My Hero in Publishing: Roelof Bakker

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Publishing is hard. You know that. You’ve read about it. The constant refrain in the twitter/facebook/blogosphere of the death of the published work.

And then every once in a while you run into someone you really admire. Someone who doesn’t complain. Who just gets on with it.

Meet Roelof Bakker.

He is a photographer. You think getting a publisher for your novel is hard? Ha! Child’s play compared to finding a publisher for exquisite photos.

So Roelof, instead of moaning and groaning, gathered an international group of writers and asked them to write stories inspired by his photos. (I was lucky enough to be included.)

He then created his own publishing company, Negative Press London, and published his photos along side the stories in a beautiful book called STILL.

It took vision, tenacity and determination.

Now, Roelof and Jane Wildgoose have just collaborated on a book called Strong Room which is out 21 January 2014.

Curious to see how he’s managed to do all this, I asked to interview him.

Read it, learn something.

Where are you from and how did you end up in London?

I was born in the Netherlands and came to London to visit my pen-pal. Once I was here, I realised I had the opportunity of a new life. With no qualifications and no direction I was drawn to the energy I felt around me.

Do you remember the first photo you took?

It was a self-portrait in black and white taken on a deserted demolition site. I was sixteen at the time and I’d just bought a small Olympus Pen camera. I was wearing a Joy Division T-shirt. I didn’t actually press the shutter, my brother did, after instructing him exactly on how I wanted the photograph to look.

Why do you like to photograph empty spaces?

Still was the first project where I recorded inside a vacated building. Previous projects mostly involved being outside in the open air, wandering, mainly in London, usually away from the crowds. For me, they all share a sense of emptiness but also of richness, of darkness and light, of life and death.

How did you come up with the idea of asking writers to contribute stories to Still?

The publication Still is part of a wider art project exploring ways to breathe life back into vacated spaces including a video film and an exhibition (www.rbakker.com/still). I wanted to continue the approach of giving new life to something devoid of life.

The idea was to set the photographs free from their location. It seemed fitting to allow the spaces to be filled with other people’s imaginations and that’s when I decided to invite writers to select a photograph and use this as a starting point for new writing. The first writer I contacted was local author Andrew Blackman, who had written about the exhibition Still on his blog, and his enthusiasm and initial support for the idea pushed the book forward.

How did you find working with writers? Are they a different breed to photographers?

It was very rewarding and highly inspirational. There was a lot of research involved finding writers, many late nights reading, particularly as I wanted to include writers from different backgrounds and cultures. I found them to be very open-minded and approachable. What made this anthology special is the fact that contributing writers would happily recommended other writers, making the book more fluid and unexpected: Andrew Blackman recommended Sarah Manyika, Nicholas Royle recommended Myriam Frey, James Miller recommended Deborah Klaassen. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press introduced me to Jan van Mersbergen and you came through Meike too.

It was incredibly exciting when the stories started coming in. Andrew Blackman’s ‘Sanctuary’ first arrived and then your contribution ‘My Wife, the Hyena’. It was not what I had expected at all, very dark and twisted. But as with Andrew’s story, it set the tone for what was to come: there is a sense of darkness in all the stories.

I think both writers and photographers have an inner need to explore and express, but writers have more creative scope as there are less limitations, there’s no permission for access. I love the idea that words can create the most beautiful or the most horrid visuals, that words alone can move. Writers can travel to places where photographers can never go, into the future or the past, into landscapes of the imagination. At the same time there is great creativity to be found in the limitations encountered by photographers.

There’s a pressure on photographers and visual artists to explain their work and to intellectualise and contextualise it in language. But photography and other visual arts are means of communication. Visuals can speak for themselves.

What has been successful about the book collaboration and what would you do differently?

The book became so much more than I set out to. I think the writing is superb and I like how the photographs and the individual stories appear together, giving a window into the mindset of writers, how a photograph might inspire a piece of writing.

For me, the book has many layers. It’s about the skill of writing and creative freedom, about inspiration and collaboration. It’s an anthology of international writing and of writers from all kinds of backgrounds. It’s a photography book of vacated spaces, but also a document of aspects of past municipal life. The writing, photography and design combined make it a literary art book (a term coined by writer James Miller).

When writer Nicholas Royle suggested I’d start a press I decided to go for it and consequently started Negative Press London (www.neg-press.com), getting advice from Nicholas – who also runs a small press, Nightjar Press; Jan Woolf – writer and editor at Muswell Press and later on from Meike Ziervogel from Peirene Press.

What I would do differently? I really underestimated the work involved in starting a press…. designing logos, forms, a website, an online shop; dealing with printers and buyers, legal stuff, organising a launch event, then there was the PR, social media, etc. So if I would do something on a similar scale, I wouldn’t do it alone.

What has been the response to Still?

The response has been very positive, often overwhelming. David Hebbletwaite reviewed every individual story on his blog over a 26-day period (http://davidhblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/roelof-bakker-ed-still-short-stories-inspired-by-photographs-of-vacated-places-2012/). Sara Baume, recently reviewed it for the Short Review, said the book had perhaps invented a sort-of new genre (http://thenewshortreview.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/review-of-still-short-stories-inspired-by-photographs-of-vacated-spaces/).

Tate Modern stocked Still in a boutique bookshop during the William Klein photography exhibition and Foyles supported the project with a photography exhibition in their Gallery, a launch event and a Negative Press/Foyles short story competition. The second edition sold out some months ago.

It is also a great compliment that one of the stories, by a certain Nina Killham!, was selected to appear in the Best British Short Stories 2013 (Salt publishing, 2013).

Tell me a bit about your new book Strong Room. Was it easier working with just one writer?

Strong Room is more of an understated publication than Still. The approach is of an artist book, not a literary publication. This time the photographs take centre stage with an essay appearing before and after the photography section. Unlike Still, there was no preconceived idea or approach.

I worked with fellow artist and writer Jane Wildgoose. We have a shared interest in memory and remembrance, in traces of past lives. I admire her work, her passion, her intelligence, her individual eye. (www.janewildgoose.co.uk). We both also have a connection with Hornsey Town Hall where the photographs in the book were taken. They’d been developing in my head for the past few years. I sensed there was something important there, something powerful, but I didn’t know quite how to use them. Then I met Jane and I knew that if we worked together it would result in something unexpected, an important document.

After discussions and explorations the book began to take shape. I edited the photographs down to a selection of twenty-eight and played around with the running order, then I wrote the introductory essay. The photographs show unusually well-preserved traces of past lives in spaces that have remained almost untouched over thirty years. It was a new challenge for me to use photographs as inspiration to write about something contemporary that deeply concerns me, and, at the same time, to allow the photographs to be what they are, to give them their own space, to tell their own stories. Then Jane wrote her essay. We both have something different to say, but there’s a shared sense of the importance of the physical connection and the impact of the loss of the tactile experience in the digital world. Strong Room has many layers and Jane’s contribution ‘A Visit to the Archives’, can be read as an academic essay or a short story, it’s a unique proposition.

You are in a field that must be even harder than writing. What keeps you going?

I work as a freelance designer and photographer – I started taking on portrait photography commissions in 2012. I’m also the house photographer for Dennis Severs House. There’s always some juggling going on. My art explorations are what drives me, I experiment a lot and discard ideas, but the knowledge that with focus and dedication, ideas develop and come to fruition is what makes me tick.

What is next for you?

Jane and I will be attending a Writers Guild of Great Britain event in January to talk about our exchange and about using visuals as inspiration for writing. There are two Negative Press publications in development and I’m putting together work for an exhibition in 2014. I am curating a series of CCTV-inspired video works as part of a project called Wanderlust, working with photographers from different countries. (www.rbakker.com/wanderlust). Inspired by the stories in Still, I have started writing and one story, ‘Red’, will appear in Unthology 5 (Unthank Books, July 2014).

Strong Room is out 21 January 2014. Negative Press London http://www.neg-press.com

photo: a self portrait by Roelof Bakker

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Basking in Brunswick, Melbourne

We moved to Melbourne at the end of 2012. We moved to Brunswick just north of the Royal Park about four months ago. It is visually one of the most interesting places I’ve ever lived in. The following are just some of my snap shots…..

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Acustico Cafe on Union Street. I walk by it everyday and am amazed each time.

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I caught this girl walking by the Town Hall. Loved everything about her.

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My lovely girl had just spent three months in China. It was our first walk about the neighborhood.

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Right off Sydney Road….

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Cafe culture….

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Beware! Yarn bombing on Sydney Road.

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What will greet you when you go to Ray’s on Victoria Street. Yummy breakfasts, perfect coffee.

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Not in Brunswick per se, but loved its sentiments…..

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Wishing you and yours a profoundly Happy New Year!

x, Nina

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My New Writing Partner

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He’s very serious and very good.

“Get back here, Nina. We’ve got work to do….”

See what I mean?

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Best British Shorts Stories 2013 and Moi

I can’t believe I didn’t blog about this before. I better blog now before 2013 becomes 2014!

Sometimes in a writer’s life events transpire to really give them a boost. This year it was my turn.

In 2012, Roelof Bakker, a photographer based in London (in my neighborhood of Crouch End, in fact) asked short story writers to contribute to his book of photographs.

I contributed a story called My Wife The Hyena.

STILL is a beautiful book, full of evocative photographs of empty spaces. The short stories from an international group of writers are wonderful. (I will be doing an interview with Roelof Bakker in January. )

In a gorgeous serendipity, one of the other short story contributors, Nicholas Royle, a novelist and editor at SALT Publishing who publishes Best British Short Stories, read my story in STILL and called me up. He said, “You’re not by any chance a British Citizen are you?”

I had just become a British citizen that morning and had celebrated with a delicious English fry-up which I was still trying to digest.

So I was eligible.

It was the highlight of a rather trying year!

Roelof Bakker kindly did an interview:  http://www.neg-press.com/interview-nina-killham/

Sometimes writers have really good years and this one was one of mine.

Thank you, Roelof Bakker and Nicholas Royle.

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6 Things I Learned Writing My Last Novel

I have just finished a novel that took me almost three years to write. Granted a lot of other things were going on in my life; houses burning down, mother passing away, moving to the other side of the planet. As I sent the manuscript off to my agent, I realized that during this novel I learned a thing or two about writing. I thought I’d share them with you.

1. Learn to enter into the journey. I think I’ve often approached a novel as a task. To be done. By such and such time. For a particular reward. And so I skimmed instead of dove. I scooted along the surface, looking left and right for anything that would contribute to my cause. Almost like a trip to the supermarket, picking ingredients for a recipe. Instead I learned that I should be diving. Diving deep, exploring the dark murky waters of my subject. Not everything is going to be useful. That strange looking rock I pulled up from the underbelly of a bottom feeder will probably not make it into the manuscript. But it’s there in the atmosphere I create. I don’t think we understand what we’re trying to say unless we live with the ideas for a while. So give up that time frame and learn to dive.

2. Don’t give into negative thoughts. OK this is my personal bugbear. My mind is constantly streaming what Anne Lamott calls Radio KFKD. So all I can say is: Zap those suckers before they take hold.  They are mosquitoes of the brain. Spray yourself with a good dose of determination and resilience. Put on headphones if you have to. As you fiddle about with your personal work, the world around you will be on fire with others accomplishments and triumphs. Not to mention the demise of the publishing world as we know it. Buzz buzz buzz. All the noise. Ignore it. Splat ’em and finish your work. Finish the damn thing. You learn nothing until you finish. It’s my new mantra. I give it to you. Finish the F@%ker.

3. Let your main characters laugh. Often my main characters are flat. The other characters are bouncing off the walls with personality but the leads are about as fun as a stick.( To quote the great Bill Murray.) They are very serious because I have laid all the weight of the book on them. I need to lighten up on the poor fellows and fellas. When I finish the first draft I’ve learned to go back and tickle them. In fact, I could probably do it one more time.

4. It’s OK to take a break. When life was too chaotic and I couldn’t concentrate on my novel, or I was too down on it to be of any help, I would go away and paint bad art and write some short stories. The art hangs on my walls (to my family’s patient credit) and one of my short stories ended up in a beautiful anthology called STILL by Negative Press before being chosen to be included in Best British Short Stories 2013. But the main point is: I came back and finished. When I really was without confidence I would say to myself: Finish. Just Finish. It might suck but you have to finish. Or as my sister said when I was yet again complaining: “Well, you can always call it A Really Bad Novel.” Made me laugh so hard I got back to work.

5. Eventually things do start connecting. Like brain cells, ideas start wiggling out and tapping other elements in the book and making connections. Connections I didn’t even know existed but look so obvious now when I see them.

6. The novel is in you. You just have to get out of the way. Remember the Michelangelo quote? ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Rather than in a block of marble the novel is in your soul. Open your soul a bit everyday and write what you see and feel. Your novel will appear as if by magic.

Good luck. I can’t wait to read your magic.

Photo by SébastienWiertz (flickr)

 

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Doris Lessing. Mentor or Monster?

The city of Paris introduced me to Doris Lessing when I was twenty years old. I was living there alone and homesick when I wandered into the Shakespeare and Company at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, a croissant’s throw from Notre Dame. It was a glorious place, books lining the walls like wall paper, books lining the floor like walls. I was convinced that if I just stayed quiet enough I could stay all night and not be discovered.

One day I discovered The Golden Notebook. I still remember my eyes devouring the first pages, first propping myself up against a book case, then hunching down and finally just flat out collapsing in comfort to the floor to read what to me was a revelation: a woman’s intimate, psychological life written by a woman, in its intricate, no apologies way.

In the years since I have read many of her books: The Grass is Singing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell,  The Good Terrorist, The Fifth Child and The Memoirs of a Survivor. I worshiped her from afar.

Then one day I read about how she had abandoned her first two children.

It shook me to my core.

Granted, when I read it I had two young children and was hyped up with oxytocin. But I was appalled at her decision to abandon her children for her literary career. As I tried to type out my word count amidst baby bottles and tantrums and the endless chaos of a young family household, I understood her motive. Oh, indeed I did. But I could not condone it. And I certainly couldn’t see past it. From then on, every time I read her books I thought, Well, must be niiiice.

Once my hormones and children were under better control, I reconsidered. After all, even without my ‘gorgeous’ children I knew I would not be so prolific, so erudite, so revolutionary as Doris Lessing. And certainly not on the receiving end of a Nobel Prize. And so I gave her the benefit of non-judgement: something, of course, I owe all people (well most) and began to enjoy her novels again.

Until I read about her attitude toward the women’s liberation movement. ‘The battles have all been won,’ she said, ‘except for equal pay for equal work.’

And I thought Hey! You! You’re pushing it!

Don’t tell me the field has been leveled. Childcare is overwhelmingly done by women, violence is overwhelmingly done to women, poverty is overwhelmingly thrust upon women.

To say otherwise is to abandon the issue.

When I heard she had died yesterday, I felt the passing of a defining literary figure. In more ways than one. We all make our choices. We live with them, we die with them. I owe her respect and yes, admiration.

I like to remember her as one of the commentators did in the Guardian today:

“Very sad to hear of the death of Doris Lessing. I saw her talk at the British Council in Harare in 1995. She was one of the writers I wrote when I was working, through VSO, teaching English in a rural Zimbabwean Secondary School, Chatiza High School near Mutoko. I asked each writer to send a copy of a book which I thought would be inspiring for the students, for the school library . I asked Doris Lessing for a copy of ‘African Laughter’, where she writes about building school libraries in rural schools. She didn’t send me one copy, she sent me a case load of books. And made sure that they were delivered directly to school. An inspirational woman.”

Indeed.

R.I.P Doris Lessing

photo by xjyxjy (flickr)

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Why I love Brunswick

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