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(Author photo Julian Dolman).
North Melbourne Books: When eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother goes on a short holiday, she is left in the care of her fabulous and fun Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Suddenly a grisly murder happens in their small town, Riverstone, causing Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by their joint love of Nancy Drew mysteries.
The story is a mixture of glittering comedy, great characters, a gently ironic, sometimes droll narration by Tippy and a page-turning crime mystery. It's quite an original book. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
R.W.R. McDonald: It started in 2006 with an internal thread of thought from Tippy (before I knew it was Tippy). The thought was this kid talking about her friend Todd Landers and her looking for clues in a murder. It really followed on from that. I wanted to know who this kid was and why and how she would be investigating a murder. From there her irresponsible babysitting Uncle Pike came into focus and his new boyfriend Devon and it led on from there. For ten years they rattled around and formed until I started writing the first draft. I was discovering them, the other characters, and the story as I went along.
NMB: Tippy is a great character. She's only eleven, but is mature beyond her years, still dealing with the grief of losing her father. Was she based on anyone?
RM: My two incredible daughters are around Tippy’s age and similar in some ways but I had made a conscious decision from the beginning of writing The Nancys not to plagiarise their childhood or dialogue. For research though my daughters were fantastic sources of information and for running lines with, for example asking them whether they or their friends would use certain words or phrases etc.
I never base my characters on real people. For me they are their own entities, they may share a similar trait to someone, or sometimes I can recognise a part of myself but otherwise they seem to come into their own as I write further into the story.
I got to know Tippy over many re-drafts. Early on I was very protective of her, not wanting her to feel any pain. It wasn’t until I let go and allowed her character to experience the world that I got to know her better.
NMB: We learn that Uncle Pike fled New Zealand for Sydney as a teenager and when he returns to Riverstone, there is still emotional baggage from his past that needs to be sorted out. It's tempting to ask, did you add any autobiographical elements to the story?
RM: I guess all of the novel has some part of my lived experience in one way or another (except for the murder of course!). I did leave home for boarding school as a teenager and from there never returned home to live except to visit my family. As I grew older and travelled I slowly began to see the beauty in a place I once described as a “dump” – albeit only in my teenage years!
What I did not anticipate in writing a novel was the almost meta-data effect. Seeing patterns in the story which I had not consciously intended. I think it is fascinating tapping into the subconscious through writing, things appear on the page that at the time you have no idea what they mean or why they are there – for example a line of dialogue from a character which makes no immediate sense but you just know it’s important - and it is only much later, sometimes a couple of drafts later, that suddenly something clicks and you realise why it was there the whole time. It really is a type of magic.
NMB: The Nancys has many comic elements. There are so many brilliant characters, especially Uncle Pike and Devon. You have an ebullient style. It reminded me a bit of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, perhaps crossed with The Wizard of Oz (Tippy does overcome a lot with the help of her mercurial uncle and his boyfriend). Who are the writers that inspire you the most?
RM: All of them, published and unpublished, but that is probably cheating the answer. Writers who have informed and challenged my idea of story are across genre and form. This list really is only the tip of the iceberg: Roald Dhal, Virginia Woolf, Dr Seuss, Margaret Mahy, Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, e. e. cummings, Carolyn Keene, Victor Canning, Ngaio Marsh, Marianne Keyes, Ben Okri, Sylvia Plath, Maurice Gee, Toni Jordan, Salman Rushdie, Emily Bronte, Agatha Christie, Paddy O’Reilly, Kerri Hume, Witi Ihimeara, Toni Morrison, Charlie Kaufman, Stevie Smith – really the list goes on and on!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RM: The Shining Wall by Melissa Ferguson and Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic with Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng and Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone lined up next. My to be read pile keeps growing!!!
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99