The Treasury Interviews: Phoebe interviews Tessa Duder



A Short Autobiography on Phoebe Pierard

Ever since I was little, I have loved books, language and how words are so meaningful. Born in 2002, I am now 12 years old and in Year Seven. I have only recently started writing poetry properly, but my first poem was called ‘As Winter Comes’ and I wrote it when I was around the age of seven. Another hobby of mine is playing the cello. I have been brought up in a very musical family, so I started cello lessons when I was four. I am now working towards my Grade 5 exam. For me, the hardest question is: “When you grow up, what do you want to be?” These days, I simply reply, “There are so many opportunities in this world, that I haven’t reserved myself for one thing!”


A Short Biography on Tessa Duder

By Phoebe Pierard 26.7.14

Tessa Duder. What a name to remember! Born in 1940, she began writing fiction in 1977. She published her first novel, Night Race to Kawau, in 1982. Her most successful works are the Alex quartet, which are based on her own teenage years when she held records in butterfly and medley swimming events (1958-59). She hasn’t just written for children, she has also published adult fiction, plays and biographies. Tessa Duder now lives in Auckland and is still writing. Thank you Tessa, for giving us such inspiring literature!


The Interview:

Q: To start with, since you broke all those swimming records in your teenage years, do you still swim as a regular practice?

A:   Not regularly, but I’ll always enjoy swimming, of course. (All those lengths as girl rather put me off; pool training, with nothing to look at, or listen to, or see, would possibly be the most boring form of training of any sport.)


Q: What main message do you want your readers to get from your novels and poems?

A: That life, however tough at the time, is worth living; that hard work brings its own rewards, though perhaps not the ones you expected. And when I started writing, in the early 1980s, that girls can be adventurous, take risks and set themselves big goals, just as boys have always done. Until the 1980s that wasn’t what girls grew up believing, odd as that may seem today. That’s why most of my fiction has female main characters – also, I had four daughters!


Q: Do you prefer your fans to contact you by normal mail, or email? Have you got any favourite letters that you have kept?

A: I’ve got several boxes of letters kept from the days (late 1990s) before I was fully on e-mail. Nowadays most come by e-mail, which is certainly easier. I always try to reply within a few days. (I do keep these on e-file, too.) However they come, every single one is treasured.


Q: Now, to capture the teenage feel in your works, would/have you used any text speak or slang?

A: Yes, I have used text speak, and slang is just another word for the colloquial way people speak in real life. But you have to be a bit careful not to overdo it, use words which come and go quickly. I often check out words and phrases with my teenage grand-daughter!


Q: Continuing with that idea, do you feel the writing and speaking styles in NZ have changed for the better or the worse?

A: They have changed, as language always does. Mostly that’s good, but I’ve become a bit obsessive about proper punctuation, which today is often sloppy; it’s there for a purpose, to make the sense absolutely clear. And I don’t like hearing from publishers and other adults that today’s children and teens can only cope with stories that are short, briskly written and not too demanding. Some young people want and deserve more than that, as J.K. Rowling, Margaret Mahy, Fleur Beale, Phillip Pullman and many others have proved.


Q: Have you changed your writing style to keep up with the times?

A:   I don’t think so, not basically. I’ve always tried to write prose that reads well out loud, says what I want to say and doesn’t strain for effect. (I can spend up to thirty minutes on a single page, looking for the best words, juggling parts of sentences around, so it’s not always an easy process.) I never consciously write using simpler words or shorter sentences just because I’m writing for younger readers.


Q: What is the writing award you are most proud of and why?

A: I’ve been thrilled to bits over the years with several ‘best book’ awards and two wonderful opportunities to travel, to France and the Antarctic. But I think the honour that has given me most deep-down pleasure was about ten years ago, when Alex was judged in a TV survey as one of New Zealand’s five ‘most memorable’ characters in fiction. The others were Wal and Horse from Footrot Flats, Jake and Beth Heke (together) from Once were Warriors and Fred Dagg aka John Clarke. That’s pretty amazing company! Alex was the only character from a teen book, the only girl, the only one from an urban middle-class background. To this day, I have no idea why she seems to have been memorable for so many readers.


Q: And lastly: Have you ever written a poem that is the same subject as one of your published novels?

A: Not yet! But about twenty years ago an 11-year-old girl called Sally Payne from Hokitika wrote a wonderful piece called Alex – the poem which is so good that I’ve often read it when visiting schools. It’s in rhyming verse and I couldn’t have done any better myself! I’m very grateful that her teacher thought to send it to me.

Paula: Thank you for such a thoughtful interview Phoebe and Tessa. Tessa has a long poem in the A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children called ‘The Cat Who’s Known as Flea’ which is full of wit and humour.

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