Tag Archives: Mandy Hager

Interview with Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager is the author of some of the best Young Adult books in New Zealand, including the action-packed The Nature of Ash (shortlisted for the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards).  Mandy’s latest YA novel is Dear Vincent, one of the most powerful and emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read (you can read my review here).  I had a few questions for Mandy after reading Dear Vincent and she very kindly answered them for me.  You can also enter to win a copy of Dear Vincent and read an extract from chapter one at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Mandy and the wonderful people at Random House New Zealand.

  • What inspired you to write Dear Vincent?

It’s always hard to look back and focus on the starting idea, but I’ve been thinking about the issue of suicide for a while now, through my work with youth at risk, and wanted to send a book out into the world that showed the long term pain suicide brings to those left behind, and to explore the seduction of the idea, and how it is possible to resist, given the right support. The problem with the current ‘don’t talk’ policy around suicide is that kids only get to see the outer manifestations of grief when someone they know kills themselves – the memorial pages on facebook, the highly emotional services – it runs the risk of making suicide seem ‘sexy’ to young people – a kind of ‘you’ll all be sorry and celebrate me like this when I’m gone’ mentality. It also denies those who have contemplated or attempted suicide a voice to say how relieved they are that they didn’t go through with it – and to share the things that helped stay their hands. And I wanted to show that suicide leaves the surviving family with such terrible guilt and grief – for kids to understand the full impact of a suicide on those left behind. I wanted to de-glamourise it – so that it underlines the finality of such a decision – that ‘dead’ means ‘dead’ – no going back, no second thoughts.

I also love Vincent Van Gogh – so it was a perfect opportunity to explore his life and paintings more fully.

  • You tackle some tough issues in the book, including suicide and physical and emotional abuse.  Was it a story you felt you had to tell?

Yes, it’s been in the back of my mind for a long time now.

  • What research did you have to do for the book? What was the most interesting thing you discovered about Vincent Van Gogh?

Van Gogh’s letters are now available online – over 900 of them, so I worked my way through them and also some biographies and documentaries (plus, I had studied him for art history at school many hundreds of years ago!) The first thing that surprised me was just how elegant and literate he was – he’s often made out to be this crazy, rough, boorish man, when nothing could be further from the truth. His letters are beautiful, vivid and incredibly sad. The other really surprising thing was the discovery, through the most recent biography of him by Steven Naifeh and Gegory White Smith, that it is highly likely Van Gogh did not kill himself, but was shot by local boys – though, once shot, he then kept quiet about this act and died in his brother Theo’s arms (in other words, not instigating the act, but not fighting it either.) So it was suicide by omission to fight his injuries or reveal their source. The biography’s evidence for this case is very convincing. Plus, it illuminates more about what was going on in Vincent’s head – for a long time it was thought he was bi-polar, now it seems more likely it was a kind of temporal lobe epilepsy that would descend upon him.

  • One of the things I like the most about your books is that your characters are authentic and they feel real.  Have you ever been challenged by the ‘gatekeepers’ of young adult fiction because of your characters actions or language?

I haven’t been challenged on this in person, but I am sure there are some people who find the language and issues difficult. All I try to do is be faithful to the character and reflect how I believe they would truly talk, feel and respond.

  • There are some very raw emotions in the story and Tara goes to some quite dark places in her head.  Did you need to get into the right head space each time you sat down to write or was Tara always with you?

I always sit and centre myself before I write each day, calling the character into my mind. However, there always reaches a point where the character is there all the time until you finish writing – consequently this was a particularly exhausting and grueling book to write. Being inside Tara’s head was an intense experience.

  • I love the character of the Professor (Max). How did he come to you?

Max is, in many ways, my father. He, too, was born in Vienna. He, too, was forced to leave with his parents to escape the Nazis. He introduced us to art, music and literature (as did my mother), and was a charming, cultured and kind man.

  • Like Tara, does ‘art in all its forms’ have you in its grip?

It most certainly does!

  • Do you have a ‘teen test’ for your books during or after you’ve written them?

My first reader, chapter by chapter, is my daughter Rose. She is incredibly good at spotting anything that jars or doesn’t have an authentic ring. I also send the finished draft out to my niece as well (along with several other adult readers) – their feedback is always most welcome and useful.

  • Why do you write books for teenagers? What is it about YA that appeals to you?

I think what I like most about YA fiction is that it focuses on strong story and authentic characters. It also appeals to me in terms of who I am writing for – as I tend to write about the things that trouble me, and this primarily is around issues that will affect the up-and-coming generations, it gives me the opportunity to start a discussion with young people about the different ways to look at the world and the challenges they are/will be presented with. So much media these days is controlled by corporate interests I feel it’s important to get alternative thoughts and ideas out there. I strongly believe that only through honest discussion of issues can we ever hope to move forward in a positive way.

Read on for an extract from Dear Vincent.

1

Whenever I tell Father anything, it goes in one ear and out the other, and that certainly applies no less to Mother. Similarly I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.

— Letter from Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, Etten, c. 21 December 1881

My father slouches in his wheelchair, a dough ball of resentment. Only the fierce penetration of his eyes registers life behind his rigid face. If he moves at all it is involuntary. The twitch of a finger. The jerk of a leg. But for all his immobility, his presence still looms over us. The gargoyle in the corner. The silent judge.

There is a gritty meanness in his eyes sometimes. Or worse, bottomless sadness — the kind that rakes your soul. Though more often than not these days, anger flares: embers trapped within an iceberg. He is living the inflexibility he’s practised all my life.

Even as I finish hanging out the washing and tilt my face up to the morning sun, I know he will be waiting for me to feed him, wash his face, brush his teeth — all before I have the luxury of heading off to school. Luxury? It’s funny how perspective shifts.

Buttered light filters through my eyelids and I hold my breath, waiting, waiting, waiting, with a sense there’s something I should know. It teases at my memory. Tickles at my nose. I crack one eye open and there’s the clue: a butterfly, chalky white, its tiny dome eyes staring straight back into mine. Of course! How could I forget?

It’s Van’s birthday. The 11th of June. She would be twenty-two today. So old. It’s hard to picture how she’d look. Beautiful? Without a doubt. Respectable? Not for a second. Not my Van. The odds that she’d have turned into a merchant banker, IT nerd or anything, in fact, where she’d have to toe the line are about two billion to one.

Meanwhile, my own life’s reduced to a different numbers game. Nearly six years since Dad’s first stroke. Just under five since we were woken by that gutting midnight call. Three since Mum was forced to take on night shifts at the hospital to pay the mortgage on this shitty hole. One since I began to work half-time to help. And the amount of time I get to lead a normal life? No whole number’s small enough.

‘Tara?’ Mum’s shout repels the butterfly. It flutters off, a ghost adrift. ‘Don’t forget to take the shopping list. I’ll pick you up outside Countdown at ten to nine.’

Does she remember it’s Van’s birthday? Surely she must. But Mum’s declared everything about my sister a no-go zone — as if by refusing to speak of her the past can somehow be erased. If only it was so easy.

Inside, I shoo Mum off to bed before I start on Dad. Her shifts play havoc with her sleep patterns — and her moods. She’s turned into one of those wizened peasants Vincent loved to paint: a small grey shadow, sour and disconnected, all joy in life sucked out of her.

While I’m waiting for Dad’s porridge to cook I eat the last of the bread, sandwiching a scummy wedge of budget cheese. Our cupboards will stay bare until I’m paid later today and do the shop. When we were small, the only time Mum used to make a fuss was over birthday breakfasts: an Ulster fry with bacon, eggs and sausages, and golden crisp potato farl. Now the only fuss she makes is the kind I hate — the kind Van called Mad Cow Disease to wind her up.

I mince Dad’s morning medication into dust and smother it with yoghurt. Pop it in his drooping mouth, scraping the teaspoon across his lips to catch the overflow before I stuff the dregs back in. He shudders as he swallows, his eyes saying it’s my fault that it tastes like shit. I help him drink a sip of water, then cool his porridge with milk and coax it in, one spoonful at a time. I know I should be chatting to him, helping pass the time, but, really, what is there to say? Do you know what day it is? Does the thought of Van thump you in the guts like it does me? Even if he could answer, he’d only throw it back at me. Wind yer neck in, girl. You’ve got a face on like a Lurgan spade.

By the time I’ve finished everything with Dad I’ve less than half an hour to get to school. Who’d have thought I’d ever want to spend more time there, but with my rest home shift starting at two it pretty much wipes out the afternoon.

All I really want to do is paint — hide out in the art room and let the colours wash through me in a heady rush. Vincent says to attack a painting the way a lion devours meat, to call on the grain of madness that is the best of art. Imagine trying to explain all this to Mum and Dad. They view creative madness as a sin on par with striking a priest.

I park Dad in front of the TV and head off on my bike. Our street is full of tacky mansions, but ours is the doozy that drags the others’ values down. Good old leaky home syndrome. The day Mum finally admitted we had no money to fix it or to chase the builders through the courts I cried — I’d had a gutsful of our neighbours’ snide remarks.

‘You think your life is difficult?’ she’d said. ‘Try walking to school in Belfast when the Proddies are on the march.’ She talks about the Troubles the way the old boys in the rest home remember El Alamein.

Since then I’ve built a force field that shouts ‘fuck off’. You have to in a school like mine, where the fact I used to go to the best private Catholic school is all the ammunition the gangs need. In my first week they bullied me out of my iPod and mobile phone and stripped the Nike jacket off my wimpy back. Admittedly I’m safer now. Three years on and we’re dirt poor — I don’t even have an internet connection at home, let alone a replacement phone. There’s nothing left to nick.

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Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager

I had quite a sheltered upbringing.  I had a loving family who cared for me and life was never tough.  When I really got into reading when I was a teenager I discovered teenagers who had a very different life than mine.  These teenagers had abusive or neglectful families or they had been touched by tragedy of one kind or another.  I have never known anyone who has suicided so I haven’t been affected by it in any way.  As a teenager I didn’t want to read books about it because I didn’t think it related to me.  When I first heard about Mandy Hager’s new YA book, Dear Vincent, I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I would like it.  It affected me so much that I was in tears for the last few pages.

17 year old Tara McClusky’s life is hard. She shares the care of her paralysed father with her domineering, difficult mother, forced to cut down on her hours at school to help support the family with a part-time rest home job. She’s very much alone, still grieving the loss of her older sister Van, who died five years before.

Her only source of consolation is her obsession with art — and painting in particular. Most especially she is enamoured with Vincent Van Gogh: she has read all his letters and finds many parallels between the tragic story of his life and her own.

Luckily she meets the intelligent, kindly Professor Max Stockhamer (a Jewish refugee and philosopher) and his grandson Johannes, and their support is crucial to her ability to survive this turbulent time.

Dear Vincent is one of the most powerful, emotionally-charged books I’ve ever read.  I don’t think I’ve had such an emotional response to any other book, both adults or YA.  The story is narrated by Tara, so you experience all the ups and downs of Tara’s life and you go into the dark spaces inside her head.  When you figure out the path that she is taking, you just want to yell at her to stop and think clearly.  You want to be the person that she can talk to and help her see sense.

Like Mandy’s other stories, the characters really resonate with me.  You understand why Tara has so much anger and hatred towards her parents, but through her discoveries you can also understand why they have become these people.  You can’t help but become completely wrapped up in Tara’s life, as you know all her thoughts and feelings.  While Tara takes you to some dark places, some of Mandy’s characters bring some light and hope into Tara’s world.  My favourite character is Max (or the Professor) who Tara meets in the rest home that she works in.  Max is a sort-of grandfather figure to Tara.  He loves art, music and philosophy and he reminds Tara of Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music.  Right from when Tara first meets him he’s there to help her through and tries to make her see things from a different point of view.  He has some profound words of wisdom, like his metaphor on page 140. This is one of my favourite lines from Max,

‘All life is suffering.  One way or the other, damage attaches to us all.  In the end it’s how we deal with it – or don’t – that makes us who we are.’

Max’s grandson, Johannes, and Tara’s Auntie Shanaye and Uncle Royan, are others who try to help her through her tough time.  They are each incredibly loving and caring in their own ways, and they go out of their way to prove that they are there for Tara.  Even though Shanaye and Royan are struggling and they have their own issues to deal with, they are getting on with their life, and they show Tara more love than her parents ever had.  While Tara’s parents ran away from The Troubles in Ireland and were miserable, her auntie and uncle stayed and are doing the best that they can for their family.

Dear Vincent is an important story that all teenagers should read.  Thank you Mandy for telling Tara’s story. The fact that it can have such an emotional response on a reader is testament to your amazing writing.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Tara on page 249 that mirrors Max’s words from earlier in the story,

‘Hell, maybe it’s the suffering that makes us who we ultimately are.  Not just the hurdles, but how we deal with them.  Or don’t.’

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2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards Finalist: The Nature of Ash by Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager’s The Nature of Ash is one of the finalists in the Young Adult category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.  It was one of my favourite Young Adult books of 2012 so I’m really glad to see it as a finalist.  I reviewed it back in June last year, so if you want to hear all about it and find out what makes it such a worthy finalist, read on.

I love books with lots of action, but I also want to read about characters that I care about and can relate to.  Those books are the ones that make me keep reading furiously, just to make sure the characters make it to the end of the book alive.  I love books like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner for this very reason, but there aren’t many books like this for teenagers set in New Zealand (Fleur Beale’s Juno series and Brian Falkner’s Tomorrow Code are the only ones that come to mind).  Mandy Hager has set a new standard in thrilling, action-packed stories for NZ teens with her new book, The Nature of Ash, and I’ll say it can proudly stand alongside these international, best-selling dystopian thrillers.

Ash McCarthy thought he finally had it made: away from home and all its claustrophobic responsibilities, he’s revelling in the freedom of student hostel life. But life is about to take a devastating turn, when two police officers knock on his door. Their life-changing news forces him to return home to his Down Syndrome brother Mikey, and impels him into a shady world of political intrigue, corruption, terrorism and lies . . . so many lies. As if this isn’t bad enough, the whole country is imploding, as the world’s two greatest super-powers start a fight that leaves New Zealand ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ of their deadly games. While trying to protect Mikey, along with strangers Travis and Jiao, his fight to uncover the truth turns into a nightmare race to save their lives and stop the destruction of all the principles he holds dear.

The Nature of Ash is an exciting, explosive, action-packed thriller that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  From the first page I got caught up in Ash’s life and the horrific situation he finds himself in.  Mandy Hager has painted a picture of a future New Zealand that you could imagine turning from fiction into fact.  Our country is caught in the middle of a conflict between the two super powers of the world, the Western Alliance (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji, Chile).  Our Prime Minister is corrupt and will sell his loyalty to the highest bidder, there are protests, riots and looting breaking out all over the country, and food is running low.  In short, the country is falling apart and things keep getting worse.  In the middle of it all is Ash, who had gone to study in Christchurch, but gets called back to Wellington when a bomb explodes at his dad’s office.

In my opinion, Ash is one of the most authentic male teen characters in New Zealand fiction.  Mandy Hager is absolutely spot-on with Ash’s voice, his actions and decisions.  Sure, he swears, he drinks, and smokes some weed, but in the crappy situation that he’s in you can completely understand why he talks the way he does and makes those decisions.  He’s fiercely loyal to his family, especially his brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome.  Even though it’s hard to look after Mikey and keep him calm and happy, Ash does all that he can to help him and protect him from harm.  I also loved Jiao and Travis, the other teenagers that escape from the city with them.  Jiao is an Asian girl who often looks after Mikey and is someone that he trusts (and has a bit of a crush on) and Travis is the son of policewoman Jeannie.  The group have some tense moments but they pull together when they need to.

The adult characters are a real mixed bag.  Ash and Mikey’s Dad is a very loving parent who really cares about his kids.  He’s always telling them he loves them and provides them with what they need.  Ash is left with no doubt that his father loves him and does all he can to protect them, even hiding secrets from them so they don’t need to worry.  There are many other adults who help them along the way, including Jeannie, Lucinda, Simon, and one of my favourite characters, Erich.  Then there are the immoral, sadistic characters, like the members of Muru, whose actions made me so angry.

Mandy Hager has created a story and characters that will stay with me long after I’ve put the book down.  I’m sure that teenage boys in particular will relate to Ash and his struggle to do what’s right.

5 out of 5 stars

Please note:  Ash uses some quite strong language (which I think is perfectly acceptable because of his situation) so please consider this if buying for your school library.  I would recommend the book for 13+.  Teaching notes are available through the Random House New Zealand website.

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Fast Five with Mandy Hager

  • Why did you want to be a writer?

It’s the way I best communicate and helps me to unravel all the issues that concern me.

  • What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Sharing ideas and experiences with readers – and researching lots of things that fascinate me. I also have to add the magical way that my sub-conscious can deliver up thoughts and images that I didn’t know were in my head until they suddenly present themselves!

  • What’s your favourite New Zealand book? 

Shonaugh Koea’s ‘Sing to me, Dreamer.’

  • What do you love most about New Zealand?

The dry, understated kiwi humour. The environment. What Māori culture has gifted to us all.

  • What do you love most about libraries?

They allow anyone who can read, listen or interpret pictures to enter new worlds through shared stories and knowledge.

Mandy Hager is an award-winning author who has written novels for young adults and adults, non-fiction resources for youth, scripts and short stories.  Her books include Smashed, the Blood of the Lamb Trilogy, and her most recent book, Nature of Ash.

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Win The Nature of Ash by Mandy Hager

The Nature of Ash is the latest Young Adult novel from New Zealand author, Mandy Hager.   It’s an exciting, explosive, action-packed thriller that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  To find out why I thought it was so great you can read my review here on the blog.

To help spread the word about Mandy’s fantastic book I’ve got 2 copies to give away.  To get in the draw to win a copy of The Nature of Ash just enter your details below.  Competition closes Monday 18 June (NZ only).

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