A passion for writing and horses led Stacy Gregg her dream job as an author, and one of New Zealand's most successful international writers. She established herself as New Zealand's leading fashion journalist while working for Fashion Quarterly, Sunday Star Times and her fashion website Runway Reporter, before turning her hand to children's fiction. She released the first book in the successful Pony Club Secrets series in 2007, with her most recent novels The Princess and the Foal and the upcoming Island of Lost Horses.
We catch up with the author and find how she got to where she is today.
As a teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A vet. That was my dream until I did two weeks' work experience at a small animal practice in Hamilton which put me off. I think Adrian Mole's mum Pauline was right - "vets spend half their lives with their arms up cow's bums and the other half injecting fat, spoiled dogs". Having said that, I am still filled with a wave of admiration and envy every time our vet turns up to take care of the pony and I get wistful for my lost calling.
I always wanted to be a writer, too, but I was told by quite a few people that this couldn't possibly be a real job and I should get myself some secretarial skills - which was good advice because I am really good at typing and it is the high school subject I use most often!
Why did you choose to be an author?
I didn't really. I worked my way up to it. I was a features writer first of all, working for magazines, and then newspapers. I was very much a general features writer and did some hard news stuff but I was always too soft for the tough stories. I remember going out on a job to South Auckland with Paul Holmes and we were at a crime scene where a woman had been beaten to death. There were bits of her brain matter on the walls and Paul asked the cops, "Can we film inside in the room?" He was right to ask, but I didn't want to be a misery vulture and that day turned me off hard news for good.
I decided I needed to write about other stuff so I began to focus on fashion journalism, which I loved. I would still be doing it now if the opportunity to write books hadn't come along.
What did you study? Is university or study worthwhile for your field?
Like I said, I didn't think writing could be a proper job. I tried to become something financial viable and quickly realised I wasn't cut out for it, dropping out of a B Com after just two weeks at university. I did a one-year advertising and marketing course at AUT (ATI as it was back then). This proved to be an utter waste of time in terms of the course content (the two head of departments who ran the course subsequently embezzled all the fees and ran off together - that was the calibre of the education we received).
My entry into the workforce coincided with the 80s stockmarket crash and the last thing Auckland needed at that point was an inexperienced wannabe advertising creative.
Luckily I got a job at ACP Magazines, which published Metro and More - that was my first industry gig. I was hired as a secretary in its advertising sales department.
These days, there are far more options for studying for careers in the media and writing - although I do wonder if the digital-age workforce really needs the amount of people they are pushing through the communications degree. It is really hard to give advice to aspiring writers, journalists particularly, as the industry is undergoing such a sea change. All I can say is that being able to write good, clear, informative English will always be a useful skill. I'm just not sure how you apply that skill anymore to the workplace. There are some good advertising courses available these days and I would even consider a BA as a possibility again if I was starting out now.
How did you get to where you are today?
I had a rocky career path. I got fired from that first job at ACP because I was a really useless secretary. When I left they found about three months worth of unposted mail in my desk. I learned from that job to face up and deal with the stuff that you don't want to do otherwise it just gets worse and you deservedly lose your job! After they fired me, the editor of More magazine, Lindsey Dawson, hired me back for a brief stint as a feature writer filling in for someone. The other writer never came back and I kept the job.
That was the start of my writing career. Lindsey was amazing - such a kind and generous editor and she taught me loads. I was really lucky to work for some of the most incredible personalities in the business - Warwick Roger, Paula Ryan, Wendyl Nissen, Donna Chisholm - they all taught me loads, although it was a strange education at times. Donna Chisholm at the Sunday Star-Times taught me to think fast, speed-write and to focus in a newsroom without caving to distraction. I can write anywhere no matter what is happening around me, which is the skill (apart from my typing) that I use most often.
What does your typical day entail?
It really depends where I am in the writing cycle. There are months when I don't write at all - I might be doing final edits or working on promotional tours or researching and shaping up ideas for the next book. When I do start writing the process is quite intense for about three or four months and then it gets easier when I hit the editing stage.
I try and write in the morning - that's when I do the best work. I often finish by lunchtime. We are renovating the house at the moment so I spend a lot of time looking at taps and choosing skirting boards as a form of work avoidance. I have a book tour throughout New Zealand that is taking up most of November and a new novel due on my editor's desk in London by January so I will be writing while I am on the road.
In the afternoons I am usually with the horses - they take up a lot of time but they are the key to my work and I am happiest with horses so it is time well spent. I ride a little bit, but mostly I'm my daughter's groom - she is planning to compete at Horse of the Year in March so we're in the build-up for that already on the competition circuit.
Best and worst parts about your job?
It's all good parts, to be honest. I love the research phase, which usually involves travel. We've just been to Italy because my next book is set there. When it comes to writing, the best bit is when you have a completed rough draft and have discussed it with your editor and begin to work back through it making changes to improve it. It's kind of a happy time because you no longer have the fear of failing to meet deadline over your head and you know you have a book on your hands and not just a whole lot of ideas in your head that refuse to behave themselves - which is how it can feel in the early stages of the first draft. Writing a novel is a bit like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle - all the pieces are kind of there but you need to jiggle and jiggle them in your brain to make it fit together.
When you were first starting out, were there any people you looked up to, or were particularly inspired by?
The editors that I mentioned above were all iconic in their own, very different ways. Once I began to write middle-grade fiction (that's what they call it when you are writing for 8- to 12-year olds), I began to look at who else was out there in the market and I developed a sort of aspirational peer group of people whose work output I admired even though they weren't working in the same genre as me. I have the same editorial team at HarperCollins UK as Louise Rennison, David Walliams and Michael Morpurgo and I think they all do great work - even though they are very different to me.
What is your take on internships: are they worthwhile?
Yes, totally. I have had some dreadful interns in my time as an editor who have left me speechless at their ineptitude but I've also lucked upon some superstars. Zoe Walker and Fiona Ralph who work for Viva now were both my girls originally and they always had great attitudes and loads of obvious talent. Katie Newton who went on to be the fashion editor at Sunday magazine after me was one of my interns from the AUT course.
For the student it's a great way to find mentors and make contact with the real industry. My only warning is that free labour should always have a cut-off point. I don't believe in keeping people around long-term without paying them and calling it an internship when, in fact, it is just exploitation. If you're good at what you do then a month or two unpaid is the absolute limit - after that ask for money! I never wrote for love, I always wrote to pay the rent.
What has made you so successful as an author?
I think I've always been quite good at finding people to admire and emulate and latching on to them and paying attention with my eyes wide open and learning from them. When I was at ACP and being a total failure in the advertising department I was actually spending all my time with the Metro writers - people like James Allan and Stephen Stratford - pestering them with questions about their careers and how they worked.
I have a good work ethic that is motivated mostly by fear of failure and I like to please people - I always meet deadline because I can't stand the thought of letting my editor and her team down by failing to deliver. I"m also good at taking advice and criticism - I work well with my editors, they are the secret weapon to producing a great book.
Your best advice for young people wanting to break into your field?
It's harder now probably than it was when I was starting out, but I guess my old approach still applies. Find yourself a mentor and impress them, be willing to go in at ground level and don't think that the "glamour jobs" are really going to be glamorous - the best people in any industry are always smart and they work hard and pull long hours. Writing isn't any different. You get match-fit if you work at it. Like Joe Orton said in [the movie] Prick Up Your Ears: "10 per cent inspiration, 90 per cent perspiration."