Q&A with Christopher Hegan, author of the Fencible Girl

fenciblegirlSteeped in history and vivid detail of what life was like for New Zealand settlers and the Indigenous Maori people in 1847, Christopher Hegan’s The Fencible Girl [He has since renamed the Kindle edition Slaver’s Dawn] follows the adventures of 12-year-old Winnie Meldon. Her father, a commander in the New Zealand Fencible Company, has moved his family across continents to provide security to growing communities in Aukland.

    From the beginning, Winnie finds New Zealand a far wilder country than any she’s lived in before, and it’s not long before she undertakes a wild journey with her young Maori friend Rawiri, and the native tui birds. Cannibals and pirates abound, while the two children venture further into the New Zealand wild in a heroic attempt to save Rawiri’s mother from a horrible fate, using only their wits and survival skills.

      I came upon this beautifully crafted, historical fiction novel quite by chance. But I was soon hooked, and loved it so much I tracked down Hegan and asked him to enlighten me on how he came to write this wonderful adventure tale, and where he came to know so much about early New Zealand. You’ll be able to tell from his answers alone what a gifted writer he is, so without anymore ado, I’ll let you get on with the reading. It’s all fascinating stuff, I promise! –KMR
        Q: Where did you get the idea for the story, and why did you decide to make the lead protagonist a 12-year-old girl?

          CH: I honestly can’t remember how I got the idea for the story. I knew I wanted to write for my daughter Holly, who was 12 years old at the time I started, for two reasons. I was 62 years old and had been working hard, running my own businesses—event production, performing, a software development company which I founded, built up and sold to a big IT concern— and was becoming literally frightened that I would die without ever writing my own fiction. Holly is an aspiring writer, very talented, and I really hoped to give her a sense that she was a writer’s child and could just naturally move that way.

            My family has had a long association with Ngati Whatua o Orakei, the home tribe of Auckland city, which went back to the second world war, when my father, who was a dancer, comedian, producer and director, had worked with George Tumahai, a very funny comic who was also a Ngati Whatua elder. Then in the 50s Dad produced the first big Maori concert show to travel overseas, which became a huge success in Australia. Then my brother and I went on to produce Auckland City’s millennium dawn event in partnership with Ngati Whatua (you can see a clip on thefenciblegirl.com website.)

              I also spent three years as the Communications Director for NZ’s first Health and Disability Commissioner, which involved travelling around the country and holding focus groups, including seven consultation ‘hui,’ or tribal gatherings, with Maori.
                In the last few decades, relationships between Maori and pakeha have become very troubled, partly because of Maori political activists who have made political capital out of spreading the picture of the British coming to New Zealand, conning the unsuspecting Maori into signing a peace treaty and then looting, pillaging and destroying their culture. This is now accepted among many and probably most young Maori as the truth. In fact it is a heart-breaking lie. As I write in the post-script, it was quite the opposite. The British were resistant to taking on a tiny, commercially worthless on the far side of the globe, and were persuaded by the missionaries to take it on as a matter of duty. Until land became scarce in the late 1850s, when things did degenerate terribly, Aotearoa/New Zealand enjoyed an almost forgotten golden age. I thought if I could write a rip-roaring adventure story for young readers I might help to bring about a change in attitude at the age when young people are forming their perceptions. So on holiday I wrote the first 15,000 words. It just poured out. I found myself writing as fast as my fingers could capture the story.
                  Was it any good? I thought so, but I ran a test which involved a little theatrical license. Holly was sick in bed, at home from school. I told her that a book book chain was running a reviewing competition for young people which consisted of reading the first section of various books and sending in reviews, the prize to be a signed copy of the book from the author. As she was ill, perhaps I could read one to her. She was keen, so away I went with the first draft of the first section of TFG.
                    She listened attentively. When I had finished, she immediately asked, a moment I will treasure forever, “What happens next?” I replied, “I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.” “You wrote that? No! You’re making it up!” I explained. She forgave me, wide-eyed with surprise that her father could produce what she had just heard. And I knew then that I had to finish it.

                      Q: You obviously have a lot of knowledge of New Zealand, as well as the time period the book is set in. How have you accumulated all this information? Did you study early new Zealand? Have you studied the Maori as well?

                        CH: My life has been generously filled with the stories of my country. In fact, I had to do very little research—most of it was fact checking, making sure I had it right. Although I have the greatest difficulty remembering what I did last week, or people’s names, I have a sponge-like memory for facts and stories. I’m also blessed with a facility for languages. It’s not a thing I can claim any credit for; indeed I’m a lazy student, but I just seem to absorb languages. I speak three fluently—English, French and Swiss German—and a few others less fluently. I love the Maori language. I don’t speak it, but I do have a pretty good grasp of it.  It is, as I write in the book, a simple language with hidden depths. The Maori are wonderful orators with a lovely outlook on life, beautifully warm-hearted. The knowledge I have of tikanga Maori as they call it is the result of several Maori people’s love of and generosity with their culture. I guess the richest store comes from a woman of Ngati Hine called Moe Milne, who was our Maori cultural advisor at the Health and Disability Commissioner’s office—she was the inspiration for Rawiri’s mother and her presence in the book is an acknowledgement of her contribution. Because many tribes still don’t allow women to give orations at their formal gatherings, and both Moe and the Commissioner were women, it fell to me to give the formal speeches on the many occasions when we visited marae, or Maori villages. Moe would compose and explain the speeches, and I had to give them, without notes of course. Maori will not tolerate speaking from notes—they want to connect with your heart. As Edward tells Bycroft, they also need to hear you sing and all speeches are followed by a wai, or song. It was a wonderful period of my life.
                          As for history, again I have been lucky. In 1980 I was commissioned to organise a community festival for Howick, a former town which is now absorbed into the the Auckland metropolis but still retains much of its history and identity. Howick was a Fencible station, with a fabulous Fencible historical village commemorating the period. Naturally the Fencible history took a prominent role in the celebrations, so you could say I had all that handed to me on a plate.
                            Seeking advice about writing, the one thing you will hear again and again is “Write about what you know.” Robert McKee, who wrote “Story,” the definitive text on screenwriting, observes that the reader wants to feel that the writer knows everything there is to know about the people, the places and the time of the story. He is absolutely right.
                              But there is something more, I believe, something more elusive and mysterious about this business of creating a tale that has the ring of truth than just having a bunch of information and bringing it together for a moment in time. I actually believe that The Fencible Girl really does have an existence outside myself. Although I very consciously crafted the plot and drew the characters, somewhere in there there is something which I can’t claim any ownership of. It is a true mystery. I have come home to Catholicism in the last few years because I finally recognised after all my years of Buddhism that a Catholic is what I am. A Buddhist Catholic. And I’m very comfortable with and fulfilled by that because the distinguishing feature of Catholicism is its acceptance of mystery, the willingness to live with the unsolvable and the unknowable. There is a mystery in writing fiction. Something that is not me whispers in my ear, and the result is this book. It is a wonder.
                                Q: At one point the book makes an allusion to the notorious Black Beard pirate. Did you have him in mind when you created John Quinlan?

                                  CH: No, not at all. In fact I know almost nothing about Blackbeard. The Blackbeard’s Beacon is a fiction, something I made up with a big grin on my face.  It’s not real, but it should be.

                                    Q: I feel like the book had a classical adventure style of writing. Did you model your writing style after anyone specific? Have any authors had an impact on you?
                                      CH: Interesting question. The direct answer is no, but I was very aware that I wanted to write with a hint of the style of the times, to sound a little as if it had been written in 1847. I cut my teeth on 19th Century/early 20th Century writers, particularly Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and others. I was very conscious of not wanting to ‘write down’ to the reader. Of course I had to have some regard to the vocabulary of a literate 12-year-old, but I also remember how I grew my vocabulary by reading beyond it, not always getting it right.  For example, for years I thought there was a word “misled,” pronounced my-zild. I began to wonder why no-one ever used it; I think I was in my late teens before the penny dropped and I twigged that it was actually mis-led.
                                        Q: Do you intend to write more books? If so, will they continue to be historical fiction oriented?
                                          CH: Oh yes. Absolutely. I’m frustrated at the moment because I have had to design the whole book, which involved a steep learning curve on all the design software, produce all the imagery and create a file to the standards of the POD (Print On Demand) process. Then do the long slog of getting it out there. I’ve already started the next Winnie Meldon story—I’ve always loved historical fiction. Although not in the least intentionally, I have realized that, since the whole of TFG takes place over a week, there remain years and years of historical time for Winnie, Rawiri and Kura to live their lives out on the page. I’m also working on an outline for a quite different book about New Zealand and its modern culture, but I have had to shelve them both while I work at being a publisher.
                                            In fact, I rather blew my opportunity to have it published. I was so entranced by the story I sent the first draft to Penguin NZ. That’s right—the first draft! What an optimistic idiot! In fact their Young Adult reader liked it and recommended it for publication, but the rest of the team read it and rejected it because of problems with the plot which I had already recognized myself and was working on. But the traditional book world is under so much pressure—I have read that worldwide something like 10,000 fewer books each year are being published through established houses—that Penguin wasn’t even interested in looking at the final draft. Thank heaven for POD, which means I can sell the print version without investing in a print run. It is a total game changer.

                                              Q: Finally, who is your favorite character and why?

                                                CH: I love them all, and I especially love Winnie, of course. She’s like a daughter of my imaginary self. But I suspect that the character I like most is Quinlan. Looking at my history, you’ll probably understand why. He’s a bad guy, no question, but he’s also a visionary, someone with a coherent dream, an idealist gone wrong. I just couldn’t bring myself to kill him off. In the next story he reappears completely remade, as a … ha ha! You’ll have to wait.

                                                You can find Christopher Hegan’s The Fencible Girl for $16.19 in print on Amazon, and for $2.99 [Slaver’s Dawn] in the Kindle edition.

                                                About Christopher Hegan:

                                                christopherChristopher Hegan may be that reclusive figure you spotted briefly out of the corner of your eye late one night in an undisclosed location. Estranged from the world, he avoids sea level and the company of most adults excepting that of his beautiful but mysterious companion and rebellious priests.

                                                He has been known by many names—Piggy, Spike, Satthipattano, Sir, Kriis, Themba Dharjey, Herr Heigunn, The Great MacGonagal and even, at times, ‘Not…?’

                                                Among his rumored disguises are children’s entertainer and standup comedian, builder, event producer, itinerant musician, radio and television broadcaster, public servant, Buddhist monk, entrepreneur, travel writer and science journalist. He is said to attribute the character of Winnie Meldon to two willful daughters. He writes a secret blog, Play With Strangers.

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                                                This entry was posted by cellardoorbooks.

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