A writing life in singular times–my post on Writer Unboxed

Today, on Writer Unboxed, the international writing blog to which I am a regular contributor, I write about the impact that these very strange times we are all going through has has on my writing life, and how I’ve tried to deal with it in various ways.

I wrote it in the hope it may help other writers struggling with the same things, and on Writer Unboxed, I’ve asked to hear about other people’s experiences–and I hope readers of this blog might visit Writer Unboxed and consider sharing theirs.

Celebrating new books in troublesome times 8: Kathy Creamer

Next week sees the publication of author-illustrator Kathy Creamer’s new picture book, The Big Old Rambutan Tree, a book which had a very special inspiration and process, as Kathy explains in this  fascinating guest post.

Creation of The Big Old Rambutan Tree

 by Kathy Creamer

Someone once pronounced an orangutan to be an animal that looked somewhat like a sad heap of deflated bicycle wheel inner tubing. I met my first orangutan when I was working at Singapore Zoological Gardens as a volunteer docent, and they were nothing at all like the description of sad deflated bicycle tubing. I became completely enchanted by the beauty and charm of these effervescent and mischievous primates, and one lovely orangutan in particular, who happened to be the zoo’s celebrity, became my favourite. She was a gentle female named Ah Meng, who I met in the days when visitors to the zoo were allowed to get close up to some of the tame orangutans and even share breakfast with them. Ah Meng, who was sitting with her new baby, calmly allowed me to be seated next to her. I was almost nine months pregnant at the time and Ah Meng was clearly interested in the huge size of my baby bump, so much so, she reached out and placed her hand gently on my tummy and kept it there whilst she gazed knowingly into my eyes. I was totally astounded by her gesture and in that instant, I realized she possessed a great intelligence which comprehended precisely what was growing in there.

Orangutans and humans share 97 per cent of their DNA sequence, which makes us very close cousins. And indeed, they are so much like us in displaying facial expression and emotion such as joy, excitement, jealousy and fear, and when a young orangutan displays his anger or frustration, it is exactly like watching a temper tantrum in a two-year-old human toddler.

 

I began researching a little more about orangutans and learned just how endangered they are in the wild. I was distressed by the fact that their young are much sought after for the illegal exotic pet trade; the mothers who fearlessly fight to protect their offspring are usually shot dead by the animal poachers in order to steal the babies. Then there is the significant threat of habitat destruction from human development such as farming; the biggest threat being the recent expansion of enormous palm oil plantations. I was so moved by what I read that I wanted to do something to highlight the plight of these beautiful animals in the wild. So, I decided to create a picture book story about Ah Meng, which was published by the zoo and succeeded in raising much needed funds for the Zoo’s own orangutan conservation program. Ah Meng was so pleased with her book that she painted me an extraordinary picture for the book launch at the zoo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some years later, after watching a nature program about the uncontrolled  destruction of thousands of acres of pristine Asian rainforest for palm oil plantation, I realized that the orangutan’s struggle for survival had become even worse, and that they were now dangerously further down the path to total extinction in the wild. Moved to try and do something to highlight the problem, however small, I decided to create another children’s picture book story, The Big Old Rambutan Tree.

The idea for the story was inspired by a newspaper report on how a young orangutan in a nature reserve actively helped to look after two orphaned tiger cubs by helping the human carers to bottle feed them. Obviously, as the two tiger cubs grew bigger, they eventually had to be separated from the orangutan.

In the illustrations for the book, I tried to display emotion and movement, as well as revealing the gentle, peaceful expression and exuberant mischievousness of orangutan personality. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a publisher for the manuscript, so it lay for almost ten years in my desk drawer until I decided to send it to Orangutan Outreach to see if they would be interested in endorsing the book should it be published. They were! So, I decided to publish with Little Pink Dog Books, which is a children’s picture book publishing partnership specializing in books by new and emerging writers and illustrators, which I happen to run with my husband. We also began a crowdfunding site with IndieGoGo, to help with the publication costs, and I am pleased to say that many people from around the world have either made a financial donation or have purchased copies of the book. To help Orangutan Outreach I decided all profits from the book would go to their organisation to help with their valuable conservation work.

I am particularly pleased that after many years of effort the book is now on sale, and I would like to encourage readers to help support the conservation of these beautiful primates by purchasing a copy of the book from your local bookshop or by ordering the book directly from the Little Pink Dog Books website.

The Big Old Rambutan Tree

Written and illustrated by Kathy Creamer

Little Pink Dog Books (May 2020)

From the flames of the burning rainforest, an extraordinary bond of friendship ignites between a savage tiger and a gentle orangutan, as they both struggle to survive in their fast diminishing habitat.

 Kathy’s website: www.kathycreamer.com

Connect with Kathy on Facebook

Two new interviews with me

Two recent new interviews with me that might interest readers: the first is in audio form, a wide-ranging podcast interview celebrating 30 years since my first two books were published, which is featured at the Writes4Women website. It was just lovely having the time to expand on all kinds of aspects of writing, inspiration, process, and lots more, with fantastic interviewer Kel Butler.

The other interview is in article form, and is a bit of an overview of my career and influences. It’s published in conjunction with a short story competition I’ve collaborated on with the University of New England’s Creative New England initiative, and the New England Writers’ Centre. Thanks to UNE’s Alahna Fiveash for the great questions!

Thirty years ago, my first two books came out…

This year marks a momentous milestone for me–it’s thirty years since my first two books, The House in the Rainforest (adult novel, published by UQP, March 1990) and Fire in the Sky(children’s novel, published by Angus and Robertson, June 1990), came out.

Launch of The House in the Rainforest, April 1990, at the University of New England bookshop. It was launched by poet Julian Croft.

They weren’t the first novels I’d written; two more finished ones languished in the bottom drawer(they still have never seen the light of day and never will) and one half-finished one written in my teenage years still lurked in a box of things from childhood; and before 1990 I’d had some stories published in anthologies, but this was the big year, the one in which my dream of one day becoming a professional, published book author, became reality–and not just with one book, but two, in the one year.

I’m celebrating this milestone in a subdued sort of way, given the current situation for us all, but it’s very much a milestone that makes me both happy and grateful. Happy and grateful that publishers took a punt on me in the first place; happy and grateful that they continue to do so, thirty years down the track. Happy and grateful to be working in such a wonderful industry, which despite its many challenges, is truly the best and has rewarded me in so many ways; happy and grateful to be part of the diverse and generous creative community of book people, where I have forged many lasting friendships; and so happy and grateful for the many, many people who have believed in my work and supported and encouraged me throughout my career and continue to do so: my wonderful agent Margaret Connolly; the many fantastic publishers and editors I’ve worked with throughout these amazing thirty years; friends and fellow writers and illustrators..And most especially, of course, my family–my three children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis, who grew up with a mother so often away with the fairies yet who not only never reproached me for it but love and understand what I do; my husband David,whose unfailing support from the very beginning has been not just strongly emotional and moral but also immensely practical, taking on more than his fair share of household tasks and childcare so that I would have time and space to write; as well as my parents, whose love of books and stories provided the perfect growing soil for a budding young writer; my brothers and sisters, who were my first audience/readers/guinea-pigs back when we were all kids, and who still love what I write; my sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, and daughters-in-law and son-in-law, always so warmly encouraging…And my dear little grandchildren, who for the last few years have inspired me into a new creative direction: writing picture book texts.

Thirty years on from those first two books, I’ve had more than 70 books published–for children and young adults, mainly, but also for adults–with more coming this year and into the next couple of years. I’ve been published in many different genres, with many different publishers, in many different countries. I’ve had many ups and a few downs, overcome quite a few challenges and been offered quite a few opportunities. More than a few things have changed in the publishing industry since I started; but more than a few, also, have stayed the same. It’s been an absolutely amazing thirty years: and I am so happy to look back on it now and give thanks for the extraordinary good fortune of being able to have such a deeply satisfying career, doing what I was born to do. And that is truly something to celebrate.

UPDATE: You can listen here to a long interview with me, conducted by Kel Butler of Writes 4Women, which looks back at the 30 years since my first two books were published. It was such a lovely opportunity to talk about it and reflect on it all.

Blast from the past 1: House in the Rainforest clippings

Blast from the past 2: Fire in the Sky clippings

 

A foxy tale…

About ten days ago, I was sitting at my computer after lunch, writing, when I happened to glance out of the window which looks out over our front yard–and to my astonishment, saw a long, low, and instantly recognisable shape pass rapidly right in front of the pawlonia tree, right in front of my eyes. The fox was utterly oblivious to my presence behind the glass, utterly intent on one of our hens that was calmly scratching away near the front gate. It was only the flash of an instant that I was transfixed by the sight; and then I cried out ‘Fox!’  to David and rushed outside, yelling my head off. As I barrelled out of the door, the fox hardly deviated in his path, heading straight for the hen that still didn’t move, though the others were flapping around in panic, in my mind crying ‘Oh help! Oh fire! Oh fox!’  (a quote brilliantly expressing chooky panic which I’ve never forgotten, from Patricia Wrightson’s wonderful short novel, A Little Fear.) Then the fox suddenly seemed to clock me and my shouting and yelling, turned smartly, and ran out through the garden gate, splendid tail high, abandoning the chook hunt, and disappearing in a flicker of a moment in the long grass across the road.

All the chooks were safe, if a little nervous, except for the bird that the fox had zeroed on, which hardly even appeared to notice that she had escaped certain death. But if she had no apparent idea what had happened, I found the images from it kept popping into my head. Living in the country as we do, over the years I’d seen more than a few sad aftermaths of fox attacks, including on our own poultry; but I had never seen an attack in progress before. Indeed, I think it is a rare sight, though sometimes foxes are surprised in the middle of a killing spree. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Of course I’d not had any time at all to snap an actual photo of him (I say ‘him’ because the fox’s size clearly indicated it was a male), and never even thought of picking up my phone before I rushed out 🙂 . But my mind’s camera was clear and bright and vivid. And it clicked through snapshot after snapshot of those instants: it was simply extraordinary, to see that intentness, power and speed, expressed in one superbly built, supremely healthy and confident red body, ears pricked, tail streaming, sharp eyes fixed on that tempting plump prey. And it was also simply surprising–and reassuring, in a funny sort of way!– to know that my reaction, after that very first flash of stunned astonishment at the bold presence of the fox, was to rush out, without hesitation, to confront him and stop him in his tracks. I might be impressed by the sleek, deadly beauty of the fox, but I was certainly not going to let him get his teeth into our hapless, helpless cluckers.

But the fox thriller wasn’t yet finished; its star was not going to let us have the final word, with the thwarted predator sent packing once and for all. We kept the chooks locked up for several days, thinking that the fox would get tired of waiting and would move on to greener pastures. But the chooks weren’t happy, though their pen is large; they’re used to roaming around the block, eating grass and worms, pecking and scratching and dirt-bathing. Besides, what’s the good of having free-range birds if you keep them locked up like prisoners, even if it’s for their own good? So after a week, David let them out, just for a few hours a day, in the little orchard which is fenced and close to the house, and which he can keep an eye on when he’s working outside. All seemed well for a couple of days, and then one day we both had to go out on separate errands, and didn’t think of locking in the chooks. David got back before me–but the fox had got there before him, climbed the fence into the orchard–and well, one chook wasn’t so lucky as that first one. A young rooster lay dead and half-gnawed (ironically one we’d been raising for our own eventual chicken dinner!); but the carnage wasn’t as great as it might have been, because all the other chooks were unharmed, so the fox must have been spooked by something and taken off before he could add to his predator’s tally. And, oddly, the surviving chooks seemed hardly perturbed, no sign of any post-traumatic reaction, despite the fact they must all have been present when the fox killed their brother. Our own reaction of course was quite different to that first episode when the fox had been successfully routed; shame at forgetting to lock in the chooks added to shame at misreading the capacity both for patience and cunning of our vulpine adversary.

So of course now the chooks were locked up, and they’re still locked up. But the foxy tale hasn’t quite ended; because yesterday afternoon, working at my computer again, I happened to look up–and there he was again, a bit further away than the first time, creeping through the long grass near the pine tree, heading for the chook pen, bold as brass again, clearly still intent on checking out opportunities. The chooks were in no danger, the pen is utterly impregnable, as it is enclosed by netting wire not only on all four sides but on top as well: the only way he could conceivably get in is by digging underneath, a risky and time-consuming process that normally only a desperately hungry animal would take on, and this particular one, with his sleek body and shining fur, looks neither hungry nor desperate, but rather carries the air and the M.O of a boldly opportunist gourmet 🙂 But the sight of him still persisting in his campaign, despite the odds, was a signal to us that this isn’t over, not by a long shot, and that this outwitting–outfoxing!–tale was certainly not complete. And somehow, this episode seemed at last to really rattle the chooks, who last night at a time when they should have been cosily in bed on their perches, were pacing about anxiously outside in the pen, making the disturbed clucks that let you know something’s wrong. We went out to check of course, several times; there was no obvious sign of the fox, this time, but somehow there was a sense of his presence, hidden, watchful–waiting.

So my foxy tale ends there, for the moment, maybe waiting, like the fox, for the final twist. And it made me aware of course of our own conflicted reactions to what happened, and to the fox itself. It’s not exactly uncommon, those mixed feelings. People have always had an ambiguous relationship to foxes: seen both as bloodthirsty adversaries, like wolves, but, unlike wolves, traditionally also admired for their patient guile and effrontery. Fiction and poetry are full of that ambiguous image of the fox, from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, where the fox is clearly the hero, to the disturbing English folktale, Mr Fox, a version of Bluebeard, where the main character is basically a serial killer. But it is perhaps in medieval French literature that we see the most compelling and extraordinary picture, in the shape of the anonymous episodic novel Le Roman de Renart. This represents its fox anti-hero, Renart as the very epitome of the clever, unscrupulous, risk-taking outlaw who preys on the stupidity and herd mentality of the geese and chicken mainstream, but also outwits, through a combination of hypocritical flattery and daring moves, the much more powerful and dangerous, but much less smart, wolf and bear lords. So hugely popular and influential was this novel–which is still both remarkably entertaining and highly disturbing in equal measure–that it changed the very name of the animal itself in French. In Old French, the word for fox was ‘goupil’, but after Le Roman de Renart, that name changed to the given name of its  main character. And so ‘goupil’ became ‘renard’, which is still what it is today.

A few years ago I wrote a retelling of the classic Russian folktale, The Rooster with the Golden Crest, where the tables are turned on the crafty fox by the nice but stupid rooster’s resourceful friends, the cat and the thrush, which was published in my picture book with David Allan, Two Trickster Tales from Russia; and it’s certainly more than possible that one day some fiction of mine will come out of these recent personal foxy encounters experiences; but right now I’d like to finish with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, after hearing a fox’s screaming call late one night whilst at my father’s place in France. The poem was published later in The School Magazine. In this poem, it’s a vixen, not a dog fox, that’s prowling…

 

Looking forward to Scone Literary Festival

I’m really looking forward to the Scone Literary Festival, which kicks off on Friday March 13 with a schools program and goes all through the weekend with a fabulous program of talks, readings, workshops and social events, with a great cast of speakers and presenters. There’s also a couple of writing comps, see here.

I’ll be presenting on the Friday at Scone schools and library with the fabulous illustrator Kathy Creamer, and on the Sunday, I’m giving a workshop called Journey of a Book, a practical and entertaining look at the whole writing and publishing process, based on my experience both as an author and a publisher. See the pic at left for all details of the workshop, and how to book.

You can check out the whole three-day program here. 

 

Link to Stories Connect film: and happy New Year!

I’ve put a new page on my blog for videos (of interviews and other things) and the first thing I’ve put up  is a link to the beautiful Stories Connect film, about a unique project which I was proud to have co-ordinated for the New England Writers’ Centre. Have a look at it here.

And while I’m here, I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy, healthy and inspiring new year!

 

The year’s favourite books: Susanne Gervay

Today I’m delighted to welcome author Susanne Gervay to my blog, to talk about her favourite book for the year.

Glass Walls, edited by Meenakshi Bharat and Sharon Rundle, 2019, published by Orient Black Swan ISBN 978 93 5287 679 2

The stories in this anthology  are hilarious at times, moving at other times, and make you reflect on who you are. It opens discussion on all sorts of prejudices, even when we think we don’t have any.  It’s those little prejudices that can develop into major prejudices impacting on us and the world.  Oscar Wilde wrote – ‘Most people are other people.’ We’re the other people. The writing is so good, from Australian and Indian authors. You just have to read the new story by Bruce Pascoe about fatherhood and identity. It was funny and real and emotionally powerful. There are stories by David Malouf, Roanna Gonsalves, Libby Sommer, Debra Adelaide. It’s a feast of stories.

Susanne Gervay lives and loves the author life of sharing story to adults and kids. Her latest books are Shadows of Olive Trees and a picture book The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses. Connect with her on social media – FB – sgervay; twitter – sgervay; Instagram – susanne gervay; website – www.sgervay.com

A serendipitous meeting and a discovery about a treasured manuscript

I was really delighted yesterday to meet the wonderful Dr Joko Susilo, world-renowned dhalang (master of traditional Javanese shadow-puppetry, the wayang kulit) , who’s been Artist in Residence at UNE  for the last few weeks. An eighth-generation dhalang from Cenral Java, Joko has been based in New Zealand for some time, and travels around the world to give performances, talks and other presentations.
I contacted Joko to show him one of my family treasures: a rare, handwritten Javanese-language ‘Boekoe Pedalangan’ or ‘Book of Puppetry’, which my French parents, who were very interested in the wayang kulit and Javanese culture generally, bought when they were living and working in Java in the late 50’s and early 60’s (and where I was born). I’ve always been in awe of this book, and was thrilled when my father gave it to me a couple of years ago, but I have  wanted for a while to ask someone who knew what they were looking at to let me know me more information about the book. Well, Joko was absolutely the perfect person, as he is not only a practitioner but also a respected scholar of the extraordinary and magical art of wayang kulit.
He was very interested indeed in the manuscript and I learned quite a bit about it from him as he leafed through it: that it came from the Central Javanese city of Solo(which like Yogya is at the heart of Javanese traditional culture), that it was written in High (literary) Javanese by a professional dhalang, someone well-educated and highly-literate–not very common at the time, Joko thought it might possibly have been someone who worked within the kraton, the palace, of Solo– and that it contains the full script, including narration, instructions to puppeteers and gamelan orchestra, as well as actual gamelan notation, for a famous epic wayang kulit play which goes on all night (at least 9 hours long).
As well as that, there is a shorter section at the back, which Joko revealed is actually an unusual collection of traditional Javanese magic charms and spells. The charms are for all sorts of purposes including one, Joko was amused to discover, against sleepiness (sleepiness being an occupational hazard of course for dhalangs who are performers of all-night plays!) He confirmed that this is indeed a very rare book, especially given its excellent state of preservation(my parents having very carefully looked after it for decades, ever since they first got it and of course I’ve done the same). So fantastic to learn more about this treasure–and Joko is keen to transcribe the book in its entirety at some stage, which is wonderful!

Cover reveal for A House of Mud!

I am absolutely delighted to be able today to reveal the gorgeous cover of A House of Mud, my picture book with the fabulous Katrina Fisher, to be published by Little Pink Dog Books in July 2020. Isn’t it just wonderful!

Here’s the blurb:

Building a mudbrick house is an adventure for everyone—Mum, Dad, kids and even Tess, the family dog! Heading out to the block to help make bricks, seeing their house take shape week by week, the children decide that Tess needs her own house too…

With warmth, sensitivity and liveliness in words and pictures, this book recreates the fun–and work!–of a special family experience, building your own unique house.

On the Little Pink Dog Books site, you can also see a few beautiful images from inside the book.

This is a very special book for me, as it’s inspired by our family’s real-life experience many years ago of building our own beautiful mudbrick house (which my husband David and I still live in), by hand, from scratch, and using clay from our own block. And our three lively young children and lively young dog Tess were very much involved at many stages of what was quite a long process (somewhat speeded up for the purposes of my text, of course! )

The book itself has had a long gestation–much longer than the house itself in fact 🙂 It first saw life in an earlier form as a short story in The School Magazine (which was illustrated by the lovely, sadly missed Kim Gamble) and which I then later rewrote and edited and tweaked several times till it was just right as a picture book text: or so, I am very happy to say, thought the wonderful Peter and Kathy Creamer from Little Pink Dog Books, who loved it as soon as they read it. And they found the perfect illustrator in Katrina, who has conjured a beautiful, touching and fun visual narrative–look forward to showing readers a couple of samples from the pages once they are ready!

Here below are a few photos from the actual family mudbrick building experience…including, of course, the children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis, now of course all grown up–and Tess, who lived a happy long life but who passed on quite some years ago and is now immortalised in this book…