• The Sapling

The Mahy Questionnaire: Leonie Agnew


Award winning writer Leonie Agnew is next up for our Mahy questionnaire. Her latest book The Memory Thief is out this month but it hasn't stopped her finding the time to answer our questions! Read on, tricksters...



1. Describe yourself in three words

Creative, distractible, friendly.

2. During the height of adolescence, was it good changeover? I think there were several ‘heights’, some were awkward and others positive. I had the world’s worst hair cut at twelve which took TWO years to grow out. Not a highlight and the braces didn’t help, either. I was talkative and anxious, too. However, by the end of my teens, I had great friends and a better sense of who I was. I also learnt my lesson and will never cut my hair short, again.


3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

Does that haircut count? Photos were burnt.

darryn joseph and donovan bixley

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

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

I think this depends on the book. I use reality to help me discuss emotional reactions. For example, I’ve never been a memory eating troll (my latest book, The Memory Thief) but we all know what it’s like to lose someone or hold onto friendships. Those memories come in handy, so reality informs creativity. But most of the time, reality is far from my mind. (Did I mention memory eating trolls? I don’t know many of them.) However, I am inspired by the imagination of others, such as through films, books and plays. I also think the Arts have a huge influence on society, so perhaps the reverse is also true – reality is partly created by imagination.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

I turned my first car into one by sheer ignorance. I never knew cars needed oil. Petrol and water, yes. But no one told me about oil. It wasn’t long before the terms ‘death rattle’ and ‘bang’ aptly described my short-lived car.

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

Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch – I remember watching the movie and reading the books as a child. I loved the idea of a witch school and how someone hopeless could become the hero.

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

Both – appreciating nature is a great way of being mindful, right?

lion in the meadow

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 remember the book so clearly from childhood. For nostalgic reasons I’m choosing the meadow.


9. When have you been at your most discombobulated? Transition lounges on long haul flights. I almost don’t care if I miss my flight, I need to sleep and the floor looks comfortable.

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

Lately, it’s walk the dog and head to the library for a few hours of writing. When I’m teaching I’m tired, so it’s having brunch with my husband or friends.


11. In what way might you be a trickster? Well, I may have lied about the last question. You’ll never know. I’m a fiction writer, so don’t trust a thing I’ve written anywhere.

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

12. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair? My dad had a habit of losing change from his pockets. Whenever my sister and I had sleepovers, we would raid the back of the chair and couch with our friends. My father, unwittingly, financed many midnight snacks.


13. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father? My mother was wonderful and nothing like a pirate. I wouldn’t change her for anything, so I’d pick a jester for a father. All dads love to tell bad jokes, right?

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow? Cabbages.

Sorry, wrong question. I mean Tuesday. (No, I can’t answer this question seriously. Umm … yes?)


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? I’ve no idea how writing works, which is a truthful lie if ever I told one. I will say ideas seldom strike me from nowhere, I usually keep one eye open. In that respect, I’m a story hunter. A creative urge isn’t enough, I need an idea. But once I’ve pinned one down and figured out an interesting twist or ending, then it’s just a matter of time. Many of my books take years though because I usually work fulltime and I’m a constant rewriter.


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

Chicken, hummus, cheese and pesto in a wholemeal pita pocket. Not very exciting, but there you have it.

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

Pray? (I can’t swim so this situation would be extra complicated.)

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?" Definitely a famous person’s problem – the author’s name only creates trouble when it comes with expectations, negative or positive. Very few authors are lucky enough to have that problem! But, as a general rule, I own my stories like I own my nose. Maybe it’s crooked, but it’s mine!

19. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask? Where do you get your ideas from? Unless I tell them I’m a teacher, then no one asks anything. Everyone thinks they know what teachers do.

20. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by sonsense nongs? You can’t go past The Jabberwocky – anything by Lewis Carol. I also like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

21. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze? Definitely between the stars – second to the right, and straight on till morning.

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

22. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes? Giraffes are elegant and gentle. A hippo might stand on my toes.

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble 'o' bill ice cream or Michael Bublé? None of the above. I’d prefer bath bubbles.





Leonie agnew

Leonie Agnew is a New Zealand writer to watch – with each novel she explores intriguing new territory, and surprises her readers’ expectations.


Formerly a copywriter for ad agencies she is now a primary school teacher. In 2013 she was the University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence. Her second novel, Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, (Puffin 2014), won a Storylines Notable Book Award and the LIANZA Esther Glen Medal for Junior Fiction.


The Impossible Boy followed in 2016, receiving a 2017 Storylines Notable Junior Fiction Award and the UK David Fickling Master of the Inkpot Award. Leonie lives and works in Auckland.