Elka Aitchison gets to talk to Fleur Beale, one of her favourite writers ever

Interviewed by Elka Aitchison.

 I am a 13-year-old, year-nine student at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland. I have always loved to read and write, and Fleur Beale’s books are some of my favourites. I have wanted to write since a young age and I have always been a big reader. Working in my grandmother’s bookshop over the past two and a half years has really made me read a wide range of books. I would highly recommend Fleur Beale’s books to anyone.

What was your favourite novel as a child?

Mum read us all the Enid Blyton Famous Five and Secret Seven books – they were very tense and exciting. I read all the Anne of Green Gables books, all the Little House on the Prairie books, What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next (I can’t now remember what she did). A book of L M Montgomery’s that I re-read every so often is The Blue Castle. I only remember having one book set in New Zealand, but I don’t recall what it was.

How do think growing up in New Zealand has impacted on the way you write?

Tricky question. I think we have a more global outlook than a lot of people do who live in bigger countries like the United States or those close to large populations such as the United Kingdom. I’m not sure how or if that has influenced my writing though. Our humour is bit different and we have words and idioms that foreigners get most perplexed over.

Do you remember the first book that made you cry?

It was probably one of the Little House on the Prairie books – the one where the dog dies.

Which character in any of your books reminds you most of yourself? Why?

I suppose all the characters have some elements of me in them, but none of them remind me of myself – they are a lot more interesting than I am. I hope!

The End of the Alphabet is my favorite of your books. How did you come up with the concept for that book? What was your inspiration?

For some reason, I’d been thinking about girls who found reading difficult and started wondering how that would limit their career choices. I’ve got a friend who is a stylist and I thought a job like that would be entirely possible, especially for a girl with an artistic flair like Ruby has.

What inspired the dystopian world of your I Am Not Esther series? Was it the world at the moment?

No, the idea came from hearing about a teenage boy who was expelled from his very religious family because he wanted to be a doctor. Education beyond what was required by the state was forbidden by the family’s religion. I did a lot of research to find out what I could about such strict and fundamentalist religions, but when I wrote Esther in the 1990s there wasn’t a lot of information around. It’s pretty horrifying to see that such cults are alive and thriving throughout the world, including in New Zealand.

Is there a particular question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview? How would you answer it?

No! I’m always just very relieved when I can answer them. At the moment, I’m still thinking about how to answer your first four questions . . .

How do you decide which parts of your books to cut out?

By leaving time between finishing the first draft and reading it again. A week is good, but longer is better. I left Juno of Taris for seven years, but that’s possibly too long. When you come back to something with a fresh eye it’s much easier to see where it’s not behaving itself. Also, I get others to read it. These are people I trust. I know they will tell me what’s wrong and I trust their ability to spot weaknesses.

Do you type your ideas and first draft or handwrite them? Why is that better for you?

I love my computer! I can type faster than I can write and when I’m in the zone, the ideas flow out through my fingers. Magical.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I’ve got a book of names and I use the web to make a short list. Then it’s a matter of deciding which name best fits the character in my head. Names are very important to get right.

How do you feel about e-books?

They’re extremely useful because of their portability. Much better to load up the Kindle with six or so books rather than carry them all with you when you’re travelling. They are also great if you hear a review and want the book immediately, or you want it and it’s been sold out. I don’t think we yet know their full impact on the publishing industry because it’s changing so quickly. E-publishing has meant that anyone can put a book out there, whereas there was a real bottleneck with traditional publishing and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get manuscripts accepted.

If you could discuss writing with any living or dead author, who would it be?

I’d choose to talk to Esther Glen, because she was one of the first writers for children in New Zealand. She was born in Christchurch in 1881 and died in 1945. Her first book was called Six Little New Zealanders (1917). It was unusual in that it didn’t try and preach to kids or talk down to them. She was so influential that the New Zealand Library Association established an award named after her for the most distinguished contributions to New Zealand literature for children. I was privileged to win the award in 2009 for Juno of Taris. Esther Glen earned her living as a writer and editor – not an easy thing for a woman to do back then.

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