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Friday, 10 August 2012

There is a new book on the way

I got back from Vanuatu (of which more later) on Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, a courier arrived with a box from what is now my alpha-publisher, the National Library of Australia.

It's miserably wintry here, so I donned a windproof jacket and slipped out into the watery sunshine where Chris took a series of shots, most of which featured me squinting and blinking, but we achieved this one.

For those who know me best as a children's author, this is the other side of the coin, a serious look at the naturalists and natural history artists who visited (or in one or two cases were bred and raised in) Australia.

In many ways, this is a spin-off from Australian Backyard Naturalist which came out in May and which is drawing very pleasing reviews. That is most definitely a children's book, showing younger readers how to bother and enjoy the hidden life that is all around them.  (You can see some of my other books on the National Library bookshop's site.

Illustrations of an alleged bunyip skull,
drawn from the Sydney Morning Herald
by way of Trove.
The idea, when you write for an institution like the National Library is that you seek to showcase their collections. Libraries these days are far more than musty collections of old tomes: they have digital arms, collections of maps, paintings, real objects and more, and the library's staff are excellent at helping me pick the eyes out of what they have and want to flaunt.

Another side is that I get into the Trove digitised historical newspapers, and I show readers, in passing, just what gems can be found there.  On a personal note, I was interested to discover an engagement notice for my father to a lady whose name was mentioned once or twice with gritted teeth by my mother. This was before he met my mother, but there's some history there that I never knew: so you never know what will turn up.

For example, one of my upcoming books nails down a little-known conspiracy which was undertaken to get Australia's gold rush started.  More of that later, but it's a fascinating example of PR and social manipulation in colonial Australia. (There's more about that in the post before this one.)

Anyhow, back to Curious Minds, I was searching for illustrations from the NLA collections for Australian Backyard Naturalist, and having to pass up lots of delicious stuff that I knew well, involving people I knew well.  I fired off a casual email, suggesting to Susan Hall that there was probably a book there.  Equally casually, she asked for a rough outline, and just as casually, I slapped it together, suggesting that she put it in her backburner file, her bottom drawer, for later consideration.  I was in no rush, and thought it needed twelve months of good solid research.

Back came an email saying it was "go" and could I submit in six months?  I said it needed twelve months, but I was cajoled into working twice as hard and getting 12 months' work done in six.

The outline changed a bit as I found other people who merited greater discussion and I cut one or two out because there was no real interest. They were not people with curious minds.

My business card describes me as a freelance curious mind.  This levity is a cunning filter, because the po-faced, the prim and proper, the boring people I would never wish to work with, shy away at my informality, and good riddance.  The term "curious mind" first came into print when I had to write a blurb for a book, and I recalled an exchange with an old friend where he commented on my productivity and asked how I did it.

"I have a curious mind," I told him.

"Yes, I can see that," he said—but the meaningful way he said it showed that he was playing with the words.

I needed no more than that, and so the blurb read something like "Peter Macinnis finds that his friends and his detractors all agree (with differing intonations) that he has a curious mind."

This is one illustration that didn't fit, which is a shame. Only a
Frenchman like Charles Lesueur would give the male kangaroo
  such a lascivious eye. Click on this image to see a larger version.
And now it's a book title.  And a book, which I have in my hands.  It weighs 1050 grams, it looks beautiful (that's why I like working with the NLA: they do superb design work), and now I have another task on my hands: to clean up and redesign the information page about the book. Right now, it's sloppy and messy.

I took three mss away with me, and worked through half of one of them, so now I need to make many, many changes to the Word file, I need to finish working through that ms, and I need to get onto two others. I have a radio talk to record next week, and I always tweak my scripts up to the very last moment, and I am giving a workshop for Australian Backyard Naturalist in Canberra on August 23 (scroll down in the link) and I have some more fieldwork coming up. I will, I hope, be a little more forthcoming with fun stuff for the younger reader.

That said, I owe this blog a piece on writing for younger readers, and why Martin Amis was a prat when he suggested that he would only write for children if he suffered brain damage.

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