More ladders than snakes

by Ann Packer / 30 May, 2013
First-time novelist Mary-anne Scott finds herself on the same shortlist as both her mentor and her tutor.
Mary-anne Scott: had no idea how her cliff-hanger ending was going to pan out. Photo/Glenn Taylor/HBT

‘Write what you know” is considered good advice – and New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards young adult fiction finalist Mary-anne Scott, a mother of four sons now in their 20s, and a musician and music teacher of long standing, has certainly called on her own experience in Snakes and Ladders, her first novel.

The Havelock North writer is in good company: the shortlist also includes David Hill, her mentor courtesy of a New Zealand Society of Authors scheme, and Mandy Hager, her tutor in 2011 at Whitireia Polytechnic’s Diploma in Creative Writing course.

Scott’s story of a teen from a sleepy coastal town sent to an elite boys’ boarding school took its own trajectory, one far removed from her sons’ experience. Although Finn’s over-anxious mum may reflect Scott’s fears for her boys when younger, his boarding-school career is a world away from their years at Havelock North High School, where she served on the board of trustees.

One of seven sisters and two brothers growing up in a house full of books, Scott says her boys – Daniel, now 28, John, 26, Chris, 23, and Tom, 21 – are very loyal to each other. “The fact they gang up on me (when it’s not serious stuff) just thrills me!”

Readers might assume the tale of Finn, a talented musician who gets into trouble at his school’s after-ball party, is closely based on fact – but Snakes and Ladders was actually written several years before a tragic series of events involving Auckland private school students made headlines. Publisher Scholastic, better known for its titles for younger readers, had held on to Scott’s manuscript for two years before going ahead with publication; life followed art.

Although Finn had been in Scott’s head for years, he was an unpredictable protagonist, taking his creator in unforeseen directions. Not to give away the cliffhanger ending, the author had no idea as she wrote it how the final scene – set in a private mansion with a swimming pool – would pan out: “I was pulling him out of the pool, tears running down my own face, hoping he was alive.”

The daughter of picture-book author Joy Watson – whose Grandpa’s Slippers is a Kiwi classic – and a teacher of cello and guitar for some two decades to primary and secondary pupils, Scott began her latest career with a creative writing course at Hawke’s Bay’s Eastern Institute of Technology that led to success in short-story competitions. Submitting four chapters of Finn’s story to the NZSA scored her a “seal of approval” in the form of the mentorship. More recently, her time at Whitireia working on her second novel has been “like a gift”.

Scott is not expecting Scholastic, which “really pushed the boat out” on Snakes and Ladders, to be interested in her next young adult novel, about a teenage dad, a topic that interests her deeply. “Teaching music at home after school, one-on-one, you learn stuff,” she says. “Sometimes the music teacher is the only adult they have access to who’s not a parent.”

Parents are talking to her about Snakes and Ladders and about their boys – a change from when her sons were teens and she felt parents weren’t heard.

“You were a bit isolated. I don’t remember there being any guidance – I felt submerged, running after them, not looking ahead. They’re dangerous, these kids.

“They get that look on their faces [when they’re about to go out]. It’s lovely to see them happy but you just pray, ‘Let them be all right.’”

SNAKES AND LADDERS, by Mary-anne Scott (Scholastic, $21).
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