I’ve nearly finished my novel. (For real this time.) And I’m terrified. This world and these characters have been consuming my life for nearly two decades. (I’m only twenty-four.) They’ve been my reason for living – my only reason until I met Tim. But the novel might never have happened if my family hadn’t moved to New Zealand.
When I was a little kid, living in England, I never dreamed of being a writer. My parents were teachers, so I wanted to be a teacher. I went to dance lessons, so I wanted to be a ballerina. I went to violin lessons, so I wanted to be Vanessa-Mae. Then, when I was six, my nana gave a notebook. It was a very ordinary-looking notebook, but it had a hardcover. That made all the difference.
Books with hardcovers, my six-year-old brain thought, are for Very Special Stories. So I sat down and I wrote a Very Special Story with a Carefully Drawn Front Cover and Everything. The story was called Sarah and Anne. (It was supposed to be Sarah and Annie, but on my Carefully Drawn Front Cover I’d accidentally missed out the ‘i’ and no, Mum, I couldn’t just squeeze one in – that would ruin it!)
It wasn’t a novel.
It was simply a piece of meandering prose about the daily lives of a girl and her favourite doll, who could talk. (I’d recently seen Toy Story.) It was finished when I reached the last page of the notebook. Nevertheless it was a masterpiece.
I presented it to my mum and, without really thinking about it, went to the local and stationer’s and bought a second notebook.
Soon I was staying up long into the night, hastily flicking my bedside light off whenever I heard my parents’ footsteps on the stairs, filling notebook after notebook with the adventures of Sarah and Anne. I still didn’t dream of being a writer. I just had a story in my head that wouldn’t stop and needed exorcising.
As the years went by, my stories – well, one continuous story, really – took on the influences of what I was reading. It had the children-from-our-world-entering-a-magical-world of Narnia, the fantastic castle of Harry Potter, the enchanted forest of The Magic Faraway Tree… It was also part-diary: the mundane things that happened to me/Sarah at school side-by-side with the fantasy.
But something was about to happen to me that wasn’t so mundane.
When I was nine years old, my parents told me that we were moving to New Zealand. My world was shattered. Everything was gone: my best friend, my grandma, my dance lessons, my violin lessons… because the small town we moved to in New Zealand didn’t have any dance schools or violin teachers. I was lonely. I was just so, so lonely. And bored.
Boredom was the thing, really. I was sitting around one day, no friends to hang out with; no dances or violin tunes to be practising, and I thought to myself: what can I do? Well I’d obviously found writing enjoyable enough. Why not do that? But PROPERLY this time. I’d write a novel. A proper novel. How hard could it be? It was just something to pass the time; it’d be finished by Christmas.
But a novel about what? Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything. Then I felt a little tug on the back of the T-shirt of my mind. “I’m still here,” Anne said.
“Yes, but you’re a doll,” I told her. “I’m too old for stories about talking toys now. They’re stupid.”
“But I’m not a toy,” she said. “None of us are. We’re shape-shifting magical folk. And we’re here to protect you.”
“From what?” I asked… and the novel was born.
Despite the fantasy elements, it was still largely autobiographical. Sarah was an English girl whose family had moved to a small town in New Zealand. Although her father’s reasons for shifting the family had been rather different to mine. Sarah’s route to school and the school itself were the same as mine. Then there were her friends…
I must admit, loneliness drove me to use the names and basic looks of some of the friends I’d had in England. By writing about them, I felt like I was still interacting with them. Of course, they soon developed into their own characters, separate from the people they were based on, but I wouldn’t blame the people they were based on if they felt a little freaked out.
Years later, I reconnected with some of them on social media. It was a weird experience for me. I didn’t tell them, but I almost expected them to be like my characters. They weren’t. It was worse meeting one of them in person – I didn’t see England again until I was seventeen, so the differences were quite staggering.
The characters have all grownup with me, you see. When I finished the first version of that first novel, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing, so I had to write it again, better. Then, when I finished the second version, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing… so… you get the idea. Each time I finished it, I was completely embarrassed by the juvenile crap that the younger me had written.
But in-between all the re-writes of the first novel, I wrote sequels to it. The characters aged as I did. It got out of control. The world grew and grew. It got darker. Writing was no longer my hobby, it was my life. I didn’t choose where the stories went, they ran ahead of me, dragging me in the dirt behind them, scraped and buffeted by self-criticism, but unable to stop.
This is the final version of my first novel. I’m nearly finished. Maybe, someday soon, I can regain some sanity. And by ‘sanity’ I mean ‘mental health’, because writers should be a little insane. It’s got to the point now where I couldn’t do anything else with my life if I tried. Writing is the only thing I’m good at.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in England. Would writing have become my life’s passion if I’d still had my other hobbies? Would I have been bullied in the same way, forced to spend high school lunchtimes hiding in the library, where it was natural to read and write? Life might have been easier if my self-esteem wasn’t so wrapped up in writing.
I also think about how much New Zealand, the country itself, has influenced the world of my novel. Have the attitudes of my characters changed? The landscape of the world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White Island.
I haven’t used any of the magical creatures from Maori folklore so far, although at some point there is an old woman with removable fingers of fire, obviously inspired by Mahuika from the Maui legends. I remember that story from a Year Eight art class, and I wish I’d been told more about Maori folklore years ago.
One of my favourite fantasy writers, Juliet Marillier, is from New Zealand, but she mainly writes novels inspired by Celtic folklore. I suppose I take my influences from lots of different places, though there’s a certain amount of, as Terry Pratchett put it, re-arranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. But then all fantasy is.
(To set my nana’s mind at rest, my book also has a firm basis in the real world. Not that what happens in the fantasy world isn’t real – you just ask Neil Gaiman. I mean that one of its most significant settings is a small town in New Zealand. (My nana thinks fantasy is a waste of time because none of the things happening are real. It took long enough to convince her that ‘writer’ is a respectable career prospect, but ‘fantasy writer’ may need more work!))