Are you not entertained? Yes, we are.

January 29th, 2016Posted by Nancy

Spurred by reading Mary Beard’s book about Rome, SPQR, and by memories of our tour of the Colosseum, we decided to rewatch Gladiator the other night.  Not withstanding my affection for men in period armor (with wolfskins),  the film still works.  Oh, parts of the plot don’t make any sense, Rome was apparently to be seen only through a blue haze and the geography and time frame is a bit … elastic.  It looks gorgeous, the music is perfect, the costumes are lovely and the acting is uniformly excellent.

Watching it again, I appreciated the little moments of acting grace. Crowe was perfectly cast as Maximus. He had a gift not only for the big moments but the small ones as well: the dismay in his eyes as the emperor asks him to become guardian of Rome, the way he turns his head away a little when faced with having to dissemble because, as Lucilla notes, he was never any good at it.  By the second part of the film, he rarely does it anymore, because he has nothing left to lose.  I admit that the duel scene in Cold Hillside owes two key moments to the match between Maximus and Tigris.  One is the moment of mercy and the other is Daen’s entrance to the arena.

“He walked into the courtyard, helmet under his arm, armoured in serviceable leather. There was grace there, but it was economical and solid, the confidence of a workman come to do a task without drama. He unhooked the sword across his back and let it fall to his hip then donned his helm, a curved shape of dull metal with no trace of ornamentation.
“It was theatre of its own sort, I realized. Every gesture, from stance to walk to armour, was calculated to define itself in opposition to the fey, to turn their grace and glamour into nothing but a showy reflection of his straightforward competence.”


But the revelation of rewatching the film is Connie Nielsen as Lucilla. Crowe and Phoenix got most of the attention, but Nielsen creates a devastating portrayal of a woman who is arguably the bravest person in the story. When we first see her, she seems as shallow and corrupt as her brother.  Our first clue that she might be something else is her father’s observation “What a pity you were not born a man. What a Caesar you would have made.”  The praise suggests intelligence, resolve, and courage.  Coming from Marcus Aurelius, they could also suggest honor and compassion, but his own ambivalence to power hints at other things: cruelty, corruption, deceptiveness.

Gradually we realize that Lucilla’s perfect, regal composure is a mask she has perfected over years of survival in the imperial palace. With the death of her father, she needs all her skill to survive the attentions of her dangerous brother and to protect her son.  She risks everything to try to change the situation and the scene in which Commodus reveals that he knows of her schemes is chilling.

It was fascinating to watch her mask fall away and that beautiful composure become despair, clear in every shift of Nielsen’s expression.  The contrast between her pale, brittle face at the beginning of the film and her naked, drawn one, red-eyed from weeping, at the end is stunning.  Before the final resolution, Lucilla faces the hardest fate of anyone in the film. Maximus faces death for his rebellion but he has been waiting to die for half the film. She faces a lifetime of obedience to her needy, all-powerful brother, in which any perceived disloyalty on her part will mean the death of her son.  Maximus just has die – Lucilla has to endure.  I know which character I’d rather be.

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My odd little side project for January

January 23rd, 2016Posted by Nancy




I’ve been buying clothes from Annie Thompson for years (probably close to twenty) and in that time I’ve gotten rid of no more than about ten items.   I wore one pair of pants out and have sized myself out of a few other items – though of course I’ve hung on to most of them in the hopes that someday…..

For January, I decided to do an “outfit of the day” project on Instagram featuring the various outfits I have and have put together over the years.  One of the best things about Annie’s clothes is that they express a singular aesthetic vision.  The vision grows and changes but the basic DNA of it stays the same.  This means that a jacket you buy in 2000 will go very nicely with a top you buy in 2010 and a pair of pants you buy 2015.  Everything is made here in Toronto so the clothes will last for years.

My good friends at The House of Pomegranates came over and took some photos so they’re a step up from my own awkward selfies.

Just search #30daysofAnnieThompson on Instagram and you’ll find me.


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The Best Things I Read this Year

December 29th, 2015Posted by Nancy

Hawk   Which is not precisely the same as the best books of 2015.  These are the books I read in 2015 that moved me to talk about them, recommend them, think about them, or buy my own copy.

H is for Hawk

by Helen MacDonald

I love good nature writing because the best of it is always about something more than that – and I’m a sucker for a good descriptive passage.  Helen MacDonald is mourning the sudden death of her father and seizes on the ambitious project of training a goshawk as a way through her debilitating grief.  In consulting the literature on this process, she revisits a book from her childhood, The Goshawk, by T.H. White.  It’s not a perfect book but her descriptions of the goshawk are astonishing: “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” This is probably the best book I read all year.


Parable    Kindred/Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents

    by Octavia Butler

During the whole kerfuffle about the Hugos and “the year of not reading straight white males”, I went hunting for lists to expand my own reading. I rarely read straight white males but my reading is generally dominated by white women, so this seemed an opportunity to go looking for new books.  I’d read a number of Octavia Butler’s novels twenty years ago but not these.  All brilliant and thought-provoking, especially the “Parable” books, whose depiction of environmental and economic collapse in California is scarily timely.



signal    Signal to Noise

     By Silvia Moreno-Garcia


Magic and music in Mexico City over two decades.  I’m at the age where I remember mixtapes and the eighties and the intense bond of outsider friends, clinging to their music and differences to keep themselves sane.  Highly recommended.



MollyFalling From Horses

by Molly Gloss

The Dazzle of Day is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read about space exploration.  I kept finding this book at the library and dismissing it, but finally I borrowed it.  It’s about Hollywood in the 1930s, stunt riders, horses, the hardscrabble farming life in rural Oregon and artists finding their way.  It was much richer and more fascinating that I’d expected.



Experimental Film    Experimental Film

    by Gemma Files

Full disclosure: I’ve known Gemma for years and we’re both part of the Bellefire writing group.  While the aforementioned it true, it’s also true that I’ve admired Gemma’s dark imagination and razor-edged prose for years.  I read various parts of this book when it was in progress and knew it was going to be good.  And it is.  Lois Cairns, a 40ish film critic facing failure and a challenging home life, discovers the eerie traces of a film made by a previously unknown female filmmaker in the early 20th century, but her pursuit of the truth about Mrs. Whitcomb will jeopardize everything she values.  The folk tale at the heart of the mystery is one of the creepiest things I’ve read in years.



katrina   Katrina: After the Flood

   by Gary Rivlin

This is a fascinating and infuriating picture of the flood and the challenges, failures, grassroots successes and political chicanery that came afterwards.



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Reviews (Part II) and leaving the harbour again. Maybe.

December 6th, 2015Posted by Nancy

Landscape with a Sailboat, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1874.

Landscape with a Sailboat, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1874.

It’s been a year since Cold Hillside was released, which seems unbelievable.  (What, you haven’t read it? Go read it. f you have, thanks!)

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to post a review on Goodreads or Amazon or reviewed it on their site. It’s been really gratifying that most of the people who enjoyed the book seemed to like it for all the same reasons that made me want to write it.

It’s been especially satisfying (if somewhat baffling) that so many people said that they found themselves immersed in the world of Lushan. One of my struggles with the book was my belief that I suck at world-building. I agonized over every decision (how does the government work? What colour is that doorway? What do people eat? What are the funeral rites? Who gets married and why?) and I was becalmed for years in a sea of choice paralysis. For years, I used placeholder names for cities and countries and the manuscript was littered with XXX marks where I knew that if I stopped to think for one second about whether something was white or black that I’d lose all momentum.

Since I finished the novel last fall, I’ve been poking away at a short story (proving that yes, indeed, I am a VERY slow writer) that was inspired by one of my main influences, the divine Tanith Lee. I’ve just about finished it – but now my writer’s group has said that they think it should be longer. A novella, at least.  Maybe even, gasp, a novel. I sit here, baffled once again, terrified once again. This will require world-building. This will require knowing what happened 20 years earlier, 75 years earlier. How do magicians get chosen to serve the king? What happened to the witch to make her who she is?

But I have an image of a triptych painting in my head, and an idea of structure, and three very interesting characters. I can always read a few books about the history of France and Italy. I can use placeholder names. I can leave XXX marks. I can’t write like Tanith Lee for an entire novel (hell, I can barely write like Tanith Lee for an entire short story) but maybe I can write like myself instead.

Now I just have to do it.

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Back in the World: Matriarchy Edition

October 17th, 2015Posted by Nancy



There have been one or two comments about the fact that Cold Hillside appears to be set in a matriarchy.  One person objected to this, on the grounds that reverse oppression is not an improvement over the original brand (a fair opinion).

I didn’t set out to create a matriarchical culture for Lushan.  The original germ of the idea was two countries with different political structures and visions of power and the people trapped between them. That idea required that there be some level of authority wielded by women and at least one of the countries had to be ruled by a woman, even if it was not the norm. Once I started toying with the idea of using the Faerie Court then the Queen had to be one of the powers.

As I started to develop ideas for the novel (a very long and painful process, as any readers of earlier posts know), I realized that there were two core concepts I wanted to be there, no matter how those ideas expressed themselves out in the course of the actual writing.

The first came out of the realization that I didn’t want to write a conventional fantasy novel about the struggle between good and evil (to use the broadest of cliches) but a psychological drama that happened to be set in a fantasy world.  In the most perfect imaginary version of the book, it would be like a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine novel, with added fey.  Sadly, I didn’t come anywhere close to that but part of that vision the book was the focus on the relationships and how they drove the story.

Though there is a central male-female relationship within the book, in my mind the relationships between the women are equally important.  Teresine’s loyalty to Sarit, Lilit’s thorny interactions with her mother, Raziel’s reluctant acceptance of her place in the world through Teresine’s tutelage, the disappointed anger that drives Amaris’ relationship with Teresine – exploring all of these was part of what kept me grinding away at the book when it would have been easier to quit.

In order to have these relationships be central to the characters, they also had to be central to the plot, which led to the second core concept.  These couldn’t be women who had no power or agency within their world.  Once I started down that road, I found that I loved writing a culture in which most of the key parts that in a traditional fantasy would have been played by men were fulfilled by women.  The rulers, the advisers, the soldiers, the leaders of the merchant houses, the religious figures, the bakers, the bartenders, the farmers, the apprentices were all more likely to be women than men.  At a certain point, I had to work at not automatically defaulting to making virtually every new character who walked into the scene female.  (As an aside, I had no trouble at all imagining the universe of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice populated entirely by women.)

There are male characters I love in the book.  The most fun I had during the whole process was writing Daen.  He wasn’t like anyone I had ever written before and most of the time I could just stand aside and let him talk (and believe me, he swore A LOT more in the first draft).  Lilit’s father Hendren is the most genuinely decent person in the entire book.  Teresine’s conversation with Perrin and her encounter with the foreign soldier were unexpected glimpses into the lives of the men who contributed to the survival of Lushan through their engineering and martial prowess.

Could I have written this book within the context of a patriarchical culture?  Maybe, but it would a hell of a lot harder.  Could I have created a more egalitarian society? Maybe, but I didn’t.

In the end, I wrote the only book I could.



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Back in the world: Italy Edition

October 3rd, 2015Posted by Nancy

It’s been a very long time since I posted here, obviously. I’ve launched the book, been to Italy, survived the summer in a blur of activity, haven’t completely imploded from my job and it’s already September. Time to get back in the world and start doing things again, even writing a blog no one reads.

But let’s not overdo it on the first day. Intead, here are some pictures of Italy. We spend two weeks there in May, going from Rome to Venice to Montalcino to Florence and then back to Rome. Other than having my wallet stolen on the metro on the last day of the trip (and I was paranoid enough to have all my credit cards and most of my money stashed somewhere else, so all they got was 50 euros, some receipts and an Ontario driver’s license), it was wonderful. Loved Venice, liked Rome better than I thought I would (despite aforementioned loss), wished it had not rained ALL the time in Florence, and enjoyed the Tuscan countryside. The food was incredible, the wine even better.

Our apartment in Rome. I have mixed feelings about staying in apartments (I know it’s taking away housing stock from locals) but it is so much more pleasant than staying in hotels. Several of the owners bemoaned the state of the economy in Italy and they relied on the apartments or agritourism rental cottages to stay afloat.
The view from the apartment in Rome

We went to Pompeii, hiked up Vesuvius, and toured the Vatican and the Colisseum/Palatine Hill complex. We sprang for the guided tours on most of the trip (including three tours in one day in Florence) because it allowed us to skip the lines and make the most of our limited time in each city. I admit to fondness for the movie Gladiator and had a few flashbacks while touring the Colosseum, especially of the circling shot when the “barbarian horde” first walks out into the arena.

From Rome, we took the train to Venice. I loved Venice. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s a “disneyfied”shell of it’s former self. It was still beautiful, fascinating and full of art, food, history and mystery.

Our trip coincided with the Venice Bienale contemporary art show, so we spent a day (not long enough) visiting the pavilions and exhibitions. Below is the South Korean entry – a short science fiction film guaranteed to appeal to people like us.

Life in the Tuscan countryside is easy for a visitor. It was a bit tougher for the hardworking team on the farm where we stayed. Well, except for the resident cats, who mostly slept and attempted to mooch food.

It rained in Florence, which meant we were even happier to spend time looking at old scientific instruments at the Musee Galileo and the art at the Uffizi gallery. The colour and detail was overwhelming. One of my favorites was by Filippo Lippi and featured these lovely little girls, who are a trifle bored by the grand events around them.

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Upcoming Events

March 29th, 2015Posted by Nancy

I’ll be reading in Peterborough on April 2nd as part of the ChiZine Peterborough series.

Time: 5:00

Place: Sadleir House, 751 George Street North, Peterborough, Ontario


And on April 10th and 11th, I’ll be at Ad Astra.  I’m doing 3 panels and a reading.

If you’re in the area, come on out and say hello.





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Words into pictures

March 12th, 2015Posted by Nancy

girl homeOn my way to the “Page to Screen” cocktail party designed to link Canadian writers and publishers with film and TV production companies, I was thinking about the ways in which each of my books might work -or not – as a movie or television show.

I love movies and it’s very clear that what makes a great book does not necessarily make a great film.  The key is to translate the heart of what the story is about into a visual medium, without violating the author’s vision of the characters and the meaning but also without slavishly replicating every single incident or line of dialogue.  I like to think I’d be the kind of writer who would happily cash the cheque and then get out of the way, accepting that what the final product turned out to be would not change the book I wrote.  I’ve never written a screenplay and I’m not sure I want to, because much of what I love about writing is performed by other people – the actors, the cinematographer, the director – in films.

But of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts on the matter.

The Night Inside

This was actually optioned a long time ago and I even read the script.  To me, this would be the easiest of the books to film.  There are few special effects required, there are neighbourhoods in Toronto that approximate the Queen Street of the early 1990s and you could either treat it as a period piece, set it in an indeterminate time, or update it to the present (though you might have to throw in a couple of “Twilight” comments).  It could even be effectively done in black and white on a low budget, like the new film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Blood and Chrysanthemums

One of the main challenges with this would be determining whether it was a standalone project or was part of a longer piece that included The Night Inside.  Again, special effects are minimal, but the scope of the story broadens, requiring sections to be shot both in Toronto and Banff.   Because I based the Fujiwara diary sections on elements of Japanese popular culture (the ghost story, the samurai tale, the noh play etc), I’ve always imagined it would be fascinating to treat each of these as their own “movie within a movie” and choose a style of film-making based on the original Japanese examples I watched.  For example, Fujiwara’s transformation into a vampire, in the story “The Lady of the Autumn Moon”, is based on the classic Japanese ghost story included in the film Ugestu.


The Fujiwara diary sections might also work as animation, in the Studio Ghibli style.  (Damn, now I want to see that…)


A Terrible Beauty

I realized that with each book, the fantasy elements increase and so would the budget.  The key to A Terrible Beauty would be the right setting and the appropriate use of CGI.  It would now be possible to create Sidonie’s inhuman appearance without resorting to the dreaded “bumpy forehead” of Star Trek fame.  Just narrow her jawline here, add some cheekbone there (a la Angelina Jolie in Maleficent) and there you are.  (I’m sure I’m completely over-simplifying that.)


Cold Hillside

And up the budget and complexity goes again.  I think it would certainly be possible to make a single, long film of this but it could also work as a mini-series.  Vistas are required for this one, and strange cultures, and the multiplicity of place that is the Faery Court.  You could always go the Dangerous Liaisons route and concentrate on one or two key settings, costuming and close-ups to do the work and at least it doesn’t really require a cast of thousands and contains no epic battle scenes (sorry).

Dangerous Liaisons


Don’t ask me who would play anyone, though.  I generally have no idea.



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The sound of my voice (on reading aloud)

March 1st, 2015Posted by Nancy




I just finished the rather long process of recording an audio version of Cold Hillside as a gift to a friend.

I’m not a bad reader, but it was definitely a challenge.  First of all, I had to actually listen to a few audio books.  I found that interesting but time-consuming – I could have read the books in half the time it took to listen to them.  It quickly became apparent there was no way that I could do voices beyond the most simple of characterizations, so everyone in my version sounds basically the same.  It also became apparent that with 148,000 words to read, abridging it beyond the occasional elimination of a “said” was not in the cards.

Then there was the technical part of the process.  I’m very bad at dealing with technology and so I had to find the simplest possible program to use.  Fortunately, my husband is very good with technology and he found me one called Voice Record Pro, which would work on our IPad.  It was so intuitive that even a techno-peasant like me could figure out how to record and edit the files.

So with the technical part of the problem solved, it was on to the reading itself.  I soon realized that I could not edit out every single stumble, so I restricted my fixes to more egregious errors.  Some of the chapters had as many as five sections that I had to edit and stitch together to form the final file.  Despite my attempts to maintain a relatively consistent volume, it did vary somewhat, as I recording a chapter at a time over several months.

The hardest thing was reading the prose itself.  Every clumsy sentence and every repetitive word is glaringly apparent, which is why reading your work aloud is a useful part of the editorial process.  I’d done that for portions of  the book but not all of it.  Fortunately, due the wonders of e-books, I can work with the publisher to correct the few typos that survived the proofing process and reword a particularly infelicitous sentence or two.

The recorded version is by no means professional quality but it worked for what I wanted it to do.

Next time, I’m going to read the whole damned thing out loud before I submit it, though.



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The curse of reviews

December 20th, 2014Posted by Nancy

And now comes the time in a book’s life when the reviews start. I wish I was one of those writers who could grandly proclaim that I never read reviews but that would be a complete lie. I shamelessly admit to googling myself. A good review will make me happy and a bad review will make me huddle in the corner and beat myself over the head with my very old, very heavy copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.

I remind myself that I’ve survived bad reviews before. I will never forget opening a copy of Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s equivalent to Time, at the time) in the dentist’s office and discovering a FULL-PAGE REVIEW of Blood and Chrysanthemums. A full-page BAD review. The dentist probably could have given me a root canal and I wouldn’t have noticed because I was so devastated. When I was apologizing to the Penguin publicist about it (because that is the kind of sad person I am), she was baffled. “It was a FULL-PAGE ARTICLE in Maclean’s,” she kept saying. “No one will remember whether it was good or bad. All they’ll remember is that they read about you in Maclean’s.”  I’m not sure it’s true but it did make me feel better.

Once I achieve a bit of distance from the initial elation (I rock!) or despair (I am the worst writer in the world!), I try to take the less than glowing reviews for what they’re worth. There are some people that you could never have made happy, because they wanted a book you did not write (sorry, The Night Inside is NOT a vampire romance).  Sometimes you’re forced to admit, like the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that “it’s a fair cop.”

Given that it’s been a long time since the last round of reviews, my skin has thinned a bit. So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t quite reached the “it’s a fair cop” stage yet and may spend a few moments huddling in the corner with a very strong martini (because damn, that Roget’s hurt).


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