Showing posts with label Michelle Lovric. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michelle Lovric. Show all posts

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

On a Scale of Owls ... by Joan Lennon


If the world really is divided between writers who are larks and writers who are owls, normally I'm a lark.  Lately, though, I'd say my larkishness has become a bit more bewildered-by-being-awake-in-the-day owly - I'm sleeping later, starting work later, blinking in the winter light, such as it is, and fantasizing about naps.  Maybe it's the time of year.  Maybe it's the state of the world.  Is anyone else finding their larks are turning owlish, or their owls are becoming larky?

And which medieval owl are you feeling like today? 

(An old photo, but it reminds me that I'd love to do another Falconry Day sometime!)

(Thanks to Michelle Lovric for putting the Medieval Owl Scale up on Facebook.)

Joan Lennon Instagram

Monday, 27 July 2020

Unexpected place to find a lion – Michelle Lovric

You know that moment, that storytelling moment, when a place or a smell or photography or a page in an old guide-book triggers something inside you? That’s it. You’re signed up. You belong to that place, that face, that idea, and you will not be liberated until you’ve fashioned it into a book.

I had that moment in Arequipa, Peru, a decade ago, and it turned into my fourth novel for adults, The Book of Human Skin. And I had it again in the Castle of Jabrin, Nizwa, a few years later.

The idea came at once: a Venetian palace with an Arabian castle magically tucked inside it, and a world of trouble for the inhabitants of both places. That world had to rest in the bottom oven for a few years because of other commitments. But quietly, fed only with the occasional page of scribbles, it kept proving and growing, until it was ready to mould, punch and (as usual for me) finally sculpt into shape. As we say in Italy, eccoloqua! – my new novel for children, The Water’s Daughter.

Looking back now at my photographs from the trip to Oman, I’m almost embarrassed about how obvious a book setting is presented by the Castle of Jabrin.

It’s set in a grove of palms beset by sand dunes and brooding hills … 
It has most excellent crenellations … 
Inside, tall terracotta walls are punctured by graceful half-concealing fretwork … 
Soaring ceilings are painted in the bruised colours of an oncoming storm … 
The stones in this floor were rolled smooth in an emerald green wadi at Quiryat … 
Down in the kitchens are the date honey chambers. The dates would be stacked in sacks, pressed down by their own weight. The honey seeped down through the runnels of granite laid in ridges, like little waves turned to stone. 
These are ‘trip stairs’ to catch out creeping assassins in the night … 
This is one of the ‘murder grates’ for pouring boiling date honey on the heads of invading armies … 

There’s a 'Walk of Shame' – a low-ceilinged corridor. Court cases were held in the castle. Anyone judged guilty would be forced to walk down that corridor bent over double, a taste of the rest-of-life prostration that awaited him or her.

There’s a special prison room for women. Imagine being chained to a wall in the windowless innards of a castle, looking up at a dark eye-hole in the ceiling, knowing it’s so exactly placed in relation to the hooks that hold you that a gunshot or a spear despatched through it couldn’t miss. Your executioner wouldn’t even need to see or touch you when he sent the spear or musket ball down the slot to kill you ...

Here’s Jabrin’s marble incantation against Enviers, who don’t get incanted enough against, in my opinion:

‘Let the Enviers die with their desperation
For we have built this place strongly
And it stands up high.’ 

A local legend says the walls of nearby Bahlia fort were built in one night by a magic woman. Clearly, the whole place was suffused with stories. How could I not set a book here? It would take a stronger writer than me to even think of evading that fate. 

In my novel, I populated the castle of Jabrin with a learned astronomer, elegant servants, a talking leopardess named Musipul and a spell-clumsy Djinniya named Ghazalah, who bears little resemblance to a Disney genie. She couldn’t, because she’s built out of research, conversations with Muslim friends at home and in my local mosque – and a sincere attempt to evade demeaning orientalising tropes.

When setting and plotting the Venetian part of The Water’s Daughter, I decided on ‘Bon’ for as the surname for my heroine, Aurelia. She’s a wilful twelve-year-old with a large and characterful nose – and an uncanny ability to see the past when she presses her fingers against the wall of an old building. Aurelia Bon’s own family has plenty of past, most of it pleasantly murky. ‘Bon’ or ‘Buono’ means ‘good’ in Italian: I liked the idea of Bons who were bad.

Next I needed to find my Bons a suitably hauntable palace. In Venice, architectural history generally delivers something picturesque: you don’t need to make it up. So my first investigation was to the Calle dell’Arco, also known as Calle Bon … 
… home to the sumptuous Palazzo Zorzi Bon, whose magnificent sottoportego 
dominates it, with canal light shining through in a hazy glow. 
But on making my way round to the San Severo canal to see the grand façade – having established its identity by shouting up at its owners on the balcony – the Palazzo Zorzi Bon simply did not speak to me. It was too bland and perfect to be the scene of dark deeds and darker magic. Do you see what I mean?
Walking away, disconsolate, I sought some shade and a chance to think. I found myself a dark, abandoned quiet street, Calle de la Madoneta. Deep in its shadows lurked an ancient Gothic palazzo behind high walls with oriental-looking crenellations. 
Peering through the rusted grates, I could see a series of beckoning arches.
My imagination immediately placed Aurelia Bon at this gate, her fingers poised 
to reveal all the stories this palazzo had to tell. 
Few palazzi in Venice bear their historic names. At most, they offer you a sculpted stemma or family crest to decipher and the names of the modern inhabitants on the doorbells. I photographed the name on the doorbell: Ugo Lavezzi. Back at home, juggling three reference books, I triangulated my prey, discovering that ‘my’ new palace was called Bembo, like quite a few others in the City. But there was nothing else about the building in any of my books, all references pointing to the more famous Palazzo Bembo at Rialto. I wrote a polite letter to Ugo Lavezzi to see if he would allow me inside to see the palace. This ploy has sometimes worked before. 

That night, I was chatting to Venetian friends. The beautiful architect Elena told of her amazing dentist and her recent experiences with him. The subject moved to the research for my new book. I explained that I was trying to find out more about the mysterious Palazzo Bembo near San Severo. I told them about the letter I’d just posted to Ugo Lavezzi and my friends began to laugh. Because Ugo Lavezzi is the father of the said dentist. Long story short, thirty-six hours later, I was inside the magnificent gate, ranging the courtyard of the Palazzo Bembo, accompanied by the charming and enthusiastic Signora Orietta Lavezzi, taking these photographs and scribbling down ideas for scenes so fast that some of them would never be legible afterwards. 
At one point, Orietta asked me to be quiet for a moment. She said, ‘If you stand in silence, you can hear bits of the palace dropping off.’ I did, and it was true. 

The biggest surprise was the large fresco of a lion. My camera had something 
in its eye that day: I apologise for the blurriness of the photograph.
Of course, a lion is the symbol of the city’s patron saint, San Marco. It’s probably impossible to walk more than fifty yards in Venice without seeing a winged lion with its paw on a book. The words carved into the pages say, ‘Peace, Marcus, my evangelist, here shall you rest.’ This refers to the legend of Saint Mark’s body being stolen from Alexandria by some Venetian merchants (one of whom was called – naturally – Bon). Venice has always wanted to make sure the world knew that the daring theft of Saint Mark had Our Lord’s blessing: hence the ‘here you shall rest’, signed God

Surviving frescoes are unusual in Venice. The humidity usually eats them off the walls. That was not the only unusual thing about the lion at the Palazzo Bembo. This beast was ranging towards a scene of desert or tropical vegetation, including palm trees. I’ve seen plenty of Venetian lions in my life in the city, but I had never seen anything like this before.

Orietta told me that the artist was thought to be Ugo Grignaschi, born in Grado in 1887, a painter of views, portraits, religious subjects. As he was active during the Fascist period, when Mussolini nurtured dreams of empire. Perhaps, I wondered, the palm trees referred to Ethiopa? But on the only hand, those trees also reminded me vividly of the groves of date palm I had seen in Nizwa … 

And here was the confirmatory link I needed to the other setting of my novel, the Castle of Jabrin. 

Writers among my readers will know that moment too: it’s the one when a story literally comes home.

And here’s that story now, all told and printed, on its book birthday on July 9th just past. 

Michelle Lovric’s website
The Water’s Daughter new web pages
The Water’s Daughter

PS. The campaign against the mega-partyboat the Ocean Diva continues.
The No Ocean Diva petition can be signed here
Twitter: Please search for hashtag #NOOCEANDIVA to interact and retweet

Sunday, 9 February 2020

A visit to Eerie-on-Sea


If there is anyone who still hasn't read Malamander, they really need to. Thomas Taylor's glorious middle-grade novel is set in the dreary seaside town of Eerie-on-Sea, which is the site of some seriously sinister goings-on. This week I was lucky enough to visit Eerie-on-Sea and meet up with Thomas, just back from his US book tour. The pretext was fossil-hunting, for which Eerie (AKA Eastbourne on the Sussex coast) is a fine spot — but not my usual spot, so I was very glad of Thomas's guidance. We spent a happy day trudging over pebbles and clambering over rocks in the February wind, wielding a hammer and staring at the ground.

Ravilious, Eastbourne. Far from the old-lday,
swirly carpet look I was dreading
Eastbourne was surprisingly pleasant, but I did get to see its Eerie side a little. I arrived Monday afternoon and immediately set off towards the fossiliferous end of the beach. Soon it was raining, a cold, grey mizzle that was slowly soaking me. As I rarely take much in the way of spare anything when travelling, I headed back towards the radiators to dry out my clothes. It was an Eerie-ish start. Every cafe I passed was closed. Even the cafes Google claimed were open were closed. The wind blew, the rain rained, the seagulls swooped like pteradactyls on the look-out for chips. I saw a sign for 'winter gardens' and thought that, at least, should be open in winter. But it was dilapidated and shut, the paint peeling off the once-ornate fretwork. I ended up in a chain coffee shop reading and wondering if there would be anywhere to get some dinner.

Beachy Head: not Eerie at all
The next day was brighter. After fossil-hunting, Thomas directed me to the pier (in the book) and the Victorian tea rooms (morphed into a fish-and-chip shop in the book) and a burnt-out hotel, also in the book. I walked back to the pier, which didn't disappoint, and saw a man next to the No Fishing sign throwing back a large flat fish. I asked him why he didn't want it, and he said it was too big for his frying pan. The Victorian tea rooms had an air of aspiring to run-down gentility. I suppose it could actually once have been genteel and was now run-down, but it didn't quite look genuine. I failed to have tea there as they had a £5 card limit and I had no cash and didn't want two cakes. They seemed quite glad I left;  my bedraggled, wind-blown appearance and large rucksack full of rocks were far from genteel. The burnt-out hotel was, well, burnt-out.
Edge of a large ammonite

I didn't see any monsters or find any villains. I saw a fox and two hares and a raven. But it got me thinking about the places books are based on and how as writers we build the place anew but embodying the essence of it more purely than the real place does. When, as readers, we visit the places that have been borrowed or transformed like this, they have an edge of instability. Think of the Venice of Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza novels or Michelle Lovric's Drowned Child, the Oxford of His Dark Materials, and the London of a hundred different books — all places transformed but recognisable. As you walk around there is a sort of shimmering of the Other City just beneath the surface or around the corner. You half expect to see it, but know you won't. It's too good at hiding, but somehow feels more real than the public face.

Places are enriched by this transformation, given new depth and allure. I had never been to Eastbourne before and my expectations were based on Eerie-on-Sea. Although the town didn't match it, I could see it there, in the broken winter gardens, the bored seagulls, the driving rain and the closed cafes. There's a kind of intimacy created by visiting somewhere that has been written about by someone who really knows the place, can see into its heart and knows its darker side. I felt I knew its secrets, that this face it presents to the world, if we scratched the surface, would reveal its villains and monsters and adventures. What lurks beneath the swirly carpets?

Thank you, again, Thomas, for a great day. Can't wait for Malamander book 2 in May!

Anne Rooney
Out now, Lonely Planet:

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Transnationalism vs Cultural Appropriation - Michelle Lovric

It’s so lovely to be back here on ABBA. The reason, obviously, is that I have a new children’s book out this week. It’s called The Wishing Bones, and deals with a carnivorous hotel in Venice that recycles its murdered guests as the fake relics of saints. Naturally, sorting out this iniquity is going to take five children on the cusp of not being children anymore. Two of those children are not born Venetians, which is key to the theme of this post.

I don’t think I can teach the writers at ABBA anything, so I decided instead to offer up a rich and unusual treat – a discussion with an academic specializing in children’s literature. Lindsay Myers lectures in in Italian and Children's Studies at NUI Galway. Her research focuses on Italian children's literature, film and culture. We have conducted this interview by email and in person over a number of months and I’ve found it both stimulating and comforting. I hope you will too.

Late last year, Lindsay delivered a lecture entitled Venezia nel fantasy contemporaneo per bambini: l’evoluzione letteraria di un’amicizia transnazionale (Venice in contemporary fantasy books for children: the literary evolution of a transnational friendship).

 It’s a subject close to my own heart. In The Wishing Bones, a strong friendship develops between a Venetian orphan named Sorrowful Lily and a tough young Irish girl called Darling Dearworthy, and another deep relationship is formed between a Venetian boy Ivo and Eliah, a slave. Both Darling and Eliah will eventually find a ‘home from home’ in Venice, based on roots they grow for themselves there. So I was fascinated to hear Lindsay’s views on how such relationships can be viewed through an academic lens.

Thank you for talking to me, Lindsay. Could I ‘nutshell’ the premise of your ‘transnationalism” theory this way – that in the 21st century, identity in children’s books may not be always related to “genetic/ethnic identity” or “birthplace identity” but rather to other factors such as a “sense of belonging and love for a city”?

Yes, that’s the crux of what it means to think of identity in a transnational way. It isn’t traditionally the way that we think about “belonging”. But it seems to me that in today’s world, the affinity that a person feels for a place is often more important in forming their identity than are other factors, such as actual place of birth and ethnic ancestry. People can move a lot more easily now than they did in the past. The places where a person chooses to live are often not randomly chosen but rather reflect, in some way, that person’s values, way of seeing the world and interests.

And some children are forced to move, to become refugees or economic migrants – or in the case of my character Eliah, are transported as slaves or otherwise exploited, finding themselves living in a foreign culture. Such children must mould themselves into a new life, starting as outsiders.

An outsider’s view is of course a useful way of world-building in a novel: a native has no need to explain the ways of their own town but an outsider can teach the reader by learning for themselves about their strange new world. 

We are starting to see transplanted consciousness as a feature not just in adult novels but also in children’s books, so naturally academics are also interested in this idea? And you are particularly interested. That’s partly because you have personal experience of childhood “transnationality”, don’t you?

Yes. My parents are both English and they moved to Cork before I was born so I have English blood in me but I have always felt that I am Irish. My brother who was brought up in the same family, by contrast, has always felt English, and he, in fact, moved to England as soon as he could and now lives there with his family. He wasn’t at all interested in learning the Irish language at school or in finding out about Irish culture, a subject which always fascinated me. Cork, too, while it was the city that I was born in, has never had the same appeal for me as Galway, the city where I now live and work. It's funny, isn't it? But I knew the very first time that I visited Connemara as a child with my parents that I wanted to live in Galway. Somehow through a lucky twist of fate I ended up being offered a lectureship in Italian in the National University of Ireland in Galway many years later. Galway is where I feel most at home – but, like you I also have a great love for Italy – and for Venice in particular. That’s why I guess I enjoy reading your books – they make me feel as if I am there when I read them – and I like the idea that we deepen our sense of ‘belonging’ to places through the texts that we read about them as well as by visiting them in person.

 And I was born in Australia, yet always knew that I belonged to the old world – specifically Venice. I ended up here in London, writing of children transplanted to Italian ‘heartlands’ they didn’t know they had a right to but with which they feel a warm, compelling affinity. This is a dynamic I’ve felt the need to address several times. But lately I’ve joined other children’s writers in a ferment about ‘cultural appropriation’. We are terrified of being accused of it. That fear has personally led me to close down promising storylines and write, I fear, more boringly. Or, I will write about it, nursing a secret fear of some kind of attack later. Is the academic world as accusatory as the book trade’s gatekeepers at the moment? And as frothed up about it? 

No, not as frothed up. Children’s lit academics have always been interested in discussing ‘sameness and difference’ and how cultures are represented to children by both insiders and outsiders to that culture. Anyone who wants to find out more about this whole area would find much of interest in Imagining Sameness and Difference in Children's Literature: From the Enlightenment to the Present Day, edited by Emer O Sullivan and Andrea Immel (Critical Approaches to Children's Literature, 2017).

The presence of such perspectives in children’s literature is not, of course, by any means, a new phenomenon. As Imagining Sameness and Difference demonstrates, children’s books have always been about identity (both on a personal and a collective level), and the construction of that identity has almost always by necessity been formed through discourses of “othering”. It is only by knowing “what we are not” that we come to know “who we are”, and as O’Sullivan has astutely observed, “a nuanced understanding of the what and how and why of portraying sameness and difference is critical to an appreciation of the role of children’s books in promoting social change”. Exactly what transnational perspectives are in children’s books and how exactly these operate has, however, received relatively little attention to date.

It would be a shame if writers became too afraid to write about other cultures. To do so respectfully, the most important pre-requisite, to me, is that the author has a lived experience of that culture rather than an uninformed, tourist gaze. In order to fully understand another culture, you have to know at least some of the language (or dialect) because when you learn a language you inevitably also learn a whole lot more about the people who formed it – it’s a bit like finding a key to a locked door. That’s why I learned Irish and Italian and why I feel confident now in the sense of belonging that I have in both Ireland and Italy.

 It can be daunting to write with authority about a culture that you weren’t connected to through birth but I think it is important that authors rise to this challenge rather than allow themselves to be discouraged from doing so for fear of “cultural appropriation”. I used to feel nervous writing academic papers about Italian children’s books. But then I realised that many Italians do not have the expertise that I’ve built up over many years of research and that those who do are really interested in the perspective I bring – because a person who is fully versed in more than one culture sees things differently from a person who has a more focussed perspective. The most important thing is to always see things from both sides, to listen and to observe with real attention to detail, and to refrain from making value judgements. I think that, if we can teach children to be both humble and curious in their approach to new cultures, then we are doing a really good thing.

I know that you became interested in my earlier book, The Undrowned Child, because the eponymous heroine has been told all her life that she’s from Naples. But when she arrives in Venice, my Teodora feels suddenly at home. Of course it turns out she has indeed come home, having been rushed out of the city as a baby to avoid a scandal. With her Neapolitan accent, Teo meets arrant snobbery from a Venetian boy, Renzo. However, through her bravery and gifts, she eventually transforms his attitude into admiration and affection, strengthened by the discovery that she has a birth-right to the city the two of them work bravely to save from a supernatural enemy. There are also language issues between Teo and the mermaids who have learned to speak Italian by eavesdropping on pirates.

You work in an authentic way with both Italian and Anglophone cultures and avoid the pitfalls that so many other books that attempt to cross cultural barriers fall into. I love the way that you pay attention to language – even to the extent of explaining to the reader how the characters are able to communicate to each other in different languages (or via translators) as this is an aspect that is often ignored in children's books where characters travel to other countries.

 I find it fitting that you write about these transactions in Venice, a city that lies at the crossroads between Western Classical Heritage and the Oriental Dream. Venice has been functioning as a symbolic landscape within the cultural imagination ever since the sixteenth-century so it makes sense to think of it as a transnational space in every sense of the word.
For me, imagining the logistics of communication is very important. It is a bit like using form in poetry – sometimes working with the discipline yields up new creative ideas. In The Wishing Bones, I decided to make Darling a bit of a show-off polyglot. Though Irish through-and-through, she speaks not just Italian but Venetian. Her character in this way becomes storyline. And it is a way of emphasising that otherness is not to be treated negatively. Darling is a vulnerable orphan. Language is a shield she carries proudly. Foreigners often speak our own language more grammatically that we do. I recently read that scientists are teaching seal to sing Star Wars themes, as a way of studying vocal learning in humans.

Surely these are clues to universal truths. We have much to learn about ourselves precisely from those who come anew into our way of life. There is also much to appreciate in those who have an overview, who have another language, another lived experience, know how to be careful, how to treasure – because outsiders have to be observant and vigilant in order to survive. I think they raise the stakes on our ‘innerness’: they show us things about our own culture. I think outsiders teach us that our outrageously good luck is fragile; in the shock of that lesson, we can choose to become more empathetic towards them. I guess I always want to say something like this, ‘Let’s not close our minds. Let’s not be smug. Let’s not pull up our coat collars against them. Let’s listen.’

 Populists from Hitler to Trump have found it useful to peddle the concept of malevolent otherness, singling out otherness for accusation. At worst, the populist preach dehumanisation that can eventually lead to a sense that oppression and even extermination are acceptable solutions to the self-created ‘problem’ of others. I want to do the very polar opposite to that.

And of course I write a great deal about young girls. You might say that women have been outsiders in Western society throughout thousands of years of history: excluded from politics, finance and intellectual life. We count it as one of the major steps of our civilization that women now have almost as many rights, and some of the sense of entitlements, as men. We have come a long way from the time when the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut had to wear a wooden beard to assert her power, but we haven’t come far enough. I’ve written ten historical novels, five for children. The girls I’ve written have lived in Venice between 1725 and 1902. There has been much discussions about how girls in historical fiction have to cross-dress in order to live lives interesting enough to have a story. And I too have followed that trope for brief periods when there was credible alternative for making a story work. But I also think that there are other ways of making outsider-girls insiders in the action – by use of their intelligence, ingenuity, daring and sheer contrariness. I have also conferred traditionally female qualities on boys: for, example, the way Ivo looks after Eliah in The Wishing Bones is as much like a mother as a father. If there must be separate nations of men and women, I want to write transnational girls and boys.

 Meanwhile, Lily and Darling have a choice of ways in which to communicate their way towards an unbreakable friendship. They have secrets and guilt to negotiate: far more important than being Irish or Venetian. And another far more substantial difference between the two girls than their nationalities is the fact that Darling has known both wealth and love, while Lily comes into the story from a background of deprivation and emotional cruelty. Lily initially underestimates Darling’s ability to love and forgive terrible actions performed under a bullying regime. But Darling has ‘sampled’ the behaviour of an oppressor in the form of a school bully, which has equipped her to understand Lily’s trials when she eventually finds out about them. Mutual enemies bring them closer together; then saving Venice becomes a joint aim as Darling falls more and more under the city’s spell. Each brings unique gifts, some born out of sadness, to their roles as young saviours of the city. I think this is the kind of thing that interests you as an academic?

Yes, I am interested in how friendships are formed not just between children of the same culture but also between children of different cultures.

The work of children’s literature was not always to promote intercultural friendship. The birth of this literature coincided in almost all of the countries of the world with the birth of nation states. Children’s books while they have always circulated to an extent between cultures, have often been powerfully influenced by nationalist discourses.

 It was really only after the end of the Second World War, that children’s books began to be seen as vehicles for peace building between cultures, and that the discourses of “sameness” and “difference” that had characterised European children’s books for so long began to break down. 1949 saw the founding of the International Children’s Library in Munich in Germany, and IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People), a world-wide network of children’s book “people”. Both of these organisations have done much over the years to bring together books and children.

The importance of the formation of international friendships is nowhere more evident than in Venice. This city, which was once founded on international trade, is now living through a real crisis, in the sense that her fragile structure is no longer able to sustain, without grave damage, the millions of tourists who visit every year, exhausting her infrastructure and driving native Venetians away.

It strikes me that The Wishing Bones is allegorical in so many ways – and yet it is also a shockingly literal response to the trope of “death in Venice”.

 You were very brave to tackle such things – especially because institutional abuse such as is described in this book is not normally a topic that can be dealt with so frankly in a children’s novel. Your approach works because it shocks the reader while at the same time showing immense understanding for the suffering of those involved. There was no doubt in my mind after reading the book that the physical abuse that the characters in this story endure has much in common with the abuses that were “enabled” by the Catholic Church in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (even though you never actually go down this line). Sexual abuse is, of course, one of the darkest of crimes, and even though the abuse that the children in The Wishing Bones suffer is not sexual in nature - you convey really well how the child becomes “complicit” in abuses of all kinds, how he or she becomes ashamed and how this fear of being guilty/ punished for crimes that he or she has done perpetuates cycles of abuse and violence.

The adults who let the violence happen by feeding their fantasies are well written in your novel and it strikes me that the evil sisters from Sicily are a wonderfully matriarchal version of organized crime syndicates!

 As always, though, the morals in this book are pure. For you show how the villains’ bids for revenge were fuelled initially by the way in which they and their people were once treated by the Venetians. The last pages of the novel really made me reflect on the anti-migrant discourses that are gaining momentum every day in Italy. Once again “saving Venice” in this book does not mean keeping it Venetian at all costs. Instead, it means keeping out greed, revenge and prejudices. and seeing what is really happening and speaking out about it.

 Keep saving Venice, Michelle, you are very good at it……

 Thank you! But it’s not just the buildings and canals that need saving. The Venetians need help too. What would Venice be without Venetians? A museum of sadness, I think. I think it’s really important not to reduce Venetians to clichés, passive victims of mass tourism.

 Finding ways to safeguard the city’s cultural heritage while avoiding the pitfall of reiteration of national prejudices and cultural stereotypes is no easy task, of course, especially when the very act of writing about in Venice in a children’s book is, itself, potentially a threat to the city’s livelihood in that it will inevitably, if it becomes successful, entice more visitors to its already-crowded streets.

By showing the reader how the views of the protagonists change as a result of their encounters with each other, you effectively break down the “local” versus “foreigner” binary.

 Perhaps the balanced view you have of the city is the result of your personal experience and your own education ? Being born in Australia but having moved to Europe, where you now live in both London and Venice? There is no doubt but that children’s literature is enriched by multiple points of view. This kind of writing is important because it helps children to become citizens of a world that takes responsibility for itself – so long as attention is paid to the way that different nationalities are presented, and old stereotypes are not reinforced inadvertently. It’s important to give a role to outsiders when it comes to protecting the one world we have.

 Your books, while historical, deal extremely effectively with the current issues facing the Venetians. You don’t say so overtly, but it seems to me that The Undrowned Child illustrates particularly well the grave consequences, that can transpire if greed is left unchecked, and democracy is impeded by lies and self-serving policies.

The creature who hides under the waters in this your first children’s book seem to me to resemble the huge cruise ships – almost monsters – that have begun in the last years to enter into the Venetian lagoon and threaten its fragile ecosystem.

Indeed, I campaign with NoGrandiNavi against those cruise ships, using the only weapon I have, which is writing. Things are dire there now, with two dreadful incidents of megaships out of control in the last month alone. This article by my friend Francesco Bandarin shows how Venice is drawing ever closer towards disaster.

And London is facing its own monster ship now too, in the shape of a party boat the size of a football pitch that private enterprise wants to squeeze into the Thames, with the apparent collusion of those who are supposed to protect the river. So here I am again, a London outsider, trying to protect the city with words … from a mega-party boat called the Ocean Diva.

Thank you so much for talking to me, Lindsay. I hope to see you again in Venice soon!

Michelle Lovric's website

The Wishing Bones was published on July 25th.

There are some pages about it on the website here

Apologies to anyone who was planning to attend my Wishing Bones event at the Finchley Road O2 Waterstones on this coming Sunday August 4th. Almost appropriately, for a book set in Venice, this event has been delayed by a flood.
It will be reconvened as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

In flagrante delicta – Michelle Lovric

Michelle Lovric is a long-term ABBA Irregular, posting here many times in last five years. She’s the author of four children’s books set in Venice and five for adults, also with a Venetian theme. She’s guesting today with an account of an embarrassment that may well have befallen other writers.

NB Cathy Butler, who kindly donated her day, will be back in this spot next month.


So I was in the Chinoiserie bedroom of the Palazzo Papadopoli in Venice, half-crouched and half-lying in a corner, scribbling a description of its strawberry-and-apricots-in-cream stucco ceiling and the frescoes on the walls. I was writing the strange floating world of the painted Orient through the eyes of my protagonist, Manticory Swiney.
I aligned my body so that I could see what Manticory would have seen, if she were lying beside her faithless lover on the humid Venice morning when she looks on his face for the last time.

Alive, that is. Alexander Sardou will get what is coming to him, all too soon.

Did I mention that I also write books for adults? The end result of those scribbles at the Palazzo Papadopoli is published this week: The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, about seven Irish siblings with 37 feet of hair between them. Born in the wake of the Famine, they grow rich and famous on the commercial exploitation of what grows naturally from their heads.

But too many secrets haunt the Swiney girls, Darcy, Enda, Berenice, Manticory, Oona, Pertilly and Ida. They end up hiding out in Venice, pursued by a ruthless journalist, and nursing seven separate heartaches, one for each sister.

So there was I in the Swineys’ Venetian refuge, the white palazzo above, at the end of a serpentine Canal near Rialto. I imagining Manticory with her six feet of red hair tangling around her body like a fox’s pelt, when who should walk in on my tryst between art, sex and storyline, but a publisher!

Not my own lovely publisher from Bloomsbury, Helen Garnons-Williams, but the very eminent and elegant Pete Ayrton, founder of Serpent’s Tail. He publishes the English editions of the remarkable Venetian writer Tiziano Scarpa, with whom I sometimes share events. So Mr Ayrton and I are known to one another.

My first reaction was to leap up, red-faced. I had been writing a somewhat spicy love scene, and I’d been caught in the act.

But it was not the pictures in my mind, nor the words in my notebook that made me blush and squirm.

It was being caught in the act of working, in the down-and-dirty, unglamorous, nuts-and-bolts bit of writing. The part where your rear end is coated with the dust of an ancient crumbling palace and your hands are smeared with ink. You have forgotten the time. You’re not even in the current century. You are not a person anymore; you are a prism through which your characters refract onto the page. Your breath is coming in rags from your unattractively open mouth, and your eyes are strangely askew with concentration. You are whispering fragments of dialogue to yourself, pulling your hair across your eyes to see what it does to the view.

Writing was the last thing that I wanted to be seen doing by an eminent publisher.

Mr Ayrton clearly understood the situation, accepted my stammered greetings with polished ease, and proceeded swiftly down through the enfilade of brocaded, mirrored rooms, leaving me to my blushes and internal disarray .

I tried to analyse my embarrassment afterwards. I guessed that I’d succumbed to an old prejudice about literary genius (not that I’m in any way claiming it) being a fine flow of what comes naturally rather than something you actually sit down and work at.

Byron – not my favourite – used to call it the estro: a rare appreciation of any feminine quality by this most misogynist of writers. The mysterious estro fell upon Byron and poems appeared. The English milord would never claim to do anything so grubby as working hard himself. He decried visibly industrious writers like Southey as ‘scribblers’. And anyway, why should Byron lower himself to clerking when there were £5000 worth of women to be had in Venice (he boasted that he got a lot for his money, including a sexually transmitted disease) and show-stopping swims down the Grand Canal to perform, or horses to be galloped along the beach with his friend Shelley. Or posing for portraits, like this one by George Henry Harlow (courtesy of Wikimedia commons). Work? Never!


Yet he did. Thousands of lines – Beppo, Don Juan and a steady stream of (ok, I’ll admit it) brilliant letters – the latter, to my mind, far better than the poems. They were just as preeningly self-conscious, however: his most private correspondence was crammed with wit informed by a foreknowledge of its publication. When writing my first adult novel, Carnevale, of which he is a kind of anti-hero, I found his letters far more useful than his poetry.

So even Byron worked on his writing, though he wouldn’t be caught dead actually doing it. And I, in Venice, had suffered an attack of that most egotistical of emotions, embarrassment. (I’ve heard shame defined as thinking that we might possibly be better than we actually are.)

Had I caught Byron’s image-mad malady of thinking that writing must not be seen to happen?

 If so, I hope it’s the only thing I ever caught from him.

 Has anyone else ever felt ashamed to be caught working?


 Michelle Lovric’s website

The True & Splendid History of theHarristown Sisters was published on June 5th by Bloomsbury.

There's a new pinterest site for the book and an interview with Mary Hoffman on the History Girls June 1st.

Carnevale is available as an eBook.

NB My embarrassing incident occurred during the Venice Arte Biennale a few years ago, when the Papadopoli (Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli, to give it its full name) hosted a major exhibition. Manticory’s frescoed bedroom was devoted to just one artwork: a fresh watermelon carved into a rectangle.

I was then privileged to be given private access just before the building works started to convert the palace into one of Venice’s most luxurious and beautifully positioned hotels. My photographs were taken before the restoration. Manticory’s frescoed room is now a part of the Tiepolo alcova suite. Many thanks to Sabine Daniel for showing me around.

Picture of Michelle Lovric by Marianne Taylor

Thursday, 19 December 2013

How to Teach A Guardian Masterclass - Lucy Coats

Next July I shall have been working in the world of children's books, in one guise or another, for thirty-one years.  I've been an editor, a bookseller, a journalist and a writer. What I'd never been before last September (in any formal way) was a teacher of adults, but by agreeing to tutor a Guardian Masterclass on how to write for children, I became one.

My first book was published twenty-two years ago, and since then I've written a good many more. Could I teach others how to do it, though? Is how to write for children even teachable?  I've always been one who says that there are no rules for writing - only what works. Preparing for a whole day workshop taught me otherwise.  There are rules - the trick is how each individual chooses to interpret them. Thinking about how to get over the salient points of how to plot, write dialogue, create convincing characters and build credible worlds, plan story arcs, show not tell and all the other tricks of the writing trade, made me really focus in on what makes a children's book great instead of ordinary. It also made me realise how much I have actually learned in all those writing years (thankfully, quite a lot, in case you were wondering).

Until I started my first day of teaching, though, I had no idea if what I planned to say was going to be at all useful to anyone else.  I also didn't know what kind of teacher I was going to be.  Before that initial September morning, I prayed to all the gods of Story that I would be the flame-lighting kind, not the damp squib sort, and my prayer seems to have worked.  After three Masterclasses, the feedback has all been positive, and I have found in myself a surprising passion for imparting the writing trade I love to everyone from grandfathers to graphic designers.  (I've also loved working with my fellow writer, Michelle Lovric, who has kindly agreed to be my regular guest author, and whose incisive brilliance in pinning down plot flaws and age-inappropriateness during the group writing exercises fills me with awe.)

The wide spread of professions and ages who signed up to be taught surprised me. Their enthusiasm heartened me. What saddened and slightly depressed me, though, was that almost none had read any children's book later than Roald Dahl, even the ones who had children of their own. They'd just about heard of Philip Pullman, because of the film of his book, but they had no idea that The Hunger Games was a book first. None of them had even heard of Meg Rosoff or Patrick Ness, or Marcus Sedgwick or Sally Gardner, even though they are some of the biggest names in UK children's books right now, and they had no idea that Malorie Blackman is our present Children's Laureate.  Still, as with any class, you work with what you have - and they've all gone away with a long list of current books to look out for.  I hope at least some will use it to their advantage, along with my advice to read, read, read - the ones who really want to be writers, anyway. Because that was another surprising thing I discovered.  Not everyone who comes to a Guardian Masterclass actually wants to go away and write a book. Some are just there for the experience, and I think that's fine. As long as everyone enjoys themselves and takes away a bit of useful knowledge at the end of the day, I've done my job.

So, what are the five most important things I've learned from my Guardian Masterclass teaching experience?
First, that proper preparation is a key element to everyone's enjoyment, including mine.
Second, that a PowerPoint presentation is a thing of wonder, and, more practically, breaks up the talking bits.
Third, that writing exercises are a powerful tool for building confidence.
Fourth, that not everyone will ask questions, so having extra material to fill in unexpected gaps is good.
Fifth, that, as ever, chocolate is the way to a writing Masterclass's heart.

I've finished teaching the current Guardian Masterclass workshops for this year, but am delighted to say that the wonderful Nosy Crow team, headed by Kate Wilson, will be joining me next February for a whole weekend of children's writing and publishing, which will provide what we hope will be a fantastic opportunity to see both sides of the industry.  Personally, I can't wait to do more teaching - and to be amazed at the unique ideas even people with no confidence in their own creative capabilities can come up with in a very short space of time, given just a spoonful of encouragement (and, of course, a good dose of chocolate).

Lucy's new picture book, Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is coming soon from Nosy Crow!
Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. "Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times   
Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books. 
Lucy's Website
Lucy's Tumblr
Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog (A UK Top 10 Children's Literature Blog)
Join Lucy's Facebook Fanpage
Follow Lucy on Twitter

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Buying Crocodiles on eBay – Michelle Lovric

In a former life, I was a book packager. Outside of the publishing industry, we packagers are shadowy figures. So let me explain. A packager is someone who conceives, formats, costs, writes, designs, prints and delivers finished copies of books to publishers (with the publishers’ logo and ISBN) – in short, doing everything except marketing and selling the book. Publishers generally outsource to packagers the kind of books that only obsessives can be bothered to take on in terms of research or fiddly production values, but which work well on a general list.

As a packager, I produced highly illustrated gift books, often with novelty elements tipped in, like meticulously accurate facsimiles of historical love letters including reproductions of the original wax seals. I was forever doing the origami that precedes proper paper engineering, trying to reduce everything down to a maximum of ten hand ‘moves’ for the printers’ workers in China. My books had embossing, die-cutting, ribbons, pop-ups. One, The Miseries of Human Life, even had a ball and chain, originally modelled in Play-Doh and sent to China by my wonderful printers, Imago, for briefings I could only imagine.

Now that I write novels, I miss working with my hands. But my children’s book publishers, Orion, kindly indulge me. For each of my four children’s books, I have produced a window display kit for up to eight independent bookstores. Here (at right) is the one I have made for The Fate in the Box, published on May 2. It's a dark gothic story set in an alternative eighteenth-century Venice where the rich and noble have lost the use of their hands and hearts because everything is done for them by picturesque automata. The poor, meanwhile, are starving, and their children are inevitably chosen for a sacrificial ceremony known as The Lambing ...

To create my bookshop displays, I source small, vivid and decorative objects that occur in the stories and which can be arranged around stacks of books in a coherent, intriguing kind of way. It's important that nothing looks home-made or makeshift. Independent booksellers are a classy lot and are perfectly capable of making excellent window displays of their own so it is important to offer something special.

My first task for The Fate in the Box was to track down sixteen plastic crocodiles of the largest possible size on eBay. These were simulate the two ‘Sea-Saurs’ who are unlikely heroes in the book.

While I accumulated crocodiles over the weeks, my cats enjoyed wresting toy mice and biscuits from their plastic jaws.

Meanwhile, from Amazon, I sourced white surgical mittens for dipping in fake blood. (Not what the television people would call 'A Good Bake'). These represent the discarded white gloves of the ‘Winder Uppers’, a slave population forced by my villain, Fogfinger, to power up the automata with which he has seduced the lazy Venetians. Every night the Winder Uppers wear their fingers to the bone, and  the only evidence of their existence are the bloody gloves they leave behind.

It was in a Chinese shop in SoHo, New York, that I found white paper parasols, miniatures of the kind beloved by the spoilt vicious little noblewoman, Latenia, who wears only white.

The insects with whom a poor girl, Biri, communes, came in packets from Venetian news stands. That cockroach really is as big as the palm of your hand.

Masks come into the story too. The pointy red masks, sourced in Venice, of course, represent the Pantaleone model worn by Fogfinger when he needs to go into hiding.

The background poster is a blow-up of the jacket wrap.

I also commissioned some blue glass seahorses from Marco Vettor. These were based on reproductions commissioned a hundred years ago in Venice by Edward Lovett, an English folklorist who owned a vast collection of charms and amulets. The blue glass seahorses are talismans of the Piccoli Pochi, the freedom fighters in The Fate in the Box.

For the finishing touches of the Fate displays, I took myself to one of my favourite places in London – the East Street Market near the Elephant and Castle – to source lengths of Grand Canal-coloured silk. East Street’s a jolly mixture of Arabic home stores, African vegetables, cockney fabric sellers, fish, clothes and kitchen equipment. The soundtrack is the intermingled accents of Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East, and pure Sarf Lunnun too. As I paid for my green and blue silk, I heard one elderly Londoner say to his Lebanese friend, ‘Oh well, me old mate, gotta go home and feed me rat.’

The window is already installed at the lovely Tales on Moon Lane bookshop in Herne Hill, London, where they have just instituted a clever new idea. The author whose book occupies their corner window also gets to curate some of his or her favourite books from their own genre on a special bookshelf shelf inside, which also features a photo and biography.  

In my Author Curated Case, I was delighted to include books by Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan and Harriet Castor. Once my Case and window were installed, George Hanratty, the shop’s manager, also tweeted pictures of the window display, which were then retweeted, so the window display was working on social media too.

For Talina in the Tower, I roughed up some die-cut bookmarks that Orion were generous enough to produce. These were juxtaposed in 3D against copies of an old print that I had showing the multitudinous clock towers of Venice in the days before Napoleon waged a war of greed and indifference against the city’s churches: both these elements contributed equally to their literal downfall.

On the internet I found test tubes to daub with waxen ‘blood’ and label ‘Foul Philtre’, ‘Lockspittle’, ‘Vampire Vomit’ and ‘If in Doubt’, these being favourite potions of my magician, Professor Marìn. Cat and rat silhouettes came from a Halloween party supplier. I used my collection of 19th-century Venetian chromolithographs to design a label for ‘Golosi’s Mostarda’, wickedly rebranding some supermarket mustard. It was easy to find the glass jars and the sand but not so easy to find vivid-looking plastic scorpions. However, I did, in the end. To complete the display, I designed a bookmark of a gondola bearing a Ravageur, a hyena-like creature who is the villain of Talina in the Tower.

The Mourning Emporium is set in a Venice sealed in a dreadful new ice age. At the marvellous Acqua Alta bookshop, I found this poster of masked, hooded figures crossing a snowy San Marco. Photos of Queen Victoria, with whose death the story commences, were easy to find. I sourced ‘gilt’ frames from a party supplier, which also provided paper bats, toy skeletons and RIP gravestones. I romped blissfully in my font folders to make up white-on-black shop signs for the fictional funeral directors of my book, Tristesse & Ganorus.

And for the quack medicines used by the pale and languishing London mermaids in the book, I used my old archive of packaging and trade cards, such as the one for Dr Blaud’s Capsules, from the 19th century, scanned and printed out in colour.

Another party shop provided the corked hats for my Australian villains and a Pamela Anderson wig, which I dismembered, tying individual curls in satin ribbon as pseudo mourning keepsakes.

And East Street provided the white plastic roses, the gauzy black fabric and thick black ribbon for a stagey curtain. I sealed up each kit in a big sack with a ribbon and a rose.

I got a little carried away with The Mourning Emporium and trialled far too many handmade products, including Mourning Mints, Mourning Liquorice, Mourning Tissues, a Mourning Mobile and a stand-up paper ship’s cat, until Orion gently told me to cease and desist. I took their point.

And finally, for my first children’s novel, The Undrowned Child, it was more posters from the bookselling Lothario Luigi Frizzo at Acqua Alta, and some silk scarves that ripple like the Grand Canal, plus rolls of beautifully marbled paper from Alberto Valese in Campo Santo Stefano. There were white masks to represent those worn by the army of baddies in the final battle scene. My most extravagant purchases were three-pole bricole with seagulls on top. I am ashamed to say what I spent on them, but I couldn’t resist.

Here again Orion proved very generous. Early on I had mocked up a leporello showing teasing lines from the story with three dimensional tip-ins.

So there were genuine Venetian seagull feathers, collected from behind waddling birds, and genuine old Venetian keys from the Miracoli flea market. I boiled real bones from the Ginger Pig at the Borough Market to simulate the relics of saints, prompting my editor, Jon Appleton, to ask, ‘Is there nothing you wouldn’t do for children’s publishing, Michelle?’

I made tiny packets of mermaid chilli mix (as my sirens devour fiery curries). The spies in The Undrowned Child are scolopendre, nasty insects whom the mermaids term ‘Mahogany Mice’, shouting ‘yoiks!’ as they flatten them with the boots they have mounted on sticks exactly for that purpose. I was unable to find replicas of these millipedes so I bought plastic scorpions and hand-trimmed them to suit with nail scissors. I had little replicas made of the shiny silver comb that is the gondola ferro.

From my own archives, I reproduced the moneta patriottica, a paper currency that the Venetians printed themselves during the siege on 1848–89.

siege currency

  Launching The Undrowned Child also involved a mermaid dinner party for book trade people, with a spicy menu taken straight from the book.
The dessert was served in a miniature gondola. I customized even the napkin rings with mermaid quotations …

As you can see, I’ve had as much fun making these window displays as I had writing the books.

I guess other writers usefully turn themselves to gardening or cat-fondling or walking for exercise and relaxation, but this is my method, and I’m already planning the physical side of my next novel, and loving it.

Creating window display ephemera is also a way to escape the tedium of Times New Roman and get to grips with Black Sam’s Gold, Dark Horse Expanded and other thrilling fonts.

And it’s one way forward that does not entail a nervous author in ‘e’ or social networking or eventing, so I feel it is time worth investing.

It’s not for everyone, and not every publisher would be as sympathetic and appreciative as Orion or their hardworking reps and receptive independent booksellers.

Does anyone else have any unusual ways of infiltrating the market that they’d like to share?

The Fate in the Box is published by Orion Children’s Books on May 2.

Michelle Lovric's website is here

There are some brand-new web pages for The Fate in the Box.

Michelle Lovric is part of Venezia, Citta' di Lettori, the campaign to save Venetian bookshops. For more information about this cause, see here.