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Where do you get your ideas from?

This is the question that every author gets from any audience they talk to, whether children or adults! Authors ‘get ideas’: that must be the secret, and some writers do talk publicly about ‘getting ideas’ from their own and other people’s experiences, news stories, gossip, things that happen.

But I agree with the American writer Ursula Le Guin who has written that ‘ideas’ are not really where stories come from. For her, and for me, stories develop from unusual characters put in unusual situations, with problems and mysteries to solve.

I always say I invent the characters and they get the ideas. It’s for this reason that I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, making many pages of notes, getting to describe, know and understand them, so that I know how they are going to react when things go wrong. Film script-writers teach that films are all about problem-solving, about sharing a journey with characters under extreme pressure, so that the choices they make reveal their real character, not necessarily the one they present to the world. I’m terrifically interested in people’s motivations, why they do the things and make the choices that they do.

So — Night Race to Kawau began with a girl promoted to being co-skipper of a yacht in a storm at night after her father/skipper knocks himself out. Though I had no idea how to go about writing a novel, I had to sit down and write the story to find out what happened to Sam and her family!

Alex started as a girl who is gifted, and has a supportive family, but has to realise that big achievement means big sacrifices. She wants to go to the Olympic Games — so does Maggie. When she finally gets herself sorted out, something terrible happens over which she has no control. The last book Songs for Alex ends with Alex now coming to terms with her grief, knowing who she can trust, and confidently leaving her school and swimming years behind.

The Tiggie books are about a fat girl, at odds with the media’s images of young women, discovering that she does have a talent, one that will provide her with an incentive and reason to trim down, learn to enjoy her talent and gain confidence.

My short story Freddie Bone, probably my best, began with a publisher’s challenge to write a swimming story. Well then, the opposite of Alex! So he’s a fat boy into long-distance swimming, where plump people have an advantage; in a local swim-athon he becomes a local hero. Again, it’s about discovering talent and confidence.

My latest book about James Cook began when I approached my publisher with the idea of a book about the making of his famous chart of New Zealand over the summer of 1769-70. I had long been fascinated by this chart and its amazing accuracy, given the (to us) primitive nature of his instruments and the huge risks involved in sailing so close to New Zealand's dangerous coastline.  

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Why do so many of your books have watery themes?

I live in Auckland which having two harbours is surrounded by the sea. New Zealanders generally are very conscious of the sea and the great Pacifc Ocean. And we have a lot of rain!  I was a serious swimmer, and am quite a competent small boat sailor and keelboat crew. I've also sailed several times from New Zealand to England and back (in the days when you went to UK by ship rather than flew) and I've crossed the Tasman Sea in a tall ship, Spirit of New Zealand.

And I've always been fascinated by narratives of sea adventures, particularly real-life accounts of explorers like James Cook and the 19th emigrants from UK and Europe who had to endure terrible voyages of 4-6 months under sail, down the Atlantic and through the stormy Southern Ocean.

So my own first fiction was a sailing adventure story, and I've threaded in episodes on the water into most of my fiction. 


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How many books have you written?

Well, here’s the line-up since my very first in 1982: 11 novels, 8 books of non-fiction, one full-length play and 8 anthologies. But if you include the books I’ve done as the editor, with my name on the cover, that’s another 7 — which, with various others, come to around 35.

I’ve also had 13 short stories published in various collections and one one-act-play written with a fellow writer.

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What is your favourite book?

If you mean of all the books I’ve ever read, impossible to name, because there are just too many.

But of my own books, that’s not so easy a question to answer either!

Night Race to Kawau will always be a little special, because it was the book I wrote before I knew I could be a writer; Alex is special because it remains my most successful book. (I’m working on changing that one day!)

But the real favourite is always the one that’s in my head at the moment, the one I’m working on - making choices for the characters, inventing new ones and surprising myself as I write with twists to the storyline that I didn’t foresee in my initial planning.

When a book is published, anything between 6 to 12 months have gone by since I delivered the manuscript. By the time it gets edited, the covers approved, the text proofread several times by several people including me, and it finally comes out, I’m already working on a new book. I’ve said goodbye to it, because it no longer belongs to me, but to you, the reader.

That’s why, I suppose, we talk of ‘launching’ a book, so that like a ship, it sails off into the unknown, out of sight but still having its own adventures, making connections with and influencing other people.

In the case of series, though, like the Alex and Tiggie series, it’s only a temporary goodbye between the books. Sooner or later, I have to come back and pay another visit to their world and their story.

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When you wrote Alex, did you know it was going to be a quartet?

Not at all. I finished the first book in December 1986 and went off on holiday with my children, on the long-planned trip around the South Island. And Alex started talking to me. I know that sounds a little weird, but she really did, asking questions like ‘Did I go to the Olympics, Mrs Duder? If so, how did I get on? What happened when I came back?’ So by the time I got back to Auckland I knew there was more of Alex’s story to be told.

I then spent several months working out a structure for a trilogy. I decided I had to give her 1960 Rome Olympic experience a whole book to itself. And because I felt that the period of her preparation, between February and departure for Rome in August couldn’t just be dealt with in a few chapters, I was then committed to the second book Alex in Winter. Some critics have found this book very bleak and unresolved; but others have thought it a brave and very successful book.

I originally planned the Rome story and its aftermath to be one big grand book, but my publishers preferred to treat this as two books, so I ended up with Alessandra : Alex in Rome and Songs for Alex — and a quartet.

My goodbye to Alex was the little epilogue — the two entries as I imagined they would appear in a New Zealand Who’s Who of Alex Archer and her husband, Tomas Alexander, a famous opera singer. I enjoyed writing those, creating their adults lives together as a couple, and separately in their careers.

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Do you have any pets?

Not now, because much as I would like to have a cat, I travel quite a bit. (One day I will stay at home and get one.) But I grew up with an adorable springer spaniel called Sandy, and then my own family had all sorts — a cat called Liquorice who lived to 16 years and is buried underneath the punga trees in my father’s garden; hens called Port and Starboard; for shorter periods, mice, ducklings, pet lambs, a seagull (only for 2 weeks while his broken wing mended).

Especially there was Pipi, a Labrador cross who in her youth was the world’s greatest jumper for sticks and lived to 14. Old and quite sick, she nobly went walk-about on Kawau Island, where she spent her first weeks with the family as a tiny floppy-pawed puppy, occasional grand-mother and dog-sitter to my daughter's beautiful Honey, a Staffie cross.  

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Have your children always read your books before they were published?

Sometimes, though in general I'd advise aspiring writers not to seek feedback from family or close friends; they might not give honest opinions, or just not get around to reading it! But back in the day, it was my oldest daughter Lisa, then about 19, who told me that to kill off Keith in the first Alex book was too much and lessened the impact of Andy’s death, and she was absolutely right.

I’ve always found it difficult to hand over a manuscript and wait for the judgement. Whether it’s from family, agent or publisher, you feel very exposed and anxious for their opinion. And no matter how many books you’ve published, each one is always taken on its own merits, so you can’t assume that any manuscript is always going to be accepted. You need quite strong nerves if you want to be a writer!

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Who is your favourite author?

Too many to name, really — but I have to say there are some writers whose books I read with especial pleasure and admiration: Margaret Mahy, William Taylor, Maurice Gee and Mandy Hagar in New Zealand; the Australian writers Sonya Hartnett, Marcus Zusak and Gillian Rubinstein; the English writers Philip Pullman, Geraldine McCaughrean, the Americans Katherine Paterson and Ursula Le Guin.

Generally speaking, I go for adventure and family stories, history and fantasy, but am not so keen on sci-fi or thrillers. I love big biographies and autobiographies, and dipping into dictionaries and encyclopaedias. I read a lot of magazines too, to try and keep up with what’s happening in the world.

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How much money do you make?

You might be surprised to learn, not heaps! Very few writers in New Zealand make heaps. Of course, the famous writers who are published in many languages all round the globe can get really wealthy, none more so than J.K. Rowling, of course, but those are only a relatively small number of the world’s authors.

In New Zealand we have the particular problem of having a very small market, so we have to try and publish lots of books and sell them overseas. It’s not easy, because Australia, England, America etc all have their own wonderful writers.

But yes, it’s possible to make a reasonable living in New Zealand — let’s say about on the same level as teachers - if you work hard, write different sorts of books, visit schools, talk to adult groups and teach creative writing.

You may be lucky enough to get a writing grant for an approved project from Creative New Zealand, and to be asked to appear at literary festivals and your books to be published in Australia, England and possibly some languages other than English. If you’re really lucky you might have a film or television producer take an option on your book, though very few optioned books ever actually make it to the screen.

And one good thing about being a writer — you need never retire! Being published and praised in your twenties is not necessarily a good thing. Many writers begin quite late — say in their thirties, after they have done all sorts of interesting things — and build up their careers quite slowly. You can go on writing as long as you like — provided you still have something to say and a publisher who wants to publish you.

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