David Hill has been a full-time novelist for 30 years, writing some 35 books for children and teenagers. He's the 2019-20 President of Honour for the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa. He's also decided to retire. This is his resignation letter.
I've written my last kids' novel.
How melodramatic – and true. For various boring reasons, I can't spend much time in front of a screen any longer. I'll miss writing novels. I'll miss the excitement of finding a narrative, the surprise at the ways characters sidle into your mind as you work, the fingers-crossed disbelief as you watch the thing build on screen or paper.
I'll even miss the weeks of knowing that what you're writing is the most boring, inert attempt of the millennium. That's how I felt part-way into every book I wrote; editors' responses often proved I was right.
But those weeks were always balanced by the moments when a story suddenly rose up and headed for the finish. That was when I abandoned my usual timetable and churned out paragraphs at 5.30 am or 10.15 pm, excited yet terrified that the thing would somehow slip away.
And of course, there was the delight of having completed it. Every writer will know this. You finish. You stare at it. It's yours. You feel so ... so lucky.
Actually, writers are lucky in multiple ways.
When you write, you're free. Okay, you're constrained by form, facts, characters, audience. But you have such liberty to choose directions, decide what you'll do with words, narrative, structure. Writing is a space where anything can be thought and wrought.
I've been lucky too, because of the friends writing has brought me. Other writers. Readers who liked my book. (A few times they were talking about a title by a different author but I didn't have the heart to correct them.) Writing has also helped me befriend myself; understand choices I made, hurts I caused. After all, I'm in every book I've written, in various guises.
Then there are the friends I've tried to shape on the page – my characters. A lot of them connect to people I know, of course. My first novel for teenagers began from watching the courage of our 14-year-old daughter when a close friend died. She's there in the story. My wife Beth losing a contact lens down her cleavage in Queen St, my mum meeting my father because a ceiling fell on her – writing has let me acknowledge people who matter to me; try to pay my dues to them.
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I've been lucky also because ... well, because I believe authors can do a little good for the world (though I'm not sure about Jeffrey Archer). Authors get read – they hope. And reading is one of the most valuable, transformative activities on the planet.
Transformative? Let me tell you about Jeb.
Long, long ago, in a life far, far away, I was a high school teacher. Jeb was in one of my English classes. He was 15 or 16, abused, neglected, feral, barely literate and almost uncontrollable. I used to read aloud to my classes and one day I was working through Barry Hines' Kes, where a slum boy's life is utterly changed after he tames and trains a small hawk.
The class was hooked by it and I also began relaxing into the narrative. After a few minutes, I remembered Jeb and shot a quick look to check he wasn't dismantling the furniture or dismembering some adjacent pupil. He wasn't. He sat listening, rapt as the others. And he was sucking his thumb.
I won't sentimentalise it. The years that followed for Jeb were ones of violence, crime, substance abuse, prison. But I shan't forget the lost boy, briefly held in the spell of a story.
Virginia Woolf has a nice whimsy about St Peter at the Pearly Gates as a new group of guests arrives. The saint checks his list. "Ah," he says. "You're readers!! Come straight in." It's hard to think of a more worthwhile act than getting kids reading. Studies show children who read/are read to, develop brain synapses sooner and more enduringly. Their fine motor skills are better.
Reading grows intellectual and psychological resources, makes kids more at ease with themselves, brings realisations that hardly any other activity can. Good fiction, in particular, can show them the complexities that life throws up, the choices that may help people through.
Kids who read stay out of jail. How? Reading gives them words. Words give them the ability to express and clarify themselves to others. Many young males especially end up in strife because they don't have the vocab to explain what they're doing, so they lurch from incoherence to frustration to violence. United States authorities apparently calculate the number of prisons they'll need in the future by calculating the number of illiterate 10-year-olds in society.
Reading helps young people come to terms with themselves and their issues. I remember the 20-something rugby fan interviewed on television years back, after the All Blacks had been knocked out of a Rugby World Cup. "Oh, mate," he went, "I haven't got words to express how I feel, mate!" Well (mate), I recall thinking, if you read, you'll have more words, and that might just help you handle the next semi-final.
Reading isn't a solitary activity. Don't worry about your children "cutting themselves off" when they're deep in a book. Reading helps them make contact with the world, make sense of it and give it shape and coherence. Julian Barnes puts things perfectly. "Life says, 'This happens.' Books say, 'This happens because ...'"
Reading or being read to takes kids deeper. It cuts through superficiality. The slow possession of a story transforms the reader/listener during and after makes him/her gentler, more at ease.
We have world-class children's and YA authors in New Zealand helping this happen. Margaret Mahy was a glittering example. There's Joy Cowley, such a luminary that at one of her speeches in the US, where thousands came to listen, the local police chief rebuked her for causing a traffic jam. Jack Lasenby, Maurice Gee, Fleur Beale, Tessa Duder, Lynley Dodd, Kate de Goldi, Gavin Bishop have been winning awards here and around the world for decades.
Eileen Merriman, Donovan Bixley, Tania Roxborogh, Pippa Werry, Stacey Gregg, Kyle Mewburn, Ted Dawe, Eirlys Hunter, Des Hunt, Maria Gill: they and many, many others I apologise for omitting are swallowed in great gulps by New Zealand primary, intermediate and secondary school kids.
Every one of those readers benefits from the experience. They'd benefit even more if they read New Zealand books. Not because of references to tūī and tuatara, baches and barbecues but because such books assert that New Zealand life is worth writing about. They affirm our identity.
So yes, I've been immensely lucky to have been a children's writer. I hope New Zealand kids keep reading the ones above and that those of you reading this do all you can to encourage them. Talk about books with your kids/grandkids. Read to them. Buy them books. Don't worry too much about what they read. The habit comes first; discernment comes later. Take them to the library. Let them see you reading. You'll help form good future New Zealanders. After all, remember Jeb. Remember, also, that this is a year featuring a Rugby World Cup.