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Interview with Margaret Mahy
By Julia Eccleshare*

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 books"

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 tried–not very successfully–to 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 land–her 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, UK.

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More about Margaret Mahy on PaperTigers:
Read reviews of her books Alchemy and 24 Hours from Books for Keeps.

Read Margaret Mahy's "essential reading" list of books from New Zealand.

More about Margaret Mahy on the web:
Visit a
website that the Christchurch City Libraries Children's Library has created for her, or take a look at a great Unit Plan for teachers posted on the New Zealand website English on-line...

If you're interested in Pacific Rim/South Asian nonfiction for adults, read an interview to the 2000 Kiriyama Prize nonfiction winner Michael David Kwan on our sister site...


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