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

 

Advertisements

Cover reveal for War and Resistance, my 2019 novel

I am thrilled to be able to reveal today the full cover of War and Resistance, my historical novel for older readers, which will be published by Scholastic Australia in February 2019. That year will mark 80 years since the outbreak of World War Two, and my novel is mostly set in the early years of the war, from early 1939 to late 1941, with an epilogue in 1950, and spans the globe, with sections set in New Zealand, Australia, France and Germany. (You can read a short blurb of the novel on the pic) .And one of the things I’ve loved about writing this novel–a novel that means a great deal to me–is that with it I was also given the opportunity to revisit characters from an earlier novel of mine, also set in wartime, only the war before that one–1914(Scholastic Australia, 2014), which was told from the viewpoint of Louis Jullian, a teenager at the time. And now, in this new one, his daughter Sasha is trying to follow in his footsteps…Looking forward so much to the publication of this book!

 

Thesis submission day today!

Back in August 2015, I embarked on a challenging and exciting journey: undertaking a PhD. My PhD is in the area of Creative Practice–that is, it contained both a creative part(in my case, a young adult novel) and an academic/analytical part(an exegesis). For those who are interested, the novel is called The Ghost Squad, and it’s a genre-crossing mix of thriller, detective fiction, ghost story, fantasy and philosophical exploration, while the exegesis is an examination of the very interesting sub-genre of young adult afterlife fiction(that is, fiction set in or about the afterlife–not religious narratives, but a sub-genre of speculative fiction).

Three years of stimulating, hard-working, satisfying years of research, study and writing later, and I have come to that milestone day: the day I officially submit my thesis(which comprises the novel and the exegesis). It feels amazing. It feels odd. I am relieved I made it; yet also feel a little sad that it’s over. Even though of course there were one or two hiccups along the way, by and large it has been an absolutely charmed experience. I am immensely grateful to have had such fantastic support, guidance, encouragement, attention to detail and collegial warmth from my supervisors and others at the university generally; immensely grateful to the journal editors and conference organisers who saw value in the work I was doing; immensely grateful for the loving support and interest of my family, especially my husband David. And immensely grateful to have had that wonderful amount of time not only to really concentrate on my novel, a challenging novel I had wanted to write for a long time yet never had the sustained opportunity to do so, but also to discover a whole new area(at least new to me!) of young adult fiction which I have found so satisfying to explore. And the fact that no-one else had ever written about this area in a sustained and substantive way was another bonus, in that I could break new ground.

It isn’t quite over yet, of course; the examiners still have to assess the thesis and give their verdict, which won’t happen for at least several more weeks yet. But three years down the track, at that important milestone, I can say that not only do I have no regrets of any kind, but I am amazed and delighted by my great good fortune in what has been an important and deeply satisfying journey.

 

Writing about World War One…

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day, and the hundredth anniversary of the battle at Villers Brettoneux in northern France on 25 April 1918, where Australian regiments were instrumental in helping to secure the liberation of that area of France. As someone brought up between Australia and France, it’s made me reflect not only on the joint experiences of French and Australian troops and civilians in that terrible war, but also on how difficult it is to try and convey, as a writer, something about those experiences, especially when you are writing for children.

Until a few years ago, I never expected to write about World War One. In both France and Australia, as a child I’d seen, in churches and memorials, the staggeringly long rollcalls of the dead in World War One; a war that seemed not only horrible and tragic but absolutely incomprehensible. World War Two seemed more understandable by comparison, in part because my parents were children during the German occupation of France. I could imagine myself writing about World War Two (though I didn’t, in fact until very recently) ) but not World War One. Partly, perhaps it was because in Australia, Gallipoli loomed large, of course, and I did not feel able to write about it, but also could hardly begin to understand, let alone depict, the ghastly long years of trench warfare on the Western Front.

What changed that was, first, a brief visit many years ago to the heartbreakingly big and neat Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Villers-Brettoneux. In the back of my mind, a seed was being planted–and years later, in 2010, it sprouted, inspired by a longer visit–a stay of a few days, in fact, in the pretty, and war-haunted, cathedral city of Amiens and the countryside beyond. Being on the spot, in the quiet streets of the city and the green and pleasant Somme countryside which yet saw so many deaths, looking at memorials and the French Australian museum’s collections of touching photographs of both Australian and French soldiers and the local civilian population, made me change my mind. And also I read about the last year of the war–the way in which in 1918, trench warfare, at least in northern France, gave way not to the pitched open battles of the very beginning of the war, but to a more ‘guerrilla’ style campaign, on both sides, with ambushes and surprise attacks and street-by-street battles in devastated villages. I began to see how I could perhaps tell a story, through the eyes of a young French-Australian character .

So that’s how my first World War One novel, My Father’s War(Scholastic Australia 2011), began. Set in 1918, it is told in the voice of eleven year old Annie, whose Australian soldier father, fighting on the Somme, goes missing, and who goes with her French mother to Amiens to try and find him. Through Annie’s diary unfolds the story of that last year in the war and the experiences of both soldiers and civilians in northern France. It was a story that both flowed naturally from having been in the areas I was writing about and being immersed in pictures and documents of the time, but was also very hard to write. This was a work of fiction so it had to work as an engaging story, especially given the age of my readers, but I also felt a great responsibility to tell it in a way that would not trivialise or falsify. It was a very delicate balance to strike and at times felt almost impossible(and saddening; I found myself weeping several times over scenes) but in the end it worked. Or at least, readers seem to think so–seven years after its release, it is still finding its way into libraries, schools, and homes.

Writing My Father’s War had made me see I could tell a story set in that time. Three years later, my second World War One novel was published. This was 1914 (Scholastic Australia 2014), which from the point of view of Louis Jullian, teenage son of a French diplomat and his Australian wife, told the story of the beginning of that ‘war to end all wars’. It was a very different book, because it was set in a very different time to that of My Father’s War. In 1918, four years of dreadful stalemate and horrendous slaughter had changed the face of Europe, destroying the old order forever.  In 1914, the old order was still there, sleepwalking towards disaster, and even by the end of that year, people imagined that the war might soon be over and things go back to what they’d been before. And my characters might both be French Australian, but they came from very different backgrounds and experiences. Annie had a difficult childhood dominated by war and her father’s absence; Louis, whose childhood was cosmopolitan and carefree, was coming of age at a time when everything would be thrown into question by a conflict that would engulf the world and truth itself. It was just as hard to write this novel as the first; harder even in a way, precisely because it was the beginning: reading about the causes of the war and the chain of events in those fateful few weeks from June 28 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, you get a sense both of the so-called ‘inevitability’ of the war but also the fact that it need not have been so. There were times when the momentum could have been halted–but it was not. I chose to tell that story, and the way in which a carefree summer turned into a deadly winter, through Louis’ eyes as he goes from helpless witness of the attack in Sarajevo to scarred and determined young war correspondent on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Both the novels have had unexpected offshoots: minor characters from My Father’s War inspired a short story of mine, The Other Anzac Day (set during the battle in Villers Brettoneux on 25 April 1918) which was published in a UK collection, Stories of World War One, edited by Tony Bradman(Orchard Books, UK, 2014). This story, told in the voice of Archie, a tough but troubled young Australian soldier, both echoes and contrasts with Annie’s own view of that ‘other Anzac Day’ in My Father’s War. And Louis’ daughter as well as the son of one of his pre-war Austrian friends will be featuring in a novel I’ve been writing, set at the beginning of World War 2 this time, to appear in 2019. In the novel, the experiences of World War One, which transformed the lives of Louis and his friends, haunt the lives of their families too–and of course, by extension, their communities and nations, as the drums of war beat yet again.

 

More about My Father’s War and 1914:

My Father’s War

By Sophie Masson

(My Australian Story, Scholastic Australia 2011)

ISBN 9781741698282

It scares me a lot, thinking of Dad out there, far away in that dangerous, terrible place, wondering how it will be when he comes back-if he comes back, that is . . .

Annie’s dad has been away for two years, fighting on the Somme battlefields in northern France. For months there has been no word from him, no letters or postcards. Annie and her mother are sick with worry, so they decide to stop waiting-and instead travel to France, to try to find out what has happened to him. There she experiences first-hand what war is like, as she tries to piece together the clues behind her dad’s disappearance. Will Annie ever see her father again?

Teacher’s Notes My Father’s War: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8005439_228.pdf

1914

By Sophie Masson

(Australia’s Great War, Scholastic Australia 2014)

ISBN 9781743622476

A small black bottle or a torch came sailing through the air, and landed on the side of the car, close to the Archduke. An instant later came a terrific bang, the road exploded in a shower of dust and stones, and tiny sharp things went flying through the air like angry bees.

In June 1914, Louis and his brother Thomas are enjoying the European summer in a small town near Sarajevo. In the shadow of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the world erupts into war and Louis’ life changes forever. Old Europe is torn apart and Louis finds himself in the midst of his own battle – and fighting for the truth in war means that sometimes even your own side is against you.

Teacher’s Notes 1914: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8284239_24164.pdf

Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!

2017 Book Discovery 8: Elisabeth Storrs’ pick

In the latest of the book discovery posts, Elisabeth Storrs writes about her pick.

The Summons, by David Whish-Wilson, is far from light summer reading but my 2017 discovery of this dark and compelling tale provided me with a potent insight into the Nazis’ obsession into the occult. Set in 1934 Berlin, the story traces the impact on WW1 veteran, Dr Paul Mobius, when he is summoned by the SS to join Himmler’s Special Witch Work Unit. At the same time he becomes embroiled in another Nazi scheme which threatens the safety of his charge, the young simple-minded Carl.

Mobius is a fragile character, tormented by the horrors of the Great War, who nevertheless shows nerve enough to defy ‘the summons’ and escape with Carl to the country. Here, with his newly found love, Monika, the historian finds the promise of happiness. However, the tentacles of Nazi eugenic philosophy have already infiltrated the psyche of the rural community. Mobius must stay true to his own beliefs, and muster both physical and moral courage, as he is inexorably drawn to Wewelsburg Castle, the headquarters of bizarre and brutal SS experiments.

Whish-Wilson’s writing is superb, relaying both gentle humour, deep pathos and increasing menace. Ordinary Germans are depicted in the early stages of the sinister spread of Nazi doctrine and yet their lives are also portrayed as mundane and relatable.

I was drawn to the novel because I am researching the distortion of history by another of Himmler’s think-tanks to justify Lebensraum. The plight of a museum curator faced with making a Faustian Bargain is central to my own WIP set in WW2 Berlin and Russia. Whish-Wilson’s book sets a high bar. It is simultaneously touching and disturbing; an exploration of a troubled soul, growing doom, and an unexpected love for an unconventional woman and a threatened child-like youth. Pitched to prescient readers, the power of the novel is in us knowing the fate awaiting each.

 

Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Her curiosity piqued by an Etruscan sarcophagus depicting a couple embracing for eternity, she discovered the little known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome and the inspiration to write the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga. She is also the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She is now hurtling centuries forward to write Treasured, a novel which tells the story of stolen loot, crazy Nazi archaeology, and the lost Trojan gold.

2017 Book Discovery 1: Natalie Jane Prior’s pick

Today, Natalie Jane Prior is writing about her book discovery of 2017.

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1913.

I’d never heard of this book, or its author for that matter, but a passing reference in something else I was reading piqued my interest enough for me to download the ebook.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are at the end of their resources. Middle-aged former servants, their London lodging house has failed, and they have been reduced to surviving on furtive trips the pawnshop, when miraculously, a new lodger arrives and takes all four empty rooms in the house. Mr Sleuth is a gentleman of quiet habits, much given to Bible reading, an educated person who needs the space for his unspecified scientific “experiments”. Best of all, he pays his account regularly in gold sovereigns.

Of course, it’s all too good to be true. Mr Sleuth may be quiet, but he also has a habit of creeping out of the house in the middle of the night, and he does strange things like turning all Mrs Bunting’s chocolate box pictures of ladies to face the wall (so their eyes don’t follow him around). There is also the matter of sinister little bag he arrived with, his only luggage, which so mysteriously disappears soon after his arrival, and the horrible smelling smoke he creates in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It doesn’t take long for the Buntings to start suspecting there may be a link between their perfect lodger, and the Avenger, perpetrator of the string of horrific murders of women that is currently terrifying London.

While Marie Belloc Lowndes has loosely based her story on the Ripper murders of a generation before, The Lodger is surprisingly bloodless. It’s a psychological parlour piece, taking place almost entirely in the claustrophobic setting of the Buntings’ sitting room, bedroom and kitchen, in which first the wife, and then the husband move from relief and delight in their good fortune to unease, concern, suspicion, fear and finally, guilt and complicity. For underlying everything is the Buntings’ own vulnerability as respectable working class people with limited resources. The failure of their lodging house has pushed them to the very brink. They’ve stared the poorhouse in the face. Where will they find themselves, if they’re revealed to have harboured a monster?

It’s easy to see why this scenario attracted a young Alfred Hitchcock; he evidently made a silent film based on the book. I remain mystified, however, that The Lodger is not better known. I sat up until the small hours reading it, and my first reaction was to wonder why, when there are books like this about, anyone would bother reading modern period crime fiction. Not only because the novel itself is so good, but because a modern author, relying on research and bringing contemporary prejudices to the exercise, could not hope to get the nuances that are so effortlessly reproduced here. For example, one can immediately see why Buntings have failed to get lodgers just from the description of the furniture and interior decoration. They’ve taken a house in a “better” part of town to attract a “better” class of lodger, but the ugly secondhand Victorian furniture Mrs Bunting has filled it with (both because she can afford it, and because it will last—which indeed it does, because I’ve got a houseful of it) would clearly have been a total turnoff to her prospective clientele. Then there’s the Buntings’ precarious situation. Mr Bunting was a middle aged butler who married a middle aged maid. How could a modern author possibly latch onto the fact that their options are limited because positions in service for married couples are invariably for a manservant and cook?

 The Lodger is available as an ebook in the Gaslight Crime series. I hope lovers of crime fiction are tempted to give it a go; it deserves to be better known.

(Note from Sophie: it’s also available as a paperback online)

Natalie Jane Prior is the author of many books, and is best known for the Lily Quench series, which has half a million copies in print around the world. Her most recent titles are the picture book Lucy’s Book  and the picture story book The Fairy Dancers: Dancing Days, both illustrated by longtime collaborator, Cheryl Orsini.