Friday, May 30, 2008

Fifi works on being generous

This morning, the letterbox yielded up the CNZ letter so eagerly awaited and just as much feared for its contents (will I be saved this time?). I have tried to put it from my mind, the letter. I didn’t mark in my diary when it would arrive and I very nearly succeeded in forgetting about it, except that fellow writers e-mailed and texted over the last few days; ‘When’s it due/ Do you think we’ll get lucky this time?’ they pestered and worried, picking at the funding scab and making it bleed for days. Damn them and damn me for joining in.

I reflect back to the days when I had no idea there was even such a fund. Happy, naïve times when I thought that writing was actually self funding by its sales. After the first royalty cheques I wondered how New Zealand writers ate and figured they must have written at least 60 books each to make any kind of a living. Then I was shown the magical door; Literature funding from Creative New Zealand. Grants which enabled NZ writers to write. What a concept! How fantastic. I was in like Flynn.

Six unsuccessful applications later, I stand with my seventh in my hand, in its CNZ marked envelope. Getting a grant means many things to the recipient:
The writing is good, you are a worthy author, you have been acknowledged, you can pay some bills and not have to seek out other crappy jobs to pay for them which take you away from writing. You can pay your provisional tax, the world is a wonderful place and you can afford to be generous of spirit to your fellow writers.

Not getting a grant means many things to the recipient:
The writing is crap, you are crap, you still have to seek out crappy jobs, anyone with a paying job and still getting a grant to boot is crap, anyone who has had successive grants is crap, the IRD are crap, the cat is crap, the world is crap, so is the coffee you just made.

So I open the envelope; me, who donates much time and energy to the world of Children’s Literature for free, me who does have two real novels published by a real publisher and another due out next year, me who passed with Merit in her MA in Creative Writing from the IIML, me who was a judge of Children’s Literature, me who thinks she has paid her dues and her time is due. Me who quite possibly thinks she is far more talented than she is. Me who has tax bills (on what income for Gods sakes?) to pay. I read the results. Crap…

Monday, May 26, 2008


With the news that filming and production of The Hobbit is to be started in Wellington, every very short and overly tall aspiring actor will be thrilled and dusting off their broadswords for possible roles as extras. The artists of Wellington will be similarly excited for the work opportunities about to abound in Miramar. Hobbit feet don’t get made by themselves….
It was remembering my time at Weta Workshop and the piece I wrote about my experience there in 2004 that made me think I should put it up on my blog.
I have been told to be careful what I write here in case publishers decide I could be too difficult to work with; possibly the film industry may think the same. But whilst my postings are written with wry and possibly acerbic humour, I have a lot of respect for the subjects involved and I will never hide, poison pen, behind an anonymous blog. So read and laugh and if you do get a job as an ork, may the pay be mightier than the sword.

I was deep into decorating a bra for the Nelson Wearable Arts Show and deeply disillusioned. After twenty odd years of freelancing, cold calling, and provisional tax demands on an uncertain income, I decided I wanted a real job. You know, one with sick pay, holiday pay and a clearly defined task ahead of me for a daily 8 hour stretch. But what could I do in the NZ scene? Who on earth in their sane mind would employ an artist? (I knew Oscar Wilde was appointed editor of a women’s’ magazine at one point in his career, so the ridiculous could happen.)

Then I had it. Richard Taylor. Weta Workshop was obvious and what’s more, only five minutes drive down the road. Perfick! So I set about a campaign of artistic bombardment that he would not be able to refuse. I put together a portfolio of my Wearable Art collection from the past 8 years- all with a 3d hand crafted cover depicting the White Witch from Narnia, a fingers in many pies C.V and what I hoped was an enrolling letter. I hand delivered it to Camperdown Studios and gave it to a friend there who was heading up a large project. He promised to get it onto Richard’s desk- hopefully on top of the 500 strong pile that accumulates there on a weekly basis. The rest was up to my work samples and the Award Winner himself. Then I went on holiday.

I hoped Richard would remember me fondly as we had met in another life some years previously. I was a presenter on the kids’ programme ‘What Now’. I made things out of egg cartons and sticky tape, hopefully inspiring youth to do likewise and spend their weekends immersed in arts and crafts rather than blobbed out in front of the telly. Mr Taylor was a guest on the show one morning. He had just finished working on the Frighteners and came with his collection of distorted babies and creatures from Brain Dead and Meet The Feebles. He showed New Zealand kids the basics of animatronics and was friendly, humble and passionate about what he did. I really had no particular idea who he was but loved his work, and besides, we had gone to the same design school at different times. Wellington Polytech School of Fame- as I like to think of it. To celebrate his appearance on the show, I made a Drooling Alien, which involved a milk carton, paper plates, paint, glue and a lot of slime in the form of baking soda and vinegar. Unfortunately for me, in my attempt to get out of the house for my 7am makeup call and avoid having my small son see me leave (and therefore be a clingy wreck for his father all morning), I forgot the vinegar. So my alien looked somewhat unspectacular as I tried to emulate frothing sounds live to camera whilst assuring my audience ‘It really does work’. I hoped Richard would forget that bit.

Two weeks later, I got the call to meet the man himself and discuss the opportunity that awaited me. I told everyone; not just because I am vain and egotistical- but because I am the world’s biggest loudmouth and find it hard to keep anything to myself. (Especially when it concerns my private affairs.) If I were ever to become famous enough, no-one would make a cent out of exposing all my life’s secrets to the press. It’s all common knowledge, one sniff of a glass of wine and my mouth only shuts long enough to swallow.

So, for me, signing a confidentiality agreement took something. For those of you hoping to get the inside word on what exactly it was I ended up making at the Workshop, what famous people I met and how anything was done, stop reading now. I don’t have indemnity insurance.

Still with me? Righto. So in short it was all good and three weeks later I started work in Miramar. Now this required a deal of personal organisation. The hours are not for the faint hearted 8am – 6pm, five days a week. For the first time since our children were babies howling for morning feeds, I was up at 6.30am, making my lunch and putting on the Kathmandu jacket and rumpty old jeans that were my to be my Camperdown Couture for three months. The kids were rostered on making dinner a night each per week and I employed a house cleaner to keep on top of the grime. He earned more than me on an hourly cash basis, but it was necessary to my sanity. (Grocery shopping was done once a week only, and we bought a chest freezer to house the store of meat pies and chips that would satisfy the dietary needs of teenagers.)

I arrived for my first day, tools in hand, ready for action. The toolbox was a source of concern to me. Richard had said to bring one, and I was thrown into worry that it wasn’t big enough, didn’t contain the right things and might be sniggered at. So I opted for a selection of files, scissors, a soldering iron, hot glue gun and handy little screwdriver set with a fabulous pokey attachment in it that I later learned was an awl. For those wondering at this point; I was not going to work at Weta Digital. I was off to the factory, where hobbit feet were produced by the thousands and hazardous chemicals are used on a daily basis. I bought a respirator mask in the first week.

I felt proud to be an employee; a working girl of another variety. It was a whole new adventure away from freelancing and the domestic drudgery that working from home assails you with (I could abandon the nagging laundry pile and the mountain of dishes on the bench.) I was a cool Weta artist, (not some housewife in the burbs.) So I was a little nonplussed when my first job was to wash, dry and iron 20 metres of calico.

It takes something to do manual labour. First you have to sit on your ego and squash it firmly into a matchbox-sized thing, then glue it closed. If you open it up at all, little voices will squeak out at you declaring outrage and disbelief; filling your ears with tiresome complaints.
‘I don’t get paid enough, my arms hurt, my feet are cold, I’m hungry and the lunch break is too short’ they’ll whine. ‘ You’re too talented for this, you used to be a designer/ illustrator/ successful /rich /famous/ young….’ they’ll insinuate, appealing to your vanity. ‘What happened to your dream to be a writer?’ they’ll question. But then it’s morning tea so you down tools and head for the lunchroom.

I have to say, Weta is equipped with the best coffee machine in the world. None of these prefabricated milk and cappuccino button jobs which produce a sickly watery mess the like of which you’ll find on the ferries. The management in their wisdom and understanding of the caffeine needs of their staff (because they’ve been there themselves) has installed an espresso machine equal to the sort at any reputable café serving a decent latte. And after my first terror, knowing that you must have to undergo barista training for 6 months, before touching such an altar, I found myself not only able to produce a coffee strong enough to fuel me through the morning, but froth the milk and even do a little heart shaped swirl on the top. The mystery of a flat white for me is now limited to how cafes can charge $3.50 a pop.

The lunch room was a challenge not only for its intro to espresso machines, but as a newbie, I was shy, inarticulate and apologetic for my existence- at least for the first three days. (When discussing this fear of work based eating places with an artist friend, he told me his wonderful tale of how as a school leaver in Tokoroa, he had a brief stint at a ship yard. The cafeteria had a food warmer; you ordered your pie at morning tea and at lunchtime it was there waiting for you, microbes heating nicely. Bob, then a gangly 17 year old, sat down and started munching his pastry. A hushed silence fell over the room. He looked up and found himself staring into the unforgiving eyes of Jim- the biggest meanest tattooed son of a steel worker there ever was, whose pie he had very nearly finished. It’s the unknown hierarchical rules when you’re new that have you worried. Whose pie is in what order, which seats belong to the old timers, are you still welcome in the smokers yard when you gave up years ago?)

At home, in front of my drawing board and computer, my only fight for dominance is with the cat, and he mostly wins, covering my favorite seat with hair and dribble. How do you assert yourself in a new environment when you can’t reach the microwave ? (There are some extraordinary tall people at Weta- I think they are Elvish).

In the end I did what I always do when feeling the underdog. I buried myself in a book. Which bought up that nagging question again ‘When are you going to write?’
I had done an MA in the subject the previous year and had one book published and another accepted for publication for 2005. So what on earth was I doing at an industrial sewing machine for ten hours a day, going home too buggered to talk to the kids or check my e-mails? All around me in the workshop were clever, talented people cutting out leather, riveting things, spray painting polystyrene and casting a myriad of unusual and beautiful items for the movie industry. Young fashion school graduates- and the drop outs, sailors, gardeners, welders, builders, roofers. I’ve never met such a variety of crafts people with such varying backgrounds. All those four year courses in film, television and theatre design that are offered by every institution laying claim to being a university or polytechnic seemed fairly irrelevant in the workshop. What mattered was finding the hole in the fence to get in. You could learn everything else on the job.

After three months, wide-eyed at previews of King Kong and other props, jiggling with quadruple shots of caffeine and sporting the worst case of repetition strain injury to date, I found I had learnt everything I could. I didn’t work in the paint room, or the molding room, or miniatures department. I never cast a single ear or foot. My airbrush lay unused in my tool box and the only thing I found I really needed was a sense of humour. Richard had said to me at the interview; ‘Bring your tool kit, not your baggage’. At 44, I found my baggage sitting on the doorstep every night when I got home. It took the form of my family, three unfinished writing projects and my paintbrushes solidifying with neglect. I was pale and possibly vitamin A, B and C deficient from working in a windowless, sunless environment. Even meeting three movie stars couldn’t make up for what was missing. My life.

You can’t avoid what it is you really want, and sometimes it takes something to see what exactly that is. For me, who has consistently moaned about the precarious nature of her work and with an idealized view of what constitutes a ‘real job’, I found that I actually had it all along. My job is as real as a neurosurgeon’s. We just operate in different realities. As I sit in the spring sunshine, with a pad of paper and contemplating the purchase of a laptop, I am doing what I said I would before I tried to hide away in an industry I was ill-suited for. I am writing, and it feels good.

Note: since writing that piece, I have written the next novel ‘Glory’ which will be published in April 2009 by Scholastic. I have a YA novel on the go and of course my Chick Lit highlighted in a previous post. I am still in the thick of Wearable art (sigh) but that’s just an addiction, not a career.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Zealand Post Book Awards

Last night, I had the very great privilege of standing on stage at the Town Hall with fellow judges, Dylan Owen and Vince Ford to announce the winners of the 2008 New Zealand Post book Awards. Go to: for a full list of the winners. Congratulations to all the finalists and their publishers!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Publishing Down Under

‘Chance favors a prepared mind’ Louis Pasteur

It was at the urging of a good friend and colleague (it’ll be fun, we can drink a lot and gossip all night) that I rashly signed up for a conference. ‘All the Wild Wonders’ was the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 9th National Conference and Expo in Melbourne (2nd- 4th May) . I say rashly because the NZ$900 odd fee, associated airfares and accommodation meant that this effectively null and voided any book publishing income I might receive in a year. Still, I’m not one for sitting back and letting life happen, wondering where it at has all gone wrong, and if this could provide any clues, then I was in.

I’ll bypass the travel details- they remain the same for anyone (hours at departure lounges drinking overpriced under caffeinated coffee) and skip straight to the opening night.
Imagine a couple of hundred librarians in a conference centre gulping down the wine I should have got (but was too slow) and chowing down on the canapés and that was about it, except for a very longwinded book launch of ‘The Australia Book’ (Black Dog Books). Note to publishers: never ever let an academic get hold of an audience outside of a uni lecture theatre. He had them and wasn’t going to give them up in a hurry. I have no idea what he was saying as I had drifted off into a comatose state by the second breath and was distracted by the alcohol I had paid for, slipping down the throats of large, chiffoned ladies all about me. I cast my eye about for gorgeous men, but alas there were none to please my artistic view. I hoped the speeches and eye candy would improve on the morrow.

Friday morning and the conference kicked off with 5 groovy gals by the name of Coco’s Lunch a cappella heaven, singing the theme song: ‘All the Wild Wonders’. They sent a delicious thrill down my spine which was stopped short by the panel on next. The topic ‘Maintaining the Wonder, Why should Books Matter in the 21st Century’, was covered not at all by an ill prepared group of Australian media stars who obviously hadn’t given the topic much thought beyond ‘what’s my fee for this?’ It might well have been entitled ‘Maintaining celebrities, Why should they matter in any century?’ Denise Scott, a comedian on the panel saved herself by declaring she was mostly illiterate and thinking about wine at that particular moment. At least she was honest… and amusing.

We expected the next speaker up next to carry on Denise’s comedy act. With a name like Jack Zipes and promoted as a storyteller, I expected a Dr Seuss character to step up onstage in a funny hat and outrageous tie. He was less outrageous than outraged. A specialist of German at the University of Minnesota who knows everything about fairytales, he commenced with a diatribe on the evils of marketing pointless series books at girls, the flogging of fairies in particular. I squirmed; I am in the throes of creating a fairy series (in my defense Fairy Glad is an environmentalist). Zipes highlighted the extravagant use of ‘miscommunication’ where the publishing industry churns out ghost written crap to a mass market for the sole purpose of selling another book in the series to unsuspecting kiddies. No inherent literary value, no moral justification. He left the audience well told off, and some were actually asleep, but soon woke up to the best comedy juxtaposition that was to happen for the entire weekend. The launch of ‘Go Girl! Free to be Me! A Girl’s Guide to feeling great’ (Various Authors, Hardy Grant Egmont).
‘Milk the cow when it’s full, and when it no longer provides, kill it, skin it and wear it.’
Professor Jack Zipes on the nature of publishers.

I’ve never felt particularly sorry for publishers, particularly as they generally get a wage rise every so often whilst I seem to get poorer by the hour, but I wanted to run on stage and tackle the poor woman to the ground, dragging her off before she made more people snort with ill suppressed laughter. Her speech was as she had written it prior to the Zipean rant. Introducing the gaudy metallic and daisy covered books as a new series for girls each one designed to have the reader want more, she then put on a media presentation with a boppy sound track and little (all white) girls giggling and being ‘besties’. By this stage the audience were shaking in their seats, hands clapped over mouths and squirming with embarrassment for the publisher who soldiered on regardless, reminiscent of a tap dancing child who falls off the stage in a rousing rendition of ‘Yes we have no Bananas’ but carries on with a broken leg, smiling through the pain. The launch was saved, just, by the child psychologist bought on to talk through the series idea. It’ll sell in the thousands. Zipes’ will be pissed.

Wendy Cooling was up next and I wouldn’t go through the speakers one by one except that she made the morning not just bearable but fabulous. She is an English teacher and consultant to a range of children’s publishers, looks and sounds like Miss Marples, Agatha Christie and Miss Jean Brodie all rolled into one prime speaker. You got the feeling you could have a very entertaining night on the gin with her. Commanding, intelligent, warm and witty; a very good choice and antidote.

And so the conference was opened with talks and panels on everything to do with books and publishing. There were more book launches (very odd in a conference setting). A session on ‘The Harry Potter Phenomenon’ bought Sarah Odedina, the Bloomsbury editor to a table with Jack Zipes. He was rude and provocative, she; frosty the snow woman. You just had to imagine them insulting each other in private, Sarah throwing her brandy at Zipes, he spitting on a copy of ‘The Prisoner of Askhaban’ and then the two of them wrestling each other to the floor where they make angry love, tearing at each others hair and reputations. Well maybe at a Romantic Writers Conference. Zipe’s insistence that the Potterian wands waving about were the penis’s of adolescent boys and the resurrection of Harry was religious in its intent had the average Hogwarts fan confused. ‘I thought it was all about wizards at boarding school?’ Perhaps Zipes had been to a boys boarding school himself so knew all about wand fighting.

That evening saw drinking with my editor- that is after I managed to get out of the hotel. Note to self; never go through a fire stop door and hope to emerge anytime soon. It took several minutes of beating on the door until some one opened it and found me in a sweaty lather holding a bottle of Chardonnay wondering if I would ever get out alive. Bugger my pedometer; I shall never take the stairs again.

Shaun Tan was the keynote speaker the next morning. I saw him speak at the Heritage Seminars last year at Storylines; I almost gave him a miss and went shopping, figuring I’d heard it all before. Thank God my dwindling finances that had me think twice about going to Myers, because Shaun Tan was worth every cent of the conference fee. He showed us a picture he did at 5 of a dinosaur. It was a pretty good effort for a new entrant. Then came the one he did at 8. Now I was an advanced sort of artist at 8; good enough to stand out and have my pictures on the wall over and above others. Good enough to get top marks for presentation and consider art for a career, but Tan was a genius. As his work progressed through the years, he showed the kind of observation and creative thinking skills that are bestowed on a few and hard won by fewer. You couldn’t even be jealous; a sure sign of being in then presence of an art God. I could go on, but look for yourself: . I wondered if he had small children to look after; I have always been able to blame mothering on any deficit of perseverance. How can one sit and draw intricate details when kindy pick up is in half an hour? My children are 17 and 20 now and I am running out of excuses. Perhaps all those years of snatched moments, starting and stopping has worn my own attention span down to zero. He was told once that above all the important thing was to ‘finish’. It takes him years, but he does and is the product of concentration, commitment and huge talent. It probably helps that he has publishers who want him too; incentive is a marvelous thing.

When my daughter was a little tot, I read a book called ‘Messy Baby’ to her again and again. We both enjoyed it hugely and she is still as untidy now at 20 as the baby in the book by Jan Ormerod. Jan took the podium and I was in love for the second time that morning. Bought up in Western Australia but living in the U.K, Jan is prolific, talented and forthright. There was just a lick of sadness too, which made for wondering about her life, which career wise has been massively successful, but hinted at relationships that weren’t. I encountered her again on a discussion panel entitled ‘I know what I like- when illustration is art’ where she gave a fine illustrated talk about the Wyeths; N.C, Andrew and Jamie, three generations of American artists working in a realist style. If the audience had hoped to see more of her work, she disappointed, but more than made up for it with intelligent observation and comparison. I learned a lot and came away questioning that age old ‘is it art?’ conundrum again. Coming from such a commercial art background I have always discredited what I do. The meaning of that gorgeous peach I just drew? It meant the art director wanted a peach and had a budget of $200. I feel nothing doing it except relief that I can pay another bill. When you ‘feel’ your art and have others ‘feel’ it too, now that’s a different matter.

The same goes for writing which is where I muddle the conference order and go directly to Neil Gaiman. . Looked like a rock star- well we are talking about a conference starved of men, so it didn’t take much, but Neil was definitely more appealing than what we had seen so far. A top writer in modern comics, prolific in prose, poetry, film, journalism, song writing and drama, Gaiman is U.K born and lives in Minnesota. He came well prepared to the microphone, just after our own Bernard Beckett launched ‘Genesis’ in a forceful, passionate yet comedic manner. Hard work when you know the Australian audience are thinking ‘Bernard who?’ and ‘Let’s just get on with Gaiman.’ There were no pictures (the comic-mad chick next to me with a little folder of her own cartoons looked a little put out), but there were poems and anecdotes and stories and we were all entranced. I was prepared not to like him because he is so successful and I am not, but as with Tan, you couldn’t help but appreciate there are others in the world who create and finish their work and publishers who take a chance and get it out to the world. I came away feeling an urge to write fantasy; how bizarre.

And as for the rest of the conference? There was a fancy dinner, then more panels the next day, some of which were well prepared and some of which were not. There were also many trade stands where I found no publisher wanted to talk to you unless you were a teacher librarian and planning to buy for the school. The minute you said you were writer they backed away in dread in case you whipped out a manuscript and thrust it at them. I introduced myself to Walker Books as a judge for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, pointing out Tina Matthews Book ‘Out of the Egg’; one of our picture book finalists this year. If I had hoped for a ‘thank you for increasing our sales’, I was out of luck, she merely asked what school I was with and would I like to go on the mailing list. The only stand holder who showed any interest was when I pulled out the TV presenter card. She even pretended to have seen me; like you would in Australia for ten minutes on a Tuesday morning when all ockers are still asleep and The Good Morning Show airs in NZ. I decided after a while I could pretend to be anyone or anything. The devil gets into me in situations like that and urges me to tell strangers that I have my own chat show, or run a publishing house, or that I’m a ministerial writer. As a Kiwi it is very hard to impress a bunch of Australians, perhaps it’s because we make so many jokes about them. But I can tell you: they may have been unimpressed with us, but I came away with immense pride for our New Zealand Authors and Illustrators who struggle to make a buck in our tiny industry here. We produce some incredibly high quality work against the odds. We continue to come up with the goods, support each others efforts and battle away to get better production quality and consistency in a country that can only buy a few thousand copies of each run. We don’t have wombats on every page. Or white kids.

The (almost) absence of Aboriginal writers and artists at the conference in either the audience or the speakers was glaring to my New Zealand eye. The only nod to the indigenous population was from a white point of view. The Aboriginal people as ‘the other.’ We haven’t got it all right here, but it’s not all wrong either. But as with all endeavors, highlighted by the speakers I heard; you have to work hard- it doesn’t just fall into your lap. Success is the combination of skill, perseverance and hard work- and sometimes the gods favor you and put opportunity there to trip over. You are a fool if you ignore it.

On a final note, the only thing that felt really familiar about the CBCA conference was that it was run very expertly and quite brilliantly by a band of volunteers. And as a committee member for the Storylines Festival and the Wellington Children’s Book Association, I know what that takes. A New Zealand writer and artist earns and average of $20,000 . Factor in that many of us work in a volunteer capacity to support our industry and pay to attend any industry forums that may help to educate and extend us and given that reading is a fundamental skill for life, isn’t it about time these kind of events were more publicly funded?