Wellington author interview: Pip Adam

Author image by Victoria Birkinshaw

Spacious open plan living. Nest or invest. Classy urban retreat. If you’ve spent a bit of time browsing real estate brochures, you’ve probably read these words before. But there’s another, darker story of renting and home ownership in New Zealand, one without floor plans or glossy full-page photos: The New Animals, by Pip Adam.

Adam’s work has appeared in a range of journals and anthologies, with her short story collection Everything We Hoped For published in 2010 and her debut novel I’m Working on a Building in 2013. She’s been described as “the woman who is making literature subversive fun in this country again… The most wired-in to the seething discontent below the housing bubble.” So put down the brochure and get a copy of The New Animals today!

The blurb for The New Animals references intergenerational tension, however the story also looks at tensions of class, wealth and gender. What was it like shaping a story around these conflicts?

I always think conflict and complexity give ‘life’ to stories. It seems like a boringly obvious thing to say but it is also constantly a surprise to me. I often use writing to sort out things that confuse me about life and I guess confusion is often a state of conflict for me – one idea against another, or maybe things acting in ways that don’t gel with my world view that cause a disruption to the things I believe and understand. For me it is always scary writing about people who I am not, but I have always loved the idea of trying to imagine myself into a mindset that seems confusing to me. Like often I might see someone do something and I have this idea that people always act in ways they see as ‘good’ or ‘right’. I’ve met lots of people and no one ever seems to make decisions by thinking ‘this is wrong thing to do’, even people who have broken the law. So yeah, I am always interested in trying to imagine myself into a mindset that would see decisions I see as odd as the ‘right’ decision.​ I enjoyed it particularly in this work because it was a bit like Sudoko or those tile puzzles, where someone would act and there would be a domino tumble of other people being forced to act.

You recently talked about your relationship with fashion – its power and ability to answer societal questions, but also its environmental impact. How did you approach this in The New Animals, especially with fashion playing such a large role in the story?

I am really interested in design of all types, particularly the form and function, or form versus function. Before I started the book I had this love of fashion which I think was a hangover from my hairdressing days. Like I loved seeing how fashion changed and yeah, also I really like looking at beautiful things. For this book I started taking a more intense interest. I became a rampant foll​ower of fashionable people and people in the fashion industry. I just consumed everything I could. I visited shops as well, touched the clothes, saw them on the hangar and on people. I was also really interested in the history of fashion and some of the theories around fashion. I am especially obsessed with the work of Rei Kawakubo and the way she deconstructs the human form. I love the play of her work but also the real seriousness and almost horror of some of her work. I am also quite obsessed with Alexander McQueen’s life and work – in a lot of cases the violence of it. One of the hard things about writing about fashion is that it is often talked about in quite ‘light’ ways. I had to read very deeply to find the language that had weight and importance. There is a risk that fashion can seem shallow because, I think, it is ephemeral and seems to be about adornment when often it is about so much more.

The New Animals is very grounded in Auckland. How do you think the city’s geography helped with the story?

I really love Auckland. I grew up there and I visit a lot.​ It’s interesting you ask about geography because I think it is a really interesting city that way. Like you have that massive volcanic basin that is the harbour and then you have that network of volcanoes that have formed Mt Wellington and Mt Eden and, yeah, I often think of Auckland as this volatile place. My parents live close to Stonefields which is a development built on the site of an old quarry. Auckland has this feeling for me of land acted on. Land in flux, land in change and to me this book is a lot about that, about change and fluidity and evolution and I think walking around Auckland, travelling over it which I did heaps of for this book it’s impossible not to feel that. For instance, the train I catch a lot from Glen Innes travels over the Orakei Basin, this incredibly changeable place. If the tide is in, it looks like a body of water, but when the tide is out it transforms into this muddy almost wasteland. Everything that was covered by the water is exposed. I like that as an image as well, the way things can be exposed by changes in environment. Tides are a big part of my thinking around this book. The way the moon pulls these huge bodies of water around, the way they kind of create these weather patterns deep below us. And then don’t even get me started about how humans began as fish, how the ocean must have some strange pull on us still.

One aspect that really stood out was the friendship between Carla and Duey, with the contrast between their interactions and their personal thoughts, and their awareness of the friendship’s decline. Was this relationship a difficult one to write?

For a long time, in the writing process, Carla and Duey had been lovers and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. We so often place the ‘sex’ relation above all other intimate relationships. I am really interested in friendship. I find it so interesting. What keeps friendships alive is so complicated but also so purely unselfish. I liked the idea that Carla and Duey were at a stage where the relationship (as if it were a separate thing from the two people in it) was in decline, like despite all their care and thought for each other nothing was going to save it. It was difficult to write because I don’t read many books about friendships that are like that, so in a way the models I had were very much about love and sex relationships. So it took some sorting out, like some real close work. The other thing that I loved about writing that relationship is that I think it is pretty cool how humans can think one thing and then act in a better way. I love how we do that for each other. I guess also, finally, I was interested in deconstructing some of the ‘work’ we do in human relationships. Like, I find people pretty confusing sometimes, a lot of the relating stuff doesn’t come automatically to me. So, I am often thinking a lot about what the right thing to say is or what a person is saying (like actually saying). It was fun to make some of that work apparent, to sort of uncover that and show it.

Reviews of The New Animals have generated some discussion about New Zealand literature and the reviewing process. What has it been like seeing the passion your work has brought out in people?

Writing is a weird thing. I really like the part of writing that takes place in a room by myself. I love working on something, like really working on something – crafting it and messing it up and having to fix it and ​living with it. I find I get so ‘into’ that work (like I literally feel like I climb inside the story) that I forget that other people will read it. So yeah, sometimes publication is a bit of a shock. Like I remember after my first book was published someone I didn’t know said to me, ‘I read your book,’ and I was like, ‘I never said you could.’ I just forget that people will read it. So, it’s pretty amazing when people I respect say they like what I’ve written. People will email me and tell me in person and it means heaps because I’ve sort of ‘shown my hand’ as a human. I’ve said, ‘I made this. I think this is how life is awesome,’ and when someone says, ‘I see what you’ve made and it made me think this is how I think life is awesome,’ that is just incredible. I love how art can do that and I’m not sure much else can. I put a lot of stake in passion. I love the way, in my life, I have been granted the opportunity to come into contact with many people who make me feel passionate and I just get fired up about the idea that our work sort of sparks off each other. Like no matter what is going on. No matter what other people are saying about our work, we can sustain ourselves. It’s like the biggest collaboration. Because although I love those times by myself working, I am never far from the work of others, I will be reading those writers to keep me going, to keep me passionate.

Pip Adam's The New Animals

Wellington author interview: Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager has influenced a generation of readers with her politically astute, emotionally rich YA novels, including The Crossing and The Nature of Ash. But it’s her recent historical novel, Heloise, that’s been causing a stir this year. Described as “brilliant” by the Listener, Heloise tells the story of 12th century lovers Heloise d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard, and the politics and attitudes they must negotiate during the Gregorian Reforms.

You’ve mentioned that you spent 18 months researching before starting to write Heloise. Were there any particular discoveries that stood out for you, or altered your approach?

Two things really impacted on how I ultimately told the story. The first was a very good piece of advice from academic Dr Constant Mews, who recommended I read as many of the texts Heloise would have read as possible, as all her writing is steeped in references to them. This really enriched the story, especially when I discovered her love of Ovid’s Heroides and saw how I could use it as a mirror for her own story. It was also a really good reminder that, though the incidentals of the 12th century are different, human emotion is consistent across time.

The second thing was discovering the politics that lay behind the story, which made the actions make sense and put them into context. This proved crucial to cracking open the various character’s motivations.

From early on, Heloise fights against the notion that as a woman, she must “learn in silence with all subjection.” How did this struggle, and its on-going relevance, influence your telling of the story?

For a start, the whole act of writing her story countered this: giving her back her voice and own personal agency. Thematically, it taps into several strands I wanted to focus on: the systematic silencing of women across the ages; the effects of church and state power and control, especially as it affected women; and on a craft level, the challenge of telling a story that still has pace and action when the central character is cloistered away and mainly interacts through letters and hearsay.

How difficult was it to capture the voice, thoughts and feelings of a character from the 12th century? Especially someone with Heloise’s background?

As I mentioned above, by reading what Heloise read, it helped me find appropriate ways of expressing her feelings through the literature of her day. Plus, I had the advantage of her letters, which gave me an insight into how she put words on a page and thought. I wrote the whole first draft in a kind of heightened 17th century voice to try and get away from modern concepts, metaphors and language. It didn’t work from a readers point of view (too dense and saccharine) but it helped me make the shift in my head and meant that when I rewrote my head was much more seated in the language and thought constructions of the time. That said, it’s amazing how hard it is to pick up all the modern words and ideas – and I’m extremely grateful to the team of editors and readers for digging them out!

In terms of feelings, once the situation is defined by its context, then it’s just a matter of imagining myself into the character’s head and focussing on what would be the most truthful human reaction to each situation. I think we make a mistake thinking people back then thought in a less emotionally sophisticated way. Heloise’s letters make it clear nothing changes in the history of the heart!

How did writing historical fiction compare with writing stories set in the near future, such as The Nature of Ash?

One’s solely based on imagining a future, with the ability to reference current culture as a kind of shorthand for what’s going on. Historical fiction requires a lot more digging around for shorthand references that are pertinent to the day but still resonate with today’s readers. Another less delicate way of putting this is, in books like The Nature of Ash (which I’m currently writing a sequel to) I’m free to make shit up! That’s a whole lot easier!

Does your approach to writing fiction such as Heloise differ to your approach to writing young adult fiction?

I think when writing young adult fiction there’s an overriding need for pace that is more pressing than adult fiction, along with the need for a young adult protagonist, but overall I don’t think there is that much difference. It’s still a matter of digging into character and trying to bring them alive on the page.

Has Heloise had an on-going influence on your own life, writing or politics?

Most undoubtedly all three! It’s by far the hardest book I’ve ever written (in terms of both its scope and the amount of time it took) and I had to dig really deep to keep going and not give up. I think the gift of the residencies I had during the time meant I felt a great deal of personal pressure to perform and come up with the goods, and though that was exhausting and at times overwhelming, I’m proud of myself for persevering! But I think it’s also taught me a lot as a writer, mainly thanks to my amazing editor, Harriet Allan, who really pushed me (in the best possible way) and I’m hoping that the lessons I’ve learned transfer through to all my writing in the future. The politics have had a huge impact. It’s depressing to realise the very same issues Heloise struggled with are still evident today, and we seem no closer to really solving them. We rabbit on a lot about how we should use history to learn how to progress and improve human lives, but the truth is we’ll go on making the same mistakes over and over – and the same people will continue to be oppressed – if we don’t actually heed the lessons and make a concerted effort to implement change. Heloise’s courage in speaking her truths and supporting those around her is one I now try even harder to emulate as a result of this.

Kerry’s Fiction Picks: An interview with Richard Jackson

rsz_confessions-revised_2Last week I suggested the upcoming novel from writer Richard Jackson, Confessions of a Terrorist.  He was delighted to have his novel mentioned by Wellington City Libraries and offered us the chance to interview him about his new book and the topic of terrorism.  Jackson is a Professor of Peace Studies at Otago University; he has written extensively on terrorism – journal articles, academic books and chapters.  Jackson also edits a journal on terrorism,  Critical studies on Terrorism, and maintains his own blog on the subject.

So how could we say no to the chance to hear more about this exciting book!?  Here’s what he had to say.

2rsz_1portrait_-_rj-5On your blog you talk about wanting to give a glimpse into a terrorist’s mind, to humanise them and present a terrorist as a fully formed person with feelings and ideas.  Was this your main motivation for writing a fictional novel about terrorism?

Humanising ‘terrorists’ was definitely one of the main motivations for writing the novel. It is a feature of our current society that ‘terrorists’ have been thoroughly dehumanised and demonised, largely through the medium of politics and culture, including in most contemporary literature about terrorism. The danger of dehumanising any group of people – terrorists, murderers, paedophiles, gang members – is that it frequently results in human rights abuses and the erosion of civil liberties more broadly. The consequence of so thoroughly dehumanising ‘terrorists’ in recent years, for example, has been the spread of torture, rendition, targeted killings, mass surveillance, the erosion of habeas corpus, and other insidious illiberal practices. More prosaically, of course, the dehumanisation of ‘terrorists’ is a misrepresentation of reality and factually incorrect. They are not inhuman creatures; they are flesh and blood and completely human in the way you and I are. I know this in part because I’ve talked to people who were convicted of terrorism and have since been released. I’ve even invited them to speak at my conferences. From one perspective then, my novel is an attempt to address this widespread cultural misperception and break down the stereotypes that have arisen about ‘terrorists’ and their motivations. As I argue in the introduction to the book, I believe that this is a necessary first step towards finding a more productive and positive way of responding to acts of politically motivated violence, one that doesn’t involved sacrificing our social and political values in the process.

Had a story been forming in your mind while you went about your academic career?  Were you inspired by the people you encountered through your academic writing?

Actually, it was a very conscious and deliberate decision to write a novel about terrorism at a particular point in my career. I had not considered it before. After publishing eight academic books and dozens of articles, I realised that only a very small academic audience ever read my work and it had very little impact beyond the academy. I also noted that there were too few novels about terrorism that I could honestly recommend to my students as a way of animating them about the subject. I came to believe that writing my own novel might be a more effective way of reaching a wider audience and engaging my students. Once I decided to write the novel, I then had to work out a good story, characters, dialogue and the like. I shared my initial thoughts with people I trusted, and over a number of drafts and a lot of conversations, a story emerged. Of course, I also drew upon my own stories of growing up in Africa, and the stories of people I had met or knew. Novelists are in many ways, story collectors. They pick them up and then try and weave them into a new narrative.

Did you have to do much research?

I’ve been immersed in the subject of terrorism and political violence for more than 15 years, so I had a strong understanding of the subject to begin with. In my role as a lecturer and editor-in-chief of an academic journal on terrorism, I’ve read huge amounts of the academic research on terrorism. In that sense, I believe my novel is rooted in and accurately reflects the current state of terrorism research. I did however, deliberately seek out writings by former militants, as well as articles and interviews where ‘terrorists’ and militants explained their actions in their own words. I wanted to make sure I had the right language and perspective – the nuances of how they speak and think – of individuals who have chosen this path. Many of the words said by The Professor in the novel are actually paraphrased from what I’d heard or read directly from militants themselves.

Did your background in academic writing make the book easier to write?

No, it actually made it more difficult. Academic writing follows a very particular form, which in some ways, is antithetical to writing fiction. At the most basic level, as an academic you’re disciplined into writing in an abstract, authoritative, ‘objective’ manner, bereft of personality or human voice. You’re also taught to employ specialised jargon which fellow scholars in your own field can relate to. I had to leave all these ways of writing behind and try and find a more creative, human voice for the novel. In part, the choice to make the central character a former university professor was a way of trying to bridge these two ways of writing, the academic and the creative. I found it a really challenging and uncomfortable process. I still find the creative voice much harder than the academic voice.

Can you tell us a bit about the unique format of the text?  Why did you decide on that?

I chose to write the novel in the form of a secret, redacted transcript for a number of very specific reasons. The simplest reason was that I felt that this particular format allowed the maximum opportunity for the ‘terrorist’ to speak and explain himself. Allowing the ‘terrorist’ to fully explain himself at length – his motives, his beliefs, his story – was one of the primary aims of the novel. In the real world, we are hardly ever allowed to hear a ‘terrorist’ speak at length about themselves. I also chose this format because I felt that it would be a good vehicle for building tension, leaving clues and creating a series of narrative twists. I also wanted to explore whether it would be possible to construct a sense of character, and of physical and social space, through a very stark and bare transcript. Lastly, I wanted the novel to be rooted in the espionage/thriller genre, and the secret world of spies and security agencies. The transcript, modelled on real secret transcripts I’ve seen, aims to give a sense of the secret world which ‘terrorists’ and spies are seen to inhabit.

In terms of writing, were you inspired by any particular novelists?

My favourite novelist about the world of spies and espionage is John Le Carre. He has an eloquence and incisiveness that lifts him above the usual writers in that genre. I also think his novels about the war on terror and the way governments have cynically used the threat of terrorism to justify a multitude of crimes and wrongs have been searing indictments of Western foreign policy. He was clearly very angry with what was going on, and it came out in the series of brilliant deconstructions of the absurd and savage war on terror. While other novelists in this genre have embraced the logic of the war on terror unquestioningly, John Le Carre tore its inverted morality and counterproductive logic to shreds. I am also a fan of Yasmina Khadra, who writes about the conflicts in Algeria, Palestine and Iraq with an insight and authenticity that many Western authors simply haven’t captured.

You also mention on your blog about being frustrated/disappointed with other fictionalised depictions of terrorists.  Why is that? Are there any writers/movies etc who deal with the topic you would recommend?

I remain puzzled by the failure of novelists to depict ‘terrorists’ in an authentic manner, although it’s not surprising given the cultural taboo against terrorism today. In a sense, ‘terrorists’ are viewed in the same way that paedophiles are – as a kind of pure evil, inhuman and without any redeeming human qualities. This is the result of years of political speechmaking, movies, television shows, novels and the like depicting them mainly as cruel, inhuman fanatics. As a consequence, it now takes a very brave novelist to consider depicting them in any other way, and particularly in a sympathetic manner. The point is, even a most basic level of research would reveal that terrorists are not evil, inhuman, animal-like. I would have thought that some courageous novelists would have by now made a real effort to understand their subjects as real human beings – done some real research – and then narrated them in more authentic, more human terms. Sadly, because of this state of affairs, we still don’t have anything meaningful on ‘terrorists’ in literary terms. On the other hand, film has been much better at depicting ‘terrorists’ in meaningful and insightful ways. Paradise Now, for example, is a brilliant exploration of two Palestinian suicide bombers in the twenty four hours after they receive word that they have been selected for an operation. It draws out their humanity, their politics, their frailties, and never reduces them to stereotypes or caricatures.

Is the aim of your book to inform the readers?  To be thought provoking?

The main aim of the book is to entertain with a thoughtful tale which contains some twists and turns in the plot, and some human observations about two very real characters. At the same time, it is definitely aimed at trying to question and challenge popular understandings of terrorism and counterterrorism. In a sense, I wrote it as a way of communicating through a literary rather than academic form all the knowledge I have gained about terrorism over the years – to a wider audience beyond the university. In my view, most of what the media and society thinks they know about terrorism is incorrect, and not supported by the academic research. The novel, therefore, functions in part as a vehicle for communicating something of what we know academically about terrorism and ‘terrorists’.

Lee Child is incredibly popular author at our library (and everywhere!).  His work falls into the military / action genre that’s growing in popularity.  Did you want to write something to rival these blockbusters?  Or were trying to provide a more thoughtful spin on this genre?

I definitely wanted to write a novel that was broadly in the action/espionage/thriller genre, while at the same time being thoughtful and challenging to the normal format and content of that genre. My initial thought was that I wanted to write something that would appeal to my 18 year old (mostly) male students, so it had to have some action, some twists and a sense of danger. At the same time, I really don’t expect that my novel will rival authors such as Lee Childs, mainly because the novel is intensely political, and very challenging to our dominant cultural understandings. The overall argument it makes is that Western states need to examine their own actions in order to see how and why they provoke people to try and attack them. This is not an easy subject matter; in fact, it is very sensitive. I therefore expect it won’t be that popular in many quarters. A great many politicians will dislike its message, as will some of my fellow terrorism scholars. Certainly, unlike most books in the current action genre, it doesn’t promote the heart-warming message that the strong Western hero always defeats the foreign and traitorous enemies who seek to attack us. From this perspective, my novel is more than a little counter-cultural. I hope it will appeal to people who really want to know what goes through the mind of a terrorist, and who are tired of the war on terror and all the torture, mass surveillance, wars and invasive security measures – and who enjoy a good thriller!

Leo Timmers: Writers Week Q & A

Leo Timmers, children’s author and illustrator, is in town for the New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week. This Belgian author has won multiple awards and had his book Who’s Driving translated into 12 languages.
See Leo live at the Museum Art Hotel (Downstage Theatre) on Monday March 10th at 2:00pm
We have two of Leo’s books, both signed, to give away to one lucky individual thanks to Gecko Press. To win please tell us Leo’s home country by email to wclblog@gmail.com, Tweet @WCL_Library or comment on the post on our Facebook page. (We will announce a winner on the morning of Friday March 14th).

Justin from the library Online Services Team meet with Leo on Saturday morning. Here is their Q & A:

(J)How did you get into making books?

(L)Actually it started very early on. As a child when I was about 10-11 I was obsessed with comic books and I started drawing my first comic books when I was eight/nine. My father, he was an artist, he encouraged me a lot. He had the idea to publish these books himself, so I got my first book published when I was 11.

(J)That’s impressive!

(L)But of course it was self-publishing. We went to markets and book stores to sell them, so I was really publishing from very early on. But then after my high school diploma I studied graphic design. I kind of had enough of making comics because it takes such a long time to make one – so many pages, so many drawings. Maybe also because I started so early at such a young age I really wanted to do something else. I didn’t know what but at that time the was a publisher woman nearby that was doing for the first time great things with a local artist who was making an international, big name for herself. That was really the first time a children’s book artist in Belgium had a career. You could live from children’s books.

(J)Would that be because Belgium is a smaller country?

(L)It’s so small; it is about 11 million inhabitants.

(J)That’s still bigger than New Zealand!

(L)So you have to export you know, you have to do translations otherwise it’s too difficult. So she was one of the first whose work was published in many languages so I went to see that publisher because I thought that was something for me. So she looked at my work, which was really not much because I had only ever done comics. They gave me an assignment and said if you come back and do this right we will have something for you. So I started working on that and when I came back a month later they said okay we’ll give you this book and try it. That’s the way things got started. So I really started as an illustrator. I made many, many books which were written by other people. I had many styles because I had to re-invent myself as a children’s book illustrator. It was really difficult, when I look back on it. I didn’t have my own style; I was always searching and trying things. And on the other hand I got these texts and didn’t always know what to do with them. It took me about ten years to find out what I wanted to do, what style I wanted to work in. Ultimately I realised that I wanted to write my own stories and that was a big click for me when I decided I had had enough of this.

(J)Was it quite a sudden thing or did it build?

(L)It was quite a sudden thing at one point I did so many stories and I never had a feeling that it was what I wanted. And I thought well, if this is what I have to do for the rest of life I think I can do better. It was something like that, and I did it. I wrote something very simple and I made my own illustrations. It was the first time that I did that when I had the feeling that, okay, this finally works. I am happy with the final result; although it was a very simple story the illustrations were in a way more me. The strange thing was that I won a prize in Belgium with this book that gave me the courage to carry on along this route. As an illustrator it is very difficult to start writing because you think I am not a writer. You know, you look up to writers and think they are very good with words and can think of stories, while I’m just making pictures. I realised that making picture books was not like a real writer, pictures and story must work together in a way which is very difficult when you are just given text.

(J)Some of the best books have no words though.

Absolutely.

(J)I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Australian author Shaun Tan?

(L)Absolutely, he is such a big hero for me and there are many others. You are right; I started noticing the books I really liked, the picture books, all of them were made by an illustrator. I thought that must say something; the picture book medium is really the illustrators medium. Like movies are a Directors medium, it is a visual medium so it is important to start with the visuals and make sure they are really strong. If you work the other way around and mostly, not always, you start with text that is not so interesting to illustrate. There is not much there to show and I think a picture book must be told in a visual way. Once I realised that I started to get more sure of myself and then I started writing stories that were more elaborate in narrative. Every book is a bit like an experiment in writing, in trying things, like trying just one word; like, okay what can I do with just one word? Like Mr Renny, which is a bit autobiographical, about a painter and is totally different in the way it has been told. I like to for every book make it a bit of a challenge.

(J)Did you ever feel like you might want to give up?

(L)Give up?

(J)Yeah.

(L)Like stop it altogether? Every week I think. One thing that is hard when you do everything yourself is that you have to have a lot of confidence because you are the text department, illustrator. You are responsible for the total. That is sometimes hard, because sometimes you run in circles. You have to decide everything. If there is a text you can only concern yourself with the illustration but there is already a text. But if you are doing it all yourself you have to invent all the ideas, everything has to come out of you. That can make you very uncertain.

(J)The confidence is important then?

(L)Yes. You have publishers to deal with who may or may not like an idea, or you have foreign publishers when these books are presented in the big fairs, you get comments from a publisher here and there about they didn’t like this or didn’t like that. You have to be strong enough to know what you want and to not deviate too much. It’s very tricky. You have to stay close to yourself.

(J)When you decided to go it alone did you get any unexpected or negative reactions?

(L)Yes, certainly in that period when I was still searching for a style. Some of them worked really well and then the publisher said keep on making this kind of thing, while I felt inside, no, I needed to go a different way. For example this one [Who’s Driving?], my publisher said to make ten more like this. We can make Driving two, with two other cars, with other vehicles, and other animals. But for me it never felt okay.

(J)It’s done?

(L)It’s done. I’ve done this, new things. Although you don’t know if that new thing will catch on or be the same success or not. You never know. Every time is a risk, you never, never know. Sometimes you feel confident and really believe in this and it doesn’t happen. Other times you think well, I’m happy with it but, like Mr Renny, it’s a story about an artist that’s very complex and it did very well. You never know. For me the only thing is to stay close to what you think you need to do and just do that because your publishers don’t know either. They think they know but they don’t.

(J)It’s a gamble?

(L)It’s a gamble, yeah. But I can’t complain really, I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked really hard to get here, and it is still hard work but I can make these books. A lot of other things have come from this. I work on animation based on my books, we are developing a series. A lot of things have come which would not have happened if I at one point had not made that decision to do it all myself. Looking back on it I’m really happy.

(J)I just wanted to get back to 11-year-old Leo and his self publishing. Are you familiar with Zines?

(L)Yeah, you have that in Brussels. I think it’s more experimental Zines, you self publish and have exhibitions.

(J)Yeah, it’s a little bit guerrilla. What do you think of them?

(L)I think the self publishing is more and more important. The big publishers are very important and they will play a dominant role but with social media and all the ways to get your work out there you don’t need them as much. Before that you couldn’t get your work seen. You couldn’t get digital printing, computers, it’s so much easier to make your own book and get publicity. Maybe I’m too mainstream for this, I don’t know, but I always like it when I see them. You have to be strong to do that and believe in what you do. Me, I’m very focussed on telling stories in a very clear and understandable way. Not too complex, that’s way I look to do things.

(J)I think it can be quite alienating in a way, if it’s so complex that people don’t get it.

(L)I think it is important to have an audience, although maybe a small audience. I make children’s books and there are many children’s books that really aren’t for children. They may be beautiful and I love many of them but I know that because I read them to my children they are just too hard to understand for many children. Although they are many times about complex things and interesting things, very artistic, to me the first thing about children’s books is that children must understand it. Then you can add many other layers. What I try to do is work with different layers, so there is something underneath the simple story. For me the first level has to be a really surprising, clever story or idea that children can really understand without having to ask their mother or father. That’s why I strive for simplicity.

(J)What is your process?

It is a long, long process to make a book. It starts, always, with an image.

(J)What about this one [Who’s Driving?]?

(L)When I think about my initial plan and how they finally turned out it was completely different. It had more realistic backgrounds, not so sober. That was the first time I had all of the elements that later on become a bit of a trademark. It was the first time it all came together this one. Bang is maybe a better example. It started with two cars driving into each other and the follow up image showed what happened and that something had moved from one car to the other. When I have an idea like that I think that’s interesting, how can I now develop this? So the whole process starts with many, many sketches. I make many small dummies just to see how it works because this book is a thing that you hold in your hand. It really has to tell a story. Even the physical thing of turning the page, for example, this one [Bang] in all my first ten versions the cars drove from left to right. Because you read the book from left to right, but something was not right. I didn’t know what but then I suddenly realised you see what happens, you see this one coming, then something else happens. If you turn it around you can see the other one coming, it is important that the left page shows the result of the accident. If you turn it around the other way it is confusing. It’s a simple thing to flip everything around. It made so much more sense and made everything clearer.

(J)It’s not instantly obvious though is it?

(L)Yes. Sometimes you don’t see the elephant in the room you know. That’s why I make many versions to try and get all the mistakes, all the mistakes I can make, out.

(J)How do you illustrate?

(L)It’s all painted with acrylics; I’m going to show that in my workshop on Monday.

(J)For the text, because Belgium speaks Flemish and French, how do you write?

(L)We are from the Flemish part, so I write in Flemish. I have a Dutch publisher now because I find it very important to keep it close. It’s important for me to write in my own language, to write in Flemish and then translate it to French.

(J)Do you feel it makes the story different when translated?

(L)Some times. Not significantly but what tends to happen in translation sometimes because I write so few words they feel they need to add words to explain more in text. For example the French, and Americans maybe, they tend to add a bit more.

(J)That’s a flaw isn’t it? You don’t want to give it all away?

(L)Exactly. I don’t want to spell it out. I so hate books that spell it out, that tell everything in the text. It’s all explained and I like keeping things unexplained.

(J)Something like this though (“bang”) is universal though?

(L)Yes, in Flemish it is boom, in Dutch bomm, so yeah everybody understands it. I heard that here they considered boom with two Os but maybe the association with an explosion was too obvious. So they kept it to bang which is really nice. For me though I am not going to interfere with the local publisher’s and what they want to do. They have their own markets and own sensibilities and mostly it goes well. My main concern is getting it right in my own language and hoping everyone else gets it right in theirs.

(J)Do you feel there is a difference between Western European and Anglo/English-speaking countries?

(L)I tend to say that in America and England it is more classical. In Belgium there is a really interesting scene of avant-garde, strong illustrators with strong visuals. Maybe you could say that in England or America it is more conservative. But on the other hand there are such great artists there which I really admire. So it’s difficult to say.

(J)Do you have any advice to teenage Leo or any other young illustrator?

(L)You have to really realise that if you really want to make it in picture books, or whatever it is, that you really have to love it. Because it’s hard work, you can’t see it as hard work, that’s why have to love it. I heard an expression, I think it was from Jerry Seinfeld, he said “you have to find the torture you can stand.” It can be torture in the sense of self-doubt and re-working and comments you get. Also finding your own voice can take a while, so there are many obstacles to overcome. But if you really love it you do it. If you want it just as a job it’s not going to work.

(J)You could apply that to personal love couldn’t you?

(L)Absolutely, live for it and then it’s the most beautiful thing. Also [illustrating] you’re alone by yourself for most of the day and not everyone can do that. Besides all the creative stuff, just sitting in front of your desk and being comfortable on your own; I know many illustrators who have difficulties being alone all day. You have to put in the hours, you have to do the work otherwise it’s not going to happen.

(J)You can see why many creative’s go nuts.

(L)As you get older and more critical of your own work and try to push the boundaries yeah, you can really go nuts. I have a solid personal life with children. My wife is very important at looking at my work and discussing it. A solid base is very important for me, without that I couldn’t work it. My career really started moving when I had children and really had to choose. For a long time I did newspapers and magazines, for ten years or so I combined all these things to make a living. But when you have children you realise I can’t work forever every night.

(J)What can we expect to hear and learn at your illustration workshop?

(L)We decided on doing something about character design because it is an important part of what do, drawing characters. I will do a small lecture or something where I try to explain how I design characters. It starts with how I sketch them; I make many, many versions of them. You try to understand what kind of character is this? What’s the personality? What is his use in the book? What do you want it to say? How does it fit? It’s all rhythm and shape, a variety of shapes, what they look like. For example you can make a crocodile very frightening or very friendly, where is the difference? How do you do that? So I am going to do that. I’ve made many crocodiles in my life.

(J)What’s your fascination with crocodiles about?

(L)It’s not only them, it’s elephants as well. It could have been another kind of animal but I tend to reuse some kinds of animals, like giraffes or so. I think it has to do with that they are so fascinating to draw; they have so many distinctive features you can play with. I look back and notice that I never do them the same, they evolve.

(J)Do you have a further personal interest in animals?

(L)Not really.

(J)You just love drawing them?

(L)Yeah. But also I have made a book, finally, with human characters. It was such a long time ago that I made something with human characters. I think animals are great because it creates a distance from our world. You are immediately in another world; you have all these different shapes and colours. You can talk about human things with a distance. So that’s what I’m going to show in the workshop and also the evolution of doing it in colour. Then I will give a small assignment, I’m going to see how it goes because you can’t teach drawing characters in two hours.

Wellington City Libraries has many of Leo’s books available for loan, check them out here.

Hearts I tried not to break but did – an interview with zine author Simon Gennard

How did you get into making zines?

I had contributed to a zine made by a friend of mine (it’s called The Collectivist) and I’d been meaning to make one of my own for a while but never really got around to it. And since I didn’t have a job or any commitments over summer, I decided to put some of my free time to good use.

Can you give us a short bio about you?heartsItriednottobreak

Uhh, there’s not much to tell. I’m a socially inept 18 year old, studying English and Political Science at Vic, and I love my cat.

We have read the zine and loved it. In your words could you please explain to us why you decided to make it and publish it?

I always get anxious that I’m taking myself too seriously when I talk about the zine like this, I’ll give it a try. I guess I wanted to explore the way in which we tell stories that seem so personal to us, but at the same time possess this universal quality. So I made the stories anonymous to give the interviewees space to open up and share more than they’d otherwise be comfortable with. And I also tried to find a middle ground between keeping the distinctive voice of each person, while removing a lot of the idiosyncrasies and specifics of the stories, to allow the reader to apply their own experiences or experiences they might be familiar with to each story. I don’t know whether I achieved that, but that was my intent.

Once it was out there, did you get any unexpected reactions?

Most of the people who have read it have been my friends, who have been universally supportive, but they’re sort of obliged to be. I’m not really sure whether to trust their opinions or not. It did make someone cry though, I felt pretty bad about that.

Blogging about romantic experiences can be so much fun; do you have a blog where you update your love life?

I don’t really have a love life to blog about. I have a Tumblr, but it’s mostly just pictures of Tilda Swinton and racist things Rick Santorum has said. Oh, and I have a blog just for Things We’re Not Going to Talk About.

Do you have plans to make any future zines?

I have most of the second issue finished. I just have to take a few more photos and then put everything together. It’s called Arguments I Meant to Finish but Didn’t.

What would you say to other zine makers?

I would say, “I have a dwindling social life and low self esteem, would you like to be my friend?”

Do you have any music/zines/blogs recommendations?

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to make zines in Wellington and not have a deep respect for Incredibly Hot Sex With Hideous People. My favourite Zinefest finds are probably Family Photos – which is basically a series of photos made from photocopied hands with doodles drawn over them – Cupcake Monsters, and Neighbour Cats.I also adore This American Life podcast. I feel like everyone on the internet constantly raves about it and anything I say will end up detracting from how wonderful it is.

In terms of music, I mostly just listen to Billie Holiday and sob quietly to myself.

Wellingtonians at the Library

As part of the Central Library’s 20th Anniversary celebrations several noteworthy Wellingtonians were filmed talking about their favourite books – how they’ve been influenced by them, how they discovered them etc. – amongst the shelves. Here is the complete “Wellingtonians at the Library” playlist, also viewable along with all of our other videos on our Youtube channel.

And, if you haven’t seen them yet, here is our photoset on Flickr taken during the celebrations.

An Audience with Sarah from 1/2

 Hi Sarah, how are you today? Thank you for giving us the opportunity to contact you and ask you questions about your work. I have found your zine ½ at the library and it caught my attention because of how mysterious the cover lcoverooks. I soon realised it is a really well made zine with a lot of content.

Hi Carla, thanks! I first came across zines when my housemate brought some home from Sticky Institute, a zine distro in Melbourne. I really liked them, so I started visiting Sticky a lot, and reading lots of zines, then I thought it would be fun to make my own.

Why do you think zines are important and why do people need to keep making them?

I love that zines are completely non-commercial; people just make them for the joy of it. The writing can be terrible and it doesn’t matter. So to me that’s important. Having this accessible medium where people can express whatever they want and there’s no censorship, no editor, no sponsorship or commercial stakeholders… it doesn’t need to attract advertising. A zine can never be colonised by advertising because then it would cease to be a zine. People need to keep making zines so that we can share stories and ideas that aren’t found elsewhere.

Continue reading “An Audience with Sarah from 1/2”

An Audience With…Esther From Overheard-Drawn

We found Esther’s mini zine, Overheard-drawn recently at Vic, which was a very happy surprise! Obviously we think visiting our zine collection is the best way to get your zine fix, but second to that is randomly finding free zines around the place. Anyway, Carla recently spoke to Esther about the inspiration behind Overheard-drawn, so keep reading if you want to know more…

overheard coverHi Esther! Your zine is really cool, I like the fact that it feels a bit teen like and is really amusing. How did you come up with the idea of making “overheard-drawn”? Is it your first zine?

Oh thank you. I wanted it to be a bit fun and amusing. It is my first zine and the idea came from a previous studio project which i wanted to re-do. Using the zine format seemed a lot more appropriate for the subject matter of which I was drawing things I overheard and integrating them with the text of the quotes.

How and why did you choose the theme for “overheard-drawn”?

The idea started with eavesdropping and the random parts of sentences that you hear that are a lot of the time nonsense and amusing, and I wanted to illustrate those parts. With the zine I used the Victoria University’s overheard @ vic Facebook page to get the quotes and illustrated the ones that stood out to me, and half of them appeared in the next weeks Salient ‘overheard’ section as well. Using the quotes from Vic meant that I distributed the zine there too and when I get the time the 2nd edition will be put out there too! I’m planning to have a ‘do it yourself’ section in the next one so that people can have space to illustrate what they have ‘overheard’ and then leave for others to find. Continue reading “An Audience With…Esther From Overheard-Drawn”

An Audience With… Alex Papanastasiou

Alex is the author of the zine Her Suit (see our review here). We had the chance recently to interview her about her zine and her life.

Hi Alex! Thank you so much for letting us interview you. After talking to you in person I noticed that you’ve got a very international accent, where do you come from originally?

My mum’s from Australia and my dad’s from Cyprus and I hold both passports. I don’t really feel like either place is home though. I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in Sydney, Jakarta, Cairo, Singapore, Dunedin,  Melbourne and Wellington. I went to international schools and I think that gave me a bit of an American twang, too.

You mentioned you lived in Jakarta, how do you think this experience shaped you? Do you feel a special connection to Jakarta? Why?

Well, the expatriate community kept quite separate from the local community, so even though I was there for eight years I still feel like I never really got to know Jakarta. Living there made me very aware of my material privilege. There was a lot of poverty.

Continue reading “An Audience With… Alex Papanastasiou”

YOU in the spotlight

IMG_0419An Interview with YOU…“You” is a free weekly paper zine. A copy has been published every week since November 2001.  “You” zine usually appears as an anonymous hand written letter sealed with staples in a paper bag. For me the experience of “you” is strangely intimate and uplifting.

 What was the triggering point for the conception of YOU?
There were a few different influences on how YOU developed.  YOU came into life in the weeks afters the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.  The news was full of mysterious parcels appearing around the world which may or may not have contained anthrax.  The idea of mysterious parcels sparked something in my imagination.  I had been making zines since 1994 but at the time was making more wall based installation type visual art work using found objects.  I had been enjoying working with found photographs but felt uncomfortable with the idea of using other people’s stories without their permission.  I came to the idea of creating my own found photos by printing my own photos and throwing them on the floor for other people to find, this seemed impractical as they would probably just end up in the bin, so the idea morphed into a zine that could be given away for free and left in places safe to leave free things… The zine needed to be small as it would need to be made every week so the idea of a letter worked as it could be true to the size of a letter and not just feel like a tiny zine.  The first issue of YOU came out at the start of November 2001 and I was worried that it might be mistaken as a ‘threat’ and possible anthrax parcel and might get me in hot water, but there was no issue the first week so I followed it up with another zine the next week and by then I was hooked.  Interestingly YOU was interpreted as a threat at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga NSW in 2009 – many years after I thought that would be an issue.

YOU has been around for a nearly a decade now – what have been some of the highs and lows? – Or what have you found to be pivotal? Is there a type of evolution you can trace?
One of the first big developments was asking other people other than me to write for YOU.  It came about because my partner’s sister’s partner is French and I thought maybe putting out an issue of YOU in French would be fun.  So I wrote a letter and was just about to ask him to translate it to French for me when it struck me that it would be easier to just get him to write his own letter in French.  From then on I started asking interesting people I met if they would write a letter for the project.  I found that asking someone to write a letter is not too daunting for them, compared to asking them if they would write a poem or a short story, it is a format they are comfortable participating with.

Continue reading “YOU in the spotlight”