Penelope Todd writes for adults, children, and young adults. Her writing has taken her in recent years to Spain, to the Chateau de Lavigny international writers’ residency in Switzerland, and in 2007 to Iowa for the International Writers’ Programme.
In 2001, she was Writer in Residence at the Dunedin College of Education. Her work has been four times short-listed for the New Zealand Post Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Awards. In 2005 her novel Box received a White Raven Award in Munich for outstanding children’s literature. Zillah (2007) , an exquisite conclusion to the Watermark trilogy, was a finalist for the 2008 New Zealand Post Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Awards. Penelope has also written a memoir - Digging for Spain: A Writer’s Journey. Her most recent book is a Island, a novel for adults.
Not content with all this Penelope runs Rosa Mira Books, an ebook publishing house, which has just released its second book, a collection of short stories called Slightly Peculiar Love Stories.
HH: You've got a successful writing career, what made you decide to venture into publishing?
PT: In my experience, the 'writing career' doesn't provide much of an income. My main freelance editing job finished abruptly when Longacre Press left town at the end of 2009. It seemed time to act on the idea I'd had percolating for the past 18 months.
HH: Why did you decide on epublishing as your primary format?
PT: The pragmatic answer is that I had no capital — just a set of skills concerning publishing, a laptop, and a willingness to learn what I needed to.
The altruistic answer is that digital publishing is light-footed, manoeuvrable and to some extent 'greener' than hard copy publishing. Production time is potentially shorter, and publications are made accessible at once to a global readership. Besides that, I’m excited about finding and showcasing exceptional work.
HH: What do you think the biggest challenge is for ebook publishers?
PT: For me, it was the huge amount I had to learn, from the basic premises of running a business, to learning what digital formatting actually was, creating a contract, a website (and so on), and a sustainable way to hold it (and myself) together.
Once the technical aspects have been worked through (and the right people found to help with them) the ongoing challenge is the evolving nature of presentation and marketing — the latter with a far heavier reliance on social media networking and on authors having their own active online presence. A little over a year ago I was told on the release of my new novel that there was nothing for me to do — just sit back and let the (hard copy) media roll. I don't believe I'd be given that advice now — nor would I accept it. Things have changed enormously in this last year. In digital publishing the author stands to receive a far greater share of profits, but is also expected to take a more active role in promotion of their work, even if (speaking now as an empathetic writer) some find that uncomfortable.
HH: Can you tell us a little about how you met some of your authors, they seem to come from all over the world?
PT: At the Can Serrat writers' residency near Barcelona in 2005, I met Dorothee Kocks of Utah, who was writing a gorgeous historical novel called The Glass Harmonica. We were keen walking companions and it was only years later that I offered to read and then (galvanized by her story) to publish her work as Rosa Mira Books' first offering.
I met five of the seven international writers represented in Slightly Peculiar Love Stories at the Iowa International Writers' Programme in 2007: Alex Epstein dubbed the 'Borges of Israel'; Salman Masalha, an Arab Israeli who writes salient political essays, poems and fiction; Lawrence Pun, a fiction and film writer from Hong Kong; smart and prolific Chris Chrissopoulos of Athens; Sarge Lacuesta, journalist and fiction writer from Manila; Elena Bossi, academic, critic, playwright and novelist from Argentina — all writers with kudos in their own countries and abroad.
Closer to home, though, via this collection, I've met several impressive, new (to me) authors here in NZ and I look forward to following their work.
HH: Did you have any translation dramas?
PT: Most of the stories had already been translated into English; with a few of them I made tweaks to the idiom. In Chris's story the two correspondents employ English as their second language — Chris wanted that to be evident, and yet clarity of intent was called for so, when in doubt, we smoothed out the English. The only story I slogged over (but happily) was Elena's which came to me in Spanish. A friend's daughter and student of Spanish, Georgia Birnie, helped me rough out a translation with the aid of the dictionary, then I checked with Elena (whose English beats the socks off my Spanish) and did my best to bring out the full glow of her story. At one stage I called on my FaceBook friends, knowing one to be a multi-language translator. So, alas, no dramas to report, just pleasure in having worked with so many consummate professionals who also trusted me.
HH: How do you make time for your own creative work?
PT: Unfortunately that was the first thing to fall away in 2010 when I did so much fretful pioneering into ebook publishing. This year I've seen time gaps open up but have been uncertain where to put my energy. I usually have some paying job underway, as well. The plan is, once I've got the gist of everything, to work on RMB a certain number of days a week, and on my own work the others.
HH: Has editing and publishing given you a different perspective on your own creative process?
PT: I've been editing and appraising manuscripts for some years now and over that time have found it enormously helpful regarding the nuts and bolts of my own writing. You're always looking for what works, what doesn't, and why. It's also deepened my appreciation for the editors of my own work — the objective eye is invaluable.
HH: I noticed on your blog that you create fun little drawings as well. How do other creative outlets influence your writing?
PT: I think it was one of those Fridays when the Twitter stream was in full flood; I was face-booking, blogging, editing, revising, reading, reading, reading and suddenly, aaaargh! I had to do something else. I don't know if it's some kind of regression; decades ago I’d make cards or notes for friends using these naïve drawings; now they offer a kind of playful escape. Because I have no great talent for drawing, I find it peculiarly freeing. You don’t invest ego in a wonky cartoon.
HH: What's your current writing project?
PT: In fact the drawings have brought me back to a long non-fiction piece I've been writing on and off for years. I think inserting some drawings might rekindle my active interest in it. Also, Elena Bossi and I have co-written a bilingual novel, necessitating my trip to Argentina in 2009, and helping us keep our friendship alive. I've just had an assessment done of the English version, hoping it'll help us jostle the novel's component parts more comfortably into place. That's given us plenty to think about and even more to do in the next few months.
HH: What are you reading at the moment?
PT: Slightly Peculiar Love Stories!
Penelope's blog, with the lovely drawings, and musings.
The Rosa Mira blog.
Rosa Mira Books on Facebook and Twitter.