The Blue Cat: an interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Today I am delighted to be interviewing dear friend and fellow writer Ursula Dubosarsky as she celebrates the release this week of her latest novel for children, The Blue Cat (Allen and Unwin) Set in 1942, it’s a beautiful, haunting novel whose limpid prose takes us into the mind and heart of an imaginative and observant child, Columba, as she experiences the disruptions of wartime Sydney with her bossy friend Hilda and forms a touching and tentative bond with a disorientated, motherless young refugee, Ellery. Perfectly-pitched, with a vivid portrayal of Columba’s small world, touches of humour and a subtle evocation of the horrors that Ellery and his father have fled from in ‘You-rope’, The Blue Cat is also a mysterious, even mystical work whose heart-wrenching, enigmatic ending stays in your mind long after you close the book. It is another triumph for one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors of children’s fiction, and will no doubt appear on many award lists.

First of all, Ursula, congratulations on the publication of The Blue Cat! Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story came to you?

Thanks Sophie. Always nerve-wracking when a book comes out!  Like any story the ideas come at you from all sides until finally, mysteriously, you start to write it. When I was a child I was fascinated as all children are by the various tale their parents let slip about their own childhood. My parents both grew up in Sydney during World War Two, which is the time and setting of ‘The Blue Cat’. My mother told us once (and I think she only mentioned it once, or perhaps twice) about the arrival of a German-Jewish refugee in her class one day at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta. Perhaps that’s when it started…

The image of the blue cat is woven throughout the book. Uncanny yet real, creature of dream and creature of fur, it appears and disappears at various times, and seemed to me to bring a feeling both of protection and dread. Is that what you intended? Or did you have something else in mind?

The cat sprang in my mind on a very long flight home to Sydney from Berlin – in the form of the poem that is at the beginning of the book.  I have to say I’ve always been afraid of this cat. Right from the start I thought that there was something sinister, even evil about him,   but I realized when I re-read the book that in fact he’s more ambiguous than that. Sometimes he’s even almost a comforting presence, as you say. So perhaps he’s both. I know that people can be shocked at this apparent indecision of an author about her own work! But I’m afraid all of my books are like that – open windows, (oops! out jumps the cat) perhaps, rather than closed doors.

Columba’s voice is both sharp and dreamy. She sees a lot but doesn’t always understand what she sees. She is very much a child and yet at a certain level in her consciousness she perceives what Ellery and his father have gone through in a more empathetic and certainly more extraordinary way than the adults. How did you balance these different aspects of her character to create such a believable yet unusual presence?

When I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve noticed that if there is one thing I seem quite UNABLE to articulate, that is how to create character. For me this is the most intuitive part of writing – or at least the most hidden and buried from myself. I always feel as if the characters simply exist somewhere else and I’m just putting them on stage. You’re quite right about Columba, who sees and doesn’t understand, but she feels and yet knows something despite that. “The Cloud of Unknowing” one might say – that by surrendering oneself to not knowing you might perhaps get a glimpse of some truth.

You have included authentic documents from 1942 in the book, such as ads, government pamphlets, a letter from the Free French in The School Magazine and an editorial in the Schoolboys Chronicle which I believe was written by your father as a young person! What do you think primary, contemporary documents add to the texture of a historical novel? And can you also briefly comment on some of the other extra material you’ve included, such as pictures?

The book in a way is a kind of collage. I note the definition of collage in Wikipedia:‘A collage may sometimes include magazine and newspaper clippingsribbonspaint, bits of colored or handmade papers, portions of other artwork or texts, photographs and other found objects, glued to a piece of paper or canvas.’ In ‘The Blue Cat’ there is the story of course, written by me, but then there are all those bits and pieces of the past, pasted in between the lines.  I adored making collages as a child at school – that feeling of excitement with the blank page, the glue and all the little bits and pieces of things to be stuck on where and how you chose.

Again, as a student in history classes I always responded very strongly to “primary sources”, those original documents, often ephemeral, that speak directly to us from the period in which they were created. I wanted readers also to have that experience, of reading and seeing the same things that the characters would have read and seen. The editorial by my dad you refer to was from a newspaper that he created and edited at Neutral Bay Public School during the war – as soon as I read it (only a few years ago when it turned up amongst various of his papers) I knew I HAD to include it. I went into the Department of Education office of the School Magazine to read through all the issues of the period of the book. (Thanks School Magazine!) The photograph of Ellery’s watch – I actually bought a vintage watch of the period on the internet, to make sure it was the real thing. I also managed to get a copy of the original air raid advice pamphlet on ebay – as well as the little prayer card of Columba. The copy of Vergil’s Aeneid with those wonderful ghostly annotations in pencil I bought years ago at the Salvation Army in Tempe…

The Blue Cat never specifically mentions the Holocaust, yet it is inevitably in the subtext. How difficult was it to approach the writing of the story in a way that neither overtly flags the horror of what was happening, nor elides it?

When I was a child in the 1960s I knew nothing about the Holocaust, but we all knew that the word Hitler was terrifying. That was something we understood from popular culture – adults are not going to tell children the details of the Holocaust. After all it’s a natural and I think good instinct to protect children from the various horrors of human behavior. The Holocaust is something you learn about, piece by piece, as you grow up. The adults in Columba’s life are not going to tell her what they know, what they guess, about Ellery’s situation. But they are not going to tell her lies either. I suppose in this book I have had to tread that same narrow path.

There is a touch of fairy tale, in its most mysterious yet immediate aspect, in much of The Blue Cat, but especially in the final sections. Can you tell us something about that?

For me not it’s not so much a fairytale as a mythical landscape, some very blessed place.  When I began writing I had in mind this medieval poem by Petronius Arbiter, translated by Helen Waddell. It always summons up Sydney to me, and how the experience of its beauty is a gift that can never be take away from you.

 O SHORE more dear to me than life! O sea!

Most happy I that unto my own lands

Have leave to come at last. So fair a day!

Here it was long ago I used to swim

Startling the Naiads with alternate stroke.

Here is the pool, and here the seaweed sways.

Here is the harbour for a stilled desire.

Yea, I have lived: never shall Fate unkind

Take what was given in that earlier hour.

The Blue Cat is one of a trio of your recent novels, The Golden Day and The Red Shoe being the other two, which are set at very particular points in Australian history, and are focussed around children’s limited yet luminous understanding of the events going on around them. Can you expand a little on that, and what attracted you to writing about those historical periods in particular? And also, and forgive me if this is a silly question—given the ‘colour’ theme of the titles, did you intend them to be a triptych somewhat like the ‘Three Colours’ series of films by the French-Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski?

I started with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954, and this was purely the result of hearing a program on the radio. I’d had no thought of writing a novel set in the 1950s, but the idea appeared and I got to work. You are right to evoke ‘Three Colours’ – that was something I did have in mind – a dreamy thought of three novels, set in Sydney harbour,  each one a different colour and set in a different decade. In the course of history a decade is nothing! But for a child a decade is their whole lifetime.

Finally, you wrote part of this novel while in Paris, during an Australia Council-funded writer’s residency in the Keesing Studio—a wonderful experience for you I know as it was for me when I was there in 2010! Aside from mention of the fall of France, and the notorious photograph of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is reproduced in the book, there is no obvious connection to Paris. But do you feel something of what you experienced in Paris got into the texture of your story?

Before I went to Paris I had imagined that Paris itself would be a more significant part of the book. It didn’t work out that way though, and I have no explanation for that. It just didn’t happen. But the flat we were living in was right next door to the Paris Holocaust Museum, which I visited often and I think perhaps that will be another book altogether.

 

You can see a trailer for The Blue Cat here and some very interesting snippets, including videos, about the historical background of the book on Ursula’s website, here. You can also read an interview I did with Ursula about her Paris residency on my blog, here.

The Golden Child: an interview with Wendy James

It’s my very great pleasure today to bring you a fascinating interview with my dear friend and award-winning Australian writer Wendy James who talks about her new book, The Golden Child, an utterly gripping novel which poses the disturbing question: how well do we ever really know our children? Elegantly written, with richly-textured backgrounds and subtly-depicted characters, this is a memorable novel that will have readers talking about it long after they’ve turned the very last page.

 

wendy-jamesFirst of all, Wendy, congratulations on the release of The Golden Child! It’s an extraordinarily gripping novel which is also thought-provoking–and not a little chilling!– in its examination of the challenges of contemporary family life. Can you tell us about how it started, and did anything in particular inspire it?

Thanks, Sophie! It’s fabulous to have it out in the world at last!

The nature versus nurture question is one that I’ve always found fascinating.  And that’s where I started with The Golden Child. I wanted to very deliberately create a narrative that ran counter to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. In Shriver’s novel, there was more than a hint that Kevin’s problems began with his mother’s ambivalence. I wanted a mother who, unlike Eva, wasn’t terribly conflicted about motherhood, who found it easy to nurture her children, who wasn’t disappointed in them, or frustrated by her lot.  And I wanted to think about what it might be like to discover that despite this, regardless of the effort, the environment, the endless love given — it can all go horribly wrong. What it might be like to discover that you don’t really know your child at all.

The story is told through several points of view, and not only as straight narrative, but also through blogs and websites and other online media. How did you juggle these very different forms in your writing?

I actually find it quite difficult these days to write a straight narrative from one perspective. There always seems to be another story, in the wings, waiting to be told., Another character, who sees things slightly differently. I guess that’s what interests me most about storytelling. It’s like acting, in that we get to become someone other than ourselves. As for the online narratives, I think online personas are so prevalent now, that it’s quite hard to write anything contemporary that doesn’t include some sort of online component. It’s becoming more and more pervasive in our lives, a big part of how we connect with others, and how we see ourselves. And I think for adolescents — as in my story — it’s now part of working out who they are, an essential element in their ‘becoming’.

Both Beth’s breezy blog and the sinister Golden Child site are masks, or to put it in another way, avatars of the real person behind each. One misrepresentation is innocent; the other is not. Do you think the virtual world encourages deception, and if so, why?

I think it’s more that it allows it rather than encourages it. Although sadly, the anonymity does tend to bring out the worst in some people — the bullies and sadists among us. Along with the whiners and those who suffer from opinion overload. It’s been such a sudden change, a revolution, and I think as in all revolutions, it’s full of frightening unknowns.  I guess it’s like being dumped ion an island with a bunch of strangers, having no rules or regulations, or notions of correct behaviour, and no laws.  It’s a free-for-all at the moment, for sure, but I like to imagine that we’ll calm down, and sort out some boundaries eventually. All the possibilities are exciting— but there’s frightening, damaging aspects, too.golden-child

In The Golden Child you get, as you say, one character whose online life is a fairly benign confection:  Beth uses what’s available to make a good story. It’s something I’ve done myself, and I suspect that most writers do something similar to some extent — we all have to spin that straw of ordinary life into the gold of narrative. The other blogger, the Golden Child, is the true self unmasked — and rather malign self at that!

Social media shaming and cyber bullying are recognised society-wide phenomena and also constitute an added hazard for parents and children, putting final paid, in my opinion, to the never-very-trustworthy proverb, ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.’  In your novel, the two mothers–Beth, the mother of the bully, and Andi, the mother of the victim–have to face the devastating consequences of the cruelties of online mob behaviour. Is there any way, do you think, that they–or indeed real parents–could have acted to prevent or at least minimise the damage?

I guess there are ways in which we can police our children’s use of the net far more strictly — there are parental controls available, and ways to stop them accessing certain information — but it becomes so complicated when kids need access for homework. It can be hard to extricate the necessary from the social. I think both Beth and Andi are caught unawares – Andi a little distracted by new motherhood, assuming that all’s okay with her eldest child, enjoying the slight loosening of the apron strings.  And then Beth, who doesn’t like that drift so much, but hasn’t any clue that all is not as it appears on the surface. She’s also so busy, juggling work, marriage, a move, renovations, mothers, children, her blog, everything. I think sometimes we forget that mothers ( and fathers) are also people themselves, who are still trying to sort their own shit out, as well as everyone else’s. And it has to be said that even though things are slowly changing, a greater portion of the emotional and logistical work of parenthood falls largely to the mothers, still. I’ve seen some reviews of the book critical of Beth and Andi, seeing them as being somehow negligent, but no one ever asks what the fathers were doing. And actually, nor do Andi or Beth; the blame is directed inward, as it so often is.

Your novel deftly portrays the different worlds that the adults (not just the parents, but also grandparents) and kids live in. They misunderstand each other often. Or do they? Are they really that different?

I do think there’s some interesting generational stuff going on, but isn’t that just inevitable, the way it always is?  I think these are as superficial as they’ve always been, and the real divisions are still more to do with personality and personal values than generations. For instance, not all teenagers think like Charlotte — that bullying is just how it is, and that we should all just get used to it. And yes, both the grandmothers dislike what they view as helicopter parenting, but for very different reasons:  one is worried about the moral ramifications of over-parenting and privilege; the other grandmother is scathing about what she sees as a type of emotional ‘mollycoddling’ — of allowing your children to be too sensitive.

Your depiction of the kids at the centre of the novel–Charlotte, Lucy, Sophie–is as satisfyingly authentic as that of the adult characters. Do you think there are differences when it comes to creating young as opposed to adult characters, and how do you keep it real?

You know, I actually never really think too hard about that! I was a kid once – and I have a pretty good memory of it. Or of how it felt, if not the details. And then, of course, I’ve been fortunate to be able to observe my own kids growing up. That of-the-moment authenticity is always tricky; it changes — and dates —  so quickly!  I did get my younger kids to check the language, and my daughter added a few choice phrases, and told me when things didn’t work. And in case anyone wants to argue the point, my kids and their friends do actually say lol aloud when something’s funny. That’s language change in action, folks.  LOL.

The mounting suspense in your novel, and the final plot twist, gives it very much the feel of a psychological thriller. Yet there is no straight-out ‘crime’ as such. How did you go about creating that sense of creeping menace whilst also keeping the novel anchored within ‘ordinary’ life?

I actually think that happened without any conscious help from me. Bad kids creep us out; it’s so wrong. And when you juxtapose this with the very ordinary domestic world, which is of course where some of the most horrible things happen, that sense of dread is ramped up exponentially. You know you’re meant to feel dread in a dark alley of a grimy city, surrounded by sinister strangers, but it’s a shock to find that life with nice middle class kids in sunny beachside middle-class suburbia can be as scary as hell too.

The Golden Child could be seen as part of the contemporary genre of so-called ‘domestic suspense’ to which novels such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin might also be said to belong. Are you comfortable with such a description? And why do you think it’s become such a successful genre?

I am completely, in fact, regally happy — probably because I have actually been called Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense (thank you Angela Savage!). I think we get so much pleasure from this particular genre because these situations feel so possible; they could all happen to you.  When the betrayal comes from within, from someone you love and trust, it can be horrifying. And it can be impossible to know how to protect yourself. There’s literally nowhere to run, no way to hide.

 

Wendy James is the mother of two sets of siblings born eight years apart, in the digital and pre-digital ages. She is the author of seven novels, including the bestselling The Mistake. 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. She works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

 

 

Anzac Stories: Behind the Pages Exhibition and my part in it

1914-coverI’m honoured to be part of the Anzac Stories: Behind the Pages exhibitions which will run throughout Australia in 2017 and 2018, and will showcase Australian and New Zealand contemporary children’s books set in wartime, and the stories behind the creation of those books. The exhibition is the brainchild of the fantastic New Zealand author Maria Gill, who initiated a similar exhibition in New Zealand earlier. Boards featuring individual books and writers will be exhibited in libraries across Australia. My two World War One novels, 1914 (Scholastic, 2014) and My Father’s War (Scholastic 2011) and the stories and research behind them, will be part of the exhibition. There’s also an Anzac Stories blog, with info about each book and a short interview with their writers. Here’s a little extract from minemy-father-s-war

Doing the research on the ground, in northern France especially, made it all become so real and so emotionally affecting. Both books blend my two main cultural influences: French and Australian, and that also felt like a very positive thing, especially as the ties between France and Australia forged during that terrible time are still very strong, particularly in the Somme region of northern France, where they have a saying, N’oublions jamais l’Australie : ‘Let us never forget Australia’

You can read the whole thing here.

 

Interview with Kenn Nesbitt, poet and compiler of One Minute till Bedtime

kennwithbooksIn 2014 I and many other writers received a lovely and unexpected invitation from prominent American children’s poet Kenn Nesbitt, asking if we would be interested in submitting poems for an anthology he was compiling, One Minute Till Bedtime, which would also include such contributors as Jack Prelutsky, Jon Scieszka, Jane Yolen, and Lemony Snicket. Talk about great company! And I was so thrilled when Kenn accepted my poem, Seagull Beach Party.

Two years later, and this week sees the publication of One Minute Till Bedtime. Containing the work of many poets from the US, UK, Australia and Canada, selected by Kenn, and beautifully illustrated by Christoph Niemann, the book is published by Little, Brown and is available around the world, including Australia. To celebrate its publication, I spoke to Kenn about the project, his own career, and children’s poetry in general.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of One Minute till Bedtime, Kenn! It’s lovely to see it out there. How did you come up with the idea for this unique poetry anthology?

Many years ago, the poet Bruce Lansky pointed out to me that most children’s poems can be read in an average of about one minute. Since then, I have tried to encourage teachers to take one minute of their school day to share a poem with their students.

When I was named Children’s Poet Laureate, I decided to create a website called PoetryMinute.org to give teachers a resource where they could easily find one-minute poems to share with their students for every day of the school year.

While I was in the process of creating this site, I was approached by Susan Rich at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers about creating a book around this idea of one-minute poems. She and I decided that bedtime might be the perfect time for a book of short poems, and One Minute till Bedtime was born.one-minute-till-bedtime

The contributing poets come from around the world. How did you go about sourcing poems for the anthology? 

Over the years that I have been writing children’s poems, I have developed relationships with many poets throughout the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. I called on many of these authors, and reached out to lots of other poets whose work I admire. Thank goodness for email and the Internet. A project like this would have been much more difficult 20 years ago!

With its wonderful poems, lively illustrations by Christoph Niemann, and attractive design, One Minute till Bedtime is a most appealing book for children and their parents. And obviously there’s a lot of work behind it. Can you tell us a bit about the process of putting together such a big project with the publisher, Little, Brown?

To begin, I wanted to create a collection that focused on the work of living, working children’s poets, rather than reprinting classic and public domain works. So I sent out a call for submissions to over 200 poets from around the world, looking for brand new poems that had never before appeared in print. I received submissions from roughly 170 different authors. I read them all, highlighting the ones that I thought might work. Once I knew which poems I wanted to include, I printed them all out and spread the papers around my dining room table, looking for natural pairings between poems and organizing them into sections.

Along the way, I tracked everything with spreadsheets, including submissions, selections, the order of the poems, and so on. While I was doing this, Little, Brown was on the hunt for just the right illustrator. Christoph Neimann was a truly inspired choice. His simple, yet incredibly clever illustrations compliment the poems perfectly.

Once the manuscript was completed, Little, Brown began working with Christoph on the illustrations and with me on the process of proofreading, editing, typesetting, and troubleshooting.

In the end, it all came together beautifully. I couldn’t be more proud of this book.

You are a popular and much-published poet. Can you tell us something about your own career, and how you started? What do you think has changed, if anything, over the time you’ve been published, in terms of attitudes to poetry for children?

I began writing poems as a hobby for my own amusement. I wrote for several years before I ever considered trying to get published. I also created a website, poetry4kids.com, in 1997 to share my work with readers online. I had my first poems published in 1998 in an anthology called Miles of Smiles. My first book, The Aliens Have Landed at Our School! was published in 2001. Since then, I have written many more books of children’s poetry, as well as a couple of picture books and a chapter book.

It seems that there are more poets writing for children today than ever before. At the same time, there are fewer individual poetry collections being published. Many children’s poets have instead turned their talents to writing picture books, novels in verse, etc. Large hardcover collections, such as those of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, are becoming rare as hens’ teeth. Recent books by Alan Katz and Calef Brown are notable exceptions.

It is my hope that One Minute till Bedtime will not only introduce a new generation of parents and children to the joy of poetry, and showcase the works of today’s best children’s poets, but will also show publishers that poetry is worth pursuing.

You are the US Children’s Poetry Laureate and a tireless advocate for poetry. Why do you think poetry is so important for children? And what more do you think could be done to enhance children’s access to poetry?

I was the Children’s Poet Laureate from 2013-2015. Although I’ve passed that torch to my successor, Jacqueline Woodson, I continue to promote poetry to children, parents, and teachers around the world.

I believe poetry is important for children because it is short, fun, and memorable. (Everyone remembers something by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and probably several other poets of childhood.) This combination makes poetry an easy springboard to reading and writing. Introducing children to poetry can help make them lifelong lovers of the written word.

The best champions for poetry are the earliest ones; parents and teachers. I believe the best way to enhance children’s access to poetry is to encourage parents to read to their kids, and to ask teachers to share poetry in their classrooms. Once they do, they will find that kids can’t get enough.

Interview with Therese Walsh, editor of Author in Progress

12803300_10207051919154843_5638323324479667397_nSome years ago–I think it was back in 2008–I was invited to become a regular contributor to the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed, founded by US writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton two years previously. Their idea was to create a community of writers who would find guidance, support and encouragement in WU, as well as great advice and tips. That’s certainly proven to be the case, and Writer Unboxed is one of the most popular and respected writing blogs in the world today, garnering several awards as well as an ever-increasing list of followers, a very active Facebook and Twitter presence, and the hosting of a unique conference–or Unconference, as it’s titled!

And now comes the next step: a book which gathers together a great deal of individual and collective wisdom and advice from Writer Unboxed contributors and community. Author in Progress: A No-Holds Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published (Writers’ Digest Books), is being released today, November 1 and will be available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, as well as the Writers’ Digest shop. Edited by Therese Walsh, and with an introduction by respected author James Scott Bell, it features over 50 essays from novelists, editors, agents and contributors from the WU community. The book goes well beyond the usual run of how-to-get-published books: from discussing reasons why people want to write right up to post-publication issues, and much more in between. I’m delighted to say by the way that I have an essay in the book, which is called ‘Writer as Phoenix’, and is in the final section of the book.

And today, I’m delighted to celebrate the publication day of Author in Progress by featuring an interview with its initiator: writer and editor extraordinaire, Therese Walsh.

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Welcome to my blog, Therese! How did the idea for Author in Progress come about? What was your vision for the book, and how did that evolve as time went on?

Thanks for having me, Sophie, and for the opportunity to talk about Author in Progress.

The book came about after I met with Phil Sexton at the Writer’s Digest conference last summer (2015). He mentioned the idea of doing a book with them, and that took root with me over a month or so. I had a follow-up phone call with Phil, and he mentioned the freedom we’d have to do the type of book we wanted to do. After that, the idea for Author in Progress fell into place rather quickly, as I considered what I knew to be true about writing a book – because there are some things I always say when someone who is not yet published asks, ‘How did you get published? What did you do?’

The book is broken into parts, following the stages a writer will likely go through on the road to publication: Pre-writing considerations, the writing itself, critique-related topics, educational considerations, rewriting, perseverance, and releasing the project once you’ve served the work.

Author in Progress is a very different kind of how-to writing book, as it doesn’t assume that the journey ends when your book is published. And it offers the advice and experience of many different contributors. How did you go about gathering and editing contributions from so many people?

Assigning essays was much easier than it might have been, in part because Writer Unboxed contributors are exceptional to work with (I’m not at all biased!). I think the other reason it was relatively easy was because of the adaptability of the contributors, in that many could write to several stages of the book. That said, there was a certain magic to the match-ups and I’m particularly pleased with how that went; everyone delivered something about an issue that resonated with them personally.

In terms of gathering and editing, I created a deadline for essayists to turn in their work and that deadline was met almost without exception. I then read over each essay, and suggested revisions when I thought they might make the book stronger. I then did a final edit for clarity—adding headers—and correcting for typos. This is what was then submitted to Writer’s Digest and our in-house editor there, who took everything to the next level in terms of polish and readiness for publication.

Author in Progress is aimed not only at aspiring authors, but also authors who have already been published. What do you think authors at different stages of their careers could get from this book?

One of the things authors will be able to see is that the stages of story creation are cyclical, repeating with every book. Sure, you learn things early on that you apply to each book thereafter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hit each stage in some way. We’ve included some articles under a header called ‘Eye on the Prize,’ which addresses how a topic (e.g. critique) becomes important in a different way when you’re a published author (e.g. accepting notes from an agent, editor, even readers). We also have boxes throughout the book marked as ‘Pro Tips,’ which, again, help to root the reader in the reality of why something is important if you’re to make a career of writing.

All that said, I think the larger reason published novelists might want a copy of Author in Progress is because when we’re in the middle of a project—or at the start of one—we sometimes forget that all of this is normal. The anxiety, the doubt, the block, the research pitfalls, the need to go deep with character (and how to do that), the need to continue to learn and grow (and what steps you might take to push to the next level). I think even published authors need to remember that we’re not alone, and that the angst is part of the process, too.

Is there any particular tip or bit of advice that you would offer an author starting out on the journey–and those a bit further along?

I would tell that author starting out and an author a bit further along something similar. Writing a book is tough at times. Many of us might say, ‘If I knew how long it would take, what it would ask of me, maybe I wouldn’t have finished… But I’m glad that I did.” Perseverance is one of the key ingredients for any author in progress, and so I’d tell both of those writers to keep going, and remind them that they are not on that road alone. Truly, they are not.

The book is closely associated with Writer Unboxed, the writing blog you founded some years ago with Kathleen Bolton, which has become prominent and respected in both the author community and the publishing industry. Can you tell us about the blog, and about the insights into authorship it has given you?

Writer Unboxed  is my writing family, and it’s my hope that we are other writers’ online family as well. We are dedicated to producing content daily about the craft and business of fiction on our website, but it goes beyond that with our Facebook community (5,000+ writers strong in a promo-free zone) and our Twitter feed (@WriterUnboxed). Our ultimate goal is to provide positive and empowering support for writers of any genre.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing simply by being present for the day-to-day business of the site, but I think the most crucial lesson is that it is truly a cyclical process. You envision. You create. You revise. You learn the lessons the book is there to teach you. You serve the work. You release. Repeat. As someone who hasn’t always had an easy road myself, there’s a lot of power for me personally in seeing that this process is what it is. It’s the job of being an author. It’s not always easy. In fact, it can be grueling and draining and crazy making at times. But it is a wonderful and gratifying thing to be able to do this job—build stories, reach readers. Writer Unboxed has helped me persevere to do just that.

Thank you again, Sophie. Write on!

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A unique book project: an interview with romance writer Jan O’Hara

jan-ohara-writers-digestOnce a family doctor who prided herself on providing her patients with birth-to-death healthcare, Canadian writer Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. She writes for the popular blog, Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children.

And today I’m interviewing her about her first novel, Opposite of Frozen, which has just been released and which is part of a unique and most intriguing series, the Thurston Hotel Books.

First of all, Jan, congratulations on the release of your novel, Opposite of Frozen! It’s the second in a unique, multi-author series. Can you tell us about that? How did it come about? And how did it develop?

Thank you for having me, Sophie. I’m honored.

My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (https://www.calgaryrwa.com/) has a reputation for facilitating independent publishing and hybrid careers within its membership. In December of 2015, word went out that our treasurer, Brenda Sinclair, was looking to launch a group project, for which she had a very clear vision. I was interested because Brenda had participated in a similar project before, and had internalized many of the lessons learned during that time. Also, romance is a digital-friendly genre, and I was leaning toward independent publishing.

Accordingly, in a somewhat cloak-and-daggerish moment, the interested parties met secretly in a Calgary restaurant. Brenda loosely outlined the series idea: 12 standalone contemporary romances set in a fictitious town in the Alberta Rockies, revolving around the Thurston Hotel, its employees and long-term residents. Each author would take ownership of one month in the town’s life to tell their story. In addition to writing our own story arc, each book would tell a portion of a long-running series romance.

Brenda had already begun construction of a series bible—which she maintained throughout the entirety of the project. She had thought through the project deadlines, the cover artist, and the series editor. Her level of professionalism was vastly reassuring to this writer!

When all was said and done, 11 authors signed on, and Brenda, herself, agreed to write the first and last installments in the series. coverfinalmedwithgreyoof

Writing as part of such a unique series must have presented its own unique challenges! Tell us about how you constructed your story. And did the writing of your novel differ to other fictions you’ve written?

Though I have been writing a long time, I have never completed a piece of long-form fiction to what I consider publishable standards. As you might imagine, I was nervous about my abilities to do so while adapting my story to the requirements of 10 other writers. So from the first, I looked for a way to keep my story somewhat self-contained within the Thurston world. I wanted to limit the number of moving parts.

That was the impetus for having my characters arrive on a tour bus and depart from Harmony within the month I claimed. Also, for claiming an early month in the year, when I’d have to adapt to the fewest changes possible due to other author’s requirements. (In my case, I volunteered for February.)

Happily, those constraints ended up creating some of the story elements of which I’m most proud. For example, I needed a tour group to populate the bus, and who would most logically have the time for a prolonged multinational tour, but seniors? (I so enjoyed writing my seniors!) What unexpected event could complicate their February trip, but a hypothermic stowaway? What elements about the seniors’ lives could bring my co-protagonists together, and facilitate their healing? Etc.

I must say, it was thrilling and confidence-inducing to see how my brain could come up with story ideas to match the project’s requirements.

Also, I was dealing with time constraints and a gargantuan case of the Impostor Syndrome. Without a commitment to the other writers in the group, I’m not sure I’d have pushed through to completion. I do know OoF would not exist in its present form if not for the project’s boundaries and invitations.

The books are all set in the same town, although around different stories and characters. How did you all plan the background of the books–and will that evolve over time, or will you all keep to the same basic framework?

Between our first and second in-person meeting, each author wrote a story synopsis and shared it with the group, via private Facebook page. We also found avatars for our characters and constructed one-sheets, when applicable, so that other authors could use our characters in cameo appearances without much difficulty.

For more intensive cross-pollination, when using another writer’s characters, we sent relevant passages to one another, to ensure we weren’t violating a character’s personality or mannerisms. The same held true for micro-environments. For example, I borrowed Ellen Jorgy’ creation—a bar known as the Wobbly Dog—for several scenes in my book.

We made a good many decisions together, in-person, like the décor of the hotel, the final design of the cover art, the name of the town. Other decisions were made individually, and then coordinated with the group via Facebook.

For instance, I needed a store that sold computers, so I constructed the Tech and Tock, and invented its proprietors. One of the series continuity editors, Suzanne Stengl, then added it to the map of the town, which she maintained throughout the project.

I should mention that various authors contributed their skillset to make the project work on the whole. Win Day, for instance, used her technical background to construct the Thurston Hotel Books website. Sheila Seabrook helped with formatting issues. Everyone helped with title selection.

Without their direction, Opposite of Frozen would have been called Hypothermia and the Hottie. (A title which still makes me laugh, and would have been great for SEO, but doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel.)

Do authors in the group have input into each other other’s stories? Who edits the novels?

Beyond the planning I’ve mentioned, the group also benefited from the hard work of two continuity editors: Brenda Sinclair, who wore about five hats during this project, and Suzanne Stengl. They both read my book for continuity errors. Twice.

Then we all used the same editor, Ted Williams, for a final appraisal. He used the series bible for guidance and reportedly enjoyed seeing how Harmony came to life within different stories, told by different voices.

Tell us about the publication journey for the series. Will the books be available internationally?

We intend to put out a print version of the series in the near future. At present, the books are available exclusively in ebook via Amazon and the Kindle Lending Library, wherever Amazon exists.

The first installment was released September 29, 2016, and will be followed by another novel on each of the following 11 consecutive Thursdays. (We are using the hashtag #ThurstonThursday on Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to follow along.)

 

 

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More about Opposite of Frozen:

Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recovery from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/janoharabooks/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/

For more on the series itself: http://thurstonhotelbooks.com/

2BR02B: the journey of a dystopian film–an interview with Leon Coward

australian-artist-and-composer-leon-cowardI’ve known the extraordinarily talented young creator Leon Coward since he was a pre-teen reader/reviewer flatteringly enthusiastic about my books. Today, Leon’s love of creating art has  led him to work in many different fields–not only literature, but music, visual arts, and now film-making. Involved first as a concept artist for the short film 2BR02B–To Be or Naught to Be, a dystopian work based on one of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories, Leon went on to take a much greater part in the creation of the film.

The Canadian production, which has already been selected for no less than 15 prestigious short film festivals, has its Australian premiere today, in Sydney. To mark this exciting occasion, I talked with Leon about the creative journey behind the film.

Leon, how did you become involved in the creation of  2BR02B: To be or Naught to Be? 

My background is in graphic design and traditional illustration. The producer Artin John is a childhood friend, and he began co-producing the film and asked for me to create a poster… then concept art… then the mural and other artwork. I had no idea how involved I would later become.

The film is based on a Kurt Vonnegut short story which imagines a dystopian world in which babies are only allowed to be born if another life is terminated. What were the particular challenges involved in adapting the story for film?

The tone was a challenge. It’s easy to show too little or be too graphic, be too nonchalant or be too sombre. You can try to be as true to Vonnegut’s material as possible, but at the end of the day also you’re working with the material that you as a team have generated, not just Vonnegut’s, and that’s what you’ve got to make work. There were a few things from the original story that confused our test audiences – in one instance it was putting jazz at the end of the film, and Vonnegut gets away with it because as a reader you don’t hear it, but we realised it just sounded like cinema lounge music and it spoiled the audience’s mulling over of events.

2br02b_federal-bureau-of-termination-poster2BR02B has an ensemble cast, so an editing challenge was working out the balance between them. We’d all thought the film would centre on Wehling and his internal conflict, because his dilemma motivates his actions which affect the other characters – the problem was that while we knew what he was thinking and what he’s gearing himself up to do, the audience didn’t. The first edit was melodramatic simply because the audience was asked to feel for a character they didn’t know. So I shook things up and this was hard because I took an edit to the team and, although the story itself hadn’t changed, what was emphasized had changed. For a long time we were also going for an emotional ending, but after test screenings it was clear the audience were frustrated. My grandmother suggested a twist, and I incorporated it and showed the team without warning them – that way they got to experience it as the audience would.

My own big challenges were creating the fictitious ‘Federal Bureau of Termination’ set in Chicago and the Painter’s 16-ft mural. The FBT is represented by Leora, a gas chamber hostess – but other than her and a brief shot of a gas chamber, the FBT doesn’t appear. So to convey the fact that this organization dominated the society, we gave them a brand identity that pervaded everything – corporate signage, posters, banners, badges, tags, earpieces and costume motifs. Vonnegut described a symbolic design for their logo (an ‘eagle perched on a turnstile’), but I approached it as a new branding commission and researched federal seals and local symbols for Chicago. There are a lot of references – the stars and stripes on the US and Chicago flags, the Chicago municipal device (which is a Y for their shaped river), even the wings of their state insect the Monarch butterfly. But there are also a lot of differences to real seals which make it very impersonal, very geometric, skeletal & circuit-like, and no natural symbols.

The mural took 6 months to design and finish. It was digitally painted in Sydney, then printed in Canada. All the characters discuss its symbolism and pose for it – if the mural didn’t come across as a genuine work of art, it’d devalue the acting. Its design was driven by story needs and Vonnegut’s prose. It shows a false utopian garden where nurses and FBT staff, dressed in white and purple, symbolically turn soil, plant seeds, and control life and death. Purple is traditional for sacrificial robes, and Dr. Hitz, who is the architect of population control, is painted as a ‘Zeus-like’ figure. The mural had to be recognizably propaganda and contemporary, so our director Marco instructed me to look at Russian war posters, Art Deco and Cubism. At the same time, I knew the mural had to have religious overtones. I’d experimented with a mix of Expressionism and William Blake-esque styles – trying to avoid the ‘communist cornfield worker’ interpretations I’ve seen in student versions of the film, or any specific garden-type, but I was going too far in that direction. My new layout was Art Deco-inspired, using diagonals and circles – essentially it’s an ‘X’ drawing your eyes to Hitz, and the FBT logo acts like a sun, framing Hitz’s head like a halo. I blended Cubism, Futurism and Brutalism with religious styles. The concrete flats, which also mimic the FBT logo, overpower the barest of gardens and help narrow the viewer’s focus, and the floating flower made it futuristic. The style of plants and their millefleur treatment came from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry and the religiously-themed The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry. Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ pilgrimage paintings, and especially his Wedding of Psyche, provided the inspiration for the figures, their poses, compositional distribution and costumes (I also referenced medical scrubs). Hitz needed a recognizable inference of himself as a messiah – so Byzantine iconography provided the inspiration for his hands (which are Christ’s) and the haloed foetus, as well as the mural’s forced perspective. For Hitz’s costume there was also a bit of SS uniform and Nehru jacket, dentist and Jedi, and a more contemporary influence from Gehn in Cyan’s Riven, a character who also sees himself as a god. Everywhere you look the message is there, and it was hard to make the mural function as a finished work of art yet still be visibly ‘in-progress’. The aim was to show a society where there is no respect for religious heritage – God is dead, and the FBT is filling the vacancy – and the mural needed to be created that way. It took months of digitally painting and scanning paint textures and brushstrokes, since the mural had to withstand close-ups. Halfway through, Paul Giamatti had scheduling conflicts, and I had to repaint the face for our Hitz replacement, Mackenzie Gray. The mural was printed in strips of paper which overlapped; clear hard-drying gel was applied to give it a texture, and Ferrero-Rocher wrappers (which have a great canvas texture) were used for the gold highlights.2br02b_mural-by-leon-coward-1

The project was an international collaboration over 3 years between crew in Australia, Canada, UK, Mexico and the Netherlands. What were the challenges and advantages involved in such a big undertaking over such distances and different time zones? What did you learn from the experience?

We had cast and crew in Vancouver, myself and other crew in Sydney, an artist in the Netherlands, and a VFX school in Mexico which did effects as part of their professional training. Footage was flown to me in Sydney and I began re-editing with James Tarbotton. Then Martin Cantwell, our brilliant sound designer in London, came onboard. The time differences were okay as calls were early morning or late night, so we’d avoid each others’ work hours – which was important since the film was not a paying project. The separation was a technical disadvantage, since exporting and transferring files adds a lot of time. It’s also important to be able to see, at least once, the person you’re communicating with, in person or Skype, because it makes email writing a lot easier. While there were disadvantages, I think the distance for me and my collaborators in Sydney allowed us to approach the project in a way we mightn’t have otherwise – especially in the editing, where we could respond as a fresh audience without preconceptions, or even knowing what the actors were like out of character.

You worked on many different aspects of the film, as art director, composer, film editor and associate producer. How did you navigate all these different roles? Was there one aspect you preferred above all?

2br02b_left-to-right_jason-diablo-and-australian-artin-johnIn a sense it hasn’t been hard to navigate between the roles because they were prepared for – I had this idea that the Painter would have a gramophone, and that he was listening to Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. When gun-shooting later ensues, the song could provide a macabre serenade. I stuck the gramophone in my concept art, and waited for the idea to take hold – it was influencing the film’s music to some extent without having to be the composer, but ironically I eventually found myself in the role and this wasn’t intentional! There is a some incidental music, but I pushed to have it that the only music was the ‘live’ gramophone so that the music was simply part of the world, and not an ‘invisible’ emotional narrator as film scores often are. The film and the Ave Maria recording were designed and edited around each other: while films are often edited to an existing temp track of unrelated music, this film was edited to a pre-existing recording of Ave Maria, which was later replaced with a tailor-made recording, post editing and sound design. It enabled us to go for a different interpretation too, which would greater contrast the action. We were fortunate to have my sister Imogen Coward, who is both a skilled soprano and conductor, record the version for us that appears in the finished film. We wanted to avoid any artificial stretching or splicing, so we had the unusual challenge of recording in one take, matching the timing of the temp version. We had 2 frames wriggle room, and the edit didn’t have any room to be changed for different timing. It was tiring, but it was worth it because it has a quality that is lost when music, especially singing, is heavily edited.

The film has so far received 5 nominations and 14 international festival selections, including for its Australian premiere at the Sydney Indie Film Festival on October 19. That’s quite an achievement! What do you think are the special qualities of the film which have made it attractive to festival selectors?

While Vonnegut created the story, it’s also the way the cast and crew have interpreted, realized and communicated the story. Derek Ryan, our screenwriter and co-producer, did a good job of cutting away story material that couldn’t be cinematic – so from the start we were all working with a document that concentrated our focus. 2BR02B really takes a cross-section of behaviours in a society where life and death are pushed to absurdities, but there’s no obvious political or moral position in its telling – just the drama of human action, and I think it allows the viewer in on their own terms. I think one of the things that’s helped is how the film feels when you watch it vs what is leaves you thinking about – cinematically it is very static up to a point, and then there’s this burst of drama and the music making it madness, and then just desolation, and that hits the audience. Vonnegut’s narrative was influenced by his experiences as a P.O.W. in Dresden, and even though his story is fiction, the themes are relevant and resonate because the wars have cast such a long shadow. It’s subtle in our film, but the hospital cross is actually a swastika, and the banners flanking the mural are inspired by Nazi banners –  Wehling’s cry “It’s only death” was used on our banners, so instead of his line being spontaneous, it becomes him quoting propaganda which the audience saw earlier.

2br02b_dystopian-chicago

What’s next for you, in terms of films, after this one?

I’m independently developing my own film project – an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”, and am shifting between generating its music and visual material.

You are also engaged in doing a PhD on aspects of film design. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It essentially provides an analytical process which teases apart a film’s design (if it has one) – whether the story, visuals, acting, music, sound or all their combination. The method is quite straightforward, but its theoretical justification and demonstration is very demanding. The method has had encouraging support from many industry practitioners.

As a multi-talented creator and performer, you are also involved in music, visual arts and literature. Tell us about some of your projects in those fields.

My sister Imogen is director of the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, which was founded by my siblings and a group of our young musician friends who we’ve played music together with since childhood. Our concert profits go towards helping support the Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation. Our orchestra has just celebrated its second anniversary and second regional tour in Australia. It’s been a very exciting time for the group. We love playing Baroque music – Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli – but our concerts also include music from a wide range of eras and styles, from the 1500s to today, and the orchestra has premiered some of my music that was written specially for the members. A lot of my own solo projects are on hold until after the PhD, including fine art prints and two picture books, written and illustrated by me, one which has been endorsed by Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator).

I know that you come from a family where the arts are highly valued, and your siblings are both also working in the arts. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up, and what effect you feel it had on your adult career?

We’ve each ended up musicians – my sister  violin, viola, cello and voice, and she has her PhD in music. My brother has focused on violin, voice and guitar, and he’s also doing his PhD on music and magic performance (he’s been performing illusions for 10 years now). Our parents homeschooled us to university level, and were very keyed in to expanding our interests, skills and activities, but they didn’t try to turn us out as one thing or another and weren’t discouraging. My grandmother recently found some drawings from when I was 5, and I couldn’t draw for nuts. But I meet a lot of parents and kids who restrict activities because there’s no immediate interest or sign of potential. I think the effect it has had for my siblings and me is that we’re not afraid to venture beyond our immediate interests and skills, and that’s allowed us to develop the set of skills we have.

Leon Coward is a published artist and writer, and performed composer and choreographer. He performs on violin, viola, piano and voice with the chamber orchestra Camerata Academica of the Antipodes, and was recently art director, composer, editor and associate producer for the 2016 film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B: To Be or Naught to Be”. He is undertaking a PhD at the University of New England, Australia, and has presented his creative work and research throughout Australasia and internationally, including for the TATE Liverpool UK. Since 2007 Leon has edited and designed the e-zine “The Online Book Group”. In 2009 Leon illustrated “Vietnam Reflections”, by award-winning author Libby Hathorn. In 2011 he was awarded a mentorship by the Australian Society of Authors.