Saturday, 18 April 2020

Rosy Hours for #IndieApril

Next up on my #IndieApril book tour is the big one, Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

I call it 'the big one' because it was by far the best publisher I've ever had and the widest-reviewed book to date. Therefore it's going to be a bit of a long post.

I recently reviewed Les Miserable by Victor Hugo, and mentioned that I've always enjoyed musicals. I grew up listening to Phantom of the Opera on my mum's old vinyl player. So, I suppose you could say I've always been a phan, as fans of Phantom are known. I was also a drama schooler, where musicals were unavoidable. We had an entire musical theatre department whose students would occasionally appear out of nowhere and burst into flash dance, legwarmers and all.

I'm not sure when I first became aware that there was another story within Phantom - the untold story. Perhaps it was an older version I saw on telly. I remember always being fascinated by how Erik became so disfigured, and I'm sure there was one version that tried to explain it as his mother having drank poison in a failed abortion bid or something. I can't entirely remember. But anything Phantom, I was a little bit hooked.

Naturally, I eventually went to the source, the original novel written by Gaston Leroux. Like Dumas's Musketeers, it began life as a serialisation in a newspaper. That was a big thing back then. But it was really within the pages of that novel that it struck me how much was never fully explained, and how tantalising that story could be. I'd always wondered why a Persian was hanging around Paris with Erik, and  why he got turned into a musical box so no one actually had to go into that question.

So many fascinating loose ends, like how he got the name Erik, which was apparently 'an accident' and not his given name. Where he'd been before Paris, how he'd survived. And the more I read, the more fascinated I became with the Little Sultana, who was the daughter of the Shah of Iran and a playfellow in Erik's bloodiest games.

The other thing that struck me is that Erik is a stone-cold killer. Webber's musical gives him a redeemable edge, but really, he's cruel.

Which got me thinking, what kind of a girl would be a match for him. Who could he possibly respect enough to consider, if not an equal, than at least equally dark, and what might have made her that way?

And that's where the research began.

During the blog tour we did for the book launch, I wrote quite a few articles about that research. Went into detail about the food, music and costumes. You can also see more on the Rosy Hours at Mazandaran Facebook page.

We know that Erik was involved in building the Paris Opera House because he put in is trapdoors and secret corridors. From that, I could place a rough age on him meeting Christine and work backwards to figure out when he would have been in Iran - around the mid-1800s. That gave me a historical starting point.

The Little Sultana would have been a shazadi, and likely the daughter of Nasser al-Din Shah. Looking him up, I found an entry for Princess Afsar od-Dowleh, who has nothing really written about her, including her date of birth or death. So, I took that name and began the novel: Though my name has since been removed from the annals of history, it was Afsar. You remember that, and tell any who deign to ask. For I was she, and no other. That name belongs to me.

So, this is the shazadi's story, told from her perspective. You don't need to know anything about Phantom of the Opera to enjoy it, but those who do will get an extra kick out of it.

One of the toughest things for me was working out what pre-revolutionary Iran looked like. I had two images in my head. That of the modern media where women were cloaked in yashmaks and forbidden to interact with men, and that of the stories of Aladin I knew from my childhood, where women wore practically nothing.

It was a really fascinating exploration to learn that the truth was somewhere in between. There's a lot of fascinating photos on the Facebook page, but this one certainly inspired Afsar. A thoroughly independent lady, unveiled and reading a book. But, also trapped within the confines of a harem. Which adds a certain level of frustration for ambitious women.

I feel this is the best novel I have written to date, and might be the best I ever write.

I was just in this incredible creative zone at the time. I'd always had this story so strongly in my mind, but didn't start writing until I got a definitive knock-back from someone I really liked. I'm very rarely lost for words, but around them I couldn't find any. Just a brilliant human being - bright, sparky, funny. Anyway. I felt rotten at the time and this was my way out of that. One word after the other, it just fell onto the page. It's by far the most complicated novel I've ever written, but also the easiest. It felt effortless.

I knew it was good but I didn't know what to do with it, so I tentatively tried a couple of small press. I got an almost instant response from Ghostwoods. Their editor had pretty much read it in one sitting.

I have to admit, given my previous experiences of publishing, I wasn't really expecting much. For me, it was enough the book was written. I didn't really mind what happened next. I was proud of it.

Ghostwoods exceeded all expectations. A fair trade publisher who offered me 50% of all profit (the best I'd done before was about 12%), who absolutely smashed the cover (here's how they made it), and then, to top it all off, got the Nebula award-winning Emma Newman to do an audiobook. So many amazing things happened with Ghostwoods, but I think one of the most touching included the Iranian lullaby.

So, authors often nick foreign words they like the idea of but don't always know how to pronounce. I can assure you, this is a fucking nightmare when it comes to giving book readings. One of the things I included, was an Iranian lullaby that goes like this: la la la la, gole poneh, bekhab bach’che, delam khune, apparently meaning something to the effect of, Sleep my child, my heart is broken. Obviously, not knowing Farsi, I had no idea how this was actually supposed to sound. For the audiobook, Ghostwoods rustled up a Farsi consultant, Nadia Tariqi, to make sure Emma was pronouncing the words correctly - and then Emma sang it.

The first time I ever heard those words out loud was when I listened to the audio proofs for the book - and I cried. It was like a theatre production, where the sum of everyone's efforts turn out to be something greater than the original idea. And that people had cared enough about the story to achieve that level of authenticity was just truly incredible. I could not have achieved that by myself.

Other things that were really amazing to me include Stephanie Piro, who is a cartoonist. She was inspired by the book and did a couple of sketches, sending me the originals. That just blew me away. I don't think there's any higher praise, or anything more validating, than your art going on to inspire other artists. Seeing spin-offs, fan art, extensions of your work in whatever form is just phenomenal.

She also created a Phantom-themed bracelet with a miniature scroll inside that contains a passage from the book.

The other one that really touched me was a book review site called Kahakai Kitchen, who created a dish specifically for Rosy Hours. The reason this was such a big deal to me is because I love Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's book Sister of My Heart and someone turned that into a dish. I thought that was the coolest homage to a book ever, so having it done for mine meant a lot.

So, there were a lot of really lovely experiences with Ghostwoods and they absolutely did the book justice. It's extremely sad to me that they had to cut back on publishing new titles due to personal circumstances and the constant financial struggle that small press face. I hope things pick up again in the future because any author would be lucky to be published by them.

For my part, I look back on this as the book that really convinced me I could write. The three before that were me testing my wings, and there was a fourth bottom-drawer novel between Georg[i]e and this that will never see the light of day. That's why it took until 2015 for Rosy Hours to hit the shelves. I was spending time learning the craft. I wish every book I wrote could be this caliber, but I'm lucky to have written one. One novel I am completely and utterly satisfied with. I think that's rare for authors. There's usually a lot of things we feel we didn't get quite right. 

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