Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novels society (Page 1 of 3)

Interview with Wendy J. Dunn author of Falling Pomegranate Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, Beatriz?” asked Josefa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tell us about your next project.

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

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

***

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

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

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

For more about her novels follow this link

Fools, Mortals and New Years Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tan y tro nesaf!

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

In flight entertainment – a review of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies

I boarded flight QF 9 to London with lofty intentions (I always do), reading journal articles about Welsh soldiers in the Hundred Years War as I waited to board our delayed flight. I even pulled out my battered paperback copy of Life on an English Manor and started making notes in the margins. But there is something mind numbing about a long-haul flight and after I woke from my first crick-necked sleep and realized there was nothing I fancied on the inflight entertainment, I gave myself over to the pleasures of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies.

Set at the turn of the century, on the eve of Australia’s Federation, Berylda Jones has passed her first year at Sydney University with flying colours. She is returning to the home of her despised uncle Alec for Christmas. Meanwhile, botanist, Ben Wilbery, fulfills his mother’s dying wish by heading to Bathurst in search of a rare wildflower. Perpetually awkward with women, Ben is enraptured on meeting Berylda and agrees to accompany her on a journey to the old gold rush town of Hill End, little realizing the excursion is part of a desperate plan to free her sister from their guardian’s sadistic clutches

“How odd, it’s no man I have ever seen before, here or anywhere, yet there is something strangely familiar about him. Long flaxen hair like a traveling minstrel, tweed britches and a haversack, he’s travelled of the pages of some great, strapping Walter Scott adventure and up to our yard.”…

… “I lose my way on the words as I look back at the girl and see she is not a girl at all but a young woman, compactly made. She is wearing a blue dress, a blue gown; she is a piece of the sky drifted down onto this chocolate box verandah.”

Inspired by the misogyny experienced during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Paper Daisies is a mesmerizingly meditative novel about the powerless of women that is set against the backdrop of the early Australian struggle for women’s franchise. Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Berylda and Ben, Kelly manages to capture the male-dominated political atmosphere of rural Australia, the violence and abuse against women that ofttimes went unchecked and the courage of those who fought to overcome their desperate situations. The relationship between Ben and Berylda is a necessary silver thread against the dark subject matter of this novel yet despite its tenderness the narrative is never in danger of becoming a tale of about a man rescuing a woman.

Once embarked on this novel, I couldn’t stop its pages from turning. Though I did allow myself a few writerly sighs of envy at the fiercely drawn characterization, the unique viewpoint voices and the delightful freshness of Kelly’s prose. As we begin our descent into Heathrow, I can honestly say that the hours spent on this flight have not been wasted, even if I did not fulfill my lofty intentions. I am also painfully aware that as a writer I have a long way to go.

Okay so this is getting real – an author interview and a photo shoot

Round Table Discaussion

Two important things happened last week. First, I was included in a historical fiction round table discussion on Sophie Schiller’s blog. If you take time to read the discussion – and it is well worth a read – you will notice two things. 

Firstly, only one male writer was interviewed. This is not a matter of discrimination (the participants were largely voluntary) so much as a reflection of who is reading and writing historical fiction. Women. Certainly a quick perusal of the Historical Novels Society membership list would bear this out. Yet, women writers are consistently under reviewed. Interviews like Sophie’s help correct the imbalance. Yay, Sophie!

The second thing you’ll notice if you read the interview is that I am the only author on the list who has not yet had a full length work published. So, like, I was so lucky to be included. Reading back over the interview, I could have answered some questions differently. Bit mostly, I think it went okay. If you have time, click on the link and let me know. 

Photo shoot

As a consequence of the round table discussion, I had a note from my publisher. Actually, hang on a sec, let’s just pause and reapeat those words. I had a note from my publisher 🙂 🙂 🙂 saying I would need a bigger (as in pixels) photo for future publicity. She was right. I knew this to be true. As my current headshot is a cropped photo taken at our son’s wedding with my husband’s head artfully removed. Oops! 

Fortunately, our daughter houseshares with a photographer, Anthony Cleave, and as Anthony took our family photo at Christmas time, I had already seen his work. An added bonus was that he was happy to do the shoot at my house. Added to which, my daughter Priya decided to come along for the ride. This made the whole event pretty relaxed with Priya telling me I needed a necklace and fluffing up my hair and generally making me laugh. We had some silly moments.

   

 

Four hours later, I received seven digital photos through Onefile. I posted them to our family Viber group for a vote. This is the one we decided on.

 

 

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

Having grown up in South Australia on a surfeit of Colin Thiele novels and having endured too many bleak windy drives along the Coorong, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek wasn’t initially appealing. In fact, I returned it to the library unread on that unsound basis. A few days later, however, when discussing my desire to find a recently written, Australian historical fiction coming-of-age novel (to be absolutely specific), I decided that decision needed to be re-visited. ‘It is nothing like Storm Boy,’ my friend assured me, ‘and it may well have the coming-of-age elements you are looking for.’

Set in the 1850’s the majority of Salt Creek’s narrative takes the from an extended flashback written from the first person viewpoint of fifteen-year-old, Hester Finch, as she and her family struggle to recover debts by attempting to farm the isolated, sandy reaches of the Corrong. As the family seek to make their peace with their reduced situation and the demands of their primitive location, they come into contact with mixed race aboriginal boy Tully. In line with Hester’s father’s seemingly enlightened principles, the family attempt to civilize the local Ngarrimderji. But when tragedies strike and events spiral out of control the true character of their ‘civilizing principles are exposed.

On the surface, this book may sound not unlike many other early Australian revisionist narratives that are being written in a much needed attempt to scrape away the white-washed veneer of Australia’s colonial past. However, to put this book in a more-of-the-same category would be mistake because, despite the familiar issues, it is fresh, interesting and unsurpassed on a number of levels.

Voice

Hester Finch’s looking-back-on-her-youth voice is unique and distinctive. We get a sense that she is at once young and old. Although the the main action in the book starts quite slowly, and there are some passages where the narrative seems to lose direction and become a little too detailed, we get a sense that Hester can be trusted. That this interesting, intelligent, unorthodox young woman will not waste our time telling a story of no consequence. Here is how she introduces the innocent character around which the plot of the novel turns:

‘Tull was already quite tall and narrow. He was no one in particular to us and over some months it was as if he were resolving under Fred’s microscope, until he was part of us and moving among us. A remarkable person: he altered our course, not only on the Coorong, but for always.’

Prose

Treloar’s prose is simple and unlaboured. But it has a quiet beauty that made the writer inside me weep with envy.

‘Her skin took the sun, turning dusky, and her eyes were pale as a calm sea close to shore, like the sea glass I found one day among the shells. Who knew where it had come from or where it had been? I also kept a piece of driftwood, which was differently transformed. It had turned to silk and weighed nothing at all. When I stroked it against my cheek it was like the touch of another.’

Characterization

Hester, her parents and siblings are all delightfully non-cliche both in their appearance and interests. Added to which, Treloar uses their spectrum of responses to the Ngarrindjeri people to add nuance to the homogenized view we are often given of frontier society. Her characterization of the aboriginal boy Tully is the triumph of the novel. Tully is at home in his original culture and increasingly with the Finch family, joining the children in their lessons, learning chess and reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His dialogue is refreshingly clear of awkward pidgin English attempts to show that he is a second language speaker, Treloar preferring to show this by an occasional search for unfamiliar words. When he froms an attachment for which he is eminently suitable – hard working, knowledgeable, intelligent, tender – apart from the  matter of his skin colour, we feel the sting of injustice.

Dialogue

The final wow factor of this novel is its dialogue. I’m hard pressed to find a single example as it generally flows gently out of the prose and slips back into the stream of introspection without a ripple, giving us tiny unexpected glimpses of character and theme at every turn.

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

‘No. They make us sick. Boys, like me. Men can eat them. Other things too, some animals.’

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘We have so many rules I can’t remember them all. About manners and clothes and respect. People may not kill other people, or take things from them. That is stealing. We may not steal. And other things too.’

‘Take what?’

‘Well, cattle – kill and eat them that is. And we may not take your possessions.’ I could not think what they had that we might wish for. One black had a shell necklace that I admired. I had heard people in Adelaide liked the carvings on their weapons and collected them. ‘Your spears and clubs for instance. But you can sell them, if you like.’

‘Fish? Kangaroos? You kill and eat them?’

‘They are wild. They are on our land, but you may eat them Papa says.’

 

 

Since publication, Salt Creek has received wide acclaim and, having overcome my post traumatic experience of sitting in Mrs Morphett’s grade four classroom listening to my classmates taking turns to massacre Colin Thiele’s prose, I can heartily recommend it. Salt Creek is a novel that sits way above the ordinary. And as Lucy Treloar will be one of the speakers at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in September, I can look forward to hearing all about her writing journey.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

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

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.

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

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.

Historic elections and women’s suffrage – a review of Juliette Greenwood’s The White Camelia

This week we have witnessed an historic election. For the first time, we faced the heady prospect of a woman president of the United States. I am disappointed that day did not dawn, as are many around the globe. But it will. One Day. Nothing is more certain.

One of the more shocking aspects of watching the American election campaign unfold (apart from violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and bigotry becoming normalised) was the Wear White to Vote movement. Seeing the image of a women strutting up to the polling booth in a white pantsuit brought the horrifyingly, recent never-take-it-for-grantedness of women’s franchise home to me. You see, I have never known a world in which I could not vote. In my grandmother’s day (yes, recently as that) these rights would have been denied me. It seems appropriate therefore in the wake of this tumultuous week, that we cast our eyes back to the women who made this breakthrough possible.

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Fortunately, for me this has been easy. I had a copy of Juliette Greenwood’s, The White Camelia, on my reading pile. An historical novel depicting the struggles of the suffrage movement, which is, incidentally, published by Gwasg Honno a Welsh feminist press that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in publishing. An all round excellent reason to part with your hard earned cash.

Set in 1909, The White Camellia tells the story of two women whose lives are linked by, Tressillion, a decaying Cornish estate, their connection through The White Camellia Tearooms and The Suffrage League of Women Artists and Journalists. Both the tearooms and the League are fictitious, Greenwood tells us, but they firmly are based on “the many ladies’ tearooms and suffrage movements that gave women their first taste of independence and allowed them to campaign over decades to improve women’s lives.” And although you may have seen Suffragette you will be shocked by the brutal sexism these women encountered.

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If reading about a book about the suffrage movement, which has been published by a feminist press, is not enough to send you clicking over to your favourite online bookstore, the Cornish setting of this novel may tip the balance (yes, Australia is still caught in Poldark fever). For as well as being a novel about women’s franchise, The White Camellia is also a story of family secrets. Of the successful business woman Sybil, whose links to the Tressillion estates are long and bitter and of, Bea, a younger daughter of Tresillion House, who is being forced by tragedy and economic circumstance into marrying a cousin who has little regard for her. The story is told from their roughly interchanging viewpoints and has a cast of excellent Welsh supporting characters — Madoc, Harri, Olwen, and Gwenllian. As the family story unfolds and the abandoned Tressillion mine whispers the promise of gold, a violent train is set in motion, one that threatens the interconnected lives of the women whose lives have been empowered by The White Camellia Tearooms.

This is an eminently readable book and has the happenstance of being not only historical but so very current. Why not buy a copy, read about the struggle, and then go to bed dreaming about a future in which a woman will be elected president of the United States.

Hwyl am y tro!

 

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