Researching an artist: a few favourite resources

Research played a major role in the creation of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, and I learned a lot in the process. I had to. Narrative non-fiction is a new genre for me, and I knew I would need to be working from a strong foundation.

I also had a subject whose long life was lived in many places, and whose career would have to be examined from different perspectives.

Here are some of the resources I found particularly valuable.

Specialist art libraries
During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to visit the library of the Art Gallery of Western Australia; the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery Library and the Courtauld Institute Library in London; and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The collections of these wonderful institutions include materials such as exhibition catalogues, collections of press cuttings, obscure recordings and publications, regional registers, dictionaries of artists—and probably many other things, but these are the ones I accessed.

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Online archives
What would researchers in Australia do without Trove, the National Library of Australia’s searchable digital collection of Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1955? Thanks to Trove, along with the propensity of local nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century newspapers to report in great detail on just about every event that happened in the colony, I was able to get a sense of Kate’s adolescent years in Perth and Fremantle. Gallica, the online library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was another source I used for locating press articles and reviews, although it is not a comprehensive collection of the national library’s resources.

Pay-for-view databases
I found it a sound investment to pay for a month’s subscription to ancestry.com in order to track genealogical resources relating to Kate and others. Similarly, a month’s subscription to an art auction database gave me access to several decades of auction sales, and to works of Kate’s I had not seen anywhere else.

‘Can you help?’
I placed a paragraph in this weekly column in the West Australian newspaper, asking for information from anyone who had known Kate or held her artwork. Although responses were few, each one of them was a gem—some wonderful anecdotes from a (then) young man who used to deliver art supplies to Kate; an artwork whose whereabouts I had not known of; a photograph of Kate that made me smile; contact from a family member; some details about the buying and selling of a much-loved painting.

Artworks
I’ve saved the best for last. I made a point of viewing as many of Kate’s artworks as I could locate during the course of researching her life, and the experience of seeing them up close was nothing short of thrilling. And I discovered something I had not known before: that the back of a painting—or at least of Kate’s paintings—has its own story to tell, in the form of inscriptions; old labels recording dates, prices, addresses, titles; exhibition history; sketches; even other works. The privilege of viewing these works in galleries, offices, store-rooms, vaults and private homes will stay with me as one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life.

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Skygazing, Paris…

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(More of these on Instagram #kathleenoconnorofparis—but this one is my favourite!)

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Publication day has arrived…

…for this bright and shiny package that represents, for me, a decades-long fascination that developed, in the last few years, into an obsession. A big thank-you to Fremantle Press for making the package so beautiful (and for much else besides).

Welcome to the world again, Kate.

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For those based in Perth, there are a few events coming up over the coming two weeks:

3 November: Literary Afternoon Tea at State Buildings, Perth City, 1–3pm. Tickets (still a few left) from $60, bookings here.

6 November: In Conversation at Beaufort Street Books, Beaufort Street, Mt Lawley, 6.15pm for a 6.30 start. Tickets $10, including cheese and wine tasting, bookings here.

8 November: Author talk, A.H. Bracks Library, corner Canning Highway and Stock Road, Melville, 6–8pm. Free event but bookings essential here.

15 November: Great Big Book Club Read, Fremantle Arts Centre, 1 Finnerty Street, Fremantle, 6pm. (The winner of the T.A.G. Hungerford Award will also be announced on the same night.) Free event but RSVPs essential here.

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Kate’s Paris: Chemin du Montparnasse

During my research trip to Paris, I stumbled on Chemin du Montparnasse while looking for 21 avenue du Maine. I quickly realised that they were one and the same. The name is a modern one that Kathleen O’Connor would not have recognised, as this narrow little lane lined with artists’ studios was referred to in her time only by its street address. 

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An arts centre, Villa Vassilieff, today occupies the site of the studio of a former inhabitant of the laneway, the Russian artist Marie Vassilieff. Vassilieff ran an academy from her upstairs studio, and Kate occasionally attended her evening sketch classes with British artist Nina Hamnett. 

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It was a Sunday when I walked through Chemin du Montparnasse, peering into atelier windows and gazing up, imagining Kate at work with her charcoal and sketchbook. Although it was quiet, deserted, I fancied I could hear laughter and the clomp-clomp of feet trudging upstairs to class, the creak of easels, the patient, weary sighs of artists’ models holding a pose.

It was a delight to find this remnant of Kate’s Paris in today’s Montparnasse.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris will be available from 1 November

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Quick tutorial: the semicolon

iStock_000018482964XSmallIt’s been a while since I posted a quick tutorial, but I was asked recently to explain when and how to use a semicolon. Some writers hate this innocuous little slip of a thing, mostly because they’re not sure what to do with it. Others seem to like the idea of it but use it indiscriminately, hoping they’ll get it right.

Here’s a quick and easy guide.

Holding things together

The semicolon can be used to join two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning and are independent clauses.

For example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates; she should have felt guilty.

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty are linked in meaning and are independent clauses—that is, each could stand as a separate sentence:

Charlene ate all the chocolates. She should have felt guilty.

Whether you join them with a semicolon or cast them as two separate sentences is a matter of choice and nuance. Joining them perhaps confers a greater sense of judgment on the greedy Charlene!

Note that independent clauses can also be linked with a coordinating conjunction—for example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty.

Charlene at all the chocolates so she should have felt guilty.

Each of these also gives a different nuance to the sentence.

But a comma should not be used to join two independent clauses. The following example, known as a ‘comma splice’, is incorrect:*

Charlene ate all the chocolates, she should have felt guilty.

Pushing things apart

The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a narrative list that contain internal commas.

Take, for example, this list of items:

  • three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams
  • six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa
  • a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles

If this list were to be used in narrative in the usual way—that is, by separating each item with a comma—the sentence would look clumsy and be confusing to read, so semicolons are used instead of commas between the items:

That greedy Charlene ate three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams; six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa; and a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles.

(OK, I confess: Charlene is me.)

I hope that helps!

*This ‘rule’ is often intentionally broken for creative purposes—for example, for rhythm, or to achieve a particular effect.

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The short, the sweet and the historical…

The Australian Short Story Festival takes place in Perth on 19–21 October, at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge (with some events at other venues). The festival’s creative director, Susan Midalia, has put together a wonderful program, which you can peruse here.

Guests include David Malouf, Maria Takolander, Roanna Gonsalves, Anthony Macris, Laura Elvery, Jennifer Down and an impressive list of local emerging and established writers. I’ve booked for several sessions and am looking forward to a stimulating weekend of discussion on fiction in its short form.

I’ll be presenting a workshop on historical fiction, It’s not just breeches and bloomers, on Friday 19 October, 1.30–4.30pm. If that’s of interest to you, here’s the link for booking.

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2, 2 and 2: Alan Carter talks about Heaven Sent

Alan Carter
Heaven Sent
(Fremantle Press)
SERIES CRIME FICTION

Alan Carter 3jpgAlan Carter has had a meteoric career in crime—crime fiction, that is—since the publication of his first novel in 2011. He’s prolific, too—four novels since then, and here he is, about to release the fifth. (And I happen to know there’s another in the making, as I had the privilege of reading a draft—it’s a cracker!) 

As well as being a successful author, Alan is sometimes a television documentary director, and it’s in this capacity that I first met him: he has often worked with my husband, sound designer Ric Curtin. Clients have on occasion had their suspicions about Alan’s faraway gaze while working—deep in thought about their project or solving a knotty plot problem?

Alan’s Cato Kwong series—Prime Cut, Getting Warmer and Bad Seed—has been published in the UK, France, Germany and Spain, while his last novel, Marlborough Man, won the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and was shortlisted for the 2018 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel.

He was born in Sunderland, UK, emigrated to Australia in 1991, and now divides his time between Tasmania and life on a farm in New Zealand’s South Island. Such idyllic locations—such criminal preoccupations!

Here is the blurb for his new release, Heaven Sent, the latest in the Cato Kwong series:

Detective Sergeant Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong is light on sleep but high on happiness with his new wife Sharon Wang and their baby girl. But contentment is not compatible with life in the Job, and soon a series of murders of Fremantle’s homeless people gets in the way of Cato’s newfound bliss. As New WAve journalist Norman Lip flirts online with the killer, it becomes apparent that these murders are personal—every death is bringing the killer one step closer to Cato.

And now over to Alan…

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2 things that inspired the book

Mark Billingham’s Lifeless, where his hero Tom Thorne goes undercover to track down a killer targeting London’s homeless, was, for me, a great example of how crime fiction can be used to interrogate an important social issue. In that regard, it’s a direct inspiration for Heaven Sent—although I don’t have Cato going undercover for this story. But victims and victimology are an important choice a crime writer makes in every story, and the representations we use and the attitudes we portray can say a lot not only about society but about us as writers.

Another inspiration, this time for the Norman Lip journalist character, was the long line of writers/reporters stretching back to, say, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and forward to the amoral journalist in the first series of The Bridge who decide to ‘deal with the devil’ for their professional advancement. It’s an ongoing dilemma that storytellers face, particularly where real life, true crime, and fiction converge, and again it’s fertile and explosive territory to tiptoe through.

2 places connected with the book

The old Swan View Railway Tunnel up in the hills outside Perth is a spooky place in a beautiful setting, and the brief history outlined on the information boards provided me with metaphor and suspense galore.

The spaces occupied by the homeless in and around Perth and Fremantle constantly shift, too. Beachside carparks, shop doorways, abandoned buildings, tourist precincts, parks, fast-food joints—all find different meanings and uses, depending on whose eyes you view them through, and when.

2 favourite elements of the book

DI Hutchens, Renaissance Man. Cato’s boss continues to be one of my favourites. He’s a dinosaur, not very PC, and gets to say a whole bunch of things I’d love to say but normally wouldn’t dare. But…old dogs, new tricks. He’s now spearheading the force’s new social media hearts and minds campaign. For Cato, it’s a disturbing development.

Catching a middle-aged man mid-tweet somehow deprived him of any residual dignity, reflected Cato. This former warrior of the streets, sunk so low.

Cato holds a mirror up to society. Over lunch, he discusses with amoral journalist and wannabe deep thinker Norman Lip the changing nature of immortality and fame.

Everything now is about fleeting associations with fame. People crave it and seize it like it’s an entitlement. These days Zapruder would probably miss the president’s assassination because he’d be too busy taking a selfie.

Heaven Sent is released on 1 November 2018
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Follow Alan on Facebook and Twitter

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