Kate De Goldi talks about her first stories and more on NZ Poetry Box

Kate De Goldi writes the sort of books that inspire me to write. She has written for all ages and often her books are as good for grandmothers as they are for grandsons. Kate pays attention to the world. I think she must have a little backpack where she stores things she sees and hears and tastes as she travels through each day, and then when she is writing a story she goes rummaging for things that make her story come alive.

After the interview below I have set you all (children, teachers, other writers) a Kate-De-Goldi challenge.

Kate De Goldi Kate De Goldi

Kate also uses her ear when she writes because her sentences are delicious sound treats. Not all writers do this because some writers are more interested in plot (the order of things happening in the story). Kate’s words dance and weave and slip and sing just like the words of our other fabulous word magician, Margaret Mahy, do. Kate, then, is part poet as she writes.

Stories are more than things happening. Kate’s stories show us the importance of character, setting, and time — and hiding in these you will discover mood and ideas. Her stories make the real world more real so you get to feel something about something. I love that. I always feel like her story has taken me on an extraordinary expedition where I discover more about the world (and my own life!).

Kate lives in Wellington. Her books have won lots of awards — she has won the Esther Glen Medal and she is a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate.

You might like to check out two of my favourite books of hers (if you haven’t already).

The 10PM Question is the story of twelve-year-old Frankie. He is a bit of a worrier (to say the least!). Here is the first sentence of the book: ‘Tuesday the fourteenth of February began badly for Frankie Parsons.’ Kate has used her backpack and her ear and has written a story that is rich and loveable, wise and funny, at every turn. The book not only won the NZ Post Children’s Book of the Year, but was the People’s Choice in the adult book awards which is a first. (The 10PM Question Longacre, 2008)

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The ACB with Honora Lee is the story of Perry and her Gran. Kate’s words sing with invention, feeling, and what it is to be alive. She has taken a serious subject and made it hum with surprise, humour and good feelings. Perry’s Gran has dementia so Perry makes her an alphabet book as a present. The book follows the ups and downs and topsy turvy life of Gran.

This is the first (wonderful!) sentence of the book: ‘That summer there seemed to be a lot of bumblebees around.’ Gregory O’Brien has done terrific illustrations for it. This book is shortlisted in the Junior Fiction section in the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards this year. The winners will be announced on the 24th June in Christchurch. (The ACB with Honora Lee Longacre 2012)

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The Interview. Kate has very kindly answered five questions for us. At the very bottom I have set you a Kate-De-Goldi challenge.

1.  What did you like to write when you were little?

I wrote stories first of all – usually imitations (or direct thefts) of fairy tales. I was enormously influenced by what I read – as I think most writers are – and the Brothers Grimm, Hans Andersen and the classic British folk stories were a large part of my early reading. I wrote stories that mixed up folk tale themes and characters with aspects of my own life (school, cousins, home) – for instance one story, The Christmas Tree Fairy, was about a fairy called Jean who hated Christmas (and therefore her job) so she flew away to… Timaru (my cousins lived in Timaru at the time)…I imitated a lot of the picture book stories I read too. When I was six I wrote a story which I can still remember by heart: ‘Harry did not like a bath. So he hid the scrubbing brush and ran away. When he got hungry he ran back home.’ (This is basically a precis of Harry, the dirty dog – one of my favourite books) Underneath I drew a picture of a dog with white spots (and only two legs. I can’t draw for peanuts).

When I was a little older (about 7…and on til I was about 16) I wrote a lot of plays – partly because I loved to be able to organise my sisters and cousins and classmates into parts. The School Journal was a big influence on me in this regard. In class we acted out SJ plays which was great fun. I wanted to make up my own dramas and have everyone act them…I liked being the director/producer/costumer as well as the writer. Thinking about it now, I realise that these plays were my first adventures in dialogue (I really enjoy writing dialogue in novels).

2. What else did you like to do in your spare time?

I was a pretty lazy child – physically, that is. I liked to read a lot and listen to story records and music. I wasn’t much good at ball sports (well, hopeless, actually), and I hated PE at school. (I’m less lazy now that I’m older – I like running). Much of my childhood was spent playing imaginary games with my sisters and cousins. (I have a lot of cousins – 42 – and many of them lived nearby). Our back yard was large – half an acre – and full of beautiful trees (it was the remains of an old orchard). The trees were all characters in our games. We had a most beautiful wattle tree that I named Anitra. Another tree was called Peter Pan. (I must have been reading Anne of Green Gables – she names a lot of trees and flowers). We lived in a crescent which was very safe and quite secluded so we played in the actual street a lot – in the gutters, I seem to remember. We went for long bike rides all over the suburbs – Christchurch is wonderfully flat and good for biking. My mother was a musician, so we sang songs a lot. When I was six I started learning the piano, then a little later the cello. For the next ten years or so I played music a lot of the time.

3. Do you have any favourite children’s books or poems?

I still have my favourite book of poems from childhood, The Golden Treasury of Poetry edited by Louis Untermeyer (I used to like saying that name). It’s a great collection of English and American verse with good mix of long narrative poems (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘The Highwayman’, for instance) and lots of shorter works – wonderful poems about animals, and many comic poems. It was a very good introduction to a variety of poetic voices. I liked acting out the narrative poems (especially ‘The Highwayman’) and learning the funny poems and the animal poems by heart…The book is wonderfully illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund – I’ve been thinking lately that illustrations and artwork were a very important part of my early reading – a visual accompaniment or elaboration of the stories or poems that have stayed part of my mental furniture.

Perhaps my favourite book as a child – at least for several years – was The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith. It was the first book I was conscious of owning. We used the library a lot, but when I was about seven my mother started buying us a lot of Puffin paperback chapter books and novels – this was one of them. I read it over and over again – still read it every couple of years. Beaut drawings in that, too.

4. Do you have three tips for young writers (5 to 12 year olds)?

How about: Firstly, read a lot – and read a variety of stories and poems. That’s basically how I learned to write – by reading – and, especially re-reading – other people’s stories. Without really noticing I developed a good vocabulary (I liked the look and sound of words). I learned how sentences were shaped. I learned about characters and plot. And I learned that you can write about anything. The many, many good books I read and re-read as a child somehow got into my very being and echo there still – in very helpful ways.

Secondly, I think it’s a good idea to actually writeas in, sit down (or lie down) and do some writing every day…and again, try a lot of different kinds of writing – poetry, story, drama, reportage…The more you write (and not all of it will be ‘good’ but it’s all important) the better you get at it…and – this is the really interesting part – the more you write, the more ideas you have, the more words and possibilities well up in you. I realise school students are extremely busy these days (lots of other activities)…but try and make time every day to read and do some writing.

Thirdly, be a noticing person. Be alert. Listen and look (and smell and taste and touch)…The world is strange and interesting and so are people. Notice what’s going on; ask yourself questions about it…that’s how writing starts usually, by wanting to explore curious or puzzling matters…

5. I really love the way your stories are full of poetry — particularly The 10 PM Question and The ACB with Honora Lee. If I say one of your sentences aloud it is a delicious treat for my ear. Your words dance and skip and weave and, like Margaret Mahy was, you are a word magician. How important is the sound of words when you write a story? 

The sound of words is probably the most important aspect of writing for me – the sound of words and the sound and shape of a sentence. I think this must be partly because of my background in music. A sentence feels to me like a musical phrase – I like it to be shapely and have a subtle rhythm. Words are a kind of music – I have always been attracted to the sound of a word, its feel on the tongue – even before I knew what it meant (say, quotidian, gymkhana, diabolical, osprey….). I think that’s why I like names so much (Christian names and surnames) – they sometimes have meanings – carry a history, you could say – (Fletcher, Cooper, Goldman, Forester, Veronica, Dominic…) but often they just sound wonderful (Penelope, Barney, Hepzibah, Broadacre, van der Merwe, Rigaldo, Ingelow, Untermeyer!). I get quite obsessed with names from time to time…for instance, years ago in Sydney I was introduced to a boy called Jetson Fawcet…and couldn’t stop thinking about his name for days.

 Thank you Kate!

Here is a Kate De Goldi challenge for you:

Take one of your favourite children’s picture books. Try writing a story poem where you mix a bit of that story with your own life (or cousins). Remember you aren’t writing a picture book, you are writing a poem so it can as short as you like and maybe no longer than 25 lines. Send to paulajoygreen@gmail.com. Don’t forget your name, age, year and name of school. Tell me the name of the picture book. I will post my favourites and find a prize for one or two of you (even the adults!). This seems such fun I think I will have a go at it too (maybe more than once!).

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