Interview: Mandy Hager, author of The Crossing

I’m thrilled to have author Mandy Hager on the blog today! She’s the author of the award winning The Crossing, which will see its US release in January and has been described as “1984 for teenagers.” It’s also on my Must Read Titles of January 2013 list. Mandy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please give her a warm welcome!

What inspired you to write Blood of the Lamb trilogy? Will you tell us a bit about it?
The Crossing is set on a small Pacific island, 5-6 generations after global devastation brought on by massive solar flares, the effects of which mirror the apocalyptic events in Revelations.

At the time of the so-called ‘Tribulation’ a cruise ship full of rich tourists founders on the reef of this small island. At first the ship is seen as a sanctuary – a life-saver – the resources used to help the sick and maimed. But, over time, the Captain and his white elite set themselves up as living gods – with the cruise ship, Star of the Sea, their Holy City – linked to the island by a bamboo causeway. Essentially they’re a cargo cult, using Christian texts to manipulate and subjugate the faithful population – especially for one particular need – the need for blood to stave off the effects of a leukemia-type disease brought on by the fall-out of the solar flares.

Each year, in a ceremony called The Judgement, toddlers are crudely tested to check their blood type, and those girls identified as blood-type O – which makes them universal donors – are labeled Blessed Sisters – The Chosen – taken from their families and raised on a small atoll off the main island to believe that when they hit puberty they will Cross to the Holy City to serve the Apostles of the Lamb – with ‘readiness and joy’.
entered around 15 year old Blessed Sister Maryam – late to get her bloods and impatient to fulfill her sacred destiny – the trilogy follows her journey as she Crosses from child to adult – from her safe, secure atoll home to the Apostle’s lair… where, she quickly discovers, her life is in danger and nothing is as it seems…

The whole trilogy is written from a place of anger and deep frustration – purposefully speaking to young people in the hope that through a story that engages their emotions, they will think harder about the issues raised.

At its heart it is political – a reflection on the way a few very powerful (mostly white) men hold the balance of power all around the world and maintain it through intimidation, incarceration and fear.

It looks at how power and control is asserted over women, over indigenous cultures, over the dispossessed, and over faithful populations. And it’s a challenge to those who call themselves ‘religious’ (in any faith) to live up to the basic tenets of their fundamental beliefs – those being love, acceptance, compassion, generosity and fairness for all.

Most of your work is known for having a message. What’s one of the things you’d like readers to take away from The Crossing, the first book in your Blood of the Lamb trilogy?
It’s a call to action – to empowerment – a call to stand up for what is right – for human rights. And for tolerance of others’ differences. It’s also an argument in favor of acting from a place of love.

You started your professional career as a teacher. Has teaching influenced your writing quite a bit?
When I trained to be a teacher, way back in the early ‘80s, I met three remarkable human beings there, whose influence cemented everything I had fermenting inside.

The first was my science tutor – a wonderful woman who was a survivor of Auschwitz – I saw the number tattooed on her wrist. This tiny woman had such spirit – she wasn’t cowed by her experiences – merely made stronger and more determined to make the rest of her life count. As the child of an Austrian refugee, it made me incredibly grateful that my father had managed to escape Hitler’s holocaust, and had chosen to raise his children in a country that was so settled, safe and beautiful. As a result, I have tried to make my own life count towards the greater good.

The second influential person at that time was my English tutor – arch-story-teller Jack Lasenby, who is now one of New Zealand’s foremost writers for young people. Jack re-awoke my love of story-telling, and introduced me to the power of myth.

The third was another English tutor, and in her class I met with a new and dynamic genre of fiction – the YA novel. The beginning of the 80’s was an exciting time for YA readers. A whole new and elevated class of books for young people emerged – books that dared to talk about life as it really was – and books that took me to new worlds, for the purpose of making me reflect back on my own. S E Hinton, Paul Zindel, John Christopher, Joan Aitken… for one whole year (while undertaking a specialized research project) I immersed myself in YA fiction of such high quality I was hooked for life.

The other main way teaching has influenced my writing is not in the themes or ideas so much as in my practice as a writer. A teacher needs to plan, be organized, and to work towards particular learning outcomes. As a writer I do the same. I always know what the thematic message of a book will be, and spend quite a lot of time researching and planning (structurally and character-wise) before I ever start writing.

These days I teach novel writing for a Creative Writing Degree, and am extremely grateful to have practical teaching skills to draw on.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I always find this such a hard question to answer! I’ve been a big reader since I was young – in a totally indiscriminate way! Early on, of course, there was Dr Seuss –his humanity and moral lessons were a huge influence on us all and I still know many of the lines off by heart! The same goes for the stories of Oscar Wilde (i.e. The Happy Prince) and Hans Christian Andersen (i.e. The Little Match Girl) – morality tales with heart. As I grew older I devoured novels, often holding on to the essence of the story but not the title or writer. I read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, liking the way it could reflect on the weaknesses and strengths of human existence by placing the reader in an unfamiliar world, to view behavior as an outsider. In the last few years I’ve become a Charles Dickens groupie! I love his passion for social causes, his ability to nail a unique, unforgettable character in one or two lines, and his razor-sharp wit. These days I also read a lot of non-fiction by writers such as Robert Wright and Joseph Campbell. I’m a big Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood fan too!

If you could read one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Hmm – another hard one! Perhaps George Orwell’s ‘1984’. I can still remember the shock and horror when I first read it in my teens, and how it fired up all my social and political inclinations. I love his passion and imagination, and would find it fascinating to re-read it with an analytical writer’s eye – in fact, thanks, I think I will! (And I recommend, for those writers who haven’t already read it, to search out Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write.’)

What are you reading now?
I’m reading Rick Gekoski’s ‘Outside of a Dog – a bibliomemoir’. It’s fascinating. He tells his life story through the books that influenced him at the time. And I’ve just finished a fabulous book called ‘The Storytelling Animal’, by Jonathan Gottschall, which explores how human beings are hardwired for story.

When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
I live on an acre of land, with fruit trees and a vegetable garden. It’s always a great joy to get outside and work in the garden, after all the hours I spend locked away in my writing room! I also love nothing better than getting together with friends and family – and I love cooking for them. Baking is my stress relief – something constructive to do that doesn’t require any thinking when my brain is tired!

I’ve never visited New Zealand and have experienced its beauty only through film and photographs. If someone were to visit you there for the first time, where would you take them?
We’re spoilt for choice here (she says proudly!) Top of my list would be to take visitors down to our South Island, which is truly awe-inspiring. Within the same day you can find pristine coves with gemstone beaches, thick ancient rainforests, spectacular mountains, and crystal clear lakes. Beautiful.

The New Year is right around the corner! What’s next for you?
Next year is shaping up to be very busy! As well as my teaching I will be working on a new book (which is currently in the early planning stages) as well as putting time into an organization I am involved with who work with youth at risk. I’m also helping with a political campaign that we’re hoping to fire up next year (which is, essentially, about trying to move our government to more climate/human friendly policies), and am very tempted by an offer from a friend to spend three weeks in her castle in southern France! I also do school visits as a writer and the odd speaking engagement… I reckon that’s probably enough to be going on with for now!
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