James Norcliffe’s now fourteen novels for children and teenagers have delighted readers for more than twenty years. James is also an award-winning poet, educator, and editor. He has published ten collections of poetry, a book of short stories and, most recently, The Frog Prince, a novel for adults. James talks to NZ Booklovers about his new children's book.
Tell us a little about The Crate.
I’d had it mind for some time to write a ghost story. It’s a fun genre although there aren’t too many about these days. I like the idea of prickle up the back of your neck.
I had some time in Dunedin and set to work on a story that came to me quite quickly. It’s important to set a ghost story in an atmospheric sort of place unless you’re playing against genre. Dunedin with its old stone buildings, trees, hills and winding streets might have been perfect, but I had something else in mind.
When I was a boy we lived on the South Island’s West Coast. A land of dark forests, dark rivers and black lakes. My father developed TB at that time and was taken to Christchurch for treatment at the Sanitorium on the Cashmere Hills. My mother stayed on the Coast to look after my sister and me. I was five or six and sister three years younger. Regularly, we travelled to Christchurch on the railcar to visit my father. I remember those trips particularly clearly and the stops along the way: Stillwater, Moana, Arthurs Pass, Springfield. Moana always seemed a long stop, perhaps because we were waiting for another train heading the other direction. The carriage looked out over Lake Brunner, often mist-shrouded, with its dark waters and dark bush-covered hills blue in the distance on the other side.
My father used to fish in the Arnold River, which runs into the lake and he often told stories of his work in the powerhouse there. Today Moana is a popular holiday spot and has a community of holiday homes and baches sprinkled among the older railway houses and the like of the original village. It has a café and a store and a petrol station. My wife Joan’s sister and her husband had a holiday house there for many years and from time to time we’d stay there – so I was able to build on the layers of childhood memory with grown-up perception.
What inspired you to write The Crate?
Beyond the basic attraction of writing a ghost story and the nicely atmospheric setting of Lake Brunner, I found when mapping the story that I had stumbled on an eerie plot with a clever, bitter-sweet resolution that was at the same time surprising and perfectly logical.
To me writing is often finding the best solutions to self-imposed problems: who, when, where etc. With The Crate I found a terrific problem with the heavy and then weirdly light crate, which I solved with the idea of wing nuts. I also found that the plot led inexorably to a doozy of an ending. It makes my hair prickle every time I read it. People who go to see Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap are famously requested not to reveal the ending; it would be my fond hope that readers of The Crate could be enjoined to do the same.
What research was involved?
Given that The Crate is strictly fiction and in the fantasy / fantastic mode there was no real need for research apart from delving deeply onto my own imagination. However the fictional settlement of Tunamoana is loosely based on Moana as is the river and lake on the Arnold and Lake Brunner so from time to time on our visits to the Coast, Joan and I would drop in to refresh our impressions. I also checked up on a few facts regarding the 50’s as this was the time of Lily’s drowning.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
It may seem perverse because of my love of intricate clockwork plots, that I don’t fill notebooks with reams of notes and flow diagrams. Instead, my process is to let the story marinate in my head until the storyline, characters, dialogue and plot details become clear and then I just go for it. At the point when I can see the story rather like a movie running in my brain, I binge write. I suppose you could say the process is somewhat organic. I sometimes say I’m a danger to traffic at such times as I’m trying to live simultaneously in the real word and in the world of the book. This is not recommended when crossing a busy street.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
No songs, they would I feel be a distraction. But eerie, at times dramatic, orchestral music would be the ticket. Something like Holst’s Planets Suite: Venus or Neptune for eerie, Mars for drama.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
As the five main characters are teenagers, I’m unfamiliar with current actors this age.
Fred Ambrose could be played by Ralph Fiennes or Gary Oldman, Jessie by Helena Bonham Carter, Mrs Crockett by Imelda Staunton or Brenda Blethyn, and Dad by Hugh Grant.
What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?
I enjoyed the whole thing. I have to say I did like the creepy bits and the build-up. And it was great to know the ending and how it all played out. Knowing the ending allowed me to drop little clues here and there, knowing deliciously that they would only make sense once everything was revealed.
What did you do to celebrate finishing The Crate?
I can’t remember doing anything special. Just feeling good about how it all panned out and now being able to share the story with the wider world.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Undoubtedly Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s an astonishing book, fiendishly clever and hugely versatile in the different time-frames and genre he employs. The pendulum plot juggling six different narratives is just mind blowing.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I have a new poetry collection Letter to ‘Oumuamua (Otago University Press) to be released in February which I’m very excited about, and I’ll be helping see through my new dystopian fantasy for young people Lost City which Quentin Wilson Publishing will bring out next year.
Beyond that, I’ll be working on poems and a sequel to my Felix and the Red Rats which I’m about half way through. Oh, and Joan and I hope to get to the UK in the English spring to see our two little grandsons, a visit too long delayed by COVID.
Quentin Wilson Publishing