Busy bee

It’s spring here in Melbourne. Sunday. I ought to be gardening or, given that I’m a Melburnian, out to brunch, but instead I’m crazy busy.

All good though.

Yesterday I went to a briefing about the Dinosaur Dreaming project at Melbourne Museum. I’ve volunteered to go on a dig along the “Dinosaur coast” in February. Next weekend, they teach us to break rocks. You have to take your own chisel and magnifying lens thingummy. I can’t tell you how thrilling that is.

Then I spent the afternoon on a panel at the Professional Historians Association’s social media masterclass, full of excited historians embracing Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest and Periscope.

The ebook I co-edited earlier this year has just come out: academic papers from the fourth global Gender and Love conference in Oxford. It’s called Past and Present: Perspectives on gender and love. 

Earlier in the week I gave a paper to colleagues in my department at La Trobe University – my initial thoughts on something which just keeps getting bigger and more complex, about the idea of the “strong female character” in young adult fiction, where it comes from and what impact it has.  See? There’s another book project right there. As if I haven’t got enough to do. But it’s so fascinating. Early days. I don’t even really know what questions I’m investigating yet.

And I’m loving the idea that Goddess is now out in the US and Julie is becoming famous all over again, in places she couldn’t even imagine.

She deserves it.

I’ve had a few questions from readers coming through, so I’ve just published some FAQs about the book and Julie. If you think of any more, drop me a comment below.

Festival season

Melbourne Writers’ Festival is here again, with hundreds of amazing panels, workshops, talks and fun events.

I’m appearing as part of the fabulous schools program, talking with Jane Caro about re-imagining and writing history. It’s for school groups, so teachers and librarians, get those buses booked!

It’s on Thursday 27 August. Details here.

But honestly, if you’re in Melbourne, get along to something in the festival. I am certainly booked in to see Sarah Waters speak on 30 August.

Logo for MWF

There’s so much to choose from. Might see you there.

 

Coming up

I’m teaching a workshop at Writers Victoria in October, as part of the Writers on Wednesdays series.

It’s a Writers Toolkit workshop, perfect for people who want to learn some tips and tools to help research and write your masterpiece (or anything at all).

It’s on 21 October at 6pm. All details are here.

 

Sensational

I’ve been on a belated summer holiday, and finally got stuck into some reading.

And the first few books on my reading (or re-reading) pile were some nineteenth century Sensation novels including The Moonstone and The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Sleepless nights ensued. I am so easily affected by page-turning, pot-boiling, gasp-a-chapter books like these (and that’s why I don’t watch too many thrillers on TV or I’d never sleep at all – I used to get insomnia just from watching The Bill). I’ve also read a whole stack of early detective stories (this is for an upcoming conference paper and article on female detectives in historical fiction), which were fascinating, but not quite so disturbing.

What’s a sensation novel?

So glad you asked.

Here’s a little snippet of the background section of the paper:

The sensation novels of the 1860s were not framed as historical fiction, but they were, like their Gothic predecessors, often set in an uncanny, out-of-time misty moment where the past – and the secrets of the past – influenced the present. The detective stories of the 1880s and 1890s were intentionally modern. Both genres combined elements of the Gothic novel with contemporary realism, presented new approaches to their female characters, and have been enormously influential in mystery, thriller and historical fiction ever since. […]

Early mysteries often unfold so slowly that the crime itself is not committed until well into the plot, and in some cases revenge rather than detection is the goal after discovery. ‘The mystery,’ Patrick Brantlinger suggests, ‘acts like a story which the narrator refuses or has forgotten how to tell’ (1982, p 18). The stories are often told through the eyes of someone other than the protagonist – Doctor Watson being the most famous. Sensation novels such as The Woman in White feature a constantly changing narrative voice, as legal advisors, butlers and housekeepers, apparently objective or clearly biased observers, even the sleuth herself, take on the role of unravelling or bearing witness to a complex web of clues and disasters.

There is a crime or scandal of some kind, and often several layers of secrets which threaten or act as motive – a stolen letter or jewel, a confusion of identities, someone incarcerated or kidnapped or thought missing but returned. The secret or scandal motif is particularly common in the sensation novel, a phenomenon that flourished briefly in the late nineteenth-century, and drove millions of readers crazy waiting for the next serialised episode or melodramatic chapter – for Australian readers, books like Bleak House were ‘despatched at intervals from England, arriving on faraway docks with the expectation that they would be seized by feverish readers, burning with curiosity about the fate of their favourite characters’ (Martin & Mirmohamadi 2011, p 37 ).

 

Still from TV series The Moonstone

Still from 1996 TV adaptation of ‘The Moonstone’

 

Why are they sensational?

If you’ve ever read one, you’d know – whether the 1860s originals or some of their descendants such as Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith? They can be, quite simply, excruciating – sometimes in the knowledge of a character’s depravity or deceit, while the heroine remains oblivious; sometimes because the suspense is so acute and masterful, engendering a miserable pleasure in the agony.

Sometimes it’s the full Gothic experience: entrapment, menace, isolation in a country house, dark secrets to be uncovered, the possibility of the supernatural or the uncanny (usually proven to be quite human and explicable), the irrational, the sublime, the subversive. There’s that sense that familiar boundaries – of humanity, of the law, of fiction, of the psyche – are being transgressed, that what is hidden and possibly unmentionable is about to be revealed. But not quite yet.

We fear for the innocence or the safety of the heroine – she will survive, we feel fairly sure, but at what cost? The mystery eludes us. The characters appal. In the later historical novels, particularly when the author is trying for a sense of heightened affect, you desperately want it to end so you feel the mystery has been solved, but also you don’t ever want it to be over, because once you know what happens in the end, something is lost.

The first time I read Fingersmith, for example, Waters lulled me into false sense of security – although aware it was a reimagining of The Woman in White, I had no idea such fiendish twists awaited me, and was happily revelling in its neo-Victorian ventriloquism. Until … gasp!

 

Still image from TV series of Fingersmith

Mrs Sucksby acting innocent in the 2005 TV adaptation of ‘Fingersmith’

 

I can’t say any more because spoilers. Also I have to get back to reading my book. It’s sensational!

 

Historical novel conference: coming soon to Australia

If you write or read historical fiction, here’s the conference for you.

The Historical Novel Society’s Australasian branch is holding the first ever historical novel conference in Sydney in March.

It’s a great program, with writers such as Posie Graeme-Evans, Toni Jordan, Kate Forsyth, Colin Falconer, Deborah Challinor,  and Jesse Blackadder debating and discussing, and also running masterclasses such as research tips with Gillian Polack.

YA and children’s historical novelists include Pam Rushby, Sophie Masson, Felicity Pulman and Goldie Alexander. And me.

I attended the Society’s conference in London last year and it was wonderful to be in a room filled with people who love and understand your genre. So do come along if you can.

It’s on 20 – 22 March 2015, with the opening night debate (which I’m chairing) at the State Library of NSW and the day programs at the Balmain Town Hall.

 

 

Image of State Library NSW

 

All the details and program are on the HNSA website.

If you can’t make it, the hashtag is #HNSA2015.

 

Coming up: La Trobe University

Paddy O’Reilly and I will be in conversation about our new books (in her case, The Wonders), writing, and reading this coming Thursday 23 October at 12.30pm at the Coop Bookshop at La Trobe University (from which we have both just graduated with our doctorates, and where we shared an office and many months of writing together).

It’s market day on campus, the bookshop is laying out a bit of wine and a few nibbles, and there’s a strong possibility that Paddy and I will have an attack of hysterical giggling which is always fun to watch. Apparently.

But we will also read a bit form our latest books and talk about the processes and thoughts that led us to The Wonders and Goddess.

Do get along if you’re in the area.

Book cover - The Wonders

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!

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.