Interview with Leonie Agnew

Leonie Agnew’s amazing new book, The Memory Thief, is a story infused with imagination, wonder and magic. It has just been released by Penguin Books NZ and it is a book that everyone should have on their TBR pile. You can read my review here on the blog.

The Memory Thief captivated me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There were so many aspects of the story that I was curious about and I was lucky enough to get to ask Leonie my burning questions. Check out my interview to find out how Leonie adapted the idea of trolls for her story, how Dunedin inspired the story, and which of her memories Leonie wouldn’t want a troll to eat.

  • You wrote the first draft of The Memory Thief while as the Children’s Writer in Residence at the University of Otago College of Education. What was it about being in Dunedin that sparked this story?

I was alone in Dunedin and spent many hours wandering through the local botanical gardens, which was close to my writer’s cottage. I’ve never started a story based on a setting before, but the place felt so atmospheric, especially around twilight. I was also inspired by the name of a park in Howick called the Garden of Memories. Also, while staying in Dunedin, I would often drive to Christchurch and visit family. At my aunt’s house I saw a statue in their neighbour’s garden. At first glance I thought it was a person, which got me thinking about writing a story where statues comes to life.

  • Both Seth and Stella are intriguing characters who have a complex relationship. Did you know from the start how their relationship would develop?

I think so, yes. (Sorry, the first draft was years ago.) Some of the ideas come together in the first draft, but I knew before I started.

  • We’ve seen trolls in fairy tales and stories before but never quite like the trolls in your story. How did you develop the idea of trolls?

Great question! I was googling different books and came across the subject of Scandinavian trolls.  It was almost eerie. Straight away, I read trolls turned to stone, were allergic to iron, could appear human and only came out at night. Perfect! The Dunedin Botanical Gardens had a sign which said ‘Open from dawn until dusk’. (It’s been taken down since, I know because I tried to get a picture.) I loved that because there’s no time, which suggests the original gardeners knew there was something dangerous in the gardens and people’s safety depended on daylight, rather than specific times. Also, the gardens have many statues and a troll could pass for one. Finally, there were iron fences, so I knew my main character would be trapped inside.

There was one problem – trolls were also carnivorous. I felt this was a little boring but, luckily, I had been playing around with the idea of memories and gardens. So I changed the idea, making Seth feed on human memories, rather than actual bodies.

  • What is one of your memories that you wouldn’t want a troll to eat?

Any memory of my mother.

  • The Memory Thief has the best book cover for a New Zealand children’s book that I’ve seen for ages. Kieran Rynhart seems to have captured the characters and the tone of your story perfectly. How did you feel seeing Kieran’s illustrations for the first time?

The same way you did. Kieran hit the tone perfectly and captured a sense of the city, too. The atmosphere of the novel was definitely portrayed on the cover. I’ve had some great covers, but this one is my favourite.

  • How did you manage to score a cover quote from the one and only Chris Riddell?

A lot of people ask me that one! We were on stage together at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Chris and I got talking and went out for a drink. He wanted to know what I was working on, then asked to read the manuscript. He sent me pictures of the characters, too, which was lovely! He is an extremely collaborative and generous man. I also have some pictures he drew of me on stage.

  • As a School Librarian, I see how hard teachers work and how busy they are. How do you juggle teaching and writing?

It’s very hard and I wish we had more children’s residencies like the one at Dunedin University. School holidays are my golden time, but this year I have a study grant to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I am getting lots of writing done!

  • Do you share your stories with your students before they are published?

No because they’re too young! My books (so far) have been nine and up.

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