Natalya Newman, the coordinator for Read NZ Te Pou Muramura's Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano programme, chatted to Arlo Kelly. At 16 years old, Arlo is the youngest finalist at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. His debut novel, Echo, is in the running for the NZSA Best First Book Award. The winners will be revealed on Thursday 10 August.
Natalya: What drives you to write and create?
Arlo: I enjoy writing as it provides me a gateway to another world which I have full power over, a world that I can shape to my liking and delve deeply into. Creative writing is an incredible thing to do as you can quite literally make anything happen, you can travel to places without a plane, you can dream up whatever you want and however you want while not having to worry about what other people think about it - unless of course you are publishing that story. Reading books is one of my favourite ways to get inspiration as I can think to myself: "How did the author come to this conclusion" or "Why did they choose these events to be put here, rather than there" and then use that insight in my own stories. I can see what choices other people made while being in full control of another world, and guess why they did certain things.
Natalya: What motivates you to share your stories?
Arlo: One of the main reasons is that if it's just me writing it, and never sharing it, I can't get insight and opinions from a fresh set of eyes. For my next book, one of my top priorities would be to get multiple people to read the first draft so they can critique it and give their perspective. It really allows you to shape the story in the best way possible as there are many things that I, as an author, wouldn't see/notice during the writing stage, and being able to go back and have people point out strengths and weaknesses is necessary to create a great story. Also, as writing is a form of communication, it allows me to meaningfully connect with a wider audience by sharing my thoughts, ideas, and emotions.
Natalya: What is your favourite season or setting to write in and why? E.g.: sitting down to write in a café during winter.
Arlo: Probably summer as it reflects the relatively happy relationship between Eric and Echo and, while there are some sad parts, the book overall is portraying a positive idea. Summer often brings beautiful and inspiring surroundings. The vibrant colours and warm weather can stimulate creativity and provide a refreshing change of scenery. We also go on holiday to a beautiful beach during the summer, which I find is a perfect place to write, and is actually where I started writing Echo.
Natalya: What has been your greatest struggle in publishing your debut novel as a young writer?
Arlo: The editing process, while interesting, was a long and hard effort. I'd say I enjoyed every aspect of producing a book, but this was probably the most difficult part. Nevertheless, I highly appreciated the editing effort and the advice I received as otherwise the book obviously wouldn't be where it is today. Many people say editing takes up the same amount of time as writing the book itself, but in my opinion it takes up even more time than writing.
Natalya: The line ‘... for the first time in my life I could actually look into an eye.’ stood out to me. The way that Eric feels seen by the whale, and how he sees the whale in return, is heartwarming and profound to read. Is there a person, place, object or animal that lets you feel seen in this way?
Arlo: No, not necessarily. While I do have pets I love, such as my dog, cats, fish and chickens, I have never had that moment myself in real life. I added that part in the book as it showed that the whale is the only true thing that Eric can see due to his visual impairment. It was done to outline the struggles Eric has faced with other aspects of his life, and how incredible it is to him that he can see an eye for the first time while most people would take their vision for granted.
Natalya: What part of the story changed the most from the first draft to the final copy?
Arlo: Probably the ending. During the first draft, the ending was half as long and had much less detail, where as now there is the scene with Archie the dog at the end, and the moment when Eric meets Echo again.
Natalya: What have you enjoyed most about your writing and publishing journey?
Arlo: All the things that I have learnt along the way. There have been so many aspects of the process, from the editing and publishing to the marketing and selling. I also learned to approach writing in a more detailed and advanced way than I ever had before. It was a very interesting experience that gave me some insight into the world of publishing, something I had very little knowledge of beforehand.
Natalya: Have you got any future writing projects in the making?
Arlo: I have one story in the making which is set in an alternate universe and sort of merges fantasy with medieval times. It is in very early stages and I have written the first few chapters - although at this stage I am mainly trying to figure out what parts of the book will go where, and how it will be written.
Natalya: What is something you hope that readers will take away from your book?
Arlo: The main thing is that I simply hope they will enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it, and get some insight into the life of the partially sighted.
Natalya: What advice would you give to other young authors who hope to one day publish their novels?
Arlo: I would say that it is completely possible for anyone to write a book. If I did it at 14/15, then so can you. It is about motivation in my opinion and if you set your mind to something, anything is possible.
About the interviewer
Natalya Newman is the coordinator for Read NZ Te Pou Muramura's Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano programme. She's a keen reader, writer, and reviewer, and is currently working on her second novel draft. Natalya is in her first year of study at Massey University in Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
About the author
Arlo Kelly is a young author and artist, who lives on the Kapiti Coast. Echo is his first published work.