Karen Healey

Karen Healey“Sometimes I wish I were a velociraptobearshark,” says Karen Healey on her website, and this along with her love of World of Warcraft, baking and cheerleader movies, makes for an interesting author with a quirky sense of humour.

Born in Whangarei in 1981, she has worked in a variety of roles, including shelf filler, tutor and as an English teacher in Japan. Guardian of the Dead is her debut novel.

Aimed at young adults, it’s a suspenseful mix of Māori legend, mythology and teenage struggles and is set mostly in an evocatively captured Christchurch, before moving north for a stunning climax in Napier.

“I like writing a terrible first draft and then fixing it up, like I might fix up an antique car — if I were into cars.”

Her advice to budding authors? “The only right way to write is the right way for you.”

Healey was scheduled to present at the The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2010. When the event was cancelled, Jacqui Taylor of Christchurch City Libraries contacted her for an interview instead. She kindly obliged.

We were all disappointed when The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival was cancelled. What had you wanted to share at your session “Hot off the Press?”
I was planning to read the gross bit where protagonist Ellie, trapped in Deans bush by a patupaiarehe’s spell, accidentally bites a gecko in half. People really react strongly to that section!
What is on your nightstand/ beside your bed?
I have just cleaned my room, so my nightstand’s relatively uncluttered right now. On it one can see: a lamp; a picture of my family; moisturiser; lip balm; the airconditioner remote control (it gets hot in Melbourne!); the Sony eReader that was a birthday present from a lot of kind friends; a small dish given to me in Japan and in that the pounamu pendant given to me by my mum and sister, and the ring given to me by my best friend. In front of the nightstand, piled on the floor, are six books, and let’s not even talk about what’s under the bed.
What are you currently reading?
Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn and David Leviathan. This is one of my favourite co-writing pairs, and I really like their smart, witty take on teenage life.
Where do you write? How important is that space to you?
CoverI write at my desk, which is one step away from my bed, and therefore terribly close to the temptation of napping. I like my desk a lot — it’s basically a big bench, with lots of room for manuscripts and books and my Sulu action figure. But I’ve written in a lot of spaces — hotel rooms, my best friend’s spare room, in the backseat of a car in a roadtrip across the United States.
What do you love doing when you’re not writing?
Reading. Are there writers who would answer otherwise? I also love playing World of Warcraft and Civilization IV, watching cheerleading videos on YouTube, walking, and baking.
Why did you choose Christchurch as the main setting for Guardian of the Dead? Have you spent a lot of time there yourself? How did the city shape the story?
I did my BA and MA at Canterbury University, so I lived in Christchurch for five and a half years. I don’t drive, so I spent quite a few nights walking from bus stops through the misty streets, wondering about all the things that could jump out at me. It’s such a peculiar place — a city plopped down in the middle of these wide, bare plains, but there’s greenery everywhere, and true bush maintained at the heart of the city, in Deans Bush. People have called it an English town, but I’ve been to England, and the woodland there is so cultivated, laid out like a patchwork quilt in green. It’s tame. In Christchurch I feel that the bush is always pressing on the edges.
The detail of Christchurch is very finely drawn and as a Cantabrian, I could picture all the settings. How important for you was it to get those geographical elements correct?
Very important. I wanted to ground the fantastical story in a very real setting, so I tried to get even the made-up places to follow a proper Christchurch aesthetic.
I loved Ellie, she was a wonderful mix of insecure and stroppy! Did you always know the main character would be female and was that important to you? Was she your favourite in the book?
Oh, thank you! I never conceived of the main character not being female — it just never occurred to me to think otherwise. But dynamic, interesting female characters as leads and plot movers are really important to me, so I’m glad you liked Ellie! She’s actually not my favourite, though – that position goes to Iris Tsang. I’m drawn to characters pulled into magical adventures who don’t themselves have magic, who can only combat horrors with humanly possible skill. Because if I were suddenly dragged into supernatural story, I would still be the woman whose skills include baking and being able to construct outrageous lies on command, and I like to think that I would, like Iris, make those skills work for me.
Your teenagers are believable and keenly drawn, not perfect, unsure and struggling with their own demons. How important was it for you to show that depth?
Oh, very important. One of the reasons I love writing about teenagers is that they’re in a transitional stage; they’re not sure who they are, or how to be. They’re not kids anymore, but not quite trusted to act as adults. Yet they’re aware that very soon they’re going to have adult responsibilities. Not that there aren’t very together, practical teenagers who know exactly what they want, but I think identity struggles are a pretty strong factor in most teenagers’ lives.
How were your teenage years?
Transitional! I got through them okay, I think. Like a lot of kids, I experienced people bullying me, which was extremely unpleasant. There’s no place for sadism in schools. But that got a lot better as I got older and formed good friendships. I’m always suspicious of people who try to tell you that high school is the best time of your life. I liked a lot of my high school experiences, but being an independent adult with a strong sense of self is much more fun!
Maori mythology, history and beliefs are pivotal to the story. What was the main drive behind using them in such a rich way?
I was living in Japan, and part of my job as an assistant English teacher was to be a cultural ambassador for Aoteoroa New Zealand. In explaining my homeland to these kids, living in a monocultural town where a local monument was older than human inhabitance in New Zealand, I started thinking a lot about what it actually meant to be a New Zealander, to be from such a young country, where everyone’s stories mix. I thought about being Pakeha, but aware of the first stories of the land. Those stories weren’t my personal cultural heritage, but I grew up with them too, and they shaped my life.
So when I started writing about a young woman encountering the magical histories of her homeland, it just seemed natural to draw from those stories. Because that’s not my own heritage, and I wanted the work to be as accurate and respectful as possible, I did a lot of research, and I had the assistance of several cultural consultants. Any remaining stuff-ups are mine.
Will Ellie make another appearance?
Possibly! There are no sequels to Guardian of the Dead contracted yet, though I’d love to write a companion novel set in the same world, featuring another young woman coming into her own. Ellie would definitely appear in that story.
What are you working on now?
I am about to begin the copy-edits on my next book, The Shattering, which is coming out September 2011. It’s another young adult supernatural adventure story, this time set in Summerton, a fictional and oddly perfect town on the West Coast. A pattern of suspicious suicides leads the younger siblings of the dead boys to investigate, but shattering Summerton’s secrets could place them in dangers they never knew existed.
Do you hear from your readers? What are their reactions?
I do, it’s really terrific! I get some lovely fanmail from readers, and a group of girls actually got together and baked a cake based on the book. I thought that was just the sweetest thing.
How do you view and use libraries?
I love libraries! I spent hours in the University of Canterbury main library, and I loved writing that scene in Guardian of the Dead. Now that I live in Melbourne, the reading room at the State Library of Victoria, with its huge dome and light-drenched white walls, is the closest thing I have to a holy place. I did a lot of revision for Guardian of the Dead, and wrote a lot of The Shattering (my next book) in the Rowden White Library at the University of Melbourne student union. The tables there have signs that say "NO STUDYING", which I found encouraging. And of course, when I have to make that dire decision between paying rent and buying books, it’s nice to know I can always go to the library to satisfy my cravings!

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