Monday, November 25, 2013

First Official Review of Birthright

This review appeared on Beattie's Book Blog this morning.

“Birthright”, by T. K. Roxborogh (Penguin NZ) is the final in Tania Roxborogh’s Shakespeare inspired Banquo’s Son Trilogy, which tells the story of Fleance, son of Banquo from Macbeth. In Birthright, Fleance is the now beleaguered king of Scotland, fighting to save his crown, his people, his family, and his love. It is a fitting conclusion to an excellent series and should leave all who have followed this story through feeling very satisfied.

The book is told from a variety of points of view, including Fleance (our hero), Rosie (his great love), Rachel (his queen), Robert Graham (his enemy), Bree (his disgruntled young sister-in-law) and the three witches (who link it strongly to the story of Macbeth.) In short, well written sections, each narrator helps unfold a tale of deceit, intrigue, war and love, to bring about a very satisfying immersion into the world of medieval Scotland.

The research is seamless and never gets in the way of the story, while the tone and multiple voices all feel very authentic and believable. There is a cleanness to the writing that allows emotions to rise to the surface and a frankness that makes it feel very real. People need to slip off for a pee in the story, or stink of toil and war. It doesn’t gloss over the trials of childbirth either, or the horror and waste of lives brought about by the power plays of the ruling class. Yet it’s never so gory or disgusting that it distracts, merely adds an extra narrative dimension that makes it a more memorable and fully immersed experience for the reader.

This is a world class book that deserves wide readership, both by its intended YA audience and for any adult who likes a well written and moving historical novel.

About the reviewer:
Mandy Hager  has written eight novels, as well as short stories, scripts, and non-fiction resources for young people. She won the Esther Glen Award for Fiction for her novel Smashed and Best Young Adult Book in the 2010 NZ Post Book Awards for The Crossing, the first book in the popular ‘Blood of the Lamb’ trilogy. Her 2012 novel, The Nature of Ash, was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in the Young Adult Fiction category, and won the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction award. Her latest book, Dear Vincent (2013), about painting, suicide and Vincent Van Gogh, was written with the support of the 2012 Beatson Fellowship.

Mandy has been awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship for 2014 and she is one of the best writers for YA I'd read. I urge you to read her work if you haven't already. I put her in the same category as John Green. Seriously. Smashed and Dear Vincent grabbed me, knocked me around and left me changed forever.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Birthright born!!

Last night, we launched Birthright officially out into the world.

Here is the evidence:
Me signing
My eldest, Mackenna and my hubby, Phillip

My youngest, Brianna and a friend

Flowers from my dept and school. Cupcakes made by Dunedin Cupcake Company.
You can watch the presentations here (Kay Mercer of Dunedin Public Libraries introducing me and then reading a letter from my publisher, Penguin. And then you can go here to listen to my daughter Mackenna launch the book and my response. I include the text of my speech below as well:

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā waka, e tau nei. tenā koutou, tenā koutou, tenā tātou katoa.

When I was at primary school, I remember watching a British children's TV series about an invalided girl who was confined to her bed. She could only see the world outside through her window.  However, her mother gave her a sketching set and that's when the trouble began: what she drew came into existence the next day: a lighthouse, a boy in that lighthouse, rocks which later became angry rocks with eyes and the ability to move and hunt. I also loved the illustrated childrens' book, Harold and the Magic Crayon: a wordless story about a curious four year old boy, who with his purple crayon, created a world of his own simply by drawing it.

Back then, I was fascinated by the idea that one could have power to make things happen even though one might be powerless in other ways. As a child who was often at a place of sadness and fear, the possibility of being able to create a better, happier world was as strong a desire as perhaps those of you who wished that you could fly.

The television programme and the book were also cautionary tales: and relevant today because the warning, careful what you wish for or careful what you say and think.... it might just come true, is, in some respects the blessing and curse of being a writer.

When I woke that morning way back in 2008 from a dream of a young boy hunting a deer in the forest, knowing that he was Banquo's Son and wondering where he'd been for ten years, I had no idea how big a story it was to become, how difficult it was going to be to write and how hard I and my family would find the road on which we had to travel for the next six years.

It has taken that long: from first inkling of an epic tale to the launch of this, the third and final book.

Banquo's Son was banged out most of one summer; Bloodlines took a year to write but Birthright has been a more reluctant issue: when I started it, I thought I knew what the characters would say and do and think but, who am I? I'm really just a mug who has all these people rattling around in my head trying to sort out their problems. And they were the big problems too: the ones we ask ourselves during those dark sleepless nights when we feel most alone; most isolated; most afraid. Questions like: why do bad things keep happening to me? Why should I be the one who has to carry the load? What's wrong with wanting to pull the duvet over my head and stay in bed? And, probably the toughest and most honest question of all: If God is all mighty and loving, where the bloody hell is he?

It felt, a lot of the time, that Fleance, Rachel, Rosie and, later, Bree, were looking to me to help them find the answers to these questions. All I could do, I confess, is think up the most awful situations to put them in and watch them deal with it - I think it's called tough love. It's what we writers do. Perhaps we are a little like the Boss in Katherine's The Fly or as Glouster says bitterly in King Lear: 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.'

But, I am also a person of hope. And I want happy endings. You can't appreciate a happy ending, I think, if you haven't suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune first. So, I apologise in advance for what you are about to experience in the reading of Birthright but I hope that, like me, you too will be left with a few tears among the smiles as you turn the last page.

Before I shut up and sit down, I want to publically acknowledge some people - many of whom are in the author's acknowledgment - the part that only other writers read:
I admit I'm not a bad storyteller but I could not have produced this without my publisher Penguin and my wonderful editor Katie Howarth and her team of intrepid editors and proof-readers. I spent so long in my head with this story and I had so many false starts that I did lose my way a bit. Katie, patient and astute, drew me back onto the straight and narrow - there will not be horses lost or misplaced in this book, I can guarantee you. I am so fortunate to have had Katie helping me these past few years and she should also be credited with how beautiful the story and the novel turned out. It's so purty!

This book is dedicated to the memory of Chloe Anson - a remarkable young woman and a talented writer who I met in 2006 and whose company I enjoyed for a number of years as she made her way up the secondary school. I am so glad I got to tell her how the trilogy ends. I want her parents and family to know that this is my way of keeping alive all that Chloe meant to me and I hope they will take some comfort in this, my meagre offering to honour her.

I also wish to publically thank and honour my husband Phillip who has (reluctantly I'm sure at times) stood steadfastly beside me and often behind me holding me up. Together we have navigated this tumultuous time of parenting teenagers, managing careers, studying at university and living with me, a writer who spends as much time in other places inside my head as I do in the real world. As much as I had a crush on Fleance, Phillip, he doesn't hold a candle to you.

My daughters, Mackenna and Brianna, have watched their mother battle with those questions I mentioned earlier - both in the writing of the books but also in my own life. But, like my main characters, they possess a indomitable spirit and absolutely goodness that can not be extinguished by the cruel and incomprehensible behaviour of others. I'm so proud of you two.

I have put away the purple crayon and I promise I won't get out the sketch pad for a while although how long I can hold at bay the other stories and characters who wait in the wings, I can not say.

Thank you to Kay Mercer and the Dunedin Public Libraries, our host and thanks also to UBS for always supporting local and NZ writers. I am glad you all could join me tonight as I kick - I mean - launch this final chapter of Flea's story into the big wide world.

Ko te mutanga tēnei
Kia ora

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Birthright picked third in list of top 50 books for children and young adults, 2013

50 best children’s books 2013

Ann Packer picks the year’s reading highlights for children and young adults.

THIRD Faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare, BIRTHRIGHT (Puffin, $35)concludes TK Roxborogh’s Banquo’s Son trilogy of life in Scotland following the murder of Macbeth. Fleance’s Queen Rachel, suffering from severe pregnancy sickness, insists on ministering to those struck down by a disease conjured up by the same weird sisters who foretold Macbeth’s demise. The resolution of the love triangle involving “Flea”, his queen and his childhood sweetheart Rosie makes for a satisfying conclusion to the Dunedin author’s magnificent obsession.

I like this all being described as my 'magnificent obsession'. Read the list here

Monday, September 30, 2013

Birthright has arrived - well my advance copy has!

Boy, it's been a long gestation, this trilogy. I'm glad it's finally over and am thankful for the team at Penguin NZ for making the book so purty. (Though I don't because I've just walked up from the University. But, what a treat to find this in my letter box).

And, because it's been a long time between drinks, I thought I'd give you:
The story so far
The story begins in 1053, when Fleance is living with his adoptive parents and sister in the woods of northern England. Despite knowing who he is – the son of the murdered Thane of Lochaber – Fleance keeps his identity secret for fear that those who killed his father Banquo, and tried to kill him, are still seeking his life. He is in love with Rosie, the daughter of a wainwright, and is on the verge of asking for her hand in marriage when the ghost of his father appears. This apparition and the nightmares that have plagued him since he fled Scotland spur Fleance to action – he must go back to the land of his birth and try to find out why his father died. He rides north, leaving behind a broken-hearted Rosie and her furious father.

In Scotland, Fleance finds the answer he is seeking: it was the tyrant Macbeth who had Banquo murdered. In his quest for the truth, Fleance is reunited with his boyhood friend, Blair, saves the life of Duncan, nephew of King Malcolm, and is introduced to Duncan’s sisters, Rachel and Bree.
During the months of Fleance’s absence Rosie’s parents have moved back to Scotland and settled in Perth as innkeepers. Fleance’s identity is revealed, and since he believes his life is no longer in danger, he sets out to return to Rosie as promised. But on the way to Perth he is attacked by a hired assassin. Fleance is badly wounded and lost in the forest for days. By the time he reaches the inn, Rosie has returned to England, believing that Fleance has broken his promise.

Within a matter of months the ailing King Malcolm dies, and his brother, the mad, witchcraft-obsessed Donalbain, suffers a fatal blow to the head when he tries to kill Fleance. Duncan is crowned king, just as Scotland’s royal army prepares for battle against a rebel army.

Meanwhile, Rosie arrives at the castle with Fleance’s adoptive sister, Keavy. Rosie has been in England nursing Fleance’s adoptive mother through a fatal illness, and now Keavy is without a guardian. Fleance agrees to take care of her and promises that when the battle is over, he will find Rosie and they will be together.

During the battle, the king’s army learn that the rebels are supported by Norway and its king, who for a number of years has been disguised as Calum, an aide to Duncan’s father, Donalbain. This is not the only truth revealed on the battlefield: Magness, Fleance’s adoptive father, is the leader of the rebel army that has come against the crown. Before either of these men can be killed or captured, they escape. Though his army is victorious, the newly crowned Duncan is fatally wounded. Because Duncan has no heir, Fleance is next in line to the throne, and before the young king dies he bestows the crown and the hand of his sister Rachel to Fleance.

Fleance must make a decision: to go back to Rosie and a life of peace and happiness or to honour the dying wishes of his friend. The King of Scotland cannot marry the daughter of an innkeeper, and so Fleance chooses to put aside his own desires and follow the path of honour and duty, thus becoming King of Scotland.

Shaken by the rebellion, Fleance’s advisors insist that he marry Rachel to strengthen the royal line. He and Rachel enjoy a close relationship, but it is without the passion each of them has felt for another.
Shortly before their wedding, Rachel is kidnapped by Calum’s men and taken to Norway, where she is stripped of all her dignity. But when Calum needs her skills as a healer she is sent to the palace hospital to tend Norway’s soldiers wounded from battle.

In Scotland, Fleance is unable to discover what has happened to Rachel, and agrees to a suggestion that Blair and Rosie travel around the east of the kingdom in search of her. Meanwhile the rebel armies have gathered strength and Fleance must prepare for a second battle.

Once again the king’s army is victorious, and the rebel leader Magness is captured. As a traitor, Magness must be executed and, despite Keavy’s pleas for the life of their father, Fleance has him hanged.

Rosie and Blair discover that Rachel is being held in Norway, so Fleance travels in disguise to Calum’s realm. The only person in Scotland he tells of his plan is Preston, his loyal advisor. In Norway Fleance is captured, tortured and left to die. He is saved by Preston, who tricks Calum and dies in Fleance’s place. Escaping Calum’s stronghold, Fleance makes his way to Normandy and the court of William. There he finds Rachel, who had escaped Norway days before his arrival. The two are reunited and agree that they must marry.

Before Fleance can wed Rachel he decides he must free Rosie. He tells her that he no longer loves her and that their love was young and foolish. Angry and bereft, she returns the necklace he gave her for her birthday and curses him. Soon afterward, Rosie takes Blair’s hand in marriage.
Behind all these tumultuous events and always on the edges of the action, are the evil-hearted witches who first snagged Macbeth over a decade before

And, now, the intro to Book Three:

‘There are many stories, Sire, but nothing explains why some people take sick, why some get better, and some go mad and die . . .’

Scotland, 1055, and the kingdom is on the verge of collapse. There is rebellion in the south, a mysterious illness sweeps the land and some say that dark, supernatural powers are responsible.

Fleance, the young king, and his wife, Rachel, await the birth of their first child, but the queen is very ill and rumours fly about that the royal family is cursed. Fleance and Rachel must try to hold the realm together in the face of disease and treachery, both within and without the castle walls. Only a few loyal friends can be trusted, including the Thane of Lochaber and his wife, Rosie, whose very presence stirs up painful memories for Fleance.

Trouble is brewing – and not all who participate in the struggle will survive.

Birthright is the heart-stopping conclusion to T. K. Roxborogh’s epic Banquo’s Son series.
Order your copy here or go into The Childrens Bookshop Wellington


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A writing challenge.

In book one, my daughter wrote a scene for me; in book two, one of my students wrote a scene for me. In book three, via an auction during a school fair, a person got her name included in the book.

And now I've set up another competition - to write a summary of Books One and Two for the start of Book Three.

Go to my Facebook page for more details.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Final touches and the value of another's eyes

I'm a perfectionist. I'm particular. I'm pretty fussy when it comes to getting what I pay for and doing the best at what is expected of me. It is because of these personality ticks that I'm grateful for the team at Penguin NZ who are putting together the finishing touches to Birthright.

Let me tell you about the two photos above: they are snapshots of a couple of pages of the proofs which I'd gone through (pencil) and then the proof-reader (red pen). I'm an English teacher so I'm pretty skilled at spotting a misused comma at a thousand paces. I may not be too good at spelling (I need my dictionary) but I can see spelling mistakes in my students' work. See, I'm pretty good with apostrophes as well.

So it is with some personal shame that I see how well the proof-reader did her job and how poorly I did mine. She told my project editor that she didn't find many errors; that the ms was pretty clean. I was feeling mightily self-satisfied until the fresh manuscript arrived this morning with this marked up copy. If that's 'pretty clean', I'd hate to see what grubby or dirty looks like.

There must be some research out there which explains why we just can't see errors in our own work; why we 'see' things so differently to others. Not sure if that information would make proof-reading one's work more effective but it might.

Anyway, I'm happy to say that publication day is now only a few months away. Here's a rough of the cover to whet your appetite.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Some hints for (re) writing history and historical fiction - long post

Last Saturday, I joined Dr Tom Brooking from the University of Otago to present a workshop about writing history and writing historical fiction. The workshop was part of the annual AGM and conference of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN). Tom was up first (I’d cleverly organised that) and he spoke to us about what he sees are the four key elements needed to write history:

One: Pursue truth. There will be bits missing so be honest about the gaps; there will be a bias both conscious and unconscious so be prepared to challenge orthodoxy; be aware of knowing the difference between what happened and what people think happened. He gave examples also of where the people he was writing about often misremembered things about when and where they did things.; and, finally, face ‘presentism’ – the idea that the current beliefs and understanding will be different to the time period you are writing about.

Two: Get the details right: history, like law, is an evidential subject so details about furniture, architecture and clothes etc need to be accurate and must be drawn from the evidence of research.

Three: Clarity: any good history should never be dull. (he said you need to write in the active voice)

Four: Telling stories well: a good story makes us care about the subject.

Dr Tom read from his current WIP (which is almost ready to go to print) about the life of Richard (King Dick) Seddon which he has been working on for the past seven years as well as other publications to illustrate his points

Then I took the ‘stage’ and spoke about my ‘history’ of reading and reading history:
I grew up in a home without books; no one read to me when I was a baby or when I was a child. I did not have a bookshelf in my room filled with titles by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens or Dr Seuss. In the living room, the bookshelf housed only an old bible, a hundred year old text on veterinary science and horses, and volume one of Readers Digests Classic Adventure Stories. But we children grew up in a world of story-tellers, surrounded by the voices of our elders who, often in front of a roaring fire, with bottles of DB or glasses of rum and coke and someone strumming a guitar, would swap tales: of people, places and things that happened this afternoon or the other day or once upon a time.

My mother also filled our heads with stories: we would listen to her as she spoke on the phone, over the smoko in the shearing shed or in the car on our trips into town. She would paint us pictures with her words and, when I was old enough, I began to do the same. She was responsible for my discovering that I could read outside the structure of my primary classroom: Mum needed a rest and, because I was a fidgety and unpredictable child, she settled me beside her, and my newborn sister, in the double bed and shoved the Readers Digest volume into my hands.

Bored with trying to sit still and quiet so as not to wake the baby, I turned to the first chapter of Call of the Wild. With a stubby finger, I picked out the individual letters and was surprised to see them swim together into recognisable words. The words joined the others on the page and, within moments, I had dived deep into the Alaskan wilderness: my mother, my sister and the hot afternoon gone.

I outlined what history I studied at school and university (racial problems of South Africa and American and the origins of world war one and two, The Age of Revolution and Capitalism in Europe; early New Zealand history including race relations (here and in Australia) and account (or lack thereof) of women’s lives in our two countries.

As a child and teen, I devoured all sorts of books – some of them ‘historical’ and, as an adult read prescribed classics including Les Miserables (of which I am still moved to tears) and the wonderful Diana Gabaldine. In fact, as a template goes, she and George RR Martin are about it in terms of my literary historical influences.

As to the trilogy, it did not start as a result of an interest in 11th Century Scotland, or even Scotland or even things medieval. It was not an area I knew anything about at all. It started with Shakespeare and, like all of my stories, it started with a question: How did Banquo’s son become king?

There is no historical allusion to that question. It could be talking about a lad from a South American drug cartel; it could be talking about the grandfather of Elvis.

Like all of my stories, the focus is on the character and the quest – the desire, the problem, what needed to be done to over-come the problem to get back to what he desired. Then I placed him in his setting and that’s when I went researching. I started with a large canvas and sketched an outline [this is where I did some show and tell with my large roll out paper plan like a map], then I began to fill and colour in the details – adding even more as it came (through the research) but the focus was still on character and action.

Using a quote from Sir James McNeish (non-fiction is about the facts and fiction is about truth), I discussed this a bit and said that I constantly asked myself the question: If I were so-and-so, what would I believe about my world? For example, Rachel’s attitude to God compared with Fleance’s attitude. Then I read this extract from Birthright:

‘The gospels say that any man who puts his hand upon the plough but looks back is not fit. Not fit for the kingdom of God and not fit for the kingdom. I put my hand to this plough, with no one forcing me to, and this is the field I am responsible for.’

‘So you believe God has had a hand in all of this?’

If not God, then some unseen force greater than men and kings was at work. Fleance thought of Harold and his confidence in the witches’ prophecy. He looked at the sky – feeble, thin clouds stretched across the horizon, offering no comfort. He looked at the trees, the rocks, the shrubs, and thought of those dark times in his dreams or on the road or in battle. Too much loyalty, too much passion, too much will to not be spurred by a greater force. ‘Well, Him or his lieutenant.’

Blair laughed. ‘Or the Devil.’

‘Or all three.’ He lay his cloak on the ground and fell upon it. ‘I cannot say that any one is on my side.’

When writing 'truth' in historical fiction, I said, the author needs to balance the knowledge of the natural/scientific world of the reader with the understandings/beliefs of the people of the era (which often leads to dramatic irony i.e. the reader knows what is going to happen in history so the writer can be quite ‘gleeful’ in these moments ‘Ooh, we know how that’s gonna end!’

I said that Dr Brooking’s four elements were true for writers of historical fiction as well and that the elements that I am also mindful of are: vocabulary, dialogue, geography (getting around) and politics and key dates. Writing and researching 11th Century Scotland is problematic so I read out the author’s note to be included in the front of the novel:

In the first book of this trilogy, I said, ‘I have tried as much as possible to draw upon the vocabulary that was in use during Shakespeare’s time rather than from 11th-century Scotland, as I imagined myself sitting at Shakespeare’s desk writing.’ As an English teacher who adores all things to do with the writings of William Shakespeare and the use of the English language, I take seriously words and their meanings.
I have been, as much as possible, diligent in my efforts to source the origins of words, beliefs, practices and anything else of the time I am writing about, because I want things to be authentic.

However, as the Bard himself played around with history when he wrote his plays so that the needs of the story were met – as have countless authors over the years – I make no apology for twisting the facts of 11th century to fit my narrative. One of my rules in the writing of this series is this: if something existed before Shakespeare’s death in 1614, then it is allowed to be used in my writing. These are my rules. While this is fiction, I have spent endless hours talking to experts, and in reading articles and books devoted to medieval medicine, to Scotland, England, Norway, Normandy, religion, costume, weaponry, crops, food . . .
If there is an historical change, consider it author’s licence. And, if you recognise a word or phrase from the man himself, that is deliberate – it’s me having fun and giving a nod to his absolute genius. Thumbs up to you for spotting the references.

Somewhere in there, I listed the sources I used and did some more show and tell: books from my brother-in-law – the maps; books tracing Scottish royalties, medieval customs and concerns. Meeting with the experts in this field: doctors, orthopaedic surgeons, priests, friends who come from Scotland, google maps, Wikipedia – linked to things I didn’t know I didn’t know so that a world began to be populated. If I didn’t know or wasn’t sure I asked. Sometimes time and place impacted on action and sometimes it was the other way around.

My husband has just told me that what I’ve written here is very dry compared with what I presented which was so interesting and entertaining because of all the ad-libbing. Ain’t he sweet?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Final proofing a manuscript is like an eye exam...

Those of you who have sat through at least one session with an optometrist might understand that moment when he or she says: which is clearer: slide one; or two? One or two?

You're sitting there in the chair, trying not to squint (because you'll get told not to) and, for the life of you, the difference between slide one and two is... umm... Well, you pick one just to keep the doctor happy.

My editor has made a few changes in my manuscript which makes me feel like I'm in that chair again: is it better to say: he looked straight into the eyes of.... OR he found himself looking straight into the eyes of....?

I read these either or choices aloud to my husband. It is he who says it's as difficult as saying which is clearer - one or two. He's right of course and so the final decision rests with me. The editor has made the change because something jarred for her so I am back reading the entire manuscript out loud to ensure there is smoothness. In some parts, though, it's like trying to iron out the wrinkles in the cover-seal of one of my daughter's exercise books.

As I read, I see a word and it does the job but it's not EXACTLY what I mean. So, I go hunting in my thesaurus and can spend up to 30 mins trying to find the right word. Sometimes, I confess, it's too hard and I give up. I did this this morning with the word 'excitement'. I wanted/meant glee/delight/nasty joy but could not find the right one to fit with the sentence. I chose another word to excitement and, if it is not quite right, I'm certain no one will really notice.

And, to further muddy the metaphor waters, I will quote other experts who understood all too well the process we writers go through to get it just right for you, the reader:

Oscar Wilde: I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. 

Charles Pierre Péguy: A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.

Finally, I will leave you with a quote I've used before but it pretty much is how I feel about my own work:

Maurice Gee: I could go on tinkering with my books forever. When I reread them I’m constantly recognising lost fictional opportunities, ways I could have made someone do something more interesting. 

Perhaps this is why I don't like reading my books once they are published. I do love touching them and looking at their shiny covers and feeling the weight of them in my hands. To read them, however, is too terrifying - what if I remember that exact word I wanted when it is far too late?