Literary Life: an interview with agent Dyan Blacklock

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On a wall in writer and literary agent Dyan Blacklock’s kitchen hangs a small watercolour, rendered in inky blues, of two people sleeping blissfully in a boat on a starry night. Its feeling of warm, enveloping magic is characteristic of the work of its artist, children’s illustrator Kim Gamble.

Gamble was a close friend of both Blacklock and her husband, and when he was very ill they spoke to him regularly. ‘Kim loved the Coorong and fishing so we would call him from there, describing exactly what we saw and where we were. One night we slept in the boat and in the painting it’s all there, the stars, the bioluminescence, the fish moving about beneath the boat,’ she says. She had no idea he’d painted it until after his death, when Anna Fienberg gave her the painting; he’d run out of time to post it. The cheerful letter Gamble included is carefully preserved at the back.

Gamble’s picture hangs with around twenty others, picture book originals by some of Australia’s best-loved illustrators, all published by Blacklock when she captained Omnibus Books from the late 1990s to the closure of its Adelaide operations in 2015. There are works by Andrew McLean, Julie Vivas and Kerry Argent, scenes from familiar and award-winning picture books by Penny Matthews, Sofie Laguna and Margaret Wild.

‘I chose images from books I especially loved. Many of the illustrators gifted them to me, which makes them very special. I look at these every day and every day I am reminded of what a gift that job was.’

Gamble Blacklock interview
Artwork by Kim Gamble. Courtesy of Dyan Blacklock

Blacklock started Blacklock Literary Management in 2016 after parent company Scholastic Australia moved its Omnibus Books imprint from Adelaide to Sydney, putting five people out of work. It was the end of an era that began in 1982, when Sue Williams and Jane Covernton founded Omnibus Books as a small imprint and made their mark as publishers of iconic Australian picture books such as Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas.

Each of the pictures in Blacklock’s gallery sparks a personal story, testament to the sometimes complex and intimate relationships she had with the creators whose works she published. Her style was informed by, amongst other things, her own experience with Allen & Unwin’s former children’s publisher Rosalind Price in the early 1990s.

‘Rosalind was the publisher who started my career as an author. It was a most unusual beginning.’ Unbeknownst to Blacklock, a friend showed her unpublished stories—stories that were ‘private, I didn’t realise they would have a life or lead to anything’—to Patrick Gallagher, who in turn showed them to Price. Price called on a stinking hot summer day. Blacklock and her husband had moved from Sydney to Adelaide with a plan to take two years off work and do the things they had always wanted to do.

‘I took the call in the kitchen, no mobile phones then, and the moment Ros began to say how much she loved my stories I stopped being in the real world.’ At her feet, meanwhile, Blacklock’s toddler son wanted attention. ‘I grabbed half a watermelon to keep him occupied. And when he started to squark I unhooked the lid of the Milo tin and stuck that on the floor. I just wanted to keep her talking. It was the best, most exciting thing and I didn’t want it to stop.’  An hour later toddler, kitchen, cupboards and floors were awash with milo and watermelon. ‘It was the most extraordinary moment and I have never forgotten how important it is to call a new creator to tell them that you love their work. Ros said to me, we can’t publish these, but what would you like to write? I don’t believe anyone would ask that now.’ The result of that conversation was Comet Vomit, a collection of short stories that Blacklock wrote late at night.

Some of the stories were inspired by Blacklock’s ‘wonderful, wild childhood’ with four older siblings in the same suburban street where her own father had grown up. Her father, a salesman, ‘could talk to anyone, anywhere, any time.’ Her mother was a teacher who read to her every night at bedtime. ‘I don’t know how she found the time with five kids but she always did.’ Their colourful, neighbourly world was a refuge from her parents’ problems. Blacklock remembers, ‘when Mum and Dad were having a gigantic argument, my brothers and sisters would rush me down the back before I could hear it all, through the fence and into Babe Evans’ house.’ Babe was a woman who had broken down after her husband had left her, and—this being the 1950s—was given a lobotomy as a result. ‘She wasn’t normal, she was very eccentric. But she had a piano, and she would play it with a cigarette burning right down to her lip, and give us thimblefuls of sherry. She had a huge dog called Tiny who sat up at the table to eat dinner. So it was a marvellous place where all the rules were broken.’ Babe Evans featured in one of the stories that would later find its way to Price, as did the strict German family who lived across the road. Later, Blacklock’s picture book The Lighthouse would tell another story about her childhood neighbours.

Blacklock’s grandfather (‘a tiny, gentle man’) still lived two doors down. Blacklock adored him; he would often read in a large chair in their house, and Blacklock would sit on his knee to listen to Dickens. Her mother, Frances, brought to life the characters in Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and A.A. Milne. Poetry featured too, the imagery in Australian poems like ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ making an impression on Blacklock, who later developed a love for Beat poets and John Donne in particular. ‘I had a nun who taught me in grade two and gave me books to read each week (there wasn’t a library at the school) and later another nun who taught me poetry and ancient history and encouraged my writing. Both had a seminal influence on me.’

Re-reading beloved Dickens novels like Great Expectations and The Old Curiosity Shop as an adult, Blacklock has found herself uncritical of their faults and coincidences. She describes herself as an uncritical reader generally. ‘I just get lost in it. Story is everything to me. You need to fall in love with the characters—you want them to succeed, you cry when they fail. You’ve got to feel all the emotions.’

As a child she made up her own stories—‘I kind of felt like I had to, as the littlest in a complicated family’—some of which got her into trouble. A lie to a nun at school that her sister had polio prompted her mother to tell her ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. It terrified her, and showed her that a story could be a powerful thing.

Comet Vomit was published in1995, but Blacklock wasn’t completely new to the world of publishing. She had applied to Rigby just out of university, where she was given Instant Books to edit, tiny paperbacks that required attention to detail. ‘I certainly fucked them up instantly,’ she laughs, so she was instead given a waist-high stack of contracted non-fiction manuscripts and told to ‘either fix them or say they’re not fixable.’ It was the worst introduction to editing imaginable, because ‘no one told me that you’ve got to go back to the author.’ Blacklock worked in a cubicle, talking to a pot plant called Arthur and often substantially rewriting the manuscripts, until she realised that the man in the cubicle behind her was being paid more for less work. She raised it with the Managing Director, who laughed in her face. Given this was the early 1970s, did she think at the time she was making a radical suggestion? ‘No, I was shocked,’ she says. ‘I wanted my worth to be recognised. My mother had brought me up to believe in myself, that I had a value, and that if you had a reasonable point and put it forward a reasonable person would hear you. But he didn’t, so I left.’

After that came eleven ‘incredible’ years in northern New South Wales. Blacklock built her own house, dug her own dunny and had her first child in an idyllic community of a dozen or so houses on 2000 acres. She also started a food coop that became a wholefoods store and café in the outskirts of Murwillumbah, where she was something of a ‘random shopkeeper,’ ordering all sorts of things for people on commission and bringing in anything she liked the look of: solar panels, furniture, cooking pots, giant carved candles. She discovered she’d inherited her father’s skill as a salesperson, although her randomness extended to the shop finances: at the end of each week she would often hide money in the shop rather than bother to take it to the bank. Once she hid the money so well that she never found it again. ‘Some hippie got a nice surprise behind the chick peas, I imagine.’ Another time she stashed some in the bottom of a barrel of onions, and only found it when the onions went bad and liquefied. She had to wash the money in the bath. ‘It stank.’

It was a wild time, and Blacklock says she wouldn’t change a day. ‘I credit a great deal of who I became from that life because there were no rules and you made up your life in the way you wanted it to be. Everyone was creative, whether it was building, music, gardening.’ Her own writing at that time took the form of advocacy letters to the Department of Social Security that she wrote for other people in their name. ‘Half the people in the area were trying to either get on the dole or stay on the dole but the dole office were determined to kick them off. I was good at letter writing! I won a lot of cases.’ Eventually the letters brought a DSS investigator to the community. ‘It was a hard to find place, he had to walk up a very long, steep hill and down another one, and when he got there we had no chairs, only orange boxes. He sat down on a box and asked me lots of questions: did you write these letters, why did you do it, was it for money? I told him, “I wrote them because you’re so unfair.”’

Dyan Blacklock Lamp Post magazine
Dyan Blacklock campaigning against changes to parallel importation laws

A few years in Sydney followed, during which a stint as a teacher librarian sparked the idea for what would become the highly successful Solo series published by Omnibus Books. All Blacklock knew at that time, however, was that a huge gap existed in the market for Australian early readers.

Blacklock bought her Adelaide Hills home in 1993 with her husband, and moved from Sydney with their young family. More books followed Comet Vomit—two more collections, Crab Bait and Call it Love were published the following year, establishing her as a writer of insightful, appealing and funny stories for children. Two books about Ancient Greece were also well-received. She returned to publishing as a copy editor at Era, even though she felt sure she wasn’t cut out for the detailed nature of that work. At Era, Blacklock didn’t learn the editorial marks that the art director, Steven Woolman, printed out for her—‘I still haven’t’—but she did offer her idea for early readers to the publisher. ‘He was pretty hostile to the idea. He said to me, “You just want to be a publisher, don’t you?” I hadn’t really thought about it, but structural editing was what I liked, so that was when I thought maybe I do want to be a publisher.’

She had been to university with Jane Covernton and kept in touch when she returned to Adelaide. ‘When I left Era, Jane called and offered me work at Omnibus. I told her up front I was a failure at copy editing.’ Blacklock read manuscripts, looked for talent, and reconsidered how her idea for early readers could work on the Omnibus list, since they weren’t an educational publisher. When a gap came up on the list about eighteen months ahead, she put the idea forward, despite being a little intimidated by Sue Williams, who was known for being ‘blunt, direct.’ Williams told her to pursue it. ‘I think she was inviting me to fail.’

Blacklock wrote to every major writer she could think of with the concept for the 1000-word illustrated readers: ‘I knew exactly how they had to sound and look.’ The books had to model a novel but use age-appropriate language. Blacklock knew young kids got excited about reading books with chapters in them and she wanted to do a series that would turn them into confident readers. ‘People always wanted books to challenge kids, but I was certain that we needed to make them secure first, show them they could do it on their own.’ The first Solo, by Libby Gleeson, was shortlisted for a Children’s Book Council of Australia award. The list grew to around forty titles, first print runs were as high as 30,000 copies—and Williams, as any publisher would be, was thrilled with their success. The writers and illustrators who produced Solos are a roll-call of some of Australia’s best-known and loved creators: Ann James, Margaret Wild, Craig Smith, David Kennett, Tom Jellett, Emily Rodda and Stephen Michael King, to name a few.

Solo cover children's literature

Omnibus received dozens of letters from parents and teachers about Solos, which Blacklock rates now as the greatest joy of her career. ‘I always thought, if I died leaving the office, I had done this one good thing, brought children to reading.’ Blacklock’s contribution has not been restricted to the Solos series, however: she served as the convener of the Children’s Publishers’ Committee for seven years; spent three years on the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts; was on the Australian Publisher’s Association Board and the CBCA National Board; as well as initiating the first illustrator grant from Arts Council funds. In 2003 she was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to Australian literature.

When Covernton and Williams left Omnibus Books, Blacklock took over the role of publisher. Blacklock credits winning the role in part to her ability to stand up in front of people and talk. ‘Publishers have to believe in something, sell it to someone. My father used to say, “paint a picture, put them in it.” And so I did. I was a school debater, public speaking came easily to me.’

Publishing had an impact on her writing career. She did write several more books—notably, her own Solo title, I Want Earrings!, was a bestseller and Olympia: Warrior Athletes of Ancient Greece, with illustrator David Kennett, won the CBCA Eve Pownall award for information books in 2001—and was able to take advantage of a May Gibbs Children’s Trust Fellowship in 2005. But the job used up her creative energy. Despite this, she says, ‘I felt like I was born for it. I loved the work, loved the team.’ What she began to find difficult was when parent company Scholastic slowly began to take control of things that Omnibus had always had control of, one thing at a time. After the Adelaide closure, Blacklock says, ‘I spent six months wandering around my garden, wondering who I was any more.’ Then she began to enjoy being able to relax for the first time in twenty years. She started baking, her ‘new creative obsession’, winning many blue ribbons in the Royal Adelaide Show. It was Jenny Rowe who encouraged her to take up agenting, something she’d been thinking about for a long time. Clients began to approach Blacklock and she took on people she’d already worked with, who she knew could work with her and vice versa, who could take on editorial comment.

She has a lot more freedom as an agent, a role in which she ‘can keep at something’ she believes in. The heartbreak of her Omnibus years was not the shutdown, she says, but the loss of autonomy. She sees that as a symptom of the commercialism that has been a broader change in publishing since she started out. ‘The independence of the publisher shrank as marketing took over. Dopey decisions get made by people with a different set of priorities altogether… We were a literary list. Are there lists like that any more? I said to a publisher recently, your list has changed so much since you started. She said of course it has, we’ve got to make money.’ Prizes were once more valued. A CBCA win used to guarantee a large print run, but no more. ‘It’s still very important to authors and publishers, but in terms of budget and profit it’s not so very vital anymore.’

What is it to Blacklock to publish well? ‘Loyalty to the creator. Publishing authors in the way they need to be published—they have career plans too. Honest feedback. Willingness to collaborate. Support when they need it. You have to believe in a book, love it, sell it from the heart, stand by it, not resile from it if it fails.’ This has meant for her, at times, taking on writers (such as Markus Zusak) whose first books were unlikely to sell but who she recognised as ‘outstanding’ and wanted to nurture.

Blacklock doesn’t think her experience with Rosalind Price would happen now. ‘There are no publishers like her around. Somebody who saw the core of a writer in you and was willing to take a risk. A publisher is so much more than a maker of books. You’ve got to be friend, enemy, counsellor, agitator, pacifier. Intermediary between the book and the company. Sometimes you might even have to pay their electricity bill. But if you believe in them you do all that and more. You never give up.’

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