Author interview with Edward Carey, Master of gothic Victorian power games at #AWF16

edward creyEdward Carey is my new favourite writer. Once I knew I was going to the schools days for the Auckland Writers Festival, I went to the library and got a dozen books out, among them the first in Edward’s YA trilogy, the Iremonger trilogy, called Heap House. Upon picking it up, I was immediately lost in the gothic world of Victorian England, deep within the gloom, dirt and muck of the world of the Iremongers. The chores had to wait. And I decided I must meet the brilliant man behind this book.

While Edward Carey is British, he lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, writer Elizabeth McCracken and their two children. All of them are over for the 2016 Auckland Writer’s Festival, with Carey and McCracken taking turns doing events and juggling kids.

The Iremonger trilogy is set in dark days of the Victorian era: Prince Albert has died, and Queen Victoria has been angry for years, taking it out on the poor. The main characters Clod, and Lucy Pennant come together initially in Heap House – the home of the Iremongers, rulers of the world of rubbish, the heap-farmers elite.

heaphouseEach of the books in the series is illustrated throughout, with illustrations of Heap House (above, source Edward Carey’s website), then Foulsham, then Lungdon in the front of each title; and portraits of characters throughout. As the series carries on, we get a broader view of what is happening and why, and gain freedom to go into the world at large. “I wrote the books inside out to begin with, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and that was fine, but I couldn’t see the shape of it, and I wanted to do something as ambitious as I possibly could. I felt like it would be cowardly of me to set something in Victorian London without actually setting foot in it. And so it was something I wanted to build up to. I was very conscious of getting into landscapes that grew and grew, and for the people to get smaller and smaller as their land gets larger and larger.”

heaphousecoverHis illustrations, done in the style of daguerreotypes, are grim, quirky, and altogether brilliant. I wondered who inspired his art most of all. “There are some artists I go back to – mainly writer-artists, people who do both writing and illustrating: Alisdair Gray, the Scottish artist; Tove Jansson; William Blake; Bruno Schultz. I can’t imagine separating the two as a process.”

During the schools session, he noted that his own creative process always began with a drawing. He was speaking to 10-14 year olds, and I wondered how he enjoyed speaking to kids. “It was strange to shift from writing for adults, to writing for young adults. With the writing, I sometimes find the compartmentalisations rather frustrating. But I enjoy talking at schools because the kids, they often want to be writers themselves, and they get really keyed up about it, and its great hearing about their thoughts. They seem more engaged than I think I was at their age.”

I explained a little to Carey about the controversy we had here in NZ which saw Ted Dawe’s Into the River banned, and wondered whether he had crossed any invisible line (according to his publishers) of what is acceptable in YA. There is rather a high body count throughout the series, but they are for the most part, not gory deaths – merely disappearances of a sort. He says, “Some people have told me that this is really really really dark, and I think that’s fine. You must never patronise in any way, and the books can be dangerous, as long as the story feels real. The idea of banning is – kids work it out for themselves, don’t they.”


As Heap House opens, the first thing we learn is that Clod, our hero as it turns out, can hear objects talking. They say their names, over and over again. In the house in which he lives, each person is given a ‘birth object’ to keep with them always, and these objects make noise – have names, in fact. Normal names, ones like you and I have – while Clod and his kin have names just a little off-centre: Pinalippy, Otta, Ormily. The objects range in size from a marble hearth (Grandmother’s object), to a pencil shaving. Clod’s particular object is a plug. He is an aristocrat of dirt, part of the large and inimitable Iremonger family.

“This idea, of things with lives, started while I was in China with other authors – one of the places we went to was a museum that hadn’t been finished yet. And they had put all these baths in one room, and they seemed to be talking to each other, these baths. And they seemed to really have so much life, and really kind of want to wander around and climb into each other. The open plugholes in many of them were like mouths, and many had feet. There were different rooms where the same type of objects were all amassed, and it threw out what a museum usually is, and felt like the objects had basically curated themselves.”

lungdon coverThe Iremongers with birth objects feel empty when they don’t have them close – they are constantly fidgeting with them, holding them, sometimes talking to them; even their nicknames are based on their birth objects. The Iremongers are promised to each other at birth, and showing each other their particular objects is almost like seeing each other naked. I wondered whether Carey reflexively assigns people he knows objects. “No, that would be cruel. The grandmother does this in the novel – you never get to choose yourself. It was fun sometimes giving an object that sums up the character, but in other times giving ones that are contrary to the character.”

Once Clod understands his attachment to the objects for what it is, he rejects it. I wondered whether this was a moral stance for Edward. “It’s in there, how we deal with objects, our obsession with objects and what it’s doing to the world we live in, the amount of stuff we throw away all the time. But that’s only part of it, some of it is to do with the beauty of objects. Like, consider the bath plug. Quite seriously, it’s a beautiful object. But we don’t look at it aesthetically. But I didn’t want to give any massive moral message, I don’t think that’s a writer’s job, and I think when a writer does it, it’s dreadfully dreary and it should never be allowed.

“But I do think those themes of you know, the world falling apart, being strangled by the amount of possessions around, and of the possessions fighting back, I did hope that readers would look at the objects around them while they are reading, and wonder if they had some sort of conscious feeling.”

Edward once tried to write a historical novel, and says it was a disaster. “I adore and admire Hilary Mantel, but I can’t research – it kills me, I want to imagine everything.” In Victorian London there were dirt heaps everywhere, and people did farm them, but nothing of the scale of the Foulsham heaps. “The Heap was just an idea of how much dirt Victorian London at its highest peak was creating. And also, how the poor were being crushed all the time. And they were just cogs – not even cogs, just rivets in this massive machine that just smashed them.”

lucy_pennantThe heroine of the novels, Lucy Pennant (right, from Edward Carey’s website), is raised in Foulsham, then brought as a servant to the Iremonger’s mansion, Heap House, because they believe she is their kin – mistakenly, as it turns out. When she arrives, the other servants want to know her story, because they don’t remember their own. I wondered why it was important that the servants be called by one name – Iremonger – and know nothing about their own stories. “Our stories are what we are, if we don’t have these stories, we’re nothing. There’s something terrifying in humans being around in every age not being able to keep their own stories. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. If your own past is – we are all the stories of our lives. If we can’t access these, then who are we, and what are we?”

Lucy Pennant and Clod Iremonger have a seemingly unlikely relationship. “For Clod, Lucy is the most exciting thing he’s ever seen. She’s not family, she answer back and doesn’t play by the rules, and she is utterly herself. She is the moral force of the whole book. And Lucy surprises herself with her depth of feeling for Clod. It’s a tremendously complicated relationship, they really spark off each other – every time she sees him, she punches him.”

If you have read this interview and are still wondering whether the Iremonger trilogy is for you – it’s a little bit like Anna Smaill’s The Chimes in its treatment of objects and memory, it feels a little like Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series with its magic and grime. It has gallows humour and so many perfect lines that it aches. Pick it up and be engrossed.

We had a quick chat as I wrapped the interview up, about bookstores, and Carey’s favourite independent bookstores around the world. As it happens, we have a bookseller, Steve Bercu, from BookPeople in Austin coming as a guest speaker to the conference next month.

“There’s a fantastic bookshop in Austin called BookPeople, but my favourite bookshop in America is Prairie Lights in Iowa City. I have old dear friends there who run it – Paul Ingram gives incredible recommendations of books – you go in there and he’s just talk talk talk, non-stop. My favourite bookshop in England would be Mr B’s [Emporium of Reading Delights], a bookshop in Bath. I know all the people there now, and I did their catalogue cover a couple of Christmases ago. Mr B’s has now started publishing their own books. They print a few hundred, and if it works, they print more. Independent bookstores, if they go, it’s just awful. A city without them – it’s as if the city doesn’t have a pair of lungs.”

“My favourite thing about bookshops is going there and spending a couple of hours, and getting lost, and learning from just going through books. Events all depend on the reader – I once saw Seamus Heaney read, and it was one of the best readings I’ve ever been to. Those are thrilling, you walk away with joy in your step.”

Edward Carey is in conversation with the wonderful Eleanor Catton at 5.30pm Friday 13 May, at the Lower NZI Room in the Aotea Centre. Please do go along and learn more about this talented author/illustrator. And do buy his books at the book stall at the Festival – they can be difficult to find elsewhere, though I am sure, not for  much longer.

Interview by Sarah Forster

Heap House (Iremonger #1), Hot Key Press, ISBN 9781471401572
Foulsham (Iremonger #2), Hot Key Books, ISBN 9781471401619
Lungdon (Iremonger #3), Hot Key Books, ISBN 9781471401671

Review & Interview: Under Italian Skies, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_italian_skiesUnder Italian Skies is the latest book by Nicky Pellegrino. Nicky was kind enough to answer questions about her book and I’ve incorporated them into this review.

Stella, a sensible soul, is faced with needing to reevaluate her life after her friend (and boss) dies. She is unsure what she wants to do in terms of employment, just knows that she needs new direction. She is inspired by the concept of a gap year, and comes across the idea of an international house swap. Unlike women portrayed in similar novels, she does not fall apart and she isn’t running away. She just creates a scenario where she can get inspiration. I asked Nicky(below right) if she had a real life inspiration for Stella:

pp_nicky_pellegrino“I tend to avoid change in my own life. But often it’s forced on us and we have to deal with it; which is Stella’s situation. I think she does panic to begin with because she’s a person who is used to having a plan and making things happen. Then when she comes up with the house-swap idea she throws herself into it with all the efficiency she brought to her working life. The character wasn’t inspired by any one real person but I guess I always take bits and pieces of things that people say and do, and end up stitching them into my stories.”

My favourite aspect of the story was the character of Stella. Stella seeks direction and in watching her do so, we learn a lot about her life, career, friendships and relationships. She is not defined by any of these domains and is a very well-rounded character. Nicky says, “I think about my characters all the time; like I would a good friend who was at a crossroads in their life. I might be driving along or walking the dogs or lying in bed or blow-drying my hair; but my brain is busy turning them and their situation over in my mind. So in the end they are real to me and hopefully to the reader.

I think in my books the story is generally driven by the characters, so it’s important they are rounded and balanced.”

A lot of books that are involve the protagonist visiting a foreign location see the setting through the character’s eyes only. The setting is there just to be different, and is really there just for the character to comment on its difference. I was really impressed with how strong the fictional ‘Triente’ came across in Under Italian Skies. This is helped by Triente having such a passionate advocate – the owner of the house Stella swaps with is keen for her to experience the region through visiting interesting destinations and meeting people. He enjoys her emails discussing her adventures and really wants her to love the house and Triente as he does. The beauty of the region is well explained, without being corny.

Maratea_real_trienteNicky Pellegrino spent her childhood summers in Italy and I asked if there was a particular influence for Triente. Nicky says,”It’s actually a real place, called Maratea (image to left), which is beside the coast of Basilicata in the south west of Italy. My father’s cousin has a house there which we’ve stayed in several times: that is what Villa Rosa is based on. It’s a beautiful area – kind of like Amalfi but without the crowds – but I changed its name because I wanted to be free to do a bit of creative “town planning”. There is a linen shop there though, that is very like the one in my books. And many churches and a harbour area with lots of seafood restaurants. It’s become a special place to me over the years.”

This is great sit-by-a-sunny-window read – an inspiration for creating change or resetting your life without requiring extreme chaos to do so. There are so many fantastic supporting characters – people who are helped by Stella as she is helped by them. I could think of real life acquaintances who remind me of these characters, so had quite a giggle. Under Italian Skies can be quite funny at times but its success as a novel ultimately rests in the strength of its characters and their interactions. I really enjoyed reading it.

Review and Interview by Emma Wong-Ming

Under Italian Skies
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409150862

Adapting picture books: choosing stories to reflect the child’s world

pp_peter_wilsonGuji Guji, by Chih-Yuan Chen and Death Duck and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch are both published by Gecko Press, and available for purchase at bookshops nationwide.

Peter Wilson, Director of the Little Dog Barking Theatre company is in Wellington at the moment for a school holiday run of two puppet plays based on Gecko Press picture books: Guji Guji, from the book by Taiwanese author Chih-Yuan Chen; and Death Duck and the Tulip, from the book by German author/ illustrator Wolf Erlbruch. I popped over to BATS to have a talk with him about adapting children’s books for theatre, the secret to making good theatre for children, and why it is that puppetry endures.

Wilson began his New Zealand career as the founding Director of Capital E National Theatre for Children in 1996. He left there in 2010, to found Little Dog Barking Theatre. Since at Little Dog Barking, as well as before, Wilson has adapted many children’s books into puppet plays. His adaptation of Death, Duck and the Tulip has toured internationally since 2014, and it is exciting to see it back in Wellington from Tuesday 19th until the Saturday 23rd April at Bats Theatre.

1. How did you come to choose two books published in English by Gecko Press to adapt into children’s plays?
cv_death_duck_and_the_tulipA copy of Death, Duck and the Tulip was actually given to me by my wife – I read it, and had two thoughts. First, that it would adapt well into the kind of work I do. Second, I thought if I had had a book like that when I lost a brother (I was 5, he was 6), it might have explained a lot of things – so that was the other reason for doing it.

Children that age don’t tend to get talked to about death very much – although of course, the book itself is about life, rather than death. So that is why I did the first adaptation. Then Julia Marshall (publisher at Gecko Press) suggested other books of hers to adapt, and one of these was Guji Guji and I instantly thought it would lend itself to shadow puppetry.

I’m always looking at children’s books. I’ve done other books from other children’s publishers. I’ve done Kiwi Moon, by Gavin Bishop and Tessa Duder’s (YA novel) Jellybean, among others.

cv_guji_guji2. Is it the fairytale aspect of the books that make them good to adapt?
Yes, and no. I’m always looking for something that’s a little big stronger – not something run-of-the-mill. A lot of children’s theatre presents happy all the time.

Guji Guji is about bullying, about family love, about friendship, its about identity and who we are. Which I think are important things for society in this day and age – children are faced with all sorts of different challenges, and its important to show them the world we live in. I try to choose stories to reflect the world of the child.

3. What level of interaction have you had with the authors of the two books while adapting their books for performance?
I had a little bit of correspondence with the Guji Guji author, and I did try to communicate with Wolf Erlbruch, but I missed him.

Guji Guji is on an international tour in the middle of the year. We are taking it to the Okinawa International Theater Festival for Young Audience in August,  then on to Kyushu to play in five centres, then to WA’s Awesome Festival, then to Shanghai for their Theatre festival. The Auckland Arts Festival is coming to have a look at it this week, and also Nelson Arts Festival.

4. Have you got a solid team of puppeteers you work and tour with regularly?
They change, but I try to keep a close team together. Kenny King has been with me since we started. We worked at Capital E before that. He has an interest in puppetry. I have two new people this year – we travel overseas as a team, and I try to keep everybody together.

5. How do you choose actors that are excellent at performing to children?
There are two things I look for: They either need to have experience working with children, or have children of their own. The second thing is that because the work is a mix of puppet, and mask, and visual theatre, I try to look for people adept that those arts. A lot of actors think of performing for children as a good starting place, rather than a career – they want to go into film or television.

6. What makes an adaptation work?
I don’t know what the magic is. There are other adaptations of Death Duck and the Tulip, for example. I adapted it before seeing them. There is a company in WA who created a big-budget musical from the book – and it just didn’t work. They missed the whole point of the story.

I always try to keep my adaptations as simple as possible. My actors would disagree – there are so many props in them. But as long as the audience can’t see the work, we’ve done our job.

7. How do audiences from different cultural backgrounds react to Death Duck and the Tulip?
We haven’t had any negative reactions around the world, but I have in New Zealand. We had done performances in Christchurch and Nelson, then in Auckland, three performances in schools were cancelled, because the play was about death. The principals came to see it, and were happy, but the parent body controlled the decision.

We’ve had parents come and thank us for presenting such a difficult work to their children. And we’ve made children cry, of course – we’ve made adults cry. That’s part of the game. I mean, I can read a book and cry. And I think it’s rather good – I don’t advocate that children should be sad, but they should be able to experience and understand that emotion.

8. Finally, a very broad question – why do you think that puppetry as a way of storytelling, particularly for the very young, has endured?
I’ve always used puppets. I find puppets are amazing things, because they’re basically a piece of material, or something carved out of wood, and you breathe life into them. And children, and adults too, suspend their disbelief. Because they know its not real.

I always remember my father saying, when I first went into puppetry – I had a show with a bandicoot in it, and the bandicoot went to sleep, and he breathed while he was sleeping.
At the end of it, my father – he never came to my work at all, but he came to this show – said ‘the bloody bandicoot breathed.’ He couldn’t believe it. My father really wasn’t an arty bloke, and I think that’s the beauty of puppetry,this ability to suspend disbelief. And we can create impossible worlds, because the puppet as an art form can do impossible things – if we want it to fall to pieces, we create a puppet that falls to pieces.

Thank you to Peter for taking time to chat with me – please do go and enjoy these wonderful works if you are lucky enough to be in Wellington. I took my two children, aged 3 and 5 to Guji Guji today, and they were spellbound.

Little Dog Barking are a touring theatre company, available for school and festival performances. Have a look at their other shows on their website.

Based on the book by Chih Yuan Chen. Guji Guji is a simple and beautiful story about being different, bullying and family love.
Bats Theatre Date: 19th – 23rd April 2016
Little Theatre, Lower Hutt: 28th April 2016
Kapiti Playhouse, Paraparaumu: 29th April 2016
Times: 10:00am and 11:30am
Venue: BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington (map)
Age: 2 – 10 years old
Ticketing: Via BATS Theatre – ph 04 802 4175 or visit

Using puppets, mime and magic, Little Dog Barking Theatre Company tells the story if a heart-warming and whimsical friendship between a playful duck and a character called Death.
Date: 19th – 23rd April 2016
Times: 6:00pm
Venue: BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington (map)
Age: 2 – 102 years old

There’s real magic under The Great Wardini’s hat

pp_Gareth_ward_steampunkOver his relatively short career as a bookseller, Gareth Ward has proven he can rap (okay, wrap), he can do magic, and he can come up with genius ideas (along with his wife Louise) to win his bookshop $5000 from James Patterson. But unless you know him personally, you may not be aware that he is also a writer. This is by no means uncommon in the world of bookselling – but not only is Gareth a writer, he can now say he is an award-winning writer: proving there is magic under that hat after all.

His manuscript The Sin Chronicles: New Blood has just won the Storylines Tessa Duder Prize for an unpublished manuscript. The book is intended as the first in a steampunk-inspired series of books, the first of which ought to be published some time in 2017 by award sponsor Walker Books. We asked him a few questions about this remarkable achievement, and how bookselling informed his writing.

1. Were you a writer before you were a bookseller? When did you begin writing with eventual publication in mind?
I began writing about twenty-five years ago. There were various interludes when life got in the way. Children, career changes, emigrating to New Zealand but I have always had a passion for stories. Early last year I decided to embark on a novel writing course and The Sin Chronicles is the result.

2. Can you give us a synopsis of the book?
I’m not really sure how much I’m supposed to say at this stage but I can say it’s a rip-roaring Steampunk adventure. I wrote it intending it to be the first in a series. I guess much will depend on how well it does in the shops. So if when it’s published next year my fellow booksellers could do the utmost to sell it I would be delighted.

3. How did your role as a bookseller inform your drafting of The Sin Chronicles: New Blood?
I think as a bookseller I have a feel for the market but perhaps more importantly I have a passion for books and a love of story. I think selling books for a living has helped me understand that at the end of the day I am producing a product that needs to be saleable. When I was considering what to write I thought about what books I enjoyed, what series I wished I’d written and what sells really well in the shop. This guided me into thinking ‘I wish I’d written the CHERUB Series by Robert Muchamore.’ So I guess the seed of an idea was ‘could I write a Steampunk CHERUB?’ After many drafts I think I ended up with something quite different and a bit special.

4. When did your fascination with steampunk begin? Can you point to any novelists that influenced your work?
When I’m in my magician persona of The Great Wardini I always imagine myself as a performer from Victorian times and so it only took a small mental nudge to kick me over the border to Steampunk. I loved the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve and also Leviathan by Scott Westerfield but once I decided on steampunk, I deliberately steered clear of the genre because I didn’t want to taint my imagination. Novelists that influenced me are undoubtedly J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud because the Lockwood books are my favourite stories ever.

5. What next – have you signed a contract with Walker Books?!
I haven’t signed a contract yet but I’ve met my editor from Walker who was delightful. The manuscript will now go through several more revisions and once we’re all happy it should hit the shelves some time next year.

We look forward to seeing The Sin Chronicles on our bookshelves soon.

Interview by Sarah Forster

Patrick Gale: The Disappeared, with Jane Stafford

p_patrick_galePatrick Gale was born and raised in a prison. His novels, said Jane Stafford, have “an extreme recognition of character.”Armistead Maupin says, “I wait for them the way some people wait for springtime.”

I reviewed A Place Called Winter last year, it is a wonderful evocation of place, and Harry Cane is a fascinating character. I had no idea, until this session, that it was a fiction based on fact. His upper middle-class great-granddad did in fact abandon his great-grandma and their children for a promise of free land in the Canadian frontiers. He only discovered a few facts about this thanks to his mother’s letters, found while packing her up to an old people’s home.

He has created the character of Harry Cane, including as much detail as he knew, in honour of his Grandma, whom he was close with. He had to create the reason that his great-granddad abandoned his happy-seeming life, wife and kids near London – so he came up with a gay love affair, which at the time would have been punishable by 7 years hard labour had it been discovered. He filled in the dot-dot-dots from there.

His great-grandfather’s purpose for escaping to the prairie turned out not to be a made-up occurrence – in discussion with a historian he realised that this was in fact more common that he realised. I have encountered this factor in living in far-away places during a summer in Franz Josef. The reason the town was a diplomatic nightmare is because everybody who didn’t fit anywhere else ran away to there. Thieves, computer criminals… that town had the lot!

cv_a_place_called_winterStafford asked Gale whether it was an advantage for him to use biographical material. He said “I had a breakthrough moment when I was 40 – I realised I had lived enough to mine my own life and family for information.” The most difficult thing for him when writing A Place Called Winter was to write like an Edwardian man “where the very idea of an upper-class education was to ensure you didn’t know much of any practical use.”

While writing A Place Called Winter, which is his first truly historical fiction book, Gale realised rather belatedly that he was going to have to include World War I, because his great-grandfather would have lived through this in Canada. Through the character of Petra, a close female friend of Harry’s in the book, he shows the way that WWI cracked open the shell for women in so many ways that it could never be closed again.

Recently Gale has discovered that he enjoys writing dreadful characters. The character of Modest in A Perfectly Good Man was meant to have only two chapters, but instead took over the book. In A Place Called Winter, the character of Troels is a sociopath, and a rapist – he is completely beyond help. He used Troels’ character to show the danger of the prairies – to create something out of nothing, it takes a certain bloody-mindedness – so you get left with a town full of psychopaths. What then?!

The Act of Writing
The way in which Gale approaches multi-viewpoint novels is interesting. He writes, in fact, one character at a time. He explains this in saying it is easier for your characters to maintain ignorance of others’ motives in this way.

Gale finds writing a novel gets harder with each book. He finds it hard to convince himself that it is worth pursuing. He hasn’t had writer’s block, but he has had an overactive inner critic – he has named it after Jennifer Woodcock, a nasty wee girl he went to school with.

He is now doing a lot of work for the screen and says, “The great thing about writing for the screen is economy. You don’t have as long as you want. Most writers thrive on control, a certain amount of restriction sets free your imagination.” He is currently serialising Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which was initially a literary serial – this is proving challenging, as she had many characters that disappeared without explanation.

Gale has never had a grown-up job, so the main research he does is into what people do for a job. He likes to talk to somebody that does that job – one instance being that of a venereologist (a Clap doctor). He took advice early on to write his first draft prior to researching the topic too deeply – something he lives by.

He believes that there is a need for gay sections in bookshops, simply because there will always be teenagers who need this. What is gay fiction is another question – Gale says there is now a prize in the UK for gay novelists or gay characters in novels.

This was a fascinating session, and I will certainly be reading more of Gale’s backlist. He was an engaging and natural speaker, and the chair Jane Stafford did a fantastic job. It would be well worth your while catching him tomorrow in the session ‘Novel Ways of Thinking’, with Muriel Barbery, Joe Bennett and Paula Morris.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Patrick Gale: The Disappeared
11am, Friday 11 March, The Embassy

Next session: Novel Ways of Thinking, Bats, Sat 12 May at 11am

A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472205308

Donovan Bixley talks Much Ado about Shakespeare

This week I asked Donovan Bixley a few questions about Much Ado about Shakespeare, his literary picture book, which launches on Thursday 10 March at the Auckland Pop-up Globe.

1. The world is celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare this year: was that what inspired you to create your Shakespeare book, or was it just happenstance that it fell this way?

cv_much_ado_about_shakespeareFunnily enough, I began working on Much Ado About Shakespeare almost immediately after my 2005 book, Faithfully Mozart. I had this grand idea that I was going to do illustrated biographies of my 3 favourite artists in the 3 main arts: Leonardo da Vinci in the visual arts, Mozart for music, and Shakespeare for literature. As it turned out, it was much harder to find just the right publisher who got the idea of a picture book for adults. I’m so pleased that Much Ado About Shakespeare has found a home with Upstart Press, and the 10 year delay worked out perfectly to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Interestingly, as you can imagine, the publishers and I have always had a problem with the term ‘adult’ illustrated book, or picture book for adults. For this book Upstart have invented a whole new genre – ‘the literary picture book’.

2. I know you have just returned from Taipei after launching Much Ado about Shakespeare – what was the reaction from the Asian market?

I had no expectations about the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TiBE). Shakespeare is such an English language phenomenon, that I really wondered what Asians would make of a book about his life. My Taiwanese publisher were fully behind the book, which really put me at ease. I had the great pleasure of talking on the main stage at TiBE, where I had a wonderful response from the audience who loved the fact that I had brought this historic figure to life in such an interesting and visual way. The Taiwanese have their own cultural heroes which children are forced to study at school, so they really connected with this universal issue of making these figures relevant and appealing to a modern audience. I was even asked if I could do the same for some of the Taiwanese literary icons. I was signing books for 2 and a half hours and was delivered gifts from fans – so I’m pretty sure they liked it. If the response at TiBE is anything to go by (and considering that Shakespeare is a huge part of our everyday langauage), then I think English readers are really going to love the wordplay and visual puns within the pages.

3. Have you got special materials that will go out to bookshops to help them promote Much Ado about Shakespeare, or any other publicity exercises planned within NZ for it?


Well if you mean, am I going to grow a cavalier beard and sing ‘hey nonny nonny’ in tight hose? – then no. However, Upstart have arranged a full array of publicity including TV and radio as well as a grand book launch at The Pop-Up Globe on the 10th of March. I hope to share my love of Shakespeare at some of the literary events I am attending during the year, including: The Auckland Writers Festival, The Marlborough Writers Festival, The Tauranga Arts Festival as well as various tours about the country.

4. Do you love Shakespeare and have a personal favourite play?

I don’t claim to be an expert on Shakespeare – you could spend a lifetime at university studying just one of his plays! – but I have spent time in the theatre as a poster designer, set painter and designer, as well as on stage. I think most people who’ve been involved in the theatre can’t help but love Shakespeare. My real interest though is the love of the man behind the legend. I’m interested in how great figures like Mozart and Shakespeare are so different from us, but I’m actually more interested in how they are the same as us. They laughed and cried and had money worries and personal tragedy. As an ex-teenage goth I do have a dark streak – one of my favourite lines is from Hamlet “now is the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world”. But as a children’s book creator, I think my humorous nature wins out, and my favourite play would have to be Much Ado About Nothing. I have to say that I’m thrilled that over he last 10 years, no one nabbed my great book title Much Ado About Shakespeare.

Link through for a review by Sarah Forster.

Author Helen Lowe talks about the Wall of Night series, and Daughter of Blood

One of our most successful fantasy writers, Helen Lowe, has recently released the third in her Wall of Night series, Daughter of Blood. We have a copy to give away, and our reviewer Tierney Reardon has provided us with these questions for her. Fantasy fans, enjoy.


1. What originally inspired you to write the Wall of Night series & who do you consider your biggest influences?
The Wall of Night series emerged from a convergence of moments. The idea of a twilit-to-dark, barren, and wind-blasted world had been with me for many years, before a chance heard remark, describing someone whose life had been lived like “a race along the edge of a precipice”, called up my first image of Malian of Night, scaling a precipice-like wall in a ruined keep. Malian is the main character in the series, and besides that initial image, the overheard remark also sparked a great deal of reflection (on my part) as to what a person whose life resembled a race along a cliff’s edge, might be like.

cv_eyeless_in_gazaI was also a Fantasy and Science Fiction lover, so had been reading extensively in the genre since childhood—and what you enjoy reading tends to influence the sorts of stories you wish to tell yourself, I suspect. In my case I always point to the “seminal” influences of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien (of course!), as well as a swathe of myths, fairytales, and legends, but also to writers from other genres. For example, historical fiction authors, Rosemary Sutcliff and Dorothy Dunnett, dystopian authors such as Aldous Huxley (Eyeless in Gaza, in particular) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), as well as classic writers such as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy – to name just a very few among many.

2. Which of the three Wall of Night books have you found most enjoyable to write?
They have all been enjoyable, just in very different ways that reflect the differences between the books themselves. The Heir of Night had the magic of being the first, with all the wonder and mystery of a story opening out. cv_the_heir_of_nightBut I loved the expanded world of The Gathering of the Lost, and the adventurous nature of the story, with its assassins and rooftop chases, tournaments and armoured knights. Daughter of Blood worked me very hard in terms of getting the story to the page, and although it has its duels and battles, the nuances centre on treachery and political intrigue. But if I had to pick one, I would probably opt for The Heir of Night because of the delight of beginning and then further exploring something new, which in Heir’s case was both the story itself and writing my first novel.

3. You’re best known for your fantasy works but you also write poetry. Are there other genres you’ve written in or considered writing in and, if so, which?
So far, when I’ve had an idea for a novel, it’s always been Fantasy. However, I’ve also had a number of short stories published, in a range of genres that include contemporary realism, recent historical (e.g. World War 2 settings), and legendary history, as well as science fiction.

4. Wall of Night is a complex and carefully constructed series. How do you keep track of
the characters, storylines, the lore and the geography of Haarth?

wallofnight_map_small-300x237Mainly in my head, although I do have a number of tables where I record key facts, particularly about the Derai. I have also have a folder of sketch maps of the world—all very rough and as much scribblings as sketch, but useful when I need to provide locational clarity in the text. I also include a comprehensive glossary with each book, which is a cross between a compendium, a gazetteer and a dramatis personnae. I include it because I love glossaries myself, but also to assist readers since the series is complex—and when circumstances require, I consult it myself.

5. Would you say that in your latest book, Daughter of Blood, Kalan and Malian are faced with their greatest challenges in the series so far?
I had to pcv_daughter_of_bloodause for reflection regarding this question, because of course Malian and Kalan have already faced some steep challenges in The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost. I think, though, that the circumstances in this book are a significant step up for Kalan, in particular. I shall leave it to readers to decide whether he meets the tests set before him, but believe it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that single combats, military assaults, and large armed conflicts are in his cards. With respect to Malian, although she faces significant challenges in Daughter of Blood, it is more her realisation of the immense undertaking that still lies ahead that shadows her path through the story.

6. Without giving too many spoilers, what would you say readers can expect from Daughter of Blood?
In view of where readers left Malian and Kalan at the end of The Gathering of the Lost, I believe it would be reasonable to expect a return to the Wall of Night. I have already mentioned single combats, military assaults and large armed conflicts in Kalan’s cards, but believe readers could also expect Malian to be grappling with the implications of her new alliance with Raven and the House of Fire.

Readers can expect plenty of intrigue arising from the enmities between the Derai Houses, but there is also a four-hundred-year-old mystery to be solved – and of course the last of Malian’s inheritance of three legendary weapons to be found. I can also promise at least one truly glorious cavalry charge that beta readers would not allow me to cut from the book; the return of at least one character from The Heir of Night; and the introduction of two central characters, Faro and Myr (the titular Daughter of Blood) who are new to this book.

7. What are you currently working on in terms of writing projects?
That’s a very easy answer: The Chaos Gate, The Wall of Night Book Four, which will also conclude the series. I’ve also written a novelette in the past year, although it’s still very much a work in progress (and likely to remain so until The Chaos Gate is done.)

pp_helen_loweRecently, too, I’ve had three poems accepted for a new anthology, Leaving the Red Zone … poems from the Canterbury earthquakes, edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston, that is intended for publication on February 22nd, the fifth anniversary of the February 22nd, 2011, Christchurch earthquake. As a Christchurch person who has lived through 2010-2011’s eighteen months of “awful”, and the subsequent five years of “recovery”, I do feel honoured to have my work included in this book.

Thank you to Helen Lowe, and to Tierney Reardon for providing the questions. You can buy Daughter of Blood now at any bookshop. And enter to win a copy by emailing, subject ‘Daughter of Blood’ and tell us who you most enjoy reading from the Fantasy and Science Fiction section of your bookshop. 

Author Peter May reveals the inspiration for Coffin Road

Bestselling crime writer Peter May reveals why he chose the real-life Coffin Road as the inspiration for his latest book

Peter May

Peter May pendant le salon Polars du Sud à Toulouse en 2013.

Coffin Road, the title of my new book, has a certain ring to it. But much as it might sound like a good title for a crime novel, in fact it is the name of a real road in the Outer Hebrides.

The Isle of Lewis is largely flat with peat bog covering most of its interior, but as you make your way down to the Isle of Harris, a rockier landscape begins to emerge. Millennia of geological upheavals on earth formed these islands. They are the result of shifting continents clashing and cracking the earth’s crust. Erupting volcanoes spewed lava and left a trail of molten granite which forced its way through the gneiss in sheets and veins. Ice-age glaciers carved mountains and valleys out of this rock and shaped the Harris that we see today.

It is a landscape so primitive and barren that it passed for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Peter May_the real coffin road

The real coffin road, Isle of Harris

Which brings us to the coffin road itself. When bedrock lies only inches beneath the skin of soil that covers the east coast of the island, digging a grave and burying the dead is impossible. So in centuries gone by, men from villages on the east side of Harris had to carry their dead over the hills to reach deeper, sandy soil on the west of the island where they could lay their loved ones to rest.

And so the coffin road of reality is not so much a “road” as a rough track hewn out of necessity. It traces a four kilometre route that climbs from Loch Airigh on the east side of the island, high up over the hills, past lochans and across rough, rocky countryside, before descending through salt marsh to the stunningly beautiful Luskentyre beach on the west coast, where the deep machair soil could accommodate the bodies of those who had passed.

It was a journey that could not have been easy for those men, carrying the dead weight of countless bodies over rocky ground in all weathers. But the long hard trek that it must have been was a necessity, a practicality, a fact of life – or death – for those folk who carved out their existence on the island. It was also a ritual, and perhaps a time when, at one with the elements, and carrying the weight of a corpse, it gave time to consider one’s own mortality.
Peter May_luskentyre beach
For one man in my book, the coffin road holds many secrets – about life, and death.
When he staggers ashore on Luskentyre beach (above), apparently the survivor of a boating accident, he remembers nothing about who he is, how he got there or what has happened. But he is filled with a deep-rooted sense of dread, and a primeval drive to fill in the blanks and restore meaning to his existence.

A map, with the coffin road traced in marker pen, is the only clue he has. A route he knows he must follow to find the truth. He has no idea where it will lead him, but following in the footsteps of the dead is his only way forward.

Coffin Road (Hachette NZ) is available now. Peter May is visiting New Zealand in February and will be speaking at an event in Dunedin on Thursday 25 February. Tickets at


Beetles and Bates’s Bookstore, by Steve Braunias

Steve Braunias shared this reminiscence of a Mt Maunganui summer spent near Bates’s Bookstore with us, in honour of NZ Bookshop Day. 

beetlesThere was a curious plague of beetles one summer when I was growing up in Mt Maunganui. They appeared in their thousands. They were like black rain. They warmed themselves on pavements, and I crunched over them on the way from my house to the Central Parade shops, where I walked every Monday of my childhood to buy the latest copies of Shoot!, Goal, Tiger, and the Woman’s Weekly at Bates’s Bookstore.

I saw my friend Simon Tulip. I said, “What are they?”
He said, “Beetles.”
I said, “I know that. I mean – what’s going on?”
He said, “I don’t know.”

Their shells were shiny in the bright sun. We picked them up, and inspected their legs writhing in the air. We were standing outside the electric power board building, a long, low kind of bungalow, very stylish with its red brickwork and its venetian blinds which were always drawn. A low electric hum came from deep within.
He said, “Are you going back to school next year?”
I was 16. “Yes,” I said. “Are you?”
“Yeah, course,” he said, “but I just wondered if you were.”
Had I told him about my School Certificate exam results? Or did someone else tell him? How else would he have known? Was that what he was getting at – or did he have the inside track on something else? Was it to do with my home life?800px-Mount_Maunganui

Mt Maunganui was flat as a plain, except for the mountain at the end of the beach. You could see it everywhere. It was the central fact of life in town – that, and the sea, and the wharf. I shielded my eyes from the hot sun and looked towards the mountain. I pretended to take a great deal of interest in it because I wanted to change the subject about whether I was returning to school.

“See you later,” he said.
“Yep,” I said.

tiger_roy_of_the_roversI walked around the corner to the shops, and to Bates’s Bookstore. I always felt safe in there, and excited, too, because of the prospect of reading the latest copies of Shoot!, Goal, and Tiger. Sometimes I read my mother’s Woman’s Weekly. It was okay. Shoot! had columns by Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, Goal had the results, line-ups, and attendance records of every game in England’s four divisions, and Tiger featured the adventures of Roy of the Rovers, the greatest football comic strip of all time.
“Hello, Mr Bates!”, I said.

His name was Alan. I finally plucked up the courage to call him that when I was about 30. He was a lovely man, with black hair combed to the side, and a taste for cardigans. He laughed and joked, and I always thought of him as sophisticated: he sold literature. I liked him more than anyone in Mt Maunganui outside of my family.

I read Tiger on the way home. I crunched over the beetles on the pavement, but I’d forgotten about them. I was in the inky, dramatic world of Roy of the Rovers, courtesy of Mr Bates of Bates’s Bookstore in Central Parade.


Steve Braunias is an award-winning journalist, and the author of many bestselling non-fiction books, including Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World (Awa Press), which won Non-fiction Book of the Year at the 2013 NZ Post Book Awards. His most recent book, The Scene of the Crime (HarperCollins NZ) was released into bookshops on 29 October.

Tim Gruar in conversation with Kate De Goldi about ‘The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle’

Kate De Goldi’s novels and picture books really engage you. A winner of numerous awards, including the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards and the Esther Glen Medal, her books have a specific type of sophistication that respects and challenges her readers. Inspired by her own veracious reading appetite when growing up and a love of the new wave of post war children’s fiction, she builds her novels with cinematic layers that are as much about the set and scenery as they are about the plot.


Kate De Goldi signing after her launch at Unity Books. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

cv_from_the_cutting_room_of_kate_de_goldiAs with her previous award winning novel, The 10pm Question, there’s a degree of line-blurring when it comes to defining her target age for her latest book, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle. So I have to ask, “Is this book for young adults? Or is this a book that can be read and enjoyed by young and old alike, like the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?”  Kate: “Good question. I’d like to say it’s a book that can be read by anyone from 9 – 90, because I think there are some reasonably sophisticated language and ideas at play.”

One of the things that De Goldi says inspired her most recent writing, was the post-war ‘middle range fiction’ that really ‘nourished her insatiable appetite’ as a teenage reader. She says that nowadays the publishing world has been keener to produce age appropriate works, particularly in the young adult space. She wanted to create a book that was less age prescriptive.

In her latest book, From The Cutting Room Of Barney Kettle, we meet filmmaker Barney Kettle, who likes to invent stories, but in this case finds the real oil right under his nose. The book opens with a letter written from a hospital bed by an unnamed man, as he recovers from serious injuries. He introduces his project: a story about Barney Kettle which he writes over many months, as he slowly recovers. He writes to remember the street where he lived, home to a whole raft of strange, weird and interesting people and bizarre, singular shops and curious stories. He writes to remember the last few summer days. Before he was injured; before it all came crashing down; before his world vanished.

“Every filmmaker is a megalomaniac” – the perfect summary of many of the most famous directors – from Fellini to Spielberg to Jackson, all crazy obsessed nutters and brilliant visionaries. Then there’s Barney. “The character of Barney was inspired by my nephew Rowan, who has been making films since he was about 6 years old, corralling his relatives and his whole neighbourhood into whatever project he was up to at the time. His devotion was such that on the day of the first Christchurch earthquake, the day of his first job at a production house, his first instinct wasn’t to dive for cover but to grab the camera and start filming. Which he did. All day! He’s now an animator. Barney is Rowan, but he’s also a bit of me too – as my sisters will attest. He’s someone who’s utterly focused on making something and seeing it all the way through to the end.”

Barbara Larson, helping to launch Kate's book. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

Barbara Larson, Kate’s editor and expert chopper – helping to launch Kate’s book. Photo copyright Matt Bialostocki.

Much of the book revolves around the idea of editing, chopping up, re-arranging, the pieces, all exacerbated by the unexpected but significant event that threatens to take over the story. It’s not hard to find direct links and references to post-2011 Canterbury. Because she grew up there, Christchurch was always destined to be a major character in the book. She actually started writing about Barney and the High Street before the earthquakes but had to stop, “because the coordinates changed. I came back to the High Street that was destroyed. But I couldn’t not include the event, it was a major part of my landscape.”

“I wanted to capture a High Street that was a lively, colourful fantastic place, with layers of history and with its own community. I always wanted to write about children at play in a community is a street like this, the kind that you only get in a city. The kids are kind of parented by the others in the street. They have real relationships with the adults, as well as each other. Anyone with an appetite for eccentric figures will more likely find them here. It doesn’t happen in the gated suburbs, where people are more spread out.”

“This is my, heightened, slightly imagined version of the (Christchurch) High Street,” De Goldi says, “with a slightly personal history too. A couple of my generations have lived in buildings above these shops. We all went to that Basilica for mass. It’s part of my family’s fond, collective history. We remember the shops and people and those days we were there. And now as a Wellingtonian I always go back there for my frame of reference. Even though, now it only exists in memory. Much of the street came down and is rubble now.”

Remains of the McKenzie Willis building, on High Street, Christchurch after the quakes.

Remains of the McKenzie Willis building, on High Street, Christchurch after the quakes.

Also an important part of the picture, De Goldi says, was to set Barney living over an old school junk shop. “The kind that Christchurch’s High Street were once full of, with discarded fashions, lawnmowers, TVs and appliances and all manner of bric-a-brac.” The ultimate props room for a filmmaker, and a place of constant visual inspiration.

The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is definitely one of those multi-layered books that will, hopefully, invite many re-reads as its reader gets older. For the younger reader, there’s the opportunity to explore a world lost forever. For older readers, perhaps a chance to remember a world that is still alive in their own imagination.

Interview by Tim Gruar

The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre, Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775535768