Field notes

As many of you know, I like to log my research as I go: photos, thoughts, findings, questions, amazing historical discoveries, crazy moments when I think I’ve discovered something but haven’t – all the delights of the historical novelist’s process.

This is especially true when I’m on the road, which I am about to be.

So I’ve started a new blog on which I’ll post findings about several projects all at once, because I have so many stories going around in my head at present that I can’t possibly have a blog for each.

It’s called Field Notes and it’s over on tumblr.

I’ll still post general thoughts about writing and reading here as always, and cross-link when appropriate.

Confused? Oh, you just wait.

I’m about to fly to England, then Ireland, then back to England, then Flanders, then Paris, then home. And while I’m there I will be researching material and sites for:

  • 1917 (a book for young readers set in … you guessed it)
  • War Songs (a novel for adults, which I’m redrafting, also set in World War 1)
  • Fire Watcher  (a series of historical fantasy novels for young readers, set in London)
  • Sublime (a travel narrative)
  • Various other features and shorter pieces.

So stand by for photos and posts on everything from Irish pirate queens to war graves. And you never know, there might be a bit of future Isabella Hawkins work to do, and possibly a visit to Bletchley Park. It will be hectic.

By the way I have source books for most of my projects over on Pinterest if you’d like to snoop around and see where my imagination is heading.

Oh, how I love this bit! Except for the four hundred hour flight (well, that’s how it feels, right?).

But don’t forget – before I’m allowed to leave the country, I’m appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday 29 August at 10am. Details here.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under historical fiction, research

All over the joint

Here are a few things from me you’ll find elsewhere on the web right now:

It’s just a flesh wound: what were sword fights really like?

Image of medieval sword bout

Some historical background for fantasy fans, on the Harper Voyager blog, with gratuitous Arya Stark references. Because. Arya.

Warrior women in history

I could have mentioned Arya in this, too. if I’d thought of it. But instead it’s a post on Kate Forsyth’s blog about just a few of the real life warrior women who preceded Julie d’Aubigny in history.

Interview  – me and Kate Forsyth

Again, on Kate’s blog, she quizzes me on fencing, on Goddess, on reading – and on life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Goddess, history, Julie d'Aubigny, pirates

On structure (and memory)

As I write this, I’m sitting in a bookshop, being a live window display as part of National Bookshop Day. I’m at Eltham Bookshop, one of our many terrific neighbourhood bookstores that do so much to support local writers and readers.

I’m at a little desk set up in the window. Different authors are taking shifts as writer in residence (I took the baton from historian David Day), while people drop in and out, kids try to talk parents into buying the latest book in their favourite series (there is a major Enid Blyton negotiation going on at the counter as I write), and I’m A Believer plays in the background.

I am surrounded by books. Within reach are Penguin Classics from Dickens to Wharton, and the new Text Australian Classics, which include a childhood favourite by Ivan Southall. Bliss. But I have to restrain myself. After four years of PhD focus, my To Be Read fiction pile is currently taller than me.

At present I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I’m a huge admirer of her nonfiction work in literary history and her previous novel Room, in which the voice of young Jack, who has grown up in one room with his Ma, is a tour de force. Frog Music is a different thing altogether, a return to her previous genre of historical fiction, in this case set in 19th century San Francisco.

 

Book Cover - Frog Music

 

It begins with the death of one of the main characters, cross-dressing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet (that’s not a spoiler – it happens on page two). The book then skips from past to present and back again, as Jenny’s friend Blanche tries to understand why Jenny was killed, and by whom, and we experience Blanche’s memories from the moment of their first accidental meeting.

Shifting through time and tense, through characters’ memories, is not an easy juggling act for author or reader as I know only too well. I tried to do something similar in Goddess, in one sense.

Since a few people have asked about the structure of Goddess, and how much I plan in advance when I write, let’s focus on that for a moment.

Goddess has a much more formal structure than any of my previous books, with other organising principles overlaid. It is structured in five acts and a prologue, just like the tragédies en musique in which La Maupin appeared. The scenes in each act alternate between first person monologues (the recitative) and third person ensemble chapters in present tense which give us different characters’ views of Julie and her world.

That’s not quite how the scenes in a tragédie en musique are arranged within the acts, I admit. The acts and scenes at the Paris Opera were shared between the main characters and the ensemble, and passages where the ballet corps took the stage for a divertissement. The recitative was sung using a very refined technique by the lead singers, who also sang airs (arias in the Italian opera tradition), and together in duets or as an ensemble. It was actually Julie’s friend Thévenard who was the master of the recitative, evolving it into a more dramatic form.

But there are some ways in which I tried to replicate the feel of a tragédie – the big show-stopping divertissement is always at the end of the second act, for example. In Goddess, that’s Julie’s debut at the opera. The other less visible structural aspects are the catalogue of sins on which the recitative confession focuses, and the episodic form of the picaresque.

Of course, the overall trajectory is someone’s real story. I tried to track as closely as I could to the reported events in Julie’s life, so I had to know where she was, who was with her (such as the cast that performed in specific shows), seasons of the year, other things going on in France at the time, what people were reading, singing, wearing.

Did I plan it? You bet. You should see my spreadsheet. It’s a monster. It had to be.

A couple of people have asked about the idea of the book starting as a death bed confession – just as in Frog Music, you know the “end” of the story from page one.

I haven’t done that before, and it was one of the first creative decisions I made when writing Goddess. It’s a big call, I know (setting aside the fact that a quick squiz online or in an encyclopaedia will reveal Julie’s life – and death – story). Is it the end, though? Is it the point of the story? Or is that in the telling? Or both?

Then there’s the memory – Julie’s memories, and other people’s. Many of the third person scenes have a shifting point of view, an internal structure that (I hope) plays with perception and explores the idea of the spectator. How did all those people see Julie? What did they make of this remarkable creature in their midst, striding around in her breeches and cloak? How do different people perceive and remember the same incident? How does she remember? Why was she such a celebrity and what did celebrity do to her – and her legacy? How do the memory and the monologue connect?

I hesitate to use the term “flashback”. It has become such a cliché. But I’ve just been binge-watching the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, in which creator Jenji Kohan uses flashbacks in such an interesting way. We meet its huge cast of characters as women in prison, get to know them a little, and then one by one across different episodes their past lives are revealed, in some cases dramatically different to the persona we’ve got used to. Makes sense. They are different people in prison. The flashbacks may explain their crime, but may not – they reveal something about the choices each woman has made, the people they were, the turning points that somehow got them where they are now. What’s even more fascinating is that the actors involved have to create these characters from the beginning without knowing that back-story – in most cases they don’t even know why their character is in prison. They may never know.

orange_is_the_new_black

 

In Frog Music, on the other hand, we start off knowing the crime but not the people. We as readers will make our way together, with Blanche, through the aftermath and her memories of the time leading up to the murder. I know that a crime has been committed, but I have no idea what will happen next.

There’s a great moment in Orange Is the New Black when the main character Piper returns to the main prison camp and has to retrieve all her belongings – the other inmates assumed she was long gone. She grabs her copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement out of someone’s hands, shouting “Everyone dies!”

Book cover - Atonement

The ultimate spoiler, for one of the most excruciating shifting memory structures in recent fiction. I remember reading the final passages of Atonement for the first time and shouting in fury, while at the same time I couldn’t help but admire it.

Now THAT’S a flashback.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under appearances, Goddess, historical fiction

First reviews: Goddess

Authors don’t talk about this much, but it’s an excruciating thing to have a book come out. You know it’s too late to fix anything, all of a sudden other people are reading it when before it was something that existed only inside your head, and you have no idea what anybody will think of it. So you metaphorically hold your breath and cross your fingers and wish on stars or sacrifice goats or whatever it takes.

Then the first reviews come in.

“I wholeheartedly recommend this book as the most exquisitely rendered historical novel I have read in years.”

- Historical Novel Society

“An engaging and skilfully told tale of a singular character.”

- Kerryn Goldsworthy in Sydney Morning Herald/The Age

In the case of historical fiction, and especially Goddess as a portrayal of La Maupin, there’s the issue of being true to what people know of her and feel about her – she’s someone with whom many people feel a strong connection. So this means a great deal to me: Jim Burrows, who knows more about Julie d’Aubigny than just about anyone,  has posted his incredibly gracious review of Goddess on Amazon:

Her version of La Maupin isn’t mine, either in terms of character or story, but it is totally valid to what is known of our dear Julie. And how boring it would be if they were the same! As it is Kelly and La Maupin surprised me and entertained me, even though I knew all the details before I picked up the book. I know them because Kelly researched heavily and remained steadfastly true to everything that is known. I was surprised, because La Maupin’s character, voice and motivations were both authentic and a different twist than I would give the tale. I was entertained because the imagination and the skill with which Kelly tells the tale is wonderful.

Thank you Jim, and I look forward to reading your take on Julie one day soon.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Goddess, historical fiction, reviews

Coming up: Melbourne Writers Festival

I love Melbourne Writers Festival time of year. I used to love it in the olden days when it was at the Malthouse, and you’d have to jostle for coffee or in the bookshop with the international guests. I once held my breath for about five minutes because I found myself standing next to Marina Warner.

 

Writers festival poster

 

Nowadays it’s at Federation Square, which warms up in the middle of winter with huge groups of school kids lining up to meet Andy Griffiths or Morris Gleitzman, a wide range of topics and writing styles, and authors from all over the world.  It’s not quite so intimate, but it’s bigger and brighter and there’s stuff going on all the time – dozens and dozens of sessions, workshops for kids, an enormous schools program, walks around the city, keynote speakers, soirees and food and music and drop-in caravans and Twitter meet-ups. It’s a terrific program again this year.

I’ll be there too, talking about Goddess, Julie d’Aubigny, and the process of writing and researching her life.

My session is on August 29 at 10am. More details and bookings here.

It’d be lovely to see you there.

Comments Off

Filed under appearances, Goddess

Interview: Books & Arts Daily

Here’s the podcast of my recent interview on Radio National’s Books & Arts Daily and Books + shows: on researching the life of Julie d’Aubigny, and on writing Goddess. (Both terrific shows, by the way, and the archive of interviews and reviews is well worth dipping into or subscribing – free.)

You can listen online or download the audio here.

 

Comments Off

Filed under audio, Goddess, Julie d'Aubigny, Maupin, research

James Dean was here

A million years ago, I worked in the housing sector, managing services for homeless young people and working on policy and advocacy. One thing I learned very quickly was that young people hated being called ‘kids’ or ‘teens’ – we are people, who happen to be young. Anything else was patronising. Nobody used the term ‘youths’ because it’s so ugly, and it’s like a police descriptor: “two youths were apprehended this morning…”  In policy, in talking to government, in working with young people, we always said ‘young people.’

Now, I know things have changed, the word ‘teen’ has become much more widespread with the globalisation of US language usage, and young people around 13 in particular don’t mind being called ‘teenagers’ because they’ve aspired to be just that for several years. Then they aspire to be young adults and then adults. ‘Teens,’ not so much. It feels like a marketing term, and this is especially true in publishing for children and young adults. The age range of teens is much more limited than the age range of young adults, too, and there’s a fair bit of slippage between the concepts.

So now we have all these debates in the industry and even in the mainstream media about teen and young adult (YA) fiction: what it is, who it’s for, what it’s doing (or not doing) to its readers. Is it too dark? Does it help young people come to terms with the world? Should adults be ashamed of reading it? Or should they embrace its possibilities? Are books for children or young adults less worthy as literature, or as recreational reading? Or a glorious new form invented by [insert current best-seller name here]?

I’d like to take two steps back.

First, let’s clarify that a lot of the debate is around realist fiction, usually set in cities – it’s called ‘contemporary’ in the trade, sometimes ‘urban contemporary.’ When pundits ask whether YA is too dark or morbid, that’s usually what they mean. They don’t really mean the rest of the world of YA, which is actually a lot of books – fantasy, romance, adventures of different sorts, and even historical fiction. They mean realist books with violence or drugs or sex or swearing – maybe death – or all of the above.

It’s not that you don’t get those things in genre fiction, because of course you do, just that in urban contemporary they are often problematised, either by the author (it’s a book about a teen being homeless or dealing with grief or racism or coming out or  self-esteem), or by the commentary on the book. It is written, in one sense, in acknowledgement of issues faced by young people, to tell their stories, which are our stories too, and some of these books are the most beautifully written, engaging, and moving stories you could ever read.

So that’s what many people think YA is, that’s what many people in libraries and the industry think YA is, and indeed that’s what many readers love to read.

(We go through phases when it’s all about a specific genre because some book or film is on the wider public radar, for example dystopian or paranormal fiction, but the issues that inflame debate are often dealt with in quite a realist manner, albeit set in a built world, as in Hunger Games.)

I think it’s also clear that, for a young person, getting your hands on the right book at the right time can change your life. If you believe you are the only queer person in the world, or the only person being beaten or abused, or hating school and everyone in it, or feeling like shit, then reading about similar experiences – feeling that in-depth, close connection you can feel with a character in long-form fiction – can sometimes even save your life. We know that. Readers tell us that.

And that’s the other step back I want to take.

That whole James Dean/Montgomery Clift troubled teen thing is partly true – we’ve all lived it – and partly a social and cultural construct of Western society in the twentieth century. YA fiction arose after the development of that trope.

 

Image of film poster

 

 

Those of us who write historical fiction have to deal with this tension all the time, or at least we should. When you’re writing about a time before there was such a thing as ‘teenagers’*, how do you capture the timeless clash of generations, the age-old process of finding your way in the world, without referencing the teenager concept? What do you do when writing out of a specific cultural context, perhaps where the relationship between generations is completely different? How do you enact it within the traditions of fantasy?

Can I suggest that the idea that all YA literature is teen lit, that all books are about that problematised cultural identity, underlies the commentary about the books themselves?

I worry that talking about readers of a certain age range as teens slots them into a category – a constructed social category as much as a market segment – that says to them you are like this, you need to read these books. Maybe that’s why we sometimes see a disconnect between the books that are bought for young people and the books they buy for themselves.

People who happen to be young, like everyone else, want books of all sorts, about all kinds of things, at different times. They ask for books that offer hope. They ask for books that provide context for the task of coming into adulthood, of understanding the way the world works, of explaining the inexplicable or creating the utterly fantastical. Sometimes they just want a good laugh or a bit of a day-dream.

And don’t we all?

But there’s something about the trope of the troubled teen and the language we use around it that, in turn, troubles me. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it feels like the term teen categorises both people and books in ways that may not be entirely helpful. And that’s weird, because everyone I know in the field cares passionately about young people who read – or don’t read – and the stories that are written for them, and would never in a million years want to be part of a process that was unhelpful. If it exists, it has grown organically, culturally, perhaps without us seeing it.

This isn’t about the stories themselves, you understand, but about all the stuff around the stories – the discourse and the marketing and the language.

It’s not so much about all those newspaper articles. I don’t expect someone who hardly reads any YA and is writing a one-off feature to understand the complexity involved. I also know, as a journalist, that often you have to write a story on a topic on which you need to become an “expert” in a week and you only ever skim the surface. That’s all it is and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that YA is just one of those things on which everyone feels like an expert, because they were once young and read books. Whatever. So I have a new policy of not reading dumb-ass articles.

(It’s like race-walking. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in a family of race-walkers, have spent more hours by the track than I’ve spent almost anywhere else, and every four years when the Olympic Games roll around, I have to listen to whole lot of people who haven’t seen a race since the last Games and only ever watch the highlights hotly debating whether or not some competitor should be disqualified.

Mind you, I do get cranky when I read articles by YA authors or children’s authors that are also based on nothing, because it tells me they have no idea of the technical requirements of writing for certain age groups and haven’t bothered to do any research or read many other authors in the field; like, famously, Caitlin Moran’s recent statement that there are no strong female characters in YA, which led to the depressing situation of seeing a whole lot of people whose work I adore hopping into one another on Twitter).

So let’s just acknowledge that there’s a lot of thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of crap, written about YA at present.

What I wonder is if people who think about – worry about – and debate these issues need to reconsider a few concepts. This is a question, not an answer. Other wiser people may already have those answers.

Maybe we do mean teen fiction when we discuss contemporary YA – and maybe we need a better term. What if it limits perceptions of the books? Or does it need to be reclaimed?

What if calling our readers teens doesn’t empower them after all? Is it a term applied to them, or something they claim for themselves?

I don’t know. What do you think? What terms do you use, and how do you define them? Does it matter?

Does that troubled teen trope still influence the way we or others perceive YA fiction now?

 

Teenage_mafie

 

* From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
teen (n.) “teen-aged person,” 1818 (but rare before 20c.), from -teen. As an adjective meaning “of or for teen-agers,”  from 1947.
teens (n.) 1670s (plural), “teen-age years of a person,” formed from -teen taken as a separate word. As “decade of years comprising numbers ending in -teen,” from 1889.
teenager (n.) also teen ager, teen-ager; 1922, derived noun from teenage (q.v.). The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean “teen-aged person” in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.
teenage (adj.) also teen age, teen-age; 1911, from teen + age (n.). Originally in reference to Sunday School classes. Teen-aged (adj.) is from 1922.

 

 

Comments Off

Filed under fiction, genre, rant, YA

And all who sail in her…

The lovely Alison Croggon launched Goddess last week at Readings in Carlton (thanks, team!). She talked about La Maupin’s life, said some lovely things about the book, and I was honoured to have her do so.

I had a few words to say too, and here they are (more or less):

This is actually a sad occasion for me. I’ve spent the last five years with Julie’s voice clamouring in my head, drowning out everything else. It’s possible she has driven me just a little mad.

I feel in some ways like the character of the priest who takes her final confession, unable to get a word in edgewise and scribbling down every word.

If only it were that simple.

This has also been the most challenging writing project I’ve ever undertaken – I’ve spent years figuring out complex French aristocratic family trees and the architecture of long lost opera theatres, researching everything from sword hilts to undergarments. I am pretty sure I have compiled the most complete history of La Maupin’s performances and have unravelled some complex relationships taken for granted by contemporary diarists and ignored ever since. I spent hours in the Opera branch of the BnF in Paris, possibly holding my breath the entire time, as I leafed through a small volume of d’Albert’s letters to his beloved Julie-Emilie. I have watched women on horseback brandishing swords drill in the same stables at Versailles in which, I think, she grew up and I have gazed up at the ceilings in the chateau that she would have seen, painted with goddesses also brandishing swords.

And I have watched as every week – every day – someone somewhere in the world discovers her story and posts on Twitter or tumblr: “Why is there not a book about this woman?” Again I held my breath and hoped that Goddess would be the first – or rather the next.

Because Julie d’Aubigny has been in and out of favour across the centuries, incredibly famous in her lifetime and again in the 19th century – and, I hope, now. There have been books, movies, plays, ballets, a TV series, even a skateboard design. Her life has been embroidered and dismissed and she has been vilified and deified and everything in between. But I don’t think there is another portrayal like this one.

It has been all-consuming but it’s over now. Today Susannah and I rearranged my writing room. That might sound odd, but the writers here will know what a big thing that is. I am clearing the decks. Today felt like the right day to do that.

I had to find room on other bookshelves in other rooms for the numerous volumes on Baroque opera and the court of the Sun King. The 17th century has to make way on the shelves and in my head for the Great War, and for new voices whispering in my ear.

So I hand Julie over to you. I hope I’ve done her justice, and I hope you like reading about her.

Thanks to the many people who supported me, in particular Susannah Walker to whom the book is dedicated with love. This was the creative component of a PhD project and I’d particularly like to acknowledge the community of writers I discovered at La Trobe University, and the support of my supervisors Catherine Padmore, Paul Salzman and Lucy Sussex, and the writing friends I found there – Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.

Thanks to HarperCollins for making Goddess a beautiful artifact – very important for someone who’s written two books on the history of printing – and especially to publisher Catherine Milne for knowing exactly what I was getting at.

I think it’s only right that Julie gets the last word.

Are you writing this down? All of it? Very good. It’s about time somebody did. Here, nobody listens to a word I say. Perhaps they think I’m making it up. But I couldn’t. Nobody could – not this life. It is known throughout Europe, if I say so myself. The duels, the stardom, the Opera triumphs, all the escapades. The escapes. You can read about me in the pamphlets, any day, on the streets of Paris.
Or at least you could – then.
I was a star once. Did they tell you that? I was a goddess.
Or am I just another sinner to you?
I was a monster, once. That was my real sin. That was my downfall.
Well, shut up and I’ll tell you.

 

Goddess is out now, on all ebook platforms and in good bookshops.

 

Comments Off

Filed under events, Goddess, Julie d'Aubigny, Maupin

Celebrate the launch of Goddess

Here are a couple of Melbourne events to celebrate the release of my new novel, Goddess.

26 June is the official launch of the book by the lovely Alison Croggon. It’s at Readings Bookshop, Lygon Street Carlton, at 6.30pm.

The very next evening, I’ll be reading from the book as part of a sensational line-up at Hares & Hyenas, Melbourne’s queer bookshop,  in Fitzroy. Maxine Beneba Clarke and Michelle Dicinoski will read from their work too, and then we’ll all have a discussion with MC Kath Duncan about writing and reading and whatever comes up. Should be fabulous. That’s on 27 June and you can book for that here.

Image of book cover - Goddess, a book about Julie d'Aubigny

 

Hope to see you soon!

Comments Off

Filed under appearances, events, Goddess, Julie d'Aubigny, Maupin

The goddess ascends

Today is the official release date for Goddess.

It should be in good bookshops and  all the ebook platforms now.

I do hope you like it.

Image of book cover - Goddess, a book about Julie d'Aubigny

If you’re in Melbourne, the official launch is on 26 June at Readings Books in Lygon Street, Carlton.

I’ll be reading from the book the following night, June 27, at Hares & Hyenas in Fitzroy, along with some other sensational local writers reading from their work. More details on that event soon.

You can read more about the novel, and about its very real and remarkable subject, Julie d’Aubigny, here.

Comments Off

Filed under appearances, Goddess, Julie d'Aubigny, Maupin