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Interview: Dr Susan Wardell talks about The Lighthouse Princess

Susan Wardell is from Dunedin. She lives by the harbour, and teaches at the University of Otago, while raising two small humans and a modest indoor jungle. Alongside academic writing Susan publishes in a variety of creative genres. Her poetry, micro-fiction, book reviews and literary essays have been published in a variety of journals throughout Australasia, and won several awards.

Her first picture book for children, The Lighthouse Princess, was selected for the 2021 Storylines Gavin Bishop Award for Illustration. Susan talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Lighthouse Princess.

The Lighthouse Princess is a contemporary fairytale, with a really magical setting, and wonderful illustrations. It’s blends the twin pleasurses of the ‘cosy’ and the ‘adventurous’, to tell a story about an independent Princess, with a purposeful life, who is ready to open up her world up in new ways when a storm puts a nearby boat in jeopardy…

What inspired you to write this book?

A long time ago I was walking along a windswept Southern beach with my love. To pass the time we began to make up a story together, back and forth between us, as we looked towards the distant cliffs; imagining a castle or tower atop top them. It became a sort of subverted fairytale, fit for feminists and introverts and people with wild souls. Over time - and after we had our first child - I began reworking the kernal of this, into a children’s story. As I did, I was able to draw on details from other trips, to other beautiful isolated Southern beaches: full of seals and penguins, and shells and rockpools, and lighthouses.

What research was involved?

I did some reading and reflection around the norms of fairytale genres, and plenty of searching for other contemporary stories about fierce young girls... which was also part in parcel of having a fierce and wild young daughter, who I wanted to feed up well, with stories full of possibility and power. I also did some reading and reflection about lighthouses: as they had featured in my own childhood, and in other children’s literature and film.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The process was spread over many years, so involved lots of time in between each draft, to reflect on and hone the story. Even in a short text, with a sparse writing style, a lot of consideration goes into balance and flow, and making each word count towards characterisation, world-building, and emotional satisfaction. So I think you ‘learn on the job’ in some ways… and then relearn, with each new book or project, since each has its own flavour and rhythm.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Orphans, Kingdoms, by Brooke Fraser, captures something of the slightly wild spirit of the book for me. Also Quiet, by a Canadian singer-songwriter called Lights, which speaks to the kind of peaceful, mutual connection that can be so precious, and which I was happy for my characters to find.

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

Some bright-eyed unknowns, hopefully, who would bright their own sparkle to the characters.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

I loved seeing just how complete a world could emerge from a short text … both in terms of the images and feelings that simple words can conjure, and in terms of the incredible illustrations that Rose Northey has provided, which took it to a whole other level. Seeing it come to life, visually, was completely strange and thrilling.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Took another walk on the beach, with the whole family. Bought a beehive.

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

Nina Mingya-Powles’ Small Bodies of Water, which is an essay collection with absolutely stunning writing, that took me to new places, but was also felt startlingly familiar in other ways. The themes of ocean, water, and swimming, seems to be fairly common to NZ literature (and beyond, of course) and on my mind a lot lately.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I always have a lot of projects on the go, across heaps of different genres, so it depends which one jostles its way to the front of the cue next!

Penguin Random House


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