The Wasteland 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:
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 Wasteland: 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.
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.
Anzac Day is a disputed day of reverence on the Australian calendar.
It’s often conscripted into arguments by both sides of politics, providing support for any point anyone wants to put forward.
“Anzac Day celebrates the landing at Gallipoii, a campaign that sums up the useless violence of war.”
“Gallipoli represents the birth of the nation.”
“Mateship began in the trenches of Gallipoli.”
“Australia’s self-identity is based on the invasion of another country.”
The place of Anzac Day in Australian cultural identity is complex. The legend may not be historically accurate, but the day is culturally significant.
As Martin Thomas says, historical ‘falsehoods are built on fragments of reality, and for this reason they reveal greater cultural truths’.[i]
It’s no wonder that mythology grows out of world-changing events. There are so many shades of grey. One thing that is certain is that WWI was a huge, life-changing time for millions of Australians. And we all know how a single far-off event can have enormous ramifications world wide. Pandemic, anyone?
Today I’m sharing extracts from my book about World War I and Australian story-telling. I haven’t found the answer to Anzac Day’s place in our lives, but I did uncover some interesting questions.
World War I was an astonishing event. The millions of people caught up in the war had never experienced anything like it. For the first time, all of civilisation was trapped in a life-or-death struggle. Whole societies were pitted against one another in a devastating, horrific, technological war. Cultured Europe was transformed into a gigantic threshing ground that crushed cities into shards and men into bloody pieces. No wonder people thought this was the war to end all wars. It seemed likely to be the war to end all of humankind. Everyone continued to fight because to lose such a bloodbath was unthinkable; losing could only mean total annihilation, a return to the Dark Ages. The war was so horrific that everyone was sure that this would be the last time humanity ever resorted to the battlefield.
Everyone was deluded.
World War I, far from preventing more wars, probably made World War II –which transformed ‘The Great War’ into ‘World War I’ – inevitable.
World War I, however, did change the world in significant ways. There were undoubted advances in engineering, medicine, and science, driven by necessity: improved machinery, engine technology, motorised vehicles, aerodynamics, weaponry, surgical instruments and techniques, medical and rehabilitation procedures, prostheses, building methods, communications technologies, and so on.
There were also irreparable damages and losses.
One of the most astonishing outcomes of the war was the proliferation of art and creativity, both inspired by and addressing the war. Viewed as the most literary war ever fought, World War I was the first to involve literate populations on a grand scale. The trove of written memorabilia from the war, and the overwhelming mass of writing about it since, ensure it will remain a focal point in the mainstream consciousness of the west.
Australian World War I prose is a distinct sub-genre. Here I provide a moderating frame over previous research which effectively identified the Australian writers’ reliance on old-fashioned heroic modes of writing war. Our central discussion of how leadership is represented in literature establishes Australian cultural egalitarianism as a factor in the infamously poor discipline of Australian troops. My underlying premise – that literature has both constructive and commemorative cultural value –goes some way to explaining Australia’s infatuation with all things Anzac.
Part of the difficulty we have in understanding the effects of war comes directly from the writings of veterans.
Although the most popular World War I narratives tell a story of disillusionment, horror and grief, most of the writers have a degree of pride and even enjoyment in their service. Many remember war as the best time of their lives, because its dramas, intense friendships, and shared purposes created a sense of community and personal worth that peacetime can never match.
Survivors need to believe that their experiences have some meaning, and the vast majority of soldiers wrote about World War I as a meaningful event. Reading their words in a later age, we use our somewhat jaundiced hindsight to view their motives and actions with a mixture of disbelief and amazement. We tend to evaluate the writings of veterans in terms of our own moral and ethical standards; we doubt that men truly enlisted with the joy of anticipation, with a desire to fight. To most of us, knowing the continued cost of war across the twentieth century, war is the worst calamity which humanity can inflict upon itself. Even though many veterans look back with pride and nostalgia on their service days, we prefer to believe that everything about war is repulsive, and that no aspect of it can be viewed positively; we believe that those who record their war service as the best time of their lives must be deluded.
The truth lies everywhere in between: no simple dichotomy exists, from which we must choose our side; no balanced midpoint satisfies all perspectives. It is not possible to say that war is either the worst event that can befall us or the best situation for comradeship and meaning. Like most human experiences, war is sometimes neither the worst nor the best, but something in between, something quite ordinary and even boring.
More often, war is both the best and the worst, and also quite ordinary for much of the time. This is the heart of war’s mystique for the writer and the reader. Stories of war can reveal much to us about the joys and the costs of living in a fragile world, because such stories reflect both the best and the worst of human life itself, and tend to elide the ordinary days. In war stories as in everyday life, small decisions can be fateful, and accidents, happy coincidences, and inexplicable sufferings are daily occurrences.
My book goes on to explore the novels written by WWI veterans, and the place of WWI generally in our nation’s history – the way we ignore the battles of colonization, the way we valorize masculinity, the way we overlook the bitter arguments about conscription that divided the home front…
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
[i] M. Thomas, ‘Leichhardt on the mind: the manhunt for the Prussian enigma’, review of Where is Dr Leichhardt?The Greatest Mystery in Australian History by Darrell Lewis, Australian Book Review, no 354, September 2013, p. 21.
No Small Shame by Australian author Christine Bell (I recently interviewed Christine about the book) follows the story of Mary O’Donnell from her childhood home in a Scottish mining village, through emigration on a cramped sailing ship to Australia and life during the tragedy and disruption of the First World War and beyond. The shadows of poverty, gendered roles, and class/religious divisions reach far into the future.
The young Mary has her hopes fixed on childhood favourite Liam, but their eventual marriage occurs under circumstances that cast a dark shadow across both their lives. When Liam goes to war, Mary discovers another focus for her life in Tom, but the cost to her and her child is daunting. Throughout her story, we discover that Mary’s mother is a repressive and dominating influence, who demands that her daughter’s life should be no wider than her own journey of hardship and struggle – the lot of a woman. This is an influence that Mary must escape to truly grow into her own person.
While this is overall a somewhat sombre story, the emotional stakes are high for Mary, and reading this story as a latter-day woman who has had access to education and gender freedom unknown to our historical sisters, my heart grieved for her lost potential and the blighting of many of her chances at happiness. On the other hand, Mary is a heroine who always seeks a better life and keeps her eyes on the horizon, looking for better days to come.
Part of the story is about decisions and their consequences, but Mary is treated tenderly despite what her family would call mis-steps. It sometimes feels as though Mary gets few chances to smile, but she is admirable in the way she shoulders responsibility for her own choices and where life leads her.
Backed by meticulous research and giving a detailed recreation of the places, habits, and speech of the time, this is a highly readable novel that will please lovers of stories where life is reflected accurately, where engaging and believable characters must come to terms with the real events and the barriers they face while still making the best they can of themselves and their circumstances. There are no easy solutions, but amid the sadness there is plenty of hope, resilience, effort and love.
Christine Bell’s historical novel No Small Shame has just been released, making hers the first fully online book launch of my experience. Christine has 35 short fiction books published for children including picture story, chapter book and YA titles. Her short stories have won national writing competitions and been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame tells the story of immigrant Mary O’Donnell who arrives in Australia on the brink of WWI. Meticulously researched though it is, the story’s strongest points are its engaging and relatable characters.
Welcome, Christine, and congratulations on the excellent reception of No Small Shame. Thank you for sharing some words with me today. Let’s see what set you off on your writing journey. What was your favourite book as a child?
Christine: When I was in grade four, our teacher Miss Yule possessed the most beautiful illustrated story book I’d ever seen. It was a large, full colour book called Best Scandinavian Fairy Tales. Every couple of days she would read from our current story and hold up the divine full-page illustrations. Once a week, a child was allowed the very special privilege of taking the precious book home overnight to read. It seemed an interminable wait until it was my turn. I could barely breathe for excitement that evening while I turned the pages and read as much as I could. Later, I read surreptitiously by torchlight, carefully turning the pages under the sheet. It broke my heart when at the end of the term, Miss Yule left our class to get married, taking her beautiful story book with her and depriving me of a second overnight read. I’ve never forgotten that book.
And never forgiven Miss Yule, no doubt. Or those conventions that made marriage and teaching incompatible! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
There are no secrets as such, but there are always guns on the wall. Small moments that may not mean much at the time of writing, but must inevitably have a purpose. I have a scene in No Small Shame, aboard ship, where Mary is forced to have her hair cut off due to a plague of nits. The scene shows the conflict with her mother, but Mary’s hair also comes to have a deep symbolism throughout the novel. When I first wrote the scene, it was more to show shipboard life and I was concerned in the early drafts if it was earning its place. But as the novel progressed, Mary’s hair became a metaphor that echoes right to the final scene.
Guns on the wall! Eek! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Just before No Small Shamewas officially released, a writer friend emailed me from the bookshop carpark after getting caught up reading it. She emailed again, a day later, half-way through, to say how much she was loving it, and that I’d painted such a picture with words and drawn the characters so well that she felt she knew them. The next day she contacted me to say that she’d cried through the final five chapters, loved the book, and how could we get it made into a movie. It’s an author’s dream to have a reader connect so emotionally to your story and to have it come alive in their mind.
That’s wonderful feedback. Do you write full time?
I write virtually full time. My children have all grown up and left home, and I’m most fortunate to have the financial support of a partner. Royalties from my many children’s short fiction titles, together with my annual PLR and ELR payments* help financially too, even all these years after the titles were published. I work in our business part-time too, but the majority of days I can be found at my writing desk.
*Note: public and electronic lending rights, from when books are borrowed from libraries. Note 2: Support authors! Borrow books from libraries!
Excellent! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet many fellow writers through writing groups, events, conferences, masterclasses and workshops. I’ve also completed two tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Creative Writing, where I met writers who’ve become good friends. I also served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Vic (SCBWI) for five years where I made a lot of friends and connections in the kid-lit community. I’ve connected with lots of writers through Facebook and Twitter. My social media is predominantly all about writing, publishing, books, and related topics, and I’ve always found the online writing community incredibly supportive and friendly.
I agree, the #WritingCommunity is great. Where do you write?
My office looks over our rather lovely, tranquil back garden where I can hear the birds, see them playing in the bird bath, and watch the change of seasons. A couple of years ago, after a spinal surgery, I purchased an electric standing desk and combined with another long desk, it forms a fabulous L-shaped workspace. One full wall is floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, and, adding a red filing cabinet and splashes of red on the bookshelves and desk, I have a bit of a colour theme going. The wall opposite features a huge framed map of the Somme, the setting of my current work-in-progress; plus a large original illustration from my children’s book, Snozza; a messy corkboard of memorabilia and treasured mementoes; as well as various artefacts related to my current work . It’s a lovely space that I had such fun decorating to truly inspire and reflect what I’m writing.
Do you have launch parties for your books?
I never had a launch party for my children’s books, so I was very excited to plan an instore event at Readings Hawthorn to release No Small Shame. It was rather a large shame that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but I quickly became aware of the possibility of launching the book online, via Facebook. I was still very keen for acclaimed author and writing buddy Alison Goodman to launch the book. This was a little problematic since we were to be in separate houses due to this time of isolation. We decided that a pre-recorded launch was probably the only way to go. I really wanted a live, spontaneous component though. But even as I advertised it, I wondered if the live stream would work. Short story, with a little tech advice and after a practice mock event, it worked very well and No Small Shame was launched on the 2nd April. I was really thrilled that I was able to see so many friends, family and fellows present in the event comments, questions and congratulations. For anyone who’d like to view the launch, I’ll include the Youtube links: Book launch https://youtu.be/LHXC4OJvKTI. Live stream https://youtu.be/c4sJ9vamIzI.
Ooh, and readers can have a little look at your writing office on the YouTube link! Thanks, Christine; I’m very much looking forward to reading No Small Shame, and to your next book, which is also set around the time of the First World War.