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Doing the Mahy

3 April 2022
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Diana Noonan ready her children's book, Quaky Cat
Photo: Richard Davison, ODT

A valued contributor for Allied Press Magazines, we caught up with acclaimed children’s writer and editor, Diana Noonan, on receiving a prestigious literary award. Interview Anna Wallace

In recognition of a prolific and impactful career, Diana Noonan has received the 2022 Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Contribution to NZ’s Literature for Young People.

Over 35 years, Diana has written more than 100 titles for children and young adults and won numerous accolades. Her books include The Silent People, A Dolphin in the Bay, The Best-loved Bear and The Know, Sow & Grow Kids’ Book of Plants. Her work has featured on television, film and radio. Diana also edited the School Journal for eight years.

Known for being green-fingered at her home base in the Catlins, Diana has garnered an older fan base through her contribution to Style’s sister title, Kiwi Gardener.

You were originally a secondary school English teacher, how has that training helped you?

I guess being a teacher all those years ago was a great apprenticeship for being able to encourage and enthuse groups of people. I regularly visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme and as a gardening writer, I love going out and talking to gardening groups – I always say yes to invites. I enjoy meeting people, which is why I like to conduct my interviews face to face – even if it means using Facebook Messenger!  

Your first book was for young adults – The Silent People (1990) – what was that about and what did you learn in the process?

It was about threatened native forest.

I learned to look closely at basics such as how many words were in a chapter, and how many chapters were in a book! Believe it or not, these are still things that budding authors want to know today. But, perhaps most of all, I became disciplined at writing six days a week.

How do you come up with your best story ideas?

Most of the things I write about are drawn from real life. But sometimes I like to use writing to explore things I don't know about.

What tips would you give aspiring children’s writers?

Never talk down to or 'teach or preach' to children. Your job as a writer is to enter the child's world; to come alongside the child, as much as possible, as you tell a story they will relate to.

Did you ever meet the legendary Margaret Mahy?

Yes, I met her often at various writing events. She was very kind, clever and well liked. She helped to encourage new writers and was quirky fun. We all miss her… Which is why it’s so nice to be connected to Margaret through this award.

Did she ever give you any good advice or specific encouragement?

Margaret's dedication to children's literature, and her willingness to front up to so many audiences and events, made me aware that authors have something to give other than their books. They can also be encouragers of readers and those who want to write.

What is the topic of the inaugural lecture you'll give when you receive the award?

My address is titled 'Feeling My Way'. In it, I will talk about how 'feeling' and emotion has informed my writing.

What are you most proud of in your career?

The opportunities I’ve been given to support others really stand out. Like producing Quaky Cat (2010) with illustrator Gavin Bishop. It raised $150,000 for the Christchurch earthquake appeal.

I was once invited to Bangladesh with Save the Children, to promote the support they were giving children living in the biggest brothel in the world. It was confronting to see the fragile existence they lived. It would be even more challenging now, in a pandemic, for the children and their mothers.

What’s it like being a writer based in the Catlins?

If there’s any internet issues I ring our chap Joe. The other day when I rang, he said he was just heading down to the river as cows had breached the fence and eaten the cable. He joked that they liked a high-fibre diet!

I’m in a little part of the Catlins and you hope people read my stories. When I hear a magazine reader has been inspired to do more gardening – that makes me happy. A few months back we were on a plane and a pair were giggling away in front of us. My husband saw that they were reading my Kiwi Gardener column about life in the Catlins, called 'Living off the Land'! That made me happy too.

Diana Noonan with a basket of vegetables from her garden

Are you self-sufficient down there?

My husband and I are vegan and produce about 75 per cent of our own food, including pulses. We only go to the supermarket for things like soy milk. We don’t go very often!

It’s great to see more people have embraced gardening during the pandemic, whether it’s because they want to be safe at home or be responsible for their own food.

What propelled you to share stories of local women in Women of The Catlins, life in the deep south (2016)? What did you learn from that experience?

One day, I suddenly realised that I lived in a rather special part of the country – one where you had to be strong to survive. I realised that the women I knew all had different ways of displaying that strength, and I wanted to capture that on paper.

Through this project, I learned a lot about listening, and about how to hold my tongue and let people tell their own story.

How do you fit so much writing – and so much gardening – into your day?

I have to plan my month meticulously as I always have other work on the go. I’m working on an early literacy project and carers’ profiles at the moment. I like causes that are dear to my heart.

I’ll be at my desk by 7.15am and write through to about 2pm. Then I will get out in the garden for about 4 hours. I do that every day – it’s my outlet.

My husband and I are a good team outdoors. He is good at harvesting and infrastructure; I’ll dig new ground, growing, composting, taking on new projects.

Spring is exhausting when I’m hugely busy in the garden and have writing commitments to meet. In the Catlins, spring can extend until Christmas!

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