30 June 2011

A very special guest: L.S. Lawrence

A special treat today. The mysterious L.S. Lawrence has granted us an audience. Imagine you're sitting in a book-lined study with a view of a back yard. Sitting opposite you is a professorial type with half-glasses, a hound's-tooth jacket and a bow tie. He is blinking, with mild astonishment, at the rainbow lorikeets in the lemon-scented gum outside. This is what you ask him and this is what he tells you:

Why were you drawn to the King Arthur story?
Because there's nothing like a mystery, and that's a mystery. Nobody knows anything much. Everything was in chaos in Britain, no government, no law. The towns were mostly in ruins, with bandits and invading barbarians everywhere. But there is just one story written at the time that tells of a British war-leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who won a great victory against the invaders somewhere in the west of the country. And that's just about all we have. Centuries later, people began to tell stories about a king called Arthur, who beat the barbarians and established a kingdom called Camelot where, for a time, there was law and justice.

Is there any truth to these stories? Nobody knows. Are they possible at all? Some aren't, but what if the others are at least partly true?

And that is the beginning of all story-telling. The beginning is always a question, and the question always starts with the words ‘What if ...?’

What if the stories are sort-of true? Not all true, because for that you need magic, and knights and dragons and giants and the Holy Grail, and all sorts of stuff that was added in later. But what if there was a boy who grew up to be a great leader? What if he had, well, sort-of knights – armoured horsemen, anyway? Where would he get them? Where would he get the horses for them?

And then I tripped over an odd fact. Archeologists dig up all sorts of things, including the teeth and bones of horses. In a ‘dig’ in the west of Britain, near a place called Cadbury Rings, they found some. Now, most horses in ancient Britain were just ponies – very small. But these were big horses. And more; there's a way of testing the teeth that tells scientists where the horse was born. Two or three of these horses came from northern Spain.

Imagine that! Somebody had fetched some of the famous Andalusian horses, and had brought them back to Britain. Who did that? And how did they do it?

And there was the start of the story.

What do you admire about Alexa in Horses for King Arthur and Sara in Escape by Sea?  
Well, first of all, courage. It's not that they're never afraid, it's that they don't allow their fear to beat them. That's what courage is, you know.

Then, decency. The idea that there is an underlying law, no matter what other people think or do. Sara won't allow her father to kill the man who cheated him, because it wouldn't be right. Alexa does her best to care for the warriors wounded after the battle because it's right to do that. They do what is right, just because it's right, not because it's convenient or easy. That's what I mean by decency.

And lastly, independence. They grew up in a place and a time where women had few rights and little freedom, in theory anyway. But in all times and all places, there have been women who made their own way, no matter what. I can only guess at what they had to go through. But I can write about them, and admire them for what they did.

Do you like all kinds of history, or do you have a favourite era/people that you like to write about?
Can I answer, One of each, please?

Yes, I like all kinds of history. As soon as you look under the names and dates and places – which are boring, if you look at them alone – you find stories. Stories everywhere. And stories are fun.

But I especially like history that's a long way away from us, in time or space or ideas. Ideas are the most interesting things of all, and in history you can find some really strange ones. Some of those ideas are horrible, and some of them are brilliant, and all of them make you think about our ideas of the world.

For instance, did you know that an inventor showed a Roman Emperor a machine that could make roads, all in one go, and didn't need a huge crew of slaves to work it. The Emperor ordered the machine to be destroyed and the inventor strangled, of course. Why? Well, look at it from the Emperor's point of view. If all the slaves who built roads were set free, what would they do? Probably start a rebellion, that's what.

That same way of thinking happened when a settler found a large gold nugget among the roots of a tree he was digging up in New South Wales, in the 1830s. He showed it to the Governor, who told him to hide it away and not tell anyone. Why? Look at it from the Governor's point of view. He was in charge of a prison, basically. The last thing he wanted was a gold rush, and all the convicts escaping to dig up gold.

We tend to think that anything new and different is good. But most people in the past thought that things should stay the same.

Weird, isn't it? But weird is fun, too. And history is full of stuff like that. That's why I like it.

What do you admire about people of that era?  
Mostly, it's not so much that I admire them – I'd rather live here and now, thank you very much. Most people in Rome were slaves, you know. Most people in Britain in the year 475 were farm workers, doing stoop labour on land they didn't own twelve hours a day, just to get enough to eat – and sometimes not even getting that. In fact, that's true of practically anywhere at any time up to about a hundred and fifty years ago.

They were tough and enduring, that's true. They had to be. And it's true that this modern world was built on what they did. But I don't want to live like them. Is it admiring them to say that much?

You seem to know a lot about sailing, and war, and horses, and medicine, and even about cooking. Do you do a lot of research?

Um, well, yes and no. See, I've been reading history – mostly, whatever I fancied – for, oh, about fifty years now. Is it research when you know pretty much the shape of how history happened, and you trip over a detail like the horses in Cadbury, and you think, how cool is that?

After that, the stuff you need to know sort of happens as you go along; and it's strange how the details often seem to fall into place. For instance, I needed to know who was ruling in southern France about this time. A bit of reading told me it was a Visigoth chieftain named Euric. And what do you know? It turns out that he also ruled northern Spain. Where the horses came from. And it also turns out that Euric was the first ruler in the old Western Roman Empire to declare himself an independent king, and make it stick. Oh, cool, I said to myself, and when did that happen?

475 CE, the same year as I was setting my story.

See what I mean about things falling into place? It's almost spooky the way it seems to happen.

Sailing, well, I sail small boats, and went as crew once or twice on ocean-going yachts. It's not the same, but it gives you a feel for it. War – well, I play tabletop war games. Horses – if you look at the dedication of Horses for King Arthur you'll see the name of Elizabeth Moon, who really does know about horses, and whose brain I picked. Medicine – my wife comes from a whole family of doctors. Cooking – I have a copy of an actual ancient Roman cookbook. Fact. Fellow named Apicius wrote it two thousand years ago, and somehow it was preserved. Funny what things people will keep. Most of the works of great writers and historians and playwrights and poets from ancient times have been lost, but a cookbook survives. Weird. I said it was weird, didn't I?

That's history. It's weird. I like it because it's weird. Quite likely, most people would, if only they knew.

Out this month, L.S. Lawrence's latest novel.

27 June 2011

Play School turns 45

I always knew that Play School is fully scripted (no autocue) but I didn't know that it's filmed in one episode, as if it's live to tape. Parents, prepare for some new presenters as well as all the not-so-old favourites.

Happy 45th anniversary, Play School!

Pic via ABC TV blog

23 June 2011

June books

We're a wee bit late with our June books post this month. The old bus runs a little slower and takes longer to warm up in the cold weather. We have to supplement our biofuel with liquid chocolate to keep us all running smoothly.

So, this month we have some old favourites popping up. The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay is a CBCA Award short-listed book by the amazingly talented Narelle Oliver. It's lovely to see this classic back in paperback. Also out in paperback is Give Me a Home Among the Gum Trees, the classic Australian song illustrated by the young and talented Ben Wood. This is a favourite at my house where sometimes singing the bedtime story is actually easier than reading it.

And as mentioned in our previous post, the first two books in Michael Gerard-Bauer's trilogy have been re-jacketed to be all matchy and beautiful next to the third and final book, Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel, due out in July -- stay tuned!

It's all about finales this month because next off the bus is the much-anticipated Calamitous Queen, the last in the awesome Grim and Grimmer series by Ian Irvine. Delivering on everything that has been promised, and much more, this is a worthy end to an epic journey for poor old awkward Ike and his prickly side-kick Melly. And don't forget to pop in on Ian Irvine's Facebook page regularly, he's just a crazy competition and give-away machine!

We're always excited to see a new manuscript thump on our desks* from the mysterious L.S. Lawrence, historical fiction author extraordinaire. Out this month is Horses for Arthur, set in the Arthurian period (7th century England). You need to be sitting up straight and paying attention to fully appreciate the historical context, but Alexa, the heroine of this story, demands no such effort. She is a feisty and independently minded woman who refuses an arranged marriage and instead follows her own passion. If you'd like to read more about the rich history and culture of this period, please follow this link to our Teachers' notes.

And if you love this kind of historical fiction, definitely hunt down the previous two L.S. Lawrence novels, Eagle of the East and Escape by Sea. And watch out for an interview with Mr Lawrence, coming soon!

* In actual fact, arrive with a polite 'ping!' in our inboxes, but that doesn't sound very romantic, does it?

20 June 2011

Q&A with Michael Gerard Bauer

With the re-release of the first two books in Michael Gerard Bauer's wonderful trilogy due out this month and the final book out in July, we're very excited to hear from this award-winning author about the process of writing not one, but three awesome Australian novels.

How long did it take you to write the Ishmael series? 
I didn’t actually realise it was going to be a series when I started writing Don’t Call Me Ishmael! in 2004 but I liked the characters too much to stop writing and I wanted to find out what would happen to them. The third and final book Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel comes out very soon so it has taken a while to complete the trilogy but I’ve also written Dinosaur Knights and Just a Dog in the meantime.

Do you procrastinate? Are you an early-morning or late-at-night writer? 
Me procrastinate? I’m not sure, although two weeks has passed since I wrote the answer to Question 1. Definitely an early morning writer though. I like to go for a walk first because it helps me get my thoughts in order and to come up with new ideas. I write throughout the day but I rarely do much writing at night. I’m probably on Facebook or watching some embarrassing reality TV program.

Where do you get your inspiration for your books? 
I found that inspiration can come from anywhere. Stories seem to find me rather than me going out looking for them. The Running Man started with childhood memories of looking for silkworms; the Ishmael stories all grew from the first line of the novel Moby Dick which is ‘Call me Ishmael ...’; Dinosaur Knights started when I was watching an old movie about knights and dragons and I had the thought that the dragons looked like dinosaurs; and Just a Dog started one day when I was walking (told you I got ideas doing that!) and the name Mister Mosely for a dog came into my head. I still have no idea where that name came from.

When did you write your first book and how old were you? 
A while back and too old! Or more accurately, I started writing it in 2000 and I was 45.

What does your family think of your writing?
Either they like it or they’re too polite to tell me the truth. My wife is always the first person to read my stories. My son Joe particularly likes the Ishmael series. He always reads the manuscripts and gives me lots of helpful suggestions as well as correcting my mistakes. Joes also created the original covers for the first two Ishmael books.

What are you reading at the moment?
That last question. Oh, I see what you mean. Books, right? Well, I’ve just been at the Voices on the Coast writers’ festival so I bought a few books by the authors who were there with me. At the moment I’m reading A Pocket Full of Eyes by Lili Wilkinson. The last book I read was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins which I loved.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I hear from readers a bit more now that I have a Facebook page and a blog. Thankfully they mostly say very nice things about my books or ask questions about the stories or about being a writer. Sometimes I get emails and letters from classes who have read one of my novels. Occasionally they ask me if I’ll do their homework for them. (Just in case you’re wondering –- the answer’s no!)

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Taller mainly. But apart from that when I was in primary school I wanted to be either a Samurai warrior or a Ninja because back then there was a really popular TV show on called The Samurai and the main character Shintaro was my hero. He still is. Later on I wanted to be a singer-songwriter or part of a rock band. I eventually became a teacher which was pretty close.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Annoy other people who are writing. Read. Listen to music. Play the guitar and try to sing and write songs. Go for walks. Watch TV. Go to the movies. Play tennis. Meet with my secret Ninja group. No wait, I’m not supposed to mention that … um, what I meant to say was – sleep.

When was the last time you were on a bus?
A hardly ever catch buses when I’m at home in Brisbane – they’re just too fast for me. But when I’m away doing school visits I often get around by train or taxi or bus. So the last time I bus-ed it probably would have been last year in Melbourne.

10 June 2011

We like it when ...

... characters climb out of books and start doing their own publicity! Over here.

Ike during the unfortunate bum-inflation incident, book 3, Grim and Grimmer by Ian Irvine.

07 June 2011

We like this

Carly Schwerdt is quite a lady. She runs amazing children's art classes, designs and prints the most beautiful textiles you've ever seen, has a gorgeous shop and now she's written a book. Little Artists Handmade celebrates children's art and shows how best to draw inspiration from it, re-use it and make sure it doesn't get filed away forever in a suitcase on top of a wardrobe (ahem). Congratulations, Carly! And thank you for training the next generation of artists and illustrators for us!