A novel upbringing encourages career
By Colleen Thorpe
Anna Mackenzie lives on a farm in Hawke’s Bay. The author of historic and contemporary young adult novels says she has her parents to thank for her career path.
“My Dad was a poet and storyteller. When we were small he made up stories in which we had starring roles. My mother read to us regularly – before bed, in the car on long journeys. When we did chores we earned books rather than pocket money. They encouraged me to write. When I was 6, Dad came home with a kitset desk and he and I put it together. I sat down straightaway and started my first book. I have it still, thanks to my mother.”
Her latest book, Evie’s War, is a poignant story of love, strength and resilience. Written in the form of a young woman’s journal, Evie’s War is dramatic and compelling.
I asked her a few questions about herself and her writing.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD
I grew up on a farm with a pile of sisters, brothers, cousins and kids who regularly stayed with us – it was a busy, active, outdoor existence. And we had great parents, the sort who encouraged us to think, play and experiment, and who introduced us to stories, poetry and the value of asking questions.
HAVE YOU A MENTOR?
My parents, my children, all the great writers who’ve gone before. In different ways they all set a high bar, and I’ve always liked a challenge.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK AS A CHILD?
The Outsiders by S E Hinton. I read it when I was 11. It had been around for 20 years by then but it stood the test of time, and still does. It stopped me in my tracks. It was about a world completely foreign to me – urban America, and the divide between rich and poor. It felt raw and real and opened my eyes to a world beyond my own – not an imaginary world, but a real one.
HOW WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE YOUNG CHILDREN TO ENJOY BOOKS?
Any way they like! I’ve got a photo of my daughter reading a look while lying upside down on the couch with her feet in the air and her head on the ﬂoor.
Children beneﬁt from being read to, anytime, any place, from the time they’re born. Ideally, they’ll learn about cadence of language and story at the same time they learn vocab and syntax. They’re never too young, or too old, to be read to. I read to my teens while they were doing the dishes – it put a lid on the demarcation disputes. Once kids are reading for themselves, some easily ﬁnd books they like while others need help. Librarians can be great resource, but it’s also good for parents to read children’s books – not to screen them or censor them but to allow conversations around them.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR?
Impossible question! If I absolutely had to pick one children’s author, it would be Margaret Mahy because she was so skilled and versatile and considered in her work. But there are writers I admire and enjoy within every genre and market. Of adult writers, to choose a contrasting trio, I’d say Pat Barker, Kurt Vonnegut and Patrick Gale.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR YOUR LATEST BOOK COME ABOUT?
Evie’s War begins in 1914. People might assume I wrote it because we’ve reached the centenary of World War I, but the idea really has its roots years ago, when I realised I wasn’t entirely certain about some of the detail of our family stories, and the time for pinning them down was running out. My aunt answered as many questions as she could about the family’s experiences in the war and then I started reading – diaries, letters, histories. The process sparked a range of story ideas in my head.
WHAT SORT OF RESEARCH WAS NEEDED
A huge amount of research went into Evie’s War. With historic novels all the facts have to be right but, just as important, is getting the “voice” of the era.
While I was writing Evie’s War, I travelled to Belgium and France and Britain; I’ve visited every key site in the novel. I also read extensively and utilised the internet – who would have thought that it was possible to discover the average daily temperature experienced in rural Essex on any given day 100 years ago? Turns out that information and a great deal more is lurking on the web – but of course you have to be wary about accuracy. Physical records written by people who were there at the time are generally a great resource, but they too have their limitations – people see the same event in many different ways.
Partly because I did so much research and partly because I’ve become a bit obsessed, I’ve dedicated a section of my new website – [www].annamackenzieauthor.com – to World War I. There are loads of photos as well as timelines of the War, as Evie experienced it, and various notes about the book and the research behind it. And I’m already working on another novel set in and around the war years. Evie’s experiences offered one small part of a much bigger story, and it turns out I’m not yet ready to leave that era of our shared past behind.
DO YOUR CHARACTERS EVOLVE AS YOU WRITE THE STORY OR HAVE YOU CREATED THEM BEFORE YOU START?
My characters evolve as I write. When an idea kicks off I mull it over for a while – sometimes for years, just quietly at the back of my brain, sometimes for very little time before I’m driven to start writing. Generally, I have no idea where the story will take me when I first let it loose on the keyboard, but the full sense of who the character is rapidly develops. Once I have the character, the story then begins to unfold and it becomes a two-way process of the character directing the story and the story shaping the character. In the early stages of writing Evie’s War, I had another character unexpectedly arrive and try to take over.
IS THERE A LITTLE BIT OF EVIE IN YOU?
Inevitably. I think there’s a bit of me in every character I write. An author’s characters can only be a product of what they know and how they see the world. But given every character is different, it would be interesting to try to unravel how much and which aspects of each!
WHAT TOP INGREDIENTS ARE NEEDED FOR A BESTSELLER?
If only that had an easy answer! I’d like to say great writing, but it apparently isn’t always required. A character that readers can relate to; a story that catches the zeitgeist; an issue that has found its moment or is heart-grabbing or simply titillates the media.
Bestsellers are fickle things; they’re about mass markets rather than longevity. A Tale of Two Cities was a bestseller. So was Fifty Shades. . . I’d rather not even put them in the same paragraph.
WHAT TIPS DO YOU HAVE FOR INSPIRING YOUNG WRITERS?
You learn to understand writing by reading. You learn to write by writing. You can’t succeed if you don’t ﬁnish what you start. And however long it took you to write it, spend at least as long improving it, especially when you’re starting out.
WHEN YOU ARE NOT WRITING WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Lots of things around writing – teaching creative writing, speaking at festivals and in schools, mentoring emerging writers, editing magazines. I’m a bit of a workaholic, but I also try to ﬁnd time for growing vegetables, cooking, family and friends, yoga, and travel. They all get a bit squashed.
HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE COMPLETING A BOOK?
I put on some great music and dance around the house!
TELL US THREE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF THAT MAY SURPRISE.
The best present I ever got was a chainsaw.
I once suffered an injury when a vegetable turned rogue. My advice: stay away from giant pumpkins!
Writing is bad for your spine. To take out the desk-bound kinks, I sometimes hang upside down. It’s a yoga thing!
Photo caption – COMPELLING: Anna Mackenzie’s latest book is Evie’s War.