Soweto love

19 February 2019

I have recently returned from an incredible trip to South Africa with my brother. We spent most of our time in Soweto, in particular in the informal settlement of Kliptown, where we met so many incredible people.

Photos by the wonderful Ilan Ossendryver

We were fortunate to work with Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY), founded by Bob Nameng, which aims to address some of the community’s challenges.

Meeting Bob Nameng, Founder of SKY, for the first time at his home in Kliptown

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Kliptown is what is called an ‘informal settlement’, where shacks have been erected from a patchwork of materials. There is no sewerage system (portaloos service the community and are emptied twice a week) or electricity (illegal electricity, with all its many dangers, has been rigged up). Communal taps are used for washing, cooking and cleaning.

Top: The generator which services this part of Kliptown, with illegal cables patched into it. Bottom: Electricity cables lying on the ground. Right: Ducking under cables (with exposed wire) at head height.

Kliptown also has 73 per cent unemployment. So educating the next generation is key to helping them escape poverty. On our first day we happened to meet these three young men who have come through SKY. They are now respectively studying engineering, social work and architecture. Poster boys, indeed, for the success of SKY’s programs. They even shared their breakfast with me, a sweet, pink porridge called morvitte.

A highlight of the trip was delivering a suitcase full of new books to the SKY kids. Before I left I asked a few of my author friends if they’d like to donate books to the SKY library. The response was so overwhelming that I received over 100 books, and had to turn down offers of more as my luggage was pretty much books and a toothbrush! Thankfully Qantas came on board to sponsor extra luggage.

Left: Before I left with the donated tower of books. Right: In SKY’s library with some of the donated books held by two of my favourite SKY kids and the librarian and teacher extraordinaire, Amokelani Khosa.

Watching the kids’ excitement as they opened the suitcase was wonderful (below left), but what happened next was even more wonderful. They all quickly found a spot and settled in to read. The bliss of new books!

My thanks again to all the authors who so generously sent me books. (What a delight it was to receive parcel after parcel in the mail every day in the lead up to my departure.) And to James Redden at Harry Hartog for donating much-needed dictionaries.

Another highlight was taking the SKY kids to the swimming pool (not hard to spot my brother in the pic below). They only get an outing like this one or twice a year, so it was wonderful to be able to give them this experience. Some of them didn’t leave the water for five hours! Much joy and excitement and fun was had.

I was also invited to run a writing workshop and it was nothing like any other workshop I have given. The pencils had been stolen the previous day, so it started with us walking arm in arm to the shops with a bunch of kids to buy new pencils. They thought this was great fun (which indeed it was).

As you can see from the photo below, there was no electricity so we were in the dark. It actually got darker than this when a storm rolled in, and the kids were writing with their faces right up against the paper. It got to a point where I couldn’t even read what they were sharing with me and pulled out my phone to use the torch. And yet, it was amazing. The kids wrote in whatever language they felt most comfortable, though some of them chose to write in English. Fortunately we had the wonderful librarian, sister Amo, on hand to translate so that I was able to understand all the stories. They came up with amazing stuff.

Left: The SKY kids singing to farewell us on our last day. Right: Workshopping in the dark.

On our last day in Kliptown it blew my mind to discover that the place where we’d been staying once had an underground hideout used by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and many other freedom fighters. My introduction to South Africa was as a 15 year old, reading about Biko, and then obsessively reading books on Mandela, Sobukwe and so on. So for me this was real goosebumps stuff.

Sitting on the spot where the underground hideout once was, with SKY’s Amo

We also spent six days in Joburg where we ate and drank a lot (which felt almost obscene after Soweto), and I did some research at Wits University for a novel that I’m working on (feel free to take a moment to laugh at microscope me). While we were there we had the pleasure of joining an African book club for one night only, run by the wonderful Lungile. We had such an invigorating discussion about books, and the issues they raised, and I subsequently bought a bunch of books as a result of various recommendations. Wish I could teleport myself over there every month!

I learned so much during our time in Soweto and made so many wonderful friends that it was very difficult to leave. Soweto is an incredible place that I would encourage you to visit if you get the chance. Forget any media beat-up you’ve heard about the place being dangerous etcetera. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Some of the people we’ll miss. Particularly the incomparable Z (above).

A year in books

4 January 2019

In December everyone was posting their yearly reading wrap-ups but I couldn’t bear to post mine until I’d squeezed every last reading minute out of the year.

My 2017 wrap-up was rather ad hoc because my phone failed me and I lost several years worth of reading records. Thankfully this year there has been no calamity. So I can confidently tell you that I read a total of 99 books. Can’t believe I didn’t crack the hundo! That said, the lines are rather blurred as I also read many literary journals and all manner of books with my children — neither of which are included in that figure. Plus I spend my days reading and editing manuscripts, so the real count is far higher.

Nevertheless, it’s the number of books that I’ve read for pleasure, and there were some damn fine books among them. Fifty-seven of them were by women and 42 by men. I’d say this split is generally reflective of my reading in any given year, though I have no data to back it up (I am still cursing what shall be known as The Great Phone Fail of 2017).

In 2018, as in all years, the majority of books that I read were by Australian authors (53%). I read equivalent numbers from the United States (13%), United Kingdom (14%) and Africa (15%). In 2017, I read many books from Asia but in 2018 they made up only 5% of my reading. I intend to remedy this in 2019.

Throughout this year I’ve been recording a Book of the Month, and if you’re interested you can find links to them in my quarterly wrap-ups. But today I thought I’d pick a favourite book from each different region.

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Australia — The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
To pick just one book when more than half of my reading came from Australia, especially when there were so many crackers among them, seems unfair. But I’m forcing myself to meet my own challenge! The White Earth is a book that I read right near the beginning of 2018, in fact it was my fourth book, but it has stuck with me. In my quarterly wrap-up I rightly called it a ‘masterpiece’. Sadly Andrew McGahan has terminal cancer but he has continued working on another book which is due out later this year. It’s on my must-read list for 2019.

United States — An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I was tempted to pick Lincoln in the Bardo but since I wrote about it recently I’m going to instead pick An American Marriage, which I devoured. The story centres on Celeste and Roy, a black, middle-class, newlywed couple whose lives are bursting with promise and possibility. That is until Roy is falsely arrested and sentenced to 12 years for rape. The book is intimate and nuanced as it deals with the slow but devasting changes that occur within the family. It is also inextricably bound up with racial issues in America, making it a quiet but powerful political novel.

I want to also mention Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, which I adored. It is a comic novel that is genuinely funny (let’s face it, plenty aren’t) that follows struggling mid-list author Arthur Less around the globe from one literary event to the next. It won the Pulitzer Prize which surprised me because it doesn’t fit the mould of the ‘serious’ books that the Pulitzer usually awards. But perhaps they couldn’t resist being charmed by the familiar world of publishing that it explores. (And now I have definitely broken my own rule and snuck in two extras!)

United Kingdom — Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I wrestled over whether to place this one under Asia, since so much of the book focuses on Pakistan, but as Shamsie resides in the UK, and much of the novel is set in London, I decided to include it here. Whatever, this novel is brilliant. Like all the books listed here is has remained vivid in my mind. It made my second wrap-up if you’d like to read a little more about it.

Africa — Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel also resists categorisation. Adichie is a Nigerian, living in both Nigeria and America. The book is also set in both countries, but as it details the Nigerian experience in America I decided to include it in my African reading. You can read my brief review here.

I want to also mention Red Dust by Gillian Slovo which is much less troubling in terms of categorisation. It exposes the flawed process of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the fictional case of Alex Mpondo who has been tortured and killed by the police. It is beautifully written with the pace of a crime novel. Ultimately, it painfully concludes that the truth is a slippery beast and may never be pinned down.

Asia — Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I’ve picked up a couple of Murakami books over the years and never been able to get into them. I have felt this as a failing on my part; afterall many of my reading friends adore his work. Norwegian Wood was given to me by a dear friend and it is apparently the ‘straightest’ of his novels. Perhaps this is why I loved it so. It focuses on 30-something Toru Watanabe and is a coming-of-age story that deals with the agonies of life, love and death. I’ve been advised by several excellent readers that Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle should be next in line.

I’ve got a batch of books ready to kick off a new reading year. But Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been so widely and extravagantly praised by many readers whose taste I admire that I am nervous to open it. Surely it cannot live up to expectation? I think I’ll hold out a little longer until some of the hype has died down. The same goes for Milkman by Anna Burns which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It’s been receiving lots of hype post-Booker and looks like my kind of book, but I’m going to wait until I don’t have everyone’s words of praise ringing in my head.

I’m also really looking forward to reading The Girl on the Page by John Purcell, Director of Books at Booktopia. It’s set in the publishing industry with a young editor as the main protagonist. How can I not love this novel?

And I’m keen to pick up a bunch of books by South African authors when I visit the country later this month. I’ve found it very difficult getting hold of many African titles in Australia, so it’ll be a good opportunity to fill my suitcase. First on the list is a collection of stories by Niq Mhlongo, Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree.

I could go on, but I will stop there and wish you all a peaceful 2019 full of all the good things. May your reading pile be plentiful!

Reading recs

21 December 2018

I’m not ready to give you my 2018 reading wrap-up yet. After all, there are still 10 reading days left! But I am going to give you the last three of my Books of the Month from my subscribers newsletter, plus a bonus book.

I usually try and make connections between my picks, but it’s difficult to find any threads this time. Except for the fact that three of these books are from America, which is unusual for me, although Americanah is perhaps more a Nigerian book.

If you’re looking for last minute Christmas gifts any of these would be perfect. Frankly, I’d love it if men across Australia woke to find their stockings stuffed with Men Explain Things to Me.

October: Americanah is the most brilliant exploration of race, racism and identity of any novel that I have read, while simultaneously following the tender love story of Ifemelu and Obinze. Adichie effortlessly shifts backwards and forwards in time, and across three continents (Nigeria, America and England). Her prose gets under your skin; she is without doubt a master storyteller. I’ve previously read her Half of a Yellow Sun, but now I’m off to find her debut, Purple Hibiscus, and her short fiction collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. I recommend that you do too!

November: Miles Franklin-winning Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, is a novel about many things: adoption, Australia’s Stolen Generations, parenting, family, drugs, loss, aging, death and the purpose of living. Frederick Lothian — a retired professor, engineer and widower — has entered a retirement village, and begun involuntarily reflecting on past actions, in particular the treatment of his wife and children. In the village he meets tough, no-nonsense Jan who is dealing with her own problems, and is not shy about forcing Fred to face his past. A finely wrought novel that is sometimes darkly humorous, often tragic, always moving.

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December: Women will obviously read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (warning: it will make you mad), but I hope all the men out there will too. Because even good men don’t seem to have a nuanced understanding of what it is like to move through the world as a woman. Here’s just one shocking statistic for you: ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.’ To be clear, that’s combined. Please read it. That is all.

Bonus book: Lincoln in the Bardo was my book club’s final novel of the year and I’d been wanting to read it for ages. It’s a startling work and seems to have polarised opinion, with readers either loving or hating it. Groundbreaking books often do that. And it is certainly like nothing I’ve ever read before, a reinvention of the form. It took me about 20 pages to get into it and adjust to the shape of the work, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. It’s set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son has been buried, and the events take place over a single night. Zadie Smith describes it as ‘a masterpiece’. I concur.

Over to you now. What recent reads would you recommend?

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.