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Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 1: Art, Books and Politics

August 27, 2018

For my last day of the Canberra Writers Festival I chose two quite different sessions, as you will see! This post is on the first one …

(Note: these two posts will be in lieu of this week’s Monday Musings.)

The Art of Books

Chong, Bowers, Katsoukas

Chong, Bowers, Katauskas

I chose this session primarily because one of the participants was the multi-award-winning book designer, WH Chong (from Text Publishing) and, woo hoo, he was there, even though, once again, one of the advertised panelists, cartoonist-illustrator Jules Faber, was not. The other panelist was political cartoonist Fiona Katauskas, and the session was moderated by The Guardian Australia photographer and Talking Pictures presenter, Mike Bowers. It was, I must say, a hoot of a session – and it was held in the old Senate Chamber in Old Parliament House. I was keen to attend an event in one of the parliamentary chambers there and so that was an added plus.

Bowers was an lively moderator, sharing the questions, back and forth, between the two panelists, which was a bit of a challenge given they work in somewhat different fields. Still, Chong had started in journalism – working in The Age’s newsroom – and maintains an interest in political cartoonists, and Katauskas has illustrated books, so the disjunction wasn’t too great. For this post, I’m going to organise my discussion by person, though the actual session see-sawed between the two.

WH Chong

Jonathan Galassi, MuseBowers, who had also known Chong in earlier days, focused most of his questions, and examples, on Chong’s covers that feature typewriters and typewriter-style fonts. This gave Chong a chance to share his love of typewriters, and the fact that for most of those covers he used typewriters for the font, not digital fonts. One of the covers discussed was for Jonathan Galassi’s Muse, a novel about a poet. The letters of the word Muse are created with the letters for the word Poet (ie the M is made using “p”s, the U “o”s, etc). A concrete poem, in a way. A clever, striking design.

Janet Frame, In the memorial roomBowers asked Chong whether he thought the online world is causing the death of good design, but Chong felt not, arguing that the ratio of good to bad design, remains the same. There’s some great design online he said. Bowers also asked him whether the rules of design changed for online books versus print. Chong wanted to know what those “rules” were! But then said that they were basically the same, regardless of form: you make author’s name and the title as big as possible, and use as much colour as possible!

Another question concerned fonts, and whether Chong had favourite and disliked fonts. Chong admitted to having changing favourite fonts, but quoted someone (whose name I didn’t catch) as saying that there is “no such thing as a bad type, just type badly used”. Chong added, with a straight fact, that typeface (or font) is a serious matter and he ”won’t be typecast.” Haha.

D'Ambrosio, The dead fish museumSome process issues were discussed, such as who approves covers. Chong said, basically everyone, including the author’s hairdresser, dog, etc etc! Haha, again. But, he did say that Text works collegially, which was lovely to hear. Bowers then asked how important is the cover. Chong seemed to think that it’s not that important, but that marketing and publishers believe “it is important in our noisy world” so  “who is he to complain?”

Bowers, you can see, did well at asking all those questions we’d like to ask. Another one was whether he looks back – perhaps in horror – at old work. Again Chong quoted someone else, this time I did get the name, Bob Dylan, who said “Never look back, you might catch up.”

Finally, before we leave Chong, Bowers asked him whether he reads the book first. He prevaricated a bit here saying “y-e-e-s” which meant, I gathered, “mostly but not always.” He’s a slow reader he says, and he only sees the draft.

This was a terrible session because almost every book cover shown introduced me to a book I want to read.

Fiona Katauskas

Fiona Katauskas, The amazing true story of how babies are madeNow, Katauskas. Bowers started by asked her about her book The amazing true story of how babies are made. She wrote it, she said, because when needing to answer her 5-year-old son’s questions she discovered the only book around was the now old Where do I come from? The book has been very successful, shortlisted for both the CBC and ABIA awards, and is now being animated. It was a different project she said from her more usual work of political cartooning. For one thing, it was not cynical! Bowers then asked her to share the shock! horror! furore that developed in the UK and USA after someone posted some images from the book on Facebook. Katauskas has written about the story in July’s The Monthly article. The ridiculous thing is that the book hadn’t even been published in those countries. It was a good lesson in clickbait, she said, but the result is that a US book deal now looks likely!

John Birmingham, PopelandBowers then asked Katauskas about her cover for John Birmingham’s Popeland. She loves doing book illustrations, even though it’s one of the worst-paid jobs, but unfortunately, she said, this sort of work is drying up these days. Anyhow, her illustrations – cover and inside – were inspired by books like Captain Goodvibes, boys’ own adventure books and The Beano. She described researching the fun of 1930/40s Beano books in the State Library. These commissions tend not to come with briefs. She receives the manuscript, and a statement that, say, there’s a budget for 10 illustrations. She talked about the process of ensuring there’s a “visual cadence” underpinning the illustrations through a book.

The conversation then turned to political cartooning which forms the bulk of her work. You really had to be there and I’m afraid I’m going to say that, to some degree, what happened in the room – such as stories about (very) contemporary (if you know what I mean) Australian political figures – will stay in the room.

I will however share some of the discussion about modern political satire. Katauskas admitted that the “best of times for satire is worst of time for everyone else.” Ouch! Chong asked whether we were beyond parody and satire, to which Katauskas replied (not perhaps answering Chong’s question) that “it’s hard to take the piss when they’re giving it away.” (You can guess who some of “they” were!) Bowers shared that satirist comedian Bryan Dawe is so concerned about politicians moving into the satirists’ domain that he’s considering bringing a class action against them. You can see what fun we had.

Fiona Katauskas, Obama and Rudd

Fiona Katauskas cartoon

Katauskas commented on the importance of publisher Scribe’s annual Best Australian political cartoons publications because they recognise that political cartoons are historical documents. She also talked about her job of researching cartoons for the annual exhibition of political cartoons, Behind the lines, and how she sees some recurring themes over the last fifteen years, the two major ones being asylum seekers and climate change.

Chong then asked whether we are beyond (or past) hope – but that question just hung.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share the one about what media or technology Chong and Katauskas use. Both, interestingly, prefer to work in an analog way. Katauskas said she’s “old school”, and loves working with her pen dipped in ink. Chong said he was “very analog.”

Moderator, and photographer, Mike Bowers talked about the joy of working with good journalists, and named some of those he loves working with –  Paul Daley (with whom he has produced the book Armageddon), Katherine Murphy, Gabrielle Chan, and Lenore Taylor. With the breakup of the media and more people working alone, these important relationships are being lost.

He ended with the plea to us to “pay for your journalism.” I do, I wanted to say.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2018 9:21 pm

    I love Chong’s work, I think he’s the best designer in Australia today.

  2. August 28, 2018 8:16 am

    Very interesting post. I have been paying more and more attention to cover design and art. Some covers are so well done. I love the typewriter themed covers and fonts. Ironically older liking things eventually end up looking fresh and innovative sometimes.

    The panels that you have been attending sound so good.

    • August 29, 2018 12:10 am

      Thanks Brian. WH Chong has such a large body of work I thought the moderator was inspired to choose the typewriter inspired one as a theme – particularly as the other panelist was in the news/cartoon business. It gave some cohesion to the whole, and worked well of course because Chong loves typewriters and those covers were stylish and interesting.

  3. August 28, 2018 8:30 am

    I hadn’t really thought about the importance to the historical record of cartoons, but they are aren’t they, we frequently look back both over our own lifetimes, and to early Punch and Bulletin, Smith’s Weekly etc illustrations and satire.

    • August 29, 2018 12:07 am

      I’m not sure I’ve ever really articulated it before either, Bill, but of course they are. And I think they’re being recognised more and more. We have here in Canberra – for several years now – an annual exhibition, called, cleverly, Behind the lines, comprising the best political cartoons of the previous year. I don’t get there every year but it’s a good exhibition and presumably those cartoons then go into the museum’s records or archives.

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