Sunday, November 25, 2012

Interview with Kate Banks

Several years ago, I visited Menton, in France, and Kate Banks graciously agreed to meet with me and be interviewed. I had a lovely morning, talking to her and looking at all her beautiful picture books and novels, and went back to my hotel to transcribe and type everything up. Later, at home, I couldn't open the file and then my notebook disappeared! Now, thanks to a new recovery program I discovered, I've finally been able to resurrect the file. Very timely, as it turns out, because Kate's latest picture book, The Bear in the Book, has just been named in Publisher's Weekly's Best Picture Books for 2012. This is a long piece using her answers to my general questions (written into article format).

Kate Banks started her life in books when she spent three years working for Knopf as an assistant editor to Frances Foster, and had three books published by them. She then worked for National Geographic for a year in Washington, and continued writing, then got married and moved to Europe. When Foster moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Kate went with her and from then on all of her US books have been published by FSG. In France Kate’s publisher is Gallimard, who do a lot of her books in French (her picture books). Her first book with Gallimard was with Georg Hallenslaben – Baboon. They do most of their books with both publishers, but the French ones come out faster.

Kate writes for older children and teens, too, but feels she relates more to little kids around three to four years old – she loves the visuals of a picture book and it’s more fun to produce them and be part of the process. The challenge is to write spare text – the poetry in the text is important – she pays a lot of attention to choice of words, even in novels. She loves to read picture books aloud to kids, and always reads her own stories out loud to hear how they sound.

For children, their grasp of language comes as much from listening as from seeing words on the page – sound is important for communication. She believes that reading aloud in school is really important, and that it is not being done so much now is a big reason why kids are less literate.

When writing a story – she gets ideas as they occur – “fall from the sky” – she always stays aware of ideas, wherever they come up. Sometimes an idea might be kicked off by an event, or it could be a phrase or something a child does or says – she writes down the idea and then lets it gel for a while (she takes a notebook everywhere so she doesn’t lose those ideas). She always works on several things at once, then there is no fear that the one thing won’t work. She gives herself lots of room to think about the idea, then knows when it is ready to be written. She might do several drafts or more, but usually the first draft is to get the structure and form working, or to see if something is not working in the structure. Then she fills out the story and adds more to it. The first draft is getting it down.
Her novels take at least 4 drafts – again, she writes the bones in the first draft, then subsequent drafts are about filling it out and developing. The last draft is always copyediting and looking at every word and phrase to see if it can be made better.

For The Cat Who Walked Across France: initially she did hear of a story about a cat – not the specific story that she wrote – and since the book has been published she has heard other stories of cats who have walked a long way to get back to their original homes. The illustrator, Georg Hallensleben, was an artist she discovered in Rome. He is German and she asked him if he was interested in doing picture books. When she lived in Rome he would ride his bicycle across the city to her house to work every day, then he bought a van and outfitted it as a studio, so then he would drive to her house and set up downstairs in her garage. As he worked on illustrations, he’d bring them upstairs and they’d talk about them and then he’d go back down and revise or do more. This was how If The Moon Could Talk was created.

For the Cat book, he drove his van across France, following the path the cat takes in the story so that he could paint what the cat saw, in reality.
Kate collaborates a lot with her illustrators. Because she has worked in the industry, her editor trusts her to know the artist’s work and how to collaborate and get the best book. This also sometimes leads to her writing a story specifically for a particular illustrator.

Her themes are about connection – how people stay connected in life and death. She’s interested in writing about the human experience of the soul and the physical body, how to communicate that connection and understand humanity through stories with resolutions. Children today experience the media all the time where disaster and tragedy have no resolution; it’s just presented to them. She is opposed to irresponsible media that projects sensationalism – children don’t have the tools to deal with the constant bombardment. She feels her contribution is to write about these themes. Death is a part of life but in our society we don’t want to see this. She writes about death a lot but thinks this is because she lost both her parents as a child.

Kate speaks three languages – English, French, Italian – and says her spelling has got worse! She does think her vocabulary has changed since she has been living overseas, and she has more ease in working with words – she plays a lot more with words, but is able to do this because she has had a strong foundation in grammar and punctuation. You can’t use poetic licence unless you have that strong foundation.

With marketing, she has never done much but can see now that things have changed a lot and that publishers cannot do much for you. Being in Europe, she can’t do book tours or school visits in the US. She doesn’t like to think of books as products – her books are more literary, not mass market paperbacks, and picture books are expensive to buy. She has an agent now because contracts are getting more difficult – new clauses and things to negotiate.

My thanks to Kate for being so generous with her time, and her answers!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Making a writing space

I don't think I have ever had a real writing space. For years I wrote at the kitchen table, because it looked out on the back yard, the fence, the pond, and often birds would flit in and entertain me. That only worked as long as I had the house to myself, which is no longer the case. So I bought a new desk. But I put it in the only space there was - in the computer room. Waaaaay too close to the internet connection, and the desk slowly filled with papers and books until I couldn't work there either.

In the back yard we have what is laughingly called "the bungalow". It means an odd building that was once used as extra accommodation and now has no insulation, sagging ceilings and enough junk to stock a recycling store. Give me space and I will fill it, being a long-time hoarder. I can tell you that out there are multiple copies of every publication I've ever been involved in, at least four crates chock-full of class materials, all the books I can't throw away but there's no room in the house for them, and sundry items that need to find themselves a rubbish dump to jump into.

I've tried to write out there. It doesn't feel right. What has, surprisingly, felt very right and very workable for the past couple of years are cafes. I've been the Cafe Poet at Melissa's Cafe in Altona for 6 months, and I applied for this because, let's face it, I was writing there at least twice a week anyway! I have a couple of other cafes I like, too. Why? Somehow I can block out all the noise and just write. Well, to be honest, I am unable to block out screaming kids. But chatting coffee drinkers are a cinch.

Now I know it's time to make a real space in my house. Enough of the excuses about how long it would take me to clean out the back room (laughingly called my "office" - we do a lot of laughing about the junk I store everywhere, with gritted teeth). I have made a substantial start. The photo above? I wasn't going to include it, if only because when I started the clean-out, the room actually looked a lot worse! But I figured if I posted the photo here, it committed me to finishing the job.

It's been three days, two huge bags of rubbish, one huge bag of paper for recycling, two boxes of books to donate, and a lot of discoveries of strange, wonderful, long-forgotten items that have surfaced along the way. No, I haven't finished yet. I know I need to get more ruthless, but some of those things I've saved have a lot of meaning for me, and where else do we writers get ideas from, if not from evocative memories?

So by this time next week, I have promised myself the room will be finished. There will be a writing space that I can use, a clear desk, a new keyboard, some of my favorite things around me, and all my research stuff in neat piles, ready to use. Fingers crossed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Small Press is Exciting!

Last Friday I went along to the SPUNC conference. Now the first thing I need to tell you is that SPUNC is no more - the organisation has renamed itself Small Press Network. Too many years of having to explain the acronym and dodge smirks, someone said. Besides, Small Press Network does say exactly what it is. For now, all is business as usual at the old website but they promise a new updated site very soon.

First of all, membership of the network is now over 100, and members range from larger presses such as Black Inc and Spinifix Press to very small publishers such as Kill Your Darlings and the History Teachers' Association of Victoria. The conference, as you would expect, had a large focus on digital publishing and how this might and does affect small presses, given the variety of platforms currently out there.

I'm not going to go through each session (you had to be there) but there were a number of key points that either informed, interested or astonished me that I'll share:

* consumers still prefer to buy from the aggregators (a new term I learned - it means the "middle man", e.g. Amazon, iBooks, bookshops, online booksellers). People still want someone or something to offer choice, and they will use an aggregator rather than buy direct from a publisher (and I guess that also means an author).

* publishers in Australia have been forced to lower book prices in the past 5 years to compete with online booksellers, but they are still profiting from imported titles due to the strength of the Australian dollar.

* if you are self-publishing or you are a small press, good meta data is absolutely essential to help people find your book/s. It can include subject lists, reviews, excerpts, links and author bios. Make it work for you!

* market analysis has shown that $9.99 is still the top favoured price people will pay for an ebook. Past $14.99 and sales drop drastically.

* discounting big-time is not a good strategy - people will pay for quality (if you are offering quality!) and discounting just takes money out of your pocket.

* when it comes to selling books or ebooks, discoverability is the top essential, and quality comes after that.

* the main reason why the government is struggling with PLR and ELR payments on ebooks is to do with all the different ways libraries are currently buying ebooks - it can be outright purchase, number of borrowing days, limited use copies, etc. Hard to track the physical holdings of ebooks when they can disappear from the library's inventory.

I also learned quite a bit about bookselling, both in the actual shop and online. I had never heard of high and low stock turn before, but the advice to talk to your bookseller before publishing (to get their coalface experience and suggestions) was a good one.And these days, if you are trying to sell on consignment to a bookseller (i.e. just a few copies at a time) you are at the bottom of the food chain!

There were also talks by Nerida Fearnley from Lightning Source (very interesting) and Gary Pengelly from Thorpe-Bowker (where you get ISBNs). Thorpe-Bowker has a new site called My Identifiers which will cover all sorts of tools for book publishers. All food for thought! With more and more books on our backlists going out of print, republishing is a real option, both with short runs on print books and ebooks. I have already republished Farm Kid as a print book and am now looking at it as an ebook. I'm sure other authors are doing the same.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Revising Deeper, Not Wider

Over on my other website,, I have a monthly writers' newsletter and this month I included an article I'd written on revision. Some writers (like me) love the first draft and struggle with meaningful revision. Others dread getting the first draft down and love rewriting over and over. I hate the feeling with revision that all I'm doing is fiddling around the edges and making no real difference to the heart of the story.

So when a book comes along that makes me actually champ at the bit to rewrite my current novel, before I've even finished the first draft (only about 3000 words off, though), that's a book worth recommending! It's Donald Maass's new title, Writing 21st Century Fiction - Maass is a longtime literary agent and you may have heard of his other books - Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction. In this new one, he says the time has come for the best elements of genre (all those things that create a page-turner) and the best of literary writing to combine into the kind of book that will become a best seller now.

Traditional genre and literary fiction still sells, of course, but the books hitting the top of the sales lists these days are the ones that catch on by word of mouth - they are brilliantly written, with story ideas and characters that totally engage the reader. Think Dennis Lehane, who was considered a crime writer for years until Mystic River and Shutter Island. Still crime but taking it to a new level of excellent writing. Then add books like The Help, The Kite Runner, Water For Elephants, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller's Wife - I could go on and on, but they are all books that sit between genre and literary and catch readers' imagination.

So I was interested in how Maass thinks you can write a book like this. Of course it comes down to things like standout characters and layered plots, but he tells you how to work with these elements, and gives great examples from published books. What I like best, though, is the huge list of questions at the end of each chapter that you can apply to your work in progress. I bought this as a Kindle book, but I wish now that I hadn't, as I'd really like to photocopy the questions and have them next to me to work through as I revise. I guess I'll have to work off the screen instead. Roll on, revision!