Interview: Philippa Werry Talks about This is Where I Stand
Updated: Mar 30
Philippa Werry is a librarian and award-winning children’s writer whose non-fiction, poetry, stories and plays have been widely published, and also broadcast on National Radio. Her book Enemy at the Gate (Scholastic), about the 1930s polio epidemic in NZ, was shortlisted for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards 2009. Philippa has also written two books for Scholastic’s My New Zealand Story series, Lighthouse Family and Harbour Bridge. Philippa talks to NZ Booklovers about her latest book, This is Where I Stand.
What inspired you to write this book?
Over the last few years I’ve thought, researched and written a lot about war and peace, both overseas and in our own country, and I’ve pondered how you talk about those things to a young audience. I’m fascinated by memorials in general, including who (or what) gets memorialised and who doesn’t, and how war is commemorated in a memorial form. It was the combination of all those things that led to this book.
What research was involved?
I’d already done a lot of research on war memorials for some of my earlier books such as Anzac Day, Armistice Day and The New Zealand Wars. Because of that, I almost immediately identified an actual war memorial statue to base the story on, and that helped give me a focus for what I was writing. (The statue I had in my mind is the one at the Devonport War Memorial, often called “The Untidy Soldier” because of his trailing laces and scruffy uniform.)
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Picture books have so few words and every word has to earn its place. I knew the overall “feel” I wanted, and I did a lot of reading aloud to try and make it sound exactly right.
How did you work with Kieran Rynhart, the illustrator?
Picture book writers and illustrators often don’t even get to meet, but I was lucky that I did meet Kieran in person over coffee organised by Lynette and Penny from Scholastic. I was bowled over by his enthusiasm for the project; it’s very special to see someone so enthused about something you’ve written. Until he started to tell us some of his ideas, I didn’t realise what a hard task I had set him. Basically we were asking him to illustrate a static image (the statue) and make it vibrant and alive, but that’s exactly what he did, by using different angles and perspectives and surrounding it with life and movement (not to mention the beautiful colour palette). I’d been able to attend the Anzac Day service at the Devonport War Memorial when I had the Easter residency at the Michael King Writers Centre in 2019, so I could send Kieran some photos and other online links to the statue to use as background info for his work.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Ooh hard question, but it would have to include a bugler playing The Last Post. I don’t think there could be a more poignant or more fitting piece of background music.
What do you hope families will take away from reading this book?
I would love to think that families might visit and talk about war memorials that are close to where they live, and imagine the same thing that happens in the book – what kind of experiences the statue on the memorial (or the names listed on it) might have had, and how the community around the memorial has changed over the years.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this project?
Since the book came out, I’ve read it twice to different groups of people at writing events. Each time I’ve had to take a deep breath first because it’s not just about war but also about time passing and memories. I find it a very special book to share. Both times people have come up to me and a they had a tear in their eye as they listened, so I don’t think it’s just me!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Any ordinary day by Leigh Sales. It’s about how people’s lives can change in a moment, and how they cope with the (often tragic) outcome. It sounds a bit depressing but actually it’s full of hope about how people can survive and come to terms with unimaginably awful events, and the other people who surround and help and comfort them. On a lighter note, The other Bennet sister by Janice Hadlow, because I love Pride and Prejudice re-imaginings.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m working on a sequel to my 2019 children’s/junior YA novel The Telegram. It’s the first time I’ve written a sequel and I didn’t intend to when I finished The Telegram, but the characters stayed in my head, and I wanted to explore the idea of what happened after the war when everyone came home again.