Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!

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Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.

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Across the Tasman 3: Kyle Mewburn

kyle-mewburn-375I first met Kyle Mewburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers for children, a few years ago in my capacity back then as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, and Kyle’s as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Well, Kyle is still NZSA President, and very active in advancing the cause of writers and illustrators in NZ, against a not very positive background of change and difficulties in the industry there. And in this very interesting interview, he looks frankly at some of those issues, as well as his own literary work.

Kyle, your recent picture book, illustrated by Sarah Davis, The House on the Hill, recently won the Hell Children’s Choice Awards–love that award name by the way 🙂 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Can you tell us something about the book, and how you and Sarah created it? And how have young readers responded to the book?

The idea for the story had been simmering away in the back of my mind for several years (as they do), though ‘idea’ is possibly too grandiose a term for what was, in effect, simply a refrain – “the house on the hill”. But that’s often how my stories start – with just a phrase that won’t go away. I knew there was going to be a journey of some sort, but had no idea who, or what, was going to make the journey. It wasn’t until I was Writer-in-residence at Otago University in 2011, that the story started coming to life, infused with an unexpected Edgar Allan Poe-ish vibe.

It took three weeks of solid, focussed writing for the story to come together. At the end of each day I’d go home exhausted, but satfisfied, despite having completed one stanza or less. I sent the story off to Scholastic and got a reply within an hour – “We love it.” Excellent, I thought. But over the next few months a sense of trepidation started filtering through, as the publishing team started second-guessing themselves. Was the story perhaps too scary? Fortunately, Diana Murray (publisher at the time) had a chat to the head buyer at a major bookstore chain whose verdict came as somewhat of a relief – “Embrace the darkness.” Having strived to make the story as scary as possible, having confidence in my young readers’ willingness, and enthusiasm, to have their pants scared off in a caring, controlled kind of way, I would have been hugely reluctant to water the scares down.

The next question was, of course, who should illustrate? I seldom get asked this question, but I jumped at the opportunity to put Sarah’s name forward. I’d always admired her work, not only for her undoubted technical ability, but also the fact she’s such an eclectic illustrator. Each work is unique with its own distinct style, and she was, I believed, the kind of illustrator who would push the boundaries and come up with a style to perfectly complement my story. Unfortunately, she was rather busy, so I was faced with a choice – wait 2+ years or choose house-hillsomeone else. I didn’t hesitate. Sarah it was.

One interesting, and unusual, aspect of working with Sarah was the unexpected rigour with which she addressed the text. Ultimately there were several stanzas which required re-writing and another which was dropped simply because it didn’t advance the story sufficiently. I really had no input into the illustrations, so can’t comment on that. Apart from saying they’re brilliant throughout and genius in numerous places, especially with their use of perspective. The art of illustration at its finest.

The response to the story has been phenomenal. Despite several parents, teachers and even reviewers initially worrying about the scariness level, the reality is that kids enjoy a good, safe scare and are happy to embrace the ‘game’. As one 6 year-old pointed out when his mum questioned whether or not he was scared – “No. I knew they weren’t real ghosts because there was a cat. Cats don’t like ghosts.” Winning the kids’ choice award is, I think, the ultimate accolade.

Though you are especially known for your picture books, you have also written chapter books and early readers. What are your favourite types of books to write, and what are the main differences between creating texts for all those different formats?

Picture books are my first passion. Almost a vice. My ideas are almost instinctively for picture books, and they seem to be the genre that most suits my thought processes and my writing voice. They’re also the biggest challenge and I get a lot of pleasure pursuing picture book ideas. (Also a lot of angst and anguish, but that’s another story…) Chapter books and junior fiction require a more measured approach. It’s more about building upon a concept than simply chasing an idea. For me, junior fiction (especially for so-called ‘reluctant readers’ or transitional readers) really has to begin with a strong character, ideally a child character. Once I have my hero sorted (whether that’s the first evolved boy in a Neanderthal tribe, or a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School) I can view their world from their own unique perspective. It’s all about building relationships and interactions. Then, additionally, I add extra details and levels of meaning which encourage and reward re-reading.

dragon-knight

All my writing is child-centric. It’s all about creating stories which reflect their lives, or more specifically, some critical aspect of it. Generally my stories are about making or maintaining friendships. I guess the biggest difference between writing picture books and junior fiction is the former is a distillation process – reducing grand themes to its essence; while the latter is more a process of accretion – adding layers and details to a simple idea.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m experiencing a bit of mid-career-itis, so not quite sure what I’m working on. The house on the hill was the last picture book I sold, so the drought has dragged on a bit. I’m not 100% sure why my picture books don’t seem to be hitting the mark any more. Possibly it’s me. Having never settled on a single style of story, I’ve generally always pursued whatever ideas tickled my fancy. And after writing over 25 picture books I’m reluctant to rework old ground. So I’ve been experimenting with different styles and approaches to writing, just to keep myself amused and challenged. Maybe that’s not what the market wants at the current time.

In the meantime I’m developing a new junior fiction series and tinkering with re-writing some of my early adult novels. A musical friend and I are also playing around with a script for a musical. It’s all good fun, but as the main breadwinner I can’t afford to spend too much time on non-profitable diversions, no matter how inspiring. So we’ll see what happens. 

Born and brought up in Australia but living in New Zealand for a long time now, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent authors of children’s books, and you are also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In both capacities you’ve had a good deal of contact with the Australian literary world as well. How do you see the similarities and differences between literary New Zealand and literary Australia, both in terms of the kinds of books that get published, and also the literary scene–both in the children’s/YA and adult fields?dinosaur-rescue

There are enormous similarities between the two countries’ literary worlds and I’m rather perplexed by the fact there still seems to be a huge wall with respect to the sharing of books and writers. The key differences, I think, stem largely from the smallness of the local literary  community and market. Despite the size of the population (think Melbourne) there are very strong cliques and factions which are more based around protecting funding turf than  anything else. Which means local writers are very reluctant to criticise anyone or anything for fear of offending the wrong person. You could all-too-easily end up on the outer with no chance of funding or reviews. I’m sure every country has the same rivalries and divisions, but here, because of the population, it is much more distilled and rather potent.

The small market also makes it difficult to make a living. Print runs are often only 1500 and you can make the bestseller list by selling 100+ copies in a given week. I’ve been fortunate insofar as many of my stories have had some longevity (several are still being reprinted 10+ years later), and have had numerous titles published into international markets. Sadly New Zealand publishers are increasingly acting like imprints of their international parents, insofar as they have become much more focussed on publishing stories with local flavour. In the picture book market there has always been a demand for kiwi stories (literally stories about the bird) but this has become massively more so over recent years. No wonder when many bookshops report most people are buying picture books to send overseas to relatives or take away as souvenirs. There has also been a huge growth in stories translated into Te Reo (ie Maori language). While all this might be worthy and understandable from a business model point of view, it has not only made it that much harder to make a living as a writer, it has also created an unfortunate quandary – ie write for this market and accept your income is severely ring-fenced, or you don’t, and stack the odds against being published at all.

With respect to making a living as a CYA writer, I think Australia has massive advantages with respect to creating a secondary income stream from school visits and festival appearances. However it is a lot more cut-throat. In New Zealand school visits are arranged mostly through the Book Council, while in Australia it’s all done through agencies. So in Australia it’s much more a case of the more popular you are and the better your presentations, the more visits you get. Here it’s a bit more communal with visits shared around. On the negative side, we earn half as much for a visit as you do in Australia. It’s still very difficult to convince the majority of schools there is much value in author visits… as opposed to visits by sportspeople… or magicians… or the local fireman…

kisskissyuckyucklgeAs President of NZSA, you have been involved in helping to organise the first ever National Writers Forum in New Zealand, which has just been held. What are you expecting from the forum? And what are the issues that are most preoccupying authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

The National Writers Forum was a huge success. The feedback has been extraordinary. The main goals were, firstly, to offer some serious professional development opportunities through masterclasses and expert panels. Secondly, it was about creating opportunities to discuss the business aspects of a writer’s life at every stage of their career. There’s plenty of information out there but seldom do writers get an opportunity to ask specific questions pertaining to their own, specific careers directly to a panel of experts. Finally, and for me most importantly, it was an opportunity for writers to assemble at the national level in a collegial and congenial environment. There are way too many divisions within the literary community, and this doesn’t help the literary cause in the wider context. The only way to break down barriers and cliques is to strengthen personal relationships by talking to each other directly rather than shouting at each other over the parapets.

As in most countries, the biggest issues preoccupying us in New Zealand centre on the increasing difficulties of making a living. New Zealand books are expensive in comparison to international titles available on-line, so there has been a concerted effort to exclude books from GST. Wishful thinking under the current government. We already have parallel importing, so have long ago come to terms with the long-term (all negative) consequences. As with writers everywhere we’re also concerned about the push to change (ie water down) copyright laws.

A very recent research report published by the New Zealand Book Council contained the rather disappointing finding that New Zealand readers were biased against NZ fiction, saying that they rarely read it–but also could not name any NZ authors–and that only 3-5 percent of fiction bought in the nation was by NZ authors. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of cultural cringe? Do you think it could be turned around? If so, how?

Cultural cringe with two capital Cs. In many ways it reminds me of Australia in the 80s when I was at high school – nobody admitted to reading OzLit. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1990 there was a huge push to make NZ Music cool. The government pumped in $5million per year and introduced a radio quota. And (surprise!) within a generation NZ Music became cool. There was an attempt to do the same with books but with a budget of $100,000 and divisions within the industry, it gained little traction and soon disappeared. In the last 10 years, NZ has become a massively flag-waving country. Kiwis are enormously proud of their sportspeople, their music, their films (well, Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, anyway), but there remains a total reluctance to wave the NZ flag when it comes to books and writers, despite local writers garnering increasing international awards and respect.

I suspect the cost of local books has something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that NZ “literature” is still discussed in such reverent tones while genre and/or popular fiction hardly gets a look in. It fosters the impression that local literature is rather intellectual and elitist. We have many world-class, internationally best-selling writers across all genres. It would help enormously if these were celebrated a bit more.     

Last year NZSA instigated a grassroots NZ Book Week with a very limited budget. Hopefully it will continue to grow and, over time, leach into the psyche. But generally I feel it requires a much greater level of government action and investment. It also is a long-term project. I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of commitment to involving local writers/titles in literacy programmes. The “as long as they’re reading something” approach does little to improve literacy, in my opinion. The only way to grow literacy is to promote local authors and stories and instill some pride in local literature. Imagine how few kids would be playing rugby if the All Blacks were considered also-rans, nobodies, rather than superstars. Pride – whether in rugby, music or literature – begins with aspirational role models. We need to start kids on NZLit from the get-go.

 

Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s finest, and most eclectic, picture book writers. His titles have been published in a dozen countries and won numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year (Old Hu-hu), Picture book of the Year (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!),two Children’s Choice awards (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck! andMelu) and a Flicker Tale award in North Dakota (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!). His stories are noted for being multi-layered, funny and linguistically creative.

He has been a frequent Finalist at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards and many of his titles have been included on Notable Books Lists in both New Zealand and Australia.

As well as picture books, he has published numerous School Readers and junior fiction titles, including his popular Dinosaur Rescue series which has been published in over 20 countries. He was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University in 2011 and is currently President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Originally from Brisbane, Kyle lives with his wife, Marion, a well-known potter, in a house with a grass roof in Millers Flat. When he’s not writing, Kyle’s free time is almost wholly consumed trying to maintain a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle … or watching the endlessly entertaining drama of chickens trying to get to bed under the watchful eyes of two teasing cats.

Across the Tasman 2: Sherryl Clark

sherryl-1Sherryl Clark’s literary career is what might be called a trans-Tasman one; born and brought up in New Zealand, but living in Australia for many years, she is well-known in both Australia and New Zealand for the versatility and quality of her books, which range over many genres and age ranges. Today I talk to her about what it means to straddle those national cultures, and those different types of literature–as well as teaching literature, undertaking literary degrees, and lots more!

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Sherryl, you grew up in New Zealand but now live in Australia. Do you consider yourself an Australian or New Zealand writer, or both? And what similarities and differences do you think there are in terms of the literary world of each country?

I’ve now lived in Australia for 37 years, but I think in my heart I am still a New Zealander, especially because I grew up on a farm and I think your first 18 years ‘imprint’ you. However I do think my stories are Australian, funnily enough, with some New Zealand elements. If I write about a farm (as in Farm Kid), it’s an Australian farm with drought and brown paddocks which you just don’t see in NZ like that. Not where I come from anyway. Dying to Tell Me is definitely Australian bush, and even my city stories, whether historical or contemporary, are very much set in Melbourne. I feel for NZ writers today – the publishing opportunities have narrowed so much. But at the same time I think many NZ writers are writing with real passion about their country, in very particular ways, and I don’t see that nearly so much in Australia.

You have written many children’s books in different genres, and for different age groups. Is there an age group/genre you most enjoy writing for, and why? Is there a book of yours that you think of particularly fondly? And how has what you write about changed over the years? (if indeed it has!)

jimmys-warI love picture books because of the process – the challenge of so few words – and the amazing work that illustrators do. I love verse novels because I love how poetry expresses things that prose struggles with. I think my favourite age group to write for is 11-14. To me it’s a time when you become aware of the outside world, of what people are like, the value of friends, the idea of adventure and exploration – the whole world opens up, but at the same time it’s when the whole world can make your life very hard. Anything can happen and bad things do. To me, writing about those things is a way to tell kids they’re not alone, and I think that’s important. I agree with Neil Gaiman – kids need to believe they can be brave and win against the dragons. I think that’s why I like Dying to Tell Me, my murder mystery for upper middle grade readers. Sasha has made some stupid choices without understanding why, but now she learns to be brave and to use her wits. I think my writing has become braver, too! I turned a corner about four years ago, during the MFA, when I realised that I just had to start writing what really stirred me and obsessed me, and stop worrying about what might come after.  dyingtotellme

What’s your latest book, and what are you working on now?

My latest book/s are a series based on Ellyse Perry (sportswoman). It was a commission, and I wanted to do it because I hated compulsory sport at high school, and so did lots of other girls. And I see someone like Ellyse being a huge influence on kids and getting them away from screens and participating in sports – and having fun. I wish that had been me! Plus adolescence and body changes have a lot to do with why girls stop playing sport and I wanted to explore that, too. I also have a picture book coming out next year with Allen & Unwin – The Night Tiger – which is being illustrated by Michael Camilleri. I’m very excited about that.
I’m always working on several things, so I can give manuscripts a ‘rest’ when they need some time out, so I’m able to able to look at them with a fresh eye. I’ve just finished a major revision of a SF novel (the ending still needs more work), and I’m doing another edit of a historical novel. I changed a large part of it into present tense and it’s still a bit clunky.

You’ve written poetry for both children and adults, and have edited a poetry magazine, Poetrix. Can you tell me something about both your poetry, and the magazine?

Poetry was the first thing I wrote when I realised what writing was. That probably sounds weird, but I’d been writing these dull short stories and an awful adult novel, and then I did a poetry workshop and thought – yes! I wrote this thing and the workshop leader said it was a nice metaphor and then I thought – what’s a metaphor? And since then (30 years ago, mind you!) I’ve been learning more and writing more, and it’s such an exploration of language and image. So much fun and so satisfying, and I just wish more schools would ask for poetry workshops. Truly. Most teachers have NO idea what poetry can open up for kids. And most importantly for those kids who don’t feel confident with language and prose. Poetry just excites them so much. They are the BEST poets!

We created Poetrix (Australia’s only magazine for women poets) back in 1993. I used to teach classes in self-publishing because it was a passion of mine, and I’d worked in community arts and for a printer. My writing group, Western Women Writers, were totally on board with creating a magazine, and we self-funded it with small catering jobs. We produced 40 issues of Poetrix, and we published a huge number of women who have gone on to have books published and won awards. But mostly we did it so women had a poetry voice. It was in reaction to some critic who’d said women only wrote poetry that was ‘domestic suburban vignettes’ and we thought – yes? So what’s wrong with that? It’s life as we know it and experience it, and of course you can write fabulous poems about it! So here are 40 issues of Poetrix and about 1400 poems about things that are important to us. To everyone, actually.

As well as writing books, over the years you’ve also run a lot of classes on writing and publishing. What kinds of things do you most enjoy helping people to learn? Do you teach mainly children, or adults, or a combination? And do you think that things have changed in terms of areas of interest–I mean, are people interested in learning about different things now than they were say 10 or 15 years ago?

I’ve been teaching in the Diploma and Cert IV of Professional Writing and Editing for nearly 20 years. But I did get to a point finally where I realised how much energy and focus teaching was sucking out of my writing. I went off to Hamline University in Minneapolis to do an MFA in writing for children and YA, and a very wise teacher there said, ‘It all comes from the same well. The more you teach, the less you have for your own writing.’ So in the past three years I have stopped teaching at TAFE, apart from substituting and helping out, and I think my own writing has received a huge boost because of that. It’s sad to say this, but it’s true. Teaching did detract from the energy I had for writing, and now with the whole onslaught of government paperwork requirements, more and more writing teachers are leaving TAFE because it’s overwhelming. Less time to teach and more time to fill out pointless forms. It makes me angry, to be honest.
Because I do love teaching and workshops. The people who come are so keen to write, and to learn. You can feel them soaking stuff up. I often see people start with an introductory class and five or ten years later, they’re getting published and doing so well. The one thing I love teaching is story structure. People get so mired in character and dialogue and just getting the words out, but structure (if you learn it and understand it) can fix just about everything. Mind you, it can’t fix voice, and in writing for children and YA, voice is so important. I think you only ‘get’ voice if you read a lot, read widely and read from a writer’s viewpoint. It astounds me when aspiring writers say they don’t read. There is so much to learn from astute reading. pocket-rocket

I teach mainly adults still – I do writing workshops in schools, yes, but a lot of schools want to spread their resources as widely as possible, of course, so I will do talks to 300+ students rather than workshops with 20. My dream is to create a portable poetry workshop I can take to school teachers and show them how to use poetry in the classroom, both reading and writing it. I have a website I started back in 2006 when I realised how little there was for schools – www.poetry4kids.net. I need to update it now and put a lot more material on it.

At the moment, you are undertaking a PHD themed around fairy tales, through an Australian university, after doing a Master of Fine Arts degree through an American university. What was your main focus in the MFA? What aspect of fairytales are you focussing on in the PHD? And how do the two university cultures compare?

When I chose to do the MFA in the US, it was because I knew it was the only way to do a Masters in the way I wanted. I didn’t want to be stuck doing one topic and one novel with one or two supervisors. Hamline meant I could do the things I really wanted: work with a different advisor every semester and learn from them (all published, experienced writers and teachers); work on a different project every semester to learn as much as possible (so I did a historical novel, picture books, a verse novel and a SF novel, plus a critical thesis on verse novels); go to intensive residencies in Minneapolis/St Paul where there were lectures, readings, workshops and a committed community of children’s writers; work at home via email in between and get detailed feedback on my writing; learn to write critical essays and a thesis that taught me more about the field from a critical viewpoint.

The PhD at Victoria University in Melbourne came from an essay I wrote during my picture book semester at Hamline. It was about picture books that are original, new fairy tales (Fox by Margaret Wild was my key text). Now my PhD asks that question – if I want to write new, original fairy tales myself, how do I achieve this? How do I write something that has the same resonance and unconscious signals that traditional tales like the Grimms’ do? So the creative writing (picture books and a novel) is informed by the research. Why have fairy tales endured? What is it that we respond to? How can I use this without being prescriptive or didactic or just plain boring?

Of course other aspects have come into it, especially the issue of publishers avoiding scary stories, and over-protective parenting that leads to a lack of resilience and coping skills in kids. I didn’t intend to venture into psychology, but then given that Bettelheim’s book, The uses of enchantment, was my starting point, I guess it was inevitable!

The two universities are poles apart, but that’s to be expected. Any Australian university would be entirely different to a US university that both specializes in children’s/YA writing and offers a low residency option. I think perhaps we’re not big enough here to be able to either specialize in that way or offer low residency on a wide scale. I’ve approached VU about running an MA similar to Hamline (indeed Hamline are keen to form a partnership), but with the government continually cutting tertiary funding and clearly having such an anti-arts agenda, I can’t see it happening anytime soon.

I think it’s so interesting that so many writers now are doing PhDs, because you can apply for a scholarship and it gives you an incredible amount of time to focus and create and innovate. Funded time that you don’t get hardly any other way. My bet is that in the next 10-15 years, Australian writing will see a huge growth in quality and innovation because of it. But if the government gets its scaly, arts-hating hands on the PhD program funding, they will kill it. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling them? Ssshhh.

 

Sherryl Clark’s first children’s book, The Too-Tight Tutu, was published in 1997, and she now has more than 65 published books. Her other titles include a number of Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps, and novels. Her YA novels are Bone Song, published in the UK in 2009, and Dying to Tell Me (KaneMiller US 2011, Australia 2014).

Sherryl’s verse novel Farm Kid won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for children’s books, and her second verse novel, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) was an Honour Book in the 2008 CBCA Awards. Other recent titles include a picture book of poems, Now I Am Bigger, the middle grade novel Pirate X and the Rose series (Our Australian Girl). Her fourth verse novel, Runaways, was released March 2013.

Her latest books are the series featuring sportswoman Ellyse Perry. Pocket Rocket and Magic Feet are released in early October, with two more in January 2017.

Her books have been published in Australia and overseas, including the USA, UK, Spain, Mexico and China.

Her website is at www.sherrylclark.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Sherryl.Clark3

Twitter – @sherrylwriter

Instagram – sherrylwriter

Across the Tasman 1: Maria Gill

One of the great pleasures of international travel, for me, is the discovery of another country’s books, writers and illustrators. My latest trip, to New Zealand, was no exception. Through visits to schools, bookshops, libraries and attending the IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, I was introduced to the work of the country’s fabulous authors and illustrators for children, and also met several of them in person. To my shame I also discovered how little I knew about New Zealand books–I had read and loved the work of world-famous creators of children’s books like Margaret Mahy, Lynley Dodd, Pamela Allen and Maurice Gee, but otherwise I knew very little. I’m not alone in that, in Australia: our cousins across the Tasman might be so close but we know more about British or American children’s literature than we know about that of New Zealand. Anyway, I decided I’d do my small bit to remedy that, not only by buying and reading lots of books but also by presenting interviews with some of those fabulous creators!

The first interview is with distinguished writer of non-fiction for children, Maria Gill. Her most recent book, Anzac Heroes, which is about the stories of great men and women from both New Zealand and Australia, from both World War One and World War Two, has recently won not only the top non-fiction award in the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults but also the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award. The judges praised the book as ‘simply stunning’ with ‘carefully chosen material’, and it’s been flying off the shelves both in New Zealand and Australia. I caught up with Maria to talk to her about it.

How did you first get the idea for Anzac Heroes? How long did it take to go from concept to publication?

I had written two other books about the lives of famous people (New Zealand Hall of Fame, New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame) and when I saw the commemorations for WWI I decided to do another about Anzac Heroes. It was a year of solid writing (from 8am – 6pm, seven days a week), and I also spent two months applying for a grant, organising photographs, editing and getting experts to check the book.

Anzac Heroes is a major work of research but also selection. How did you go about that? What were your criteria in deciding who to include in the book? Did you have an initial list in mind, and did that change as you went along? What were the challenges and discoveries involved in the research?

First, I included army, navy and air force men who had won Victoria Cross medals that fought in a range of battles. However, as time went by my conscience was nagging me; I wanted to include indigenous soldiers and women. I looked closely at what being a hero means; it’s about being exceptionally brave, resilience in the face of extreme hardship, and putting your life at risk to save others. Even though Maori and Aboriginal soldiers were mostly given the jobs of digging trenches and tunnels they volunteered to fight or go out on scouting missions that were incredibly dangerous. Same with women; they weren’t allowed to fight in both wars, but they were near the front line, avoiding bomb and bullet fire to save other people’s lives. Indigenous soldiers and women didn’t receive the highest medals but they absolutely deserved to be included and the book is all the more richer for it.

I had difficulty finding information about some of the lesser known men and women in the book. It required detective work; but for me, the more difficult it is, the more determined I am to find their story. I investigated primary sources such as battalion log books, military records, diaries, and letters; as well as secondary sources such as historical books about certain battles. For Aboriginal soldier Albert Knight I rang people in his home town until I found a family member. They told me to ring other family members and between them we pieced together Albert’s story. They were really thrilled his story was finally being told.

The book is lavishly illustrated with pictures that are well-integrated with the text. Did you work with the illustrator, Marco Ivancic, on that, or were you both creating your part of the book separately?anzac-heroes

I was visiting a lot of museums to find information so every time I went I took my camera and shot lots of images for Marco to use as photo reference. I also spent a day with a military re-enactment group taking close-ups, mid-range and long-range shots of them at all different angles. I also sent him any photographs I had discovered online of the men and women.

The Anzac stories are still very inspiring and important to Australian and New Zealand readers. Why do you think that is?

I think it shows how human kind can survive in the harshest of conditions and be strong, brave, and kind despite what is going on around them. I’d like to think young people will read how difficult it was for the men and women during those two wars, and grow up thinking that war should not be an option to solve problems. The stories also tell of significant historical events that shaped our identity.

Your book has been very well-received, both in New Zealand and Australia, and has major awards.  What’s been the reaction from young readers?

Lots of boys have said how much they want to read the book or bring their own copy in for me to sign it. In a school in Brisbane a young girl came up to me and said she wanted to thank me for including indigenous soldiers because she was Aboriginal and it meant a lot to her that they were included.

Maria Gill talking about Anzac Heroes at The Children's Bookshop, Sydney

Maria Gill talking about Anzac Heroes at The Children’s Bookshop, Sydney

You specialise in non-fiction. Tell us about your other books. And what are you working on now?

I’ve written a picture book (The Last of Maui’s Dolphins), several creative non-fiction picture books (Operation Nest Egg Chick, Rangitoto, The Call of the Kokako) and over 40 educational books for children and teachers. At the moment I’m working on a follow-up to Anzac Heroes due to be published in 2018 with Marco Ivancic as the illustrator.

Maria Gill has written 60 books over the last 14 years. Seven of her books have been finalists in national children’s book awards including ‘Anzac Heroes’ in the 2016 New Zealand Children’s Book Awards. ‘Anzac Heroes’ won the non-fiction category and the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award. Maria trained as a Primary school teacher and journalist, but now writes children’s books and educational resources full-time in a small seaside village in New Zealand. www.mariagill.co.nz.

 

Cover reveal of Once Upon An ABC!

I am thrilled today to be able to reveal the spectacular front cover of Once Upon An ABC, the first of my two picture book titles to come out next year with Little Hare. It’s illustrated by the fantastic Chris Nielsen, whose gorgeous style, bursting with verve and vivid colour, is simply irresistible!

Here’s what the blurb will say: A romp through both the alphabet and the world of folklore..Sophie Masson’s lively verse gathers together a dazzling range of folklore, made vividly contemporary with Chris Nielsen’s striking artwork.

The book will be out in April 2017.

once-upon-an-abc-cover-final

An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

 

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First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, 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’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

Harry Ashton-Wolfe, true-crime writer of ‘the Golden Age’

ashton-wolfe-3For a bit of fun today I’m republishing a piece of mine that was first published some years ago, about Harry Ashton-Wolfe, an absolutely wonderful–and unintentionally hilarious!–true-crime writer of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the detective craze, in the 1920’s and 30’s. He inspired one of my own characters in The Case of the Diamond Shadow-and to all crime writers out there, he’s really worth rediscovering!

So here’s the article, below. Enjoy!

Harry Ashton-Wolfe

Some of my favourite book finds have come into my hands not by word of mouth or reviews or prior knowledge but by sheer chance: the eccentric jewel suddenly spotted amongst the lucky-dip gimcrack of  junk shop and school fete, car boot sale and charity shop shelf. And these days, very often in that virtual combination of all those venues, the Internet.

It was thus I made the serendiptous discovery of the priceless but sadly forgotten works of celebrity criminologist and true-crime writer of the 1920’s and early ’30’s, Harry Ashton-Wolfe. Browsing on the Net one day, looking up Conan Doyle sites with the vague notion of Sherlock Holmes appearing in a detective novel for young readers I was planning, I stumbled across a casual reference to a H.Ashton-Wolfe, writer of true-crime adventure bestsellers, who claimed to know not only Holmes’ creator, as well as the leading lights of the French Surete and Scotland Yard, but also just about every famous criminal and outlaw of the day!

Several hurried orders from second-hand bookshops later, I had built up a mini-library of Ashton-Wolfe’s books, with their gorgeously pulpy titles, such as Crimes of Love and Hate, The Thrill of Evil, Outlaws of Modern Days, and The Forgotten Clue. And I plunged into the addictive joys not only of the melodramatic and exotic cases recounted in racy prose, but the vain and boastful character of Ashton-Wolfe himself, which infused the stories with unintentional hilarity. So immediately engaging was this combination that I immediately dropped Sherlock in favour of a certain Philip Woodley-Foxe, whose adventures are legendary, not least to himself. No prizes for guessing who he was based on!

A marvellous combination of Action Man, cheerleader for ‘modern’ scientific detection, adventurous ashton-wolfemaster of disguise and shameless name-dropper, Harry Ashton-Wolfe doesn’t just recount the cases, he inhabits them. He’s an important part of investigating teams in Paris tracking down fiendishly cunning criminals, such as the Eurasian Hanoi Shan; he gets locked up and threatened with death by vicious gangsters; he is at the elbow of the greatest forensic scientists of the day, such as Edmond Locard of the Surete, and earlier, the legendary Alphonse Bertillon; he is allowed to peruse the ”secret archives” of the Paris Prefecture; by chance, he recognises a famous anarchist bandit, Jules Bonnot, as having once been his chauffeur; he dons disguises such as that of a Parisian apache or a Corsican bandit to infiltrate criminal rings(delightfully, his books sometimes include photographs of him in disguise, complete with picturesque hats and moustaches!)

Airily, he recognises that ‘It is rather strange, when I look back, to think how often I have found myself involved in events that later passed into history,’ (The Underworld—a Series of Reminiscences and Adventures in Many Lands), but he doesn’t let that slight improbability deter him in the least. Time after time, he’s in at the kill—helping to nail a vicious poisoner or uncovering a sensational tranvestite murder or catching a crook who’s passing off fake diamonds. He describes the most sensational murder methods—such as kittens whose claws have been tipped with deadly tetanus baccili; centipedes used as murder weapons; and in an echo of Edgar Allan Poe, an ape trained to kill! Rather scathing about most detective fiction—aside from Conan Doyle’s, to whom he dedicated Outlaws of Modern Days—he nevertheless uses every trick of sensational fiction, including catchy titles, breathless first-person narration, cheesy dialogue and moralising asides. He offers titillating portraits of famous murderers, gangsters and outlaws, and lovingly sketched examples of criminal wickedness. But there’s always a moral: not only are these bad people bad, but they will inevitably be brought to book by the superior methods of modern scientific crime-fighting. His touching faith in these methods—which he describes in detail in The Forgotten Clue– is such that he is convinced they will shortly put ashton-wolfe-2an end to all crime.

Mostly, he writes about modern cases(at least, from the 1890’s onwards) but in Tales of Terror—True Stories of Immortal Crimes, he looks at older real-life mysteries fictionalised by writers such as Alexandre Dumas: the Man in the Iron Mask, the Count of Monte-Cristo, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace…You get the distinct impression that he thinks modern scientific methods would surely have made short work of elucidating them!

So who was H.Ashton-Wolfe, this tireless go-getter chronicler of crime? In The Underworld he offers something of an  autobiography, and colourful it is too (sample chapter titles: The Episode of the Clairvoyant Countess’, ‘La Glu—Apache and Gentleman’; ‘The Motor Bandits’; The Blue Anchor Mystery’). He was born in 1881, of a Scottish father who had emigrated to New Mexico and who as a US soldier had participated in the historic final stand of the Sioux under Sitting Bull. His mother was an American, of half-Scottish, half-Spanish blood(Ashton-Wolfe makes much of this ”gipsy strain” which made him a ”wanderer, restless and ever seeking after excitement and novelty.”) Young Harry was born in London whilst his parents were on a visit there but he spent his childhood on the ‘prairies of Arizona and Colorado’—in The Forgotten Clue he also writes about how he was taught to ride and shoot there by “the red-skinned Sioux warriors, who, strangely enough, enjoyed showing a white boy their tricks”–then sent to school in Denver till the age of 14. He was then packed off to a boarding-school in Cannes, and thence to university in Heidelberg—giving him, as he points out, an unrivalled facility in three languages, and the love of travel, not to speak of European glamour to add to American derring-do.

But it’s a youthful holiday in Monte-Carlo that introduces him to his future career when, on nightly visits to the Casino, he befriends a ”dapper little Frenchman” , Monsieur Blanchard, who enlists his help in watching another gambler—an American named Big Jim Cowley. Of course, M. Blanchard turns out to be from the Surete, Big Jim is soon unmasked as a crook of the first order, and the adventure not only whets Ashton-Wolfe’s appetite for more excitement, but sees him eventually accepted as assistant to Dr Alphonse Bertillon, in Paris, working with him on many extraordinary cases. In this capacity, he also collaborates on occasion with detectives from Scotland Yard and the US. Later, due to his familiarity with foreign languages, he acts as ”interpreter to the civil and criminal courts” in Britain–in which capacity he appears to have written many of his books.

Perhaps he might have been able to retire though, for his books were best-sellers in the genre, going through many editions worldwide, and garnering glowing reviews: ‘Out-thrilling the thrillers’–‘Exciting studies in international crime’–‘Unsurpassed as a narrator of authentic crime stories’. The public’s appetite for true as well as fictional crime in the Golden Age of the detective novel was huge, and as well as his books, Ashton-Wolfe wrote articles for magazines such as The Strand as well as the true-crime magazines which flourished in the Golden Age of the detective novel. And his stories influenced other contemporary writers. For instance, ‘Sapper’, the creator of the Bulldog Drummond adventure series, was inspired by two of Ashton-Wolfe’s cases: the diabolical Hanoi Shan, and the anarchist bandits Jules Bonnot and Octave Garnier, for his 1929 novel,  The Temple Tower(as well as basing a character, Victor Matthews, on Ashton-Wolfe himself). And in a nice touch, Conan Doyle himself used a story recounted in Crimes of Love and Hate, about an Italian swindler who claimed to have created a death ray, as the basis for one of his Professor Challenger stories, The Disintegration Machine.

Ashton-Wolfe’s work was also the basis for a popular pot-boiler film, Secrets of the French Police(1932), where he is credited as writer. Other films may have been planned; but questions as to the authenticity of his recitals began to surface, and no others were produced. As well, with his style beginning to seem old-fashioned, his books started to fall out of favour, and eventually were forgotten so completely that not a single one remains in print.

Just how much—or how little–of his biography, let alone his claimed exploits, is authentic, I have no idea. Much of it, I suspect, needs to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Trying to find information that isn’t part of the persona Ashton-Wolfe built for himself is like trying to write on water. But it doesn’t really matter. For the books are truly wonderful period pieces, some of which  deserve to be reprinted in their full glory, cheesy photographs and all.