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Penelope Todd

Penelope Todd lives in Dunedin. She has written six novels for teenagers, some of which have been shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Awards. We talked to her about her latest title, Box - a chilling account of what could happen right here in good ol’ New Zealand …
Penelope Todd

Interviewed October 2005

I started out with two characters in a box in a school playground
What made you choose to write in this genre?
I didn’t! I started out with two characters sleeping in a box in a school playground in Dunedin, then I had to figure out what they were doing there. When I’d finished the story, people who read it called it science fiction, but I prefer the term speculative fiction - if it needs a genre label.
Do you think there is any likelihood of pharmaceutical companies & government ever having the sort of control/power that they have in Box? How do you feel about their current status worldwide?
I don’t know that I feel qualified to answer these heavy questions. I think that any society finds a certain level of conformity in its citizens more convenient than free-thinking and acting out. Simpler to give a kid Ritalin than find time for the kind of close attention that child might be demanding, or to sort out a programme of activity or learning that suits it best. Prozac is a cheaper remedy than psychoanalysis which has the potential to change the way people think - for themselves. Of course those and other medications are invaluable tools but what if we also looked at what in our society might be triggering so much demand for these new drugs?
In response to increased threats of terrorism even democratic governments like the U.S. and Australia are demanding greater control over their citizens - perhaps not medically yet, but who knows what will happen in the event of a global epidemic. Look at the enormous influence the makers of Tamiflu currently have.
I try to remain sceptical but I’m probably a little prone to conspiracy theorising. Pharmaceutical companies rely for their existence on people being less than perfectly healthy and more or less anxious about their health.
We make an ideal little petri dish here in the southern ocean
Or that New Zealand could ever be used as an ‘experimental’ area?
But we have been used that way, with the privatisation of public resources in the 80s. And we are the first and only country to try and vaccinate all its young people with the Meningococcal B vaccine. We make an ideal little petri dish here in the southern ocean.
Did you have to do a lot of research? If so, how did you go about it?
Oh dear. Now you’ve caught me out. I’m pretty lazy when it comes to research. I relied on imagination, my nursing background, gleaning from newspapers and picking up the vibes … I did consult a tide chart for the feeding network, however, and I did go down to the museum reserve one windy midday to check that the town hall clock chimes could be heard from that far away.
Was it difficult to come up with the right terminology - endorsed, calibrated, wands, nu skin, scope cards, etc?
When a writer chooses terminology, it’s automatically right! Endorsement, and calibration suggested themselves, They’re slightly ambiguous terms, but that’s appropriate, I think. ‘Wand’ sounds less threatening than ‘cannula’, and suggests friendly magic. ‘Nu’ exemplifies the horrid misuse of language, usually in advertising, that’s meant to entice but too often repulses instead. E.g. ‘lite’, ‘kool’, ‘qwik’.
The atmosphere when the teens are marching toward the Octagon is very evocative, ‘being there’. Have you yourself ever taken part in demonstrations?
Ah, yes, I was drawing quite heavily on the anti-war-on-Iraq march that I joined a couple of years ago. As we milled around the meeting point, then set off (along George Street) the sense of collective righteousness grew palpable. (It also made you realise how that collective spirit might be manipulated, or used for perverse purposes.)
Where did the idea for the ‘feeding system’ come from?
I made that one up - what-iffing, and but-what-iffing, and but-what-iffing again. But please don’t ask me to set it up on the web! I’m guessing that in real life the system would collapse before too long, just as it does in Box.
I’d find cold, wet or raw fish hard to take
What, for you, would be the very worst thing about living rough? (although we felt Derik’s statement covered it beautifully … ‘I didn’t want to be awake in a world where every small act was so complicated’)
Some of those ‘complicated acts’ (cooking out, making a camp-site, scavenging, fishing) can be pleasant and contemplative if you have time and good weather. But toss in a tricky ingredient: stress, rain, hunger or a sense of danger and the fun disappears smartly. Personally, I’d find cold, wet, or raw fish hard to take.
Do you think that humour is an essential ingredient to your story? Why? (Disco had to be one of our favourites - not only did he make us laugh but it was great to read how humour could actually save a situation & as a character we felt he went from strength to strength in the face of disaster - cool guy!!)
It was fun to have a kid who slops over his own edges Yep, I was delighted to meet Disco when he came strudling down the stairs in the town hall. Derik gets a bit intense and Marti’s pretty self-contained so it was fun to have a kid who slops over his own edges and has an irrepressible energy. I hope he lightens the mood.
Did you ever feel tempted to make the book longer or to develop characters & plot more fully? (We were keen to find out more about Mr Blunt and what was going on overseas. There was also a collective groan and frantic page turning to see if you’d included an epilogue of some sort - not that we’re the sort to want all loose ends tied up, of course!)
Oh, gosh, sorry about that. But did it occur to you that that’s the exact response of the class at the end of the epilogue? I guess Mr Blunt was a bit of a device - in fact the whole political scenario might be, no, not might be … IS. But I think if there’s anything I wanted to leave hanging in the air for the reader, it’s the question of the box: what that story might suggest, and how a young person can go about protecting and enhancing the perfect gift of their own unique life… the reader gets to live out the sequel!
What has been the most disappointing thing to have happened to you in your writing career - and how did you get over it?
I can’t think of one that stands out on its own. Editors have suggested major rewrites just when I though I’d finished a story at last; books that aren’t short-listed at the awards have a pretty quiet life so I feel sorry for Luke and Peri, and for Hilary and Joe in Boy Next Door. I like those books. The worst thing is when I’m dissatisfied with my own work. You get over disappointments by getting on with your writing. Disappointment can give you grit.
Any plans to write adult fiction?
Inklings rather than plans. But then, most books start with an inkling.
Desert Island Books - you’re only allowed three. Which would you take?
I read the Bible a lot when I was younger. I haven’t done that for some years. I’d be curious to take a fresh look from a fresh perspective.
I have a horribly practical streak so would probably take The Barefoot Doctor or its herbal-and-survival-skill equivalent. (As I write I have my bare, bandaged foot up on a chair, having jumped on a sharp shell at the beach. What if it got infected on the island? What if I had to amputate? What plant could I eat to take my mind off the job?)
Then it would be a toss-up between a long Russian saga like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and something funny like Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate which by its title seems to offer two things you might miss on an island.
Best advice ever given to you?
Believe in your own enthusiasms. (from the Greek enthous = possessed by a god, inspired)
Worst?
A tidy house is a sign of virtue.
Is there one particular author who has had a major impact on you - both personally & professionally?
When I started out I particularly admired US author Madeleine L’Engle who seemed to have a similar world-view to mine. These days I glean wisdom and inspiration where I find it - sometimes from friends who are writers, always from reading excellent writing.

Penelope ToddTop 10 experiences of my life (so far!) are: