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A Conspiracy of Inspiration: The Historial Novel Society conference 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017



In early September, I was lucky enough to attend the second conference of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, held in chilly Melbourne. For those of you who were unable to attend, here is the brief speech I made to welcome all the attendees,

The Historical Novel Society is an international organisation that was founded in 1997 to celebrate fiction of all kinds set in the past. The Australasian branch of the society was formally established in 2014, and I am very proud to be its patron.

In our auditorium today, we have some of Australia’s most celebrated and respected authors, working in all genres and all-time frames. Their stories are variously powerful and poignant, sexy and surprising, illuminating and inspiring.

As the weekend passes, they will be asked all sorts of questions and yet I can guarantee the one they dread the most is: Where do you get your ideas from?

My books have been inspired in all kinds of different ways.

A story my grandmother once told me about a bloodstain that can never be scrubbed away.

A charm bracelet passed down through generations of women. 

A raven that dropped a feather at my feet. 

A book that fell open on an unexpected page.

A story that haunted me for a lifetime.

A dream, a day-dream, a painting, an apparition.

Inspiration cannot be manufactured or manipulated. It comes like a bolt out of the blue, or like a whisper in the darkness. I call it ‘the flash’, which is what Emily of New Moon called it, in a beloved series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.


The word ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin ‘in-spirae’ which means ‘to breathe into’, as a shepherd might breathe life into a newborn lamb, as a god might breathe life into a statue of clay. Its root word is ‘spiritus’, which means breath, spirit, courage. Other words that arose from the same root included perspiration, respiration, aspiration and – surprisingly – conspiracy, which means to breathe together. 

To be inspired is to be filled with courage and grace, to be given an idea or purpose, to be animated with the breath of life.

And so I hope that all of us today can join together in a conspiracy of inspiration – as Mary Oliver writes, ‘Breathe it all in, Love it all out!’

Thank you.



BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Wednesday, September 06, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

My Thoughts:


"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one."


This chilling children’s playground rhyme was inspired by the true-life story of Lizzie Borden, who was – in 1892 - tried but then acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The case was never solved, and still continues to interest more than a hundred years after the event.

Sarah Schmidt says that she was inspired to write Look What I Have Done after Lizzie Borden came to her in a dream. I’m always fascinated by novels inspired by dreams, as so many of my own books begin in this way, and so I was eager to read her take on the well-known story.

The novel is told in alternating first-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget, and a loutish young man who seems to have been hired by the sisters’ maternal uncle to hurt or attack their father in some way. None of the voices seem particularly reliable, and so it is hard to ascertain the truth of what has happened. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic and cloying, with many descriptions of the stench of rotting meat and over-ripe pears. Lizzie’s voice is awkward and childish and gleeful in turns, and – although Sarah Schmidt does not attempt to answer the question of who was truly the murderer – by the end of the book, I felt sure that it was Lizzie and that her acquittal was a miscarriage of justice.

For another wonderfully eerie, historical mystery check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecila Ekback.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!


BOOK REVIEW: Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman

Friday, September 01, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A story about love, motherhood, and learning whom you belong to in the world.

In 1874, wild and willful Agnes Resolute finally leaves the foundling home where she grew up on the bleak moors of northern England. On her departure, she discovers that she was abandoned with a small token of her mother: a unicorn button. Agnes had always believed her mother to be too poor to keep her, but Agnes has been working as a laundress at the foundling home and recognises the button as belonging to the imperious and beautiful Genevieve Breakby, daughter of a local noble family. Agnes had only seen her once, but has never forgotten her. She investigates and discovers Genevieve is now in London. Agnes follows, living hard in the poor end of London until she finds out Genevieve has moved to France.

This sets Agnes off on her own adventure: to Paris, Agnes follows her mother's trail, and starts to see it is also a trail of destruction. Finally, in Sydney she tracks Genevieve down. But is Genevieve capable of being the mother Agnes hopes she will be?

A powerful story about women with indomitable spirits, about love and motherhood, and about learning whom you belong to in the world.


My Thoughts:


A new book by Kimberly Freeman is always a must-buy for me. I just love the way that she combines romance, adventure, and family drama, with two stories in different historical periods weaving together in a deeply satisfying way.

The primary narrative in Stars Across the Ocean is the story of a foundling-child Agnes Resolute (named for a ship) who sets out on a quest to find her real mother in the late 1870s. All she has to guide her is a small silver button with a rearing unicorn engraved upon it. She discovers the button once belonged to Genevieve Breakby, the beautiful and wilful daughter of a local noble family. Agnes follows a series of tiny clues that lead her first to London, then Paris, then across the ocean to Ceylon. Indomitable, brave, and as resolute as the ship she is named for, Agnes refuses to give up despite hardships, loss and the growing fear that perhaps her mother is not as she imagined her to be …

Meanwhile, in modern-day London, Victoria is struggling with her own problems, including a troubled relationship with her husband and a mother who is struggling with Alzheimer’s.

The two stories echo each other in interesting ways across the century that separates them, in a beautiful novel about mothers and daughters and finding one’s place in the world.

Click here to read an interview with Kimberley Freeman.

Please write me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Thursday, August 31, 2017

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns




BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.



Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:




Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.






Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.
                                                



Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.





Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK REVIEW: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Wednesday, August 30, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

My Thoughts:

A memoir about life as a female boffin, melded with fascinating facts about trees and botany, this is an unusual but very readable book. Both funny and poignant, the book charts Hope Jahren’s journey through the cut-throat world of scientists, and her joy in the secret world of trees. She charts her friendships and love affairs, her battle with bi-polar disorder, her muddles and mistakes, and her profound insights into the natural world. Her writing is at times lyrical, and her enthusiasm for botany is infectious. A clever, quirky, and informative book about why we should love and protect the world’s trees.

You might interested in my review of another non-fiction, beautiful book, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

Please remember to leave a comment - I'm interested in your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Traitor's Girl by Christine Wells

Friday, August 25, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

'I think I'm in danger. It's a matter of some urgency. You must please come at once.'

After receiving a mysterious summons from her long-lost grandmother, Australian teacher Annabel Logan agrees to visit her home in the Cotswolds. But when she arrives at the magnificent Beechwood Hall, it appears abandoned and the local villagers have no idea where the reclusive Caroline Banks might be.

The one person who might know something is enigmatic journalist Simon Colepeper. He reveals that Carrie became a spy and agent provocateur for MI5 during the Second World War. But when British intelligence failed to investigate a dangerous traitor, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Concerned that her grandmother's secret past has caught up with her, Annabel stays on to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more difficult it becomes to know who to trust. There are strange incidents occurring at Beechwood and Annabel must use all her ingenuity and daring to find Carrie before it's too late.

From the streets of Seville, Paris and London in the thirties and forties, to the modern English countryside, The Traitor's Girl is a captivating story of passion, intrigue and betrayal.

My Thoughts:

Another gorgeous cover & intriguing title made me very keen to read Christine Wells’s new book, The Traitor’s Girl, which moves between contemporary times and war-torn London in the 30s. I love novels with dual timelines, and really enjoyed Christine Wells’s earlier book, The Wife’s Tale. I also love books about female spies and resistance fighters, so this was always going to appeal to me.

Annabel Logan thinks she has no family, but one day hears from her long-lost grandmother begging for her help as she fears she is in danger. Annabel drops everything and rushes to Beechwood Manor, her grandmother’s old manor house in the Cotswolds. However, her grandmother is nowhere to be found and there are signs of a violent break-in. With the help of a handsome journalist, Simon, Annabel sets out to discover what has happened. She discovers that her grandmother was once a spy for MI5 during the Second World War, but that she was somehow betrayed and imprisoned.

Suspecting that the grandmother’s past may have something to do with her disappearance, Annabel races against time to learn her secrets and try and solve the mystery. Lots of intrigue, passion and betrayals made for a riveting read. The pages just seemed to turn themselves!

You can see my review of The Wife's Tale here. 

And to read my 2016 interview with Christine Wells, click here.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Thoughts:

A wonderful, magical novel set in a snow-bound village in medieval Muscovy and drawing upon old Russian fairy tales, The Bear & the Nightingale is a brilliant debut from Katherine Arden.

The heroine of the tale is a young strong-willed woman named Vasya whose mother has passed on to her certain magical abilities, such as being able to see and converse with the magical spirits of the household. When her father remarries a devout Christian woman, and a new priest begins to preach against the old beliefs, Vasya finds herself the only one who can protect her home from the gathering forces of darkness.

I loved the Russian landscape, with its bitter cold winds and dark impenetrable forests, and the small details of medieval Russian life like the grandmother and children sleeping on top of the clay oven to stay warm. I also loved Katherine Arden’s pure, lyrical writing style. Apparently she is writing another book set in the same world. I cannot wait!

If you're interested in fairy tale retellings, check out this list of some of my favourites.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester

Friday, August 18, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines – and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

My Thoughts:

Natasha Lester is an Australian writer based in Perth, and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is her first foray into historical fiction, after two contemporary tales published by Fremantle Press.

I was irresistibly drawn to her book by its gorgeous cover and the promise of its title, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald. I love books set in the 1920s, which was such a heady period of glamour and new freedoms. And I was intrigued by the premise: the heroine, Evelyn, is determined to become an obstetrician, at a time when women were rarely permitted to study medicine. To support herself, Evelyn becomes a dancer for the Ziegfield Follies.

The book didn’t let me down. Evelyn’s story is full of drama, heartbreak and determination, and the setting of Manhattan in the early ‘20s is brought to glorious vivid life. I particularly loved the scenes when Evelyn was fighting to be allowed to study medicine – they rang really true for me. I’m keen now to read Natasha Lester’s new book, Her Mother’s Secret.

If you love historical fiction you might also like to read my review of one of my all-time favourite books, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.

Please leave a comment - I love to hear your thoughts!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: Why We Must Always Resist

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We live in soul-harrowing times.

So much anxiety, so much terror. Sometimes I feel as if my heart is being broken every time I watch the news. Hatred, violence, bigotry and sadism seem to dominate our news screens and streams.  I fear for my children and for our world.



This photo of the recent events in Charlottesville comes from VOX


A few years ago, I wrote a novel set in the underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany.  

I spent months researching World War II, its causes and consequences, its horror and heroism. I had been fascinated by the period ever since I was a little girl and read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' for the first time. As I grew up, I read many hundreds of books about resistance and defiance and have long wanted to write one. At last this desire became urgent. It is important, I thought, to remember the past so we can do not make the same terrible mistakes again.  

The whole time I was writing 'The Beast's Garden', I kept thinking to myself - what would I do if it was me? 




My heroine Ava is not sent to spy school or taught how to shoot a machine gun. She is just an ordinary young woman, living in extraordinary times. She lives with her father and her sisters, she wants to be a singer, she hopes one day to fall in love. But Ava lives in Berlin in 1938. The German people had just voted Hitler into power, hoping he will make good on his promises of more work and new political stability. Many people think Hitler is just a clown, or a bumbling fool. Sure, he shouts a lot and his followers seem like thugs. But how much harm could one man do?   

What awful irony.

The Beast's Garden begins on Kristallnacht with the words: "Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world."

It is a novel about the importance of courage and resistance, and the importance of kindness and compassion. It tells the true and largely untold story of the German underground resistance who paid for their defiance with their lives.  

I hope that none of us ever have to see the kind of darkness and horror that saw Anne Frank die in a concentration camp.

My writing of The Beast's Garden  was, in a way, a call to arms. Please, let us all stand up against hatred and bigotry and racism and cruelty in every way we can. Let's write and create art and protest and point out the terrible mistakes of the past again and again, until we learn from them. Please.



Want to read more?

How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance 


The Diary of Anne Frank, a book that changed my life


SPOTLIGHT: The Women of the German Resistance


THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sometimes a book can change your life.


The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 


I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank


I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 


I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.


Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 


The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 


The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 


In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 


Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 


While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 


I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 


The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 


I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  


My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 


That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.


That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 


I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 


You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


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