This week and next I’m at a writers’ retreat: the glorious Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney. It’s the  home of the legendary Australian novelist, Eleanor Dark (The Timeless Land and The Storm of Time, which I haven’t read for years, but must revisit).

All very 1930s and quiet and misty and autumnal and we are utterly pampered. Feeling very lucky. While I’m here, I’ll be finishing the first draft of Tragédie, and might even get on to some redrafting.

Not me. Hem. But same idea.

On opera

This week I’ve been on planet opera.
It’s a pretty wild place, let me tell you.

The idea was simple – gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.


I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it’s the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.

And because, clearly, I haven’t got enough going on.

Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn’t hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:

  • There doesn’t need to be a narrative (arguably, there should not be a formal narrative)
  • Sounds of words may matter as much as meaning
  • Leave room for the audience – and the music – to do the work
  • Distill. Write essence only. Then distill again.

So I won’t tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.

Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose – specifically, in Tragédie – how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That’s not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.

I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin’s life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I’m left wondering what to do with that idea. And that’s good.

The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.

Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.

Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:

  • People aren’t interested in stories. They want experiences.
  • Shakespeare’s ghosts are silent for a reason.
  • Opera is slow – it’s a meditation.
  • It’s also a blunt instrument.
  • It’s never going to be what you [the writer] imagined.
  • Write simple stories.
  • Contemporary opera done well can be very powerful in conveying the big ideas.
  • Music takes the ideas to the heart and bypasses the head.
  • Let the audience members make up their own minds.
  • If the composer isn’t weeping while she writes, nobody else will feel it either.
  • Intuition is quicker than the brain at figuring things out.
  • Each scene has its own self-contained logic and idea that contribute to the overall.
  • A breath can convey as much as a word.

Also, as with most forms of writing, it’s almost impossible to get work produced. But that’s never stopped me before.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)

Will now attempt to float back to earth.



I’ve been hearing a lot of voices lately, but that was the plan. Part of my PhD project is about the quest (or lack thereof) for authenticity in voices in historical fiction, and now I can’t read anything without seeing through that lens. It’s a bit like when you’re going to get a new car or a new dog, and suddenly the world is filled with that model or that breed. Except this will last for years. And is, thankfully, rather more interesting than ten year-old station wagons.

So here are some initial thoughts on a few voices I’ve heard recently.

Bethia Mayfield is the narrator of Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. Brooks can enable her readers to hear a voice from the past with sublime felicity: her March is a tricky and unsympathetic narrator whose weakness and selfishness are difficult to bear but a joy to read. Bethia, on the other hand, is the opposite. the character is engaging, but her voice – I am very sorry to say – is uneven. I heard Brooks speak about the book recently, and she mentioned that she makes great use of the Oxford Historical Thesaurus. It shows*. The reader is happily meandering around the island with Bethia when we all trip over a word, and then another, which seem to be perfectly accurate in a historical sense but somehow out of time – out of tune – with all of Bethia’s/Brooks’ other words.

It’s a very very tricky business, maintaining a voice that is palatable to the modern ear but somehow historically accurate – what Sarah Waters describes as “right enough – for us”. Brooks almost always gets it right. Just not this time. Not quite.

In Room, Emma Donoghue’s narrator is five year-old Jack, who lives in a small room with his Ma and that’s the only world he knows. Hard to imagine a more difficult task for a writer – a credible five year-old voice, but also one whose world is so confined he simply doesn’t realise, at the start of the book, that the things he sees on the television are real – and yet convey the entire action of a book, including some genuinely thrilling action – in that voice and world view.

But Donoghue manages it, beautifully. There may be the odd word that seems out of place, one or two concepts that Jack couldn’t possibly know but it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t throw you out of the story. Anyway, as Jack says, “I know all the words”.

Finally, a TV series: Downton Abbey.

I love it. I do. But please: there is no way on earth that upstairs and downstairs ever collided and colluded so often and so intimately. After the Great War – perhaps. As people’s lives were shattered by grief and missing, and as the men and women at the many Fronts discovered they could be friends or enemies across class and that death really didn’t distinguish; then the social – if not economic – barriers in British society began to crumble. Or in a crisis, such as a corpse in your bedroom, yes, one might feel a trusted maid is the only place to turn.

Sybil: can’t touch this

But it really does reek of narrative reshaping history for upstairs characters to confide in the servants, for maids to offer unsolicited personal advice, for there to be such informality and idle chatter in the house of an earl. An earl! Not a minor baronetcy, but one of the great titles in the kingdom. Perhaps I wouldn’t mind the inaccuracy it it managed to be consistent, but it isn’t. Some of the voices and relationships are consistent and some aren’t. I don’t mind the lovely daredevil Sybil being too egalitarian, but other characters on both sides waver in and out.

Yes, I am one of those people who shouts at the television or scoffs in the cinema at blatant rewriting of history. Don’t get me started on Shekhar Kapur’s versions of Elizabeth I, for example.

As if!

And if I huff “As if!” several times in one viewing, we are in trouble.

I’m afraid there have been many “As ifs” during the otherwise winning Downton Abbey, though it won’t stop me watching it.

* [Later: that sounds more brutal than I meant it to. It’s a terrific story.]

Sarah Waters on authenticity

ABIGAIL DENNIS: So creating that sense of authenticity is very important?

SARAH WATERS: Yes, it is actually, even though I know it’s all an illusion, and we’re all recreating the past in a different way, and it’s always a process … it still feels important to, well, in a sense almost to give a reader that experience, because I think it’s so important to remember that culture and society are such provisional, such temporary things, because we get attached to cultural and social systems in a very negative kind of way.
And if you take a longer view, and just remind people that these things are always in process, they’re not fixed, and gender’s never fixed, and how we feel about women changes all the time, and how we feel about sex and sexuality and class, these things change all the time … historical fiction can dramatically enact that.
Not that I feel like I’ve got an agenda with my writing in that kind of way, but it’s a fundamental thing of mine that history is a process, and in a sense a good historical novel is a celebration of that.

Interview by Abigail Dennis, ‘Ladies in peril’, Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1 (Autumn 2008)

Concentrating. Hard.

This morning was my first trial of a new discipline: Two Golden Hours.
This is the plan. You sit down at your desk, metaphorically nail your feet to the floor, assume the position, and write.
No researching, no looking up references, no fact-checking.
No editing as you go – supposedly not even correcting spelling but I can’t quite take it that far.
No reading articles or searching databases for citations. And especially no emails, no checking the news sites or facebook, no suddenly remembering you meant to reinstall software or reorganise files, no putting out a load of washing or checking the letterbox or feeding the chooks.
Just Two Golden Hours of drafting. First thing in the morning, before getting distracted by any other tasks.
I wrote 1500 words. I’m not saying they’re all brilliant, or even usable, but two key scenes are out of my head on down on … well, pixels or something. That’s normal for a morning’s work but it felt a little more intense, and it’s definitely draft – not processed (much) on the way from brain to Save button. If I couldn’t immediately think of the right word I just chose the closest thing and highlighted it to fix later.
But it was strangely difficult. I’m someone who can easily write for long hours, forgetting to eat and not realising it’s nightfall and that I was supposed to be somewhere. But to do it on schedule is a different matter entirely. I got twitchy. Kept looking at the clock.
It’s important to schedule the time because we easily get lost in historical research, or think we have to find more and more academic references, and working at home also has a whole lot of other dangerous distractions as well. Like morning tea. And afternoon tea.
I try to be at my desk at 9 and work through, just like a day at the office, but it’s easy to get distracted from the drafting by the need to look stuff up. And then you realise you don’t know some related thing, so you go look that up. And then you see a reference for an article that might help, so you go trawl for it online. And while you’re doing that you notice this journal you didn’t know about so you kick off the usual searches to see if there’s anything there related to your subject. By which time you’ve forgotten the original problem you were researching and why. And you might be working but you aren’t actually writing.
So I’ve written it into my Filofax: Two Golden Hours. Capital G. Capital H. The capital letters make the two hours a serious commitment to yourself, a thing that cannot be rescheduled or easily forgotten. They are important.
After all, we multitask all day every day, with meetings, and emails, and people asking questions. You have to do stuff and think at the same time. Even on the train, even in the evenings. Focusing your mind gets harder and harder.
Choosing what’s important among all the many options floating around in your brain is sometimes impossible, so the brain opts for the easiest.
I learned about the Two Golden Hours at a handy seminar for postgrads at uni last week: ‘Turbocharge your writing’, with Hugh Kearns from Thinkwell. Highly recommended.
Now all I have to do is to put it into practice.
I will do that every Thursday and Friday morning. I would do it every single day if I could, but unfortunately I have to earn a living – which is, as we know, quite a different thing to being a writer.