Monday, 20 June 2011

Aurora dawns

This lovely lady is Julie Bertagna and she is my special guest today. The reason is that after a long wait by her fans, the third book in Julie's trilogy has just come out.

I didn't read Exodus when it was first published but came across it when I had to review the second book, Zenith, and realised I really needed to do my homework before I could possibly do justice to the sequel.

Since then I have joined the ranks of "anxious awaiters" and was not disappointed when I read Aurora. Julie very kindly agreed to answer the questions I had in mind when I finished the book.

BM: There have been long gaps between the three books, published 2002, 2007 and this year, 2011. I'm sure the many fans will just be delighted to have the third episode but do you think there will be any problems with readers not remembering all the details from the other two books? Or are they just such avid re-readers that they remember even better than you do!

JB: New editions of all three books of the trilogy have been re-issued with fantastic new covers so I think there will be a whole new generation of readers coming to them afresh. For other readers, I took care in Aurora to explain things as much as I could as I went along, but in a way that didn’t interrupt the momentum of the story - just enough that would make sense, hopefully, for anyone who might be reading Aurora first or who hadn’t read the other books in a while. I always re-read books I liked when I was younger, and the feedback I get from readers tells me they do too. But to recap everything would have made for a very stodgy story. Often readers have picked up on details I’ve forgotten and asked questions that I haven’t thought of and it’s been very helpful!

BM: There is also a time lapse of about fifteen years between books two and three in the action of the novels. This is quite a risk to take with readers who have been on a cliff hanger for four years about Mara and Fox. Can you explain why you took this bold step?

JB: I think you should take risks as a writer. That’s part of the reason I’m writing YA fiction. I think it’s my job to take readers places they might not have expected or thought they wanted to go. Books would be very dull if authors were continually asking themselves, will the readers like this or is it too risky? Should I just play safe? I moved the action forward because, quite simply, it would have been a lesser story if I hadn’t. It would have been limited to one generation when this is a big epic tale that spans generations, different worlds and lives. Some people have been hooked and intrigued straight off, others have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to go there and make that jump in time but then I got lost in the story again...’ I’ve often had exactly that reaction when reading a book, but the challenge is worth it as I love big stories that take you on unexpected journeys.

BM: Would you yourself describe these books as "dystopian"? It seems to be the current buzz word but was new in 2002. Perhaps Exodus was an early example of dystopian YA fiction?

Dystopian seems to be an umbrella word for anything futuristic right now. Exodus was out on its own when it was published as there was really nothing else like it, and it felt like a risky book to write, so it’s strange suddenly to be part of a ‘hot trend’. The sky city empire in the Exodus trilogy is a dystopian regime which has shut out the refugees of the flooded world, but the rest of the novel is apocalyptic. So maybe my trilogy could be described as ‘Dystopalyptic’ - there, I’ve just invented a new buzz word!

BM: It's really a very political book or books, with the widening post eco-disaster gap between the haves and have-nots. Are you also telling us something about the present?

JB: All the ideas for these books have come out of the real world - from my first inspiration of the Kiribati islanders struggling to survive on scraps of land amid rising seas in the Pacific, to the boat camps of flood refugees and rampaging gypsea pirates, the bio-architecture of the sky city towers, and the walled cities in a time when we are debating the problems of mass migration into ‘Fortress Europe’. Speculative fiction about the future has a big punch when you can feel its roots stretching back into the real present, and see reflections of your own world in the imagined future of the story. But these books don’t preach - it’s up to readers to take what they want from these stories. I do find that they spark great debates and questions and opinions.

Just the other day I did an event in a library where I was talking up the need to keep our libraries open and one of my young audience said, ‘This fight for libraries is kind of like Fox’s revolution to keep the world’s lands free for the boat people.’ That was not a parallel that had ever occurred to me, but I liked it!

BM: I don't want to give any spoilers in this interview but do you think your readers will be satisfied by the ending of the story between Mara and Fox?

JB: One thing I’ve learned about my readers is that a whole lot of them would be insulted by an obvious, trite or sentimental ‘Hollywood’ ending - and so would my characters! I’ve had so many emails and there are debates on my talk forum on all kinds of reasons for and against Mara and Fox ending up together - everyone disagrees with everyone else. It’s great fun and I could never please them all.

I wanted to write an ending where you couldn’t just turn to the back page and find out what happened (as I can be shamefully guilty of doing). All three books of the trilogy end with a surge of forward momentum. There are rewards for careful readers - for example, Exodus opens with ‘once upon a time’ and Aurora ends with the same words. These words also link Mara and Fox and this theme - the power of stories - is at the heart of the books. I wonder if anyone will spot the elements of the ‘stone-telling’ prophecy in Exodus hidden in the ending of Aurora. That’s the kind of subtle detail that my readers seem to enjoy.

I love evocative endings that leave space for the reader to imagine. For me, the most powerful stories are the ones where the imaginations of the writer and reader work together. The best books I’ve ever read, the ones that have stayed with me, have left me haunted, provoked, infuriated, driven me crazy, left me wondering and imagining, sometimes for years...whereas ‘satisfying’ crowd-pleasers, cut and dried happy-ever-afters, have long vanished from my mind.

The ending of Aurora is a whole new beginning and that’s why it ends with ‘once upon a time’.

BM: I must ask because people always want to know: is this the end of the story?

JB: I’m working on a big new book called ‘Riven’ - it might end up as two - about a very different future and it’s very exciting so I’m all caught up in that. Maybe one day I will return to the world of the Exodus trilogy but that’s it for now.

A little bit more about Julie:

Julie Bertagna was born in Ayrshire and grew up near Glasgow. After an English degree at Glasgow University she worked as the editor of a small magazine, a teacher and then a freelance journalist. She has written many award-winning novels for teenagers and younger children and speaks in schools, libraries and at book festivals across the UK. Her books have also sold all over the world. Exodus, her first novel for Macmillan, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and was described by the Guardian as ‘a miracle of a novel’. Julie writes full-time and lives in Glasgow with her family.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Deadly Desperados

It was such fun having Caroline Lawrence drop by last Sunday to talk about the background to her new Western Mysteries series that I ran out of space to review the first book!

And I really wanted to tell you about it because it's quite a remarkable book with an even more remarkable hero. Looked at one way, the book seems like a locus classicus for every theme and incident you ever heard about the Wild West:

Saloon bars; card sharps, mining claims; Indians, scalpings, sharpshooters, men in buckskins. It reminded me a bit of watching Roy Rogers at Saturday Morning Pictures - something Caroline is too young and too American to know about.

But wait, the scalpings haven't been done by Indians, our hero has lost all four of his parents (biological and foster) so is a double orphan and the card sharp is one of the most honest characters in the book. It is as if Caroline Lawrence has collected all the clich├ęs and stereotypes about the West and then polished them to a bright new shine, like the silver in them thar hills, so that we meet them newly minted.

Which is of course what a child reader will do.

And that hero, P.K.(Pinky) Pinkerton is not like other boys. Caroline never uses the word "Asperger's" but the clues are there: P.K. does not like to be touched, can't easily read other people's faces and doesn't express emotion on his own. (This makes him an excellent poker player potentially).

He wears a lot of disguises and there is even what I thought might be going to be a Tyke Tyler moment of revelation towards the end but the author keeps us guessing. So, P.K., who had almost witnessed the murder of his foster parents and holds an important McGuffin (the apparent letter of deed to a silver mine) has to evade and outwit three horrible pursuers, including Whittling Walt, so called because he likes to cut small bits off people while questioning them.

P.K. gets tricked easily and is far too trusting, but he does meet Mark Twain in the newspaper offices and Poker Face Jace in the saloon, who are both genuinely helpful. Still at the climax of the chase, only P.K. can save himself.

My only concern is where can the series possibly go next - hasn't Caroline Lawrence used up all her possible plots in one book? But this was the author who wrote 17 Roman Mysteries in her earlier series and P.K. wants to be a detective, so I'm guessing there will be lots more mysteries for him to solve. And in P.K. I think his creator has invented a true original.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Romans 17, Cowboys 1 (but rising)

The Book Maven is delighted to welcome Caroline Lawrence, who is stopping off for a metaphorical slug of liquor and plug of baccy on her demanding blog tour for The case of the Deadly Desperados. And here she is, for once not dressed in a toga or full set of buckskins!

                                                WESTERN vs ROMAN

For most of the past ten years I've had a fabulous time writing a history-mystery series for kids set in ancient Rome.

My main motivation for writing is to transport myself to another place and time. I write about places Id like to have lived; civilized towns with a hint of danger and unpredictability, and populated by intriguing historical figures. While writing my Roman Mysteries, I have met Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, the Emperor Titus and his brother Domitian, the astrologer Ascletario, the orator Quintilian, and Suetonius biographer of the Caesars  when he was twelve years old.

But now I've turned my eyes to the west, the Wild West. So how did I get from first century Rome to nineteenth century America?

It was HBO's Deadwood that rekindled my interest in the Western genre. When I saw the first episode of this TV series in 2005, I had a eureka moment: THAT's what it would have been like! Grimy, grubby & unglamorous. No swinging saloon doors, no shootouts, no glossy saloon girls in ruffles. Instead writer David Milch and his crew gave us canvas pest-tents, knifings, and sorry-looking dope addicts. It was full-frontal, profane, and violent, sometimes almost too violent to watch. This is a shame, because the producers did such a marvellous job of recreating that look and feel of a mining camp in the 1870s.

Deadwood sparked my interest in Westerns because I wanted to see more of this world, which was the world of my own heritage. I had abandoned the US a few decades previously to study in the UK, and ended up settling here. But now I wanted to read about my ancestors: grizzled men, gutsy women and pioneer children. I craved big skies, sage-dotted deserts and shadowed canyons. I started to re-watch Westerns I hadn't seen in years. After Deadwood, most of them seemed laughably clean and unrealistic, but a few were as fresh and vital as the day they had first been screened. I was entranced by Eagle's Wing, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josie Wales and Dances with Wolves.

Then I saw The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, a spaghetti western from 1966. I remembered it as being rather silly, perhaps because of its famous theme song. But as I watched the remastered extended version I was amazed at how good it was. Exciting, clever, surprising, and blackly funny. And, like Deadwood, it got the look exactly right: grubby, dusty and sweaty. I fell utterly in love with this film. When I went to IMDb viewers ratings, I saw I wasn't alone. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo -- its original Italian title -- has consistently held a place in the top 5 films of all time.

Around that time a friend gave me a copy of Charles Portiss' True Grit, which I adored. I also started reading Larry McMurtry and Robert B Parker's Appaloosa series. All three authors employ wonderful dialogue and turn of phrase, but use such plain prose and clear vocabulary that a middle school child could easily read any their books, were it not for the content.

Another eureka moment came a few months later when I was visiting my mother in Northern California, sitting in a sunny outdoor cafe on a university campus. I suddenly thought, Why am I not writing a series of books set here? At that moment I resolved to write a new series based in the American West. Like the Roman Mysteries, it would be history-mystery, and like them for the 8 - 12 age group.

The only problem was exactly where and precisely when to set it? The West is so big, and the scope of American history so vast, but for time travel to work you need to be specific.

The following week found me in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. I went for an early morning walk and discovered a National Park. I didn't have time to do any hiking, but I came away from the ranger station clutching a map dotted with wonderful names like Mt. Disappointment and Hard Luck. An idea was taking shape in my head. As soon as I got back to my room, I wrote the first few pages of what was to be the first Western Mystery. Here is the original first line of those original first pages:

"My name is Pinky, and I was born in Hard Luck, not far from Mount Disappointment. That pretty much sums up my short and miserable life. Which is anyways soon about to end."

That was in October of 2006, five years ago. In that early version the character of P.K. (Pinky) Pinkerton emerged from my subconscious pretty much fully grown. All the essential elements were there: an enigmatic and slightly dysfunctional hero who is half white and half Indian, deadpan humour and an air of excitement and threat.

I had my guide. Now I needed my setting. The San Gabriel Mountains, while beautiful, didnt feel right. I then toyed with the idea of setting the books in San Francisco during the gold rush. Then I discovered something I hadn't known: Samuel Clemens lived in the west for a few years as a young man. His worked as a reporter for a two and a half years in Virginia City, Nevada during its most exciting period: the silver boom years. It was there that he first used the pen-name Mark Twain.

I had my third eureka moment. For my Roman Mysteries, the eruption of Vesuvius had given me a place and a time: 24 August AD 79, and that series lasted for the two and a half year reign of Titus. For my Western Mysteries, the arrival in Virginia City of Mark Twain would gave me not just a place, but a very specific time: Friday 26 September 1862, and my series could last for the two and a half year reign of Twain.

In researching my new series I have been to the Melody Ranch, California where Deadwood was filmed  and also to Virginia City, Nevada. My husband, my sister and I have done a Civil War tour, an Arizona Dude Ranch and a Death Valley road trip. I am learning about 19th century American music, theatre, photography, clothing and tobacco. I'm getting to know Mark Twain and some lesser-known but equally-fascinating sage-brush writers such as Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman and Alf Doten. I've also met some gutsy gals and pioneer kids. Virginia City and the area around it will be a great place to spend the next decade. An interviewer recently asked me this question: If you had a time machine, would you go back to ancient Rome or the Wild West? I couldn't answer her, because I am so passionate about both periods.

Five connections between Ancient Rome and the Wild West:

1. Both were horse-powered societies.
2. The state of medical knowledge was about the same.
3. The best westerns were made by a Roman director, Sergio Leone.
4. David Milch only conceived of the Deadwood after being thwarted in his hopes to do a series about Nero's Rome.
5. Samuel Clemens claims to trace his family line back to Flavius Clemens, a relative of the emperor Titus.

Caroline Lawrence writes historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine. She writes for kids 8 - 12 because that is her inner age. Caroline divides her time between 1st century Ostia and 19th century Nevada. In a manner totally befitting a split-personality Gemini, this Californian Londoner has two websites, one for her Roman Mysteries and one for her Western Mysteries.

 There are two more stops left on Caroline's blog tour:

Mon 13 June – Caroline Lawrence on tips for writing historical fiction
Tues 14 June – Inhabiting the West

Monday, 6 June 2011

Dissing Dystopia?

The Web is buzzing with the sound of trapped flies again. This time it's a journalist called Megan Cox Gurdon, writing in the Wall Street Journal, causing the vibrations:

Admittedly, her reference points are American, as you would expect, but I have some thoughts - indeed experience - to share on this. For a start, that word "dystopian", which Ms Cox Gurdon doesn't actually use but which is lurking behind her article. It was coined by those who mistakenly believed it was the opposite of "utopian." They thought that Thomas More's "Utopia" was a mistransliteration of the Greek for "good place", with the prefix "eu" (as in "euphony" or "euphemism"), whereas the first letter actually represented "ou" or "not."

Therefore Utopia means "the nowhere place" not "the good place" and "dystopia" is not its opposite. Glad we got that cleared up.
The journalist is not very knowledgeable about children's books, saying that "40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing." Maybe it's her Maths that is off, because I make that 1971, the year before my first book was published. No such thing as young adult literature? It wasn't called that and it might not all have been "dystopian" but it was certainly there.

Alan Garner's The Owl Service was published in 1967, Paul Zindels' The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger a few years later. Peter Dickinson's Changes trilogy was from the same period, beginning in 1968; John Christopher's Tripods series began at the same time. And this was also the period when novels originally ostensibly for adults, like Lord of the Flies (1958) and Catcher in the Rye (1951) were being given to teenagers to read because of the age of their protagonists.

But let that pass. Is there anything in the writer's main contention that the basic material for YA literature today is overwhelmingly bleak? Well, perhaps. To take speculative fiction first, there is no doubt that ever since  Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, the latest trend in YA has been towards the dystopian: Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Philip Reeve's quartet that began with Mortal Engines, Julie Bertagna's post eco-disaster trilogy (Exodus; Zenith; Aurora); William Nicholson's Windsinger trilogy; Cassandra Clare's really rather bad "City of ..." novels ... the list could go on and on.

But it followed the previous bestselling trend of paranormal romance, set off by Stephenie Meter with her ridiculous vampires and werewolves and though not as child-friendly as Harry Potter (which certainly had its darker aspects) was hardly corruptingly evil.

I think the journalist is thinking more of books like Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, though she doesn't mention it, perhaps because it's by an Australian and this is a US-centric article. Or Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden, a brother-sister incest novel about to be published across the pond.

Self-harm especially exercises this author:
"it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care."

This interests me because my current protagonist is a self-harmer and since the book I am writing is sixth in the Stravaganza sequence, there is a mixture of "real life" events and something more speculative as the heroine of City of Swords has the uncommon experience of travelling to a time and place where cutting with sharp weapons is about to become commonplace as a city experiences civil war and siege.

I don't see it, as Ms Cox Gurdon expresses it as bulldozing coarseness and or misery into children's lives. YA readers in my experience are very good at ceasing to read material that does not interest them, without the intervention of parents. But teenagers have a very wide experience of ways of being unhappy; in my books I try to help them come to terms with those, specifically to understand that hard times do not endure forever.

I think Ms Cox Gurdon is right in a way about vogues. A particular genre arises as a trend out of one or two bestselling titles then settles down to being just one of a range of possible genres. the next after dystopian will probably be "historical" something you couldn't sell for love nor money "40 years ago."