’Tis the season…

Teal White Sparkle Christmas Card

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December 20, 2019 · 4:38 pm

China sojourn…

Amanda Curtin(photo by WEI Donghua)

Photo courtesy Wei Donghua

I recently took a four-week break from the blog—from all social media, in fact—when I joined the 2019 Sun Yat-sen Writers’ Residency in China. The residency promotes the reading and writing of world literature by providing the space for international writers to engage with Chinese literature, culture and people.

I had the privilege of sharing these four unforgettable weeks with seven other writers—Damien Wilkins, New Zealand; Abigail Parry, United Kingdom; Geoffrey Nutter, United States; Alecia McKenzie, Jamaica; Ignacio Vleming, Spain; Helmuth A. Niederle, Austria; Irene Santori, Italy—as well as the residency creator and director, Professor Dai Fan, her colleagues from Sun Yat-sen University, and three groups of translation students.

During the residency, writers each had a piece of work (mine, the short story ‘Gratitude’, from Inherited) translated into Mandarin, and I found the process of working with student translators Junhai Yang and Yueyie Kong fascinating, rewarding, and occasionally confronting. I learned that some words in English have no literal equivalent in Mandarin, and a common question from the students—Does this mean…?—required stepping back in time, into the genesis of the story, to find ways of explaining overall intention as well as words and sentences. It gave me an appreciation of the collaborative art that translation is—or can be—and of the students’ sensitive, careful work. During the residency, each writer gave a reading of the work translated, with both the English and Mandarin versions projected on screen.

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Aside from providing time to write—and reflect—the residency gave us an outstanding opportunity to experience aspects of Chinese culture and history, life in cities and villages, and some of China’s amazing landscapes. We spent time in Yangshuo (Guanxi Autonomous Region), Gejiu City (Yunnan Province) and the Guangzhou and Zhuhai campuses of Sun Yat-sen University (Guangdong Province), and I gained a sense of just how vast China is on the day we spent eight hours on a high-speed train, covering more than a thousand kilometres.

Here are a few visual highlights.

Yulong riverside, surrounded by karst mountain formations, Yangshuo…

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View from Green Dragon Bridge

Flora…

Mountain Song, Yangshuo…

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Artists and calligraphers, Yangshuo…

 

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Not a very good student!

The coastal city of Zhuhai…

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The art of tea…

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Gejiu City…

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Azheke Village, Yuanyang Prefecture…

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Visits to schools and colleges…

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2, 2 and 2: Emily Paull talks about Well-Behaved Women

Emily Paull
Well-Behaved Women
(Margaret River Press)
Short story collection

Processed With Darkroom

Photograph by Charlotte Guest

What a pleasure it is to introduce Emily Paull—one of the most delightfully bookish people I know (and I know a lot of bookish people).

I first met Emily when she was working as bookseller/book buyer at the now-closed (and very much missed) Bookcaffe in Swanbourne, but she was already writing then and it was clear it would not be long before she was experiencing the publishing world from a writer’s perspective. She is now undertaking postgraduate studies and calls herself a future librarian.

Emily writes short stories, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. She also writes historical fiction, with more than one novel currently in progress.

Unsurprisingly, she says that when she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book. Someone after my own heart!

In this post, Emily talks about her first book, the newly released collection Well-Behaved Women. Here is the blurb:

A woman grapples with survivor’s guilt after a body is found in her garden bed; an ageing beauty queen contemplates her past; a world champion free-diver disappears during routine training…

In moments disquieting or quietly inspiring, this collection considers the complexity of the connections we make—with our family, friends and neighbours, and with those met briefly or never at all.

In her timely debut, Emily Paull voices a chorus of characters that reveal and re-evaluate the expectations of women in Australia today—after all, well-behaved women rarely make history.

Over, now, to Emily…

WellBehavedWomen_frontApprHR.jpeg

2 inspirations for stories within the collection

I remember very clearly the inspiration for one of the stories, ‘The Sea also Waits’, which is the first story in the collection. I was reading an article online, either in the New York Times or The Guardian, about the disappearance of Natalia Molchanova. Something about the situation the article set up spoke to me. How can a woman, argued to be one of the best free-divers in the world, simply disappear during a practice dive? The article went into all sorts of details about free-diving and how long these people could stay underwater, and something just clicked in my imagination. I wrote the first line of the story down on a scrap of paper, and later that night I wrote the whole story out in one sitting. It’s barely changed since then. I have always felt like that story arrived fully formed.

As a West Australian, I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, because it’s beautiful and it’s also dangerous. There’s so much of it. The things that it hides, the secrets it’s been entrusted with. I think that’s why this collection features a second story about a character disappearing into the sea. ‘Picnic at Green’s Pool’ is a kind of homage to Joan Lindsay’s classic work of Australian Gothic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I chose to set the story in Denmark, near Albany on Western Australia’s south coast, rather than in the more traditional setting of the bush, because bushland and forest have never really played as important a role in my life. I grew up visiting the ocean, going to our beach house in Falcon Bay, and while I swim in the ocean, I’m definitely a little scared of the vastness of it (and of the sharks that might be lurking in it!). I wrote the story on a trip to Albany after a visit to Green’s Pool and a lot of the imagery that my main character sees when she and her companion visit the beach—such as the father and son trying to lug a kayak up a narrow set of stairs—are things that I saw too. I like to imagine my characters might have been there that day, somewhere near me on the beach.

2 places featured in the collection

Most of the stories are set in Western Australia, but there’s one—‘Font de Gracia’—that is set in Barcelona. I wrote it while I was still doing my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and History at Murdoch University. Right before my final year, my family went to Spain to visit my mother’s brother and his family. I was struck by the architecture of the place, and the customs of the people, like the way that they eat dinner late at night. We were staying in an apartment near La Rambla and I would go to bed at ten pm and be able to hear the people in the apartment above serving up their meals! It was an eye-opening trip for me, and I gave that sense of the world opening up to my character, Grace, who runs the risk of turning herself into a cliché if she continues with the way she is behaving at the beginning of the story. The crux of the story takes place at this incredible fountain in the centre of Parc de la Ciutadella. It’s full of gilded statues and griffins and horses and I think there’s even a statue of Venus in the middle.

The other story that is set outside Australia is called ‘A Movable Farce’, and it takes place in Paris after the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theatre a few years ago. I’ve actually never been to France (it’s on the list), but what I wanted to explore in the piece was the idea that most people who have never been to Paris still have some version of it that exists in their imaginations. It’s a place that has been the setting for so much art, so much literature, so many films. I found myself wondering if the real version of Paris could ever live up to the one that I have created in my imagination. A few months ago, when I woke up to the news that Notre Dame de Paris had caught fire, I was struck by the outpourings of grief for the building—the symbol, really—that were coming from all over the world, and I thought to myself, yes, I was right. The symbol of Paris, the idea of Paris, is a very important one to many people. This is something that my character, Michael, has to come to terms with, because he’s gone to Paris expecting that it will be the making of him and that he’ll be so inspired that he’ll write and write and write, and he finds that his life is pretty much the same as it always has been. I also tried to equate the romanticism he projects onto the women in his life with his feelings about the city. In the aftermath of the attacks, he has this moment of clarity where he realises he has to see things and people as they really are if he’s going to get anywhere at all.

2 favourite well-behaved women of history

 I have two time periods that I’ve been fascinated with for a very long time, and one of those is the early twentieth century with the two world wars, as anyone who knows about my other writing may be aware of. But the other is one I’ve not really tried to write about before—the Tudor period. In particular, I am fascinated with the stories of Henry the Eighth’s six wives. (I devour historical fiction set in the period, and my interest was kicked off by reading The Other Boleyn Girl as a teenager. I’m an unashamed Philippa Gregory fan, even though in some circles she’s viewed as too commercial.) I’d have to say that Katherine of Aragon is one of my favourite women of history. There is something about her story that speaks to me of great strength and resilience. The daughter of two powerful sovereigns (her mother a fearsome warrior), Katherine was betrothed to the son of the English King when she was just a child. She was first married to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, but he died, and Katherine struggled for a long time to fulfil her destiny to become Queen of England by marrying the new heir, Henry. Many sources claim that Henry and Katherine were very much in love, yet when Katherine repeatedly failed to produce a live male heir, she was put through all sorts of very public trials that must have been extremely humiliating for such a proud Catholic woman, and her virtue was questioned repeatedly. Eventually she was put aside and lived out the rest of her days in various dingy castles and estates, eventually dying in Kimbolton Castle. But despite the way her husband treated her, she maintained until the day she died that she was his lawful wife and continued to embroider his shirts for him. There’s something very compelling about this story, and it appeals to me as having a kind of universality for the experience of women throughout time.

The other woman I’ve been fascinated with lately is May Gibbs, the author of the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories. I’ve been writing a new book about the experience of women during the time of the First World War, and my character is a kind of imagined contemporary of May Gibbs’. I’ve loved the Gumnut Babies stories since I was a little girl and now I am really enjoying learning about their creator.

Well-Behaved Women is in bookshops now
Find out more at Margaret River Press
Follow Emily via her blog

Events coming up:
Cambridge Library, 26 November,10.30am (bookings 9383 8999)
Beaufort Street Books, 29 November, 6.15pm (bookings here)
Rabble Books and Games, 1 December, 6.00pm (bookings here)
Bassendean Library, 4 December, 6.00pm (bookings here)

 

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2, 2 and 2: Holden Sheppard talks about Invisible Boys

Holden Sheppard
Invisible Boys
(Fremantle Press)
YA fiction

Holden - Head Shot - CG19.10.2018

It’s a pleasure to welcome the 2018 TAG Hungerford Award winner, Holden Sheppard—a name you will soon know, if you don’t already—talking about his debut novel, Invisible Boys.

Holden describes himself as—well, let me quote him directly: ‘a misfit: a gym junkie who has played Pokemon competitively, a sensitive geek who loves aggressive punk rock, and a bogan who learned to speak French.’

He’s also one hell of a writer, with accolades including the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award, the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award, and a Highly Commended in the 2018 ASA Emerging Writers’ Mentorship Prize.

His outstanding novella ‘Poster Boy’ won the 2018 Griffith Review Novella Project, and he has also been published in page seventeenIndigo and the Margaret River Press anthology Bright Lights, No City.

Holden serves as the Deputy Chair of WritingWA, and as an ambassador for Lifeline WA.

Here is the blurb for Invisible Boys:

In a small town, everyone thinks they know you: Charlie is a hardcore rocker, who’s not as tough as he looks. Hammer is a footy jock with big AFL dreams, and an even bigger ego. Zeke is a shy over-achiever, never macho enough for his family. But all three boys hide who they really are. When the truth is revealed, will it set them free or blow them apart?

And now, over to Holden…

INVISIBLE BOYS COVER

2 things that inspired your book

Although Invisible Boys is fiction, the inspiration for it was my own life. I grew up gay in Geraldton—a regional town in Western Australia’s Midwest—and that experience was compounded by being Italian-Australian, Catholic and from a blue-collar background. My own upbringing and influences meant I really didn’t want to be homosexual, so I kept it to myself—I stayed invisible, forgive the shameless promo-pun—and I suffered tremendously for this. I felt a huge sense of shame and self-loathing; eventually, I wanted to take my own life.

In 2017, I was finally ready to write about my past. The isolating experience of growing up gay in the country was something I rarely talked about (at least, back then—nowadays I feel like I never shut up about it!). It was gnawing at me to be expressed in a creative way. So I sat down and wrote what would become the beginnings of this book: the emotional truth of my own life, filtered through the characters Zeke, Charlie and Hammer.

A big inspiration for this book was actually music. I got heavily into rock from the age of sixteen. Punk rock saved my life, really. Green Day’s album American Idiot shaped my attitude. Their track ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ is my theme song—it just gets me—and I think that song’s ethos runs through Invisible Boys like an electric current.

Alanis Morissette was also a creative inspiration for this novel: her albums Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie are mind-blowing. What inspires me is how her songs are so vulnerable and boldly tackle feelings we are encultured not to speak openly about. Her lyrics talk of incandescent rage, of wanting to kill herself, of youthful sexual dalliances with much older men, of giving guys blowjobs—all things I could directly relate to. In speaking about taboo topics openly, she freed herself from the shame attached to them. I wanted to do the same with this book: speak freely about what society tells me I should be ashamed of. I wanted Invisible Boys to be so unfettered and bold that people could read this and go, ‘I can’t believe he actually wrote about that!’ and maybe realise they don’t need to feel that shame, either. Shame as an emotion has an evolutionary role, but we often feel it when we shouldn’t. Shame can suck it.

More directly, music had a huge bearing on this novel in terms of the character Charlie. Charlie is a guitarist, and he sees music as his way of escaping Geraldton and finding stardom—something that’s thrown into jeopardy by his sexuality. Consequently, all of his chapters are the titles of rock songs. Charlie’s relationship with music is linked with the times he spent watching Rage on TV with his dad, so his chapter titles are mostly of that late 90s era and include songs from Aussie alternative bands like You Am I, Silverchair and Killing Heidi, plus groups like Rancid, Foo Fighters and Bush.

Holden - Roman Graffiti

2 places connected with your book

The place most connected to this novel is my hometown of Geraldton, which is where Invisible Boys is set. I have truckloads of affection for Gero. I was born there and lived there until I was nineteen; it still feels like home when I go back, and I often get homesick. Sometimes living in Perth can feel airless to me, so I drive myself to the water. As soon as I see the ocean’s cobalt stillness, I exhale. One of my favourite scenic moments in the novel is when Charlie rides Hannah’s bike along Chapman Road at sunset and describes the sun setting over the Indian Ocean as looking like ‘someone’s shining a torch through a broken egg yolk’. This is something I grew up with daily and I loved bringing it to life through Charlie’s eyes.

Other aspects of my hometown are explored through various characters—Zeke’s family dealing with field mice in their house (we constantly had these at our house near the Chapman River); Hammer driving past the iconic canola fields near Greenough; even the Dongara drive-ins get a cameo. Most rural fiction focuses on nature, but I find urban landscapes more interesting, which is why most of my novel is set in pubs, schools, hotels, house parties, shopping centre car parks, gay cruising spots. My writing favours grunge over natural beauty.

The second place associated with this novel is my counsellor’s office. I share this because I first wrote about a gay character from Geraldton as part of my Honours thesis back in 2012. I wrote most of that thesis drunk because I couldn’t handle how it made me feel: I self-medicated with alcohol to survive that year. I was deep-diving into trauma without processing it. It almost killed me, and I’m not exaggerating. At the end of 2012, I was left with two things: a drinking problem, and the fear of ever writing about being gay again, because I thought it would destroy me.

When I got sober in 2015, I went to a specialist drug and alcohol counsellor. I’d rock up each week thinking I was fine, I didn’t need help, and every time, five minutes later, I’d be bawling my fucking eyes out on his couch. This dude is still my counsellor now and he’s amazing. It was after nearly two years of seeing him that I was ready to finally tackle the story of Invisible Boys sober. The counselling helped me to get in touch with myself in a way that simply ‘coming out’ as gay didn’t achieve. Without that therapy, this book never could have been written.

Holden Sheppard - June 2019

2 favourite scenes from the book

 My favourite scene from the book is the roof scene in chapter sixteen, which is titled Luna Piena (Italian for ‘full moon’). It’s told from Zeke’s perspective, and features the boys on the roof of a school after a disastrous event for one of them. It was the main scene where the boys get drunk and talk openly—about sex, about being gay—and it felt like freedom. When I was writing the novel, I was so excited to finally get to writing this chapter, and when I wrote it, I wished it could last forever. Growing up, all my mates were straight—and I ostensibly was, too—so when we’d sleep over at someone’s house or break into their parents’ liquor cabinet and get drunk, the talk was, naturally, only about girls. I said the right things and made the right noises to fly under the radar. But I always wished I could have had those kind of male bonding experiences where you can share your feelings without fear of being rejected—and that’s what this scene does. This whole chapter is a moment of understanding for the boys: a sense of being seen. The other reason I love this scene is that is has an exuberant, rebellious streak: a sense of having fun and not giving a fuck. I know it generally sounds like this is a heavy book, but there is a lot of larrikin humour in there, too. The light and dark wrestle in a volatile equilibrium and I like that.

My second favourite scene is Robbie’s wedding near the end of the book. As that chapter unfolds, you get this sense that shit’s about to go down, and it does. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but it was wildly cathartic to write. It’s literally the ballroom scene of the novel, and it has consequences for all the main characters. I remember getting really amped up for writing that chapter: my music shifted from alternative rock to literally just Kylie Minogue on loop until this chapter was done. That music selection probably makes more sense in the context of what happens in that chapter, which I don’t want to spoil. But it was exhilarating to have this bold, unapologetic electro-pop blasting from my speakers as I drew towards the climax of the novel.

Invisible Boys is available now
Find out more at Fremantle Press
Follow Holden via his website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts

Photo credits: (1) Charlotte Guest; (2) and (3) Raphael Farmer

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Map of a murder…

sinkings_cover copy

I love the State Records Office of Western Australia—an infinitely fascinating repository for archives relating to Western Australia’s European history. I’ve used it as a research resource for three of my books, and I spent several weeks there recently (with many more to come), working on a new novel in the preliminary stages of research and development.

While I was there, one of the archivists showed me the macabre map you see below. I actually hadn’t seen this during my research for The Sinkings in 2003–04, which I suppose confirms my belief that research is never finished; there’s always something more to find.

The map was produced in 1882 by Licensed Surveyor Fenton W. Hill, for the Albany police officer Sergeant Hector McLarty, who was in charge of investigating the murder of Little Jock King. It shows The Sinkings, the site where Little Jock was murdered on 2 October 1882, marking where various body parts were unearthed about a month later—’BODY FOUND’, ‘LEGS FOUND’, ‘HEAD FOUND’. It also shows where the bucket and axe used by the murderer were discovered (these had also been buried).

The map was referred to in evidence during the trial of John Collins for the murder of Little Jock.

What an incredible artefact of Western Australian history to have been kept and preserved, and what a thrill it was for me to be able to examine it (although that might sound a bit gruesome, given the content!).

My reaction confirms another belief of mine: that old obsessions never die; they just lurk in the background while you get on with other things.

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A few details:

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Map courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia, and my thanks to Senior Archivist Damien Hassan.

 

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2, 2 and 2: Ian Reid talks about A Thousand Tongues

Ian Reid
A Thousand Tongues
(Framework Press)
Historical fiction

Version 2I always find Ian Reid’s work interesting, as we share a fascination with the past and the stories it has to tell. And so I was delighted to hear he has published a new book, which was launched in Perth yesterday. 

A Thousand Tongues is Ian’s fourth historical novel, following on from The Mind’s Own Place (which he discusses here), That Untravelled World and The End of Longing. It was partly written during his tenure of a J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship.

He has also published poetry and several kinds of non-fiction, and his books have been translated into five languages, widely anthologised, and have won international recognition including the Antipodes prize for poetry.

Ian’s research for A Thousand Tongues appears to have taken him far and wide, across time and space. Here is the book’s blurb:

The action of Ian Reid’s latest novel, A Thousand Tongues, extends across a century and a half. Among the story’s settings are the moorlands of Devon and military camps in Normandy, Liverpool docks and a London cemetery, a circus in regional Lancashire and a memorial park in central Perth. But as a reviewer in The Age remarks, ‘wherever his characters go, Ian Reid places us vividly there.’

Discharged from Dartmoor Prison in 1889, a black man breaks back into it soon afterwards. Interned in the same jail during World War I, a brooding conscientious objector seems to invite harsh punishment. On a present-day Australian university campus, a Muslim student is mysteriously murdered. The suspenseful action of A Thousand Tongues gradually reveals how these puzzling events are interlinked. Beautifully written, with unforgettable characters and resonant themes, the novel explores twists and turns of conscience, racial and sexual tensions, the limits of historical enquiry, and legacies of guilt.

Over to Ian…

A Thousand Tongues cover copy

2 things that inspired the book

An escapee who returns
Some years ago, browsing in a small museum in Devon, I picked up a booklet by a local historian. Over the Wall and Away recounted a number of stories about jail escapes, one of which I found particularly intriguing. It concerned a black man who, after many years of incarceration and maltreatment in the infamous Dartmoor Prison, gained his release in 1889—but then a few months later was apprehended while breaking back into the same place!

During the subsequent trial his ostensible motive for this astonishing action came to light, but I sensed a larger untold story between the lines, and it gradually began to take shape in my imagination as I wondered what life would have been like for a person such as this, a black man pushed to the margins of Victorian society. The abolition of slavery in England earlier in the 19th century had been a mixed blessing, because freedom left most British blacks in limbo, with scant opportunities for employment or social integration. I invented a character, Joshua Dunn, whose situation partly resembled that of the real-life person I’d read about…

A conscientious objector with a bad conscience
As I developed Joshua’s story speculatively, it converged with my growing interest in a different topic, something of historic importance that occurred a few decades later: the experience of pacifists during World War I. In Australia at that time the consequences for anyone opposed to military service could be unpleasant enough; future Prime Minister John Curtin was among those imprisoned briefly in 1916 as an anti-conscription agitator.

But because Australia remained the only WWI combatant nation whose soldiers were all volunteers, this country didn’t witness the extremely harsh treatment encountered by conscientious objectors elsewhere, especially in Britain. Reading about things that happened to English ‘conchies’ was an eye-opener that led me into extensive research and ultimately into the devising of a further strand in the plot of A Thousand Tongues. Pivotal in this is the character of Gavin Staines, uncompromising in his stance against the war but burdened by a secret prewar failure of conscience.

2 places connected with the book

Kings Park
Although much of my novel’s action takes place in earlier times and distant locations, there is also a framing story set in present-day Perth. A couple of scenes unfold in Kings Park, an extraordinary place where I often like to walk.

This imposing piece of landscape, perhaps the largest city park anywhere in the world, induces contemplation. Not only is it full of wonderfully diverse natural bushland, it’s also shaped in various ways by cultural values—and these, of course, are contestable values. One scene in my novel brings a pair of central characters to the State War Memorial, which has just been defaced by anti-war slogans; another scene features a political rally in Kings Park to support refugees. Looking out across the Swan River, someone attending the rally imagines countless generations of Nyoongar people standing on that same spot, long before the successive appearance of Dutch, French and English navigators who arrived in search of prosperity, not asylum.

Dartmoor
Most first-time visitors to Dartmoor National Park probably think they know what to expect. Southwest England’s bleakest expanse of windswept moors, with stark, steep, stony tors looming over them. The spooky habitat of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Fogs, bogs and dogs.

Yet this fascinating region can be full of surprises. Travelling through what I’d thought would be a grim wasteland of topographical clichés, I discovered wonderful variety, uncanny beauty, and glimpses of a long mystery-laden past stretching far back into prehistoric times.

Dartmoor also contains one of the world’s most notorious jails, built more than two centuries ago at Princetown on the high moors. Initially its dark granite walls enclosed thousands of prisoners of war from Napoleonic France and then from America. After the French and American wars finished in 1815, the prison stood unused until 1850 when it became a receptacle for ordinary convicts. In 1917 the convicts were dispersed to other jails so that this place could be converted to a detention centre for conscientious objectors. After the war, it reopened as a civilian prison.

These days, a tourist (and a historical novelist) can find much of interest in Princetown’s Prison Museum—which is where I began to think about the story that became A Thousand Tongues. I say ‘began’ because my first visit wasn’t my last.

2 favourite images from the book

It is 2015, and Tim Holmes, a young historian from Perth, makes a research trip to the Dartmoor region. (His investigation has a double purpose and he will discover more than he anticipates.) While staying there, he buys an ordnance map and follows an old walking track across the moorland to an ancient formation of standing stones.

Set on grassy plateau, the two large circles were nearly contiguous, almost forming a flattened figure of eight, an hourglass shape. Some of the great dark stones were perfectly rectangular, and the one nearest to him had such evenly placed spots of white lichen on its surface that it was like a chunky half-buried domino tile. The fanciful thought struck him that if the pieces forming each ring had been placed a little closer to one another, and then one of them fell, they would have gone on toppling, each one against the next in a series of mighty concussions, until all lay flat.

Sitting with his back to one of the giant dominoes, he ate what was left of his snack food, massaged his calves and fell into a sombre reverie.

Among the countless generations of men and women inhabiting this region in the past, some of his own forebears might once have walked where he had walked today. Five thousand years ago, ten thousand, what kind of landscape was it here? Perhaps the moors were less dismal in ancient times, more wooded? The immeasurable vista of prehistory stretched far back beyond his ken. This Dartmoor, this almost ageless place, seemed to mock the tiny circles of routine enquiry he’d been trained to follow as a historian.

Drowsily he watched shadows from the tall stones inch across the grass as the sun began its gradual decline over the moors. Time sank with it, not just the time of day but also the very notion of calculable progression itself, drawn down into the ancient land by a slow absorbing suction. As his mood sagged, every past or present human thing felt momentarily miniscule and pointless. You could lose your bearings here, map or no map. Misplace yourself.

Now to another image. It is 1869, and this is a reader’s first meeting with Joshua Dunn, member of a travelling circus troupe.

His black bunched hands had brought him here. For years they’d been proclaiming what kind of man he was, demanding caution and even something close to respect from those who might otherwise have treated him contemptuously. Around the Liverpool docks and streets a fist had the power to ward off trouble, to turn an object of disdain into a feared persuader. In fairground booths all over Lancashire he’d boxed his way to money—enough to live on without begging or thieving. And now, in this grand circus ring, surrounded by a clamorous crowd, he stood facing the legendary Jem Mace, bareknuckle champion of all England.

It was nothing like the kind of contest he’d dreamed about. Instead of being in the role of genuine challenger, eagerly measuring his prowess against the yardstick of Mace’s pre-eminence in the sport of fisticuffs, he was going through the charade of a fixed match.

‘Now listen here, Josh,’ he’d been told, ‘you’re a strong fighter, we know that, but it’s Jem Mace who brings the crowd to us. They want to see him win, and we’ve given him a quiet assurance he won’t be hurt. So put on a good show, eh lad? But pull your punches and let him look superior.’

Josh had to accept the arrangement with a shrug. Besides, he didn’t begrudge his opponent the crowd’s adulation. Mace had done well for himself, coming from a gypsy background, and good luck to him. But Josh, holding back his own natural aggression, felt his heart was a boiler full of steam, near to bursting.

The fight took its predetermined course. Although Josh jabbed away at the older man’s ribs, and once gave his ear a sharp clout just to let him know what he could do, he made sure none of the blows he landed was at full power. Mace, a clever boxer as famous for his dancing style as for his accurate hitting, kept moving around him quickly, smiling at him, confident and poised. When the exhibition had gone on long enough, Josh dropped his guard, let one of Mace’s punches through, and fell back as if stunned. There was an eruption of yelling and whistling and clapping. He picked himself up slowly. Mace waved to the crowd, walked over to him and shook his hand. ‘Well done, lad,’ he said with a wink.

What happens next to Joshua Dunn will set him on a path that eventually takes him to Dartmoor Prison, though his story doesn’t end there.

A Thousand Tongues is available now
Find out more at Framework Press
Follow Ian via his website, Reid on Writing

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Love Your Bookshop Day winner…

Well, I was going to toss onto the floor all the entries in my Love Your Bookshop Day draw and see which one my Siamese cat jumped on first, but she let me know that it was too cold for such shenanigans and refused to leave her blanket.

And so to plan B. Into one of my vintage hats they went, and my husband drew one out.

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Congratulations to Jyoti McKie, who has won a copy of one of the books I’ve featured on the blog this year, a copy of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris and a few little Paris treats. Jyoti has chosen Step Up, Mrs Dugdale by Lynne Leonhardt. They’ll be on their way to you soon, Jyoti.

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A big thank-you to everyone who entered. It was heartening to see so much love and appreciation for our bookshops!

 

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