On International Women’s Day and “Making It Happen”

FullSizeRender (3) FullSizeRender (2)On Friday 6 March, 2015, I was privileged to speak at the CSIRO Staff Association’s International Women’s Day luncheon. When I was invited to be the guest, I have to admit I was a little intimidated – all the speakers in previous years had been women who seemed to me to be much more qualified and suitable to be part of such an event! But being me (and this may be more clear when you read what I spoke about), I jumped at the chance and spoke on Cranky Ladies and the International Women’s Day theme of “Making It Happen”. And this is, basically, what I said (with thanks to Tansy Rayner Roberts because I stole a bit of her introduction from Cranky Ladies of History – with permission):

My journey has been one of branches in the path. Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, because even then, it seemed to me that that my life was about taking that less-travelled path, and I learned early on that coming back to the fork in the road is not an option. We moved around a lot when I was young – across the continent from Western Australia to Queensland and twice back again before I was 10 years old. In the olden days, before Facebook and Twitter, the letters exchanged with old friends petered out pretty quickly, and I became a dab hand at fitting in to new situations – it’s a skill that has served me well as an adult as much as it ever did as a child. People who know me will be aware that I’m rarely shy about speaking up, and I think I can thank my parents’ itchy feet for that.

But what has that got to do with “making it happen”? Well, I don’t think I would be here, making it all happen, without the journey I’ve travelled.

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I wanted to show you this for some context of what I’m going to say next, but I need to note that the space I had to make it was limited, so it only shows the major moves and events – I went to nine different schools, and three universities, moved house more times than I can count as a child and a student, and we worked out that since we met, my husband and I have moved 12 times (not ALWAYS interstate…), which averages out at once per year… No wonder I’m tired!

I’m here today because of Cranky Ladies of History. This is the latest book from my boutique publishing house FableCroft Publishing, which I started in 2010. I co-edited the book with Tansy Rayner Roberts, and we did a crowdfunding campaign to finance it in March last year. It has been 18 months in the making, but it is the culmination of an even longer journey, which I’d like to share with you.

In 2001, not long after I started my first teaching job in the NSW town of Glen Innes, I came across an Internet mailing list called the Eidolist. Until that time, despite being a lifelong avid reader, I’d really had no idea that fans, writers and other creators of speculative fiction had a thriving community in Australia, with online communications and even regular conventions across the country. I grew up in small-town rural areas, where a bookshop was a rare thing and a library a blessing, but we never, to my knowledge, even had authors visit us, and even in my first university degree when I was actually on campus in Rockhampton, this sort of thing had never crossed my radar. I like to think it was because I was too busy studying and working (and to be fair, I was a full time student but often worked two jobs, up to 50 hours a week). However, I think it’s more likely I was just young, hanging with my uni mates and didn’t seek anything else out.

The Eidolist opened my eyes to this new world, but it wasn’t until the long-running magazine Aurealis came up for sale that I truly became hooked. Some people on the Eidolist started talking about forming a group to work together on Aurealis. This went back and forth for a few days, until someone suggested that instead of devoting time and money to an established project, we should start something new and different. This idea was taken up with great enthusiasm, and I was one of the mad folk who stepped up to become a founding member of the Andromeda Spaceways Co-operative, a non-profit organisation with members throughout Australia – the idea of us was so new, that the government body responsible for registering non-profits had to create new paperwork just for us! Our goal was to produce a bi-monthly publication, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, using a blind slush process, a rotating editorship, and with a charter to support Australian creators. We paid for stories, poems and artwork, encouraged advertising by publishers and creators, and had a lot of fun along the way. By the time the first issue launched, at my first convention ever, I was pregnant with my first child, just finishing my first semester of my Masters degree and immersed in this new world. All these people who had the same interests and passions as my own? I was completely engulfed, and have remained so ever since.

While I completed three university degrees on my path to becoming a teacher librarian, I have no formal training in publishing. Instead, Andromeda Spaceways was my apprenticeship – without ASIM, I certainly wouldn’t being able to do what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t have come to know the fans, authors, artists, publishers, editors and reviewers in the Australian and International scene who I love to work with, many of whom I count as friends as well. At ASIM, I learned to edit, market, understand (very basic) contracts, commission artists, make tough decisions on stories, use layout software, and deal with artistic temperaments. I think ASIM has done some great things, for not only the Australian scene, but for many international writers and illustrators as well. I look at bookstore shelves (both physical and virtual) today and see a great many names who were published by ASIM over the years – some of these were already established authors when ASIM first saw them, but a goodly number got some very early publications in the pages of the little magazine that could, and I’m so proud and privileged to have been a part of that.

Part of what made ASIM great was the collective itself. The founding members worked so hard, ofttimes outside their comfort zones, learning new skills and creating opportunities where none existed before. It’s amazing what can happen when people work together towards a common goal. From her humble beginnings, ASIM continues to consistently publish quality fiction and being recognised for this. I left the Collective in 2008, but I took what I learned there and continued to grow (they did too – the magazine is still being published, although not on quite the insane schedule of six issues per year that we started out with!).

I left ASIM to devote more time to my family, to my day job, and to another startup small press begun by a friend of mine, Twelfth Planet Press, based in Perth. With TPP, I worked on the young adult speculative fiction magazine Shiny, and co-edited the shared world anthology New Ceres Nights, among other projects. Then, in 2010, I realised that I had projects I wanted to do myself, and so I started FableCroft Publishing.

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2010 was a big year in the Australian speculative fiction community, as in August, Melbourne hosted the fourth Australian Worldcon convention. By the time we got to Aussiecon, FableCroft had two books (and a small baby, my third) to show off, and since then we have continued to grow. Our current backlist includes six original anthologies, three reprint anthologies, one single author collection, three original novels, several ebook-only reprint novels and collections, a boutique giftbook, and some stand-alone short stories, with Cranky Ladies officially launched this Sunday, another original anthology coming out in April, and several other projects on the boil.

It’s not the sort of thing I could do on my own, though in the early days I tried. Now, I am fortunate to have friends and other creators who undertake slushreading, editing, proofing, design and marketing with me, which means my books are so much better than they could possibly be if I had to rely on my own (sometimes dubious) talents! Work I have published has been shortlisted for or won awards within Australia and overseas, and one of my greatest delights is when an author I have published garners recognition for their work, whether I published it or not! After all, when I created FableCroft, it was with a charter to promote both emerging and established authors and artists in the speculative fiction field, as well as the broad genre as a whole. I like to think I do my bit, not only through FableCroft, but also with non-profit projects such as the Australian Spec Fic Snapshot, the Australian Specfic in Focus reviews website (which closed a couple of years ago) and the Aurealis Awards, which I have been involved with since 2007.

At this point, the income from running a small press like FableCroft is not sufficient to support one person (let alone a family) – for me, if each project pays for itself, and generates the seed money for the next book, that’s a win, but that’s not always the case. Even if it were, you can’t live on for-the-love, right? Luckily, I happen to love my day job – I’m a full-time Head of Information Services at an independent boys’ school, working 8am to 5pm most days. It is another facet of who I am, and I’m very lucky that I get to do something I love at work, which helps pay for my other passion.

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What’s interesting is that having a day job doesn’t necessarily change my publishing output. I basically had a year off when my youngest was born (I did some online university tutoring and marking, but nothing like full-time) but I think I have achieved just as much in the past year with full-time work and an interstate move as I did in that year off. For me, it’s kind of like that story of the jar full of rocks/pebbles/sand – if you put the sand in first, the rocks won’t fit, but when you have the rocks in already, the sand fills the gaps. I think publishing is my sand – it’s what I do to fill in the gaps, and while I bemoan the fact I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do to create and market books, I don’t necessarily know if I would achieve much more even with that time. That said, looking back it’s possible a lot of projects got STARTED during that year off which then have taken 12 to 18 months to come to fruition, so maybe that’s the kicker – when you have the time, the creativity has more opportunity to flow freely, even if it’s not an immediate payoff.

One of the interesting discussions that often comes up about women who work outside the home while raising kids is the idea that you can have it all – a great career, a fantastic home life, hobbies, relaxation, the lot. For me, I have to say that yes, absolutely, you CAN have it all…but I say that with some qualifications. First of all, you have to be realistic about what “it all” looks like. Does it involve you having an immaculate house, perfectly groomed children (and self), and a gym membership you actually use? Maybe, but for me, there are some things I have to accept I just can’t have when I’m “having it all”. And yes, an immaculate house, perfectly groomed children, and a gym membership I actually use tend to be the first areas I yield in!

Secondly, for my mind, you have to have support. That might be in your life partner, your extended family, your colleagues, your friends, or in all those people, but without it, it’s hard going. Every time we move, we struggle, because without local networks, friends, established work schedules and so on, things can be lonely and pretty tough. Interestingly, this is an area where my publishing life has had a positive impact on my family life – everywhere we have moved to in the past 8 years has been within shouting distance of people I’ve come to know through publishing, many of whom I count among my closest friends.

In terms of what “making it happen” with a full-time day job and a publishing “hobby” looks like for me, I have four children aged 2 to 12, and a husband who works away a lot of the time. Last year when I took on my new job, which involves more responsibilities and a bigger time commitment than other jobs I’ve had, we made the decision that trying to manage that, with a growing family, just wasn’t practical. Instead, we engaged a live-in au pair, and it was one of the smartest moves we’ve ever made. I know that’s not feasible, or desirable for everyone – it’s a financial imposition in many ways: we have to have a larger house, we have bigger food bills, the travel costs are not insignificant, and of course we pay our au pair a wage, and there is a certain loss of family privacy alongside that. But having a great au pair means I can give my career the time it needs to grow, while knowing my children are being well cared for, taken to their after-school activities, fed and entertained, when my husband and I can’t be there. Are we working to pay for childcare? Maybe. Are we making it happen. You bet.

I’m very fortunate, in many ways, but especially because while my husband doesn’t always get WHY I publish, he still fully supports me. More often than not, this support is by way of time rather than money. I mean, every dollar I have put into the press could have been going towards the family holiday or mortgage I suppose, but it has been much more about the ability to be able to go to things like conventions, to sell books, network with authors and so on. Without his support, I wouldn’t be able to do that as easily.

There have definitely been times I get a bit stressed about whether or not I can actually maintain the financial commitment or time necessary to make the projects happen, but so far, we’ve always managed it. That said, I did make a choice late last year to pull back on some of the projects I’d been considering, due to both financial and time pressure. It was a really tough decision, and they were hard emails to write, because I think if you aren’t trying new things and looking at new opportunities, it’s really hard to gain traction. But if I can’t make the best effort at the projects I’m doing, they aren’t going to be worth it anyway. Publishing has such a long lead time and an even longer follow through, if you don’t want projects to sink without a trace. I think that’s what I’m trying to find the balance with at the moment. The editing and book production isn’t really the problem. I think I could continue that load or even increase it, if that’s ALL I needed to do. But it’s not. It’s the rest of the publishing process that takes the longest time. And that’s where my guilt comes from – taking time away from my family to make these books. I can only hope that in the future, my kids see me following a passion and working hard to achieve my goals, and they take some of that away for their own lives, not just all the time Mummy spends at the computer rather than playing with them…

Although money is a part of it, I think the time devoted to “making it happen” is definitely the biggest sacrifice. But you know what? If I wasn’t making books, I’d almost certainly be doing something else with that time, and it’s not a guarantee that something would be hanging out with the kids, I’m afraid! It might be something less deadline-specific, I suppose. Maybe it would be exercise…

What would be the ideal? I’m not sure there is one. I genuinely love my day job, and at this stage, I wouldn’t want to give that up. I am well paid in my role, more so than I would be in most roles even in the mainstream publishing industry, so I can’t see us being in a position for me NOT to have a day job any time soon. However, one day, maybe, I think I would love to be able to either focus entirely on FableCroft or, should an opportunity arise, perhaps take on a position in a large publishing house. You never really know what the future will bring – for now, everything I do is another string in my bow to potential future prospects. And we’ll see where life takes us!

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And that brings us back to Cranky Ladies of History, which was one of those projects that pretty much sprang fully formed into being. It began with a face, glaring out from an oil painting. Australian social justice and media blogger Liz Barr posted an image of Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia on her Tumblr account and then, receiving a hugely positive response to Sophia’s fierce expression, wrote a short essay about the woman in question, calling her a “would-be usurper, all-around cranky lady”. There’s something about that phrase: cranky lady. There was a time when it would have been seen entirely as a put-down, a dismissal of female strength and power. Yet the idea of celebrating women for their crankiness—rather than their beauty, their docility, their compliance—feels empowering and deliciously rebellious. It was a phrase that struck me immediately, and when I tweeted about how much I’d love to read stories about cranky ladies of history by some of my favourite authors, the response was instant and immediately positive. Within hours, the idea had coalesced into a concept, and then into a plan, which continued to grow as the interest did. I dragged in my friend, writer and classics scholar Tansy Rayner Roberts, as a co-editor, because I knew I would need someone with more expertise than my own for such a project, and having her on board added so much more than just her knowledge – her understanding of crowdfunding, her network of followers and her writing and editing prowess made things happen that I just couldn’t have achieved on my own.

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From the start, when we talked about ‘Cranky Ladies of History’ as an anthology concept, people got excited. These days, when we give people advice about setting up successful crowdfunding campaigns, one of the first things we tell them is to choose the idea that sells itself—where people get excited from the first sentence, from the title of the project, before you’ve even explained all the nuts and bolts and rewards and payment options, you know you’re on a winner.

Cranky Ladies was one of those ideas. We found ourselves in a whirl of positive interest, not only from writers who wanted to pitch stories to us, but from mainstream media and many people who didn’t have the time or the inclination to write for the book, yet still wanted to support it, to promote it, and to help out with the campaign.

Crowdfunding is one of the new norms in publishing, and has helped many small presses remain viable in a time when the entire book industry is in flux. One of the best things about crowdfunding is the ability to test ‘proof of concept’ and find out if your publishing idea has legs before everyone invests all their time and money into it.

So many people we talked to wanted this book to exist, even if they weren’t personally involved, and that turned out to be crowdfunding gold. We pulled in many of our most enthusiastic activists to help with the campaign, to blog about their favourite cranky ladies, and to spread the word. We had chosen March (Women’s History Month) for the campaign almost on a whim, thinking it would be cute, but the further we got into the month the more we realised that people were hungry for these stories, not even just the fiction that we promised, but the anecdotes and essays about lost and misquoted and reclaimed women from history who were fierce, uncompromising and yes, cranky.

The positive response we received to the Cranky Ladies crowdfunding campaign was invigorating and inspiring—especially when International Women’s Day brought national media attention to a book that didn’t even exist yet. When you’re making art that you think is challenging, rebellious and potentially controversial, there is nothing better than the feeling of having a crowd at your back, putting their money where their mouth is, cheering loudly, and keeping you company every step of the way.

Once the month of crowdfunding was over, the real work began. The authors whose pitches we had accepted had stories to write—and not every story was going to make it into the final volume. We weren’t just looking for great stories, but also for a diverse mix of authors and historical figures, so that the book would cover a wide range of time periods, cultures and topics. Quite honestly, we could have filled the book just with female warriors of history, or pirates, or queens, but we wanted to show as many different ways as we could that women had rebelled against their society’s conventions—or, in some cases, worked covertly within those conventions.

It was hard to accept that we couldn’t have everything. Each story we rejected felt like we were losing a piece of the big picture we had wanted to create. We also had to accept that some of the stories we had hoped for simply didn’t come to us at all. We would have loved to include more pilots, sportswomen, scientists, and an even broader range of cultural diversity. We are particularly disappointed there are no Indigenous Australian authors in the anthology, and while we did receive a story that we deeply loved featuring an Aboriginal protagonist, we ended up having to let it go because of issues to do with cultural permissions that could not be addressed in time for us to go to print. This was possibly the most difficult choice I had to make with the book, and I remain very sad about it, although I stand by our decision to respect the cultural dictums in the matter.

Cranky Ladies of History had its official launch this weekend. Thanks to amazing authors, the efforts of my incredible co-editor, the work of a fabulous artist and a talented designer and eagle-eyed proofreaders, this book is my best production so far. I couldn’t have done it without every single one of them, nor without the people who had enough faith in our ability to make it happen that they put their hands in their pockets an entire year ago, when the book was still just a concept on a webpage. And I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family: my parents, who inadvertently set me on this path nearly 40 years ago, and who have always been there when I’ve needed them (and my dad reads all my books, even though he doesn’t like the genre!); my kids, who have shown excited faces when Mummy has been squeeing about an author’s story that blew me away, or about exactly HOW PRETTY the books have turned out, even though they don’t really understand why I’m so happy about it all; and my husband, who is as proud of me as I am of this book.

It’s always interesting to look back at the choices one makes to trace the path back to where things began. The movie Sliding Doors does this literally, showing that we really can’t ever know what will come of the decisions we make in life – sometimes those that seem the best can have unhappy endings, and on other occasions, something awful can lead to something amazing. Often, the outcome is not what we anticipate, and often the reason is not the alternatives presented to us, but the attitude with which we attack them. I finished Year 12 as an only-just 17 year old, and I remember being quite distressed that I didn’t get my first preference for university courses. On the third round of offers, my first preference was given, but by then, I had accepted a position as a governess on a remote cattle station in the Northern Territory. I deferred my course and took the gap year (not that we called it that back then!), and it was fantastic. Then, when it came time to reconsider my options, I decided that actually I really DIDN’T want to do that original course, so I reapplied for different universities. This time, when the offers came and again I didn’t get my first preference (this time, it was the right course but in the wrong city), I remember sitting down and crying. Then suddenly I realised that actually, not getting my first preference the last time had turned out to be a good thing, and I distinctly remember thinking “Everything happens for a reason.” In that moment, my whole perspective changed. I went to the new, unknown city. I made friends and embarked on a path I had never imagined. In one way or another, every choice I made then has led me to where I am now. I could never claim that it’s been a smooth road – I’ve hit boggy spots, and wheel ruts and even veered right off onto the tiny gravelled side roads sometimes! But the road has led me here, and what I see in my rear view mirror gives me joy.

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