Lisa Forrest was once most famous for being an Olympic swimmer, and Captain of the Olympic swim team at just 16 years of age. These days, she’s known to thousands of young readers as the author of fantastic YA novels including Making the Most of It, djmAx and her exciting new novel Inheritance. Here, Lisa describes for us the process of creating the magic and mystery of the Cirkulatti…
A PINCH OF IDEAS
I thought that the more experienced I became at storytelling, the easier it would get.
But in creating, Inheritance, I needed more faith in the mystery and magic of storytelling than ever before. Faith that if I turned up every day at my computer, the muse would turn up too. Faith that all those ideas, some barely a pinch, others a more solid dollop, would find a way to coalesce. Faith that one day, after what seemed like a few minutes immersed in my fictional world, I’d look at the clock and find hours had passed – which is ultimately what I seek when I write, a period of transcendence that is as satisfying as the final product.
With Inheritance all that was a LONG time coming!
One of the most common questions a writer is asked is: where do your ideas come from? For my earlier novels the question was easy to answer because the ideas that inspired the books were clear and came directly from my experiences. Making the Most of It was a coming-of-age story about a teenager who swims for Australia who doesn’t think she quite lives up to the expectations of her country and those close to her – and perhaps herself most of all. I wrote that book to discover if Nina Hallet had actually let anyone down at all – or it were all in her own mind. In djmAx, having experienced the transformative benefits of throwing myself around on a dance floor for most of my life, I wondered if a love of music and dancing could bridge the generation gap – my characters Maxine Phillips and her grandfather Reg helped answer the question for me. And with Boycott, my non-fiction account of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, I wondered if, rather than being an embarrassing blip in our Olympic movement, the Australian team that defied a determined government, a hostile media and an angry public, to go to the Games because it believed in an ideal, could find a more respectable place in our country’s history.
PERHAPS MY WRITING DAYS WERE DONE
But after Boycott I had nothing – except a feeling that perhaps my writing days were done. Perhaps I’d exhausted my story ideas. Two of my three novels had come from one moment in my teenage years – the 1980 Olympics – and perhaps I should be grateful for that. Which would have been fine – if I wasn’t a believer in the mystery of magic of storytelling. If I didn’t know, from experience, that even with the clarity of those earlier stories one idea leads to another until you’re in a place you never expected, with a character who’d charged into your story without invitation, and eventually those hours fly by and you haven’t even noticed.
Even accepting that I was never going to give writing away, I still needed an idea to start with. And then I interviewed John Flanagan on ABC Radio 702 one morning. I’d read his Ranger’s Apprentice series a couple of times to my son (and my husband since he’d listen in whenever he was around). To say we all loved the adventures of Will, Halt, Horace, Alice, the great Skandians, and the team of other characters, was a massive understatement. Anyone who is a fan of the series knows that John’s son was the original inspiration – although he was well into his teens by the time John turned those early stories into the first book. But I couldn’t help think during our interview that while Will might have ‘been’ his son, there was much about John that reminded me of Will’s mentor, Halt.
John Flanagan left me in the studio to present the rest of my radio show – but in every song, every promo, my mind went back to our chat. My son was too young to inspire a YA story – but my niece, a circus performer in Wollongong, had just turned thirteen. At the time she was a reluctant reader, a bit like John’s son. What if I wrote a story she might like to read? And what if I let the mystery-adventure stories that I loved as a teenager, about Trixie Belden and her team of super-sleuths, the Bob-Whites, be my guide.
BACK IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
And with that I was away. Just to see where it might lead me, I traced the etymology of the word circus; I discovered that our word circus came from the Latin word of the same name which had been Romanised from Greek word, kirkos, meaning circle or ring. Maybe I’d read too many Percy Jackson books with my son, maybe I’ve visited Rome and spent too long sitting in front of the mighty Pantheon, but the moment I saw the word kirkos, I was back in the ancient world. Rome’s Circus Maximus was the first circus after all. So I started playing with the spelling of the two words, circus/kirkos and threw in a bit of Italian and began to imagine an ancient circus troupe called the Cirkulatti, always led by a woman – I was writing a story for girls after all – known as the Eminence, who it was said could whisper to the minds of her audience. I imagined her walking into the great ancient hippodromes, high on stilts as the acrobats, jugglers and clowns fanned out around her. I imagined that if this circus troupe was so popular then the leaders of these ancient civilisations would covet the Eminence and the Cirkulatti, want it on-side, if you like, so there was a tradition of rulers honouring the ascendance of each new eminence with a trinket, a piece of jewellery that eventually became known as the Curios of the Eminence.
The more I got into it the more I liked the idea of the circus harbouring these characters of very unusual ‘gifts.’ That’s pretty much what defines the circuses I’ve seen, and attracts us to them I think – that combination of beauty, grace and power, with a strong streak of individuality. I was also excited by the idea of playing with how that streak of independence works with responsibility to the ‘show’, to the ‘family’.
MY CIRCUS GIRL IN WOLLONGONG
And there was no way I could write a story about a woman leader without exploring how that could happen. How does a woman realise her potential in a man’s world? We’ve seen how this country handled a woman in the top job over the last three years – pretty appallingly. I discovered that sixty-three countries have had women leaders – but only three have had repeated women leaders. Could I write a story about a circus troupe with a female leader, century-after-century, and sound plausible?
To try it out I thought, what if my circus girl in Wollongong somehow had one of these Curios, had found a vague reference to the Cirkulatti, and eventually found herself hunting through dusty old ancient history encyclopaedias for a clue. Just for fun I wrote the kind of entry she might find:
CIRKULATTI: a person who claims to be descended from the Greek performers who brought their skills to Roman Circuses around the 2nd Century BC and, as such, claim to be the true circus people of the world.
While the circuses were better known for their chariot races, other acts were necessary to keep the enormous crowds entertained. The jugglers, acrobats and clowns of the Cirkulatti became so popular that many believed their powers were supernatural; it was said they could control minds and bend others to their will. The Cirkulatti denied any ‘gifts’ beyond storytelling. But so favoured were they that Roman Emperors created trinkets and jewellery for each new Eminence—the position of highest power within the troupe, always a woman—and there are records of a ring, an ornately carved wrist cuff and necklace (Curios of the Eminence) passed to the first born girl of each Eminence through many generations.
A split seems to have occurred between factions within the Cirkulatti during the brief reign of Nerva, when it was thought that an eminence had won the heart of the emperor. Widely interpreted as a signal that the Cirkulatti intended to control the throne, the eminence was murdered and her supporters within the Cirkulatti fled Rome. Although not the Empire. Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, was a circus performer before winning her husband’s heart. She was a popular and powerful force during her husband’s reign and questions were always raised about her connection to the Cirkulatti.
Throughout the middle ages in Europe the Cirkulatti were forced underground; because of its rumoured links with the occult and black magic members were denounced and often persecuted.
The re-emergence of circuses in the 19th Century, and a flourishing of interest in the supernatural among the general public, reawakened interest in the ancient group. Each new performer of unconventional abilities, either in Europe or the US where the new circuses flourished, gave rise to whispers of his or her lineage. Not surprisingly, each such performer denied the claim—who would want to bear the burden of phenomenal gifts; who would risk the persecution. But this only perpetuated the rumour and the Cirkulatti gained a reputation both feared and revered to this day. Many believe that Lenin’s declaration that circuses were the ‘people’s entertainment’, and his establishment of many circus schools around the USSR, was merely an example of the State attempting to identify the Cirkulatti before they became a threat.
The Curios of the Eminence have been highly sought after (the holy grail for collectors) by collectors over the years. They were believed to be owned by noted collector of Roman antiquities, Carl Lenter. But when his estate was donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 they were not part of the bequest.
TRICKING THE EDITOR
After submitting the synopsis I met with my commissioning editor at a local cafe. She opened the manila folder she had with her revealing the encyclopaedia entry. I’d set it in the centre of the page and used an old-fashioned font so it looked like the real thing.
‘I didnt know about this,’ she said, eagerly tapping the page, ‘how did you discover it?’
I didn’t know how to react; was she joking with me. ‘I didn’t,’ I told her, ‘I made it up.’
Her cheeks flushed and shook her head, as if to say ‘of course, you did.’ Then we both laughed. It seemed I had tricked her – and I was thrilled. Maybe I was onto something with my Cirkulatti.