Awa mini-blog (From the Editorial Desk)

Who's really mad?

4/ 5 / 13; 9:33:04 AM
How comfortable are we New Zealanders around people with mental illness? It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, following the release of our new book Sarah Vaughan is Not My Mother. This extraordinary book, written by 29-year-old MaryJane Thomson, is a searingly honest account of what it's like to live with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I first met MaryJane when one of our authors sent me her manuscript with a note: "I hope you will find something here - a voice." That night I read the work in one sitting. It is one thing for a famous All Black to come out and say he suffers from depression, but quite another for a beautiful young woman to reveal she has a complex mental illness and has spent time in psych wards. This takes a special kind of courage. Praising the book in North & South, Paul Little wrote of MaryJane Thomson's distinctive voice: "She uses it to take you inside her hallucinatory psychotic world - you start to experience her reality." North & South, though, has been one of the few publications to review Sarah Vaughan is Not My Mother. A leading woman's magazine described it as "too dark" for their readership. Other media have simply ignored it - or decided, like one reviewer, that MaryJane's real problem was not mental illness but drug addiction. Janet Frame suffered mental illness all her life, and it's only in recent years that we have accepted her as New Zealand's most celebrated writer. Robin Hyde spent three years as a voluntary patient at an Auckland mental hospital in the 1930s, but it was not until last year that a book of her writings about her mental illness was published. Let's hope it doesn't take 70 years for the immense talent of MaryJane Thomson to be recognised and celebrated.

The China Question

2/ 4 / 13; 7:59:35 PM
One of the things I love about publishing is how it shrinks the world. Each year before the two big book fairs, Frankfurt and London, I get lists from US and UK publishers of books they have coming up in the next 12 months. If I spot one that sounds particularly enticing for readers in New Zealand and Australia I contact the publisher to see if local rights are available. Australian publishers are gung-ho about buying rights. Allen & Unwin snapped up Australia and NZ rights for the Harry Potter books and built a glamorous new wing on their Sydney offices with the proceeds. Text Publishing bought worldwide rights to Mr Pip and made a killing. Suffice to say, the Australians usually beat us to the draw. But not always. Recently, browsing a list from New York publisher St Martin's Press, I spied an interesting book on China. The Devouring Dragon is by Craig Simons, an American writer resident in Beijing. Craig writes brilliantly about what the rise of China and its growing demand for resources of all kinds - from timber to tiger bones - means for the natural world of the entire planet. St Martin's sent me an advance copy and I read it in a sitting. Not only utterly gripping, it's one of the most important books I've ever read. If you want to understand the future, you have to read this book. To my amazement the Australians hadn't yet noticed it and Awa Press was able to acquire local rights. In a further twist, we onsold the Australian rights to an award-winning independent publisher, Scribe. Look for our edition in July and Scribe's in August.

The beauty of history

15/ 8 / 12; 4:57:01 PM
I call it my folly. It's one of the loveliest books we've produced and it probably won't make a cent. With any luck it will just cover costs, although, given the luxurious paper and quarterbound cover, even this is in doubt. I'm talking about An Indescribable Beauty, which Awa Press proudly published this week. Unfortunately, the author, Friedrich Krull, won't be able to attend a launch party - he has been dead for 98 years. The book contains the letters he wrote home to his mother in Germany from Wellington in 1859 and 1862. Friedrich was 22 years old.

Sometime after the invention of the typewriter, the letters were translated into English by a person unknown. Last year the crumpled, yellowing sheets were handed to me by one of Friedrich's descendants. When I read them I quickly realised these letters were a taonga - vivid, perceptive, and astonishing. I believed many other people would enjoy as much as I had this young man's account of his life and travels in the colony on the verge of the New Zealand Wars. An Indescribable Beauty was born. Not many people realise that Germans were the second largest group of colonial settlers in 19th century New Zealand. There were German settlements from one end of the country to the other, and many New Zealanders have German ancestry. It is my hope that reading Friedrich Krull's letters will inspire them to research and learn more about their own family histories.

Non-fiction for atheists

24/ 5 / 12; 11:43:03 AM
Having just been hanging out at the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I've been contemplating the nicely changing nature of such events. When Awa Press began eight years ago, it was almost impossible to persuade organisers of these festivals, Auckland included, even to consider putting a non-fiction author on the programme. Now the penny's dropped that 80 percent of books sold in the world today are non-fiction, and that many (in my view most) are even more thrilling to read than novels, the tide has turned. While novelists still dominate, a fair swag of non-fiction writers share the limelight - and lure many people who would not normally go to things bookish.

The session of the brilliant cosmologist Lawrence Krauss (when will that man get a Nobel?) was far and away the most exciting on Friday. Krauss rocketed along, imparting mind-bending information about the origins of the universe with enormous energy and humour - a stark contrast to many other sessions, which were well-meaning but oddly soporific. And then there was the questioner at Emily Perkins' session who actually gave away a major twist of the plot. You wouldn't get a good cosmologist doing that. As Krauss happily admitted, when it comes to the story of the universe, we don't know much about the beginning and we know even less about the end - it's all just glorious guesswork. Krauss has recently been touring Australia with Richard Dawkins, who, he said, claims to be not an atheist but an anti-theist.

It's a label that would probably not be adopted by another brilliant thinker, Jim Flynn, whose book Fate & Philosophy: A Journey through Life's Great Questions, we are releasing in June. Flynn is an atheist himself but thinks we should respect those who actively and sincerely follow religious practices. Read his book (we're taking advance orders on our website now) and see if you agree with him.

News from the Editorial Desk

2/ 5 / 12; 1:34:52 PM
New blog, new office, new books, new babies?

No Bird Brains Here

15/ 8 / 11; 5:21:32 PM
It's snowing in Wellington as I write but warm days for Awa Press in our new offices above Wellington's famous Lido Café. I've dubbed it "the café that never closes". At any hour of the day and night (including as we ambled happily home after the recent AB-Boks test at the Cake Tin) there are people drinking coffee and animatedly holding conversations. Could this be Wellington's own Les Deux Magots?

In our classic '60s building, replete with plastic handrails and tiled walls imitating stonework, we are also hosting a mother pigeon. We were about to clean our balcony when this endearing bird set up a nest there, laid two eggs (after a courting dance on the balcony) and after 19 days produced two tiny white chicks. She has endured freezing weather and now snow without demur. Some people don't care for pigeons in the city and a few brutes suggested we crush the eggs. Arrest them at once. I've learned these city dwellers are officially Spanish Rock Pigeons, and the reason they stand on and unfortunately poop all over railings (including ours) is that these promontories are the closest thing to the rock ledges they're used to in Espagne. The DNA memory is nothing short of astonishing.

Birds aside, we are hugely enjoying getting our Christmas titles to print. Three extraordinary books, of which more soon. Meanwhile, drop in and see us sometime soon.

- Mary

An unexpected illness

24/ 2 / 11; 4:38:37 PM
It was shaping up to be a beautiful Coromandel day, still and sunny - the sort of day that makes you feel good to be alive. That night we were hosting my sister's birthday party. She's a law professor in Sydney. Many of her Australian friends had been lured over by promises of the pleasures of Hahei - and the place was not going to let us down.

After a luxuriously long swim, I strolled along the beach with one of the Sydneysiders. The only thing diminishing my pleasure was a nagging headache in my right temple. I had noticed it that morning and taken a painkiller. It was now around two o'clock and the headache was showing no sign of going away. That evening, as I scooped savouries out of the oven and put them on serving platters, the headache was still there. I also noticed my appetite had completely disappeared. Despite the great-looking food, I didn't feel like eating a thing. The previous day, on a visit to Auckland, we had discovered that our younger son had a raging fever and felt extremely unwell. The doctor on duty at a medical centre on Ponsonby Road had diagnosed it as a twenty-four-hour virus, and she'd been right: by the next day he had fully recovered. Clearly, I had caught the same thing and would soon be right again.

Later that evening, feeling increasingly strange and unwell, I listened to the birthday speeches and then escaped upstairs to bed. The moment I hit the sheets I began shivering violently and uncontrollably. This was certainly some virus, I thought, swallowing another couple of painkillers.

All next day and night I lay in bed, waiting for the anticipated recovery that never came. The following morning my niece, a physiotherapist, found me still prone, in dreadful pain and virtually unable to move or even speak. Having established from the local store that there were no doctors in Hahei, she dialled 111. It is customary to say in such situations that somebody saved your life. In fact my niece would be the first of a number of people who over the next few hours would make decisions and take actions without which I would almost certainly not be here writing this now.

Next were the ambulance personnel. They were clearly not mucking around. One ambulance, stationed at a local beach, arrived within minutes, and another from the town of Tairua just over ten minutes later. One lot of staff were to assess my condition and the other were to transport me, if necessary, to Thames Hospital. No one had any idea what was wrong with me other than I was clearly terribly ill but the second life-saving decision was made: to rapidly get me over the long and winding hill to Thames, an hour away. I have a dim memory of staring numbly out the high windows of the ambulance, seeing the beautiful Coromandel pungas framed by clear blue sky, and wondering if I would ever see the place again. A member of the ambulance staff held my hand and assured me I was going to be okay. She was a volunteer and had undertaken long, intensive training. Do such generous, dedicated people exist in any other medical service in the western world? If she reads this article, I hope she knows how much her care meant to me.

A young duty doctor at Thames Hospital made the next crucial decision: after taking blood cultures, he immediately put me on an intravenous broad-spectrum antibiotic. He then ordered tests for two possible candidates, meningitis and a bleed in the brain. Both showed up negative. They were the first of a battery of tests I would have over the next weeks.

Within hours I was in another ambulance headed for Waikato Hospital while my husband Paul returned to Hahei to gather up a few of my things for what looked like being a long stay in hospital. By now the town was quiet and most of the party guests had left for various excursions around the Coromandel, unaware of the unfolding drama.

Waikato is one of New Zealand≠s biggest hospitals, a monolith with 600 beds that serves a total population of nearly 900,000 people. Fortunately for me, it has also attracted some exceptional doctors and nurses, many coming from overseas to fill gaps as their New Zealand equivalents head for richer positions in Australia and the Middle East. Over the next three days, unable to walk and with failing eyesight, I was swathed in sheets like a baby and physically hoisted from my hospital bed to various pieces of equipment for X-rays, CT scans and MRI scans. My body was pummelled and poked from head to foot and I was urged to think of any recent event that could have caused my illness. I couldn't.

In between all this I lay immobile with tubes in my arms, wondering what on earth had happened to me. I was fit and healthy, a non-smoker, had been a vegetarian for thirty-five years, drank only in moderation, took regular exercise walking and cycling, and was sitting on the ideal weight for my age and height. I had a wonderful family and a job I loved. How could my life have turned into this hell in the space of a few hours?

I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards voluntary euthanasia, but to my shock I now found myself vividly understanding the arguments in its favour. What would be the point of enduring this pain and misery if you had no hope of surviving? I'd always heard that there was no need for anyone to be in pain, that it could all be managed, yet despite constantly ingesting an array of painkillers from paracetamol to opiates I was in agony. Not only that, I was scared of going to sleep. Every time I dropped off, or even closed my eyes, I had terrifying hallucinations. I began to wish I had never seen The Lord Of The Rings. In one nightmare I was in the vast cave where Frodo had to jump from a wildly swaying rock pinnacle over a huge chasm to join the rest of the Fellowship on the other side, only it was not Frodo but my entire family who had to make the perilous leap. Every time I dropped off I would wake up in a cold sweat. It was later discovered that this was being caused by a particular pain-killer, Tramadol, but, even after I was taken off it, traces must have remained in my system as the nightmares continued for some time.

A ray of hope arrived in the form of a phone message from a friend. 'I know you think you will never get better but you will,' she said. 'One day this will all be a distant memory.' She was speaking from experience: several years earlier she had nearly died from meningitis. Her simple message had a profound impact and undoubtedly contributed to my eventual recovery: I was now determined to get through this thing alive.

But what was it I had to get through? I still had no idea what was wrong with me. In hospitals you are nominally under the care of a high-flying specialist. As I was discovering, however, these god-like beings remain largely invisible. My day-to-day care was being handled by two young female doctors, one from the UK and the other from Australia. The first time they arrived at my bed I thought they had strayed in from a fashion shoot. Both were immaculately dressed in clothes that would not have been out of place in the pages of Vogue. During the six weeks I would spend off and on in hospitals, I would only twice see a doctor wearing a white coat. Doctors in normal clothes were a cheering reminder that the world was still trucking on outside the hospital walls.

On the third day, the British doctor carefully explained the changes that were being made to my medication and the technical outcome of various tests. 'Yes,' I implored with tears running down my face (this happened a lot despite my best efforts) 'but what is actually wrong with me?' She looked surprised. 'You have septicaemia,' she said. 'Didn≠t you know?'

Not only did I not know, I knew next to nothing about septicaemia. All I could vaguely recall was that it sometimes happened to pregnant women after childbirth or miscarriage. (I would later learn that twenty-four-year-old English singer Lily Allen had been hospitalised with the disease the same time I was; she had miscarried six months into a pregnancy and been rushed into intensive care five days later.)

Many weeks later, when I finally plucked up the courage to Google 'septicaemia', I found that it is usually triggered by an infection, which, while it can come from foetal material remaining in the womb, can also arise through something as insignificant as a cut (even a paper cut) or a scratch (even from a rose bush or a tiny kitten). In most cases the body fights the infection by marshalling white blood cells to destroy the bacteria responsible and this is the end of the matter. However, if these bacteria have already multiplied exponentially or the person's immune system is weak, the bacteria can spread rapidly through the bloodstream and into organs, including the heart, and the toxins produced by the bacteria can lead to death.

By now Waikato Hospital had cultured the bacteria causing my infection - a process taking several days - and found it was a variety susceptible to penicillin. For the first time things were looking up: while some bacteria are becoming immune to antibiotics, mine was not one of them. This would mark the beginning of six weeks of twenty-four-hour-a-day intravenous treatment.

Next morning it was decided to fly me to Wellington Hospital. As I looked out the window of the Life Flight Trust plane nearing the tarmac at Wellington Airport, I burst spontaneously into tears. I was still alive and I was coming home. The nurse on board clenched my hand, another of the superb medical staff who helped me along the way.

After nearly two weeks in Wellington Hospital, I was discharged to continue treatment at home thanks to an invention called a PICC ('peripherally inserted central catheter') line - a long thin tube inserted into a vein in your upper arm, and guided, by an operator watching its progress on an ultrasound screen, until the tip reaches a large vein in the chest near your heart. Unbelievably, this does not hurt at all. In my case, the end sticking out of my arm was attached to a large bottle of penicillin solution.

For the next month I continued to feel lousy and had no power of concentration. My eyesight was blurred and I could only lie in bed listening intermittently to the radio. My taste buds, too, had gone curiously awry: most things tasted bitter. District nurses visited every day to check on the PICC line, replace the bottle, and ensure I was taking the truckloads of drugs I had been prescribed. Laboratory workers arrived to take blood samples. My GP came weekly with good news: blood tests showed the level of the infection was steadily falling. Friends and family chipped in with meals and company.

Near the end I was readmitted to hospital for four days suffering side effects of the opiate drugs but a few days later, back home, the PICC line was removed. While the bacteria responsible for the infection would never be entirely quashed, and there would always be the possibility of a recurrence, their level was now as good as it got.

The causes of septicaemia are notoriously hard to pin down. As many of sixty percent of people who contract the disease will never know its origin, and I turned out to be one of them. In Wellington Hospital I learnt that the illness had manifested first as discitis, an infection in the discs of my upper spine. This infection had moved into the adjoining vertebrae causing osteomyelitis, infection of the bone. Meanwhile, an abscess had formed in my neck. Bacteria from these sources had then spread rapidly through my entire body. We used to call this blood poisoning; today it's known as septicaemia. But what had set off the infection in the first place, no one knew.

Septicaemia (like meningococcal meningitis, which is one of its better known causes) can be slow to diagnose at first, and as it can kill within hours deaths are disturbingly common. According to a recent America study about one in three sufferers will die, with older adults and people with previously bad health being most at risk. (All that good food and exercise had been worthwhile after all.) Others lose limbs through the onset of gangrene or necrotising fasciitis. Symptoms to look for include fever, vomiting, limb, joint and muscle pain, shivering, cold hands and feet, pale or mottled skin, panting and breathlessness, a rash anywhere on the body, extreme sleepiness, and delirium. Not all these may be present: in my case, I did not have a rash and was not delirious.

Because septicaemia takes such a massive toll on the whole body, recovery is slow. Over two months later I still feel exhausted after even minor exertion and continue to have headaches and muscular pain, but my eyesight has returned, I can concentrate enough to edit books and write this article, and every day seems better and brighter than the last. I have been told that in eighteen months it will be as though nothing ever happened.

I could say I am one of the lucky ones, but really luck had nothing to do with it. Like thousands of New Zealanders each year, I owe my survival to our public health system and its highly skilled doctors, nurses and laboratory workers (do we really know how lucky we are?), the hard work of volunteers and paid staff of St John's Ambulance, Wellington Free Ambulance and Life Flight Trust, the extraordinary love and care of my husband, children, extended family and friends - and the innate instinct we all have as human beings to do whatever it takes to stay alive. And although I still can't taste wine or coffee, I'll drink to that.

This article first appeared in the Listener of February 19-25.

The Torchlight List

21/ 1 / 11; 4:39:05 PM
Sometimes as a publisher you just have a certain feeling about a book, an almost visceral sense of pleasure. So it was from the moment Jim Flynn's manuscript for The Torchlight List landed on my desk. Years ago, too many to recount, I studied politics and philosophy under Jim at Otago University. An Irish-American hailing from Chicago and Washington, D.C., he was the closest thing to a genius I had encountered, and the same would be still true today. Internationally, Jim has gone on to win fame as an expert on intelligence and IQ, and plaudits from people such as Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. But, uncharacteristically for such a stupendously clever person, he is also a great wit who enjoys nothing more than shaking pretenders and the pompous off their perches. There are some rattling good instances of this in The Torchlight List. I'll leave you to find them for yourselves. Meanwhile, it's no surprise that the first printing sold out before Christmas, and that Jim has been featured on Radio NZ's Summer Noelle programme for the last four weeks talking about the 200 books that will change your life. A rush reprint of The Torchlight List is now hitting bookstores across NZ. You can also purchase the book on this website - just click on the cover to the left.

The Overused Ditty

28/ 4 / 10; 4:10:59 PM
A few months ago I might not have uttered more than a passing groan on hearing that the mandarins of New Zealand rugby had chosen a tired 20-year-old song celebrating the downfall of the Berlin Wall as the theme song for the Rugby World Cup's stint in NZ. But having heard the Feelers sing That Song on Campbell Live this week I'm really stirred up. In the last year I've got up close and personal with the work of New Zealand songwriters as editor of Nick Bollinger's fantastic new book '100 Essential New Zealand Albums'. What an education. It's not surprising that so many great songs have come out of New Zealand. What's amazing is that some people appear not to have noticed. The fact that two of my sons are musicians may be swaying me here, but dear Jesus Jones I have heard at least a dozen original songs from their bands alone that would do more to rock the stadia than this overused old ditty. If you don't believe me, come and hear Nick and Dave Dobbyn roll out great NZ music at the Wellington launch of NZ Music Month: Mighty Mighty this Saturday, May 1, at 6pm. All free. All welcome.

Breathing Space

23/ 2 / 10; 1:59:33 PM
How many small business-owners hover on the brink of expansion? In the six years that Awa Press has been publishing, the number of books has increased, the number of staff hours has increased, our sales - both through bookstores and special sales, export and the internet - have increased, the number of phone calls and emails we receive every day has increased. The one thing that hasn't increased is the size of our office. We operate out of a heritage-listed cottage in the heart of Wellington. We love it here. We even have a garden filled with sunshine and edible fruit, herbs and vegetables. But alas, the time has come to move. So in between commissioning, editing and producing exciting new books, we are also perusing vacant office space. So far, only one place has taken our fancy. We'll keep you posted....

Stretch those limbs today

31/ 8 / 09; 11:16:21 AM
Apparently 80 percent of cyclists who do the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge don't start training until September.

Some real layabouts leave it until October. On the other hand, I've seen an awful lot of people on bikes hurtling along Karaka Bay Road in the howling southerlies recently, so, yes, there are some bloody keen types out there and they're looking good. One wrote that our book Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Guide has changed his life. 'Since I learned about cadence , my cycling's improved 5000 percent.' We're feeling real good about that.

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