Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novel review

HNSA 2107 – my subjective wrap-up

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

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

Friends

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

Involvement

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

 

Wagging

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

‘Oh, you’re not speaking English.’

‘No.’

‘What Language are you speaking?’

‘Welsh.’

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

The Next Step

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

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

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

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

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.

 

A review of Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns

I love a novel based on fairy tales. In fact, I may just have written one. My nineteenth century Aussie immigration tale having been hijacked by its Welsh storyteller. For surely the archetypes found in age-old tales have stood the test of time, many of them having been told in various guises around the world. The fairytale is storytelling in its most primeval form.

I wrote an article on this topic after reading Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Since then, my pleasure in her work has not diminished. I devoured The Beast’s Tale, set in Nazi Germany, and am I even now rubbing my satisfied belly after feasting on her latest work: Beauty in Thorns.

Here is what the Penguin website has to say about the novel:

A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Beauty in Thorns is written five parts – each starting with an excerpt from the Memorials of Edward Borne-Jones, which were written by the artist’s wife, Georgiana. Initially, this lead me to believe the novel would essentially be Georgie’s story (though in keeping with Forsyth’s other work there would be interconnecting story lines, which had their own arcs). However, after an opening chapter from the point-of-view of the youthful Georgie, we switch to the viewpoint of Lizzie Siddal, Gabriel Dante Rosetti’s tormented muse, mistress and eventual wife. We have a few intermittent chapters from Georgie’s viewpoint, sketching the growth of her relationship with Edward Burne-Jones from her childhood, to their eventual betrothal and inclusion in the pre-Raphaelite circle. Forsyth then sets up the historic competition for Rossetti’s affections by introducing Jane Burden. As we move through the various viewpoints – Lizzie, Jane, Georgie and eventually Burne-Jones’ daughter Margot, we begin to get a sense that although Georgiana’s life is the over arching beam of novel, Edward Burne-Jones’ celebrated Sleeping Beauty paintings, could not have occurred in isolation. They emerged from a complex web of relationships.

Forsyth takes us deep into the heart of Lizzie’s tragic relationship with Rosetti, Jane Burden’s unfulfilling marriage to William Morris and the resulting jealous insanities, Georgiana’s helpless misery as her own relationship is caught up in the passions of the pre-Raphaelite world and the confusion and disillusionment of a child born to such a world. Forsyth does not shy away from the fact that Lizzie and Jane were poor working class women plucked out obscurity by the artists’ obsessions. Spurned by polite society, they lived at the mercy of their patrons’. Siddal, who gained Ruskin’s patronage, had a chance to make her own way. But her tumultuous relationship Rossetti, ruined her health. Georgie, as a spurned wife, had no recourse in a court of law, no hope of keeping her children, no means of living independently. The subject matter of this novel is not for the faint hearted. At its heart of hearts, it is a deeply feminist novel.

Despite its subject matter Beauty in Thorns never quite becomes bleak – passionate, charged with emotion, insanity, jealousy, and heart break – but never bleak. For this is above all a novel about beauty. Forsyth’s prose gives as a tactile sense of that beauty:

It seemed to Janey that happiness was not a gift she had been given. Everything seemed to weigh on her more heavily than it did the others. Each evening, as she kissed her daughters goodnight, she feared she might not see them again. As if death’s sickle might cut their delicate thread.

As do her descriptions of the artworks themselves:

He was working on a design inspired by the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. A girl in a white night-gown lay on the bed, swirls of roses behind her. A peacock spread its gaudy tail on the far wall. The girl’s golden-red hair rippled out across the pillow On his knees beside her was a knight with long, dark curls, bending to kiss her.

Beneath the drawing were pasted the words in a flowing scroll, written in Tospy’s elegant scrawl. Of a certain prince who delivered a king’s daughter from a sleep of a hundred years, wherein she and all hers had been cast by enchantment.’

The next sketch showed the knight and the awakening maiden hurrying through the castle on their way to the wedding. The knight looked like a young Gabriel, while the glowing haired princess was the image of Lizzie before she grew so sick and sad.

With its magnificent descriptions and turbulent passions, Beauty in Thorns makes a magnificent read – sumptuous, well structured, captivating – the story behind  an iconic set of paintings. It takes the ordinary mire of women’s lives and illuminates them, giving us a sense of the bigger picture in all its tragedy and triumph, which must surely be the purpose of all good art  – and indeed fairy tales.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. Set in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel it is an historical coming-of-age tale about fairy tales and facing the truth.

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