Writer alights in the land of birds

Author Swapna Haddow with some of her output. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Author Swapna Haddow with some of her output. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Prize-winning children's author Swapna Haddow has arrived in Dunedin in the nick of time, writes Karen Trebilcock. 

Londoner Dave Pigeon and his creator Swapna Haddow have flown in to their new home in Dunedin just in time to appear at the Wild Imaginings Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui next weekend.

The hui, held for the first time in the city, will see emerging and established children's writers and illustrators from throughout New Zealand gather for a series of workshops, keynote talks and panel discussions, two of which are open to the public.

Swapna will be running a workshop on how to write a young fiction series, on the Sunday morning of the hui, and said she was looking forward to it, even though it would be her first time with adults in the audience.

"I've always done talks for children but it will be really nice to share my experiences in publishing with other writers.

"Everyone's route is different so I'm hoping everyone shares what they have learned on their writing journeys."

The multi-award winning author, her husband, James, and their son, Phoenix (9), moved from London to Christchurch in September last year, where James took up a position as a general surgeon at Christchurch Hospital.

"He spent a year working in Timaru 15 years ago and I came over and visited him then and we always said we wanted to come back to New Zealand, but then life got in the way."

However, last year they felt the time was finally right.

"We wanted to move Phoenix before he started high school. He misses family and friends back home but he spends a lot of quality time on Skype with our family and has made lots of friends here - it's almost like we never left."

James' job in Christchurch was only for a year but Dunedin Hospital made an offer of a permanent position that "was too good to turn down" and in early October the family made the shift south.

And so far so good. Within days Phoenix had made friends down the road from where they're renting in Roslyn, so Halloween plans are sorted.

"We feel we have a history here too. James' mum went to Otago uni in the '60s and '70s and it's also a Unesco City of Literature, so that's very special. It feels like it was meant to be."

They are currently applying for New Zealand residency.

Swapna's publishers in the United Kingdom have not minded, so far, too much.

"They've been super supportive but publishers really like to have their authors available to go to schools and events and of course I can't do that any more so easily in England."

She has done school visits in New Zealand with Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly NZ Book Council) and has also presented at the Auckland Writers Festival and KidsFest Christchurch this year, taking Dave Pigeon to many admiring fans.

She's also a patron of reading at Halswell School, in Christchurch, which is a programme originating from the UK and slowly spreading through the world.

London-born, but with parents from the south of India, Swapna trained for six years at medical school and then decided being a doctor was not for her.

"I knew in my second year I didn't want to be there but I didn't know what else I wanted to do so I did all six years."

She met James, who was from Glasgow, at a party held by a mutual friend.

"He wasn't at the same medical school as me but the person who organised the party was at both."

She admits the medical training helps her understand what her husband is going through at work.

"But it's not what I recommend - going through six years of training just so you can empathise with your husband after he comes off a tough night shift at the hospital."

After graduating, she worked in art galleries and then in 2012 one of her manuscripts got shortlisted for the UK's Greenhouse Funny Prize.

"I'd always been writing but I never thought, that as a person of colour, it was career I could have. I'd never met a brown author before.

"Being shortlisted really boosted my confidence and I did some online courses and became more comfortable with my own voice.

"I wrote Dave Pigeon and that won the Greenhouse Funny Prize in 2014. Faber & Faber were on the judging panel and they bought the book."

Of course, Dave is a London pigeon, and they are everywhere in London, Swapna said. Her husband was forever washing their car after pigeons had pooped on it.

"I tend to write about what is around me. The ideas bubble up from everything I experience and of course I wanted to write stories for my son.

"Pigeons are really smart but they also can be total bozos. They're completely daft so they're fun to write about."

She doesn't have an equivalent of her books' "mean cat" (James is allergic to cats) but Archie, their miniature Schnauzer, has become one of the most expensive rescue dogs, having flown with them from London to New Zealand.

After four Dave Pigeon books, Swapna and its UK illustrator Sheena Dempsey are now working together on a "Bad Panda" series, the first book due out in 2021.

With one half of her creative team, plus her agent and publisher, on the other side of the world, communication is mostly by email and early evening Skype sessions.

"It's not that bad though because with the time difference I get a head start on Monday emails."

Whether Dave Pigeon will soon get the push for a kereru, Swapna is not sure but is confident Dunedin and its surrounds will inspire her.

"New Zealand comes across as mysterious as it's so far away from other nations. Readers like that. It's got a drama about it.

"Different voices, different stories and diversity are having a moment in the UK."

She said she is looking forward to Wild Imaginings and is especially excited to meet many of New Zealand's children's writers and illustrators for the first time.

"The children's writing community wherever you go is always so welcoming.

"I think it's because we're always writing about friendship. It rubs off on us."

Wild (Writers and Illustrators Love Dunedin) Imaginings starts on Friday evening with a welcome at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

The hui 

Public Events:

Keynote address Kate De Goldi, Saturday 10.30-11.30am, Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Koha.

Kate De Goldi talks to Stacy Gregg and Rachael Craw about their journeys to publication, Sunday 1-2pm, Dunedin  City Library, fourth floor. Koha.


Search online for ‘‘Wild Imaginings’’ for more information.

Marketplace: There is a hui marketplace during the weekend in the Octagon Club, Age Concern Building, No9, The Octagon. It is open to the public from 10am-5pm on the Saturday and 10am-4pm on the Sunday and will include children’s books and artwork for sale.

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