Who’s to Blame?

I was going to spend this post systematically going through all of Louise Adler’s terrible arguments against ebooks in this weekend’s National Times, or perhaps manufacture some kind of conspiracy theory because the comments on her post were closed after only three hours … but I’ve decided I’ve done enough immature ranting and name calling when it comes to the anachronistic dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

Instead I’d like to focus on a point that Ms Adler raised that I think is quite valid. That is: the range of books available to ebook buyers in Australia. Adler was specifically referring to the Kindle’s range, but it can be almost guaranteed that the same problems will plague Apple’s iPad when it launches in Australia later this month.

Snip:

The catalogue is insular and American. Its vast catalogue is composed of obscure backlists and out-of-copyright titles and a disturbingly comprehensive list of self-published authors. Despite the belated local release of the device, no Australian titles are available in the Kindle “store”.

Aside from the fact that Adler is technically incorrect here (there are plenty of Australian titles available in the Kindle store), her frustration is understandable when you compare the Australian offering (less than 300,000 titles, a big chunk of which are out of copyright) with the fully fledged US Kindle Store (of over 450,000 titles). So who’s to blame for this situation?

I’ve read a lot of Australian commentary on the topic, and people (especially anonymous blog commenters) really like to say ‘they’. You know what I mean. ‘They really need to sort this out before they lose customers’. The slightly more informed split their contempt between Amazon and Australian publishers. Says one commenter on the tech blog, Gizmodo, ‘Amazon wants everyone to buy ebooks from them, so it’s obviously the publishers that are causing the problem.’ And another, responding to the same article: ‘Amazon does need to drag its rear into being global if it wants happy customers.’

Jasper Jones, by the Australian author Craig Silvey, is not available from the Australian Kindle store, nor the UK or       US store. It is, for some reason though, available in France. And on Boomerang     in paper.

The truth is that the situation has more than one side. Amazon can be given a pretty healthy portion of the blame for launching an ‘international’ Kindle without planning their relationships with local publishers first. Most of the publishing people I know in Australia knew about the release of the Kindle in Australia at the same time as the average punter who wanted to buy one. Amazon rushed in with half a Kindle store, and then sat back as Kindle buyers blamed publishing companies for the lack of content.

Publishers, on the other hand, do not get off scot free. In Australia, the importation of books by bookstores is restricted by parallel importation laws. Your local bookshop cannot buy a hundred crate-loads of Wilbur Smith books from the UK and then sell them on to you. However, there’s nothing stopping you from buying Assegai yourself from the US or the UK when you want it and at the cheapest price you can get it. This arrangement protects Australian publishers’ profits (the bulk of which comes from bookshops), and to some extent gives them the money to invest in publishing local Australian authors. It is territorial copyright backed up with legal import restrictions. However, this does not apply to ebooks. At all. There is currently no law stopping you from buying ebooks from international ebookstores, including the Kindle store. Nonetheless, almost all of these stores restrict people from buying books outside the copyright territory of their home country anyway.

Why? I don’t know for sure. It’s likely a combination of pressure from big international publishing corporations, and self-regulation to avoid legal import restrictions on ebooks. To an ordinary book buyer, however, this situation must seem absolutely absurd. Why should the format of the book (electronic or paper) determine whether or not you can legally buy it from Australia over the internet? The answer is that it shouldn’t. But it does. Doesn’t this go against the very idea of ebooks (and as Louise Adler so deftly put it – the ‘democratisation of knowledge’)? Probably, yes.

What this issue comes down to is the same question that fuelled the parallel importation debate that was getting publishers and booksellers all riled up last year. Do Australian publishers need protection, and if so, should they be protected? What is more important – cheap, convenient access to books, or the future viability of unique Australian stories (not to mention the jobs of editors, printers, typesetters and authors in this country)? There are no clear cut answers to these questions, but thinking about them is a lot more interesting than just shaking your fist at ‘them’ and pointing the finger.

Win a copy of JASPER JONES!

To celebrate the release of Jasper Jones, Boomerang Books is teaming up with Allen and Unwin to give three lucky blog readers the chance to win a copy of the novel. Now, the characters of Jasper Jones pose each other ‘would you rather this or that’ hypothetical situations (one of the reader favourites is “which could you rather live your life with, penises for fingers or a hat on your head made of poisonous spiders?”). To enter this Boomerang Books Blog-exclusive competition, all you have to do is email me your very own hypothetical – it’s that simple. My favourite three before next e-newsletter will win a copy of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones.

Sneak peak inside JASPER JONES

Last week, I interviewed Craig Silvey, and this week, I thought, to keep the momentum going, I’d treat you all to an excerpt from Craig’s latest, Jasper Jones. To me, books (and films and TV programmes) fall into two distinct categories. Some, I merely consume. In other words: they’re not all that amazing. But others… when I put them down, I’m inspired. It’s like they’ve lit a spark in me and I’m compelled to write something fantastic. Their brilliance is almost contagious. I mean, sure, I’m a creative type, and someone may be affected by the same book in a different way, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are affecting.

Jasper Jones is one of those books. Powerful, well-written, engrossing. Here’s a sample taken from the book’s opening:

Jasper Jones has come to my window.
I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.
This is the hottest summer I can remember, and the thick heat seems to seep in and keep in my sleepout. It’s like the earth’s core in here. The only relief comes from the cooler air that creeps in between the slim slats of my single window. It’s near impossible to sleep, so I’ve spent most of my nights reading by the light of my kerosene lamp.
Tonight was no different. And when Jasper Jones rapped my louvres abruptly with his knuckle and hissed my name, I leapt from my bed, spilling my copy of Pudd’nhead Wilson.
‘Charlie! Charlie!’
I knelt like a sprinter, alert and fearful.
‘Who is it?’
‘Charlie! Come out here!’
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s Jasper!’
‘What? Who?’
‘Jasper. Jasper!’ and he pressed his face right up into the light.
His eyes green and wild. I squinted.
‘What? Really? What is it?’
‘I need your help. Just come out here and I’ll explain,’ he whispered.
‘What? Why?’
‘Jesus Christ, Charlie! Just hurry up! Get out here.’
And so, he’s here.
Jasper Jones is at my window.
Shaken, I clamber onto the bed and remove the dusty slats of glass, piling them on my pillow. I quickly kick into a pair of jeans and blow out my lamp. As I squeeze headfirst out of the sleepout, something invisible tugs at my legs. This is the first time I’ve ever dared to sneak away from home. The thrill of this, coupled with the fact that Jasper Jones needs my help, already fills the moment with something portentous.
My exit from the window is a little like a foal being born. It’s a graceless and gangly drop, directly onto my mother’s gerbera bed. I emerge quickly and pretend it didn’t hurt.
It’s a full moon tonight, and very quiet. Neighbourhood dogs are probably too hot to bark their alarm. Jasper Jones is standing in the middle of our backyard. He shifts his feet from right to left as though the ground were smouldering.
Jasper is tall. He’s only a year older than me, but looks a lot more. He has a wiry body, but it’s defined. His shape and his muscles have already sorted themselves out. His hair is a scruff of rough tufts. It’s pretty clear he hacks at it himself.
Jasper Jones has outgrown his clothes. His button-up shirt is dirty and fit to burst, and his short pants are cut just past the knee. He wears no shoes. He looks like an island castaway.
He takes a step towards me. I take one back.
‘Okay. Are you ready?’
‘What? Ready for what?’
‘I tole you. I need your help, Charlie. Come on.’ His eyes are darting, his weight presses back.
I’m excited but afraid. I long to turn and wedge myself through the horse’s arse from which I’ve just fallen, to sit safe in the hot womb of my room. But this is Jasper Jones, and he has come to me.

Interview with CRAIG SILVEY

Those who were reading the blog’s coverage of the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival know that I went to see Craig Silvey not once, but twice. The first time, I went at the request of e-newsletter subscriber, Jessica, who couldn’t make it to the Coming of Age session herself (click HERE for my thoughts on it). The second time I went to see Craig, however, I went as a fan. A fan of him, not of his work, I hadn’t gotten around to reading Jasper Jones in the twenty-four hours since I’d seen him last. He was one of those authors that seemed quietly confident on stage, who don’t resort to shamelessly plugging themselves by beginning each sentence with, “Well, I’m a successful author” (yes, I’ve heard authors say it), and he was great to watch.

Well, now having read Jasper Jones, I can say I’m a fan of both Craig the person, and Craig the author. That quiet, subtle vibrancy of his personality translates onto the page. It’s definitely worth a read, if just to see what all the fuss is about. Haven’t heard the fuss? Well, in 2005, Craig was named as one of The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Novelists. His debut, Rhubarb, was selected as the inaugural book for the ‘One Book’ series of events at the 2005 Perth International Arts Festival. He is, in short, a big deal.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with Craig earlier in the week for an interview. Okay, that’s a lie. Well, technically it’s true… we sat down, just not anywhere near each other (thanks to the joys of email). So, to continue the streak of exclusive author interviews here on the Boomerang Blog, I give you Craig Silvey…

Rhubarb was both a critical and commercial success – as you worked on it, did you ever anticipate that it would be received like it was?

Rhubarb exceeded my expectations by getting published in the first place. I was always aware of how difficult it is to get published, particularly without solicitation, so i felt very very grateful to have been given that opportunity. Everything that happened beyond that has been a real blessing. I’ve been very fortunate to have a wealth of support from a community of readers and industry peers, who have helped give Rhubarb such an amazing shelf life, which has meant, more than anything, I’ve been able to keep writing.

You mentioned at the Sydney Writers’ Festival that you were making notes on Rhubarb back when you were 16 – how long did it take you to write the first draft, and were there any significant changes that you made in the editing process?

When I started Rhubarb, I was so naive about the process that I thought I’d have it finished in a few months. I didnt write the last sentence for another three years – and I still have no idea what im doing. Rhubarb is actually a longer book for having been edited. There were a number of threads that needed more engagement and clarification, so it was more a process of fleshing out, rather than trimming the fat, which was my experience with Jasper Jones.

Speaking of Jasper Jones, how would you pitch it in one sentence?

A regional Southern Gothic Coming-Of-Age story about two boys with a secret, searching for the truth in a town that trades on myth.

What drew you to writing a “Southern Gothic”-style book set in Australia?

Initially it was no more than the fact that I wanted to have a go. I’ve always adored Southern Gothic fiction. There’s something very warm and generous about those regional American writers like Twain and Lee and O’Connor, and it seemed to be a literary ilk that would lend itself well to the Australian condition. It was only after the themes announced themselves, and I realised where the book was headed that it seemed so apt and important to have these literary elements.

Out of Jasper, Charlie and Jeffrey – which one is most like Craig Silvey? Is there anything autobiographical about any of them, or any of your other characters for that matter?

I like to think I’m fairly evenly distributed through the three boys, though Charlie probably bears the larger share of my character, simply because we come to know him so well. Like Charlie, I was a bookish kid who was terrified of girls and insects but like Jeffrey Lu, I was also a cheeky, unflappable little antagoniser. I think, though, as I grow older, I’m evolving more and more into Jasper Jones: a little quieter, a little stronger, and a little more solitary.

So many hypotheticals spring up over the course of Jasper Jones, so, I pose to you one of my favourites: which could you rather live your life with, penises for fingers or a hat on your head made of poisonous spiders?

Spider hat. Hands down.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

Twain or Vonnegut.

Most annoying thing about being an author?

It’s far less annoying for me than it is for those closest to me. It’s hard being an author, but it’s harder knowing and loving an author. George Orwell said: Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And it’s unfortunately true. It’s something you’re beset by, it’s like some kind of seductive parasite that takes you over and wont leave you be. It’s not like other jobs where you can leave your woes at the office. It’s a very private battle. A very mild, genial form of schizophrenia. These characters and their story sort of take you over, and you delve further and further into their lives. And soon they’re taking more of your time and your nutrients, and you’re inhabiting this fictional world with a closer focus than the one you’re supposed to be living.

And, of course, that leaves less and less time for the real people in the real world who rightly expect to be an important part of your life. And you hope that they understand, or at the very least stay patient, but all they really know is that you’re absent when it counts. And so you want to tell them that it’s worth it, you want to show them what’s roiling inside your head, but of course you cant. You’ve got to wait it out and see it through. And so there’s this communal faith and patience, and more than enough teeth gritting, and in the end, you present this pound of flesh, and you hope that it might help reward that faith, that it might be worth it, that it might make these precious people proud. Because if it doesn’t, then you’re kinda just a self-centred douchebag.

If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

The first novel I ever wrote, when I was fourteen years old. It was as hideously and hilariously bad as it was earnestly epic. And it was called The Drug Warden. Enough said.

The last Australian book you read?

Breath, by Tim Winton.

Craig Silvey is one of our Featured Authors of the Month for June, and to celebrate, Boomerang Books is joining forces with our friends at Allen and Unwin to give blog readers the chance to win one of three copies of Craig’s newest release, Jasper Jones, so keep your eyes on the blog for competition details. It will be announced separately to our monthly giveaway, details for which can be found HERE.

As an aside, I’m really loving interviewing authors as part of our new, revitalised Boomerang Blog, and I hope you’re enjoying reading the interviews just as much. That said, do you have a particular Australian author you’d like us to interview? Send me an email, and I’ll see what I can do. 🙂

Sydney Writers’ Festival: Saturday

Ah… the joys of non-ticketed events. I’d hoped to squeeze my way into four events, but only managed to get into two (apologies to e-newsletter subscriber, Amanda, who didn’t get her request…).

Research and Writing requested by e-newsletter subscriber Lisa
Paul Ham, Catherine Jinks and Babette Smith were shortlisted for ‘The Nib’: CAL Waverley Library Award for Literature, which recognises excellence in research. They joined Ashley Hay, a former literary editor of The Bulletin in discussion.

It was an interesting session. I’m not a big history buff, so I wasn’t expecting to have the time of my life or Vietnamanything, but I was pleasantly surprised. The three speakers were great – informative and entertaining.

Memorable moments

Paul Ham detailed how he went about interviewing former Vietnamese soldiers for his Vietnam: The Australian War. To get them to stop repeating the party line they’d been towing for forty years, he joked that he would “ply them with Jacobs Creek until they conceded defeat.”

The Reformed Vampire Support GroupCatherine Jinks on writing her first real protagonist in her historical fiction, The Dark Mountain: “She was real, and she has descendants who post on my message board… I live in fear of retribution.”

Ham mentioned the two conflicting forces acting inside him when he finds a great, entertaining historical story to write about – the academic push and the journalistic pull. On the one hand, the academic thing to do is to push really interesting stories aside, because it means these might be represented with more emphasis than they deserve, because you’re captured by how entertaining it is. On the other hand, there’s the journalist inside of him saying, “That’s a great story, put it on the front page!” Writing non-fiction is about “finding the correct conAustralia's Birthstaintext for a great story in history.”

Babette Smith revealed and shattered some of the distortions and myths about convicts in Australia… I’d go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil Australia’s Birthstain for you.

Overall, three very entertaining speakers. Plus, I caught up with Catherine after the session, and it looks like she’ll be stopping by for an author interview next month. 🙂

Craig Silvey In Conversation requested by… well, me.
Craig Silvey’s blindingly successful first novel, Rhubarb, sold over 15,000 copies and saw him acknowledged as one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. He talked about his second novel, Jasper Jones with Daniel Stacey.

Jasper JonesAfter catching Craig yesterday, I wanted to see him again. He was in the same room as Research and Writing, just after it finished, so I took it as a sign and stayed put. He read the opening of his book, and spoke about his influences a little more than he did yesterday, but I’m going to sit on those details for a little bit, and save them for our interview with Craig next month.

Memorable moments

Craig: …What, you seem… you seem disappointed by that answer. Wasn’t it good?
Daniel: No… it was fine. It’s just… I was worrying [looking at clock on the wall showing there’s 35 minutes left in the session]. I’ve only got one question left…

Sydney Writers’ Festival: Coming of Age

“I don’t write children’s books, my books just happen to be about children.”
– Sonya Hartnett

At the request of e-newsletter subscriber, Jessica, I woke up early – well, early for a university student – and made my way into the Sydney CBD for the 1p.m. Writers’ Festival session, Coming of Age featuring award-winning authors Sonya Hartnett and Craig Silvey, which was facilitated by Melanie Ostell.

As someone who sat through countless author visits in high school, I’ve always been wary about listening to authors give talks. Sometimes, they’re fantastic in front of a crowd, just as you’d imagined them, but sometimes, the author on the page is different to the author on the stage.

Thankfully, Hartnett and Silvey were every bit as engaging and entertaining as I thought they’d be. That’s not to say they were jumping around on stage in a showy, look-at-me-I’m-a-performer kind of way. They sat, relaxed, and carefully took turns in answering facilitator Melanie’s questions (and kudos to Melanie, she asked all the right questions). It was a very laid-back session, and it was so interesting to hear Sonya and Craig speak frankly (and with such wit) about their artistic processes, and the life experiences that inspired their latest works, Butterfly and Jasper Jones respectfully.

Jasper JonesCraig Silvey read from his Jasper Jones, and as a teen boy myself (for what? 9 more days…), I can tell you that he’s captured our verbal exchanges and attitudes expertly ([After spilling something in the living room] “He mops it up with a cushion”). Later in the session, after recounting a joke from the book which involved the hypothetical choice between living life wearing a hat made of with poisonous spiders or living life having each finger replaced with a certain male appendage, he remarked, matter-of-factly, “My book is deep,” and I knew, right then and there, that I’d be a life-long fan of his.

“Women come out looking pretty bad…”
– Melanie Ostell on Butterfly

ButterflyGirl politics features heavily in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, and when asked about teenage girls and their penchant for bitchery, Hartnett had some fun (“Sometimes you see it and you’re just like… ‘Arrghh, you little cretins.'”). She based the manuscript on the teen-girl relations she witnessed twenty years ago (when the novel is set). She gave the first draft to her fourteen-year-old neighbour, Matilda, and after finishing it, Matilda approached her and asked, “How did you know how the girls at [school’s name] acted?” So, clearly, nothing’s changed in the world of teen-girl relations. Hartnett joked that no-one ever admits to being the schoolyard bitch – grab one hundred middle-aged women and ask them, and they’ll all say they were the girls that suffered through high school. “Where do those girls go [after high school]? Do they just disappear?”

Melanie asked Craig for his thoughts, to which he replied, “I’m relieved I have a penis… [teen girl fights] seem like condensed Cold Wars”.

To steer the conversation to the subject of the session, coming of age, Melanie remarked, “Both books feature younger characters learning things they can’t fully understand… for many years to come.” The two were then invited to engage with the topic.

Sonya spoke frankly about her protagonist: “Plum’s a moron.” Cue the audience’s laughter. Then, she continued, “You’re not writing them, you’re writing to the reader. You’re saying, ‘Look, what is being learnt here?’ I’m not asking Plum to understand. At fourteen, no kid will understand what’s going on… The character is something through which you address the reader.”

Craig threw in his two cents, adding that coming of age isn’t necessarily becoming an adult. It’s something different. When you’re a teenager, you’re “a strange midget drunk living in a bubble” (his words), and the moment that bubble bursts, and you’re forced to see the world differently, and see the world through other people’s eyes, and you’ve become more empathetic, and leartn to distrust things, and created your own world-view, instead of just subscribing to others’ – that’s when you’ve come of age. Becoming an adult is simply aging, but becoming “of age” is earning that age through wisdom.

“People who read are the finest people in the world.”
– Craig Silvey

And he wasn’t just sucking up to ensure every member of the audience bought his book either. He went on to explain that readers come of age through the process of reading, and experiencing life through other people’s lenses.

So, go on. Get reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see Wendy Harmer.