Feathers of the Firebird

In Jane Sullivan’s column in SMH today, talking about historical fiction

I’m briefly interviewed in Jane Sullivan’s Turning Pages column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, in my capacity as a writer of historical fiction and Conference Patron of the 2019 Conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. You can read the whole column here.

The Accusation: an interview with Wendy James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More about The Accusation: 

Somebody is lying.

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

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

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

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

More about Wendy:

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

 

 

 

My article on maintaining a literary career, now published in TEXT

What’s it really like maintaining a literary career, especially in a regional area? What role do literary organisations like writers’ groups and writers’ centres play? In Wearing many hats: literary creative practice in New England, an article of mine which has just been published in the prestigious journal TEXT, I explore these and other aspects of the regional creative life through my own experiences and the experiences of other local creators, through interviews I conducted.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

 

Interview with Sandra van Doorn of Red Paper Kite

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Sandra van Doorn. I met Sandra and her husband Edward at last year’s Independent Publishing Conference in Melbourne and we had a great time chatting about books, publishing, creative work, and France!

Sandra is a French illustrator who has had books published in several different countries, including the award-winning Sleep Well, Siba and Saba (written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl). Born and brought up in France, then globetrotting to the UK, USA, Russia, Europe she’s now living with her husband Edward in sunny Perth, Australia.

But now Sandra is embarking on a brand-new adventure. She is the founder and publisher of Red Paper Kite, which will exclusively publish picture books, and is launching its first title (Hugo) in May 2019.

Sandra, can you tell us about how you came to establish Red Paper Kite? 

The idea of creating a small press for picture books simply came from a need for more creative space and professional growth; publishing picture books felt like a natural evolution from being an illustrator.

As someone who has also done the ‘double act’ of creator and publisher, I know it’s a steep learning curve, setting up a publishing house. How’s the journey been so far for you?

You are right it is a very steep learning curve!

And it can be overwhelming at times.

As a tiny press, I juggle many facets of the business on my own. Finding the right information is not always easy, you find yourself constantly asking “Am I making the right decision?”

But you do knock on a few doors, and meet amazing people along the way, people who are genuinely interested in making your journey easier. People like you Sophie!

I feel grateful for the support I have received from within the industry – particularly my publisher in the UK (Lantana Publishing), who has been very generous in sharing their journey as a small publisher.

But in truth part of the adventure is figuring things out.

What can you tell us about RPK’s Books?

When I was a child, I used to scribble in all my books. It got me into a lot of trouble, but I firmly argued it was meant to be that way. I wanted that idea to translate into our books by creating books that give permission to our readers to scribble and add to the narrative. So, all our books include colouring pages.

Our readers become the illustrators and authors for a moment, they are part of the story. They can stay with our books a little longer, get to know our characters a little better … It’s a fun experience.

Visual narratives can be understood across the world, but of course different cultures have different approaches to illustration and picture books. What are the differences (and commonalities) that you see between, say, French and Australian picture book traditions and trends? (Please do mention any other picture book cultures you might like to as well!)

In France picture books are more than a childhood phase – there is a love for visual art rooted in our culture that goes beyond age, and so we are huge consumers of picture books – even in our adult life whether you have children or not.

Our cultural heritage definitely influences our approach to illustration; our illustrations can be more poetic, sentimental and censorship is a little broader in France.

But rather than comparing, we can choose to embrace and mix all those differences, aiming at creating a richer reading experience. Because really, who wants to read the same type of books over and over?

What are you looking for, in terms of both texts and illustrations, for Red Paper Kite?

There is no perfect profile, but we are curious about authors and illustrators who don’t feel too mainstream. A little fun, a good dose of quirkiness. Stories that reflect the world we live in.

Stories that will appeal to grown-ups too. A story within a story.

I guess we love stories and people with that little “Je ne sais quoi”.

 You will be launching the first Red Paper Kite book in May can you tell us a little about it?

HUGO – The boy with the curious mark, (written by Yohann Devezy and illustrated by Manuela Adreani) is coming out in May.

It’s a sweet story about a boy born with a curious mark, a rainbow.

Hugo’s Rainbow broaches a theme that gets revisited over and over, but with a contemporary edge to it.

His story will teach the importance of acceptance no matter what your difference.

You will love HUGO. Because really, who doesn’t like a rainbow?

How has starting a publishing house impacted on your career as an illustrator? (Or how do you see it impacting it?)

Well … I miss my drawing table!

Hopefully I will get an opportunity to draw again. I still hope to illustrate a few classics, such as Alice in Wonderland or Le Petit Prince.

Can you tell us something about your work as an illustrator, and the books you worked on? How did you start as a professional illustrator?

My career as an illustrator started when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.

I decided to attend art classes at Emily Carr’s University, and Paper Hearts – my first picture book project – was picked up for publishing. It was the beginning of an amazing (and sometimes wonderfully hard!) journey.

After that, I was lucky enough to meet Alice Curry (Lantana Publishing) via the Bologna Children’s book fair which led me to illustrate books about Uganda. It was a wonderful experience, pushing boundaries professionally and culturally – sitting at my desk, I was travelling and discovering a part of the world I didn’t know much about.

Meanwhile another publisher in Greece contacted me and that’s how I worked on texts I couldn’t even read!!

What illustrators have influenced you–from childhood to now?

My all-time favourite is Lisbeth Zwerger– her work is pure poetry and her talent is beyond words.

And then you cannot go past Rebecca Dautremer, Manuela Adreani, Benjamin Lacombe, Elodie Nouhen and Anne Herbauts.

 

The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Visit Leah’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook.

And on Twitter.

 

Winter of the White Bear: a forthcoming picture book by Martin Ed Chatterton

Today I’m delighted to bring you a very interesting and thought-provoking interview with award-winning author and illustrator Martin Ed Chatterton, about an unusual project he’s been working on: Winter of the White Bear, an extraordinary picture book to be published by Dirt Lane Press this October. You can watch a compelling trailer for the book here.

Martin, I believe that Winter of the White Bear is a book that grew out of several inspirations: your PhD, your previous collaborations with Margrete Lamond, now publisher at Dirt Lane Press, and no doubt other things. Can you tell us something about how it came about? 

The starting point for Winter Of The White Bear was my PhD which I completed at the end of 2017. That had, at it’s core, a polemical examination of the toxic legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade in my home town of Liverpool in the UK. I wrote my doctorate in part see if there was a way in which I could simultaneously access the slavery story in both a contemporary and historical way and the result was The Last Slave Ship, a novel with a dual storyline, one set aboard the Uriel, the final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809 and a narrative following a present day race hate crime which results in large scale rioting. The two storylines intersect at the end.

The PhD came about partly through curiosity about my family tree. On my wife’s side of the family, the maternal line is ‘black Liverpool’. The apparent ‘invisibility’ of ‘blackness’ in that side of the family got me asking questions and that led to (sadly) the growing realisation that I’d been raised in the most racist city in the UK and that my wife’s family had undoubtedly arrived in the city via Liverpool’s armpit-deep involvement in the genocidal Atlantic Slave Trade. In this case ‘we’ (white Liverpool) played the role of the Nazis, stocking, crewing and profiting hugely over 120 years by selling people. Over half of all the slave ships that sailed from Britain sailed from Liverpool. The city grew rich on the back of slavery. Present day Liverpool racism, both institutional and cultural is, I believe, directly traceable to residual guilt about the city’s blood-stained past, and denied thorough examination by an overpowering cultural ‘Scouse’ identity, described by American academic Jacqueline Nassy-Brown as ‘brutally localised, excruciatingly white.’ It’s not going too far to say that if the novel is published in the UK (as it is due to be), there could be trouble ahead. Liverpool does not take criticism well. If you’re interested, you can download the PhD exegesis here: https://epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/572/

Anyway…all that is by way of background. Winter Of The White Bear not only arrived because of my interest in slavery but because of the direct involvement of the very wonderful and most excellent, Margrete Lamond, my publisher (and editor) at Dirt Lane Press. Myself and Margrete go back a long way: to 2004 to be exact when I first moved to Australia. At the time she was working at Scholastic and commissioned me for my first Aussie book (I illustrated Ogre In A Toga by the lovely Geoffrey McSkimming). Margrete kept in touch when she moved to Little Hare books and she published The Brain Finds A Leg, a blackly comic surreal teen comedy set in a thinly disguised Byron Bay where I was living at that time. The book did decently, getting shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (where we lost to the picture book of Mao’s Last Dancer…still bitter, although I do love Anne Spudvillas’ work). And then we did other books: a follow up to The Brain, a series about William Shakespeare as a ten year old boy, a novelty book about a nude Santa. All the usual stuff.

Then, about six or seven years ago I wrote a crime novel on spec and Margrete was kind enough to do a broad structural edit on it before my agent shopped it around. A Dark Place To Die was published by Random House here and in the UK and was then optioned as a TV series (still ‘in development’ with Escapade Media/Mam Tor). The book led to a series, all set partly in Liverpool (and Byron Bay, Berlin, California…) and, to close the circle, The Last Slave Ship is also set in the city. When I met Margrete last year she suggested doing an offshoot from my PhD for Dirt Lane Press and I jumped at it. I’d been seeing what they’d been doing for a year or two and loving the social commitment and aims of the company. I do a fair amount of what you might call ‘mass market/commercial’ writing and illustration. Probably the best example of this are the co-writing gigs I have with James Patterson, the US publishing behemoth. So Dirt Lane and Winter Of The White Bear are as far from this as it’s possible to be (note: I am by no means sneering at the idea of White Bear doing well commercially!). And it’s the best/most satisfying thing I’ve done (in books) in a while.

What has the story’s journey been like? Did you need to do many drafts? Did you work with Margrete from the start on it, or has the process been different to that? 

I wrote the first draft very quickly. Having worked so much in the past with Margrete on so many disparate books we both have confidence in each other. That confidence gives me free reign to try things out, as I know Margrete will spot when it works and when it doesn’t. Perhaps the title (for Margrete) might be more accurately that of ‘producer’.

There were a couple of things I knew I wanted right from the outset. The first was no comedy. In my children’s fiction I’m primarily, and proudly, comedic. However, there’s no room for that here. So, no funnies. Secondly, I wanted this to be absolutely international. This wasn’t about Liverpool, or about the Atlantic slave trade. At least not in the specifics. This was about stripping back slavery to it’s evil essence: coercion for gain. Margrete and I had a couple of arm-wrestling moments, most pointedly on the issue of making this a white bear against a black bear. My view was that there needed to be a stark difference in the two bears as this introduces, in simple form, the idea of ‘the other’. Defining another group as ‘other’ is key to being able to enslave. And the clearest, most unequivocal example we have of that is white enslaving black. Of course there have been multiple (and ongoing) examples of slavery where that ‘otherness’ is less clearly defined but I felt strongly that the ‘not all slaves were black’ argument has been hijacked (erroneously) by the right. Besides, the genesis for this book lay in a specifically white/black arena. I didn’t want anyone to be in any doubt.

There were quite a few drafts but all following a principle I knew would be there. I started big and went small. The first draft came in around 2000 words; clearly too many for a book of this kind. But, as I knew that at the outset, and, as Margrete was the editor, I was confident we’d whittle down. Which is exactly what we did. The final word count is around about 700 words.

How would you characterise the visual narrative of the book? 

Being a writer/illustrator often has it’s advantages, but nowhere more so than in a picture book. The visual narrative of this book emerged from two sources: the first are the paintings I do for pleasure. I don’t sell them or exhibit: they are for me and they are a long way from my ‘normal’ work. I began my professional life as an illustrator and that’s still very much an important part of what I do. Winter Of The White Bear is an opportunity for me to swing hard at the ball and make some of those gestural, free marks I make in the comfort of my own (secret) studio.

The second part of the visual thrust for the images is digital. Everything has been produced on screen. I’ve been drawing with the cursor, using collage, overlays, brushes, effects and photography to make the images. I forced myself not to draw anything and ‘import’ it as I would do normally. This has, I hope, resulted in a fresh approach, albeit using techniques honed over the years. I think this imagery will be seen as different for me…but it’s always been there.

With its fable/fairytale form and light touch, Winter of the White Bear can be read on many levels, and by readers of many ages: what do you hope people will take away from it?

I’m glad you think it has a light touch. It would have been easy to slip into a preachy tone so I think using fable helps prevent that. Allowing the reader to join the dots is something I try and do in all my writing. Using fable also helps blur the age lines. We’re so used to the fairytale form that it can become a Trojan horse in which we can smuggle in meaning. Another aspect of the fable/fairytale as form is that it allows darker themes and narrative. While Winter Of The White Bear deals with hard subjects it barely comes near to the horrors in, say, Hansel And Gretel.

I made the decision to echo the Atlantic Slave narrative in several key ways in the book. For example, when Little Bear reaches a point of desperation she chooses to allow herself to sink beneath the waves. ‘If she sank far enough she would no longer have to catch fish for White Bear.’ Slaves taken from West Africa frequently committed suicide as a means of escape. One of the first acts for the Liverpool slavers on arrival in Africa was the installation of suicide netting around the ships. Slaves were valuable and the more of them alive at the end of the voyage, the higher the profit. The hideous conditions aboard ship were finely calculated to ensure that as many slaves survived as possible at as low a cost as possible. Profit overruled morality at every turn. Slaves also saw suicide as an act of resistance so it was important for Little Bear to reach this point. Of course, I don’t make this explicit. This is a book for children so Little Bear’s ‘death’ is deliberately ambiguous. The appearance of her (murdered) father also speaks to the importance of ancestors in African belief systems. Little Bear’s subsequent ‘campaign’ and escape from her oppressor can be viewed as what happens to her in the afterlife, or as wish fulfilment, or simply as a magical reality.

I hope that young readers take one very simple message from this book. Namely that using force to enslave anyone is wrong and that we have to remain vigilant to prevent this happening.

 Winter of the White Bear comes out in October, but you are already performing readings of it in schools. What other events are being planned in the lead-up to its release? 

After starting work on Winter Of The White Bear I decided to make a ‘rough cut’ audio of it as a work in progress. I then showed that rough cut reading to schools I visited in Australia and China in late 2018. I always saw the book as something that would translate very well to the screen and I have made a full reading for the 2019 school visits.

I’m keen for Winter Of The White Bear to get ‘out there’ in as many forms as possible. I co-opted a French actor/producer friend of mine, Michel Duran, to do the reading for the video of the book. Michel is based in Vancouver and, I think, adds an extra flavour of ‘the international’ to the project. We have worked together on a number of film and TV projects (as Sugartown Media) and we are developing Winter Of The White Bear as a potential animated feature film. We’re also working with Angela Salt, another friend of mine in the UK who runs a creative children’s content company called Salt Content. Pat Davern, of Grinspoon, is also involved in writing a suite of songs for the project. He has provided the theme music for the project and we are at work on the ‘hero’ song, You Will Find A Way, right now. Pat and I have worked together on a number of projects beginning with Pat’s Alexander The Elephant picture/music book in 2015. We’ll be putting out a video for the song in the lead up to Winter Of The White Bear being published.

We have also partnered with The Freedom Hub (thefreedomhub.org) in Sydney for this book after meeting with Sally Irwin, The Freedom Hub’s founder. The Freedom Hub was formed specifically to combat modern day slavery in Australia. Using two cafes (one in Sydney, the other on the Gold Coast) as the ‘hub’ element around which programs of aid for people caught up in human trafficking are rolled out, the organisation is an important beacon of hope. It’s a real shock for many people to realise that there are an estimated 4,300 slaves in modern day Australia and The Freedom Hub are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of this and giving practical help where possible. They are also committed to doing what they can to ensure slavery is eradicated around the globe. We are super proud to have them on board with Winter Of The White Bear and will be flagging them up at every opportunity. The book will be launched on October the 17th at The Freedom Hub by Benjamin Law who has kindly agreed to do the honours.

 I understand that two other books came out of your PhD, including an adult novel and a graphic novel: can you tell us a little about them?

The Last Slave Ship, the novel I wrote for my PhD was due to be published last year but sadly the publisher went bust just prior. The nature of the novel (hard-hitting, experimental to a degree, polemical) meant that it wasn’t a good fit for my usual (commercial) publisher, Penguin Random House, so finding a good home for it has been a priority. My agent in London has been scrabbling around and we are pretty sure it will be out this year with Dead Ink in the UK who are another socially conscious independent publishing house. That’s by no means a given as yet but we think it will happen. I’m pretty keen on it being released as, along with Winter Of The White Bear and Archangel (the graphic novel I’ll discuss below), it would mean that three very different  ‘slavery’ stories have emerged from the research, covering all age ranges.

The novel itself tells the story of the doomed final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809, sailed by a hard-bitten crew conscious that this is their last opportunity for a big payoff. Slavery has been outlawed in Britain so it is a risky, but potentially profitable, business. Running parallel to this story is one that revolves around the aftershocks following a vicious race hate killing in contemporary Liverpool. The central idea behind the book can be summed up by my ‘pitch line’: ‘The last slave ship didn’t leave Liverpool in 1809, Liverpool is the last slave ship’. And another: ‘What do you do when you’ve witnessed a crime committed by an entire city?’

In a spot of cross-pollination, I’ve mixed in characters from my three previous  ‘Liverpool’ crime novels (A Dark Place To Die, Underland, Remission) and narrative themes of memory/amnesia, ‘saying the unsayable’, witness and guilt. There are intertwined sub-narratives in there too about Hillsborough, about Scouse identity and the importance of Antony Gormley’s Another Place as witness: a sculpture installation sited on a beach in north Liverpool which has been something of an obsession of mine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw_WO8Y5a8s).

At the beginning of my doctorate, I was interested (and still am) in the notion of cross-media. Something that ‘fell out’ of that was me writing a piece of faux fan-fiction, imagining a fan response to The Last Slave Ship…which was, at that time, unwritten. That became a YA novel called Archangel which is a re-imagining of the slavery narrative, set in a future post-industrial north American hunter-gatherer settlement built on the remnants of a vast shopping mall centuries after Earth has been abandoned by the ruling elite. The climate is frozen for large parts of the year and the growing of harvesting of timber occupies much of the time for the ‘tribe’. This isn’t a dystopian vision: the population functions in harmony with their surroundings until the humans who had abandoned the planet return to ‘harvest’ labour. Dirt Lane Press asked me to develop Archangel as a graphic novel. As a first step I’ll be rewriting the story as a screenplay; the thinking being that will be a format more easily adaptable to the graphic novel format. I’ll let you know how we do!

An interview with author Marina Osipova

Today, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with award-winning historical fiction author Marina Osipova, whose first novel,The Cruel Romance, I read last year and loved. With its elegant writing, deeply evocative setting in wartime Russia, richly-drawn characters and tragic yet affirming story, it is an accomplished and memorable work. Marina has just released her second novel, How Dare the Birds Sing, and to celebrate I asked her a few questions about the book and her writing in general.

First of all, Marina, congratulations on the publication of How Dare the Birds Sing! It looks fantastic–I’ve just bought a copy and can’t wait to read it. Can you tell us about the novel and what inspired it?

Thank you, Sophie, for buying my book and for your readiness to allocate time in your extremely tight schedule to read it. I hope you’ll find the story interesting.

What inspired me? A difficult question for me to answer. It just happened. I was not yet done with The Cruel Romance when the story of Lyuba started germinating in my mind, or more accurately, in my heart. Unfortunately (you have to see me smile), it happens again and again. How Dare the Birds Sing was not published yet and already three other stories began pressuring me.

What was the road to publication like for this book? And how have readers responded to it so far?

The road to publication was not easy. First, and it was a month of thrilled anticipation, two editors from the Big Five requested The Cruel Romance and the ms of How Dare the Birds Sing for consideration. It was not out of the blue: one of my friends, an amazing author, recommended my work to them. Though they praised my writing and the stories . . . you can anticipate what their verdict was. Then, a small press publishing company from the UK expressed interest in How Dare the Birds Sing, but we did not agree on the terms. After spending tons of time researching possible publishers for my book, I chose Draft2Digital. Unfortunately, they help with e-publishing only. So, the process is not over for me. Despite that, I’m glad I decided to self-publish, which offers me more flexibility throughout the process. I like having control over all aspects of my career.

I am very pleased with the readers’ response to my newly published book. And the reviews are great. I’m humbled by praises from readers like: “A riveting WWII novel,” “A truly fascinating tale,” “The writing is excellent,” “Hard to put down.”

Your earlier novel, the wonderful, bold, memorable and tragic novel, The Cruel Romance, is also set in wartime and about the dreadful effects of war and occupation on people’s lives and potential–in all kinds of ways, including the possibility–or impossibility–of love in such circumstances. What draws you to tell these stories?

I hear this question time and again. It is known that wars are the most dramatic time in the history of humankind and WWII was the most brutal of them, full of universal and single-person drama. That’s what readers expect from fiction books—drama, right? Why WWII? I think, as a Russian, I inherited the horror and memory of that time. It’s in my blood. Besides, in the Soviet Union, preservation of the memory about the heroism of its people was a part of the broad propaganda. I, though, would call it nurturing patriotism and am thankful that the official policy of the state was to instill in the youth the feeling of respect and appreciation for what the prior generation sacrificed to preserve our life as an independent nation.

There is another reason for me to write about the Great Patriotic War: Thanks to The Nightingale, Lilac Girls, The Indigo Rebels, and other brilliant books, the stories of European women in their fight against the occupation of their countries has become broadly familiar. I believe ordinary Russian women who had to endure four years of Nazi invasion deserve the same.

Telling stories of unsung heroines is my humble tribute to the women who worked on the home front producing armaments, like Serafima from The Cruel Romance, or who were fighters on the front or partisans, like my heroine Lyuba from How Dare the Birds Sing who, after being captured by Germans, was subjected to slavery in the Nazi labor camp as hundreds of thousands of others were.

As a writer of Russian origin, you are no doubt influenced by the extraordinary literary heritage of your native country—how would you characterise that influence in your own work?

The influence was and is enormous. Starting with Alexandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki and the writers who wrote about the Great Patriotic War, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman, Lev Kopelev, Konstantin Simonov, Yuri Bondarev, to name a few, all of whom shaped (and continue shaping) me as a writer with their brilliant ability to look beyond the time and human psyche.

You have also lived around the world, both as you were growing up, and as an adult–how do you feel that cosmopolitan experience has influenced your work?

This is another highly interesting question of yours, Sophie. Living abroad gave me not only the factual knowledge and experience of different cultures and political systems but also the feeling of how much unites us—the same everyday problems, the same sources of joy and love. But most importantly what influences my work is that I can feel for both protagonists and antagonists in my stories. As one reviewer of The Cruel Romance said, “There are no good liberators or bad invaders—there are good and bad people.” This is my credo as a writer—no prejudices.

Did you always want to be a writer, even as a child? And how did you get started on your writing career?

To be a writer? No, as a child I wanted to be a doctor, maybe because my dolls didn’t object to my sticking them with needles; then a fisherman (that is a fisherwoman)—I lived with my parents on the Volga River then—later, an operetta singer-dancer (without having any ear for music at all although I endured three years in a music school); then my small child’s interest in learning German and the love of this language overwhelmed all my other numerous interests and I decided my future profession must be related to anything that would involve the German language. And it did until I immigrated to the United States in 2001. That’s when I started writing (first, some flash fiction). My English language teacher, who I fed a story to every week, was impressed and suggested I “must publish” them. I published my first book in 2016.

You have won many awards for your writing–can you tell us more about them?

Yes, to my delight, my first submissions to literary contests, most of them to Romance Writers of America, were well received. Every one of them, big or small, are dear to my author’s heart. The list of them can be found on my website, www.marina-osipova.com.

But I’d like to tell you briefly about one in particular. It was my very first manuscript, which title had undergone several transformations from Margarita and her Master to Ark of Hypocrites to Garden of Weeds. I sent it to Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest and, surprisingly, happened to find myself among the finalists in the mainstream category. At the conference in Seattle, in the huge hall during the announcement of the winners, the chair asked the finalist to rise to their feet one category after another. Mine was the very last. Eight finalists stood up. The chair congratulated us and offered us our seats again but immediately changed her mind. “Wait, get up again.” We stood up. “All men and only one woman among the finalists!” I remember she sounded incredulous. When my category came up, I held my breath. Then, “And the first-place award goes to Marina Osipova.” Later, another finalist told me I exclaimed loudly.

What’s coming next? What new projects are you working on?

There are so many stories I want to tell! After my WIP, which is the sequel to How Dare the Birds Sing with the working title, I’ve Got to Know Who I Am, there will be a third book, and I already have a clear idea about another story outside of the series.

Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to participate in your interview. A big honor for me. I can’t help but express my admiration of you as a brilliant writer and a wonderful person who helps other writers achieve their goal—to be a good author. Congratulations on your astounding and well-deserved achievement, the Order of Australia for services to literature.