Saturday, 28 July 2012

Margaret Mahy - the right to be murderous

Photo courtesy HarperCollins

Five days after her death, there can be only one subject for this week's blogpost: the great and irreplaceable Margaret Mahy. I was away from home when I heard, having had no idea she was seriously ill, and it hit me hard, as it will every reader of this remarkably versatile and inventive writer's work.

I was lucky enough to have known her a bit, ever since I first interviewed her for School Librarian in 1986. We talked for hours on that occasion - about books (the ones we read and the ones we wrote), families (sisters in particular) and about finding the fabulous in the ordinary. She was already my role-model and hero because, as I did then and went on to do even more, she wrote picturebooks, junior fiction and stand-alone teenage novels.

I read the picturebooks to my daughters: The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate, The Lion in the Meadow and the immensely prescient Jam. When we moved to Oxfordshire, I too acquired a plum tree that was overly abundant and that bullied me into making many pots of jam - though, unlike the family in the story, we didn't quite use it for sticking back bathroom tiles.

Pirates were a recurring theme in Margaret's younger books. She told me she had adored a comic called The Adventures of Middy Malone, as a child, and was fascinated by the idea of women pirates and outlaws. 'I became very thrilled with the idea that women could have the power of life and death and the right to be murderous,' she told me.

But in the 80s, it was her distinctive teenage fiction that brought her new renown. The Haunting (1982) won her first Carnegie Medal, followed by The Changeover, which performed the same feat two years later and is to my mind, the better book. Indeed it is my favourite Mahy novel.

Laura Chant, aged fourteen, has to make the "changeover" into being a witch in order to save her  brother Jacko from the marvellously-named demon, Carmody Braque, who is sucking the life out of the little boy. Laura makes this transformation with the help of an older boy at her school, Sorenson Carlisle. "Sorry" as he is known, is a witch from a line of witches, and as sexy as hell. But this is an adventure story, not a romance, and the characters' attraction to each other just a background for the sacrifice Laura must perform to rescue Jacko.

This book was followed by The Catalogue of the Universe (1985), The Tricksters and Aliens in the Family (both 1986), Memory (1987) - a remarkably rich run of fiction, which never dried up, even if the later novels never again quite reached the heights of her work in the 80s.

I met her several times in the 90s and she was always so generous to me, asking me to sign my books for her, as she did mine.

I'm sure I was not the only younger writer to feel her encouragement and warmth: "we're able to indulge in a bit of mutual admiration." When I started a campaign to support School Librarians (CENTRAL), Margaret kindly became its patron. She was a librarian herself and one can only envy the many children who experienced her whacky readings, as often as not dressed as a pirate in green or purple curly wig. She did a great deal to discourage the myth of the "lady librarian" as an uptight spinster and I dedicated my novel Special Powers to her, which featured two very attractive librarians my heroine had a crush on, one male, one female.

Margaret was a wonderful correspondent whether by email or letter in her spidery green handwriting, "which always looks to me a bit more sincere than print." She liked to be kept in touch with what she called "the wider world of books."

And she was the most amusing and stimulating companion, able to wow a room with her rendition of Monty Python's The Philosphers' Song, as she did at the Libraray Association the last time we met - the one that ends:
"Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed; 
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed!"

You will be most particularly missed, Margaret. But if there is an afterlife, it will be a much more interesting and jolly place with you in it.

with Margaret Mahy at a conference in the US, I think 1993

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Gambler and the Cross-dresser - Western Archetypes by Caroline Lawrence

It's a great pleasure to welcome Caroline Lawrence back to the blog. I was writing about the impression her latest Western Mystery, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse, made on me just before I went off to Panama here.  Caroline now tells us more about what she thought were her original creations and how she found something similar when she delved deeper into her current research.

I’m currently writing about the ‘Wild West’ in Nevada in the 1860s and trying to put a new spin on some of the stock characters of the Western genre.

Just as Greek Mythology boasts archetypes such as the Hero, his Companions, the Quest and a Monster, the American myth called ‘The Western’ has its own stock characters: the mysterious loner, the crusty sidekick, the hooker with a heart of gold, the respectable lady from back east, the gentleman gambler, the alcoholic doctor, the naïvely eager farm boy, the faithful steed and many others.

I decided to play around with some of these archetypes, to mix and match and ‘modernize’ them a little. I made my hero, P.K. Pinkerton, a mysterious loner (so far so typical) but then added some wild cards to the mix. I made him a kid, placed him on the autism scale and even put him in drag, all of which are unusual for a Western.

Instead of giving P.K. a crusty side-kick, I decided to give him a gentleman gambler whose USP is that he is a master at reading body language.

I plucked these 'starter-kit' archetypes from a subconscious fed by a thousand westerns. But then last month I came across some short stories by American author Bret Harte and I realised that he might well have been the original source of many of these western characters.
Bret Harte by Richard Russell Lawrence

Why had Harte not figured on my radar before? Possibly because he is neither in vogue nor esteemed. Mark Twain despised him, although they had once been friends and collaborators. Twain once remarked that, ‘Bret wrote in a dialect which no man on heaven and earth had ever used until Harte invented it. It died with Bret Harte but it was no loss.’

Missouri academic Dr. Clark Closser adds, ‘Nothing about Harte’s death was a loss.’


I don’t care what Twain or the modern critics say. I think Harte is great. I love his subtly ironic deadpan humour and his vivid, ornate descriptions. He was also a writer who knew how to structure a story and end it with a twist.

Born Francis Bret Harte in 1836, a year after Twain, he grew up in Albany, New York and published his first poem aged 11. He read voraciously, studied Greek and Latin, but like many men of that period, his formal schooling ended when he was 13. He moved to California aged 17 and worked there as a miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist before he found a market writing about life in the California gold fields.

In The Luck of Roaring Camp, first published in 1868, Hart tells how a baby born to the camp prostitute transforms a passel of rough Californian miners. The next year Harte ‘struck pay dirt’ with The Outcasts of Poker Flat. In this tale the suave gambler Jack Oakhurst is asked to leave town after relieving its citizens of quantities of cash. The town drunk and a couple of prostitutes are exiled along with him. On their way to a more accommodating place they are joined by a young couple. However, the little group makes the mistake of camping in a mountain pass. When the town drunk absconds with their pack animals and snow begins to fall, disaster ensues.

The gentleman gambler Jack Oakhurst gets a brief mention in Luck and dies at the end of Outcasts, but he was obviously such a popular character that Harte felt obliged to resurrect him. Harte gives him some backstory in offerings like A Passage in the Life of Mr. John Oakhurst and creates his virtual clone in Jack Hamlin, from Brown of Calaveras.

Harte’s gentleman gambler is so much like one of my characters that I wondered if I subconsciously stole him. He wears black and rarely drinks. He is admired by men and desired by women. He is described as pale, dark-eyed, handsome, calm, contained, chivalrous, polite and – surprisingly – honest.

‘But isn’t he a gambler?’ queried the youngest Miss Smith. ‘He is,’ replied Hamilton; ‘but I wish, my dear young lady, that we all played as open and honest a game as our friend yonder, and were as willing as he is to abide by its fortunes.’
(A Passage in the Life of Mr. John Oakhurst)
Jace by Richard Russell Lawrence

My gambler, Poker Face Jace, is also pale, dark-eyed, handsome, calm, contained, chivalrous, polite and honest. He dresses all in black and does not drink. I conceived Jace as a combination of Lee Van Cleef and ex-FBI body-language expert Joe Navarro, but he slips right into the mold.

Harte’s charming gentleman gambler never marries or has children, but we see his metaphoric children in Doc Holliday, the Sundance Kid, Maverick and many others.

Cool under pressure and mysterious, he might even be the grandfather of Clint Eastwood’s favourite characters: the Man with No Name from the Dollars Trilogy, the Stranger from High Plains Drifter and The Preacher from Pale Rider.

Another character I was thrilled to find in Bret Harte’s deck of cards was the cross-dresser, in this case a girl disguised as a boy. In The Poet of Sierra Flat there are two of them and they make a nicely contrasting pair. Milton Chubbuck is the eponymous poet, a strange, moist-eyed prospector who turns out to be a woman. The other cross-dresser is the California Pet, an androgynous music-hall star, whose ‘personation of boy characters’ and dancing of the ‘champion jig’ is hugely popular with the miners. In a cheekily risqué but understated ending, Milt and the California Pet end up going off together.

Whereas the charming gambler is a popular western archetype, there aren’t many cross-dressers in this genre. Ironically, as the recent book Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past has shown, there were probably more women-dressed-as-men than there were gentleman gamblers.

One clear example of Harte’s influence is the 1939 film Stagecoach by John Ford. Although the story on which the film was based has one or two parallels with a short story Butterball by Guy De Maupassant, it must also have been influenced by Bret Harte’s Outcasts of Poker Flat, which Ford had filmed twenty years before. The film begins with a handful of ‘outcasts’ forced out of town by the women’s temperance society. As the hooker with the heart of gold remarks, ‘There are some things worse than Apaches.’ Also leaving town is an elegant southern gambler called Hatfield, a whisky-loving doctor and an unjustly outlawed loner played by John Wayne in his breakout role after nearly 70 films. All of these archetypes can be found in Harte’s Western short stories.

What Harte has done should not be dismissed. He has created some marvellous characters that do what archetypes should do; they stand for an immediately recognizable class of person. It is then up to the storyteller to add nuances, quirks and eccentricities in order to bring them alive. Some academics have scathingly dismissed Harte’s characters as ‘stock’. But are they ‘stock’ if you are the first to create them?

As an American, Western Mythology is in my DNA. But I have only just realised that its Prometheus – the man who first gave shape to many of its best characters – was a writer named Bret Harte.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

City of Swords

Last week the sixth volume of my fantasy sequence for Bloomsbury, Stravaganza, was published. It's the last, at least for now and since the sequence was originally planned as a trilogy, that's not bad going!

In each book there is a twenty-first teenager from our world who time travels to a version of Italy in the sixteenth century. Talia is in a parallel dimension, where in the period when history and myth are hardly distinguished, Remus won the fight against Romulus and everything has been changed by "going down the other trouser-leg of time" as Terry Pratchett has it.

The City of Swords is Fortezza - loosely based on Lucca - and at the beginning of the Talian part of the story, its ruler, Prince Jacopo di Chimici, is dying. He is one the "good" de Chimici, that powerful family that tries to rule all Talia in the face of opposition from some independent city-states. For readers of the earlier books, Jacopo was a tower of strength after the wedding massacre in City of Flowers.

Laura is the new Stravagante from our world and she has a secret - one we don't learn till the end of the book. In this she is like the other Islington teenagers attending Barnsbury Comprehensive who have travelled to Talia. Each has been unhappy for a different reason and Laura's unhappiness has led her into being a self-harmer.

It was a subject I wanted to write about because it affects a terrifyingly large number of British teenagers. But within the context set up by these books it becomes just one of many plot strands. Laura travels to Fortezza, which is - ironically - the city of swords and finds herself in a swordsmith's shop. Her Talian Stravagante is Fabio,  a swordsmith, and she soon finds herself caught up in a siege, surrounded by weapons that can do more damage than a razor blade.

Laura's talisman is a paper knife in the shape of a sword but unlike most paper knives it has a wickedly sharp blade. All the Stravaganti have talismans; they are what takes them from one world to another. But there is a story behind this one, which I have told before. These are the first five, some of them found after writing the books.

With City of Swords, I had a mental image of the paper knife and searched shops and stalls in Italy trying to find something that matched up to that image, with no success. And then in spring last year, when I had started writing the book, my sister came for Easter and casually said she's brought me something that had belonged to our mother because she had her own version, just the same. They came from Spain, but when I unwrapped it, there was my talisman!

Laura's is silver rather than this sort of dull gold but otherwise, it's exactly as I imagined it and it made me very happy to have it. I'm not superstitious but I do like to have an object about me that is linked to whatever book I am writing at the time and this gave a special impetus to Swords, which had to be handed in by the end of July - by28th in fact, as I left for a much-needed week's holiday the next day.

By then I had already passed a happy week in Lucca, refreshing my memories of the city and this time I walked the whole circuit of the complete medieval walls that encircle it. It took only an hour and a quarter - much less than my usual walks - and we also spent some time under the walls in the cavernous passages and tunnels that resurface as dungeons in the novel.

I shall miss being in Talia because it;'s a world I know so very well that I can just immerse myself in it every time there's a new book. The Italians have a good word for "goodbye." Arrivederci means "till we see each other again." That seems a good way to part.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ten legs and a man called Hyacinth

This ridiculously picture-postcard shot was one I took on Red Frog Beach on the island of Bastimentos in Panama (the Caribbean side). We are just back from two weeks with our youngest daughter and her partner on the boat they bought to sail round the world in.

It has been a bit of a shock to move from a tropical climate - very hot and humid - to a British July! We have been eating giant papayas and pineapples and picking coconuts up for free on the beach. The papayas in Waitrose looked stunted and shrivelled by comparison. And watching pelicans, frigate birds and eagles is much more fun than scooping up the dead sparrow one of the cats brought in within hours of their return from the cattery.

We worked out that our journey between daughter's boat and home had ten legs - ten different vehicles: dinghy, larger boat, shuttle bus to Panamian border, second shuttle to San José, taxi to airport, plane to Miami, plane to Heathrow, Piccadilly line tube, car to pick us up at Tube station and my car to drive home in.

The driver between San José and the border - both ways - was the delightfully-named Jacinto (pronounced Hassinto, because Latin American Spanish speakers don't lisp on the "c" like Catalans). He also had the nickname of El Pantera, the panther, but was a pussycat really.

That Panamanian border crossing was quite something. It took an hour in both directions to do the formalities, fill up forms, pay money, get stamped ... And then a walk over a VERY rickety wooden bridge. On the way back we were caught in the mother of all tropical rainstorms and were quite drenched by the time we climbed into Jacinto's minibus.

Very tired now (did I say 4 different time zones were involved?) but it was a lovely holiday. Swimming in the Caribbean sea was lovely, as was seeing our daughter after eight months. Next June, I wonder where she and we will be?

Meanwhile, here is a sunset in Bocas del Toro for you:

No literary news in this post; maybe I'll just become a picture postcard maker?