by Michelle Ristuccia
Mandy Hager is a New Zealand author and educator. She writes fiction, non-fiction and scripts, with a drive to tell stories that speak of the important issues affecting the world today. She has a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Victoria University (NZ), and has won and/or been shortlisted for several writing awards throughout her writing career, including the Esther Glen Award for Fiction for her novel ‘Smashed’ and Best Young Adult Book in the NZ Post Book Awards 2010 for ‘The Crossing’. Her Blood of the Lamb trilogy was published to very high praise and was followed by the critically lauded ‘The Nature of Ash’. She currently teaches Novel Writing on a Creative Writing degree programme in Wellington, New Zealand.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to start writing? How did you begin?
Mandy Hager: I have written since I was a child, winning my first writing competition at the age of ten. Writing is the way I best express myself – as a moody teenager I once spent the best part of a year only communicating to my parents via notes! My first publication was a picture book expressing a child’s grief at the death of his father. This book won a national award, spurring me to start taking my writing more seriously… and so began a long slow process of learning how to turn the stories in my head into compelling works of fiction (a learning process I continue to this day.)
SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in school? How did you learn your craft?
Mandy Hager: I did no formal writing classes until I was in my thirties. I then embarked on a steady process of learning, from workshops at a local community education night school, through to a Diploma, and then on to Master of Arts in Scriptwriting in 2004.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write until your first sale? What was that?
Mandy Hager: Somewhat unusually (I realize now!) the first manuscript I ever submitted to a publisher was accepted. It was the picture book mentioned above, ‘Tom’s Story’, a simple story of a boy travelling through the stages of grief. I was aware there was a gap in the market, having sought out all available material to help my seven year old son express what he was going through after the death of his father. It was the honesty and heart of that story which touched people – and I’ve come to realize that these two factors form the basis for all compelling fiction.
SFFWRTCHT: What aspect of The Crossing came first? Characters? Plot? Setting?
Mandy Hager: I usually start with a theme – often something that makes me angry or worried or that fascinates me so much I want to explore it more. This was true in the case of ‘The Crossing’, which slowly started forming in my head as I mentored a Fijian man who was writing about his religious beliefs founded on a ‘cargo cult’ that arose in Fiji in the days of colonial rule. It fascinated me that someone so seemingly sane could accept some fairly ‘out-there’ beliefs without question – and, as someone who was raised to question everything, I wanted to explore how this could be possible. At the same time, I was thinking about how human beings raise other animals – shelter them, feed them up, nurture them (and sometimes even treat hem as part of the family) – then kill them and eat them! And how most people accept this with little moral outrage. I wondered how they’d feel if the tables were turned, and human children were ‘farmed’ in a similar way. The setting came next, in the form of the opening scene playing out like a movie inside my head. Then I started wondering who this character was… and it went on from there!
SFFWRTCHT: What sort of pre-writing did you do for The Crossing? Did you outline?
Mandy Hager: I am a strong believer in planning (especially for a trilogy, where each book must have its own discrete structure, as well as forming one part of a three act drama.)From my study of script writing I have absorbed the importance of structure to drive a story forward and to unravel a believable character journey. I always research, outline, structure and define characters first – then wait until the central character’s voice starts ringing out clearly in my head before I start to write.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?
Mandy Hager: When my children were young I would just grab whatever spare time I had. Now I’m much more disciplined. I am always at my computer by 9am at the latest every morning, and start by reading over the work from the day before and editing as necessary. I then work through until 3 or 4pm, aiming for a word count of between 1,000 to 1,500 words per day. After this I print out the work and, later in the evening, read it through and mark up edits for the following day. I currently try to write an approx 4500 – 5000 word chapter a week, which usually takes me three days – though if I haven’t achieved this I keep working until I have. I work Monday’s with my novel students, leaving Friday for household chores and catch-ups. I try to leave the weekends free for friends and family.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use any special software or music playlist?
Mandy Hager: Not for the actual writing, though I use scriptwriting programme ‘Final Draft’ to read the work back to me – it’s amazing what can be picked up from listening to your writing read aloud. I don’t use music – like to work in a peaceful environment.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer’s block?
Mandy Hager: I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve come to trust that my subconscious will deliver up the solution to any problem if I don’t worry at it too much. If I feel stuck, I place the problem in my head and then go and do something else – a walk, housework, gardening. The answer always presents itself if I don’t force it.
SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play, if any, in your process as a professional author?
Mandy Hager: Both my husband and my daughter read each chapter as I’m working – and give me incredibly useful feedback (now I’ve learnt to take it without offence!) At the end of a draft, once I feel it’s ready, I have a group of five or six readers who I trust to give me excellent feedback – a mix of younger people and adults. This is invaluable – and helps to pick up holes and inconsistencies in plot and character that are hard for someone so close to the work to spot.
SFFWRTCHT: What advice would you give an up and coming writer?
Mandy Hager: Keep practicing and learning. Writing is like any other skill – you have to learn the rules and then practice them until they become second nature to you. Be disciplined and organized. Write the stories that burn you up inside. Be honest, and prepared to reveal your innermost self – it’s only by tapping into your own emotions that you can write powerfully for the page. Be brave. Be grateful that you are in the privileged position to give time to the thing you love to do (and remind yourself of this when you get a rejection or a harsh review!)
SFFWRTCHT: Are you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?
Mandy Hager: No. I feel like I spend far too much time at my computer already!
SFFWRTCHT: Where did your love of specfic and science fiction in particular begin?
Mandy Hager: I think from the writing of people like George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, who used the future to reflect on issues and problems in their present. I love the idea of taking an issue or behavior out of known contexts and placing it in another world – this way it allows the reader to see to the heart of an issue without their everyday assumptions and prejudices getting in the way. Also, I like that these genres are very much about ideas, and often have a whole lot more intellectual rigor than some other forms of fiction.
SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?
Mandy Hager: My early moral education came (apart from wonderful parents) from books by Dr Seuss, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia. In my teens I mainly immersed myself in science fiction and fantasy – Orwell, Vonnegut, Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey… but I also read Agatha Christie, Graham Green, and more conventional titles. I was a voracious reader and am terrible at remembering titles and authors! I wish I’d kept a reading diary!
SFFWRTCHT: How do you define adventure fiction? Science fiction?
Mandy Hager: I guess adventure fiction places the protagonist right at the centre of an epic challenge and must rely on their own resources to survive. Science fiction? Hmmm. Pushing the mind forwards into future possibilities, exploring the unknown.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
Mandy Hager: This year I’ve had a new book published in NZ called ‘The Nature of Ash.’ It’s speculative fiction, though set very close to now. It’s about a resource war breaking out here, driven by the two major superpowers, and is a political thriller exposing corruption at the highest levels – but is also the story of two brother’s grief over the loss of their father, who is killed in a terrorist bombing – and how Ash, the main character, must take on the responsibility for his Down Syndrome brother Mikey, his demented grandmother and two virtual strangers, as their lives are put in peril by a mother he thought was dead.
I’ve also just finished a new book due for release here in June next year, called ‘Dear Vincent’. It’s about a young painter who is obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh and who starts to mirror his depressive thoughts when she discovers that her older sister (who she thought had been killed in a car accident 5 years previously) had, in fact, killed herself. In her attempt to understand, she reveals closely held secrets about her parent’s past – and is taken on a journey that leads to Ireland and Paris. There’s also a sweet little love story tucked up in there! It explores the loss and grief associated with suicide, survivor guilt and the life-long damage inflicted on those who are exposed to violence in their youth. It is also a novel about the power of love, and how the acquisition of inner peace requires forgiveness of ourselves and others.
Michelle Ristuccia writes short fiction of all speculative fiction genres in between chasing her toddler from tree to tree. The shorter the work, the better, because 200 words looks very long on her cellphone and that keypad is very, very small. You can find out more about her rabid love of writing, podcasting, and raising future geeklings at her blog, wakingdreamsblog.blogspot.com