Children’s Book Blog: Ask the author – Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf on Oksa Pollock
Hailed by the publishing cognoscenti as ‘the French Harry Potter’, the six books in the Oksa Pollock series have gained millions of teenage fans worldwide. But the books would never have made it into print were it not for the determination of co-authors Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf, who self-published the first Oksa installment in 2007.
The titular heroine of the story is a 13-year-old French schoolgirl who discovers that she has magical powers after moving to London with her family. The books offer an appealing mix of everyday English school life and high fantasy, with enough magical creatures and eccentric dwellings to put a Studio Ghibli animation to shame.
French publishers picked up the book in 2010 and English readers can now enjoy the first two Oksa books thanks to indie publishers Pushkin Press, with the rest soon to follow.
I spoke to Anne and Cendrine about the long, hard road to publishing success and the pros and cons of writing in tandem.
Who came up with the original idea for Oksa?
Cendrine: I did! I was in my bathtub one New Year’s Eve. I only had the beginning: a teenager finds out she has magical powers and this somewhat turns her life upside down. The very same day, I told Anne about it, and instead of joining the others at the party, we spent the evening in a corner making plans and building the story of what was to become Oksa Pollock. After that evening, we never really stopped.
Cendrine: For months we build the plot of the series, like a storyboard, with the beginning, the end and the key steps. Then, for each section, we have a specific meeting where we discuss what we’re going to put in and how we’re going to approach the scene. We talk about everything before we put pen to paper.
Then Anne writes up the meeting notes and passes the text on to me. She writes in black, I write in red. We each add our layers of writing like painters. We build things horizontally, and we contribute and merge what we’re each best at bringing to the table – each of us offers our individual creativity, sensitivity and preferences. It would be terrible if the reader could tell there were two people writing! We have to make sure the voice is consistent; it’s not a chorus novel.
Anne: What matters most when you work in a pair is to keep your ego deep in your pocket. You have to listen to people, respect the other person and their point of view. The most important thing is not to insist on taking credit for doing a particular part, but rather to get to the point where we’re both happy with the final result.
Of course it does happen that we don’t agree! However carefully we plan every detail, there are lots of unexpected turns of events, ideas which pop up as we write, characters who assert their personalities.
When this happens (fairly often, if I’m honest) we have to adapt and agree, and sometimes… we disagree. Which means we then have to discuss, negotiate, argue, arm wrestle or play a table football game and accept that we may lose the battle – even if it means that I end up with a broken heart when a character or a creature has to die. Cendrine is very good at killing – in the book! – and I’m left crying my eyes out.
When you initially approached publishers in France, the first Oksa book was rejected. Why do you think this was?
Anne: It simply wasn’t the right time. At the time, publishers were receiving hundreds of novels with wizards, witches and magical creatures. To be fair to them, it was honestly impossible to stand out in such a huge ocean. We realised this ourselves, of course, but much later.
How did you go about promoting your book once you had self-published it?
Cendrine : Self-publishing was a very useful phase to go through. We learned loads, but it was also exhausting. We covered the entire book publishing process, from writing to distributing. This included typesetting, finding a printer, storing hundreds of books, accounting, publicity and marketing on the internet and with flyers. We brought books to bookshops, libraries, schools, book fairs – all the ingredients which make a book.
Anne: The internet has always been and remains the ideal way of promoting our series – through the website, the forum, Facebook. When we were self-publishing Oksa Pollock, the internet acted like a springboard for the series. When a reader wrote a review on the forum, this enabled us to see how the book was received, but also acted as a good display window for the book industry.
Booksellers also trusted us right from the start, which was very helpful. For example, as soon as we published Volume One, the book was chosen by the local Fnac (the French equivalent of Waterstones). The booksellers had read it, liked it and wanted to get behind it.
This is how we sowed lots of tiny seeds everywhere along the way, every time we had an opportunity. When your work is appreciated and recognised, not only are you more legitimate but you also become unstoppable!
The Oksa books have now been published all over the world, which means you have insider experience of both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Which model do you prefer?
Anne: We don’t defend self-publishing as a first choice. For us it was an extremely interesting time, which enabled us to understand the book production and selling processes from the inside and enabled Oksa to exist. If you believe in fate, you could say that it was a necessary step to get to what we always wanted , which is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight.
To be perfectly honest, I think Oksa’s fate is an exception to the rule of how self-publishing normally works—not the only one, thankfully, but very few authors have been as lucky as us. Self-publishing is tempting when you really want to get published but it can also be exhausting and very frustrating. It’s an enormous amount of work for a very small return. In addition publishers don’t just take care of the logistics, they also look at what you write and give objective and expert advice, they support and encourage you, they plan your publicity and marketing. When you’re self-publishing, you don’t get all that support.
What advice would you give to a children’s author who is thinking about self-publishing their book?
Anne: First of all, work hard at writing your book, taking great care over both the content and the form.
Cendrine: If self-publishing is your choice, you have to be willing to give it all you have, time and energy-wise, and be determined.
How do you feel about the comparisons which some people have made between Oksa Pollock and Harry Potter?
Anne: It’s very flattering! Harry Potter will remain the reference point for children’s fantasy literature. But the comparison stops there. In both Oksa Pollock and Harry Potter, you’ll find all the same ingredients that have been found in stories of that type, since… Homer’s Odyssey!
Magical powers, good and evil creatures, a quest (for land, love or origins), a struggle (good vs evil). Those are the basics of all fantasy literature, including fairy tales, legends, ghost stories, vampire stories, stories of children who walk through the back of the wardrobe, or step across to the other side of the mirror…
Cendrine: Comparing Oksa and Harry is a quick and efficient way of placing Oksa. However, once you’ve listed the obvious similarities, and read beyond the first twenty pages, you soon realise it’s far from being the same story! To each their own story and their own fate.
What is it about Oksa and her world that makes them unique?
Cendrine: Oksa is unique in the world of fantasy heroes because she’s not an orphan. Lone heroes are such a cliché in magical stories. Oksa has a strong support network of friends and family, which include her parents, her grandmother, her friends and the Runaway community.
This has a significant impact on the course of her adventures, because whatever decisions she makes, they’ll not only have consequences for her but also for the people she loves. You don’t make the same choices when you’re alone as when you’re not, and you don’t choose the same life.
We’re trying to show how strong solidarity can be, and the role relationships between people can play, whether they’re relationships of the heart, or of blood.
Anne: Another difference between Oksa Pollock and other fantasy books is the magical creatures. We’ve tried to make them quite unique. Magical powers are the same as everywhere else – flying, moving objects, throwing fire—but we did not want to use the same creatures you find in other fantasy books.
So we came up with our own: the Lunatrixes (which are a cross between Dobby and Master Yoda), flying frogs, hairy potatoes, seals which are a bit soft in the head and hyper-anxious plants. The same goes for the weaponry – wands were out of the question. We needed a brand new accessory so we came up with the granok-shooter!
Last but not least, Oksa’s story takes place in the real world, our world, which is constraining—you can’t do whatever you want. Oksa may have magical powers, but she’s not perfect. She and her friends have weaknesses and they sometimes make mistakes, or wrong choices, which have consequences they have to live with. There are lots of things they can’t do because reality gets in the way. In a totally imaginary world, everything is possible, but not in ours. The limits our characters face are the same faced by ordinary humans, more or less.
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and author and is currently working on a young adult novel set in Hackney. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here and follow her on Twitter as @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: children's literature, Oska Pollock
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