The Mahy Questionnaire: Barbara Else

The Sapling had been thinking for some time about how best to honour the late, great Margaret Mahy. Suddenly it hit us: A Questionnaire, along the lines of the NZ Book Council’s Mansfield Questionnaire, and the Proust Questionnaire. So we asked Bridget Mahy if she would write one for us, and this is the result. We are delighted to present to you, the very first Margaret Mahy Questionnaire, featuring Harsu and the Werestoat author Barbara Else.

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1. Describe yourself in three words.


2. During the height of adolescence, was it good changeover?

I suspect I was a geek. Or was it a rebel? I think I was actually changeable.

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

Mostly good ghosts.

4. MM: “Imagination is the creative use of reality.” Is this true for you?

Writing is like hauling up fish (memories, either personal or something I have observed) and seeing what happens when I set them to twist and transform beside something else. That was a long way to say ‘ yes, of course!’

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

Indeed. It was a pink Hillman Minx.

6. Which witch? Identify a favourite one from literature.

Jardis, the White Witch of Narnia. Glorious.

The Witch in the Cherry Tree, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1974)

7. Come dance all around the world. And see all the beauty that surrounds us. Words for a romantic or just being mindful?

Words for being mindfully romantic.

8. There’s nothing as joyful as a salt sea wind. Is that just a Wellington thing?

A warm salt sea wind is joyful anywhere. I cannot abide the cold ones.

9. A lion in the broom cupboard or a lion in the meadow?

A lion in my study. I bought one for my first grandchild but couldn’t bear to let it go. I bought her another.

10. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

When I saw this question.

11. What is your most favourite thing to do on a summery Saturday morning?

Climb into scruffy gardening clothes and pick up some secateurs.

12. In what way might you be a trickster?


13. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair?

I’m too nervous to try. Something sharp might be lurking in the depths.

14. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father?

I’d like both, if you’re offering.

15. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Never. I’m too busy writing, an activity that could often be described as chasing shadows.

16. What I like for dinner when I am on my own is…

In solitary bravado I would take an avocado and possibly a dish of boiled egg. Though to be completely daring if there were no need for sharing. I’d rejoice in roast eggplant and chicken leg.

17. “Horrakapotchkin,” said the cat. “I want to write a poem.” Is that how it works for you?

It’s different with each book. With Harsu and the Werestoat I wondered how a child would manage having a mother who was a demon. What makes a boy or girl resilient and self-reliant? Then I wondered how, out of a terrible situation I could make a story that was also funny now and then, for instance when the child manipulates the parent’s flaws (as most children do, bless them). Or when the ‘perfect’ children prove to be irrepressibly badly-behaved, that is thoroughly normal and hilarious.​

The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Sarah Davis (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1994)

18. If you find yourself nose to nose with a shark, the only thing to do is to…

Bop it.

19. MM: “If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous…set free from the faults that go with its author’s name.” Would you set your stories free in the name of anonymity?

No, I’ll be brave enough to own mine, warts and all.

20. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask?

‘Would I have read anything you’ve written?’

21. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by songsense nongs.

I’m surrounded by clever word-people as well as excellent musicians and singers, family and friends.

The Wind Between the Stars, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Froud (J M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1976)

22. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze?

The stars are what I aim for but the trapeze usually teases by swooping back before I can grab.

23. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes?

It seems mean to discriminate. I’ll choose two hippos, three giraffes (one a baby) and add seven sea otters. They can bring friends.

24. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble o bill icecream or Michael Buble?

Thank you but no, to each and all. I’ll take a bubble bath.

Barbara Else
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Barbara Else writes for adults and children, and has held the University of Victoria Writing Fellowship and the University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writing Fellowship. She has also been awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal. Her most recent novel for children is Harsu and the Werestoat (Gecko Press). She has also written Go Girl: A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women (Penguin NZ), and Tales of Fontania Quartet (Gecko Press), starting with the multiple award-winning The Travelling Restaurant. She also works as a manuscript assessor.