Ho, ho, Hippo–an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today, I have the great pleasure of presenting an interview I did recently with Hazel Edwards, to celebrate the publication of a very special picture book: Ho! Ho! Ho! There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Christmas Cake. It’s the seventh and final title in the well-loved Hippo series, written by Hazel and illustrated by Deborah Niland, which since the publication of the very first Hippo book in 1980 has been a firm favourite with families all over Australia–and well beyond (even royal families, as you’ll find out!)

This book’s as warmly and engagingly written as ever, with the familiar charm of the bold, colourful illustrations and a sparkly Christmassy feel as well. You can also get an activity pack which includes all sorts of fun Christmas activities–and cookie cutters, including one in the shape of Hippo of course, to make gingerbread biscuits just like the little boy does with his grandmother in the book. Indeed, Hazel’s dedication in the book is to her grandson Henry, the third generation to make friends with Hippo, as she explains in the interview. Read on!

First of all, Hazel, congratulations to you and Deborah Niland on the publication of Ho ho ho, there’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating Christmas Cake! It’s the seventh and final book in the much-loved Hippo series which have enchanted generations of children and their parents. Can you tell us a bit about how this new book came about?

Extract from Santa Skylight gift book page

 Grandson Henry Garnet  ( to whom “Ho! Ho! Ho !…is dedicated) inspired this hippo story. Henry had just moved with his parents and big brother to an older house which has two chimneys. He was concerned that his grandparents’ house had only skylights, and the lack of chimneys would mean Santa might miss us on Christmas Eve.  Since I write a story gift of the imagination for him each Christmas, that became his photographic story, with his older brother suggesting a webcam and GPS to redirect Santa.

As with many picture books, the story was later ‘tweaked’  but is still about the logic of fantasy, especially when you have a ‘fantastic’ hippo and a Santa who might co-exist on a roof. And I especially wanted Hippo to strut a cake-walk on the roof , which later became a dance and carols by cake-light. So all ideas are moderated in the creation of a picture book like ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’

The hippo biscuit cutters have attracted the attention of reviewers , who are avidly baking gingerbread hippo biscuits.  I feel a bit of a fraud as I’m not a great cook, but the grandkids and I will make hippo biscuits this weekend.

I wanted the emphasis to be upon the ‘giving’ of creativity at Christmas, not a ‘gimme presents’ attitude.  So within the text and illustrations are many ideas which readers and families can create for themselves.

Hazel’s grandson Henry reading Ho Ho

Instead of a ‘launch’, readers are making the other ideas Deborah Niland has hinted at in the visuals.  And hopefully next year will be the touring musical again with Garry Ginivan productions. Last year’s  national ‘Hippo Hippo the Musical’ inspired from the books, was one of the most satisfying aspects for me of this history of the imagination. To sit in the audience with enthralled children who were the third generation of the original readers of the 1980 edition was special.

And they were all reacting to the hippo character on stage as if he were part of their own imaginative world.

Lovely as it is to see a new Hippo book out, it must also feel rather poignant for you and Deborah, as this is to be the last. Tell us a bit about the journey of Hippo, from the start to now. Where did the idea for Hippo originally come from? Did you imagine 38 years ago that Hippo would capture the hearts and imaginations of so many people? And why do you think young readers take so warmly to Hippo?

 Originally our new roof leaked and our then 4 year old thought the workmen fixing it were the cake-eating hippo thumping around.  Now the nephew of the original 4 year old has been concerned about the same roof: only this time , the skylights being a Santa -barrier is the worry.

The original ‘Hippo’ trio in 1978 when Hazel first wrote the story: Kim (Henry’s mother) Lani (neighbour) & Trevelyan (Henry’s uncle)

Because the big friend has all the answers, especially when you are doing something for the first time and are apprehensive, the hippo books are reassuring. Situations like starting school, going to hospital or acquiring a new baby in the family are easily identifiable.  Christmas is also shown as a time of family sharing of traditions and is Australian, rather than snow laden.

I remember you saying in an interview that for the anniversary edition of the first Hippo book (There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake) you chose to tweak a couple of things in the text. Can you talk a little about that? And how has the reception of the Hippo books changed over time?

 Food is the sex of children’s books, so the sensual delight of adding a themed food to a book for literary events is on-going.

Most readers enjoy the absurdity of juxtaposing cake with hippos who are actually bad tempered in real life, not cute and cuddly. But across the years I’ve had requests  to make the cake gluten –free or a healthier alternative like celery sticks. Real hippos do eat carrots, so I’ve suggested carrot cake as a compromise, but generally the cake is a chocolate mud one which is apt for muddy hippos. Or even just roof tiles, which are easier to design than the challenging hippo cake shape.

The original ‘smack’ was edited out at the publisher’s suggestion but many readers, especially young dads had firm views on retaining the original wording as a point for discussion with their families. I tend to agree that stories should remain in the cultural context in which they were written and that readers are intelligent enough to discuss interpretations. I do NOT favour child abuse, but ‘smacking is a highly emotive issue for some parents. The publishers changed the wording to ‘Daddy growled’…so earlier editions are now collector items.

Picture books are of course always a collaboration between words and pictures, author and illustrator. Can you tell us a bit about your own collaboration with Deborah Niland over the years?

We live in different states.  Deborah adds her visual interpretations to the text and I’m always willing to change the wording if the picture already conveys the concept. But I keep the rhythm of the reading. I love the ‘joyous’ aspect of the ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’ illustrations due to Deborah Niland’s ability to draw so appropriately for this age group. But it’s also a book which can be shared within families and many nostalgic readers love collecting copies, even if they are no longer children.

Hippo has become a classic figure in Australian children’s literature. What are your favourite anecdotes about how readers from 1980 to 2018 have responded to him?

Literary Speed Dating in my memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake; Being an Author’ is where the hippo (via Hazel) answers fan questions  in character.There’s also 100 things which have happened in the history of the cake-eating hippo friend.  Readers’ responses are often poignant. And some children with health issues have responded to the books, using them as a kind of therapy, that if the hippo can cope, so can they.  A book can offer reassurance that others survive, just like the young person in the original book (whose family has grown across the decades) but who is sort of in charge, with the help of hippo.

Here are a dozen memories:

  1. Knock at my front door. Small child. ‘Excuse me. Is this the house where the hippo lives on the roof?’ Answer. ‘Have a look.’
  2. Danish Palace note of thanks (with gold crown) from Princess Mary for autographed Hippo book Australia Government sent as official gift of the imagination for the birth of her daughter.
  3. Fan letter addressed to: The Hippo, Blackburn South, and delivered in person to author by the smiling mailman.
  4. Principal, an ex rugby player, accepted challenge to eat cake on school roof, in hippo costume, and read the book aloud if his students surpassed their reading quotas. They did. And despite being scared of heights, he kept his promise.
  5. Hippopotamuseum created by gifted educator to demonstrate physics principles e.g. falling, related to Hippo character.
  6. Rural prep mother who could not read, but wanted ‘Another easy book like Hippo which I’m learning to read with my 5 year old.’ Brave woman to ask in front of other parents.
  7. Parent’s letter from children’s hospital, thanking for the reassurance of ‘ Hippo on the Hospital Roof’ read in casualty waiting room and in ambulance en route.
  8. In Nepali Montessori School, in Kathmandu reading through interpreter, with hippo music and dancing, and Himalayan mountains as a backdrop.
  9. Feelix suitcase of book and stimulus for blind pre-schoolers. Also had hippo cake tins, an audio and Braille copy. Helped name Feelix project. Felix means happy and ‘feel’ related to the textures felt by blind children.
  10. Collage of memorable fan letters touring as ‘Corridors of Characters’ with Hippo responses by ghost-writer Hazel exhibited at the former Fremantle Maximum Security Jail.
  11. ‘Us mob like your stories. We laugh at the funny bits.’ from an online webchat with a remote outback school.
  12. After a literary festival, the over-loved hippo needed cleaning. Dry cleaners wouldn’t touch it because the head had paper inside. Too big to fit in washing machines, hippo had to be ‘emptied’ of the filling of polystyrene balls and the ‘skin’ washed by hand in baby soap flakes. Experts advised removing the filling either in the carpark or in the bath. …I found out why. The polystyrene balls went everywhere, even clung to our underwear. I handwashed ‘skinny’ hippo in our bath and a visitor freaked on opening the bathroom door to discover hippo hanging from the shower, to dry.

One of the most heart warming aspects of being a long term children’s author is having a three generational readership. ‘Ho!Ho!Ho! There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Christmas Cake’ is being shared by the grandparent generation too. And I also have grandchildren who are reading books inspired by their parents when children. And even learning to read from Hippo books.

Henry Facetime-reading with Hazel

Another special moment with grandson Henry was when I gave him the advance copy and he read it through with expression. Earlier we used to read on Facetime each night, (he taught me Facetime and I helped with his reading) but he always chose the books we shared.

The first Hippo book was adapted for a musical recently--what was it like, experiencing your characters on the stage? And will Hippo pop up in other adaptations, whether for stage or screen?

While children’s theatre is my greatest love, I’d like the cake –eating hippo to have his own television program. In that way he could reach more children and also encourage them to pick up the books too. Although there have been translations into Mandarin, Japanese and other languages, the one I value most is the Braille translation in Vision Australia’s ‘Feelix project’ for children who are sight impaired.

Hazel at a performance of ‘Hippo! Hippo!’ the Musical

Note from Sophie: As Hazel’s publisher Penguin Random House kindly sent me the Hippo cookie cutters with a review copy of the book, I had a go at making some biscuits myself, as a trial run for the visit of certain special little people who are coming to see us in a couple of weeks’ time! I didn’t make gingerbread biscuits as I’m not keen on gingerbread., instead making a vanilla butter biscuit mixture which has a similar consistency and is easy to shape and cut out. Here, below, is the result–the biscuits just made, before they went into the oven, and the final, brightly decorated product with some bonus stars! Fun to make and taste pretty nice too–and I know some little people who will love making them too 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Hazel Edwards:

Hazel Edwards writes quirky, thought-provoking fiction and fact for adults and children. Coping successfully with being different is a common theme. Co-written ‘junior novel ‘Hijabi Girl’ and YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ explore cultural diversity.

Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series, recently touring as a musical, Hazel has grandkids for whom she writes a story each birthday. ‘Outback Ferals’ her YA novel set in Darwin, is a sequel to ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’, researched during her 2001 Antarctic expedition.

Hazel runs book-linked workshops on ‘Authorpreneurship’ and ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’.

’Trail Magic; Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail ’ with her son Trevelyan is an adventure memoir. He did ALL the walking.

A National Reading Ambassador, in 2013 Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature. Her memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake-Being an Author’ explores long-term creativity.

‘Celebrant Sleuth;I do or die’ an adult mystery with an asexual sleuth is her latest fiction and ‘Almost a Crime’ , short crimelettes are available on Kindle.

Hazel’s website is here.

You can find her on Facebook here.

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The Girl on the Page–an interview with John Purcell

Today, I’m delighted to bring you a frank and fascinating interview with John Purcell, whose gripping new novel, The Girl on the Page, I read recently with much pleasure.

First of all John, congratulations on the publication of The Girl on the Page–and on writing such a gripping and immersive read! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I know many other readers have done. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you?

I didn’t know it but the idea for the novel The Girl on the Page had been with me for years. This idea had been in my preference for reading literature as a young man. It had been in the way I had run my little second-hand bookshop where I had to sell recent commercial fiction to pay my rent, when all I wanted to do was sell people beat up old Penguin Classics. It was in my decision to work for online bookseller, Booktopia after my shop closed. And it was certainly around when I signed a contract to publish the erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma under the pseudonym Natasha Walker. The idea is a simple one, What is the cost of selling out?

What was the road to publication like? And what has reader response been like so far?

The road to publication was long. After publishing The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy in 2012-13, I returned to a novel I had been working on for years called, A Gentleman of Sorts. This novel was set in 1815 in northern England. And although I was very happy with it, no one wanted to publish it. Like a fool, I persisted trying to get it published. I wrote nothing new between 2013 and 2017, I just kept working on the novel no one wanted. The spell was broken when a leading publisher offered me a contract for the book. It was a lukewarm offer. The book would be published, but it would sink like a stone. It was over. I rejected the offer and put A Gentleman of Sorts to bed.

Days later I started writing The Girl on the Page. The words came in a torrent.  Over the next six months, writing on weekends only, due to my full time job, I finished the book. My agent sent it out to publishers and we found ourselves in the middle of an auction with three major publishers bidding on the book.  HarperCollins were victorious and with the help of my publisher Catherine Milne, and her brilliant team of editors, we knocked the book into the shape it is now. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

Publishers send out proof copies to reviewers before the final edits of the book are complete. So, with my head still in editing mode, the first reviews came in from booksellers. They didn’t hate the book, which was a relief. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, too. Overall, since publication, the response has been positive. I love that readers love Helen and Malcolm as much as I do. Though I have been punched by some readers for that bit at the end. You’ll know what I mean when you read it.

The story is told in many voices: in Amy’s, Helen’s, Malcolm’s, Daniel’s and a little in Max’s. Quite a lot of juggling, but carried off very successfully! How did you balance the different voices?

The characters of Helen and Malcolm have been loitering around in my imagination for years. They are result of my interactions with all the Helens and Malcolms who used to frequent my second-hand bookshop. The old journalists, retired academics, and quarrelling novelists.  I found their voices were already quite defined and easy to write.

The character of Daniel had to be of Helen and Malcolm, but defiantly different, too. He is their son, but estranged. You can’t stop genetics, and so I had to make sure Daniel displayed some of the attributes of his parents, while his resentment and self-loathing coloured nearly everything he said and thought.

Amy strode onto the page. Hers was the loudest and surest of the voices in my head while writing. I had to restrain her. She had a tendency to dominate scenes and conversations. I surround myself with strong women. I wanted Amy to have a truckload of confidence around her work but needed her to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. My time with Amy was spent turning the volume down on her attitude and turning the volume up when she spoke from the heart.

Knowing the characters well helps with balancing the different voices. I sketched out backstories for these characters which don’t all make it into the novel. I knew them well before I let them speak.

You took quite a risk in making two of your main characters–Amy and Malcolm–rather monstrous really (though always human!) They made me think of the ‘monstre sacré’ concept we have in French–a term which describes a person given a free pass on selfishness and outrageously bad behaviour because of their talent and/or personal charisma.  And the more ‘likeable’ characters–Helen, Daniel and Max–face a great disadvantage when in the orbit of those ‘sacred monsters’, each in different ways. Do you think that’s a fair take, or do you have a different interpretation of those characters?

The funny thing is, many readers relate to Amy. They cheer for her. I have noticed a generational divide in the response to the novel. Younger readers in general have seen it as an Amy novel. Amy’s ambitions, her needs, her desires are those of her own generation. They align with her from the start and live the novel through her, thus she is absolved of all sins. They certainly don’t see her as a monster. In fact, the question of principles at the heart of the novel is largely overlooked by younger readers. There is no such thing as selling out to them, as of course you always take the cash. Every time. Older readers talk almost exclusively about Helen and Malcolm. The choice Helen makes and the consequences of that choice. The old novelists’ relationship is the central hub of the novel to older readers but the relationship between Helen and Malcolm and their son Daniel also figures in the discussion of the novel.

Daniel is reviled by younger readers. He and Julia, the publishing director, share monster status for them. While for the older readers, they find Malcolm to be the most difficult character to deal with. They understand Daniel, forgive Helen, put up with Amy but they find it hard to forgive Malcolm. I think Daniel would see both his parents as ‘monstre sacré’, while the reader only sees Malcolm.

I hope what I have done here is create characters who are as flawed as we all are. I certainly like how a character can be one reader’s heroine and another’s villain. That a book can be about one subject for a reader and be a completely different book for another. If I have done that, I will think myself extremely lucky.

The book revolves around a conflict between two extremes of the book world: the short-term gain of bestsellers versus the slow burn of ‘serious’  literature..Yet of course many of the writers we think of as great–Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc–had large mass followings and were seen primarily as entertainers in their day. Do you think the distinction between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’ books (a cogent term employed in your book) is not as simple as someone like Malcolm might see it? And with your own book, which depicts the tension between the two, making the case for more thoughtful books whilst successfully adopting the suspenseful thriller mode–do you see it as part of the conversation around these things?

Even Malcolm doesn’t see it as a simple distinction, it’s just a convenient way for him to explain the differences between certain types of books. We all divide novels up into easy reads and more difficult ones. Some novels just ask us to think from page one, they require concentration, and if you aren’t in the mood, if you’re tired, for example, you will put them down. In that same mood you might pick up a thriller and read late into the night. Malcolm points out that we aren’t talking about a large percentage of the population when we talk about readers. And when we talk exclusively about novels we are talking about a fraction of the small fraction of the population who reads regularly. Most regular readers of novels have the capacity to read ‘uphill’ but prefer ‘downhill’ novels because such reading offers a form of escape that appeals to them.

The Girl on the Page is a ‘downhill’ book about ‘uphill’ books, said one reviewer. Which I found interesting. There is no doubt in my mind that my novel is being labelled ‘commercial fiction’ by some readers and many booksellers – that is, fiction which is easy to read and is expected to have a large readership. And yet, as one reviewer said, the blurb on the back made it sound really boring. The blurb actually described the content pretty well. But it doesn’t give any indication of the way it is written. And this is definitely part of the conversation, as you say. I have written one of those books Helen and Max hate.

I made a conscious decision to open the door to my book as wide as I could to let any kind of reader in. I wanted to involve people in my story from page one. So I wrote short sharp chapters which dropped the reader into the middle of the action. I want readers to become invested in the story and for them to turn the pages quickly. How else was I going to get people into a book where the big question is, should a literary writer publish a commercial book for cash? The result is readers are reading the novel in a few sittings and the end of the novel knocks them sideways and leaves them thinking about some pretty hefty things. Which is cool, right?

I was struck by your (very accurate, in my experience) observation of the ‘book-loving millenials’ who nevertheless don’t read in the same way that people of Helen and Malcolm’s generation might have thought proper. Can you expand a little on that?

The way people consume information today is completely different from any other age. We absorb so much more information in a day, through so many different screens, mostly in small bite-sized chunks. It’s only natural that the way a millennial reader approaches a book would be different. They have grown up in an informational soaked, entertainment overloaded world.

A physical book is an ingenious device which exists separately to the internet. It is its own ecosystem for the time you’re reading it. It has one overall argument, or subject, or story and it is told outside time. This is very attractive to those who are almost always connected and who don’t often enjoy the luxury of concentrating all their attention on one thing.

As a book industry professional–both as an author and bookseller who has frequent dealings with publishers and editors-you have an insight into the publishing world which comes over very strongly in the book, in various amusing–and sometimes depressing!–vignettes. The post-takeover shenanigans at  your fictional publishing house and the short-termism it engenders of course strikes many echoes in other book industry insiders/observers of course, including me 🙂 Putting on your prophet’s hat, what do you think might come of such developments within publishing?

Publishing has one great advantage at the moment, they still publish physical books. For a while there it seemed likely that printed books would go the way of video cassette tapes. Thankfully this was averted by the ubiquity of the smartphone which seemed to kill off the ereader and ebooks before they really took hold. And since then something even worse happened. Donald Trump. His cry of fake news has made many people notice just how difficult it is to find answers on the internet. And here’s where publishers of physical books come in. Over hundreds of years they developed a vetting process whereby they force writers to proof, edit, fact check and better their writing before they will publish it. There are checks and balances because publishing physical books is an expensive business. Of course, some publishers are better than others and of course they don’t get it right all of the time. But a vetting process is better than no process, as we are discovering to our shame online. As such, I believe publishing will still have a very important role to play in the coming decades.

Finally,  I thought that the title, ‘the Girl on the Page’ mischievously echoes an element of various bestselling titles, as alluded to in an aside in your book–is that the case? And can you expand a little on that?

The Girl on the Page was my working title. The sheer number of novels about women that were being published with ‘girl’ in the title was absurd and many people in the book industry were getting sick of it. So calling the manuscript The Girl on the Page was a bit of joke between me, myself and I. But later, as I wrote the scene at the book signing where the characters discuss books with ‘girl’ in the title, I realised that The Girl on the Page kind of worked for the book. So when I sent it to my agent I left it there. I really didn’t expect HarperCollins to go for it. But they saw the irony of it, and loved it. So, there you have it.

About The Girl on the Page:

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

About John Purcell:

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing.
Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines.
Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.
Twitter @bookeboy
Instagram @bookeboy

 

Cover reveal for War and Resistance, my 2019 novel

I am thrilled to be able to reveal today the full cover of War and Resistance, my historical novel for older readers, which will be published by Scholastic Australia in February 2019. That year will mark 80 years since the outbreak of World War Two, and my novel is mostly set in the early years of the war, from early 1939 to late 1941, with an epilogue in 1950, and spans the globe, with sections set in New Zealand, Australia, France and Germany. (You can read a short blurb of the novel on the pic) .And one of the things I’ve loved about writing this novel–a novel that means a great deal to me–is that with it I was also given the opportunity to revisit characters from an earlier novel of mine, also set in wartime, only the war before that one–1914(Scholastic Australia, 2014), which was told from the viewpoint of Louis Jullian, a teenager at the time. And now, in this new one, his daughter Sasha is trying to follow in his footsteps…Looking forward so much to the publication of this book!

 

An interview with Cath Mayo

A couple of years ago, at the IBBY Conference in Auckland, I met New Zealand author Cath Mayo, whose novels based on the life of the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus were the basis for her fascinating conference paper exploring the unexpected commonalities between Ancient Greek and Pacific cultures. This month I finally caught up with her for a most interesting interview–enjoy!

You are very inspired by one of the most famous and ancient sagas of Western culture, Homer’s Odyssey, which you first encountered as a young reader in an adapted edition for children. Can you tell us about that, and what effect the story had on you as a child?

When I was a kid, Mum used to read aloud to us a lot, especially during the summer holidays. We’d be on the beach after lunch, itching to go for a swim, and she wanted to keep us out of the water for a while so we wouldn’t get cramp and drown.  So the books had to be pretty exciting, not just for me but for my two older brothers.

So I must have been about seven or eight when I first encountered Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of the Odyssey, with those fabulous illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Munroe. And I was instantly besotted – with Odysseus’s adventures and his resourcefulness and quirky cunning. As a cheeky kid trying to outwit my big brothers, I thought his impersonation of Nobody, when he was trying to escape the Cyclops, was magic.

As kids do, I started re-enacting – and got myself into various bits of bother by locking the rest of the family out of our only bathroom-cum-toilet, because that was where the towels were, and I could turn them into Greek tunics with the help of a couple of safety pins.

At night, after lights out, I started retelling the Odysseus stories to myself, naturally taking the title role. This soon led to various prequels and sequels, and all sorts of extra bits along the way that Homer had undoubtedly forgotten to put in to the official account.

What effect did these early reactions to the Odyssey have on you later, as an adult writer?

I gave up on the bath towels pretty soon, but I kept on with the retelling process. Odysseus was briefly supplanted by Beatle George Harrison, followed by a few other characters, real and invented. But Odysseus is a persevering sort of guy and he always comes back.

This habit of private story-telling – or fantasising if you will – is common with kids, but most people stop it at some point, to get on with the thorny business of adult life. I never did.

It took me a while, though, to realise that writers are not Gods – they live on Planet Earth like the rest of us – and I could dare to become one. So eventually I began to write the stories down.

What I still experience is that feeling of being totally inside the story as I imagine it and tell it. Which is what a good reading experience should give the reader as well.

Why do you think myths and legends and sagas are still important to us today?

They certainly were very powerful for me as a kid.

While I was busy reading and re-reading Picard’s retelling – and anything else remotely about Odysseus or the Troy story that I could lay my hands on – I also became a general Myths-and-Legends junky. The local library held a wonderful series of books put out by Oxford University Press, collections of myths and legends from just about every country you could imagine – India, Scandinavia, Egypt, Korea, Scotland, Africa, Russia, France…

They are amazing, exciting stories that have compelling stories and characters and resolutions, probably because they have developed and survived over long periods of time.

They also reveal the soul of the culture that engenders them, the values and the hopes and the fears and the disappointments and the successes. In troubled times they can be a rallying point of the spirit, a beacon for identity.

For New Zealanders, the myths swirling around Maui are colourful and resoundingly Maori; for Maori, Maui is more than just a fun story – this small, brave, wily underdog of a hero is an essential part of their ancestry and a powerful taonga – a great source of cultural pride.

At the IBBY conference in Auckland, you gave a very interesting paper, based on interviews and encounters with Maori and Samoan people, which drew connections and resonances between the Odyssey and Pacific Island culture. Can you tell readers a bit about that?

Growing up, I never consciously made the connection, even though I love Maori culture and mythology, and I’ve travelled and worked in the Pacific.

But one day, by chance, I met a sixteen year old Samoan student called Matt Nanai. Matt was crazy about sport – he’d just broken his leg playing rugby – and he was the lead singer in a school rock band. But he was holding a book – Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey. It turned out this was the first book he’d ever read cover to cover, and he thought it was choice.

This intrigued me no end. When I talked it through with Matt, we both realised that the world of Homer has far more parallels with traditional Maori and Polynesian culture than it does to my own Pakeha/European New Zealand society.

What are those parallels? Reverence for ancestry; a strong aural tradition; respect and hospitality; fierce family loyalty; speech-making; honour and pride; brave deeds; warrior values; sporting prowess and physical hardiness; the sea, coasts, islands and navigation; and song, music and dance.

Later on, I interviewed Tongan scholar and politician Sitivati Halapua and his daughter, Peau. They added fate, suffering, storytelling, wisdom and cunning, humour, and tapu/sacred things to my list.  I also questioned a Samoan paramount chief, Joe Annandale, and two Maori friends, Dean Martin and Sharon Hansen, and they too came up with insightful answers.

All of these themes can be matched by underlying values in The Odyssey and Iliad, backed by countless quotes from both poems.

I often think Maui and Odysseus are very similar heroic types. They’re not the big muscle-bound guys; instead they have to live on their smarts.

Your books for teenagers, The Bow, and Murder at Mykenai, are set in the Greek Bronze Age, or as it’s sometimes known, the Age of Heroes–the time of Odysseus, in fact, who is the main young character in the books.

I wanted to set these books, not only within the Greek mythological traditions but also in the social and political environment of the Greek Late Bronze Age, which is when the Trojan War is believed to have taken place.

Curiously, this isn’t the same world as the “Age of Heroes”. The latter is the one that Homer describes in his great Trojan War poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s the one usually evoked by later retellings and illustrations.

But the “Age of Heroes” is a fantasy world, created through a jigsaw mix of different eras, ranging from around 1400BC right down to around 300BC – over a thousand years of changing customs and clothing, buildings and weapons. In pictures illustrating the “Age of Heroes”, men wear Corinthian-style helmets covering their faces, with narrow slots for their eyes, and women wear long, loose, white tunics.

I decided to return the Odysseus stories to Odysseus’s own time – a Late Bronze Age setting. So – for example – there are no big temples: gods were worshipped in shrines, which were either out in the wilds or inside palaces. Clothing was brightly coloured and often festooned with tassels and fringe, with women clad in fitted bodices and tiered flaring skirts cinched in at the waist with wide belts.

How do you go about researching the background of the stories? And how do you recreate the atmosphere of that time so long ago?

I love research. In fact, my husband had to force me to stop researching and start actually writing these books.

I majored in History at Uni, so I know my way around the local Uni library and the great collection of scholarly journals that gave me the in-depth knowledge I need to totally ground myself in this very different and often alien world. For the Bronze Age is separated from the world of Classical Greece by an abrupt cataclysm that saw the great palaces burnt to the ground, followed by a stretch of centuries known as the Dark Ages.

In the end, the amount of knowledge I have – photocopied articles stored in numerous file boxes and a whole bookcase of books – is far, far more than I would ever need to write my novels. What the reader sees is the tip of an iceberg. But the information iceberg is quick to inform me whenever something unusual crops up.

For example, in The Bow, Odysseus needs to enter a tomb. And I was able to put my hand immediately, not only on descriptions of various kinds of Late Bronze Age tombs but also what sorts of grave goods were deposited and how the bodies were treated – which was important for the plot. It meant that, instead of having to stop writing and spend a few evenings in the Uni library, I could look it up straightaway and get on with the story.

I also know that King Nestor, at Pylos, had a harbour excavated deep into the flat coastal plain near his palace, through which he diverted a river every winter to flush it out. I love this fact but I haven’t yet found a reason to use it!

What about the personality of young Odysseus?

Odysseus shines through so strongly in the Odyssey. Even in the Iliad, where he has more of a cameo role, we can see different sides of his personality.

But to capture the young Odysseus took some imagination. I had to try and wind the personality clock back, so to speak, and imagine him with the character traits we enjoy in the later stories – a quick wit, bravery, cunning, loyalty to family and friends, deviousness and a love of secrecy, strong emotions which he has to control, charm, eloquence, stubbornness, a sharp intelligence, an intolerance of fools, skill in disguise – but I had to imagine how those traits presented themselves before he added experience to the mix.

So he’s still learning, and he makes mistakes – not that he doesn’t later, in Homer’s poems!

You grew up by the sea, ‘mucking about in boats’ as you put it on your website, with your brothers. Did you always want to be a writer or was that something that came later?

I always felt like a storyteller, but it took me a long time to summon the courage to put words on a page. I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Renault, two monumental historical novelists, and I didn’t want to fall short of their standards. Fear of failing is something everyone has to conquer in order to reach for their dreams; I’m really glad I faced down my demons, and I only wish I had done it earlier.

When I was at school, nobody told us we could be writers. And nobody seemed to believe that NZ writing could be any good. I’m really pleased that’s changed!

What was the path to publication like?

It was hard but there were plenty of highs to balance the lows. I had some fantastic encouragement not long after I started – I won a short story competition and the judge, New Zealand YA and Children’s writer William Taylor, agreed to mentor me through my first book Murder at Mykenai. Bill was brilliant – blunt but also very encouraging. And the NZ Society of Authors awarded me a professional assessment, which also helped. So I was able to start dreaming that someone would get excited about the book enough to take it on.

I had seven rejections before Walker Books signed me up, but these rejections usually came with a page or two of detailed comments, which I could use to improve the book and my writing in general. So “no” isn’t always a bad thing, if you want the book to be as good as possible!

How do you think being a New Zealander influences your writing?

Good question! On the one hand, we can feel a bit inferior because we’re “only” New Zealanders and we live upside down on a small bunch of islands at the bottom of the world.

On the other hand being isolated means we get to “invent the wheel” quite a bit, so we feel confident about being creative and trying our hands at lots of different things. We’re not constantly being told we can’t do things because we’re not experts at it, so we just go ahead and do them!

New Zealanders often tend to be active, outdoorsy people and I’m no exception. I still muck about in boats, and when I was younger I did a lot of tramping, including some pretty adventurous stuff off the beaten track in the Southern Alps. This taught me how to survive in harsh conditions without any technological backup.

In my novel writing, my characters are living in a very low-tech world, and my heroes live physically active lives. So I can sometimes draw on my own experiences and feelings when things get tough for them.

You are also a musician and play in a band which tours the world. Can you tell us more about that?

Make that “played” in a band, past tense – in fact, several bands. I was mostly playing Country music, with bluesy, Bluegrassy, jazzy overtones, and those songs always have a story. I loved being part of a small group working together to take those stories to an audience. Nowadays I still play, but mostly for my own pleasure – my writing has taken over.

I love travelling, and while I enjoy being a tourist, it’s always more fun if I’ve got a purpose – I connect with people in a different way.  Back then, the connecting link was music, and now it’s research for my books. It was brilliant, when I visited Ithaca a few years ago, to talk with people about my books and what I hoped to see and find out about Odysseus’s own island. And when I wrote The Bow, I re-discovered a forgotten cave in Arcadia, and went through it with a bunch of Greek cavers.

Does your music ever inspire your writing and vice versa?

Only in a sideways kind of way.

I always did a lot of improvising as a musician – I hated the idea that I might step forward to take a solo and fake it by “joining the dots” – playing a calculated number of pre-learned patterns in a set order. It was all about listening like crazy and jumping off the cliff.  I never quite knew if my inner, creative ear would manage to hear enough to put up a parachute, so I could sail out over the abyss and land safely at the end. It was a fabulous experience when it did, and at least I didn’t die – except with embarrassment – if it didn’t.

Curiously, this is incredibly like the feeling I get when I’m writing. Somewhere in the non-logical part of my brain, there’s this great big ear that’s listening out for whatever is seething round in my subconscious mind, and these days it sends me stories rather than music.

The Ancient Greek singers must have experienced something very like this. When they sang their long, semi-improvised epics, they called on the Muse, as though it was the Muse singing the song, using the bard only as a mouthpiece.

What are you working on now?

I’m working hard on a co-writing project with David Hair, another Kiwi writer who’s had great success with YA writing and Adult Fantasy.

We’ve teamed up to create an Adult Fantasy series called Olympus. Once again, it’s about Odysseus, this time as a young man in his early twenties, in the years leading up to the Trojan War. The first three books have just been signed up by Canelo, a UK publisher.

The collaborative process with David has been very exciting, challenging and stimulating. We do a lot of brainstorming via Skype (we’re rarely in the same room, or even in the same country) and huge amounts of planning, backwards and forwards. Then David gets the first draft down – he’s very fast – and I do the next, “up” draft, to use Anne Lamott’s terms. After that, we bat it to and fro till I don’t know whose words and ideas are whose.

The first book Athena’s Champion comes out on November 8th – it has a cover to die for! And the second book Oracles War is already with Canelo for editing while we plan out Book Three.

New Zealander Cath Mayo is an award-winning author, writing YA historical novels, children’s plays and adult fiction. Much of her work is set in Ancient Greece, for which she has a life-long passion. After graduating in History, she returned to university to study Homeric Greek. Her YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, star a youthful Odysseus, as does Athena’s Champion, the first book of a new adult fantasy series, Olympus, co-written with David Hair.

Publication week for Black Wings

This week sees the publication of Black Wings, coming out in the UK with the fabulous Greystones Press. On Tuesday I’m meeting my publishers and celebrating the book’s release. It will be wonderful to hold a copy of the book in my hands!

Copies of the book, which is available in both paperback and ebook format, can be ordered from Booktopia, Book Depository, Amazon etc.

Black Wings available for pre-order from online bookshops now

I’m very pleased to say that my adult historical novel Black Wings, which comes out in early October with the Greystones Press in the UK, is now available for pre-order from several online book retailers, including Booktopia, Book Depository, and on Amazon both in paperback and e-book formats (Australia, UK, US).

I will be in the UK when it comes out–can’t wait to celebrate it in person with my publishers Mary Hoffman and Stephen Barber of The Greystones Press, and fellow author Gill Vickery whose novel Tell Me No Truths comes out at the same time with The Greystones Press!

The Koldun’s Daughter

Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly  written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!

And of course, if it whets your appetite for the novel itself, and its predecessor, that’s a bonus 🙂

(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)

The Koldun’s Daughter

There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.

Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’

Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.

In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’

The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.

The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.

Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.

Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.

But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.

And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.

But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.

Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.

Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.

Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.

She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.

‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’

And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’

Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.

But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.

She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’

The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.

They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.

She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.

So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.

Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.

But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.

Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’

Copyright Sophie Masson