The Stranger in the Bookshop

So a funny thing happened on the way to the computer shop…

Climate strikes & masterclasses

It was the Friday of the Climate Strikes and I had advised work months before that I was taking the day off. This was before I knew about the strikes and I was feeling guilty about not attending my local rally. Guilty, but also jealously protective of my day off. I’d scheduled writing and associated admin and I wasn’t going to be diverted.

I was heading to Sydney the next day, for a Picture Book Masterclass at the Australian Writers Centre. I had to take multiple copies of my manuscripts to workshop.

So I started the day at the Rock n Roll Cafe, which is nice and dark and conducive to working on a laptop. I made some last minute changes to the two manuscripts. One of my stories had a comparison text I really wanted to take down to Sydney to share with the class. 

It was a book called The All New Must Have Orange 430, an Honour Book in the 2019 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards for Picture Book of the Year. I searched for it on the local library online catalogue. All six copies were on loan so I hoped the Mullumbimby Bookshop would have it in stock.

Comparison text
Image from publisher’s website (Penguin)

Bookshop browsing

At the bookshop I looked on the shelves but there was no copy, so I started leafing through Jen Storer’s latest picture book, Wibble Wobble. My kids and I are huge fans of her previous two picture books, Blue the Builder’s Dog and Clarry’s Pig Day Out.

I sensed a man standing behind me, so I shuffled out of his way and continued looking at the book. He asked if I was looking for something in particular, but I knew he didn’t work there.

Interesting…

The stranger

We struck up a conversation and it went something like this:

‘You might like this one,’ he said, pulling out Puddle Hunters by Kirsty Murray and Karen Blair. ‘I know one of the creators.’

‘Really? Which one?’

‘Karen Blair.’

‘You know Karen Blair?!?’

Look at that sense of movement
Image from publisher’s website (Allen and Unwin)

‘Yes, I know her from Perth. I’m from Perth.’

‘I love Puddle Hunters! But I’m not really looking to buy a book for toddlers. I actually came in for another book but they don’t have it. I’m checking out Jen Storer’s latest because she’s great and I write picture books and…’

‘I write picture books too! In fact, I just won the WA Environmental Award for a picture book.’

Environmental award-winning picture book

We’ve met on Instagram…

‘OMIGOD! Are you Michael Speechley?’

‘Yes.’

Shaking his hand, with stars in my eyes: ‘I’m @byronbiblio . We’ve met on Instagram.’

‘Oh!’

‘Are you on tour then?’

‘No, just staying with friends in Brunswick Heads. Um, I guess I’m sort of on tour – I had a school visit at Skennar’s Head.’

‘Wow, I cannot believe this… What’s bizarre is that it’s your book I came in here looking for… And I’m not even just saying that! The All New Must Have is actually a comparison text for a manuscript I’m workshopping this weekend. I’m going down to Sydney specially.’

And then he said, ‘Do you have your manuscript here?’

‘Yes…’

Then he very kindly said,

‘Let’s go for coffee!’

SQUEE!

And to cut a long and detailed story short, he was incredibly generous with his time, chatting to me about his journey to publication and reading my manuscript carefully for the next hour!

Michael Speechley in a Mullumbimby cafe –
yes, that’s my manuscript he’s reading!

A passion for picture books

I loved spending time with him because you could tell that he was REALLY into picture books. I’ve seen other author-illustrators like that, such as the incredible Jeannie Baker, whose Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea and Window are international classics. 

Michael was very gentle, thoughtful and careful with his feedback, and very encouraging. He had lots of tips for tightening the themes and cutting the word count.

The morning’s events were so overwhelming I ended up with my first real migraine ever (but it might have been the third coffee that tipped me over the edge). The shaking legs and dry retching were worth it — I doubt Michael knew he had such an effect on me!

So the moral of the story is… 

Always talk to strangers in bookstores!

Plus:

  • Try to see the potential of social media interactions, rather than feeling overloaded. It felt much less weird to go for coffee with a total stranger I actually “know” (ie stalk) on Instagram
  • Decaf is your friend
  • There’s more than one way to support the environment (see his book below)

Read more about Michael Speechley’s book and inspiration here.