Layers of London

Honestly, we’re so lucky. Doing research now, with all the incredible collections at our disposal, and a huge range of digital tools, is both a whole lot easier and a whole lot faster than ever before. And it helps you imagine past worlds in different ways.

I’m finalising Vigil, the final book in The Firewatcher Chronicles at present, and one of its motifs is the many layers of history in London.

And look. Here’s a website called Layers of London, which helps us see through the centuries – perfect for schools and readers of the books (and me, of course).

It lays digital map over map, decade after decade or century, and adds local collection items. Take a look here: Layers of London.

And another very smart website traces all the major Blitz bomb sites in London. Handy (Although I have to admit I did make some of the bomb sites in Brimstone up – buildings that were destroyed in a raid were sometimes hit directly or sometimes destroyed by fires started by bombs landing elsewhere, so it’s  also a bit confusing trying to trace the history.)

Bombsight maps the official bomb site census for the Blitz months. Here’s the map for Christopher Larkham’s part of the world.

Fascinating stuff. Researchers (and readers of all ages) everywhere give thanks to inventive developers, libraries, museums, publishers and archives who create new ways for us to access and visualise information.

Coming up

We’re hunkered down for winter here in Melbourne. Especially me, as I’ve managed to come down with a boring cold and my head’s too thick even to read.

But the good thing about winter in this neck of the woods is that it’s writers festival time.

So here are a few of the events and classes I’ve got coming up.

Woodend Winter Arts Festival: June 10

A panel with Robert Gott,  Eliza Henry-Jones and Mark Brandi, hosted by Kate Cuthbert. We’ll read a bit and talk a bit and answer your questions.  It’s help to celebrate 30 years of Writers Victoria, our wonderful state-wide writers’ organisation.

Details here.

Emerging Writers Festival: June 29

One of my favourite writers’ festivals, because it is for writers, and it’s always innovative and so helpful to people who are starting out. So I’m delighted to be part of it again this year, with a workshop on how to write historical fiction.

And it’s free!  Details here.

Bendigo Writers Festival:  11 August

Bendigo Writers Festival 2019 logo

Another of my favourite festivals, in one of the most interesting areas of Victoria. This time, I’m chairing a session with two lovely writers: Kate Forsyth and Ilka Tampke. We’ll talk about researching the past, and knowing the three of us and our enthusiasm for the topic, they’ll have to drag us off stage with a shepherd’s crook. Details here.

I’ll also be quizzing the editor and some contributors of Kindred, a new anthology of YA queer stories, just out last month. I haven’t read Kindred yet, but I’m very much looking for to it, and to talking to Michael Earp, Claire G Coleman, Erin Gough and Nevo Zisin about their work. Details here.

Gender and Love conference: 25-27 September

In Spring, I’ll be back in South Africa for the Gender and Love conference and  doing more research for my YA novel, Roar, which is set in the late 1980s in London and Apartheid-era South Africa.

HNSA conference: 25-27 October

By October, the sun will be out again, and I’ll be in Sydney for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference at historic Parramatta. I’m teaching writers how to use Scrivener in a craft workshop  on the Friday, and then in the weekend program will be chatting with Sophie Masson about our approaches to writing for different age groups. And I’m co-convening the academic stream on the Sunday.

In between, I’ll be recording podcasts, teaching, attending some other writers festivals and events, moving house, releasing the new editions of  the Firewatcher Chronicles … oh, and finishing Vigil, book three of the series.

If I can just shake off this cold!

Three new book covers

 

Notre Dame

Oh my heart.

Notre Dame towers

I wrote about the hold that cathedral has over me, in Goddess:

You may think me sacrilegious, even corrupt. Well, well. Time will tell. Not long now. But that cathedral, that holy place, that is where my soul belongs.

There was a time – one moment – when just the sight of it stopped me from throwing myself in the river. If the city was my stage, the cathedral is my mother – or, at least, the only one I’ve known. Even now, if I could, I’d crawl back there, into its dark corners, like a whipped dog – it beckons me, hides and comforts me in its enormity, its stained-glass glory, its candles and statues.

For a part of me is pure. You must believe that.

A part of me is just like Jeanne, Maid of Orléans. She is my saint, my own icon, she of the sure arm and the pure heart. I’ve done nothing so worthy with my life – I haven’t saved France or fought in battles or led the people to hopefulness. But there are the visions. She whispers to me. Yes, she does. I become her, and she enters my heart, this fragile heart. I carry her likeness around my throat, always. It was my mother’s. See? Don’t tell the Abbess. It’s all I have of my mother. Whoever she was. One of the few truly precious things, now, that I possess.

Here’s Jeanne, her hair about her fine face – look at the determination in those eyes – the sword raised high. I pray to her memory and I believe one day she will be sainted by the Church, recognised by the people of France as the saviour she tried to be, just as she is my refuge now in the darkness. Since I was little, she has been my strength – Jeanne and that cathedral on the island. She rallies the hearts of the misbegotten, the queer, the sons of the soil – a pinprick of light in the French soul.

For we have had our dark moments, Paris and I.

 

I’ve lit candles in there, heard Mass many times, heard choirs and Latin services (many years ago). I’ve cried and prayed – even though I don’t pray. Once I even got pick-pocketed in there.

And now my heart weeps for it and I hope against hope the firefighters can save it.

The Sultan’s Eyes: out now in US

I’m delighted to announce that The Sultan’s Eyes is out in the US in December 2018, courtesy of HarperCollins.

I wish I could send every book out into the world with the Preface from Act of Faith, and I suppose in some ways I do:

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

Venice

1647

Image of book cover

Praise for The Sultan’s Eyes:

“Through the eyes of the books’ impulsive and curious heroine … readers experience everyday life in the seventeenth century first in Venice, then in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In addition to being an amusing and gripping adventure story, this ambitious novel also discusses questions of gender inequality, religion, philosophy, and politics.”

– International Youth Library, White Ravens 2014

Seeking Grace

Earlier this year, I was invited to give the keynote address at Brigidfest (Féile Bríde), an annual celebration of Irish women and their achievements, held at the Celtic Club in Melbourne.

I told the story of Grace O’Malley (Granuaile), and my research into her life for my novel -in-progress, Grace.

Late summer, 1593. Two of the most remarkable women of the age met for the first and only time.

Queen Elizabeth I was 60 years old, the autocratic ruler of one of the world’s great naval powers, a brilliant politician, patron of the arts, and one of the country’s most admired monarchs.

Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille, known as Granuaile) was a pirate and a dissident, known as the Queen of Connaught and the surrounding seas, and, according to Elizabeth’s governor, ‘nurse to all rebellions in the province for forty years.’

For decades, Grace and her fleet harassed Elizabeth’s ships, her personal army fought against the Crown, and she resisted all attempts to force her to behave in a more ladylike manner. With her sons killed or captured by the English authorities, Grace sailed to London to request a personal audience with Her Royal Highness.

The two women met at Greenwich Palace. Elizabeth dismissed all her courtiers and talked privately to the Irishwoman who’d rebelled against her. Nobody recorded what they said to each other. But Grace left the meeting with a pension and an order that her son could go free.

Grace is the story of that day, and of the two queens.

Here’s the speech, if you’d like to read the entire thing:

BrigidFest 2018 speech – Granuaile

Woodcut of Grace and ELizabeth meeting

Two queens meet: Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793

The writing life: On retreat

Right now I’m in Canberra, writing my little fingers to the bone, on a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust retreat fellowship. More on that soon, although not much happens. I just sit in a room and write. There are crimson rosellas picking at the grass outside my window, and every so often a roo bounces past on its way somewhere very important.

Unlike some Australians, who get a bit snarky about it, I’ve always loved our national capital: the architecture, the lake, the national arts institutions, and the surrounding country.

It’s Ngunnawal/Ngunawal, Ngambri and Ngarigu country around here and I acknowledge and celebrate the traditional custodians of this place.

sunset over canberra

Brimstone and the Blitz

The Firewatcher Chronicles are set during the Blitz in London, and in a very specific area by the banks of the Thames: Puddle Dock and the City, up to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Street sign - Puddle Dock

When I was first researching the books, I wanted to set them in a specific place that was affected by the many fires covered by the series. So it had to be somewhere inside the old Roman city but close to the riverbank. I wanted somewhere that’s not famous, just a place where the hero, young Christopher Larkham, and his family – normal working-class people – worked and lived and watched for fires during the Blitz. It had to be somewhere close to the river, so the kids can go searching the riverbank at low tide, and surrounded by those wonderful narrow, winding streets of the old city – streets with fabulous names like Addle Hill and Bleeding Heart Lane. This is how the area was laid out around the seventeenth century:

Puddle Dock map 17th century

I chose Puddle Dock because there are few traces now of the place it once was, and also I loved the name. This is how it looked in the 1940s, with the tide out and the dock itself filled with debris from bombed buildings:

Puddle Dock 1947

Here’s what that area looks like now, from across the river.

Puddle Dock form the south bank

I admit it’s not all that glamorous (besides that glorious cathedral, glowing in the evening light). Puddle Dock now houses a theatre, apartments and offices, and is tucked in between two busy roads.  There’s no dock any more. Great swathes of the City are like that, not just because it is still one of the great financial centres of the world and therefore filled with office blocks, but also because so much of the area was flattened in the Blitz.

Southwark bridge to Blackfriars in the Blitz

Brimstone, the first book in the Chronicles, takes place on  the night of 29 December 1940, when wave after wave of German air force bombers dropped 100,000 incendiary bombs, followed by more than 20,000 high explosive bombs and parachute mines, starting a series of fires that devastated the City.

That night became known as the Second Great Fire of London. Among the worst-hit areas were places burned in the first Great Fire of London  – Paternoster Square and the area around St Paul’s Cathedral, right down to the banks of the Thames, including many of the churches rebuilt after the Great Fire by Sir Christopher Wren. And much of the area around Puddle Dock.

St Paul's surrounded by bomb damage

Hundreds of years before the Blitz, on the night of 2 September 1666, the original Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane.

This is how the city looked before the Great Fire (that big cathedral on the hill is old St Paul’s, where key scenes happen in Brimstone):

London from Southwark before the Fire

And during it:

Great Fire

How terrifying that must have been!

And here, hundreds of years later, is how the same area looked during that one night of the Blitz:

Herbert Mason's photo of St Paul's

This is Herbert Mason’s famous photo, ‘St Paul’s Survives’, one of the most iconic images from the Blitz, and taken on the night of 30 December 1940 – the night on which Brimstone is partly set. This photo meant so much to Londoners, and people across the world who were watching with horror as the Nazi attacked Britain and many other places. London had just copped a beating, but the cathedral was still standing – surrounded by smoke and flames.

So you can see what poor Christopher has to deal with in Brimstone, time-travelling between not just one but both of these enormous conflagrations.

And, perhaps, why I couldn’t resist writing a story about a kid who fights both of the great fires of London in one night.

 

Photo sources:

  • Imperial War Museum
  • Museum of London
  • Wikimedia 
  • A London Inheritance
  • Me.

School holiday fun

It’s nearly school holidays here and I’ve got a few things planned to celebrate the release of Brimstone, the first book in the Firewatcher Chronicles.

First up, I’m visiting the gorgeous town of Kyneton this weekend for a writing workshop for kids at Squishy Minnie’s bookshop. We’ll talk about adventure stories and have a go at writing some. Sunday, 23 September from 11am-1pm. For readers and writers 8-12.

Details and bookings here.

And then, at the other end of the holidays, I’ll be at Readings Kids bookstore in Carlton.  The lovely Amie Kaufman and I will talk about writing, and especially writing adventure stories, and then we’ll all write a story together. We reckon it’s about Stories of Fire and Ice, because my books are all about fire, and Amie’s new series is all about ice. Friday 5 October at 11 am. For readers and writers 7 years and up.

Details and bookings here.

I really wanted to have launch events for kids, because that’s who the book is for. So I hope you can come celebrate with me.

But do save another date:  The Firewatcher Chronicles launch for all ages will be on the afternoon of 27 October in an actual (well, former) fire station! Stay tuned for details.

Firewatcher logo