SCBWI Canada East Blog

October 29, 2014

4:28 PM 0

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Christie Harkin.  She and Solange Messier have opened their own publishing house, Clockwise Press.  I find her answers enlightening and encouraging.  Please enjoy.

Congratulations on the creation of your new publishing house, Clockwise Press, with Ms. Solange Messier.  What motivated you to create Clockwise Press?

I went away for a weekend at a cottage with my daughter this summer and had some time to stare at a lake and really reflect on what I wanted to do with my career. I started fantasizing about starting my own press, imagining what I’d like to do, and who I’d like to work with. I thought, “It would be great to get Solange to help with non-fiction.” When I got back, I received a text from Solange – out of the blue – saying, “I want to quit my job and try branching out on my own. Am I crazy?” It’s like the universe was telling us to take the leap at the exact same time.

How did you get your first break in publishing and what important lessons have you learned along the way?
After many years as a teacher and tutor, I went back to university for a year in my late 30s and then enrolled in the publishing program at Ryerson. At the end of my first semester, I landed an internship at Fitzhenry & Whiteside which turned into a full-time job. I’d say my first big break came when I was handed a manuscript for a non-fiction book about hockey: “Hockey Talk: The Language of Hockey from A-Z”. I’m a long-time hockey mom so I think the other “non-hockey” folks were relieved that there was someone in the office who could do something with the manuscript. It was a chance for me to prove that I could handle the job of looking after a project, from the substantive stage to the final proof, even finding and directing the illustrator. It was quite an experience.
As for what I’ve learned along the way…whew. That first year was an incredibly steep learning curve, that’s for sure. I learned about acquisitions and editing. Then I learned about cover and interior design, and about art direction. My first picture book, Kiss Me, I’m a Prince! by Heather McLeod and Brooke Kerrigan was a real trial by fire – I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest – but it turned out beautifully and was a Blue Spruce Honour Book.
Over the years, I was given the chance to work with contracts, grant proposals, foreign rights sales, translations, and other aspects of the publishing industry outside of the nuts-and-bolts of editorial. I know that I was very lucky to have had that sort of opportunity to grow as an editor and publisher in such a short period of time.
After 5.5 years at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, I moved to James Lorimer & Co. where I learned a lot about editing hi-lo novels and about marketing, especially as it pertains to schools and libraries. It was a completely different skill set.

Who have been some of your most significant mentors?
Gail Winskill, Ann Featherstone, and Cathy Sandusky were my mentors at Fitzhenry & Whiteside. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without them. This will be a total surprise if she ever reads this piece, but Shelley Tanaka (the editor at Groundwood) has been a huge influence as well, even though we’ve barely met. When I went back to university, I took Deirdre Baker’s seminar course in Canadian Children’s Literature and we studied a whole whack of Groundwood books. Shelley even came in to speak to our class. I wanted to be HER and I wanted to edit and produce books that were as good as the ones we studied in class. That’s a bar I’m always reaching for.

Which books from your childhood do you still have on your shelf today?
OK – that question made me laugh. Were it not for a flood that destroyed a huge number of my books when I was 16, I’d be able to say ALL of them. As it is, I still have a couple hundred of my childhood books. Some are a little water-damaged but I’ve got LOTS. I didn’t own many picture books as a child but I do still have my copy of Disney’s Cinderella. And I have the Frog & Toad books and a biography of Helen Keller with the braille on the back cover that I pretty much learned to read from. I also have my mom’s childhood copies of A House at Pooh Corner, Bambi, and Peter Pan.

Name some of your favourite children’s book characters and explain what makes them so memorable.
Growing up, I loved Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, and Laura Ingalls. Those were the characters I wanted most as best friends. I identified with Anne and Emily’s imagination and ambitions. And I admired the resourcefulness and practicality of Laura’s pioneer life in the Little House books. When I was older, I really liked Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time. That was one of the first female characters that I read who had to overcome her insecurities and embrace her role as a smart, strong girl on a mission to save the world. Those angels were pretty cool too.

Describe the process of creating a children’s book at Clockwise Press. What are the various stages involved in the journey?

Well, we haven’t actually created any books at Clockwise Press yet! But when Solange and I were at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, we worked together acquiring and publishing books. Now, we decide jointly on what to accept, although Solange is primarily responsible for non-fiction and I look after fiction. The key for us is making sure that the project fits with our mandate and that it is well-written. We are both going to be doing the bulk of the editorial work on our own projects and then probably proofreading each other’s work. We have enlisted the talents of some excellent designers, including Tanya St. Amand, whom we’ve both worked with in the past.
Clockwise Press will be publishing one teen novel in the spring of 2015, followed by a hi-lo fantasy novel, a work of creative non-fiction, and a picture book and in the fall. As far as the process is concerned thus far: We acquired the fantasy and the non-fiction by approaching the authors with some concepts and then working with them to develop the proposals. The other two were projects that the authors and I were sort of having conversations about long before Clockwise was a twinkle in our eyes.

What does your workspace look like?
I shuffled a few things around in my home and took over my older son’s bedroom as an office, actually. There is still some of his hockey paraphernalia on the walls. But I’ve also got a corkboard with lots of illustrator promo postcards, artwork and book covers from many of the books I’ve worked on, a little bamboo skink, original art by Francesco Paonessa, Suzanne Del Rizzo (Skink on the Brink) and Peggy Collins (Tooter’s Stinky Wish), and some kidlit characters on the bookshelf. I also have a reading nook with lots of pillows, inspired by Helaine Becker’s back-deck reading nook. And my desk and chair (so far) are an old-timey wooden pair that you can actually see on the cover of The Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard.

Tell us a little about the projects you are working on now.
I can only tell you about one project right now because the others are still in the contract stage. But our first non-fiction book will introduce a series that will focus on recent immigrant success stories. Natalie Hyde is an award-winning author with a long history of writing excellent books for young people, both fiction and non-fiction. She was a natural fit for our vision for this series since we want the story of our first subject to be told like a story. So many people who come to Canada face incredible challenges, both before and after they immigrate. Both my parents are immigrants themselves. CWP’s mandate is to promote diversity and global awareness. We hope that this series will also encourage empathy and tolerance among young people for newcomers who are trying to put down roots in a strange new land. And we hope that young immigrants will be able to see themselves and their struggles in our stories, and be encouraged that they too can succeed.
As for our next few projects, stay tuned! There will be some press releases in the near future.

Are you interested in author/illustrators or do you prefer to marry up a manuscript with an illustrator of your choice?
I don’t really give that a whole lot of thought. I’ve worked with author/illustrators and with pairings. The important questions that have to be considered are (a) is the story good and (b) are the illustrations good for the story? Sometimes I’ll get an author/illustrator submission and love the art but not the story, so I’ll keep the illustrations on file in case another suitable project comes up. Or the story is good but the illustrations don’t work, so I’ll take the story but not the illustrations. It’s hard to be a “double threat,” I think, but it certainly is wonderful when someone can pull it off. I know that a growing number of agents and editors, especially in the US, prefer to have one person take care of both jobs, but that’s not really all that important to me.

May you please let our readers know how they may submit to Clockwise Press?
Solange and I spent a good deal of time working on our “Submissions” page on the Clockwise Press website. It has its own tab and everything! We STRONGLY recommend that anyone who wants to submit a proposal to us should go to the Submissions page and read it very carefully. As a small, emerging press, we have a limited list at the moment ― only four books per year ― so we are having to be extremely selective.