The mysterious world of the butterfly, which tastes with its feet and drinks the tears of crocodiles, unfolds in a beautiful new book by Courtney Sina Meredith and Giselle Clarkson. Courtney spoke to Amanda Jane Robinson about writing Secret World Of Butterflies (Allen and Unwin, 2018).
Why did you decide to write a children’s book now?
I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. I still have most of my collection from when I was a kid. I’ve tried to write a couple of children’s stories in the past and then realised it’s actually this really hard thing to crack - I had no idea that breaking into that market is actually not an easy thing to do. I guess I always hoped I’d get to do one a little later on in my career – and then the stars aligned, because I’ve worked with the museum previously and they rang me up about late last year like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this really amazing concept, we’re opening this beautiful butterfly exhibition next June and we want to launch a kids book alongside it and we would like you to write it, how do you feel about that?’ and I was like ‘That’s amazing!’ Now it’ll go next to this humongous private butterfly collection.
What was your relationship like with the illustrator, Giselle Clarkson?
Meeting her was best thing about this whole project. We get on really well, we’re definitely in that best friends circle with each other now. She flew up and we met with the museum team and Allen and Unwin. By then I already had a concept in my mind of what I might like to do, and she and I had our own little coffee and just thrashed it out a bit and talked about things we both thought would work – and then a lot of emails and phone calls and Facebook messaging, a lot of back and forth.
I was really invested in making sure that Giselle had a lot of freedom and creative agency. Apparently our process was really strange; apparently most writers and illustrators don’t meet each other, or they do after the fact. That would be strange. We’re full on about the whole team thing, but apparently there are a lot of other processes where it’s quite separate, so I think we were lucky. It’s been special.
What were some of your favourite books as a child?
I really love the Jolly Postman series, I’m going to be honest. It just felt super super magical. But then I have to balance it with an awesome local one too, like The Kuia and the Spider.
Were you thinking about subtext and messaging while writing this book?
Heaps of children’s books can have strong feminist messaging. Giselle and I did some cool, pretty woke things with it. I’m pretty sure everyone in there is a person of colour, except for maybe like, the dad in the distance, but then it’s obvious that the mum would be of colour.
We were pretty invested in showing that butterflies aren’t just pretty, they’re really courageous and awesome. I guess I did have that in the back of my head. Butterflies aren’t just decorative, and that messaging goes across when you think about how young women are socialised. We’re not just pretty, we’re also very powerful.
You’ve written poetry, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, and now a children’s book. Do you always know the form when you have an idea for a work?
At the beginning I just promised myself I’d keep evolving and keep moving, just following the trail of a new idea. I don’t always know what it will be. I just keep challenging myself and have a lot of fun with it. I mean, I say that knowing these processes are very stressful. But there’s that kind of fun part too, where you’re discovering something different about your process and yourself and the things that intrigue you. I’m interested to create and write all sorts of different things. That comes back to who I am as a person: I want to see different places, I want to meet different people, I want to try different food.
What do you keep around you when you write?
My mother, definitely. She manages me and she’s my editor and she’s my mum and she’s my hero. Before I take anything on, I’ll talk to her first and try to plan it out and give myself a little bit of shape to the project, so it doesn’t just feel like I’m in a big black hole of who knows what. Mum says great things. The line that comes back to me again and again is ‘Don’t get snagged’. She’s like ‘You’re not a cashmere sweater, don’t get snagged. Life is full of rusty nails, you just have to keep pushing forward.’
I’m forever stressed, I’ll just have these big freakouts and she’s like, ‘Sorry, you asked for this. You said you wanted to have a voice, this is what it means, it’s actually a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice.’ She’s pretty hard on me. There’s only about three times in my life where she’s been like, ‘I’m proud of you’. The rest of the time she’ll say, ‘There’s always room for improvement’. She’s like, ‘Head down, focus, you’ve got to deliver on these things and you’ve got to do it with integrity’.
Other things: good dark chocolate, nice perfume, my coffee. And good music! I don’t want to sound like everyone else, but I have been playing ‘This Is America’. I listen to a lot of Unknown Mortal Orchestra as well. I love those guys. Those are things that make you feel like you.
Secret World of Butterflies is released as a companion book to Auckland Museum's free butterfly exhibition, running from June 9 2018.