Interview: Isa Pearl Ritchie talks about Awa and the Dreamrealm
Isa Pearl Ritchie is a Wellington-based writer. She grew up in the Waikato as a Pākehā child in a bicultural family and Māori was her first written language. She has completed a PhD on food sovereignty in Aotearoa. As a child, she loved creating imaginary worlds. Her second novel, Fishing for Māui, was selected as one of the top books of 2018 in the New Zealand Listener. Fishing for Māui was also a finalist in the NZ Booklovers Award for Best Adult Fiction Book 2019. Awa and the Dreamrealm is her first book for young people. Isa talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Awa and the Dreamrealm
Awa is a strong and determined twelve-year old, but she struggles with anxiety. She's had a challenging time with her parents divorcing, having to move, and starting a new school. On top of this, she starts having very unusual dreams where she is awake (lucid dreams). She meets a strange glowing creature called Veila who helps her get to the mysterious and fantastical Dreamrealm. While Awa's dreams are a wonderful escape from the challenges of her waking life, she also meets some challenging characters called fragments, that want to take over the Dreamrealm. In the story Awa has to face her fears in both the Dreamrealm and in her waking life, and learn resilience.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to write a book for young readers because as a child I found English literacy very challenging (I wrote about this for Pantograph Punch: https://www.pantograph-punch.com/post/illiteracy-in-aotearoa last year. I also struggled with anxiety as a child, which was undiagnosed because people just assumed I was shy. Anxiety is often invisible so it's hard to cope with but also hard for adults to recognise. I wanted this to be a theme of the book.
I wanted to write the kind of book I would have loved to read as a child - that would have helped me to build my literacy and also to cope with anxiety and build resilience, while still being a fun imaginative adventure. I wanted to write something fantastical but also possible, which is where the lucid dreaming comes in.
What research was involved?
Awa and the Dreamrealm draws on some of my own experiences with anxiety and also with lucid dreaming. It is both a very real and a very imagined story! I kept a dream diary, and read a lot about lucid dreaming. I also paid close attention to the young people in my life to make sure what I was writing was relevant to them. After I had written the first draft I gave it to ten test readers aged between 7 and 15 to get their feedback and improve the book. They gave excellent feedback! I also had some feedback from other writers including Mandy Hager which was particularly helpful.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Over the past year I've had a great morning writing routine. When I began writing this book, I would write down my dreams, first thing, so that my writing was connected with my dreaming brain. I would also leave post-it notes by my computer at night based on what I was planning to write the next day to prompt my brain to think about the ideas while I was sleeping.
I've also had a lot of help from my daughter, Tesla, who is 11. She has been a great editor - giving me excellent feedback on what a 12-year-old would and wouldn't say! One day she will be able to tell people that her first job was as a book editor!
What age group is the book intended for? How different was it writing a book for young people, as opposed to your novels for adults?
The book is intended for kids who are just getting into reading novels, so about age 8+, but 10-12 year olds seem to enjoy it the most. I've also had feedback from teens and even adults that they enjoyed it too!
It was quite different writing for young people than for adults. I paid a lot more attention to the plot of the story and made sure the pacing was good and the story was as interesting and imaginative as possible. I wanted to write something that young people could really get into and enjoy, that wasn't too much hard work to read.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I enjoyed the imaginative side of it - the wonderful Dreamrealm, and the fun and quirky characters. I also enjoyed getting great feedback from the test readers. Some of them are even learning how to lucid dream!
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
There are lots of finishing points in a novel. There's the first draft, the second draft, the third, the final - there's the point after the cover is finishes, after the proof-read version has come back, after the book is formatted, and after the printing, and so on! I try to celebrate each of these in little ways, for example, after one of these little milestones I had a delicious potato and rosemary pizza from Loretta in Wellington.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
That's a difficult question. This year I've been reading a lot for research purposes. I really enjoyed re-reading some of my favourite writers to read as a young person, for example, I re-read Tripswitch by NZ author Gaelyn Gordon.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I'm working on the next two Dreamweavers books.