Busy bee

It’s spring here in Melbourne. Sunday. I ought to be gardening or, given that I’m a Melburnian, out to brunch, but instead I’m crazy busy.

All good though.

Yesterday I went to a briefing about the Dinosaur Dreaming project at Melbourne Museum. I’ve volunteered to go on a dig along the “Dinosaur coast” in February. Next weekend, they teach us to break rocks. You have to take your own chisel and magnifying lens thingummy. I can’t tell you how thrilling that is.

Then I spent the afternoon on a panel at the Professional Historians Association’s social media masterclass, full of excited historians embracing Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest and Periscope.

The ebook I co-edited earlier this year has just come out: academic papers from the fourth global Gender and Love conference in Oxford. It’s called Past and Present: Perspectives on gender and love. 

Earlier in the week I gave a paper to colleagues in my department at La Trobe University – my initial thoughts on something which just keeps getting bigger and more complex, about the idea of the “strong female character” in young adult fiction, where it comes from and what impact it has.  See? There’s another book project right there. As if I haven’t got enough to do. But it’s so fascinating. Early days. I don’t even really know what questions I’m investigating yet.

And I’m loving the idea that Goddess is now out in the US and Julie is becoming famous all over again, in places she couldn’t even imagine.

She deserves it.

I’ve had a few questions from readers coming through, so I’ve just published some FAQs about the book and Julie. If you think of any more, drop me a comment below.

All over the joint

Here are a few things from me you’ll find elsewhere on the web right now:

It’s just a flesh wound: what were sword fights really like?

Image of medieval sword bout

Some historical background for fantasy fans, on the Harper Voyager blog, with gratuitous Arya Stark references. Because. Arya.

Warrior women in history

I could have mentioned Arya in this, too. if I’d thought of it. But instead it’s a post on Kate Forsyth’s blog about just a few of the real life warrior women who preceded Julie d’Aubigny in history.

Interview  – me and Kate Forsyth

Again, on Kate’s blog, she quizzes me on fencing, on Goddess, on reading – and on life.

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.

And all who sail in her…

The lovely Alison Croggon launched Goddess last week at Readings in Carlton (thanks, team!). She talked about La Maupin’s life, said some lovely things about the book, and I was honoured to have her do so.

I had a few words to say too, and here they are (more or less):

This is actually a sad occasion for me. I’ve spent the last five years with Julie’s voice clamouring in my head, drowning out everything else. It’s possible she has driven me just a little mad.

I feel in some ways like the character of the priest who takes her final confession, unable to get a word in edgewise and scribbling down every word.

If only it were that simple.

This has also been the most challenging writing project I’ve ever undertaken – I’ve spent years figuring out complex French aristocratic family trees and the architecture of long lost opera theatres, researching everything from sword hilts to undergarments. I am pretty sure I have compiled the most complete history of La Maupin’s performances and have unravelled some complex relationships taken for granted by contemporary diarists and ignored ever since. I spent hours in the Opera branch of the BnF in Paris, possibly holding my breath the entire time, as I leafed through a small volume of d’Albert’s letters to his beloved Julie-Emilie. I have watched women on horseback brandishing swords drill in the same stables at Versailles in which, I think, she grew up and I have gazed up at the ceilings in the chateau that she would have seen, painted with goddesses also brandishing swords.

And I have watched as every week – every day – someone somewhere in the world discovers her story and posts on Twitter or tumblr: “Why is there not a book about this woman?” Again I held my breath and hoped that Goddess would be the first – or rather the next.

Because Julie d’Aubigny has been in and out of favour across the centuries, incredibly famous in her lifetime and again in the 19th century – and, I hope, now. There have been books, movies, plays, ballets, a TV series, even a skateboard design. Her life has been embroidered and dismissed and she has been vilified and deified and everything in between. But I don’t think there is another portrayal like this one.

It has been all-consuming but it’s over now. Today Susannah and I rearranged my writing room. That might sound odd, but the writers here will know what a big thing that is. I am clearing the decks. Today felt like the right day to do that.

I had to find room on other bookshelves in other rooms for the numerous volumes on Baroque opera and the court of the Sun King. The 17th century has to make way on the shelves and in my head for the Great War, and for new voices whispering in my ear.

So I hand Julie over to you. I hope I’ve done her justice, and I hope you like reading about her.

Thanks to the many people who supported me, in particular Susannah Walker to whom the book is dedicated with love. This was the creative component of a PhD project and I’d particularly like to acknowledge the community of writers I discovered at La Trobe University, and the support of my supervisors Catherine Padmore, Paul Salzman and Lucy Sussex, and the writing friends I found there – Paddy O’Reilly and Fran Cusworth.

Thanks to HarperCollins for making Goddess a beautiful artifact – very important for someone who’s written two books on the history of printing – and especially to publisher Catherine Milne for knowing exactly what I was getting at.

I think it’s only right that Julie gets the last word.

Are you writing this down? All of it? Very good. It’s about time somebody did. Here, nobody listens to a word I say. Perhaps they think I’m making it up. But I couldn’t. Nobody could – not this life. It is known throughout Europe, if I say so myself. The duels, the stardom, the Opera triumphs, all the escapades. The escapes. You can read about me in the pamphlets, any day, on the streets of Paris.
Or at least you could – then.
I was a star once. Did they tell you that? I was a goddess.
Or am I just another sinner to you?
I was a monster, once. That was my real sin. That was my downfall.
Well, shut up and I’ll tell you.

 

Goddess is out now, on all ebook platforms and in good bookshops.

 

Celebrate the launch of Goddess

Here are a couple of Melbourne events to celebrate the release of my new novel, Goddess.

26 June is the official launch of the book by the lovely Alison Croggon. It’s at Readings Bookshop, Lygon Street Carlton, at 6.30pm.

The very next evening, I’ll be reading from the book as part of a sensational line-up at Hares & Hyenas, Melbourne’s queer bookshop,  in Fitzroy. Maxine Beneba Clarke and Michelle Dicinoski will read from their work too, and then we’ll all have a discussion with MC Kath Duncan about writing and reading and whatever comes up. Should be fabulous. That’s on 27 June and you can book for that here.

Image of book cover - Goddess, a book about Julie d'Aubigny

 

Hope to see you soon!

The goddess ascends

Today is the official release date for Goddess.

It should be in good bookshops and  all the ebook platforms now.

I do hope you like it.

Image of book cover - Goddess, a book about Julie d'Aubigny

If you’re in Melbourne, the official launch is on 26 June at Readings Books in Lygon Street, Carlton.

I’ll be reading from the book the following night, June 27, at Hares & Hyenas in Fitzroy, along with some other sensational local writers reading from their work. More details on that event soon.

You can read more about the novel, and about its very real and remarkable subject, Julie d’Aubigny, here.

Julie d’Aubigny: the true story

How much of the legend is true? How could such an amazing woman exist – and how is it that she’s not better known?

So many people ask me these questions, and I’ve spent years trying to find the answers.

I’ll write more soon on my research discoveries, and how I incorporated them into the character of Julie and into the book.

But in the meantime, here’s the real life story of Julie d’Aubigny – Mademoiselle de Maupin. Opera singer, swordswoman, star. Goddess.

 

Biting nails

And now we enter into the most anxious weeks of any writer’s life: release time. I don’t know any writers who don’t feel nervous, sleepless, perhaps fretful, just before a new book comes out. Maybe once you’ve written dozens of books, you feel a bit more blasé. But this is number seven, and I never get used to it. There’s nothing more I can do, nothing to be corrected or changed – it’s printed, and being packed in boxes to be delivered in the next week or so. If it were possible to both cross my fingers and bite my nails at the same time, I’d do that. Why?

Goddess, my novel based on the life of Julie d’Aubigny (Mademoiselle de Maupin), hits the bookshops in a few weeks. After four years of thinking and researching and writing and listening to La Maupin’s voice in my head, her story is ready to be heard. Again.

There are other versions of her life, of course, especially in French. She has been portrayed on screen and stage, and is a her own meme  –  the tag #julied’aubigny on either tumblr or twitter  will reveal new people discovering her story every week. So often I see people exclaim: how is it I’ve never heard of this swordfighting, opera singing, badass woman? Where has she been all my life? Why isn’t she more famous?

The truth is that she has been very famous, on and off, in her lifetime and beyond. She will be again, I have no doubt.

She has been vilified and acclaimed, and she has scandalised and amazed people and still does, hundreds of years after her death.

I do hope you like my version of her story, of her voice. Here she is.

 

 

Image of book cover - Goddes