When Kate De Goldi opened Jack Lasenby’s session by referring to him as a “taonga” or cultural treasure, she certainly tapped into the mood of the audience at Hannah Playhouse. Lasenby has written dozens of books for children and young adults. His stories are often about small town New Zealand life, hardship, and self-determination; Lasenby himself was born in Waharoa, and during his varied career has worked as a deer-culler in the Ureweras, a teacher, as editor of the School Journal, and as a lecturer at Wellington Teachers’ College. In 1987 he began to write full-time. His books include The Lake (1987), The Conjurer (1992), and more recently, Uncle Trev and the Whistling Bull (2012). In 2003 he received the Margaret Mahy Medal for contribution to children’s literature.
While Lasenby started out writing short stories and poems for adults, once he had a family of his own he began to write for children. It was a way to encourage his children to read, and the “sustenance” provided by literature is a topic Lasenby feels passionate about. Lasenby stated that he considers there to be no difference between writing for adults and writing for children, and the respect he has for the capacity of children is one of the reasons his work is so widely loved.
De Goldi – who seemed delighted to be speaking to her friend and hero – outlined the three types of stories that she saw Lasenby as writing: realist stories about children in the world; fantasy stories about dystopian societies; and tall or comical stories, which were, De Goldi asserted, how Lasenby had carved his unique place in children’s literature. Lasenby did not disagree, and when he stood to read an Uncle Trev story, centre stage, straight-backed, the audience was entranced. It became clear that behind the persona of an amiable and slightly cantankerous writer (at one point be stated he’d “throttle any parent who put their child in front of a television”), was a master story-teller.
Through the remainder of the session Lasenby often digressed into stories from his childhood, including the prevalence of amputees in post-war New Zealand, and his experience of working as a deer-culler in the bush. De Goldi asked if he had planned for his books to preserve details of New Zealand life, in particular the 1930s, but he stated that was never his intent. His characters have been drawn from real people, though, Lasenby stating: ‘How do we write if we deny the people we know?’
While Lasenby’s personal stories were funny and touching, there was a sense we were covering well-trodden ground. One of the joys of seeing a writer speak is the anticipation of discovering something new about them and their work (one intriguing fact that did come up was that Lasenby does not have time to keep up-to-date with contemporary literature, and instead rereads favourite books from his extensive personal library, such as Tolstoy, Kipling, and Chekhov). In this sense, the session was more of a homage, and – being on the day before Lasenby’s 83rd birthday – one that is unarguably well deserved.
by Sarah Jane Barnett, on behalf of Booksellers NZ