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Tessa Duder

New Zealand writer Tessa Duder lives in Mission Bay in Auckland. She has written several books for children and has won many awards.

What made you start writing?

A story told me to write it. Seriously! I had never thought of trying to write fiction ever until a mysterious night in 1978 when a story presented itself to me (What happens when a family goes sailing and gets into trouble?) with such vividness that I simply had to answer the question – and the only way to do that was sit down and write the book. Night Race to Kawau was published (with the help of a very good editor at Oxford University Press) four years of apprenticeship later.

What is your favourite book that you have written?

They are all favourites, but once they are published, none of them belong to me. They are yours, the reader’s – while I have said goodbye and am already well into my next book. Having said that, adding that Night Race to Kawau as my first and Alex as my ‘take-off book’ will always be a bit special, I always say that my favourite book is the one that’s still in my head. It’s the one I still have control over, am still making choices for, am revelling in the process of creating believable characters in strange and challenging circumstances. So that’s always the favourite

How long do you write for each day? How long does it take for you to write a book?

I work long hours, usually a full day and very often at night and weekends when I have to juggle things around to accommodate my family. Of course there’s the pure ‘creative’ writing time, and I try to do this in the mornings, but there are other aspects of being a writer – doing research, answering letters, visiting schools, writing speeches, going to meetings of literary groups, meeting other writers. If I count all this as my writer’s work, then it’s a pretty full-time job.

What is one of your favourite books called that you like to read?

One of my books? Help, how could I ever choose? I can only pluck a few all-time favourites out of the air – Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters, William Taylor’s Agnes the Sheep, everything of A.A. Milne, Peter Pan (a really weird novel by J.M. Barrie), Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. At present I am reading The Corrections by Jonathon Frantzen and thinking it one of the best books I’ve read in years. Rohan Minstry, the Indian writer, is another favourite author. I love finding new authors, and want to read everything they’ve written.

How do you decide what to write about? Where do you write? Does your family interrupt you?

Deciding what to write about usually follows thinking about a character in an unusual and challenged situation – for example, the gifted swimmer Alex realizing she has a serious challenge to her expectations of making the Olympic Games swim team, or Tiggie deciding against her parents’ wishes to go to a new co-ed school because of a bullying incidence at her girls’ school. I don’t actually ‘get ideas’ for my books – I create the characters first and they get the ideas. But yes, in the Alex quartet I was always intending to write about the special problems of gifted children; and the Tiggie Tompson books, while I hope are good stories, are also an exploration of late 20th century society’s unhealthy, unreal and growing emphasis on ‘body image’ and the associated eating disorders among young people. Where do I write – currently I have an office in my house, though admittedly during the past 20 years I’ve found it best to get an office away from home.

I swim competively and have read all the Alex books. They are great. I was wondering if you still swim.

No, I haven’t done much swimming (for exercise) as an adult, I think because I did so much training from age 10 to 17 and when I stopped, felt enough was enough. Somehow I never had the opportunity or the desire to join Masters swimming. Now I get exercise in other ways – walking and the gym. I still love to swim at the beach, and from yachts when out sailing. But what you swimmers clock up today by way of mileage is truly amazing. I think you are all a lot fitter than we were, though of course, it is all much more scientific and specialised. Sports medicine and sports psychology only really began in New Zealand in the 1960s or even later.

Have all the books you have written been published?

Nearly all the manuscripts I’ve written have been published, happily. Because I had a wonderful editor, I was very lucky to have my first, rather amateurish and grossly overwritten attempts eventually published. I’ve got two unpublished novels on my computer – one is finished, but needs more work, and one unfinished, because I put it aside in favour of the Tiggie Tompson books and haven’t yet been back to it. But I will. I think finishing any novel or story to the best of your ability, no matter how long or short it is, is one of the keys to being a serious writer.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Did I always want to be a writer – well, no, not like say Margaret Mahy who wrote her first story at seven, but yes, I always wanted, from the age of about 12, to be a journalist, and I became one when I left school. I trained at the Auckland Star, which was Auckland’s evening newspaper, and worked there for 6 years before I got married and had children. Then I didn’t do any writing at all for 11 years. Until I was 38, I’d never dreamed of writing a novel. I’m a pretty good example of how different and exciting and unexpected your life can become even after you think you’re middle-aged and it’s all over. I reckon life goes on getting better and better!

What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?

My own experience has coloured my feelings about this. While I think being a journalist is a really good training in research and writing and people skills, I have always regretted that I didn’t do a degree first. Novelists need knowledge, experience and persistence, in about equal measures. Asking a publisher to invest a lot of money in your writing requires quite a bit of arrogance, really, and a belief that YOU (ahead of hundreds of other aspiring writers) actually have something to say. So now, for anyone who is really serious about wanting to write, whether fiction or non-fiction, I advise first that getting a tertiary degree in the humanities (especially subjects like English, history, geography, the social sciences) is a good place to start; then have the travel, the life experience. Train yourself to be curious about everything; become fascinated by people and what motivates them; keep your child’s sense of wonder, but above all DO lots of things while you are young (say under 25). These are the most formative years of your life, and the things you do in those years will be very special and very valuable to you as a writer later on. And have fun, because though it’s hard, persistent work, writing fiction is essentially also a fun, playful act.

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