I recently finished and loved Karen Healey's YA debut. Guardian of the Dead. (my review) Healey was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Hello Karen. Congrats on a wonderful debut, that was released in simultaneously in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I'm a New Zealander living in Australia writing a dissertation on American superhero comics culture. People occasionally find this confusing.
I love the U.S. cover. Who is the person behind it?
Ben Mautner, a very talented designer/producer/DJ. Check out his site
17 Ellie Spencer is not your typical YA female protagonist. She has a Black belt in Tae Kwon Do. When strange things begin to happen, she pays attention and takes action.
Did you always know the type of girl Ellie would be? How would you describe Ellie Spencer?
Impatient, sarcastic, directionless, isolated, determined - there's a lot of words for Ellie. I always knew she was going to be physically capable and interested in what was going on around her - for one thing, those traits were necessary for the plot to proceed!
Ellie doesn't speak to many people but she has her eye on Mark Nolan. I didn't know what to make of Mark, one minute I thought he was a good guy, the next I knew he was up to no good.
Have you received any fan feedback on Mark or his bracelet yet?
Not a lot, which I think is interesting. Perhaps many readers are likewise uncertain of what to think of him? He certainly does a lot of ethically dubious things, and he sabotages himself every chance he gets. I think his actions start from good intentions, in that his main motivations are always to protect people from harm, but he's very quick to take care of people without giving them any say in how such caretaking ought to proceed, and that's extremely dodgy behaviour.
I am sure you will get some I love Mark, I hate Mark, never trust a man who wears a braclet letters soon.
Guardian of the Dead is set in New Zealand. For many readers in the U.S. (including myself), this will be the first time reading a novel that takes place in NZ. One of the many things that stood out for me was the care you took in describing the setting.
When writing and incorporating the setting did you consider your audience? If so were you thinking about New Zealander's and people familar with the country or readers who had never been to NZ?
Both. I wanted to write a New Zealand that was familiar to New Zealanders without too much overdescription, as well as provide enough context for a setting that I knew would be unfamiliar to many other readers. It was a real tightrope. I think the glossary and afterword are helpful infodumps for people unfamiliar with New Zealand and Māori language/mythology.
I've had people say things like, "I read the whole thing, and then I went to the library and researched your country and read it again!" That's immensely gratifying. And then I get people saying, "I tried to understand, but it was just too confusing and I didn't get it." So obviously I failed some readers, and I'm sorry about that, but I tried to strike as neat a balance as I could; it was important to me not to write a New Zealand that New Zealanders would roll their eyes at, one that felt real to them.
A few pages in, it was clear there would be a diverse cast of characters. When a novel easily reflects a world filled with many culture reiligons and races, I enjoy it that much more. Did having a multicultural cast come naturally?
I wouldn't say it came naturally; I had to consciously work on it. I put a lot of thought into creating a cast that reflects New Zealand's diversity and even then I slipped up - I don't think there's a single non-Māori Polynesian character identified as such, which is pretty dumb, since that's the fourth biggest ethnic grouping in the country.
Guardian of the Dead is influenced by Maori mythology. What is your favorite Maori myth? Why did you decide to draw upon the mythology of another culture for your novel?
My favourite myth is that of Hine-nui-te-pō, the guardian goddess of the dead, as you can probably guess! I can't say much about it, for spoilery reasons, but I love the way she refused to stay a victim, that she got away from an intolerable situation and found her own strength. She's such a powerful, vital force. There's a wonderful book of artwork and story, "Wahine Toa: Women of Māori Myth", by Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace, that seeks to underline the strong women often at the centre of Māori mythology. That had a really strong effect on the way I imagine her.
The reason I drew on Māori mythology is that these are the first stories of my land. My ancestors are much more recent immigrants to Aoteoroa/New Zealand than the Māori are, but despite that, and despite living in two other countries for extended periods, no other place is home to me. I wanted to write about the stories of home, the way they shape us and the land, and are shaped by our belief. I wanted to try and write about how Pākehā could ethically engage with those imaginative forces.
Since, I am not familiar with the Maori people, culture or mythology, I can't say you got it right because I don't know. Though, I appreciate the work and effort you put into writing outside of your culture, and I loved the story. Your cultural consultants post last September is a must read.
Oh, thank you! I learned a lot from that process, and I'm doing the same thing for my next work, Summerton, which has three PoV characters - one Pākehā, one half-Pākehā/half-Kāi Tahu, and one New Zealand-born Samoan. And I started gathering contacts a little earlier this time to fend off the panic!
What is Summerton about?
It's a YA paranormal adventure set on New Zealand's West Coast, in a small town that is picture-postcard perfect. Three teenagers uncover the real forces behind their older brothers' apparent suicides, and discover that Summerton's sunny weather hides stormy secrets.
How did you decide which mythology versions to use?
I mostly tried to use the most popular versions, the ones that would be most familiar to New Zealanders - although there's quite a lot of regional variation. I also did diverge from some of the portrayals of certain mythological creatures a little, a process I outlined in the afterword so that people could see what was genuine myth and what was my extrapolation.
It's funny, actually - my Australian and North American readers often don't know what's up until it's actually stated, while a number of my New Zealand readers hit Chapter Two, and go, "red-haired, pale-skinned people who can't stand the smell of cooked food? RUN RUN RUN AWAY."
I was one of those clueless North American readers. Karen thanks again for your time. Guardian of the Dead is a wonderful book, I hope it finds its way into the hands of many readers.