This is a What's My Scene? post from Sue Wright of Tiny Owl Workshop
If you have a group or project that you'd like to share, we'd love to hear from you.
Scroll back a couple of years. Stop. That’s me, sitting at my desk. Apologies for the mess. I’m concentrating on my work, but my thoughts stray to a brown paper napkin. I’ve carried the napkin around with me for three years, tucked away in my bag in among the notebooks and a book of Grimm fairytales my dad gave me (before Mesothelioma got him). The napkin is covered in printed poetry. I love it, but what if it was covered in stories—stories by local writers.
Tiny Owl Workshop begins with that thought.
The name comes from a two hands high, sculpted owl sitting on my dining table. It’s a piece by Scott Radke. I love Radke’s owls, so I ask him to produce four more to use for Tiny Owl. He does, capturing something of the expression of readers enthralled by stories.
I’m not from the publishing world. My first job ever was at the Brisbane fruit market balancing the books for some small company. After a week they kindly let me go. Next is a job in a library. I’m 18. Smoking is still allowed inside the staff room, ‘The Joy of Sex’ is kept under the counter, there are no computers and my boss is writing a Mills and Boon novel under the pen name Lynsey Stevens. I work there for seven years before I save up enough to go to uni to become a manual arts teacher (I have TAFE certificates in wood worky stuff). The course isn't what I expect and I shift sideways into a social work kind of degree. I devour the content. It's brilliant.
My daughter is born at the end of my second year at uni. I don't remember much about my third year. Children’s books flow into the house—I’ve missed them terribly since library days. When my daughter is four we read Dahl's Matilda, followed by every Dahl book in the library, then we scour the shelves for Dahl-like authors. In a no-longer-there-bookshop we find a new copy of J.K Rowling's The Chamber of Secrets (long since fallen apart). I have the next six years to think up ways to explain the no-show Hogwarts letter on the all-important 11th birthday.
After uni I spend years working for not-for-profits, for government, for small businesses – I do freelance illustration on the side. I take on management committee roles for various organisations, edit my partner’s PhD and become the editor of a small academic-industry journal. I write every day and edit more things than I can remember. I publish papers and reports and research. I present at conferences and keep up the freelance illustration work (though non-profits never have enough money to pay). Life is good n’ messy. Family stuff happens and happens and happens.
And Tiny Owl happens because I want it to—need it too. Because the napkin idea won't go away, because stories bring happiness, because more happiness is needed in the world, because Australia is full of talented people and it'd be nice to help build this community, just a little.
Searching for a printer I find Creative Emporium; two talented young women with a stunning Heidelberg press. ‘We haven’t printed on napkins before,’ they say, ‘but how hard can it be?’
It’s quite hard. They do it anyway. They’re magic.
Napkins need cafes. I ask my friend, Kris, at The Little Prince Espresso, he says HELL YES. Avid Reader is next and others follow. Word gets around via Twitter-Facebook-networks. The submission date passes, the press is fired up, the Valentine’s Day deadline closes in and the authors are a delight to work with.
The napkins are tactile, beautifully designed. It's a buzz to feel the words imprinted on them. My daughter (now at uni herself) drops them off around Brisbane. The project goes off, and I sit quietly in the corner of the cafes with my partner, watching as people read them to each other, aloud. There’s some press, and Chloe Townson (one of the authors) gives Margaret Atwood a set at a Brisbane Writers Festival do. Margaret tweets about the napkins and spreads the word further.
Amazing young Scottish woman, Kate McDonald, then contacts me. Would I do napkins again, but include UK writers this time. We take the project to Brisbane, Toronto (because Margaret) and Leeds for Halloween. Logistically it’s harder, but Kate does a brilliant job and the gorgeous Julia Chan (author) in Toronto helps connect us to cafes there.
In-between napkins we make cushions (pillows) for the Brisbane Writers Festival. Local artist Nancy Brown prints the local stories on them and I sew them up. People love them.
Unfettered (an illustration-led project) is next, but doubts about what I’m doing begin to creep in. Then I meet Terry Whidborne who does illustrations. His work is amazing and the demons of doubt scuttle away when he sends me roughs. Terry does so much more than I can possibly pay him for and the subs roll in. We're in the middle of judging subs right now.
By now it's time for a world-building project. So, The Lane of Unusual Traders opens on 31 May. Terry has done the map (there must be a map), and local author, Chris White, has written the prologue. The task is for writers to write the lane—its shops, its denizens, its foibles—into existence.
There’s a children’s book happening too, and another project happening for Xmas, a comic and another small book coming up, but that’s it so far. It’s been a busy two years.
Tiny Owl Workshop is a new, small publisher based in Brisbane. They love great stories, whether they be adventurous, epic, dark, flirtatious, funny, fantastical, sinister, daring, quirky, short, long or anything in-between.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.