Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Author: Elizabeth Jane Corbett (Page 1 of 39)

Launch Day – The Tides Between – Elizabeth Jane Corbett

Launch Day started early – I’ve been waking too early for weeks – my brain flickering and pulsing like an intensive care machine. I showered, took far too long choosing what to wear for a radio interview, then cycled to Fitzroy for Radio 3Cr’s Published or Not. I’d been on the radio before but only in Welsh. During those interviews, I was simply focussed on understanding the interviewer and getting a few coherent words out. Today, I’d be expected to sound literate and to be honest, I’d been forgetting names and essential details for days. The other guest was a writer called Konrad Marshall who’d written a book on the Richmond Football Club. A strange juxtaposition – football and Welsh fairy tales. Though as it turns out, we’d both been involved in a form of cultural immersion. After a short briefing, we were admitted to the recording studio. Disappointingly, I didn’t need to wear head phones but I’ve always wanted to so I took this photo anyway.

The interview went well. I didn’t forget anything too important. At least, nothing that the interviewer couldn’t prompt me about. I cycled back to Coburg for a hair cut and arrived too early for the appointment. Actually, I arrived late but the hairdresser was running behind. Which meant my plans to visit mum on the way to the launch had to be cancelled. I arrived at the library in time for the the evening staff’s dinner break. It was great to spend half an hour laughing and chatting with my library buddies. My book had been catalogued and covered ready for borrowing. There had apparently been some debate over to which section of the library it belonged. I suggested it should go straight into the classics section. Not sure if they’ll take me up on that suggestion. 😁

I set up my banner and my display table and waited for Alison Goodman to arrive. Just prior to the launch I received the first non-five star review of  my book (note to file, don’t check reviews prior to important literary events). On top of which, I noticed my protagonist’s name was spelled wrong on the back cover. Not a new error, one my publisher had been trying to fix for weeks, in a process not unlike putting out spot fires as files and editions on various platforms were updated, uploaded, printed, and then downloaded again. I took a deep breath and thought: Liz, time to let this book go…

Alison Goodman was a calm, reassuring presence and said some rather generous things about my book. We then did a short interview after which, I thanked some of the many people who’d supported me on my creative journey. All of which, we filmed Live on my Facebook author page. The interview is still there, if you’re not to cool for Facebook. If you are, then maybe you can sidle up to someone who has a Facebook account. We had people watching in Wales, England, Scotland, America, Sweden, Slovenia and South America. Maybe there were others too? I had a great Launch Day and you will be pleased to know I have been sleeping much better since. I believe my publisher may also have put out the last of the back blurb bushfires. Meanwhile, if you have a copy of The Tides Between with an error on the back cover, hang onto it, whatever you do, don’t send it to the charity shop, coz it might just be worth millions one day. 🤣🤣🤣

A sense of completion

Last December, Mum was given a few weeks to live. My brother flew home from Africa, his family cancelled their plans to join him, we had end of life meetings with doctors and nursing staff, and re-arranged Christmas Day so that we could all be at the nursing home for lunch. Christmas passed and we braced ourselves for mum’s final days.

They didn’t come.

Around March mum’s Doctor said: ‘You’re looking awfully well for someone who was only given a few weeks to live.’

He ran some blood tests. Mum had rallied. Her kidney function had risen from sub-ten to over twenty five. She wasn’t impressed but she enjoyed holding her second great grandchild in July after which, I suggested she might like to stick around for my book launch. No, she was adamant. ‘I am ready to go Elizabeth.’

A couple of weeks ago, we had another scare. Mum’s kidney function plunged. Sitting beside her on the bed, I said: ‘Oh mum, I did so want to put my book in your hands.’

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve done it.’

I haven’t always been a good daughter. I’ve railed against mum’s decline. But she’s my Welsh link; the reason I wrote the novel I’ve written. The reason I fell in love with a language. See, we were a migrant family. My parents left the UK to give their children greater opportunities. They had to start again from scratch. Both worked full time (back in the days when that was not so common). Dad faced perpetual homesickness. Mum held the whole thing together. When I got pregnant during the final year of my arts degree it put their whole reason for emigrating in jeopardy. Dad died before he got a chance to see it turn out alright. Mum will be too frail to attend my book launch. But yesterday, I was able to put The Tides Between in her hands.

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It didn’t feel right to put buying links at the end of this post but people are asking. So, you can find them here.

Publication day – the inspiration of having a Welsh novelist in the family

Growing up in Australia. I was raised on childhood stories that occurred in a far away place my parents fondly called ‘home.’ Dad talked of Ilford, during the blitz, and how this father an art metalworker had worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. Mum spoke of growing up in industrial South Wales. Her father had worked on the docks, she told us. But she was related to Lord Llewellyn Haycock. Her cousin was the 1960s historical novelist John James.

Now, growing up in Australia I wasn’t too impressed by the notion of having a lord in the family (even if he did earn the title). However, I recall thinking: maybe one day I’ll write a novel too!

I married young and had a pocket full of children and the novel writing dream got forgotten. Though, at one point, I did order John James’s, Not for all the Gold in Ireland, through our local library’s interlibrary loan service. It was strangely compelling, with characters called Taliesin and Rhiannon and Pryderi. I didn’t realise at the time those were names from the Mabinigion.

Later when I finally set out to write a novel of my own, I decided on a whim to include Welsh characters. Through a process of hap a damwain, those characters became storytellers. I read a host of Welsh fairy tales in the course of my research as well as the Mabinogion and thought, hang on a sec, where have I heard these names before?

I learned Welsh while drafting my novel and began writing to Gwyn, another of mum’s cousins. Gwyn had researched the James family tree. The accompanying booklet had articles about Lord Llywellyn Haycock and John James (so it was all true!). When Gwyn heard I was writing a novel, he sent me an obituary for John James which he had published in his church magazine. Among other things, he wrote:

“His immediate family and myself hope that his written work will remain as a tribute to his genius, and that possibly, someday, one or two of his descendants will display some of his talents.”

Now, I’m no genius but I am descended from David James, John’s grandfather, and, I think, Gwyn therefore considered me one of those descendants. Gulp. No pressure. I’d in fact won myself a supporter and, I guess, in some ways, today Gywn’s hopes have been fulfilled.

Stranger still, I have since learned where the names Taliesin, Pryderi and Rhiannon originally come from. My book is set in a different era to John James’s Not for all the Gold in Ireland, and depicts migrants sailing to Australia. Yet, in the end, I’d drawn inspiration from the same myths and legends mum’s cousin had, all those years ago.

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The Tides Between is available through: Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and GooglePlay. A hard copy of the book can be ordered through Odyssey Books. Or alternatively, through your local bookstore (order details below).

Book Details

ISBN: 978-1-925652-22-2 (pbk) | 978-1-925652-23-9 (ebook)

Category: Young Adult / Historical Fiction

Trade paperback: 300 pages

Publication Date: 20 October 2017

RRP: AU $23.95 (pbk) | $5.99 (ebook)

The things I never meant to achieve

This week my first novel will be published. My eldest son, an academic, bemused by my mounting excitement, said: It’s only a book mum (he’s written a few). But to me it is more than simply a book. It is a dream come true. I feel immensely proud of the achievement. Yet against that pride is a growing list of occurrences I didn’t envisage from the outset. You could call them accidents, or failures. But those are not quite the right words. The truth is simply a list of all the things I never meant to achieve.

I didn’t intend to write a book set entirely on an emigrant vessel

I set out initially to write a saga, spanning several decades, that followed the fortunes of a group of immigrants in the early days of the Port Phillip district. I did some generalised research and then, because the topic was so large, I broke up the task and began researching the voyage to Australia. I’d never written a novel before. So when characters turned up – characters with hurts, fears and secrets, I listened. Turns out they had a lot to say. By the time we reached the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Did I pull back and try to write the saga I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading? I chose the latter. I still haven’t written the saga.

I didn’t intend to have Welsh characters

The first character who presented herself to me was a young girl who’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. Her father had been a musician. She needed someone to help her reconcile her grief. A young creative  couple seemed the perfect fit (the book is not a romance). But initially they were Irish. However, I had a research trip planned and would be relying on long-lost-family accomodation (as we Aussies do). I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But mum was Welsh. Hmm… maybe my creative young couple could be Welsh? I knew very little about Wales apart from rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have created a scenario in which a whole choir emigrated en-mass, I wasn’t sure a fifteen-year-old girl would find it inspiring. I’d read How Green Was my Valley and knew that Wales had an industrial heritage. Some quick research told me that Wales also had a strong bardic culture. At which point, my Welsh characters became storytellers and, basically, hijacked the novel.

I didn’t intend to write a crossover novel

I didn’t think about my book’s market when I started writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could write fiction, only knew I wanted to give it a try. It wasn’t until much later, when it was far too late to turn back, that I realised I’d written a coming-of-age story with a strong female protagonist, which also included her stepfather’s viewpoint. Close on the heel of this realisation, came the knowledge there weren’t many books with that mix in the teenage section of the library, let alone ones with embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. My book belonged everywhere and nowhere and in today’s cautious publishing market, let’s just say, that was risky.

I didn’t expect the book to take so long to write

We are not going to be explicit about how long The Tides Between took to write. At least, not without dropping our heads and muttering the numbers one and two without any spaces. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I commenced this project – nothing about voice, or character development, or viewpoint, or plotting or story arcs. The Tides Between has been my university. Added to which, when I started researching, we had four (sometimes five) teenagers still living under our roof. Since then, we’ve suffered young adult crises, mental and physical illnesses, watched children partner and marry, sold the family home, moved to the other side of town and welcomed two grandchildren into the world. We’ve also worked, travelled and, I hope, been productive members of our community.

I never set out to fall in love with Wales, learn her language, or make best friends on the far side of the world

It dawned on me recently that some people thought I’d written a novel with Welsh characters because I had a strong connection with Wales and spoke the language. In fact (as you’ve probably realised), it happened the other way round. When I finished the final draft of The Tides Between (while living in Wales) and wrote The End at the bottom of the page, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want my whimsical little novel and, I can tell to you, on that day, in that moment, with the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia around me, it didn’t matter. My Aussie immigration saga had turned into a shipboard novel and been hijacked by Welsh characters. Meanwhile, I’d been falling deeper and deeper in love with a language. I’d failed, on so many levels, yet achieved more than I ever hoped for. I’d found my voice while writing the manuscript, connected with my heritage, and made friends on the far side of the world and somehow in the process of all the reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.

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The Tides Between will be published by Odyssey Books on 20 October 2017. You can pre-order your copy from Novella Distribution, the Odyssey Books website, Amazon, iBooks or through your local bookstore. Here are the bibliographical details you will need to order from your bookstore.

Panels, publications and Arthurian legends

I am new to author panels. So far, I’ve chaired one and sat on three. I generally come up with great answers around four o’clock in the morning, after the panel is finished. My most recent panel was at Conflux13, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference where I felt more out of depth than usual. Why? Because speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy) is not my natural domain. But the theme of Conflux was Grimm Tales and, as I’ve written a historical coming-of-age tale with embedded Wales fairy tales and fantasy elements, I slipped in under the razor wire.

The first panel, I participated in was entitled:

WTF is “crossover” anyway? Crossover, genre mashup, what is it? Why do we love it? What are your favourite examples?

I was fine on that panel. I’m a librarian. I can talk categories – their limits and uses –  for hours. The second panel was called:

Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. Cultural appropriation. What is it? What are the impacts? What can we do to avoid it?

This was a topic in which I also have some insight as prior to writing The Tides Between, I knew little about Wales. Through my research, I’ve fallen in love with Welsh history, it’s myths and fairy tales and learned to speak the language. I’m not sure whether that counts as cultural appropriation? It feels more like I’ve been culturally appropriated. I sure do hope I haven’t @#!!*#@ed it up

I could easily have discussed cultural appropriation in works of historical fiction. But had less confidence in terms of speculative fiction. I therefore turned to the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group and asked for examples in which Wales history and culture had been well represented, particularly in relation to the Arthurian legend, as this fell under the Speculative Fiction banner.

A group member suggested Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles handled the British history elements well. Perfect! Cornwell is an Englishman, who lives in America, and no doubt, he didn’t consider his books as cultural appropriation. (Wales is after all part of England, isn’t it!? :-)) However, I downloaded the first book, started reading, and, after declaring the source of my information (Heritage and History of Wales), gave the trilogy as example of a culturally sensitive representation of Wales’ early history.

Now, thanks for your patience, here’s where the thinking of good panel answers in the middle of the night comes back into the story. I was challenged on the panel. Someone asserted that Cornwell had misrepresented the middle ages – by portraying it as non-religiously and ethnically diversity. Of course, the Warlord Chronicles are not set in the middle ages. They are set in the sixth century. But I didn’t think of that at the time (I think I may have just sat there slack jawed). But I have thought about the assertion a great deal since and, now, having read the complete trilogy  (which was magnificent, by the way, in terms of pace, character, story and voice). I am ready to give the answer I wish I’d given on the panel.

Religion

One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell’s writing, is his depiction of religion. The Warlord Chronicles are narrated through the first person viewpoint of Derfel, a Saxon child captured in a raid and raised British. Derfel, is proudly pagan and follows a pantheon of British Gods as well as Mithras, the warriors god. Derfel is not fond of the Christians. However, through his eyes, Cornwall gives us good druids, and evil druids, good Christian priests and evil Christian priests, faithful adherents to the Saxon Gods, as well as their opposite. We get a picture of a religiously, pluralist society in which religions both clashed and co-existed.

Race and Culture

I am not expert enough in the era in which the the Warlord Chronicles is set to say whether its depiction was ‘accurate’. But Cornwell makes a point of showing us black men, Irish men, and the British Kingdoms (in all their dynastic diversity). The Saxons are, likewise, not depicted as an ethnically homogenous group but a mixture of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He gives us characters that believe in the ethic purity of Britain and want that purity restored and those who believe in the political unity of Britain but realise they can’t turn back the ethnic clock.

Women

Women didn’t do too well in this era of history. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from the facts. War involved rape, women were pawns in dynastic power struggles, and they had little opportunity to exercise power. However, within the constraints of that reality, he gives us strong women, flawed women, evil women and wise women. Although, their plight in this era was bleak, and the policies and attitudes towards them often appalling, there is an underlying respect for women throughout the trilogy and a sense that Cornwell is not using their subjugation as sexual titivation (as some current TV series seem wont to do).

Non-cliche

Cornwell’s characters are delightfully non-cliche. Merlin is a mischievous old man full of idiosyncratic ill-humour, Arthur is strong and fearsome but also shy of power and deeply flawed, Derfel is loyal, yet forced to make compromises, Guinevere is hard and ambitious, yet, also beautifully intelligent, Aelle, the Saxon King is fierce and blood thirsty, yet not without honour, Cerdic, more sinister, even Niume, the most single minded proponent of an ethnically pure Britain, evokes our sympathy, though her choices are often evil.

These books are amazing. A great example of: Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. I didn’t do them justice on the panel. But hopefully I’ve now corrected that omission. They are officially on my favourite-books-to-be-re-read-often pile.

A review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

Having read and reviewed Carol Lovekin’s debut novel, Ghostbird, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Snow Sisters, knowing it would be lyrical, delicately crafted and utterly enchanting. I was not disappointed. Here is the official blurb:

Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad… the girl who cannot leave.

Meredith discovers a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. Once open the box releases the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman with a horrific secret she must share. Angharad slowly reveals her story to Meredith who fails to convince her more pragmatic sister of the visitations, until Verity sees Angharad for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm.

Forced by her flighty mother to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles to settle, still haunted by Angharad and her little red flannel hearts. This time, Verity is not sure she will be able to save her…

Snow Sisters is a ghost story. Not a scary, white-sheet ghost story, but the tale of a restless soul with issues that need to be resolved – issues that mirror and impact the present day lives of its main characters. Yet, unlike, Ghostbird, whose ghost was a third person baby sister from living memory, Angharad’s ghost is a non-family member from the past. Here is how Lovekin introduces her first-person voice:

My name is Angharad and I am not mad.

My heart is made of fragments: of bindweed and despair; thinner than skin and bloodless and my story is as old as the moon. It is one of love and death, as the stories most women tell. These two things make up the fabric of our lives, although I do not speak of romantic love. I refer to the kind that ought to provide a child with protection and in the end can destroy her.

The story switches between a present day Verity who is returning to her dead grandmother’s house after a long absence and Angharad’s first-person ghost narrative. Interspersed with these vignettes, are the omniscient, third person viewpoints of Verity, Meredith and occasionally their mother. A complex book to read, let alone write, yet Lovekin manages to pull it off with an easy aplomb. The use of italics for Angharad’s ghost voice and the word ‘Present’ at the top of each first-person Verity chapter, a great help for reader orientation.

The childhood relationship between Verity and Meredith is gentle and dream like, though not without its tensions. Verity’s concern is a stark contrast to the callous, self centred attitude of their mother. Through ever-so-delicate touches of magic realism, Lovekin, gives the girl’s young lives a fairy tale quality. We at once believe them to be living in the ‘real world’ at a place called Gull House, and in a mythical place, beyond the veil, where magic happens (a not surprising response to the mystical Welsh landscape). The overall effect — a world charged with wonder. A world in which, houses, gardens, birds and moths are at once real and also ‘the other.’

A latticework made of moon-shadow branches and moths on the way to find her [Meredith], decorated the bedroom wall. She strained to hear more. The voice was gone and the only thing she heard was the rustling of wisteria against the windowpane. She fell asleep, and then she woke again, confused and cold, with no idea if a minute or an entire night had passed, or if what she had heard was dream or reality.

A moth came in through the open window. It was transparent and as light as a feather, its wings moving in a blur. Meredith reached out her hadn’t and to her delight the moth landed on her finger.

‘You’re back.’

I’m not sure how you would describe this book – an almost gothic family story? A dark feminist fairy tale? An evocative reflection on the fragility of human nature? It is all those things and more. I’m not sure, even now, whether if I’ve understood all of its themes. It is one of those books that will no doubt improve with re-reading. For now, I am simply left with the impression of having been in the presence of a mystery, which is far too big for understanding, yet somehow gentle and awe-inspiring. A sense that my soul has somehow been expanded.

Snow Sisters is published by Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

HNSA 2107 – my subjective wrap-up

Last weekend, I attended the 2017, Melbourne, Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference. It was fun, informative, encouraging, and utterly exhausting. I can’t begin to imagine how shattered the organisers must feel. It’s taken me days to recover. Partly because my library service has a shortage of casual librarians at the moment and I am doing more than my usual number of shifts. Partly, because I’m that kind of girl. While my writing buddy, Chris, was banging out a blog the day after the conference (no, I didn’t even like her anymore :-)), I sat tufty haired in my desperately-in-need-of-laundering dressing gown, hands curled around multiple cups of strong coffee, in an attempt to re-boot myself for the week ahead. Only now, a week later, am I ready to do a wrap-up.  So, this blog isn’t exactly hot off the press.

The 2017 conference was the second HNSA conference and, although the inaugural conference in Balmain, Sydney was amazing, I enjoyed this one more. Why? Need you ask? We all know Melbourne is best. Okay, so that is a little subjective. But I’ve started now so I may as well continue in that vein.

Friends

In 2015, my (now, ex) writing buddy, Chris, and I booked our accomodation, met at the airport, purchased bus tickets, found our hotel, clacked along the footpath to the NSW State Library in high heels and cocktail dresses, and attended the opening night together. I vaguely knew a few people through reviews and articles I’d written for the Historical Novel Review. Chris knew others through the Society of Children’s Book Illustrators and Writers. But, I’d have to say that first evening, friends were a  bit thin on the ground. I don’t think we were alone. It was the first ever conference. The first time we’d met under the banner of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Over the weekend, we met loads of people face-to-face for the first time. Through social media, we’ve kept in touch. As a consequence, there was a genuine sense of community at this second Australasian conference. Bron, a Kiwi I’d met briefly in 2015, shared a Welsh heritage. We swapped manuscripts, did seperate stints at Stiwdio Maelor, and took part in shared discussions on the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group. It was wonderful having her stay with me during the 2017 conference weekend.

Involvement

They say, you get out of life what you put in. Although, I’d be wary of advocating this principle universally, I have no hesitation in applying it to conferences. I was thrilled to be part of the 2017 conference social media team and also to help out with the HNSA blog in the lead up to the conference. Through the 2017 AWW Challenge, I’ve also been reading heaps of historical fiction by Australian women. I was therefore ready to immerse myself in topics such as authenticity and accuracy, whether you can defame the dead (apparently not in Australia), the tightrope of cultural appropriation, the use of sensitivity readers (I will definitely need this with my next novel), research methods and how other authors found inspiration. I was part of the social media team during the conference and enjoyed posting live from within each session. Here is how I wrapped up the keynote address by indigenous memoir writer, Lesley Williams:

 

Wagging

A couple of weeks before the conference, I received a message from my Welsh speaking, originally German friend, who’s been living in Sydney, to say she was coming to Melbourne for a final visit before heading back to the UK. I explained it was the HNSA conference that weekend but, if she could get to Hawthorn, I might be able to slip away for an hour or two. When our friend Karla (recently returned from two months in Wales) agreed to join us, the date became set in cement. As the weather was fine, we sat out on roof-top of a bar on the corner of Glenferrie and Burwood roads, laughing, chatting, sipping wine and butchering plurals* in God’s own language. At one point, the waitress, a backpacker, judging by her accent, said:

‘Oh, you’re not speaking English.’

‘No.’

‘What Language are you speaking?’

‘Welsh.’

She laughed, relieved. ‘No wonder I couldn’t understand a word you were saying.’

The Next Step

One of the final conference sessions was a panel of agents and publishers. I recall at the last conference, this session and the First Pages Pitch Session, plunged me into a pit of despair. See, it had begun to dawn on me that I’d written an unusual novel – an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth, set entirely in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel, which had embedded Welsh fairy tales and was written from both adult and young adult viewpoints. Like, where was it going to sit on the book shop shelves?

As I sat in the 2017 conference, listening to agents and publishers talk about their selection process, I was struck by the same overall impression – the publishing scene in Australia is small, exclusive, and completely market dominated. Yet I didn’t experience the same level of despair as I had in 2015. Because although I didn’t get much interest from mainstream publishers, I’d had interest in my manuscript from more than one small press. The book was eventually picked up by a feisty, innovative publisher called Odyssey Books and will be published on October 20th, 2017. For me, this took the whole desperate I’ve-spent-ten-years-of-my-life-writing-a-book-no-one-will-ever-read sting out of the experience. So, if you were sitting in last Sunday’s auditorium, thinking: this is hopeless! Don’t despair. There is a whole new publishing world emerging  – one that is not nearly so conservative, or market driven. One that is ready to take a risk on outliers. I’m lucky enough to be part of that world. Maybe you will be too! Meanwhile, we have HNSA 2019 to look forward to.

***

The Tides Between is available for pre-order  through Novella Distribution.

*In Welsh you don’t simply stick an S on the end of a word to create a plural. A plural version of a noun can end in: au, iau, ion, on, i, add, odd, add, ed, od, iaid. Not to mention words where a vowel changes in the middle to indicate a plural, or simply gets truncated (eg. coeden – a tree, coed, trees). If Welsh is your mother tongue, you simply learn these plurals, without thinking, through hearing them used in everyday conversation. However, when three second language Welsh speakers (albeit fairly fluent second language speakers) get together there are inevitable moments of plural confusion. We run through various possible word endings, trying to decide which sounds right, until one of us eventually caves and looks it up.

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

An interview with Rachel Nightingale author of Harlequin’s Riddle

I first came across Rachel Nightingale at the inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia  Conference in Sydney. As a writer with a background in re-enacting, she was selected to read segments of the first chapter pitches for assessment by a panel of industry experts. Mercifully, I hadn’t submitted a first chapter because the fall-out was brutal. But I can remember thinking Rachel had the best job, simply reading out the entries. Since then, we’ve both had our debut novels picked up by Odyssey Books and, as we’ve presented together at events, and sat together on an Odyssey Books table, and, as I’ve picked Rachel’s brain about what to expect from the editing/launching/marketing process, I couldn’t wait to interview her about Harlequin’s Riddle. Let’s start with the blurb:

The Gazini Players are proud to present

For your Edification and Enjoyment

Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?

What historical era/place is this story based on?

Harlequin’s Riddle is based on events and life during the Italian Renaissance. The Commedia dell’Arte were travelling players who roamed the country performing improvisational theatre during that time. The Punch and Judy show that still survives today is a fragment of the original playing. There are theatre troupes around the world who still train actors in Commedia techniques. And of course the masks of Venice’s famous carnival are linked to Commedia characters – you can still see people dressed as Harlequin or Pierrot during Carnivale today.

Would you call it historical fantasy, or simply fantasy?

If I’m being very specific, I think it’s officially second world historical fantasy. Second world, in that the story takes place in a country very like Italy, called Litonya, which bears many of the hallmarks of the country but has its own geography and customs. Historical in that the events are based on the lives of performers and other artisans of the time, and the descriptions of buildings, costumes and food are based on the Renaissance world of Italy. Fantasy, because there is a mystical element that overlays everything and drives the story. Tarya is a realm that sits beside the real world setting – a place where artists who are in flow can uncover unexpected powers and create change in the world through their art.

Can you tell me the point at which the history ended and the fantasy started?

I have to be careful what I say here because my answer could give away spoilers for the third book! As with any writing, Harlequin’s Riddle is a mix of many influences, including research into the setting and artforms of the time, my own experiences as a performer and audience member, my lifelong fascination with Pierrot and with masks, and of course letting my imagination roam. The idea for Tarya itself grew out of reading an interview with Alan Cumming, the Broadway and Hollywood actor, who spoke about that moment before you go onstage as offering a chance to enter another world – I asked the question ‘what if this place was real?’ and my world building grew from there. This otherworld was crucial to the story, so I made the choice to step away from the real Italy, and the real Renaissance era, because it would make it easier for readers to accept the mystical aspects of the story. That said, I still researched and incorporated aspects of Renaissance Italy to create the setting. One of my characters, Isabella, is based on a real Commedia actress of the time (although I’ve taken liberties with her personality!) and some of the player families’ names can be found in Italy’s theatrical history. I could describe it as similar to building an old-style animated movie – the historical research allowed me to paint the backgrounds, whilst letting my imagination roam in service to the story (the fantastical aspects) created the movement in the foreground.

What inspired this novel? How has your outcome veered away from the initial conception? How has it stayed true to your original vision?

As I mentioned, the idea of Tarya grew from the interview with Alan Cumming, but I have collected masks most of my life – they intrigue me in the way they conceal or change identity, so that became part of the way people can reach Tarya, for everyone except Mina, my central character. And there’s a wonderful musical called The Venetian Twins, by Australians Nick Enright and Terence Clarke, which is based on the Commedia dell’Arte, and which I was lucky enough to see in Sydney with the incredible Drew Forsyth and Johnathon Biggins. That was what first showed me the magic of the living Commedia, beyond the romantic images that people are familiar with. I recently looked back at my early notes for the first book and saw how much had changed – and how some ideas that were there at the beginning remained through many edits. What has remained have been core ideas about theme. Change is very much an organic process as you keep writing and editing, and then again as you get others to read your work so it can be difficult to realise how much has shifted unless you do look back.

What did your research process look like?

I use a range of processes for research, as I mentioned in an earlier question, but probably the most fun is being a re-enactor. One of my hobbies is making late period garb, as in Renaissance and Tudor dresses. I was probably influenced by watching Zeffirelli’s lavish movie version of Romeo and Juliet in high school, because Italian Renaissance dresses are my absolute favourite. I’ve made three dresses and two overdresses so far. This sort of research involves looking at portraits from the time and trying to work out how garments were constructed, as well as reading about how things were worn, the sorts of fabrics used and so on. I avoid commercial patterns because they tend to add in things like darts or shaping that weren’t used at the time. There are patterns available that are far more historically accurate. Wearing a boned corset or walking around in a skirt with three petticoats is a really good way of getting inside a character’s head, because you have to move differently, hold your back straighter and possibly overheat!

Tell me about the Inamoratas and their costumes and the type of theatre you are depicting in general?

To understand the Commedia dell’Arte my critical resource was an actor’s handbook by John Rudlin, although my background in improvisational theatre allowed me to understand what I was reading at an experiential level, which was important in being able to get inside the actors’ heads. The name Commedia dell’Arte roughly means ‘comedy of the artists’ but the ‘Arte’ part also signified that this group of actors had official approval to perform, which is important in the Tarya trilogy, where the question of who has the right to make art becomes increasingly important as the books progress. Rudlin says the Commedia began around the mid-16th Century as an entertainment in market places, so those involved had to be good at drawing a crowd. The performers take on stock characters such as the trickster Harlequin or the rich banker Pantalone, and these have standard costumes, movements and speeches so the crowd can easily recognise who is who. Of course, as with movies and books, love is a central concern, and the two young lovers, the Inamorati, are always at the whim of fate, trying to find a way to be together regardless of the many characters and events that conspire to keep them apart. You could say I took a Commedia approach with the book, because I too used a framework (the Renaissance and the history of the Italian players) and then improvised a fantastical world and events around them.

Harlequin’s Riddle was a delight to read – well structured, historically robust, yet  inventive in its fantasy elements – and above all compelling. I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It is available though Odyssey Books, all good bookstores, and in the usual online locations.

 

The Fourteenth Century by May McKisack

I have been doing some plotting for my work in progress – an historical novel written from the point-of-view of Mared Glyn Dŵr. Meanwhile, I am working my way through the reading materials I amassed while in Wales. In addition to plundering the National Library’s wealth of resources, I took advantage of the UK’s cheap postage and somehow managed to get a pile of second-hand books home without paying excess baggage. The Fourteenth Century: 1307-1399 by May McKisack is my current tome of choice.

I am slowly gaining a better understanding of the the Hundred Years War, the tensions on the Scottish border during this era, war and chivalry in general (like society was built around the need to go to war, sound familiar anyone?). I also have a rudimentary understanding of the crisis and revolution that occurred during the reign of Edward 2nd, which finds its echoes in some of Richard 2nd’s later attitudes. I have also read about trade, industry and towns (all that stuff I learned about guilds as an undergraduate makes sense now) and the changing dynamics of feudalism. I am about to read about The Good Parliament, the Peasants Revolt and then the usurpation of Richard 2nd. There is so much to learn, so much more to read. But I am beginning to get a clearer understanding of this era in general. Meanwhile, is a segment about the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) that caught my attentions, just to get your red-hot, revolutionary juices flowing. 🙂

‘… the English colony is limited to the district that was coming to be known as the English Pale and ‘Irish enemies’ becomes the official designation of the native Irish living beyond its borders. They are excluded from ecclesiastic office; the king’s lieges have nothing to do with them; they are not to parley with them, nor to marry them, nor to sell them horses or armour. But the concern of the statutes is less the ‘mere’ Irish than the descendants of the English settlers, and their principal intention is to arrest the process of ‘degeneracy’ in the areas of English influence. Recourse to Brehon Law is forbidden; Englishmen may not entertain Irish minstrels, story-tellers, or rhymers: all Englishmen and Irishmen dwelling inter anglicos must use English surnames and the English language and follow English customs; Englishmen are to forsake Irish sports such as hurling and quoits and are to earn the use of the bow and ‘other gentle games’ which pertain to arms.’

Edward 1st, issued similarly race-based statutes at Rhuddlan in 1284. Royal Castellated Boroughs (like Caernarfon where I recently did an SSiW bootcamp) were established as bastions of Englishness. The Statutes of Rhuddlan became more racially restrictive after the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn. I have a copy of the later additions in Latin which I intend to type into Google some time (unless anyone out there reads Latin?). The Statues of Wales were applied to varying degrees throughout the fourteenth century and reinforced by Henry IV after revolt broke out in 1400. In 1432, the marriage of Sir John Scudamore to Glyn Dŵr’s surviving daughter, Alys, came to the attention of the King Henry VI. Scudamore was subsequently stripped of his honours (for having secretly married a Welshwoman). The Statutes remained in place as a constitutional basis for the government of the Principality of North Wales until 1536.

Anyway, back to the Good Parliament.

Hwyl!

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