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Lee Murray's NZ Speculative Fiction Show - Jennifer Rackham

Welcome to Lee Murray’s New Zealand Speculative Fiction Show, an interview series featuring star acts from NZ’s science fiction, fantasy and horror community, including news, insights, and sneak-peeks of their latest performances.

Today’s guest is Auckland author-illustrator, Jennifer Rackham, writer of YA fantasy A Dash of Belladonna, a Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist in the Best Youth Novel category. Welcome, Jenn!

Thank you so much for having me, Lee! It’s an honour to be here.

Can you tell us a little bit about A Dash of Belladonna? Is this your first title as the author? What was your inspiration?

A Dash of Belladonna is a YA Fantasy set in New Zealand about a potion master apprentice who comes to New Zealand to study under a famed potion master. It’s a story written in a form of letters Lottie writes to her friend back home. Through the letters, it reveals how Lottie gets caught in an international magical crisis where potion master apprentices are being kidnapped, and she discovers she is on the ingredient list of the serial kidnapper.

While trying to protect herself and her new family, she finds powers that she cannot control with disastrous consequences. Amidst the chaos, Lottie learns how to control this power, more about herself, learning to accept limitations and asking others for help, all the while trying not to get turned into a potion!

I worked on A Dash of Belladonna when I was doing my Masters at AUT. I was doing another novel for the program, but I wanted to write something that was fun, easy, and quick to read. While doing my Masters, I intermittently wrote online and published each letters every few days. My inspiration was from a series of fiction-blogs written in a style of a wizard who was writing an online blog of his travels around his world. So I wrote every day on tumblr as a fictional blog from Lottie’s point of view. At first I didn’t think much of it, just a writing exercise, but people found it and encouraged me to keep going! I fell in love with it more than my initial work, so A Dash of Belladonna became my first title.

Care to share a short excerpt?

Absolutely, the book doesn’t have chapters but is broken up by letters, so I’ll just add one of the early letters:

9th of March

Dear Snump,

There are two moments in my life I cannot describe without being blinded by memories. One was when I first tasted my very own potion at the age of eight. Brewed in secret and consumed in a locked wardrobe, I still remember how the stars shattered in my eyes with the first sip.

Meeting Master Mikaere was my second. I spotted my new mentor in the crowd. The short black hair and dark skin I’ve seen in the pictures. I felt like a halo formed behind his magnificent head and a hush fell over the wave of people. He spotted us and his smile broke over his round face. Without hesitation he shot his hand up into the air and waved with such energy he earned sharp glares from the men in front of him. He sheepishly grinned at them and I’m certain he melted their hearts. He wasn’t a towering rugby player like I’d seen on the screens of the airplane, but he was a head taller than many and his broad shoulders swayed as he strode forward.

“Haere mai Lottie, welcome to New Zealand.” He smiled like the sun. His voice was warm and soft, capable of lulling a lion into sleep.

“Haere mai,” he said and shook Dad’s hand. He shook powerfully and released my dad and came towards me to reach for my luggage, but I stepped back and bowed.

“I am perfectly capable of carrying my own luggage, Master.” I performed the perfect curtsy and smiled like a child beauty pageant queen. The luggage was heavy and my hand was getting clammy, but I was determined not to appear like a useless child.

“That’s cool, let me know if you want to rest, though,” he said, and as expected didn’t pursue the matter further.

Dad and I climbed into Master’s car and we drove for an hour in a car that smelled of spring. He had his radio humming a slow guitar melody and he introduced the streets and small buildings like a tour guide. Soon the paved road turned into dirt and pebbles and the car bumped so much I was being tossed from one side to another, the stones rattling like popcorn, pinging off the metal underneath my feet.

Before too long, we came to his house.

His two-storey house had a blue roof complete with a kiwi weathervane. Blue became my favourite colour. What I immediately took a liking to was his wild yet perfectly tame garden. The herbs he grew! The smells! The insects! Every inch was devoured by the green, the hairy and the beautiful. Rosemary grew between rustic bricks; liverworts hugged the walls; and oh so many types of ferns!

His smile I approved of.

His garden I loved.

And he says the most curious things! After I exited the round tunnel of arbour complete with daphne, raspberry, snapdragon, jasmine and hops, my eyes held the beautiful sight of she, clad in purple and death, resting gingerly among the treachery of green.

I crouched and was a moment from caressing the soft petals of purple when a black shape blocked the sun. I looked up and saw a hauntingly beautiful woman dressed head to toe in black and purple. Her black eyes met mine.

Master’s voice came from behind me and I turned around. “Hey, student, don’t touch the belladonna,” he said. When I turned back to the belladonna, the woman had disappeared as if she never existed.

I thought it was perhaps a trick of the light, a mirage or even lack of sleep.

“You can touch the nightshade, but not the belladonna,” Master said again and approached the garden.

After staring at the empty spot, I registered his words. “Are they not the same, Master?”

“Kind of. I’ll tell you later. I believe the belladonna will change to nightshade tomorrow."

How could this be? Those names are just different names for the same plant. Before I could question further, I stopped. I was a foreigner in his house, his country. I was here to learn, not force my knowledge on others. I nodded.

“Come in and unpack first. I’ll serve you my best tea.”

He flashed his perfect teeth, and I decided to hold my judgement until tea was served.

I’m sitting at his kauri dining table that looks like it was a slab of the magnificent tree cut vertically. I can see the lines and the swirls and even the cracks! There is also a cat without a collar sitting on the table, sleeping contentedly in the sun. I am sure I saw another cat in the garden so I am left wondering if Master Mikaere owns multiple cats. I’ll ask him when he gets back. Dad and Master are now touring the greenhouse and the potion room, but I know that they are actually having the ‘talk’ that the parent has with the new Master: of rules and thinly veiled threats related to my safety and wellbeing. I’m happy to play the innocent child of course. It gives me time to write to you and report my findings. Ah, I see them returning. I will write again soon.

I’ll also send you a copy of the apprenticeship letter he sent me when I get the chance.

Your Smitten Soul Sister

Any reason in particular that you chose to adopt an epistolary approach?

That’s due to starting out as a fictional blog. I thought about continuing it like a blog, but I changed it to a letter, so it would read more like Lottie was talking directly to the reader. I also wanted the readers to guess who or what she was writing to! J

Also – for my masters I did a research about reading levels dropping recently. I read an interesting article called “Is Google Making us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr, and that resonated with me. It was about how internet is changing how we read, and shortening our attention spans, and I knew many of my peers fit into this category. So I wanted to write a story that was fast paced and broken up into small manageable pieces, which would encourage people to continue reading without being put off by what looks like long wall of text.

What magical potion do you have brewing on the stove at home? What ingredients are you using? If I take a sip, what happens then? And if I guzzle the whole batch?

I don’t have anything at the moment except sterilizing baby’s toys and bottles, but the last thing I made was a Korean cinnamon tea! You put cinnamon, ginger, sugar and water, (and if you have any, dried persimmon to put into the drink before you serve). It’s really simple but delicious!

If you take a sip, I’d say you’d forget the winter’s chill and become very toasty! Very good for colds if you’re suffering from one! The whole batch… this has never been done before… but the magical properties that are said to be within cinnamon, will keep you protected from harm for days!

What characteristics (if any) do you share with your main character Lottie? How are you different?

A lot of friends who read the book tell me that I share my quirkiness with Lottie! Given her crazy nature of throwing cats and stealing sheep’s blood, I’m not sure if this is a compliment… If I had to choose one, I’d say her absolutist personality is from my own. It’s something I wanted to work together along with Lottie. Difference… haha, aside from the huge age gap, and the fact I can’t brew any magical potions nor summon a powerful spirit… I’d say she’s a lot fierce and straight forward than I am! She charges forward when she believes she is doing the right thing, while I take time and weigh up all the options.

Is there a sequel coming?

I wasn’t planning on one, but I recently received a message from a young reader wanting one. I think I have to now! Writing is a little hard these days with a new baby, but when I’m rocking her to sleep I’m plotting and imagining up characters!

You also illustrate books and design gorgeous covers – the cover of A Dash of Belladonna is your own design and there are lots of interior plates, too. So, what are you really: a writer who draws and designs, or an artist who also writes? Does it even matter?

Hmmm I struggled with this one! I thought of just separating the two entirely, thinking if I’m both, it will make people think I’m not serious about either of jobs, but I’ve come to embrace it. I don’t think it matters. Sometimes I write more than I draw, sometimes I draw more than I write! I think myself more as a storyteller, using any medium I can to tell the story, whether I write it or I draw it. It means I have to do both well, which is a challenge!

Other than the angst and impostor syndrome, is the creative process for writing and illustrating the same?

Personally I think the illustrating is a lot faster than writing. Writing A Dash of Belladonna took about two years, while illustrating children’s book takes maybe 6 months – one year. A big difference for me is that it’s easier to spot a mistake and fix illustrations than writing (Plot/theme mistakes I mean, not just spelling or grammar). With illustration, if I spot a mistake, I go back and touch it up, but with writing, I can’t simply go and touch something up, I’d have to haul a huge chunk out, and change the connected parts of the story.

Another difference is that writing goes through more people than it would for illustrating. For A Dash of Belladonna it went to story editor, then proof reader, then more alpha and beta readers… I’m sure you’re well versed. While illustrating, it goes through another trained eye, then alpha viewer, and done!

You’ve worked with children’s author Mike Johnson, illustrating several of his books. Tell us about your collaboration.

Mike Johnson was my mentor for Creative Writing at AUT while I was doing my masters. He was overseeing my work, and I had a very different approach to writing than other students, describing things with colours and patterns rather. To make him understand where my imageries and my approach to writing came from, I showed him couple of my illustrations I’ve done, my comics I’ve written, and he was very positive about it! He recently had a poem he published with Radio NZ back to him, and he suggested we work together to illustrate a picture for his poem after my Masters was over. He was really laid back and just trusted me with everything, so I went away with his poem, and came back to him with a book! So that’s how we have the picture book Taniwha. We didn’t expect the success it would have, but once we realized we had something really great going, we decided to team up and continue making more, like the Kenni and the Roof Slide.

And through Mike, I was able to meet Phillip Mann, and Phillip and I are just about to publish our own children’s book! Crossed fingers it’ll be released this year.

If you could be a character in any book you’ve ever read, who would you be and why?

What more important character or plot? Setting or pace?

Oooh – this is tough! Hmm… I think I’d love to be the suave Breeze from the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. Just the life he would have lived, being able to push and pull on people’s emotions, masquerading as a different person in high stake operations and being surrounded with true friends.

I personally find characters more important. I believe if there are great characters, they can make any plot work! And I’m more for pace. Perhaps I’ve grown up with video games, visual novels and the like, I have a short attention span!

Pineapple on pizza: yes or no?

I know I’m going to wake up to a beheaded pineapple in my bed… but yes!!

You’ve recently become a parent. What classic children’s SF and fantasy tales will you be reading to your daughter to inspire her with a love of the genre? Any contemporary titles you’d recommend?

I’d say the Hobbit, His Dark Materials, Earthsea series, Harry Potter series, Definitely the Mistborn series and Etlantris, Books of Ember series… oh and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (My first ever sci-fi book)… Oh dear I have too much! (I’ve already started the Harry Potter series with the illustrated versions! They are gorgeous) As for contemporary… as an avid manga and comic reader, I would have her read SF and fantasy comic books too! Trinity blood, Steven Universe, Land of the Lustrous, Full Metal Alchemist… Oh and then there are visual novel games… I feel like interactive story telling will be a big thing for my daughter, so I’ll definitely be getting her into visual novels like Tales from the Borderlands, Wolf Among Us, basically anything from TellTale games. But of course books! I haven’t been able to read much these days, but I’m loving Caraval series, The Kingkiller Chronicle and I’ll have to go through SFF Kiwi authors and pick from there! If you have any recommendations, I’d welcome it! (I already have yours in mind Lee! J)

Impromptu writing test! Please use the following words in a drabble (100 word story) or poem: Any genre.

task, sunlight, greenhouse, flask

Inside the small greenhouse, the sweet smell of the herbs, the humidity that hung in the air and the trapped sunlight did nothing to break Lottie Underwood’s concentration.

Her hand shook as she held a petal of a bright sunflower in the sunlight, just above the lips of the glass flask.

“One hundred,” she said and let the yellow petal drop into the awaiting colourless potion.

From the petal, golden hair-like tendrils spread the bright light into the liquid, and soon the potion was the colour of a lemon which had basked in the sunlight all summer.

Which is best: the book or the film? Why?

Book! Films can add amazing visuals, but I feel they miss a lot out, and they tend to deviate from the original story which causes more harm than good. Also, with a good book, you can be immersed in the world for much longer than the movie!

What projects are on the horizon for you?

Too many! I am plotting the sequel to A Dash of Belladonna, really wanting it to be called… Two Dashes of Belladonna! Hahaha if only. I also have a fantasy series I’ve been itching to write. As for illustration side of things, after Phillip’s and my children’s book is published, this time I’m going to work with my husband to create a new children’s book!

Thanks for stopping by, Jenn. Great to have you.

Please check out Jenn's website.

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