Influences

Mythology

I guess it’s natural for a writer to cherish the memory of the first book their parents gave them. When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a book for Christmas, Myths and Legends. It made a lasting impression. Within the illustrated pages, I found a world I recognized.

Raised as Catholic, my life revolved around the yearly rituals, weekly mass, and the iconic motifs of the Catholic religion. The folktales I found in the pages of my first book echoed what the nuns taught in school, ‘the stories from the bible: genesis, sacrifice, death and resurrection, transformation and ascension, miracles, virgin births, the ritual of seasons and redemption’,  as Joseph Campbell put it with regards his first exposure to myth.

I pored over Myths and Legends, and a love of mythology had its genesis.

Throughout my life, I have collected books on mythology. I have North American Indian, Japanese, African, Greek, Roman, Indian, Celtic and New Zealand mythology. Whenever I’m stuck for ideas, stuck for character traits, stuck for the classic elements of a story, my library of mythology reference books is where I go. They are timeless, endlessly instructive and resonant, which is what I want for my stories.

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Mythology in my writing

Early in writing The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, I was sharing my progress with the ladies in my family. Our kids were preschoolers, and we used to gather once a week at my house for a lavish feast we fondly dubbed Aunties’ Lunch. Each week, I’d bounce ideas off the aunties and get their feedback concerning my story.

One day, my niece said, “That sounds like the myth of Rata and Tane.”

I asked, “Do you remember how it goes?”

She said, “Nanny used to tell us myths at bedtime…” And she told us the mythology as told to her by her grandmother. As soon as I had the mythological link it fit. I felt that in one fell swoop, my story had landed and become grounded into this land where I have grown. I knew then that the story had legs.

The tricky part of using a traditional Maori legend was that I needed to alter it in certain ways. I feared that this would offend people. I wrestled with the dilemma for a while. In the original version it was a tree Rata wanted to take from the forest and offering the chip of wood from this tree resulted in the granting of the tree. I needed the myth to end in a competition for the chip and this could become this sacred talisman, the Or’in of Tane. I also needed it to resolve how the island became invisible. My niece didn’t feel it would be a problem. However, just to be sure – and to show the proper respect, I changed it. The tree became a stone, I altered the name of the chief from Rata to Kal. I added the new ending, and I made the setting of the story on the planet Chiron. I changed the characters from human to shapeshifters. I had to make it into something else to feel okay about using it. Hopefully by doing this I have avoided stepping on any toes.


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Theme

One question posed by the blog, The Write Practice was, what are the themes in your work? The theme in my life is self-knowledge and therefore this is reflected in my books. The format is consistently ‘the quest’ which is a metaphor for seeking self-knowledge.

In The Chronicles of Aden Weaver trilogy, the quest is for a mythical stone known as the Or’in of Tane. My protagonist, Aden Weaver, heads the team to search the world for the Or’in.

In a conversation I had with the author PJ Reece, about this theme he said, “Without knowing the details of your story, I can say that the sacred object should be a metaphor for what it is inside Aden that he hasn’t yet realized. I’m guessing that for a reader, Aden’s journey toward ‘self knowledge’ is more compelling than anything Ike (the antagonist) does. There’s a theory of mental growth that states we go through a series of psychological disintegrations on our way to becoming authentic persons. So it’s very much true to life that a character would be thrown into an existential void again and again. With each passage through the fire, so to speak and with each ‘reintegration’ the person becomes increasingly altruistic. In the final stage, he’s entirely selfless. Few of us ever get that far. (name me one!).”

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Why Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap. Beginner writers are told by publishers and editors, ‘no talking animals!’ ‘no animals dressed as humans!’ I squirmed for many years trying to wear the corset of these guidelines.

Around the end of my twenties, I stumbled across an article in the New Zealand Herald about Jill Mitchell, a seasoned writer/illustrator and her frog and dog characters, Zip and Mack. I made contact with her and she became a friend. I remember I told Jill that I liked the story Free Wally! best because it was about an insect. With insects all things are possible, they can jump enormous distances, walk on water, climb vertically, walk upside down, defy gravity and fly. Jill asked me why I didn’t write more stories about insects? I reiterated the publishers’ guidelines for fiction, no talking animals, no animals dressed as humans, no talking insects.

Jill said, “They’re your stories, you have to like them. You could change all your characters to insects if you wanted it’s up to you.”

Talk about a lightbulb moment. I went home and tried rewriting all my stories, eliminating the humans. The stories came to life! It was the start of my love affair with writing anthropomorphic insects.

Yet the subject of anthropomorphism is controversial. It divides people and is still cause for derision by my peers. One man’s meat is another man’s poison so they say. When I showed the original version of ‘The Or’in of Tane,’ to an assessor, she said, “The story’s great, but lose the insects!!”.

I took heart however from Kate de Goldi’s words when I shared with her my picture books and predilection. She said, “Write whatever your compulsion in your soul is to write. If you want to write about insects, there must be a reason for that.”


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Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, and afterward a flood of anthropomorphic creatures followed. ~ Joe Bunting