What is the working title of your current/next book?
Victorian Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
Where did the idea come from?
This story---of a self-published book that goes on to become the biggest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, defines the publishing genre of detective fiction, and paves the way for Sherlock Holmes--has never been told before.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s not a weighty cradle-to-grave biography, more the biography of a book, its influence, permutations and curious afterlife. It includes anything from madhouse history to male attire to film history and copycat true crime. Fergus himself left no diaries, and there are few letters. So it can’t be a conventional literary biography. But given so little is known, that is actually a blessing—the book is all new material to the general reader.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Fergus—one of the hobbit actors, and not because he came from New Zealand. He was short and stocky. I need an actor specialising in charming villains for his publisher.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
How to write a bestseller and not actually make any money.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I went and flirted with Text publishing (there is no other real way to describe it) and they liked the idea. So I wrote the proposal. They liked that too. I had professional help to negotiate the contract. My deadline is July, 60,000 words.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Ha! I’m working on two chapters simultaneously, revising as I go. Two other chapters are sort of completed, and most of the rest are chunks in progress. When I get stuck or bored with one I move to another…and so on.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Can’t think of anything offhand. Text reckon Longitude should be my model.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Not inspiration, more that I realised I had enough matter for it.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a crime fiction history, but that also deals with publishing, marketing, the nature of literary reputation, the colonial cringe, and New Zealand.
On WG Sebald and Frivolity
Russell Hoban introduced me to the concept of a walking book--the book that you carry around in case you get an opportunity to read (flat tyre, etc.). Usually with me it is a review book, which gave rise to the Baby Elephant Test: if a book can't hold your attention while you are in a queue waiting to see a baby elephant, then it is NO GOOD. But I needed to read Sebald's THE RINGS OF SATURN, and so I took it to a vintage fashion fair.
In the break from investigating the fascinating items for sale and making my choice, I read Sebald over a coffee. I started getting inexplicably depressed, and then realised it was not my fault. The book is about entropy. It is also profoundly melancholic in its depiction of enterprises rotting and becoming dust (I paraphrase here). And the scope is generally masculine.
A vintage fashion fair is not entropic, melancholic nor masculine. Sure, it featured selected female passengers on the TITANIC, with approximations of their wardrobes, which ranged from Paris couture to middle-class and sensible. It is hard to feel melancholy among a brightly coloured celebration of female costuming, in which old clothes, rather than rotting in tips, are redistributed to happy owners.
Some snapshots. A woman seeking 70s frocks with loud prints: 'because they allow for my bust!' The ooh-ah in the changing rooms as a slender young girl fitted perfectly and becomingly into a very slimline50s frock. The other young girls who had various looks, from 30s to 60s, down perfectly. A wool frock which didn't fit me, but beguiled in its happy marriage of brown, blue and purple, as well as an intricately tucked peplum.
My loot for the fair consisted of a couple if inexpensive yet imaginative brooches, a hat with veil, a ribbon and some lace. Buying them was easier without the spectral presence of a gloomy German literary novelist, looking over my shoulder and saying: 'Tut!'
I should have taken some Colette instead.
Fergus Hume on Crime Writing
Some may recall Fergus Hume as the author of 'The Mystery of the Hansom Cab' (1889), a classic early crime best-seller. But he also had views on his craft, as expressed in his 'When I Lived in Bohemia' (1892). They should be better known:
'...if you write a novel dealing with the emotions only, you can put in what you like and no one can contradict you for you may have felt the particular emotion you write about although your reader may not. But if you write a detective novel, you state a hard and fast criminal case, and in order to carry it out to a logical conclusion you are as bound by that case as though it actually happened. Then you must have all police-court business at your fingers' ends, be well up in legal matters, know something about the medical profession, and be careful about every statement you make. You must conceal the real criminal, lay the blame on all the other characters in the book; yet, when the end comes, you have to prove that it is quite natural the real criminal should have committed the crime. Look at all the work, observation, logic, analysis, and memory involved in the writing of such a book, and yet when it is done and presents a perfect picture of a difficult criminal case, then critics dismiss it with the contemptuous remark 'that it is a shilling shocker!"
AGE Christmas Reviews
BLOKEY DAD (HARD TO BUY FOR)
4th Estate $35.00
Laura Hillenbrand was responsible for Seabiscuit, a book with the pace of a thoroughbred. Unbroken is similarly sports-historical, but with a war angle. While Seabiscuit was an uncomplicated narrative of battlers triumphing, Unbroken examines a life of extreme adversity. Louis Zamperini was a US runner, of Olympic standard. As a youth he was delinquent, surely headed for jail. Sport saved him, and he showed promise at Hitler’s Olympics in 1936. He might have won gold at the next, but for WW2. Instead he joined the airforce, only to be shot down over the Pacific. The surviving crew drifted in a rubber raft for thousands of miles. That ordeal nearly killed Zamperini, but it was followed by internment in a Japanese POW camp. Here he was singled out for abuse from a sadistic guard. The experience nearly destroyed him; and after the war he suffered severe PTSD. A misery memoir? No, for something in Zamperini always bounced back. Hillenbrand presents an engaging, uniquely tough character. Unlike many POWs, he could forgive. Aged 80, he carried the torch for the Winter Olympics—in Japan.
Also useful for: Sports and War buffs.
THE ENGLISH GHOST: SPECTRES THROUGH TIME
Chatto & Windus $35.00
It used to be a typical Christmas pastime to tell ghost stories. Such activities need reprising, and an impetus could be this book. Ackroyd notes that the English see more ghosts than anyone else, although there seems evidence of a particular national character here. These revenants can be rather well-behaved, matter-of-fact, even mundane. They go to church, push wheelbarrows, even stand at urinals. Some, like a moving cloud of soot, seem inexplicable, while others seek vengeance. Ackroyd shows a particular interest in poltergeists, perhaps for the chaos they cause. The sightings here range from prehistoric figures to thoroughly modern ghosts on motorways. Ackroyd even includes dog ghosts. It is a dipping-into book, that in its quiet way contains much food for thought. Why did a window repeatedly show figures walking through a churchyard, something seen from no other vantage point? Or a ghost’s eyes not move? These extracts are told in a low-key fashion that ultimately becomes more unsettling than horror-genre hysterics.
I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT
If you don’t know Terry Pratchett by now, consider him the fantasy Wodehouse. If you do know, ‘nuff said. I Shall Wear Midnight is set in his Discworld series, within the subset devoted to witch Tiffany Aching. Tiffany’s story began when, as a child, she discovered her witch-powers. Now, four books later, she is coming of age, becoming a young woman. It might sound like the stuff of genre teen fantasy, but Pratchett is far too funny and clever for that. A Witchfinder General arrives, and suddenly Tiffany is fighting for her life. The book thus neatly crosses over from the upper teenage to the adult readership. Fantasy is used here to tell some sharp, universal truths, chief of which is the uncomfortable nature of being human. As usual, the Nac Mac Feegles—Scots fairies behaving badly—continue their merry reign of comic chaos. Pratchett might have Alzheimer’s, but his verbal facility continues unaffected. Lovely stuff.
WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU WEARING?
The Michi blog has been affording delight to intelligent fashion followers for over five years. This second associated book is a companion to the first, Like I Give a Frock. Michi’s persona is typically irreverent, casting a trained fashion gaze over the trends. Since fashion is primarily a visual feast, her words have been always accompanied by exquisite Kat Macleod illustrations. Here Michi presents a dictionary of fashion-speak. The reader will learn what galloon means, served with a dash of sarky opinion. Fascinator is defined as ‘proof that not everyone owns a mirror’. Cheap, we learn, is pronounced crap. Hidden behind the wit is some sound fashion advice, as when under the word criminal we find double denim and skorts listed. If there is more than one fashionista in the family try also Fifi Lapin’s What Shall I Wear Today? (Sceptre, $30), which is like Michi as an haute couture rabbit, or Janie Bryant’s The Fashion File (Grand Central, $45) by the Mad Men designer.
THE SLOW GUIDE TO MELBOURNE
Simone Egger and Martin Hughes
‘I really have to slow down in 2011’, goes the refrain. Well, take them at their word, with this book, just released in a second edition. The theme is quality of life, experienced locally. Just because a pleasure is inexpensive does not mean it has to be cheap as well. The book considers sensory happiness, experienced at leisure. While some of the options presented might not suit everyone (like the Ukelele Collective) there is enough variety presented here for most people to find their particular groove. Unusual Melbourne sights include Marybyrnong river cruises, or the Museum of Printing. The book is also enlivened by short interviews with genuinely interesting characters, such as the Urban Honey farmer (employing 20,000 worker bees). It is a dip-into text, a browsers’ delight. And usefully it is also light enough to pop into a backpack for a slow day sightseeing around Melbourne.
Also useful for: the retrenched, the glum and the new arrival in Melbourne town
GROWING OLD DISGRACEFULLY
BLOOD, SWEAT & BEERS: OZ ROCK FROM THE AZTECS TO ROSE TATTOO
Engleheart has previously written the best-selling story of AC/DC. Now he details their brothers-in arms, the bands who comprised the raw and raucous beast that was oz rock. The genre was home-grown, rough as guts, and typified by Billy Thorpe and Rose Tattoo. None would ever be as huge as Acca Dacca, but they created immense vital fun. Englehart was lucky enough to interview the key players over the years, all hard-bitten and hard-living men. What he presents here is something uniquely Australian, which anywhere else would have made the musos multi-millionaires. There are some great anecdotes here, and some unforgettable personalities are drawn. It can be read equally for the gross-out passages, and for nostalgic memories of a good time getting wrecked. But Engleheart does end on a sad note. Though key bands like the Angels and X are still performing, he considers the genre of oz rock is effectively dead. So are many of the performers in this book.
Also useful for: the family rockpig
THE LITERARY READER
THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE OCEAN
The constant literary reader is as hard to buy for as the relative who claims they never need anything. The Franzen fan may despise anything Booker; Jane Austen readers will not necessarily warm to Winton. Under these circumstances, an anthology can be a safe bet, and what could be more suitable to Australians than the sea? Whilst any selection for a theme anthology is naturally personal, Bradley casts his net widely. Australians appear, but also the best of overseas writing talent. Of course an extract from Moby Dick has been chosen, but also Nam Le’s “The Boat”. Poetry also features, and non-fiction, arranged judiciously. Poet Emily Ballou appears between James Cook and Charles Darwin. Whilst due space is given to the classics, lesser-known writers, more unusual voices also appear. Owen Chase survives a whale attack; William Beebe explores with the bathysphere. The range of sub-topics displayed here includes ecology and the economics of merchant shipping. A fine, discerning read.
Also useful for: the beach holidaygoer, the yachtie
Devoted gardeners are hard to please in the gift department. They tend to have all the garden tools they need, and turn up their nose at seeds they haven’t selected. On the other hand, there are few people who don’t love a rose, even if secretly. This lavishly-illustrated book comprises a history of the rose, from its wild beginnings to modern hybrid market. Potter shows how the flower has exerted an enduring fascination for humanity. Fossil roses are millions of years old, but the first recorded image is found in a Minoan fresco. How the rose came to be developed remains a horticultural mystery that is only now beginning to be revealed. Roses traveled from China to Europe and America, in a constant process of metamorphosis. Humans altered their form; and they inturn influenced us profoundly. Potter’s extensive account considers plant genetics, the language of flowers, and the rose as artistic theme. The stories of rose devotees like Vita Sackville-West and David Austin are similarly compelling. A beautiful, informative book.
THE UNEXPECTED XMAS GUEST
THE HAIRY BIKERS’ 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Si King & Dave Myers
Eek! The shops are closed, the turkey is on the barbie. Now a stray orphan has been added to the family feast. Will they sit there sadly while everyone else unwraps presents? You could give them an emergency present, like soap, but better is a Christmassy book. Sadly most books for the season are vomit-inducing. This one will actually make the reader hungry. Two of the most down-to-earth TV cooks serve up a selection of nosh to take the foodlover to Epiphany. The emphasis is on stress-free cooking, including gravlax, coq au vin and fudge. The bikers even include suggestions re leftovers on Boxing Day. Of course it tends to hearty Northern hemisphere fare, but there are hot weather foods, such as kebabs or the gin and tonic sorbet (not for the designated driver).The recipes are road-tested, and served with lashings of good humour. Just note the book isn’t released until the 21st, but you can wait two days, surely?
Also suitable for: the office Kris Kringle, the foodie.
We had a great launch. The site was Feddish, an eatery off Fed. Square, where the Melbourne Writers' Festival is being held. At 11am I turned up early, to find most of the choir there, dressed in matching black, with the altos going over their (difficult) part. Robyn Annear the launcher turned up next, with her patent spring-loaded booklauncher on a trolley. Julian Warner (in cravat) was MC, and at 11.30, with a full house, we began. First up was actress Suzette Williams, reading Sarah Harrison's account of a near shipwreck, from 1884. Then the choir, with yours truly on soprano, heartily sang 'For those in Peril on the Sea'. Next I spoke, giving thanks to various folks, & telling the story of how I sold the book (had a loud conversation with film critic Jim Schembri at a publisher's party, & the publisher overheard!). Then the steampunk costumers grouped around Robyn (also in costume) as she spoke. Her finale was to launch the book into the air via the booklaunch machine! People I had not seen in years, including writer Alice Nunn were there, and I am told we sold out of books. Thanks to all concerned for their contributions. At 2.30 the same day I would interview Kim Stanley Robinson, but that is for another blog.