'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 15 February 2010

Interview: Author/Publisher Paul Collins

Who is this person? Paul Collins

What does he do? Author and publisher

Where can you take a gander at his stuff? fordstreetpublishing.com and paulcollins.com.au and quentaris.com

What’s his story? I was born on Canvey Island (UK). You’d be forgiven for asking “what island”? But it does have a few claims to fame, notably that it’s the only island below sea level (now there’s a paradox) and it’s where Dr Feelgood hailed from – that pub rock band with their “rivvum and blooze”. Oil was discovered there many years ago, too.

My family emigrated to NZ when I was nine and at eighteen I moved to Australia. I started publishing a magazine called Void, which in turn led me to publish hardcover and paperback science fiction and fantasy, the latter being the first high fantasy published in Australia. With two failed distributors (one disappearing, taking all my stock and owing me money) I took up writing adult fiction.

In 1995 I finally sold a children’s novel, The Wizard’s Torment, to HarperCollins. Since then I’ve had about 130 books published and over 140 short stories. While I was doing this my ‘real’ job was owning second-hand book and clothing shops. My last shop was called Tragically Hip. I sold that in 2000 when I started earning more money from my writing than I was making working seven days a week in the shop. My part time work during all this was as security in hotels. I gave that up when I turned 40.

How long has he been writing? I wrote a western novel when I was 14. I made the mistake many of us make and self-published it when I was 20. Although a distributor, Gordon & Gotch, agreed to distribute the book, they reneged so I was stuck with 2000 copies. Then Mirror Newspapers distributed it in Queensland only and I suspect not many copies have survived. The National Library actually emailed me a few years ago asking for a copy - lol.

What genre does he write in? Mostly fantasy, although for some unfathomable reason people think of me as a science fiction writer. Then again, if you studied my writing you’d see I’ve written everything from picture books through to adult, plus a lot of non-fiction and educational books.

What other genres has he written in? Basically my writing crosses all the genres. I did write a Mills & Boon novel with two female authors but it was never published. Dare I tell you it was called Australian Desire - lol.

What inspired The Quentaris Chronicles? The Quentaris Chronicles first series was Michael Pryor’s idea. He came up with the initial concept and asked if I’d like to collaborate. He’d been to Florence a couple of times and studied Renaissance Italy at university. The world of Quentaris is based on that history, although the caves that act as wormholes can take adventurers to any fantasy world the various authors want them to.

Being a shared-world, we worked with many of Australia’s leading authors, including Isobelle Carmody and Gary Crew. I came up with the second series concept, that is, the Spell of Undoing goes horribly wrong and the city is uplifted into a vortex and flung into the rift worlds where Quentaris becomes a floating ship, trying to find its way back to Amlas. Meanwhile, a rival city, Tolrush, is also sent through the vortex and becomes a pirate ship, stalking Quentaris from one rift world to the next.

This second series is also fully illustrated. I wrote book #1, The Spell of Undoing, Alyssa Brugman wrote book #2, The Equen Queen and James Roy wrote book #3, The Gimlet Eye.

His latest book – The Sightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler – is a whacky romp into the life of a teen whose world seems to come undone. Was Toby modelled on anyone?

I pity the poor kid if he is! But I know there are kids out there like Toby. Luckily their condition is more understood these days. When I was growing up they’d simply get put into a special class for ‘dunces’.

Will Toby and his friends go on another adventure? At this moment I have no plans to write a sequel. Hey, if it becomes a bestseller you can guarantee I’ll resurrect Toby and Fluke!

What’s a typical writing day like for Paul? No day is really typical anymore, not since I started Ford Street Publishing. The marketing and publicity alone could take up a forty hour week. I have to admit I’ve not been writing as much recently as I’d like. I do have a trilogy waiting here to be completed. I’ve completed book #1 of Maximus Black, but I’ve not really concentrated on getting it published. I also have a fantasy novel called Broken Magic waiting for some final polishing, but that hasn’t been out to publishers, either.

Basically, I spend several hours emailing people; liaising with authors, printers, agents, distributors, media; editing and proofreading; organising launches; reading manuscripts that come in; give writing workshops at libraries and schools. When you’re a small press publisher, you do everything. And sometimes I even get a chance to write.

Why does he write? I suspect there’s a subconscious need to. With me, I feel a bit frustrated if I’m not working on something. Right now, as I’ve said, I don’t get much of a chance to write, so I’m frustrated pretty much all of the time!

What made him decide to write children’s books? We all have our little niche in life. Most sadly don’t find it. I could have quite happily gone through my life struggling to write for adults, and even though I did get a stack of stories published, I was never going to become a full time writer writing those stories.

I particularly liked writing the hard-nut characters. In fact reviewer Colin Steele once said in The Canberra Times: “Collins has a penchant for the hard-boiled hero, a lineage derived from Hammett and Chandler”. Luckily I wrote a couple of juvenile novels that sold to major Australian and US publishers. That’s when I knew I’d found my niche.

Does he remember the first story he ever wrote? My first published story appeared in a US magazine called Weirdbook back in about 1977. It was rejected in a letter that was almost as long as the actual story! I rewrote it and resubmitted it and the editor bought it. I think the story was called The Test. It was a forerunner, believe it or not, to the Maximus Black trilogy that I’ve been working on.

What are the greatest obstacles he has experienced on his writing journey? Right now the major obstacle is time. Like most authors I also get disheartened by rejections. Whenever we finish a story or a book, we think it’s good. We send it out and wait. And wait. Then the seemingly impossible happens. It gets rejected. Time and time again. That is a real stumbling block for many authors, especially those with little confidence. No doubt many a potentially great writer has failed to meet their promise because they gave up too soon.

At Ford Street, I’ve published three Premiers and Territory short-listed books – all three rejected by major publishers. The thing writers need to remember is that they’re dealing with one person at a publishing house, and quality is extremely subjective. Hundreds of classics and best-sellers were rejected before finding their place on the best-selling lists. The first Harry Potter book is a typical example. Even JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was first rejected.

So when a publisher rejects my manuscript, I merely think they’ve made a mistake and send it on elsewhere. My best-selling books, Dragonlinks and The Earthborn, were rejected by just about every major publisher in Australia. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

What does he love most about writing books for young people? I like the challenge, and that’s across the board. It’s challenging coming up with plots that work; it’s challenging getting the MS published; it’s challenging doing the promotions so that the books actually sell to the public. I also like going into schools and meeting the kids and discussing the books and showing how the students can write as well.

What’s the ethos behind the titles at Ford Street Publishing? I currently like edgy, issues-based contemporary novels. As examples I’d say Crossing the Line by Dianne Bates; They Told Me I Had To Write This by Kim Miller and My Private Pectus by Shane Thamm. Having said that, I’m also publishing a picture book called The Star by Felicity Marshall and an urban fantasy called Solace & Grief by Foz Meadows.

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade? One thing I have noticed is that twenty years ago science fiction and fantasy were all heavily featured in the Children’s Book Council awards. Think of the authors: Brian Caswell, Lee Harding, Allan Baillie, Victor Kelleher, Isobelle Carmody, Gillian Rubenstein, among others. But look at the CBCAs these days and you won’t see these names. I think it really has changed to more contemporary material, especially in YA. I’m not sure what’s next – if I knew I’d probably keep it to myself, lol.

What tips does he have on writing children’s stories? That can be summed up in one word: persistence. As I’ve mentioned, so many good books are rejected by people who either don’t know what they’re doing or are too blinkered to see what they’re missing out on. Never give up, and whatever you do, revise and review. Write draft after draft and improve and polish till something sells. Oh, and never leave an unsold manuscript in your house for more than twenty-four hours. (Not that I’m taking my own advice right now!)

If he couldn’t be a writer, what would he be? I’d still be in my second-hand stores, probably. If I’d had a career option, like a wish-list, I’d have loved to have been a professional sportsman. Trouble was, I always made the reserve or C teams in cricket, tennis and soccer. I did play A-grade rugby union for Hawthorn, but I think I was barely scraping through. I also tried my hand at kick-boxing (I have two black belts in martial arts: taekwondo and ju jitsu) but I lacked the killer instinct. My trainer was Dana Goodson, then Heavyweight Kick-boxing Champion of Australia, and he used to tell me I wasn’t aggressive enough. I think I was too defensive.

What books did he read as a child? Alas, I grew up in a house without a book, so I didn’t read when I was a kid. I did collect Marvel Group Comics – that’s where all my pocket-money used to go: Captain America; Spiderman; The Hulk; Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, etc.

What else does he have a fondness for in life? Apart from publishing and writing – fitness/gym. My beautiful dogs, kelpie Jack and heeler Molly. The house that I live in and the suburb (our house is a bluestone built in 1861; sometimes I reckon I need never leave it). But that would make me a hermit. Dexter (gotta love that show). True Blood.

What five words best sum him up? Honest, hard-working, dog-tragic, loyal, punctual.

What’s next for Paul Collins? Hopefully the publication of Broken Magic and the Maximus Mole trilogy. Many more books from Ford Street Publishing. I have another four books due: In Lonnie’s Shadow by Chrissie Michaels; two chapter books in the Hazard River series from JE Fison and another David Miller picture book called Rufus the Numbat.

Ford Street Publishing is always launching a new book. Check out Ford Street’s website
fordstreetpublishing.com for more.

Regarding his list, Paul is delighted to announce that Felicity Marshall’s picture book The Star has sold 4000 copies before print; Borders is getting right behind Solace & Grief by Foz Meadows as is Bookseller + Publisher; and Shane Thamm’s My Private Pectus was short-listed for the Territory Read Award.

Stay tuned for a review of The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler.