Claire Corbett and Watch Over Me: blog tour interview

Today I am delighted to welcome Claire Corbett to Feathers of the Firebird, to answer questions about her extraordinary, genre-bending new novel, Watch Over Me, as part of her blog tour for the book.

First of all, congratulations on Watch Over Me, Claire! It’s an absolutely superb novel, highly-charged, atmospheric, passionate and thought-provoking, and I was gripped from the very beginning. How did the idea first come to you, and how did it develop over time?

Thanks, Sophie. It’s probably hard to know the true answer to that question. I’ve been thinking about elements of the story for years, probably since I was a child and heard stories about the war experiences of my grandparents and their families, especially my great-uncle, who was shot down over Belgium and hidden by a farming family that was part of the Resistance.

The ideas in it also grew out of so many things, from the family stories to feminist ideas on the roots of violence both personal and political and partly crystallised by what Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel Bluebeard, that one of the main purposes of war, which is rarely admitted, is to put women in that vulnerable, desperate position, depending on men for protection and even food.

It’s amazing how this is celebrated, you know, all the valorisation of American soldiers handing out stockings and candy bars. Australian soldiers used to boast about how cheaply they could buy Japanese women during the Occupation of Japan: ‘a girl will go all night for one bar of chocolate,’ they’d say. As if exploiting a young girl’s hunger was something to be proud of.

My parents grew up under the German occupation of France, and the stories they told about the complexities of it and the interactions of their families, friends, neighbours, whether willing or not, whether positive or negative, with the invaders, have always haunted me. I found many echoes of those complexities in Watch Over Me, and in fact at one stage you make a specific reference to the famous retort by the actress Arletty at her post-Occupation trial, defending her sexual history during the Occupation. In recent years there has been a great deal more subtle exploration than there used to be in France of the themes of collaboration/resistance, with publications such as Suite Francaise and screen-based narratives such as Un Village Francais. All this is a longish prelude to asking you, was the Occupation a major influence on the themes of your book, and in what way?

Yes, it was a huge influence and I’m pleased it resonated for you. It’s the example that looms so large in our psyches of a complex Occupation between two peoples who have culturally similar backgrounds – it’s not the same as the Occupation of Japan or Americans in Saigon or Baghdad. The French and the Germans understand each other in quite a different way and have so much shared history and I wanted that ambivalence in Watch Over Me. Hiroshima Mon Amour blew me away when I was younger. I didn’t know you were allowed to admit that a French girl could fall in love with a German soldier. Films of treachery and collaboration or even just having to live alongside each other such as Au Revoir Les Enfants, or Lacombe Lucien were a big deal. And that incredible documentary Weapons of the Spirit about the little Huguenot village of Le Chambon whose people hid and saved around 5,000 Jewish kids and adults during the war.

Also, I knew a very interesting French Jewish artist who grew up during the German occupation of Paris and he had many striking stories about that. Again, with the love and hate – they took his father away to Mauthausen concentration camp but the German officer down the street brought his hungry family food and so on. So, his feelings were mixed, to put it mildly. Like so many French people he reserved his real hatred not for the German Army but for the French government and its over-enthusiastic cooperation which he felt went far beyond what they had to do. He’d point out to us the bullet holes in the walls of houses near where he’d lived, show us where the American tanks had only just been able to fit through the narrow streets. As a kid he’d been given food by both German and American soldiers, he saw some of those correspondences.

So, you can see traces of that in the book and of course my reaction to the way women who had relationships with the occupiers were treated after the war by a nation which had done far worse than have sex with the Germans. I recently found out that Norwegian women who had relations with Germans – and the poor kids that resulted – were treated viciously after the war. I was shocked by how victimised the children were.

There are also many other cultural/historical influences I could see in Watch Over Me: American occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, hints of Russian adventurism in Ukraine and the Arctic, (and if I’m not mistaken, a saying or two from Russia!) Inuit and Sami influences…How did you go about weaving these threads together to create the particular cultural atmosphere of your fictional society?

Yes, you’re right about the Russian sayings! Well, of course the Russians and Ukraine and the Arctic is all real and happening now and shows the plausibility of my story but the funny thing is that I’d written much of it and worked the story out before events in Ukraine. It was weird and kind of scary watching my story come to life. The energy geopolitics underpinning the tale are real – the Lomonsov Ridge, the jockeying for the resources of the Arctic, that is all real.

In terms of cultural atmosphere Port Angelsund has to be a Scandinavian city. I began with my own memories of growing up in Canada – I’m a person with a northern heritage too so I understand some of that – but then I did a lot of research. I made it as real as possible. Every detail is as true to my fictional city’s real location as I could make it. Reflector Awareness Day is real, how they deal with the light and the dark winters, the names of the cakes – all that reflects the reality of the place.

Having said that, it has a mythic quality too. The one violence I did to my city to make it mine was importing the great castle of Prague, which became the Berg. I had good reasons for that and anyone who knows their World War II history will quickly work out why. My real model city for Port Angelsund does not have a castle but some Scandinavian cities do, of course. One way I wove my cultural threads, as the Berg shows, was by layering time – my novel is a book of modern war but it also reflects on wars that affect the history of the West, so there is The Iliad and echoes of WWII and the Balkan wars.

Recognition of the Sámi people was important – there are Indigenous peoples in Europe too and they have lots to teach us about occupation. Again, that reflects my growing up in Canada and Australia – these vast settler societies that base their modern existence on taking entire continents away from their original peoples. We cannot forget that and it shouldn’t be forgotten in Europe either.

The world of the novel mixes glancing mentions of real places—Paris, Finland, for instance—with the much more delineated fictional places, especially ‘Port’ of course, but also the Sequestered Forest, Heartland etc. Though the fictional places have echoes of real places—Scandinavia, the Arctic, the US—they are also very much themselves, jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place. This also occurs with the opposing forces, Garrison and Coalition, which are never associated with any particular ‘real’ nation. Why did you choose to do this, and how did you go about the landscapes and histories of your world?

In a way you’ve answered the question very well – ‘jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place.’ That’s exactly right. I wanted the nations to be unnamed because it could be any nation. All nations are capable of war crimes but we seem unable to think about the morality of actions free from the bias of nationalism. It’s still controversial to call the way Germany was bombed in WWII, the firebombing of Dresden and so on, a war crime but it was.

The My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War was not an aberration, for example. Equivalents to My Lai happened if not every day than every few weeks. In fact there were far bloodier massacres than My Lai but they were covered up http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23427726 . The scale of the slaughter was industrial because the US had no other measure of success than body count: kill anything that moves, was the motto of many US commanders. Dead civilians were counted as dead enemy combatants to keep the kill counts up.

If you read what happened at My Lai, over five hundred civilians – women, children and old people – were rounded up and gunned down in a ditch, women raped, toddlers crawling away being dragged back to be shot, entire families, three generations, wiped out http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/the-scene-of-the-crime. What kind of soldiers and what kind of war crimes does that remind you of?

Over a hundred and seventy children were executed, including fifty-six babies. We want to believe My Lai was an aberration but it was not and there are tens of thousands of pages of formerly classified documents proving it was not. And yet in a presidential proclamation on the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration website, President Obama described American soldiers in that war as ‘fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.’ That same site refers to My Lai as an ‘incident.’

People are still whining about popular protests against the Vietnam War. They don’t say that ‘incidents’ like My Lai are what people were protesting about. Protesters didn’t want babies and pregnant women being gunned down and having their skin burnt off by napalm in their name. Imagine that. Those who criticise the protesters choose to ignore that many leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement were veterans themselves, returned soldiers who knew exactly how bad the war was and what evil was being done.

And this is not even to mention the drenching of those Vietnamese provinces in Agent Orange, which is still causing birth defects. Are we interested in labelling any of this as criminal, as evil? Are we interested in holding anyone to account? Clearly not. There are many more examples that are more current, from the suffocation of hundreds or thousands of Taliban prisoners in shipping containers at Dasht-i-Leili to the agony going on now in Syria and Yemen.

When the US uses napalm or phosphorus or depleted uranium or massacres over 250 civilians in a strike on Mosul or bombs a hospital somehow we’re okay with this. I’m not sure why. But when the ‘bad guys’ do this kind of thing we are shocked. Shocked and angry.

So, I wanted the reader to be uncertain. To suspend judgement. Surely that’s the only way we can learn anything.

I went about the landscapes and histories of my world as I described above – I made every bit as real as possible, based on research on the city that was my model for Port as well as real wars happening now. When I made a big change, like the Berg, I had specific reasons for doing so.

Like your earlier novel, When We Have Wings—which I also loved—this novel is a rich, heady hybrid, blending aspects of speculative fiction and realism. Watch Over Me also stirs in elements from historical fiction, Scandi-noir and highly-charged, and disturbing, romance. How did you keep all these elements in balance?

With a lot of research and writing and then a lot of cutting, including the help of my wonderful editor, Ali Lavau, whom I trust completely. It was the hard work on the editing that made balancing all those strands complement each other.

Watch Over Me unflinchingly yet never simplistically explores the complicated relations between men and women in wartime, and the way in which ‘normal’ gender relations are both upset by it and yet reinforced. This happens both between occupier and occupied, and between the occupied themselves, including the Ultras, with their macho rage against the occupier turned all too often against their own countrywomen. The vulnerable position of children is also poignantly explored. All this is brought out powerfully through the characters, not only the central ones of Sylvie, her family, friends, and her Garrison lover and his mates, but also through a host of beautifully-drawn minor characters, brought to very human and complex life. Can you tell us more about your creation of your characters? Were there any that were particularly hard to portray?

I loved all my characters and found them so fascinating that it made them easy to write – Max the pompous but passionate journalist, brave Erik, sturdy and gifted engineer Gull, my poor forest wild child Goran, the chorus of young single mothers, troubled Vick and even more troubled Captain Elias. I had difficulty with my confused rich girl Karin until I hit on her rebellious support for the Ultras. Of course she would be like that, it came to me, and all at once she came to life. I did have some lovely animal characters too but many things had to be cut.

Will was the hardest to portray because I had to create such a balance of attraction and anger and resentment on both sides. He has to be believably arrogant and capable of violence and full of self-confidence as a young, cocky officer. He is Special Forces, after all. As an occupier he is experiencing what it’s like to be one of the Lords of Creation. And he is young. It is going to go to his head. It would’ve been too easy to make him hateful but I wanted the reader to understand his magnetism for Sylvie, how much she wants to feel his power not so much over her but enveloping her. I wanted to open a gap between his institutional power as an occupier and the sense of him as a person too.

But then there was the opposite danger of idealising Will. Too many novels written about these kinds of relationships try to soften it by making the occupier, the soldier, into a romantic paragon so that it’s okay for the heroine to love him – there’s a bit of that in Suite Francaise. The German officer is too good to be true – a sensitive composer and so on. I made Will a real soldier; he’s not some poet in disguise. It’s heart-breaking that Irene Nemirovsky, who was killed in Auschwitz, writes sympathetically about the German soldiers, sees them as people, people alas who did not see her as a person.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I love how much Port Angelsund itself is a character in the novel. I think we can all relate to that – how a city in wartime – London say, or Paris, becomes even more beloved, and that it changes irrevocably and is both mourned and celebrated. These cities wear their layers of history like geological strata. I felt so grateful, visiting Kyoto, that it hadn’t been hit with a nuclear bomb. Apparently, it was top of the list of targets for atomic weapons and the story goes that American Secretary of War Henry Stimson took it off the list, arguing its cultural importance, and the military kept reinstating it as a target and finally Stimson had to go directly to President Truman to take it off. Some say he’d visited the city, even had his honeymoon there, and understood what would be lost by bombing it.

Paris of course has a similarly incredible story, told in the book Is Paris Burning? Hitler wanted the city destroyed out of pure spite as the Allies advanced. The city was wired to be detonated – TNT in the crypt of Notre Dame! We need to remember how evil the military mindset can be. According to the book, Paris was saved by German General von Choltitz who kept stalling on Hitler’s increasingly furious insistence that the city be blown up. Some dispute this version of events, pointing out von Choltitz had been a ruthless Nazi up until that point http://cultureandstuff.com/2010/02/12/is-paris-burning-did-a-german-general-save-the-city-of-light/. Whatever the truth, there isn’t much doubt that he could have followed Hitler’s orders and left de Gaulle and the Allies to face the French capital’s blackened ruins. And he didn’t.

And that’s finally the point of fiction, of writing, isn’t it? To show the variability of the human heart, to show how critical each and every individual decision is: not to destroy Kyoto, not to destroy Paris, even in the face of so much tragic devastation. That is so important to remember. Even if you are part of great evil, you can still do a good thing. Hundreds of millions of people owe so much to Stimson and von Choltitz yet they will never know those men’s names. How I wish our current crop of politicians would take that idea to heart instead of doubling down on all their horrendous decisions.

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

More about Watch Over Me:

The pressure of my blood, the beat of my heart, is a message to you. You read each second of my body’s life.

It is the present day. The foggy northern city of Port Angelsund is under occupation by the soldiers of Garrison. Sylvie is a young woman just trying to survive. When she is singled out for punishment at a Garrison checkpoint, a young lieutenant rescues her from torture. Though she knows the terrible risks of collaboration, she cannot stop herself from falling in love. Watched by Garrison’s vast machinery of surveillance, Sylvie discovers she is also under the protective and suspicious gaze of her lover. When her older brother returns on a terrorist mission that will throw the city into chaos, Sylvie’s loyalties are tested beyond breaking point. Her deep bond with her brother and her illicit passion for her Garrison officer are loves that cannot coexist. Whatever she does is betrayal.

In the spirit of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Suite Francaise, this sensual and heart-breaking novel brings the classic conflicts of war and occupation, devotion and treachery, up to the present minute. While the unimaginable power of modern warfare advances, Watch Over Me reminds us that the things at stake—survival, refuge and love—remain the things worth fighting for.

More about Claire Corbett:

Claire Corbett was born in Canada and has worked in film and government policy. Her first novel, When We Have Wings, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award and the 2012 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Her recent fiction and essays have been published in a range of journals, including The Best Australian Stories 2014/2015, Griffith Review, Southerly and Overland. She has written on defence and strategy for The Diplomat, The Strategist and The Monthly.

Website: www.clairecorbett.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clairecorbettauthor/

Twitter: @ccorbettauthor
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The Blue Cat: an interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Today I am delighted to be interviewing dear friend and fellow writer Ursula Dubosarsky as she celebrates the release this week of her latest novel for children, The Blue Cat (Allen and Unwin) Set in 1942, it’s a beautiful, haunting novel whose limpid prose takes us into the mind and heart of an imaginative and observant child, Columba, as she experiences the disruptions of wartime Sydney with her bossy friend Hilda and forms a touching and tentative bond with a disorientated, motherless young refugee, Ellery. Perfectly-pitched, with a vivid portrayal of Columba’s small world, touches of humour and a subtle evocation of the horrors that Ellery and his father have fled from in ‘You-rope’, The Blue Cat is also a mysterious, even mystical work whose heart-wrenching, enigmatic ending stays in your mind long after you close the book. It is another triumph for one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of children’s fiction, and will no doubt appear on many award lists.

First of all, Ursula, congratulations on the publication of The Blue Cat! Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story came to you?

Thanks Sophie. Always nerve-wracking when a book comes out!  Like any story the ideas come at you from all sides until finally, mysteriously, you start to write it. When I was a child I was fascinated as all children are by the various tale their parents let slip about their own childhood. My parents both grew up in Sydney during World War Two, which is the time and setting of ‘The Blue Cat’. My mother told us once (and I think she only mentioned it once, or perhaps twice) about the arrival of a German-Jewish refugee in her class one day at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta. Perhaps that’s when it started…

The image of the blue cat is woven throughout the book. Uncanny yet real, creature of dream and creature of fur, it appears and disappears at various times, and seemed to me to bring a feeling both of protection and dread. Is that what you intended? Or did you have something else in mind?

The cat sprang in my mind on a very long flight home to Sydney from Berlin – in the form of the poem that is at the beginning of the book.  I have to say I’ve always been afraid of this cat. Right from the start I thought that there was something sinister, even evil about him,   but I realized when I re-read the book that in fact he’s more ambiguous than that. Sometimes he’s even almost a comforting presence, as you say. So perhaps he’s both. I know that people can be shocked at this apparent indecision of an author about her own work! But I’m afraid all of my books are like that – open windows, (oops! out jumps the cat) perhaps, rather than closed doors.

Columba’s voice is both sharp and dreamy. She sees a lot but doesn’t always understand what she sees. She is very much a child and yet at a certain level in her consciousness she perceives what Ellery and his father have gone through in a more empathetic and certainly more extraordinary way than the adults. How did you balance these different aspects of her character to create such a believable yet unusual presence?

When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve noticed that if there is one thing I seem quite UNABLE to articulate, that is how to create character. For me this is the most intuitive part of writing – or at least the most hidden and buried from myself. I always feel as if the characters simply exist somewhere else and I’m just putting them on stage. You’re quite right about Columba, who sees and doesn’t understand, but she feels and yet knows something despite that. “The Cloud of Unknowing” one might say – that by surrendering oneself to not knowing you might perhaps get a glimpse of some truth.

You have included authentic documents from 1942 in the book, such as ads, government pamphlets, a letter from the Free French in The School Magazine and an editorial in the Schoolboys Chronicle which I believe was written by your father as a young person! What do you think primary, contemporary documents add to the texture of a historical novel? And can you also briefly comment on some of the other extra material you’ve included, such as pictures?

The book in a way is a kind of collage. I note the definition of collage in Wikipedia:‘A collage may sometimes include magazine and newspaper clippingsribbonspaint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.’ In ‘The Blue Cat’ there is the story of course, written by me, but then there are all those bits and pieces of the past, pasted in between the lines.  I adored making collages as a child at school – that feeling of excitement with the blank page, the glue and all the little bits and pieces of things to be stuck on where and how you chose.

Again, as a student in history classes I always responded very strongly to “primary sources”, those original documents, often ephemeral, that speak directly to us from the period in which they were created. I wanted readers also to have that experience, of reading and seeing the same things that the characters would have read and seen. The editorial by my dad you refer to was from a newspaper that he created and edited at Neutral Bay Public School during the war – as soon as I read it (only a few years ago when it turned up amongst various of his papers) I knew I HAD to include it. I went into the Department of Education office of the School Magazine to read through all the issues of the period of the book. (Thanks School Magazine!) The photograph of Ellery’s watch – I actually bought a vintage watch of the period on the internet, to make sure it was the real thing. I also managed to get a copy of the original air raid advice pamphlet on ebay – as well as the little prayer card of Columba. The copy of Vergil’s Aeneid with those wonderful ghostly annotations in pencil I bought years ago at the Salvation Army in Tempe…

The Blue Cat never specifically mentions the Holocaust, yet it is inevitably in the subtext. How difficult was it to approach the writing of the story in a way that neither overtly flags the horror of what was happening, nor elides it?

When I was a child in the 1960s I knew nothing about the Holocaust, but we all knew that the word Hitler was terrifying. That was something we understood from popular culture – adults are not going to tell children the details of the Holocaust. After all it’s a natural and I think good instinct to protect children from the various horrors of human behavior. The Holocaust is something you learn about, piece by piece, as you grow up. The adults in Columba’s life are not going to tell her what they know, what they guess, about Ellery’s situation. But they are not going to tell her lies either. I suppose in this book I have had to tread that same narrow path.

There is a touch of fairy tale, in its most mysterious yet immediate aspect, in much of The Blue Cat, but especially in the final sections. Can you tell us something about that?

For me not it’s not so much a fairytale as a mythical landscape, some very blessed place.  When I began writing I had in mind this medieval poem by Petronius Arbiter, translated by Helen Waddell. It always summons up Sydney to me, and how the experience of its beauty is a gift that can never be take away from you.

 O SHORE more dear to me than life! O sea!

Most happy I that unto my own lands

Have leave to come at last. So fair a day!

Here it was long ago I used to swim

Startling the Naiads with alternate stroke.

Here is the pool, and here the seaweed sways.

Here is the harbour for a stilled desire.

Yea, I have lived: never shall Fate unkind

Take what was given in that earlier hour.

The Blue Cat is one of a trio of your recent novels, The Golden Day and The Red Shoe being the other two, which are set at very particular points in Australian history, and are focussed around children’s limited yet luminous understanding of the events going on around them. Can you expand a little on that, and what attracted you to writing about those historical periods in particular? And also, and forgive me if this is a silly question—given the ‘colour’ theme of the titles, did you intend them to be a triptych somewhat like the ‘Three Colours’ series of films by the French-Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski?

I started with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954, and this was purely the result of hearing a program on the radio. I’d had no thought of writing a novel set in the 1950s, but the idea appeared and I got to work. You are right to evoke ‘Three Colours’ – that was something I did have in mind – a dreamy thought of three novels, set in Sydney harbour,  each one a different colour and set in a different decade. In the course of history a decade is nothing! But for a child a decade is their whole lifetime.

Finally, you wrote part of this novel while in Paris, during an Australia Council-funded writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio—a wonderful experience for you I know as it was for me when I was there in 2010! Aside from mention of the fall of France, and the notorious photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is reproduced in the book, there is no obvious connection to Paris. But do you feel something of what you experienced in Paris got into the texture of your story?

Before I went to Paris I had imagined that Paris itself would be a more significant part of the book. It didn’t work out that way though, and I have no explanation for that. It just didn’t happen. But the flat we were living in was right next door to the Paris Holocaust Museum, which I visited often and I think perhaps that will be another book altogether.

 

You can see a trailer for The Blue Cat here and some very interesting snippets, including videos, about the historical background of the book on Ursula’s website, here. You can also read an interview I did with Ursula about her Paris residency on my blog, here.

The Golden Child: an interview with Wendy James

It’s my very great pleasure today to bring you a fascinating interview with my dear friend and award-winning Australian writer Wendy James who talks about her new book, The Golden Child, an utterly gripping novel which poses the disturbing question: how well do we ever really know our children? Elegantly written, with richly-textured backgrounds and subtly-depicted characters, this is a memorable novel that will have readers talking about it long after they’ve turned the very last page.

 

wendy-jamesFirst of all, Wendy, congratulations on the release of The Golden Child! It’s an extraordinarily gripping novel which is also thought-provoking–and not a little chilling!– in its examination of the challenges of contemporary family life. Can you tell us about how it started, and did anything in particular inspire it?

Thanks, Sophie! It’s fabulous to have it out in the world at last!

The nature versus nurture question is one that I’ve always found fascinating.  And that’s where I started with The Golden Child. I wanted to very deliberately create a narrative that ran counter to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. In Shriver’s novel, there was more than a hint that Kevin’s problems began with his mother’s ambivalence. I wanted a mother who, unlike Eva, wasn’t terribly conflicted about motherhood, who found it easy to nurture her children, who wasn’t disappointed in them, or frustrated by her lot.  And I wanted to think about what it might be like to discover that despite this, regardless of the effort, the environment, the endless love given — it can all go horribly wrong. What it might be like to discover that you don’t really know your child at all.

The story is told through several points of view, and not only as straight narrative, but also through blogs and websites and other online media. How did you juggle these very different forms in your writing?

I actually find it quite difficult these days to write a straight narrative from one perspective. There always seems to be another story, in the wings, waiting to be told., Another character, who sees things slightly differently. I guess that’s what interests me most about storytelling. It’s like acting, in that we get to become someone other than ourselves. As for the online narratives, I think online personas are so prevalent now, that it’s quite hard to write anything contemporary that doesn’t include some sort of online component. It’s becoming more and more pervasive in our lives, a big part of how we connect with others, and how we see ourselves. And I think for adolescents — as in my story — it’s now part of working out who they are, an essential element in their ‘becoming’.

Both Beth’s breezy blog and the sinister Golden Child site are masks, or to put it in another way, avatars of the real person behind each. One misrepresentation is innocent; the other is not. Do you think the virtual world encourages deception, and if so, why?

I think it’s more that it allows it rather than encourages it. Although sadly, the anonymity does tend to bring out the worst in some people — the bullies and sadists among us. Along with the whiners and those who suffer from opinion overload. It’s been such a sudden change, a revolution, and I think as in all revolutions, it’s full of frightening unknowns.  I guess it’s like being dumped ion an island with a bunch of strangers, having no rules or regulations, or notions of correct behaviour, and no laws.  It’s a free-for-all at the moment, for sure, but I like to imagine that we’ll calm down, and sort out some boundaries eventually. All the possibilities are exciting— but there’s frightening, damaging aspects, too.golden-child

In The Golden Child you get, as you say, one character whose online life is a fairly benign confection:  Beth uses what’s available to make a good story. It’s something I’ve done myself, and I suspect that most writers do something similar to some extent — we all have to spin that straw of ordinary life into the gold of narrative. The other blogger, the Golden Child, is the true self unmasked — and rather malign self at that!

Social media shaming and cyber bullying are recognised society-wide phenomena and also constitute an added hazard for parents and children, putting final paid, in my opinion, to the never-very-trustworthy proverb, ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.’  In your novel, the two mothers–Beth, the mother of the bully, and Andi, the mother of the victim–have to face the devastating consequences of the cruelties of online mob behaviour. Is there any way, do you think, that they–or indeed real parents–could have acted to prevent or at least minimise the damage?

I guess there are ways in which we can police our children’s use of the net far more strictly — there are parental controls available, and ways to stop them accessing certain information — but it becomes so complicated when kids need access for homework. It can be hard to extricate the necessary from the social. I think both Beth and Andi are caught unawares – Andi a little distracted by new motherhood, assuming that all’s okay with her eldest child, enjoying the slight loosening of the apron strings.  And then Beth, who doesn’t like that drift so much, but hasn’t any clue that all is not as it appears on the surface. She’s also so busy, juggling work, marriage, a move, renovations, mothers, children, her blog, everything. I think sometimes we forget that mothers ( and fathers) are also people themselves, who are still trying to sort their own shit out, as well as everyone else’s. And it has to be said that even though things are slowly changing, a greater portion of the emotional and logistical work of parenthood falls largely to the mothers, still. I’ve seen some reviews of the book critical of Beth and Andi, seeing them as being somehow negligent, but no one ever asks what the fathers were doing. And actually, nor do Andi or Beth; the blame is directed inward, as it so often is.

Your novel deftly portrays the different worlds that the adults (not just the parents, but also grandparents) and kids live in. They misunderstand each other often. Or do they? Are they really that different?

I do think there’s some interesting generational stuff going on, but isn’t that just inevitable, the way it always is?  I think these are as superficial as they’ve always been, and the real divisions are still more to do with personality and personal values than generations. For instance, not all teenagers think like Charlotte — that bullying is just how it is, and that we should all just get used to it. And yes, both the grandmothers dislike what they view as helicopter parenting, but for very different reasons:  one is worried about the moral ramifications of over-parenting and privilege; the other grandmother is scathing about what she sees as a type of emotional ‘mollycoddling’ — of allowing your children to be too sensitive.

Your depiction of the kids at the centre of the novel–Charlotte, Lucy, Sophie–is as satisfyingly authentic as that of the adult characters. Do you think there are differences when it comes to creating young as opposed to adult characters, and how do you keep it real?

You know, I actually never really think too hard about that! I was a kid once – and I have a pretty good memory of it. Or of how it felt, if not the details. And then, of course, I’ve been fortunate to be able to observe my own kids growing up. That of-the-moment authenticity is always tricky; it changes — and dates —  so quickly!  I did get my younger kids to check the language, and my daughter added a few choice phrases, and told me when things didn’t work. And in case anyone wants to argue the point, my kids and their friends do actually say lol aloud when something’s funny. That’s language change in action, folks.  LOL.

The mounting suspense in your novel, and the final plot twist, gives it very much the feel of a psychological thriller. Yet there is no straight-out ‘crime’ as such. How did you go about creating that sense of creeping menace whilst also keeping the novel anchored within ‘ordinary’ life?

I actually think that happened without any conscious help from me. Bad kids creep us out; it’s so wrong. And when you juxtapose this with the very ordinary domestic world, which is of course where some of the most horrible things happen, that sense of dread is ramped up exponentially. You know you’re meant to feel dread in a dark alley of a grimy city, surrounded by sinister strangers, but it’s a shock to find that life with nice middle class kids in sunny beachside middle-class suburbia can be as scary as hell too.

The Golden Child could be seen as part of the contemporary genre of so-called ‘domestic suspense’ to which novels such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin might also be said to belong. Are you comfortable with such a description? And why do you think it’s become such a successful genre?

I am completely, in fact, regally happy — probably because I have actually been called Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense (thank you Angela Savage!). I think we get so much pleasure from this particular genre because these situations feel so possible; they could all happen to you.  When the betrayal comes from within, from someone you love and trust, it can be horrifying. And it can be impossible to know how to protect yourself. There’s literally nowhere to run, no way to hide.

 

Wendy James is the mother of two sets of siblings born eight years apart, in the digital and pre-digital ages. She is the author of seven novels, including the bestselling The Mistake. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. She works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

 

 

Anzac Stories: Behind the Pages Exhibition and my part in it

1914-coverI’m honoured to be part of the Anzac Stories: Behind the Pages exhibitions which will run throughout Australia in 2017 and 2018, and will showcase Australian and New Zealand contemporary children’s books set in wartime, and the stories behind the creation of those books. The exhibition is the brainchild of the fantastic New Zealand author Maria Gill, who initiated a similar exhibition in New Zealand earlier. Boards featuring individual books and writers will be exhibited in libraries across Australia. My two World War One novels, 1914 (Scholastic, 2014) and My Father’s War (Scholastic 2011) and the stories and research behind them, will be part of the exhibition. There’s also an Anzac Stories blog, with info about each book and a short interview with their writers. Here’s a little extract from minemy-father-s-war

Doing the research on the ground, in northern France especially, made it all become so real and so emotionally affecting. Both books blend my two main cultural influences: French and Australian, and that also felt like a very positive thing, especially as the ties between France and Australia forged during that terrible time are still very strong, particularly in the Somme region of northern France, where they have a saying, N’oublions jamais l’Australie : ‘Let us never forget Australia’

You can read the whole thing here.

 

Interview with Kenn Nesbitt, poet and compiler of One Minute till Bedtime

kennwithbooksIn 2014 I and many other writers received a lovely and unexpected invitation from prominent American children’s poet Kenn Nesbitt, asking if we would be interested in submitting poems for an anthology he was compiling, One Minute Till Bedtime, which would also include such contributors as Jack Prelutsky, Jon Scieszka, Jane Yolen, and Lemony Snicket. Talk about great company! And I was so thrilled when Kenn accepted my poem, Seagull Beach Party.

Two years later, and this week sees the publication of One Minute Till Bedtime. Containing the work of many poets from the US, UK, Australia and Canada, selected by Kenn, and beautifully illustrated by Christoph Niemann, the book is published by Little, Brown and is available around the world, including Australia. To celebrate its publication, I spoke to Kenn about the project, his own career, and children’s poetry in general.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of One Minute till Bedtime, Kenn! It’s lovely to see it out there. How did you come up with the idea for this unique poetry anthology?

Many years ago, the poet Bruce Lansky pointed out to me that most children’s poems can be read in an average of about one minute. Since then, I have tried to encourage teachers to take one minute of their school day to share a poem with their students.

When I was named Children’s Poet Laureate, I decided to create a website called PoetryMinute.org to give teachers a resource where they could easily find one-minute poems to share with their students for every day of the school year.

While I was in the process of creating this site, I was approached by Susan Rich at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers about creating a book around this idea of one-minute poems. She and I decided that bedtime might be the perfect time for a book of short poems, and One Minute till Bedtime was born.one-minute-till-bedtime

The contributing poets come from around the world. How did you go about sourcing poems for the anthology? 

Over the years that I have been writing children’s poems, I have developed relationships with many poets throughout the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. I called on many of these authors, and reached out to lots of other poets whose work I admire. Thank goodness for email and the Internet. A project like this would have been much more difficult 20 years ago!

With its wonderful poems, lively illustrations by Christoph Niemann, and attractive design, One Minute till Bedtime is a most appealing book for children and their parents. And obviously there’s a lot of work behind it. Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting together such a big project with the publisher, Little, Brown?

To begin, I wanted to create a collection that focused on the work of living, working children’s poets, rather than reprinting classic and public domain works. So I sent out a call for submissions to over 200 poets from around the world, looking for brand new poems that had never before appeared in print. I received submissions from roughly 170 different authors. I read them all, highlighting the ones that I thought might work. Once I knew which poems I wanted to include, I printed them all out and spread the papers around my dining room table, looking for natural pairings between poems and organizing them into sections.

Along the way, I tracked everything with spreadsheets, including submissions, selections, the order of the poems, and so on. While I was doing this, Little, Brown was on the hunt for just the right illustrator. Christoph Neimann was a truly inspired choice. His simple, yet incredibly clever illustrations compliment the poems perfectly.

Once the manuscript was completed, Little, Brown began working with Christoph on the illustrations and with me on the process of proofreading, editing, typesetting, and troubleshooting.

In the end, it all came together beautifully. I couldn’t be more proud of this book.

You are a popular and much-published poet. Can you tell us something about your own career, and how you started? What do you think has changed, if anything, over the time you’ve been published, in terms of attitudes to poetry for children?

I began writing poems as a hobby for my own amusement. I wrote for several years before I ever considered trying to get published. I also created a website, poetry4kids.com, in 1997 to share my work with readers online. I had my first poems published in 1998 in an anthology called Miles of Smiles. My first book, The Aliens Have Landed at Our School! was published in 2001. Since then, I have written many more books of children’s poetry, as well as a couple of picture books and a chapter book.

It seems that there are more poets writing for children today than ever before. At the same time, there are fewer individual poetry collections being published. Many children’s poets have instead turned their talents to writing picture books, novels in verse, etc. Large hardcover collections, such as those of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, are becoming rare as hens’ teeth. Recent books by Alan Katz and Calef Brown are notable exceptions.

It is my hope that One Minute till Bedtime will not only introduce a new generation of parents and children to the joy of poetry, and showcase the works of today’s best children’s poets, but will also show publishers that poetry is worth pursuing.

You are the US Children’s Poetry Laureate and a tireless advocate for poetry. Why do you think poetry is so important for children? And what more do you think could be done to enhance children’s access to poetry?

I was the Children’s Poet Laureate from 2013-2015. Although I’ve passed that torch to my successor, Jacqueline Woodson, I continue to promote poetry to children, parents, and teachers around the world.

I believe poetry is important for children because it is short, fun, and memorable. (Everyone remembers something by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and probably several other poets of childhood.) This combination makes poetry an easy springboard to reading and writing. Introducing children to poetry can help make them lifelong lovers of the written word.

The best champions for poetry are the earliest ones; parents and teachers. I believe the best way to enhance children’s access to poetry is to encourage parents to read to their kids, and to ask teachers to share poetry in their classrooms. Once they do, they will find that kids can’t get enough.

Interview with Therese Walsh, editor of Author in Progress

12803300_10207051919154843_5638323324479667397_nSome years ago–I think it was back in 2008–I was invited to become a regular contributor to the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed, founded by US writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton two years previously. Their idea was to create a community of writers who would find guidance, support and encouragement in WU, as well as great advice and tips. That’s certainly proven to be the case, and Writer Unboxed is one of the most popular and respected writing blogs in the world today, garnering several awards as well as an ever-increasing list of followers, a very active Facebook and Twitter presence, and the hosting of a unique conference–or Unconference, as it’s titled!

And now comes the next step: a book which gathers together a great deal of individual and collective wisdom and advice from Writer Unboxed contributors and community. Author in Progress: A No-Holds Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published (Writers’ Digest Books), is being released today, November 1 and will be available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, as well as the Writers’ Digest shop. Edited by Therese Walsh, and with an introduction by respected author James Scott Bell, it features over 50 essays from novelists, editors, agents and contributors from the WU community. The book goes well beyond the usual run of how-to-get-published books: from discussing reasons why people want to write right up to post-publication issues, and much more in between. I’m delighted to say by the way that I have an essay in the book, which is called ‘Writer as Phoenix’, and is in the final section of the book.

And today, I’m delighted to celebrate the publication day of Author in Progress by featuring an interview with its initiator: writer and editor extraordinaire, Therese Walsh.

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Welcome to my blog, Therese! How did the idea for Author in Progress come about? What was your vision for the book, and how did that evolve as time went on?

Thanks for having me, Sophie, and for the opportunity to talk about Author in Progress.

The book came about after I met with Phil Sexton at the Writer’s Digest conference last summer (2015). He mentioned the idea of doing a book with them, and that took root with me over a month or so. I had a follow-up phone call with Phil, and he mentioned the freedom we’d have to do the type of book we wanted to do. After that, the idea for Author in Progress fell into place rather quickly, as I considered what I knew to be true about writing a book – because there are some things I always say when someone who is not yet published asks, ‘How did you get published? What did you do?’

The book is broken into parts, following the stages a writer will likely go through on the road to publication: Pre-writing considerations, the writing itself, critique-related topics, educational considerations, rewriting, perseverance, and releasing the project once you’ve served the work.

Author in Progress is a very different kind of how-to writing book, as it doesn’t assume that the journey ends when your book is published. And it offers the advice and experience of many different contributors. How did you go about gathering and editing contributions from so many people?

Assigning essays was much easier than it might have been, in part because Writer Unboxed contributors are exceptional to work with (I’m not at all biased!). I think the other reason it was relatively easy was because of the adaptability of the contributors, in that many could write to several stages of the book. That said, there was a certain magic to the match-ups and I’m particularly pleased with how that went; everyone delivered something about an issue that resonated with them personally.

In terms of gathering and editing, I created a deadline for essayists to turn in their work and that deadline was met almost without exception. I then read over each essay, and suggested revisions when I thought they might make the book stronger. I then did a final edit for clarity—adding headers—and correcting for typos. This is what was then submitted to Writer’s Digest and our in-house editor there, who took everything to the next level in terms of polish and readiness for publication.

Author in Progress is aimed not only at aspiring authors, but also authors who have already been published. What do you think authors at different stages of their careers could get from this book?

One of the things authors will be able to see is that the stages of story creation are cyclical, repeating with every book. Sure, you learn things early on that you apply to each book thereafter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hit each stage in some way. We’ve included some articles under a header called ‘Eye on the Prize,’ which addresses how a topic (e.g. critique) becomes important in a different way when you’re a published author (e.g. accepting notes from an agent, editor, even readers). We also have boxes throughout the book marked as ‘Pro Tips,’ which, again, help to root the reader in the reality of why something is important if you’re to make a career of writing.

All that said, I think the larger reason published novelists might want a copy of Author in Progress is because when we’re in the middle of a project—or at the start of one—we sometimes forget that all of this is normal. The anxiety, the doubt, the block, the research pitfalls, the need to go deep with character (and how to do that), the need to continue to learn and grow (and what steps you might take to push to the next level). I think even published authors need to remember that we’re not alone, and that the angst is part of the process, too.

Is there any particular tip or bit of advice that you would offer an author starting out on the journey–and those a bit further along?

I would tell that author starting out and an author a bit further along something similar. Writing a book is tough at times. Many of us might say, ‘If I knew how long it would take, what it would ask of me, maybe I wouldn’t have finished… But I’m glad that I did.” Perseverance is one of the key ingredients for any author in progress, and so I’d tell both of those writers to keep going, and remind them that they are not on that road alone. Truly, they are not.

The book is closely associated with Writer Unboxed, the writing blog you founded some years ago with Kathleen Bolton, which has become prominent and respected in both the author community and the publishing industry. Can you tell us about the blog, and about the insights into authorship it has given you?

Writer Unboxed  is my writing family, and it’s my hope that we are other writers’ online family as well. We are dedicated to producing content daily about the craft and business of fiction on our website, but it goes beyond that with our Facebook community (5,000+ writers strong in a promo-free zone) and our Twitter feed (@WriterUnboxed). Our ultimate goal is to provide positive and empowering support for writers of any genre.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing simply by being present for the day-to-day business of the site, but I think the most crucial lesson is that it is truly a cyclical process. You envision. You create. You revise. You learn the lessons the book is there to teach you. You serve the work. You release. Repeat. As someone who hasn’t always had an easy road myself, there’s a lot of power for me personally in seeing that this process is what it is. It’s the job of being an author. It’s not always easy. In fact, it can be grueling and draining and crazy making at times. But it is a wonderful and gratifying thing to be able to do this job—build stories, reach readers. Writer Unboxed has helped me persevere to do just that.

Thank you again, Sophie. Write on!

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A unique book project: an interview with romance writer Jan O’Hara

jan-ohara-writers-digestOnce a family doctor who prided herself on providing her patients with birth-to-death healthcare, Canadian writer Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. She writes for the popular blog, Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children.

And today I’m interviewing her about her first novel, Opposite of Frozen, which has just been released and which is part of a unique and most intriguing series, the Thurston Hotel Books.

First of all, Jan, congratulations on the release of your novel, Opposite of Frozen! It’s the second in a unique, multi-author series. Can you tell us about that? How did it come about? And how did it develop?

Thank you for having me, Sophie. I’m honored.

My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (https://www.calgaryrwa.com/) has a reputation for facilitating independent publishing and hybrid careers within its membership. In December of 2015, word went out that our treasurer, Brenda Sinclair, was looking to launch a group project, for which she had a very clear vision. I was interested because Brenda had participated in a similar project before, and had internalized many of the lessons learned during that time. Also, romance is a digital-friendly genre, and I was leaning toward independent publishing.

Accordingly, in a somewhat cloak-and-daggerish moment, the interested parties met secretly in a Calgary restaurant. Brenda loosely outlined the series idea: 12 standalone contemporary romances set in a fictitious town in the Alberta Rockies, revolving around the Thurston Hotel, its employees and long-term residents. Each author would take ownership of one month in the town’s life to tell their story. In addition to writing our own story arc, each book would tell a portion of a long-running series romance.

Brenda had already begun construction of a series bible—which she maintained throughout the entirety of the project. She had thought through the project deadlines, the cover artist, and the series editor. Her level of professionalism was vastly reassuring to this writer!

When all was said and done, 11 authors signed on, and Brenda, herself, agreed to write the first and last installments in the series. coverfinalmedwithgreyoof

Writing as part of such a unique series must have presented its own unique challenges! Tell us about how you constructed your story. And did the writing of your novel differ to other fictions you’ve written?

Though I have been writing a long time, I have never completed a piece of long-form fiction to what I consider publishable standards. As you might imagine, I was nervous about my abilities to do so while adapting my story to the requirements of 10 other writers. So from the first, I looked for a way to keep my story somewhat self-contained within the Thurston world. I wanted to limit the number of moving parts.

That was the impetus for having my characters arrive on a tour bus and depart from Harmony within the month I claimed. Also, for claiming an early month in the year, when I’d have to adapt to the fewest changes possible due to other author’s requirements. (In my case, I volunteered for February.)

Happily, those constraints ended up creating some of the story elements of which I’m most proud. For example, I needed a tour group to populate the bus, and who would most logically have the time for a prolonged multinational tour, but seniors? (I so enjoyed writing my seniors!) What unexpected event could complicate their February trip, but a hypothermic stowaway? What elements about the seniors’ lives could bring my co-protagonists together, and facilitate their healing? Etc.

I must say, it was thrilling and confidence-inducing to see how my brain could come up with story ideas to match the project’s requirements.

Also, I was dealing with time constraints and a gargantuan case of the Impostor Syndrome. Without a commitment to the other writers in the group, I’m not sure I’d have pushed through to completion. I do know OoF would not exist in its present form if not for the project’s boundaries and invitations.

The books are all set in the same town, although around different stories and characters. How did you all plan the background of the books–and will that evolve over time, or will you all keep to the same basic framework?

Between our first and second in-person meeting, each author wrote a story synopsis and shared it with the group, via private Facebook page. We also found avatars for our characters and constructed one-sheets, when applicable, so that other authors could use our characters in cameo appearances without much difficulty.

For more intensive cross-pollination, when using another writer’s characters, we sent relevant passages to one another, to ensure we weren’t violating a character’s personality or mannerisms. The same held true for micro-environments. For example, I borrowed Ellen Jorgy’ creation—a bar known as the Wobbly Dog—for several scenes in my book.

We made a good many decisions together, in-person, like the décor of the hotel, the final design of the cover art, the name of the town. Other decisions were made individually, and then coordinated with the group via Facebook.

For instance, I needed a store that sold computers, so I constructed the Tech and Tock, and invented its proprietors. One of the series continuity editors, Suzanne Stengl, then added it to the map of the town, which she maintained throughout the project.

I should mention that various authors contributed their skillset to make the project work on the whole. Win Day, for instance, used her technical background to construct the Thurston Hotel Books website. Sheila Seabrook helped with formatting issues. Everyone helped with title selection.

Without their direction, Opposite of Frozen would have been called Hypothermia and the Hottie. (A title which still makes me laugh, and would have been great for SEO, but doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel.)

Do authors in the group have input into each other other’s stories? Who edits the novels?

Beyond the planning I’ve mentioned, the group also benefited from the hard work of two continuity editors: Brenda Sinclair, who wore about five hats during this project, and Suzanne Stengl. They both read my book for continuity errors. Twice.

Then we all used the same editor, Ted Williams, for a final appraisal. He used the series bible for guidance and reportedly enjoyed seeing how Harmony came to life within different stories, told by different voices.

Tell us about the publication journey for the series. Will the books be available internationally?

We intend to put out a print version of the series in the near future. At present, the books are available exclusively in ebook via Amazon and the Kindle Lending Library, wherever Amazon exists.

The first installment was released September 29, 2016, and will be followed by another novel on each of the following 11 consecutive Thursdays. (We are using the hashtag #ThurstonThursday on Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to follow along.)

 

 

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More about Opposite of Frozen:

Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recovery from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/janoharabooks/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/

For more on the series itself: http://thurstonhotelbooks.com/