A Conversation with Jean Bedford and the ghost of Kate Kelly


I’ve always been equal parts curious and enchanted by the mythology around Australia’s bushrangers. As a child, I was particularly enthralled with the story of Ned Kelly and his family and on a family holiday visited a highly surreal reconstruction of the Siege of Glenrowan with robotic-type figures and sound effects to make the siege real. Jean Bedford published Sister Kate in 1982 and has recently been published as an e-book for the first time. Jean kindly had a chat to me about Kate, her family and the power of the story upon her own and the national psyche.


Sister Kate tells story of Kate Kelly and how her life unravelled after the siege of Glenrowan, where her brother Ned was captured, her brother Dan was killed and her lover, Joe Byrne was shot dead, his body exhibited for photographers.

What sparked your interest in Kate Kelly?

I’d been reading an American book, Desperadoes, by Ron Hansen, which was about the Dalton gang, and I was thinking that so few of our Australian legends had been revisited from a modern consciousness. That got me thinking about the Kelly story, and how interesting it would be to retell it from a female point of view. At first I thought I would do it from Maggie Kelly’s perspective, but as I did more research I realised her story didn’t fit with my own interests – obsession and tragedy – but Kate’s did.

Is the affair portrayed between Joe Byrne and Kate Kelly based on a fact? What sort of research did you do?

The affair is fictitious. As far as I can tell Joe was just a family friend, but I needed a reason (apart from two dead brothers!) for her tragic decline and the photograph of Joe, dead, propped up by the wall, gave me the idea.

I did a lot of research – primary from the archives at the Latrobe Library, Melbourne, and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, as well as the archives at the Old Pentridge Jail; and secondary from newspapers and other books written about the Kellys.

There are echoes of the Cathy/Heathcliff love story in the haunting of Kate by Joe, was this a conscious decision?

Ah – that’s an interesting question. No, not conscious at all. But I’m more than happy to accept it – Wuthering Heights is one of the finest novels in the language, in my opinion.

Sister Kate was the first of a spate of Kelly Gang novels, including Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine and Peter Carey’s A True History of the Kelly Gang. What do you think it is about the mythic nature of the Kelly Gang that spurs such interest?

Australians have a (largely false) idea of themselves as being anarchic and for the underdog. Ned’s story – the oppression of the squatters and by the police, the strong, brave, charismatic boy who was a fine boxer etc, and who could have been something special if he hadn’t been brought down is potent stuff. I think most of us think he was unfairly treated, and that although he certainly committed murder at Stringybark Creek, he was more sinned against than sinning. He was also an enigmatic man – self-educated, the paterfamilias after his father died, apparently a socialist dreamer and all that. Enigmas always attract interest.

I also have an interest in that period of the Selection Acts, when I think working-class Australians were given an extremely raw deal. But my main interest was in retrieving the women’s stories from the tale of male derring-do. What were the women doing while the blokes were racing around on horses and waving guns? How did they cope?

Joe Byrne himself wrote bush ballads in promotion of the Gang, eg – do you see Kate Kelly as being a continuation of this balladeering?

No, not really. Kate did participate in shows about the Kellys after Ned’s death but I chose to see this as desperation.

Kate Kelly was an unofficial member of the Kelly Gang, as was her sister Maggie, her exploits (of riding to lookout, keeping watch, running food and ammunition) have been mostly erased from the popular mind. Why do you think this is so?

Because most of our history (still) concentrates on the men involved.

To me the Fitzpatrick affair (where Constable Fitzpatrick assaulted Kate Kelly and led to family members coming to her defence –  including Mrs Kelly and her baby being incarcerated for hard labour) was a pivotal moment – what do you think really happened?

I suspect someone did shoot at Fitzpatrick, and that he deserved it. But yes, it was a turning point. It branded the Kellys as criminals and the police as only wanting a convenient public story.

The Kelly descendants are vocally proud of their association with their family’s history? What was their response to the book and in particular her drug and alcoholism as well as the events surrounding her death (rumour has it she was rescuing an aboriginal child swept into the river’s flood waters).

I couldn’t find any Kelly descendants at the time who would talk or who were proud of their association – rather the reverse. Perhaps things have changed in the last thirty years. I heard that rumour but chose not to use it, as it was not backed up at all. There was also an empty gin bottle at the scene, according to the inquest, and she had deliberately left her children with a neighbour, with money, and a message for their father.

Kate Kelly apparently pled for her brother’s life on her knees in front of the Governor of Victoria at the time, raised legal fees for Ned’s defence and joined the Abolition of Capital Punishment organisation which campaigned for a reprieve of the death sentence for Ned. How did you decide on which historical facts to include or reject?

I chose those facts that fitted the story I wanted to tell. I discarded some assumed ‘facts’ – like Kate having had an affair with Fitzpatrick – because I found no evidence to back them up, and because they didn’t fit the character I was creating, and I used some others that suited me. I didn’t distort any facts that were verifiable, except that I made up the love affair between Kate and Joe Byrne.


There are two particularly famous images in your book, one the cover of the 1987 edition, the famous painting by Nolan of Kate Kelly and Fitzpatrick, the other of Joe Byrne after Glenrowan – how were these pivotal in your writing the book?

The Nolan cover was the publisher’s choice, but I do think the whole Nolan Kelly series was in my mind during the writing. I was pleased with the cover, because Kate seems to be trying to escape Fitzpatrick’s embrace. The image of the dead Joe after Glenrowan was crucial – it steered my whole imagining of him being Kate’s lover and its tragic ending.


Sister Kate has recently been republished as an ebook: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UWBMHQW

Painting of Kate Kelly by Gria Shead

Painting of Constable Fitzpatrick and Kate Kelly by Sydney Nolan

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Tell a Secret, Keep a Secret – A Conversation with Jill Dawson.

Jill Dawson is a author of eight novels including Fred and Edie, The Great Lover, Lucky Bunny. Tell-Tale Heart published 2014.

The first time Jill Dawson showed up on my reading radar was with her novel Fred and Edie in 2000 (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year and the Orange Prize and long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC award.) Since then I have loved reading what Jill writes – her writing is beautiful, evocative, tender.

 The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of Patrick, a fifty-year-old professor of American Studies, drinker and womaniser, has been given six months to live. In a rural part of Cambridgeshire, a teenager dies in a motorcycle accident. When his heart is transplanted into Patrick’s chest, two strangers are forever conjoined. Patrick makes a good recovery, but has the strange feeling that his old life ‘won’t have him’. Discovering that his donor was a local boy named Drew Beamish, he becomes intensely curious about Drew and what shaped him, from the ancestor involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 to the bleak beauty of the Fens. Patrick longs to know the story of his heart.



Tell me a little bit about where you got the first glimmer for Tell-Tale Heart?

I watched a documentary about a woman who wanted to meet the man who had received her dead son’s donated heart. Of course, she asked him if she could listen to her son’s heart beating in his chest. It was such an extraordinary moment, so moving, and such an astonishing mixture of modern science and mystery….I knew I wanted to write about it (and that scene is in the novel).

In the Tell-Tale Heart there are several moments where time ceases and the ghosts of the past seem to invade the present. Have you experienced any supernatural occurrences while writing or is that just the imagination at play? 

All my work has time slips where the past (and sometimes the future) appear in the present.  In The Great Lover it’s when Rupert Brooke first kisses Nell and the ghost of her father moves between them. In Watch Me Disappear the fourteen year old Tina is rescued by the appearance of her forty-year old self.  In Lucky Bunny Queenie shudders as she passes the house as a little girl that she is going to live in as a grown up.  To me (and this might take some explaining if I’m not to sound mad!) these are quite ordinary occurrences….little rents in the curtain of reality that normally prevails….that’s how it feels to me. Not quite ghosts but more imaginative and emotional shifts where a glimpse of the future or past is very strong. I’m surprised reviewers don’t notice more of these ‘supernatural’ occurrences or time slips in my novels (in the Tell Tale Heart Willie Beamish also sees the future, sees Drew on a motorbike two hundred years away) but they are just embedded in the ordinary, I suppose, and not always that noticeable, which is how I experience them.

Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process? 

Aha!  I don’t write every day and I hate it when writers say you have to, to be a ‘real writer’. I had a child at 26 and another at 39 and then at 50 suddenly an unexpected but much loved adopted daughter…so, my domestic life has always been a little complicated and routines have been hard to find. Plus I’ve supported myself financially since the age of 21 by writing and teaching so there is earning my living to factor in, too. I have days that I block out for writing and I’m very intense on those days and can get a lot done – 2000 words or more.  But of course it needs rewriting later. I touch type pretty fast. I often write listening to music, and I need a certain rather concentrated emotional state to write well.

What is your favourite place to write?

I have a lovely study in the top of the house with views to Ely cathedral and a comfortable sofa for sleeping on. My husband designed this house (he’s an architect, Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects) and it won a lot of awards. It’s a gorgeous place to work. But I wrote my first five novels in the bedroom of the council flat/squat I lived in, so…I have written under very different circumstances.  I tell my writing students not to fantasise about the perfect study but to start today, in the kitchen if need be, as Tillie Olsen (American author of Silences), did.

Are you pen and paper or computer – what tools are essential to your writing? 

Computer. Typing is much more in tune with the rhythm of my thoughts. But in between times I also write in my diary longhand. And if stuck I ring up my novelist friend Kathryn Heyman for a brilliant, inspiring chat!

Hemmingway apparently considered 400 words a day a good writing day. What constitutes a good writing day for you? 

I think a good day is a lot of words – about 2000 as I said above. But I also have valuable ‘thinking’ days and these should not be under-estimated in importance!  I tell my family defensively that I might appear to be doing nothing, or just going swimming, or eating Percy Pigs (gummy pig-shaped sweets from Marks and Spencer, I’m addicted to them)…but the novel might be forming, just under the surface, and I’m thinking about it.  Essential stuff.

You said, The past is not past in recent podcast, that is indicative of your writing in many ways (Fred and Edie, The Wild Boy, Lover). What is it about the past that attracts you?

I live in the Cambridgeshire Fens and just glancing out of the window at the flattened fields in neat stripes of black and green (it’s drained land, that a few hundred years ago would have been under swampy water)…it’s impossible not to be aware of Faulkner’s quote that the ‘past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past’. And the Littleport Riots that I describe in the novel happening 200 years ago, well that took place in a village near to us ,where five people were hanged and many others deported to Botany Bay.  Black Horse Drove is a strange lonely place, and Littleport to me still has an atmosphere of depression.  When you talk to people you realise at once that neighbours haven’t forgotten the betrayals, which families lost sons, which families escaped justice.



As a child what were the books that captured your imagination? 

I loved spooky stuff. My first attempt at a novel by a teenager was about kids and a Ouija board.  I remember reading Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and novels with American settings and landscapes were very appealing too, as well as the usual Enid Blyton and Anne of Green Gables, that sort of thing, with a strong moral undertone that my mother probably hoped would straighten me out.

What three books do you feel have influenced your writing?

Wow, that’s a hard one. I do love Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles and reading that at sixteen made me want to write. As a young woman it was the brilliant Sula by Toni Morrison and   Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.

What sort of writing excites you?

The trick of the best novels is to tell a secret and keep a secret at the same time.

If you could spend a day with any character from a novel, who would you choose to meet?

I think someone adventurous like Huck Finn would be good fun. Or a naughty wench like Moll Flanders.

What are you working on now?

I’m just about to deliver a novel called The Crime Writer to my publisher (Sceptre), set in Suffolk in the 60s and about the novelist Patricia Highsmith – author of The Talented Mr Ripley ,Strangers on a Train, and Carol.  I’m deeply immersed in Highsmith’s novels (there are 22 of them) which I’m busily re-reading.  It should be out in 2016.


To find out more about Jill Dawson and her work, her website is http://www.jilldawson.co.uk



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A Conversation with Edward Carey

Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist and playwright. He has written and produced several plays. His debut novel OBSERVATORY MANSIONS (with author’s illustrations) is sold in 14 countries and was described by John Fowles as ‘proving the potential brilliance of the novel form’. Most recently he has written the first part of the Iremonger trilogy, Heap House. Thanks to Edward for this inspiring chat.



Since reading Heap House, I can’t get the objects out of my head and the splendid twist at the end. What was the genesis of your idea, was there an object with an ‘aura’ (as Walter Benjamin suggests) that got you thinking?


I was on a trip to China with a large group of writers and one of the places we went to was a museum, still being constructed, that was saving a lot of old objects from China’s past. What seemed so extraordinary to me was that the curators had sorted all the objects together. There was a room filled only with old bathtubs, another with scissors I think, another with doors I seemed to remember. To me they looked like members of the same family, who grouped on mass like that, seemed deep in conversation with one another. I think that was one of the flints for me, that and seeing the heart breaking objects left by mothers’ delivering their babies to the Foundling Hospital in London. A thimble there can quite break your heart. I’ve also always wanted to write about Victorian London, it seems such a cruel, fascinating, filthy place, where the morals of the rich indulge in ‘telescopic philanthropy’ (that’s Dickens’ phrase). It’s a wonderful thing that Kingsley’s children’s book ‘The Water Babies’ helped the 1864 Chimney Sweepers’ Act pass through, protecting children from hideous employment. Also, the Victorians were obsessed with objects, and how fascinating and ridiculous so many of them are: the moustache cup, the doily, all that dark heavy wallpaper, those bonnets! It seems to me, thinking of those pictures of Victorian middle class homes quite crammed in with unattractive objects that the objects themselves want to speak to us, are desperate to break free, they seem to me often to have more life than the very serious paterfamiliases staring out at us.


Virginia Woolf famously had a crystal green pear on her desk, do you have any special things you keep on your desk?


I’ve got a small bronze sculpture of Caliban from ‘The Tempest’. It might be by Mervyn Peake, but most likely it’s not. Whoever made it,       I love it.


Do you harbour any creative superstitions?


Not really.


When I read Heap House, I was reminded a lot of Dickens’ Golden Dustman, Nicodemus Boffin and his splendid dust heap that he combs for reward. Is Dickens an influence?


A huge influence. Dickens’ language is so wonderful, his sense of humour, the breadth of his vision, how much he cares for his society. His huge urban fairy tales are endlessly exciting, but the power of his prose, the joy of repetition in his sentences, the rhythm of them, the dialogue, it’s all second to none. One of the most stirring things my young mind ever heard was a teacher reading out the first chapter of Bleak House, it’s hard to think of prose ever being better or more exhilarating. It’s begging to be read aloud, you can see why Dickens’ public reading contributed to his early death. Of course there’s sentimentality, of course there are many terribly two dimensional young women, of course there are absurd coincidences, but all those crumble to nothing next to the brilliance of characters like Miss Haversham, Mr Micawber, Magwitch, Boffin, Smallweed, Betsy Trotwood, Pecksniff, Mr Panks, Bradley Headstone, Wiliam Dorrit…I’m just getting started. Dickens indelibly conjures characters in a single sentence, for example here’s someone from Bleak House, ‘Mr Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system.’ It’s getting cold, even here in Texas where I live these days, time to get out the Dickens again.

I think also, one of the greatest things about Dickens is that he proves you can exaggerate wildly and still be believable.


I’m with you on Dickens, I’ve not read all – but I do love that illusion he creates – these complex tales of co-incidence, mixed with social justice and vivid character, mixed with his authorial peering past to talk to the reader, now. What is it about Victorian London that captures your imagination?


Henry Mayhew’s extraordinary book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ is filled with interviews of London workers and vagrants, downtrodden, determined, inspiring lives of people who would otherwise never have been heard. Mayhew’s book makes the Victorian city live again, there are opinions from doll’s eye makers, mousetrap makers, rat catchers, Punch and Judy men, mudlarks, sellers of nutmeg graters…they are all extraordinary accounts, and they are all true and very idiosyncratic, some of the characters you encounter make you think that perhaps Dickens didn’t exaggerate at all. Victorian London was London and the British Empire at their height, it’s a huge, impossible huge, machine. Thousands of people must have been lost in it, it’s a terrifying playground, always deep in fog and mud. It’s a place that is endlessly rich for fiction.


I’m a huge fan of Mayhew’s book as well – the passionate gathering of the first hand accounts of people that history has almost forgotten. I can’t help but hope that the  original daguerreotypes show up one day. Perhaps in a dust heap somewhere. Which leads me to my next question – your illustrations are very daguerreotype-ish – what is it about early photography that captures your imagination?


Those illustrations of mine are indeed an attempt at daguerreotypes. I think what I find most arresting about them is the smudges of acid, and the scratches at this distance of time, as if the past is still trying to break through. I love the formality of them and the ghastly heavy Victorian objects surrounding the sitter, I love the fact that they don’t smile. I love the fact that there are many pictures of babies wedged between mother’s and nannies knees to keep them still for long enough. I love wandering into antiques stores and seeing them and wondering…who were you, you were someone, you were real what was your life like? I have an album of daguerreotypes of my family, and what a stiff lot they were, what I really love about these is that there’s some writing underneath each one explaining who they were, and in some case why they were not liked.






What is your writing/ illustration process like? What comes first for you, the text or the images?


A bit of both really. Often a drawing is what sets the whole thing off for me. I drew Clod Iremonger before I ever wrote about him. A moon faced child with dark circles under his eyes and a slightly oversized head. The rest grew gradually from that. As I write I draw my characters, it really helps me to understand them properly, and to have more ideas too. The drawings often disagree with the writing, and slowly I make them come to terms with each other. Mostly.


Do you have a favourite place to work or tools that you use?


Not really, I have a sort of office in the house where we live, it’s generally in an absolute heap, I’ve a few drawings by people I admire on the wall (that I love) I wouldn’t part with that wall for anything. Among the drawings I have is a late sketch that is (I think I can say certainly this time) by Mervyn Peake of a donkey drawn three different ways, it was a 40th birthday present from my wife, and I will keep by my writing desk always. (That and the little Caliban un unknown authorship.)


As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?


The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, because it haunted me so and stull haunts me today.

The Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo, because they inspired me to draw and made me laugh and because (when Goscinny was still alive) the writing was wonderfully nutty.

Men and Gods by Rex Warner, the book I had on Greek Myths, still wonderful!

Charmed Life by Dianne Wynne Jones, I loved this book so much and all her others, her young characters felt so real to me, not two dimensional, but difficult and itchy.


What three books do you feel have influenced your writing and illustration?


The Collected Fictions of Bruno Schulz

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

All three of these are books illustrated by their authors that I continually return to and keep inspiring me. Schulz, for me, is the most astonishing writer, intimate and painful, his sentences, his delicately constructed world, his sketches (that somehow survived the Holocaust, though a novel did not) are truly heartbreaking. I might add Leonora Carrington, Tove Jansen, William Blake and Kathleen Hale, but I’m only allowed three.


What can we look forward to with book 2 in the Iremonger Trilogy?


A lot more objects on the move, Clod discovering more powers, Lucy and her school friends, the whole town that neighbours the dirt heap. There are new characters and a lot of the old ones returning. The Iremonger family are growing ambitions towards London. Rubbish will not behave. Do not trust a thing.





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A conversation with Joel Stewart

From a very early age, I developed a taste for children’s books that has carried on into adulthood. To my they are magical little treasure boxes to be enjoyed by all ages. So it was with great pleasure that I was joined by the multi-talented Joel Stewart for a wee chat.

Joel is known internationally for his Dexter Blexley picture books as well as doing illustrations for Julia Donaldson, Carol Ann Duffy, Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll. In 2008 he was selected as one of the ten best illustrators of the last decade.





What is your writing/ illustration process like? What comes first for you, the text or the images?


I wish I had a consistent process. Drawing and writing stuff down whenever I can, with optimistic bursts of gathering stuff together into something that might be more than scribbles, is about the neatest description. I’m more or less re-learning how to be a picture book maker at the moment, having had my brain scrambled by making television for three and a half years. Long term I hope it’s a helpful scramble, but I do feel a bit like I’m starting from scratch, but maybe I’ll always feel like that (the fact that I always have is perhaps a clue).



Do you have a favourite place to work or tools that you use?


That’s hard because I’m just about to move house. I really need more space, but at the moment I have a view out over treetops and about fifteen messy but wild-ish north London gardens. There’s a lot of wildlife to watch and the buds are just appearing on the trees. The sight of the buds each year for the last three, especially when they glow out against the wet bark and lichen on the trunks and branches of the trees, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve tried to paint it quite a few times, with varying degrees of success. The main tree is a variegated Maple which is actually quite ugly when it’s finally in full leaf, so I’ll use that to make me feel better about leaving it. Also there’s a massive Chestnut that is, like many in the UK, in the process of dying from simultaneous fungal and insect attack (or that’s my conclusion from what I’ve read) so that’s sad to watch. The most hopeful time is the spring and I’ll be around for some of that.


Less romantically the tool is my computer most of the time. I paint things for myself and experiment with paper and real-world tools all the time, but the realities of illustration work are held at bay a little easier with a computer (last minute fixes, getting colour and consistency just so etc). I do enjoy the process of finding ways to work with the computer and am pretty seriously geeky about it. I’m not fond of a lot of work done on computers however, but I try to let that inform how I work with them.


Do you harbour any creative superstitions?


I don’t think so. It’s hard enough as it is! Maybe I could use some to get me going sometimes.



How long does a picture book idea take to write and illustrate?


It varies. An awful lot. From an ideal three months (which would have to involve no publisher or editorial input and therefore never happens) to a year or more. Much of it is waiting around, not so much for inspiration but usually for the realisation that something I already came up with is worth the legwork to make it into a real thing. Or for publishers to get back to me…



There are a lot of musical references in your work (ie Ukulele in the Wenlocks/ the bagpipes in the Blue Beastie, Toby Dog and his melodeon). Where did your love of music come from? Does music influence your writing/illustration  process?


It came from childhood I guess, my father plays traditional music of various kinds, and we have close family friends who do also and I heard probably a wider range of music from my mother’s record collection too. When I was quite young I was taken to a festival in central France which is a meeting place for makers of weird traditional instruments and I think that planted the seeds of an obsession (though I didn’t water it for a lot of years). Making instruments is something I could imagine doing other than making stories. 


I think my interest sometimes actually hinders my work process though, because I get distracted by learning and tinkering with instruments. I often can’t work while listening to music because I am too actively interested in how the music works. I’ve tried more soundscapey type music, but I can’t find much that I really like. I seem to remember that I was listening to a lot of Tin Hat Trio when writing the Stanley books. That was a good mixture of soundtrack-like music and things that kept me interested (also it’s too complex for me to be able to try learning it myself).



What are the highs/lows of being an illustrator/writer?


The general high-low process is a low. Over the years I’ve got used to the fact that I will more or less completely lose confidence in my work every few months, but this realisation only helps a little when I’m at the bottom of one those dips. It is sort of positive, because I think it’s born out of pushing myself forward. The high is drawing and losing myself in the making, and the fleeting feeling that something is going to turn out great.



When commissioned to illustrate another writer’s work how do you translate their words into your images?


It depends entirely on the text. Sometimes the pictures will form in my head immediately, other times I’ll need to draw and research and perhaps think about something else entirely to find a way to compliment the text. I actually prefer to work with other people’s text, rather than my own. But I don’t get sent enough good things to be able to make a living, and that is how I got started as a writer. I think I enjoy the process of finding a way to look at someone else’s story more. With my own I feel like I know where everything comes from sometimes and that there are less surprises. I try to get a distance from my own stories so that I can approach the illustrations as though I hadn’t written the text myself even when I am the writer. Often by putting the text away for a while and working on something else. I’m talking about this as though I have a fixed working process and I really don’t.



As being the creator of animated series Abney and Teal, how does the picture book process translate to animation? What did you enjoy most about seeing your characters come to life?


I think what I enjoyed was the very fact that they soon weren’t just my characters, but that the other writers, and later the animators, built on what I’d started, and also we collaborated as we went. The stories and characters felt so much more than I’m capable of on my own. To someone who spent the previous decade in control of every mark and word letting go was not the easiest thing however.



How did the idea for two dolls living on their fantastic island come about?


Originally they weren’t dolls, and in a sense that is still ambiguous in the show. But really they came from drawing. I had drawn a feisty big-haired girl character (who at that time constantly carried a camera) and I was drawing, not very successfully, boy characters as possible companions when I found an old cartoon strip I’d done years before featuring a cat-like figure that was basically Abney and I substituted him in because he just seemed to make sense. I had these two and all the others except Bop in my sketchbooks and was looking around for a setting and while walking through Victoria Park in East London, and staring out at the island in the middle of the lake there, I realised that here was a complete setting with just the balance of otherworldliness mixed with modern reality that I was grasping for. Bop came later when Anne Wood suggested some sort of character was needed that would give a sense of parenthood or safety to the setting. He was a bear made of stones, then of bubbles, and then a tiny Water Vole that inflated, before he ended up as the nonsense bubble-blowing tea-drinking seal-manatee thing that he is now.



As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?


Comet in Moominland, Flat Stanley, Where the Wild Things Are, and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folktales are all things that I still remember responding strongly to, amongst others.



What three books do you feel have influenced your writing and illustration?

The books I mentioned above obviously have. And Lisbeth Zwerger’s Wizard of Oz had a huge impact on me when I discovered it while still studying illustration at college, That book made me think hard about illustration for children and go back to look at other work I remembered from childhood with different eyes.



If you could fall inside a picture book for a day, which one would you choose and why?


It would be a Moomin book. Though a novel rather than a picture book (though they are all picture books, in that the b&w drawings are so important). Perhaps not Moominpappa at Sea or Moominland in November as it’s hard times in Moominvalley during those two. Although it still seems to be a pretty perfect world to inhabit even then. I think I would find it hard to leave after a day.



What are you writing now/next?


I’m hanging around waiting for the go ahead on one picture book that I didn’t write. I’ve done a lot of samples for it but I’m not sure if the text will go ahead for reasons over which I have no control. The recession has made an already slow process even more mind numbingly slow. I’ve also submitted a few picture book ideas of my own, along with artwork samples, to another publisher and am again waiting to see what will come of them. I’ve a massive list of beginnings of things, both picture books and longer stories, (all in a very maybe sort of state) and perhaps it’s time to look at some of those again while I wait.



I love Abney – he is cute, fixes things, cleans, sings, can dance, is imaginative and has a the sweetest little house. Any chance of a visit to his place soon?


I live a little bit that way, but in a perfectly ordinary London flat. When I was making the show, and staying away from home in B&Bs and later in a big but empty apartment, I dreamt a lot about finding or even building a space of my own maybe a little like Abney’s. Now I’m back working from home in London this dream seems less possible than it did then. It takes a lot of creative energy to start living a different way. If I do ever find a way to live like Abney’s. Now I’m back wokring from home in London this dream seems less possible than it did then. It takes a lot of creative energy to start living a different way. If I do ever find a way to live like Abney, your’e welcome to visit.



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A conversation with Esther Woolfson : Queen of the Corvids


It was 2008 when I read Esther Woolfson’s first book Corvus: A Life with Birds and was enchanted by her observations of birds, both ‘tame’ and wild. Her writing is crisp and observant, never sentimental, yet full of feeling. Through her eyes, we felt the gift that her birds are and felt with her their loss. As I was writing my own book that features birds, I often thought back to Chicken, Ziki and Spike and the avian friendship that they and Woolfson shared. So I was very excited to hear that she had a new book coming out this year – Field Notes from A Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary.

In it, Woolfson explores a year up close of the urban nature around her home city of Aberdeen, looking closely and thinking deeply at those animals that are the closest thing city-dwellers come to nature. She mediates on the intersection of urban lives with rats, slugs, starlings, rooks, squirrels, foxes and jackdaws using the Taoist principle of wu-wei, or ‘masterly inactivity’. She questions our prejudices and folkloric distrust at some animals and apparent regard for others. With a philosopher’s art, she also examines what it is to be human when one regards the actual prescience of animals we thought had none. The chapter on the late fledged Jackdaw a perfect microcosm of what it is to love wild things, yet to be apart from them.

Field Notes from a Hidden City is a lyric and sometimes haunting read.

Esther kindly shared some thoughts with me about her new book and her special relationship with birds.




Sandra, I’m delighted to be doing this interview—thank you so much for asking me.


My new book, ‘Field Notes From a Hidden City’ is— on one level— an account of a year in the natural life of the city where I live, Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland. On another level, it’s an examination of our feelings and attitudes towards the species with whom we share cities and takes the form of a diary, interspersed with discrete chapters about particular species and ideas. I look at the lives of city birds such as sparrows, gulls, pigeons and starlings and at creatures humanity tends to dislike, such as rats, spiders and slugs. I write about climate and latitude too, about invasive species and our attitudes towards town and country.


My dear old companion, Chicken the rook, is 25.  She’s fine although her eyesight is less acute than it was. She’s still vocal and friendly and delightful. Ziki, my young crow is now a sturdy, large and very beautiful bird.  He’s still nervous and I suspect that that will always be the case because of the circumstances of his youth. He found a voice after about a year and is a very vocal bird now with the full range of crow sounds. He loves music and has his own radio and CD player (operated alas, by me. I’m sure a corvid could learn to do it, given time.) He’s devoted to his rubber mice (which I now buy at Hallowe’en-they’re sold as scarey items for children. The very delightful man who translated ‘Corvus’ into Brazilian Portuguese, sent me a whole consignment of mice of all sorts and colours for the birds to play with.) He has a collection of polished stones which he moves about from place to place and hides. He looks wonderful and I hope that this is some indication of his general well being.


(I do still have 14 elderly doves-they’re as ever, pottering about, nipping out for a quick whirl round, bathing in the garden in the freezing rain…)


No-one new creatures have come my way because now people tend to phone from walks to tell me that they’ve seen a small bird on the ground and I’m able to tell them that it’s most probably learning to fly, and should be left alone. I would always take in a creature in need— the last one I had dealings with was a very small jackdaw, but alas, he didn’t survive. (There’s an account of him in ‘Field Notes.’)


I wouldn’t call it an experience of augury exactly, but I have had a sense of communication which was quite beyond anything I could have imagined. With Spike the magpie, I often had a sense of the presence of another mind and consciousness, which isn’t as fanciful as it sounds because magpies are such cognitively able and self-aware birds.  (Research findings show that magpies are among the very few creatures who can recognize themselves in mirrors—there aren’t many who can—us, some of the higher primates, and magpies.) It has left me with a feeling of deepest respect for these remarkable creatures.


My writing process is very disorganized. I can spend a long time following one idea or researching one small aspect of a topic. Writing’s always a mix of terrific anxiety and great delight—the actual writing is characterized by a mixture of both and by the constant desire to do it better, to make a sentence better, to be lucid, and concise and true.


I always write in my study, the room I share with Chicken (who potters to and fro and will often come to stand beside me as I work.) I can look out at the garden and the birds and hear the sounds of a not-too-noisy city.  Towards the end of writing ‘Corvus’, I decided that the ancient, saggy dining chair I used as a desk chair wasn’t doing my back any good and so I bought a lovely comfortable desk chair which makes me feel like a minor tycoon but reminds me too that I’m not, I’m just another wee writer, striving away in a quiet room.


 I work on an iMac and am always devoted to the current one as long as it behaves and doesn’t do anything odd to throw me into panic, as these things do from time to time.


I try not to have any superstitions but I’m never certain where adherence to routine blends imperceptibly into superstition…


The whole process of writing is fairly slow for me, or I think it is but considering that some people take ten years to write a book, perhaps it’s not. I’ve always envied people who can write incredibly quickly but I just don’t. Having said that, I’ve had to learn to respond quickly to requests for pieces—it’s just part of being professional—or trying to be.



The main books of my childhood were classics—‘What Katy Did’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’, “Alice in Wonderland’ etc and I loved the ‘Chalet school’ books which were already out of date when I read them, tales of an impoverished young English teacher who, after their parent’s death, takes her small sister to start a school in the Austrian Tyrol in the years before the Second World War. They were classic school stories in some ways but in others, had a great deal to say about the terrible poverty of parts of Europe after the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, and the eventual rise of Hitler.  My father was a terrific buyer of books and I began to read adult books when I was about eleven—everything from American politics to Mishima and Tanizaki.


I think that every single book one reads influences one’s writing in some way. In choosing what you read, you’re choosing what you’ll write—not in the sense of being derivative but in the general sense of the standards you’re going to expect from your own work.


For years, I wrote fiction, mainly short stories and didn’t really consider writing anything else until ‘Corvus’.  (There’s one story on-line, called ‘Chagall’, it’s on the website of the now defunct organization The Scottish Arts Council.) I enjoy writing fiction but realized only after I’d begin writing ‘Corvus’ that I love the research involved in following the obscure by-ways of a topic such as the taxonomy of molluscs or the history of ideas relating to human attitudes to the natural world. I’ve found the scientific aspect of it all entrancing and am now very interested in relationships between the arts and science.


You asked about spending a day with a character from a book—I’ve had such fun with that!  My ideas change from minute to minute, from being a child in Avonlea with Anne from  ‘Anne of Green Gables’ to wandering the streets of Manhattan with ‘ The Catcher in the Rye’ hero Holden Caulfield. (I’d be the one to understand that his problem was the fact that he hadn’t been able to grieve properly for his brother—we’d talk about it endlessly while wandering the corridors of the American Museum of Natural History…)  It’s probably indicative of the kind of books I read, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend much time with many of the characters. I do like Sabine, Parsifal and Phan from Anne Patchett’s ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ though— they sound delightful.


At the moment, I’m writing various short pieces that I’ve been asked to write—various blogs and journal entries and so on. As far as larger projects, my mind’s on it somewhere. I’m always hoping that someone will come along and tell me what to do and then, obediently, I’ll do it but of course it’s never going to happen…


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me Esther, I know I can’t wait to read what you write next.




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A conversation with Essie Fox




Saved from the Thames one foggy London night, Pearl grows up at the House of Mermaids – a brothel that becomes the closest thing to home. But despite being cosseted and spoiled by the Madame, come her 14th year, Pearl is to be sold to the highest bidder. Orphaned twins Lily and Elijah are on a rare trip to London when they meet the ethereal Pearl. And the repercussions of this chance encounter will bind all their fates together, in a dark and dangerous way. Bewitching, gothic and sensual, this is a tale of love and betrayal in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.



Tell us a little bit about where you got the first glimmer for Elijah’s Mermaid?


It was in my editor’s office, on the day when we were going to lunch to celebrate a two book deal with Orion.  At that point, I hadn’t thought too much about what might be coming next. The Somnambulist, my first novel, had sold very fast indeed and I’d hardly had time to catch my breath. But when I was asked, I suddenly thought of a painting that used to hang on my wall when I was a teenager. That painting was ‘A Mermaid’ by the artist J W Waterhouse – and goodness knows why the thought came to me, but that image led me to describe a story based upon a girl who becomes the muse of an artist obsessed with mermaids and water. 


How long did it take to write? Do you write in a flash or mooch an idea along?


It took me about eighteen months in all – although a good six months of that was taken up with research and some unexpected delays due to family commitments. I found the breaks to be very frustrating because once I get into writing a book I really don’t want to do anything else – I like to write and write and write.


Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process?


I usually develop a ‘sense’ of what I want a novel to be about. So, with The Somnambulist my inspiration and starting point was a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall which then led to me becoming obsessed with writing a story that opened up in that very setting – and in its Victorian hey day.


From that point of knowing where a book will begin – with the time, the settings, and most characters already strongly in my mind, I then do a lot of reading around the era and genre. I read both fact and fiction, and I also watch any relevant films – until I feel confident that I’ve done enough to be able to set that research aside and fully immerse myself in the fictional world of my story.


I know the beginning. I know the end. But as to what comes in between, I generally have no idea. If I do make plans they often change when the characters begin to evolve and then lead me wherever they happen to chose; taking on views and a life of their own.


Where is your favourite place to write?


For the first draft, in bed! I find that in my bedroom, before I dress or fill my head with the interruptions of real life, then I am at my most creative. I have a little table on legs, much like those provided for hospital meals – and I find that is just the right height and size to hold my computer and coffee cup.


However, once that first draft is done, I prefer to work at my desk, which makes me feel more ‘businesslike’ about the whole process of editing.


So I take it you are not tempted to go back to sleep then? I know I wouldn’t be able to resist the Land of Nod.


Sometimes I get so tired  – staring at screen and ‘thinking’ can be exhausting, but when I’m in full working flow I like to stick with it  – for as long as it takes. Even if I do snooze off, I’m usually awake with a new thought for a phrase or plot theme within about ten minutes.


Are you pen and paper or computer – what tools are essential to your writing?


Definitely a computer. Before I started to write seriously, now and then I did try to write with a pen and paper. But, as I tended to scribble out as much as I wrote upon the page what remained was such a confusing mess that I never knew what was going on. By contrast, word processing on a computer enables me to revise my text as any times as I want to and still have a clean manuscript to read. It is simply the medium that suits my muddled writing mind. And love to see a computer screen with the text laid out as if a book. I find that so exciting.


I’m the opposite, pen and paper first, for me that clean published look gets me so excited I can’t see the forest for the trees, though I hate the typing up, it does give me a chance to revise in a slower way. A new Slow movement. What is the worst bit of being a writer?


I think the worst thing is closely linked to the best thing –


The best thing is when you first have a new idea for a novel and are full of inspiration and excitement.


The worst thing is when you are already well into writing that novel and you realise it’s never going to be quite the wondrous thing you imagined when in those first throes of excitement.


There is a lot of art in your writing. If money were no object, what piece of art would you like to own?


The Pre-Raphaelites are a great inspiration to both The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid. I love to see them in galleries. 


However, in my home I think I would prefer something more abstract – perhaps a Mondrian. Then again, from the Victorian era, I adore the J S Sargent portraits of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. They are so full of energy. You almost feel as if Stevenson will walk out of the paintings and into your life. Now if that could happen – if RLS could appear in my home to tell me all about his life, his writing and inspirations – I would be very happy indeed.



Failing that, the gorgeous ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights’ by the artist James McNeill Whistler is something very dear to my heart, having scenes set in Cremorne Gardens in Elijah’s Mermaid.


What is it about Robert Louis Stevenson that intrigues you?


It’s not so much the Treasure Island writer  -it’s the mind that constructed the tortured gothic world that opens up in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That exploration of the juxtaposition of good and evil is fascinating. But as a man, a real person, he seems to me very interesting – and to read why that is, here is a link to a blog that I wrote on the subject: http://virtualvictorian.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/enduring-influence-of-robert-louis.html



I love Whistler too, he had a wonderful falling out with Ruskin. London features vividly in The Somnambulist, what is your relationship like with London?


I adore London. Every single time I visit – at least once a week – I find myself thrilling to energy and motion everywhere. I can’t say I particularly enjoy public transport, but if I’m feeling rich then I take a cab. There’s no better way to see the sights of London.  I have favourite areas which I like to try and incorporate into my novels…a way of living there in my mind, even if I can’t in reality. But most of all, I appreciate all of the galleries, museums, libraries, restaurants and theatres. London is thrilling and there is always something new to discover – and for a historical novelist it is a constant source of new information and inspiration. 


Is there a novel sitting at the bottom of your drawer? What is it about and why is it sitting there?


No. But there are a lot of ideas sitting in the bottom drawer of my mind.


Are you a notebook keeper or do you keep it all in your head?


I do keep notebooks, but not for the story of the novel itself. That is in my head. The notebooks are full of jottings of phrases that I like, or snippets of dialogue that I might forget about if I don’t quickly scribble them down.


As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?


The first book I took out of the town library was The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I also devoured every fairy tale that I could get my hands on. And now Elijah’s Mermaid has themes that are drawn from The Water Babies, and also The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose I am quite as obsessed with water, with rivers and the sea, as is my fictional artist in Elijah’s Mermaid. But I hope I’m not as vile as him!


What three books do you feel have influenced your writing?


Ah, please see above for two. But if I think of another three –


The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins has always been one of my favourites, and is quite influential now regarding the novel I’m currently writing.


Affinity by Sarah Waters. Another Victorian theme, albeit by a modern day writer. The clever twist, the claustrophobia and the eerie nature of this book has haunted me since I first read it.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – in fact most things by Angela Carter. The gothic, fairy tale darkness of her gloriously descriptive writing is something that always inspires me and never fails to draw me in. She weaves such a magic spell.


If you could spend a day with any character from a novel, who would you choose to meet?


At the moment, because I’ve been reading Wolf Hall, it would be Thomas Cromwell. 


But, for someone totally fictional, and not for the enjoyment, but simply to see what that meeting might bring, then it would be the pimp from my own novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. He is so despicable and I’m sure I might have been possessed by some unquiet spirit when he came to mind. Either that, or I am rather twisted!


If Elijah’s Mermaid is adapted for the screen who is your dream cast?


That’s so hard. Hmm, here goes, off the top of my head, though I’m sure to change my mind in the next half hour…


Elijah – Orlando Bloom, when he was a little younger

Lily – Claire Foy, or Andrea Riseborough

Pearl – Elle Fanning – I think. So hard this one. She must be pale and ethereal.

Uncle Freddie  – Hugh Jackman

Tip Thomas – David Thewlis

Augustus Lamb – John Hurt

Isabella – Emily Watson

Osborne Black – Christian Bale


What are you writing now?


It is called The Goddess and The Thief. It is about a young girl who is raised in India, until she is orphaned and is then sent back to England to live with her aunt, a spiritualist medium. Not only does she become involved in her aunt’s profession, but also with an audacious plot to steal a sacred Indian diamond which was given to Queen Victoria at the end of the Anglo Sikh wars. There are ghosts and visions of Hindoo gods. It is very dark and sinister.


That sounds intriguing. Victoria certainly had many treasures that belonged elsewhere. Mediums and Spiritualism appeared in The Somnambulist – what draws you to them?



I do find the whole business (and it was one heck of a business in the Victorian era) to be fascinating. Of course, men have always been intrigued as to whether there is a life after death. Ghosts exist in myth or literature going back over many centuries. But there was something about the nineteenth century that really allowed spiritualism to take wing. I firmly believe that one reasons for that is, somewhat ironically, the rapid developments in science that were going on at the time – such as in electricity – the telegraph – the telephone. These were inventions where an invisible ‘force’ or power could be transmitted as if through the ether. And, for a generation who believed without question in God and a Heaven, it was not so much of a leap of faith to think that – in due course – we might be able to communicate with those in the spirit world. Another historical factor was the American Civil War. All those thousands of young men having died, and the need for their families, lovers and friends to find some way to reconcile themselves to that, and all at a time when the three Fox Sisters had claimed to be able to hear and produce communications from the spirit world – and that claim being taken so seriously that they soon became an international sensation. 


The religions of Spiritualism was also important in the early days of the suffrage movement, with it being one form of profession in which women could openly express their views – both political and personal. 


And finally, there are the mechanics of the trickery and deceptions employed by many unscrupulous charlatans. It is amazing today, to see the crude methods employed and to think that people could be so easily fooled  – but they were not sophisticated as we are with regard to ‘special effects’ and also, and this is of vital important, they really wanted to believe. 


The presence of the house also is a theme in your work, any spooky stories in your old homes?


Funnily enough not in the old Victorian houses that I have lived in. But when I was a teenager there was a piano that used to play on its own now and then in a modern bungalow that my family lived in. That was horrible. I woke up sometimes in the night and heard it. I thought I was going mad. But then my brother and sister both experienced the same. Perhaps there were mice inside it!


Thanks Essie for a lovely conversation, next one face to face huh? What is your favourite place to have afternoon tea?


I wish! I would love that, Sandra. It’s got to be the V&A refreshments rooms – a beautiful restaurant to drink our tea and then all those wonderful treasures to see – and to be inspired by. 





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In the Garden – a conversation under the boughs with Damon Young


“I’m not at home to anyone, except for this triangular forget-me-knot, for this rose in the shape of a wishing well, for the silence in which the sound made by the mind when searching for the word has just died away.” Colette


Recently I finished reading Damon Young’s Philosophy in the Garden and I found it an intriguing and beautiful read. It is the sort of book that illuminates a little path to follow – brief lives, deep thoughts – before another is offered for the reader to walk down. The sign of a good book I believe is if it leads you to hungry questions. So partially encouraged by the ‘leafing’ section at the back of Philosophy in the Garden, I decided to appease my curiosity and put some questions to Damon myself.


What was the kernel or seed that got you started thinking of writers and gardens?

Curiosity, really. It began as I wrote Distraction. The garden kept popping up in the lives of philosophers (like Plato, Cicero, Friedrich Nietzsche) and novelists (like Henry James, Marcel Proust), I began to wonder: what is it about the garden that provokes thought and reverie?

There was also a hint from childhood. I grew up on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula. Our house backed onto a scrubby creek: all melaleuca, pittosporum and blackberries. A walk from creek to beach required a machete. Between thorny scrub and the blue carpet lounge was the garden: a small pocket of humanised nature, with turf, corn, tomatoes, chard, sunflowers and flowering gums. This, to me, was the ‘third space’ of the garden.

How long did it take to write? Do you write in a flash or mooch an idea along?

The book officially took a few years, but some of that was lost to journalism, parenting and serious illness (Ruth, my wife, was gravely ill in 2010). The bulk of the book was written in about a year.

Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process?

I start with bafflement, a less high-minded version of Aristotle’s philosophical mood: wonder.

Then I choose an author, either by hunch (Ruskin), suggestion (Colette) or hint from another book (Woolf). I read biographies, as well as their own works: Ruskin’s essays, for example, and Colette’s novels and short fiction. I read their letters, diaries, and sometimes the memoirs of friends or acquaintances (like Proust’s maid). I also read historians or theorists who talk about the writer’s era and themes: Germaine Greer on Colette, for example.

The idea is to grasp their psyche and its era: Jane Austen’s deism, for example, which I discovered in her Pemberley description, letters and quiet religiosity. Sometimes I turn to other thinkers, like Schopenhauer with Colette, to illuminate their basic motivating ideals and values.

All the while, I reflect on my own life: how true is this idea? How helpful? What does it reveal or obscure, celebrate or denigrate? Am I less baffled now?

And all the while, I’m writing, printing, editing, transcribing, printing, and so on. I also make notes, in longhand, in a notebook reserved for the manuscript.

Where is your favourite place to write?

With one kid at home (and two in the holidays, or when they’re ill), writing at home can be hard at times. (I just stopped writing, for five minutes, to make cereal for Sophia. Now she’s complaining that it’s not corn flakes. Now she’s apologising for being grumpy. As am I. The sentences run on — you wouldn’t know ten minutes have gone by.) So I often write at my local cafe. It is a fairly dull suburban cafe. No mood of hipness or intellectual ferment. It is, as Sartre put it, a “milieu of indifference” — which is just how I like it.

Are there any writers whose gardens didn’t make the final book? How did you decide who was in and who was out? Will there be a sequel?

Henry James and John Ruskin were paired in a chapter on Hyde Park, looking into the aesthetic value of gardens, and their strange power to lift us out of ethical and political care. Ruskin was too close to other idealists, and Henry James did not merit a whole chapter alone. There was also a chapter on the Roman general, Lucullus, which was just not long enough. Each of these was transformed into a shorter column or feature.

Some readers have criticised the book for having a lack of writing about gardens in the book, how do you respond?

Philosophy in the Garden devotes many passages to gardens, real and imagined: Jane Austen’s mock oranges and apricot, for example, or Nikos Kazantzakis’s Japanese rock garden. I note Emily Dickinson’s favourite seasons, and Colette’s favourite flower (the rose, of course). I also talk about gardening habits: Leonard Woolf’s frozen winter pruning, Voltaire’s epic landscaping.

Alongside the descriptive passages are ideas: chiefly philosophical, but also historical, psychological, sociological. This is what most intrigues me: these great authors’ ideas about humanity and nature, and how these combined in the garden to inspire, console, confront.

To me there was quite a difference in writing about chapters of Philosophers and Writers – did it feel different in writing those?

Not terribly. All of the philosophers featured also wrote in other genres. Nietzsche, for example, wrote poetry. Sartre and Voltaire wrote plays and fiction. Kazantzakis wrote the lot. Strict poets or novelists sometimes provide less theory to work from, but usually their works are philosophically suggestive — Dickinson on ‘immortality’, for example. And Austen was most illuminated, not by an academic, but by a poet: Alexander Pope.

What difference did you feel?

For me, with the Philosophers it felt you had spent a lot of time in their company and they were fellows you had already had spent time unravelling. With the Writers i.e Proust and Colette, I felt that you were in newer territory. Is it really that hard to understand Proust? Or is that where Philosophy needs psychology?

By ‘understanding’ I mean something more visceral than analysing or categorising. In ‘Bonsai in the Bedroom’, the Proust chapter, I certainly reveal the strange value of the bonsai for Proust; for his life and literature. But can I feel as he did? His shrinking from the future, and covetous clinging to the past — they are foreign to me.

Your focus on Colette as a creature of appetites – do you think Colette’s interest in gardening/food was a remnant of her growing up in a rural community?  i.e the working class association of gardens equalling food?

In part, yes. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted how taste often runs along class lines: the lower the class, the higher practicality is valued. Colette also carefully cultivated this portrait of herself as an ‘earthy’ sort — it was part of her literary persona. Having said this, Colette’s willingness to gratify her appetites (for food, wine, sex) was unusual — not something common to girls she grew up with. There is also the stamp of Colette’s mother, Sido, which I talk about in the book.

Leonard Woolf strikes me as a very private man – what do you think he would make of the loss of privacy in the 21st century?

Horrified but not surprised. Woolf had a life-long respect for individuality: for life itself, but also for each unique psyche. He also was well aware of the failings that destroy this psyche: greed, selfishness, laziness, weakness and so on. He’d have been contemptuous, not only of the corporate and government invasion of privacy, but also ordinary citizens’ willingness to give it up from fear or boredom.

I found it curious that the young Leonard had a severe anxiety over this childhood garden growing over with ivy and spiders.  Was he a very controlling person? Was gardening for Woolf a way to create order in chaos?

He certainly was a man of order; of methods, strictly applied. But his childhood “world pain” (as he put it) was more than order meeting disorder: it was the recognition that even the most beautiful and innocent achievements are ultimately doomed. Many buttoned-up anal retentives fetishise certainty — Woolf knew it was only ever a brief achievement.

It was very charming how Woolf named trees, the apple tree named Mr Prothero in one instance and two trees named for themselves. This reminded me very much of the Ovid’s myth of Baucis and Philemon, a story of a loving couple rewarded by the Gods, turning them into trees together? Do you think Woolf was aware of this? Do you know what happened to the trees named Leonard and Virginia?

Writing about Virginia’s death, Leonard certainly didn’t mention Ovid. But his biographer, Victoria Glendinning, notes a poem that both Woolfs quoted: ‘Luriana Lurilee’, by Charles Elton. She quotes the last two stanzas after describing Virginia’s burial:

Come out and climb the garden path

Luriana, Lurilee.

The china rose is all abloom

And buzzing with the yellow bee.

We’ll swing you on the cedar bough,

Luriana, Lurilee

I wonder if it seems to you,

Luriana, Lurilee,

That all the lives we ever lived

And all the lives to be,

Are full of trees and changing leaves,

Luriana, Lurilee.

How long it seems since you and I,

Luriana, Lurilee,

Roamed in the forest where our kind

had just begun to be,

And laughed and chattered in the flowers,

Luriana, Lurilee.

How long since you and I went out,

Luriana, Lurilee,

To see the kings go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea,

With their palm leaves and cedar sheaves,

Luriana, Lurilee.

Swing, swing, swing on a bough,

Luriana, Lurilee,

Till you sleep in a humble heap,

Or under a gloomy churchyard tree,

And then fly back to swing on a bough,

Luriana, Lurilee.

Both elms blew over in storms. (A very ‘Leonard Woolf’ conclusion.)

Dickinson’s reclusion takes on an almost sanyasi flavour ( a religious recluse), with her writing ‘blossoms in the brain’ and her consciousness ‘living in language’, but her writing reveals quite an intense and passionate personality. Why do you think her retreat from public life became so extreme?

She was raised by her father to believe in her own fragility; to define herself in a conservative, private way, away from public life. Public contributions — including politics, but also publishing — were for men. Dickinson took up this persona, but transformed her privacy into a world of philosophical, aesthetic and linguistic freedom. Her passion, discipline and courage, with no public outlet, turned inwards — she made the most out of the spaces (literal and metaphorical) reserved for single women.

Many of your subjects are childless  – in what way do you think these writers and philosophers used their pens and gardens for enduring immortality?

Well, Emily Dickinson certainly longed for immortality — it was one of her poetic and philosophical hallmarks. Yet she was also doubtful; she had the strength to say ‘maybe’ about poetic afterlife. This is true of almost all the featured writers: they had no illusions about eternity. (Perhaps Rousseau had fantasies of his own lasting fame or infamy.) But childlessness certainly gave them more hours and energy to invest in their art. Even those with children — like Colette and Rousseau — gave the responsibility to someone else. (Which is not to equate Colette’s aloof parenting with Rousseau’s selfishness.)

Your next book is about Exercise – but what subject to you have a hankering to cover next? Will you return to Gardens?

Gardens may turn up in books and essays, but as supporting cast rather than main characters. I’m writing a longer essay on comics, for Meanjin. I’ve started a book on the value of deception. But I’m a little myopic right now. My mind is on my work-in-progress on exercise, so thoughts turn to jogging, Karate and Yoga, and little else.

Damon Young is a philosopher and writer, and Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at The University of Melbourne. He is the author of Distraction (2008), described by the United Kingdoms’ Financial Times as ‘lucid and optimistic’. His new book is Philosophy in the Garden (2012). Damon has written for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, ABC and BBC, and is a frequent radio guest. Damon has also published poetry and short fiction.

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February 19, 2013 · 10:25 am

Thoughts on The Invisible Woman

No, this post isn’t about the HG Wells’ creation or his imaginary feminine equivalent, but the Invisible Woman conjured in the pages of Claire Tomlain’s The Invisible Woman – The story of  Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

After reading Tomalin’s stupendous Dicken’s biography ( balanced, never fawning, poetic, brilliant researched) I was completely curious as to her first treatment of the Dickens’ material, as first published in 1990, The Invisible Woman. In it, Tomalin explores more of Nelly’s side of the story – her family raised in the theatre, the nineteenth century opposition to women in the theatre ( based on the fact that if one could act a lady, it would be difficult for a gentleman to tell the difference), her meeting of Dickens and his clandestine and secretive courting of a woman the same age as his own daughter.

Where there are no concrete sources Tomalin surmises, but she always reminds the reader that these are her own conclusions. However, they are so well researched and her point of view, always compassionate and balanced, that one can’t help to concur.

Just as Dickens was a master deceiver employing his theatrical wiles and tricks, changing his identity to nurture and conceal his secret love, so did Nelly after her time with Dickens ended by constructing her own new identity – making herself 8 years younger, erasing her theatrical past and relegating Dickens to the role only of a family friend.

The most strikingly frustrating thing is the lack of Nelly’s own voice – all of her letters were destroyed, by her son and others, but Tomalin does her best to draw from all remaining sources a portrait of a strong, intelligent woman, who was hemmed in by the morality of her age. Though sometimes I could never really grasp if Nelly held true affection for Dickens or if she was somehow shepherded into the relationship in an aide to help her family.

In 1867 Dickens lost one of his diaries, much to his displeasure, and has been decoded and used by Tomalin to great effect, devoting a whole chapter to it, as it covers the volatile question as to whether Dickens and Nelly had a child together. In the diary it is clearly marked as: ‘N ill later part of the month’, ‘Arrival’ and ‘Loss’, which to me and to Tomalin enough to conclude there was a child. Later in her life, when married to a school teacher, Nelly actively took to fundraising and championing a creche for working women, and I can’t help but wonder if this was because she too, as a working class girl lost her own child? There is also the possibility that they may have had another child together, but there is no conclusive evidence, but one does wondering, considering Dickens fathered 10 legitimate children.

Nelly in reconstructing her life after Dickens married and had two adored children of her own, concealed her theatrical past and her association with Dickens. However, after her own death, when her son Geoffrey found out about her association, and after confronting Henry Dickens, his own sense of self was fatally flawed – he could not reconcile his adored mother and the woman who had been an actress and Dickens’ lover, tragically burning all her letters and banned her name within his house. I can’t help but wish this tragedy had been avoided, for if ever a child was loved and cared for, it was Geoffrey. But how could Nelly reveal her past, when even her husband never knew?

There are many questions raised by this book – I can’t help thinking about the possibility of a future relation being discovered, possibly the almost child of Dickens and Nelly. Nor can I help but speculate over the stolen letters of Dickens to Nelly, that were stolen from her possession after his death. Will they one day show up? I hope so, for it would be wonderful to hear, even if through Dickens’ eyes, Nelly’s own voice.


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The Revisit : Thoughts on old children’s books

Recently I have been riding a wave of synchronicity while trying to track down an old child hood favourite book and it goes something like this:


For several years this beauty taken by photographer Harold Cazneaux was propped up on a pin-board of my computer, a thoroughly modern milly, a face of modern Sydney. But the subject wasn’t Australian, she was a Scot, named Doris Zinkeisen, a painter, illustrator and set designer whose portrait I had also propped against my desk as I was trying to place my mind in the Bohemian centre of Sydney in the 1920’s, or more specifically the faces of 1929 for my novel set in the same year, where the above image was featured as a cover of magazine Home, Australia’s answer to Vanity Fair. I adore her hat and pearls, but most of all I love the line of her profile against the stylised monochrome fauna and the expression on her face, the elevation of her head. Quite a different view to her self portrait  painted the same year, which I curiously and co-incidentally also had propped on my pin-board, bought from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Cazneaux captures a purity of line in her face, whereas Zinkeisen’s  self-portrait is daring and theatrical, the chinoisere piano shawl just hanging off her shoulders, her hand on the curtain, as if ready to reveal something, the light bounces off the drapery onto her painted face.


Doris Zinkeisen was famous not only for her beauty but for illustration, her designs for the London and North Eastern Railway Line in the 1930’s have a wonderful whimsy to them, with historical figures used to promote the places on the line. She also worked as a nurse in both WW1 and in WW2, which was when she was also commissioned as a War artist and in 1945 she witnessed and recorded the horrors of Belsen-Belsen for the rest of her life.




Doris Zinkeisen is a fascinating woman and it has been a pleasure to have her company desk-wise while writing, but it was with great surprise, I discovered that her twin daughters were none other than Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, painted by their mother below ( I love how their hands grasp each other’s and their expressions ) They were once described by their brother Murray as really only being two halves of the one person – and though this may seem a cliche about twins, they did have an unusual way of working and lived together with their mother all their lives.


My childhood was populated with their illustrations, and recently I spent time tracking down a copy of Deans Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes which has also been sitting, desk-mates with the work of their mother. It was with great delight that I tracked down a copy – the images exactly as I remembered them – a kind of cross roads between the past and the present of the time it was published in the early 1970’s. I love the period clothes and the lovely attention to details, a children’s confection of the Regency and Victorian dress. I do remember spending hours pouring over those images, wishing to have a bonnet, and I do recall my mother making one as a concession to my sister having her first school uniform, and it was with delight that I looked exactly like a figure from an Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone illustration. Their love of costume was developed at St Martins School of Art. Together they illustrated numerous books, including those by (and most famously s0) Enid Blyton and Dodie Smith.





The sisters actually worked together on individual illustrations, working as a single unit to produce their work. When Janet died in 1979 of smoke inhalation, it must have been very difficult for Anne to continue, but she did, having to learn all the areas of expertise that her sister had, mastering horses and faces, and it is curious in the later work of Anne’s that the figures often face away from the viewer.


To revisit old childhood favourites can often be a startling shock to the senses, for the magic one saw in the book has vanished with the child that loved them. However, with the work of Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, I am back there in an instant, the pictures portals to the past.

Have you any childhood books that take you back?


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History Listening and Talking to Itself – Hilary Mantel on writing Wolf Hall

Recently I finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, after much prodding and poking by some very astute readers, as well as hearing some wonderful podcasts with Mantel herself ( with her very particular voice, she speaks like she is casting a spell in an Elizabethan play).

And? Not much more than I can say except – it is Bravura in every way.

Even though I am so familiar with the whole history, never for a moment did I rest in this knowledge, always  on edge to Mantel’s storyteller’s art. Mantel in The Guardian says she didn’t want to write history repeating itself, but history listening and talking to itself, and that is exactly what she has done:


After I had written the first page I was flooded by exhilaration. I am usually protective of my work, not showing it to anyone until it has been redrafted and polished. But I would have liked to walk around with an idiot grin, saying to the world: “Do you want to see my first page?” Soon the complexity of the material began to unfold. So many interpretations, so many choices, so much detail to be sifted, so much material: but then, suddenly, no material, only history’s silences, erasures. Until a late stage, what would become a trilogy was still one book. It was only when I began to explore the contest between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More that I realised I was writing the climax of a novel, not merely another chapter. The facts of history are plain enough, but the shape of the drama was late to emerge, and the triple structure later still. In my mind, the trilogy remains one long project, with its flickering patterns of light and dark, its mirrors and shadows. What I wanted to create is a story that reflects but never repeats, a sense of history listening and talking to itself.

The rest here at The Guardian

Image: Detail of Anne Boylen Portrait ( and I wouldn’t mind those pearls, necklace and all, thank you very much)

ps am having some problems with spacing in posts with WordPress – so sorry if it is all bunched up

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