Except for five godlet-drops that run in his blood, Harsu is human.
His mother is Daama, the forty-first daughter of the fifty-ninth daughter of one of the Wind God’s nine thousand or so children. His father was human too, a warrior–physician. But now he’s gone and Harsu inherited only a cloak edged with copper coins, a clay tablet and an old war-steed.
Barbara Else's latest book Harsu and the Werestoat (Gecko Press) promises fairytale, time travel and adventure for young readers. We talked to her about being part of our Writers in Schools programme, books she loves, and the importance of reading our own stories.
Kia ora Barbara, congratulations on your new book. Can you please tell us a bit about it?
Harsu and the Werestoat is a stand-alone novel that ranges across time, with characters from various places: ancient Sumeria, a Viking village, Cromwell’s England and ends in modern New Zealand. I loved working with so many settings.
What draws you to writing for children?
I love the freedom I find in writing about serious moral and ethical matters in a fantasy setting. I believe it’s rather easier for many children to understand and learn about some of those things when the characters and settings aren’t as confronting as they can be in contemporary realistic fiction.
Writing for children gives the imagination a more exotic scope, for me at any rate. It’s great fun crafting stories that will entertain, sometimes shock and also have a strong element of humour.
You are a valued member of our ‘Writers in Schools’ programme. How does this work you do affect your writing?
Well, thank you! First, I always love reading aloud to children. I feel that increasingly they don’t get enough experience of that. The voice envelops them in language and story in a very particular and significant way.
The workshops I give have developed from noticing how many children will begin writing their own stories with great energy but their ideas soon peter out. I show them how to gather ideas and elements that hold together and help make the main character interesting. Side effect! – it forces me to think much harder about how the writing process operates and how story structure helps carry the meaning.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books by New Zealand writers, and conversely, books that are set in other places?
In the current state of the world I think it increasingly important to read our own stories, non-fiction and fiction. Local authors of fiction for children or adults write two kinds of stories, I suppose. The first has a local setting. It’s important for local readers to see our own groups of people in our own environment. It helps ground us and at the same time assess who we are as a people, what our history has given us and where we’re going.
The second kind isn’t set in New Zealand. Those stories help us see where we are in the wider world. If the tales are fantasy they offer new angles on what matters to human beings.
Which New Zealand books/writers have been special to you in your life?
I read Owls Do Cry in my first year at university. In countless ways it was a revelation. It was set in the small town where I’d just lived for two years, head down in homework, biking to and from school in the ear-numbing wind of coastal North Otago. Janet Frame found the magic of our everyday, the drama of our ordinary, in a way I’d never come across before.
I also remember reading my first Fiona Kidman, A Breed of Women, when I returned after some years in California. That too was a revelation. Our own story, the story of my mother’s generation, captured on the page. It was empowering and validating to me as a NZ woman and as a writer.
If you were going to recommend local writing to other New Zealanders, which pieces or authors would you choose?
Here’s a legitimate opening to write a paragraph of family support! I recommend Emma Neale for beautiful prose and insight into the human spirit, especially with Fosterling and Billy Bird. Also Chris Else, for his forthcoming Waterline, a gritty take on what will very possibly happen in NZ in the next 20 years or so.
I found The Legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir to be one of the most sensitive and thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read. It is sad but absolutely beautiful, set in the South Island high country.
Local novels I’ve read recently are Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (wow!), The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy (OMG, writerly in-jokes) and Legacy by Whiti Hereaka, a fabulous YA novel about the Māori Contingent in World War One.
What’s next in store for you?
There are ideas for more children’s work. But right now I’m working on another adult novel. The rough draft is rattling and graunching along like an old Ford on a gravel road. I’ll see how I feel when I get to the destination, whenever and whereever that might be. I know it is all going to mean massive research.