Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: interview

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. 

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 Welsh Linnet – an interview with A J Lyndon

‘Mum, there is someone at work, I’d like you to meet.’ My adult son announced.

This was odd. I eyed him curiously. Adult sons don’t normally introduce middle-aged mothers to their colleagues. ‘What exactly do you think we’ll have in common, son?’

‘Her name is Felicity. She has written an historical novel with a Welsh character.’

I met Felicity, who writes under the name A. J. Lyndon, in the city and was pleased to be handed a complimentary copy of her historical novel, The Welsh Linnet, which is set during the English Civil War. We had a wonderful time swapping research and middle-aged-always-wanted-to-write-a-novel tales. After reading The Welsh Linnet, I asked Felicity to answer a few questions for my blog.

What made you want to write a novel? 

Like many people I have often thought about writing a novel. But I never got a strong enough urge to put pen to paper, or a subject. The decision was quite sudden. I had borrowed the usual crop of assorted novels from the local library (I generally get through a book in about a week). The last one on the pile was by an unknown author. It was a light modern detective story. I won’t say who the author was as I struggled to get through it although it was quite short. Finally skipping to find out “who dun it”. I closed the book with relief, thinking “I have wasted x hours of my life reading this.” Unexpectedly the next thought was, “I have got to be able to do better than that!”

The initial idea was no more than a visual scene which had been floating around my head for several years. It was a girl in a long dress dancing. Not just any dance, it was the medieval circle dance Horses Brawle. I could see her dress floating out as she spun. I had no idea who she was!

How your arrived at your time period?

I had always assumed the visualisation in my head was the Tudor period. However I have a long- term interest in the Stuarts who came after the Tudors, especially in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. More practically, every man and his dog from Jean Plaidy to Philippa Gregory has written about the Tudor period.  Before moving to Australia, I belonged to a re-enactment society called the Sealed Knot, which refights the battles of the English Civil War every summer.

My heroine was, as you may have guessed, the girl in the long dress. She turned out to be Bess Lucie, musical, adventurous and naïve teenage daughter of Sir Henry Lucie. She had to have brothers who would take part in the war. They ended up as cautious and disciplined (Bess’s words) Will, and fun loving, reckless Harry.  Harry started writing his own scenes after a while. Will is doing the same in book two, which is now in progress.

The hero took a lot of thought. I knew he was musical, also Welsh, but who was he? He started off as a court musician to King Charles 1, but after writing a couple of scenes I changed my mind. He became a cavalry officer with a dark secret, but the lute stayed!

What is your relationship with Wales?

I am Welsh born. I spent the first 21 years of my life there, returning briefly a few years later. I still have family there and visit it from time to time. I have a particular affection for Swansea University, where I studied English. Sadly, I only know a few words of Welsh, but love to join in the Welsh National Anthem and Cwm Rhondda at rugby matches. Although I have now lived in Australia for more years than I lived in Wales, I still think of myself as Welsh.

Tell me about your research and how you juggled this with work and family?

I have to say that I woefully underestimated the amount of research that would be required to write an historical novel. Having picked a time period which I was familiar with, I thought I knew it all. How wrong could I be. The very first scene I wrote (which ended up on the cutting room floor apart from a brief reference) featured twelve year old Bess deciding to run away from home. She had got no further than the kitchens when she encountered one of their dogs, and I encountered my first two problems. The dog was a sheep dog. Did they have sheep dogs in 1640s England? Dive on to the internet! Answer -no! The dog was hastily transformed into a spaniel. What was its name? Another dive – type 17th century dog names into Google.

Those were two of the smaller problems, easily fixed by an internet search. Researching the war began with buying a couple of history books “Brief History of the English Civil War” and similar. That was okay for background, but there was usually not enough detail on the particular events, or the day to day details reenactors call “living history”.

What sort of uniforms did the soldiers wear? Being used to the Sealed Knot, where everyone wears one, I was surprised to discover that at the start of the war, the rank and file were lucky if they had a uniform coat and officers never wore uniform of any sort, relying on a sash of a particular colour (red for the Royalists, orange, blue or yellow for the parliamentarians) to show that they were an officer, and which side they were on.

One or two books such as Worship and Theology in England I had to borrow from universities through inter library loan. Others I bought second hand via the internet from specialist shops in the UK and USA. Two years down the track I must have close on 40 books about the civil war and other relevant topics such as history of food. Also a collection of Renaissance music which I acquired as I researched the musical background.

I am lucky I have an understanding husband, and two teenage children who are at the stage where they have their own interests and don’t need me standing over them. I wrote The Welsh Linnet while working full time. This meant that most evenings I would come home from work and after dinner I would shut myself away with my computer and a collection of history books and write for a couple of hours.  At a conservative estimate, I probably wrote for about 10 hours a week. That excludes reading time (commuting and lunch breaks).

Did you visit the sites of your novel? How did that influence your narrative?

Half way through writing the book, I realised I had too many unanswered questions and I wanted to see the places I was writing about. Even places like Warwick Castle, with a wide range of photos on their website, still couldn’t answer all my questions without a visit. So I began phoning and writing to sites, booking tours and pestering experts to give me their time, which in several cases they did (free).

Talking to guides and historians added a whole new level of detail, and corrected many misconceptions. Sometimes I found I had been correct about something I made up. Visiting the quarters of the Civil War governor at Warwick Castle (still as they were), I discovered that the rack where a sword hung, grabbed by one of my characters, was just where I had placed it, right next to the door! More spookily I discovered the hero’s fictitious ancestral home in Crickhowell, South Wales, existed, along with his two wives (same names). This led to a major architectural redesign of the house in the book to match the real one.

Did the eventual story match your initial ideas? Or did the story take on a life of its own? If so, in what ways?

The plot evolved as I wrote. It began as a few scenes and a group of central characters. I was about half way through before I knew how the story was going to end. As I wrote, the characters dug themselves in, and I frequently found, as I mentioned with Harry, that they took over. Sir Henry Lucie writes all his own speeches! There are a number of letters in the book. I thought it was important, as that was how people communicated in those days, but I discovered that some of the characters loved writing letters. The hero decided to sign his with a drawing.

More seriously, the main change I noticed after the research trip was that the story became much darker. Visiting battle sites like the wide plain of Roundway Down and the sad ruins of once great Basing House brought it home to me that these were real events and thousands of men died violently at those spots. Memorial plaques in the floors of various churches to men who died in the fighting were particularly poignant. A twenty three year old captain killed in the last battle of the civil war led to my hero making his will before departing to join the army.  New scenes sprouted, including a spy hanging in Oxford, where Bess’s planned afternoon stroll is disrupted by bound and ragged men being chivvied towards the gallows.

Who are your favourite authors? What did you learn from reading them?

Having studied English at university, I have to mention (of course) Jane Austen and George Eliot. Also Thomas Hardy (I named my hero Gabriel in tribute to the hero of Far from the Madding Crowd). If I think about those three authors, all feature heroines faced with similar dilemmas. Who should I marry? Should I be a dutiful daughter/niece or insist on my independence? Making a living versus sticking to one’s principles – also applies to male characters such as Lydgate in Middlemarch and Troy in far from the Madding Crowd. Claims of family, duty, conflicting with the desire to be free to attain personal dreams, still there today.

My favourite modern author (who is also interested in claims of family, duty etc) is Diana Gabaldon, author of the historical fantasy time travel series Outlander. I adopted her writing approach in that like her I write odd scenes, sometimes only working out later where they fit in! (She calls it “daily lines”.) More recently I have discovered the excellent Tudor who dunnit series writer SJ Parris, who writes about historical figure Giordano Bruno. Excellent attention to historical detail (torture scenes to make your eyes water).  I am always interested in observing how other writers of historical fiction blend in the facts. Is it interesting? Or is it a history dump? (Interesting and you won’t notice it, history dump tends to stick out.)

This is an impeccably researched novel. With a little more attention to story-structure and the law of diminishing returns, the authors flowing prose and era-authentic voice, will shine in subsequent instalments.

The Welsh Linnet is available through Amazon and in hard copy from Tretower Publishing

Call to Juno – the culmination of a new publishing journey

Having reviewed Elisabeth Storrs‘ first two novels, The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, I was thrilled at the prospect of reading an advance copy of Call to Juno. A postal error saw my hard copy of the title being sent to Wales where I am no longer residing (sob). When Storrs offered to send me a second, digital copy I asked if she would also answer a few questions for my blog.

Set in 396 BC, with the Etruscan city of Veii surrounded by Roman armies, Call to Juno, continues the story of Caecelia, a Roman treaty bride who defied the gods by choosing an Etruscan nobleman, over her family and heritage. As Caecilia’s royal husband Vel Mastarna seeks an alliance that will break the siege of Veii, Caecelia and her household are trapped within the city walls, facing hunger and disease. Meanwhile, Vel’s treacherous brother, Artile, seeks to undermine Veii’s hopes of military success by luring their goddess Uni to the Roman cause.

Call to Juno is an impeccably researched, page-turner that richly imagines the ancient world, weaving the actions of the gods and the multiple viewpoints of its characters into a seamless narrative. The personalities of its characters are flawed and unforgettable. Themes such as sexuality, unrequited love, fate and choosing your own destiny are handled with depth and and sensitivity. Its battle depictions are awe spine tingling and its religious ceremonies tactile. The conclusion Storrs gives us is at once devastating and hopeful. Call to Juno is a must read for anyone with an interest in the ancient world – indeed for anyone looking for a good historical read.

call-to-juno-by-elisabeth-storrs

In keeping with the ancient setting of her novels, Storrs publishing journey has also taken on a mythic quality. Beginning life as a traditionally published novel, The Wedding Shroud was released at the time of the Borders’ collapse. Storrs’ watched helpless as her publisher, Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books was engulfed by the digital revolution. When the opportunity came to reclaim her author rights, she jumped at the chance, setting in motion a process that would see her three books picked up by Amazon’s Lake Union. I asked Storrs to tell me about her publishing journey.

The Wedding Shroud, the first book in the saga, took ten years to research and write (I rewrote it three times!) I approached agents instead of publishers because I believed I had a better chance of avoiding the slush pile. […] I soon learned that it was incumbent on an author to do most of the publicity for their books themselves as publishers channel the majority of their marketing budget into best sellers rather than their mid lists. I knew The Wedding Shroud was a ‘slow burner’ so when the opportunity came to reclaim the rights after the Pier 9 imprint folded, I jumped at the chance.

As a person who also used up double figures to write and re-write her first novel, I found Storrs’ journey encouraging. I asked how the Indie publishing experience differed from the traditional publishing model.

I finished The Golden Dice within eighteen months and published it and The Wedding Shroud across all retail platforms in both digital and paperback editions. It was the best decision I could have taken as I suddenly was able to reach historical fiction fans across the world. I also realised that I had to adopt the attitude that I was running a business which required me to produce high quality books that were professionally edited and proof read. I hired the same freelance editor who worked on The Wedding Shroud for Pier 9, and then an US editor to ‘Americanize’ my prose as this catered to the ease of reading of my largest audience. I also retained a professional graphic designer to produce my covers. Marketing the books also required me to understand the strategies behind bargain promotions, social media campaigns and subscription emails. For those who are interested in self-publishing, I recommend joining the Alliance of Independent Authors to access wonderful resources to assist you on this path.

tales-of-ancient-rome-books-by-elisabeth-storrs

Storrs’ hunch paid off. her ‘slow burner’ gained over two hundred reviews on Amazon which attracted the attention of the commissioning editor at Lake Union, the historical fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was a dream come true! Stores signed a three book deal to re-release the first two books and write Call to Juno. I asked Storrs how the experience of working with Lake Union differed from he other two publishing models she she had experienced.

The Lake Union team have been delightful. They are courteous, respectful, professional and very enthusiastic. Additionally, they understand the value of bargain promotions which achieve visibility in the digital world. This makes a huge difference compared to the prevailing belief of traditional publishers who eschew such marketing. Thanks to Lake Union, my Tales of Ancient Rome saga is reaching an even larger audience than I could ever have anticipated 6 years after The Wedding Shroud was first published. And now audio editions are being produced as well.

With a string of successes under her belt, I’d say Storrs is definitely on a winning streak. I asked her to tell me about her next project.

I am taking a break from Rome and Etruria for a while. I have always been fascinated by the story of Trojan gold which was smuggled from Turkey to Germany by the archaeologist and gold seeker, Heinrich Schliemann. The treasure was subsequently stolen during the Battle of Berlin by the Russians. I will be delving into the dark world of Nazi archaeology and the quest by both Hitler and Stalin to loot millions of pieces of art throughout Europe during the war.

***

elisabeth-storrsElisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Elisabeth lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, Australia, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and a former Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Feel free to connect with her through her website or Triclinium blog. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter @elisabethstorrs, Bookbub  and Pinterest. Subscribe to her monthly Inspiration newsletter for inspirational interviews and insights into history  – both trivia and the serious stuff! You’ll receive a free 80 page short story, Dying for Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.

 

Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

I generally read books set in the past. I don’t mind those set half in the present and half in the past. Though my preference is definitely for the former. If I do read books set in the present they generally have a quirky, mystical element to them. Or are set in Wales. Which is how I found myself ordering a copy of Ghostbird. It popped up on my Facebook feed. I have to admit the cover intrigued me. As did the recommendation at the bottom:

‘Charming, quirky, magical.’ Joanne Harris.

I flipped over to the Honno site and read the blurb.

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

Okay, so this was starting to sound like my kind of book. The magical quirky, present day hauntedness was happening in Wales. I ordered a copy. The book didn’t disappoint. It had rain and damp and overgrown gardens and village gossips, resonance with the mythical character Blodeuwedd, Welsh words, fierce original characters, a compelling story and clear, evocative prose. When I turned the final page, I flipped over to Google (as you do) and typed in the author’s name. Carol Lovekin had a blog and she sounded interesting. I shot her an email asking whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. She agreed.

I had been intrigued while reading Ghostbird to find that much of the viewpoint was carried by a fourteen-year-old girl. I wondered whether Lovekin, had ever thought she was writing for teens. Or indeed whether she had the market in mind when she was writing at all. Here is what she had to say to me:

At no point did I ever imagine myself writing YA. The truth is I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the genre. I’ve learned not to be, but it doesn’t mean I ever planned for Ghostbird to be marketed as a teen novel. And although the possibility of ‘cross-over’ was mentioned, to my publishers’ credit, they haven’t tried. If a young audience does read and enjoy my book, I’m delighted! I don’t mind who reads it.  It was always a novel for adults though. Cadi found me – I’m still unsure why. I have always had easy relationships with young women and girls; I like their fierceness and their courage. And I have strong granddaughters who continue to inspire me.

While reading Lovekin’s blog, I noticed that she didn’t initially realise that she was writing a ghost story. I asked her at what point she realised she was and how the realisation changed her approach. Also what aspects of the novel changed in the re-drafting process?

In the beginning, although I imagined the story with a ghost – Cadi’s baby sister – I wrote her only in brief vignettes. The initial idea was that the myth would be a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor read the complete draft she made it clear the ghost needed a bigger voice. I went away and wrote the ghost’s story in isolation. It was genuinely exciting and once it was done – and slotted into the main narrative – I realized, yes, I’m writing a ghost story! The notion pleased me hugely because I have ‘issues’ with genre and have never really been able to place my work outside of the ubiquitous ‘magical realism’ label. I don’t mind magical realism, I love it – I do get tired of it being appropriated by fantasy writers. Magical realism has very little in common with fantasy. Many things changed during the redrafting of the book, not least the title. And relationships between some of the characters changed too.

The book has a great connection to the landscape and also some very realistic spells and incantations. I wanted to know where they came from. Whether they were a product or research, or Lovekin’s own spirituality?

Ah… The ‘witch’ question! Everyone wants to know ‘where it all comes from’ and some people mistakenly assume I’m a pagan. I’m not – or if I am, it’s like my relationship with ‘fashionable’ and quite accidental! I am an eco-feminist and yes, I have decades of practice behind me. I know my ‘craft’ so to speak; therefore no research was needed with regard to Lili and her ‘powers.

Photograph: Janey Stevens

 

A committed feminist, Lovekin’s characters have an uneasy relationship with the story of Blodeuwedd. Here is what Lovekin had to say about her own relationship with the text:

When I first read The Mabinogion I was struck by the notion that to be turned into a bird could be considered a curse. Initially and purely as an exercise in reclaiming her for feminism, I rewrote Blodeuwedd’s story from her point of view; made her angry and potentially vengeful. I gave Blodeuwedd her voice if you like. Years later, she was still there, haunting me and one day I quite literally woke up and I had Cadi. Fully formed and in complete agreement with me that Blodeuwedd deserved a better fate.

I asked Lovekin how she balanced her love of Welsh mythology against the perceived misogyny in the Mabiniogi?

I don’t address or try to make sense of the misogyny in mythology and legend; or in fairy tales for that matter. I have always enjoyed picking them apart and as I’ve already mentioned, reclaiming them. ‘

When it was first published in 1992, I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and I found myself enchanted. She presented me with a whole new way of looking at myth and fairytale which chimed perfectly with my feminism. Goddess is a metaphor for me – the perfect metaphor for the Land and I do believe that once the divine feminine power was diminished, humanity was the loser.

Finally I asked how writing the next book was going.

I’m finding it interesting and a little daunting. There is an expectation – there’s bound to be: people read and like a book and want more. Hopefully they will be happy with more of the same because I’m writing another ghost story. (I have to get it past my editor first of course!) I hope my perspective remains the same: the writing is what matters. It’s the cake so to speak and ‘being published’ is the icing. It’s always about the creative process – with maybe a bit more urgency this time? If writing ever became unenjoyable, I would stop.

I, for one hope she doesn’t stop. I am already looking forward to her next charming, quirky, magical, eco-feminist ghost story set in Wales. But I think Lovekin’s philosophy is the takeaway for me. The creatve process is what matters. Being published is merely the icing on the cake. It is the point I bring myself back to every time I sit down to write. 🙂

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Margaret Redfern’s novel, The heart remembers. In my review, I may have mentioned that I didn’t like the cover. This may have caused a squeeze of horror in the breasts of those who had produced the book. They may just have written, wanting to know what, exactly, I didn’t like about the cover. I might have mentioned that I’d seen the advanced publicity for the book and preferred the earlier image of a ship. At which point, the author may also dropped me a line, telling me why the advanced publicity cover was no good – historically inaccurate (shows how much I know). By this stage, I was kind of wishing I’d never mentioned the cover. But…that is one of the pitfalls of reviewing.

Or is it a pitfall?

I’d been contacted by the author of three books I had enjoyed immensely and, after agreeing never to talk about the cover again, I’d had the pleasure of discussing aspects of The heart remembers, with the author herself. I seized the opportunity and asked Margaret Redfern whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. I had, of course, already Googled her. I knew that she came from Yorkshire, originally. I also knew that she’d spent time living in Turkey, Lincolnshire and Wales. My first question was whether she considered herself Welsh.

Now in case you are thinking I’ve developed right wing, ultra-nationalistic tendencies, this questions had nothing to do with genealogy or citizenship and everything to do with Honno (her publisher’s) submissions policy. Gwasg Honno is an independent, cooperative press, established to raise the profile of Welsh women writers. To submit to Honno, you need to be Welsh or have strong links to Wales. I was curious to know which category Redfern belonged to. Here is how she answered the question.

“My connection to Wales was either happenstance or synchronicity – take your pick […] One of my nieces was working in Pembroke Dock and was homesick for Yorkshire. She is also my goddaughter. I went down to see her, I think 1999 – certainly Wales had just beaten England in the (then) Five Nations. It was around Easter, icy cold and snow of Tenby beach. I got out of the train, walked down to the beach, looked out over Carmarthen Bay, Goscar Rock and across to Worm’s Head, and was smitten. My niece went back to Yorkshire. A year later, I removed myself to Wales.”

The inspiration behind Redfern’s first book, Flint, came about through a similar process of synchronicity. She had left a very difficult job situation in Lincolnshire – and was working at Coleg Sir Benfro and had begun immersing herself in Wales’ history and culture.

“I was roaming around North Wales, poking around the castles and I was standing on the banks of the Dee reading the CADW booklet on Flint Castle. Remember I said I had run away from Lincolnshire to Wales? Well, there was a paragraph that sent shockwaves through my whole body. ‘300 men from the Lincolnshire Fens had been marched from Lincolnshire to Flint to join another 900 fossatores to start digging the footings and moat of the first of Edward 1’s concentric castles. Lincolnshire was stalking me!”

These days, Redfern describes herself as Welsh by adoption, her ‘passport’ written by the writer Nigel Jenkins who declared her ‘New Welsh’ the term Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams coined for those Sais who embrace Welsh culture and history. She was an awarded honours for MA in creative writing is from Trinity St David’s University. The first five chapters of Flint, written as part of her MA dissertation, were picked up by Honno and “the rest is history. Welsh history.”

For me, one of the most profound aspects of Redfern’s writing, is her universalist spiritual themes. She has somehow managed to write three novels that celebrate both the Islamic and Christian faiths without being preachy, prescriptive or sentimental. I asked her about the time she spent living in Turkey.

“I first went to Turkey in 1971. It was my first teaching post at private girl’s ‘lise’ (as in French lycée) in Adana, about twenty miles from Tarsus, of Paul fame, the ‘citizen of no mean city.’ We drove there, my first husband and me, in an A35 van stuffed full with belongings, setting out two weeks after I had passed my driving test. A terrifying experience, and hugely exciting, travelling across Europe into Turkey and through it, down to Adana in the far south. It was a far different Turkey from today’s tourist resorts: few private cars but huge TIR trucks and oxen-pulled carts and sheep herded through the centre of Ankara and terrible roads. I loved it. […] We took the girls to Konya for the Mevlana festival in early December, one year sleeping on the floor of a school room because there was ‘no room at the inn’. It was a very moving experience, nothing like the tourist attraction it has become, nor the clamouring pilgrimage of devout Muslims. Then, it was more a private experience, and a bit of a Road to Damascus for me. The words quoted in The storyteller’s granddaughter are very well known to Sufi Muslims: gel gel yenigel…come, come, come again, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

As a writer I am always interested in people’s writing process. Flint was Redfern’s first novel but it was not, infact, the beginning of her writing career. As a child she was a fan of the TV series: Voyage to the bottom of the sea.

I was so in love with the series, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain Lee Crane that I transcribed every episode into story form. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I illustrated the stories with any clipping I got hold of, usually from the Radio Times – the programme details, rare stills…”

She went on to write romantic fiction for IPC magazines and later for Bella. After moving to Wales, she started following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Pembrokeshire gentleman whose Tour through Pembrokeshire was published in 1810. Her resulting articles were published in Pembrokeshire Life over the next six years. Flint, as I have already mentioned, was started as part of an MA in creative writing. I asked Redfern whether she was a plot-from-the-beginning writer and also how the whole writing and editing process works out for her.

“It is not possible to have than an idea of a character to begin with, in a long story. […] It’s like meeting someone for the first time. It takes time to get to know them, their complexities, their reactions…other writers say this, also that when what you write is not ‘in character’, it’s almost as if the character is there jogging your elbow and saying, ‘You can’t make me do that!’ It also makes it impossible to have a definite plot. There must be the idea of a start and finish but, as the characters develop, so they edge the narrative into new directions. To be honest, so does the research. Another little nugget, and another, and another, and suddenly there’s a whole new world view. As for editing! I cannot, try as I might, write a first rough draft and then edit. I have to revise and revise so that some days are spent on redrafting with hardly any new writing. Together with research, both chair-bound and out-and-about exploring, it all takes far too long. Sometimes I obsessively search for some tiny detail for hours – days – and it amounts to a few words in the text. I’ve said before that, contrary to advice, I use a camera to record scenes, weather, settings, information, and often use this instead of written notes – which I also make. So tips for emerging writers? Recognise the demands of different genre […] and never be without that notebook and pen/pencil but beyond that do what works for you.”

 

Some gems there for the writerly among us. “Do what works for you.” Is probably the key element – not only for novel writing, but for life in general. Though, I can certainly relate to Redfern’s inability to write a completely unedited first draft and, of course, the allure of historical research.

Maragaret Redfern’s three books: Flint, The storyteller’s granddaughter, and The heart rememebrs are all available through Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press. I cannot recommend them highly enough and, with Christmas coming up, they would be the perfect gift for any lover or Welsh history or, indeed, literary historical fiction in general.

 

Language, culture and worldview – an interview with Earl Livings

Born in Australia to an Australian father and Belgian mother, Earl Livings once scorned those who felt a need to explore their ancestral origins. Not anymore. He now calls Wales his spiritual home. Having just spent two months at Stiwdio Maelor, in Corris, North Wales, this is perhaps not surprising. But in truth, he stumbled upon the homeward path years ago.


I first met Earl as one of the tutors at Box Hill TAFE where I was enrolled in a Novel Writing subject. Earl taught poetry and a unit on myths and symbolism. When he turned up at the Melbourne Welsh classes it seemed the two disparate aspects of my life had collided. Another writer! With an interest in Welsh language and culture! Who lives in Melbourne! When Earl announced he was going to the UK for a research trip and would be staying in Dolgellau. I said:

You should meet my friend Veronica.

When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers, Earl and I jostled for a chance to be one of her writers in residence, Earl applying for a two month residency, me applying for a six month volunteer role. Our applications were both successful. Earl’s residency came before mine. I have therefore followed his writer in residence blogs with interest, plying him with a host of pressing and intelligent, questions like:

What’s the internet speed like? Does Maelor have a washing machine?

Now Earl is back in Australia, I thought it time to raise the standard of my enquiries. I asked him to flesh out what he means by the term ‘spiritual home.’

Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

“Although my father was born in Australia, of an English father and a Welsh mother, whenever people met him his demeanour and speech would lead them to believe he was English. I too was born in Australia, yet some people when they meet me think I come from Europe. This may be because my mother was Belgian and I inherited her darker skin, eye and hair colouring and her attitudes … However, when I was young I saw myself as Australian and couldn’t understand the need of some people to re-visit their homelands, grow their country’s flowers, and cultivate its culture. I was an Australian and I felt it our duty to embrace the land, its flora and fauna and its growing culture.

“Yet, alongside this national bent was a sense of otherness from this country. When I found out I was part Welsh, I felt a kinship I hadn’t felt before … Still, the national bent remained and it was years before I started to explore my British heritage … My exploration into my British roots (as opposed to my father’s English roots) began with a developing interest in the megalithic culture of Britain, in The Matter of Britain—the stories of Arthur, Merlin and the druids—and in Celtic poetry and poetics: W B Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves (specifically, his The White Goddess). The more I read Celtic literature and myths, the more I felt at home in this tradition. When I first travelled to Britain and spent time in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, I sensed an affinity with the landscape, more so than during trips to the Australian bush and outback. Subsequent visits have only confirmed this connection, as has my learning of the Welsh language, an activity and practice that always feels right for me, that always centres me.”

One of Earl’s more recent literary inspirations has been found in the work of Alan Garner. He uses the term ‘mythic realism’ to describe Garner’s weaving together of the everyday and the mythic. I asked him to explain his use of this term.

“The phrase ‘mythic realism’ in some ways was a throwaway phrase when I was thinking of Garner’s work in relation to my own and in comparison to someone like JRR Tolkien and his secondary world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien and others have been described by the phrase ‘mythopoeic’, but I felt this phrase was more relevant for those stories that are either constructions of a myth, as The Lord of the Rings can be construed, or use myths and mythic beings in a literal sense, as much of modern fantasy does. I wanted something to describe Garner’s approach of using myth as a foundation for a story that somehow enacts the myth and also presupposes the literal existence of the myth and/or its underlying metaphysics. Garner creates liminal fantasies, where the world of myth and the so-called ‘real world’ overlap…

Garner posits these mythical worlds as real and as impinging on our world. In some ways he says these worlds influence and support our world, and that the opposite also happens. His first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, use folklore based on Arthurian-type legends of Alderley Edge, but in his next books, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, he uses Celtic myths directly or indirectly. For example, The Owl Service uses the story of Blodeuwedd in The Mabinogion, with the three main characters being influenced by the reality of the myth, almost inexorably, and acting it out at the same time. The myth is apart from the real world, yet is in a process of being continual re-enacted in the real world …

In the situation of my return visits to Britain, my journeys through Celtic landscapes in Wales and Scotland have given me my own experiences of mythic realism, in that certain sites, such as megalithic tombs and stone structures and places associated with legend and myth, give off (at least to me) a palpable sense of their sacredness … Some of these places I intend to use in my writing, either as settings or as the basis of feelings and insights characters will experience.”

Earl is an academic. Can you tell? His blog posts lifted my considerations above such pressing matters as internet speed (though this does still concern me). He has urged me to see my time in Corris as a time apart. Although, ‘officially’ a volunteer studio manger. I will be writing during my residency. Earl suggested my priorities should be:

  • My manuscript
  • The studio
  • Speaking Welsh

One of Stwidio Maelor’s owners and founders was present at this discussion. She said you may like to make you writing a priority but I think the studio will keep you pretty busy. After we had all gone our seperate ways I considered my list of priorities.

For me, speaking Welsh will come first.

I could have taken leave without pay to finish my novel in Melbourne. But, as wonderful as Skype is, opportunities to speak Welsh would have been limited. Part of my novel is written from the point of view of a nineteenth century Welsh storyteller (yes, I too am drawn by Welsh mythology). My ability to enter his consciousness, indeed, my right to do so, is grounded in my ability to speak his language.

But what of Earl? What were his aims for his time at Maelor? And does he think they were realised?

“Like many writers, both emerging and established, I have had the odd weekend (or longer) writing retreat and have enjoyed the benefits of focussing on one’s work for an extended time. A residency is just a longer writing retreat, with basically the same intention: get away from the commitments and routines of normal life and devote time and mental energy to researching a project, working at one’s craft, and/or writing and editing the text or texts of a project… My goal for the residency was to write the next draft of my dark ages novel…. What I didn’t count on was the effects of the mental space the residency gave me. Given this opportunity to sit back and think about the novel, I discovered problems in structure and story I hadn’t realised before. I thus had to spend time doing a structural edit (which isn’t finished yet) before throwing myself back into the content editing…

Even with the disappointment of not finishing the redraft, I was happy with the residency. By the end of my time in the UK I managed to edit and re-write around half of the manuscript, which itself had grown and will probably end up being about 150,000 words. I also checked out settings for the novel and learnt a little more Welsh, which I’ve been pursuing not only for myself but also for use in the novel.”

It sounds like Earl’s residency was worthwhile on a number of levels. As it is now less a month until I leave for Wales, you can look forward to hearing in nauseating detail about how volunteering, speaking Welsh and my own writing goals play out.

***

Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He also has read his work in many venues around Melbourne and in the USA, England, Ireland, and Wales. Earl has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Box Hill with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around his home.

 

 

We that are left – an interview with Juliet Greenwood

Those who know me, won’t be surprised to hear me confess I have a slight (cough) interest in Wales. The landscape fills me with a sense of rightness, the language enchants me, Wales’ history both saddens and inspires me. When I get a chance to read Welsh historical novels by Welsh authors set in Wales, my enthusiasm knows no bounds. This is how I came across Gwasg Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press and, in this instance the novels of Juliet Greenwood.

Those who follow my every blogged word will know I reviewed Greenwood’s, Eden’s Garden, a few weeks ago. If I were to set you a quiz, I hope you would remember it is set in both North Wales and Cornwall and that it was tactile enough to make me feel I had visited both places. Well, guess what, I’ve read Greenwood’s second book, set primarily in Cornwall, with just touch of North Wales, and despite being a World War One book, and handling a host of grim issues, it somehow managed to be hopeful, inspiring and even enjoyable. I decide a review wasn’t enough for this one. I’d see if the author would answer a few questions. Greenwood was gracious enough to agree. Before we proceed. Let me give you the cover blurb for We that are left:

Elin lives a luxurious but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Her husband Hugo loves her but he has never recovered from the Boer War. Now another war threatens to destroy everything she knows. With Hugo at the front, and her cousin Alice and friend Mouse working for the war effort, Elin has to learn to run the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends – and enemies. But when Mouse is in danger, Elin must face up to the horrors in France herself.

And when the Great War is finally over, Elin’s battles prove to have only just begun.

We that are left, has won Waterstones Wales Book of the Month, Wales Independent Bookshops Book of the Month and Wales National Museums Book of the Month, March 2014


See, I’m not the only one excited.

I asked Greenwood how she came to write a World War One novel. She confessed the idea had come to her while researching Eden’s Garden, parts of which were set at the end of the Victorian era. She had studied the war poets and read novels set in that era, but realised she knew very little about the experience of the women. In the end it was just a small paragraph about a women who discovered her own skills as manager and businesswoman, that jumped out at her.

“My strongest feeling from the very start was that I wanted to see the experience of the war through the eyes of one woman. Part of that was that I didn’t want the story to be the horrors of the trenches and the battlefields. I felt that focussing on such visceral horror would overwhelm the civilian’s experience that I wanted to tell, and effects of war on the men who survived.”

As the blurb indicated, We that are left tells the story of Elin a naive young woman with a blind acceptance of her less than ideal marriage who grows into a young woman with ideas of her own and a destiny of her choosing. Her voice is innocent, almost child like, in the beginning of the story, and somehow matures without loosing a sense of her being the same person. Greenwood said she took ages to find Elin’s voice. Though she knew from the outset that the novel needed to be written in the first person. I asked her how her own life lessons had a bearing on Elin’s journey.

“I didn’t realise it when I was writing the book, but I definitely drew on my own experience of being a naïve and idealist teenager, and the knocks and experience that have made me grow along the way. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when women were still not seen as capable of achieving much beyond marriage and a family. That image was just as insidiously corrosive as the size zero one today. Like many women of my generation, Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ was a bombshell that put into words many of frustrations I had assumed was just me being a failure, and finally gave me permission to be what I wanted to be, sending me on a rollercoaster of a ride towards becoming my own woman. The experience of Elin’s generation is not really that far away!”

We that are left is a war book that somehow remains light without skirting around the major issues. From reading Greenwood’s blogs on the Novelistas site I gathered this is something of a personal philosophy. I asked Greenwood to explore this philosophy with me.

“I think sometimes books are only seen as ‘serious’ and worth reading if they are full of horror and doom and gloom, as if it’s the author’s solemn duty to educate the reader, and the reader’s humble duty to listen and learn and be dragged kicking and screaming to face the terminal tragedy of existence. And women, of course, are only capable of writing (and reading) the fluffy bunny version of life known as ‘domestic’. Sigh…

“…Reading might be the only few minutes in a day – maybe even in a week – when the reader is not juggling grown up children going through a divorce along with parents growing frailer and frightened, and maybe also caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s.”

Greenwood maintains her readers doesn’t need educating in the big issues of life. They are living them. That doesn’t mean she insults them by only writing about ‘fluffy bunnies.’

“I think women are the great survivors, who make a life whatever the circumstances, and that should be celebrated rather than seeing them as passive victims of circumstance. I’ve also found that it’s when facing the most difficult circumstances that you not only learn just how vile a small minority of human beings can be, but also the strength, empathy and supportiveness of the vast majority. And it’s also when you learn the most about yourself and become more understanding of others’ experiences.”

Finally, apart from my slight (cough) interest in Wales, I love to hear about the writing journeys of other authors. I wanted to know whether Greenwood was a first draft, no holds barred person. Or one who plots carefully not commiting a word to the page until she has it all worked out. I also wanted to know about the re- drafting process (here, is where you hear my own deep sigh).

“I find this a fascinating process. As my alter ego, Heather Pardoe, I write serials for magazines. There the story is set out and agreed, and I then write it instalment by instalment with little room for manoeuvre. When it comes to writing a novel, I usually have an idea of a setting, and I know the beginning and have an idea for the end, and generally have a focus for the story. I start with a sort of family tree of the interconnecting main characters linked around the setting. So I end up with a piece of paper with circles with names inside them, and with lines connecting one to the other. I usually can’t read any of it by the end, but I know where it is in my mind. I then draw up a rough timeline just to make sure mothers aren’t younger than their daughters and that sort of thing.

“I usually write the very first paragraph by hand, just to get going, then type straight onto the computer. I start off knowing exactly where I’m going. Then by the third paragraph I realise I need a new character to have a conversation with the heroine – who then has a family and a story of their own. And after that a whole host of characters muscle in from somewhere in the ether, and I’m off on a rollercoaster ride of discovery. For the first draft I tend to just go with the flow. I don’t revise. Characters change name, age, and even sex. I just keep going until I have the story. Mouse in We That Are Left was originally a male pilot. After two sentences I realised that was just a cliché and we all know where that one’s going. As I stomped off to walk my dog in frustration, Mouse appeared, out of the blue, and the story took on a whole new dimension.

“I finding it is the redrafting, once I’ve got the story down and know where it is going and who the characters are, that is the exhilarating stage where it all starts to come alive. I draft and re-draft, until I no longer know if the reader will make any sense of it at all. That’s where an editor comes in. Having the first outside view is terrifying, but also inspiring. I don’t always go with her suggestions, but I know in my guts when she is right, and I often find a solution that neither of us have come up with. It’s like having a mediator between you and the reader. It’s almost impossible for a writer to see the story from the outside. Having those bits points pointed out always inspires me to dig deep find a solution.”

What more is there to say, apart from adding a short, about the author blurb:

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

 

You can buy a hard copy of the her books through Honno. Or an eBook in all the usual places. Greenwood can be found on all the main social media channels. She blogs on the Novelistas site and at: julietgreenwoodauthor.wordpress.com

 

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