Walking Among the Jacarandas With John Fowles

For the privilege of sharing a common favorite book and an interest in natural history with the noted British author John Fowles, I earned a book hurled at my head.

Not by Fowles!

It began with Wiwaxia and ended with the jacarandas and a cup of tea.

My aunt, I told Fowles as we walked among the beautiful jacarandas in bloom on the Chapman University campus, always had loved these trees. Although their purple flowers always draw comment and interest, their pods were what she had loved so.

The pods are like purses, or perhaps herbaceous oysters. They’re strong and durable.

Fowles’ voice was soft and he spoke carefully, with a bit of sibilant whistle with some of his “esses.” I’m sure this is a British mark of something … but he wasn’t the least bit “crusty” (as in upper-crust). He was down-to-earth and courteous.

He was curious, almost relentlessly so.

He asked about the many rabbits on campus — escaped from labs ages before.

He asked about the large flock of green parrots — escaped pets, now breeding in large numbers (as did the rabbits).

He asked about the jacarandas. I had always thought this tree was from Australia, as were the many varieties of gum and eucalyptus we see everywhere around Southern California. But it turns out that jacarandas are from Argentina and in the wild, they are regarded as a threatened species.

But they are planted as landscape trees around the world and their purple flowers rival cherry blossoms for beauty.

I’ve been going over my work today and thinking, “Fowles treated me as an equal.”

Because he was egalitarian? Perhaps. Fowles is the author of one of the least-objectionable of the “man kidnaps, rapes, and tortures young woman” books, his first bestseller, The Collector. At the time I was walking with this man on the Chapman University campus, it hadn’t yet dawned on me that this type of literary subject might represent an extreme form of toxic patriarchy and that sane people might not regard such a tale as a subject for light reading prior to bedtime.

That issue was never raised at the time, not in any seminar where I was present, and not between Fowles and me.

We talked about Wonderful Life, a mutual book favorite of ours, written by the late (both men dead, now) Stephen Jay Gould. This book tells the story of the discovery and interpretation of the Burgess Shale animals, and Fowles had just returned from a trip to Canada to see the Burgess Shale with his own eyes. He wrote about other fossils, those found on the beach at Lyme-Regis. Collecting and studying these fossils formed a significant part of the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was made into a well-received film in the 80s starting Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.

I insisted that Hallucigenia was groovier than Wiwaxia, although now, I’m no longer sure. What do you think?

Hallucigenia (l) Wiwaxia (r)

Fowles read some of my work and pronounced it good.

He spoke with me some about being a writer.

He said, “You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

He signed one of several of his first editions, and a few not-first, to me. I took those with me in my single box of books when we moved to Florida.

I’m reading something of mine today, preparing it for publication.

In book form.

And I saw something else, as well.

Via social media, a young woman asked, “Are you proud of your skin color?”

I understand the reason why the question was asked, and though my answer to that question is “No,” I ask myself the question, “Are you proud of your work?”

The work I’ve done for a lifetime.

And to this, my answer, is “Yes.”

And I think, now that I am ten years younger than the 70-year-old Fowles was when he walked with me on that long-ago day on that far-away campus,

He was right.

I’ll never know why Fowles wrote The Collector. I see some material online that says he wrote it to “Fulfill a boyish fantasy of imprisoning a woman.” I hope that’s not really the case; certainly there was little to nothing of this left in the kind, thoughtful, gentle older man I walked and talked with.

He seemed to me to have been a man who had grown tremendously throughout his life. A thoughtful man, interested in the world around him and all of its creatures. All of life.

“You must always do what you do for yourself first and only. Never do what others want or demand.”

It seems like such simple, easy advice to follow.

So it seems.

The truth, would be quite the opposite.

Interview: Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins, Michael Libling Part Four

Welcome to the final part of the interview. It’s been a  great ride, and I shall miss it. The first question is short and the answers are brief, and the second question is amazing and immense: my guests give some excellent book recommendations, just in time for summer reading. (Or, for those of you who live on the other side of the Equator, winter reading.) This is what I saved most of the pictures for. The books of these writers are each and every one of the suitable to be on lists of reading and rather handy if you give presents at this time of year.

Keep an eye out for more interviews, next year.

Gillian

 

Gillian

Let me ask a less-askable question. I am actually part-academic (my new scholarly tome is this https://www.hpb.com/products/story-matrices-9781913387914) so even my non-academic questions can sound a bit pretentious. Over the years I’ve noticed that writers make choices about how much to include that kind of technical analysis in our work. How we focus on story, what story we choose. I’m not going to ask about that, though I’m happy if you want to talk about it.

I’m going to ask – how do you handle people like me, who read your work using such a different set  of lenses? Do you feed us chocolate and pacify us? Engage in heated argument? Run away screaming? Read everything we write that might relate to your work and remind us when you have new books that fit our interests? Or something else entirely?

I experience the first four most frequently. So many writers are happy with me as a fiction writer until they discover this other side to me and then… they metamorphose and I make Kafka jokes to a friend.

It’s less-askable because we don’t often talk about the relationship between those of us who write and those of us who sped our lives studying that writing.

 

Ron:

Hmmm. I don’t know how I “handle” people who read or talk about my work.  I can say with certainty that I don’t generally think a lot about the reader when I’m writing. I probably used to, but I’ve come to embrace the idea that I can’t let anyone else decide what I’m going to write or to say. I’m me. I need to write stories that matter to me, and if I do that then I figure I’ll make something that will hit a few folks where they live. Now, that said, the idea of being academically analyzed as a writer just kind of flummoxes me. I mean, good luck with that.

 

Mike:

I know there are writers who say not to look at reviews and whatnot, but I do spend a little time reading what readers and reviewers say about my work. I can’t say that reviews or other commentary have ever obviously influenced my writing going forward, but I find the process interesting and as long as I’m in the right headspace it’s kind of entertaining. Not that reviews don’t also disappoint and frustrate on occasion.

So, yeah, people are weird, including me. At the end of the day, critical or not, I try to just be happy someone spent their time with me. Of course, I stress the “try.”

 

Gillian:

One last question – can you tell us about five books we should read?

Amy Sterling Casil Femal Science Fiction Writer

 

Amy:

As to five books I think people should read, let me rephrase that. Most of these books are ones that I personally enjoyed, and which I found to be engaging with students while teaching.

1. An Anthropologist on Mars, by Dr. Oliver Sacks (1995) – This is probably the best collection of Dr. Sacks’ essays and I believe, was one of the his collections, if not the first. Our publishing industry is bad, and I’m sure you have all been following the news about the merger process with Penguin Random House and S & S – well, someone, somewhere, somehow picked up Oliver Sacks – I know most of these essays were originally in the New Yorker. This book covers stories ranging from Dr. Carl Bennett (in reality, Dr. Mort Doran), a Canadian SURGEON with severe Tourette’s Syndrome, to the final chapter, which is a case history of Temple Grandin, who is today, one of the world’s most famous people with autism (full autism, not Asperger’s). I can’t overestimate the influence that this book had not only on me, but on many students. It opens a window to the life of the mind for diverse minds – and his writing and approach is the exact approach I want to take: empathetic, and using Rogerian argument/methods.

2. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) by Stephen Jay Gould – Stephen Jay Gould wrote countless books, and many of them are collections of his essays in Natural History. To me, this book is special because it opened a window into the world of the pre-Cambrian Burgess Shale animals, including Wiwaxia and Hallucinogenia. I loved this book so much and it’s still in my one “box of books” which contains signed first editions (to me) – that I brought from California to Florida when we moved. Some of the descriptions of the animals are dated because of subsequent research. But it’s still an amazing glimpse into one of the earliest times of natural prehistory. And, I have a cool story about it – when I was in grad school at Chapman University, one of the full professors was a great enthusiast of the well-known UK novelist John Fowles. This professor (Mark Axelrod, rhymes with total prick) had established the “John Fowles Center” which was literally just words on paper. Our 10-student seminar was able to meet with Fowles, who traveled to Southern California – straight from Canada where he’d been able to view the Burgess Shale and study some of the animal fossils. Fowles was a great natural historian himself and so here we are in this 10-student seminar room and students are asking him questions. He mentioned having visited the Burgess Shale and I asked if he’d read Gould’s book. Fowles’ face immediately lit up and he said, “Yes, I have, it’s one of my favorite books.” It turned out that Fowles’ favorite of the animals was “Wiwaxia” – I said I also liked Hallucigenia. No one else in the room including  ̶p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶  Axelrod could participate, not knowing Gould’s book, the Burgess Shale, or the animals. This was further compounded by  ̶Ax-p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶-lerod having a mini-stroke when Fowles asked about the numerous blooming Jacaranda trees outside the second-floor conference room window and I said, “they’re Jacarandas, my aunt loves their pods but most people love the lavender flowers.” – Auuugggh! Ax-p̶r̶i̶c̶k̶-lerod totally hit the roof. And then Fowles and I went for a walk around the campus with him asking about plants he didn’t know and explaining the many he did – ha ha, much later Axelrod threw a book at my head in another seminar and gave me the most horrific “recommendation” letter anyone could ever receive and one which I could not, and never did use, featuring a comment like, “She will present a very appealing appearance in the classroom.”

3. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys – I was not assigned this book to read in undergraduate or graduate school, but I believe I did use it in some academic contexts. This book tells the story of Bertha Rochester, the “crazy lady” in the attic from Jane Eyre that terrorizes Jane and ultimately sets the house on fire, leading to Mr. Rochester’s blindness. I can’t praise this book highly enough. It’s a compelling story, masterfully-created, and it tells exactly how Bertha, a beautiful Creole heiress, becomes the “Crazy Lady in the Attic.” This features multiple voices throughout the book; it’s just amazing.

4. Sally Hemings (1979) by Barbara Chase-Riboud – I read this book from the library as a “book about a woman.” It tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave and mistress, Sally Hemings and her relationship with him. This book influenced me powerfully and similarly to Wide Sargasso Sea, is a story of a woman’s life subsumed by being involved with a much more powerful man. I also recommend another book by Barbara Chase-Riboud, called Valide, which is the story of Abdulhamid, a French-Creole woman who was captured as a young teen and made part of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire’s harem – and ultimately becomes the ruler of the Ottoman empire through her survival skills and raw intelligence.

5.  Freakonomics (2005), by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt – I assigned this book in second-semester composition and rhetoric classes, and while it didn’t inspire the engagement and transformation of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, it did make an impression and inspire students to look more closely at “commonly-held” wisdom. The original Freakonomics features Venkatesh, a U Chicago grad student who discovered the same business structure in streetcorner drug dealing as occurs in major corporations like McDonalds. Another “highlight” (or shall we say “lowlight”) of the Freakonomics universe is the phenomenon of Bagel Man, whose 20+ years of delivering bagels to large corporate and using an honor system for payment showed him that the higher up he went in the floors, i.e. up to the VP and C-suites, the more people cheated on paying – for example, paying $1 and taking 5 bagels. And then there was the Chicago Teachers cheating scandal (they were paid bonuses for better test results in their classrooms and the tests from their classrooms showed mathematical proof that the teachers were erasing wrong answers and coloring in the correct ones… This has been made into an entertaining movie with a feature by Morgan Spurlock and a much, much better and more fascinating one about Sumo wrestling cheating (yaocho) by the amazing Alex Gibney. Here is a link to the Alex Gibney portion of the film (how could I forget that? – Steven Levitt, the U Chicago microeconomist – is probably most famous for using math to expose the Chicago teacher standardized test cheating and in Japan – showing that Sumo was rigged which destroyed everyone’s minds along with revealing that the Sumo schools are so cruel and tough, young wrestlers have died). Dr. Levitt lost his infant son to meningitis – I corresponded with him  about that and about student responses to Freakonomics.

Of course there are many books of fiction which have influenced me – from Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison’s collected stories to… wait for it… the book that connects me and Bruce, the Instrumentality of Man by Cordwainer Smith.

For my own book, I would recommend Female Science Fiction Writer – and the audiobook version especially. There is a review from a harasser on the eBook right now. Amazon would never remove, as they won’t even remove reviews made by neo-Nazi white supremacists.

 

Libling Hollywood North

Mike:

Sheesh, get me gabbing and the floodgates open. (What was that baloney I said about me being more of a “listener?”) I get the feeling I’ve gone a wee bit overboard here…

I’m a sucker for author biographies and autobiographies, and many come immediately to mind. Act One by Moss Hart. Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey. Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran, and Salinger by David Shields. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and The Golden Age Of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. …All have inspired to one extent or another. All have informed. And most have also proven disheartening, revealing a side to a much-admired author I not only never knew, but probably never wanted to know. While the aforementioned deliver in each of these ways, none has hit harder or stayed with me longer than And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields. I loved the Vonnegut surrogates of his novels and the Vonnegut of commencement address fame, but the real-life Vonnegut is not quite so warm and fuzzy a character. As flawed as Vonnegut was, however—like who isn’t?—this beautifully researched and fast-paced bio brings him to life with a style and verve you won’t forget, no matter how painful or distressing the content. This is a perfect example of the need to separate author from art, a rule of thumb that applies to Salinger and Roth, as well.

The first two science fiction novels I read were Winston Juveniles culled from my grade school library: Find the Feathered Serpent by Evan Hunter and Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten. In fact, the author of both was Evan Hunter, whose most famous pen name was Ed McBain of 87th Precinct series fame, and whose real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino. These were the books that introduced me to the possibilities of time travel and I was hooked from the get-go. To this day, the sub-category remains my favorite type of SF. Again, it’s tough to single out one. Robert Silverberg’s Up the Line, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, and the more recent All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai are memorable reads. But I don’t think any time-travel novel covers off all possible paradoxes better than David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. If time travel stories appeal, this is a must-read.

Most of my stories bring some element from my own life into play, hardly unusual for most writers of fiction. And no author in or out of the speculative field does this better than Bruce McAllister. His recent collection, Stealing God and Other Stories, is a Master Class in the craft of short fiction. And in many of these stories you’ll find the seeds of what would become his masterwork—The Village Sang to the Sea. Set in a small coastal village in Italy during the early 1950s, McAllister touches upon his life as a navy brat living in a world far removed from what most of us have ever known. A stunning mix of memoir and fantasy, I defy anyone to read this and not come away deeply moved. Wistful. Nostalgic. Eerily beautiful. Frankly, I could have listed this book five times.

Among my non-fiction recommendations are Hollywood Under Siege by Thomas R Lindlof, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel, Naming Names by Victor Navasky, Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, and The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn—the history of the Mormon church interwoven with the author’s own experiences as an LDS missionary in Canada and the terrorist act his mission precipitated. But if I were to name only one, it would have to be The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson—the story of the architects behind Chicago’s World Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and how H.H. Holmes used it to his homicidal delight. No piece of horror fiction can touch this non-fiction masterpiece for the dread it instils.

While my fiction tends to be cross-genre, incorporating quirky mainstream, fantasy, horror, and mystery, the novels I’ve enjoyed most over the years are westerns. Yeah, westerns! Not sure why this is, other than the fact I grew up attending Saturday matinees in the 1950s and 1960s, and western movies ran neck and neck with science fiction as top attractions. Yup, the spirits of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and Johnny Mack Brown reside forever within. And recapturing that time, place, not to mention unrivalled sense of awe and adventure, are Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, and my all-time favorite single novel in any genre, Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove. Yup, Lonesome Dove! It took a dozen tries before I got into it, but there was no looking back from that point on. The characters. The narrative and intertwining storylines. The unpredictability. The sweep. Forget it’s a western! Pure and simple, Lonesome Dove is everything great fiction should be. A few years back, in another interview, I quoted a blurb from the back cover of the 1985 paperback edition. Forgive me for doing the same here.  Lonesome Dove is “a love story, an adventure, an epic of the frontier … the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America.” As I said then, I still say now: This pretty much nails it. Lonesome Dove does not disappoint.

As for selecting a novel of my own, it’s easy, since I currently have only one available, though a second is coming next year. Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is set in my old hometown of Trenton, Ontario and is inspired by true events, including the town’s little known and frequently bizarre history. Like Bruce McAllister’s work, mentioned above, Hollywood North combines fiction and memoir. While the publisher(s) classified it as horror, I prefer how Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, described it:A beautifully deceptive mystery and fantasy noir novel. The book is filled with humor and heartbreak and great homages to classic films.” My second novel, The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife is an unsettling, off-kilter thriller. Character-driven, with sharp streaks of horror and dark humor, it’s coming from WordFire Press in fall 2023. But I think I’ve already mentioned this once or twice or twenty times.

 

 

Ron:

Five book recommendations…hmmm…

I’ve recently read three books that I’ve really enjoyed.

Duramen Rose, by Andrew L. Roberts is a stunning work of free prose fiction centered on World War I. I couldn’t let go of this story for days afterward.

I thought The Page Turners, a novella by DeAnna Knippling was a fun real-world fantasy with a touch of time travel in it—set on a train in the 1920. Wonderful.

I liked Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters for its dive into the transgender world. It’s stuck with me. Interesting story. Strong characters.

I very much enjoy N. K. Jemisin’s short fiction collection How Long ’til Black Future Month? Like most collections, some of its stories hit me more strongly than others, but it’s one of those collections I go back to and pick a story at semi-random to reread.

And I always like to recommend Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga, which I find great because it’s essentially a novel told in a bunch of short stories. Every story itself is fantastic (most of them were award winners, after all). But then together then combine to a whole that can transcend itself. So I love it for it’s technical merits as well as its science fictional artistry.

 

Gillian:

Last but certainly not least, something about my guests! (I asked them for brief bios, just in case any of you are terribly curious.)

Amy Sterling Casil is a science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction writer. She is a 5th-generation Southern California native and recent emigre to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Amy is a Nebula Award nominee who has published 48 books. Find her essays on Medium and visit her website at www.amysterlingcasil.com.

 

Michael Libling is a World Fantasy Award finalist whose short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and many others. His first novel, Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels, was published by ChiZine and Open Road Media in 2019. His second novel, The Serial Killer’s Son Takes a Wife, is forthcoming from WordFire Press in 2023. Creator and former host of the long-running CJAD Trivia Show in Montreal, Michael is the father of three daughters and lives on Montreal’s West Island with his wife, Pat, and a big black dog named Piper. Among other things, he claims to be one of only a handful of North American authors who has never owned a cat. You can find out more about him at www.michaellibling.com, where he has been known to blog on occasion.

Website: http://www.michaellibling.com

 

Ron Collins is a best-selling Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy author who writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction.

His SF series Stealing the Sun has topped Amazon’s Hard Science Fiction charts. His fantasy series Saga of the God-Touched Mage reached #1 on Amazon’s bestselling dark fantasy list in the UK and #2 in the US. His short fiction has received a Writers of the Future prize and a CompuServe HOMer Award, and his short story “The White Game” was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award.

He has contributed a hundred or so short stories to Analog, Asimov’s, Fiction River Anthology Series, and several other professional magazines and anthologies.

He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and has worked to develop avionics systems, electronics, and information technology before chucking it all to write full-time.

Ron’s website is: www.typosphere.com.

Follow Ron on Twitter: @roncollins13

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

July and books

I tell people far too frequently that some places have a bad month. I’m in the middle of Canberra’ bad month. I can’t escape it, either, and have not been able to since COVID first hit. This is one of the charming side-effects of being one of those who are vulnerable. This July is particularly nasty. It just is. It’s not the wind from the snow or the cold nights. It’s not lack of sunlight, though it might be the weak excuse for bright sunshine. It’s only partly drafts and open doors and friends forgetting promises to help. In fact, two friends are actually helping later in the week and I shall be that much less uncomfortable and I shall see them and July won’t be nearly as bad, that one day. Other friends have, these last few years, responded to my July-depression with “I can do this thing and it will help” and two thirds of them have succumbed to July before they could. This is the nature of July in Canberra. (I strongly recommend that if you have any friends who are confined for all these years, don’t make promises. It’s better not to promise than to give someone hope and then not follow through.)

What gets me through July, every year, but this horrid year in particular, is story. Only I’m grumpy and don’t want to talk about what I’ve been reading. I don’t want to drag you into my morass. Instead of telling you what I’m reading, then, I’m going to give you the names of three books that make me smile when I think of them. I’ve read them so often and I suggest them to everyone all the time. Just talking about them pulls me out of the winter gloom.

Not everywhere in Australia has winter gloom, by the way. An hour and a bit from here and you have the best snowfields in the world in July, but I cannot reach them and I cannot ski. I don’t want to ski. I want to make snow angels and drink mulled wine and eat hot chips and talk half the night with friends. This is not something that’s achievable. What is achievable is to think of novels set in that part of Australia. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series are those novels. They have been with me since I was a child, and one of the joys of moving to Canberra, 30+ years ago, was knowing that, if I looked carefully outside in a drive towards the deep mountains, past Cooma, I might see Thowra.

One of my favourite scenes in the Silver Brumby itself, has wattle, and the early, early wattle has just come out around the corner from me. A cold wattle, pale yellow and, just this once (because we missed autumn storms) concentrating wildly with the glowing leaves of the maple next to it. I wanted to take a picture, but it was dusk and it was the first time I’d walked anywhere in a month and I simply could not carry my camera. My phone doesn’t like pictures in the half-light. Still, the red maple and the pale golden wattle shone, and I thought of the Silver Brumby, and I smiled.

While I’m thinking of my childhood, let me dream of the Scotland of Peter Dickinson. I was supposed to be in Scotland this week, in Glasgow, attending a conference on fantasy. My paper had been accepted and I was wildly exciting. Then COVID had its say, and I’m stuck at home.

Dreaming of Emma Tupper’s Diary is not a bad way to think of Scotland. Submarines and dinosaurs and a girl who wrote a diary I wished I could have written, when I was her age.

My third novel is not as distant. I read it for the first time quite recently. Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird is for slightly older children. It has darkness and family culture and it’s dynamic and wonderful. Sometimes a dark novel takes one by the hand and offers a way out of despair. Lisa’s novel is that one. I know where she’s coming from for some of the novel, and we’ve talked about it and so, for me, it’s not the novel alone that makes me smile, it’s knowing that I have friends who are writers who write work that’s so moving. I start thinking of all my other writer-friends, including those who hang around this Treehouse. And I realise that it doesn’t matter how bleak Canberra is in July and how alone COVID can leave me (I haven’t seen my mother since January 2019, when the bushfires caused me to evacuate to her place), I live in a rich world.

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

The Importance of Folklore

Tonight I’m reading Simon J Bronner’s The Practice of Folklore. Essays toward a Theory of Tradition. I want to rant about the importance of folklore and folkways to our lives. They help us reach out to people and share. They are also magically important in novels, which is why I’m researching the theory right now.

In a chat somewhere online a few days ago, someone stated very firmly that they had invented a fantasy world and that what we knew of this world didn’t apply. In theory, this is true. In practice, however, we (human beings) have things that connect us to the world., In novels, storylines that kinda reflect what we think we know are easier to read. If we think that very green grass means much rain and wonderful grazing (I’ve been dreaming of Ireland) then if we have a wet climate with much grass and a character walks out onto it and it’s hard and dry and fractured, like the Australian outback during a drought, it will be really hard to envisage the world. If we talk about living in houses and how deep the foundations are and then show those houses floating, foundationless, in mid air, we will be fretted and want to find easier reading. One way that some of the bets writers hold worlds together while still challenging what we think we know is to use folklore, popular culture, and folkways. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does this rather wonderfully from one direction and his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does it just as wonderfully from another.

And yet… most folklore studies are descriptions of folklore. I have a pile of photocopied jokes from my father and I used it when someone asked me for a piece on folklore, twentysomething years ago. I described the collection and gave some examples of the jokes. That was my father’s folk collection. My own is food and foodways. I have a rather nice little collection of community cookbooks.

These descriptions and studies are tremendous for writers. They are such vast resources. Nevertheless, it’s studies such as Bonner’s that teach us how to use folklore most effectively. I’m reading Bronner’s book now in order to better analyse fiction, but I own the book as much for my own writing as for my analysis of others.

The more we understand the role folklore, folkways and all their related subjects play in our lives, the more fuel there is for writing and the more joy there is in reading. And now you know what I’m working on for the next three months. Folklore and folkways in just one writer’s work. It’s part of my big project, the sequel to my Story Matrices work. And it’s so much fun. If I can understand theories of tradition, just think of what it does for my own novels, how enriched my worldbuilding will be.

There’s one single extra big and very important component. Nancy Jane Moore reminded me that I promised a post today and told me that it was Juneteenth. Juneteenth is very alien to me, culturally, because I’m Jewish Australian. Australia’s colonial heritage is very different from that of the US. When the US was enmeshed in civil war, we were still a bunch of British colonies. We have our own history and our own days that are equally difficult, but none of them are Juneteenth.

When I find something that foreign and that interesting and that holds that much historical importance, one very good way to explore it is by understanding the folkways and folklore associated with it. It’s a part of cultural respect.

I can’t tell you what to do or think about Juneteenth, but I can tell you that if you want to understand it, you look at the words and the traditions of those whose day it is. That’s step one in learning to tell stories about people from different backgrounds to ourselves. It’s not a matter of learning a date and noting that it’s important, it’s a matter of finding out why it’s important, how it’s important and what cultural fabric surrounds it. Bronner’s book doesn’t talk about Juneteenth at all, but his chapters on other subjects help give me a path to follow as I respectfully start learning.

Much wittering followed by some recipes

Today I have written a great deal. That great deal added up to a very short story and a few hundred words of non-fiction. It just felt like a great deal. I suspect this was because I am surrounded by autumn storms. Everything feels like a great deal when one is surrounded by storms.

Normally I walk my bookshelves to find you an interesting book to talk about. Because I have met two whole deadlines today (two!) I thought I’d take the easy way out and write about the nearest book to me. I forgot that I had six of my own books in reach because I was talking about them to someone. And yet, the weather is about to break (I have a very handy weather sense) and I need to finish writing this before then because when there is a storm literally overhead, I doubt I’ll be writing to you about interesting reading.

I’m taking the interesting route. On my computer I have – like so many of us, these days – an elibrary. I’m going to open a folder at random. The folder are labelled with the alphabet, except the historical food one, which is labelled ‘Cooking.’ Just typing about that particular heading led me straight into the Cooking folder, so let me find you a cookbook or historical food book of particular interest.

I opened the folder and was curious about one that wasn’t properly labelled at all. It proved to be a transcription of the 1596 The Good Huswifes Jewell. Just the opening is delightful, and if I find it delightful then you’re stuck with it. Let me give you that opening, in all its gorgeousness.

The Good Huswifes Jewell “Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in
Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.
Wherevnto is adioyned sundry approued receits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases.
G.STEEVENS
Also certain approued points of husbandry, very necessary for all Husbandmen to know.
Newly set foorth with additions. 1596.
Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North Doore of Paules at the signe of the Gun.”

If ‘Paules’ is St Paul’s Cathedral, then Edward White, the publisher, was in a part of London that had been book and scribe central since the Middle Ages. If you were in London in the thirteenth century and needed a notary in a hurry, the back of St Paul’s was the place.

I’m so tempted to simply let my mind rove in that district in the Middle Ages, and contemplate where I would buy parchment or commission illuminations, but this is a cookbook and my mind must remain resolute (the impending storm insists). Let me give you a recipe from the book, then. Everyone needs boiled chicken once in a while, and I’ve not made this recipe, so it’s a useful one all round:

To boile Chickins.
Straune your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in pecces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.

I read this as using broth – I’d use chicken bouillon, because I always do when things are otherwise not clear. Boiling chicken in a broth sounds rather good, actually. Different broths would infuse it with different flavours. Butter and sorrel combined give a very smooth texture and flavour, and the verjuice might be to make it be not too unctuous. Barberries I love and have some on hand: they would add a fruitiness and also cut that unctuousness. In fact, I have most of the ingredients on hand. I’m just missing the chicken, the sorrel and the verjuice. Also, I’m missing bread. Without bread I can’t make sops. It’s just as well, really, because it’s 11.30 pm here and not the time to be making a chicken recipe.

In fact, it was a really bad idea to open that file and find you a recipe. I want to cook! Instead of cooking, let me find you another recipe from 1596. If you’re inspired to make either of these, I’d love to know how it went and, if you take pictures, it would make me very happy to see them.

Because most of you are heading for summer and the fruit is just beginning to arrive (we’re heading for winter and I’m eating persimmon and pomegranate and papaya while I can) how about a recipe that requires summer fruit? This one has fewer terms that need explaining, which is a bonus. I never know how much to translate, because it’s perfectly modern (Early Modern – I was making a bad joke) English. It all depends on how much cooking you’ve done and what kind of cooking. Stoves as we know them weren’t around in the late sixteenth century. A great deal of cooking was done over an open fire with a wonderful set of cooking equipment. This preserved fruit recipe, for example, uses the head of a pot covered by a plate, which is a very nice way of making sure the fruit stays whole.

To preserue all kinde of fruites, that they shall not breake in the preseruing of them.
Take a platter that is playne in the bottome, and laye suger in the bottome, then cherries or any other fruite, and so between euerie rowe you lay, throw suger and set it vpon a pots heade, and couer it with a dish, and so let it boyle.

Now I’m dreaming of apricots cooked this way and eaten with clotted cream.

I need to sign off before I start cooking. I so often do this I open an historical cookbook and then end up making something and not finishing my work. I shall leave you with one last recipe and no explanation whatsoever, and then I’ll finish all that must be done before this impending storm ceases to impend. Then I shall sleep and dream of preserved apricots served with clotted cream.

This last recipe is not quite a trifle as we know it today, but it is, nevertheless, kind of an ancestor to the Queen’s Jubilee dish that so many of my British friends have been making. Only kind of. I know its 18th century descendants and they’re all drinks. I am only missing the cream for this trifling dish. I would turn into something strange if I eat this at midnight, which is the precise time it would be ready, so I’m lucky I’m missing that cream (when you make it yourself, remember than thick cream has no gelatine or other thickener – it should dollop when you spoon it into the dish and must be at least 45% fat):

To make a Trifle.
Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.

 

PS While there is a place called West Wittering in the UK, and also one called East Wittering, alas, there does not appear to be one called Much Wittering. I might have to invent a fictional town, in Australia but with English tendencies.

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.