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April 17, 2011

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Two young writers get it right

SARAH Laing and Eleanor Catton, both new writers from New Zealand, started writing at an early age and recently discussed creative writing with students at Shanghai universities and international schools.

Laing, in her 30s, and Catton, 26, have both won New Zealand's Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition.

Laing, who is also a graphic designer, published her first short story collection "Coming Up Roses" in 2007 and her first novel "Dead People's Music" in 2009. She designs her own book covers and illustrated Paula Green's children's poetry book "Macaroni Moon" in 2009.

In "Dead People's Music," Laing, who is diabetic, tells the story of a young diabetic woman who is pressured to become a classical cellist and stricken by guilt over breaking the cello of her grandmother, a Jewish refugee.

"Since I grew up with diabetes, I felt it my duty to tell the story with the medical condition," she said.

Catton's critically acclaimed, complicated and controversial debut novel "The Rehearsal," which takes place in a drama school and involves the scandal over the music teacher having an affair with the student.

The actors use the scandal as the basis for the year-end play and use real first names. Among many other things, it is a coming-of-age story. The New York Times called it "wildly brilliant and precocious."

Q: How did you begin writing?

Laing: I've always imagined myself as someone else, which is perhaps why I have become a novelist, because the experience of writing a novel is basically about becoming somebody else, your protagonists.

When I was young, I had many different fantasies, such as becoming an opera singer ... I've always written stories and poetry for school but it wasn't until my late 20s that I determined to focus on writing.

Catton: I started creating stories ever since I was able to write, around six. I used to go to my dad's office after school, and I sat in his office writing for three to four hours until he finished work. I wrote stories on his computer every day.

Q: Does graphic design relate to writing?

Laing: I come from a visual background and spend a lot of time describing the concrete world ... Many people say graphic design and creative writing are completely different, but they're actually quite similar. You are just trying to create a narrative behind an object, trying to tell a story.

Q: What was the creative process for your first book?

Laing: I was pregnant with my first child, and thought that I had to finish my first novel; otherwise I would never have time to write after I had a child. I finished the book, but it was never published. I would like to turn it into a graphic novel. "Coming Up Roses," my first published book, contains stories I wrote during spare time over many years; it was finished when I was pregnant with my second child. Now I have three children and I'm still writing.

Catton: At the end of high school I started working on short films with friends. We did a lot of amateur zombie movies and I got interested in theater and scriptwriting. I went to theater studies and wrote a script for a stage drama. I realized I could turn it into a novel and that's "The Rehearsal."

Q: Do you keep a writer's journal?

Laing: I keep a personal journal, half real life and half fantasy, with comics on my blog. I have more than 300 pieces and my kids really like it. I plan to combine it into a graphic novel.

Catton: When I write a book, I keep a folder of all my notes, and I rewrite the paragraphs to fit into the draft.

Q: What are your future projects?

Laing: I will work on an illustrated children's book.

Catton: I will work on a script for Canadian film maker Atom Egoyan. The idea is to do a director's commentary, all scripted, on a film that doesn't exist. The videos will be edited collage from existing films by Atom.


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