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Books: The Year of Jane Bloomfield

Queenstown writer Jane Bloomfield’s 2015: her junior fiction novel Lily Max, swimming in Lake Wakatipu, watching Mad Max in Broome, doubt, anxiety, visiting her dad in his resthome, skiing, a reprint, the sage advice of publisher Steve Braunias.

The summer of 2015 lay before me. We’re a family of five, but three members departed for American snow. Eldest daughter and I had our house in Queenstown to ourselves. Perfect. I had space and time to resurrect my book character Lily Max – I’d been working on the manuscript of my junior fiction novel on and off for 10 years, and suddenly there was a firm offer from Luncheon Sausage Books . ‘All you have to do,’ wrote publisher Steve Braunias, ‘is write a great book.’

And so I began. I re-read every bit I’d ever made of her. She’d done the rounds – there had been two agents, and two long stints with publishers who couldn’t decide. I even poured over old notebooks as though they might hold a secret clue to her new and more successful about-to-be-actually published self.

Then I stared at a blank computer screen. Desert-like heat infiltrated the house and flies buzzed on open windows. The seeded brown top grass waiting to be hay made my sinuses ache. I longed for the sea as I always do at this time of year, a shore girl landlocked amongst brown mountains, pinnacles of schist and stone that heat up and up spiking by late afternoon, just when sea breezes are cooling northern coastal climes down in the deep south the evening earth’s another damn outdoor pizza oven. And the sun never sets …

Finally I wrote the first two pages of chapter one. I was elated. But then it stopped again, and I wished the heat would stop. I’d rush to the lake in the evening and lie in brackish water looking up at the Remarkables wishing they were pounding waves, salty dumpers not mitred peaks staring down at me. Teals bobbed past and weed grabbed my legs and I was hot and dusty again by the time I got home. But it was my stalled story that made me crabby.

I ripped a 2015 wall planner out of Frankie magazine and blue-tacked it on my office wall in February. The menfolk got home on the 10th. On the 12th, the husband turned 54. On the 16th, I wrote in pencil, ‘Began Chapter 1/Lily Max rewrite.’ I must have written like a maniac because three weeks later on March 4, I noted, ‘Draft 1 complete!

I recall how nicely it all flowed, and the jittery feeling of being deep inside another world held together by my stalwart yet imaginary characters so well formed in body and mind they took me on their own journey. Into a place created deep down in my subconscious stores of forgotten memories and visions, and imaginings. Into a place, better realised; ten years braising in the slow cooker of my mind.

I appeared to cook a meal each evening. But I wasn’t really present. Steve wrote, ‘Write the book you want. Every writer should carry those words with them during the heady first draft stage.

My heroine, Lily Max had a lot to say. She’s an over-thinker like me. As a child of seven, I would lie in bed each night and tally the good things I’d done versus the bad. If the latter tally outnumbered the former, I wished myself dead by morning.

On March 5, I emailed the second draft to friend and children’s non-fiction writer, Maria Gill. Five days later I turned 51. The weather had already turned as it does at 45 degrees south. The cooler evenings of autumn approached. I travelled to Leigh to play Scrabble with my Dad in his rest home. I swam in the ocean. ‘Matheson’s Bay is good in any tide,’ said Dad. And it is, but I prefer the dumpers at Omaha. Maria lived nearby, and I took her out for dinner. She brought handwritten notes, pages of them, curly blue ballpoint on lined paper, carefully notated while reading my manuscript. She was researching her own book at the time. It’s not the first time Maria has read my manuscripts; she’s tireless when it comes to supporting local kids authors.

I plied her with wine and a rather odd meaty salad overshadowed by raw red onions, by way of thank you. She’s allergic to onions.

*

My newly pregnant little sister came to stay in April. Poppy had been working on the Robert Redford film Pete the Dragon in Tapanui. She was having  insanely painful cramps, rang in the morning, said she was feeling too ill to drive, and  could I come and collect her. I hoofed it across Central – Cromwell, Clyde, Roxburgh down Highway 85,  till the turn-off east. I picked her up in a Tapanui draped in the American flag; every shop front was transformed into an olden-day American movie mill town for the producers of Pete the Dragon.

Notebook, May 7: ‘Draft 5 complete.’ I sent  it to illustrator Guy Fisher, a Kiwi based in Barcelona. The following day I drove the two hours of pretty much straight road through the gently rolling prairie of Southland to Invercargill. Steve had flown in to give a talk, and I took the opportunity to have a chat about my book. We discussed Lily Max in the crazy bar of Kelvins Hotel, with patrons so drunk they were falling off stools, smashing glasses as they collapsed.

I tried to explain what the story was about. It came out all long-winded, with plots as crooked as an old dog’s hind leg. It obviously wasn’t ready. ‘Give it one last gargantuan edit – with a feeling of calm,’ Steve said. ‘Forget about the narrative, work on small details.’

Before I headed for the hills the next morning I treated myself to a posh pair of Ariat riding boots. When I rode Star down to the river the next day my new boots squeaked. I worried if I could write a decent book. Whether I could actually write?

The next day the husband and I flew to Broome. For ten days I did not book. I soaked up the ocean and the scent of frangipanis and read. We watched Mad Max: Road Fury in a 100-year old garden cinema, and bumped into a pearl seller we’d met earlier named Pearl.

When I returned home, I went hell for leather. Honing scenes, stitching tiny detailing here and there. Snow fell on the mountains. I emailed draft six to children’s fiction editor and author Sue Copsey, to get my plotlines checked. Within the hour she emailed back, ‘Couldn’t resist letting you know how much I am smiling while I read (up to p14). I always know within a paragraph or two if we’ve got a winner …’

My middle daughter turned 15. I made illustration notes throughout the manuscript for Guy, of where we could use or adapt existing images of Lily Max and weird things I thought would be fun to illustrate. My first set of notes totalled over 100 images, which threw Guy into a mild panic – the long Mediterranean school holidays were about to start, and he was due to skip off to a rustic villa on an orange orchard in Mallorca, where the owners had converted a concrete water tank into a swimming pool.

I started working via email with the book designer, Katrina Duncan, and the book’s sales agent, Paul Greenberg. Guy was madly conjuring the first 13 images, and fine-tuning the cover and title text. Katrina was pulling it all together in InDesign. Paul was setting up his sales calls for September. If we were to make the Christmas market he needed to start selling and we needed to finish the book. I don’t think we even had an ISBN number at that point.

I’d often start emailing Guy at 9pm. I’d laugh with delight as I opened each picture file, huddled over my laptop in front of the wood burner. Guy would be waking to the dreamy 30 degree heat of Spanish summertime at 11am. Miraculously only a few images needed tweaking. As each chapter was edited and illustrated files were sent on to Katrina for typesetting. Her meticulous eye kept each chapter in balance. Sometimes her edits would say, ‘edit one word’, or ‘edit one line’. I lost count of how many times I went over things.

Meanwhile, Steve worked on his edit, and sent back two chapters at a time, regularly at about 11pm. ‘Always think – does it move the narrative?’, he wrote. One scene we reworked was an Alzheimer’s episode he felt wasn’t handled delicately. It took me about three days to get right. Steve often borrowed a quote from novelist Paula Morris: ‘Remember it’s all about the work.’

My eldest daughter turned 17. August is my favourite month for skiing, and some afternoons I’d escape my office and race up Coronet Peak at 2pm. I’d be on the chairlift by 2.25pm. I’d talk to no one. Just ski down and ride up still immersed in my fictional world. An hour later I’d whizz down the mountain road to collect the kids from the bus stop, glowing from mountain air and physical exertion. Then it’d be back to my office.

Over a total of seven and a half weeks, Steve and I edited the remaining 20 chapters. ‘Exhausting. Emotional,’ I noted on my wall planner. I suspect I wasn’t alone. Guy said he hadn’t drawn so furiously in years.

In late September, the edited, illustrated and typeset manuscript of Lily Max: Satin, Scissors, Frock went to our proofreader Louise Russell. On two more Sundays I read the book from cover to cover after typesetting alterations. Small things cropped up – our cat had changed colour at one point, and our dog had undergone a sex change. I started to think the book would never be finished.

We finally signed-off one lunchtime. I was in Captains café in Cardrona to watch my 12-year-old son compete in the freestyle junior nationals Big Mountain event. The sun beat down and the snow was slushy by the afternoon. Spring had arrived without me knowing.

*

Lily Max hit book store shelves on November 5. I set the launch date for November 17. The lovely Margo Berryman of QT magazine stepped in as MC. A friend offered her café, Bespoke – just named New Zealand’s top café – as the venue. Another friend talked me into producing a fashion show with mini models, then frog-marched me down to a local kids clothing retailer. The proprietor leapt at the chance to dress our already compiled list of 10 girls.

Paul Greenberg started calling regularly, on the road to his next appointment. We’d met in October when he was on his South Island sales trip. He’d told me to look out for the short guy with the mo. I’d spied him in the car park, quite sartorial with silver hair, a crisp white shirt and a dark pin-striped waistcoat and trousers. He bought me a pot of peppermint tea and wrote notes with fingers adorned in chunky silver rings.

A week before the launch, he rang with exciting news – Lily Max had been selected for the Whitcoulls Xmas catalogue. We needed to order a second print-run, immediately; Whitcoulls wanted delivery in seven days. It was the first time I’d heard Paul frazzled. He said, ‘In all my years of dealing with Whitcoulls, I cannot remember them making a decision within 24 hours or receiving a book presentation.’

Book designer Katrina Duncan swung into action. Our original paper stock was no longer available, but she pulled a phenomenal amount of strings and had the book reprinted and delivered to the warehouse ahead of schedule. We later discovered the whole of New Zealand was out of good paper stock, with a shipment not due till January.

The launch was a success. The runway show went off – the kids rocked it. The best café in New Zealand was awash with gold popcorn, and undrunk glasses of pink bubbles. I wore pink and afterwards ate chocolate cupcakes on the sofa with my first wine. I texted my team. Then I slept like a baby.

On November 28, reviewer Isobel Marriner at Canvas magazine nominated Lily Max: Satin, Scissors, Frock in her list of the best kids books of 2015: ‘Like Lily Max, this book has its own unique style.  It’s funny, quirky and hugely enjoyable and would make the perfect gift for young style junkies 8+.’

The same morning I had a book signing gig in Wanaka. A sou’wester whipped over the lake. I was placed beside the Lotto Counter. Powerball was up to 18 million. I sat beside a large jar full of pink peonies and tried to lure young children with free stickers. A tiny girl called Hazel in a black St Johns ambulance T-shirt stared at me for a while. Her mum said, ‘She’s never met a real-life author before.’

I realised I now was one.


Lily Max: Satin, Scissors, Frock by Jane Bloomfield (Luncheon Sausage Books, $22) is available at selected bookstores nationwide, including Unity Books.

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