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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Angela Armstrong: A Guest Post!


Today’s guest post is by Kiwi author Angela Armstrong, who has a new book coming out soon, but who has had to write it under very difficult conditions! I’ll let her tell you herself ,  but I really must take off my hat to someone who didn’t let the pandemic or lack of a proper home deter her from getting the book done. Take it away, Angela! 

In a world like ours, Mystics once ruled the night. Well, so long as they were men.

On Ash’s day of naming, she chose the Mystic path nonetheless. The same illusions that garner gasps of awe from the lamp-lit crowds earn her scorn from the basilica.

There is only one way forward: a perilous quest -- earn the Queen’s Seal, a badge of honour, and immunity.

She’ll simply have to avoid being hanged, burned or drowned first.

Our family began house-sitting as a way to explore New Zealand and different versions of “living a beautiful life.”  Home-schooling and writing, as lifestyle choices, offered us the flexibility, and my kids’ love for animals is never satiated, so we got hooked, hard.  We’d bottle-feed lambs for a week near paradisiacal sounds or walk dogs on picturesque beaches, and enjoy beautiful lodging in return, and then we’d go home to Dunedin.

As time went on, we saw longer house-sit opportunities advertised, and an idea began to take root.  When a year-long house-sit in Northland came up, my husband and I looked at each other and said, “This is it.  It’s time to leave.”  We consulted the kids, and they agreed.  Our family geared up for our next grand adventure – starting over in the winterless North after decades in the deep South. First: to be chosen for The Big Sit.

I flew up first to be interviewed by the house-owners, who had a selection of eager candidates to consider.  I flew back to deliver the news they’d picked us – we could spend a year living rent-free looking for where we wanted to buy our next home, and I could really write this book I’d started! 

That’s how we ended up selling all of our furniture and stacking our material world into a shipping container and saying goodbye to a city we loved.

While the house-owners prepared for their motorcycle trip through Russia, I lamented sliding my beloved manuscript of The Unflinching Ash to the backburner with the promise: I’ll be back.  To sour the pot, the editor I’d been working with from a major publishing house was made redundant in a restructure, and I wasn’t sure if the agent I’d secured since was a great match.  But I’d figure all that out after we were settled in the year-long sit.  I’d work on the book in earnest once I had routines on my side.  Once all the moving was over, I’d secure its publication.  Once everything was some semblance of normal.  (Foreshadowing is impossible these days, isn’t it? Because we all know where this is going).

We began our meandering road trip North, our possessions unloaded and waiting in the garage of our home-to-be.  

But we never moved into that house, because New Zealand locked down, and the exiting home-owners bound for Russia with it.  We found ourselves at the opposite end of the country without a house and without an immediate plan.  Since that fateful day when all was upturned, we’ve moved from temporary accommodation to house-sit, to house-sit, to house-sit.  Then we managed to buy a section, only to see a skills- and supply-shortage lead to our Plan B (Build a Modest Home Earlier Than Planned) sputter and stall. We haven’t even broken ground.  We’re still house-surfing.  The potential for panic like Poppy Nwosu described in her excellent guest post – has been real.

A month or so into riding out this spontaneous contingency wave, I realised The Unflinching Ash was still a draft, still on the backburner, and my agent wasn’t going to the Bologna Book Fair for the first time in decades.  As another guest-poster put it so well, things in publishing were looking grim.

It hit me that I couldn’t wait for the perfect conditions to reclaim writing, and that no one was going to slide this pot back onto the heat but me. That meant I had to make writing work while we were homeless – or gypsies, if you want to go gently with the connotations.  

So I woke early, and I wrote.  I dictated scenes while I did other people’s chores in other people’s homes.  The story I’d sketched in Dunedin was slowly filled in, in other people’s living rooms and in other people’s offices.  I typed at improvised standing desks in an array of kitchens, in libraries all across Northland, in loggias and hallways. I’m typing this guest post now from someone else’s house.  I don’t have a home, let alone an office.  I have surroundings and schedules that constantly change.  But nothing is guaranteed right now, is it? So I’m not waiting. 

Often when people ask, “Do you know where you’ll be next month?”  I answer, “Nope,” or “For some of it.”  But what I can say is: Wherever it is, I’ll be writing.  

The Unflinching Ash (the book I finished as a nomad) is available for pre-order now.  

Multiple formats release 12 July.  

Paperbacks will land on Book Depository and in bookstores soon after.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A Student’s Success!

 The other day I had an email from a former student, a member of my lunchtime library book club. She is multi talented - singing, acting, folk dance, figure skating, writing, drawing and more. But she and her mother have no money.

As such, she was eligible for the Western Chances scholarship, a scholarship for bright but disadvantaged teens in the western suburbs of Melbourne. 

When she was in Year 8, I heard her singing on the way to class. The song was the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Not only did she know the aria, she knew what it was about. I think she must have learned a lot from her mother.

I knew her well, but it hadn’t occurred to me to check if she was eligible. Well, I had, but the office lady, who kept records for kids claiming the Camps and Excursions Fund, for kids with low income families, said she hadn’t applied, so was probably not eligible. But when I asked the girl, she said they had forgotten to apply due to difficult distractions. 

I managed to apply for Western Chances though it was past the deadline, and was given a week to get my application in. I remember inviting her to hit the “send” button. She had no problem getting the scholarship.

Now she is finishing her time at the Victorian College of the Arts secondary school, with classes at NIDA, Australia’s top actor training institute (quite a few big names studied there, including Mel Gibson)and the National Theatre. She asked me if I’d like to go to her final class performance of The Master And Margarita. (The tickets were sold out, but I was able to get one for the streaming performance)

She also thanked me for getting her that scholarship which had helped her do all those things. 

My little student, now a young woman, is going to be an actor! I am so very proud of her. 

She absolutely deserved that scholarship, but nice to be thanked, always. 

One lovely thing about being a teacher is seeing how what you did worked out. And even if the kids don’t go on to be actors or even professionals, when they are happy to see you it tells you that you succeeded. 

If you live in Australia and are interested in seeing the show on line, here is the link.

I will be talking about the show after I’ve seen it.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett: An Anniversary


I have just discovered that this week marks 22 years since the publication of Terry Pratchett’s very funny novel Pyramids. It’s one of his early novels, the seventh in the Discworld series.

Discworld is a flat world on the backs of four enormous elephants standing on the back of an even bigger turtle. The countries on it are based on countries and cities in our world, tweaked. 

If you haven’t yet read anything by Terry Pratchett, you can read this one stand-alone. In fact, it’s the first stand alone novel in the series; three are on the theme of klutzy wizard Rincewind, two begin the Witches series, one is the first of the Death novels. There are a number of other standalone novels following, but they usually have characters who turn up in other books; we don’t meet the hero of this novel, Pteppic, again, nor does the scene return to his kingdom, Djelibeybi, meaning “Child of the Djel”. (Pronounced Jelly Baby, of course).

We do have the Assassins’ Guild, which appears many times in the series, but then so does the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Anyway, you don’t have to have read any of the others to enjoy this book. 

I remember when I first read this, many years ago. It starts with Pteppic, crown Prince of Djelibeybi, the Discworld version of ancient Egypt, completing his final exam at the Assassins Guild in Ankh-Morpork, a very practical exam which is likely to kill you if you fail.

But the Assassins Guild is a sort of British public school, where mostly aristocratic boys(and a few girls) get a very good education which incidentally teaches them how to kill efficiently. And one of the early scenes is a flashback to Pteppic’s first night at the school,  where a shy child gets up out of bed to start performing a detailed, gruesome animal sacrifice, interrupted by the bullies. Pteppic defends him, challenging them as to which of them is “man enough to say his prayers”. Yep, a sendup of Tom Brown’s Schooldays

I was sitting on a bus and everyone nearby must have wondered why I burst out laughing so loudly.

There was plenty more that set me off. Pteppic returns to his kingdom soon after the graduation, as his father has just died. He is now Pharaoh and orders a huge pyramid for his father, so enormous that it warps space and time. Gods start turning up, walking the streets, fighting each other, accompanied by sports commentary. His ancestors all return to life, still in their mummy wrappings, including his father. It’s having fun with all those beliefs about mystical pyramids and the things they can do, eg sharpen razor blades. 

Ptraci, the former king’s favourite handmaiden, insists that Pteppic’s father didn’t want to be buried under a pyramid, but it’s the tradition, as overseen by the vizier, who is more than he seems.

It’s hilarious and only gets funnier as the book goes on - wildly over the top, like Terry Pratchett’s other books.

If you haven’t read Terry Pratchett’s work, do try it out. It’s not just fantasy, it has plenty to say about our world. There are no quests, the only Elves are nasty pieces of work and the only long-lost king is working as a policeman and happy with his job. Each novel pokes fun at something, whether it’s Shakespeare’s plays(Wyrd Sisters and Lords And Ladies), film making(Moving Pictures), Phantom Of The Opera(Maskerade), vampires(Carpe Jugulum) or Christmas(Hogfather). And you care about the characters, something important to me; if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story. 

If you enjoy audiobooks, the abridged versions are read by the wonderful Tony Robinson, whom you probably know from Blackadder, in which he played the dimwitted Baldrick, but who has, since then, hosted a huge number of enjoyable documentaries about history and archaeology. The full editions are read by Nigel Planer, who has done two of the Discworld telemovies, but if you’re old enough you may remember him as Neil in The Young Ones

If you’re keen to start reading some Pratchett, the novels are all easily available in ebook, print and audiobook, from your favourite book stores and web sites. 

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Memories of My Typewriter

Olivetti typewriter like mine. Fair use.

 On this morning’s Twitter, someone was wondering how “hellish” it must have been to have to use a typewriter. 

I chuckled at this, and a few of us chatted about it. It seems like a good topic for a post.

I did post about my relationship with modern technology here.

But here is what I did before I got my first computer, on which I wrote my very first published book! (I should add that even then I couldn’t email my MS, it had to be printed out, and my entire communication with my editor was by snail mail and phone.)

I started writing as a child, in my sister’s old exercise books. As she had tiny handwriting, there was plenty of space, even on the pages which didn’t have space left at the bottom. Eventually I got a typewriter, an Olivetti Portable, which I still have, though I don’t use it any more. I might still be able to get typewriter ribbons online, perhaps, but it doesn’t work properly any more, even with a new ribbon it looks faded. 

However, that was a wonderful piece of equipment. It’s lighter than a laptop; when I was overseas for a year, I took it with me. I learned to type speedily on it. Just for the record, I had to teach myself, because in those days you couldn’t take typing lessons at school unless you were planning to do that for a living. And that was all girls in those sexist days! My sister, who did do it for a living, told me she had never seen anything so fast done with two fingers. These days, of course, we both do it on computer or iPad.

I started university and my sister organised an office model for me, so I could type my Honours thesis, but in the end she typed most of that and I went on using my “laptop” typewriter. 

Eventually, I won my first writing competition(the Mary Grant Bruce Award for Children’s Literature) and used the prize money to buy an electronic typewriter, which used a daisy wheel and thrilled me because it was able to type a whole line before printing out. And you could change fonts with chosen daisy wheels! I called it Merlin, because it was such a whiz. 

I was on the road to my computer tech days. 

But before that, I typed up my stories and even a novel using a typewriter. And three fanzines. 

Let’s go through the process I used to write my stories in those days. First I would write it in longhand. It wasn’t a good idea to do it any other way, because you can’t correct mistakes with a typewriter except by using correction fluid. Which is a pain and shows up embarrassingly. You can fix typos but it’s not good for editing. 

So, I always carried notebooks or exercise books with me, and on one occasion, when I was lying in bed with a temperature and flu, I wrote a whole novel in longhand. I never typed it up, by the way, let alone submitted it anywhere. It was too awful.

Second draft I typed up, with carbon paper between pages, to make three copies. I didn’t want to risk having only one copy (People did, by the way. There is a story about Aussie writer Tim Winton carrying his only copy of his manuscript of  Cloudstreet at the airport in Paris and dropping it. Luckily for him someone saw and handed it back to him). There were photocopiers, but they weren’t everywhere and they were wet copiers; any copy you made faded with time. 

I used the typing for my editing process. I had to hope that this would be enough, because if it wasn’t, you had to type it all again. All of it! 

And that brings me to my fanzines. I edited four media fanzines before I got my first computer. They were lovely things, with beautiful art work by my fannish friends, but... when there were typos, I had the choice of Liquid Paper or retyping the whole damn page, something I will never have to do again, thankfully. If there were too many typos it had to be the entire page done again, or it would look dreadful. 

When I finally got my first computer, a Mac Classic 2, I rejoiced at the prospect of being able to do my next fanzine much more easily, but I never did another zine, as I sold my first professional book instead. 

When I was submitting stories, I finally had access to proper photo copiers, but not yet the Internet, so it was all snail mail and “don’t worry about returning the MS if you don’t want it, just reply with this postage paid envelope.” 

Oh, yes, I kept a pile of those little international reply coupons you could buy in those days so they could reply without paying postage. I also found a philatelist shop where I could buy foreign stamps. And a packet of large envelopes to send my stories off. 

How times have changed! 

What do you say, gentle readers? Are any of you old enough to remember the humble typewriter?