My latest post on Writer Unboxed is about writing my audio novel, and it’s attracted some interesting comments. Have a look at the post, and the comments, here.
When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.
You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)
The Ghost Ship
She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…
She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.
And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.
The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.
The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…
Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.
…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….
The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?
This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.
…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….
Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…
Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.
Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.
…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.
The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…
Fitton Howe, Monday
Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.
My audio novel, A Turn off the Path, is set in the Pays Basque, the French Basque country, in the beautiful Pyrenean hill town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque. I wanted to set it there not only because it is at the beginning of the famous Camino Frances, or French Way, to Compostella, but also for family reasons. On my mother’s family’s side, we have Basque heritage and though they’re not from Saint Jean, but rather from Biarritz (where my uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family still live) and also, further back, from the Spanish Basque side, from childhood onwards we have roamed across the beautiful Pays Basque, including several visits to Saint Jean, like this one to the markets there. As well, my sister Camille, who’s an artist, lives and works in Hasparren, and is a proud member of the Institut Culturel Basque.
Though we were not brought up speaking Basque ourselves, and we had other very important ethnic heritages–French (which dominated), French-Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese–our Basque heritage strand was always a rich and valued part of our family tapestry. It lived not only in our DNA but in our cultural references and lived experience. All of it fascinated me: the gorgeous landscape, the tumultuous history reaching way back into the millenia, the ancient culture whose ancient, non-Indo-European language still flourishes, and people both clannish and dynamic, tenacious and adaptable, traditional and innovative, fierce and businesslike, imaginative and reserved. And it influenced my writing: my first ever published piece was an article in Vogue Living on Basque cooking, which combined glimpses of Basque culture and places with delicious recipes. Over the years, I’ve sprinkled Basque references and characters in several of my novels, but in my alternative history YA novel The Hand of Glory, a Basque character is at central stage: a young undercover detective called Anje Otsoa. Through him, I was able to explore some aspects of Basque folklore, history and mythology. And now, in A Turn off the Path, I am exploring that Basque heritage again, not only through my main character Helen getting to know the region, its history and culture, but also through another character, another Australian, who’s come to investigate his family history and his Basque ancestors.
It’s an interesting challenge, both to include those elements yet not make it into some kind of Basque tourist guide or explanation of Basque culture. And in a novel like this one, where you always have to think of the auditory aspect as well, I have to think carefully about how I can present those important strands without overwhelming dialogue with information or having too much description. It’s very much about glimpses, and also emotion. For example, one of the scenes I’ve written recently has Helen walking through the streets one evening and suddenly hearing music floating from an open window: it’s a local Basque male choir practising. For like the Russians, the Welsh, Corsicans and others around the world, the Basques have a long-standing tradition of male choirs, and hearing a really good one is absolutely spine-tingling. That scene is only brief, but it anchors the action in something that is both concrete yet elusive, and emotional all the way through. (If you’re interested in hearing what such a choir sounds like, here’s the website of one, Gogotik, from Saint Jean Pied de Port itself)
Below is a composite photo of my mother’s maternal side, on the Basque lineage. Going left to right, far left is my mother, Gisele; then her mother, Anna (both born in the French Basque country); her mother Antonina, and her mother Ama (both born in the Spanish Basque country, though Antonina came to live in the French Basque country as a young woman). And below that is me, as a teenager in the late 1970’s in the French Basque country, near the village of Ainhoa. Yes, you could still see the occasional ox cart there, back then!
In the world of The Ghost Squad, named places like New Haven, Ferndale, Hot Springs, and, across the other side of the world, the University of Grantfen, whilst all being imaginary, are inspired by real places around the world which I have visited or know. I thought readers might like to know a bit more about those inspirations behind the novel’s settings.
For example, the steam-wreathed town of Hot Springs, with its mud pools, was inspired by Rotorua, in the North Island of New Zealand, which I visited in 2016. As well, an important inspiration for one of the revelations in the book also came from that same New Zealand visit: seeing, in Auckland Art Gallery, an extraordinary video installation by contemporary New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana, Tai Whetuki/House of Death Redux.
Meanwhile, New Haven was inspired in some ways by several small towns in both Australia and New Zealand, while some of the look of the landscape around the entrance to the base was partly inspired by the country around Lightning Ridge, also in Australia (see below).
The look of Bear’s cottage in the woods was inspired by Russian houses I saw on a visit to that country some years ago, while a reference to the Squadder Piper’s mother being from a family of pearl divers was inspired by a visit I made in 2018 to the town of Toba, in Japan, which is home to a famous guild of female pearl divers (see below).
The University of Grantfen, and the college of Gabrielhouse, in the epilogue, is based on colleges in the beautiful University of Cambridge in the UK, where Sophie spent a month in 2017. And Sutton Hoo, an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial site near Cambridge, also provided the inspiration for the title of Link’s short story, which is mentioned in the novel, and which is called The Ghost Ship. That’s because the big find at Sutton Hoo was of the very rich burial of a great Anglo-Saxon lord, maybe a king, who was buried in his magnificent ship, for him to set sail on a ghostly voyage into the afterlife.
(Note: All photos taken by Sophie Masson.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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