NZ Children’s Book Reviews Interviews Joanna Orwin

Joanna Orwin



Joanna Orwin, photo by Di Menefy

How did
Sacrifice come about?

I’ve always been interested in the cyclical nature of history, the rise and fall of different societies and cultures, and how survivors approach reconstructing their lives. Winning the 2009 Children’s Writers Residency at OtagoUniversity gave me the opportunity to explore these ideas as the basis for a YA novel.

Sacrifice is set in a dystopian future. Because you are still writing about a specific place but imagining a future resulting from a horrific event did you need to do any research? And if so what sort of research did you do?

I don’t see this as a dystopian novel, which tend to focus on dictatorships and restricted freedom for citizens, often as the result of warfare or political fights for supremacy. As you point out in your review, this is more of a survival story – what used to be known as post-apocalyptic fiction. The success of such stories depends on their plausibility – and that depends on how rooted in reality they are. I did an enormous amount of research, ranging from the geologic evidence for past natural catastrophes in New Zealand and the Pacific, the human response to natural catastrophes, and the collapse of past civilisations, to anthropological studies of Pacific and New Zealand early societies, the myths and legends that reflected the impact of natural catastrophe in their pasts, and the experiences of modern sailors venturing into the Pacific on replicas of early voyaging canoes (some fascinating stuff there). Also, all details of lifestyle and beliefs are an amalgam of what I read about various Polynesian societies – I used whatever fitted my basic premise and the story I wanted to write.

How did you decide what would remain true to our ideas of New Zealand and our culture and what would change?

The starting point was what would physically remain of the low-lying tombolo stretching north of Kaitaia after volcanoes and tsunamis had wreaked havoc (something that has taken place more than once in the geologic past). Polynesian societies explained their world by the use of myth, so such an event would quite quickly become the stuff of legend – I liked the idea of revealing the event itself only in that form (apart from the physical evidence that remained at the time of the story). After deliberately deciding my story would be Polynesian-based since a large percentage of survivors in Northland would be Maori, all choices and decisions flowed from the situations my characters found themselves in.

Did you do any physical research, for example did you have a go at building a boat from reeds or paddling for hours on the ocean?

As explained in the acknowledgments, I talked to experts. I was lucky enough both to talk to someone who makes modern mokihi and to find a video of the making of one. Including details of the making of the reed craft was to balance the more mystical aspects of the story and ensure my readers had some idea of what was involved – it would have been a major undertaking. Writers always rely on their imaginations to put themselves in the position of their characters and experience what they go through. I lived by the sea when I was growing up, I mucked about in boats, and have always read sea-stories.

What other experiences of your own, if any, were you able to draw on when writing the book?

My own fears and feelings as a teenager and my response to situations and interactions with others. From my readers’ reactions to what I write, there is little difference between what boys and girls feel during adolescence; they are all on the threshold of adulthood, vulnerable and unsure of themselves regardless of the persona they present to the world. For that reason I don’t and didn’t set out to write an ‘unashamedly boys’ story’. I choose the characters that best reflect the story I’m telling and assume that like myself as a child and teenager, it’s the calibre of the story-telling that will appeal or not to readers, not the genders involved.

Without giving away the ending, how did you have the courage as an author to write this particular ending?

It seemed inevitable to me. Taka’s personality, beliefs and actions led to the situation in which he found himself. I think it would have undermined the strength of the story to have softened that. And yes, it was a risk, but I’ve had only one reviewer who didn’t like the ending.

What would be your top tip for writing students?

Be true to the story you are writing. Don’t let current attitudes, popular notions, or squeamishness deflect you from what seems real.

What writing project are you working on in 2012?

I’ve just submitted a sequel to Sacrifice to my publisher. For the rest of the year I’m working on a non-fiction commissioned project, which is the way I earn enough money to embark on my next fiction project.

For more information on Joanna Orwin:

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