National Portrait: Lynley Dodd, The Rhymer

Dame Lynley Dodd has just published another story in her Hairy Maclary series about curmudgeonly cat Scarface Claw.

Dame Lynley Dodd has just published another story in her Hairy Maclary series about curmudgeonly cat Scarface Claw.

Dame Lynley Dodd couldn't help herself. Asked to impersonate her ferocious feline character Scarface Claw during a radio interview a few years back in Australia she let out her finest 'EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!'

It was an almost fatal act, she recalls.

"I nearly killed a cockatoo in Melbourne. A caller rang in to say their poor bird had keeled over.

Dodd is a true icon of New Zealand storytelling. Her most famous creation, the Hairy Maclary series, is a bestselling ...

Dodd is a true icon of New Zealand storytelling. Her most famous creation, the Hairy Maclary series, is a bestselling children's classic not just in her home country but globally.

"I could just see the headline in the paper: 'Writer Kills Cockatoo with Caterwaul'."

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That kind of ridiculousness is right up Dodd's alley. It will surely be grist to her writer's mill in years to come. That jittery cockatoo will get its moment on the page, no doubt about it.

But it is the curmudgeonly Scarface Claw who gets its close-up once again in Dodd's latest offering in her enormously successful Hairy Maclary series.

That ferocious kitty cat, that menace to all dogs, can trace its genesis back to Dodd's own family moggie, the writer says from her Tauranga home – a once-rural idyll that has seen the arrival of the inevitable urban creep.

"Squib" positively dribbled with happiness, she recalls, but he was a tom and had almighty battles with other neighbourhood cats. He had notches in his ears and a peg leg. He was not to be messed with. But he was destined for great adventures on the pages of her books.

All Dodd's stories come from observations, tales she has heard here and there.

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"There are so many great stories that happen in real life there's really no need to think them up at all. I always tell children I have got idea antennae flapping around waiting to grab ideas as they fly past."

Her entry into children's books began with a nudge from her husband's cousin, Eve Sutton, who asked her to illustrate what would become the remarkably popular My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes. Her observation antenna switched into full gear.

It's true – all cats like to hide in boxes, they just don't like to be put in them against their will. Think of those claw-clenchingly difficult vet visits, she says.

The book is still in print today, more than 40 years later.

Her alliteratively titled The Nickle Nackle Tree followed but it was the birth of Hairy Maclary in 1983 that has earned her a permanent place on bookshelves of children around the world.

Over her long career she has flogged 10 million books worldwide from her 21 Hairy Maclary and Friends series and 13 other titles.

It's been quite a ride and at 76, Dodd is still working full throttle.

"I've been doing this for 50 years now and instead of retiring I'm busier than ever, though perhaps not as fast at getting things done. It's all terrifically interesting and very satisfying."

She spends months and months writing and illustrating each story. Every word, every picture has to be golden.

It's draft after draft – sometimes 25 before she's happy with the result.

"Children think it's pathetic. They tell me they could get it right first time and how could I be so hopeless?

"But you cannot write clunky rhyme and be successful. It has to be absolutely right."

Dodd's father was in the forest service and it was in a settlement among the trees of the Kaingaroa Forest, near Rotorua, that she spent her early childhood.

"There were not many other children to play with and it was a quiet, outdoor existence.

"It was good for the imagination, I suppose, being in the midst of a big pine forest and all that entails."

Dodd, an only child, discovered a sense of the absurd and the ridiculous early on in life.

She and her father were hooked on The Goon Show.

"We were fanatics for Spike Milligan and co. Silly language was very much a part of our lives so stringing together nice sentences and being conscious of interesting words were the sorts of things I enjoyed as a child. I don't suppose it's surprising that I ended up doing what I'm doing."

She was a desperately keen reader and was mad for AA Milne and Dr Seuss. She met the latter when he awarded her the Esther Glen award for My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes.

Dodd went to Elam School of Fine Arts and became an art teacher, spending five years at Wellington's Queen Margaret College – her first and only salaried job.

She met her late husband, Tony, over a chicken supper on The Terrace in Wellington. After they married she dabbled as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist – former prime minister Robert Muldoon was among the subjects of her satirical pen.

But after the success of her collaboration with Eve Sutton, her writing and illustrating career took off.

She was reading picture books to her own two children and began to have ideas of her own, which she stashed away in a now tattered and torn ideas book.

Hairy Maclary literally fell out of that file of possibilities at a rather convenient time.

The well-worn story goes that she'd been working on a book called Wake up Bear when her publisher called in a flap with news that someone else was writing a similar book with the same name.

She'd have to come up with something else and fast.

"It was panic stations. I went to my ideas book and literally the little sketches of Hairy Maclary I did much earlier on fell out and I thought, well, perhaps I could do that."

At the time she lived in Belmont, Lower Hutt, and it was here she had observed a gang of four or five dogs that would saunter around the neighbourhood sniffing letterboxes and rubbish bins.

It was only a matter of time before they too came out of the ideas book and on to the page in the form of Hercules Morse (as big as a horse), Bottomley Potts (covered in spots) et al.

The characters are like old friends now. It's hard to believe they are not real cats and dogs, she says.

"They have been around a long time. In fact they are getting a bit grey of whisker and long in the tooth since they are all more than 30-something years old. They are ancient in dog and cat years."

She loves the fan mail, of which there is a lot. Kids ask the funniest things, she says.

One asked if she lived in a mansion. "They had obviously been reading about JK Rowling.

"Another wrote to me asking about my love life, which I thought was rather interesting.

"But feedback is important otherwise you are writing and illustrating in isolation. You need to know if you are hitting the mark."

It's a bit disconcerting, however, when strangers come knocking to ask for advice on how to write a children's book, she says.

Her ageing pussycat Suu Kyi, named after the Burmese politician, isn't much use as a guard cat. She's a 17-year-old diabetic who needs two injections a day. Not exactly caterwaul material.

Dodd may have to bring out her inner Scarface Claw.

 - Stuff


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