I first met Kyle Mewburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers for children, a few years ago in my capacity back then as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, and Kyle’s as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Well, Kyle is still NZSA President, and very active in advancing the cause of writers and illustrators in NZ, against a not very positive background of change and difficulties in the industry there. And in this very interesting interview, he looks frankly at some of those issues, as well as his own literary work.
Kyle, your recent picture book, illustrated by Sarah Davis, The House on the Hill, recently won the Hell Children’s Choice Awards–love that award name by the way 🙂 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Can you tell us something about the book, and how you and Sarah created it? And how have young readers responded to the book?
The idea for the story had been simmering away in the back of my mind for several years (as they do), though ‘idea’ is possibly too grandiose a term for what was, in effect, simply a refrain – “the house on the hill”. But that’s often how my stories start – with just a phrase that won’t go away. I knew there was going to be a journey of some sort, but had no idea who, or what, was going to make the journey. It wasn’t until I was Writer-in-residence at Otago University in 2011, that the story started coming to life, infused with an unexpected Edgar Allan Poe-ish vibe.
It took three weeks of solid, focussed writing for the story to come together. At the end of each day I’d go home exhausted, but satfisfied, despite having completed one stanza or less. I sent the story off to Scholastic and got a reply within an hour – “We love it.” Excellent, I thought. But over the next few months a sense of trepidation started filtering through, as the publishing team started second-guessing themselves. Was the story perhaps too scary? Fortunately, Diana Murray (publisher at the time) had a chat to the head buyer at a major bookstore chain whose verdict came as somewhat of a relief – “Embrace the darkness.” Having strived to make the story as scary as possible, having confidence in my young readers’ willingness, and enthusiasm, to have their pants scared off in a caring, controlled kind of way, I would have been hugely reluctant to water the scares down.
The next question was, of course, who should illustrate? I seldom get asked this question, but I jumped at the opportunity to put Sarah’s name forward. I’d always admired her work, not only for her undoubted technical ability, but also the fact she’s such an eclectic illustrator. Each work is unique with its own distinct style, and she was, I believed, the kind of illustrator who would push the boundaries and come up with a style to perfectly complement my story. Unfortunately, she was rather busy, so I was faced with a choice – wait 2+ years or choose someone else. I didn’t hesitate. Sarah it was.
One interesting, and unusual, aspect of working with Sarah was the unexpected rigour with which she addressed the text. Ultimately there were several stanzas which required re-writing and another which was dropped simply because it didn’t advance the story sufficiently. I really had no input into the illustrations, so can’t comment on that. Apart from saying they’re brilliant throughout and genius in numerous places, especially with their use of perspective. The art of illustration at its finest.
The response to the story has been phenomenal. Despite several parents, teachers and even reviewers initially worrying about the scariness level, the reality is that kids enjoy a good, safe scare and are happy to embrace the ‘game’. As one 6 year-old pointed out when his mum questioned whether or not he was scared – “No. I knew they weren’t real ghosts because there was a cat. Cats don’t like ghosts.” Winning the kids’ choice award is, I think, the ultimate accolade.
Though you are especially known for your picture books, you have also written chapter books and early readers. What are your favourite types of books to write, and what are the main differences between creating texts for all those different formats?
Picture books are my first passion. Almost a vice. My ideas are almost instinctively for picture books, and they seem to be the genre that most suits my thought processes and my writing voice. They’re also the biggest challenge and I get a lot of pleasure pursuing picture book ideas. (Also a lot of angst and anguish, but that’s another story…) Chapter books and junior fiction require a more measured approach. It’s more about building upon a concept than simply chasing an idea. For me, junior fiction (especially for so-called ‘reluctant readers’ or transitional readers) really has to begin with a strong character, ideally a child character. Once I have my hero sorted (whether that’s the first evolved boy in a Neanderthal tribe, or a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School) I can view their world from their own unique perspective. It’s all about building relationships and interactions. Then, additionally, I add extra details and levels of meaning which encourage and reward re-reading.
All my writing is child-centric. It’s all about creating stories which reflect their lives, or more specifically, some critical aspect of it. Generally my stories are about making or maintaining friendships. I guess the biggest difference between writing picture books and junior fiction is the former is a distillation process – reducing grand themes to its essence; while the latter is more a process of accretion – adding layers and details to a simple idea.
What are you working on now?
Currently I’m experiencing a bit of mid-career-itis, so not quite sure what I’m working on. The house on the hill was the last picture book I sold, so the drought has dragged on a bit. I’m not 100% sure why my picture books don’t seem to be hitting the mark any more. Possibly it’s me. Having never settled on a single style of story, I’ve generally always pursued whatever ideas tickled my fancy. And after writing over 25 picture books I’m reluctant to rework old ground. So I’ve been experimenting with different styles and approaches to writing, just to keep myself amused and challenged. Maybe that’s not what the market wants at the current time.
In the meantime I’m developing a new junior fiction series and tinkering with re-writing some of my early adult novels. A musical friend and I are also playing around with a script for a musical. It’s all good fun, but as the main breadwinner I can’t afford to spend too much time on non-profitable diversions, no matter how inspiring. So we’ll see what happens.
Born and brought up in Australia but living in New Zealand for a long time now, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent authors of children’s books, and you are also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In both capacities you’ve had a good deal of contact with the Australian literary world as well. How do you see the similarities and differences between literary New Zealand and literary Australia, both in terms of the kinds of books that get published, and also the literary scene–both in the children’s/YA and adult fields?
There are enormous similarities between the two countries’ literary worlds and I’m rather perplexed by the fact there still seems to be a huge wall with respect to the sharing of books and writers. The key differences, I think, stem largely from the smallness of the local literary community and market. Despite the size of the population (think Melbourne) there are very strong cliques and factions which are more based around protecting funding turf than anything else. Which means local writers are very reluctant to criticise anyone or anything for fear of offending the wrong person. You could all-too-easily end up on the outer with no chance of funding or reviews. I’m sure every country has the same rivalries and divisions, but here, because of the population, it is much more distilled and rather potent.
The small market also makes it difficult to make a living. Print runs are often only 1500 and you can make the bestseller list by selling 100+ copies in a given week. I’ve been fortunate insofar as many of my stories have had some longevity (several are still being reprinted 10+ years later), and have had numerous titles published into international markets. Sadly New Zealand publishers are increasingly acting like imprints of their international parents, insofar as they have become much more focussed on publishing stories with local flavour. In the picture book market there has always been a demand for kiwi stories (literally stories about the bird) but this has become massively more so over recent years. No wonder when many bookshops report most people are buying picture books to send overseas to relatives or take away as souvenirs. There has also been a huge growth in stories translated into Te Reo (ie Maori language). While all this might be worthy and understandable from a business model point of view, it has not only made it that much harder to make a living as a writer, it has also created an unfortunate quandary – ie write for this market and accept your income is severely ring-fenced, or you don’t, and stack the odds against being published at all.
With respect to making a living as a CYA writer, I think Australia has massive advantages with respect to creating a secondary income stream from school visits and festival appearances. However it is a lot more cut-throat. In New Zealand school visits are arranged mostly through the Book Council, while in Australia it’s all done through agencies. So in Australia it’s much more a case of the more popular you are and the better your presentations, the more visits you get. Here it’s a bit more communal with visits shared around. On the negative side, we earn half as much for a visit as you do in Australia. It’s still very difficult to convince the majority of schools there is much value in author visits… as opposed to visits by sportspeople… or magicians… or the local fireman…
As President of NZSA, you have been involved in helping to organise the first ever National Writers Forum in New Zealand, which has just been held. What are you expecting from the forum? And what are the issues that are most preoccupying authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?
The National Writers Forum was a huge success. The feedback has been extraordinary. The main goals were, firstly, to offer some serious professional development opportunities through masterclasses and expert panels. Secondly, it was about creating opportunities to discuss the business aspects of a writer’s life at every stage of their career. There’s plenty of information out there but seldom do writers get an opportunity to ask specific questions pertaining to their own, specific careers directly to a panel of experts. Finally, and for me most importantly, it was an opportunity for writers to assemble at the national level in a collegial and congenial environment. There are way too many divisions within the literary community, and this doesn’t help the literary cause in the wider context. The only way to break down barriers and cliques is to strengthen personal relationships by talking to each other directly rather than shouting at each other over the parapets.
As in most countries, the biggest issues preoccupying us in New Zealand centre on the increasing difficulties of making a living. New Zealand books are expensive in comparison to international titles available on-line, so there has been a concerted effort to exclude books from GST. Wishful thinking under the current government. We already have parallel importing, so have long ago come to terms with the long-term (all negative) consequences. As with writers everywhere we’re also concerned about the push to change (ie water down) copyright laws.
A very recent research report published by the New Zealand Book Council contained the rather disappointing finding that New Zealand readers were biased against NZ fiction, saying that they rarely read it–but also could not name any NZ authors–and that only 3-5 percent of fiction bought in the nation was by NZ authors. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of cultural cringe? Do you think it could be turned around? If so, how?
Cultural cringe with two capital Cs. In many ways it reminds me of Australia in the 80s when I was at high school – nobody admitted to reading OzLit. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1990 there was a huge push to make NZ Music cool. The government pumped in $5million per year and introduced a radio quota. And (surprise!) within a generation NZ Music became cool. There was an attempt to do the same with books but with a budget of $100,000 and divisions within the industry, it gained little traction and soon disappeared. In the last 10 years, NZ has become a massively flag-waving country. Kiwis are enormously proud of their sportspeople, their music, their films (well, Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, anyway), but there remains a total reluctance to wave the NZ flag when it comes to books and writers, despite local writers garnering increasing international awards and respect.
I suspect the cost of local books has something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that NZ “literature” is still discussed in such reverent tones while genre and/or popular fiction hardly gets a look in. It fosters the impression that local literature is rather intellectual and elitist. We have many world-class, internationally best-selling writers across all genres. It would help enormously if these were celebrated a bit more.
Last year NZSA instigated a grassroots NZ Book Week with a very limited budget. Hopefully it will continue to grow and, over time, leach into the psyche. But generally I feel it requires a much greater level of government action and investment. It also is a long-term project. I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of commitment to involving local writers/titles in literacy programmes. The “as long as they’re reading something” approach does little to improve literacy, in my opinion. The only way to grow literacy is to promote local authors and stories and instill some pride in local literature. Imagine how few kids would be playing rugby if the All Blacks were considered also-rans, nobodies, rather than superstars. Pride – whether in rugby, music or literature – begins with aspirational role models. We need to start kids on NZLit from the get-go.
Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s finest, and most eclectic, picture book writers. His titles have been published in a dozen countries and won numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year (Old Hu-hu), Picture book of the Year (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!),two Children’s Choice awards (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck! andMelu) and a Flicker Tale award in North Dakota (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!). His stories are noted for being multi-layered, funny and linguistically creative.
He has been a frequent Finalist at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards and many of his titles have been included on Notable Books Lists in both New Zealand and Australia.
As well as picture books, he has published numerous School Readers and junior fiction titles, including his popular Dinosaur Rescue series which has been published in over 20 countries. He was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University in 2011 and is currently President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
Originally from Brisbane, Kyle lives with his wife, Marion, a well-known potter, in a house with a grass roof in Millers Flat. When he’s not writing, Kyle’s free time is almost wholly consumed trying to maintain a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle … or watching the endlessly entertaining drama of chickens trying to get to bed under the watchful eyes of two teasing cats.