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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

An Interview With Meredith Costain

Today on the Great Raven, my guest is Meredith Costain, contributor to the humorous children's anthology Laugh Your Head Off Again And Again(Sydney, Macmillan 2017), and author of many, many books for children.

Meredith lives in Melbourne with her partner and two beautiful dogs. (See below) If you want to learn more about Meredith and her books, you can find her at

We have known each other for many years, but I have learned some fascinating things in this interview I didn't know. Read and enjoy!

 Your story in this anthology, "Nutbush", was about dogs. I know you have some of your own - is this what inspired your story or was it something else?

I’m definitely a dog lover (we have two young kelpie/heeler rescue dogs at the moment) and will sneak a dog or two into a story or chapter book whenever I can, whether it be as a main ‘character’ or just somewhere in the background. For this anthology the brief was simply to provide a ‘funny story’ for a primary-school aged audience – so dogs it was! We’ve been training our youngest dog recently (she can be a bit of a terror in the dog park, herding joggers and skateboarders), and also teaching our other dog to bark on cue at the end of the lines of ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’, so dog-training became the inspiration for the story.

What are the benefits and challenges of writing humour for a young audience?

There is plenty of evidence around to show that kids love funny stories. Humorous books dominate the best-seller lists and lots of parents swear that the break-through books that turned their reluctant readers on to reading are the ‘funny ones’. It’s also what (most of) the kids say when I ask them what they like to read when I’m doing school visits.

Much of this humour (particularly for the 6-10 age-group) tends to rely on bodily functions: poo, pee and fart jokes rule. I prefer to use more situational humour, word play or exaggeration in the series I’m currently writing. However I did throw in a brief reference to wee in my story for Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again: hopefully it hit the spot! (so to speak …)

Your story is set in a small country town. Why did you choose this for a setting?

Placing characters in a country setting means there is more scope for action and adventure, away from house-bound ‘screens’. Kids can build billy carts and tree-houses or find treasures in the local rubbish dump and tadpoles in the creek. There is also more of a sense of community in a small town, given that everybody knows everybody else (and often their business as well!), so it’s easier to introduce characters of different ages.

You have written a wide variety of books, from education titles to picture books to chapter books - do you enjoy the challenge? 

I just like writing! So yes, I have fun trying out different formats and writing for different age-groups. I enjoy doing the research for non-fiction as well (although it can be hard to know when to stop looking things up and get on with the actual task at hand!)

Versatility is also a good way to ensure a reasonable living as a writer. Writing in different styles and formats for several different publishers over the years has meant that I could keep a steady stream of projects on the go. These days though I mainly concentrate on series fiction for junior to middle primary-aged readers.

 Do you have a favourite type of book/story to write? If so, what is it?

I enjoy writing tween (and slightly younger) fiction for girls. All that angsty stuff and big questions (to them) like: ‘Do people like me? And if not, what do I have to do to get them to?’ and ‘Am I different from everyone else?’ and ‘Will I make any friends if I go somewhere new?’ that I went through myself. I guess by writing about it now (and with the benefit of hindsight) I can give myself a happier ending (on the page at least) by showing a bit more resilience. And I also get the chance to say the things to the ‘mean girls’ I would have liked to have done before.

I also enjoy writing picture books where I get to play with words. I often write these in rhyme (considered a ‘no no’ by many!) so when everything comes together in terms of both scanning and perfect rhyme, it feels pretty good! Actually, I enjoy any kind of writing where I get to play with words.

What do you like best about writing for children?

The licence to be playful – with both words and ideas.

There’s also lots more opportunity to meet up with your readers, through organised visits to schools and libraries to do writing workshops. Kids can be a great source of inspiration!
But they are also a very honest audience – if they don’t like something or they find it boring, they’ll let you know pretty quickly. So there’s extra incentive to make your writing not just good but exceptional (and non-boring!).

Do you have a favourite book of those you have written? If so, why? 

There are a few, including Freeing Billy, an Aussie Nibble about two kids who help to find a new home for a neglected Rottweiler puppy living in their street (based almost entirely on true events), and Doodledum Dancing, a collection of rhyming verse for the very young, illustrated by Pamela Allen. I read a lot of rhyming poetry when I was young by poets such as A A Milne, Hilaire Belloc and C J Dennis, so was delighted when Penguin took on my own attempts at verse, particularly as poetry has traditionally been difficult to sell.

But I’d probably nominate Musical Harriet, my first picture book, illustrated by Craig Smith. Also inspired by true events, it’s about a girl who is desperate to play the trombone in her school band. Sadly, her arms are too short to push the slide down far enough to produce all the notes, so she needs to find a quirky way to overcome the problem. (And yes, there are dogs involved.) The book was adapted for television by the ABC, and there was talk of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra writing a script for a touring performance as well, but sadly they missed out on funding for the project, so it didn’t go ahead.

You do a lot of commissioned work - have you thought of something you'd like to write outside of this?

Much of my education work has been commissioned, and also a few ‘special projects’ for trade publishers, such as a Ladybird guide to the Sydney Olympics (which actually reached the New York Times bestseller list) or novelisations of TV shows such as Dance Academy and Heartbreak High.

But pretty much all (apart from my latest series) of my trade published books (from picture books and chapter books to series fiction) have been my own ideas that I’ve submitted to the editors of publishing houses in the standard way.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the edit for Book #13 of the Ella Diaries, which is about soccer, and writing the fourth book for its spin-off series, Olivia’s Secret Scribbles, for a slightly younger readership (5-7 year olds).

Olivia is Ella’s (feisty) little sister, and the new series will give Olivia her own voice and adventures.

It can be a bit confusing to be working on two ‘related’ series at the same time, particularly in terms of voice, language and style. But it’s been getting easier as I’ve ‘discovered’ more about my second character. Ella is very ‘arty’ in that she loves ballet, and acting, and fashion design, and writing poems and songs in times of great angst. So I decided to make Olivia more ‘STEMmy’ – an inventor who enjoys designing and carrying out experiments (sometimes with disastrous results!).

 When is your next book coming out - and what is it?

There are two. Total TV Drama, which is Book #11 in the Ella Diaries series, will be out in January. Ella and some of her classmates (including her arch-nemesis Peach) will be appearing on a TV Quiz show.

And My New Best Friend, the first book in Olivia’s Secret Scribbles, will be released in February. This one will have a mystery element, as well as a few ‘off-the’wall’ inventions!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Babylon 5 - Some Book References

Today's post is about that impressive SF TV series, Babylon 5. While I reserve the right to write about anything I like, this is, after all, a book blog, so I'm going to go through some of the literary references in the show. The author, J.Michael Straszynski, is very well read, so it's not surprising he threw literature into the mix. He also describes it as a sort of novel, with each episode as a chapter. 

If you're interested, there's a good Wikipedia article here. It mentions a lot of influences I hadn't known, including Babylonian creation myths, but I will only talk about books I've read. 

And here they are: Tolkien - Lord Of The Rings and The Silmarillion, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the Arthurian legends, via Thomas Malory, Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz.

For those of you who have missed the show, here is the outline. The time is "the Third Age Of Man" - sounding familiar to Lord Of The Rings fans? For everyone else, it's about the same time as  the Enterprise "no bloody A, B, C or D" is on its five year mission. But unlike the peaceful Federation with its missions of discovering strange new worlds, there are dark things happening on Earth, politically, which will eventually lead to war. 

The space station Babylon 5 is the latest of five Babylon stations, two of which were destroyed and one of which went missing. This one, however, is ticking like clockwork, full of embassies and also ordinary people who have moved there for jobs. Each race has its own area, with an atmosphere and gravity suited to that race. If you go to an area where you can't breathe, you take a mask. 

There are colourful characters of each major race, usually ambassadors. A few years ago, there was a war between Earth and Minbar, due totally to a cultural misunderstanding.(Whoops! You mean those open gun ports were a sign of respect?) But after Jeffrey Sinclair, the current commander of B5, was captured, the Minbari released him and surrendered without explanation, even though they were about to win. We do find out why a couple of seasons on. And no, I won't share. Watch.
There is one overarching story arc during the entire series, and when it ends we realise it was planned all along. Even though characters change, the thread is there. 

I loved the characters, who grew and developed. Some of them died. In the original Trek TV series, as opposed to the films, nobody died. And that was fine with me. Star Trek TOS is one I love even better than B5, for different reasons, but B5 was much darker. The author of the hilarious "Trouble With Tribbles", David Gerrold, wrote a terribly dark story called "Believers". He wouldn't have tried it for Trek, which was much more optimistic. There were other Trek writers, including the amazing Dorothy Fontana. There was Neil Gaiman. But most of the episodes were by JMS so were consistent. Well, it was his universe, after all.

So, for the influences. We'll start with The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. In that one there was the inspiration for the Psi Corps of B5. In case you hadn't noticed, JMS named the Psi Corps head Alfred Bester, and he was played villainously by "Ensign Chekhov" that cheerful young Russian, Walter Koenig. The difference was that in The Demolished Man, the Esper's Guild were the good guys. Nobody was forced to join, though if you were a telepath you'd be stupid not to. In fact, there was high demand for training. In one scene the low-grade telepath receptionist is calling in her mind for the applicants to go through the door - and only one of them hears. There are problems, but nothing like the ones in B5, where the mother of main character Susan Ivanova was forced on to suppressant drugs when she refused to join the Psi Corps and committed suicide. Well, there is one embittered telepath who got kicked out and that does cause trouble...

A Canticle For Leibowitz is a novel set among monks at a time when the last people are going to the stars. There was  a war centuries ago and someone found papers by some guy called Leibowitz and turned them into the basis for a religion. There are beautiful illuminated manuscript versions of the papers. A spaceship is being built for the last humans to leave.

The B5 episode "Deconstruction Of Falling Stars" features those monks, well after the Third Age Of Man, looking back, and goes forward into the future. It was the last episode of Season 4, and was written while they were still waiting to hear if there was going to be a Season 5. The actual last episode was made, just in case. But this might have been a suitable ending to the series. 

The Arthurian legends feature in a number of episodes. An early episode features a Grail seeker - played, oddly, by that usual villain David Warner. Before the end of the episode he has adopted an apprentice, who takes his role at the end. 

Then there is third season episode "A Late Delivery From Avalon" in which Michael York plays a man in chain mail and carrying a sword who arrives on the station claiming to be King Arthur, and starts doing good deeds, such as rescuing a poor woman who has been robbed by villainous street gangs(small as it is, B5 does have poor and rich sections and  crime happens, hence the need for a security chief). In this he is helped by Narn Ambassador G'Kar, whom he knights. 

Sorry, he isn't King Arthur, but something dreadful happened that he has wiped from his mind: he fired the first shot in the Battle Of The Line, which started the Earth Minbari war. It was intended to be like that scene in Malory where a knight draws a sword during peace talks to kill a snake and unintentionally starts the battle. Because it is so like that scene the man starts connecting everything in his life with the Arthurian legends. Our heroes work out that for him, every one of them plays a role in the legend. The only way for him to heal is to hand his sword to the Lady Of The Lake - but who is she? She is Minbari Ambassador Delenn - who, incidentally, fired the NEXT shot, after a mentor was killed. So, very appropriate! 

If you haven't read Tolkien, or at least seen the three movies, or heard the story discussed even, hang your head in shame. I'm not going into detail. Look it up. Better still, read the book, one of the twentieth century's great classics. 

But here are some bits of Tolkien loaded into B5. For starters, "Mordor where the shadows lie" is called Zahadum, as in "Khazad-Dum", a name for the Mines of Moria, where Gandalf falls to his doom. Well, his sort-of doom, anyway, because he comes back. And remembering that the land of Mordor is where the shadows lie, it's the base of operations of the Shadows, mysterious beings who are trying to take over. It even has its own Eye of Sauron.

The Shadow ships are definitely inspired by Tolkien's Nazghul, the Black Riders, and every bit as scary. They appear in clusters, spider-like in the night of space. Later, we learn that they have captured humans merged with them, unable to fight and useless even if you do capture their ship. It happens even to a woman loved by the bad guy, Bester, and you feel sorry for him in that episode. In Tolkien, the Riders were Ring Wraiths, former kings who had chosen this life by accepting the power of the Nine Rings.

Like Gandalf, John Sheridan, second Commander of the station, is warned not to go to Zahadum, but he goes anyway and, like Gandalf, falls - leaps, actually - to his doom in the abyss while destroying the Shadow base. He dies, but is restored to life by a terribly powerful being called - Lorien! Yes, like that Lorien, first the gardens of peace run for the benefit of Maiar and Valar, then Lothlorien, where the Lady Galadriel lives in her Elvish artist colony. Lorien tells him that the best he can offer him is twenty years of life. John goes home and gets on with it. 

There are two groups of powerful beings who resemble Tolkien's Valar(gods)and Maiar(angels, including fallen ones. Gandalf is a Maia, but so is Sauron, who started as the sidekick of a more powerful being, Morgoth). The Shadows are one, the other is the Vorlons, who actually have an embassy on the station. You never get to see them outside their armour except when there is a huge emergency and then they appear to any religious or cultural group as their equivalent of angels. 
Turns out these two groups were supposed to be looking after us, but had their own ideas of how to go about it and neither group did a very good job of it and did stuff up things among mortals. There's no homely Gandalf to be wise, but also the kind of guy you'd be happy to go to the pub with. Anyway, both groups are eventually told off like schoolchildren and ordered to piss off. And they do, beyond the galaxy rim, very much like the departure of the Elves to the Undying Lands. 

Speaking of Elves, the Minbari are perfect candidates for the role. They even have a Grey Council(White Council anyone?). There's no question they're mortal, but they have Elvish wisdom and technical/craft abilities.  And Ambassador Delenn, who eventually marries John Sheridan, is definitely an Elf maiden! Someone has compared the couple to Beren and Luthien, and I have to admit, Delenn is more like the tough Luthien, who goes to the realm of Morgoth to rescue her mortal lover, than Arwen, who sits embroidering through the whole War of the Ring, and still lives at home after 2000 years, unable to marry Aragorn till he has done certain feats because Dad says so - yeesh, who'd be an immortal on Middle-Earth? Oh, she's brave, no question about it, but not proactive like her ancestress, Luthien. Don't get her confused with film-Arwen, whose role was hugely expanded. 

The Minbari also run the Rangers, a group very like Tolkien's Rangers of the North, but you don't have to be Minbari - or Numenorean - to join. A human Ranger, Marcus Cole, lives and works on B5 and serves Delenn, who is his leader.
John Sheridan, in the last episode, foreknows his death and goes back to Babylon 5, which is about to be decommissioned, then on to face his fate.

And guess what? He encounters Lorien and, like Frodo, he finds himself offered a place in the Undying Lands, or B5's version thereof. Poor Delenn is left behind to mourn him for the rest of her life, and I think here there is a fleeting hint of Arwen, although her people are still around and she's not wandering through now-empty Elven woods. 

There are other influences, such as Frank Herbert's Dune, which I have read, but you can only do so much comparison. Go read the Wikipedia article! 

So, what do you think? 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A Much-Belated Link To R.J Anderson's Continuum GoH Speech!

I can't believe I forgot.

A couple of years ago, I attended Continuum 11, where the GoH was R.J(Rebecca)Anderson. Such a nice lady, and I got to do a panel with her, so when I wrote a con report and mentioned I'd missed the GoH speech, due to family commitments, she wrote a comment with a link to her web site, where she had done a transcript of the speech. It was a wonderful speech too, on the theme of why she loves children's and YA books. I so agree with her that kids won't take nonsense from their books and aren't impressed by how many awards they have won. All that matters is story. As far as I'm concerned, if it doesn't have an amazing story and characters you can care about, I don't care if it has "beautiful writing."

It's a lovely speech/article and I won't go into detail, because you should absolutely go and read it, right here! I unearthed my post with her comment this morning while browsing through, as you go, and checked it was still there. So go, read, enjoy, and let me know what you think!

To Rewrite or Not To Rewrite... That is The Question

This morning I read an article in the newspaper asking whether we had the right to rewrite Shakespeare. The journalist was understandably unhappy about a current production of The Merchant Of Venice in which lines are added to the last scene. Not the production itself, which she says was very good(and I will be going to see it in Melbourne if it hasn't come and gone already)but sticking in new lines.

Look, people have been doing this for centuries. There was that guy who rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending. I mean, really! If a play was labelled "tragedy" in Shakespeare's time, you knew to expect a pile of bodies at the end, including that of the hero. Don't like it? Don't go. But he didn't like it and he rewrote it. If it had happened in the days of copyright, the author, if alive, would have been quite entitled to sue. But poor Will was dead even then.

These days, though, we usually interpret instead of rewriting. I've seen Merchant in so many interpretations. Laurence Olivier's was the most powerful. He was a dignified Victorian businessman, who arranged that loan from his office. As the play went on and he was tormented beyond bearing, his business suit became disarranged, his jacket went... When he did his famous speech "hath not a Jew eyes?" you truly felt for him and because this was for TV they could do close-ups and you saw the idea suddenly form on his face - hey, I can actually do this! - and he snarled, "Let him look to his bond!" and stormed off. And his daughter, who had given away her mother's ring for a monkey, found herself ignored by Portia, played by Olivier's wife, Joan Plowright. An entire interpretation, all done without adding a single line, all done with costume, background and, most of all, acting. You can find it on YouTube, I think, or buy it on DVD, though only as part of a boxed set. Watch it, anyway. Jeremy Brett is in it too. I'd never heard of him when I saw this on TV.

The Bell Company has done it a number of times. I remember the very first, which started in a bathhouse. Unfortunately, I can't recall much else about it, but it was a long time ago.

I have seen only one version which actually treated this as a comedy - and yes, it's listed among the comedies, probably because it doesn't end with a pile of bodies and doesn't have a fantastical tale about a lost princess or some such. But I would never have thought I'd ever see it as a very funny play - well, okay, it wasn't funny for Shylock, but it also ended sadly for Antonio in this one. But the rest of it was hilarious.

This was the Cameri Theatre production I saw in Tel Aviv. In Hebrew. That's right, Hebrew. I was living there at the time, working to improve my Hebrew and I figured I could do that by going to see a play I knew well in English. And this one was very good, translated by Israel's top poet. It still  sounded like Shakespeare. I think I've mentioned this in another post, but what the heck. It's a different context.

I guess technically it was a Royal Shakespeare Company thing, because the director was brought over from the RSC, but still.

It was done in modern dress, a common thing, but it let them play with the scenes. In the opening scene, we see Salerio and Solanio with Antonio. It's an outdoor cafe and he was having his lunch until they come along and eat it - then get up and leave him to be presented with the bill. Funny, yes, but it also said something: somehow, Antonio ends up paying the bill for everyone including his best friend, Bassanio. Especially his best friend - you know, "hey, there's this rich, gorgeous chick I want to woo, but I haven't got enough money to make a splash, can I have something till I marry her and I can repay you with HER money?" Not till payday, of course. People like Bassanio don't work, ever, or think they should, unlike the play's two antagonists, both hardworking men.

The cafe comes up again,when Antonio and Shylock are discussing the loan; when the two Christians are gone, the waiter comes out and snatches up the menu and closes the cafe! No words, just interpretation.

The casket scene was hysterically funny. The Prince of Aragon was dressed as a matador and did some Spanish yodelling and dancing while Portia rolled her eyes. The Prince of Morocco was played as Othello(in fact, I saw the same actor in the role the next week!). And yes, I guess a bit of extra stuff was added, I'd forgotten, but when Morocco realises he has missed out and acts the tragic hero about it, you see his four wives peeking out from the edge of the set and he rushes off cursing at them in Arabic. Additional lines, okay, but funny enough to forgive.

Gobbo had an Italian accent, and you haven't lived till you've heard a man speak Hebrew with an Italian accent!

Jessica is shown as a sort of schoolgirl who throws away her hair ribbon and becomes a hippy in tie-dyed clothes. In that awful scene where S&S are laughing over, "Oh, my ducats, oh my daughter" you see Shylock walking past in the background holding it. Which leads to the second addition. When Jessica and Lorenzo are told of their good fortune, they say together, "Wow!"

And then there was the last scene. All the lovers depart and Antonio, the man who paid the bill for it  all, is left alone on stage. He gazes at the letter which gives him all that money, then... lets it fall. And puts his head in his hands to weep. Again - sheer interpretation. No extra dialogue needed.

Is it okay to interpret - better than to add dialogue? Well, I think it is fair enough. We can't go back and ask, and as a professional actor, he would have been interpreting other people's plays and as a playwright he might have just said, "Look, do you mind? I've got a play to perform and a deadline for the next one." Of course, there is that waspish line in Hamlet about clowns who "say more than is set down for them." Which tells you that people were ad libbing his work even when he was around and heaven knows there were all those pirated copies based on what actors thought they remembered... But he really wouldn't have time to worry about how others saw his stories.

And Merchant is not being misinterpreted if you can sympathise with Shylock without rewriting the lines. If you haven't read it, do. I remember my Fourth Year Shakespeare tutor commenting on the significance of Jessica giving up her mother's ring for a monkey. To us, it just tells us that the girl is frivolous, but in the author's time, it meant changing your chastity(the mother's ring) for lechery, of which a monkey was a symbol.

I think Shakespeare just wasn't capable of writing a totally two dimensional baddie, not even Richard III. If you don't believe me, compare this play with Marlowe's Jew Of Malta.  Now, there was a two-d baddie! This is one reason his plays still have something to say to us. Shylock may not be the best of Dads, but he was almost certainly a terrific husband to a woman he adored. And who knows but that Olivier was right and he finally decided to insist on his bond when he thought Antonio had been involved in the truly awful treatment he received from the man's friends - before he had actually done anything to Antonio?

It's just not necessary to add anything but stage business to Shakespeare. Okay, there have been a lot of different manuscripts, which needed editing, but that's not the same as deliberately adding lines. Olivier showed you can do it. Many others have.

So - leave my lovely Bard alone!

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Coming Soon... An Interview With Meredith Costain!

With the arrival of new anthology of funny stories for children Laugh Your Head Off Again And Again, I have been asked to interview two of the authors. I'm still preparing questions for Deborah Abela, but I've sent off my first set of questions to Meredith Costain. If you'd been running a school library for as long as I have, you will have heard of Meredith, who is a hugely prolific author of children's books from picture books and education titles to chapter books. One of her non fiction books, Hauntings Happen And Ghosts Get Grumpy, was launched at my school at the same time as my own Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Our students ate out of her hand and when she said she felt a cold spot in what turned out to be the gardening books, one student refused to go into that section of the shelves, even though I told them that no, we hadn't had any deaths in the library or the school, not that I knew of.

Anyway, as well as her short story, "Nutbush" (the name of a cute dog) I've asked her other questions about her career and writing life. I'll be posting it as soon as I receive the answers.

I can't wait to hear from her!