From an essay first published at the website of Luncheon Sausage Books, Queenstown author Jane Bloomfield explains how attending writing courses held by Kate di Goldi, Fiona Kidman, Steve Braunias and others helped her to write her first book for kids aged 8-12, Lily Max. All illustrations by Guy Fisher from the book.
I’ve met so many amazing writers on my quest to become a writer. I started to care less of the end results. It was the people, the community, this other world I belonged to that none of my friends and family were party to, which mostly spurred me on.
I’d come up with a character – Lily Max, a girl who loved designing her own clothes – and looked for professional advice on what to do with her. I attended writer’s courses and sort of became an annual course-a-holic. The first course I took was a week-long programme in Wanaka. It was only an hour away from my home in Queenstown but the course was my equivalent of a Polynesian day spa with the full monty hot rock treatment. I’d return home exhausted. Mute. But my brain was a steam engine, all pistons pumping.
The week in Wanaka was a picture book-making course with the handsome and softly spoken author/illustrator Gavin Bishop. Some of his work retells fairy tales. His version of I was a Crooked Man is the perfect board book for infants. I pasted up a hokey book that week while Gavin read from his own collection. I sent the text to Huia Publishers. My first ever submission. They said they couldn’t look at it because I was white, which was confusing because it was about my children who are part-Maori. On the second to last afternoon I sheepishly gave Gavin my Lily Max manuscript, asked if he’d mind reading it, and scarpered.
‘It’s fun,’ he announced the next day. ‘She’s a bit of a smart Alec. I’ll put you onto someone who writes junior fiction.’
I spoke to Tessa Duder on the terrace of my brother-in-law’s house on a sunny Saturday morning, looking over a glistening Hauraki Gulf towards Rangitoto. This was the start of the generosity of wordsmith strangers. Tessa had already sent me a lengthy email but wanted to discuss it on the telephone. I hung on to her compliments: ‘You have a great ear for dialogue and the rhythm of language generally, an uncommon lightness of touch…’ But I was mindful of the massive amount of work to be done. Plotting. Structure. Minor characters. She didn’t like the in-jokes that were creeping into children’s literature. I secretly disagreed. I liked the subtle nuances that gave something for the child and something for the adult reader.
On that same trip north, I attended a weekend writing retreat with Kate De Goldi. Before the course, we had to write detailed bios of our characters. Kate said, ‘My firm belief is that good story (in whatever form) grows out of well-realised character.’ I found that bit easy. Lily Max was already alive and well. I loved decorating her bedroom and filling her treasure box. It was describing her enemies I found difficult. But a character needs problems. The beginnings of Violet Hughes – Lily’s arch-nemesis – began.
The moment I met Kate I wanted her to be my new best friend. Her infectious smile, bubbly personality and genuine interest in people are all endearing qualities in a tutor. We slept in tiny wooden cabins with walls so thin that at night you could hear the person next door reading. We woke to birdsong and breakfasted in a wood panelled A-frame dining room overlooking kauri and karakas, chickens and an orderly Dutch garden. Next we’d adjourn to a semi-circular conference room.
Kate worked us hard. Each set exercise referenced an authorial voice from her childhood. Her favourite novel back then, Father’s Arcane Daughter, by EL Konigsburg, was used as an example of voice. I still have two folders of photocopied book pages with handwritten titles, along with an impressive alphabetical list of must-read children’s authors from Joan Aitken to Jane Yolen.
While we wrote feverishly, Kate wrote her book The 10pm Question on a fat white Apple Mac with two fingers (if my memory serves me correctly). She explained the story was based on her son coming into her bedroom each night at precisely 10pm to ask a question that was troubling him. Kate read out fresh paragraphs. We felt privileged. Once you’ve heard Kate read you never forget the sound of her voice.
Kate gave so much, but when she’d given enough she’d quietly slip back to her cabin.
We all returned the following year for an editing course. Kate laughed at a couple of my sentences. I underlined them and made sure they stayed.
Later, at another course held in Wanaka, I spent a great week with veteran children’s writer David Hill. I sold my first short story after his course. Once again I was on the receiving end of the generosity of a professional writer. One morning we did an exercise on description. David described the contents of his fridge and his hostess at the Kanuka Motel. I was fascinated how the mundane could sound so … exciting when coaxed into simple detailed layers. I also have to confess I’ve stolen his line – the moon was a pearl button – on more than one occasion.
Dame Fiona Kidman was the next tutor at Wanaka. She wrote me a note when I bought her second memoir: ‘I hope you keep writing’. I still have it and often re-read Kate’s early short story collection Unsuitable Friends. It’s an ex-Queenstown library copy I bought for $2, she wears a white shirt on the back cover and an impressive shaggy dog haircut.
A lot of children writers say quite smugly, ‘Oh, I always wrote stories as a child.’ I didn’t. I was silent. Watching. And too busy writing aerograms to the parent I was no longer with. I also wrote diaries. Insanely boring diaries with scarcely a hint of emotion, just endless lists of what I’d eaten. No spousal spats. Nothing. Only food. My boarding school diaries are more like confessions of a trapped sporty person bordering on a food disorder. Sadly, because when you decide to write for children you need to find the child you once were.
One year I attended a picture book course in Christchurch with Joy Cowley. She’s small with a round face and a wide smile. Her peak creative time is 4am. She gets up and writes in the dark. I get up and let the barking dog out at 4a; my peak creative time is mid-morning. And mid- afternoon. I’ve forgotten to collect the kids from the school bus on more than one occasion. Joy had just written a book on how to write a children’s book, and instructed the class from its pre-published pages.
Over the weekend she told stories about Roald Dahl. Dahl purchased the film rights for her first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree. She and her husband were invited to spend the weekend at his English country home. On a warm summers afternoon, after drinking martinis, she recalled, she vomited in his solar heated swimming pool.
The second to last week long course I’ve taken was with Owen Marshall. Again it was stimulating, if formulaic. And mostly attended by men. We women have more fun at these courses. Where else would you laugh like banshees while making up masturbation haikus over chunky cheese sandwiches at lunchtime?
There are also crazies who habitually attend writing classes. There was this one elderly gent with a hate for his brothers that was so intent, venom seemed to leak from his pores whenever he discussed them during a group exercise. He also attacked a woman in Fiona Kidman’s class for bravely penning a story about her stillborn child.
Then there was Steve Braunias’s class of 2011, again at Wanaka. It was hard to top. I finally worked out how to write a decent non-fiction piece in his class, sold a few pieces, and was placed in a national writing award. Steve showed us how to interview. He brought in an ex-professional English footballer who he’d found coaching kids on a nearby sports field. The guy came in, sat in front of the class and told us his life story. His fall from grace. With damp eyes.
My book for kids aged 8-12, Lily Max: Satin Scissors Frock was published this year. It’s going well – it’s in its second print run, and was named one of the best kids’ books of the year in Canvas.
But my days of attending classes isn’t over yet. I’d happily make the trip over the Crown Range from Queenstown to Wanaka each day for a week if another of my favourite authors signed up to teach a course.
Next year, I’m planning a writing retreat on Stewart Island. If everyone pulls out at the last minute (like this year) I don’t mind. I know Stewart Island. I’ve cooked up kilos of macaroni cheese in the soft green bowling club building in Oban during school camp. I know how to back a ute laden with camp firewood down the jetty to a water taxi while every worker from the fish factory watches. I’ll wear my white gumboots down to the pub. Ask for a Speights tall neck, a deep fried blue cod dinner, and observe.