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'Improbable Thrills' & 'Irrational Beliefs' - Truths About Fiction

14 Nov 2021
His work has inspired and entertained young creative minds for decades - David Hill's humour, humility and honesty illustrate what sets him apart.

“I began (creative writing) partly to impress girls…”

David Hill is nothing if not honest. While we chose not to dig deeper on how successful that element of his literary origin story was - there is no question he has impressed many others with his sharp wit and writing talent.

With over 40 titles to his name as an author, Hill’s been a fixture in school reading lists across Aotearoa for nearly 30 years, his novels published internationally and translated into several languages, with his short stories and plays for young people broadcast here and abroad.

His original novel for teenagers - 1992’s decorated See Ya, Simon, about a boy with muscular dystrophy - is still a class text for high schools around the country. So what does he think makes a story leave a lasting impression? 

“Wish I knew!” he retorts to The Big Idea. “I’ve written books that I smugly felt would be real hits, and they sank like rocks. Others, which I didn’t think were all that good, have lasted quite a while. 

“I guess that any story in which readers can find themselves reflected, can find an emotional link with characters, can believe the events are convincing, has a head start. How to write such a thing? I do think you need a range of moods – bleak stories need jokes; funny stories need sober or sombre bits.”

The New Plymouth resident was drawn to prose fiction because he “wanted to acknowledge and honour people who’ve mattered to me” - but he’s dabbled with other mediums.

“I write very little poetry, and my stuff clunks. I’m not good enough at the focus, the stylistic daring that good poetry requires. I’m too impatient to be a good non-fiction writer. I’ve always liked telling stories, so novels and short stories were the obvious choice.”

Hill adds he sees all writing as creative. “You create a structure, an approach, a perspective. I envy good non-fiction writers for their skills.”

Prestige & paint jobs

It’s fitting then that he’s being acknowledged alongside some remarkable proponents in both poetry and non-fiction (Anne Kennedy and Dame Claudia Orange respectively) for his fabulous fiction career as a 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement recipient.

David Hill. Photo: Robert Cross.

The mantle comes with a place in esteemed company and $60,000 - Hill’s too straight-up to pretend both aren’t of significance.

“The PM’s Award means we can get the house painted, among other things. Writers do tend to earn below the average wage so any injection of funds like this is most welcome.

“More significantly, it makes me write a bit more confidently for a while – someone approves of your work enough for this award, so that encourages you to keep going. Another aspect is the warmth from the writing community, the number of friendly messages you get. There’s such collegiality and kindness from other authors. 

“I’ll also say it’s gratifying to see a - mainly - kids’ writer recognised. The PM’s Awards have been splendid for doing that.”

Rangatahi recognition

So, why young people? A high school teacher for about 15 years, Hill built an insight and connection that has shaped his work. His first rule - no room for pretentious language.

“Young readers are impatient of affectation so they make you write honestly,” Hill states. “I feel the narrative must take precedence.  

“They’re encountering certain issues and situations for the first time, so you have this fresh, spontaneous readership.”

Hill finds “the feeling of making” incredibly rewarding, along with “the improbable thrill of seeing your name on something.” He also explains what it’s like to receive feedback that his writing has left an impression.

“It’s nice to hear after a school visit that ‘all your books have been taken out of the library’ - to hear that a visit from a NZ writer makes a young person decide ‘I’m going to be an author.’ 

“I treasure the letter I had from a girl who said that after reading one of my books, she ‘felt all kind and good’. That’s the best ‘aaww’ response I’ve ever had.”

David Hill. Photo: Robert Cross.

Giving back to the creative community is important to Hill. He regularly visits schools, leads professional development for teachers, mentors new and emerging writers and tutors creative writing. 

But the cue is far from being put in the rack - Hill’s insatiable desire to craft a memorable narrative still burns bright.

“I’m trying to write a YA novel which I hope will be a ripping yarn about a tunnel collapse. I dare say no more, because I have this irrational belief that talking about the book means I’ll never write it properly.”

It happens to even the best of writers - Hill’s typically open when quizzed on the challenges of his chosen profession.

“The fear of that Dark Night of the Soul when you can’t come up with a decent topic. The slog that every novel becomes. You start off buoyant and excited; by Chapter 5, you’re - well, I am - convinced it’s the most drab thing you’ve ever written. You have to slog on.”

That’s not the only piece of advice he has for an aspiring writer.

“Read, read, read. Every page you read is showing you writers’ tricks and skills. Keep everything you write; you may be able to use or develop it later. 

“Be kind to yourself; accept that rejections and rebuffs are part of the trade. Make friends with other writers who you feel are similar spirits; it’s a potentially solitary job, and any companionship is valuable. And enjoy!”

The 2021 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement recipients - Dame Claudia Orange (non-fiction), Anne Kennedy (poetry) and David Hill (fiction) - along with Michael King Writers Fellowship winner Dr Monty Soutar came together for an engaging panel discussion, with live readings and answering questions from the creative community - you can watch it here.