Learnings in life and business are learnings in life and business; they belong to more than the field or culture in which they were realised. As one of New Zealand’s most beloved and celebrated authors, Dame Lynley Dodd offers invaluable insights we would all be better off for soaking up.
The world today is a starkly different place to the one Dame Lynley was born into.
The only child of Scotsman Matthew Weeks, a well-respected forestry worker in the North Island, and New Zealand-born Elizabeth Weeks, Lynley grew up in remote forestry settlements and admits “there wasn’t a great deal of entertainment – in fact there wasn’t any – so we made our own”.
She remembers the day that Dr Seuss entered her world well. Not with hindsight; not because, little did she know, that in years to come she would be the recipient of a literary award presented by Seuss himself, but because he was, in essence, like a breath of fresh air.
“I was born in the 1940s, books were very serious at that time and lunatic ideas like Seuss’ hadn’t really been around, so when I first came across his books, it was a revelation that anyone could be so silly and have such fun,” Lynley says.
Having befriended creativity for so long it was a natural progression into a career in the arts. Lynley graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland with a diploma in Fine Arts and took up residency as an art teacher at Queen Margaret College in Wellington.
That lasted approximately five years and we have Lynley’s cousin in law and fellow literary wonder, Eve Sutton, to thank for introducing Lynley to writing, and consequently, New Zealand to Lynley.
Their collaboration on Eve’s My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes – a book inspired by the antics of the Dodd family cat Wooskit, who later morphed into Slinky Malinky thereby continuing to provide inspiration and ideas – for which Lynley did the illustrations, gave Lynley her first taste of a career in literature and, next thing you know, “I just got to the point where I thought it would be nice to do both!”
Three years later, in 1976, Lynley authored her first published book: The Nickle Nackle Tree.
Learnings from Lynley
Successful people tend to live by a routine that encourages achievement. Lynley is no different and through the decades and even a technological revolution, her creative process has remained very much the same and involves her being hyper-critical of herself.
“One has to be self-critical or one tends to accept something that’s second best and that’s no good, you’ve got to aim for best every time. However there comes a point where you can thrash on forever and finally not get anywhere; at some point you’ve got to say stop,” she says.
“But then of course marinating time is very good too. I find with my work particularly, that to be able to put it away for a while and come back to it, the mistakes or the awkwardness suddenly jumps out at you. I spend a very long time in the marinating process!”
Some current authors and artists use technology as part of their process; Lynley still writes and draws by hand. She admits a “big barrier” seems to go up between her and the writing if she does it by computer.
As for whether writing for children itself has changed as much as the process to publish it, she encourages writers to “just continue to write what they want to write”.
“Writing for children really doesn’t change. Children like the same things, I’m writing the same sorts of things now that I did then, the only difference I would say there is between then and now is that printing techniques have made it easier to have all sorts of effects in the illustration and a lot of illustrators work on computers same sorts of things now that I did then, the now too.”
When it comes down to it, Lynley says, “Books don’t go out of fashion. I don’t think children will ever be so wedded to their devices that they don’t want to sit with a parent or grown up of some kind and read books together.”
She dishes advice in spadesful but what’s the best piece of advice she’s ever been given?
“By far the best [advice] I’ve been given was by Dr Seuss, which is a well-known one actually, ‘Never get wedded to a good line’ – a version of ‘Be prepared to murder your darlings!’
“Which is such a useful piece of advice – you should never carry on with something which actually may be niggling at you to be changed.”
Lynley says that goes for the illustrating as much as the writing. It probably also goes for life in general, because it sounds an awful lot like the principle of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, that is, the ‘misconception that you make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experience, when in truth your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it’.
A Hairy start to her career
Dame Lynley is known for her evocative portrayal of animal behaviours and personalities; punchy prose in rhyme complemented by eloquent illustrative story telling. But she admits writing was not easy to begin with because it was never something she had aspired to do.
On the contrary, the introduction of Hairy Maclary to the world was always meant to be. You could almost say it happened through divine intervention.
Lynley was just a few years into her literary career, working on her book Wake Up, Bear, when she received a panicked phone call from her publisher. Another author, albeit on the other side of the world, was about to release their book entitled Wake Up Bear, It’s Christmas and this encroached one step too far into familiar territory. Was it possible for Lynley to produce another, entirely different story, by deadline?
Lynley opened her notebook and Hairy Maclary literally jumped from its pages. Or rather, more accurately and less romantically, but serendipitously nonetheless, out fell the sketch of Hairy Maclary on to the floor and the rest as they say is history.
Lynley confesses that her life has provided a lot of the inspiration for the stories.
Hairy was based on a number of dogs she had known or heard of – small, disobedient terrier types. Schnitzel was based on her teenage dog, Shaun – a longhaired dachshund. The family’s first cat (Wooskit) provided the idea for Slinky Malinki, and Scarface was based on a childhood cat the family had inherited name and all called Squib.
It wasn’t just New Zealanders or children that her characters captivated so: the world over took to Hairy Maclary and friends like Hairy and friends took to Donaldson’s Dairy.
When asked why she thinks this is, Lynley’s modest response is that her stories involve something getting away with naughtiness – and any child (and as it turns out the odd adult) enjoys naughtiness.
The Hairy Maclary series is her most celebrated but to date, Dame Lynley has published a total 34 books over her 44 year-long career (and counting); the most recent, Scarface Claw, Hold Tight!, hitting bookshelves last year.
It’s believed she has sold more than 10 million copies of her children’s books worldwide and she’s been acknowledged accordingly:
In her career Dame Lynley has been the worthy recipient of numerous esteemed awards including the Children’s Book of the Year Award, which she outright in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1992.
She’s also won the New Zealand Book Award, the Margaret Mahy Award, and the Esther Glen Award, the latter being presented by Dr Seuss himself.
In 2002 she was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to children’s literature and book illustration.
Hairy Maclary and his squad of rapscallions have even been immortalised in bronze in her hometown of Tauranga.
Lynley says of the awards, “It’s a vote of confidence in what you do, which is rather nice because we’re not all confident all the time.
“I’ve been thrilled with all the ones I’ve had, they’re all very special, it’s been great.”
There’s been no suffering for her art: Lynley is in her upper 70s now and as fit and ready as ever to bring her next characters to life.
She promises she’ll “try not to [retire] but I am getting on, I’ve been around a long time now!
“But I would find it difficult to not be thinking about new books. I’ve got one or two ideas I’d like to get on with at some stage, it’s just a matter of choosing which idea to work on really.”
Like many will tell you, it’s not about having an original idea as much as it is about delivering the idea.
“All you have to do is listen really because the best ideas are actually already out there. They’re floating around in the ether all the time, you’ve just got to catch them as they come past.
“Real life is much more interesting and much funnier than anything you could dream up and the newspaper is terribly useful for providing ideas, there are so many extraordinary stories. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me. That’s where ideas come from.
“I get some lovely letters [fan mail], and sweet, they’re an absolute hoot, I have a great deal of fun with those.
“It’s what keeps me on my toes really. If one thinks back to childhood and to how important those books are – to read again the favourite books that meant so much in childhood is to transport oneself back to those times, to remember vividly all the feelings, excitement and fun in those early readings – you realise the lasting effect a book can have on a child and how important it is to get it right in your own work.”
Among those children is the next Prime Minister, the next Ernest Rutherford, the next Kate Sheppard, the next Lynley Dodd.
Be like Lynley and deliver to others nothing but greatness and the prospect of infinite possibility.
By Lydia Truesdale