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Interview: Donna Blaber talks about Just Keep Going

Donna Blaber has worked as a magazine journalist, freelance feature writer, copywriter, proofreader, travel editor, lifestyle editor, and as the managing editor on three different magazines with a team of staff. Donna holds a Graduate Diploma in Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, graduating with First Class Honours. Currently she writes both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Donna talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Just Keep Going.

The stone is back, and someone new has found it. Becky, a young teen from the UK always loved visiting her dad in New Zealand until she returns during the pandemic. Now he’s got a baby with her new stepmum and everything has changed. Worse still, her windsurfer hasn’t arrived yet, so there’s nothing for her to do but wait for Mum who is stuck overseas. Then Becky finds a strange stone at Whale Bay and her luck changes. She makes new friends, joins an environmental group, borrows a windsurfer, and has several close encounters with a bottlenose dolphin who simply won’t leave her alone. But what is wrong with the dolphin? Is it trying to tell her something? Is it sick? And who are the people poaching fish from the marine reserve? How is it all connected? Becky must find a way to solve it all.

Just Keep Going is a relatable novel set on Northland’s Tutukaka coast. It is a story of blended families, new friendships, marine pollution, a magical stone, a persistent dolphin, and a young girl with a strong will to succeed, adapting to life in a new country. It’s the third book in the Just series but each book is stand alone, so it can be read without reading the others first. But of course I’d love you to read them all!

What inspired you to write this book?

I’m passionate about writing books for tweens and young teens as it’s a critical time and they can’t always find books they can relate to. There’s a lot going on in the world right now and in my stories I like to touch upon some of the issues they are facing.

Just Keep Going is a nod to marine pollution, poaching, and the pandemic. I’m inspired about writing books set locally as I believe through personal experience that is important for young people’s self esteem to see the world they live in reflected in the books they read. As a child I was a voracious reader, and once I’d read everything in the local library by Enid Blyton, I moved on to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, which I loved because of the sailing and kids’ independence, but it was set in the UK and although the scenery was familiar, it wasn’t our own. Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys… all adventurous but not set in NZ. And then I turned twelve and Night Race to Kawau by Tessa Duder came out and it was the first time I truly saw myself in a book. The scenery, the terminology and vocabulary; the main character, a girl (hurray!) who was at home on the sea, who was adventurous and spirited, and set in the Hauraki Gulf, no less! It was life changing. To see myself in the text, to know that my world was important enough to be in books. To read something and feel right at home. This was inspirational then, and it is inspiration now, and I suspect it will continue to inspire me.

What research was involved?

As a former journalist I love researching and I took a deep dive into bottlenose dolphins during the course of writing the story. A lot of the direction I took was inspired in part by the late Wade Doak, a Kiwi dolphinologist, who spent more than twenty years exploring dolphin intelligence and communication. I was riveted by an article published in the NZ Geo entitled Symphony of the Dolphins written by Michael Szabo, with photographs by Roger Grace. It included a section interviewing Doak where he described them as “our closest brain neighbours” saying that communication was “an intuitive thing, not like clinical psychology where you apply some kind of IQ test”. Doak's research resonated, and it gave me a firm direction for my imagination to apply creative licence.

I also spent a lot of time researching windsurfing terminology. Having windsurfed a few times as a young teen and watching friends ride the waves near where I grew up, I had a reasonable base to write about this sport, but I am very grateful to two old school friends who reviewed the final draft to make sure I had things right.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I wrote the first draft of Just Keep Going during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a time when writers around the world set a goal to write a book. It was the second time I’d done it and it’s a really effective way to get down the bones of a story. I set a goal of 2,000 words a day and I allowed myself the freedom to write what came into my head. I work as an editor in my real life, so this process is extremely freeing. Once this was done, I took a break from it for a couple of weeks and then returned and rewrote each chapter scene by scene, slowly tying up all the loose threads. This part of the writing process is slow going but I like to do it working in large chunks of uninterrupted time as it takes me a while to become completely immersed in the story and once I’m in I like to keep as close to it as possible.

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

If it was made into a movie or a Netflix series I can honestly say I’d go along with whatever the directors wanted, simply to see it on the big screen! Becky would need to be played by someone capable of pulling off a slightly British accent (she was born in NZ to Kiwi parents who moved to the UK when she was a baby, so there are a lot of Kiwi inflections in her mostly British accent). Andie Macdowell would make a great Ivy, and I’d suggest Kiwi actors such as Amanda Billing to play Deirdre, Becky’s stepmum.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Just Keep Going?

I enjoyed the research including the lengthy episodes of daydreaming that took place in key locations! I love editing my own work so I really enjoyed that part of the process. Also something I did differently this time is that my beta readers were students at a local intermediate/college in Years 7-10 plus a couple of older students, and it was a fascinating and valuable experience working with them on the final draft. I can say with some certainty that the book will appeal to young people aged 10-14 years, and that it is a fast-paced read.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I went to the Storylines Hui! It was wonderful. Writing is a lonely sport and connecting with other writers and industry professionals is always joyful.

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

Hands down it is A Trio of Sophies by Eileen Merriman. I simply cannot say enough good things about this book. The structure is perfect. And the ending! Oh, the ending. The final page. Brilliant.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have four projects on the go, all at various stages. The hard decision now will be deciding which will be the next to get my full attention. The one I think I ‘should’ be doing is not the one that is screaming the most. The characters who yell the loudest will win. However, in November I will stop whatever I am doing, join NaNoWriMo, and write the next book in the Just series. It’s become part of my routine now.

Lighthouse Media Group

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