I’m very pleased to announce that Cold Iron, The Green Prince and The Firebird, my three YA fantasy novels that were originally selected for the fabulous Untapped project and republished as ebooks available to buy and borrow, will now also be republished in print, by Brio Books/Booktopia. The books were originally published in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and were popular with readers, so it’s wonderful to see them acquire a new lease of life in both print and e-editions. And just look at their striking new print covers, below! (You can also see a link to the page for each book, under its cover.) The novels are being published over July, August and September this year within the Untapped series, which includes lots of other wonderful, previously out of print books by a large range of fantastic Australian authors, both for adults and young adults. You can check out the whole series here. All books are available to be pre-ordered now.
Well, here we are now in the festive season: Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, New Year, all the lovely celebrations that happen at this time of the year. It’s not been the easiest of years for anyone, that’s for sure, but still we reach towards hope and joy as we approach the end of 2021. It’s a time when people like to relax and read, watch and listen to light, happy, warm stories full of love and magic and the unexpected. And it’s also a giving time. So I’d like to combine those things today and offer all my readers a short story I’ve written recently. It’s called The Buyers, it’s for adults, it’s set not long before Christmas, and I hope it will bring a smile to your face. You can download it from the link below.
(Do feel free to link to the story from this post but please note it is fully copyright-protected and cannot be used commercially. My authorship should also be acknowledged, if you share the story).
May you all have a peaceful and happy festive season, whatever you celebrate, and a relaxing and fun holiday break. And see you next year!
Artist and designer Bettina Kaiser created the beautiful cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. Today I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog for a behind-the-scenes interview.
Bettina, tell us about your process in creating the cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. What preparations did you have to make? What stages did the work go through? What inspired you? And what materials/media did you use?
I really enjoyed reading your book. Currently we are in COVID lockdown, and so the timing was perfect to let myself be transported to Basque country through the story. As I was reading it, I was also researching the places online: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a beautiful little town and the place where most of the story takes place. The Camino de Santiago and the rolling hills and picturesque Basque countryside it covers. I then allowed myself to get lost a little in Basque traditions. The colours of the houses and window frames, the tricoloured flag, the beret, incredibly delicious looking food.
I empathised with all three characters in the story as well: Alex walking the trail (I love walking), Helen being the illustrator and loving to draw (a fellow artist), and Tony researching his family (an interest I share).
From there I had a few creative ideas of what the cover could look like. Conceptually, they were based on elements in the story that I found significant: the cobblestone streets, the wayfinding symbols of the Camino, Basque colours and symbols, but also the family photos that you sent me and the more recent photos from your visit there.
The art materials I used were just what I had on hand in the studio: acrylic paint, ink, gouache, paper scraps. From there I put together a few layouts to explore three main concepts: picking up the title, the butterflies, and doing a flat lay with other aspects of the interwoven stories, the cobblestones causing Helen’s fall but also representing the path, the Camino, and the twin sisters, one staying inside watching through the window, the other walking on a path.
What were the challenges? And the pleasures?
As with any book cover, my aim is to capture the essence of the book. I always also need to know that you, the author, are 100% behind it. At the end of the day, it is their book, your book, and I would not want to force the cover design “onto” it or indulge in some design folly that is just exciting for me as an artwork on its own. It needs to fit. But it took me a while to find what the essence is for me in your story.
What has now become the cover was pretty early on my favourite, and the more I tried to work on alternative ideas, the more I was drawn back to the actual artwork that we chose. I re-read passages of the book and realised how the stories of the three characters are so intertwined, and also link each character’s past, present and future. The other (unfinished) artwork concepts simply felt too one-dimensional. In my head I even likened this to one of those pinboards in a murder investigation with all the suspects, witnesses, and places, and the threads joining them. That was what I wanted to have the artwork reflect: old and new stories spanning continents. Stories that touched, overlapped, merged.
Then came a tricky point in the process where I was really loving that idea and artwork (which is almost exactly what we have now), but I laboured over other concepts, as I did not want to present you with just one option in a kind of take it or leave it way. But I really felt strongly about the concept and liked it visually too. So, after a few days of mulling it over, I decided that I will show you this artwork and explain with some images and words the ideas/concepts for alternative covers to see what you think. Well, it sure was nice when you concurred, and only a few hours later your very enthusiastic “YES! This is it!” came back.
Your novella was perfect for my lockdown escapism. I really enjoyed allowing myself to mentally wander into the ancient streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, to dream of faraway places, and to find out more about the Camino and Basque culture. It lifted me up and touched so many interests of mine though the different characters. I really very much enjoyed the video chat we had initially, and you telling me about your Basque family connections and getting to know you.
What do you, as both a designer and a reader, see as the most important things for authors and publishers to consider, when it comes to commissioning book covers?
I think authors in particular need to have a lot of trust to put their work, which they have laboured over for so long, and that often is so personal, into an artist’s hand to create the cover. I encourage authors and publishers to look at previous artwork that a prospective book cover designer has created (a good start is our industry organisation Australian Book Designer Association’s directory) and see if they like the general style and design approach.
While the publisher needs to keep their eye on a certain overarching style and standard for their publications, I personally do love that I can more often than not work directly with “my authors”, get to know them and get them to tell me what their work is about, what matters and where their focus is.
As in many things in life, trust and mutual appreciation is key. Many publishers work with a regular stable of illustrators and designers whom they entrust their publications to. I have been lucky to have worked with Bronwyn Mehan and Spineless Wonders on so many projects over the past decade and to have been given a lot of creative freedom. Plus, I am very happy to have often worked directly with the authors.
My pet hates are design for design’s sake (the self-indulgent kind), style trends in book covers. So, dear publishers and authors, I’d say watch out for that!
Does creating a cover for an audio book differ from that for a print or ebook? If so, in what way?
The short answer is no. It is just a different shape, and many projects that I work on need the artwork to be converted into all kinds of formats, ranging from eBook covers to website banners and more. So it is a style, a materiality and elements that you design, and then it is rolled out to different media. In fact, your story, whilst first published as an audio book (I love that format by the way), will also be available now as an eBook by Spineless Wonders.
You work in a number of art and design fields aside from books. Tell us about some of the other things you do.
I consider myself a “Jill of many trades”.
I like the explorative, conceptual aspects of design, but I do have a lot of bread-and-butter jobs that are layouts, websites, logo designs and the like. But I am also an artist and have a separate practice in my small studio – no screens allowed there – just for my art projects. I recently had an exhibition that featured prints, mixed media works, and installations around the current climate crisis and us humans in the environment.
(Book) cover design is where I work across both disciplines. I love it. I love working with authors, I love books and stories, and I love that each one needs their unique artwork. Often I experiment with materials and collages and photos in my studio, and I sometimes do hand lettering, as I did for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. I then photograph or scan it, bring it together on screen, manipulate it if needed, mix, cut, paste, experiment, tinker with typography. It brings it all together and as I mentioned earlier, I am so grateful to be given a lot of trust and creative freedom.
When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.
You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)
The Ghost Ship
She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…
She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.
And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.
The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.
The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…
Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.
…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….
The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?
This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.
…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….
Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…
Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.
Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.
…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.
The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…
Fitton Howe, Monday
Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.
Tomorrow, together with renowned artist Angus Nivison, I will be leading a workshop for Arts North West called ‘Looking Both Ways’ which will be pairing artists and writers to produce jointly-inspired works: image to text, and text to image.
It’s come out of a fabulous Arts North West project in 2019 called Art Word Place, which similarly paired artists and writers. That though was about artists creating works inspired by writers’ words: in my and Angus’ case, I wrote a poem called Sky Dramas, New England, and Angus created a painting inspired by it called But in the Dry (based on the second stanza of the poem, which was fuelled by the terrible drought we were in the midst of at the time. )
This new project however is indeed ‘looking both ways’ as writers will create writing based on artists’ work and artists will create works based on writers’ words. Aside from Angus and I, eleven professional local writers and eleven professional local artists will be taking part in it. It’s a two-part workshop, with tomorrow’s concentrating on setting everything up and beginning paired projects and a final one on April 17 where completed works will be presented to the group. It’s going to be an amazing experience!
Photos below are of me and Angus at Art Word Place; my poem from that project; and Angus’ painting inspired by it.
Delighted to be one of the featured creators in the latest episode of Story Scoop, the fabulous joint initiative between the Children’s Book Council of Australia, NSW branch and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ANZ. Story Scoop episodes are in three parts, and in this one, it features author Oliver Phommavanh talking about his humorous middle-grade books in Middle Grade Magic, illustrator Serena Geddes talking about her creative process in Illustrator Corner, and myself, in Picture Book Nook, talking about the inspiration and creation of my latest, very seasonal picture book, Santagram (illustrated by Shiloh Gordon and published by Little Hare). Lots of fun to make the clip and lots of fun to be part of this project–thank you so much, CBCA NSW and SCBWI ANZ, for the opportunity.
Watch the video here:
I’m absolutely delighted today to announce the launch of a fabulous brand-new creative activity pack for children and their families, carers, schools and libraries, which I’ve created with Kathy Creamer, a good friend of mine who’s a fantastic illustrator. It’s called the Fox and Chook Creative Activity Pack and is themed around, you guessed it, foxes and chooks (for non-Australians, that means chickens!)
This gorgeous pack, which is presented as a downloadable PDF, includes lots of fun activities: from lots of creative writing exercises to colouring-in pages; from looking at and discussing classic paintings to discovering fabulous facts about foxes and chooks; from listening online to a fun fox and chook story(one of mine) to sculpting your own fox and chook out of modelling clay, from sharing real-life stories of foxes and chooks to learning how to draw them and to make your own shadow puppets–and more!
You can access the full activity pack directly here on my blog: Fox and chook creative activity pack by Sophie Masson and Kathy Creamer full final or from the special page on Sophie Masson Presents, where you will not only find the full pack but also the colouring pages as a separate PDF to download and print out easily.
Please note that this activity pack is copyright to me and Kathy Creamer. Till September 30, it is available free for families, schools and libraries to download, use and print, but must not be extracted or reproduced without written permission and acknowledgement of authorship and cannot be sold or used commercially by any entity or individual.
Kathy and I would like to thank the fantastic New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) in Armidale, for kindly researching paintings in their collections for the Foxes and Chooks in Art section of the pack, and for giving us permission to include images of them. We would also like to acknowledge Christmas Press and illustrator David Allan for images from Two Trickster Tales from Russia and photographer Nathan Anderson for the wonderful fox photo on title page (photo available free to download on Unsplash).
So have a look, check it all out–and hope you enjoy! And as we’d love to see your creative responses to these exercises, do tag me if you decide to put them up on social media. You can tag me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And you can contact me via this blog, or via the contact form at Sophie Masson Presents. You can contact Kathy here.
I’ve just uploaded a short video I made, based on some presentations I’ve made recently, which is a bit of an overview of my life and career in writing and publishing. Hope you enjoy…
The original background music by the way is by my very talented son Bevis Masson-Leach, aka music producer Papertoy.
What’s it really like maintaining a literary career, especially in a regional area? What role do literary organisations like writers’ groups and writers’ centres play? In Wearing many hats: literary creative practice in New England, an article of mine which has just been published in the prestigious journal TEXT, I explore these and other aspects of the regional creative life through my own experiences and the experiences of other local creators, through interviews I conducted.
Hope you enjoy reading it!