“I’m having lunch today with my editor,’ said Al with a bit of a smirk.
It was way back in the dark, pre-digital age when editors travelled to talk with their authors and proofs came in big brown envelopes. Barbara Ker Wilson, one of Australia’s most highly respected authorities on children’s literature, was commissioning editor for the University of Queensland Press, and she liked Alan’s first chapter for ‘The Boys from Bondi’. She liked it enough for the publisher to offer an advance payment … and lunch.
It was the beginning of Alan’s most productive period and a turning point. He’d always written. In the Isabella Lazarus Children’s Home he contributed a little quiz to the magazine produced by the ‘reffo’ kids. Then, in his teens he was himself the editor of a newsletter for a Jewish youth movement; his ‘purple prose’ makes for hilarious reading now.
From time to time, ‘The Australian Jewish News’, ‘The Melbourne Chronicle’ and ‘Generation Magazine’ published his articles and short stories. The highlight was ‘Meanjin’ which published his short story ‘The Value of a Nail’.
‘The Balconies’ was a prize-winning entry in a short story competition run by the Sydney ‘Sun’; Thomas Keneally, one of the judges, said it was ‘poignant’. Judah Waten, political activist, author and enfant terrible as far as the Jewish establishment was concerned, was the kindest of mentors and encouraged Alan to self-publish his first book, ‘Troubles’ in 1983. ‘The Balconies’ became ‘The Trouble with Felix’, the first story in the collection.
And then UQP invited submissions for their Young Adult list. ‘The Balconies’ aka ‘The Trouble with Felix’ became the first chapter of ‘The Boys from Bondi’. It all fell into place, just when Alan was ready to write honestly about his life.
“How was the lunch?’
‘Lovely woman, absolutely charming. Really liked the first chapter. Great meal. Gave me a cheque and I walked her down to Spencer Street to get the airport bus. She’s going back to Brisbane today.’
So I banked the cheque on my way to work at the Tech College and Al went back to running his little one-man ad agency in the studio he’d built in our back yard, and we thought no more about ‘The Boys from Bondi’.
Until one day, when ‘edit’ became a terrifying word, full of implications we’d never imagined.
‘Barbara rang and asked how I was getting on with the book.’
‘Well, I haven’t noticed you writing much lately.’
‘Yeah, well that’s it. She pointed out that UQP have a publishing schedule and so on, and the long and short of it is that they want the finished text within the next few months. They’re talking about artwork for the cover and typefaces and paper stock and I haven’t written anything at all except that first chapter. They want the manuscript on floppy discs and I have no idea what they mean. What are we going to do? Should I just return their cheque?’
Anyone remember the Amstrad computer c1986? We bought one in a hurry.
‘I’ll set it up in the morning before I go to work, you type and save every paragraph, and then when I come home we’ll print it off. We’ll get a cheap Epson printer. After you’ve corrected anything I’ll make floppy discs. Forget about the typewriter. Trust me.’
He tried, but it was very hard.
‘It all fell off! One minute I could see the words and then they disappeared! My fingers don’t fit this little keyboard and I miss the carriage return bar. I just can’t do it; I’ll send them back the money and cancel the contract.’
But ‘The Boys from Bondi’ did appear on the UQP list and the reviews were good. Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, who did so much to promote young adult reading, wrote in ‘The Age’:
Collins brings to life a period when our changing society, while sheltering the dispossessed, allowed much ignorance and prejudice to flourish. We are moved by Jacob’s odyssey and simultaneously entertained by a rich cast of minor characters …
And Faye Zwicky, in her launch speech, said:
Reading the psalms, one finds everywhere a reverence for the whole created world and for all creatures in it. This book is a kind of Australian psalm to life, sympathetic to all created things, including dogs. There’s humor, sensitivity, and wisdom here.
Over time, we became more accustomed to the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful editor, but when Dutton Publishers in New York decided that ‘The Boys from Bondi’ would become ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ for American readers (who could not be expected to know where Bondi is) we hit road blocks.
‘I won’t give up my Australian slang, it’s part of the period,’ protested Al when we opened the large brown Fed Ex envelope containing the proofs. Page after page covered in yellow stickers: elevators not lifts, sidewalks not pavements, pants not strides. Of course, he did in the end comply; Dutton would brook no argument. But humour always won out with Alan and it was a delight to shock the puritan American publishers with the following:
As the tram trundled up William Street she told me she was a pantry maid at Sydney Hospital. She hoped to become a nurse as soon as she was old enough. Her family came from Bathurst.
“We live only a few doors from Ben Chifley,” she said proudly. “My dad was a shunter in the railway yards before he got hurt. She rummaged in her handbag. I told her I was paying the fares. “Don’t get upset Jack,” she said. “I’m only looking for a fag.”
It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and ‘fag’ activated the alarm bells; it became ‘purse’ and ‘cigarette’ – and so lost all flavour.
That was then, this is now. My second book, ‘Rosa’ is ‘being edited’.
‘We’d prefer you not to put out any extracts until we’ve ‘tailored’ the text, ‘ said Hybrid Publishers. It’s understandable, given my grasp of grammar.
It was different when Hybrid published Alan’s books, ‘Alva’s Boy’ and ‘A Thousand Nights at the Ritz’. By that time he had died, and as his literary executor, I was very involved with Alex Skovron and Anna Blay in the editing process. But these were not my books; I was a keeper, a guardian, a protector of Alan’s words. My ‘Rosa’ is out there all by herself and it’s strange to contemplate her future.
My first book, ‘Solly’s Girl’ was a very different production. It was self-published through the ‘Write Your Story’ program at what is now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia. The editing was meticulous and kind. However, commercial considerations were not really an issue for anyone involved: as it has always been, since I set it up back in the 1990s, the program is designed for the Jewish community ‘to tell its own story’. And so I did; ‘Solly’s Girl’ complements ‘Alva’s Boy’ and, although the writing style is completely different, our family stories are now done. Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers was sufficiently impressed to include it in her non-fiction Best Books of 2015.
So. Perhaps Hybrid won’t mind too much if I publish a photograph? No text yet – just a picture? I hope it will be suitable for the cover. It’s a very flattering image and I’m fond of it. Here am I, at the mid-point of my life, the period covered by many of the stories in ‘Rosa’. In fact one of the chapters is about the dress, the Alice headband, the chai around, my neck, the fringed shawl …