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Thursday, January 28, 2010

The short and the mainly sweet

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Weekly inspirational blog post: Not written.

Reason:  Insanely busy. See below.

So this photo: Irrelevant, but ain’t it cool!

Submissions: Cascading. More so than ever before. Will we always be open to general submissions? Yes in UK. Don’t know about USA - we’re hanging in there for now. Narrowly.

What would make that easier:  a) certain individuals not inundating me and b) knocking off the 15% (wild guess) who send completely irrelevant and wrongly targeted material that wastes ridiculous amounts of my time.

Courtesy levels: We try, we try.

Deals: Yes!  UK deal for Harriet Goodwin’s HEX FACTOR.  US deal about to be announced for . . . .  No, you’ll have to be patient.

Foreign: Yes! Great German auction for Brenna Yovanoff’s THE REPLACEMENT. Sold to Loewe Verlag.

Manuscripts: Getting through them. Kindle red hot.

Tax year: Ending soon. Just visited Joe, my number 1 dude (aka US accountant).

Number 2 dude: Eduardo, computer magician. Just set up whizzy Asus EEE netbook (14-hour battery life). Now I can work ANYWHERE (like I didn’t before???).

Number 1, 2 and 3 dudesses (female dudes): Mel, Nikki, Grace – who do money. And stuff.

Coffee:  A lot

New York: Tomorrow. SCBWI Winter Conference VIP cocktail party.

Conference: February. Asilomar. California.

Critiques: Look, I’ll get them done, OK.

Italy: March. Bologna book fair. Scheduling. Deciding who to invite to dinner.

Criteria: Cool industry people who we like.

Music currently in Mini CD player: Bach. Brandenburg Concertos.

Why: Lofty. Also soothing.

Sleep: Not enough.

Good news: Everywhere. Greenhouse is blooming!

Weather: Sunny.

Message to writers: Voice. Voice, voice, voice. And plot.

Now: Lunch.

What: Tortilla. Cheese.

Afternoon: Logging off to read and edit.

Reason: Care, precision and thoughtfulness are everything.

Finally: See you soon!

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Meeting Miep Gies

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Tens of thousands were wiped out in Haiti last week, and because of that you may have missed one other quiet, dignified passing.

Miep Gies, aged 100, died on Monday in a nursing home in the Netherlands.

I have kept half an eye open for that announcement for some years – ever since I met Miep, already an elderly woman, in 1995. [I have decided to call her by her first name here because Ms Gies feels wrong, and because I think she would have comfortable with that informal friendliness.] She was part of an extraordinary period of my life, both personal and professional, and I will never forget it.

You may well know this already, but . . .

Miep Gies, along with her husband Jan, worked for Anne Frank’s father Otto, after the Frank family moved from Germany to the Netherlands in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews. From its new base on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht, Otto’s company – Opekta – sold pectin for jam-making, later diversifying into herbs and spices.

With the occupation of the Netherlands, life became increasingly difficult for Jews in general, and the Franks in particular. Desperate to save his company from confiscation, Otto made Opekta over to Jan Gies. But in 1942, the thing the Franks most feared finally happened – Margot, Anne’s sixteen-year-old sister - was summoned for deportation.

Now the Franks went into hiding in the famous Secret Annex behind the bookcase. And as Anne diligently, painstakingly poured out her heart to ‘Dear Kitty’, and as her famous Diary took shape over the next two years of captivity, Miep and a small group of fellow employees risked their lives to help the Franks and their friends, Fritz Pfeffer and the van Pelses.

Miep risked exposure and death on a daily basis as she struggled to bring the food, reading materials, clothes, and news that the Franks needed to survive. But she did even more than that. When the Franks were betrayed and the Annex raided on August 4, 1944, it was Miep who picked up the pages of Anne’s Diary which had been thrown on the floor and abandoned after their arrest. It was many years before she read that Diary, and she handed the pages intact to Otto Frank on his return after the war to the news of his murdered family – his girls taken by typhus in Bergen Belsen days before its liberation; his wife starved in Auschwitz.

So what is my connection to Miep Gies and the dreadful, inspiring story of Anne Frank?

In 1994, newly arrived as Editor at Macmillan Children’s Books in London, I was put in charge of publishing a new edition of the Diary which had languished untouched on the list until our red-hot, crazy-obsessed new team arrived to remake MCB. Full of fervour for the book and its power, we set to work, rejacketing it with a full-cover, haunting image of Anne Frank, and adding a searing new prologue by Rabbi Hugo Gryn, himself an Auschwitz survivor and beloved broadcaster on inter-faith issues in Britain.  Forget Hollywood celebs – I was awestruck by this man who had seen so much, suffered so much.

Lunch with Rabbi Gryn was a publishing experience of a whole new kind. What we were doing wasn’t just about sales or marketing – it was about what really mattered: justice, the truth of history, both remembering genocide and calling attention to it today. The Diary of Anne Frank had, and still has, the power to open eyes to all that.

At events in London to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II (co-sponsored by Macmillan), I met Elfriede ‘Fritzi’ Frank, Otto’s second wife, who with her daughter Eva had lived opposite the Franks in Merwedeplain, Amsterdam, before they too had gone into hiding and followed the same route to Auschwitz. In the devastation of the camps after the Nazis fled, Otto stumbled upon Elfriede again – and Eva subsequently became, in effect, stepsister to Anne.  Eva lived not far from me in north London; we met a number of times and became quite friendly.

In the flickering candlelight of the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, I shed a few secret tears as we remembered the life and death of Anne Frank. At Rabbi Gryn’s invitation I was possibly the only Gentile at an event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – mesmerized as I heard a jack-booted Russian general tell how he had been first into the camp, and what he saw. Shutting my eyes in the darkness as hundreds of people around me chanted the Kaddish, the haunting prayer for the dead.

Then a special reception in honour of Anne Frank, where I met Buddy Elias, Anne’s much-loved cousin and only surviving relative (still living, I think, in Switzerland).

And then meeting Miep Gies. Shaking the hand of this quiet, elderly lady without whom there would have been no knowledge of Anne Frank, no Diary. A woman of such courage and forebearance. It was always said that she knew the identity of the Franks’ betrayer, but she never disclosed it or capitalized on it. Instead, every August 4 – the anniversary of the Franks’ arrest – she would stay alone in her house with the curtains drawn, remembering. And, she said, never a day went by in her subsequent life when she did not think about what had happened.

In the years that followed, I kept my connection to Anne Frank’s enduring legacy. In Amsterdam I went on a solo ‘pilgrimage’ to find Anne’s school and the family’s apartment on the Merwedeplein (now, I believe, restored and protected in perpetuity so that persecuted writers can work there). Visiting the House, I picked up The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank – published by Random House – and took it back to Macmillan, where we published it for a UK/Commonwealth audience. It was never going to sell a million, but it was important that it should be read, and kudos to Macmillan for supporting that. Several years later we published a photographic memorial to Anne’s life and times, full of newly released family pictures.

I got to know Gillian Walnes, the inestimable director of the Anne Frank Trust in London (http://www.annefrank.org.uk/), which does so much to expose and prevent persecution in all its forms today, in part through its travelling Anne Frank in the World exhibit. I met young people whose families had been slaughtered in Bosnia; elderly people who had been on the Kindertransports out of Germany during the war (often never seeing their parents again). And I met prisoners whose lives had been changed by the example of Anne Frank as they helped to host the exhibit in their jails.

Very excitingly, one of my sons – a chorister at Westminster Abbey at that time – sung at the Anne Frank Awards for Moral Courage which are given annually to young people who are shining examples of strength and bravery in adversity. 

So why is all this so important to us as writers and aspiring writers?

Well, it all comes down to that famous Diary – and to the spirit of Anne Frank, which blazed so strongly in her prose despite the privations and anxiety of her years of confinement. She was, quite simply, a great writer.  Not just a great TEENAGE writer, but a great writer. Period.  She was ruthlessly honest with herself; in her writing she spoke as she saw. She expressed herself strongly and effectively, and her zest for life shines through. Hearing a radio broadcast about the need for war diaries to be published, she set about readying her work for publication – her instincts married the commerciality of someone who saw her future as an author, with a deep belief in the integrity of what she was doing as a writer.

On my bookshelf is a copy of the Diary of Anne Frank, crudely wrapped for protection.  In the prelims are the signatures of Elfriede Frank, Eva Schloss, Buddy Elias, and Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I think I was too awestruck to ask Miep Gies for her autograph.

I knew I was touching history back in 1995 and that before long many of those names would have passed away. Indeed, Rabbi Gryn died in 1996, and Elfriede Frank in 1998.

I still receive a Christmas card every year from the management and staff of the Anne Frank House, and as I write, Otto Frank smiles over his shoulder at me from this year’s card. One day I will get in touch with the House again and see what they are doing over here in the USA.

How can we forget Anne Frank and the way her Diary affected us, touching our view of the past and our own present, and making us ask – what might we be capable of? Because of Anne’s shining spirit, acute observations and extraordinary writing skills, great humanitarian work is being done around the world, decades later, in her name.

As Anne said: ‘I want to go on living after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’

Anne Frank, you were the best. And thank you, Miep Gies, for everything. We owe you.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

2010 - the year of the bulldog

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Deep beneath Westminster, in the heart of London, is a complex of rooms that were a hidden secret for many years. They are the Cabinet War Rooms from where Winston Churchill and his team masterminded Britain’s response to the Nazi threat of World War II. From here, in austere, uncomfortable rooms full of pin-holed maps, Bakelite telephones and drab utility furniture, Britain was saved from the brink of invasion and D-Day was plotted.

Seventy years on, in a world of GPS, 24-hour news coverage, i-phone apps and Twitter, it is awe-inspiring that a vast and desperate war was fought from these drab rooms by ingenuity, intelligence and a fair bit of bluffing . One of the very first transatlantic telephones – on which Churchill spoke to Roosevelt – is here, in a cupboard disguised as a toilet. The losses on a pivotal day of the Battle of Britain are scratched on a simple chalkboard, and a sign announces that a klaxon will sound in the event of a direct bomb hit (workers down here were told the place was bomb-proof, but it absolutely wasn’t). By our standards it all looks so primitive, but what emanated from these rooms – not least some of Churchill’s most iconic speeches – was staggeringly powerful.

The spirit of one man permeates these corridors – Winston Churchill. Larger than life, working 18-hour days, puffing on his ever-present cigar, Churchill was a fascinating giant of a character. Exacting (often frighteningly so), constantly bursting with ideas, he demanded everything of himself and expected the same commitment of others. Walk through into the exhibition of his life, and your picture of this man fills out. Consistently voted the Greatest Brit Who Ever Lived (though he was half American, on his mom’s side), he was complex and flawed, brilliant and prescient, passionate and difficult – a true maverick before that word became a political gimmick. In our time of managed soundbites, ruthless control and spin, Churchill would probably never have got off political first base, but thank heaven that destiny threw him up when it did.

So what do I admire about Winston Churchill, and what made him such a brilliant war-time prime minister?

Everything he did was based on experience: As a young man, despite the aristocratic blood running through his veins, he fought in the Boer War, escaping from a train and, with a price on his head, got himself back to Britain. As an officer in the trenches in World War I he led from the front – his men admired him because he only asked them to do what he was prepared to do himself, and he was cool under fire. He didn’t just talk the talk; he’d waded through the mud with bullets blasting at him.

He was accountable and he took calculated risks: The world has always been full of pundits and pontificators, but it’s harder to find leaders who will take responsibility for huge decisions.  At a desperate moment in history, Churchill stepped up to the plate. He wasn’t always right, but he got it right more often than not.

He worked like a man possessed, but he did it HIS way: He worked in his pyjamas in bed most mornings, he took a nap every afternoon for an hour, and he was still going at 1am. He pushed himself endlessly because he knew the vital importance of what he was doing.
He had ideas – and he thought outside the envelope:  Not all his ideas came off, sometimes people laughed at him, but frequently he was right and his ideas proved pivotal. He thought in fresh ways, he never stopped imagining and looking for new ways to find an advantage over the enemy. He had great mental agility – born in an age of cavalry charges, in his later life he foresaw the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

He was a wonderful communicator: As a speaker he was sonorous, inspiring and memorable. But he was also fabulously witty. Read some of his many sayings and you’ll see what I mean – he was verbally dextrous, sharp as a knife, and very, very funny. No situation was so bad that he couldn’t illuminate it with his often acid wit. He ploughed his own linguistic furrow – no modern, sloppy vernacular for him!

He bounced back from failure: Churchill knew the ‘black dog’ of depression. Blamed for the mess of Gallipoli, he said, ‘I’m finished’. But he wasn’t – he came back to lead his country. Losing the election before VJ Day, he was devastated, but went on to have huge input into the debates of his time. He wouldn’t be put down and he wouldn’t be silenced.

He was tough, even ruthless, but always humane. He drove his team mad – but they wouldn’t have worked for anyone else. He growled and grumped; he pretended to be deaf when he didn’t want to hear something; he lit up a room.

He never stopped being himself: He always ate three substantial meals per day. He loved port and Stilton. He started a trend for bizarre fuzzy ‘romper suits’. He could be fantastically rude, but he was also endearing.

So, why I on earth am going on about Winston Churchill when I’m a children’s literary agent sitting at a desk in the USA?  Have I gone completely mad? Well, maybe – but you see, I believe the whole of life is joined up and that the things we discover about ourselves and the world permeate seamlessly into all areas of our life. And that includes writing, and the often perplexing business of books.

As we head into the (metaphorical) U-boat convoys of 2010, I salute the spirit of Winston Churchill, and I dare to put my little feet in his massive footprints. I also commend him to you. We may not be fighting a world war, but we fight other wars – often within ourselves. Wars of despondency, anxiety, defeat. Narrowness of vision. Inflexibility. Self-pity. Conformity – forgetting who we really are. Willingness to accept the second rate.  Whether we are writers, agents or publishers, Churchill challenges us to get up, get going, tough it out – and live our lives in the brightest and boldest of colours. We may not always win, we may discover harsh truths about ourselves, but we can bounce back, fighting.

Finally, there are just two more – very important - things I want to tell you about Churchill.

Married to Clementine Hozier, his life-long love, he said, ‘I lived happily ever after’. His Clemmie told him the truth, and they gave each other mutual support all their lives. Who is the colleague/animal/friend/partner/spouse who is the Clemmie in YOUR life? Who can celebrate with you, hold you up when it all goes wrong, and remind you that there are even bigger things in the world than your writing ambitions?

Churchill was a wonderful painter in oils.  He could have been a professional. When it all got too much, he took himself off with his old hat, palette and easel. Before his death he said he’d like to spend the first million years of the afterlife painting.  What fills YOU with joy and helps you keep life in perspective? In a business with few predictable outcomes, we all need that antidote.

In this first week of 2010, a new picture hangs on the Greenhouse wall – of those 1940s airmen staring at the sky. ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’

So true. Rest in peace, Sir Winston. And to all of us, a courageous, productive and Stilton-filled new year.

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