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Mandy Hager: tackling the big issues

A social conscience is part and parcel of being a Hager and it runs through Mandy Hager's novels for young adults.

Writer Mandy Hager was recently awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship for 2014. Below is the Listener's profile of her from May, 2010.

Mandy Hager remembers as a five-year-old standing with her arms around a native tree on a neighbour's land, her hands joined to those of her young siblings. The four of them staring down the bulldozers.

It sounds like a scene from a story, the one where the little guys stand up to the bullies and win. And yes, they saved the tree, she says. She smiles, remembering: the Hager kids go wild in Horo­whenua. But, she feels bound to add, it was just one tree. Of course, there are forests out there that need saving. Hager may write fiction but she is also a realist.

Mandy Hager. Photo/Random House

The Hagers must have stood out in 70s Levin. Her father was an Austrian refugee who ran a local clothing factory and her mother, born in Zanzibar, was a counsellor and active in the Values Party. Hager recalls an idyllic, unconventional household where solo mothers, rejected by their families, would stay and have their babies. Where politics was regularly debated around the dinner table and nothing was censored.

"We had exceptional parents who raised us to be empowered and to speak up for ourselves and fight for what we believed," she says. Certainly, they're all still standing in front of bulldozers in one way or another - her brother is investigative journalist Nicky Hager; one sister, Debbie, lectures in public health and the other, Belinda, is a contemporary jeweller whose work often reflects social issues. "We had examples of being compassionate and thinking about stuff, we've all got a social conscience."

Mandy was a quiet, shy teenager who read George Orwell and once communicated with her parents for a whole year via notes. "I was going through my moody teenage puberty thing - they were very tolerant." She became a teacher of children with learning disabilities and a writer. She has published six novels and a swathe of other writing besides. Her first book, Tom's Story (1995), won an Honour Award in the Aim Children's Book Awards. It's a nice symmetry, she says, that 15 years later The Crossing, the first in her young-adult trilogy Blood of the Lamb, is a finalist in this year's New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults.

Margaret Mahy has given The Crossing her stamp of approval, calling it "like 1984 for teenagers - direct, passionate and powerful". The novel is set on a fictional island in the Pacific, after a deadly event has destroyed most of the Earth. Hager tackles big issues - the power of religious cults, oppression of indigenous people and the treatment of women - through the eyes of a group of teenagers. It's fast-paced, moving and the personal is always political.

"I love that age group," Hager says of teenagers, "how you see them going from being really inward-looking to starting to look around at the world. I figure they are inheriting a hell of a mess; they need information and they need permission to see things from a different point of view."

Most of Hager's books are in the young-adult genre and in some ways The Crossing is classic young-adult fiction, tracking the journey from childhood to adulthood. Its heroine, Maryam, is physically small and seems to have the odds stacked against her. She emerges from a lush Pacific Garden of Eden (Hager even researched bird calls and traditional herbal medicine to give The Crossing its authentic, fully realised sense of place) and ends up on a horrifying cruise ship Hager likens to the Tower of Babel. What Maryam discovers there leads her to question everything she has been brought up to hold true.

"It becomes about believing you can make change, which is probably the whole point of every­thing I write: to make people see that they are able to participate in making things better. I really believe in that [empowerment and hope]. That's why I write." And, she says, because she is a perpetual worrier. Writing is a way "to shut my brain up and get it onto paper, to somehow express it".

Hager worked for three years as an educational resource writer for the non-profit organisation Global Focus Aotearoa, on issues including climate change and violence against women. "I got to research those things so fully; that stuff is in your head forever." It fed into her fiction writing. "It's a good way to introduce those ideas, hopefully without ramming them down people's throats."

Her house sits high on a Wellington hilltop. Beyond the flax bushes, the land drops away to reveal a dramatic sweep of Lyall Bay and Cook Strait. Out past the dining table, the tides and the weather come and go. The second in the Blood of the Lamb trilogy, Into the Wilderness, is set almost entirely at sea. It's a sustained, gripping piece of writing, a visceral battle against the elements.

Hager's first book, Tom's Story, was a children's picture book about grief from a child's point of view. It was written for her son after his father, her first husband, died in a boating accident when the boy was six. It has been praised for its sensitive and perceptive approach. Hager has since remarried and her two children are now in their 20s, but the experience remains profound. The Crossing's Maryam also loses people close to her. "Grief is something I tend to write about because it is such a transformative thing to go through. With young people, every time they go through a developmental step they have to reprocess it in a new and slightly different way."

Although young-adult fiction often attracts anxious debate about appropriate subject matter, Hager believes it's impossible to shelter children and that reading provides a safe way to experience the adult world. And books can be helpful, validating feelings teens may struggle to express, even offering ideas and solutions.

Meanwhile, ideas for new books keep coming. Resurrection, the final in the Blood of the Lamb trilogy, is out next year and will be her seventh novel. She must be feeling on top of her game? "I feel like I'm getting a better handle on it, that's all I can say. I don't feel confident. I just feel as if I know what's involved in the process and I am prepared to launch into it with enough understanding that hopefully a book will come out the other end."

She laughs at how that sounds and hopes she doesn't come across as too earnest. She mentions the drawing by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig that she keeps on her desk. It says: "Doctor, help! I've got a book inside me!"

Not earnest, just realistic. The sort of person who would save a tree but never imagine that was the end of it.

See also: The Listener reviews Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager.