A big part of our goals for this year involves getting out and about with the kids and making the most of the region in which we live: the South West of Western Australia is rich with history, natural beauty and cultural heritage, and pretty much all of it is within a three hour drive, which means we can be there by lunch and home in time for tea.
Thanks to the power of an extra-long weekend , Luscious decided to kick start Subject One of Master 9's upcoming home-schooling year by taking us all out to Fremantle Prison for their daily Doing Time tour, a ninety minute guided tour through the 140-odd year history of the facility.
Ohhhhhh, didn't we have a lovely daaaayyy....
It's stunning, not least because the set-up of the building, from the entrance gate through to the museum wing, art gallery and the gaol itself, is utterly unsentimental. Fremantle Prison, as is made clear to visitors, was a punishment prison, not a centre for rehabilitation, and no attempt is made to veer away or whitewash this rather uncomfortable fact. There is no attempt to romanticise the surroundings, or justify the range of sentences carried out within its walls: the yards remain unvarnished and rotting, the cells are presented exactly as they were used throughout the years, and visitors are exposed to the flogging post and execution room in the conditions they were in when sentence was carried out.
The history of the prison is, largely, the history of the colony and, eventually, the wider City and State, no less because of the way punishment was carried out: the last person to be flogged in the gaol, for example, received 25 lashes in 1943 as part of his 4th conviction for paedophilia, whereas one of the first recorded floggings was 100 lashes for swearing at the prison chaplain. The highlight of the tour, for me at least, was the prison chapel, where it was easy to see why so many prisoners ended up turning to religion. It was the only stop on the tour that had no bars on the windows, that had any sort of colour on the walls, that had carpet underfoot and didn't exist purely to crush the spirit and isolate the mind. It was the only part of the entire goal building-- the tour, it should be noted, was restricted to those parts occupied by prisoners, and did not include offices or residential sections-- where you could see the sky.
The only room with a sky in it.
The kids were wide-eyed throughout: this is a side of history they've not been exposed to in any great detail, and between them took well over 100 photos as we went around (hooray for digital technology!). Master 9 was one of the few tourists to ask a question of the guide: What did the arrows on prison uniforms come from. For the record, the arrows on prison uniforms were not specific to the prison system. They are used to indicate 'property of the British Government', and were used on a wide number of objects. They are still used in the British military and civil materiel industries-- news to many of us, judging by the number of other visitors who approached us to congratulate him on his question and chat about how they had not known the answer.
A door bears the mark of ownership.
In the end we came away with an appreciation of how massive the recent history of our State is when streamed through the lens of a single cultural filter, and how it is an ongoing beast that can still reach out and touch entire elements of our culture: the museum had large sections devoted to the Fenian imprisonments of the 1860s and 70s, which stood in stark counterpoint to an exhibition of works by current women prisoners in the Art Gallery, the majority of which were clearly created by Aboriginal women. The stories were fascinating, complex and almost constantly compromised by the prevailing sentiments of the time from which they originated. The images-- paintings on cell walls, shelters corroded and rusting, garden beds destroyed and partially filled-- were stark and almost beautifully ruined.
Paintings of beauty and hope created in the midst of isolation and despair. Quite beautiful. And then you learn that the prisoner who did it was a 13-time violent rapist, and that's the kind of place you're in.
It is a big place, Fremantle Prison, uncomfortably so, and filled with the ghosts of culture past. We left it with wider eyes and deeper questions to explore over the coming months: the children with a pack full of reference points for learning, and Luscious and I, as authors, with countless vectors for our future work. A successful field trip, certainly, but an enriching experience for us all.
So begins 4500 words I wasn't expecting to write this month. Cleaning out my inbox last week, I stumbled across an invitation to submit to an anthology of alternative history stories that I'd been sent in November. The word length was reasonable, the pay was excellent, I'm looking for extra money to help fund a holiday at the end of the year, I still had 2 weeks to write the story....
I've worked with tighter deadlines.
My good friend Stephen Dedman imparted a piece of advice to me in my younger days that I've always remembered: when time is tight and you're short of plot ideas, pick a Shakespeare play and pull out a plot thread. Shakespeare's work is so rich, so redolent with possibility, and so infinitely interpretable that it's almost impossible to recreate his tone, style and intent, even if you wanted to. No matter what you take away from one of his plays, it'll be utterly your own work by the time you've finished writing it.
It's excellent advice, and over the years I've come back to it on more than one occasion. I've found, though, that Shakespeare doesn't work for me as much as history books and science magazines. It's not the source, of course, that's the important thing: it's the practice. If I'm short of time or plot ideas, I'll find a scientific concept and ask the question "What if humans could do that?" or pick up a book of history and turn an event or concept through 90 degrees and see where it takes me.
What if humans could dehydrate their bodies into a form of natural cryogenic suspension and wait until rehydrated to begin the natural life cycle, as some plants in the Arctic circle have been discovered to do? gave me my early story Carrying the God, which took me to the Writers of the Future and launched my career. What if the bombing of Dresden exposed ancient Jewish alchemical practices to the German soldiers defending the town? was the basis of Europe After the Rain. And so on.
So I had two weeks. And, you know, alternative history. I'd just written a story-- Disciple of the Torrent-- about the Batavia massacre, so that research was fresh in my head. I still have all my research papers from The Claws of Native Ghosts, an alternative history set around the Pinjarra massacre. And there's always Napoleon. I'm fascinated by Napoleon. I've written a whole novel about Napoleon.
Yeah. Let's do Napoleon.
Somewhere in my future plans there's a twinned set of novels about Napoleon's march on Moscow: one set in the world where he loses, instead of winning the Pyrrhic victory he actually wins, and one in the world where his victory is genuine, and he conquers Russia.
Let's test that one out. Let's have a proof of concept. But: I don't want to wet the powder here. I don't want to write the version I have in mind for the novel. So let's take that idea and move it in a different direction. An alternative alternative history.
So The Emperor of Moscow has been written. 4500 words in five days of writing. I haven't written a short story at that speed in years. It feels good to be blatting words out, feeling the hot rush of creation with the eyes of a deadline upon me. It feels like that start of my carer, twelve years ago, when I was selling, never mind writing, ten or twelve short stories a year, and was ploughing through ideas like I was farming Shangri-La. I haven't worked at that level of ferocity in a long time, not since marriage and family and a job I actually like gave me more in life to enjoy.
And now I have a long weekend in front of me, 4 1/2 days from lunchtime this afternoon, to edit and polish and send it off, before I go back to the long drudgery of editing the latest novel while my Agent taps his watch and raises his eyebrows at me.
They say you can't go home again. But this was a fun visit. I'll have to do it again some time.
Now that the programme has been released, I can finally announce that I will be appearing at this year's Perth Writers Festival, to be held at the University of WA from Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 February.
I'll be running a workshop from 10am-1pm on Saturday 22nd, on how to create a believable fantasy universe. Here's the full blurb:
(Because *my* title of "Unicorn Physics" wasn't catchy enough....)
10am - 1pm Sat 22 Feb 2014
Award-winning speculative fiction author Lee Battersby shows you the rules of building a believable fantasy universe. Learn what works, what doesn’t and just how much you can get away with before the reader starts to notice.
So if you want to learn about concepts like unicorn physics, world +1, and why writing what you know is for the weak, I'll expect to see you there! You can get a gander at the full program here. Luscious and I already have tickets for Lionel Shriver and she'll also be seeing Margaret Drabble, and we'll be wandering around the grounds for pretty much the entire three day festival, so anybody who's interested in catching up, just drop me a line and we'll organise some picnicky goodness like we did last year.
If you haven't already done so, where have you been? Also, head over to Angry Robot Books and pick yourself up a copy. You won't regret it. And if you do regret it, you'll already have bought the book, so I won't care. I win either way.
A pared-down, blow-by-blow description of the murder of his parents by an unbelievable moron, the sole interest for which is based upon the family involved being half as rich as Croesus. The case received some notoriety in Melbourne because of the wealthy nature of the family involved, but based on this account, the whole case is notable only for the ironic laughability of murderous halfwit Matthew Wales.
To create narrative interest out of a murder case so open and shut that the bodies are found a fortnight after they disappeared and the only viable suspect gives an unprompted full confession less than two weeks after that would take a crime writer with the storytelling flair of an Ann Rule or Truman Capote. Hilary Bonney has none of their skill. Perhaps all the truly engrossing moments were excised out of the expanded edition, but I'm prepared to doubt it. It's much more likely to follow the formula a)high-profile murder case captures public interest, b) publisher decides to cash in, c) high profile society lawyer grabs the cash.
A recounting with no insight, no ambition, and no lessons to be learned about the human condition. whatever fleeting interest lies within its pages comes from wondering how the dullard at the heart of the story could get so many things wrong in such quick succession. This condensed volume is part of a 4-volume set called "The True Crime Briefcase". I'm betting it's the runt of the litter.
Fantastic example of a novel that British authors seem to write with impunity: the fantasy novel that refuses to acknowledge itself as such, and persuades everyone else not to either. In this case, what starts out as a meticulously researched and beautifully realistic double narrative about a young sailor on Queen Elizabeth's first sanctioned slaving voyage and the unfolding of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of John Williams some 250-odd years later develops into a gritty fantasy crime procedural involving questions of (im)mortality, the natural sciences, race politics and the class system. The ending is a little truncated, and the climax dealt with a little too easily, but the interweaving of historical figures, politics and social movements with the imagined narrative is superb, and makes for a rich and satisfying reading experience. Not at all what i was expecting when I picked up the book, but an absolute pleasure nonetheless.
Two weeks into 2014, and the only reasonable response to life is to build a blanket fort.
Watch for the parade. But it's okay, they have the proper permits.
This last weekend has been the hottest I've experienced in a number of years. Saturday night was, apparently, the hottest night Perth has ever recorded. Naturally, our air-conditioner has shat itself and died already-- thanks to the fucktarded cowboy air conditioner repairmen who couldn't even fulfil their job description last year-- so we've resorted to living at the swimming pool, walking around with ceiling fans strapped to our heads, and this: you can't see it, but there are three fans inside this bad boy, and the kids slept like, well, kids in close proximity to fans in an enclosed space. Still, as far as family projects go, this was a fun one.
On the personal front, ten days break over Christmas gave me the opportunity to engage in daily exercise for the first time since the last time I had ten consecutive days off, which is going back more than a year or two. Thankfully, I've managed to maintain the habit since returning to the day job, and I'm seeing the benefits of it. Since December 24 I've lost 3.2 kilograms. I've still got somewhere in the region of 18 to go before I'm in sight of my optimum weight, but that's at least 3.2 that I don't have to lose again.
I've been walking laps of our suburban block, playing basketball with the kids every Thursday night, and have hit the pool on several occasions to walk laps and build up my core strength by throwing children around. Cool drink had been dispensed with in favour of water-- although Ginger ale and Lime made an appearance over the weekend as we tried to keep cool-- and biscuit & sweeties based snacks have been discarded in favour of lashings of fruit. Nothing revolutionary, just actual changes, all at once.
And writing work has borne fruit: over the Christmas break I completed the text of a picture book entitled I Watch Monsters, and have sent it in to a publisher. It was the first-- and, admittedly, smallest-- of my writing goals for the year, but it's still nice to have one scratched off this early in the piece.
So, here we are. Lyn and I are determined to achieve a much more positive year than 2013, and we're both working hard to achieve the goals we've set out. Up next for me: completing the submission package for Father Muerte & the Divine and pushing the 15 000 words of Cirque up towards a full manuscript.
Reasonably interesting read in which an Internal Affairs officer does just about anything except investigate the internal complaint which leads him into the narrative, and instead takes on an unpaid commission from a private citizen that seems loosely connected to the original brief, leaving his two barely-competent sidekicks to thud their way through an increasingly irrelevant sideline to the main plot. That plot is engaging enough, but relied on far too many coincidences and fortuitous appearances from characters that had stayed silent or unreachable for decades, and ultimately, the whole thing hinges on a narrative twist so unreasonable that it simply stopped being believable.