I recently went to a From Poetry to Prose book talk featuring Tusiata Avia at the WEA here in Christchurch, as part of their October Writing Workshops.
She talked about how she has gone about making the transition from poet to novelist. Ashamed to admit I wasn’t familiar with her work, I was inspired by her forceful writing combined with a very relaxed attitude to life.
She read from her upcoming first novel and from a poem in Wild Dogs Under My Skirt which have the same characters and the same domestic abusive dynamic. Wonderfully engaging, she performs the characters voices so well that I found myself lost in the story.
Tusiata Avia is Christchurch born, of Samoan descent. An acclaimed performance poet and children’s author, her work has also been published in various literary journals. Her first collection of poetry, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, was published in 2004 then taken to the world as a one-woman poetry show between 2002 and 2008.
Pacific female authors are so lacking in long fiction which makes the wait for her novel that much more anticipated!
Lawrie Metcalf had a long association with the Christchurch Botanic Gardens as the Assistant Curator from 1955 – 68 and the Assistant Director from 1968 -1977. It was important to him to demonstrate how gardeners could incorporate natives into their garden and create a garden that truly reflected New Zealand, something uniquely our own.
We can thank Lawrie for the native plant display in the Botanic Garden which was created to showcase what can be done with our native plants. Just like walking through a piece of bush this garden is the ideal place to take tourists to see native plants in a natural setting and an is an inspiration for the home gardener wanting to incorporate natives into their garden. He created displays that not only looked magnificent but also educated the visitor, placing the gardens on a solid scientific footing he also collected plants from throughout the country.
As the botanist with the Canterbury Museum he collected live plants and herbarium specimens on expeditions to alpine areas in the South Island expanding scientific understanding of what grew there. Lawrie expanded the international seed exchange programme to send native plant seeds to hundreds of botanic gardens, receiving seeds from around the world to trial at the botanic gardens. Later moving to Invercargill, as Director of Parks and Recreation for the Invercargill City Council, he continued his work establishing a sub-antarctic collection at Queens Park.
Lawrie was born in Christchurch and while at school Dr L.W. McCaskill (1900–1985) got him interested in growing native plants. He undertook his horticultural training and has gone on to greatly inspire young horticulturalists many of whom went on to hold senior positions. In his semi-retirement he ran a nursery in Nelson with his wife Lena and continued to publish books.
He was president of the Canterbury Botanical Society and was awarded the Cockayne Gold Medal, The Loder Cup, Ian Galloway Outstanding Achievement Award, Veitch Memorial Medal and the Companion of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for services to horticulture and conservation. In addition his work was acknowledged earlier this year with the naming of the herbarium at the Botanic Gardens the Lawrie Metcalf Herbarium by the Christchurch City Council.
Lawrie used his love of photography in his many books the most well-known of which is The cultivation of New Zealand trees and shrubs, originally published in 1972. This book gave Kiwis the knowledge of how to identify, grow and care for natives with confidence and was written in a way anyone could understand.
The landscaping trend towards natives shows no sign of abating and Metcalf’s books on native plants, trees and shrubs, alpines, grasses, ground covers, ferns and hebes, all written in a practical style and imparting a wealth of scientific knowledge, will continue to inspire New Zealand gardeners and horticulturalists for years to come.
Craig Sisterson is a writer and reviewer, and a fan of great crime writing. He’s the force behind the Ngaio Marsh Awards celebrating New Zealand crime writing, starting the Awards in 2010 and now serving as the judging convenor for the prizes.
Read our interview with Craig where he talks Kiwi crime, #yeahnoir, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and libraries.
This year, you can join in as Scorpio Books and WORD Christchurch present The Great Lit Quiz & Ngaio Marsh Awards! To celebrate NZ Bookshop Day, put together a team of book enthusiasts for a quiz of crime novels and other genres! All tickets gain entry to the invitation-only Ngaio Marsh Awards cocktail party, where the winners will be announced. Hosted by crime writers Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon.
The Bone Line wine and nibbles provided. Saturday, 28 October, 5.30pm Ngaio Marsh Awards; 7pm Great Lit Quiz
$80 per table (up to 5 players) by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
How did the idea for the Ngaio Marsh Awards come to you?
It was a culmination of a lot of little things. I’d started reading a lot while backpacking through Latin America for six months, picking up dozens of novels from hostel book exchanges and the like to pass the time on 24-hour bus rides in Argentina and Chile. The hostels tended to have plenty of ‘popular fiction’ (crime, romance, sci-fi, action thrillers etc), and I gravitated towards the crime novels, having loved mystery tales since I was a kid devouring The Hardy Boys adventures when I was at Richmond Primary School in Nelson.
Then when I was in Canada I went along to an Arthur Ellis Awards event at the Vancouver Public Library (a crime author panel where the finalists for their national crime writing awards were also announced). I met some really cool Canadian crime writers, including the great William Deverell, and had a really good chat with him afterwards about recognising and celebrating quality writing, and how the crime genre was much deeper nowadays than the stereotype of old-fashioned mysteries, potboilers, and airport thrillers.
As an aside, I spoke with the Canadians about the state of New Zealand crime writing (they were curious), and even lamented that other than Dame Ngaio and Paul Thomas’s series, and one-offs from the likes of Simon Snow, Nigel Latta, and Michael Laws, we didn’t seem to have as many crime writers as you’d expect for a country that has some really great writers (Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Man Booker listees, fabulous children’s authors, great longform journalists, etc). Or at least we didn’t have many ongoing series or crime writers putting out multiple books. It’s embarrassing to look back on that discussion now, because NZ does have a greater crime writing history than I knew about at that time, but perhaps the fact I was a keen reader who still wasn’t aware of that was telling too?
When I returned to New Zealand in October 2008, I popped into the Papatoetoe Library my first weekend to keep feeding my reading habit. By chance, a couple of crime novels on the recently returned shelf caught my eye. I picked them up, was taken by the backcover blurbs, and was surprised to read they were set in New Zealand: Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave and The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon. Not only were they modern NZ crime novels, but each was from an author who’d published more than one novel!
I read them both that weekend, before I started my new job at a legal magazine (I was a lawyer before my overseas adventures). Both were terrific, really top quality stuff. Great characters and writing, coupled with page-turning action and suspense. And both books were as good if not better than many of big-name international bestsellers I’d been reading on my Latin American journey.
So my thoughts about the state of NZ crime writing began to shift. Then my new boss asked if I’d read any good books lately, as a review for our magazine hadn’t come in before deadline. So I wrote reviews of Cleave and Symon’s books, and took off from there. Soon afterwards I was reviewing crime fiction for Australian magazine Good Reading, as well as some other publications. I reviewed a few dozen crime novels for them over the next year, including Kiwi authors like Cleave, Symon, Lindy Kelly, Neil Cross, and Paddy Richardson. The Kiwi crime novels stood up really well against the well-known international stuff, and I started thinking ‘why aren’t we talking about our crime writers more?’ On top of that, I realised that while Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA, and many other countries had crime writing awards, New Zealand didn’t. Our popular fiction writers were unlikely to be listed for the NZ Book Awards, but at least our romance, sci-fi and fantasy authors had their own associations and awards. So did our children’s authors.
Our crime writers did not. That kept niggling at me the more reviews and features I wrote about the genre, and when I raised the possibility of a New Zealand crime writing award with authors, publishers, reviewers, and others in the book industry, pretty much everyone thought it was a great idea in principle. There was a gap between principle and putting it into practice though. And in the end I just got to the ‘ah bugger it, I’ll just start them myself then’ stage. By then I had lots of contacts in New Zealand and overseas, and called on various people for advice. Crime Writers Canada and the Australian Crime Writers Association were very generous and shared with me how their awards started, evolved, and were run. I cherry-picked various things to create our own awards.
How hard was it to set up a literary prize?
How long is a piece of string?, as my mother would say. It’s really hard to answer your question. Looking back it all seemed to go quite smoothly, though that could be my rose-tinted glasses! At the time there were plenty of bumps in the road, for sure, but we just rolled with the punches, adapted, and kept on going (how many cliches can I fit in a paragraph?). We were creating something new, so there was no blueprint (other than advice from overseas peers), so if something wasn’t working or went wrong, I just changed it.
My core concern was to make sure that the awards had a good level of credibility, even if we weren’t offering the winner a big amount of prize money. I just really wanted the awards to be sustainable, not a one-off, and to have some ‘heft’, for want of a better term.
That was achieved (I think) thanks to the really top-notch judges we’ve had from the beginning, and the support of WORD Christchurch. We have a large judging panel for the Best Crime Novel prize; seven judges from New Zealand and overseas. All are crime fiction experts, so we had people who were connoisseurs of the genre and read an awful lot, weighing up the quality of our local crime tales. In the first years we had the likes of legendary British reviewer Mike Ripley (who was the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer for 17 years), Vice President of Crime Writers Canada Lou Allin, and doyen of the Kiwi books scene Graham Beattie on the panel.
More recently Janet Rudolph (editor of Mystery Readers International), J Kingston Pierce of Kirkus reviews, top Australian crime reviewer Karen Chisholm, and award-winning Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir have served on the judging panel.
These people may not be household names, but they are extremely highly regarded within the global crime writing world, and their involvement has given the Ngaios a lot of credibility on the global stage. They read a massive amount of crime fiction, from the biggest names to new authors and many in between, and when they say our Kiwi authors are world class, that carries a lot of weight.
The other main pillar of the Ngaios from the beginning was the involvement of what is now WORD Christchurch. I wanted a cool event for our first ever Ngaio Marsh Awards presentation in 2010, and Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout of the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival really came to the party. They were so supportive, and planned a terrific event for the Saturday night of their festival, which even included the Court Jesters doing an improv murder mystery, before the inaugural winner would be announced. The festival also put up some prize money for the winner (adding to the handcrafted trophy created by sculptor Gina Ferguson and selection of Ngaio Marsh books donated by HarperCollins, Dame Ngaio’s publisher). As Dame Ngaio was a Cantabrian herself, it was a perfect fit.
Then the September earthquakes struck, the festival was cancelled, and our event postponed. Not the greatest start! But Ruth and Morrin continued to be so supportive, even as they were dealing with all the property damage and other concerns. We had offers from other festivals to hold an event in other cities, but stuck with Christchurch. We had a cool one-off event in a temporary venue that November, where the pseudonymous Alix Bosco won the inaugural prize for Cut and Run (fittingly, an author whose identity was then a mystery won our first-ever Kiwi mystery writing prize).
I get a lot of credit for starting the awards, but in truth there have been so many people involved, and it is the mana of those people that have made the awards what it is. Along with our authors, judges, and the libraries who’ve come on board with our Murder in the Library series that started in 2015, I’d like to give a nod to Marianne Hargreaves and Rachael King of WORD Christchurch, who’ve done amazing things and had to deal with me flitting about all over the world and not being the easiest to work with. Because of all those great people it hasn’t seemed all that difficult to set up and run a literary prize, even if there have been difficult moments.
What is it about Aotearoa that make us bat above our weight in the crime writing stakes?
Hmm… I think we have some great writers, across all different styles of storytelling. So our talented crime writers are just part of that wider group of great authors. (Seriously, whatever type of stories take your fancy, you can find great Kiwi books; compelling, page-turning, thought-provoking tales. Give some of our authors a go, whatever genre you love.)
In terms of crime writing in particular, I think our Kiwi authors often have a willingness to push the boundaries of the genre. Check out Adam Christopher‘s Ray Electromatic series that’s pure 1960s LA noir, just with a robot detective, or some of our literary-crime crossovers like Tanya Moir’s The Legend of Winstone Blackhat and Fiona Sussman’s The last time we spoke, or Paul Cleave’s latest A killer harvest which you’d call magic realism if he was a literary author. And that’s just a few examples.
Our authors certainly don’t feel constrained by the traditional tropes of the crime genre. Many of our Kiwi crime novels also have a great, subversive sense of humour, even the tales that are dark and serious. Many of our authors also have a good touch for landscapes, whether countryside or urban. But in the end, even if many people think of crime fiction as being primarily plot-focused, the best crime fiction often comes down to character – and our Kiwi authors have created some really terrific crime characters!
Can you suggest 3 titles that epitomise #yeahnoir for readers who haven’t tried Kiwi crime?
Instead, I’m going to choose three other books that are really great, and very ‘Kiwi’ crime reads:
Bound Vanda Symon: the fourth tale in a really terrific series starring young Dunedin detective Sam Shephard. A successful businessman is murdered during a brutal home invasion, with his wife tied up and left to watch. Sam’s colleagues zero in on two local crims who’ve been on the police hit list for a while, but she’s not sure it’s so cut-and-dried. Sam is a terrific crime character, and the whole series is great, but I particularly like this instalment. Vanda Symon has a nice balance of plot, character, and setting, creating a page-turner with plenty of character depth. Sam has that maverick, trouble-with-superiors essence of crime fiction top cops like Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) and John Rebus (Ian Rankin), but as a younger woman she layers in plenty of freshness too. There’s a great sense of humour in these books, and Sam is a fierce southern lass who’s her own woman.
Hunting Blind Paddy Richardson: like her fellow southern crime queen, Richardson has written several really terrific crime novels, but unlike Symon she has focused on standalones rather than series books. Hunting Blind is a great place to start, a chilling thriller which centres on Stephanie, a psychiatrist whose sister vanished from a lakeside picnic seventeen years ago, fracturing the family and community. Then a new patient tells an eerily similar story, causing Stephanie to reexamine her sister’s disappearance, and sending her on a dangerous and emotional journey around the South Island, searching for long-hidden answers. This is a really terrific novel that was a Ngaio’s finalist in 2011 and really wowed our international panel. Richardson is a master at crafting layered characters who resonate with the reader, and delivers a terrific flavour of the south.
The Sound of her voice Nathan Blackwell: a superb tale from a new author who’s recently joined the #yeahnoir ranks (the Twitter hashtag for NZ crime fiction created by Steph Soper of the NZ Book Council). Blackwell is the pseudonym for a former Auckland detective who was involved in covert operations and investigated very serious real-life crimes. Whoever he is, he’s certainly hit the ground running in the crime fiction world, with a belter of a debut. Detective Matt Buchanan is burnt out, worn down by a succession of tough cases, and haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a young girl years before. Some fresh leads give him hope, but also threaten to draw him across lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Blackwell showcases the courage of Kiwi crime writers in tackling tough issues, giving readers a dark, authentic insight into the stresses the police face.
What do you think about libraries?
In short, libraries are bloody awesome!
I was a sports-loving kid growing up in Nelson, but I also loved spending time in my school and local public library. I discovered so many wonderful authors and books thanks to the librarians, and they cemented my lifelong love of reading. Libraries are so vital to communities, providing information and entertainment, cultivating learning, bringing people together. They’re egalitarian and democratic, opening up doors for anyone regardless of your background or means. Yeah, I think they’re pretty cool.
More about Craig, Ngaio Marsh, and the Ngaio Marsh Awards
You know that a book is a wonder when you stomp around the house muttering ‘I should have written this’. The wonderful new cookbook by Kate YoungThe little library cookbook really is one such SATHM (stomp around the house muttering) book.
Fiction and food are one of life’s irresistible combinations, and ‘literary’ cookbooks have always been a weakness of mine. I’m thinking of Cherry cake and ginger beer, The unofficial Harry Potter cookbook, and Dinner With Mr Darcy, the list goes on. However, there is something particularly appealing about Kate Young’s contribution to this unique foodie genre. Not only are the recipes seriously good- (if a cookbook contains a bread recipe that enables me to produce a loaf of crusty goodness rather than a forlorn looking dough worthy of papier mache, then I know that the cook knows their stuff), but also, the narrative is simply gorgeous. Young takes us on not only a culinary and literary journey, but also an engagingly personal one that had me wanting to reminisce, cook and read simultaneously.
Young includes the essential recipes that any respectable ‘library cookbook’ should have (I am of course thinking of Proust’s madeleine in particular here), but she also includes recipes from books that are simply dear to her heart. These include crab and avocado salad from Sylvia Plath’sThe Bell Jar, chicken casserole from Barbara Pym’sExcellent Women, and gin martini and chicken sandwich from JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.
Young is not limited in her literary taste either, with ‘hunny’ and rosemary cakes’ worthy of Winnie the Pooh getting a deserved mention, and even vanilla layer cake as Anne of Green Gables originally intended getting its full due.
This was perhaps what I loved best about this gorgeous book — the lovely surprises when I turned page after page to also see one of my own beloved authors getting their recipe out there, such as mince pies from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, curried chicken from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes, and eclairs from Nancy Mitford’sThe Pursuit of Love. Young’s taste in both food and literature is so close to my own; I was busy lapping up every word and nodding profusely in agreement.
Observations really do make Young’s narrative a joy, see du Maurier’s Rebecca:
the sinister Mrs, Danvers, surely one of the most insidious and manipulative villains in literature, turns a story that could be romantic into one where even the crumpets seem to be a threat.
the thing is, I think meringues and coffee get a raw deal here. They’re meant to be emblematic of the comfortable, predictable life that Lucy lives as a young woman, but I think they deserve better… And so I am here to advocate for meringues and coffee.
I very much enjoyed her bookish reminiscences along the way, such as her passage on first reading The book thief:
I have a vivid memory of being reduced to tears by the ending, trapped in a window seat on a flight to Italy. Perhaps inevitably for a story narrated by death and set in Germany during the second world war, it’s devastating.
I also enjoyed the stories of family and friends along the way, in fact, as the youngest of three sisters, her dedication of Shirley Jackson’s ‘spice cookies’ to her own sister bought a bit of a lump to my throat (also, as my sisters would heartily concur, greater love hath no sister than this that she should lay down her cookie recipe…).
There is nothing not to love about this gorgeous book — engaging, beautifully presented, and full of scrumptious recipes, this really is a must read for all book loving foodies.
It’s that time of year again – when we celebrate Women in Science! Today (Tuesday 10 October 2017 ) is Ada Lovelace Day. Its aim is to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
This year I’m featuring pioneers of science in New Zealand. From the nation’s very beginnings, these women classified and preserved our unique flora and fauna, made incredible discoveries, and improved the health and wellbeing of future New Zealanders.
“…it is to be regretted that, despite the fact that Man cannot replace them, the appalling destruction of our unique native birds and forest continues to this day.”
(from New Zealand Scientists : Pioneer Women: Ellen Blackwell (1864-1952) : Pérrine Moncrieff (1893-1979) : Muriel Bell (1898-1974) : Betty Batham (1917-1974) : Trends in their life and science. 1989: Women Into Science Education. Perrine Moncreiff, p.2.)
Moncrieff wrote articles on bird migration, protection, the endangered South Island Robin, and reaction of animals to the Murchison Earthquake (1929).
In 1974 Pérrine was awarded the Order of Oranje-Nassau by the Netherlands. Abel Tasman, who first discovered New Zealand, was from Holland, and the Dutch had sponsored the park. In 1975 she was honoured as Commander of the British Empire, but sadly she wasn’t recognised by the scientific community.
Ellen Blackwell lived in New Zealand long enough to collaborate with Robert Laing on the book; Plants of New Zealand. She travelled the country with Robert and her brother Frank, researching and photographing native plants, later writing a large part of the text for their book.
As well as describing the pine, palm and lily families of New Zealand flora, Blackwell’s readable style included snippets of local culture and legend:
“The reader was given advice on the preparation of the bracken rhizome for eating, the suitability of matai wood for ballroom floors, how to use nikau palm in the construction of huts and supplejack for ropes and baskets.” (Ibid. Ellen Blackwell p.3.)
Plants of New Zealand refuted some previously held ideas on the Lancewood species as well as the nature of mangroves. She identified that their ‘shoots’ were actually aerial roots.
Ellen’s large part in the creation of the book was largely ignored and although some went in to bat for her, she was uncomfortable with publicity and distanced herself from the controversy.
Muriel Bell, born in Murchison, is known for starting the programme for Free Milk in Schools in 1937.
Muriel studied medicine at Otago University and stayed on to research human metabolism, gaining a doctorate in 1928. She became a lecturer there in 1935. In 1940 she was appointed Director of the Medical Research Council’s Nutrition Research Department, and Nutritionist to the Department of Health.
During World War Two, when there were food shortages, Muriel consulted on diet and low cost meals. She found a source of Vitamin D in fish oil, and devised a rosehip syrup to supplement Vitamin C for children.
Muriel also discovered, when implementing the free milk in schools programme, that exposure to the sun destroyed vitamin C and riboflavin (vitamin B2) in milk. Covered trucks were then used to deliver it. She discovered that iodine is linked to healthy thyroid function, and that it isn’t present in New Zealand soil. So she introduced iodised salt.
She found a link between fluorine and healthy teeth, campaigning for it to be added to tap water, and researched links between cholesterol and heart disease.
Elizabeth Batham was born in Dunedin. Interested in the sea and its biology from childhood, she was an accomplished artist and photographer at school. She studied plankton and sea life in Otago Harbour for a Bachelor of Science in botany and zoology at Otago University.
After gaining a Ph.D on sea anemones at Cambridge in England, Batham took up the first role of Director at the Portobello Marine Biological Station in Otago, turning it into the highly respected research facility it is today; offering international study and courses for school students.
In 1962 Elizabeth was made one of only five female Fellows of The Royal Society of New Zealand. She was so dedicated that she would row to work when the ferry wasn’t working, and would dive for so long she often ran out of air.
Politics, administration and a male team of scientists, threatened by a female boss, made it difficult for Batham to manage the growing facility at Portobello. In 1974 she left to study at Victoria University of Wellington.
Joan Wiffen is my hero. In 1975 she found New Zealand’s first ever dinosaur bone.
Like many of us, Joan fossicked for shells and ammonites in sea cliffs as a child. After taking geology night classes Joan learned that the geology of north west Hawke’s Bay made it possible to find reptile bones, although no one had found any. Yet.
Joan concentrated her searches around the Mangahoua Stream northwest of Napier. Her first major find was a vertebra from a theropod – a carnivorous dinosaur that walked on its hind legs 65 million years ago.
Buried in sandstone rocks in treacherous cold water, were dinosaur fossils from both carnivores and herbivores.
Joan found more theropods, a sauropod (a titanosaur : a huge, herbivorous long necked dinosaur), a hypsilophodont (a small bi-ped), an ankylosaur (like an armadillo), an aquatic, air breathing mosasaur, plesiosaurs (like the loch ness monster) and a flying pterosaur.
Joan Wiffen was awarded a Commander of the British Empire, the Science and Technology Bronze Medal and and Honorary DSc from Massey University in 1994. In 1995 she was honoured with Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2004, she was awarded the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
She continued dinosaur hunting until her death at the age of 87.
Stacy Gregg’s latest pony book The Thunderbolt Pony is a children’s novel very close to home, both for Cantabrians and for the author. Set in the aftermath of an earthquake in the real life town of Parnassus, near Kaikoura, the story is about 12 year-old Evie and her determination to save her beloved Arabian pony Gus, her loyal border collie Jock and her aptly named cat Moxy.
Stacy Gregg portrays strong, independent, fearless girls in her books and here Evie bravely overcomes not only the forces of nature but her anxiety disorder, which she has been suffering since her dad became terminally ill. Evie’s OCD manifests itself in the belief that she if she doesn’t stick to set routines, it will cause bad things to happen, making her the ‘bringer of earthquakes.’ Evie must embark on both a physical and mental journey, in a race against time to get to a rescue boat.
Stacy Gregg has experienced the effects of anxiety disorder firsthand, with her own daughter developing OCD a couple of years ago, and she brings the specificity of what it can be like into the story. In fact, Stacy manages to intertwine quite a lot into this pacy yet reflective story. There’s also Greek mythology in here too with reference to Poseidon, who makes the perfect tie-in as not only the god of the sea but of earthquakes and horses as well.
You don’t have to be a horsey person for this story of adventure and animal friendship to appeal. Gregg’s style of historical fiction applied here will particularly resonate with many middle-school children in New Zealand and those around Canterbury, the Hurunui and Kaikoura will feel especially immersed in the familiar settings. Overriding everything, however, is Stacy’s signature quality storytelling.
Interview with Stacy Gregg
We interviewed Stacy on the release of her latest book – she talks about her research and writing process and about her experiences with anxiety disorder in her family.
Stacy, what types of research did you do for The Thunderbolt Pony?
As well as reading lots around my subjects, I’ve always travelled for my research. My books have taken me to Arabia and Spain, Italy and Russia and now for The Thunderbolt Pony, Kaikoura and the East Coast of the South Island. It was important to me to travel the route that my heroine will take, the 64-kilometre stretch between Parnassus and Kaikoura. I was hoping the earth might move while I was there, but it didn’t. I had to rely on second-hand accounts of what the earthquakes were like because I’ve only ever been in a minor tiny tremor once here in Auckland.
What did you find in your research of the earthquakes that surprised you?
That they are noisy! You don’t think about the sound an earthquake makes, you think about the feeling of the land moving underneath you. But everybody I spoke to talked first about the noise. The boom that comes beforehand and the sound like a train surging beneath you. Like the rumble of the thunder that comes before the lightning – it gave me the title for the book.
Stacy, did you have a real person in mind when you were writing the character of Evie, who has OCD?
Evie’s journey is based very much on my own daughter’s struggles with OCD. When I first had the idea for writing the book I asked Issie what she thought about having a character who suffers from OCD and she was really, really supportive of me writing about it. She felt like it was important to raise awareness of the condition so that kids who are suffering from anxiety disorders realise how common it is and that they aren’t alone. There’s been such an overall increase in anxiety disorders in pre-adolescents, but this is especially true in places like Canterbury and Kaikoura where the kids have been through an earthquake and the ongoing aftershocks. Statistics in a recent study in Christchurch have shown that four out of five kids in the region have some level of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s a very real issue.
What did you find in your research about anxiety disorders like OCD that surprised you?
My daughter gets really cross people say stuff like “Oh I totally need to keep the kitchen clean – cos I’m so OCD!” Because that’s not OCD at all – that’s just liking things to be neat! I remember there was a time when the word “schizophrenic” was misused in the same way. Then the mental health community stepped up and reclaimed it and said “hey it’s not okay to talk about schizophrenia as if it means you have a split personality -it’s actually a real condition that people suffer from.” I think the same thing will happen now with OCD.
There are a lot of mistaken preconceptions about OCD being a ‘clean freak’ condition where you have to wash your hands or keep things perfectly tidy. Yes, it can manifest in that way, but it’s just as likely for you to have OCD and have a super-messy bedroom! For many OCD sufferers it’s about wanting to protect people – or animals – you love and make them safe by adhering to rituals and counting. It’s a bit like superstition on steroids. If you have OCD you are compelled to carry out your rituals and you get really anxious and upset if you can’t do them right as you really do believe you are risking harming everyone that you love. You’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. In The Thunderbolt Pony, Evie is fighting her OCD and trying to get a grip on her actual reality, but she’s got a lot to contend with.
How challenging was it to write about a condition in your family? Was this a helpful process for you, to write about it?
It was tough at times to open the wound and examine it – but it’s better than letting it fester I think. Issie and I are both the same like that, we confront stuff head on and she was very honest with me and trusted me to tell the story. OCD is a rough gig. It can totally dominate someone’s life in a very debilitating way. Issie did a lot of really hard work with her clinical psychologist and that work gave her the tools to overcome it. I’m really proud of how open and brave she was, and I’m really grateful to our psychologist Hilary, for the support he gave her. The character of Willard Fox is very much based on him and he gets a big thank you in the dedication.
What has been the response so far from readers of The Thunderbolt Pony?
I just toured in Australia around schools in Sydney and what amazed me was that the kids there all knew what OCD was and they were very open to talking about anxiety disorders and seemed to really naturally engage with it. I’m just about to begin the South Island tour now – kicking off in Kaikoura – and I admit I am anxious about talking to the kids who have actually experienced the real earthquake. It’s going to be special, going back to the place where the book is set, but it’s also daunting. I hope they like it.
One thing really engaging about your books is the historical fiction aspect, how you use real places, events and real experiences in many of your stories. Why do you choose to write this way?
I think it’s the ex-journalist in me – I love to do solid research and I like to have a true story as a base foundation for my fiction. The Princess and the Foal was the start of that for me – it is the real story of the childhood of Princess Haya of Jordan. Her mother died in a helicopter crash when the Princess was 3 and she became really emotionally withdrawn and shut down after her death. When the princess was 6 her father, King Hussein, gave her an orphan foal to raise and said. “This foal has no mother, just like you. It’s on your shoulders now to be in charge and care for this young life.” This was the turning point for Princess Haya and her whole life story, her incredible success as an Olympic show jumper and as a powerful world influencer, came from that moment. It was so special to me to tell her story and to be given access to the royal palaces and the stables. My love of telling a true story sprang from working on that book.
You often write your historically-based stories from two points of view but in The Thunderbolt Pony we have just Evie’s viewpoints, one during the rescue adventure and one reflecting on her journey later (both physical and mental journey). Is this your way of using your ‘dual narratives’ device in this story?
That is a really good question in terms of discussing structure and the devices an author uses. I have frequently used dual narratives in previous books – dovetailing two girls with perspectives that are historical and modern-day up against each other. For this story though, there is just one voice, it is Evie’s story and hers alone. However, I didn’t want to write it in a linear fashion – I felt like we needed to see her two journeys – the physical and the mental – intertwined. It gives the book a different pace and that’s why we make time leap back and forth. The skill for a writer I think, is to construct a tricky timeline and make it feel like it makes sense and is effortless so that the reader doesn’t notice!
You’ve said you like to “get rid of the parents in a story” – can you tell us more about that and why?
It’s not just me who likes to get the parents out of the way. Look at Harry Potter. Or Lemony Snicket. Parents are a problem because they like boring stuff like routines and being safe. They are all about healthy meals and bedtimes and they are also on hand to help you when things get rough. If there are no parents you can have big crazy adventures where you must be brave and do everything yourself and there’s no one to stick their oar in and say “hang on a minute this is madness let’s stop and have a proper dinner!” That is why you get rid of the parents – they are too sensible and they ruin your fun and crush the spirit out of the adventure.
You write about strong female characters who are fearless, independent, self-sufficient. Can you tell us more about that?
I’ve always written strong girls as my heroines. Horses make girls powerful. You can’t be a powderpuff. You need to be mentally and physically tough to handle them. And at the same time you need to stay vulnerable and soft, because it’s in those unguarded moments that you create a true bond with a horse. My daughter rides competitively and when we roll up at competitions I’m always impressed at these women turning up driving massive trucks and handling enormous powerful warmbloods. We just don’t think anything of it – we don’t expect men to come and help with any of it. It’s a very feminist sport.
How long did the writing process take for this book?
I write a book a year. I spend about three months researching, three months writing and then another three months with my editor, pushing the manuscript back and forth through various stages beating it into shape. Then the next three months are publicity and touring and preparing to do it all over again. I love every stage of the process, I’m very lucky to do the job that I do.
What’s next? What are you working on at the moment?
My next book is called The Fire Stallion and it’s set in Iceland. As usual, I have the whole thing plotted out already – but I’m not giving away any spoilers yet!
What have you recently enjoying reading and what’s on you ‘to-be-read’ pile?
I have just finished Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology (OK that’s a big clue for the subject matter of my next book). But I won’t be able to read anything for a while now. I am an all-or-nothing reader and I can’t read other authors when I am in writing mode as I’m a terrible mimic. I have to isolate myself for the next few months and then I will binge read when the new book is finally done. On the bedside table until then are Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Dry by Jane Harper, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.
I’ve had this song in my head since I saw Peter Garrett recently. Not at the Midnight Oil concert, but at the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of view session at The Piano. It was the last talk in a series of goodies that formed WORD’s suite of Christchurch Arts Festival offerings.
Peter Garrett – musician, former Aussie federal politician, activist – appeared in conversation with the able and amiable broadcaster/journalist Finlay Macdonald, and followed the session with an audience Q & A and a book signing.
Peter’s book is a memoir of his life and career called Big Blue Sky. He found writing it both challenging and gut-wrenching:
It’s not just about what you remember, it’s how honest can you be.
He talked about the reformation of Midnight Oil and the series of concerts they are undertaking, including such stunner venues as Alice Springs and a rainforest in Cairns. Peter reckons they are sounding even better than their heyday.
His broad and expansive knowledge of Australian history as well as other topics made him a thoroughly engaging speaker. He talked politics, music, and more – and his move into federal politics made a lot of sense because he strongly believes:
The system cannot work unless it is infected by people who want it to work.
Peter went with the Labour Party instead of Green because he was “allergic to moral superiority and preachiness”.
There was plenty of music talk for the aficionados. He shared musical influences and passions – The Beatles, Neil Young, Rage against the Machine, Aborigine bands. Recalling seeing Muddy Waters play at ANU university, Peter got shivers right there on stage. So did we.
Highly recommended by Gillian Flynn, The Doll Master is a riveting collection of thrillingly sinister stories from the dark side of life.
All is not as it appears. Each protagonist has a secret. Each story has a twist.
In the title story, a boy collects dolls after the death of his cousin. But as he collects more, it becomes apparent that his obsession is unhealthy. What does it have to do with a series of child abductions? And who is the ‘friend’ that urges him on?
Oates uses the medium of mystery to cleverly and eloquently reflect very current social issues, from very different walks of life.
‘Soldier’ plays with our sympathies while looking at the sides taken after a mixed race (accidental?) shooting. Receiving death threats from some, yet heralded for bravery by others, Brendan Shrank maintains his innocence. But why did he pick up his Uncle’s gun that day?
‘Gun Accident’ takes a fine-toothed comb to a shocking home invasion, in which a young man is shot. But what secret does Hanna hold? Why has she never spoken about what really happened that night? Why is she paralysed with anxiety when she revisits the scene, twenty years later?
‘Equatorial’ had me thinking of Vonnegut‘s Galapagos. I just couldn’t get him out of my head. But it fits, in this whacky story of a woman convinced that her husband is trying to kill her. Is it all in her (pounding) head? Oates draws parallels between the lengths will they be driven to and the fight for ultimate survival. Only the fittest will prevail…
‘Big Momma’ addresses the problems of working single parents, poverty, runaways, body image and abduction (but boy with a twist!). Where is the Clovis’ mother? And who or what is Big Momma?
I love the fluent and easy way Joyce Carol Oates writes, the (conspiratorial) asides she whispers in brackets to the voyeuristic reader. Oates wields a lovely turn of phrase;
A single high window overlooks, at a little distance, the rough waters of the Atlantic that appear in the moonlight like shaken foil.
She avoids bad language, (barring ‘Gun Accident’) and is not wordy, except in the more literary Edgar Allen Poe influenced ‘Mystery Inc.’ In this Who’s Who of mystery writers, invoking The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Oates narrationbecomes more classically sinister; her protagonist a predatory bookseller, intent on adding to his empire by foul means.But again, a twist: “Charles” entertains the idea of being partners with his mark, Aaron Neuhaus. Will he change his murderous mind? Or has Neuhaus become suspicious?
The six stories in The Doll Master are a good length, almost novellas. Although I’m not a mystery reader, I was riveted to each twisted little tale, and couldn’t put this book down.
I had to find out what would happen… Did he, or didn’t he? Will she or won’t she? Is it HIM?
This quote is attributed to either Churchill or perhaps Hermann Göring (the jury is still out!) and it’spretty accurate – if yours is the only side of the story people hear, then its probably going to be the one that everybody believes. But the not-so-recent rise of fictional accounts of real historical events and significant historical figures has been trying to even the ledger by giving us the other side of the coin!
And we’ve had LOADS of writers contributing to this movement; think Hodd by Adam Thorpe – depicting Robin Hood as an outlaw, a thief, and generally a really bad man; or The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson – exposing John Batman as a scoundrel and murderer with his attempts to control (and/or massacre) the indigenous population of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Victoria; and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the courts of King Henry VIII from Cromwell’s view-point.
Each of these stories seeks to expose the “truth” or at least broader context of historical events in whatever form that can take since so long a time has passed…And now there’s a new title to add! In his new book Fletcher of the Bounty, Graeme Lay recounts the story of the mutiny on the Bounty with Fletcher Christian as the central character.
Lay’s skilled storytelling builds a world of contrast, between the confines of life on board a naval vessel adhering to authority and routine, to the freedom and love of life experienced during the time spent in Tahiti, connecting with people from another world and ultimately falling in love with an indigenous girl. He also describes well the slow unravelling of the ship’s commander William Bligh, and demonstrates just how alien he must have seemed while in Tahiti – clinging desperately onto his military ceremonies and brutal disciplines (continuing to wear full dress uniform in the sweltering heat, for example), while at the same time considering himself far superior to all others, crew and islanders both.
The story of the Bounty, one of idealism, betrayal and the resulting struggle to create a Utopian ideal, is familiar to all of us and as far as rewriting the story of the Bounty, the relationship breakdown between Bligh and Christian, and the inevitable mutiny, Lay doesn’t really push any boundaries beyond what we already know. It’s a well written sea-tale/love-story, and it does expand brilliantly on many of the themes dealt with in brief in the 1984 Roger Donaldson film The Bounty, (with the two leading characters played by the greats Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins).
His compelling character-driven narrative is highly descriptive and contextual and if you like a good nautical tale or are a fan of historical fiction then you should get a kick out of this retelling of the tale – I especially like the inclusion of regional languages as the crew travel around the Antipodes. Just don’t expect any new earth-shattering nuggets of insight.
The appearance of Mr John Safran in Christchurch managed to pack out The Piano venue on Sunday with a fair audience. He was matched with NZ’s very own version of himself, Te Radar Esq., who pointed out that although they both looked very similar, you could easily tell them apart as John was the one with the accent. Unless of course you were from Australia, in which case Te Radar was the one with the accent. Simple really.
Yet simple John’s new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue With Australian Deplorables is not. In fact it might be claimed that one reason for writing the book was because most other media didn’t like the tangled web of stories John had discovered in his very own Aussie backyard. What he’d found happening in the world of political radicals was not easily reduced by the popular media spotlight to black vs white, or local vs outsiders.
There are many reasons people are in involved in anti-Islam rallies, and it’s not always politics.
In the world of Australian extremist groups things have become very complicated, says John. “Out in the street things are so messed up, it’s hard to pick things apart.”
John has found a very diverse range of cultures and people marching for the reclaim Australia and anti-Islam causes, some of them strange and unexpected bedfellows. An anti-immigrant campaigner with Aboriginal and Italian lineage hanging with white nationalists, a Sri Lankan pastor opposing multiculturalism, and leaders of anti-immigrant rallies opening their speeches by acknowledging the land they were standing on as belonging to the Aboriginal community.
Some have claimed the lack of media interest in John’s stories proves the “bubble” caused by social media and the internet is real, the so-called echo chamber where we only pay attention to things and ideas that meet our world-view and beliefs.
Yet people have always filtered news and read newspapers and magazines selectively. We read what attracts our interest and reading things that don’t fit our understanding of the world can be challenging, so often we don’t. The internet hasn’t created that effect, it’s just made it quicker and easier to achieve – such is the way of computers.
What John has discovered is that thanks to social media on the internet, the “unsayable often becomes normal when repeated over and over”:
The world changed as I was writing the book. The anti-Islam street movement tried to portray the rallies as ‘normal’ not extreme, but I found they were led by some very extreme people. It was like the fringe and alternative had become mainstream or at least mingled up with the mainstream.
Te Radar asked John if he’d become less optimistic about the world as a result of writing the book? John’s response was that he had definitely got a bit paranoid hanging around with extreme people. Ironically he thought that getting out on the streets got him out of the echo chamber that the average person might inhabit.
But the idea that he may be humanising these people by writing about them in a book was not something he was trying to achieve. He is more driven by the comedian and artist in him, not so much the need to be a writer:
I can’t moralise about anything ‘cos I’ve always done something in the past I shouldn’t. But I don’t think people read my book and think the things these groups are saying and doing are ok.
A few questions from the audience stirred things up, with a bit of heckling that just came across as try-hard or even embarrassing. Mostly it was all very civilised and well-behaved. I don’t go to a lot of these events, so maybe that’s normal in Christchurch.
I’ve enjoyed reading the book and it’s definitely an eye opener. And thanks to John seeing the irony in much of what he saw happening, very funny too, although perhaps more in a gallows humour way.
All of which made me think that maybe John Safran is using humour to wake us up to the way people under our very noses think about the world. Does this make him the comedic hand sanitizer of the Aussie extremist world?