All posts by Ian

Virtual Conferenceville

In years gone by I’ve been to countless conferences. Haven’t we all? But a big upcoming event organised by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, for which I’m an invited speaker, will be different from those past occasions.

It’s a virtual event, taking place in what you might describe as ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ (Actually that’s a medieval definition of God, but it seems to fit the case!)

Long before anyone could envisage what a virtual conference might be, Australian author Frank Moorhouse depicted a typical talkfest forum of the traditional sort in his amusing book Conferenceville. Back then (1976), it seemed obvious that the raison d’être of any colloquium was face-to-face interaction, even when (like Moorhouse’s narrator) an attendee wasn’t sure whether direct contact would eventuate:

‘I found my way to a seat in the empty auditorium…

I wondered who would sit with me…’

That was conferenceville 45 years ago. Since then our world has changed utterly — especially since the pandemic curtailed our face-to-face interactions.

This HNSA virtual conference is not, of course, the kind of where researchers present formal papers on esoteric topics, nor the kind where people gather earnestly to make Important Policy Decisions. It’s really a literary festival, featuring diverse writers linked by a common interest in stories that imagine the past. And because its program is unimpeded by geographical constraints, this ‘online celebration of one of the world’s most popular genres’ (to quote the HNSA conference website) will include an unusually large number of participants from several countries.

I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel session chaired by HNSA Director Elisabeth Storrs on the subject of “Show and Tell: Weaving a Story around a Treasured Possession.” My novel The Madwoman’s Coat, longlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize, lends itself well to discussion of that topic. Details here.

In excellent company: ARA Historical Novel Prize

To find one’s own novel in a select group of contenders for a major literary award is immensely gratifying.

The longlist for the ARA Historical Novel Prize has just been announced, and my book The Madwoman’s Coat is on it.

This ARA award provides the most significant prize purse for any genre-based literary prize in Australasia. In total it bestows $100,000 in prize money, including a first prize of $50,000. Books by any writers resident in Australia and NZ are eligible.

There’s a wonderful sense of public affirmation in being longlisted for such a prestigious award. My book rubs shoulders with novels by such highly esteemed writers as Kate Grenville, Gail Jones and Steven Conte. You can see the list here.

Beyond the immediate sense of personal pleasure, it’s also exhilarating to be associated with the ARA Historical Novel Prize because of what it stands for: it celebrates the great value of imaginary time-travel. Too much contemporary fiction seems cramped within the here-and-now, tending to reinforce current attitudes and assumptions. By inventing characters and episodes set within a well researched framework of times past, authors of the best historical novels can help readers to see aspects of our own world from a new perspective. That’s what the ARA award recognises.

Though I may get no closer than this to the prize, the longlisting still puts me in respectable company. Among last year’s finalists who missed out at the end were several notable authors including Christos Tsiolkas, Pip Williams and Tara June Winch.

The winner will be announced next month during the 2021 virtual conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. As the conference is being hosted online, HNSA has been able to create its most extensive conference program to date, with panels, interviews, workshops, and more. Recorded sessions will remain accessible to registrants for three months after the event. I’m to be part of a panel for the last session before the final Plenary on Sunday 24 October. I’ll post details nearer the time.

The value of loyal readers

If you google “reader loyalty” you can find plenty of online data. You’ll learn that “only 3.8% of readers are loyal, but they consume 5 times more content.” Or you’ll be told publishers have discovered the importance of loyalty because it “drives economic success.” But such breathless revelations belong to the world of digital commerce, where “publication” means website advertising and “readers” are merely website visitors.

For an author, reader loyalty has a different kind of value. It’s about the immense encouragement received from individuals who not only read each successive book that one writes but also respond personally by sending spontaneous messages of appreciation. Some of these unsolicited comments are brief; some are copious. Some may be from close friends; in other cases the bond is just a shared enthusiasm for literary storytelling.

As review space in newspapers and magazines continues to shrink, thoughtful comments that come directly from reader to writer are all the more valuable, especially when they reflect knowledge of the writer’s other work as a context for each new book.

Not long after the launch of my latest novel, an uplifting email arrived from fellow writer Nicholas Hasluck, who knows my earlier fiction well.

I have just finished reading The Madwoman’s Coat and am writing to congratulate you on having completed a memorable work. The first few scenes at Fremantle in 1897 are compelling. I was immediately captured by the presence of various mysteries to be fathomed, including not only the motive and the underlying cause behind the death but also the creation and meaning of the embroidered coat. It was then very pleasing to be drawn further back to the lives of the principal characters in England and the aspirations of Lucy/Isabella and those around her such as William Morris and his acolytes. Thereafter, the various links in the chain of causation were skilfully fitted into place, leading on in due course to the dire events in Guildford and Fremantle.

As the story proceeded I felt constantly rewarded by the presence of the various elements to be found in the best works of fiction. The style, as in your other novels, was consistently graceful throughout and perfectly suited to the era and social settings portrayed. The mood thus created, a mood of elation at times, but also of desperation, especially towards the end, kept me in suspense along the way. In doing so, it pointed to and eventually accomplished a powerful resolution of the drama.

I feel instinctively that The Madwoman’s Coat is in the first rank. It is a fine novel and should be widely praised.

Soon afterwards, this cheerful message came from a former colleague, Prof Helen Wildy, who had expressed enthusiasm about each of my previous novels in turn and initiated book group discussions of several of them:

Is this your best ever? I think so, totally captivating, wonderful background stories all knitted (sorry, embroidered) together, and a lovely Icelandic saga underlying it all.

American literary critic Edith Moore has written to me at length about each of my novels as they have emerged. She reads closely and discerningly. Her extensive remarks on The Madwoman’s Coat are very gratifying:

Thank you for this wonderful and extraordinary novel! The focus on women’s perspectives is an inspiration, because it is a story of resistance and not of submission to fate. In the midst of trauma, past and present, we have Lucy/Isabella’s fierce responses to violence and the threat of violence. So often we are frozen when violence comes at us, and if we are fierce we’re called crazy. (I was thinking of Gavin Staines in A Thousand Tongues — was his inability to speak out a response to fear of his violent father? taking as a guide his mother’s “defensive taciturnity”?) But here is Lucy whose response to panic is to fight back, against the madman in the train while all the men are frozen, against the odious Dr Oram, against poor bumbling Alice. And quick to fight in defense of her art, against Julius, against Ruth Fitch, passionate in her last moments. Not submissive, and as Lucy/Isabella insists, not to be pitied.

Sad that her protective fierceness and fear of closeness keeps her locked away from Julius who seems a gentle and perceptive man. Would she have been able to see him without fear if he’d been less physically looming? If she had been able somehow in her mind to remove his mummer’s animal mask? Her efforts to understand her “perverse slighting of Julius” are impossible without looking clearly at her father, as she is beginning to see when trying to find a “justification for her reaction to Alice — at the time only the merest inkling of an explanation” which implies she does come to understand, does finally allow the memories to come out of the shadows.

And with the coming of full memory comes the glorious embroidery of the coat, and a story of creative fire refusing to be quenched. The “sparkle and exuberance” we see when she’s with the Morris family, the fire her aunt sees in her, are subdued but not put out. So fitting that on the very day that tears a ragged hole in her spirit, she is given a gift of beauty which will allow her to make necessary repairs in her soul, what she calls her “romance” with colors, fabrics and threads, her vision of a “sunny silken world” filled with bird color, flower color, sky, “pigmentary splendor.” And with her memory fully recovered she is able to gather the power of beauty into herself to sustain her soul, as Morris said Icelanders must do in their harsh landscape. So that she can transform the terror and ambivalence of her father’s transgression, her grief at the “interwoven miseries” of Julius and Gerard, into her own design, her story seen from kestrel height, with dancing mummers tamed into heraldic forms, and the image of Lucy at the center in control of the stag, made harmless with his antlers caught in Aesop’s blossoming tree. And couldn’t help but wonder if the silk mill is productive again.

When the magnificent parrot, image of beauty of freedom, flies into the room where the inquest is held and crashes into a window, the people flinch, and then forget. We can’t help but flinch when each new violent blow comes, but we don’t forget! Lucy says “in our art” there are “no illusions of permanence,” but as Tilly says, the artistry of the coat is “remarkable and lasting.” As is this beautiful novel.

Heartening comments have come from other places overseas as well, including the following from a loyal Danish reader, Dorte Huerlin:

Much to the reader’s satisfaction, Detective Inspector Rowe disentangles the yarn at the end, exposing poor Lucy/Isabella’s murderer. His own dramatic story was told, of course, in The Mind´s Own Place, also set in the Perth area. You fuse imagined lives with meticulously correct historical and geographic facts in a way I would call luxurious, Ian!

It must be so rewarding to dig into history in this way. You have the enviable talent and perseverance to carry out what I can only fantasize about… By far the best way of studying the past is empathising via narrative — your novels open the eyes of your readers to all the myriad individual destinies that founded modern Australia and New Zealand…

Lucy’s decoration of her coat becomes symbolic of a new type of male and female unison: the heavy gentleman’s overcoat, no doubt tailored according to the original military style of such garments, is softened by the imaginative decorative powers of Lucy, the craftswoman.

Andrew Taylor, a longstanding literary colleague whose encouraging comments on my novels go back to his reading of the first one in draft form, has sent this response to my latest:

“I’m immensely impressed… I’d like you to know how much I liked it and also how very very good I think it is. Your historical and cultural detail is not only convincing and detailed, it also serves to develop and consolidate the characters of the main actors and, of course, particularly Lucy. Your mastery of needlework is astonishing (I’d never caught you at it, so this was a surprise); what I mean is that the detail of this too is never superfluous, but contributes to the rich (like the embroidery) texture and tactility of everything. I was impressed, too, at how Lucy’s story avoids cliché at every crucial point — she’s impressed by the handsome soldier, up to a point, but in a far more complicated and interesting way than one would expect, and his character too is very subtly understood. And the way she evades being embroiled in his death and manages to escape to Australia is not only intriguing, even quite exciting, but also fully believable. I could go on and on, Ian, but these are my immediate impressions.”

And Melbourne-based Dr Michael Stanford, another person familiar with my previous books, made these comments about his experience of reading The Madwoman’s Coat:

I thought you were pretty courageous as a man writing a central female character but this worked well. One could only have sympathy for her plight throughout, even combined with mixed feelings about some of her behaviour…

I found myself accelerating through as the storyline became more and more gripping. I genuinely think this novel ought be picked up as a TV series or even movie because of its many interesting themes.

The combination of women’s place in society (and in the end victimhood), history, arts, two countries, treatment of mental health, the injustice of the legal system, love and death, all seems powerful to me.

A statement attributed to Ernest Hemingway asserts that “there is no friend as loyal as a book.” Still, there’s nothing more valuable to a writer, nothing more sustaining, than appreciative messages from loyal readers.

Let’s hear it for libraries

This week, not for the first time, I was a beneficiary (with many others) of excellent support from a local public library.

Too often we tend to undervalue these institutions. We all know, of course, that public libraries provide resources to serve the general information needs of their citizens. We assume that any literate society has plenty of them. We may be aware that free lending libraries in Australia date back to the mid-19th century. Since then they have become part of our taken-for-granted social environment.

It’s easy, if we don’t give the matter much thought, to regard them merely as storage facilities for printed publications, electronic data and archival materials. But along with those basic functions and various other valuable services, they also give direct support to writers and readers.

The example foremost in my mind is the generosity of the South Perth Library in regularly organising events that bring together an author and a crowd of potential readers to celebrate a new book.

A couple of evenings ago it was my turn (once again) to have a novel launched in that congenial setting. It was part of the Library’s “Words with Wine” series. A large audience listened to local history librarian Anthony Styan interview me about The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth work of historical fiction. His subtle and stimulating questions ensured that our conversation flowed well. Afterwards a good number of attendees lined up to buy copies of my book.

I’m grateful to Anthony, epitome of the Ideal Reader; to Tamara Lampard, the Events Officer, who did a great job of arranging the whole show; and to the dozens of people who came along to hear about (and purchase) The Madwoman’s Coat. On such occasions, all the hard slog of creating a book seems wonderfully worthwhile.

“Go to another place”: artistry, insanity and more

The Madwoman’s Coat, my fifth historical novel, is now officially released! (There will be a launch event later in the month — details at the end of this post.)

For an author, publication brings  elation — but also sheer relief that something so long in the making has at last found its way into print. Creating a novel is a protracted and painstaking process. Sentence by sentence, it’s all hard labour!  I can feelingly echo the words of Graham Swift, author of Waterland: “Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead of me.”

While I hope this new book will appeal to any reader who has enjoyed my previous stories, it differs from them in some respects. For one thing, its action is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women. Female characters figure importantly in all of my novels, but until now they haven’t dominated the narrative point of view. How risky is this method for a male writer?

Advocates of identity politics argue that fiction based directly on an author’s personal experience is the only legitimate kind — that if one tries to convey an imagined perspective of someone very different from oneself, the writing may become inauthentic and potentially offensive. I readily acknowledge the sensitivities involved in such matters. Certainly some stories are “not mine to tell.” But where should we draw the line? If we think it’s inappropriate for a writer to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are unlike the writer’s, are we missing the very point of fiction?

To quote Graham Swift again:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

For a writer of historical fiction, many potential challenges may be at least as hazardous as imagining the experiences of people whose gender or race differ from one’s own; e.g. —

  • I wasn’t alive in 1897, when The Madwoman’s Coat opens in Fremantle; so how can I know what it was like to live there at that time?
  • I haven’t lived in Staffordshire or Wiltshire, where other parts of the story are set; so how can I render them authentically?
  • Any artistry I could plausibly claim to possess is not of the kind practised by people at the heart of my story; so how can I depict their work with any confidence?
  • Though I may be a bit crazy at times, I haven’t (yet) been locked up in an institution for people deemed insane, as some characters in this novel are, so how can I hope to convey genuine insights into their plight?

I’m sure readers of The Madwoman’s Coat will be scrutinizing the story with many such questions in mind. But I take comfort from the words of Irish novelist Colum McCann:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

The book will be launched at a “Words with Wine” event at the South Perth Library (corner Sandgate and South streets) on the evening of Wednesday 31st March. All comers welcome but registration is necessary as numbers are constrained by social distancing requirements. To register, click here.

Sneak peek: The Madwoman’s Coat

I’m delighted to reveal here the front cover of my forthcoming (fifth) novel, The Madwoman’s Coat. Due for release in March, the book will be published under the Framework Press imprint.

Now is not the right time to disclose much about the story it contains. But despite the proviso that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ potential readers may be able to draw a few inferences from this juxtaposition of images.

The human figure in the centre of the design is taken from an 1880 oil painting by Susan Macdowell Eakins, ‘Woman Sewing.’ As its placement here suggests, my novel also revolves around a woman, and needlework is one of the things this central character does — though she is no ordinary seamstress. She works creatively within the context of the Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Morris and others.

The strange pattern surrounding her on the cover may seem to offer a puzzling contrast: whatever it signifies, it evokes a different period and different culture from the late 19th-century world to which this female figure apparently belongs. It reproduces one of the treasures of the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, a 17th-century embroidered artwork known as the Riddarateppid (Coverlet of Knights).

What connection is there between this antique Icelandic bedspread embroidery and a woman such as the person whose image is superimposed on it here? That’s just one of the enigmas explored in The Madwoman’s Coat. Another is how either of those things may be linked to a lunatic asylum in the colony of Western Australia, where parts of the action take place.

More about this book soon, as its release date approaches.

OK boomer

The Pig in the Python, the Great Demographic Bulge, the Baby Boomers: however you like to describe us, those who grew up in the years following WW2 were remarkably numerous. Between 1945 and 1965 there was a 50% increase in Australia’s population— and we were it.

Ours has been in general a fortunate generation, experiencing more extensive and rapid changes (mostly beneficial) than any previous generation. Now that so much of our living lies behind us and so little of it remains ahead, memories loom large.

When remembering the past begins to slide into obsessive reminiscing, it’s especially likely to trigger — on the part of anyone too youthful to appreciate our vast repository of wisdom — the ironic response “OK boomer.” We try to treat such cruel dismissiveness with dignified forbearance.

For those who, whatever their age, are willing to test the possibility that boomers may occasionally have something to say that’s worth listening to, I recommend a noteworthy podcast series. Compiled by the writer Iris Lavell, it can be found at this site:
https://theaustralianbabyboomer.podbean.com

Episodes so far include informal interviews with a musician, a sailor, a painter, a soldier — and an author: that’s me. I talk particularly about some of the things that have shaped my writing of historical fiction.

Many boomers are drawn to historical novels — not, I think, as an escapist impulse but rather because the experience of imaginary time travel can enlarge our understanding of the present. Most of what we read in our newspapers or see on our screens is set within a framework of contemporary assumptions, and this is reinforced by the narcissistic preoccupation of most social media with updates among circles of friends who share the same outlook (or inlook). If our minds are not exposed to anything other than the self-absorbed here-and-now, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture that the past can provide.

It’s a topic I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, for instance here.

Adult learners emerge from hibernation

Although the cold winds of COVID19 may return any day to rattle our ribs, anxiety has generally abated — at least for the time being, and at least in my corner of the social world. Various activities that have been suspended for months are now resuming. Among them are several informal education classes held in community centres.

MALA members at one of my previous talks

As groups of adult learners emerge from hibernation to participate again in programs run by organisations such as MALA and U3A, I’m glad to have been re-engaged as a speaker for a number of sessions in the coming weeks.

An earlier blog piece of mine — “In Praise of Older Readers” — expressed the enthusiasm I feel in engaging with mature-age groups of this kind. They bring a lively curiosity to each session; their questions and opinions draw on a wide range of experience; and they know how to be both thoughtfully critical and encouragingly appreciative.

Each Friday for the month of September, I’ll be presenting a lecture on some aspect of “Memory, Imagination and Writing” under the auspices of MALA (Mature Adults Learning Association). Memory and imagination are basic sources for many kinds of writing. Sometimes one or the other may predominate (e.g. memory for autobiography and family history; imagination for certain forms of fiction). But the most engaging literary works usually blend the two in creative ways, and this blend is part of the secret of writing successfully. I’ll discuss examples from a range of genres over the four sessions.

Then in October I’m due to talk to the Perth branch of U3A (University of the Third Age) on “When History Meets Fiction.” I’ll explore questions about the tension between fact and fiction in historical investigation. What options does an author have when evidence doesn’t tell us enough? This pair of lectures offers a fiction writer’s inside story of bringing the past back to life.

You may like to mention these courses to someone you know who could be interested in them. For more information, see the Events page of this website.

Magical travel in the COVID era

Though virus restrictions continue to immobilise us, or at least rule out international touring, we can still visit far-off lands quite easily. Yesterday, in perfect comfort and without risking infection or breaching flight prohibitions or incurring any expense, I spent a few pleasant hours in a foreign country. How? Magical travel.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (public domain)

 One of the Arabian Nights tales tells how a prince acquires a carpet with wonderful properties:

“Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place near-hand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

This princely device is within our own reach. We all have access to imagination’s magic carpet whenever we pick up a book.

Almost any act of reading takes us metaphorically from one place to another, even if the content of what we read may not involve a sequence of actions and locations. Traversing the text brings us to a mental destination that’s different from where we began. But this imaginary journey structure is most salient when we engage with narrative forms — not only novels or short stories but also non-fictional travel literature.

Travel literature has a long history, going back to writers such as Pausanias, a peripatetic Greek cultural geographer in the 2nd century AD. The genre came into its own in the Victorian period, when steamship and rail opened up the world to large numbers of tourists whose appetite for exotic journeys was stimulated by itinerant journalists. (The restless main characters in my novel The End of Longing, set in the late 19th-century, embody this new-found transnational mobility.)

But then the first half of the 20th century, with its devastating experiences of two world wars, economic depression, fearsome pandemics and widespread poverty, pushed leisure travel out of the reach of many people. So by the 1950s the reading of travel literature had become a popular substitute for journeying in person.

 Which brings me back to my imaginary excursion yesterday: it was achieved through H.V. Morton’s  A Stranger in Spain (1955). This book has been on my shelf for many years (I acquired it as a school prize), and reading it took me not only to the particular country that is its subject but also back to the time when it was written. In my corner of the world, that was a period before TV documentaries brought remote locations into the home, and before most people had the wherewithal to afford any bodily expeditions to Europe.

So travelogue books like Morton’s were a primary source of information about unfamiliar places. In those days of cheap publication they seldom carried high-quality photographs, if any. The writer had to bring places and people and culture to life through resourceful uses of language. This was “creative non-fiction” before the term was invented.

In A Stranger in Spain the creative element isn’t a matter of elaborately depicted scenery and splashes of local colour. What Morton often does, with skilful economy, is to focus on particular individuals and their activities in a way that evokes a characteristic cultural attitude.

On the first page, recounting his arrival at the airport in Madrid, he sketches in a few well-chosen words the interaction between disembarking passengers and airport officials. A “costly-looking” woman is unlocking her luggage, “watched by two Civil Guards, who had the eyes of melancholy stags.” (Can’t you just picture them?) The passage continues:
I was impressed by the white cotton gloves which the Customs officers drew on before they probed into the luggage. I was soon to learn that white gloves are a symbol of the Spanish sense of fitness. A glove is an aristocratic symbol, and was once worn only by kings and bishops. As the world becomes more democratic one sees fewer gloves, and the clenched fist, of course, is always bare.
There’s a lot packed into those simple sentences. They evoke a distinctively stylish national sense of decorum; they gesture towards a long history of social stratification; and they allude to the country’s more recent history (the clenched fist salute originated in the Spanish Civil War, and when Morton’s book appeared Franco was only halfway through his four decades of dictatorship). The same kind of succinctness continues to characterise Morton’s prose. Straight after the passage just quoted, he observes Mexicans and Peruvians queuing at a passport window, “conquistadores in reverse,” and remarks that “Spain is one of the few places where America does not mean the USA.”
Although the best travel documentaries shown on our screens these days may bring exotic scenes to us with a vivid immediacy that seems to surpass any words on a page, they also lose something that writers like Morton can provide: the stimulus to our imagination. A Stranger in Spain, precisely because its medium cannot rival the realism of a filmed image, relies on the reader to visualise what a well-turned phrase conjures up. That’s its magic. That’s what can move us.

This is nothing like the Great Depression

Lately we’ve often heard that the economic and social dislocation caused by COVID19 has been more disastrous than anything since the Great Depression. It’s sometimes implied that what we’re now experiencing is basically similar to that 1930s global trauma. Not so! In some ways our present plight may seem worse, but for the most part it’s much less serious.

True, the situation we face is shockingly different from the one faced by an earlier generation in that ours is a double whammy, not only disrupting the financial system (therefore jobs etc.) but also bringing sudden sickness and death to many around the world. The health of the international economy and the health of vast numbers of people are simultaneously threatened. For us, it’s almost as if the Great Depression had coincided with the 1918-20 Spanish Flu. In that respect, 2020 is an extraordinarily frightening time. (In contrast, the Depression period actually saw an improvement in average population health: despite widespread malnutrition and an increase in suicide, the death rate was lower than in the prosperous years before and afterwards. An irony worth pondering!)

Yet the serious physical impact of the coronavirus has been far less extensive than that of the Spanish Flu, which killed c. 50 million worldwide and c. 13,000 in Australia, whereas figures for COVID-19 show c. 130,000 deaths worldwide so far, and fewer than 70 in Australia.

Perth, 1931: unemployed men march in protest to the Premier’s office (public domain image). Chap. 10 of That Untravelled World is based on this incident.

So too, the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression went far beyond anything that confronts us now.

Alarming though it is to envisage unemployment in Australia rising (as we’re told it soon will) to 10%, this prospect is still relatively mild. Depression-era unemployment at its peak officially reached 32% — a figure mainly confined to ‘male breadwinners’: the real number desperate for work was higher! Many of the men remained out of work until the end of the decade, when they were able to enlist as soldiers.

To the ‘30s crisis neither Commonwealth nor State governments made any response comparable in speed or scope to what Australia has seen in recent weeks — the Jobseeker payments and other alleviating measures. Back then, support for the unemployed was limited to patchy relief schemes, generally known as the dole or sustenance (‘susso’), which were not available to all. Evictions were common, many families had to live rough on public land, and welfare safety-net provisions of the kind we take for granted did not exist.

Much of what we currently regard as hardship would have seemed the height of luxury to that earlier generation. Although people weren’t constrained by ‘social distancing’ or required to stay at home during the Great Depression, they had very few of the resources we can utilise to pass the time pleasantly. Most households in those days had no access to radio or telephone, let alone TV, internet, email, social media… Much less food was available. Health care was rudimentary.

Statistics and other factual information can hardly convey more than a superficial impression of what it felt like to struggle through the 1930s. The deepest insights come from novels and short stories that help us to imagine being among those whose lives were wrecked by economic and social devastation. A long time ago, in my book Fiction and the Great Depression in Australia and New Zealand, I wrote about the dozens of stories published in the 30s and soon afterwards that recorded and interpreted the traumatic experiences of this decade. There’s a substantial body of Australian work; and while it doesn’t all have lasting value, much of it still deserves attention, especially certain novels by Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Leonard Mann and Alan Marshall, and short fiction by Peter Cowan, Dal Stivens and John Morrison. The influence of the Depression on New Zealand literature was also profound.

In our own time, several writers of historical fiction have gone back to that period — and I’m one of them. My novel That Untravelled World is set in Western Australia in the years 1912-39, much of it focusing on the Depression years.

Part of my aim in this book was to suggest how the main character’s vicissitudes reflect a larger national story about the painful transformation that our country endured in that formative period. Young Harry is initially caught up in the exhilarating prospect that technological innovation, especially wireless, will conquer distance and bring progress and prosperity to the young nation. His attitude changes as Australia moves from heady optimism into the hard times of WW1 and the Depression, becoming a sadder and wiser community. In the words of one reviewer,

Harry drifts between places and jobs, never really finding his niche. His tale of early confidence followed by recurrent disappointment is evocative of the period in which it is set…. With its rapid technological change and economic ups and downs, it’s a period that resonates with our own.

A pleasant antiviral activity

Wondering how to cope with the impact of COVID19? Troubled by the prospect of spending more time (by choice or necessity) in germ-avoidance isolation? Here’s a pleasant antiviral activity that you can enjoy:  reading!

While you’re still able to go shopping, stock up right now with a batch of new books. Your local bookstore isn’t likely to be dangerously crowded, so just make a quick visit, grab a generous armful of literary works, and take those thousands of pages of well-crafted words home with you for company. Then, before the dire moment comes (next week?) when normal social interaction shuts down, you’ll be well equipped to engage with vicarious relationships, imaginary journeys and stimulating ideas without leaving the safe cocoon of home.

You’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped to keep the book industry afloat during this period of economic stress.

I’ve just followed my advice by buying a swag of fiction titles from a new little bookshop nearby, which is worthy of particular support because it has only recently opened its doors — right at the time when COVID19 is beginning to threaten many small businesses.

This brave indie venture is Typeface Books, located in the Ardross Street “village” in the Perth suburb of Applecross. Its shelves carry a good range of quality publications (well, it stocks my novels!), and it deserves to attract plenty of customers. Check out its website here.

Wherever you get your books from, you can of course choose whether to read things that take your mind off COVID19 altogether or things that help you to confront it. If it’s the latter, you have no shortage of reading material;  it could include Albert Camus’ The Plague, David Herlihy’s The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, and Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders. Or you might turn to the global best-seller Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in which Yuval Noah Harari argues (among other provocations) that humans are on the verge of becoming superhuman because in the last few decades we have managed to curb all three things that have previously held us back:  not only famine and war but also plague! “Epidemics are a far smaller threat to human health today than in previous millennia,” Harari says. Will he need to issue a revised edition?

The long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost

The long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost reach across the centuries into the present day, leaving distinctive fingerprints on a genre that did not even exist in his period but has become dominant in ours:  the novel.

Some modern writers rearrange situations and relationships from a Shakespearean play so that we see them through the eyes of a particular character or set of characters. Of course a dramatist can do this;  in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead a pair of minor characters from Hamlet takes centre stage. But I’m thinking especially of prose fiction, which lends itself well to this method of reshaping Shakespeare’s material because (in contrast to a theatrical presentation, which is performed through dialogue and action and spectacle) a story can be narrated from a certain point of view or from shifting points of view.

Two examples, both of them American novels derived from King Lear: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) is a grim mid-West prairie tale told from the perspective of the eldest of three daughters whose monstrously abusive ageing father leaves them his farm, while Christopher Moore’s extravagantly comic novel Fool (2009) re-imagines King Lear from the perspective of the court jester, who schemes to save Cordelia from being married off. Shakespeare’s pivotal character, the tragic patriarchal figure that gives the play its title, is no longer the main focus in either of those novels. Instead, the story revolves around what were originally secondary characters. Accompanying that fundamental shift in perspective there are also changes of tone, of psychological interest, and of moral attitudes.

A different kind of influence occurs when the main thing a modern fiction writer draws from a Shakespearean source is a central theme with perennial relevance. In such cases the extent to which plot or characters are modified can vary a great deal. I’m thinking here of a couple of novelistic appropriations of the most spectacularly theatrical of Shakespeare’s plays.

Marina Warner’s Indigo (1991) boldly reshapes most of the characters and story elements of The Tempest. It is set (like Shakespeare’s original) in the 17th-century, but some of it also takes place much nearer our own time. When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest England was establishing itself as a colonial power, and we can see his play as dramatising issues arising from colonisation. Prospero, having come to Sycorax’s island and subdued her, imposes his own culture on its inhabitants. Warner’s Indigo expands the character of Sycorax, Caliban’s witch mother, who in Shakespeare’s play remains offstage. By also extending the story into the 20th century, the novelist can portray the consequences of colonialism.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed retells The Tempest in an even freer manner while preserving  thematic parallels with the original source. The main character is Felix, a theatre director in present-day Canada. After being dismissed from his arts festival role he gets a teaching position in a prison, where over several years he regularly persuades inmates to become actors in productions of Shakespeare’s plays. By participating under his direction in the dramatised violence of Julius Caesar, Richard III and Macbeth, the prisoners are able to reflect on their own past crimes and come to terms with their incarceration. Felix himself is playing a long game: his scheme is eventually to use the prison’s Shakespeare program to inflict vengeance on his old enemies, especially on Tony, a former colleague whose treachery had led to Felix’s loss of the festival job, which Tony took over. The play through which Felix ingeniously pursues his revenge is The Tempest — where Prospero is himself creating theatrical illusions to bring retribution upon those who stole his kingdom. So Shakespeare’s original plot and Atwood’s reworking of it both focus on a protagonist who tries to control the actions of those around him. And both Shakespeare’s Prospero and Atwood’s Felix can be seen as representatives of the author manipulating his or her creative work.

Atwood’s novel belongs to a series of Shakespearean retellings commissioned by the Hogarth Press for publication in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Other contributors to this series of loose adaptations include Howard Jacobson, who turned The Merchant of Venice into Shylock Is My Name. Jacobson’s novel has such a complicated plot, such a crowded cast of characters, and so many digressive passages of dialogue that it’s not easy to follow who’s who and what’s going on. At the centre of the story are not only a contemporary British version of Shylock, a wealthy art collector named Simon Strulovitch, but also the original Shylock, who travels through time into the present and with whom Strulovitch has intense conversations about Jewishness and other topics.

Despite their various differences, the examples mentioned so far all adapt a story drawn from one of Shakespeare’s plays. But the long arms of Shakespeare’s ghost sometimes stretch beyond that kind of transposition. Modern fiction may give us an independently invented narrative line, with original characters that have no direct Shakespearean source, and yet make reference to the Bard’s writings (his plays and/or his lyric poetry) in ways that give depth and resonance to the tale. My own latest novel belongs (or at least aspires to belong) to this category. Here is Paul Genoni’s comment:

A good place to start in discussing A Thousand Tongues is with the novel’s two epigraphs, the first of which is derived from a soliloquy delivered by the King in Shakespeare’s Richard III : ‘My conscience hath a thousand several tongues /And every tongue brings in a several tale…’ It is accompanied by an epigraph from Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novel that deals with composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s struggles with his conscience in Stalinist Russia. In the epigraphic quote, Barnes suggests that conscience ‘no longer has an evolutionary function, and so has been bred out’, and that ‘within the modern tyrant’s skin … there is no cave of conscience to be found’.
These two epigraphs declare that A Thousand Tongues is a novel about conscience, the multitudinous and complex ways in which it can be manifested, the ‘slings and arrows’ it sends our way, and the role it might have in the contemporary world. The Shakespeare quote obviously provides the novel with its title, and also carries further weight within the text, where it recurs several times and performs as something of a leitmotif in the life of Gavin Staines. In this novel of many characters, both historical and contemporary, it is Staines who remains the gravitational centre around whom other characters, and their stories, circle.

Paul Genoni’s remarks (excerpted from a longer review) provide a framework for considering my novel’s relationship to certain Shakespearean texts and themes.

I’ve explained elsewhere how the initial creative impulse came from my encounter with a particular place, Dartmoor’s Prison Museum, and the meditations to which that gave rise. As the reflective process developed, I saw opportunities for incorporating several links to Shakespeare’s writings into my story in a thematically relevant way.

The idea of imprisonment often recurs in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Think of Hamlet’s line “Denmark’s a prison”; or of Richard III, locking up the young princes in the tower; or of Richard II, jailed by his successor, Henry IV; or of the many characters in The Tempest for whom the island is a kind of jail; or of the sonnet that exclaims “Prison my heart…” and then develops this image in detail.

Two of my novel’s main characters are incarcerated in Dartmoor’s prison. One of them is Gavin Staines, mentioned above as a “gravitational centre” of the story. I’ve placed him among the conscientious objectors — more than 1000 — who were held there during World War I. Staines is uncompromising in his stance against military service but secretly burdened by a previous failure of conscience. I imagined a role for him before the war as a young teacher of literature at Queen’s College in London. Queen’s College was a notable independent school for teenage girls, some of whom were socially self-confident, intellectually precocious and emotionally adventurous. We know this from letters and diaries of some who were students there in the Edwardian era, most notably the writer Katherine Mansfield. A feature of the education offered at Queen’s was its provision of lectures courses by visiting academics. What might this environment have been like for a young man teaching poetry there? That question exemplifies how a story can emerge:  the creative process is stimulated when a writer poses “What ifs”… For instance, what if a certain sonnet by Shakespeare became troublesome for a young teacher and one of his female students?

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

When the war comes and conscription is brought in, Staines registers as a conscientious objector and is eventually sent to Dartmoor. Many of the Dartmoor “conchies” were well-educated men (journalists, teachers, artists…) and they proved resourceful in entertaining themselves during the long cold evenings. Archival records show that they often put on concerts, with items such as verse recitations and stage performances — including Shakespearean plays. One of the conchie characters I invented is Humphrey Latimer, a flamboyant chap with a background as an actor and a passion for the rich language of Elizabethan drama. During one of the concerts, he delivers Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “To be…” etc.

Glancing around as Latimer gave his rendition of that vacillating speech, Staines could see it was causing some disquiet. These men had resolved to suffer slings and arrows rather than take up arms; but to many of them the sea of troubles must still seem endless. Some perhaps remained privately unsure whether their refusal to fight had come from courage or something less. ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’ – uneasy, tense, they shifted in their seats when they heard those bitter words.

Curious about Staines and intuiting that his aloof manner hides some secret, Latimer keeps probing. As they belong to the same work gang, Latimer has frequent opportunities to try squeezing information out of him, especially after discovering how Staines was employed before the war. Latimer uses their shared interest in Shakespeare as a means of indirect enquiry into what makes this oddly reserved man tick.

Because Staines is not only (by conviction) a conscientious objector but also (by vocation) a teacher of literature, it seemed to me plausible that he would contribute an essay to a pacifist magazine under the title “War and Peace: Shakespearean Voices.” In this invented article, Staines remarks that some British militarists had tried to conscript the nation’s supreme poet-dramatist as a patron in their zealous pursuit of bloody conflict on foreign soil, with Henry V as their exemplary text. Staines argues that, on the contrary, a wide range of Shakespeare’s characters, through their dialogue on aspects of war and peace, evoke the torments of conscience and “express eloquently what anyone sickened by the violence of warfare has felt.”

The other character in A Thousand Tongues who spends time in Dartmoor’s jail is a black man from an earlier generation, Joshua Dunn. Consigned to the margins of Victorian society because of his race and class, Dunn is treated with such cruelty during his years of imprisonment that he comes to the despairing conclusion that people like himself can’t afford the luxury of a conscience:

“Don’t give me a bloody sermon about scruples!’ Josh roared. “The likes of us can’t afford to have any. This place turns us into beasts. Every mongrel for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Yet this repudiation of scruples is not absolute, as the reader discovers when Dunn’s story later connects with Staines’s in an indirect and ironical way.

And Shakespeare? At the very end, Staines has with him a copy of the Bard’s Complete Works, finding a bizarre purpose for it. So Shakespearean words bookend this novel, from its title and first epigraph to its final scene.