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All about the process

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Filming The Invisible Thread trailerThere’s something deeply thrilling about being on a film set. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and used to solitary work, but being in the midst of a collaborative creative process, watching something take shape before you, is fascinating. Even more so, when the work in question is a trailer for a book you just happen to have spent three years labouring over. That’s right, I’m talking about James Hunter’s The Invisible Thread trailer.

I first came to James with some ideas that were deliberately broad in scope. I was looking for a filmmaker with a strong visual aesthetic who would bring a unique vision to the project. He came back to me with a two-page script. It was perfect, and we set about making it happen.

James, his Director of Photography, Michael O’Rourke, and the actor, Chris Delforce, set up in Paperchain after the store closed and worked through to midnight two nights in a row. I was there the first night and I brought along my artistically inclined nine-year-old thinking she’d find the whole experience interesting. She did, but not in the way I’d expected. Faced with unrestricted access to an empty bookshop she immersed herself in books (who wouldn’t, right?). At one point I suggested she come and watch the filming, which she dutifully did for a few minutes, before returning to all those books.

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My daughter dutifully watches filming
My daughter dutifully watches filming

I, on the other hand, enjoyed every minute of the filming, though at one stage I was tugging books attached to fishing wire off the shelves which felt a little bit wrong. Outside, passersby looked in through Paperchain’s glass doors. ‘Bet they’re shocked this is what happens after dark,’ Michael quipped.

As my own signed copy of Marion Halligan’s beautifully designed Shooting the Fox, crashed down in front of me for the third time, pages awry, I had to prevent a groan escaping. I like to think I sacrificed my books for the good of Paperchain*, though I neglected to tell the bookseller, Maxeme, that we weren’t using her stock until the end of the night. Later, I pictured her sitting in her office listening to books committing suicide. Bookseller torture.

As little more than a voyeur, the whole evening was a great deal of fun. My favourite piece of direction from James to Chris went something like, ‘Walk in gingerly. It’s not a Toby Maguire stride.’ Not having seen any of the Spiderman films myself I was perplexed, but James demonstrated a finger-pointing swagger that may or may not have enlightened me.

If you haven’t already watched the trailer it’s about time you did. At the end you may notice that I’m credited as the producer. This still gives rise to a wry smile every time I see it. I have never been entirely clear what a film producer actually does. In this case I coordinated the shoot, organised finances, made arrangements with Paperchain, organised writers to record readings, and threw a few books about. When I was watching a preview and saw the title I’d been assigned I joked to James, ‘Now that’s a trumped up title if ever there was one.’ He assured me that I’d done more than many producers do. So what is that exactly? I’m still not sure. But I had a good time doing it.

* Thankfully the books sustained little physical damage. However long-term psychological damage to the owner may be another matter.

The Invisible Thread series: Roger McDonald

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On a searing blue-sky day my cameraman, Dylan, picks me up and we road trip to Roger McDonald’s home, just outside Braidwood. When we hit dirt roads we follow Roger’s concise instructions with landmarks that include sulky wheels and stock ramps. The landscape is like something out of a novel, a Roger McDonald novel perhaps. There is half a rusted car, a group of Clydesdale horses, and a pair of cows standing in the middle of the road who watch us approaching with disinterest.

I have just finished telling Dylan that I don’t think I could live in the middle of the bush, and then we come upon Roger’s home. I immediately take it back. It is stunning, a building my architect brother would surely admire. Later Roger points me to a passage in his 1996 novel The Slap where he prophesied a ‘hand built’ house with ‘rammed earth walls and ironbark slabs, a wide verandah of stringybark poles and an atrium of heavy glass saved intact from the demolition of the original Hatton Holdings building, bought for a song in Sydney’.

Stepping out of the car, Roger is already outside to greet us. Down the hill a little way a pile of wood is flaming. ‘It’s the last day we can burn anything,’ Roger tells me. ‘We’ve been chopping down some of the trees nearest the house.’ We stand side by side looking out at the landscape, the frogs chirruping. There’s something about the place. Its stillness instantly lulls me.

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Inside I decide I’ve definitely found my dream home (care to swap, Roger?). There’s a collection of teapots on the kitchen counter, covetable art on the walls, and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows looking out across the hills. Roger tells me that at night the only lights to be seen are fifteen kilometres away. The view inspired one of my favourite lines in When Colts Ran: ‘On the main highway fifteen kilometres away cars have their headlights on, so far off that as the minutes pass their lights go piling into each other in a continuous animated pulp of diamonds.’

The house is made up of three separate buildings and we walk to the second where Roger’s office is. While he makes tea a cat creeps out from the adjoining study where his wife works. I reach down to stroke her but he warns me she’s a face scratcher. ‘Oh,’ I say, retracting. ‘But she’s very beautiful.’ ‘You can think that,’ he replies. ‘I’m not a cat person myself.’

Roger McDonald interview2Dylan sets up the cameras in Roger’s writing space. The window frames a canvas of gums. As the cameras start rolling the cat picks her way delicately across the camera cords about our feet. Roger has so many interesting things to say. It always fascinates me that writers of Roger’s stature rarely think of themselves the way others see them; they still doubt their ability, still feel anxious about every new book. I used to think that experience and accolades must lessen these feelings over time, but it doesn’t seem to be so. Roger says, ‘I put so much pressure on myself…Even when I’m close to finishing [a book], I’m thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ That’s my struggle…it always seems just a little bit out of reach.’ And then on the need for feedback he says, ‘Readers can be very shy about saying something to authors. They don’t realise that an author is a thirsting person in the desert.’

We go on to talk about everything from why he feels he has finished writing about the landscapes of his childhood to the experience of being at the centre of the Miles Franklin Award furore when an all-male shortlist was revealed. (Do yourself a favour and just watch him.)

I reluctantly conclude the interview. I could have asked so many more questions, but we’re trying to keep these interviews to a reasonable length. Roger offers us lunch—salad and an omelette with eggs from his chooks—but I am still tied to my feeding baby and we turn him down with regret. Instead he assembles a carton of eggs for us both and stands in the driveway waving us off.

That night I crack the eggs with their luminous orange yolks and make a frittata. ‘These are Roger McDonald Eggs,’ I tell my kids. ‘Who?’ my daughter asks. ‘Roger McDonald. One of Australia’s finest authors.’ She doesn’t pause, pushing another forkful into her mouth. ‘Oh,’ is all she says. She’s so used to meeting authors that it doesn’t impress her much, but I think the frittata tastes particularly good.

The Invisible Thread is an anthology of 100 years of writing from the Canberra region, edited by yours truly.

The Invisible Thread series: Jackie French

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Hitler's DaughterI meet Jackie French at Floriade on Gnome Hill, a grassy area peppered with a collection of porcelain gnomes. We walk across to a quieter spot beside a stream. She has come from giving a ‘Gourmet Garden’ presentation where she has managed to splatter herself with soup. ‘I never wear an apron at home,’ she tells me, but using unfamiliar equipment she has managed to make a mess of herself. Not that the evidence remains.

A bestselling author of children’s and young adult books, Jackie is also well-known for her books on gardening and cooking. She has published over 140 books in all, but today we are talking about Hitler’s Daughter, which is extracted in The Invisible Thread, an anthology of 100 years of writing from the Canberra region. On a gloriously sunny day we speak about Hitler and the nature of evil. One of the troubling questions Jackie poses her readers is: when you’re a fourteen year old surrounded by evil, how do you know it’s wrong?

It’s the first time I’ve filmed an interview outdoors and this location presents multiple challenges. Before Jackie arrives, the cameraman, Dylan, tells me about the times he has filmed outdoors, entertaining me with stories of disaster, of intrusive drunks and unrelenting rain and teens desperate to get on camera at any cost. For us it turns out to be the buskers.

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We find a spot under a pair of willows away from the streams of people. Halfway through setting up the camera equipment we realise that a lady with pigtails and a pink tutu is preparing for a show just metres away. There appear to be fire clubs and ladders and head mics involved. ‘This is our spot,’ she tells me. On we move.

IMG_2934Finding a location with a suitable backdrop that doesn’t intersect a walkway and isn’t overwhelmed by the pop music pumping from the main stage proves to be a challenge, but we succeed in the end. Setting up in our new location a dozen magpies decide we must be picnicking and strut boldly about our feet. When Jackie arrives Dylan mics us up and we perch on chairs that I’ve lugged from the car park, across the bridge, and through fields of flowers (next day I will feel as if I’ve been punched in the crook of both elbows).

Interviewing Jackie French it is immediately evident that she is a born storyteller. Every time I ask her a question she doesn’t give me an answer, she tells me a story. When she responds to my first question she touches on multiple areas that I intended to ask her about. ‘You were almost redundant!’ Dylan says to me afterwards. ‘She was amazing.’

interviewing Jackie FrenchDespite her natural gift, Jackie tells me that ‘parents, teachers and guidance counsellors always pushed me away from writing. They always said no one in Australia can make a living being an author — do something else when you leave school. But every daydream, every time I envisaged myself as an adult it was as a writer.’ Jackie pursued a ‘sensible career’ and writing became a ‘private, guilty indulgence’ until one day money forced her hand. Her marriage had broken down and she was living in a shed in the bush with a brown snake, a wallaby and a wombat for company. She needed $106.46 to register her car and only had $72 in the bank. A friend, knowing she was an amateur writer, suggested she write for money.

Using an old typewriter that she found at the dump, Jackie wrote her first manuscript. She submitted it to Angus & Robertson but it was so messy and riddled with errors that it was pulled from the pile and flapped about the office with laughter. They read it aloud, expecting it to be hilariously awful. Three weeks later she had her first publishing deal.

I won’t rehash the interview here since you can watch that for yourself, but after the cameras are switched off we continue chatting. Jackie asks me about what I’m working on next and I tell her about my debut novel, which I have just finished, and my kids’ book, Megumi and the Bear, out next year with Walker Books. She offers all manner of invaluable advice. I feel as if I could chat to her all day, but eventually we part and I am left with the impression that Jackie French is possibly the most natural storyteller I have ever met.

A version of this post was first published on Kids Book Review here.

The art of book trailers

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I love a good book trailer, but I must admit that when I was first introduced to the idea I found the whole concept a little odd. A movie trailer draws on ready-made material but a book trailer has to create something from scratch, converting written words into visual images.

Although book trailers have been around for about a decade, it’s only in the last few years that they’ve really taken off. Now they’re part of many publishers’ marketing strategies, but the good ones are more than a marketing tool — they’re works of art in their own right. I still adore the trailer for my short fiction collection, Two Steps Forward, produced by filmmaker Daniel Cahill, that, for me, falls into that category. It offers a taste of the mood and tone of the book without giving anything away. Daniel also produced The Sound of Silence trailer (a collection of nonfiction stories on miscarriage edited by yours truly) that manages to be both informative and moving (the single heartbeat at the end gets me every time).

The quality of book trailers varies enormously. Some of them are produced by the author without a budget to speak of and are just plain awful. They look cheap and tacky. Or are too long. Or the camera work is amateurish. Or the author pontificates about their book in a yawningly tedious manner. I could go on but you get the point. (I’m going to save you the agony of sharing any of these.)

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At the other end of the spectrum, there are big-budget mini-movies. (Indeed some of them seem designed to interest Hollywood in optioning the book.) These trailers are slick, polished and expensive. In between there’s a range of creative, compelling and well-produced trailers made for smaller sums. Often by the author who has drawn on the talent of their friends to create something innovative and engaging.

So I thought I’d share a few of the best (some made by publishers, some by the authors themselves), starting with my all-time favourite, an eerie, mind-blowingly-good paper animation for Maurice Gee’s Going West, produced by the New Zealand Book Council in 2009.

Next up is the super cool trailer for Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. And this trailer for John Wray’s Lowboy is just plain funny. Comedian Zach Galifianakis takes on the persona of Wray who in turns plays a journalist interviewing him about the book. Confused? Just watch it.

Closer to home, this is a simple idea executed with style for Cate Kennedy’s recent collection of poetry, A Taste of River Water.

And before you’re all trailered out let’s squeeze in one more of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (starring Jeffrey Eugenides and James Franco among others). It satirises the publishing industry to great effect and has racked up close to a quarter of a million views. Not bad for a book trailer.

Ultimately all these trailers are trying to achieve the same thing: convince you to go out and buy the book. So do any of these do it for you? And have you ever bought a book after watching a trailer?