Keith Tonkin is a writer who often creates stories that are based on fact, with imagined characters. In this way he combines his love of New Zealand history with fiction writing. He has written many books for younger readers, and he has worked as a school teacher and journalist. Tonkin has published on a variety of subjects, and his books have been based on topics from film-makers to New Zealand adventurers. Keith Tonkin participates in the Writers in Schools programme.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tonkin, Keith (1952- ), was born in Christchurch and has lived all over the South Island. He currently lives in Dunedin.
A primary school teacher and journalist, Tonkin’s first book was published in 1997.
He has written on a variety of subjects from film-makers to New Zealand adventurers, often creating stories that are factually based with imagined characters, combining his love of New Zealand history with fictional writing. His primary publisher is the Educational publishing group Gilt Edge Publishing.
His titles include: The Dairy Farm (1997), The Deer Farm (1997), The Salmon Farm (1997), The Sheep Farmer (1998), The Vegetable Grower (1998), Tree Farming (1998), Four Great New Zealand Inventors (2003), New Zealanders of Action in World War Two (2003), New Zealand Film-makers (2004), Great New Zealand Adventurers (2004), The Longest Journey (2005), The Big Snow (2005), Te Pou Kara (The Flagpole) (2006) and Te Tupuna Maunga o Parihaka (The Ancestral Mountain of Parihaka) (2006).
Keith Tonkin is available for writer’s visits as part of the Book Council’s Writers in Schools programme.
Last updated: November 2009
WRITERS IN SCHOOLS INFORMATION
Interests/topics: New Zealand history, local history, personal and family history, personal experiences, my writing, travel.
Areas: Prepared to travel all over New Zealand.
Where do you live?
In Northeast Valley in Dunedin. A place where many artists, writers and musicians like to be, along with all the other good people here.
What books do you read?
Actually I read a lot of non-fiction – I love National Geographic – I have every issue from January 1983). History in particular fascinates me, and I love historical fiction.
Who is your favourite writer?
That’s a hard question because now I realise that I also like science fiction – Arthur C Clark is definitely one of my favourites, and also H.G. Wells and J.R.R Tolkein. Out of New Zealand writers, Witi Ihimaera and Katherine Mansfield.
How do you think up your ideas?
I love museums and places where things happen. Everytime I find a ruined miners cottage or stand on the ground where a pa once existed, I imagine the real people who were there and think of their lives.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Doing something important with the dreams I’ve always had.
Primary School Students
What sort of pets do you have?
I have a fluffy moggy who gets her fur all tangled up and I have to fix it up – she loves me for it.
What is your favourite colour?
Green – all shades of green. I lived in Westland for 11 years and everything is green there – Dunedin is also green.
What is your favourite food?
Big huge sandwiches made up of brown bread with loads of fresh tomatoes, cheese, ham and everything.
What is your favourite movie?
I love movies – I don’t have a favourite but kiwi films are just so good - I just saw the World’s Fastest Indian, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
What is your favourite game?
I have to confess it is rugby.
What is the most fun thing about being an author?
Seeing kids pick up my books – share them with each other or go off quietly alone with one. I also like the royalty cheques.
How do you make books?
I don’t make books – I just write the words and send them to the publisher – they do the rest.
Where do you go for your holidays?
All over New Zealand – I once drove from Dunedin to Cape Reinga. Recently I’ve been to China and Russia too.
What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
When I was a boy, teachers could strap us. One teacher couldn’t do it very well and it didn’t hurt, so some of us had a competition to see who could get it the most and there was a prize – I almost won. That sounds terrible but I really wasn’t that naughty at all – I just talked a lot when I wasn’t supposed to.
Secondary School Students
How did you get started?
I guess I always wanted to but never had time as a full-time teacher. In 1995 I bought a computer and that gave me the impetus. Close to where I lived there was an interesting historical site and I sent an article to the local paper about it – things went on from there.
Who inspired you when you were getting started?
Paul Jennings! Kids loved hearing his stories – I thought that similar wacky ideas with a kiwi bent would go down well – I tried and failed but the trying led me
on to other things.
What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
Always write about what you are interested in and be interested in as many things as you want to be. Don’t expect to have a lot of knowledge before you
start, the writing will force you to learn. Be interested in people but especially yourself and try to understand why you react to things the way you do and use yourself as a model to project out to characters you may invent. At the same time, try to understand people who are very different to you and why they do things.
Is it difficult to make a living as a writer in New Zealand?
Yes, but I think it may be getting easier. I still have to teach part-time.
What were you like as a teenager?
I respected most adults including teachers but I did question a lot of things and became very left-wing in my views even though I was relatively shy. I didn’t like organised team sports but preferred the freedom of surfing and mountaineering. I didn’t know how to ask a girl out but some of them asked me. I talked a lot and some of my friends then expected me to become a professor – I think my mind was quite independent. I still have never touched a cigarette – even though I was pressured by some people to try.
Is there anything else you could tell students about yourself?
I was adventurous as a kid – we had caves, cliffs, rocks and heavy surf – I’m really lucky to be alive actually but I wouldn’t have traded that childhood for anything, especially not staying indoors with a computer.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
Updated January 2017.