Interview with Tina Shaw: Creating echoes of real things

I recently had the exciting opportunity to read an advance copy of Ursa and then to ask award winning author Tina Shaw all the questions I thought of while reading it. 

Ursa is a wonderful tale of oppression and resilience. It is part fable and part inspired by historical events. Tina Shaw had the opportunity to live in Berlin for the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency, and was inspired to write this story that is set in a "mirror universe" version of Berlin. Tina was really moved by the history of the Nazi era and the way the Jewish people had been treated, and decided to write this story of a teenage boy growing up in a difficult time.


Missbeecrafty: I’ve always really enjoyed reading books for kids and young people (maybe I’ve never really grown up?) so it’s really exciting for me to have the opportunity to ask questions of a YA author! I really enjoyed reading Ursa, I was intrigued right from the opening scene. I thought it was very emotive. I wondered where your ideas for that scene came from?

Tina Shaw: Thanks! The opening scene where Leho and his friend Bit are watching books being burned comes from my time spent in Berlin during a Creative NZ residency and visiting a plaza where books were burnt during the Nazi era. There is a memorial there.

So the library with its fancy marble walkways and impressive steps is inspired by a real library?

Yes, the Humboldt Library that overlooks that plaza in Berlin.

I imagine authors must like libraries. When I was a kid, the library in town had a round pit with a couple of steps down like an amphitheatre. I used to love to read in the pit, I felt like I was stepping down into a secret world where my books came to life. Did you have a favourite place to read when you were a kid?

I’ve always loved libraries and visit different ones whenever I get the chance. My favourite reading place as a kid was at home, between a couch in our lounge and windows that looked out over our farm. It was warm in the afternoons and quiet. 

Did you always want to be an author? How did you get your first book or story published?

Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I was inspired, as a kid, by reading about Frank Sargeson. My first stories were actually published on the kids’ page in the Herald. My first story as an adult won the Newcomer’s Award of the Dominion Sunday Times Short Story Award way back in 1990 (I think).

Have you had many different jobs before you became an author? What was your favourite job?

I’ve done all kinds of bits and bobs. My favourite job was working as a freelance photographer. I got to see some amazing places. For one article, I was sent up a very high crane on one of Auckland’s wharves to take a photograph of all the containers lined up below.

Who was your favourite author when you were a kid or teen? And what sort of books do you like to read now? Can you tell us which book you’ve got on the go?

I’ve always been a voracious reader of nearly everything. I’ve just finished reading The Rift, which is a stunning YA novel by NZer Rachael Craw, and am engrossed in We Were Liars, a YA novel by the American author E. Lockhart.

I know that you write books for adults as well as children and teens. This might seem odd, but I’ve always been really intrigued by authors who do that. When I was a kid, one of my favourite books was The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye. I wanted to read the other books she’d written, and I felt really indignant when Mum wouldn’t let me read The Far Pavilions or Shadow of the Moon. They were right there on her bookshelf, but she wouldn’t let me have them (they are completely inappropriate books for a little girl of course!) Is there anything you do differently when you are writing for adults rather than for children? Do you prefer one over the other?

I think the approach to the storytelling is probably different. Writing for young people is very much about the teen protagonists and about the best way to tell story from their points of view, while writing literary novels tends to delve into broader themes and subject matter. Right now, I much prefer writing for young people. There’s a level of imagination that I enjoy exploring, too. 

When you start a book, do you know who you’re writing for, or does that sometimes change while you’re writing?

I usually know what audience I’m writing for, as the idea just presents itself that way. For instance, with Ursa, I straightaway saw in my mind a skinny boy in the city and knew it was going to be YA.

I was surprised to read that some bookshops decided not to stock your novel Make a Hard Fist as it was too confronting. Ursa is also a rather confronting story. Do you often write about difficult or controversial topics?

Yes, I’m afraid I’m drawn to challenging topics. I like to explore difficult subjects, and I like to feel there is meaning in what I’m writing, so that usually leads me down some darker avenues. Make a Hard Fist, funnily enough, is a kind of thriller, so it’s odd that Whitcoulls didn’t want to stock it, especially as it’s really about girl empowerment.

Make A Hard Fist

I was pleased to see that we have Make a Hard Fist and I’m planning on reading it next. I’m looking forward to it. I think we need more stories of girls who stand up for themselves. Who is your favourite girl character? Is there a book you wish had been around when you were a young girl?

I don’t really have a favourite girl character, but I would have loved to have had half the YA books we have now when I was a kid (sorry, convoluted sentence). There are so many great stories.

Do you have a favourite among your own books, or one that you are most proud of?

I’m most proud of Ursa. I guess because it’s a really strong story and my publisher took heaps of care in producing that book – we went over the editing very carefully, the designing of an amazing cover, and getting wonderful endorsement quotes from writers I really admire such as Mandy Hager.

I know you spent some time in Berlin, and your time there inspired you to write Ursa.  How long did you spend there?

About nine months. And I got to spend winter there, which was exciting for me as I’d never ‘lived’ with snow before, only visited snow once or twice at Ruapehu. I also loved the artiness of the city – I was staying in a central district of the city which is full of art galleries.

Are there physical aspects of the city included in your book?

Yes, heaps. Things like granite cobblestones, statues of people on the tops of buildings, and especially the river which runs through Berlin.

I enjoyed the stories within the story, the stories that Jorzy and Nana told. Can you tell us more about your ideas behind those stories? I recently had the opportunity to listen to a Jewish Storyteller sharing some of the techniques that oral storytellers use, and a little about the drut'syla tradition. I wondered if you had an opportunity to listen to any oral storytellers when you were in Germany?

Unfortunately I didn’t get to hear any storytellers in Germany. Those stories came from my imagination, but are loosely based on archetypal stories, for instance, the idea of wishes coming true, and a boy defeating a mythical creature.

The names of the groups of people and areas sounded familiar but different (the Caucasas, Fonecians, and Travesters). I wondered if there was a deeper intention behind those names?

I wanted to create echoes to real things. There was once, for example, a trading people called the Phoenicians back in ancient Mediterranean times. I’ve given my version airships!

What message did you most want to share when you decided to write Ursa?

I guess the message would be that there is strength in being an underdog, and that hopes can prevail, even in the hardest circumstances.

My favourite line in the book was what Emee said to Leho about lies and bravery. “It’s not right to lie about something like that. It ought to be spoken about, and I wasn’t brave enough to do it.”

That’s interesting you picked that line! I think it does take bravery to speak the truth about something that’s hard or difficult. Emee has led a much more sheltered life than Leho, so when he tells her about the wild camp where his father is imprisoned, she is shocked.

Leho wanted to do something to change his world, to change things for his people. What is one thing you would like to see change in our world?

I’d like people to be kinder to each other.

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