NWF: Unprintable Books: Writing for the Digital Era: Kate Pullinger

pp_katepullingerKate Pullinger’s session on unprintable books was another highlight of the National Writers Forum for me. Pullinger (right) has been involved in a diverse array of projects that have traversed that sometimes impossible-looking gap between digital and print media – a gap that could well be a matter of perception over truth. In fact, Pullinger made the point that the perceived boundary between digital and print publishing is much more porous than we might think.

Pullinger’s first book was published traditionally when she was in her mid-20s. Since then she’s published a number of books and short stories –The Mistress of Nothing won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 2009. Yet she’s also diversified and carved out a space for herself, and other readers, writers and learners, in the digital space. Her project Inanimate Alice, which started out in 2005, has become exceptionally popular as an educational resource, as it’s an excellent example of how learning can be ‘gamified’ – combining text, animation, video, sound effects, music, and games with virtual participation. It’s still happening; episode six of Inanimate Alice was released in February this year.

For Pullinger, online collaboration has worked well as a contrast to the solitary process of producing long-form work offline. Landing Gear, a novel that explores the relationship between a suburban housewife and a stowaway who falls from the sky, started its life online, with Pullinger’s participatory research phase involving around 100 people. Opening up the writing process to participation has a few notable advocates now – with scientific peer review attributed as a major factor in the success of breakout hit, The Martian, by Andy Weir.cv_letters_to_an_unknown_soldier

Next Pullinger talked about Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a commissioned online project to mark the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of World War One. Participants were encouraged to write a letter to the Paddington Station’s statue of an unknown soldier. The concept blossomed into an online work that involved 21,439 letters and 8 editorial moderators. When you have a spare moment, I thoroughly recommend perusing through this memorial, or perhaps buying the resulting print book, Letter to an Unknown Soldier: A New Kind of War Memorial, published by HarperCollins in 2014.

But what of smartphones, those pesky pocket-sized computers that loom ominously over publishing? It’s all about finding a way to make the reading experience native to the medium; and Pullinger’s currently exploring how to do just that. Together with start-up oolipo, Pullinger has been working on a way to serialise fiction for smartphones – and there’s a lot more to this process than you might think. Our perceptions of reading in print can limit the way we work in digital space, as ‘the screen as a page’ metaphor persists in the digital reading space. I’m disappointed that I own a Samsung, as I do a lot of reading on my phone, and this project and the release of Pullinger’s serialised Jellybone is potentially industry-changing (though only available for iOS).

I’m a huge fan of Pokѐmon Go, so when Pullinger mentioned ambient literature, I was right there alongside her. “Situated literature exploring delivery by pervasive computing platforms that respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story” may sound like a mouthful, but the idea of engaging with location-specific content is one that really excites me. I’d love to see this medium working with narrative non-fiction in an educational space, as it has the potential to bring about learning experiences that are kinetic, empathetic, and educational.

Kate Pullinger spoke very freely of her experiences in publishing, and contributed very meaningfully to panel discussions. Her work in the digital space continues to break new ground, and I’ll certainly be following her upcoming projects with interest.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Links:

  • Listen to Kate’s interview with Kim Hill here: Kate Pullinger: Digital Fictions
  • The Writing Platform: Pullinger is the Editorial Director for this free resource for writers and poets on digital transformations in reading, writing and publishing.
  • Inanimate Alice: An early digital project of Pullinger’s, that continues to be very popular as a classroom resource.
  • Letter to an Unknown Soldier:A participatory online memorial to commemorate the centenary of WW1.
  • Oolipo: A start-up exploring smartphone reading experiences and serialised work.

NWF: The Great Debate: Toby Manhire, Michele A’Court, Paula Morris & Leilani Tamu with Te Radar

te-radar

Te Radar

Okay, I’ll admit it – after the release of the now-infamous NZ Book Council research report, I was disappointed that these four debaters emerged from this session with their limbs still attached. The moot “Do New Zealand Books Need Special Treatment?” has become so topical in the past week that the organisers of the National Writers Forum must have been delighted by both their foresight and brilliant luck. I myself reveled in the pre-glow of what I hoped would be a bitter bloodbath, ending with Te Radar’s tender hand floating across the tops of long stems of golden wheat. But Te Radar isn’t Russell Crowe, and this was no Gladiator.

 

Overall this session was less battle to the death and more battle of the wits, and boy, did Manhire come out swinging. Leader of the affirmative team, Manhire suggested that, yes, New Zealand books do need special treatment – in almost every sense of the phrase. Not only do they need to be stroked, cared for, given attention, and lovingly durasealed – and New Zealand writers given resources and plenty of biscuits – but sometimes New Zealand books also need “special” treatment – their prices slashed as they’re chucked into the Whitcoulls cheap basket.

Paula Morris followed up with a compelling argument from the negative team, stating that Manhire and A’Court are both “strange and volatile people”. She argued that New Zealand books aren’t basket cases, and that they need to be given the opportunity to stand up and skirmish with international titles on general fiction shelves – very sensible.

Michele A’Court responded on behalf of the affirmative team, explaining that reading New Zealand’s special books gave her permission to be a writer. Separating New Zealand literature was not a way to weed out New Zealand titles from the good books, but to wave, to say “I’m like you, come and find me.”

Leilani Tamu replied with a poignant anecdote of her child’s first take-home reader – about the importance of engaging with and bonding over a love of story, not identity. New Zealand books need to assert themselves, she said, because they are worthy of the world stage.

What do I think? I have no bloody idea. The treatment of New Zealand books is currently so contentious, with so many credible arguments for each side, that it’s not an issue that I feel my small voice would progress. Perhaps, as Te Radar said, “it really doesn’t make any difference who won this debate”. Another brilliant you-really-had-to-be-there session by the National Writers Forum.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Image of Te Radar from: http://johnsonlaird.com/our-mcs-entertainers-speakers/Te_Radar

 

NWF: The Future of Publishing: Scott Pack with Dominic Hoey

Scott Pack’s been around the UK publishing block. He was the head of buying for book retail giant Waterstones for six years, before venturing into publishing via indie publisher The Friday Project and HarperCollins. In Scott’s session, he talked candidly with Dominic Hoey about the ‘doom and gloom’ of the publishing industry, and some of his latest ground-breaking publishing endeavours: crowd-funding publisher Unbound, and the champion of out-of-print books, Abandoned Bookshop.

“There is a perception that the publishing industry is fucked…” started Pack, when asked about the current state of publishing. But this attitude comes from publishing’s reliance on an antiquated business model. Essentially, publishers pay authors an advance based on guessing how many books they’ll sell – and this advance is signed for six, twelve, or even eighteen months out from that book appearing in bookstores. Now advances against royalties are dropping, but Scott reckons the publishing industry will keep on ticking – if only because it’s too big to completely die.

A slightly morbid sentiment to start on, perhaps, especially considering the outstanding innovation of Unbound – think Kickstarter, but for a select number of passionately championed books – which in itself has the potential to shake-up the old publishing model and the way books are bought, made, and distributed.

But crowdfunding changes not only the book-making processes, but also how people interact with books. Crowdfunding publishing, Pack says, brings the reader and author closer together – and sometimes more literally than you might think. Somewhat like Kickstarter, Unbound consults with authors to offer a range of ‘perks’ for pledges. These can range from digital copies of the book to exclusive events, signed copies – and in the case of Mr Bingo – an insulting Christmas Day phone call. Essentially, your readers are also funding your promotion, and while the average book on Unbound sells for £20-25, their average pledge is £40. For authors with an existing platform, engaging with the market in this way can be quite lucrative – unlike a traditional publisher, Unbound split profits with authors 50/50.

Pack’s newest brainchild is Abandoned Bookshop, which he co-founded in 2016. Abandoned Bookshop takes forgotten out-of-print books and gives them a second life in the ebook market. Pack circumvents the usual bookish media channels, that often do not publish reviews of ebooks anyway, by wrapping his titles in a larger story. ‘Publisher hunts for forgotten detective novelist Clifton Robbins’ reads the title of this Guardian article, in which Abandoned Bookshop are seeking relatives of Robbins in order to pay out royalties. There’s no doubt that wrapping a story around a book like this works well on digital media, and “it’s not rocket science to take out-of-print books and make them available again,” but it does have the potential to inundate a small publisher with amateur genealogists.

And what of the New Zealand publishing scene? Pack started out his time in New Zealand at Christchurch’s WORD festival a month ago. Since then he’s seen a fair number of our bookshops. “Books here are bloody expensive” states Pack, but it’s clear that those working in publishing are passionate. There’s innovation going on here, too, with new ventures like arts crowdfunding platform Boosted which just supported Hinemoana Baker to the tune of 17K, but it’s still hard for New Zealand books to break into the US and UK markets. This is something Pack hopes to change when he returns to the UK – hinting at some possible Abandoned Bookshop New Zealand releases.

Yes, perhaps that old, rusting publishing model needs a bit of a makeover – but with enthusiastic arts champions like Pack and Hoey, I don’t doubt that publishing will continue to thrive.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen, by Chris Cleave

Apparently Chris Cleave has been on the road promoting his new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, since January. On hearing this, I half expected a bedraggled Cleave to front for the keynote speech of our first National Writers Forum: crumpled notes in hand, world-weary and longingly counting down the days until home. Instead, Cleave presented the most calm, thoughtful, and compelling commentary I’ve heard on the current global socio-economic climate and the resulting challenges writers are facing, not just in their work, but also in their lives.

Cleave had obviously done his research. He started with a discussion of New Zealand literature and his experiences with a country that maintains a cultural focus while still having a healthy curiosity for the outward world. New Zealand, Cleave says, “punches well above its weight in literature”, sometimes much to his chagrin, what with all these New Zealand Man Booker Prize wins. Yet, he assures us, he doesn’t hate us.

But hate is on the rise, and the hard right is resurgent. As Cleave so aptly put it: “People are building walls again, and topping them with barbed wire.” And the problem with this hate? It’s catching – and so much more readily compressible; perfectly adapted to the digital medium. Rage has become the fuelling emotion of our era. 

So, in a world filled with viral sound bites of hate, what can writers do to be useful? Cleave detailed a list of five things that writers can do to matter in an Orwellian world of fuelled by “Two Minutes Hate” – I thoroughly recommend that you read this list, along with the full transcript of Chris’s speech, on his website (link below). They’re points that deserve thoughtful reflection, and a pause for breath.

Though I’m sure that all writers and the bookishly inclined will gain something different from Cleave’s list, the one that really stuck with me was number four: tell stories in a world no longer listening to fact. With science, reason and statistical analysis all failing to hold authority in our current political climates, storytellers have become the most powerful change makers. While this is a dangerous and somewhat scary thought, I do find something thrillingly Foucauldian about the idea. That this might be a step towards empowering subjugated knowledges – those low-ranking knowledges embodied and learned through human experience – is comforting in a way that cold, hard facts never could be.

 We live in a storied world. As Cleave puts it: “When we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us.” Evil may be quick, dominating, and seductive; but appealing to humanity – something that writers have always done well – has the power to change this narrative, and to know when it has achieved its purpose.

Read the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s amazing speech here.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen: Chris Cleave

NWF: Janet Frame Memorial Lecture ­– Authors, an Endangered Species: Joan Rosier-Jones.

pp_joan_rosier-jonesWhen I first saw the title of this lecture, I thought that it might turn out to be a rather grim note to prologue the National Writers Forum, which officially starts today. I couldn’t have been more wrong ­– Joan Rosier-Jones presented a very informative overview of copyright changes in New Zealand since 1987, the year she joined PEN (Now the New Zealand Society of Authors, or the NZSA); and talked passionately about how theNZSA advocates for writers, ensuring that they do not become extinct.

The session was started by Gordon McLauchlan, who introduced Joan as a practitioner ­­– and therefore a ‘professional survivor’ of the publishing industry. During her time Joan has done far much more than just survive – she’s thrived, writing around 18 novels and books about writing, and she’s been extraordinarily active in advocating and encouraging writing culture in New Zealand. Joan was the first female Chair of the Auckland branch of the NZSA, serving during the transitory period of 1993-1995, during many a heated debate about the 1994 copyright changes (she mentioned one particular ‘debate’ where fists almost became involved). She became the President of the NZSA in 1999 and served through until 2001, and she was also one of the first writer directors of Copyright Licencing NZ. Joan now holds the position of NZSA President of Honour – following Phillip Temple. Other recent Presidents of Honour include Owen Marshall, Joy Cowley, and Sir James McNeish.

Joan did a great job of outlining how copyright has changed for authors since the overhaul of New Zealand copyright legislation in 1994, covering everything from the introduction of moral rights and the establishment of Copyright Licensing NZ, to the 2011 ‘digital age’ copyright changes and potential implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (copyright term currently extends to 50 years after the death of the originator in NZ, under the TPP, this period could extend to 70 years).

Next she talked more specifically about publishing contracts and some of their potential sticking points. While translation rights, digital rights, broadcast and merchandising are reasonably standard requests by publishers (though these can be negotiated), I had no idea that publishers can ask for rights for media forms ‘yet to be invented’… definitely something for the signing author to be wary of, and to opt-out of where possible!

One of the problems with contracts is that authors can be a vulnerable lot. At the beginning of her talk, Joan mentioned that she signed her first three contracts without really reading them – something that in the heat and excitement of the moment, many signing authors may still fail to do. While the doors to publishing expand digitally and retract in print, writers are presented with a variety of new hurdles ­– and it’s great to know that organisations like the NZSA exist to prevent writers from ‘becoming extinct’.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Emma Bryson is at the National Writers Forum reporting on behalf of Booksellers NZ all weekend.

 

 

 

WORD: Ask A Mortician, Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background-copyDeath is an odd thing to be chipper about. LA-based mortician, ‘death positive’ advocate and YouTube star Caitlin Doughty is definitely chipper, though: she has that extreme chirpiness that I’m going to assume is compulsory for anyone living in Los Angeles. And yet she is not flippant: in amongst her ebullient humour is a serious intellectual and moral engagement with issues of death, grieving, funeral customs, end-of-life care and spirituality. I felt immediately drawn to her. If it were possible to pre-book one’s own mortician, I would consign my corpse into Doughty’s hands without a second thought.

Doughty was interviewed by local coroner Marcus Elliott, who did a good job of asking interesting questions and then giving Doughty plenty of space to answer them. (I must also give him props for his dapper blue cravat.*) Doughty entered the death industry as a young woman fresh out of her medieval history degree. “My relationship with death is the best relationship of my life.” When she was 8, she had seen a small child fall from a balcony, and “the spectre of death began to haunt me … [but] dialogue with my parents [on this topic] was not open”. She spoke about the ways in which children are curious about death, but we tell them that their interest is dirty, or weird, or wrong. This is one of the many things Doughty wants to change.

Another is the way that the professionalisation of death has distanced us from the dead body. A century ago in the Western world, the family cared for the corpse; dead bodies lay in state in the home and then were carried out for burial. Only in the 20th century have we developed a professionalised class of death workers, who come and remove the corpse from the home (or, more likely, hospital) and take it away. “Nowadays, being around a corpse causes terror and confusion … We have a weird, ‘uncanny valley’, creeped-out relationship with the dead body.”

One of the many things I learned from Doughty in this session – and I look forward to learning more from her book that I bought, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – is the history of embalming. “Originally embalming was an American thing – you’re welcome – and was used during the civil war to keep bodies preserved long enough to transport them back to the north.” Embalmers would follow the battles and set up stalls, sometimes embellished with a heavily embalmed unclaimed corpse to serve as advertising. And then, after the war ended and the demand threatened to dry up, the embalming chemical companies invested heavily in training people as embalmers and selling their services. And so the funeral industry developed. “New Zealanders are the second most regular embalmers after Americans, you’re welcome for that as well.”

One of the most common objections to embalming that Doughty hears from mourners is that it makes the corpse look strange, which interferes with the grieving process. This is something else Doughty wants to change. “Sitting with the corpse is always difficult and beautiful … There is a sacred quality to caring for the corpses of those we love.”

One thing Doughty warned us about, which reminded me of Atul Gawande’s talk at the Auckland Writers Festival last year, is that “the good death isn’t handed to you … you have to have the conversations and do the planning.” Particularly under our current medical system, which will try and keep you alive as long as possible, even when quality of life has deteriorated horribly. Doughty worked on the campaign that led to California recently passing a law that allows for assisted dying.

Recently Doughty has opened her own business, “the only non-profit funeral home in LA”. She offers a service of coming to your home to look after the corpse, but is finding that “once you explain to people that it’s safe and legal and how to do it, they do it themselves. It turns out they didn’t need a professional at all.”

Elliott asked about alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. There’s composting: “composting bodies is really quite a beautiful process … they turn to soil in 6-8 weeks”. And aquamation, using very hot water and lye, which “flash decomposes the body down to something like ash.” Or conservation burial, whereby you have yourself buried on some land in order to prevent it being developed, “like chaining yourself to a tree, but you’re dead”.

There was the inevitable audience question about the afterlife. Doughty says she visualises her life being like a film reel, which flaps off at the end into an empty white nothingness: “that brings me comfort”. And comfort, overall, is what I took from her session.

* I think it was a cravat. The names of different kinds of clothing isn’t really my area of specialty.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782111030

 

WORD: Work / Sex, with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff and Julie Hill

Event_WorkSexIf Ivan E. Coyote did one of the best things a literary festival can do – broke my heart and then put it back together again made better – this session did another: forced me to examine my own unconscious bias and realise I was wrong.

Sex work is something I’ve never really thought much about, which means that most of the ideas I have about sex workers are those I’ve passively absorbed from the society and media around me. And, if there’s one thing feminism has taught me – and as Debbie Stoller said on Friday – it’s that received ideas, particularly about women, need to be carefully rethought. So thank you to Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, and especially Kate Holden, for prompting me to do some important rethinking.

They were on a panel chaired by Julie Hill. Conversation was lively, intelligent and stimulating (as per the usual very high standard of WORD), and all three women read from their latest books, which I tried in vain to buy from the bookstall afterwards (they had sold out).

Hodgkinson was working as stripper at the same time as editing student magazine Canta while studying. “I found the unregulated vibe of the industry really alluring … Writing is more difficult, it requires an element of emotional truth in order to succeed. With stripping, you can fake that.” For a long time she kept her stripping life secret. “I regret not having owned that part of myself publicly earlier … It annoyed me that people were making judgements about me based on what I did for a job … I was not personally ashamed, that shame got put on me from outside.”

Doff is a New Yorker who told us tales of working the champagne hustle in strip joints and bars in Times Square in the 70s and 80s: “I always wanted to be a hurly burly girl … I probably qualified as a drunk by the time I was 13 or 14.” She spoke unflinchingly of the danger of those times and the brutal rape she suffered that went practically unpunished: her rapist was just banned from the pub for a couple of weeks. “The mafia owned all the strip clubs and gay bars, the places where people couldn’t complain … Women were very, very replaceable … We formed foxhole friendships [with each other], under fire in the front lines of the war.”

Holden, an Australian author, says she was “such a dork” as a teenager, “really intimidated by other humans”. She had “a grand fantasy of doing something radical … Grunge was the making of me because it didn’t matter what you wore, I could just leap in and fake it … I wanted to do something that scared me … Heroin led me into sex work through force of economics.” Holden spoke eloquently about the custodial side of sex work, and how a lot of it involves caring for men who are lonely – and educating them about sex. She also spoke of the consorority: “In some ways it’s a perfect female society … We had such a range of womanhood on any shift [at the brothel] … It was exciting to see women experimenting with different kinds of boldness.”

I was particularly struck by Holden speaking about “the assumptive public discourse about sex workers … Whenever there’s violence against sex workers, the emphasis is always on their work … If plumber comes to your house they don’t need to bring a bodyguard in case you ravenously sexually attack them. It’s so arse about face that we think a sex worker is in charge of not being raped … Sex work is rated as a separate, exotic category of work. We’re not having panels about writers who have also been sandwich makers!”

I felt that tingle in my brain when you hear something and agree with it, but believing that new thing requires you to let go of a pre-existing idea you weren’t even aware you were holding. I felt some old ideas dissolve. I will be tracking down Holden’s book for sure.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Work / Sex
with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, chaired by Julie Hill

Under My Skin: A Memoir of Addiction
by Kate Holden
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN 9781611457988

Two Decades Naked
by Leigh Hopkinson
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634833