Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager is the author of some of the best Young Adult books in New Zealand, including the action-packed The Nature of Ash (shortlisted for the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards).  Mandy’s latest YA novel is Dear Vincent, one of the most powerful and emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read (you can read my review here).  I had a few questions for Mandy after reading Dear Vincent and she very kindly answered them for me.  You can also enter to win a copy of Dear Vincent and read an extract from chapter one at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Mandy and the wonderful people at Random House New Zealand.

  • What inspired you to write Dear Vincent?

It’s always hard to look back and focus on the starting idea, but I’ve been thinking about the issue of suicide for a while now, through my work with youth at risk, and wanted to send a book out into the world that showed the long term pain suicide brings to those left behind, and to explore the seduction of the idea, and how it is possible to resist, given the right support. The problem with the current ‘don’t talk’ policy around suicide is that kids only get to see the outer manifestations of grief when someone they know kills themselves – the memorial pages on facebook, the highly emotional services – it runs the risk of making suicide seem ‘sexy’ to young people – a kind of ‘you’ll all be sorry and celebrate me like this when I’m gone’ mentality. It also denies those who have contemplated or attempted suicide a voice to say how relieved they are that they didn’t go through with it – and to share the things that helped stay their hands. And I wanted to show that suicide leaves the surviving family with such terrible guilt and grief – for kids to understand the full impact of a suicide on those left behind. I wanted to de-glamourise it – so that it underlines the finality of such a decision – that ‘dead’ means ‘dead’ – no going back, no second thoughts.

I also love Vincent Van Gogh – so it was a perfect opportunity to explore his life and paintings more fully.

  • You tackle some tough issues in the book, including suicide and physical and emotional abuse.  Was it a story you felt you had to tell?

Yes, it’s been in the back of my mind for a long time now.

  • What research did you have to do for the book? What was the most interesting thing you discovered about Vincent Van Gogh?

Van Gogh’s letters are now available online – over 900 of them, so I worked my way through them and also some biographies and documentaries (plus, I had studied him for art history at school many hundreds of years ago!) The first thing that surprised me was just how elegant and literate he was – he’s often made out to be this crazy, rough, boorish man, when nothing could be further from the truth. His letters are beautiful, vivid and incredibly sad. The other really surprising thing was the discovery, through the most recent biography of him by Steven Naifeh and Gegory White Smith, that it is highly likely Van Gogh did not kill himself, but was shot by local boys – though, once shot, he then kept quiet about this act and died in his brother Theo’s arms (in other words, not instigating the act, but not fighting it either.) So it was suicide by omission to fight his injuries or reveal their source. The biography’s evidence for this case is very convincing. Plus, it illuminates more about what was going on in Vincent’s head – for a long time it was thought he was bi-polar, now it seems more likely it was a kind of temporal lobe epilepsy that would descend upon him.

  • One of the things I like the most about your books is that your characters are authentic and they feel real.  Have you ever been challenged by the ‘gatekeepers’ of young adult fiction because of your characters actions or language?

I haven’t been challenged on this in person, but I am sure there are some people who find the language and issues difficult. All I try to do is be faithful to the character and reflect how I believe they would truly talk, feel and respond.

  • There are some very raw emotions in the story and Tara goes to some quite dark places in her head.  Did you need to get into the right head space each time you sat down to write or was Tara always with you?

I always sit and centre myself before I write each day, calling the character into my mind. However, there always reaches a point where the character is there all the time until you finish writing – consequently this was a particularly exhausting and grueling book to write. Being inside Tara’s head was an intense experience.

  • I love the character of the Professor (Max). How did he come to you?

Max is, in many ways, my father. He, too, was born in Vienna. He, too, was forced to leave with his parents to escape the Nazis. He introduced us to art, music and literature (as did my mother), and was a charming, cultured and kind man.

  • Like Tara, does ‘art in all its forms’ have you in its grip?

It most certainly does!

  • Do you have a ‘teen test’ for your books during or after you’ve written them?

My first reader, chapter by chapter, is my daughter Rose. She is incredibly good at spotting anything that jars or doesn’t have an authentic ring. I also send the finished draft out to my niece as well (along with several other adult readers) – their feedback is always most welcome and useful.

  • Why do you write books for teenagers? What is it about YA that appeals to you?

I think what I like most about YA fiction is that it focuses on strong story and authentic characters. It also appeals to me in terms of who I am writing for – as I tend to write about the things that trouble me, and this primarily is around issues that will affect the up-and-coming generations, it gives me the opportunity to start a discussion with young people about the different ways to look at the world and the challenges they are/will be presented with. So much media these days is controlled by corporate interests I feel it’s important to get alternative thoughts and ideas out there. I strongly believe that only through honest discussion of issues can we ever hope to move forward in a positive way.

Read on for an extract from Dear Vincent.

1

Whenever I tell Father anything, it goes in one ear and out the other, and that certainly applies no less to Mother. Similarly I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.

— Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, Etten, c. 21 December 1881

My father slouches in his wheelchair, a dough ball of resentment. Only the fierce penetration of his eyes registers life behind his rigid face. If he moves at all it is involuntary. The twitch of a finger. The jerk of a leg. But for all his immobility, his presence still looms over us. The gargoyle in the corner. The silent judge.

There is a gritty meanness in his eyes sometimes. Or worse, bottomless sadness — the kind that rakes your soul. Though more often than not these days, anger flares: embers trapped within an iceberg. He is living the inflexibility he’s practised all my life.

Even as I finish hanging out the washing and tilt my face up to the morning sun, I know he will be waiting for me to feed him, wash his face, brush his teeth — all before I have the luxury of heading off to school. Luxury? It’s funny how perspective shifts.

Buttered light filters through my eyelids and I hold my breath, waiting, waiting, waiting, with a sense there’s something I should know. It teases at my memory. Tickles at my nose. I crack one eye open and there’s the clue: a butterfly, chalky white, its tiny dome eyes staring straight back into mine. Of course! How could I forget?

It’s Van’s birthday. The 11th of June. She would be twenty-two today. So old. It’s hard to picture how she’d look. Beautiful? Without a doubt. Respectable? Not for a second. Not my Van. The odds that she’d have turned into a merchant banker, IT nerd or anything, in fact, where she’d have to toe the line are about two billion to one.

Meanwhile, my own life’s reduced to a different numbers game. Nearly six years since Dad’s first stroke. Just under five since we were woken by that gutting midnight call. Three since Mum was forced to take on night shifts at the hospital to pay the mortgage on this shitty hole. One since I began to work half-time to help. And the amount of time I get to lead a normal life? No whole number’s small enough.

‘Tara?’ Mum’s shout repels the butterfly. It flutters off, a ghost adrift. ‘Don’t forget to take the shopping list. I’ll pick you up outside Countdown at ten to nine.’

Does she remember it’s Van’s birthday? Surely she must. But Mum’s declared everything about my sister a no-go zone — as if by refusing to speak of her the past can somehow be erased. If only it was so easy.

Inside, I shoo Mum off to bed before I start on Dad. Her shifts play havoc with her sleep patterns — and her moods. She’s turned into one of those wizened peasants Vincent loved to paint: a small grey shadow, sour and disconnected, all joy in life sucked out of her.

While I’m waiting for Dad’s porridge to cook I eat the last of the bread, sandwiching a scummy wedge of budget cheese. Our cupboards will stay bare until I’m paid later today and do the shop. When we were small, the only time Mum used to make a fuss was over birthday breakfasts: an Ulster fry with bacon, eggs and sausages, and golden crisp potato farl. Now the only fuss she makes is the kind I hate — the kind Van called Mad Cow Disease to wind her up.

I mince Dad’s morning medication into dust and smother it with yoghurt. Pop it in his drooping mouth, scraping the teaspoon across his lips to catch the overflow before I stuff the dregs back in. He shudders as he swallows, his eyes saying it’s my fault that it tastes like shit. I help him drink a sip of water, then cool his porridge with milk and coax it in, one spoonful at a time. I know I should be chatting to him, helping pass the time, but, really, what is there to say? Do you know what day it is? Does the thought of Van thump you in the guts like it does me? Even if he could answer, he’d only throw it back at me. Wind yer neck in, girl. You’ve got a face on like a Lurgan spade.

By the time I’ve finished everything with Dad I’ve less than half an hour to get to school. Who’d have thought I’d ever want to spend more time there, but with my rest home shift starting at two it pretty much wipes out the afternoon.

All I really want to do is paint — hide out in the art room and let the colours wash through me in a heady rush. Vincent says to attack a painting the way a lion devours meat, to call on the grain of madness that is the best of art. Imagine trying to explain all this to Mum and Dad. They view creative madness as a sin on par with striking a priest.

I park Dad in front of the TV and head off on my bike. Our street is full of tacky mansions, but ours is the doozy that drags the others’ values down. Good old leaky home syndrome. The day Mum finally admitted we had no money to fix it or to chase the builders through the courts I cried — I’d had a gutsful of our neighbours’ snide remarks.

‘You think your life is difficult?’ she’d said. ‘Try walking to school in Belfast when the Proddies are on the march.’ She talks about the Troubles the way the old boys in the rest home remember El Alamein.

Since then I’ve built a force field that shouts ‘fuck off’. You have to in a school like mine, where the fact I used to go to the best private Catholic school is all the ammunition the gangs need. In my first week they bullied me out of my iPod and mobile phone and stripped the Nike jacket off my wimpy back. Admittedly I’m safer now. Three years on and we’re dirt poor — I don’t even have an internet connection at home, let alone a replacement phone. There’s nothing left to nick.

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Interview with Anna Mackenzie

Today I have the pleasure of being joined by New Zealand author, Anna Mackenzie.  Anna is the author of the award-winning The Sea-wreck Stranger, and her latest book, Cattra’s Legacy tells of the journey of Risha, not only across the wild land in which she lives, but from timid young girl to fierce and powerful young woman. I love Cattra’s Legacy and I asked Anna a few questions about her fantastic new story and the life of a writer.

  • What inspired you to write Cattra’s Legacy?

The novel began with a single idea, a visual image initially, of a girl alone at a graveside. That idea could have gone many different ways, but my daughter had just begun to read fantasy novels, so I decided I would write one for her, from that starting point. That gave me the direction, and the story soon took over.

  • How did you build the world of the story? Did you know what it looked like and what the history of the world was before you started writing?

Elgard opened out before me just as it does for Risha. I was sometimes a step ahead, but a small one, and every now and then we would both be surprised. About six or seven chapters in I sketched a rough map which I added to as I wrote. The map on page 7 is a tidy version of that, created using computer software rather than a pen so that it’s more legible for readers. In terms of the history of Elgard, I had a broad sense of it as soon as I knew Pelon had been a scholar – about the time Risha began to read his manuscript – but some of the regional details became clear to me only after reaching LeMarc.

  • Did you get to do any fun or interesting research before you wrote the story, like weapons training or horse riding?

I rode farm horses when I was growing up, but it wasn’t really my thing. That said, my earliest memories include the creak of saddle leather and the smell of horse and hot summer: my father used to sit me in front of him on the saddle as he rode around the farm – I guess between the ages of 2 and 4.

As for weapons training, I’ve learned both martial arts and archery in the past. All knowledge is useful in writing!

  • The story is ultimately about the legacy that a mother leaves for her daughter.  What legacy would you like to leave for your daughter?

 My aim as a parent is to instil in my kids a confidence in themselves, the knowledge that they are loved and valued for who they are, and the bravery to fight for what they believe in.

  • Which of your own personality traits have you given Risha?

Determination. I don’t tend to give up (even when I probably should!). It’s an essential skill for a writer, and for many other things. Some people call it stubbornness.

  • Risha is a strong female character that teenage girls can look up to.  Do you feel that New Zealand young adult literature is lacking in these strong female characters?

No. Given the size of our market there is a fairly small crop of YA books published each year. Some years there will be more of one type of book than another, but feisty female characters are a feature of New Zealand’s YA literary landscape – and certainly of my work.

  • The advice that a lot of writer’s give is ‘write the sort of books that you would like to read.’  Is this the case with Cattra’s Legacy?  If so, what other books can you recommend to those who love Cattra’s Legacy?

I read very widely and this is a story I loved discovering as I wrote it. For readers who are looking for similar adventure fantasy, try Cynthia Voight’s Elske, Celine Kiernan’s Moorehawke trilogy, The Merlin Conspiracy and Dalemark quartet by Diana Wynne-Jones and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy.

  • What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer?

The best thing is getting to live dozens of different lives through the experiences of my characters – writing a new story is just like that feeling when you are completely wrapped up in reading and have to be dragged reluctantly away.
The worst thing is far too much time spent sitting at a desk: it’s seriously bad for you, but sometimes I have to be dragged away from there too!

Check out my review of Cattra’s Legacy here on the blog and enter to win a copy.

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Fast Five with Melanie Drewery

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

Because I have always had a vivid imagination, and when I was small I was a real chatterbox with lots of ideas to share. Writing is sort of like talking a lot on paper.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

I can put my ideas into a story and they will reach heaps and heaps of people I may never even meet! My words might make someone laugh or cry, they might even teach them something or change the way they look at the world. That’s pretty amazing.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

Under the Mountain.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

Oh I can’t just love one thing, I need at least two, so I’m going to cheat here. I love our beaches, and being able to swim or walk by the sea every day. I also love our own unique culture, and how much more Te Reo Maori and Maori expressions have become part of everyone’s culture.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

I love being able to read lots and lots and lots of books. Is it weird to say I also love the bookish smell of libraries, yum, all those words wiggling around in their books and making their own special smell.

Melanie Drewery is an author, illustrator and artist who writes primarily for children. Koro’s Medicine was a finalist in the Picture Book Category of the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, and the Maori translation of this title, by Kararaina Uatuku, won the 2005 Te Kura Pounamu Award. Melanie won the Picture Book section of the 2008 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for her book Tahi: One Lucky Kiwi.

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Fast Five with Kath Beattie

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was a small girl. Telling stories is just something I do and want to do and as a small child had to do. We didn’t have many books…we were poor (as many were way back then) so we wrote our own stories (and illustrated them!). We loved writing to the children’s page of the NZ Herald…and later as I grew I wrote stories for the local newspapers and various magazines.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

I think the greatest fun is finding a way to tell a story in a new way or to find a new and different character. I still love the story I wrote where one of the characters in the story talks to me the writer! She gets mad because she doesn’t want to say what I want her to say! So I threaten to write her out of the story…sadly the story has never been published!

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

I always dislike this sort of question. I love many many books for many many different reasons. And there are SO many marvellous books written by New Zealanders.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

Again I have many reasons for loving NZ. I particularly love the outdoors…our beautiful wild coastline, the lush and glorious bush, rugged mountains and hills country and the growing interest in our ‘wildlife’. I also love that we have so so many opportunities for education, sport, the arts etc. and rejoice that we can have very full and interesting lives as well as helping the less advantaged.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

When I was much much younger I used to find libraries a little daunting…no longer.  Libraries these days are so welcoming. The staff are wonderfully helpful and almost any book we would like to read a librarian can find it or order it for us. Libraries don’t just have books…there are CDs and now electronic readers. I have written a couple of historical fiction books and the archivists at the libraries I have visited have been wizards at finding me information. Libraries are busy friendly places. Make sure you get to know yours. The books are free as well!!

Kath Beattie is the author of two books in the My New Zealand Story series, Gumdigger and Cyclone Bola (released this month).  Kath has also had her stories published in anthologies, including Dare and Double Dare and Mischief and Mayhem.

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Fast Five with Sarah Johnson

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

Stories are one of my favourite things in the whole world (as are books), so it made sense to me that I would enjoy writing them, and I do. I have carried the stories I read as a child with me into adulthood, and as I got older I read stories that I considered so incredibly beautiful (or moving, or sometimes funny) they were like sunsets or landscapes or other natural wonders. That’s a pretty amazing impact to have, and I wanted to give it a try. Imagine being able to create something that had that effect on another person! I haven’t managed it yet, but I’m still trying.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Writing stories. Entering, and dwelling in, the fabulous zone they come from. Playing with the words (endlessly) until they make patterns and poems on the page.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

Oh, hard. For children, it’s probably Peter and the Pig by Simon Grant, because every single time I read it, I laugh. I wish I could write something that funny! For adults, anything by Patricia Grace, but then she writes wonderfully for children too.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

The colour and clarity of the light, the emptiness of the sky, the smell and the air of the bush. I lived in Scotland for a while and these were the things I missed. They were in my bones and they sung to me while I was away.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

How excited I feel every time I enter one. All that interest, all those stories, all that knowledge, sitting on a shelf waiting for me to find it. And knowing that I’m going to walk out the door with a book in my hand and a new possibility in my life. Libraries are portals. They should house them in a tardis.

Sarah Johnson is the author of Ella and Ob and the winner of the 2011 Joy Cowley Award, Wooden Arms.  Sarah has also written novels and short stories for grown-ups.

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Fast Five with Donovan Bixley

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

I wanted to illustrate things that I was really interested in, which doesn’t always happen when you illustrate other author’s stories. So I decided to write my own stories.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Coming up with ideas is very exciting. The hard part is the months and years it take to make those ideas good enough. Through a lot of hard work they get turned into a finished book.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book? 

“Sydney and the Sea Monster” by David Elliot. I also love “The Word Witch” by Margaret Mahy and David Elliot.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

I love that we’re a small country, with a population not much bigger than a city in most countries. New Zealanders are fairly humble and relaxed people on the whole, and not too stressed out. I love being able to enjoy our lakes and mountains and coasts with my family.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

I like browsing the shelves and finding books that I would not normally look at. I still like to get reference books from the library. The Internet is not quite the same.

Looky BookDonovan Bixley is an author and illustrator who has created the illustrations for his own books and for books by other authors.  He has created Kiwi versions of The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm, and his latest book is the wonderful Kiwi-themed puzzle book, The Looky Book.  Donovan has also illustrated Brian Falkner’s Northwood and Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, and created the Dinosaur Rescue series with Kyle Mewburn.

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Fast Five with Rachel Steadman

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

Because I love reading so much. I could never find enough books that were exactly what I wanted to read. So that’s why I wrote my own.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

You get to write :).  Most writers seem to really like finding out new things. I think most writers are little like ‘fact magpies’ we get to learn new stuff every day and we can call it ‘research.’ For example, through writing A Necklace of Souls, I learned a lot about knife fighting. I read a whole lot (and watched a lot of you-tube videos) about Kali knife fighting, which is from the Philippines. And I know how long an English longbow is – over seven foot. That is taller than most men. Do you know, if you use a long bow a lot, the bones in one arm grow heavier than the other? Skeletons of archers have bigger left arm-bones than the right.  That is why writing is so cool, you get to learn random stuff every day. (Makes you good in quizzes, too!)

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

I have lots of favourite books. It’s pretty hard to pick just one. At the moment, my favourite NZ book is Tu, by Patricia Grace, because I like her descriptions of how war changes a family.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

I love the wide open skies and the white-topped mountains. And I like the way you can walk along a beach and see only your footprints. And I like the way you find strange things in unexpected places. Like last week we went to Hampden Beach, near Moeraki, and dolphins swam past.

What do you love most about libraries?

The books! And the friendly librarians…

Rachel Steadman is the author of the wonderful new YA fantasy, A Necklace of Souls.  When she’s not writing Rachel works for the Ministry of Health and she enjoys hiking, cycling, running and reading.

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Fast Five with Roger Hall

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

So girls would like me. (It didn’t work.)

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

You can get to work in less than a minute.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

The Three Little Pigs by…..me.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

Serious now: the small population.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

They are a mark of a civilised society.

Roger Hall is one of New Zealand’s most well-known playwrights.  He has written for the stage, as well as scripts for radio, television and for children.  Roger’s retelling of The Three Little Pigs has recently been published by Scholastic New Zealand, which includes a play for five characters.

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Fast Five with Michael Oehley

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

I wanted to write since I was a little boy. There has never been a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I think I was born to write.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Being able to make up a whole world in my imagination and put it to paper. It’s pretty cool.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

Probably the stories of Barry Crump – he wrote really good yarns.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

It’s the best country in the world to live in – and I’m not just making that up! Lots of international lists have New Zealand in the top five places to live. We’ve got some of the best schools and hospitals. We’re safe and clean, and Kiwis are rated the friendliest people in the world.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

Libraries are a great place to escape and find another world to read about.

Michael Oehley is the author of The 4 Powers of Daren Saner and The Vitality Code. When he’s not writing Michael works as a doctor in remote Australian hospitals and loves to travel.

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Fast Five with Craig Smith

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

Watching kids laugh and have fun is my idea of a good time.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Watching kids enjoy the stories and songs.

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book?

Baa Baa Smart Sheep.

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

The lifestyle, the people and the beauty.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

How they’re slowly becoming more like community centres, where not only can you learn/have fun from reading books but do all the other things that modern libraries have to offer.

Craig Smith is a musician and the creator of The Wonky Donkey, Willbee the Bumblebee and Kaha the Kea.  Craig has also produced his own children’s album, Not Just for Kids.

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