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Early years

New Zealand writer Tessa Duder lives in Devonport in Auckland, and has four daughters, a granddaughter and, in 2005, a grandson.

Her family background, from great-grandparents who emigrated to New Zealand from Europe in the late 19th century, is Italian, French, Irish and English.

Tessa was educated at Auckland’s Diocesan School from age four to seventeen, except for a year when, aged five and six, she travelled by ship with her parents to England, where her father studied medicine, returning to Auckland in 1947.

Showing early promise as a swimmer, she trained for six years during her teenage years, and was the first New Zealand woman to train seriously in the new dolphin butterfly stroke, first introduced at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Between 1954 and 1958, she won many New Zealand junior/senior titles and records in butterfly and medley.

In 1958 she won a silver medal for 110 yards butterfly at the Empire Games, Cardiff, with the New Zealand medley team fourth in the women’s medley relay. She became the first New Zealand Swimmer of the Year in 1959.

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Career in journalism and marriage

Retiring from top-class swimming, she began work as a journalist at the Auckland Star, and after three years travelled on her ‘overseas experience’ in Britain and Europe. She married John Duder in 1964, worked at the Daily Express, London, and then lived as a full-time mother in Pakistan for nearly five years, and in Turangi (New Zealand) for two, returning to Auckland in 1972.

Her daughters are Elisa (Maori language teacher and educational officer, born 1966), Clare (born 1968), Joanna (art teacher, born 1969, mother of Sedef) and Georgia (singer and actor, born 1972). Clare died in 1992 at 24 of a heart condition, having just completed her MA studies in law and political science.

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A new start as a writer

After a brief but enjoyable career as a pianist with a light music trio around 1977, Tessa began writing fiction at 38, about the time fourth daughter Georgia began school. Her first novel Night Race to Kawau was published four years later by the prestigious Oxford University Press in New Zealand and UK in 1982.

Then came Jellybean and, from 1987 to 1991, the four books of the Alex quartet (Alex, Alex in Winter, Alessandra: Alex in Rome and Songs for Alex). The paperback of Alex is Penguin New Zealand's best selling ever work of fiction, for adults or children, and in 1993 the book was adapted by Tom Parkinson’s Isambard Films as a feature film, Alex, a New Zealand-Australia co-production.

Her Alex novels won her three New Zealand Children's Book of the Year awards and three Esther Glen medals, and are published in America, Britain, Australia and Canada. Alex is published in five languages, with Jellybean and Alex in Winter in two.

Jellybean and Alex have also been named American Library Association Honour Books.

Mercury Beach was published in 1997, followed by The Tiggie Tompson Show in 1999. This book won the 2000 New Zealand Post Senior Fiction Award, the country's top prize for young adult fiction, and was followed by Tiggie Tompson All at Sea, shortlisted for the same award in 2002.

Tessa has also published three educational readers for Shortland Publications (Play It Again Sam, Dragons and Simply Messing About in Boats).

As a writer of non-fiction, her books have been for both children and adults. For children she has written Journey to Olympia (a history of the first Olympics); The Making of Alex: the Movie, both for Ashton Scholastic; and Restoring Tissot, telling the story of the restoration of James Tissot’s famous painting stolen from the Auckland Art Gallery, published by Learning Media.

For adults, there are Spirit of Adventure: the Story of New Zealand’s Sail Training Ship and Waitemata: Auckland’s Harbour of Sails, both for Century Hutchinson. In 2001 she spent some time in Livorno, Tuscany, the city of her Italian great-grandparents; the resulting book of travel and family history In Search of Elisa Marchetti — a writer’s search for her Italian roots, was published by Penguin in 2002.

First Map: how James Cook charted Aotearoa New Zealand is Tessa's latest non-fiction work, published in 2019 by HarperCollins as a family book. 

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Also an editor

As an editor, she has also published a number of anthologies. These include Nearly Seventeen (Penguin), a collection of contemporary short stories; Crossing, an anthology of Australia-New Zealand short stories (with Agnes Nieuwenhuizen for Reed, Australia); Falling in Love, a collection of romantic short stories (Penguin); Personal Best (Reed NZ), a collection of sporting stories.

In 2001 came the highly acclaimed A Book of Pacific Lullabies (HarperCollins), with illustrations by the young Russian artist Anton Petrov which won him the 2002 Russell Clark Award for illustration, given by the Library and Information Association of New Zealand. The paperback edition of the book in 2002 included a CD of some of the lullabies put to music by Sergei Chesakov and sung by daughter Georgia Duder. (As an anthology the book was not eligible for the NZ Post awards).

For the America’s Cup campaigns in New Zealand in 2000 and 2002, Tessa published Salt Beneath the Skin and Seduced by the Sea for HarperCollins, two major and top-selling anthologies of true first-person sea stories written by New Zealanders.

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Theatre and performance

The Warrior Virgin, a new full-length play for young performers about Joan of Arc, was written in collaboration with Martin Baynton and first performed in 1995. Published by Reed in 1996, it has subsequently been produced by high schools all around New Zealand.

Between 1992 and 1996 Tessa was involved in a number of other theatre projects, including roles in plays by Shakespeare, Alan Aykbourne, A.A. Gurney and in the New Zealand medical soap, Shortland Street, in which she appeared in 11 episodes during October, 1997. She was a member of the drama quartet Metaphor (with William Taylor, Martin Baynton and the late Gaelyn Gordon), which between 1992 and 1996 presented over 80 performances of three self-devised plays, Foreign Rites, Five Go to the Dogs, and Ghost Writers and three programmes of 'literary cabaret' at six major arts festivals around New Zealand and the 1995 Come Out Youth Arts Festival in Adelaide.

Tessa has also written three original stories for the 1998 and 1999 series of The Big Chair television programme for Tv3, and read Mercury Beach for an abridged version on audiocassette (WordPictures).

Jellybean, her second novel about a young girl’s passion for music and her ambition to become a conductor, has been presented three times by writer-director Peter Wilson as a puppet play, first with his Spare Parts Theatre in Perth and Melbourne in 1995, later with Capital E Theatre in Wellington and Auckland.

In November 2002 Capital E National Children’s Theatre presented three Wellington performances of an expanded version of Jellybean, featuring musicians from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

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Fellowships, schools visits, judging and teaching

Since winning her first grant in 1985, the Choysa Bursary for Children's Writers, Tessa has been awarded several Creative New Zealand (Arts Council) grants, including a Special Writing Bursary in 1989, the first Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at the University of Waikato in 1991 and the Literary Exchange Fellowship to Australia in 1993.

Under the NZ Book Council's Writers-in-Schools scheme, she has visited hundreds of classrooms all over the country since 1987, and has spoken at many professional seminars of teachers, librarians and parents, including international conferences in Stockholm, Florida, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Rotorua and Wellington.

She was a featured author at the 2000 18th World Congress of the International Reading Association held in Auckland, and at the biennial conference of the Arthur Ransome Society in Durham, England, in 2001.

In recent years she has taught creative writing at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Continuing Education, at summer schools in Auckland, Hamilton, Kerikeri and Wellington, and many one-day seminars for both adults and children around the country.

Tessa has been a judge for many book and short story competitions. In 1995 she was Convenor of the judging panel for the AIM Children's Book of the Year awards, and has been judge of the 1998 Sunday Star-Times national short story award, the 1999 Katherine Mansfield Award for Young Writers and the 2000 and 2002 Sunday Star-Times Award, also for young writers. She was also for many years a reviewer of picture books for the parenting magazine Little Treasures, and until 2018 co-editor with James Norcliffe of the anthology of stories and poems written by teenagers, Re-Draft, published annually by the Christchurch-based School for Young Writers.  

Tessa is a past president of the NZ Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc), and for over twenty years was a Trustee of Spirit of Adventure Trust. She is a Trustee of the Storylines Children's Literature Trust of New Zealand. 

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Work-in-progress and general interests 

Work-in-progress includes a YA novel set in early Auckland, which Tessa hopes to finish mid-2021.

Besides regular contact with family and close friends, her recreational interests include sailing, theatre and concert-going, reading, music and crochet.  

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