Award winning author and Lincoln High School English teacher Tania Roxborogh is launching her latest children’s novel ‘My New Zealand Story: Bastion Point’ on Thursday. She spoke to Tom Doudney about the book, creating plays for her students and how a hard childhood shaped her and her writing
How many books have you written?
I think 30.
Tell me about this latest one you are launching.
A couple of years ago I was doing my degree in Maori at Otago University and I did a paper on politics and persuasion – the Maori political movement from 1836 to 1997. The lecturer talked about the Bastion Point story which I remembered from when I was about 11 and lived up in Whangarei. I had been aware that my parents had sort of been involved but I didn’t know much about it. I began to do some research and found that there wasn’t really a definitive book about it so I contacted Scholastic and asked if they would be interested in me writing a children’s book for the My New Zealand Stories series which takes real events and tells them through the eyes of a fictional character in diary form. They said they would really like this so I spent all of 2015 researching and writing.
What age group would you say this book is for?
10 – 14.
What led you to do the degree in Maori?
I started learning Maori six years ago and in 2014 I was awarded a Teach NZ scholarship to go to university for a year and then two of my novels sold internationally so I got quite a good advance and I also got a grant to write the Bastion Point story, so I resigned from my teaching position in Dunedin to concentrate on finishing my degree and doing that writing.
Do you have Maori in your family background?
I cannot definitively identify my whakapapa except to say that somebody slept with somebody and nobody is talking about it. I’m also as much Scottish and Irish and German and English, so like most New Zealanders I’m a mongrel.
When did you first start writing?
I have always been a writer. I wrote very bad poetry at university in the 1980s but it wasn’t really until I became a drama teacher and I found the plays were very male centric and I was teaching at an all girls school that I began to write my own plays and got the attention of a publisher. I began writing a novel in 1996 while I was on maternity leave, my first novel was published in 1997.
Does writing a less male centric play just mean adding more female characters or is there more to it?
I thought I was asking too much of my senior girls to try and be a 45 year old man who had suicidal thoughts. I wrote plays that were current and I wrote a couple of books of plays where it didn’t matter what sex you were, it was really about the action and those have always been really popular in the classroom because you can change the ethnicity and the gender of the character.
Did you just start teaching again this year?
Yes, I had two years off but I missed teaching very much. We moved from Dunedin to Lincoln a year ago and I had remembered visiting Lincoln High School as a writer a few years ago. I really liked the feel of the place, a job came up and I got it.
What is the earliest thing you can remember writing?
The Purple Spotted People Eater. I wrote that when I was 10-years-old. It was a rhyming poem and it was hilarious to my 10-year-old self. I remember my mother reading it out at parties and then it got lost so I don’t know what happened to it but it was about a monster that ate people. My first significant piece of writing that I remember was a piece that I did when I was in year 12 at Hurunui College and my English teacher entered it in a competition and it won and that was the moment when I thought I could be a real writer – it was a wonderful affirming thing.
Where do you get most of your ideas from these days?
Things that I see, things that I read, conversations that I overhear, a lot of my stories come about from a desire to rewrite life and make it how I want it to be or how I think it should go. Ideas don’t come from me, they stalk me, they hide in my shower or creep into my bedroom in the middle of the night just when I am about to fall asleep. Some people are good at sport or singing, my brain seems to be a never ending pool of story and characters and possibility. Writers are consumers of life and because we do that it triggers stuff in our heads and then we go ‘I wonder what would happen if…?’
This new book I am writing at the moment starts with the question ‘what would you do if you found a mermaid washed up on a beach?’ It’s called Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature From the Sea and it’s about a one legged 13-year-old Maori boy who is the only one able to stop everything being destroyed by a warring family of Maori gods.
You had a difficult childhood, with your father having alcohol problems and moving around a lot with your mum and step father. How has that influenced your writing?
I think it’s one of the motivators as to why I write. When I first started writing it was to tell people what it was like because I felt as a child I was never listened to and our needs and priorities as children were always at the bottom of the heap. There was a lot of suffering, poverty and abuse. I didn’t have anything to do with my dad after he left when I was three, I met him a bit when I was a teenager which was disastrous and I ended up in foster care in North Canterbury. But I think the way it shaped me is that I have been given this talent of using words to make a difference in the world and also I had amazing teachers who looked past my bad behaviour and hung in there with me. Because of them I was able to finish my schooling, get a degree, go on and do what I am doing now. I wanted to be a teacher since primary school because I wanted to be that person for other kids that my teachers were for me. It would have been nice not to have a life like that but it has made me perhaps more sympathetic, more determined, maybe stronger.
By 1980, when you would have been about 14 or 15, you had lived in 12 different houses and gone to seven different schools.
I hated it.
Is it true you put yourself into foster care?
I had moved down to live with my dad which lasted about a month and was disastrous, so at 15, while staying with my uncle and auntie, I rang Social Welfare and I said ‘my dad has kicked me out of home, I don’t want to go back to Whangarei, is there anything you can do to help me finish school? I really love my new school.’ They said ‘yeah, if you can find someone to take care of you, we will pay for everything.’ So for the first time in my life, I got a uniform, I got to go on school trips, I got stationery, I got fed, I got all the things that normal kids could have because the state paid for it, so I have never worried about paying my taxes because somebody’s taxes helped me finish school and get to be where I am today.
In 2002 you sat the bursary English exam after a challenge from your students because you hadn’t done it before. What was that experience like?
It was hard, because I really had to study. One of the girls in my class got a better mark in an essay than me which I was most distressed about!