Lynley Dodd interviewed by Joanna Carey
I’ve never been to New Zealand but the impression I get – from books and films – is of an unusual country whose people approach everyday life with a combination of imaginative freedom, resilience and practical common sense. Years ago I met a New Zealand artist who had survived months in a refrigerated studio, making a sculpture of the New Zealand cricket team, in Anchor Butter. And, more recently, the young New Zealander caring for my elderly mother-in-law was not just an inspired nurse, but she could also fix the car, mend the roof and play the cello.
‘It’s all about attitude’ says Lynley Dodd. ‘New Zealanders are very practical, they don’t stand on ceremony. It’s a small population and if a job wants doing, you don’t look for someone to do it, you do it yourself. You soon realize that nothing is impossible.’
On a rare visit to London, in the marbled splendour of her British publishers, Dodd is a refreshingly straightforward, down to earth character. She’s clearly been besieged by interviewers but she is friendly and obliging and, with sales now exceeding 4 million, impressively modest about her success. And while her books have become an important part of many children’s lives her reminiscences of her own childhood also have an irresistible story book feel to them.
She was born in Rotorua, on the North Island of New Zealand in 1941. Her father was a forester, in charge of the southern part of the Kaingaroa pine forest, which was planted in 1930. The family lived in a remote community, ‘Just four houses, no modern conveniences, and the nearest shop (and, therefore, the nearest ice cream) was 15 miles away. It was hard work for my mother – she spent a lot of time baking, and until 1950 there was no proper electricity, and even then it was unreliable; so for the laundry we just had an old fashioned copper, and a flat iron. When I tell people we lived like that, they assume that it was a deprived childhood – well, it was spartan in the extreme, but apart from the inaccessibility of popcorn and ice cream, it was certainly not deprived – there was so much to do, and so much freedom. And school was fun. A tiny school, no more than 15 children, and one of the great excitements there was the arrival, every three months, of a huge box of books – a wonderful mixture – everything from Winnie the Pooh, and Mary Plain to the classics, Greek myths and Canadian folk tales.’
She always loved drawing and her first drawings were all of cars – not because she was mechanically minded, but ‘because we could only get to the shop by car, so cars meant ice cream’. From cars she moved on to ballet dancers and after that came elaborate pictures of brides in long dresses and flowing veils. She dreamt of becoming a fashion designer. But when she went to art school, she studied sculpture, learning to make portrait busts (in clay, not butter). Her tutor was ‘a stickler for traditional values of form and composition’ – this stood her in good stead as far as drawing was concerned, but she regretted not being able to study illustration – ‘it wasn’t considered “art” in those days.’
Having graduated, she was obliged, under the terms of her bursary, to teach art for five years, and it was after this that, in addition to marrying and starting a family, she began to work as an illustrator, first of all collaborating with the writer Eve Sutton, and then with her own books. The Nickle Nackle Tree and Titimus Trim were early titles, and were published in England, but then a bursary for children’s writers, sponsored by a NZ tea company, enabled her to develop several ideas which she took to a New Zealand publisher and since then her books have all been published first in Wellington.
In 1983 she created the now legendary character, Hairy Maclary. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Bottomley Potts, covered in spots… Hercules Morse, as big as a horse – the names of the characters all trip off the tongue brilliantly, and along with the good-natured comedy, the compulsive, cumulative rhyming is the backbone of these books.
‘I had written before both in rhyme and in prose’ says Dodd, but when I started on Hairy Maclary, it just demanded to be written in verse – even when I tried to do otherwise, and I just got locked into the rhyme, the rhythm and the alliteration.’ All the stories have an addictive, galloping rhythm that makes it difficult to stop reading – it’s like riding a bike, you just want to keep pedalling.
You find all kinds of literary echoes here – A A Milne, Dr Seuss, T S Eliot’s Practical Cats… did she read a lot of poetry as a child? ‘Well yes,’ she says, ‘I certainly don’t consider what I write to be poetry . I always enjoyed nonsense verse, and my father liked to engage us in a lot of wordplay. He used to call me Arabella Slapcabbage and we’d all gather round the crystal set radio to listen to The Goon Show.’ Here she not only sings a verse or two of the Ying Tong song, but also does a commendable Bluebottle impersonation.
Dodd has a lot of fun with the language in her verses, and while nobody minds when she invents words, she’s been surprised that some critics ‘have been very po-faced about real words like boisterous – “too difficult for small children!” they cry. Now that does make me cross. It’s the perfect way to widen a child’s vocabulary – think of Beatrix Potter and words like soporific .’ But she was gratified to overhear a small boy in the supermarket asking his mother to buy ‘a snippet of veal’ for lunch… ‘I was delighted – that’s straight from Caterwaul Caper .’
There’s now a long string of books in the Hairy Maclary series. From the beginning Dodd has stuck to her original layout – pictures on the left, text on the right. Has she ever thought of relaxing this rule, and integrating text and illustrations? She likes to keep the elements separate – ‘It’s a good uncomplicated marriage of words and pictures. Children are familiar with it and it seems to work well.’
So which comes first – words or pictures? How do the books take shape? ‘I’ve always had an “ideas” book – notes, sketches and odd bits of verse. I’ll take an idea, then map it out over 32 pages, with a bit of action for each page. When the words are almost finished I make a little “dummy”, with rough pencil drawings – no detail, no colour – then when my publisher has seen it, I start on the artwork. The illustrations are always very much line based – something I got used to when I was studying sculpture. I draw with pen and ink and, and for colour – which I’ve always found more difficult – I generally use gouache, which I like because it’s versatile and you can use it thick or thin.’
And does she draw from observation? Is Hairy Maclary a real dog? She tells me with some amusement that Hairy Maclary, and Donaldson’s Dairy are entirely fictional – ‘in spite of people who say they remember him, and people who claim to have known – or even been related to – Donaldson.’
‘Hairy Maclary was put together from terriers I have known – he’s almost a caricature; I was aiming at an unsquashable, cheeky little dog who gets in everywhere. I don’t do much drawing on the spot – I’m not really a sketchbook person, though I might sometimes do a study of how a dog’s leg looks in a certain position. Most of the time I just store up images in my head.’
Drawn with a swift, dancing line, Hairy Maclary has sharp excitable ears and a tail like an animated fly-whisk. Impossibly thin legs emerge from a shaggy coat that swishes about with every move, creating a mischievous vitality that distinguishes him from the other dogs in his gang who are mostly smooth coated, and drawn with a more sedate line.
The cats are subtly different – and while the baddy, Scarface Claw, pays homage to Ronald Searle (one of Dodd’s heroes), the engaging Slinky Malinki is based on Dodd’s affectionate, long term observation of the family cat Wooskit – ‘a skinny cat who used to take long walks with us in the countryside’ and who inspired the first Slinky Malinki story when he stole some meat from the car.
When possible Dodd still makes time for school visits (sponsored by the New Zealand Book Council) so she’s still very much in touch with her audience. With their friendly neighbourhood settings (where humans are only ever seen from the knees down), these comic animal adventures are always perfectly pitched: and while there are plenty of peaceful moments, there’s also always an abundance of mischief, chaos and confusion – ‘children like a bit of anarchy’ she says ‘as long as it’s not threatening. And they also like to see stories brought to a satisfactory conclusion with the collapse of the stout party.’
She does one book a year. Working in a spare bedroom, she listens to the radio while she draws – ‘mostly classical music, or news reports. It’s strange, because of the radio, when I look at an illustration I can remember exactly what I was listening to as I did it.’ She shows me a picture of Hairy Maclary, and all the other dogs barking up the same tree – ‘I look at that picture and I remember the day the Pope visited New Zealand as if it were yesterday.’
One wonders what the Pope – let alone any passing fundamentalists – would make of the liberties she’s taken with the Old Testament in her new and very different book, which revisits the Noah’s ark story. The Other Ark doesn’t quite have the happy ending we’re used to, but Dodd is cheerily unrepentant. ‘I’ve always had a problem with that story,’ she says. ‘Logic demands that vast numbers of animals didn’t find a place on the original ark.’ So in her version, as Noah sets sail with the regulation cargo of lions, tigers, giraffes etc., he directs all the weird leftover creatures onto a ramshackle second-best ark. But by the time they’re all aboard, the flood has subsided and the motley crew of leftover animals is left high and dry, stranded in the mud for ever.
Which explains perhaps why today’s zoos don’t contain such things as
Armory dilloes/ and carnival cats,/ mad kangaroosters/ in bow tie and spats-
or flying flapdoodles/ and butternut bears/ with polka-dot piffles/ in quarrelsome pairs
blunderbuss dragons,/ mongolian sneeth/ and alligatigers with too many teeth…
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
Photograph courtesy of Puffin Books.
The Books – a selection
Published by Puffin unless otherwise stated. Spindlewood editions available from Ragged Bears.
A Dragon in a Wagon , 0 14 054085 7, £4.99 pbk
Find Me a Tiger , 0 14 054483 6, £4.99 pbk
Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy , 0 14 050531 8, £4.99 pbk, 0 14 138189 2, £9.99 hbk (20th anniversary edition), Spindlewood, 0 907349 50 1, £7.99 hbk
Hairy Maclary’s Bone , 0 14 050558 X, £4.99 pbk, Spindlewood, 0 907349 96 X, £7.99 hbk
Hairy Maclary’s Caterwaul Caper , 0 14 050873 2, £4.99 pbk
Hairy Maclary’s Showbusiness , 0 14 054550 6, £4.99 pbk, Spindlewood, 0 907349 51 X, £7.99 hbk, 0 907349 92 7, £2.99 mini hbk
Hedgehog Howdedo , 0 14 056885 9, £4.99 pbk
The Other Ark , 0 14 138143 4, £9.99 hbk
Scarface Claw , 0 14 056886 7, £4.99 pbk
Schnitzel von Krumm Forget-Me-Not , 0 14 056235 4, £4.99 pbk, Spindlewood, 0 907349 49 8, £7.99 hbk
Slinky Malinki , 0 14 054439 9, £4.99 pbk
Sniff-Snuff-Snap! , 0 14 055868 3, £4.99 pbk, Spindlewood, 0 907349 17 X, £7.99 hbk
Wake Up, Bear , Spindlewood, 0 907349 03 X, £7.99 hbk