DITA DE BONI meets Hairy Maclary's creator, Lynley Dodd, and finds a writer who just wants to have fun.
Through a windshield battered by torrential rain I see the sprightly figure of a woman - whom I assume to be celebrated children's author Lynley Dodd - beckoning me, vigorously and ever closer, to the doorstep of her stately Tauranga home.
It must be Dodd, because she looks as though she's expecting company. But it's a strange moment.
To encounter row upon row of Hairy Maclary books and merchandise in the local Whitcoulls, and then suddenly to arrive - sodden - on the doorstep of the author responsible for the same hugely successful literary franchise, seems an absurdly easy brush with fame.
Dodd - youthful at a just-turned 60 - is resigned to giving interviews to sate enormous interest in her famous creation, the scruffy Maclary and his cast of sidekicks.
She later explains that she understands public and media interest in her is "part of the whole deal", but dislikes too much of it - her Scottish parents instilled in her the importance of "keeping your own counsel".
Saying there are parts of her life she would like to keep private, she shrieks with laughter on hearing that that sentence is an immediate red flag to a journalist to keep digging. "I can't imagine anyone would want to read too much about my life, actually, it's probably a bit boring," she says.
Of course, delving into Dodd's artistic process is the more difficult task, because the way she describes creating her best-selling books sounds so natural and organic that one comes away thinking the whole process must be, to some extent, inexplicable. Despite her modesty, she cannot help but blush with pride over her most recent accolade, which has seen her exploits publicised anew.
Dodd says she "almost collapsed at the knees" upon hearing she had been made a distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year honours for services to children's literature, coming as it did the day the Dodd household - and much of New Zealand - was grieving for Sir Peter Blake.
Soon after, a photographer from the local newspaper came calling and took a shot of Dodd surrounded by toy versions of her coterie of characters.
When Dodd went to get a copy of the photo from the paper, she learned it had been filed under the title "woman and cats" and felt suitably humbled, "especially as some of them were dogs".
Over shortbread and coffee in a surprisingly small workspace, Dodd explains that part of the reason she was so pleased to receive the New Year honour is that it might turn more of a spotlight on the skill needed to write good fiction for children.
"People do very often think children's books are something you could toss off on the way to writing the great New Zealand novel," she says.
"Some are getting more sensible about that now, [but] I've had lots of approaches from people over the years who say, 'I'd like to write, I think I'll start with a children's book'. And I jump up and down and say, 'No! No!' "
The fewer the words the harder, she reckons, noting that it took her six months to write her first book, The Nickle Nackle Tree, which teaches children to count in 14 seemingly simple pages. And another thing: one does not need to be kooky to write a great yarn for young people.
"No, I'm not mad," she confirms. "I'm serious about what I do but I think humour has an enormous part to play, and the love of words, I guess, which I've always had."
A TYPICALLY Scottish childhood of wordplay and games with her parents - she was an only child - left her with an interest in language. Combined with a largely rural life - her father was a forestry worker near Taupo - and art, which she taught before getting into authorship, her choice of career was possibly not so unpredictable.
But hitting upon a clever formula made of pleasing, rhythmic rhymes, a zany cast of characters and a loyal publisher assured Dodd's success.
Hairy Maclary himself came from a rainy afternoon sketch, but the inspiration for other characters, such as the now incredibly popular Schnitzel von Krumm ("with a very low tum"), came from a dachshund the family owned.
Slinky Malinki, the thieving cat, was based on another family pet - Whooskers the ex-SPCA cat. Dodd and her husband - her two children, in their 30s, have long-since left home - are now owners of a Slinky-like burmese cat called SuuKyi, who gets up to much mischief, licking Dodd's green paint, jumping up on her workboard and gnawing at a piece of art sent to her by adoring Canadian fans.
"Get down, puss cat!" she scolds the recalcitrant feline. It's another Slinky Malinki tale in the making.
The aim of the books is unadulterated fun. "I'm just out to entertain, pure and simple," she says. But trawling reviews of the books suggests modern critics are not always convinced.
In displays laden increasingly with books tackling themes as weighty as gay parenting, sex, racial inequality or being too fat or thin, Dodd's books stand out for their decidedly straightforward premise, namely no particular premise.
And Dodd herself says those who attempt to read into her books myriad complex meanings and subplots should not. Some reviewers have suggested Dodd's later Maclary books, such as Hairy Maclary's Rumpus at the Vet and Showbusiness, are about "order degenerating into chaos", a verdict you can almost imagine her branding "fiddle-faddle".
"They find all sorts of deep and meaningful messages, which of course I have not intended at all," she says.
"If anything got threatening, I wouldn't do it - something that threatened the reader because it was too hard-hitting or grotesque. I want mine to be chummy and friendly silliness, not threatening."
So non-threatening is Dodd that she has been sent pictures of an anatomically correct Schnitzel von Krumm by a young Australian fan, which causes much mirth.
"When you are producing books and doing dogs' behinds, you have to be careful of what you put, and I haven't tested the waters on that one yet. This child must have grown up on a farm."
Another child insists that when Slinky Malinki gets scared his "body starts to get very big and ... his butt sticks out". Not a misguided adult reviewer, but a child whose imagination has taken over. Not quite what Dodd had intended, but she's delighted by the comment, anyhow.