Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!

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Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.

Across the Tasman 3: Kyle Mewburn

kyle-mewburn-375I first met Kyle Mewburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers for children, a few years ago in my capacity back then as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, and Kyle’s as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Well, Kyle is still NZSA President, and very active in advancing the cause of writers and illustrators in NZ, against a not very positive background of change and difficulties in the industry there. And in this very interesting interview, he looks frankly at some of those issues, as well as his own literary work.

Kyle, your recent picture book, illustrated by Sarah Davis, The House on the Hill, recently won the Hell Children’s Choice Awards–love that award name by the way 🙂 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Can you tell us something about the book, and how you and Sarah created it? And how have young readers responded to the book?

The idea for the story had been simmering away in the back of my mind for several years (as they do), though ‘idea’ is possibly too grandiose a term for what was, in effect, simply a refrain – “the house on the hill”. But that’s often how my stories start – with just a phrase that won’t go away. I knew there was going to be a journey of some sort, but had no idea who, or what, was going to make the journey. It wasn’t until I was Writer-in-residence at Otago University in 2011, that the story started coming to life, infused with an unexpected Edgar Allan Poe-ish vibe.

It took three weeks of solid, focussed writing for the story to come together. At the end of each day I’d go home exhausted, but satfisfied, despite having completed one stanza or less. I sent the story off to Scholastic and got a reply within an hour – “We love it.” Excellent, I thought. But over the next few months a sense of trepidation started filtering through, as the publishing team started second-guessing themselves. Was the story perhaps too scary? Fortunately, Diana Murray (publisher at the time) had a chat to the head buyer at a major bookstore chain whose verdict came as somewhat of a relief – “Embrace the darkness.” Having strived to make the story as scary as possible, having confidence in my young readers’ willingness, and enthusiasm, to have their pants scared off in a caring, controlled kind of way, I would have been hugely reluctant to water the scares down.

The next question was, of course, who should illustrate? I seldom get asked this question, but I jumped at the opportunity to put Sarah’s name forward. I’d always admired her work, not only for her undoubted technical ability, but also the fact she’s such an eclectic illustrator. Each work is unique with its own distinct style, and she was, I believed, the kind of illustrator who would push the boundaries and come up with a style to perfectly complement my story. Unfortunately, she was rather busy, so I was faced with a choice – wait 2+ years or choose house-hillsomeone else. I didn’t hesitate. Sarah it was.

One interesting, and unusual, aspect of working with Sarah was the unexpected rigour with which she addressed the text. Ultimately there were several stanzas which required re-writing and another which was dropped simply because it didn’t advance the story sufficiently. I really had no input into the illustrations, so can’t comment on that. Apart from saying they’re brilliant throughout and genius in numerous places, especially with their use of perspective. The art of illustration at its finest.

The response to the story has been phenomenal. Despite several parents, teachers and even reviewers initially worrying about the scariness level, the reality is that kids enjoy a good, safe scare and are happy to embrace the ‘game’. As one 6 year-old pointed out when his mum questioned whether or not he was scared – “No. I knew they weren’t real ghosts because there was a cat. Cats don’t like ghosts.” Winning the kids’ choice award is, I think, the ultimate accolade.

Though you are especially known for your picture books, you have also written chapter books and early readers. What are your favourite types of books to write, and what are the main differences between creating texts for all those different formats?

Picture books are my first passion. Almost a vice. My ideas are almost instinctively for picture books, and they seem to be the genre that most suits my thought processes and my writing voice. They’re also the biggest challenge and I get a lot of pleasure pursuing picture book ideas. (Also a lot of angst and anguish, but that’s another story…) Chapter books and junior fiction require a more measured approach. It’s more about building upon a concept than simply chasing an idea. For me, junior fiction (especially for so-called ‘reluctant readers’ or transitional readers) really has to begin with a strong character, ideally a child character. Once I have my hero sorted (whether that’s the first evolved boy in a Neanderthal tribe, or a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School) I can view their world from their own unique perspective. It’s all about building relationships and interactions. Then, additionally, I add extra details and levels of meaning which encourage and reward re-reading.

dragon-knight

All my writing is child-centric. It’s all about creating stories which reflect their lives, or more specifically, some critical aspect of it. Generally my stories are about making or maintaining friendships. I guess the biggest difference between writing picture books and junior fiction is the former is a distillation process – reducing grand themes to its essence; while the latter is more a process of accretion – adding layers and details to a simple idea.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m experiencing a bit of mid-career-itis, so not quite sure what I’m working on. The house on the hill was the last picture book I sold, so the drought has dragged on a bit. I’m not 100% sure why my picture books don’t seem to be hitting the mark any more. Possibly it’s me. Having never settled on a single style of story, I’ve generally always pursued whatever ideas tickled my fancy. And after writing over 25 picture books I’m reluctant to rework old ground. So I’ve been experimenting with different styles and approaches to writing, just to keep myself amused and challenged. Maybe that’s not what the market wants at the current time.

In the meantime I’m developing a new junior fiction series and tinkering with re-writing some of my early adult novels. A musical friend and I are also playing around with a script for a musical. It’s all good fun, but as the main breadwinner I can’t afford to spend too much time on non-profitable diversions, no matter how inspiring. So we’ll see what happens. 

Born and brought up in Australia but living in New Zealand for a long time now, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent authors of children’s books, and you are also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In both capacities you’ve had a good deal of contact with the Australian literary world as well. How do you see the similarities and differences between literary New Zealand and literary Australia, both in terms of the kinds of books that get published, and also the literary scene–both in the children’s/YA and adult fields?dinosaur-rescue

There are enormous similarities between the two countries’ literary worlds and I’m rather perplexed by the fact there still seems to be a huge wall with respect to the sharing of books and writers. The key differences, I think, stem largely from the smallness of the local literary  community and market. Despite the size of the population (think Melbourne) there are very strong cliques and factions which are more based around protecting funding turf than  anything else. Which means local writers are very reluctant to criticise anyone or anything for fear of offending the wrong person. You could all-too-easily end up on the outer with no chance of funding or reviews. I’m sure every country has the same rivalries and divisions, but here, because of the population, it is much more distilled and rather potent.

The small market also makes it difficult to make a living. Print runs are often only 1500 and you can make the bestseller list by selling 100+ copies in a given week. I’ve been fortunate insofar as many of my stories have had some longevity (several are still being reprinted 10+ years later), and have had numerous titles published into international markets. Sadly New Zealand publishers are increasingly acting like imprints of their international parents, insofar as they have become much more focussed on publishing stories with local flavour. In the picture book market there has always been a demand for kiwi stories (literally stories about the bird) but this has become massively more so over recent years. No wonder when many bookshops report most people are buying picture books to send overseas to relatives or take away as souvenirs. There has also been a huge growth in stories translated into Te Reo (ie Maori language). While all this might be worthy and understandable from a business model point of view, it has not only made it that much harder to make a living as a writer, it has also created an unfortunate quandary – ie write for this market and accept your income is severely ring-fenced, or you don’t, and stack the odds against being published at all.

With respect to making a living as a CYA writer, I think Australia has massive advantages with respect to creating a secondary income stream from school visits and festival appearances. However it is a lot more cut-throat. In New Zealand school visits are arranged mostly through the Book Council, while in Australia it’s all done through agencies. So in Australia it’s much more a case of the more popular you are and the better your presentations, the more visits you get. Here it’s a bit more communal with visits shared around. On the negative side, we earn half as much for a visit as you do in Australia. It’s still very difficult to convince the majority of schools there is much value in author visits… as opposed to visits by sportspeople… or magicians… or the local fireman…

kisskissyuckyucklgeAs President of NZSA, you have been involved in helping to organise the first ever National Writers Forum in New Zealand, which has just been held. What are you expecting from the forum? And what are the issues that are most preoccupying authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

The National Writers Forum was a huge success. The feedback has been extraordinary. The main goals were, firstly, to offer some serious professional development opportunities through masterclasses and expert panels. Secondly, it was about creating opportunities to discuss the business aspects of a writer’s life at every stage of their career. There’s plenty of information out there but seldom do writers get an opportunity to ask specific questions pertaining to their own, specific careers directly to a panel of experts. Finally, and for me most importantly, it was an opportunity for writers to assemble at the national level in a collegial and congenial environment. There are way too many divisions within the literary community, and this doesn’t help the literary cause in the wider context. The only way to break down barriers and cliques is to strengthen personal relationships by talking to each other directly rather than shouting at each other over the parapets.

As in most countries, the biggest issues preoccupying us in New Zealand centre on the increasing difficulties of making a living. New Zealand books are expensive in comparison to international titles available on-line, so there has been a concerted effort to exclude books from GST. Wishful thinking under the current government. We already have parallel importing, so have long ago come to terms with the long-term (all negative) consequences. As with writers everywhere we’re also concerned about the push to change (ie water down) copyright laws.

A very recent research report published by the New Zealand Book Council contained the rather disappointing finding that New Zealand readers were biased against NZ fiction, saying that they rarely read it–but also could not name any NZ authors–and that only 3-5 percent of fiction bought in the nation was by NZ authors. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of cultural cringe? Do you think it could be turned around? If so, how?

Cultural cringe with two capital Cs. In many ways it reminds me of Australia in the 80s when I was at high school – nobody admitted to reading OzLit. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1990 there was a huge push to make NZ Music cool. The government pumped in $5million per year and introduced a radio quota. And (surprise!) within a generation NZ Music became cool. There was an attempt to do the same with books but with a budget of $100,000 and divisions within the industry, it gained little traction and soon disappeared. In the last 10 years, NZ has become a massively flag-waving country. Kiwis are enormously proud of their sportspeople, their music, their films (well, Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, anyway), but there remains a total reluctance to wave the NZ flag when it comes to books and writers, despite local writers garnering increasing international awards and respect.

I suspect the cost of local books has something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that NZ “literature” is still discussed in such reverent tones while genre and/or popular fiction hardly gets a look in. It fosters the impression that local literature is rather intellectual and elitist. We have many world-class, internationally best-selling writers across all genres. It would help enormously if these were celebrated a bit more.     

Last year NZSA instigated a grassroots NZ Book Week with a very limited budget. Hopefully it will continue to grow and, over time, leach into the psyche. But generally I feel it requires a much greater level of government action and investment. It also is a long-term project. I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of commitment to involving local writers/titles in literacy programmes. The “as long as they’re reading something” approach does little to improve literacy, in my opinion. The only way to grow literacy is to promote local authors and stories and instill some pride in local literature. Imagine how few kids would be playing rugby if the All Blacks were considered also-rans, nobodies, rather than superstars. Pride – whether in rugby, music or literature – begins with aspirational role models. We need to start kids on NZLit from the get-go.

 

Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s finest, and most eclectic, picture book writers. His titles have been published in a dozen countries and won numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year (Old Hu-hu), Picture book of the Year (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!),two Children’s Choice awards (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck! andMelu) and a Flicker Tale award in North Dakota (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!). His stories are noted for being multi-layered, funny and linguistically creative.

He has been a frequent Finalist at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards and many of his titles have been included on Notable Books Lists in both New Zealand and Australia.

As well as picture books, he has published numerous School Readers and junior fiction titles, including his popular Dinosaur Rescue series which has been published in over 20 countries. He was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University in 2011 and is currently President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Originally from Brisbane, Kyle lives with his wife, Marion, a well-known potter, in a house with a grass roof in Millers Flat. When he’s not writing, Kyle’s free time is almost wholly consumed trying to maintain a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle … or watching the endlessly entertaining drama of chickens trying to get to bed under the watchful eyes of two teasing cats.

Across the Tasman 2: Sherryl Clark

sherryl-1Sherryl Clark’s literary career is what might be called a trans-Tasman one; born and brought up in New Zealand, but living in Australia for many years, she is well-known in both Australia and New Zealand for the versatility and quality of her books, which range over many genres and age ranges. Today I talk to her about what it means to straddle those national cultures, and those different types of literature–as well as teaching literature, undertaking literary degrees, and lots more!

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Sherryl, you grew up in New Zealand but now live in Australia. Do you consider yourself an Australian or New Zealand writer, or both? And what similarities and differences do you think there are in terms of the literary world of each country?

I’ve now lived in Australia for 37 years, but I think in my heart I am still a New Zealander, especially because I grew up on a farm and I think your first 18 years ‘imprint’ you. However I do think my stories are Australian, funnily enough, with some New Zealand elements. If I write about a farm (as in Farm Kid), it’s an Australian farm with drought and brown paddocks which you just don’t see in NZ like that. Not where I come from anyway. Dying to Tell Me is definitely Australian bush, and even my city stories, whether historical or contemporary, are very much set in Melbourne. I feel for NZ writers today – the publishing opportunities have narrowed so much. But at the same time I think many NZ writers are writing with real passion about their country, in very particular ways, and I don’t see that nearly so much in Australia.

You have written many children’s books in different genres, and for different age groups. Is there an age group/genre you most enjoy writing for, and why? Is there a book of yours that you think of particularly fondly? And how has what you write about changed over the years? (if indeed it has!)

jimmys-warI love picture books because of the process – the challenge of so few words – and the amazing work that illustrators do. I love verse novels because I love how poetry expresses things that prose struggles with. I think my favourite age group to write for is 11-14. To me it’s a time when you become aware of the outside world, of what people are like, the value of friends, the idea of adventure and exploration – the whole world opens up, but at the same time it’s when the whole world can make your life very hard. Anything can happen and bad things do. To me, writing about those things is a way to tell kids they’re not alone, and I think that’s important. I agree with Neil Gaiman – kids need to believe they can be brave and win against the dragons. I think that’s why I like Dying to Tell Me, my murder mystery for upper middle grade readers. Sasha has made some stupid choices without understanding why, but now she learns to be brave and to use her wits. I think my writing has become braver, too! I turned a corner about four years ago, during the MFA, when I realised that I just had to start writing what really stirred me and obsessed me, and stop worrying about what might come after.  dyingtotellme

What’s your latest book, and what are you working on now?

My latest book/s are a series based on Ellyse Perry (sportswoman). It was a commission, and I wanted to do it because I hated compulsory sport at high school, and so did lots of other girls. And I see someone like Ellyse being a huge influence on kids and getting them away from screens and participating in sports – and having fun. I wish that had been me! Plus adolescence and body changes have a lot to do with why girls stop playing sport and I wanted to explore that, too. I also have a picture book coming out next year with Allen & Unwin – The Night Tiger – which is being illustrated by Michael Camilleri. I’m very excited about that.
I’m always working on several things, so I can give manuscripts a ‘rest’ when they need some time out, so I’m able to able to look at them with a fresh eye. I’ve just finished a major revision of a SF novel (the ending still needs more work), and I’m doing another edit of a historical novel. I changed a large part of it into present tense and it’s still a bit clunky.

You’ve written poetry for both children and adults, and have edited a poetry magazine, Poetrix. Can you tell me something about both your poetry, and the magazine?

Poetry was the first thing I wrote when I realised what writing was. That probably sounds weird, but I’d been writing these dull short stories and an awful adult novel, and then I did a poetry workshop and thought – yes! I wrote this thing and the workshop leader said it was a nice metaphor and then I thought – what’s a metaphor? And since then (30 years ago, mind you!) I’ve been learning more and writing more, and it’s such an exploration of language and image. So much fun and so satisfying, and I just wish more schools would ask for poetry workshops. Truly. Most teachers have NO idea what poetry can open up for kids. And most importantly for those kids who don’t feel confident with language and prose. Poetry just excites them so much. They are the BEST poets!

We created Poetrix (Australia’s only magazine for women poets) back in 1993. I used to teach classes in self-publishing because it was a passion of mine, and I’d worked in community arts and for a printer. My writing group, Western Women Writers, were totally on board with creating a magazine, and we self-funded it with small catering jobs. We produced 40 issues of Poetrix, and we published a huge number of women who have gone on to have books published and won awards. But mostly we did it so women had a poetry voice. It was in reaction to some critic who’d said women only wrote poetry that was ‘domestic suburban vignettes’ and we thought – yes? So what’s wrong with that? It’s life as we know it and experience it, and of course you can write fabulous poems about it! So here are 40 issues of Poetrix and about 1400 poems about things that are important to us. To everyone, actually.

As well as writing books, over the years you’ve also run a lot of classes on writing and publishing. What kinds of things do you most enjoy helping people to learn? Do you teach mainly children, or adults, or a combination? And do you think that things have changed in terms of areas of interest–I mean, are people interested in learning about different things now than they were say 10 or 15 years ago?

I’ve been teaching in the Diploma and Cert IV of Professional Writing and Editing for nearly 20 years. But I did get to a point finally where I realised how much energy and focus teaching was sucking out of my writing. I went off to Hamline University in Minneapolis to do an MFA in writing for children and YA, and a very wise teacher there said, ‘It all comes from the same well. The more you teach, the less you have for your own writing.’ So in the past three years I have stopped teaching at TAFE, apart from substituting and helping out, and I think my own writing has received a huge boost because of that. It’s sad to say this, but it’s true. Teaching did detract from the energy I had for writing, and now with the whole onslaught of government paperwork requirements, more and more writing teachers are leaving TAFE because it’s overwhelming. Less time to teach and more time to fill out pointless forms. It makes me angry, to be honest.
Because I do love teaching and workshops. The people who come are so keen to write, and to learn. You can feel them soaking stuff up. I often see people start with an introductory class and five or ten years later, they’re getting published and doing so well. The one thing I love teaching is story structure. People get so mired in character and dialogue and just getting the words out, but structure (if you learn it and understand it) can fix just about everything. Mind you, it can’t fix voice, and in writing for children and YA, voice is so important. I think you only ‘get’ voice if you read a lot, read widely and read from a writer’s viewpoint. It astounds me when aspiring writers say they don’t read. There is so much to learn from astute reading. pocket-rocket

I teach mainly adults still – I do writing workshops in schools, yes, but a lot of schools want to spread their resources as widely as possible, of course, so I will do talks to 300+ students rather than workshops with 20. My dream is to create a portable poetry workshop I can take to school teachers and show them how to use poetry in the classroom, both reading and writing it. I have a website I started back in 2006 when I realised how little there was for schools – www.poetry4kids.net. I need to update it now and put a lot more material on it.

At the moment, you are undertaking a PHD themed around fairy tales, through an Australian university, after doing a Master of Fine Arts degree through an American university. What was your main focus in the MFA? What aspect of fairytales are you focussing on in the PHD? And how do the two university cultures compare?

When I chose to do the MFA in the US, it was because I knew it was the only way to do a Masters in the way I wanted. I didn’t want to be stuck doing one topic and one novel with one or two supervisors. Hamline meant I could do the things I really wanted: work with a different advisor every semester and learn from them (all published, experienced writers and teachers); work on a different project every semester to learn as much as possible (so I did a historical novel, picture books, a verse novel and a SF novel, plus a critical thesis on verse novels); go to intensive residencies in Minneapolis/St Paul where there were lectures, readings, workshops and a committed community of children’s writers; work at home via email in between and get detailed feedback on my writing; learn to write critical essays and a thesis that taught me more about the field from a critical viewpoint.

The PhD at Victoria University in Melbourne came from an essay I wrote during my picture book semester at Hamline. It was about picture books that are original, new fairy tales (Fox by Margaret Wild was my key text). Now my PhD asks that question – if I want to write new, original fairy tales myself, how do I achieve this? How do I write something that has the same resonance and unconscious signals that traditional tales like the Grimms’ do? So the creative writing (picture books and a novel) is informed by the research. Why have fairy tales endured? What is it that we respond to? How can I use this without being prescriptive or didactic or just plain boring?

Of course other aspects have come into it, especially the issue of publishers avoiding scary stories, and over-protective parenting that leads to a lack of resilience and coping skills in kids. I didn’t intend to venture into psychology, but then given that Bettelheim’s book, The uses of enchantment, was my starting point, I guess it was inevitable!

The two universities are poles apart, but that’s to be expected. Any Australian university would be entirely different to a US university that both specializes in children’s/YA writing and offers a low residency option. I think perhaps we’re not big enough here to be able to either specialize in that way or offer low residency on a wide scale. I’ve approached VU about running an MA similar to Hamline (indeed Hamline are keen to form a partnership), but with the government continually cutting tertiary funding and clearly having such an anti-arts agenda, I can’t see it happening anytime soon.

I think it’s so interesting that so many writers now are doing PhDs, because you can apply for a scholarship and it gives you an incredible amount of time to focus and create and innovate. Funded time that you don’t get hardly any other way. My bet is that in the next 10-15 years, Australian writing will see a huge growth in quality and innovation because of it. But if the government gets its scaly, arts-hating hands on the PhD program funding, they will kill it. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling them? Ssshhh.

 

Sherryl Clark’s first children’s book, The Too-Tight Tutu, was published in 1997, and she now has more than 65 published books. Her other titles include a number of Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps, and novels. Her YA novels are Bone Song, published in the UK in 2009, and Dying to Tell Me (KaneMiller US 2011, Australia 2014).

Sherryl’s verse novel Farm Kid won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for children’s books, and her second verse novel, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) was an Honour Book in the 2008 CBCA Awards. Other recent titles include a picture book of poems, Now I Am Bigger, the middle grade novel Pirate X and the Rose series (Our Australian Girl). Her fourth verse novel, Runaways, was released March 2013.

Her latest books are the series featuring sportswoman Ellyse Perry. Pocket Rocket and Magic Feet are released in early October, with two more in January 2017.

Her books have been published in Australia and overseas, including the USA, UK, Spain, Mexico and China.

Her website is at www.sherrylclark.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Sherryl.Clark3

Twitter – @sherrylwriter

Instagram – sherrylwriter

Across the Tasman 1: Maria Gill

One of the great pleasures of international travel, for me, is the discovery of another country’s books, writers and illustrators. My latest trip, to New Zealand, was no exception. Through visits to schools, bookshops, libraries and attending the IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, I was introduced to the work of the country’s fabulous authors and illustrators for children, and also met several of them in person. To my shame I also discovered how little I knew about New Zealand books–I had read and loved the work of world-famous creators of children’s books like Margaret Mahy, Lynley Dodd, Pamela Allen and Maurice Gee, but otherwise I knew very little. I’m not alone in that, in Australia: our cousins across the Tasman might be so close but we know more about British or American children’s literature than we know about that of New Zealand. Anyway, I decided I’d do my small bit to remedy that, not only by buying and reading lots of books but also by presenting interviews with some of those fabulous creators!

The first interview is with distinguished writer of non-fiction for children, Maria Gill. Her most recent book, Anzac Heroes, which is about the stories of great men and women from both New Zealand and Australia, from both World War One and World War Two, has recently won not only the top non-fiction award in the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults but also the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award. The judges praised the book as ‘simply stunning’ with ‘carefully chosen material’, and it’s been flying off the shelves both in New Zealand and Australia. I caught up with Maria to talk to her about it.

How did you first get the idea for Anzac Heroes? How long did it take to go from concept to publication?

I had written two other books about the lives of famous people (New Zealand Hall of Fame, New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame) and when I saw the commemorations for WWI I decided to do another about Anzac Heroes. It was a year of solid writing (from 8am – 6pm, seven days a week), and I also spent two months applying for a grant, organising photographs, editing and getting experts to check the book.

Anzac Heroes is a major work of research but also selection. How did you go about that? What were your criteria in deciding who to include in the book? Did you have an initial list in mind, and did that change as you went along? What were the challenges and discoveries involved in the research?

First, I included army, navy and air force men who had won Victoria Cross medals that fought in a range of battles. However, as time went by my conscience was nagging me; I wanted to include indigenous soldiers and women. I looked closely at what being a hero means; it’s about being exceptionally brave, resilience in the face of extreme hardship, and putting your life at risk to save others. Even though Maori and Aboriginal soldiers were mostly given the jobs of digging trenches and tunnels they volunteered to fight or go out on scouting missions that were incredibly dangerous. Same with women; they weren’t allowed to fight in both wars, but they were near the front line, avoiding bomb and bullet fire to save other people’s lives. Indigenous soldiers and women didn’t receive the highest medals but they absolutely deserved to be included and the book is all the more richer for it.

I had difficulty finding information about some of the lesser known men and women in the book. It required detective work; but for me, the more difficult it is, the more determined I am to find their story. I investigated primary sources such as battalion log books, military records, diaries, and letters; as well as secondary sources such as historical books about certain battles. For Aboriginal soldier Albert Knight I rang people in his home town until I found a family member. They told me to ring other family members and between them we pieced together Albert’s story. They were really thrilled his story was finally being told.

The book is lavishly illustrated with pictures that are well-integrated with the text. Did you work with the illustrator, Marco Ivancic, on that, or were you both creating your part of the book separately?anzac-heroes

I was visiting a lot of museums to find information so every time I went I took my camera and shot lots of images for Marco to use as photo reference. I also spent a day with a military re-enactment group taking close-ups, mid-range and long-range shots of them at all different angles. I also sent him any photographs I had discovered online of the men and women.

The Anzac stories are still very inspiring and important to Australian and New Zealand readers. Why do you think that is?

I think it shows how human kind can survive in the harshest of conditions and be strong, brave, and kind despite what is going on around them. I’d like to think young people will read how difficult it was for the men and women during those two wars, and grow up thinking that war should not be an option to solve problems. The stories also tell of significant historical events that shaped our identity.

Your book has been very well-received, both in New Zealand and Australia, and has major awards.  What’s been the reaction from young readers?

Lots of boys have said how much they want to read the book or bring their own copy in for me to sign it. In a school in Brisbane a young girl came up to me and said she wanted to thank me for including indigenous soldiers because she was Aboriginal and it meant a lot to her that they were included.

Maria Gill talking about Anzac Heroes at The Children's Bookshop, Sydney

Maria Gill talking about Anzac Heroes at The Children’s Bookshop, Sydney

You specialise in non-fiction. Tell us about your other books. And what are you working on now?

I’ve written a picture book (The Last of Maui’s Dolphins), several creative non-fiction picture books (Operation Nest Egg Chick, Rangitoto, The Call of the Kokako) and over 40 educational books for children and teachers. At the moment I’m working on a follow-up to Anzac Heroes due to be published in 2018 with Marco Ivancic as the illustrator.

Maria Gill has written 60 books over the last 14 years. Seven of her books have been finalists in national children’s book awards including ‘Anzac Heroes’ in the 2016 New Zealand Children’s Book Awards. ‘Anzac Heroes’ won the non-fiction category and the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award. Maria trained as a Primary school teacher and journalist, but now writes children’s books and educational resources full-time in a small seaside village in New Zealand. www.mariagill.co.nz.

 

An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

 

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First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, has his narrator say, ‘The translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation?

I can’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

Interview with Joel Naoum of Critical Mass

 Version 2Today, I’m very pleased to be bringing readers an interview with Joel Naoum. Joel is a Sydney-based book publisher, editor and consultant. He currently runs Critical Mass, a consultancy for authors and publishers, and previously ran Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-first imprint Momentum. In 2011 he completed the Unwin Fellowship researching digital publishing experimentation in the United Kingdom.
I met Joel when he was at Momentum and published two adult novels of mine, the Trinity duology. It was a really fantastic experience to work with Joel and the rest of the Momentum team, and it was with great regret that I heard last year about the closure of Momentum as a stand-alone imprint, and the subsequent departure of Joel and his team. So it’s been excellent to catch up with him and chat about his very interesting new business, Critical Mass.
First of all, Joel, congratulations on launching Critical Mass! Can you tell readers about how you came up with the idea for the business, and what you see as its main objective?
Well, the name is a bit of a joke from my previous job at Momentum. We used to bend over backwards to avoid using the word “momentum” in conversation (which used to come up quite a bit in a fast-moving digital publishing imprint). One of the phrases we used to use was “building critical mass”. 
 
In a lot of ways Critical Mass is a logical follow-up to Momentum. When we conceived of Momentum six years ago we were trying to compete as a traditional publisher with the growing self-publishing trend. When digital sales began to plateau for traditional publishers, however, and I knew I was going to be leaving Momentum, I thought “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Self-publishing is still growing at a healthy rate, and authors have access to a massive range of services to help them. One thing I felt was missing, though, was the personal touch of a publisher or agent. Someone who can advise an author strategically, for their own benefit, about what steps to take next – whether you’re just starting out or you’re an established author. So I thought I could use the skills I’ve built up over the years to become a publisher-for-hire.
What have been the challenges and discoveries in setting up such a unique enterprise? 
It’s been difficult to find a way of framing the services I offer and pointing out the value in them. If an author has never been published before (or represented by a good agent) then they likely don’t know the advantages. For a lot of indie authors, publishers are the enemy – someone who has stopped them from publishing; not someone who helps them make better decisions or finds them better services to improve the quality of their publishing. It’s also been challenging to wear two hats – Critical Mass is a consultancy both for authors and for publishers, so finding a way to do both without compromising either service is a juggling act.
 How do you think your experience as founding director of Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint, Momentum, as well as the rest of your experience in the publishing has influenced and informed the direction and focus of Critical Mass?
I think Momentum in particular helped me make a transition from the slow-moving but high-quality world of traditional publishing to the lightning fast world of indie publishing. I understand what compromises need to take place to self-publish, but I also understand where not to cut corners in order to not compromise the book.
Critical Mass is aimed at three groups: authors, publishers, and content producers. With authors, you are offering a range of services to improve and streamline a self-publishing experience, which can be quite an undertaking for people attempting it alone. Can you explain the kinds of things you can do for authors going down the indie publishing route? In your opinion, when is self-publication a viable option for authors?
My first port of call is always to have a chat to authors who aren’t sure what they want to do to see if the type of project they’re working on suits self-publishing, or if they should attempt to pitch to a traditional publisher. If they’re better off attempting traditional publishing, I can help them polish their work and their pitch. If the project they’re working on suits self-publishing then I can help them decide on a publishing strategy, and then connect them to the various freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, marketers and other services to help them publish their book.
The biggest indicators for me that an author should self-publish is that they’re writing something that suits the market (books in series, genre fiction), they’re prolific (writing a book or two a year at least), they’re self-motivated and that they’re willing to experiment.
You are offering publishers a focus on technology solutions and possibilities for their business. Can you describe what’s involved? 
There are a lot of advantages to introducing digital technologies to all aspects of a publishing workflow that a lot of publishers, particularly the smaller ones, haven’t yet considered. End-to-end digital workflows save money and time, and automate work as much as possible so that the human beings inside an organisation can make intelligent decisions where needed instead of wasting their time on repetitive tasks that don’t sell more books or make them any better.
Moving to content producers, such as bloggers, you are looking at an earlier stage of writing than is implied in the services you offer to authors, with advice, for instance, on whether their content might be suitable to produce as a book. What kinds of things would you be looking at, in such content?
“Content producer” was a difficult category to come up with, and I’m still not 100% happy with the phrase. Basically I’m talking about businesses or individuals who have content, but they’re not sure if it’s a book and if so what they could do with it. This includes anyone from advertising agencies looking into book publishing for their brands, or an individual blogger who has built a platform but isn’t sure whether their content would suit book publishing. Given the breadth of what “content” is, it’s hard to make general observations, but the idea is that I’ve spent most of my career making commercial decisions about whether digital content is a book or not, and I figure other businesses and individuals might find that experience useful.
What are your views on the publishing industry, both nationally and globally? What do you see as the trends? 
 Publishing of all stripes is in a pretty good place right now. Traditional publishers are making money from both print books and digital, all the while authors have more access than ever before to top notch services and platforms to get their books out there – whether they go with a traditional publisher or do their own thing. 
 
I think things seem fairly stable right now, but the next five to ten years will likely see some more big shifts in the way audiences consume books, especially as the core audience for print books begins to age, and the people who grew up with iPads start to have kids of their own. I suspect the biggest areas for disruption are the health and wellness / lifestyle books and children’s books. I think this likely something to look for in the medium to long term, though, not in the next couple of years.
 
As always it’s also worth considering Amazon. They’re looking into launching more bricks and mortar bookstores in the US, and their in-house publishing imprints are becoming ever more powerful. If this end-to-end strategy pays big dividends you could see an even bigger juggernaut in the industry, which will likely cause more of the big traditional publishers to merge together in order to stay competitive.
Visit Critical Mass here.

Interview with Anthony Horowitz

anthonyhorowitz06 (1)Today, I am absolutely delighted to present a great interview I did very recently with the multi-talented British author, Anthony Horowitz, starting with the creation of his current TV series, New Blood, and moving on to talk about his books and other projects. Known worldwide both for his book and screen writing, Anthony’s extensive creative credits include the Alex Rider best-selling spy series for young adults, the very successful long-running TV crime series, Foyle’s War, set in World War Two, penning the latest Bond novel as well as two Sherlock Holmes novels, many excellent books for young adults and younger readers including the Diamond Brothers series, the creation of gripping TV mini-series such as Collision and Injustice, plays such as the recent Dinner with Saddam, and the writing of many episodes of such classic TV series as Poirot and Midsomer Murders. In his ‘spare time’ Anthony also writes the occasional travel piece and newspaper article.

I’ve known Anthony for many years, since the publication of the first Alex Rider book in 2000, when I interviewed him for a magazine article, and we subsequently became friends. Over the years, we’ve frequently corresponded and caught up in person when possible, in London when I happen to be there or Sydney, when he happens to be there.

And over the years, we’ve exchanged not only personal news, but frank and wide-ranging views about books, the writing life, and the publishing industry. Anthony always has interesting things to say: lively and thoughtful, he also has wide cultural references and a generous clarity.  And his discussion of his own work, as you’ll see in this interview, is equally interesting, giving an insight into the imaginative passion and deft skill that are behind his extraordinary success as a writer.

Swapping books, Sydney 2015

Swapping books, Sydney 2015

Anthony, your current TV series, New Blood, has been airing on ABC TV here in Australia, after having been broadcast in Britain by the BBC. It’s had excellent reviews both from media outlets and individual viewers. Are you pleased with how it’s gone so far?

Broadly speaking, the response to New Blood has been fantastic. I set out to write a show that would break away from the dark, violent world of Scandi-noir and just give people an hour of TV that was enjoyable and entertaining – and I think we largely succeeded. That said, we haven’t yet heard if there will be a second series so I’m forced to reserve judgement…at least for a while.

How did you come up with the idea for the series?

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the so-called Y generation, the young people who, for the first time in history, may be worse off, with fewer opportunities than their parents. In London, in particular, there are real challenges. Getting a house. Getting a full-time job. Paying off tuition fees. This was my starting point. At the same time, I was thinking about ways to shake up the crime/police procedural genre. I was tired of middle-aged men with drink/marriage problems. I had this idea for an opening shot. A body is found in the street. A car pulls up. A grizzled detective gets out…but the camera slides past him and finds the young cop who’s standing in the rain, trying to keep the crowd under control. My show would be about that cop. It also occurred to me that all crime shows take place in one department. It might be vice, drugs, MI6…whatever. But what would happen if you had two departments – the police and the Serious Fraud Office? From that point, I began to think of a bromance – two young investigators who don’t know each other but who form a team, working outside the rules. This may all sound a little vague but I’m describing my thought process as best I can!

New Blood breaks refreshingly new ground in its portrayal of the two main characters, Rash and Stefan, young Londoners respectively of Iranian and Polish backgrounds. What I loved particularly, as someone who also grew up with a similar kind of double cultural world, is the fact both Rash and Stefan are comfortable with who they are, yet are also aware of other people’s misperceptions. They navigate their different worlds with a familiar yet never complacent ease, with certain things about their family/cultural backgrounds subtly brought new bloodout, yet never stereotyped. How did you go about creating these characters to make them feel so immediately authentic? And what part did finding the right actors for the roles–the excellent pair of Ben Tavossoli and Mark Strepan–have in that creation?

Thank you for this observation. Yes, I love the fact that London, more than almost any city in the world, is completely relaxed about its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic make-up. I knew from the start that my two main characters would be Eastern European and Iranian. It just struck me as fresh and modern. Rash was based on my son’s flat-mate who is himself Iranian and long before I started writing, I talked to him about his background and his experience of life in the UK. He actually appears as an extra in the fourth episode! We did our best to avoid the obvious stereotypes with both characters. Most young Londoners are just that. They’re young and they’re Londoners before you start layering in religion, politics, sexuality or whatever. As to casting, I always knew that the show would stand or fall by our choice of the two actors and I was very insistent that we shouldn’t cheat, that we should find the real thing….which we did! It was essential that the two actors should have a real chemistry. We cast Mark first…he has Polish blood and matched the character exactly. Then, when Ben came along (most of the parts he’d been offered until we came along were “young terrorist”!) we saw that the two fitted together perfectly. They became great friends almost at once and that friendship has continued throughout the filming and beyond. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with their performances and if I have one hope it’s that they’ll become the stars they deserve to be.

You have a stellar career as a writer both for screen and books. Do you have a preference for either form? Or does it depend on the story?

I love all my writing equally. I think that it’s impossible to write well without passion. That said, of all the writing I have done, I probably value my YA books – Alex Rider in particular – the most. Why? Because reading, a love of books can change your life. I meet so many adults now who grew up with Alex that I feel very proud to have been a small part of their lives.

Your most recent book for adults was Trigger Mortis, a new James Bond adventure, and before that, you penned two new Sherlock Holmes adventures, The House of Silk and Moriarty. What’s it like, writing new adventures for such classic characters? How do you keep true to the Sherlockian or Bond corpus whilst staying true to your own identity as a writer? And which of those characters did you most enjoy recreating?

Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.jpgI only wrote the two Holmes novels and the Bond novel because I so love the originals. These are what influenced me when I was in my teens. I loved writing all three books (see question 4). You ask how I keep my own identity but actually I don’t. I see it as an act of literary ventriloquism. Essentially I have to be invisible, I have to hide inside the world of the original creators, obeying the rules, doing nothing that will annoy/upset their worldwide fans. At the same time, I have to raise my game. How can I possibly write as well as Fleming or Doyle? I probably found Sherlock Holmes the easier of the two characters because he’s more distant: the world of the late 19th century is much more easily defined than the cold war. Bond comes with certain challenges…marrying some of the attitudes and values of his world with modern sensibilities. But I began all three books with nothing but admiration of the original authors and a determination to serve them as well as I could. It was a wonderful experience, spending six or seven months living with their brilliant creations.

You’ve recently finished writing a new crime novel, Magpie Murders. Can you tell me something about it? When is it out?

magpie murdersMagpie Murders is my next adult novel, being published by Orion in October. It’s both a whodunnit and an exploration into whodunnits – in particular, the relationship between the detective, the author and the reader. It’s partly inspired by Conan Doyle’s very mixed feelings about Sherlock Holmes! The book is in two parts. The first is set in the very Agatha Christie landscape of an English village in the 1950s where a detective called Atticus Pünd, a survivor of the concentration camps, investigates the murder of a local landowner. ..Sir Magnus Pye. The second part takes place in London in the present day and concerns an editor, Susan Ryeland, who is forced to investigate the death of one of her authors when the final pages of his latest manuscript go missing.  The fun of the book comes when those two worlds collide…and there are not just one but two very twisty mysteries to be solved. I’m very pleased that nobody has managed to guess the ending yet! I think it’s the most cunning book I’ve yet written.

Your Alex Rider series of spy novels for young readers have been big bestsellers, but the series was deemed to have ended with Scorpia Rising (with Russian Roulette being a spin-off). So I was excited and intrigued to hear that you are in the middle of writing a new Alex Rider adventure. What decided you to take up Alex’s story again? And how does it feel, being back in his world?

Last year my publisher asked me to pull together all the Alex Rider short stories for a collection. scorpia risingThey’d been published in newspapers and magazines and elsewhere. So I started work – but then two things happened. I realised that some of the early stories weren’t good enough. And there also weren’t enough of them. So – just for fun, really – I wrote a new story, Alex in Afghanistan…and suddenly I discovered that I loved writing about Alex and that I had missed him. I really was quite surprised. For what it’s worth, I think Alex in Afghanistan is the best story I’ve written. It’s only 15,000 words but it’s full of action and surprises. I wrote two more new stories and in doing do, I unlocked something and realised that, contrary to what I’d always said, there was an eleventh novel inside me. Well, I’m 40,000 words in and I think it’s going very well. It starts in San Francisco (where Scorpia Rising ended) and then moves to Egypt, the South of France and the UK. My publishers won’t allow me to say any more!

As well as being a wonderful fiction writer in all those genres, you are a great traveller and sometimes write about those travels in newspaper pieces. What kinds of things do you concentrate on when trying to distill the essence of a travel experience in the few words of a newspaper column?

Again, thank you for these kind words. I write travel pieces for an English newspaper largely for fun (the money goes to charity) and also to keep myself on my toes. I’m no expert and I try to avoid being negative. It’s really just a record of my feelings, hopefully written in an entertaining way. When I read a great book, my first instinct is to shout about it, to get people to share it. I suppose the same goes for the places that I’m fortunate enough to visit.

Anthony’s website.

Facebook author page.

Twitter page.

 

 

Taking the independent road: an interview with Jon Appleton

Jon_AppletonI’ve known Jon Appleton a long time: since I was a pretty newly-published writer, and he was an articulate teenager passionate about books and writing to the extent that while still at school he founded, wrote, and edited a fabulous magazine called Rippa Reading. Since those days, Jon has gone on to have a stellar career as a publisher, in Sydney and in London, working with great authors and illustrators. And now he’s embarking on a new challenge–taking the independent road, as a new author and self-publisher.

First of all, Jon, congratulations on the release of your first novel, Ready to Love! Can you tell us a bit about it, and its road to publication? 

Thanks, Sophie! Ready to Love is about the way we see ourselves and how we think other people see us, and the different kinds of attachments we form to those around us: family, friends, lovers, colleagues. Ultimately, it’s a rom-com.

Its London setting is quite important to me, and I began the book when I was living in Australia for a year in 2011, feeling quite homesick. I put it aside for twelve months when I came back to England, and then returned to it, working on it continuously for the next two-and-a-half-years.

Comedy is difficult to pitch to agents and publishers, I’m told, because it’s not viewed as a commercial genre. (Of course, we can all think of exceptions!) But I submitted it to agents nonetheless. Quite a few never replied (which I took to mean a ‘no’) but of those who did, several responded encouragingly from a reader’s perspective. I thought, ‘If only I could get past the gatekeepers, to readers, they would enjoy it too.’

Working in publishing, so much of my time was spent rejecting really good books (for reasons not dissimilar from those by which my own work had been rejected), and it was quite dispiriting dishing out ‘no’s all day only to come home to more ‘no’s from the other side of the desk. So I looked into the self-publishing option.

I knew the stigma of self-publishing has lessened dramatically in recent years. At the London Book Fair, there is a whole corner devoted to independent publishing that is reported on and taken very seriously. The timing was right.

I found the right outlet – Clays, the printer, recently established an independent publishing strand of their business – and began the process.

Putting together a book, from manuscript to finished product, is something you have a lot of experience of, in terms of other people’s work. But what was it like being in charge of your own?

I love the completeness of publishing a book – from discussing the concept with the author through to sending them advance copies. So the process of getting Ready to Love was extremely satisfying because I took a very hands-on route. Clays put me in touch with editors, designers, typesetters, Nielsen (who handled the bibliographic data), etc, but I did the legwork. It really helped maintain a sense of ownership of the process.

I sometimes think that writers feel they hand over their work without fully understanding the process – and why should they? But they can always ask! – and feel they’re being excluded. It’s never worse than when a book ends up with a cover a writer doesn’t like and the book fails to make it onto shortlists or in-store promotions. The author feels a sense of surrender when, in fact, the publisher really is on their side – or means to be.

I made all the decisions so I felt very much in control. Let’s hope I made the right decisions …9780993547317

You have just moved from the corporate publishing world to becoming a freelance, independent author/publisher. What has that move been like–the challenges and the pleasures? 

I’ve known so many authors – and freelancers – that I’ve always felt I sort of knew what it was like to be them. I appreciated how isolated authors could feel. I’d sit at my desk, and suddenly think, ‘Haven’t heard from Author X for a while. Wonder what they’re up to …’ and get in touch – particularly in the long periods when there wasn’t anything formal to do on their current book.

That’s changed, in recent years: there’s always something to do on a book, especially after it’s been published. You can revise your Amazon profile or write a blog, or reach out to potential new readers on Twitter. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of years encouraging writers to be active on social media – and we’ve spent more time than ever on revising synopses and pitches (because, for many authors, it is harder to get published than ever before).

Now I’m learning, first-hand, exactly what all that entails. The main thing I’ve learned is to be focused and to think always: ‘What am I trying to do? Who am I trying to reach? What kind of writer/publisher do I want to be?’ I’ve got a blog that explores these questions – www.jonappletonsbooks.com – and it’s very much an exploration and I’d love people to join in. There are no finite, permanent answers!

You worked for a long time as a children’s publisher: but as an author, you are writing adult novels. Do you think your publishing experience has influenced your writing in any way? 

I think I realised early in my career that I love children’s books because I love the idea of children being confident and able through literacy, and cherishing the books they read when young their whole life through. I really like helping an author shape the sound of the voice of, say, an eleven-year-old boy. But I have no interest in trying to locate that youthful voice myself. I’m not one of those children’s editors who read only children’s books. My adult, reading self is nourished by other books which are more akin to the novels I want to write, and write about.

As a teenager you founded a respected literary magazine, Rippa Reading, which focused on books and authors. Can you tell readers about that, and some of your favourite stories from that time?

Rippa Reading was a fan magazine for authors which I began in late 1986 and edited until the end of 1995, just before I moved from Sydney to London. It was published and supported by my old school, SCECGS Redlands and, joyfully, the entire children’s publishing industry. It was an amazing time for which I am hugely grateful.

The magazine was born out of my desire to be a writer and to find out what writers were like, and it led to my career in publishing. Undoubtedly, it was inspired by The School Magazine which not only presented the best in new writing but made its creators available to readers through the magazine’s pages and especially to me with personal friendships with the staff.

There are so many highlights and stories from that time – genuine friendships with brilliant, creative people, many of whom now are no longer with us, but other connections endure 30 years later, like our own! It was fun being part of the CBC committee and appearing on TV and radio to talk about new books. It was an honour to receive awards, and even more so to be an early fan of brilliant new voices, like Jackie French to whom I was introduced by the wonderful Cathie Tasker (through whom you and I met, Sophie!), who was then at HarperCollins and Ursula Dubosarsky, who once taught at Redlands.

But the story I want to share now makes me happy because it brings my connection to Australian children’s books more or less up to date. When I joined Hachette Australia as Children’s Publisher at the end of 2010, I finally got the chance to publish books by Australian authors and illustrators – some of them award-winners but others, excitingly who were new to the industry. The concept for a children’s edition of the bestselling book about Tom Kruse the outback mailman had lingered for some time, but the concept hadn’t been fully realised, nor, crucially, the right illustrator found. I remembered Tim Ide from when I’d done work experience at Omnibus Books back in 1990. (Jane Covernton, who established Omnibus with Sue Williams, was always hugely supportive of Rippa Reading.) One afternoon at Omnibus, I’d been lucky enough to be taken to tea by Tim and Max Fatchen to celebrate their new book, A Country Christmas, which perfectly evoked the South Australian countryside in years gone by. So, many years later, I got in touch with Tim he agreed to work on the book. At that point, everyone in-house (and the author!) felt energised by the project, and it went on to win the Eve Pownall Award in 2012.

What’s your view on the situation for authors, and publishing today–the issues and the opportunities?

For the majority of writers, it’s tough to make a living. The obstacles are numerous: small advances, a paucity of review space, overstretched marketing budgets. More than ever, authors are expected to sell their own books – whether they publish independently, or through a mainstream publisher. That doesn’t suit everyone, I realise, but I do think that, usually, the author is his or her book’s best advocate, so it makes sense. And there are so many ways for authors to engage with readers – it’s not all about author visits and festivals. Authors need to be authorpreneurial, a term I hear a lot now. It takes time away from creative work, of course, but it’s necessary. It’s part of being a writer.

What are you working on next?

I’m planning a new novel, but I’m really aware of the need to make the most of the opportunity created by publishing Ready to Love. So I’m very happy to write about it or talk about it and to engage with people – anywhere! – in the hope that they might choose to read it, and to be receptive to further novels by me. At a practical level, I’d like to recoup some of the cost of publishing it by selling subsidiary rights – audio, translation, US and Canada and, of course, Australia!

I’m also in dialogue with writers’ groups and students who need help not just with writing, but preparing themselves for a writing life. People are aware of the challenges I outlined above (and many others), and part of my new work portfolio is helping them find ways to pitch themselves successfully and achieve an audience in the face of these challenges.

Double Act 7: Anna Solding of Midnight Sun

anna soldingToday,  I’m revisiting my ‘Double Act’ series of interviews with authors who are also publishers, and who started their own publishing houses.  And I’m interviewing Anna Solding of Midnight Sun Publishing, a small press that has gone from strength to strength since it started a few short years ago.

Anna, when and how did Midnight Sun start? What motivated you to start your own publishing company?

It started one day when I had lunch with a close friend who is an entrepreneur. Even though my novel manuscript The Hum of Concrete had been nominated for three awards for unpublished manuscripts, no publisher had picked it up. My friend thought this was a shame so he suggested: ‘Why don’t we start a publishing company?’ You know, as you do, over lunch, just like that. My, quite logical and heartfelt, reply was: ‘Because we are not crazy…’ Five years later, we are crazier than ever and MidnightSun is beginning to take off in a big way. My friend’s initial expertise and help was invaluable and I would never have contemplated starting a publishing company if he hadn’t come up with the idea. My novel The Hum of Concrete went on to be nominated for another three awards once it was published, including the Commonwealth Book Awards, which meant we were off to a promising start and we felt that perhaps we could keep doing this.

How did you initially persuade booksellers to stock your books?

I was lucky enough to convince Wakefield Press, another independent Adelaide publisher, to distribute our books nationwide. It’s not really what they normally do so they only did it to be kind and give me a break, which was very nice of them. For the last couple of years our books have been distributed by NewSouth Books, who do a terrific job, getting our books into bookshops (and occasionally even into discount departments stores) around Australia and New Zealand.

Have your aims and strategies as a publisher changed from the beginning? How?

Yes and no. The aim has always been to publish amazing books, both in terms of content and design; books that you can lose An-Ordinary-Epidemic-Amanda-Hickie-The-Clothesline-192x300yourself in, books that look stylish and feel good in your hand. That is still our main aim. On our website we say: ‘MidnightSun Publishing has grown out of a disenchantment with the established publishing houses in Australia. We know there are plenty of fabulous manuscripts about unusual topics floating around, but publishing new and unknown writers poses a big risk. MidnightSun is prepared to take that risk. We want our readers to be entertained. We want to challenge, excite, enrage and overwhelm.’

When we started, we were mainly focused on adult literary fiction but now we also publish a wide range of books for children, from picture books to YA. I have always said that I will only publish books that I love and I think that is a good strategy for a small publisher. Because we spend so much time with each book, we really need to be comfortable talking about all aspects of it to anyone who will listen. Originally, I thought we’d just publish one or two books to see how they went but as all our books have made a profit it has always been easy to keep moving on to the next project. The more well-known MidnightSun becomes, the more high quality manuscripts are sent our way and the more projects we take on. When we started publishing in 2012, we did two books per year, in 2017 we are planning to do five. To publish five or six books per year would secure a more regular cash flow situation, which is something MidnightSun is still struggling with. The more I learn about the business, the more confident I get about all the small steps that need to happen for each book, including the metadata, the AI sheet, different ways to promote the book and which festivals and media contacts to approach.

Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author–whether that be positive or negative?

Yes, I don’t think of myself as a writer first and foremost any more. Publishing has taken over my life, but I have let it happen and I love my job passionately so I’m certainly not complaining. I work with interesting people who all love books, so that has to count for something. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be awarded two writers’ retreat residencies, one month in Finland and one month in Perth, which were both fantastic months when I felt like a writer again. For years, I’ve been working on a ‘companion novel’ to The Hum of Concrete, also set in Sweden where I grew up, and it’s almost finished but I think I need one more retreat to get there. I would like to incorporate more writing into my everyday life, but when I can’t even get a Q&A like this one written until weeks after I should have delivered it, I’m not quite sure how to manage it.

What are the challenges and pleasures of small-press publishing, in your experience? Any memorable anecdotes?

IPLKS_cover love finding new talent and nurturing the writers from the beginning. Kim Lock, whose novel Peace, Love and Khaki Socks, was published by MidnightSun in 2013 has since evolved into being our regular designer. Her new novel has recently been published by big publisher Macmillan, which we think is fantastic. Last year, we published Amanda Hickie’s An Ordinary Epidemic and that book will come out with a new cover and new title (Before This Is Over) in the US next year. There are so many pleasures.

The challenges are plentiful, as they should be. It took almost a year to design the cover for Cameron Raynes’ First Person Shooter and we finally decided on one we all liked after rejecting about 30 others. Fortunately, we have a very patient designer. However, one of the biggest challenges for small publishers is to get noticed in the mainstream press. MidnightSun has a loyal following in Adelaide but it’s always a struggle to even get a tiny review in the larger newspapers, let alone a feature article. The other main challenge, at least for us, is to manage our cash flow. Because MidnightSun is doing really well, our first picture book One Step at a Time by Jane Jolly and Sally Heinrich has been nominated for several awards including the important CBCA award, we are in a position where we need to reprint the book but we have had to take out a loan to be able to do so.

As much as there are plenty of challenges for small publishers, the pleasures of seeing a project through from manuscript form to the final product, a beautiful and thought-provoking book, clearly outweigh the challenges. The buzz of opening a box from the printer to see a new book for the first time is very special and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that feeling.

Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Go for it! If you are passionate about books and have some sense of business, publishing might be the perfect place for you. I’m not going to pretend that it is easy, because it certainly isn’t, but if you surround yourself people who can help you with aspect that you might be less familiar with, it could be worth giving publishing a go. I have had a bookkeeper and a designer from the start as those were two aspect of the business that I didn’t know that much about. Other than that, you have to learn to wear many different hats; as editor, publicist, sales director, head of marketing and the one who is ultimately responsible – whether things go fabulously or the complete opposite.

Distribution is extremely important and it’s very hard to find a distributor so it’s worth doing some research on this before you take the plunge. Dennis Jones distributes many small publishers. Talk to other small publishers, research printers, become a member of Small Press Network, learn the terminology (what is metadata? AI sheets? ISBN?), subscribe to the daily newsletter from Books+Publishing and, most importantly, find amazing manuscripts to publish. Without intriguing content One-Stepand stunning production your books won’t be noticed. MidnightSun started in 2011 and we published our first book a year later, which felt right as that is how long it took to learn a bit about how the business works. The longer you have to prepare for a book, with marketing material, review copies, interviews, the better. Now that we are more established, we often work on a book for two years before publication. But don’t be scared, if publishing is your passion, just go for it!

Anna Solding

P.S. Metadata is the information that is put into search engines so that it will be easy to find. AI sheets are advance information sheets about the book, which often contain the cover image, a blurb, an author bio and photo, size, price, publication date and the all-important ISBN. The ISBN is the 13 digit number that is under the barcode, which is used by booksellers to identify the book.

Speaking in Tongues: a guest post by Sophie Constable

Sophie Constable greyThe pleasure and challenge of not being restricted to just one language is a subject dear to my heart (and close to my experience!) so today I am delighted to publish on my blog a wonderful article by writer Sophie Constable about the situation for multilingualism in Australia.

Sophie Constable has worked as an Antarctic researcher and veterinarian, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities.  Throughout, writing has remained her passion.

Speaking in tongues

by Sophie Constable

Exploring Australia’s language skills crisis

Rejoice!  Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years.  I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.

But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed.  And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language.  Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.

If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.

Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians.  Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.

Are Australians just not interested in languages?  Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society?  What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?

Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.

‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested.  I regret that now,’ she says.

Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.

‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.

She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11.  She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school:  ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed.  It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.

But English isn’t Australia’s only local language.  Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson didn’t consider German a foreign language.  He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage.  Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.

‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’

Darryl Thompson

Darryl Thompson

Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages.  He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers.  ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says.  ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking.  Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do.  People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’

Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting.  CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient.  However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson.  ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says.  ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’  CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us.  ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’

The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less.  For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.

I don’t come from a bilingual family.  Nor did I learn my second language overseas.  The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend.  Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards.  And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.

O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times.  I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly.  We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level.  But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?

Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising.  I’ve come to the right place, then!

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, finds exposure motivates others.  She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket.  Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’   These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.

Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers.  In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English.  Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages.  ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states.  Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.

However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research.  While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India.  That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.  The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.

For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context.   ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says.  ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’

New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think.  Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality.  Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant.  ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said.   Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’.   Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’

Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of

 

Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol  is the local language.  ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says.  ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different

Pitjantjatjara country

Pitjantjatjara country

connotations and meanings.  English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’  For example, she found  ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.

The misunderstandings over land are a prime example.  In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’  Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view.  The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.

Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?

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Hunting Papa in the Hills, by Alan Wilson, Pitjantjatjara elder