My take on Shakespeare’s final years: a mix of novella and play

A few yshakespeare_williamears ago, I wrote a rather unusual–not to say odd!–piece of writing called Shakespeare’s Last Play, which is a mix of play and novella, set in Stratford, in the last year of Shakespeare’s life. Knowing it was unlikely to attract the interest of publishers, I published it myself as a short e-book through my PressBooks site. It’s available there for reading, free, on a Creative Commons license.

I re-read it the other day and thought it was worthwhile drawing readers’ attention to it again. Here’s the introduction:

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that in the last few years of his life, Shakespeare retired to his native Stratford and to all intents and purposes never wrote another play, at least not under his own name(there is some indication he may have collaborated with others.) What makes such a great writer, so driven, imaginative and very much a part of London theatre life, suddenly fall silent? What might his life have been like, in those final years at Stratford? These questions, and reading somewhere that not long before Shakespeare’s death, his writer friends Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton and theatre manager John Hemmings visited him in Stratford, were the inspiration for this book.

I chose to write it in an unusual format, half novella, half play, as a way of evoking an atmosphere half-way between the page and the theatre.

You can read the full work here.

On writers 4: in loving memory and celebration of Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd_famous_pub_photo_gray_hairThis fourth republished article about writers I’ve been inspired by is a very personal one, because not only did I love the work of the great American children’s writer Lloyd Alexander, but I also knew him personally, at least by letter, as we corresponded over many years. This article was written after he died in 2007, and was originally published in Magpies magazine.

Vale Lloyd Alexander, 1924-2007

The world of children’s literature has lost a great light. On May 17, 2007, the American writer of many classic children’s novels, Lloyd Alexander, died of cancer at his home in Philadelphia, only two weeks after the death of his beloved wife Janine, with whom he’d shared sixty years. Beloved of readers and critics alike, his work spanned more than forty years, and more than forty books, and as a fantasy writer, he is reckoned to be in the ranks of such as JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, TH White, and JK Rowling.
In fact, I’d go so far as to call him the greatest American writer of children’s fantasy of modern times. Many people would agree with me. He has a huge, devoted worldwide audience. His six-volume Chronicles of Prydain have been continuously in print since 1963, with the first two, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, made into the 1985 Disney movie, The Black Cauldron, which has always had a mixed reputation—many readers being disappointed by the fact that too many of the events of the books were shortened, and too many characters dropped.   book of three
The books themselves however have had no such mixed reviews. Who can resist Taran, assistant pig-keeper’, and his oracular pig, Hen Wen? The feisty Princess Eilonwy? The bard Fflewdur Fflam? And the noisy, messy creature, Gurgi? It’s not only the characters, though, or the action of the books—which is considerable—or the exciting plots, or the scary villains and mythological richness of the background that readers take to their hearts: it’s a warmth, a humour, a wit, a love of language, a lightness of touch and a playfulness, which is all too often lacking in fantasy. Yet he also doesn’t shirk the darker side of life, and of people. There’s an extraordinary honesty, yet a compassion, in all his work, which is immensely attractive. Readers love the Prydain books, and dearly: to the extent that I know of at least two people who so loved them as children that they were inspired to name their children after them. One friend named her first-born son Lloyd Alexander; another named her youngest son Taran, after the hero of the Chronicles.
alexanderironringBut it’s not just the Chronicles of Prydain, with their earthy yet mystical Celtic mythological background, that Alexander is famous for. He wrote a large number of wonderful, versatile fantasy adventure novels, set against all kinds of backgrounds and inspired by all kinds of fairytale and mythological sources.
Long before it was fashionable, Lloyd Alexander delved into all sorts of multicultural influences. There’s The Iron Ring, for instance, inspired by Indian myth; The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, based on Chinese sources; The Marvellous Misadventures of Sebastian, with its Central European flavour; The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, with its roots in the Arabian Nights; The Arkadians, with its source in Greek myth. And many, many more. There are certain recurring motifs in his books: cats, music, the quest for true courage and love. And fun. Pure, unadulterated fun. He is such a fun writer, in all sorts of ways: pure pleasure to read, beautiful to read, because everything is so well put together, so deft and exciting and funny and warm and moving and intelligent. And his considerable learning and experience are worn lightly. A man who had travelled very widely and was interested in all kinds of cultures and always curious and intrigued by the amazing richness of the human experience throughout the world, he was also very much a homebody, who dearly loved his city of Philadelphia, where he was born and bred, and where he lived with his family for most of his life, apart from a few years away in Europe.
That deep knowledge of ‘Philly’ as well as of other places shows up very strongly in his marvellous comic adventure series, set around determined 19th century Philadelphia schoolgirl detective Vesper Holly, and told in the rather flustered, fussy tones of her guardian Professor Brinton Garrett, known as illyrian adventure‘Brinnie’: these include The Illyrian Adventure, The El Dorado Adventure, The Drackenberg Adventure, and more. He also wrote a historical adventure series, The Westmark Trilogy, set in a world that rather ressembles Revolutionary France. He wrote several books that weren’t strictly speaking fantasy, including the delightful semi-autobiographical The Boy and the Gawgon. And he also wrote for adults, for the first few years of his career, until he switched to children’s books in 1963.
His first book, an autobiographical novel called And Let The Credit Go, was published in 1955. A fluent French speaker (his wife Janine, whom he met at university in Paris after World War Two, after a stint in the Army and in counterintelligence, was French) he is also the author of several translations of important French philosophical and poetic works, including Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre, Uninterrupted Poetry, by Paul Eluard, The Sea Rose by Paul Vialar.
golden dreamYes, the world of children’s literature has lost a great light. Readers everywhere have lost a great writer, though there is that wonderful backlist to enjoy. And his last book, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, will be published in August. But it’s more than that for me. I feel like I’ve lost a real friend, as well, because for the last ten years, I’ve been corresponding frequently with Lloyd, exchanging letters and cards(he didn’t like computers, and never used email)and swapping books with him. The bright row of Lloyd Alexander books on my bookshelf, all inscribed by him in his characteristically warm and friendly style, will be doubly precious to me now.
It’s not always true that a great writer is a great person, but when the two coincide, it’s pure magic. That was certainly the case with Lloyd. From the very first letter he sent me, in January 1997, in response to the enthusiastic missive I’d sent via Cricket magazine(with whom he was associated), after my children and I had finished reading The Chronicles of Prydain, you could tell that here was a generous, warm, intelligent and modest person, a real gentleman in the very best sense of the term. Finding we had a good deal in common—writing, France, music, Celtic myth, travel, and much more—we continued to correspond fairly often over the years, and sent each other signed copies of our recently-published books. Lloyd always replied to letters promptly, typing or handwriting on his own distinctive pale yellow letter-paper, with the drawing of a cat playing the violin(thereby combining two of his great loves, as well as indulging his sense of humour). The elegant envelopes postmarked ‘Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania’ were always welcome arrivals in our mailbox!
Lloyd was always ready with a kind word and a friendly remark, and his generous and perceptive understanding of my own books heartened me enormously, and meant a huge amount to me, as did the warm and intelligent quotes he provided for my publishers when my books started to be published in the USA. Over the years, we shared snippets of information, and exchanged news of family and of friends(he was tickled pink by the knowledge that two of our friends had been inspired to name their kids after him and his characters!) And we exchanged Christmas cards—his featured his own delightful coloured drawings of a fantasy cat world, from the poshest drawing-rooms to the rumbustious tavern, with each year a new scene.. WP_20150327_001[1]
It may surprise non-writers(or perhaps not!), but not all writers are as supportive or as friendly and generous towards other writers as Lloyd was. In a competitive industry where egos can be as big as houses, there is all too often an urge to ‘do down’ or at least ignore other writers. Even when it’s not as bad as that, there can be a sense that really, what do you have in common except that you both write books? But when you do connect on a real level—the personal as well as the artistic—it is a very special friendship, even if that is conducted long-distance, as ours was, for we never met in person. And so I grieve for a good friend and a good writer, a good man and one who will be sorely missed, but whose books will live for ever.

The years have passed, but we still miss you very much, Lloyd.

Firebirds and talking wolves

DSCN0095 DSCN0093When Trinity’s heroine, Helen Clement, first arrives in Russia, she’s put in mind of a book she once owned as a child, sent to her by her mother’s Russian-American friend, Professor Bayeva. It’s a beautiful illustrated version of the most famous of all Russian fairy tales, The Tale of Tsarevitch(Prince) Ivan, the Firebird, and Grey Wolf. The story’s an amazing, thrilling blend of adventure, magic, quest and romance, with a good dose of danger and betrayal thrown in, and features vivid characters: not only Ivan, his beautiful beloved Yelena, and his wicked older brothers, but especially the mysterious Firebird and the shape-shifting Grey Wolf who is Ivan’s helper, protector and saviour. Teamed with beautiful illustrations by the great classic Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, it’s a story to stick in the memory of any child.

As it certainly stuck in mine. That classic fairy tale was an important part of my own childhood reading, in its incarnation as a Soviet-era picture book that preserved the great beauty of the illustrations and the straightforward nature of the original 19th century retelling. That edition was one of a series of English-language books of fairy tales, published in Moscow, that introduced to Western children not only wonderful stories like that one, and others such as Fenist the Falcon, Vassilissa the Beautiful, and The Frog Princess, but also the gorgeous illustrations of Ivan Bilibin. And those books have stuck in my imagination ever since, with their rich strands working their way into my writing as an adult, in books such as The Firebird, Scarlet in the Snow, and now the Trinity series.



Trinity inspirations: Old magic and new psychics

Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin(1876-1942)


Street fortune-teller, Moscow

One of the strongest inspirations for me in the creation of the world of Trinity is a fact I mentioned in my previous post:  that not only does Russia have a long history of traditional magic, but that history continues to this day, with new strands added to it in more recent times. In the long centuries before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, pretty much every village had its resident koldun, sorcerer or wizard, and/or zhanarka, which literally means ‘one who knows’ but could be thought of as a witch. Magic in Russia has always been practised by both sexes, often in different ways–for instance, kolduns were thought to have the power of shapeshifting, while zhanarkas were more skilled in healing. These are not hard and fast rules–and female sorcerers and male healers certainly existed: but in an interesting contrast to the West, the female practitioners generally had a better reputation than the male–kolduns were often accused of unholy practices, and were thought to be damned. This feeling against kolduns and their malefic power was behind some of the popular revulsion against Rasputin, for instance. In contrast, even when they were feared, female witches were often thought to have a good aspect, with even Baba Yaga, the fearsome legendary witch of Russian folklore being seen as a protective figure in some instances–when she took a liking to you, that is! Her opposite number, the legendary wizard Koschei the Deathless, by way of contrast, had no redeeming features!

Some traditional practitioners of magic, male and female,  also specialized in such things as divination, fortune-telling and the like, while in Siberia traditional shamans had a strong following. All classes of society frequented these various kinds of traditional occult practitioners, and from the late 19th century onwards, as well, there began to be interest in ‘Eastern’ philosophies and systems of magic coming from places such as India and China.

However, unlike in the West, for many centuries there was little really organized persecution of witches, whether male or female, though that did not mean individuals didn’t sometimes suffer. Part of the reason for the absence of witch-hunts is that belief in magic was so widespread that ordinary people knew and used a few spells themselves. And the Orthodox Church has always had an uneasy relationship to magic, with some clergy dead against it and many others much more ambiguous, with respect for ‘white’ or sympathetic magic still very common amongst believers, and ‘black’ or malefic magic much feared still. On occasion however the country’s rulers have tried to limit or punish the practice of magic. Continue reading

Trinity’s Russian setting 2: Moscow

DSCN7078In order to really do justice to the writing of Trinity, I knew I had to return to Russia to deepen some of the things I’d experienced that first time, and enrich the sensory texture of the novel, and the series in general, especially as I would be writing some very important scenes in Moscow, which I wanted to know a good deal better than over the two and a half days we’d spent there in 2010. We didn’t want to stay in hotels or go on any organized tours either, this time, but instead wanted to experience daily life in the city, on our own. In order to do that I knew I needed to learn at least basic Russian. Used to slipping from English to French with fluent ease, I had found it frustrating  to be stuck in the role of helpless tin-ear tourist the first time. So before we went the second time in August 2012, I enrolled in an excellent online course called Russian Accelerator, which, with an imaginatively devised combination of video and audio focussed on natural learning plus individual tutor attention, promises to make you fluent in basic conversation in just a few months, as well as to read Cyrillic script—a promise that was kept!
And thus it was that a month after I finished my last Russian Accelerator lesson, we were crawling in heavy Moscow traffic, heading for one of the city’s most central thoroughfares, Tverskaya Ulitsa, or Tverskaya Street, and the apartment we’d rented for two weeks, only a few blocks’ walk away from Red Square and the Kremlin.

Moscow is a great world city but it is also its own world. European but not Western; beautiful and ugly; built for giants yet surprising you with glimpses of cozy neighborhoods on a very human scale. Once the feared seat of the ‘Evil Empire’, it is now the brash symbol of Russian capitalism, buzzing with pushy energy yet also at times surprisingly relaxed. And of course Moscow is most certainly not the be-all and end-all of Russia. But like all great capital cities, it is also a kind of physical microcosm of the nation, of its history, its culture, its people. The shaggy parks mimic the forest; the river winds its way through the city’s heart, like waterways do throughout the land; Red Square, in its exhilerating yet overwhelming spaciousness is a kind of miniature of the sweeping vastness of the Russian landscape; the faces in the street are molded from features that have come from every corner of this enormous country. Continue reading

Trinity’s Russian setting 1: Uglich and the Volga

the beautiful domes of St Dimitri

I’m excitedly awaiting the release on November 13 of my new adult novel, and first book in the Trinity series. Trinity: Book 1, Koldun Code, (published by Momentum) is a gripping, distinctive novel that’s part pulse-pounding conspiracy thriller, part erotically-charged romance, and part supernatural mystery, set in modern Russia. And in this brand-new blog, I want to explore some of the background and inspirations for the book.

Trinity grew out of a very long fascination of mine with Russia and its extraordinary culture. I’ve loved it since I was eleven years old and read and re-read Jules Verne’s thrilling, atmospheric Russian-set adventure story, Michel Strogoff. Progressing rapidly as a teenager from that to the Russian greats—Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Bulgakov, amongst others—with side excursions into the richness of Russian fairytale and folklore, and influenced moreover by my French father’s longtime interest in both Russian icons and Russian music( a good deal of my childhood is set to the soundtrack of the Red Army Choir) I had conceived an idea of an extraordinary country and a culture that went far beyond the alternately dull and scary Cold War headlines we saw in the newspapers every day. Brought up in an anti-Communist family (despite Dad’s love of the Red Army Choir!), I was nevertheless deeply attracted by Russia and her extraordinary cultural and historical paradoxes: grandeur and intimacy, magic and brutal realism, wild romance and complex intellectualism, beauty and terror, warmth and ruthlessness, tenderness and black humour. I loved it both because it was headily unfamiliar, and yet deeply familiar in ways I could hardly articulate, but that struck echoes deep within my being.
But though I dreamed of going to Russia, the Iron Curtain made it seem just that, a dream. As a young person, the idea of going on strictly-supervised tours extolling Soviet ‘achievements’ did not appeal to me in the slightest, and even when the Soviet regime began first to relax its grip, and then in short order to fall to pieces and disappear, the hurly-burly of personal and professional life made the dreamed-of trip seem even less of a reality. The ‘horror stories’ of the 90’s, with the threat of gangs and casual violence as well as discomfort and incompetence, didn’t help either. So for a long time, I just kept thinking about it, watching Russian films, and films about Russia.I wrote a fantasy novel, The Firebird, based on the classic Russian fairytale, and introduced Russian characters into other novels. And I kept reading,(and still do!) discovering in the process wildly diverse modern Russian writers such as Andrei Makine(beautiful meditative novels about the Soviet past), Alexandra Marinina(ex-cop turned writer’s tough crime novels)Sergei Lukyanenko(gripping urban fantasy sagas) Zakhar Prilepin(gritty political fiction) and others. And then, in 2010, finally, I made my first visit to Russia. Continue reading