When I read Fields of Grace by Wendy Waters last summer I felt that butterfly-thrill familiar to all book lovers … the one where we find ourselves reading a novel so moving, so altering, and simply unforgettable. I’m delighted that Wendy generously agreed to my suggestion of featuring some excerpts from her novel, and sharing the fascinating story behind her inspiration for Fields of Grace.
Whilst preparing my introduction to this blog I referred back to my original book review (click here to read), and it felt right to repeat here some of what I said last year when I was fresh from the bewitchment of Wendy’s exquisite storytelling:
Fields of Grace is a searingly beautiful love letter to the performing arts. It’s a story about every kind of love silhouetted against the evils of persecution and envy. Like love, it’ll sweep you off your feet, carrying you from the flirtatious bright lights of 1930s London, to the grand romance of Paris, before mercilessly setting you down in the hostile streets of Hitler’s Berlin.
The incredibly vivid and honest characters are impossible to dislike, and the rich smokiness of the 1930s and 40s scenes all combine to create an atmospheric richness that makes this a book to savour. You need to read only a few chapters in one sitting and then go and do something peaceful – a hot bath, a walk in the country, sit in the garden – just to allow your mind the luxury of catching up with your heart to fully absorb what you’ve just read; to turn it slowly around and admire it from every angle.
Wendy is a deeply spiritual woman, and so it’s perfectly natural for her belief to guide the direction of her character’s stories to some degree. Some might pigeonhole it as magical-realism, some might call it witchy, some will make the mordant error of dismissing the book on the basis of it … but my god are they missing a treat. Yes, there is an elemental spirituality to Fields of Grace, but it frames the incredible story that unfolds here … think of it as emblematic of the richly opulent curtains enfolding a spotlighted stage; present but unobtrusive; a mark of anticipation for a remarkable opening and the signifier of a breathtaking ending. Believer or nay-sayer, you’d kick yourself for not letting this most talented of storytellers gift you with a profoundly transportive work of epic historical fiction.
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win a signed, personalised copy of Fields of Grace.
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Monday 4th October 2021
From the author of ‘Catch the Moon, Mary‘ comes this sweeping epic drama spanning seven decades. Set against a backdrop of war in 30s Europe, Grace Fieldergill, a starry-eyed young actress from Devon moves to London to pursue her dream of becoming a star. The lovable boarders of Wyncote House, a ladies-only establishment, take her under their collective wing and share her triumph when she is accepted into the brilliant young John Gielgud’s Company as Peggy Ashcroft’s understudy. When Peggy misses a show one night Grace gets her chance. Watching her performance that evening are two people who will change her life forever, London’s most famous actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and a man whose love she never thought she could win.
a message from Wendy
Fields of Grace began life as a short story in 2006 when I was living on Mount Tamborine, the green above the gold of Queensland’s Gold Coast with its miles of silver beaches, glamorous casino, sun-kissed locals, flashy cars and star-scraping high-rises rimming the beachfront. The Gold Coast is Honolulu’s down-under twin, and its reputation for crime is as much a lure for a certain type of person as its fast-paced glamour and lovely beaches.
My daughter had moved to Sydney to do a double degree in science and psychology and the house we shared with my mother and brother felt strangely empty without her. To stay busy, I took on extra shifts at the cafe where I worked and was soon waitressing six days a week.
To write every day I had to manage my time like a drill sergeant; up at 4.30am for a morning run, shower, breakfast and squeeze in an hour’s writing before opening up the cafe at 8am. Our work day finished at 5pm, then home, shower again, dinner and write until 10pm. Repeat for a decade from 2000 until 2010. In 2000, I completed the 3-year-long Creative Writing Course I had started in America and set myself the goal of writing every day to refine and develop my writer’s voice. I avoided entering short story comps until I had honed my style, but in 2006 I decided to jump in because it was rumoured to be the last year for three major literary comps that carried big cash prizes.
I belonged to a super-talented little writers’ group made up of mainly published authors: Jacqueline Knie, Dee Peterson, Gabrielle Blondell, my mother and me. That year we decided we would enter all the literary comps that carried a $10k first prize, the most prestigious one being the Women’s Weekly/Penguin Short Story Comp, and at our Sunday evening meetings we read and proofed each other’s work.
I had long ago inherited my paternal grandmother’s trunk which held programs, diaries and mementos of her time in London during the 20s and 30s when she was a concert violinist. Trained by master violinist Ysaÿe, she was set for a huge career. She was young, beautiful, incredibly gifted, hardworking and ready to set the musical world on fire but WW2 forced her return to Australia where her life settled into reluctant domesticity. Apart from a couple of concerts at the Town Hall the most she was offered was second chair in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. She give up on her dreams and focused on raising my father and campaigning for charities like Dr Barnardo’s homes for orphans, and the Golden Committee. I decided to write about her but made the heroine an actress because I understood the world of theatre better than the world of classical music. It was this story, Fields of Grace, that I entered into the biggest comp of all, the Women’s Weekly/Penguin Short Story Comp.
One Saturday night in June my mother knocked on my door when I was writing, something she never did! Flushed with excitement, she shoved the phone into my hands and waited while I listened to a message from Carol George, the marketing lady at Penguin. I had won. Scarcely able to believe it, I promptly re-dialled the number and interrupted Ms George cooking pasta for her family.
‘I won!’ I blurted. ‘It’s Wendy Waters.’
‘Congratulations but could you call me during office hours?’
And thus began my relationship with the Australian publishing industry. Maddeningly, I was asked to keep the news to myself until October when the Women’s Weekly would announce my win; my story was published in the magazine along with a glossy photo of me, and a bio.
After that, I had offers of management from Lit agents who had previously refused my calls. In the end I signed with one of Australia’s leading agents and she submitted Catch the Moon, Mary. Penguin rejected it and the agent dropped me. But Ali Watts, the publisher at Penguin told me she would take a look at another manuscript if I had one. I immediately started developing my comp-winning short story, Fields of Grace, into a full-blown novel spanning seven decades and in 2010 I submitted it to Ali who loved it. She arranged a meeting with Carol George, the marketing lady whose Saturday night family dinner I’d interrupted.
By 2010, I’d moved to Sydney, so Carol and I met for coffee in a coffee shop near Penguin’s Sydney office to privately discuss a marketing plan for Fields of Grace which she and Ali confidently believed would be published the following year. Carol decided that cross-marketing Fields of Grace with the musical I was writing with composer, Shanon Whitelock would give us the wow-factor to boost sales. We talked a lot about the musical, and by the time our meeting ended Carol declared me a marketing person’s dream. She told Ali she could see a fabulous future opening up for me and Ali had done well to discover me.
Now at that time, I was working as a salesperson for a department store called David Jones and one evening on my drive home I had an ominous flash of intuition. I just knew the CEO of Penguin had rejected Fields of Grace. When I got home, Ali’s email confirmed it. My brilliant future shattered. Tears streaming, I sent Ali and Carol emails thanking them for their faith and both wrote back immediately saying they too were in floods of tears. And so, I spent the next five years submitting both Catch the Moon, Mary and Fields of Grace to any publisher willing to accept an unsolicited, un-agented manuscript. Every day my inbox was full of rejections. You never get used to the searing pain of rejection and I grew a bitter, tough shell over the soul that was once attuned to magic and fine-tuned to music. It made me angry, very angry that the world didn’t want my work.
And then in 2015, a miracle. A tiny publishing house in Scotland asked for Catch the Moon, Mary. Suddenly one of my stories had a home. But Fields of Grace continued to be rejected. I swore I would never self-publish but by 2018 I gave up trying to find acceptance in the mainstream world and in 2019 I bit the bullet and self-published Fields of Grace.
Fast forward to 2021 and US screenwriter, Jill Hargrave, is adapting Fields of Grace for the big screen, and the book has been voted Book of the Month by three separate reviewers. I have been told more than once that Fields of Grace would make a superb Netflix or BBC mini-series.
My advice to other authors who are experiencing similar patterns of mainstream rejection is to polish and prepare your manuscript for worldwide acceptance and don’t let anybody destroy your faith in yourself and your work. If history has shown us one thing it is the fallibility of so-called experts.
“Fields of Grace is an absorbing novel, epic in its ability to build a compelling story around a leading character, and transport her life through years of adventure, drama and relationships, and arrive at a point on the final day of her life with profound secrets to reveal. Wendy Waters writes with such glorious purpose, she builds a story born from her love of theatre, music and literature, and delivered through her beautifully lyrical writing. She reminds me of the Robert Frost quote, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’”
Peter Donnelly – The Writing Desk
“Fields of Grace is a brilliant novel that I struggled to put down. Ms Waters is a writer who certainly knows her craft. There is an immediate reassuring confidence to her writing that makes it supremely comfortable to read. The words just sweep you easily up, along and into the narrative. The descriptive detail and imagery of Glyndebourne and Paris are among some of the best I have read, it was just exquisitely rendered, conjuring the world it describes with seemingly effortless yet sublimely beautiful prose. There are so many angles within the plot that within a lesser writer’s hands, it could become over-ambitious but every strand and tangent is given equal attention and depth to enable them to dovetail marvellously; I especially liked the gentle overlay of the supernatural, it was perfectly done and entirely credible. [This] is a magnificent book, captivating the reader with a wonderfully involving story and beautifully worked prose. Highly recommended.”
Rose – RoseAuburn.com
exclusive chapter extract from Fields Of Grace
a snippet from
~ Chapter 1 ~
Sydney, September 2009
I will die today.
The tangerine fog that muffles the city and phantoms the neighbourhood is amberglow and it will want a sacrifice. I hope it will be content with an old lady who is happy to follow it but just in case it has an appetite for younger flesh I have cast the protection spell over Sam and Christian and their partners.
Having offered myself, I have until sunset to sort out my unfinished business, for when the deathlight leaves today I will follow it.
In the corner of my room is a trunk – locked for seventy-four years. It holds my past glory, an unfulfilled legacy and John. I’ll explain. When I locked the trunk in 1937 my mother, a pagan as potently gifted in the old ways as my grandmother, prophesied that John would come back for me the day I unlocked it. I’ve been tempted to turn the key many times, but my mother bound me with a promise to leave nothing unfinished in this world. There are two things I must attend to – my son, Christian, needs to know the truth about his father and my granddaughter, Sam, needs success. Time has a way of sorting out most things, but I have no more time, so today I will unlock the trunk and pass John’s legacy on to Sam and tell my son the truth about his father. Then the amberglow may claim my soul.
Unless John claims it first.
Just now before I woke, I was dreaming of John. It was 1936. We were in Paris, on our way to Maxims to celebrate my first standing ovation from a Parisian audience. We were walking beside the Seine, and I was singing, trying to lift John out of his funk. Without much success.
‘Oh, do brighten up, J,’ I said, interrupting the chorus of Night and Day. ‘It’s been an extraordinary evening. Aren’t you just a little bit pleased?’
‘Do you know how to Tango?’ he asked, smiling suddenly.
‘I’m a terrible dancer. You know that.’
‘Ah, but I am superb. I shall lead.’ He took me in his arms and began turning so fast I lost my balance.
A couple passing by said we were lovers drunk on love and a look of despair crossed John’s face. He let go of me abruptly and ran off in the direction of the hotel. Chasing after him, I broke the heel on one of my satin pumps and, in a pet, flung my shoes into the Seine and ran barefoot through the streets of Paris, not giving a damn if anybody recognised the famous English actress, Grace Fielders, currently playing Ophelia at Le Théàtre des Nations. The triumph, the dance, John’s smile dissolved in a wash of tears and rage and when I reached the hotel, I pounded on his door.
‘For heaven’s sake,’ he said, checking the hall. ‘Come inside. And please exercise a little decorum.’
‘Damn decorum! Why did you run off like that? Are you ashamed of me?’
‘I’m not ashamed of you.’ He tapped his forehead with the heel of his hand. ‘I’m ashamed of me. I have no right, absolutely none, to love you. I will only disappoint you in the end, or worse, betray you. If I was a less selfish man; I would end this thing now and let you go.’
‘Don’t you dare let me go!’ I cried, clinging to him. ‘Don’t ever let me go.’
a snippet from
~ Chapter 7 ~
‘Your name?’ The enquiry came from a row about halfway back in the darkened auditorium.
‘Grace Fieldergill, sir.’ Perspiration prickled my forehead and palms.
‘What speech have you prepared, Grace?’
‘Queen Gertrude’s speech in Act 4, Scene 7 where she do … where she announces Ophelia’s death to the Court.’ I surreptitiously wiped my hands on my skirt, and fighting the impulse to dry retch, hiccupped instead. ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, Mr. G-Gielgud. I’ve not been drinking, sir.’
‘Speak up dear and do stop fidgeting with your skirt. Which speech have you chosen?’
I locked my hands together and repeated what I’d just said more loudly.
‘A lovely choice. Whenever you’re ready.’
There are satori moments in life when an entire path opens up with the turning of a corner. This audition was my satori moment but, as I stood trembling upon that stage, I had no idea just how much my life was about to change. Miss Applebaume had taught me very little – her mannered delivery, overblown gestures, silent movie parodies of emotion were crude at best – so I elected to rely on my own instincts.
I took a moment and willed myself to become Queen Gertrude. When I acted for the cows on my parents’ dairy farm, I taught myself a technique for finding emotional truth. Up there on the tor, I became the characters I invented – wandering wraiths, fairy queens, abducted princesses, seductive sirens – by imagining their emotions. The spotlight was on me, blocking out the world with its pending war and dangerous tyrants and in that womblike space I could be reborn as Queen Gertrude or Ophelia or Juliet or whatever role I was cast in. Such power in that tiny platform we thespians strutted upon.
When I felt the Queen’s tortured emotions pulsing through me, I took a deep breath and began, and as I uttered those famous lines, I thought of Penelope intoning Daffyd’s name. Tears welled and my naturally light voice dropped into a lower register. In truth I found acting far easier than serving cream tea as a Lyons Nippy.
‘“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, So fast they follow, Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.”’ My voice broke on the word “drown’d”.
As I spoke, the tears flowed. I did not use my hands at all but stood rooted to the spot as if burdened with grief.
‘“Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”’
When the last word rang out, I bowed my head and waited. Mr. Gielgud spoke sotto voce to someone next to him and then addressed me. ‘Can you always manage real tears when you act?’
I peered blindly into the darkened auditorium beyond the spotlight. ‘Yes, I can, Mr. G-Gielgud.’
‘Who taught you your technique, Miss Field … what was it?’
‘Fieldergill … Grace Fieldergill. I taught myself when I acted for the cows on our dairy farm.’
‘Cows make a wonderfully sympathetic audience. I’ve often considered introducing feedlots in theatres.’ He laughed. ‘Miss Fieldergill, could you try the speech again? This time as if you had just committed murder.’
‘But I’m reading Queen G-Gertrude, sir. She did not –’
‘Why do actors argue with every direction I give, Peggy?’
‘Let me handle this, John.’
A young woman bounded up the aisle and presently stood in front of me. Taller than me, narrow hipped, with bobbed blonde curls and a strong-boned face of ambiguous beauty, she could have passed for an exquisite boy on the point of manhood.
‘I’m Peggy,’ she said in a thrilling, low-pitched voice.
‘A-Ashcroft?’ I stammered. Peggy Ashcroft was the most famous young actress in London.
‘Well, yes.’ Her blue-grey eyes twinkled with amusement. ‘You’re even prettier up close. Hmmm … do I really want you as a rival?’ She flipped her curls. ‘I don’t have much choice. Johnny really likes you.’
‘Yes, he does.’ She gave a low-pitched throaty gurgle of a laugh. ‘But he gets rather irritated when people question his directions.’
‘I didn’t mean to question ’im … him. I just don’t understand what it is he wants.’
Peggy lowered her voice. ‘No-one ever does.’
‘Is everything all right up there, Peg?’
‘Fine, dearest,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Now Grace, Queen Gertrude knows a good deal about
Ophelia’s death, wouldn’t you say?’
‘She did see ’er die.’
Peggy grinned. ‘I love your Devonshire accent. It’s charming. Just don’t use it when you’re acting.’
‘I try so hard not to, but sometimes it just slips out. My teacher Miss Applebaume is always teasing me about it.’
‘Miss Applebaume … sounds like a sauce.’ Her smile transformed her into a feminine beauty, dispelling the impression of androgyny. ‘Now, the Queen did not exactly murder Ophelia, but she didn’t help save her either. Johnny would like you to play her more like Lady Macbeth – capable, if not guilty of – murder.’ She winked at me. ‘You can do it, Grace.’
‘Peggy, what is going on up there?’
‘She’s ready now dearest.’ She inclined her head towards me, whispered, ‘We’ll be great friends, Grace.’
‘F-friends? You and me?’
‘Better that than enemies.’ She laughed. ‘You’ll be my understudy. I’m playing Ophelia. Now give Johnny what he wants.’ She gave me a little push towards the footlights then leapt off the stage and sprinted back down the aisle.
some snippets from
~ Chapter 35 ~
Paris, June 1936
People fall in love with Paris.
Peg said so. Poets said so. I was ready to.
My own love affair with Paris began on Sunday 28th June when I caught sight of my first Parisian statue, a man with his eyes fixed on a star, cloak permanently wind-blown, fluttering hat in hand, a pigeon perched on his noble head. As the cab driver negotiated the maze of narrow medieval streets and wide, tree-lined boulevards, my passion intensified.
‘So many statues,’ I said, gazing out the window.
The driver explained in accented English that Parisians immortalised the noble, the self-sacrificing, the artistic in statues.
‘Mademoiselle is visiting Paris, non?’
‘Oui, just visiting.’
John told him I was playing Ophelia in an English production of Hamlet at Le Théàtre des Nations. The driver said one day Paris would make a statue of me and, on the strength of this prophecy, he offered us a mini tour of the city at no extra cost. We saw 16th century half-timber houses adjacent to neo-classical renovations from the Haussmann era, sculptured parks awash with water features and fountains and, in every conceivable nook, cranny, square and park, there were flowers and statues of heroes, scholars, saints, politicians, actors, artists, musicians, poets, inventors, statesmen, naked Greeks, sobbing muses, veiled fates and fabled creatures: centaurs, satyrs, winged horses, gargoyles and unicorns. The ubiquitous pigeons used the vantage points of marble hats, granite shoulders and bronze heads to spot food and woo.
Paris won my heart that morning, and over the following weeks I would develop a loyalty to its citizens. Reasonable criticism of their vanity, rudeness and outrageous arrogance would elicit from me excuses as blatantly erroneous as those of a mother defending her bullying first-born brat. I didn’t care. Paris worshipped Art and I worshipped Paris.
My room was on the second floor. From my balcony, I could see the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Notre Dame and myriad needle-thin spires of medieval churches. The day was sultry and high coloured, meridian blue sky, white cotton-ball clouds, olive-green Seine. A smell of rain in the air. I hoped it would hold off because I was keen to explore the Left Bank, that remnant of La Belle Époch, where a Diaspora of intellectuals and artists fleeing censorship in their homelands had settled in the 20s. I also hoped to find La Closerie des Lilas, the café where Hemingway had written The Sun also Rises. I might sit at his table, drink coffee and imagine him there writing his masterpiece while I sharpened his pencils and topped up his cup.
‘Door’s open, John. I’m on the balcony.’
He came in and stood beside me, beautiful Paris spread out before us like a dream.
‘Paris is the city of my soul.’ I pointed at Notre Dame. ‘One day my soul will perch up there with the gargoyles watching over Paris.’
‘I’ll know where to find you then. Not in heaven or hell but clutching a turret between monsters.’
‘Perfect spot for me.’ I noticed he was wearing his lucky waistcoat. ‘Oh, important meeting?’
‘I have to see the manager of Le Théàtre des Nations. Won’t be back until five or six. Let’s have our first
Parisian dinner at La Closerie des Lilas where Hemingway wrote …’
‘The Sun also Rises. Yes, please. He might join us in spirit. I bet he never left Paris.’
‘He very well might.’ He checked his pocket watch. ‘Must go. See you tonight and welcome home, darling.’
a snippet from
~ Chapter 44 ~
Berlin, July 1936
With the help of the cast, Dashiell managed to get through the remainder of the patched show. In spite of a tense and decidedly uneven performance, the audience pitched dozens of roses onto the stage at final curtain. When I took my last bow, I noticed John’s seat was empty. On our way back to the dressing rooms, I caught up with Harry.
‘John wasn’t in his seat,’ I whispered, heart thumping.
‘Calm yourself, lass. He’ll be having a drink at the bar to celebrate the fact that we got through tonight.’
‘Of course, you’re right. Harry, you can’t leave the theatre alone. They’re waiting for you. Fritz …’
‘Yes, I know.’ He looked ill. ‘I’ll walk out with five or six of the lads and Daniela.’ He laughed. ‘If anyone can hold them off, it’s Daniela. She was such a trouper tonight. You hurry now and change. When you’re ready, knock on my door. I don’t want you going out there alone, either.’
However, I was determined to find John. I changed into my travelling clothes, removed my stage makeup, and hurried out, ready to tackle the entire German army if necessary. All along the corridor, muted conversations and subdued laughter bubbled from behind closed dressing room doors, their voices in concert with the clanking and scraping of the crew bumping out the set and the stagehands crating our costumes.
The alleyway was eerily empty. The SS officers were gone and for once there were no autograph seekers. Murky orange light clung to the walls like mould. The cobblestones, polished smooth by centuries of footfall, had a candlecorpse glow. The echo of my own footsteps made me think I was being followed. I stopped, looked around. At the far end of the alleyway, a bundle of discarded clothes lay half-hidden in shadow. I resumed walking, stopped again. Those clothes hadn’t been there when we arrived. I turned back, looked more closely. The bundle was in fact a man, his arms flung out, legs splayed, the amberglow stripping his body of natural colour. I caught a flicker of movement in one of his fingers, heard the faint sibilance of laboured breathing.
I moved closer. ‘Hello? Are you ill, sir?’
Closer still and I saw he was wearing a suit, rosettes of blood blooming on a white dress shirt. His face was badly swollen, his nose and mouth crusted with blackening blood. One of the fingers of his out-flung left hand had a sliver of pale bone poking through the skin. Closer still and the fetid light revealed that the garment I thought was a shirt was in fact a waistcoat embossed with roses.
It took an agonizingly long moment to reach John and fling myself over him, press my body against his to stop his soul evaporating.
‘Help me.’ The taste of ashes and bile on my tongue.
‘Help me,’ I repeated in a voice I did not recognise.
author bio & links
Wendy Waters is an award-winning author, composer, lyricist and librettist. Born in Queensland, she grew up in Sydney, lived in the USA for six years, travelled extensively and now divides her time between London and Sydney.
In 2011 she volunteered to work with OASIS Salvation Army Crisis Centre in Sydney, helping to motivate musically gifted youth.
On behalf of Wendy and myself I want to thank you for allowing your curiosity to get the better of you … we’re both chuffed to bits you read this blog.
And if we’ve tempted you to read Fields of Grace please don’t forget to write a review on Amazon … your reviews feed authors!