Feathers of the Firebird

The Accusation: an interview with Wendy James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More about The Accusation: 

Somebody is lying.

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

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

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

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

More about Wendy:

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

 

 

 

Creating On My Way

Today is the official publication day of On My Way, my picture book with Simon Howe(Scholastic Australia), and to celebrate Simon and I have written about what it was like to create the world of the book. Enjoy!

Creating the text, by Sophie Masson

It was just an ordinary drive to town, on an ordinary day. I was in the car when the first line of On My Way unexpectedly popped into my head for no apparent reason and as soon as it did I could hear this little voice excitedly telling ‘Mumma’ all the extraordinary things that could be seen on the way to school and the shops and so on: rather like my own kids used to do when they were small!

Normally, when I think of a good idea for a story, I put it down in my notebook–but I was driving, and couldn’t stop. Yet the little voice was so insistent on telling the story RIGHT NOW I knew I couldn’t wait either 😀

So all along the 15 kms between home and our local town, I was trying out lines aloud to myself, repeating them over and over so they’d stick in my head until I could write them down and start working on them properly!

Right from that unexpected start, this has been such a fun text to work on, as the child tells what seem to be wilder and wilder stories about more and more unusual things and yet the patient, busy mother doesn’t appear to be surprised by any of it… Even in the car, repeating those first few lines, I knew there would be a big twist–and that was such an enjoyable thing to create!

I was so delighted when I first saw Simon’s storyboard and then as time went on viewed more developments of the magical visual world he’d created for my characters. And I just loved the clever and wonderful way in which he’d revealed the twist. That excited little voice I’d first heard on a boringly ordinary drive to town, had really come to life and that was just so exciting!

Creating the illustrations, by Simon Howe

The manuscript for On My Way was an invitation to participate in a story far more than many book texts. The writing gave me a relationship between two characters, but left who they are, where they are and what they’re doing entirely up to me. The world of the story could have been a thousand things – a thrilling proposition for an illustrator.

Rather than getting bogged down in the possibilities of the world, I came to a decision fairly quickly. The mother’s dialogue in the text is warm, but also dismissive. I imagined her preoccupied with an activity and only half-listening to her child, who in turn is only half-helping, and mostly getting in the way. I was gardening quite a bit at the time, and thought I’d have the mother in the story doing the same. So I had my setting – a garden. I wanted the book to be full of warm greens, so this environment was perfect. It also allowed me to easily place hints to the final twist!

Like an increasing number of book illustrators, I chose to create everything digitally, using Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq display. The textures and subtleties available to digital artists today are astounding, and while you can usually still spot the digital from the traditional, it’s certainly becoming harder. Regarding process, I’m a drawer rather than a painter, so I almost always start with lines. I use two brushes that mimic the look of pencil, and scratch out the picture fairly roughly. When refining the lines, I like to leave some of that roughness.

I then use a brush that mimics the look of watercolour, and I build up the colours over several passes. The last step is to use a pencil brushed again to add highlights where needed. That all sounds very traditional, but the benefit of digital is that it’s all done in layers, and it’s very easy to correct and adjust things at any stage of the process.

There was a little back and forth with the publisher over some details, but the original vision remained largely unchanged from the first roughs, through a second draft and finally into the finished art. After all the pages were finished, the publication was delayed for a significant amount of time. Somewhere along the way, I decided to tweak some of the artwork. Then things got a bit out of control and I ended up re-drawing and colouring the entire book! I should really have left it alone, but I was happy with the small improvements I made.

It was a thoroughly pleasurable book to illustrate, and I’m grateful to both Sophie and Scholastic for trusting me to wrap a world of my own around such a clever and funny piece of writing.

 

 

Interview with Paul and Beth Macdonald, authors of The Hole Idea

It was exciting recently to get a signed copy of a beautiful new picture book, The Hole Idea, written by Beth and Paul Macdonald (known to many in the children’s book world as owners of the wonderful Children’s Bookshop in Sydney) and illustrated by well-known illustrator Nathaniel Eckstrom. It’s also the first title for new publisher Book Trail Press. It’s a gorgeous book, with an imaginative, funny, touching text, lively illustrations, and beautiful design, and will I’m sure find many fans.

I caught up with Paul and Beth to ask them about the book, and their new and exciting enterprise.

First of all, Paul and Beth, congratulations on the publication of The Hole Idea! Can you tell us something about how it started? What was the inspiration for the book?

Thank you for your congratulations.

This book represents two births.

We have set up a new imprint Book Trail Press– a collaborative publishing house that publishes four picturebooks a year.

We have both written books in the past but were keen on writing picturebooks.

The Hole Idea started with an idea formed in a writing workshop led by children’s author Zanni Louise.

You are joint authors of the book. Can you describe what it was like to work together on the text?

We work together and live together seven days a week. This was a really natural process. We discuss the main framework and our ideas. After we get a first draft written –the fun begins! We argue (not too much) and push back and forth. After 47 drafts and much debate our book was ready to go.

At what stage was Nathaniel Eckstrom the illustrator brought in? And how did the three of you work within the picturebook experience?

Although Beth is an illustrator (and has a picturebook coming out in July with Dirt Lane Press) we understand that a great picturebook has to be a marriage of text and pictures- the illustrations must speak to the text and vice versa. Nathaniel Eckstom was the perfect choice for this story. He is the award winning illustrator of seventeen books- and we knew his style was a natural fit for Finnian. He was bought in at the beginning stages – after just the first few drafts. We were keen to make it a collaborative process so wanted his input from an early stage and actually met around the table to develop the book together.

What was the process like for you, from first spark to production of the book? What were the challenges and pleasures?

Taking a book from the idea, through the writing and design process into print was a huge learning curve for us. We really wanted to understand all aspects of creating books. We really believe that it is a collaborative creative process. The book is the result of a team of six people- two editors, a great designer, two authors and an illustrator. We met, we discussed, we crafted a work that we are proud of.

We also learnt so much about the printing process and lots of new jargon!

The Hole Idea is also the first title in your new Book Trail Press publishing enterprise. How do you see Book Trail Press developing?

Book Trail Press is a boutique imprint. Our goal is to create four picturebooks a year. Books with heart, incorporating quality language. Books that focus on the creative process. We have commissioned an illustrator for the second book and the third is underway.

Paul, you are of course also an award-winning and popular bookseller, with the Children’s Bookshop being the most loved and long-lasting specialist children’s bookshop in the State. How did your deep knowledge of literature and the industry as a bookseller influence the way you approached the creation and production of The Hole Idea?

I felt a wee bit of pressure knowing that we had to create a quality book. We surrounded ourselves with the most talented creators we knew and recognised that creating a great book is a collaborative process. While we were asked to submit the manuscript to several publishers, the challenge was to produce a book from first spark to delivery of the first print run. It’s been a fast learning process.

You are now covering pretty much every major aspect of the book industry, as authors, publishers and booksellers! What’s it like, wearing all those hats? And what have you learned, as part of the process?

Wearing multiple hats is good- you need to see ‘the book’ as many things. It is first of all a narrative that must resonate, but it is also an art object, a possible focus for teachers in schools and must leap off the page as a great read aloud.

Hopefully the book sits proudly next to quality picturebooks in good bookshops and is a book that booksellers are keen to handsell! You can’t forget the importance of the bookseller!

Finally we know that creators need to promote their work through social media and get on the road- we are off to Freemantle, Melbourne and Brisbane after we have hosted two launches in Sydney. That’s the fun part!

At launch of the Hole Idea, Children’s Bookshop, May 25: Paul(at back), Nathaniel and Beth. Photo by Kristin Darrell, posted on Facebook

Lovely first review of On my Way–even before it’s officially out!

There’s a lovely first review of On My Way, my soon-to-be-released picture book with Simon Howe (published by Scholastic) . The review is by Lyn Linning in Magpies Magazine, and here’s a very short extract:

A short, charming picture book for the very early childhood years, On my Way encourages children to use rhythm and rhyme and to use scale when interpreting images…

You can see more in the image below (the review is not available online).

Celebrating our home town in a new picture book

I am delighted to announce today a project that’s had to be kept under wraps till now: the picture book Join the Armidale Parade, text written by me, gorgeous illustrations by talented local illustrator Kathy Creamer, and published by local publisher Little Pink Dog Books. Look at the gorgeous cover! Commissioned by Armidale Regional Council, Join the Armidale Parade is a fun picture book for children and families, celebrating the beauty, diversity, colour and vibrancy of our hometown of Armidale, in northern New South Wales.  My story, told in bouncy verse, is focussed around a little girl whose family has recently moved to Armidale, and who takes part in its colourful annual parade, held in the autumn. And Kathy’s created the most fabulous illustrations, full of fun, humour, joy and plenty of Armidale landmarks and references:-) It’s a book that can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors, and even those who may not know Armidale but can appreciate the fun and warmth of a festival parade. It’s, I think, the first time that a picture book for children has been set here.

Although I was brought up in both France and Sydney, and my husband David in the UK, we have lived in this region for a long time now, built a house and brought up three children here. Although I’d had a few short pieces published before I came to this region, my writing career properly took off here, and all my books have been written here. I’m delighted to have been able to collaborate with Kathy, Little Pink Dog Books and Armidale Regional Council in Join the Armidale Parade, a book that pays tribute to a beautiful, creative and friendly town.

The book will be published on May 1.

 

Cover reveal for On My Way!

I am thrilled to be able to reveal the gorgeous cover of my forthcoming picture book with the fabulous illustrator Simon Howe, On My Way. The book will be published by Scholastic on June 1.

Here’s the blurb:

On my way to school, Mumma, guess what I saw? A pig chasing a wig! A goat rowing a boat! 

A delightful story about all the extraordinary things you can see on your travels.

I jut loved creating this fun story, and adore Simon’s magical illustrations!

Full cover below.

 

An interview with author Marina Osipova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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