The Waste Land begins with a chapter titled The Burial of the Dead. The very first line says that ‘April is the cruellest month’. What an attention-grabbing start!
The 434-line poem is Eliot’s extended lament for the lost lives and the destruction of the 1914-1918 war. He’s talking about the collapse of civilised behaviour, the wanton wreckage, the widespread despair. And he does it in style.
When I got home from my walk, I looked up the poem, recalling that it includes dozens of splendid lines. Then I discovered (re-discovered?) that the poem’s first publication was in 1922.
Lo and behold, 2022 would be the centenary!
The idea of an anthology of Wasteland stories burst into my head. Wow! so many good lines there that are almost irresistible as story titles – for something in literary speculative fiction genres. (Literary spec fic? Think Margaret Attwood and Octavia Butler.) Look at these phrases for a start, all from The Waste Land:
a heap of broken images
they called me the hyacinth girl
looking into the heart of light
the barbarous king
are you alive, or not?
I’ve invited a select band of other active speculative fiction authors to write short stories springing from Eliot’s poem. I’m thrilled to say that we are a merry band of 19 writers. You can see more about them here.
‘From the Waste Land: speculative fiction inspired by Eliot’ will include ghost stories, fantasy, horror, steampunk, dystopia and queer romance. All will be intriguing and amazing tales.
I’m doing my best to ensure that this anthology will come out in the second half of 2022 to coincide with the poem’s centenary. I’m very busy querying publishers–no easy feat when we don’t actually have a completed manuscript on hand yet! And of course, I’m writing up a storm with my collaborators…
It’s going to be fabulous. Keep an eye peeled for more news about this wonderful project.
A year of potential, of reckoning, of change and reassessment. A year of the Tiger, a strong character who banishes evil and demonstrates courage. It’s a year to keep going.
For me, 2022 is a year for new writing projects, and the completion of earlier ones. Let me show you my planned journey.
New writing projects
From the WasteLand
An anthology of literary speculative fiction inspired by TS Eliot’s seminal poem The Waste Land, first published in October 1922.
If you are unfamiliar with the poem, suffice it to say that it’s as long as a novella, and its subject matter is the fragmentation of society during and after World War One (WWI). All in beautiful, strange, evocative words. I’ll be writing a lot more about this project soon. It’s going to be wonderful and amazing.
In this novel, I’m focussing on the Australian home front during WWI.
If you’re familiar with Stars, you’ll know that it’s the story of two brothers, Harry and Eddie, who fight at Gallipoli and in France. This new book will fill in all the gaps about what was happening back in Semaphore. More about this story as it progresses. I hope to have the whole manuscript completed this year to submit for publishing in 2023 or 2024.
Don’t worry, How to Survive Your Magical Family is definitely coming this year, from the wonderful Odyssey Books. There have been just too many interruptions to the publishing industry, and too much pressure on staff due to the pandemic.
I’m now hoping for a February release. And I’ll most definitely keep you updated!
In 2021, I kept busy with some substantial shorter fiction for themed anthologies, as well as the odd little tale for drabble collections (a drabble is a tale told in EXACTLY 100 words, no more, no less).
New Tales of Old Volume 2
New fantasy tales based on old myths, fairy stories and legends.
This fantastic (pun intended) anthology is coming from Black Ink Fiction in March. My story features the Cwn Annwn, ghostly hounds of the Welsh hunt.
Stories about a fantasy ancient kingdom inspired by Greek myths and legends
In this wholly realised world, gods and demons vie for supremacy, with humans at risk. Twelve inter-linked stories unfold the tale of the semi-divine women who must face the demons. My story is ‘Ione and the Sea Demon’. This is also coming from Black Ink Fiction in 2022.
Fantasy tales of a malevolent magic mirror
An ancient curse, a lingering threat: these stories tell of the evil effects of the broken mirror’s curse. The stories are all based on legends and all feature the fateful Fae mirror. My story ‘Lady Marian’s Gambit’ plays with the Robin Hood legend. This is coming in 2022 from the groundbreaking Australian independent Black Hare Press.
This wintry horror collection features my drabble about the Sugar Plum Fairy. The book is available now from Black Ink Fiction. Here’s a link: Winter Shocks
Today I’m excited to host Veronica Strachan and Darren Kasenkow as they tell us all about their inspiring project. Veronica and Darren are the co-founders of Australian Book Lovers and the co-hosts of the popular podcast of the same name. They’ve created a site that’s brilliant for readers and writers.
Love Australian books? Go straight to their site, sign up for the newsletter, subscribe to the fabulous chatty, engaging, informative podcast. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
What is Australian Book Lovers?
Australian Book Lovers is a platform for Australian and Indigenous authors to list their books, and for readers from across the globe to find them.
About the ABL team:
In between listing books, promoting authors, and recording podcasts, Veronica and Darren are editing their collaborative novel Family Secrets. Book 1 of a new series, ‘Beneath a Burning Heart’, Family Secrets features adventure, romance, and a supernatural twist.
Veronica spent most of her life in the health industry as a nurse, midwife, project manager, CEO, coach, and facilitator. Once she switched her attention to creative writing, she published six books in five years. A memoir, a workbook/journal, and two books in a children’s picture book series, illustrated by her daughter, Cassi. As V.E. Patton, she’s written Book 1 of a fantasy series and a novelette. Soul Staff: Book 2 of her ‘Opal Dreaming Chronicles’, and Chickabella Shapes Up: Book 3 of The Adventures of Chickabella are due for release later in 2021.
Darren appeared on Last Word of the Week earlier this month. He’s an author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction, with thematic elements from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense. His books include The Apocalypse Show, Dust and Devils, See the City Red and The Hallucigenia Project Book One. He’s currently working on the highly anticipated sequel titled Godless, with an expected release date of late 2021.
I’m very excited to talk to Veronica and Darren today about their work and their mission to promote Australian books.
Welcome to 2021 Inspirations
Veronica: Thank you for the chance to post our inspirations to your blog.
What inspired me to get Australian Book Lovers going? Well, if you chat with Darren Kasenkow for more than a few minutes, you are guaranteed to be inspired by his enthusiasm and imagination. We’re co-authoring a book and have chatted regularly over Zoom over the last couple of years. I was getting to know lots of Aussie writers through the Twitter #AusWrites hashtag started by Rebecca Langham (and now assisted by Kevin Klehr) and the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge (Reading more works by Australian women writers).
Both DK and I were doing everything we could as Indie authors to promote our books in the crowded marketplace, and in the midst of COVID-19!!! I can’t help coaching – looking for potential and nurturing it forth, it’s in the blood – and wanting to support other people in reaching for their dreams, in this case Aussie authors! The conversation got around to … wouldn’t it be good if all the Australian authors were in one place… and easy to find and promote. I’m pretty sure it was DK who said,
“We should start a website”
and he came up with the name Australian Book Lovers. As a serial small business entrepreneur, it was the green light to get started.
The continuing inspiration comes from the authors themselves. The podcast is my favourite. It is an absolute honour to chat with so many creative imaginative people and to hear about what inspires them. And then to spend time chatting with my friend Darren about anything and everything writing and reading that takes our fancy. If one of us is feeling a bit flat, it only takes a minute or two to be uplifted by the other person’s energy and enthusiasm.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! And an extra huge thank you for shining a light on great people and artists of all passions – in a world that’s continuously turning upside down it’s a beautiful thing to know beautiful conversations are happening 🙂
As for inspirations behind the Australian Book Lovers website and podcast, my writing, and of course my insatiable appetite for all things that ignite the imagination, I guess I have to say it probably has to do with those truly magical moments of discovery as a kid that held a recipe for transcending time.
The promise of wonder in a new book
is just the same today as it was when my bedtime was out of my hands and a new tale to read was a whole new world to discover and learn from. I love all art and forms of expression, yet books continue to be portals that I just don’t think other mediums can beat (and I say that as someone who loves to explore the technology of virtual reality!).
I write with the hope my story might inspire the same love of literary portals that I’ve been lucky enough to carry with me throughout life’s trials and tribulations, and I love working on Australian Book Lovers with Veronica because it represents the chance of sharing great works with readers who also hold the soul of an inner child filled with wonder and the desire to push their imaginations to the limit! Oh, and I love to peek behind the curtains in life, so interviewing authors and industry specialists is an absolute blast!!!!!
Tell us more about Australian Book Lovers, please!
Each listing allows a cover, blurb, bio, and author pic as well as a buy link of the author’s choice. We have hundreds of books from hundreds of authors listed under 12 separate genres/ages. Each page has its mascot – an Australian animal or bird, usually wearing a quirky piece of clothing or a prop instantly recognisable to lovers of those books. You can see two of our favourites in this blog. We’ve just commenced competitions to name all the mascots. The hundreds of people who subscribe to our newsletter get updates on the latest additions to the website, special features and access to author giveaways. Authors get their books shared with our subscribers and all the website visitors. The website changes almost daily, both in terms of books added and functionality. Very soon we’ll have to add multiple pages for our most popular genres. We’ll be offering listings for short fiction in the near future.
which currently has seventeen episodes and over 25 hours of writing news, reading news, author interviews, cameos, book readings, chats with industry experts and expert panels.
It is so inspiring to chat with authors and industry people about their love for writing and publishing. We were blown away by the support of authors for the podcast and amazed at having 1000+ downloads by our listeners in only three months.
There are times when it’s hard to keep up with demand, as we both have our own creative work and careers, but it is a gift to be connecting Australian and Indigenous authors to new readers, and we love it.
Thank you so much to Veronica and Darren for bringing together Australian Book Lovers through their energy and passion for reading, writing, readers and writers. If you are an Australian author yet to take advantage of the free listing service for your book, do it now! If you love reading books by Australian authors, wherever you happen to be in the world, go straight to ABL for a feast of books!
Darren Kasenkow is an Australian author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction to bring together thematic elements ranging from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense.
Darren’s also recently finished a collaboration with bestselling author V.E. Patton on a new adventure series ‘Beneath A Burning Heart’.
I’m excited to host Darren on my blog today. Welcome!
Tell us a bit about what inspires you.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! (You’re welcome and flattery will get you everywhere.)
Ever since I can remember, books have been important tools that have helped me to explore my place in this strange, mystifying universe. When I started writing, I instantly found it to be a magical way of feeling a greater connection with both my imagination and the world around me, and I haven’t looked back since!
I love exploring themes that are centred around the eternal battle between good and evil, whether that battle exists deep in our own heart or across the four corners of the Earth, and I really do believe that with every page I write (as dark as those pages might be!) I learn a little more about who I am.
Ah, the everlasting contest between good and evil – a never-ending inspiration for stories. That’s what makes your books so good!
We are very fortunate – Darren is sharing a sneak preview of
Godless–The Hallucigenia Project Book 2)
Let’s dive in!
The Hallucigenia Project
Book Two: Godless
The crystal walls of the cave beckoned with an electric blue promise of eternity just beyond the glistening frozen surface. A single floodlight was the only pitiful source of warmth beneath the machine carved dome, while beyond the shadows there came from the ice soft symphonies of gentle crazing and cracking.
It wasn’t a big cave. About the size of large bedroom, it held a small wooden desk with a rusted bar stool for a chair, a large chest locked tight with two padlocks, and a scattering of makeshift weightlifting equipment slapped together with wood, various discarded engine parts and buckets of frozen water. With an endless night and harrowing, heart breaking Antarctic winds howling back on the surface, it was a treasured place of retreat. At least, it was for Leon Bzovsky.
The Quantum Physicist wasn’t interested in working out for the moment though. No, for amid the dark and crushing events that had descended upon the remote South Pole it was time for the little ritual that kept his haunting urges at bay. They would rise eventually, but to do so now would be unwise.
“Come now friend,” he whispered softly with his rolling accent, “this is much fresher than the last.”
The Emperor penguin wobbled a little closer to the floodlight where Leon was perched on his knees with a small piece of meat resting in his open hand. It pecked at a corner of the offering and then stared up at the host through tiny black eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Leon asked with a hint of frustration. “It’s only a little ink. Nothing there that can hurt you, but beneath the colours there awaits life.”
The penguin pecked one last time but seemed decided on skipping this particular meal. To assure his friend no disrespect was intended it nestled against Leon’s thigh and gently closed its eyes, content for now in the knowledge there would come another offering in the near future. So, with a shrug of his solid shoulders and a soft tsk tsk tsk, Leon brought the flesh to his mouth and bit down hard. Certainly this was a little fresher than the last, but as the tissue and fat warmed against his tongue there was a distinct bitterness that bordered on being unpleasant.
“Yes,” he mumbled while stroking the penguin’s head, “I see what you mean.”
The silent, vacuum-like ambience of the cavern was suddenly violated by three loud thumps against the makeshift entrance door. Leon quickly swallowed the barely chewed lump and turned his head in frustration. His moment of treasured solitude, it seemed, had come to an end.
With a sharp scraping sound accompanied with falling chunks of ice, the door pushed open and in an instant the harrowing screams of the winds rushed the cave walls. A tall, hulking figure stepped through and then pulled back his hood with thick, snow covered gloves. Leon wasn’t surprised to see that it was Salvador, one half of the remaining security division and a seasoned survivalist from Finland. He was, however, suddenly curious at expression the towering man brought with him, for it was one he hadn’t seen before.
It was an expression of fear.
Leon patted his special friend one last time and rose tall. Already the winds were turning the conditions in his retreat dangerous, and yet the door remained open.
“It seems even at a time like this I cannot enjoy a little time alone,” he remarked while zipping up his jacket.
“We come to the remote edge of the world and still you want more?” Salvador asked with a hint of pity. “Walk one mile in any direction and you’ll have your peace soon enough.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not peace I seek.”
Salvador studied the physicist for a moment, then pushed back thick blonde hair when a wind gust threw it across his eyes.
“You’re wanted back inside,” he announced. “There’s something you need to see.”
Leon nodded his understanding then slipped the thermal hood over his head, lifted cold wool across his face until only his eyes were visible, and mounted a headlamp that was fastened tight around his ears. Behind him the penguin scurried to the nest that had been chipped into the far wall as if performing a ballet for the visitor, and then Leon pushed on thick gloves, reached down, and returned the cave to a state of darkness.
Together they stepped into the endless night. By the glow of the headlamps the relentless hurricane winds seemed truly alive, with glittering tendrils forming shapes like flecked serpent tails that whipped and thrashed in the pursuit of pure destruction. It felt like a barrage of hammers punching hard into their bodies and pressing tight against their bones, making each step in the thick snow a battle of physical tenacity and determination.
In the distance the lights of the station were barely visible, but it was all that was needed to guide them through the frozen nightmare and promise enough that their flesh would be warmed again soon. They would need to move quickly though. With conditions as bad as they could get, it wouldn’t take long for their eyes to become glass marbles ready to shatter at the slightest stumble.
A vague shape emerged from the darkness on the left, and with it the distinct sound of hard clanging metal that joined the symphony of screams and wails of the unseen and unknowable. Instinctively they both pierced through the night with headlamps to illuminate the rusted outline of two large shipping containers that had been welded together. Leon cursed beneath his thermal protection at the shadowed sight of one of the doors lashing to and fro as if it were a metal wing of a broken beast determined to fly, the groaning hinges shaking and rattling in preparation of defeat, and diverted a heavy step towards it.
“Leave it!” Salvador shouted against the wind. “The dead are immune to the cold and besides, there’s no time.”
Oh my goodness! Penguins, blizzard conditions and something (someone?) dead in a shipping container?! Please hurry with the rest of the story, Darren!
Alice McVeigh uses the pen name Spaulding Taylor when she writes science fiction. She may have two names, but she has many more roles than that. She’s a ghostwriter, an editor, a performer , and a musician.
Alice is with me today to talk about what inspires her creative output. She is also sharing an extract from her book Last Star Standing (I love that title!) which is a dystopian sci-fi thriller!
What Inspires Alice
ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:
Basically, I was lucky enough to get a Booker-prize-winning agent when I was still pretty young, along with a two-book contract with Orion (now part of Hachette). These novels sold very well, but not well enough for Orion, who rejected my third.
I then entered a period of real depression, retreating into ghost writing and cello-playing (my only degree is in cello performance, oddly enough!)… But fiction, eventually, pulled me back, and Unbound released my Kirkus-starred speculative thriller only a couple of months ago.
What inspired me? A meditation, which I mention in the interview. It was a crazy experience, having a character come and tap me on the shoulder! – But I’m very grateful all the same…
Thanks Alice, that’s so interesting. It’s not often a character accosts a writer, but it’s worth following up when it does happen.
Ravene, the alien King’s heir, was Aiden’s lover a decade earlier.
Aiden, along with Bully and the gromeline, is in the King’s encampment, on the mission to assassinate the King. Aiden is telling the story.
But Aiden is currently in the body of a hideous Tester, a bull-like humanoid alien. He’s taken aback when Ravene notices him in this guise and insists that he accompany her, alone, to her quarters.
Excerpt from Last Star Standing
Ravene shifted into a sitting position and flinched. She spoke almost to herself, as if I was too stupid to understand. ‘You’re ugly, of course, but then, you’re all ugly. But there’s something different about you. You remind me of someone I first knew years ago.’
Might not have been me, of course. Always sought-after, Ravene. The legs, mostly. She turned her head, reminding me that her profile was tops, as well.
She continued, ‘He was human. Good-looking – not stunningly good-looking, but still handsome – well-built, clever, amusing. Tenten was his name, you might have heard of him? He was only recently executed.’
So the King had lied even to Ravene, his favourite child and acknowledged heir.
As some answer seemed expected, I rasped, ‘A known rebel. A known traitor, lady.’
‘A traitor to us, perhaps, but utterly true to his own people. You must realise, hircht, that I am part-human? My siblings constantly remind creatures of this, in hopes that I might be discounted in the succession.’
I knew all this, of course. Whether most testers would have, I hadn’t a clue. I stood in the approved tester pose: staunch, wooden, dull.
Ugly too, I bet.
‘Perhaps that’s why I remember him so warmly. Of course, he was impulsive, stubborn, in some ways difficult, but his humanness somehow spoke to me. I’ve never since—’ She lapsed back into thoughtfulness, while I kept wondering why the hell she was telling me this.
‘He had such feeling! Everything with Aiden was always so wonderfully in the moment! There was a time, I remember, we were on a balcony—’
Oh God, I remembered that too. Almost fell off the bloody thing.
I shifted uneasily as she said, almost dreamily, ‘And then, and then, another time – we were on a picnic with other students. It was autumn in the overland and somehow one could still sense it, even deep below – perhaps some movement in the air, some atmosphere, some sense of leaves being trodden, decaying, into the dark earth… The picnic was in one of those kycnm fields with false-rainbowed skies and grass that never smells right. Aiden and I drifted away from the others. We had been dancing – did I mention the music? – but why on earth am I telling you this?’
But beneath both my hammering hearts I was still bewitched. That rainbow-textured sky, that music, that day… Sternly, I attempted to think of Bully, of Pavlina, of any bloody thing, just to break the spell.
This didn’t work. Instead, I was also caught up in remembering.
Ravene, casting her gaze backwards in the Academy corridor. Ravene waiting in the disabled loo, hair already rapturously dishevelled. Ravene winning the badminton tournament, with that perfected eye. Ravene sliding her palm into my pocket in the refectory… I tried to remember Petra, but she lacked vitality, in comparison. It was as if Ravene had tossed diaphanous silks over everything that wasn’t ourselves – young and handsome, young and full of hope, young and full of glory, the way the young are.
She sighed, stirred, and continued. ‘We left the others, just the two of us. We – oh, I don’t suppose you understand for one single second what I’m talking about! – but luckily, you’re far too stupid to understand. At any rate, we left the others under that great canopy of false sky. And above it there was a crack, and through it – like a gift – a slice of real sky. And he took me, just there, under that—’
She had been gazing into the distance. She glanced over at me and wriggled discontentedly. ‘What an apish expression you all have!’
As for me, I was still trying to look like the dimmest tester going. As much as I was feeling glad about anything, I was glad that I had shoved Bully out with the gromeline.
‘Lady, just tell me what to do,’ I growled, as politely as I was able. ‘Command me. A drink, a pundling, an attendant—’
She half-rose on her elbow, staring at me. Both of my hearts stopped.
BOTH MY HEARTS STOPPED!
What a place to finish. If you’d like to read more, you can find Alice’s work at the following links. Thank you so much Alice for speaking with me today on Last Word of the Week: 2021 Inspirations Edition.
FAITH SAYS: Inspiration for a book is a funny thing. As a writer, it’s probably the question you’re asked the most – where do you get your ideas? The truth is, the ideas are everywhere, just waiting for you to grasp them.
Sometimes, an idea comes from little more than a few off-hand words, a comment in a voice that you know would work great in a character. It’s not necessarily, even a real voice, just one that seems to enter my head from nowhere.
At other times, inspiration can be as simple as the beauty of my surroundings. Quite a number of my books are based on a fictional village called Ballycove. It’s a place that doesn’t exist, and yet it very much does. It’s a mish-mash of all the best of the rugged coastline that runs from west County Sligo to the far reaches of County Mayo, here in the west of Ireland. Local readers will often tell me they recognise various landmarks. At the same time, many locals could pick up my books and not have the foggiest that they are actually living in some part of the story.
I think that’s the magic of inspiration – it’s very personal. Where you and I see beauty or the nugget of a story can be poles apart. It’s also why there are so many books and all so different.
They say that there are only ten different plots. Fewer depending on who you believe. But the same plot in different hands becomes a completely different book and none the less satisfying for that, if the writer is worth their salt.
It is set in Ballycove, a windswept corner of the west of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way stretches along the west coast of Ireland, from Cork at its tip to Donegal at its head. It’s a symphony of small villages, unspoilt beaches, crashing waves and green fields. It’s truly breath taking, no less in winter when we’re blown away by gales than it is in summer when the sun shines and it feels as if the heavens have opened up before you.
And then there are the people. My books are all character driven. In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, it is Lucy, Jo and Elizabeth who are steering the story. We meet each of them in their own moment of need. Each of them faces their own personal crises, some of which can be resolved. Others are out of their hands. But in life, it’s not always about how you fix things – it’s about how you cope with them.
What we’ve all learned, if we’re lucky enough to have a solid network around us, is that there is no problem that can’t be made to feel smaller if you can laugh at it. And there is no-one better to help you put things in perspective than another woman.
The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a story about friendship. It’s about reaching out not because you have to, but because you can. It’s about the therapeutic benefits of laughter and kindness and the fact that every problem is halved once it’s shared.
After the year we’ve all put in, I think it’s exactly the sort of book I would like to pick up and read this weekend. It’s been described as ‘joyful, life-affirming and inspirational‘ and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?
The cold burns against my skin, numbing it instantly. I wade out, warily knowing that the icy water stabbing against my legs is an inevitable part of this. A bitter blanket weaving about my body welcoming me, a dear friend; I plunge violently in, gasping, salt water teasing my lips. I feel the small jagged stones beneath my feet. And then, I’m in. My arms and legs cut automatically through the water, until the cold has eaten from the outside in and there is nothing to do but surrender to the vastness and in it know that I am somehow suspended safe and all is well. I turn on my back for delicious blissful moments before I must go back to the shore and take up my life where I left off before … From Jo’s Journa
Mid May and to Elizabeth, the night felt almost balmy. The cove was just half a mile along the beach. Elizabeth knew she’d come here again, even if she wouldn’t have admitted it to herself. When she did, she stood for a few moments. This was where Jo came to swim every single night. Like her window washing every Thursday afternoon, Jo was a woman of routine, albeit to the beat of her own drum. Each evening when all the other women in Ballycove settled down to fall asleep before the television, Jo pulled out an old shopping bag with a threadbare towel and a comb that once belonged to her mother. She walked along this beach until she came to just this spot and then she stripped down to her faded swimsuit and swam energetically for at least ten minutes in the biting waves.
Elizabeth stood for a long while, a little transfixed with the recollections and ghosts that played along in her memory. She had come down here often when they were children, but she hadn’t swum for years.
‘I thought it was you,’ Jo’s familiar voice called out from behind her. ‘What brings you down here tonight?’ She dropped her bag on the ground.
‘Oh, just out for a bit of a ramble,’ Elizabeth said easily, regretting now that she’d come here to impose on what was Jo’s own form of meditation.
‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure I have your constitution for the cold.’ She laughed at this for a moment, and then she remembered as Jo shed layer after layer of clothes that she was nowhere near as strong and robust as Elizabeth had always assumed. Rather, beneath the layers, she had shrunk into a sparrow of a woman with stick-like arms and legs, and not very much more in between.
‘You’re missing out – that’s all I’ll say.’ And then she was picking her way down towards the waves and Elizabeth was left to think about the fact that she had spent her life sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t where she wanted to finish out the rest of her days.
There was something about today. Something Elizabeth couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if it was the start of a new chapter. The water ahead seemed suddenly so inviting. She really wasn’t sure that she was in full command of her actions or her senses as she began to throw off her clothes, but soon, she was running with the energy of an excited child, shrieking with an abandon she’d never known before, naked as the day she was born, she ran into the water.
It was exhilarating, a baptism of biting cold that felt as if it might chew her up in no time. It rattled her nerve endings, sending an extravagant swell of emotion through her. It was initiation, as if she was being culled of her old staid life, and suddenly, this unbearable cold became part of her, a wholly new sensation, freeing her from the life she’d lived until now. This was liberating. It was overwhelming. A cascading of emotion welled within her, the salty cold now insulating her from any pain, rather, for the first time, it felt as if all of those fears and secrets could reside as one within her and the biting sea was powerful enough to hold her in equilibrium. Finally she was free.
This moment was her whole life, all rolled up – past, present, future – but mainly, she was here and now and she’d never felt so alive. She dived beneath the water feeling the freedom of it while shocked with the cold, but she filled with immeasurable warmth. It was madness, passionate, wonderful living perfection. She lay on her back, squinting off towards where she knew the horizon sat. She swam out further, far beyond her own depth to where Jo was lying on her back, gazing up at the fading light.
‘You did it,’ Jo murmured as they treaded the freezing water together.
‘It’s bloody cold here,’ Elizabeth said unnecessarily.
‘It is that, but don’t you feel alive? I feel the same thing every day I come here. It anchors me in a place that’s mine within the vastness.’
‘Okay.’ Elizabeth wasn’t sure what she meant. She just knew that here, in the sable saltiness of the ocean, she felt as if she could do anything – nothing could faze her at this moment.
‘I wonder what Eric would say now?’ Jo smiled and suddenly they were both laughing their heads off like lunatics. For once, he’d have been completely lost for words. The notion that his respectable wife would be out swimming in the altogether in the moonlight; it might very well have been enough to shock him into sobriety.
The beach was completely empty, apart from a few circling gulls who probably thought they were wholly mad. Elizabeth laughed again; perhaps they were right – maybe she had finally tipped over into a state of happy lunacy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in far too long, she felt what it was to be truly blissful.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Faith. More power to you!
The Last Circus on Earth leapt out of my reading pile last year and filled me with that rarest commodity of 2020: delight. You can see my review here.
Today author Ben Marshall is treating us to his take on inspiration, and a Fabulous Extract from the novel.
I know you’re going to enjoy this!
Welcome to the blog, Ben. Can you tell us what most inspires you?:
Ben: Connections inspire me. Between people, nature and ideas.
Science, art and gardening are three great ways to connect.
I guess pubs are actually places of connection, so I see a theme.
Now for our special treat: an extract from The Last Circus on Earth. The story is told by Blanco, a surprisingly likeable killer … Yes, I know! But I truly do love him 🙂
In Blanco’s Words:
Strombo smiled at the Gaffer; a nasty smile what promised nothing but bad stuff for Sparrow. ‘I’ll give her a test run, eh?’
Which is when I lost it.
Later on, Madam Tracey explained to me I got what the head doctors call ‘impulse control problems’. But when she said it, there was a hint of a smile in her voice, like she approved but couldn’t let herself show it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I done was stupid, but that’s what comes of no sleep, no food, murdering people, dealing with psychopaths, and having the girl you like kiss you.
Strombo didn’t know what hit him. Me—with a punch that had my heart and soul in it. For a big bloke he stayed upright what seemed like a long time. But his eyes were glazed over and all of us could see he wasn’t with us no more. Like a big tree chopped at the base, he slowly toppled, and everyone jumped out of the way because Strombo’s big enough to kill you even when he’s unconscious. Time sped up again as the Gaffer turned, knuckle-duster in place, and threw a feint with his right before launching the metal with his left. Normally, I’d let him graze me, then roll myself up for the beating. But this time I was angry in a way I never been before, and I let my reflexes do their thing. I sidestepped, drove a fist into his solar plexus, brought me shoulder up into his chin and finished him off with a Glasgow kiss.
Madam Tracey’s jaw dropped, the Professoré’s eyebrows went up and stayed up, and Mala and Milosh looked impressed—and like they were ready to finish me off if it came to it.
As the Gaffer hit the deck, I dropped my fists, opened up my stance and looked into Milosh’s eyes. ‘If anyone ever looked the wrong way at Mala, would you do any different?’
In the split second it would’ve taken him to bury a blade in me, he didn’t. Milosh don’t hesitate when there’s trouble—he’s in there and it’s all over. This time he just shook his head. ‘You just make bad trouble.’
I shrugged and walked away. ‘Trouble’s me middle bleedin’ name.’
I finished my prep and sat with the rest of the freaks, waiting for the axe to fall. We all agreed I’d basically given myself two choices—do a runner, or stay and be killed. If I stayed, the Gaffer would put me in the circle with Strombo for a straight-up bare-knuckle fight. Then it’d be on until someone—me—got beaten into a coma.
There’s a code, see. You do a colleague an injury like what I did to Strombo and the Gaffer, and there’s consequences. It’s like an old-fashioned duel except you’re tied together, and instead of a neat bullet hole I’d have Strombo’s ham-like fists tenderising my skinny body into sausage meat.
I cuddled Daisy, letting her lick the cold sweat off my face, and considered my fate. Baba Yaga brought me a concoction she said would clear my mind, which it didn’t, but Moineau—Sparrow—come in all done up for her Nightingale act looking right serious.
‘Madam Tracey tells me what you just done.’
I shrugged, brain jammed with misery and fear—not for me but her. ‘You need to run, Sparrow. Tonight. Now.’
‘Madam Tracey said otherwise.’
‘You’re not safe here.’
‘Nor you, you big pillock. Always looking after other geezers, you are. Which proves you is a diamond geezer and worth likin’. A lot.’
I kept looking away, stroking Daisy, who was cheerfully chewing my thumb. I couldn’t answer Sparrow because she made my head spin.
She kneeled and looked up into my dial. ‘You been protecting me. Now it’s time I helped you.’
‘You can’t, Sparrow. I’m done for. If not this time, the next.’
‘Listen—I been stuck inside this head of mine watching and listening. And what I don’t know about the people in this circus in’t worth knowing. I also know you in’t just strong in here.’ She thumped my chest. ‘You is smart up here.’ She tapped the side of my head. ‘And people likes you—even if you is a misery sometimes—because you care. It’s inside of you to look after other people. You can’t help it. So maybe it’s time to see Splinter again—get him to sort things for you, so we can start working on a new Steering Committee.’
I looked up, startled, and the freaks, all listening intently, looked to each other. They were shocked by what she said, but not so shocked they were shutting her down. Baba, Erik and Methuselah nodded first, then Elasto, Lobby and Dislocato followed suit.
‘You’re all madder than me,’ I said. ‘You’d be cutting your own throats going against them lot.’
Methuselah cleared his throat. ‘Splinter is mortal and will, or so you tell us, die sooner rather than later. The Gaffer will then become a power greater than he already is, but without Splinter to check his excesses.’
Baba Yaga nodded. ‘The Gaffer rules by fear. I don’t like.’
‘He’s already in the top job, if you ask me,’ I argued. ‘He does Splinter’s evil will, so he might be a better Gaffer when Splinter’s dead.’
Sparrow snorted. ‘Either way, you won’t be around to see it if you don’t sort this beef you got with him and Strombo. You need to talk to Mister Splinter.’
I shook my head. ‘Nothing short of a gun in me back could make me go in there and face him again.’
A minute later, there I am, standing on the steps of Splinter’s caravan, Sparrow prodding me in the back. ‘Go on, Blanco. What’s the worst thing what can happen?’
Isn’t that marvellous? Whatever is happening, the wry, sassy voice of Blanco makes me smile.
Thank you so much Ben for sharing.
Now here are some links that you’ll love to follow up
I’ve asked Nat to help me in the past, and loved her input. Nat introduced me at my latest book launch (back in 2019, when we had actual book launches!)
Today I’m asking Natalie to share some advice for creative people about the business of their creativity.
It’s not enough, as we know, to write a book. For example, the book needs a pitch and its author needs a bio. There is a business attached to storytelling.
In today’s blog, Nat is going to take us through some exercises to help us discover who we are – what values stand behind our creativity. Nat also shares some activities to help writers define who they are and what they have to share.
THE BUSINESS OF WRITING
Writing for business is not the same as writing for creativity or self-expression.
As an author or writer you’re probably well versed in the latter. But if you want to get those words out into the world, at some point, you might need to think of yourself as a creative business.
That means developing a profile and talking about yourself with a brand story. Which might feel like sticking pins in your eyes. So, here’s a few tips for when you get stuck developing your bio or preparing the perfect pitch.
Accept the challenge
Talking about yourself to sell your work is difficult. Possibly unnatural. If you’re struggling to write about you, understand that that this block is not a reflection of your writing capabilities. It’s the tricky human dance between hubris and humility. Many people feel challenged by this task, so acknowledge the difficulty and give yourself time and space to have a go.
Brain dump words
Let your ego off the leash. Without overthinking it jot down an intuitive list of words that describe your work, or how you’d like to be thought of by others. Come back to the list. Feel into the words and whittle them down. Circle the most important 30. Then cull it to your top 20. Be the ruthless editor of your own story. Repeat, to get it down to three words. Use these as themes for your bio.
Draft multiple bios
If it starts to feel like you’re pigeon-holing yourself, try writing in different styles. Write a free range playful version. Then go for bureaucratic and perfunctory (a few games of buzzword bingo will introduce you to the industry lingo). You can also give yourself word length exercises. Write 50, 150 and 300 word versions. Deposit them in your bio bank, then access the appropriate version to fit the context.
Nail your narrative
Distil your work into 30 words. Nail your narrative in the most succinct way. Another option is to pitch it to a room full of ten year olds (real or pretend). Get over any idea that this is ‘dumbing down’. Conveying your work simply does not detract from the complexity of the ideas. This exercise can help you to step back out of your mind forest to see the wood for the trees.
Stage an interview
Sometimes we need prompts or an outsider to help us see what’s buried below the surface. Call in a friend or colleague to ‘interview’ you about your writing style, background or project. The ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are useful starting points. But it’s often the follow-up questions or conversation that strips away the layers to uncover a gold nugget of wisdom or insight.
Create the momentum
You know how to plot a narrative arc or chart character development. So you’ve got directional skills. You can map possibilities and assess which routes to take. See what happens when your writing career becomes the subject and you put those transferrable skills to work. Make decisions about what you want to achieve and determine what’s needed to get there. Give yourself goals and deadlines.
Some folks don’t want to consider themselves business people, because it’s at odds with the noble artist motif. But if you want to find an audience or make a living as a writer, you might want to get over that. You don’t need to compromise your integrity to tout your wares. It’s just a different type of writing that requires a shift in mindset, a commitment to your work, and a little bit of practice.
Thank you so much, Nat, for these pointers on business writing for creatives. That was – and will be – really useful! More power to you.
Roxi Harms didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but some stories are irresistible. A chance meeting, a true story, and much research later, her book The Upside of Hungeris helping to finance high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m eager to learn more.
Hi Roxi, great to talk with you. How did you break into writing? What happened?
Roxi: I don’t know if I would call it a break, but there was definitely an inciting event. LOL. It was January 2012. I was in Costa Rica on vacation. As I stood on the patio looking out over the ocean and enjoying the sunset, I heard the clink of ice in a glass and looked down to see an gentleman in the yard below, also gazing out over the water. I called out hello, and he got up and came over. Next thing you know he and his wife, and my hubby and I were headed out for dinner together. What happened in the next couple of hours changed my life.
As we chatted and got to know a bit about each other, I realized I was sitting across the table from someone who had experienced and survived monumental historical events. Adam was raised in eastern Hungary in the 1930’s and ended up on the Eastern Front at 15 years of age – on the “wrong” side. I was fascinated not only to learn of his involvement in WW2 and how he was affected by Hitler’s rise and reign, but also by his family of origin and probably most of all by the life he built as a result of his indomitable spirit and unquenchable hunger for living. It took me two years to get up the courage, and when I finally did, I asked Adam if he would be interested in sharing his life story as a basis for my debut novel. Five long, but precious and irreplaceable years later, The Upside of Hungerwas published.
What made you want to write this story?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to write Adam’s story. I just had this pull, deep in my gut, to record it before it was lost (Adam was 82 when we met). I didn’t really think too deeply about why, it was more of a strong, instinctual desire. Since publishing it, I’ve learned so much from my readers about why Adam’s story is important. I’m so deeply touched when I read reviews that talk about how The Upside of Hunger illustrates our common humanity, regardless of which “side” of a conflict a country is on or which faction society judges to be right or wrong.
As I was saying, I had no idea what I was getting into when I committed to writing a book. And it was hard! Harder than anything I’d ever tackled in my business or personal life to that point. I just kind of made it up as I went (until I finally found an amazing coach later in the journey). About half way through my second or third draft, I woke up one morning and thought, “what if this book is successful, and makes a profit?” I hadn’t even considered that possibility, and I was perplexed… I didn’t want to profit from Adam’s story. That just wasn’t at all why I was writing it. We talked it over, Adam and I, and decided to establish a fund that is distributed to high school graduates from financially strapped families each year, to assist with first year college or university tuition. In 2020 we awarded our first two Upside of Hunger Bursaries. A few weeks later, I received this thank you card in the mail. Nothing could be more rewarding.
I crossed out the young man’s name as I haven’t had a chance, with COVID, etc. to meet with him and confirm he’s okay with sharing his story about receiving one of our bursaries.
So now, bottom line is that every reader who purchases The Upside of Hunger is helping our youth access an education.
Oh, and another amazing thing that has happened with The Upside of Hunger is that high schools have begun picking it up to use in History 12 and English 11 & 12. I’ve just completed a 35 minute film of Adam discussing events in the book, as supplemental material for classroom use. I just love so much that kids (well, young adults really) are reading and discussing the life lessons in Adam’s story! It’s like a way that the terrifying events that Adam lived through and his response to difficulties throughout his life can serve a purpose and add value to the world for generations to come. I’ve posted a little video of commentary by some teachers and students: https://roxiharms.com/2020/01/13/upside-used-in-bc-schools/
Now that you are a writer, what’s your favourite writing food and drink?
Depends. Early morning writing is generally very productive as long as the first strong, black coffee lasts, then it peters out as I wake up and my mind starts to wander. Afternoon writing is rarely productive for me, perhaps because I can’t keep my hand out of the Hawkins Cheezies bag long enough to type anything.
Late night no food or drink is needed. The creative wheels just seem to turn and the words flow freely late at night.
Sometimes night lets our minds go free, I agree. Has your work been compared to other writers?
I can’t recall any direct comparisons to other writers, but I did have a girl put down the copy of The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) that she’d been clutching as she headed to the checkout, in favour of a signed copy ofThe Upside of Hunger, at a book signing event just before COVID started. I took that as a HUGE compliment! Oh, and last New Year’s I was tagged in this book club Instagram post. That was pretty amazing too!
Is writers block a thing for you?
Isn’t writer’s block a think for every author?
Partway through my first novel, I figured out that when I have writer’s block, I have to stop trying. Just stop. There is just no point in staying at the keyboard because whatever I write when I’m in that mode is garbage anyway. The best solution, which also happens to be pure bliss, is to pick a book from my shelf – often something by Michener or Ken Follett or Diana Gabaldon, an author whose prose I admire – get comfy on the sofa in my writing room (acquired for just this purpose), and read for an hour or two.
I don’t usually pick up whatever book I’m actually reading at the time or I might not get back to writing that day. Instead, I pick any one of a number of favourites on my shelf, and just read for a while. Somehow it gets my brain firing again. Resets the rhythm and opens the locked doors.
What kind of reader would like your book/s?
My knee-jerk reaction to that question is readers who love true stories and readers who gravitate to historical reads. BUT, then I look at a list like the Hey Girl Book Club Top 5 from 2019 (I still kind of blush with pride and disbelief when I think of that list) and I wonder if my mindset about who my target readers are is too narrow. Apparently readers who enjoy coming of age stories, dystopian fiction, LGBT romance, and crime thrillers also love The Upside of Hunger!
If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
Definitely Adam, the protagonist. He’s 91 now and loves nothing better than a good chat. But then again, readers also love Jean, the quiet heroine of The Upside of Hunger. Adam and Jean are wonderful people – both highly intelligent and great conversationalists. And given they’ve lived almost a century, there’s never a shortage of things to talk about.
I’m sure there isn’t! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me today. All the best for the future of the bursary too.