Emily Writes talks

Emily Writes is a Wellington-based writer whose blog posts have a habit of going viral. She is mother to two year-old Ronnie and four year-old Eddie and over the last couple of years I have chatted with her online quite a bit.

With a three year-old myself our online conversations have covered the full range of parental indignities from pregnancy and childbirth to toddler tantrums and terrible things that have happened to our soft furnishings. But also moments of delight… and Alexander Skarsgård gifs.

Emily’s new book, Rants in the dark, is proving a hit with parents across the country. Ahead of the Christchurch launch event at Scorpio Books next week, Emily chatted to me about her book, how she writes, and shared some favourite reads of her own.

Emily Writes
Emily Writes. Image credit: Christopher Tse.

So you started out blogging about parenting stuff, segued into somewhat tipsy movie reviews, have become the parenting editor at The Spinoff and now you have a book out. The next inevitable step is the biopic of your life, so the real question is… who will play you?

Oh my gosh, that is so hilarious. Alexander Skarsgård would need to be my husband in a movie and we would need to have many off-camera dress rehearsals and practice runs.

Cover of I Am Sasha Fierce
Emily’s twin and future bestie, Beyoncé.

I would really like it if Beyoncé could be me… I love her… My inspiration is Beyoncé so I would like to meet her. Because if she played me in a movie I could meet her and then maybe we would become best friends.

I’m now thinking about this a lot. Because it would probably be like a Shortland Street actor, right? Or someone who could do a believeable Kiwi accent, so maybe it could be… Nicole Kidman in a fat suit or something? Or… Cate Blanchett’s very good at accents.

What were you aiming for in writing “Rants in the dark”?

I hope that it is kind of a friend in the night to mums and new mums. If they’re awake at 3am or something like that – I wrote it at 3am. So I hope that it feels like somewhere they can turn in the night when they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Or during the day, or any time. I hope that it’s a different kind of parenting book.

It’s not a place for advice, or judgment or “I know what I’m doing” because I definitely don’t know what I’m doing. I hope that it just makes mums feel good about themselves but not in a “yoga” way.

Do you feel like there is a niche that parenting books weren’t quite hitting and that that’s where “Rants in the dark” sits?

I guess, yeah. I got What to expect when you’re expecting when I was pregnant and it kind of terrified me, and it’s also a bit like reading a dictionary. It’s quite a full-on book and I looked but I couldn’t find anything that properly prepared me – and I know that you can’t properly be prepared [for parenthood] – but I guess I wanted something like “hey, this might not be every single second of incredible delight. It will be amazing and the best thing ever but there will also be some really hard times”. That’s a really hard message to get across and maybe that’s why there aren’t books like that.

I just really felt like because we had tried so hard [to have a baby] that I would be ecstatic every second. And it’s that whole thing where, any parent talking about the hard times, you feel like you have to justify straight away – I am really happy…  And that’s why it’s such a difficult thing to talk about but I think we really do need to talk about… the realness of parenting, I guess.

I felt, with Eddie’s illness… how did this ever happen? And that’s a really hard thing when you start motherhood with something that you never expected that turns your whole life upside down. So I wanted to write something that maybe resonated with those mums that didn’t have this super smooth run into motherhood.

Sometimes I felt, when Eddie was really sick, that all these mums around me just had these perfect lives, and I know that that’s not true… but I felt very weird, alone and kind of “othered”… And I know that a lot of mums who have babies that have health conditions or are prem or that type of thing, they feel that too. So I hope that in that way it serves the community.

Emily Writes is not your real name, is it? Why did you feel the need to work under a pseudonym?

I guess the pseudonym is about the fact that I want to protect the privacy of my children. Every step of the way I’ve had boundaries and wanted to respect their privacy, and not only privacy but for me it’s about respecting them as people. …We talk a lot about what I’m writing, in terms of respecting the boys, but there’s a lot of trust there that I’m never going to do something that hurts them.

But I guess I don’t want them to spend their lives with people saying things like “oh, is your mum blah, blah, blah”. And I don’t want them to be Google-able, if that’s a word. I don’t want them to feel like they are characters or anything like that and I want to respect my husband’s privacy. He’s a really shy person.

… It also allows me a little bit of separation… I want to be able to come home and I walk through the door and I’m with my kids. …I find this is sort of a way to remind myself that I am a mum first to my kids and a wife and that is really important to me that I prioritise that and this allows me to not get too far up my own a*** or something.

With two small kids, it must be a struggle to write sometimes.

It’s hard to get it good. I write heaps. My drafts folder is like a phonebook… but it’s all s***. It’s easy to write lots but trying to find something good enough to publish is hard.

What I did was all at 3am, 4am because my kid is just intense. Every time he woke up, if I had an idea, I would note it down during the night and the book is like lots of little blog posts in a book. So I didn’t have to change my way of writing or anything [from blogging]. So I feel like I was pretty lucky. I think writers who write actual books are amazing.

Cover of Rants in the dark[I remind Emily that she has written an actual book]

Oh yeah, I have written an actual book. I forgot.

You just feel so lucky to have a book that you just feel very weird, and lucky and how did this happen? And it just doesn’t feel like it was hard because it’s so exciting. And also I didn’t do the grind like other writers did. I feel like I’ve been shot up the a*** with a rainbow, basically. I’ve just been very lucky.

What authors or writers do you yourself enjoy reading?

That’s a great question. I love Bunmi Laditan. I discovered her after I had started writing because someone said “you remind me of Bunmi” and then I went on her Facebook page and she’s just amazing in the way she talks about anxiety and mental health –  just so powerful. I love Bunmi.

I love Clementine Ford. I just read Fight like a girl. I think that was really brave. It’s kind of like Feminism 101, a really nice sort of entry into intersectional feminism…

I really love Emma Neale whose book Billy Bird – I just cried the whole way through it – it was such a powerful metaphor for parenting.

Cover of Mansfield and MeI love Sarah Laing’s Katherine Mansfield book, Mansfield and Me. I love that book. It’s amazing. I wanted to read it because I really like her as a person. She seems super nice and lovely. I don’t know her but that’s how she seems. So I thought “I’ll just buy it because she seems really nice and I want to support New Zealand authors” and then I loved it. You know when you just don’t know if you’re going to like a book or not, and then it’s everything? And I never thought I’d be into a Katherine Mansfield book but I loved it.

You’re coming down to Christchurch and doing a book launch event at Scorpio Books soon.

Yes, I’m so excited to come to Christchurch and that Scorpio Books wants to host me. And I think someone is running around trying to organise a day event so that we don’t exclude mums who can’t go out during the “witching hour” because their children are tyrants. Which is my children. I don’t mean that to insult anybody’s children.

I’m quite nervous about the Unity launch in Wellington because my kids will be there but I feel like if they absolutely crack it, I’ll just be like “See? I told you. Everything in the book is true”.

Hear Emily Writes talk at Scorpio Books BNZ Centre, 120 Hereford Street, Thursday, 6-7.30pm, 16 March.

The New Zealand Book Council are giving away one copy of Rants in the dark. To enter the draw, email reception@bookcouncil.org.nz with “Rants” in the subject line by Thurs 16 March. (Remember to include your postal address!)

Chatting with a Poo-Bah

A NZ Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic opera, The Mikado, opens this week in Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Australian bass-baritone Andrew Collis has performed all over the world and appears in this production in the role of Poo-Bah. I chatted with him last week about the world of The Mikado, humour, and the family link to W. S. Gilbert that fostered his interest in opera.

How would you describe The Mikado to someone who has never been to see the show before?

The thing about The Mikado is that it is first and foremost a comic piece of musical theatre. It is a piece that has a lot of energy. It’s melodic. It’s a nineteenth century piece so it’s not modern in that sense. It’s an acoustic piece so we have no microphones, we just perform on stage.  I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating – so far audiences have laughed a lot, which is great because it means that the jokes still work and that audiences can still get something out of it 130 years after the event.

It may be a nineteenth century work but many people still go and see Shakespeare plays which are much older so jokes can have a long life span…

You get someone like Oscar Wilde who was also writing at that sort of time – The importance of being Earnest – that sort of humour still works as well, and the Mikado is not a thousand miles away from that. It’s the same sort of witty banter that Wilde was so good at that that Gilbert also did well, so it’s a similar sort of thing to that, I think.

Tell me a little bit about the character that you play.

Without going into the story too much, he is “The Lord High Everything Else”. The main part, Ko-Ko, sung by Byron Coll, has been appointed to the title “Lord High Executioner” and Poo-Bah, in his government, has become “Lord High Everything Else”… Poo-Bah lists all the jobs that he has and basically he has become the encapsulation of a kind of overly pompous, titled bureaucrat who’s also on the take…It’s actually become a term in the language for that sort of character. He’s a real Poobah, he’s got his finger in every pie and is on the make and is somewhat corrupt.

I think that’s a concept that modern audiences can relate to, definitely. Do you have a favourite part of The Mikado that you particularly enjoy?

I love the role that I do. I think the best song on the night is The Mikado song – the emperor of Japan comes in and joins the show about half way through the second act. That’s a great number and …I listen to it every night from the wings. It’s sung by a fine baritone, Wellington resident, James Clayton.

And Byron Coll, the Christchurch born Ko-Ko in the piece, he has some wonderful numbers particularly a duet that he does with Helen Medlyn, who sings Katisha, is tremendous.

Tell me a little bit about the costumes. They seem to be a break with the traditional in a lot of ways.

Andrew Collis as Poo-Bah
Andrew Collis in costume as Poo-Bah. Image credit: David Rowland.

Mine is a kind of fusion. An oriental, nineteenth century fusion complete with top hat. They’re very inventive costumes. I think they’re trying to bring in various different references and influences. The school girls are all dressed in a Harajuku style costuming. And a lot of the men are sort of half Japanese, half not which I think is trying to encapsulate something about the piece that, although it is set in Japan, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Japan. It’s really a piece about the mores and functionings of nineteenth century English life set in the context of Japan, which was very fashionable at the time. In the 1880s it was a very fashionable part of London life. [Note: A Japanese Village exhibition opened in Knightsbridge, London in 1885]

It’s a reference to its time, really. And the Harajuku thing is a way of breaking a connection of it being particularly nineteenth century in that obviously [Harajuku] is of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – and there’s a reference to modern technology in there too.

It’s essentially a modernised version of a traditional piece which still, I think, hopefully takes the piece seriously and doesn’t ridicule it too much and that just tries to make it a bit bouncier and more fun for a modern audience.

I hear that you are descended from the Gilbert half of Gilbert and Sullivan…

My maternal great grandfather was Gilbert’s first cousin and he and his brother and sister came out to New South Wales and Sydney in the mid 1850s, I think, and in the family (although I didn’t join the family until some time after that) it was always part of the folklore that Gilbert had been a cousin with whom they kept in some touch but they didn’t see much of him after that period of course because they were living in Australia. So it was very much a part of growing up – my family was not particularly musical or theatrical but Gilbert & Sullivan always played a role in our lives because of this connection.

It’s a bit sad to think of a fifteen year old boy being into Gilbert and Sullivan but nevertheless I was, and that’s why I got into music theatre and opera as my career because that’s what opened the door to it for me and from that I started to listen to other sorts of classical music and opera….

If you hadn’t become an opera singer what direction to you think you would have gone in your career?

I did a law degree when I finished school because lower voiced males, well they usually take a bit longer for their voices to mature before you can start trying to work. So I did a history/law degree… and then worked for a couple of years as a legal bureaucrat which is quite Gilbertian in lots of ways… And then decided that I would have a crack at seeing how I would go and that was in 1990 and I’m still going…

So I’m very grateful for the whole Gilbert connection because it’s given me a sort of direction in my life which has been a lot of fun and very interesting.

Have you performed in Christchurch or at the Isaac Theatre Royal before?

No. My first time. I’ve done a bit on the North Island in Wellington and Auckland but not in Christchurch yet so I’m looking forward to that very much… but I hear great things about [the Isaac Theatre Royal] so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

I haven’t been to Christchurch since the earthquakes so it’s going to be fascinating to see it but I’m sure also quite moving and disturbing to see what’s happened. I’m certainly looking forward to doing the shows and I hope that it brings the citizens of Christchurch a bit of enjoyment, I hope anyway.

…We’ve noticed in our audiences that there’s been a good presence of young kids and that they’ve actually enjoyed it and there’s been a lot of laughter — it is, at the end of the day, a family entertainment and families so far have enjoyed it and I hope they will in Christchurch as well.

Further information

Podcast – Bilingualism in a single language-dominant society

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day is on 21 February. In this episode Sally speaks with University of Canterbury and Growing up with Two Languages researchers Una Cunningham and Jin Kim, and activists/teachers Anya Filippochkina and Jawad Arefi, who discuss community/heritage language bi- and multilingualism in a single language-dominant society.

  • Part I: Defining ‘mother language’, ‘first language’ etc
  • Part II: Cognitive, professional and social benefits of speaking multiple languages; first language use among first- and second-generation migrants
  • Part III: Challenges to encouraging continued engagement with first languages in a single language-dominant society
  • Part IV: Recommendations to parents

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Podcast – Canterbury’s residential red zone

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

The latest episode deals with issues surrounding land in Canterbury that since the 2010/2011 earthquakes has been zoned red and no longer suitable for residential use.

  • Part I: Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford talks us through the impacts of the red zoning on people still residing in these areas, including in terms of mental health. With reference to the Staying in the Red Zones Report.
  • Part II: What has happened with the red zoned land since 2011 in Waimakariri District and Christchurch city? What are the differences between the various red zoned areas? What lessons can the Waimakariri experience provide for Christchurch?
  • Part III: Public consultation processes – what suggestions have already been proposed? Are people disengaged and how can they be re-engaged? What is the importance of the land for today and future generations? What do you hope to see happen with the land?

This show includes discussion with Simon Markham (Waimakariri District Council), Rob Kerr (Regenerate Christchurch) and Evan Smith (Avon-Ōtākaro Network).

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Podcast – Antarctica

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

The latest episode deals with issues relating to Antarctica:

  • Ice melt
  • Climate science and climate change – ice core research
  • Antarctic Treaty and international cooperation
  • Antarctica as a place – vistas, cold etc
  • The role of New Zealand and Christchurch in Antarctic exploration

This show was recorded at the Centre of Contemporary Art and includes discussion with Bryan Storey of Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, Dan Price (Pole to Paris) and Karen Scott from University of Canterbury Law School.

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Podcast – Youth engagement in elections

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

This episode discusses issues around youth engagement with elections such as –

  • youth engagement in the recent NZ local-body elections and disappointingly low levels of voter turnout
  • contrasted with high levels of youth engagement in the American presidential elections despite those elections being less immediately relevant to the lives of young people in Christchurch
  • the role of memes (and social media in general) to encourage youth engagement – the positives and negatives of this type of social commentary
  • what lessons might be taken from these two experiences and brought to bear on the national elections next year
  • the responsibility of youth leaders in encouraging youth engagement in elections

The panel for this show includes host Sally Carlton, Tayla Reece Work of Youth Voice Canterbury, Tei Driver of Global Development Tour 2017 and Sofie Hampton of Christchurch Youth Council.

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Podcast – Organ harvesting

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

This episode discusses:

  • Stats on organ transplants in China; why are we talking about organ harvesting now when it has been going on for decades?
  • Differences between organ harvesting practices in China and elsewhere; lack of will from national governments to act; recent roundtable at New Zealand Parliament; need to apply pressure to medical and transplant professionals
  • Current action; possible deterrents; public scepticism
  • Actions worldwide; reasons why people might find it difficult to engage; terminology: ‘organ harvesting’ vs ‘organ pillaging’ vs ‘organ executions’

The panel for this show includes host Sally Carlton, David Kilgour (former Canadian MP who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for investigating organ harvesting crimes in China), undercover journalist for book ‘The Slaughter’ Jaya Mangalam Gibson, and Robin Palmer (previously a specialist prosecutor of international organ harvesting operations and Professor, School of Law, University of Canterbury).

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Summer Writing School for Youth 2017

sfyw-summer-writing-school-poster-no-marksThe School for Young Writers in Christchurch is holding a Summer Writing School and Workshops, 16-20 January 2017. The Summer Writing School comprises a week’s worth of writing for teenagers, with special guest tutors alongside some of our regulars. On the final day students will get an opportunity for 1:1 mentoring as they complete a piece for the special magazine that they will produce.

There are also opportunities for younger children (Year 7-9) to let their imaginations loose in short workshops with James Norcliffe and Heather McQuillan on the 24th January. Information can be found on their Facebook page. (Please note: the years 4-6 sessions on Jan 23rd are now full).

We spoke to Glyn Strange, founding director and Heather McQuillan, associate director of The School for Young Writers about the Summer Writing School and Workshops:

Why go to The School for Young Writers throughout the year? Who is it for and what will they get out of it?

The School for Young Writers is for Years 3 to Year 13. Young writers get the pleasure of working with skilled teachers in groups of like-minded children. Regular tuition produces results. We also have a correspondence programme for those who can’t make the class times.

What kind of writing activities and exercises do you do?

Heather: Stories, poetry in all its forms, creative non-fiction, jokes, flash fiction, memoir, song lyric, play script, monologue, twists on genre, fantasy, slam poetry, whatever the children ask for and whatever our creative tutors can come up with.

Tell us about some of the tutors at the school.

Summer school tutor, James Norcliffe

Glyn: James Norcliffe is one of New Zealand’s most admired writers of poetry (Burns Fellowship and many other awards) and fiction for young readers. Heather is also an award-winning writer of fiction for young people as well as poetry, short story and flash fiction ( She is the current National “champ” in Flash fiction). Gail Ingram is New Zealand’s best poet for 2016 (New Zealand Poetry Society). Greg O’Connell is renowned for his interactive poetry shows  and poems published in the School Journal. Stephanie Frewen is an award-winning scriptwriter. The plays her students write are broadcast on Plains FM and many are preserved for all time in Radio New Zealand Sound Archives.

Can you share some top tips for youth who want to write?

Join the School for Young Writers (of course). And enter the competitions in our Write On magazine. Teenagers submit to Re Draft – an annual anthology of the best teenage writing in New Zealand.

What about young people who think “I’m no good at writing…”

Glyn: Some of our best writers said that when they joined us. We are not there only for the gifted and talented. People don’t know they have a talent until they try it.

Heather: Sometimes young people have not had the opportunity to express their own creativity through writing. Our programmes are “low stakes.” We don’t use rubrics, mark or judge writing. Our goal is to help a young writer develop a piece to be the best expression of their ideas. This is a joyful process.

What changes do you see in the students over the course of the year?

Glyn says the changes are “immense” and Heather agrees: “For some it takes a few sessions to warm up and let their ideas free. Once they do then amazing things happen. Learning that all writers redraft is often key to the breakthrough.”

Can you share some highlights from the School for Young Writers this year?

Glyn: The greatest kick for me was to see the change in a young writer who came to us writing very dark stuff. By the end of the year, eligible to enter our annual Re-Draft competition for teenagers, this person won a place in the 2016 book The Dog Upstairs. This nationwide competition is for writers up to university level, so it’s a great achievement for such a young writer to win a place.

Heather: This year we held a poetry reading event in association with WORD Christchurch and New Zealand Poetry Day. It was a thrill to see usually shy young people stand up and read their pieces with confidence. I also love working in schools and a seeing the transformation over two days as reticent, vulnerable writers realise that they have something worthwhile to write, something that others want to read. Standouts have to be a group of Year 7/8 country boys (never laughed so much in a workshop) and a gorgeous group of teenagers in Queenstown who were open, enthusiastic and extremely talented. They even gave up their Saturday to attend.

Your favourite authors writing for children and young adults?

Of course we love James Norcliffe! Most of our young writers are also avid readers and they recommend writers to us!

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Some of YOUR Top picks of books for youth in 2016?

Heather: Being Magdalene by Fleur Beale. I went back and reread her others. Anything Patrick Ness has written. I’m a bit behind on my YA reading having been a University student this year and reading the modernists. I’m looking forward to some holiday immersion in YA books.

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What drives you to commit so much passion for this work?

Glyn: All of our tutors do it for the love of writing and with a passion for ensuring the future of New Zealand literature.

The School for Young Writers is based at Hagley College. What’s the association?

Glyn: Hagley College offered to support us and we gratefully accepted. We are a separate organisation and a registered charity. Hagley is our venue.

Tell us about the publications the writing school is associated with.

Cover of They call me ink, Re-Draft 15Glyn: The School for Young Writers has always emphasised the importance of publication. Without it, writing is like a house without a roof. Write On magazine gives everyone a chance to strive for the pleasure of seeing their name in print and encourages them to lift their game as far as possible. The Re-Draft competition began when we had developed teenage groups whose work was good enough to publish in book form. Re-Draft challenges our senior students to pit their skills against the best in the country. The results are amazingly good. New Zealand literature is alive and well and has a good future. Your blog should include this.

What are some things you’ve heard the students say about their experiences at the writing school?

Glyn: You should see the smiles on their faces when they emerge after two hours of fun learning. They don’t need to say anything. It shows. The younger ones often excitedly share their work with Mum on the way home.

Heather: They keep coming back and stay for years. For some of the students The School for Young Writers is their safe place, they make special friends and can be themselves. We love quirky. We value individuality.

Check out what is on offer for youth at the Summer Writing School this January.

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Book to film: The Changeover

Cover of The ChangeoverMargaret Mahy’s young adult novel, The Changeover was already several years old when I first picked up a worn copy in my high school library at the age of 15.

I was so taken with it that even before I had finished reading it I was re-imagining it in my head as a movie.

In that peculiarly obsessive way that teenage girls sometimes are about their favourite things my mania lead me to imagined locations and camera angles, and I had a very long list of songs to be included in the soundtrack. Most of which, upon reflection, were terrible.

When Margaret Mahy died in 2012, I felt moved to write a heartfelt blog post about how important her writing, and this book in particular, had been to me.

A couple of years later at a WORD Christchurch panel discussion on The Changeover, I learned that a film of the book was in development and felt conflicted in that way that book fans often do. Because how could that film ever live up to the book, or indeed my own imaginary movie of it?

Stuart McKenzie is, with his wife Miranda Harcourt, co-director of that film which recently finished shooting here in Christchurch.

The Changeover directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie
The Changeover co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie. (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Perhaps not fully understanding the degree of my fangirl obsession, he agreed to answer some questions about what their version of Mahy’s story will look like.

Margaret Mahy wrote a number of terrific books for young adults – what made you want to film The Changeover particularly?

We felt The Changeover was really cinematic. It’s a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who’s got to change over and become a witch in order to save her little brother from an evil spirit. So, it’s got a great central conflict! And its genre is very clear — yet at the same time it puts this compelling twist on it by feeling very naturalistic.

Its themes of love, loss, sacrifice and change are primal. Laura Chant feels like a real person — she struggles with herself and her kind of dispossessed place in the world, but she’s got big dreams. In other words, she’s a complex and powerful heroine who our audience can really identify with!

Another thing that made the book feel so cinematic for us was Christchurch. We updated Margaret’s story to contemporary, post-earthquake Christchurch. For us, the brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is like a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and subsequent transformation.

The Chant home set
The Chant family home in the Red Zone (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

The book (and Margaret Mahy herself) are very beloved, by me and many others. Does that place extra pressure on you to do a good job with the film?

All along we’ve wanted to make something Margaret would love: raw and lyrical, tender and tough and true. We wanted to keep the story feeling very contemporary, as the book itself was when it was first published in 1984. Like Margaret, we wanted to find the magic in the real world, not drift away into fantasy.

We were lucky to have Margaret’s blessing from the start. Before she died, she read and loved an early draft of the screenplay. So that was a great feeling to carry through the development of the project and into the shoot itself. She really encouraged us to find the spirit of the story and not be bound by the literal form of the book. We had this quote in mind by the great French film director Jean Renoir, “What interests me in adaptation isn’t the possibility of revealing the original in a film version, but the reaction of the film maker to the original work.”

I guess you could think of the book and the film as two reflecting worlds — much in the same way that Laura herself discovers the connectedness between two powerful realities — magic and the everyday — and finding in fact that they’re really one and the same.

Margaret was always clear that Laura’s changeover into a witch is a metaphor for her becoming a young woman, an active journey to embrace her own creative power. And Laura’s story itself is a metaphor for the challenges we all face in our lives and the changeovers we all have to go on in order to grow.

Oh yeah, back to the question about doing a good job… Yes, we really feel that! And we’ve still got a lot of work to do in post-production. Helps to have great people to work with, which we have.

On the one hand The Changeover, if you’re familiar with Christchurch, is very recognisably placed here, on the other hand it’s also very vague about where it’s set. The name of the city is never mentioned. The suburbs and street names in it are all made up. Christchurch is certainly its spiritual home, but you could make a very good argument that it’s not a story that needs to be specifically told here, and yet you are telling it here. What made you want to shoot here rather than in Auckland or “Wellywood”?

As you say, Christchurch is the “spiritual home” of The Changeover and we always wanted to make it here. I was born and bred in Christchurch and spent my early teenage years in Bishopdale which Margaret calls Gardendale in the book.

The Changeover was welcomed to Christchurch by Ngai Tahu in a moving whakatau — as a production we felt hugely embraced by Christchurch, the people, the Council, the environment itself.

Shooting in central Christchurch
Nighttime shoot in central Christchurch (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Miranda and I were determined to film in Christchurch because its flat vistas give the film a unique look. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud and Production Designer Iain Aitken helped us reflect the everyday and often unexpected beauty of the place.

Christchurch also allowed us to explore the division between social worlds which is a key feature of The Changeover. Laura comes from a solo-parent family struggling to make ends meet. By contrast, Sorensen Carlisle lives in an architect-designed home with fine art on the walls and a sense of history and sophistication. The developing romance between Laura and Sorensen means first differentiating and then bridging these two worlds.

Mahy herself described The Changeover as having a lot of folk tale elements – there are “evil” step-parents and an enchanted brother, for instance –  but also that “the city is simultaneously a mythological forest”. Will your film retain those suggestions of a modern day fairy tale?

Yes it does and that is in the very DNA of the story. At heart The Changeover is an emotionally powerful female rite-of-passage keyed into a primal fairy tale tradition. It’s true that those fairy tale elements are more overt in Margaret’s novel.

We wanted the film to feel very contemporary and naturalistic so in our story the fairy tale nature is felt rather than seen. We often thought about Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking study on fairy tale called The Uses of Enchantment. He says, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” That is something we experience through Laura in The Changeover.

In terms of characters, it strikes me that Sorensen Carlisle, at least how he’s written in the book, is something of a contradictory figure – dangerous yet vulnerable, jovial yet dark, aloof yet intense – that must present some challenges when it comes to casting. How difficult was it to find someone who can be all those things in a convincing way?

We had great casting agents in NZ and in the UK. We looked long and hard to cast this film. When we auditioned young UK actor Nick Galitzine we knew we had found our mysterious and compelling Sorensen Carlisle. And Nick and Erana James who plays Laura Chant have a powerful chemistry together. We have always said that this intensity is our special effect!

Reading the book as a teenager it was incredibly important to me that Laura was of mixed racial heritage both in a personal sense, as it was quite unusual to read about someone like me as the heroine of a novel, but also in that it marks her as being different and something of an outsider, which I think adds to her story. I’m really pleased that you’ve cast a part-Māori actress in the role. Was that always the plan?

This was totally important to us too. We love how in the book Laura is part-Maori but Margaret Mahy doesn’t make a big thing about that, it’s simply part of the unique world of the story which in fact helps make it feel universal. It’s true that Laura being part-Maori means that by her very nature she finds herself between two worlds. That’s the journey Laura is on — to open herself to new worlds, new experience.

We looked for many years for our Laura Chant — and we kept coming back to Erana James who we had met early on in our process. Of course, financiers want to cast someone in a central role like this who already has a profile. Erana hadn’t acted in a film before so she was unknown in NZ let alone internationally. But with the support of the NZ Film Commission we made a “tone reel” last year with Erana playing Laura. She was fantastic in it — and the international people involved in the project — like our sales agent and even Tim Spall or Melanie Lynskey — could immediately see that this young woman had something special.

Erana James on set as Laura Chant
Erana James on set as Laura Chant (Image credit: Dean McKenzie)

Could you hope for a better villain than Timothy Spall?

You are so right! But what drew us to Tim in the first place is that he could reveal the humanity in Carmody Braque. It’s this which makes him such a powerful adversary for Laura — because there is something of Braque in Laura herself. A desire to live more fully and expand her horizons.

We are so lucky to have Timothy Spall in The Changeover. He is mesmerising. I think Margaret Mahy would have been thrilled!

It’s clear from his answers that Stuart McKenzie is as much a fan of The Changeover as I am, so I feel much more relaxed about the movie adaptation now.

In addition to the film coming out late next year, McKenzie says there will also be a movie tie-in reprint of the (currently out of print) book. So roll on 2017!

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Podcast – Access to bathrooms

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from New Zealand’s only specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

This episode discusses issues around access to bathroom and toilet facilities such as –

  • bathrooms for transgender people, people with health conditions and people with restrictions placed on their bathroom usage by their workplaces
  • social and health consequences of not being able to access bathrooms
  • safety issues

The panel for this show includes host Sally Carlton, Brian Poole (Crohn’s & Colitis New Zealand), Olivia Clark (University of Canterbury Law graduate), Anne Nicholson (Qtopia) and Lisel O’Dwyer (Flinders University in Adelaide).

Transcript of the audio file

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Cover of Conquering Irritable Bowel Syndrome Cover of Supporting Transgender & gender creative youth Cover of Trans bodies, trans selves Cover of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis Cover of Better living with IBS Cover of IBD Self-management Cover of Transgenders and Intersexuals Cover of To be who I am

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