Interview: Marianna Shek, author of The Stolen Button

This Month we talk to author Marianna Shek about her picture book for adults The Stolen Button, which Marianna is currently funding for self-publication through Kickstarter. You can donate to her fund here.

Hearts are stolen every day, but a stolen belly button- well, that has consequences! When willful Mei Ling wheedles her mother Lady Lin into taking her to the circus, she catches the attention of the orphan Fang Fei. The envious girl traps Mei Ling in the mirror maze, then offers her safe passage home in exchange for her navel.  

Although The Stolen Button is a picture book, it is intended for an older audience (12+) At 48 pages, it is much longer than a traditional picture book and contains dark themes.

Tell us about yourself
Okay I’m a writer, I guess that’s what I identify as now. It’s a long history of how I got to be a writer. But in the past I’ve been a pharmacist and I was that for about ten years. Then I decided I really wanted to be a ceramic artist. So I did that for a while. Then while I was doing ceramics I realised that I really wanted to learn drawing because it was really holding me back from doing my ceramic work so to learn drawing I went to uni to learn animation and that’s when I quit being a pharmacist. And then from animation I decided I wanted to do script writing, so that I could be an animation script writer, and then from there I really just got into storytelling and I just wasn’t happy doing the animation, I wanted to do the story. So from there it became novel writing and that’s who I am now.

So you’ve done quite a range of things
I guess that’s just part of the convoluted path I took. I know some people have their niche and just love it and will do it for twenty or thirty years but I was always just interested in experimenting and trying these things and going ‘oooh what’s this about’ and ‘I want to try ceramics’ and ‘I want to try drawing’ but I think I have settled because all along I’ve been writing short stories but it really took this time to arrive at ‘I want to do this now for a very long time’.

Is there a particular form you prefer?
Yes definitely the novel writing. So this picture book is actually a passion project left over from my animation days when I really loved, well I still really love, image and the visual but to me I guess I’d rather put that on the back burner and focus on my writing. I actually just finished my PhD and for my PhD I did interactive storytelling thinking I could merge all the different art forms like the visual, the interactive and the narrative and I did that and I think that’s the thing that really brought it all together; that the part I really loved is just the narrative and just fine tuning the words.

Is that the other book that you’re releasing next year?
Oh that’s a fun one! That’s my fun relaxing… I write these choose-your-own-adventure style novels in my spare time and it was the final wave of my PhD work. So that’s the one that’s going to be like a twisted fairy tale. That’s fun for young readers.

So then tell me more about The Stolen Button
So The Stolen Button actually started as an animation script and people that have beta read it have said ‘have you thought about making this into a short film’ and that kind of pleases me because that’s exactly what it was, an animated short film that I started when I was a first year animation student. But it was too hard to realise as a script so I put it away, took it out the year after, worked on it for NaNoWriMo, then I worked on it as a novel – back then it was Victorian Steampunk because I was really into that- and then put it away when uni started again and put it away for another year. Then every year I would take it out and play with it and I think the closest I got to publishing it was in a poetry form. I had actually just watched this beautiful animation called The Cat Piano and it is all told in, well it’s narrated by Nick Cave, and all told in beautiful poetry and I thought ‘The Stolen Button can be like that!’ so I wrote it all out as a beautiful poem and then tried to animate it and worked on that for a couple of years but at the end it was like ‘no, no it will never see the light of day’ so back in my draw it went. I actually only just took it back out two years ago when I met my current colleague Leila who is the current illustrator on it. She had an exhibition at uni and I went to this exhibition and she is an Iranian-Australian artist but she was actually a carpet designer back home and I saw the designs and they were just so beautiful and I went ‘this is a picture book and I want her to work on The Stolen Button with me’. So after that I approached her and we’ve been working on The Stolen Button on the side of teaching, and we’re both PhD students, which is why it took two years to complete.

So how have you found the process of writing The Stolen Button different to writing a novel?
It was really different because usually with a novel I’m a planner. Some people pants it and some people plan everything. I plan everything. I think that’s from my animation days where you have to meticulously storyboard everything so I plan maybe 70% of a novel and then 30% is the way of creative licence. With The Stolen Button I didn’t actually know the end form until it arrived and even now I’d say it’s 90% finished. I still have a bit of leeway to just play with that 10%. To me, writing The Stolen Button is more like a sculptor, like some sculptors say that they’ve got the block of stone and you’re carving away what isn’t there to reveal the artwork underneath. So it’s a subtractive process and The Stolen Button is a bit like that for me. I really didn’t know what it was going to be until it got there and I think that is not a very efficient way to work with an illustrator. So it probably wouldn’t work unless the illustrator is a good friend of yours which Leila is. If it was the other way around, if it was me, I’d be like ‘nope, scrap it’. I think I must have changed the story on her when she was about 50% done on the rasters and I said to her ‘oh I just got word from my editor and she wants all these changes, what do you reckon? It’s going to involve scrapping a lot of your drawings’ and she was like ‘oh that’s ok’. So it’s not an ideal process.

Did you originally try to illustrate it yourself?
When I was going to do it as a short film I did play around with it but I knew pretty much early on that my illustration style was not what The Stolen Button was calling for. I was trying more cut out style but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t get the right emotion from it. I gave up on that.

And originally it was a Steampunk style…
Yes Steampunk Victorian. I’m just a sucker for that and that’s what I read. I love fantasy, fairytale. Victorian Steampunk style is… well a lot of animators just like that. I don’t know why.

So how did it then evolve from being Steampunk to this more Eastern style?
Yeah so that’s weird. It was when I met Leila because Leila’s style is middle eastern, well it definitely has some middle eastern flair, and my artwork (I don’t post it on my website anymore but I used to have another art website) everyone always says there’s this oriental feel to it. So, this is the first time I have actually written something that is actually based on my Asian background and it felt so natural. It goes back to that sculptor who just carves away the wood block and finds something and thinks ‘this is right’. Moving it from Steampunk Victorian to the Silk Road just felt so natural to this story that I just wondered why I hadn’t thought of this earlier.

And the small parts I was able to read and see melded so beautifully.
Oh so the bits you read are the original poem bits. So it’s now moved from the poetry form. The first version I gave Leila was all written in poetry and she was like ‘oh this is beautiful’ but English is Leila’s second language so I had to take it with a grain of salt because my editor wasn’t thinking this and my trusty beta readers didn’t think it was so beautiful they thought it was a little clunky. So I have kept the poem because you know it’s hard to kill your darlings but I think the free prose version looks a lot better.

You’ve launched your Kickstarter to help self-publish the book. What’s the benefit of self-publishing?
Well the why is, like all writers, everyone wants a traditional publisher and I’m still looking for a traditional publisher but it just didn’t feel right for The Stolen Button. I still get short stories published through traditional magazines but The Stolen Button because it’s a fairy tale, and it’s a long fairy tale- I think the final text comes up to about 5000 words and a picture book is 500 words so I’m ten times over the limit- so the publishers saw that we did quite well at the Children’s and Young Adult Competition last year with it and a publisher asked to see it but all the judges feedback came back as ‘beautiful illustrations but I’m just confused about the age group- you’ve really got to rework the text. It’s too complicated. Eight years old and under- you’re nowhere near that age’ but I didn’t want to rework that text. To me it was always for older readers. I read picture books all the time and amongst my favourite is Neil Gaiman’s fairy tale works. But of course he’s Neil Gaiman so he can get away with anything he wants but I guess our artistic vision is that I do think there are readers out there who do like picture books and adult readers at that. So I wanted something a bit more adult friendly for this audience. And I think that’s the beauty of self-publishing. You can reach more niche markets like this. I was working The Stolen Button towards always pitching at a traditional publisher but even as I was doing that I was working, chipping away at it, getting it to editors, doing the layouts. And then I got the stage where I knew it was about 80% done and I went ‘nah I’m just going to do it myself now’. The interest I had received from publishers were all pretty much ‘love it but you need to cut it’ so it was just that choice. Cut it and turn it into a real children’s book or do it the way I envisioned it.

I think there’s a growing market for adult picture books. Adults want to look at beautiful pictures and have a nice simple read but still be engaged with the book on a level that they can’t with a kid’s book.
I think so yeah. I mean, I read a lot and my favourite genres are young adult, middle grade and fantasy, so it never really occurred to me that adults don’t read picture books or the young adult genre until I joined a few big book clubs and they said to me ‘oh you recommended this young adult book, how refreshing! Do you have kids?’ And I was like, well I do have a baby now, but I’ve been reading young adult all my life and I’ve never thought that it was just something you read when you have kids.

I’m really glad that you haven’t cut The Stolen Button down and you’ve kept it and gone with the indie-publishing.
Yeah it’s going to be hard. The beta readers I’ve sent it out to, because it’s all about your expectations, some beta readers really love it… they’re quite polarised. Some beta readers get it and love it and then some of the feedback has been like ‘but this is a children’s book- we can’t stock this. You’ve really got to cut it otherwise what section will we put it in’. But that’s ok because I think you make artistic choices and this is a passion project so I would have regretted it had I cut it down and turned it into a real children’s book.

Well I guess the benefit of Kickstarter is that you’re approaching an audience that are already ready for an adult picture book not a children’s one.
And having said that. I did really write very clearly in the picture book, because I’d hate to give anyone the wrong impression, that this book is for 12+. I think you’d enjoy it if you like this style of books but maybe don’t buy it if you’ve got an eight year old and you think they’re going to be able to read it.

Have you pitched it to any book stores yet?
Not yet because I haven’t yet printed the books. But it will be interesting to see what book stores make of it. With indie publishing it really does rely on your promoting your own work and also having a series. You can only get so far having one book. So really if I was very business minded I probably just should have continued doing path-finding adventures but I think part of the flexibility and pleasure of indie publishing is that you kind of do what you want with it. So this book is nothing like my pathfinding adventure so I need to find a new audience for it.

If you could have anything from the Kickstarter project what would you like to do with it?
I would just like to print the book. The costs I’ve set, that’s actually the cost of printing plus the taxes and the Kickstarter bit that they take. As rewards I’m giving out the books in exchange. I would really just like people to read it and enjoy it and for people to realise that picture books are not just for kids and that it’s an exciting new hybrid genre that we could get into. I would love to see more adult picture books.

Looking back is there anything that you’d do differently if you were to write another picture book?
I think you’ve got to let the visuals do more of the communication. I think I am more of a novel writer in that I like to communicate through beautiful words. I think with picture books it’s a 50:50. You have to let the visuals do the talking and let it breathe and I think with the picture books sometimes I’m just a bit too literary. I think if I was to do another picture book I would really like to do one where the pictures and the words say opposing things. So you’d read the words and it will say one thing and then you read the image and then it becomes like an unreliable narrator. And again it would have to be for older audiences but I’d like to play with that idea.

You found your illustrator for The Stolen Button because you work together but did you approach other illustrators before that?
Yes I had another really talented colleague who is a really talented animator. She’s a 3D animator so she and I were working half-heartedly on this not as a picture book but as an animated film but it was always planned that we’ll take the artwork. That’s the beauty of 3D animation, you just move the camera and render out the shot different angles and there’s your picture book. So we were always saying we’ll do it as a film first and then we’ll turn it into a picture book. But she just got so busy and the style was also great, very different from where it is now, but that’s the thing when you have these passion projects. A lot of artists will tell you, you have your day job then your passion night job and her day job just got too busy that it was clear that she couldn’t do this project with me which was very sad but one day we will do a project together. And I had another picture book before this called Donald Doing House of Verbs, and that was with another illustrator. He was a former student of mine, because I teach in the animation department, and that kind of worked for us because I just caught him at the right time for us and he was in between work so he could just throw everything into this. But it is kind of hard to balance picture book projects unless you can actually pay people a sustainable wage to do it in and after hours sneak in a couple of hours here and there.

So with your illustrators, have they gone in with you as partners and they take half the profit at the end or are you paying them as you go?
So there are different deals. I usually just pay an advance straight up and I really like to do that because I’m just so unsure and picture books, well all books, are a risk and if you pay them in advance and you’re very clear with them and tell them that there’s royalties but it is indie publishing so there may not be many royalties, and they’re usually happy with the advance. With The Stolen Button Leila has done above and beyond so this is a team. We’re definitely partners in this and now that I have handled most of the writing I will handle most of the marketing for it but she has done more than other illustrators that have worked with me in the past.

Tell me about more about the marketing process for self-publishing? Was that ever something you realised you’d have to do when you started out?
Yes and I think that’s another reason I chose the self-publishing route even though I am still looking for a traditional publisher for some of my projects. As an animator and even before as a ceramic artist, you self-publish all the time. As a ceramic artist you approach the gallery and you say ‘can I have an exhibition’. As an animator, I was more the producer sort, I would enter the films that my team would finish into film festivals and competitions. So that’s all self-publishing or self-distribution so that’s pretty much the same process. In fact I think publishing and writing is one of the last creative arts to overcome this guardianship mentality where we have traditional publishers and they are the gatekeepers and they will distribute everything for you. Most writers now at least definitely have some sort of hybrid model where even if they have a traditional publisher they’re still expected to do a lot of social media marketing themselves.

Do you have any advice for someone who is self-publishing of what sort of things they should be looking for in their own marketing plans?
Don’t go overboard on the social media. There are so many platforms out there. A website is definitely an essential but it can be a very basic one. You need to commit to that, a website or a blog that I’m going to update once a week or once a fortnight and once you can manage that then maybe add a social media on top of that but don’t go Twitter, Instagram, Facebook all at once if you can’t maintain them. Because at the end of the day you’ll be writing, if you’re lucky, 60% of the time and doing business 40% of the time. But even for emerging [writers] I definitely encourage [it]. If you are starting out and want to get your writing out there, it actually really encourages you if you have an audience. Even if it’s self-publishing on something like WattPad, people read it and can leave comments on it, and it might not be your end goal but it helps you towards a greater goal which could be traditional publishing. Writer networks are also very important when marketing. So I’m part of a critique group, I’m in KidLit which is a very big Facebook forum for children’s and young adult writers. So I’m doing a lot of socialising on that and it’s actually really fun because it’s just chatting. That bit’s not onerous.

How does it feel to have your baby, this project that’s been sitting in your drawer for so long, out in the world?
Cathartic. Really carthartic. I’m just at the stage now where it’s like ‘I’m just gonna publish this now’ because there are polarised opinions. Some people will always love it, some people will never like it because they just can’t get over the adult picture book or if they don’t like fairy tales especially then that makes it a bit hard. It’s kind of like the way I don’t like romance books, you know, I’ll never like it. But I think it’s just more cathartic than anything else. I’ve got a few new projects on the go that I really want to work and to do that I need to put some projects to bed.

That’s exciting!
It is exciting. I’m a big starter of projects and then it gets slower and then the long slog, and then the finishing, I’m always really bad at.
I think that’s something everyone really struggles with Yeah. No writer ever says ‘Yeah! I’m gonna do the second and third edit now!’ That’s just not something people say.

To finish up, some fun questions! What are you reading at the moment?
Oh! Let me get it off the shelf! Ok I’m reading several books at the moment but this is the one I just bought after a recommendation from a member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society. It’s called East of the Sun, West of the Moon and it’s beautiful! It’s translated Norwegian Fairy Tales so it’s an anthology and the illustrator is Kay Nielsen who I hadn’t heard of but it’s definitely from the art deco, art nouveau time in his style. I just bought it because it’s beautiful. Sometimes I just buy books because they’re beautiful. I’m a kindle reader, as a young mum I can’t afford to buy every book I want so I do read digital copies, but when you come across a book like this you just have to BUY IT!

What are some of your all -time favourite reads?
On the literary end I have to say Lolita which is very strange for me because I’ve just been saying how much I love fairy tales and fantasy, but I’m also in this book club which I joined especially to get me reading outside of my comfort zone and that was one book that a member nominated and I just read it and it was just so… Lolita will push your boundaries. It is so visceral and for me, you know when people say ‘oh she’s such a Lolita’ and you have some connotations about what that is, and when you read the book that’s not what it’s about at all! It just changes those connotations and makes you realise that we live in a sexist world. But that has got to be my all-time favourite read even though I don’t know that I could ever reread it because it was just so gut-wrenchingly visceral. I guess if I really wanted to… you’ve got to be in the right mind to read it. So hopefully one day I will… it’s definitely got my favourite opening. If you change the question to what is my favourite opening line then Lolita would definitely be the answer to that too. But aside from that book, all of my favourite reads come from the fairy tale and fantasy genres. I did discover a writer Frances Hardinge lately, and she writes some really lovely speculative fantasy works. And Margaret Atwood is fantastic.

If you could travel anywhere in time and space where would you go?
Well that’s easy. I would have to say I want to go back to the Silk Road because I’m really interested in that historical period. That’s kind of like spanning many hundred years. I wouldn’t want to rough it, I’d want to do one of those glamping trips along the Silk Road just to see what it was like and save myself some research. I’m doing lots of research now because I would really like to continue this as a fantasy series later on. [The Stolen Button] was always more from an Asian perspective but now what I’m doing is getting text books from a Middle Eastern perspective because you know that track stretched that entire area. It’s interesting reading it from the other perspective and just going ‘oh’ it’s not really as I imagined.

Thank you so much for joining us and good luck!

Marianna’s Kickstarter project for The Stolen Button can be found here. You can pledge any amount you like. Pledges of $10 and $15 include a digital copy of the book. Pledges of $30 or more include signed hard copies of the book.

Leila Honari (illustrator) and Marianna Shek (author) of The Stolen Button.

Marianna Shek has a PhD in transmedia narratives and teaches in the animation and games department at Griffith University. She publishes picture books and novels for adults who are really children at heart. You can see more of her work at www.rockonkitty.com.au

Illustrator. Painter. Setar player. Carpet designer and weaver of stories. Leila learnt drawing at a young age by sketching moving farm animals. Twenty years on, Leila’s paintings are represented in international collections and galleries, and she teaches concept art to animation students at Griffith University. She is currently undertaking a PhD to introduce Persian narratives to Western audiences.

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