The Mahy Questionnaire: Melinda Szymanik

You know it, you love it – it’s the Mahy Questionnaire! This month we are featuring award-winning author Melinda Szymanik. Read on to find out her takes on information bombs, babysitting shadows, and brownie-green coloured cars named ‘Poopalata’.

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Crissi Blair, Melinda Szymanik, and Mary McCallum at the launch of Time Machine and other stories

1. Describe yourself in three words

Time travelling pirate.

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

It was uneventful. A bit disappointing really because I was hoping for some innate magic abilities to reveal themselves. 6 out of ten.

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

Fortunately and unfortunately, no. A jolly good haunting would make for a great story topic but I’m quite happy not to be troubled by my past.

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The Haunting by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1982)

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

Yes! Imagination is the ultimate metaphor: finding new and different ways to see and reveal everyday, familiar things.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

No, but my sister had an old brownie-green coloured Ford Anglia, called Poopalata when I was maybe ten or twelve, which gets a mention (not named though) in my short story ‘Drawing Horses’ from Time Machine & Other Stories.

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

I want to cheat and choose a wizard. ‘Ged,’ from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea books. Those stories had a big influence on my reading and writing, and transformed my ideas about the power of words. Magic indeed.

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

Essential! We can’t truly know ourselves until we’ve experienced other lives, other cultures and other societies. The world is full of beauty: in people, in places, in nature. And while it’s nice to do so, you don’t have to travel to appreciate these things, if you have books.

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The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (F. Watts, 1989)

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

I’d prefer the lion to be in the meadow but the dragon is there and I don’t want it to go. But I’d be happy for the lion to have free run of the house.

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

When I’ve had writers block. Not just the ‘I’m stuck part way through a story’ sort, but the ‘I’m not sure how words go on the page,’ kind. When stories are such an intrinsic part of who you are, having them disappear for a while is extremely disconcerting. Luckily, so far, they’ve always returned.

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

Smell the freshly mown grass and listen to the bees humming their way around the flowers.

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

(OMG this is my favourite Margaret Mahy novel!!) My favourite trick is surprising readers (hopefully always in a good way) with where my stories take them. I also love the trick of putting little information bombs in stories that make useful little explosions in the minds of the reader long after they’ve finished the book

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1986)

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

Sadly, with four out of five family members sporting long hair, what lurks down the back of the chair is never a reward.

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

Pirate mothers all the way!! The fresh salt air, travelling the world, adventure, treasure and a parrot for my shoulder!!! Pirates have found their way into several of my stories including ‘Pirate Eye’ in Time Machine and Other Stories.

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

I have it on good authority from Peter Pan that a shadow can be attached with needle and thread so I think I could handle this babysitting challenge.

The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (J.M. Dent, 1971)

15. ‘Horrakapotchkin,’ said the cat. ‘I want to write a poem.’ Is that how it works for you?

Oh yes! Actually, poems are just like cats, pleasing themselves, and only turning up when they feel like it.

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

Hot salty chips (wrapped in news-print of course), washed down with proper fancy champagne, followed by marble chocolate and blueberries. No cooking, no dishes, no regrets.

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

Bare your own teeth.

The Great White Man-Eating Shark by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jonathan Allen (J.M. Dent, 1982)

18. 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?

I think to begin with yes. But then later on, no. Truth is it would be easy to see that some stories belong to the same writer, and I think too it’s not just the writer who might like to be known, but the reader who might like to know them. And writers often reveal themselves in their stories anyways. But to be anonymous at first might allow that first flush of objective response, which is terrifying but also thrilling.

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

Would I have heard of any of your books? (They never have).

20. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by sonsense nongs?

One of my favourite linguistic savants is Maggie Stiefvater. Also Neil Gaiman, and of course, Margaret.

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

I’m on the trapeze reaching for the stars.

The Wind Between the Stars by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Frood (J.M. Dent, 1976)

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

Oh definitely giraffes. Hippos have a dark side.

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble ‘o’ bill ice cream or Michael Bublé?

Drinkable bubbles, please.

Melinda Szymanik
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Melinda Szymanik is an award-winning author of picture books, short stories and novels for children and young adults. She also writes poetry for adults and children, and regularly teaches creative writing. Recent titles include Lucy and the Dark (Puffin [Penguin RH], 2023) and Sun Shower (Scholastic, 2023).