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Lauded writer Tessa Duder has plenty left to say

Flagstaff Team

Sailing on… Tessa Duder, with the Spirit of Adventure Trust’s Spirit of New Zealand behind her, still writes full-time

The power of a good story and the stamina built up writing many of them keeps Tessa Duder energised. At age 79, the favourite children’s author still works full-time from her home in Castor Bay.

“I always have about four books queued,” she says. “Age is no bar – if you’ve still got your marbles.”

There’s long-standing volunteer work to fit in as well, encouraging children to read through the Storylines organisation, and youth to reach their full potential with the Spirit of Adventure Trust.

Her passion for persuading children and their parents of the value of reading is part of the reason this prolific wordsmith was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

The author, who also writes for adults, says her next book will be set in early Auckland – after she polishes off a commissioned family history.

The Queen’s Birthday Honour, following an OBE 26 years ago, came “totally out of the blue”, she says. “The pleasing thing about it is the paperwork from Government House emphasised what I’ve done since 1994.”

Duder says her Alex novels about a champion young swimmer (the last published in 1993) were often considered her career heyday. The time since had been a “patchy ride”, both personally and as a writer, so the validation and recognition of her wider work was pleasing.

She took up writing when her youngest child went to school, having been a journalist before motherhood. Duder says she was lucky to have three daughters all living in Auckland. “They’re all readers,” she notes.

A fourth daughter died suddenly, aged 24, due to a heart condition. Within the same fortnight, Duder also lost her mother. The losses, particularly that of an adult child, were challenging. She says she hates the expression “you’ll get over it”, but she did get on with it. In all, she has written more than 40 books.

Recent works have included In search of Elisa Marchetti – a writer’s search for Italian roots. It was written partly so Duder’s daughters would have some idea of their heritage. Her great-grandparents arrived in New Zealand from Italy around 1875. “They didn’t have an easy life by any means.”

Their daughters married Englishmen and “fitted in”. Duder wishes she had asked her grandmother more about the family history.

“Pakeha are rather bad at this; Maori are much better.”

Duder says she became aware when her father died that she had become the repository of her family story. She urges children to talk to their grandparents about the past and adults to consider recording their elders’ stories on a cellphone. “Get them talking with a few glasses of wine.”

Duder still enjoys a friendly relationship with former husband John, who lives in Devonport. They brought up their young children in Hauraki and also lived in Milford. It was through John that she learned to sail, inspiring her first children’s book, Night Race to Kawau.

He helped set up the Spirit of Adventure and she became involved, figuring: “If you can’t beat ’em, join them”. She has recently retired from the trust after 27 years of service, but is still active in Storylines and continues to make classroom visits.

She urges parents to encourage recreational reading.

“I think adults can get hung up over the idea that the child should be reading ‘good books’ and novels, but I think if they want to read comic books or graphic novels – anything but actual porn or, I would say, Enid Blyton – as long as kids are exposed to reading something, it encourages them.”

Reading fiction offered something beyond fact. “The virtue of novels is it takes them into another world that you would otherwise never experience.”

Duder says some in the literary world still did not accord children’s books the status of adult ones. Writers such as Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley who emerged before her had, however, helped lead the way in changing attitudes.

She has also encountered sniffy attitudes about writing historical fiction, but this too was changing with the times and their popularity. “A historical novel will tell you more about say, the Tudor court, than you’ll ever get from non-fiction.”

Duder’s own Alex series will soon be republished in one volume to be known as the Alex Quartet.

The stories she began writing in the early 1980s to provide a strong heroine echo her own experience winning a silver medal in breast-stroke at the then Empire (now Commonwealth) Games in 1958.

This article originally appeared in the 7 July 2020 edition of the Rangitoto Observer.

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