Love in a Time of War

WhiteFeathersDebut novelist Susan Lanigan talks about the inspirations behind White Feathers.

In my diary dated 22nd February 2009, I have a list of short story ideas. One appears at the top, for the first time: “World War I – White Feathers”. Unknown to myself, I had found the story that I would start writing in October 2010 and that would consume me for the next three and a half years. The one that felt different from all the others. The one that would lead me on a tour of the battlefields of France, and would then have me schlepping around war museums in London and Paris. The one that would bring me to: the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, the attention of an agent and a publisher, and a finished book – whose devastatingly simple cover of a red poppy and background of rough sacking is so redolent of much of the devastated front of World War I.

This cover was designed by the wonderfully talented Emma Byrne, along with input from the marketing folk at O’Brien Press. My involvement at that stage was peripheral; author gets input but not a veto, that’s what my agreement said. But I did have one stipulation which I conveyed to Emma:

White Feathers is about an act of betrayal – a girl gives the man she loves a white feather, effectively publicly stigmatising him. That’s an act of such emotional violence I think it needs to be hinted at on the cover. This I think is important whether the cover be abstract or concrete.

Emotional Violence

I had long been fascinated by the First World War custom of a woman’s giving a man out of uniform a white feather to condemn him as a coward and coerce him to enlist. This government-backed movement carried enormous social pressure along with it. One man, a Mr Brookes who worked at the train station, received a letter from some thundering harridan which is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London: Since you cannot be a man not to [sic] join the army, we offer you an invitation to join our Girl Scouts Membership as a washer-up. Yours sincerely, Bath Girls Scoutmistress.

I wanted to capture what it would be like, this relentless pressure, the cruelty of it. And in the context of the novel, to have a family pushing you to give that abominable thing to someone you truly love. The seething consequences of undeclared sex warfare. As I said to Emma, the emotional violence of it. That is the internal conflict which Eva, our young protagonist, has to deal with when she is catapulted into making a choice “between Scylla and Charybdis”.

Because I learned recently that violence is not just a bayonet in the stomach or a shrapnel injury. There is a second kind, structural, which I only learned about relatively recently and which opened my eyes. This is the kind of violence that can be read in the note to Mr Brookes above, and this is the kind of violence with which White Feathers concerns itself.

When women are treated as subjects, not citizens, that is violence. When the mentally ill are cast in newspapers and books as weak, worthless, second-class folk, because they break down under intolerable pressure and cannot go on – that is violence. When the old and comfortable condemn the young to struggle with old men’s battles, as they sit by a roaring fire with the finest amontillado – that is violence of generations. When powerful interests work with gloved hands, silencing the truth, muzzling its witnesses, so that the fine feelings of the power élite are not affronted – that is entrenched violence.

Lives are destroyed at the issuing of a letter, a whimsical command, the widening of a yawn of deep inertia, the first scornful giggle. Lives are destroyed, and not a drop of blood is shed.

Such things happened through the course of World War I. Such things continue to happen today. And the white feather, itself a traduced symbol of peace, pinned to a man out of uniform in all its fey, false innocence, damning him as a coward – that is the most violent act of all.

But White Feathers is also a love story. Two people who build a slow intimacy and fall in love, fighting to keep the flame alight even under such unbearable pressure. It’s a story older than Shakespeare, but constantly renewed – why? Because, incredibly, love will continue to fight the powers that be. Even in a hostile, belligerent world that cleaves to nothing but blind greed and unearned privilege, that creates nothing but eats its young, almost an entire generation lost in its jaws, love will still fight.

On that finished cover, I see the violence, and the anger – but I also see the love, written on the poppy’s blood-red petals. And there is the heart of the story. Emma could not have fulfilled her brief more effectively.

Susan Lanigan

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In 2003, Susan Lanigan graduated from a Masters in Creative Writing in NUI Galway. Since then, she has had short stories published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Nature, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been thrice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and longlisted and shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Contest, the Bristol Prize, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award and other competitions.

An artist talks about creating covers

There is a lovely piece here by Elise Hurst, the artist who has created the new covers for The Moorehawke Trilogy in Australia. You can see the cover for The Poison Throne to the left. She talks about the challenges of producing covers for a trilogy all in one go, as well as lots of detail on the techniques used etc.

And the covers are lovely, of course!

Two More Eastern European Epics

Please accept my apologies if all these foreign covers are boring you, but I just find them endlessly fascinating! It’s also a little unusual to get two new international editions of a book in within days of each other, so let’s celebrate!

To the left we have the Czech cover for Epic by Conor Kostick, one of my favourite O’Brien Press books of all-time, and one which has had a wide array of different cover approaches already. In this case they seem to have taken at least one element from each of the existing covers and put them all in there — there’s even a spot-UV layer (shiny stuff on a matt background, for those who don’t know the jargon) with extra elements, which does not show up on a straight scan like this! It’s also a nice, meaty hardback: if only we had a market for hardback children’s fiction in Ireland …

To the right is the Serbian cover, again with quite a bit of finishing — the dragon on the bottom-right is all in red foil, and the white panel for the type is embossed.

So Epic has now had hb, pb, gloss, matt, spot UV, foil (various!), emboss (several) and holograms on the cover: though thankfully not ALL at the same time! now, read the book and see why so many people felt it was worth translating — well, you didn’t think we’d get away without a blatant commercial plug from time to time, did you?

Ivan

Children of the Famine new covers again

Well, PJ Lynch has finished the covers, Emma has worked her magic with the type and the new books are at the printers now, going on sale in a couple of weeks. It has been great to see these lovely new covers evolve and Marita is delighted with them: we all love a happy author!

Under The Hawthorn Tree cover

This is the finished Under the Hawthorn Tree cover front, back and spine, and it just jumps off the page!

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Another country conquered!

Well, you can now get OBP books in another country, as copies of our first Albanian editions have arrived in the office! It’s amazing that so many countries, and small countries at that, can justify the effort of producing and selling literature in translation.

Obviously, doing a local edition of an international blockbuster is an easy decision, but there has to be an element of passion or courage involved in translating a children’s novel about the Irish potato famine (Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree — the new PJ Lynch covers are just about finished, by the way, and are lovely) or Irish dancing (Kate by Siobhán Parkinson) into Albanian, even with the valuable support of the Ireland Literature Exchange.

It takes us to a grand total of 44 territories/languages (well, I have included Film and Audio there) that our stuff is available in, which I reckon is quite impressive …

Ivan

Alice goes to Portugal

Portuguese cover for Alice Again

One of the very best bits about this publishing game is when a foreign edition of one of our books hits the desk. It is the culmination of a process that starts with meeting an editor or scout at a bookfair (or, as often happens, the tenth meeting with the same person on successive years, waiting to get a hit!) and plugging everything from your list that you think might stick! After that there’s the sample copies to send, the agents to keep in the loop, the negotiation over price, terms, territories etc and then things go quiet: at our end.

For the foreign publisher, that’s the point where the rest of the company gets to hear about it — they have to translate, check difficult bits with the author, get our image files (if they are using them) and combine them with their text, build a publicity plan and (and this is the best bit) design a new cover.

The next we hear about it is when a copy of the translated edition arrived in the door, which is always great fun. The great bit about foreign covers is that the show clearly just how each nation has its own artistic sensibility, and there have been loads of times when a new edition has come in where our reaction has been “that’s a beautiful cover: but it wouldn’t work here”. What’s particularly striking for kid’s books is that the age-level implied in the graphics can vary so much: my favourite example is comparing the German, French and Italian covers for our book Sisters … No Way! And then the Slovenian edition came in and rewrote the rules.

Estonian cover

What brought this to mind today was a new Portuguese edition of Alice Again by Judi Curtin that hit the office today. Entitled As Melhores Amigas sao Inseparáveis (which translates roughly as Best Friends are Inseparable) , it is the second book in the series and shows that they have developed a lovely series look (see their cover for Alice Next Door) that is lovely, and utterly different to ours! I also adore the fact that they have a footnote explaining what hummus is (In the story, Megan’s mum is a health-food fanatic)!

I have to say that my favourite foreign cover of one of our books that really made me think “now why the hell didn’t we think of that?” is for The Wish List by the amazing Eoin Colfer in (wait for it) Estonian. Partly because meetings with Toomas Toorma, the publisher, are one of the highlights of any bookfair, but also because their elegant and beautiful cover is the perfect solution to the endless effort we put into finding a suitable cover for what is a great book.
Do take a wander through our cover gallery: there are lots of weird and wonderful things to discover …
Ivan

German cover for The Poison Throne

heyne-catalogue-spread

We have just seen the cover approach being used by Heyne, the German publisher for The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan: they are calling it “SchattenPfade” which, the internet assures me, translates as “Shade Paths”. The second book in the Moorehawke trilogy is called “The Crowded Shadows” in English, so I wonder what they’ll go with for that!?

Interestingly, while we published this as teenage fiction, the Germans are going with a dual approach — the Heyne edition (to be published this autumn) is aimed at a general audience, and a children’s/teenage edition will follow.

P.J. Lynch doing new covers for classic children’s trilogy

Best-selling children’s author Marita Conlon-McKenna’s most famous books are getting a great makeover. PJ Lynch, Ireland’s most celebrated children’s illustrator, is creating new covers for all three books in the best-selling Children of the Famine trilogy. It’s the first time PJ has worked with us, and it’s really exciting.
The first one he’s done is Under The Hawthorn Tree, and we now have the full painting in the office!

The three new editions will be available from all good bookshops in April 2009. Perfect for PJ Lynch fans.

uht_cover_colour

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