Writing for Pleasure and, Maybe, Profit, but Seriously, Who Cares?

When we planned the launch of our YA imprint this spring our first thoughts were to kick-off with St. Mallory’s Forever!, our contemporary English boarding school series currently in its final stages. We’ll be presenting a preview of the absolutely to die for St. Mall’s cover (by Xtine at Flip City) later this week.

But we decided to pre-empt ourselves and release our first YA novel before the YA imprint launch.

That’s it above, and if you’re thinking that’s a rather bleak looking cover for a YA novel, you’d be right. Our wonderful designer Athanasios had to go against natural instinct and come up with something distinctly un-YA for this book, at our request.

There’a a lovely post over at Maggie Carlise’s blog  http://maggiepublishing.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/the-indie-in-indie-publishing/ about writing for money, and writing for art. Here’s an excerpt:

 If everybody is doing something a certain way, who’s to say it’ll work for me?  What lifts me out of the herd that is everybody else in that scenario?  Isn’t it just as likely (if not more likely) that I won’t find any sort of success in doing things the established way – and I’ll end up devoting a lot of time and energy to something that doesn’t get me great results, and isn’t even interesting to me???  I just don’t want to do that.

My feeling now is:  either I’ll reach a place of success with my writing/publishing…or I won’t.  But if I do things the way I want, the way that feels right to me, the way that reflects my own personal goals and is fun, then no matter what happens financially I’ll feel as if I accomplished something.  Whereas, if I try to do what you’re “supposed” to do, or what the “experts” say to do, and then I fail…it’ll feel like a real failure, like I wasted a lot of time. What I really want is to feel like I accomplished something…something real.  I don’t want to make my decisions based on ephemeral things like money – I really don’t.

This applies to my actual writing too.  I don’t mind at all writing for pure marketability.  Not everything I do has to be artistically pure.  But I need to be clear about what of my writing falls into what category, or I won’t feel good about what I’m doing.  Going along with this:  if I want to privilege the things that are more meaningful and (potentially) less marketable…I’m not going to feel badly about that.  Even if I never sell anything at all.

Maybe there’s a degree of idealism to what I’m saying…but I’m okay with that.

I actually think there’s practicality to it too, though.  When you’re building a business (or a “brand”), you have to be true to yourself, I think.  How else, really, will you stand apart, amidst all the other people with goals similar to yours?  How will you look like somebody with something worth saying (or reading), and not just a follower?

Although we didn’t have self-publishing in mind at the time, the need to be different was always foremost in our minds when we wrote Sugar & Spice. Love it or hate it, no-one could say it was a derivative copy-cat thriller like everything else out there. The very fact that it went where no thriller had gone before made it the book no trad-publisher would risk and the book the British e-reading public enthused over.

With our debut YA novel we took the same approach. This is YA, but not as you know it. About the only thing YA here is the target audience, but we’re not expecting to compete with Twilight or the The Hunger Games in the sales stakes.

Historical coming-of-age literary fiction for YA is not what most people would expect, and nor is the story-line. No zombies, vampires, paranormal fantasies or boy-meets-girl relationships here. No happy-ever-after ending, either.

As the cover images makes clear, this is a Holocaust novel, but one with a difference.

The elevator pitch:

Three children, the oldest twelve, the youngest six, smuggle themselves into Auschwitz in search of their parents.

Will it sell? Probably not. We’re heartened by the early rankings on KIndle UK, but they’re meaningless indicators of things to come.  Do we care? Quite honestly, no. We could have chosen something far more commercial, far more uplifting, and written it in a very different style if sales were our only measure of achievement.

But sometimes it’s nice to do art for art’s sake.

Sometimes, to be true to itself, a story cannot have a happy-ever-after ending. We’re talking about the Holocaust here. The only happy ending is that it’s no longer happening.

Sometimes the success of a book lies not in its future sales, good or bad, but in the mere fact that is has been written at all.

I can’t speak for Saffi, but if Anca’s Story never sells another copy it will still be my proudest achievement.

Art for art’s sake? Yeah, why not?

Anca’s Story is newly released on Kindle US and Kindle UK and will be joining other platforms in the near future.

*

I don’t normally do excerpts from our novels, but I’m going to make an exception in this case, for those interested.

We join the children as they have crossed the vast Auschwitz complex, hiding beneath barracks by day, dodging Nazi guards by night, searching for their parents, cold and hunger bringing them to the brink of surrender.

61.

We had, all three of us, fallen asleep in our latest shelter when we were startled to hear the whistle of a locomotive in the distance.  In the dark of the night there had been no opportunity to study our latest view, but the locomotive’s piercing scream introduced us to a new day and with it new terrors.

            Somehow Nicolae was energised by the steam engine’s approach, awakening the boy within that enfeebled skeleton of a child that had for the past three days followed me like a mindless automaton from one hiding place to the next. Clinging, never letting go, of Elone’s hand. 

            Yet now he was aware once more, eyes almost bright, eager to see the train approach.  So thrilled was I by this ostensive recovery that I abandoned caution and allowed all three of us to advance as far forward as we dared, to purchase a view.

            It was evident now we had found the far perimeter of the site, all but adjacent to the glowing chimneys we had spied on our arrival, and as we watched two huge gates were opened across a railway siding that entered the camp just a few hundred metres distant.  As the train crossed the perimeter boundary music, Wagner I would later learn, began broadcasting from loudspeakers hung liberally around the concourse where Nazi guards, Kapos and labourers waited to greet the new arrivals.

            The locomotive ground to a halt, dragging the ophidian cattle trucks shuddering in its wake and I saw Nicolae’s expression change as memories of our own tragic journey were rekindled in his mind.  I wanted to draw him back, to shield him, but he held tight to Elone’s hand. I wanted to pull him to me, but instead we watched, silently mesmerized by the scene of ostensive welcome. 

            As the doors were opened and the passengers began to tumble out we were relieved to see them mostly fit and able, if exhausted from their journey, which I surmised must have been of much shorter duration than our own terrifying ride to have allowed them to keep so well. 

            The first wagons carried women and children, the latter men, though none wore the distinguishing brassard pronouncing them to be Jews. 

            As we watched, families join together on the concourse after their journey, children and wives hurrying to their fathers and husbands. I was filled with envy, the fear instilled by Henryk’s and Maxim’s words evaporating as the sound of joyous families reunited raised even above the loud music.

            It was obvious enough to me now that Maxim was mistaken, misled somehow by rumour and innuendo, his mind weakened by poor health, mistaking the fatalities caused by typhus for the work of the Nazis, and I felt my spirits rise. 

            The music stopped and Nazi guards stepped forward, addressing hundreds of people in broken Polish, confirming my suspicion that these were local people, having been brought from within Poland to work.

            Someone asked, “Where is our luggage?” and for a brief few seconds my worst fears danced across my mind as I realised not a single valise accompanied them, bringing back vivid memories of the scene I had witnessed in Warsaw.  A guard assured them their trunks were in the end wagon and would be unloaded shortly, and somehow I allowed myself to believe it, for in doing so I gained hope we would soon find our mother.

            The guards began to move among the new arrivals, asking them their trades and skills, directing those with valued abilities to a separate area, requesting the others remain where they were.  My pulse quickened as I heard a woman respond she was a seamstress and watched with keen interest as she was directed to stand with the select few.  This was Mama’s trade and evidently a valued one.  Most surely had she arrived safely at Auschwitz she would have been selected for her skills and might even now be employed somewhere close by. 

            As I watched the segregation of skilled and unskilled workers continue my hopes rose still further and I found myself clutching the hands of Elone and Nicolae, a faint smile playing on my lips. 

            Quite soon the separation was complete and the skilled workers were led away, assured they would meet their families again later, once they had been fully assessed.

            Then the Nazi guard turned on the several hundred Poles still standing on the concourse and warned them that the camp was rife with typhus, a fatal disease transmitted by lice, and that for this reason all new arrivals had to be disinfected before entry into the camp could be permitted.  Why the selected skilled workers should have been taken through without this precaution was not explained. 

            I watched the crowd directed to some windowless barracks just a short way distant, following a path which ran by our hideaway.

            My mind raced.  This was our chance to join them, to sneak in amongst them as they passed, to go on to the cleansing showers, and to emerge refreshed and lice-free. 

            A smile played on my lips and I reached out to Nicolae’s shoulder. From the showers we would surely be taken directly to the women’s quarters, perhaps to find Mama that very day. It was all I could do not to rush out and announce ourselves.

            As I edged forward, whispering to the children to make ready, I felt Elone touch my arm and looking to her could see alarm in her eyes. 

            As if reading my mind she whispered, “No, Anca, I do not like it.  There is something wrong here.”

            Be it intuition or childlike fear, her prescience concerned me, for I could not banish entirely from my mind the words of Maxim.  If his crazed denunciation of the showers was just too incredible to be believed, still his tortured features haunted my mind, warning me all was not as it seemed.

            I took a deep breath, closing my eyes, searching for the correct response. The right decision. At last I said quietly, “You are right, Elone.  Now is not the time.”

 

62.

We watched in silent fascination as the hundreds of people were led to the windowless barracks, there to be made to strip naked on the concourse, men, women and children alike, old and young together, evidently indifferent to their nudity, perhaps accepting it was the price they paid for their future security.  I thought fleetingly of the scene on the hill I had witnessed from Henryk’s truck. But this was different, I told myself. The showers were right alongside.

            A patina of frost still clung to the hard ground and a cold wind blew through the camp, making the would-be bathers shiver and hold their arms about themselves to keep warm.

            Guided by Kapos, labourers began to gather their clothes, throwing the garments onto carts.  To be disinfected, the curious were told. 

            More men appeared, carrying large sheets which they lay on the ground then, as we watched, these naked people were made to stand astride and their body hair, from their heads, beneath their arms, everywhere, was shaven clean. To prevent the typhus lice breeding I heard the Kapos explain.

            Only when every person, adult and child alike, had been so treated, were they led to the showers.  How many were crammed into each room I could not tell, but somehow every person there was found a place in one or other of the buildings and the doors closed around them. 

            The sheets of hair were carefully gathered and carted away, to what end I could not begin to guess.

            Now the concourse was all but empty, only a few guards remaining, indifferent to the Poles awaiting their fumigation within. 

            Nothing more to see, we eased our way back to our secure hiding place beneath the hut and huddled together for warmth.  I stroked Elone’s hair, thankful we had not presented ourselves as I had considered, a smile playing on my lips to imagine her head shaven.

            But my smile was short lived as the first screams began. 

            Bewildered, we stared about us, perplexed as to where the sound emanated, but in seconds it was obvious.  Maxim’s words came flooding back to me, of the fate met by his wife Catherine, taken to the shower rooms on her first day.

            As the screams became louder I hugged Nicolae to me, futilely covering his ears with my hands. 

Elone was clutching me, her eyes wide with fear, streaming tears, looking to me for salvation, but I could offer none. 

            For perhaps twenty minutes the screams continued unabated, tortured screams of men, women and children, enduring a fate I could not begin to imagine. 

            And then the screams began to subside and minutes later there was only silence, broken by the incessant, uncontrollable sobbing of three terrified children, alone and afraid in the very heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

 

63.

Nicolae was in shock, a low whine barely audible, that I could no nothing to quell, and I feared Elone would soon join him. 

            We clung together, lost innocents in this place of darkness and malificence.  Yet somehow, for all I had seen and heard, my mind could not embrace the truth. 

            For all I had witnessed…  My father’s execution; the brutal murder on the platform in Bucharest; the mowing down of lines of Jews outside Plaszow; the screams that still echoed loudly in my mind…  For all Henryk and Maxim had warned me, still I could not conceive of the enormity… Of the sheer scale of the extermination taking place here.

            It was so unreal that I began telling myself it had not happened.  That hunger and fatigue had produced some horrific collective hallucination between us.  That I would shortly wake up in a warm bed at home and find the whole thing had been no more than an obscene nightmare.

            I wanted to comfort the children, to deny what they had heard, to give them hope, but my brain had all but ceased to control my body.  I found myself being drawn back to the edge of the hut despite myself, not wanting, but needing, to see.  To assure myself it had not taken place, that I was somehow mistaken.

            For a moment, perhaps minutes, perhaps an hour, it was as if nothing had happened.  The concourse was deserted, the shower rooms silent.  A cool autumn sun was breaking through the smog of ash that drifted incessantly from the furnace chimneys now just a short way distant.  From afar I could hear the sounds of industry as the factories churned out their deadly munitions.

            Closer still I heard voices, human voices, from within the shower barracks and I was craning myself forward, desperate to believe, willing those hundreds of naked Poles to walk back out into the cold day, cleansed and disinfected, ready to don clean clothes and take up their duties.

            As the doors opened from within it was all I could do to contain my joy and rush out to greet them.  To embrace them.  To celebrate their very existence. 

            But the dream turned to macabre reality as the first labourer appeared in his striped prison uniform, dragging a cart behind him.  If I knew what was on the cart even before it emerged into view, still I looked, unable to tear my eyes from this grisly scene. 

            I watched, unwillingly, unable to turn away, as cartloads of tangled bodies were drawn across the concourse before me, quietly borne to the furnaces in the distance. 

            And as I watched the true nature of these ovens became apparent.  These four huge chimneys rising above the birch trees represented no industrial process but one.  They were crematoria, designed and built for the sole purpose to dispose of the bodies of the innocent victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

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    • Miriam Joy
    • March 13th, 2012

    Looks like quite the thing to curl up and read, then…
    (That was sarcasm, from the girl who started a novel very like this, once.)

    When I have money, I will certainly be buying this. Blown my budget for this month on new music for my writing playlists (totally worth it), but I’ll have some more soon enough 🙂

    • Thanks. Mim.

      Just to add, 2015 will be the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and of the end if World War II.

      One more generation and there will be no living witnesses to the events that took place.

  1. I remember this – I think I tried and failed to do some evaluating of it a very long time ago. So strange to see it now in print. I can’t bring myself to read Holocaust stories – I’ve studied it and visited the exhibit in the National War Museum, but I just can’t do it. I suspect there’s just something in me that dies at the thought of it. You’re right – the only happy ending is that it’s over, and I hope to God will never, ever, happen again.

    Please excuse me while I go and curl up in the foetal position for a while…

    • For Charley: *Huggles* We all have that one sport we can’t face.

    • Some times fiction can bring home history better than museums and exhibits. Whether we’ve achieved that is for others to decide, but at least we tried.

      Hopefully you’ll make an exception at some stage and try read this. I’d value your opinion, good or bad.

    • Maggie Carlise
    • March 13th, 2012

    I pulled up this post to thank you for the mention you gave me (thanks, by the way!!), and then I got caught up in your excerpt. So powerful. And the cover is incredible.

    This kind of story is so important. It’s of course important to know what happened, and to remember…but this compels you to FEEL it. I really liked what you said in the post: that sometimes the success of a book is in that it was written at all.

    I’m very intrigued to read the rest of this!

  2. The Holocaust is a stroy that needs to be told if only to remind us of how we should never, ever, let it happen again.

    Before I ever read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or saw the movie, my fourth grade teacher read “The Devil’s Arithmatic” to us. I will never forget that story. And anytime the holocaust is mentioned I think of it.

    Anca’s story seems like it’s the next ‘level’ up from “The Devil’s Arithmatic”, dealing even more with the horrors of a concentration camp than I remember being in the book read for us. Your exceprt has brought me near tears, and it’s first on my list of books to be added to my Kindle before Spring break.

    Saddly the US Amazon link is not loading at the moment, or it would have arleady been waiting for my Kindle to be turned on at home.

    :} Cathryn

    • Thanks for the warning about the am.com link, Cathryn.

      For some reason I’ve not read The Devil’s Arithmetic, although familiar with the title. If available as an ebook I will have to add that to my own TBR list.

      Anca’s Story is definitely a book to be read with a box of tissues nearby.

  3. You and Saffi keep doing brave, innovative things. So far they seem to to be paying off for you!

  4. As usual, Saffi arrives late to the party, but i DO have an excuse this time, one-handed typing with my arm in a sling, so no detention from you please, Mr. Williams!

    Thanks to everyone for the comments, and Anne, I can’t speak for Mark here, but I didn’t feel very brave with Anca’s Story, we aren’t the brave ones, BUT, as Mark says, this one was more of a ‘need to see it out there’ than a potential best-seller. And who knew we would be saying that a year ago!

    Anca’s Story is only for the brave reader and although pleased to finally know it’s being read, how sad that it isn’t total fiction.

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