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
Of the 80 or so books I read every year, some stand out. As I’ve mentioned previously (see my post on book choices), I’m pretty good at judging what books will suit my readerly needs. I should be, after reading so many!
If your reading preferences are anything like mine, you might like to check out this selection from my 5-star reads this year.
The first of a new series by Juliet Marillier, whose evocative writing immerses the reader in ancient Ireland. Myth, romance, adventure and tragedy combine in this wonderful story.
Watch out for in 2022
As a reviewer, I’m privileged to read quite a few books prior to their release, in the form of ARCs (advanced reader copies). I love being considered an advanced reader LOL! Here’s one I adored for its teeming, lush fantasy world.
Almost 100 people entered the draw for The Stars in the Nightbook giveaway earlier this month. Awesome! It’s nice to be wanted.
I’m happy to tell you that a signed copy of the book, plus the little rosemary sprig badge, went to country Victoria and received a glowing welcome!
Here’s some ideas for anyone who missed out:
ask your local library to order a copy for you to read. Getting the book into more libraries means that it reaches more readers, which is wonderful. And a trickle of Public Lending Rights cents go to the author, which is a lovely thing … yes, if you see my book on the shelf, please borrow it 😉
keep an eye out for a special price on the eBook version coming next month – for most of December, The Stars in the Night will be on special
see if your book club would consider adding The Stars in the Night to their 2022 reading list. I guarantee that it would make fabulous reading for the month of April, when Anzac Day shines renewed interest on war service and its aftermath
Some reflections on social media for authors:
I decided that The Stars in the Nightbook giveaway would do two jobs: send my work to another reader, and give me feedback on my communication channels.
I’ve listed the effectiveness of each channel, in descending order:
Of course, this is my experience with one giveaway, and most of the numbers reflect my pattern of usage. I’m not on Twitter much (*someone did enter from Twitter, but ineligible as it was for Australia only), and rarely on Pinterest (though I have an absolutely AWESOME collection of pins related to my books).
I don’t send newsletters very regularly. The strong response surprised and gladdened me! With this mini-experiment, I have a new direction for communication in 2022.
Oh – and keep an eye out for my December newsletter. Coming soon!
by Australian writer Kathryn Gossow. Kathryn writes across genres (yay! a fellow genre-hopper!) and I’ve previously reviewed her mythical fiction book Cassandra.
Her new entry into the realm of Australian rural noir is pitch-perfect.
Neglected five-year-old Bree-Anna decides to walk into town to her friend’s party, wheeling her precious doll Baby in a toy stroller. That’s easier than getting her older brother to take notice, or waking her mum up after a big night.
It’s hot and humid as small town Queensland builds up to Christmas, and Bree-Anna is easy pickings for a sociopathic misfit. Kidnapped, terrified, locked in and beaten, with her beloved Baby imprisoned in a suitcase on top a wardrobe and so, so far out of reach, Bree-Anna has nobody to rely on but herself.
In so many ways, that’s always been the case.
The pacing in this thriller is awesome. You won’t be able to put it down.
We meet Bree-Anna’s family and the rest of the townspeople of Stinky Gully, named for the small Queensland town of Fernvale, formerly called Stinking Gully, in the Brisbane River valley, about 60km west of Brisbane.
Stand-out characters Eloise and Jake get dragged into the mystery, while Bree’s mother Amber struggles under her loss.
This is a dark story, especially because Bree is only 5 years old, but the story – unfortunately – well within the realms of reality. I was reminded of true life cases that have haunted me for years.
This book would make a fantastic TV series – real Australian noir with loads of atmosphere and a few well-defined, strong roles. Bring it on! I can even assign roles … although lovely Aaron Pederson is possibly a bit old now to play Jake. But put Aaron in any terrifying thriller and I’ll watch it.
What is most refreshing about this story is Bree herself.
What a character! Bree’s five year old voice rings very true, and so does her growing reliance on herself, her inbuilt resilience and instinctive resistance to every horrible aspect of her life. Bree is a fighter, courageous without being rash, and readers can’t help but be drawn into her battle for survival.
Take a deep breath. Be courageous. Be inspired by Bree-Anna and Baby.
Read this now.
And if you know anyone who likes mystery, thrillers, and suspense, this is the perfect Christmas present you need for them!
From ABL: To celebrate Australia Reads and the Australian Reading Hour, we’ve put together an audio extravaganza of truly spectacular Aussie authors reading from one of their amazing stories! So tune up the ears and ready the imagination for the following wonderful audio treasures –
Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.
Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.
Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.
What inspired you to write this story?
PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.
The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.
Golgotha is set during the First World War.
Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?
PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.
I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western Australia … Napoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.
All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.
Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?
PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.
Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.
These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.
I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.
I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.
I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.
Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.
Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island
– or maybe in lockdown LOL –
what five books would you want with you?
PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetagandais pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark JaffeThe history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?
You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.
How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?
Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?
PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.
That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.
Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.
Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.
And this brings me to my most important point.
Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.
Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.
Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!
And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.
Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.
These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.
Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.
Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.
At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.
Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.
‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.
Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’
One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’
The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.
Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.
‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.
‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’
Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’
‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.
‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.
‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.
‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’
‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’
Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’
‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.
Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.
‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’
The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.
Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.
Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.
‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.
The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.
‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’
‘How can I help you, Captain…?’
‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’
‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’
‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’
‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’
Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.
‘This is signed by Haig.’
‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.
‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’
‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’
‘And you know what he did?’
‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’
‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’
‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’
‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.
‘Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’
‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’
Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’
‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’
‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.
‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’
‘How are they stopping you?’
‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’
No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’
‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’
‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’
‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’
‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’
‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.
‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’
Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’
‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.
‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’
Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!
This statue, titled “Cobbers” by Melbourne artist Peter Corlett was was installed in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles, France in 1998.
In the days after the battle rescuers recovered some 300 wounded from no-man’s land.
As one soldier carried a wounded companion from the field he heard a call for help.
Don’t forget me, cobber
The “Cobbers” statue in the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles in France features Sergeant Simon Fraser from Western Victoria carrying a fallen comrade from the field.
Cobbers is a memorial to Australian service and sacrifice at the Battle of Fromelles. Fraser risked his life and a possible court martial when he returned to save a stricken soldier whose identity is unknown.
My author friend Judith Michael is a New Zealand-born writer now living in Melbourne.
Judith is fascinated with other dimensions, time travel and unexpected, remarkable talents. She writes as J Victoria Michael.
Judith has a passion for epic stories that stir the imagination, so we have a lot in common! Judith’s imagination takes her into shadow worlds where strange things happen, and words make music. She’s very musical and loves dance as well. The GriffinSong Trilogy is her debut as a novel writer. Judith’s short stories have been awarded and published in hard copy and e-zines.
You can read my review of the first novel in the series, Songbird, here. I loved it!
I asked Judith to tell me about what inspires her. She responded by explaining all about the main protagonist of the GriffinBird world, Irenya O’Neil. Here’s what Judith told me.
Who is she, and how did a thirty-one year old Melbourne mother, teacher and musician finish up in a story with fantasy elements?
Irenya and I agreed to meet up early in the writing of GriffinSong Trilogy. She arrived, carrying her own chair, which was one of those wickerwork things with thin cushions. It didn’t take much to get her talking. Here’s some of what she told me…
“David and I were planning to marry soon, but I’ve had problems. The panic attacks were getting worse. I was shit-scared of dying – still am – and the anti-depressants were doing piss-all to help me. Supermarkets are the worst. It’s that Musak. Does my head in. Same as my grandmother. What if our little boy has inherited this too? It worries me sick. Then, just before Christmas, and with no warning,I finish up in this place called Dar Orien. Trying to find my way home is exhausting. If I was one of those show-off, kick-ass teenagers, I might find life in another world interesting. But I have a 15-month-old son, for Pete’s sake, and I miss him so much. All I want is to go back home.Now you’re telling me there are two more volumes to my journey here…”
Irenya doesn’t realise it but she is on a liminal threshold. As the year 2020 has shown us, the shift from one reality to another can be long-term and devastating. You may no longer be sure of where you are, or even who you are, as Irenya discovers in Songbird the first volume of my trilogy.
Liminal exactly describes Irenya’s journey. Arriving in the alternate world of Dar Orien means she has crossed a physical threshold, but has yet to complete the transition across mental, spiritual and sensory boundaries. She is standing on the threshold between two worlds, on the verge of something new, and praying for the chance to return home, unaware that what she is waiting for is transformation. For her, it is a state of being that is painful, distressing and exhausting. It’s a state that threatens to tear a vulnerable woman to pieces.
Liminal also describes the realm of Dar Orien and its inhabitants. They too, are on a threshold, waiting for transformation, yet hamstrung by their inability to see beyond the tenets they have accepted for millennia.
The liminal state does not allow a return to where you were.
That particular place and moment is gone, as Irenya comes to realise. There is only one direction she can go, and that’s forward. As for her being in a story with fantasy elements, I am an author who loves stretching my imagination. Apart from that, it was luck of the draw.
In my latest release GriffinSinger (GriffinBird #2), Irenya finds a new state of grace, which, in the year 2021, is something we’re all hoping to find.
Fleetwalker (GriffinBird #3) is due for release this year.
Thanks Judith, that’s so interesting. And now for a gift extract!
From Songbird (GriffinSong Trilogy #1)
Elaaron clasped his hands together, his expression changing from courteous to grim. His cool gaze was unsettling. ‘Tell me about Tire. When were you last there?’
It was several seconds before Irenya could reply. ‘Wh… Where’s that? In this valley?’
‘Tire is a town more than one hundred leagues from here.’
She tried to work out the difference between leagues and kilometres. ‘I’ve been here all the time. The physicians will confirm that.’ She waved a hand at the snow-capped mountains outside the windows. ‘Why do you think I’ve been anywhere else?’
‘I have come from Tire. You were seen there four summers ago.’
She wanted to laugh, but his manner did not invite that response. ‘And…?’ she prompted.
‘I spoke with several of the townspeople who remember a woman who fits your description. Your face. Your voice. Your name. They were describing you.’
‘I… I’m sorry. I just have to laugh because that’s impossible. A long way from here and four years – I mean four summers ago? I haven’t been here anywhere near that long. It can’t have been me. It…isn’t…it just can’t…’ She subsided. Her face was beginning to overheat. In the prickly silence she felt a bead of perspiration run down the nape of her neck.
He unclasped his fingers and placed his hands palm down on the table, precisely shoulder-width apart. ‘Do you deny that you and your brother, Mikey, were in Tire four summers ago?’
‘What! My brother died when we were children. And my son, Mikey, is still an infant. Yes, I do deny it, because it’s impossible.’
To distance herself from his outrageous claims, she pushed her chair back from the table, folded her arms tightly across her chest and squeezed her eyes closed. She heard the chime of glass and the gurgle of poured liquid. A cup of water appeared before her. He clasped his hands again.
‘So.’ She met his gaze. ‘According to the good people of Tire, I was there four years ago – summers, years or whatever – with a child I would not conceive for some time.’ She raised the cup and drained it. It was his word against hers, and in this place, he was the authority.
‘Did you bring me here?’ The question had hung in her mind for days.
‘No.’ He shook his head once, the movement glancing light off the single gold earring he wore. ‘Meia willing, I hope I am never called upon to keep a mother from her child. Why did you choose to come here?’
‘You think I just came to Dar Orien? As if this is a holiday!’
He had shaken her with the Tire story. His constant scrutiny and his claims were exhausting. She looked at him, wanting him to give her the faintest ray of hope, anything that might tell her how she could go home.
He made a study of her face before replying. ‘You came here for a purpose,’ he said. ‘Though being here appears to constantly surprise you.’
Irenya was silent. The only surprise she wanted was to find herself back in Melbourne, one second after she’d left. How that might work, and what their problems might be here, was not her concern; she wanted to go home to David and Mikey.
‘Now, he said. ‘The seer, Fis… If the accounts I have are correct, she may still be living in northern Ishter, possibly over the border into Midrash. Given the slowness of our communications I can give you no assurances. I plan to journey north with a small company in spring. You should travel with us.’
‘Spring!’ She reeled in shock. ‘I don’t even want to be here then, let alone searching for a seer who may or may not be able to help me. Can’t we go now?’
‘We do not have a choice in this. The mountain pass is already dangerous, even for an experienced rider. We cannot leave until the spring thaw has melted most of the snow. I will not risk lives. Talk to Leachim. Ask him to tell you everything he knows about the Gifteds, and the fleetwalkers. After all, he was one.’
This was not the first time she’d heard words that filled her with dread, words that opened chasms beneath her feet. Living in this world was like walking on ice with no idea how thin it might be. Each step she took could land her in danger. She had already experienced that.
As if he had read her thoughts, he said, ‘If the MageGate had survived the invasion it would not have been necessary to test you with primitive fire. Though I apologise for the ill treatment, I would not wish to mislead you. Had I judged you harmful to this realm, I would have let the flames take you.’
Her skin prickled hot then cold and her throat tightened.
‘Lady,’ he continued. ‘I will overlook your tendency to appear disrespectful, on the grounds that you are unfamiliar with our customs. Be mindful, and do not give others cause to complain. We are living in hard and testing times.
‘With regard to the mirror, it has been fixed to that wall for a very long time. It is no more than an ornate, oversized looking-glass. I believe it is a portal that you alone may open. If someone did not send you through the mirror, then you must surely have journeyed here yourself. That leaves two questions. Why did you come here? And why do you deny yourself a passage home? Open your mind to what makes Dar Orien different from your world.’ He sat back in his chair and she sensed a dismissal.
She rose to leave, thanked him for his time and his advice. The squire reappeared and Irenya stepped into the passage, acutely conscious of the intense blue stare at her back. He can’t help me, yet my life is in his hands…
Thank you so much for sharing! Here are some links to Judith’s books.
Felicity Banks speaks about the Castle of Kindness
Felicity: From the age of twelve to twenty-two I planned and trained to become an aid worker in Indonesia, teaching slum kids English. During that time I travelled to Indonesia seven times, studied the language and culture from Year Seven to university level, and became fluent in Bahasa.
Then I. . . changed my mind. I wanted to stay In Australia.
I married, had two kids, and even finally had several books published.
My health collapsed into disability via chronic illness. But in all that time, Indonesia stayed in the back of my mind. Not to mention the rest of the world.
You can call it white guilt, if you like.
Or you can cause it historical awareness. Like every non-Indigenous Australian, I benefit from the illegal seizure of this land. And from the attempted genocide of the Indigenous people.
And from the systemic, institutionalised racism that continues in the form of police and prison brutality, media bias, and so much more. And from the day-to-day racism that means I am more likely to get a job (or a favour, or a loan) than an Indigenous person who is just as qualified as I am.
How do I live with that?
I’m no longer well enough to work at a “real” job, which ironically gives me every writer’s fantasy: the ability to write full-time. Writing is such an enjoyable thing to do, it hardly seems fair. I wonder, often and always, if my books are making the world better. If anything I do matters. If I should be doing something—anything—more than I am.
What more can I do?
And then I read [book title redacted due to spoilers]. A fantasy story, in which people from our reality step through a portal into a brilliant, beautiful, magical land. Even the toilets are magical: anything that goes into certain containers simply vanishes into thin air. Fun!
But the characters discover that all that magic is being taken from the ‘enemy’ population. The wealth that creates beautiful buildings leaves slums in the other land. The toilets empty into their backyards. Even the illnesses that would afflict the beautiful magical creatures in the first kingdom are given to the children of their enemies.
The characters, being fundamentally decent, must immediately give up their beautiful magical land and its exploitative underbelly. . . but in the process they discover that there are several types of magic, and many branches of magic are not being used at all. Magic is not a zero-sum game after all. Although it is difficult, it is possible for everyone to have a decent amount of magic (and the beauty, health, and wealth that comes with it).
A second fundamental truth: being decent human beings doesn’t mean I need to sell my house and give all my money to the poor (and then live on the street). I don’t have to lose everything to lift others up.
It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly (I’m now 38), that I could help Indonesian people white still living in Australia. I know better than most how difficult it is to live in a nation that speaks a different language, because I’ve been there. So I am ideally placed to help migrants and refugees coming from Indonesia (or anywhere really) to settle into Australian life.
This epiphany happened in 2019
And since then I’ve been looking for ways to give what I have to people here in Canberra (without much success).
A few months ago, one of the groups I’d reached out to reached back: The Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (check it out here).
Long before I read the books that changed my life, several major refugee advocacy organisations got together to study refugee sponsorship in other nations (such as Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand) and design a program specifically for Australia.
This year—yes, this miserable plague of a year—they set up a ‘Mentor Program’ as both test and training to see how their refugee sponsorship program could work in practice.
There are now about twenty groups set up around Australia, ready to welcome and support refugees and refugee families in a number of practical ways: helping them find work, helping them meet new friends in their new home, helping them settle their kids into school, helping them with English practice, teaching them about Australian food (and animals that will kill them), and helping them financially until they’re able to stand on their own.
I am now the coordinator of the Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Group. Our GoFundMe is here and we’re running a Fundraising Gift Shop (including books donated by Clare Rhoden herself—and my extremely fun and magical Australian steampunk trilogy)here.
Until the end of this year, all the money raised in my shop (up to a threshold of $1000) goes into the refugee sponsorship fund.
And I’ll sign, gift wrap, and post them to the address of your choice.
This is happening, and it’s beautiful. And it’s all because of a book.
The Rain Never Came addresses several significant issues of the twenty-first century. Climate change is high on the list, but this story also considers the strained interactions between communities and the law. Another focus is the difficulty of communicating emotions and thoughts, especially between men. Opinions proliferate. Considered responses are held close and not shared.
Does this sound like a world you know? You are right! It’s Australian dystopia with bite.
In a bone-dry Australia of the future, not everyone wants to scamper to the safety of the north where the climate is more habitable.
Small rural communities hold out in the parched outback that covers most of the country. They barely scrape a living.
The CRP (compulsory relocation police) try to round them up into camps to send them “up the line”. For their own good, of course.
Bill and his brother-in-law Tobe witness strange lights in the sky to the west, which they feel compelled to investigate. Is it thunder and lightning bringing longed-for rain? No? Maybe it’s a battle site between the CRP and another small town?
With Tobe’s two dogs struggling alongside, the pair discover devastation and a frightened, silent child who needs saving.
This is dystopia that kicks you in the head. The story strands us in the misery of the unknown, in the helplessness of a wrecked climate. Readers never learn what events led up to this point, or what happens elsewhere in the country (or the world). We’re not sure where the CRP send relocated people after the holding camps. We don’t know what political or official community infrastructure exists. We are deep in dystopia here. Just like Bill and Tobe, who are lost in the new world, navigating without guides apart from what their own judgement tells them.
Inevitably, secrets are revealed and relationships are fractured. Nothing can be taken for granted, nothing stays in its familiar place. This world doesn’t really allow for anything else.
Some of Bill’s inner commentary is poetic in its description of the country:
We slowed, stopped at the bridge, jumped out. Trees grew thickly around us, hugging both sides of the road. We must have been on an aquifer; they formed a solid wall, casting us in deep shadow. The pounding sun was far away, hidden by the canopy, robbed of its ferocity.
There was no birdsong. The world sighed as the wind blew.
By contrast, the spoken dialogue is sparse, colloquial and bloke-y. A minimalist vocabulary serves every situation and emotion. The contrast speaks effectively to the enormity of this post-climate-disaster world. The Australian vernacular is bleak.