Living a lie

Leonie Agnew, University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in...
Leonie Agnew, University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Making things up might be called telling lies, but if you write it down you are being an author, according to Leonie Agnew. Charmian Smith talks to the College of Education children's writer in residence.

Leonie Agnew may or may not live in South America with a poodle called Juan she is teaching to bark in Spanish. She may or may not be shy and have written under the bedcovers in invisible ink, her manuscript only discovered when an editor spilt a cup of lemon tea over the blank pages. She may or may not have enough children's books to start a library.

This year's University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence loves making things up, even the biographies to go on her books.

''I'm a fiction writer, I'm supposed to make things up. Biography is non-fiction. Something just kicks in - the truth is boring. I write books, I like chocolate, it's true but it's boring,'' she says.

However, the bit about having enough children's books to start her own library is true, she admits. Collecting books is a habit she inherited from her mother, a voracious reader, who made sure the house was filled with books when Leonie was a little girl. They came from the library, from shops, from school fairs, from second-hand bookshops.

''You always knew when Mum fell asleep at night because you'd hear her book hit the floor,'' Agnew (36) says with a laugh.

When she was about 12 she realised she'd read everything in the children's section of her local library. That was before the flush of young adult books for teenagers was available, she explains, and by 15 or so she was reading adult books. Her father was a sports journalist and non-fiction writer and the sound of the typewriter was always in the background at home. Perhaps it's not surprising the young Leonie started writing as soon as she could string sentences together.

She kept writing, but by her early 20s she was lost in terms of what to write, she says.

''Nothing I was writing was really clicking. Then when I studied popular fiction at university we studied some children's books. It was the first time I'd read children's books as an adult.

''I thought 'I haven't tried this before' and even though what I wrote that day wasn't particularly good, it was better than anything I'd done for a while and when I picked it up a couple of months later I thought there was something there. And while that story never turned out, it was the turning point. I knew I would be doing children's writing from there.''

She thinks writers often start writing for children after being exposed, as parents, to their children's books, and she was lucky she was exposed to them when she was 23.

She took a job as a copywriter, writing ads for television, radio and print, as she didn't assume she was going to get her books published.

Then as she approached 30, a colleague, learning of her desire to write children's books, told her to ''just do it''. At the same time she decided to become a primary school teacher.

''I'd spent so many years working in advertising and I enjoyed most of it, but at the end of the day, all those hours you put in, all you've done is make ads. There's nothing wrong with that but I'd rather, if I was going to spend my life working at something, I want to at least say that I might have helped someone along the way. I want to have been of some use,'' she says.

''I didn't plan it this way but it just happened that it worked in with a career writing for children.''

Her copywriter training taught her better brainstorming skills, which helped her plotting, and having to tell a story in the 60-second time limit for ads helped the structure of her writing, she says. She also sought children's writing workshops and critiquing groups. Getting good feedback on your work is really important and she is grateful for help from members of the Write4kidz group who went through her work with her with a fine-tooth comb, she says.

Agnew won the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon award in 2010 for her manuscript Super Finn. The prize was to have it published by Scholastic. Last year Super Finn won the best first book and best junior fiction awards at the New Zealand Post book awards.

Her picture book The Importance of Green was shortlisted for the Joy Cowley award. It had taken a week to write and a year to rewrite. She would work on each sentence for a week, often on the way to school, she says.

''I'd say it out loud because with picture books there's a flow and it looks so easy when you are reading it. I'd say a sentence in as many different ways as I could think of. It was kind of fun because there wasn't much pressure.''

Agnew often works on several projects at the same time, usually planning and plotting during term time and writing during the school holidays. The six-month fellowship is enabling her to finish numerous manuscripts, she says.

People often ask her if she bases her stories on children in her class but she says that would be wrong.

''I don't want a child coming to me and saying 'You put me in a book. I didn't give you permission'.''

Instead she starts with a plot and develops characters around that.

''Ideas don't just hit me walking down the road. Most of the time I sit down with pen and paper and click on that switch that says 'I'm working now'. That brainstorming I learned in advertising has been helpful. The 'what-if' formula is the one that works best for me - what if this happened? - and see where it goes.

''With Super Finn I made lists of careers children might like to be if they could and then at the end I put 'superhero' because that's what a kid would really like to be. I went OK, there's something there, and that's how that came about.

''The Importance of Green was different. If you took a colour out of the world, what would happen, and working backwards and applying it to paint. Also it's a fundamental truth about young kids - they will paint with their favourite colours or favourite felt-tip until it runs out, then what do they do?''

In Auckland, during school holidays, she likes to write in her local Howick library. It gets her out of the house so she's not distracted and she doesn't have internet on her laptop. Working in her office at the College of Education, she has learned to turn the internet off until midday, she says.

''You instinctively think, 'I'll just check the spelling' or something. It's very easy to get distracted.''

This is her first visit to Dunedin and she is making the most of it, spending most weekends exploring the city, the peninsula and the region. There's a lot happening in a small space, she says.

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