“Oh pussy, stop!”
It seems only appropriate Dame Lynley Dodd’s focus is on a mischievous animal. “I’m going to put her through the house. She’s very sweet, but…”
In one gentle swoop, ignoring a plaintive meow, she quickly stands and carries Suu Kyi, named after the Burmese freedom fighter, to another room.
“She’s mortally wounded,” Dodd says as she shuts the living room door on her only pet.
“What is it about cats? They’re always determined to be part of the action.”
Dodd is the country’s number one published New Zealand children’s author, and fifth when combining New Zealand and international children’s titles*.
Closing the door on cinnamon-coloured, Suu Kyi, 17, she returns to her sunny spot on the window seat of her Pyes Pa home. On her coffee table is her first new title in five years, Scarface Claw, Hold Tight!
In the works since October 2016, it is her 34th book, and will be released on October 2. At 76, Dodd is far from slowing down. She’ll never have enough life to do all the things written in her ideas book, she says.
Forty-three years on from her first book, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, with relative Eve Sutton, she has sold an estimated 10 million children’s books worldwide.
Her Hairy Maclary and Friends series has become a brand in New Zealand, Australia, Britain, America and Canada.
It’s spawned everything from baby clothes to a board game, wrapping paper and calendars.
Her books – she’s been known to autograph 500 a day – have been translated into Russian, Japanese, Korean, Slovenian, Icelandic, Maori and Chinese.
Merchandising, trademarks, shows and publicity for the Hairy Maclary series (the rest of her books she calls her “B books” because they’re quieter) are just some of what consumes her days. Finding time to be creative is a struggle.
She’s turned down many lucrative offers, including movies, to retain authenticity of her characters. Producers have wanted to have Hairy Maclary and his animal pals talking, as well as a team of scriptwriters create new stories for film.
“That immediately cuts across the books, and the books lead. I mean, there are lots of things that might have been incredibly lucrative over the years if we’d agreed to them, but the books would have lost out as a result.”
She’s never written with riches in mind.
“You don’t start off a millionaire in the first couple of years. I’ve just been a bit luckier because as it built up, the Hairy Maclary series, is what made it more than just an indulgence thing. It’s only been in the second half of (my career) it’s been more comfortable, but that’s not the way for most writers, they have to fight hard.”
It was 10 years and five books before Hairy Maclary came along. There are 21 Hairy Maclary and Friends stories, plus 13 other titles.
Picture books are the hardest to write because every word counts.
“I say usually somewhere between 20 and 25 drafts for each one, and children think I’m totally pathetic. All those drafts? We get it right first time!”
Her latest book, Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! is a “Tauranga story”. Some years back, a local family unwittingly took their cat for a ride through town on their vehicle’s roof.
She does not have exact details; it was but a snippet on the radio, but enough to plant the germ of an idea.
She started the book last October, and once she had the words right, created a dummy of the pictures at Christmas. It wasn’t until April she finished.
The pictures in her books are modelled on typical small town New Zealand and to create some continuity and authenticity, she invented a name – Riverside. “The more books I write, the more I tie myself down in the Hairy Maclary series, because they’ve all got to tally with each other.”
Scarface, “a farmer’s cat”, is modelled on the family tomcat from childhood, Squib. He had notches in his ears, and what looked like a peg leg, after getting it caught in a gin trap.
What sets her books apart is rhyming, repetition and rhythm. That, and the fact “Hairy Maclary and his friends are all a bunch of naughty dogs.”
She was criticised once for using too big words, but if they’re in the right place and useful, she doesn’t see the problem.
She’s heard anecdotes of children quoting her books. A child in the supermarket asking his mother for a “snippet of veal” (Caterwaul Caper) and likewise: “Mum, stop that cacophony.'”
“That is a thrill. Having children quote you… I have to pinch myself, really.”
Dodd grew up with her mother quoting Dr Seuss (as a side note, Dodd met Seuss).
As youngsters, her children, Matthew (Matt) and Elizabeth (Liz) believed that “All mums wrote books.”
She chuckles endearingly when telling the back-stories to her stories, many of which are inspired by real-life events, and former pets. Of future ideas, she tells the story about the Tauranga seal who came ashore at 11th Avenue and made its way to a house in Welcome Bay. There, it pushed itself through a large catflap, and fell asleep on a cushion, on the sofa.
“I’ve really got that one in my sights, I must admit.”
As she speaks, Suu Kyi, who inspired the books Slinky Malinki Early Bird and Slinky Malinki, Christmas Crackers, is scratching persistently at the door. Dodd can’t say whether she’s a dog or cat person. “I would be both. I’m just animal.”
She doesn’t have a real Hairy Maclary, and never has. She lived in Wellington above an expressway for years, and it wasn’t safe to have a dog.
“I think I really would have to go out and get (a dog) bred if I was going to get a Hairy Maclary, because he is a bit unique. And he’s slightly cartoonish, he’s caricatured… He’s got very skinny legs for a small dog. You wouldn’t find one easily.”
She lives in a house in Tauranga set among tall trees, ample lawn, and an abundance of colourful flowers from pink camellias to rich-red tulips.
At her glass front door is a door-stopper resembling her sausage dog character, Schnitzel von Krumm.
Her hallway is adorned with framed originals from her books, and a library corner up the hall is overflowing with the various editions of her famous works.
Her lounge, engulfed in sun, is a peaceful place to be. There is a comfortable chair with reading lamp – she is an avid reader, and just finished Heloise. She’s also partial to British magazine, Country Life, which on occasion features a dog, often “naughty”, with a Lynley Dodd character name.
There is a piano in her house (she plays), photos of her two granddaughters, Ella and Julia.
She has a bedroom upstairs which is her studio, but since husband, Tony, died in 2014 after a long illness, she does a lot of her work at the dining room table.
“I always say my life really, consists of going from hermit to hobnobbing with hordes. It’s two extremes.”
Incredibly well-spoken, Dodd enjoys flattery, but doesn’t suffer fools. She’s happy to speak up when needed, although admits on the whole, she’s largely a private person.
When asked about the yarn bombing of Tauranga’s Hairy Maclary sculptures, Lynley responded that it was an “unpleasant business” to have to be a “public spoilsport”. It was however, “simply inappropriate” and could have set a precedent.
“You just don’t do that to public art. I would feel the same about any other public art, not just my own characters.” She felt supported in speaking up.
A former art teacher and graduate of the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, the sculptures on Tauranga’s waterfront are among her career highlights.
Tauranga author Lynley Dodd. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga author Lynley Dodd. Photo/George Novak
“It’s so exciting to hear a child who hasn’t seen them before run up and say: ‘Mummy, mummy, mummy! Look, it’s Hairy Maclary’.” It was expected children would climb on the sculptures, but she cautions care.
Real dogs have taken a fancy to them, which is “lovely”. “I’m sure they’re a bit disappointed when the smells are not what they expect.”
Everybody has a gift, something programmed into them at birth. For Dodd, books and art defined her life.
“As a child I was quite critical of the pictures in my books. If they had elements in them that I didn’t like, I’d get quite niggly about them which was a bit strange for a child isn’t it?”
Born in Rotorua to parents with Scottish heritage, she was an only child and grew up in the Kaingaroa forest. She began her career as an illustrator before branching into writing.
She’s won numerous awards, and was awarded the Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002.
Her work has been showcased in exhibitions, which reveals the evolution of her creative process.
This week she travelled to Perth to launch her latest book with Penelope Jackson, the curator of a new exhibition, The Life and Times of Scarface Claw.
When asked if there will ever be a permanent collection of her works, she hasn’t thought about it. “I’m going to have to do something with all my pictures at some stage.”
Dodd is never really satisfied with her work, admitting: “I always want to start again… Nit-picky, I suppose.”
She has a devoted respect for the dexterity of words and pictures. Where you can enchantingly impart playfulness, smells and sounds into the mind of an inquiring child.
Only a fortunate few can etch out their working days by storytelling.
“I would be sorry not to have it,” she says. “Life would be quite quiet for me as a widow out here; sort of fading quietly into the sunset. It keeps me going.”
*Nielsen book data for 2016
*Lynley Dodd will feature at this year’s Tauranga Arts Festival. A Dog’s Life will see Lynley interviewed by Penelope Jackson about her work. Sunday, October, 22, 1pm-2pm, at Carrus Crystal Palace. $20 (TECT $16). www.taurangafestival.co.nz
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