Interview with Bianca Claudia Staines

One thing I've really enjoyed about this site and the blog is all the New Zealand authors I get to know. Bianca is an author I connected through another author.

Tell us about your latest novel or project:

I’m currently working on the third book of my middle-grade series The Taleweavers’ Adventures.

It’s a tale of betrayal and revelations which brings my characters’ overarching storyline to its dramatic and punchy finale.

What got you started writing?

As far back as I can remember, I would tell my little brother stories. When I was 6 I started writing them down and reading them to him. Later, through my teen years, I became a closet writer, keeping my passion undisclosed and my writing close to my chest. What truly got me writing in the last few years, I think, boils down to the fact that I was tired of putting off my dream of becoming an author. I really didn’t want to get to the end of my life with a drawer full of half-written manuscripts, and a life spent in the pursuit of a lucrative career which did not give me what writing did. I decided not to pursue further studies in Marine Biology (for which I had been sponsored) or take up an animal handling job at the local zoo. Instead, I took a year out from all that. I worked at a restaurant to pay rent and wrote. I have never looked back.

What challenges did you face when you first started writing?

Keeping to my quota. I had set a 1000 word daily quota and, if I didn’t stick to it, I’d have to make up for it the next day (I make crazy rules). I was very strict with myself and I was rather blessed in the sense that, at the time, I was working evenings as a waitress so I could create a solid writing routine during the day.

Do you ever get the opportunity to travel for your writing? Either to market or to research.

When I do go travelling, I take notes and a lot of what I see ends up in my books. The feral cats in Bangkok, the narrow alleyways of my hometown Perugia, the lush forests in the Waitakere Ranges, they all made it in my books, both intentionally and not. A lot of what I write about is based on New Zealand. The mountain ranges in the South Island moulded my descriptions of the Frost Mountains, Rotorua’s steaming volcanic pools became my perilous Pit of acrid smoke and toxic mud, the street where my parents live in Kerikeri became Bendall Road, the home of the hero of my first book The Tale of Prince, and my undisclosed ‘City’, as wide as the eye can reach, is Auckland.

Who in your life is your greatest cheerleader or support in your writing?

My brother and my mother. My stepfather, Dean, is too, as long as I keep my day job.

What is it like writing in New Zealand that would be different if you lived anywhere else?

I rely on beautiful scenery and peace and quiet. New Zealand is abundant in both.

Where do you get your ideas? Is there anything about New Zealand that has inspired you to write?

In my first year of writing, I would take an hour-long morning walk on Narrow Neck beach in Auckland’s Northshore. This little ritual put me in a great creative frame of mind. While my feet dug in the sand and I looked at the sea and Rangitoto Island, I churned out stories, pieced together characters and developed ideas. As soon as I got home, most days I’d be brimming with new material and the urge to get it down on paper. I don’t think my first book The Tale of Prince would have looked like it did, had I not taken those morning walks.

What advice would you give for other writers in New Zealand?

The same I’d give to any other fellow author. Persevere and have fun. Lots of artists believe that pursuing their chosen vocation should be a painful, suffered process: no pain, no gain. I disagree. Perseverance is essential but without fun, the writing process will be as pleasant as a trudge through hell. Having fun while writing, will keep your mind nimble and your writing on track. Together, perseverance and enjoyment get the job done. Best of all, you’ll have loved it.

Do you get to network or meet up with other New Zealand authors?

I sporadically go to NZSA (New Zealand Society of Authors) meetings. Mostly I keep to myself and a few chosen writers with which I swap meandering tales about writing struggles and great reads.

What was the first thing you did after your first book was published?

I sat at my desk in disbelief for 30 minutes.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you handle the good and the bad ones?

I remind myself that the perception of a book is not just down to the writer but the mind of the person reading it. It’s a kind of co-creation. No one will read the book in the same way so you have no control on how your book will be perceived. All you do is put your work out there, bravely, and remember it will be loved/hated/ignored and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Just remember, the opinion that should truly matter is your own. Did you enjoy writing it? If yes, that’s really as far as your control goes. The rest is out of your hands.

It seems like everything has Easter Eggs (surprise reference to your other work) do you have any Easter Eggs in your books?

I tend to set seeds in early books for my future stories well in advance. Something which may have been a fleeting reference in one book, is a major detail in the next. What my books are full of is references. My characters’ names and personalities are steeped in the classics and world mythology. My main character in the first book, Prince, is straight out of Machiavelli’s 16th century guide to efficient (and ruthless) ruling. The evil vixen Senukti is an anagram for kitsune, a reference to the magical fox shapeshifters in Japanese folklore. The backstory of the main villain in my third book borrows aspects of the mischievous and unpredictable Norse god, Loki. Without giving too much away, an important aspect in all my books is finding happiness and, more specifically, finding home. This concept manifests in many ways. In one particular instance, I named the boat which was key to the rescue one of my main characters ‘Ithaca’ (after the poem of the Greek writer Konstantino Kavafis), a reference to Ulysses’ homeland. I’ve placed tens of anagrams, puzzles, hidden citations and references in my books. Some are important, others are nothing more than entertainment for myself and the reader.

How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have any secrets to productivity?

If I get in the right head space and stick to my quota, I can have a first draft done in 4 months. The editing process is far more laborious. That usually takes me about a year and a half. My only secret to productivity is to keep writing. The first draft will always be bad. But once you have something to work on, it can be fixed.

Where did you get the idea for your first book?

The idea for my first book sprouted on one of my many bus trips to Kerikeri from Auckland to visit my parents. I had just recently made the decision that I was going to take my writing seriously and work hard towards my goals but there was a problem: I was utterly story-less.

So, while I was sitting there twiddling my pen with a completely blank notebook – the phone rang. It was my mother. She tells me not to panic but the two dogs have gone missing so at the moment she and my stepdad are out looking for them.

Obviously I panicked. These two dogs are about half the reason I go visit my parents in the first place. As soon as I put down the phone, instead of sitting there worrying I started writing what they were up to, to keep myself busy.

Where would have two dogs like them gone off to? Why now and never before?

By the time I got to Kerikeri my mother let me know the dogs had returned and I had found the seed for a story. This was in December 2013.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I make coffee before I sit down to write. I’ve turned making coffee into a procrastination art form.

What is your best experience meeting a fan?

A girl of ten telling me she stood in front of her class and said The Tale of Prince was the best book ever and she wanted to be a writer like me. I cried a little.

I would also cry. That is so sweet.

If any of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you pick and who would you have play the main characters?

It would have to be my first book, The Tale of Prince, which I think would work really well as an animation movie. The main character should be voiced by someone Shakespearian and British, possibly Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston.

Do you have any book you have written that won’t ever see the light of day and why?

Yes, it was a dragon story I wrote when I was 12. I killed almost all the characters in the end.

I see you were a bit bloody thirsty in those days.

Many authors have a word or a phrase they automatically use too often. Do you have one?

Suddenly. Someone is always suddenly doing something sudden.

What quirk or trope of your genre do you like or dislike?

Animal stories for a younger audience are, to me, a pleasure to write. You get to talk about animals and imagine the world as they see it. In this process, I ended up creating a quirk that has put me through a lot of pain. Early on in my story, I decided most animals, with the exception of my protagonist Prince (who, despite being a dog, is a bit too human), could not count. After all maths is a human thing. I have paid for it ever since. So many metaphors and sayings rely on the ability to quantify. Numbering days, weeks, months, years was a nightmare! Even just quantifying the size of a threat or good old exaggeration required some imaginative tweaking. You can’t say you tried ‘a million times’, you tried ‘a mountain of times!’

Often writers get to approach some serious subjects. Which serious subject are you most proud to have written about or was the hardest to write about?

The Taleweavers Adventures is a middle-grade series but I haven’t shied away from some touchy subjects, nominally animal trafficking and dog fighting rings. During my time in Italy, I volunteered in a centre for the safeguard and reintroduction of endangered reptiles (mainly tortoises), most of them seized by the authorities from the black market. The theme of animal trafficking worked its way into the narrative of my second book and played a major role in shaping the mysterious and blood-thirsty antagonist, the Shadow. However, not even that was as hard as writing about the dog fighting rings. I had had no first-hand experience with that environment. I used to walk dogs for the local SPCA and there were always suspicions around some of the dogs having been used as bait, but it was a world I would have to delve deep into, to understand it properly. A main character in my first book, Bennie, was an ex-fighting dog which escaped her fate. When Prince, a pampered pooch, must find and rescue her, he falls neck-deep into this brutal world which he is completely unprepared for. I had to research the ins and outs of the dog-fighting rings. The structure, the fights, the training, the animals they use and the minds of both the victims and their human perpetrators. It was tough.

Thank you for taking the time to share some of your story.

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