Tessa Duder is travelling New Zealand to introduce her latest work First Map: How James Cook charted Aotearoa New Zealand - a collaboration with award-winning illustrator David Elliott - chronicling James Cook's expedition to find the Great Southern Land and "to describe and cultivate good relations with the inhabitants." (p.19).
The story itself has come full circle from from Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne), the site of Cook's first landing, to Tūranga in Christchurch (Tūranga's name was gifted by Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga), where Tessa spoke to a delighted audience of over forty people in Tautoru / TSB Space. She also made time to chat with me.
First Map is fathoms away from the young adult books many readers might remember - it's a family non-fiction depicting the first historic journey of Lieutenant James Cook, to explore Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, and the great chart that he made of Aotearoa.
Each page of engaging text is beautifully set out in sepia tones reminiscent of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Award-winning David Elliot (The Moon and Farmer McGee) renders illustrations from original sketches by Herman Sporing.
First Map celebrates the achievements of Polynesian navigators, particularly Cook's guide and equal in mana, Tahitian Tohunga and navigator Tupaia. Tupaia helped Cook and his chart-maker Isaac Smith to create a chart of the Pacific Islands, working outwards from Tahiti. He was also able, much to everyone's surprise, to communicate adequately with Māori.
What inspired you to write First Map?
Well, I married into a sailing family. I've always been obsessed by Cook's map of New Zealand, a household fixture during childhood. I began this project three years ago, before Tuia 250 - the 250th commemoration of Cook's landing in Gisborne had been announced.
Cook's charts are miraculous, given that he had no chronometer. He relied on lunar sightings, a sextant, compass and maths. Forecasting was done with a mercury barometer and soundings were taken with a lead-line.
He was a gifted mathematician. I'm claiming that Cook's first map is accurate: he didn't make a mistake about Stewart Island; he left areas blank that he couldn't get close enough to, to be certain, or was blown out to sea during his circumnavigation. The engravers couldn't stand dotted, incomplete lines and felt compelled to fill them in.
We're big on family history here - a colleague mentioned that the Duder family were mariners. Another referred me to In Search of Elisa Marchetti, in which a you travel to Italy to discover your forebears.
What can you tell us about your own historic journey?
My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. Elisa was my Great Grandmother.
I wanted to find out, "Why had they come to New Zealand?" Their journey was difficult to trace - my Great Grandfather Natale may have sailed on his brother's passport to Wellington. They were part of a drive in the 1870s to bring European settlers to New Zealand, under (Prime Minister) Julius Vogel.
My Grandmother lived in Palmerston North. I loved my Grandmother. She gave me a love of the opera. When we visited her parents' grave in Karori, there was no mark for Elisa, just the name Natale. So we raised money for a plaque.
In Search of Elisa Marchetti is her story.
Tessa Duder is perhaps best known for her young adult series Alex, set very recognisably in Auckland. More than one generation has grown up with the books, following Alex's maturity through her high school friendships into adulthood, and her fledgling career as an Olympic swimmer.
There is a rumour that the Alex series is being republished. Is this true?
Yes! It's out next month, published by One Tree House, and it's all four books in one. When a publisher's rights run out, a work reverts to the author, at which point I was able to approach another publisher to re-release the series.
Do you build your stories around strong characters, like Alex, or is the story the first thing you create?
It's always character driven. There are more books about boys in adventure roles, written by male authors. I write stories where girls are challenged and rise to this just as much as boys.
Were you a confident swimmer as a young girl?
Yes, I was. Though Alex is an amalgam - of two young women, Dawn Fraser - a swimmer in the 1950s and 60s, and a bit of me. My works aren't autobiographical - they're made up of my reading about others, events, observations. Sometimes ideas come from nowhere; a tangent - a pathway that I'd no idea the story would have taken.
High School Students are holding a Strike for Climate Change on 27 September. Were you ever a protester?
My granddaughter is - she lives in Wellington. She's a vegan. I'm very proud of her - she's been to two Climate Change Conferences in Europe. It gave her an awareness of world political complexities (as opposed to young idealism). I married young, in the '50s, when an intellectual life was in opposition to marriage. A supposedly idealistic time, after the war, but not that great for the female population. The expectations of us were very low.
It's an early historical novel. That's all I can say. I'm pretty heavily involved with awards that Storylines give and the national tours we send writers on.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? You came into it late, didn't you.
I was about 38 when I started. But I don't think that's a bad thing. I'm always a little uneasy when young writers have early success. Because I think, where they go after that? People have put it quite pithily; "you've got to stand up and do things before you sit down and write."
If I'm asked in a classroom "What should I do if I want to be a writer?" Spend up until the age of about twenty-five or twenty-seven do lots of stuff: travel, study, experiment and have a life of as great a variety as you can. Somewhere in your thirties may be the time to start writing fiction.
Eleanor Catton is an exception because she's an exceptional writer. There's no doubt about it.
What are you reading at the moment?
I love Sally Rooney, she's flavour of the month - the book that everyone is raving over at the moment. (Normal People).
I'm reading the latest Robert Harris. He's one of my favourite authors. He wrote an absolutely wonderful trilogy about Cicero, he also wrote Fatherland - about what England would have been like if Germany had won the war.
My Dad used to say we would all have been speaking German.
It's not impossible, it wasn't impossible. You read stories about the Battle of Britain and what a close thing it was.
We exchange war stories for a few moments.
Do you have any favourite Kiwi authors?
Yes, I do! Kate de Goldi, she's a very fine writer. Mandy Hager, I admire both of those women, but top of my list would always be Margaret Mahy. I wrote a book about her and got to know her quite well. I understand there's a big picture of her here?
Margaret was a genius and such a free spirit. One of the most generous, trusting people I've ever met. She accepted everybody just as they were - there was something magical about her, her writing I think is magic. I've read all of her novels and could read them again with the same sense of awe. Her books fire up, energise the reader, make you feel almost more that life is worth living.
Margaret's great basic philosophy was that imagination has the power to change reality. It's quite challenging to the reader. It's her view of the human psyche that imagination could change the way things were. The Changeover is a great example of this. She explores that idea to the limit in that book, and in others - Memory, The Other Side of Silence - the only book she wrote in the first person. I can pick up any of her books and read a page and know that I'm in the presence of something great. We all remember her with great affection.
Who would you like to write your biography?
Chuckles...Well actually, Deborah Shepard. Deborah wrote The Writing Life - I was one of twelve of authors she chose to interview for that book. We are all of a certain age - Philip Temple, Witi Ihimaera, Fiona Kidman, David Hill, and Albert Wendt - we're all in our seventies. She's a very fine oral historian. We were allowed to see the copy - so it was more of a collaborative effort.
On that note, Tessa and I meander down through the library to Tautoro / TSB Space, pausing on Tuakiri / Identity floor on Level Two, where Tessa gathers her thoughts under Glenda Randerson's painting of Margaret Mahy.