Judging a book by its cover

5 December 2018

Let’s face it. No matter what anyone says, we do judge a book by its cover. Which is why the designer’s job is so important. As an editor I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible book designers, and one of the very best is Sandy Cull.

So often when I pick up a book because I’m struck by its incredible cover design, I turn to the imprint page and find Sandy’s name. Her work is striking and imaginative, clever and layered. Perhaps best of all, it’s obvious once you read the book that Sandy has understood what the author is trying to say.

Luckily for us, Sandy allowed me to throw a bunch of questions at her and take us inside her creative process.

Sandy’s notebooks

Irma Gold: What led you to book design?
Sandy Cull: I completed a graphic design course and spent several years working in design studios, advertising agencies and then, when I lived in London for four years, magazine publishing.

Once back in Oz, I began freelancing for various magazines in Sydney before art directing a craft magazine for a few years. Wanting to return to Melbourne, a friend told me about a position for a designer at Penguin. It was love at first sight.

IG: What does a typical day, or week look like for you?
SC: I share a studio space with four designers, two photographers and four animation producers. I cycle either to or from the studio four days a week.

Every day I have at least one deadline, but often there are several things on my to-do list. It could be first cover roughs for a nonfiction book, text design for a fiction book, or time allocated for picture searching or photography, painting some hand type or scouting for props to shoot.

I do a lot of my reading on the train and at night, or on extended holidays. As a freelancer, I don’t tend to have many client/author/publisher meetings. Most communication is by email. Publishers make contact when they have a project in mind for me. If I can fit it into my calendar, I usually say ‘yes’.

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IG: Do you read every book that you design the cover for?
SC: I read every fiction book from beginning to end. I could count on my hands the number of fiction books I haven’t read or finished. If I haven’t the time to read it, I don’t take it on.

For nonfiction, I tend to only read some chapters, as well as an introduction and a summary. Recently I have had several nonfiction books where I haven’t been able to stop reading at just a few chapters. I note Rise and Resist by Clare Press, which I couldn’t put down, and The Rapids by Sam Twyford-Moore.

IG: How do you read? What are you looking for as you read?
SC: I take notes whilst I’m reading. I might sketch out things on a moleskin book, or use a drawing app or ‘notes’ on my phone. If there’s something unfamiliar, like a location or a particular phenomenon, or a moment in history, I will do quite a bit of research.

It’s important for me to get a visual accurate, and it provides, in the very least, a starting point. Recently I had to research a particular area of NYC around the beginning of the nineteenth century when the first blimps or dirigibles were being flown. A few months back I spent a day shooting on Phillip Island, where much of a fiction book was set. This saved me sitting in front of the computer conducting exhaustive picture searches and got me out of the studio for the day.

Then there is also a whole treasure trove of images I’ve being collecting by artists I’ve been watching for years. When I’m reading, some of these will come to mind, and I’ll make a note to revisit a particular artist’s work, to see what they’re up to.

Before I go to the screen, I will usually sketch some thumbnails.

IG: What was the most challenging publication that you’ve worked on?
SC: Rather than mention any in particular, generally speaking, the bigger the author, the more challenging the brief. A big-name author usually needs mass-market appeal, so there’s loads more pressure and expectation for sales, and many more opinions involved throughout the process. Ironically, these projects are usually, though not always, less adventurous and courageous from a design point of view.

I do tend to work on books by big-name authors. It’s a complete privilege to work on them, and it’s a huge bonus if it comes more easily than anticipated. I think I tend to get these projects because I do have good stamina, and can usually go the distance that many of these covers travel. Whether that’s a good thing, is debatable.

Most often the agreement between a publisher and a designer is that the designer will supply three rounds of concepts for their quoted fee. These more difficult briefs often end up being many more than that. It can be eight or 10 rounds of finessing and tinkering. And rarely for an extra fee. I’ve outlined the process in more detail later.

IG: Have you been completely wedded to covers that publishers haven’t liked?
SC: This happens all the time. I’m going through a stage at the moment when just about every favourite concept is usurped by my least favourite. When will I learn to not include the concept I don’t want them to choose?

IG: What is the best thing about your work?
SC: I am in heaven working on books with folks who love books and, without exception, I feel blessed to read a book in manuscript form.

IG: What is the most challenging thing about your work?
SC: I have always loved working closely with editors, and so I do miss the sense of team that’s available in-house, when you can indulge over sets of pages, making the page perfect.

Maintaining balance between lots of work and none is always a challenge. And keeping myself financially viable in a difficult and constantly changing industry.

IG: How long does it usually take to design a book?
SC: It depends on the project, the publisher, and whether I’m lucky to be going through a ‘purple patch’, or am a little uninspired to be very efficient. A purple patch is described in the dictionary as a run of success, but, for me, it’s specifically a wonderfully creative time when I’m firing on all cylinders, when everything seems to come easily. It’s probably quite random but I theorise that if I have too much on, I am probably too stressed to be as creative as I can be.

As a general guide, I usually require a minimum of three weeks to read. I might spend a week researching and shooting, and drawing and scanning, to pull together first concepts, and another week to do another round, and perhaps another week to do a third round.

For the latest Markus Zusak, Bridge of Clay, I received the manuscript in early January and sent final art to press in late June.

IG: What kind of books do you love working on the most?
SC: I love literary fiction and nonfiction. Recently I’ve really enjoyed working on a lot of nonfiction projects that discuss really important and perhaps difficult issues. These books are necessary. Topics have included mental health in the social media age, women and Islam, the ‘Yes’ campaign, the #MeToo movement and, one of favourites of the year, Rise and Resist about revolution.

IG: What’s the most controversial cover you’ve created? Was it deliberately controversial? Or was the reaction to it unexpected?
SC: I recently did a new cover for Charlotte Wood’s Stella award-winning novel, The Natural Way of Things. Encouraged by its courageous publisher, we deliberately chose a rather striking, close-up of a shaven-headed woman staring right into the camera. It was rejected by the supermarket chains who said they wouldn’t stock it with this cover, saying it was too confrontational and aggressive, but it’s completely right for the book. It is amazing that the publisher went ahead anyway. I think more often than not, publishers go for the safe route at their peril, and at the risk of their book being totally overlooked and homogenised with everything else that’s out there.

Another brave cover was Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread. I was specifically asked to avoid horses on the cover because it might pigeonhole the book in the ‘horsey’ romance genre. As it turned out, a horse is exactly what we put on the cover but it definitely didn’t look like one of those. I remember punching the air in delight. The close-up image was so arresting and perfect, that it took my own breath away when I found it.

The first cover for Emma Viskic’s debut crime novel, Resurrection Bay, was another brave choice. Again the supermarket chains complained about the forward slashes and asked for them to be removed; for the typography to be changed. Fortunately, the relatively new publisher [Echo Publishing] refused to budge and it not only sold its socks off, the author went on to win several awards.

Way back in 2005, The Cook’s Companion was quite a radical cookbook cover. Featuring a painting we commissioned by Melbourne artist Mathew Johnson, it still amazes me that we got that through back then, and that it remains the cover 13 years later.

IG: Can you take us through the process?
SC: I send out a general breakdown of my processes to self-publishing authors before we get too far down the track. I find this is really helpful for them and makes things completely transparent. Below is an edited version:

I usually like to receive a comprehensive cover brief from the publishers, with all practical details included in the document.

If we proceed, I would supply the author with a blank brief to fill in.

I supply a minimum of three stages of concepts, each with several variations.

These concepts may use low resolution images found from a variety of sources. My fee does not include any image fees.

From first concepts, we usually go to a second stage, where I present ‘second’ concepts if the first stage was unsuccessful or I finesse one of those first concepts. Repeat this process again for ‘third’ concepts, after which we hopefully have a cover approved. High res and final images are sought and I proceed to final art, which I upload to a chosen printer.

If the concepts are unsuccessful, after three stages, we may choose to part ways. This parting is often referred to in the industry, regrettably, as a ‘killing off’, and comes with a ‘kill fee’.

Printers
I would expect that most self-publishers do the groundwork with their printer of choice and already have made their choices and have print quotes before they come to me. I can put them in touch with a print broker or production person who can liaise with printers.

Text design
I love designing the internal pages as well, and this usually happens after we have an approved cover. I design the text design to match the preferred page extent.

Typesetting
I generally don’t typeset books from beginning to end, but am happy to do so, if I have time allowed in my schedule. Otherwise I liaise with typesetters.

IG: Can you explain the feedback process?
SC: For the mainstream publishers I am dealing directly with a senior editor. They relay all the feedback from the publisher and from the sales and marketing team. I deal with a publisher directly if they are handling a super important author, or if they are particularly hands-on with the book concerned.

Only after the cover has gone through the back and forth of cover meetings and finessing, more cover meetings, more finessing, and is approved by the necessary people in house, does it get shown to the author. It’s often by then a fait accompli. The agent is also involved at this stage. Very occasionally the author or agent might not be happy but this is an exception to the rule.

The rigour a publisher provides can sometimes result in a better cover, and perhaps a more successful book. Sometimes though it can result in a ‘designed by committee’ mediocre cover that looks like the last bestseller.

For self-published books, the process is usually much more fluid and speedy. All the communication has been between designer and author and there is no sales and marketing department to please, and no agent.

This can be refreshing approach. Though they’re acutely wedded and invested in the book, they can be very accepting of your input. They may have no experience in design and marketing, and are pleased to have a designer guide them through, and help them make the right decisions about what will work.

Window onto some of Sandy’s designs
The China Garden by Kris Olsson
This is quite an old cover but it is still one of the ones I’m most proud of. I bought the cups from an op shop and broke them in the studio, photographed them and superimposed the tulip onto it.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Another old cover, but I’m really happy with the typography. I placed an old print texture of CMYK dots over the top so it had a 1950s feel.

My Mother, My Father edited by Susan Wyndham
This cover still makes me smile. I put a call out to my friends asking for old watches that I could borrow to photograph. One belongs to my husband and one to a friend, but they are like an old couple, and perfect for this book.

Reading the Landscape: A Celebration of Australian Writing
I only presented one or two concepts for this UQP anthology. I spent hours handwriting some type with a paint brush, as well as producing this more fluid type in the Illustrator program. It felt so right to me. The publisher agreed and went with it immediately. Love that!

This month I have a copy of Sandy Cull’s latest design of The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood to give away. If youd like to get your hands on this incredible Stella Prize-winning novel, simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before 5 pm on Monday 17 December to go in the draw. 

Public reading: more please!

7 November 2018

Since phones have taken over it seems to me that people are reading less in public spaces. My children and I flout this at every opportunity. On a trip to the shops all three of them can often be seen trailing behind me, book in hand. (No one has met with calamity yet.) If I know I’ll be wasting time in queues, I’ll stuff my current novel into my bag before I leave home. But then as I stand in a line of people bent over their phones, I often feel almost mournful. Perhaps those either side of me are reading ebooks, but their scrolling fingers suggest otherwise. And I wonder, are we losing the art of reading? Are people reading less? Are we so spending so much time on social media that we are no longer taking time for deep reading?

A 2016 Nielsen report puts average media consumption (social media, TV, radio and all electronic devices) at 10 hours a day. How is there time for anything else? And in 2016, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that only 43 per cent of American adults had read ‘a work of literature’ for pleasure in the previous year. That stat depresses the hell out of me. More than half the country hadn’t read even one book in a whole year. That’s 163 million people who didn’t pick up a book for pleasure.

Anecdotally, the word from my children about their classmates’ lack of interest in recreational reading doesn’t paint a rosier picture. Last week Miss 15 reported that her English class complained volubly about a Roald Dahl short story they were asked to read. It was too long, they all said. Miss 15 rolled her eyes as she recounted this. It was 10 pages. Continue Reading…

An airport ottoman made for reading.

It worries me, this state of affairs. Not just because I’m a writer and editor, but because we need to be growing imaginative thinkers. Reading gives us space and time for reflection. Books are places where ideas germinate, where empathy is built, where questions are asked, and popular narratives are interrogated. In other words, with all the challenges our world is facing right now, we need books more than ever.

So won’t you join me in bringing books into the public arena at every opportunity? Read wherever you find yourself, be it in a queue or on a bus or waiting for a plane. Let’s stop scrolling and instead cram books into every corner of our lives. I’ll wager we’ll all be the better for it.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll encourage someone else in that queue/bus/airport lounge to put down their phone, and pick up a book.

Book mail

17 October 2018

This month I’ve been so flat out editing that I’ve barely had time to do anything else. I’ve got lots of wonderful books passing across my desk at the moment — literary fiction, YA and middle grade mostly — and it’s keeping me very busy. I’m booked through to the end of the year, which feels as if it is advancing at a great rate.

So in the absence of a proper blog post, I’m going to share with you this beautiful book that landed in my mailbox this week. (Is there anything better than book mail?) It is about Australian artist William Robinson, written by Nick Earls, published by Brisbane’s QUT Museum, designed by Sandy Cull and edited by yours truly. Images don’t do this tactile, light-catching cover justice, but here’s a short vid to give you a peek inside. Isn’t it a thing of beauty?

 

Update: If you would like to hear more about the book and Nick Earls’ writing process, have a listen to this lovely interview on RN’s The Hub.

Knock outs: on writing rejection and success

19 September 2018

Wanting to be a writer and not wanting to be rejected is like wanting to be a boxer and not wanting to get punched.

David Barr Kirtley speaks the truth. Successful writers are those who have been knocked out and got back up, over and over again. In spite of that, writers are notorious for focusing on their failures, not their achievements. So I asked three successful writers — Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester — to reflect on both their most biting rejections and their most affirming successes.

Eleanor Limprecht
My first was my worst rejection. The first book I wrote (Mothwings — it even sounds like a first manuscript) never found a publisher despite years of hard slog writing and rewriting it. I even had an agent representing it. Publishers said it was ‘too quiet’, ‘didn’t go far enough’ and that ‘the characters are lovely but nothing really happens’. That was the hardest rejection to take, because I felt like I would never be published. Like I’d wasted years of my life. Like I would never be a real writer.

The way I responded was by writing something new, an idea which had been in the back of my mind, about a mother with postnatal depression who leaves her baby. Giving up on the first book and giving myself permission to write the next was like clearing a clogged drain. This book became What Was Left, and was published in 2013 with Sleepers Publishing. It is a novel which still means so much to me. I have gone back every few years and revisited Mothwings, but I think it belongs in the drawer now. It was really difficult to let go of at first, though. I still think of the characters sometimes, but I learned so much about writing from them. Like how to create momentum and tension rather than just characters in a room, talking.

Since then I’ve had ego-shattering rejection again, of course. I think that the writers you see published aren’t the lucky ones, but the ones who get back up after being knocked down time and again. And since then I’ve had bad reviews. My latest novel, The Passengers had a shocking anonymous review in The Saturday Paper. So I hear, I’ve never read it and I don’t plan to. If a reviewer does not have the guts to put their name on a review, it is not worth reading. Jeff Sparrow said this succinctly in Overland: ‘If you expect an author to suck up your assessment of their book, you should at least be exposing yourself to equivalent scrutiny.’

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I’ve also learned to not read Goodreads reviews and to look inward rather than outward for my confidence. Easier said than done, of course. But even though kudos are lovely to receive, the best feeling is watching the word count creep up and seeing the story take shape. The best feeling is putting words on a page.

When I think of my most affirming experiences as a writer, I think of two. One was the Chancellor’s Research Scholarship I received to do my Doctorate of Creative Arts for my novel Long Bay at UTS, and the other was the Australia Council grant I received to write my most recent novel, The Passengers. Both were affirming because I felt as though they were formal investments in my work, in my career, without being tied to commercial outcomes or pressure. They gave me the time to research and write both novels and they gave me the sense that there were people I respected who think I am capable of doing those things. And then there’s the actual money. That’s nice too.

Eleanor Limprecht is the author of three novels: The Passengers, Long Bay and What Was Left. She teaches writing as a sessional academic at UTS, writes short fiction and blogs occasionally about subjects like self-doubt at www.eleanorlimprecht.com/blog/

Annabel Smith
When I finished my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, I entered it in the Vogel award. Though I wasn’t shortlisted for the award, Allen & Unwin wrote to ask if they could consider it for publication. I mistakenly assumed that if they were asking to consider it, they must already know they liked it, so it would be a shoo-in. Needless to say, my assumption was way off. But this was before social media, so at that stage I hadn’t yet read 2000 articles about how difficult it was to get published so I had the bombastic overconfidence of the blissfully naive. Several months later they wrote to tell me they didn’t think it was quite ready for publication and enclosed a three-page report with suggested changes. After reading the letter I sobbed uncontrollably, lying on the floor, until my face was red and my eyes were puffy. In hindsight, I know that this is an incredibly favourable response from a publisher. But it was my first experience of rejection and it felt utterly devastating.

My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, is about twin brothers who become estranged and then Whisky has a life-threatening accident, leaving Charlie to contemplate the part he’s played in the breakdown of their relationship. After the book came out in the US, I had an email from a man telling me he had been estranged from his brother for many years and had given up trying to mend their relationship. After reading my book he said he was going to give it one last try. Several months later, he wrote to tell me that he and his brother and their families had spent Christmas together for the first time in more than a decade. Positive feedback from readers is always a treat to receive, but to think that your book has changed someone’s life in a profound way is truly a wonderful feeling.

Annabel Smith is the author of The Ark, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot, published in the US as Whiskey & Charlie, has sold in excess of 70,000 copies. In 2012, Annabel was selected by the Australia Council as one of five inaugural recipients of a Creative Australia Fellowship for Emerging Artists, for her interactive digital novel/app, The Ark. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Edith Cowan University. Visit her at annabelsmith.com

Natasha Lester
Ah, rejection. The thing that makes us better, stronger, and more resilient, right? The internet is awash with pretty quotes that tell us why rejection is good for us but, in the moment of failure, it’s hard to find reassurance in upbeat aphorisms.

When faced with the most difficult rejection in my writing life, I honestly thought it was over; I would never publish a book again. But it turned out that the prevailing wisdom about rejection and failure is right; being rejected was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My first two books were contemporary/literary fiction, with the first written as part of a Masters in Creative Writing it was the type of book I was expected to write in a university environment at that time. My second book was similar.

Then I wrote what I thought would be my third book, similar again to the first two. I hated writing it. I couldn’t get the voice right. The idea just wouldn’t become a story. I reached the end and knew it wasn’t working, but I didn’t know why or how to fix it. More than that, I didn’t want to fix it. So I rejected myself. I threw the entire book in the bin. My then-agent, rightly, concurred that I’d made the correct decision.

I honestly couldn’t imagine what I would do next. I was terrified to write another book because what if it turned out the same as the one I’d trashed? To make myself feel better, I took every book off my shelf that was a favourite and, for an entire month, I read. It was a wonderful month, full of inspiring sentences and marvellous stories and characters I could never forget. At the end of the month I asked myself why I liked those books. And I realised that what I liked about them was very different to the kinds of books I had been writing.

It made me think: what if I wrote a book I wanted to write, rather than a book I thought I should write?

I sat down at my computer and let myself play with an idea that had been sitting in my head, and which I’d rejected because it was nothing like the books I’d written before. But now I had nothing to lose.

I loved every minute of writing that idea into a story. It became my first historical novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, the book that kicked off my writing career. So I owe my rejected book a great big thank you for setting me on the right path.

This ties into my most affirming experience as a writer. The whole time I was writing A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, I was terrified. I was changing genres, which would mean changing agents — if anyone else would have me — and also changing publishers — again, if anyone would have me. What if that was too many things to change at once? What if I couldn’t get a new agent or publisher and had to bin yet another book?

It was lucky I loved writing the book so much because the pressure of doubt might otherwise have made me give up. When it was finished, I sent it to an agent. She loved it, and took me on. When she submitted it to publishers, we received three offers. I could choose who I wanted to work with, which was a most unexpected outcome!

It was the most affirming experience I’ve ever had because it told me to trust my gut and that, if I wrote what I loved, it would find a home. It made me believe that throwing away the previous book had been the right thing to do, that I had learned the right lessons from that process, that I had become a better writer, and that I was definitely stronger and more resilient than ever. And, let’s face it, you need both strength and resilience to survive in the world of writing!

Natasha Lester is the author of the  bestselling historical novels The Paris Seamstress (2018), Her Mother’s Secret (2017) and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald (2016). She is also published in America and Europe. The Age newspaper has described her as ‘a remarkable Australian talent.

This month I have a Natasha Lester book pack to give away A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and The Paris Seamstress. If youd like to get your hands on these fabulous books, simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before before 5 pm on Monday 8 October to go in the draw. 

Canberra Writers Festival

26 August 2018

The third Canberra Writers Festival has just wrapped, and this year I found more to love on the program than in previous years. In fact I wish I’d been able to split myself in two for several timeslots. If you’re after rundowns on lots of the sessions, head over to the Whispering Gums blog, but I thought I’d just highlight a few of my favourite events here.

First up though, I was on a Canberra Writers Festival preview event with journalist Sam Vincent, moderated by the Conservation Council’s Larry O’Loughlin. We spoke about animals in literature, and the power of words to change the world. Interestingly, this theme was echoed throughout the festival in many different ways. But in this session I naturally spoke about the animal rights issues involving elephants in Asia, which relates to my next book. I could talk about the complexity of these issues for days, but in truth I don’t recall the conversation in enough detail to recount it here (events are always a bit of a blur afterwards). I do remember that it was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with some thoughtful and intelligent questions posed by the audience. Can’t ask for more than that.

Larry O’Loughlin, me, Sam Vincent

But on to other sessions. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award Recipients session was moderated by the wonderful Sue Whiting, a children’s author and editor (formerly my editor at Walker Books) and one of the judges for the PMLAs. Her panel consisted of a diverse range of writers — children’s author Wendy Orr, historian Peter Cochrane and poet Anthony Lawrence — and yet she managed to make this a cohesive and interesting session. Ryan O’Neill was also billed as part of the panel, and I was looking forward to hearing him speak, but sadly he was unable to attend due to a death in the family.

It’s impossible to cover everything in this discussion so I’m going to touch on a couple of points that most interested me. The PMLAs are the richest Australian literary prize, with each author taking away $80,000 tax-free. The financial benefits for writers — most of whom are unable to live off royalties — are obvious, but Wendy recounted how the prize meant so much more to her.

Despite spending her whole adult life in Australia and writing all her books here, she has always been referred to as a Canadian author. She has repeatedly been told that she cannot say that Nim’s Island was the first Australian book to be made into a Hollywood film, because she’s ‘not Australian’. Naturally she found this deeply hurtful, but the PMLAs changed all that. ‘I can say I’m an Australian author now, and my books are Australian books.’ Bravo!

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Sue Whiting, Anthony Lawrence, Wendy Orr, Peter Cochrane

A question from the audience raised the contentious issue that the PMLAs are the only Australian award where a politician can overrule the decision of the judging panel. The Prime Minister has intervened on three occasions and in two of those cases the prize was shared between the judge’s choice and the PM’s choice. In 2014, Tony Abbott’s overruling of Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People to jointly award Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North backfired on him spectacularly when Richard used the platform to criticise the government’s policy on refugees.

But on one occasion the judges’ choice, Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians, was ‘completely red carded’ by Kevin Rudd and replaced with his choice of Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People. Peter Cochrane spoke passionately about the need to change the award’s terms and conditions which allow the PM to undermine the judges at will. ‘It brings the award into ill repute,’ he said. ‘It’s feudal. If you’ve got an expert judging panel its finding should be final.’

But I want to give the last word to Wendy on the positive impact of the awards. ‘They get people talking about poetry and children’s literature and history which people don’t normally talk about.’ And that is definitely a good thing.

In a completely different vein was Majok Tulba’s conversation with Michael Fitzgerald about his most recent book, When Elephants Fight, which follows the bestselling Beneath the Darkening Sky. It tells the story of Juba who is forced to flee South Sudan’s civil war, hiking 700 kilometres through a jungle full of lions, scorpions and snakes to a refugee camp where life is a catalogue of horrors.

Both books are ‘seventy per cent autobiographical’ but Majok chose to write fiction because it ‘was safer’. ‘Everything that is happening [in South Sudan] they don’t want the world to know. And they hate people who talk about it,’ he explained. ‘So to say, ‘I know this guy and he has done A, B, C’ — that would have given me a lot of problems.’ But with fiction ‘they don’t worry. They say, ‘It is not about us.’’

Michael Fitzgerald and Majok Tulba

Beneath the Darkening Sky was a difficult book to read. I kept imagining my own young boys being taken from me, handed a MK47 and ordered to kill people. It is difficult to comprehend. But Majok said that ‘what happened in real life is more horrifying than a horror movie. I had to leave the most horrific parts out … to make it digestible for the reader.’ He added that writing the books helped release him from his most terrifying memories. ‘They are trapped on paper. So it helped. It helped a lot.’

I’m sure When Elephants Fight will be an equally challenging read, but I’m up for the challenge. And despite his ordeals Majok was always sustained by hope. ‘Someone who gives up hope will never survive,’ he said. ‘When you give up, your life is over.’

When Majok eventually arrived in Australia in 2001 he experienced extreme disorientation. ‘I felt like I landed in a world that was out of this world. Everything was terrifying. Everyone looked the same.’ Growing up in South Sudan he had assumed everywhere in the world was in a constant state of war. ‘We’d seen movies like Rambo and Commando and we thought there was fighting everywhere. And when I came to Australia I realised that was not the case. And how people could live in harmony despite political differences.’ As ridiculous as the whole recent leadership spill has been, Majok put it in perspective. ‘If Canberra was South Sudan right now there would be tanks rolling in the streets.’

From Africa back to Australia, Saturday night saw a packed theatre at the National Library for An Evening with First Nations Australia Writers. It opened with four writers reading four poems each, with Ellen van Neervan the standout for me. This was followed by a panel with three of Australia’s greatest writers: Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Kim Scott. The conversation had such depth and was so multilayered that I’m at a loss as to how to summarise it in any meaningful way. It felt as if it was built upon the weight of so many years of conversations, and it was a privilege to be in the room.

Cathy Craigie, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott

I will, however, relate the response to a question from the audience about how to be a good white ally. Kim suggested that it was important to ‘listen’ and Melissa said to ask yourself the question, ‘How will this benefit the local [Aboriginal] community?’ If it doesn’t, ‘think again’.

During the session Melissa also made a statement that really resonated with me, and I want to conclude with it. She said, ‘It is the job of any writer to pay attention. Tell the truth. Write towards power.’