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Women’s History Month – Sue Bursztynski

Sue Bursztynski is a Melbourne author, mostly of speculative fiction. We swap stories about our not-quite-the-same-but-closeish backgrounds and meet up whenever I can get to Melbourne.

In 2008, I was on long service leave, enjoying a term of travelling and relaxing, when I had an email from Paul Collins, the publisher at Ford Street Publishing, a wonderful small press that does only children’s and YA books. Paul’s partner, Meredith Costain, had written a book called Fifty Famous Australians and Paul wanted a companion volume about fifty infamous Australians. Was I interested?

Is the Pope a Catholic? I’ve always loved writing non fiction for kids, loved taking on the challenge of a subject with which I was only vaguely familiar and turning my knowledge into something that would mean I’d appreciate any news I read about the subject afterwards.

This one was a particularly good challenge. I would have to choose local crooks and write about them in such a way that gore-loving kids would have a thrill without having nightmares. There would have to be a balance between serial killers and over the top humour. Among the many in the latter category were the librarian who hijacked a helicopter to help her boyfriend escape from jail and then was caught out because of an overdue library video about a daring helicopter prison escape, and the idiotic robbers who tried to rob a restaurant in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne one April Fool’s Day and escaped with a bag of stale bread rolls and a wounded behind when the man accidentally shot his female partner. My Dad told me later that he’d had a chat with the restaurant manager, who said that now they were keeping bags of rolls and such at the desk in case they had any more robbers.

And the nice thing was that I had a whole term to get it going – of course, the editing would take longer, but I could handle that. The research was a fascinating experience. I worked from books, Internet and newspapers, including on-line ones and microfilms at the State Library. I found amazing web sites with a wealth of information. While I was sending in my chapters, my queasy editor begged, “Can we please have something other than serial killers?” That was when I asked a friend for a suggestion and he offered the April Fool’s Day robbery.

I also asked the wonderful Kerry Greenwood, who said that there was a story that was every crime writer’s nightmare, which is when your novel gives a real murderer ideas. She suggested I check out the tale of Arthur Upfield, author of the Boney series, whose day job at one time was working on the Rabbit Proof Fence. While there, he asked his friends one night, around the fire, for an idea for a near foolproof murder, which would be very hard for his hero to solve. One of them suggested an idea that involved burning the body and using acid to finish the job. Unfortunately, another man listening used the idea to commit his own murder and was only caught because of a recognisable wedding ring that hadn’t been disposed of. I don’t know if Upfield had nightmares over the incident, but the papers published extracts from his new novel and I’m betting the sales went through the roof.

I had an unusual research experience while travelling. I met a lovely “grey nomad” couple somewhere in the Northern Territory and, over a pub dinner, told them about my book. At the time, I was researching Caroline Grills, the woman who killed family members with poisoned afternoon tea treats in the 1950s, first for the inheritance, then because it was fun. She was eventually caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. The grey nomad wife said,”Oh, I knew her! I was nursing in Long Bay Jail when she was there. Such a sweet woman!”

Which goes to show how she managed to impress even the prison staff, who knew what she’d done. But I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to chat with someone who had actually met one of my subjects!

Later that month, when I’d returned from my travels, Paul asked me to write a chapter about Tony Mokbel. Wondering what I could say to kids about him that they would find entertaining, I took myself off to the local Macca’s for a coffee and a newspaper. There was a two page spread about Mokbel’s flight from Australia – a highly entertaining, amusing article. I had my Mokbel story.

As well as the Fifty Infamous Australians there were a lot more in the between-chapter “Did You Know?” paragraphs. I must have researched at least a hundred naughty folk! It was huge fun.

Then the book was published. It had the best cover I’ve ever had(don’t get me started on the cover of my book on women scientists, with its woman in a lab coat holding a test tube!). The cover designer was the amazing Grant Gittus, who also did the poster for Aussiecon, the Melbourne-based World SF Convention. There were dozens of beautiful internals by Louise Prout. The subject matter was just right for kids. Many schools bought it, including mine, and kids borrowed it non stop; the five copies on our shelves were out constantly; even now, most of them are out and all of them are worn from reading. Children from the local primary school have approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Schools are why I’m getting good ELR income from it.

Despite all that, it didn’t sell in the shops. To start with, book shops never know what to do with children’s non fiction anyway. It’s quite possible to have your book gathering dust among hundreds of other non fiction books because nobody can find it. And when, out of curiosity, I asked a staff member at Borders where was the crime section, he exclaimed, “In the children’s section?” In fact, they had put it into the adult true crime section, as had Dymock’s. Well, it was easier to find there, but which adult is going to buy a children’s book in the true crime section when they can have Robin Bowles or Andrew Rule? Mind you, I went to a signing once, with the rest of the Ford Street authors, and the manager said they’d sold twenty copies in about two days, so he was short of stuff for me to sign. Like another sensible bookshop manager, he had placed them facing out.

As it turned out, the distributor had the book on the wrong page of their web site,non fiction instead of children’s. By the time Paul noticed, it was too late to do much good. Shops don’t keep unsold stock for long, however good it is, and they aren’t interested in getting in older books, unless requested.

Australian Standing Orders, which sells books to schools – a bit like Ashton Scholastic, except they sell to the libraries instead of the kids – didn’t want it. They rarely sold non fiction and the few they did sell were, at the time, usually from another publisher, not Ford Street. Ford Street has never managed to get any interest from Scholastic either.

Then Macmillan moved to Sydney and refused to take any of the Ford Street titles. Paul had no room for more than a few copies of anything in his new premises, so offered us all copies of our books at a low price. I bought five hundred rather than see them pulped, so I’m not unlike those self published authors back in the old days, before ebooks, who had stacks of books on their living room floors. Paul kept a hundred and promised to buy some back if he sold those. And you can get it in ebook from the Baen web site and from iBooks. Maybe even on Amazon.

But it almost might as well be out of print. So that’s a book that kids loved and which had wonderful reviews, but has never earned back its advance.

If you’re interested in reviewing it, email me via my blog. It might be a bit expensive sending copies outside of Australia, but if you’re keen, contact me anyway. I’ll see what I can manage. I’d like to get a few copies off my library office floor!

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