Today I interview a very talented author, musician and illustrator from New Zealand - MEE - mee Phipps.
Meemee Phipps was educated in Malaysia, Singapore, England and New Zealand. She has lived and worked as an English teacher in China, Japan and Spain. Amid her many travels she has also lived a year in Italy where she studied the technique of fresco painting and worked professionally in the medium in France.
She plays the violin in two community orchestras in Auckland and was a member of the Bilbao Chamber Orchestra and Chorus (Spain) and the Chef-Boutonne Symphony Orchestra (France). She also writes and illustrates children’s picture books and short stories for adults. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her dog ZhuZhu, who is of Chinese/ French parentage.
Welcome, MEE-mee ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I’ve always loved reading and of course that leads to writing. I have lived in many parts of the world and it was my recent four years in China that made me think about where I am actually from. My ancestors were part of the Chinese Diaspora of the late 19th Century. I guess being a Westerner in so many ways compels me to talk about those early Chinese - why they emigrated and all their sufferings endured in silence. It is this silence, this shame they experienced to be so badly discriminated against, that they never gave voice to. I feel I can do something to recognise that as homage to them.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
I have always written – since I was about thirteen years old. Short stories, and children’s stories, which I never did anything much about. But serious writing began when I broke my wrist in February 2010. I found I could still tap keys through my plastered up arm. So I decided to work on the story of the gold miners in Otago in the late 19th Century.
WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
Basically, I shoot from the hip. No preparation until I get stuck. Then I try to salvage myself with some extra research or edit.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
The freedom to create.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
The loneliness of the job. I can’t even have the radio on as that’s a distraction, though opera helps.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I had a business in food and beverage manufacturing till 1996.I owned a historical schooner here in the Hauraki Gulf. Then I lived in Italy where I painted frescoes, did that in France, played in community orchestras in France and Spain and travelled some more. I am certain I had an early life as an Italian fresco painter. I’m pretty good at it and I was incredibly happy in Italy, especially in Florence. Then I went to China. That was the last of the major travel, though I spent three months in Turkey two years ago.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
To complete three historical sagas in three years flat.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
The Lifting of the Sun. This is the third of the trilogy of the Chinese Diaspora following on from Memories in the Bone and Destinies Divided.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
History of the China. People of unusual bravery, commitment, love. Tumultuous events.
WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Just persevere, I guess. Take setbacks on the chin and keep on keeping on. And read.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
I think I’m in one now. My writing this year has slowed down hugely. I’ve had two deaths of people close to me which made me very aware of the mortality of my own mortality.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
I do, but nowadays don’t keep to it. It should be write between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner. Nowadays the only other thing that gets done is orchestral practice. I’m in the doldrums but am climbing out of it.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
Just my desk by the patio, which actually is a very neat place.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
When I know I have written a worthwhile and meaningful chapter. When I am on a roll. That happened often in the first three books.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
Hilary Mantel has occupied that place since Wolf Hall. I like the immediacy of her prose. On our local front, journalist Jane Clifton who writes for The Listener, our intelligent weekly. She’s pure gold – very funny, very cryptic.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
I adored your book. Read it in one delighted sitting. Nobody could tear me away. That actually was said to me several times with Memories in the bone.
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
That he thought my voice came through.
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Yes. I couldn’t have written the way I am now if I hadn’t lived through the times and experiences I had.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Music. I play the violin in two wonderful community symphony orchestras. My granddaughter Ava Rose who has just started school. And her baby sister Elska Peridot who is fourteen months old. I also love snorkelling amongst corals and travelling. Opera. Once upon a time, I would also have said gardening.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Yes. And then some more.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
A walk with my dog before satisfying breakfast, an hour’s practice on the violin, writing with beautiful music in the background, achieving a complete chapter of 9 pages, a movie or dinner with friends.
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
If I said George Clooney, I would be mad. But I honestly can’t think of any one person. Whoever it is must be very good at building shelters and fires, hunt and fish and who has a wicked sense of fun and great kindness.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Stop thinking of the polls and do the job you were voted in to do.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
To keep living a full, healthy life with travel, good food, good friends and family close by.
WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
There you have me. The latest by JP O’Rouke on the Baby Boom Generation, Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Complete works of Shakespeare and for those desperate moments, the Bible.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
No. Though I’m sure some personality traits must creep in.
DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
No. Thankfully with digital printing, electronic books, there is always a teensy chance at a future.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Destinies Divided: A World War 1 romance of the Chinese Diaspora. I invested my heart into that one. It is where the characters are most alive and events most compelling.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER.
To be widely read, translated into twenty languages and a hefty film contract.
WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I would like them to walk away feeling they’ve discovered something they’d never known before and be at one with the people in the books.
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
A lot, because the cover must attract. It’s how a book is judged.
WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
To have my trilogy made into a movie or tv series. That is the way to reach the widest audience. Many people are not readers these days. They like instant entertainment.
WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
In New Zealand, I work on readings and giving talks. I have a web site which is at the moment, being redesigned, a blog which I try to update monthly. I also advertise on Amazon and will do so on Goodreads.
ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
Yes, unfortunately or.
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Optimistic, courageous, fun, inquisitive, compassionate.
WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
People with a great sense of entitlement. Multi-nationals marauding round the planet. Bankers. Politicians.
WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
Time for a Tiger by Anthony Burgess. It’s pretty excellent.
WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
To win Lotto so that I can afford to publish and market my books world-wide and to leave a decent legacy to my family and favourite charities.
ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Eat whatever I love and hang the consequences.
Review of The Ming Admiral
This novel, set in 14th and 15th Century China, is a work of amazing creativity. Not only does it depict China at the time in graphic detail, it also brings to life the protagonist ZhengHe and his boyhood Zhu Di, Prince of Yan, later to become the Emperor Yongle. After conquering the Mongols threating China’s northern border, Zhu Di deposes his nephew, Crown Prince Yunwen to seize the throne. As Emperor Yongle, he makes the dusty frontier town of Dadu his new capital, calls it Beijing, and moves the entire court north to the edge of the desert. He instigates the writing of world’s first encyclopaedia and builds the Great Treasure Fleets which will ply the seas, bringing all nations they encounter under the thrall of China in the first instance of gunboat diplomacy. The Emperor’s drive comes at the cost of those closest to him. His friend oldest and ally, ZhengHe is not only forced to endure indignity and suffering at his hand, but also greatness as Grand Admiral of the Treasure Fleets. This love-hate relationship between two great men lies at the heart of this sweeping novel. MeeMee Phipps has done credit to her heritage in bringing this story to life.
Miles Hughes, author of Richmond Road, The Coconut War, Catalan.
Clancy's comment: Thank you, Mee-mee. It has taken a while to get you here. I take my hat off to anyone who can play the violin and illustrate. Well done, Mee-mee.
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