Happy 2016! A new year and another Australia Day Book giveaway! This year, readers have a chance to win a digital copy of GS Johnston’s The Cast of a Hand. Read my interview with GS Johnston on his sources of inspiration and leave a comment to go into the draw. Then visit all the other wonderful book blogs participating in the Australia Day Giveaway Blog Hop hosted by the wonderful Shellyrae from Book’d Out. There are oodles of books to win! My offer is open to Australian and international readers. Entries close at midnight on 27 January 2016 AEDT.
On Inspiration: GS Johnston
My guest today is G.S. Johnston who is the author of three historical novels, The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012) and Consumption (2011), noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.
In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels. Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Sydney, Australia.
What or who inspired you to first write?
Although I’m unsure what year it went to air in Tasmania, I think it was about 1970, I saw, by chance, the first episode of The Partridge Family. I remember then sitting at the piano and forcing myself to write something. When I was very young, Tasmanian winters always gave me bronchitis so I spent a lot of time off school entertaining myself. I loved all forms of theatre and would try and emulate them at home. After a trip to the glorious Theatre Royal, I made a stage out of a cardboard box and my mother completed the proscenium arch with a grand red velvet curtain. To my parents’ and grandparents’ delight, I staged numerous puppet shows with stories I had made up. I really don’t know where it all came from. Although my mother was a great pianist, it’s not like these things were alive in the house. I just know it brought me pleasure.
What is the inspiration for your current book?
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I found the basic story of The Cast of a Hand while I was researching another novel set in France, but ten years later than the Troppmann murder trial. A book on the Palais de Justice used the Troppmann case to explore the architectural design of the new, Second Empire building. I left the story on the backburner for quite a while but I found some other books and articles about it and it niggled away at me. I liked all the Gothic elements of the story. And I liked the fact there was some doubt to the outcomes. These uncertainties are rich veins for a writer to explore. In this sense, it was a little like the Jack the Ripper stories. And the story was largely untold, especially in English.
Is there a particular theme you wish to explore in this book?
The first pieces of information I had hinted at nature/nurture debate. The fact a cast had been made of Troppmann’s hand argued that someone thought he had been “made that way” and his murderous instincts were clearly written in his hand. Around the time I found the story, I’d been to an exhibition of death masks in Paris. It seemed similar arguments of laying bare signs of someone’s character in death were applied to the hand, that to the educated eye, dispositions and leanings could be read there. Around this time too, the Clinton administration finished the sequencing of the human genome. All of a sudden we had the gene for this and the gene for that which I think is far too simple an interpretation of the science. The cast of the hand really was a link to these types of genetic based arguments.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
The more “recent” past, back to about the 1850s. In The Cast of a Hand, with this epoch, France’s Second Empire, it felt very familiar to modern day. The Emperor told France to create and consume material wealth – a meritocracy. In many ways, the figure of Troppmann that emerged was the victim. He’d been told he could have it all. He just had to reach out and take it. He just missed the lesson that he should work very hard for it. In a lot of ways, I feel our present “born this way” society has a similar predilection, that we are completely and utterly entitled to material wealth – I want it and I want it now and I don’t care who I walk over to get it. This is one feature I enjoy about historical fiction – the connections and contrast to the present. And these are available right across human history. Not a lot is that new.
What resources do you use to research your book?
One of the major problems with The Cast of a Hand was that most of the primary resources were in French. I can’t speak French, although I can speak a little Italian which meant I could read some of the French VERY slowly. I soon realised I was never going to get through it all and couldn’t afford to have books translated. So I scanned a lot of the books, turned them in to Word documents and then used an online translator. Some of the results were très amusant. I then printed them in parallel, the French facing the English, and was able to read the English with reference to the French when the translation descended in to gobbledegook. Yes, this took many, many,many hours.
But one of the major changes during the lengthy research time, which did start in 2001, is the blooming of online documents. For example, way back I had to get an interlibrary transfer from a distant Australian Library of the only English copy of Monsieur Claude’s memoir, the Paris Chief of Police who lead the investigation. This cost a bit, took weeks to arrive and I could only have it for a month. An amusing aside here is the pages of the chapter that dealt with the Troppmann affair had not been cut properly and were still joined at the top. So, despite being published in the early 1900s, the chapter had never been read and I had to slice it open. Years later, the whole memoir was freely available for download on the net.
The internet has really changed the game. Although you have to maintain a vibrant scepticism, often images are easy to find. For example, Troppmann was imprisoned in Mazas Prison in Paris which no longer exists. But I found drawings of the external wall and even a few photographs of the prison galleries. Prior to the internet, how would I have found this without living in Paris for months on end? Perhaps more engaging than a flat screen but I just don’t have the funding for that.
Which authors have influenced you?
Anyone and everyone. I don’t really have a favourite but there were two books that did make me want to write; Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Byatt’s Possession. I still don’t understand how someone can amass so much information in a single life time. And each time I start a new project, I get drawn back to reading Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Again. And again. He has such liberty and dexterity, the Nadia Comăneci of the literary world.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I usually try and dust the editor off my shoulder and write what I want in a very clunky manner and leave it. I find walking really helps. I think it’s got something to do with the rhythm, although walking a dog is a little broken up as they stop to sniff and pick up their pee-mail. (Imagine the tales/tails they’d have to tell!) But often while we’re out walking, a beautiful phrase will come, in pure iambic pentameter, of course.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
In 1991 I had the good fortune to live in Italy for a year. By February, it had been a particularly brutal winter, the contrast greater perhaps having left a budding Sydney summer to -15 degrees Celsius with snow and a hilltop town with steep streets and no stairs and blustery Etruscan city gates.
We decided to go to Florence for a weekend. By magic, the sun came out, and we were suddenly in t-shirts and eating gelato. But the first Gulf War had just broken out. The American University had closed, and the world had gone home. Florence was empty. I ran with outstretched hands across the Piazza Signoria, just because I could. We went to the Galleria dell’Accademia to say hello to Michelangelo’s David. There was no queue, just a walk right in, almost surprise on the ticket seller’s face. There were at the most 10 people inside. We had David to ourselves, no “veil of ice between myself and the fire”, to quote a Michelangelo poem. Bliss. And it was before some crazed Australian hammered his toe off so you could get very close indeed.
The statue is just so bold, no excuses. But then the hand and features are bigger so it would have detail when viewed from below. But then there’s something else, the slouch in the pose – was it there to fit the figure into the block of marble? To bring all the weights and counterweights into place so the statue would stand? Was it just to adhere to Greek statue dictates? Did the slouch represent defiance or uncertainty? The slouch was all these things. And the face, the brow drawn up into concern, the eyes defiant. So the work seems riven with discussion, which I guess is what I like about any piece of art. And what was it the Vicar of Dibley said about (some) men’s bottoms – that they are perfect? Discuss.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Read and write and then write and read. Find a brutal editor, not someone you know, not someone who will tell you just how fabulous it all is. They have to be rude and blunt and you have to take it on the chin and find the grains of truth in what they say. And realise it is positive if this battering never ceases – it means you’re getting more and more delicate at the craft.
Tell us about your next book.
I’ve started work on a piece set in Far North Queensland from about 1920 to during WWII. It was a time of great migration, the White Australia policy in full swing, the Kanak had been sent back and were replaced by a Southern European work force who were “almost white” and habituated to work hard in heat, although a lot came from the north of Italy. The more I read of the response at the time to this migration, the more I feel I’m reading today’s news stories of the latest waves of migration.
At dawn on the outskirts of Paris in 1869, Hortense Kinck lies buried alive and surrounded by five of her children. Violently attacked, tormented and trapped, she sifts through the truths and deceits of her marriage to self-made industrialist, Jean Kinck. Why had he lied?
France, snug in the prosperity of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, is shocked by the vicious destruction of the bourgeois Kinck family. Under pressure from his superiors, the Chief of Police, Monsieur Claude, must unravel the baffling connections between the family and a mysterious young man, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, a cold case, a famous palmist and France’s rising tide of dissatisfaction with the Emperor Napoleon III.
The Cast of a Hand is an unforgettable love story and a murder mystery based on one of the most shocking crimes of 19th century Paris. GS Johnston’s razor sharp prose interweaves and cross-pollinates the two narratives, both desperately trying to arrive at the truth.
You can purchase The Cast of a Hand on Amazon but why not leave a comment and go into the draw to win a digital version for any ereader. I’ll run the draw through random.org. Remember, the draw ends at midnight on 27 January, 2016. Remember to leave contact details in case you win.
And don’t forget to visit all the other blogs participating in the Australia Day Book Giveaway at Book’d Out.
Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome series. The third book, Call to Juno, will be released on 19 April 2016 and is currently available for pre-order