Historical fiction podcast series

Had a fabulous time recording this series of interviews with authors of historical fiction, as part of the lead-up to our big historical novel conference in September.

Imagining the Past is presented by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia,  and produced by the good folk at Swinburne University (thanks team – they even composed the music!).

You can hear me chat to:

Here’s the conversation with the lovely Kate Forsyth:

 

The conference runs from 8-10 September,  at Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus, with these great writers and many, many others – you can see the full programme here.

For anyone interested in learning to use Scrivener, I’m running a workshop on the Sunday (10/9) to introduce people to this wonderful software for writers – and there are a whole lot of other workshops too, on topics from research to armour (how cool is that?).

There’s also an academic stream, including a panel on biofictions.

Hope to see you at the conference.

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.

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?

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

Where do you get your ideas?

People often ask writers where we get our ideas.

I suppose some people might know, but I don’t. As Emma Donoghue once said,  it’s like asking how you got a cold.

Sometimes, of course, I hear a story or a snippet from history that makes my arms go all goosepimply and I scribble it down or bookmark the page and stash it away for later.

But this morning, for example, I woke up with a sentence in my mind.

‘You can’t hide out forever.’

By the time I had showered and made the coffee, I had the first few moments of a new story in my head.

I know from bitter experience that if I don’t write it down immediately, it might be gone by lunch-time. If I have to rush off to my day job, go to meetings, return emails, and write things that are not anything to do with stories, then it vanishes.

So I sat over breakfast and typed it all out.

A few months ago, I was asked to write an adventure story for Clandestine Press’s new And Then anthology. So I wrote ‘Boots and the Bushranger’, a ripping yarn about two young women who become outlaws in the wild days of Victoria’s Gold Rush. (You can pre-order the anthology here, right now, for a limited time, and you probably should because it is going to be awesome.)

I fell a bit in love, I admit, with the two characters, with researching the world of the goldfields, and with a whole lot of other story ideas that emerged through the research. I’ve always loved that country around Castlemaine. And I’ve long wanted to try my hand at historical crime fiction.

Image of rocks on Mt Alexander

The spot where I imagined Boots and the Bushranger made their last stand.

So I developed a vague plan – let’s call it a fancy – to write more stories about them, more short crime stories like those of the late nineteenth century, many of which were about feisty and smart young women. Although the stories from that era we know now are more likely to be about a certain middle-aged, eccentric chap, at the time, Sherlock Holmes had fierce rivals such as Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley  (you can read an article I wrote about them and other plucky girls in the Australian Journal of Crime Fiction).

And I like the genre – the sketching of character, the continuing and rich world, the short episodic stories that each tell a tale but also build up our sense of character and place, the odd couple of detective and chronicler – but, being me, I want to subvert it.

So this morning, Boots and her bushranger popped back into my head, unannounced, because after all, you can’t hide out forever.
It might not go anywhere. It might not even end up in the story I eventually write.

But it’s a start.

1858 etching of gold mining

The Goldfields – Old Post Office Hill, 1858

Great novels to read this month

In honour of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, here are just a few of my favourite novels by and about women, all illuminating the lives of women in the past and today.

 

book cover angela carter

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
A thrilling trapeze act of character, voice and magic.

 

Beloved, Toni Morrison
Unflinching. Utterly captivating. A writing masterclass in one small but enormous book.

 

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
One of the great postmodern historical novels, The Passion is a lesson in using voice to connect past and present, and in combining heartbreak with restraint.

 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
I’ve said this before, I know: this is virtuosic ventriloquism and storytelling, with a twist that will have you throwing the book across the room and then scrambling to pick it up again to find out what happens next.

 

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker
It never gets old. Never.

 

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Chilling. Brilliant.

 

Possession, A. S. Byatt
Another neo-Victorian ventriloquist’s performance, capturing all the melodrama of a Dickens novel.

 

Orlando, Virginia Woolf
I wish there was another word for seminal. How about: the book that gave birth to us all? (Here’s Tilda Swinton’s take on it.)

 

film adaptation of orlando

Tilda Swinton as Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth (and two excellent hounds) in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando.

 

And some more recent titles:
Skin, Ilke Tampke
Beautifully written and reimagined world of early Britain during the confrontation with Rome.

 

Theodora, Stella Duffy
The appropriately riotous tale of the acrobat who became Empress of half the known world.

 

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
It’s brutal and stunning and unforgettable.

 

Hild, Nicola Griffith
Another miraculous reimagining of Britain – this time in the early decades of the Christian missionaries and saints.

 

book cover for Hild

 

I could go on and on but I won’t. Feel free to add your own suggestions.

Write like a girl

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which historical fiction is gendered. I’ll need to write something longer on this but in the meantime, a few thoughts and questions:

  • We know that there are huge and apparently distinct markets for historical fiction aimed at men (eg military, nautical, crime) and women (eg … oh look, I could list the sub-genres, but it’s basically any novel with a woman in it).
  • But we also know from research about childhood reading that girls and young women read books marketed to boys, while boys tend not to read books marketed at girls and young women. (Yeah, I know, not all boys. But it’s a thing. There’s science. What we do about that and how we talk about it is a different topic.)
  • Assumptions about the historical fiction marketed to (and perhaps written for) women affects our reading. I am a woman who writes books with female protagonists. So, I am asked, where is the romance? * Readers enter a book with a gendered idea of what they will find there.
  • A book with a woman on the cover apparently can’t be literary fiction set in the past. It must be some other sub-genre that fits under the grouping of ‘women’s writing.’
  • This is also partly about attitudes to the genre. Historical fiction is a sprawling territory, from the formulaic to the experimental, with dozens of sub-genres and boundary-slipping soft edges. Lots of people see it as only one thing, which it hasn’t been for at least a hundred years.

Book cover of Regency Buck

I could bang on about gendered marketing and no doubt I will at some point, but what I wonder right now is: how much is marketing (including book design and packaging), how much is literary tradition or genre definition, and how much is imagined – and by whom? Writers, readers, publishers, PR and marketing people, reviewers?

What impact does all this have on the books we write and the way we read?

Do some authors write specifically for a gendered market – and succeed wildly? (That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is YES.) And what does that mean for expectations of the genre more broadly?

What does it say about the development and the future of the genre in all its forms?

I’ve said before that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction and now I’m becoming even more interested in subverting the genre and the expectations around it. Career-limiting move, I expect. But what fun.

Book cover of Hornblower

And now, for your reading pleasure, some thought-provoking insight and information from others.

Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel both attempts to address some of these issues, but then also includes chapters on books for women and books for men, and accepts the marketing definitions – so books for women are mostly romance, for example, (including Tudor books) without any consideration of historical crime or fantasy or fiction based on a proto-feminist protagonist outside the marriage plot. I find that troubling (a bit like his hilarious suggestion that The Resurrectionist is the first novel by an Australian to be concerned with histories other than our own). But he does write:

Historical novels by women and for women, then, whether romance or more literary, have often been dismissed by literary critics and marginalised by standard accounts, but there is a weight of argument that suggests this is an error: ‘historical fiction has been one of the major forms of women’s reading and writing in the second half of the twentieth century’ (Alison Light, 1989: 60) […] women writers have used the historical novel to express multiple, complex identities and used them as sites of possibility and potential.

In that influential article by Alison Light to which he refers, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up,’ she argues:

At best popular historical novels may have helped open up a space within which different groups of women have started to perceive how marginal their needs and concerns have usually been taken to be. They offer a number of new perspectives on the past, which sit less easily alongside text-book history.

And finally, Mary Tod’s annual historical fiction survey found the following (last year):

Within historical fiction, what type of story appeals to you?

Top three for men: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 74%; adventure 66%, stories with a military, naval angle 51%

Top three for women: fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events 71%; romance 44%; the life of a significant historical figure 40%. For women, two other reasons come close to the 40% figure suggesting that preferences are more varied.

Sources:

Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel, Routledge, Milton Park, 2010, p 67.

Alison Light, ‘Young Bess’: Historical Novels and Growing Up’, Feminist Review, 1989, Vol.33 (1), p 57.

* Sometimes there is romance in my books, sometimes not. Sometimes there is love, rather than the lead-up to love (romance plot). Sometimes there is the opposite. Sometimes it may not be what you expect.