A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
On Wednesday, Moira reviewed the third novel in the Hattori Hachi trilogy, Curse of the Diamond Daggers. Today, she catches up with the author Jane Prowse, an old friend of the Book Foxes, to hear the saga of the third book’s unusual route to publication and find out what she’s been doing in the three years since her last interview.
VL: Your third Hattori Hachi book – The Curse of the Diamond Daggers – had a bit of a rocky road to publication, didn’t it? Could you bear to tell us about it?
JP: Happily, yes. Piccadilly Press – who had published books 1 and 2 – commissioned a detailed outline and then paid an advance for me to write the book based on the outline they’d signed off on. Book 3 takes Hattori Hachi to her roots in Japan with her friends and family on a cultural exchange. There, she gets caught up in a huge ninja action adventure story about finding peace within her fractured extended family.
In fairness, Piccadilly did express a mild concern about the story being set abroad as they had published another book that had been set outside the UK for their younger readers and it had not sold well. I delivered the book and although they loved the story, they decided that they didn’t want to risk publishing another book that had part of the story set outside the UK. They gave me the option to either re-set the book in the UK, or to take the book away from them and to keep the advance. I thought very carefully about it and my heart told me that it was right for Hattori Hachi to go back to her roots and that it would alter the book too much to bring that story to the UK. In a very amicable arrangement, I agreed to take the book elsewhere and also arranged to buy back the rights in books 1 and 2 so that I could have control over the trilogy.
That very weekend on TV, I saw the launch of a new web-based crowd-funding book company called Unbound. I loved what they were saying. The idea is that people pledge for copies of your book and when a book has enough funding, they publish it. I contacted them and they were really keen to take on the Hattori Hachi trilogy. We put together the package and set up the pledge page for 90 days – the time limit they set to get the funding. But as the days ticked by, I realised it was going to take longer than 90 days and although they really wanted to keep the books on, I quickly discovered that this was not the right way to publish these particular books.
The thing about Unbound is that it’s really great for well known, celebrity authors who can twitter and promote their unwritten book and get enough pre-sales to fund them to sit down to write. I had already written my book and every day that ticked by was another day when my loyal readers weren’t getting book 3 to read. I feared that if I stayed with Unbound, my teen fan base would be grandparents by the time the book came out. So, again very amicably, we decided to part company and I decided to publish the books independently through my own company, Silver Fox Productions. But I didn’t want this process to be any less professional than the rigorous editing process I’d been through with Piccadilly Press, so I employed Melissa Hyder, a brilliant editor who had worked on books one and two at Piccadilly, to edit book 3 as a freelance. We also employed a proof-reader and the same designer for the cover so that there would be no change in the level of professionalism. I found it truly liberating to work so closely with Melissa – who pushed me very hard on the rewrites. And we were able to publish relatively quickly and make the book available in time for the summer holidays, which had always been my ambition.
The challenge now is how to promote the books and let people know they exist. I’ve had very good feedback about book 3 from my fans – and some new readers – and feel more than ever that it was the right thing to stay true to the idea and set a significant part of book 3 in Japan. My ambition for Hattori Hachi now is that she and her band of crime fighters should go truly global and travel the world taking on evil ninja warriors. We’ve set up a global giveaway of book 1 on the website (a PDF that’s suitable for kindle and other e-readers), with prizes such as a character named after the 1000th person to download and a future story set in the country that takes the most downloads outside the UK.
What I love about ninjutsu is that it was created to keep the peace, not start wars. I’d love to get some global blogging going about conflict and peaceful or smart resolutions – whilst continuing the kick-ass female-led action adventures.
My reason for publishing the book in this way was to get it out into the world and see where it leads. Writing should be about communication and reader responses, not about the quagmire of publishing and funding. I’m very relieved that the book’s not sitting, still unpublished, on my shelf.
VL: That was very generous and civilized of Piccadilly … and for what it’s worth, I think you were absolutely right to stick to your guns and take Hattie back to Japan. I found the Japanese section absolutely fascinating. It’s a part of the world I know very little about, and you’d plainly done your homework – including, I believe, a research trip?
JP: Yes, I made a whirlwind trip to Japan with my husband on our way to a whalewatching holiday in Baja, Mexico! I knew there was no way I could write authentically about Japan without visiting, as everything I read seemed so vastly different from life in the UK. I researched very carefully and decided where I wanted Hattori Hachi to travel on her journey, particularly Nagasaki, which I wanted to feature for all that it represents about the horrors of war. I’m usually very capable in booking trips, but even that part of this adventure became very difficult. So I used a small tour operator, Inside Japan Tours, based in the UK who did an amazing job of booking everything I wanted to see (including the ninja theme park!) Then they made me a great little booklet with all the information, photos of the hotels, instructions like ‘walk past the stall with the red awning then turn left and stand by the picture of the taxi and show the driver this page’. There are a couple of things to deal with in Japan, the first being that there’s no alphabet as we know it, so therefore no A-Z with maps. Instructions are along the lines of ‘just along from the corner of these two streets, three houses past the coffee shop’, so it’s very hard to organise yourself moving around. The other difficulty is that the Japanese people never want to say no, so if you ask directions, they’ll tell you the way even if they don’t know it, rather than say that they don’t know. You can be sent back and forth all over the place, and as we were only there for 6 nights with a lot to pack in, we had no time to get lost.
I loved Japan and everything about it. The people, the culture, the scenery, the history – the Pachenko parlours and the karaoke bars. Mount Fuji was breathtaking and the bullet trains (and their punctuality) mind-blowing. Hattori Hachi was going to be discovering all this for the first time as well, so I just put myself in her shoes and allowed the country and the culture to unfold in front of my eyes. Seeing the Peace Park in Nagasaki was a particularly affecting and poignant moment – especially seeing how the atomic bomb had totally devastated everything it hit, but left all the old buildings on the far sides of hills completely untouched.
When I came to write the book, Hattie’s experience of Japan just flew off my fingers onto the page. I couldn’t wait to share what I’d experienced with her and my readers.
VL: Yes, it came across as something you’d actually experienced – it was a really vivid journey. I thought it was very brave to take Hattie to Nagasaki … but then it’s probably quite brave to make her so fond of really, really healthy food! I have to say that when I heard you were taking the self-publishing route, I cringed a bit – but the production values are fabulous and you really can’t see any difference between the first two books and this one. And hats off to your proof-reader and editor, they did a brilliant job. I didn’t spot one single typo, inconsistency or grammatical howler. So the next obvious question is – when you take Hattie and Mad Dog and the wonderful Neena (everyone should have a Neena in their lives …) off on their next adventure … will you take the self-publishing route again?
JP: Thanks for the feedback – I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! I would definitely consider the same route for the next book, using the same team to support me. It was liberating on all kinds of levels. Having said that, we have to find the right way to promote the books and make the sales, which we’re working on now. I didn’t approach any other publishers, as I was advised they wouldn’t take books that had been published elsewhere. If an established company did approach me wanting to take all the Hattori Hachi books on, I would also consider it if it meant they were going to get a higher profile and reach more readers. I think publishing has become quite a fluid industry.
VL: It has – and with so many options, which reminds me that all three Hattori Hachi books are also available on Kindle of course … how do the ebooks sales compare to the paperback sales?
JP: Interestingly, ebooks are still only about 10 per cent of sales. Although that figure might be skewed at the moment by the fact that we’re offering book 1 as a free download and 800 people have signed up for that already. I find most people still want to have the physical book in their hand – especially on my school visits, where pupils are excited to have a signed copy of their own with their name in it. It’s always great to see children being enthusiastic about owning a book.
VL: I’m sure that a lot of people reading this are as intrigued by Silver Fox Productions as I am … Did you set it up specifically for Hattori Hachi, or did it already exist? And would you be interested in hearing from other authors and/or their agents who were looking for a publisher?
JP: My film editor husband, Ian Sutherland, and I had already set up Silver Fox Productions as an umbrella company to develop some TV ideas. It was Ian who brilliantly took the reins with the book publishing. He loves books and was a librarian in his spare time when he was at school. He put the whole package together but, like me, was determined that if we were to publish the books, we would apply the same rigorous professional standards as if we were making our usual television programmes. At the moment we’re not looking to branch out with other authors as we first need to make sure we can market our product. It’s a very steep learning curve and I wouldn’t want to promise anything to other writers until we know we can deliver. Having said that, we’re both really pleased with what we’ve achieved so far in publishing the books and are thoroughly enjoying the challenge.
VL: Amazingly, it’s been three years since we last talked to you … [link to previous interview] … and I know a lot has happened to you in the interim – particularly the success of the stage production of ‘A Round Heeled Woman’ in both the US and the UK. Can you tell us what else is in the pipeline – Book 4, for instance?
JP: Yes, I had a hiatus from books and television last year to write and direct A Round-Heeled Woman, starring Cagney and Lacey’s Sharon Gless. After a try-out production at the Gablestage Theatre in Miami at the start of 2011, we opened at the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith last Autumn and then transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End. It was a high-octane, hugely fun and heady time, putting the real life adventures of Jane Juska onto the stage. We discovered an enthusiastic audience for the story of what happened when Jane Juska put her ad into the New York Review of Books: “Before I turn 67, next March, I want to have had a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Very different territory from writing children’s books! I’m currently writing the feature film script of the story as well as developing quite a few TV drama ideas. I’ve missed TV over the last few years and am enjoying being back in that world. But yes, I’m definitely planning book 4 of Hattori Hachi. I already have lots of ideas for future stories, set all over the world. The next adventure will partly be decided on which country takes the most downloads of the global giveaway of book 1. I took a big lesson from Unbound about engaging readers in the development of book series. I want feedback on what crimes people want Hattori Hachi and her friends to solve in their part of the world. We’re running the global giveaway until we’ve reached at least one person in every country, as well as someone in the Antarctic continent (which we’ve already achieved – amazingly). If readers want to get involved in helping the books reach all 207 countries, they can read more on the website, www.hattorihachi.com and see the countries reached so far at www.hattorihachi.com/countries.asp
VL: Several years ago now you directed the series ‘Between the Sheets’, which we talked about a bit in your interview. I’ve often wondered – when you work with actors like Brenda Blethyn and Alun Armstrong – do you take an avuncular (if a woman can be avuncular…) interest in their subsequent work or is it all water under the bridge?
JP: I’m always interest in what everyone’s up to. I love working with actors and am always delighted when they get great parts. It’s such a tough profession and I have enormous admiration for what they do. Many of the people I’ve worked with I hope to work with again – and co-incidentally, talking of Between the Sheets, I also directed Richard Armitage in that and would LOVE him to play Hattori Hachi’s dad, Ralph, if we ever managed to get the books made into films. Richard’s one of the nicest, most talented actors I’ve worked with and the camera loves him. He has a really gentle quality and also has the self-deprecation and humour that Hattie’s dad needs. Of course his career’s gone stratospheric and I’m looking forward to seeing him play Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Perhaps his fans can help bring him back to my world by reading the Hattori Hachi books and lobbying him to show them to Peter Jackson!
It’s been a while since we chatted, Moira, but I have to say it’s always a real pleasure. I love the Vulpes Libris website. Many thanks for having me back.
VL: Thank you for finding the time to talk to us again … It’s been great fun catching up!
(You can read the review of all three books in the Hattori Hachi trilogy here: The Revenge of Praying Mantis, Stalking the Enemy, Curse of the Diamond Daggers. Jane also wrote a fascinating piece for us on adapting ‘A Round Heeled Woman for the stage’, which you can read here: Adapting Sex for the Stage.)
Monday: Hilary takes sneaky delight in Jay Rayner's bad days at the office in My Dining Hell.
Wednesday: Kate read Colm Toibin's Brooklyn on the way back from New York.
Friday: Diana Birchall, joining us from sunny Santa Monica (we hates her) gets stuck into Edith Sitwell’s classic English Eccentrics.