The Ghosts of Tarawera is book two in a planned series of New Zealand-based ghost stories for junior fiction and young adult readers (the first was The Ghost of Young Nick's Head (Pear Jam books, 2011)).
It's a wonderful, wonderful story, and a gripping read, which builds on and adds to the well-known ghostly appearances that preceded the Mount Tarawera eruption of 1886.
I've written a review of the book, which you can read on Goodreads (along with numerous four and five star reviews by other appreciative readers).
Sue kindly agreed to answer some questions about how she came to write the book, and what she has planned next - here's what she said. For more information, check out her website: www.suecopsey.com
Interview with Sue
The Ghosts of Tarawera draws on the famous New Zealand legend about the ghostly waka that appeared before the Mount Tarawera eruption. What was it that drew you to this story?
I well remember the first time I read about this legend. I was editing a school textbook about the Taupo Volcanic Zone, and in amongst all this serious science there it was, as reported at the time (1886) by many tourists as well as local Maori. I was drawn to the story because there were so many witnesses: two groups of Europeans in sightseeing boats, as well as villagers on the lake shore. The sightseers reported seeing an impressive war canoe – nothing spooky about it – but the Maori realised it was supernatural as there hadn’t been a waka of that type in the area in living memory. Local Maori also recognised it as an omen of disaster, and 11 days later were proved right when Mt Tarawera erupted. I reckon Lake Tarawera’s phantom waka, which legend says will reappear if the mountain reawakens, is far more credible than the Loch Ness monster, and look which is more famous. That’s just wrong!
Your story is very evocative of the landscapes around Lake Rotomahana and Rotorua. Did you spend much time there while you were writing the book?
I’ve been to this part of the North Island many times, so I had a good feel for it. I love the mix of forest, lakes, hills, Maori culture and weird and wonderful volcanic features. You can feel you’ve slipped back in time, to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
But also, Google Earth was my friend. While I was writing the book I had it almost permanently open as I zoomed in and out of satellite images looking for how the children would get across and around Lake Rotomahana before and during the eruption. When I’d finished, I hauled the family down to a bach near Mt Tarawera, and revisited the Buried Village, went on a boat trip on Lake Rotomahana, and kayaked on Lake Tarawera, making sure it all felt right, especially the atmosphere – I wanted the reader to feel they were really there, and recognise it if they visited.
What was the hardest part of the story to write, and why?
Writing the story was easy, it more or less wrote itself! But I was worried about getting the science right. I love popular science but wasn’t very good at it at school. Show me a physics equation and I feel a bit faint. I wanted to include lots of interesting facts about volcanoes and Mt Tarawera (I call it ‘education by stealth’), and to be absolutely sure I got it right, I asked GNS Science, who monitor NZ’s volcanoes and earthquakes, to check the manuscript for me. And so began the best correspondence I’ve ever had with an expert. Cornel de Ronde, who led the team that explored the lake floor at Rotomahana, contacted me, saying he loved how I was weaving all this geology into my adventure story, as he’s passionate about science education in schools. He was quite accepting of a few, ahem, liberties I took with the geology of the area in order to keep Joe, Eddie, Anastasia and Beckie alive. ‘They’d certainly die in an eruption such as you describe,’ he said. ‘But this is a moot point – it is a story, after all.’
What spooky tales did you enjoy as a child?
I liked the ‘true’ ones. Every village in Britain, where I grew up, had its spooks, and I had a book that listed just about every haunted house in the country. Thinking back, I must have been a weird child to have on holiday. Wherever we travelled in England, my twin loves of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and local folklore meant that I was always searching for secret passages and ghosts.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
Honestly, I don’t know – but something odd happened that makes me strongly suspect I have. It was my wedding night (seriously – no chortling please) and Michael and I were staying in a turret room in a Victorian hotel near my home town of Rugby. I was in bed and Michael was in the bathroom. In one wall was a small door which, without warning, flew open. A figure was silhouetted in the doorway, bright light behind. Then it slammed shut again. A bit like those sightseers with the phantom waka, I didn’t think this was anything supernatural, I just assumed someone had got lost in the hotel’s maze of corridors and ended up at our room by mistake. When Michael reappeared, I told him what had happened and asked him to move a table in front of the door. He did so, looking at me oddly – he thought I’d probably been half asleep (and yes, a few glasses of champagne had been imbibed).
Next morning we opened this little door to see a fire escape leading out onto the turret roof. So how could anyone have been out there, and why had there been a bright light behind them? Could this have been something spooky?
Feeling a bit silly, I asked the receptionist if the hotel had any ghostly residents, only to learn that there were several (most usually a coach and horses, a headless man, and a hand), and that people were constantly reporting strange occurences. Seems the hotel was, and still is, notorious for its ghosts – and we had no idea before that night.
This is your second novel about New Zealand ghosts. Is there another one on the horizon? And if so, can you give us a hint about the ghosts involved?
Yes indeed! Peeping over the horizon is The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek. I wanted to set my next ghost story in one of New Zealand’s old goldmining settlements, and discovered the wonderfully named Moonlight, near Queenstown. Anastasia’s movie director father is filming a fantasy movie down there and invites Joe, Eddie, Beckie and Anastasia to the movie set as a treat after their scare at Mt Tarawera. However, they soon discover filming is being held up by unexplained incidents, and the crew are beginning to call it a cursed film. I’m about a quarter of the way through and can’t wait to find out what happens!