Living in a Fantasy World: Writing in New Zealand

I was not at all surprised to discover that Amazon Studios is following Peter Jackson’s lead by filming its new Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand. As a teenage reader, I imagined Tolkien’s Middle Earth being just like New Zealand, and I still do. But it is not just Middle Earth; there is something about New Zealand that resonates as ‘out of this world’ —something that just says Fantasy.

A recent drive to Christchurch from Nelson reminded me of just how spectacular our country is, and made me think about the intrinsic link between the environment and my own creation of fantasy worlds.

Even though my partner and I have done the trip many times, we still found ourselves shouting exclamations as the winding road revealed the landscape: just like a narrative, with a surprise at every bend.

The road from Nelson winds its way through undulating farmlands, chasing along the edge of rivers, then up through mountain passes and down, down, onto the astonishing Canterbury plains with their theatrical backdrop of the Southern Alps. No matter how hard we try, it is completely impossible to play it cool on that drive — we inevitably find ourselves gawking like tourists, even stopping to take more photographs.

Photograph by Nikki Prokop, NOKNOK Design Studio

New Zealand is such a moody, romantic place, constantly changing with the weather and seasons. So there is always some fresh surprise awaiting, and plenty of opportunity to let the imagination wander. On these trips I very quickly find myself off in an imaginary world, sometimes related to the books I am writing, sometimes taking flight in new directions. Perhaps it is just as well that my partner always insists on driving.

I have always been fascinated by the way in which writers craft new worlds from a combination of lived experience and imagination. I have no doubt that my love of fantasy and desire to create worlds is fundamentally connected to the environment I grew up in.

Photograph by Nikki Prokop, NOKNOK Design Studio

Because I was born in Auckland, my childhood adventures took place in the North Island. My father worked at the Department of Conversation and was involved in many wilderness projects, including the occasional stint as a relief ranger. He wasn’t as cool as Aragorn, but it was still quite wonderful. From a young age, my sisters and I were taken off on long treks: over hillsides to wild beaches, up mountain tracks, through giant Kauri forests, or deep into the fragrant bush of the Waitakeres. Sometimes we would wait impatiently until nightfall, before heading out in search of glow worms and kiwi. Our childhood was full of babbling streams, crystal lakes and plunging waterfalls, with the occasional bubbling mud pool, stinking of rotten eggs.

I never actually visited the South Island until a family holiday in 2004, when we swiftly fell in love with the place. With the soundtrack of The Lords of the Rings cranked up high, it is no wonder that we found ourselves completely captivated. 

And now I find myself living in Nelson, which is pretty much as close to The Shire as you can get. Like Bilbo, I only have to venture a little way from my doorstep to find adventure. There are crystalline springs, misty mountains, dripping limestone caves, secret waterways with hidden islands, and ferny dells full of birdsong and forest magic. As I sit here working away at the first draft of Heartstone, I am incredibly grateful to call this place home. I honestly cannot imagine a more inspiring environment for writing fantasy.

The view from our front door…