Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A visitor!

In this centenary year of Anzac Day, it's not such a surprise that there are a few books on both sides of the Tasman about the Anzacs, but it was curious that the illustrators of these books (Max Berry and Bob Kerr) independently portrayed mateship in this same way. 

Today, I welcome NZ author Philippa Werry and her book about three Anzacs, 'Best Mates'. Philippa and I got cyber-chatting about the similarities in the covers of our Anzac books for young readers, and other aspects of writing both generally and specifically. 

Here is part of our conversation ...

'Best Mates' is an Anzac story from the perspective of one of three friends who move from growing up together to setting out to war together. The language is spare and evocative, the watercolour and pencil illustrations are gentle and telling. Congratulations to you both!
Thank you!

What a coincidence that our books, released at very similar times have such similar covers! I love the cover image of 'Best Mates' flipping to the inside cover image of uniniformed mates. What is it about our Anzacs that make this mateship such an important feature?
I love the cover of "Meet the Anzacs",  too! That's an interesting question - maybe it was something to do with being so far from home, and it was your mates who reminded you of who you were and where you came from. My father was in the Air Force in WW2. Growing up, we sometimes saw old photos of his crew, but he very seldom met any of them after the war - maybe once or twice, and some Christmas cards and the odd letter exchanged.  But when he died a few years ago, we got a letter from one of the members of that crew, saying that he had always counted my father as among his closest friends. That was the sort of bond they had.

How did you come to this story? How long was the process from idea to publication?
Before this, I had already written my non-fiction book ("Anzac Day: the New Zealand story"). When I went into schools and talked about that book, I found that some children had a clear concept of what Anzac Day was all about, but others weren't even sure what day it was. So I wanted to try and write something like a picture book, that would bridge that gap. It probably took just over a year from writing the text to publication. Books for Anzac Day have to work around a publication  date of March/April so the deadlines are often quite strict!

How challenging was it to find a voice for "Best Mates"? It's such a big story and there is so much information. When did you decide that you were going to tell the story of three mates from the perspective of one? Was this an early decision, or did it evolve during research?
You're absolutely right about its being a challenge to find the right voice for such a "big story". For a long time, I just couldn't see how to fit the idea of Gallipoli into a picture book format. Then I had the idea of writing it not from the point of view of battles and campaigns, but by focusing on three young men who grew up together and went off to war together.  Once the opening lines came into my head, the rest of it followed quite naturally. 

Can you talk a bit about your research? Where do you begin? Where was the most telling information? How did you distil the research to the brevity that you have, without sacrificing any of the depth?
I think I had actually done a lot of the research earlier, for my book on Anzac Day. By the time I came to write "Best mates", a lot of the info was already in my head, and it was a matter of paring it down and down, trying to see things through the narrator's eyes and to focus on the three young men. There were some quite specific things we needed to research - like when long distance air travel became more common, and whether the star and crescent symbol would have been in use in Turkey in 1915.    

Bob Kerr's illustrations are beautiful, full of subtlety and truth. What level of collaboration was involved?
I love Bob's illustrations and I feel privileged to have been able to work with him on the book. He is an amazing artist and has worked on some other remarkable war art and exhibitions. Picture book authors and illustrators often seem to work quite independently, but in this case Bob was generous enough to share a lot of his process with me, and we met up several times in his studio or over coffee to talk about our vision for the book.  He had also been to Gallipoli himself about 7 or 8 years ago and was very careful to get the landscape and the historical details right. A poignant coincidence is the fact that Bob's studio is in a building that once housed a photographer's studio where many young men going off to WW1 had their photos taken; the negatives were rediscovered recently and now form the basis of a museum exhibition at Te Papa ( I love that you've included the Turks in 'Best Mates', reflecting the similarity in circumstance for the trench soldiers. This acknowledgement of 'the other side' seems to be a more recent inclusion in war literature. Why do you think this is important?
Yes, I think it's true that we consider war now from many different perspectives, not just the front line soldiers but everyone who was affected - and in WW1, that was nearly everyone. The families back home, the nurses, the chaplains, stretcher bearers, conscientious objectors  -and of course the "enemy". Something we've forgotten for a long time was that at Anzac Cove, we were actually the invaders - so no wonder the opposing forces fought back so bravely.

How will you share 'Best Mates' with young readers?
I do a lot of school visits with a NZ Book Council initiative called Writers in Schools, and I start by finding out what the students already know about Anzac Day. Then we fill in the gaps together - for example, students (and grownups!) often know about the first landings on April 25 1915, but have no idea how long the campaign lasted, or what happened in the end.  I was lucky enough to go to Gallipoli for Anzac Day 2014 with a group called Gallipoli Volunteers (run by Conservation Australia), so I also have lots of photos from that trip.  After we've talked and I've answered questions, I finish up by reading "Best mates". By then, they've got a much clearer picture of the Gallipoli campaign so the book helps put it  all in perspective. I have had some very moving responses to it. There is one double page spread (you might be able to guess which one) where I often hear audible gasps and cries of dismay.  What's next for you?
I've got a number of talks, workshops and school visits lined up, some around Anzac Day itself, and as part of the Schools Programme in the Auckland Writers Festival in May.  I'm also on the organising committee for Tinderbox 2015, a national conference for New Zealand children's writers and illustrators in October. Family life and writing fit in and around all of that! 

Phew! Busy! Best of luck with your endeavours, Philippa, and thanks so much for visiting. I found it fascinating to learn about your process, the life of this book, and about your classroom presentations. In fact, I may even borrow aspects of your presentation when I'm visiting schools this year. :)

You can visit Philippa here and visit her Children's War Books blog here

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