Tor.com (who published Flyaway) asked me for a post for their Five Books About… series. I promptly forgot how to count, so here are:
This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.
Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.
Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.
In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).
As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.
Some key points:
- There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
- It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
- Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
- That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
- A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
- And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
- For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
- My first note on it was:
curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
- But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
- So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH
- My first note on it was:
I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.
Fanart! The first I’ve received! It accompanies a review below, and it is just perfect and allusive — those two little birds calling insults at each other. I love it.
Drawn to Culture
“One of my favorite concepts this book plays with is the idea of folklore as invasive species, and what happens to stories when they’re exported to unfamiliar lands…”
I really like the combination of reviews and fanart — so I’ve spoken to Justin about that since and will tell you more soon…
Washington Independent Review of Books
Mariko Hewer wrote a thoughtful review of Flyaway for the Washington Independent review of books: Flyaway review. (FYI — this is not a spoilery review but it does follow the plot along reasonably far).
“As you might imagine, Flyaway is not the sort of book to tie every loose end into a beautiful bow for the reader’s sake. But it will leave you feeling deeply satisfied…”
The Canberra Times
Colin Steele also reviewed Flyaway for The Canberra Times: An impressive mixture of gothic and folklore
“it’s almost Jane Harper meets Garth Nix”
As an aside, I am thoroughly enjoying all the connections people make between Flyaway and other books. Jane Harper and Garth Nix. Angela Carter and E Nesbit….
Here are two new reviews for Flyaway:
This review takes the very excellent and helpful approach of helping to triangulate whether this is likely to be a book for you (and while I hope many people do enjoy Flyaway, it is also very definitely a book written to delight readers who like certain things!)
“I know, I know, I’m a word nerd, and I love my prose to be poetic, yes. But Paul, you may be saying, what about the actual story, can you tell me about that? And I can. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a really good gothic mystery, with folklore flourishes, stories within stories, and a vibrant menace hanging over everything.”
Also a reminder that this is on very soon — 6pm CT (New Orleans) on 6 August 2020, or 9am AEST (Brisbane) on 7 August 2020.
Flyaway is now out, in the USA, Australia and as an audiobook (at the moment, it’s on Audible in the US and as a Bolinda CD in Australia —
I’ll update that as I know more Edited to add: and now on Audible in Australia, too!).
When I reposted the New York Times review of Flyaway on Instagram, I received a lovely comment from Felicity Jurd, the narrator of the audiobook! It was our first contact, but I cheekily went straight ahead and asked if she’d like to talk a little bit about the audiobook, and she generously agreed.
Kathleen: Felicity! Thank you so much for narrating Flyaway. I was so glad you were able to do it — I love your warm, laid-back tones. So perfect for the light I was trying to capture in the book.
Felicity: Kathleen! I am so honoured to narrate Flyaway – it is breathtaking! [K: Thank you so much!]
Kathleen: I read a book in very different ways depending on whether I’m reading it to illustrate, or for research, or just to enjoy it as a reader. What sprang out of Flyaway (or if you prefer, what springs out of any book!) to you, when you read it as a narrator?
Felicity: Congratulations on your NY Times review! [K: Thank you!] I have to say I really agree that it was an unforgettable tale. It is so original. You’ve captured entering another world, a sort of parallel magical world which makes the listener think it could actually exist alongside our everyday world. What really sprang out to me was the way you wove the chapters and time shifts as well as the rich descriptions of the Australian landscape and the animals and plants. When I found out that you were an award-winning illustrator it made so much sense because it felt like you were doing a coloured sketch with words!
Kathleen: A voice actor brings such a feeling to a book — you’re the way a reader experiences the audiobook, after all, and it’s more than just speaking the words on the page. How do you tell the story, or — more specifically — what choices do you make doing that for (for example) Flyaway?
Felicity: I feel that part of my job is to give space to each of the thoughts and concepts in the book so that the audience has time to absorb. It’s so different to reading silently at great speed on your own. I feel listening to and absorbing an audiobook is a personal and sometimes emotional experience. I try to find the balance remembering that many people listen to audiobooks on a train or in the car or before going to sleep. So I make a choice to be a soothing narrator at a steady pace and hopefully that comes across :) I make a choice to choose the age, size, energy and personality of the characters as it helps me make vocal shifts for the characters that stand out from the narration throughline.
Kathleen: I always wish that we could get cover designers and audio narrators (and translators, and…) together onto panels at writing festivals to talk about how they helped make specific books a certain way, and how they understand a book. You get as close to the text as anyone. And voice actors are actors after all (not disregarding that you are a screen actor too!). How do you like to describe what you do with audiobooks, and what most charms you about it?
Felicity: I’m just the vessel and try my best to let your imagination live through mine. I try to imagine what the author might sound like if they were reading the book aloud. I also look up examples of the author’s other work and with you, Kathleen, I did a lot of research by seeing how art and illustration was such a part of your process and how detailed the book cover was. There were so many images and they were layered and there was a sense of Celtic art to it. I always feel like it is such an honour to read a book before it has even been published. I’ve been so lucky to have that first moment with you and with a number of other authors. I did a lot of reading about new subject areas to feel ready to record. I don’t want to give anything away, but there were words and concepts I had literally never heard of before reading the manuscript! I find that part of my job fascinating and it forces me to learn more all the time.
Kathleen: I wrote a lot of twisty sentences in Flyaway — it’s very much a book for people who like sentences! But I worry there were tongue-twisters as a result. How do you narrate a book that’s admittedly in love with its own words versus one that’s more about action and momentum?
Felicity: I love sentences, it’s true. Total book worm! When you have a book that focuses on action and momentum, the narration needs to work much more delicately with pacing and energy pushing under the layer of the throughline for the author’s story. This helps to drive the pace of the book and if you get it right, it really helps the story and suspense to live in the imagination of the listener. With novels like yours that explore its world in poetic, detailed descriptions, I tend to do individual word research. One of the things I do is read complex passages several times at home and then find the key words and look up their origin in etymology sites or books and explore the multitude of meanings. I often have so many questions about passages and usually the team at Pan McMillan/Picador are able to check with the author and I really loved receiving your audio file with pronunciations.
Kathleen: Is there anything people should listen for in this audiobook — something you tried to bring out in a particular way, for instance, or a professional choice you needed to make?
Felicity: Oh goodness! I hope I’ve done your incredible novel justice! It’s a beautiful work of art. I really tried to work hard to keep the mystery by staying in the scene — a good actor’s note I try to remember — as the story does move quite rapidly at times. I found that helped me so that I didn’t give away the surprises. I also did my best to focus on the emotion that was in the subtext of the character’s dialogue. I love it when dialogue is underwritten so that the characters are clearly saying more with their bodies and therefore the reader has to really imagine more. As a narrator, I try to address this by emotionally loading each line of dialogue with the right intonation and mood so that it subtly communicates the whole meaning, not just the words on the page, but the whole vibe!
Kathleen: I’d actually love to know how you’d describe Flyaway! (It’s been a bit of a Rorschach Test of a book.) Where does it fit into the types of stories you like (to read, or to work with)?
Felicity: It’s like a beautiful embroidery! Really rich in texture, and colours emerge as you explore the length and breadth of the fabric. It really reminded me so much of two other books. Hive by AJ Betts [audio] for its creation of a parallel world and unusual exploration of nature and also The Geography of Friendship by Sally Piper [audio] for its clear passion for the landscape, flora and fauna of Australian bush. I always love reading beautiful descriptive passages about nature & animals. And I especially love reading about each character and the way an author describes and reveals their character. I loved how deep the understanding was of each person with all their flaws, but how it seeped out like the sap of a tree rather than being delivered on a platter. I also really loved the way you wrote such a wide spectrum of female characters, all of whom departed from expectations/stereotypes.
Kathleen: What else do you do, and how do people find you and your work?
Felicity: When I’m not recording audiobooks, I am responding to sample requests for other audio projects and have been lucky to be doing all sorts of interesting projects from my home recording studio. I am lucky to have just finished work on the first children’s fiction podcast done by ABC ME. It’s called Mackeroy Uncovered – it was such fun! If people are interested in having their book narrated, I always love doing audio samples so that they can test it out! They can contact me via the incredible team at SCOUT Management.
Felicity Jurd’s website: http://www.felicityj.com/
Edited to add this tweet from Scout Management, because I just realised the book in progress is Flyaway:
GEEKLY, INC REVIEWS FLYAWAY
YEAR’S BEST ARRIVES
I have been buying a lot of books lately (not at all curtailed by a birthday subscription to Slightly Foxed Quarterly — did you know T. H. White published his journals about taking flying lessons?). So it was a delightful surprise to get an unexpected box of books in the mail.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 contains many wonderful short stories — and for once, thanks to judging the World Fantasy Awards, I have already read quite a few and can confirm they are great!
It also has my Tor.com story, “The Heart of Owl Abbas“.
Here’s the table of contents, the better to convince yourself to acquire this anthology:
- A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies — Alix E. Harrow
- Intervention — Kelly Robson
- The Donner Party — Dale Bailey
- How to Identify an Alien Shark — Beth Goder
- The Tale of the Ive-Ojan-Akhar’s Death — Alex Jeffers
- Carouseling — Rich Larson
- The Starship and the Temple Cat — Yoon Ha Lee
- Grace’s Family — James Patrick Kelly
- The Court Magician — Sarah Pinsker
- The Persistence of Blood — Juliette Wade
- Lime and the One Human — S Woodson
- Bubble and Squeak — David Gerrold & Ctein
- Sour Milk Girls — Erin Roberts
- The Unnecessary Parts of the Story — Adam-Troy Castro
- The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish — Octavia Cade
- The Gift — Julia Nováková
- The Buried Giant — Lavie Tidhar
- Jump — Cadwell Turnbell
- Umbernight — Carolyn Ives Gilman
- Today is Today — Rick Wilber
- The Heart of Owl Abbas — Kathleen Jennings
- The Spires — Alec Nevala-Lee
- The House by the Sea — P H Lee
- Foxy and Tiggs — Justina Robson
- Beautiful — Juliet Marillier
- Dayenu — James Sallis
- Firelight — Ursula K Le Guin
It’s two months today, until Flyaway is published!
There’ll be more posts coming soon, and interviews, and so on, but I am so very much looking forward to having the actual finished book in my hands.
I’ll be doing an online event with Avid Reader (Brisbane) at 6:30pm AEST on 18 August 2020! The booking page is here: https://avidreader.com.au/events/kathleen-jennings-flyaway (and you can order the book through them).
It is also available to preorder through many other very excellent local bookstores, and also:
You might have already seen my post for Tor.com on the process of illustrating Flyaway (Illustrating Flyaway: Kathleen Jennings on Creating Art and Prose Together), but there wasn’t room for all the possible sketches I had for it.
Here’s another, from early in my development of the project. At this point, I was thinking through all my favourite (and least favourite, and most obvious, and subtlest, and possible) tropes and common elements of Australian Gothic writing (and also influenced by Ninepin Press’ The Family Arcana).
Sometimes I’ll make a list of favourites from a current type of story, and then mix and match at random until the right feeling or setting or plot for a picture (or something I’m writing) emerges. Sometimes I draw up cards and turn it into a game.
Sometimes, just thinking about the possibility of that, and the sort of things I might play with is enough — the drawing of a game. This is not the first time I’ve taken this shortcut: Behold, direct from… a really really long time ago (please interpret accordingly!), An Encyclopaedia of Improbable Games.
But you can see much more about the art behind Flyaway on Tor.
Drawing/writing activities and a parlour game (also good in cafes, if you have cafes):
- (Adapted from a combination of workshop activities by Kelly Link, Kim Wilkins, and Anne Gracie): Think of something you are (or want to be — or should be!) working on.
– What type of story does it belong to? (Suburban gothic? High fantasy? Secret-baby romance?)
– Make a list of your favourite elements in that sort of story, and another list of your least favourite (try and get at least ten of each).
– This is useful as a diagnostic (are you writing about anything you actually enjoy as a reader? are you only drawing the least appealing parts of this scene?), for strengthening an image or story (clearly it needs a floating cat, and do you have at least the emotional equivalent of a race-to-the-airport-scene? are there small spirits living in the pot plants, or did you forget to leave out the ominous wall decorations?), and for combining to come up with new ideas.
- When with friends, tear up paper into cards — seven or so for each person. Pick a genre (or even just a favourite story world — we’ve done this with fairy tales, but also with Doctor Who).
– Everyone sketches their favourite elements onto their cards (one element per card). Shuffle all the cards together.
– Go around the table and tell the story (a fairy tale, and episode of Doctor Who), taking turns to play a card and incorporate that into the story.
– Or each person picks three and draws (or writes/tells) a scene suggested by that combination.
– (If you want a card game along these lines, I really like Atlas Game’s Once Upon a Time).