Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Author: Elizabeth Jane Corbett (Page 1 of 40)

Interview with Wendy J. Dunn author of Falling Pomegranate Seeds

It is hard to believe I have only known Wendy J. Dunn for eighteen months. We met through a Women’s History Month event at Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries. I have since come to see it as one of the more fortuitous meetings of my debut novel year. Academic, writer, and events facilitator, Wendy is a tireless supporter of other women writers. Although I cannot share her love of the the Tudors (due to the small matter of annexing, incorporating and trying to make everyone speak English :-)), I definitely wanted to read some of Wendy’s work.

Now, concerning the Tudors, if you are a fan of the more popular works, focussing on bedroom scandals, you may not find Wendy’s novels meet expectations. Told from the third-person perspective of Catalina’s tutor Beatriz Galindo, Falling Pomegranate Seeds is a poetically, philosophical exploration of women’s roles in society. I’d know Katherine of Aragon was Spanish (the name says it all), but in Falling Pomegranate Seeds, this tragic woman’s childhood is thoughtfully recreated, leaving the reader in no doubt as to her Spanish origins. So thoughtfully, I have asked Wendy some questions about her writing process.

You have a long-term interest in the Tudors. What was the catalyst for this particular novel?

Big smile – long-term interest is putting it mildly, Liz. I’m well and truly obsessed with the Tudors. The catalyst for this novel, the first novel of a planned trilogy telling the story of Katherine of Aragon, was actually my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? That work narrates the story of Anne Boleyn through the imagined voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder.

Sir Tom also had a close connection to Katherine of Aragon. She recognised his talents as a writer and poet and was his patron in his early years. My research for my first novel left me fascinated with the story of Katherine of Aragon.

LOL – now I am hearing in my mind the voice of my PhD supervisor. Whenever I made statements like that she would say, “Now unpack and unpeel what you mean, Wendy.”  Completing my PhD illuminated how my own experience as the woman ignited, and continues to ignite, my passion to write through a feminist standpoint. Writing through a female standpoint maps out master narratives of oppression through the telling of female stories.

I have always connected to the stories of Tudor women because they provide explicit and inspirational examples of women navigating a patriarchal world. The life story of Katherine of Aragon provides a powerful example of a woman whose life is controlled by her gender, in a time when men determined the power permitted to women. Oppressed groups have not only knowledge concerning their own group, but also knowledge about the dominant group. Women create powerful lives through use of this dual knowledge – and the story of Katherine of Aragon offers compelling evidence of this. Despite possessing little choice about the direction of her life, she was able to claim a rich interior life of deep faith.

Tell me a little about the historical Beatriz? How did your version of her differ?

Beatriz Galindo was not only a poet (all her poetry appears lost to history), but also a lecturer of Medicine, Rhetoric and the philosophy of Aristotle at the University of Salamanca; a woman so respected for her learning she was employed to teach Queen Isabel of Castile her Latin and ended up tutoring the daughters of the Queen.

Years ago, when I began my research for this trilogy about the life of Katherine of Aragon, I discovered a footnote about Beatriz in an academic essay about Isabel of Castile. It provided me with only with these bones of information and that she was believed to have tutored Katherine of Aragon. The essay cited from her biography – a work written in Spanish. Since I can only read a few Spanish words, this essay offered me a huge gap to fill with the use of my imagination.

I believe this is a good thing because I am first and foremost a writer of fiction. With her portrait and the important facts provided by this essay, I was able to imagine Beatriz into being.

All my fiction is informed by history, and immense historical research, but the beating heart of my work is the story it tells. Research fires up my imagination and opens the door to my imagined historical people and their world. Knowing very little about Beatriz gave me a lot of ‘What if’ questions, which acted as midwives to my imagination. I could not help wondering how it must have been for her – a woman who lived a life denied to most women in the Medieval period. Did it come at a personal cost? Smile – readers who have read my novel know how my imagination answered this question.

The historical Beatriz was clearly an intelligent woman and respected for her learning. She was close to Isabel of Castile and acted as her advisor. All these things I used to construct my imagined Beatriz. Whether I am right or wrong about her, I cannot say. But I know she is a woman who deserves not to be forgotten by history. It is always my hope that my works of fiction will make my readers interested in my people so they will seek to learn more about them and arrive at their own interpretations.

How did you balance Beatriz’s journey against your desire to tell Catalina’s story? Who would you consider the true protagonist?

I have to say Beatriz. The story is told through her point of view, so that makes the first book of Falling Pomegranate Seeds (the overarching title for my trilogy) her story.

But I wanted in this work to understand the forces shaping Catalina of Aragon during her childhood and the years leading up to the leaving of her homeland. Beatriz, as Catalina’s tutor, offered me a powerful and adult perspective. She acts as a close and empathetic witness to Catalina’s early years, during a time when her parents were engaged in what they described as their ‘Holy War’. Since Beatriz was also Catalina’s teacher in her formative years, that offered me the opportunity to imagine how Catalina’s education shaped her and made her a woman who loved books and learning.

What steps did you take to ensure Beatrice’s character spoke to universal themes without being anachronistic to her setting?

By engaging in thorough historical research and reading writings important to this period. This is how I deepen my knowledge of the mindset of my historical people. I do my best to write through that mindset, as provided in this example from my novel of a conversation between Beatriz and her friend, Josefa:

“What is it, Beatriz?” asked Josefa.

Beatriz raised her hand and wiped her face. “I’m not sure if knowing him from childhood would help me here. I remember too well the many harsh words he and my father had over my education. He believed my father was very wrong and misguided in his desire to teach me as he did.”

“The good father would not have been alone in this. Very few women are brought up to be prodigies of Latin.”

Bitter, Beatriz gazed at her friend. “Even you expressed strong disapproval of this.”

Josefa heaved a sigh, shaking her head slowly. “’Tis not that I disapprove… I have told you this before too. I believe women walk a hard enough road without walking a road where there are pits at every step. As my mother often said to me, since we cannot get what we like, let us then like what we can get. Tell me truthfully, Beatriz. Do you think you’d have this awful hole dug for you, as you do now, if your father had not set your feet on this journey to become a scholar and professor of the university?”

Beatriz pondered Josefa. “Si, I am in an awful hole, as you say. But, Josefa, I know there are more terrible and darker holes. I will always be grateful to my father for giving me the key to escape ignorance, even if it only came from his great need to console himself after losing my mother.”

Josefa placed her hand over Beatriz’s. She gave her a wry smile.

“Escape ignorance? You know many ignorant women, si?”

“Josefa, you mistake my meaning.” Beatriz stared at the coverlet of Josefa’s bed. “All of us must walk our own roads, but ’tis wrong to prevent women from walking so many roads just because we’re women. Even Plato said, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half.’ I so agree. Our world cuts off its nose to spite its own face by insisting the only purpose for women is to bear children and perpetuate the human race, as also said Plato. Surely ’tis far too hard a view to forever blame women for Eve’s sin.”

 For me, writing is about lighting my way through life – to seek answers to those fundamental questions of the human condition. I agree with Kundera (2003, p. 44) when he tells us, ‘…fidelity to history is a secondary matter as regards the value of the novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence’. LOL – and the more I write, the more I know the truth of Socrates’s words:  ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.’

Smile – that’s not quite true. I know how important it is to follow your heart in life – and seek the fulfilment of your authentic life. Following this writing road of mine has proven to be my way to grow as a human being.

You have only been to Spain once. How did that on-the ground research influence your writing of this novel?

Besides falling in love with The Alhambra, my time in Spain deepened my ability to imagine Catalina growing up in the royal palaces of her mother.


For fifteen days, I covered vast distances travelling in a comfortable, air conditioned bus, skilfully driven on well made roads – which gave me plenty time to ponder about travelling in earlier and dangerous times of bad roads, bad weather and ox pulled litters. For me, walking the walk of my characters has always enriched me as a writer, fed my imagination, and opened the door to the lives and voices of my historical people.

How did you fill the gaps with off-the-ground research?

A mountain of books, portraits, maps, period music, and lots of daydreaming.

Tell us about your next project.

It is the second novel of my Katherine of Aragon trilogy: Falling Pomegranate Seeds: All Manner of Things. Katherine of Aragon’s lifelong friend, Maria de Salinas, is the point of view character. Like Beatriz, history provides only the bones of her life story, which means my imagination has a lot to flesh out. My imagination has opened the door to a powerful storyline – and I am determined to do it justice. The challenge is to make it work and believable through the use of historical events – and do justice to Katherine of Aragon’s story too.

Kundera, M  2003, The Art of the Novel, Reprint Edition, Harper, Perennial Modern Classics, New York.

***

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian author, playwright and poet who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds.

While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

For more about her novels follow this link

Fools, Mortals and New Years Resolutions

In the dying days of 2017, I found myself on the BBQ forum (yes, it does actually exist). See, my brother had a new Weber and I noticed his grill looked healthier than mine. In fact, mine was, let’s not beat about the bush, getting rather decrepit and rusty. I Googled “what to do with a rusty Weber grill” and the wondrous wisdom of the BBQ forum opened up to me. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one with a rust problem (and here was me thinking I was slovenly). And it seemed the Weber-gods cared. The oberwhelming consensus of the forum being to contact Weber, immediately.

I did (who was I to question the wisdom of the BBQ forum).

They responded (like the Weber-gods answered me). On supplying the relevant details, I was informed that a brand new grill was wending it’s way to my home. There were conditions. (There always are with gods). I must scrub my existing Weber kettle, replaced the drip tray, and promise henceforth to clean with more care.

I will. I solemnly swear. I will henceforth brush, wash and refrain from putting cold water on the hot grill ever again.

Happy New Year, by the way, that is the closest your will get to a New Years resolution from me.

Actually, that is not strictly true. I started 2018 by deleting the Facebook app from my iPad and phone. This was not a New Years resolution as I had declared my intention to do so for the duration of our week’s holiday in Port Fairy sometime early in December. However, I followed up on my intention, and survived the experience (yes, I’ve stopped shaking, thanks for asking). I am therefore counting it as a 2018 milestone.

The remainder of our holiday can be summed up in three words: reading, riding and running.

The running was primarily Andrew’s effort. 10 km per day – apart from the day on which he ran a marathon. I did my best with a nightly half-hour jog around the block. But I didn’t take my bike to Port Fairy. So, I couldn’t contribute on the riding front. But don’t go calling me a slouch! I pretty much read a marathon. My stated aim being to read for pure pleasure – nothing I would feel obliged to blog about or review (though of course I am doing so). Bernard Cornwell was my author of choice. A third person, omniscient novel about the battle of Agincourt, to get me started

I like reading Cornwell. He does battles like you wouldn’t believe. I have no desire to emulate him (that was part of the holiday appeal), and hope never to have to write an in-depth battle scene. But apart from being a great story, Azincourt taught me heaps about archery and humour and character. Next up, I read Fools and Mortals a novel written from the first person viewpoint of Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard. Not only was it a great tale full of humour, pithy multi-valent dialogue, and sharp characterization, it was also a great insight into the art of story telling. Consider this quote:

“And my brother, usually so reticent, had been sparked by the line. Had we seen his lordship’s clock in Somerset House, he asked and none of us had. He had described it to us, a marvelous invention of dials and wheels, of cogs and chains, which drove a pointer round a dial painted with numbers to tell the time. To make the clock work, he had said it was necessary to pull a weight upwards, and then the weight, released slowly descended to drive the intricate mechanism behind the clock’s face. ‘A Play is like that,’ he had said.

Will Kemp had laughed. ‘My arse it is Will!’

‘Truly!’ My brother had said, his right hand stroking Nell’s hair.

‘And how, my demented poet,’ Will Kemp had demanded, ‘is a play like a clock?’

‘Because we spend the first part of a play pulling the weight upwards,’ my brother had said. ‘We set the scene, we make confusion, we tangle our characters’ lives, we suggest treason, or establish enmity, and then we let the weight go, and the whole thing untangles. The pointer moves around the dial. And that, my friends, is the play.’”

Cornwell’s stories are like his lordship’s clock, structured to perfection. I was so engrossed, so non-social-media minded, so not thinking about my own work, that suddenly, quite unbidden the four layers of conflict I’d been trying to define in my current work-in-progress, fell into place, just like that. The sound not unlike the bing of a microwave clock.

Sometimes, you just have to relax and let the subconscious do the work.

After, Fools and Mortals, I needed an emotional break – too many new characters, too many unknown endings. I decided to re-visit some old Cornwell favourites – the Lazender family novels. Originally written in conjunction with Susannah Kells, the pseudonym for Cornwell’s wife, Judy, these books are a great deal more girlie than his usual offerings. Great big omniscient historical conspiracy novels with a poignant romantic thread. I hadn’t read them for years (since the library deleted them). But we live in the era of iBooks, so it took me no time to download them.

As well as re-acquainting myself with beloved characters, I found myself applying the clock analogy to the novels’ structures, marveling at the way the second half mirrored and answered the the first, like perfectly, in Cornwell’s confident lyrical storytelling tone. As I revelled in the structure (yes, this is considered a fun), I skipped back and forth between story elements, choosing their location by page number, based on where I thought they should sit in the story structure. Perfect. They were all in the right place, yet so unpredictably fresh. I read and re-read parts of Fallen Angels, multiple times.

Now I’m back home in Coburg. I have run (modestly) and started the New Year with a reading for pleasure marathon. Now it’s time to get stuck into the real work of 2018.

Tan y tro nesaf!

Wrap up for the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

I am not a book blogger – trust me there are some serious book bloggers out there. However, I do believe in Australian Women Writers and, in January 2017, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For those of you who don’t know, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge was started late in 2011 when, after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in book reviewing, Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading habits. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to reviewing of books by Aussie women.

 

In 2017, I committed to reading and reviewing a measly four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. I could have aimed higher but I have commitment issues. Seriously, I prefer to exceed my goals than reach for the stars and land low with a thump. In the end, I reviewed many more books than anticipated.

I started the year with a review of Lucy Treloar’s magnificent Salt Creek and followed that up with a post about the seven seriously seductive Rowland Sinclair mysteries. So, that was eight historical novels in January. Am I a super-star or what?!

February I read two history books, one of them in Welsh language, just so you know I’m not a slouch.

In March, I read and reviewed three children’s historical novels, in preparation for an HNSA Super Session, as well as Alison Goodman’s sizzling second instalment, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact. Was I on a roll or what?

In April, I read Kim Kelly’s, Paper Daisies, as well as fellow Welsh language tragic, L..M Owen’s time-slip mysteries, Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity.

In May/June, I was lost in Welsh speaking Wales.

Back in Australian, I hit the ground running with a review of Nicole Alexander’s historical novel, An Uncommon Woman.  I followed this up with an interview and review of Theresa Smith’s delightful contemporary novel, Lemongrass Bay. In August, I interviewed L. J. Lyndon, author of The Welsh Linnet, and Rachel Nightingale, author of Harlequin’s Riddle. I also reviewed Kate Forsyth’s, Beauty in Thorns.

In September, I reviewed Carole Lovekin’s Snow Sisters and interviewed Helen Lewis, author of The House with Old Furniture, both published by Gwasg Honno.

In October, I reviewed Bernard Cornwells’ Warlord Chronicles. They were not Australian, Welsh, or written by a woman, but they were magnificent. I had to write about them.

In November, I stepped out of my comfort zone and interviewed, Isobel Blackthorn about her seriously skin-crawling horror novel, The Cabin Sessions. This was followed by and interview with Maria Donovan, author of the delightfully cosy crime with unexpected Welsh elements novel, The Chicken Soup Murder.

In December, I read Wendy J Dunn’s Tudor novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, but you’ll have to wait until January to hear about the book as I’ve asked the author to answer a few interview questions.

So, are you keeping up? What’s my tally?

  • I think that is 21 books by Aussie women – 19 of them, historical fiction
  • 3 contemporary novels by Welsh women
  • 3 historical novels by Bernard Cornwell – just because

At this time of the year, it is customary for book bloggers to name their favourite books. Which is tough. Especially as I am not a real a book blogger. However, if pushed, I’d have to say, Goodman gave us the most tortured love triangle, Lovekin gave us the most every-day magical, Lewis the most chilling commentary on contemporary British society, Blackthorn the most seriously disturbing read, and Theresa Smith and Sulari Gentil the most laugh aloud funny while L.J.M Owen and Maria Donovan gave me the most delightfully unexpected Welsh surprises. But sadly, I’m going to be a traitor to my gender, my adopted nation and my Welsh heritage by proclaiming Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles my pick of the year.

Tan y tro nesaf!

What used to be the Corbett Family Christmas Letter

This time last year my mum was given a few weeks to live. We all hunkered down for what looked to be a series of ‘last time’ events. As it turns out, Christmas 2017 has arrived and Mum is still with us. She has grumbled about this on-and-off throughout the year: I’m ready to go Elizabeth. But it has been a big year with many exciting moments and we are all glad she is still with us.

The Tides Between

I haven’t hit the best seller lists, or purchased a castle next to J K Rowling yet, but, the publication of my debut novel has probably dominated my year. It started with the announcement of a publishing contract in January and worked its way through professional author shots, cover designs, author panels, conferences, and late edits, to a fanfare launch at Hawthorn Library on 9 November. I’ve since done interviews and written guest posts, in Welsh and English, been reviewed, asked to refrain from posting on a few Facebook groups since, with the release of my novel I’d become a ‘commercial venture’ (ha,ha,ha says every mid-list author in the world). I have also received emails from both friends and complete strangers telling me how much they enjoyed, or have been touched, even healed, by my novel, how parts brought tears to their eyes. Those small messages have made the whole journey worthwhile. As did mum, proudly hawking copies from a recliner chair in her nursing home.

 

The Work in progress

In between birthing on the above magnus opus I have been doing the groundwork for my current work in progress. It will not be the sequel to The Tides Between for which I have so cruelly set you up. See, I’d got to the end of writing the manuscript and figured it wouldn’t be good for my mental health to be working on a second book while receiving rejection letters for the first. The concept for Stone Promises was born – a novel written from the viewpoint of Marred ferch Dafydd (the ignored-by-history wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr). I spent a couple of months in May/June visiting Glyn Dŵr sites and beavering away in Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I am now in the process of reading, noting, and creating a world out of what I unearthed. I will return to Wales for more research in August 2018 (because I can) and stay at the wonderful Stiwdio Maelor again. I hope to have a good first draft by this time next year (the sheer weight of research is making this a slow process) and will then get onto that sequel I have promised.

The Family

Andrew and I continue to enjoy post-family life in our timber cottage in Melbourne’s funky inner-North. Andrew has run seven marathons this year and also done a 100km ultra marathon. He continues to pedal his bike up horrible hills for pleasure and has also enjoyed some challenging walks in Tasmania. Oh, yes, in the absence of the above mentioned bestseller status, he also pays the bills.

Around this time last year, Jack, Ness, and Charlie welcomed baby Christopher into their midst in Southhampton. The whole family came back to Oz for two months mid-year. We all enjoyed watching Christopher make his first forays in to the world of commando crawling and hearing Charlie’s linguistically delightful stories. Strangely, at this point in the calendar mum went a bit quiet on the: I’m ready to die front. It was quite nice to see Jack and Ness too. 😁

 

Phoebe and Andy have also enjoyed a number of hiking trips, including the Overland Track in Tasmania. They are gearing up for a Swiss hike in the New Year. Phoebe represented the family at our AFS daughter, Alice’s, wedding in in October. Priya and her partner Evan moved house again this year (never fun). Priya also exchanged her aged-care job for a retail job which she finds far less stressful. Seth and Monique have had a successful year on both work and home-renovation fronts. But the big news is the arrival of their baby Genevieve Isabel born 22nd December just in time for Christmas.

 

The arrival of a brand new Corbett is a worthy conclusion to what used to be the Family Christmas letter. Needless to say, we are all looking forward to oohing and ahh-ing and getting to know baby Genevieve over the festive season and have all raced out to buy an extra present for under the Christmas tree. In fact, mum is so delighted, she’s glad she stuck around for another year.

Diamond Tales

From December 3rd to 23rd, the Discovering Diamonds is holding a Diamond themed storytelling extravaganza. So far, the Diamond Tales have been fabulous (I’m not sure how I got to be part of the salubrious line up). But seriously, why not bookmark the page and follow along?

To celebrate, Odyssey Books have dropped the Kindle price of The Tides Between, to 99 cents for two days. However, I must warn you, a number of people have written to tell me they’ve bought a paperback version after enjoying the eBook so much. But I’m sure you are made of sterner stuff than that. If not, well, it is December, and you do have all those nieces, cousins and aunts to buy gifts for.

Here is the complete list of Diamond Tales. Helen Hollick has done an incredible amount of work to get this promotion up and running. We’d love you to share, bookmark and follow all of our stories.

3rd December     Richard Tearle  Diamonds
4th December     Helen Hollick  When ex-lovers have their uses
5th December    Antoine Vanner  Britannia’s Diamonds
6th December    Nicky Galliers  Diamond Windows
7th December    Denise Barnes  The Lost Diamond
8th December    Elizabeth Jane Corbett A Soul Above Diamonds
9th December    Lucienne Boyce Murder In Silks
10th December    Julia Brannan The Curious Case of the Disappearing Diamond
11th December    Pauline Barclay Sometimes It Happens
12th December    Annie Whitehead Hearts, Home and a Precious Stone
13th December    Inge H. Borg  Edward, Con Extraordinaire
14th December    J.G. Harlond The Empress Emerald
15th December    Charlene Newcomb Diamonds in the Desert
16th December     Susan Grossey  A Suitable  Gift
17th December     Alison  Morton Three Thousand Years to Saturnalia
18th December      Nancy Jardine   Illicit Familial Diamonds
19th December      Elizabeth St John The Stolen Diamonds
20th December      Barbara Gaskell Denvil Discovering the Diamond
21st December       Anna Belfrage   Diamonds in the Mud
22nd December       Cryssa Bazos    The Diamonds of Sint-Nicholaas
23rd December        Diamonds … In Sound & Song 

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

The Cabin Sessions – an interview with dark fiction writer Isobel Blackthorn

Set in a fictional Australian setting akin to that found in Melbourne’s Dandenong Mountains, this deeply atmospheric novel starts with an astrological omen of death. As Adam crosses the river guitar in hand a storm is brewing one that could see him trapped in The Cabin for hours. Struggling against a rising sense of panic he continues his journey to The Cabin Music Session unwilling to let his mentor Benny Muir down. But bad news awaits him and as the story unfolds it is not the worst his fateful Christmas Eve will hold.

Told from the third person viewpoints of Adam and Philip, the town’s plumber, the evening is mapped out in slow eerie detail that at once manages to evoke Burton’s fanatical cult history while also acting as a harbinger of the disaster to come. In between the two male viewpoints, is the delicate first-person voice of Eva, the breath holder, whose recollections shed an unsettling light on the characters in The Cabin.

The Cabin Sessions is a delicately balanced psychological novel, its horror not so much in the events of the evening (as shocking as they are) but in the sinister histories and disturbed mental states of its characters. I don’t normally ready such dark fiction but found myself gripped in horrified fascination by Blackthorn’s subtle storytelling and accomplished prose. This is a must read for all who like to be profoundly disturbed by their reading. Or for others, like me, who are simply keen to see the best of what this genre can hold.

What was the catalyst for this story?

There were several catalysts, but initially the idea was to set a novel in an open mic. Back in 2011 I was attending an open mic hosted by my then partner, Scottish troubadour Alex Legg. Every week we’d travel up the mountain to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d help him set up and pack away at the end of what was usually a very long night. Alex was a superb songwriter and musician keen to support other artists in the area and they all came up to play. I watched, listened and absorbed the ins and outs of what made an open mic. The sorts of musicians who went. The setting seemed compelling and I had Alex to hand to provide me with all the technical details. A plot emerged and Alex helped me craft some characters. They are all exaggerated to the point of the grotesque and the humorous but together they represent the array of musicians who attend a regular open mic.

I was about four chapters in when Alex and I split up. I was devastated. I lost inspiration for the story. Two years later, in December 2014, Alex suddenly passed away. It came as a shock to everyone. I had moved interstate by then and had put the past behind me, but it came flooding back. He came flooding back. He was right there with me, in my living room. I couldn’t look at his photos and I couldn’t listen to his songs, especially the one he wrote for me. But a strange thing happened. I’d written a short story based on his life in Australia. It is called ‘All Because of You’, named after a title of one of Alex’s songs. The character in the story is Benny Muir, who is really Alex, and it is written in Scottish dialect. Sitting alone feeling Alex’s presence, it came to me in a flash what I needed to do with The Cabin Sessions to make it work. I made use of Benny Muir.

You call The Cabin Sessions dark fiction, rather than horror. What is the difference?

Some would say they are one and the same. With horror the keynote is dread. Horror often involves the supernatural or paranormal. Vampires and ghosts. Then there’s horror that revolts as much as horrifies, such as splatterpunk or slasher horror, which speak for themselves. There are other forms of terror and revulsion. Creature horror, for example, giant insects or alien predators. There’s no end to it and the human appetite for horror is boundless.

Dark fiction is more likely to veer in the direction of the disturbing. The themes are dark and often psychological. That is not to say that scenes of horror are not present. The dark fiction label serves to distinguish, in my mind at least, between stories that might be more akin to thrillers or literary fiction, and those that sit squarely in horror, such as the aforementioned slasher and splatterpunk styles.

What made The Cabin Sessions fit into horror was the emergence of a minor character, Eva Stone, who hijacked the narrative and, in a strange way, me as well. She isn’t at the open mic. She writes a diary and what she has to say about the town of Burton is chilling and adds psychological complexity. The novel sets out to disturb and revolt. In my mind was the issue of whose side do you take and who do you believe? The Cabin Sessions has Gothic elements, the cabin in the woods trope, the dark and stormy night, even the Blood Moon. In a sense the novel plays at the edges of horror.

What draws you to write dark fiction?

I have so far lived 55 years on this planet and right from birth I entered a situation that was horror and torture and there was no escaping it. I have experienced more than my share of domestic violence, and psychological and sexual abuse and have studied, so to speak, perpetrators at close range. I know what it feels like to be trapped. I know what it feels like to live with the illusion that things are okay when they are not, and what that ends up doing to your mind and your body. People can put on a smiling face and be toxic to the point of being lethal, even without raising a fist.

Dark fiction allows me to explore such themes in depth and with raw realism. I can be graphic if I want to. Dark fiction confronts the reader with themes they would rather not think about. I like to explore what lurks beneath the facade. I also like to stretch things to the absurd. Horror shades into comedy very easily; there is such a fine line between the two. It is the comedy aspect, the stretching to the absurd that appeals to me most.

I come out of the British dark comedy/horror bag. One of my favourite films is ‘Sightseers’ directed by Ben Wheatley, concerning a couple who go on a caravan holiday that turns out to be a murder spree. I like the ordinariness of the settings and the characters, the matter-of-fact way they go about what they do and justify it to themselves. The whole mad and horrific unfolding triggered by someone failing to pick up a piece of rubbish.

Why do you think people should read dark fiction?

I read a lot of novels these days as I write book reviews. There is fiction out there for every taste and every type of reader. There are straight ahead feel-good books. Stories that take the reader into realms of fantasy and science fictional realities. There are those that delve into history, serving to educate or enlighten. There are page turners, books that are light and race along to the finish line. Novels that pull on the emotions. Romance tugs at the heart, crime has us puzzling as armchair sleuths, thrillers have us on the edge of our seats. Horror readers love to be scared or shocked or confronted by the macabre. All the genres and the books in them serve a purpose.

Literary fiction sets out to stimulate deep questioning and to enlighten in a fashion that is far more complex and challenging. Quite a lot of literary fiction is dark. Toni Morrison’s Beloved springs to mind.

While the horror genre exists to entertain in its own unique fashion, dark fiction, if the hair split is permissible, has that literary element that invites reflection of the questioning mind. It challenges as much as instils dread or revulsion. By dwelling in the dark places, we come to understand motives otherwise obscured. We wrestle with morality. Better to expose than repress, in my view. It is denial that twists and distorts. Bring the darkness into the full light of day and something sensible can be done with it.

We can too easily exist in a false reality where everything is fresh milk and roses in full bloom. Dark fiction is the counter-balance to all that is sunny and warm. We all have darkness in us, we all have shadowy realms.

Milk sours. Roses wither and rot.

I’ve heard you say this is a mirror book to A Perfect Square. Can you tell me how? Why?

I wrote The Cabin Sessions and A Perfect Square at the same time, in the space of two years. I also chose to write both in a very old-school dense and strong style. I don’t always write like that. I was in a very lonely and difficult phase of my life, I’d returned to a place I should never have gone back to, and I was carrying a lot of hurt. I had to sell up and move again to put distance between myself and that phase of my life.  I think both stories emerged out of all that hurt I was feeling, but not in any direct way. More that I buried myself in both novels to shut out the world around me.  I call it my crab shell phase.

Yet buried deep in both novels are elements of my own history. A Perfect Square leans more towards the occult, and in some senses it is a lighter book, but it is a dark mystery, and that darkness unfolds slowly. I think of the two novels as my dark twins.

I am working on two horror/thriller novels. Another set of twins! They are both fast paced and great fun to write. One is almost finished, the other well on the way.  I shall say no more about them. Don’t want to spoil the surprise!

Buying links to Isobel Blackthorn’s books can be found on her website. 

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.

***

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.

***

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)

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