06 October 2011

An Interview With Mandy Hager, by Johanna Knox: Part 1

Author and publisher Johanna Knox has previously contributed the guest post Can Children's Literature Be 'Literary Fiction'? to this blog. Now, despite everything else she is busy with, Johanna is back with a two-part interview with New Zealand author Mandy Hager. Thank you so much, Johanna and Mandy!

Interview with Mandy Hager: Part 1

About Mandy Hager: Kapiti-based Mandy Hager is the award-winning author of numerous young adult books, including the recent Blood of the Lamb trilogy, a dramatic dystopia in set in the South Pacific. In these books, teenager Maryam, with her friends, must try to escape and later overthrow the corrupt and oppressive religious cult that has dominated her people since a disaster known as ‘the Tribulation’ struck Earth.

Margaret Mahy has described the first book as ‘Like 1984 for teenagers – direct, powerful and passionate.’ Books 1 and 2 in the trilogy were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards in 2010 and 2011. Book 3 was released earlier this year to critical acclaim.

About Johanna Knox: Johanna is a Wairarapa/Wellington-based writer, researcher, and reviewer. She frequently writes on food and sustainability issues. She is also the author of The Flytrap Snaps, book one in a newly released mystery-adventure series for children, all about mutant carnivorous plants - see http://theflypapersbooks.blogspot.com.

JK: Have you had varied responses to the Blood of the Lamb trilogy ... Do people with different values or backgrounds respond differently?

MH: I am sure there will be people who are offended by what they think the books are about – that I’m somehow criticising Christianity – but I would hope that if they did read them they would realise the books are about the way Christianity (or any religion) can be hijacked for purposes of power and control.

I know in the States several publishers have thought it was too controversial to publish – I think that’s sad, given that at their core the books promote compassion and love. I also know that some adults who loved The Crossing [book 1] didn’t like Into the Wilderness [book 2] because they got so frustrated by the extended adolescent behaviour, but that doesn’t worry me – the books are written for teenagers, about teenagers, and teenagers can be very angsty, annoying young people in their worst moments (and extraordinarily wonderful at their best!) And the teenage readers like them, so that’s what matters most to me.

Some people also struggled with the idea that I had the gall to write about menstruation – isn’t that sad? Half the entire human population menstruates (and the other half wouldn’t be here if we didn’t!), so why are we so ashamed to speak about it and refuse to acknowledge it? I suspect if men menstruated it wouldn’t be a taboo subject.

JK: That's interesting. I'm trying to think back ... I don't remember finding adolescent behaviour annoying in the book ... It seems a realistic portrayal, and besides, plenty of adults can be that kind of annoying and angsty as well, especially under pressure?

MH: Yes, I totally agree. In fact I reckon we all pretty much revert to teenage default behaviour when faced with certain pressure points – like Christmas, school reunions, family get-togethers, funerals etc!

When people say, ‘so how can you put yourself in a teenager’s mind?’ I don’t find this hard – it’s the most intense and defining time of our lives, so very easy to summon up again (plus I think there’s a huge part of my brain that never grew past that! I still feel seventeen in my head – it’s just the outer layer that’s grown so disconcertingly old!)

JK: Do you see the trilogy as individual stories or one big story?

MH: I’ve always known the books would be a trilogy and I tend to think of them as the three acts of a drama (my MA is in scriptwriting, which I have found invaluable in terms of structure etc).

Act One has to set the scene, introduce characters and the story problem (and create enough dramatic tension to want to continue), Act Two delves more deeply into character, complicates the situation, and embeds theme, and Act Three provides resolution (to some extent.)

Having said that, I also planned each of the books as discrete stories, each with their own three act dramatic structure, which are (hopefully) totally satisfying in their own right. There have to be seeds planted in the first two books that don’t pay off until the third, so plotting and structure are pretty important in order to achieve this.

JK: In what other ways has your scriptwriting education and experience fed into your novels?

MH: It’s had a huge influence, actually. For a start it made me realise that novels are my genre of choice. Scripts are the bones of a story, then other people come along and put their individual stamp on top. (Directors, actors etc.) I realised I’m too much of a control freak about my stories – I see them as my very own film in my head, including sound track and camera angles. I used to try and put all this into scripts (which is a no-no), so I couldn’t wait to get back to writing novels!

But the structure of scripts has been invaluable – really understanding the necessary steps for good dramatic structure – and particularly Joseph Campbell’s Hero's Journey. This mythic structure lies pretty much behind all stories in one form or another, and to understand the steps and be able to visualise them as a story landscape that has to be traversed by the protagonist is the most useful thing I’ve ever learnt about writing.

And once I figured out that the stages of the Hero's Journey were really just steps in a psychological model of change (long term, significant change) – now that is a very powerful thing to understand, as it means you know how your character’s emotional state needs to transform over the course of a book, and (hopefully) how to make that transformation feel organic and believable.

JK: During the trilogy you explore the enormous range of behaviours that humans are capable of. We know from history and everyday life that we humans are capable of incredible cruelty and also amazing compassion and generosity. I feel Blood of the Lamb takes readers to the heart of that. Lazarus of course embodies both possibilities in one person, changing from cruel to compassionate over the course of the books - and so I find him an incredibly hope-giving character.

Is this great capacity for both good and evil within the human race, and individuals, something you have thought a lot about?

MH: Yes, it is something I think about a lot (and certainly lies at the core of the books.) I’ve done quite a lot of reading about human behaviour, evolutionary psychology etc (for instance Robert Wright’s A Moral Animal and a wonderful book by Richard Holloway called Between the Monster and the Saint which looks at precisely this issue.)

It boils down to needing to understand how we could try and shift human consciousness to a more generous and loving level. I can’t buy the argument that just because human beings have had a violent past and have the capacity for violence and cruelty, that this is always how it must be.

I’m only an ordinary person and I can live by principles of generosity, empathy and love, so why not others? It will mean a huge redistribution of wealth, a concerted commitment to justice, human rights and education, and a complete overhaul in what we view as ‘success’ (i.e. instead of turning people into celebrities for how skinny, rich or white they are, maybe we could start celebrating the people who are the most humane or creative), but I do believe it is possible to suppress our monsters within!

Wouldn’t it be nice if one day being labelled ‘politically correct’ (in other words, being inclusive and anti-racist/anti-sexist) was a compliment and something we all strove for?!

JK: Your main character Maryam is remarkable. Maybe she is the person we all hope we'd be when faced with crisis or the need for change, although I'm pretty sure I would fall short! What are your own feelings towards Maryam?

MH: I love Maryam for her desire to understand what’s really going on, and not just to accept something if it is wrong. She’s how I’d love all young people to be! And, really, she is what a lot of young people are: inquisitive, questioning, intelligent, angry... The truth is most people cope incredibly well with the most terrible situations - every day millions of people embody Maryam’s bravery under the worst possible conditions – they are all unacknowledged heroes.

JK: Do you ever feel that we need more Maryams in the world right now?

MH: Yes! And it’s just as hard for young people today to find out what the hell is really going on – the media and entertainment industries have dumbed things down (and spun) so much most young people have no real idea of just who controls their lives and why. If I can achieve anything, it’s the hope that the story encourages young people to take an interest in the world around them and to question (and fight!) the current greed-based status quo, which is putting their futures very much at risk.

JK: From a writing-process point of view how did her character develop?

MH: It doesn’t matter how much you think a character through before you start to write – so you understand their voice, likes and dislikes, history, point of view etc – you never really know how they’re going to react until you put them under pressure in the story and have them interact with other characters.

What started out as Maryam’s capacity for strength of mind also became her potential nemesis, as she struggled to understand why others thought and acted differently to her (i.e. Ruth.) It meant at times she was boorish and stubborn with no good reason – not nearly as compliant as I’d first thought! Thinking about it now, really it was just the teenager in her asserting her independence from me!

JK: Ruth is interesting, with a quieter, more passive goodness and integrity ...

MH: Ruth is probably the character I least understood at beginning of the books, and I don’t think it was until [the third book] Resurrection that I truly understood her. Such blind faith (in the face of overwhelming evidence against it) is so foreign to me, and one of the reasons for writing the trilogy – to explore this for myself, as I didn’t understand it.

But I came to realise that Ruth had been aware of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the religion, but that this was a separate issue to having faith – which is a more personal ‘take’ on our place in the scheme of things.

Her faith gave her comfort and morals to live by. I can’t criticise her for that and came to respect her for it – so a big learning curve for me too, actually - it makes me more compassionate and tolerant to other people’s need for faith now!

JK: Have you thought a lot about the different ways that different people react to crisis? What conclusions have you drawn?

MH: I have experienced a number of very gruelling crises myself and have been able to reflect on how I and the people around me coped (and, at times, didn’t cope). My conclusions are as you would expect: that we all cope the best way we can, and that is different for everyone – and that a lot of it boils down to our role models and to our individual personalities.

Basically there are two types of responses – intuitive or instrumental. An intuitive person reacts with their emotions first – gets all their grief, anger, whatever, out in the open and deals with that first before they can handle information, advice or action. An instrumental person wants to know facts and details and takes action first, holding back on their emotional response until a later (often private) time.

There’s no one response that’s better – it’s just how we are, and it isn’t gender specific to how someone will react. I’m instrumental, for instance, while my daughter is intuitive. Either way, we both cope, we just come at the problem or crisis from different starting points!

The second and concluding part of this interview will be posted next week - on Thursday, all being well.


Rachel Fenton said...

Very much enjoyed this interview - thanks Mandy, Johanna, and Tim.

A couple of stand outs for me:
Half the entire human population menstruates (and the other half wouldn’t be here if we didn’t!), so why are we so ashamed to speak about it and refuse to acknowledge it?"
At last! Someone isn't afraid to make women real.

It boils down to needing to understand how we could try and shift human consciousness to a more generous and loving level. I can’t buy the argument that just because human beings have had a violent past and have the capacity for violence and cruelty, that this is always how it must be."

I'm very interested in the research Mandy backs her work up with and I'm glad that fiction is being written for teens with integrity.

So often teen girls (all girls?) are raised to be mute, to have no voice, or worse, made to believe that to have a voice is something to be ashamed of. Society privileges those who perpetuate the "popular clique tropes" into adulthood - just look at any celeb mag - and I just think it's so great to have spunky and intelligent yet vibrantly feeling female characters in fiction who express a think for yourself ethos rather than this learn for test mentality so many kids' heads are filled with currently.

Excellent stuff and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Rachel Fenton said...

Sorry I lost the open quotes on those two passages I quoted there.