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Interview: Philippa Werry and Peter Dowling talk about The Water Bottle


Philippa Werry talks about The Water Bottle with Oratia publisher Peter Dowling.


Philippa Werry is an award-winning author of books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. She is well known for history books, including Anzac Day and Best Mates. She lives in Wellington (see https://philippawerry.co.nz ).


Burak Akbay is a prominent illustrator and designer of children’s books who lives in Istanbul, Turkey. From his origins in creating comic fanzines, he now illustrates books full-time and loves comics, graphic novels and film noir.

Peter Dowling is a publisher, editor and author whose career in books and magazines spans 30 years across New Zealand, Europe, Japan and the Americas. He is the founder and publisher of Oratia Media, an independent press that publishes the Oratia Books list (children’s, Māori, non-fiction) and provides book and media services to clients globally. A regular participant at international book fairs, Peter is a Past President of the Publishers Association of New Zealand.


Tell us a little about The Water Bottle

Philippa: The Water Bottle is a picture book set in two countries (Turkey and New Zealand) and two time frames (1915 and today). At its most basic, I hope it’s a story about how today’s young people can build friendships with others who may at first seem ‘different’, and learn how to look at well-known historical events from a new perspective.


What was the inspiration behind/background to the project?

Peter: One of my closest friends is Turkish and we visited Gallipoli together many years ago. Around Anzac Day each year I usually hoist the Turkish flag at home, and last year shared a photo of that with our literary agents in Istanbul, Göksun Bayraktar and Nazlı Gürkaş of The Black Cat Agency. We reflected on the bond between our countries and the idea grew for a children’s book to convey the origins of that friendship. I started talking with Philippa, they approached Turkish illusrator Burak Akbay, and the story started to take shape.


How did you come up with the story?

Philippa: We started off with the idea of some kind of artefact that might become a precious family treasure. I came across the true story of an Otago soldier’s handkerchief that was handed down in a family in a Turkish village. I looked at museum websites to see what other artefacts might have come back here, like coins or carved spoons. But I kept coming back to the idea of a water bottle, because that seemed to symbolise some of the hardships of the campaign, in which water was such a precious commodity.


What research was involved?

Philippa: I was already familiar with the facts of the Gallipoli campaign from some of my previous books, although I had to go over them again with this story in mind, and military historian Chris Pugsley was also very generous in sharing some of his time and knowledge. One thing I wasn’t sure about was how the campaign is commemorated in Turkey, or if they mark a particular day, as we do Anzac Day. I found out that their special day is on the date of a battle (which they won) fought in the Dardanelles on 18 March 1915, a month before the Anzac landings. On that day, schoolchildren often make up and perform peace songs, which helped me find my ending for the book.


I also had to research Turkish names. I tried to choose names for all the characters that were appropriate to their culture and age and to the story. One of the Kiwi children is called Airini, which means ‘peace’. Tom’s great-great-uncle was called Claude, which was the name of my grandfather (he fought at Gallipoli). The Turkish names were harder. I liked the name Derya which means ‘sea, ocean’. That seemed fitting for someone who crossed the sea to come to New Zealand. But the Turkish agents with whom we talked said the names I originally chose for Derya’s father and great-grandfather weren’t of the right period. I hadn’t considered that names in Turkey might go in and out of fashion, just as children’s names do here!


With the strong Turkish connections in the book, will Oratia be selling this book overseas?

Peter: Absolutely. Black Cat has been presenting the book to a number of Turkish publishers to consider for publication there. I’ve just taken part online in the 7th Istanbul Publishing Fellowship, which brings together publishers from around the world with our Turkish colleagues. Several of the publishers I met through the fellowship are now evaluating The Water Bottle.


There will be a readership for the book in Australia so we’ve despatched copies to our distributor John Reed Books there, with more to go soon to our distributors in Europe (Gazelle) and North America (University of Hawai’i Press).


What did you enjoy the most about this project?

Philippa: I really enjoyed the unusual experience of working with an overseas illustrator. Picture book writers and illustrators often work quite separately, but because Burak Akbay was in Turkey, we sent him suggestions for some New Zealand scenes, like what a typical war memorial or classroom might look like. But of course he was very familiar with the Turkish scenes, and it was fascinating to see his interpretation of them, and to watch the illustrations developing as he worked on them.


Peter: Like Philippa, the highlight was working across two cultures to present both sides of this shared history. Along with Oratia’s editorial director Carolyn Lagahetau we had ongoing Zoom and email exchanges right throughout the process, shared some tears and laughter, and learned a great deal.


What is the favourite book you have read in the past year and why?

Philippa: Like nearly everyone else I know, I loved Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K. Reilly, especially the witty humour and the great characters. I was rapt to find that it features a scene set in my own suburb, right down to the bus stop and the poster in the chemist’s window. As well as that, all the picture books I’ve enjoyed sharing over and over with my two mokopuna. Mem Fox’s Where is the Green Sheep is a firm favourite.


Peter: Sorry for plugging one our own, but I just gained a huge amount of enjoyment working on and now rereading Steve Braunias’ Cover Story: 100 Beautiful, Strange and Frankly Incredible New Zealand LP Covers. Steve’s writing hits all the right notes, harmonised beautifully by Katrina Duncan’s design.


The Water Bottle, written by Philippa Werry and illustrated by Burak Akbay, published by Oratia Books.