A bit about the world of The Ghost Squad…

What if there was scientific proof not only that the afterlife existed, but that everyone had an afterlife marker, similar to a genetic marker, that coded them irrevocably for their existence post-life? What if that explosive proof had been hidden from the general public by a worldwide conspiracy of silence, supposedly in order to protect the population from panic, but actually to facilitate secret experiments being conducted to push the boundaries of government surveillance and control, even beyond death itself? 

In the world of The Ghost Squad, everything seems normal to most people, the new normal that is, with all electronic communication strictly controlled and social media banned. Twenty years previously, a major solar storm had caused a massive electro-magnetic pulse which not only knocked out all computer-controlled technology and power around the world for quite some time, but triggered what became known as the Anomaly, the first indication of the afterlife markers of human beings. Since then, the followers of Hermes, a secretive whistle-blower, who operate out of an underground network, the Base, have been attempting to bring knowledge of the secret to the population in general. They are locked in a constant clandestine struggle with the forces of the Ghost Squad, who work for secret government research centres known as PLEIFs (short for Post-Life Entity Index Facility) , who are known to abduct people whose unusual afterlife markers show them to be of particular experimental interest.

The Ghost Squad is set in a contemporary/near-future time, in places which have deliberately not been tethered to real-world geography, though several settings are inspired by real-world places, including in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the UK, and Russia.

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

Video on the inspirations and sources behind French Fairy Tales

I’ve made a video presentation about the inspirations and sources behind my retellings in French Fairy Tales, which includes both personal and family connections, as well as information about the tales themselves. Hope you enjoy!

And by the way, on November 7, at 2-4 pm(Australian Eastern daylight saving time) I’m running an online creative workshop for the New England Writers’ Centre, via Zoom, on how to retell fairy tales and how to adapt them for your own fiction. You can check out details here.

Fairytale-tellers: post on my fairytale blog

Over at my fairytale blog, I have a post which is part of a series about some of the great classic French writers of fairytales, from whom I’ve drawn my sources and inspirations for my own retold tales in my forthcoming collection with Lorena Carrington, French Fairy Tales (Serenity Press). You can read the introductory post here. More to follow later.

My favourite French castle, an inspirational fairy tale setting

Cross-posted from my Fairytale Country site.

Today I want to write  a bit about the castle that for me, since childhood, has represented the absolute epitome of the classic French fairy tale setting: and that is the gorgeous small chateau of  Azay-le-Rideau, in the Loire Valley.  Of course the Loire Valley is full of beautiful castles; but this one is my favourite of them, indeed it’s my top favourite in all of France. Not only does this absolute jewel of a chateau represent for me that epitome of fairy tale magic and charm, but it’s also the setting for the Beast’s castle in my retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which is the longest story in French Fairy Tales.

Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, September 2018. Photo: Sophie Masson

Built in the early 16th century on the ruins of the previous fortress suited there, the castle of Azay-le-Rideau has a tumultuous history. It’s situated  within the charming little village of the same name, down a small road away from the main highway, amongst green fields and little woods. The castle is set on a small lake, in superb parkland, and I’ve visited it a number of times, the most recent being in September 2018. That time, in a glorious early autumn with blue skies and trees still green but starting to turn gold, we stayed in a lovely little hotel in the village, a few steps away from the castle. At the time we were there, an extraordinary, eerily beautiful art installation called ‘Les enchantements d’Azay‘, by artists Piet.sO  and Peter Keene, was displayed in the castle. Together, the castle, the parkland gardens, the art installation, and the amazing, magical feel of the whole place, were just the most perfect elements to help create the Beast’s world.

It isn’t just in Beauty and the Beast, however, that you will see the enchanting influence of Azay-le-Rideau; for in the next post, Lorena will be writing about how her own stay there and her visits to other places in the Loire Valley, became the source for her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales.

Celebrating new books in troublesome times 8: Kathy Creamer

Next week sees the publication of author-illustrator Kathy Creamer’s new picture book, The Big Old Rambutan Tree, a book which had a very special inspiration and process, as Kathy explains in this  fascinating guest post.

Creation of The Big Old Rambutan Tree

 by Kathy Creamer

Someone once pronounced an orangutan to be an animal that looked somewhat like a sad heap of deflated bicycle wheel inner tubing. I met my first orangutan when I was working at Singapore Zoological Gardens as a volunteer docent, and they were nothing at all like the description of sad deflated bicycle tubing. I became completely enchanted by the beauty and charm of these effervescent and mischievous primates, and one lovely orangutan in particular, who happened to be the zoo’s celebrity, became my favourite. She was a gentle female named Ah Meng, who I met in the days when visitors to the zoo were allowed to get close up to some of the tame orangutans and even share breakfast with them. Ah Meng, who was sitting with her new baby, calmly allowed me to be seated next to her. I was almost nine months pregnant at the time and Ah Meng was clearly interested in the huge size of my baby bump, so much so, she reached out and placed her hand gently on my tummy and kept it there whilst she gazed knowingly into my eyes. I was totally astounded by her gesture and in that instant, I realized she possessed a great intelligence which comprehended precisely what was growing in there.

Orangutans and humans share 97 per cent of their DNA sequence, which makes us very close cousins. And indeed, they are so much like us in displaying facial expression and emotion such as joy, excitement, jealousy and fear, and when a young orangutan displays his anger or frustration, it is exactly like watching a temper tantrum in a two-year-old human toddler.

 

I began researching a little more about orangutans and learned just how endangered they are in the wild. I was distressed by the fact that their young are much sought after for the illegal exotic pet trade; the mothers who fearlessly fight to protect their offspring are usually shot dead by the animal poachers in order to steal the babies. Then there is the significant threat of habitat destruction from human development such as farming; the biggest threat being the recent expansion of enormous palm oil plantations. I was so moved by what I read that I wanted to do something to highlight the plight of these beautiful animals in the wild. So, I decided to create a picture book story about Ah Meng, which was published by the zoo and succeeded in raising much needed funds for the Zoo’s own orangutan conservation program. Ah Meng was so pleased with her book that she painted me an extraordinary picture for the book launch at the zoo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some years later, after watching a nature program about the uncontrolled  destruction of thousands of acres of pristine Asian rainforest for palm oil plantation, I realized that the orangutan’s struggle for survival had become even worse, and that they were now dangerously further down the path to total extinction in the wild. Moved to try and do something to highlight the problem, however small, I decided to create another children’s picture book story, The Big Old Rambutan Tree.

The idea for the story was inspired by a newspaper report on how a young orangutan in a nature reserve actively helped to look after two orphaned tiger cubs by helping the human carers to bottle feed them. Obviously, as the two tiger cubs grew bigger, they eventually had to be separated from the orangutan.

In the illustrations for the book, I tried to display emotion and movement, as well as revealing the gentle, peaceful expression and exuberant mischievousness of orangutan personality. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a publisher for the manuscript, so it lay for almost ten years in my desk drawer until I decided to send it to Orangutan Outreach to see if they would be interested in endorsing the book should it be published. They were! So, I decided to publish with Little Pink Dog Books, which is a children’s picture book publishing partnership specializing in books by new and emerging writers and illustrators, which I happen to run with my husband. We also began a crowdfunding site with IndieGoGo, to help with the publication costs, and I am pleased to say that many people from around the world have either made a financial donation or have purchased copies of the book. To help Orangutan Outreach I decided all profits from the book would go to their organisation to help with their valuable conservation work.

I am particularly pleased that after many years of effort the book is now on sale, and I would like to encourage readers to help support the conservation of these beautiful primates by purchasing a copy of the book from your local bookshop or by ordering the book directly from the Little Pink Dog Books website.

The Big Old Rambutan Tree

Written and illustrated by Kathy Creamer

Little Pink Dog Books (May 2020)

From the flames of the burning rainforest, an extraordinary bond of friendship ignites between a savage tiger and a gentle orangutan, as they both struggle to survive in their fast diminishing habitat.

 Kathy’s website: www.kathycreamer.com

Connect with Kathy on Facebook

A serendipitous meeting and a discovery about a treasured manuscript

I was really delighted yesterday to meet the wonderful Dr Joko Susilo, world-renowned dhalang (master of traditional Javanese shadow-puppetry, the wayang kulit) , who’s been Artist in Residence at UNE  for the last few weeks. An eighth-generation dhalang from Cenral Java, Joko has been based in New Zealand for some time, and travels around the world to give performances, talks and other presentations.
I contacted Joko to show him one of my family treasures: a rare, handwritten Javanese-language ‘Boekoe Pedalangan’ or ‘Book of Puppetry’, which my French parents, who were very interested in the wayang kulit and Javanese culture generally, bought when they were living and working in Java in the late 50’s and early 60’s (and where I was born). I’ve always been in awe of this book, and was thrilled when my father gave it to me a couple of years ago, but I have  wanted for a while to ask someone who knew what they were looking at to let me know me more information about the book. Well, Joko was absolutely the perfect person, as he is not only a practitioner but also a respected scholar of the extraordinary and magical art of wayang kulit.
He was very interested indeed in the manuscript and I learned quite a bit about it from him as he leafed through it: that it came from the Central Javanese city of Solo(which like Yogya is at the heart of Javanese traditional culture), that it was written in High (literary) Javanese by a professional dhalang, someone well-educated and highly-literate–not very common at the time, Joko thought it might possibly have been someone who worked within the kraton, the palace, of Solo– and that it contains the full script, including narration, instructions to puppeteers and gamelan orchestra, as well as actual gamelan notation, for a famous epic wayang kulit play which goes on all night (at least 9 hours long).
As well as that, there is a shorter section at the back, which Joko revealed is actually an unusual collection of traditional Javanese magic charms and spells. The charms are for all sorts of purposes including one, Joko was amused to discover, against sleepiness (sleepiness being an occupational hazard of course for dhalangs who are performers of all-night plays!) He confirmed that this is indeed a very rare book, especially given its excellent state of preservation(my parents having very carefully looked after it for decades, ever since they first got it and of course I’ve done the same). So fantastic to learn more about this treasure–and Joko is keen to transcribe the book in its entirety at some stage, which is wonderful!

Letter to my unpublished self…

Fellow author Monique Mulligan asked me to contribute to her blog series, ‘A letter to my unpublished self’. It was an unusual, and most enjoyable and thought-provoking thing to do. Here’s a short extract:

Dear Sophie

Hey, there. You’ve always wanted to be an author. A published author. And most days, you think, yes, I’ll get there. You love writing. You know it’s what you were born to do. You believe in your heart that one day, there will be a beautiful book in the shops with your name on it. And you work hard at it. So hard!

And you’re resilient. You pick yourself up after rejections, you bounce back up, you find another option, another possibility, another reason to hope it’ll happen. But occasionally, when yet another manuscript gets rejected, when yet another story fails to get into a competition shortlist, when you are working at yet another crappy menial job to earn a derisory bit of money in between frantically typing up yet another query letter, you think, maybe that nagging little voice in the glum depths of writer limbo is right. It’s too hard….

Read the whole thing here.

Glimpses in old books…

I love antique books, a love inherited from my father who over decades has collected an eclectic range of extraordinary old books. I love their beauty, the stories they contain, and the sense of holding something that is a direct link to people in the past, not just authors and publishers, but also readers, who over the generations or even centuries have held them in their hands. And I also love the unexpected unofficial glimpses these books can give into those very same previous readers and owners, everything from old clippings, tickets, menus, dried flowers and other such things you can find tucked into the pages, to inscriptions, bookplates and scribbles left by previous readers/owners.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own collection: both are from 18th century books pertaining to fairytales and their tellers, which I am presently using to work on an exciting new project(more details on thst soon!)

The first is a 1786 edition of one of the volumes of the very famous Cabinet des fées compendium, which in 41 volumes gathered the fairy tales written by (mostly) French writers of the l17th and 18th centuries, such as Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Mademoiselle de la Force, and many others. This particular volume, number 37, is of great interest to anyone interested in the area(as I am!) as it’s an index of the authors with full notes about their lives and works plus an introduction to the fairytale genre as it was written at the time and a list of all the other volumes in the Cabinet des fées. It’s fascinating in itself, of course, but where an old copy of this parts company with say, a new edition of the same work, is that traces of previous owners remain it it. In this case, they are two bookplates: the first of which, pasted on the inside cover of the book, proclaims the book to be from ‘Case G, Shelf…(unreadable number, perhaps ‘2’) of ‘Brynkinalt Library’. The second bookplate, pasted on the second internal page, just before the title page, informs us that that it is ‘Ex Libris Ellis’ (from the Ellis Library, or Library of the Ellis family) with two women’s names underneath: Lilian Fitzmaurice and Madeleine Blanche.

A couple of searches on Google revealed to me something about the people behind the plates. The library name and the dragon symbol on the frst bookplate had made me pretty sure it had come from somewhere in Wales and so it proved to be but intriguingly, the Brynkinalt Library was not a public library, but a private one once housed on an estate that has belonged to the one family since the 10th century. Could the eighteenth-century faces that stare out at the viewer from the painting featured on the Brynkinalt website have once been bent over this book?

I had no idea, of course, but it’s fun to speculate! And hmm, maybe there’s material for a good story in it 🙂

Investigating the second bookplate also produced an interesting result: the book had once belonged(presumably after it had left Brynkinalt library) to a renowned Canadian scholar in French literary studies and art history, Dr Madeleine Blanche Ellis of Montreal (1915-2008). The bookplate also cited Lililan Fitzmaurice, who turns out to be Dr Ellis’ mother (Lilian’s husband and Madeleine’s father was George Porter Ellis). Mother and daughter are mentioned together on the bookplate, and the book comes from the library of the Ellis family. Was Madeleine still living at home at the time? Or did they own the book together? Small mysteries perhaps; but intriguing glimpses, as well, into past lives.

The second book in my collection that offers an intriguing glimpse into past lives through unofficial additions to it is another book from the 18th century, also within the fairytale genre; a 1799 edition of the first volume of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfants (first published in 1756) which contains within it her famous retelling of la Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a fascinating book of course, and there’s a lot to say about the tale itself and how it differs(very positively!) from an earlier version by an earlier fairytale-writer, Madame de Villeneuve, but that’s a story for another day. Today, what I want to note are those unofficial, marginal evocations of a previous reader’s relationship with this particular copy of the book. And it’s a very different story to the other one!

This reader, whoever he or she was (or else, and more likely, it was more than one person), clearly saw in the book an opportunity to practise hand-writing skills as well as a handy notebook for daily tasks. There is no defacing of the actual text of the book, only the flyleaves, front and back, and the title pages. On the front flyleaf and title pages are flourishes in sepia ink of letters, words and sentences, mostly in French, but the half-title page has these words in Italian as well: ‘Signora Maestra’, which I believe means ‘Madam Teacher’.

I bought the book on Abebooks, from an Italian second had book dealer, so clearly the book had been in Italy; and the look of the handwriting suggested a child, most likely an Italian child learning French, possibly at home, under the guidance of a ‘Signora Maestra’ (and what she thought of the defacing of the book I can only imagine!)

The back flyleaf meanwhile told a different tale. There are some ‘handwriting practice’ scribbles on it but also something quite different: an actual laundy list 🙂 ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading, which then goes on to list the various articles: draps(sheets) a jupon(petticoat), mouchoirs de poche(pocket handkerchieves), torchons(teatowels) and more. ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading. The words are in French, in a different, firmer hand to the other, and hints at an adult rather than a child or adolescent. Was it the laundrymaid who wrote those words, or more likely the lady of the house, or perhaps a housekeeper, noting down the articles that had been sent off to the laundry? I don’t know, anymore than I know why you’d use a book as a makeshift aide-memoire, and just once too(the kid scribbling in the book seems more understandable)but here again are glimpses of people from the past, anonymous but whose presences flicker into view, even if briefly, in a rather touching way.

 

2017 Book Discovery 2: Kathy Creamer’s pick

Kathy Creamer is writing about her 2017 book discovery today.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 It was a world full of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.

I first discovered Cider with Rosie when I was fourteen, and I was immediately hypnotized by the glorious visions that Laurie Lee’s deliciously descriptive language created in my mind. Through his words, I can go back to the Cotswolds, re-enter childhood and remember the taste of snowflakes on my tongue, glimpse the shimmering icicles that once hung down from thatched roofs, smell the enticing spices of Christmas and touch the gentle face of my long departed grandmother.

I’ve read all of Laurie Lee’s other works, As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, I Can’t Stay Long, Village Christmas, and most of his poetry, but Cider with Rosie has remained one of my favourites, a feast for the senses, and it’s a place I like to go to for comfort. I’ve never been without a copy. This Christmas I shall be re-reading, and remembering that long ago, there was once a place as sweet and intoxicating as apple cider.

Kathy Creamer is an illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in numerous books, in Australia and overseas. Most recently, she has illustrated the new edition of Max Fatchen’s A Pocketful of Rhymes(Second Look, 2017) and her work has also appeared in the anthologies A Toy Christmas(Christmas Press, 2016) and A Christmas Menagerie(Christmas Press,2017).