Wellingtonian Interview: Barbara Else

Last updated 15:01 18/09/2012
Barbara Else

Barbara Else: "Children's books are very entertaining to write, because you can be more playful."

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Author Barbara Else talks about writing, imaginary lands and gardening.

You were born in Invercargill. When did you come to Wellington?

My family moved here when I was 2. We lived in Kelburn till I was 9, then we went to Auckland. I went to Kelburn Normal School for a while.

But you've settled in Wellington. What do you like about it?

It's a small city, but it packs so much punch and has so much energy. I've got good friends here, and there's a great network of freelance writers.

Had you always wanted to be a writer?

Not really. I used to write wee stories when I was kid, but then I did an English degree at Otago. After studying the classics and realising how intricate and complex writing was, I thought it would be too hard to write.

What turned you on to writing?

I went to a night class when my second daughter was little. I thought I needed something to keep my brain active and my critical faculties alert, and I saw there was a class about short stories. To my complete horror, it turned out we had to write them! But I absolutely loved it.

When did you start writing children's books?

I wrote a couple of children's novels in the 1990s and I thought I would like to write more at some stage, but I didn't have any ideas. Then one finally popped into my head.

Was that the Travelling Restaurant?

Yes. I was talking to my daughter about how much I loved tricking children into eating when they're cranky and how it would be great if there was restaurant you could take them to. She told me it sounded like something from one of my books.

A few weeks later she rang and told me her son had asked if I'd written the book yet!

Your next book is on the shelves this week?

The Queen and the Nobody Boy. It's set in the same world as the Travelling Restaurant, but it's a stand-alone book. That did make it hard, because I had to decide how much background to include.

It's meant to be in stock on Friday.

It must be wonderful to be able to create imaginary worlds.

It's terrific, I thoroughly enjoy it. It's a very entertaining way to deal with certain issues. Politics are very important in The Queen and the Nobody Boy. There's the rather mean dictator and the much more pleasant, easy-going ruler. Also various characters talk about democracy in what I hope is an interesting and enjoyable way.

You also write adult fiction. Which is harder to write?

I'm not sure, they're quite different. Children's books are very entertaining to write, because you can be more playful. Young audiences are more accepting of my playfulness.

Not many authors write both children and adult's fiction.

No, they don't and I don't know why that is. Though we do have Maurice Gee, he writes both. His books are much darker than mine.

What are some of your favourite children's books?

Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts. That's very dark, but brilliant.

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For some with more playfulness, Phillip Pulman's I was a Rat. It just satirises royalty so well. It's about one of the footmen in Cinderella who is turned into a rat, but doesn't change back at midnight.

Do you use a computer or write out your stories long- hand?

I have big notebook I scribble in. With my first cup of coffee of the day in hand, I start out with the notebook, working through characters, what they're feeling, what they are doing, what they're going to do next. I get myself into the zone with handwritten notes, then sit at the computer and write.

Your husband is your literary agent. How well do you work together?

It's fine. He's got his study, I've got mine. He's got his coffee pot, I've got mine. We don't really talk much to each other during the day. If we did we wouldn't have much to talk about in the evening.

In 2005 you received a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

It was quite astonishing. It's one of those thing that came out of the blue and I thought 'why me?' But it was lovely. At the investiture it was wonderful to see people from all different walks of life, different professions, different interests.

You've also written plays.

I started that when my children joined a drama group. It was quite hard to find plays suitable to the wide mix of people in the group, so I started mucking around writing them. I had done a bit of acting, making up plays, when I was young, so I wasn't new to it. It was just fabulous to work with a tame group of actors.

You have a lovely garden. Are you a keen gardener

We're both quite keen, but my husband, Chris, does all the heavy work. I look after the herb garden and plants close to the house. This [spring] is a wonderful time of year, with everything starting to flourish.

We first saw the house in spring, when the kowhai tree was in blossom and tui were shouting out.

- The Wellingtonian


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