Elena de Roo is a children’s writer and poet usually based in Auckland, but here in Dunedin for the first half of 2020.
Elena de Roo has published poetry, picture books, early readers, mystery novels for young readers and a fantasy novel for older children. Whilst here in Dunedin, as the 2020 recipient of The University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer In Residence, Elena is working on a middle-grade fantasy novel called Cam and the Bird-people set in the world of a Bill Hammond bird-people painting. She is also planning to write more children’s poems, with the aim of eventually putting together a collection. We welcome Elena to Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature!
I put some questions to Elena about her books and the writing process.
Q: When did you start writing? And, did it take a long time before your first book was published?
A: I started writing in 2004 after completing a short children’s writing course taken by John Parker at the University of Auckland. It was two years (and many rejections later—I stopped counting at 100) before I had my first piece of writing published—it was a Reader’s Theatre Script for an educational publisher. After that I began to have a few things published by educational publishers (poems, readers, short stories, plays) but my first book wasn’t published until 2010—it is a picture book called The Rain Train.
When I was little I used to think how amazing it would be if someone could invent a bed that combined the experience of being rocked to sleep on a train with the sound of rain on the roof. The Rain Train is the same idea but in the form of a poem.
Q: Illustrator Brian Lovelock has said that The Rain Train was his favourite book to illustrate Which of your own books is your favourite, and why?
A: It is my favourite book too. The whole process was such a delight from beginning to end. Even when I wrote it, it felt quite magical—I stayed up late one rainy night, while the rest of the family slept, and wrote it all in one go (lots of fine-tuning happened later). Brian found out about it through his partner Sher Foley who belonged to the same writing group as me. She phoned one evening and said Brian liked my manuscript and wanted to take it to Walker Books Australia (WBA) to see if they’d let him illustrate it—it was so exciting! It is not the usual way a writer finds a publisher for their work, at all! WBA got back to me a week or two later (sometimes it can take more than a year to hear back) saying they wanted to publish it. Finally, after more than five years of hoping for a break, my first book was going to be published, plus one of my favourite illustrators was going to illustrate it!
Q: Which came first for you, writing poetry or writing stories?
A: Poetry—my mum wrote poetry and read it to me from a young age. Writing poetry comes more easily to me than stories.
Q: Your picture books and your Ophelia Wild series are all written in verse. What appeals to you about reading and writing in verse?
A: All languages have their own innate rhythms and writing in verse is just a way to emphasise this natural cadence. I seem to have a knack for it and find it very satisfying to write in verse, almost like combining a crossword puzzle with music. Sometimes having the challenge of a form to work within makes it easier to be creative too.
Q: You have a new picture book, Catch a Cloud, which is due to be published later this year. What inspired you to write this story?
A: I started off intending to write a light-hearted story about a child outwitting a rain shower by running from one tree to the next, but as I wrote, it morphed into a far darker story about a boy setting out to sea to rescue a cloud from the tyranny of the wind. It’s all about the power of the elements, standing up to bullies and resilience.
Q: I particularly enjoyed your fantasy novel The Name at the End of the Ladder where everything depends on the ‘roll of the dice.’ Did you establish the rules of your fantasy world first, and then the plot and characters, or did everything evolve together?
A: The idea of a parallel world where a person’s name might be able to change their appearance and personality came first. I realised I would need more than this to sustain a novel and added in the idea of the dice game. (When I was little, I was a big fan of Lewis Carroll’s, Alice Through the Looking Glass which was based on a game of chess.) After this, the plot and characters and the world all evolved alongside each other. But before I wrote the second and third drafts I spent quite a lot of time sorting out, in more detail, the fantasy world’s rules and history, and various characters’ back stories, which ended up changing the story quite considerably, especially the ending.
Q: Are there particular fantasy novels, or writers, that influenced you in writing The Name at the End of the Ladder?
A: My motivation came from wanting to try to recreate the feeling I had when I first read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle at age eleven—that experience of being completely and utterly transported into another world. This was the book that really got me hooked on reading.
Q: You've mentioned A Wrinkle in Time, did you have other favourite books, or writers, when you were growing up? And have you discovered more recent children’s or Young Adult books as an adult?
A: When I was growing up I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Heinlein, but for a childhood favourite I’ll choose the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery as it’s one of the few series I’ve read more than once.
Some favourites I’ve read as an adult include Skellig by David Almond, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Jack the Viking by Melinda Szymanik, 2014 Writer in Residence, Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe, 2012 Writer in Residence, and I am not Esther by Fleur Beale, 1999 Writer in Residence.
It’s not a book, but by far my most favourite television drama is Blink written by Steven Moffat, from the third series of the new Doctor Who. There’s so much amazing storytelling and character development packed into this one short episode and it’s so deliciously scary as well.
Q: Have you got a favourite age group you like to write for? For instance, do you start with an idea and then decide which audience level it is for?
A: Mostly I write for myself (or the child within me). A publisher once said they thought my inner child was around eight years old. I definitely start with an idea first and then age level later. Possibly, I’d get more work published if I was a little more strategic about this though.
Q: Have you some advice for young writers about writing?
A: Writing is like playing a musical instrument—the more you practise, the better you get. You unconsciously absorb how to write well by reading widely too. When starting out to write a story, just put down whatever comes into your head, allowing yourself to be as creative as possible (you can fix any mistakes later). Once you’ve got it all on paper then you can go back over it and make it the best story you can. Reading it out aloud is an excellent way to spot areas that need improving.
Q: You arrived in Dunedin in February, so you had a big move and then bigger changes. How has your writing been affected by being in a new place during lockdown?
A: I think that’s something I’ll only realise fully in hindsight. Like many others, I’ve found it harder to focus. On the other hand, I’m hoping my daily walks along the Leith to the Ross Creek Reservoir with its green native bush and amazing bird-life, are going to feed in nicely to the setting of Cam and the Bird-people. Also, I suspect I’ll be able to draw on that strange dislocated, panicky feeling I had when we went so quickly into Level 4, to help me write the scenes when my main character finds herself suddenly sucked through a Hammond painting into a completely different world. I’ve been writing more children’s poetry during the last few weeks too (the short form is matching my short attention span at the moment).
We wish Elena all the best for her projects and the remainder of her time in Dunedin, and hope to see her some time soon at Dunedin Public Libraries.