The wonderful tattooed lady

Rachael King wrote about Margaret Mahy for us in 2012:

Hello everyone, here I am at the Tuam St library again, in my quiet corner (I say ‘quiet’, but there’s someone skyping on one side of me, and four people reading or working on laptops to the other side. Such is a rainy Sunday afternoon). Today I thought I would write about someone we have all been thinking about a lot lately: Margaret Mahy. I took my youngest son, who is nearly three, to one of the Margaret Mahy readings at the libraries yesterday. We went to the Peterborough library, where the librarians did a great job of reading A Summery Saturday Morning and Down the Back of the Chair, but I’m sorry to say my son was more excited by watching the diggers working on the site of the demolished Convention Centre across the road. However, I enjoyed the readings very much, as did lots of other parents and children.

My earliest memory of reading a Margaret Mahy book was The Boy With Two Shadows, about a boy who is plagued by the shadow of a witch and has to become increasingly canny to try and get rid of it. Oh, how I felt the frustration of that boy! I was just a few years too old for her young adult books when she started writing them, but I read and very much enjoyed The Tricksters a few years ago.

There is something so unusual in the way she constructs her stories. She tells a rollicking tale, but there is always something bumpy, something skew-whiff going on, whether it’s a character who is cliché-free or a plot that takes off in impossible, unexpected directions – a direction that you almost don’t want and are reluctant to follow because it confounds your expectations so much, but if everything happened the way we expected it to, reading would get a bit boring.

I came back to MM’s young adult books again last year, after I had finished the first draft of Red Rocks. I read The Haunting, Kaitangata Twitch and The Changeover (which I adored and is now on my list of favourite books of all time). After reading these books, I realised we had some things in common: in all of these books, family is very strong. So many kids’ and young adults’ novels feature kids having adventures while the parents or other adults are just shadowy figures in the background. MM portrayed these families in all their messy, fractured, loving glory. In Red Rocks, Jake’s father is almost as important to the story as Jake himself, in fact, a good deal of the conflict arises due to a hiccup in their relationship, and the family dynamics are quite complicated, as they are in real life.

So I love the dad in Kaitangata Twitch having a rant about the developers threatening the beauty of nearby landscape, love the complex feelings Barney’s stepmother has in The Haunting, and the protectiveness Laura Chant feels for her little brother and suspicions she has of her mum’s new boyfriend in The Changeover.

After Margaret died, there was a lot of talk about how disciplined and determined she was as a writer. In the early days, she used to work full time in the day, and come home and write at night, often until the wee hours. All while raising her daughters on her own.

I am always complaining about not having enough time to write, but I am the first to admit that in the evenings I shut down, and the TV (good quality TV of course!) seems to call me when I finally get a chance to sit down and put my feet up. My brain is a little doughy at night, it has to be said. I try to go to bed early so I can get some reading in before I fall asleep at 10.30.

I don’t know if MM’s brain ever got doughy, but if she could write after work like that, when she must have been so tired, then so can I, right? So, inspired by MM, I vow to write another children’s novel in the evenings, while I work on my adult novels three days a week.

I only met her a couple of times, once at an event I was doing for the Christchurch launch of my second novel, Magpie Hall, and again a few months later at a book launch at the University Bookshop. That first time, she sat in the front row while I read from my book and answered questions, and she gave me her full attention, and every now and then she interjected and struck up a conversation with me as if we were the only two people in the room. When I finished reading a scene where a man skins a tiger, she declared, “I can’t believe you haven’t skinned a tiger yourself. You write about it as though you have.” This was a huge compliment, coming from her, and I will always remember the feeling of pride it gave me. And when I read a scene about a young woman getting a tattoo, she piped up from her seat; “My mother told me never to get a tattoo, that I’d regret it when I was 60. So I waited until I was 62, and I got a tattoo.” And she proceeded to roll up her sleeve and show it to me.

Thank you Margaret.

Rachael King