Category: Interviews

These are interviews with fantastic authors. My focus is on those who write fantasy, magic realism, reworked fairy tales, mythic stories and anything that has an element of the fantastical. Story telling is so important to what makes us human, to encouraging empathy and to helping us find our place in the world. Wonderful story tellers who have inspired me develop my skills as a writer include Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Ray Bradbury, Isobelle Carmody, Sophie Masson, CS Lewis, JK Rowling and many more. Stories that I love transport me to another time, another place or to chance encounters with events and people that I would never meet in the real world. As adults some people become afraid of such stories – I like to think that is because of the power they wield! If you would like to be interviewed, use the contact form to get in touch.

What we learn in sorrow

What we learn in sorrow

In Australia at the moment many are grieving. Bushfires have swept our country, taking out huge tracts of land, homes, and many, many lives, both human and wildlife. I have stopped looking at the news because the images are too distressing. My heart grieves at so much loss. And now I have learned that a friend passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly. This year weighs on us all, bringing deep sorrow. It’s hard to see a way forward.

The sorrow of losing a friend

A dear friend, Wendy Dunn, introduced me to Elizabeth Jane Corbett, in 2016. We had both recently signed with the same publisher and Wendy thought it would be good if we could get to know each other and support each other through the journey to becoming published authors. My first impression of Elizabeth was that she was incredibly striking – very tall, with strong, beautiful features. Red was her signature colour. She had a direct way of speaking – you always knew where you stood with her. Over the next three years we spent time together at various writerly events. We shared market stalls at the Mythic Market and Supanova. We shared a room at Conflux in 2017, both newbie authors feeling imposter syndrome big time. Our late night chats were deep and insightful. And we reconnected at the Historical Novel Society conferences.

Elizabeth was an extraordinary writer. Her debut novel, The Tides Between, was shortlisted by the CBCA. It is a migration story, and a coming of age story, but to categorise it as that would be to fall far short. Woven through its tapestry of beautiful, beautiful writing are also Welsh myths and tales, which help young Bridie come to understand the world. At times devastating, Elizabeth’s book is one of those rare ones that I will take with me, in my heart and on my bookshelf, wherever I go. I interviewed Elizabeth on this blog in 2017 – you can read the interview here: An Interview with Elizabeth Corbett.

Living with passion

As I sit in sorrow, the thing I remember most about Elizabeth is her passion. It was a passion that seemed to have crept up on her unexpectedly. Elizabeth started learning Welsh as research for The Tides Between.  But when the book was finished, her learning didn’t, and it reached the point where she was actually teaching Welsh herself, and travelling to Wales regularly. Incredibly, she was interviewed about her book in Welsh on BBC Wales! That’s dedication to research. Next she started researching her second book, the story of Margret Glyn Dŵr, wife of the last Welsh Prince of Wales. And it turned into an obsession that led her to a Masters degree. It was on the verge of leading into a PhD. You can read all about it in her own words here.

I was in awe of Elizabeth’s passion. She found what she loved and she was completely true to it, pursuing it as far as she possibly could. When I look back now, and contemplate the loss of someone like Elizabeth, my sorrow arises as much from the loss of her friendship as from what she would have contributed in the future as a writer, historian and passionate Welshophile. I hope that her pursuit of her passion can inspire me to embrace my own, because in the end, a passionate life is one that is true to yourself. And that is one way to honour the life and legacy of someone like Elizabeth.

Misadventures in Marketing, Part 2

Misadventures in Marketing, Part 2

It’s been a bit more than a week (cough, cough, two months) but here are some more results from my author marketing survey. A quick recap – the survey grew out of my own misadventures as a newly published author. I thought I might have learned some things about what to do and what not to do, but I also thought I’d call on the wisdom of the collective author brain. This next part of the survey focuses on what many have expressed concern about – the way marketing impacts on the capacity to write.

How much time do you spend marketing? (By author type)

The labels here represent a slider where authors positioned a tab between 1-100.

  • Mostly writing = 75% or more of their time spent on writing
  • Some writing = 50-74% of time spent on writing
  • Some marketing = 26-49% of the time writing
  • Mostly marketing = 25% of the time or less spent on writing.

Note, the 100% on the chart represents respondents, not time!

The average time spent writing was 45% – that is, across all respondents, the average time spent marketing was 55%.

How much time do you spend marketing? (By publisher type)

All up, according to chart 1 emerging writers get more time to write (red and blue bars) than anyone else. Mid-list authors get the least, so they appear to be the ones most likely to get caught up in marketing misadventures.

Chart 2 shows that there’s not a lot of difference for those who self-publish or are with a small press. Both spend between 50-60% of their time marketing. For those with an international publisher the picture is quite different. Sixty percent say they get to spend most of their time writing.

The push for social media

The biggest development for new authors in the last ten years, from what I can see, is the push for them to have a social media profile, and to be actively promoting their books and their ‘author brand’. This is a big shift from the days of big publishing companies doing the marketing work for you. I frequently hear that this requirement applies to ALL authors too, not just those who self-publish or are with a small press. Even the big publishers expect authors to do a lot of their own marketing.

So marketing is increasingly outsourced to the author. There are some fundamental problems with this, such as that many authors are VERY unsuited to marketing (see my post on The Introvert Paradox). Also, the marketing profession itself recognises that only about 10% of marketing will be effective.

So what do authors think of this push? Personally, I hate it. As with many authors, I have a family and a life, as well as a job that pays the bill. Which means I barely get enough time to write my fiction. Add to that the expectation that you will do significant amounts of marketing, and something has to give. Usually the writing.

Anyway, the results are pretty clear – between a quarter and a third of authors hate marketing. Many do it because they have to and some feel fairly neutral about it. Very few enjoy it or love it. So authors are now in the position of having to do something they don’t enjoy, that takes away from their time to write. At the same time, they’re expected to churn out books faster and faster. The question (which I am not going to answer here) is what impact does this have on the lives of authors, and on the quality of the books published?

In my final post about misadventures in marketing, I will reveal which marketing approaches authors find most effective, and their tips and hints about marketing.


Misadventures in Marketing – Part 1

Misadventures in Marketing – Part 1

Since I was first published in June 2017 I have run the gamut of the book marketing industry. Like most newbie authors, I was extremely excited that my book was out in the world, where people could read it. Over time I began to realise it was extremely hard to get ANY attention as a new author. I tried a wide range of strategies to get my book noticed, as shown by the image below.

Running into the marketing maze was a bewildering experience. There were copious online services offering THE right strategy, or exposure, or multiple new followers. I signed up to whatever I could afford. I soon discovered that although a lot of marketing services make huge promises, it is a lot of work and money, for few results.  And when I thought about it, I HATE being marketed to. A quick survey of others revealed I’m not the only one.

Hamster writer

I started to read a lot of articles about algorithms and Amazon and marketing spin. These gave a consistent picture – the system is stacked so Amazon wins. Whenever I had the opportunity, I also spoke to authors, librarians and bookstores. I started to get a different understanding than the rosy one marketing people give you. Behind the scenes a number of authors admitted their sales did not match the rosy picture presented publicly. Nothing added up. And I saw new authors running in the same hamster wheel, chasing the same dream of getting attention by paying for retweets and other social media-based marketing.

Conducting a survey

I decided I wanted to get more information. Maybe I could help others so they wouldn’t run down the same dead ends I had. So I put up a simple survey, and asked writers in various Facebook groups to contribute. I’m sharing the results in this post and in one (or two?) future posts.

But first the disclaimer. Fifty two authors responded to the survey, but seventeen of those completed the demographic information and didn’t go any further. This means only 35 completed it which is not enough to be statistically valid. Also, because I’m a poor writer with virtually no income, I couldn’t afford to upgrade to the ‘pro’ version of Survey Monkey, so it’s a pretty blunt tool. I couldn’t ask all the questions I wanted, and I couldn’t refine the data collection as I would have liked.

Also, I’m a creative, not a marketing person. The two are very different skill sets. I hate marketing. So some bias may creep in as I present the results. So, bearing all that in mind, take away from the results what you want.

Who completed the survey? Career stage

Established author (numerous books) – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Mid-list author (3-4 books) – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Emerging author (1-2 books) – 40.4% – 21 respondents
Aspiring author (not published yet) – 25% – 13 respondents

What is their publishing status?

International corporate publisher (eg Hachette, Penguin etc.) – 13.5% – 7 respondents
Established independent publisher (eg Text, Scribe etc.) – 7.7% – 4 respondents
Small press publisher (eg Odyssey, Clan Destine etc.) – 32.7% – 17 respondents
Publisher requiring author contribution to costs – 5.8% – 3 respondents
Self-published – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Not published yet – 23% – 12 respondents

Who is in charge of marketing your books? – by author type

Responses to this question were via a sliding scale, where the author could choose 0 (all the author’s responsibility) all the way to 100 (all the publisher’s responsibility).  In graphing this, I have divided the responses up by quartiles, so the blue block represents an answer of 0-25, the red 26-50 (where the author is mostly responsible but the publisher contributes more) and so on. I’ve left off self-published authors for this graph. The more established the author, the more the publisher takes on some of the marketing. The average was 27 – that is, most of the time, the author carries most of the responsibility. This isn’t hugely surprising in a neoliberal economy where everything is outsourced to shift costs away from the producer (publisher).

Who is in charge of marketing your books? – by publisher type

Using the same data (ie the sliding scale from 0-100) I looked at the impact of publisher type. A similar pattern emerges – the larger/more established the publisher, the more they take on a percentage of the marketing. Anecdotally I’ve been told that there are still hierarchies within the big presses – if you are a ‘name’ author the publisher will do more marketing whereas if you’re newly signed with them you have to do a lot of it yourself. This isn’t surprising (follow the money…) but it is frustrating across the board, as the more established you are, the less you need the exposure, while the newer you are, the more exposure you need. It’s a Catch 22.

More next week…

I’ll come back to this topic next week, when I’ll look at how much time authors spend writing versus marketing, and what their attitudes to marketing are. It’s time for me to get some writing done.

Finding the humour in living with a tumour

Finding the humour in living with a tumour

Last year I interviewed an author every month. For 2019 I’ve decided to shift my focus from writers to artists for a bit of a change of scene. Today I’m excited to introduce Jai, whose weekly comics offer insight into living with a brain tumour. With plenty of humour as well as fantastic illustrations, Jai’s work is definitely worth following.  (I’ll put links below to the usual social media.) Jai is unable to work, and his tumour is unable to be completely removed, which means future medical issues are not a question of if, but when. So if you enjoy his comics, please consider supporting him on Patreon:

I’ll let Jai introduce himself:

Do you like cancer? Do you like comics? If you answered yes to both of these then I’m a little worried about you. I’m Jai and I have a brain tumour! Most of the time I’m healthy and happy, but I’ve fought my cancer off twice now with various combinations of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy. My tumour can never be fully removed (with current science anyway) so round three is coming but I don’t know when. To deal with all this I began creating the webcomic Tumour Humour. Through this comic I try to shine a light on some of the experiences many will never have the displeasure to encounter. 

Tell us about your art – what does it involve?

Meet Crowley, Jai’s tumour.

I predominately write and draw comics inspired by personal experience, mostly about my brain tumour.

What are you aiming to achieve with the art you create?

I want to spread awareness about what it’s like dealing with cancer and give people the opportunity to laugh in the face of such a horrible thing.

What is the role of art in your life? 

The comics specifically have been a huge cathartic release for me. To demystify tumours and cancer not only for others but myself also. Due to the ongoing side effects after having chemo and radiotherapy I am unable to work so art has filled up a lot of my life.

How have you come to be doing what you are doing – the particular approach/style you use?

I almost exclusively work in the digital realm. I love the way I can always edit my mistakes and produce effects I could never do with traditional media. I have always loved using solid lines to depict my subjects (despite art school trying to steer me away from this) and enjoy Japanese ukioe prints as well as a lot of illustrative art. Making comics is the perfect outlet for emulating these styles.

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If cancer has impacted your life please consider supporting Jai’s artwork. You can find his website here, his Facebook page here, and his Instagram account here.

Some of the best philosophers are bears: Introducing Mawson Bear

Some of the best philosophers are bears: Introducing Mawson Bear

Mawson Bear, author

Today I have an extra special Christmas treat as I welcome Mawson Bear to my website. Mawson is a shy and retiring bear of generous proportions, with a fancy for dapper bow ties. Ever since he can remember, he’s loved to sit atop a cushion and ponder about this often baffling world. Friends approach him about their own dilemmas. They seek instant answers that will make everything all right. Mawson does his best but he often just falls asleep and wakes as baffled as ever. But he’s always confident, down in his innermost stuffing, that the world is a bright place to be. Mawson likes to share his ponders by plonking them into little books for others to enjoy.

Mawson is the proud author of It’s a bright world to feel lost in, published by Publisher Obscura. This is a beautiful philosophical book in the vein of The blue day book by Bradley Trevor Grieve. It is the perfect sort of book to buy as a stocking stuffer or Kris Kringle for someone who likes to muse about life, and who hasn’t lost their sense of whimsy. Mawson has another book coming out very soon, She ran away from love

 Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

When young I devoured books by many authors but when it comes to the magic they brought me, I will list those by C.S Lewis (Narnia), Issac Asimov (Sci Fi), and Rosemary Sutcliffe (historical fiction).

Like most readers, what I sought was to be transported from this world.  With these writers I could be in Norman England winning back a castle during a school break, in the woods of Narnia on a rainy Sunday, or fleeing rogue robots during a long car ride.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

A life is a story.  We wonder about our personal stories all the time: ‘What if I had been born in Carthage, or had gone to a school for wizards, or could be a colonist of Mars? What if I had stood up to that bully, stepped through the back of that Wardrobe, been kidnapped by pirates, chosen another lover?’ Many of us, having re-read our own pages up to now, then strive to change – re-write – our future chapters. But still we keep wondering: is this the best we can do? The stories we absorb from other people fascinate us. They entertain and enthral us as we learn in a safe way about the consequences and circumstances of the choices made by other people, real and fictional. Stories reassure most of us, I think, that after all has been said and done, our personal modest lives are really just fine. Being fragile creatures though, and constantly craving reassurance, we turn back again and again to the power of stories.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

Shyly he says, ‘I listen to the bears’.

Poets, actors, composers, painters, ‘artistic people’, all speak reluctantly about the heart of creativity. They proffer vague expressions like ‘feeling inspired’, ‘being guided’, ‘trusting the muse’, ‘entering into the role’. What does this mean? I think it’s about listening for ‘something’. Now, this ‘something’ cannot not be analysed or modelled on a flow chart. It’s very shy, and it needs to trust you to respect it. I think the greatest magical power of a writer is to gently –don’t startle it –gently reach out for this ‘something’, gain it’s trust; and then to let characters and story flow on from there.

I listen to my bears. I never know when I’ll hear in a voice as quiet as can be imagined the best ponders framed in the best words; and these are ideas and words that I myself did not have in mind, really I didn’t. When I don’t listen but just grind on, my writing is not right: the voice feels wrong, the images don’t flow, and it is not satisfying.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

Naturally my bear Mawson’s esteemed peers and forebears come to mind: Pooh, Paddington, Calvin’s tiger Hobbes.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Long ago, I wanted to take the sort of advice that can be found in the Self-Esteem and Motivation style of books, which I read but often found to be a bit too earnest, even precious, and to present the ideas I thought most helpful as light hearted axioms with pictures. This plan did not get far. Instead the ‘something’ I am listening to keeps taking me back back to the sad times that every bear (or person) sits through. In their different ways, each of my bears becomes convinced that their particular shape and stuffing and being-ness is not enough. They seek and quest for some other way to Be One’s Best.

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To purchase a copy of Mawson’s gentle ponderings, or get news about upcoming books, the best place to start is his website, here. Mawson’s book will delight you.

Stories of myth and magic: An interview with Kate Forsyth

Stories of myth and magic: An interview with Kate Forsyth

My very special guest today is Kate Forsyth, named one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists. Kate is the author of 40 books for adults and children. Her most recent works re-imagine loved fairy tales. The Beast’s Garden sets Beauty and the Beast in Nazi Germany. Beauty in Thorns takes Sleeping Beauty into the world of the pre-Raphaelites. But writing is only the beginning. Kate is a storyteller and runs magical writing retreats in the Cotswalds, England. She also co-hosts Word of Mouth TV, a Youtube show that combines food, books and wine.

Kate’s writing is always beautiful and magical so I was excited to see how she would answer my questions. For insight into Kate’s magic, read on…

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

What a lovely question. I would like to think that my stories cast a spell over the reader, enchanting them and allowing them to see the world with a renewed sense of wonder. And, I hope, my books teach the reader something they never knew before.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

So many writers! As a child, I loved Enid Blyton, C S Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Aiken, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Nicholas Stuart Grey, Eleanor Farjeon … as I grew older I discovered the Bronte sisters and Joan Austen and Mary Webb, and writers like Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. I read a lot of fantasy and historical fiction, and began to read books about myths and fairy tales by authors like Marina Warner and Clarissa Estola Pinkes.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Stories and storytelling are an essential element of what it means to be human. We tell stories to amuse and entertain, to affect and explain, to connect and share. Stories help us make sense of the world, and  pass on universal lessons and wisdom.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

For me, ‘Rapunzel’ was always the tale that most haunted my imagination, probably because it resonated with my own personal story so much (I spent a lot of time locked away in a hospital ward as a child due to an accident when I was a baby). I also love the Persephone myth and its fairy-tale child, Sleeping Beauty, and the story of Psyche, which transformed itself into ‘Beauty and the Beast,’  and the story of ‘Six Swans’.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and healing, terror and bravery, cruelty and kindness, betrayal and love …

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To discover more, visit Kate’s website here.   Word of Mouth TV  can be found here.

Weaving story: an interview with Lauren Chater

Weaving story: an interview with Lauren Chater

Each lace shawl begins and ends the same way – with a circle. Everything is connected with a thread as fine as gossamer, each life affected by what has come before it and what will come after. 

I first met Lauren Chater in 2015 at the Historical Novel Society of Australasia inaugural conference. She had entered their ‘First Pages’ contest, and I read out a portion of her debut novel, The Lace Weaver, to a very appreciative audience. Lauren went on to win the contest and this year The Lace Weaver was published by Simon and Schuster.  It has been described as heartbreaking and poignant. You can read more about Lauren and her books at her author website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

It probably comes as no surprise that I was a massive book nerd when I was a child. Some of my best and earliest memories are of hanging out in the school library or being snuggled up in bed, reading books by Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I should probably thank my parents for my insatiable love of reading; they clearly passed their passion for stories down to me and to this day, we still swap books and discuss our favourite reads whenever we get together. Some of my favourite books were (and still are) The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, The Hobbit by Tolkien and The Little Grey Men by B.B. We read lots of Patricia Wrightson and Ruth Park in our house, too, because dad loved those authors. There’s a reason their work is so enduring; they are essentially stories that inform us about who we are and the choices we make. Kids don’t worry about ‘genre’ – they just love good storytelling. I think we would do well to remember that as adults!

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

I think people need stories for a variety of different reasons: to provide comfort, to help them confront their own prejudice, to expand their thinking, to escape reality. There’s no reason why a book should have to do all those things at once, though and I dislike books that are heavy-handed or force you to conform to a deliberate agenda. You should be able to read a book and disagree with what the author is suggesting. There are so many opinions and alternate views out there and the waters are increasingly muddied by our obsession with social media. A book is a quiet thing; it’s a space which says ‘Hey! Step inside and spend some time in this reality. Imagine if things were this way.’ It’s a liminal place, a safe haven where you can’t be instantly judged or shouted down. It gives you room to breathe and gather your thoughts. I think books and stories are more valuable than ever in this digital age.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

That’s a tricky question to answer because like most writers, I experience crippling self-doubt on a daily basis. I suppose if I have one magical power it’s to (hopefully) persuade my reader to investigate the place or time period I’m writing about. I hope my passion and enthusiasm for research translates through my work and that it inspires others to learn more.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

Best question ever. As a child, I was obsessed with fairy tales and I developed a weird obsession with Baba Yaga, the witch who flies about in a cauldron and lives in a house on chicken legs. She’s actually quite terrifying, but my sister and I used to pretend to be her and chase each other. I actually remember hunting my sister down in my imaginary cauldron (we were clearly strange children!) I recently heard the author Kate Forsyth talking about Baba Yaga and apparently she is not actually evil (in the Russian fairy tale, it’s the stepmother who is bad and ends up being punished in the end for her wickedness). Rather, Baba Yaga is neither good nor evil, but a catalyst for growth and change, a metaphor for the inevitability of losing ones’ innocence in the woods. I thought that was so interesting.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

With every book, I do seem to be trying to get at new ideas, which are very slippery and constantly elude me. I do think that I will keep writing about women, though. Women fascinate me; their capacity to band together to survive, their shared stories and knowledge passed down through generations, their resilience when faced with loss. Let’s be honest, we are the stronger sex, right (JOKING)? I like to challenge myself and there’s no greater feeling than when two seemingly unconnected ideas suddenly merge in some strange, serendipitous way. I call it The Funnel – you pour in the research and ideas, and words come out. That’s real magic.

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Lauren is not only a wonderful writer, but an extraordinarily talented cookie maker. Her blog, The Well-Read Cookie, is a delight (but be warned, salivation will ensue from even a short browse!). Her second book, Well Read Cookies, featuring some of her amazing cookie designs, will be released on 22 October 2018 and will fly off the shelves like… well, like cookies, so make sure you pre-order you copy soon! And if you can’t get enough of cookie goodness, make sure you follow her on Instagram.

A journey into history with Wendy J. Dunn

A journey into history with Wendy J. Dunn

A very special blog post today as I interview historical fiction writer, dear friend and mentor-extraordinaire, Wendy Dunn. Wendy has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction; The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds, the first book in a series about Catalina (Catherine) of Aragon. To read more about Wendy and her books, click here to visit her website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

I fell in love with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series when I was a child of ten. I was one of those children who lived in hope of finding a wardrobe that would take me into a world with fauns, talking animals, centaurs, flying horses, wicked witches, giants – a world where tree spirits danced on moonlit nights. These books showed me how we can escape and experience other worlds through the power of good storytelling.

Rosemary Sutcliff started my passion for historical fiction. Her world building is superb and powerfully take you back in time. But more important than that – her stories speak eloquently about what is to be human and leave the reader with a sense of hope. In dark, despairing moments, when I need comfort, her books are still high amongst my ‘go to’ books.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Stories are part of our DNA, our human experience. Stories teach us that we are not alone. Stories give us a universal language– and have the power of taking us from the chaos of life to a life where we can find meaning. Stories also open the door to the experiences of others and build those important bridges where we can meet one another, learn from one another and return with a deeper sense of empathy.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I persevere. By not giving up in this long writing journey of mine, I have discovered, as a writer, the truth of the saying, ‘Perseverance Furthers’.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

Demeter. From childhood, I have always found something to mother, and I know the power of a mother’s love; my four adult children are the core of my existence. The Demeter’s myth speaks powerfully of a mother’s love and the grief of losing a child, and how a mother would do anything for the return of their child, so that child is safe in their arms again.

When I was writing The Light in the Labyrinth, this myth was very much on my mind. I saw Kate Carey, my main character, as being Persephone, who becomes entrapped in the Hades of the Tudor court. But it was her time there which led her back to her mother as a wiser and empathetic young woman.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Letting go, breaking the circle of the past, the sorrow of unrequited love, the power of forgiveness and the search for identity. Completing my PhD in 2014 also opened my eyes to the fact that my works can be explicated through Feminist Standpoint Theory.

The Light in the Labyrinth was my PhD artefact. Writing that work changed me. As a mother of three sons, I hesitated to call myself a feminist because I did not really understand what the feminist movement was all about. I now understand the feminist movement is all about women and men walking side by side as equals.

By the time I finished my young adult novel, I not only confronted again the societal space I occupy as a woman and the reality of how women’s power is something both given and taken away by patriarchy, but also the simple fact that we all need to be feminists. Our world will not be healed until that happens. This is the beating heart of why I write. I write from my experience as a woman about the experiences of women of the past in hope of empowering women today.

Wendy Dunn is a gifted writer whose work portrays the lives of well-loved historical characters through story telling that resonates with powerful emotions. To read more go to

Commedia 101: An introduction to improvised theatre

Commedia 101: An introduction to improvised theatre

Recently I was interviewed by a high school student who is studying the Commedia dell’Arte about how I have used this form of improvised theatre in my book. His questions were really astute and they got me thinking. I thought I’d follow up by putting my answers online. But I should probably start with my background in improvised acting.

Theatre sports and murder (or ‘theatre sports is murder’?)

Playing Madame Anastasia, a mysterious psychic.

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, I was part of a university theatre sports team. We called ourselves The Famous Five. Each of us took on the identity of one of Enid Blyton’s popular characters. I was George, the tomboy. Since theatre sports teams only have four members, Timmy the dog was actually a stuffed toy that I dragged around behind me on a lead. If I needed to dive into an active piece of improvised madness, I would drop the lead and say ‘sit’. Timmy always obeyed, and it invariably got a laugh. We were very fortunate to train with Belvoir Street Theatre, who had brought theatre sports to Australia. Eventually we ended up competing in the intervarsity competitions. Unfortunately we didn’t win. I think it’s because Timmy froze under pressure.

A few years later, in Melbourne, I did training in theatre games. These games, invented by Viola Spolin, have a set structure, but the content is left open to the inventiveness or lunacy of the actors. It was Spolin’s games that were adapted to create competitive theatre sports.

Improvisation is very much like a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get. As someone with chronic social anxiety, I was never going to be great at it, but because I’m very imaginative I could pull some interesting ideas out now and then. Part of the appeal was being able to take on characters very different to myself.

Fly forward more years, and I’m in the cast of Murder on the Puffing Billy Express. This is an improvised dinner murder mystery that is still running today. Performed on the Puffing Billy steam train in the Dandenong Ranges, it remains very popular. (Click here for more details.) I did this for five years. The scenario involved a 1920s party, with everyone on the train as partygoers. The entree was murder, then dinner included a lavish serving of clues. After dessert the audience would (hopefully) be in a position to solve the mystery. Character was key to the improvisation. We never knew what the audience might throw at us, but we knew how our character would act.

Writing about improvised theatre

What my improvisation experiences and the Commedia dell’Arte had in common was the use of structure. In theatre games this took the form of rules. For example, in ‘Death in a Minute’ a character must die at the end of the minute, funnily enough. For Murder on Puffing Billy it was defined characters and a general shape around what information needed to be introduced when. In the case of the Commedia, the structure comes from defined scenarios. In Harlequin’s Riddle the scenarios are given to the actors before they perform. Mina, my protaganist, has to learn these story outlines because they give the general shape of the performance. Within that shape she and the other actors can add speeches and physical action.  Mina’s discovery about where these story outlines have come from is a key plot point in the first book. In the real Commedia things are rather more mundane.

How scenarios worked

The Commedia has one-act and three-act performances. Whether short or long, scenes contain a proposition, then development, and finally a solution. One act scenes focus on a single theme. Usually this is love, money or vengeance. Longer performances are more complex. In my novels, to clearly distinguish between shorter and longer types, I use the name canovaccio for a one-act scene, and scenario for a longer one.

A plot summary is pinned up backstage so the actors can remember what to do. Basically this is ‘who does what when’. It contains an outline of scene content, the characters in that scene, the actions they do, and some hints for dialogue. For longer performances, there is a list of all the scenes. When the actors onstage change, that indicates a new scene to the audience.

Do we have records of scenarios?

As John Rudlin notes in his actor’s guide to the Commedia, it is very difficult to notate improvisation. I doubt anyone could have come away from one of our Murder performances and created a detailed account of the events of the evening. There are written reports of Commedia performances, such as one by Massimo Trojano from 1568. But any oral tradition loses something in the writing. And what had meaning at that time may not translate to a modern audience without the cultural and historical context. On a recent visit to Japan I learned that the tea ceremony that geisha perform has many levels of meaning attached to it. But anyone not raised on Japanese folk stories will not recognise the clues that hint at the secret meanings.

In the Commedia, a similar example is that characters are based on regional stereotypes. Anyone not raised in Italy is like to miss the nuances of this. Another reason why we don’t have clear records of scenarios is that many Commedia troupes were families who kept their performance techniques as closely guarded professional secrets.

What this meant in writing Commedia scenes in my book was that I used the same technique I had used as a performer. I improvised! I would identify characters and plots, then let the scenes shape themselves on the page. There was an added complication in that sometimes I wanted the scenes to hint at or reflect what was happening in the story. But essentially I allowed myself the freedom to let these scenes take on their own life. Perhaps if I had written these scenes on a different day they would have looked very different.

Dancing with Death: an interview with Shelley Russell Nolan

Dancing with Death: an interview with Shelley Russell Nolan

Shelley Russell Nolan

If you like gothic urban fantasy you’re going to want to meet Shelley Russell Nolan, who began writing at sixteen and has always had an original take on storytelling. Her first completed manuscript featured brain eating aliens and a butt kicking teenage heroine. Since then she has spent her time creating fantasy worlds where death is only the beginning and even freaks can fall in love. The heroine of her Reaper series is Tyler Morgan, a young woman for whom life has definitely become a lot more complicated since she was murdered. Shelley answers my questions today.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

I always loved reading, but it was when I discovered books by David Eddings and Anne McCaffrey in the school library that I lost myself in the magic of storytelling. Up until then I had been reading contemporary teen stories so to discover such rich and imaginative worlds filled with magic and dragons and evil gods was a revelation. I devoured the science fiction and fantasy books in the school library and then branched out to the town library, immersing myself in the stories and imagining the adventures I might have if I were to fall into one of my favourite books. It was a natural progression from there to writing my own stories.

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

For many it is a form of escapism, a way to shut out the stresses and rigours of the real world for a while. But it is also a way to experience a different way of life, and I believe it helps the reader to become more aware and tolerant of other people and their cultures. Through a book the reader can become intimately connected to characters far removed from their lived experience. Not just to be a magic wielding youngster or dragon tamer, but to feel what it is like to be a member of the opposite sex or a different culture. To see how what one character does adversely or proactively affects another. Stories open us up to a myriad of worlds and experiences, without us having to set foot outside the house.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

Being able to create a story that resonates with readers, a chance to make them care about characters as if there were real, to give them a visceral experience that lingers long after the last page has been read.

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

My favourite would have to be the sudden discovery of magical powers. I love seeing how supposedly ordinary characters with flaws find themselves with an unexplainable power and have to deal with the consequences. I’m sure it comes from my wishing as a teen (and adult, to be honest) that I suddenly manifested a magical ability. It brings in the whole idea of what would you do with it, what happens if something goes wrong, and how would others treat you if they found out what you could do.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

Many of my stories deal with resurrection, with a main character who dies and is brought back to life. I have often wondered if that was evidence of a fascination with the idea of life after death. But when I sat down to really think about it I realised it was more about giving the character a second chance, which is a recurring theme in most of my stories. Death and resurrection is an extreme version of the second chance theme, but at the heart of it is a character given a chance to make a difference, to become a better version of themselves, to right wrongs and overcome their flaws. For me, my stories are about exploring what might happen if the main character is forced into a position where they must change in order to become the kind of character my readers and I will fall in love with.

If you’d like to meet death face-to-face, head over to Shelley’s website and immerse yourself in the Reaper series.