You may know author Martine Murray from her highly awarded and popular novels for children, including her highly acclaimed and awarded first mid-grade novel, The Slightly True Story of Cedar B Hartley, the Henrietta junior fiction series, and picture book, Mannie and the Long, Brave Day, with Sally Rippin. Most recently, she has collaborated with illustrator Anna Read to publish two picture books under their own publishing company, Parachute Press, the second of which is just-launched The Owl Who Got Left Behind. I was pleased to interview Martine to find out more about this latest work and Parachute Press.
Martine, With The Owl Who Got Left Behind, you’ve written a beautiful fable-like story of longing and friendship. What was the inspiration behind this story?
I wrote this story so long ago, perhaps as long as 18 years, so I can’t remember exactly what inspired it, but I think I’ve always been more interested in the tragic hero, or the one who isn’t exactly triumphant, but is flawed and feels perhaps like a failure, (or left behind somehow) even though this flaw is also the source of new strength and insight. I created these two characters because they represent what seems to me to be very archetypal forces, ie owl is all spirit and motion and rhino is earth and instinct, he is full of vision and ideas and ambition but is also foolish, self absorbed and a little arrogant, whereas Rhino is steady, wise and compassionate, but will always seek comfort rather than adventure. Together they make a sort of whole. I see these forces as relating to duelling aspects within me, (with owl’s fool hardiness often taking the lead) but also within relationships and even the socio cultural and political sphere. It seems the world needs more rhino!
18 years is a long germination time – but you must be pleased with the result! There are so many beautiful moments in the book. I think my favourite line is when Owl is ‘lonely and lamenting’ but I must say I fell in love with the character of Rhino. When Owl tries to push Rhino away, he says:
‘ “Can’t you see that I’m very, very upset?” spluttered owl.
“That’s why I’m keeping you company,” said Rhino.’
I was then heartbroken at the footnote at the back of the book that mentions the white rhino’s plight in the world – only two females left! Whilst not a book about conservation, this is a very powerful statement. How conscious was that environmental thinking in coming up with the character of a white rhino?
I would say that Anna and I are both very conscious that a way we feel we could help effect change is at the level of education and we believe that stories, rather than information are a way to show children why the natural world is so important, how it sustains us and why we should revere and protect it. Our first book was a fable about greed that had a strong message in relation to consuming more than we need. This one is a book about friendship, another vital aspect of a healthy society that seems to be being degraded, but I did feel it was a good opportunity to draw attention to the plight of the white rhino and by extension to the plight of the many species who are becoming extinct or threatened.
Anna’s illustrations are visually stunning, with a very limited palette and deep, dark moody colours (with a splash of rouge) which evoke so much emotion. I wonder how much you each collaborated on the writing and the illustrating of this book to get the mood just right?
After I have written a book, I always send it to Anna for her thoughts. When we come to the illustration process, we sit down together, try to work out how the pages will lie and what the illustrations should show. Then she goes away and begins the process, she sends pictures back and forth and we keep refining this way. I would say there is quite a lot more collaboration than most as we also do a lot of the design work too.
This book is your second collaboration. Your first book together, The Wanting Monster, has been picked up by Enchanted Lion Press in New York! Congratulations! How did you and Anna come to work together?
Anna and I met at Victorian College of the Arts when we were young. Years later when we both had a child, we moved to Castlemaine. At some point we decided to take our years of art practice and theatre work and make an annual xmas shadow puppet show in the garden for the local kids. We made three performances out of the Owl and Rhino stories. Once our kids grew too old for these, we began to talk about making it into a book. At first I thought we would just publish it traditionally, but I found it hard to get any interest. So we decided to do it ourselves.
I love that story of a creative friendship leading to this collaboration! Despite being very successfully published with existing traditional publishers over the years, you decided to create your own publishing company with Anna for this book and the last. What was behind your decision to go down this path?
I was disappointed that publishing had, like everything, become more and more beholden to the market. When I first started publishing, there was no mention of the marketing department, but now I was getting publishers tell me they loved the stories, but they were too long, too quirky, not the right format, and wouldn’t get it past marketing. I felt that meant we were missing out on books that didn’t have commercial appeal or didn’t fit required formats, and this seemed wrong. There seems to be a vicious cycle at play in which if we keep producing only books that are short, fast paced and easy to read then children’s attention spans dwindle, their capacity to imagine also and then what they expect from a book, like everything, is that it doesn’t challenge them. Our books are longer than the standard 32 pages, and endeavour to tackle deep and complex issues with elegant simplicity and a quiet playfulness.
‘Deep and complex issues with elegant simplicity and quiet playfulness!’ That’s a beautiful way to describe your aesthetic, which could be said to err on the ‘literary’ rather than ‘commercial’ side. With this is mind, how does Parachute Press seek to be different to existing publishers?
We have not set out to profit from the books, so we (perhaps foolishly) spend a lot more on the production of our books, but still sell them at the same price. We are also committed to producing books that we feel are culturally valuable, even if not commercially viable. Because there is no marketing department to answer to, we design the books ourselves and do not have to make them pink and glittery. Instead we want them to be beautiful and meaningful and for adults to enjoy them both as object and as a book worth spending the time to read to their children. I think our aesthetic is probably a result of two former art students coming together to design a book without consideration for the marketability of the books.
I think that art background certainly shines through! So what have been the challenges of starting your own publishing company?
The first challenge was getting some money to pay for the printing of our first book, which we did through a crowd funding campaign. The second one is that we, not unlike owl, started a small press with no capital, knowhow or experience in the middle of a global pandemic, when bookshops would shut, freight would double in cost etc. Also, neither of us are inclined towards promotion and this unfortunately in these times seems crucial. Finding a distributor also was hard, as there aren’t many and most are full and loathe to take on a “one book” publisher and we were lucky in this regard. Also the administration has taken up way more time than I would like, as I am not really interested in this side of the whole affair, but I always think it is good to have too learn new ropes, it brings out the rhino.
Well, congratulations on this huge achievement! I understand that both of your books have received large orders from Australian Standing Orders (ASO) who supply into schools – so another big achievement! Will we be seeing more of Owl and Rhino or other books from Parachute Press?
Yes, there are at least two more adventures in the wings for Owl and Rhino, though we have a book underway now, called World, which will come out before the next Owl and Rhino. It’s a conversation between a man and a tree.
I will look out for that one! And the new Owl and Rhino story. Will all the stories by Parachute Press be exclusively from your partnership with Anna or will you be looking for other manuscripts down the track?
If ever we earned enough to fund other books we would love to publish others, but at this stage we are just staying afloat and this is largely due to large orders from ASO, not sales, though hopefully as we get better at promotion this might change.
Well, I wish you all the very best of success with Owl and Rhino and with Parachute Press. Thanks for chatting with me!
Martine Murray is an acclaimed Australian author and illustrator whose work has been translated into more than 20 different languages. She has a long involvement in the arts, including dance, theatre, circus and filmmaking. Her first novel The Slightly True story of Cedar B Hartley was on the White Ravens international list of outstanding children’s books, and was shortlisted for the Victorian, NSW, Qld Premiers Awards and the CBCA awards. Since then her books have been shortlisted and won various awards including CBCA Honour Books.
You can find Martine at her website: https://www.martinemurray.com
To find out more about Parachute Press, visit their website: https://www.parachutepress.com
To find out more about Parachute Press’s first book, The Wanting Monster, see this KBR article.