Ah, the serenity of the West Coast

This Labour Weekend I’m off to the West Coast of our South Island again. I get an itch to escape to there fairly often and this time it felt like it had been too long since last visit. There is something wholly relaxing about leaving your busy city life for the wilds of ‘the Coast’.

Here are some West Coast reads:

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Be safe on our roads this holidays.

Stacy Gregg’s latest pony book is close to home: an interview with the author of The Thunderbolt Pony

Stacy Gregg’s latest pony book The Thunderbolt Pony is a children’s novel very close to home, both for Cantabrians and for the author. Set in the aftermath of an earthquake in the real life town of Parnassus, near Kaikoura, the story is about 12 year-old Evie and her determination to save her beloved Arabian pony Gus, her loyal border collie Jock and her aptly named cat Moxy.

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Stacy Gregg portrays strong, independent, fearless girls in her books and here Evie bravely overcomes not only the forces of nature but her anxiety disorder, which she has been suffering since her dad became terminally ill. Evie’s OCD manifests itself in the belief that she if she doesn’t stick to set routines, it will cause bad things to happen, making her the ‘bringer of earthquakes.’ Evie must embark on both a physical and mental journey, in a race against time to get to a rescue boat.

Stacy Gregg has experienced the effects of anxiety disorder firsthand, with her own daughter developing OCD a couple of years ago, and she brings the specificity of what it can be like into the story. In fact, Stacy manages to intertwine quite a lot into this pacy yet reflective story. There’s also Greek mythology in here too with reference to Poseidon, who makes the perfect tie-in as not only the god of the sea but of earthquakes and horses as well.

You don’t have to be a horsey person for this story of adventure and animal friendship to appeal. Gregg’s style of historical fiction applied here will particularly resonate with many middle-school children in New Zealand and those around Canterbury, the Hurunui and Kaikoura will feel especially immersed in the familiar settings. Overriding everything, however, is Stacy’s signature quality storytelling.

Interview with Stacy Gregg

We interviewed Stacy on the release of her latest book – she talks about her research and writing process and about her experiences with anxiety disorder in her family.

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Children’s author Stacy Gregg. Photo credit: Carolyn Haslett (photo supplied). 

Stacy, what types of research did you do for The Thunderbolt Pony?

As well as reading lots around my subjects, I’ve always travelled for my research. My books have taken me to Arabia and Spain, Italy and Russia and now for The Thunderbolt Pony, Kaikoura and the East Coast of the South Island. It was important to me to travel the route that my heroine will take, the 64-kilometre stretch between Parnassus and Kaikoura. I was hoping the earth might move while I was there, but it didn’t. I had to rely on second-hand accounts of what the earthquakes were like because I’ve only ever been in a minor tiny tremor once here in Auckland.

What did you find in your research of the earthquakes that surprised you?

That they are noisy! You don’t think about the sound an earthquake makes, you think about the feeling of the land moving underneath you. But everybody I spoke to talked first about the noise. The boom that comes beforehand and the sound like a train surging beneath you. Like the rumble of the thunder that comes before the lightning – it gave me the title for the book.

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Read first-hand accounts of the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquakes in Surviving 7.8 and Aftermath. And for a child’s fictionalised point of view, My New Zealand Story Canterbury Earthquake.

Stacy, did you have a real person in mind when you were writing the character of Evie, who has OCD?

Evie’s journey is based very much on my own daughter’s struggles with OCD. When I first had the idea for writing the book I asked Issie what she thought about having a character who suffers from OCD and she was really, really supportive of me writing about it. She felt like it was important to raise awareness of the condition so that kids who are suffering from anxiety disorders realise how common it is and that they aren’t alone. There’s been such an overall increase in anxiety disorders in pre-adolescents, but this is especially true in places like Canterbury and Kaikoura where the kids have been through an earthquake and the ongoing aftershocks. Statistics in a recent study in Christchurch have shown that four out of five kids in the region have some level of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s a very real issue.

What did you find in your research about anxiety disorders like OCD that surprised you?

My daughter gets really cross people say stuff like “Oh I totally need to keep the kitchen clean – cos I’m so OCD!” Because that’s not OCD at all – that’s just liking things to be neat! I remember there was a time when the word “schizophrenic” was misused in the same way. Then the mental health community stepped up and reclaimed it and said “hey it’s not okay to talk about schizophrenia as if it means you have a split personality -it’s actually a real condition that people suffer from.” I think the same thing will happen now with OCD.

There are a lot of mistaken preconceptions about OCD being a ‘clean freak’ condition where you have to wash your hands or keep things perfectly tidy. Yes, it can manifest in that way, but it’s just as likely for you to have OCD and have a super-messy bedroom! For many OCD sufferers it’s about wanting to protect people – or animals – you love and make them safe by adhering to rituals and counting. It’s a bit like superstition on steroids. If you have OCD you are compelled to carry out your rituals and you get really anxious and upset if you can’t do them right as you really do believe you are risking harming everyone that you love. You’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. In The Thunderbolt Pony, Evie is fighting her OCD and trying to get a grip on her actual reality, but she’s got a lot to contend with.

How challenging was it to write about a condition in your family? Was this a helpful process for you, to write about it?

It was tough at times to open the wound and examine it – but it’s better than letting it fester I think. Issie and I are both the same like that, we confront stuff head on and she was very honest with me and trusted me to tell the story. OCD is a rough gig. It can totally dominate someone’s life in a very debilitating way. Issie did a lot of really hard work with her clinical psychologist and that work gave her the tools to overcome it. I’m really proud of how open and brave she was, and I’m really grateful to our psychologist Hilary, for the support he gave her. The character of Willard Fox is very much based on him and he gets a big thank you in the dedication.

image_proxyWhat has been the response so far from readers of The Thunderbolt Pony?

I just toured in Australia around schools in Sydney and what amazed me was that the kids there all knew what OCD was and they were very open to talking about anxiety disorders and seemed to really naturally engage with it. I’m just about to begin the South Island tour now – kicking off in Kaikoura – and I admit I am anxious about talking to the kids who have actually experienced the real earthquake. It’s going to be special, going back to the place where the book is set, but it’s also daunting. I hope they like it.

One thing really engaging about your books is the historical fiction aspect, how you use real places, events and real experiences in many of your stories. Why do you choose to write this way?

I think it’s the ex-journalist in me – I love to do solid research and I like to have a true story as a base foundation for my fiction. The Princess and the Foal was the start of that for me – it is the real story of the childhood of Princess Haya of Jordan. Her mother died in a helicopter crash when the Princess was 3 and she became really emotionally withdrawn and shut down after her death. When the princess was 6 her father, King Hussein, gave her an orphan foal to raise and said. “This foal has no mother, just like you. It’s on your shoulders now to be in charge and care for this young life.” This was the turning point for Princess Haya and her whole life story, her incredible success as an Olympic show jumper and as a powerful world influencer, came from that moment. It was so special to me to tell her story and to be given access to the royal palaces and the stables. My love of telling a true story sprang from working on that book.

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You often write your historically-based stories from two points of view but in The Thunderbolt Pony we have just Evie’s viewpoints, one during the rescue adventure and one reflecting on her journey later (both physical and mental journey). Is this your way of using your ‘dual narratives’ device in this story?

That is a really good question in terms of discussing structure and the devices an author uses. I have frequently used dual narratives in previous books – dovetailing two girls with perspectives that are historical and modern-day up against each other. For this story though, there is just one voice, it is Evie’s story and hers alone. However, I didn’t want to write it in a linear fashion – I felt like we needed to see her two journeys – the physical and the mental – intertwined. It gives the book a different pace and that’s why we make time leap back and forth. The skill for a writer I think, is to construct a tricky timeline and make it feel like it makes sense and is effortless so that the reader doesn’t notice!

You’ve said you like to “get rid of the parents in a story” – can you tell us more about that and why?

It’s not just me who likes to get the parents out of the way. Look at Harry Potter. Or Lemony Snicket. Parents are a problem because they like boring stuff like routines and being safe. They are all about healthy meals and bedtimes and they are also on hand to help you when things get rough. If there are no parents you can have big crazy adventures where you must be brave and do everything yourself and there’s no one to stick their oar in and say “hang on a minute this is madness let’s stop and have a proper dinner!” That is why you get rid of the parents – they are too sensible and they ruin your fun and crush the spirit out of the adventure.

You write about strong female characters who are fearless, independent, self-sufficient. Can you tell us more about that?

I’ve always written strong girls as my heroines. Horses make girls powerful. You can’t be a powderpuff. You need to be mentally and physically tough to handle them. And at the same time you need to stay vulnerable and soft, because it’s in those unguarded moments that you create a true bond with a horse. My daughter rides competitively and when we roll up at competitions I’m always impressed at these women turning up driving massive trucks and handling enormous powerful warmbloods. We just don’t think anything of it – we don’t expect men to come and help with any of it. It’s a very feminist sport.

How long did the writing process take for this book?

I write a book a year. I spend about three months researching, three months writing and then another three months with my editor, pushing the manuscript back and forth through various stages beating it into shape. Then the next three months are publicity and touring and preparing to do it all over again. I love every stage of the process, I’m very lucky to do the job that I do.

What’s next? What are you working on at the moment?

My next book is called The Fire Stallion and it’s set in Iceland. As usual, I have the whole thing plotted out already – but I’m not giving away any spoilers yet!

What have you recently enjoying reading and what’s on you ‘to-be-read’ pile?

I have just finished Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology (OK that’s a big clue for the subject matter of my next book). But I won’t be able to read anything for a while now. I am an all-or-nothing reader and I can’t read other authors when I am in writing mode as I’m a terrible mimic. I have to isolate myself for the next few months and then I will binge read when the new book is finally done. On the bedside table until then are Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Dry by Jane Harper, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.

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Thanks for your time Stacy!

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Stacy Gregg at a book signing. Photo credit: Kelly Bold (photo supplied).

Thank you to HarperCollins.

The Thunderbolt Pony
by Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008257019

There’s mutiny afoot…

“History is written by the winners”

This quote is attributed to either Churchill or perhaps Hermann Göring (the jury is still out!) and it’s pretty accurate – if yours is the only side of the story people hear, then its probably going to be the one that everybody believes. But the not-so-recent rise of fictional accounts of real historical events and significant historical figures has been trying to even the ledger by giving us the other side of the coin!

And we’ve had LOADS of writers contributing to this movement; think Hodd by Adam Thorpe – depicting Robin Hood as an outlaw, a thief, and generally a really bad man; or The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson – exposing John Batman as a scoundrel and murderer with his attempts to control (and/or massacre) the indigenous population of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Victoria; and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the courts of King Henry VIII from Cromwell’s view-point.

Each of these stories seeks to expose the “truth” or at least broader context of historical events in whatever form that can take since so long a time has passed…And now there’s a new title to add! In his new book Fletcher of the Bounty, Graeme Lay recounts the story of the mutiny on the Bounty with Fletcher Christian as the central character.

Lay’s skilled storytelling builds a world of contrast, between the confines of life on board a naval vessel adhering to authority and routine, to the freedom and love of life experienced during the time spent in Tahiti, connecting with people from another world and ultimately falling in love with an indigenous girl. He also describes well the slow unravelling of the ship’s commander William Bligh, and demonstrates just how alien he must have seemed while in Tahiti – clinging desperately onto his military ceremonies and brutal disciplines (continuing to wear full dress uniform in the sweltering heat, for example), while at the same time considering himself far superior to all others, crew and islanders both.

The story of the Bounty, one of idealism, betrayal and the resulting struggle to create a Utopian ideal, is familiar to all of us and as far as rewriting the story of the Bounty, the relationship breakdown between Bligh and Christian, and the inevitable mutiny, Lay doesn’t really push any boundaries beyond what we already know. It’s a well written sea-tale/love-story, and it does expand brilliantly on many of the themes dealt with in brief in the 1984 Roger Donaldson film The Bounty, (with the two leading characters played by the greats Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins).

His compelling character-driven narrative is highly descriptive and contextual and if you like a good nautical tale or are a fan of historical fiction then you should get a kick out of this retelling of the tale – I especially like the inclusion of regional languages as the crew travel around the Antipodes. Just don’t expect any new earth-shattering nuggets of insight.

Fletcher of the Bounty
by Graeme Lay
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775541066

And while we’re talking about stories in this vein, here’s a list of other titles that fall under the banner of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction, explore, read, and enjoy!

The Alice Network – Review

I spent the last couple of weeks down the rabbit hole, head buried in The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. The story captured me from the very beginning—no need to read to page 90 with this one; I was hooked by page two!

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Nineteen forty-seven was hell for little bony girls like me who couldn’t wear the New Look. Then again, 1947 was hell for any girl who would rather work calculus problems than read Vogue, any girl who would rather listen to Edith Piaf than Artie Shaw, and any girl with an empty ring finger but a rounding belly.

It was a surprising, rabbit-warren of a novel, following the interconnected paths of two very different women, and spanning both world wars. One path is the story of Charlie St Clair, the little bony  girl with the rounding belly, on her way to an Appointment to deal with her Little Problem. The other is the story of Eve Gardiner, a stuttering half-French girl plucked from her life as a file girl in an English law office and dropped into the spy network in France during World War I. It’s also the story of their two quests—Charlie’s search for her French cousin Rose, missing since 1944, and Eve’s quest for retribution and for peace.

And, it’s the story of Louise de Bettignies, code named Alice Dubois, queen of spies.

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Have you heard of her? If you have, you’re doing better than me! Before reading this fascinating novel, I knew nothing about women spies in WWI apart from some vague recollections about Mata Hari. I was surprised when I realised that I was reading about a woman who had truly risked her life providing the allies with information. I mean, I’m not completely ignorant about the world wars. I studied Gallipoli in History and War Poetry in English, not to mention a having a fair few novels set during the wars on my Completed Shelf. But Louise de Bettingnies was a stranger to me. It’s a shame she isn’t better known, as Kate Quinn says of her in the authors note:

The courage, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the woman christened the queen of spies needs no exaggeration to make for thrilling reading.

Not only was Louise a real person, so too were several other characters, and many of the events in the story are based on historical events. I didn’t realise this while I was reading, so this realisation, at the end, made the book even more enjoyable.

This book is, by turns, exciting, harrowing, poignant, a little romantic, and quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Charlie, after being refused access to her own bank account because she’s lacking a man, decides to pawn her grandmothers pearls, and Eve surprises her by pretending to be the said grandmother and browbeating the pawnbroker into giving Charlie a decent price. I’m definitely going to be adding Kate Quinn to my list of must-read authors, and I hope you do too!

The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780062654199

Not such a strange meeting – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Cover100 years ago last week at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon and one of the great literary friendships was born. Wilfred was recovering from shellshock, deeply traumatised by his time on the Western Front in 1917. Siegfried, grieving and angry at the deaths of his friends and men in his unit, had protested against the continued conduct of the First World War. After intervention from Robert Graves, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than face a court martial. As the aspiring poet Wilfred was well aware, Siegfried was already a moderately famous poet. In the few weeks together they had in Scotland, Siegfried encouraged and mentored Wilfred.

Wilfred was killed on 4 November 1918, exactly a year after he left Craiglockhart and a week before the Armistice, however in the time between meeting Siegfried and his death he produced some of the most famous war poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting. Their shared influence can still be felt today – their works are still taught in school, and Siegfried’s quote “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele” has been widely quoted in the ongoing commemorations of the Third Battle of Ypres.

CoverWe know so much about their friendship as they both wrote about it – Wilfred in excited letters to his mother and Siegfried a couple of decades later in his volume of autobiography Siegfried’s Journey. This documentation has provided excellent source material for modern authors looking to portray the two poets. They are the subject of a two-hander play Not About Heroes which covers Craiglockhart in Act One and their different paths in Act Two. Intimate and moving, this is a powerful play (but having directed it a few years ago I am quite biased).

CoverPerhaps the most well-known depiction of their friendship is in Pat Barker‘s award winning Regeneration Trilogy. However, in Barker’s interpretation of Siegfried’s time at Craiglockhart, his friendship with Wilfred is overshadowed by his connection with his doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. There’s a lot going on in the trilogy – the cultural construct of masculinity cracking under pressure, mental health, sex, pacifism – and Siegfried and Wilfred are only one strand to this. Rivers is perhaps the main character and the marvelous fictional creation that is Billy Prior dominates the last two books.

I’ve mentioned before how Billy is possibly my favourite literary character. He’s the working class kid who becomes an officer; he’s bisexual; he’s somewhere on the continuum of sanity and insanity; he’s a split personality. He’s so many things that in some ways he shouldn’t work but – to me at least – he does. Billy and Rivers tie the trilogy together.

And so a chance meeting 100 years ago is still being interpreted and played out today; the voices of those caught up in conflict still resonating.

Do you have a favourite war poem?

A hundred shards of potent remedy: an interview with Fiona Farrell about Decline and Fall on Savage Street

I am standing next to the old Government Building in Christchurch. It’s early morning and the air is crisp and smells of expectations. In front of me is the cathedral in ruins. But from where I stand, I can also see a new building coming up. The new central library, with its promise of healing …

CoverI am waiting here to meet Fiona Farrell to talk about her new book, which has been launched last week. Decline and fall on Savage Street, a fiction sister to non-fiction The villa at the edge of the empire, is yet another joyful gift with sophisticated form, lovable characters, relevant issues and healing properties that should not be underestimated.

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Fiona Farrell. Image supplied.

Congratulations Fiona, for another beautiful gift that you have given to the city of Christchurch and also to the wider community.

Thank you.

I was really impressed by the form of this book. It’s a novel but at the same time, each chapter works on its own like a short story and it stands on its own like a delicately crafted jewel. I was wondering where did the idea for the form come from?

From the city itself, from the fact that everything seemed to be falling into little bits. When I started writing The Villa at the edge of the empire, the fact one, that’s a twin to this one, I wrote that in small chunks. I thought of them as bricks or little pieces of timber, salvageable, and then you put them all together to make a shape, so it was like a salvage operation.

I also felt that it’s wasn’t just the physical destruction of the city, but what I was feeling as an older woman who has lived here for nearly 70 years, was the demolition of a social structure that sustained people, and its replacement with lots of individualist policies and theories that are affecting the way people live in this country. It felt like it wasn’t just a physical demolition, but a social and political one. So I wanted to put all these little bits together and try and reconstruct a sort of history out of all these bits and pieces. A bit like a Kiwi crib, when you knock all your bits together, I think that’s very New Zealand style.

The whole story is a great portrait of the 20th century. The history is often happening in the background, but the reader is constantly aware of it. I had a feeling that all the way through the story, the terrifying events in history were somehow distant, they were happening far away and to others. Only with the earthquake it becomes real and is happening to characters of the story. People are suddenly part of this terrible history.

Yes, it becomes very intimate and personal with the quake. One of the challenges in writing the book was to find a little link between an event (like World War Two), a personal intimate link with here and something that would leave its mark on a house, particularly this individual house in this imagined street.

Sometimes it would be because someone remembered the house. The man in World War Two, who is wounded, has a photograph of the corner of the house. Later on in the story, there’s a painting of him by a woman that he wanted to marry, who lives in a house. This painting has a shadow under a tree, which is a reference to him. So it would be a link like that, or someone might be directly involved in a major event, like WWII, or there might be a kind of echo of it. Like with Eric, the agent, who behaves like the McCarthy-ist spies in America, but does it in this little house.

Sometimes it’s a sort of an echo, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. So when the Berlin Wall falls down and all the barriers collapse in other parts of the world, it’s the kitchen wall that’s been taken down in the house, and two families are blended together. So sometimes it’s a metaphor, sometimes it’s an actual link.

Eric is one of the characters that I really didn’t grasp. He was the most mysterious figure in the whole story for me, but I did get a feeling that he might be a spy.

Yes, well, he’s an agent. He’s an agent of the government survey of the people who were suspected to be communists in the late 40s and 50s. There was this kind of anti-communist agitation here, as it was all over the world, in places like America and Britain. People were singled out if they were suspected of having communist sympathies. So he’s just an echo of that over here in Christchurch.

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Alluring cover of Fiona’s new book is work of Sarah Healey.

The other thing I was very impressed by was the form of each chapter, the way you form the beginning and the end. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely powerful because it gives you a feeling of a flow that’s beyond human control, that life is so much bigger and complex and stretches beyond the single events that are portrayed in the book.

I like leaving the beginning and the end of the chapter ragged, so you come in with a few dots in the middle of the sentence. Again it’s a part of that salvaging, it’s that the story is just a little piece that’s been salvaged and there’s a whole lot of other stories. So I’ve just got this one which has got torn edges and it doesn’t properly end either, it’s got a torn ending. So that story can continue out of sight.

I always think fiction is what you read, the story on the page, but then there are all the other stories that are implied within that book. That’s a sort of thing that’s been rather fashionable I suppose in the last 20 years or so, to make books out of minor characters for example or to say what would happen if something else had eventuated, to reframe the known story. That’s a sort of thing I’m working on as well, that idea that there’s a whole other narrative, a great big narrative, and you just choose this little bit. That’s the bit that you pick up from a ground, it’s just that little brick and you pick it up and you hold that one up. It’s kind of salvaging operation.

At the same time, that little brick tells the wider story as well, it’s so entwined in its context, which can have social, political, economic, environmental weight … so you can actually see a whole house in that little brick. I think that’s very hard to achieve and is at the same time the beauty of fiction.

Yes, that’s exactly right. In this particular fiction, it’s always a problem how you’re going to shape the material and tell a story. For me, it always has to start with structure. I always have to have a shape in my head. Other people might start with a character, or an event, or something like that, but for me, it’s a shape

I often find, when I’m talking about my books, I do this – an arch (Fiona draws an arch with her hand in the mid air) or a span. In this one, the shape is one hundred little pieces and once I have that in my head, once I have a shape clear, and the way I’m going to present it, everything falls into place. That dictates what I can tell, how long the book can be. It dictates how much you can actually pack into a short chapter, it gives you a very precise formula in which you can work.

It sounds a bit dry, but for me, it’s very reassuring, because it’s such a massive material and you could just tell a great sweeping saga that went straight through from A to B, but for me, it feels more comfortable. I feel at ease, writing this small precise pieces and it makes me very, very particular and very concentrated. It’s like writing a poem or a short piece of fiction. So I have to be economical, but I have to pack into that something about the character, I have to move the narrative forward, I have to put the reference to the house, there are particular things that I have to do within that tiny shape and it disciplines me.

I have noticed the voices of characters came through very well in each chapter. You can tell straight away which character is telling the story. I think you captured those voices really well.

I really enjoyed writing them all, I loved writing Poppy, she was my favourite. I liked all of them, even Eric in his funny, disturbing way.

I was really fascinated by the power of your imagination, I think it shines in the scope of various people who lived in the house and their stories. Where do you get the ideas from? There is such an abundance of them in this book.

The problem I have is too many ideas. The problem is limiting them. That’s really the problem I have, it’s the selecting.

Wow. It must be nice to have that problem, as a writer, I guess?

I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. It’s not an advantage to have loads of ideas because you still have to select and still have to discipline yourself, you have to restrain, what can happen, and make choices. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

I guess that’s when your form helps.

It does, because it let me write lots of different little stories, which I enjoyed. And I also liked discovering history, things that I found by coming to the library and looking through the microfilm. I still like sitting in the library and finding all material that’s there.

Wongi's art on St Asaph Street
Whare & Whānau by Wongi Wilson, St Asaph Street. Flickr 2014-12-19-IMG_4045

If we return back to the characters, and I might be a bit biased here, but I got a feeling that women characters are really holding up the households in the house all the way through the book until the earthquake hits. That’s when female character Janey intuitively gives up and her husband Rob is trying to save the situation and is trying to hold it all together.

Yes, that’s true particularly for the first part, when Violet is there for a long long time. And I suppose Min and the hippy commune as well. I wanted to try to keep the balance, because history is often told from a male point of view and particularly in this country, or anywhere really. It can very often be a history of great male figures. I’m an old 70s feminist and we’ve been fighting that one for a very very long time. All my life really. It’s also that I do know how female characters work. I’m less secure when I’m writing male characters. I can understand the complexities of a female thinking. I wanted to try to keep the balance.

I think it is a good balance, especially with Rob, he balances it out. And Paul as well.

I loved Rob. He keeps on trying to make his pizza oven, I thought he was gorgeous.

It was very interesting to observe different timelines, which exist in the novel. One is the human-scale time. The other two are much slower and they belong to the natural world, have their own rhythm. Again, these two timelines, one of the river and the other of the earth, they create a different perspective of events. They give the perspective of human insignificance compared to the natural world, a reality that just passes by in its own slow rhythm.

Yes, and very magical and wonderful one. I find eels, the journey of those big female eels when they’re eighty, ninety, hundred years old, back up to spawn, amazing. How that’s imprinted in a thing that’s a size of a whitebait on arrival! I’m just in awe of the natural world, and I’ve become more so as I get older. It just seems more and more extraordinary. And valuable and a real corrective to human self-importance. We just have to do the best we can here, and live as well as we can, but make it possible for everything else to live as well. We really have been on a crazy path.

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Beautiful text design and illustrations by Rachel Clark.

 

I think out of your characters Sybil is the one most connected to the natural world.

She is, though she never moves outside of the house and garden, she stays there all her life, so she’s the one who lives the most restricted life in some ways. I wanted to show that idea that you can have this tiny, little, precise, fixed environment, but it’s got everything in it. If you just want to look at it. She looks, she’s the one who sees things. Partly because she’s been damaged slightly by almost drowning, after falling off the raft. But she sees the world very clearly and understands the beauty of animals and plants. She never moves much beyond the gate, very rarely.

Though she lives very rich life, she’s mostly turned inwards. And outwards to the beauty around her. I really liked her.

I did too. Solid little lady in her little grubby old dungarees. She’s great, little witch lady.

But also very strong at the same time.

Yes, she’s very determined, very strong, sure about who she is and what she’s doing. Yes, I liked her.

There are also many metaphorical layers in your novel. A lot of metaphors are kept in the frame of each chapter, but many flow all the way through the book. The most compelling one for me was the image of the architect at the beginning of the narrative. I saw it as a metaphor for a writer, who’s crafting lives of characters. Throughout the book it gains even greater importance, it’s almost a god-like figure. I imagined you in this figure of an architect.

It’s the story of creation. The Biblical story is the creation of the chaos and there’s the world, the natural world, and the God creating everything. But that’s the story of creation as an over-reaching western myth, or for some people it’s belief. But it’s also what actually happens, this idea of random existence and the way we create structures out of random events, whether they’re the way we interpret something that’s happened and make narratives out of it, or, whether we decide we need a shelter and we assemble lots of random pieces together from all over the place and we make a shelter for ourselves.

Because we need shelter, we’re a naked little animal without a shelter. It’s a necessity for us as a creature. What I liked about the architect is partly that he adds a little tower. He’s doing something very practical and right at the end, just before he goes off for his lunch, he adds a little detail, which is just a silly little tower, little turret with a room in it. And because of that tower, because he added that to the house, certain kinds of people keep getting attracted to the building, because it’s got a kind of romantic playfulness. There’s sort of joy in it. And each of them brings their own imagery to the idea of the tower or the turret.

What interests me is that the house never really grows into a character. It stays in the centre of the novel, it works as a setting, becomes a home and a sanctuary for so many generations, until the end, when it gets demolished and I think that’s when it becomes the most alive. It explodes into life.

Yes, just like the eel, living its 100 years and then it explodes. I love that. It wasn’t something I planned, but I love it. Thank you. I’m glad that’s how it seems.

This book is a perfect read for someone who hasn’t experienced the Christchurch earthquake and post-earthquake situation but is intrigued in how it must have felt, how it must have been on a personal level. I think you captured the aftermath, all the emotions, frustrations and everyday struggle extremely well. Only art allows us to capture life in such ways.

Yes, exactly, I think so too. I think there’s a certain amount you gain from reading facts, of course there is. You can read books about places or events, which are factual and have enormous power. But to really find out, to get in the intimate part of it, how it affects things like, how you are in bed with someone, or how a child feels, you do it through fiction. Often children’s feelings about war or big national or international events are at a distance or very limited. That’s what fiction can do, it’s investigative and curious.

According to Dale Spender and his work The mothers of the novel, the novel developed as a female form. It developed at the same time as men were going off on voyages of exploration and scientific enquiry, coming to New Zealand, apart from anywhere else. But women were not able to do that, and so stuck at home, within those four walls, they started speculating and investigating through fiction. And that’s how the novel started, at least in the English language, I don’t know if it’s the same across Europe. It was disregarded as something trivial, frivolous, something that was not important. That’s a sort of thing that you have all the time in Jane Austen: reading novels is a waste of time, it’s not important. She’s writing out of that kind of environment, but there were hundreds and hundreds of novels being written.

It’s always been investigative, a kind of scientific experiment. You are working on an experimental level, you’re saying, if I put these things together, what might happen. It’s a really profound art form. I really love fiction. That’s why I wanted to try to write about this. It was difficult, but I did want to try to write about this big event.

Sign O' the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016
Sign O’ the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016. Flickr 2016-10-16-IMG_6260

It’s interesting what you refer to in your note at the end of the book – that the first novel about WWII, Elizabeth Bowen’s The heat of the day, was written three years after the war finished.

Yes, the first that I could find anyway, yes. I think the difficulty is to get the mind calm enough to be able to write about such big events. And it is a kind of individualist expression and you do need a degree of calm to be able to do it. Just to be able to put the words on the page really.

You also need enough distance, a perspective, which takes time, I guess.

Yes, and the Heat of the day is a very peculiar book. It’s very sexual, that’s the thing that’s the most dominant about it. It’s about these fleeting sexual encounters in London after the Blitz. That’s possibly the expression of her personality, but also part of that confusion. It’s very primal. I think it does require distance, it’s quite confused book. I was trying to avoid that, keeping it very precise and very clear.

If we touch on political issues in the book, first of all, I really like the nickname – Big Buffoon. It’s very clear who that refers to.

Well, Rob can’t stand him. It’s a character, it’s not me.

Rob is very very angry and frustrated. I think a lot of people will easily relate to him.

That’s the other thing you can do in fiction, you can express multiple points of view of any given event. It’s not just one monolithic variation of how things are.

Sign O' the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016
Sign O’ the Times by Mark Catley for SCAPE Public Art Season 2016. Flickr 2016-10-16-IMG_6256

I think a lot of political issues that are expressed through characters in this book are done so in a very powerful way. When I was reading Liz’s story, I got so angry.

Yes, about women, not being able to access abortion. Absolutely. That’s based to some extent on a book by Margaret Sparrow, who was a doctor in Wellington, who fought to have abortion made legal. She, like a lot of people, who fought that particular battle, assembled a book of oral histories called Abortion then and now, which includes first person accounts of what it was like to get an abortion in an illegal way, in someone’s front room or back room. And the fear of it and sordid things that happened as a result of that. These women were often very young, very vulnerable and desperate, so people were able to exploit that. Not just financially, but also in other ways.

What happens in the novel is actually what people have reported. Not just once, that’s been the experience of loads of women. This issues had been raised again in this election. The prime minister has already flagged that he’s opposed to abortion. It may be something that comes up in the next term, who knows.

I think a lot of issues that are present throughout the story are extremely relevant to what’s happening today: war, conscientious objection, immigration issues, gender inequality, environmental problems …

Possibly that’s because whenever you write a historical novel, you’re actually writing about now. You’re writing about the past, but you’re really writing about now. It doesn’t matter what it is. The novels about Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, they are to some extent reflections of our curiosity about celebrity. We are interested in clothes, in the machinations, just as we are in people like Trump.

The 20th century is a long period, but on some level, it’s also very short period and we are still engaged in it. We are still dealing with political things that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re still in those political parties, we’re still dealing with the same sorts of issues and they are not going to go away. It’s an ongoing flood. Like the river. And we are caught in it.

Thank you very much, Fiona. Would you like to share anything else about the book?

I hope that people find it a rich book. That’s what I really hope. That they’ll find things they’re interested in, or they share some of the feelings of the characters, that they can see them and that it’s vivid enough. I just hope it’s a rich book, with lots of pleasures for a reader. That’s what I’m hoping.

Well, it definitely is for me.

Find out more:

Going a-Viking with Linnea Hartsuyker

I love a good work of hard-hitting historical fiction, and it doesn’t get much better than a viking saga!

The best example is The Long Ship by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson – it’s probably the oldest, most famous, and (for me at least) the bench mark against which all others are measured.

So I was excited to learn that a new author, Linnea Hartsuyker has entered the genre with her new debut novel The Half Drowned King.

Before we talk about the story – volume one in a trilogy to come, let’s go over what we know about the author…

  1. She spent her childhood in Ithica (US) living on the edges of a large forest
  2. She has qualifications in Creative Writing, and Material Science and Engineering
  3. She traces her own lineage back to Harald Fairhair (Harfagr – the first King of Norway)
  4. She enjoys a life of travel, food & competes in Strong-Woman events

Fair to say then that she’s got the background to deliver some knowledgeable and interesting stories and I’m very pleased to say that this first installment of her trilogy is richly layered with culture, has plenty of grit and action, and keeps decent pace while outlining the lives of the people of ancient Norway.

The story is centred around a brother and sister, Ragnvald and Svanhild, as they negotiate the brutal realities of life in times of upheaval and uncertainty.

Ragnvald has been betrayed and left for dead by an assassination attempt orchestrated by his step-father and embarks on the slow road of obtaining a satisfying vengeance – all the while trying to ingratiate himself into the fold and remain useful to the young man who would be King of a united Norway, Harald Fairhair.

Meanwhile Svanhild has her own worries. Suffering abuses at the hands of the stepfather who wants her out of the way, he tries to marry her off to a local Jarl. But hearing of Ragnvald’s survival she is desperate to be reunited with her brother and protector so flees to find him – her story takes some interesting turns, none of which I will write about as I’d prefer you read the book, but suffice to say life unfolds in unusual and unexpected ways for all of us and Svanhild’s story is equal parts light and dark.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the way in which the author describes events and drives the plot by placing events into cultural context. A great example of this is after Ragnvalds survival and recuperation from his “near-death experience”. His plan to seek revenge entails arriving at the annual ting, a yearly gathering of the Kings and Jarls of Norway, and following the traditional route of challenging his rival to either a formal duel or recompense in front of witnesses and within their framework of honour – not your usual story of confrontation, and clever writing makes this an engaging device that carries the plot along nicely.

The action scenes are brutal, blood, and injuries occur to significant characters – there’s nothing worse than a lead character who is seemingly immune to everything that befalls everyone else! There is an amount of battle tactics but it’s not overly done, and the common folk are never forgotten.

She is also very good at her descriptions of place, giving the reader a good sense of the landscape, environment, and weather conditions, and how these affect the character, the plot, and the action.

Also, by centring the story on a young man and a young woman the author is able to demonstrate the cultural expectations, limitations, and values of young people living in that environment and under those circumstances. It gives great depth and width to the story and provides a broader avenue of access for readers while giving a greater cultural context to the times.

So with strong characters, a beaut story of revenge, lots of well described battle-action & an amazing sense of place, this book ticks a lot of boxes and stacks right up against The Long Ships!

If you are a fan of Hard-Hitting Historical Fiction and are drawn to stories by Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, or even George R. R. Martin, then give this series a go, you should not be disappointed!

Skol!

The Half-Drowned King

The Half Drowned King
by Linnea Hartsuyker
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408708798

Want more hard-hitting historical fiction recommendations? Try my Historical Fiction of the masses list

The well-mannered read

In this world of alternative truths, acts of terrorism, online dating and climate change, sometimes what one really needs is a well-mannered book. In well-mannered books there is no gratuitous swearing, sex is private, and war (a sometimes necessary evil?) is viewed from a big picture perspective. These are books in which Mr Please and Mr Thank-you have not yet left the building.

A Gentleman in MoscowAnd if you are thinking the descending scale “Boring”, you could not be more wrong. Take A Gentleman in Moscow as an exquisite example of a well-mannered read. Count Rostov (an unrepentant aristocrat) is placed under house arrest for life in 1922 in The Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin. The book is 462  pages long and almost all of the action takes place in that grand old hotel.  Count Rostov is an urbane, witty, positively likeable character – what is more, the book is peopled by a fascinating array of eccentrics.

As time passes, the world outside of the hotel changes and in a conversation with his lover Anushka, Count Rostov gives his view on the conveniences of modern life such as remote garage door openers:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute…….To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Hector and the Search for HappinessAnother contemporary author who writes in a very well-mannered way is Francois Lelord. In his novel Hector and the Search for Happiness, a young French psychiatrist (Hector) surely knows about love, sex, anxiety and behaviour problems. Indeed, this novel touches on all manner of problematic topics like prostitution and drug dealing, but in a very polite way.

You will be on a spectrum with your opinion of these books: from charming, to naïve, to patronising and worse. But I myself was charmed. So much so, I was delighted to hear that a film has been made of the first book. Imagine then my dismay when I learned that the film had turned its back on its French origins, been cast with a British psychiatrist, and set in the USA. How rude, not at all well-mannered. This would not have happened had Hector and Count Rostov met and formed a political party and taken over the world!

In the end Hector comes up with 23 “Life Lessons on Happiness” from all his travels. It seems appropriate to end with lesson no.5

Sometimes happiness is not knowing the full story

Just read the books!

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

New Books – 29 June

Hi readers, some treats this week:

Cover of What happened, Miss Simone

This biography caught my eye – the authorised story of Nina Simone.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is inspired by a documentary. Music journalist Alan Light (The Holy or Unbroken : Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of Hallelujah, and Lets Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain) draws on Nina’s diaries, rare interviews and her daughter’s memories to tell the story of the ‘real’ Miss Simone’ – a classically trained pianist, civil rights activist and one of the greatest artists of the last century. Did you know she rang David Bowie often? His cover of Wild is The Wind is one of my favourites.

Cover of The switchNext up, some Sci-fi. The Switch is Justina Robson’s twelfth book. She’s won two Arthur C. Clarke awards and been nominated for many others. GoodReads is calling this one ‘ground breaking.’

Harmony is a ‘perfect’ society. To maintain this illusion, the defective are ‘dealt with’ (eradicated). Nico and Twostar are two tough cookies from the slums. They are survivors. Can they overcome Nico being sentenced to death for murder, or the loss of his mind?

Cover of The river singsThe River Sings is Sandra Leigh Price’s second book. An historical novel, it has been awarded the Women’s Weekly Book Club Great Read seal of approval.

The River Sings follows the fortunes of Eglantine, from mysterious beginnings in London to her father’s transportation to the Australian colonies for pick-pocketing. Eglantine must live by her wits and follow his footsteps if she is to survive.

Cover of Lies the mushroom pickers toldIn Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told, by Tom Phelan, journalist Patrick Bracken returns to the village of his childhood in Gohen, Ireland. He’s come back to investigate two deaths that occurred when he was a child. Patrick knows the deaths weren’t accidental, the legal ruling, because he and his best friend were witnesses…