John Caviglia on Amgalant

travelling, talking 1This short entry is to link to a most observant discussion of my historical fiction project by John Caviglia: a post on the blog of Rounded Globe, who have just published my ‘Voices’ essay.

Observant is what I might expect from John Caviglia, who is both a writer (premodern, epic-in-scope historical fiction) and in his past a professor of comparative literature. I particularly enjoy his remarks on Elizabethan theatre-style staging. Certainly I imitated theatre in a few ways. There are scenes where I cease to write in anything other than people’s spoken lines, to be like a play script: because these ought to do, they ought to stand by themselves. And I several times had in mind Elizabethan resemblances. My acquaintance with theatre is largely Elizabethan, let’s face it; and for reasons unspecified I did often want a theatrical air.

“He can tell a hawk from a hatchet flung at his head.” – Jamuqa misquotes Hamlet.

travelling, talking 2

Images
Book art from the Ilkhanlig: a Mongol court travelling, talking…
The Diez Albums, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Published: Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe

VoicesToday my digital book for Rounded Globe, Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, is published. Available here.

There are two aspects to this essay. Chiefly, it is source criticism – a study of my primary source the Secret History of the Mongols – and on the side, it is a creative writer’s interactions with the body of secondary work on this source.

Academic historians may or may not be aware that outside of other historians and history students, they have a large readership among historical novelists. I’ve become conscious of this since I joined Goodreads: often I look up a history book and find its single review, or its most in-depth review, is from a novelist who engaged with it for her material. These reviews frequently enter into passionate conversation with the historian – as I know I do in the privacy of my home. Novelists rarely hide their investment in their subjects; although this need not mean we do not strive to be fair-minded.

Novelists, inevitably, have a different perspective on the source material (unless a historian moves along the spectrum towards a novelist’s position). We weigh things differently; we seek out things of less concern to historians. Or so I have found in my fifteen years spent with my primary source and the secondary work upon it. I began with no preconceptions (I had not thought about these issues); and at the end I know that my experience, which I write about in this essay, is a case study, that is, a single case, whose applicability to other cases I cannot guess at. Other novelists might nod along, see familiar trends, even an analogue. My source is a peculiar one in its own level of artistry (to an extent it is written ‘like an epic’). No doubt every source is a peculiar one, and every novelist’s engagement singular. I believe in the worth of case studies, and have simply written out my experience: the three-way conversation between source, novelist and historians.

On the specifics of the Secret History of the Mongols, I have reached a few conclusions which are not in the main history books, or the major commentary. I offer these as the arguments a novelist uses for her own purposes. Perhaps she does tend to interpret differently because she is a novelist: I do not say for certain; no doubt her ethos is different, probably her method. I am happy for the chance to make a few arguments, which otherwise I have only had the opportunity to put (persuasively or not – you be the judge) in fictional format, in my set of novels Amgalant. The original argument most likely to catch people’s interest, I imagine, has to do with Temujin’s own contributions to the Secret History: the idea that we have his memories, as he told them, and with this, we have insight into his psychology.

I owe great thanks to Simon Cook, co-founder of Rounded Globe. Firstly, for seeing worth in my Mongol novels; secondly, for seeing value in my account of how I came to write them, and commissioning this essay.

I want to thank…

I’m 50 today and kids, it’s tough to turn 50. I’ve had a questioning week. You’re lucky you’re not getting a post called Futility at Fifty, but instead, by grace, I’m in the mood to thank a few people.

First my sister, without whom. Every book of Amgalant has this dedication:

My sister has been godmother to the book. Amgalant, what’s written and what isn’t written yet, is dedicated to her, with waves from Tem and Jam, and no sight or scent of a goat. In steppe epic, a steed and a sister are your trustiest, most intelligent and indefatigable aid: the hero doesn’t have to be heroic, but these do.

When gloomy in the past week, I browsed writers’ blogs for the harsher side of the writing life. The sad experience is, numbers of writers operate without support from those closest to them – or with active sabotage of their attempt to write. One comment I saw this week I understood: a writer said she found dedications in books hard to read. A few years ago, I did too. You don’t like to confess it. But those dedications that go, ‘my wife lived with this novel for five years, and listened to my instalments every evening at dinner…’ I mean, frankly, you think, poor wife, don’t you? And if you’re me you think, I don’t know how to ask that of another person, even if I believed you should, and I have to believe you shouldn’t. Neither do I happen to know, in person, of writers with this sort of husband; if you do have a significant other like this, value them and for God’s sake don’t ask too much. It can hurt to see dedications. Because of the ones you don’t see: ‘I wrote this alone and nobody helped.’ I felt like that a few years ago, but I was with a man who gave me daily discouragement. I think he sensed – and he was quite right – that the novel was the only thing to have come along that mattered to me as much or more than he did; and it was a shock to him, who had been the centre of my attention. I left the man and kept the book, as any sensible writer does. People don’t write dedications such as that in published books, and so struggling writers only see the nice ones. On blogs, in writers’ groups online, is where you see admissions of the real situation. There are writers who have to function in the total absence of support from husband, children, family and friends. I know how lucky I am to have my sister. Without whom, I’d be a worse person and possibly no writer.

At slight risk of embarrassment to him, I next want to thank Don Jansen, because he’s the perfect reader, of whom we writers dream. Why is he the perfect reader? He’s an intelligent, curious reader who ranges widely, without prejudices. He reads at the high end too but has no genre prejudice; and nor does he avoid the self-published. Bless his socks. While one can count one’s readers on one’s fingers (or at least, readers who don’t wish I were Conn Iggulden – because folks, I never set out to be, I never shall be; live and let live, I wish him well) – in that situation, a single reader can make it feel worthwhile. Sorry to embarrass you, Don.

Thanks to fellow novelists. For instance, I assured Gary, twice, he shouldn’t feel he has to read mine – his subject had been a hook to me but I couldn’t see he had any earthly interest in Mongols – still, he read it on the quiet and surprised me. John, no doubt, is too much of a gentleman not to have returned a read; even so, it was in no way incumbent upon him to read Two.

Thanks to Joseph. It’s hard even to place mine with book bloggers, I think, and therefore, to have his professional reviews, of both One and Two, is invaluable. To be honest I can’t work out how ‘professional review’ is defined in the indie context – I certainly don’t mean paid reviews, which I abhor. Whatever, I know he’s a professional, and his opinion has mattered as much to me, in its own way, as the coveted ‘reader-only’ opinion.

That’s it. I’ll go away and be fifty now. You’ll excuse that I complain about this fact online; I’m a solitary creature and when I talk I tend to tweet or blog.

mucked with

When I was 49, with heavy book on shoulder. I tried to do an imitation-shot after Joy Hester’s ‘Girl with Book on Head’ – which is such an identification-picture for bookish girls – but the shot didn’t work out.
Girl with Book on Head

 

 

 

Finished? Unfinished?

thumbnail Old-Ideal-coverthumbnail Tribal-Brawls-coverA note on my books. Can they stand alone? Do you have to wait for Three for satisfaction? How finished or unfinished is the story?

Answer: One and Two are whole books, with a conclusion to the events in them, and the themes tied up. Read One, and you’ve reached a finish. Read One and Two, and you’ve reached a finish. As for me, if I’m smashed by a bus today, I’ll be upset that I haven’t gotten to tell you my ideas on Temujin’s later life; but I, too, for my comfort, know I have reached a finish.

My instincts operate this way; I wouldn’t myself write an unfinished book, and very far from leave you with a cliffhanger, I’m concerned to give us both closure. I think you’ve a right to insist on that at the end of six hundred pages, and I have no excuses, I’ve had space to see my story and my themes out to an end. [There is a footnote to this. See footnote.]

Also, I want to be free for the next. The next has different demands, and I need the freedom to meet new questions with new answers. Each of my books has a different style — at least to my eyes, which may be hyper-sensitive. It’s a big thing for me about how Temujin changes, how life changes for him, and I’ve got to have an elasticity to capture that.

Footnote

So, what about the sections I’ve issued? Are they finished books? I’d say, #1 Of Battles Past, #2 When I am King and #4 The Sheep from the Goats — yes, these are books in themselves. Only #3 Me and Atrocity I don’t call a book, and I’m dissatisfied with the situation there… a casualty of publishing. By great fortune, The Old Ideal split neatly into halves, both in size and subject; less fortunately, Tribal Brawls had to divide into a third and the other two-thirds. What’s worse, I stuck a facetious title on: Jamuqa must have named Me and Atrocity.

Near misses

Whenever you pick covers, there are those you almost chose or wish were possible to you. So I just have to exhibit a few great images I didn’t use.

For a book titled ‘The Sheep from the Goats’ and to do with Mongols, the above was an obvious resort. It’s quite famous: painted by a Zhao Mengfu in the Yuan Dynasty (that’s the Mongols in China), it’s thought to be a comment on the question, whether or not to work for the Mongols. There were Chinese scholar-officials who refused to serve under the Mongols and kept an ivory-tower aloofness; others argued for useful service, yes, even with barbarians in charge. After ten years in the ivory tower Zhao Mengfu agreed to join the court of Khubilai Khan, and defended his stance against the criticism of peers. His stout, stuffy sheep feels lofty next to his combative, more energetic goat.

 

Another goat I found – in case you’re keen on goats. Here’s a totem-style Yule Goat from Gotland, an 18th-century farm now a museum.

 

 

 

Getting away from goats. When I began to think about animalistic masks, I found this Swiss carnival mask, in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

It’s great, but we went to Africa instead. I’ll have to post on the African masks, but it’s a subject new to me.

And here’s what else I found on David with the head of Goliath:

 

A second Caravaggio

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Titian

 

 

 

 

 

And one by a certain Valentin de Boulogne

 

 

 

I did notice, on my search, most Davids were too dainty, too fastidious to touch the head, never mind haul it by the hair, as Caravaggio’s does: they posed beside it with their hands off. Caravaggio, of course, knew about the seamy side of life, wasn’t a stranger to blood. No-one else even thought to try an expression on David’s face like to my chosen Caravaggio.

and again, joys of indie

Still on text placement, do your own. With special attention to climactic passages. It’s wonderful how a space, inserted where convenient and unnoticable, that merely shortens a line twenty lines above, gives a new page break which – in the drama of the moment – functions for us, either holds a line back, keeps a paragraph whole, and the sense leaps out unobstructed, undiffused. It’s like poetry, your line and your word placement in poetry.

If I’d known paperbacks were this much fun…

joys of indie #103

With paperbacks, you can arrange your text on the page, for the sense. I can set out my sentences, by quietly juggled spaces, not to sprawl sloppily or lurch from page to page, cut in half or quartered where we don’t want an interruption — I can make that brief gap when you have to turn the page, suit or run smoothly, even hide a spoiler. Every page handcrafted, by me, for your experience of the book.

My paperbacks, and my text layout, I don’t doubt, have an indie feel. But that includes lines set out by the writer, with an eye to content, not just neatness.

On ebook errors. A flippant post.

I seem to have high, high threshold for those unvetted ebooks that come equipped with grammatical gymnastics, slips of the finger, and creative spellings. Notice how fond that sentence was?

It’s an issue that puts a lot of people off the indie publishing lark. A great excuse has leapt to mind, about my toleration factor. From an early age I have stumbled through medieval literature, unmodernised. I loathe modernisations. (If you want to know why, just read the first four lines of Canterbury Tales in Penguin’s modern English translation, and then read them in Penguin’s original-spelling edition. See?) I had the commonsense – which I must have learnt, possibly from T.H. White, or T.E. Lawrence? – to loathe modernisations from the start, so I pitted my teen brain against original-spelling Malory and onwards into the wonders of medieval romance.

As for genuine Malory, may I pose the question: do you like your knights garnysshed for battle, or… come to that, I’ve only eyed moderns to scorn them and don’t have one in the house. What do they do? Garnish Sir Lancelot for joust? I bet he prepares, doesn’t he, or arms himself: and how much is lost?

Or I’ll give you the serious argument, although this is a tangent. Yes, the original is odd to our eyes. But that is a constant little memento to you: throw yourself back, do not make your modern assumptions, question them – at every sentence, watch for the 15thC ideas of the world, and don’t judge by your own. Else you read the book half-blind. The ‘simplest’ change – removal of the garnysshynges – starts to remove the evidence, in this case, on their idea of battle, that’s different than ours, in subtle ways you need the words to study. If you want to know how a knight felt in his battle preparations, Malory can tell you, but a moderniser won’t.

Where was I? Ebooks. After these encounters with spelling and grammar different from our own, and yet English, can I mind an ebook? The grammar and spelling taught to us goes for here and now, but English has been a Beast Glatisant with head of pard and feet of hart, and Chaucer, he’d be kicked out of grammar class today. It’s English, he might protest on his way out. If I can understand it – this is the bottom line – it’s English, and even to have strictures on how to spell a word is latter-day in the wonderful life of English. Is this why I don’t care?

It is a great excuse.

Cover for Two

512px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Death_on_a_pale_horse_-_Google_Art_ProjectSince the artwork for Two is decided beyond negotiation, here we are. This is Turner: Death on a Pale Horse.

Nobody can talk me out of this one. Too grisly for a first book, I admit, but Two is where Stuff Happens. And there’s a death at the end of Two (no spoilers) – this picture is talking that death to me.  My sister understands me. The white horse heads upwards, the carcass a load on his back, and… you know. The carcass is just carcass, but the horse?

Cover for One: runner-up

helmet lad cutHelmet Lad. Giotto, amongst the crowd in a crucifixion scene, paints a soldier with a band of pseudo-Mongol script about his helmet. Go figure.

This lad has the feel of Temujin if not the features. Temujin spends much of the book in a pother about his head wear; and the weight of kingship sits heavily upon him. There’s Jamuqa’s trophy helmet too, though that’s teardrop shape, black iron smoothly damascened with gold dragons in flight. Description of a real helmet – I’ll give you that one later.
helmet lad in situ