Friday, March 29, 2013

Grate expectations...

So Amazon bought Goodreads. Of course that big shopping trolley should have been the clue. Kindle Content VP, Russ Grandinetti said, "Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike." Delight wasn't my first reaction. Knopf's Paul Bogaards tweeted, "That's what all you morons get for sharing your books online" - I bet that delighted readers as well. I'm wondering if his next sentence was reminding those moron's to still keep buying Knopf books? 

So what do I think? Usually I think that the delight of authors and readers aren't uppermost in the business folks minds. It's about the market and the product and the profit. These new book leviathans are somewhat like Star Trek's Borg - resistance is futile. I prefer to be like a germ or pathogen - adapting to a new environs to ensure survival and growth and hopefully when the conditions are moist and warm, going viral. Persistence is, as it has always been, an essential requirement for any author. I am the cork on the ocean - still bob, bob, bobbing along.

NZ Book Month is nearly at an end. We went to dismantle the 'What Lies Beneath' exhibits at the National Library in Parnell on Thursday and I was chuffed that the National Library decided to retain the Auckland authors' and illustrators' work for the upcoming school holiday period in April. I thought the exhibition was a great idea (thank you to author Maria Gill for this) and a real asset for not only NZ Book Month but as something that should continue throughout the year providing insight in to the creative work of NZers and hopefully promoting their work to teachers, librarians and young readers.  Our gala opening was enjoyed by a good crowd and my library event at Blockhouse Bay with students from the local Primary school also went well I think. 

Sadly I don't think NZ Book Month's reach has been as wide as we would hope. Apart from the $5 token to be used at booksellers, most mainstream media didn't seem to cover it. The emphasis wasn't on NZ authors and illustrators. National Radio did review New Zealand titles which was terrific but the air of celebration seemed to be confined to existing fans. Am I expecting too much or is New Zealand literature for young and old being generally ignored and neglected? Should we expect the general population to know who we are? What can we do about it? I'm proud to be a New Zealand Children's author but is New Zealand proud to have me as one of theirs?   

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's promotion Jim, but not as we know it...

I went to a free event last Monday evening with writery pal Tania - what I thought would be a talk about his books by author Michael Morpurgo (in advance of the Stage Production of his novel 'War Horse' in NZ later this year). But it was something else altogether. Michael Morpurgo was dressed in English WW1 era, rural, civilian clothing,and was accompanied by a singer in the same get up. Morpurgo read excerpts from War Horse alternating with period songs from the other man. At times Morpurgo sang too. At the end of the 'performance' both men took questions. It was not at all what I expected. It was strange and somewhat fascinating. Morpurgo, formerly a teacher, had come to NZ to promote the stage production based on his book. He sang in order to do so. I enjoyed the reading and the answers to the questions. I liked the insight into the book's origins. I loved the revelation that the book War Horse hadn't been terribly successful when it was first published but that hadn't prevented interest in adapting it for stage and then screen. And since then I assume book sales have soared. I know people found the evening entertaining and felt inspired to go see the show when it comes. But I found the theatricality of everything a bit odd. Would I ever be able to do this? I guess if someone adapted one of my books and paid for me to go promote it in a beautiful foreign country I would give singing a try.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

There was cake...

Drum roll please......with just a few entries for my book give-away, I can report the randomiser had a hard time picking a winner.  Noizy - you are the winner. I have emailed you for your address and a signed copy will be in the post to you shortly.

Had the book launch for A Winter's Day in 1939 yesterday. Thank you to everyone who came. And to all those buying the book!! I will post some photos up shortly. It is great to have the book officially launched, and its head wetted.

I have fretted over the content of this book more than any other. As much as it is my father's story I have fictionalised it to draw the reader in and give a clearer arc for characters and plot. The real Polish refugees had endless days of hunger, suffering, pain and waiting. Their existence was the stuff of immense sadness and horror and I have worked the material into a form which I hope gives a sense of how tragic the circumstances were without giving future readers nightmares. My hope is that new generations of children are introduced to a little known side of World War 2 through my book. I hope the blend of fact and fiction gives them sufficient information to pique their interest and keeps them reading to the end.

I made this cake for the launch, basing the decoration on the Polish Flag - it was a very big cake and chocolatey on the inside.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The random road to success...

If you are in the vicinity of the Polish Heritage Museum on Sunday march 24th around 4pm don't forget to pop in for my book launch of A Winter's Day in 1939. The book will be at the super special launch price of $18 (which is rather super special). The museum is a great place with lots of interesting Polish artefacts, traditional costumes and art. I hope I see you there.

People have been talking about the book and reviewing it which has been most exciting and I am trying to keep it all in perspective. I would love for the book to do well but as blogger Lexi Revellian says nobody really knows why a book becomes a howling success.  You can check out her blog here. She links to Wool author, Hugh Howey's, own article on what he attributes Wool's bestsellerdom to, and the J.E.Fishman article 'Hugh Howey and the Bestseller Myth' is also worth a look.

There are no sure-fire, guaranteed roads to the kind of success Howey has enjoyed. He's a little bewildered by it himself. But I liked what he said about 'gambling like he was drunk'. He did what felt right at the time when it came to making decisions and making plans. I don't know if I could be as brave and bold as he has been but I do do two things he recommends - I put my work out there. I'm happy and keen to try different routes to make work available. And I write all sorts of things. Whatever comes into my head that's desperate to get out again onto the page. I write widely and I think I've got an even bigger range of stuff still in me. I just have to be a writer, and I hope the harder I work, the luckier I get.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Win a copy of A Winter's Day in 1939...

Well, people have been saying some rather nice things about my book. The Wellington Children's Book Association have invited me down to Wellington to launch A Winter's Day in 1939 down there. This has never happened to me before and I'm thrilled. They are flying me down. I'll be launching it there on Saturday April 13th, at 3pm at The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie. I'll post a proper invite on the blog soon.

Then writery friend Maria Gill showed me a review of the book by Bill Nagelkerke in the latest Magpies Magazine. It was a very nice highly recommendery review. I will post a pic of this when I get my hands on a copy. And Barbara Murison, writer, mentor, reviewer and manuscript assessor has also reviewed the book here (warning: this one includes some spoilers).

And a couple of weeks back, when the Publishing Assistant at Scholastic advised me that Kate De Goldi, to whom she had sent a review copy of my book, had been in touch to request another review copy for Kim Hill, I felt pretty excited. Kim Hill is an award-winning and hugely respected current affairs interviewer on National Radio. Kate De Goldi is an award-winning writer, book reviewer and speaker, and also hugely respected. I probably don't need to mention how well read they are or how hard it is to get a book into their hands for review. On Saturday morning I thought I may have a stroke, I was so nervous. They are not afraid to call a spade a spade or a book a very bad book. But it seems, after all, that they liked it. You can hear what they said here. I was a little stunned. And I am one very happy writer.

Nice things said about my book have put me in the mood for a give-away. I have one copy, for New Zealand readers only this time (I may do an international one also in future), if you can tell me what year the School Journal was first published in the comments. Everyone who gets the right answer will go in the draw to win the book. Draw is on Friday 22nd March.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

We've changed too...

I have noticed something of interest lately. Something that has been happening for a while, something even I have participated in and I wasn't even aware of it (ooo, I do like a good mystery).

The book writing, publishing and book-selling landscape has been under MAJOR renovation for months - well, years really. E-books seem here to stay, bookshops (although fewer in number) seem to be hanging in there too. Neither are as robust or as terminal as either group had hoped/feared/prognosticated (d - all of the above). Print books have a particular set of skills that mean their demise is not as imminent as many suggested. They, unlike records, don't require any specialist, obsolete technology to be bought or utilised. Old ones can work just as well as new ones. They have a fairly long shelf life once bought and taken reasonable care of. They are cheap to run once you have stumped up the purchase price. E-books too are a nifty alternative. Often cheaper then the print alternative here in New Zealand, mind-blowingly easy to obtain and taking up no more room than an idea in your head. They offer a ship-load of convenience and you get easy access to a lightweight and comprehensive library if you want. You get where I am going with this I suspect. To a certain extent the dust is settling and people and books in a wide range of formats are moving forward.

But, no doubt about it, the landscape has changed, irrevocably. For authors it is a different place. There are currently less opportunities to be taken up as a new author by traditional publishers than there used to be, say, ten years ago. New authors are still published but the lists are in fact smaller, and you have to be even more patient and full of a lot of perseverance. Some new independent publishers are stepping up but they are being prudent and taking it slowly. In better news, self-publishing is a world away from what it was ten years ago too.

We don't seem to attend workshops and classes like we used to. Like books, authors now look to electronic alternatives to learn their craft, share and critique, and research how to find agents, and publishers and how to submit. The world wide web is a bottomless pit of information valuable and otherwise but somewhere out there in the ether is exactly what you need to know if you look well, and hard, and long enough. Our communities are now on-line more often than not.

And we have kind of become an invisible community that hangs out and shares information in a virtual way. I spend more time in my inbox and outbox, on facebook and goodreads, then I do face to face. I see readers more often than I do fellow writers, even though I am in touch with other writers and with illustrators everyday. And in so many ways this suits writers who work best in their own little worlds. We are not just isolated because our work is individual. We choose that isolation because that's how the best writing happens. We often talk about finding sanity in our water cooler conversations because isolation can drive you crazy but as lonely as our garrets can be that's where we ultimately want to retreat to. This internet thing actually seems to suit us pretty well. I love seeing my writer and illustrator friends, love chewing the fat, finding out the latest gossip and sharing hot tips. They are the best. But we don't wait for get-togethers to fill each other in on what's happening, and I expect to keep working on information gathering and personal up-skilling on an ongoing basis on my own all the time. Its not just the book writing, publishing and book-selling landscape that's changed. The way we do business is different now too. And how our new needs are met will have to catch up with us...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What lay beneath...

It's New Zealand Book Month people. I hope you have plans to read a book by a New Zealand author during the month of March. I read them all the time (not because I am one but because we write such good books) so I'm feeling like I'm a little ahead of the pack on this one.

My book A Winter's Day in 1939 is now available in bookshops (whoop, whoop!!) and on Monday evening I got to talk a little about the book and the highs and lows of writing it at the Gala Opening of the What Lies Beneath Exhibition, now on at the National and Takapuna Libraries. I appreciate that I am probably biased about the event as I was one of the eight speakers (including Kyle Mewburn, Donovan Bixley, Maria Gill, Heather Arnold, David Elliot, Lindy Fisher and Fifi Colston) but I found it really interesting and had a great time.We were each invited by author and illustrator wrangler, Rosemary Tisdall, to share something positive, something negative and something interesting about the creation of our books. It was fascinating to me to hear some of the similarities in our experiences. All of us had put our hearts and souls into our work and it was clear that 'What Lies Beneath' was a true title for the exhibition as we talked about the passion we felt for our subjects, and the lengths we had gone to to give our books the depth, the layers and the meanings that are there for readers to tap into when they pick up our books.

For those of you who wanted to be there, but weren't able to make it, this is what I said.

Something positive - I was given the chance by the publishers Scholastic, to share my father's story with a wider audience. And the chance to share a lesser known part of World War 2, the experience of so many Polish people, with a wider audience.

Something negative - transforming a true experience into fiction, into a story that would be accessible to younger readers (the book is for those 9 or 10 and up) was challenging, especially a story that is so significant and personal for me. After completing the first draft, I rewrote the entire story twice to try and get it right. It wasn't easy. And it just occurred to me when I was preparing for this event, that the fact I wrote this story is a bit of a give-away about whether my father survived or not :)

Something interesting - I learned a lot of interesting and amazing things as I worked my way through the story - history, geography and much more but to me one of the most interesting was how people coped in the harshest of situations. I read this from my book:

When the screeching of braking wheels announced the train had finally stopped, there was no mistaking it. Along the length of the siding were nothing but closed-in cattle wagons.
Soldiers undid the bolted doors and slid them open to reveal cold, dark interiors. Looking through the open doorway of one wagon, I saw a black pot-belly stove in the centre.
“What’s that?” I pointed at a pipe sticking up through the floor to the left of the stove. Everyone stared. A small boy beside me crouched down and peered beneath the train.
“The pipe sticks out the bottom too,” he said.
“Maybe it’s for rubbish,” Zofia suggested. That sounded reasonable, I thought, but Father frowned and Mama pursed her lips. Whatever they were thinking, they kept it to themselves. When we boarded the wagon a few minutes later with two other families, the soldiers explained what the pipe was for and I understood their reactions. That pipe was our toilet; just a hole in the floor. It looked disgusting.
“I’m not using that,” one of the mothers said. I silently agreed. I could hold on for a long time if I had to. Maybe even a whole day. There was no way I was going to the toilet in front of everyone else. 

They weren't on the train for a whole day - they're journey took eleven days. And they had many other journeys on trains just like it throughout the time they spent in the USSR. My father's experience was much much more than interesting. And I am very proud I got the chance to turn his story into a novel.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter's Day in 1939

I think I might do a give-away of a signed copy in my next post :)