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.

Writing villains – a tip or two for young writers.

Who do we love to hate?

I look at a lot of manuscripts by other writers and try to help them make their stories stronger. One problem I often see is that the writer hasn’t managed to get a sense of tension and threat into a story early enough. As soon as possible, the reader needs to see that the bad guys are definitely bad.

It’s not enough just to say that the villains are wicked or mean or whatever. The writer has to come up with a piece of action that shows how wicked the bad guys can be. You don’t always need to see the villains themselves in an early chapter. But you need to see evidence of what they can do.

How have I managed my own villains? In The Travelling Restaurant, Lady Gall feeds something secretly to little Sibilla that makes the toddler throw up.

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the bad guy is Emperor Prowdd’on. In the early draft he was too much just a comic pompous figure. To make him more of a threat, I decided to have him do something really horrible then deny it was his fault: “Little Queen was very wrong to encourage me to play with faulty rodent.” It upsets the little Queen and the other main character, Hodie.

It also upsets one of the scruffy little squirrels that lives in the Grand Palace grounds. That turns the novel into a sort of revenge story. That squirrel becomes very determined to keep after the Emperor and it plays an important part in the ending.

Some writers plan the end of a novel before they start writing. I don’t like to do that myself in a lot of detail. I plan some things, but when it comes to the villain I love to see what happens as I write and hope that a good idea for poetic justice will come into my head. ‘Poetic justice’ means that the villain will come to a sticky end exactly right for their particular crimes and personalities.  Lady Gall wants to be forever beautiful … Emperor Prowdd’on is vain and greedy ….  Serve them darn well right! is what I want the reader to think in the scenes of final come-uppance.

I’ve just had great fun discovering how the villain in the third tale of Fontania fares at the end of the novel. But that’s a blog for another day.

Is it steam punk?

I think this blog should become more for children, so here goes.

Earlier this month I had a fabulous tour to several schools from Christchurch to Dunedin. Bright kids, great teachers and librarians, and some really interesting question sessions after I’d read from the Tales of Fontania.

‘Is it steam punk?’ asked one boy at North Dunedin Intermediate. Yes! In the world of the novels, magic and science are trying to find some sort of balance.

In The Travelling Restaurant, stern but fair Polly (who climbs rigging in her high-heeled green boots)  says this: ‘Once upon a time, the world was rich in magic. It was used wisely, not wasted on anything selfish or mean-spirited. It was saved for important things like making sure babies slept safe in their cots, that people had enough to eat, and that the world was peaceful. There were dangers, as there always is with magic. But there was also common sense. Some people began to experiment with science and machines, and that was all right. You see, everyone thought somebody was in charge.’

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the wind-train is one such new machine. I based it on a very early 19th Century idea for air travel. And in a newspaper last week, I saw that a new 21st Century airplane uses some of the ideas I’d come up with for my wind-train: using oil for an engine but also being able to glide when necessary. Did I feel proud? Definitely. And the message birds in The Queen and the Nobody Boy are really like primitive cell phones.

One question underlying the stories is, where do things that appear magical become ‘real’ and able be explained by science? But I like to feel that some things can’t be explained, that there is a magic in ordinary human decency and respect for each other, and that some things just don’t rely on logic and being rational.

In the fourth Tale of Fontania, I hope the themes of magic versus science will come to a chaotic, funny and moving finale. But at the moment, I’d better move on with the third Tale. It is coming close to being finished.

Sad stories make me cry

I spent a wonderful morning last week at a local school. But! The first group was 5 and 6 year olds.  When I first learned that I’d need to keep this age group entertained for 40 minutes, my first thought was an inarticulate yikes!

Authors of picture books are much better placed with this kind of audience. The visuals of their work keep the kids entertained. I only had two stories I thought might work – one published ages ago in the School Journal about a bad bear, based on a true tale about my great grandfather. I took along a stuffed bear as a visual aid, and that went down all right.

The second story, also true (Stories Aloud CD, Wellington Public Libraries), was about how Chris and I found a stray cat and in the end decided to keep her.  While I read this to the 5 and 6 years olds, I had another yikes! Their chins were trembling. Their eyes were brimming with tears. I had to race to the happy ending before any spillage.  I just made it.

Exciting times in and around Fontania

The Queen and the Nobody Boy has been shortlisted for the 2013 Esther Glen Medal, LIANZA Awards.  The Travelling Restaurant won the medal last year, and it’s too much to expect another win. But I feel it’s amazing for a second in a series to be given this boost.  I’m thanking my lucky stars and lucky planets.

I’m also excited at the number of school visits lined up. Nothing beats seeing how well (or not) children respond to readings from the books.  I’m doing a total of three visits in Wellington before the NZ Post Awards announcement on 24 June, and six from Christchurch, Ashburton and Oamaru to Dunedin.  That will mean  a lot of talking for someone who often talks mainly in her head each day to her characters.

Third exciting thing? The next Tale of Fontania is at a stage where it will help to read a draft aloud. This will very definitely not be to any audience yet but it’s a good sign.

Short listed for NZ Post Children’s Book Awards

Good news! The Queen and the Nobody Boy is on the junior fiction short list for the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.  Winners are to be announced on 24 June.

It’s exciting to think that Hodie’s adventures on the wind-train will be read by a wider audience here in NZ over the next 2 ½ months.

Have a look at Best Friends are Books blog  to see why Hodie became the main character.

I’ll be travelling in the South Island to promote the Awards.  More details later.

And what a great time this is for the wonderful Gecko Press, publisher of TQATNB.  Last  week at the Bologna Book Fair Gecko won Best Children’s Book Publisher in  Oceania. I’m calling it Best Publisher in the Watery World.

Also Gecko has a total of three  books on the NZCPA short list. Jack Lasenby is there on the junior fiction list with Uncle Trev and His Whistling Bull and has just been awarded a White Raven for it as well.  Gavin Bishop and Margaret Mahy’s Mr Whistler is on the picture book list.  That’s a gale of joyful whistling from all concerned.

Here’s the full short list.

Launch speech for The Queen and the Nobody Boy

Thank you – John and Ruth McIntyre (Children’s Bookshop),Barbara Murison for launching the book, guests – family and friends …

It takes a very stubborn person to be a writer. There are nicer words than stubborn: determined, persevering, tenacious, or dedicated. There are far worse words than stubborn: obstinate, mulish, pig-headed, self-willed, obsessed, bloody-minded.  Any of you who have had much to do with writers are very likely to agree with the second list and could add to it effortlessly.

To my mind the main cause for celebration tonight is the very existence of people who are determined to produce books and who each in their own way help that to happen, and then the people who help put books in front of the reader.

The Queen and the Nobody Boy is dedicated to good companions. Books definitely need good companions and champions. And what a gathering of wonderful companions is here tonight. I’ve already thanked John and Ruth who do fantastic work for children’s writing.  And Barbara Murison, a highly enthusiastic champion of books for children whose expertise I have relied on and always trust.

I’ve always been grateful too for the support of librarians, school teachers, booksellers, and that’s especially been the case with The Travelling Restaurant. I’ve been astonished by the warm response to it over the last year and a bit, and it has been enormously encouraging. And I noticed especially how  impressive children’s librarians are, people with a very special calling, who work so hard, and so creatively too, to find ways to match books with the right child.

In a way it’s the characters of The Travelling Restaurant themselves who have been very stubborn, insisting that there is more of the story to tell. And here it is, The Queen and the Nobody Boy in delicious orange, almost edible, and though it’s rectangular it reminds me very much of a gothic jaffa!*

I must thank Emma Neale, my daughter and a writer-editor with very keen instincts who read an early draft of The Queen and the Nobody Boy. I must absolutely definitely thank Chris Else for reading several drafts – my husband and excellent companion in our life very stubbornly centred around books and writing.

Jane Parkin – editor of several of my books now, and a great champion, a queen among editors.  Thank you for your careful eye and superb instincts.  And thank you for telling me that we needed rather more about the Ocean Toads. (p 268) That was fun.

I thank Sam Broad again for his inventive and affirming art work for the cover and maps inside, that told me that I’ve pitched aspects of the story in the way I’d hoped. There’s an interesting creative loop going on here – when I see some of what Sam does in his art work for the book it inspires new thoughts and ideas on my part.

And heartfelt thanks again to book designer Luke Kelly, for his vision of how the book should look, down to the tiniest matters, for instance like the significance of the smallest of characters, the squirrel.

Jane Arthur of Gecko – thank you for your attention to detail and ability to keep all the strands of book production under control – it really impresses m. In particular I thank you for your insistence that the text and artwork is checked and checked and re-checked. And then checked all over again.

Above all, I thank Julia Marshall, Gecko Press, for her vision, her single-mindedness, persistence, devotion to quality production in every book she deals with. It doesn’t hurt at all to say you’re part of the Gecko stable! I especially thank you, Julia, for your belief in the continuing tales of the characters of the little world of Fontania.

One example of writerly ruthlessness, perhaps? In this new book I wanted an element that would take the place of the 2 year old Sibilla in The Travelling Restaurant, something to reduplicate that quirky warmth in its own way.  So – the rough draft of The Queen and the Nobody Boy began with an elephant. I soon realised that was a most unwieldy character. It became a cat. No – too tame, I thought. A monkey? No, I’d done monkeys in The Travelling Restaurant.  A parrot filled the role for a while. At last I tossed them all away and settled on a squirrel. That was, I think, a good choice.

This is a book about Hodie – his journey in five parts all about bad choices. Many of the characters are by turns wrong-headed and constant.  I’ll read just a bit from the opening, slightly edited in the interests of brevity.  Hodie is nobody. He would like to better himself, but it is not easy. Things get in his way, especially in the form of a warm-hearted but wrong-headed and stubborn companion.  Here is how his story begins:…

I thank you all again, very much, for coming along tonight. I hope you’ll decide it was a good choice.

(* jaffa: a little ball of chocolate surrounded by an orange-flavoured, orange-coloured shell.  A national treat.)