Hairy Maclary author Lynley Dodd shares stories from her childhood Christmases and the animals that inspired her beloved characters.
1 Were the animals in your Hairy Maclary books inspired by real ones?
All our pets were inspirations for my books. Our original black cat Wooskit inspired Slinky Malinki and characters in My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes. The cat we had when I was a child inspired Scarface Claw. Squib was a tom cat with notches on his ears, scars on his nose and a stiff paw from getting caught in traps. He was the complete opposite of what you'd imagine - very soppy. There were cats everywhere back then – people didn't doctor them. One freezing morning my father got up and had to step over a pile of nine cats - only two were ours. He had a soft spot for animals so there was usually an assortment of distressed wildlife to look after.
2 Are you a cat or a dog person?
I was given a long-haired dachshund named Shaun when I was boarding in Tauranga to go to college, so my parents had to take him back to Iwitahi. He was the inspiration for Schnitzel von Krum. Father would take him walking in the bush but he was too short to climb over the logs, so he'd have to hoike Shaun over. It was a crazy name. He should've been called Heinkel or something German.
3 Do you currently have any pets to inspire you?
No, the last one was Suu Kyi who was responsible for demolishing the tree in Slinky Malinki's Christmas Crackers. She had diabetes for four years and in the end had to be put down. I miss her. I don't like a house without an animal, I must say, but animals keep you tied to home as well.
4 Do you have an early Christmas memory from your childhood in the Kaingaroa Forest?
When I was fairly small, I discovered Father Christmas' suit in a cupboard. Apparently I got very concerned and my mother had to do some fast thinking. She told me he'd allowed her to bring his suit home to get it freshened up before the big night, which was true because she was getting it ready for the school's end-of-year party. Everybody got involved in the festivities because there were so few people in Iwitahi. We lived there for 11 years but it doesn't exist now. All the NZ Forestry Service stations have been cleared away. I had a wonderful childhood. Left to our own devices, we climbed trees and made pine needle houses and had lots of flights of imagination.
5 What were your career aspirations?
I was obsessed with drawing right from very early on. I fancied doing fashion illustration, but my mother said it wasn't a safe career option so I should do teaching to fall back on. I taught at Queen Margaret College in Wellington until a friend offered me the chance to do illustrating work for the correspondence school. It was a wonderful training ground because I had to draw everything.
6 How did you end up illustrating your first book, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes?
Eve Sutton was a cousin of my husband's. When we met in England, she suggested we do a book together one day. When she got in touch in 1972, it was the perfect time because my children were aged 4 and 2. We didn't know that 32 pages were the norm for a picture book so we had to abandon a couple of cats, including the cat from Rome who liked to stay at home, lounging on a couch with grapes.
7 Was it a big leap to write your own books?
The Nickle Nackle Tree was my first solo effort. I was terrified but I had so many ideas it was just a case of trying. I agonised over it. I kept rewriting and rewriting. There are not many words in the book, which tends to make decisions harder. Making up silly words is something I've always done. My father and I used to have competitions – we'd start a story and gradually mix up the words so that it got sillier and sillier until you'd end up with something miles away from where you started.
8 Where do the ideas for your books come from?
I've got tons. I keep them in my ideas book. As a writer you soak up things you see and hear. Once I was crossing the street and I overheard a woman say to her friend, "She can't wear pantyhose, you know." I longed to go back and find out why. That kind of chance conversation can set you off. Once I saw a dog leaving the butcher's with a mouthful of stringy left-over bits. I thought, "You're not going to get far with that." It was a lightbulb moment. I went straight into the butcher and asked for a large leg bone. He said, "What do you want that for?" and I said, "To draw it." That became Hairy Maclary's Bone.
9 The Hairy Maclary series has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Are you required to keep churning out more?
I'm sure my publishers would be happy if I did! I do have an idea for another Hairy Maclary simmering away in the background which I might do at some stage. At the moment I'm working on one of what I call my 'B' books like Dragon in a Wagon which allow for more freedom of style.
10 You've just got back from a Hairy Maclary exhibition in Australia. How many have there been?
We've had 12 in Australia and 11 in New Zealand since the first retrospective at Tauranga Art Gallery in 2011. The curator, Penelope Jackson, and I are always invited to attend. It's always such a big occasion, it's terrific fun. I find it really rewarding to get feedback from the public.
11 Do you get recognised in the streets of Tauranga?
No, but everyone knows the Hairy Maclary sculptures on the waterfront. I absolutely love them, they're beautifully done. People had ideas for slightly more arty representations but it was important for children to be able to recognise them. Unfortunately they climb all over them because they're right next to the playground. Some of the older children get quite rough and I long to say, "Please don't do that" but the sculptor says that they're strong enough.
12 Hairy Maclary has been made into a stage show and a TV animation. Will there be a movie?
We've said no a lot over the years to people wanting to animate the characters and invent new stories for them. The books have a special place in children's minds and if you mess around with the originals you risk killing them off. I don't know how people cope with Winnie the Pooh in his Disneyfied form. Knowing how much time goes into these things, I'm in no hurry to venture into a new version.