In due season

September 15, 2014

9781742752440 (1)
It’s always a warm feeling to see a friend’s book at the airport, which is probably an appropriate place to buy How to get there, the welcome sequel to When it rains, the first of Maggie Mackellar’s memoirs. The airport was where I bought the earlier title, standing alone in a fairly low brow news agency, and also where I bought the second, four years on. It was a poignant moment. In a previous life, a life that ran the full length of the 1990s before stalling through tragedy in the 2000s, Maggie and her husband Mike were counted among my wife and my closest friends (“thick as thieves, old man” as Mike would say). Fast forward ten years, and here I am, a regular book buyer, re-entering Maggie’s story in the public space, at once a stranger and a friend.

Maggie was always going to be a writer. It was something I knew early on, through Mike’s Jay Gatsby-like updates, often mumbled as an aside through toast and chunks of butter, (“second in the HSC for English, old man”). And also because she read so constantly, grazing across a pile of journalism, history, fiction, memoir, her nose in something interesting whenever we lobbed into West Street or the yurt at Killcare. And also because I had another version of the same orientation, starting my earnest, carefully over-written and unpublishable novel in 1999, and carefully obstructing Maggie’s access to it, since I knew she’d see my training wheels, the crude sticky tape and the half rendered characters.

Maggie’s first two books (Strangers in a foreign land and Core of my heart, My country) serviced her academic work in history, but with a style and depth that marked her as a writer who lectured rather than vice versa. Around the time she was working in this vein, I remember she used to talk a lot about Drusilla Modjeska, who I think was a valued mentor who also identified Maggie’s vocation. I recall having to call Drusilla when I was a publisher at Macmillan, as a favour for Maggie’s now publisher, Nikki Christer, to offer feedback about a more educational work, the area I occupied. She was very humble, considering her status as one of the country’s leading literary writers. A rarity, I think, for having the basis for an ego without the interest in giving it rein, a quality that makes me think of Robbie Mackellar, Maggie’s mother, and now Maggie herself.

In When it rains, Maggie unfolds the quite brutal experience of losing both Mike and Robbie in close succession, having her second child (aka Charlie) and taking him together with her primary aged daughter (aka Lottie) to live on the extended family property in the central west of NSW.

Now, in How to get there, Maggie narrates another big change in her and the family’s life, finding love and a new life and home on a sheep property in Tasmania. It’s wonderful to think that this all happened because of the first book, because it was via Maggie’s, well, fame, and appearance on Australian Story that she and Jim, her current partner, connected. Through facing the storm, the ghosts, and writing on through it, Maggie gets to …well face another storm and more challenges to write through, yes, but also find what reads like redemptive love, and the reformation of true family for her and her children. Maggie’s courage in risking the move from NSW, and Jim’s largesse in risking its facilitation show just what kind of energy and spirit (and planning and horse floats) goes into making a fairy tale ending.

There are lots of highlights, both in the unflinching telling of this very personal story, the painstaking and beautiful language, and also in the equitable distribution of characters possessing four legs rather than two. There are about five horses: Will, Belle, Monty are some. There is a battery of hens, a corgi called Duke who knows how to work sheep and another one called Ethel who doesn’t, and, I’m pleased to note, an anxiety-recovering guinea pig called Rodney.

As with all very good writing, it’s no accident the emotional moments are hard to shake. Lottie wins a horse riding ribbon by an unconventional route (and the celebrations seemed, well quite rural – a special moment with all kinds of deep, shared feeling but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) . Charlie receives a set of home made goal posts as a welcome from Jim, an act of such symbolism and warmth, a bit of masculine genius. Maggie writes how, the ice broken, Charlie throws himself at Jim like a wave against a cliff. The redemptive power of both the relationship and the language seem to merge into the one thing, except that, for me, it’s the language that delivers the whole complex, deep, overwhelming shebang with a clarity and force that makes me so proud to be Maggie’s friend.

More about the book – from Random House.

I’ve been reading crime now for the last few months. What attracts me to crime? Mostly its the momentum – pages turn themselves. Commercially, the genre is blue chip. There’s always a couple in the top ten. The content travels well into other media and territories. A top crime writer is a stallion/lead mare if you like to work in stable metaphors (or stables for that matter). A good crime premise needs no explanation to a jaded bookseller seeking to pay escalating rent – because it will sell.

I started with Larson (Millenium trilogy), moved to Chandler (The Big Sleep) , tried a couple of Peter Temples (The Broken Shore, Truth) then a couple of T. Jefferson Parkers (Silent Joe, Storm Runners).

Next was Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) I’m currently reading Quintin Jardine and Marele Day.

Of this lot, its really a question for me of who can be compared to Chandler without wilting like stir fried greens. Chandler writes like
his life depended on it, and from what I understand from his biography, it did. A broken oil man, damaged by corporate life and its associated anaesthetics, he turned to pulp fiction before throwing the pulp away and finding something better inside. As a result, he sets a narrative design like a rat trap that never fails to grab you – with language and mood that linger long after you’ve forgotten what happened. For a lesson in tough, character revealing dialogue, go no further. Want quotes? Go read it.

Under the pressure of this comparison, even though they were all good, especially Silent Joe
and The Broken Shore., and Larson (all for different reasons, try reading them for yourself) Tom Franklin came out as most satisfactory. The surprising thing about Franklin is his focus on innocence, how it matters, how it survives and redeems experience. The general pattern of the genre seems to run the other way, so that appealed to me, as did the very truly carved characters, characters with baggage that scrapes along behind them, leaks out in conversation, betrays them at every turn. In a way, this reminded me of Ray Carver and Rick Bass. Franklin has bled a little more for his story I think, like Chandler, like Carver has dug a little deeper, and the result is very satisfying.

Got a crime book recommendation? Let me know.

Book Review

Open House Volume 3
By Sheridan Voysey
Publication Details

As the title suggests, Open House Volume 3 is the latest, but hopefully not the last in a collection of edited interviews conducted by Sheridan Voysey, the host of the radio show of the same name on 103.2FM on Sunday nights in Sydney.

Voysey’s sonorous name hints at the fact that he has the right kind of tonsils for radio, and whenever I’ve tuned into the show I’ve not been disappointed. To me he sounds a bit like a kindly headmaster that nobody ever finds ruffled. Its a soothing sound, a kind of steady hum – one you’d hope for from a psychiatrist or a counsellor if you had voices in your head. In this respect, Voysey seems perfectly suited to the medium of late night talk back radio.

The transition of a live radio experience to written form is surprisingly successful. Voysey’s radio voice becomes a writer’s voice of some resonance – and the thought that goes into his questions and retorts becomes more obvious in print, perhaps because the hypnotic intonations are absent, or more likely because he is also a genuine thinker. In this respect, the nearest comparisons to Voysey are, off the top of my head, Caroline Jones, Peter Thompson, and to some extent Andrew Denton. As a media performer and interviewer I think he can be listed alongside these names without discomfort. Having said that, he’s also unique in his ability to draw his guests into the questions of faith and spirituality in a way that doesn’t either promote or surrender his self evident christian beliefs, or demean the reality of his guest’s experience. That’s a pretty fine line to walk, and I’m pretty hard pressed to think of anyone else doing it so well. Actually, the only person I can think of is C.S.Lewis and he died quite a while ago.

Like all very good interviewers, Voysey has the ability to gently shuck the truth out of his guests like some shuck the meat from oysters. Its not an easy task-one that takes patient research, an eye for connecting history with what he sees in front of him, and an intuitive understanding of how and how far to push a particular line. Bryce Courtenay, who is no push over, betrays this skill at the end of his interview with “You ask such lovely questions”. To me, Voysey’s knack is to ask the right questions for the right guests at the right moments. The result is a book full of very compelling, often unadorned autobiography that offers readers a lot of pithy insights and food for reflection about whether they might want to live a little larger themselves.

I enjoyed all the interviews. Each of the guests has a big story to share, from a range of contexts. But several stood out to me because of my own interest in writing. These were the film maker Ralph Winter and the authors Bryce Courtenay and Marilynne Robinson.

Winter, who produces large budget Hollywood films (including X-Men II) really manages to condense the simple elements of what makes a good story- a hero and a journey. He quotes a mentor who told him, in respect to stories and film “If you want to send a message, use Western Union”.

Courtenay expresses a similar idea in defining his career: “Well, always a storyteller, Sheridan. Writing was just a medium.”

Robinson, whose career as a novelist is the antithesis of Courtenay’s prolific output (three novels in around thirty years) says. “Well, I just write what I want to write. And I write sort of under the cover of darkness-nobody knows what I am doing until its done. But if I’d told people I was writing a book about a minister dying in Iowa in 1956…you know that is the most unsaleable book that you could possibly imagine.”

Each of these nuggets of wisdom kind of jumped out at me as answers to questions I had rolling about in my brain about writing. I’m quite grateful I was able to find them in the one book. In a way, that is probably the best recommendation I could make. Its that kind of book – broad and teaming with ideas – a well realised snapshot of what life looks like right now through twenty different pairs of eyes. It serves up twenty slices of life. Twenty real life stories – each matching Winter’s definition of what he seeks in narrative.

“For me, the story has got to be a hero who is compelling, so compelling that I can’t stop turning the pages wanting to find out more about who this man or woman is, what they believe, what they value and why they’re doing the things they’re doing.”

The clink for the stout

September 6, 2010

Book Review

When it rains
By Maggie Mackellar
Publication details

There’s a song that the blacksmith stepfather Jo Gargery sings with his boy Pip in the forge in Dickens’Great Expectations that’s simple and beguiling and sung in turns.

…Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem!
With a clink for the stout – Old Clem!
Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem!
Roaring dryer, soaring higher – Old Clem!

It seems like an obscure reference but Maggie Mackellar’s new memoir When it rains reverberates with the strike of hammer on steel as she, in a very beautiful and courageous act of industrial art and humanity works her broken world back into shape, one memory, one word at a time. To look at the cover now all I can hear is the clink of the forge – the forge of a very big heart that’s still beating despite the pressure of other hearts stopping. The clink for the stout.

When it rains is a memoir about the loss of two pivotal people in Maggie’s life whose very beings seemed to be its fabric, patent, orbit and axis. First her husband, in tragic and confusing circumstances. Then shortly after, her mother, to cancer, in shockingly quick turn.

The narrative, which unfolds like a Helen Garner style examination of a tough issue, has its own relentless commitment to illumination that marks the best writing in this country and any other. It moves back and forth through the linear events of Maggie’s loss like a sheepdog – worrying, nipping, barking, until the whole broken mess starts to, not so much make sense, but fall into line. And, miraculously, and against the odds – beautifully – it does.

The writing is beyond self assured. It’s the performance of a seasoned athlete – graceful, underplayed and robust. Its also marked by humour often enough for us to really see the author’s journey has done her good. While I cried, I also laughed at lines like “My mother was a plumber. I could do anything.” Throughout, a supple voice guides the reader through the book in a way that is ironically soothing in the face of the subject matter.

I was amazed Maggie managed to get through the book without mentioning either her husband’s or her mother’s names. It occurred to me that had I attempted such a technique my grammar would collapse. But not on Maggie’s watch. There will be no collapsing, in spite of everything. The absence of names is powerful, reiterating Maggie’s purpose, like the book’s narrative structure and imagery – God love us, even its animals – especially its animals, have something to add to the question of how a single mother is meant to conduct a life in the aftermath of tragedy. That’s what Old Clem knew perhaps, watching the smithy work the fire. Maggie comes through suffering suggesting as much. The fire burns on as it must when the rain set ins, so vittles and warmth could greet the young ones when they awake. So we can continue, strong of arm and heart.

Astonishingly, while When it rains cost Maggie everything, it cost me $29.95. Do the maths readers – just go and buy it. A book like this is a must for anyone seeking inspiration from a true survival story.

Negotiating a book deal seems like the easiest step at the end of a hard road. You’ve written something, proposed the idea and an offer has been made. You can hardly believe its happened. A complete stranger wants to pay you for your book. Wow!

A great feeling though it is, a book deal, like any deal, requires you to become commercial in your thinking. Many authors, especially in the U.S. more often than not engage an agent to do this thinking for them. The agent does the commercial stuff for them and pockets some margin from the author’s earnings. This is kind of convenient – reaching the Publisher in the first place may have been facilitated by the agent – and the agent may have offered the author feedback and support key to the book’s eventual purchase. In large markets, like the U.S. Publishers may be too busy to handle proposals any other way, simply because of their volume.

However, the world is changing, and we can’t assume that the agency model will continue indefinitely. So, let’s consider what to do if you don’t use an agent. What differing opportunities are available from self-negotiated deals as compared to agent-negotiated deals?

An agent’s job, in a commercial sense, is to commodify your platform by auctioning your work to the highest bidding Publisher – and moving around Publishers (if necessary) to secure improved advances for future works. They are there, in the crudest commercial sense, to “show you the money” for each book you produce.

Partnering with a Publisher for the medium or long term is a different approach which creates mutual loyalty and allows strategic planning to prosper your career. This choice could be described as “show me the money tree”. Agents are capable of this as well, but good Publishers are paid to imagine your future books lining up behind the one they’ve offered to buy. Essentially, they don’t want to buy the golden egg that’s up for auction – they want to buy the goose who lays them – in the nicest sense of that fowl word!

So, agents are useful, and well worth talking to and dealing with. But I’d like to suggest that a creative partnership with one very good Publisher creates loyalty that can go a long way. When the sales team goes out to sell your book, are they selling out of the Managing Director’s brief to recoup the big advance – or are they selling the books of someone they know and respect?

Photo by Sumeetkanand.

Asking the $100 question

April 12, 2010

Recently a well dressed guy in his fifties knocked on my front door to say he was a real estate agent selling my neighbour’s house. He explained he had come as a courtesy to advise of the open house times and the increased traffic created by prospective buyers. I was pleased he had done so – I like courtesies. So at that point, I had a communicative, pro-active, courteous real estate agent. We chatted briefly about pricing in the area – he was informative and helpful – joked easily. So at that point I had a communicative, pro active, courteous, informative and friendly real estate agent.

When the conversation moved rapidly to my own house and the agent asked me “Are you thinking of selling?” it was pretty clear to me that the who conversation was merely a warm up for this question. It would be eccentric for me to suggest that he didn’t have the need or right to ask this question. He had both. I’m simply saying that at this moment all the value he’d built for me vanished and was replaced with a very blunt proposition. He then offered his business card – immediately becoming just another real estate agent.

Moral of the story? Well, I guess the moral is that if your dealings with an audience of any size is simply a preamble to a sale you have a good chance of appearing or becoming inauthentic. Getting too quickly to a $100 question – a selling type question – can be a barrier to allowing an audience to ask it for you.

In the online space, I’ve noticed that the prevailing if unspoken wisdom suggests of authors should build an audience with friendly interactions with “ordinary folk” simply to sell them their books. I’d recommend thinking very carefully about this before following suit. What could happen if you never asked the $100 question?

SHORTCUT: You might like to read just the bits in bold if you are in a hurry.

I started at Macmillan in 1996. I was in Queensland in the North East of Australia, about to get on a boat to sail around the Whitsunday Islands, when I saw the advertisement. It was quite big on the page. The one thing I remember about it was the big powerful logo. (We call them the Macmillan wings. Maybe that’s because they carry you places. They sure have carried me and my family.) The job was for a Sales Representative. I had just finished my first career as an English teacher. Before I’d left, I clearly remember in answer to the collegiate query of “What next?” I’d said “I want to get into publishing.” As a result I think if you say something out loud it does increase the chances of it happening.

I ended up applying for two jobs simultaneously. One was at Macmillan, the other was Oxford University Press. Oxford offered me $25,000 and a white, four cylinder Mistubishi. This enabled me to negotiate $29,000 to go along with a four cylinder maroon Mitsubishi at Macmillan. My first day, I was handed 10 globite suitcases full of books, each weighing around 10 kilograms. It was my job to visit school libraries and sell them. This I did for exactly 12 months. Everything I learned during this time was like gold, though it didn’t seem like that back then. Getting rejected several times a day teaches you to find the right words to avoid rejection and create value for another person. And talking directly to customers cannot be substituted by any other form of training in business. These two things together made my career.

During my time as a Sales Representative I took steps to create value for the person I wanted to work for next. This was the Publishing Director, a great guy called Rex Parry. I managed to pass enough leads on potential authors to Rex to get his attention, and when a Trainee Editor role came up, I was a shoo-in. I put together about half a dozen new projects for Rex and his Publishing team over the next twelve months without a whole lot of sweat because I’d already navigated the process of connecting with authors and commercial opportunity in the previous role.

Plump with success, I resigned. But I’d managed to convince Rex to commission me as an author on a Health book series, which I had a vague background in. I spent the next two years on Lord Howe Island, working labouring jobs and writing the books. I also surfed my brains out and caught a lot of fish.

In 2000, I returned, again in a Sales role, before graduating to Publisher in 2002, working again with Rex Parry. From this time to the present, I think I leaned on my initial entrepreneurial experience at a percentage of about 75. For the next seven years, I looked after about $4 million in revenue per annum, before planting a customised publishing business that grew sixfold in two years from inception.

I’ve had an interesting career at Macmillan, seeing many sides of the publishing enterprise. On March 23 this year, I will have done a decade, making me a Gen X guy with Boomer tendencies.

Publishing is about selling information that helps, moves, inspires and teaches. If you connect with any of the bold statements published here, you’ll be great in our industry.