Lately I’ve been…

Blogging
In residence on inside a dog.
All January.

Watching
Albert Nobbs – Restrained Glenn Close playing opposite a hearty Janet McTeer. Always wonderful to see Pauline Collins, too. This time upstairs. Subtly and quietly tragic. The whole story. As indeed it must have been. And that’s all I can say without spoilers. Though perhaps the screenplay is just wee bit Banville.

The Iron Lady – I’m sorry, but I can’t feel a shred of empathy with Margaret Thatcher, I don’t care what the script says. Nor am I comfortable with the bulk of the film’s lionising of her, and the claim that her economic policies led to recovery. All bollocks. We get to the truth of the matter in a brilliant Cabinet scene in which she has clearly gone too far, but that’s treated as if it’s a one-off – a harbinger – whereas in fact she was a thug in Cabinet and out. But Meryl Streep is magnificent and it’s worth seeing for the performance. And Giles is in it. As Geoffrey Howe, no less.

It’ll be Streep versus Close at the Oscars. Close might win it, since if you wear men’s clothes you’re almost certain of a statuette. Unless you’re actually queer, of course. Sad but true.

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol – Actually not bad for a blowing-things-up movie. Though why, in this day and age, the otherwise kickass woman agent (Paula Patton) has to get dressed up in a slinky evening gown to seduce a bad guy is inexplicable. And then there’s Tom Cruise, who always does that stupid sprinting thing and yet never catches anyone. Not to mention the hair. But, you know, someone does blow up the Kremlin. And that’s always fun. Holiday movies.

I Love You Phillip Morris – Jim Carrey. Why? Nothing more to say except Ewan McGregor is just beautiful. Always.

Damages – (on DVD) Glenn Close again, absolutely petrifying. But now she’s freaked me out and I’m too scared to watch the rest. That means it is very effective TV.  Also I’m a wimp.

Reading
I was on holidays, so I’ve been on a binge, and not reading anything at all related to French opera or 16th century printing. Instead, I’ve been reading:

The Chanters of Tremaris, Kate Constable’s YA fantasy trilogy set in a beautifully imagined world laced together by the magic of song.

The Old Kingdom, another YA fantasy trilogy, this time by Garth Nix. It’s also perfectly imagined, but much darker: worlds of old magic held in place by necromancy and … ooh, makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Mortal Instruments. Yes, one more YA fantasy series, this one by Cassandra Clare and set mostly in New York. I like the world, and the logic of it, and she’s a dab hand with the snappy dialogue, but the characterisation is very thin. Still, what would I  know? She sells millions and they’re making a movie and girls everywhere want to marry Jace and apparently that’s what matters.

War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong. This was on my wishlist for Christmas and then it arrived and I was happy. Tolstoy, through the eyes of his wife Sonya. A wonderful premise. Then I read it.  I struggled, dear reader, I’m sorry to say, because I really wanted to like it. But the voice doesn’t work for me, it’s strained and clunky, the pace is inconsistent, all telling and then mostly awkwardly. Bits of it read like a university book review. And it’s oddly lacking in passion.

Why be happy when you can be normal? This is Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of the Oranges are not the only fruit years and their aftermath. Oranges, she has argued in recent years, was fiction or something between fiction and memoir. This is the real story and it is, as she says, even more bleak. It’s Winterson in essay mode, sometimes fragmentary but not showing off, not trying to do anything but tell some truths and understand. (I don’t mind it when she shows off, by the way – she’s allowed.) It works, as an extended riff on life and religion and class – and honestly with a mother like Mrs Winterson she need only present her to us in all her glory, and you can’t tear your gaze away. The only shocking new revelation: Winterson voted for Thatcher once. That’s big.

The Last Jew, by Noah Gordon. Actually, this was vaguely research, as it’s set in Spain in the early years of the Inquisition, but it didn’t hurt my holiday brain too much. Well-written historical fiction and interesting for me because it’s along the lines of a quest, but one in which there’s no great crescendo of action or denouement. It is, like Isabella’s quest in The Sultan’s Eyes, about searching for home.

Which I’d really better get on to…

Lately I’ve been…

Plotting world domination.
Again.
(Clearly, it never works. Must try harder.)

Reading
I have to admit I am mostly reading books for a conference paper and my thesis generally, tracing a line between representations of Sappho through the millennia and La Maupin over the centuries. Long bow? We’ll see. Anyway, it has reinforced my belief that Margaret Reynolds should probably rule the world. Or Emma Donoghue. I can’t decide.

Sulky Sappho

I’m also flicking endlessly through books about France in advance on next month’s research trip. There are piles of travel guides, architectural tomes, history texts and maps and I am on the verge of tipping over into some research-based abyss. There was no clear space to eat breakfast this morning so I just stood there staring at it. (Dodgy laptop webcam shot – my house may be eccentric, but it isn’t really built on that angle.)

So that’s the other main thing I’ve been doing, besides blowing my nose and coughing…


Planning research
I have a month in France. It seems like a long time but there is so much to do I’m feeling a little anxious about it all.
But I now have a day-by-day task list so I make sure I cover everything I need to do, although of course I can’t yet tell what I’ll find in some of the archives, museums and libraries, so I don’t know how long I’ll need at each.
I have to make sure I visit each actual site mentioned in any of La Maupin’s biographies (where they still exist) and understand what those places looked like at the time. For example, I don’t what to describe something in the church where she threatened to blow out the Duchess of Luxembourg’s brains (bless her, she was cross), if that feature or window wasn’t actually there in 1701.
So I’m also making a list of a whole lot of streets and buildings that haven’t changed much since 1707 so I can visit, photograph and get the feel of them.
The feel of the thing. That’s probably the most important part. How did Paris feel/smell/look, what did the opera sound like, how high were the heels, how low the ceilings?
It’s  the part that’s impossible to plan, the serendipitous part of research, when your turn a corner and breathe and know.
I love that bit.



Writing
I’ve posted earlier about my experiences with Chambermade Opera’s libretto writing workshop. I can’t say I have suddenly turned into a librettist, but I can say that it has helped focus my mind on how I’m writing dialogue, on how to refine and distill.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to finish draft zero (that’s PhD talk for the version you do before your proper full first draft) of Tragédie by the end of the year. It’s mostly sketched out now, in time to go to France, so I know everything I need to fact-check on site.

Here’s a little extract from the current ms:

— Are you happy, Mademoiselle de Maupin?
— At this moment? Yes.
— Other moments?
— It depends.
— On what?
— On the moment.
[there’ll be a bit of fencing in here but I haven’t decided on the sequence yet]
— And you, Marquise? You are married?
— I thought it would make me happy. I was misinformed.
— A pity. You’re wealthy. You could have chosen anyone.
— I have. It’s just taken me a while.

That’s right. There are no personal pronouns in the dialogue. Anywhere.
The voice switches from a first person recitative to the third person, present tense, and with dialogue as brief and as pointed as I can manage, and no olde worlde ye gods wench get thee to a nunnery talk.
But now I am imagining every word sung, on stage, it helps me refine what is most essential. If I had to get it down to twenty words, or five, what is the thing that must be said? So there will a lot be redrafting and rethinking to do. For example, now I look at the dialogue above, I know I can’t use any of it. Or maybe five words. The rest is headed for that cute little waste paper basket icon on my desktop.

Luckily, I still have six years left to finish the PhD. I might manage it, too, if I can stop driving myself mad with research.

Lately I’ve been…

Reading
Text books and journal articles for the PhD, including:

  • The Sappho History, by the marvellous Margaret Reynolds – crisp, smart writing
  • France Observed in the Seventeenth Century by British Travellers, by John Lough – a hoot
  • Still browsing through the wonderful One Thousand Buildings of Paris, with photos by Jorg Brockmann and James Driscoll, and pithy text by Kaathy Borrus
  • Rabelais and His World, the classic text (I know that’s an over-used description, but true in this case) by Mikhael Bakhtin – filled with vivid flashes and genuinely brilliant insights into the world of fairgrounds, festivals, freaks and folklore around early modern Paris – on archetypes and ancient lore that trickles down to us today.
  • The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, by Janet Todd. Still remember the moment, in 1985, when I first visited London and wandered around Westminster Abbey – looked down, and there, below my feet, was Aphra’s grave. Getting that weird chill thing even now. Or maybe it’s a flush. Anyway – there’s a good subject for a cracking movie bio. Spy, playwright, independent woman, deviant, subversive – and yet not. Fascinating.
  • George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large, by Belinda Jack. Ditto – except for the grave thing.

Escapist reading is The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue, about which I’m still making up my mind. I’m not sure why it’s in the present tense, and that’s a question I’m also asking myself about Tragédie.

Waiting
First it seemed like a moment until Act of Faith comes out. Now it seems like years. It’s actually somewhere in between – two months or so. So the anxious, exhilarated, dumb-struck, sleepless, proud, despairing thing is starting a bit ahead of schedule.
Don’t tell anyone, but I feel like this one might go OK.

Watching
Deadwood. It’s like Macbeth on crack.


Muttering
French vocab. It will not stick in my brain. I go to class and everything looks fine on paper, and then I get asked a question and there’s nothing there at all. A black hole where a word or phrase ought to be. It was there yesterday. Where do they go?

And then there’s …
King Tutankhamun exhibition opened at the Melbourne Museum last night. Wonderful, wonderful things. Best of them: his dagger, with goldwork so fine you know the Egyptians had to have some kind of magnifying lens. And a stunning realist mask of Nefertiti. And a tiny cosmetic case shaped like a duck. And – well, everything, really.

Happy hours of research planning the trip to Paris and Provence in October.

Autumn in Melbourne: reddening leaves and rhubarb and stirring great vats of crabapple jelly and green tomato relish and crisp mornings with balmy days. Bliss.

Lately I’ve been…

Reading

  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, having screwed up my courage in the face of its not being The Poisonwood Bible. But it’s pretty wonderful in its very own way so far.
  • Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood (under strict instructions from my aunt, who was right – I did like them). Very happy to read the ABC is making a series: will be great stylish TV if they get the casting right.
  • Travel guides to Paris and Provence.
  • Prisoners of War by Patsy Adam-Smith – dipping in an out – it’s too horrific to read right through.
  • Seventeenth Century France Through the Eyes of Travellers. Fascinating and often hilarious.
  • Also re-read Pride and Prejudice on my iPod to see how it was on the tiny screen – far too much page  turning for my liking, but fine if you’re stuck – astonished, after so many reads, to find things in the book I’d overlooked or forgotten.

Admiring

  • New Guinea art and artefacts at the Museum of South Australia. Two afternoons in a row. Too exciting. Identified a few of my arrows.
  • Carrick Hill house and gardens in Adelaide, with a perfect little collection of old English oak pieces and jewel-like paintings by the likes of Nolan, Dobell, Fox, Nora Heysen, Gaugin, fake-Gaugin, and Fantin-Latour. Lalique glass. Gorgeous Streeton of Venice. Arts & Crafts garden including a children’s book trail with a hobbit house and a Secret Garden (although it was far too hot to explore it thoroughly).

Not admiring

  • The new Saturday Age layout, clearly designed without any usability advice.
  • The weather.

Worrying

  • About poor Mission Beach, where I would happily spend every winter forever. Of all places for a cyclone to cross the coast.

Scribbling

  • Research for Tragédie only, not drafting at present. Have to do the immersion thing – period food, clothes, buildings, streets – before I go much further. Met with the lovely Michael Shirrefs who is full of tips on how to do research in French archives.
  • Ideas for something set in Marvellous Melbourne – maybe a sensation novel – maybe a detective novel – probably both – too early to tell.

Listening

  • To Tancrede, a baroque opera in which La Maupin performed
  • Brand New Heavies – just rediscovered a couple of old CDs and forgot how much I loved them

Lately I’ve been…

Reading

  • Crafty TV Writing (Alex Epstein – because you never know)
  • Electricity (Victoria Glendinning – one of my heroes)
  • The Library at Night (Alberto Manguel – another one)
  • The Thief Taker (Janet Gleeson – not – why do so many writers of historical fiction cram an encyclopedia of period detail into the first chapter?)
  • Essentials of Screenwriting (Richard Walter)
  • Critique of Criminal Reason (Michael Gregorio, the pseudonym of Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio, and not bad really)
  • Women in Seventeenth Century France (Wendy Gibson, who seems to have written an entire book without mentioning the most interesting woman in seventeenth century France, but never mind)
  • The Seven Ages of Paris (Alistair Horne)
  • The Three Musketeers (Dumas, of course – one more time).

Writing

  • My author’s note for Act of Faith, which took far longer than it should have because I kept wanting to look up all my references all over again – it heads off for typesetting shortly
  • Third person present tense [sigh]

Watching

  • Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (but I might have mentioned that once or twice already). Mind you, Glee and The Good Wife come back this week so some semblance of sanity may return
  • Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole in 3, which I have to say was pretty funny – if you get all the references to war movies, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

Listening to

  • French – Earworms CDs
  • My girlfriend playing Justin Timberlake over and over.

Planning trips to

  • Byron Bay, next week
  • Amsterdam and Cambridge, for research
  • France, this time next year, for research.

Counting

  • The days until the next Harry Potter film opens.