Coming up: Festivals and conferences

August is writers festival season here.

Oh, who am I kidding? Every month is writers festival time here.

But August is one of the busiest months, especially with the massive Melbourne Writers Festival taking over the heart of the city (and lots of other places as well).

So here’s when you can see me. (Of course, you can see a whole lot of other amazing people too, which is what I’ll be doing.)

Bendigo Writers Festival, 11-13 August

One of the great regional festivals, with a huge line-up. I’m looking forward to talking with Belinda Murrell about researching and writing historical fiction, as part of the schools day, Text Marks the Spot.

If you’re a writer, you might like to join me for a special workshop on research for writers (11 August),  where you’ll learn techniques and tips to help your research and writing process.

For fans of young adult fiction, there’s a #LoveOzYA super-session of three panels on 12 August, with me and the lovely Michael Pryor, followed by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff talking all things Illuminae, and then author Will Kostakis and comics genius Bruce Mutard on heroes.

Melbourne Writers Festival, 25 August – 3 September

This year, I’m part of another simply brilliant Schools Program, in conversation with Mark Smith about one of my favourite topics: the hero’s journey (29 August).

I wish I was a school student, and able to go to MWF sessions – honestly, what a cast of thousands and so many great authors and illustrators. The main festival program is released in a few days, so I can spend next week figuring out how many of the visiting and local authors I can hear in one festival. Paradise.

Historical Novels conference

A few days after MWF finishes, we have the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia.

Running from 8 to 10 September, it features dozens of talks, workshops and panels with writers of historical fictions of all kinds. You can hear the likes of Kate Forsyth, Kerry Greenwood, Deb Challinor, Sophie Masson, Lucy Treloar, Kate Mildenhall, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, and Robyn Cadwallader. This year’s conference focus is on identities, and the first keynote address will be from memoirists Lesley and Tammy Williams.

I’ll be there all weekend, chairing panels and running a couple of sessions, including an introduction to the writing software Scrivener.

With my colleague Catherine Padmore, I’m convening an academic panel on biofiction.

In the lead-up to the conference, I’ve had great fun interviewing a lot of the authors for a podcast series, Imagining the Past. You can listen here (there are more to come).

Hope to see you out there.

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.

Real people, real stories

Readers have asked me about the real people who appear in 1917. Here are just a few of them – some faces from the Home Front.

Vida Goldstein (1869-1949). Vida’s life as an activist began in 1890 when she helped her mother collect signatures for the Woman Suffrage Petition, and over the next decade she became deeply involved in a range of political and benevolent groups, especially focused on the fight for women’s right to vote.

After some women were granted the vote in federal elections in 1902, she was one of four women who were the first in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament – as a candidate for the Senate in 1903. To agitate for the vote in the states, she formed the Women’s Political Association (WPA) and ran a newspaper, the Woman’s Sphere. In 1908 Victoria granted (some) women the vote, and after that victory, Vida made four more attempts to gain election to Federal Parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives, always as an independent, and ran The Woman Voter newspaper.

When the Great War began,  she focused her energy on campaigning for peace and later against conscription, and working on a range of issues that affected women and children.  She formed the Women’s Peace Army in 1915,  a women’s unemployment bureau in 1915-16 and the Women’s Rural Industries, which ran the Mordialloc Women’s Farm. In 1919, with Cecilia John, she attended the Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich. After the war, Vida continued to argue for disarmament and peace, as well as birth control and other measures towards equality.

The federal electorate of Goldstein is named in her honour.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography and That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman, Jeanette Bomford, Melbourne University Press, 1993.

Suffragette and anti-conscription campaigner Vida Goldstein (Photo: State Library of Victoria)

 

Cecilia John (1877-1955) was a feminist, agriculturalist, music  and dance teacher and opera singer. As a young woman, she built and ran a poultry farm at Deepdene, to pay for her musical training, and later helped run the Women’s Farm with her friend Ina Higgins. She was an acclaimed performer on the Melbourne stage, but once war broke out she devoted her energy to the Women’s Peace Army, and later on to the Children’s Peace Army.

One of Vida Goldstein’s closest friends, she managed The Woman Voter and they travelled together around the country and overseas to promote peace and women’s activism. She sang the anti-war song, ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier’ so often at public demonstrations and meetings that the song was banned, and she was also once charged under censorship laws for ordering banned anti-conscription leaflets. After the war and her visit to Geneva in 1919 with Vida, she became involved with the Save the Children Fund and the fight against poverty.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography

Miss John and Miss Goldstein collecting for the poor. Photo: That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman, Jeanette Bomford, Melbourne University Press, 1993.

Adela Pankhurst (1885-1961) was the youngest of the famous Pankhurst family of suffragettes, all of whom campaigned for the vote in Britain before the war. Once war broke out, the family split – Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel wholeheartedly supported the war, while sisters Sylvia and Adela did not. Adela was packed off, alone, to Melbourne with only £20  to her name, and quickly joined Vida Goldstein and the WPA in their campaign against the war. She was a brilliant public speaker and became a committed socialist. In 1917 she spent some time in prison for speaking at banned rallies and refusing to stay silent about food shortages.

I wasn’t able to include all the complexity of Adela’s year in the novel, but by the end of 1917 she had married unionist Tom Walsh, spent several months in prison, and split with the WPA to join the socialists – although she continued to speak at WPA rallies against conscription.

In later years, Adela and Tom were founding members of the Australian Communist Party but later moved to the right, with Adela even being briefly interned in 1942 for her friendship towards Japan.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography

And last, but most certainly not least…

My gorgeous great aunts Connie and Madge, who indirectly inspired the character of Maggie.

Rica Kirby and Connie Gardiner (right) at work at the Women’s Farm in Mordialloc. Photo: That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman, Jeanette Bomford, Melbourne University Press, 1993.

 

Eight year-old Madge led the United Women’s No Conscription Procession in 1916. Bless her.

I’ll write more about my family’s connection to these stories one day soon.

Next episode: some of the real pilots and soldiers featured in 1917. Stay tuned.

Writing as resistance

International Women’s Day, 2017.

Words matter.

Language matters.

Stories matter.

History matters.

I’ve often said that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction: pirate tales for kids that are really about slavery and rebellion, or adventures for young adults about freedom of the press, refugees, and religious intolerance. Always political. Always diverse. Always driven but never preachy. Or so I hope. Stories about women and girls.

But now, now, the writing and the purpose feels so much more urgent, the need more extreme.

It so happens that in the middle of months of protests and outrage, my little book about a similar time in local history has come out into the world – a book about a previous generation that found itself taking to the streets in huge numbers, compelled to take action by a world, by an idea, that could not be denied.

UK suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Or many ideas. Here in Australia, a hundred years ago, it was the principle that nobody should be compelled to go to war against their will.  That nations should seek options other than military action. The 1916 and 1917 plebiscites on conscription were incredibly divisive and the scars of that debate lasted for generations. In 1917 there was also the Great Strike, food shortage protests, arrests and demonstrations and censorship of the press.

In Russia, of course, the situation was even worse. On International Women’s Day 1917, women protested in the streets of Petrograd about food rationing and the endless war. Factory workers went on strike, and eventually the armed forces mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters. The February Revolution* had begun  but in the meantime it changed the war, changed the country, and changed the world.**

Maybe 2017 doesn’t feel so tumultuous. But I can’t remember too many times like this. Every day more outrages from leaders in various countries. Every day more outrage.

More protests.

There are divisions among us, of course and as always. There is anger about unrecognised privilege, dissent about how best to make our arguments, or even which arguments to make – which battles to fight.

But still, there are millions of feet marching, in cities and sites around the world, in defence of fragile freedoms of all kinds.

Some of us have always had to fight. Some have returned to the fray. Some people find themselves out marching in the streets or arguing online or writing in despair for the first time.

This moment – these dying days, I hope, these death rattles of a panicked privileged few – seems to be one of those moments in time where great change could happen.

And that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.

BOO!

 

*February in the Julian calendar.

** For better or worse or both.

 

The good old Harry Tate

A few people have asked me about the aircraft Alex and Charlie fly in 1917.

Here’s an RE8, nick-named the Harry Tate after a music hall star. This one is a plane from 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps –  the real unit to which my fictional characters belong.

3 Squadron RE8 on the Western Front

3 Squadron RE8 on the Western Front

The RE stands for Reconnaissance Experimental, and this was the eighth model in the line. It was pretty revolutionary, as the first British two-seater aircraft with the observer (or gunner – in 1917 that’s Charlie) in the rear cockpit, with a clear view of the sky. The observer defended the plane while the pilot (Alex) in front flew, navigated, took the aerial photographs, and if necessary used the Vickers machine-gun. The Vickers was synchronised to avoid hitting the propeller blades. (That might sound obvious, but the technology didn’t exist at the start of the war.) The RE8 had a 150horsepower engine and a maximum speed of 102 miles per hour. It could stay in the air for over four hours  – significantly longer than many other planes of the time.

You might think that taking a few snapshots would be easy. Here’s the kind of camera they used.

Aerial camera operated by the pilot.

Aerial camera operated by the pilot.

And here’s what the trenches looked like from the air. (I’ll write more about that soon.)

Deep, well-dug German front line trenches and support system

Deep, well-dug German front line trenches and support system

Each squadron had a ground crew of skilled mechanics, armourers (like Len in 1917), riggers and other craftsmen to keep the planes flying. They worked around the clock under pretty harsh conditions – while the airfields were set back from the trenches, they were still shelled and bombed and freezing in winter.

Mechanics from 3 Squadron AFC on the Western Front

Mechanics from 3 Squadron AFC on the Western Front

And of course, no plane was safe flying about over the Lines. Both sides had hunting packs of swift “scouts” or fighter planes, whose job it was to knock the other side’s aircraft out of the sky. Books written by pilots after the war (such as Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates or Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis) try to capture the madness that was the aerial dogfight.

A pilot, in the second between his own engagements, might see a Hun diving vertically, an SE5 on his tail, on the tail of the SE5 another Hun, and above him again another British scout. These four, plunging headlong at two hundred miles an hour, guns crackling, tracers streaming, suddenly break up. The lowest Hun plunges flaming to his death, if death has not taken him already. His victor seems to stagger, suddenly pulls out in a great leap, as a trout leaps at the end of a line, and then, turning over on his belly, swoops and spins in a dizzy falling spiral with the earth to end it. The third German zooms veering, and the last of that meteoric quartet follows bursting … But such a glimpse, last perhaps ten seconds, is broken by the sharp rattle of another attack.

– Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising ( Folio Society edition, London, 1998, p122)

dogfight

Casualty rates, in training and in combat, were high.

This is Lieutenant Leslie Sell, from Albert Park, Melbourne, beside an RE8. A 25 year old photographer prior to enlisting on 23 October 1916 as Private Sell,  but quickly became an Air Mechanic 2nd Class. He left  Melbourne with 4 Squadron on 17 January 1917 aboard RMS Omrah. After arriving in England, he undertook pilot training and on 20 December 1917 he was commissioned as a Flying Officer (Second Lieutenant). In early 1918 he joined 3 Squadron AFC in France.

Lt Sell was shot down on 25 March 1918 and died later that day of his wounds. He is buried in the Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery, France. (Source: ADF Gallery and Australian War Memorial)

Lt Leslie Snell. Killed March 1918.

Lt Leslie Sell. Killed March 1918.

 

 

Feature image: RE8 at Duxford Air Show, by John5199 (Creative Commons)

Cry me a river

It seems I’ve been making people cry.

Well, not so much me as my book.

And yes, that is the plan.

I’ve posted before about the decisions I made in writing 1917, especially about portraying violence and loss.

But while writing it, I was also thinking about the tears I shed over books when I was the same age as my readers – over Helen in Jane Eyre, over everyone in The Isle of the Blue Dolphin … and don’t get me started on Little Women.  I might be scarred for life about the sad demise of Beth March, but it’s the sort of scarring that is easier to bear in fiction than in real life. It’s loss that feels real, but isn’t.

When you write about the First World War, you can’t shy away from sorrow. The world was grieving – and I do mean the world, as there were civilian and military casualties from so many countries. By 1917, communities on the Home Front reeled from the news every day of more loss, more destruction. They mourned family members and friends, and in some cases entire villages or workplaces, especially after the slaughter of 1916 on the Somme.

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

British cemetery at Hooge, just after the war. Image: Imperial War Museum

And for those in the fighting, the terror and grief never ended. Shell-shock was finally beginning to be understood and treated, but the diaries, letters, poems and memoirs tell us that almost everyone was profoundly affected by the loss of friends, the constant bombardment, a sense of foreboding, and the physical effects of sleep deprivation, inadequate food and water, lice and rats, mud and snow, disease, living out in the elements every day and night – a nightmare that never seemed to end.

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

Shell-shocked German soldiers. Image: Imperial War Museum

It’s war. I couldn’t write about it honestly, couldn’t do justice to the voices in those diaries, letters and memoirs, without trying to reflect that reality. Without breaking a few hearts.

I just remembered this old interview I did with Writers Victoria, published while I was researching 1917:

When was the last time you cried after reading a book? Which book and why did it make you cry?

I’ve been reading a few World War One diaries lately. They are all heart-breaking but sometimes they just stop. Yesterday I saw one in the State Library and got to an entry that reads, “I seem to have come through all right so far”. Then that’s it. There’s no more.

 

So it makes me cry too.

 

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

British women laying wreaths near Abbeville after the war.

Coming up

March is a busy month.

But what fun.

I get to chat with my old mate Kate Mildenhall about writing 1917, and especially about the research and writing about war and politics for young readers. That’s a special event for teachers and librarians at Readings Books in Hawthorn on 7 March 2017. Details and bookings here.

But that’s not all.

It’s Women’s History Month, and there’s stacks going on, including a whole program of events based around Eltham.  First up is a full day of discussion about writing history and historical fiction, starting with a panel (Oh look! Kate again)  on why women write history on 5 March.

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There are events every weekend, and then I’m back again in Eltham for a debate on 25 March on the powerful and different ways that nonfiction and fiction tell the stories of the past, and why women are so good at telling these kinds of stories. The panel includes:

  • Professor Josie Arnold
  • Barbara Gaskell Denvil
  • Glenice Whitting
  • Me.

Details of all the events for Women’s History Month at the gorgeous Eltham Library are here.

But that’s not all.

I’m hosting a discussion on researching and writing biography on 21 March at State Library Victoria (I’m lucky enough to work there). I’ll be talking with Minna Muhlen-Schulte  and Sandra McComb about their work in history and biography, and particularly their new articles in the La Trobe Journal.

And then the very next day, Unladylike podcast records live for the first time, as part of the Castlemaine State Festival. Unladylike co-host Adele and I will be interviewing Lynne Kelly and Robyn Annear about writing nonfiction – how they manage to convey incredible detail and knowledge for their readers.  That’s on 22 March in beautiful Castlemaine.

Phew! Well, we wouldn’t want to sit still for too long, would we?

Writing the war

Among the many decisions we make when writing for young readers are creative and ethical decisions about violence and grief.

I’ve always been very conscious of how to treat scenes like swordfights or battles in fiction for young readers. It’s not that I shy away from the reality of violence – quite the opposite. I feel like I have a responsibility to think about how to present it honestly, and not just as a big, mindless adventure (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different type of book).

So say a kid had their first swordfight. Say they were just a little bit older than the reader – twelve or thirteen, maybe, facing off against a grown man. It’s all very exciting, and I make sure it’s an action scene with plenty of – ahem – punch. But then I wonder, if that was you, and you’d just actually stabbed someone, wounded someone, drawn blood for the first time in your life, how would you feel? Say you’d been chased by a baddie all over the Mediterranean, and finally came up against him in a duel on the clifftops and he ended up dead. How would you feel? Even if you were a pirate?

I made certain decisions about how to present fighting and battles in the Swashbuckler series, then how to present torture and loss in Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. (That makes them all sound terribly grim. I promise they’re not.)

But writing about war, in particular writing about the First World War, in 1917 presented a different set of challenges. How do you explain shell-shock to a reader aged ten? How do you present the war in the air without glorifying the aces and ignoring their casualties? Which of your characters will survive? (It’s the Western Front. They can’t all make it through unscathed.) How do you convey the intense grief of those whose best mates or loved ones were killed or wounded or missing?

How do you do all that without it becoming unbearable for the reader?

Battleground with wounded

Frank Hurley’s famous photo of the morning after the first battle of Passchendaele, 1917 (Source: ABC/NLA)

The life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front in 1917 was just a couple of weeks. They lived in a state of heightened tension and with impending doom, as did the men in the trenches. They could never explain it to the people at home. Their letters home are often totally different to their diary entries, or the oral histories recorded years later. On the other hand, the newspapers were filled with stories about dashing flying aces and their kills, as if each kill was just a number, not a human being.

How do you write a war?

Well, I hope I’ve managed to balance the needs of the reader with the pleading voices of the past.

We’ll see.

Any day now…

My new book comes out in a few weeks.

1917 is part of the Australia’s Great War series  by Scholastic.

When I was asked to be part of the series by publisher Clare Hallifax, I knew immediately what I wanted to write: a story about a pilot whose family is opposed to the war – or at least, opposed to conscription.

RE8 plane

An RE8, as flown by 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (Source: AWM)

1917 was seen by so many people as one of the worst years of the war. The losses on the Western Front were horrendous, ANZAC troops were involved in shockingly brutal encounters like Bullecourt and Passchendaele, and on the home front there were strikes and food shortages and arguments about the second plebiscite on conscription. Women’s roles were changing, new technology made warfare unlike anything ever witnessed before, and the war itself seemed to show no signs of ending.

Yung women on a farm gate

Young women helping out on a farm (Source: Telegraph UK)

My own family was involved in those conscription debates,  so I grew up with stories about the huge rallies through the streets of Melbourne, and my fire-eating great-grandmother. But my grandfather (who was only little during the war) was obsessed with planes, and joined the Flying Corps as a mechanic as soon as he could, well after the war. I never understood how one family could reconcile those two things. But they did. I guess.

Anyway, 1917 is kind of but not really about them, and more about the many people like them who were worried sick about sons or daughters at the Front, but also affected by everything that was going on at home and struggling to make ends meet.

The main characters are invented, but plenty of real people make appearances, including activists Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst. It’s set on the Western Front – in Flanders, here in my own suburb of Coburg, as well as Point Cook air base, Mordialloc Women’s Farm, the orchards of Box Hill, and pilot training bases in the UK.

You can read more about the book here. It’s written for readers 9 and over.

I do hope you like it.