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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Piper Mejia, literary champion for youth

Today, I’m showcasing my dear friend and collaborator, Piper Mejia, a writer, teacher, chocolate lover and literacy advocate for children and young people. Congratulations, your short story, The Shelver, is a finalist in this year’s short story category of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

Tell us about the story. What inspired it?
Thank you for your lovely introduction; you will always be my favourite collaborator. The Shelver came out of an entry I created several years ago for New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library (historical archives) and was more a memoir of my student life as a shelf reader in the Science Library at the University of Auckland. It obviously failed to make a good impression on the judges at the time, so like any writer I put it away to be used at a later date. When the SpecFicNZ Halloween competition was announced last year, I was in the middle of getting my Young Writers’ group to work on a crafting exercise so, as an exemplar, I took out this story and changed it, from library to bookstore, from memoir to horror, and sent it off. It was exciting to see that the improvements made the difference, the story winning first place in the competition. I then had proof for my Young Writers’ of the importance of never throwing any writing away, and how crafting is the key to good writing.

You’re an English teacher in your spare time. So tell us really, how important is grammar?

That’s a tricky question as before thinking myself as an English Teacher I see myself as a linguist with dyslexia. Though people like to see grammar as an absolute, it isn’t. Grammar is constantly evolving and those who want to sell to the American or British markets know there is a grammatical bias depending on what type of ‘English’ you use. The best I can say is that it is important to be grammatically consistent, this goes for spelling as well, and to understand there is a difference between spoken and written grammar.

You’re also a long-time volunteer at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, accounting for many long hours on your feet for no pay. So what’s the deal? What do you get out of it?

I love the Readers and Writers Festival. When I first started attending, I think 10 – 12 years ago, I would go to the free events so that I could afford buy books. I only started to volunteer when I discovered that if I was a volunteer I could go to any event for free, that was about 4 years ago. Strangely enough, I generally still only attend the free events as that is where the NZ authors are. It seems that unless you’ve won a Mann Booker Prize or have dominated NZ literature for at least 40 years, New Zealanders don’t seem to be willing to pay to see our own authors, which is a real shame.

Name the writer (dead or alive) who you would most like to have dinner with and tell us how the evening goes…

That’s easy. Basically any NZ writer: I’m mad about poets so Apriana Taylor, Tusiata Avia and Karlo Mila are at the top of my list, but I would also really love to talk to Eleanor Catton. However, if I have to dig up a writer it would have to be Sir Julius Vogel – what a fascinating evening that would be!

Tell us about your WIP.
Sigh, my WIP has been a WIP coming up on 8 years now and it will never be worth the time I have spent on it. However, though in of itself is it not great piece of literature, it has done what I had intended it to do; it has made me a better writer. Eight years ago I was teaching creative writing to a class in which one girl was really frustrated with her writing process, and she said to me that if it was so easy why wasn’t I doing it? She really made me think about how conceited it was of me to teach something I never did myself, so I decided to write something, get it published and then I would be able to teach my students creative writing with some authority. I had always loved writing stories as a child and before I knew it I had written an 80,000 word YA novel … and it was terrible. But I was undeterred, I joined a writers’ group, made writing friends, decided I needed to work on my short story crafting first, and write a few short stories. I learned lots and then last year decided it was time to go back to my novel. I am three chapters from completing a nearly total rewrite and plan to publish independently by the end of the year so that I can move onto something new – I like finishing what I have started.

YA fiction, of all the genres, is addressing the real issues. Discuss.

I like science fiction, some dystopia, and horror. As a teacher of teenagers I read a lot of YA, especially the texts that are recommended to me by students. A lot of it I find boring because what is new to them is cliché to me, but I understand their need to read about characters that are ‘just like me’. Though there are an increasing number of novels with female protagonists, I fear that they do not reflect the range of young women in society, where are our protagonists struggling with body issues, the ones who lack social skills, the ones who never know where they will be from one week to the next? I worry that these books do not challenge our young people to think, that the solutions they provide are through violence and happy endings.

You’ve championed a lot of book-related projects for young people: The Great New Zealand Book Race, The NZ Young Writers Group, the Write off Line and Beyond This Age series of anthologies by New Zealand school children to name just a few. Which one are you most proud of?

I guess that I am proud of each one in turn as they build on each other, though I totally committed the young writers’ competitions and anthologies I enjoy most working with young people directly. This has led to helping co-ordinate a Young Writers’ stream at this year’s Au Contraire conference for Science Fiction and Fantasy. I am hoping that this will evolve to combine with the YA writer competitions and anthologies, as I don’t want to burn out.

We don’t want you to burn out either, Piper, as you are a wonderful supporter of our emerging writing talent. Best of luck on awards night!
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