Wednesday, 22 November 2017

What I've been doing in the last 12 months

1. Visiting the great white continent

This time last year, I was getting ready to head south. On 1 December, I flew down to Antarctica for a week with the Antarctica NZ community engagement programme (formerly Artists & Writers to Antarctica) at Scott Base. It was an astonishing experience and one that I have thought about almost every day since then. It was hard and challenging and exhausting and took me way outside my comfort zone, but it was also – everything you can imagine about Antarctica.

One of the other people on the programme was Guy Frederick who produced two fabulous exhibitions for Canterbury Museum called Postcards to Antarctica and Postcards from Antarctica. 

First view of the sea ice

Field Training - my home for the night! Mt Erebus in the background. 

Scott Base

The historic huts of the early Polar explorers were a total highlight for me.
So well preserved and so atmospheric.   

I kept a blog while I was down there, which you can can read here - or just look at the photos! 

Another piece of writing to come out of this so far is a story called “Snow from the south” in the anthology Wish upon a Southern star, a collection of retold fairytales edited by Shelley Chappell. Thanks to Shelley for all her hard work in putting this anthology together. You can read a review of the book on Bob's book blog.  


2. Book Council Writers in Schools

The Book Council does a great job of getting writers into schools to (hopefully) inspire students and get them enthused about reading and writing. I always enjoy doing school visits and this year, as well as some of the standard one-day visits, I’ve been involved in the inaugural South Wairarapa community project of more indepth work spread over a total of six visits.

I've loved visiting St Teresa's School in Featherston and it's been great to see such wonderful work produced by the students, some of whom weren't that keen on writing before. Thanks to Rm 5 for their thank you booklet which was an unexpected surprise!

3. New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa

If you’re a writer and you already belong to the NZSA, you’ll know what a great organisation it is. If you're a writer and you don’t belong, I’d encourage you to join. I’m on the committee of our local branch and also on the National Council as a regional delegate. This year our branch meetings have included great speakers like Stephen Daisley, a panel discussion about the state of the NZ books scene and fun events like the flash fiction evening.

4. Children’s war books

I’m still updating my Children's war books blog regularly although I realise now that I’m never going to catch up, because there are so many excellent books being published, not to mention all the classic titles.

5. The New Zealand Wars

This book has been my major project for most of the year. It’s a topic that my previous non-fiction books have led me towards, but one that is hard to summarise in a few lines and I’ll write more about it on my website once the book is out next year. The research involved several road trips, visiting memorials and old battlesites that a few years ago I would have driven past without giving them a second glance. Many people were kind and generous with their knowledge and expertise, and one of the most powerful experiences of the year was going to stay at Parihaka for a weekend to present my work to the people of the three marae there.

Another reason why this has been a challenging topic is that when people have asked what I’ve been working on, and I’ve said, “The New Zealand Wars”, I’ve had very muted responses, compared to my other books. Many people look blank or puzzled. They aren’t sure what or when the New Zealand Wars were, or just don’t have anything to say.

I can totally relate to this because this would have been me a few years ago, but writing this book has made me look at New Zealand history and New Zealand society today in a different way. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, but also one of the most rewarding.

The site of the battle at Ruapekapeka in Northland

Memorial to the prisoners of Parihaka in Wellington

Gate Pa in Tauranga. I didn't even know about Gate Pa a few years ago.
But it's as significant to NZ history as Gallipoli is.

6. Storylines hui

Writing can be a very solitary occupation, and it’s always a treat to get together with other writers.  Thanks to the hardworking Storylines team who organised the Storylines hui in Auckland in October. 

7. Wikipedia editing

OK this might come across as slightly nerdy, but one of the most unexpectedly fun things I did this year was go along to a Wikipedia Women in science workshop at the Royal Society.

You know how teachers advise their students not to use Wikipedia, and then everyone goes off and uses it? Well, since the workshop I have a lot more understanding of how Wikipedia actually works, and I now think it’s a surprisingly reliable source, with built-in features to make sure the material is accurate.

The main reason I went along was to learn how to write up an article about Pamela Young, who was the first New Zealand woman to live and work in Antarctica. I’ve now written another article as well, about Marie Darby, the first New Zealand woman to visit the Antarctic mainland. This is all voluntary and unpaid of course, and also anonymous, but I am quite chuffed to have this information available for anyone to read online.

I also found out about the Wikiproject Women in Red. Do you know what percentage of English Wikipedia biographies are about women? Have a guess… If you said about 15%, you’d be approximately correct. (It's currently sitting at 17.22%, up from 15% a few years ago, but the percentage does vary slightly from country to country.) The Women in Red campaign aims to create pages for red links, where a name is highlighted but doesn’t yet have a separate entry. (As opposed to blue links that do link to a page.)

8. Radio NZ Short Story Club

This is Jesse Mulligan’s bright idea: the Short Story Club on his afternoon show at 3pm on Thursdays, an excellent way to build some reading into your week.  Jesse invites listeners to send in their own thoughts  on the story being discussed, and I won a copy of Tracy Farr’s new book The hope fault for a comment about her story "Once had me". (I really wanted to win the book, so I put lots of thought into my email.) After that, I was invited on for the session on 10 August, when Jesse, Claire Mabey and I talked about "Paradise ducks" by Fiona Farrell.  

9. Saying goodbye

It has been a sad year for saying goodbye to some truly remarkable people. Barbara Murison’s cheery tones ring in my head whenever I go to a book launch, and when I walk into the Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie, I still half-expect to see John sitting at his usual spot down the back.

There are many heartfelt tributes online to both Barbara and John. The Sapling has a collection of memories about Barbara here, and John's "life story" is on the Dominion Post here

10. Other stuff

I've done some writing for educational publications (which involved some fascinating research on Navajo code talkers in World War Two) and had some plays published in the NSW school magazine and a poem in this beautiful book, Bird words (Penguin Random House, 2017).

I've read books (a lot of history around the NZ wars) and reviewed books for the Sapling website (if you don’t know the Sapling yet, go and have a look; it is jam packed with great reading!)

There have been 21st birthdays, a wedding, new babies and lots of everyday life going on. 
The Wellington Community Choir is a weekly highlight and if you get the chance to go along to one of their concerts, don't miss it.  (Even better, come along and join the choir!)

Thanks to everyone who has asked about, been interested in or supported my writing this year. Thanks to the amazing Virginia Keast for lots of exercise-fun, helping to counteract the effects of hours of sedentary work. Thanks to everyone who has shared chat and news with me over coffee.  

And if you're starting to think about Christmas presents - the best present is always a book! Preferably by a NZ author!

Monday, 19 September 2016

10 reasons I'm glad I went to the National Writers' Forum

1. Chris Cleave's wonderful keynote address, Hate is the .zip file of emotions, available for you to read right here.

2. Kate Pullinger on what it means to put text on a screen.

3. The bravery of all those who submitted opening paragraphs (and themselves!) for Live Live Editing.

4. Many great conversations over tea, coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner: tips, advice, encouragement, support.

5. Behind-the-scenes work by the organisers to make sure everything ran seamlessly - or when there were problems, we couldn't tell.

6. The Great Debate with a contentious topic and four very sharp debaters, ably (and wittily) chaired by Te Radar

7. Sarah Laing and Toby Morris persuading people who "can't draw" to draw.

8. Chris Cleave's masterclass on writing psychology, everything from Johnny Cash to how earphones are the trick to successful eavesdropping, and why we should pretend we're here visiting Earth on a 24-hour visit from the planet Mercury.

9. Basically, every word that Chris Cleave said for the whole weekend.

10.  Top tips from Kate Pullinger, Chris Cleave, Stephen Daisley and Patricia Grace on what they wish they'd known about writing, back when they didn't know it.

Thanks yet again to those who had the vision to make this weekend happen. It was truly inspirational.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

National Writers' Forum

Just back from an amazing weekend at the first ever National Writers' Forum. Huge thanks to Jackie Dennis, Claire Hill, Claire Mabey and all the organising team and sponsors, and to the NZSA for supporting writers in this very practical way, and thanks to all the writers - old friends and new - with whom I shared conversations over the past two days. 

If you read one thing about writing this year, make it this keynote address by visiting speaker Chris Cleave  - "Hate is the .zip file of emotions"which he has generously shared on his website. In fact it has something to say to everyone, not just writers, so read it and pass it on, and then go and buy (or at least borrow from the library) one of his books, so he can continue writing and saying these wise and wonderful things.

Chris Cleave

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Boulcott School Book Week

Thanks to Boulcott School for a great visit during their Book Week. As well as a dress-up book parade, a library quiz and teachers sharing favourite books with different classes, they have a Book Bug who goes round tapping children on the shoulder - and if you get tapped,you have to stop everything and grab a book to read! I love the idea of a Book Bug and wish I had one at home. (Perhaps I could tap myself on the shoulder??)

Boulcott School students also had some great questions for me:

  • What is a typical day for you?
  • Do you write every day? 
  • Have you written any books about your childhood?
  • When you begin a story, do you know the ending?
  • Do you feel nervous when publishers tell you what they think about your story?

But I especially liked these questions, from the Year 1/2 students, because it showed that they were really thinking hard about the writing process and how you go about writing a story:

  • Why do you like writing?
  • Does it take a week to write a book?
  • Did your mum and dad like your writing?
  • Who taught you to write?
  • Do you always try your best when you write? 
  • Do you write fast or slow? 
  • Do you write in your house?

And some last words from the same group of students as they were going back to class after our session together:

"Writing is fun!"
"I hope you have fun writing!"
"Love you!"

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Questions about Antarctica (3): "I think it would be life changing"

The third question I asked this group of Year 9 and 10 students was "would you like to go to Antarctica? why, or why not?
Their answers were: 
Yes: 51
No: 29
(with a few Maybes, or Both).

Interestingly, 24 of the 29 "No"s were because it was "too cold!" Some students worried that it was too isolated, lonely and/or dangerous, or they wanted to travel to other places first.
You have to take a boat there and I get sea sick.
Not really because that’s not my paradise place.
No because it’s cold and lonely, and it’s very big and you could get lost and die.
I don’t tolerate the cold very well. it would be a cool experience for others but I wouldn’t enjoy it personally.
Too cold I would rather go to Fiji.
Or, more bluntly:
No because why?

Snow mound on survival course. Photographer: R J Korsch.

But many of the students who answered Yes talked about what a great experience it would be, and they also wanted to see the animals:
I would love to study the birds there. I want to see the penguins and all the snow. I want to see a real penguin in its real environment. I like whales and penguins. I love the animals there.
Yes because I like to travel and explore and it’s not a usual place to go. I’d like to find out more about it. Because it would be an amazing experience and could inspire me to write about something. I would love to go there because you would learn a lot and it would be really enjoyable. 
I would love to go it would be such a great experience and the sights would be so amazing.

Orca whale. Photographer: Tim Higham.

Some students had specific goals in mind:
I would like to buy a snow cone there.
I want to see that colourful thing in the sky!

Even the students who said Yes were a bit worried about the weather:
I would like to go for adventure but not for the cold. Only for a little bit because I don’t like the cold. Yes, but it would be cold.
One summed up the dilemma perfectly:
It would be cool but it would be cold

And some were, admittedly, ready to go anywhere:
Yes because I haven’t been out of New Zealand.
I would go anywhere if I had the chance besides the North Island.
Only if it is free.

But there were also some fabulous enthusiastic replies:
I would love to go to Antarctica and explore and do research.
It will be a new experience and something I have never done before. It would also be cool to see all the different species of animals that live there.
I would love to see the aurora lights in person. I also want to see what animals are like in their natural habitat.
Yes I would like to go there because I like the cold and it would be cool to see penguins in their own habitats. It would be really cool to see ice and water all around. It would also be awesome to see killer whales.

Here are two of the best and I can agree with both of them:
Yes! I think it would be life changing. 
Because there are not many places like Antarctica.

Moonlight at Cape Evans. Photographer: Richard McBride. 

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos, and thanks again to the students of Freyberg High School and St Peters College for their great responses.)

Questions about Antarctica (2): what don't you know?

The second question I asked the Year 9 and 10 students was what didn’t they know, or what did they want to find out about Antarctica?
Lots of things!

The students were fascinated about the climate
Why is it always so cold? Does it ever get warm?  How cold is it actually? How hot and how cold can it get? How windy can it get? Does it rain? What is the warmest part?
If you have a cold and a runny nose does your snot freeze over? 

… and the difference between summer and winter:
Is it just super dark and depressing for 6 months?
What are the hours of sunset and sunrise in summer and winter? How long are the days?
Are seasons the same as here? What is summer like?
How long can you stay [outside] before you freeze?

The aurora:
Can you see the lights? Where do the aurora lights come from?

Auroras over Scott Base. Photographer: Becky Goodsell. 

Snow and ice:
Is the snow everywhere? How thick can the ice get? How does the ice taste? How old is the ice? I also want to know how thick different pieces of ice are and how much weight they can hold. If you squirted water out of a bottle, would it freeze? Why does the sun not melt the snow/ice?

Nearly all of them wanted to know more about the animals that live there
How tall are penguins, what are they like, do they bite, can you pat them? Can you feed any sea animals? 
How much does an orca eat usually? Do killer whales swim under the ice? 
What kind of species are there that live under water? 
What is the most common animal?

Some wondered what it's like living there:
What’s the population? Do people live there permanently? 
How many layers of clothes do you have to wear? 
Could you snow board there? 
Is it hard to live there because of the cold? 
Do people live in igloos? Do you eat disgusting food? 

Antarctica NZ clothing store

Field rations, 2006-2007

Some were just puzzled:
Why do people want to live down there?

There were some very practical questions:
Do they have shops?
Do you get wi fi there?
I would like to know about phone service.

And some concerns about keeping safe:
What happens if a big snow storm comes, where would you go? 
How do you know where the ground is that will not collapse through? 
If you are walking on ice and there is a crevasse underneath and you fall, will you fall in water or more ice? 
What do you do with dangerous animals?

Just a few of them mentioned climate change:
What is the rate at which Antarctica is melting? How much is global warming actually affecting it?

Iceberg, Antarctic Peninsula, 1991-92.
Photographer: Lou Sanson

And there were some questions that don’t really fit into any category:
Is there a secret place there where people might be living, and how long might they have been there?
Is there anyone buried there under the ice and snow?

These are all great questions and I don't know all the answers - but I'm hoping to find people who do!

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos.) 

Questions about Antarctica (1): what do you know?

Many thanks to students from Freyberg High School and St Peter's College, both in Palmerston North, for helping start me off on my Antarctic project. I was there last week for some (pre-arranged) school visits, but they had checked out my author Facebook page and already found out about my Antarctic adventure.

At the end of each session, I asked the students to get into groups and answer three questions for me:
What do you know about Antarctica?
What don't you know, or what would you like to find out?
Would you like to go there? Why or why not?

There was a huge buzz of conversation around the hall as they talked about their ideas. Of the 100 replies I collected, most came from Year 9 and 10 students, aged 13 and 14. There were many great responses and some very interesting results!
So what did I find out?

To start with, I think there must be an automatic reply button to questions about Antarctica. (Try it on people you know and see if I'm right.) The first three topics that come to mind  are overwhelmingly:

  • cold! (89 replies)
  • penguins (49 replies)
  • snow and ice (34 replies)

Degrading iceberg, Cape Hallett.
Photographer: Danielle O'Keefe. 

Adelie penguins on ice and water.
Photographer: Rebecca Roper-Gee

What also surprised me was what these students didn’t mention. Only two knew that Sir Ed Hillary had been to the Pole - in fact, only one mentioned the South Pole at all (calling it the southern pole) and not many said anything about where Antarctica is (below NZ at the bottom of the world) or how beautiful it is (amazing views / it looks majestic / shiny and bright)

Only a couple knew for certain that polar bears don't live in Antarctica, whereas as many thought they did as mentioned killer whales. Some thought that dogs lived there. Three or four students referred to the aurora (once misnamed the northern lights). None mentioned any of the early explorers like Scott or Shackleton. None mentioned the Erebus tragedy of 1979.  

Scott Base sign with aurora at night.
Photographer: Martin Meldrum

But I also got these great insights from students who knew a bit more:

  • There’s a place in Antarctica that is an ice free desert. The climate there is similar to Mars and only microorganisms live there. Scientists plan to research it to use in models for life on Mars.
  • The weather changes drastically and during half the year it’s in complete darkness and the other half it’s in complete light.
  • Antarctica is melting from climate change and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Northern Dry Valleys, 1995-1996

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos.)