A reasonable idea at the time, Barbara Murison

Telling Tales: A Life in Writing
William Taylor
HarperCollins, $39.99,
ISBN 1869508378

According to his siblings William Taylor was called after his father’s dog. And here, among an endearing collection of sepia, black and white, and coloured photos in his autobiography, is an image of Ivan Taylor and his dog William, a happy-looking longhaired animal with a sheepdog background. Opposite is the Baby Bill (“a soulful study he calls it”) taken at the time of the Wellington Centennial Exhibition around 1940.

The soulful look continues in the next photo, showing a toddler, in a romper suit that appears incredibly uncomfortable, holding a small pistol (“an indication of my early interest in hunting?” he asks) and on to the dishy 21-year-old with a large quiff of flaxen hair over his forehead. Then the soulfulness disappears and is replaced by a candid cheerfulness in the later pictures – here photographed as His Worship the Mayor of Ohakune, “chained to the job” from 1981 to 1988, here “having a chat” with the then Governor-General Dame Sylvia Cartwright, as she presents him with the ONZM for services to children’s literature and the community in 2004, and here, in another jovial photo, with Tessa Duder (the catalyst for the book) and Janice Marriott (a long-time friend) at Taylor’s 70th birthday celebrations.

It was Duder, amongst others, who persuaded him over a period of some years that his story, with such a massive list of titles and experiences behind him, was one that needed to be told. Duder applied so much persuasion that, in the end, he agreed, on the proviso she find a publisher before he wrote the first word. Then he sat back. Within a week he received a phone call from Lorain Day at HarperCollins; “I’ve just been talking to Tessa,” she said.

Taylor (how hard it is use only his surname: he will always be Bill to me) is at pains to point out in the foreword that this is not a literary memoir, nor is it a treatise on how to write for the young. There are slivers of family history, a slice of New Zealand’s social past:

[I]n total perhaps, it is a recounting of how I came to do things in the course of my life. There have been laughter and tears, joy and sadness, a few regrets and a few wrong paths taken … I simply hope that any readers enjoy and are entertained by the tale.

 

For a booklet about New Zealand writers and illustrators for children and young people I published last year, Taylor sent me a small piece of advice to young writers to include in his entry – “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he wrote. “Above all keep an open mind and don’t forget to live life to the full.”  A piece of advice we see fully realised in Telling Tales.

Arresting beginnings have been a trademark of Taylor’s 35-plus titles for children and young adults. How could a reader fail to be entertained and drawn into his own tale that begins so enticingly, “When I was seven years old I saw Jesus in our garden at Roslyn Road, Levin. It was something of a surprise because we didn’t get many visitors.” The next 303 pages offer many stand-out moments.

Between 1968 and 1973, Taylor wrote half-a-dozen novels for adults. Why, he asked himself? “Quite simply because I seemed to have run out of anything better to do and it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time.” “I am going to write a book,” he told Delia, his wife at the time. “That’s nice, dear,” she replied. “Don’t make a mess.” And so a writer’s life was launched.

I went to work in the library at Raroa Normal Intermediate School, Johnsonville around 1976 and had never heard of William Taylor, the writer. Then, on the staff-only shelf, I found a copy of Burnt Carrots Don’t Have Legs (1976), a story of his early teaching job at Feilding Intermediate School. I was sold on the story that was written with humour and candour, and I wondered if he was also writing for children.

Children’s books, however, were still in the future. Some years later, when Taylor was principal at National Park School, which, of course, made use of Dorothy Butler’s Mobile Book Bus, he decided to show her the rough of what turned out to be his first children’s book – Pack up, Pick Up and Off (1981). Dorothy was kind as always, he reports, and took the fragment away to read overnight. Her comment was not encouraging – “I think you should stick to writing for adults.” “But,” he writes, “I am sure she would have smiled as she said it.”

He tells us he has now lived in his Raurimu home, near Mount Ruapehu, for over 20 years – an isolated place with an amazing garden and views out over the mountains and the spectacular countryside. Isolated, maybe, but he hardly lives there in seclusion.  There are continual visits from writing friends Duder and Marriott, from his sons and daughter-in-law, grandchildren, sisters. And it is here over those years he has written so many children’s novels, has travelled away to take up posts of writers-in-residence in this country, to the US on a four-month fellowship at the University of Iowa, and returned home to his beautiful surroundings countless times from tours and visits to libraries and his favourite place, schools.

No book can be perfect and one always has some quibbles. Mine are fairly small and there are only four. But … Why was there no bibliography? To have had on hand a list of the books that Taylor has written over the years would have definitely added to reading pleasure. Why no index? We all know preparing indices is a pain but nothing is more frustrating than leafing through a book trying to find a specific name or, as I did a few moments ago, trying to locate a reference to the Big Carrot, which I was sure was somewhere in the pages.

Why such big print? It does give each page a very clean look but also gives the impression, until one starts to read, that this might be a book for much younger readers than the intended audience. Possibly, too, had the font been smaller, I wouldn’t have my fourth quibble: this autobiography was too short. I remember Taylor saying once at an AGM of the New Zealand Society of Authors, of which he was national president from 2001 to 2004, that the essence of a good after-dinner speech (at which he always excels) was for the speaker to stand up, speak up, then shut up. Perhaps on this occasion he has shut up too soon. I was left wanting much more of this pleasing and addictive story.

 

Barbara Murison is a Wellington children’s book consultant. 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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