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

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

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

Thirty years ago, my first two books came out…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blast from the past 1: House in the Rainforest clippings

Blast from the past 2: Fire in the Sky clippings

 

Conferences, exhibitions, launches: a very busy few weeks coming up!

Later this month and into next month, I am going to be having a very busy and very interesting literary time!

First up is the wonderful Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference, which this year is being held at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, Sydney, from October 25 to 27. The biennial HNSA conference is one of my favourite literary events: there’s always really interesting speakers, a fabulous program, and a warm, collegial atmosphere. This year’s certainly no exception, and I’m privileged to be involved with the Conference in several ways: as a speaker, a workshop presenter, judge of the HNSA short story contest, and, a great honour, being the Conference Patron as well. Looking forward so much to it! Tickets are still available for this fantastic event, so check out the program here.

Next up is the Artstate Festival, to be held in Tamworth, October 31 to November 3. I’m involved in this in several ways, as an author, a small-press publisher, and a contributor to an anthology and an exhibition, both of which will be launched in Tamworth during that time. On October 31, wearing my Christmas Press hat, I’ll be participating, with my Christmas Press partners as well as  fellow local publishing house Little Pink Dog Books, in the Creative Hot Spot Publisher Pitch Day, which will give children’s writers and illustrators an opportunity to pitch work to one or both publishing houses.

That evening, I’ll don my author hat again, as a contributor to the fabulous anthology Dark Sky Dreamings: An Inland Skywriters Anthology, which is themed around people’s relationship with the sky in all its aspects, and which will be launched at a great astronomy-themed event, in conjunction with the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club, at Bicentennial Park in Tamworth at 8.30 pm: telescopes and stars will be a feature of this unusual launch!

Then on November 1, I’m speaking at an Artstate/Arts North West event called Authors’ Cafe, where authors chat with readers and other interested people about their work. That the evening, I’ll be attending the opening of an exhibition called Art Word Place, which is an Arts North West project, where New England-based writers were paired with New England-based visual artists to create joint works. I’m one of the writers, and I had the good fortune to be paired with the fantastic painter Angus Nivison. His visual response to my poem is just extraordinary! If you’re in the region, come check it and all the other works out, the opening is on at the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery at 5.15 pm on November 1, but the exhibition itself is on till December 8.

There will be other events later in November that I’m a part of, in Armidale, Sydney and Melbourne, but I will write about them later, in a separate blog post. It is certainly a very busy time!

 

Short overview video about my life in writing and publishing

I’ve just uploaded a short video I made, based on some presentations I’ve made recently, which is a bit of an overview of my life and career in writing and publishing. Hope you enjoy…

The original background music by the way is by my very talented son Bevis Masson-Leach, aka music producer Papertoy.

My article on maintaining a literary career, now published in TEXT

What’s it really like maintaining a literary career, especially in a regional area? What role do literary organisations like writers’ groups and writers’ centres play? In Wearing many hats: literary creative practice in New England, an article of mine which has just been published in the prestigious journal TEXT, I explore these and other aspects of the regional creative life through my own experiences and the experiences of other local creators, through interviews I conducted.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

 

Glimpses in old books…

I love antique books, a love inherited from my father who over decades has collected an eclectic range of extraordinary old books. I love their beauty, the stories they contain, and the sense of holding something that is a direct link to people in the past, not just authors and publishers, but also readers, who over the generations or even centuries have held them in their hands. And I also love the unexpected unofficial glimpses these books can give into those very same previous readers and owners, everything from old clippings, tickets, menus, dried flowers and other such things you can find tucked into the pages, to inscriptions, bookplates and scribbles left by previous readers/owners.

Here’s a couple of examples from my own collection: both are from 18th century books pertaining to fairytales and their tellers, which I am presently using to work on an exciting new project(more details on thst soon!)

The first is a 1786 edition of one of the volumes of the very famous Cabinet des fées compendium, which in 41 volumes gathered the fairy tales written by (mostly) French writers of the l17th and 18th centuries, such as Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Mademoiselle de la Force, and many others. This particular volume, number 37, is of great interest to anyone interested in the area(as I am!) as it’s an index of the authors with full notes about their lives and works plus an introduction to the fairytale genre as it was written at the time and a list of all the other volumes in the Cabinet des fées. It’s fascinating in itself, of course, but where an old copy of this parts company with say, a new edition of the same work, is that traces of previous owners remain it it. In this case, they are two bookplates: the first of which, pasted on the inside cover of the book, proclaims the book to be from ‘Case G, Shelf…(unreadable number, perhaps ‘2’) of ‘Brynkinalt Library’. The second bookplate, pasted on the second internal page, just before the title page, informs us that that it is ‘Ex Libris Ellis’ (from the Ellis Library, or Library of the Ellis family) with two women’s names underneath: Lilian Fitzmaurice and Madeleine Blanche.

A couple of searches on Google revealed to me something about the people behind the plates. The library name and the dragon symbol on the frst bookplate had made me pretty sure it had come from somewhere in Wales and so it proved to be but intriguingly, the Brynkinalt Library was not a public library, but a private one once housed on an estate that has belonged to the one family since the 10th century. Could the eighteenth-century faces that stare out at the viewer from the painting featured on the Brynkinalt website have once been bent over this book?

I had no idea, of course, but it’s fun to speculate! And hmm, maybe there’s material for a good story in it 🙂

Investigating the second bookplate also produced an interesting result: the book had once belonged(presumably after it had left Brynkinalt library) to a renowned Canadian scholar in French literary studies and art history, Dr Madeleine Blanche Ellis of Montreal (1915-2008). The bookplate also cited Lililan Fitzmaurice, who turns out to be Dr Ellis’ mother (Lilian’s husband and Madeleine’s father was George Porter Ellis). Mother and daughter are mentioned together on the bookplate, and the book comes from the library of the Ellis family. Was Madeleine still living at home at the time? Or did they own the book together? Small mysteries perhaps; but intriguing glimpses, as well, into past lives.

The second book in my collection that offers an intriguing glimpse into past lives through unofficial additions to it is another book from the 18th century, also within the fairytale genre; a 1799 edition of the first volume of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfants (first published in 1756) which contains within it her famous retelling of la Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a fascinating book of course, and there’s a lot to say about the tale itself and how it differs(very positively!) from an earlier version by an earlier fairytale-writer, Madame de Villeneuve, but that’s a story for another day. Today, what I want to note are those unofficial, marginal evocations of a previous reader’s relationship with this particular copy of the book. And it’s a very different story to the other one!

This reader, whoever he or she was (or else, and more likely, it was more than one person), clearly saw in the book an opportunity to practise hand-writing skills as well as a handy notebook for daily tasks. There is no defacing of the actual text of the book, only the flyleaves, front and back, and the title pages. On the front flyleaf and title pages are flourishes in sepia ink of letters, words and sentences, mostly in French, but the half-title page has these words in Italian as well: ‘Signora Maestra’, which I believe means ‘Madam Teacher’.

I bought the book on Abebooks, from an Italian second had book dealer, so clearly the book had been in Italy; and the look of the handwriting suggested a child, most likely an Italian child learning French, possibly at home, under the guidance of a ‘Signora Maestra’ (and what she thought of the defacing of the book I can only imagine!)

The back flyleaf meanwhile told a different tale. There are some ‘handwriting practice’ scribbles on it but also something quite different: an actual laundy list 🙂 ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading, which then goes on to list the various articles: draps(sheets) a jupon(petticoat), mouchoirs de poche(pocket handkerchieves), torchons(teatowels) and more. ‘Twenty pieces’ proclaims the heading. The words are in French, in a different, firmer hand to the other, and hints at an adult rather than a child or adolescent. Was it the laundrymaid who wrote those words, or more likely the lady of the house, or perhaps a housekeeper, noting down the articles that had been sent off to the laundry? I don’t know, anymore than I know why you’d use a book as a makeshift aide-memoire, and just once too(the kid scribbling in the book seems more understandable)but here again are glimpses of people from the past, anonymous but whose presences flicker into view, even if briefly, in a rather touching way.

 

Interview with Sandra van Doorn of Red Paper Kite

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Sandra van Doorn. I met Sandra and her husband Edward at last year’s Independent Publishing Conference in Melbourne and we had a great time chatting about books, publishing, creative work, and France!

Sandra is a French illustrator who has had books published in several different countries, including the award-winning Sleep Well, Siba and Saba (written by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl). Born and brought up in France, then globetrotting to the UK, USA, Russia, Europe she’s now living with her husband Edward in sunny Perth, Australia.

But now Sandra is embarking on a brand-new adventure. She is the founder and publisher of Red Paper Kite, which will exclusively publish picture books, and is launching its first title (Hugo) in May 2019.

Sandra, can you tell us about how you came to establish Red Paper Kite? 

The idea of creating a small press for picture books simply came from a need for more creative space and professional growth; publishing picture books felt like a natural evolution from being an illustrator.

As someone who has also done the ‘double act’ of creator and publisher, I know it’s a steep learning curve, setting up a publishing house. How’s the journey been so far for you?

You are right it is a very steep learning curve!

And it can be overwhelming at times.

As a tiny press, I juggle many facets of the business on my own. Finding the right information is not always easy, you find yourself constantly asking “Am I making the right decision?”

But you do knock on a few doors, and meet amazing people along the way, people who are genuinely interested in making your journey easier. People like you Sophie!

I feel grateful for the support I have received from within the industry – particularly my publisher in the UK (Lantana Publishing), who has been very generous in sharing their journey as a small publisher.

But in truth part of the adventure is figuring things out.

What can you tell us about RPK’s Books?

When I was a child, I used to scribble in all my books. It got me into a lot of trouble, but I firmly argued it was meant to be that way. I wanted that idea to translate into our books by creating books that give permission to our readers to scribble and add to the narrative. So, all our books include colouring pages.

Our readers become the illustrators and authors for a moment, they are part of the story. They can stay with our books a little longer, get to know our characters a little better … It’s a fun experience.

Visual narratives can be understood across the world, but of course different cultures have different approaches to illustration and picture books. What are the differences (and commonalities) that you see between, say, French and Australian picture book traditions and trends? (Please do mention any other picture book cultures you might like to as well!)

In France picture books are more than a childhood phase – there is a love for visual art rooted in our culture that goes beyond age, and so we are huge consumers of picture books – even in our adult life whether you have children or not.

Our cultural heritage definitely influences our approach to illustration; our illustrations can be more poetic, sentimental and censorship is a little broader in France.

But rather than comparing, we can choose to embrace and mix all those differences, aiming at creating a richer reading experience. Because really, who wants to read the same type of books over and over?

What are you looking for, in terms of both texts and illustrations, for Red Paper Kite?

There is no perfect profile, but we are curious about authors and illustrators who don’t feel too mainstream. A little fun, a good dose of quirkiness. Stories that reflect the world we live in.

Stories that will appeal to grown-ups too. A story within a story.

I guess we love stories and people with that little “Je ne sais quoi”.

 You will be launching the first Red Paper Kite book in May can you tell us a little about it?

HUGO – The boy with the curious mark, (written by Yohann Devezy and illustrated by Manuela Adreani) is coming out in May.

It’s a sweet story about a boy born with a curious mark, a rainbow.

Hugo’s Rainbow broaches a theme that gets revisited over and over, but with a contemporary edge to it.

His story will teach the importance of acceptance no matter what your difference.

You will love HUGO. Because really, who doesn’t like a rainbow?

How has starting a publishing house impacted on your career as an illustrator? (Or how do you see it impacting it?)

Well … I miss my drawing table!

Hopefully I will get an opportunity to draw again. I still hope to illustrate a few classics, such as Alice in Wonderland or Le Petit Prince.

Can you tell us something about your work as an illustrator, and the books you worked on? How did you start as a professional illustrator?

My career as an illustrator started when I was living in Vancouver, Canada.

I decided to attend art classes at Emily Carr’s University, and Paper Hearts – my first picture book project – was picked up for publishing. It was the beginning of an amazing (and sometimes wonderfully hard!) journey.

After that, I was lucky enough to meet Alice Curry (Lantana Publishing) via the Bologna Children’s book fair which led me to illustrate books about Uganda. It was a wonderful experience, pushing boundaries professionally and culturally – sitting at my desk, I was travelling and discovering a part of the world I didn’t know much about.

Meanwhile another publisher in Greece contacted me and that’s how I worked on texts I couldn’t even read!!

What illustrators have influenced you–from childhood to now?

My all-time favourite is Lisbeth Zwerger– her work is pure poetry and her talent is beyond words.

And then you cannot go past Rebecca Dautremer, Manuela Adreani, Benjamin Lacombe, Elodie Nouhen and Anne Herbauts.