Your latest novel is The Understudy’s Revenge. What can readers expect to find in that?
A gripping mystery set within the London theatrical world of 1860, inspired by Hamlet, but also by Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (Collins and his friend Dickens have cameo roles in the novel and I used Dickens’ Sketches by Boz and articles in the magazine he edited, All the Year Round, as source material too). It’s also a novel about love–and the lack of it–of friendship and families and dark destructive secrets which are brought to light and cause great havoc–but also help to heal a terrible wrong. But as well as dark secrets, there are plenty of light moments! And I hope a strong and lively sense of the world of a hard-working theatre company–the book was also inspired by my love of theatre.
One of your novels has been adapted for theatre, about which Director Christopher Ross-Smith wrote: “This adaptation by Sophie Masson and myself of Sophie’s novel The Green Prince had its start in a chance meeting we had together outside the Armidale Post Office. I had long wanted The Armidillos to present an ‘end of year’ play which would appeal to all ages as well as discover a script that came from our own community. Sophie’s novel seemed an ideal vehicle.” What was it like having your novel The Green Prince adapted to a theatrical performance?
It was absolutely wonderful! And also agonising! Chris is a very experienced actor, director, producer and all-round theatre person and it was just so exciting to work with him, first on the script of the play–many things had to be changed from the book as they wouldn’t have worked for theatre, but it was amazing how much could be kept and really brought to life on stage–and then in staging the play. I was very much a background person in that though I sat in on script readings and rehearsals and decisions on all kinds of matters from how we were going to portray the underwater world to the soundtrack, which a wonderful composer named Lesley Sly wrote and which greatly added to the atmosphere of the play–and I went to every single performance, unable to tear myself away, agonising over each time the audience didn’t react, thrilled when they did–a total rollercoaster of emotion! As a writer I’ve long been used to the agonies and ecstasies of the public reception of your work–but in the theatre that is magnified about 200 percent, because it is so immediate–it is not just a review you are reading but a live audience reaction and that can be absolutely wonderful or absolutely crushing. I’d love to do it again–and I dread it too, it was heaps of work but so worth it.
You recently wrote an article called In Praise of Tintin, in which you discussed how “Herge very much kept up with what was going on in his times” and with “consummate artistry, in both gorgeous pictures and crisp words [...] managed to both document the realities of the twentieth century, and create his own world.” If you were presented with a new fiction writer and you could give them a particular storytelling skill evident in Herge’s Tintin stories, what would it be and why?
A light touch–I think that is just so important, it’s what makes a work live not only in its own time and beyond. Herge had a light touch and perfect pitch, at least in his most accomplished work from about 1933 or so, and it only grew as he went on. He knows when to go for serious action and when to go for the funny moment of light relief.
You were on the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the Australian government’s top arts funding body, from 2004 to 2008. What did you personally look for or most enjoy finding in literary projects under consideration by the Australia Council?
What was exciting was seeing the breadth of talent and originality in our literary community. I’m very curious and very eclectic in my tastes and I loved the way in which you kept getting surprised by good stuff(there was bad stuff too but let’s pass over that!) That’s what I looked for in both fiction and nonfiction–something fresh, not necessarily ‘edgy’ or ‘groundbreaking’, but engaging and thoughtful and entertaining too–good storytelling skills but also beauty of style. I am totally against the kind of snobbishness that divides fiction into ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’–to me the best literature is that which can be enjoyed by everybody but which is not superficial. I’ve always thought that the perfect mix is light and profound–easy to read, but meaty and with plenty going on underneath. I also loved being exposed to new poetry–I have always loved poetry but had not caught up with many of the contemporary poets whose work we saw on the Board as part of their applications, and I made many wonderful discoveries because of that. In poetry too, I looked for the speaking moment, the sharp precision and delicate pitch of the perfect distillation of language which is the true poetic essence. And I very much enjoyed the interaction with my peers on the Board, the wonderful, robust discussions we had, and the contact with the hardworking and fantastic staff. It makes me very annoyed when people traduce the work of the Board and its staff–I know from my time there that everyone really puts in a lot of goodwill and works hard to get the best results that are humanly possible given the financial constraints on the Board.
Could you share an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
I’ll talk about My Father’s War, which is a novel of mine coming out in April. It’s a historical novel in diary form, in Scholastic’s My Australian Story series, and is about a young Australian girl called Annie Cliff whose soldier father is away fighting on the Somme battlefields of northern France in World War One. She and her (French) mother haven’t heard from him in months and so decide to go to France to try and track him down. Anyway, how this one started was that last year when I was in France on a 6-month writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio in Paris, I was looking up something on the Internet (it was in April) and came across an article about the big Anzac Day ceremonies in Villers-Brettoneux, on the Somme, and how the Northern French battlefields were becoming an important pigrimage site for Australians. That got me remembering about a trip I’d made to VB some years before–and how it had touched us (we’d gone with the kids) to see those rows and rows of white headstones on the hill and to see how in the town, Australia was present wherever you looked, in the names of streets, of the school, of lots of reminders. That’s when the idea just sparked in my head, from my own dual identity as French Australian, from the visit I’d also made a few weeks previously to the big museum of the army in the Invalides in Paris–and I knew I had to go back to the Somme and do some research on the spot. I already had Annie in my head, almost instantly–she was really meant to be! So we went to Amiens and Villers-Bretonneux and its surrounds for a few days; then I wrote out my outline and first chapter and sent it off to Scholastic–they loved the idea and accepted it pretty much instantly! When I went back to Australia, I wrote the book–it seemed to almost write itself, it was amazing–Which was good as my deadline was pretty fierce as Scholastic wanted to bring out the book in time for Anzac Day this year (the climax is around the very famous Anzac Day 1918 battle of Villers-Bretonneux, one of the turning-points in the war and a major victory for the Australian regiments who took part in it and liberated the town). Writing in the diary format was great as it is so immediate but you can also put in lots of things–and interestingly enough the first draft of this book went so well that my structural edit and copy edit was fairly minor, and with the very hard work and guidance of my great editor, the ms was ready for proofreading and printing in record time!
That is pretty much the process I go through–though this one was a bit swifter than usual! The actual writing time for me is shorter than the thinking and mulling-through time–by the time I sit at the computer, the story just seems to flow, the hard work’s already been done in those levels of the brain that you’re hardly aware of consciously. Over many years I have learned to trust that process and not to force it along. But some things catch fire pretty much instantly–you just can’t tell when it will happen, you have to be flexible enough to go with it.
Are there any specific kinds of fiction, or kinds of literary projects to generate fiction (and writing skills), you would personally like to see more of in Australia?
I’d like to see much less of this distinction of ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’–it is less of a problem in say the UK or USA, and it means that we don’t get enough good fiction with both a strong storytelling backbone and beautiful stylistic flesh, as well as an emotional bloodstream, because reviewers and critics don’t know what category to put such work in. I think it’s a problem for a lot of writers, in adult fiction anyway. In children’s fiction it is much more flexible and because children cannot be made to read a book they don’t like, no matter how many awards it might have got, storytelling has not been forgotten. But neither has character or style or heart.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
One of my favourite fictional characters is Jane Eyre. I loved her, and as a self-sufficient and quiet but defiant sort of little girl, really identified with her! I loved how spirited and strong-willed she was but never arrogant or overbearing. However unlike her I would probably have been silly enough to jump straight into that gorgeous brooding Mr Rochester’s arms before it was wise to do so–the world well lost for love was something I really responded to as a teenager, which is also why I loved Russian novels–that mix of passion and intellectual ferment, lightness and profundity, of the Russian novel I found very heady. Strangely enough though I did not at all like Wuthering Heights–I found it morbid, Cathy hysterical and Heathcliff repellent!
The basic concept of your Thomas Trew series for young readers is set up with the following description:
Everyone thinks ten year old Thomas Trew is weird: neighbours, kids at school, even his own dad. The only person who didn’t think he was weird is his mother Mab, and she’s been dead many years now. Thomas doesn’t really mind being thought weird. Ever since he can remember, he’s seen things that weren’t there, and heard things that made no sound. All his life, he’s been waiting for something to happen..
And one day, it does!
What is the key to developing an idea which will sustain a series of fiction books?
In that one, it all literally started with a dream, about a hidden world which you reached just behind a door in a cafe! (I modified that in the book but kept the name which came to me in the dream, when a voice said behind the door, ‘We are the Hidden People!’) So i knew it was about a world in itself, which I could create–and about the adventures of a young boy in it, Thomas, who has a destiny in this world that he did not know about. So in each book in the series, Thomas goes to a different part of the Hidden World-or is lured there–and what he learns in each place builds to the climax in the final book. With other series–such as my Chronicles of El Jisal, the main characters are different in each book, it is the world itself that is the unifying element (in this case a parallel-world version of the Muslim world, featuring jinns and so on); in my Forest of Dreams adult historical fantasy series, it is set around the life of the poet Marie de France who was the first to use Arthurian elements in her work; and in one I’m planning right now, there’s a unifying element built around someone who wants to get his hands on the elixir of life and those who want to stop him! I am also writing my second novel set around the life of Ned Kelly–the first one The Hunt for Ned Kelly, which came out last year, is about the last year of his life (seen through a young boy’s eyes) and the one I’m writing now, Ned Kelly’s Secret, is about the time in Ned’s life when he was apprenticed to Harry Power, when he (Ned) was around 15 (also seen through someone else’s eyes). It’s coming out next year. I’m kind of thinking I’d like to write another, set around the time when he got out of gaol after doing three years’ hard labour–before he was caught up in the whole outlawing thing. I’m hoping these will form a kind of a series, a mosaic around Ned’s life and times which I must say I’ve become very fascinated by.
So basically what you need to sustain a series is a unifying element of some sort–around a character, a world, a task. It doesn’t need to be chronological or sequential, it can be a mosaic rather than a linear thing. I’m thinking here of the work of someone like Amanda Craig, one of my favourite British authors who over the course of 20 years or so has written a very detailed and wonderful portrait of contemporary London through the eyes of a mix of characters who sometimes take centre stage and sometimes are just bit players. It’s intensely satisfying to read.
What is next for your fiction writing?
Well, I’m finishing Ned Kelly’s Secret as we speak–and I have several other projects on hand, including books set in Russia, which I visited for the first time last year after decades of being fasvinated by Russian culture. It was a wonderful experience and thoroughly inspirational and I’m sure a lot will come out of it. I’ve also got another book coming out next year called The Boggle Hunters, a light fantasy for younger readers, which I hope might be the start of a series. But we’ll see!
More on Sophie Masson and her fiction can be found at www.sophiemasson.org.
The Australian Literature Review