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Interview: Anthony Holcroft talks about The Candle Trees



Anthony Holcroft is an award-winning writer of fairy tales and stories of the supernatural. His books and stories for children have been published and anthologised in New Zealand, the UK, USA and Canada, and adapted for New Zealand radio and television. Anthony talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about The Candle Trees

I don’t remember where the name came from. I think it simply arrived in my head – from somewhere, origin unknown. Julia Buck’s family couldn’t place it either (p.19, Chap.3). Her father thought it could have been a botched translation of an obscure Indian word the family’s Guarani servant had used in describing the magical trees.


What inspired you to write this book?

The story has had a particularly long gestation – longer than just about anything else I’ve written. The seeds were sown when I was still in my teens and living in Invercargill. I’d sometime spend an odd hour or two in the Public Library’s vault-like upstairs reference-room looking for books devoted to mythology and folklore – subjects I was interested in at the time. And there, one afternoon, as I was glancing through a scholarly journal lying on one of the desks, an article caught my attention. It was about a Paraguayan tribe of Guarani Indians that had a culture – notable, the writer claimed, and possibly unique – for songs passed down over the generations from mothers to daughters, suggesting a sacred practice of some sort. I read on, eager to know more about the tradition, only to be told that sadly, the tribe was no longer in existence. During the 1930s, its lands had been confiscated by a group of marauding farmers led by a cruel man named Jesus, who proceeded to enslave its inhabitants and systematically eradicate their culture.


I was deeply disturbed to read about this, and for a while afterwards I found myself inventing hopeful scenarios in which the few women and children that were thought to have escaped deeper into the forest, had managed to regroup somewhere, and restore at least a residue of their lost tradition. In due course, as often happens, the memory of it soon faded into a distant corner of my mind, remaining dormant there for many more years until, well into my writing career, I saw by chance a newspaper article about an explorer’s recent discovery of two Indian women in traditional garb, wandering aimlessly in an agitated state of mind deep in a South American forest. When they saw him they shrieked a ran away.


Recalling my earlier memory, I felt I might be able to weave the two of them together somehow to make a good story, suitable for both young and adult readers. It took some time and thought to flesh out the main characters, Julia, Uncle Fred and Andreas, but I grew into their characters as the story unfolded.


What research was involved?

A great deal. I spent a lot of time acquainting myself with everything I thought I should know about local Victorian customs and cultures, including women’s clothing fashions in the late 1890s, particularly the new fashions in unskirted garments – culottes for bicycle riding, and breeches beneath a skirt for horse riding. But my research of the history, current geography of the Guarani Nation, language, customs and spiritual beliefs of the Guarani Nation – all of which I’d known little about, was of special interest. I found that like many other indigenous communities around the world, the Guarani have a deep relationship with the forest, and a holistic perception of the world in which every medicinal herb used for treating physical or spiritual illness is considered a spirit, a brother of the tribe. And not to forget the jaguar, which was, and still is, the sacred animal of the Guarani people.


What was your routine process?

I like to work mainly in the morning, usually with small hourly breaks to take a walk around the garden, provide a few breakfast crumbs for the resident sparrows, look out for ‘Woodie’, our reclusive pheasant, who sometimes struts across our lawn, or, as in the past winter, bring in a barrowload of wood for the burner. Walking about and breathing in the open air are good for refreshing the mind.


When I have a new idea for a writing project, my routine is simply to think about it, until the storyline and its characters are clearly defined enough to make a start. Then, when I’ve written for an hour or more, and saved it, I’ll look over it, make any small changes I think are necessary, and carry on – sometimes, for a lengthy story like The Candle Trees, possibly taking take a year or two to complete to my satisfaction. I read an article once by a famous writer who claimed this technique is a recipe for disaster. She warned how important it is to get your story down on paper right from the start, and then think about revisions. Otherwise, she said, the tension evaporates, and it’ll never get finished. Which interested me, because what she is warning about is exactly how I write., and it’s always worked well for me.


If my book was to be made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Thomasine Harcourt-McKenzie – definitely! And Sam Neil would be perfect as Andreas du Bocage…


What did you most enjoy about writing this novel?

The way the story builds and expands in my mind with new ideas coming in to be absorbed or perhaps rejected, is a process of discovery for me, which I always enjoy –and particularly so with The Candle Trees, the longest story I’ve written to date.


What did you do to celebrate finishing The Candle Trees?

My wife Julia took me out to dinner at our favourite restaurant.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

That’s a hard one, but I think it would have to be Anthony Trollope’s 1861 novel, Framley Parsonage. At just under 500 pages, it seemed a good book to while away an hour or two reading by the fire on winter nights, when we weren’t watching TV. Julia and I both agree that Trollope’s books lend themselves very well to reading aloud, so we did that. I am fond of live readings, and Julia enjoys listening, so we’re of one accord


Trollope is a wonderful storyteller. The plots and comic subplots he weaves around his vividly portrayed characters are as irresistible as they must have been for his first readers of the book serialised in Cornhill magazine. To my mind, Trollope’s females are his most memorable characters. Lucy Robarts and the heiress Miss Dunstable, for instance, are determined not to be trapped and smothered in the expectations of Victorian Society. Miss Dunstable, surrounded by eager suitors lured by her wealth, seeks companionship in marriage with someone she knows she can really trust. And at the end she achieves this, in a very satisfying way.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

Perhaps a new story collection.


Quentin Wilson Publishing

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