This month, we caught up with Fleur Beale, one of New Zealand’s most treasured writers of young adult fiction today. Her novel I Am Not Esther was short-listed for the senior fiction section of the 1999 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and that same year she quit her teaching job to write full-time and has been at it ever since. After her tenure as Writer in Residence at Dunedin College of Education in 1999, she went on to win many awards in fiction, including the 2007 Storylines Gaelyn Gordon Award for Slide the Corner. Her books have been short-listed several times in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and her novel Fierce September won the Young Adult Fiction Category Award in 2011. This year, Fleur Beale has been honoured with the Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal.
FF: Your stories, though written for young adults and children, often carry mature themes about growing up, hard realisations of reality and the struggle to become independent. Do you start with themes that you want to explore, or do your stories begin with characters and choices? Do you move from broad ideas to specifics, or the other way around?
FB: Probably none of the above! I pretty much always start from an idea. Sometimes it can be something quite seemingly unconnected to the finished story that will trigger curiosity and lead me on to ask questions about what if, and – what happens next? For example, the idea for the Juno series came from being in New York a month after 9/11. The city was still in shock and very much trying to get to grips with what had happened. I had the feeling of being somewhere that had temporarily shut out the outside world. That set me thinking and the story grew from there.
FF: Your stories like the adventures of Quin Majik and also Dirt Bomb tend to speak to young children with their humour and unusual scenarios (rebellion on Tidy Street; adventures with an old wreck of a car). Many of your books would translate well into short fiction for adults as well. Do you ever imagine these stories for adults or do you think Quin and Jake belong strictly to the world of children?
FB: It’s not something I think about. I love writing for children and teenagers. It’s very important for me that New Zealand kids have books that speak to them in familiar language and use the settings we recognise. Not that Tidy St fits that description!
FF: You’ve ventured into non-fiction as well with your 2009 book Sins of the Father: The Long Shadow of a Religious Cult. What got you interested in this topic, and how was writing this book different from writing your young adult books?
FB: Longacre Press asked me if I’d be interested in writing the story of a family who had escaped from a religious sect. Of course, I jumped at the chance! I was asked because I’d written I am not Esther which is a story about a girl who has to live in such a sect for a few weeks. That book came about because of the experience of a boy who was a student at the school I was teaching at. He was cast out by his family for refusing to follow their strict code of conduct. What he did was go back to school for his final year so that he could qualify to go to Med School. However, that was against the policy of that religion so when he refused to obey, they cast him out.
Writing Sins of the Father was very different from writing fiction, although as I was researching it I kept thinking that if I was to put all the events into a fictional story then it just wouldn’t ring true. It wasn’t easy to write, mainly because Phil whose story it was, lived in Coffs Harbour in Australia at the time. I went over there three times to interview him, but it was like trying to talk to an energetic capuchin monkey. He’d be in the middle of telling me an episode, somebody would come in to ask him what he wanted done about a work situation, he’d deal with that then come back to me. However, he’d often start in a different place, or with a completely different episode. It was a bit of a mission trying to work out the timeline of his life. But all in all, it was a privilege to write it. The whole family are admirable and astonishing in the way they’ve coped with some dreadful occurences.
FF: A lot of your books employ universal themes but many are very specifically New Zealand stories. Mission Girl is situated in a specific historical framework, for example. How did you come to write this book about a girl who struggles through capture and slavery and then ends up at Waitangi in 1840?
FB: When Scholastic began publishing the My Story series, my wonderful agent Ray Richards sent me through some topics and one of those was the Treaty of Waitangi. That appealed to me, and I also had heard a librarian lamenting that there weren’t any fictional stories about it. Initially, I tried to write from the point of view of a missionary’s daughter. She would speak English, she would be literate and it would be easy to develop her character. Except that she wouldn’t come alive. I then tried to create a character with a Māori mother and Pākehā father, but she wouldn’t fire either. That story seemed to want to be told from the point of view of a Māori girl to whom the treaty mattered desperately, so I had to work out a way of writing a diary in the voice of a girl who didn’t speak or write English.
FF: Another book that has a very New Zealand feel to it is Slide the Corner — and we know this has a special place in your heart. Tell our readers about the genesis of this book and why, in storytelling, the details are so important.
FB: The details are important, especially in a story dealing with a specialised subject such as rallying, because it’s those that bring it to life and give it authenticity. They have to be absolutely spot on accurate too otherwise people who know and love the topic are let down.
I wrote the book because I got intrigued by the stories my husband told of his rallying experiences. I wanted to write a book that the kids I was teaching at the time might enjoy, and I decided that if a non-car person such as myself liked the rallying stories then other people might too.
FF: You grew up in Taranaki and then spent time in Hamilton and now live in Wellington. How does your environment influence your writing? Can you describe your present writing space?
FB: I think I’ve learned to adapt to where I am. Now I have two writing spaces – I’ve got a study in my house and I’ve also got a little office in Cuba Street in Wellington. It used to be an artist’s cupboard so it’s not very big – suits me fine! I like the change from home, and I like having lunch with the others in the building.
FF: Earlier this year, you were awarded the 2012 Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal, the highest honour in children’s writing in New Zealand. Do tell us a little more about what this award means for you personally, especially in light of Margaret Mahy’s recent passing.
FB: I feel so privileged to have been given the award, and it’s very poignant for me to have been the last recipient while Margaret was still alive. She wasn’t well enough to come to the ceremony but even so, she sent a gracious and typically generous congratulatory message. Margaret will always be the pinnacle to which we all aspire. She was amazing and those of us who knew her have been lucky indeed.
FF: Your story ‘Granny Gibson’ tells of a granny with a sharp humour and even sharper tongue (our kind of granny!), working with a theme that is potentially delicate yet does so in a way that is appropriate for children. In a story like this, you seem to begin with a character study but plot is important too. How do you balance the two, and how is the writing process different for you when it comes to short stories?
FB: Actually, that story idea came from seeing a student with a device that made a variety of different noises. It was the pre-cell phone era so was intriguing. With a short story, I have to show the character very succinctly and keep the plot moving forward. There’s no room for wasted words.
FF: In this story, you refer to drinking a ‘fortifying cup of tea’. When do you most need a fortifying cup of tea?
FB: Um – I think I might have one after completing these questions!
FF: What are you reading at present?
FB: Gold by Chris Cleave.
FF: What are you writing at present?
FB: A book for teens about Archie who’s fifteen and a top kart racer. My latest book has just come out. It’s a romance called The Boy in the Olive Grove.
Thank you, Fleur Beale, for the interview this month.
For the SEPTEMBER issue (turn the page), please go here.