Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Sons for the Return Home

Over the years, you have all been so good to me. The last time I asked here for wisdom about moving house, it was on behalf of a two-year-old. Now I’m asking for myself, because this time, the Berenstain Bears just aren’t going to cut it. (Although if you do happen to know of a fixer-upper in Auckland that is shaped like a real tree, in a neighbourhood of friendly squirrels and bunnies, please send me the address.)

For those who haven’t caught up with the news: we’re coming home.

Now, let me be clear (as our current President is given to saying): this is really exciting news. We are all elated about it. It’s great!

But it’s mind-bending, too. I set off mumbleteen years ago with a couple of suitcases and a loyal trailing boyfriend, and am going back with a shipping container’s worth of STUFF, a legal spouse, and a pair of galumphing sons for the return home. That’s a lot of baggage.

And we’ll be leaving so much behind.

Oh, if only I could chop our house into careful quarters and stuff it into the container too, I would. But alas, we must leave it here, in the hands of its next owner – who will, as is proper and right, paint over our grubby fingerprints, the boys’ height markings on the bathroom doorframe, and the paint job my dad did on his last visit here. She’ll make the house her own, as we did, and as did all the inhabitants did before us, going back a century and a half to Hezekiah and Mary Jane, who built it.

Likewise, we’ll leave the garden, and all of the literal roots we have put down over the past eight years – the fruit trees, the perennials, the mad pink rose that clambers over the front porch, the placenta under the dogwood tree. The totoro who live in the tiny “forest” of evergreens at the back of the garden; the praying mantises who descend from a noble line established decades ago by long-gone neighbours; the birds who visit so often they’ve been given names. They will all become creatures of someone else’s domain.

And that’s fine. We’re all only ever temporary tenants of a given patch of ground, as Papatuanuku has recently made irrevocably clear. Ours is a voluntary removal -- a fortunate, planned departure --and that we know where we’re going. Which helps, while I’m carefully dismantling, winnowing, and packing into boxes the only space the children have ever really known as home.

In some ways it feels like we just got here. The happy caravanserai of student years and post-doc-hood, in the course of which we traveled light and shifted every couple of years, somehow led to this temporary medium-term settling down. A house was bought, real furniture acquired; a garden was sown, a second child was born. Slowly I’ve gotten the measure of this town, and thrived in the neighbourly ecosystem of our little street. We’ve all nurtured marvelous friendships, within the occasionally frustrating limits of a transient college town. Good friends left, and others arrived, but for eight fine years, we were among the ones who stayed put. It was novel, and wonderful.

And then just when it seemed we’d be exiles for life -- if not in New Haven, then in other places in the northern hemisphere -- came an offer too good to refuse. An exciting job. An opportunity to bring our family back into the orbit of the larger whanau, to bond with their cuzzies and bask in the glow of grandparental affection and exasperation that is every child’s birthright. An end to the endless winters; a return to food that tastes like food. A chance to give the boys, before it’s too late, a New Zealand childhood.


Step into the Tardis, children. We’re going home.


Well, sort of. “Moving back to New Zealand” is not exactly the same thing as “going home,” is it?

There’s a half-remembered quote I carry around, without ever quite being able to source it properly (Julia Kristeva?), about how an exile is always an exile in time as well as space. It’s not just that you never cross the same river twice, it’s that sometimes you can’t even find the river any more because some bastard has tunnelised it, so how will you remember where to cross it, and how will the poor eels ever find their way back to the breeding place now?

Or you’re driving along a motorway that didn’t used to be there, across a field that isn’t there any more, and you literally don’t know which way to turn. Or you’re dreaming of a sprawling green quarter-acre, perhaps even an eighth, while the city you’re moving to is calculating that it needs to to jam another 800,000 people into its borders over the next 30 years.

Or you’re indoctrinating your children in the ways of the old country (Kiwi kids don’t mind the rain, they all bike to school, they go barefoot to the shops) while wondering if that’s still true in the new old country. Or you’re fleeing a school system that has prioritized standards-based testing to demonstrably no good end, only to find that – oh dear.

Or, on a more personal level, you stepped out of the room as a bright young thing, and will emerge from the blue police box a little wiser, marginally wider, definitely older. People you were at university with are running the country, or trying to, and how did that happen, and who is that middle-aged person in the mirror, and how come my younger siblings have children, and why are some people just not here any more? Will they come back, if I go back? No? Then where have they gone and why am I crying?

For a long time I’ve been vaguely homesick, like a low-grade fever. Now I think I’m feeling a little timesick. Time comes for us all, but sometimes it feels like, if you just keep moving, you can stay one step ahead of it.  So, we’re moving. Right into the teeth of it. Heading forwards, not backwards – or forwards and sideways, in a knight’s move: one step forward, diagonal dodge. Let’s see how this goes.


It’ll be all right. Because time and space wibble and wobble in good ways, too. Many of the things we left in search of turn out to have been back home all along; others have magically popped into existence while we’ve been gone. It’s a brave new world. And what we can’t find, we will make. We will have making-our-own-fun-shaped eyes by the end of this, I tell you.

Flying home from the successful job interview, the astrophysicist in the family says he felt as if he’d landed the biggest fish in the world. There it was, flapping impressively around in the bottom of the boat – well, on the floor of Flight NZ6. Triumph! And then he realized we were going to have to scale this thing, gut it, fillet it into manageable strips, and put it in the freezer. It’s a big job.

Thus the to-do list, a handy way of blunting the psychological trauma of moving by concentrating on the logistics. This is just a tiny slice of the stupidly first-worldy things currently keeping me up at night:

Sort household gear, toys, books, reduce massive stockpile of baby clothes to one box of precious items (sob). Give surplus of everything to local resettlement agency for incoming refugees because, whoah, America has been ridiculously kind to us.

Bring garden tools or best not? Give away house plants.

Start gradual process of moving Huckle down the street to live with his cat boyfriend and sweet family (hard for us, but much kinder to him than putting him on a plane).

Contact lenses. Medical records. Teeth-cleaning. IKEA.

Sell snow gear. WAIT! Global weirding! Keep snow gear!

Groovy lamps: easily rewired at NZ end, or not?

Figure out what to do with boxes of photocopied articles currently lurking in the wardrobe like the giant empty cicada husk of my dissertation. Bonfire of the vanities?

Figure out how to hang onto the ridiculously cheap New Yorker subscription I’ve had since I got here, and have it forwarded to New Zealand (yes, I could read it on the iPad, but you can’t read the iPad in the loo. Well, you shouldn’t). Figure out what to do with enormous pile of paper copies of the New Yorker acquired since I’ve been here (teleport them straight to future bach?).

Figure out how to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV. Remember that I used to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV.

Figure out whether to buy or rent in Auckland. Check bank balance. Check USD-NZD exchange rate. Check myself before I wreck myself. OK. Narrow down where to rent in Auckland (related: find out which schools are resisting the introduction of National Standards, send fan mail to principals).

Remember all those things we always meant to do while still living here. Try to imagine what it will feel like not to just be able to jump on the train and go to New York. Remind self how often one actually does this. Vow to do it as many times as possible in next two months.

And most importantly, amongst all of this, spend time with people before we go, because: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata


My dad was a huge fan of to-do lists, both for himself, and for other people. Last thing at night, he’d leave his carefully calligraphed list on the kitchen bench for the next day. When we grew older and bolder, we used to surreptitiously edit them. “Buy trampoline.” “Trim nose hair.” “Swing by pound, pick up puppy.” We did it for a giggle, but there was a subtext: Have fun. Please remember to have fun! Yeah, there’s always stuff to do, but remember to stop and have a laugh.

Note to self: put that on own list.


Hey, so. Given that we aren’t the only ones in our position – indeed, it seems a wave of godwits is heading south, as if our collective homing beacons have all suddenly gone off -- I welcome your collective wisdom and experience. Logistical, spiritual, frivolous, serious. What would you add to the to-do list of a homeward-bound family that’s counting down the weeks? How have you packed up, moved on, settled back in? Any tricks for the phase transition, especially for children? And, if not a cure for timesickness itself, perhaps a happy spell or two to calm the mind?


What was lost

This morning, my older son said “Hey, Jojo! Watch this!” as he playfully piloted a plane into the ground, on his computer, for no reason, just for fun. Completely out of the blue.

I burst into tears. Not completely out of the blue. He had no idea why.

It does my head in: he’s a very well-informed little pitcher with exceptionally big ears, but he’s made it to the age of nine and a half without knowing the full facts of that day.

This is my theory about the long delay in Obama’s speech last night: that he was giving the parents of America a break, letting them get their children to bed (at least as far as California). That way, the parents would have time to think about how to explain, all over again, what had happened on that gorgeous autumn day -- a gift of a day, warmer than it should have been, calm, beautiful, a deep blue sky -- ten years ago, when those children were just babies.

I was living in the moment, hauling my very pregnant self around the neighbourhood, drinking it all in as the clock ticked away my last days of independence. New York Fuckin’ City: it’s a beautiful place, especially in the seasons of change -- spring, autumn --when you don’t have to think about being too hot or too cold, but can just float through the gentle, fizzy, balmy air, and relish living in Metropolis.

The city of the world, in America but not quite of America, the place where those fresh off the boat somehow manage to stay fresh, even on the ground, and there's always room for one more.  When you live there, it feels like the beating heart of the whole world.  No coincidence that it’s home to the United Nations: at street level, it is the united nations. That’s the city my older child was born in, and the nation he was born into.

Who are the people in your neighbourhood? The people that you greet when you’re walking down the street? Before this child could even speak, he knew to wave hello to the Jamaican doorman, the Native American super, the Indian lady in the newspaper kiosk, the Brazilian babysitter, the Egyptian guy in the magazine shop, the Afghan ex-Air Force officer who ran the kebab stand. In New York, everyone's from somewhere, even the ones born right here; his best baby friends were British-Greek-American, biracial White-and-African-American, Pakistani-Jewish-White-American.

People sometimes raise their eyebrows at the hyphenated juggernaut of a surname he shares with his brother -- a compromise between two small dynasties both proud of their names -- but to me, it's the most goddam American thing about them.

Before the baby was born, but after that beautiful day was smashed to pieces, his grandmother died.

She loved New York, lived there herself as an NZBC correspondent in the 1950s, and had a great fund of colourful stories about garrulous cops and dubious television producers. She loved that we were living in the city,  and lived for our stories and photos of where we’d been and what we’d seen, retracing some of her footsteps.

She’d not been well for a while, but the shock of the attack seemed to precipitate a sudden decline, and then she was gone. Because we didn’t know if there’d be a second attack using planes or one that would close the airports, my partner couldn’t fly home to be at her bedside, or even for the funeral. With me within weeks of giving birth, it was too much to risk.

That’s one small thing we would want to hold Osama bin Laden responsible for, but we’d be a long way down the queue. I’d also indict him for the thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, and the several extra years it took to eventually process the Green Card applications that should have been done by that Christmas, but again, we’d be a long way down the queue.  Everyone lost something that day, individually or collectively.


What’s grieving me most this morning is that collective loss. The memory of those weeks and months after the attacks but before the wars is something I’ve suppressed so hard I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

I can only speak for the vibe in New York, and for the part of it I encountered. But what I remember from those days immediately after the attack is – not trauma, not fear, not fury, although those certainly underlay the city’s mood. But the warm flesh on that frame was a sadness, a patience, a compassion, a depth of conviction that this thing that had happened must not be allowed to stand. That it must not be allowed to overwrite the mood, the meaning, the modus vivendi of the City.

That week, we gathered at the university and sheepishly, sadly, stood next to people with candles, singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

[Candlelight vigil at Columbia, 11 September 2001]

[Union Square, later that same week]

A year and a bit later, we put the fat little toddler in his stroller and marched down Broadway with hundreds of thousands of people against the impending invasion of Iraq, chanting “Not In Our Name.”  Together we testified that no matter how great the hole in the heart of this city, you couldn’t fix it by hurting more people.  (Although, after reading the stories of people on the planes with their children, I would have hurt that man, if you’d held him still for me. I would have.)

[NYC, 23 March 2003]

Look, we weren’t politically naïve. We knew that what had happened was part of a larger narrative, one that had begun a long time before, and would continue after we were no longer around to tell it. We knew that our horror and despair mirrored that felt by the victims of violence in other places, carried out in the name of other nations including this one that we lived in. Some of us knew that from experience.

But we thought that, by acting loudly enough, all together at the same time, we could wrest the controls away from the bloodthirsty, cockamamie fools at the helm who seemed compelled to divebomb this thing, this death-drive, into the heart of yet another nation. The passengers on Flight 93 managed to intervene; why couldn’t the hundreds of thousands of people who marched, gathered, spoke, wrote – not just in New York but across the country?

That’s where my stumbling, inarticulate grief is coming from this morning. It’s been ten years of bullying from the top. Ten years of official policy increasingly designed to squash that generous, democratic, mutually supportive impulse. A decade of ever-increasing paranoia and withdrawal and pain, in the place of that first gathering of light and voice and hope. A decade of collective emotional shuttering, political atrophy, an agreement not to talk about it.

I’m sad, and furious, that my child born of that moment – along with his friends and peers, some of whom experience it way more personally on account of affiliation or appearance -- has spent his entire young life in the shadow of both the inhumane act and the official response.

The pinched distrust, the humourless eternal surveillance. Every flight he’s taken, every x-rayed teddy-bear, every stupid argument about taking off his shoes at the security gate, the time his little brother was pulled aside for extra screening, the time I was obliged to hand over a crying infant and submit to a hands-on patdown. In five years’ time he’ll be as old as the youngest prisoner was when rounded up for internment at Guantanamo. It’s a travesty. It’s a tragedy.

So, I told him the short version this morning. He knew the buildings fell down. Now he knows how, and that there were four planes, and two other crash sites, and that some people were braver than you’d imagine it possible to be under such circumstances.

He knew the country is in the middle of two wars, collectively longer than both World Wars; now he knows why, even though there’s no easy explanation that quite makes sense to his ears, or to mine.  He knew that some of our friends are in the armed forces, others were rescue workers; now he knows where, and has an inkling of why they’re not so keen on loud noises, long flights, and burning smells.

The one thing I can’t explain properly is how the personality of this place has changed over the last ten years -- not when it’s all he’s ever known. Nor can I explain why it’s going to be partly his and his brother’s job to try and change it back, even though it wasn’t their fault. Some things are just unfair.

A bad man is dead. Ten years of suspended animation, ten years of sleepwalking towards the future. What next?  

Amid the legitimate, involuntary catharsis – ten years, ten years! -- and the strange eruptions of what looks like unseemly joy, I hope for a reemergence of whatever spirit it was that took us to the streets those early days, weeks, months in New York.  A spirit of humility, and shared humanity, and hope, and an expectation of having a voice in what happens next.

We can’t get back everything that was lost, but I want that part of it, at least.


Images below by Gemma Gracewood, taken in lower Manhattan, 2 May 2011


A new (old) sensation

The piece below originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Metro magazine, billed rather provocatively on the cover as "What's wrong with NZ novels?"

I'm grateful for the softening effect of that question mark: "A few diagnostic gestures towards a working theory of some current plot trends in the New Zealand literary novel" would have been more accurate, but probably wouldn't have helped sell copies of the magazine.

The article got a lot of feedback; most of it positive, and pretty much all of it off the record (both of which surprised me).  One correspondent summed up the general response thus: readers thought I was basically right, except for one thing -- and that "one thing" was completely different for each individual.

In fact, it wasn't right I was after, so much as useful: I distrust grand unified theories, but am intrigued and beguiled by patterns, and by exceptions. It's always easier to identify patterns in the past, once the dust has cleared and the canon stands outlined against the sky, but I wanted to at least try to draw some literary isobars on the map of here and now.

Re-reading the article now, what strikes me (underneath the gleeful hyperbole) is a pretty transparent tug-of-love between exasperated critic and soppy literary fan-girl. I didn't particularly want to be right about this  impression I was gathering. But I didn't want to be alone with it, either.

So let's make it more useful, more nuanced. Tell me your "one thing" -- or, even better, your more-than-one thing -- that I'm wrong about. What have you dozed off over lately, despite yourself? What's keeping you awake? Does the changing context of reading make you crave less sensation, or more?  Is this just a phase we're all going through, readers and writers alike? Tell me, do. I'm all ears.


Once More With Feeling

Jolisa Gracewood has had enough of the "new sensationalism" in New Zealand fiction.

At bedtime, there’s no sweeter soporific than a beloved paperback. But too often, lately, I’ve sat down in broad daylight to read something new and promising, only to startle awake some time later with the book lying across my nose like a chloroform-soaked hankie. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and longer to admit it: I wasn’t tired. I was bored.

This was bothersome. Firstly, because so many of these narcoleptic volumes were by New Zealanders. Given that it is theoretically possible to read all the New Zealand fiction released in a given year, it feels rude not to at least try. These are our stories. And I don’t want to just lie back and think of the South Island, I want to love these books. All of them.

Secondly, and paradoxically: the novels that were testing my stamina were the very ones clamouring for my attention. Full of thrilling atmosphere and lurid incident, all vaudeville and freak show, they seemed explicitly designed to keep me up all night. So why was I nodding off by lunchtime?

A few off-the-record conversations reassured me I wasn’t alone. (Also, that we all felt a bit stink about it, so if you’re a publisher or author breathing into a paper bag at this point, give thanks for the enduring power of the national brand.) Then I stumbled across a pithy quote, from 19th-century American orator Wendell Phillips, that gave me some hope: “Boredom is, after all, a form of criticism.”

All right: perhaps my resistance to this hectic prose was not a failure, but a hint. Witi Ihimaera’s The Trowenna Sea helped set my compass. Frankly, the borrowings were the least of its issues. This was a novel I was excited about reading, based on a powerful, heartbreaking local story that Ihimaera had boldly expanded across a stage the size of the British Empire.

The result was, alas, a sentimental hodgepodge. A heavily foreshadowed romance never eventuated, while fascinating historical events came festooned with needless grotesquery. I’m still trying to erase from memory the deeply peculiar death scene of the poor hunchbacked Scotsman.

A few months earlier, I had read Gillian Ranstead’s Girlie. Like Ihimaera’s novel, it promised to interrogate the parallels between dispossessed Highlanders and Maori. In practice, it buried its considerable light under a bushel of such unremitting misery and disaster — visited particularly upon children — that I struggled to finish it. Not for the first time I wondered why, in our multigenerational stories of settler families, there’s never anything nice in the woodshed.

Meanwhile, other writers were raiding the colonial cabinet of curiosities. Which is, it must be said, a great place to find material, but there’s a fine line between rewriting and recycling. Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey’s foray into the German colonial adventure in Papua New Guinea (see review, page 102), might almost be a satire of the frontier romance, but left me
unsure whether to laugh or sigh.

The indigenous people so invisible in Quinine were at least present in Rachael King’s lush but troubling South American adventure The Sound of Butterflies and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, but (Matilda aside) mainly as voiceless victims and/ or perpetrators of capricious violence. Oddly, none of this gruesome slaughter affected me as much as the matter-of-fact death by hanging in Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew.

And it wasn’t only the novels set long ago and far away: even authors tackling the way we live now went a bit Hudson and Halls, over-egging their puddings and sometimes over-saucing them too. Jones’ ambitious Hand Me Down World, which UK reviewers generally loved, ranged widely but struck me as implausible at almost every turn (except for the bit about sleeping in the railway station: I could have read a whole novel about that).

Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded The Rehearsal is a three-ring circus fizzing with genius. Still, more than one reader told me they got through it only by skipping an entire thread. I fantasised about slicing it into three perfectly stunning books: a drama school exposé, a girls’ school story, and a dark lesbian romance for those who like their Muriels sparky. Thrice the readership, thrice the profit.

And when Emily Perkins wove a ghost story and a fallen woman and an orphaned infant into Novel About My Wife, her deliciously dark portrait of property speculation and procreation in contemporary London, I couldn’t help wondering if it would have worked just as well if it were Novel About My House. I read it in one sitting, and was never bored — but I might have re-read it a few times already had it been a slightly less hyperbolic novel of manners.

Obviously, I’m tugging at a single thread here, just part of the wider fabric of our literary landscape. If a dedicated literary locavore tires of an overly fruity diet, there are perfectly good alternatives: the thrills of genre fiction; the cooler-headed chroniclers of modern mores, like Paula Morris, Chad Taylor, Charlotte Grimshaw; or new classics from the old guard, models of narrative decorum and wit.

But the surfeit of incident in current novels, and my own stubborn indifference to it, set me thinking about the “sensation novels” of the 1860s and 70s. These racy potboilers, full of intrigue — murders, kidnappings, blackmail, bigamy, stolen inheritances, double identities, orphans — were devoured all over the Empire, including our rural hinterland, as recounted in Lydia Wevers’ Reading on the Farm (full disclosure: I edited the manuscript).

For colonial readers, Wevers argues, such colourful fare was not just escapist, but often reflective of the world they lived in. It was also disposable: very little of it survives in the canon.

This “new sensationalism”, though: will it last? And where is it coming from? It’s not exactly what critic James Wood waspishly called “hysterical realism”, the sprawling, busy novels into which Zadie Smith and other writers tried to cram the vast panorama of modern life. (Wouldn’t you love to see a New Zealander have a go at that, though? Debra Daley’s millennial Cruel World comes close, but languishes unpublished.)

Ours feels more like drama for its own sake. But is it a reaction against the old laconicism, or just a new form of it: so much sensation, so little feeling? I wonder if these pyrotechnical plots spring from the same source as my readerly impatience. You know, ars longa, vita increasingly brevis: reading as a zero-sum game. Squeezed off the shelf by dragon tattoos and Leonardo codes, aware that readers’ attentions are finite (but infinitely catered for), are our authors just throwing everything they’ve got at us and hoping some of it sticks?

The novel is in crisis, as usual, although our writers have never been better trained or had more opportunities to promote their wares. Even as the publishing world hunkers down behind cookbooks and sporting biographies, the advent of e-books opens up a world of new fiction readers. The internet could be to our literary exports what refrigerated shipping was to our mutton trade. It’s a great time to be bored with New Zealand literature: anything could happen and it could be right now.

What to do in the meantime? The Atlantic Monthly’s critic B.R. Myers recently suggested avoiding new fiction altogether “unless it promises to be as good as the classics we thereby leave unread”. That’s bonkers, but he’s onto something: let’s compare what we’re buying off the shelves because we think we have to, with what we’re taking back down off the shelves because we want to.

I asked my online circle what New Zealand novels they’d re-read lately. The twitterati responded with a number of classics from the usual suspects (mine were Patricia Grace and Robin Hyde), with a surprisingly strong vote for Ngaio Marsh. One wit nominated The Hobbit. But most popular were young-adult novels, especially by Margaret Mahy, Maurice Gee and Kate de Goldi. Why? Nostalgia, yes — but also, I suspect, a joyful re-engagement with stories about recognisable, complicated people on the cusp of brave action.

That’s the kind of sensation I’m after: I read novels in order to feel something, but I want to spend time with characters who do something, rather than relentlessly suffer things done to them. This isn’t a retro manifesto. I adore technical bravado and stylistic risk, but without a beating, plausible human heart, they’re a largely mechanical exercise. And atmospheric plot machinations alone won’t keep this reader coming back for more.

All the special effects are wasted if we lose sight of what’s especially affecting. I want to care for, fear for, cheer for the people on the page as they stumble into their ordinary, shining, all-too-finite futures — all of us with eyes wide open.


She loves you, YA, YA, YA!

Up-and-coming New Zealand author Karen Healey first caught my eye via her LiveJournal blog, the magnificently named Attention Rebellious Jezebels. One day, as a consciousness & self-esteem-raising exercise, she asked her readers to write in and explain why they were  awesome. The resulting love-in made my day.

Turns out Karen herself is not short on awesome: a book-loving globe-trotting big sister of three who has spent several years in Japan, she has  an M.A. (with a thesis investigating SuicideGirls.com's claim to be "empowering erotica"), and is currently completing a Ph.D. on contemporary superhero comics as fan-created text. At the University of Awesome.

And now she's an acclaimed YA author, whose first book, Guardian of the Dead,  has just been named one of Kirkus Book Reviews' top novels for teens of 2010 -- and is a finalist for the American Library Association's prestigious Morris Award, which honours debut novels in the field of teen fiction.

Guardian of the Dead is a funny, uncanny, terrifying adventure, featuring a kick-ass misfit heroine with unrealised powers, a gorgeous boy who's out of reach, a mysterious boy who's a bit mad, possibly bad, and certainly dangerous to know; and some enormously scary indigenous fairies. I'd describe the book as fantasy, but it's not that exactly. It's real world stuff --  school, drama club, parties and crushes -- sliced on the diagonal by a blade of sheer supernatural horror. The NZ edition, in particular, has a seriously lovely cover (and there's an interesting story behind it).

I've also had a sneak read of her equally exciting next book, The Shattering, which is set in a fictional town on the West Coast of the South Island where it's always summer. A trio of teens -- a straight-edge Samoan guy, a sexy rock chick, and a strong, androgynous Maori-Pakeha heroine -- set out to solve the mystery of a string of untimely deaths. In the process, they stumble across a big dark secret and a few small dark ones as well. (My e-mails to Karen while reading the typescript consisted of a series of variations on "Whoah, did NOT see that coming!").

I got my chance to meet the awesomeness in person this summer, when Karen was in New York for the US launch of her book. She trekked up to New Haven for lunch and a swim and some convoluted conversations with a pair of small boys who were pretty excited to meet a real live author, especially one with such great hair.* And then, some months later, we conducted a proper interview via e-mail.

Q. For starters, I adore your quick-and-dirty conversational book reviews. Ever chatted up your own book that way? Care to do so for my readers, in a not too spoilery fashion?

I have, actually, somewhere on the internet, but I've no idea where. So here we go.

BOOK: I'm, um, I'm about Maori mythology - and other mythologies - in a contemporary setting and I have a first person protagonist who-  

ME: BORING. Why don't you let the characters speak for you?  

BOOK: FINE. Characters, enter stage left.

ELLIE: Lalala, another dreary winter's day in dreary Christchurch at the boarding school my parents dumped me at while they toured the world, far from my Napier home. Luckily, I have a single but great friend in Kevin, who would never get me drunk and drag me into using my martial arts experience to choreograph the stagefighting for his university play with his other best friend, the way-too-perfect Iris!  

KEVIN: Um, actually...  

ELLIE: UGH. Okay. Lalala, another dreary morning walking to school and bumping into the silent loner upon whom I have a crush, which appears to have awakened my latent magical powers.

MARK: I'm gonna lie to you a lot and mindwipe you now.  

ELLIE: What? I object!  

MARK: Sorry, I'm too busy trying to save your best friend from a [spoiler redacted] to worry about some totally standard everyday mindwiping that made you spew.  

ELLIE: That's going to cost you a punch in the face later.  

MARK: I guess I'll be REALLY sorry then. Oh, by the way, now that we've [spoiler redacted], the whole North Island is in danger.  

ELLIE: Not the North Island! All my stuff is there!  

MARK: Maybe your punches will help?  

ELLIE: No, for this I'm going to need some side kicks. Also, some ethics. 

MARK: You're fascinating. Tell me more about this "ethics".

ELLIE: I will if we can make out.  

MARK: [wahey, spoiler redacted!]

BOOK: They forgot about the desperate fight against powerful enemies! And Iris didn't get to say anything! And Kevin only got one line! And Professor Gribaldi wasn't mentioned at ALL. Also, there wasn't any discussion of the way the book handles variant mythologies in a multi-cultural society with a –  

ME: Shhh! Make-outs!

Q. Ha, I'd say that's a pretty fair summary. So, the first part of the book is set firmly in Christchurch. Having lived there, I could (as with many of Margaret Mahy’s books) feel myself walking through the various locations. Or, in the case of one particularly spooky scene set in Dean’s Bush, cycling through it very extremely super fast while not looking behind me. This solidity of geographical specification seems unusual to me in YA fiction. Or is it?

Thank you! I worked pretty hard to make that part of the setting thoroughly Christchurchian - even the places I made up are as close as I could get to a Christchurch aesthetic. I have the feeling my version of Napier is a little less specific, since I've never lived there, but no one has complained yet.

I don't think it's that unusual in YA -- Holly Black's Tithe has a very tangible New Jersey, for example -- but it seems to stand out to people who have spent a lot of time in Christchurch. To me Christchurch is a very real space, and I wanted to ground the fantastical adventures in that sense of reality.

Q. I stand corrected on the question of location, having also just read (on your recommendation) the delightfully Christmas-themed Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, which could only have taken place in New York, and which is compulsory reading for anyone hankering to be sixteen, in love, in a bookshop, in NYC in a snowstorm, or any combination thereof.

Back to Guardian of the Dead: one American reviewer said “This isn’t a book that uses New Zealand as a backdrop; this is a book that couldn’t exist without New Zealand.” That’s incontrovertible, given the crucial role that Maori mythologies play in the plot. Two questions here: was there ever a moment where you considered not using that material? And were there times when that material was especially difficult -- or indeed productive -- for you?

Given that the book is, in a lot of ways, a story about how stories shape us and our land, there's no way I could have written Guardian of the Dead without drawing upon the first stories of the land. Actually, I'm not sure whether thinking about the mythologies or thinking about the theme came first, but they were both very early in the conceptualisation process.

The difficulty for me came in trying to ensure that my treatment was accurate and respectful; I grew up with these tales, like a lot of Kiwi kids, but these stories aren't my personal cultural heritage, and I needed to be careful for the sake of those for whom they are cultural property. I did a lot of research and had the benefit of several cultural consultants, but worrying that I'd screwed it up was a big concern. Especially since I knew the book was going to be sold in the US -- it's not like readers there have the resources young New Zealanders can access. For a lot of readers, it was the first time they'd ever encountered Maori mythology or a New Zealand setting in YA.

But it's enormously rich material. A lot of the myths, like Maui's quest to be claimed and recognised by his parents, or the story of Rangi and Papa's sons, or Hine-titama's conflict with her father-husband, are really strong family stories. I think stories of family conflict especially resonate with teen readers, and I found that really inspiring.

Q. You know, before reading Guardian of the Dead, I’d never thought of the patupaiarehe as having pre-dated any human arrivals. The notion of early Maori arriving to find a land already populated, albeit by supernatural creatures, is provocative and exciting. How did you stumble upon it?

I think I first read that notion in one of the stories Governor Grey collected and published. Those are often bowdlerised accounts made palatable to European tastes, rather than true translations, so they're not good sources in a lot of ways, but I thought the idea was pretty interesting. Or it might have been one of the other texts located on my *internet boyfriend*, the University of Victoria Library's New Zealand Electronic Text Collection!

One of the things I wanted to write about is how Aotearoa is an immigrant country -- even our first people have a strong immigrant history, with the iwi connection to their first waka -- and how subsequent clashes are mediated through story. So having pre-human settlers seemed an interesting slant on dealing with that.

Q. One of the main characters in Guardian of the Dead is in the process of coming out as asexual (and oops, I almost typed “asymmetrical” -- an instructive Freudian slip, given that asexuality is often misunderstood as a transitional state en route to a supposedly more definitive orientation). This struck me as deeply unusual in teen/YA fiction; if anything, the genre as a whole seems to be concerned with blossoming desire of one sort or another, and the troubles and excitement thereof. As you reveal, an asexual teen has a very different set of interpersonal challenges to negotiate when coming to sexual maturity amidst a bubbling cauldron of hormones, cultural norms, and familial expectations. Can you tell me more about where this part of the story came from?

Like a lot of parts of the story, the genesis was in me looking at a well-worn trope I didn't like much and wondering how I could screw with it -- in this case, the ideal of the lady in the tower, the damsel in distress. A lot of the time, her marker of goodness is that she resists sex, because she's chaste and virtuous (which are apparently the same thing) and then when the hero turns up to save her she's awarded to him. But she hasn't evinced any interest in sex! Why would she want sex with this guy? How totally unfair.

So I was noodling about this in the back of my head. I knew a little about asexuality; through friends and LGBTQ(A) ally interest rather than personal identity. I started thinking, what if the lady in the tower, the person who might need saving from a vile seducer, were actually asexual, rather than "chaste", and were acknowledged as such? And didn't want sex from the evil seducer, nor the heroic rescuer, and wasn't awarded to the latter? And, incidentally, what if she weren't a lily-white maid, but an athletic Maori teenage boy?

So I did research and talked to people and so on; again, it's the idea of trying to be as respectful and accurate as possible. Ace people aren't a monolith, of course, and there are plenty of different ways to be asexual, all of them valid. I really hope that Kevin isn't seen as reflecting all asexual teens, or a universal asexual experience, because that doesn't exist. But at the same time I wanted to hit a few points that are common for a lot of -- but not all -- asexual people. That unless they come out people will assume they're sexual, because it's just assumed people, and teenage boys in particular, are automatically sexual, that that's the norm. That once they do come out they often have to explain they're not gay (or sometimes, they are, but asexually so) or just going through a "stage". I mean, sexuality and sexual identity can be fluid for a lot of people, but no one ever says to a straight sexual person, "oh, maybe you're just going through a stage of being straight and sexually interested in the opposite gender. Maybe you'll be normal soon." That idea that straight sexual identity is "normal", instead of just "most common", it's insidious.

And so Kevin's asexuality tied into the story in a few ways, I think; as part of his characterisation, of course, but also in the ways the story deals with inheritance, and with magic, and how it connects to personality and how it can be resisted. Not all of that is explicit, but it's what I was thinking about while I wrote.

Q. Guardian of the Dead is narrated by Ellie, who is a classic teen fiction heroine in many ways: she's an outsider, smart, witty, observant, and possessed of hidden depths and unusual talents that will come in useful in the course of the book. Was writing from Ellie's point of view a deliberate choice, or just the way this particular story needed to be told? How did you go about finding her voice?

As you say, smart outsider teen heroines are common, for which I, as someone who was a smart outsider teen, am eternally grateful.

Writing from the point of view of an outsider has lots of advantages from a craft point of view; you get to have things explained to your protagonist without so much of the dreaded as-you-know-Bob exposition (which I still wasn't quite able to avoid). In terms of writing about cultural treasures in which you have no personal ownership, it's often a good choice to do so from an outsider's point of view; my inevitable errors can be Ellie's cluelessness, rather than errors that would be totally mystifying (and insulting) from someone who's supposed to be familiar with the culture in question.

I actually wrote a couple of early chapters in the third person, but first person narration entirely from Ellie's point of view seemed a better fit - I was able to narrow the focus down, and still reveal things to the reader of which Ellie wasn't aware, because of Mark's habit of wiping her memory from time to time. Not that ethical, but real handy for plot! Ellie's voice was always something that came easily.

My second novel, The Shattering, has three protagonists and three points of view - one is in the first person, and the other two are in the third person. That was a lot of fun, and more of a challenge when it came to creating three authentic voices. On the first run through the manuscript my editors noted that the two girls sounded too similar. I eventually abandoned feeling my way through what came naturally and made lists of lots of linguistic tics for all three of them - i.e., Sione never swears, Keri uses Kiwi slang, Janna uses American slang and run-on sentences - and obsessively combing through the manuscript to remove cross-pollination.

Q. Unlike writers who coyly protest that they never read reviews, not even the good ones, you not only happily read reviews of your work, but seem singularly relaxed about them. What’s the best positive line about your book that you’ve come across -- and the best negative line?

Hah! Yeah, I'm incurably curious, and I live on the internet, which would be a terrible combination for anyone trying to resist reading their reviews. So I don't even try. I'm not always singularly relaxed, but inflicting my occasional stiffness on the public wouldn't be terribly productive. I don't think anyone would be particularly interested by me scoffing at someone who just doesn't UNDERSTAND my work, my BRILLIANT BRILLIANT work with all its SUBTLE AMAZINGNESS. Even my friends aren't that interested, and they have to listen, cause I know where they live. Reviews aren't even about me, anyway; they're about the book, which isn't, and can't be, all things to all people.

I think my favourite positive line was the teen reviewer for VOYA, who said, "This captivating tale will have readers hiding under the covers with a trusty flashlight until they finish the last fascinating and heartfelt page." I was so flattered! Torch reading, excellent!

And my favourite negative line, which I will paraphrase, to prevent their being identified, was someone who protested that it felt as if I had included as many sexual orientations as possible, and they weren't even serving the plot (which presumably would have been more forgivable).

I found that hilarious, because I'd worried first that I hadn't accurately represented the actual diversity of New Zealand (one offscreen queer woman and an asexual boy in a large cast isn't that diverse!), and second that I'd made Kevin's asexuality too plot-relevant, that it might read as if he wasn't allowed to just BE asexual, but had to be so in order to serve the story. I mean, Bella Swan's sexuality is vastly important to the plot of Twilight, but no one says, "Well, clearly she was made straight on purpose, but it serves the plot, so that's okay". Invisible "normal" straightness, again!

Q. You write for young adults, although older adults who can remember being young will also find their way to your books, as should anyone who simply loves a jolly good story. From where I sit -- credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and mostly a reviewer of Serious Adult Fiction for Serious Adults -- YA literature seems kind of the fierce but neglected younger sibling who just can't get no respect. Especially in the review pages of Big Important Papers and Magazines. And yet: Harry Potter! Twilight! Mockingjay! Percy Jackson! And my just-turned-9 year old is saving his pocket money so he can buy yet another boxed set of an interminable epic about warring clans of wild cats (incredibly wealthy wild cats, at this point)!

Which is to say, when the great publishing houses fall because Nobody Reads Anything That's Not on the Internet Any More, the printing presses will still be cranking out fictional fodder for the young and hungry, yes? And this is a good thing, yes?

I'm also credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and like many writers, I read a lot, in varying genres. I am (of course!) biased, but I genuinely think that YA literature is at present producing some of the most original and certainly the most engaging stories available. I think a lot of the scorn YA authors see in established literary venues is based in ideals of high culture snobbery. It would be great to have our fiction assessed according to what styles and ideas are presented, what cultural work it actually does, rather than slinging it all into the general category of unworthy, juvenile fiction, beneath the notice or interest of the discerning reader. Other than the really big sellers, only a few shining examples, nearly always contemporary or "problem" novels, are picked out as somehow rising about their filthy genre.

I don't write YA because I'm not skilled enough to write adult literature, or because I think teenagers are a passive audience who will indiscriminately devour any old garbage. On the contrary, I think they are demanding, involved, canny readers. They won't keep going with something that's "improving" literature if they don't like it - they get enough of that in school. If a book doesn't entertain them in their leisure time, they'll toss it. The YA blogosphere is amazing. These young readers establish international book tours, run prize draws, and engage in social media in a lot of ways that more established review outlets have entirely ignored, to, I think, their detriment.

So yeah, it's annoying that YA is all but ignored in the major review outlets. I think a lot of adult readers are missing out on stuff they would really enjoy, although more and more of them are crossing over into the YA section, where they are very welcome. But, you know, we're doing our own thing. It would be nice to have the big names take more notice, but in the YA world, we don't really need them to get by. It's a bit like the situation with romance as a genre, which is routinely ignored or condemned by the literary-academic establishment, but is by far the largest slice of the English-reading consumer market at 13.2 percent. The printing presses will still produce YA! And that is indeed a good thing.

Q. I recently reviewed a book by a writer who has said "Nothing I write comes out of consideration for the reader" (in my rather cranky opinion, it showed). Do you have an Ideal Reader in mind when you write? Could you write without one?

My Ideal Reader while I'm actually writing is myself. I read a lot of YA, I know what I do and don't like, and I write, to the best of my ability, the story I want to read.

But after I've written, my Ideal Reader is everyone who reads the book and goes, "I liked this bit!" or "This bit made me think!" or "I didn't like what she did here, but I think she was trying to do this and I wish she'd done it this way instead." I pretty much appreciate every reader, but readers who take the time to think and communicate what they're thinking are just fantastic.


* Great hair, I tell you:

Image by Karen Healey


Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead is currently on the shelves; The Shattering will be released in September 2011.


A Classical Education: Chapter 4 Going On 5

On Dialogue

It is true, my child, that dialogue is how we come to understand the world. By steady question and answer, between the curiosity of youth and the wisdom of age, we approach truth. And yet though there may not be an end to your questioning, there may sometimes be an end to the answering, as when you find yourself yet again in a conversational cul-de-sac with your mother on the exact details of the demise in battle of Obi wan Kenobi, vis-à-vis the death by old age of Yoda. There are some things we do not know, or have forgotten, or do not give a stuffed fig about, whereupon we must bring our dialogue to an end with an aphorism from the great Xanthippe herself: Ask Your Father.

On Nostalgia (In a busy taverna)

“Hey, hey, hey, HEY, remember that time I said ‘Holy shit’?” Note: this is also an example of a rhetorical question.

On the Myriad Schools of Philosophy

The Logician (aged 4): “I know why chicken wings are called chicken wings. Because: they are wings. From a chicken.”

The Sophist (aged 9): “OK, what about buffalo wings?”

This is what we call an aporia.

The Gods

Although geographically suspect, Thoth, the God of Wisdom, is a perfectly good choice for your Favourite God. Not least because your painstaking pronunciation of the phrase “Thoth, the God of Wisdom”, lisp and all, will cause all about to you melt in delight and shower you with sweetmeats and demand that you say it again and again.

Wisdom is, after all, the goal of all young men. You may seek it from your elders -- some of whom, at twice your age, are full of it. Respect your brother, but retain an open mind, as he is known to spend long hours in the library consulting the comedic scrolls of Bill Watterson as well as the more reliable authorities of Popular Science and How It Works.

If you begin, on the harsh advice of your brother, to doubt the veracity of the gods, be warned that it is not wise to ask a jive-talking Magic 8 Ball if the gods are “really true.” Great unhappiness will follow should the oracular ball respond “IN YOUR DREAMS.”

To restore harmony in the domestic sphere, it is considered auspicious for a parent to shake the Magic 8 Ball until it says “FO’ SHO.” Be thus reassured that the gods have not abandoned you, and your brother shall be justly punished for his excess of sceptical proselytising, although probably not with a hemlock milkshake. This time.

Your suggestion of asking the ball “Did you just lie to me about whether Thoth is really true?” is not without philosophical merit, but recall the paradox: All Magic 8 Balls are liars.

Drama; also, Hygiene (In a public convenience)

Your mythos, or story, is “I need to go to the bathroom! I need to go to the bathroom! I need to go to the bathroom!” Your ethos, or character, is an independent young man who can do everything all by himself. (We do not, at this age, regard such a trait as a tragic flaw, but rather as a laudable expression of heroic aspiration). The dianoia, or theme, of this particular drama is: the eternal balance of convenience vs inconvenience. Also, penises are funny.

Act I

Announce your intention and narrate your performance. This is lexis, or speech. For example: “Hey guess WHAT I’m just using the magic willy window in my Star Wars undies to do a awesome wee! Did you SAW that?! That was AMAZING!”

[NB in younger players, such hubris goes unpunished; this lessens the dramatic effect somewhat but improves morale among the actors, not to mention the chorus]

Chorus: (as if accustomed to such proceedings) “Yes, I saw it. Yes, it was amazing.”

Act II

Adjust your costume, approach the sink, and bang firmly on the soap dispenser six times, without result. Shout “WHAT THE!”

Help is needed; this is a moment of perepeteia, or reversal.

Accept assistance from the Chorus. Praise the results. “Whoa, PINK SOAP! COOL!”

Chorus: (briefly occupying the hero’s aesthetic viewpoint) “Huh, you’re right. It’s all shiny and it sort of glows. That is cool, actually.”

Ignore the Chorus and turn on the tap as far as it will go, such that a great roaring cascade of water pours down. Jump back one step and bring your fists up to your shoulders while yelling “AWESOME!!!!!!!” This is opsis, or spectacle.

Chorus: (apparently genuinely impressed) “Wow!” or possibly “WHOA!”

The handwashing ritual, as the dramatic height of the performance, should be enacted over a minimum of five minutes. Throughout, perform a full range of tongue-extending and eye-rolling gymnastics in the mirror, as if entertained by (or entertaining) a monkey on the other side of a window.

Chorus: (urgently) “Come on. Come on. They must be clean by now.”

At this climactic point, verbal extemporising is encouraged. A ceaseless ululation of “ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE” considerably assists the effect, amplifying the tension experienced by your immediate audience while emanating beyond the walls of the theatre to arouse wondrous thoughts in passersby, whether of horror or curiosity. This we call melos, or music.

Chorus: Dramatic hand gestures.

[Optional: the Chorus may moan quietly to itself at this point, expressing impatience beyond endurance, or a bittersweet commentary on the hero’s bumpy progress towards independence, or a combination thereof.]


Rip paper towel from its dispenser, rapidly dry hands. Then abruptly swivel and pause before the mirror to gaze at self (anagnorisis: a moment of recognition).

Now: gently wipe away the chocolate moustache that has lent a mock gravitas to the entire performance. This shall cause a great and nearly unbearable wave of pathos to roll over your audience.

Then, without warning, SLAM DUNK the paper towel into a nearby nappy disposal and FLIP THE LID, just because.


This is catharsis.