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March 6, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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INTERVIEW – A MADE-UP PLACE: NEW ZEALAND IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Salient’s books editor Kurt Barber speaks to English Literature lecturers Harry Ricketts, Anna Thompson, Tatjana Shaefer, Geoff Miles and Kathryn Walls about collaborative writing and their new book A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Literature.

Salient: A Made-Up Place is somewhat atypical in that it is written by five different authors. What was the writing process for the book? How do five different authors co-ordinate their writing to produce a cohesive text?

Tatjana: Well we didn’t each write our own things and then have somebody stitch them together. We each wrote together knowing what everyone else was doing, and that meant we were able to refer to each other’s chapters or pick up on points we had made in previous chapters. It was as close as you can get to having five people writing a book that was also by one person, one entity.

Kathryn: We took quite a relaxed approach to any disagreements between the chapters – well I don’t think there were any disagreements – but people were taking different approaches to the same effect, and we were very open ended in that way.

Tatjana: And I think we decided that if we were going to disagree, we would disagree between the chapters, saying something like ‘Geoff read this book in his chapter in this way, but I’m going to read it in a different way. We tried to incorporate that there are different ways of looking at the same text.

Harry: And there are various footnotes in the text saying “see another chapter for a different view”. So we did encourage the reader to read across the book.

Salient: What was the catalyst for writing A Made Up Place?

Kathryn: We were teaching children’s literature together and really enjoying it, and we were discussing it with each other, so it was a cooperative process.

Harry: Yes, and the second year course started in 2004 – Kathryn had been previously teaching the children’s lit Honours course, but the rest of us got together in 2004. We were talking about Maurice Gee’s work, Philip Pullman, Ursula le Guin, and started talking about how there isn’t any critical writing here about children’s literature. I mean, there are a few stray articles, but [there’s] no book people can go to that talks about local young adult fiction.

Geoff: Even though it’s such a huge growth area in publication. It’s a bit of a critical hole.

Kathryn: That was an advantage and a disadvantage for writing, because normally there’s a critical background that you can position yourself in relation to. You’ve got something to add, or disagree with.

Harry: You’re looking for a gap as opposed to a hole.

Kathryn: It felt like walking into vacuum. It sounds a bit namby-pamby, but we do hope this will lead to further work in the area.

Harry: Yes, so that people can disagree or agree with it.

Kathryn: Or apply it to a book!

Tatjana: And we were aware that in other areas of literature that this work had been done – that there are books on Australian children’s literature, or Irish children’s’ literature. There are many regional or local or national books.

Salient: So you were almost setting a precedent?

Kathryn: We were following a precedent set by people in other countries.

Harry: And there’s a lot of local young adult fiction being written in New Zealand, and while people like to read the books themselves, they also like to read about what they’re reading.

Kathryn: And I think the authors probably find it affirming to be the object of a critical discussion.

Harry: Well… on the whole. *laughs*

Geoff: We have had a blog post by one of the authors saying it was great to read such insightful things about their work.

Tatjana: And while Bernard Beckett says it’s exposing to have someone analyse something that you don’t remember putting in the book, nevertheless it’s there to be analysed.

Harry: But we have had a couple of the writers respond positively to our feedback… which doesn’t always happen.

Kathryn: We were also thinking about the question of coverage when we were writing, but realistically we couldn’t investigate one thing properly and have coverage. So the book’s not a survey.

Anna: We began by thinking about the authors we wanted to analyse, so we did have a sort of canon in mind.

Salient: So what was your selection process?

Harry: We [had] an amalgamation of interesting books – a sort of combined list.

Kathryn: I felt Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy were sort of like the grandma and granddad of the whole thing.

Anna: The books we read as children, and the books that those of us with children read to our children, gave us a real range of sources.

Harry: We all brought different things to the table, both in terms of books and ideas for topics. We moved away from the idea of chapters based around books and more towards topics that would act as magnets for ideas.

Kathryn: And that were based around New Zealand, whether that meant New Zealand history or New Zealand identity.

Harry: Identity was more of background idea. It’s become such a vogue term now, so we didn’t want to put it up in neon. But it’s something that most chapters are interested in.

Tatjana: As we were writing we would think: “am I still talking about identity? And is it still relevant?” It was a sort of guideline.

Kathryn: We weren’t interested in books that blatantly just discussed New Zealand identity.

Tatjana: And there were plenty of books not set in the real New Zealand – some were set in future NZ or in imaginary landscapes, but that didn’t stop us from arguing that it was influenced by New Zealand.

Salient: It was interesting looking at how you discussed that fantasy landscapes written by New Zealanders almost always had parallels between the real New Zealand and some kind of fantastic New Zealand. Kind of like how Faerieland in The Faerie Queene was always almost exactly like a mythological Britain, with St George running around. So what sort of influence did students have?

Harry: Well the Honours course acted as a spur to ourselves but also helped with our experiences.

Tatjana: We chose course books depending on what we wanted to write about. Students had read them as young adults, were nearly young adults themselves, and it was interesting talking with them when they were the target audience years ago – but at the same time honours students were really informed in terms of how they thought about literature, and capable of discussing it.

Salient: So a few of your ideas developed from things students had said in ENGL420?

Anna: I can’t think of any directly! I remember when I was writing my chapters, trying to remember something specific that a student had said… I can’t even remember what it was, and never could.

Kathryn: Mind you, I remember in Mutuwhenua, by Patricia Grace, the main character – a married Pakeha – hands over her first child to her parents to be brought up. Students hated that, for all their declarations of multiculturalism, we got this extremely strong reaction – that this isn’t fair to the Pakeha character. I disagreed with the students – but it’s nevertheless really important to my way of thinking about the novel. I know it’s not a terribly positive thing to say about the students, but it was really important. Just an example of the sense of response – it’s always useful to know what other people think.

Tatjana: In fact, we got students to put up discussion sessions before tutorials – so many times they talked about race relation things in novels, either because it was lacking or biased. So it was something they were expecting to find, and something they took issue with. You can’t get away from the fact that if certain people of certain race are portrayed as vicious or horrible, or [if] women are always portrayed as viscous or horrible, then that has an impact on the book. That did feed into some of our chapters.

Kathryn: Student reactions were always in our minds. But there’s always the basic problem – that if Pakeha writers write about Maori characters, they’re in danger of getting it wrong or being accused of appropriation. But, if they don’t, then we end up with a pretty white cast of characters in books for young people – so this a real problem that students are aware of, with no easy solution.

Tatjana: Discussions in that class were used to collect discussion points, opinions, etc. It’s not that any discussions became chapters, but they were vital in getting our heads around what was important to talk about, to discuss, where the similarities between books are and things like that. So there was a huge amount of groundwork we managed to go through with the students.

Harry: Students were absolutely invaluable in their contribution; although it wouldn’t be easy to go to any chapter and say this idea specifically came from this particular seminar. I just wanted to mention that there was a book from the 90s that I got to write about in the sport chapter called Second’s Best by David Hill. It was about a cricket team, and it was very conscientiously ticking multicultural boxes. Which automatically sets in a historical perspective, and was very interesting in its own way – he was obviously trying to be very PC. There had to be a Maori character, a Chinese character. And one of the bad teams is over-English – they’re a safe target. But we were always having very productive and engaging conversations where we would spark ideas off each other, and we hope that some of the delight of those conversations, the sense of something organic growing, came out in the final book.

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