By Tess McCabe As I well know, self-publishing a book is no easy task, so I'm always interested in how other creative people, who may not have a background in traditional publishing, work through all the steps to get their book to market. Jac and Jessie DiBlasi are sisters, and CWC members, who conceived of a unique idea for a recipe book and pooled their creative skills to produce the beautiful 'Nonna to Nana' (in stores now). Here, they share their individual career paths and how they collaborated to produce this heartfelt legacy item honouring the special women in their lives.
Tell us about your individual creative paths to this point. Jac: I studied Communication Design at Swinburne University. In that time I did a 12-month work placement in New York as part of my degree. I’m pretty sure this is where I realised that publication design was for me! After returning from there, I finished up with an Honours Degree and have continued working for various design organisations ever since.
Currently, I’m the senior Designer at Destination Melbourne, the regional tourism organisation for Melbourne, which is my 9-5. However, in my spare time I’ve been working on Nonna to Nana, with the hope to continue working on interesting book projects!
Jess: Street and documentary photography is something I began exploring in my early 20’s while working/traveling overseas. It starts out as a hobby and I questioned, for a number of years, if I could have a career as a photographer. I know that working in a creative field will be challenging, and there are no shortage of fantastic photographers already out there! In 2009, I’m working in the corporate world and lose my job as a result of the global financial crisis. It’s at this point that I realise if I don’t give photography a chance now, I might never get the opportunity again to change my career. As a result, I apply for courses and end up being accepted into the Diploma of Photo Imaging at RMIT (TAFE), graduating in 2011. As part of the course, we have to produce a final folio of work and Nonna to Nana becomes the project I start, with the hope to continue working on it/ complete it as a graduate.
How did you conceive of Nonna to Nana and when did you begin working on the book?
Nonna to Nana started out as a (joking) conversation Jac and I have at our grandparent’s house, about three years ago, sitting around the extendable table at their house. Our dad is eating something delicious that our Nonna has made that day and he turns to Jac and I and asks ‘who’s going to cook like this, once she’s gone?’. Dad’s one of eight boys, so it’s no surprise that they all loved eating the food she would make, but none of them really knew how to cook any of it! Jac and I, on the other hand had spent lots of time with Nonna in the kitchen cooking and learning over the years. It’s at that point that we think it might be a great thing to do, to document Nonna cooking some of her signature dishes. It doesn’t take long before we realise that there are so many amazing women that have wonderful stories and recipes to offer and Nonna to Nana is born.
Jessie begins working on the project as part of her final folio for RMIT, while she is a photography student in 2011 and Nonna Giovanna is her first photography shoot for the book. Nonna never really loved Jessie taking too many photos of her, so to convince her to participate in the project she decides to shoot the Ricotta Cakes recipe, on Jessie’s birthday. It is such a fun day for us and the portrait on the cover is from that very first shoot!
Have you worked together on projects of this kind or scale before, or was working together in this way a new experience?
Nonna to Nana is the first project of this kind we have worked on together, but something we’ve talked about doing for a long time. Jessie and I have been working in our respective creative fields for a number of years now, and so it was no surprise in what might be involved in publishing a book, but once you actually got into the project, it was a real eye opener into the world of self publishing and what comes with it! Not only are we a photographer and designer, but also now that the book is out in the market place, we’ve found ourselves learning about publishing, marketing, accounting, social media, sales and distribution.
What challenges did you face conceptualising and self-publishing your own book, and how did you overcome them?
Keeping to a schedule that no one is setting for you is really sometimes a tough thing to do. Especially when family commitments and other important matters come up and the book was sometimes the first thing to go on hold. As it was a project that was an extra commitment on top of our regular 9-to-5 jobs, we really had to be dedicated in putting the time in after hours, even if sometimes it was exhausting.
Self funding this entire project has also been pretty huge for us. We were always determined to create this book and do it to the highest quality level we could. Being the first of this type of project, even when we thought we had our budget all planned out, sometimes expenses we hadn’t anticipated crop up.
This is our first book project together and while we have the skills to produce the content and make the book, there are so many things we need to learn and do along the way. The best way we’ve discovered to overcome some of the big obstacles, are to use professionals in the field to help us. Everything from copy editing and pre-press, right through to public relations. One of things we realise pretty early on is that we won’t ever be able to produce and distribute the highest quality product without collaboration. We have been so lucky to work with an amazing crew of industry partners and mentors. Some of the highest compliments we’ve received from industry, are based around the fact that the book doesn’t look like it was self-published. That’s a real buzz for us!
What are some of the things you learned throughout this process, either from working together or from the women you worked with to compile the recipes?
In terms of the project, again, being our first book and also the first time we’ve worked together as a creative pair, that means, the learning curve has been incredibly steep. I think we’ve learnt a ton about the steps you need to go through to produce a book like Nonna to Nana! Collecting the recipes and photographing them was definitely our first hurdle, because it was just so time consuming. Coordinating with each of the nans and photographing mostly on weekends, or when they were available. We also travelled interstate a few times, so all of the logistics involved go well beyond just photographing. Throughout production of the book, there was ongoing contact with many of the women to confirm recipes and then all of the testing and production, to make sure everything worked perfectly. However, having the book completed is really just the first step along the way. We are now learning a great deal about the process involved in marketing a book and while it’s so lovely to have it completed, now our aim is to get it out into the world!
From the perspective of the nans, what they’ve taught us is limitless. If we consider our own Nonna (Giovanna) and Mum (Nonna Nina) encourage our love of food and cooking and teach us so much, but spending time with each of the women, hearing about their families and working in their kitchens with each of them has been an experience we will never forget. Without a doubt, it’s like we’ve inherited an additional 14 nans for ourselves - which makes us incredibly spoilt!
What we have learnt from each other is endless. The main thing we have learnt is that we can work together and have a great finished product at the end. We’ve learnt a lot about each other and ourselves and just how important communication and compromise are to help bring together our separate creative fields into one final product, which is really amazing.
Stick to it! The creative collaboration and how great that can be far outweighs the few disagreements you might have with your sister/ brother/family member. Sometimes it’s almost better to work with a sibling, because you can be totally honest with each other, the way only families know how. Working as a sister team, a lot of times we would argue through our issues and then move on, getting on with the job, instead of holding onto grudges. But the flip side of that is the laughter. Even when the pressure was on, we could sometimes get a bit silly and just laugh.
We would also suggest trying to keep work and your personal life separate. We were great friends before we started this project. My neighbour, at one stage, thought Jessie lived with me because we spent so much time together! Half way through the project we realised that we hadn’t really been just hanging out, because almost all the time we were spending with each other was about the book! It was only a few weeks ago that we went out and spent the day together, and the book wasn’t the main focus. And although it hasn’t been horrible by any means, we’ve loved working on this project, it’s just something to be mindful of. There is no point producing something, and then realising you’ve lost your friend in the process. We’re glad to say in this case it hasn’t happened, and really it’s proven just the opposite. Jessie and I are great friends and now great collaborators too!
What's next for both of you?
We are still enjoying the exciting developments that launching Nonna to Nana is bringing us. We’ve had our Melbourne and regional launches and Jessie is now focusing her attention on a solo exhibition she’ll be having in Sydney, as part of the Head On photo festival in May (May 19th-June 1st, 2014).
After Nonna to Nana has been promoted and in market for a little while and we have learnt everything we can from this big project, we might take a little holiday… we probably need one! Jessie and I have talked about taking our Nonna to Nana concept into other countries. Just as learning and investigating multicultural Australia has given us so much, we are considering producing a USA version. We have both lived in New York and even just that one city is a fantastic melting pot of amazing food. We can only imagine it's also full of amazing stories! When you have so many cultures and cuisines working together in one place, we think the concept of documenting recipes from the older generations is something that could work anywhere. Also having women tell us their stories from across the globe and documenting food, which may not be so familiar to us, could be very interesting and take us on a journey that we can’t even imagine.
Nonna to Nana is available online and through bookstores Australia-wide.
(All photos by Jessie DiBlasi).