Lately I’ve been…

A bit frantic.

Remind me to never again move house on book deadline and just before teaching starts.

But that’s over now. I have settled into a new home, where I’ve made the strategic decision to place my desk under a window in the living room, instead of tucked away in a tiny room at the back of the house. After all, I spend more time at the desk than many other places, so I may as well be  right here, looking out on the garden.

Also, it’s close to the kitchen. (Though that may not be a good thing. Snacking control is not a strength.)

In the meantime, I’ve been:

Writing 

I’ve drafted (very roughly) Phoenix, the second book in the Firewatcher Chronicles. It needs lots more redrafting over the next couple of months, but it’s such fun. There are Vikings and Saxons and London Blitz bombs and archaeologists and all sorts of drama.

I’ve also been writing a number of book chapters and conference papers and essays, mostly for academic conferences and publishers. I’ll let you know when they come out.

Editing

Brimstone, book one of the Firewatcher Chronicles, is at the printers! It comes out on 1 September. And for mysterious production reasons, it was all go for a while there. I got notes back from the editor, found a few errors myself, sent it all back, and then the next week, miraculously, typeset pages appeared for a last proof-read. They don’t muck about, those fine folk at Scholastic.

And just look at the beautiful cover for it.

Brimstone front cover

I’m thrilled with the artwork by Sebastian Ciaffaglione, and the series logo by Chad Mitchell.  Can’t wait for you to get your hands on this book.

Also due out the very same day is a new YA anthology, Meet Me at the Intersection, edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina. It’s published by Fremantle Press – my story is called ‘Trouble’, and it’s set in Melbourne in the 1950s. I’m honoured to be part of this collection of #ownvoices stories and believe it will be a very important moment in young adult fiction in this country.

Book cover: Meet me at the Intersection

So that’s been in editing and proofreading mode too, over the last few weeks.

Next up, I’m redrafting Grace and my goldrush bushranger stories. I look forward to being in their company again.

I’ve booked myself a stint at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in June, to lock myself away and redraft as much as I can get through.

Podcasting

Over on my podcast, Unladylike, Adele and I were delighted to interview three crime queens, and to release my discussion on academic writing recorded last year in Denmark. New episodes are on the way in the next week or so.

Reading

I admit, my reading has been minimal over this busy time, but I’ve read and loved, among other things:

  • The Endsister by Penni Russon
  • White Night by Ellie Marney
  • The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson
  • On Coming Home by Paula Morris
  • Manda Scott’s Boudica series
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series
  • And Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s grand finale to the Illuminae series, Obsidio.

Right now I’m reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Sister Noon and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Dr Anita Heiss.

Research

Research for the Firewatcher Chronicles continues – Romans, Celts, Vikings, Saxons, Second World War – there are just so many areas to cover, and it’s all a little bit too fascinating.

I’m also deep into my Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria,  researching my great-grandmother and key figures in the Australian suffrage and peace movements of the early twentieth century.

I’ve realised that project, Sisterhood, is bigger and more complex than I imagined, so I expect to spend a lot more of my life on it in years to come. It will eventually be a kind of group memoir of an extraordinary generation of early feminists and pacifists, along with a memoir of my life in student and feminist politics in the 1980s. So it’s big and complicated and hard and all so interesting. To me, anyway.

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

So you see, I have had one or two things on the go.

And one day soon, you’ll be able to read them. Funny, isn’t it? We lock ourselves away for months or years to write these things, and then burst out of solitude, blinking against the light, to release them into the world.

And then we vanish again.

Writers, huh?

 

Lately I’ve been…

Planning

I’ve kicked off a new writing project: Grace, a novel based on the intersecting lives of the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley and her nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I.

Portrait of Elizabeth 1

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

I’ll get stuck into the first draft next week, when I go to Varuna, The Writers’ House, for a blissful week of writing retreat.

Reading

Besides all the references of Irish and Elizabethan history texts I’ve been scouring, I’ve read:

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick’s memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her mother.

Sisters on the Somme, by Penny Starns, an account of the lives of nurses on the Western Front, because I still haven’t quite (if ever) finished researching and thinking about my work in eternal progress, War Songs.

Charlotte Wood’s brilliant The Natural Way of Things, which is winning all the literary prizes this year, and deserves them.

Lucy Treloar’s exquisite historical novel Salt Creek.

And of course Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Although I’m a bit stuck due to loathing of one of the male characters and it’s such as realistic portrait I just don’t want to go near him. Excruciating. But so clever.

For weeks I was so tired I could only re-read Harry Potter. But it’s winter here, and sometimes you just have to curl up with something familiar and entertaining.

Podcasting

One reason I’ve been so busy is that I’ve been working on a new podcast on women and writing, Unladylike. It’s a collaboration with Adele Walsh and has just launched at the weekend.

We plan and program, read, record, edit – and do all sorts of mysterious technical things we’ve had to learn on the way.

Huge fun, but also demanding. We have five episodes out now, and another on the way any day now. If you’re interested in writing and reading, check it out.

So now I’m off on a writing retreat, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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.

Lately I’ve been…

Travelling.

I was in the UK for a couple of conferences in Oxford, and then headed north through the ancient Roman and Viking site of York, the pilgrimage destination of Durham (breathtakingly beautiful), Newcastle (more Romans – this time in museums), and finally out along Hadrian’s Wall.

Durham Cathedral

Cloister at Durham Cathedral

So in a couple of weeks, I went from discussing life writing and celebrity with historians and writers, and then gender and love with academics from many fields, to researching three writing projects at once. And I walked a long way.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, near the village of Once Brewed

I also flew a long way, which not only gives a busy person plenty of time to catch up on movies and TV shows I’ve missed (Poldark! Agents of SHIELD!), but also endless hours to read.

Sadly, what you read at 3am somewhere over Albania after being awake for twenty hours doesn’t tend to stick in the brain for long, so I stuck to re-reading favourites on my Kobo.

But here’s what I’ve been reading or rereading since:

  • The Moor: Lives, Landscape and Literature, by William Atkins. Like taking a long walk with a thoughtful friend who points out details you’d otherwise miss.
  • The Paying Guests. Sarah Waters’ latest, and yet another novel perfectly evocative of time and place.
  • The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume, which I decided to re-read while I also delve into Lucy Sussex’s book about Hume and his book, Blockbuster.
  • Cloudwish by one of Australia’s finest writers of young adult fiction, Fiona Wood – yet another inspiring visit to her fictional contemporary world.

Now I’m onto Oxford, by one of my writing heroes, Jan Morris, which is just as wonderful as I expected, and keeps me laughing aloud at the antics of students and dons over hundreds of years and in delight at its perfect phrases and word choice.

Book cover of Oxford

Has she ever written a bad book? Or essay? Or travel story? I don’t think so. Every one is a treasure.

 

On that whole ‘relatability’ thing

Painting - St Catherine reading

Somehow in recent years, the idea has taken hold that characters – especially protagonists – in novels have to be ‘relatable.’ I blame Stephanie Meyer. She created the character Bella in the Twilight trilogy as a blank canvas onto which her teenage readers could project themselves; an audience surrogate that appealed to an audience of around 120 million.

Thanks for that.
So an entire generation of young women, in particular, has grown up with the idea that girls in novels should be just like them, even when surrounded by brooding vampires.
Many of those readers go on to read books by authors who construct powerful or difficult or troubled or hilarious female characters, and come to realise that a blank canvas is pretty, well, blank. To be fair, some writers have also argued that Bella is actually a feminist role model:
Bella is more or less modelled on the traditional fairy tale hero [not heroine], as her eventual accession to a type of monarchy is characterized not by humiliation, but rather by her gaining qualities that enable selfgovernance.
–  Meghanne Flynn
But whether or not it’s reasonable to blame Twilight (and I was being just a little facetious), I still hear and see so many comments that this book is so relatable or that book is not, and therefore no good. I just can’t relate to anybody in it.
On the other hand, in historical fiction, you will hear and see lots of emphasis on ‘authenticity.’ This somewhat mystical quality transports the reader into an imagined past and provides them with an experience that’s just like being there. Or something.
If you think these two things are possible and desirable, there’s an obvious tension here. On one hand, an ‘authentic’ figure from the distant past is very unlikely to be someone to whom a modern reader will relate – unless of course the reader projects madly onto that character, in which case the veneer of authenticity is smashed.
But do not fear, gentle reader, because I’m here to help. Kind of.
Both ideas – especially when they are framed as rules – bring trouble and strife to the act of reading, and possibly writing.

Reading and relating

What, after all, is relatability? (Apart from not actually being a word.) Is it the idea that people in books will be just like you? How tedious. Who wants to read about themselves over and over?
Of course, sometimes we all want to escape into another world, another life, and it’s easier to do that in partnership with a companionable character – a brain transplant, if you like, that enables you to feel supported and comforted as you accompany your heroine or hero on her or his journey.
But that’s just one type of reading experience. There are many others, involving characters that bring us face-to-face with the unfamiliar, unfathomable, unpleasant, perhaps even the unbearable.
lolita book cover
And what about those amazing and memorable characters who are nothing like us, but who we end up adoring? Severus Snape. Albus Dumbledore. Indeed, if you think about it, the only truly relatable character in the Potterverse is Ron, the everyman. He’s in there to be the human foil of brilliant Hermione and powerful but angry Harry. Ron’s the guy who is nothing special but has his own strengths and many weaknesses, as do we all.
But it’s not the story of Ron, is it? Thank goodness. It’s the story of Harry and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape. Pretty much.
In each of them, we can find something that we connect with, something human and warm (even in Snape) and flawed and meaningful. They’re also interesting and unknowable and complex, and we can’t be sure what any of those characters will do or say at any moment. They aren’t like us. They all (even Snape) contain elements of who we wish we were: wise or brave or brilliant or ethical or strong or pure or funny. They are braver or brainier or more powerful than we may ever be. Together, they people a world we want to inhabit – with them.
Hermione being brainy
That’s relating.
So relating to – connecting with – characters is a wonderful part of reading (and watching TV and movies), but they don’t have to be just like us. We all have our teenage favourites; someone who showed us who we might be. Mine was Jo March. Millions of people much younger than me got to grow up with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends, Josie Alibrandi, or the necromancer Clariel or Sib and Lou in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife or Hazel Grace (The Fault in Our Stars – although there are suggestions that besides Hazel, all John Green’s characters are so relatable they are much the same … as him.)
But that’s not the only possible reading experience, and if in a sense we read to understand the world and the people in it, we also read about things and people we can’t comprehend at first – about five year-old Jack and his Ma in Room or Maud Lilly in Fingersmith or the revolutionaries in A Place of Greater Safety or Takeo the samurai or for that matter Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovary or Prince Andrei.

Feel so real

Which brings us to the question of ‘authenticity.’ There’s no such thing. (Of which more at a later date.) But the idea of authenticity and the idea of relatability in historical fiction really can’t co-exist.
If an author did manage to create a character that approached the world view, voice and life of, say, a fifteenth century princess, she would be so unlike any conception of princess a modern reader brings to the reading that there is no chance the princess would be understood, let alone relatable.
When we write historical fiction, and when we read it, we necessarily bring to the process all of our post-20th century knowledge, our modern vocabulary and syntax, our fundamentally different world view and manners and customs and philosophy and skills and reading history.
It couldn’t be further from the truth, or from the idea of an authentic experience.
It is what it is – just an element of the genre.
Apart from anything else, if we really captured the speech of Anne Boleyn or Richard III or an archer at Agincourt or a pirate of the Caribbean, readers wouldn’t have a clue what they were saying, let alone be able to relate to them.
Instead, we create, try as we might, characters in our own shape and shadow.

Writers are naughty like that

Writers of all genres create characters for all sorts of reasons, not only for readers to relate to. Sometimes, we create characters who lie, or are vain, or pompous, or stupid, or rotten, or weak, or tricksy, or criminal. We create unsympathetic characters or unreliable narrators on purpose. We create anti-heroes as well as heroes. They may not be relatable, but there will (almost always) be something undeniably human about them, so that their very unreliability or unappealing nature shines a light on what it means to be human. It’s not about relating – it’s about exploring.
Seeing the world through the eyes of Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of Thomas Cromwell, or Dr March (rather than Jo) in Geraldine Brooks’ March is fascinating and compelling, but it’s not designed to make the reader feel all cozy. It can be a difficult process to put yourself in their shoes. But if you do, what do you see? You get an insight into the Tudor world – into Henry and Anne and Thomas More – unlike any you’ve ever seen. Or you feel the weakness of a character idealised as a hero by his family, and glimpse the random brutality of the American Civil War.
So what matters here is the author’s intent. If the author hasn’t tried to create a relatable character, then it’s just not relatable or I didn’t like the main character isn’t a meaningful response to the book in your hand. It doesn’t really engage with the text or the characters at all.
It says more about the reader than it says about the book.
The answer? Simply read more and read more widely – read all sorts of things, surprise yourself, and shift outside your expectation of what a protagonist can and should be.
It’s the expectation we bring to reading that matters.
Let’s be willing to be astonished.
More reading