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Interview: Tina Shaw talks about Ursa

We want to introduce you to some of the finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Tina Shaw is nominated for the Young Adult Fiction Award for Ursa.

Tina grew up on a farm in the Waikato which she roamed with her pet goat Vanilla and made up stories that she pretend-published on paper that she stained with tea to make it look old. Vanilla was an appreciative first audience for these creative endeavours. Tina has since moved on to creating proper (unstained) books and has produced more than 20 of them – for kids, young adults and grown-ups. After having lived in Auckland, Christchurch and Berlin (not in that order), she now lives near the Waikato River with her partner and two beautiful though silly English Pointers.

Tell us a little about your book.

Ursa is a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old boy called Leho who lives in the city of Ursa with his downtrodden family in an oppressive regime. Leho can't remember a time when his people, the Cerels, lived without fear in Ursa. His parents once tried to organise an uprising and his mother was blinded. His father was sent to one of the wild camps. His older sister Marina is illegally pregnant, and longs to escape from the city. His beloved brother Jorzy is planning to overthrow the Director. So, there’s quite a lot happening!

What inspired you to write this book?

The story was inspired by time I spent living in Berlin, reading about the Nazi era and seeing places such as the old Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Ursa itself is based in an alternate version of Berlin, which freed me up to add things such as airships. Incidentally, the bear is the mascot for the city of Berlin, and as ‘ursa’ is the Latin word meaning bear, I figured that would make a symbolically excellent name for my imagined city.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Pretty much the same as all of my other books – I get down a first draft, fairly swiftly, then I go back over it, filling in gaps and fleshing out the characters and the story. The main difference with Ursa is that my editor at Walker Books wanted me to change the point of view from third to first person – which I did, and I think the story became much more immediate in tone because of that change.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Hard one … I’m actually a huge Nick Cave fan, so I’m thinking that something like ‘Push The Sky Away’ would have be in there for a start, then ‘We No Who U R’ from the same album. There’s also a tense orchestral track by The Mutton Birds that would make a good background for the scene where Leho and his friend Bit walk along the forbidden river pathway. That also leads me to their amazing track, ‘Envy of Angels’ … please, somebody make this film so I can advise on the soundtrack!

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I could see Asa Butterfield playing Leho, and Maisie Williams (with blonde hair) as the girl he falls in love with.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

Mostly I loved creating the story and the characters who inhabit it. There’s a freedom in making up stuff and finding out where your characters might take you … and sometimes they go to crazy, unexpected places.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I went hiking in the Pureora Forest near Taupō with my daughter. Writing a book is so intense that it’s great to get out in nature and burn off some steam. There were also goodly amounts of chocolate treats in my backpack to celebrate once we reached the summit while admiring the view.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

The Rift by Nelson-based author Rachael Craw. It’s set on an imagined island that reminds me a bit of New Zealand and it’s simply a fabulous read.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’ve been working on a YA horror story. This is my first attempt at this genre, and so far it’s been a lot of fun trying to make things as scary as possible for my teen protagonists. The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed via a virtual presentation on Wednesday 12 August. For a full list of the brilliant 2020 finalists click here:


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