Curiously Good

'One of Us’ – Dominion Post Indulgence feature on Wellington publisher Julia Marshall

Vultures are Julia Marshall’s creature of the moment. The founder of children’s publisher Gecko Press says they have an absurdity about them that appeals to her. There’s one in Selma: a book Gecko published last Christmas about a goofy sheep with a simple view of happiness. Selma’s bliss means she’s oblivious to the fox stalking her and the fact that the Mrs Miller she chats to every day is a vulture.

Vultures aren’t the usual bird to pop up in a New Zealand book but then Gecko books aren’t your usual New Zealand book. Selma is by leading German author Jutta Bauer and over a quarter of a million copies were sold in eleven languages before Marshall bought the rights and had it translated into English.

Julia Marshall launched Gecko Press in 2005 to bring the ‘curiously good’ children’s books from around the world to New Zealand readers and other readers in English. Born in Marton, she flew north and ended up living in Sweden for twelve years working on multi-language corporate magazines and websites. At an industry book fair in Europe, Marshall discovered that it was possible to buy the rights to foreign children’s books and translate and publish them. Interested, she began to notice that while Europeans translated avidly from a whole range of languages including English, English-speaking countries rarely returned the favour.

Marshall was puzzled. ‘I think it’s very dangerous to be only getting books from the States and UK and the odd one from France. Dangerous is quite a strong word, isn’t it? I think it’s not good, it’s insular.’

Changed personal circumstances saw Sweden lose its hold on Marshall and she began spending longer periods back home in New Zealand while she hatched a plan. The first thing was to get some book experience, so Marshall worked for a New Zealand publisher and completed the Kate de Goldi course on writing for children. By 2005, she’d made a final return home and established Gecko Press. Marshall says she chose the name because geckos are unusual, shy and curious. ‘They’re cute but they’re not too cute and they’re strongly New Zealand and I love the way they’ve got suction feet.’

A comment like that is typical Julia Marshall. She is a combination of farmer-daughter practical and Selma dottiness with a penetrating gaze that could knock Selma’s vulture right off its perch. It’s no surprise to find Gecko tucked shyly away in a cubby-hole at Creative HQ in Wellington with other creative starter businesses. There are boxes of books spilling out of the door and inside Marshall’s working at her lap-top, alert to a visitor and, well, curious.

Immediately on for a coffee, she confesses to being very easily distracted. In fact she became so distracted by her distractibility, she took the unusual step of joining the Global Association for Distracted People. Marshall is on the Board and is the Head of the Oceania Branch. She quotes the website: ‘Not everybody understands that distractedness actually reflects a high level of concentration (on something else).’

Gecko Press seems to be Marshall’s ‘something else.’ Up until recently, Gecko was Marshall but now the business is growing exponentially (five books last year, twelve this year including three reprints) she’s employed a part-time administrator and has a freelance publicity person in Auckland.

Marshall, though, is still very much the lynch-pin. For every book, she instructs a translator to do a straight translation or, in the case of Swedish books, does it herself. Then she and another writer work with the material until it feels right for its audience while keeping the spirit of the original.

In April every year, Marshall packs her bags and heads overseas to the London Book Fair and the giant children’s book fair in Bologna; in October it’s Frankfurt. This year not only was she buying rights for books to translate into English from places as far afield as Taiwan and Belgium, but she started selling the rights to Gecko’s English translations. Gecko Press is still only one of a handful of publishers world-wide specialising in this.

Marshall’s also just announced the sale of the US rights for the one book she’s published from scratch: Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop’s Snake and Lizard.

‘Gecko books are all very warm books. I choose the books that for me show the oddness of humanity and don’t take themselves too seriously.’ Marshall also likes stories which embrace emotion without being sentimental and aren’t scared to approach the big issues like death.

She has a soft spot for her first book: the Austrian Donkeys. It’s about an old donkey couple who separate on their silver wedding and go looking for new partners – only to find each other. ‘They discover it’s hard to find another donkey out there,’ says Marshall. She’s not surprised Donkeys has been a hit with adults wanting it for anniversary and wedding gifts. ‘I think kids books get right to the heart of things without all of that extraneous hoo-ha.’

Another stand-out is All the Dear Little Animals – a humorous and compassionate look at three children who start a business burying dead animals and address the big issues of life and death. Radio NZ reviewer Kate de Goldi said, ‘This is the most brilliant book I have seen perhaps in years.’

Marshall is quietly pleased. Her approach from the start has been to ask overseas publishers for their Margaret Mahys. ‘They have to be among the best books in the world. Both because they’ve got to travel and they’ve got to be relevant.’ In fact it was the publisher of Margaret Mahy in Sweden who told Marshall her idea to form Gecko Press meant she was either mad or she’d found her niche. Marshall believes Gecko has in fact, as lizards do, found a nice little niche all of its own in the sun. Not a single vulture in sight.

By Mary McCallum
12 January 2008

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