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!
Have you ever come across an activity or hobby that surprises you by the extent of the passion felt by those who are involved, and by the global reach and organisation behind the hobby? I’m not talking about Star Trek conventions or Cosplay in general, but rather the world of Bonsai. A gathering of Bonsai enthusiasts matches anything Star Trek fans can generate in terms of excitement and passion, but without the funny uniforms or prosthetics.
I was lucky enough to be able to organise a few days off from my library duties and attend the recent National Bonsai Show and Convention in Dunedin on 7th and 8th October.
Perhaps you’re surprised that there is a National Bonsai show? There’s even a New Zealand Bonsai Association to oversee all things bonsai. This is not Japan, it’s true, but there are still plenty of people in New Zealand who would travel significant distances for such a gathering. And what a mixed lot they were! The Bonsai bug bites all equally – that gathering had everyone from a retired professor of agricultural systems to a carpenter, and, of course, a librarian. All were united by a passion for bonsai, regardless of background.
The convention had two main attractions for most, the national show itself, and the demonstrations and workshops with the famous (in the bonsai world anyway) bonsai professional Bjorn Bjorholm the first non-Japanese bonsai professional to work in Japan. Now based in the United States, Bjorn travels extensively to different parts of the world giving talks and demonstrations, so a chance to sit in with an acknowledged master was not to be missed.
Curious about the bonsai thing? The library can be your friend. There are a good range of books in the library covering the history, the aesthetic principles and the hands-on techniques. The library also offers access to articles from the best known English language Bonsai magazine, the Bonsai Journal.
And if you fancied finding out a bit more and maybe getting some hands on time with trees in the company of like-minded mini tree enthusiasts, why not go along to a local Bonsai club meeting? There are two clubs in Christchurch, both listed in the CINCH (Community Information Christchurch) database. See you there!
This Labour Weekend I’m off to the West Coast of our South Island again. I get an itch to escape to there fairly often and this time it felt like it had been too long since last visit. There is something wholly relaxing about leaving your busy city life for the wilds of ‘the Coast’.
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
Isaac House stands in solitary splendour on the corner of Colombo and Armagh Streets. Located at 779 Colombo Street, it is a Category 2 listed heritage building in the distinctive Georgian Revival style. It was completed in 1927 for Henry Owen, proprietor of chemists
Cook and Ross. If — like me — you are a fan of this architectural style, 69 Worcester Street is another fine example.
She will be playing her much-lauded and loved songs that have stood the test of time such as Sway, Suddenly Strange and Bursting Through, alongside songs since then, included in The Very Best of Bic Runga (released 2017).
There must be quite a few of us who, in their 20s, would have filtered their relationships and emotional experiences through the lyrics of Bic Runga’s songs when the album was first released, and sang along to Drive, while driving around. Her music has cross-generational appeal and now I don’t know who is the bigger fan, myself or my daughter, but we’ll both be there up front in the majestic theatre to sway to her beautiful and equally majestic voice.
We caught up with Bic for a few quick questions ahead of her concert in Christchurch. She shares her reading interests and formative library memories.
Bic, you grew up in Christchurch, in Hornby, and went to Cashmere High School… what special places do you think of fondly here?
My favourite places are the Arts Centre where I did a lot of hanging out as a teenager. Lyttelton and Governors Bay are also really special places to me.
What role did libraries play in your life growing up?
I used to catch the bus to the library in town most Saturdays, and I discovered all the music I love there. I used to get out cassette tapes and that’s where I discovered The Smiths, The Sex Pistols, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins. It was unlike the music my parents played at home, so it was really my own place.
What type of reading do you enjoy? Any recommendations? What are you looking forward to reading?
My kids are mad about Minecraft, there’s an unofficial Minecraft book they quite liked called the Elementia Chronicles by Sean Fay Wolfe. So if you can’t peel your child away from Minecraft, you could try the book!
Can you recommend any music or artists out of Christchurch who have taken your interest?
If a young person was interested in being a musician today, what advice would you give them?
I’d say just practice a lot, practice slowly and make it your meditation. Everyone wants fame, but it seems no one wants to practice enough!
We asked Bic to share a surprising fact about herself (and it may just be her next creative project) …
I’ve just learned how to draft clothing patterns slowly over the last few years and I’m ready to do a fashion project, maybe using wool. I’m really excited to do something creative that’s not music, but I think the two will work together well.
Finally Bic, you are donating money from every ticket purchased to your Christchurch show to the Māia Health Foundation, who are raising money for projects for Canterbury’s health system. Can you tell us more about that?
Bic has won a multitude of awards and worked on many musical projects and collaborations in the twenty years since Drive was released, too numerous to mention here. Most recently, Bic has written a song for a New Zealand children’s annual of stories, poetry, comics, art and other miscellany Annual 2 which has just been published is aimed at 8 to 12 year olds. Her song, Next Thing You Know You’ll Be Happy, is based on the idea that happiness comes from simple pleasures.
Christchurch 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.
Maria Pozza is a world expert in the topic of arms control and outer space, and shares her legal knowledge of this ‘out there’ human rights issue, speaking about issues such as tension between the laws of nation states and international treaties.
Part I: The importance of talking about arms control in outer space
Part II: Outer Space Treaty
Part III: What do we mean by ‘arms control’ (weaponisation vs militarisation); New Zealand and arms control in outer space
Part IV: Future of arms control in outer space
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.