Friday, April 11, 2014

Amidst the Soup of the London Book Fair – and how Malorie Blackman saved the day!

When I started planning my trip to France, the fact that the London Book Fair would be on when we arrived in the UK seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the other side of the book world — the hard-nosed business end — and it certainly has proved an eye-opener!

My dear friend Ann Neville, who has recently set up her own small publishing company ‘Create Books’ ( ), had organised a stand there to promote her own books plus several other writers’ work (including my own), sticking her toe into the soup of publishers, agents, distributors, scouts, printers etc., all of whom are touting for business or hoping to discover the Next Big Thing!

According to the official blurb from their website: From the giant houses to the smallest independent, there are the publishers of blockbuster novels and academic texts, and the producers of children’s books and graphic novels, mobile companies, gaming start-ups. Over 1,000 overseas companies are represented from 50 countries, and 25 international pavilions. 

Walking into the Earl’s Court Event Centre on the afternoon before the official opening was like walking into a messy teenager’s bedroom, but amplified by about 1000 percent! The place was in chaos — carpet still being laid across huge swathes of the building mid afternoon, booths being pieced together, and pallet-loads of books being delivered on small fork-lifts. It was overwhelming.

But by the following day, their first official day of business, all was in place, as if Mary Poppins had flown in overnight and set everything to rights. But, oh, the volume of people! It felt as though a small country had upped-sticks and decided to immigrate to Earl’s Court! After wandering around in a dazed state for a couple of hours, crushed by the roving hordes, I felt exhausted and deeply depressed. How on earth is one ever to be ‘discovered’ when the place is so awash with books?

My publisher at Random House had warned me that it was no place for authors and she was right! I had thought that perhaps I could make some introductory moves towards finding a UK agent there…
yeah, right! Agents and literary scouts (whatever they really are!) were relegated to a huge area upstairs – row upon row of tables filled with busy, unapproachable people who fiercely protected their turf and were not just unavailable to authors who had the gall to approach them personally without an appointment, but bit back like angry wasps when approached.

Maybe one of the most positive lessons to come out of this, for a small country/small town girl such as me, is how incredibly lucky we are in New Zealand. While most of us are never likely achieve the kind of fame and fortune (and sales) such a global event offers, our community of publishers and agents in NZ are open and friendly and, most of all, supportive and approachable. For this I’m extremely grateful.

This is not to say that all authors were unwelcome there. Every day there were sessions by a range of ‘top’ writers (from all corners of the world), including an opportunity to listen to UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. More of her in a minute – but, first, a slightly sad note: the opening day’s Author of the Day was Terry Pratchett. In fact, on closer reading, the session I attended was dubbed a ‘celebration’ of him — for, of course, he is now too unwell for public speaking. The speaker, instead, was his current co-author, science fiction writer Stephen Baxter (a very impressive author in his own right), who spoke about their collaboration, and touched on the tragic elephant in the room: Pratchett’s decline into Alzheimer’s Disease. They showed a prepared clip, with Pratchett answering a set of questions to introduce the session. To watch him fishing for words, even in the carefully orchestrated clips, was heart-breaking. 

On a more positive note, however, the session with Malorie Blackman was wonderful: full of laughter and down to earth honesty across a range of subjects. She was teamed with Melissa Cox, the children’s/YA buyer from Waterstones, who also shared some very interesting perspectives.
Blackman started off by clearly stating her agenda as Children’s Laureate: to encourage teens to read by talking about books with them — with an underlying belief that if a teen isn’t a reader, it’s only because they have yet to find the book to ‘switch’ them on. She also saw herself as a role model for cultural diversity — the idea that if she can be a writer then it is achievable by anyone.

She said she was fed up with the negative rhetoric around teenagers; that there are a lot of young people doing fantastic things and truly interested in making a difference in their world (something I agree with whole-heartedly.) She also said she has no problem with being seen as an ‘issues’ writer — that young people are hungry (my words) for information and agency in the real world. This, too, I support without hesitation. Young people, in her experience, are passionate about social justice issues and keen to see this reflected in the books they read. Good writing should be about raising topics for debate and discussion, and exploring a unique perspective on the world through younger eyes. When asked why she loved YA as a genre, she said that YA books have more story and are better written than adult titles — a comment that garnered much spontaneous applause!

According to her, one of the other reasons she chooses to write YA is its possibility for subversion! She welcomed the teenage desire to question everything and to talk about the issues that make adults feel uncomfortable! On the question of ‘appropriateness’, she said young people never say ‘this isn’t suitable subject matter for me’ (!); that it’s only ever adults laying their own values onto it. She believes it’s better for young people to be thoroughly informed than purposefully blinkered or misinformed – and that, as parents (or other gate-keepers) we have to trust young peoples’ ability to handle the issues; that we under-estimate their ability to cope with challenging situations and ideas. It is the young person’s role to question the world, she said; they want to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit into it.

It’s about a balance of perspectives, she explained; that kids need to know all the different kinds of opinions and issues out in the world in order to form their own views. For this reason, young people should be encouraged to read widely, while writers should canvas the breadth and depth of subjects (though avoid gratuitousness), and both her and Melissa Cox agreed that a book/issues/subject matter could be deemed YA if the events and feelings in the plot could happen to a teenager (in other words, they are capable of relating to it in some way), for it is out of this that empathy, understanding, and self-identity grows.

When asked about the propensity for YA/children’s books to end hopefully, she said that she believes this is very important. It’s not necessary for a book to be tied up with happy endings, but that the message has to be that it’s possible to go through hardship and emerge out the other side.

Both women agreed there is a distinct lack of diversity — few culturally diverse authors and protagonists (i.e. not white and middle class) – and that this is one of the big problems currently facing all fiction, esp, YA/children’s (and that the problem is growing worse again, after tentative steps forwards in the past). They both also believed it’s a problem in terms of publishers and booksellers who, because of their own social-economic, class and culturally dominant position, do not necessarily recognise this dearth of perspectives. When asked if there was a failure of ‘nerve’ within these industries to seek out more diversity, she answered ‘probably’ — and said that at the beginning of her writing career she had been told that no white person will ever read a book with a black person on the cover (i.e. would sell more books with a white person depicted there.) This blinkered thinking was one of the reasons she decided to start writing – to provide an alternative cultural narrative and to challenge such stereotypes.

I think all these are incredibly important points – and ones we, as writers in the genre, should be having our own robust discussions about — noisily and dogmatically! Anyone who has found themselves either writing for, or trying to be published within, for instance, the US market, will have encountered this myopic lack of cultural diversity. I am always amazed when told one of my books isn’t suitable for the US market because it is ‘too New Zealand.’ As a reader I revel in reading books authored by people from a different culture/country to my own. Surely it’s how we come to learn tolerance and empathy?

So, despite leaving the book fair feeling like one tiny salt crystal in the ocean of the publishing world, I find, in retrospect, much to mull upon and celebrate. Just listening to Malory Blackman validate everything I feel about YA fiction was worth the assault on my small colonial writer’s ego!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So long, farewell . . . (or: waiting, waiting, waiting . . .)

Only six sleeps to go until I head off to Menton in the south of France, for six months research for my next book project, thanks to the generous Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. It feels like it’s been a long time coming – having been told back in October last year. 

Plans have been made, and changed — the news that I’m to be a grandmother at the start of October both delighted and panicked me as I had to rebook tickets to arrive home in time for this exciting development. The thought of missing out on such an extraordinary experience (and not being here to help support my son and daughter-in-law) made the decision to shave two months of the trip easy in the end!

I’m chomping at the bit to start my research. I’ve been nosing around this project for the past five years and the thought that I’ll be able to have dedicated time to dive into it is incredibly exciting. Not that I’ve been slacking: in October, when I first heard the news, I was only 20,000 words into a new novel, so I’ve spent the intervening months writing every day, sometimes up to 9 hours a day. I’m pleased with it – and it’s now in the hands of an excellent editor, which can only further lift it. 
Singing Home The Whale is a strange book – like nothing I’ve written before. It ambushed me late one night, flooding me with fully formed sentences in a voice that was clearly not human, so what was it? Over the following weeks the story (and the story-teller) slowly revealed itself to me, and through a series of remarkable ‘coincidences’ (that I prefer to think of as ‘signs’!) it became evident that this creature was, in fact, a whale, and he was tasking me with writing his memoir, focussing on his extraordinary relationship with a boy called Will.

It’s a story with a mythic scope, the whale (an orca) reflecting back across his fifty-three years in order to teach others the strengths and weaknesses of human behaviour, and the path we must take in order to find a better balance for the world.

And it’s a story about the gradual healing of a young man who has been brutally battered by the dark side of human behaviour and who, in confronting his own fears, helps others to do so as well.

I’m proud of it. I know there will be some who won’t be able to enter into this world wholeheartedly but it’s my hope that the magical element that first delivered me the story will sprinkle fairy-dust into the eyes of the reader to allow them to suspend disbelief just long enough to fall in love with this most gracious of ambassadors from the deep. 

His sections are told in prose poetry, the words sourced solely from Old English (except for the odd lapse when nothing else would do!), it has been a lesson for me in etymology and I have spent a great deal of time trolling through an online etymology dictionary and thesaurus to translate exactly what this wise old fellow is trying to say. Coupled with his predilection for assonance, it has made for slow, but very fulfilling, writing (sometimes only achieving 300 words a day) – but, as a result, the care taken over each word seems to have impacted on the ‘real world’ telling of Will’s story as well. I’ve always had a problem with over-writing – not trusting that I’ve made my point. I think, thanks to this gruelling process, I might finally have got it sussed. Fingers crossed! I’ve certainly never pored over a piece of writing with such rigour before.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of the whole process is that my daughter, Rose Lawson, has done the most intricate black and white ink drawings, which will sit between each changing chapter (and voice) like the woodcuts of old, with the chapter titles in the box at its centre. They are beautiful – and I’m so proud to know they’ll be in the book (and can’t wait to see the finished product!)

Her participation has not been without its strange otherworldly influences either: in the week before I first spoke to her of the idea, she dreamed (two nights in a row) of a pod of orcas swimming in through her bedroom window! The whole project has been riddled with these kinds of strange linkages and occurrences – spooky possums!

Perhaps the lesson from this, in terms of writing, is the need to keep our eyes and ears and minds open – that there are stories out there banging on the doors of our souls, so long as we are alert to listening for their call.

I’ll blog again from England, and tell you what it’s like to be thrust straight off an aeroplane into the London Book Fair! À bientōt!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Goodbye Facebook pages- hello more substantial blog!

In the past I have developed seperate Facebook pages for each book as they appear. But, as of today, I have migrated all the content over to the individual book pages of this blog so you can find everything in the same place! I still have an author page on Facebook, for day to day postings as they arise, but intend to be more active keeping this site updated. You will find links to artworks and music cited in the books posted on their respective pages, along with reviews and other supoort material of interest. I hope you enjoy them!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Economic recovery? Not outside of corporate New Zealand . . .

I am currently in Gisborne, doing visits to schools to speak about writing and to help promote the Dare Foundation's Life Skills programmes I wrote several years back. These programmes are especially designed for youth at risk, though they are just as effective for so-called 'ordinary' kids as well.

Every time I spend time with the Dare 'family' I come away filled with respect and admiration for the wonderful people who work their butts off every day in order to help improve kids' lives - teachers, youth workers, facilitators, co-ordinators, voluntary committee members, and police - to educate them, empower them, and model loving behaviour towards them.

What is patently clear, however, is that, despite the government's crowing over their economic management, out in the real world people are really struggling. Families are in crisis, money is scarce or non-existent, and the people at the coal face (trying to sort this mess) are grossly underfunded and stressed.

Here in Gisborne they are also struggling under the weight of inter-generational mental health issues. The support services are inadequate, and community organisations are forced to spend hours of (often fruitless) energy writing funding applications for a few measly dollars,while the government-backed institutions who should be carrying the load are top-heavy in highly paid managers and clinicians and light on real support.

What these silent heroes would give for just a portion of the millions our government has seen fit to hand out to overseas corporations such as Rio Tinto and Warner Brothers. There might be money moving freely through the hands of John Key's buddies in the stock market, banks and big business ventures but there is a huge shortfall in the provinces and blue-collar suburbs. People are doing it hard, unable to make ends meet and falling back onto the old crutches of alcohol and drugs in order to escape their worries. Do I blame them? No. It's sad and it's frustrating (and harmful) but it's a grind at the bottom of the pile, especially when one is never offered a hand up out of the hole. Yet the blanket response of those who have already feathered their own nests is to play the blame game, damning the victims instead of looking at the disgraceful structural racism, economic disparity and selfish nepotism of those who control the purse strings.

Don't buy into the spin that some kind of miraculous economic recovery is underway, or that this government is helping those in need. They are throwing away the last vestiges of our social democracy and leaving communities to struggle and founder unaided while they hoover up all the resources for themselves (or sell them to the highest overseas bidder.)

It is a salient reminder for each of us to vote for the greater good - putting our own greedy desires aside to support those who have been side-lined and dis-empowered. If we all did this, we would gain far more than we ever had to give up. Crime would be reduced, the health budget would stretch further, our kids would grow up to become civic-minded, positive members of society (who felt valued and listened to.)

So here's a shout out to the heroes at the coal-face - those thousands of good-hearted people who keep on giving, even when they have no resources except their knowledge, love and dedication. And here's a big shut-down to our so-called 'leaders', who have failed in their duty of care.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Two thoughts for the month: (1) the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and (2) the unparalleled place of writing in the arts.

1. It’s now been a couple of months since I found out I am to be the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow and I’ve still not really recovered from the shock (and excitement!) Amid the many organisational priorities (dates, flights, accommodation, house sitters, leave applications, winding up the teaching year, starting to learn a little French. . . etc. etc. ) there has been one element that struck me from the start and continues to do so. It has to do with the people who have held this extraordinary residency together for over 40 years.

The fellowship was originally conceived in the late sixties by Celia Manson and Sheilah Winn, who set up the
original Winn-Manson Menton Trust.  This trust has enabled a writer to go to Menton every year since 1970.  Creative New Zealand administers the Fellowship, and it is also supported by the Sheila Winn Charitable Trust, the Jack Jeffs Charitable Trust and the French Embassy. I am so very grateful to them all for placing their faith in me.

What has really struck me, since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the Trustees, is the dedication and quiet determination these marvellous people have shown in supporting New Zealand writers. Many are not writers themselves (though some are) – but they all share a passion for Katherine Mansfield, France and writing. They help each year’s Fellow through the hoops of bureaucracy and uncertainty, at the same time nurturing the wonderful sense of excitement that comes with the thought of spending time in the south of France.

They have been kind, patient and remarkably generous. They are the unsung heroes of the Fellowship, and I’d like to thank them for all the years they’ve put into keeping alive this exceptional opportunity. I applaud their open mindedness in choosing a YA writer, and the generosity of the ‘terms’ of the Fellowship, which leaves the writer free to pursue a project at their own pace. They have an innate understanding that the very opportunity to live in another country will feed the writer’s mind for years to come. Thank you, thank you!

2. The other thing that struck me recently was the place of writing in the world of arts. I’d like to
make a case for writing as the ‘ultimate’ art (if we exclude storytelling, which is the heart of all art, in my humble opinion!) Let’s go through and explore this further.

Painting: yes, it can tell a story, and it can move the emotions, no doubt of that. But it does not require total immersion in the imagination to interpret it, as there is a visual clue to the work’s intent. Even if the work is abstract, the colours and the way the medium is manipulated provide some kind of stepping-off point before the imagination takes over. Likewise sculpture and all other ‘material’ arts.

Music is the same. Though the listener can paint whatever picture they like in their minds, the music’s tones, rhythms, movements all work to help prime the imagination according to the composer’s wishes. Add lyrics to that and the imagination can step back even further, having now two strong ‘leads’ about how to frame the story. Add drama (i.e. opera) and we are handed yet more clues.

Plays, films, performance art – all these again provide the audience with added dimensions of the artist’s vision. Our imaginative response is shaped by the actor’s appearance, dress, deportment, style, voice, lines,
movements . . . all this and more, to feed into the picture.

Yet it is only writing that provides a pristine imaginative portal from the writer’s imagination to the reader’s. And it is only writing that allows the imagination to do all the colouring in, create all the background music, clothe the characters, give them voice and join the dots. It feeds each reader (or listener) differently, as each individual imagination compiles its references from its ‘owners’ experiences and understandings. And because we have built up the pictures, sounds and references ourselves, we are therefore much more emotionally engaged as well. We have become part of the story, a collaborator just by virtue of our ability to read (and let's not dismiss the amazing ability of our brains to decode letters on a page and transform them into something we can picture, feel, smell, taste, love or hate - another reason for placing writing, and reading by inference, at the top of the imaginative and intellectual tree.) Therefore we are going to feel the joys and pains more deeply because we have invested time and imaginative power into the experience. The stories become part of our story, shaping our future reading as well.

Hey – that’s my theory anyway! What do you think?