It’s back to my childhood for the very last book. Although, FWIW, I did buy myself the pictured edition as a Christmas present last year, and started reading it all over again. (I mean, who could resist Inga Moore’s illustrations? Seriously?)
I honestly do not know if my first experience with this story was via the book or a BBC television children’s series. Either way, there are a bunch of things about this story that had a profound impact on me.
First things first, let’s start with the central concept. The idea of a secret garden, a place of green, growing things that was once cultivated and manicured, but is now running a little wild, is something that has entranced me my whole life. Especially a place that has been hidden away, and is there, waiting to be discovered and explored. There are so many delicious themes wrapped up in this concept. I love everything about it.
I also love the mystery at the heart of this story. The little moments of discovery leading to Mary finding her way into the garden are completely enchanting; a perfect combination of her personal determination and a little bit of low-key magic. But finding the secret garden itself only leads to more questions and the discovery of a deeper mystery that must be solved. There’s nothing quite so compelling in a story as layers and layers of secrets!
The undercurrent of natural magic that pervades the story is another compelling element for me; the close observations of the cycle of the seasons and the way animals and birds have their own agency and power.
Then there’s the house – I’ve always been obsessed with big, old, complicated houses with too many rooms and corridors and mysterious parts you’re not supposed to go into but you do anyway because how could you possibly resist?
And I have to mention the heroine, Mary, a strong female character with agency in spades, having adventures under her own steam. She is cranky, irrepressible, inquisitive and utterly unsubmissive. She’s also interesting from the perspective that her physicality, as a female person, over the course of the story, is not primarily characterised in terms of her attractiveness to others, but in terms of her health.
First published in 1911, the Victorian sensibilities are strong in this story, and I’ve found a new raft of things to be fascinated about and to critique in reading it as an adult (the role of mothers, for example, and the way class privilege plays out). But there are so many aspects of my personal aesthetic I feel emerged from my early engagement with the story of The Secret Garden, I have to count it as a book that had a profound, early impact on me.
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.
Christopher 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.
Just as I was prettifying this post for publication, Chris alerted me to this beautifully timed piece of exciting news…
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!
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.
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.
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.
David 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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately. Following on from my post on Sapsorrow’s Dress, here’s some thoughts on another one of my personal story touchstones…
Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was the first ever chapter book my mother read to me. I remember her sitting down on my bed with this book with a completely intriguing cover, with twisty trees hiding fairy houses, hedgehogs scurrying around between spotty toadstools, and a hovering golden-haired, silver-winged pixie. I remember the anticipation I shared with the three Faraway Tree children as they leaned out their bedroom windows in their new house, and listened to the trees with the mysterious dark green leaves talking together (wisha-wisha) in the wood they so desperately wanted to explore.
I loved that book.
I’m not sure if The Enchanted Wood is what started my fascination with forests, but it certainly helped shape them in my imagination as places where adventure and magic happens.
Forests are, of course, generally held to be a symbol of the unknown. People entering forests in stories are almost always entering a period of uncertainty and danger. You just have to look at a bunch of fairy tale staples – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Stepping between the trees is usually an act of desperation or coercion – or foolishness.
Vassilisa the Beautiful, Ivan Bilibin 1900
Snow White, John Hassall
Hansel and Gretel, Kay Nielsen 1925
And then there’s all the mythic stuff, such as Arthurian adventures like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legendary Forest of Broceliande. The Forest is such a powerful storytelling symbol its use has carried right through from ancient times to the present day – take the great forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi or, of course, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, just to name the three most iconic fictional worlds of modern times.
What I love about story forests is that often even the standard rules of danger and malevolence are suspended. They are genuinely ambivalent places. Forests are almost definitely full of hungry wolves and wicked witches and ogres who want to crack open your bones and suck out the marrow. But a forest could equally turn out to be a place of strange sanctuary, or hold an unexpected treasure in its green heart.
Obviously forests represent the wild and the untamed; they stand in stark contrast to other habitats like farms and cities, where the landscape has been subdued and converted to serve a specific (human) purpose. It’s not just the adventure and possibility of danger they represent, though, that makes my heart sing. It’s also the pervading sense of peace that you feel on entering a real-life forest. The different suite of sounds. The smells, the quality of the light, the sense of coming back to a simpler, more fundamental existence that entirely lacks the trappings of civilisation.
If my story brain’s touchstone is a European, fairy tale forest, Australian forests are an IRL touchstone just as potent. My mother took my sister and I on plenty of camping holidays out in the bush as a kid, and I have particularly fond memories of camps without parents in my teenage years, through school, Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. In fact, I think the first time I ever spent a night away from home in the absence of anyone more than a year older than me was on a Duke of Ed camping trip in the Namadgi National Park when I was about 16.
There is nothing quite so magical as waking up to the peace of the early morning Australian bush, when the air is still a bit misty and the sunshine is so new it’s more silver than gold. At this time of day the sun is just beginning to warm up the eucalyptus leaves on the trees and scattered on the ground, and the evaporating dew carries the sharp, clean scent into the air. This feeling, of what it is to be in a eucalypt forest, is the one of the things I tried to capture in my story Adventure Socks in CSFG’s anthology The Never Never Land. The main character is 91-year-old George, who is stuck in a dreary old-age nursing home. His only remaining pleasure is his memories of his wife, and the time they spent living in the Snowy Mountains. (Then George meets Maisie, a new resident who shakes things up a bit.)
He lay in his bed with his mind lost in memories. Hiking through lonely, lovely stands of ghost gums with Rose. Listening to the pure, chiming voices of bellbirds filling the air. Surprising a flock of brilliant rosellas from a tree; or getting a shock themselves when they discovered they were walking amidst a mob of kangaroos resting out the midday heat, stock-still in the shade. The roos had been indistinguishable from the weathered stumps of trees until he and Rose got too close and the nearest ones startled and bounded away.
– “Adventure Socks”, The Never Never Land
(If you’ve never been to the Snowy Mountains in Australia, you should go. It really is some of the loveliest country in the world.) I haven’t written many stories based in Australian forests, though. I’m very conscious that my experience of them (and most of the stories I’ve grown up with about the Australian bush) are predicated on the dispossession of Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. For me, forests are ancient, primal places and the ancient stories of Australia’s forests are not mine to tell.
Just quickly scanning over my files of stories – published and unpublished – there are plenty that are set in or feature a forest. Forests play significant roles in two of my novel projects (so far), and plenty of my short stories. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, for example, in Strange Little Girls. It’s got a forest and, like all good story forests, this forest isn’t a nice place. It has a nasty secret. I’m trying not to give too much away here, but looking at the metaphorical meaning of the forest that I’ve outlined above, it’s interesting that in order for my protagonist (a 10 year old girl) to resolve the particularly horrifying problem I confront her with, I send her into this forest.
Malevolent secrets. Strange sanctuary. Treasure of a sort. Hmm.
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 award-winning author Zena Shapter to share her thoughts on a touchstone that lies at the heart of many of her stories. And I’m really glad I did, because – Wow! Like many writers and consumers of fiction, I’m a big fan of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, and Zena has provided some amazing pictures below to keep me going for quite a while.
Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with me, Zena! What is your touchstone?
Thanks for inviting me to your blog series, Leife! My touchstone is actually an intangible thing – travel. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my senses come alive – aromas become more vibrant, sounds are stronger and I hear more of them, I absorb atmospheres, caress textures, breath more slowly and find myself analysing and recording every detail about the people and place until my notebooks are crammed full. I search for what’s different to ‘back home’, and celebrate the commonality of humankind across the world. These experiences never fade (and if they do I have my notebooks!) and they constantly inspire my writing, especially my longer fiction. They help me build worlds that are out-of-this-world! …yet grounded in reality.
When did travel first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?
The first time travel inspired me was when I was twenty-one, working in a Birmingham publishing company after reading English at University. I hadn’t travelled much at that point, and a friend asked me to go away with her for the weekend. It was January, miserably cold, we were both newly single and needed to get away. We went to a travel agency and asked about last minute deals. In England you can make rock-bottom bargain travel plans if you wait until the day before you want to go and aren’t fussed about where. We ended up with tickets to Tenerife, in the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa, and a few days later landed in a completely different climate and culture. It was a transformative experience, changing my mindset, career choices, and life view – it felt like magic!
Why do you think this experience affected you so strongly?
I couldn’t believe how much the act of stepping away from what was familiar enabled me to assess that familiarity objectively. It gave me the space and opportunity to really think, assess and see where I needed to make changes in my life. I also loved the experience of discovering and exploring, walking down streets and over landscapes new to me. I wanted to travel more. After that trip I went back to Birmingham, applied for sponsorship that would enable me to return to University and re-train as a solicitor so I could afford to travel more often. In hindsight that decision may itself have been a mistake, because I’m an artist at heart, though it did enable me to travel more. The first of my working-class family to go to university, my parents were also chuffed I went twice!
How have your travels inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about these experiences, or do they lurk in the background of your stories?
Travel for me is a transformative experience. There are countless challenges, especially when you’re backpacking, and each one enables you to grow as a person. The characters in my stories do the same. Challenges touch their lives and they have to adapt to survive. In this way my stories, like travel, are about transformation, and sometimes this is reflected in a physical journey my characters undertake from one place to another. I also love giving readers the thrill of discovering a new place!
How does your travel touchstone embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?
I was talking about this with my agent just the other day! Looking at some of my recent works I realised that ‘control’ was a common theme. What is control and when do we have it? I enjoy questioning our ability and inability to be in control, pitting my characters against both mind control techniques and self-control issues. When I travel I look at cultural approaches to these questions too, examining how people in other countries use mass media, advertising and political spin to gain control, as well as how individuals strive to take control of their own lives. The history of a place, the events that made it what it is today, also interests me as a writer, and I gain a fuller sense of that when I physically travel there.
How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?
Travel takes time and costs money. So yes, the responsibilities of raising a family have over time meant a decline in my ability to travel. Every few years or so I try to fly from Sydney back to England to visit family, and stopover along the way – never in the same place of course. Those stopovers are all too brief, yet enough to assure me that travel is still my inspirational touchstone. I always come home with another notebook and countless photos of the people I’ve met along the way – they’re bound to turn up in a story soon enough.
Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. She is the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated Sci Phi Journal, Midnight Echo, Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice), and Antipodean SF. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. In 2016 her co-authored science fiction middle grade novel Into Tordon was published by MidnightSun under the pseudonym Z.F. Kingbolt. Her solo novel Towards White will be published in 2017 by the International Fantasy Writers’ Guild (inspired by a trip to Iceland, see photo above!). She is the founder and leader of Sydney’s award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, editor, social media consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with her online via ZenaShapter.com
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 Mirren Hogan, author of Crimson Fire and upcoming releases Night Witches and Nightmares Rise, to guest blog about one of her touchstones. I asked her a few questions, and here’s what she had to say.
Thanks for coming along, Mirren! What is your touchstone?
I was raised to be a strong, independent (but flawed) woman, so I’ve always enjoyed writing about strong, independent, yet flawed women. The world is full of books and movies about damsels, or ‘perfect’ women. The real world, however, is a different reality altogether. A great many women are capable of saving themselves, or being resilient if they can’t. It’s also full of women who struggle with daily life, but even if it’s buried deep, they have strength, and voices which deserve to be heard.
I’d like to think I write characters (male and female), that people can relate to, that speaks to them and lets them know they’re not alone.
When did this first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?
When I was in school, a teacher once said to my mother that I’d make a great boy, because I was so assertive. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed. Imagine, if you will, the kind of society in which a teacher thinks that, and then goes so far as to articulate it. This was the early 80s and things have changed since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this kind of thinking repeated now.
So I’d say I got it from my mother. She kicks butt on a daily basis.
Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?
I was never one to pay much attention to binary gender stereotypes, even as a kid. I liked cars and trains, I played with dolls, I wore shorts and skirts (mostly the former). My earliest screen crush was Princess Leia (with Han Solo not far behind). I’ve never been all that interested in the damsel (King Kong was more interesting than Fay Wray). I think being immersed in a culture of Star Wars and Star Trek, and Pern, in which the women were ‘ahead of their time’, I’ve just grown up thinking women are badasses.
The older I get, the more I realise this isn’t everyone’s perception of the world, I guess I want it known – this is mine, take it or leave it, be empowered, be your own hero.
How has this idea of the strong-but-flawed woman inspired your writing?
In two ways: firstly, my women are usually tough, independent, sassy, smart, the works. Secondly, my male characters tend to hold back more than I think they would if I thought women didn’t kick ass. They know the women can save themselves, but they’re they’re to help, in case they can’t. And often the woman does the saving.
How is this touchstone reflected in your other work as a writer and editor?
It embodies the anthologies I’ve put together or am working on. Like a Girl and Like a Woman are both reflections of the belief that woman and girls can be anything and do anything they put their minds to.
How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?
I’d say that my female characters are stronger now than how I used to write them, but I’m not sure how accurate that is. Even my earlier woman, like Tabia from Crimson Fire is a tough young woman, even in her most vulnerable moments. Is she as tough as Nadia from Night Witches? Well Nadia dropped bombs on Nazis, that’s hard to top!
Nadia Valinsky is a young female pilot and university education student from Moscow. When the Germans invade the Soviet Union in 1941, she wants to fight to defend her country. In October of 1941 Marina Raskova, a famous female aviator, asks for volunteers, Nadia signs up. She is accepted for an interview and offered a place in the training regiment as a navigator.
Following rigorous training at Engles Air Force base, Nadia is assigned to the Night Bomber regiment. She and her crew fly multiple missions on the front lines and are regularly under fire from anti-aircraft guns. The Germans give them the nickname Night Witches, because of the sound their aircraft make as they sweep overhead.
The Night Witches flew in planes made from canvas and balsawood. For the majority of the war, they had no radios, or parachutes. The latter was considered to take up too much space needed to carry bombs. Of three women’s regiments, theirs was the only one who consisted entirely of women through the duration of the war.
They lived together, fought together and died together.
Mirren Hogan lives in NSW Australia with her husband, two daughters, dog, cat, rabbits and countless birds. She has a Bachelor of Arts (English/ history), a Graduate Diploma of Arts (writing) and a couple of degrees in education. She writes fantasy, urban fantasy and science fiction. Her debut novel —Crimson Fire— was released in October 2016, with more to come. These include a trilogy co-authored by Erin Yoshikawa. She’s also had several short stories published and has co-edited two charity anthologies; for breast cancer research and Plan Australia.
You can find Mirren on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MirrenHogan or catch up with her at her official website: mirrenhogan.com.
So. That dress. *Sigh* Midnight blue and sparkling with stars like the night sky. Why did I flip out over a dress? Why that dress? Where did it come from?
I first encountered it in Sapsorrow; episode 7 of season one of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which starred the late, great John Hurt as the eponymous Storyteller. Sapsorrow is an adaptation of the story Catskin from the Brothers Grimm (which is part of a group of similar tales, such as Donkeyskin), in which the dress also makes an appearance. It’s a bit of a Cinderella tale, but so very much more tragic and disturbing.
Before I marry anyone I must have three dresses: one must be of gold, like the sun; another must be of shining silver, like the moon; and a third must be dazzling as the stars.
Catskin, from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm
(Based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes)
That is Catskin speaking to her widowed father, the King, who has determined that he can only remarry if he finds a woman as beautiful as his dead queen. Sadly for Catskin, he determines she fits the bill. At first she tries to deter him with demands for those marvellous, impossible dresses. But when he produces them, against all her expectations, she flees, disguised in a strange and filthy robe of cat skins, from which she adopts her new name, and taking the dresses with her. Later she uses them to help her win the heart of a prince by appearing and disappearing, Cinderella style, at a grand ball.
Of the three dresses, it is the third one, “sparkling with stars” (Sapsorrow’s words), that captured my imagination. Why? Well, the simple answer is that I’ve always, always loved the night sky. That’s another thing that frequently stops my breath with its beauty.
I think it might be the perfect union of fantastical and scientific beauty. I could probably write a whole other blog post, or maybe even a thesis, on exactly why. But suffice to say, for me, it simultaneously embodies both the ultimate reaches of human scientific endeavour and the very essence of magic at work. And nothing fires my imagination like these two things.
Plus, night is beautiful, but it’s also dark and uncertain. It has depth and secrets. Things, both real and imagined, walk abroad in the dark that dare not show themselves in the day. Night is interesting.
Ok. That’s the stars. But why a dress?
Clothes are hugely significant in traditional tales. People use them to adopt new identities and transform themselves all the time. It’s all a bit Clark Kent really. Princes dress up as pig-herders, cats wear boots, servant girls force their mistresses to swap clothes with them, and the rags that a little old lady is wearing might just be disguising a fairy with awesome cosmic powers. The dress, however, connotes a very particular type of transformation. For a start, it’s specifically a female transformation. I’m very much open to being corrected on this, but, while I can think of a few traditional tales that involve men being dressed in women’s clothes, and a few where men are transformed by clothes, I can’t think of any that involve a ballgown. (Fairy tales generally conform to very conservative gender norms – which is an awful lot of fun to mess around with as a writer, but that’s a whole other story.) I have a pretty strong interest in fairy tales (and other traditional tales) as women’s stories, as well, so I find this very female symbol of transformation fascinating.
That ballgown or “Cinderella” moment, where the heroine is revealed in a spectacular ballgown and is suddenly seen in a new light, is incredibly potent. So much so it has been transplanted into a bunch of other stories. Just off the top of my head, Disney has re-used it in at least two other fairy tale adaptations: in Beauty and the Beast the famous dance scene represents the first time the two titular characters acknowledge their romantic feelings (and give the viewer hope the curse will be broken), and in Sleeping Beauty, the moment when Prince Phillip, and then his father, see Aurora in her gown (which the fairies have made for her for her birthday as a symbol of her attaining womanhood), is the moment they recognise her for the princess she is. You’ll note, too, that this ballgown moment is inextricably linked with romantic fulfillment as well. Which is an incredibly enticing and satisfying story hook (even while it carries a host of problems with it).
What do I mean by problems? Well, in many ways, the whole idea of a Cinderella moment is anti-feminist. These kinds of dresses invariably centre on unrealistic and unhealthy female body types (not to mention a very narrow definition of femininity). Lily James famously had to go on some god-awful liquid diet in order to be able to fit into the dress she is twirling around in above, and even without that particular modern twist, corsets and voluminous skirts are hardly hardly the stuff of female emancipation. But… (and I am not arguing that all those arguments are invalid), dresses of this nature are simultaneously a symbol of power and status. After all, Cinderella’s dress transforms her from a drudge into a worthy partner for a prince. (It does kinda stick in my craw that her transformation is contingent on the prince finding her an attractive prospect, but we’ll come to that.)
In a pre-industrial age, clothes were expensive. Spectacular clothes were serious investments. By way of example, there was a famous scandal in 1781 when Lady Worsley left her baronet husband and fled with her lover, Captain Charles Bisset, into the night. Amidst the ensuing social fracas, her husband steadfastly refused to turn over to her the contents of her wardrobe. In Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Lady in Red on this notorious episode, she describes Lady Worsley’s collection of some twenty-four gowns, including two court dresses, and all the various hats, gloves, ruffles, muffs, aprons and a hundred other accessories, as being valued in modern terms at over £15 million. With her glamorous wardrobe at her disposal, Lady Worsley would have been able to make her way in at least some society circles and cut quite a dash, even as an object of scandal. Without it, she was little better than a pauper. So her vengeful husband hung onto it.
Another historical figure with a documented history of legendary gowns is Queen Elizabeth I. Her wardrobe was an overt statement of the power and wealth she commanded. Today those gowns, documented in royal portraits and described in awed tones in diplomatic letters, have an almost mythic status, owing to the understanding that none of them had survived. Which meant when rumours surfaced a couple of years ago that a tiny little church in Hertfordshire possessed a Tudor altar cloth that might once have been part of one of those dresses, everyone got very excited.
Such sumptuous items as the incredible gowns worn by the Tudor nobility were never just thrown out when their original owner tired of them. They were commonly handed to valued servants or repurposed into other items. It’s now believed that the Queen gave the gown pictured in the “Rainbow Portrait” to the left to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Blanche Parry, who, in turn, gave it to her parish church, where it was recycled into an altar cloth.
What I find interesting about this story is how potent this dress is as a symbol of the Queen and her power. So much so that the local stories of the little church in Hertfordshire persisted, over centuries, in the claim that the altar cloth was connected to Queen Elizabeth, even though no historical documentation remains. (You can click on the portrait to go to the article published on the Smithsonian.com in January that explains why they’re pretty sure it actually was the Queen’s. The altar cloth is now being held at Hampton Court Palace, where it will go on display once restorations are done.)
So back to Sapsorrow/Catskin and her strange wardrobe. In this story, the dresses are much more than just a mechanism to engineer an advantageous marriage. They are, in fact, a symbol of Catskin’s power to make her own decisions and direct her life. In the first instance they give her the capacity to put off the disastrous marriage to her abusive father. It’s interesting to note that in the Catskin tale there’s no fairy godmother or ghostly angelic mother to assist the heroine by producing dresses magically, either. The dresses have come into existence by Catskin’s own contrivance, and if the details on how she carries them away with her are a little hazy (in a nutshell, so goes the tale), it is she that makes the decision to break them out and deploy them in the pursuit of her prince. This is a tale of a woman who chooses what she will wear and when she will wear it. She chooses the direction she wants her life to take and she takes active steps to achieve her goals.
So there you go. That’s why the idea of this dress has stuck with me for so long. It’s a thing of beauty, with links to all the magic and wonder and romanticism that come with the fairy tale transformation it symbolises. But it’s not just a pretty thing, and it’s not just about being pretty. The night sky dress of my imagination also speaks of tragedy and pain, and stories that are deeper and richer than the stereotype. It speaks of self-determination and a willingness to grapple with the terrors. It symbolises female ingenuity and the desire to look further and go beyond what’s known and comfortable to find something precious and worth the search.
I don’t think it’s any accident Alisa Perova called her creation the Night Goddess dress. It’s not just a dress for a princess.