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INTERVIEW: Jaclyn Moriarty, author of 'A Corner of White'

Friday, November 16, 2012

I absolutely loved Jaclyn Moriarty's new book, 'A Corner of White' and so, as always, I wanted to know more about it. 

Jaci kindly agreed to do an interview with me. Here are her answers:

Are you a daydreamer too?

I daydream so much that I am always either lost or bumping into something. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
From the age of six. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Perth, WA, but my family moved back to Sydney when I was two so I grew up here.  I’ve lived in the US, England and Canada, and now I’m back in Sydney.  I like to see the ocean from a window, read all night, eat pancakes in my pyjamas, bake chocolate cakes, skate on frozen lakes, talk all night, and dance in the living room with my six-year-old, Charlie.  (I only really like that last one for the first few minutes: after that, Charlie changes the music, or makes me pick him up and spin him around which hurts my back, or tries to switch things to a game of musical bumps, which I have to say is not a game I enjoy.) 

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for 'A Corner of White' ?
A friend gave me the nickname The Princess KuKu Nightie.  I decided I wanted to write a story about that princess.  Years later, I drew pictures of a kingdom called Cello, where the princess could live.  The princess herself ended up on the cutting room floor, and luckily, so did the nickname. 

Tell me about how you came to use colours as a key part of the book?
I was working in a café one day when a friend stopped by.  I told him I was writing about the Kingdom of Cello. ‘Okay, so what are your monsters?’ he said. ‘You can’t have a Kingdom without monsters.’  (He’s a filmmaker and had just made a horror movie.) I always used coloured textas and pencils when I’m working so these were scattered over the table.  The monsters are colours, I said.  

Did colours come first, or Newton?
After I’d decided to make colours into monsters, I read about the science of colour and light.  That led me to Isaac Newton, and the story of him buying a glass prism at a marketplace and using it to split a beam of sunlight into colour.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Well, I’d already decided to set the book in Cambridge, England, and particularly in Trinity College, Cambridge.  When I got interested in Isaac Newton I discovered he’d been at Trinity, Cambridge.  I chose some other random famous people who’d also been at Trinity, and unexpected connections started emerging between them.   

How extensively do you plan your novels?
For my first novel, 'Feeling Sorry for Celia', I had a one-page plan and did no research at all, except to check some facts along the way.  For this book I had a 150-page plan and 30 folders of research material.
Sometimes I miss writing the old way, and when I finish this trilogy I want to write an entire novel without a word of planning. 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not so much dreams as not-quite-sleeping.  Ideas come to me when I’m falling toward sleep, or listening to music.  The whole plot of 'Finding Cassie Crazy' came to me while I was half-asleep and listening to a Placebo album. 
Oh, wait.  I just remembered that I dreamed about the essence of sadness the other night.  I used that in a description of my character’s bad day.   

Where do you write, and when?
After I take Charlie to school I walk to a local café and write ideas or plot chapters in a notebook for about an hour.  Then I come home and work in my study until it’s time to collect Charlie from school at 2.55 pm.  Most days the writing goes nowhere until 2.50 pm when it finally starts working.   So I get in 5 minutes of writing a day. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
The planning phase, before I start writing, when it feels like it’s perfectly possible that I’m just about to write a masterpiece, and I’m spending whole days in cafes drawing pictures and I can’t believe this is my job.  Also, the final third of the book, after I’ve spent months dragging some huge disaster of a book up the side of a mountain and thinking, I can’t believe this is my job,  and then, finally, it’s sort of coming together and I get to toboggan down the other side.   

What do you do when you get blocked?
Eat too much chocolate.  Run up and down a flight of stairs.  Drink a lot of water.  Cry.   Read poetry. 
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Reading poetry and science.  Talking to people in unexpected places who do unexpected things. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I can’t write without having a blue bowl of fruit and chocolate on my desk beside me.  

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Elizabeth McCracken, Lorrie Moore, Lisa Moore, Edith esbit, Diana Wynne-Jones, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Louis Sachar, John Marsden, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Jane Austen, Carol Shields, Charles Bukowsi, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Rachel Cohn.  I think I stopped counting sorry. 

Diana Wynne Jones, also one of my favourite writers

What do you consider to be good writing?
When the characters keep chatting to me even when I’m not reading the book. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t feel like you have to write a novel right away, and don’t be mad at yourself if your stories keep stalling and you find yourself starting something new.  Write as many quarter stories in as many different genres as you like, until one catches hold of you and makes you want to take it to the end. 

What are you working on now?
The sequel to 'A Corner of White'.  Its working title is 'The Cracks in the Kingdom'. 

If you enjoyed this, check out my interviews with Michael Pryor and Jesse Blackadder

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

BOOK REVIEW: 'A Corner of White' by Jaclyn Moriarty

Monday, November 12, 2012

Title: A Corner of White
Author: Jaclyn Moriarty 
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Age Group & Genre:  YA fantasy/magic realism

The Blurb:
Madeleine Tully lives in Cambridge, England, the World – a city of spires, Isaac Newton and Auntie’s Tea Shop.

Elliot Baranski lives in Bonfire, the Farms, the Kingdom of Cello – where seasons roam, the Butterfly Child sleeps in a glass jar, and bells warn of attacks from dangerous Colours.

They are worlds apart – until a crack opens up between them; a corner of white – the slim seam of a letter.

A mesmerising story of two worlds; the cracks between them, the science that binds them and the colours that infuse them.

What I Think: 
I often tweet about a book while I’m reading it.

My tweets about ‘A Corner of White’ include ‘extraordinary, beautiful, startling’; ‘one of the most original and unusual books I’ve read in a long time’; and ‘I’m in awe’. 

It is certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read.

‘A Corner of White’ is basically a story about parallel words – our own familiar world - and another far different and yet strangely familiar place, the Kingdom of Cello.

A crack opens up between these two worlds, and a letter slips through. Madeleine, a teenage girl living in Cambridge, finds the letter and writes back … thinking her correspondent is just a boy with a vivid imagination. She does not realise that Elliot’s letters describe a real place …

Both Madeleine and Elliot are suffering loss and confusion and the pangs of first love.

Both Madeleine and Elliott feel very alone.

Their letters build a bridge between them and their world, and, in strange and unexpected ways, help each other make sense of the mysteries of their lives. 

Jaclyn Moriarty has always had a quirky, wryly humorous style, but in ‘A Corner of White’ she reaches new heights of lyricism. There were some lines which sung with such truth and beauty that I wanted to learn them by heart.

Here’s just one:

'She felt the stars were folding into her chest; those sharp, shining, agitated pieces of excitement were stars'. 

Such a perfect sentence, saying so much with so little.

I do have to say that ‘A Corner of White’ is a difficult book to categorise. 

Although the secondary world makes it a fantasy novel, the book is without most of the trappings that we usually associate with fantasy. There are no quests, or magical beasts, or battles between good and evil. The secondary world is remarkably humdrum – despite waves of colours that sweep over the land and cause havoc with people’s emotions, and despite such extraordinary magical touches as the Butterfly Child, who brings luck to anyone who catches her.

Similarly, our own world is infused with strangeness and magic. There are troubling absences, inexplicable coincidences, and odd disruptions to what we would consider normal. 

Because the book is truly concerned with the inner lives of its two protagonists, I’d call it ‘magic realism’ rather than fantasy – yet it is so fantastical, so filled with a sense of the strange and the impossible, that it really blurs the boundaries of magic realism as well. 

I think Jaclyn may have invented a whole new genre. Fantastical magic realism, perhaps? 

Or maybe magic unrealism?

Either way, ‘A Corner of White’ is quite simply one of the most astonishingly original books I’ve ever read. I loved it!


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Earlier this week, trying to define the new book by Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty, I called it fantastical magic realism. 

Although ‘A Corner of White’ was set in both our world and an imaginary secondary world, a common trope of fantasy fiction, it was not really fantasy, I said, partly because, ‘the book is truly concerned with the inner lives of its two protagonists.’ 

A few people have challenged me on that, asking ‘what exactly IS magic realism, then?’

Being a brave soul, I thought I’d try, at least, to express what I think it’s all about. 

Magic realism is, I think, a genre of fiction set in our own world, in which strange, uncanny, or magical things happen in the midst of everyday events. The protagonists do not change their world, as is the case in most fantasy novels; rather, they themselves are changed as a consequence of the magic. The line between real and unreal, possible and impossible, is blurred. Life is shown to be filled with mystery and the inexplicable.

Here is one quote I found that I like, by the Mexican-American writer, Luis Leal:

‘In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.’

A few books that I have read and loved, and that I would call ‘magic realism’:

'House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende 

'Like Water for Chocolate' by Laura Esquivel 

'Garden Spells' by Sarah Addison Allen 

'Love in the Time of Cholera ' by Gabriel García Márquez 

'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern 

'The Time Traveler's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger 

'Chocolat' by Joanne Harris 

'Practical Magic' by Alice Hoffman 

'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón 

'The Snow Child' by Eowyn Ivey 

INTERVIEW: Juliet Marillier, author of 'Flame of Sevenwaters'

Friday, November 09, 2012

There are only a few authors in the world that - when I hear they have a new book out - I get all excited . 

Juliet Marillier is one of those authors. I have read every word she has ever written and loved every single one of them. Her books are an enchanting mixture of history, romance, and magic. As filled with wonder and danger and wisdom as any fairy tale, her novels always, always, leave me wanting to be a better person. Her heroines are brave and tender-hearted and capable of great love, all the things I want to be - yet they are still real people, with flaws and struggles and failures.

If you have not yet discovered  Juliet Marillier, I suggest you start with 'Daughter of the Forest', one of my favourite books of all time and a retelling of 'Six Swans', one of my favourite fairy tales. It is the first in a series of six books, each centred on a member of the family which lives at Sevenwaters, a house in Dark Ages Ireland set in the midst of a great forest in which many mysterious and magical creatures lurk. 

The latest is the series is 'Flame of Sevenwaters', released this week (you can read my review below). 

To celebrate its launch, Juliet has agreed to meet with me and chat (in cyper-space, unfortunately, as she lives in Perth and I live in Sydney):

Are you a daydreamer too?
I’ve been a daydreamer since I was a small girl devouring books of fairy tales! I find it easy to slip into worlds of the imagination, and am constantly surprised – often delighted - by what I find there. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not consciously, though I’ve been writing stories since I could hold the pencil and more or less spell the words. I went through a dinosaurs-and-killer-robots stage, then there were sagas about mountaineers and assassins, and some early attempts at fantasy set in a vaguely medieval world. All before the age of 14 or so. But I went on to study music and to work in various other fields. I returned to what was probably my true calling as a writer much later in life.
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born and grew up in Dunedin, New Zealand, which is the most Scottish city outside Scotland itself. I currently live in a riverside suburb of Perth in Western Australia, and my household consists of me and four dogs. That probably answers the third part – I am passionate about animal rescue and I foster dogs for a local rescue group, though the four I mentioned are all permanent residents. I also like gardening, reading and knitting. And playing with my grandchildren, two of whom live fairly close by.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
'Flame of Sevenwaters' is the sixth and probably final instalment in the Sevenwaters series. It combines an over-arching story line that began in 'Heir to Sevenwaters', about the struggle of Lord Sean and his family with a dark prince of the Otherworld, and a stand-alone, ‘one-book’ story. I had already decided the story would be narrated by Sean’s daughter Maeve, who appeared as a child in an earlier book. Maeve has a significant disability – severe burns have left her with permanently stiff, clawed hands. In this story she has to step up as an action hero, which meant I needed to work out just what she could and couldn’t do, keeping things plausible for her time and culture and her condition. I needed to give her qualities that made her a real protagonist, not a victim of her past ill fortune. That’s where the flash of inspiration came in: I was, at the time, working with my rescue dog Harry in formal obedience training, so I was learning a lot about the relationship between a dog and its handler. When we met her in 'Child of the Prophecy', Maeve had a big dog that followed her around everywhere. Aha! I realised I could build that into a special talent with animals, the equivalent of being a horse whisperer / dog whisperer. This proved to be the real heart of the story. Good boy, Harry!

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I am a planner by nature. First I do any necessary research, then I write an outline of about two pages. I’ll generally expand that into a full synopsis, then do a chapter by chapter plan. All that before I start writing. If that sounds a bit rigid, I should add that I stop after every three chapters or so, go back to the chapter plan and change it if something’s not working or if I’ve had a new bright idea along the way. I revise continuously as I’m writing the book. That means I work quite slowly, but I don’t need to do very much revision after that first draft is complete.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes, though it’s only rarely that I have one of those fantastic, well-structured dreams that can be worked into a story. The title story of my collection being published by Ticonderoga next year, 'Prickle Moon', came to me almost complete in a dream I had while visiting Dunedin earlier this year. A magnificent gift conjured up from a cauldron of old memories, including the hedgehogs we saw so often while growing up there and the Scots dialect I heard a lot in my childhood. My dreams are often quite like fairy tales in flavor, that’s when they are not of the anxious, about-to-miss-the-bus, dropped-my-keys-down-the-drain variety!
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I started the Sevenwaters series back in the mid-1990s, I had no idea it would become six books plus a novella, so I had no vision of how it might end. But the way Ciaran’s story played out over the whole series, and his choices in this novel, felt inevitable to me, as if he’d been heading in one direction all along.  I guess the astonishing part of that was the feeling (it comes rarely) that his story somehow already existed and I was just the person lucky enough to be retelling it for him. Weird but good. For those who don’t know the Sevenwaters books, Ciaran is an enigmatic druid whose story spans the entire series. He never gets the point of view, but we come to know him and care about him.
Where do you write, and when?
At the kitchen table mostly, because that is the area where the dogs hang out during the day. I do have a perfectly well set up study but I don’t use it much. When? Roughly office hours, with an extra stint in the evening if I’m not happy with what I’ve achieved during the day. It does vary a bit depending on what else needs doing. I try to get to the gym three times a week to counteract all that sitting down staring at the screen. The dogs make sure I take breaks!
What is your favourite part of writing?
The times when I suddenly realize I’ve been writing for two hours without even being conscious of it – that always means what I’ve written is good! Also, the feedback from readers telling me my writing has inspired their own creative efforts, got them enjoying reading again, or helped them through a difficult time. We writers would be nothing without our readers.
What do you do when you get blocked? 
On those days when the writing isn’t flowing well, I do all the other jobs I need to complete as a full time writer: accounting, preparing workshops, responding to email and letters, research, editing, blog posts … Other things that help get through a creative block are exercise (easy for me as there’s always a dog or two wanting another walk), other creative activities such as gardening, baking or craft work, reading over something I’ve written that I know is good, to reassure myself that I can still do it. Because it doesn’t matter how many novels a writer has in print, the self-doubt never quite goes away. That’s probably a good thing, as it makes us keep striving to improve our craft.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
By reading folklore and fairy tales. By observing the natural world. By studying human behavior.
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Dorothy Dunnett, Dorothy L Sayers, Mary Stewart, Iain Banks, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton, Joe Abercrombie, Daphne du Maurier, Kerry Greenwood, Jane Austen. (Yes, there’s only one fantasy writer in there.)

Mary Stewart, who is one of my favourite writers too!

What do you consider to be good writing?  
It depends a bit on the kind of book, but the novels I enjoy most combine excellence of craft with compelling storytelling. Certain weaknesses of style put me off completely - I especially dislike head-hopping (frequent changes of point of view within chapters or even within paragraphs), a heavy
authorial 'message', and unnecessarily flowery or ornate writing. The best plot in the world can't balance these out for me.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read widely, well outside the genre you write in. To become a great writer, you must start as a keen reader, someone who loves storytelling. Don’t try to write for the market – by the time you finish your novel, whatever was the next big thing when you started will be out of fashion. Instead, write the story you passionately want to tell. Follow your heart, but learn the basic skills of writing as well: correct grammar, spelling and syntax. The easiest way to develop these skills is by reading a lot! Write a little every day, so you develop self-discipline. A personal journal is handy for this, not to write down what you had for breakfast, but any ideas or thoughts that come to you. Be prepared for setbacks; believe in yourself and your writing.
What are you working on now? 
I’m working on the third book in the Shadowfell series, which has the working title 'Caller'. The series is a YA/adult crossover fantasy, set in a magical version of ancient Scotland. Book 1, 'Shadowfell', is available now. Book 2, 'Raven Flight', comes out in mid-2013.

Yay! I loved 'Shadowfell' and so I'm happy to know I have more to look forward to.  

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy my interviews with Joanne Harris and Josephine Pennicott

Or you can read my review of Juliet's  latest book, 'Flame of Sevenwaters', here.
I'm a Gemini, I love to chat! Please leave a comment

BOOK REVIEW: 'Flame of Sevenwaters' by Juliet Marillier

Monday, November 05, 2012

Title: Flame of Sevenwaters
Author: Juliet Marillier
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia 
Age Group & Genre: Adult Historical Fantasy

The Blurb:
Going home can be the hardest thing of all...

When Maeve, twenty year old daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters, accompanies a skittish horse back to Erin, she must confront her demons. For Maeve carries the legacy of a childhood fire in her crippled hands. She has lived with her aunt in Britain for ten years, developing a special gift for gentling difficult animals.

Maeve arrives home to find Sevenwaters in turmoil. The forest surrounding her father's keep also has uncanny inhabitants, including a community of Fair Folk. Now the fey prince Mac Dara has become desperate to see his only son return to the Otherworld to rule after him. To force Sean's hand, Mac Dara has made innocent travellers on the Sevenwaters border disappear, and now their bodies are appearing one by one in bizarre circumstances. Mac Dara's malign activities must be stopped. But how? What human army can defeat a force with magic at its fingertips?

Maeve's gift with animals earns her respect at Sevenwaters. She bonds with her enigmatic small brother, Finbar, his druid tutor Luachan, and two stray dogs. When Maeve discovers the body of one of the missing men, she and Finbar are drawn into a journey where the stakes are high: they may bring about the end of Mac Dara's reign, or suffer a hideous death. For Maeve, success may lead to a future she has not dared to believe possible.

My Thoughts:
Yippee! As far as I’m concerned, Juliet Marillier could bring out a new book every week and I’d be happy. I (like many, many other people) particularly love her books set at Sevenwaters. This new novel is number six. Each can be read alone, but they are definitely best read in order.

The heroine of this book is Maeve, who in an earlier book was badly burned while trying to rescue her dog from a fire. She was crippled as a result, her hands twisted into stiff and useless claws. For me, this gave the story echoes of the terrible fairy tale ‘Maiden with no Hands’. Like the poor handless maiden in that tale, Maeve must try and get through life without the use of her hands. In the tradition of Juliet’s heroines, however, she is brave, philosophical, and determined not to let her life be ruined. She gains comfort and consolation from the animals in her life, particularly a highly-strung stallion named Swift who can only be calmed by Maeve’s soft voice and gentle manner. 

Maeve returns to Sevenwaters after many years, to find her home under threat from Mac Dara, the cruel king of the Underworld who was the villain of one or two earlier Sevenwaters tales. A group of travellers through the forest have disappeared, their bodies appearing in cruel and unusual ways. The ripple effect of these murders has Sevenwaters facing the very real possibility of war. Maeve befriends and tames two stray dogs, and her love for them and for her young brother Finbar sets off a chain of events that sees Maeve travelling by herself – crippled and very much afraid – into the Otherworld.

As always, Juliet Marillier’s new book is a beautiful story of love, courage, faith and kind-heartedness … and I want another one right NOW!!! 

If you enjoyed this review, you may also like  my
reviews of books by Deborah Swift and Jesse Blackadder

INTERVIEW: Hannah, Richelle, author of 'Secrets of the Tides'

Friday, November 02, 2012

Whenever I read a book I really enjoy, I always want to know more about the author. I do hope you are the same!

Earlier this week I reviewed Hannah Richell's  first book, a suspenseful family drama that moves from the present to the past, slowly revealing deeply hidden secrets that have torn the Tides family apart. 

As I said in my review: 'the three women at the heart of the story – Dora and her mother and sister – really rang true. I recognised many of their dilemmas and fears all too well ... a wonderful book by a new author, I’d really recommend it as a Book Club book as there’s so much in it to talk about! 

So, wanting to know more about Hannah and how she got the first idea for her book, I begged her to answer a few questions. Here are her responses:

Are you a daydreamer too?
I'm a big dreamer, both in the day and at night. One of the best things
about being a writer is that I'm essentially being paid to daydream. I just
have to make sure I get it down on the page now.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I've always adored books and reading and was drawn to the idea as a kid, and
yet 'being a writer' always seemed like an unachievable dream. I never had
the confidence or self-belief to try. After university I pursued a career in
publishing, which I loved, and that always felt about as close as I would
ever get. Then, when I washed up in Australia, I felt this urge building
inside of me to give it a go. I think I'd reached a point in my life where I
didn't mind so much if I made a fool of myself.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you
live, what do you like to do?
I am a Brit by birth but emigrated to Australia in 2005 with my boyfriend.
We've since married and now live in Sydney's Inner West with our two young
kids and a rather antisocial cat called Lennie. When I'm not writing I'm
usually found hanging out with the kids in parks or on the beach. My
favourite thing to do at the end of a busy day is to curl up with my
husband, a glass of wine and a good book. I'm more of a homebody than a
hellraiser but I do love a good restaurant, a great film or a few cocktails
when out with the girls.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
One of the central themes in 'Secrets of the Tides' is motherhood. I was
inspired, in part, by my own journey into motherhood. For me, it was a time
of great joy and love, but also great vulnerability and fear. I worried I
wouldn't be a good parent and saw clearly how fragile the bonds that connect
a family could be ... how one moment could change everything. That concept
is at the heart of 'Secrets of the Tides' and became my starting point. 

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I'm definitely a planner. I like to know the beginning and roughly
understand the end, although how I get there can shift dramatically along
the way. I'm learning that often the best ideas, plot twists and character
details come to me as the story evolves. 
(This is how I work too, and I think you can tell when a book has been well-planned - all the parts of the machine fit together properly and work to drive the story forward. 'Secrets of the Tides' was beautifully structured as a result)

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I've never used a specific dream, but I do like to mull over knots in my
plot just before I fall asleep. That moment just before sleep arrives is a
strange one: my mind spirals in so many different directions and I find I'll
 often have a good idea or find a solution to a problem just as I'm teetering
 on the edge of sleep. Of course I then have to leap out of bed and write it
down before I forget. 
(Me too!)

Where do you write, and when?
I have two young kids so I write whenever they are at childcare, or whenever
I can snatch a moment here or there amidst the chaos. Sometimes I write at
the kitchen table at home and sometimes I go to a writers' room in the city.
I like to mix it up a bit.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love it when it's flowing and I look up and realise several hours have
passed and I've been totally lost in my own fictional world. I love it when
that great idea or plot twist arrives like a thunderbolt. I love it when a
character leaps off the page and tells you what they're going to do or say
next and I truly had no idea.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I go for a walk. I drink wine. I whinge at my husband.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Sleep. Books. Film. Family. Friends. Solitude. The sea. Music.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I like to write in the morning in a quiet(ish) room with a large flat white.
If I'm struggling to create a certain mood I might play music - movie
soundtracks can be particularly evocative.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Dodie Smith
David Mitchell
Jilly Cooper
Tim Winton
Ian McEwan
David Nicholls
Maggie O'Farrell
Roald Dahl
Stephen King
Toni Morrison

A picture of Dodie Smith, who wrote '101 Dalmations', and 'I Capture the Castle', an absolutle favourite of mine too

What do you consider to be good writing?
Words that take you either far outside yourself or deeply inside yourself.
Words that move you emotionally, in some way.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Do it - but do it purely for the love of writing.

What are you working on now?
I'm completing some edits on my second novel (as yet untitled) which I hope
will be out next year.
I'll be looking forward to that!

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also like to read my interviews with Joanne HarrisGeraldine Brooks, and Jesse Blackadder



Wednesday, October 31, 2012

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Halloween has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival,’ I told her. ‘And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:

Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-een). 

Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.

Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.
Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.

However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of hat was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 
In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish poem about Samhain to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

Translated by Caitlin Matthews

You may also like to read my blog on Midwinter Feasts


BOOK REVIEW: 'Secrets of the Tide' by Hannah Richell

Monday, October 29, 2012

Title:  Secrets of the Tides
Author: Hannah Richell
Publisher: Hachette
Age Group & Genre: Adult Ficti
on – Parallel Narrative

The Blurb:
Every family has its secrets. Some are small, like telling a white lie or snooping through a private drawer. Others are more serious, like infidelity and betrayal. And some secrets are so terrible they must be hidden away in a deep, dark place, for if they ever came to light, they would surely tear a family apart . . .

The Tides are a family full of secrets. Returning to Clifftops, the rambling family house high up on the Dorset coastline, youngest daughter Dora hopes for a fresh start, for herself and the new life she carries. But can long-held secrets ever really be forgiven? And even if you can forgive, can you ever really learn to love again?

Secrets of the Tides is a family drama with a dark thread of suspense at its heart.

My Review:
I had been tempted to buy this book for a while, primarily because of its gorgeous cover, which shows two little girls playing on the beach. One is blonde and one is dark, just like my sister and me. I’ve been trying to be stern with myself, though, and not buy any more books until I’ve read my way through some of my tottering to-be-read pile. Of course this was a resolution just made to be broken!

After I met the author Hannah Richelle at a literary event at Pages & Pages bookstore in Mosman, I just had to buy the book, it sounded so good. I’m so glad I did! I loved it.

The book is a parallel narrative, focusing on the Tides family in the present and in the past. The main character is Dora, a young woman in a loving relationship with a sculptor who finds out she is pregnant and is flung into an emotional tailspin wondering if she could possibly be a good mother. Her neurosis is more than just the normal anxiety that overcomes anyone facing such a big change in her life. Dora’s life has been scarred by tragedy and guilt, her own family broken apart by the stresses of the past. 

Dora sets out to find some closure – and along the way discovers  the truth of what happened on that terrible day so long ago …

The thing I loved most about this book was how beautifully it was structured. Anyone who has studied creative writing with me, or been following my blogs and reviews for a while, will know how much emphasis I place on the importance of structure. Hannah Richell has built her narrative very carefully indeed, and the result is a slow-building suspense that makes the book utterly impossible to put down. 

I also thought she showed great insight into the minds of her all her characters, major and minor. In particular, the three women at the heart of the story – Dora and her mother and sister – really rang true. I recognised many of their dilemmas and fears all too well.

All in all, a wonderful book by a new author – I’d really recommend it as a Book Club book as there’s so much in it to talk about! 

If you enjoyed this review, you may also like to read about Jospehine Pennicott's novel, 'The Poet's Cottage'


BOOK REVIEW: 'Hide Me Among The Graves' by Tim Powers

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Title: Hide Me Among the Graves
Author: Tim Powers
Publisher: Harper Collins
Age Group & Genre: Historical fantasy for Adults

Review by Michael Pryor

The Blurb:
London, winter of 1862, Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute, arrives on the doorstep of veterinarian John Crawford, a man she met once seven years earlier. Their brief meeting produced a child who, until now, had been presumed dead. McKee has learned that the girl lives—but that her life and soul are in mortal peril from a vampiric ghost. But this is no ordinary spirit; the bloodthirsty wraith is none other than John Polidori, the onetime physician to the mad, bad, and dangerous Romantic poet Lord Byron. Both McKee and Crawford have mysterious histories with creatures like Polidori, and their child is a prize the malevolent spirit covets dearly.

Polidori is also the late uncle and supernatural muse to the poet Christina Rossetti and her brother, the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When she was just fourteen years old, Christina unwittingly brought Polidori's curse upon her family. But the curse bestowed unexpected blessings as well, inspiring Christina's poetry and Gabriel's paintings. But when Polidori resurrects Dante's dead wife—turning her into a horrifying vampire—and threatens other family members, Christina and Dante agree that they must destroy their monstrous uncle and break the spell, even if it means the end of their creative powers.

Determined to save their daughter, McKee and Crawford join forces with the Rossettis, and soon these wildly mismatched allies are plunged into a supernatural London underworld whose existence goes beyond their wildest imaginings. Ultimately, each of these disparate individuals—the sensitive poet, the tortured painter, the straitlaced animal doctor, the reformed prostitute, and even their Artful Dodger–like young daughter—must choose between the banality and constraints of human life and the unholy immortality that Polidori offers.

Sweeping from the mansions of London's high society to its grimy slums, the elegant salons of the West End to the pre-Roman catacombs beneath St. Paul's Cathedral, Hide Me Among the Graves blends the historical and the supernatural in a dazzling, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride—a modern horror story with a Victorian twist.

Michael's review:

I’m an unabashed Tim Powers fan, and I have been ever since I stumbled across ‘The Anubis Gates’ way back in 1983. He is one of a handful of writers whose next book I’ll read, regardless of what it’s about. I keep track of his writing schedule, just waiting for him to finish and publish.

So when ‘Hide Me Among The Graves’ was published earlier this year, I had a copy on order. When it arrived, I threw myself into it headlong and what a wonderful Powersesque delight it was.

'Hide Me Among The Graves' is nominally a sequel to Powers’ 1989 ‘The Stress of Her Regard’. Both are historical fantasies, and both feature a race of malign, protean creatures called ‘nephilim’, who are immensely powerful and long-lived and have many parallels with vampires. They are deadly to humankind, but their presence can be muse-like and inspire great creativity – at the cost of poor health, madness and decreased lifespans. 

In ‘The Stress of Her Regard’, the Romantic poets – Shelley, Keats and Byron – feature. HMATG leaps forward fifty years and centres on the pre-Raphaelites, most notably Dante Gabriel Rosetti and his sister, Christina.

Powers is a master of setting. His Victorian London is grey and dreary, full of smokes and noisome fogs through which the nephilim and their human acolytes drift. The Rosetti family is beholden to one of these creatures but is doing its best to reject its allure and to reclaim their humanity, but will it cost them their creative spirit? The tortured longing vying with the spiritual and physical dangers of associating with these creatures is vivid and frightening.

This book is rich in the uncanny and unsettling, be it underground chases, encounters with the twice-dead, eldritch creatures haunting the skies or arcane rituals designed to divert the attention of the nephilim. Some of these have the touch of the familiar, but most are startling in their originality. 

It is gothic in its pre-occupation with graveyards, darkness and subterranea, but it never veers into the clichéd. The plight of the characters is poignant and moving while the complex familial relationships of the Rosettis at the heart of book make the temptations they experience all the more real.

Read more about Michael Pryor at his website

INTERVIEW: Kate answers a reader's questions

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Today I answer a few questions from a reader who wrote:

I stumbled upon your novel - Bitter Greens - a few months ago and was immediately taken by the book. It was truly engrossing - to the point I had forgotten to get off my train station while reading the book and ended several stations after mine .. .

Bitter Greens is probably my favourite book of 2012. I absolutely fell in love with the characters, especially Selena. Words cannot articulate how your book has inspired me greatly. You're a role model to me as well - I'm currently living in Sydney, studying at the University of Sydney, though unfortunately not a course in literature. I would love to do another course after my degree, that is if I manage to survive it :) 

When I realised that you were Australian too, I couldn't help but feel proud that we have such a talented author. You probably get these often, but I hope you don't mind me asking a few questions about your writing process. I'm an aspiring writer but find it difficult to get started. 

Her questions:

1. How long did it take to write Bitter Greens? 

'Bitter Greens' has its roots deep in my own past. I first read the fairy tale as a child of seven and was utterly haunted by it, perhaps because I had lost my tear duct in a dog attack when only two, and so had spent my childhood in and out of hospital, made ill by my own tears. I felt such a longing to be like Rapunzel and have my tears a force for healing instead of them making me sick. Also, Rapunzel had escaped her incarceration in the tower while it seemed as if I would never be free of hospital.

Kate, aged 7

I first began to think about writing a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ when I was about twelve, as I had just read ‘The Stone Cage’ by Nicholas Stuart Grey which is an absolutely wonderful retelling of the tale by a brilliant British children’s writer. I had a few months earlier read ‘The Glass Slipper’ by Eleanor Farjeon, which retells the Cinderella fairy tale. These two books ignited my love of fairy tale retellings. Much as I loved Grey’s version, I imagined the tale very differently and I used to daydream about how I would write my own retelling.

When I was studying my first degree at university, I took a few courses in fairy tales and that was when I learnt that the original version was much darker and sexier than the tale I had read as a child. This, along with authors I was reading at the time such as Robin McKinley re-animated my desire to write my own retelling.

I wrote a few notes and scraps and ideas, and began one version during my 20s, but was busy with another novel that ended up as the thesis for a Masters degree in Creative Writing. Then, during my university holidays, I began to write a fantasy series which became ‘The Witches of Eileanan’. That series of books is filled with motifs and themes inspired by my love of fairy tales – towers, impossibly long hair, shape-shifting, curses, imprisonment and escape.

Then, around seven and a half years ago, I found myself thinking about my Rapunzel idea all the time. In an attempt to exorcise the haunting, I began a notebook of ideas. It only made me think about the novel more. Then I began working on a children’s novel which features a princess with magical powers being kept locked up in a tower (‘The Wildkin’s Curse’) – I thought this was to be my Rapunzel book, but all the time I was writing it I was thinking about writing a ‘real’ Rapunzel story, a historical novel set in a real place and a real time. I knew it would have to be a book for adults because, for me, the fairy tale was always one about sexual desire and obsession.

I began to read as much about Rapunzel as I could … and then I stumbled upon the life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the woman who first wrote the fairy tale as we know it. That was it! Her life was so full of passion and drama and intrigue that I felt it was such a gift to me. After that, I worked steadily on the book for about three years. At times I thought I’d never reach the end! Yet it was always a joy to write. I heard my character’s voices very clearly in my mind’s ear, and saw the story very clearly in my mind’s eyes … it just took a long time because of the research involved. 

2. How long was the research process?

It seemed to take forever! I was like a detective, following random clues, digging about in old papers, floating about in the vast ocean of the internet and trying to catch a wave, and buying endless old, out-of-print books. All up, it was about seven years, working at night because during the day I was working on other books and projects. I worked on the novel itself exclusively for three years.  

 3. What is your normal writing routine? 

I’ve always built my writing routine around my children, so when they were babies I wrote while they slept. Now they are at school I write all day every day, then again in the evening once they are in bed. (I do most of my reading & research at night, and write during the day). I try and only do a few hours a day over the weekend, as that it is meant to be family time. I’m always sneaking off to scribble a bit though. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also love this amazing Letter From a fan: How Books Can Change a Life


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