The Sultan’s Eyes: out now in US

I’m delighted to announce that The Sultan’s Eyes is out in the US in December 2018, courtesy of HarperCollins.

I wish I could send every book out into the world with the Preface from Act of Faith, and I suppose in some ways I do:

Dear Reader,

This book you hold is a treasure, of sorts, as is every book I have ever known.

I have made it for you – especially you – for reasons you will understand as my words unfurl before your eyes.

Turn these pages tenderly.

You hold my life in your hands.

Isabella Hawkins

Venice

1647

Image of book cover

Praise for The Sultan’s Eyes:

“Through the eyes of the books’ impulsive and curious heroine … readers experience everyday life in the seventeenth century first in Venice, then in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In addition to being an amusing and gripping adventure story, this ambitious novel also discusses questions of gender inequality, religion, philosophy, and politics.”

– International Youth Library, White Ravens 2014

Seeking Grace

Earlier this year, I was invited to give the keynote address at Brigidfest (Féile Bríde), an annual celebration of Irish women and their achievements, held at the Celtic Club in Melbourne.

I told the story of Grace O’Malley (Granuaile), and my research into her life for my novel -in-progress, Grace.

Late summer, 1593. Two of the most remarkable women of the age met for the first and only time.

Queen Elizabeth I was 60 years old, the autocratic ruler of one of the world’s great naval powers, a brilliant politician, patron of the arts, and one of the country’s most admired monarchs.

Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille, known as Granuaile) was a pirate and a dissident, known as the Queen of Connaught and the surrounding seas, and, according to Elizabeth’s governor, ‘nurse to all rebellions in the province for forty years.’

For decades, Grace and her fleet harassed Elizabeth’s ships, her personal army fought against the Crown, and she resisted all attempts to force her to behave in a more ladylike manner. With her sons killed or captured by the English authorities, Grace sailed to London to request a personal audience with Her Royal Highness.

The two women met at Greenwich Palace. Elizabeth dismissed all her courtiers and talked privately to the Irishwoman who’d rebelled against her. Nobody recorded what they said to each other. But Grace left the meeting with a pension and an order that her son could go free.

Grace is the story of that day, and of the two queens.

Here’s the speech, if you’d like to read the entire thing:

BrigidFest 2018 speech – Granuaile

Woodcut of Grace and ELizabeth meeting

Two queens meet: Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793

The writing life: On retreat

Right now I’m in Canberra, writing my little fingers to the bone, on a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust retreat fellowship. More on that soon, although not much happens. I just sit in a room and write. There are crimson rosellas picking at the grass outside my window, and every so often a roo bounces past on its way somewhere very important.

Unlike some Australians, who get a bit snarky about it, I’ve always loved our national capital: the architecture, the lake, the national arts institutions, and the surrounding country.

It’s Ngunnawal/Ngunawal, Ngambri and Ngarigu country around here and I acknowledge and celebrate the traditional custodians of this place.

sunset over canberra

Brimstone and the Blitz

The Firewatcher Chronicles are set during the Blitz in London, and in a very specific area by the banks of the Thames: Puddle Dock and the City, up to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Street sign - Puddle Dock

When I was first researching the books, I wanted to set them in a specific place that was affected by the many fires covered by the series. So it had to be somewhere inside the old Roman city but close to the riverbank. I wanted somewhere that’s not famous, just a place where the hero, young Christopher Larkham, and his family – normal working-class people – worked and lived and watched for fires during the Blitz. It had to be somewhere close to the river, so the kids can go searching the riverbank at low tide, and surrounded by those wonderful narrow, winding streets of the old city – streets with fabulous names like Addle Hill and Bleeding Heart Lane. This is how the area was laid out around the seventeenth century:

Puddle Dock map 17th century

I chose Puddle Dock because there are few traces now of the place it once was, and also I loved the name. This is how it looked in the 1940s, with the tide out and the dock itself filled with debris from bombed buildings:

Puddle Dock 1947

Here’s what that area looks like now, from across the river.

Puddle Dock form the south bank

I admit it’s not all that glamorous (besides that glorious cathedral, glowing in the evening light). Puddle Dock now houses a theatre, apartments and offices, and is tucked in between two busy roads.  There’s no dock any more. Great swathes of the City are like that, not just because it is still one of the great financial centres of the world and therefore filled with office blocks, but also because so much of the area was flattened in the Blitz.

Southwark bridge to Blackfriars in the Blitz

Brimstone, the first book in the Chronicles, takes place on  the night of 29 December 1940, when wave after wave of German air force bombers dropped 100,000 incendiary bombs, followed by more than 20,000 high explosive bombs and parachute mines, starting a series of fires that devastated the City.

That night became known as the Second Great Fire of London. Among the worst-hit areas were places burned in the first Great Fire of London  – Paternoster Square and the area around St Paul’s Cathedral, right down to the banks of the Thames, including many of the churches rebuilt after the Great Fire by Sir Christopher Wren. And much of the area around Puddle Dock.

St Paul's surrounded by bomb damage

Hundreds of years before the Blitz, on the night of 2 September 1666, the original Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane.

This is how the city looked before the Great Fire (that big cathedral on the hill is old St Paul’s, where key scenes happen in Brimstone):

London from Southwark before the Fire

And during it:

Great Fire

How terrifying that must have been!

And here, hundreds of years later, is how the same area looked during that one night of the Blitz:

Herbert Mason's photo of St Paul's

This is Herbert Mason’s famous photo, ‘St Paul’s Survives’, one of the most iconic images from the Blitz, and taken on the night of 30 December 1940 – the night on which Brimstone is partly set. This photo meant so much to Londoners, and people across the world who were watching with horror as the Nazi attacked Britain and many other places. London had just copped a beating, but the cathedral was still standing – surrounded by smoke and flames.

So you can see what poor Christopher has to deal with in Brimstone, time-travelling between not just one but both of these enormous conflagrations.

And, perhaps, why I couldn’t resist writing a story about a kid who fights both of the great fires of London in one night.

 

Photo sources:

  • Imperial War Museum
  • Museum of London
  • Wikimedia 
  • A London Inheritance
  • Me.

School holiday fun

It’s nearly school holidays here and I’ve got a few things planned to celebrate the release of Brimstone, the first book in the Firewatcher Chronicles.

First up, I’m visiting the gorgeous town of Kyneton this weekend for a writing workshop for kids at Squishy Minnie’s bookshop. We’ll talk about adventure stories and have a go at writing some. Sunday, 23 September from 11am-1pm. For readers and writers 8-12.

Details and bookings here.

And then, at the other end of the holidays, I’ll be at Readings Kids bookstore in Carlton.  The lovely Amie Kaufman and I will talk about writing, and especially writing adventure stories, and then we’ll all write a story together. We reckon it’s about Stories of Fire and Ice, because my books are all about fire, and Amie’s new series is all about ice. Friday 5 October at 11 am. For readers and writers 7 years and up.

Details and bookings here.

I really wanted to have launch events for kids, because that’s who the book is for. So I hope you can come celebrate with me.

But do save another date:  The Firewatcher Chronicles launch for all ages will be on the afternoon of 27 October in an actual (well, former) fire station! Stay tuned for details.

Firewatcher logo

History and fiction

Here’s the text of a speech I gave at a History Council of Victoria seminar on History and Fiction, 28 August 2018.

Other speakers were Linda Weste and Ali Alizadeh, and the panel was chaired by Kathleen Neal.

Here’s (roughly) what I said.

What is historical fiction? You may have an idea in your head – a shelf of maritime novels by Patrick O’Brien, or blockbusters glimpsed in airport bookshops – all armour and abs and authors names in gold lettering. In truth, it’s a broad church. The definition of the Historical Novel Society is simply that it is fiction set more than 50 years ago, or beyond the personal experience of the author. It includes incredibly popular genres such as historical crime and romance, sub-genres such as military or adventure tales, cosy mysteries and thrillers, literary or experimental fiction set in the past, entire industries of Regency and Tudor novels, or biographical novels, especially about neglected figures. It includes War and Peace and Wolf Hall and The Book Thief. And as you see this evening, we three alone span thousands of years in terms of era and setting.

We can make a few generalisations across genres and forms, across diverse readerships, and across international boundaries. Every novelist I know is obsessed with research and takes the accuracy of historical detail extremely seriously, just as every historian I know sees their writing as a creative process, and takes the task of story-telling extremely seriously. We have much to learn from each other, and much in common – more than you might think, given some of the fraught debates of the past.

How do we balance documented historical data with informed speculation? And how do we understand and convey the world view of people from the past?

These questions become even more critical when writing about people who really lived, as they do for a historian writing a biography of an individual.

Here are a few questions and approaches involved in two of my projects based on the lives of real historical figures but imagined in fiction. The first, Goddess, published a few years ago now, was an interpretation of the life of Julie d’Aubigny, or Mademoiselle de Maupin, a seventeenth-century French swordswoman and opera singer.

Her story has been told before, on the page and on screen, usually as a series of extraordinary events. But her life is largely undocumented. I undertook years of original research into her life and career, for example, compiling the first comprehensive list of her opera performances, as any biographer would do. I wanted to create a credible narrative of her life, but I also had to decide how to treat those incredible episodes for which she is most famous. My decision as a novelist, which is probably not a decision a historian could make, was to include the wild stories if they served the narrative, unless I could prove them demonstrably wrong. I also knew that leaving them out would’ve meant the novel would disappoint many people.

Because famous or infamous people already loom larger than life in the mind of the reader. One of the most dramatic episodes in La Maupin’s early life was when she fell in love with another young woman whose family then threw her into a convent to get her away from Julie’s influence. Julie followed, and together they burned down the convent and eloped. It’s this kind of adventure that has seen her dubbed bad ass of the month online and made her into a Thelma and Louise-style feminist icon.

But I wanted to dig into that.

I crawled through the early accounts, trying to pin down details and find proof of the whole affair. But it’s the sort of thing that no convent is going to crow about, and the early biographers are coy. I found the most likely candidate for the convent in Avignon, but its current owner has no record of the incident.

Perhaps it was another convent, in another town.

Image of front cover of GoddessPerhaps it never happened. But it’s not worth writing the story of the legend of La Maupin without that episode. She was fifteen and on the run, having committed what even she would have acknowledged as a sin, sentenced to burn at the stake. The two girls had no money, no friends, nowhere to go. The girl was found and sent to another convent, where she died. Julie became a star. Imagine how that was for her.

It must surely, if true, have made her into the adult woman she became, strutting through Paris in men’s clothes, fighting three duels on one night, at once brave enough to be openly bisexual and challenge noblemen to duels, and fragile enough to attempt suicide. So in my imagined life of La Maupin, it became one of the emotional events that defined her as a character.

A novelist looks for the stories that help explain the people, and keep the plot humming along, but has to decide whether the action is likely – truth may be stranger than fiction, but is it credible?

More recently, writing Grace, a novel about the lives of Queen Elizabeth I and the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, I’ve faced similar questions, but from different angles. Again, two enigmatic people – why do I do it to myself? And although their stories are better documented, their inner lives remain elusive.

The tale I’m telling – and I’ve just finished redrafting it – is of the meeting of Grace and Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in 1593. They were older when they met, both shrewd politicians and warriors in different ways. They were, in theory, lifelong enemies. Grace had led the rebellion against Elizabeth’s troops in the west of Ireland, for decades.

They were also, possibly, more alike than anyone either of them had ever met. They surely both experienced the shock of meeting a woman as assured, as cunning, as dangerous, as themselves.

Nobody knows what they said to each other. And in that absence, lies my fiction.

The Irish writer Emma Donoghue has said that ‘stories are a different kind of true.’[i] So how do we get to some truth of these two women’s stories? Can we? Whose truth is it? Theirs? Mine? Yours? The many historians who’ve written their own versions?

For me, and my readers, fiction has to be as historically accurate as possible. I’m not one of those authors who easily shifts the past around to make it fit the story I want to tell.

That means I try to get everything right – all the biographical and historical data – as well as all those moments that I can and must imagine.

I have the liberty to ask: how might Grace have felt, out on the open sea, or in a prison cell facing execution, or going to the palace to meet her enemy? There’s nothing in the archives to tell me that.

In many ways, Elizabeth is just as difficult to capture on the page. Her life was more regimented and more documented, and as she once said, ‘A thousand eyes see all I do.’ [ii]

But Elizabeth is just a little too iconic.

actresses as Elizabeth

 

We think we know her, but we don’t. I chose to focus on aspects of Elizabeth perhaps not as well known to readers of fiction. She was, for example, one of the foremost translators of her time, and was a prolific poet, writing every day. She often wrote hymns or sermons and then ordered that they be printed and distributed to every church in the kingdom. As you do.

So I started thinking about all the things these women had in common. In both their lives, and often around the same age, there were parallel stories to tell, and as they grew older those stories tangled together.

After years of war between them, somehow they reached agreement, perhaps even a degree of mutual respect. How? That’s the question the novel, Grace, explores. It is told in two voices, alternating between the points of view of these two remarkable leaders.

Which brings me to the critical creative decision novelists make – voice. How do we render characters’ speech, point of view, and narrative voice? And in this, lies one of the central questions about the nature of historical fiction.

You’ll often hear readers and writers talking about whether or not historical fiction, and the voices that convey it, are authentic. As if ‘authenticity’ is the holy grail of historical fiction, and distinguishes it from other forms of fiction and from nonfiction history writing. As if ‘authenticity’ can be used interchangeably with ‘accuracy’. As if authenticity is required to somehow compensate for the fact that what we’re reading is fiction, not history, or even that it offers a more truthful truth.

Sorry. There is no such thing as authenticity in historical fiction. There is historical accuracy, or not. But particularly when it comes to voice, the very idea is, as Henry James put it, ‘humbug.’[iii]

Authenticity, by definition, can’t be created.

‘Authenticity’ of voice, in particular, simply doesn’t and cannot exist in fiction set in the distant past. If I really wrote Grace O’Malley’s words as she’d have spoken them, you’d never understand it. What we aim for is something different altogether.

In 1820, introducing Ivanhoe, Walter Scott wrote: ‘It is necessary, for exciting interest of any kind, that the subject should be, … translated into the manners as well as the language of the age we live in.’

I suggest that what some writers now mean by authenticity, and what readers have been led to expect, is exactly what Scott outlined nearly two hundred years ago. It is not authenticity, but an accepted form of the historical novel. This is where history and fiction truly diverge.

The expectation of historical fiction is not really that it will be authentic, but instead that it will feel familiar to us from our reading of the genre – and often that familiarity actually comes from reading Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson and their descendants.

How many readers (or movie-goers) now believe that an ‘authentic’ Caribbean pirate voice is the one dreamed up centuries later and half a world away by the young Scotsman who wrote Treasure Island?

Image result for treasure island book cover

Authenticity in historical fiction is, in itself, a fiction, and at worst its own dialect set in the aspic jelly of the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century Georgette Heyer redefined the Regency, while Rosemary Sutcliff created speech patterns that appeared to suit early Britons but were essentially modern, and Geoffrey Trease refined the model of a voice almost invisible to young readers like me, but with no glaring anachronisms. You will not hear any of his medieval knights say, ‘OK.’

Trease warned against the ‘costume novel’, in which all the tiny details of food, footwear and forsoothery are right but the psychology and vocabulary are all wrong. It’s the world view that matters, not ye olde worlde language – and here is one of our great challenges: creating characters whose emotional and intellectual frameworks seem to come from the past as a ‘foreign country’, but which at the same time can be understood by a modern reader – for example, in characters’ attitudes to religion or colonialism.

Historical fiction that is unaware of this process runs the risk of being mistaken about both past and present, and so less valuable as both history and fiction – perhaps even dangerous.

So – how do we work with that knowledge? What I did in Goddess was to knowingly perform a version of La Maupin, on the page, in a constructed voice that is overtly modern and consciously anti-authentic – while at the same time avoiding anachronism in the worldview, recognising that a seventeenth century woman could have no sense of what we might now call identity.

Or we can attempt the ventriloquism of A S Byatt in Possession (1990), Sarah Waters in The Night Watch (2006), or Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1983), references ancient and medieval texts and philosophies related by transparently modern voices – all in the guise of a crime thriller.

These authors’ metafictional approaches rest on a formidable body of historical research and technical story-telling ability.

They play with the irony that underpins historical fiction: that writers try to construct a world that will be accepted as ‘real’ by the reader, even if they know better than anyone else that it can’t possibly be so.

We know we’re reading, and we bring to that experience everything we’ve read before – but then we forget we’re reading. We know we’re reading about an imagined past, and we hold that in our minds at the same time as an awareness of our own modernity.

‘The paradox at the heart of fiction, the engine that drives it,’ writes Richard Lea, ‘is the tension between the knowledge that what you’re reading is all made up and the overwhelming feeling that it’s all true.’ [iv]

We acknowledge that historical fiction also has a role in telling history; as one of the ways in which people experience and understand history, and we often say that we write about the past to understand both past and present.

But perhaps what we really do when we write historical fiction is to imagine the past in the context of the present, and the voices with which we speak are our own.

 

 

 

[i] Donoghue, Emma, 2010, Room, HarperCollins, Toronto.

[ii] Borman, Tracey,  2017, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Hodder Staughton, London.

[iii] In 1901, James wrote: ‘You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like ― the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought […] You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, ― or rather fifty ― whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force ― & even then it’s all humbug.’ James, Henry 1974, Henry James: Letters vol. 4, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[iv] Lea, Richard, 2012, ‘The truth about memory and the novel’, Guardian book blog, 14 June 2012.

Coming up

Not long until Brimstone, the first book in my new Firewatcher Chronicles series, is in the bookshops.

1 September 2018, to be precise.

So you can get your hands on it soon.

In the meantime, here are a few events I have on my dance card.

Book cover And ThenThe new And Then… adventure story anthologies will be launched (there are two hugevolumes) on 5 August at the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne. A whole lot of the authors will be there, including Kerry Greenwood, Sulari Gentill, Alison Goodman and me.

(This is the anthology – Volume 2 – which includes my first ever ‘Boots and the Bushranger’ story).

 

Also in August is Bendigo Writers Festival, a terrific festival – always a great line-up, thoughtful programming, and a wonderful host city.  It’s schools program, Text Marks the Spot, is equally fab. I’ll be there (10-12 August), talking about podcasting, interviewing some lovely authors, and launching Rachel Nightingale’s new novel, Columbine’s Tale.

On 28 August, I’ll be speaking alongside Linda Weste and Ali Alizadeh on History and Fiction, as part of the History Council of Victoria’s ‘Making Public Histories’ seminar series.

Phew. That’ll keep me out of mischief for a couple of weeks, anyway.

I’ll update you soon on events to celebrate the release of Brimstone.

Ciao.

PS Did I mention I’ve just been on holiday in Berlin and Prague? Oh my. So many story ideas. So much fascinating history.

Lately I’ve been…

A bit frantic.

Remind me to never again move house on book deadline and just before teaching starts.

But that’s over now. I have settled into a new home, where I’ve made the strategic decision to place my desk under a window in the living room, instead of tucked away in a tiny room at the back of the house. After all, I spend more time at the desk than many other places, so I may as well be  right here, looking out on the garden.

Also, it’s close to the kitchen. (Though that may not be a good thing. Snacking control is not a strength.)

In the meantime, I’ve been:

Writing 

I’ve drafted (very roughly) Phoenix, the second book in the Firewatcher Chronicles. It needs lots more redrafting over the next couple of months, but it’s such fun. There are Vikings and Saxons and London Blitz bombs and archaeologists and all sorts of drama.

I’ve also been writing a number of book chapters and conference papers and essays, mostly for academic conferences and publishers. I’ll let you know when they come out.

Editing

Brimstone, book one of the Firewatcher Chronicles, is at the printers! It comes out on 1 September. And for mysterious production reasons, it was all go for a while there. I got notes back from the editor, found a few errors myself, sent it all back, and then the next week, miraculously, typeset pages appeared for a last proof-read. They don’t muck about, those fine folk at Scholastic.

And just look at the beautiful cover for it.

Brimstone front cover

I’m thrilled with the artwork by Sebastian Ciaffaglione, and the series logo by Chad Mitchell.  Can’t wait for you to get your hands on this book.

Also due out the very same day is a new YA anthology, Meet Me at the Intersection, edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina. It’s published by Fremantle Press – my story is called ‘Trouble’, and it’s set in Melbourne in the 1950s. I’m honoured to be part of this collection of #ownvoices stories and believe it will be a very important moment in young adult fiction in this country.

Book cover: Meet me at the Intersection

So that’s been in editing and proofreading mode too, over the last few weeks.

Next up, I’m redrafting Grace and my goldrush bushranger stories. I look forward to being in their company again.

I’ve booked myself a stint at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in June, to lock myself away and redraft as much as I can get through.

Podcasting

Over on my podcast, Unladylike, Adele and I were delighted to interview three crime queens, and to release my discussion on academic writing recorded last year in Denmark. New episodes are on the way in the next week or so.

Reading

I admit, my reading has been minimal over this busy time, but I’ve read and loved, among other things:

  • The Endsister by Penni Russon
  • White Night by Ellie Marney
  • The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson
  • On Coming Home by Paula Morris
  • Manda Scott’s Boudica series
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series
  • And Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s grand finale to the Illuminae series, Obsidio.

Right now I’m reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Dr Anita Heiss.

Research

Research for the Firewatcher Chronicles continues – Romans, Celts, Vikings, Saxons, Second World War – there are just so many areas to cover, and it’s all a little bit too fascinating.

I’m also deep into my Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria,  researching my great-grandmother and key figures in the Australian suffrage and peace movements of the early twentieth century.

I’ve realised that project, Sisterhood, is bigger and more complex than I imagined, so I expect to spend a lot more of my life on it in years to come. It will eventually be a kind of group memoir of an extraordinary generation of early feminists and pacifists, along with a memoir of my life in student and feminist politics in the 1980s. So it’s big and complicated and hard and all so interesting. To me, anyway.

Suffragette and anti-conscription campaigner Vida Goldstein (Photo: State Library of Victoria)

So you see, I have had one or two things on the go.

And one day soon, you’ll be able to read them. Funny, isn’t it? We lock ourselves away for months or years to write these things, and then burst out of solitude, blinking against the light, to release them into the world.

And then we vanish again.

Writers, huh?