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An Interview with Margaret Mahy

Acclaimed author Margaret Mahy has won accolades for her novels, including Carnegie Medals for both The Haunting and The Changeover. Her picture books The Great White Man-Eating Shark and The Three- Legged Cat have become classics, and Bubble Trouble, illustrated by Polly Dunbar, was recently named the winner of a 2009 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Horn Book Guide Managing Editor Elissa Gershowitz visited Mahy at her home on New Zealand’s South Island late last year.

Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy. Photo by Ken Silber.

ELISSA GERSHOWITZ: I’m here with Margaret Mahy in her lovely home in Governors Bay, New Zealand. Margaret, perhaps you could describe our setting?

MARGARET MAHY: Well, my home’s in Lyttelton Harbour, which was once a volcano. But the sea broke in, and it’s hopefully an extinct volcano now. It turned into a harbor instead. From here I can look all the way down to the mouth of the harbor. At this time of the year the sun’s shifting a lot because our day is getting longer. Two weeks ago, the sun was getting up behind the hinterland. Now it’s coming out on the water, possibly already coming up behind the other hinterland. So you’ve got a good sense of the seasons and the time of day.

I’ve lived here for about forty years. Originally I had this one small section of house. Then, as I could afford to, I added on to it in bits and pieces. I’d dig out through clay and dirt and everything, pour a slab foundation, and then have a couple of rooms built. So it’s a house that’s grown up slowly. And as well as having a good slab foundation, it’s also weighed down with books!

EG: There are books everywhere . . .

MM: Even if there was a cyclone, I think my house would be weighed down by literature!

There’s a cottage next door, which I now own as well. My old aunt used to live there. I looked after her when she was really old and she’d lost her memory. I wrote a novel called Memory in which there was a character a bit like my aunt—very like her, in a lot of ways, because many of the events in that book are actually accounts of my life with my aunt. Although it is fiction; it’s invented. But I remember — oh, she would wake up at four in the morning and decide to go to the shops!

And there’s a bit of a garden, a lovely jungly garden here, and I share the house with a dog and two cats.

EG: Friendly animals.

MM: They’re friendly, and they can be a great nuisance! The dog and one cat get on very well together, and like to share a chair, but the black cat hates them both!

EG: And your office is in your bedroom?

MM: Yes, so I spend a lot of time living in that room: I sleep there and I work there, and I often eat there. When I’m here on my own I only need one room — of course, it’s nice to have more!

EG: Is there a time of day that you enjoy working most?

MM: I get up pretty early in the morning, and I work in the morning — but it depends what I’m working on. Sometimes I can go all day. These days I do everything on the computer. I used to write on every second line of an exercise book, then do corrections and alterations in a different color on the in-between lines and put things down in the margins. And then I’d type it out and go through it and cut and paste, and cut and paste . . .

EG: Literally cut and paste, with scissors?

MM: Yes! I tend to make things too long. When you’re actually writing a book, you don’t always notice the things that are wrong with it. You need to put it aside for a little while, and then you try to take it by surprise. And then you suddenly think, Gosh, I’ve put in too much description, or, I’ve made this too long. The shortest book I’ve ever written was about nine words long, part of a reading series here in New Zealand. The longest book I’ve ever written was originally eight hundred pages. It’s a fantasy called The Magician of Hoad. It’s set in an invented country, but I did a lot of reading about pre-Renaissance European civilizations. And somehow when you read things, there’s a tendency to want to make use of them, so I had a great deal more detail than I needed. I didn’t want to waste my research! But I let a little time go by and read it again and realized that I’d made it too long. I think the finished book is about three hundred pages, so it’s still quite a good length.

EG: Are you your own first editor?

MM: Yes, I am. One of the things I do is to read it aloud to myself so that I get some idea of how it sounds. This enables you to pick up sentences that are too long and rambling. Or maybe you’ve got a series of short sentences where it isn’t quite appropriate, so there’s a sense of false urgency to the story in places. I am my own first editor, but of course, I’m prejudiced in my own favor! Sooner or later, you need an editor who’s a reader. A good editor is your first reader, as it were. Depends on the story, though, because some of the very simple ones I read to my grandchildren, but the novels—I usually don’t read those to anybody except myself, and then I send them away.

EG: What’s the process like, with your editor being far away?

MM: Well, I’ve gotten some unexpected reactions. Certain stories that I’ve written, for young adults in particular, are set in New Zealand. I once had an editor who really didn’t like the New Zealand idiom I used and said that children in the USA would be confused by slang they didn’t understand. And I said defiantly that children in New Zealand have long had to cope with idioms from the USA and the UK. It seemed to me unfair that the editors wanted to cut that out.

But mostly they’re very good readers. I was lucky to have had Margaret McElderry for many years — a wonderful editor. At present, I have an agent in the UK. So I write the book and edit it myself, and then it goes to the agent, who does a bit of editing, and then it goes to a true editor at a publishing company, and they will come back to me often with very useful suggestions. But there’s always something that we don’t agree on!

EG: Can you talk a little bit about how you first broke into the US market?

MM: I started writing stories when I was seven years old and went on and on, using bigger and bigger exercise books. I wanted to be a writer, and people often tended to have a scornful reaction to that. They’d say, “You can’t make a living as a writer!” And they’re right in a way, but they’re not totally right. I sent poems and stories to local publishers, but they were often turned down, because at that point in New Zealand — and still to a considerable extent— the stories that publishers were concentrating on were stories with a New Zealand background. My stories weren’t that sort of story, and publishers tended to think that the sort of stories I was writing would be competing with what was coming in from Britain and the USA.

Anyway, I used to get quite a lot of my work published in a New Zealand magazine called The School Journal. There happened to be a printing exhibition over in New York, and New Zealand sent some examples of fine printing, including The School Journal. A woman called Helen Hoke Watts — the wife of the man who ran the publishing company Franklin Watts — saw a copy and read one of my stories, “A Lion in the Meadow,” which she thought would make a good picture book.

So Helen Hoke Watts came out to New Zealand to see me, and I’ll never forget our meeting. Her first words to me were, “This really is the end of the world— they don’t recognize American Express!” [laughing] I certainly felt apologetic for that. And at that point my house wasn’t properly finished. It was quite a change for her because she had just come from the Savoy Hotel in London! She went through my files and boxes, and she took copies of the stories she wanted.They started off by publishing five picture books and went on to do some books of short stories.

In a way I think the stories were more English than New Zealand. I received some criticism for that here. But I had undergone a sort of imaginative displacement because even though I was born in New Zealand, I’d been brought up on English books, lots and lots of English books, and very few New Zealand ones. There weren’t very many then.

I do feel that I’m essentially a New Zealander. I’ve always been interested in the fact that I found it hard in the beginning to write about New Zealand. But the time came when I found I could write a story set in New Zealand without feeling too self-conscious or too deliberate. The setting just seemed to become a natural part of the story. And that book was The Changeover.

EG: You write in so many different styles and genres. Do you write all of your stories in different genres at the same time, or do you write one picture book, then one fantasy novel, and so on?

MM: I’ve sometimes done several things at the same time. One disconcerting thing that’s happened to me is that I’ve gotten older! I don’t find it possible to stay awake all night and work in quite the way that I used to. I’ve been working on a history of New Zealand, which was suggested to me by an editor for the Auckland University Press. After that I plan to work on a series of short stories for a while and try to produce some new picture book texts. I haven’t got an idea for a novel yet, but there’s no end to story. The world suggests stories as you go along. You see things happen or you hear something said, and sometimes these things extend themselves into stories. It’s partly because of being a reader, I think. Reading is very creative—it’s not just a passive thing. I write a story; it goes out into the world; somebody reads it and, by reading it, completes it.

EG: What’s so remarkable about so many of your books is that the characters seem like normal people going about their lives, and their conversations are regular family conversations where they talk over one another—and then something strange happens.

MM: Yes, I’ve written quite a lot of stories like that — from one of the first picture books that Helen Watts published to The Changeover to a book called The Dragon of an Ordinary Family. They were an ordinary family, but they had a dragon for a pet. They didn’t entirely know what to do about it!

EG: You’ve also written novels that could be categorized as ghost stories (The Haunting, The Tricksters). Have you ever seen a ghost?

MM: Strictly speaking, I haven’t. I’ve been haunted, but that’s a bit different. [laughing] You can be haunted by your own memories, or a particular place may be haunting, but no, I haven’t seen a ghost. I suppose I think that when you break matter down to its atomic level and the quantum level, it is rather ghostly. It’s simultaneously a wave and a particle, and how that contradiction can exist is a puzzle to me. Somebody told me that if I understood the math that I’d get it, but it seems to me that we’re a million miles away from understanding the math. The idea of something simultaneously being a wave and a particle is mysterious. I think ultimately it’s a very mysterious world.

From The Changeover
“Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture. Made in New Zealand, it said,Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.

“Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find she was not only marvellously beautiful but also transported to Paris.However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu. Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the morning with chilly ears.These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another.You couldn’t really think your way into being another person with a different morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy.”


Best of Margaret Mahy
The Haunting (Atheneum, 1983)
The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance (McElderry, 1984)
The Catalogue of the Universe (McElderry, 1986)
The Tricksters (McElderry, 1987)
Memory (McElderry, 1988)
The Blood-and-Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak; illus. by Wendy Smith (McElderry, 1989)
24 Hours (McElderry, 2000)

17 Kings and 42 Elephants; illus. by Patricia MacCarthy (Dial, 1987)
The Great White Man-Eating Shark: A Cautionary Tale; illus. by Jonathan Allen (Dial, 1990)
The Three-Legged Cat; illus. by Jonathan Allen (Viking, 1992)
Down the Back of the Chair; illus. by Polly Dunbar (Clarion, 2006)
Bubble Trouble; illus. by Polly Dunbar (Clarion, 2009)

 From the November/December 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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  1. […] Mahy was a great friend to The Horn Book, and in 2009 I was thrilled to be able to speak with her at her home. Like the great lady herself, the place was warm, welcoming, and full of life, and our conversation […]

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