An Interview With Mary Victoria

So far, Mary Victoria has lived in seven countries and settled permanently in none. This is becoming problematic for customs officials trying to make sense of her passport. She has been at various times in her life a nanny, an animator, and a writer of fantasy. She is currently employed as a domestic servant to four cats, and has delusions of adequacy.

Mary, I recently finished reading Oracle’s Fire, the third volume in your Chronicles of the Tree trilogy, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the trilogy very much. What was the seed (pun intended) of the massive Tree which is the setting for most of the trilogy?

I’m happy you enjoyed it! I become quite nervous when other writers read my stuff… I keep feeling I have to go extra lengths to please them, because they know better. The idea that I’m a fraud and that fellow authors are going to see straight through me persists, even after three books. Maybe it’ll still be there when I’ve written twenty…

The genesis of the Tree was a complex affair, a result of many influences. I love the work of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. If you’re familiar with his films, you’ll know he made one named ‘Laputa,’ which figures a large tree floating through the sky, entwined with a fabled city. The image was so odd and fantastical and it moved me. Another direct source of inspiration was of course the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the original world tree that holds Midgard, the world of men in its branches.

I honestly can’t remember the point at which I thought, “I’m going to write a story which takes place in the branches of a gigantic tree the size of a mountain range.” But I do know that once I had the world, the story was a natural – forgive me – outgrowth.

The action, and the resolution, of the trilogy are closely tied up with the philosophical and religious issues that you explore in considerable depth in these novels. To what extent did these themes emerge as your wrote the books, and to what extent to they derive from your own prior thought and experience?

Many emerged as I wrote. I did approach these books in an organic way, allowing themes to develop from the inside out. But I also have a lifelong fascination with philosophy, religion and belief systems of all kinds. I find religions can bring out both the best and worst in us, and as such they are brilliant tools for story… From genuine altruism to the most horrific crimes and prejudices, you can lay it all at the door of belief.

I was interested in the relationship between fantasy, particularly End Times fantasies, and religion. It seems to me both tap into a very peculiar quirk in the human psyche – that need for a messiah, a saviour who will judge between the righteous and the wicked, and bring all nastiness to an end with a big full stop. I’ve tried to gently unravel this idea through my stories, starting with the usual trumpeting prophecies and ending with what I hope is something more ‘real’. It’s still a magical ‘real’, of course!

The books also show a clear concern for the environment and a dislike of war and its effects – both on those who wage it and their victims. I like the way that you wove these issues in without the books coming across as at all “preachy” – a balance I sometimes find difficult. How did you manage it?

You’ve brought up an interesting point. I imagine I must have put some readers off with my refusal to resolve everything through a big fat war. But I’ve read so many stories where a hero’s strength is measured by external conflict… It’s fine. It works. But I wanted to see what happened when my protagonists were tested in other ways. The most powerful characters in my books appear to ‘give up’ in order to achieve a more long-term victory. I like that inversion of expected norms.

I don’t know if I managed to stay away from the preachy. I certainly tried, mainly by allowing characters to come to realisations in their own time and way, or fail to come to realisations altogether. I didn’t know who would come through until the very end.

Do you, and does your publisher, regard these as Young Adult novels? I ask because a number of the leading characters suffer severe physical punishment over the course of the books, especially in Samiha’s Song, including rape and some savage beatings. Why was it important to include these scenes, and were they a problem for your publisher?

Actually, Voyager let me know they’d decided to pitch the books to an adult market after I’d finished writing the first book and was starting on the second. I sold what I thought was going to be a YA trilogy and found I was being asked to write sequels aimed at an older audience… hence the darker tone in the last two books.

But it does makes sense. Tymon’s Flight was always at the older end of YA, anyway. I wouldn’t give it to anyone under twelve. And as the action progresses, the characters pit themselves against some powerful forces. Considering the reality of religious persecution, I think they get off fairly lightly.

I know from talking to you during the writing of the trilogy that you had to meet some very tight deadlines to produce the second and third books, both of which feature long journeys under adverse conditions. Do you think the travails of the writing process affected the narrative, or were the plots of Samiha’s Song and Oracle’s Fire in place long before you wrote them?

Oh God, this question made me laugh. Yes! The process had an effect. As a matter of fact I wrote the scene you refer to above, in which a character receives a beating, with my arms on ice packs due to tendonitis. Something like method acting for writers…

Seriously, I wouldn’t do that again. I’m not that sort of writer!

Changing tack a little, writers are usually keen to hear about the path other writers take to getting an agent and to publication. How did these milestones come about in your case?

It took a while for me. Basically five years from the time I first sent an incomplete draft to my then-prospective agent, to the point at which she felt she could take me on and sell the trilogy. I started the first book in 2004. I finally signed with my agent and sold Tymon’s Flight to Harper Voyager in 2009.

I was, and still am, very lucky to have a supportive agent interested in my development as a writer. She guided me through that period of apprenticeship, patiently waiting until there was something there she could sell. People are quite vocal at the moment about self-publishing and bypassing the agent process. I know that personally, I need the mentoring and editorial input.

I think I’m right in saying that your poem Rapunzel, which I selected for inclusion in Issue 2 of the online speculative poetry magazine Eye to the Telescope, was your first published poem. Is there more Mary Victoria poetry on the way?

Now, where did I put my black beret…

You may see more poetry. But if you do, it’ll be written in the context of my next project. So the poetry is moved by a surrounding story, rather than existing in its own right… does that make sense? Some of the pieces will work on their own, some won’t. Some of them will be pure doggerel! I’m not sure that’s a great advertisement.

If you are willing to tell us, what else are you working on at the moment?

I can say a few things without being obliged to kill you. The new work isn’t epic fantasy, though it doesn’t qualify as straight realism, either. It’s contemporary fiction, or almost-contemporary fiction, being set in the island of Cyprus where I grew up. There is a slight magical realist twist. Like everything I do it is inspired by myth, but here the myth is buried deep. You won’t see any light sabres.

It’s fun to discover a new way of writing, and a challenge. The going is slow but I’m enjoying myself tremendously.

Thanks, Mary! It’s been great to find out some more about the sources of your writing.

Thanks so much for having me over, Tim!

Book availability details

You can find out more about Mary Victoria and her books on

An Interview With Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is best known in his native New Zealand for his poetry (his seventh collection, Being of Two Minds, has recently been published by Steele Roberts, Wellington), though he is internationally renowned as an ethnographer, having done fieldwork in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and in Aboriginal Australia (among the Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert and Kuku-Yalanji speaking people on Cape York) over a forty year period.

He has taught anthropology at Massey University, Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Sydney, the Australian National University, Indiana University, the University of Copenhagen, and is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of 27 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, and ethnography.

Michael’s poem Hit and Run was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Michael, would it be fair to call Road Markings an anthropological memoir?

There are elements of memoir in it, but I think of it more as a road book – a journey in present time, focused on conversations with people in the here and now, but with inevitable digressions into the past.

Can you explain the concept of ‘firstness’ as it refers in Road Markings, and why is it so important both to the book and to you?

The book’s perspective is that of an expatriate who, despite having remained faithful to his natal country and returned home every year like a migratory bird, has never ceased wondering what kind of life he might have led had he stayed put. Inevitably, this leads to the question of whether the way New Zealand shaped me as a child still determines the way I think and the way I see the world. In my case, New Zealand has never ceased to haunt me. Much as I have needed radically different places to enlarge my horizons, to challenge me as a person and as a writer, I have needed to sustain a relationship with the place that first nurtured me.

Yet every expatriate knows the dilemma of trying to keep the home fires burning, yet watching them gutter and gradually go out. There is a Maori saying that for as long as you live on the land, a fire burns there (ahi ka), signaling that you have the right to be there. But if you abandon the land, the fires die (ahi mataotao) and you forfeit that right. As we say, occupation is nine tenths of the law. In 2008 I decided that the time had come for me to explore this quandary in more depth, so I hired a car, and hit the road, determined to engage these issues through conversations with old friends and visits to old haunts.

Road Markings emerged as a series of meditations on the power of first experiences in our lives – first love, first landfall, first home, first loss. It touches on the ways that personal stories are interwoven with social and historical events, and explores Maori invocations of toi whenua in making claims for recognition and social justice, the search of adopted children for their birth parents, the notion of childhood as ‘the formative years’, our current preoccupation with genealogical, geographical or genetic backgrounds, and the allure of myths and models of cause and effect.

Road Markings is structured around a series of meetings with old friends, meaning that their narratives are intertwined with yours in the book. Did you encounter any resistance, or feel any constraint, in including their stories and experiences in this book?

Most people I spoke to agreed to have our conversations included in the book, though there were several instances when sensitive or potentially compromising material was edited out. In a couple of cases, names were changed to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

I don’t think I’d call Road Markings a particularly happy book. Many of the life stories you recount are filled with sadness and loss. Would you describe your return to New Zealand, as described in the book, as a happy one on the whole? Are you glad you made the journey?

All my returns home have been happy. But no human life is without its moments of sadness and loss. What struck me constantly as I made this particular journey was the resilience of the people I spoke to, the creative ways in which they had responded to adversity, and the good humour with which they embraced twists of fate and reverses of fortune. True happiness comes not from avoiding the hardships of life but knowing how to affirm life in even the hardest times. This has been borne home to me in every place I have done ethnographic fieldwork, whether in Africa, Aboriginal Australia or Aotearoa New Zealand.

A question that may be related: Do you regret spending so many years of your life away from New Zealand?

I regret nothing. But as I said before, there are dilemmas in life one cannot really resolve – such as maintaining relationships with all the places and people one has met in the course of an itinerant life. The question is how to accept, rather than regret.

One of your chapters, “Distance looks our way”, takes its title from Charles Brasch’s 1948 poem “The Islands”:

Everywhere in light and calm murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way
And none knows where he will lie down at night.

Brasch was writing during the period in which some New Zealand writers – opposed to a greater or lesser degree by others – developed a (predominantly white, predominantly masculine) New Zealand literary nationalism, and Road Markings revisits both these debates over national identity and the challenging of that constructed identity by Maori and feminists from the 1970s onwards. How important do you think this debate over national identity continues to be in the New Zealand of the 2010s?

Questions of identity – personal, ethnic, national, literary, gendered – have never been of much concern to me. My anthropological work has been far more oriented toward the ways in which identities can be negotiated, blurred, disregarded or transcended, and how it is possible, as a person or an ethnographer, to cross boundaries and develop meaningful relationships with people who, on the face of it, have nothing in common with oneself. I have always striven to realise the truth of Terence’s famous dictum: nothing human is alien to me.

Road Markings is an ebook. Is this your first venture into being published in this format, and how have you found it?

Had I not placed my manuscript in the capable hands of Penelope Todd, who also edited the manuscript of my memoir (The Accidental Anthropologist), I might have found e-publishing less satisfying than traditional publication. And though this is my first e-book, I’m gratified to say that word is getting around, and my fears that the book would disappear like a stone dropped into the sea have been allayed.

Road Markings has received good reviews in New Zealand. Have your friends and colleagues overseas read the book, and if so, how have they reacted?

A lot of my students have read the book, and like it. It helps them see where I am coming from. It helps them understand some of my un-American traits, for which I have my New Zealand upbringing to thank – my aversion to hierarchy and formality, my insistence on being called by my first name, my egalitarianism, my naïve curiosity, and a veneer of rustic innocence that, I am happy to say, has never worn off.

How To Buy Road Markings

Road Markings can be purchased from It is available in epub, PDF and Kindle formats, meaning that it can be read on most mobile devices, on a PC or Mac, and on a Kindle.

I Only Read It For The Interviews

I run round about one interview (usually, but not always, an interview with an author) on my blog each month. My own interviews this year were augmented by Johanna Knox’s fascinating interview with Mandy Hager.

Here are the interviews from my blog in 2011 – and you can check out interviews from previous years as well.

2011: Interviews with:

Owen Bullock

Mary Cresswell

Tracie McBride

Laura Solomon

Janis Freegard

Anna Caro

Barbara Strang

Michael J. Parry

Meliors Simms

Mandy Hager interviewed by Johanna Knox – Part 1 and Part 2

Johanna Knox

Penelope Cottier

If that’s not enough interviews for you, you can also check out the blog tour interviews with me about Men Briefly Explained – and the tour’s not quite over yet!

An Interview With Penelope Cottier

Penelope Susan Cottier, who usually writes as P.S. Cottier, is a poet and short story writer living in Canberra. Penelope was born in Oxford, England and moved to Australia as a baby. She has published three books; two of poetry and one collection of short stories.

Penelope’s poem The Exquisite Confusion of the Prose Poem was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Penelope, I have just finished reading your second poetry collection, The Cancellation of Clouds, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. It seems to me that you combine a number of aspects in your poetry: political commentary, nature poetry (especially about birds), elements of fantasy and surrealism, and grounded observations of your life and the lives of those around you. Does that sound like a recognisable description of your poetry, or have I got it all wrong?

It does sound recognisable to me Tim, in the way you can read a map and recall a seldom visited landscape from it. All the elements you mention are there, certainly, but for me one of the major things I think of is the play of words in each poem, whether the topic is a serious one or a lighter piece (a distinction that I try to erase, anyway). I often think of my work in sporting terms, I’m afraid, and probably the most apt comparison would be chess boxing; I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, I’ve only seen it on youtube, but it involves men with very flat noses playing chess in a ring and then whacking into each other. I try and combine the intellectual and the slap of surprise all the time, so it’s a kind of simultaneous chess boxing.

I’m glad to hear you liked Cancellation; I was so worried, and having enjoyed Men Briefly Explained made me even more anxious. The tone of mine is so much rougher than yours; more unsettled, I think, although you also value humour.

I enjoyed the various political jabs in your poems – both in this collection and those I’ve read online. Would I be right in thinking you are not a huge fan of Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his policies?

Byron’s ability to suddenly insert an blinding political jab into the flow of his perfect couplets (say about Lord Elgin stealing the Greek marbles) is something I admire greatly, even envy. Today we tend to draw a rigid distinction between political and non-political writing. I sometimes think that there should be a new sport developed, where the crudest ‘real world’ poems face off against the very worst ‘moment of personal revelation’ poems. The former could be represented (in the green corner) by a truly inept rave about climate change, full of well-meaning (and valid) politics, the very obtuseness of which gives poetry and politics a very bad name. This is a creature which can sometimes still be seen in alternative publications or heard at poetry slams. In the white corner we could have the ‘my mother just died and I feel sad’ poem, which inevitably uses words such as ‘numinous’ and ‘lucidity’ and won’t lower itself to any knowledge of the world outside the poet’s ring of refinement. (Penelope stops rant, runs to check Tim’s latest book, while not of the sort described, doesn’t contain the words ‘numinous’ or ‘lucidity’. Quick flick reveals neither, but she is still worried.) Both of these extremes make me puke, although my personal leaning is more towards the former, and there is just not enough good political poetry being written. (I don’t know about New Zealand poetry in this context, I’m talking about Australia.)

Speaking of puking, Tony Abbott, with his open discussion of the importance of his women’s virginity, his pandering to the lowest common denominator on climate change, and his virulent defence of the mining industry’s fight against increased taxation is definitely not my cup of tea. Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard is by no means perfect, but next to Abbott she seems like a shining light. I recently wrote a poem called Abbott’s booby, which is far from subtle in describing my reaction to him, but which is, I hope, saved from the ranting corner by humour. And fantastically detailed ornithology.

One thing that strikes me about your poetry is that even quite long poems often take the form of a single stanza, and that you use long line lengths in many of your poems. Technically, why does that approach appeal to you?

I hadn’t really noticed this, and thank you for pointing it out. To put it in a negative way, I think that I am an extremely impatient writer, and want to get everything down quickly, with as little hesitation as possible, and that as I value the prickly, unsettling tone, I am not interested in smoothing things out later. I’d rather go for the KO than the points victory, but perhaps I need to look at my footwork. (I know I’ve flogged the boxing thing to death, I’ll stop now.)

I sometimes feel that poems are being dictated to me, and it’s a question of getting them down, catching them before the unseen speaker runs away.

There are some poems in Cancellation that use shorter lines, such as ‘The atheistic angel’ or ‘Tiresias at the beach’ but they are the exception. And the prose poems sometimes just cascade on and on.

I haven’t read your first collection, The Glass Violin. Are the poems in The Cancellation of Clouds recognisably part of the same lineage, or does The Cancellation of Clouds represent a sharp break from your previous collection?

My first book contained near every poem of publishable standard that I had written, and there is more variation in quality there. Many of the topics you mentioned above are represented in the first collection too, but I feel I am writing better now, with more confidence and more ability to sift out the less successful works.

The Glass Violin was quite well reviewed, and one reviewer spoke of how ‘busy’ my world was. There is still a lot going on in Cancellation, but I think the poems speak to each other a little more coherently. I am trying out more forms too, notably prose-poems, which weren’t in the first collection.

I was intrigued by something I read on your blog, referring to your first collection:

Yet I actually write quite quickly. I’ve just been a shocker about trying to have my work published. About a year ago I decided to put an emphasis on seeking publication, and I have been quite fortunate in finding places that liked my work.

I have three questions about this:

(i) What prevented or discouraged you from seeking publication for your poems for so long?

I lost quite a few years of my life to depression, which is now routinely described as the black dog, a personification that I find quite amusing, as it conjures up a fat black Labrador acting as a benevolent guide dog, a creature as far from the quiet, years-long desperation of losing one’s way as it is possible to imagine. Anyone who speaks glibly of depression should be taken out and shot, in my liberal opinion. Poets do seem to have high rates of depression, but this is not what makes them poets.

I struggled to write during this time (although I did complete work) and was much too ill to cope with what I call the administrative side of poetry, or indeed any contact with the outside world. I felt ashamed at suffering from depression, which makes about as much sense as being ashamed of having cancer. I think at some level I blamed myself for being weak, and also that I had ‘no reason’ to be depressed, being in the sunny, white, middle class Australia I inhabit.

Interestingly, this is the first time I have discussed my illness in a public forum; as if the distance to New Zealand makes it easier to be honest. Although, of course, with them internets, there is no distance at all.

(ii) What caused you to change your mind and start submitting poems?

I’m tempted to simply write ‘medication’ and that is part of the truth. I finally got to the stage where I knew I was not going to die as a result of depression. I worked my way out of depression through employment at a national cultural institution, working in copyright law, an experience which was positive but which taught me that I am fundamentally not a lawyer. Then I wrote my PhD on Dickens, at the Australian National University, three months into which I had a baby. Miraculously, these two things that could have proven difficult, also helped pull me away from depression.

After the PhD I decided that I didn’t want to try and be an academic either, and that I would try and work at my own writing, rather than produce scholarly articles.

Without my husband, there is no doubt that I would not be around by now. Because of him, I am also free to write as much as I want. So from a most traditional family structure I am now able to compose cutting poems about the world’s injustices including the oppression of women, and from having survived depression, to write funny poems about Death. Death appears in most of my works, it seems to me, in one form or another.

Incidentally, I never used poetry to get out of depression; and my poems are not at all confessional. On the contrary, the slight distance I like to achieve through humour or word-play is something I value all the more for having been depressed. I invented the pen name P.S. Cottier, as I almost forgot to stick around. It’s a reference to a post-script, and is also gender neutral, as I often write in a man’s voice.

(iii) Do you think that in some ways it has been an advantage to have a lot of strong poems already written before you began to submit any of your poetry?

This is definitely true, although I’d rather not have had the extreme experiences that led to my nice little stockpile of poetic weaponry.

The Cancellation of Clouds is your third book; the one we haven’t talked about yet is your short story collection A Quiet Day and other stories. I’m keen to hear more about that collection, and I’d also like to know: do you alternate writing fiction and poetry, or do you work on both during the course of a writing day or writing week?

I was very pleased to have A Quiet Day and other stories highly commended in the recent Society Of Women Writers NSW book awards in Sydney, in the adult fiction category. It is a tiny volume of stories, ranging from the slightly surreal to the examination of loss and renewal in a suburban context. The judge of the awards referred to my stories as having a ‘poetic element’, and certainly, plot is not my particular friend. Or character development. Just description and word-play, in a slightly different form.

I can envisage writing a volume in which prose-poems are mixed with stories that are just a verb or two from being prose poems. Whether people can envisage reading such a thing is another question. If only I could work in a science fiction element it might become the world’s least publishable book.

No structure is imposed by me on my writing week except that I sit down each day at a particular time and write. I am quite looking forward to the minimal structure of being a Tuesday Poet, and posting something on my blog every Tuesday. I spend a lot more time on poetry than prose.

Each of your books has been published by Ginninderra Press. Have you enjoyed having a continuing relationship with one publisher?

Yes, I have enjoyed this. Ginninderra Press was originally based in Canberra, but moved to South Australia just before I sent them my manuscript for the first poetry collection. The two events were allegedly not related. GP publishes a lot of first writers, and it is not in the business primarily to make a profit. (As opposed to those other huge money-grubbing poetry publishers, with their Stephen King type print runs and huge advances!) They recently celebrated their 15th birthday.

All tiny presses have limited funds for promotion, so there is a great irony in the fact that the less commercial one’s work is, the more one must work to promote it. This brilliant insight may have occurred to you too, Tim.

Many of my readers may not be familiar with as much Australian poetry as they should be – and I’m one such reader. Are there Australian poets, or for that matter any poets, you especially enjoy or have been influenced by?

Firstly, I will take your stated unfamiliarity and up it with my near total ignorance of New Zealand poetry. Hopefully involvement in Tuesday poets will go some way to changing this. And I will be going to a reading by New Zealand poet Vincent O’Sullivan in Canberra next year.

I must admit that my literary heroes, until recently, have been from England and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Emily Dickinson, the aforementioned Byron (now there’s an interesting coupling), TS Eliot, Shakespeare; all very traditional. But I truly believe that you must read all this to be any good at all.

If you want to read Australian poetry on line, I recommend the Australian Poetry Library. You can search by poet or topic. Of course only one-third of the poets represented are women, but there are many fine poets here. I am totally in love with the works of joanne burns, a Sydney poet who writes prose poems, of great wit and intelligence, some of which are readable in the Poetry Library. Seeing her read last year was a genuine highlight for me.

There are also many fine poets in Canberra, such as Alan Gould, Geoff Page, Hal Judge, Kathy Kituai, Melinda Smith and many many others, and I try to go to as many launches and readings as I can without compromising my work. It is so good to be able to be a little social, after having been forced into myself by depression. I am also enjoying my doing own readings several times a year, and judging competitions.

Finally, and if you’re willing to tell us, what writing projects are you working on at the moment?

I have just started working on a possible series of linked poems dealing with extinction starring the cane toad as narrator. The corroborree frog may also be in there. We’ll see.

I am shocking in that if something catches my eye, whether it be a prompt for a competition, or an interesting argument on a web-site, I’ll drop everything and wade in.

Most of my good work comes from chasing weirdness in this way, rather than having a particular end in sight. One of my first contacts with you, for example (after you had brutally rejected one of my poems for an e-zine in an editorial capacity!) was because you had an excellent poem about snails on your blog, by Janis Freegard, and I was about to publish a story about snails on mine. (I carefully avoided any puns about getting Shelley during my first email.) That was weird and fruitful. I’m also shocking in that I will post a poem on my blog that has not been published elsewhere; I just can’t stand waiting at times, and going through the established channels of submitting to a journal.

And let’s face it, if I wanted a proper, ordered career, I’d be a lawyer, billing every six minutes of my time to a client. I don’t want that, and revel in my ability to write what I want. It’s a privilege to be where I am now. My business card says ‘poet’.

How to buy The Cancellation of Clouds

The Cancellation of Clouds is published by Ginninderra Press, as were P.S. Cottier’s two previous books, The Glass Violin (poetry) and A Quiet Day and other stories (short fiction). Each can be ordered through the poetry and fiction sections of the Ginninderra Press website.

An Interview With Johanna Knox

Johanna Knox is the author of an intriguing new children’s book series for 8-12 year olds – The Fly Papers. The first book, recently released, is The Flytrap Snaps.

Described in reviews as everything from ‘fresh’ and ‘funny’, to ‘quirky’ ‘madcap’, and ‘bizarre’, this fast-paced mystery adventure is set in a booming movie industry town called Filmington. It features resourceful children, a ruthless venture capitalist, and a plethora of walking, talking carnivorous plants, who’ve been genetically engineered to star in horror movies.

Johanna has spent much of her career writing for museums, as well as for magazines, youth websites, and educational publications. However, her passion has always been fiction. This is her first published novel, and she has teamed up with her partner Walter Moala, a graphic designer, to bring it out under their own imprint – Hinterlands.

How did the idea to write The Fly Papers come about?

About eight years ago, our young son got obsessed with carnivorous plants, so we bought him a small collection of different species for Christmas. Then I think I became one of those dreadful parents who takes over their child’s interest! His obsession wore off (hopefully I didn’t smother it), but mine stayed.

I was fascinated with each plant’s personality. They felt more like pets than pot plants, and I used to wonder what they’d be like if they became animate.

I started a story about them but wasn’t sure where it was going, and put it aside. I came back to it, ages later, after the global financial crisis had hit. By then I’d thought a lot about debt, and consumerism, and financial exploitation. I melded those themes with the carnivorous plant story, and suddenly I was excited about it again.

It’s perfectly possible to read The Flytrap Snaps for fun without dwelling on financial issues, but those ideas are there, if readers care to delve into them. I’d like to think the book could make a good discussion starter if parents wanted to talk about money with their children.

How long did it take for the idea to become a published reality?

The year before last, a whole lot of things came together and Walter and I found ourselves in a position to do what we’d always talked about, which was publish our own books. We figured, ‘it’s now or never’, and it made sense to start with this carnivorous plant fiction series.

I’ve got a copy of The Flytrap Snaps, in front of me, and it looks great! How much effort did it take to get that superb production quality?

Thank you for saying so!

Well, Walter really drove the production process. We felt that if we were investing so much into the books, the production values should reflect that, and as self publishers, we could control the outcome.

Walter worked closely with MWGraphics on production. For example they collated all the illustrations and sample text onto A2 pages and tested the ink coverage on the paper stock on the printing press. It doesn’t get more accurate than that. We knew exactly what we were going to get before we went to print.

Walter has a great (and longstanding) relationship with MWGraphics, and they really went the extra mile to help us get a result that they were proud of too.

A major part of the appeal of the book is the illustrations by Sabrina Malcolm. How did Sabrina come on board as the illustrator?

From the start, we wanted the books illustrated. We were inspired by movies like Little Shop of Horrors, and old B-grade movie posters. We began to imagine what the plants could look like but, as Walter says, we needed the safe hands of a great illustrator who knew the subject, but would also add their own ideas.

We’d worked with Sabrina before, back when Walter was at Huia Publishers, and I was also doing a bit of children’s book editing for them.

Walter and I both worked on the Huia picture book Koro’s Medicine by Melanie Drewery. We were looking for an illustrator for it, and a friend recommended this woman Sabrina who had a background in botanical illustration – ideal for a book about native medicinal plants. So she came on board.

We loved working with her, and the book ended up as a finalist in the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, so she did a great job.

Some years later we reconnected with Sabrina when our respective sons became good friends. When we needed an illustrator for a novel about carnivorous plants, it was a no-brainer to approach her, and that’s when we discovered that unbeknown to us she’d been harbouring a deep fascination with carnivorous plants for years!

Will Sabrina be illustrating the whole series?

I hope so! They’re a big part of The Fly Papers’ identity.

The Flytrap Snaps is published by Hinterlands. What made you decide to take this route to publication?

Walter and I had been running our business, Hinterlands, for years, contracting out writing and design services, and usually working for separate clients. The book series was a way to combine our experience and skills on a single project that we could take full responsibility for.

Do you envisage that Hinterlands will publish work by other authors?

We’ve always had that in mind as a goal, and we’ll look into it further down the track.

I was impressed by the list of bookshops that carry The Flytrap Snaps (on the right of the linked page). As a new publisher, how have you gone about getting this wide distribution? Was it difficult to achieve?

Before publication, we did a road trip through sections of the North Island, gauging and drumming up interest at independent bookshops. After it was published, we did our best to get in touch with as many of those shops – and other independents – as possible, to see if they’d stock it. And it’s ongoing. We’re constantly working on getting it into more places. But that does take time.

It’s been all about lots of emailing, plus in-person promotion to bookstores near us. We’ve also had kind friends and associates in other parts of the country help promote it in their locales. Plus whenever we go on a trip, we make sure we take a few books to show the local shop.

Forming good relationships with independent booksellers is really a holy grail for us. They have such a passion for books and for the whole process of matching books with people. They’re the ones who are likely to hand-sell your book if they like it … and that’s what you need when you’re starting out and don’t have a name.

The more booksellers we can find who decide they actually like our book and want to put it in the hands of customers they think would like it too, the better.

They don’t have to be independent booksellers of course – there are stores in chains where the individuals running it have the same ethic. Someone told me you’ll often find that kind of attitude in chain stores in small towns, where they may be the only bookshop around, so they become an extra special part of their community.

All that said, we’re discovering how brilliant and supportive libraries and librarians can be to deal with, too!

The advent of ebooks has had a big impact on adult fiction. Has it had the same effect on children’s and YA fiction? Is The Flytrap Snaps available as an ebook, or if not, do you plan to turn it into an ebook?

I think ebooks are taking longer to take off in the world of children’s and YA literature, but it’s definitely happening.

We do plan to turn it (and the other books in The Fly Papers series) into ebooks in the not-so-distant future.

Walter and I love printed books though! We’re not luddites by any stretch, but we’ve both always loved the look and feel and smell of printed books, and somehow they feel more real, more substantial and more permanent.

When I have a new book out, and given my other commitments, I find it difficult to maintain the balance between writing and promotion – put another way, it’s hard to get writing done when there’s a book to promote. If you have a secret to maintaining that balance, I’d love to find out what it is!

Me? I’ve been searching for balance – any kind of balance – since I can remember. Maybe the balance is just in the constant seesawing.

It’s funny how this is such a major topic of conversation when writers get together! We always seem to be comparing notes about how we have or haven’t found balance of one sort or another, whether it’s writing vs promotion, writing for love vs writing for money, or writing anything vs family commitments!

To get back to your original question, promotion eats up a lot of time, and so does distribution. Even just the packaging, invoicing and mailing. All the jobs that individually only take a few minutes, really add up.

A wise friend recently told me how she likes to make sure she never lets a whole day get totally consumed by long lists of small jobs (like promotion and admin tasks). Instead she makes sure that every single day, she spends at least a bit of time making headway on a large scale job (like a novel manuscript).

I’ve tried to force myself to do that lately, and it’s really helpful. Otherwise, it’s too easy to put off the large-scale tasks, thinking I’ll wait till I have a day clear of small tasks. But that day never comes!

A slightly different question: do you enjoy the whole publishing and promotional side of the business, or is it a necessary evil that one has to undergo?

Hmm … it’s definitely an interesting learning curve, and it’s satisfying overseeing the entire process. On the other hand, sometimes it would be nice to have that extra support of an external publisher.

As well as continuing work on The Fly Papers, I’ve recently been commissioned by another publisher to write a book.

I’m finding this a very different experience. Just having the external validation of someone saying, ‘We believe that you can do this book,’ is so reassuring. Whereas when you self publish you need an amount of inner self-belief that it’s frankly impossible to maintain all the time.

When I can’t maintain it I have to go onto auto-pilot, and think, okay, whether I believe in this project or not right now, I just have to keep trudging along this path I’ve mapped out … keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When it comes to the actual promotion, it can be deeply uncomfortable trumpeting your own book, especially when it’s effectively self published. It’s like I have to split myself into two selves – the writer-me and the promoter-me. It’s not always a happy split, either.

The writer-me (which I’d suggest is much closer to the real me!) just wants to immerse myself in the story, and have a handful of people like the story for its own sake, and ignore all practicalities … But the promoter-me has to block out any investment in people liking the book for any reason other than that it’s a business venture, and we need to make some money off it! (And that means I have to get LOTS of people to like it.)

Right now, you’re really interviewing both those people, and this is an odd feeling. The writer-me is a wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person who wants to answer everything you’re asking me fully and frankly, and not a little self-deprecatingly. But as I reply I’ve got the promoter-me in my head, interjecting sometimes with ‘you can’t say this…’ and ‘make sure you slip in something about that …’

On a lighter note, one fun thing about promoting this book is that I get to talk a lot about carnivorous plants, especially to kids. I love it that anywhere I set up a display or talk, there are always one or two children who seem so enthralled that they can’t leave.

They will come, look at the plants, and then wander off (or be dragged off) … Then a few minutes or half an hour later they’re back … And then later they’re back again, and each time they think up new questions to ask. These plants really seem to get under the skin of some children.

Can you reveal a bit about the second book in the series?

Well it’s coming out next year, and it has a lot of stunt wrestlers in it, as well as carnivorous plants.

One final question: what’s the best thing about being a writer?

Not having to sit around wishing I was a writer, I suppose, which I would … if I wasn’t.

On the other hand, occasionally, when things aren’t going so well, I dream about chucking it all in and becoming a florist or a herbalist or a perfumer. I reckon lots of people must have fantasy alter-ego jobs that they float away to when things get too much in their real job.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Well, the promoter-me says I have to tell you that The Flytrap Snaps makes a really good gift for bright, inquisitive children when packaged up with a real Venus flytrap from your local garden centre. Especially as in the back of the book you’ll find detailed instructions for looking after your own Venus flytrap!

An Interview With Mandy Hager, by Johanna Knox: Part 2

This is part 2 of Johanna Knox’s interview with New Zealand author Mandy Hager. You can read Part 1 here – that part focuses more specifically on Mandy’s Blood of the Lamb trilogy, while Part 2 sets those novels in a wider context.

Interview with Mandy Hager: Part 2

About Mandy Hager: Kapiti-based Mandy Hager is the award-winning author of numerous young adult books, including the recent Blood of the Lamb trilogy, a dramatic dystopia in set in the South Pacific. In these books, teenager Maryam, with her friends, must try to escape and later overthrow the corrupt and oppressive religious cult that has dominated her people since a disaster known as ‘the Tribulation’ struck Earth.

Margaret Mahy has described the first book as ‘Like 1984 for teenagers – direct, powerful and passionate.’ Books 1 and 2 in the trilogy were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards in 2010 and 2011. Book 3 was released earlier this year to critical acclaim.

About Johanna Knox: Johanna is a Wairarapa/Wellington-based writer, researcher, and reviewer. She frequently writes on food and sustainability issues. She is also the author of The Flytrap Snaps, book one in a newly released mystery-adventure series for children, all about mutant carnivorous plants – see

JK: Book 2, Into the Wilderness, is particularly dear to me. I found it harrowing, almost cathartic, and felt like I’d been taken apart and put back together again by the time I’d finished it. To me, this is the book where the concept of self-sacrifice is explored in most depth.

Did you think a lot about the notion of self-sacrifice when writing the book?

MH: I hadn’t thought of ITW in that way but I can see why you might think so. To me it’s not so much about self-sacrifice as it is about love and anger – both of which have the capacity to make us put aside our own considerations and fight for a greater good. If I am willing to lay down my life for my children (which I am!) it’s not about self sacrifice, it’s about love – and if, for instance, I’m angry because their futures are being ripped off by greedy capitalists, and the only way I can try to stop this is to step in front of a logging truck or a tank, I’ll do this too – spurred by anger but based on love for them. So maybe it’s not self sacrifice, but altruism in its purest form?

JK: Yes, I wonder if self-sacrifice is the wrong word then. Perhaps it has connotations of resentment and martyrdom? Maybe the word I should have used is ‘selflessness’ … But ‘altruism in its purest form’ … I like that. It puts the focus on what you ARE doing, not what you’re not doing, if you see what I mean.

MH: Yes, that makes sense. One of the things I researched for the trilogy was a little about Buddhism – I’d never been able to understand the concept of ‘detachment’ before – used to think it meant being emotionally detached and remote (which I consider a bad thing) – but then I realised it’s about taking ego out of actions and decisions – now that makes real sense. And I started to plot how often my responses to things, situations or people were controlled by ego first (a lot!)

Once ego is taken out of the equation then it really is ‘selflessness’ – doing what’s right, not just what is right for you. It’s amazing how it changes the way I respond to things (though I admit it’s sometimes still a battle to smother that little bastard of an ego!)

The quote from Martin Luther King Jnr, at the end of Resurrection, really says it all: “the first thing we ask at a time of conflict is ‘what is the most loving thing to do?’” If we all practised that, all our problems would disappear!

JK: Obviously we are on the brink of some big upheavals globally: Climate change, peak oil, the financial crisis. In the world you write about, devastation has been caused by solar flares. Why did you choose this as the source of the world’s trouble?

MH: The effects of a massive solar flare fit very well with the descriptions in Revelations about the end of the world, which all played into the Apostles hands when they were making their case for being living gods. I researched all about the flares on the NASA website – scary stuff, and spookily, they are at their most dangerous point of their cycle next year in 2012, the same year as the Mayan calendar ends – it was too much of a coincidence to ignore!

JK: Maryam finds herself in a bind at the end of the third book. I like that it is satisfying but you haven’t tried to bring about a perfect conclusion, when really there couldn’t be one. It was an unexpected ending for me, but once I’d read it, I felt it couldn’t be any other way …

MH: I always knew Maryam would bring about release from the Apostle’s rule, and I knew it would be by providing a cure for Te Matee Iai, but I had no idea it would happen in that way! It surprised me as much as you!

But then it made sense to me – nothing is ever so easy to resolve – and when you are dealing with indoctrinated people it is unrealistic to believe that they can throw away all vestiges of their faith/doctrines just because they’re told to.

Look at the real world – the problems we’re seeing now are because countries have gone into another country/culture, stripped away one form of control but have not taken the people along with them, have not respected their core beliefs, and have provided no secure continuity to allow people time to adjust.

I came to realise that it couldn’t be straightforward and it was necessary to discuss how power vacuums are dangerous and that transitions need to be carefully and thoughtfully handled, and must accommodate all views.

JK: And – dare I ask – do you have a clear idea in your own mind of what happens after the events of the last chapters of the third book? Or is it as full of possibility in your own mind as it seems to the reader?

MH: There was a point where I realised ‘Damn, there could be a fourth book here’ – but I didn’t want to go there! I might one day, but I suspect not. For now I have faith that together they’ll sort it out – though it won’t be easy. That’s as much as I’m going to say!

JK: As many people know, you come from a family that has a strong focus on social justice. Is there a strong spirit of support amongst the family members for what you each do?

MH: Absolutely. I’m incredibly proud of what my siblings do (and my parents did) – we’re all close and support each other as much as we can.

My younger sister was over from England recently and we all got together – ended up in a rollicking discussion about politics – nice to know we’re all in agreement!

I am in awe of the work Nicky [Hager] does, and it frustrates me so much that he’s so dismissed by people here, when he’s invited all over the world to speak at investigative journalist conferences and the like as a key-note speaker with people like Robert Fisk and John Pilger – here they don’t even ask him to chair a Readers and Writers event, let alone speak at one – this drives me wild!

JK: It’s funny – I was really hoping you’d say you got together and had rollicking political discussions! In the back of my mind that’s how I imagined your family, and it’s a heartening thought.

MH: Heartening, but sometimes a little intimidating to outsiders (and partners!)

JK: What did your parents do?

MH: My parents lived their social justice beliefs – when we were young they opened our house to all sorts of people in need – including young pregnant girls whose families had thrown them out, boys from the local borstal in order to give them some happy family time, gay men and women at a time when homosexuality was still considered illegal, people with mental health issues who needed support, and they supported Maori rights… and they were deeply involved in the Values Party, which was the precursor of the Green Party – in fact my mother was the first woman to be elected to the role of (co)leader of a political party in NZ.

They covenanted trees in our garden and fought for protection of the environment and the local lake (Lake Horowhenua) and my mother was on the District Council.

My father was a refugee from Austria – arriving here just before WW2 – so he knew only too well how human beings could be monsters, and he instilled very strong ethics in us – and opened our world up by introducing us to music, opera, literature, art, dance… we had a very lucky upbringing.

What I really admired about them was that they lived their values, didn’t just spout them! I think the four of us kids have spent our lives trying to live up to their high standards – I feel I’m only just starting to make some headway now!

JK: This might be another terrible question … but what next? Do you have other fiction in the pipeline, and if so is there anything at all you can say about it?

MH: I’m 60,000 words into a new novel currently called ‘The Nature of Ash.’ It’s set about 20-25 years in the future, here in NZ, and reflects how things might be if we keep going down the free trade/privatisation path. But it’s essentially about an 18 year old boy and his Down Syndrome brother, and the nature of family. Still remains to be seen whether it will be published, but here’s hoping!

JK: Do you think – in general – story has an important role to play in equipping people – children and adults alike – for circumstances they are facing, or might face?

MH: I think story is the MOST important way to equip us with understanding about the world and our place in it. I’ve thought about this quite a bit actually, so what follows are some notes I wrote for a library conference talk.

From earliest times, people have used stories as a means of relating ideals and values important to them: i.e. where to find the best foods; what foods/people/places to avoid; the basic rules of conduct; behavioural expectations; relaying history and whakapapa etc. Story was – and still is – the means by which we investigate, interpret and understand our world.

Think of earliest man sharing stories around camp fire – stories about such things as where the best water holes are; don’t tackle that bloody great hairy creature with the huge curved tusks on your own; or over in the next valley there’s a really spunky Neanderthal of a man! … (nothing’s really changed!) I think maybe it’s possible to divide all stories into two essential plots: those that explore Human Nature (our essential behaviours and inherent codes of ethics) and those that explore Mother Nature (how, as human beings, we interact with other animals, landscapes, weather etc) – really,these are the two most vital things we need to learn to negotiate in our lives.

Stories have the ability to go to the heart and mind of an issue, where straight reporting cannot always go – opens us up to greater empathy and understanding. For instance 1906 novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair brought alive the poverty and corruption of the times in a way no newspaper article could have (and his descriptions of meat processing in the US at that time literally brought bile to my mouth and underlined why I don’t eat meat!)

We are social animals – that’s how we survive. I think we read primarily for one of two reasons: the first is to validate our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by reading of someone traversing the same issues, the second is to safely experience something we don’t have the opportunity or courage (or good/bad luck) to experience for ourselves – including trying on different spiritual, ethical and behavioural hats. It’s also why we love gossip – we have an inbuilt fascination with other human beings and how they behave – it’s how, as youngsters, we learn to negotiate the social world.

Story helps us enter the world of others who we would not normally meet – broadens our horizons – culturally, ethnically, between the sexes, inter-generationally. We filter our understanding of the world through the ideas and input of others – parents, teachers, peers etc. – and our understanding is malleable and changes as we hear new stories and points of view.

Ego means we are constantly checking and comparing our appearance, behaviours and beliefs against others – stories give us more peepholes with which to view the kaleidoscope that is human diversity.

Think about the Pike River miners – without the personalised stories it is easier to dismiss – the same crisis in China has little effect once the newspaper is put back down, but the miner’s stories stayed with us because we entered into their lives through hearing the family stories – and the key to this is in engaging with our core emotions. It enables us to be empathetic and compassionate – the two most important values human beings need to learn to be decent members of a family/society.

An Interview With Mandy Hager, by Johanna Knox: Part 1

Author and publisher Johanna Knox has previously contributed the guest post Can Children’s Literature Be ‘Literary Fiction’? to this blog. Now, despite everything else she is busy with, Johanna is back with a two-part interview with New Zealand author Mandy Hager. Thank you so much, Johanna and Mandy!

Interview with Mandy Hager: Part 1

About Mandy Hager: Kapiti-based Mandy Hager is the award-winning author of numerous young adult books, including the recent Blood of the Lamb trilogy, a dramatic dystopia in set in the South Pacific. In these books, teenager Maryam, with her friends, must try to escape and later overthrow the corrupt and oppressive religious cult that has dominated her people since a disaster known as ‘the Tribulation’ struck Earth.

Margaret Mahy has described the first book as ‘Like 1984 for teenagers – direct, powerful and passionate.’ Books 1 and 2 in the trilogy were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards in 2010 and 2011. Book 3 was released earlier this year to critical acclaim.

About Johanna Knox: Johanna is a Wairarapa/Wellington-based writer, researcher, and reviewer. She frequently writes on food and sustainability issues. She is also the author of The Flytrap Snaps, book one in a newly released mystery-adventure series for children, all about mutant carnivorous plants – see

JK: Have you had varied responses to the Blood of the Lamb trilogy … Do people with different values or backgrounds respond differently?

MH: I am sure there will be people who are offended by what they think the books are about – that I’m somehow criticising Christianity – but I would hope that if they did read them they would realise the books are about the way Christianity (or any religion) can be hijacked for purposes of power and control.

I know in the States several publishers have thought it was too controversial to publish – I think that’s sad, given that at their core the books promote compassion and love. I also know that some adults who loved The Crossing [book 1] didn’t like Into the Wilderness [book 2] because they got so frustrated by the extended adolescent behaviour, but that doesn’t worry me – the books are written for teenagers, about teenagers, and teenagers can be very angsty, annoying young people in their worst moments (and extraordinarily wonderful at their best!) And the teenage readers like them, so that’s what matters most to me.

Some people also struggled with the idea that I had the gall to write about menstruation – isn’t that sad? Half the entire human population menstruates (and the other half wouldn’t be here if we didn’t!), so why are we so ashamed to speak about it and refuse to acknowledge it? I suspect if men menstruated it wouldn’t be a taboo subject.

JK: That’s interesting. I’m trying to think back … I don’t remember finding adolescent behaviour annoying in the book … It seems a realistic portrayal, and besides, plenty of adults can be that kind of annoying and angsty as well, especially under pressure?

MH: Yes, I totally agree. In fact I reckon we all pretty much revert to teenage default behaviour when faced with certain pressure points – like Christmas, school reunions, family get-togethers, funerals etc!

When people say, ‘so how can you put yourself in a teenager’s mind?’ I don’t find this hard – it’s the most intense and defining time of our lives, so very easy to summon up again (plus I think there’s a huge part of my brain that never grew past that! I still feel seventeen in my head – it’s just the outer layer that’s grown so disconcertingly old!)

JK: Do you see the trilogy as individual stories or one big story?

MH: I’ve always known the books would be a trilogy and I tend to think of them as the three acts of a drama (my MA is in scriptwriting, which I have found invaluable in terms of structure etc).

Act One has to set the scene, introduce characters and the story problem (and create enough dramatic tension to want to continue), Act Two delves more deeply into character, complicates the situation, and embeds theme, and Act Three provides resolution (to some extent.)

Having said that, I also planned each of the books as discrete stories, each with their own three act dramatic structure, which are (hopefully) totally satisfying in their own right. There have to be seeds planted in the first two books that don’t pay off until the third, so plotting and structure are pretty important in order to achieve this.

JK: In what other ways has your scriptwriting education and experience fed into your novels?

MH: It’s had a huge influence, actually. For a start it made me realise that novels are my genre of choice. Scripts are the bones of a story, then other people come along and put their individual stamp on top. (Directors, actors etc.) I realised I’m too much of a control freak about my stories – I see them as my very own film in my head, including sound track and camera angles. I used to try and put all this into scripts (which is a no-no), so I couldn’t wait to get back to writing novels!

But the structure of scripts has been invaluable – really understanding the necessary steps for good dramatic structure – and particularly Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. This mythic structure lies pretty much behind all stories in one form or another, and to understand the steps and be able to visualise them as a story landscape that has to be traversed by the protagonist is the most useful thing I’ve ever learnt about writing.

And once I figured out that the stages of the Hero’s Journey were really just steps in a psychological model of change (long term, significant change) – now that is a very powerful thing to understand, as it means you know how your character’s emotional state needs to transform over the course of a book, and (hopefully) how to make that transformation feel organic and believable.

JK: During the trilogy you explore the enormous range of behaviours that humans are capable of. We know from history and everyday life that we humans are capable of incredible cruelty and also amazing compassion and generosity. I feel Blood of the Lamb takes readers to the heart of that. Lazarus of course embodies both possibilities in one person, changing from cruel to compassionate over the course of the books – and so I find him an incredibly hope-giving character.

Is this great capacity for both good and evil within the human race, and individuals, something you have thought a lot about?

MH: Yes, it is something I think about a lot (and certainly lies at the core of the books.) I’ve done quite a lot of reading about human behaviour, evolutionary psychology etc (for instance Robert Wright’s A Moral Animal and a wonderful book by Richard Holloway called Between the Monster and the Saint which looks at precisely this issue.)

It boils down to needing to understand how we could try and shift human consciousness to a more generous and loving level. I can’t buy the argument that just because human beings have had a violent past and have the capacity for violence and cruelty, that this is always how it must be.

I’m only an ordinary person and I can live by principles of generosity, empathy and love, so why not others? It will mean a huge redistribution of wealth, a concerted commitment to justice, human rights and education, and a complete overhaul in what we view as ‘success’ (i.e. instead of turning people into celebrities for how skinny, rich or white they are, maybe we could start celebrating the people who are the most humane or creative), but I do believe it is possible to suppress our monsters within!

Wouldn’t it be nice if one day being labelled ‘politically correct’ (in other words, being inclusive and anti-racist/anti-sexist) was a compliment and something we all strove for?!

JK: Your main character Maryam is remarkable. Maybe she is the person we all hope we’d be when faced with crisis or the need for change, although I’m pretty sure I would fall short! What are your own feelings towards Maryam?

MH: I love Maryam for her desire to understand what’s really going on, and not just to accept something if it is wrong. She’s how I’d love all young people to be! And, really, she is what a lot of young people are: inquisitive, questioning, intelligent, angry… The truth is most people cope incredibly well with the most terrible situations – every day millions of people embody Maryam’s bravery under the worst possible conditions – they are all unacknowledged heroes.

JK: Do you ever feel that we need more Maryams in the world right now?

MH: Yes! And it’s just as hard for young people today to find out what the hell is really going on – the media and entertainment industries have dumbed things down (and spun) so much most young people have no real idea of just who controls their lives and why. If I can achieve anything, it’s the hope that the story encourages young people to take an interest in the world around them and to question (and fight!) the current greed-based status quo, which is putting their futures very much at risk.

JK: From a writing-process point of view how did her character develop?

MH: It doesn’t matter how much you think a character through before you start to write – so you understand their voice, likes and dislikes, history, point of view etc – you never really know how they’re going to react until you put them under pressure in the story and have them interact with other characters.

What started out as Maryam’s capacity for strength of mind also became her potential nemesis, as she struggled to understand why others thought and acted differently to her (i.e. Ruth.) It meant at times she was boorish and stubborn with no good reason – not nearly as compliant as I’d first thought! Thinking about it now, really it was just the teenager in her asserting her independence from me!

JK: Ruth is interesting, with a quieter, more passive goodness and integrity …

MH: Ruth is probably the character I least understood at beginning of the books, and I don’t think it was until [the third book] Resurrection that I truly understood her. Such blind faith (in the face of overwhelming evidence against it) is so foreign to me, and one of the reasons for writing the trilogy – to explore this for myself, as I didn’t understand it.

But I came to realise that Ruth had been aware of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the religion, but that this was a separate issue to having faith – which is a more personal ‘take’ on our place in the scheme of things.

Her faith gave her comfort and morals to live by. I can’t criticise her for that and came to respect her for it – so a big learning curve for me too, actually – it makes me more compassionate and tolerant to other people’s need for faith now!

JK: Have you thought a lot about the different ways that different people react to crisis? What conclusions have you drawn?

MH: I have experienced a number of very gruelling crises myself and have been able to reflect on how I and the people around me coped (and, at times, didn’t cope). My conclusions are as you would expect: that we all cope the best way we can, and that is different for everyone – and that a lot of it boils down to our role models and to our individual personalities.

Basically there are two types of responses – intuitive or instrumental. An intuitive person reacts with their emotions first – gets all their grief, anger, whatever, out in the open and deals with that first before they can handle information, advice or action. An instrumental person wants to know facts and details and takes action first, holding back on their emotional response until a later (often private) time.

There’s no one response that’s better – it’s just how we are, and it isn’t gender specific to how someone will react. I’m instrumental, for instance, while my daughter is intuitive. Either way, we both cope, we just come at the problem or crisis from different starting points!

The second and concluding part of this interview will be posted next week – on Thursday, all being well.

An Interview With Meliors Simms

Meliors Simms is a contemporary landscape artist, radical crafter, a science fiction poet and an old-school blogger. She makes icebergs, islands and even whole continents from vintage blankets, wool and thread. Her sculptures look like cuddly landscape features yet carry serious environmental messages about the impacts of our everyday choices on the world around us. This August she is exhibiting art about mining in Melbourne and about Antarctica in Hamilton, where she will be reading poetry as well.

Meliors’ poem Ponting’s Genius was the Tuesday Poem on my blog this week.

The photo above shows Meliors with a work called Sastrugi. Photo by Jody Saturday

Meliors, a simple question, but one that may have a complex answer: why are you so interested in Antarctica?

It is mysterious, dangerous, vulnerable and beautiful. The lack of flora and fauna (and pigments) focus our attention onto patterns and textures of snow and ice, sky and sea which I find very exciting to interpret visually. Its short, intense human history and its long, surprising natural history both provide thrilling stories that bear endless iterations. And ultimately at this distance, it’s a blank canvas for the imagination.

If you had the chance to visit Antarctica, would you?

Um, this is tricky, because if I was offered an opportunity to go I would probably accept. But really I’m ambivalent. On one hand it would be amazing, inspiring and unlike anything else I could do. But on the other hand Antarctica is an incredibly vulnerable environment about which I am intensely concerned. I don’t think Antarctica needs me as just another tourist, although I’m willing to be persuaded that I might have something of value to offer in exchange for a free ticket.

I spend a huge amount of time thinking about Antarctica and my imagination seems adequately fed through second hand sources. The compliments about my work that I treasure the most are from people who have spent time in Antarctica, who tell me I’ve captured the essence of the place.

And besides, its jolly cold and a bit scary down there.

You are both an artist and a poet, and for the Imagining Antarctica exhibition in Hamilton, you are giving a poetry reading / artist’s talk as well as exhibiting visual art. How do the practice of art and the practice of poetry work side by side – and for that matter, how on Earth do you find the time to do both?

The Imagining Antarctica exhibition at ArtsPost

Ha! I don’t really find time to do both. The past months of intensely preparing my exhibitions has been a poetry drought. Writing seems to be woven through my creative life in an irregular abstract way rather than as a disciplined practice. There are times when I write a lot, but more times when I write little or nothing. Last year was very productive though, and most of the poems I wrote then relate to the art I am showing now, hence the poetry reading and artist talk event.

Reading and looking at the entries on your excellent blog, I am struck by the hours and hours of work that goes into creating them. Can you describe your process of making them, such as the icebergs?

Most of the work I make these days starts with an old woven wool blanket which I cut into contour pieces. I needle felt each layer with a nice plump cover of unspun wool and then attach the layers together using blanket stitch. The icebergs are three dimensional, sculptural pieces so there’s a lot of layers and a lot of needle felting to get the three-dimensionality.

I use a similar technique to make wall relief pieces which may use only a couple of layers of blanket and little or no felting, but can be much bigger and even more time consuming to make. My biggest work, ‘My Antarctica’ a scale relief map of the entire continent, took me about eight months to make. I can make a little iceberg in a week.

Meliors standing in front of My Antarctica. Photo: Marion Manson (ArtsPost)

Over time I have perversely chosen to make my stitching cruder (even though hundreds of hours of practice has made me a better stitcher). I want my work to look unmistakably handmade. With some of my earlier embroidered pieces viewers would assume it was machine stitched, and I decided I didn’t want any ambiguity about that. I ‘d rather have people saying ‘I could make that’ and so to consider what it means to stitch something by hand. I want people to contemplate the hours and hours that go into my making.

Why did you choose the craft medium, and these crafts in particular, to make your artworks (and, does the wording of that question imply a dichotomy that doesn’t or shouldn’t exist?)

Contemporary art is a very broad field in which there are lots of interesting craft practices to be seen. I choose craft as my means of creative expression both for the pleasure and the meaning of my making. Slow meditative hand stitching is very sensual and satisfying. By choosing hand made rather than machine made, and doing it myself rather than farming the work out to low paid women in Asia, my work implicitly critiques the economic as well as environmental impacts of industrialised consumerist culture.

You were recently in Melbourne for the opening of the “F**k Your Donation” exhibition, which includes your installation “Spoil”. How was that experience, and is this part of a continuing involvement in the Australian arts scene?

Meliors’ installation “Spoil” at “F**k Your Donation”

Melbourne is a fantastic city for the arts, and especially for craft practices in contemporary art. It is a real thrill to show in a gallery there for the first time, and have such an enthusiastic response to my work. I hope to go back for more soon.

One thing I know we have in common is our love for Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing, and in particular his Mars trilogy. What’s so great about those books?

Well, KSR’s novel Antarctica turned me into a fan of Antarctica as well as speculative fiction when I first read it some 15 years ago. That book, and the Mars and Washington trilogies resonate with me as extremely plausible near-future-histories that aren’t dystopias. I like his strong, complex female characters; frustratingly rare in the genre. I reread all seven novels reasonably regularly and I appreciate the detail as well as the broad sweep of his vision. But mostly because he’s very good at making it seem possible that we 21st century humans could dig ourselves out of the dreadful mess our species has created, and I often feel the need for that spark of hope.

KSR’s writing has had a huge influence on my visual, textile arts. For example I’ve turned again and again to his descriptions of the textures and colours of Antarctica as I’ve stitched. He’s a wonderfully visual writer. In more direct homage, I once made a series of small embroidered ‘Mars gardens’, visualising the greening of the red planet as practised by Sax Russell and others in his trilogy.

Three of Meliors’ “Mars Gardens”, after Kim Stanley Robinson

Do you have any writing projects on the go that are separate from your art projects, and how do you see the balance between your art and your poetry developing in the future?

Right now I don’t have any particular writing projects. Rather, I’m content to let occasional poems arise spontaneously, most often in very close relationship to the visual art I’m working on, particularly at the early, conceptual stages.

Are there particular artists and poets whose work you enjoy that you’d like to encourage readers of this interview to check out?

I’m pretty excited about sculptors Ruth Asawa ( and Mandy Greer ( I also recommend the photographs of Edward Burtynsky (, and the fantastic video about his work called Manufactured Landscapes. Two of the poets I am enjoying most at the moment are Janis Freegard and Bernadette Hall.

Where people can see Meliors’ work

An Interview With Michael J. Parry

Michael J. Parry is a librarian by day and an author/father by night. My day job is Digital Initiatives Coordinator for Victoria University Library, where I am in charge of transforming many of our older or copyright held print resources into digital resources. When not there I live on a small block of land outside of Dannevirke where I am growing fruit trees and children.

I write fantasy/sci-fi/mystery/contemporary fiction. At the moment I like steam punk and fantasy/mystery and playing humorously with stereotypes. I am interested in writing enjoyable stories and want to be considered a good storyteller.

The Spiral Tattoo is a police procedural with one partner a six-inch-tall male pixie and the other an eight-foot-tall female troll, am I right?

Yes indeed, although the pixie (Gurt) would find that term, and the term fairy, insulting. They call themselves Eleniu and view the other names as big people insults…

Who’s the good cop, and who’s the bad cop?

Neither really, as they swap around depending on the circumstances. Elanore (the Troll) will play both on the brutish reputation of her race, and her unusual keen intellect to get the most out of the suspect. Otherwise Elanore is good (being honourable and hard working) while Gurt could be bad (being prone to vices and a little lazy)

Is this an idea that you’ve had for quite some time, or is it one you’ve developed recently?

The characters are ones I have had for a long time. I have a number of story starts featuring the pairing archived away on my PC. This particular story was just the one that made it to the finish line.

Is this the first novel in a series, and if so, can you give us any clues as to how the series will develop?

It is the first of a series. I am contracted to write two more for my publishers, but have rough story lines for at least five more books. The series is written to be one where you can drop in at any point and pick it up, so it’s not a trilogy. They are murder mysteries dressed in a fantasy gown, with more than a little nod to the “cosy mystery” sub-genre. I intend to give small nods in each one to a type of mystery, so the next is a “closed room country house” murder. The one after that is shaping up to be a bit of a “serial killer thriller.” I am playing with many of the stereotypes of the fantasy genre so more of the humour will come out there.

I want to turn to the business side of writing. I’ll be honest: as an author, it fills me with dread to think of a future in which books sell for 99 cents on Amazon, but that’s the sales price of The Spiral Tattoo. Did you think about setting the price point higher, or is 99c the standard price point these days?

The 99c price was set by my publisher. As a price point I don’t think it will be a standard for all eBooks, but it is a good entry point for a new author. The idea is to have the first at the low price to entice readers to give the story a go. The later books in the series will be priced higher at the $2.99 mark. It’s a little like how gimmicky magazines will have the first issue at a much lower price. Not that I consider the price a gimmick.

How does the economics of selling your book at 99c work out?

For me it works out fairly well. I receive %50 of the net profits, which means that I would probably be getting more per sale than from a traditional publisher in paperback.

The Spiral Tattoo is published by Sky Warrior Book Publishing – what led you to choose that particular publisher?

I had been hawking off the story to traditional publishers for a while, and was getting to the point where I was reluctantly considering self publishing. Maggie who runs Sky Warrior Publishing put a call out to authors who had podcast their books through saying she was starting her own publishing house and was looking for new authors. I submitted hoping she had listened to the story and liked it.

How important has social media been to you in promoting your work, and do you have any tips for other writers in that area?

Social media is very important. My publishers have a tiny budget for promotions, so free promotions have to work for both of us. As for tips? Engage, engage, engage, you have to participate actively and not to be afraid to put yourself out there. At the same time you need to make sure not all of your engagement is pushing your work.

What got you interested in writing science fiction and fantasy in the first place, and have you had SF & F at shorter lengths published previously?

Yes well, I am very stereotypical. The first real book I read was The Lord of the Rings and it was all downhill from there. No, I haven’t had anything else published. I have always had a large level of self doubt about my writing that has meant I never finished anything. The Spiral Tattoo is the first story I properly finished, and has been a breakthrough for me in terms of my self discipline and self belief.

I see that you write contemporary fiction as well – are you envisaging the same kind of publication path for your contemporary fiction?

My more contemporary stories are on hold at the moment while I concentrate on writing the Elanore and Gurt stories. Depending on what I write and how successfully the current stories are I would look towards using the same path for all my stories.

At the moment, you work as a Digital Initiatives Librarian. Do you plan to become a full-time writer, or are you happy to continue to mix the two?

Isn’t that the dream? I would love to be a full time writer, and one day I will. But for now I will struggle along writing and working and dreaming….

Book availability details

The Spiral Tattoo is available in all eBook formats from Smashwords:

It is also available in audio form as a free podcast novel from

The podcast version is a “beta” or “ARC” version and differs from the print due to the editing process.

An Interview With Barbara Strang

Barbara Strang is a Christchurch poet and haiku writer. She started writing seriously nearly twenty years ago. She was born and brought up in Invercargill, the eldest of ten children. She has three grown up children and one grandchild. She has lived at the base of the Port Hills, Christchurch, for most of her adult life. This area was devastated by the recent earthquakes. Luckily her home by the Estuary is relatively intact.

Barbara’s work has been published widely here and overseas, and she has won or co-won four haiku competitions. She has had two collections of poetry published, namely Duck Weather (Poets Group 2006) and The Corrosion Zone (HeadworX 2011). She leads a poetry group called the Airing Cupboard Women Poets, and is an active member of the local haiku community. She has edited and typeset books by other people, including the New Zealand Poetry Society’s annual anthologies of 2009 and 2010. She is an editor for Sudden Valley Press, and holds an MA in Creative Writing (Vic).

Barbara’s poem Fatigues was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Why did you choose the title The Corrosion Zone for your second collection, and was it a title you’d already chosen before the recent Christchurch earthquakes?

The title was suggested by a LIM report for my new house, which stated it was in the ‘corrosion area, within 200 metres of the coast’. It is a reminder that, just as the solid ground on which one stands, can be swept away at any moment, relationships and people we know can crumble and corrode. The cover illustration shows an ancient sea cliff at Godley Head. I had sent the book to the printer just before the earthquake of February struck. I did not know how prescient my title would be.

I’ll put the question baldly: what’s it like being a Christchurch poet at the moment?

Inside my home I can hardly tell that anything has happened, except for a few new cracks in the wall, and an occasional small or larger tremor. Through the west window I look out on a cliff where the houses are deserted. Out my kitchen window to the south I see where my street goes up the hill. It is blocked by an ominous rock fall, and the houses there are visibly wrecked. My little block has become an enclave of liveable homes in a cul de sac. There aren’t many places to go for a walk or shop; almost all the libraries, cinemas, art galleries are closed.

The Port Hills area was one of outstanding beauty, and September here was almost a picnic, but on February 22 it became scary, stressful, uncertain, ugly, tedious and uncomfortable. It was hard to concentrate on anything, including one’s writing. But as time has passed I became more accustomed to it. And there is an adrenalin kick in surviving a big one, and the confidence from realising I can actually cope.

I was away for the February one. When June happened I realised that my life was not in much danger. It was just an everyday matter of, initially without power or water, cleaning up, and tapping into my stockpile, literal and figurative. I realised that it was novel and perhaps even a privilege to be part of this thing. For a while I had a new interest, walking around the ruined areas with my camera and notebook. In autumn, instead of writing about fallen leaves, I wrote about fallen houses.

Unfortunately June 13th has made that dangerous, as all the cliffs fell down. The paths and most roads are threatened by rock falls. It is quite depressing to realise that we may not have had the last big quake, and hard to absorb all the change and destruction. I have lost friends who have shifted away; it is difficult for groups to meet. But people have become friendlier, more community minded; and now we have something to talk about.

I see that you were born in Invercargill. I spent part of my childhood in Invercargill, and I returned for a literary festival earlier this year. I was struck by how isolated many Invercargill writers feel from the rest of the country. Did that sense of isolation affect you?

I was brought up and educated in Invercargill. My father was a violinist whose day job was in the family firm, coffee and spice merchants. We were brought up on classical music and free jellies. Southland has wonderful wilderness areas like Fiordland and Stewart Island. I am grateful that my dad dragged all ten of us round these and other places in a Kombi van.

As our house was crowded I used to withdraw into my bedroom and read books. I’d look out the window to distant fields, and dream of escape. At age 18 I left for Otago University to study English. Dunedin seemed a huge cultural paradise. There I met my first husband. He and I migrated to Christchurch. My father meanwhile became a violin teacher in Dunedin, the family shifted, and I had no reason to go back to Invercargill. I’d found the smallness of the place stifling, but at the same time I developed a lifelong passion for wilderness and open spaces.

Will those who have read your first collection, Duck Weather, find that there’s a big difference between the two collections?

You’d probably guess from the title “Duck Weather” that it was a lot about the natural world and its inhabitants. I think this is my core subject matter. It was quirky and light hearted, though a darker element made an appearance as already there was a strain of depression and suicide in my family. This is another topic which interested me over a long period. I don’t think my style is much different in the two books.

And for those who don’t know your work, how would you describe your poetry – does it follow a particular style or poetic tradition?

Usually I don’t think much about this but I guess I would describe myself as a minimalist writer in the modernist tradition. As a girl I started off with an enthusiasm for Wordsworth and other Romantic poets. Later I discovered New Zealand poetry and was impressed by R A K Mason and Allen Curnow among others, in the green covered Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. I was struck by the fact that they could use plain conversational language, and wrote about these islands I inhabit.

This seems a long time ago now. Later I was impressed by Yellow Pencils, an anthology of NZ women writers. I was struck by the freshness and honesty of Rachel MacAlpine’s work in that book, for instance. There are many other poets whom I admire, to mention a few, Vivienne Plumb, Janet Charman, and David Gregory. These poets may be rather bleak.

I have the mottos “less is more”, and “when in doubt cut out”. I pare my work down and get rid of frills; I want each little line to resonate. Form develops rather than being imposed. At the same time I am very conscious of the sounds of words, and like to use assonance and half rhymes. I have had little affairs with certain words such as “fall” “hide” and “down”, often quite simple ones, which have layers of meaning and a beautiful sound also. I work them hard. The haiku form also has the challenge of making a tiny whole suggest huge spaces, like a Japanese painting.

The poems in The Corrosion Zone work through a lot of grief. Were these especially hard poems to write, or is it all, in the end, just raw material for a poet?

Around the turn of the Millennium I experienced a series of losses. The worst maybe was that our youngest brother Andrew took his own life. He was an intense and artistic person, an inspiration to the rest of us who were artistically inclined. At the same time my husband of thirty years had a midlife crisis and left, and I had to shift from Sumner, the home for goodness knows how long. And a few other things. I found it impossible to write about anything else.

I do not think grief is necessarily negative. It is like winter. It can have its own beauty and even lightness. It may last for years, but hopefully is not the end, as it wasn’t for me. I hope that I have avoided the bog and taken the reader safely to solid ground.

I noticed that a lot of your poems use two- and three-line stanzas – forms that I also enjoy using. What draws you to writing in stanzas of this length, and indeed, how do you decide on the length of stanza to use in a poem?

I like them too. I do not usually set out to write these forms but it happens.

You edited the 2009 and 2010 New Zealand Poetry Society anthologies. I know for myself that while editing is very time-consuming, editing other people’s work can offer rewarding insights into one’s own work. Is this the case for you?

It is a great privilege to edit the work of other poets. I was amazed at the imagination and ability of both experienced and beginner poets, but actually I felt rather overwhelmed too. It made me realise that there are a lot of other ways of writing besides those which I have fallen into.

If it’s not a secret, what writing projects are you working on at the moment?

I have a collection of my brother Andrew’s poems almost ready for the press, called Things to Know. It is being published by Sudden Valley Press. Apart from that I have been writing some poems about the earthquakes, and living in the present moment. Someone suggested a “Corrosion Zone 2” – but I may have had enough of adverse events!

How to buy The Corrosion Zone

Addenda are the distributors. It is on the shelf at Unity Books, and mentioned on,, and

It’s available to be purchased online from:,, and

The Otago Daily Times review is online – it’s the second review on this page: