This year, children’s book illustrator and author Ruth Paul was awarded the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence Fellowship—a mouthful of a title for a genre of few words. Ruth tells us about her six-month experience in the iconic Robert Lord Writers Cottage, and her observations of the wildlife, fellow writers, and student life of the deep south.
A residency that comes with a stipend is like a Faustian pact: you may have the riches, but you must give up life as you know it (i.e. home/kids/pets), sometimes crossing shark-infested waters (i.e. funding applications) to get it. While the idea of sitting at a writing desk, laptop open, sun slanting through the window onto a Hodgkin-esque vase of flowers is alluring, for many, it’s a practical impossibility.
In 2022, I found myself in the sweet spot where I could finally apply for a residency, and in 2023, I had the great privilege of becoming the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence Fellow, ironically the longest title ever for a Fellowship destined by nature to produce the fewest actual words. It comes with six months’ full academic salary paid fortnightly, and accommodation adjacent to the fast-food strip commonly known as Fatty Alley.
A residency that comes with a stipend is like a Faustian pact: you may have the riches, but you must give up life as you know it
I arrived at the Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage in late summer and, behold, there was a writing desk, and a window through which the sunlight slanted, and flowers from my husband because I was missing our 30th wedding anniversary. There was a snug lounge with a bookshelf proudly displaying many of Aotearoa’s literary greats, all of them previous residents. There was a tiny kitchen with a comfortable dining room, and a bedroom with a huge bed that tilted disconcertingly on the sloping cottage floor. There were two hot showers, indoor and outdoor, and a surprisingly unique stainless-steel bath. Most importantly, there was a heat pump.
Having settled in, I found my way through the exquisite, stately university campus to the brutalist tower block and my new office at the College of Education. Here I was given keys to a well-appointed room on the Early Childhood floor, and access to many academic perks, including a free photocopier and scanner. Had they failed to notice I was an illustrator? I quietly made a note of the seven million things I would need to photocopy.
I bought hand-knits in op-shops, and intriguing items from bric-a-brac stores across the south…I eventually made it back to Ōtepoti, pockets lighter and fecund with ideas
In my first meeting with the lovely Jane from the College of Education, she told me to make the most of the deep south while the weather lasted, and I took her at her word. I flew to Rakiura and got jumped by a sea lion outside the pub. I cycled the Otago Rail Trail and accidentally met a bunch of amazing writers in Oterehua. I walked (or crawled) the Humpridge Track and danced with a baby at a cèilidh in Ophir. I bought hand-knits in op-shops, and intriguing items from bric-a-brac stores across the south—the bonneted china shepherdess bookends possibly being a sign of failing judgement due to the giddiness of having a salary. But, just like the albatross, I eventually made it back to Ōtepoti, pockets lighter and fecund with ideas.
At some point the guilt about not producing any work set in, along with the cold. Robert Lord’s ashes glowered down from their shelf, and one of the bonneted shepherdesses had started waving her little staff—this will happen when you live alone. Eventually, the bookshelf collapsed in the middle of the night under the burden of all the literary heavyweights stamping their feet, so I headed to the office and started to photocopy.
I mean, work.
About that journey to the office: Dunedin’s student streets are a delight of pulverised glass, takeout debris and vomit, but only for a few hours each morning, after which they are magically washed clean. It is a wonder to see through a glass, darkly, how 10 students in a scuzzy flat can erect stadium seating from multiple recycled palettes and sofas in a tiny lounge, in order to commune over the rugby. And about those sofas—having watched scabies burrow its way through many a student flat, I have now formed the opinion that there is a hygienic imperative to the burning of couches.
Fortunately, the office did not contain a couch. In fact, my application had allowed for no laying about whatsoever, including a proposal to work on three picture books and one longer middle-grade novel. Between us, I doubted I would ever get to the middle-grade novel. I set up my illustration gear and knuckled down, appreciative that the College of Education faculty understood the importance of illustration to a child’s early reading experience. With no one looking over my shoulder, and no expectation or requirement to hand in a completed product at the end, I felt supported, encouraged and very, very lucky.
With no one looking over my shoulder, and no expectation or requirement to hand in a completed product at the end, I felt supported, encouraged and very, very lucky.
Living alone, I soon found myself befriending Sid the talking cockatoo at the Botanical Gardens aviary, who became my regular and trusted confidante. But fortunately, Ōtepoti is also home to plenty of friendly humans. I met many famous children’s illustrators and writers. I met wonderful librarians. I met the four other Otago University Fellows, and had a marvellous lunchtime discussion about the creative process that all of us wished we’d recorded but that none of us did. And did I mention the wildlife? It’s insane. Penguins, albatrosses, dolphins, seals, students, leopard seals, sea lions, sea elephants even…sometimes I felt that living in Dunedin was like living in an actual picture book.
Sometimes I felt that living in Dunedin was like living in an actual picture book
Did it make me write? Yes. Did it make me write the novel? Strangely, yes. Having always written picture books, I ventured forth in the spirit of all that wildness and dropped a 25k-word draft of middle-grade fiction. It’s currently still tossing around on the high seas, but with any luck, the gales of Ōtepoti will one day blow it safely to shore.
The Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage offers a one-bedroom cottage, suitable for a single or couple, in conjunction with the Fellowship. It is situated at 3 Titan St, Dunedin. It is not compulsory to reside or work in the cottage if awarded the Fellowship.
An office is provided for the resident at the University of Otago’s College of Education.
The salary equated to approx. $36,000 in 2023.
The other University of Otago Arts Fellowships are the Robert Burns (writing); Mozart (music); Francis Hodgkins (fine arts) and Caroline Plummer (community dance).
The recipient of the 2024 residency is due to be announced this September.
Ruth Paul is an award-winning writer and illustrator of more than 20 children’s picture books, including Stomp!, Bad Dog Flash and the Little Hector series. Many of her books have received Storylines Notable Book awards and been shortlisted for the NZCYA Book Awards, and I Am Jellyfish won Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018. In August 2019 Ruth received the Mallinson Rendell Arts Foundation of NZ Laureate Award for book illustration. Her latest book Cookie Boo, published by Harper Collins in the USA, recently received a starred Kirkus review. Ruth lives off-grid in a straw-bale house on a farm near Wellington, New Zealand, with her family and her adorable dog, Teddy.