This is part 2 of Johanna Knox's interview with New Zealand author Mandy Hager. You can read Part 1 here - that part focuses more specifically on Mandy's Blood of the Lamb trilogy, while Part 2 sets those novels in a wider context.
Interview with Mandy Hager: Part 2
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: Book 2, Into the Wilderness, is particularly dear to me. I found it harrowing, almost cathartic, and felt like I'd been taken apart and put back together again by the time I'd finished it. To me, this is the book where the concept of self-sacrifice is explored in most depth.
Did you think a lot about the notion of self-sacrifice when writing the book?
MH: I hadn’t thought of ITW in that way but I can see why you might think so. To me it’s not so much about self-sacrifice as it is about love and anger – both of which have the capacity to make us put aside our own considerations and fight for a greater good. If I am willing to lay down my life for my children (which I am!) it’s not about self sacrifice, it’s about love – and if, for instance, I’m angry because their futures are being ripped off by greedy capitalists, and the only way I can try to stop this is to step in front of a logging truck or a tank, I’ll do this too – spurred by anger but based on love for them. So maybe it’s not self sacrifice, but altruism in its purest form?
JK: Yes, I wonder if self-sacrifice is the wrong word then. Perhaps it has connotations of resentment and martyrdom? Maybe the word I should have used is 'selflessness' ... But 'altruism in its purest form' ... I like that. It puts the focus on what you ARE doing, not what you're not doing, if you see what I mean.
MH: Yes, that makes sense. One of the things I researched for the trilogy was a little about Buddhism – I’d never been able to understand the concept of ‘detachment’ before – used to think it meant being emotionally detached and remote (which I consider a bad thing) – but then I realised it’s about taking ego out of actions and decisions – now that makes real sense. And I started to plot how often my responses to things, situations or people were controlled by ego first (a lot!)
Once ego is taken out of the equation then it really is ‘selflessness’ – doing what’s right, not just what is right for you. It’s amazing how it changes the way I respond to things (though I admit it’s sometimes still a battle to smother that little bastard of an ego!)
The quote from Martin Luther King Jnr, at the end of Resurrection, really says it all: “the first thing we ask at a time of conflict is ‘what is the most loving thing to do?’” If we all practised that, all our problems would disappear!
JK: Obviously we are on the brink of some big upheavals globally: Climate change, peak oil, the financial crisis. In the world you write about, devastation has been caused by solar flares. Why did you choose this as the source of the world's trouble?
MH: The effects of a massive solar flare fit very well with the descriptions in Revelations about the end of the world, which all played into the Apostles hands when they were making their case for being living gods. I researched all about the flares on the NASA website – scary stuff, and spookily, they are at their most dangerous point of their cycle next year in 2012, the same year as the Mayan calendar ends – it was too much of a coincidence to ignore!
JK: Maryam finds herself in a bind at the end of the third book. I like that it is satisfying but you haven't tried to bring about a perfect conclusion, when really there couldn't be one. It was an unexpected ending for me, but once I'd read it, I felt it couldn't be any other way ...
MH: I always knew Maryam would bring about release from the Apostle’s rule, and I knew it would be by providing a cure for Te Matee Iai, but I had no idea it would happen in that way! It surprised me as much as you!
But then it made sense to me – nothing is ever so easy to resolve – and when you are dealing with indoctrinated people it is unrealistic to believe that they can throw away all vestiges of their faith/doctrines just because they’re told to.
Look at the real world – the problems we’re seeing now are because countries have gone into another country/culture, stripped away one form of control but have not taken the people along with them, have not respected their core beliefs, and have provided no secure continuity to allow people time to adjust.
I came to realise that it couldn’t be straightforward and it was necessary to discuss how power vacuums are dangerous and that transitions need to be carefully and thoughtfully handled, and must accommodate all views.
JK: And - dare I ask - do you have a clear idea in your own mind of what happens after the events of the last chapters of the third book? Or is it as full of possibility in your own mind as it seems to the reader?
MH: There was a point where I realised ‘Damn, there could be a fourth book here’ – but I didn’t want to go there! I might one day, but I suspect not. For now I have faith that together they’ll sort it out – though it won’t be easy. That’s as much as I’m going to say!
JK: As many people know, you come from a family that has a strong focus on social justice. Is there a strong spirit of support amongst the family members for what you each do?
MH: Absolutely. I’m incredibly proud of what my siblings do (and my parents did) – we’re all close and support each other as much as we can.
My younger sister was over from England recently and we all got together – ended up in a rollicking discussion about politics – nice to know we’re all in agreement!
I am in awe of the work Nicky [Hager] does, and it frustrates me so much that he’s so dismissed by people here, when he’s invited all over the world to speak at investigative journalist conferences and the like as a key-note speaker with people like Robert Fisk and John Pilger – here they don’t even ask him to chair a Readers and Writers event, let alone speak at one – this drives me wild!
JK: It's funny - I was really hoping you'd say you got together and had rollicking political discussions! In the back of my mind that's how I imagined your family, and it's a heartening thought.
MH: Heartening, but sometimes a little intimidating to outsiders (and partners!)
JK: What did your parents do?
MH: My parents lived their social justice beliefs – when we were young they opened our house to all sorts of people in need – including young pregnant girls whose families had thrown them out, boys from the local borstal in order to give them some happy family time, gay men and women at a time when homosexuality was still considered illegal, people with mental health issues who needed support, and they supported Maori rights... and they were deeply involved in the Values Party, which was the precursor of the Green Party – in fact my mother was the first woman to be elected to the role of (co)leader of a political party in NZ.
They covenanted trees in our garden and fought for protection of the environment and the local lake (Lake Horowhenua) and my mother was on the District Council.
My father was a refugee from Austria – arriving here just before WW2 – so he knew only too well how human beings could be monsters, and he instilled very strong ethics in us – and opened our world up by introducing us to music, opera, literature, art, dance... we had a very lucky upbringing.
What I really admired about them was that they lived their values, didn’t just spout them! I think the four of us kids have spent our lives trying to live up to their high standards – I feel I’m only just starting to make some headway now!
JK: This might be another terrible question ... but what next? Do you have other fiction in the pipeline, and if so is there anything at all you can say about it?
MH: I’m 60,000 words into a new novel currently called ‘The Nature of Ash.’ It’s set about 20-25 years in the future, here in NZ, and reflects how things might be if we keep going down the free trade/privatisation path. But it’s essentially about an 18 year old boy and his Down Syndrome brother, and the nature of family. Still remains to be seen whether it will be published, but here’s hoping!
JK: Do you think - in general - story has an important role to play in equipping people - children and adults alike - for circumstances they are facing, or might face?
MH: I think story is the MOST important way to equip us with understanding about the world and our place in it. I’ve thought about this quite a bit actually, so what follows are some notes I wrote for a library conference talk.
From earliest times, people have used stories as a means of relating ideals and values important to them: i.e. where to find the best foods; what foods/people/places to avoid; the basic rules of conduct; behavioural expectations; relaying history and whakapapa etc. Story was – and still is – the means by which we investigate, interpret and understand our world.
Think of earliest man sharing stories around camp fire – stories about such things as where the best water holes are; don’t tackle that bloody great hairy creature with the huge curved tusks on your own; or over in the next valley there’s a really spunky Neanderthal of a man! ... (nothing’s really changed!) I think maybe it’s possible to divide all stories into two essential plots: those that explore Human Nature (our essential behaviours and inherent codes of ethics) and those that explore Mother Nature (how, as human beings, we interact with other animals, landscapes, weather etc) – really,these are the two most vital things we need to learn to negotiate in our lives.
Stories have the ability to go to the heart and mind of an issue, where straight reporting cannot always go – opens us up to greater empathy and understanding. For instance 1906 novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair brought alive the poverty and corruption of the times in a way no newspaper article could have (and his descriptions of meat processing in the US at that time literally brought bile to my mouth and underlined why I don’t eat meat!)
We are social animals – that’s how we survive. I think we read primarily for one of two reasons: the first is to validate our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by reading of someone traversing the same issues, the second is to safely experience something we don’t have the opportunity or courage (or good/bad luck) to experience for ourselves – including trying on different spiritual, ethical and behavioural hats. It’s also why we love gossip – we have an inbuilt fascination with other human beings and how they behave – it’s how, as youngsters, we learn to negotiate the social world.
Story helps us enter the world of others who we would not normally meet – broadens our horizons – culturally, ethnically, between the sexes, inter-generationally. We filter our understanding of the world through the ideas and input of others – parents, teachers, peers etc. – and our understanding is malleable and changes as we hear new stories and points of view.
Ego means we are constantly checking and comparing our appearance, behaviours and beliefs against others – stories give us more peepholes with which to view the kaleidoscope that is human diversity.
Think about the Pike River miners – without the personalised stories it is easier to dismiss – the same crisis in China has little effect once the newspaper is put back down, but the miner’s stories stayed with us because we entered into their lives through hearing the family stories – and the key to this is in engaging with our core emotions. It enables us to be empathetic and compassionate – the two most important values human beings need to learn to be decent members of a family/society.