03 December 2009

An Interview With Sally McLennan

Sally McLennan says she writes strange fairy tales and lives stranger ones. She was once the tooth fairy of a small mountain town and she has been the editor of two American health care newspapers (The Medicare Pathfinder and The Medicare Navigator). She has lived in Australia and Thailand. Her time in Thailand gave her the ability to speak passable Thai, carve a pumpkin into really interesting shapes, and she gained her parachuting wings with the Thai Royal Airforce. After living in Thailand, Sally studied at Canterbury University where she gained a First Class Honours degree in English literature. Now, some years later, she divides her time between many bookish works in progress.

Sally's first book, Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder, recently won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for the Best Professional Publication. It is a picture book heavily influenced by graphic novels. Sally describes the book as the story of 'a crime spree so unfathomable that the law enforcement agencies are stumped, and the public is captivated, and a criminal so strange that nobody could guess who the culprit might be.' Dan, the hero of the book, sets out to solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice. This is a story about magic and regrets, about learning to feel more and judge less, and the true treasures in life.

Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder can be purchased from Te Papa's Kid's Store, Barbara's Books, Scorpio Books, The Children's Bookshop, Unity, Storytime, Vic Books, Arty Bees, The Christchurch Cathedral shop, UBS Canterbury, The Arts Centre Bookshop in Christchurch and from Sally's website.

Sally, there's all sorts of stuff I want to ask you about, but to begin with, how did you manage to get the Wizard to compere the launch of your book? Also, the launch of her first book is a very special time for any writer – how was this launch for you?

Ah, Jack the Wizard was lovely. It was no trouble at all. I randomly mentioned how much I wished the Wizard was my compere to the Town Crier of Christchurch, Steven Symons, after someone introduced us. I'm not even sure how it came up! It turned out they were friends and within a day he gave me the Wizard's contact information so I was able to make a very nervous call to the Wizard. Luckily, he was pleased with the idea, and played along with everything beautifully. He said a wonderfully theatrical blessing of the book which would have been perfect if he had been able to actually remember its name. Instead he called it by five or six different titles and I think this added greatly to the charm of the event. We did two launches; one each in Wellington and Christchurch. The reason was that my publisher is based in Wellington, and we wanted an event that coincided with the National Science Fiction convention held there, as the people involved have been very supportive of my writing. However, everyone else who worked on the book - and there was a large team - was based in Christchurch.

The Christchurch event was huge. We started with dinner served in trams circling the city while jazz musicians played their way through the carriages. Then, we had the launch ceremony at the Design and Arts College of New Zealand where Joel (the illustrator) studied. Five hundred individual cakes were served that night and a segment from the book was narrated in sign language. It was completely special. One of the best nights of my life. I think for both launches Joel and I floated - leading up to them there is this strange terror that something will be wrong with the book or people wouldn't love it somehow - then momentum takes over and the launch itself is a blissful dream come true sort of experience. Its a feeling I can highly recommend and one with lasting sweetness.

What was the path that led you and Deputy Dan and The Mysterious Midnight Marauder from first thought to publication?

It was long and twisty, that path. It started with a dream while I was still studying. In it a blond boy was trying to track down a robber... who it turned out was not a robber at all! I asked myself if I could write that boy's story and - just for kicks - write it into verse. It was a sort of joke with myself, an experiment, and I suspected I was insane for wanting to try it. Twelve years later the book was published and my suspicions had been confirmed! I wrote Deputy Dan during tea breaks from my day jobs - ten minutes at a time - all that time. After several years of that my health abruptly deteriorated. I was - mistakenly - told by one Doctor that my condition was terminal. I decided that I preferred to fulfill the dream of being a writer, and finish Deputy Dan, rather than succumb. I finished the story while still very ill. When she was out with him for a business lunch my sister told Tim, the publisher, that he had to read my work. He declared it all publishable. At about the same time I submitted the story to the judges of the Conclave Award (for Fantasy Poetry) as a handful of photocopied sheets and it won.

Production began. I had an idea that as the book started life as the work of a student I wanted another student to illustrate it. I ran a competition with the Design and Arts College of New Zealand and the student who came up with the most apt character sketches won the chance to illustrate the book. That was Joel and we worked closely together for almost a year and a half. We were, under Tim's direction, involved in all the processes of publishing. Tim wanted to teach us what was involved. Finally, at about 1.30am on the 17th of March, 2008, the first printed pages of the book began rolling off the presses. It's an amazing thing to experience on the ground as I did.

Why do you write? What do you hope to achieve from any by writing, both in personal terms and in terms of the effect your work has on readers and on the literary community?

Writing is a strange illness that nobody has found a cure for. For me, its a compulsion, and I am happiest when fulfilling that absolute need, instead of hiding from it. I feel like I am talking with the world I am part of when I write. I reach out, and see if anyone reaches back, while breathing life into characters and their world; communication and creation at the same time. In personal terms I hope to make a book people might enjoy. I also try to write beauty more than ugliness (inner and outer). I don't know if I think of having an effect on the literary community - it seems like such a big thing - but I do have a few ideals I cling to about what I want my work to do socially. I want to wise up children rather than dumbing down books. In other words, I don't like limiting my vocabulary or ideas when I write by trying to direct them to an age group. I think that breaks your writing and I don't want to patronise readers. I think using more challenging words well encourages kids to learn them.

How do you fit writing in with the rest of your life? Where and when do you like to write?

At the moment it's really difficult. I am transitioning between cities and that is taking its toll on me physically. So, I am in a hiatus. In the past six months, I've done a fair bit of editing and written ten thousand words of the series I am most focused on. I've also written a short story. Now I am at the tail end of that transition, I am really looking forward to more writing time. I think to myself that I've just had the rite of passage now I want the writing of passages!

I've learned I am someone who needs a dedicated writing corner of some sort. Now, I have bought a home and it has a long, narrow, office at the top of three stories looking out over trees. I am really looking forward to writing in that tower like crevice. I do most of my writing in bursts late at night in my office and in cafes during the afternoon. I am also often running ideas around in my head when I am seemingly otherwise occupied. I do some of my best writing while drifting off to sleep or doing the dishes. I have learned to carry paper everywhere.

Some writers say that they find it hard to read for pleasure – that, willingly or not, they read with one eye on how the book they're reading achieves its effects, or they read to see what other authors in their genre are up to, or what's selling well at the moment. Are you an analytical reader, or do you read primarily for pleasure? Can you tell us some of your favourite writers?

I read with absolute indulgence for pleasure. I know the book is failing for me when I become super analytical and start pulling out my inner editorial red marker. I write the sort of stories I enjoy reading - YA, Children's books and fantasy/ slipstream. My absolute favourites are Robin Hobb, Catherine Valente, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy, Diana Wynne- Jones, Keri Hulme, Paul Stewart, Phillip Pullman... well, its a long list and one I could add to for a while!

I know that you really enjoy New Zealand's national science fiction conventions. What's so good at about them?

I've found the people there to be incredibly enthusiastic and supportive - its a great community. I've learned more about writing at those conventions than through any other forum - its invaluable to meet the experienced guest authors they host each year - and the convention members themselves have sometimes benefited by the years and years of exposure to these guests. So they are also really knowledgeable around the craft of writing. I've learned a lot about how to get published (ah, the debate about the necessity of agents continues though!), generating ideas, and by seeing how other authors work. I found that many use sensory keys to tell themselves its work time, such as a particular drink, or piece of music. When that music is played or that drink poured its time to sit down and write. It almost becomes self hypnotic the association becomes so strong and that's a good thing; the hardest part of writing is sometimes to start doing it.

Why are the Sir Julius Vogel Awards so special to you?

I think its huge that New Zealand has its own trophy for Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Its got a great lineage, being named for the Prime Minister who wrote science fiction back in the Victorian era, and with the trophies themselves crafted and donated by Weta Workshops. It seems like each year the award gains significance and gets more noticed. The award has its origins in the grass roots of fandom and is an absolute credit to the teams of volunteers who have devoted years to running it for little or no recognition. The service they do to the writing community is amazing. To be awarded one was an incredibly proud moment and especially because it put me in the company of a group of author friends. On the actual night of the awards Helen Lowe and Nalini Singh and I all sat together and all, happily, got at least one Vogel (Helen did really well and got two!). It made things even more special, if possible.

You have been involved in the Books In Homes scheme. What is so good about this scheme, and have you found your involvement rewarding?

Duffy's Books in Homes is a wonderful programme. They have given away over five million books to kids in lower decile schools in the fourteen years they have operated and their 588 schools show a 35% increase in mean reading levels. So: that's great. But the Books in Homes focus on learning and achieving through goal setting - with reading as a tool and a focus - seems to have a massive impact on entire communities around participating schools. Parents are taught and encouraged to read to kids, jail rates fall away in these communities, bullying and truancy diminish. Camberley school reports that vandalism of school property dropped by 90% as a result of involvement in Books in Homes. Adult literacy improves and job opportunities are derived as a result. The programme involves kids in pre-school, primary school, and then High School kids become role models. Parents - especially Dads - and grandparents are encouraged to participate. It's inspired.

I went into the programme as a role model. This means I visited schools talking about how reading has made a positive difference in my life, to encourage kids to read, and I gave out their free books at the awards ceremony afterwards. I thought I was engaging in an act of service but, in fact, it has proven at least as inspiring for me as it was for the kids. I was the Books in Homes role model for Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Sumner. The kids there, and their teachers, were amazing. I never saw anything as expressive as one of the teachers signing part of Deputy Dan to the kids. Their whole language of gesture is beautiful and an art form in itself. Later, they hosted me at a school performance of Oliver which was really special. Then, at the book launch, a senior student named Mark signed part of the book. His skill dumbfounded everyone who watched - I was mobbed by people wanting to talk about how theatrical it was afterwards - and it was a powerful moment. He gave me a brooch bearing a golden butterfly which made me an International Friend of the Deaf - it apparently is recognised all over the world - and which symbolises the Deaf Community: silent but beautiful.

What's next for Sally McLennan? What writing projects do you have underway, or in mind?

I'm dying to get settled into my new home and stuck in! I want to have as much as possible, if not all, of the Somewhere Else trilogy finished ahead of World Con (AussieCon 4: The World Science Fiction convention in 2010). The first book is about a group of kids who are translated into another world, one linked with our own, and at war. Of course, as in all fantasy stories of this type, there is the expectation that the children will be heroes. Of course, this story is a little more true to life about what happens to young people who suddenly find they are in the middle of a war. It's quite gritty and I am really enjoying writing it. A series about an imaginary friend who comes to life is ticking along nicely - the Jessica and Spuds series - which is definitely in prose. I also have, way on the back burner, a sequel to Deputy Dan.

While all that is going on Joel wants me to pen words to his graphic novel about JoJo, a boy in a circus, in space. That is a perfect continuation of our partnership: he has had to put images to my ideas now I have to match words to his images. I love working with Joel. He is my creative brother. Together we could come up with almost anything.


Debbie Cowens said...

Great interview. Thanks for this Tim and Sally.

Tim Jones said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Debbie