1,000 years back and 1,000 years forward

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Some readers of my posts may feel confused by the polarised nature of my activities: on the one hand writing early medieval fiction and the other hand writing future fiction about exoplanets and other life poetics. I get quite confused by this paradox myself!

However, the medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, was happy to address readers in the third, fourth and fifth millennia. ‘If mortal generations are prolonged so long as that’, he said. He addressed readers 3,000 years ahead of his own time – ‘I who will be dust in your time have made mention of you in this work, such a long time before your birth’ – because he believed in history’s redemptive potential for both the present and the future. So I guess I shouldn’t worry about my own polarities too much.

For more contemplation on the topic of history and the future see Amanda Jane Hingst’s excellent book on Orderic Vitalis, The Written World, which I was delighted to just buy in the wonderful Raven Secondhand Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

My most recent historical novel is Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (Impress Books, 2016) set in 12th century Wales, England and Normandy. I’m working on the sequel now.

Last year I published a future fiction novella, Meanda, and am now working on a new collection of future fictions inspired by aquatic flora and fauna.

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Top image by Jean Le Tavernier, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74516

Bottom image: Algae in Iceland, Zooetics Future Fictions Summit. Photo: Nomeda Urbonas.

Writing algae and other life

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William Blake, Newton, 1795.

William Blake was critical of the rigid, reductive influence of Newton’s ideas, of his insensibility to vision and ethical restraint. Describing Blake’s portrait, Alan Moore remarks that: ‘Newton sits in single-minded concentration, crouched above his calculations and immune to the more fractal charm of blue and orange lichens spattering the rocky backdrop, his chill bench has the distinct appearance of a bidet or commode. Enthroned, a god of knowledge showers his pearls of wisdom on the species through a process of mere peristalsis, heedless of the fact that mankind’s dream-life is thus rendered a materialist latrine.’

A few months ago I went to Iceland in search of the fractal charm of lichens and algae in the Future Fictions Summit. Researchers met at the Asbru Enterprise Park, Reykjavik – the former NATO naval and military base – to exchange ideas and generate narratives of future multispecies co-existence. The summit included a field trip to the slippery algae beach on Hafnir shore led by Eydís Mary Jónsdóttir.

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The summit culminated at Reykjavik Art Museum with Jennifer Gabrys’s lecture on lichens, bioindication and environmental politics, discussing the lived effects of pollution as experienced by nonhuman organisms; a future fiction performance-lecture; and algae culinary exploration with Hinrik Carl Ellertsson from DILL Restaurant.

[Extract from a future fiction text on human-algae symbiosis research]

‘Obs.: Enhanced taste capacities in salty range; pigmentation shifts, thickening of skin which is demonstrating patches of heavily whorled textures….Stage 2. Subjects developed holdfast feet complexes. Under-skin vesicles developed, particularly clustered around collar-bone area. Arms have lengthened and are tending towards frond-like flagellata….Rhythmic shifts in verticality and horizontality observed i.e. Subjects are erect during sea immersions and layered horizontally in periods of air exposure….the mouth can function as a knowledge sensor….Nothing intelligible yet, however embodied sensory dialogue with algae appears increasingly likely….Subjects are able to taste impacts from chemical and other marine contaminants….Some subjects demonstrate adaptation to tidal and seasonal rhythms. Greatly enhanced consciousness of interscalar and trans-systemic relationships are being recorded. Prolonged rhythmic immersions are resulting in reflexive consciousness, a form of self-archaeology….Visions of new ecologies glimpsed. Confronting light is the darkness. The awe-ful rainbow.’

Text developed by Tracey Warr in collaboration with Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Kristopas Sabolius, Nikola Bojić, Lucas Freeman, and other researchers at the Zooetics Future Fictions Summit, Iceland, October 2016.

algae2The Future Fictions Summit was the most recent instalment of Zooetics – a project exploring intersections between the human, non-human and poetic knowledge spheres. A full summary of the project and Jennifer Gabrys’s lecture are on the OH Project site. An interview with Jennifer Gabrys by Viktorija Šiaulytė will be published later this year. A collection of my zooetic fictions will be published later this year as part of Frontiers in Retreat.

Welsh Castles

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Llansteffan Castle, overlooking the triple river estuary of Carmarthen Bay

A review of Conquest: Daughter of the Last King and interview with me by Lisa Redmond has just been published in the February issue of Historical Novels Review.

I told Lisa that ‘Conquest was sparked by my travels back and forth by train across the spectacular triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay, with its string of Norman castles including Llansteffan, Laugharne and Kidwelly.’ Her review: ‘The detail about daily life at court, in Norman castles or in convents is always interspersed with great character development, engaging dialogue and page-turning action.’

2017 Book Events: I am talking about the history behind the novel at Carew Castle, Wales, on Sunday 30 July as part of a day’s events celebrating Nest ferch Rhys, the heroine of my story. Other events in Wales that I am participating in include: 28 July Victoria Bookshop, Haverfordwest; 23 September Narberth Book Fair; 30 September Tenby Library as part of Tenby Arts Festival; 14 October Pembroke Dock Library for National Libraries Week.

Simon Mawer interview

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My interview with acclaimed novelist Simon Mawer was recently published on The Displaced Nation site. Mawer’s fiction has received a slew of prizes: The McKitterick Prize for his first novel, Chimera; The Glass Room was short-listed for the Booker Prize; and Tightrope won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. He has lived in Italy for many years and finds his imagination is fired by the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.

Bull-dancing at Knossos

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A beautiful new edition of Mary Renault’s classic novel, The King Must Die, the story of Theseus in Knossos, has just been published by The Folio Society. The book includes eight exquisite illustrations and cover design by Geoff Grandfield. Grandfield’s dominant black and terracotta palette references Cretan frescos and black-figure Greek pottery, which were, in their turn, inspirations for Renault’s own creativity. Renault surely features in most people’s roll call of significant historical novelists. Her Alexandrian trilogy fired my own imagination as a teenager. Renault’s vivid, sensuous depiction of Hellenic life drew on Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos. My review of the book has just been published in the February issue of Historical Novels Review.

Untold Stories

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For an article just published in Historical Novels Review, I asked four novelists to tell me about material they decided to leave out of their novels and how they approached being selective about their researched material. ‘You should fight the desire to include something simply because you find it interesting,’ said Livi Michael, who recently published a 15th century trilogy. S.G. Maclean cited cutting out loving descriptions of a 17th century apothecary’s shop and a Scottish bookseller’s shop from her novels, and advised ‘learning not to be self-indulgent, instead keeping the story focused’. French medieval mystery writer Andrea Japp reported: ‘I have to understand everything, even if I do not use it. It is a way to ground my story, so that my readers wish to accompany me back to these ancient times. There are many things that do not make it to my novels, just because they are a sort of substrate.’ Researching her 19th century music-hall novels, Kate Griffin visited Victorian cemeteries and is now immersed in researching Victorian stage machinery, make-up, props, and the mechanics of illusion.

You can read the full article online or in print by joining the Historical Novel Society. They have over 2,000 members worldwide who are historical fiction writers, readers and publishers. They publish Historical Novels Review quarterly, the online Historical Fiction Daily, and organise hugely enjoyable and inspiring conferences in UK, US and Australia.

Simon Mawer, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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I’ve recently published two articles.

An interview with Booker short-listed novelist, Simon Mawer, is published in my regular column for The Displaced Nation. His novel, Tightrope, set in 1950s London, won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Mawer had a peripatetic upbringing and now lives in Italy. He says that not feeling at home anywhere fires his creativity.

 

My review of a new book on the artists Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, has just been published in the Times Higher Education.

‘Nothing but devils, buttocks and cod-pieces,’ declared the 17th-century Spanish poet, Francisco de Quevedo, on the paintings of Bosch. In his new book, Joseph Leo Koerner writes that the delectation of Bosch’s The Garden of Delights, ‘draws us like bees to blossom’, whilst Bruegel offers us views ‘that so far exceed our capacity to look that we can never feel finished looking’.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Land of Cockaigne, circa 1567, oil on panel.

The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148469