The Mahy Questionnaire: Maria Gill

You’re favourite Mahy questionnaire is back! This month, we got award winning non-fiction writer Maria Gill to spill the tea on her changeovers, hauntings and moments of discombobulation. One of her books New Zealand Disasters: Our response, resilience and recovery was a finalist in the NZCYA Awards. And her book Remarkable Animal stories from New Zealand and Australia was released this month.

1. Describe yourself in three words

Quirky, Exuberant, Curious

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

I felt misunderstood by the family, being the only one who wanted to carry on with my education. I spent the first five years after leaving school, saving up for trips overseas and travelling. It was an escape, but I learnt a lot about myself and how the rest of the world worked.

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

I was once in a situation where I felt I had no choice and I never wanted to feel that powerless ever again. And perhaps because of that I often write stories that give young people tools to make a difference, to follow their dreams or know what to do if caught in a disaster.

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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?

Definitely, you only need to use the magical words ‘what if’ and you can apply it to things that have happened to you but use your imagination to take it in another direction.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

Of course. My first three cars were old rust buckets.

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

‘The Word Witch’ – Margaret Mahy, a magician who had a special way with words.

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

I’d prefer to use the word ‘idealistic’ rather than romantic. When you travel, you do see all the beauty around you, and tend to appreciate your home country even more. But you also see the poverty and the desperation of the poor. It takes you outside your own experiences.

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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?

Definitely in the meadow, preferably a savannah – where it can roam freely. They don’t belong in broom cupboards.

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

I was once asked to write about a subject I had no interest in – governments. I had to find an angle that would interest me, so I could approach it creatively and make it interesting for young people.

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

Ride my bike to our local beach and go for a swim at the far end, where there aren’t many people. Then dry myself off and ride back home.

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

I like to play a joke and was probably quite a trickster in my youth. I remember working in an office once, and while the accountant was out, we turned everything in his office upside-down.

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

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

Oh yes, I put my hand down the back and found a bracelet, handed down from my mother-in-law, that I thought I had lost. I was thrilled to find it.

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

I’d like a pirate for a mother; an adventuring, brave woman who takes on the world.

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Probably not, it seems a bit creepy.

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?

Perhaps Horrakapotchkin I want to write a story. I wake up thinking of stories, pause mid-step thinking about them, and they’re on my mind as I go to sleep. You could say I sleep, walk and talk books.

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

If I was to nominate my favourite place in the whole world – it’ll always be a Greek Island. So, I like to eat the flavours of Greece – a Greek salad; salty feta and olives dotted over crunchy lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and crisp cucumbers. Throw in some garlic salted octopus and I’m back in a taverna overlooking a torquoise sea and saying efkaristo (thank you) to the waiter.

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

Let it know who’s boss and poke it’s eyes with your fingers. Hopefully that’ll deter it from taking a bite of you and find a meal elsewhere.

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?”

As a non-fiction children’s book writer, you can tend to feel anonymous anyhow. Kids will mention the title of your books but not necessarily remember the author or illustrator’s name. Hence if I say I’m a writer, people will often say, would I know any of your books?

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

What are you working on at the moment? Or Would I know any of your books?

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

I review New Zealand children’s books so I have the privilege of reading excellent New Zealand children’s books all the time. I usually have several on the go at the same time.

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

More like near the edge of the sea. In fact, Margaret Mahy’s description of the ocean in ‘The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate’ is my favourite description of the sea:

“He hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of the sea. He hadn’t dreamed of the blueness of it. He hadn’t thought it would roll like kettledrums, and swish itself on to the beach. He opened his mouth, and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and wave of it, the fume and foam of it never left him again…”

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 – they’re gentle giants with the grace of a dancer.

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

Possibly the bubble ‘o’ bill icecream but I’m not sure what flavour it is. I think New Zealand makes the best icecream.

Maria Gill
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Maria Gill has written 60 children’s books for the retail and education, local and international markets. Her book Anzac Heroes won the Margaret Mahy 2016 Book of the Year prize. Many of her books have been shortlisted for national awards and been selected as Storylines Notable books. NZCYA shortlisted title from earlier this year, New Zealand Disasters: Our Response, resilience and recovery illustrated by Marco Ivancic (Scholastic NZ) includes historical, contemporary, and recent disasters including the Covid-19 pandemic. This month saw her publish Remarkable animal stories from New Zealand and Australia, illustrated by Emma Huia Lovegrove (Scholastic NZ.)