You run Ford Street Publishing. For those not familiar, could you tell us what sets Ford Street Publishing apart from other publishers?
I jokingly tell people that every author is an A-list author with Ford Street. Major publishers basically promote their very select A-list authors and illustrators and the B-list (there’s no C-list!) either sinks or swims. This basically means I give all I have to every book I publish. Ford Street titles are vigorously edited and proofread. We work on our titles till all parties are happy. We don’t churn out a “product” to make money, unlike celebrity publishers and others who are now run by bean counters. Gone are the days when editors choose what’s being published, rather its accountants and marketing teams. With most, if not all, small presses, it’s still the editors that make the decision on what to accept and what to reject. Several titles I’ve published that have been short-listed for Premier’s/Territory awards have been knocked back by major publishers. So it’s the power of individual thought that sets small presses apart from major publishers. It’s a complete fallacy that if a small press publishes something then it can’t be a good book, otherwise a major publisher would’ve picked it up.
You were born in England, grew up in New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1972. In your experience, are there any major differences between between the kinds of stories written and published in England, New Zealand and Australia?
I think these countries, along with Canada, believe it or not, all publish roughly the same style of book. American books are something apart. I think British publishers are a little too restrained for their own good, though. It’s a very tough market to crack. NZ possibly has the worst of it, because their population is so small. No matter where you are, you pay the same for printing — a population of 3 million will possibly be a little more careful than a country with a population of 300 million (NZ as opposed to the US).
You have edited anthologies. What makes a great anthology, or what do you usually like in anthologies?
I don’t like theme anthologies, apart from genre themes. So fantasy, SF, mystery anthologies are fine, but not say specific to dogs, cats, animals. My last anthology was Trust Me!. I crossed all genres, and had stories and illustrations by Shaun Tan, Leigh Hobbs, Marc McBride, Andy Griffiths, Phillip Gwynne, David Metzenthen and many others. My figuring is that in such an anthology there’s something for everyone.
You have also written novels. Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
There are various methods to writing novels. Some write them sentence by perfect sentence while others, like me, write the first draft and keep re-drafting till the MS is what we consider as good as it’s going to get. My last novel was The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler. It started with a single character, one who spoke in malapropisms. I can honestly say I thought it was a unique idea until I researched malapropisms and discovered it’d been done before. (It seems everything’s been done before!) So I started with a character, but that character didn’t turn out to be the lead in the book — he became the lead’s best friend. I started the book with an intriguing couple of lines: It wasn’t even five o’clock and Milo had already murdered Mrs Appleby. Twice. When I give workshops and tell students to come up with interesting lines like this, they all want to know how someone could be murdered twice. And of course, that’s what you want the reader to wonder. I tell them they’ll have to read the book for the answer to that!
What are some of your favourite Australian novels and what makes them stand out for you?
To be perfectly honest, the only Australian novels I read are those by Ford Street authors. Obviously I like all the books I’ve published, but I think the most interesting for me would be In Lonnie’s Shadow by Chrissie Michaels, They Told Me I Had To Write This by Kim Miller, and My Private Pectus by Shane Thamm. But that’s an arbitrary list. I truly think everything I’ve published is worthy of praise. I used to read Peter Carey, but whereas I love his short stories, I don’t care for his novels. Oscar and Lucinda lost me forever.
What is the key to a great book series?
The obvious answer would be to keep your readers wanting more. I’ve published and written quite a few series. But a good marketing/publicity plan also helps. I suspect there are thousands of great books Out There that never reached their potential audiences. Distribution, especially in Australia, is a problem. Getting books into bookshops has always been difficult, but it’s becoming even harder. Most seem to want the best-sellers, and I suspect the publishers share this wish, as well. I’m publishing the Hazard River series by JE Fison in October. It has action, mixed genders, conservation concerns, interesting characters, great covers and are well-written. Will these ingredients be enough to make them a “great book series”? Only time will tell.
When you are looking through submissions to decide whether to publish them what are some of the most important things you look for, or have appreciated when you found in fictional stories?
I personally like themes. Big and Me by David Miller has a mental health theme, while Dianne Bates’s book, Crossing the Line is about a girl who’s into self-harm. Felicity Marshall’s book, The Star, is about our obsession with fame and fake celebrity. My own book with Jo Thompson, The Glasshouse, is a picture book about perfection and paranoia. These books have excellent teachers’ notes and can be read on multi-levels.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
Modesty Blaise was always a stand-out for me. She was powerful, just, amazonian, smart. I wish she were real lol. The author has since died and I’m hoping a producer picks up on the film franchise. I think Peter O’Donnell hated the only Modesty Blaise film to be made (and justifiably so — it was a shocker!) and forbade anyone else to make a film. A shame Modesty Blaise didn’t take off like James Bond, because the books were infinitely better than Fleming’s!
What makes a great writing workshop?
With students it’s a matter of keeping their interest. So I touch on editing, writing, presentation, the five senses, show don’t tell. My theory is that somewhere along the line the students will at least absorb one of these pieces of information. If you put all your eggs in one basket, let’s say, plotting, and the kids are bored with plotting, then you’ve taught them nothing. I also dangle the prospect of getting published, and show them a great way to do this.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’ve just finished the first book in a new YA trilogy called Maximus Black. I have it out with Leonie Tyle (Woolshed Press) right now. The waiting game has begun. But since the character is quite evil, I suspect it’s going to be hard sale to a publisher, even though I know from my sales record that the trilogy will sell well. I don’t suppose any of your readers are publishers, by any chance? lol
The Australian Literature Review