Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: books (Page 1 of 2)

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

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Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

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Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

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So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

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Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

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One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

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Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

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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. 🙂

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Blog twenty-seven o Gymru – completing the Howarth family circle

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I have blogged about Judith Barrow's books Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns in earlier posts. Imagine my pleasure therefore on visiting the Honno office in Aberystwyth to be given a reviewing copy of Barrow's latest book Living in the Shadows. Commencing during the Second World War, the first two novels told the story of the marvellously flawed Howarth family as they navigated the social and emotional landscape of wartime and post war Britain. This third book, set in 1969 and therefore not strictly an historical novel, is primarily told from the viewpoints of the original Howarth childrens' offspring, Victoria, Richard, William, Jacqueline and Linda. It brings the events put into motion during Pattern of Shadows to a shattering conclusion.

The setting of the story alternates between Ashford, a suburb on the edge of Manchester, and the fictitious (as far as I can tell) village of Llanroth in North Wales. Here are some of the things I liked about Living in the Shadows.

  • Meeting the same characters some eighteen years down the track
  • The way the old mill features in each of the novels
  • Getting a sense of how the war continued to shape people's lives in an ongoing sense
  • Especially in relation to people of German heritage living in post war Britian
  • An attempt to map changing perceptions in relation to gender roles and sexuality
  • Ditto the various reactions to rape and domestic violence
  • The detailed descriptions of sixties clothing and fashions (particularly Victoria's)

It is not an easy task for an author to skip some eighteen years and to pick up the story through thirteen (by my count) different points-of-view, about half of which are completely new, and to tell a story that follows a host of characters simultaneously and, at times, in different locations. Let alone to somehow make it work as a coherent whole. To meet this challenge, Barrow uses detailed chapter headings, giving us viewpoint characters' names, their location, day, date, and at times even the part of the day in which the action is set. She also employs the technique of introducing the character on a particular day and time and then telling what has happened in between by using flashback. Ordinarily, this would detract from the dramatic tension of the story as the reader already knows the character survived/coped/remained undetected (whatever the issue at stake) before the event actually happened. But with the enormous cast of viewpoints, storylines and locations, it is difficult to see how Barrow could have done it any other way. Although I hadn't read the earlier books for some time, I was able to easily identify the main characters and their back-stories without having to refer to the earlier installaments. Which means the story somehow worked in its own right. However, on another level, prior knowledge definitely made the book more satisfying to read. I would therefore recommend tackling this novel as part of a series, not as a single instalment.

In each of these novels, Barrow ends with her main characters living in Wales or heading back to Wales. A fact that I am acutely aware of as I approach my own return to Australia. Some of her Welsh characters use Welsh words though, I didn't get a clear sense of whether they spoke the language. Perhaps, this is an accurate depiction of being raised by parents from dros y ffin. Whether they did speak Welsh is, of course, irrelevant to the average reader and probably has no place in the story. But as I have a slight (cough) interest in the Welsh language, I wouldn't have minded knowing. Maybe Barrow will consider slipping me this piece of information? You know, just on the sly. 😉 I have absolutely no doubt that she knows the answer and could furnish me with a host of other background details about her characters. Perhaps, whilst she is at it, she could also reassure me that this will not be the last we hear of the Howarth family.

 

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Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

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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.

 

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Blog ten o Gymru – creative writing for Welsh learners

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At one stage, during a difficult phase in my life, I read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. The book is a little bit new-age-power-of-positive-thinking. But life was pretty tough and, in my desperation, I did every darn exercise in the book. One of which, was to set up a Wish File. An exercise I had all but forgotten, until I spent the weekend at Tŷ Newydd.

Tŷ Newydd, is a sixteenth century manor house in the North Wales village of Llanystumdwy. It was once the home of Lloyd George, a Welsh man, and incidentally the only British Prime Minister to ever speak the language. Twenty five years ago, Tŷ Newydd became the National Writers’ Centre for Wales. And for some reason, back in that wounded, struggling place, filled with false positivity, I stuck a picture of Tŷ Nweydd in my Wish File, along with the words:

Do a writing course here.

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Six years hence, I find myself living Wales and my days are no where near as difficult as they once were. So, when I saw an advertisement for: Ysgrifennu Creadigol i ddysgwr (creative writing for Welsh learners), at Tŷ Newydd, I knew it was time to make my wish come true.

The course was weekend course, completely in the Welsh language, with tutors Aled Lewis Evans and Bethan Gwanas. In our workshops we used childhood memories, postcards, and inanimate objects (such as flickering candles) as a stimulus for free writing. The writing exercises were familiar but, let me tell you, there was no absence of talent on the room and, as for the Welsh language, I had to paddle like a pup to keep my head above the water.

One of the writing exercises involved responding creatively to a piece of artwork and, because Aled, the tutor was a poet, I decided to break out of my comfort zone and try my hand at a bit of barddoniaeth (poetry). The result a rather basic piece (which is no doubt full of grammatical mistakes), of which I am ridiculously, new-mother proud.

The Widow’s House

Tŷ yn unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n sefyll ar ei ben ei hunan,

Lawr y bryn ar bwys yr afon,

Ble mae’r wlad yn priodi y mor.

 

Tŷ yn unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ tystio’r blyneddoedd hir,

Ysgythru straeon ar y wal,

Ble mae’r hen wraig yn fyw.

 

Tŷ yn. unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n gwylio y tymhorau heibio,

Cyrfri y tonnau ar y tywod,

Ble mae’r cwch yn trigio wag.

 

Tŷ n unig, tŷ tawel,

Tŷ sy’n clywed y dagrau gweddw,

Synth io ar y llwyd carreg llithrig,

bel mae ei gwr wedi boddi.

 

*

Lonely house, silent house,

Which stands by itself,

At the bottom of the hill by the river,

Where the old woman lives.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which witnesses the long years,

Etching stories on the wall,

Where the old woman lives.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which watches the seasons pass,

And counts the waves on the sand,

Where the boat stands empty.

 

Lonely house, silent house,

Which hears the widows tears,

Falling on the slippery grey rocks,

Where her husband drowned.

 
Cheerful? Not! Don’t blame me. Blame the artist. But isn’t the image striking? It hangs on the wall of the Tŷ Newydd library.

I drafted four more short prose pieces over the weekend and developed a character I hope to one day use in a novel. I also wrote and performed a short mock-radio drama with two other learners using the word plu (feathers) as a stimulus.

At times, the writing life can be so serious, the rewards so distant and unattainable. Writing in Welsh gave me a chance to play and experiment without seeking a measurable (or marketable) outcome which, incidentally, was also one of Julia Cameron’s recommendations. So, maybe some of that new-age-power-of-positive-thinking stuff has value. If nothing else, the exercise forced me to identify my desires. Which is the first step towards attainment. So, who knows? Some of my other wishes might also come true.

 

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Poldark – a post series reflection

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I didn’t watch the Poldark TV series in the 1970’s. But I’ve seen the DVDs at the library, looking somewhat dated and uninspiring. I have also turned the novels over in my hand and wondered whether I might enjoy them. They are Cornish and therefore Celtic, Cerynweg being a sister language to Cymraeg (Welsh). I’m also rather partial to a multi-book family saga. But … twelve novels represented a considerable emotional investment. I simply didn’t have the time. Until they were made into new TV series. Then, like every woman (and not a few men) in Australia, I had my evenings pinioned to the screen.

Comparing book to screen adaptations is one of my pastimes. I read Jennifer Worth’s, Call the Midwife, and enjoyed seeing her autobiographical musings turned into TV episodes, which were somehow true to their original form and yet also improved. More recently, I have been following the Outlander series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon. It was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the allure of Poldark too.

Written by Winston Graham, the author of forty two novels (yes, this could be a bigger emotional investment than first envisaged), the first Poldark novel was first published in 1945. It’s sequel Demelza Poldark followed in 1946. Graham wrote two further Poldark novels in the fifties. Not returning to the series again until the 1970’s, after which, he wrote the remaining eight novels. He finished the final instalment three years before his death in 2005. Let’s look at some additional series trivia:

  • Demelza is a Cornish word meaning ‘fort of Maeldaf. It was not used as a given name until the mid twentieth century.
  • Her character was partly based on Graham’s Cornish wife, Jean Williamson
  • Ross Poldark was conceived as Ross Polgreen but on reflection the name was not evocative enough
  • The name Poldark was born
  • His character was inspired by a fighter pilot Graham met on the train during World War Two
  • Upon their release in the U.S. The first two novels were edited and shortened by 12% and 14% respectively
  • These are the editions commonly read today
  • Yes, I’ve read Wikipedia too

Series one of the new TV adaptation is based on the first two Poldark novels with the sudden dramatic, cliff hanger ending, filched from from the beginning of the third book, Jeremy Poldark. The early books are written in an old fashioned, omniscient style with a great deal of narration, description and introspection that is somehow also strangely compelling. I have enjoyed seeing them successfully adapted for the screen. I particularly liked the short, succinct conversations between George and Cary Warllegan, the way scenes shifted back and forth in quick succession (easier done on TV than with prose), the use of scenery to convey mood and emotion, the tally board showing Jim Carter’s time in prison, the slow motion segments (particularly Ross carrying that tiny coffin), the costumes, the horseriding and, of course, the iconic coastal scenery.

I’m not sure how I would have felt about this adaptation had I read the books first. But from my TV first vantage point it seems the spirit of the novels has been preserved. Much of the original dialogue is also intact. Nevertheless, there are considerable differences. Here are some that stood out to me.

  • Ross is taller and not quite as sizzlingly handsome in the books (not that I’m complaining)
  • Demelza’s has dark hair and dark eyes
  • She is only thirteen when Ross finds her at the Redruth fair
  • Seventeen when Ross takes her into his bed
  • The first novel was divided into three book dated: October 1783 – April 1785, April-May, 1787, June-December 1787
  • The use of a child actor for the beginning of the TV series may have conveyed this time difference more effectively
  • Or it could have been icky
  • The second novel is also divided into three books but in my edition they aren’t dated
  • George Warllegan is not fatherless in the novels
  • Jinny does not get married because she is pregnant
  • The pilchard scene is not so egalitarian
  • The sub-plot involving Jinny and Reuben Clemmow is left out
  • The storm and Doctor Choakes’ neglect at Julia’s birth are glossed over
  • Jim Carters arrest and the entry to Bodmin gaol happen with less incident on TV
  • Doctor Enys is not previously known to Ross

I’m not obsessed with this series. But I have read up to the eighth novel. I’ve foresworn further reading until I’m on the airplane to the UK, however. I will be leaving home for five months. There are bound to be niggling doubts and a small dose of terror. Further instalments of Winston Graham’s delightful family saga will be a welcome distraction. Meanwhile, my husband has started galloping up and down the house on a broom in order to replicate Poldark on horseback. I’ve told him a tri-corn hat, a billowing linen shirt, and long black boots would improve his chances. 🙂

 

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Announcing the 2015 Reader Survey …. by M. K. Tod

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Writers and readers – a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader.


What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favourite reading blogs? These and other questions have been the subject of two previousreader surveys.

 

ANNOUNCING A 2015 READER SURVEYdesigned to solicit further input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favourite authors and, for the first time, favourite historical fiction. THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.

Highlights from previous surveys:

HISTORICAL FICTION IS MAINSTREAM: Less than 2% of participants said they rarely or never read historical fiction.

GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Women and men differ significantly in their reading habits and preferences and their views of historical fiction.

AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Those under 30 have different preferences for genre and time period 
and have different patterns of consumption and acquisition.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A BIG IMPACTON READING: Social media and online sites play an increasingly significant role for those choosing, purchasing, and talking about fiction.

BOOK BLOGS ARE VERY POPULAR: 1,473 participants listed one, two or three favourite blogs.

GEOGRAPHY: Responses to questions such as the use of online tools for recommendations and purchasing and preferred setting for historical fiction varied by geography.

PRICING: Sadly, readers are pushing for low prices. For example, 60% want e-books at $5.99 or less and 66% want paperbacks at $10.99 or less.

ONLINE BOOK CLUBS ARE GAINING POPULARITY: 21% belong to online clubs while 15% belong to clubs meeting in a physical location

VOLUME OF BOOKS READ MAKES A DIFFERENCE: for example, high volume readers have different expectations for book reviews, a higher interest in tracking their books, and higher usage of online tools and social media to augment their reading experience.


If you are a reader or a writer, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] withfriends and family and on your favourite social media. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year’s survey even more significant. Those who take the survey will be able to sign up to receive a summary report when it becomes available.


M. K. Tod

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Flint – a blood red tale by Margaret Redfern

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Having stumbled across Honno the Welsh women’s press and and devoured Margaret Redfern’s novel The storyteller’s granddaughter, I set out to find out what else this indpendant small press had published and, more to the point, what other books Redfern had written. To my delight, I learned that Redfern’s earlier book, Flint, had a narrative link to The Storyteller’s granddaughter and was in fact written from the point-of-view of ‘the storyteller’. I say linked, rather than calling Flint a sequel because although acting as a continuum, there is no direct set-up between the first and second books, leaving one with the impression the former was born as a single tale, The storyteller’s granddaughter springing from the ‘what ifs’ at the end of Flint, rather being established in the author’s mind from the outset.

Set in the reign of Edward 1, Flint, is told primarily through the first person point-of-view of eleven year old Will who, along with his brother and a group of men from the Lincolnshire Fens, has been recruited as a fossatore for Edward’s castle building schemes in Wales. We first meet Will, as an old man, remembering an event that occurred four years after the main action of the story. On this day, Will receives a token from his lost brother Ned, a token that convinces him Ned is dead. He invites us to sit down and listen to his tale.

“For four years, I kept a hope. But that day I knew he’d never be back and I’d never see him again. Well, there it is. All washed away, you might say. Can’t do any harm, now, to tell this story.

But where do I start? Wait. I’ll build up the fire. There’ll be frost tonight. And these rooms might be built out of good stone but they’re cold.”

Will’s narrative voices evokes a delightful innocence as the reader is drawn back into his eleven-year-old perspective. This innocence is skillfully seasoned with an age-old wisdom that only life-long reflection can bring. Interspersed throughout Will’s first person, retrospective viewpoint are snatches of flashback written in the third person. Through these flashbacks we see the fabric of a family mystery unfolding. If this sounds complicated, don’t be alarmed. Will is a storyteller. Once you fall under his spell the story carries you along.

In addition to being a family story, Flint is a history of conquest and, as such, makes a sobering read. Edward’s second Welsh war, marked the end of Wales’ independance. Anyone with a love for that small country, cannot fail to be affected by Redfern’s portrayal of Edward’s Norman might. Anyone who has delighted in Wales’ majestic countryside, cannot be unmoved by her descriptions.

“The sun was low in the sky as we came to Chester. It lay behind a bank of cloud, setting the whole sky ablaze.

‘Longshanks’ set fire to all of Wales,’ someone joked.

‘Or soaked it in blood,’ John Thatcher said.

The earth there is red, and the stone; and the walls of Chester were like red in the sky. We all fell silent.”

After I’d finished reading Flint, I re-read The storyteller’s granddaughter. I then read Flint all over again. I was left with an impression of the stories being ‘the same but not the same’ (to quote from the novels).

Each book is a travel tale, set among a group of individuals, each individual good, but not perfect, each one capable of love and also teachery, all caught up in complex historical events. Both Flint and The storyteller’s granddaughter are written from complicated viewpoints, each entirely different in its complexity, each appropriate to its story. At the heart of their sameness are the voices of the main characters – unique, evocative, surprising, yet, still believable. I finished each novel with a sense of having being initiated into the mysteries of life.

My sources tells me, Redfern is currently working on a third book based on the lives of the storyteller and his granddaughter. I look forward to seeing how she completes their journey.

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