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

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.

On the road

I’m writing this from Dublin, where I’ve been hunting around for traces of the medieval city and spent hours in the glorious reading room of the National Library.

Today I head west, to County Mayo, back on the trail of the Irish pirate queen, Granuaile – Grace O’Malley, for my current project: Grace, on her famous meeting with Elizabeth I.

But first, I have other work to do, reading the proof pages of my next book, 1917. It’s for young readers and it’ll be out in February.

Here’s a brief outline of the book. And just look at this dramatic cover!

Book cover 1917

Historical fiction/fictionalised history

People often tell me that they don’t read historical fiction. Ask them if they’ve read Possession or Oscar and Lucinda, though, and they’ll say, “Oh yes, but that’s different.”

Are they right? And if so, how?

I recently attended the London conference of the Historical Novel Society where, it must be said, almost all the authors who spoke identified themselves as writers of the genre.

But not all. Emma Darwin and Suzannah Dunn both said they didn’t define themselves as historical novelists, and Lindsey Davis, creator of the Roman detective Falco, said: “I don’t write historical fiction. I write literary fiction.”

 

Image of Alexandria cover

 

How interesting.

I’m trying to get my head around something here, so bear with me. Please.

Historical fiction is (arguably) a genre, and as such it has common tropes, familiar forms and styles; guidelines, perhaps, rather than rules. It’s a broad church, of course, and encompasses many eras as well as approaches to technique such as point of view. It contains many sub-genres and genre overlaps, too, such as historical romance, crime, thrillers, and fantasy, and has some particular obsessions (Romans, Vikings, Tudors … and Jane Austen). It can also include time travel or alternative history, and those many stories that move back and forth between eras. Some of it is classed as commercial fiction, while some is categorised as literary fiction. One of its less discussed features, on which I’ll write more soon, is that it is quite often overtly gendered – warriors for blokes, remarkable noblewomen battling the odds for female readers.

The Historical Novel Society defines it broadly as:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

Does it have a recognisable form? Its origins are debated, but in The Historical Novel, György Lukács (1962) identified Sir Walter Scott as the originator of the historical novel. It’s absolutely true that other people, including women such as Madame de Lafayette, wrote novels set in the past much earlier than Scott’s 1814 blockbuster Waverley. But I think it’s fair to say that, for better or worse, Scott was instrumental in setting down (at least for readers of English) expectations of what a historical novel might be, how it might sound, what it might include – setting, plotting, character; even that it might fool around a bit with historical accuracy. It created, above all, an expectation of voice, a concept of ‘authenticity’ that is, perversely, completely false and based largely on Scott’s own style. Lukács called it ‘historical realism’, and it’s that form that you read in Tolstoy, say, and the early historical novelists.

 

Image of Waverley

 

It has evolved into new and various forms. But when normal people – readers – talk about historical fiction, often what they mean is a costume drama with epic twists and Gothic plotlines, set against a rich and detailed backdrop. Think of those addictive Georgette Heyer or Jean Plaidy books and later Bernard Cornwell or Diana Gabaldon. It is often seen and marketed as commercial fiction, too – like Heyer’s.

(One hopes for accuracy in characters’ contemporary world views, too, and these can be found in many of the best historical novels. But it’s not, apparently, required. There are a great many New Age Georgian guys and feminist princesses reflecting modern ideas and not their own. I’ll come back to this.)

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, I think, are something else entirely, something closer to War and Peace. They are works of literary fiction which are immensely popular, perhaps because of the obsession with the Tudors generally and Anne Boleyn in particular, and also because they happen to be brilliant. Compare them to the Tudor books of Philippa Gregory, for example, which are more obviously written in the traditional historical fiction mode, and it’s clear that they are a different form. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are works of twenty-first century realist fiction set in the past.

 

Inmage of mantel book covers

 

Let me be clear. I’m not making any value judgements or setting one form above the other/s. I am a proud reader and writer of genre fiction. I’m not interested in creating a binary of a canon versus commercial genre. I’m just trying to understand and refine our definitions, and perhaps our expectations.

People shy away from the label ‘literary fiction’, partly because it’s not easily defined and also, particularly in Australia, because it has been branded as elitist and inaccessible (though it isn’t, at least not essentially). Perceptions of it are bound up with certain 20th century styles of writing which began as modernist innovation and became canon – literary fiction isn’t limited to any one form or style, but sometimes perceptions of it are.

Which is a pity. We really ought to get around to reclaiming it one of these days.

Literary fiction is definitely not a genre – it is an even broader church, but let’s agree that it is often concerned with form and experimentation with form, with ideas – including ideas about fiction and writing and narrative. It’s an invitation to explore language and meaning, the way we use words and construct ideas with them; to question and satirise and experiment.

 

Image of Possession cover

 

So. Can we agree that literary fiction which happens to be set in the past is different in intent to historical fiction that fits easily into the expectations of the genre? When Peter Carey or Margaret Atwood set a story in the historical past, they are not called ‘historical novelists’. But Alias Grace and True History of the Kelly Gang are among the finest novels of recent years that are set in the past.

And then there is fiction that operates at the intersection of these two forms: the most obvious example is The Name of the Rose, which is one of the best-selling historical novels of the modern era, but operates on many different levels, including a complex metafictional and semiotic framework based on Eco’s years of study in the area. Think too of AS Byatt’s Possession. The Luminaries. The Passion. The Secret River. Atonement. The English Patient. Ragtime. Beloved. Love in the Time of Cholera.

I can see a Venn diagram in my mind. It’s too hard to draw, but in the overlap of the historical and literary circles are also titles which veer more towards the traditional. The recent success of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a good example: literary in style, but happily recognisable to fans of the genre. Year of Wonders. Birdsong. Angels and Insects. The Song of Achilles. The Regeneration trilogy.

Sarah Waters’ entire publishing history works at this intersection, as does Nicola Griffiths’ Hild – transgressing not just genre but also publishing expectations about what’s permissible and popular in writing about gender and sexuality.

And there’s the rub.

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it works against the success of a book.

People who love reading ‘traditional’ historical fiction may dislike literary novels set in the past if they don’t meet their expectations of the genre or sub-genre. Or vice versa.

On the other hand, readers, reviewers and book page editors may not pick up a title classified as historical fiction, but would if it was seen as literary. A panel at the HNS conference suggested historical fiction suffers from a certain snobbery, and especially if it’s historical fantasy.

‘Historical novels have often been sidelined or derided for not being serious enough, or taking liberties with facts,’ writes academic Jerome de Groot, ‘[…] as a mode that encourages a sense of the past as frippery and merely full of romance and intrigue.’

 

Image of Paying Guests cover

 

A recent feature on Sarah Waters’ new novel The Paying Guests, noted:

Don’t let the words “historical fiction” dissuade you. Waters’ writing transcends genre: her plots are sinuous and suspenseful; her language is saucy, sexy and direct; all of her characters, especially her lesbian protagonists, are complex and superbly drawn.

It seems ‘historical fiction’ is something that might turn off some readers, as if it doesn’t contain suspenseful plots, terrific language and characters. As if it’s just not good enough, or not everyone’s cup of tea. As if to be classified as such will alienate potential readers. (Of course, the same might be said of literary fiction.) As if millions and millions of people don’t read it and love it.

What are they getting at here? Waters’ great strength is her ventriloquism. She manages to capture, in voice, style and in character world view, the literature and the detail of the era in which her books are set. She manages to put it into words that sound both of the era in which the book is set and of our own time; thoughts and preoccupations that feel real and contemporary to us, even though they are not of our time – the spiritualism in Affinity, for example, or the bleak post-war desolation of The Night Watch. It never feels like costume drama (except in Tipping the Velvet).

You see? These definitions matter – to readers and to reviewers and commentators, if not to the writers.

The ventriloquism we hear in Byatt or Waters is not the only alternative approach to Scott’s version of historical voice – I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bang on.

It’s different to the voices and characterisations you’ll find in more traditional historical fiction and, importantly, Waters is willing to focus on characters who are complex, perhaps annoying and unreliable, not necessarily heroic, sometimes downright unlikeable (Maud, in Fingersmith – and yet somehow we fall in love with her … or was that just me?).

So perhaps it’s not that Waters “transcends genre”, nor that there’s anything wrong with the genre – it’s just that her work’s not the same kind of project as some other novels you might read that more clearly fit into the genre of historical fiction.

The same can be said of Mantel, of Catton, of Grenville, of Eco. Perhaps they are simply not trying to do the same thing as Cornwell or Gregory?

Perhaps it’s a spectrum, rather than a Venn diagram.

So what does that mean?

I don’t know that it’s realistic to broaden popular ideas of what historical fiction is. Let it be.

Perhaps instead we can try to define a new form (not a genre) that includes what Linda Hutcheon called ‘historiographic metafiction’ and/or embraces experiments with voice and style, with structure and form, even with history and the way people move through time.

We have enough examples of it from the last few decades. I can see it clearly enough to consciously write Goddess  in that framework, although it has few rules and very soft edges.

It doesn’t need to be defined or have boundaries placed around it – in fact that would defeat the purpose. But it could include writing that:

  • May run contrary to expectations of ‘historical authenticity’ in voice
  • Is willing to experiment with form, language, point of view, and structure
  • Consciously operates on the edges of historicity
  • Interrogates concepts of time, memory, story-telling, and history-making
  • May subvert the rules of historical fiction and/or any other genre
  • May be interested in questions of gender or subvert expectations of gender.

It might be realist or fantastical, test the boundaries of point of view (just how close can Mantel take third person?) and play with notions of historical voice (Winterson’s postmodern Sappho), layer structure and framework and metaphor and time. In fact, I wonder if perhaps subversion is one of its key features?

What else?

And what to call the literary form, if indeed it is a thing? The word ‘literary’ isn’t useful, loaded as it is. But what might it be?

Are the two forms genuinely distinct, or are they two sides of the same coin? Or is it dangerous, or unnecessary, to separate the two?

I dunno. Do you?

 

Image of Love in Time of Cholera

On structure (and memory)

As I write this, I’m sitting in a bookshop, being a live window display as part of National Bookshop Day. I’m at Eltham Bookshop, one of our many terrific neighbourhood bookstores that do so much to support local writers and readers.

I’m at a little desk set up in the window. Different authors are taking shifts as writer in residence (I took the baton from historian David Day), while people drop in and out, kids try to talk parents into buying the latest book in their favourite series (there is a major Enid Blyton negotiation going on at the counter as I write), and I’m A Believer plays in the background.

I am surrounded by books. Within reach are Penguin Classics from Dickens to Wharton, and the new Text Australian Classics, which include a childhood favourite by Ivan Southall. Bliss. But I have to restrain myself. After four years of PhD focus, my To Be Read fiction pile is currently taller than me.

At present I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. I’m a huge admirer of her nonfiction work in literary history and her previous novel Room, in which the voice of young Jack, who has grown up in one room with his Ma, is a tour de force. Frog Music is a different thing altogether, a return to her previous genre of historical fiction, in this case set in 19th century San Francisco.

 

Book Cover - Frog Music

 

It begins with the death of one of the main characters, cross-dressing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet (that’s not a spoiler – it happens on page two). The book then skips from past to present and back again, as Jenny’s friend Blanche tries to understand why Jenny was killed, and by whom, and we experience Blanche’s memories from the moment of their first accidental meeting.

Shifting through time and tense, through characters’ memories, is not an easy juggling act for author or reader as I know only too well. I tried to do something similar in Goddess, in one sense.

Since a few people have asked about the structure of Goddess, and how much I plan in advance when I write, let’s focus on that for a moment.

Goddess has a much more formal structure than any of my previous books, with other organising principles overlaid. It is structured in five acts and a prologue, just like the tragédies en musique in which La Maupin appeared. The scenes in each act alternate between first person monologues (the recitative) and third person ensemble chapters in present tense which give us different characters’ views of Julie and her world.

That’s not quite how the scenes in a tragédie en musique are arranged within the acts, I admit. The acts and scenes at the Paris Opera were shared between the main characters and the ensemble, and passages where the ballet corps took the stage for a divertissement. The recitative was sung using a very refined technique by the lead singers, who also sang airs (arias in the Italian opera tradition), and together in duets or as an ensemble. It was actually Julie’s friend Thévenard who was the master of the recitative, evolving it into a more dramatic form.

But there are some ways in which I tried to replicate the feel of a tragédie – the big show-stopping divertissement is always at the end of the second act, for example. In Goddess, that’s Julie’s debut at the opera. The other less visible structural aspects are the catalogue of sins on which the recitative confession focuses, and the episodic form of the picaresque.

Of course, the overall trajectory is someone’s real story. I tried to track as closely as I could to the reported events in Julie’s life, so I had to know where she was, who was with her (such as the cast that performed in specific shows), seasons of the year, other things going on in France at the time, what people were reading, singing, wearing.

Did I plan it? You bet. You should see my spreadsheet. It’s a monster. It had to be.

A couple of people have asked about the idea of the book starting as a death bed confession – just as in Frog Music, you know the “end” of the story from page one.

I haven’t done that before, and it was one of the first creative decisions I made when writing Goddess. It’s a big call, I know (setting aside the fact that a quick squiz online or in an encyclopaedia will reveal Julie’s life – and death – story). Is it the end, though? Is it the point of the story? Or is that in the telling? Or both?

Then there’s the memory – Julie’s memories, and other people’s. Many of the third person scenes have a shifting point of view, an internal structure that (I hope) plays with perception and explores the idea of the spectator. How did all those people see Julie? What did they make of this remarkable creature in their midst, striding around in her breeches and cloak? How do different people perceive and remember the same incident? How does she remember? Why was she such a celebrity and what did celebrity do to her – and her legacy? How do the memory and the monologue connect?

I hesitate to use the term “flashback”. It has become such a cliché. But I’ve just been binge-watching the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, in which creator Jenji Kohan uses flashbacks in such an interesting way. We meet its huge cast of characters as women in prison, get to know them a little, and then one by one across different episodes their past lives are revealed, in some cases dramatically different to the persona we’ve got used to. Makes sense. They are different people in prison. The flashbacks may explain their crime, but may not – they reveal something about the choices each woman has made, the people they were, the turning points that somehow got them where they are now. What’s even more fascinating is that the actors involved have to create these characters from the beginning without knowing that back-story – in most cases they don’t even know why their character is in prison. They may never know.

orange_is_the_new_black

 

In Frog Music, on the other hand, we start off knowing the crime but not the people. We as readers will make our way together, with Blanche, through the aftermath and her memories of the time leading up to the murder. I know that a crime has been committed, but I have no idea what will happen next.

There’s a great moment in Orange Is the New Black when the main character Piper returns to the main prison camp and has to retrieve all her belongings – the other inmates assumed she was long gone. She grabs her copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement out of someone’s hands, shouting “Everyone dies!”

Book cover - Atonement

The ultimate spoiler, for one of the most excruciating shifting memory structures in recent fiction. I remember reading the final passages of Atonement for the first time and shouting in fury, while at the same time I couldn’t help but admire it.

Now THAT’S a flashback.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming up: Melbourne Writers Festival

I love Melbourne Writers Festival time of year. I used to love it in the olden days when it was at the Malthouse, and you’d have to jostle for coffee or in the bookshop with the international guests. I once held my breath for about five minutes because I found myself standing next to Marina Warner.

 

Writers festival poster

 

Nowadays it’s at Federation Square, which warms up in the middle of winter with huge groups of school kids lining up to meet Andy Griffiths or Morris Gleitzman, a wide range of topics and writing styles, and authors from all over the world.  It’s not quite so intimate, but it’s bigger and brighter and there’s stuff going on all the time – dozens and dozens of sessions, workshops for kids, an enormous schools program, walks around the city, keynote speakers, soirees and food and music and drop-in caravans and Twitter meet-ups. It’s a terrific program again this year.

I’ll be there too, talking about Goddess, Julie d’Aubigny, and the process of writing and researching her life.

My session is on August 29 at 10am. More details and bookings here.

It’d be lovely to see you there.

What is historical fiction anyway?

Lots of people imagine that historical fiction is exclusively set in times where people wore armour or bonnets. In Ye Olden Days. And of course much of it is. Some readers and writers imagine that it also has to do with some attempt to recreate a contemporary voice in dialogue, so if there are lots of Prithees or Pray yous we know we are in the land of histfic. Other readers class books that were written about the author’s own lifetime as historical fiction, if that lifetime was a while ago – Dickens, say.

It wasn’t a label that defined Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for example, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement. They were seen as literary fiction (not that one book can’t be seen as several things).
But it seems to me that more recently, perhaps since the change in millennium (and that’s a theory I’m making up as I go along) that anything set in the previous century is now seen as historical fiction, and that the boundary is creeping ever closer.

The Historical Novels Review defines it as fiction ‘which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.’
And for the sake of classifications for awards or review pages, that’s a useful definition. Importantly, it’s the second part that brings the transition with it.

When I was teaching fiction last year, some of the undergrads wrote what they considered to be historical fiction – set in the 80s. I banned them from using the term for stories set in my lifetime. But it’s true – they were writing about a time they knew only from the music and the fashion, and we had a heated debate as to whether Billy Idol was genuinely punk, because they were judging by hairdo, not cultural impact or motivation. (“Punk!” I scoffed. “He was no more punk than Abba.” And they didn’t even believe me, because their classifications of music are much more sophisticated than those formed around the jukebox of the Duke of Windsor hotel late at night circa 1982. Apparently.)

Billy Idol

Then this week, I had the pleasure of listening to Eleanor Catton in conversation at The Wheeler Centre (what was life like without the Wheeler Centre? I don’t remember). Her The Luminaries won the Booker last year, as have several works of historical fiction recently, including Wolf Hall.

She’s a shy but entertaining speaker, and during the evening she came out with some terrific insights, particularly about the influence of children’s books on her life and writing – even today she reads many books written for children.

Theluminariescover

At one point she said, “I don’t think The Luminaries counts as historical fiction, because I made it all up. Hardly anything in the book really happened.”
Isn’t that interesting?

Is it only historical fiction if it contains historical events?
The Luminaries does: it is set on the Wild West coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the gold rush. It’s set is a real place (Hokitika) during a specific period of time when documented events took place. There was a gold rush, there were shipwrecks, the local prison was built with the forced labour of those it was intended to imprison. It is even written in a style that references the novels of the era – the research process must have been extensive.
The people are all made up and so are the events in the plot. But so are all of mine, with few exceptions.
In fact my most recent experience of writing about someone who really existed was completely different from any other process of writing fiction – in some ways much more difficult.

But it’s true – there is definitely a great deal of historical fiction that focuses on the lives of people who really lived, especially famous people (who are, after all, better documented and therefore most easily researched). Some of the great series in historical fiction set the tone for this, such as Robert Graves’ Claudius the Emperor series or the  Alexander novels of Mary Renault. The Tudors have a publishing industry dedicated to them – but don’t start me on that.

Maybe the focus on key players (or “forgotten” figures, such as Nicola Griffith’s majestic Hild) in history is linked in our minds with the Enlightenment view of history as progress, with the kings and queens and nobles – later presidents and prime ministers – and generals taking individual actions which affected history – with the cult of the individual as history-maker.

During the twentieth century, as social history in its many forms became more accepted, and growing levels of literacy enabled people to record and read about lives like their own, historical fiction became more egalitarian. Rosemary Sutcliff’s great books about post-Roman Britain, for example, were about innocent bystanders finding their way in a wrecked, war-torn world – just like the people of Britain during and after WW2.

Then there are time-slips (my favourite as a kid was Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet), novels which switch between past and present (AS Byatt’s Possession is the best example), historical forms of crime and romance novels, fantasy novels inspired by history (even including Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), alternate histories and parallel universes (His Dark Materials).

So the definition of historical fiction is changing and deepening, as it has been for some time, and is a broad enough church to encompass books that might also be seen as literary fiction (Wolf Hall, Regeneration, The Luminaries), work that may be set in living memory of the author or members of their family (Atonement, Sarah Waters’ Night Watch), might involve real and imagined characters, and could even, at a pinch, encompass Billy Idol.