Oksa Pollock: The Last Hope is a genuine publishing phenomenon. To date it has sold over half a million copies, and been translated into 27 different languages.
Readers in the UK however are unlikely to have heard of this French grown Harry Potter-esque fantasy adventure. As recent BfK articles have highlighted, UK publishers are slow to pick up translation rights, even in the best-selling foreign fiction. It took independent Pushkin Press to launch Oksa Pollock in the UK, as part of their new children’s list. They brought the book’s authors, Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf to the UK too. Andrea Reece met them to learn more about their remarkable publishing success story.
I meet the creators of Oksa Pollock, Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf, in a busy London hotel on a Friday afternoon. For them it’s the end of a week of events and interviews and they must be more than ready for a break, but they are both charming and happy to recount the story behind the book as though for the first time. And what a story it is, a proper publishing fairy tale.
Anne, who has a good command of English, does most of the talking, breaking off to check her answers with Cendrine, and then translating her friend’s replies. The two have known one another for nineteen years and hit it off the moment they met. ‘We have the same point of view,’ Anne says, ‘the same approach to solving problems. Immediately we met, we knew there were projects we’d like to do together, writing was one of these.
At that point, Anne had already been writing for a couple of years, but hadn’t worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Cendrine had no such qualms, ‘Cendrine doesn’t fear anything’ Anne explains, ‘She is very brave!’ Having decided to write something together, the next thing was to come up with an idea. Once again, it was Cendrine to the fore. It was New Year’s Eve, and she was in the bath when the idea for Oksa came to her. ‘She can’t say why!’ shrugs Anne. On 2 January they started work, plotting Oksa’s adventures out on a storyboard and in great detail it would seem. ‘We planned out six books’ says Anne, ‘with all the different plot lines and detailed notes about the characters. It was important to us to know where the story was going.’
The plot demands this kind of control: Oksa is a thirteen year old girl who, at the start of the book, has just moved to London with her family. She lives the life of an average thirteen year old girl, hanging out with her best friend Gus and complaining about her teachers and parents. By chapter 8 however, Oksa has discovered that she has supernatural powers. This is because her family are in fact exiles from a magical land called Edefia, forced out of their home by a dangerous group known as the Occupants. Oksa’s grandma was the Graciousness (think enlightened empress), Oksa who has inherited her powers, is the family’s ‘Last Hope’ of return. It has a cast of hundreds, many of them fantastical creatures.
But back to Anne and Cendrine’s fairy story: the pair finished their book and sent it off to a publisher. They waited, and waited – ‘for a very long time’ says Anne – and when the responses finally came back, they were negative. Many would-be authors will understand how the two felt at this point: as Anne describes their feelings, ‘It was a huge disappointment’, it’s obvious she still feels it strongly. Once again, Cendrine’s courage saved the day. ‘She said “Let’s do it ourselves”’ says Anne, and so they did, printing copies and taking them round schools and into booksellers. They spent two years doing that, writing books 2 and 3 at the same time, and it was, says Anne, ‘very hard’.
Booksellers were very helpful she says, and had real confidence in the books. But it was the young readers who really gave them the impetus to carry on. And two in particular, who transformed the authors’ fortunes. These two teenagers, annoyed that bookshops were full of books they didn’t think were as good as Oksa Pollock, took it upon themselves to complain about the situation in a letter to a French newspaper. The editor published their letter and took up their cause. ‘A buzz started in France’ says Anne, and before long offers were arriving from several French publishers. ‘We were able to choose’ says Anne, admitting that the offer they finally accepted, ‘would have been impossible to turn down’.
As Oksa Pollock took off in France, offers arrived from countries across the world. Anne explains that at first they were surprised that their stories were popular with so many different readers, but now see that Oksa has a universal appeal, ‘Teenagers, Japanese, Brazilian, wherever, share so much – they’re all experiencing first love, problems with parents or teachers, so they identify with Oksa. There is a kind of general message in the book too about helping one another, respecting each other.’
They remain in touch with their readers, one of the first things they did when they were toting their copies round schools, was to create a website so that children could contact them with questions and suggestions. When I ask what’s the most interesting question a child has ever asked them, they quote with delight the eleven year old boy who asked them if Edefia was an allegory for communism. ‘And recently Adam Freudenheim’s (Pushkin Press publisher) daughter Susanna also asked about Edefia, whether it is a perfect world, or a prison. We were thrilled that these young readers could see so much in our book. We hadn’t deliberately set out to make political points, but this is very interesting to us.’
It’s easy to see why children respond to the book: it’s packed full of incident, and the two have created a fantasy world that feels very substantial. Comparisons with Harry Potter are inevitable, and Anne is quick to acknowledge the debt they owe to the boy wizard and his creator. ‘We’ve always been fantasy fans, but Harry Potter was a revelation. It set a precedent for such big, involved books; it made Oksa possible. The story of JK Rowling helped us too, proof that you can make it against the odds. If she did it, so could we.’ As with Harry Potter, film rights to the books have been sold (to the Twilight producer in fact), but Anne and Cendrine are more excited about a new comic strip version, out this summer in France.
Unlike JK Rowling (so far at any rate) they have written a brand new fantasy series, with a Scottish heroine, called Susan Hopper, Anne describes it as ‘darker than Oksa, Tim Burton inspired’. They are also planning a spin off series starring the moody teen boy Tugdual, who plays a part in The Last Hope.
Discussing Tugdual, I ask how much of a problem capturing their landscape and characters has been for the various translators. Apparently the Japanese translator found the magical creatures, and in particular their idiosyncratic ways of speaking, difficult to translate and had the most questions. The Germans asked for an extra chapter to explain some of the magic. The English translation is workmanlike rather than inspired, most of the names left the same, or translated rather literally, though I was taken with an enormous bird, the Gelinotte in French, which becomes a Gargantuhen in the English version.
Whether Pollockmania sweeps the UK as it has other parts of the world, we’ll have to wait and see, but congratulations are certainly due to Plichota and Wolf for sticking with their vision, and to Pushkin Press for giving us the opportunity to read their book in English.
Oska Pollock: The Last Hope Pushkin Press, 512pp, 978-1782690009, £12.99, hbk