Interview: Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod talks about World Folk Tales
Author Elizabeth (Libby) Kirkby-McLeod is a New Zealand author whose poetry and writing have appeared in a range of New Zealand journals, online publications, and in the public art installation, In Our Words in downtown Auckland. She was long-listed for the 2008 Six Pack 3 authors anthology and her poem ‘Her Warning Signs’ was Highly Commended in the 2018 International Poetry Competition.
She is also part of the upcoming collection, More Favourable Waters, edited by Marco Sonzogni & Timothy Smith. Her first poetry collection Family Instructions Upon Release was published in November 2019 with The Cuba Press. Elizabeth has a First Class Master of Creative Writing from AUT, where she was a recipient of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Postgraduate Study. She talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about World Folk Tales.
World Folk Tales retells 14 legends, myths or folk tales from different countries to introduce children to stories from across the globe. The tales vary in storytelling technique and perspective, providing a springboard to help children learn more about people and cultures from around the world. And it's beautiful! Each story occupies a two-page, full colour, illustrated spread.
What inspired you to write this book?
Giltedge and I had worked on another book project before this one (which unfortunately floundered); we had worked well together so when they approached me with this idea I jumped at it! They are really passionate about the universality of storytelling. In retellings, the story is already plotted for you but in retrospect I was a bit naive about the amount of care and thought that needs to go in retelling stories. I worked on the stories for over six months.
What research was involved?
So much! I spend a couple of days in the library reading books on mythology, folk talks, and legends from around the world, trying to get as close a source as possible to the original storytellers. I also read a lot about how to write sensitively about cultures outside of your own, like only to retell stories which are already widely told so that you are not taking a creative opportunity away from a writer of that culture. Once I found a story I thought could be retold I researched it further to see what versions of it exist: for example, there are different versions of the Greek story of Arachne and Athena, and sometimes Arachne has the better weaving, sometimes Athena! So then I had to decide what version I wanted to retell.
Can you also describe how you worked with the illustrator?
Giltedge Publishing commissioned the illustrator, Brent Larsen. They would send me Brent's roughs and I could comment on them before he created the final artwork.
What is your favourite story in the book, and why?
It has to be the kiwi story of Rata and his waka. I love looking at the Aotearoa New Zealand birds and creatures in the illustration. If I could time travel my first stop would be Aotearoa New Zealand before people came, to see our birds plentiful and wild.
What do you hope children and families will take away from the book?
I want them to get excited about the world around us and the cultures, heritage and stories we have. If one story sparks interest in another culture, if they ask their own neighbours to tell the stories they were told, I'll be so happy!
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
A womad mixed tape I guess?!
What did you enjoy the most writing this book?
Reading the drafts to a classroom of six year olds! Ms Monica Yates from Gladstone Primary in Mt Albert let me come and read a new story to her class once a fortnight and talk about it with them. Reading aloud lets you know what is and isn't working. What was so interesting is how much the world of folk tales, myths and legends requires you to accept that the rules of the world aren't what we believe them to be: animals can talk, lakes can move, creatures can become something they are not. The children both acknowledged and challenged this in interesting ways.
What did you do to celebrate finishing World Folk Tales?
When I got my author copies and held them, this accumulation of years of work and waiting, I really wanted to mark the occasion...but I'm new in my town and hardly know anyone. So I went around to my neighbours (who I've only spoken to twice before!) and asked if they wanted to go out for lunch with me to celebrate. Not only did they say yes, but they brought me lunch and promised to buy the book! Cool eh?
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I am almost evangelical about Tim Saunders memoir, This Farming Life. In the last year I left Auckland City for a smaller regional town and Tim's book was a big help in understanding rural New Zealand. In our debates and struggles with the future of land use in Aotearoa New Zealand we should remember that most farmers love the land. A poet as well as non-fiction writer, Tim’s writing is visceral yet delightful. And I met him at a writing gig and he is the nicest guy to boot!
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I'm the editor of a short story collection called Lit: stories from home, coming out in July from OneTree House Publishing. We are hoping the anthology gets students excited about Aotearoa New Zealand stories, and teachers excited about teaching them! It was such a privilege to read so much Aotearoa New Zealand short fiction and work with some of our home-grown literary heroes, established contemporary authors, and award-winning emerging writers to put it together. Now we just have to get it out into the world!