Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tobermory Cat, the trolls & me.

Skip this bit if you're not interested in the background.

I have known Hugh Andrew at Birlinn books for years. Every so often, we have rung each other up for a yarn, a rant or to filter some London-centric bit of industry gossip through a Scottish lens. Over time, I have grown fond of Hugh; he is one of a vanishing kind; an intelligent, old-school publisher, heading up a dedicated team who produce beautiful and occasionally controversial Scottish-interest books. That Birlinn continue to do this in the current fiscal shrink-fest, is a feat worthy of celebration.

We are living in interesting times, in the Chinese sense. With the rise of digitisation, online piracy, Amazon, Apple, e-books, the war of attrition being waged on our libraries by a wilfully blinkered coalition government and the growth of a generation wedded to text in a txt format, it doesn't take an economist to figure out that small indy publishers like Birlinn are having the utmost difficulty simply treading water, let alone turning a profit. 

 And for those of us at the bottom of the industry feeding chain ; the authors and illustrators whose incomes depend on book sales? I think I can say without too much exaggeration that some of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. Time was, we supplemented our small royalties with paid visits to schools and libraries. With current fiscal shrinkage, that entire income stream has dried up. Time was, in the lean months of January through to March, we hoped that the stipend from borrowings in libraries ( PLR) would put lentils on the table. With the closure of libraries across the UK, that income stream is endangered. In the flood of online, self-published books, the average Gentle Reader could well be forgiven for assuming that books have no value whatsoever. Why pay full price for a hardback, when you can download an equivalent, or even a pirated copy for free?  

Like I said ; interesting times. That was the background. Our story starts early in 2011. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Hugh rang me. He had an idea for a children's book, he said. With crushing honesty, he admitted he'd tried to interest Mairi Hedderwick in the idea, but for one reason and another, she hadn't been keen, so he was coming to me. As a second choice.

In the silence, Hugh began to babble. It was to be a cat book.  With a difference. It was to be about a real cat. The Tobermory cat. He was an amazing cat. A huge ginger tom, he was one of three ginger toms beloved of the citizens of Tobermory. There was the Distillery cat, the Mishnish cat and Our Boy, the Tobermory Cat. Hugh warmed to his theme. Our Boy was a real bruiser. Cojones of steel. A brawler. Belongs to nobody. Occasionally sleeps in Brown's, the hardware store. Sleeps on cars. Sleeps on pavements. Sleeps in the middle of the road. Stops traffic. Sleeps anywhere. Beloved. Tobermory, post-Balamory, needs an iconic something to raise its profile and drive tourists back into its cafes, shops, hotels, B&Bs etc. The local bookseller is on board. Our Boy would make a fantastic book. A children's book. Look, the thing to do is come up to Mull with me, meet the locals, meet the Cat, and then you'll see...

And finally, in the silence, the words that have come back to haunt me.

...he even has his own Facebook page.

So. Months went by. Hugh and I had a proper publisher and writer lunch at a wee place round the corner from Birlinn HQ. We tiptoed carefully round the subject of money and contractual stuff. Hugh enquired whether I'd looked at The Cat on Facebook, and I said yes I had, but I would wait to see him in the fur before putting brush to paper. Hugh Informed me that The Cat's name is Ledaig, pronounced Le-shag, and I stated for the record that there was no way on god's earth that I was going to walk into a Scottish primary school and announce that I was about to read from a book about a pussy called that. I'm not entirely sure that Hugh, having been gently raised, had any idea why my objections were quite so strenuous in this matter, but never mind. My cat was going to be called The Tobermory Cat, end of. Capisce?

More time passed. A contract was raised. My agent and I celebrated the future success of our new book project with a long and cheerful phone call. What was I going to do with the story, she asked. I had no idea, but I hoped in my story to show something of the solitary, marches to the beat of his own drum, sufficient unto himself, private nature of the animal. Apart from that, I was hoping that a conflation of the place, the cat, the local people and a sprinkling of serendipity would work some kind of magic and kickstart the process. I put a lot of faith in places. And Mull, for native west-coasters like me, is a place as close to a spiritual home as it gets. For my 50th birthday, as an extra-special treat, my partner took me to Mull for a week spent tramping its hills and coastline. In February. I couldn't imagine anywhere better on Earth to spend a birthday. I've been going there since I could walk. I knew the place would deliver up the magic. What I didn't know, what I could never have suspected was that along with the beauty, it also dished up a slice of something very ugly indeed.

It began in December. Hugh, Millie the Jack Russell and I drove up to Oban and took the ferry across to Mull. We arrived in darkness. Booked into the Western Isles hotel,went for a freezing cold walk to appease Millie. We had dinner with the local bookseller. Over dinner, the bookseller mentioned a local artist, who, in addition to  painting landscapes of Mull, had also been responsible for setting up the Tobermory Cat's Facebook page. The artist was, the bookseller explained, not best pleased at Birlinn's intention to publish a book based on the cat. 

With me so far? Good. Let's press on. The bookseller suggested that we paid a visit to the artist to attempt to allay his fears, smooth his feathers, pour oil on troubled waters and generally assure him that our intention to publish a children's book would not in any way impinge upon his...his...Facebook page. Still with me? Good, because I was becoming confused at this point. 

Why did we have to go and placate this artist? I've had cause to ask myself this question many times since that night. I've replayed the meeting over and over again, sifting through my memory for some nugget of understanding to explain what happened next. I still have no clear answer.

Briefly then, because our meeting was brief. Hugh and Millie and I pitched up at the artist's gallery/house at the appointed time. He answered the door and invited us in. The house smelled beautiful. Someone was baking Christmas cake. I made some innocuous remark to that effect. The artist remarked on how tall Hugh is. He turned to me and asked how on earth I managed to get any work done with so many children.

Ah. The Internet. Purveyor of the minutiae of other people's lives. I too had done my research, except I hadn't dug around in the Artist's personal life. I had looked at his paintings online. They're lovely. I said that I admired his watercolours. There was a silence. Have you seen any of my work, I asked. It was a relevant question- I was attempting to defuse the situation by showing the Artist that my work was child-centric and thus, of no threat to either his watercolour landscapes or his Facebook cat photos. The Artist said he had seen some of my work. It was, he said, nuanced

Nuanced? Oh, dear. I had a sudden flashback to art college days when one of our lecturers used to get carried away with the sound of his own voice and would wander round the sculpture court mumbling similar guff along the lines of-  yerrrsss - mmmm, the spatial tensions in this work are paradigmatically arranged in a fashion to be synchronous with the spatial harmonies etc etc blah blah. I'm sorry, but nuanced, on its lonesome, is one of those meaningless words, bandied about by people who actually have nothing to say.  I had no idea if the Artist thought my work was rubbish or not.

Hugh broke in with a clear shot across the Artist's bows. What did the Artist want from us? In short, why we we there? 
The Artist came to the point. He did not want us to do this book. The cat was his, the idea was his, it was his creation-
Hugh broke in again. The cat, he said, was nobody's. The cat belonged to himself. The idea for the book would come from Ms Gliori here and had nothing to do with the creation of the Facebook page-
The Artist broke in. We would never have heard of the cat had it not been for the Facebook page. It was his idea. If he hadn't put in all the work into the Facebook page, nobody would ever have heard of the cat.
Hugh sighed. This was patently untrue, he said. The Artist was mistaken. Hugh's first encounter with the cat was on a sales trip to Tobermory. He'd seen the cat sunning itself outside Tackle and Books, the local bookshop, surrounded by a group of adoring tourists. The bookseller had told Hugh that the cat was something of  a local celebrity. People were always taking photos of it. It was quite a character, that cat. At which point Hugh and the bookseller realised they had come up with the seed of an idea for the hero of The Tobermory Cat, a children's book. So, in short, the cat had been famous long before he was the subject of  a Facebook page. I could hear Hugh's teeth grinding as he repeated,  What did the Artist want?

The Artist reiterated. He did not want us to do the book.
Hugh dug his heels in. That was non-negotiable. Ms Gliori was writing a book about the Tobermory Cat and that was the end of it. However, it was a children's book. For children. Ms Gliori is a world-renowned author/illustrator with sales worldwide in the millions 

Shut up, Hugh, I begged silently. Please, let's go. Now. This is pointless.

and tell you what we can do, Hugh continued, we can advertise your gallery and your paintings on the back of the book. And perhaps, if you wanted,  you could advertise our book on your Facebook page and that way you could earn some click-through income. We can work together on this. What d'you think?

The Artist didn't hesitate. I don't want you to do the book, he said. 
And on it went. The Artist's wife arrived back from work. Even with four of us in the room, it became rapidly apparent that we we never going to reach accord. And I had been silent, listening to this nonsense for too long. Finally, as the Artist stated for the nth time that it was his idea, something inside me snapped.

Creativity doesn't work like that, I snarled. Ideas are sand. They slip through your grasp. When you let them go, they return to you multiplied. The more you give away, the more you receive in return.

Like love, in fact, but I wasn't about to say that. Not to the Artist.

If you try to hang onto them, to claim them as your own, the effort will eat you alive. I may have spoken that last with some force, but by then I was fed up with this non-conversation. We were getting nowhere. Fast. It was time to go. 

Hugh stood up. We would be in touch, he said. We would keep the Artist in the loop, and let him know what was happening. Hopefully, in time, we would find some common ground. We shuffled towards the front door. Outside, it was dark. Sleet was stitching needles of ice through the air. Hugh held out a hand to shake. The Artist refused to play. However, as we turned to go, the Artist lunged at me, enveloped me in a hug and planted a kiss on my cheek.

Two days later, the Artist started his campaign on Facebook. He had been visited by two thieves, he posted. They came to his house to steal the Tobermory cat.
His followers were furious. Who were these people? How dare they? The Artist ignored this question. He posted again. And again. And again. He never missed an opportunity to make some snarky remark about robbers or thieves and then off he'd go, drawing comparisons with 'an Edinburgh illustrator' or 'an Edinburgh publisher'. And the Artist's followers lapped it up. Who were these awful people, they demanded?  Poor artist, they soothed, how awful for him. Then, thankfully, the Artist stopped posting for a while. In the blissful silence, I got on with my book. 

My idea for The Tobermory Cat had come to me on Mull. Just as I'd hoped it would. The day before we met the Artist, Hugh and I had been out and about in Tobermory, with me taking photos for reference, and both of us interviewing local people and listening to their stories about the cat. The more stories I heard, the more I realised that if there was going to be a book, I was going to have to pull something pretty special out of the hat. But Hugh wanted the story to be rooted in reality. The reality being that there really was very little that was newsworthy about the cat. Forgive me for being so blunt. But when I met him, he was gorgeous, gingery, big and...looked just like every big ginger Tom I have ever known. I stroked his marmalade head and felt desperately sorry for him. He had no idea what the human race were about to do in his name. And that was before I'd met the Artist.

Feeling a bit aghast at the lack of story with which to craft my book, I headed back to the hotel with Hugh. On the way, we passed a little pale green house tucked away up a lane. It was, Hugh said, the house that Mendelssohn had stayed in when he visited Tobermory. Mendelssohn? Of Fingal's Cave/ Hebridean Overture fame? The same. We walked on. I hummed the music under my breath. Somewhere in the deep recesses of  the porridge that passes for my brain, something connected to something else and there was a brief power surge. Back at the hotel, we had dinner, went to bed, the next day we met the Artist and the day after that, I woke up too early for breakfast and poured myself a bath and made a cup of complimentary room service tea. 

I climbed into the bath, sipped my tea, lay back and.... I heard music. From somewhere came the faint sound of strings. Violins.  After a moment, I identified what they were playing as The Hebridean Overture. My nose prickled. My eyes filled up.  Tears began to roll down my face. What on earth was happening? For some reason, I couldn't stop crying. It was like a huge wave breaking onshore, sweeping me along in its wake. After some time, the music faded away, replaced with the burbling of hotel plumbing and the sounds of other guests greeting the new day. I climbed onto dry land and attempted to pull myself together.

But, yet, when I joined Hugh for breakfast, red-eyed and babbling,  I had an idea. An idea so perfect that it still makes me laugh out loud. Maybe you'll look at The Tobermory Cat book and think, whaaaat? But I love my Tobermory Cat. He is special, but he doesn't know it. He came out of my lifelong love for Mull, from the many miles of coastline my partner and I walked during one week in February, the conversations I had with the  people of Tobermory, the real cat ( Ledaig) my love of Shetland music, the book I was working on at the time I went up to Mull with Hugh  ( What's the Time, Mr Wolf? pub. Bloomsbury) and Hugh's enthusiasm and abiding love of the west coast of Scotland. But the heart of the book came from the great human pool of ideas. The pool in which  we all go swimming every single time we pick up a brush, a pen or, in this case, a bow. A fiddle bow. For my Tobermory Cat plays the fiddle. As do I. I am, after all, a violin-maker's daughter. That's what came to me in the bath. An image of the Tobermory Cat, standing in the moonlight, serenading the good people of Tobermory on his fiddle.

Why on earth anyone would assume that I'd go trawling the depths of Facebook to find my ideas is a complete mystery to me. Frankly, I'd rather eat bees. 

But Twitter.... Now that was a fascination. Some of the disparate links I found on there took me to places I knew were food for the imagination. In March, I decided it would be fun to open a second Twitter account in the name of my Tobermory cat. Stupidly I thought it would be a laugh to tweet backwards and forwards with myself under two hats, posting from @DebiGliori to @TheTobermoryCat and getting a good bit of banter going. With myself. Yes, I know.  Blame the fact I was an only child for this insanity. Needless to say, I didn't get many followers, but to my horror, one of my early ones was the Artist. He didn't say anything. Not at first. I carried on, tweeting back and forth, pretending to be a cat and imagining that I was a cat that lived in my real studio. Yes, I know. Being a writer isn't a job, it's a psychosis.

By April, I was almost finished with the preparatory drawings in pencil for the book. We were all getting excited by now; watching the book take shape is a bit like seeing prints come up in the tray of developer fluid way back in the dark days of photography. I'd been keeping an occasional eye out on Facebook just to check that the Artist hadn't restarted his campaign of name-calling, and sadly, in the spring, he began again. In a cleverly targeted series of posts, he returned the Tobermory cat back to Facebook and began to post once more. On Facebook and Twitter. More comments about thieving publishers and Edinburgh illustrators. After an absence of several months, his followers were delighted to have him back. And then, on my way to do a library visit in Perth, the Artist posted on the Twitter account of the library I was about to visit. An hour before my event. He was wondering if they had any books on copyright or the theft of intellectual property.

I had the chills. Sitting out in the car park outside the library, I felt sick. I said nothing to the librarian. I did my event, came home and got on with the book. Then I was asked to go to Orkney to visit the library in Kirkwall. The same thing happened. The Artist posted on the Orkney library Twitter page. Did they know anything about theft of intellectual property? The librarian was sympathetic. Had the Artist had some experience of this? Yes, the Artist replied, he had. In fact, he posted, one of Orkney Library's followers had perpetrated the theft.

More chills. But this time I'd had enough. I told the librarians in Orkney, explaining that we were now entering the territory of cyberstalking. Orkney Library are well-accustomed to dealing with the general public in all their states of woo, for want of a better word. We had a laugh, but I was starting to feel very weird. I'm a children's author. This kind of thing is not familiar to me. My fan base tends to be very young and barely able to write a letter, let alone use social media. To be honest, I felt out of my depth and isolated by what was happening. Then the Artist began to tweet to selected numbers of my @DebiGliori followers. Followers like the Edinburgh Book Festival. A fellow-author. A fellow-illustrator. Did they know, he tweeted, that someone they followed was engaged in the theft of intellectual property? Not naming me. No. This was a horrible game of cat-and-mouse, skirting perilously close to defamation, but not so close that I could make it stop. 

On it went. Until, after posting a final silly thing on Facebook asking his 'friends' to fill in an online survey about who they thought the idea for the Tobermory Cat belonged to- the Artist or the Colonial Publisher, finally, with everyone howling "Who? Who? Who Is this colonial publisher and his thief of an illustrator? " the Artist posted, on the May bank holiday, a self-pitying post, the gist of which was

I can't carry on with my Facebook page any more. It's no longer any fun. Birlinn Books are going to publish a book by Debi Gliori called The Tobermory Cat. I have no option but to stop doing this Facebook page. It's been a lot of fun but....goodbye.

And sat back, no doubt, content at having poured petrol on a smouldering fire. 

At which point, my life took a distinct turn for the worse. A whole sector of humanity that I had barely known existed swivelled their eyes in my direction, logged on and fired up their Hate Hoses. And drenched me in their hatred. I was over on the West coast at the time, merrily wiffling away on Twitter along the lines of

when I became aware that my name was almost trending on Twitter. There were multiple mentions of it, and none of them good. Several people went further and got into my account and started firing off tweets to all my followers, informing them that I was a thief. Oh, great. A lot of my followers are booksellers, librarians, teachers, publishers, festival organizers, publicists...people for whom my name is my reputation and my reputation as an author/illustrator is my sole source of income. Let me just state for the record here : I do not have a trust fund. I have a heck of a lot of recipes for lentils. I have no back-up plan. These unknown persons were literally attempting to destroy my livelihood.

Mud sticks, you know. Don't give me that crapola about there being no such thing as bad publicity. There is. I know. I had a shed-load of it. And I was on the West coast of Scotland in a tiny village and I  didn't have my laptop or a decent signal or the technical know-how to lockdown my Twitter account. I had to go and beg my family to humour me and return home early from our May holiday weekend so that I could try and stem the flow of the Hate Hose. Without alarming them too much. Some of the Tweets were nasty. Little fantasies of what the lovely Facebook friends of the Artist would like to do to me, if they got up close and personal.

Let's just take a breath here. What was this about? Yes. A cat. A cat. A cat book for children. Yeah. I know. Me too. It makes me feel something close to despair. 

As we drove home, the 'friends' of the Artist were massing on Facebook. They were leaving me messages. They knew where I lived. They were digging around on the Internet, Googling me, digging up whatever they could find. 

They decided I was ugly. I probably am. On the outside. Inside, where it counts, I am beautiful. 
They decided I wasn't very successful. That's where they were so wrong. My books help thousand of small people to go to sleep every single night. That, for me, is supreme success. 
They decided I was so desperate for ideas I'd steal one from a fellow Artist. Oh, puhleeeease. 

That night I locked down my Twitter account. It remains locked. My cyberfriends rallied round. They suggested I wrote about being cyber bullied. I decided to wait. In truth, I was afraid to goad the wielders of the Hate Hose any further. I installed a moderator on my blog and deleted some more messages of hate. I went to bed, but unsurprisingly, sleep I could get nane. Yes, I stole that. It's a song. 

After the May holiday, I was no longer alone in purdah.  Birlinn also came under attack. Hugh's young intern, a gentle girl, unaccustomed to dealing with screaming madwomen, fielded phone calls from some individuals who, frankly, need help. And soap to rinse out their potty mouths. Hugh attempted to pour oil on troubled waters and wrote a piece for the Oban Times. But all around, the keyboard warriors of Facebook were chanting, 'fight, fight, fight,'

And the Artist came out of early Facebook retirement to the renewed delight of his followers. If I wasn't so furious at what has happened, I could almost confess a kind of grudging admiration for the Artist's sleekit-ness. But it's not a quality I really admire. In truth, it's vile. 

More was to come. Somehow- it must have been a slow news day - they ran a version of the story in The Scotsman. Across two pages. Page two and three for heaven's sake. And in the Glasgow Herald. And the Evening News. With photos of me and the Tobermory Cat, but not, significantly, the Artist. 

I felt peeled. I was in Edinburgh at the opening of the vast Christian Aid book sale, being photographed as part of a group of children's writers there in support of the Children's Laureate as this mess was breaking in the press, and a colleague of mine, a journalist who I've known and worked with for years wouldn't meet me in the eye. That's how I knew it was bad. I went home, turned off the phone and painted the picture which has become the front cover of the book. It's got lots of predatory cats circling round some terrified rats. I wonder how I came up with that idea? 

Citing all the press stories, one of the Artist's Facebook friends got into my Wikipedia page and altered it. Now, after 'Debi Gliori was born in 1959 in Glasgow' the second most important thing in my life is

My agent went onto Wikipedia and removed this. It was immediately re-posted by persons unknown. My agent removed it a second time. To our horror, back up it went with a severe warning from the moderator at  Wikipedia, who not only banned my agent from any further activity but also labelled her as a Wiki-vandal. We cannot remove this. It's up there forever. My lovely Wikipedia page, made for me by several dedicated American librarians, is now besmirched. And really, the Facebook Tobermory Cat may be important to the Artist and his followers, but he is not the second most important thing about me. Not now. Not ever. Meh.

The most important thing about me is something that I wish the Internet would share. In the World Wide Web sense of sharing. It's something that I share with the people I love. It's something that I share with the children I meet in schools and libraries and book festivals around the world. It's not mine, just as the air I breathe could never be said to be mine alone. The most important thing about me and about all of us is that we have within us the possibility to choose to do good things; we can decide to do kind things; things that make all of our lives better.  I guess it comes down to choosing light rather than darkness. I've always loved that saying - it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

Now, I'd like to be allowed to get on with that. Oh, and also I'd like to get on with  the business of making beautiful books for children and parents to enjoy. Together. I hope you love my new book, The Tobermory Cat. It was dreamed up, as with all of my books, in Scotland, with love.