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.

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Wicked Sheriff and Outlaw Lord

Robin Hood by N.C. Wyeth

Today, I’m republishing a historical essay of mine about a real-life model for the legend of Robin Hood, back in the 11th century and the period of the Norman Conquest. It was inspired partly by research I conducted for the third volume of my big historical fantasy novel, Forest of Dreams, and partly by the fact my husband comes from Worcestershire, an area of England I’ve come to know quite well.

Wicked Sheriff and Outlaw Lord

by Sophie Masson

The legend of Robin Hood is the quintessential English myth. In it, we find all the elements that make up the English—as opposed to the Celtic British—character in the ancient land that the Celts called Logres. Combining ancient magical and symbolic aspects with the trauma of the Norman Conquest, Robin Hood’s legend still has many reverberations in modern England. It could be said, for instance, that the vicious class conflict which characterised English social life–and which still reverberates throughout it to this day–had its origins in the almost total destruction of the native English-speaking Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and its almost complete replacement by French-speaking Norman nobles. This produced a vast gulf of misunderstanding between the two peoples which became, in effect, class-based, for ‘ordinary people’ tended to be native English, whilst ‘the upper crust’ traced its origins to foreign despoilers!

As well as preserving the memory of the hideous physical and moral destruction wrought on Anglo-Saxon culture by the Conquest, the legend of the greenwood lord Robin Hood and his merry men is a perfect distillation of that light, lively and melancholy English spirit which had its most gifted and brilliant expression in the work of William Shakespeare. The slanting, ambiguous, mischievous light of the greenwood and its magic is more powerful, in the end, than the shadow of the castle stronghold in the stories of Robin Hood: an ancient light, that predates the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, and even the Celts, and symbolises the enduring nature of the land.

It’s always a hard one, conquest. The attempt to brutally suppress a vanquished culture and replace it wholesale usually leads to it haunting the landscape, and the cultural psyche, in a way that eventually takes its toll on the confidence and identity of the conquerors themselves. It’s been the same story all over the world, including of course in Australia. In England, it happened to the Normans. . .

In the year of Our Lord, 1066, thousands of men came ashore at Pevensey under Duke William of Normandy’s lion flag. Attired for battle, William’s warhosts were attracted by the prospect of more loot and plunder than their Norse ancestors(the word ‘Norman’ comes from ‘Norse’ itself)  could ever have dreamed was possible, and also by the joy of teaching their arrogant Anglo-Saxon rivals a lesson they

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Lots of men there, twitching with excitement, the thrill of the hunt and of the fabulous rewards promised to them: landless sons, and illegitimate ones; adventurers and pirates and those who followed along just to see what would happen. Like the wolf in the fable, however, they must have a good reason for gobbling up their prey. And so they had it, not one, indeed, but several. Political reason: hadn’t Harold pledged support to William’s right of kingship in England, before Edward the Confessor had died? Religious reason: the Pope had given his blessing to the invasion, because the English Church was going its own way far too often. Cultural reason: the Norse thirst for gold and blood, only thinned a little by la douce France, was rising high. No doubt many of the French breathed a sigh of relief when the Norman army was gone. Personal reason: Duke William, driven by his illegitimacy, driven to conquer England and make it his own, though always his heart stayed in his green Norman fields.

That gathering of men, that roundup of reasons, was to have a far-reaching effect. Those warriors twitching to be gone to battle weren’t to know it: but this was to be the last conquest of England, because it was the most traumatic. And in its trauma would be born the greatest of the English legends: that of the outlaw Robin Hood, and his arch-enemy, the wicked Sheriff. Generations and generations into the future, the affrontement of Saxon and Norman would become metamorphosed into the age-old conflict of freedom and tyranny, of nature and authority, of summer and winter, of wild magic and castle law. And men who were once opponents would become reconciled within it. For the terrible crucible of history distils some potent brews, and the tale of the wicked sheriff and the outlaw lord was one of the most potent of all. And it is fascinating to peer into that crucible of time and watch the ingredients of legend being cooked up before your very eyes.

There, among those men on the English shore, are many who will leave the imprint of their characters and presence on legend. There are the powerful ones, first: greedy Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William’s half-brother, notorious even amongst the Normans for his rapacity and lust, the epitome of a corrupt and oppressive Church; there is the honourable Ralph de Todeni, or Raoul de Conches,

Arms of d’Abitot family from a ms held in Worcester Cathedral Library

magnanimous when it suited him; there is complex William the King himself, moneybags, tough warrior, harsh legaliser, driven bastard, nature-lover, faithful husband, cold in judgement, the man to whose bureaucratic instincts avant l’heure we owe the inestimably precious Domesday Chronicle, yet the man of whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sadly wrote:

He had castles built

and wretched men oppressed. .

He was fallen into avarice,

and he loved greediness above all. 

He forbade hunting the stags,so also the boars

he loved the stags so very much,

as if he were their father. .

Alas, woe! that any man should be so proud,

raise up and reckon himself above all men.

But it was not only the powerful who made that part of the legend, for if that was not so, the legend would not have become so ingrained. Oppression must be localised and personalised before it becomes more than just a distant story. And so, William’s followers, great and small, in all the corners of that green and pleasant land, all did their bit to help it along.

Urse d’Abetot, or d’Abitot(the medieval chroniclers are notoriously cavalier about names!)was just one of those petty followers. Urse hailed from a tiny place called Saint Jean d’Abetot, on the white cliffs of the Seine near Le Havre. From being a very minor lord in Normandy, a vassal of the powerful Tancarville family, who were chamberlains to William himself, and a mere mention in the invading fleet’s roll call, Urse went on to become Sheriff of the rich Western Midlands county of Worcestershire, and through the marriage of his daughrer Emmeline, allied to one of the greatest of Norman families, the Beauchamps, from whom past and present royal families are descended in one way or the other. Such were the rich rewards of conquest for the conquerors.

Urse bursts into history fully-fledged, as it were, as a perfect example of Norman rapacity, arrogance and violence. His name means Bear, and it is hard to avoid the image of him rampaging heavily through the older culture, looking neither to right nor left as he swipes this hive of honey, and that one, and that one, squashing all the bees in the process. Being no respecter of Anglo-Saxon persons, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he managed to grab one-sixth of the county of Worcestershire for his personal holdings: not only from banished and dispossessed English thanes, or lords, but also from the Church. Illiterate himself, he showed his contempt for the highly literate and cultured monks at Worcester(it was here that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was in part written) by building his castle in such a way that his latrines and drains overflowed onto the monastery cemetery. For this, Urse achieved the distinction of being cursed by the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who was also the protector of the Worcester monks. Alas, poor Ealdred: the curse has ever been the last refuge of the powerless and vanquished! Ealdred’s words, as recorded by William of Malmesbury, can’t have made the Bear tremble too much:’Thou are called Urse. Have thou God’s curse!’

Sure it is, anyway, that Urse lived on for a good many more years of despoiling(he was Sheriff for 40 years!), whilst Ealdred died only a year after the Conquest. But later, maybe those words came back to haunt Urse, for his only son Roger, the inheritor of all his lands, was banished and disinherited by King Henry I, William’s son, for killing a servant of the King(and thus ensuring that Urse’s heir would now be his daughter Emmeline). The violence displayed by Urse and Roger seems to have lived on in the family: a d’Abitot was one of the four knights who rushed off to Canterbury to answer King Henry II’s exasperated question, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’

Like thugs loyal to their gang leader, men like Urse took their vassalage seriously. An eager servant of William, the Sheriff of Worcester helped put down the 1067 rising of the Welsh and the English, as well as the later revolt of the Norman Earl of Hereford. And it was in that 1067 rebellion that we come to the other face of the Robin Hood legend, that of the outlaw lord. For one of the leaders of that rebellion in the West was Prince Eadric of the Magonsaeton tribe of that part of what had once been West Mercia: a famous figure who is known as Edric Silvaticus, or Edric of the Woods; and as Edric the Wild.

Even today, there are stories about Edric in the West Midlands, particularly in Shrosphire, where he had most of his lands; but he also held some in adjoining Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Edric is rumoured to have married a fairy wife, and to sleep under the ancient lead mines of the Stiperstones, waiting for the call that England is in danger again. What is known of Edric’s real history is just as extraordinary. A wild-tempered, darkhaired man who may well have been half-Welsh and half-English, he was the nephew of the infamous Edric Streona, who earlier on in that turbulent century had been instrumental in bringing England to the brink of ruin. Streona was a consummate politician who attempted to play off Saxons and Danes against each other, for his own gain. All these efforts came to naught in the end. For hated and reviled as a traitor by his own people, he was executed by orders of the ferocious English-born Viking ruler, King Canute. Edric the Wild’s own father, Aelfric, was not associated with this, however; and the family were undisturbed in their western lands.

All English thanes who had fought against William at Hastings were dispossessed of all their lands. In this way the new King sought to make an example to all who might try to rebel. Those who had fought against him to protect their lands were, in a neat bit of doublespeak, called traitors, and thus unworthy of holding land at all. In this way he hoped to break the backbone of resistance in England. Many of the dispossessed lords, witnessing the total collapse of their country, did in fact give up, and fled England: some of them ending up as far as Byzantium. Others made whatever accomodations they could with the invaders. Still others took to the woods and harassed the Normans. In the North of the country, this resistance was so strong that William determined to put a stop to it; the subsequent Harrowing of the North was a wound that bled for generations. But in the end, no matter what measures the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy took to protect and fight for their lands, all failed. By 1086, the time of the Domesday Book, there was only a tiny handful of landholders with Anglo-Saxon names left in the whole of England.

Edric the Wild, meanwhile, had not been at Hastings, for whatever reason. He was not dispossessed of his lands immediately. But he did not lie quietly under the Norman yoke and refused to submit to William. Almost immediately, in fact, he gathered support from two erstwhile enemies of his, the Welsh princelings Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, and descended on Herefordshire, harrying the Norman marcher lords in every direction. The historical record is silent on whether Urse the Sheriff met Edric of the Woods in armed combat; but one can certainly assume that their forces would have affronted each other. Edric and his allies were not successful in destroying Norman rule in the Borders; but they harried and harassed the thinly-stretched garrisons in the heavily wooded region to such an extent that William offered him peace.

In 1070 Edric was reconciled to William, but this was not a popular outcome amongst his people, and no doubt the name of the traitor Streona was much bandied about. Whether the old fox William and the lame wolf Edric really trusted each other is open to question: but as William had the reputation of keeping to his promises, and as his ‘protection’ was perhaps preferable to his agent, Urse’s naked rapacity, Edric agreed to keep quiet for the time being. In some ways, this part of the story is like the episode in Robin Hood when the outlaw is lured to the court and made soft with promises and protection by the King, who sees in this a better, more subtle way of keeping Robin under control than the Sheriff’s blunt, brutal approach, which has been a failure. Certainly ordinary people saw it that way, judging by the Shropshire legend of Edric—he is not allowed to die, but must be forever watchful against enemies, because he must expiate his crime of parleying with the invader instead of fighting him.

What happened after this is not entirely clear. But what is certain is that by the time of the Domesday Book, Edric was not a landowner any more. In fact Urse had some of the English thane’s former holdings. What happened to Edric? He must have been outlawed. Did he take part in the earl of Hereford’s rebellion in 1075, and was he punished for that by being deprived of his lands? It seems extraordinary that he might have joined up with a Norman, however rebellious; but those were extraordinary times, when ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ was the only constant. He had engaged in woodland guerilla warfare before; there is no doubt that his cognomen Silvaticus was given for good reasons. Whatever, though, he lost out, like all the other thanes: the outlaw lord brought low not by the wicked sheriff, but by the inexorability of authority, and the crushing of time itself.

And so, Urse prospered, whilst Edric vanished; yet it is not as simple, and saddening, as that. For though it seems as if in this story the wicked Sheriff won, in fact the outlaw lord did not lose. For Edric’s family did not disappear: and the Savages, as they were then called, intermarried in later times with some of the great aristocratic families of England—including the Beauchamps. And their descendants included the Kings of England.

But there was more: for Urse himself, and his deeds, and his glory, were forgotten, doomed to remain as footnotes in history; whilst Edric was immortalised in legend as the consort of an elf princess, leader of a ‘wild hunt’, and became a kind of spirit of the land.  A wryly melancholic, truly English, ending worthy of Shakespeare himself.

The Wild Hunt by Johann William Cordes

 

Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!

*********************

Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.