AN INTERVIEW WITH NZSA PRESIDENT MANDY HAGER
SpecFicNZ life member Lee Murray chats with Mandy Hager, the incoming president of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
Lee: Congratulations on your new role, Mandy. Are you crazy? Isn’t writing enough? What made you take on the extra work and why now? What do you hope to achieve while in the role?
Mandy: Thanks Lee. Yes, quite possibly crazy (!) but NZSA have given me great support over the years and is currently undertaking incredibly important lobbying to try and improve writer’s incomes and protect copyright, so I thought I would step up to help. As I’m being made redundant from Whitireia as the result of their decision to axe the Creative Writing programme, it’s the first time in ten years my time will be completely my own. I’m hoping to help make progress with these issues, and am keen to explore ways to ensure the Board represents all our different writers and makes them feel welcome and valued. As a YA writer, I understand the feeling of being on the ‘outer’ of the literary scene, and the issues other genre writers and those who self-publish currently encounter. I’d certainly like to close these gaps. I’m also hoping to spend some time next year visiting all the regions so I can speak to members on their home turf, to understand people’s needs and concerns.
Lee: From a strategic standpoint, what key political or technological should New Zealand writers be aware of right now?
Mandy: Issues around the Public Lending Rights are currently one of the key lobbying areas — calling for an increase in the fund and to have it tied to inflation, as well as having it extended to include digital and audio books, which would directly help those who are currently missing out on any PLR (I’m thinking here self-published books and genre particularly.) We’re also calling for Educational Lending Rights, which we currently don’t have, and which would mean those whose work is used by the education sector could be fairly compensated.
Our government’s recent signing up to the Marrakesh Treaty is also cause for concern. The Treaty is designed to facilitate access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled, is also hugely problematic for authors. While I personally, and NZSA/CLNZ as organisations, fully support the broadening of definitions in order to support our disabled community, no acknowledgement or mechanisms have been put in place to compensate writers for the free dissemination of their content, despite the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (to which we’re a signatory) stating ‘All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.’
This broadening out of definitions means that up to 24% of our population (those who identified as having some disability in the last census) would now be eligible for free books under the Treaty — up from 100k people to 400k. This will almost undoubtedly damage potential sales, in an environment where even those traditionally published are lucky for print runs of over 2,000 copies (and many much smaller.) Writers already give their work away to the universities (who are licenced) and the Blind Foundation, and to the 30% of schools currently without a Copyright Licence. On the face of it, the new exemptions the government is introducing to support the disabled, through the Marrakesh Amendment Bill, will also expand those entities that can copy work from the current two entities to over 3000, as it includes all schools and libraries. NZSA believes this is in breach of the Berne Convention, which requires that: the free use of the work under copyright exemptions will not affect the ability of the author to sell the work. It seems that everyone in the value chain of book publishing, from making accessible formats to end user, gets paid — e.g. for recording the book, or with paid salaries — except for the author.
Lee: Wellbeing is a hot topic in New Zealand these days. Where do you see writing fitting into this discussion, if at all?
Mandy: A recent Spinoff article (25.9.19) to mark Arts Week headlined a quote from Jacinda Ardern which said: ‘We can’t say we value our art if we don’t value our artists.’ This opinion piece from the PM states that, ‘as someone who is passionate about the arts and the role they play in our communities,’ she believes art is all about wellbeing. ‘Being able to create and access art contributes not only to our individual wellbeing, but is also an important factor in the wellbeing of our communities, and our society as a whole.’
I totally support this viewpoint. I personally believe books have the power to build empathy and compassion — values we’re currently in dire need of, both here and abroad. But ‘wellbeing’ should also include a determination to support writers earning fair income from their work. I’m hoping the government will put their money where their mouth is!
Lee: Much of your own writing is YA speculative—acclaimed works like Singing Home the Whale, The Nature of Ash and Ash Rising, and the Blood of the Lamb trilogy. What appeals to you about the genre?
Mandy: Two questions in one! I love writing from a young adult standpoint as it allows a fresh-eyed view of the world and the ability to challenge entrenched views, as only a young person can! I love speculative fiction because it allows exploration of important social and political issues in the same fresh way. By setting a story in a fictional (but very possible) future, old settings and thinking can be set aside and issues tackled in a way that encourages the reader to make connections with their known world. This connection-making is important, because it has the power to shift thinking in the reader without hammering them over the head with arguments!
Lee: I’m sure you’ve seen the Tom Gauld meme about literary writers being jealous of our speculative jetpacks. Do you think there is some truth in that?
Mandy: As I’m a fellow jet-pack wearer, and not a ‘literary’ writer, I don’t think I can answer that!
Lee: Is there a perception among our mainstream literary counterparts that speculative writers are making pots of money? (While it’s true speculative writers in media such as gaming, film, and graphic novel are doing somewhat better, we’re mostly poor.)
Mandy: If there is I haven’t heard it, but I think we’re all aware that those who successfully self-publish are making a lot more than those of us currently traditionally published. As current research shows, most of us in the writing game are poor! Copyright Licensing NZ (CLNZ), recently conducted a survey of writers that discovered, on average, writers earn around $15,200 per annum from their writing — below the minimum wage for a 40-hour week (approx. $20,000) and substantially less than a living wage (approx. $44,000). Just over half cited the need for further support from partners and/or relied on other employment to pay the bills (42% in jobs unrelated to writing.) That’s why the lobbying around PLR, ELR and the Marrakesh Treaty is so important.
Lee: As speculative writers, it seems we are continually defending our work, and when influential international writers like Margaret Attwood actively distance themselves from the genre, it only serves to reinforce the misconception that any work of science fiction, fantasy, or horror must be of poor literary quality and lacking depth. What, in your view can we do to counter those notions: as individuals, and as a community?
Mandy: I understand the frustrations — it’s much the same for those writing YA — but I don’t have any slick answers, unfortunately. I’ve never personally understood the ‘this genre is more worthy’ argument; there are readers out there for all genres. Though it’s hard, I think the only way to deal with this type of comment is to ignore it and find strength from like-minded people. In the end, our contract is with the reader who chooses to pick up our books, not other writer groups.
Lee: How can SpecFicNZ help with that?
Mandy: I think the fact you have a community supportive to spec. writers is a great help in itself. But do make the most of opportunities; for instance, the NZSA New Books bulletin should be utilised by spec. fiction writers to get the word out on their new releases. And I’ll be continuing to think about these issues, so if I come up with any ways to help, I’ll be in touch — and I hope that goes both ways!
Lee: Would better representation at festivals and on judging panels work?
Mandy: It always helps to broaden out representation, no matter the group. I know NZSA have been working hard to make spec. fiction and other genre writers feel much more embraced, and I will continue to push for this. Kirsten Le Harivel, who is putting together next year’s Writers Forum, is very aware of making the sessions as diverse and inclusive as possible. I’m also hoping that the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention might also help to highlight our spec writers.
Lee: While some of our members have completed creative writing qualifications, many speculative writers have come to writing from non-traditional routes, honing their skills through experience and critique. One of our members is a rocket scientist, for example! Yet few, if any, of us have been able to take advantage of literary funding available through Creative New Zealand and the NZSA. It seems speculative work is continually discounted, so much so that many of our members have stopped applying. What can be done to change this situation? Again, how can we help to make that happen?
Mandy: Again, I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but many of us feel we don’t fit into the CNZ model. But please don’t stop applying — it’s bad enough to feel discounted, without ruling oneself out by not even trying (although I do know how long it takes to write those damn applications!) Perhaps this is an area where SpecFicNZ could lobby CNZ directly and ask for fairer representation on the funding panels. Read through CNZ’s policy statements and cherry-pick every one of their policies that uses words such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’, then put together a case that shows they’re not reflecting their values in funding decisions.
Lee: With few opportunities for speculative books here at home, many of us seek to publish abroad, or self-publish globally, which means when compared to literary or non-fiction works, our titles are less likely to appear in local bookshops and libraries—partly due to cost, lack of discoverability, and a reticence by booksellers to stock work by indie publishers. I know it’s a big question, and it might take your entire presidency to answer, but do you have any ideas for getting more speculative fiction into the hands of New Zealand readers?
Mandy: I do know our CEO, Jenny Nagel, is doing some work around how NZSA could better support self-published writers but I’m not yet up to speed with this, sorry, so watch this space! I’m also mulling ways we could convince local booksellers to feature more local books in their advertising. It is a big issue, though, and one I promise to keep in mind.
Lee: Tell us what you’re working on now?
Mandy: I have a non-fiction book coming out in a couple of weeks called ‘Hindsight: Pivotal moments in New Zealand history’, which explores the 1981 Springbok Tour, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (and Nuclear-free NZ), the Dawn Raids, and votes for women.
I’ve also just finished a new novel for adults called ‘Gracehopper.’ Hoping it’ll be out mid-next year.
Lee: Favourite quote by an author and why it’s relevant right now?
Mandy: One of my favourite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, said in an interview earlier this year with Kim Hill: a book can rearrange the furniture of your heart. This is pretty much the underlying ethos of everything I write. Why is it relevant now? The hearts of many global leaders most definitely need a LOT of heart-furniture rearranging!
Lee: Anything else you want to add?
Mandy: Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat. I’d like to welcome anyone who has concrete ideas for how to improve visibility for spec fiction writers to make contact, and I will try my best to do the same. I’ve only been in the job two weeks, so give me a little time to settle in and get a feel for the landscape!
Lee: We’ll definitely put our thinking caps on. Thanks so much for dropping by to chat with us, Mandy. And good luck with that new release!
To contact Mandy with your ideas, email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MandyHager
Mandy Hager is a multi-award winning writer of fiction for young adults. In 2019 she was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal for life-time achievement and a distinguished contribution to New Zealand’s literature for young people.
She has won the LIANZA Book Awards for Young Adult fiction 3 times (‘Smashed’ 2008, ‘The Nature of Ash’ 2013, ‘Dear Vincent’ 2014), the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards for YA fiction (‘The Crossing’ 2010), an Honour Award in the 1996 AIM Children’s Book Awards (‘Tom’s Story’), Golden Wings Excellence Award (‘Juno Lucina,’ 2002), Golden Wings Award (‘Run For The Trees’, 2003) and six Notable Book Awards.
She has also been awarded the 2012 Beatson Fellowship, the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and the 2015 Waikato University Writer in Residence. In 2015 her novel ‘Singing Home the Whale’ was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award, and the Best Young Adult fiction Award from the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It has also been named a 2016 IBBY Honour Book, an international award.
In May 2017 her historical novel for adults, Heloise, was published by Penguin NZ. It tells the life story of Heloise d’Argenteuil, famed lover of 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard. It was longlisted for the 2018 Ockham Book Awards.
She is a trained teacher, with an Advanced Diploma in Fine Arts (Whitireia) and an MA in Creative Writing for Victoria University. She also writes adult fiction, short stories, non-fiction, educational resources, blogs and articles, and currently tutors the Novel Course for Whitireia’s Creative Writing Programme.
Learn more about Mandy here: https://mandyhager.com/biography/