Kia ora Tina, congratulations on your new book. Can you please tell us a bit about it?
Ursa is a coming-of-age story set in an alternate world that’s loosely based on Nazi Germany. It’s about a young guy called Leho who is from a downtrodden set of people living in the city of Ursa. He and his family are just scraping by, but there is talk of a possible revolution. Leho, being young and spirited, of course wants to change the world – and in his case, that might mean taking out the Director, who rules Ursa. If only he is brave enough.
The inspiration for Ursa came from a writer’s residency you held. How did Germany inspire you?
During the Creative NZ Berlin Writer’s Residency, I was living in Mitte, a central suburb of Berlin that was once a Jewish area, but during the Nazi era was largely wiped out. Walking those cobbled streets, my mind often went back to what happened in that time. There was a sculpture in a small park near my apartment that featured a bronze table with an overturned chair to symbolise people who went missing, perhaps dragged away during a meal. That sort of thing made a deep impression on me. Of course, I knew about the Holocaust, intellectually, but it became real during my time in Berlin. My feelings about this history have informed the story of Ursa in many ways.
Even though Ursa is set in an undefined time, there were many physical details of the city which I put into the book – the rooks, the stone bridges crossing the river Spree, stone lions on either side of a doorstep, and the streets. I did a lot of walking around the city streets, and that’s in the book as well – Leho and his friend Bit walk everywhere. At one point, they walk through similar streets to those which I walked, and visit a ‘wild camp’ where Leho’s father is a prisoner. At another time, they walk through a cemetery that’s like a park; central Berlin has many beautiful old cemeteries, and I put that in the book as well.
Why did you set Ursa in an alternate world?
Creating an alternate world gave me a freedom that’s different from writing a historically-correct novel. I’ve got airships, for instance, in the novel, operated by a trading community called the Fonecians. I’ve grounded the world in Berlin of, say, the 30s. Then I’ve built on it to create a parallel universe of sorts. I also wanted a fresh way of presenting this kind of story without it being specifically Nazi Germany. Again, freeing; while also being archetypal.
What draws you to YA writing?
Writing for YA, I love how you can be original and straight-up and punchy and true. And it has to be true, or you’ll risk being a ‘phoney’, as Holden Caulfield used to say in Catcher in the Rye. It’s all about the story, yes, but it’s very much about the kids in the story – their thoughts and feelings, their journey.
You are also a working editor and look after the NZSA magazine NZ Author. Have you had a long association with NZSA?
I’ve been a member of the Society of Authors since I published my first novel way back in 1990, and I worked in the office for a few years under Liz Allen, managing their programmes. It was great dealing with other writers, especially when I could tell them good news such as they’d won one of the NZSA awards, or been accepted into a programme. Editing NZ Author helps me keep in touch with writerly issues and what other writers are doing.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books by NZ writers, and conversely, books that are set in other places?
It’s tremendously important that we read New Zealand books! I’ve always believed that we’ve got to support our own books and writers so we can continue to have a breadth of literature available here. There are so many amazing books and stories in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Book Council survey on reading found that there are still readers who don’t think New Zealand books are all that interesting, but they really are, you’ve just got to give our literature a chance. We’re world-class. What I love most is being able to read about a place I know, for example, the Waikato in Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young, or Wellington in The Nature of Ash by Mandy Hager.
Whether books set in other places are written by Kiwi authors or by international writers, they open our minds to other places, other worlds, and that’s great too.
Is there anything about New Zealand novels that sets them apart do you think?
Mainly I think there’s something about the landscape that filters into many New Zealand works. We’re so close to the land, to the coast and the bush, that it can’t help but find its way into our literature. Maori possibly express this best in their close relationship to the land. I’m reading The Sound of Breaking Glass at the moment by Kirsten Warner and that’s like a love song to Auckland. Look at almost anything that Maurice Gee writes and you’ll find the land underscoring the story.
Also, I suspect that ‘Number 8 fencing wire’ mentality weaves into our stories as well – there’s an adaptability and a pragmatism that you can see in people. I see it in many of our fictional characters.
Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you in your life?
Maurice Gee, definitely. Fiona Kidman, and Patricia Grace. Anything by Margaret Mahy.
If you were going to recommend local writing to other New Zealanders, which pieces or authors would you choose?
I would probably suggest recent New Zealand writing as it’s going to exciting places: Pip Adam’s The New Animals, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke by Tina Makareti, The New Ships by Kate Duignan, and YA books by Rachael Craw, Sherryl Jordan and David Hair (to name but a few).
What’s next in store for you?
I’m polishing a novel for general readership called Ephemera which is going to be published at the end of this year by CloudInk. There’s also a draft of a YA horror story that I’m keen to get back to, and if Ursa is fortunate enough to go gangbusters, then maybe I’ll get to write the sequel!