Today I’m delighted to bring you a very interesting and thought-provoking interview with award-winning author and illustrator Martin Ed Chatterton, about an unusual project he’s been working on: Winter of the White Bear, an extraordinary picture book to be published by Dirt Lane Press this October. You can watch a compelling trailer for the book here.
Martin, I believe that Winter of the White Bear is a book that grew out of several inspirations: your PhD, your previous collaborations with Margrete Lamond, now publisher at Dirt Lane Press, and no doubt other things. Can you tell us something about how it came about?
The starting point for Winter Of The White Bear was my PhD which I completed at the end of 2017. That had, at it’s core, a polemical examination of the toxic legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade in my home town of Liverpool in the UK. I wrote my doctorate in part see if there was a way in which I could simultaneously access the slavery story in both a contemporary and historical way and the result was The Last Slave Ship, a novel with a dual storyline, one set aboard the Uriel, the final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809 and a narrative following a present day race hate crime which results in large scale rioting. The two storylines intersect at the end.
The PhD came about partly through curiosity about my family tree. On my wife’s side of the family, the maternal line is ‘black Liverpool’. The apparent ‘invisibility’ of ‘blackness’ in that side of the family got me asking questions and that led to (sadly) the growing realisation that I’d been raised in the most racist city in the UK and that my wife’s family had undoubtedly arrived in the city via Liverpool’s armpit-deep involvement in the genocidal Atlantic Slave Trade. In this case ‘we’ (white Liverpool) played the role of the Nazis, stocking, crewing and profiting hugely over 120 years by selling people. Over half of all the slave ships that sailed from Britain sailed from Liverpool. The city grew rich on the back of slavery. Present day Liverpool racism, both institutional and cultural is, I believe, directly traceable to residual guilt about the city’s blood-stained past, and denied thorough examination by an overpowering cultural ‘Scouse’ identity, described by American academic Jacqueline Nassy-Brown as ‘brutally localised, excruciatingly white.’ It’s not going too far to say that if the novel is published in the UK (as it is due to be), there could be trouble ahead. Liverpool does not take criticism well. If you’re interested, you can download the PhD exegesis here: https://epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/572/
Anyway…all that is by way of background. Winter Of The White Bear not only arrived because of my interest in slavery but because of the direct involvement of the very wonderful and most excellent, Margrete Lamond, my publisher (and editor) at Dirt Lane Press. Myself and Margrete go back a long way: to 2004 to be exact when I first moved to Australia. At the time she was working at Scholastic and commissioned me for my first Aussie book (I illustrated Ogre In A Toga by the lovely Geoffrey McSkimming). Margrete kept in touch when she moved to Little Hare books and she published The Brain Finds A Leg, a blackly comic surreal teen comedy set in a thinly disguised Byron Bay where I was living at that time. The book did decently, getting shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (where we lost to the picture book of Mao’s Last Dancer…still bitter, although I do love Anne Spudvillas’ work). And then we did other books: a follow up to The Brain, a series about William Shakespeare as a ten year old boy, a novelty book about a nude Santa. All the usual stuff.
Then, about six or seven years ago I wrote a crime novel on spec and Margrete was kind enough to do a broad structural edit on it before my agent shopped it around. A Dark Place To Die was published by Random House here and in the UK and was then optioned as a TV series (still ‘in development’ with Escapade Media/Mam Tor). The book led to a series, all set partly in Liverpool (and Byron Bay, Berlin, California…) and, to close the circle, The Last Slave Ship is also set in the city. When I met Margrete last year she suggested doing an offshoot from my PhD for Dirt Lane Press and I jumped at it. I’d been seeing what they’d been doing for a year or two and loving the social commitment and aims of the company. I do a fair amount of what you might call ‘mass market/commercial’ writing and illustration. Probably the best example of this are the co-writing gigs I have with James Patterson, the US publishing behemoth. So Dirt Lane and Winter Of The White Bear are as far from this as it’s possible to be (note: I am by no means sneering at the idea of White Bear doing well commercially!). And it’s the best/most satisfying thing I’ve done (in books) in a while.
What has the story’s journey been like? Did you need to do many drafts? Did you work with Margrete from the start on it, or has the process been different to that?
I wrote the first draft very quickly. Having worked so much in the past with Margrete on so many disparate books we both have confidence in each other. That confidence gives me free reign to try things out, as I know Margrete will spot when it works and when it doesn’t. Perhaps the title (for Margrete) might be more accurately that of ‘producer’.
There were a couple of things I knew I wanted right from the outset. The first was no comedy. In my children’s fiction I’m primarily, and proudly, comedic. However, there’s no room for that here. So, no funnies. Secondly, I wanted this to be absolutely international. This wasn’t about Liverpool, or about the Atlantic slave trade. At least not in the specifics. This was about stripping back slavery to it’s evil essence: coercion for gain. Margrete and I had a couple of arm-wrestling moments, most pointedly on the issue of making this a white bear against a black bear. My view was that there needed to be a stark difference in the two bears as this introduces, in simple form, the idea of ‘the other’. Defining another group as ‘other’ is key to being able to enslave. And the clearest, most unequivocal example we have of that is white enslaving black. Of course there have been multiple (and ongoing) examples of slavery where that ‘otherness’ is less clearly defined but I felt strongly that the ‘not all slaves were black’ argument has been hijacked (erroneously) by the right. Besides, the genesis for this book lay in a specifically white/black arena. I didn’t want anyone to be in any doubt.
There were quite a few drafts but all following a principle I knew would be there. I started big and went small. The first draft came in around 2000 words; clearly too many for a book of this kind. But, as I knew that at the outset, and, as Margrete was the editor, I was confident we’d whittle down. Which is exactly what we did. The final word count is around about 700 words.
How would you characterise the visual narrative of the book?
Being a writer/illustrator often has it’s advantages, but nowhere more so than in a picture book. The visual narrative of this book emerged from two sources: the first are the paintings I do for pleasure. I don’t sell them or exhibit: they are for me and they are a long way from my ‘normal’ work. I began my professional life as an illustrator and that’s still very much an important part of what I do. Winter Of The White Bear is an opportunity for me to swing hard at the ball and make some of those gestural, free marks I make in the comfort of my own (secret) studio.
The second part of the visual thrust for the images is digital. Everything has been produced on screen. I’ve been drawing with the cursor, using collage, overlays, brushes, effects and photography to make the images. I forced myself not to draw anything and ‘import’ it as I would do normally. This has, I hope, resulted in a fresh approach, albeit using techniques honed over the years. I think this imagery will be seen as different for me…but it’s always been there.
With its fable/fairytale form and light touch, Winter of the White Bear can be read on many levels, and by readers of many ages: what do you hope people will take away from it?
I’m glad you think it has a light touch. It would have been easy to slip into a preachy tone so I think using fable helps prevent that. Allowing the reader to join the dots is something I try and do in all my writing. Using fable also helps blur the age lines. We’re so used to the fairytale form that it can become a Trojan horse in which we can smuggle in meaning. Another aspect of the fable/fairytale as form is that it allows darker themes and narrative. While Winter Of The White Bear deals with hard subjects it barely comes near to the horrors in, say, Hansel And Gretel.
I made the decision to echo the Atlantic Slave narrative in several key ways in the book. For example, when Little Bear reaches a point of desperation she chooses to allow herself to sink beneath the waves. ‘If she sank far enough she would no longer have to catch fish for White Bear.’ Slaves taken from West Africa frequently committed suicide as a means of escape. One of the first acts for the Liverpool slavers on arrival in Africa was the installation of suicide netting around the ships. Slaves were valuable and the more of them alive at the end of the voyage, the higher the profit. The hideous conditions aboard ship were finely calculated to ensure that as many slaves survived as possible at as low a cost as possible. Profit overruled morality at every turn. Slaves also saw suicide as an act of resistance so it was important for Little Bear to reach this point. Of course, I don’t make this explicit. This is a book for children so Little Bear’s ‘death’ is deliberately ambiguous. The appearance of her (murdered) father also speaks to the importance of ancestors in African belief systems. Little Bear’s subsequent ‘campaign’ and escape from her oppressor can be viewed as what happens to her in the afterlife, or as wish fulfilment, or simply as a magical reality.
I hope that young readers take one very simple message from this book. Namely that using force to enslave anyone is wrong and that we have to remain vigilant to prevent this happening.
Winter of the White Bear comes out in October, but you are already performing readings of it in schools. What other events are being planned in the lead-up to its release?
After starting work on Winter Of The White Bear I decided to make a ‘rough cut’ audio of it as a work in progress. I then showed that rough cut reading to schools I visited in Australia and China in late 2018. I always saw the book as something that would translate very well to the screen and I have made a full reading for the 2019 school visits.
I’m keen for Winter Of The White Bear to get ‘out there’ in as many forms as possible. I co-opted a French actor/producer friend of mine, Michel Duran, to do the reading for the video of the book. Michel is based in Vancouver and, I think, adds an extra flavour of ‘the international’ to the project. We have worked together on a number of film and TV projects (as Sugartown Media) and we are developing Winter Of The White Bear as a potential animated feature film. We’re also working with Angela Salt, another friend of mine in the UK who runs a creative children’s content company called Salt Content. Pat Davern, of Grinspoon, is also involved in writing a suite of songs for the project. He has provided the theme music for the project and we are at work on the ‘hero’ song, You Will Find A Way, right now. Pat and I have worked together on a number of projects beginning with Pat’s Alexander The Elephant picture/music book in 2015. We’ll be putting out a video for the song in the lead up to Winter Of The White Bear being published.
We have also partnered with The Freedom Hub (thefreedomhub.org) in Sydney for this book after meeting with Sally Irwin, The Freedom Hub’s founder. The Freedom Hub was formed specifically to combat modern day slavery in Australia. Using two cafes (one in Sydney, the other on the Gold Coast) as the ‘hub’ element around which programs of aid for people caught up in human trafficking are rolled out, the organisation is an important beacon of hope. It’s a real shock for many people to realise that there are an estimated 4,300 slaves in modern day Australia and The Freedom Hub are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of this and giving practical help where possible. They are also committed to doing what they can to ensure slavery is eradicated around the globe. We are super proud to have them on board with Winter Of The White Bear and will be flagging them up at every opportunity. The book will be launched on October the 17th at The Freedom Hub by Benjamin Law who has kindly agreed to do the honours.
I understand that two other books came out of your PhD, including an adult novel and a graphic novel: can you tell us a little about them?
The Last Slave Ship, the novel I wrote for my PhD was due to be published last year but sadly the publisher went bust just prior. The nature of the novel (hard-hitting, experimental to a degree, polemical) meant that it wasn’t a good fit for my usual (commercial) publisher, Penguin Random House, so finding a good home for it has been a priority. My agent in London has been scrabbling around and we are pretty sure it will be out this year with Dead Ink in the UK who are another socially conscious independent publishing house. That’s by no means a given as yet but we think it will happen. I’m pretty keen on it being released as, along with Winter Of The White Bear and Archangel (the graphic novel I’ll discuss below), it would mean that three very different ‘slavery’ stories have emerged from the research, covering all age ranges.
The novel itself tells the story of the doomed final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809, sailed by a hard-bitten crew conscious that this is their last opportunity for a big payoff. Slavery has been outlawed in Britain so it is a risky, but potentially profitable, business. Running parallel to this story is one that revolves around the aftershocks following a vicious race hate killing in contemporary Liverpool. The central idea behind the book can be summed up by my ‘pitch line’: ‘The last slave ship didn’t leave Liverpool in 1809, Liverpool is the last slave ship’. And another: ‘What do you do when you’ve witnessed a crime committed by an entire city?’
In a spot of cross-pollination, I’ve mixed in characters from my three previous ‘Liverpool’ crime novels (A Dark Place To Die, Underland, Remission) and narrative themes of memory/amnesia, ‘saying the unsayable’, witness and guilt. There are intertwined sub-narratives in there too about Hillsborough, about Scouse identity and the importance of Antony Gormley’s Another Place as witness: a sculpture installation sited on a beach in north Liverpool which has been something of an obsession of mine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw_WO8Y5a8s).
At the beginning of my doctorate, I was interested (and still am) in the notion of cross-media. Something that ‘fell out’ of that was me writing a piece of faux fan-fiction, imagining a fan response to The Last Slave Ship…which was, at that time, unwritten. That became a YA novel called Archangel which is a re-imagining of the slavery narrative, set in a future post-industrial north American hunter-gatherer settlement built on the remnants of a vast shopping mall centuries after Earth has been abandoned by the ruling elite. The climate is frozen for large parts of the year and the growing of harvesting of timber occupies much of the time for the ‘tribe’. This isn’t a dystopian vision: the population functions in harmony with their surroundings until the humans who had abandoned the planet return to ‘harvest’ labour. Dirt Lane Press asked me to develop Archangel as a graphic novel. As a first step I’ll be rewriting the story as a screenplay; the thinking being that will be a format more easily adaptable to the graphic novel format. I’ll let you know how we do!