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.

Can Children’s Literature Be ‘Literary Fiction’? (A guest post by Johanna Knox)

Johanna Knox is a freelance writer and editor, occasional children’s book reviewer, a home-schooling mother, and a committee member of the Wellington Children’s Book Association. Johanna made such interesting comments on a previous post on this blog, Is Literary Fiction a Genre?, that I invited her to do a guest post expanding on the issues she raised there. Here it is!

Can children’s literature be ‘literary fiction’?

When Tim asked last month, ‘Is literary fiction a genre?’ I was interested in this assertion: ‘ … I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.’

I wondered, where does that idea leave children’s literature, which generally places great emphasis on plot? Is there such a thing as children’s literary fiction, and if so, what does it look like?

US literary agent Nathan Bransford has come up with a slightly different definition of literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction, and blogged about it. He writes:

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

There are only a very few children’s books that can nestle completely happily into his definition of literary fiction. (Some books by Australian children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky, who came to Wellington for Writers and Readers Week, fit the bill. I can’t think of too many others.)

Those who work in children’s literature regularly come up against the inference that children’s writing is a lesser form of authorship. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media devotes so little space to children’s book reviews or interviews with children’s authors, and that when they do, the ‘author’ is often a celebrity who has dashed off a children’s book as a little sideline to their serious work in sport or politics or music – to the great irritation of bona fide children’s authors who have slogged away at their craft for years.

Is it, I wonder, all the above-surface plot in children’s books that gives it its inferior status? The assumption is that below-surface plot is much harder to write, as well as to appreciate.

In fact though, many great pieces of children’s literature work on both levels – there is a clear above-surface plot, but at the same time plenty more happening beneath that.

Recently I read two books about death and grief. One was Ali Smith’s Hotel World, a stunning work of literary fiction. The other was All the dear little animals – a picture book by Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, translated from Swedish and published by the amazing Gecko Press.

Hotel World is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, with plenty of compelling under–the-surface plot. The author takes death in her hands, and turns it over and over, obsessively studying it from every possible angle, peering closely at its every irregularity, trying to get at its truth, trying to inhabit it. In this way the narrative mimics an aspect of real-life grief. There is some above-surface plot too, but you are not swept along by it. It’s more like you are in a sea, grabbing bits of it as they float by.

All the dear little animals on the other hand has a straightforward above-surface plot, chronicling a day in the life of three children as they set up their own funeral business for ‘all the poor dead animals on earth’.

But there is so much going on below the surface in these 36 pages of text and illustration. Each of the three children is on their own journey to understand a little about death. There is black-coated Esther, the undertaker, with her seemingly unemotional fascination with the physicalities of death. She is joined by her little brother Puttie, all empathy, the trio’s ‘professional mourner’. And then there is their friend, the unnamed narrator of the book, a frightened funeral poet who needs to examine death through a filter of words.

Don’t each of these children live inside everyone?

Nathan Bransford does acknowledge books that contain plots both above and below the surface:

There’s a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

It makes me groan slightly that, seemingly, a whole new genre (‘commercial literary fiction’) needs to be invented every time a group of books don’t fit existing definitions, but that’s marketing for you I suppose. Or human nature. Or both.

I think, if we must categorise them, then All the dear little animals, and most other great works of children’s literature come close to Bransford’s idea of ‘commercial literary fiction’.

Just because there is a strong above-surface plot doesn’t mean there are not also all sorts of fascinating things going on down below. And if I was pushed to say which out of Hotel World or All the dear little animals I thought had more ‘literary merit’, well, shocking as it probably sounds to some, I’d have a hard job choosing one over the other.