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Idealog—in the ideas business

Margaret Mahy’s marvellous mind

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Idealog September/October 2006, page 66. Photographs by Kurt Langer

Margaret Mahy’s down-home stories are read the world over, adapted, translated, imitated and loved. Her agent is in London and her editors in New York. Idealog talks to Mahy about agents, ideas and building an international audience

Sometimes there’s a fine line between a tragedy and a good story. One June night, while driving her car home from town with her two young daughters in the back, Margaret Mahy fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a ditch. The much-loved children’s book author abruptly woke to find no-one was hurt but the car was well and truly stuck.

A succession of motorists stopped to help. The first didn’t have a tow rope. “You’re going to need the AA,” he said. The next Samaritan didn’t have a tow bar. “You’re going to need the AA,” he said. A third was short of horsepower. He suggested calling the AA.

As this unfolded, Mahy’s lateral-thinking mind was at work. Here were all the ingredients of a children’s story: a problem to be dealt with, a repetition of ideas and phrases with a little variation each time, and a building of tension—how will it be resolved?

“Well, finally a little truck came along,” says Mahy. “By then there were quite a crowd of people standing round, and the driver said, ‘Oh, come on, it’s only a Mini—we’ll lift it; and everyone got around it, gave a heave, and out it came! And while that was going on I was thinking, ‘There’s the punch line!’ And now I have various ideas about how I’m going to write it some day.”

Maybe next year children in New Zealand and the US will be reading a story based on Mahy’s accident and the events of that night. Soon after, youngsters could be reading the story in German, Japanese or Afrikaans. Perhaps in a few years we’ll see the tale unfold on our television screens.

Mahy writes stories for kids of all ages, often with a New Zealand setting (although this isn’t always obvious) and attributes their wide appeal to being strongly underpinned by the universal elements of imagination and fantasy. She writes poems, picture flats for young children, chapter books for older children, and does a lot of scriptwriting. Today, with more than 200 published books to her name and still writing fulltime, she’s running what amounts to a global business from her home in Governors Bay, near Christchurch. How does she do it?

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Illustrations by Polly Dunbar from Down the back of the chair published by Frances Lincoln

Sitting in her living room, it’s easy to forget that Mahy works with top editors and agents from New York and London publishing circles. This morning she’s already fielded an inquiry from Russia about translating more of her books. We’re talking over coffee, before a log fire, with a view up Lyttelton Harbour through the picture window, Baxter the black standard poodle in close attendance and an enormous black cat switching laps every time one of us gets up. In an old jersey and slacks, her hair a bit rough, Mahy is so unpretentious and outwardly ordinary that she’s almost better described in terms of the ways she doesn’t typify the famous: not vain or conceited; not cantankerous or impatient; not spoiled in the slightest by success.

And we’re talking big success, most recently with the Hans Christian Andersen Award (sometimes called the ‘little Nobel Prize’) earlier this year. Her other accolades include two Carnegie Medals, the Esther Glen Award, AIM and NZ Post Book Awards, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, an Order of New Zealand in 1993, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, an Icon Artist Award and honorary doctorates from Canterbury and Waikato. There’s even a Margaret Mahy Medal recognising excellence in children’s literature.

This success didn’t come easily. In 1961 Mahy started writing for school journals in New Zealand and Australia. It was tough finding the time and energy to write while also working as a librarian and raising two young children in the days when single parents were called ‘unmarried mothers’ and regarded with pity or condescension.

Despite these challenges, with Mahy’s talent and energy she had to be ‘discovered’ sooner or later. In her case it took seven years. An influential American editor fluked on a school journal from down under and her eyes lit upon A Lion in the Meadow. Knowing talent when she saw it, Helen Hoke Watts, of publisher Franklin Watts, came straight to New Zealand to meet Mahy and see more of her work.

“I didn’t have an agent in those days and she came into my life as a very forceful character,” Mahy recalls. “She was almost six feet tall and powerful in more ways than one, married to the publisher Franklin Watts himself. They lived at the Savoy Hotel in New York. I collected her from the airport and she stayed at the pub just up the road from my place in Governors Bay. She said, ‘My God, this really is the end of the world—they don’t accept American Express!’

“Over the next couple of days she went through everything I’d written. When she left she told me she’d found more than a hundred publishable stories and poems among my papers.”

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So in 1969 Mahy sprang on the world with the publication of six new picture books: The Lion in the Meadow, The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate, Pillycock’s Shop, The Dragon of an Ordinary Family, The Procession and Mrs Discombobulous. These were followed by three collections of poems and stories assembled largely from work Mahy had accumulated to date, illustrated by British artist Shirley Hughes.

Those early stories had no obvious New Zealandness about them, largely because Mahy felt, as she puts it, “exiled” by her childhood diet of mainly British writing. That influence gradually waned. The Haunting, her first novel, “had a New Zealand setting in my head, though no one would have picked it. The Changeover, which came next, was more recognisably set here.” Whatever their setting, her stories tend to have a timelessness and a neutrality of context. This gives them a universal appeal, eases translatation into other languages and means they convert successfully to other media. Bill Nagelkerke, writer, librarian and one of the Hans Christian Andersen judging panel, attributes this to the way she writes so visually. “Many of her stories have great dramatic potential—great action and characters that adapt well into that sort of format.”

In 1980 Mahy gave up her day job at the library and turned to writing fulltime. The Haunting was released internationally in 1982, with a co-publication deal that Hoke Watts set up with British publisher J M Dent. It immediately won Britain’s top award for children’s literature, the Carnegie Medal, putting Mahy among such luminous company as Richard Adams, Arthur Ransome and C S Lewis. The paperback edition was published in the UK, Australia, United States, Canada and New Zealand, and then translated into Danish, Swedish, Catalan, Dutch, German and Afrikaans. In New Zealand, the Gibson Group made it into a film for television, The Haunting of Barney Palmer, which also gave Mahy her first taste of scriptwriting. She had tapped into a very big market indeed.

So Hoke Watts had found another goldmine? “Well yes, she did do well out of it,” says Mahy, “but so did I!”

Dave Gibson of the Gibson Group says Mahy’s international reputation makes it comparatively easy to get funding and buyers for films based on her work. “Normally I hate talking about ‘brand’—it’s an over-used concept—but Margaret Mahy is definitely recognisable as a brand,” he says. “If she’s involved with a show there’s never any problem finding backers who will buy it and put money into making it. That’s been the case for 20 years now—she’s a living legend. In a world where a lot of programmes are competent but not really inspiring, she’s a real cut above.”

It’s also no exaggeration to say she’s in a class of her own, says Gibson: “When she wrote Cuckoo Land for us, the BBC said it was great, but a year or two ahead of its time. I thought that was just a polite brush-off, but sure enough, in the end they did come back to us and bought it.”

Most authors get an agent early in their career. In Mahy’s case it happened when her former editor at J M Dent & Sons, Vanessa Hamilton, left the company during the 1980s. Hamilton represented Mahy until shortly before her death, when she recommended Mandy Little of the Watson Little agency in London as her successor, and Mahy now calls Little her “lynchpin”. Having found someone she can trust makes it a simple matter to concentrate on the writing and let the publishing experts look after the business.

“I’m not a very active person on the business side of things, which is partly why I have an agent, and I tend to accept what the agent says.” Mahy is happy to pay the commission (15 percent is typical) as the agent’s skills are so important: “First, there is judgement of literary quality, and secondly knowledge of the industry—where to place the book and who might be an appropriate publisher. Mandy does the negotiation on my behalf and she sometimes manages to get a better price, and I’m very grateful to have her.”

Literary agents don’t just deal in ‘volume rights’, the IP inherent in stories on paper; there are also electronic, film and adaptation rights. Sometimes agents have to sort out unexpected problems, as when the book Maddigan’s Fantasia had to be retitled Maddigan’s Quest after its first edition owing to copyright issues with Disney. This is just one of the complications that authors prefer to have their agents handle so they can just get on with what they do best.

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Sometimes Mahy has been given an outline and a list of characters and asked to make a television script out of them. With Maddigan’s Quest, the TV series and the book were written simultaneously. The 13-part series was produced by South Pacific Pictures and bought by the BBC and Australia’s Nine Network, as well as TV3 in New Zealand.

So how does she work? Long hours and many revisions. ‘I used to work all hours, day and night.’ She dismisses any suggestion that there are short cuts.

“It’s always quite exciting if you think there’s a prospect of a film being made of any of your books,” says Mahy. “The book of Maddigan’s Quest has done very well, partly because it was also on TV. This all began back in 1994 when I was asked to draw up some story outlines for television and I wrote about a travelling circus in a post-apocalyptic New Zealand. I’d had this thing about circuses since my childhood. But nothing came of it till comparatively recently when they asked me to complete the story outlines for the scriptwriters to work on, and said it would be a good idea to have a book to go along with it.

“Most of my energy went into writing the book; Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan were working on the script at the same time, so while they were writing it I was able to see what they were doing.” The two versions matched up pretty well, she says, but because a book gives the author more latitude, inevitably there were some differences. “For example, the characters get around on horses in the book, but for the TV series they used motorbikes because horses are so much more expensive to use in a film.” Not getting precious about such details is typical of Mahy’s down-to-earth approach, although she does object to interfering with the vocabulary when a story with a New Zealand setting is taken offshore: “Sometimes I used to get annoyed with the editing they wanted … say, if I made a reference to a kauri tree and they wanted to make it an oak tree, I’d say no: there’s no point in writing a New Zealand story if it’s going to have the New Zealand references cut out of it. And yet sometimes local publishers liked stories with a local setting because they didn’t want to be competing in quite the same way with overseas books. Often, too, they had ideals about producing distinctively New Zealand literature.”

If Mahy has any real concern about any of this, it is the tendency for children’s writing to be under-rated. When telling people that she is a children’s writer, they frequently ask when she will get round to writing something for adults,“ as though writing for children is somehow second-rate. People think that the younger the children you write for, the less ‘good’ your work is bound to be from a literary point of view, and hence the less respect you get.” On the other hand, she also objects to political editing. “I have come up against it from time to time when people say, ‘You should have a girl character doing this, not a boy.’” Like when Christopher Robin was ousted from some Winnie-the-Pooh books by a little red-haired girl? She winces: “Yes, that’s hugely dishonest—and stupidly dishonest.”

At 70—although she doesn’t look it and certainly doesn’t act like it—Mahy has no plans to slow down. Her books are more popular than ever and there’s no shortage of inspiration. “I still get ideas for stories which haunt me, even obsess me, and I want to give them shape and somehow work through the process of giving them shape and conclusion.”

So how does she work? Long hours and many revisions. “I used to work all hours, day and night.” The old adage about successful writing being 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration is certainly true in her case; she dismisses any suggestion that there are short cuts. “I’ve been a very hard worker, sometimes even to my own detriment.

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“Nowadays I usually write directly on the computer, then I print off a double-spaced copy and sit down and work on it by hand. Then I key the changes in and so on, through a series of drafts. There are certain stages where I still like to feel the flow of a pen over the paper. And sometimes I put drafts aside for a time, which is useful because when you come back to them, initially you perceive them as a reader rather than as the writer.

“Sometimes I’ll take the dog for a walk and for me that’s still a way of working because when I can see a reasonable distance in front and behind me, and as long as there’s no one close at hand, I talk away to myself, out loud, trying out the words, seeing how they sound. I still do that. I always try to write a story that’s going to be fun to be heard, to tell aloud, so in a way I write primarily for the ear.

“I think that a story travels along an arc, in that it begins as a private speculation in the writer’s head; it goes out into the world and gets published and it becomes a public thing and somewhere along the line the reader picks up the book and takes the story into their head; and so it goes from one particular sort of privacy into another. The story the reader reads is probably never quite the story the writer felt they were writing, because the reader will bring all sorts of judgements and experiences which the writer can’t anticipate.”

Mahy likes this progression: from a private event to a very public expression, which then becomes a private interpretation. Daily life still often provides the raw material. “Take a book like Memory: at the time I began writing it I was looking after an old aunt who had lost her memory. She was living next door and she’d do bizarre things like Sophie in the story—she’d sit up till four in the morning; I had to be very careful because she’d set out in the dark to go to the shops or visit a neighbour; I couldn’t let her feed the cat because she’d try and eat the cat food herself. She was an endless source, not only of ideas and material, but also a lot of speculations about the nature of memory—one’s own of course as well as hers.”

And so Mahy’s art reflects her life. And, returning to the story of the car accident, three things are certain. One, she’ll exercise plenty of licence with the idea: the car might be driven by a pirate, or the passengers could be a nest of baby crocodiles, or there may be an overwrought father not used to coping with the unexpected. Two, it’ll be delightful, zany, and the product of much hard work and imaginative thinking. And three, it will delight readers the world over.

Originally published in Idealog #5, page 66

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I very much enjoyed reading the article on Margaret Mahy. In particular I was interested to know just how she goes about creating a story from everyday events. I liked the way the author portrayed her as a down to earth type of person with a solid connection to how people function in different situations.

really interesting article, Margaret Mahy is awesome! I remember reading The Changeover as a teenager and heaps of her other books too, but that one has always stuck in my head for some reason.
Im trying to find some of her teenage fiction which has been translated into spanish. even just a list of which books have been translated. don't have a clue where to start!