Author Tessa Duder celebrates James Cook's map-making skills in a new family-friendly book timed for the 250th anniversary of his landing. Her young adult classic Alex is being reprinted next month.
1 Why did you decide to write a book about Cook's map of New Zealand?
I became a square rig enthusiast through my former husband John Duder. I've sailed on the Spirit of New Zealand and always heard mariners talk about what an incredible achievement it was for Cook to make such an accurate chart in such a cumbersome boat that could barely go windward. He had no chronometer, minimal equipment by our standards, and for the whole six months was either risking his ship or getting blown well offshore. I wanted to write about his navigational and map-making feats.
2 Do you empathise with Maori who feel aggrieved by those first encounters with Cook and his crew?
Of course. The first two days were a disaster and it's important to acknowledge that. Cook had strong directions from the Royal Society in London to treat indigenous people with respect and only fire in self-defence. He was greatly distressed by what happened and grateful to find the Tahitian on board, Tupaia, could act as interpreter. I don't believe the stories of those first encounters have been swept under the carpet. Anne Salmond has written three books about this over the past 20 years - people have just forgotten. The problem is we're not teaching it in schools. Tuia 250 is a wonderful opportunity to have those difficult discussions. This book, I hope, charts a middle passage through the shoals of contrary opinions.
3 Did Cook make a mistake in joining Stewart Island to the mainland?
No, that's a popular myth that came about in the 1970s when a later version of the map was printed on tea towels and posters hung in baches and schools nationwide. Cook was uncertain about Stewart Island being a peninsula or an island, so he left some stretches of coastline blank. Back in England, the engravers added dotted lines that over time became more definite. I've got his original definitive map on the book jacket.
4 What was your childhood like?
I was born in 1940 a few months after my father left for the war. He served as a junior doctor in the field ambulance in Italy, Syria and Libya and only came home once in five years. During the war, doctors realised that giving blood transfusions quickly to wounded soldiers aided their recovery. There was no refrigeration so before a battle they'd line the soldiers up and bleed them into these big bottles using these terrible straw-sized needles. After the war, those doctors went home and set up blood transfusion services in their own countries. Dad set up the Auckland Blood Transfusion Service and ran it for 30 years.
5 Your beloved Alex books are being reprinted as a quartet next month. Are they autobiographical?
I wanted to write about a girl who swims at the 1960 Olympics because those were the games I didn't go to. I won silver in butterfly at the '58 Empire Games and if I'd kept going I probably would've won a place in the 1960 Olympic team, but I was bored with training and wanted to become a journalist. Most of the things that happen to Alex didn't happen to me. I never had a rival or broke a leg or had a boyfriend die. The character's an amalgam of me, my daughters and controversial Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser.
6 How did you become a journalist at the Auckland Star?
I was encouraged by a famous woman reporter called Valerie Blomfield who was also a New Zealand swimming champion and later a major figure in the fashion industry. I took over her job as swimming reporter. In those days there was a lot more space given to minority sports.
7 Did you experience any workplace sexism in the 1960s?
Not really. The boys got more court work because it was thought the things you hear in court weren't for nice girls. In those days a junior reporter was sent out to visiting cruise ships to find stories on board. It was felt that it wouldn't be appropriate for us to climb a ladder in skirts with sailors standing at the bottom. But apart from that we were pretty fairly treated. Journalism was only a five-year choice because the expectation was that women would marry and leave work by age 23.
8 When you started writing books, were you driven by a feminist purpose?
Absolutely. Night Race to Kawau shows how a mother and daughter can rise to the occasion and find the skills they need to cope. Jellybean shows that a woman can have a career and be a mother. It was inspired by my own mother, a highly trained cellist who gave up her career to be a homemaker. One of the reasons I've always had female heroes is because there are enough books about boys. The rationale is that boys need to be encouraged to read and they won't read about girls so we must write about boys. I rather bridle at that. A good book is a good book.
9 What do you think of current trends in young adult fiction?
I believe children's books should have some sort of happy ending or at least a sense of hope. There's a tendency for YA books to be apocalyptic or endlessly bleak. I think it's a fallacy that we need these really tough books about teens grappling with drugs and sex and bullying because the ones actually struggling with these things probably don't read. I think teenagers actually want to read about achievement; fairytales if you like but don't we all need stories of empowerment and success? The greatest writers, like Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley, don't need to get into gratuitous stuff about sex or drugs. Their books cover universal values which are much more worthwhile.
10 Is there any sex or drugs in Alex?
There's one or two swear words in it and a little bit of sex. Very gentle sex I have to say, by today's standards. There's nothing that even a 7-year-old probably hasn't seen on telly. The dilemma for young adult writers is that we believe from surveys that children start reading YA books from age 11, so they might not have even hit puberty yet.
11 Was Alex named after your daughter Alexandra who died suddenly of a heart problem at age 24?
No, I wanted an androgynous name for the character in the hope boys might read it. My daughter was always known by her middle name, Clare. Her death in 1992 started a very bad period of my life. It took me six years to come to some sort of equilibrium. There was a widespread belief at the time that you had to somehow "detach" from the grief and "move on". That was totally unhelpful. You felt you were failing, whereas what you're trying to do is work through it.
12 How did you come through eventually?
Carole Beu at the Women's Bookshop gave me a book called After The Death of a Child that unlocked the door for me. The author Ann Finkbeiner had interviewed 30 parents who had lost adult children. It's a different kind of loss to a young child. What came through is the guilt never goes away. The "What if I'd done this?" or "What if I'd done that?" The ripples are still felt in the family dynamic. I haven't written about her death yet but one of the two novels I'm writing at the moment will explore it more. It's said the best fiction about any period is written 30 years later.
• First Map: How James Cook Charted Aotearoa New Zealand by Tessa Duder. Illustrated by David Elliot. Harper Collins. RRP $49.99