Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy, by Peter Taylor

Today I’m featuring an absolutely fabulous guest post by writer Peter Taylor, who’s also well-known as a calligrapher and artist-book constructor on how we can encourage children to create multi-faceted and unusual word magic. Enjoy!

Visual writing or the joys of calligraphy

Picture books are written to provide young children with a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Similarly, we plot a journey for the older reader, leaving spaces in the text so that they can use their imagination to see themselves beside the characters, but it’s by the way we tell the stories that we cause each reader to feel the characters’ pain, doubts and passion. In music, a simple change in key, harmony, melody or rhythm can shift a listener’s joy to deep despair (or the reverse) in a second, but it’s not so easy for a writer.  Perhaps it really is true that writers, who agonise over choosing perfect words, all wish they were musicians able to express themselves directly through their playing.

Calligrapher Ann Hechle has described how verbal orchestration in poetry also manipulates the depth of our feeling so that our mind, imagination and almost every part of us is engaged. The flow of Latinate words like ‘consider’ and ‘recognise’ contrasting with the thump in the guts Anglo-Saxon ‘gripe’, ‘groan’ and ‘grunt’; long and short vowels; tempo and stress; volume and density; onomatopoeia where sound shades into meaning–these are felt as physical sensations, stirring our brain’s deeper interpretation.

In such a world of feeling, it’s therefore surprising to me that children of all ages are not encouraged more often to interpret words visually, un-restrained by a standard size of letters and a requirement of regimented rows of words. Isn’t it natural to want to write about crashing waves by using letters and words that heave and tumble on …well …wave shaped lines, and in appropriate colours? And why not sometimes use larger and bolder letters for those words emphasised most in speech, as pioneered by Hechle in the 1960s? Such freedom may foster creative writing by children and adults alike, or engender an artistic response to any favourite text.

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Text from Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov

In the beginning was delight. A depth

stirred as one stirs fire unthinking.

Dark  dark  dark. And the blaze illumines dream.

Vision sets out

journeying somewhere,

walking the dreamwaters.

Designing the layout for words as an outward spiral may be appropriate for stories that unwind, such as: ‘Will you walk a little faster,’ said the whiting to a snail, ‘there’s a porpoise just behind us and he’s treading on my tail.’ Conversely, some stories wind up and can be written as an inward spiral, for example: ‘This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that lay in the house that Jack built.’ And as you will see, I have used this spiral technique and others in my combination of biblical passages.

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Not all children get hooked on reading and writing by initially listening to or reading stories. Some may arrive at the endpoint by predominantly first developing a love of words and of books as objects. When I stage a ‘Hands-on History of Books and Writing over 4000 Years’ experience in schools, even reluctant readers seem to enjoy handling a 2000 BC cuneiform clay sales docket, holding a hand-written vellum page from a 13th century medieval book without using white gloves, a page from one of the world’s first dictionaries printed in the 1480s, peeping inside Victorian picture books and deciphering a description of New York published in the 1679 that says that it has ‘…above 500 well-built houses’ amongst other treasures (and most then want to read more about early New York).

 

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Some children may come to enjoy words and reading after calligraphic exploration. From playing with the word ‘rain’…taylor-4

…research could next find a poem that is fitting for similar presentation, with reading undertaken in the process enjoyed more than expected:

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Poem: This Land by Ian Mudie

Designing calligraphic letter shapes can influence and add joy to creative writing, too. Letters with triangular serifs like webbed feet, for example, can give impetus to write about frogs, ducks or sea-gulls.

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Verse by Peter Taylor, illustration by Anil Tortop

Sea fever, by John Masefield

Sea fever, by John Masefield

We can arouse young children’s interest in books with colour and quirkiness. But what sort of books are teens excited by? What kinds of bindings and book structures do they explore? I taught ‘Book Cover Design’ workshops to children aged 7 to 17 at the Queensland State Library. Participants used pens, scissors, paste and coloured and decorative papers to produce dust-jackets for Reference books of their choice (that were later re-shelved in their new covers). The children created the most eye-catching bold designs, but I wonder what they would have produced if they had been offered a wider range of materials and allowed more time, especially to read the books thoroughly. Would they have created a quilt cover for a book of poems titled On Going to Bed or placed hamburger recipes in a container shaped and covered to resemble a Big Mac?

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Would they have modelled or sculpted mountain ranges to sit on top of the pages of Lord of the Rings, as famed designer-bookbinder Philip Smith has done?

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Or designed a ‘Book Stack’, as Mike Stilkey does?

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Maybe the children would have produced something even more original.

How many books do teens smell? Are they encouraged to write, design and bind their own books?

Is it possible that first creating a book with a special structure can provide the stimulus for writing a story to fit inside it? Or will a story provide ideas for a unique and satisfying way to display the text?

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I hope children of all ages (and adults) are encouraged to explore the totality of the world of words, of language, writing, calligraphy, exciting layout designs and books of every form and structure until these become a rich, integral and important part of their lives. Sustenance for their creativity and creative thought. Let us give them experiences to savour and help them to respond with joy in their own way …to the extent that they want to bungee-jump into, read and devour our offerings of all genres with relish.

Peter Taylor’s first book was published in 1987 and he writes wacky verses, fiction and non-fiction for all ages. His picture book, ‘Once a Creepy Crocodile’ illustrated by Nina Rycroft and pub. The Five Mile Press was shortlisted for the 2015 Book of the Year award by Speech Pathology Australia. Peter is also an internationally respected calligrapher and artist’s book constructor, has been the Queensland Newsletter Editor for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Co-ordinator of SCBWI Queensland and judge of the Dorothy Shaw Writing Competition for the deaf. He delights in sharing his extensive historical book and document collection and encouraging children and adults to love books, read, write and be creative. Peter offers workshops, talks and performances to libraries, schools and festivals. 

 

www.writing-for-children.com

http://brisbaneillustrators.com/peter-taylor.html

www.ptcalligraphy.com

 

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2BR02B: the journey of a dystopian film–an interview with Leon Coward

australian-artist-and-composer-leon-cowardI’ve known the extraordinarily talented young creator Leon Coward since he was a pre-teen reader/reviewer flatteringly enthusiastic about my books. Today, Leon’s love of creating art has  led him to work in many different fields–not only literature, but music, visual arts, and now film-making. Involved first as a concept artist for the short film 2BR02B–To Be or Naught to Be, a dystopian work based on one of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories, Leon went on to take a much greater part in the creation of the film.

The Canadian production, which has already been selected for no less than 15 prestigious short film festivals, has its Australian premiere today, in Sydney. To mark this exciting occasion, I talked with Leon about the creative journey behind the film.

Leon, how did you become involved in the creation of  2BR02B: To be or Naught to Be? 

My background is in graphic design and traditional illustration. The producer Artin John is a childhood friend, and he began co-producing the film and asked for me to create a poster… then concept art… then the mural and other artwork. I had no idea how involved I would later become.

The film is based on a Kurt Vonnegut short story which imagines a dystopian world in which babies are only allowed to be born if another life is terminated. What were the particular challenges involved in adapting the story for film?

The tone was a challenge. It’s easy to show too little or be too graphic, be too nonchalant or be too sombre. You can try to be as true to Vonnegut’s material as possible, but at the end of the day also you’re working with the material that you as a team have generated, not just Vonnegut’s, and that’s what you’ve got to make work. There were a few things from the original story that confused our test audiences – in one instance it was putting jazz at the end of the film, and Vonnegut gets away with it because as a reader you don’t hear it, but we realised it just sounded like cinema lounge music and it spoiled the audience’s mulling over of events.

2br02b_federal-bureau-of-termination-poster2BR02B has an ensemble cast, so an editing challenge was working out the balance between them. We’d all thought the film would centre on Wehling and his internal conflict, because his dilemma motivates his actions which affect the other characters – the problem was that while we knew what he was thinking and what he’s gearing himself up to do, the audience didn’t. The first edit was melodramatic simply because the audience was asked to feel for a character they didn’t know. So I shook things up and this was hard because I took an edit to the team and, although the story itself hadn’t changed, what was emphasized had changed. For a long time we were also going for an emotional ending, but after test screenings it was clear the audience were frustrated. My grandmother suggested a twist, and I incorporated it and showed the team without warning them – that way they got to experience it as the audience would.

My own big challenges were creating the fictitious ‘Federal Bureau of Termination’ set in Chicago and the Painter’s 16-ft mural. The FBT is represented by Leora, a gas chamber hostess – but other than her and a brief shot of a gas chamber, the FBT doesn’t appear. So to convey the fact that this organization dominated the society, we gave them a brand identity that pervaded everything – corporate signage, posters, banners, badges, tags, earpieces and costume motifs. Vonnegut described a symbolic design for their logo (an ‘eagle perched on a turnstile’), but I approached it as a new branding commission and researched federal seals and local symbols for Chicago. There are a lot of references – the stars and stripes on the US and Chicago flags, the Chicago municipal device (which is a Y for their shaped river), even the wings of their state insect the Monarch butterfly. But there are also a lot of differences to real seals which make it very impersonal, very geometric, skeletal & circuit-like, and no natural symbols.

The mural took 6 months to design and finish. It was digitally painted in Sydney, then printed in Canada. All the characters discuss its symbolism and pose for it – if the mural didn’t come across as a genuine work of art, it’d devalue the acting. Its design was driven by story needs and Vonnegut’s prose. It shows a false utopian garden where nurses and FBT staff, dressed in white and purple, symbolically turn soil, plant seeds, and control life and death. Purple is traditional for sacrificial robes, and Dr. Hitz, who is the architect of population control, is painted as a ‘Zeus-like’ figure. The mural had to be recognizably propaganda and contemporary, so our director Marco instructed me to look at Russian war posters, Art Deco and Cubism. At the same time, I knew the mural had to have religious overtones. I’d experimented with a mix of Expressionism and William Blake-esque styles – trying to avoid the ‘communist cornfield worker’ interpretations I’ve seen in student versions of the film, or any specific garden-type, but I was going too far in that direction. My new layout was Art Deco-inspired, using diagonals and circles – essentially it’s an ‘X’ drawing your eyes to Hitz, and the FBT logo acts like a sun, framing Hitz’s head like a halo. I blended Cubism, Futurism and Brutalism with religious styles. The concrete flats, which also mimic the FBT logo, overpower the barest of gardens and help narrow the viewer’s focus, and the floating flower made it futuristic. The style of plants and their millefleur treatment came from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry and the religiously-themed The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry. Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ pilgrimage paintings, and especially his Wedding of Psyche, provided the inspiration for the figures, their poses, compositional distribution and costumes (I also referenced medical scrubs). Hitz needed a recognizable inference of himself as a messiah – so Byzantine iconography provided the inspiration for his hands (which are Christ’s) and the haloed foetus, as well as the mural’s forced perspective. For Hitz’s costume there was also a bit of SS uniform and Nehru jacket, dentist and Jedi, and a more contemporary influence from Gehn in Cyan’s Riven, a character who also sees himself as a god. Everywhere you look the message is there, and it was hard to make the mural function as a finished work of art yet still be visibly ‘in-progress’. The aim was to show a society where there is no respect for religious heritage – God is dead, and the FBT is filling the vacancy – and the mural needed to be created that way. It took months of digitally painting and scanning paint textures and brushstrokes, since the mural had to withstand close-ups. Halfway through, Paul Giamatti had scheduling conflicts, and I had to repaint the face for our Hitz replacement, Mackenzie Gray. The mural was printed in strips of paper which overlapped; clear hard-drying gel was applied to give it a texture, and Ferrero-Rocher wrappers (which have a great canvas texture) were used for the gold highlights.2br02b_mural-by-leon-coward-1

The project was an international collaboration over 3 years between crew in Australia, Canada, UK, Mexico and the Netherlands. What were the challenges and advantages involved in such a big undertaking over such distances and different time zones? What did you learn from the experience?

We had cast and crew in Vancouver, myself and other crew in Sydney, an artist in the Netherlands, and a VFX school in Mexico which did effects as part of their professional training. Footage was flown to me in Sydney and I began re-editing with James Tarbotton. Then Martin Cantwell, our brilliant sound designer in London, came onboard. The time differences were okay as calls were early morning or late night, so we’d avoid each others’ work hours – which was important since the film was not a paying project. The separation was a technical disadvantage, since exporting and transferring files adds a lot of time. It’s also important to be able to see, at least once, the person you’re communicating with, in person or Skype, because it makes email writing a lot easier. While there were disadvantages, I think the distance for me and my collaborators in Sydney allowed us to approach the project in a way we mightn’t have otherwise – especially in the editing, where we could respond as a fresh audience without preconceptions, or even knowing what the actors were like out of character.

You worked on many different aspects of the film, as art director, composer, film editor and associate producer. How did you navigate all these different roles? Was there one aspect you preferred above all?

2br02b_left-to-right_jason-diablo-and-australian-artin-johnIn a sense it hasn’t been hard to navigate between the roles because they were prepared for – I had this idea that the Painter would have a gramophone, and that he was listening to Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. When gun-shooting later ensues, the song could provide a macabre serenade. I stuck the gramophone in my concept art, and waited for the idea to take hold – it was influencing the film’s music to some extent without having to be the composer, but ironically I eventually found myself in the role and this wasn’t intentional! There is a some incidental music, but I pushed to have it that the only music was the ‘live’ gramophone so that the music was simply part of the world, and not an ‘invisible’ emotional narrator as film scores often are. The film and the Ave Maria recording were designed and edited around each other: while films are often edited to an existing temp track of unrelated music, this film was edited to a pre-existing recording of Ave Maria, which was later replaced with a tailor-made recording, post editing and sound design. It enabled us to go for a different interpretation too, which would greater contrast the action. We were fortunate to have my sister Imogen Coward, who is both a skilled soprano and conductor, record the version for us that appears in the finished film. We wanted to avoid any artificial stretching or splicing, so we had the unusual challenge of recording in one take, matching the timing of the temp version. We had 2 frames wriggle room, and the edit didn’t have any room to be changed for different timing. It was tiring, but it was worth it because it has a quality that is lost when music, especially singing, is heavily edited.

The film has so far received 5 nominations and 14 international festival selections, including for its Australian premiere at the Sydney Indie Film Festival on October 19. That’s quite an achievement! What do you think are the special qualities of the film which have made it attractive to festival selectors?

While Vonnegut created the story, it’s also the way the cast and crew have interpreted, realized and communicated the story. Derek Ryan, our screenwriter and co-producer, did a good job of cutting away story material that couldn’t be cinematic – so from the start we were all working with a document that concentrated our focus. 2BR02B really takes a cross-section of behaviours in a society where life and death are pushed to absurdities, but there’s no obvious political or moral position in its telling – just the drama of human action, and I think it allows the viewer in on their own terms. I think one of the things that’s helped is how the film feels when you watch it vs what is leaves you thinking about – cinematically it is very static up to a point, and then there’s this burst of drama and the music making it madness, and then just desolation, and that hits the audience. Vonnegut’s narrative was influenced by his experiences as a P.O.W. in Dresden, and even though his story is fiction, the themes are relevant and resonate because the wars have cast such a long shadow. It’s subtle in our film, but the hospital cross is actually a swastika, and the banners flanking the mural are inspired by Nazi banners –  Wehling’s cry “It’s only death” was used on our banners, so instead of his line being spontaneous, it becomes him quoting propaganda which the audience saw earlier.

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What’s next for you, in terms of films, after this one?

I’m independently developing my own film project – an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”, and am shifting between generating its music and visual material.

You are also engaged in doing a PhD on aspects of film design. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It essentially provides an analytical process which teases apart a film’s design (if it has one) – whether the story, visuals, acting, music, sound or all their combination. The method is quite straightforward, but its theoretical justification and demonstration is very demanding. The method has had encouraging support from many industry practitioners.

As a multi-talented creator and performer, you are also involved in music, visual arts and literature. Tell us about some of your projects in those fields.

My sister Imogen is director of the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, which was founded by my siblings and a group of our young musician friends who we’ve played music together with since childhood. Our concert profits go towards helping support the Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation. Our orchestra has just celebrated its second anniversary and second regional tour in Australia. It’s been a very exciting time for the group. We love playing Baroque music – Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli – but our concerts also include music from a wide range of eras and styles, from the 1500s to today, and the orchestra has premiered some of my music that was written specially for the members. A lot of my own solo projects are on hold until after the PhD, including fine art prints and two picture books, written and illustrated by me, one which has been endorsed by Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator).

I know that you come from a family where the arts are highly valued, and your siblings are both also working in the arts. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up, and what effect you feel it had on your adult career?

We’ve each ended up musicians – my sister  violin, viola, cello and voice, and she has her PhD in music. My brother has focused on violin, voice and guitar, and he’s also doing his PhD on music and magic performance (he’s been performing illusions for 10 years now). Our parents homeschooled us to university level, and were very keyed in to expanding our interests, skills and activities, but they didn’t try to turn us out as one thing or another and weren’t discouraging. My grandmother recently found some drawings from when I was 5, and I couldn’t draw for nuts. But I meet a lot of parents and kids who restrict activities because there’s no immediate interest or sign of potential. I think the effect it has had for my siblings and me is that we’re not afraid to venture beyond our immediate interests and skills, and that’s allowed us to develop the set of skills we have.

Leon Coward is a published artist and writer, and performed composer and choreographer. He performs on violin, viola, piano and voice with the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, and was recently art director, composer, editor and associate producer for the 2016 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be”. He is undertaking a PhD at the University of New England, Australia, and has presented his creative work and research throughout Australasia and internationally, including for the TATE Liverpool UK. Since 2007 Leon has edited and designed the e-zine “The Online Book Group”. In 2009 Leon illustrated “Vietnam Reflections”, by award-winning author Libby Hathorn. In 2011 he was awarded a mentorship by the Australian Society of Authors.

 

Interview with Anthony Horowitz

anthonyhorowitz06 (1)Today, I am absolutely delighted to present a great interview I did very recently with the multi-talented British author, Anthony Horowitz, starting with the creation of his current TV series, New Blood, and moving on to talk about his books and other projects. Known worldwide both for his book and screen writing, Anthony’s extensive creative credits include the Alex Rider best-selling spy series for young adults, the very successful long-running TV crime series, Foyle’s War, set in World War Two, penning the latest Bond novel as well as two Sherlock Holmes novels, many excellent books for young adults and younger readers including the Diamond Brothers series, the creation of gripping TV mini-series such as Collision and Injustice, plays such as the recent Dinner with Saddam, and the writing of many episodes of such classic TV series as Poirot and Midsomer Murders. In his ‘spare time’ Anthony also writes the occasional travel piece and newspaper article.

I’ve known Anthony for many years, since the publication of the first Alex Rider book in 2000, when I interviewed him for a magazine article, and we subsequently became friends. Over the years, we’ve frequently corresponded and caught up in person when possible, in London when I happen to be there or Sydney, when he happens to be there.

And over the years, we’ve exchanged not only personal news, but frank and wide-ranging views about books, the writing life, and the publishing industry. Anthony always has interesting things to say: lively and thoughtful, he also has wide cultural references and a generous clarity.  And his discussion of his own work, as you’ll see in this interview, is equally interesting, giving an insight into the imaginative passion and deft skill that are behind his extraordinary success as a writer.

Swapping books, Sydney 2015

Swapping books, Sydney 2015

Anthony, your current TV series, New Blood, has been airing on ABC TV here in Australia, after having been broadcast in Britain by the BBC. It’s had excellent reviews both from media outlets and individual viewers. Are you pleased with how it’s gone so far?

Broadly speaking, the response to New Blood has been fantastic. I set out to write a show that would break away from the dark, violent world of Scandi-noir and just give people an hour of TV that was enjoyable and entertaining – and I think we largely succeeded. That said, we haven’t yet heard if there will be a second series so I’m forced to reserve judgement…at least for a while.

How did you come up with the idea for the series?

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the so-called Y generation, the young people who, for the first time in history, may be worse off, with fewer opportunities than their parents. In London, in particular, there are real challenges. Getting a house. Getting a full-time job. Paying off tuition fees. This was my starting point. At the same time, I was thinking about ways to shake up the crime/police procedural genre. I was tired of middle-aged men with drink/marriage problems. I had this idea for an opening shot. A body is found in the street. A car pulls up. A grizzled detective gets out…but the camera slides past him and finds the young cop who’s standing in the rain, trying to keep the crowd under control. My show would be about that cop. It also occurred to me that all crime shows take place in one department. It might be vice, drugs, MI6…whatever. But what would happen if you had two departments – the police and the Serious Fraud Office? From that point, I began to think of a bromance – two young investigators who don’t know each other but who form a team, working outside the rules. This may all sound a little vague but I’m describing my thought process as best I can!

New Blood breaks refreshingly new ground in its portrayal of the two main characters, Rash and Stefan, young Londoners respectively of Iranian and Polish backgrounds. What I loved particularly, as someone who also grew up with a similar kind of double cultural world, is the fact both Rash and Stefan are comfortable with who they are, yet are also aware of other people’s misperceptions. They navigate their different worlds with a familiar yet never complacent ease, with certain things about their family/cultural backgrounds subtly brought new bloodout, yet never stereotyped. How did you go about creating these characters to make them feel so immediately authentic? And what part did finding the right actors for the roles–the excellent pair of Ben Tavossoli and Mark Strepan–have in that creation?

Thank you for this observation. Yes, I love the fact that London, more than almost any city in the world, is completely relaxed about its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic make-up. I knew from the start that my two main characters would be Eastern European and Iranian. It just struck me as fresh and modern. Rash was based on my son’s flat-mate who is himself Iranian and long before I started writing, I talked to him about his background and his experience of life in the UK. He actually appears as an extra in the fourth episode! We did our best to avoid the obvious stereotypes with both characters. Most young Londoners are just that. They’re young and they’re Londoners before you start layering in religion, politics, sexuality or whatever. As to casting, I always knew that the show would stand or fall by our choice of the two actors and I was very insistent that we shouldn’t cheat, that we should find the real thing….which we did! It was essential that the two actors should have a real chemistry. We cast Mark first…he has Polish blood and matched the character exactly. Then, when Ben came along (most of the parts he’d been offered until we came along were “young terrorist”!) we saw that the two fitted together perfectly. They became great friends almost at once and that friendship has continued throughout the filming and beyond. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with their performances and if I have one hope it’s that they’ll become the stars they deserve to be.

You have a stellar career as a writer both for screen and books. Do you have a preference for either form? Or does it depend on the story?

I love all my writing equally. I think that it’s impossible to write well without passion. That said, of all the writing I have done, I probably value my YA books – Alex Rider in particular – the most. Why? Because reading, a love of books can change your life. I meet so many adults now who grew up with Alex that I feel very proud to have been a small part of their lives.

Your most recent book for adults was Trigger Mortis, a new James Bond adventure, and before that, you penned two new Sherlock Holmes adventures, The House of Silk and Moriarty. What’s it like, writing new adventures for such classic characters? How do you keep true to the Sherlockian or Bond corpus whilst staying true to your own identity as a writer? And which of those characters did you most enjoy recreating?

Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.jpgI only wrote the two Holmes novels and the Bond novel because I so love the originals. These are what influenced me when I was in my teens. I loved writing all three books (see question 4). You ask how I keep my own identity but actually I don’t. I see it as an act of literary ventriloquism. Essentially I have to be invisible, I have to hide inside the world of the original creators, obeying the rules, doing nothing that will annoy/upset their worldwide fans. At the same time, I have to raise my game. How can I possibly write as well as Fleming or Doyle? I probably found Sherlock Holmes the easier of the two characters because he’s more distant: the world of the late 19th century is much more easily defined than the cold war. Bond comes with certain challenges…marrying some of the attitudes and values of his world with modern sensibilities. But I began all three books with nothing but admiration of the original authors and a determination to serve them as well as I could. It was a wonderful experience, spending six or seven months living with their brilliant creations.

You’ve recently finished writing a new crime novel, Magpie Murders. Can you tell me something about it? When is it out?

magpie murdersMagpie Murders is my next adult novel, being published by Orion in October. It’s both a whodunnit and an exploration into whodunnits – in particular, the relationship between the detective, the author and the reader. It’s partly inspired by Conan Doyle’s very mixed feelings about Sherlock Holmes! The book is in two parts. The first is set in the very Agatha Christie landscape of an English village in the 1950s where a detective called Atticus Pünd, a survivor of the concentration camps, investigates the murder of a local landowner. ..Sir Magnus Pye. The second part takes place in London in the present day and concerns an editor, Susan Ryeland, who is forced to investigate the death of one of her authors when the final pages of his latest manuscript go missing.  The fun of the book comes when those two worlds collide…and there are not just one but two very twisty mysteries to be solved. I’m very pleased that nobody has managed to guess the ending yet! I think it’s the most cunning book I’ve yet written.

Your Alex Rider series of spy novels for young readers have been big bestsellers, but the series was deemed to have ended with Scorpia Rising (with Russian Roulette being a spin-off). So I was excited and intrigued to hear that you are in the middle of writing a new Alex Rider adventure. What decided you to take up Alex’s story again? And how does it feel, being back in his world?

Last year my publisher asked me to pull together all the Alex Rider short stories for a collection. scorpia risingThey’d been published in newspapers and magazines and elsewhere. So I started work – but then two things happened. I realised that some of the early stories weren’t good enough. And there also weren’t enough of them. So – just for fun, really – I wrote a new story, Alex in Afghanistan…and suddenly I discovered that I loved writing about Alex and that I had missed him. I really was quite surprised. For what it’s worth, I think Alex in Afghanistan is the best story I’ve written. It’s only 15,000 words but it’s full of action and surprises. I wrote two more new stories and in doing do, I unlocked something and realised that, contrary to what I’d always said, there was an eleventh novel inside me. Well, I’m 40,000 words in and I think it’s going very well. It starts in San Francisco (where Scorpia Rising ended) and then moves to Egypt, the South of France and the UK. My publishers won’t allow me to say any more!

As well as being a wonderful fiction writer in all those genres, you are a great traveller and sometimes write about those travels in newspaper pieces. What kinds of things do you concentrate on when trying to distill the essence of a travel experience in the few words of a newspaper column?

Again, thank you for these kind words. I write travel pieces for an English newspaper largely for fun (the money goes to charity) and also to keep myself on my toes. I’m no expert and I try to avoid being negative. It’s really just a record of my feelings, hopefully written in an entertaining way. When I read a great book, my first instinct is to shout about it, to get people to share it. I suppose the same goes for the places that I’m fortunate enough to visit.

Anthony’s website.

Facebook author page.

Twitter page.

 

 

A new way of writing: an interview with Simon Higgins

Simon Higgins Web Friendly Biog PicToday I am interviewing author Simon Higgins about his extraordinary new creation, DarkSpear, which features an intriguing way of writing combining several art and media forms.

Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author of books for young adults. Originally a police officer, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. He has 13 novels published so far, often combining crime, speculative fiction and historical adventure. His 2008 novel, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, was an Australian bestseller and was also published in the United States, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently lives in China where he works in several creative fields.

Simon, this exciting new release of yours, DarkSpear, is what you have called a ‘visual novel’ . Can you explain what that means?

Sure, Sophie. Visual Novels (VNs) are something quite fresh and exciting for many in the Western world! I keep summing them up for people in these terms: they’re books you play, games you read, a hybrid of textual novel and interactive computer game.

They evolved originally in Japan, spread throughout East Asia, and are now gaining many appreciators in both Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But not enough yet, I say.  🙂  They have so much to offer!

VNs are, at the core, literary, but like computer games, they offer new ways to enjoy fiction by thatching in extra mediums to intensify the reader/player’s immersive experience. So although text heavy, they also employ elements like a short opening film, sumptuous backgrounds, detailed images of the characters, sophisticated music, and even sound effects, to intensify story impact.

They are also an interactive storytelling medium, kind of the cyber-era descendant of those delightful old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books and games from the 80s. This is what you could call their gaming side. A player must decide what the protagonist will do at certain points, choosing from two or three options that suddenly confront them.

Different choices lead to different storylines, which in VN jargon are called routes or paths. Should you pick one that eventually ends in some decidedly nasty fate, it’s okay…because you also choose ‘save points’ along the way, which you can return to anytime using the menu. Thus, having noted where you made that critical wrong turn, you’re able to just dive back into the story world again, land close to that point, and take a different path!

Depending on exactly how the VN has been written, you may, or may not, on behalf of the protagonist, get to cheat what we could call ‘the hero’s ultimate fate’, but with each route you try, the journey will certainly change. It’s a pity real life doesn’t offer such options sometimes, heh? 🙂

How did you come up with the concept, and why? How long was it in the making?

 I wish I could say I’d invented the concept, but alas, it was more a case of stumbling on it while living and working in creative circles in China, and immediately thinking, ‘Wow! So many imaginative people I know in the West have probably never heard of this medium, but would absolutely love it!’

Quickly thereafter it also occurred to me that this could be a powerful rescue tool for all those parents and teachers who bemoan having a clever, curious teenager in their lives who just-won’t-read while computer games stalk the face of the earth and compete with books for their brain space.DarkSpear1

Here, I thought, is a bridge between the two worlds, one immersive and engaging enough for anyone to want to cross it, at least once. Now I should warn that not all VNs I’ve seen are what you might call wholesome, just as can be said for books. But many are, some are utterly delightful, and a few are even pure art.

I also (as I sometimes formally testified in court, way back in the police force) ‘formed a certain suspicion on good grounds’. A suspicion that once writers in the West, be they self-published, emerging or established authors, read a VN with good storylines and dialogue and gripping ideas, a cry would go up that I’d be able to hear all the way from China. A cry of ‘I want one too!’

Once I’d developed that feeling, and of course, found the right creative partners, the process, from the birth of the dream to my VN’S first ‘draft’ in playable form, took about four or five months. That included writing the tale’s routes, and programming.

DarkSpear is a multi-arts, multi-media project. Who did you collaborate with, and how did the process go? What challenges did you face?

 I teamed up with Lava Entertainment, an ambitious, intensely creative young company based here in Guilin, China, who had set up shop, as fate would have it, just walking distance from my own office at Crane Animation.

That’s where I write for Gemini Fables, an animated TV show, coach the in-house writing team, fine-tune crucial subtitles, and get to participate -to various degrees- in a wide variety of awesome projects. I get to travel regularly with my work, and sometimes have the joy of meeting Chinese directors, screen writers, TV celebs and actors – so many lovely and stimulating people.

I’m Crane Animation’s chief creative consultant and my official designation, based on my track record in the West, is Foreign Expert. Kind of chuffed about that, seeing as the first one ever was Marco Polo. 🙂 Always nice to feel you’re following in a legendary author’s footsteps, though happily, unlike Marco, nobody ever points crossbows at me when I move between provinces for business travel. 🙂

My regular work can include tasks related to animation, filmmaking, educational and safety initiative creation, commercial branding character design, and all sorts of projects that harness story and imagination to help build international friendship ties between China and other parts of the world, including Australia and France.

But the Visual Novel project with Lava was aside from all that, out of my comfort zone you could almost say, because it required me to quickly get to know a brilliant young team of artists, programmers and business people who spoke, in some cases, minimal or no English. That was naturally an ongoing challenge as my Mandarin is very basic.

However, we all persevered, and as we worked on the project, they coached me in the technical side of putting together a VN, which at the outset, involved me, the author, not only writing the story but creating at least three primary variations to its overall arc and then designing a series of sub-deviations within each major ‘route’.

Along the way, I had to chart out where key moments would turn into decision-points for the reader/player, and depending on their choices, sweep them seamlessly into other paths, and possibly, back out again to the original route, later. At first, it was mind-bending. 🙂 I remember hunching over my notebook, in genuine zombie mode, after working on it intensively one weekend, my wife devotedly shovelling noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, murmuring, ‘You can keep working, but you gotta eat.’

I also had to conceive and storyboard all the major background art, and work with the Lava team on character design, choices of music, and desirable sound effects for heightening the drama at certain points. And, towards the end of the whole process, I had to script, storyboard and direct the promotional and opening-of-game short films.

So the mission took in elements of novel then script writing, computer game design, film production and directing. I totally loved it, such an intense creative stretch! 🙂 My wife Jen, who won her creative master’s degree at RMIT in Melbourne, gave me many fabulous ideas and edited the final short films, even organising a Beijing composer to create the videos’ original music while actually watching the footage in real time.

One interesting challenge was the area of writer’s vision v. artist’s vision, something I’m sure is familiar territory to anyone who’s ever worked collaboratively on a picture book or illustrated anthology. Two different styles of creative mind, coming at the same territory from two different frames of reference, well, it can easily become a Batman V Superman-level epic clash. So yes, I did end up negotiating, at times, with the team’s artists over story v. imagery.

Fortunately, Chinese artists, in my experience, are the absolute opposite of volatile. We did have the odd lengthy chat about why, in certain instances, it really was necessary to stick to what my text described, as opposed to the artist’s view that a more free-form interpretation of that passage ‘could look so beautiful.’

But there was a great spirit of teamwork prevailing overall, and in the end, I did- happily- make some concessions, including changing certain details in the story to fit the envisioned art. I just had to. So many of their random ideas were just great! And I really love their distinctive work. Kai, the chief artist, for instance, somehow manages to bring digital and classical art style elements together in a really absorbing way.

DarkSpear2 DarkSpear is set in a dystopian future, and centred around a feisty, talented heroine, Kitty Sato, who is drawn into a dangerous secret world. How did you create the character of Kitty, and research the interesting phenomenon of psi-gamma(ESP) ability?

In some ways, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sato was all about coming full circle for me.

1998 saw my first novel, Doctor Id, hit the shelves courtesy of Random House, and its star was young Jade Draper, a policeman’s daughter and reluctant psychic, misguidedly drawn into a hazardous opportunity to bring down a serial killer, and, fittingly for one of my characters, doing so with the aid of her Asian best friend and some-time love interest, Wing Tran.

The story’s murderer used the internet, which in 98 was wild and ‘un-policed’ compared to this century, to select and stalk his victims. I’ve been told -and I don’t know if it’s true- that I was one of the first authors to employ the whole ‘killer harnesses the net’ device in a crime novel. It did seem to surprise reviewers.

Whatever the case, that ‘X-factor’ certainly gave the book, a young adult tome, a topical edge that kick-started my career and garnered a Notable listing from the Children’s Book Council of Australia -no mean feat I think, given its gritty elements, including visceral nightmares and strangulations with superhuman strength.

Flash forward to a different century. 🙂 Late 2015, me contemplating my 13th novel. This time, though I again wanted to write about a tough young woman with precognitive abilities, I felt that this time round, she should be of mixed racial heritage (Jade and Wing combined, or perhaps a parallel to their potential child) and in no way reluctant to delve into her latent though unmanageable powers. I decided that this time, rather than be up against a killer, my heroine should be up against THE killers…in some timely but ultimate sense. And who would they turn out to be? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book, AND make some sound choices, to help Kitty find that out. 🙂

Once I’d come up with Kitty’s profile, I knew that, in a world now more savvy and cynical than the one I was first published in, this new young psychic Miss would need a credible backbone for her paranormal abilities, so I hit the books and the net (while feeling very safe from the serial killer I long ago created, thanks to the Great Firewall of China) and did lots of research…

It is just plain fascinating to discover how long and hard humans, educated, science-based, sceptical ones included, have relentlessly pursued what is in essence a romantic idea. ‘I can foretell future events; I can sense what’s in your pocket; on the back of that card in your hand; in the depths of your heart.’ Really?

Never, it seems, in the lab, under the scrutiny of objective, careful observers using reliable, untampered-with equipment. So says history, lots of it. Of course, part of the mythos of special powers is that real psychics are indeed among us, but being the real deal, will always refuse to be tested, even though they’d pass with flying colours.

As an amateur sociologist, anthropologist and self-resigned poster child for OCE syndrome (Obsessive Compulsive Exploration) I found this area of study utterly riveting, and dived into it fanatically while developing Kitty Sato and her world.

And while reading around the subject, I relentlessly beset my poor wife with sudden, random ‘Hey! Did you know…?’ outbursts. To her great credit, even when my excited rants had reached the double numbers, she still responded with patient smiles as opposed to kung fu. 🙂

So I got to know a world so interesting to work with, it became the reason DarkSpear is subtitled The Prologue. Yes. Good news. Lava Entertainment and I are planning at least one, possibly two more VNs in this series.

There is another fascinating aspect to DarkSpear too, in which a player’s own psi-gamma levels are actually evaluated during it. Can you tell us more about that?

dark spear 3Me being me, I was, as the project unfolded, once again hoping to come up with some ‘X-factor’ element that would really enhance the VN’s immersive qualities… 🙂

Once I knew that one of the major themes in my story would be Kitty’s psychic powers and how they might be both detected and scientifically demonstrated, I did my research then laid quite a challenge on the brilliant young minds I was working with.

Why? Because the Lava crew had said to me early on, during an initial brainstorming session, ‘Please suggest some sort of appropriate puzzle that could be included in the VN. Sort of a game within a game, for added interest and value for our customers.’

There were some very interesting expressions around the table when, in a later meeting, I explained Zener Card experiments at Duke and Princeton universities, as well as under the auspices of the CIA, in the latter’s case, as part of their hunt for real psychics to recruit as spies -all of this, now well-documented history.

The eyebrows really went up when I asked Jie Deng, CEO of Lava, if he thought he could design a real, scientifically-credible ‘Zener test engine’ and embed it in the VN. Well, he burned the midnight oil and went at the challenge like a trooper, employing skills he’d learned studying gaming science in, of all places, Birmingham, England, where he also developed his great -and now frustrated- love of ‘real’ fish and chips.

Jie’s subsequent success was to become that longed-for ‘X-factor’ component, DarkSpear’s utterly unique feature that sets it aside from all other VNs! Yes, if you are that rare, rumoured to exist individual with latent psi-gamma capacity (parapsychology-speak for real ESP) this humble Visual Novel can scientifically prove it, and by way of screen shots, help you document it. But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending a triumphant email – with supporting attachments – to the CIA. 🙂

How would you summarise the main features or benefits your Visual Novel offers readers and/or game players?

 Firstly, it’s a true read but with something more added: sensory immersion. Music that alters with the story, striking visuals that shift and change, sparingly (and strategically) used sound effects. But not everything is shown or done for you…so imagination, visualisation, and engagement on a thought level remains a major factor.

dark spear 4Secondly, while predominantly a book, it’s one you run on your phone or tablet for convenience, and also part-computer game, hence genuinely interactive. You help steer the story, and that’s exciting and unpredictable. You can ‘live it’ more than once, each journey as unique as the choices you make, but not too much is laid on you. The interactive aspect is not relentless, so you can still lose yourself in the tale.

Thirdly, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. It has the potential to lure some, who just aren’t, in their own estimation, ‘reading types’ into an experience that may expand their habits to their lasting benefit. Put it on a young hard-core gamer’s Android, iPhone or iPad, and if they don’t delete the new ‘oddball’ game, they just may bring it inside the city walls of their personal culture, where, come nightfall, out will tumble the hidden warriors of readership. At least I pray as much, to all the gods, old and new. 🙂

Thanks so much for the interview, Sophie! As you know, I love YOUR work. 🙂 And by way of epilogue, I should probably also mention that anyone visiting the Official DarkSpear Page on my website, can download their own free 13 piece set of original artwork used in the VN. Just go to http://simonhiggins.net/darkspear-visual-novel/

 

 

 

 

Author site: www.sophiemasson.org