Sunshine in a Teacup

I woke up to the sound of rain today. Not an unwelcome sound—the seedlings in the garden will appreciate it. Still, a rainy day inspires a certain amount of decadent self-care to banish the mental chill (even if it is perfectly comfortable indoors). 

My decadence this morning came in the form of pulling out a Sunday teacup for my coffee. 

We bought two of these cups at Driving Creek Railway in the Coromandel a few years ago—a Christmas gift to ourselves, and a real splurge. They’ve become our special occasion coffee mugs—used on Sunday mornings and Christmas Day only. In my mind, they’re associated with relaxation, holiday, and decadence.

So on this rainy morning, with a day of intense work on the next novel ahead of me (and no sunny-day excuses to get me out of it), I thought I needed a little motivation in the form of a special vessel for my coffee. A tiny thing, but it has made my day sunny, despite the rain outside.

Inspiring Landscapes

When I was writing my Dragon Defence League series books, I delighted in placing my characters in some of my favourite places in New Zealand—the mountains of Fiordland, Kahurangi National Park, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, and many others.

But New Zealand’s landscapes infuse my latest book, Fatecarver, even though it is set in a purely fantasy world.

While I was writing Fatecarver, I kept imagining specific places in New Zealand. I sat on a peak near Arthur’s Pass and imagined my characters there. I scribbled down descriptions of real views, storms, trees, and hikes to use in the book.

I took the New Zealand landscapes and mixed and mingled them with favourite places in the United States, Panama, Peru and Bolivia until the Fatecarver world included elements of a lifetime of adventures. 

Many of my fellow authors are adventurers like me. We take inspiration for our writing from dramatic landscapes and other settings we’ve experienced. The landscape becomes a character in its own right, thwarting other characters’ plans, throwing up challenges, or providing aid at a critical moment. Just like real landscapes do.

Natural landscapes play a huge role in my own real life adventures—it’s only natural to include them in my fictional ones.

My First Book

handmade book--Rainy Day Thing

I was going through a box of old stuff the other day, and I ran across my very first ‘book’—Rainy Day Thing—a how-to about paper snowflake making.

I remember creating this book, back in 1979 in the weekly gifted class my school district bussed me to. I remember folding the snowflakes to use as examples in the book. I remember the smell of the rubber cement I used to glue them on the pages. I remember the excitement of making a real cover, and having my About the Author page laminated (Laminated! Can you believe that? This was back in the days when very few schools had laminators—we were still using mimeograph machines and chalkboards.) I even remember posing for the author photo in the school library.

I don’t remember writing my author bio, however, and 42 years later, I’m amused at what I wrote: Robinne Weiss likes to draw, play kickball, read and play baseball and play basket ball. She is 9 years old. She has a sister and a brother.

First of all, the grammar is shocking—no huge surprise there. My 9-year-old students are at least as bad. But writing isn’t on the list. (And basketball is? I don’t even remember playing basketball at that age.)

I know that I published my first poem at age nine, and at age ten I recited my poetry on the children’s television programme, Christopher’s Magic Cocoon. 

I know that somewhere in those years, I wrote a poem for my dentist, and he hung it on the wall in the waiting room (much to my later embarrassment). 

I know that I took a creative writing class in high school, and a poetry class at university. In my junior year of university, I wrote a children’s picture book (long gone, now), and published a few more poems in literary journals that no longer exist.

Author page from Rainy Day Thing

While in Peace Corps, I poured out poems, and even published a few, printed out at the Peace Corps office in Panama city and posted to magazines on my weekly trips to town. I started writing a novel (never finished).

As a Masters student in entomology, I answered essay questions in verse (I’m sure my professors thought I was nuts), and wrote regular articles for the PSU Entomology teacher newsletter, Bug Bits.

After graduation, as a professional heritage interpreter, I wrote articles for trade magazines and local newspapers (one even won an award). I wrote curriculum materials for teachers and other interpreters. I started writing another novel.

I’ve never not written.

But if you’d asked me if I was a writer, I would have said no until a few years ago. And when I did decide to close down my interpretation business to write, the decision was fraught with emotion, because even though I wanted to give writing a go, I wasn’t a writer

I’m about to release my 11th book (not counting Rainy Day Thing). My writing has improved a great deal since 1979, and my covers are no longer made of wallpaper-covered cardboard. I no longer list baseball and basketball in my author bio.

But after decades of denial, I admit I’m a writer. And I’ve been one for a very long time.

Oh, and yes, I still remember how to make a paper snowflake. Maybe I’ll write a book about it someday. 

Why I Write

When my year eight students first learned I’m a writer, they wanted to know why I was teaching, since I must be rich.

JK Rowling, you have a lot to answer for.

Of course, the reality is, most authors need second and third jobs to make ends meet.

So why do we write?

I can’t answer for other writers, but truth is, I’m trying hard to turn my writing into a viable business. I would love to be able to make a living as a full-time writer. 

But that’s not why I write, nor is it the most important measure of success in my opinion.

More important to me are comments like these from readers and readers’ mums:

“I haven’t seen my son this excited by a book since Harry Potter!”
“I read your book in one day!”
“Three generations of our family read and loved your book.”
“My son’s not a big reader, but he’s devouring your books.”
“My kids sat with a map, tracing the travels of your characters.”
“You brightened our days.”
“Your books are as re-readable as Harry Potter.”
“You’re my favourite author.”

To me, one positive comment from a satisfied reader is worth a thousand sales. As a writer, I want to share worlds, introduce new friends, and communicate ideas. I want to make people feel things. If I’ve done that, it is enough.

Would it be nice to also be able to pay the mortgage with my writing? You bet. Maybe someday I will.

New Zealand punches above its weight when it comes to writers, and there are lots of local authors writing great books for kids. Come out and support them at the Tamariki Book Festival on 22 November. Who knows? You may meet your next favourite author!

Childhood Literary Inspirations

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

I grew up with books, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Because I write fantasy for children, people often expect my childhood literary inspirations were books like The Hobbit, The Earthsea Cycle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or other classic fantasy stories.

I read these books as a child, but the ones I really remember are quite different.

Heidi: The natural world has always been my comfort zone, so I immediately connected with a character who prefers a life running around the mountains with a herd of goats over one learning proper manners in the city. Some of the scenes in the book were so vivid to me as a child, I can still see, feel, smell and taste them.

Little House on the Prairie: Another book whose main character is a tomboy—I sense a theme here. Little House on the Prairie appealed to my sense of adventure and love of the natural world. I even learned some gardening tips from it that I still use today. 

Doctor Goat: I can still recite this silly rhyming picture book in its entirety. It taught me about rhyme, meter, and being silly. Yes, Dr. Seuss books did too, but Doctor Goat is what sticks in my mind decades later.

Time Life books: My father had a near-complete set of these non-fiction books. They fed my insatiable desire to understand the natural world for many years. They were written for adults, but I read them over and over again until I understood.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Something about these stories sticks with me long past the point where I can accurately recount them. Perhaps it’s the way they hone in on our most fundamental wishes and fears and turn them back on the characters who express them. Perhaps it’s just because they’re freaky and often horrifying.

So, what books inspired my own children’s books? None of them individually, and all of them collectively. My own stories are crazy-quilt patchworks of everything I have ever read, stitched together with my own personal experiences (some of which can blow any fantasy adventure out of the water). My rich reading life, coupled with a ‘real’ life lived to the fullest, has furnished me with an overflowing font of story ideas.

As a parent, I have tried to provide the same rich book life to my own children, and I’m passionate about getting kids reading. Come join me and and a fabulous line-up of local authors at the Tamariki Book Festival (Nov 22 at Tūranga), and let’s celebrate the wonderful stories written right here in Christchurch!