Around the Bookshops: Face to Face with Julia Marshall

Gecko Press specializes in English versions of curiously good books from around the world. We choose books by the world’s best authors, which have won awards and have a strong 'heart factor'.
Julia Marshall - Publisher

Barbara Murison interviewed Julia Marshall for her review journal Around the Bookshops in November 2007.

BM: Why Gecko Press Julia? What is it about geckos?

JM: When I was looking for a name for the publishing house, I went through the vegetable kingdom but nothing seemed to work. Suddenly the idea of Gecko seemed just right. Geckos are little, they’re curious and they’re quick. But they are never cute and - they have strong suction on their feet, like Spiderman. The whole image felt right, especially the curiosity bit.

Of course, you’re publishing books that have already been a success in their own countries. What are the basic elements you want to find before you decide to publish a title?

First it needs to have a unique spirit – a heart and a warmth. I like the book to cause something to happen emotionally in the reader’s mind by the time they have finished - so they are moved or made to laugh or taken by surprise in some way. My criterion is that the author or illustrator should have an established body of work, and preferably the book will have won an international award. I'm looking for the Margaret Mahys of the rest of the world. I also check to see which other publishers internationally are publishing a particular writer. And I check with a small group of people for their opinion, including my family. It has to feel absolutely right.

I guess the whole Gecko enterprise originated from your involvement with Sweden and your having been part of their writing community. Why did you go to Sweden in the first place?

I went to Sweden after a bus trip in Nepal where I met my future husband.  I became involved with children's books when I was trying to learn Swedish, and of course, I have always loved children's books. In Sweden the best thing I learnt was how to work with material in many different languages. I worked with magazines, some of them in eight, and even up to 22, different languages. This taught me the skills you need to get a great translation, rather than an average one. In New Zealand I trained with Bridget Williams Books for two years - that gave me a good grounding in publishing.

Now you live so far away it must be really hard to keep your Swedish up to date. How do you manage?

I go back to Sweden every year and I also have a job translating Swedish texts into English. Translating is actually great training for working out what makes a good book.

You really do travel the world don’t you! I guess the other place you visit frequently is the Bologna Children’s Book F air in Frankfurt. It sounds such an exciting event to be part of.

I first went in 2001 just to look but now I am an active participant. It has an amazing atmosphere and it is so big – imagine 5 football fields of space where the publishers set up their stands. We work around 12 hours per day - last time I had 36 appointments in three days. These all have to be set up around 3 months beforehand. I visit other publishers' stands, so I also need time to get to the different halls. It's busy.

The other main fair is at Frankfurt in October: this one  is for all sorts of books, not just children's. It's much bigger than Bologna. Even more running! I don't usually go to both but I am this year.

10 years down the highway from now – what would you hope for Gecko Press?

We are certainly growing. In our first year we published 4 books, and we have 12 titles planned for 2008. Ten years from now? I would like to see us with a really strong collection of books, mainly from other countries.  At the moment very few books are translated from other languages into English - in 2005 the UK Bookseller estimated 3 percent of books published in the UK came from outside the country.  We have such strong children's writers in New Zealand - these books are not meant to compete with them but sit alongside them. It is a different perspective and to me it makes the world a wider and richer place, being able to read the best writers from other countries. Imagine no Anne Frank's Diary or Mrs Pepperpot or Emil and the Detectives! When I started it seemed to me incredible that Ulf Stark's titles had been translated in 25 languages but they were not available in New Zealand. We were the first publishers in the world to publish his books in English and yet he is such a well-known children's writer in other countries. In ten years I want Gecko Press to be known as a publisher of curiously good books.

You are a one-and-a-half person publishing company. It sounds amazingly busy.

There are a lot of people who work really hard to promote Gecko Press books and I am very grateful to them - it makes such a difference.  I am also greatly helped by Penelope Todd, who has a special talent for working with translated texts and moving them to a stage where they work in English as well as they did in their original language. Then there are the designers and Ang, our publicist, our distributor, Reed, and the booksellers - there are a lot of people who are involved in Gecko Press and who support it. Many do it just because they like the books. they often do things without me knowing - I hear about it from someone later on. Gecko Press is three years old this year and I've never worked this hard, but I have never loved what I am doing as much as I do now.

One last question from me. Are you planning to write a children’s book yourself?

Not at present!

Aims always sound a bit worthy don’t they but for want of a better word, does Gecko Press have an aim.

Our aim is for children not only to learn to read but to learn to love to read.

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