The power of fairy tales: an interview with Katherine Langrish

katherine langrishToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Langrish, author of a number of wonderful fantasy novels for older children, who has just released her new book–a collection of essays on fairy tale.

Your new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, has just been published by Greystones Press, and unlike your other books, it’s a work of non-fiction: but like your other books, it shares a common element–a fascination with fairy tale and folklore. Why are you so interested in them?

Quite simply, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a child.  I’ve never understood why some people feel it’s a taste adults ought to grow out of, unless perhaps the only fairy tales they’ve encountered have been the simplest versions retold for very little children.  Fairy tales can be profound and as inexplicable as poetry. As I discuss in the book, a story like the Grimms’ tale ‘The Juniper Tree’ deals with enormous themes – murder, jealousy and abuse as well as birth, resurrection, and joyful communion with the natural world.  It will ‘mean’ something slightly different to everyone who reads or hears it, because it elicits from each person their own emotional and spiritual response.  In fact, this story was probably rewritten by a German romantic poet, but that’s the other fascination of fairy tales.  They don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they’re anonymous, so they adapt to the voice of whoever’s telling the story. And they’re so old!  People have been telling stories like these for centuries.

It’s such a large topic–did you try to pursue a particular line of inquiry or reflection in the book, or is it more organic? And what challenges and pleasures did you find in putting together the collection?

Many of the essays in the book began life on my blog (see below), although for this collection they were massively rewritten and extended. I did not think I had chosen any specific line of enquiry, but to my own fascination I found as I went through the rewrites that a theme was in fact emerging: that of ‘authenticity’. What does, what can that mean in terms of traditional tales?  Is the ‘earliest’ version of a Seven Miles of Steel Thistlesparticular tale ‘more authentic’ than a later one?  My conclusion was, repeatedly, that while it can be fascinating to trace the history and analogues of a tale, it renews itself on the lips of the latest storyteller.

Did any particular fairy tale or folklore scholars influence you in terms of interpretation and reflection?

There are so many wonderful fairy tale and folklore scholars, an embarrassment of riches, but I have to mention the great Katherine Briggs, whose four volume ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Tales’ is a Bible in the field, and whose other books of fairy lore I love – such as ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ and ‘The Vanishing People’. I like her insistence on the primacy of narrative.  I also love Max Lüthi’s ‘The European Folk Tale’ which so clearly illuminates the form and content of the classic European fairy tale.  Most of the interpretations and reflections in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ are my own, however – if only because I read the stories long before I read any of the scholars.

You’ve maintained a blog with the same name as the book, over several years. It’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and was the blog a bit of a testing-ground for the book?

The title of both the book and the blog comes from an old Irish fairy tale, ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. In it, the hero has to ride ‘over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea’.  I love it as a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties, including the sometimes endless-seeming struggle to write well.  I suppose the blog has become a testing-ground for the book, though I never expected a book to come of it. I began the blog simply as a place where I could write about the things I love – children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales and folk-lore – and where I could talk with others who love them too.  Does it sound too fey a comparison, if I say that the blog turned into a fairy garden and the book has grown up out of it like a tree?

Do you have particular favourites in terms of fairy tales? If so, which–and why?

I do – and I’ve written about some of them in the book.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Juniper Tree’, and I also love ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Jorinda and Joringel’.  But the story I love best to tell aloud is the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’, a very old version of Bluebeard with a far more intelligent and courageous heroine.

What are your favourite folkloric creatures?

My absolute favourites are the household fairies – the brownies, nisses, tomtes and domovoys which live with human beings and help (and sometimes hinder) them. I’ve written about then in several of my books for children: they’re an independent, mischievous, yet devoted race. They offer their services freely and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them on the hearth.  I love the way stories about them mingle Otherness with domesticity.  And I think they’re very, very old – as old as the story of Rachel in Genesis, who steals the household gods from her father Laban.

Your novels and short stories borrow from several different cultural traditions–can you tell us a little about that?

I began with Scandinavian folk-tales about trolls.  I’d been trying to write a story about a young Viking boy which involved him encountering some of the Norse gods. The story just went completely dead on me – I couldn’t find the way forward at all.  If a god befriends your character, why shouldn’t everything go smoothly for him or her? It seemed to me I was having to find complicated explanations for my hero’s predicaments. Then I began reading folk tales about trolls, and realised the book ought to be about them.  I got rid of the gods entirely as an unwanted extra supernatural level, and the book – ‘Troll Fell’ – worked much better as a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.troll fell

When I came to write the third book in the trilogy, I wanted to take my characters over the sea to ‘Vinland’ – North America – something we know Norse men, and probably Norse women too, actually did.  And there my characters would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was that or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet it seemed to me important – was to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. I thought long and hard about it and spent months of research, trying my best to respect and faithfully represent the culture I described. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. The one thing I was sure about was that there would be no ‘white saviour’ in the book.  My Norse hero owes his life to the Native American characters he meets, not the other way around.  I wrote at length about this issue in an essay called ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’, and though the discussion has moved on over the last few years, I still cautiously hold to what I said there.  Here’s the link:

In books such as Dark Angels and the Troll trilogy you explore the worlds of what might be called ‘the hidden people’ and their interactions with humans. The idea of a ‘hidden people’ with a wide range of magical powers (from large to small) and alien intelligence but with many similarities to humans and who appear to be drawn to us–if only to exploit us at times–is part of the traditional folklore and stories of many cultures right across the world. Why do you think this is such a universal notion?

Wow, that’s a huge question… and yet maybe it’s a small one too.  Haven’t we all had the experience of laying something down and then minutes later not being able to find it?  It’s so, so frustrating: ‘It has to be there! I know perfectly well I put it there, just before the phone rang!  And now I’ve looked everywhere – and it’s gone!’  The temptation is to blame borrowers, or gremlins, which we know is a joke – but it still makes us feel better to be able to focus the frustration on some invisible, tricksy thing that’s sitting there laughing at us. Maybe it’s a human trait to imagine the universe as personal rather than impersonal. We can deal with the personal, we can understand it and negotiate with it – we humans are very good at that.  Such feelings must have been far, far stronger in the past, before science began coming up with ‘rational’ explanations for everything.dark angels

Incidentally, just where have I put my keys?

You have been a storyteller as well as a writer. How does that influence your fiction?

I began story-telling years ago when I lived in France and our children were small.  I joined a a weekly English-language story session at the Bibliotheque de Fontainebleau for children aged three years and up. It can be quite hard to keep the attention of a group of fifteen to twenty little ones when reading from a picture book: you’re facing them, and you have to keep stopping and turning the book around so they can see the pictures, and that interrupts the flow.  An inspirational friend suggested that we all tried telling stories ‘from the heart’ instead of reading aloud. I loved it. I found you could keep the children’s attention better and they make the pictures in their heads. I continued to tell stories to older groups of children for many years, and learned a lot about pacing a story, about narrative structure, and about the kinds of things children enjoyed – what got them excited, what made them laugh. So yes, I think it really did help my writing, which loosened up and at the same time became more confident. I just – love telling stories.

To celebrate Shakespeare


will shakespeareToday, April 23, 2016, marks the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and celebrations of the great writer’s life and work are planned all over the world, including of course in his home town of Stratford Upon Avon. 

As is the case for so many other writers, Shakespeare has been a big influence and inspiration for me, from the time I first encountered his work as a child–something I wrote about in an essay called Puck’s Gift, published in Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, edited by Naomi J.Miller. But instead of telling you about how Shakespeare had influenced me, I thought I’d show it; and celebrate the wonderful Will in my own way, by posting the first chapter from Malvolio’s Revenge (2005), one of the six of my novels which have been directly inspired by his work. Malvolio’s Revenge, set amongst a troupe of travelling players in Louisiana in 1910, is based, of course, on Twelfth Night, which is possibly my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays.  The other novels are Cold Iron(1998, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare (2003, inspired by The Tempest and Twelfth Night); The Madman of Venice(2009, based on The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet); The Understudy’s Revenge (2011, based on Hamlet) and My Brother Will (2013, an evocation of a year in Shakespeare’s adolescence, as recounted by his brother Gilbert).

Shakespeare novels shelf

As well, for those interested, there’s Shakespeare’s Last Play, a rather strange little cross between novella and play that I wrote some years ago and published as a free ebook you can read online.

And now, without further ado, let me take you travelling back in time to 1910 in the Louisiana countryside, and a very rainy night..

Malvolio’s Revenge

by Sophie Masson



Toby had never seen so much rain. No soft veil of mizzle, no needles of drizzle, not even stormbucket rain, but great  relentless waterfalls, drowning everything: road, wagon, horses, Toby himself. At least it was not cold, he told himself, despite it being Christmas Eve(and some Christmas Eve this was turning out to be!) But no-one could stay warm for long out in this deluge, and Toby was soaked, not to the skin, not to the bone, but to the very marrow of the very bone. His feet sank deep into the mud at every step, the mire sucking at his boots with increasing vigour, as he tried to encourage poor Slender and Shallow to keep struggling on.

The rain had come on with such suddeness, half a mile or so back, that there had been no way they could find shelter quickly, but must keep going as best they could. There should be  houses and even a little settlement not too far away–or so it said on the map–and so Toby had been detailed to guide the anxious draughthorses in the right direction. But even by the light of the lantern he held in his hand, he could barely see more than a few inches in front of his nose.  Occasionally, a tree would loom at him out of the gloom: the strange live oaks one saw everywhere in this place, still green in winter, but ghostly in the pale light of the lantern, with the moss hanging from their drenched black branches like the tattered rags of criminals hanging on the gallows. Far above the sunken road was the levee which held back the huge swollen river, whose muffled but still menacing roar could be heard even through the din of the rain.

Water, water everywhere, thought Toby, sneezing violently and tugging at Slender’s rein to stop him from stumbling. Water–this damned country is only an excuse for land, it’s just a floating bit of driftwood on a huge black current. Our wagon’s a frail little ship, and soon enough we’ll be wrecked, swept away like so much flotsam, drowned by water above and below!

To keep fear away, he cursed quietly to himself; cursed the weather, the benighted place in which he found himself; cursed his uncle’s folly in bringing them out here into this sodden countryside. But most especially, he cursed the memory of self-appointed New Orleans festivities planner Roland Bourgeois Batiste, apparently a ‘good friend’ of Toby’s uncle Theo, who–for a goodly sum of money–was supposed to have organised for them a perfect venue in the city. When they had arrived, however, the flamboyant Monsieur Batiste had advised them that after all there were no theatres that could accomodate the company in the city. After all, he said with many gestures designed to prove his good will and his helplessness–after all, it was coming up to Carnival time, everything was packed full–but out in the country, people hungered after culture. He had taken the liberty of setting up a few places for them, out there. And if their country tour went well, why, it went without saying that it would be a lot easier to prise open New Orleans doors. In fact, the rich planters out in the country would be only too delighted to help open those doors for them, once they’d seen the quality of the show.

Ha! That had been just the way to handle the principal of the Tridlingham Troupe, Toby’s own uncle Theo, thought Toby bitterly. Theo Tridlingham had been a little crestfallen at first, after Batiste’s revelation; but his irrepressibly optimistic nature had taken over, then, and he had actually thanked the swindling son-of-a-seacook! Armed with Batiste’s ‘booking-sheet’, Theo’s optimism, and the rest of the company’s profound resignation, the Troupe had ventured out.

But alas! The Louisiana countryside, if it held people who hungered after culture, sure hid them well, maybe drowned in the swamps or the marshes or the blessed little bayous that covered so much of the place. More than once, the ‘venue’ Batiste had ‘booked’ for them had turned out to be either a figment of the swindler’s imagination, or else the victim of flood or sudden earthquake–for it had sure vanished off the face of the earth. Oh, it was true that once or twice, on an obscure plantation or two, they’d been able to stage Uncle Theo’s pride and joy, his once-modestly-famous play, Malvolio’s Revenge; but what Batiste had carefully failed to tell them was that a good few of the planters hereabouts were still primarily French-speakers and as such supremely uninterested in a once-famous English play that had, almost a lifetime ago, been presented in the London’s West End. And of the rest, most of the richer plantations would not even receive them; and those that did wanted to pay them only by board and lodging–which was uniformly poor. In the little villages and towns in between, they had fared just a little better, which was no great achievement. In the last week or so, in any case, even those little audiences had dwindled to invisibility, as everyone who was anyone at all(and even those who weren’t!) left the dank countryside in readiness to spend Christmas and then the Carnival period in lively, sociable New Orleans, whose doors, of course, had resolutely remained shut…

Unfortunately, these melancholy thoughts led inevitably to images of other things in Toby’s mind, things calculated to arouse not melancholy but fierce longing: namely, memories of the large and comfortable houses around the main square of the city, the fires that must be burning warmly in all those fireplaces, the cosy, noisy taverns, the brightly-lit, never-sleeping streets that at this season would be filling already with Carnival revellers: for Carnival lasted from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and the Christmas period, too, was filled with merrymaking. That had been the idea, originally, in coming here: Uncle Theo was sure his play would go down perfectly in such a buzzing, pleasure-loving city. ‘You’ll see,’ he’d told the company enthusiastically–‘you’ll see, we’ll be box-office magic, in New Orleans! We’ll be eating and living high, my lords and ladies! You just wait and see!’

Living and eating high–ah! How Toby could just see the food laid out on tables–smoking hot pies, fried chicken, fragrant, spicy stews and soups, towering iced and sugared cake confections! Hell! He could more than see–he could actually smell them! The delicious smell filled his nostrils; his eyes closed in ecstasy; he lost his grip on the reins, and fell over in the mud, perilously close to the great wheels of the wagon, the lantern flying from his hand. He had the presence of mind to fling himself sideways, only to come into painful contact with something cold, solid and very hard indeed.

He swore loudly and got groggily to his feet, only to be nearly deafened by a stentorian voice in his ear.  ‘You idiot boy! What do you think you are doing? Do you want to kill us all?’

His uncle was looming over him, his face twisted with fright and anger, the rescued lantern in one hand, the other calming the draughthorses. Toby lost his own temper then. ‘We can’t go any further! We have to stop!’

‘Stop, is it?’ said his uncle, with a sarcastic lilt to his voice. He was drenched, now, too, the water running in great rivulets down his craggy, ruined face. ‘Stop where, may I ask, Toby? Have you found us a nice little tavern, or perchance a warm dry hotel?’

Toby was just about to answer back, hotly, when he saw something that made him forget his anger. ‘Look! Uncle Theo! Over there!’

The dim light of the lantern swinging in his uncle’s hand had fallen on the thing he had nearly knocked himself out on. It was a gatepost. Unmistakeably. A tall, solid gatepost, with something written on it. His uncle realised what it was immediately, too.

‘Hold Slender and Shallow, boy, ‘ he ordered. ‘I want to see properly.’

Toby did as he was told; and his uncle hurried over to the gatepost, and squatted on his heels, uncaring of the mud, holding the lantern high to illuminate the writing. ‘It’s faint,’ he muttered. ‘Let me’s an L, no, two L’s..a Y, is it? Hmm, yes. Then an R, another I, an E..’ He got up, slowly. ‘I do declare! This is a strange thing indeed! Wait here. i’m going to go and see.’ He squelched past Toby, and was soon lost to sight, only the faint glow of the lantern showing where he was going. Toby stood holding the horses, his mind whirling. What had his uncle seen?

‘Toby! Theo!’ A plaintive voice came from behind him, from the wagon. Toby sighed. ‘Yes, Madame Metanche?’ Though he looked in her direction, he could only dimly see her anxious face, peering from the unfastened opening of the covered wagon. The rain was easing off, thank goodness. But a fog was slowly taking its place. A fog that would grow thicker by the moment..

‘Toby! What, in the name of the blessed Virgin, is happening? Why have we stopped?’

‘We are shipwrecked, Madame,’ said Toby, lightly, unable to resist. She was so easy to tease, for the Tridlingham Troupe’s leading lady  did not understand metaphors, or jokes, or irony. She panicked at everything, made vast peaked mountains not merely of molehills, but of the shadow of molehills! He would not have teased her, mind you, if his uncle had been in earshot. Uncle Theo treated Mathilde Metanche like she might be a rare jewel, or perhaps an unexploded bomb.

She gave a little cry. ‘Shipwrecked? What is this you say? Is the river coming down on us? Is that why there is so much water?’

It had been her greatest fear ever since arriving in Louisiana. She did not like the look of the Mississippi, she said, it was too big and the land was too flat, and she didn’t trust the levees. She was sure one day they would burst and the big booming river would sweep everyone away.  ‘It could be,’ Toby muttered gloomily, enjoying his moment of power. ‘It could be.’ And squealed in outrage in the next moment, as his ear was twisted.

‘Stop it, you rascal!’ It was the light voice of Gabriel Harvey, who played all the ‘character’ parts in the troupe–that is to say, he wasn’t handsome or stupid enough to be a leading man, and his dark, rough-cut face with its grey-green eyes was characterful enough. ‘You’re not the one has to calm Mathilde’s hysterics,’ he went on, calmly outstaring Toby’s fury. ‘So what the devil is going on? Where’s Theo?’

‘Down there,’ said Toby, crossly, rubbing at his ear.

‘Down there? In the fog? Has he lost his wits?’

‘Gatepost,’ explained Toby, sullenly. He could see the dim glow returning, the vague shape of his uncle behind it. ‘There’s a house down there somewhere.’

‘Well, thank the stars. Or whatever. ‘

‘Of course, that is, if they’ll let us in.’ A gloomy voice from the wagon. Gabriel laughed. ‘Trust you, Old Fate, to raise our spirits! I wondered why we brought you along.’

Toby couldn’t help grinning. Jean LaFete was the company’s clown–and in real life so morose and pessimistic that Gabriel had nicknamed him Old Fate, a play on the English sound of the clown’s name, which in French actually meant ‘the festival’.

‘Gentlemen!’ Theo Tridlingham squelched up to them. ‘Turn the wagon. There’s a house down there. I spoke to the housekeeper. They’ll take us in for the night, and set us on our way tomorrow. There’s soup and bread, and a warm fire for us, my children! We’ll have a good Christmas Eve, after all.’ He paused. ‘I can’t help but think it’s a lucky omen for us, given the name of this estate. Which is Illyrie! And that’s Illyria in French, my friends!’

They stared at him for an instant. Then Gabriel intoned, in sepulchral tones, ‘Illyria, is it? I would not care if it were Hell itself, opening its gates to us this evening, and the Devil himself who was to be our host! ‘

‘You are a heathen and a savage, Gabriel Harvey,’ came Jean la Fete’s voice. ‘Take care you do not bring disaster down on us with such words! This is a strange, sorcerous country–who knows what ears are listening?’

‘Who knows indeed, Old Fate?’ laughed Gabriel, not at all put out. ‘Come on, then, Theo–lead the way, to Hell or Heaven or Illyria, I care not at all, long as it’s nice and dry!’

And so say all of us, thought Toby as they slowly manoeuvred the horses around to head down the rutted, oak-lined track that led to Illyria.




A new way of writing: an interview with Simon Higgins

Simon Higgins Web Friendly Biog PicToday I am interviewing author Simon Higgins about his extraordinary new creation, DarkSpear, which features an intriguing way of writing combining several art and media forms.

Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author of books for young adults. Originally a police officer, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. He has 13 novels published so far, often combining crime, speculative fiction and historical adventure. His 2008 novel, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, was an Australian bestseller and was also published in the United States, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently lives in China where he works in several creative fields.

Simon, this exciting new release of yours, DarkSpear, is what you have called a ‘visual novel’ . Can you explain what that means?

Sure, Sophie. Visual Novels (VNs) are something quite fresh and exciting for many in the Western world! I keep summing them up for people in these terms: they’re books you play, games you read, a hybrid of textual novel and interactive computer game.

They evolved originally in Japan, spread throughout East Asia, and are now gaining many appreciators in both Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But not enough yet, I say.  🙂  They have so much to offer!

VNs are, at the core, literary, but like computer games, they offer new ways to enjoy fiction by thatching in extra mediums to intensify the reader/player’s immersive experience. So although text heavy, they also employ elements like a short opening film, sumptuous backgrounds, detailed images of the characters, sophisticated music, and even sound effects, to intensify story impact.

They are also an interactive storytelling medium, kind of the cyber-era descendant of those delightful old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books and games from the 80s. This is what you could call their gaming side. A player must decide what the protagonist will do at certain points, choosing from two or three options that suddenly confront them.

Different choices lead to different storylines, which in VN jargon are called routes or paths. Should you pick one that eventually ends in some decidedly nasty fate, it’s okay…because you also choose ‘save points’ along the way, which you can return to anytime using the menu. Thus, having noted where you made that critical wrong turn, you’re able to just dive back into the story world again, land close to that point, and take a different path!

Depending on exactly how the VN has been written, you may, or may not, on behalf of the protagonist, get to cheat what we could call ‘the hero’s ultimate fate’, but with each route you try, the journey will certainly change. It’s a pity real life doesn’t offer such options sometimes, heh? 🙂

How did you come up with the concept, and why? How long was it in the making?

 I wish I could say I’d invented the concept, but alas, it was more a case of stumbling on it while living and working in creative circles in China, and immediately thinking, ‘Wow! So many imaginative people I know in the West have probably never heard of this medium, but would absolutely love it!’

Quickly thereafter it also occurred to me that this could be a powerful rescue tool for all those parents and teachers who bemoan having a clever, curious teenager in their lives who just-won’t-read while computer games stalk the face of the earth and compete with books for their brain space.DarkSpear1

Here, I thought, is a bridge between the two worlds, one immersive and engaging enough for anyone to want to cross it, at least once. Now I should warn that not all VNs I’ve seen are what you might call wholesome, just as can be said for books. But many are, some are utterly delightful, and a few are even pure art.

I also (as I sometimes formally testified in court, way back in the police force) ‘formed a certain suspicion on good grounds’. A suspicion that once writers in the West, be they self-published, emerging or established authors, read a VN with good storylines and dialogue and gripping ideas, a cry would go up that I’d be able to hear all the way from China. A cry of ‘I want one too!’

Once I’d developed that feeling, and of course, found the right creative partners, the process, from the birth of the dream to my VN’S first ‘draft’ in playable form, took about four or five months. That included writing the tale’s routes, and programming.

DarkSpear is a multi-arts, multi-media project. Who did you collaborate with, and how did the process go? What challenges did you face?

 I teamed up with Lava Entertainment, an ambitious, intensely creative young company based here in Guilin, China, who had set up shop, as fate would have it, just walking distance from my own office at Crane Animation.

That’s where I write for Gemini Fables, an animated TV show, coach the in-house writing team, fine-tune crucial subtitles, and get to participate -to various degrees- in a wide variety of awesome projects. I get to travel regularly with my work, and sometimes have the joy of meeting Chinese directors, screen writers, TV celebs and actors – so many lovely and stimulating people.

I’m Crane Animation’s chief creative consultant and my official designation, based on my track record in the West, is Foreign Expert. Kind of chuffed about that, seeing as the first one ever was Marco Polo. 🙂 Always nice to feel you’re following in a legendary author’s footsteps, though happily, unlike Marco, nobody ever points crossbows at me when I move between provinces for business travel. 🙂

My regular work can include tasks related to animation, filmmaking, educational and safety initiative creation, commercial branding character design, and all sorts of projects that harness story and imagination to help build international friendship ties between China and other parts of the world, including Australia and France.

But the Visual Novel project with Lava was aside from all that, out of my comfort zone you could almost say, because it required me to quickly get to know a brilliant young team of artists, programmers and business people who spoke, in some cases, minimal or no English. That was naturally an ongoing challenge as my Mandarin is very basic.

However, we all persevered, and as we worked on the project, they coached me in the technical side of putting together a VN, which at the outset, involved me, the author, not only writing the story but creating at least three primary variations to its overall arc and then designing a series of sub-deviations within each major ‘route’.

Along the way, I had to chart out where key moments would turn into decision-points for the reader/player, and depending on their choices, sweep them seamlessly into other paths, and possibly, back out again to the original route, later. At first, it was mind-bending. 🙂 I remember hunching over my notebook, in genuine zombie mode, after working on it intensively one weekend, my wife devotedly shovelling noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, murmuring, ‘You can keep working, but you gotta eat.’

I also had to conceive and storyboard all the major background art, and work with the Lava team on character design, choices of music, and desirable sound effects for heightening the drama at certain points. And, towards the end of the whole process, I had to script, storyboard and direct the promotional and opening-of-game short films.

So the mission took in elements of novel then script writing, computer game design, film production and directing. I totally loved it, such an intense creative stretch! 🙂 My wife Jen, who won her creative master’s degree at RMIT in Melbourne, gave me many fabulous ideas and edited the final short films, even organising a Beijing composer to create the videos’ original music while actually watching the footage in real time.

One interesting challenge was the area of writer’s vision v. artist’s vision, something I’m sure is familiar territory to anyone who’s ever worked collaboratively on a picture book or illustrated anthology. Two different styles of creative mind, coming at the same territory from two different frames of reference, well, it can easily become a Batman V Superman-level epic clash. So yes, I did end up negotiating, at times, with the team’s artists over story v. imagery.

Fortunately, Chinese artists, in my experience, are the absolute opposite of volatile. We did have the odd lengthy chat about why, in certain instances, it really was necessary to stick to what my text described, as opposed to the artist’s view that a more free-form interpretation of that passage ‘could look so beautiful.’

But there was a great spirit of teamwork prevailing overall, and in the end, I did- happily- make some concessions, including changing certain details in the story to fit the envisioned art. I just had to. So many of their random ideas were just great! And I really love their distinctive work. Kai, the chief artist, for instance, somehow manages to bring digital and classical art style elements together in a really absorbing way.

DarkSpear2 DarkSpear is set in a dystopian future, and centred around a feisty, talented heroine, Kitty Sato, who is drawn into a dangerous secret world. How did you create the character of Kitty, and research the interesting phenomenon of psi-gamma(ESP) ability?

In some ways, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sato was all about coming full circle for me.

1998 saw my first novel, Doctor Id, hit the shelves courtesy of Random House, and its star was young Jade Draper, a policeman’s daughter and reluctant psychic, misguidedly drawn into a hazardous opportunity to bring down a serial killer, and, fittingly for one of my characters, doing so with the aid of her Asian best friend and some-time love interest, Wing Tran.

The story’s murderer used the internet, which in 98 was wild and ‘un-policed’ compared to this century, to select and stalk his victims. I’ve been told -and I don’t know if it’s true- that I was one of the first authors to employ the whole ‘killer harnesses the net’ device in a crime novel. It did seem to surprise reviewers.

Whatever the case, that ‘X-factor’ certainly gave the book, a young adult tome, a topical edge that kick-started my career and garnered a Notable listing from the Children’s Book Council of Australia -no mean feat I think, given its gritty elements, including visceral nightmares and strangulations with superhuman strength.

Flash forward to a different century. 🙂 Late 2015, me contemplating my 13th novel. This time, though I again wanted to write about a tough young woman with precognitive abilities, I felt that this time round, she should be of mixed racial heritage (Jade and Wing combined, or perhaps a parallel to their potential child) and in no way reluctant to delve into her latent though unmanageable powers. I decided that this time, rather than be up against a killer, my heroine should be up against THE killers…in some timely but ultimate sense. And who would they turn out to be? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book, AND make some sound choices, to help Kitty find that out. 🙂

Once I’d come up with Kitty’s profile, I knew that, in a world now more savvy and cynical than the one I was first published in, this new young psychic Miss would need a credible backbone for her paranormal abilities, so I hit the books and the net (while feeling very safe from the serial killer I long ago created, thanks to the Great Firewall of China) and did lots of research…

It is just plain fascinating to discover how long and hard humans, educated, science-based, sceptical ones included, have relentlessly pursued what is in essence a romantic idea. ‘I can foretell future events; I can sense what’s in your pocket; on the back of that card in your hand; in the depths of your heart.’ Really?

Never, it seems, in the lab, under the scrutiny of objective, careful observers using reliable, untampered-with equipment. So says history, lots of it. Of course, part of the mythos of special powers is that real psychics are indeed among us, but being the real deal, will always refuse to be tested, even though they’d pass with flying colours.

As an amateur sociologist, anthropologist and self-resigned poster child for OCE syndrome (Obsessive Compulsive Exploration) I found this area of study utterly riveting, and dived into it fanatically while developing Kitty Sato and her world.

And while reading around the subject, I relentlessly beset my poor wife with sudden, random ‘Hey! Did you know…?’ outbursts. To her great credit, even when my excited rants had reached the double numbers, she still responded with patient smiles as opposed to kung fu. 🙂

So I got to know a world so interesting to work with, it became the reason DarkSpear is subtitled The Prologue. Yes. Good news. Lava Entertainment and I are planning at least one, possibly two more VNs in this series.

There is another fascinating aspect to DarkSpear too, in which a player’s own psi-gamma levels are actually evaluated during it. Can you tell us more about that?

dark spear 3Me being me, I was, as the project unfolded, once again hoping to come up with some ‘X-factor’ element that would really enhance the VN’s immersive qualities… 🙂

Once I knew that one of the major themes in my story would be Kitty’s psychic powers and how they might be both detected and scientifically demonstrated, I did my research then laid quite a challenge on the brilliant young minds I was working with.

Why? Because the Lava crew had said to me early on, during an initial brainstorming session, ‘Please suggest some sort of appropriate puzzle that could be included in the VN. Sort of a game within a game, for added interest and value for our customers.’

There were some very interesting expressions around the table when, in a later meeting, I explained Zener Card experiments at Duke and Princeton universities, as well as under the auspices of the CIA, in the latter’s case, as part of their hunt for real psychics to recruit as spies -all of this, now well-documented history.

The eyebrows really went up when I asked Jie Deng, CEO of Lava, if he thought he could design a real, scientifically-credible ‘Zener test engine’ and embed it in the VN. Well, he burned the midnight oil and went at the challenge like a trooper, employing skills he’d learned studying gaming science in, of all places, Birmingham, England, where he also developed his great -and now frustrated- love of ‘real’ fish and chips.

Jie’s subsequent success was to become that longed-for ‘X-factor’ component, DarkSpear’s utterly unique feature that sets it aside from all other VNs! Yes, if you are that rare, rumoured to exist individual with latent psi-gamma capacity (parapsychology-speak for real ESP) this humble Visual Novel can scientifically prove it, and by way of screen shots, help you document it. But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending a triumphant email – with supporting attachments – to the CIA. 🙂

How would you summarise the main features or benefits your Visual Novel offers readers and/or game players?

 Firstly, it’s a true read but with something more added: sensory immersion. Music that alters with the story, striking visuals that shift and change, sparingly (and strategically) used sound effects. But not everything is shown or done for you…so imagination, visualisation, and engagement on a thought level remains a major factor.

dark spear 4Secondly, while predominantly a book, it’s one you run on your phone or tablet for convenience, and also part-computer game, hence genuinely interactive. You help steer the story, and that’s exciting and unpredictable. You can ‘live it’ more than once, each journey as unique as the choices you make, but not too much is laid on you. The interactive aspect is not relentless, so you can still lose yourself in the tale.

Thirdly, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. It has the potential to lure some, who just aren’t, in their own estimation, ‘reading types’ into an experience that may expand their habits to their lasting benefit. Put it on a young hard-core gamer’s Android, iPhone or iPad, and if they don’t delete the new ‘oddball’ game, they just may bring it inside the city walls of their personal culture, where, come nightfall, out will tumble the hidden warriors of readership. At least I pray as much, to all the gods, old and new. 🙂

Thanks so much for the interview, Sophie! As you know, I love YOUR work. 🙂 And by way of epilogue, I should probably also mention that anyone visiting the Official DarkSpear Page on my website, can download their own free 13 piece set of original artwork used in the VN. Just go to





Author site:

The translator’s art: an interview with Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee portraitTranslation is an art both precise and subtle, and the work of distinguished Australian translator Stephanie Smee has those qualities in abundance. Stephanie has translated several works of French literature into English, and I first met her some years ago, after the publication of her translations of classic French children’s titles by the Countess de Ségur. We got talking about other French classics, and I happened to talk to her about one of my favourite books growing up as a French-speaking child: Michel Strogoff, a great adventure novel by the legendary author Jules Verne.

Well, that conversation has led to today, and the publication by Eagle Books of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. This is the first English translation of this wonderful book in over a hundred years, and as one of the publishing team at Eagle Books, I worked closely with Stephanie on the project, impressed as ever by her great attention to detail and her thoughtful and perceptive understanding of the literary work she was translating. And so today, to celebrate the release of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, I talk to Stephanie about translating the book–and the art of translation in general.

Stephanie, translating Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff was a massive and painstaking undertaking. How did you prepare for it initially?
Like many Anglophone readers, I was really only familiar with those books of Jules Verne that have always been popular with English readers… Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I confess it had been many years since I had read those tales.
So, when discussing with you possible ideas to pitch to English language publishers, your enthusiasm for this historical adventure tale took me a little unawares. However, after getting my hands on an original French edition, and spending some considerable time researching, I realised how enduringly popular Michel Strogoff has been with its French readers. And I became increasingly nonplussed as to how it had slipped from the catalogue of Verne’s other, perennially popular tales which had been translated into English.
How does one prepare for a translation task such as this? A number of readings of the text, of course, which serves to allow your mind to “relax” into the rhythm of the text, but then the close readings are required, and the true breadth of Verne’s rich vocabulary and sentence structure sinks in. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to “dive in”!
 What challenges came up for you as you worked on the book?
mikhail strogoff finished 1 front coverVerne’s vocabulary is encyclopaedic, and one can almost sense the glee with which he displays his research into the historical, geographical and cultural specificities of his setting. I was very fortunate to have been given some magnificent 19th century French/French and French/English dictionaries by my father-in-law, Jim Schoff, and there is no doubt these proved very useful in grappling with some of the more obscure terms that came up from time to time. I also found some of the 19th century maps of Russia, Siberia and “Independent Tartary” (again, supplied by my father-in-law) absolutely invaluable. One editorial challenge, with which you were very helpful, was determining the appropriate transliteration of place names. Of course, Verne had transliterated place names from the Russian cyrillic into 19th century French. We then had to settle upon the appropriate way of spelling all of these names for our 21st century Anglophone readership while remaining authentic to the historical setting of the novel. As readers will be aware, customs surrounding the spelling of Russian names can be a moveable feast and often differ from one current newspaper or novel to another, depending on the editorial decisions made. The historical maps I had at my disposal were certainly useful, but again, it was customary in the 19th century for many mapmakers to use French spelling of Russian place names, as it was assumed that educated readers and scholars would have French at their fingertips and unfortunately, we can’t make such assumptions for our readership anymore!  
I did often wonder how translators used to manage before the internet allowed us access to so many superb resources, including to such things as 19th century accounts of travellers making their way through the same or similar parts of the world as our hero, Mikhail Strogoff! Images of Tartar battle dress or Siberian towns which I was able to access through Google books often allowed me to create a mental picture of the word-image I was trying to paint with my translation of Verne’s detailed text.
Verne’s narrative is quite straightforward but his style is richly laced with idiomatic and other flourishes. How did you capture that very particular spirit?

The longevity of Verne’s popularity, in my opinion, derives from his masterful skills as a storyteller. His tales are built on a driving narrative force that reveals itself to the reader – and thus, to the translator – as we turn the pages. Verne is a great “scene-setter”. And so, he interlaces his chapters with scene-setting descriptions, often packed with information, followed by “lighter” chapters of spirited dialogue. There is nothing staid about his evocative descriptions. Rather, he successfully evokes a landscape which will then be the setting for the following dialogue between his characters, all of whom are very brightly drawn, from the main protagonists, Mikhail Strogoff and Nadia, to the testy muzhik responsible for leading them across the Urals, and to the jocular journalists who act as the entertaining Greek chorus to events as they unfold. All of this to say that the

Strogoff 6

Illustration by David Allan

translator’s task really has to be to imagine herself into the landscape, listen to the rhythm of the descriptions and the dialogue and try to render that same rhythm into English. Where there is a particular urgency to the events unfolding on the page, I’d like to think that a good translator will be able to reflect that same urgency – whether it’s as simple as adhering to similar sentence length, or perhaps through a choice of words that will help make the narrative pop and crackle with that same sense of urgency. Of course, 19th century literature often uses tenses  and moods that are rarely employed in modern literature and ideally, those grammatical nuances will be reflected in the English too, although there is a fine line to be drawn sometimes when translating tenses which would perhaps seem “clunky” or awkward to a modern reader’s ear. As for the dialogue, there is no doubt Verne’s own skill in drawing his characters rendered it a joy to translate their dialogue as it meant I had little difficulty imagining myself into their conversations and under their skins.

At this point, I should also underline my gratitude, not only to my editor and publisher–yourself!–but also to my father, Michael Smee, whose assistance in proof-reading – offering second and third pairs of eyes and ears to “hear” the rhythm of the text – were quite invaluable.
How different was it working on this translation as opposed to those you have worked on before, such as the Countess de Ségur’s classic children’s books?
The translation of Mikhail Strogoff was indeed quite an undertaking, and in this respect, it really felt quite different to sitting down to translate the Countess de Ségur’s books, which although quite lengthy for their genre, have a considerably younger target audience to that of Strogoff. (That said, I just received a very enthusiastic message from my 11 year old nephew telling me how much he loved this Mikhail Strogoff finished 2 back coverlatest translation, but that while he had been waiting for his copy to arrive in Boston, he had eagerly revisited all of my translations of the Countess’s books, so there is obviously a little bit of audience cross-over!) In attacking a work like Strogoff, there is a different level of stamina required both in respect of the novel‘slength and the complexity of its vocabulary. Julie Rose’s masterful translation of Les Misérables of course takes that degree of difficulty to a different place altogether! Verne and the Countess de Ségur did at least share some similarities of the epoch in which they were written, being works penned in the 19th century.
Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament Francais, has his narrator say ‘the translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation? 
I can quite understand narrator’s standpoint in Makine’s novel. It suggests a degree of “freedom” that perhaps a translator of poetry might enjoy, compared to the prose translator. But I’m not sure I agree entirely.
While the quote from Makine acknowledges the “originality” of the poet/translator’s new work, I disagree with the suggestion that the translator of prose is in any way more the novelist’s slave, to use that same imagery.  The rules relating to the translation of the ‘form work’ and ‘scaffolding’ of prose might be different to that of a work of poetry but at the end of the day, translators of prose and poetry are both working creatively and originally, both limited by a desire to remain as faithful as possible, not only to the original text, but to its emotion and rhythm. In many ways, as illuminated by the comments below of John Edmunds, renowned translator of the verse-dramas of the likes of Racine and Corneille, translators of poetry might feel more “enslaved” by the need to adhere to the particular poetic structure and rhythm of the original work.
As a translator, I stand most in awe of those who translate poetry but are they the original poet’s “rival”? A good translator of poetry is truly not just any ordinary linguist – they must hear the poetic rhythm in the source language and be able to recreate that beauty, that mystery, that imagery in the target language. It requires decisions about meters, rhyming – whether it is best to try to retain those rhythms in the target translation or stray a little from the source language in order to recreate a rhythm that somehow best captures the original imagery and magic of the poetry.
I recently read John Edmunds’ notes on his extraordinary translations of the plays of Corneille, Racine and Molière (Penguin Classics, 2013). They are illuminating, and in fact suggest that the translator of these “verse-dramas” are, in a way, just as much these play-wright/poet’s slave as their rival. He says:
A translation intended for performance not only must be immediately intelligible to the listening ear, but ideally, I have always thought, should be capable of delivery by a putative bilingual cast in precisely the same way in either version. Like musical scores these verse-dramas have their crescendos, staccatos and rallentandos: in the new medium they need to be preserved. This can be achieved only by maintaining the sentence-structure so that the actor’s breathing-pattern is reproduced, because the pulsation of the performer’s vocal energy is the life of the play. And, clearly, the action has to flow at the same pace as the original. This necessitates a line-by-line rendering.
A play written in verse is truly recreated in another language only when it has the formality of disciplined verse-structure. Which form to employ?
And Edmunds then goes on to discuss his choice of Shakespearian blank verse “which has a driving impetus and the rhythm of colloquial speech” over the English alexandrine which, he suggests, is “too stately for drama; and the rhythmic beat of our heavily stressed language does not need rhyme to create form.” He also comments that rhyming couplets can sound jokey, at least to British theatre goers “reared on pantomime.” Ultimately, he says, the translator can only do his best with the tools available to him in his own language in reverence to the “supremely gifted authors” one has the privilege of translating.
My own “philosophy” of translating? Many scholars and practitioners have penned many thoughts on this topic and I’m not sure I should be so bold as to add my own. I do know, like John Edmunds, that I feel an enormous sense of privilege to be working as a literary translator, particularly translating the work of a literary figure such as Jules Verne. And even though I am not a translator of poetry, I also know that beautiful prose, too, has its own rhythm, its own fluidity, its own internal mysteries which any good translator must try to encompass in their work. So, if a translator can recreate that original sense of wonder and excitement generated by any good piece of literature, whether it be a work for children or the most fiendishly obscure piece of poetry, then perhaps the translator has succeeded in her task.
It’s been said that there aren’t enough novels from non-anglophone countries translated into English. Would you agree? And why do you think that is? 
Yes, indeed I do agree – as both an avid reader of translated literature and as a literary translator! Although I hasten to add that I have been very, very fortunate to have a number of my translations published beautifully by both Simon & Schuster (Aust) and of course, Eagle Books. That said, Linda Jaivin, in her essay Found in Translation published in the Quarterly Essay (issue #52, 2013), referred to statistics that are enough to make any literary translator cry.
 “[H]alf of all books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6 percent are translated into English. The rest are translations between non-English languages… In 1950, American publishers produced 11,022 books, of which 563 were translations. In 2010, the number of books published there climbed past 200,000, but only 341 were originally in other languages. … In 2012, according to Bloomberg, American publishers bought translation rights to only 453 foreign titles; figures in the UK are said to be similar.”
And, she goes on to say, there is no reason to believe the situation is any better in Australia – in fact, she says, it’s probably more dire.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons, but most of them come down to the fact that English has become the “default” language of the world. And at the same time as the rest of the world has adopted an educational approach that emphasises the need to learn English, largely for trade reasons, the number of people who still learn foreign languages in English speaking countries is plummeting. This can only lead to serious cultural insularity and, while learning a foreign language is not an easy task, as Jaivin acknowledges, “a sensible corrective is access to a rich body of global literature in translation.” Yet we are failing on that front, too. Monolingual publishers/editors make it difficult for foreign language publishers to sell their works into the English language market, as they are forced to rely on potted descriptions, quickly translated excerpts, and, only if they’re lucky, some healthy sales figures or reviews in the original language market. The same difficulties confront literary translators trying to pitch ideas to Anglophone publishers. Even when books have earned their stripes in sales and reviews in their native market, I have often been met with the response: “translations are very hard to find space for in the market”.
Why  they are any harder to find space for than untested English language books is quite mysterious to this literary translator. Sales in Anglophone markets of Pippi Longstocking and Asterix would, I’m sure, rival sales in their own market, due to their very skilled translators and to the fact that they are quite wonderful books! Yet I do know why. In a market where publishers are being forced to tighten their belts, there is little cash to spare to pay for English language publishing rights, as well as a skilled translator. And I can only assume also that sales and marketing teams must know there is an inherent reluctance or suspicion on the part of readers when it comes to foreign literature. Fortunately, at the same time as so many of the large publishing houses are publishing fewer and fewer works in translation, there are increasing numbers of independent publishers, like Eagle Books, who recognise the need to take a stand against the cultural hegemony of the Anglophone publishing industry and who are making it their business to publish works in translation.
Our wonderfully cosmopolitan and plural society deserves no less, particularly if we mean to engage in a meaningful, reciprocal and generous way with the billions of people on this planet for whom English is not their mother tongue. We need to be able to hear everybody’s stories!
What are you looking at translating next? 
I’ve in fact embarked on a terribly entertaining translation project with my Swedish mother. We are translating some very well-known (in the Swedish market) children’s stories by Gösta Knutsson about a little cat called Pelle whose tail was bitten off by a rat when he was a kitten. They were first published in Sweden in the late 1930’s-1940’s and Knutsson continued to write for many decades. They’ve been enormously popular in Sweden since they were first published.  The first three in the series are to be published next year by Piccolo Nero, the children’s imprint of Black Inc publishers.
I’m also working on some submissions involving the translation of some modern French novellas and short stories which I’m very excited about. They’re written in very different language to the 19th century text of Jules Verne, but I’m loving the challenge. They’re wry and erudite, fanciful and yet thoroughly modern… works that are very much for and of our time.

Do It Yourself Book Publicity: An interview with Emma Noble

diy book pr guideGetting your book written and published is one thing. Getting it noticed in the flood of new titles is quite another! Today, I’m interviewing publicity specialist Emma Noble, who’s just released a book that answers a lot of questions about how to plan and run a great book publicity campaign. It’s a book that will be of much interest both to authors and small publishers.

Emma, your book, The DIY Book PR Guide: The Happier Guide to Do-It-Yourself Book Publicity in Seven Easy Steps, has just been published. Can you tell us something about it, how it came about, and who it’s aimed at?

 It’s aimed at self-published authors mostly, but also at traditionally published writers who want to better understand what their inhouse publicist is doing for them, and perhaps even to support their efforts. I wrote it out of sheer frustration, actually, at the number of authors I wasn’t able to take on because of time constraints. I wanted to try to help them in some other way. Book publicity is most definitely not rocket science but it’s convoluted and time-consuming if you don’t know what you’re doing. The DIY Book PR Guide lays down the basics of planning and executing a campaign that is tailormade for your book.

You run a boutique communications and book publicity agency, Noble Words.  What kind of services do you offer writers and publishers? And what sorts of projects have you been involved with?

I mostly work with big publishers who need a helping hand during busy periods, and I tend to be given campaigns that might be slightly more complex or time-consuming than usual; for example, footballer Chris Judd’s nationwide tour to promote My Story in late 2015. I also work with an increasing number of self-published authors on promoting their books. This month, I’m working with: social enterprise Thankyou on their book-slash-crowdfunding campaign Chapter One; self-published YA urban fantasy writer Karyn Sepulveda on Choosing Xaverique; novelist Lynnette Lounsbury on her modern take on a beatnik road-trip, We Ate the Road Like Vultures, published by indie outfit Inkerman & Blunt; ReadHowYouWant, the Australian company responsible for bringing the dyslexie font (which greatly improves the ability of dyslexics to read) to a huge range of local titles; the Little Darlings Childcare Centres on their self-pubbed cookbook, Yia Yia’s Kitchen Secrets; parenting expert Maggie Dent’s first picture book for kids, My Cool Plastics Cupboard; and, last but not least, I’ve been running courses on DIY book PR for the Australian Society of Authors and the NSW Writers’ Centre.


Self-published authors often ask me about other aspects of the publishing process, too – distribution, bookshop ranging, a little marketing, and so on – and I find myself offering informal advice but I try to connect them with other specialists in these areas instead.

Before starting your own business, you worked for publishers in Australia and the UK. Can you tell us about that? What writers did you work with? And what prompted you to start your own publicity agency?

I started out in editorial for illustrated non-fiction with Phaidon and Quadrille Publishing in the UK, before deciding publicity was where all the real action was and moving sideways across departments. I worked with Orion Publishing in London for about five years, before moving to Sydney to head up publicity for Orion’s Australian office within Hachette Australia. I was lucky enough to have worked with some incredible writers, with a particular specialty in crime fiction, and celebrities.

Very few publicity director roles exist in Australian publishing so, when none of these jobs came up during my four years at Hachette Australia, the obvious step seemed to be to use my contacts and experience to best effect and start my own agency.

What in your view are the top publicity challenges for small press and self-published writers? 

Organisation and planning are huge challenges for self-published authors and small presses. When you’re responsible for every aspect of a book’s production, carving out time to sit down and nut out a comprehensive publicity plan can be hard. What’s more, self-published authors often have little PR experience so it’s all new to them. The planning phase is really crucial; spend your time well here and you’ll end up with a handful of great story ideas and a plan for which media to pitch them to, resulting in a campaign timeline that you can simply plug into your email calendar so you never miss a media organisation’s deadline.

Competing with larger publishers with marketing budgets and established relationships with media can also be challenging. But the beauty of book publicity is that it is an option for absolutely every author, and will cost you little more than your time and a few free copies of your book.

What are your top tips for book publicity?

a) Answer these two questions – what is my story and who is my audience – and you’re well on your way to creating a winning campaign. The first gives you your story ideas, the unique ‘angles’ arising from your book or personal history, that you will use to promote yourself. The second tells you who you should be trying to talk to and, by extension, the media you should be targeting. That’s half the battle.

b) Be honest. Firstly, with yourself; it’s a rare book that genuinely appeals to everybody and being frank about your target market will help you avoid wasting time pitching ideas to media who will simply never cover your book. Secondly, with media; it’s hard to keep track, in this increasingly multiplatform-oriented media world, of who publishes what and where so let journalists know when they indicate interest in your story what else you have lined up and let them decide if they want to proceed.

c) Work up a killer elevator pitch. This is a short, succinct and persuasive description of what your book is about and how it is different from others on the market. You’ll use variations of this description as the basis for all your interviews, press releases and pitches to journalists so it’s worth spending time on getting it right.

WIN! One lucky reader of this blog will win a copy of The DIY Book PR Guide, kindly donated by Emma Noble. To enter, simply contact me (through form on Contact page), with a comment on any aspect of book publicity–could be an anecdote, an observation or your own tip! 


An interview with Sandra Teles of City Writers Room

Finding opportunities to connect with readers, and overcoming a feeling of isolation, are twin challenges in the early stages of a writing career, when you are still finding your feet–and your voice! Recently, an informal writers’ group formed in London(of which my son Xavier is a member) launched an enterprise to rise to the challenge of both those things: City Writers’ Room, a curated blog site showcasing their writing, starting with narrative non-fiction. Today, I talk to Sandra Teles, one of the City Writers Room group.

Sandra Teles is an actress. Having worked in areas of film, television and theatre, she continues taking her experience to the field of writing.

First of all, congratulations to you and the other editors on the launch of City Writers Room! How did it start? And what were the challenges–and discoveries– you faced along the way to launching the site? 

Thank you for talking to us about our new venture. We attended a narrative non-fiction writing course at City University London last Summer. Many of us said we’d keep in touch, as most people hope to after they finish a course. Amanda Riddick took the initiative and got everyone together. Some of us continued to meet once a month to discuss our writing. Few months later, we talked about putting our writing on a kind of writers’ forum to critique it, giving each other feedback, etc. It very soon snowballed into creating our own blog. We discussed why we wanted to do this, who were we writing for, what were we going to write about? And finally, we settled on writing about city living — people, places, the challenges, the insights, topics hidden that we tend to deflect because they may not be mainstream.

The big challenge was finding the headroom to write consistently, and it still is. Many will agree the hardest part about writing is the discipline to write, actually sitting down patiently and being able to face a blank screen and not have anything coming to you — until it does.

You could also have viable ideas but they vanish quickly if you don’t write them down. There’s something to be said about scribbling on paper an idea that crosses your mind, or taking a photo of something that captures your imagination. It could give rise to a topic worth exploring. Ideas are abundant, but it’s a numbers game as only very few stick. So getting involved in this venture together has made us more attentive to those seeds of ideas.

City Writers Room is particularly focussed on narrative non-fiction writing about cities, in all kinds of aspects. Can you tell us more about that?

Since we worked on the narrative non-fiction course at City University, we’ve started with non-fiction. We’re still exploring topics that interest us like travel, history, politics, people, even film; and their relation to cities. I write fiction mostly; but it’s been a fruitful exercise reading and writing non-fiction. Both feed off each other so it would be a shame to not include fiction. The other writers (Carole Allsop, Xavier Masson-Leach, Ellen O’Hara and Amanda Riddick) have a strong point of view with regard to the non-fiction topics they choose to write about.

Can you tell us about how City Writers Room works, as a writing showcase?

We talked about City Writers Room being a forum for ideas, writing about people and places. In that we have the freedom to be as creative as we want so we can fine tune our craft as writers. We all have a voice and finding it takes time. We’ve all been writing in one way or another for years, but all of us felt ready to publish at this point in time. It does leave us feeling exposed but there’s comfort in knowing that we support each other in the endeavor.

Your writers are all very different in their approach to writing. Can you expand on that?

We’re very lucky to have come together on this venture. All our styles are different which showcases more variety. Interestingly, we’ve all traveled and lived in a number of cities. And although we have different interests, our strengths don’t clash, only complement. A couple of us really enjoy writing character profiles, so it might even lead to a further collaboration of some sort. For the time being, we are keeping things flexible. It’s an exciting time for all of us. There’s no expectation to be a particular kind of writer. We can stay true to our sensibilities and explore all kinds of writing styles if we want.

What’s the reaction of readers been like so far?

The feedback we’ve gotten has been hugely positive. We already have writers who’ve approached us to write articles for City Writers Room. That’s a big deal — when you get people excited to collaborate. Everyone has a story to tell and hopefully they see this as a platform to express those stories.

What does City Writers Room hope to achieve in the future?

It would be fantastic to bring together a community of writers (local to international) who are willing to share their stories. City Writers Room aims to uplift, entertain and even question the status quo. It would be great to build a space where writers can feel passionate about their work, feel like they can test their material to see what sticks. We’re taking small steps to get there and for now, we’re keeping an open mind as to the direction it might lead. In the very least, if we are able to kick start a process of writing consistently for ourselves, we will have succeeded in the venture.