Interview with Margaret
Posted: July 2002
Margaret Mahy has been writing children's
books for the last 30 years, and she'll never tire of it. She
is incredibly prolific, turning out stories for all ages, and by now
she's written more than 100 books. Her professional experience
with children's books began when she worked as a children's
librarian at the Petone Public Library and then as a school librarian
with the Christchurch School library service. She was also brought up
in a home with a passionate commitment to books and reading.
Margaret's parents were New Zealanders of
British origin. "My father came out from Britain when he was 12,"
Margaret says, " and my mother was from Christchurch. My father
was a bridge builder but my mother was from a more professional background.
Christchurch at that time was a very conservative society, very self-conscious
about its status. People built their own homes partly as status symbols,
so there was always lots of work for my father."
"My father was an enthusiastic reader. He
saw reading as part of upward mobility. My mother was a keen reader,
too. She saw it as a confirmation of her status within the society.
My father loved telling stories and he also read aloud to me. He read
boys books such as R.M. Ballantyne, Robert Louis Stevenson and King
Solomon's Mines. He also loved ballads. It was all very much part
of a male culture. My mother gave me Anne of Green Gables which I loved.
There wasn't a public library near us so I had to rely on my parents
Against that background it's not surprising
that Margaret's early writing was very influenced by literature
from England. Margaret began writing when she was very young. "I
started to write when I was about seven years old. Before that, I'd
already been telling stories aloud, mostly talking them through to myself.
There were lots of stories about Anglo-Saxons and Normans, the very
backbone of English history. I was also very affected by the film of
"The Jungle Book" when it came out. I tried to take the story
over and make myself Mowgli. I even triednot very successfullyto
convince my friends that I had been brought up by animals. I talked
in gibberish and ate berries and drank rain water. I was trying, through
assertion, to make something happen."
Another childhood influence on Margaret were cowboy
films. "I wasn't allowed to see the films themselves, but
I loved the posters. They inspired me to write a story set in the Wild
West. I especially loved the sound of the word Colorado. It had
a magical ring to it."
Margaret's interest in children's books
continued even when she was at university in Auckland, where she found
a children's bookshop which had all the English children's
stories she wanted. "I found lots of fairy stories, which I loved
and the historical novels of Barbara Leonie Picard. Then I found Eleanor
Farjeon's stories, which I adored. In the 1950s, I began to enjoy
fantasy more and more, and folk and fairy tales were the best sources
of fantasy at that time. Then, of course, there were the Narnia titles
and Tolkien. There was very little fantasy or magical realism in adult
books at that time, so children's books were the best kind of reading.
I looked to Britain at that time, because New Zealand writing was dominated
by realism. I think it was a way of reflecting a national identity."
When Margaret started her own writing, a lot of
the stories were set in an invented landher own version of Narnia
or Middle Earth. "I found it difficult to write a specifically
New Zealand story because I got all of my magical displacement from
Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh and Swallows and Amazons.
Other contemporary New Zealand writers also had difficulty in writing
about New Zealand at that time, partly because there was so little to
draw on. The indigenous writing of the 1930s and 1940s was very self-conscious."
An American editor read one of Margaret's
stories and asked her to turn it into a picture book.: the result was
A Lion in the Meadow. "It was the most amazing moment of
my life. Suddenly, I was a writer." A Lion in the Meadow,
and then Margaret's other picture books, The Dragon of an Ordinary
Family and Mrs. Discombobulous, were swiftly published in
the UK as well. Her writing career was underway. "When A Lion
in the Meadow was first published in the US and the UK, they tried
to make the illustrator change the seasons so that winter was their
winter, not winter in New Zealand. "No one knew much about New
Zealand and so they tried to make it as like the UK as possible. In
those days, I didn't put in any specifically local references,
partly because I thought of myself as writing in the English tradition."
Thirty years on, Margaret sees New Zealand as very
different. "Nowadays, New Zealand sees itself as very much part
of the Pacific Rim, and I think of myself as part of that culture, too.
I want to write for contemporary children who are now far more aware
of the Maori culture, partly because it is celebrated and not hidden
as it was when I first started to write. Also, there are other New Zealand
writers such as Tessa Duder and Jack Lazenby who are also beginning
to make a name for themselves, not only in New Zealand but also around
the world. My books have few specific references to New Zealand, but
I often make use of a rural setting, which is fitting since New Zealand
thinks of itself as a rural country. Really, the only way to distinguish
New Zealand books is through language, place, and the different times
of the seasons."
While Margaret is keen to promote New Zealand children's
books, she does see a downside, which is that contemporary children
read less US and UK fiction. "Ideally, children should read about
children and childhood from all around the world. In New Zealand, like
Thailand and Malaysia, we are just beginning to make our voices heard
alongside the dominant literature from the US and even Australia. All
the voices need to be heard."
Margaret Mahy's most recent book, 24
Hours, was published by Collins Children's Books in July 2001.
Find out about her favorite
authors and illustrators from New Zealand in Personal Views.
*Julia Eccleshare is a children's book journalist
based in London. She is the children's book editor of The Guardian,
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