Sunday, August 15, 2010

[Interview] Scott Colby

Baeg Tobar is an epic fantasy world that is brought to life through comics, short fiction, novels and other forms of illustrated media.

Scott Colby is one of the project's editor-contributors.

In this interview, Colby talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing way back in elementary school. I was very good at finishing my work long before everybody else, which meant I needed something to keep myself entertained. I couldn't draw worth a lick, but luckily I was alright with the English. It wasn't long before I was cranking out ten page novellas and reading them in front of the entire class.

Since then, I've just kept plugging along, trying to incorporate things I've liked to read into my work. When I saw an open call for writers at Baeg Tobar, I sent in a few samples. Luckily they liked me!

How would you describe your writing?

Fantasy with my own little twist.

I've always felt like the genre can handle a lot more than just the typical "go there, find that" quest mechanic, and I think Baeg Tobar is definitely built along those lines. It's really not as far removed from science fiction as people might think. Remove the details, and you're dealing with the same flexible theme: man against something far superior.

Who is your target audience?

I know it's not necessarily the best idea, but I'm not aiming for one audience in particular.

Lots of writers find a niche by aiming to please a certain set of people. I don't really feel the need to do that. You either like me or you don't, and I'm fine either way as long as you've got a legitimate reason for your opinion.

Which authors influenced you most?

Terry Brooks was probably number one. He began as a bit of a Tolkien impersonator, but he's grown above and beyond that.

I also like to think that I've pulled a lot from Frank Herbert, even though I know I can never touch his prose. He's made me like deep, multi-faceted characters who don't necessarily show the world their true faces.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I try very hard to keep my writing clear. If the reader doesn't understand what I'm talking about, I'm not doing my job, flowerly language be dipped.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Getting started has always been my biggest hurdle, but transitioning between scenes is a close second. I think the two are very related.

I find the best way to deal with any writing problem is to walk away from it. Look at other things, do other things, and give your mind time away from what's frustrating you.

Lately I've also become a big fan of writing things out of order, of plugging along with what you know about one particular thread until you hit a roadblock. Then you work on another aspect of the plot for awhile until you finally come back to your initial problem. I find this works great.

Do you write everyday?

I've been trying to either write or edit 500 words a day. It doesn't always happen, but the days it doesn't are rare. If I become completely stuck on something, I leave it for another time and either write or edit something else or stop working completely.

Unless you're on a deadline, it's best to let these things come naturally.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

This is more as an editor than as a writer...but I like to think I've gotten Baeg Tobar into a great place. I think we're entertaining, and I think we should be very attractive to fans and publishers alike. It's a huge, complicated, diverse world, and I think it's a lot of fun to see what a wide variety of writers can do with it - but it's also quite a challenge to keep all those writers on the same page, to make sure that everything they do jives and has a place.

If I have to pick one thing I'm especially proud of being involved with, it's Daniel Tyler Gooden's The Unmade Man. I've read it five or six times as an editor, and I haven't gotten tired of seeing it - which, for me, means it's something I really like.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

[Interview] Jane Morris

Jane Morris is one of the founding members of 'amaBooks, an awarding-winning publishing house based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

In this interview, Morris talks about the state of publishing in Zimbabwe:

What motivated the formation of amaBooks?

’amaBooks was started in 2001.

We started publishing a year before that -- a book of poems by John Eppel, all proceeds of which went to the Bulawayo charity, Childline.

Childline was just starting in Bulawayo at that time and I, in my work as a social worker and trainer, was helping with the training of the first volunteers and the organisation was in need of funds.

John Eppel kindly stepped forward and donated a collection of his poems, which became Selected Poems: 1965-1995.

The book sold out very quickly, which was particularly heartening for a book of poetry.

We enjoyed the process of getting the book published and a group of five of us, who had been involved in this first publication, decided to start a publishing company and ’amaBooks was born.

I was excited at the prospect of being involved in a publishing venture as I’d always had in the back of my mind that it would be something I’d like to do.

Our launch pad was the publication of two short novels that had already been written by John Eppel. At that point we had little idea of what we were getting into.

Who was involved in the publishing house's formation and what role did they play in it?

The five people involved in the Childline book who initially formed ’amaBooks were involved in different capacities -- with sales, promotion, origination and distribution. However, two pulled out in the early days because of other commitments, leaving John Eppel, Brian Jones and myself.

John is a well-known writer across Southern Africa, having won both the Ingrid Jonker Award for poetry and the M-Net Prize for Fiction. Although no longer a director, John writes prolifically and maintains his interest in 'amaBooks and we continue to publish some of his works. At the moment we are working on a collection of poems and short stories written by John and Julius Chingono that will be titled Together.

So ’amaBooks is left with two owner-directors, myself and Brian Jones.

We’ve tended to learn the job of publishing as we’ve gone along and it’s been quite a steep learning curve.

Having studied literature at university, the task of editing falls largely to me, and Brian, who is a mathematician, tends to concentrate on origination, sales, marketing and distribution, though our roles are not rigid so we both do whatever needs to be done.

Which was the first set of books that you published? And, is it still in print?

As I mentioned earlier, we were very fortunate in having two books ready to publish, so we started with these two short satirical novels of John Eppel, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato and The Holy Innocents.

The main reason we chose to publish them as our first books was the quality of John's writing, which we believed would be a good beginning for ’amaBooks. Pleased by the success of the poetry collection, we felt that the Zimbabwe reading public would be receptive to more of John's work, which proved to be the case. These books are no longer in print.

In all, how many books has amaBooks published so far?

To date, we have published 23 books, the majority being fiction.

We have also published several books of poetry and a few titles focusing on local history and culture.

Our books have been well received but unfortunately we started out at a very difficult time, with the economic climate in Zimbabwe not being very favourable to the sale of books, particularly books that are not set books in schools.

We are members of the African Books Collective who distribute our books in the USA and Europe, where they continue to get good reviews.

Among the books you've published so far, are there titles that have been received better than others?

The four books in the Short Writings series -- Short Writings from Bulawayo I, II and III and Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe -- have continued to remain favourites.

Several commentators on Zimbabwean literature have remarked that short stories are ideally suited to the ever changing Zimbabwean scene as they offer snapshots of the situation at that time and have served as a form of truth telling.

In our case, the short story format also presented an opportunity for a variety of voices to be heard from the different communities that make up Zimbabwe, the stories invite the reader into the different realities of the writers.

We were keen to publish new writers, alongside more established writers and the Short Writings series allowed us to do this.

People, both within and outside Zimbabwe, have enjoyed the series and the latest in the collection, Long Time Coming, continues to receive good reviews. The New Internationalist magazine choose the book as one of their two best books of 2009, out of those they had reviewed.

The titles of John Eppel’s that we have brought out continue to be popular with the book buying public and there is a continuing interest in his work in academia.

Our last publication, the mystery/romance This September Sun by Bryony Rheam, was a bit of a departure from our usual publications but has sold very well.

Bryony now lives in Zambia so has launched the book there as well.

The novel has been particularly popular amongst women in Zimbabwe, perhaps because they identify with some of the main characters in the book, the narrator Ellie and her grandmother Evelyn.

The book covers the period just after the Second World War, up to recent times.

As publishers, what are the biggest challenges that you face?

The economic situation here over the last few years has made survival as a publisher very difficult -- buying a book, particularly one that is not a set school book, is always going to be a low priority for someone struggling to find enough money for food for their family.

When there was rampant inflation any payments received from the few bookshops that functioned were worthless by the time we received them.

The only way we have been able to survive has been through the support of donors, who have helped with printing costs and the purchase of equipment, when that has been necessary.

When we first started we were able to fund the printing of a book from the sales of the previous one but this became impossible with the economic decline.

With dollarization the situation has improved, though there is still little money around for people in Zimbabwe to buy books of creative writing.

Another challenge facing the publishing industry as a whole is that of the introduction of e-books and not knowing what the impact of that will be. Some of our books are available as e-books through the African Books Collective.

Are there any challenges around sales outside of Zimbabwe?

The challenges we face with sales outside of the country are mainly due to cost. Printing is not cheap in Zimbabwe, partly because low demand means we have to print small numbers of books, and distribution to other countries is expensive.

Getting books into large chains, such as Exclusive Books, is very difficult, so our titles are mostly sold in independent bookshops.

Our books are available internationally online through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the African Books Collective.

As publishers, what would you say has been your greatest achievement?

Apart from simply surviving, not an easy task given the problems of the last few years, I would say the publication of new writers; we’ve published 102 writers so far.

Several of those we published first in the Short Writings from Bulawayo series have gone on to be published elsewhere and to have books of their own published. Chris Mlalazi and Bryony Rheam are the first ones to come to mind, but we are also looking forward to others pushing their way to the top; there are always one or two new exciting writers in each of the collections.

What do you enjoy most about publishing?

There are many things I enjoy about publishing.

There is a lot of variety with no two days being the same.

I enjoy the independence and the flexibility and doing something I love.

Working with writers and discovering new talent can be exciting. There is always that feeling of anticipation when opening up a new manuscript that it will be the ‘great Zimbabwean novel’. It’s very satisfying when you read a really good piece and have the pleasure of telling the writer you want to publish it.

Publishing has opened new doors and created new experiences for us -- book launches and working with young writers, it’s certainly very different from my previous work experience.

We’ve also been involved with other work connected with writing.

My involvement with the literary arts sector at the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo has given me the opportunity to work with writers from outside Zimbabwe such as Owen Sheers and Veronique Tadjo.

A project has started in Bulawayo that we’re very excited about; where groups of young people have been given copies of our books to read and discuss -- we’re hoping that this will stimulate an interest in literature amongst those who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise.

Another opportunity has come through invitations by various organisations to talk about the work we do in publishing.

What are your plans for the future?

There are a few projects we’re working on, including a short story collection jointly with a UK publisher and the collection of short stories and poems by Julius Chingono and John Eppel.

Short term plans include attending the Cape Town and Jozi Book Fairs which will give us the opportunity of meeting publishers from outside Zimbabwe.

What are some of the things you have in common with other publishers in Zimbabwe who are doing work that is similar to what 'amaBooks is doing?

Weaver Press in Harare also publish creative writing but are more established than ourselves.

Weaver also publish more non-fiction -- history, politics, environment.

In general, what would you say are the biggest challenges that Zimbabwean publishers, as a group, are facing? And, what can or should be done about these challenges?

As with other businesses in Zimbabwe the biggest challenge has been the state of the economy. People want to read books but don’t have the money to buy them as they are considered a luxury.

Publishers that produce books that are on school syllabi have fared better, particularly of late, as there has been donor money to purchase school texts. Money is needed to stock both school and other libraries so that children and adults can read for pleasure.

Among the books you've published, are there any that have been nominated or awarded prizes, either locally, regionally or internationally?

Awards we've received include:
  • the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association Award's first prize for Literature in English which went to Short Writings from Bulawayo;
  • the Best First Book prize which went to Erina by Wim Boswinkel;
  • the Best Non-fiction prize which went to Zimbabwe's Cultural Heritage by Pathisa Nyathi, and
  • the Best Fiction (Poetry and Drama) which went to Sonatas by Deon Marcus.
Marcus' Sonatas and Chris Mlalazi's Dancing with Life also received First Prizes in the Outstanding First Creative Published Book category of the Zimbabwe National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) while Echoes of Young Voices received a nomination in the Outstanding First Creative Published Book category.

Similarly, Short Writings from Bulawayo III; Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe and John Eppel's White Man Crawling received nominations in the NAMA Best Fiction category.

Chris Mlalazi's Dancing with Life also received Honourable Mention in Noma Award for Publishing in Africa while Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe was chosen by New Internationalist as one of their two Best Books of 2009.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

[Interview] Mike Stein

Mike Stein is a research professor in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York.

He has researched the problems and challenges faced by young people leaving care for 25 years and has published extensively in the field. He has also been consulted by government, local authorities and voluntary organisations on the development of leaving care services in the UK and internationally.

His books include What Works for Young People Leaving Care? (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004); Leaving Care: Throughcare and Aftercare in Scotland (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005); Young People's Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008) and Quality Matters in Children's Services: Messages from Research (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009).

How did you first become involved in researching the challenges faced by young people living in, and leaving care?

I was working as a lecturer in applied social studies at Leeds University in 1978 and was asked by two social workers if I would help them to run a group for young people in care, the Leeds Ad-Lib group. They wanted someone from ‘outside’ of social services and I agreed.

I had, in the late 60s and early 70s, worked in probation, and then a children’s and social services department.

At my first meeting of Ad-lib, the topic was ‘leaving care’ and one young person asked, "What is it like after you leave care, where do you live, who will help you?"

There was silence from everyone in the room.

I thought I will go away and read up on this, but I couldn’t find anything at all.

As a group, we invited young people who had recently left care to come and talk about their lives after care – which proved both helpful and disturbing. And, in view of the lack of literature, I decided to write a research proposal to the ESRC which led to the first English study, published as Leaving Care (Stein and Carey) in 1986.

Since that time I have had continual funding and excellent staff researching the experiences, services and outcomes of young people as they make their journey from care to adulthood. Most recently this has included our international work Young People’s Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice.

What are the challenges faced by those providing services for young people living in and leaving care today?

The main challenges facing those responsible for providing services are:
  • First, providing all young people in care with the stability and continuity in their lives in order to enhance their well-being;
  • Second, that young people have opportunities to maximize their potential - personally, socially, educationally - given their often very poor starting points on entry to care;
  • Third, to ensure that they have more gradual and supported transitions from care to adulthood, more akin to the journey travelled by most young people – most of whom stay around the parental home until their mid 20s, and can still rely on their families for support (I have white hair to prove this!); finally, that young people, wherever they are living, have a more consistent high quality service – that they are not the victims of territorial injustices which may result in inequalities in life chances.

How do you think the media representation of social work and social care is affecting the profession?

Some of the ‘media representation’ is a gross ‘misrepresentation’. For example, the view of the state as an ‘awful parent’, reinforced by much of the press and recent television coverage, is a gross over-simplification which is not only wrong but also contributes to the circumstances in which vulnerable children may be put at greater risk by being left in their families. This simplistic view devalues and stigmatizes young people who live in care, as well as those who care for them. It may also make it more difficult to attract and recruit social workers to this very important work.

Research studies we have carried out during the last 25 years show that despite their very poor starting points, some care leavers will successfully ‘move on’ from care and achieve fulfilment in their personal lives and careers; a second group will ‘survive’ and do quite well, given assistance from skilled leaving-care workers: they may also move on successfully but it often takes longer. This leaves a third highly vulnerable group of young people who have a range of complex mental health needs and will require skilled assistance into, and during, adulthood.

Crude outcome statistics which are used to condemn the state in blanket fashion fail to recognise the progress made by young people, including major achievements, such as getting back into education after many years, furthering leisure interests and vocational skills, and, often for the first time, developing consistent, positive and trusting relationships with adults. But no outcome boxes to tick!

Can you tell me about your recent work, Quality Matters in children’s services: Messages from Research?

There has been a lot of attention paid to indicators and outcome measures in children’s services. But the quality of services has received far less priority – even though a body of research findings shows that the quality of care received by children and young people – the quality of relationships with their carers, and those that make those relationships happen - is strongly associated with their future well-being.

The Overview captures the learning from nine research studies focusing on very different topics. Each chapter includes: a discussion of the main findings; examples of promoting quality drawn from practice; the key implications for policy and practice; a summary of the integrated working issues arising from the research; and finally, questions for children’s services, identified at a strategic, operational and practice level.

The final chapter brings together those findings that either go across the nine studies, or have wider implications for the development of quality children’s services. This includes a discussion of the aims of children’s services, the quality of care and well-being, and social work practice and quality services. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how those working in children’s service can ‘make quality’ happen by: identifying and sustaining quality; collecting and modelling systematic data; carrying out quality assessments; developing integrated working; having coherent policies, procedures and processes; and, training and workforce issues.

What was the last book you read and what are you reading at the moment?

I often dip into books, especially about cricket, politics, beer and jazz – I play jazz piano, badly, drink real ale well, and the main side I support is my local Pudsey St. Lawrence cricket team!

I am currently reading two books, Towards the Light by A. C. Grayling which is about the struggles for liberty and rights. My son bought me this to assist with a social history I am writing, about the rights movement for young people in care.

I am also reading, Walking the Brittany Coast by Judy Smith, as I love walking, and am in year five of doing just that!

(c) Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010

This article was first published in the Jessica Kingsley Publishers Social Work Newsletter in June 2009

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