Monday, 11 March 2019

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen
Alison Weir
Headline Book, 2018 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher.)

Portrayals of Jane Seymour don't differ much in popular culture-- she is usually golden and demure, and King Henry the Eighth seemed to have genuine affection for her, which is no doubt aided by the fact that she gave him his sole male heir and then promptly died before she could disappoint him like his previous wives had. Her marriage to Henry, and her time as his mistress preceding it, have always seemed short compared to the years of his marriages to both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and the King's Great Matter which came between them. In this novel, the third in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series, Henry's third wife becomes the subject-- and though her time as his queen is often not given equal attention in other portrayals, here she is also given the same treatment as her predecessors, in that the book is about 500 pages long.

The book begins with Jane at her family home Wulfhall, where she thinks that perhaps it may be her calling to become a nun. Weir notes in her author's note at the end of the book that very little is actually known about Jane Seymour, though her religious faith was often noted upon, and it is not so much a stretch of imagination to believe that this might have been an idea she toyed with, though we cannot know for sure. Her family is rocked by scandal as it is outed that her father has been having an affair with her older brother Edward's wife Catherine. While Catherine is disinherited by her family and put in a nunnery by her husband, Jane's father's part in the scandal is hushed for the good of the family, but Jane grows up wary of adultery as she has seen the affect that it has had on her mother. 

When she is brought to court to work as one of Queen Katherine's ladies, she finds in the Queen a lot to admire, and becomes a staunch supporter of her and her daughter the Princess Mary, even as they begin to fall out of favour. Here the novel overlaps with the two previous books, as Jane is one of the people who notices that Anne Boleyn has started to absent herself from her duties and to be unkind to her mistress, all the while spending time with the King. This portrayal of Anne Boleyn is a much more familiar one than the portrait painted in the previous book, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession, and there is some suggestion that Jane played a small part in Anne's down fall, although in the novel, when she is given an opportunity to corroborate the evidence presented by Cromwell that Anne is unfaithful to the King, she stays silent. The haunting of which the title speaks seems to refer to the guilt that Jane feels knowing that Anne and her co-accused were killed to clear the way for her marriage. Weir suggests that Jane had no choice in the matter, with the political machinations of her family at work at first, and then the blossoming of a kind of love between herself and the king, leading to the possibility that Jane may have been pregnant when they were wed-- and the fact of this pregnancy making up the King's mind about Anne's fate. 

Again, like in the previous novel, there was a bit towards the latter half of the book where the plot did drag, as Jane was pregnant again and again and lost the children. However, the pinning together of all sorts of historical tidbits to create this sort of conjecture is fascinating, and while the end result in this novel is not a new perspective on Jane Seymour, it does raise her up a little in terms of her historical impact. 

I gave this book four stars and eagerly await the next installment, on Anne of Kleves, which is due out in May. 

Jane Seymour the Haunted Queen is available now in paperback. 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

2019 Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist Predictions

This coming Monday (March 4th) will see the announcement of the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist, and around the internet, I have seen quite a few videos and blog posts in which people are attempting to guess what will be on there! Usually there are 16 books on the longlist, and past winners of the prize have included Madeline Miller, Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rose Tremain, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and loads of other amazing women writers.  The prize has had many iterations in terms of its name, with the naming rights having previously gone to the major sponsor (The Orange Prize, The Baileys Prize), but is now called The Women's Prize. It recognises a novel written originally in English by a writer identifying as female, and must have been published in the UK between April last year and March this year. (I think!) If you'd like to know more about the prize or see a full list of past winners, their website is linked here.

Without too much more preamble, here are a few books that I think we'll be seeing or that I would like to see on Monday's list..


Circe by Madeline Miller

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer


Transcription by Kate Atkinson

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai


The Incendiaries by R O Kwon


Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver


Milkman by Anna Burns 


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


The Friend by Sigrid Nunez


House of Glass by Susan Fletcher


The Mere Wife by Maria Davhana Headley 

What do you think? Are there any novels you think will be on the list that I haven't included here? Only a few days until we find out, and hopefully it will mean a chance to discover some amazing books I haven't even heard of yet.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Countdown to October: From an idea to a story

Image result for woman writing
In my last post, I talked about where some of the ideas for the stories in my collection came from. It's never an easy thing to pin down. Even after finishing the post, I kept thinking about things I could add. A lot of my stories are autobiographical but only up to a point. Some of them have links to things that really happened. Some are completely made up. In fact, I think it's more accurate to say that a lot of my stories start off as autobiographical. 

So how do I take the germ of an idea and turn it into a story?

My relationship to the process of writing a short story hasn't really changed much over the ten years since I started Writing Short Stories for real. Once I get an idea that really interests me, I need to get to the keyboard or my journal and get it all down, preferably in one hit. Sometimes the idea itself might have been obsessing me for a time, but if the spark of the idea is not enough to sustain a writing session all the way through to the end of about 3000 words, often the story will never get finished. If I can't be bothered writing it in one sitting, it didn't interest me enough. 

How long does that usually take? Who knows. Anyone who writes knows how great-- and tricky-- it is to get into that trance-like state that comes with deep immersion.

Often I'll put it aside, or I'll send it to one of my writer friends for feedback. I've got to a point now where my stories come out at around 3000 words naturally, which is great because that seems to be a standard length for Australian magazines and competitions. But for someone who reads a lot of novels and has been trying to write one, it didn't start out that way, and I had to learn to reign it in when I got too wordy, or over explained things. (Perhaps a post about the features of a short story as compared to a novel is to come?) 

I may have spoken about this before, but when I rewrite things, I completely rewrite them. As in I open up a brand new word document and I start typing out the whole thing again, usually with a printed and marked up copy of the story next to me. It's like I'm both reading and redrafting at the same time. So as I come across bits that don't flow or don't make sense, I rewrite them completely, move them around, cut out whole swathes. I like to think I'm ruthless, but now as I begin the nitty gritty editing of the pieces for the collection, I am finding sentences that both make me cringe, and remember how proud I was of them in previous rounds. The darlings that should have been killed. (As a side note, having lunch with my wonderful Grandma on Tuesday, she mentioned that over time she'd noticed my short story writing was getting tighter. Oh how my heart sung with that praise! I know she's probably reading this, so hello and thanks!) 

The re-typing method works when the work is very rough, but when it's close, it tends to be a waste of time. That's where I'm at with some of them now. I have about twenty stories to go through and not that long to go through them. I'd like to go through them all on my own before I start working with my mentor in March but at the rate I am going, I think I'll get through 75% of them. (Still good!) What I've been doing instead is arming myself with notes and a strong coffee or tea (tonight it's water because it is HUMID) and opening the document. I read it through once as a reader, and allow myself to judge it like I would something I was reviewing. There have been a few that I cringed at, but also a few that I can see are almost there. Then I go back to the start and I start to finesse. What am I looking for? It depends on the story, but three things I am trying to eliminate are: telling rather than showing, particularly when it comes to my characters' emotions; yucky, overblown descriptions that are trying to be literary and just come off as blergh; and filler words. You know the ones. Just, even, very, almost. My mentor, Laurie, calls them gatecrashers, which I love. 

The best part of this process is I am looking at a catalogue of stories that represent ten years worth of work. I am looking at the archive of Emily Paull. It's sometimes awkward, but mostly, it's a little bit cool, because I can see the evolution of my ideas and my skills and my style...

As a side note:
I said before that some of my stories are autobiographical. There are going to be settings and situations in stories that people will probably recognise. But the characters, even if they start off as people I know, always end up a long way from where they start. Some of them are amalgams of people. A lot of them reflect facets of myself. And this is something that only comes out over many subsequent drafts. When they say write what you know, they don't mean that fiction needs to be entirely ripped from real life. But they mean that you need to write from a place of authenticity, whether that means trying to apply empathy to a situation and seeing yourself inside it, through thorough research, or through using things from your own experience and then relating them outward to the world. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Countdown to October: Where do short stories come from?

It's the question writers dread: where do you get your ideas?

This has been on my mind a bit this month, first as I had been reading John Boyne's new novel A Ladder to the Sky in which a sociopathic young writers steals ideas for his novels in a myriad of ways, all varying in their degree of moral bankruptcy, and then second as I struggled to write any new short stories for my forthcoming book.

There was a period of time, perhaps even two years ago although I really hope it wasn't that long, when stories used to be single sitting affairs. I'd have ideas buzzing around me like a swarm of wasps, irritating me, getting under my skin, and then off I'd go to my laptop or my notebook and the idea would just come rushing out.

Lately, I've longed for that to happen to me again.

It got me thinking about where the ideas for those particular stories had come from.  For my story The Sea Also Waits, I was inspired by the real life disappearance of a Russian free diver, which I'd read about on The Guardian. For my story From Under the Ground (published in the most recent issue of Westerly), it was the arrest of a man in connection with the Claremont Serial Killings which had been on the news every night when I was in primary school. For the story A Moveable Farce (which will appear in the next Margaret River Press anthology), it was the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris.

I began to worry that, because I no longer watch the news with my parents as part of our nightly routine, perhaps the steady feed of issues to worry me and make me anxious, while generally being better for my anxiety, was having a detrimental effect on my creativity.

But there are other stories in the collection that have come from other places. Some are fictionalised accounts from my own life-- where I give my characters the chance to change the outcomes, or stand up for themselves, or get the clarity that they need to in order to move on faster. Others are amalgams. Writers are like bowerbirds, building their nests and we take snippets from all over, combining them together to make something new. I've heard rumours that say Helen Garner carries a notebook with her always and writes down fragments of what she overhears to use later as dialogue. I've often wondered if her friends and family hear themselves when they read her work, or if they'd even recognise something that they might have said. I've taken birthday parties that I attended or hosted and mixed them with different groups of people; I've transplanted conversations that I've had into the mouths of others; I've imagined people who I've never met walking in places where I've been. One of my stories was inspired by a story in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, for the people in the story could have walked right out of the Western Suburbs of Perth, so I tried to mimic the style of the piece.

The pieces always grow from the original seed that is planted.

Nothing ends up exactly where it started.

I'm no closer to finding that common denominator that links all these things that have set my neurons firing, but perhaps I should stop looking. If I were to understand the magic trick, and put it to use whenever I wanted, I worry that I would not enjoy the experience as much.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Countdown to October: Some Short Story Collection Recommendations

Short story collections. You either hate them, or you love them.

I hope that you, the person reading this post, is in the camp of those who love them, as come October this year, I'll have a collection of my very own out in bookshops.

(It feels weird to say that, because I haven't even finished putting it all together, but more details will come as I know them and I am planning on blogging through the whole process.)

In the lead up to the really hard work of getting it ready, I've been thinking a lot about short story collections I love, and short story collections that I really want to read.  I thought today I would post a list for you of amazing collections to check out if you're wanting to get into the genre, or if you're just looking for something new to read. These are in no particular order:

Short Story Collections I Have Read and Loved

* Like a House on Fire and Dark Roots, both by Cate Kennedy
* Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery
* Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
* Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
* Bird Country by Claire Aman
* Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
* Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
* The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
* You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
* The True Colour of the Sea and The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe
* Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
* Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
* The Circle and the Equator by Kyra Giorgi
* The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Short Story Collections I Really Want to Read

* Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock
* Zebra by Debra Adelaide
* Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
* Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
* The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell
* You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
* Common People by Tony Birch
* Any collection by Joyce Carol Oates
* After the Carnage by Tara June Winch
* The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain
* Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
* Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
* The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Let me know if there are any collections missing from this list-- I want to be inspired by what other writers are doing in the genre!

Happy reading.