Busy in the back room

It’s ages since I posted anything. I’ve been busy moving house and cities, and working on two new books.

I live in Dunedin now. My study has a view of the Pacific Ocean. Most days there’s a long flat horizon where sea meets sky. Sometimes there’s a huge roll of bumpy cloud far out there at the edge of a mirror-sea. Some days it’s all cloud or mist, and the white chimney of the house over the road seems to float in it like an unmoored castle.

Soon it will time to change the name of this blog. And The Tales of Fontania Facebook page will be ‘Barbara Else Author page’ or something. I still have to figure that out.

I am working on a new children’s novel, not part of the Fontania series. There’s still a layer to put in this new one. Writing a novel is rather like baking a cake. A famous editor once said that writers are like good cooks – they always know what to add, and when. But I think we’ll make that ‘writers hope eventually they’ll figure out what to put in the mixture.’

The recipe for this book is taking while to sort out, and the cake’s a sort of upside-down layer cake. There is a great deal of cake actually in the book too.

Before that novel comes out, I’ll have published a totally new kind of book for me. It’s been incredibly exciting to work on it, with a hugely talented lot of people. I’m waiting for the publisher to say – spread the news! So I’m not even telling you the name yet. But the page proofs have been checked and checked again and the whole thing is off to the printer. arrived this week, so I’m very excited.  The real-life-rejoicing cake to celebrate this book just has to wait a few more months.

In the meantime, here’s a picture on my study wall. It’s the clock tower of Otago University in Dunedin. It’s actually a piece of needlework done my grandmother, Alice Lucy Jane Groves, maybe eighty years ago or even more.  If anyone can explain why it insists on sitting sideways on this blog post, I’ll be very grateful.


A review of The Knot Impossible

On a wet winter afternoon, I found this post, unposted, from some time last year.  So I’ll post it now then think about writing a new one.

The unposted is:

Here’s one of the first reviews of the 4th Tale of Fontania. It’s always scary seeing a new review come out. Some writers say they never read reviews of their work. Secretly I think they’re fibbing. Um. Now I’ve written that, it isn’t secret any more.





Hey, young readers, Happy New Year from a nervous grown-up


What will I have written by the end of 2016?  Now that the Tales of Fontania are finished (the 4th, The Knot Impossible, is out already in New Zealand and Australia, out in March in the USA) it is time for me to try something new.

At the moment I’m packing my bags ready to take the ferry from Wellington NZ to the South Island. Then I’ll drive all the way down the east coast to Dunedin and Otago University for six months as the 2016 Children’s Writing Fellow. This still makes me blink with astonishment.

I told the University something about the new novel I hoped to write. I even showed them the first few pages of the first draft. They said, ‘Yay, we want you! Come down!’ (Um, they were rather more formal about it but they did sound excited, which was very flattering and made me super-excited too.) I had to keep the news deep-secret for months. That was extreeeemely hard.

But now – I’m nervous.  I’d rather scurry back to Fontania and the strange creatures that live in its forests and oceans. Already I miss the brave Fontanian children who struggled to sort out the muddles grownups were making of everything.

I have to tell myself – the new novel will have a different set of brave children. They too will struggle, make jokes and be bemused and amused by grown-ups. (After all I am still very bemused and amused by plenty of grown-ups.) When I’m finally in Dunedin in my own university office, maybe the ideas and action of this new novel and the jokes will begin to bubble in my brain and race out my fingertips through the keyboard and onto the screen.

Please send encouraging thoughts to beautiful Dunedin with its magical harbour and Otago University with its handsome clock tower – very gothic and even a bit Harry Potter-ish. I must post a photo of it on the blog very soon.

In the meantime here’s a shot of a performance of the Anarchists’ Marching Song from The Volume of Possible Endings. Rousing.

Marching Song 3

Let’s hear it for minor characters!

Probably every reader has favourite characters from favourite stories. Most often they’ll be the main ones, like Pippi Longstocking or Pooh Bear, Willie Wonka or Charlie himself  from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I had a great letter from a reader a couple of weeks back. It’s always special to hear from children who’ve enjoyed one or more of the Tales of Fontania and Zac from Nelson said something really pleasing. Among other things he liked a minor character in The Travelling Restaurant, Crispin Kent. He’s a journalist who also appears in The Volume of Possible Endings. Journalists are meant just to report the news, not take sides.

But Mr Kent seems dodgy at first. Is he a spy? Is he an enemy? He’s one of my favourite minor characters too, because he does seem so slippery and I’ve known several slightly wicked but very funny people a bit like him.

Have a think about the last book you read. Did any of the minor characters stand out? Can you work out why? How about writing a story of your own, with that character as the main one?


How cool are maps?

J R R Tolkein said: “Believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough. Otherwise you wander all over the place. In The Lord of the Rings I never made anyone go farther than he could on a given day.” I loved following the adventures in the maps, and the artist helped give atmosphere to the story.

I feel very lucky to have an artist as clever as Sam Broad to do the cover and maps for each of the Tales of Fontania. He has an amazing sense of fun and drama. I don’t think he could do a boring picture no matter how hard to tried. His illustrations almost zoom off the page with energy. The other thing I really like is how he adds his own details to the basic ideas.

The Volume of Possible Endings is in five parts and each one is headed by an illustration. The one on page 158 is a fabulous raven soldier. See how his foot rests on the toadstool. See the feather dropping off his hunky arm. And take a look at the can of army rations on p 98. It’s disgusting. I love it.

The inside covers of The Volume of Possible Endings have a map of Owl Town where most of the action takes place. While I’m drafting a novel, I have to do maps myself to make sure I’m sending the characters in the right directions. I’m very grateful that Sam can look at my scrappy scribbles and turn them into versions that are so much fun and – well, I’ve already said clever. But when it’s about Sam Broad, it is worth saying clever at least twice.

Check out more of his work on his website.

What’s Cooking?

Readers told me they loved the food in The Travelling Restaurant and hoped there’d be more delicious feasts in The Queen and the Nobody Boy. Well – most of the food there was rather awful, like stale potatoes and the mess in the dining car of the wind-train.

The third book, The Volume of Possible Endings, is due out in November. There’s a horrible lunch which seems to be cat food on a slice of bread. But there is also the main character’s favourite fish dish, spotty plumpoe (you can only catch spotty plumpoe in Fontanian rivers.)  It is followed by lemon slice which really is very good and I make it here in New Zealand. One young man I know ate so much of it that he threw up.

I wrote about another dessert in The Queen and the Nobody Boy. It is Um’Binnian Cabbage Cream.  The recipe was printed in the back of the book with this note: I don’t think it is actually very nice. But try it with ice cream if you like. Your choice.

Several people have told me they’ve tried it and really liked it. Their choice!

Um’Binnian Cabbage Cream:
Find a cabbage as big as your head.

Cut it in half (Yes, dear, I mean the cabbage) and put both halves in a pot of cold water.

Put the pot on the stove and let the cabbage cook for 15 minutes. (Watch that it doesn’t boil over. If it does, you’re the one who has to clean up the mess.)

Pour off the water. (Don’t let any cabbage slither into the sink.) 

Fill the pot again with boiling water from your kettle.

Boil it for 20 more minutes.

Drain the cabbage dry, then chop it into very little bits.

Put the bits into a bowl, add three big knobs of butter and sprinkle in 12 dessertspoonfuls of brown sugar.

Add a heaped teaspoon of cinnamon and half a teaspoon of nutmeg.

Stir it all up.

In another bowl beat three fresh eggs and half a cup of cream.

Stir the eggs and cream into the cabbage.

Put it all into a baking dish.

Bake the dish in a medium oven until the cabbage is brown on top.  (No, no, you can do it in a small oven or a very big one. I actually mean a medium temperature, which is about 180o C).  It should take about 20 minutes.

The writer as a pushmi-pullyu

I’m in a pushmi-pullyu state. Do you know the pushmi-pullyu of the Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting? It is the front half of a gazelle joined to the front half of a unicorn, so you’re never sure which way it wants to go.
One half of me is in a creative flurry. I’ve sent the Third Tale of Fontania to my publisher, Gecko Press. Though it is ‘finished’ it will need to be edited so it isn’t completely off my mind or desk yet. I’ve also pounded out a goodly chunk of a new children’s novel, feeling excited about the adventures and discoveries to come over the next few months while I work on it at my new standing desk (which I love to bits).
The other half is me is being public. My favourite sister is coming to stay, and she and my other favourite sister will spend a week catching up and having fun. (BTW I only have two sisters.) I’m also speaking at the Kokomai Festival tomorrow, then in just over a week have another talk to give up in Kapiti Village. I’ve also just done couple of book signings in New York (don’t it sound grand!) so I’m being much more out there than usual.
Question: which is the gazelle part, which is the unicorn? I can only say they’re both pretty excited in their own ways.