1917 places near and far

Anzac Day, 2017.

I’m remembering the fallen.

Remembering the airmen in the skies over the Battle of Arras in April 1917, whose life expectancy was only 17.5 hours.

Yes. Hours.

The Red Baron and the German hunting packs dominated the air war on the Western Front. The new RE8 two-seaters were being brought into the Front Lines.

On the Eastern Front, Russia was falling apart, following the February Revolutions.

The war hung in the balance. Again.

I’m remembering being in Ypres, and standing under the Menin Gate, waiting to lay a wreath to honour my great-grandfather.

So today I’m remembering places – places I visited, touched by the war, places I tried to capture in 1917. And some places I borrowed as sites for my fictional family.

This is Bailleul in Flanders, the site of the airfield (I think) where 3 Squadron AFC was based. This is where Alex and Charlie end up in 1917.

There are so many airmen buried in the cemetery right next door. (There are so many cemeteries, large and small, in Flanders and across northern France. All are immaculately maintained.)

A few miles away as the RE8 flies, the town of Ypres was reduced to rubble by shelling during the war.

Source: Australian War Memorial

Those few walls you can see were all that remained of the medieval Cloth Hall.

But after the war, it was rebuilt, and today it houses the brilliant In Flanders Fields museum.

But 1917 is not only set in Flanders, of course.

It’s also set near my home, in Melbourne, in the suburb where my great-grandfather lived before he left to serve in the Medical Corps in Flanders.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Maggie and the family live next to the railway station, in a station manager’s house. Here’s one just like the house they might have lived in – near Moreland Station in Melbourne.

Railway house. Source: Pictures Victoria/Coburg Historical Society

And the station – which still stands – looked like this. So you can imagine little Bertie running wild around this very impressive-looking Victorian edifice, while his father tries to appear dignified.

Source: Pictures Vic/Moreland Libraries

It still looks a lot like it did then. Even the signal box in which I imagined Bertie playing is still there, although it’s not in use any more. But there’s a lovely park now on both sides of the lines. (The Government is about to remove the level crossing – I hope they don’t also remove the heritage station or signal box.)

One place in the book that’s very close to my heart is Station Pier in Port Melbourne. That’s where so many families waved off the men and women going to war, not knowing they’d never see them again. And then later in the year it was the scene of strife during the General Strike, and Dame Nellie Melba’s inglorious concert.

(My grandfather worked on the wharf, and he used to take us there to look at the ships, when I was little.)

Source: Victorian ANZAC Centenary

And what about Maggie’s life on the farm? Well, here’s Main Street in Mordialloc (around 1910), which is now a very busy spot indeed.

Source: Kingston Libraries/Kingston Collection

And this is the place I had in my mind for the orchards and farms around Box Hill where Maggie and Lizzie work: Schwerkolt’s Cottage, Mitcham,  just a few doors from where I grew up. In fact, it gets a mention in the book, and the room where Maggie and Mrs Bennett chat is exactly a room at Schwerkolt’s – and they were one of the German families affected by the war. (I spent a lot of time as a kid exploring the bush and old orchards around the cottage. It has since been restored and houses the local museum.)

Source: J.T. Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

And I realise as I write this how often I include places close to my heart in my books. Venice. Paris. London. Station Pier. (It’s like one of those tea towels – “New York. Paris. Mitcham.”)

So here’s one more place that I love. Oxford. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover, last time I stayed there, that the airmen had trained there during the war. Hoorah! I thought. I can put it in the book. And so I did.

All those spires. Excellent navigation aids.

The ‘R’ word

She’s not the first to say it, but she says it well: an interesting take on romance fiction as a feminist genre, from Trisha Brown:

Romance is one of the most feminist sectors you can find in all of art and entertainment. That statement defies all of the stereotypes, but it’s true.

You can read the whole article here.

 

Great novels to read this month

In honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, here are just a few of my favourite novels by and about women, all illuminating the lives of women in the past and today.

 

book cover angela carter

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
A thrilling trapeze act of character, voice and magic.

 

Beloved, Toni Morrison
Unflinching. Utterly captivating. A writing masterclass in one small but enormous book.

 

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
One of the great postmodern historical novels, The Passion is a lesson in using voice to connect past and present, and in combining heartbreak with restraint.

 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
I’ve said this before, I know: this is virtuosic ventriloquism and storytelling, with a twist that will have you throwing the book across the room and then scrambling to pick it up again to find out what happens next.

 

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker
It never gets old. Never.

 

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Chilling. Brilliant.

 

Possession, A. S. Byatt
Another neo-Victorian ventriloquist’s performance, capturing all the melodrama of a Dickens novel.

 

Orlando, Virginia Woolf
I wish there was another word for seminal. How about: the book that gave birth to us all? (Here’s Tilda Swinton’s take on it.)

 

film adaptation of orlando

Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth (and two excellent hounds) in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando.

 

And some more recent titles:
Skin, Ilke Tampke
Beautifully written and reimagined world of early Britain during the confrontation with Rome.

 

Theodora, Stella Duffy
The appropriately riotous tale of the acrobat who became Empress of half the known world.

 

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
It’s brutal and stunning and unforgettable.

 

Hild, Nicola Griffith
Another miraculous reimagining of Britain – this time in the early decades of the Christian missionaries and saints.

 

book cover for Hild

 

I could go on and on but I won’t. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

Biting nails

And now we enter into the most anxious weeks of any writer’s life: release time. I don’t know any writers who don’t feel nervous, sleepless, perhaps fretful, just before a new book comes out. Maybe once you’ve written dozens of books, you feel a bit more blasé. But this is number seven, and I never get used to it. There’s nothing more I can do, nothing to be corrected or changed – it’s printed, and being packed in boxes to be delivered in the next week or so. If it were possible to both cross my fingers and bite my nails at the same time, I’d do that. Why?

Goddess, my novel based on the life of Julie d’Aubigny (Mademoiselle de Maupin), hits the bookshops in a few weeks. After four years of thinking and researching and writing and listening to La Maupin’s voice in my head, her story is ready to be heard. Again.

There are other versions of her life, of course, especially in French. She has been portrayed on screen and stage, and is a her own meme  –  the tag #julied’aubigny on either tumblr or twitter  will reveal new people discovering her story every week. So often I see people exclaim: how is it I’ve never heard of this swordfighting, opera singing, badass woman? Where has she been all my life? Why isn’t she more famous?

The truth is that she has been very famous, on and off, in her lifetime and beyond. She will be again, I have no doubt.

She has been vilified and acclaimed, and she has scandalised and amazed people and still does, hundreds of years after her death.

I do hope you like my version of her story, of her voice. Here she is.

 

 

Image of book cover - Goddes

 

 

 

Big week, big news

First: Act of Faith is on the shortlist for the Gold Inky in Australia’s teen reader choice awards. That’s a lovely surprise, because the shortlist is chosen by an independent panel largely composed of young readers, along with (this year) book blogger Danielle Binks and last year’s Gold Inky winner, James Maloney. It’s also a great honour to be shortlisted along with:

  • Shift by Em Bailey
  • Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar
  • Queen of the Night by Leanne Hall
  • The Reluctant Hallelujah by Gabrielle Williams.

More information – and voting form – on insideadog. I should tell you to vote for me but really, with that list, vote for whoever you like.

I can also announce that the Swashbuckler books are now available as ebooks from all the major retailers, which is great news because copies can be hard to find in print nowadays. More information on sources from HarperCollins.

Multifunction machines

Remember the fax? Remember how amazing it was that you could expect an answer from someone anywhere in the country (let alone overseas) within 24 hours? Wow.

Who owns a fax now? Talk about instant obsolescence. I haven’t sent a fax in years, and if I ever have, it’s been from my desktop PC or from a machine that is really a printer and photocopier.

I have an ereader. An early model Kobo. It doesn’t do anything fancy. You just read stuff.

When I say “early model”, I mean it’s about three years old. Maybe four. And it’s already gone the way of the fax machine, because almost immediately after it came out, the new ranges of ereaders and the tablets appeared, on which you can not only read stuff but also highlight, annotate, flick pages, interact, play music, and make toast. Well, maybe not the toast, but that’s not far off.

I should get a new ereader or a tablet, I know. But I waver between early adopter and conservative purchaser. I like that my Kobo isn’t backlit, because after a day of staring at a screen it gives my eyes a rest. I also have a little netbook instead of a tablet, because what I mostly do is type, and there are things about an iPad that don’t suit me and my needs. Yet.

It’s clear to me that the tablets, ereaders and netbooks are in a transitional phase, and as a poverty-stricken writer (well, not quite, but I’m only on a part-time wage) I don’t upgrade my hardware every year or so just to keep up.

So I’m happy to wait for the next round of devices that bring those elements together properly. It’s not far away. Just this week, Kobo has announced a partnership with Google Play to provide access to apps and games though its Vox tablet. And Microsoft is expected to announce a deal with Barnes and Noble melding the Xbox and an ereader/tablet. There are already millions of book and literacy apps for iPad/iPhone and Android that explore new territories in interactive reading and gaming.

But apart from the reading devices and platforms, one of the issues that I think is huge for publishing and for writers is the issue of territorial rights in the  digital era. The sector has been (rightly) banging on endlessly about royalty percentages and the impact of digital on what is often more about printing – not publishing as such. I’ve long thought that the real impact on publishing models would be on rights.

Traditionally, a publisher buys the rights to a book for specific regions such as the US, UK, or Australia/New Zealand – or world rights, with translations into languages other than the original being dealt with separately. But digital publishing makes a nonsense of territories. Who cares what rights you’ve bought or sold, when readers can order your ebook from any retailer they prefer, based anywhere in the world?

And now one of my publishers, HarperCollins, has announced a new venture called HarperCollins360, which aims to “make each HC title available in all English-language markets, when the necessary rights are held”.

I don’t know yet what the business model is, what it means for existing contracts. I don’t know how much will be based on POD (print on demand) and ebooks, which could threaten some authors’ deals for territories other than their own. Every transnational publisher must be thinking along similar lines, and that may hold implications for smaller local publishers which work the international rights deals. So there will be many issues to thrash out in the industry, and I’m sure the Australian Society of Authors, agents, SPUNC and others will be right in there.

But I do know I’ve been held back in the past from being distributed in some key markets because of territorial rights – the Swashbuckler books, for example, couldn’t be sold in Malta, where they are set, because Malta is technically part of the UK territory, and HarperCollins UK didn’t have rights to publish them. I’ve always wondered whether India and the many Asian countries with large English-speaking populations are under-developed markets for Australian writers. Everyone gets so focused on selling into the US and UK – but what about Canada and South Africa? I can see great possibilities in a more global approach. It makes sense, and also helps break down all those subconscious post-colonial obsessions with approval from the mother country or the Americans. Haven’t made it unless you’ve got a review in the New York Times? How about the Times of India?

So, as with ereaders, I’ll be watching and reading and talking and keeping up to date – and possibly waiting for the dust to settle. Will I be an early adopter or a conservative? We’ll see.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

This is a challenge born of something approaching despair.

Last year, VIDA in the US released its survey of publishing data which showed exactly what anyone with half a brain already knew: dire levels of representation of women at all levels; the number of books by women that got reviewed, the number of female reviewers and book page editors, and women in senior positions in the industry.

Throughout 2011, more and more incidents came to prominence (as if inequality was a new thing!) including the lack of women writers on a number of key literary prize judging panels and shortlists.
My personal favourite moment was when Jennifer Egan  won the Pulitzer, and the LA Times reported instead that Jonathan Franzen had lost the Pulitzer, and ran his photo on the front page – not the winner’s. Laugh? I nearly…

Of course, this is not unique to writing and publishing. Like nursing, librarianship and education, it’s a field in which the majority (which happens to be female) are dominated by a minority, with males traditionally taking positions in management in publishing, libraries, writing courses, festivals and writers’ centres (although the normally rowdy community is often strangely silent on those last two categories, I notice).

That’s not to diminish the many amazing women in positions of power in the writing world. It’s just a thing.

But unlike those fields, something unique and profound is also afoot, because the issue is also about how literary worth is assessed: which issues, what settings, language, topics and characters make up the sort of books that win prizes. It’s about our culture.

I won’t bang on about it: others have already done so very eloquently, and anyway it seems like the kind of no-brainer thing most of us have been saying since 1975. Or since we could speak.

But what to do?

Short of coming over all Emma Goldman (and don’t tempt me), here’s one wee thing we can all do, no matter what our gender: make 2012 the year you read a few good books written by Australian women.

The challenge has been issued. It runs as follows:

Goal: Read and review books written by Australian women writers – hard copies, ebooks and audiobooks, new, borrowed or stumbled upon.

Genre challenges: 

  • Purist: one genre only
  • Dabbler: more than one genre
  • Devoted eclectic: as many genres as you can find

 
Challenge levels:

  • Stella (read 3 and review at least 2 books)
  • Miles (read 6 and review at least 3
  • Franklin-fantastic (read 10 and review at least 4 books)

You can read more about it here.

My response?

I’m going to undertake the devoted eclectic challenge (of course, because that’s how we roll here, at the best of times), and at least the Miles level.

I’m not sure of all the books I’ll read yet, because there are some beauties coming out, but the first few are:

  • Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis, by Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi

  • Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden, by Kate Llewellyn

  • Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short

 

And no doubt I’ll read some YA titles, including the forthcoming:

  • Queen of the Night, by Leanne Hall 
  • The Howling Boy, by Cath Crowley 
  • Pulchritude (or whatever it ends up being called) by Fiona Wood.

Happily ever after

On a recent school visit, the teachers asked me to talk a bit about book reviews. Good timing, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way the reviewing world has changed with so many peer-to-peer recommendation sites and a gazillion book blogs.
I love book blogs: this started out as one, in a way, many years ago. There are reviewers on blogs who are so perceptive about books, they astonish me; some who write beautifully; others who may do so one day, or who write perfectly good thoughtful pieces; others who write as fans – especially in genre – and unashamedly so.
Good on ’em all, I say.
Sites such as Good Reads, Library Thing and inside a dog* make it possible for all of us to share our thoughts on books we’ve read as, increasingly, do online library catalogues and book stores.
There are dangers, sure, and the occasional scandal, but the more the merrier.
Communities of book lovers, talking about books. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing much, really.
But there is one thing I’ve noticed over and over again in discussions about books on Good Reads and facebook and various blogs: people really hate it when the book doesn’t turn out how they expect. It makes them furious.
They equate this with failure – the plot doesn’t unfold the way they imagined therefore the book sucks. And they will often take it out on the author, either through reviews, or more directly in a chat or forum, in a tone that can make your hair curl right up and slide off your head.
I’ve never been in that position myself but I hate to think what it does to an author.
Let’s take a famous example: the death of the beloved Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The world was shocked. The death of “a major character” had been foreshadowed by JK Rowling prior to the book’s release and it was even in all the media, but Dumbledore’s death led to an outcry. Readers believed he wasn’t really dead, and would reappear like Gandalf (of course he does, but he’s still dead). As was usual in the Potterverse, complex theories were developed to explain it, dead or alive, and the discussion continues to this day.
But Rowling as the author was always quite clear, and why wouldn’t she be? Apart from the fact that it’s her book world and she can do whatever she likes, there were myriad plot twists wrapped around the death and, most critical, Harry’s character development and quest (and Hermione’s too)  required it.
That’s not how many fans saw it: they saw it as a betrayal, as a failure of the logic they had established for themselves, as a mistake.
They have invested so much in the story – what a wonderful thing! But what else is going on there? We all love to have a theory about what will happen next. Part of the fun of online discussion of books, film and TV is that very element.
I reckon part of it, too, is the expectation that there will be happy endings. That there will be romance, and everyone will live happily ever after.
Sometimes that does happen. In life, and in art. But other things happen too – people disconnect from one another accidentally, or never connect; they argue about stupid things; they annoy you; they get scared when they should be brave; they falter and bicker and fall out of love and die. 
I remember well the shriek that went around the cinema when I was a kid watching Doctor Zhivago at the Anglesea Luxury Cinema and Lara DIDN’T TURN AROUND AND OMAR SHARIF WAS RUNNING AND THEN HE CLUTCHED HIS CHEST AND OH MY GOD AND SHE NEVER KNEW!
I nearly spat my Marella Jube into the hair of the person in front.

So if you feel betrayed by an author or a film-maker when that happens in your favourite book or series, don’t take it out on them or the work they’ve created.
What it means is that they have created a world so engaging that we, as readers, are lost in it. We are annoyed because the author wants us to be annoyed, upset because that person we loved is gone and we just don’t know what will happen next.
And that’s a good thing. Right?



*Disclosure: I work with inside a dog as part of my day job, but these comments are my own.