Monday, December 28, 2009


One of the secondary characters in 'This Side of Paradise' is a young poet named Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. Fitzgerald uses a quotation from one of D’Invilliers’ poems as the epigraph to' The Great Gatsby'. ‘Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!” ’ This reference and playfulness I find very appealing.
I am fascinated by epigraphs and their relation to the work, as well as to the creator of the work. In fact when I get a new book I like to read all the pages at the front, and sometimes back, before I begin reading the text. It is sometimes possible to discover therein little gestures and clues. Not only epigraphs, but dedications also are doorways of a kind into the book, and also into the mind, heart, life and mood of the author.
For my own books I usually have an epigraph, or even two or three. One of these will nearly always be a quotation from a writer called Carrillo Mean, a shadowy character who appears in most of my novels and some of my short stories. In my first novel 'Cherry Ripe' he does not appear in the epigraphs, but in the acknowledgements. The novel quotes from one of his books, and so he is acknowledged as the author of ‘Igneous Intrusions in Southern Tasmania.’
The second novel is ‘The Bluebird Café’, where Carrillo is a significant character in the narrative, and here the first epigraph is by another member of his family, Phoenix Mean. The second epigraph is from Faust: ‘In the beginning was Meaning.’ I am fond of Carrillo’s words that appear as the epigraph to ‘The Common Rat’ (collection of short fiction): ‘Rats, they’re only human.’
And so he goes on. His epigraph to my new novel ‘Child of the Twilight’ is: ‘Assisted Reproductive Technology tells the modern love story of Romeo Spermatozoon and Juliet Oocyte.’ This is from his work 'Creation in the Time of Twilight'.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feast of Holy Innocents

Pennyweight Flat Cemetery Castlemaine Victoria

Mary Skillicorn died at eighteen months in Castlemaine in 1854. She is buried in a tiny rocky cemetery beneath crooked sheltering grey box gums in Pennyweight Flat where the colours are soft greys and browns, with accents of pink and purple and acid green. Around her in the leaf litter and rubble of stones are the graves of two hundred other children of the gold-rush. Most of the graves have been obliterated by time, but a few grey-green lichen-covered headstones with faded lettering mark the spot, tell a fragment of the tale. It is perhaps because these graves have almost, but not quite, returned to the earth that they are so particularly heart-breaking. Mary shares her place with Elizabeth Carbis. On one grave grows a lone wild yellow daisy, the only flower around. The stone here is lettered in Chinese.

Beneath a clear cornflower sky we met in the morning round the prehistoric, strangely horizontal trunk of a gum. We had brought chairs and rugs – an antique floral parasol – from a distance you might imagine we were twenty people maybe having a picnic. This was December 27, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and the priest from the Castlemaine Anglican parish was assembling an altar between a flaking headstone and the scarred fat friendly tree-trunk.

These faded, broken details of the few headstones are so tantalising and so poignant, and yet in their very slender way they begin to form a picture of short lives lived long ago. One simply says ‘Emil’, the rest has dissolved away. All the children died between 1852 and 1857, a time when fetid and polluted water, poor food and deadly diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and whooping cough were everyday features of the diggings. Pennyweight Flat was so named because it was impossible to find more than a pennyweight of gold in an acre of ground in that location, so it was from the beginning a hard, grim place. In fact it seems impossible to believe that a skerrick of gold ever surfaced here. Is it too fanciful to imagine the remains of the children as a treasure buried in the ground, marked by collections and patterns of stones? The place was fenced and restored, to a degree, in 1929, by public subscription.

The scattered little graves have brought the people here today, have attracted us all to the unrecorded stories we know are here, and know will probably never be clearly told. The first child buried here was Henry Baxter, one year and nine months old, on May 28, 1852. His grave is on the highest point, and is the largest assembly of stones. A little web research tells me the name ‘Skillicorn’ was common on the Isle of Man; perhaps it would be possible to discover Mary’s family. There are no Skillicorns in the local phone book. Because Mary is named and framed by her dates, she seems to me to have an identity here under the umbrella of the gum trees. Most of the two hundred are nameless, and are consequently shady presences over whose bones we presumably are walking with our careless and sacrilegious feet.

This land was of course the home of indigenous people long before the diggers came looking for gold. It is inhabited by the ghosts of those other children too. And there is something utterly un-European in the atmosphere of the place. Parched yet pale green fields stretch away from the fenced and raised area of the graveyard, and a line of houses is visible in the near distance. But the mood and texture around the graves is quite different, is filled with a spirit all its own, filled with a hovering silence, gently broken by the words of the Prayer Book liturgy, so English and elegant and dignified. Comforting and musical, but telling today a terrible story, a story that binds itself to the stories of the cemetery babies, some of whom were, in a sense, victims of the common lust for gold.

In the days following the birth of Christ, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all newborn boys in Bethlehem, hoping to eliminate the promised Messiah by overkill. The feast on December 27, after the joys of Christmas day, remembers those innocent victims of Herod’s purge. The ceremony at Pennyweight Flat, an isolated place of peace and sorrow, far from Bethlehem, far from England, constructs an embrace that stretches across time and space to gather in the lives of all children who have died, known and unknown, near and far.

In the midst of the ritual of the service of Holy Communion, the priest invited people to speak personally of their feelings about the place, their reasons for being present. And with great spontaneous eloquence they told of their varying comprehensions of the meaning of Pennyweight Flat. One spoke of a vision of the spirits of the children being welcomed into the company of angels. One drew attention to the most recent news items of the violent deaths of children in a war zone. One woman expressed her gratitude for the health of her own four children. It was a unique and curious feeling to be in such a forlornly lovely place and to hear such a mixture of the spiritual and the terrible and the everyday. Curious indeed to hear voices there at all, for it is a lonely and a silent place. At least three of the people were quietly drawing patterns in the dust with sticks as they listened or spoke, as if in imitation of the actions of a child.

The priest, vested in a striking splash of scarlet among the muted colours of the graveyard, and wearing a neat Akubra, distributed to the congregation small prints of a picture by William Blake. It is an arresting, difficult, disturbing and unexpected image of the Baby Jesus naked and lying, not in a manger, but on a cross, a holy innocent cradled by his own future. And there was a reading of Blake’s poem ‘Holy Thursday’ from the ‘Songs of Innocence’ which ends with the line:
‘Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.’ Poetry seemed to be the right response to the occasion which was so steeped in history and sorrow, as well as being informed by great simplicity and goodness.

As I walked away I picked from the flurry of dried gum leaves on the cemetery floor a little piece of dark grey slate, a sliver of green glass, and a stump of bright orange crayon, and took them home. I am not really sure why I did this, but it seemed to be somehow a necessary gesture. The other thing I did was to return the following day to Pennyweight Flat with a bunch of herbs and marigolds from the garden. I placed them on the grave of Mary Skillicorn and Elizabeth Carbis. I did this with due reverence, but I have to confess that I was probably responding to my own fascination and delight in the odd music of Mary’s name. Maybe the herbs were for the two hundred, but it was Mary Skillicorn who accepted the posy in their name.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Novel Due Feb 2010 - Prologue

Child of the Twilight - Prologue
My grandfather Frank called me his ‘child of the twilight of time’.

‘Sydney,’ he would say to me, ‘you are the promise of a different new and beautiful reality. You belong to the twilight. Twilight is the tricky hour between being and non-being, the veil between this world and the next.’
‘Frank,’ said my grandmother, ‘it is wrong to speak like that to her. She is a child like any other child.’

One late afternoon – twilight was about to fall – I heard the two of them talking in the library in the dear old house in Mendocino. They were arguing about me. Raised voices were rare in this household, but when they happened, it seems to me they always happened in the library. I thought then that library contained the history of the whole world. Now I believe it really did. This time I was on the terrace, outside the open French doors, buried deep in the silky old cushions of an armchair. The dogs were sleeping at my feet.

‘Sydney is nothing but another insect to you, isn’t she, Frank? Just a specimen for you to fabulate about. You can’t reduce every single thing to science or science fiction.’

Grandfather was silent except for a catch in his throat that was the beginning of a sob. He turned away from her and walked towards the French doors. He stopped before stepping onto the terrace, and he said quietly, in a voice I had seldom heard him use,
‘I love her. I love her with all my heart, and I wish in my unforgivable scientific arrogance to understand her being, understand her spirit. She is new, Hortense, new. Do you not understand that she is new? Oh, what’s the use? I am in awe at her courage and her strange perfection. She is a child of change, a child of the twilight of time.’
Grandmother was also very still and quiet, and she just said,
‘Sydney is a child like any other, and I wish, I wish with all my heart that you could see that and would remember that. I have said it before and I will say it again, she is not the subject of scientific enquiry, nor is she the subject of some piece of speculative fiction.’
Then grandfather walked out onto the terrace and across the lawn. He walked straight past me in my armchair but he didn’t know I was there.
I believe he later wrote a story titled ‘Child of the Twilight of Time’, but I have never read it, and don’t know of its existence either in manuscript or in published form. He wrote sci-fi under a lot of different names.

My own name is Sydney Peony Kent. Frank and Hortense have now passed away, but they were the parents of three girls, Fatima, Lourdes, both deceased, and my mother, Avila, who married Barnaby Kent. Barnaby is descended from the family that also produced Constance, a girl who murdered her baby brother and ended up as the matron of a hospital in Australia. In Sydney, as it happened. There was also a Tasmanian branch of the family that invented the cultured pearl. I am unrelated by blood to all these people, since I am the product of unknown egg and unknown sperm, implanted in Avila at her own request.

Avila/Barnaby are an infertile couple. The details of my heritage are unrecorded. Hence I will never know my true identity. I was born in LA in 1988, and have lived in Holmby Hills all my life, although I’ve spent a lot of my time travelling the world with Avila/Barnaby. He is an eye surgeon of international fame, having saved the sight of princes, popes, presidents and pop stars. Avila runs ‘Marriages Performed at Sea’ which takes her everywhere on the celebrity wedding circuit. I haven’t had an education, although I spent a short periods in various Sacred Heart schools which failed to influence me in an educational or spiritual way. Avila herself is a devout Catholic of sentimental nineteenth-century type, and belongs to the global Sacred Heart family. My principal interest is and always has been in writing novels of a traditional kind. I write in notebooks, in green ink, with the old silver Parker that belonged to grandfather Frank. Unlike most of my Facebook generation I’m not a blogger, but I am devoted to Google, to the extent that I named my beloved King Charles ‘Google’. He is always with me except when we travel. I then stay in touch with him via live feed at Linda’s Lodge of Luxury for Dogs in Santa Monica. We see and hear each other, and sometimes I believe I can smell his special mixture of earthy dog, mandrake and rosemary dog shampoo, and fresh bread. I take him for short walks on screen in camera range and he goes wild with excitement. ‘Kmmmon!’ I go, and Google woofs his funny little woof, and off we trot. I have goldfish and frogs, and a spectacular collection of snow globes, many of which contain black statues of the Virgin Mary. Did you ever have a goldfish? If you did you will have some understanding sadness, of the meaning of life and of the significance of death. I have never really made friends with people my own age, but I am devoted to Isabella, who is my nanny from Mexico. She was found by Avila when I was five days old, at the bus station in LA. Isabella goes everywhere with us, as do my imaginary native American friends Aurora Flame and Amber Moon, both named after peonies. Isabella carries with her at all times the black and shrivelled remains of her own placenta, called her ‘little coat’, which she says is God’s mark of her identity.

My novels are seen by some as evidence of my own fruitless search for identity, in spite of the fanciful plots and complex characters. I consider myself not as an identity, but as ‘material’ in a clinical sense. When I speak of egg and sperm, oocyte and gamete, I think back to the time before I became a zygote, and imagine my identity as an invisible speck. Grandfather Frank and I saw eye to eye in this. I go along with his classification of me as a child of time’s twilight, as something new and futuristic. A being from the moment between seeing and not seeing, a creature outside ordinary reality. Avila has given me to understand that this is the case. I constantly peer into the lives of those to whom I would be related, if I were related to anybody at all. Free-floating, I drift along the branches of the family trees of Avila/Barnaby, out to the very finest twigs. There I have found Roland the Good, Cosimo the Archivist, Diana the Manipulator, Rosita the Spinster, Corazón the Fertile, and Rufus the Virile. I am Sydney the Navigator, Child of the Twilight of Time.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Next month I am giving a masterclass on writing a novel. So reading How Fiction Works has been a nice refreshing preparation. I love it when James Wood says: "There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character." And when he says that a "great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction". It is so good to revisit many an old character through the eyes of James Wood, and to reflect on how their creators might have created them. The process remains (mercifully) mysterious. The thing is - you can theorise and analyse all you like about these things, but there is no substitute for getting down to work and giving it a try. You can analyse your work after you have written it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The blue river of truth

What Maisie Knew
At the end of Chapter Four comes the famous description of the governess's reading habits:
"She took refuge on the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed curled the blue river of truth."

Friday, December 18, 2009

I duly started to read the James Wood but was sent off immediately to What Maisie Knew. So that is where I am now. And very happy.

How Fiction Works

In The Weekend Australian (December 19 - 2009) Luke Slattery interviews James Wood. The interview reminded me I must read again How Fiction Works - one of the best books on the subject.