Crossing the Lines: interview with Sulari Gentill

Last Friday, I published my interview with Anthony Horowitz about his brilliant crime novel/metafiction, The Word is Murder. Today I’m interviewing Sulari Gentill about her equally brilliant crime novel/metafiction, Crossing the Lines. Well-known for her popular Rowland Sinclair series of detective mysteries set in the 1930’s, Sulari has broken new ground with this novel. It feels like wonderful serendipity to me, that two such gifted authors should have created these bold new explorations of the writing experience and creative process, within the tight, gripping framework of a great crime story.

First of all, Sulari, congratulations on Crossing the Lines, a brilliant and inventive work which works really well both as a gripping crime novel and as highly effective metafiction. How did the idea first come to you?

Thank you, so much Sophie.

This was one those ideas that grew out of idle speculation.

I’ve always allowed myself the indulgence of believing in my characters when it suited me.  It makes the act of writing less lonely in a way.  I’ve always known that I played close to the line between imagination and delusion.  Interestingly, it’s this aspect of my process (if you can call it a process) that I am most asked about at festivals etc. I’ve found myself speaking often about the “the line” between imagination and delusion, confessing to those times I’ve ventured a toe across it.  I suspect it’s a game that both writers and readers play to greater and lesser extents.

I do wonder what Rowland Sinclair thinks of me.  Does he like me?  Would he read my books?  Does he find me unnecessarily sadistic?  I do, after all, visit all sorts of pain and trouble upon the poor man… and yet I feel he trusts me; that we’re working together.  I can help but think about what it would be like to be him, to have the circumstances of my existence controlled by someone else’s narrative.

Of course it’s a writer’s practice to extrapolate, to take things to their natural end, and so I have on occasion found myself pondering what would happen if I crossed the line completely, if I allowed the people I made up to take over, if I permitted them to control my life as much as I do theirs.

And somewhere from the midst these muddled musings came the story of Madeleine and Ned, who write each other and entwine the lines of their stories and their lives.

You use a very interesting and unusual narrative process, by switching back and forth between Madeleine and Edward, sometimes even within the same paragraph, which further blurs the boundaries between them–crosses the lines, in fact!–yet never becomes confusing. How did you go about doing that?

I wanted to echo the way my mind works when I write, the way in which the novel’s voice both merges with and takes over from mine—sometimes in the midst of a sentence or a thought.  I wanted to reflect that fluidity but also maintain the individuality of both voices.  To be honest, I thought it would be a great deal more difficult that it was.  I wrote this novel as I do all my novels, without a plot or plan of any sort and I wasn’t really consciously doing anything in particular.

The novel is written in third person, and the voice tends to change at a point when Maddie and Ned have the same thought or disagree, which is, I think, why the transition is smooth and not confusing.  Again, I didn’t do this consciously when I was writing – the changes were instinctive and responsive to the narrative rhythm, but, in hindsight, I see that those pivot points occurred when Ned and Maddie engage directly with each other. For a moment, at these places in the narrative, the reader’s mind is in the head of both Ned and Maddie, allowing them to move seamlessly from one point of view to the other without jarring.

You play with literary concepts and conceits–such as the ‘lines’ between genre fiction and literary fiction–with great deftness, and Crossing the Lines can be seen as a riposte to that artificial boundary-setting. Can you expand a little on that?

My reputation in Australia is primarily as a crime writer.  It’s a genre I love and respect, not just because it engages the reader in a tale of peril and intrigue, but also for its ability to hold a mirror up to society, to make social commentary in a way that is subtle and incidental but, for that, no less insightful.  The crime novel, at its finest, has many layers; it talks about the worst and best of humanity, about fear and courage, discrimination and justice.  And yet there seems to be a line, in this country particularly, that arbitrarily divides genre from literary fiction with the implication that literary fiction is somehow inherently worthy and, conversely, genre is not. To me, the line is an artificial prejudice and whether or not a novel has worth has scant to do with its genre.  With Madeleine being a crime writer and Ned a literary novelist, it seemed natural that they would have this conversation.

In the novel, you have mixed aspects of your own lived and literary experience with cameo appearances by other literary figures–such as respected author and director of Writers Victoria Angela Savage–and completely fictional elements to create a disconcerting–and fun!–hybrid narrative. Can you tell us about how you juggled all those different elements?

Whilst her circumstances sound familiar, Madeleine is not me and Crossing the Lines is a novel, not a memoir. In writing this book, I wanted to concentrate on Madeleine’s inner world and so I gave her an outer world that I knew—one that’s very similar to my own.  A familiar baseline from which I could extrapolate. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, but for this book which is all about crossing those lines between reality and imagination, it was right.

It also seemed right for a novel about crossing existential lines to allow real people from my own life to play a part in the novel (also not something I’ve really done before).  Angela Savage, the character, is Madeleine’s dear friend and trusted colleague—the real Angela is that to me.  My old friend and confidant, Leith Henry is cast as both Ned’s and Maddie’s agent.  I felt like she anchored the three of our worlds (Ned’s, Maddie’s and mine) together.

To be honest, it felt more like weaving than juggling.

Crossing the Lines is a very different kind of book to your other crime fiction, the very popular Rowland Sinclair detective series, set in 1930’s Sydney. What was the experience of writing it like, compared to those?

In many ways the experience was similar—intense and immersive.  But for the first time I was writing without a scaffolding of history, and I was writing a story that was quite internal.  It didn’t deal with larger issues of political movements and social justice.  Everything in this novel looked in rather than out.  I do remember feeling quite lonely when I wrote this book in a way that I’m not when I write Rowland.  I suspect it’s because I didn’t have as direct a link to Ned and Maddie as I do Rowland.  I am Rowland’s writer, so he speaks to me.  Ned and Maddie were each other’s writers—I just eavesdropped on what they said to and felt about each other.  I do realise I sound quite mad.  Sorry.  Sometimes it’s difficult to explain the way my mind works without sounding at least a little insane.

I’ve heard you speak at events where you have said you don’t like to look too closely at your own creative process in case it withers the magic. Yet in Crossing the Lines you have performed another act of magic: incarnating the creative process in the story of Madeleine and Edward. I can imagine it must have felt spooky at times! How did you focus on that aspect of the novel without becoming too self-conscious?

I just tried to be as honest as I could about the experience of writing as I understand it.  I think Crossing the Lines works because it doesn’t try to forensically analyse and explain the magic, simply to recreate it.  I did get self-conscious once the novel was written…I panicked that it would be read as a memoir rather than a fiction.   I even tried to talk Pantera out of wanting to publish it because it made me feel exposed and awkward.  I think I might to the only writer ever to tell a publisher, “All right, you can read it if you really insist, but I promise you’ll hate it…”  Fortunately, despite my best efforts, I didn’t manage to dissuade them.

While I was actually writing though, self-consciousness was not a problem.  I tend to lose myself when I write, I stop being so aware of me.  It’s just all about the story.  I don’t get embarrassed till later.

How have readers responded to the book? 

Pantera tells me CTL is selling much better than they had expected (but I’m not sure what that really means – maybe their expectations were low  😮 ).  I’ve had some lovely  messages from readers, especially readers who are writers, and it’s received some glowing reviews.  It’s doing well on Goodreads, but while some people really love it, there are a few who don’t get it at all  (which I did expect – it’s not your standard crime novel)  My US Publishers tell me they have very high hopes for this book… but again I’m not really sure what that means.  People (including you) whose opinion I have come to really respect, have liked it.  So I’m happy.  I know that’s really vague but it’s really hard to know as a writer… at this early stage anyway.

Yours is the second new metafiction/crime fiction novel I’ve read this year–Anthony Horowitz’ The Word is Murder is the other–which brilliantly illuminates the creative process in a highly original way. There have been other earlier works which play with those elements, such as French author Guillaume Musso’s La fille de papier (Girl on Paper) and Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden(which was made into the film Secret Window) but though they are gripping mysteries, they both ultimately ‘explain’ the apparent boundary-crossing in a way that disappointed me as a reader(and writer). Not so with your book, and Anthony’s, which stay most satisfyingly within that narrative world. Can you expand on that, and why you decided not to explain?

As a historical fiction writer and a lawyer I’ve learned that what people think happened is as important to consequences as what may actually have happened.  To me, what Ned and Madeleine believe is enough.  The story is about them, their reality.  I didn’t feel the need to rationalise it with any conspiracy or plot or illness etc.  The story is purely about the lines that writers may be tempted to cross, and why doing so is both seductive and dangerous.

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The Word is Murder: interview with Anthony Horowitz

Today, I am delighted to bring you my interview with the fantastic author Anthony Horowitz, about his latest novel, The Word is Murder. Anthony’s books, whether for adults or kids, are always gripping and elegantly written, but this one is particularly accomplished, a bold and brilliant tour de force that takes big risks with literary conventions and reader expectations, and pulls it all off triumphantly. It’s one of the most interesting and memorable novels I’ve read all year.

First of all, Anthony, congratulations on The Word is Murder, a daring and playful blend of metafiction and crime fiction.  In Magpie Murders, your novel published last year, you use metafiction elements–such as a book within a book–but The Word is Murder goes a lot further. How did the idea first come to you?

Thank you for your kind words! TWIM (as we all know it) began when I met my new publisher, Random House, and they asked me to concentrate on a series of murder mysteries. My first thought was that I wanted to do something that would completely shake up the format. It wasn’t enough just to have a fat detective, a drunk detective, a Russian detective or whatever. I wondered if could alter the entire template so that we would look at the crime and the solution in a new way.

 To be honest, the idea sort of fell into my lap as I was walking home from that initial meeting. Drop the author into the action. Take him off the mountain, as it were, and into the valley. Turn him into the sidekick. I knew at once it was what I wanted to write.

There are other novels in which the author has a walk-on part–such as for instance, Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and Paul Auster’s A City of Glass–but yours is I think the first one I’ve read in which the author is both one of the main characters and the narrator, being bossed around by the other main (fictional) character! And yet, despite the extraordinary literary conceit and dazzling sleight of hand, the story never loses its narrative power and drive. What is it like to imagine yourself as a fictional character? How did you manage to juggle all the different elements, and what were the challenges along the way?

Again, you are very kind. I was quite nervous about putting myself center stage – and so, actually, were the publishers. I didn’t want the book to turn into an ego trip. But although I appear rather more than I would really like (I’ll take more of a back seat in future adventures) the book is more about my writing life rather than me personally – the focus is on Hawthorne!

 When I was writing TWIM, I simply had to imagine that it was all really happening. Writers do this anyway, of course – but I had to consciously ignore the fact that I was making it up. The AH character is seldom named…and this helps me distance myself from him. You might think of him as an avatar. Yes he is me but he’s also my creation and what I think makes it fun is that Hawthorne is as much in control of him as I am!

In The Word is Murder, you incarnate the creative process through literal dialogue and interaction between the author and his characters, brilliantly illuminating the way in which writers conjure characters that feel not only real to them, but also the reader. The novel is deftly ironic yet never falls into the trap of over-signalling. How did you go about it without becoming too self-conscious?

I think I’ve answered this above. I’ve often said that writing is about immersion. I can only write Alex Rider if I totally believe in him…even when some of the action is quite fantastical. The same was absolutely true of TWIM. I had to imagine myself into it but then wrote with 100% belief.

 How have readers been responding to TWIM? Do most people enter into the spirit of it, or are some people confused and think you are writing true crime(as the lady in Hay on Wye suggested in the book)?

I think it’s true to say that audiences have received TWIM more warmly than anything I’ve ever done. This is particularly true of the book blogs and the Amazon reviews. I’m really happy. People tell me that they’ve been Googling to find out what’s true and what isn’t (not that Google necessarily helps). And everyone seems to have grasped the concept.

Will there be more ‘true crime’ novels featuring the ‘real fictional’ Anthony Horowitz as the sidekick to detective Hawthorne?

Absolutely. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book (to write) was the realization that something had happened to Hawthorne when he was young. To some extent, I turn into a detective as I try to find out more. The idea is to write about nine or ten books in the series and gradually to work out the mystery of Hawthorne’s past. As I sit here now, I have a fairly good idea what that might be but I won’t know for sure until I get to the end.

Yours is the second new metafiction/crime fiction novel I’ve read this year–Sulari Gentill’s Crossing the Lines is the other–which brilliantly illuminates the creative process in a highly original way. There have been other earlier works which play with those elements, such as French author Guillaume Musso’s La fille de papier (Girl on Paper) and Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden(which was made into the film Secret Window) but though they are gripping psychological mysteries, they both ultimately ‘explain’ the apparent boundary-crossing in a way that disappointed me as a reader(and writer). Not so with your book, and Sulari’s, which stay most satisfyingly within that narrative world. Can you expand on that, and whether you think the crime fiction lens helps to make that more effective?

I don’t know these books and must check them out. I think the short answer to your question is that I don’t really perceive any boundaries between truth and fiction. In Magpie Murders there were three distinct worlds which related to each other like Russian dolls. There was the fake world of Saxby-on-Avon where the murders took place. There was the “real” (but actually fake) world of Alan Conway, the author of the murders. And although it was only hinted at, there was my own real world – with references to Crete, Orford, the Ivy Club and real people including the radio DJ, Simon Mayo and Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard. TWIM simply blends them all together so there is no distinction between me working on Foyle’s War, for example, and me being attacked by a psychotic killer. So the crime fiction is not so much a lens as a landscape!

 Thank you for these extremely interesting and generous questions.

Thank you very much, Anthony!

 

Interview with Bob Topp of Read Me A Story, Ink

A couple of years ago, I received an email from the US with an intriguing request: would I agree to allow two of my stories originally published back in the 90’s–Cry Wolf, published in the Omnibus Books anthology, Amazing, and The Clever Thief, published in Cricket Magazine–to be included in an index of great read-aloud stories on a website specifically designed for the purpose? Both made excellent read-alouds in schools, bookseller and reader Bob Topp told me, inviting me to check out his website, Read Me A Story, Ink. After visiting this very impressive website, I was more than happy to agree–it’s a fabulous resource and I was glad my stories would be included in it–and as five-star reads, what’s more! Recently, Bob’s been in touch again regarding new developments, and acquiring another couple of my stories (The Magic Carpet, and The Old Woman and the Imp) for the site. Of course I was happy to agree once more–and also thought readers might like to know more about Bob and his fantastic site, which does so much to encourage the joys of reading great stories aloud. It’s a great interview–read on!

Bob, your wonderful website, Read Me A Story, Ink (and what a great name!) is obviously a labour of love. Can you tell me about how and when it started? What gave you the idea?

I started reading in Bergen Elementary School in our home town of Evergreen, Colorado when our older son, Harrison, was in second grade. His class was doing a unit on frontier America and we had just finished reading a children’s biography of American legend Davy Crockett at home. I offered to come and read a chapter to the class and soon found myself reading weekly. The next year, I started with our younger son’s class as well. After they both moved on to middle school – they are now 28 and 30 – a few of their teachers asked me if I would like to continue, so I began visiting a few classes once a month. At that interval, there wasn’t the continuity or time for chapter books so I started to collect short stories. After a few years and enough anthologies, I realized I couldn’t remember what story was in which book so I created an index for my own use. When the index reached six or seven hundred entries, it occurred to me that it would make a useful tool for parents and teachers and a friend helped me design a rudimentary website. Over the years the site has grown in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists, printable stories, both public domain and for which I had the author’s permission, links to other great children’s sites and most recently I have started recording some of the stories. The core index is now over 1500 records and I estimate that I have read eight to ten thousand short stories.

How does the site work? What has it achieved so far, and what are your goals for it for the future?

My designer and I have tried to keep the site simple and very user friendly. Each record on the index includes a plot summary, age level, subject category and the source where I found the story. If there is a printable or audio version there are tabs beneath the record inviting the user to print or listen to the story. Also, if the author has a website, there is a link to that site so that the user can find out more about the author and what else she or he has written. The index can be searched by category, author or keyword making it easy to find appropriate stories for the user’s needs. Recommended reading lists and links to other children’s sites are all easily accessible. At the moment I don’t foresee any different intent for readmeastoryink.com, just a constant expansion of resources as I discover new stories and contact more authors.

What has the response been like, both from children and schools, and from writers whose stories are listed?

Response has been very positive from all quarters. Parents have mentioned that they use the recommended reading lists while teachers gravitate towards the printable stories. In one thank you letter from a fifth grader, she wrote, “ as I am writing this letter, we are listening to one of Mr. Topp’s stories.”  A function on the site’s administrative panel allows me to view the IP addresses of people, bots or institutions who have viewed the site and frequently the IP address is a school district. Authors seem appreciative of having their stories available and, write to say that they enjoy the recordings of their stories as well. I can also access information on how many times a specific story has been “viewed” on the web in a month. Most stories have been clicked on between one and two hundred times each month. Unfortunately there is no way to know if those views are individuals, school districts or bots that are simply out there roaming the web universe.

How do you choose stories which will be good for reading aloud? What are you looking for, in a story?

I choose approximately one out of every six or seven stories that I read. The first and most important criterion is whether I like the story. If I like it, that enjoyment will translate in the reading aloud and in most cases the kids will like it as well, though I have been amused over the years to note the difference between reading to myself and reading aloud. Occasionally stories that I love fall flat when read aloud for inexplicable reasons while stories that I hesitate to read become all time favorites when I read them aloud. I also tailor the story to the grade. I read 30 minutes to third graders and 45 minutes to fifth graders with the stories frequently chosen by theme for the month (ie., Holidays, Black History Month, Women’s History Month and always, Dragons for November). Ultimately I can’t escape my own biases which are in the direction of positive stories with at least one character who can be a role model. Humor also creeps into many of the stories that I read.

You are now, with writers’ full permission, making stories available both in print form and in audio form as read-aloud. What has been the response to that?

Without a doubt the printable stories page is the most visited page on the site. I assume this is because both parents and teachers are finding readily available material for reading aloud or as suggested reading to their children or students. Authors, parents and friends have all given me positive feedback on the recordings but since there are far fewer recordings than stories that are available to print, they haven’t gained the same traction.

Do you still go into schools yourself to read aloud?

Yes! I currently read to 14 classes, first through fifth grades, and have no plans to stop. I begin reading for the new year in a few weeks and I am already getting excited about what to read first and mulling over what new stories I have discovered and what month of the year would be best for their first reading.

Are you interested in hearing from writers about stories that might be suitable for Read Me A Story, Ink?

That is a very difficult question for me and one that I have frequently contemplated. As it is right now, I read a story that I like and ask the author’s permission to make it available. If I started receiving short stories that I hadn’t read, I would be in the position of having to reject some – something for which my personality is not suited. I do currently offer two previously unpublished stories that were offered to me and I have to admit that I am very proud to make them available. So, I guess the answer to your question is an unequivocal yes and no 🙂

Looking forward to the HNSA Conference: interview with Elisabeth Storrs

In just over a month–on September 8–the 2017 Conference of the Historical Novel Society Australasia will be kicking off in Melbourne. And not only do I have the privilege of speaking at the Conference, I also have the honour of being Conference Patron! It’s going to be a great conference, filled with interesting speakers, panels and events, and today I caught up with author Elisabeth Storrs, the program convenor, to tell readers more about it. And, by the way, once you’ve learned what a treat us in store, you can book tickets for the conference here 🙂 

The 2017 HNSA conference is on next month in Melbourne, and there are lots of people–including me!–excitedly waiting for the big day! Elisabeth, can you give a bit of an overview of what to expect at the conference?

Elisabeth Storrs

Over 60 fabulous speakers will celebrate the historical fiction genre, covering eras and events from the Ancient World through to WW2, at the HNSA 2017 Melbourne conference. The programme is divided into three streams. The first will explore the conference theme of Identity: Origins and Diaspora, and also includes interviews with numerous talented authors such as Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Lucy Treloar and you! We’re confident that attendees will find inspiration from such ‘personal histories’. For emerging and aspiring writers, the second stream looks at various aspects of the genre together with the craft of researching and writing. The third stream comprises an academic programme discussing Bio-Fiction and ‘The Lie of History’ that is open for general admission.

Hanifa Deen

We are also conducting an extensive suite of workshops with wonderful tutors including Anne Gracie, Isolde Martyn, Lisa Chaplin, Hazel Edwards, Elizabeth Lhuede and Sherryl Clark giving insights into historical romance, pitching, the business of writing, social media and CYA. Kelly Gardiner and Rachel Franks provide practical tuition on tools such as Scrivener and Trove. Sulari Gentill offers tips on historical mystery, and Rachel Nightingale will demonstrate historical costumes. Greg Johnston gives the lowdown on self-publishing – and who can resist Leif the Viking displaying his array of armour? Additionally, Alison Arnold and Irina Dunn are available for 1:1 manuscript assessments while Gillian Polack is conducting 2 masterclasses on making history come to life through research and writing.

Back by popular demand, we’re running the First Pages Pitch Contest again in which ‘first page’ pitches of aspiring authors will be read anonymously by a narrator (Rachel Nightingale) to industry experts (Alison Green, Mandy Brett and you) who will provide a critique of chosen submissions. The session will provide the audience with a chance to learn what attracts the attention of agents and publishers when seeking new historical fiction. And many thanks to Eagle Books for providing the prize of a limited edition of Mikhail Strogoff by Jules Verne and an original 19th century print of Russian life! The ASA is also kindly offering a free associate membership to the winner.

The theme, Identity: Origins and Diaspora, goes right to the heart of many modern as well as historical discussions and controversies. How did the HNSA committee come up with the theme, and how do you think it will be interpreted?

The committee wanted to explore the theme of Identity: Origins and Diaspora as we believe historical fiction plays an important role in informing current generations as to how national identities have been forged by past struggles, injustices, sacrifice, survival, and clash of cultures. Both Australia and New Zealand are multi-cultural societies with a rich history of migrant stories but both countries have also faced the pain of first encounters between first peoples and colonial settlers which require illumination and interrogation. How historical novelists grapple with portraying these meetings provides fertile ground for exploration. The issue of cultural appropriation will also be up for discussion. As such it was important to secure the appearance of speakers who represented a range of perspectives to reflect this. Our round table discussion at our opening reception on 9th September (after our History with a Twist cocktail party!)

Ngahuia te Awekotuku

features Arnold Zable, Hanifa Deen, Ngahuia te Awekotuku and Gary Crew who will discuss the role of the historical novelist in exploring first encounters in Australasian colonial pasts, the migrant experience underlying multicultural identity, and whether an author’s origins are relevant to the story telling.

There’s a packed conference program, and counting tutors and panel chairs as well as speakers, there are more than 70 presenters. How do you go about sourcing people to be presenters?

Our desire was to provide diversity in the conference line-up by including authors from a variety of backgrounds, particularly indigenous speakers. Fortunately, the success of

the inaugural conference in 2015 placed us in a happy position to be able to run two concurrent streams in 2017 to achieve this vision.

Lesley and Tammy Williams

The first stream of the Saturday programme will continue to highlight the theme with keynote addresses from Lesley and Tammy Williams, authors of Not Just Black and White, followed by panels that will discuss the challenges faced in portraying the meeting of First Peoples with Europeans, and how historical novelists can breathe life into immigrant tales. I chose authors who had produced books that directly addressed one or more aspects of the conference theme such as Nicole Alexander, Maxine Alterio and Kim Kelly.

The remainder of the first stream concentrates on introducing readers and writers to the personal histories of the high profile authors I’ve already mentioned. Insights into the secrets of ‘the long haul’ of producing multiple books or series will be provided by Juliet Marillier, Libby Hathorn and Anne Gracie.

Sulari Gentill

The second stream required further difficult decision making. I chose to separate the sessions into three areas: research and technique, sub-genres, and trends in publishing. I matched authors to the topics using criteria such as prominent reputation, favourable reviews, recommendations from HNSA patrons and committee members, and from among members of our HNSA Facebook group. Again, I hoped to achieve diversity in the panels. And my aim was to present authors who wrote across a range of eras and cultures while also including a few self-published writers with proven reputations. I was pleased to include more Kiwi authors to ensure a greater representation from New Zealand than in our 2015 conference. The result is a wonderful array of panels covering Historical Mystery (Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Meg Keneally, Gary Corby), Historical Romance (Isolde Martyn, Alison Stuart), CYA (Alan Tucker, Pamela Rushby, Gabrielle Wang, Wendy Orr), World War Fiction (Julian Leatherdale, Elise

Robert Gott

McCune, Paddy Richardson, Justin Sheedy), ‘The Outlander Effect’ (Belinda Murrell, Felicity Pulman, Ella Carey) The Modern Voice in Historical Fiction (Kate Mildenhall, Melissa Ashley, Greg Pyers), International Fiction (Robyn Cadwallader, Natasha Lester, Prue Batten), Transmuting Research into Compelling Fiction (Barbara Gaskell Denvil, Wendy J Dunn, Stephanie Smee) and Authenticity vs Truth (Pamela Hart, GS Johnston, Tim Griffiths, Kathryn Gauci). And, of course, the weekend finishes with ‘Outside Your Comfort Zone – Writing Sex and Violence’ with less bashful authors Kate Forsyth, Luke Devenish and Anna Campbell.

Kate Forsyth

I thoroughly enjoyed the first HNSA conference, back in 2015, and so did everyone I’ve spoken to who went there. And and I’m sure this one will be even better! But I know that behind the scenes there is a lot of frantic work. Can you tell us a bit about just what it takes to organise a conference of this size and scope, and how has it changed(if it has!) from 2015 to 2017?

Kelly Gardiner

Organising HNSA 2017 is a labour of love for all the committee members who have volunteered 18 months of their lives to bring the event to fruition. In 2015 we only ran one stream and a couple of workshops. 2017 presents two concurrent streams, 10 workshops, 2 masterclasses, 20 manuscript assessment sessions and our inaugural short story contest (with a prize of $500). In other words, the workload has more than doubled. The six committee members have wrestled with website development (our previous website was hacked!), content writing, programming, budgeting, sponsorship drives, marketing, social media streaming, and booking systems to name just a few major tasks. We also have boosted our HNSA blog content to bi-weekly postings and have produced a monthly newsletter. We are also proud to have produced our Imagining the Past podcast series hosted by newly recruited committee member, Kelly Gardiner. On top of all this, we have conducted satellite events in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to help spread the word and also feature aspiring, emerging and established authors who may not have been included on the main conference bill. Frantic is definitely the right adjective!

What are you hoping will come out of the conference?

The last conference gave an opportunity for writers from various stages of their careers to mingle and feel a sense of community. I feel that was one of the major successes of 2015. Our aim is to widen the scope to include readers as well as writers. By presenting a broad programme that hopefully offers something for every historical fiction fan, we hope to build on connections and establish Australasian local chapters as is the case in the UK and USA.

Arnold Zable

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell your readers about HNSA 2017. We are super excited that you are our conference patron. I look forward to seeing you in Melbourne. You’ve supported us so well!

More about the Conference:

The HNSA 2017 Melbourne Conference is being held on 8-10 September 2017 at Swinburne University, Melbourne. This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories in our weekend programme. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Libby Hathorn, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses.You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Purchase a ticket and you will be entered in the draw to win a $100 Dymocks Gift Card.

Lucy Treloar

Manuscript assessments will be conducted by industry experts, Alison Arnold and Irina Dunn. Our free extended academic programme is open for general admission but bookings are essential.

Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize!

Visit the HNSA website to purchase your tickets now!

 

Kerry Greenwood

Subscribe to the HNSA newsletter for interviews, reviews and news.

Learn about sponsorship opportunities.

Let’s make a noise about historical fiction!

 

 

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.