I’m delighted to announce that I’m this week’s guest on Sue Lawson’s wonderful Portable Magic series of video interviews. Sue is a fantastic interviewer, and it was great chatting with her. The interview is available on her You Tube channel, and I’ve also embedded it here. Hope you enjoy!
Today, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with fabulous, dynamic author Hazel Edwards, talking about her new projects, especially her new book, Complete Your Book in a Year, which has come out of her very successful and popular writing workshops. Of course, due to the COVID19 situation, these in person workshops had to shift online, but nothing daunted, Hazel found ways of still engaging her audience, dubbing her approach ‘strategies for writing in a pandemic’.
Welcome, Hazel! Your unique how-to writing and publishing manual for family historians, Complete your Book in a Year, has just been published. Can you give us some background on how the book came about?
The Pandemic has given a sense of the need to act NOW on writing projects.
The inspirational ‘Hazelnuts’ and the Pandemic Lockdown of my f2f (face to face) writing workshops led to this manual.
The term ‘Hazelnuts’ was affectionately started by some of my former writing students who HAD been procrastinators. To qualify as a ‘Hazelnut’, you have been mentored in my courses, finished AND published your writing project. Across decades, it’s satisfying to see so many non-fiction books on diverse subjects gained from crafting and workshopping across a year.
Then came the pandemic postponement of face-to-face classes like monthly sessions at (Public Records Office) PRO’s Victorian Archives Centre. Apart from Zooming, a 12 part manual was an attempt to keep people writing to finish their book projects by December deadline.
During Lockdown, others de-cluttering became interested in writing memoirs, organising family memorabilia and evaluating their lives for their families and themselves. So there was a wider demand than my adult students.
Requests came for a manual of strategies to help with writing in Lockdown. So I converted my notes and ‘Your Turn’ exercises.
Telling the stories of ‘extra-ordinary-ordinary heroes’ is worthwhile. So are ‘How To…’ books. And then there is the mutual help Hazelnuts offer each other by reading drafts or attending launches. And the research skills from visiting archives, historic locations, interviewing via digital devices or sleuthing family secrets.
‘Complete a book in a year’ is quite a challenge to throw down to authors! Tell us about something how the book works and what it covers. How did you decide what to include in it?
Based on the strategies, activities and notes I’d normally share in my face to face workshops but MINUS the companionship of learning from others and their WIP (Work in Progress). Often workshoppers become ‘step-parents to another’s bookchild and help craft it. Or they suggest titles. And they work through the various drafts, reading aloud, celebrating and finding relevant resources to share. Working alone, writers miss that. So the personal and quirky tone of the manual is as if I’m sharing anecdotes and hints with the reader. Zooming, the students can also use the manual.
Mid-project I woke up with the idea of having a cover which was a compilation of Hazelnut covers. To inspire. The publisher suggested including a Schedule for the Year’s Writing Needed to Complete a Book. I wrote a realistic timetable and scared even myself. But it works based on averaging 200 words per day. And the timetable has been renamed ‘You Can Do It.’
Others can use the manual as a substitute for Hazelnut style workshopping in these surreal times.
There are twelve main segments which match the monthly workshops. Projects include memoir, autobiography, non-fiction, biography, fiction, graphic novels, young adult and children’s books.
What is the manual about?
Strategies to overcome ‘Procrastination’ and get your book finished.
Includes: Choosing titles, writing Conversational Table of Contents, ways to structure, characterisation (Your Turn exercises), Common Q and A, making it non-boring, use of anecdotes, mini launches and publication options.
The ‘Your Turn’ exercises are very practical.
Participants voted The Ancestor Interview (see below) as the most valuable exercise. But you’ll need an in-house or online ‘helper’ for this one.
Interview Your Ancestor (in pairs, 8 minutes each).
Become your selected ancestor and answer the interviewer’s questions as honestly as you can, even admitting to crimes. Use ‘I’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’ and get into the perspective of your character and their times.
You’ll also find out what you don’t know and need to research.
How does this book differ from your earlier popular title, Writing a Non-Boring Family History?
It’s for procrastinators, so they can finish in a year. Not all projects are histories or memoirs. More emphasis on the strategies to finish to deadline.
I deliberately didn’t repeat myself so the books could be complementary. Plus the Non-Boring one was written over 20 years ago and much reprinted, so it was time for an online approach. At first I was going to have an e-book only, but the publisher convinced me to have print too.
You’ve also got a great fiction project on the go, writing a podcast for the ABC. Can you tell us about it, and how it came about?
Adult mystery ‘Celebrant Sleuth; I do or Die’ (BookPod) was inspired by a diverse gender woman who said, ‘How come nobody writes about a woman like me? Why don’t you?’ I’d been playing with the concept of a celebrant who conducted weddings and funerals, for a mystery series, so I did. She acted as my expert reader. I changed the terms she suggested. Chapters were written with future TV episodes in mind. E and print book and then I ‘voiced’ the audio, a challenging experience for a non actor but important to have an Australian voice on AUDIBLE. Then I wrote ‘ Wed, then Dead on The Ghan’ intending it as the first chapter of the sequel but now Geoffrey Wright and I have been commissioned to adapt it for the ABC as a podcast. I knew it had the ingredients of an iconic train, literary tourism role-play of Agatha Christie and a diverse sleuth, but….
‘Hijabi Girl Plays Footy Too” is a sequel which may be a bindup around the time the ‘Hijabi Girl’ puppet musical is performed post-Pandemic by Larrikin Puppeteers and tours regionally. We even have an Aussie Rules football puppet.
I’d love more of my books to be adapted for TV, audio or theatre. And to be translated into languages like Spanish and Turkish.
The Lockdown has forced me to evaluate. Although traditionally published by Penguin, my ‘riskier’ projects have been author-published in recent years.
I persisted with these ‘soul’ projects (of value for themselves and ironically later commercially viable). It has been the right decision. I also control the rights which enables faster decisions when new media offers are available.
Ironically in 2006 I wrote ‘Outback Ferals’ set in Darwin about a feral pig pandemic threat. Writers ask ‘What if?’ and then things happen. It’s called fiction prediction!
Free downloadable Schedule to Finish Your Book in a Year
More about Hazel and her work:
Hazel Edwards writes quirky, thought-provoking fiction and fact for adults and children. Coping successfully with being different is a common theme. Co-written ‘junior novel ‘Hijabi Girl’ soon to be a ‘Larrikin Puppets’ musical post Pandemic and YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ which has inspired a graphic novel , explore cultural diversity.
Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series, recently touring as a musical, Hazel has grandkids for whom she writes a story each birthday. ‘Outback Ferals’ her YA novel set in Darwin, is a sequel to ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’, researched during her 2001 Antarctic expedition.
Hazel runs book-linked workshops on ‘Authorpreneurship’ and ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’. ‘Complete Your Book in a Year’ is a yearlong master class at PROV (Public Records Office) and all her mentored ‘Hazelnuts’ finish their projects.
’Trail Magic; Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail ’ with her son Trevelyan is an adventure memoir. He did ALL the walking.
A National Reading Ambassador, in 2013 Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature. Her memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake-Being an Author’ explores longterm creativity.
Interested in stories crossing mediums, ‘Celebrant Sleuth;I do or die’ an adult mystery with an asexual sleuth is her latest AUDIBLE fiction, plus the sequel ‘Wed Then Dead on The Ghan’ available on Kindle and being adapted as a screenplay for ABC.
Hazel served on the board of The Australian Society of Authors’ for 20 years and is the current patron of the Society of Women’s Writers (Victoria)
Husband Garnet does her BAS, daughter Kim advises on marketing and three grandsons act as readers, so writing is an Edwards’ family trade.
She also reads in the bath.
Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing Charlotte McConaghy, whose extraordinary, beautiful new novel, The Last Migration (published as Migrations in the US) has taken both the US and Australia by storm, garnering rave reviews and great sales. I’ve known Charlotte a long time, ever since she and my son Xavier went to the same high school in our hometown. I’ve been aware of her talent and persistence as a writer from that time on, too, having read her writing early on, while she was still at school, and it’s been wonderful to see her going from strength to strength ever since then. She has not only written several other books than The Last Migration, but also worked on screenplays, and has a Master’s degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film and Television School.
Welcome, Charlotte–and congratulations! You must be thrilled to see the response to The Last Migration, despite the difficulties caused by the current situation, and the fact that the planned book tour of the US had to be cancelled. Can you tell us something about the background to the publication of the book, and what’s it been like, to see those reviews rolling in? Will there also be further editions of the book, in translation, for instance?
Thank you for having me, Sophie!
It’s certainly been a long publication process – longer than it took to write the book, actually. I finished it 3 years ago and signed with Flatiron, which is an imprint of Macmillan in America, and it’s been such a long wait until publication that I thought this day would never come! It’s amazing to finally be here, and to have the book come out in my home country (Australia) at the same time. We’ll be publishing in the UK in January (this was meant to be released simultaneously but due to corona virus it was pushed back to 2021) and then I think we’ve also sold to about 22 other countries for translation, which is very exciting. I’ve just been absolutely stunned to see the reviews coming in, and the response of the readers. I’m so incredibly grateful for the generosity, and to know that the book is being enjoyed. It’s the whole point of writing, I think, to reach people, to connect.
The Last Migration is beautiful and gripping but also challenging, in that it dares us to imagine a world in which nature–and human life–has been hollowed out by the disappearance of wild animal life. What was the inspiration for the novel, and how did you go about creating it? What challenges and discoveries did you face in its writing?
Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And this book was like that for me. It just felt necessary for me to engage with this climate crisis in a personal, intimate way, to write about something that’s breaking my heart. For me, when I write, the main priority is to move a reader, to make them feel something, and I think that happens when you can write from an honest and intimate place. And I think it’s true that we’re all starting to feel the loss of our natural world in a viscerally painful way. We’re connected by it. But I didn’t know quite how to engage with that, not at first.
First I went travelling. I wanted to explore Ireland and get to know the land my ancestors were from as I’ve always had a fascination for it. I also went to Iceland, an extraordinary place, and saw the beautiful graylag geese, which got me thinking about migratory birds and the incredible journeys they take, and the type of people that study these birds. I think that’s how the story of an ornithologist who decides to chase the last flock of Arctic terns from one end of the earth to the other came about.
So it was Franny who came first, it’s always character first for me. And as I got to know her, and understand this journey she was on, and why, I started to realise the kind of world I needed to place her in to really be able to tell her story with impact, and to safely engage with my own fear around the climate crisis. So that’s how the environmental side of this book got slowly drawn in – to support her. And the truth is that the more I wrote about it, the more I explored it, the more concerned I became. I discovered that in the last 50 years alone, humans have killed over 60% of all wild animal life on the earth. That statistic is almost incomprehensible in its enormity and it broke my heart, and I knew instantly that I needed to set the book in this future, to show how close it really is.
Like all your books, The Last Migration has a strong visual, indeed cinematic quality, as well as a lovely poetic sense. How do you think your work as a screenwriter has influenced your work as a fiction writer? And is there any talk of a screen adaptation of the book?
Learning the craft of screenwriting was an amazing way to learn about story. I learnt about how to structure stories and where to place certain major moments for a character to get the most emotional impact, I learnt about drawing a complex character and challenging them to transform, I learnt about genre and theme. It was also very good training for my prose, which I tend to overwrite; screenwriting schools you to be simple and strong with your word choice. You need to convey a lot in few words, and I think that’s great advice for any writing style. So all in all, it helped me improve my writing enormously.
And yes, there has been talk of a screen adaptation – we’ve fielded a few offers and are still in the negotiating stages. I have my fingers crossed it could one day be a film or tv series!
The Last Migration is sometimes described as a ‘debut novel’, or alternatively as a ‘first literary novel,’ but of course you have written several other excellent novels, most of which are in the speculative fiction genre. Indeed, it could be said that the near-future dystopian world of The Last Migration has a definite speculative-fiction element. What are your thoughts on this? How do you yourself view The Last Migration as against the background of your other books?
Yes it’s interesting that it’s being called my debut novel, which I think came about because the US publishers who picked the book up first wanted to ‘break me out’ in America as a debut author, so it was called my US literary debut, but as you’ve said I’ve written multiple fantasy and sci-fi books published in Australia. And I agree, The Last Migration is speculative, certainly – as I mentioned above, I decided to set the book a stone’s throw into the future, during the peak of the animal extinction crisis. And maybe this is a comfortable space for me, looking ahead to the ‘what ifs’. I got good practice at it in my dystopian sci-fi series, but I wanted this book to feel different. I intentionally didn’t want it to feel dystopian because in a way that places human suffering at the heart of the story, whereas I was more interested in removing us from the centre of all things and looking at the loss of the animals as a tragic thing, not just because of what they have to offer us, but because they’re wondrous in their own right. We’re not the only living things that matter. And so I guess that shift in focus, and leaving the world of the novel as otherwise unchanged, places the book less in the sci-fi realm and more in the fiction genre.
As a young writer just out of school, you self-published your first novel, which was acquired a few years later by a trade publisher and republished. And you’ve gone from strength to strength since then. Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer, from those early days to now?
I started writing books when I was 14, totally in love with telling stories. As you mentioned I self published that first book and then was very lucky when it got picked up by a trade publisher. That led to me acquiring an Australian agent, and publishing several more books with multiple Australian publishers. I think I was about 25 when I realised I really wanted to learn more about the craft of telling stories, and so that’s when I enrolled at film school to study screenwriting. And that led me to want to travel and see the world, which in turn led me to The Last Migration. I’ve worked in film and television development too, but currently I’m writing novels full time and couldn’t imagine wanting to spend my life doing anything else. I feel so lucky that I’m able to, and hope it can continue!
What’s next for you as a writer–what is the next project you are working on?
I’ve spent the last year and half (while I waited for The Last Migration to be released) writing and editing my next literary novel ‘Creatures, All’, which is the story of a wolf biologist charged with reintroducing wolves to a forest in the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the landscape. It’s a mystery and a love story and a story about the healing power of nature – which is a common theme for me these days! That will be released in the US this time next year, and hopefully here in Australia too.
Find out more about The Last Migration here.
Charlotte’s website is here.
Facebook author page here.
Twitter page here.
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!
I’m briefly interviewed in Jane Sullivan’s Turning Pages column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, in my capacity as a writer of historical fiction and Conference Patron of the 2019 Conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. You can read the whole column here.
I am delighted today to be bringing you an interview with the fabulous author Wendy James, whose multi-layered domestic noir novels, with their gripping, twisty plots, complex characters with brilliantly-observed relationships, and sharp commentary on contemporary life, have earned great acclaim and a devoted readership. I certainly always much look forward to reading her books, because I know I’m in for a real reading treat(and I’m not just saying that because as well as being a fellow author, Wendy is a dear friend!) A couple of years ago I interviewed her when her previous book, the extraordinary novel The Golden Child came out; and today, I’m interviewing her about her brand-new novel, The Accusation, a disturbing, suspenseful read which plunges us into a world of small-town secrets and social-media storms, with at the heart of it, a monstrous accusation which will pit two women against each other. But who is telling the truth? Who is lying? As events unfold with frightening rapidity, everyone takes sides…
First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your new novel! It’s a brilliant, gripping and disturbing thriller and very contemporary in feel, yet as you mention in your afterword, it’s inspired by a classic crime novel, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how the idea developed from that initial inspiration, including how it diverges from it?
I don’t think they’ve made us any faster to rush to judgement — I’m quite sure we’ve always done that — but what they’ve done is given us a platform to air that judgement in public – a virtual town square, if you like. It feels like a return to the days when people were publicly shamed, put in the stocks, publicly pilloried — and in some cases had their lives ruined because of the righteous justice of the mob.
It’s very exciting. Fox21 and Temple Hill Productions ( Fault in our Stars, Twilight) optioned the book last year and it’s currently in series development at FX Network in the US. Fingers crossed we get that beautiful green light happening!
More about The Accusation:
Somebody is lying.
After eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, her bizarre story of kidnap and escape enthrals the nation. Who would do such a thing? And why?
Local drama teacher Suzannah Wells, once a minor celebrity, is new to town. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, accused of being the monster who drugged and bound a teenager in her basement. As stories about her past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt her innocence.
And Ellie? The media can’t get enough of her. She’s a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?
A powerful exploration of the fragility of trust and the loss of innocence, from the author of The Golden Child and The Mistake.
More about Wendy:
Wendy James is the celebrated author of eight novels, including the bestselling The Mistake and the compelling The Golden Child, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Ned Kelly Award for crime. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. Wendy has a PhD from the University of New England and works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University. She lives in Newcastle with her husband and the youngest of her four children, and writes some of the sharpest and most topical domestic noir novels in the country.
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!
Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Sandra van Doorn. I met Sandra and her husband Edward at last year’s Independent Publishing Conference in Melbourne and we had a great time chatting about books, publishing, creative work, and France!
Sandra is a French illustrator who has had books published in several different countries, including the award-winning Sleep Well, Siba and Saba (written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl). Born and brought up in France, then globetrotting to the UK, USA, Russia, Europe she’s now living with her husband Edward in sunny Perth, Australia.
But now Sandra is embarking on a brand-new adventure. She is the founder and publisher of Red Paper Kite, which will exclusively publish picture books, and is launching its first title (Hugo) in May 2019.
Sandra, can you tell us about how you came to establish Red Paper Kite?
The idea of creating a small press for picture books simply came from a need for more creative space and professional growth; publishing picture books felt like a natural evolution from being an illustrator.
As someone who has also done the ‘double act’ of creator and publisher, I know it’s a steep learning curve, setting up a publishing house. How’s the journey been so far for you?
You are right it is a very steep learning curve!
And it can be overwhelming at times.
As a tiny press, I juggle many facets of the business on my own. Finding the right information is not always easy, you find yourself constantly asking “Am I making the right decision?”
But you do knock on a few doors, and meet amazing people along the way, people who are genuinely interested in making your journey easier. People like you Sophie!
I feel grateful for the support I have received from within the industry – particularly my publisher in the UK (Lantana Publishing), who has been very generous in sharing their journey as a small publisher.
But in truth part of the adventure is figuring things out.
What can you tell us about RPK’s Books?
When I was a child, I used to scribble in all my books. It got me into a lot of trouble, but I firmly argued it was meant to be that way. I wanted that idea to translate into our books by creating books that give permission to our readers to scribble and add to the narrative. So, all our books include colouring pages.
Our readers become the illustrators and authors for a moment, they are part of the story. They can stay with our books a little longer, get to know our characters a little better … It’s a fun experience.
Visual narratives can be understood across the world, but of course different cultures have different approaches to illustration and picture books. What are the differences (and commonalities) that you see between, say, French and Australian picture book traditions and trends? (Please do mention any other picture book cultures you might like to as well!)
In France picture books are more than a childhood phase – there is a love for visual art rooted in our culture that goes beyond age, and so we are huge consumers of picture books – even in our adult life whether you have children or not.
Our cultural heritage definitely influences our approach to illustration; our illustrations can be more poetic, sentimental and censorship is a little broader in France.
But rather than comparing, we can choose to embrace and mix all those differences, aiming at creating a richer reading experience. Because really, who wants to read the same type of books over and over?
What are you looking for, in terms of both texts and illustrations, for Red Paper Kite?
There is no perfect profile, but we are curious about authors and illustrators who don’t feel too mainstream. A little fun, a good dose of quirkiness. Stories that reflect the world we live in.
Stories that will appeal to grown-ups too. A story within a story.
I guess we love stories and people with that little “Je ne sais quoi”.
You will be launching the first Red Paper Kite book in May can you tell us a little about it?
HUGO – The boy with the curious mark, (written by Yohann Devezy and illustrated by Manuela Adreani) is coming out in May.
It’s a sweet story about a boy born with a curious mark, a rainbow.
Hugo’s Rainbow broaches a theme that gets revisited over and over, but with a contemporary edge to it.
His story will teach the importance of acceptance no matter what your difference.
You will love HUGO. Because really, who doesn’t like a rainbow?
How has starting a publishing house impacted on your career as an illustrator? (Or how do you see it impacting it?)
Well … I miss my drawing table!
Hopefully I will get an opportunity to draw again. I still hope to illustrate a few classics, such as Alice in Wonderland or Le Petit Prince.
Can you tell us something about your work as an illustrator, and the books you worked on? How did you start as a professional illustrator?
My career as an illustrator started when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.
I decided to attend art classes at Emily Carr’s University, and Paper Hearts – my first picture book project – was picked up for publishing. It was the beginning of an amazing (and sometimes wonderfully hard!) journey.
After that, I was lucky enough to meet Alice Curry (Lantana Publishing) via the Bologna Children’s book fair which led me to illustrate books about Uganda. It was a wonderful experience, pushing boundaries professionally and culturally – sitting at my desk, I was travelling and discovering a part of the world I didn’t know much about.
What illustrators have influenced you–from childhood to now?
My all-time favourite is Lisbeth Zwerger– her work is pure poetry and her talent is beyond words.
Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Leah Kaminsky. Leah is an award-winning Australian writer whose published work includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, has just come out with Penguin Random House Australia. Set just before World War Two, The Hollow Bones tells an extraordinary, gripping story of obsession and ambition, recreating a bizarre SS-sponsored expedition made by German scientists to Tibet, aimed at proving the Himalayan origins of the ‘Aryan race’. With its beautiful evocations of nature and complexity of characterisation juxtaposed with chilling depictions of Nazi racism and lunatic ideas in action, this is a potent novel which explores many disturbing themes, with a light yet deep touch.
First of all, Leah, congratulations on the publication of The Hollow Bones! It’s an amazing and memorable novel and must have taken a great deal of work. Can you tell us something about its genesis, and how you went about researching the background of the novel?
Thanks for those kind words, Sophie. It really has been an interesting journey researching and writing THE HOLLOW BONES over the last 3-4 years. I first came across the material that sparked the idea behind the book while researching my last novel, THE WAITING ROOM, in which I touched on the critical role physicians played in the Third Reich during WWII. As a doctor myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of science, so I was gobsmacked when I stumbled across World Ice Theory, or Welteislehre, a pseudoscientific idea postulated by a steam train engineer, Hanns Hörbinger, that became the platform of the Reich in the 1930s, embraced by the German populace as well as high ranking politicians such as Himmler and Hitler. The Nazis banned the teaching of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the basis that it was considered ‘Jewish science’. The ice crystal became known as the building block of the universe, based on a bogus belief that the sun was the only star in the sky. Hörbinger postulated that an icy moon crashed to earth thousands of years ago, destroying the civilisation of Atlantis, which lay buried under the Himalayas. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of a German expedition to Tibet of a group of SS scientists, sponsored by Himmler himself, sought to uncover the true origins of the Nordic Aryan race amongst the Tibetan peoples. This little-known story of their leader, 26- year-old zoologist Ernst Schäfer, drew me in as I tried to imagine what sort of man would go to such lengths in the pursuit of academic success and admiration of his peers.
Main character Ernst Schäfer is a complex person—a lover of nature and a ruthless hunter, a man who can show a kind of tenderness towards people like his wife’s disabled sister Margarete, yet whose cold ambition leads him to appalling acts; a man of science who dissents privately about the ridiculous ‘scientific’ theories of the Nazis yet who is quite prepared to serve the regime for his own benefit. Tells us something about how you created his character.
I wanted to look at the complexity of someone growing up in pre-War Germany, and the inherent moral choices confronting individuals as they witnessed the dramatic changes taking place around them. Ernst Schäfer, a forgotten character in history, spent most afternoons of his childhood exploring the forest of Thuringia which lay on the edge of his tiny village. Early on, he became a keen collector and hunter, filling his room with a menagerie of creatures. I was interested to see how this childhood innocence and passion for nature could go so terribly wrong. I read widely, looking at the history of the Third Reich and the SS through personal stories. I painstakingly translated Schäfer’s books, field diaries and letters from the original German, my research taking me to dark places I have always been fearful of exploring. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I went way past my comfort zone in an attempt to examine what leads a man to tread the treacherous terrain of moral compromise. I trawled the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, finding photos, documents and even detailed equipment lists and invoices for Schafer’s earlier expeditions to Tibet.
‘Science is pure and elegant in itself, not a pony to be ridden around a circus ring,’ Ernst tells a scoffing Bruno, a fellow researcher and member of the expedition, at one point. Yet despite this lofty private attitude, Ernst publicly kowtows to Nazi pseudoscience to further his own obsessions and ambitions. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the line between science and politics is blurred too far. Can you expand on that?
Yes. I think that’s what struck me so much about these little-known events. Even though it all happened in pre-war Germany and Tibet, it is so relevant today. The story of the corruption that occurs when science and politics become bedfellows is still palpable today, with contemporary debates raging around climate change and sustainability, as well as animal rights.
The juxtaposition between Nazi Germany and traditional Tibet is very striking: how did you go about evoking those very different settings and atmosphere?
I initially applied for funding that might enable me to travel to Berlin and Tibet to help with research. When the funding didn’t come through I thought I might need to drop the project. Then I remembered the words of my dear, late friend, the painter Yosl Bergner, who told me he could never visit the places he painted as it would ruin his imagined vision of them. I realised then that the places I was writing about no longer existed – their histories couldn’t be suspended in time. So, I set about visiting Tibet and Germany of the 1930s through books, photos and old film recordings, in a kind of virtual tour of the imagination. This brought my settings to life for me. In a strange way, I think literature lets you visit places that no longer exist. I think visiting modern-day Tibet and Germany may have spoilt my initial vision.
The passages featuring the enigmatic and touching figure of Panda, taken from Wild to be in the Glass country, lend a touch of whimsical fantasy which nevertheless has a serious purpose. Can you tell us something about that?
I visited the library at Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia while I was on my US book tour for The Waiting Room. While I was there, I walked around the dioramas and was shown through the archives and storage in the basement. I came across a four-month-old taxidermied panda that Ernst Schäfer had shot on one of his earlier joint American-German expeditions to Tibet. I felt so sad learning about the background to how this panda ended up at the museum. Several months later, I was at Varuna, the Writer’s House, on a fellowship I was awarded by the wonderful magazine Griffith Review. The tiny voice of Panda insisted on being heard. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking it was a bit strange to have a stuffed animal’s POV I the book, but it took over and became the beating heart of the novel.
Most of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures—not only Ernst, his team, and his wife Herta, but also major Nazi leaders of the most monstrous kind. What kinds of challenges did you find in recreating encounters such as those Ernst has with Himmler and Göring?
The biggest challenge really was to find the voice of Schäfer’s first wife, Herta. I found so much information about all the other real-life characters, which enabled me to inhabit them relatively easily. I was very aware of not wanting to make them caricatures – they needed to mirror my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. Herta was the only one who seemed to have disappeared entirely from history. This was in reality a gift, because it allowed me to imagine who she might have been – a woman with a moral conscience living inside an ideological nightmare, watching the man she loved make choices she disagreed with. She and Panda are the only true fictional characters in the book, and also play the role of moral commentators, checking the emotional temperature of those around them.
Many prominent Nazis, especially but not only Himmler, were greatly influenced by fringe and occult elements: by esoteric mish-mash philosophers, quack anthropologists, amateur mythologists, self-proclaimed psychics and mystics and so on, as well as pseudo-scientists. How did you research this aspect of the regime, and how do you think this occult attraction fed into their racist, supremacist ideology?
Reading about the wackiness of all these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs, held by leaders such as Himmler and Hitler, sometimes had me laughing out loud. Until, that is, I began to understand the powerful impact these ideas had on the Reich’s platform which upheld expansionism, racist ideology, genocide, as well as forced sterilisation and involuntary euthanasia of those with mental health issues and disabilities. The Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral heritage organisation, established in 1935 under the auspices of Himmler as an offshoot of the SS, was dedicated to proving that Germans were direct descendants of the Nordic Aryan race, which fed directly into Nazi ideology and its gruesome results. The existence of a school that trained dogs to ‘talk’ and tap out the alphabet, so they could participate in espionage for the gestapo, sounds like something straight out of a comedy, but Hitler took all this very seriously. The slippery slope of #fakefacts into popular belief is especially evident today.
The Nazis became, at least in the West, an image of pure evil, an aberrant and alien phenomenon. That image could distract from the reality of what happened—and make people complacent. And sometimes was evoked inappropriately, lessening the impact of that reality. Today, as the generations to actually go through that period die and revisionists attempt to re-interpretations, how do you think society can guard against the threat of forgetfulness? Can we really learn from the past?
I don’t believe in the concept of pure good and pure evil. The most dangerous state to my mind is complacency and indifference. I think we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. It frightens me that recent surveys show that 5% of people in the UK are outright Holocaust deniers. In the US, 65% of millennials and 41% of the general population have never heard of Auschwitz. I think education is the key to understanding our differences and engendering tolerance and compassion. And of course, as a writer, I believe in the power of literature to change people’s lives. The Nazis understood the power of the written word, so much so that they burnt books that didn’t fit their twisted world view.
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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!