Finlay Lloyd: Celebrating 10 Years of Publishing

This weekend I attended a delightful event run by the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. It was an afternoon of author readings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independent small publisher Finlay Lloyd, which is based in Braidwood, about an hour’s drive from here. It is run by two men, author Julian Davies and artist Phil Day.

Julian Davies em-ceed the event. He described Finlay Lloyd as a non-profit publisher, and said he is often told by other small publishers that they can be that without trying! Ouch! The press is, he said, a quixotic venture, established because many writers were finding it hard to be published by increasingly bottom-line focused publishers. Once, he said, publishers took risks but they now tend to be overly market driven. The press was also established in response to threats about the death of the printed book. For Finlay Lloyd, the book as an artefact is important as well as the content. I can attest to that. Their books have a lovely edge, even the little flsmalls.

Then the main part of the afternoon started, with the format being Davies introducing the writer, asking one question, followed by the writer reading an excerpt. It went for about an hour and a half. My post is rather long – despite my only quoting from one writer – but my headings will enable you to skim and skip if you desire.

Alan Gould and The seaglass spiral (bought at the event)

Davies’ question for Gould was about what he expected of the publisher-author relationship. Gould, whose The Lakewoman I’ve reviewed here, was the perfect choice to be first because he epitomises the reasons behind Finlay Lloyd’s establishment. He had expected it to be hard, he said, to find a publisher for his first couple of books but he then thought an author-publisher relationship would develop. That didn’t happen, so almost every novel of his has had a different publisher.

He introduced his novel, The seaglass spiral, by describing himself as a character novelist. He read from the beginning and a small except from Chapter 10. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a fellow called Ralf Sebright. He was decent enough, glad for the most part to be alive, and despite being able to swim, he had just sunk beneath the Pacific Ocean for the second time. Odd to think this about this plight really, that a lineage going back to the first caves of kinship might imminently be pinched off. For Ralf had arrived at a moment when he realised his existence might be in trouble.

In short, he was drowning.

And here are the last few sentences of his first excerpt:

Ralf observed the dominant emotion of drowning was not fear. It was guilt. He also noted that, even when a person says impossible he does not stop imagining deliverance.

Gould told us to remember that word “impossible”. It’s important in the book he said. I’m intrigued. Since I had frequently fondled this gorgeous-looking book when it first came out but had resisted the temptation given my bulging TBR pile, this time I gave in to temptation. See what an author reading can do!

Phillip Stamatellis and Growing up cafe (my review)

To first-time author Stamatellis, Davies posed a question about what the editing process had meant to him. Stamatellis responded that, given the book grew out of scattered pieces of writing he’d been doing, structure was the important thing he’d learnt. Haha, I thought! Here is a sentence from my review: “Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly”! Structure is indeed important to this book.

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydHe also commented on Davies’ obsession with commas, to which Davies interjected with the fact that John Clanchy says he doesn’t use commas enough! This reminded me of my 12 year-old-daughter, as she was then, arguing over a comma with her school principal, who was editing a little book for the school. The principal won but, some months later, she said to me, “you know, Hannah was right about that comma”!

Anyhow, Stamatellis read the first “story” in his book in which he describes a typical cafe scene – the cafe, being, as Davies said, the book’s main character.

Camel Bird and Fair game (my review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Introducing Bird, Davies proposed that the current discourse in our society is polarising, but Bird’s book, Fair game, he said, digresses and weaves, telling the story of Tasmania through her personal reflections. Bird agreed with this assessment, saying that “the digressive form is native to me.” And I love this form as I wrote in my review: “I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind?” Oh, and Bird also said it was a wonderful experience to be edited by Julian.

Bird gave a wonderfully expressive reading. She loves being a little cheeky, as I also wrote in my review, and is clearly able to do that in person and well as in print!

Wayne Strudwick and The dark days of Matty Lang (bought at the event)

You meet authors in strange places, it seems. Davies met Strudwick through the latter peering into his eyes. Strudwick, you see, is an optometrist but, Davies soon learnt, also writes – and this led to the publication of Strudwick’s story, The dark days of Matty Lang, in the first series of flsmalls.

Given this story is set in a country town, Davies asked Strudwick about his interest in such towns. He responded that in these towns, everyone knows everyone else, which can be comforting but also claustrophobic. Traumas, he said, go through the whole community. His story is about a trauma, and the reading intrigued me, so I bought it too!

Bidda Jones and Backlash (my review)

Bidda Jones is Davies’ partner so the question was obvious: how did she find working on a book together. Jones explained that she’s a scientist not a writer. She did the book, she said, “through gritted teeth” and was very glad when it was over! But, she’s also glad, I believe, the story is documented.

Jones read an excerpt from the book describing how she and Lyn White took their research and footage to the ABC, but she also told us that already the book has been attacked in parliament. So, I went looking and found the speech by National Party Senator Barry O’Sullivan. My oh my! He name-calls, and he makes false statements about what the book does or doesn’t cover. But the clincher is that he concludes his speech not on proving that the government has made advancements in live export animal welfare but by attacking Jones and the RSPCA – attack after all being the best form of defence – for not focusing their effort on domestic pets and animals (as if they don’t do that too!), which he argued are the RSPCA’s “core and fundamental issues”. In fact, the RSPCA’s mission is broad: to “To prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection”. It’s hard to take such a speech seriously.

Paul McDermott and Fragments of the hole (my review)

McDermottFragmentsFinlayMcDermott’s book is heavily illustrated with his drawings, so Davies’ question to him related to the process of working with Finlay Lloyd’s Phil Day. McDermott, who attended the Canberra School of Art, told us that he is always writing little stories and making drawings and sketches. He described how creatively Day had used his drawings, making selections from what was apparently a big bundle, sometimes upending them, sometimes using only part of them.

McDermott, also an expressive reader of course, read the second part of his story “The boy and the goat” but I certainly won’t share that because it included the wonderful last line of the story. I loved this little book, but was a little disconcerted when, on having a copy of his book signed for a friend, he told me that he’d only seen one review of the book and the reviewer said it wasn’t for children, but it is he said! Hmmm, I thought, I reviewed his book. Was that I? I didn’t ‘fess up, because I couldn’t remember, but checked when I got home and it was. In my defence, though, I did qualify it by saying it wasn’t for “(most) children”. Oh dear.

Meredith McKinney and Mori Ogai’s The wild goose (on my TBR)

Fiction, non-fiction, essays, and even commissioned translations, Finlay Lloyd does it all. Davies talked about how, as he and McKinney were working on this Japanese classic, they compared three translations of this Japanese classic from 1959, the 1990s, and Meredith’s 2010s. He enjoyed their discussions about Japanese language and the decisions that have to be made in translating it.

But, his question for McKinney was why she chose this particular novel (novella, really). It’s because, she said, she’s interested in pre-western-influenced Japanese literature. Davies commented that he liked the sympathy Ogai shows to his minor characters, and McKinney agreed saying that he exhibits tenderness for everybody. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a couple of years, and it’s time I read another Japanese novel, so I really need to find time to read it.

Julian Davies and Crow mellow (my review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

The event ended with Davies’ own book, Crow mellow, which was illustrated by Phil Day. He said he gave Phil Day complete free rein and he enjoyed seeing Day’s illustrations come through as he was writing it. While I love art, my main focus tends to be text, but it was hard not to notice Day’s illustrations wandering as they do all through the text. In my review I commented that they provided “whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text”.

Davies read a scene in which two young women talk about sex. I remember the scene well. Its illustrations are a hoot, and it ties neatly, satirically, to the novel’s epigraph (from American author, James Salter) that “the new hunger was for sex”.

And on that, the event closed … I, and a few I spoke to, thought the format worked very well. I was only sorry that, due to other commitments, I wasn’t able to hang around for long afterwards.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Who is publishing THE interesting books?

I had another post planned for today, but it can wait, because this morning writer-artist-feminist and out-of-the-box-thinker Sara Dowse made a provocative comment on my review of Australian love stories, which was edited by Cate Kennedy and published by the well-known Inkerman & Blunt. Oops, did I say well-known? Perhaps that was overstating the case. The fact that they are not particularly well-known is, I presume, what prompted Dowse to ask:

are the interesting books being published by small publishers now? I know this is entering dangerous generalisation territory but I think it’s worth discussing, don’t you?

Well, let’s enter this dangerous territory – and let’s not be afraid to generalise a bit. How, though, to approach it? Perhaps we should start with definitions. What do we mean by “the interesting books?” and what is a “small publisher?”

I’ll start with the easier one, “small publishers”. We have, in Australia, an organisation called the Small Press Network or SPN (about which I wrote a couple of years ago). They define themselves as being “a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers”. They don’t specifically define what this means on their site but they do provide a link to a report they sponsored from Kate Freeth in 2007. Titled “A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia”, this report aimed to come up with a usable definition. Here is what Freeth presented:

Based on survey data collected, other organisations’ definitions of small press, SPUNC’s [now SPN] current membership and the SPUNC working group’s discussion of how they judge membership applications, potential guidelines for ‘small press’ are independent publishers who:

  • Have published at least one book title or journal issue (in hardcopy)
  • Have an annual turnover of $500 000 or less
  • Have print runs of usually less than 2000
  • Have published more than one author
  • Publish fewer than 10 book titles per year, and
  • Usually do not charge authors fees for production, editing or distribution.

As an outsider, I can’t really assess which publishers that I think are small meet these criteria, but I suggest we be flexible as SPN is. For example, Text Publishing is a member but I’d be surprised if they fully meet these criteria. Most of SPN’s members probably do, though – so I suggest their membership could form the basis of our discussion here.

Now, the trickier question: how do we define “the interesting books”? For me, and I’d guess Sara Dowse, this would mean books that innovate, that take risks and break existing moulds, either in terms of style, form or subject matter, or that are by writers who aren’t from the mainstream culture.

So, let’s look at who’s publishing what? If we look at authors shortlisted for Australia’s best-known literary prizes in recent years, we see a mix of those published by the big publishers like Penguin (Tim Winton and Fiona McFarlane), Random House (Richard Flanagan and Evie Wyld), and Picador (Hannah Kent), and those by small publishers like Giramondo (Alexis Wright), Text (Cory Taylor) and Scribe (Cate Kennedy).

What about smaller prizes? Readings bookshop has created a new award called the Readings New Australian Writing Award. It’s for “an Australian author’s first or second book of fiction, and recognises exciting and exceptional new literary talent”. I’m going to assume that “exciting” implies “interesting” by our definition. The shortlist comprises six books by the following publishers: Giramondo (2), Hachette, Penguin (2, if we included Hamish Hamilton), and Allen & Unwin (a large but independent publisher). Again, there’s a mix.

But prizes aren’t necessarily the arbiter of “interesting” (particularly, if we use my definition above). Nonetheless, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin and must surely be described as interesting with its unique, slippery and exciting evocation of indigenous reality. It was published by small publisher Giramondo. If you look at Giramondo’s website, you will see a catalogue of what they call “innovative new fiction”, including by well-established and well-regarded writers, like novelists Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro. Murnane and Castro are not known for being “easy”, but they are interesting! You will also see novels, poetry and short story collections by newer writers like Maria Takolander (also published by Text), Alice Melike Ülgezer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad.

I could continue in this vein picking out examples of publishers and looking at who publishes whom. My sense from my brief survey and my own reading is that when it comes to novels, larger and smaller publishers are both publishing “interesting” work. I would, though, add the proviso that if you want novels by writers of diverse backgrounds (who are, for example, indigenous, non-Anglo, or LGBT) you are more likely to find them at the smaller publishers. UQP, for example, has published many indigenous writers, Spinifex Press specialises in “controversial” writing, Transit Lounge is expressly interested in “creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres”, and so on.

But, where small publishers particularly stand out, I think, is in “taking risks” with less popular forms – with short stories, novellas and poetry. While the novels I’ve read on this blog come from the gamut of publishers, large and small, the short stories, poetry and novellas I’ve read have been published almost exclusively by small publishers.

I’m not sure that this rather off-the-cuff discussion has gone in the direction that Sara Dowse was thinking, but it does lead to the important question: Does it matter? What are the implications for authors of being published by small publishers? I suspect there’s a complex web of pros and cons, with the balance varying from author to author, publisher to publisher. For readers? I fear that small publishers may not be able to reach as wide a readership as the works (and their authors) deserve. And for our literary culture in general? I’d like to think that variety and diversity in publishing is healthy – but it has to be sustainable (and, dare I say, “fair”). Is it?

Let the discussion begin …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Juvenilia Press

Literature enthusiasts are often not happy to just read their favourite authors’ novels. They (we) want to read everything written by our favourites. This can include letters, diaries and juvenilia. I have written before about Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, including a review of her story Love and freindship (sic). Her early works provide a wonderful insight into the development of her craft – both her style and her ideas.

Yesterday, I attended the excellent Mansfield Park Symposium at the Jane Austen Festival of Australia, about which I plan to post later. During the tea-break I browsed the little sales area and came across a collection of Jane Austen juvenilia works published by the Juvenilia Press. Naturally I bought a couple of their publications. What, you are probably wondering by now, does this have to do with Australian Literature? Read on …

Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 at the University of Alberta, but moved in 2001 to the University of New South Wales. It is a non-profit international initiative managed by the School of the Arts and Media in the University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It is, as I understand it, a teaching press. Students are involved in “editing, annotating, designing and illustrating, under the supervision of established scholars from Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, the United States, and Australia”. It is, in other words, also a scholarly undertaking. The publications are peer-reviewed, are reviewed in scholarly journals, and have been recognised by the Times Literary Supplement.

The Press defines juvenilia as early writings by children and adolescents up to around 20 years of age. It has published works by Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Philip Larkin,  Margaret Laurence and …

Mary Grant Bruce, Early Tales

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Here’s the exciting part … Australian authors. Those published to date, are:

  • Mary Grant Bruce’s The early tales
  • Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia
  • Dorothy Hewett’s The gipsy dancer and early poems
  • Ethel Turner’s Tales from the Parthenon

These gorgeous little books are priced around $12-15. As well as containing the author’s text, they include “light-hearted illustration, scholarly annotation, and an introduction that relates this work to the author’s mature writing”. The writers of these pieces are credited on the title page, as is the overall editor. For example, Jane Austen’s men, which contains four short pieces by her about men, such as “The adventure of Mr Harley”, was “edited by Sylvia Hunt and the students of ENGL3116 (English Romantic Literature) of Laurentian University at Georgian College”. The names of those who produced the introduction, annotations and illustrations are identified below that. Looks to me like a wonderful example of pedagogy in practice, with serious scholarship providing the backbone.

I have ordered the four Australian books I’ve listed here, and plan to write them up over the coming months as I manage to read them. If you would like to order any of the books, you need to print the form and mail it to the Press. Sounds like they need to get some IT or Accounting students involved to organise on-line ordering and payment!

It is in Jane Austen’s juvenilia piece, Catharine, or the bower, that we find her oft-quoted statement:

but for my own part, if a book is well-written, I always find it too short.

Juvenilia pieces are usually short, for pretty obvious reasons, but in their case, that’s usually part of their charm.

The Most Underrated Book Award 2012

A short post! I have just read on the SPUNC site that Kobo is sponsoring an award to highlight books that were released by independent publishers and members of the Small Press Network (SPUNC) and that did not receive wide recognition.

The shortlist for the inaugural award was announced this week, and the titles are:

The award apparently recognises both the publisher and author. The winner will be announced, the SPUNC announcement says, on 8 November at the opening of the Independent Publishing Conference during a special gala night and literary debate at the Wheeler Centre.

Good on Kobo I say. Books published by smaller presses are often overlooked in the major literary awards partly, I presume, because the authors usually aren’t well enough established to be noticed and partly because small publishers don’t have the marketing clout and distribution networks to get their books out to enough readers and reviewers. I hope this new award will help raise the profile of the authors and their hardworking publishers.

* I have a soft spot for Irma Gold, and not just because I’ve read and enjoyed her book. She lives in my city, and is currently coordinating the production of, and editing, The invisible thread, an anthology of works “by writers who have an association with the Canberra region”. The book represents a major literary contribution to Canberra’s 2013 Centenary Celebrations, and is planned to be the focus of many literary events over the coming year. Watch this space!

Nigel Featherstone, Fall on me

Featherstone, Fall on me

Fall on me bookcover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

Nigel Featherstone is nearly a local writer for me – he lives in the country town an hour down the road – but I haven’t read him before, even though he has published a goodly number of short stories and short fiction. How does this happen? Anyhow, Fall on me is his second novel, or novella, to be exact. It is, in a way, an age-old story. The protagonist has experienced something in his past that has stalled his life, made him lose his way. From pretty early on, you know that this is what the story is about, but Featherstone tells it in such a way that it doesn’t feel old, that makes you want to keep on reading to find out exactly what did happen, and how (because you assume he will) our protagonist is “unstalled”.

How does Featherstone achieve this? I’ll explain soon, but first I’ll flesh out the plot just a little more. There are three main characters – Lou, our protagonist, who’s 38 and owns a small cafe in Lonnie (Launceston, for the non-locals); Luke, his son, who is 17 (and, significant to the plot, therefore not quite an adult yet); and Anna Denman, their boarder, who’s in her late 20s and works in a bookshop. As the back cover blurb says, the plot revolves around a decision by Luke “to risk all by making his body the focus of an art installation” which forces Lou “to revisit the dark secrets of his past, question what it means to be a father, and discover …”. Well, you’ll have to read the book – or at least find the back cover – to discover what Lou discovers!

The title of the book comes from the R.E.M. song, “Fall on me”, which is, says songwriter Stipe, a song about oppression, about the things that “smash us”. For Lou, a big R.E.M fan, what’s smashing him is his inability to move on from what happened in the past, when Luke was one month old. It is Luke’s art installation, of course, which finally precipitates Lou’s “unstalling”. Featherstone’s plotting is sure; he drops clues to what had happened, without telling us too soon but not dragging it out too long either. We realise fairly quickly that it involves a loss (after all he’s a single father) but how this occurred and who might be involved is not immediately made clear. The past is gradually filled in, through flashbacks, and the picture is slowly built up – though only sometimes in the expected direction. Where, we wonder, for example, does his old schoolfriend, Fergal, fit in?  Meanwhile, in real-time, the art installation plot runs its course.

A number of themes run through the novel, besides the “unstalling” one. One relates to art. I like the way the plot, without specifically mentioning it, reminds us of the Bill Henson “is it art or pornography” controversy which caused a furore in Australia in 2008. What happens when art pushes the edges, particularly when children are involved? Lou is shocked by Luke’s “My Exposure for You” installation and fears for his son. He wonders about “laws” that might come into play, and whether some sort of “‘artistic licence'” might apply. Luke, though, gets to the point: “But my body – ultimately – means nothing. It’s my heart that counts”. Another theme relates to parenting. Lou worries about the “installation”:

He can’t allow the exhibition to happen. He won’t – he could never – allow his son to put himself in the sort of danger that might now be coming his way, their way […]

Hang on. Is that really his responsibility, stopping his son from getting in the way of danger? Isn’t a greater responsibility encouraging his son to be all that he can be?

The writing is direct, straightforward. It’s not wildly innovative, but that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. There’s the occasional word-play and irony, some effective description, and apposite allusions including a sly reference to Lou reading Patrick White‘s The Twyborn affair. The characterisation is good. This is a novella, so only the main characters are developed and, even then, Anna is a little shadowy. We know what we need to know – but perhaps not as much as we’d like to know!

I enjoyed this book. It’s warm and generous, and it feels real. Around the middle of the book, when Lou expresses his desire to protect his son, Luke responds that “safety doesn’t always equal life”. Some risks need to be taken … as each of the characters realise, some later rather sooner. The end result is a story with heart … and that is a lovely thing.

Nigel Featherstone
Fall on me
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2011
130pp
ISBN: 9780980755633

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Monday musings on Australian literature: SPUNC has spunk

Having cried wolf, book cover

Isn’t this cover gorgeous? (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

Yes, come here for your wit. I bet I’m the first one to have thought of that line! SPUNC, in case you haven’t heard of them and you probably haven’t, is the Small Press Network (in Australia). The acronym actually stands for Small Press Underground Networking Community. It was formed in Melbourne in 2006 and its aim – as you would have guessed – is, in its own words, “to promote independent publishing and support the principle of diversity within the publishing industry as a vital component of Australian literary culture”.

Its definition of small is, I think, pretty broad. I suspect the key word is “independent” more than “small” as its members range from what seems to me to be well-established companies, like Text Publishing, which publishes some high volume works, to smaller more boutique publishers like Ginninderra Press and, a new kid on the block, Affirm Press.

In 2007, SPUNC commissioned a report into independent publishing in Australia. It was titled A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia. Aha, there it is “small” and “independent” and it seems that for the purposes of this report the focus was on the smaller end of the scale.

In fact, definition is one of the issues the report confronted and so, using the evidence they gathered from their survey and overseas research, they came up with one. Their suggested guidelines for ‘small press’ is that they are independent publishers who:

  • Have published at least one book title or journal issue (in hardcopy);
  • Have an annual turnover of $500 000 or less;
  • Have print runs of usually less than 2000;
  • Have published more than one author;
  • Publish fewer than 10 book titles per year; and
  • Usually do not charge authors fees for production, editing or distribution.
Kill Your Darlings Issue 4

Kill Your Darlings

Guess what the report found? Well, in case you can’t, I’ll tell you: it’s that the main problems faced by smaller presses are publicity and distribution. Who’da thought it?! They do admit though, that distribution in particular is a problem for all publishers, not just the small ones, due to “the combined effects of a crowded market, a geographically wide distribution area, low margins and relatively small print runs”. It’s hard running any business in “a wide brown land”.

Why am I writing this? Because I do read books from small presses, including Affirm Press, Black Inc, Ginninderra PressGiramondo Publishing, Griffith Review, and Kill Your Darlings to name just a few. And because I want them to survive: they pick up new upcoming writers; they publish poetry; they publish essays; they, in fact, make the major contribution to the diversity of publishing in Australia; they foster local talent; and they are often simply just beautiful to look at and hold.

Do you read small presses? Do they contribute to your literary scene? What do you think they could do to lift their visibility?