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?

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!

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…

 

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.

Touchstones: Robin Shortt

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with 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 my good friend Robin Shortt, author of the soon-to-be-released YA novel Wellside, to share a key source of his storytelling inspiration. I gave him a bunch of questions, but I’m just going to throw them away at this point, because Robin’s story is fasincating…

(And because he’s too modest to boast, I’m going to say that you should watch out for Wellside, because it is A. May. Zing. I beta-read an early draft and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.)

Back in the mid-Eighties, what got me through a lot of boring days in sweltering classrooms was the knowledge that once they let me out I could go home, turn the fan on, turn the TV on and hear this:

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order…but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven, the moisture of Earth, the powers of the sun and the moon all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation; and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named “Thought”. Tathāgata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: “With our thoughts, we make the world.” Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

(Cue Seventies J-Rock).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2huJqFsFDE&t=19s

Monkey was (deep breath) a BBC dub of a Japanese adaptation of the Ming Dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West, which was in turn based on Song Dynasty legends surrounding Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Sanzang, or Tripitaka) and his pilgrimage to India.

In both the novel and the show, Tripitaka is only a supporting character. The protagonist is the stone monkey we just saw in the intro—Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, an even older figure in Chinese folklore, who becomes Tripitaka’s chief disciple. Together they journey from China to India so they can bring back original Buddhist scriptures. And, every episode, Monkey has to fend off assorted brigands, goblins and demons who try to waylay our heroes, in some kickass tokusatsu-style fight scenes.

It would almost be easier to talk about what isn’t a touchstone for me here. I like my heroes to question authority, and you won’t find a better anti-authoritarian fantasy than Monkey, who gatecrashes Heaven, mocks the Jade Emperor, steals the Peaches of Immortality from under his nose, and proceeds to beat up pretty much every major figure in Chinese mythology, with only the direct intervention of Buddha slowing him down. He’s a great character who still makes his presence felt in pop culture today, notably as the direct inspiration for Dragonball’s Goku. It was also my first exposure to East Asian martial arts and fight choreography, which I immediately fell in love with—I don’t think I’ve written a fight scene yet without some Monkey in its DNA.

Also—and this is what I want to talk about here—it was full of mythology and theology, starting with the dense Creation-story in the intro, that I knew literally nothing about. In Australian schools of the Eighties, when Religious Education consisted of a visit from a Protestant with an acoustic guitar and a felt board, Buddhism (let alone Taoism) was not exactly on the cultural radar. All this stuff was completely new to me, a vast and complex cosmology that was often only dropped as tantalizing hints, since the show always had to keep moving to the next scene of Monkey beating the shit out of a luckless demon with his magical staff. The culture, the society, even the landscape and architecture in the show, all of it was new.

This is probably a good time to mention the cultural appropriation angle. Monkey is an absolute minefield of appropriation issues—even before we get to the English dub, Japan’s borrowing of Chinese culture is an entire field of study in its own right. Then there’s China’s historical appropriation of Buddhism, which you can see in the syncretism of the novel’s vision of Heaven, where Buddha rubs shoulders with Laozi and the Jade Emperor.

There’s a lot in the dub that (rightly) wouldn’t fly these days—the Chinese-takeaway typeface of the title, the Asian accents put on by the mostly white cast. Back then, though, when Doctor Who was literally casting white dudes in yellowface as Asian characters, it didn’t stand out. Most importantly, their hearts were in the right place. While the dub, written by David Weir, could get silly (and the Japanese series was very silly at times), the underlying Buddhist and Taoist ideas were serious—Monkey itself is an extended Buddhist parable—and they were treated seriously. And while the show’s original Japanese audience would have been a lot more familiar with this world and its characters, the dub had to introduce them to kids for whom they were entirely new, without getting in the way of the story. They succeeded brilliantly.

(Digression: it helped that the source material, and the literary tradition it belonged to, was massively entertaining in its own right. Of Chinese literature’s Four Great Classical Novels, three of them (Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin) are pretty much straight-up adventure stories and compulsively readable. They even have cliffhangers:

The Jade Emperor accordingly told the demon-king Mahabali and a contingent of heavenly troops to hoist Monkey up and bring him to the executioner’s block, where he was to be cut into small pieces.

If you do not know what now became of this Monkey King, listen to what is told in the next chapter.

It’s the literary tradition that ended up giving us wuxia and Jin Yong, probably the best writer of adventure fiction in the history of the world, and who deserves a blog post or several in his own right. End digression.)

This trick—to introduce an unfamiliar world while also telling a readable story—is hard to pull off. We’ve all read stories that get bogged down in world-building, spending pages and pages on lovingly-detailed backstory while nothing  at all happens; or stories that move along pleasantly enough but where the background is threadbare at best, or at worst just copy-pastes elves and dwarves from Tolkein at second- or third-hand.

All the fiction I’ve loved since I was a kid has managed this trick—H.P. Lovecraft, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Zack Parsons. Now, probably foolishly, I’m trying it myself. My upcoming novel Wellside is set in the Well, an endless pit lined with doors that each open onto a different world—a hub of realities, owing something to King’s Dark Tower and Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Various worlds have attempted to colonize the Well, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes butting heads.

The setting itself isn’t influenced by Chinese mythology (although watching the intro again after so many years, I can see the mountains of mud from which Monkey’s egg hatches in the skyline of Wellside’s Red Sand City) but it’s a complex background that I’ve tried to sketch out without bogging down the story. I hope I’ve at least partially succeeded.

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Robin was born in Canberra and lives in Vancouver. His stories have previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild anthology Winds of Change. Wellside, his debut novel, out from Candlemark and Gleam in June 2017, is a tour de force of subgenre fusion that just cries out to become an immersive movie directed by someone with the visual flair of Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro.

Touchstones: David Versace

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with 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 my good friend and 2016 Aurealis Awards co-nominee, the extremely talented and all-round-lovely-guy, David Versace to share his thoughts on something that fuels his passion for storytelling.

Hey Dave, thanks for agreeing to bare your soul on my blog. What’s your touchstone?

I suppose most people answering this question would talk about their religion, a key childhood memory or a beloved family friend who visited great wisdom upon them at an impressionable age.

Me too. My touchstone is an obscure educational program from the 1960s, which purported to teach science and history to children, called Doctor Who.

(*Fighting to be heard over the chorus of YESSSS!!!*) When did this emerge as a source of inspiration for you?

One of my earliest childhood memories was of watching a robot molest Sarah-Jane Smith, with whipping cables, at far too young an age. But the clincher came on my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me two Target novelisations: The Ark in Space and The Cybermen. Those much-read treasures not only inspired an obsession with collecting the entire range of books, but also triggered a desire to write. I eventually gave up on the collection (I’m an indifferent completist and I didn’t have that much money) but the desire to tell stories never went away.

Why (apart from all the obvious reasons to do with awesomeness) do you think it resonated so strongly with you?

Like nearly every Australian kid growing up in the seventies, I was obsessed with Tom Baker’s shouty swagger and ridiculous scarf, as he stomped his way through the Phillip Hinchcliffe era of highly unsuitable Gothic horror stories. I became fascinated with the show’s weird and frequently irreconcilable mythology, its revolving-door lead actors and its mad inventiveness.

Eventually I figured out what really held my interest – that Doctor Who is a magic formula for telling almost any kind of story (even if what they mostly told was the same “monsters besiege an outpost” story again and again, for budgetary purposes). It can do a detective mystery one week, a screwball comedy the next and cosmic horror the week after that, and nobody questions it. Nobody but boring people, anyway.

How has it inspired your writing?

Well, the first story I can ever remember writing for purposes other than showing off to teachers was a Dalek story – that one was illustrated! – and, of course, I wrote some regrettable fan fiction in online forums in the 90’s. (I’m lying. I regret nothing).

But the truth is, the greater part of my moral and ethical framework comes more from Doctor Who than from my casually-abandoned Anglican faith. Much of my sense of social justice, of sticking up for the unprotected and opposing authoritarianism, started with the Doctor. Those themes show up in my work often, in quiet resistance, weary defiance and hot rebellion.

How does Dr Who embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?

I think Doctor Who inspired my love for science, though I’ll cheerfully disavow the absurd pseudoscientific nonsense the show throws around. The idea of science was sufficiently inspiring to overcome any gaps in the methodological rigour of BBC staff writers on a deadline. If maths hadn’t suddenly become unintelligible when I turned fifteen, I’m sure I’d have followed a career in the sciences.

But the other thing I’ve taken from the go-anywhere, do-anything formula of the Who concept is a blithe disdain for staying inside the boundaries of genre. I love taking pieces from different genres and smashing them together. I just can’t seem to stay inside the lines: a space opera will inevitably end up stuffed with time travel, dragons and hard-bitten PI’s; my romantic mysteries get infected with vampires, and my magical robots fight werewolves. (That last one is a real story, by the way). Hell, my latest story is a Western full of argumentative ghosts.

Basically, Doctor Who has ruined me for ever sticking with a single genre. There’s just too much fun stuff out there to settle in one place.

How has your relationship with your Whovian touchstone changed over time?

I doubt I’ll ever stop loving its versatility and sense of invention – if the sad and grim missteps of the Colin Baker era couldn’t kill my devotion, I doubt anything will. I’ll probably get some stupid quip engraved on my tombstone. (How about “My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he looks!”? Hmm, maybe I’ll keep thinking about that one.)

I have come to the sad conclusion that perhaps I won’t, after all, ever be asked to produce the show, write an episode or play the Doctor. I still harbour the until-now-secret hope to one day be famous enough to be invited to the show as an extra who gets eaten or exterminated by something. That’d be something to go back in time and tell to my eight-year-old self while he has nightmares about Zygons.

For me, Doctor Who is a foundational text. I don’t reference it directly (well, not often) but when I write, it’s always resting in the spaces between the words. I get a great sense of satisfaction, of assurance from it. Who will always be there, quietly evolving and shifting with the tides, until it once again bursts forth with a new wave of popularity or unexpected moment of relevance.

That’s not a career I’d be unhappy with.

DavidVersace_Portrait.jpgDavid Versace (www.davidversace.com and @_Lexifab) lives with his family in Canberra, Australia. He is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and an occasional public servant. His work appears in the anthologies “Next” (CSFG Publishing) and “At the Edge” (Paper Road Press) and his short story “The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat” (Aurealis #89) is a Best Fantasy Short Story finalist in the 2016 Aurealis Awards.