Helen Heath interviews Sacha Cotter, author of The Bomb, which just won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award at the 2019 New Zealand Children and Young Adults Book Awards.
The Bomb is written by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan and published by Huia Publishers.
SC: Gosh. yeah, it's so amazing. Thank you!
HH: It's not your first win though, is it?
SC: That's right, our first book – Keys – was shortlisted for Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2015. The Māori language translation, Ngā Kī, was the winner of the Māori Language Award at the same awards. The translation for The Marble Maker – Te Kaihanga Māpere – won of the Te Kura Pounamu Award at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2017. We’ve managed to go to the book awards with all our books, but ‘The Margaret Mahy Award??!’ – Incredible!! This year we were blown away.
HH: We are hoping you can tell our readers a little bit about how the book came about, were you working as a teacher while you were writing the book?
SC: Yes, I had just finished teaching for the year. I went back to the Bay of Plenty and I was travelling around, watching all the kids do bombs and I thought wow, this is such an important part of our culture in Aotearoa, a huge part of our childhood. I was admiring the art of it – the joy that comes from it – and I thought it would be really cool to have a picture book about it.
Also, Huia are an independent Māori publisher and are interested in publishing books from a Māori perspective. Bombing seems to be particularly popular with Māori kids. I thought it would be a really cool idea to celebrate this past-time and have a story where kids could really see themselves. So, that's one side of it – just seeing something and thinking ‘Why hasn't this been done yet?’
I was thinking a lot about my Nana because she’d died the year before. I had just gone to see my Grandad and we’d been telling stories about her and she'd been quite a fun woman she used to drive trucks and race speedboats – cool things like that, so I thought it would be awesome to have a Nan in the story that would support the kid – she would be this amazing woman who could do bombs and also be fierce and loyal and amazingly supportive of her mokopuna, her grandchild.
HH: So, the book’s a tribute to your Nan in a way?
SC: Yes, Josh and I dedicated the book to our grandmothers; celebrating that special relationship that we have and the knowledge they've passed down. A lot of children here in New Zealand are raised by their grandparents too.
HH: It was really lovely to hear that you and Josh met during the publishing process of this book can you share the story about how you met with our readers?
SC: Absolutely, we actually met on the first book that we made together in 2014. Generally, when you are making a picture book you don't necessarily meet the illustrator – all the feedback goes through the publisher. I really admired his work, so I was pleased when they chose him to be the illustrator for Keys. We met at the launch and realised we lived in the same city. We got together and made a Facebook page. We carried on with our lives and did some events for Keys. Then we created The Marble Maker and that book lent itself to being a bit more theatrical, so we started doing events together. At this point we were just colleagues but when it came to The Bomb, because we had such a good track record, we decided to submit a story together (which isn't usually done, usually the publisher decides on the illustrator) but we wanted to make sure that working together again was a done deal, so we started to meet up at cafes and brainstorm the story together. I already had the first draft at this stage and we story-boarded it out to make a watertight submission. I guess the timing must have been right because over the course of the book being published, which was almost two years, we ended up falling in love and having a baby! In so many ways this book is important to us, it brought us together as a couple and it's also been some of our best work.
HH: You’re a really productive team! I read on the Huia website that you always wanted to create a stop-motion animation series and I wondered if it was something you and Josh might try in the future?
SC: Oh, we'd love to do that. We've made really terrible home movies and Josh has made some fun ones with his daughter. We have lots of little ideas for animations but it's just finding the time, you know. It’s a cool thing being with another creative person. For us, it's not just about picture books – although we love them. Josh is really musical and that helps us when we go and visit kids and libraries – we sing to them – we’re getting more into the performance side of things, it’s fun!
HH: do you have a favourite library memory you could tell us about?
SC: I have loads because I've worked in libraries! I’m just remembering my mum taking us into the Kawerau library – near where we lived. She is an avid reader – always has been – she goes in to get stacks of books. It was always a really amazing place to go to. I thought that writers were kind of magicians the way that they could create. Back then I didn't think that someone like myself could do something like that because it seemed like magic but I'm glad that I did.
HH: What was the tipping point that made you think you could do something like that?
SC: When you are really little you have the kind of confidence to think you can do anything and then as you get a bit older you lose some of that confidence. I think it wasn't until I was an older adult, had travelled and seen a bit of the world, that I became brave enough to give it a go. Maybe it was just knowing myself a bit more and finding some time to be creative but I'm not sure. I think that's reflected in The Bomb as well – finding confidence and self-belief – it probably mirrors how I felt about writing. The kid in The Bomb is always studying how to do a good bomb but the knowledge was inside him all the time, when he started to believe in himself he realised it was possible.
HH: I know that you're on maternity leave at the moment but would you like to tell us a little bit about your role at Victoria University Library?
SC: The first time I worked there I had just come back from Spain and I was working at the Kelburn campus at the main library. I've always worked as a library assistant, I really enjoy working with people. Then I went back for a year of teaching in 2016. I love teaching and the kids but it's really hard to find a balance and find creative time. Working as a library assistant made it a bit more possible, so I went back and this time I worked at the Law Library as a library assistant. I was there to support the students and the staff – anyone visiting the library – to help them with their research and make it a positive experience.
HH: What a nice bit of serendipity that you have library experience – but that shouldn't surprise me because librarians are the best sort of people to be writing books.
SC: Yes, at the Victoria University Library just about everyone was an artist or a poet or they made handbags – everybody had something creative on the side.
HH: Fantastic, we’ll have to interview more of those folks! Thanks so much for your time and best of luck for the next project, whatever that may be!