‘axoa d’Espelette‘. This dish really highlights piment d’Espelette and in my previous post I indicated where you can easily buy it, but as I mentioned, hot paprika(non-smoked) will make a reasonable substitute (note that sweet paprika is too mild, and smoked paprika really doesn’t taste anything like the piment). The axoa really benefits from cooking ahead and letting it rest—for instance, you could cook it at lunchtime but serve it at dinner time. Even cooking it an hour or so ahead of serving and letting it sit will enhance the flavours. But don’t despair if you don’t have time–it’s excellent even if you don’t have time to cook ahead!

This recipe is my version of axoa, with a twist on tradition. Not only do I provide a vegetarian as well as a meat version, I use green capsicum (bell pepper) instead of the more traditional long pale green pepper (mild variety). Red capsicum however is a traditional part of the stew. And together they look just right, highlighting the traditional vibrant Basque colours of red and green! In the quantities given, the recipes each serve 3-4 people. (‘Axoa’ by the way means ‘chopped’ in Basque, referring to the meat).

Ingredients common to both versions: one large onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1 red capsicum, 1 green capsicum, olive oil, chopped herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf), piment d’Espelette, salt, 200 ml water or stock.

Other ingredients for meat version: 500 g diced veal (the traditional meat for this dish) or pork (which also goes well, in my experience), or 500 g minced veal or pork. Chicken could also be used.

Other ingredients for vegetarian version: 150 g soaked beans. I used black-eyed beans as they don’t take too long to cook (and we grew them!) but you could also use Lima beans (butter beans) or white haricot beans. Also, a bit of extra vegetable stock to cook the beans. If you are making the vegetarian version, cook the beans in stock first till they are at least three-quarters cooked, before adding to the basic mix to cook more.

So, first of all chop your onion, garlic and herbs. Deseed and dice the red and green capsicums. In a pan, cook the onion, garlic and capsicums in olive oil for 15 minutes then add the diced meat or the part-cooked beans, add the herbs, salt, and dash of piment d’Espelette. Reduce the heat and add the water or stock and cook at low heat, lid on, for about 45 minutes. The meat should be very tender but not falling apart, ditto the beans, and the sauce should be thick and reduced. After you turn off the heat, let the stew sit for as long as you can, before reheating, adding another sprinkle of piment d’Espelette, and serving with boiled potatoes or rice.

Simple Basque food: part 1

As I mentioned in my post about the piment d’Espelette last week, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting recipes for some simple Basque food, and thought I’d build it up so you could, if you want, create a whole Basque-inspired meal around it, similar to what my characters in A Hundred Words for Butterfly enjoy!

Today I’m introducing four simple dishes that can function either as snacks, entrees, lunch dishes or even grace a pintxo table if you want (pintxos are the Basque version of tapas). And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that pintxos are ‘Spanish’–they are found on both sides of the French/Spanish border, just like the people who make them, because they are Basque 🙂

I’ve made all of these very recently and the photos are all my own, so you can see they are definitely home-made 🙂 All are very simple, very quick, and and very tasty! By the way, they all include a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette–great if you can obtain some, for example here or here, and I recommend it for that characteristic Basque taste. But you can certainly use good hot paprika if you don’t have any piment handy.

So here are the recipes!

Garlic and egg soup: Garlic cloves (up to 6 for 4 people); stock (chicken or vegetable) olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, eggs(1 per person) salt, piment d’Espelette, slices of bread. Cook the whole peeled garlic cloves in olive oil till they are golden, then add the hot stock. Add salt and a sprinkle of the pepper. Add chopped thyme and the bay leaf. Cook, uncovered, for 30 mins then crack the eggs into the soup to poach them. Fry the slices of bread and cut up to make croutons. And serve!

Simple Basque salad: On a plate arrange lettuce leaves with slices of Bayonne-style ham (Serrano ham is fine if Bayonne ham is unobtainable), and slices of roasted red and green capsicum. Sprinkle a vinaigrette made of olive oil and white wine or cider vinegar over the lettuce, and a small pinch of piment d’Espelette on the ham. For a vegetarian version, you can use sheep’s milk cheese (such as Manchego) instead of the ham, and you can also add other ingredients to the basics, such as tomatoes, artichokes and asparagus. 

Fried sardines: You need fresh sardines for this (can be either whole, gutted and boned sardines or ready-prepared fillets). For 2 people, I used 3 sardines each. You also need an egg and some flour, salt, and you guessed it, piment d’Espelette! Beat the egg, dip each sardine in it then into the flour, making sure it’s all coated, then fry till done. Serve with a sprinkle of salt, the Espelette pepper, and either lemon or vinegar.

Mushrooms with garlic: In the Basque country, ceps or other forest mushrooms would often be used, but field mushrooms are also fine. Simply slice them finely and cook in a little butter for about 2 minutes, add crushed garlic, salt, some chopped herbs—whatever you have on hand (I used basil) and yes, a sprinkle of that Famous Pepper!

New blog series: Writing an audio novel, part 1

Introduction

Readers of this blog may remember that just before Christmas I got some very welcome news: I was awarded a grant by Create NSW, the NSW Government’s arts-funding body, to create the ms of A Turn off the Path, a short novel for adults which I’m writing specifically for the audio format. This will be then submitted by my agent to Audible for consideration for their Audible Originals list.

It’s an exciting new challenge for me and I’m so delighted to be able to work on over the next few months, thanks to the generous Create NSW grant. I’ve been doing a bit of background research for it since early this month but have now started work on it, with the draft of the first chapter begun yesterday. Over the next few months, as I write it, I’m also going to post regularly about the book and what it’s like to write a novel with an eye(or rather an ear!) to the audio format: thought that might be of interest to other writers contemplating the possibility of doing the same. This post introduces that series with a bit about what A Turn off the Path is about, and in future posts I’ll write about the background to it, why I wanted to write it, and how or indeed if the writing of an audio novel differs from one that you intend for print.

Something about the story:

Set in the picturesque French Basque town of Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi in Basque) in May 2017, A Turn off the Path is centred around twin Australian sisters, Helen and Alex Dorian, who are in the town at the start of their planned walk on the famous Camino, the pilgrim route to Santiago del Compostella. It’s something they’ve wanted to do since they were very young, but it’s only now, as they approach their fiftieth birthday, that they’ve finally found the time to do it. But when Helen injures her leg on the very day of their arrival, she has to stay behind in the town while Alex proceeds with their plans, and a very different experience to what they’d hoped for unfolds for the sisters. And when Helen unexpectedly meets an old schoolmate who is in Saint Jean to explore his Basque family roots, events really take ‘a turn off the path.’

This will be a lively, warm and thoughtful novel, exploring relationships, the past’s effect on the present, and the dream and reality of the modern pilgrim experience. It also has a strong sense ofplace and culture: as my mother’s family is part-Basque and has always lived in the Basque country, and two of my own sisters now live there too, I know the area well and I’ve been to Saint Jean Pied de Port itself many times from my childhood onwards.

A street in Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi): photo by Sophie Masson

An interview with Charlotte McConaghy

Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Charlotte McConaghy, whose extraordinary, beautiful new novel, The Last Migration (published as Migrations in the US) has taken both the US and Australia by storm, garnering rave reviews and great sales. I’ve known Charlotte a long time, ever since she and my son Xavier went to the same high school in our hometown. I’ve been aware of her talent and persistence as a writer from that time on, too, having read her writing early on, while she was still at school, and it’s been wonderful to see her going from strength to strength ever since then. She has not only written several other books than The Last Migration, but also worked on screenplays, and has a Master’s degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film and Television School.

Welcome, Charlotte–and congratulations! You must be thrilled to see the response to The Last Migration, despite the difficulties caused by the current situation, and the fact that the planned book tour of the US had to be cancelled. Can you tell us something about the background to the publication of the book, and what’s it been like, to see those reviews rolling in? Will there also be further editions of the book, in translation, for instance?

Thank you for having me, Sophie!

It’s certainly been a long publication process – longer than it took to write the book, actually. I finished it 3 years ago and signed with Flatiron, which is an imprint of Macmillan in America, and it’s been such a long wait until publication that I thought this day would never come! It’s amazing to finally be here, and to have the book come out in my home country (Australia) at the same time. We’ll be publishing in the UK in January (this was meant to be released simultaneously but due to corona virus it was pushed back to 2021) and then I think we’ve also sold to about 22 other countries for translation, which is very exciting. I’ve just been absolutely stunned to see the reviews coming in, and the response of the readers. I’m so incredibly grateful for the generosity, and to know that the book is being enjoyed. It’s the whole point of writing, I think, to reach people, to connect. 

The Last Migration is beautiful and gripping but also challenging, in that it dares us to imagine a world in which nature–and human life–has been hollowed out by the disappearance of wild animal life. What was the inspiration for the novel, and how did you go about creating it? What challenges and discoveries did you face in its writing?

Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And this book was like that for me. It just felt necessary for me to engage with this climate crisis in a personal, intimate way, to write about something that’s breaking my heart. For me, when I write, the main priority is to move a reader, to make them feel something, and I think that happens when you can write from an honest and intimate place. And I think it’s true that we’re all starting to feel the loss of our natural world in a viscerally painful way. We’re connected by it. But I didn’t know quite how to engage with that, not at first.

First I went travelling. I wanted to explore Ireland and get to know the land my ancestors were from as I’ve always had a fascination for it. I also went to Iceland, an extraordinary place, and saw the beautiful graylag geese, which got me thinking about migratory birds and the incredible journeys they take, and the type of people that study these birds. I think that’s how the story of an ornithologist who decides to chase the last flock of Arctic terns from one end of the earth to the other came about.

So it was Franny who came first, it’s always character first for me. And as I got to know her, and understand this journey she was on, and why, I started to realise the kind of world I needed to place her in to really be able to tell her story with impact, and to safely engage with my own fear around the climate crisis. So that’s how the environmental side of this book got slowly drawn in – to support her. And the truth is that the more I wrote about it, the more I explored it, the more concerned I became. I discovered that in the last 50 years alone, humans have killed over 60% of all wild animal life on the earth. That statistic is almost incomprehensible in its enormity and it broke my heart, and I knew instantly that I needed to set the book in this future, to show how close it really is.

Like all your books, The Last Migration has a strong visual, indeed cinematic quality, as well as a lovely poetic sense. How do you think your work as a screenwriter has influenced your work as a fiction writer? And is there any talk of a screen adaptation of the book?

Learning the craft of screenwriting was an amazing way to learn about story. I learnt about how to structure stories and where to place certain major moments for a character to get the most emotional impact, I learnt about drawing a complex character and challenging them to transform, I learnt about genre and theme. It was also very good training for my prose, which I tend to overwrite; screenwriting schools you to be simple and strong with your word choice. You need to convey a lot in few words, and I think that’s great advice for any writing style. So all in all, it helped me improve my writing enormously.

And yes, there has been talk of a screen adaptation – we’ve fielded a few offers and are still in the negotiating stages. I have my fingers crossed it could one day be a film or tv series!

The Last Migration is sometimes described as a ‘debut novel’, or alternatively as a ‘first literary novel,’ but of course you have written several other excellent novels, most of which are in the speculative fiction genre. Indeed, it could be said that the near-future dystopian world of The Last Migration has a definite speculative-fiction element. What are your thoughts on this? How do you yourself view The Last Migration as against the background of your other books?

Yes it’s interesting that it’s being called my debut novel, which I think came about because the US publishers who picked the book up first wanted to ‘break me out’ in America as a debut author, so it was called my US literary debut, but as you’ve said I’ve written multiple fantasy and sci-fi books published in Australia. And I agree, The Last Migration is speculative, certainly – as I mentioned above, I decided to set the book a stone’s throw into the future, during the peak of the animal extinction crisis. And maybe this is a comfortable space for me, looking ahead to the ‘what ifs’. I got good practice at it in my dystopian sci-fi series, but I wanted this book to feel different. I intentionally didn’t want it to feel dystopian because in a way that places human suffering at the heart of the story, whereas I was more interested in removing us from the centre of all things and looking at the loss of the animals as a tragic thing, not just because of what they have to offer us, but because they’re wondrous in their own right. We’re not the only living things that matter. And so I guess that shift in focus, and leaving the world of the novel as otherwise unchanged, places the book less in the sci-fi realm and more in the fiction genre.

As a young writer just out of school, you self-published your first novel, which was acquired a few years later by a trade publisher and republished. And you’ve gone from strength to strength since then. Can you tell us a bit  about your journey as a writer, from those early days to now?

I started writing books when I was 14, totally in love with telling stories. As you mentioned I self published that first book and then was very lucky when it got picked up by a trade publisher. That led to me acquiring an Australian agent, and publishing several more books with multiple Australian publishers. I think I was about 25 when I realised I really wanted to learn more about the craft of telling stories, and so that’s when I enrolled at film school to study screenwriting. And that led me to want to travel and see the world, which in turn led me to The Last Migration. I’ve worked in film and television development too, but currently I’m writing novels full time and couldn’t imagine wanting to spend my life doing anything else. I feel so lucky that I’m able to, and hope it can continue!

What’s next for you as a writer–what is the next project you are working on?

I’ve spent the last year and half (while I waited for The Last Migration to be released) writing and editing my next literary novel ‘Creatures, All’, which is the story of a wolf biologist charged with reintroducing wolves to a forest in the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the landscape. It’s a mystery and a love story and a story about the healing power of nature – which is a common theme for me these days! That will be released in the US this time next year, and hopefully here in Australia too.

 

Find out more about The Last Migration here.

Charlotte’s website is here.

Facebook author page here.

Twitter page here.

Instagram: @charlottemcconaghy

 

 

The Accusation: an interview with Wendy James

I am delighted today to be bringing you an interview with the fabulous author Wendy James, whose multi-layered domestic noir novels, with their gripping, twisty plots, complex characters with brilliantly-observed relationships, and sharp commentary on contemporary life, have earned great acclaim and a devoted readership. I certainly always much look forward to reading her books, because I know I’m in for a real reading treat(and I’m not just saying that because as well as being a fellow author, Wendy is a dear friend!) A couple of years ago I interviewed her when her previous book, the extraordinary novel The Golden Child came out; and today, I’m interviewing her about her brand-new novel, The Accusation, a disturbing, suspenseful read which plunges us into a world of small-town secrets and social-media storms, with at the heart of it, a monstrous accusation which will pit two women against each other. But who is telling the truth? Who is lying? As events unfold with frightening rapidity, everyone takes sides…

First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your new novel! It’s a brilliant, gripping and disturbing thriller and very contemporary in feel, yet as you mention in your afterword, it’s inspired by a classic crime novel, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  Can you tell us a bit about that, and how the idea developed from that initial inspiration, including how it diverges from it?

I’ve been a fan of Tey’s work for a long time. Then a few years ago I came across a piece by UK author Sarah Waters,  discussing the novel as being very decidedly of a particular time and place ( the book was first published in 1948) — and not necessarily in a complimentary way. This sent me back to the original story, the 18th century Canning affair,  and it also really got me thinking — how would such a story play out in the twenty-first century? What was interesting was how so many elements of the 18th century story — and especially the polarising nature of the scandal — seemed even more relevant now.
The novel diverges from Tey’s quite a bit — not only because of the temporal issues, but because the shift in location, a small rural Australian town rather than the UK, changes more than you’d imagine. The class elements, which are very pronounced in Tey’s novel, are still important, but of course play out rather differently in the Australian context. The Suzannah of my novel is very different to the main character in Tey’s — she’s not a quiet, penurious, spinster, but an ex-soap star — rather worldly and world weary. In Tey’s novel Betty Kane didn’t have the option of becoming an instant celebrity as my Ellie Canning does — fame didn’t have quite the same cachet back then.
Do you think social media and the 24 hour news cycle has made people quicker to rush to judgment than in the past? Or not?

I don’t think they’ve made us any faster to rush to judgement — I’m quite sure we’ve always done that — but what they’ve done is given us a  platform to air that judgement in public  – a virtual town square, if you like. It feels like a return to the days when people were publicly shamed, put in the stocks, publicly pilloried — and in some cases had their lives ruined because of the righteous justice of the  mob.

In the novel, the media pits images of women against each other– for example, the young, ‘innocent’ figure of Ellie Canning, as against the ‘corrupted’ figure of middle-aged Suzannah Wells, who is the target of Ellie’s accusation. Why do you think people still respond to such stereotypes?
Ha! I guess it satisfies some primal desire. I suppose we so badly want beauty and youth to correspond to goodness and innocence — and age and relative beauty to represent the opposite. It’s Snow White and the wicked queen,  Cinderella and the wicked stepmother. It’s altogether satisfying, and seems only fair.  The fact that Suzannah was once in a similar position—young,  beautiful, famous,  and universally admired—makes it a very bitter pill.
The portrayal of Mary, Suzannah’s difficult mother, who is suffering from an unspecified dementia-like illness, is a tour de force of unflinching yet compassionate observation. How did you create her character?
I’m glad you like Mary. I think she’s one of my favourite characters. She came from two places. I really enjoyed the figure of the mother in Tey’s novel—she was acid tongued and brutally honest in a way that would be almost entirely impossible to make sympathetic these days. I actually didn’t originally have a mother figure  — but then I started to think about what someone like Suzannah,  who is a single woman of a particular age,  might have happening in her life — and a dependent mother seemed just right. Mary also lightened things a little — which I like when things get a bit too intense. She was great way to reveal certain things at just the right ( or occasionally, for poor Suzannah, wrong)
Small-town life is often a focus in your novels. What is it that makes that kind of setting interesting for you as a novelist?
I think the fact that even introverts can’t get away with being anonymous in small towns. And there’s always the fact of not being a local. I’ve had the experience of being both a local (there were five generations of my family in Bourke when I was growing up) and then not a local in other small places — and in both cases there are some interesting dynamics. Being a complete  outsider — for Suzannah – and one who has a relationship with someone who’s utterly local – is also an interesting position.
The revelation of the unexpected villain–villains, rather–uncovers a disturbing plot and a gross betrayal. Tell us something about how you put the pieces together.
I can’t tell too much, or I’ll give the game away. I can say that the fact that the villain of the real case remains unclear ( indeed, in the real case both Canning and Wells/Squires were arrested) freed me up when it came to making a decision about who I wanted the bad guy/s to be. It took me a while to decide, to be honest — it could be made plausible either way.
The Golden Child, your previous novel, also revolved partly around the power of social media. What is your view on how it and the fake news that proliferates with it has impacted on society?
I think so much of what we hear now isn’t so much ‘news’ as what people think or feel about the news. And then this in itself becomes and, in many cases, directs the news. And there have been so many changes — good and bad — in how we live and interact, fuelled by technology and social media. It’s  a bit like one of those dreams where you’re driving somewhere fast, but your foot is stuck on the accelerator and you can’t quite see over the dashboard: it’s exhilarating — such speed, such power! — but simultaneously terrifying.. You know it could all end very badly.
Finally, I believe that there are TV series plans for The Golden Child. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It’s very exciting. Fox21 and Temple Hill Productions  ( Fault in our Stars, Twilight) optioned the book last year and it’s currently in series development at FX Network in the US. Fingers crossed we get that beautiful green light happening!

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More about The Accusation: 

Somebody is lying.

After eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, her bizarre story of kidnap and escape enthrals the nation. Who would do such a thing? And why?

Local drama teacher Suzannah Wells, once a minor celebrity, is new to town. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, accused of being the monster who drugged and bound a teenager in her basement. As stories about her past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt her innocence.

And Ellie? The media can’t get enough of her. She’s a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?

A powerful exploration of the fragility of trust and the loss of innocence, from the author of The Golden Child and The Mistake.

More about Wendy:

Wendy James is the celebrated author of eight novels, including the bestselling The Mistake and the compelling The Golden Child, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Ned Kelly Award for crime. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. Wendy has a PhD from the University of New England and works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University. She lives in Newcastle with her husband and the youngest of her four children, and writes some of the sharpest and most topical domestic noir novels in the country.

 

 

 

The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Girl on the Page–an interview with John Purcell

Today, I’m delighted to bring you a frank and fascinating interview with John Purcell, whose gripping new novel, The Girl on the Page, I read recently with much pleasure.

First of all John, congratulations on the publication of The Girl on the Page–and on writing such a gripping and immersive read! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I know many other readers have done. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you?

I didn’t know it but the idea for the novel The Girl on the Page had been with me for years. This idea had been in my preference for reading literature as a young man. It had been in the way I had run my little second-hand bookshop where I had to sell recent commercial fiction to pay my rent, when all I wanted to do was sell people beat up old Penguin Classics. It was in my decision to work for online bookseller, Booktopia after my shop closed. And it was certainly around when I signed a contract to publish the erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma under the pseudonym Natasha Walker. The idea is a simple one, What is the cost of selling out?

What was the road to publication like? And what has reader response been like so far?

The road to publication was long. After publishing The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy in 2012-13, I returned to a novel I had been working on for years called, A Gentleman of Sorts. This novel was set in 1815 in northern England. And although I was very happy with it, no one wanted to publish it. Like a fool, I persisted trying to get it published. I wrote nothing new between 2013 and 2017, I just kept working on the novel no one wanted. The spell was broken when a leading publisher offered me a contract for the book. It was a lukewarm offer. The book would be published, but it would sink like a stone. It was over. I rejected the offer and put A Gentleman of Sorts to bed.

Days later I started writing The Girl on the Page. The words came in a torrent.  Over the next six months, writing on weekends only, due to my full time job, I finished the book. My agent sent it out to publishers and we found ourselves in the middle of an auction with three major publishers bidding on the book.  HarperCollins were victorious and with the help of my publisher Catherine Milne, and her brilliant team of editors, we knocked the book into the shape it is now. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

Publishers send out proof copies to reviewers before the final edits of the book are complete. So, with my head still in editing mode, the first reviews came in from booksellers. They didn’t hate the book, which was a relief. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, too. Overall, since publication, the response has been positive. I love that readers love Helen and Malcolm as much as I do. Though I have been punched by some readers for that bit at the end. You’ll know what I mean when you read it.

The story is told in many voices: in Amy’s, Helen’s, Malcolm’s, Daniel’s and a little in Max’s. Quite a lot of juggling, but carried off very successfully! How did you balance the different voices?

The characters of Helen and Malcolm have been loitering around in my imagination for years. They are result of my interactions with all the Helens and Malcolms who used to frequent my second-hand bookshop. The old journalists, retired academics, and quarrelling novelists.  I found their voices were already quite defined and easy to write.

The character of Daniel had to be of Helen and Malcolm, but defiantly different, too. He is their son, but estranged. You can’t stop genetics, and so I had to make sure Daniel displayed some of the attributes of his parents, while his resentment and self-loathing coloured nearly everything he said and thought.

Amy strode onto the page. Hers was the loudest and surest of the voices in my head while writing. I had to restrain her. She had a tendency to dominate scenes and conversations. I surround myself with strong women. I wanted Amy to have a truckload of confidence around her work but needed her to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. My time with Amy was spent turning the volume down on her attitude and turning the volume up when she spoke from the heart.

Knowing the characters well helps with balancing the different voices. I sketched out backstories for these characters which don’t all make it into the novel. I knew them well before I let them speak.

You took quite a risk in making two of your main characters–Amy and Malcolm–rather monstrous really (though always human!) They made me think of the ‘monstre sacré’ concept we have in French–a term which describes a person given a free pass on selfishness and outrageously bad behaviour because of their talent and/or personal charisma.  And the more ‘likeable’ characters–Helen, Daniel and Max–face a great disadvantage when in the orbit of those ‘sacred monsters’, each in different ways. Do you think that’s a fair take, or do you have a different interpretation of those characters?

The funny thing is, many readers relate to Amy. They cheer for her. I have noticed a generational divide in the response to the novel. Younger readers in general have seen it as an Amy novel. Amy’s ambitions, her needs, her desires are those of her own generation. They align with her from the start and live the novel through her, thus she is absolved of all sins. They certainly don’t see her as a monster. In fact, the question of principles at the heart of the novel is largely overlooked by younger readers. There is no such thing as selling out to them, as of course you always take the cash. Every time. Older readers talk almost exclusively about Helen and Malcolm. The choice Helen makes and the consequences of that choice. The old novelists’ relationship is the central hub of the novel to older readers but the relationship between Helen and Malcolm and their son Daniel also figures in the discussion of the novel.

Daniel is reviled by younger readers. He and Julia, the publishing director, share monster status for them. While for the older readers, they find Malcolm to be the most difficult character to deal with. They understand Daniel, forgive Helen, put up with Amy but they find it hard to forgive Malcolm. I think Daniel would see both his parents as ‘monstre sacré’, while the reader only sees Malcolm.

I hope what I have done here is create characters who are as flawed as we all are. I certainly like how a character can be one reader’s heroine and another’s villain. That a book can be about one subject for a reader and be a completely different book for another. If I have done that, I will think myself extremely lucky.

The book revolves around a conflict between two extremes of the book world: the short-term gain of bestsellers versus the slow burn of ‘serious’  literature..Yet of course many of the writers we think of as great–Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc–had large mass followings and were seen primarily as entertainers in their day. Do you think the distinction between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’ books (a cogent term employed in your book) is not as simple as someone like Malcolm might see it? And with your own book, which depicts the tension between the two, making the case for more thoughtful books whilst successfully adopting the suspenseful thriller mode–do you see it as part of the conversation around these things?

Even Malcolm doesn’t see it as a simple distinction, it’s just a convenient way for him to explain the differences between certain types of books. We all divide novels up into easy reads and more difficult ones. Some novels just ask us to think from page one, they require concentration, and if you aren’t in the mood, if you’re tired, for example, you will put them down. In that same mood you might pick up a thriller and read late into the night. Malcolm points out that we aren’t talking about a large percentage of the population when we talk about readers. And when we talk exclusively about novels we are talking about a fraction of the small fraction of the population who reads regularly. Most regular readers of novels have the capacity to read ‘uphill’ but prefer ‘downhill’ novels because such reading offers a form of escape that appeals to them.

The Girl on the Page is a ‘downhill’ book about ‘uphill’ books, said one reviewer. Which I found interesting. There is no doubt in my mind that my novel is being labelled ‘commercial fiction’ by some readers and many booksellers – that is, fiction which is easy to read and is expected to have a large readership. And yet, as one reviewer said, the blurb on the back made it sound really boring. The blurb actually described the content pretty well. But it doesn’t give any indication of the way it is written. And this is definitely part of the conversation, as you say. I have written one of those books Helen and Max hate.

I made a conscious decision to open the door to my book as wide as I could to let any kind of reader in. I wanted to involve people in my story from page one. So I wrote short sharp chapters which dropped the reader into the middle of the action. I want readers to become invested in the story and for them to turn the pages quickly. How else was I going to get people into a book where the big question is, should a literary writer publish a commercial book for cash? The result is readers are reading the novel in a few sittings and the end of the novel knocks them sideways and leaves them thinking about some pretty hefty things. Which is cool, right?

I was struck by your (very accurate, in my experience) observation of the ‘book-loving millenials’ who nevertheless don’t read in the same way that people of Helen and Malcolm’s generation might have thought proper. Can you expand a little on that?

The way people consume information today is completely different from any other age. We absorb so much more information in a day, through so many different screens, mostly in small bite-sized chunks. It’s only natural that the way a millennial reader approaches a book would be different. They have grown up in an informational soaked, entertainment overloaded world.

A physical book is an ingenious device which exists separately to the internet. It is its own ecosystem for the time you’re reading it. It has one overall argument, or subject, or story and it is told outside time. This is very attractive to those who are almost always connected and who don’t often enjoy the luxury of concentrating all their attention on one thing.

As a book industry professional–both as an author and bookseller who has frequent dealings with publishers and editors-you have an insight into the publishing world which comes over very strongly in the book, in various amusing–and sometimes depressing!–vignettes. The post-takeover shenanigans at  your fictional publishing house and the short-termism it engenders of course strikes many echoes in other book industry insiders/observers of course, including me 🙂 Putting on your prophet’s hat, what do you think might come of such developments within publishing?

Publishing has one great advantage at the moment, they still publish physical books. For a while there it seemed likely that printed books would go the way of video cassette tapes. Thankfully this was averted by the ubiquity of the smartphone which seemed to kill off the ereader and ebooks before they really took hold. And since then something even worse happened. Donald Trump. His cry of fake news has made many people notice just how difficult it is to find answers on the internet. And here’s where publishers of physical books come in. Over hundreds of years they developed a vetting process whereby they force writers to proof, edit, fact check and better their writing before they will publish it. There are checks and balances because publishing physical books is an expensive business. Of course, some publishers are better than others and of course they don’t get it right all of the time. But a vetting process is better than no process, as we are discovering to our shame online. As such, I believe publishing will still have a very important role to play in the coming decades.

Finally,  I thought that the title, ‘the Girl on the Page’ mischievously echoes an element of various bestselling titles, as alluded to in an aside in your book–is that the case? And can you expand a little on that?

The Girl on the Page was my working title. The sheer number of novels about women that were being published with ‘girl’ in the title was absurd and many people in the book industry were getting sick of it. So calling the manuscript The Girl on the Page was a bit of joke between me, myself and I. But later, as I wrote the scene at the book signing where the characters discuss books with ‘girl’ in the title, I realised that The Girl on the Page kind of worked for the book. So when I sent it to my agent I left it there. I really didn’t expect HarperCollins to go for it. But they saw the irony of it, and loved it. So, there you have it.

About The Girl on the Page:

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

About John Purcell:

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing.
Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines.
Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.
Twitter @bookeboy
Instagram @bookeboy