Lately I’ve been…

In residence on inside a dog.
All January.

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.

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.
(Clearly, it never works. Must try harder.)

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.

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.

Freedom of the press

Sometimes things happen in the real world that are so weird, you really wouldn’t write about it. Because who would believe you?

It’s been a bit like that lately. Here are just a few wild media events:

  • Wikileaks.
  • News of the World.
  • Social media supporting protests in countries everywhere – especially the Middle East.

All quite bizarre at times and terribly, terribly modern.

Or not. These are extensions of activities that have been central to the life of a great deal of the world for centuries – millennia.

Granted, there weren’t too many bloggers in Damascus in the seventeenth century, but there have always been rabble-rousers, trouble-makers, idealists and writers whose words have spread far and wide, whose ideas and discussions have ignited unrest or provocative debates or even revolutions.

Socrates. Luther. Spinoza. Galileo. Jefferson. Those kinds of ratbags.

You know where I’m going with this. People have always dreamed and written and published their thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, whether on clay tablets or parchment or – in recent centuries – in mass media such as the pamphlets that swirled around London in the 1640s or Paris before the Terror.

For everyone one of those ratbags, there’s someone trying to shut them up – or down: authorities burning books or burning authors, excommunicating or exiling people, throwing authors and teachers into prison or camps or dungeons, banning books and media outlets.

In many of the countries in the world today, the situation is not so extreme. But let me just unpack that: I was going to write “most countries” but then realised, I don’t even know if that’s true, numerically. There are writers, journalists, artists, bloggers, whistle-blowers and teachers in prison or exiled or in danger in dozens of countries around the world right now.

Even in the liberal democracies, the immediate political response to a Wikileaks or a controversial artist is banning. Often it’s just a play to the tabloids which, as we know, are peerless upholders of intellectual integrity. Even in the liberal democracy in which I live, Australia, there’s no constitutional right to free speech.

In the media, slippery slopes head off in all directions. Anyone, like me, who has spent any time in commercial media – print or online – can tell you that every day, every week, is a battle between editorial and sales/marketing teams about what messages are acceptable, from the annoying pop-up ad campaigns on your website to the pressure not to report on certain issues, or not to publish letters critical of advertisers.

In too many countries, that pressure is about not being critical of authorities or political movements or organised crime or businesses or religious leaders – and in far too many places, you ignore that pressure at your peril. Yet people still do. And many still die.

Yes, this is what my novel Act of Faith is all about. It’s set in the 1640s, when the Parliament in England and the Catholic Church in Rome were as keen on burning or jailing dissidents as each other. When I wrote it, I knew there were parallels happening around the world – what’s fascinating is how many of the debates are now at the forefront of public discourse. Or they should be.

  • What does freedom of the press really mean?
  • How do we ensure freedom of expression, and of belief, in a multicultural/transnational publishing world?
  • What freedoms should be embedded in the fabric of a free and independent nation?
  • (Is ‘nation’ itself an outdated concept when it comes to information?)

And why, oh why, do we seem to be moving backwards? In 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the frenzy that destroyed so many great thinkers, writers, artists, activists and musicians along with millions of other souls, the United Nations declared:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

– Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

It really is that simple.

Out into the world

This is the Preface from Act of Faith:

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

They are my words, of course, and as I send the book out into the world I feel much the same as – years ago – I imagined Isabella might when I wrote those lines in her voice.

These weeks around a book release are anxious ones – this time more so, for some reason.

But I’ve realised over the last couple of days that worrying, although inevitable, is useless.

I have made as good a book as I can.

That’s all I can do.

Coming soon, to a City of Literature near you

I’m honoured to be part of this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival (note the apostrophe) as a “Living Library” on 4 June. That means you can book a fifteen minute one-on-one session to pick my brains on how to create characters.
Or you can quiz Paddy O’Reilly on structure and narrative (which I do over lunch on a regular basis).

  • Criticism & reviewing: Geordie Williamson, literary critic
  • Poetry & performance: Julian Fleetwood, poet & playwright
  • Editing: Jo Case, editor
  • Drafting & planning: Alan Bissett, novellist & screenwriter
  • Creative collaborations: Warwick Holt, joke writer & freelancer
  • Writing online: Simon Groth, If:Book director & digital writer
  • Translation: Leah Gerber, academic specialising in literary translation
  • Freelancing: Kevin Patrick, freelance writer.

What a line-up, and what a smart idea. You treat us like books you can borrow for fifteen minutes. Ask us anything. But please remember to return all books to the trolley.

And in my day job at the State Library, we’re gearing up for the Reading Matters conference, with guests this year including Cassandra Clare, Lucy Christopher, Ursula Dubosarsky, Rebecca Stead, and Markus Zusak. Can’t wait.

Lately I’ve been…

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.

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.

Deadwood. It’s like Macbeth on crack.

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.