A Q-and-A with Tor Roxburgh

Earlier this year I was on a panel at the Continuum convention talking about small press and independent publishing. Another panelist was author Tor Roxburgh, who’d self-published her epic fantasy novel The Light Heart of Stone as a hardcopy book. And this news floored me, because I’d seen the book on display at other events and writing festivals and assumed it was from a well-established, well-funded independent press. But no, Curious Crow Books is one woman’s determined effort to publish her own work in the most polished, professional way possible and to manage the entire production process herself.

I was also impressed by how smart, likeable and canny Tor was, and by her willingness to not only discuss her own process but to ask questions and learn from others who are doing things differently, such as small presses and indie e-publishers. And on top of all that, I’ve read some of The Light Heart of Stone (although I haven’t had the time to do more than start it) and it’s a fine, thoughtful and (here’s this word again) polished work.

So with all that in mind, I decided to ask Tor a few questions about her writing, her aims and how she came to take on board all the weight of not just writing but publishing and managing her work.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

I love this question. There are so many different answers I could give. I’ll try two: one about my mother and one about me.

My mother wanted to be a writer but was largely unpublished. Watching her as a child, I had the impression that being a writer was the ultimate achievement. Interestingly, my brother Rod Usher (Poor Man’s Wealth, Harper Collins, 2012) is also a writer, so he might have experienced the same vicarious longing.

On the other hand, I might have become a writer because I was – and am – a rather childish fantasist. As a teenager, my fantasies included becoming the first female Prime Minister, a genius medical researcher, a great sculptor, a renowned film director, the richest woman in the world, an Olympic gold medallist (show jumping) and discovering that I was the bastard daughter of the queen of England. At 52, my heroic fantasies include becoming a political activist, a brilliant scientist, a member of the first off-Earth colony, a successful publisher, a famous artist and, certainly, a best-selling writer.

What drove you to self-publish The Light Heart of Stone, rather than going through a publisher?

The Light Heart of Stone was rejected by Harper Collins (Voyager), Hachette (Orbit) and Penguin. It also drew a blank in Allan and Unwin’s ‘Friday Pitch’ process. I could have continued submitting, but the thought of months of waiting on publishing houses and never knowing whether my manuscript had been read was repellent. My partner suggested self-publishing. I was about to reject the notion, but found myself agreeing with him. I guess I had an instinct that the novel was worth publishing.

That was one thing. There were other factors that tipped me over the line: I’d already had 14 books published and I knew that traditional publishing is a hit and miss process; I’d been working in the visual arts where artist-run-initiatives are more likely to be seen as innovative than self-indulgent; and I liked the idea of doing something that didn’t require anyone’s approval.

Independent self-publishing is big right now, but it’s almost entirely ebook-focused, while you published your novel as a hardcopy, hardcover book. What kind of tasks and processes were involved in that? Was there any element that surprised you?

Making a book isn’t any different from manufacturing anything else. For those of us for whom books are special, almost sacred objects, comparing them to yogurt or T-shirts or houses or any other fabricated object seems preposterous. But the comparison is valid. A story might be an alchemical thing, but a book isn’t. It’s less complicated to produce than a house. Much like a T-shirt, it probably has to be manufactured overseas. Sadly, its shelf life is comparable to yogurt.

Publishing The Light Heart of Stone (a 640-page paperback) was a project management task that I really enjoyed. When I worked on publishing the book I wasn’t being a writer: I was being a publisher. I had to keep those roles separate in my mind. And as a publisher, I commissioned and briefed an editor; I visited bookstores doing cover research; I wrote a design brief and a marketing plan; I researched book titles, domain names and search terms; I created a budget and a schedule; I worked collaboratively with a graphic designer on the cover, commissioned a book designer to design the layout and found a typesetter; I pitched to distributors and got quotes from printers; I wrote media releases and organised three launch events; I checked proofs, shipped books and dealt with customs.

There were surprises and delights and scary moments. Seeing Michele Winsor’s cover emerge from my brief was astounding. I was shocked by the amount of physical space that one thousand, fat epic fantasy novels take up. I was scared by the amount of money I was investing in my career (happy to say, I’m getting close to breaking even). I was surprised by how nervous I was before the launches (I couldn’t sleep in the weeks before the local regional events and I couldn’t sit still in the car when my partner drove me to the Melbourne launch).

The best surprise of all was the unexpected contact with readers. Until I self-published, I’d only ever met a handful of my readers. I now know hundreds and their feedback has made me a much more confident – and less neurotic – writer.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

I guess I want to share my thoughts. I feel I’m always saying, ‘What about this? Should we look at the world like this?’ I don’t think I’m a message-driven writer: it’s much more a matter of exploring questions. If I’m driven by anything, it’s a desire to try and illuminate complexity.

The Light Heart of Stone has been noted for its Australian themes. What exactly do you see as ‘Australian’ themes, and why did you decide to reflect those in your fantasy novel?

The Light Heart of Stone was written with Australia in mind. I focused on themes that I’m interested in. They include colonialism; Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations; the plight of refugees; ownership and control of land and other natural resource; cultural divisions between the city and the country; social duty; adoption; gender barriers; and truth in history. Clearly, these aren’t exclusively Australian themes, but in combination – for me – they do evoke contemporary and historic Australia.

Looking at your blog, you’ve done a number of speaking engagements – bookstores, libraries, local radio – and we met when we were both speaking on a panel at Continuum. Do you enjoy that speaking/teaching aspect to writing? Do you have any advice for readers who’d like to become more involved with that kind of activity?

Speaking, reading, talking and teaching are essential activities for contemporary writers who want to have readers. For self-publishers, these sorts of public activities are even more important. Not easy, though. Quite anxiety-inducing, really. But essential.

A few years ago, I thought that I couldn’t ‘perform’ as a writer. I’d taught non-fiction writing at the University of Melbourne and Victoria University and while I loved giving the classes, I experienced lots of anxiety in the lead up to each class. When I decided to self-publish, I knew I’d have to get over that anxiety. I figured a combination of preparation and practice might do the trick so I contacted lots of festivals and approached libraries and bookstores and organisations… and off I went.

My advice for anyone wanting to get involved in these kinds of activities is: be bold and give everything a try. Specifically:

a)      Share your opportunities by collaborating with writers and other professionals. This year, I’ve worked with writers, librarians, a kitchen garden specialist, teachers, an agricultural scientist, an Indigenous elder and a linguist.

b)      Ask and offer. Contact festivals. Offer to do author talks. Approach organisations. Invent events. This year, I’ve presented in bookstores, invented events at libraries, spoken to members of a book club, presented at Rotary and participated in panels at writers’ festivals.

c)       Always say thank you when someone gives you an opportunity.

Who would you say are your three biggest influences as a writer?

It’s hardly original, but two of my English teachers had a huge influence. And other writers? Thomas Hardy (The Mayor of Casterbridge), Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed) and Orson Scott-Card (Enchantment) are just a few.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a young adult novel. It’s a science-fiction story that’s set in Ballarat, eight generations in the future. It’s about a boy who is planning to amputate his augmented hands. Events intercede and he ends up investigating a death, solving a murder, finding a profession, making a friend and accepting his genetic inheritance.

In relation to my self-published epic fantasy series, The Promise of Stone, I plan to start writing volume II in March of 2013.

You can find more about Tor at her blog and at the Central Highlands Arts Atlas. You can also follow her on Twitter as @TorRoxburgh.

As for The Light Heart of Stone, it has its own website (again, very organised approach) and you can find more details and reviews over at Goodreads.

Oh, and have a good Christmas, okay?

…yeah, I know that’s not very festive, but it’s 30 degrees at 10pm. Gimme a break.

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