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Interview: Jenny Hessell talks about Grandma McGarvey Joins the Scrum

Jenny Hessell is the author of more than 30 children's books. She is probably best known as the creator of the inimitable Grandma McGarvey, whose zany adventures have delighted New Zealand children (and their parents!) for thirty years.

Grandma McGarvey inadvertently finds herself on the field at a country rugby match! But she copes with the situation in her usual style, winning everyone’s admiration for her drive and fortitude … even at the bottom of a ruck!

Jenny talks to NZ Booklovers.

30 years! My goodness! Grandma must be pretty ancient by now. I like to think the success of the Grandma McGarvey books is at least partly due to (ahem!) very good writing and great illustrating. And also of course to a publisher who’s been willing to stay on board for several decades (thanks, Scholastic).

As for the character herself, the main key to Grandma’s appeal is surely that she challenges expectations - not just in the obvious sense that she’s an elderly woman doing daring things like bungy jumping and playing rugby but also because she’s a grown-up who often behaves more like a small child: she’s shockingly self-absorbed, and prone to quite exaggerated emotional responses, especially when thwarted. A lot of the humour comes from that contrast. And of course there’s a delightful paradox there – over the series, it’s the very predictability of Grandma behaving unconventionally that’s funny.

My writing routine is always the same…. Once I get the central idea for a story, I ignore it for as long as possible so that my subconscious can get to work on it. Every time it pushes its way to the forefront of my attention, I push it back down again.

Finally, when it can no longer be contained and is threatening to burst out all over the place, I try to get it down on paper. This has to be done in one sitting – which means working right through the night and on into the next day if necessary.

The most essential thing is to get the rhythm right (and not just because I’m working in verse – it’s equally true for prose). My process is this: First, come up with an opening line (or, if the ‘marinating’ has worked, retrieve the line from your subconscious). Write it down. Say it aloud, as many times as necessary to check that the rhythm flows, amending where needed. When you’re happy with it, come up with/ ‘retrieve’ the second line and follow the same process. When you’re happy with that line, go back to the beginning. Read both lines out loud, then begin work on the third line. (Once I’m well into the story, I only go back a few lines each time rather than all the way to the beginning – but I never write a line ‘cold’ as it were. This is the best way I’ve found of getting the rhythm right and keeping it sounding natural.)

Trevor Pye and I haveworked together closely on the Grandma McGarvey books almost from the beginning. I know publishers are often not keen on this and I’ve never understood why – surely you’re more likely to get text and illustrations working effectively together if the artists communicate during the process. Trevor is most definitely the co-creator of Grandma McGarvey – there are elements in several of the stories which have been suggested by him, and aspects of the illustrations which have resulted from my input. I would find it really hard now to go back to just submitting a work to a publisher and some time later being presented with the ‘finished product’.

One of the fun aspects of writing Joins the Scrum was incorporating all the rugby terminology, especially clichés like ‘Full credit to Grandma McGarvey!’ I actually know next to nothing about rugby and was fascinated to find how much of the lingo has nevertheless somehow filtered into my brain!

How did I celebrate finishing this book? As I always do – by reading it aloud to the family, on the understanding that they praise it to the skies and insist it’s the best thing I’ve ever written! (The delivery room is no place for others to start commenting on your newborn’s sticky-out ears or weirdly shaped nose. That can come later.) And then back to bed, or rather, off to bed – Joins the Scrum was one of those all-night efforts I mentioned earlier….

What’s next on the agenda? I’m not working on anything at the moment, and I don’t think Scholastic have plans for any new Grandma McGarvey titles. But I still get lots of suggestions from kids (and their parents) as to what Grandma’s next adventure could be. And Trevor and I still have lots of ideas too, so Never say never…

Favourite book I’ve read this year? So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – a book that actually gives you some strategies for beginning a conversation about this complex issue. An uncomfortable read in places but ultimately hopeful and inspiring.


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