The Queen’s Almoner has a problem…

Today I’m excited to share in celebrating the release of a new historical novel, set in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary QoS is one of the most intriguing  women of the 16th century, inspiring a large body of fiction and drama, the latest being the movie Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan. Her story has so many facets to explore. I sometimes wonder how her experiences would look in a modern-day context, but am more than happy to read more about her in historical fiction.

The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown is being released today and is going directly to my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to interviewing Tonya later this year for Last Word of the Week, and discovering more about her historical fiction.

In the meantime….Look at the blurb! Look at the cover! Enjoy!

 

The Queen’s Almoner

Sometimes loyalty to the queen comes at a cost. 

Thomas Broune is a Reformer and childhood friend of the young queen, Mary Stuart. When Mary embarks on a new life in her estranged homeland of Scotland, Thomas is there to greet her and offer his renewed friendship. But the long-time friends grow closer, and Thomas realizes his innocent friendship has grown into something more. Yet he is a man of the cloth. Mary is the queen of the Scots. Both of them have obligations of an overwhelming magnitude: he to his conscience and she to her throne.

The Queen's Almoner by Tonya U Brown
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown

When he must choose between loyalty to his queen or his quiet life away from her court, he finds that the choice comes at a high price. Driven by a sense of obligation to protect those he loves, and crippled by his inability to do so, Thomas must come to terms with the choices he has made and find a peace that will finally lay his failures to rest.

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger and The Road to Liberation

Reschen Valley Series by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

Chrystyna LUCYK-BERGER is the author of the award-winning, RESCHEN VALLEY series, and this year she released a collection of short WWII stories called Souvenirs from Kiev, based on the lives of her relatives from Ukraine,

Starting on May 5th, Chrystyna’s new novel Magda’s Mark is featured in The Road to Liberation,  a six-author collection of novels dedicated to commemorating the end of WWII.

Chrystyna is an American ex-pat living in Austria (yes, Austria in Europe – not Australia!) and apologises to the proper English speakers for her American “spelling” mistakes.

In the Alps
In the Alps

Thank you so much for joining me today, Chrystyna. You have an impressive list of novels now. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

Chrystyna: I was in the second grade and Mrs Sharon Davis “made” us write stories. Around Halloween, she told us to write a ghost story. At that time, I was really into haunted house and ghost stories – I was reading way above my level and things that were probably not really meant for a 7-year-old.

I compiled a hodgepodge of impressions (read: I plagiarized) and on the day, we were all told to sit in a circle on the floor. One kid after another stood up and read their “paragraph” to us. I tried to pay attention, but everyone was bored, and squirming, and poking at one another and giggling about this and that. You know how it is? Then Mrs Davis called my name.

I stood up with about six sheets in my hands. I saw her raise her eyebrows; I saw the jawline tighten. I was really nervous – chunky kid, glasses, a nerd, really – but I stood up and started “telling the tale” so to speak. A minute or so into it, I realized something was really wrong. It was quiet; absolutely silent in the room. When I looked up from my story, I saw everyone – including Mrs Davis, her face beaming full of pride – was paying attention. I went home and told everyone I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

That’s brilliant! What a great story. You obviously have a great imagination, but how much research is involved in your writing?

I write historical fiction and so I do a lot of research. I read somewhere that a historical fiction writer reads an average of 35 books before they’re done with one novel. That sounds about right. My mother is a history buff. She’s now involved in my research: she prepares the research for my history and culture blog and she does all the groundwork for my new books now.

A lot of my invested time (and money!) is spent visiting the settings in my books as well. So, for the Reschen Valley series, only for the purposes of writing the six books, I’ve been in South Tyrol probably fifteen or sixteen times. I travelled to Ukraine and lived in Poland while writing the Ukrainian stories. For Magda’s Mark, I just managed a trip to the Czech Republic and the town of Litomerice before the Corona shut-down. I hope to go again before we republish the book as a standalone. It needs another gust of Czech wind in there.

How wonderful to visit all those places. I hope we can all travel again soon. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!

I plot these days and still I manage to get stuck because I have a tendency to overcomplicate things. This is something very true about my nature, period. I’ve been fighting hard to simplify, simplify, simplify in all aspects of my life. It’s working pretty well for the most part; I chalk it up to über-50 wisdom. However, when I’m writing intensely I can still get tangled up in the weeds. My husband is my sounding board and 90% of the time he is the reason I get unstuck.

I love a handy husband! What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

It’s insane, really. I’m actually “writing” four horses across the river at once. I’m rewriting the first half of the next Reschen Valley installment and still have to draft the second half by mid-July; I’ve got some smaller rewrites to do on Magda’s Mark before it gets published as a standalone (some of my readers have already begged for an expansion of the story); I have another WWII novel forming in my head; and the last installment of the Reschen Valley should come out sometime next year, too. And then? I’d love to tackle my 16th-century Ottoman series that I plotted in 2017!

Wow, I think you need to be locked down to get all that done! What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours? I think they are wonderful.

I might have the most remarkable and unique relationship to a cover designer out there. Ursula Hechenberger-Schwärzler was one of my first trainees when I started to doing corporate trainings in Austria. She and her colleagues became my first friends here. She was working as a graphic designer, then left for Australia to do her master’s in photography. When she returned, I hired her to do the branding for my company and she’s been working for me since and is also one of my dearest friends. When I decided to go Indie, I asked whether she thought she might be able to design my book covers. We did everything: research trip to study English book covers in Zurich bookstores, storyboard for the Reschen Valley series, costuming, finding the models, photo shoots, coming up with the final titles, everything. She happened to travel to Ukraine to work with a dog sanctuary and had photos of Kiev available when I put out Souvenirs. She went to the Czech Republic with me for Magda’s Mark and we spent almost a week together as she shot scenery and architecture and I did my historical research. She’s so fully invested in the projects!

Chrystyna and Ursula
Chrystyna and Ursula

That’s wonderful. What a great partnership. Where do you write?

Four years ago, my husband and I finally moved into our dream house. Some people would balk: we live in the mountains of Austria, in the middle of woods and field, on a hiking trail. We bought a holiday home where we live year-round. Our heating is a tiled oven, we have a huge outdoor area where we practically live half the year, and we renovated the hut in a way that the walls and ceilings never feel as if they are about to crash around us. We have learned to live more simply, get by with a lot less, and to simplify (remember, it’s my motto). I work from my office or in the garden or in the Stube, the traditional Austrian “living area”. I also run a coaching and training business, where I teach business communication courses and do consultations, so I actually do go out and mingle with people. I need that as much as I need my peace and quiet. It’s a great balance!

That sounds wonderful. Do you send out newsletters to readers?

I do! I have three segments: a Morning Coffee with Chrystyna that goes out once a month and provides an update and more personal view of me and my work. Then a Free-Books Fridays segment that goes out once or twice a month depending on the cross-promotions I do with other authors. And there is a Historical and Cultural Background segment that deals with some aspect of my WIP or most recent release. I have also done author interviews in these segments, which you were a part of last year featuring your novel, Stars of the Night.

Yes, I remember gratefully. And readers can sign up for these goodies at your website, using this link. I’ve signed up just now.

The Road to Liberation Collection (featuring Chrystyna’s story Magda’s Mark) was released on May 5th and the ebook is only 99 cents until May 11th. It’s a great deal for six novellas in one book.

 

Chrystyna’s Social Media Links

Facebook: www.facebook.com/inktreks

Twitter: @ckalyna

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ckalyna

Subscribe to her Newsletter: https://www.subscribepage.com/RSV

Homepage: www.inktreks.com

Reschen Valley Box Set

https://www.books2read.com/u/bppvLg

Souvenirs from Kiev

mybook.to/Souvenirs

Road to Liberation (Featuring Magda’s Mark)

books2read.com/RoadtoLiberation

It’s Here! People Like Us by Louise Fein

People Like Us by Louise Fein

Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.

People Like Us is being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.

Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?

Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us (in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.

The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?

The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.

I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?

It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).

That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.

My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.

That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…

So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of  forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.

People Like Us by Louise Fein
People Like Us by Louise Fein

I believe you have a family connection to this story?

The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.

Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?

It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.

It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!

You can discover Hetty and Walter’s story here:

UK

https://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545005

https://www.waterstones.com/book/people-like-us/louise-fein/9781789545005

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Louise-Fein/People-Like-Us/23814992

Australia

https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781789545012/people-like-us/

https://www.amazon.com.au/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545013

USA

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062964054

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughter-of-the-reich-louise-fein/1132922940?ean=9780062964052

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062964052/?utm_campaign=aps&utm_medium=athrweb&utm_source=aps

The Ten Minute Rule and other anti-sad hacks

I’m not sure about you, but I find our current life has moments of deep worry and depression. The certainty that life will never be the same; the danger that prevents socialisation; the thousands of deaths.

I’m not a truly depressive person in general. Usually the opposite. Anyone who studies WWI needs a basis of balance if they are not to fall into despair, and I got through my PhD without losing my mind (I think). But this? Without the structure of the old normal, sometimes I don’t even know what day of the week it is.

With my routines (gym, work, book events, social commitments, family gatherings) now relegated to ‘the old days’, I need to find another way to be me. Who would have thought that my old study practices could be useful during a global pandemic?

I’m a born student.* I love to learn something new. Not only that, I love to be tested on what I’ve learned (I know! Crazy stuff.). Give me a deadline to write an essay. Please! Invent an assessment task that will keep my mind busy. Now! Structure, people, structure! It’s delicious, and it keeps me balanced.

So here are five modified tips from my happy study years. These show you the ways that I now attempt to sort my days into chunks of time. These hacks give me a feeling of being useful, of playing my part, and of being me, as well as a sense of achievement. Maybe they’ll help you too.

  1. The Ten Minute Rule. This is the one for activities that don’t thrill you. Like picking up your study books after a long day at work. Like clearing out the garage. Like doing the ironing. Like cleaning the bathroom. The rule is this: Do what you have to do for just 10 minutes. Time it with the stopwatch on your phone. It’s only 10 minutes. Anyone can do that. And woo-hoo when the buzzer goes. Naturally, if you get hooked into the task and can stick at it for longer, yay for you. If not, at least you’ve done it for ten minutes. That, my friends, is progress.
  2. Limit Your Time Strictly. I know what you’re saying. That’s counter-intuitive. But it actually works. Choose a specific time to tackle an unattractive task – say 7.30pm to 8.30pm – and go to. But you MUST cease at 8.30, and leave the room to go and do something else like relax with the fam in front of a movie. Chances are that you will be itching to get back the next evening to complete the task. So, yay, you have just stoked your own motivation. Or if it’s still a horrible task, you’re an hour up on getting it finished. Still winning.
  3. Make a List. Sounds obvious, right? But now is the right time to think about multiple lists. A list of jobs you dislike. A list of activities you want to do. A list of people to phone or email. I enjoy the satisfaction of crossing items off my list (I favour tick boxes myself) and the sense of order that lists bring. You can prioritise items by difficulty, by time required, by level of unattractiveness, by tools needed, by energy expenditure, and so on. Another fun way to do this is to cut your list into strips of single tasks, fold them up and put them in a jar (or a few jars – one for 10 minute jobs, one for daylight tasks, whatever…). Then have a lucky dip to see what job to do next. Yay, you’ve just added excitement to a list of boring tasks!
  4. Be Kind to Yourself.  Saints and perfect people, of course, don’t need to read this tip. But the rest of us do. Your plan didn’t work out? You skipped a day? You fudged a task? You decided that you needed rest more? You got distracted by reading a good book? (Perfect excuse, IMHO.) Thats’ OK. Last time I looked, you were a human being. Please stay that way. Life doesn’t always go to plan, even without interruptions from global pandemics. Give yourself permission to try again another time.
  5. Be Your Own Administrator. This sounds weird, but how can you judge your progress if nobody checks? I think that it’s a great idea to put aside 30 minutes once a week. Me, I like Friday afternoon tea time. Grab a cuppa and a snack, and check over your lists. Some items can be removed from the lists. Bonus. Maybe you finished them, or you don’t care now whether it happens or not, or changes in the world mean certain tasks are no longer possible. Some items need to be moved up in priority, and others can be demoted. Further items may just have appeared. After all, you’re about to start a new week, and a week is a long time in the world’s history as we now know it. You might need to give yourself a pat on the back, or a pep talk, or a bit of both. But now you know where you are, and you can make new lists to forge ahead.

These are the fuzzy lines I draw around my days. Maybe they can help you too. Next time, I’ll write a bit more about the three top considerations for emotional health during the pandemic shutdown: flexibility, empathy, and creativity. But that’s for another post.

* Study and me – a love story. You can read more about my excessive education on the About Clare page.

 

The Stars and Anzac Day

This week, we will mark Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in over a century, there will be no attending official services. The pandemic changes how we mark historic events, just as it changes how we celebrate or grieve personal events. I’m aiming to be up at 6am next Saturday, to watch dawn from my front garden and to think about the enduring legacy of war, and how world events affect us here Down Under.

Just in time, there is a fabulous new review of my WWI Anzac story.

My heartfelt thanks to Baffled Bear Books for this brilliant, thoughtful review of The Stars in the Night.

The Stars in the Night is indeed a tale of enduring love. This review is well worth a read. I’m very grateful to find such wonderful readers!

https://baffledbearbooks.com/2020/04/18/stars-in-the-night-by-clare-rhoden-a-story-of-broken-lives-and-enduring-love/

Aunt Jodie’s not-so-little secret

Jordan Bell is a psychologist and educator with a passion for helping children and parents learn about science. She also has a not-so-secret super-hero identity: she is Aunt Jodie of Aunt Jodie’s Guides to (just about) Everything!

Jordan’s first book, Aunt Jodie’s Guide to Evolution, gives kids a fun and fascinating understanding of the key concepts underlying the theory of evolution, using REAL science. It’s perfect for parents who want to inspire a love of science in children (7-11 year olds) or to start a child’s science education early. It’s especially useful for parents who would like their kids to have more female role models in science.

Definitely on board with that, I say (tucking my B App Sci into my back pocket with a happy sigh).

Author Jordan Bell
Author Jordan Bell

Welcome, Jordan, and thanks for speaking with me on this episode of Last Word of the Week. Can you tell us a bit more about you and your books?

Jordan: As a nerdy mama to a curious primary-schooler who always wants to understand the “why?” of life, I have had lots of experience in putting complicated ideas into words that little brains can understand.

So what is Aunt Jodie’s Guide to Evolution?

It’s not just another boring bedtime story! It’s a science adventure into the ancient past that makes learning about the basics of evolution fun and engaging, and uses words and concepts that are right for kids in middle and upper primary school. For anyone new to science, my Aunt Jodie’s Guides also include an easy-to-read glossary, explaining the scientific terms used in the book and how to pronounce them.

Sounds great. Now let’s find out a bit more about you. What was your favourite book as a child?

My favourite book as a child was The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Not only is it an amazing tale about the power of stories, but also such a spell-binding title to a child who constantly begged for yet another trip to the library – a book that never ended? Sign me up! My dad bought me a really beautiful hardback edition when it was first released in English, which was printed in red and green ink with illustrated chapter initials. That exact copy was lost to the mists of time but my husband tracked down a copy for me a few years ago and I treasure it. I’ll be reading it to my daughter this year!

A book that deserves to be a lifetime favourite! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?

I’m most productive when I have a morning to myself and I can take my laptop to my favourite café, fuel up on french toast and tea, and write for 3-4 hours. They are used to me doing this now and top up my teapot without asking. I can write anywhere as long as I have half an hour and a computer, but that’s my preferred routine.

That sounds like the perfect writing space, and writers should always have a ready supply of French toast and tea. How do you feel about reviews?

I love them! I would really like some more! Having said that, if there’s anyone out there who hasn’t appreciated my book, they haven’t chosen to share those thoughts with me, so my experiences have all been positive at this stage. I might feel differently after some critical feedback!

What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

The greatest review I ever got was from the son of a friend:
“I thought the book was fantastic. I learnt lots, I never got bored and never wanted to stop reading it, it was very clear and it’s also a very fun way to put it. I would rate this book 5 stars and I normally pick out every single fault.”

But I’ve had lots of people excited about the idea of a book about evolution for children, it seems like a book that is needed out there in the world!

Aunt Jodies Guide_Cover Print

Yes indeed! What kind of reader would like your books?

I write Aunt Jodie’s Guides for primary-school aged kids, to help them get their heads around big scientific ideas that will have an impact on their life. I started with explaining evolution, because I think that’s the kind of idea that — if you can understand it as you are growing and learning — will change the way you view the world. We desperately need future citizens who are well-informed about the science that underpins our natural and technological worlds, and I think kids are a capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for, if we explain it properly.

Hear, hear! Is it easy for readers to find your book/s?

Anyone who searches Aunt Jodie’s Guide should find my online store pretty easily, and the bookshops that have stocked me so far have been very generous about displaying my book face out so hopefully a few people have stumbled across it that way!

That’s great, let’s hope for more stumbles. What would be a dream come true for you?

I’d love to have my book picked up as a series by a publisher with the scope to share these ideas worldwide and maybe even in other languages! I’m currently working on Aunt Jodie’s Guide to Climate Change, and I have strong ideas for more books in the series as Aunt Jodie explains the human body, space science, and computers!

All books that I think need to be in the world as soon as possible. Please keep writing! And thank you so much for sharing with me today.

 

Aunt Jodie’s links:

https://www.facebook.com/AuntJodiesGuides/

www.auntjodiesguide.com

Twitter:  @AuntJodiesGuide

Best online buying link: www.gumroad.com/jordanbell

 

Don’t Blame Science Fiction

The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.

In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.

Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Winter trilogy is right on topic.

Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.

Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.

I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?

I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:

Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.

This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.

I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.

Until next time, read on!

*Paul Zweig (1974) The Adventurer: the fate of adventure in the western world.

Seven tiny steps towards a future

I just wrote a long paragraph about the bushfires that are rampaging across Australia, but I deleted it. Nobody can be unaware. Everyone can see the destruction and count the cost. The better question is: what can we do about it?

An intransigence of climate-change sceptics deny any connection between this disaster and humanity’s actions. It keeps them busy, I guess. I see no hope of winning that argument. Instead of bashing my head against the stoutly defended walls of Big Money, I’m regretfully abandoning them as impossible to save.

In my quest to remain hopeful and positive – because humans do have children who deserve a future – I’m seeking new ways to support the Earth. Plus there are only so many pictures of mummified wallabies I can carry in my heart. Fund raising and physical help (money, goods, offers of accommodation and assistance) will continue years into the future as we strive to recover, so there will be no shortage of actions to take after the event (so big and so new it doesn’t yet have a name). Yet I don’t want to just sit and watch, so…

Here’s a starting list of seven tiny things I can do right now:

  1. Something that I’ve only just heard of: Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees
  2. Plus a new blogger to follow: InspireCreateEducate
  3. Check out The New Joneses for tips on living a big life with a little footprint
  4. Grow your love of retro every day: make Buy Nothing New a permanent resolution
  5. Share hopeful images to help nurture mental health, like the dog playpen on HMAS Choules
  6. Step outside and observe your world: the air, the birds, the plants, the locals, and think about how much you love them all
  7. Tell your people you love them

I’m certain I will find more and stronger actions as time progresses. We really have no choice but to do so. The future is coming. Let’s try to make it one we can live in.

Crisis Interruptis

I interrupt the regular run of Last Word of the Week with an explanatory story about Australian dystopian fiction and bushfires.

Apologies to anyone looking for my Middle Child post – that’s been rescheduled to next week. The national bushfire emergency is too high a priority.

I wish I’d never written that book

As the climate emergency continues, I’m forced to reflect on my writing. One social media post I saw described a bookshop as moving its post-apocalyptic fiction books to the current affairs section.

I feel the same.

The Chronicles of the Pale started with a dream – or nightmare – in which desperate refugees were shut out of a fenced compound, and those of us inside were prevented from bringing them in to safety. This dream arose from Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees, a policy condemned by the UN. Scott Morrison as the Minister for Immigration at the time introduced Operation Sovereign Borders, and his lack of empathy, his inhumanity, his stubborn conviction that he and only he was right, inspired the cruel characters who rule inside my fictional policosmos, the Pale. Jason the Senior Forecaster and Élin the Regent care only for themselves.

If Australia had been a more compassionate country, I would never have written The Pale. I truly wish that was the case – better a world with care for refugees than a world with one more dystopian novel in it. I wish I had never had to write that book.

ruins pale

And I wish I’d never written the next one

In Book 2, Broad Plain Darkening, it’s the discriminatory practices of the Settlement that come under the most scrutiny. It is no surprise to me, now, to reflect that this novel was written during the bitter gay marriage referendum debate that occupied Australians at the time. I was also extremely distressed by the live export controversy, and got nowhere with my communication to the then Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce. Profit above all, no matter who or what suffers.

I can see my rejection of this every time one of my favourite characters acts in a compassionate way, every time they work against discrimination and cruelty. It’s sad to think that my fictional folk – humans and animals – have more heart than many of my fellow Australians. Brettin, the outrageously upright Lady of the Temple, represents all that distresses me about religion and prejudice. And that’s saying something.

Now that the current Federal Government is pushing through its religious ‘tolerance’ bill, allowing many acts of bigotry to flourish unchecked in the spurious name of religious freedom (ie freedom to discriminate against the LGBTI+ community), I’m sad that Book 2 also had to be written. A better world would never have the need for such a story.

BPD horses

If only I hadn’t written the third book!

And so we get to the climate.

The Chronicles of the Pale 3, The Ruined Land, is about my fictional world falling apart under the feet of all the communities that depend on it. Here’s what happens:

Volcanoes destroy the Shaking Land – and yes I did write that before White Island erupted just off the New Zealand coast.

Unchecked fires rage through the Broken Ranges and send smoke across the entire continent, with displaced and starving ursini (bear creatures) invading Broad Plain because their habitat is gone – yes I did write that before Australia burst into unprecedented flame.

Water floods the land as the temperature rises and the ice caps melt back into the sea … and I wrote that before Australia patted the Pacific islands on the head and told them not to panic. Does any of this sound familiar?

In my story, there is even a child – Jasper Valkirrasson – who does his best, at great personal cost, to warn the crusty old misanthropes at the old Settlement about the coming danger. I wrote Jasper’s courage and his big heart before I had even heard of Greta Thunberg, but if I hadn’t , she would certainly have been my model.

The Ruined Land was written at a time when – again and again – Australia turned its back on environmental reform in the name of money, and held the position that Australia had no desire or mandate to be a world leader in this field. True, our overall effect may be comparatively small, but we are also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. We should care more. Many of us do, and we take the small steps we can, because we can’t keep on pretending that how we live has no effect on the planet.

TRL fire

I hope to never write dystopia again

I would like to live in an Australia that was compassionate, ethical, and environmentally responsible. I would like us to spend our money on resettlement of refugees, on bushfire mitigation strategies and equipment, on sensible use of water, on transitioning away from live export, on responsible waste treatment, on public transport, on the preservation of wildlife habitat, and so much more. People will shout about the cost, but our current policies are just as costly in dollars, and much more costly in long-term damage to the Earth and its inhabitants, of all species.

I have to say that unfortunately I’m planning to have The Chronicles of the Pale #4 ready for late 2021.

This post is, and isn’t, about writing. Writing, for me, can’t be divorced from who I am and what I believe. All the same, the books can simply be read as a story. I’m just so sad that so much of it has come true.

Next week, current affairs permitting, I’ll be back to plain old talk about books!

 

The Silence: cover reveal

Cover Reveal!

Today I’m jumping up and down with excitement as the cover of Susan Allott’s debut novel The Silence is revealed. The Silence will be released in April next year.

I’ve been lucky enough to have Susan answer a few questions, too, about her writing process and the story behind her novel, a suspenseful mystery about a missing woman, marriage, emigration, children, and especially secrets. The Silence has been compared to both Jane Harper’s The Dry and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.

I can’t wait to read it.

Welcome, Susan! At last, your cover is here, and it looks wonderful. Covers are so important. Can you tell us something about the process for you? Who gets to design and choose the cover – do you have input? And what about the title – was that your choice?

Susan: My covers were done by the in-house team at Harper Collins, one designer based in the US and one in the UK. The US cover came through first and I thought it was beautiful but I did ask for some changes. I had a very specific image in my mind of what the houses on Bay Street look like, and it bothered me that the houses on the cover weren’t exactly as I’d described them in the book. The designers went away and made the changes I’d asked for and when it came back the houses were accurate, but the cover was no longer beautiful! It was a good lesson. I realised the cover needs to evoke the book rather than depict it in a literal way, and it needs to be attractive to potential readers.

When the UK cover came through I loved it immediately. It’s so intriguing and inviting: exactly the kind of book I would pick up in a bookshop.

The title was my choice but it took me ages to come up with it! My book is about a woman whose disappearance goes unnoticed for thirty years, but it’s also about Australia’s ‘forced removal’ policy which continued for decades, and most white Australians were somehow unaware of it. We were trying to find a title which brought those two elements together, but nothing was quite right.

In the end I went back through working titles I’d used before I found a publisher. One of these was ‘The Great Silence’, a quote from W.E.H. Stanner’s famous lecture which describes a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ around the history of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I played around with it a bit – ‘The Long Silence’? ‘The Huge Silence’? – but of course the more powerful title was the simplest one. I sent an email to my editor and agent: ‘How about The Silence?’ And they both replied ‘I love that.’

It was such a relief, that we’d found the right title, but also that we’d held out for one that really worked instead of compromising. It’s so right for the book, I can’t believe we didn’t think of it sooner.

Silence_CoverReveal_1200x1200

Do you have a favourite task in writing, such as scribbling ideas, fleshing out scenes, inventing characters, visiting locations, editing? If so, why?

I get the most pleasure out of editing. I do a lot of deleting, rewording, deleting again, over and over until it finally works. My happy place is sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, reworking what I wrote yesterday and making it shine. I have to force myself to push on and write new material. I think it’s because the first draft is often so flat and clichéd that it dents my confidence. I need to get over that. I do know that even the best writers’ first drafts are appalling.

I’m going to ask you to play favourites: who is your most beloved character in your own writing, and why?

I think I’d have to say Mandy, the character whose disappearance is central to The Silence. She’s a 1960s Australian housewife who doesn’t fit the mould. Her husband wants nothing more than a brood of children and she is secretly taking the Pill.

Over 50% of the novel is set in the 1960s, before Mandy disappeared, so we get to know her well. I wanted her absence to be felt in the chapters set thirty years later. Hopefully she comes across as complex and relatable, as flawed as we all are. She’s been in my head a long time.

Can you tell us something about yourself that you think readers should know?

The Silence began as a story about my experience of living and working in Sydney in the late nineties. More specifically, my experience of failing to love Australia, while everyone around me seemed so happy and at home. The book I tried to write was about a young British woman called Louisa who, like me, left Australia to return to the UK. Then she got home and wondered what was wrong with her. That experience of overwhelming homesickness was my starting point. But the story didn’t come to life until I started exploring the world Louisa had left behind: her husband Joe and their neighbours, Steve and Mandy. I wrote against my own experience, describing Australia through the eyes of people who loved it and called it home.

I fought the idea of setting the book entirely in Australia for a long time. Funnily enough, I met an Australian man in London a few years later, and went on to marry him! He encouraged me to keep writing. We visited Australia a few times over the years and gradually I accepted that my story was there. In part the novel is about the experience of migration, and how liberating it can be to make a new home on your own terms, even though that didn’t happen for me.

Are there any particular writers or books that inspired you on your own creative path?

The biggest influences for me while writing The Silence were Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara – the book and the film. Tim Winton too of course, I’ve read everything of his including his memoirs. Oh and Evie Wyld is incredible. The trouble is, these wonderful writers can be slightly intimidating and I spent a few years thinking my writing wouldn’t be good enough until I sounded like them. I think I took a long time to accept that my own voice was ok. I read a lot of non-fiction too while I was researching. The stolen generation storyline was inspired initially by a passage in a book called Australia: a biography of a nation by Phillip Knightley. There’s a section in that book about an Australian policeman who used to come home from work, sit at the back of the house and cry. I knew I wanted to tell his story.

What would you say is the most difficult barrier to overcome in writing a novel and having it published? Do you have advice about that, or a good story of how you got there?

I think the hardest thing is to keep going, especially when you’re aware of how hard it is to get published. For me, the challenge of writing alongside the demands of work and family life sometimes felt insurmountable. My advice would be not to fixate too much on publication as a goal, especially not in the early drafts. Write primarily for yourself and try to write the kind of book you love to read. If you love your book and enjoy writing it, that will come through on the page.

I’d also caution against giving up the day job too soon. Time is not always your friend. I never had enough time to write for the first few years, when my kids were little and I was working. I wrote whenever I could find a spare hour in the day. (Sometimes it was only twenty minutes.) It gave me an urgency when I did sit down to write that may not have been there otherwise. Writing was always the thing I did when I should have been doing something else. My me-time.

That said, I think it was a gift from the Universe when I was made redundant at the end of 2018. I had an agent by that stage and she was keen to submit my manuscript before the London Book Fair in March this year. The months I spent writing full time in the run-up to submission were completely immersive and I’m not sure I’d have managed it if I’d still been employed. I might have found the time somehow but I wouldn’t have had the headspace.

And the book did sell in the run-up to the Fair! I don’t like talking about luck, when really it’s sheer stamina that gets the book written in the end, but I do feel very lucky that I had that period of time to finish the book just when I needed it.

What was the most difficult scene to write in the novel – you don’t have to give away spoilers!

There’s a scene about a third of the way through where Isla, my protagonist, starts to question her long-held loyalty to her father, who is suspected of murder. I needed to show her range of emotion while also managing the plot and the logistics of the scene. The hard part always is trying to be subtle, but not so subtle that the reader loses the thread of where the character is coming from. I’m pleased with that scene now but it took forever and I drank an awful lot of coffee.

What are you most looking forward to in your writing?

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the new book, which is set in London this time. I want to get the sense of momentum again, where the hours go by and I barely notice. Other than that, I’m not sure if this is strictly ‘writing’ but I want to hold the published copy of The Silence in my hand and flick through the pages. I can’t think of anything more exciting.

That will be a wonderful day indeed. Congratulations, Susan, and I’m looking forward to holing a copy too – and reading it!

The Silence by Susan Allott will be released on April 30th 2020.

Susan’s links:

Website: www.susanallott.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sallottauthor/

Twitter: @SusanAllott

Instagram: @susanallottauthor