Dreaming up a city

So this weekend’s writing job, while I do a bunch of other, non-writingy jobs, is to start dreaming up a city for one of my current projects.

I’m a big advocate of the setting-as-a-character-in-its-own-right school of world building. My favourite novels are the ones you want to keep re-reading because you just enjoy being in the world of the story so much. Think JK Rowling’s Hogwarts, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood, Diana Wynne Jones’ Moving Castle. And just to show this works outside fantastical stories, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Georgette Heyer’s Regency London. In fact, one of my big motivations behind writing The Beast’s Heart was to write myself a fairy tale world I could go and live in for a little while.

I have some sketchy ideas for this city, but so far it’s really just been a backdrop for the action in this new story. I want to level it up a bit, deepen it’s character, really bring it alive. I want my city to have twisty, shadowy alleyways lined with crooked buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas, a complicated clock tower, avenues of terraced mansions, moonlit shenanigans on rooftops, a river with treacherously damp water stairs, a monumental bridge lined with statuary, and a royal palace with towers and turrets. I want it to have all this and hold out the tantalising promise of more.

I have a whole Pinterest board of city inspiration.

I love looking at old photographs of cities in times gone past for inspiration.

I also love using old paintings and drawings for city inspiration. I find it interesting to look at what drew the artist’s eye. What was it about the city they thought was worth capturing? Rooftops? Stately buildings and squares? Shadowy spaces and archways leading…where?

And I’ve been mainlining illustrations by the likes of Anton Pieck and Arthur Rackham, who did delightful, fairy-taleish cityscapes.

What are your favourite literary cities? And what brings them alive in your mind?

Spectacular things

Two – count them! – spectacular things happened to me today. First a package arrived on my doorstep this morning. What could it possibly have contained? Oh, just the PROOF COPIES OF MY FIRST EVER PUBLISHED NOVEL.

Sorry, sorry. Got a bit excited. I’ve turned the caps lock off now.

Then I fired up the internet to see Hodder & Stoughton released the blurb today!

My Twitter went nuts for a bit.

I am not complaining. It’s actually kind of humbling to know people are excited to read something I wrote. I’m ecstatic, as well. But when I opened that proof copy today and saw my words – my very own words – all lined up on the page of an actual book, well, I had a moment. I got a bit trembly.

I just hope that I can go some way to fulfilling the hopes of those people who are excited for this story, and they will love it at least a little bit as much as I do. *crosses fingers* *closes eyes tight* *wishes hard*

Ending the drought

For obvious reasons, I have been on a self-imposed ban on consuming any Beauty and the Beast stories for the last – oh, I don’t know – five years. But the manuscript is finished. The edits are done. Last week I even watched the Disney live-action B&B movie for the first time. And now I am ready to wallow in other people’s Beauty and the Beast imaginings. So.

What Beauty and the Beast retellings should I indulge in? What are  your faves?

To get you started, I’ve got these two lined up ready to go. An old, old favourite and a brand new treat (all freshly signed from Kate’s fascinating talk at the National Library in Canberra last week!)

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Gimme your recs! Go!

Those proofs

My big news this week is that the printed proof copies of The Beast’s Heart have arrived in the London office of my publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, and a small pile of them will soon be winging their way into my waiting hands.

To say I’m excited is putting it mildly. Up until those photos were tweeted, I had only seen the front cover, so I’m still swooning a bit over the detail on the spine and I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when I read the lovely words they’ve put on the back.

If you would like to receive a review copy, Hodder has information available for book bloggers here.

If you’re an Australian reveiwer, your best bet is probably going to be through Hachette Australia on Netgalley.

An oval mirror in an ornate frame on a deep blue background. The mirror has been shattered.

Proof

So this little piece of exquisiteness just got revealed on Twitter over @Chapter5Books tonight.

It’s waaaaay past midnight here, and I’m so excited I can barely breathe, let alone sleep. And this is just the proof cover! The hardback cover reveal is still to come!

Between this and the Tour de France I’m not going to get any sleep tonight, am I?

Touchstones: Chris Breach

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones this year, starting with my post from a few months ago on Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited one of my 2016 HARDCOPY buddies, Chris Breach, to share his thoughts on something that inspires him and captures something of what he aspires to in his own writing.

Hey Chris, thanks for coming! OK… What is your touchstone?

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I love that book. When did this book first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

Well, it’s a classic, one of those books you read without thinking about how good it is, necessarily. It was not until I started reading it to my kids (multiple times, night after night) that its genius began to reveal itself. For example, have you ever realised that each picture is a different shape or size? The first image is the size of a postcard, roughly, then each picture increases until you reach the three full pages where there is no text at all—just Max and the wild things roaring and dancing to the moon, swinging in the trees and parading around. Then the pictures start to shrink again as he returns across the ocean and back to his room. These sorts of intricacies reveal themselves with multiple readings, which is something I love in anything I read.

Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?

I think we share a similar outlook on life, for whatever reason. I did not lose the majority of my family in the Holocaust, I was not traumatised by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in 1932 (as Sendak has said he was)—but I also believe that life is not fair, that it is, for the most part, a challenge, but one that has its moments of joy and tenderness and love in amongst the shit. We are both pessimists, I suppose, and attracted to the dark instead of the light. It has been worth remembering that he once vowed he wouldn’t write stories of sunshine and rainbows, because that’s not real life.

How has Where the Wild Things Are inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about it, or does it lurk in the background of your stories?

Sendak has a control, a tightness, in his writing that is inspiring to me. I love reading short, tightly controlled narratives, and I aspire to that same succinctness in my own writing: to be able to say the most with the least number of words. I could have easily picked Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for great examples of taut storytelling, but there are—surprisingly—a large number of similarities between my latest manuscript (a verse novel about racism and mass murder) and Where the Wild Things Are—they both feature morally ambiguous characters, a story without a clear resolution, and benefit from repeat readings. They have an unsettling element of fear that permeates the narrative but is never explicitly stated. And most of all, Sendak has a fearless approach to his writing that is inspirational, refusing to follow established patterns in the publishing industry (which, incidentally, got his books banned more than once).

I’ll leave you with, perhaps, my favourite quote from any author, living or dead:

I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.

Something for all us writers to aspire to.

Chris BreachChristopher Breach was the overall winner of the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards in 2011. He was selected as a participant of HARDCOPY in 2016, a manuscript development and industry information masterclass. He participated in The Lost Art of Letter Writing as part of the Shepparton Art Festival 2016. He was a finalist for the ACU Prize for Literature in 2014 and for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize in 2015.

Epilogue

Just as I was prettifying this post for publication, Chris alerted me to this beautifully timed piece of exciting news…

 

News! A Hand of Knaves

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The CSFG has announced it will be opening to submissions on 1 August for its newest anthology, A Hand of Knaves, to be published in late 2018 and edited by my good friend Chris Large… and yours truly!

I’m not sure this is the most sensible decision of my life – I’ve got plenty of stuff going on next year after all (*cough*The Beast’s Heart*cough*), but Chris asked so nicely and I think the concept (which is totally his), of an anthology of stories about scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells is just brilliant. My imagination has already exploded with ideas!

We’re going to be looking for stories of up to 5000 words featuring knavish characters who are anything from mischievous rogues right through to evil bastards. It’s got to be speculative; we want a good mix of sci fi, fantasy and horror and all the sub-genres in between. We welcome stories from and about the full and glorious spectrum of human beings. Our main criteria (apart from those listed above) is that it just has to be good. The catch is that, given CSFG anthologies are a showcase of Australian speculative writing, you do have to be Australian, or an Australian resident, or at least a member of CSFG to submit. Head over to the CSFG Publications page to find out more about the kinds of stories we’re going to be looking for and how to submit.

This is going to be awesome.

 

Awesome words: orogeny

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I am a sucker for a good geological term. I don’t know what it is about rocks, but I find them fascinating. I love that they are the relics of the vast history of this planet. And that you can read that history on a continental scale, or at the most minute, microscopic level. Fossils fascinate me; caves entrance me; I marvel at the way you can tell where a glacier has been by the shapes it leaves carved in mountains; and I love the weird silhouettes left by the bones of volcanoes after the original mountain has been worn away.

Orogeny is the making of mountains through continental upheaval. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, the collective word for the array of geological processes that go into all this continental crumpling is orogenesis. (That gives me word shivers.)

I know orogeny is something purely mechanical, but in my mind the word conjures images of some fiery and arcane art practiced by ancient gods over eons. The kind of gods that created the land to the sound of grinding stone and the slow shattering of layers of rock; and when they care to turn the Earth over and make it up anew, they’ll do it without a care for the creeping cataclysm they’ll cause for the mayfly humans eking out a life on its shifting skin.

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Dark Mofo

I have just come back from Hobart (again – love that city) and immersing myself in the craziness and unearthly beauty that is the Dark Mofo festival. Technically I was there for work – and for those who are raising an eyebrow, I did spend Thursday and Friday in almost back-to-back meetings. Then I had another one on Saturday morning. But… That did leave me with my evenings free to sample the delights of this deliciously wintery festival of art and food that literally paints this city red for two weeks leading up to the winter solstice.

A few highlights…

Siren Song

This is a musical artwork produced by Byron J Scullin, Hannah Fox and Tom Supple that is played out across the city of Hobart every day at sunrise and sunset. It’s almost impossible to describe this ethereal piece, but the ABC as put a sample of it up on their Soundcloud. The only problem is that this recording is tiny and incredibly intimate compared with how it sounds when it is played out across an entire city at dawn and dusk. I especially loved listening to it in the morning, still half asleep, curled up in my hotel bed. It’s a slow wash of music that seeps irrevocably into your brain so that you keep hearing the ghosts of the harmonics for hours afterwards – in the drone of the bathroom fan, the hum of traffic.

The IY_Project

This gigantic, cat’s cradle of laser light based on sacred geometry, is the brainchild of Chris Levine, and is accompanied by an immersive soundscape by Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack and Marco Perry.  They waft smoke through it, and the sheets of light carve out slices of coloured smoke that look like some kind of psychadelic, time-lapse cloud photography. I kid you not, I stood outside in the freezing effing cold watching this for over an hour on Friday night, I was so entranced. Then I went back and did it again on Saturday. Here’s a little sample from Friday.

So this is really fucking transcendental and no pic is gonna do it justice. #ChrisLevine #IY_Project #DarkPark #DarkMOFO

A post shared by Leife Shallcross (@leife.shallcross) on Jun 9, 2017 at 4:22am PDT

And another inadequate snippet from Saturday…

Mogwai

So this was a total lucky dip exercise for me and totally blew my tiny mind. I had no idea what to expect. Anyone who knows about Mogwai will probably read this and go “Duh!”, but it was totally transporting. I can certainly see that to some, this kind of music is the worst kind of white noise, and to tell the truth, I probably couldn’t sit down and listen to a recording. But live in concert? Oh man.

There is something intensely exciting about watching master musicians play live. Their sheer skill is thrilling, and the paradox of they way they are so tightly focussed on what they are doing as to be almost oblivious to the audience, yet at the same time inextricably linked to the way the audience is experiencing the product of their skill is fascinating. On several occasions one or more of the band members turned their backs on the audience entirely. As far as I can remember, only one of the band actually spoke to the audience and that was simply to thank the audience for their applause after each song. He seriously said about 20 words all evening. But the music itself… Wow. It was like being caught in a waterfall of sound. And Mogwai controlled the flow with absolute precision. Each song was carefully crafted around a build up to a blindside of sound that was euphoric. There was one song towards the end where people were standing around me with their heads thrown back and their eyes closed.

Seriously amazing stuff.

Sleeping Beauty

I wanted to see this so badly. This was a production of Sleeping Beauty that combined the talents of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian Opera and the Terrapin Puppet Theatre. Each character in the opera was represented by both a larger-than-life puppet and an opera singer. It was stunning.

Sleeping beauty tree

As is usual with my (limited) experience of opera, I found the story a bit thin in parts. However the visuals and the music were divine. The Tree dude, pictured above, embodied this perfectly. I mean, what is not to love about that image? I can’t tell you what part he played in the story though. Still. It was thoroughly enjoyable I loved the creepy, glow-in-the-dark fairy host. The Good Fairy, too, with her reptilian tail and ghostly vestments was deliciously creepy. It really made you question the King’s wisdom in involving the fay in any capacity (and look what happened, hey.)

I found Sleeping Beauty’s mother, the Queen, incredibly moving.

The Queen Sleeping Beauty

She literally fell apart with grief when the Green Witch cursed her baby daughter. I’ve got a real soft spot for fairy tale queens. They often seem to get a very rough deal. Valued only for their beauty and their baby-producing capacity, so many fairy tales revolve around the queen’s difficulties and mounting desperation to fulfill the second part of this bargain. This queen started off looking extremely young – probably not much older than her daughter was when she succumbed to the curse – but aged visibly during the story. Even the way her skirt hoops are visible under the ragged silk of her dress speaks to her fragility.

The Winter Feast

And to offset all that art, there was the food. Just for context, Hobart is a city where it is supremely easy to find delicious things to eat. But Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast is a smorgasbord of delicious food and drink and smells and music all soaked in crimson light.

I ate oysters and fondue with truffle shavings and canoli and shitake mushroom skewers and dark chocolate salted caramel tarts. I drank hot ginger toddies and hot spiced gin and hot mulled cider and…

So, so delicious.

Luc Besson meets Labyrinth, but BETTER

This is so exciting. I have been waiting for this. Robin Shortt’s Wellside came out yesterday from publishers Candlemark & Gleam! I am gonna be heading down to my local bookstore TODAY to badger them into getting it in for me so I can dive into this exquisite, crazy world again. Think: if Luc Besson made Labyrinth….

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I say “again” because I read an early draft of Wellside, which went through the CSFG’s novel critiquing circle in the same year as my own The Beast’s Heart. And that draft of Wellside blew me away. Robin’s writing is nothing short of magic. He creates these complex, mind-blowingly inventive worlds for his characters to explore that you can just smell as you turn the pages. I have only read a handful of books in my life that are as utterly immersive as Robin’s. I am all about immersive fiction, so if you are too, you have got to read this.

And then there’s the characters. Oh. My. God. He’s got that knack of coming up with characters that are at once familiar and utterly strange. That kind of awesome that floors you with inventive brilliance while simultaneously somehow feeling just right. I don’t know. Think… Calcifer out of Diana Wynn-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Or Augra from The Dark Crystal. Or Harmony, out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t make these comparisons lightly: Robin’s stuff is just that good.

Oh, I can’t wait.