Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!


Interview with Jana Hunter, author of Sleepy Meadows

 Today, I’m very pleased to bring you an interview with new author Jana Hunter, whose first novel, Sleepy Meadows, has just been released as a Kindle ebook. Sleepy Meadows is an unusual fantasy/mystery novel, centred on young necromancer Kylie McGovern, who is working in her late father’s funeral home, Sleepy Meadows, in an Australian country town. As the blurb describes, her life is simple and quiet which is just how she likes it, but all that changes when her boss, the seemingly respectable Uncle Bob, goes missing and a murder victim is found in the crematorium. Drawn into a web of inter-generational revenge and family secrets, Kylie’s own life begins to unravel as she works desperately to find out where Uncle Bob is and clear her own name. Though she has been raised to believe her power is an evil to be suppressed, as the bodies begin to mount up, it seems that only her skill as a necromancer will save Kylie from taking the fall….
First of all, Jana, congratulations on the release of Sleepy Meadows! Exciting times for you! Tell us about how the idea came to you.  
Thank you so much, I’m very proud of the way it turned out. I’ve always loved reading Urban Fantasy, it’s such an underrated genre, but most of what I read was set in the US or Britain, so I thought there was room for an Australian take on it. Also, I think country towns are rich with the potential for uncanny happenings; there are so many odd stories that you hear and it just seems to have more magical potential. In fact, the idea for Sleepy Meadows came to me while I was staying with my grandma on her farm. There was a catalogue on her table for a local funeral parlour featuring two creepy looking middle-aged men smiling woodenly in black suits, and it got me wondering about that profession, and why there seem to be so few young, female undertakers. And it made total sense to me that a funeral home would be the perfect place for a closet Necromancer to work.
Sleepy Meadows has a most unusual setting, in a funeral home( though it’s an inspired choice for a necromancer like your main character Kylie McGovern!) Was it based on a real place and did you have to research much?
Sleepy Meadows is not based on any particular funeral home, that is pure fantasy, but I did do a fair bit of research into rural funeral homes and the embalming process etc. That said, I have to admit that I took poetic licence in a few spots.
How did you go about creating Kylie and the other characters in your book? Which were your favourites, and which most challenging, in terms of creative process?
The characters evolved organically, which is something I love about writing – they surprise you, they take on a life of their own. Funnily enough, the murderer was not who I originally planned, and I had some trouble abandoning my intended villain for someone who was supposed to just be a sideline character, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I also had some feedback from early readers that my protagonist Kylie was too morally-grey and she needed to be sweetened-up a bit. But I’m glad I left her as she is: “Creepy and quiet, and a little morally-challenged”.
What’s been the reaction from readers so far?
So far the response has been really positive, which is a relief.
What’s next? Are you planning any more books featuring Kylie? Or will you be writing something completely different next time? 
Sleepy Meadows is the first in a series, so I am working on the sequel now, as well as a different, more traditional portal-fantasy novel.
What are your top tips for new and aspiring writers?
My top tips for any aspiring writer is to read widely and to be consistent with your writing practice. Little by little becomes a lot.
Jana Hunter lives in Armidale NSW, where she can usually be found in a coffee shop, writing. You can find her on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/janahunterauthor/
You can buy the book here.

Fiction, prediction and diversity: an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today I’m very pleased to interview popular author Hazel Edwards about her new book for adult readers, Celebrant Sleuth, set in a country town and centred around the character of Quinn, an unusual woman who lives in a romantic but non-sexual relationship with her partner Art, and who as well as being a celebrant in great demand at weddings, funerals and other life rituals, also has a knack for solving mysteries of all sorts.

Hazel, how did the idea for ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ first come about? 

I’d observed celebrants in action at Australian weddings, name-days and funerals. Most are very personable.

They are problem-solvers. They have to handle dramatic situations with difficult people and heightened tension. Apt words in emotive ceremonies are their business.

The role seemed versatile enough for a sleuth character who needed to move into different settings and cultures to solve mysteries. For diverse age groups too.

Like many others, our family is spread across generations and cultures and friends are re-committing, divorcing or blending.

So I’d been to a few celebrations, commitments and an increasing number of funerals.

That seemed like a good starting point to research the role of celebrant. As a believer in participant-observation, I considered qualifying as a celebrant by doing the course, but then decided it was more effective to interview the experts.

In early 2016, well before the Same Sex Marriage law debates, I moved into serious interviewing.  More than twenty-five celebrants on phone or Skype or in person. But it wasn’t all serious, most celebrants had a sense of humour, which was vital because I was collecting anecdotes for my mystery plots.  I needed the absurd inbetween the tragic and the romantic.

Most fictional detectives have a ‘backstory’ but Quinn, the celebrant/detective in Celebrant Sleuth, has a most unusual one. Can you tell us how you came to create her, including any research you had to do? 

 Usually I create a detailed dossier for each of my characters. Quinn required a bit more research because I needed to get the gender vocabulary right as well as find out about the job of celebrant.

Earlier, I’d been invited to various literary festivals in connection with our co-written trans YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ (2010).

On a panel, I met an extremely articulate and thoughtful asexual in her early thirties, who challenged me to write about her gender circumstances. She was NOT a celebrant.  She was a park ranger. But the idea of juxtaposing a romantic personality in a longterm relationship within the character of a celebrant who had a job involving romance interested me.  ‘I prefer icecream to sex’ was one of her very quotable comments to me, as she explained the differences between being asexual  (feeling no sexual attraction to any gender) and being a ‘romantic’ desiring and giving affection which is different from being aromantic.

She became one of my ‘expert’ readers.  Along with the celebrants, actors, caterers, lawyers, mothers-in-law, actors and photographers I interviewed. And the multiple florists in fabulously perfumed shops.  The only problem was fictional time. Everything needed to happen in under an hour, just like in a wedding or funeral.

But it’s taken about 2 years to write in ‘real time’, between 6 am and 8 am daily. My brain was clear then and could cope with plotting clues. The mysteries are episodic, with celebrant Quinn solving problems in settings including the football hall of fame, retirement village chapel and a few inter-relationships of florist, caterer and media in the country township during an economic downturn. Millionaire retirement village owner, eighty-something Flora is feisty and falls for a younger man. I had to create a whole ‘fictitious’ township of intersecting roles. And get the street geography right.

There are several stories in Celebrant Sleuth: cases ranging from murder to theft to missing wills. Did you write them in sequence or not?

 No. I didn’t write in sequence.

The tight opening, Introducing Quinn, was written last as the viewpoint was always a challenge.  Initially I imagined a kind of voice- over which could adapt for television, but also the issue of asexual gender had to be explained indirectly for a mainstream audience but was not the central theme of the book. First person enabled less use of pronouns

I wrote each chapter as a separate ceremony with a problem or crime solved by Quinn the sleuth. But I didn’t want a murder per chapter. That seemed Agatha-Christie-ish, depopulating one small country town. The settings were a challenge because I needed to create a country town, small enough for the characters to bump into each other via their other roles like caterer or florist.

I tried to vary the mood and pace of the chapters and the type of ceremony, not all were weddings. And I had to check the facts about types of death… and set up the circumstances and motives. After trialling them with my test readers.

‘Celebrant’ is an Australian term and often confused with ‘celibate’ or ‘psyche’ or ‘Celebrity’ so I had qualms using it for the title.

Amused that my publisher BookPOD has used the meta tag Clean crime to describe ‘Celebrant Sleuth’.

‘I do…or die’…was the last minute subtitle to include all circumstances.

What has been the reaction of readers?

Really positive.  Celebrants are thrilled with their job being featured.  Diverse gender groups are delighted to have an asexual hero. Others like the small town mystery.

My expert test readers picked me up on a few technicalities. ACE as the name of Quinn’s partner was inappropriate as it is a term used by asexual groups. Pure coincidence I used that name as I was trying to give alphabetical and simple names to characters.  Ace became Art. Coronial and forensic pathology procedures.  Legal stuff.  Uniformity of retirement village streetfronts and use of ramps.  Youngest legal age of bride.

But the greatest legal challenge has been the Same Sex Marriage laws changing the terminology in my commitment chapter. Last minute updates.  So far I haven’t been accused of being politically opportunistic in using such a topical gender situation. The reality is I started writing two years ago. It was serendipitous topicality which had the law being changed on the day I was checking the galleys and had to change clues since wedding services differ from commitment in the legal wording and papers, but there will still be people who choose to commit rather than marry.

The cover has ambiguous and symbolic silhouettes and that was deliberate. Designer Lee Burgemeestre is multi talented and is also a celebrant so she brought an experienced eye.

My favourite anecdote relates to lost rings and metal detectors on the beach. Closely followed by dogs as Best Man.  And the professional afternoon- tea eaters who turn up as rent-a-crowd for the scones, raspberry jam and clotted cream provided by one funeral parlour, even if they didn’t know the deceased.

Some readers are intrigued by the blurb.

‘I buried my father, married my sister and sorted the missing will.’

Quinn, a celebrant with style and a few obsessions but a good heart, solves quirky problems, mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in her country town.

Ex-actor with a great voice who writes eulogies to die for! Not forgetting a few quotable ‘Quinn’s Laws of Relativity’. A romantic, but asexual, Quinn lives with her long term partner Art who runs community Channel Zero.

The workstyle of a celebrant is never routine. Fake I.D. Fraud. Fights, even to the death, over wills and inheritance … Mislaid rings. Lost bride. Food poisoning.   Clients of varied ages and cultures are well looked after. Even vintage millionairess Flora with the much younger lover who might be a con-artist.

Quinn solves most problems but not always in the expected way

Why have you included Quinn’s Theories of Relativity at the end?

To characterize Quinn as many celebrants do write their original material.

Most people only know Albert Einstein from t-shirt quotes, but …

I admit I occasionally adapt his ‘Theory of….’quotes for funerals or weddings. Not really plagiarism because I always mention Einstein, just an updated tribute to the most significant science philosopher (in my opinion). One of my heroes and gives a bit of gravitas to a service.

Quinn’s Theory of Relativity

The likelihood of the relationship ending in divorce is directly related to the number of arguments during rehearsals, obsessive preparation and the bride’s budget on self.

My favourite is: Quinn’s Theory of Funeral Secrets

‘At a funeral, we acknowledge the life of the person and maybe the many identities, actions and secret lives of which the family and friends were unaware. For some a shock, for others a relief.’

 Are you planning any more ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ stories?

Yes.  But only if optioned for television. I’m realistic about the number of options which are never made.

Currently there is a great demand for celebrants to perform weddings for same-sex couples who previously had commitment services or who had married under the laws of elsewhere.  But the demand for commitments, re-commitments, funerals and naming ceremonies will continue.


Celebrant Sleuth by Hazel Edwards is published by Bookpod and is available through all good bookstores. Formats: paperback and ebook.


2017 Book Discovery 8: Elisabeth Storrs’ pick

In the latest of the book discovery posts, Elisabeth Storrs writes about her pick.

The Summons, by David Whish-Wilson, is far from light summer reading but my 2017 discovery of this dark and compelling tale provided me with a potent insight into the Nazis’ obsession into the occult. Set in 1934 Berlin, the story traces the impact on WW1 veteran, Dr Paul Mobius, when he is summoned by the SS to join Himmler’s Special Witch Work Unit. At the same time he becomes embroiled in another Nazi scheme which threatens the safety of his charge, the young simple-minded Carl.

Mobius is a fragile character, tormented by the horrors of the Great War, who nevertheless shows nerve enough to defy ‘the summons’ and escape with Carl to the country. Here, with his newly found love, Monika, the historian finds the promise of happiness. However, the tentacles of Nazi eugenic philosophy have already infiltrated the psyche of the rural community. Mobius must stay true to his own beliefs, and muster both physical and moral courage, as he is inexorably drawn to Wewelsburg Castle, the headquarters of bizarre and brutal SS experiments.

Whish-Wilson’s writing is superb, relaying both gentle humour, deep pathos and increasing menace. Ordinary Germans are depicted in the early stages of the sinister spread of Nazi doctrine and yet their lives are also portrayed as mundane and relatable.

I was drawn to the novel because I am researching the distortion of history by another of Himmler’s think-tanks to justify Lebensraum. The plight of a museum curator faced with making a Faustian Bargain is central to my own WIP set in WW2 Berlin and Russia. Whish-Wilson’s book sets a high bar. It is simultaneously touching and disturbing; an exploration of a troubled soul, growing doom, and an unexpected love for an unconventional woman and a threatened child-like youth. Pitched to prescient readers, the power of the novel is in us knowing the fate awaiting each.


Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Her curiosity piqued by an Etruscan sarcophagus depicting a couple embracing for eternity, she discovered the little known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome and the inspiration to write the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga. She is also the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She is now hurtling centuries forward to write Treasured, a novel which tells the story of stolen loot, crazy Nazi archaeology, and the lost Trojan gold.

Childhood Christmas/Noels d’enfance: a bilingual memoir piece for the season

Today, in honour of the Christmas season, I’m republishing a piece which I wrote in English and in French (separately) and which first appeared in the now sadly defunct French Living Magazine several years ago. It’s about the Christmases of my childhood, which were always wonderful and set me up with a lifelong love of this beautiful season. I’m republishing the piece both in its English and French versions. And at the very end, there’s a recipe for the very simple and delicious Christmas log(Bûche de Noël) I describe my mother making, and which has stayed in our family as a staple of the Christmas table.

Merry Christmas, season’s greetings, and a happy New Year to all my readers!

Seeing Santa in David Jones, in childhood. I am at very edge on left, in yellow dress, Camile standing next to me, Gabrielle and Bertrand on Santa’s lap, and Louis at far right.

Childhood Christmas

Christmas! Even the letters of the word to me glitter like the candles that shone on the festive tables of my childhood. My parents arranged our lives to the rhythm of traditional festivals: Easter, Mardi Gras, the Assumption, All Saints: but Christmas was by far the most important festival in our family. It was an enchanting time, a time when fairytales and religious stories seemed to come together in a warm and joyful atmosphere.

In Australia as in France, our parents gave us Christmases both extraordinary and traditional; something that later, as a mother myself, I took enormous pleasure in continuing. Some things my husband and I changed; we didn’t do the ‘réveillon’, for example—but the memory of wonderful childhood Christmases was something I was determined to give our children.

As a child, I would wait for Christmas in a kind of dreamy impatience; every year it was the same and every year I would wait for each predictable yet surprising stage of the great festival. In Sydney, that would start the week before Christmas, on a Saturday, when my father would take my sister Camille and I to David Jones in the city. (We also went with Maman to see Santa with the little ones during the week). First we looked in delight at the beautiful windows with their traditionally festive themes; then we would go onside the shop to choose the beautiful dress that would be one of our presents—the only one not from Father Christmas. Usually, it was with my mother that we went shopping, but here it was my father who enjoyed taking us with him. (Later, our brothers and little sister were taken too before it all ended when we were teenagers.) Lace, ribbons, fine lawns, velvets, vivid colours, it would all be paraded before us then, once the dress was chosen(my father of course had the last word!) we went to the store’s restaurant for lunch, an unusual treat!

The Christmas tree was ordered that week but would only be bought home two days before Christmas. But even before that you had to get out the boxes of decorations, the crystal balls, the satin stars, the little wooden figurines, the little birds with silky feathers and sequinned eyes, etc, to make sure nothing was broken. There again it was my father who was the master of ceremonies—we were allowed to look with wide eyes but not touch. But we were allowed to hand him, if we were very careful, the lovely clay figures for the Nativity scene. That would be prepared a day or two before the arrival of the Christmas tree. First my father would choose large pebbles or rather small rocks, which he arranged in the form of a grotto—his theory being that was what the Biblical stable had been. The whole was placed on the mantelpiece and then twigs and dried leaves were arranged artfully around it to represent the landscape. Mary and Joseph were placed at one end of the mantelpiece, to represent the fact they were journeying towards Bethlehem; at the opposite end of the mantelpiece were placed the three kings or wise men, as they’d be studying the skies before the birth of Jesus, and a little closer, the shepherds would be minding their flocks on a rock which represented a hillside near Bethlehem. Every day, May and Joseph got closer to the grotto; but baby Jesus stayed in tissue-paper in the box till very late on Christmas Eve when he would appear between his parents, now firmly settled in the grotto. At this moment too the shepherds had come close, two angels appeared above the grotto, and in their Oriental corner the three kings began their long journey which would only end at Twelfth Night, Epiphany, January 6, when they would arrive before the grotto to give their gifts of gold and perfumes to baby Jesus. (A day we celebrated with le Gateau des Rois, the King-cake, where there was always a broad bean hidden—whoever found the broad bean was king or queen for the day, and excused from chores such as the washing-up!)

In Sydney, my father worked for a big French construction firm, and several years running, the company director and his wife threw a Christmas party at their gorgeous harbourside home in Point Piper for the children of employees, the week before Christmas. They stopped doing that when I was around 9 (no doubt because of the large expense involved!), but they were wonderful parties. Not only was there a huge and delicious afternoon tea, a gigantic Christmas tree, exciting games with great prizes, and a Disney film to watch in the home theatre, but happiness of happiness, each child had been allowed to request from Father Christmas whatever he or she wanted. One year stood out for me in particular: I’d asked for a bride doll; my younger sister Camille a baby doll. Alas! When she set eyes on my doll, resplendent in her white lace, she was furiously jealous, grabbed it out of my hands and decapitated it, from sheer spite! My beautiful doll Isabelle had to spend Christmas headless and had to go quickly to the doll hospital at New Year..

Christmas time at home was magical. A day before Christmas, the tree arrived at our place. That evening, my father decorated the tree and the eldest children were allowed to hand him the precious decorations: the fragile glass baubles, wooden figures, tin soldiers, silk birds, strings of glass beads and tinsel; the younger children could look but not touch. Once the tree was loaded with its lovely shining burden, we would stay there looking at it in wonder; hardly even hearing Maman telling us to each get a pair of shoes to put under the tree, ready for Father Christmas the next day. But if that day was interesting, the next day was the one we really waited impatiently for. For that day would be the day of presents, and of the réveillon, certain years; we didn’t do the réveillon every year(it depended on how tired our parents felt!) but it is that memory I want to evoke now.

All day, Maman would cook the food for the réveillon meal, and we would help her, or rather, we buzzed around getting in the way. If we were at Sydney rather than France for Christmas(which was more than often the case), Maman would adapt traditional dishes for a summer rather than a winter Christmas. She avoided heating up a house that was already hot with dishes that needed too long in the oven: so, no roast turkey or geese for example but a beef roast cooked rare or other such meat(the main dish varied from year to year)and no hot starters either, but good fresh seafood, oysters, mussels, prawns, crayfish. And though we always had a Christmas log cake, it was a little different from such cakes traditionally served in France; this one was not even cooked but made with crushed sponge finger biscuits, mixed with melted butter, a little sugar, an egg and hot strong coffee, shaped into a log, put in the fridge to set then later covered with melted chocolate and out back into the fridge till it was time to serve it. This antipodean Christmas log has also figured in my children’s Christmases, as I have kept up the practical and delicious tradition of my mother.

So, Christmas Eve went by in cooking and for us children in airing feverish theories as to what we’d find near our shoes under the Christmas tree, in a few hours. As to me, who clung fervently to belief  in Father Christmas and in fairies too till the age of 11 or 12,  I worried that Father Christmas might forget us or might get sick or have an accident in a sky that was so full of planes already! I was determined I wouldn’t go to sleep but would await his arrival that night; but every time, it was the same thing. We children would be in bed by six o’clock that evening; first, I’d not be able to close my eyes; then half past eleven would come, when our parents woke us up to go to midnight mass, and I’d always be surprised to discover I’d been fast asleep. We were allowed, before going to Mass, to have a peek in the living room where the glittering tree, smelling warmly of the forest, reigned, with, at its foot, a pile of presents. No way were we allowed to open them before mass; but what joy to see them there, and what exquisite torture was the wait!

Outside, it was dark, for it was midnight, but the church was full of light, the choir was singing joyful carols, baby Jesus smiled between his proud parents, and soon it would be the time for us to open our presents and to eat the magnificent meal Maman had prepared, which in the light of the candles looked like a royal feast. It was Christmas, really Christmas, a day we preferred even to our own birthdays–for not only did it last longer, but everyone seemed filled with a joyful spirit and all that was ordinary and humdrum and boring disappeared in a beautiful, warm and unforgettable enchantment.

Watching a film at the company children’s Christmas party, aged about 7. I am at far right at edge of pic, chin in hand, blue dress.

Noëls d’enfance

Noël! Les lettres même de ce mot brillent pour moi sur la page, comme les bougies qui brillaient sur la table de fête de mon enfance. Mes parents ont fait vivre notre enfance aux rythmes des fêtes traditionelles; de Pâques, de Mardi Gras, de l’Assomption, de la Toussaint, mais Noël etait de loin la plus importante fête dans notre famille. C’était une période d’enchantement, un moment où le conte de fées et l’histoire sainte se réunissaient merveilleusement dans une ambiance chaleureuse et joyeuse.

En Australie comme en France, nos parents nous ont offert des Noëls à la fois extraordinaires et traditionnels; chose que plus tard, mère moi-meme, j’ai pris énormement de plaisir à continuer. Certaines choses mon mari et moi ont changé; nous ne faisons pas le réveillon, par exemple; mais le souvenir de Noëls enfantins merveilleux est quelque chose que je tenais absolument à donner à nos enfants.

Enfant, j’attendais Noël avec une sorte d’impatience rêveuse; tous les ans c’était la même chose et tous les ans j’attendais les étapes prévisibles mais surprenantes de la grande fête. A Sydney, ça commencait le samedi avant Noël quand notre père nous amenaient, ma soeur Camille et moi, chez David Jones, à ‘la city’. (Nous allions avec Maman aussi avec les petits pendant la semaine voir le Père Noël) Nous nous extasions devant les belles vitrines avec leurs thèmes traditionnels de fêtes et puis nous rentrions dans le grand magasin pour choisir les belles tenues que nos parents nous offraient chaque année —le seul cadeau que nous savions n’était pas apporté par le Père Noël. D’habitude, c’était avec notre mère que nous allions faire les magasins—mais là c’était mon père qui se faisait une joie de nous accompagner. (Plus tard, les garçons et ma petite soeur y sont allés aussi.) Dentelles, rubans, tissus fins, velours, couleurs chatoyantes: tout le matin ça défilait devant nous et puis une fois la robe choisie(mon père ayant bien sûr le dernier mot!), nous déjeunions au restaurant du magasin, chose exceptionelle!

Le sapin de Noël lui-même avait déjà été commandé, mais n’arriverait à la maison que deux jours avant le grand jour; mais il fallait quand même sortir auparavant les boites pleines de décorations: des boulles en cristal, d’étoiles en satin, de petits bonhommes en bois, de petits oiseaux au plumage en soie et aux yeux faits de sequins, etc, pour être bien sur qu’il n’y avait rien de cassé. Là encore c’était mon père qui était maitre de cérémonie—nous avions le droit de regarder( avec nos yeux bien ronds!) mais pas de toucher. Mais nous avions le droit de lui passer, si nous faisions trés attention, les ravissants personnages en argile pour la crèche.

La crèche, elle, se préparait un jour ou deux avant l’arrivée du sapin. D’abord mon père choisissait des gros cailloux dans le jardin, qui, mis l’un sur l’autre, ferait fonction de crèche, ou plutot de grotte, endroit où, mon pere théorisait, l’étable de la Bible se serait plutot trouvée. Le tout était placé sur la cheminée, et puis on arrangeait des feuilles mortes et des petites branches, pour représenter le paysage. Marie et Joseph étaient placés à un bout de la cheminée, pour représenter le fait qu’ils eéaient en route pour Bethlehem; au point opposé, les rois-mages etaient placés, car eux étudaient les cieux avant la naissance de Jesus, et un peu plus prés, les bergers et leurs moutons etaient placés sur une roche qui representait une des collines prés de Bethlehem. Chaque jour, Marie et Joseph s’approchait de la grotte, mais le petit Jesus restait dans sa boite jusqu’a trés tard la veille de Noel, quand il apparaissait entre ses parents, maintenant bien établis dans la grotte. A ce moment là aussi se rapprochaient les bergers, deux anges apparaissaient au dessus de la grotte, et dans leur coin d’Orient au fin fond de la cheminée, les rois-mages commençaient leur long voyage qui ne s’achèverait que le jour de l’Epiphanie, le 6 janvier, quand ils arriveraient devant la grotte pour donner leurs cadeaux d’or et de parfums au petit Jesus. (Jour ou nous célébrons leur arrivée avec le Gâteau des Rois, ou il y avait toujours une fève cachée—celui ou celle qui trouverait la fève serait le roi ou la reine pour la journée, et dispense/ée des corvées telles que la vaisselle!)

Mon père travaillait pour une grande compagnie française de construction, et plusieurs années, le directeur de la compagnie a offert une fête pour tous les enfants d’employés, la semaine avant Noël; cela a cessé quand j’étais encotre trés jeune, vers 8  ans, et je m’en souviens que d’une de ces fêtes somptueuses, et cela à cause d’un évenement particulier. Non seulement y a t’il eu un goûter merveilleux, un arbre de Noël gigantesque, des jeux passionants, et un film de Mickey a visionner, mais comble de bonheur, chaque enfant avait pu demander au Père Noël ce qu’il ou elle voulait (c’était la compagnie qui payait).J’avais demandé une poupée habillée en robe de mariée; ma soeur Camille une poupée-bébé. Hélas! Quand elle a vu la mienne, superbe dans sa robe en dentelle blanche, elle est devenue jalouse furieuse, s’en est emparée et l’a decapitée, de pur depit! Ma belle poupée a du passer Noël sans tête et aller dare-dare à l’hopital des poupées au Nouvel An..

Mais la plupart de temps dans mon enfance, il n y avait pas de fête de Noël hors de la maison. Un jour avant la veille de Noël, le sapin arrivait chez nous. Ce soir-la, mon père décorait l’arbre et là encore les plus grands avaient le droit de lui passer les précieux bibelots; les plus petits pouvaient regarder mais surtout pas toucher! Une fois le sapin chargé de son beau fardeau étincelant, nous restions là tous à le regarder avec émerveillement; n’entendant presque pas Maman qui nous appelait pour venir chercher une paire de chaussures chacun pour mettre sous l’arbre, prêts pour le Pere Noël le lendemain.

Mais si ce jour la etait passionant, le lendemain, la veille de Noël , était le jour qu’on attendait avec le plus d’impatience. Car ce jour là était le jour des cadeaux, et du réveillon, certaines années. On ne faisait pas toujours le réveillon; ça dependait de l’année(et de la fatigue de nos parents!), mais c’est celui-la que je vais évoquer maintenant.

Toute la journée, Maman faisait la cuisine pour le repas du réveillon, et nous l’aidions, ou plutot, nous nous empressions de jouer à la mouche du coche. Si on était à Sydney pour Noël (ce qui était le plus souvent le cas) Maman adaptait les plats traditionnels pour un Noël estival plutot qu’hivernal. Elle évitait de chauffer la maison déjà assez chaude avec des plats qui doivent aller trop longtemps au four: donc pas de dinde ou d’oie rotie par exemple, mais un rôti de boeuf cuit trés vite ou autre viande rapidement cuite(le plat principal changeait tous les ans)pas d’entrées chaudes, mais des bons produits de la mer tous frais, huitres, moules, crevettes, langoustines. Et quoique nous avions toujours une Bûche de Noël elle etait un peu différente des bûches traditionellement servies sur les tables de Noël françaises; celle-ci ne se cuit même pas, mais est faite de biscuits à la cuillère reduits en poudre, mélangés avec du beurre fondu, du sucre, un oeuf et du café fort, le mélange arrangé en forme de bûche, mis au frigo, puis plus tard recouvert de chocolat fondu et remis au frigo jusqu’au dessert du réveillon. Cette Bûche facon australe a fait partie aussi de tous les Noëls de mes enfants, car j’ai gardé cette tradition pratique et delicieuse de ma mère.

Donc, la journée de la veille de Noël se passait en cuisine et pour nous enfants en tout cas en théories fièvreuses sur ce qu’on trouverait prés de nos chaussures dans quelques heures. Quant à moi, qui a cru fermement au Père Noël,comme aux fées, d’ailleurs, jusqu’a l’âge d’onze ou douze ans, je me faisais du souci au cas où le Père Noël nous oublierait, ou tomberait malade, ou aurait un accident, car, me disais-je, il y a déjà tellement d’avions qui sillonnent les cieux..Je me disais que je ne m’endormirais pas, ce soir là, que j’attendrais son arrivée; mais chaque fois, c’était la même chose. Nous, les enfants, étaient au lit à six heures du soir; d’abord je n’arrivais pas à fermer les yeux; mais arrivé onze heures et demie du soir, quand nos parents nous reveillaient pour aller à la messe de minuit, j’etais toujours surprise de decouvrir qu’en fait j’avais bel et bien dormi! Nous avions droit, avant de partir à la messe, de jeter un coup d’oeil dans le salon ou le sapin, étincelant de bougies, de cristal et de guirlandes, et sentant bon la forêt, tronait magnifiquement avec, à ses pieds, un déversement ruisselant de cadeaux. Pas de question de les ouvrir avant la messe; mais quelle joie de les voir là, et quelle douce tourmente, l’attente!

Dehors, il faisait noir, car il était presque minuit, mais l’église etait pleine de lumière, le choeur chantait des cantiques joyeux, le petit Jesus souriait entre ses parents ravis, et puis bientôt ce serait le temps ou on pourrait ouvrir nos cadeaux et manger le magnifique repas que Maman avait preparé et qui, dans la lumière des bougies, ressemblait à des festins de cour royale. C’etait Noël,  vraiment Noël ; un jour que nous préférions même à nos propres anniversaires—car non seulement durait-il plus longtemps, mais tout le monde semblait rempli de joie de vivre et tout ce qui était ordinaire et ennuyeux avait disparu pour le moment dans une féerie ravissante, chaleureuse et inoubliable.


Super easy Christmas log (needs no baking, can be made Christmas Eve).
As noted above, this was my mother’s invention, we had it every Christmas when we were kids, and I still make it every Christmas.
1 packet sponge finger biscuits
200 g unsalted butter, melted
1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)
half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)
Cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.
Crush all the biscuits, add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That’s what you do then–shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can also decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, sugar holly, whatever you feel like!

2017 Book Discovery 7: Jean Kent’s pick

Jean Kent writes about her 2017 book discovery today.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is my rediscovered gem for 2017.  For some time this book has been near the top of the tottering pile beside my bed, waiting for that mysterious moment that the best books have, when it would become just the right one for me to reach for.

I love the gentle wisdom and wit of this story of a pilot who has had to land his damaged plane in the desert and his encounter with a ‘little prince’ who has also fallen from the sky – from a very small asteroid, where he usually lives alone, with one rose for company and the possibility of watching forty-four sunsets in one day for consolation.

Although it has the lovely, simple clarity of a children’s story, there is so much poignant adult experience here as well.  I wasn’t very far into the book when I came across a friend whose wife had recently died, sitting beside Lake Macquarie, taking a photo of the sunset.  Every day, he said, he did this now.  I went home, read a little further and found the little prince saying: ‘You know, when a person is very, very sad, they like sunsets.’

This edition also has all the qualities that make a printed book more special to me than a digital version.  It is just slightly larger than my hand, which makes it a pleasure to hold.  The paper is silky and white, and the print and line drawings are so crisp it is as if the ink has just dried.  The cover, too, with its delicate painting of the wistful, golden-haired boy-prince, is irresistible.

I bought my copy at the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop in the Marais, Paris.  So even though this is an English translation, that connection immediately makes me feel as though I’m partly in France while I’m reading.  Which, of course, adds to the joy …


Jean Kent has published eight books of poetry.  Her most recent book is Paris in my Pocket (Pitt Street Poetry), a selection of poems written during a residency at the Literature Board’s Keesing Studio, Paris.  She lives at Lake Macquarie, NSW.  She also posts poems and occasional Jottings at http://jeankent.net/