The Koldun’s Daughter

Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly  written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!

And of course, if it whets your appetite for the novel itself, and its predecessor, that’s a bonus 🙂

(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)

The Koldun’s Daughter

There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.

Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’

Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.

In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’

The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.

The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.

Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.

Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.

But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.

And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.

But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.

Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.

Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.

Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.

She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.

‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’

And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’

Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.

But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.

She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’

The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.

They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.

She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.

So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.

Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.

But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.

Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’

Copyright Sophie Masson

 

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Cover reveal for Black Wings, my adult historical novel

I am thrilled to reveal the beautiful cover of Black Wings, my adult historical novel which will be published in October by The Greystones Press in the UK. Can’t wait! Here’s the basic blurb(there will also be a fabulous cover quote by the lovely Kate Forsyth, which will be revealed later!)

It’s 1788 in the Vendée in western France, and change is in the air. Reform 
is being talked of in the great world beyond, in Paris, and even the peaceful village inhabited by Jacques Verdun and his friends – aristocratic painter Edmond de Bellegarde, his beautiful cousin Flora, and young farmer Pierre Bardon – seems touched by new possibilities. But as events both in Paris and in the local community start to gather pace, as revolution breaks out and the traditions of centuries start to break down, friendships will be severely tested in the most unexpected of ways. And when pitiless civil war comes, who will be left to testify to old feelings, and old loyalties? 

 

Writing about World War One…

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day, and the hundredth anniversary of the battle at Villers Brettoneux in northern France on 25 April 1918, where Australian regiments were instrumental in helping to secure the liberation of that area of France. As someone brought up between Australia and France, it’s made me reflect not only on the joint experiences of French and Australian troops and civilians in that terrible war, but also on how difficult it is to try and convey, as a writer, something about those experiences, especially when you are writing for children.

Until a few years ago, I never expected to write about World War One. In both France and Australia, as a child I’d seen, in churches and memorials, the staggeringly long rollcalls of the dead in World War One; a war that seemed not only horrible and tragic but absolutely incomprehensible. World War Two seemed more understandable by comparison, in part because my parents were children during the German occupation of France. I could imagine myself writing about World War Two (though I didn’t, in fact until very recently) ) but not World War One. Partly, perhaps it was because in Australia, Gallipoli loomed large, of course, and I did not feel able to write about it, but also could hardly begin to understand, let alone depict, the ghastly long years of trench warfare on the Western Front.

What changed that was, first, a brief visit many years ago to the heartbreakingly big and neat Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Villers-Brettoneux. In the back of my mind, a seed was being planted–and years later, in 2010, it sprouted, inspired by a longer visit–a stay of a few days, in fact, in the pretty, and war-haunted, cathedral city of Amiens and the countryside beyond. Being on the spot, in the quiet streets of the city and the green and pleasant Somme countryside which yet saw so many deaths, looking at memorials and the French Australian museum’s collections of touching photographs of both Australian and French soldiers and the local civilian population, made me change my mind. And also I read about the last year of the war–the way in which in 1918, trench warfare, at least in northern France, gave way not to the pitched open battles of the very beginning of the war, but to a more ‘guerrilla’ style campaign, on both sides, with ambushes and surprise attacks and street-by-street battles in devastated villages. I began to see how I could perhaps tell a story, through the eyes of a young French-Australian character .

So that’s how my first World War One novel, My Father’s War(Scholastic Australia 2011), began. Set in 1918, it is told in the voice of eleven year old Annie, whose Australian soldier father, fighting on the Somme, goes missing, and who goes with her French mother to Amiens to try and find him. Through Annie’s diary unfolds the story of that last year in the war and the experiences of both soldiers and civilians in northern France. It was a story that both flowed naturally from having been in the areas I was writing about and being immersed in pictures and documents of the time, but was also very hard to write. This was a work of fiction so it had to work as an engaging story, especially given the age of my readers, but I also felt a great responsibility to tell it in a way that would not trivialise or falsify. It was a very delicate balance to strike and at times felt almost impossible(and saddening; I found myself weeping several times over scenes) but in the end it worked. Or at least, readers seem to think so–seven years after its release, it is still finding its way into libraries, schools, and homes.

Writing My Father’s War had made me see I could tell a story set in that time. Three years later, my second World War One novel was published. This was 1914 (Scholastic Australia 2014), which from the point of view of Louis Jullian, teenage son of a French diplomat and his Australian wife, told the story of the beginning of that ‘war to end all wars’. It was a very different book, because it was set in a very different time to that of My Father’s War. In 1918, four years of dreadful stalemate and horrendous slaughter had changed the face of Europe, destroying the old order forever.  In 1914, the old order was still there, sleepwalking towards disaster, and even by the end of that year, people imagined that the war might soon be over and things go back to what they’d been before. And my characters might both be French Australian, but they came from very different backgrounds and experiences. Annie had a difficult childhood dominated by war and her father’s absence; Louis, whose childhood was cosmopolitan and carefree, was coming of age at a time when everything would be thrown into question by a conflict that would engulf the world and truth itself. It was just as hard to write this novel as the first; harder even in a way, precisely because it was the beginning: reading about the causes of the war and the chain of events in those fateful few weeks from June 28 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, you get a sense both of the so-called ‘inevitability’ of the war but also the fact that it need not have been so. There were times when the momentum could have been halted–but it was not. I chose to tell that story, and the way in which a carefree summer turned into a deadly winter, through Louis’ eyes as he goes from helpless witness of the attack in Sarajevo to scarred and determined young war correspondent on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Both the novels have had unexpected offshoots: minor characters from My Father’s War inspired a short story of mine, The Other Anzac Day (set during the battle in Villers Brettoneux on 25 April 1918) which was published in a UK collection, Stories of World War One, edited by Tony Bradman(Orchard Books, UK, 2014). This story, told in the voice of Archie, a tough but troubled young Australian soldier, both echoes and contrasts with Annie’s own view of that ‘other Anzac Day’ in My Father’s War. And Louis’ daughter as well as the son of one of his pre-war Austrian friends will be featuring in a novel I’ve been writing, set at the beginning of World War 2 this time, to appear in 2019. In the novel, the experiences of World War One, which transformed the lives of Louis and his friends, haunt the lives of their families too–and of course, by extension, their communities and nations, as the drums of war beat yet again.

 

More about My Father’s War and 1914:

My Father’s War

By Sophie Masson

(My Australian Story, Scholastic Australia 2011)

ISBN 9781741698282

It scares me a lot, thinking of Dad out there, far away in that dangerous, terrible place, wondering how it will be when he comes back-if he comes back, that is . . .

Annie’s dad has been away for two years, fighting on the Somme battlefields in northern France. For months there has been no word from him, no letters or postcards. Annie and her mother are sick with worry, so they decide to stop waiting-and instead travel to France, to try to find out what has happened to him. There she experiences first-hand what war is like, as she tries to piece together the clues behind her dad’s disappearance. Will Annie ever see her father again?

Teacher’s Notes My Father’s War: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8005439_228.pdf

1914

By Sophie Masson

(Australia’s Great War, Scholastic Australia 2014)

ISBN 9781743622476

A small black bottle or a torch came sailing through the air, and landed on the side of the car, close to the Archduke. An instant later came a terrific bang, the road exploded in a shower of dust and stones, and tiny sharp things went flying through the air like angry bees.

In June 1914, Louis and his brother Thomas are enjoying the European summer in a small town near Sarajevo. In the shadow of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the world erupts into war and Louis’ life changes forever. Old Europe is torn apart and Louis finds himself in the midst of his own battle – and fighting for the truth in war means that sometimes even your own side is against you.

Teacher’s Notes 1914: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8284239_24164.pdf

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!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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More about Opposite of Frozen:

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

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

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

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

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

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

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

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

Interview with Kristel Thornell, author of On The Blue Train

on-the-blue-trainIn December 1926, Agatha Christie, already the famous author of several detective novels, disappeared for eleven days. The press and the public were agog as a massive investigation employing more than a thousand police officers was mounted, and after her car was found abandoned, great fears were held for her safety. As titillating details emerged about the traumatic events surrounding her disappearance–her husband’s demand for a divorce on top of his infidelity, and her beloved mother’s death–the public joined in the hunt, with hundreds of amateur detectives combing for clues. Even other mystery writers joined in the hunt, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers! Eleven days after she first went missing, Agatha was discovered in a spa hotel in Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she was staying under the name of Teresa Neele–poignantly, the surname of her husband’s mistress.

There have been many speculations, then as now, as to what really happened. Agatha herself never explained those missing eleven days. An intensely private, even shy woman, the trauma of the time when she was in the full glare of remorseless publicity never left her, even though she went on to become a mega-selling ‘Queen of Crime’. Even today she is the most best-selling novelist of all time, with literally billions of books sold.

Now young Australian author Kristel Thornell has written a novel which, with great deftness and sensitivity, imagines what those eleven days might have been like. Foregrounding both Agatha herself and the fictional character of Australian Harry McKenna, similarly bruised by life, she draws a convincing portrait of heartbreak, the beginning of healing, and the challenges and consolations of creativity. It’s a wonderful novel which is also a touching tribute to Agatha’s unique creative gift, informed by a great deal of research. And so today I’m delighted to bring readers a fascinating interview with Kristel Thornell, in which she talks about the creation of her novel, On the Blue Train (Allen and Unwin, out now).  kristel-thornekll-better

How did you first come up with the idea for the novel?

I heard a fragment of a radio program that mentioned Christie’s “disappearance” and I was very taken with the idea of a young writer living under a pseudonym for eleven days. Perhaps because writing itself can resemble living under a pseudonym, and this parallel intrigued me. I was particularly interested in the tension suggested between public and private selves. I found myself vividly picturing a troubled, resourceful woman arriving at a hotel in the north of England in an unusual state of consciousness. I thought it could be an interesting challenge to try to give fictional depth to such an experience, exploring the combination of disorientation and freedom she might have felt. I was attracted to writing a sort of psychological mystery. One that, without being a detective novel, would salute what I most enjoy in that genre – transporting atmosphere, a hypnotic flow, the heightened awareness of details, moments, and buried impulses.

What research did you do, and what were the challenges in researching such a famous, but also mysterious episode in Agatha Christie’s life?

I began with the biographies of Christie by Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, Christie’s autobiography, and her early novels. In the UK, I read newspapers covering her disappearance and the archive of her papers at the University of Exeter. A central part of the process was spending time in Torquay, where she grew up and loved to return, Newlands Corner, the area from which she “disappeared”, and Harrogate, where she lived for those days as Teresa Neele. In Harrogate, I stayed at the hotel she stayed at (which still exists), for the same period of time she was there, absorbing the ambience and learning to inhabit my character.

Agatha Christie in 1926

Agatha Christie in 1926

The blanks in the official record gave me a certain sense of being at liberty to invent, but it was a challenge to avoid preconceived ideas and put aside, as it were, Christie the icon, Christie the phenomenon. I had to avoid anachronistically projecting all of that symbolic weight onto my vision of a young writer. It also felt crucial to allow myself to freely imagine within the biographical contours, and to approach the biographical material itself in my own way.

You have deftly mixed your own imaginings with what’s known about what happened. How did you negotiate the intersection between fact and fiction?

This was somewhat more straightforward with “On the Blue Train” than it was with my previous novel (inspired by the Australian landscape painter Clarice Beckett). With the earlier novel, I worked with biographical facts quite loosely, sometimes purposely altering them. With “On the Blue Train”, I aimed to incorporate the known facts of Christie’s disappearance and life up until that time into the imaginary world of the novel. I didn’t consciously change anything factual that appeared significant to me. Though I was aware, of course, that simply to fictionalize a fact is to reimagine it. To shape it with language, frame and illuminate it in particular ways, give it a tone. So that even the biographical becomes semi-biographical, novelistic.

There have been many theories concerning Christie’s disappearance, ranging from amnesiac fugue to a cynical publicity stunt mixed with revenge against her unfaithful husband. In your version, Agatha is aware that she is not who she is telling the world she is, yet she cannot cope with the fact of who she is and what has happened–a syndrome perhaps like post traumatic shock. How difficult was it to portray the state Agatha is in?

Finding a voice to convey that state was the key to the whole project. Laura Thompson, who wrote the 2007 biography of Christie, sees her mental state during that episode as semi-rational, somehow poetic, and this rang true to me. Such a condition plausibly fit the omission in Christie’s autobiography. I saw the fictional Agatha/Teresa as fluctuating between extreme sensitivity and numbness, and, increasingly, a sort of playful, creative spirit, a reawakening sensuality. She was both guiding herself and drifting. I wanted the novel’s voice to reflect these complexities: to be hypnotic, slightly hallucinatory, and inflected, indeed, with shock, grief, shame, and anxiety. The voice actually came quite intuitively. I identified with it deeply.

The pain of what Agatha is going through as she struggles with the realisation that her world has come crashing down is exacerbated by her inability to write a word of the book she was planning–which of course ended up being Murder on the Blue Train. Was this episode in Agatha’s life a turning point in terms of her art as much as her personal life, and if so in what way?

Yes, it would appear so. It was at around this time that she came to see herself as a professional author. She had already been working in a determined, focused way, aware that her work could earn money. Earlier in 1926, she had published “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, which had done very well. However, in her autobiography she describes the experience of having to force herself to finish “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (which she was finally able to largely complete in 1928 in Tenerife) as transitional. This was the crossing over into the life of a true working writer, one who writes whether or not she feels like it. And there is the sense that she made something of a fortress of this new role, keeping her private self guarded within it. It was fascinating to me that her intense vulnerability and isolation during that time might ultimately have galvanized her, confirmed her independence and vocation.

The hounding of celebrities, the curiosity of the media and its readers in intimate details of their lives, is very much an element of your book, and also of contemporary relevance. How do you think a similar episode would play out today in the media?christie-paper

Yes, that aspect of the story struck me as extremely fresh and current. I imagine that such attention could feel even more traumatically claustrophobic today. It would certainly be amplified by recent technologies, and quickly become so much more international. And there appears to be an ever-stronger requirement for writers to be public figures. The Elena Ferrante phenomenon is interesting in this light: the novelty of her “hidden” identity, the emphasis on this and speculation over her “true” identity becoming a lucrative part of her brand, and the recent “unmasking”.

In France, Agatha Christie is regarded by critics as a popular fiction genius, with a succint elegance of style, a deftness of characterisation and an extraordinary mastery of plot. Yet in English-speaking countries she is too often dismissed as a mere purveyor of puzzles. I wrote about this disconnect myself some years ago: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2006/07/writers_choice__2.html

What do you think? Does the disconnect still exist? And why?

I’ve been curious about that discrepancy, too, and I enjoyed Houellebecq’s response to Christie. It does still seem to exist and I would agree with your impression that in English-speaking countries she can be seen to represent an outmoded fairytale Englishness – one that is more attractive and soothing to foreigners. No doubt this involves some discomfort surrounding her perceived conservative upper-middle-class viewpoint. Could it be the case, also, that when a cultural product is such a powerfully popular national symbol, it can provoke a certain embarrassment?

Incidentally, I’ve read several of her novels in French and Italian, as well as in English, to see if I could come at the “essence” of them. Reading her in translation, I found it interesting that the streamlined quality of her prose – the minimally evoked settings, the emphasis on concise, bouncy dialogue, the light movement, and so on – seemed to translate very well, very smoothly.

Has writing the novel made you think of Agatha Christie, and her work, differently to before you started?

It has made me wonder at the intricacies of her inner life, and admire her strength, self-discipline, self-confidence, and forceful creative drive. I often think now of how hugely sustaining writing must have been for her.

What are your favourite Christie novels?

First edition, 1926

First edition, 1926

I think I remember most fondly “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The first has a wonderfully fluid, clean elegance, and an intriguing, chilling mood lightly balanced between clinical and intimate. I am attached to “The Mystery of the Blue Train” partly, perhaps, because it was a triumph for her to finish it, after having struggled with it at that very difficult time. It represents a sort of survival-through-creativity for me. Despite all

First edition, 1928

First edition, 1928

she was going through, she managed to pull off a novel that is amusingly theatrical, evocative, and sprightly.

 

 

 

Kristel Thornell’s debut work of fiction, Night Street, was the co-winner of the Vogel’s award in 2009 and was much acclaimed when published in 2010. On the Blue Train is her second novel.

More about On the Blue Train:

What did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? Mixing fact and fantasy On the Blue Train is an entrancing novel of creativity and grief from a winner of the Vogel Literary Award

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it’s wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha’s lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.

Thornell says, “We are drawn to the iconic aura of Agatha Christie, as well as to a sense of her tireless imagination and drive. We continue to find her blend of cozy comforting order and hidden dark forces tantalizing and highly addictive. Her “disappearance” – a brief escape from her public identity – seems such a unique act, unusually creative and psychologically fascinating.”

With verve and sensitivity, Thornell imagines what Christie could not write.