Interview: Karen McMillan, author of Paris of the East

Karen McMillan’s new title Paris of the East is an historical novel set in World War II. It follows a Polish pilot that joins the British RAF after Poland and France are invaded. Karen has written a broad range of fiction and non-fiction titles and has had a long career in the publishing sector. NZ Booklovers recently managed to catch up with her and get a bit of scoop on her latest, best-selling novel, as well the publishing industry in New Zealand.

Hi Karen, and thank you for catching up with NZ Booklovers.

How does it feel to have The Paris of the East on the bestseller list at the moment? Are you doing much celebrating?

It is such a delightful surprise! I haven’t been celebrating as such, but have just been feeling quietly happy that people having been buying and enjoying my new novel.

What drew you to write about WWII and the plight of Polish people in particular?

I’ve always had an interest in the personal stories from WWII, and I am interested in the moral and ethical decisions made by ordinary people in those extraordinary times. I often wonder if I would have made the right choices in the same situation. A Polish edition of my first book Unbreakable Spirit was published a few years ago and I spent a week in Poland on author tour promoting the book. During that time I fell in love with the Polish people I met, and I was spellbound by Poland’s rich and often tragic history. While on tour I met Wanda Poltawska, an astonishing woman in her 90s who survived the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp after being imprisoned for her work in the Resistance. After meeting her I knew I had to write about the plight of Polish people in the war. She has inspired my main character Celina in The Paris of the East.

Is historical fiction a genre you’re planning to write again? Were there any particular writing challenges that the genre brought up for you?

My next book will be a non-fiction book – a revised edition of Unbreakable Spirit. And my next novel will probably be a contemporary novel, but I would definitely like to write more historical fiction in the future and have plans for a sequel to The Paris of the East. Of course, the greatest challenge is writing about an era well before I was born – so detailed research is crucial. The Paris of the East had the added challenge of writing about Poland when I’m not Polish myself – but my Polish publisher was extremely helpful when I had questions and was able to point me in the right direction.

Another thing to be aware of when writing historical fiction is keeping your characters in the moment. I know what is going to happen throughout the course of the war – it’s now history – but for my characters they are living in each moment and they don’t know what is going to happen next. After reading numerous books and letters from the time, my characters are arguably more formal in the way they speak too, and they are bound by the conventions of the day, not the modern, liberal society of New Zealand – so that changes the sensibilities of the characters. If I had someone time-travelling from today to their world, they would probably react to the situation in different ways!

Has work in the publishing sector – promoting other peoples’ work – affected how you approach your own writing?

Good question! I have worked in the publishing sector for 14 years and I’m very much used to being the background support person for other writers. I love working with authors, helping them to achieve their dreams. I don’t think it has changed the way I approach my own writing – I tend to get very excited about an idea and then simply have to write it until I have a finished book – but it certainly has changed the way I have promoted my work in the past – that is I haven’t really promoted myself! When I have worked with so many internationally famous authors I have felt like a bit of a fool saying, ‘um, by the way, I’ve also had a few books published.’ So definitely my day job makes me very shy about talking about my writing.

It was great to see how much publicity Elizabeth Catton has received for winning the Booker prize and how much that has been bound up in her New Zealand identity. Are there any other New Zealand writers that you would love to see gain international attention?

Elizabeth Catton is a national treasure and I am so proud of her! Other authors I would love to see get more international attention (and in no particular order) are crime writers Vanda Symon and Paul Thomas, contemporary novelist Paddy Richardson, Madeleine Tobert author of The Sea on Our Skin, fantasy writer Helen Lowe and children’s writer Donovan Bixley. They are just some of the incredibly talented New Zealand writers I have had the pleasure of working with in the course of my career.

What is your top tip for New Zealand writers looking to get their work published?

Do your research before submitting manuscripts to publishers. Ensure that the book you are writing actually suits their list. They are never going to publish your truly wonderful children’s novel if they only publish cooking and sports books.

Some of your works have been published by international companies such as Random House whereas others have been with more independent publishers and via self-publishing. How has the experience differed between the different channels for publication?

The experience is definitely different from being published by a traditional publisher to self-publishing. The wonderful thing about being published by someone like a large international publisher such as Random House, or an independent publisher like Calico Publishing, is they look after everything, so the only thing you need to do is write the book and then go through the usual editing process – and then in due course you will probably do some interviews with local media. But with self-publishing you need to think of everything yourself. This is exciting as you have full control of every part of the process – but it can be daunting as you need to consider book production and design, editing, marketing and publicity, distribution and sales. My advice to anyone considering self-publishing is to do your research and get professional help.

Do you have favourite writers that you have particularly enjoyed working with?

I am very blessed that I have worked with some truly outstanding authors and I think people may feel a little green with envy when I list some of my favourites: crime and thriller writers Mark Billingham, Mark Gimenez, Jeffery Deaver, Ian Rankin, Greg Hurwitz, Val McDermid and Michael Robotham. Historical fiction writers: Sarah Dunant, Barbara Ewing and Elizabeth Kostova. Of course, the amazing Alexander McCall Smith should be mentioned as being one of the nicest authors I have ever toured with. Oh, and Irish writer Ciara Geraghty, and the extraordinary Kate Mosse, and… well, I think I will need to stop my list for now!

You also review books for your own blog. How have online reviews impacted publicity for authors?

Online reviews are becoming more important for authors, as the space in the book section of newspapers and magazines continues to shrink. Good on NZ Booklovers for launching a dedicated site to books! On my website www.karenm.co.nz I enjoy reviewing books there – and hopefully that alerts readers to some wonderful books if they are looking for something new to try out. I also put these reviews on Facebook www.facebook.com/KarenMcMillanAuthor and Twitter https://twitter.com/KarenMcMillanNZ.

Over the course of your career, what are the most noticeable changes you’ve seen in New Zealand’s publishing industry?

The book industry in New Zealand has been poised for a long time for the arrival of the e-book in our market – and finally it has happened. Now that people have a variety of electronic reading devices available to them this format of a book is becoming increasingly popular. As an author I really don’t mind what format people read my books – e-book or paperback are both fine – but it does create challenges for publishers to get the costings to work when a print run may be less on the paper book run than previously (even when offset with the increase in e-book sales). But publishers are very smart people, so they will figure these things out!

Do you have any predictions about how publishing may change in the future?

It is already happening – the springing up of small independent publishers who have a passion for books and good quality publishing. There will also be more services for writers who want to take the financial gamble of self-publishing. Instead of slow lumbering publishing giants, where budgets are the focus and only a few authors earn the big money, there will be nimble and astute indie publishers, where books and authors take centre stage. I think we are heading into a very exciting time for writers.

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General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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