Deborah Savage has been a free-lance writer for the past 12 years, and has published seven novels with Houghton-Mifflin. A film of her second novel, Flight of the Albatross, won the top children's film award at the Berlin International Film Festival. On April 27 and May 2, Savage showed the film and discussed, with a backdrop of slides, the book and the filming, and the rural island, the taboo Goat Hill, the Maori and the Pakeha â€” descendants of white colonists â€” that inspired them.
Savage teaches English and art classes at Berkshire Country Day School. She has also painted theater sets and murals in natural history museums, and worked with woodcut prints. She has taught at MCLA, Hotchkiss and Litchfield private schools, and during her free-lance years, she gave writing workshops and presentations about her books, in schools and libraries. She came to Berkshire County Day because she knew Whit Smith from a Breadloaf writers' conference. She lives in Montague, but stays in the school's Winthrop building during the week, along with two dogs and a cat.
Savage has set three books in New Zealand. Her first novel, A Rumour of Otters, was named an a American Library Association Notable Book 1986. They have all have been translated in other languages -- she brought in a collection of German, French, Australian, Danish, and Swedish book covers, all with different cover illustrations.
In 1981, Savage married a New Zealander and moved with him to Great Barrier Island, about 50 miles off the New Zealand coast. Great Barrier Island has nothing to do with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, she said, "New Zealand's about as far from Australia as we are from Denver." There is still no electricity on the island, she said. The islanders get power from windmills and generators. They had crank phones with a switchboard operator. She has seen a truck there with a gas tank on its roof and a siphon hose down the side.
She and her husband lived with her husband's nephew and his family, and helped out on their farm. New Zealand is south of the equator, but close enough to it to have a year-round growing season. She showed slides of the outhouse up the hill from the farm, which commanded a sweeping view, and of Celeste, the dapple grey horse she rode around the island. It was a lonely place, and Savage was homesick: that homesickness, she said, led to her first book.
She wrote Flight of the Albatross back in America in 1985. It was her senior honors thesis at UMASS. She graduated with a bachelor's in individual concentration: writing and illustration, and got a master of fine arts degree from Goddard College in Vermont.
The MFA was interrupted, however, when she made a chance call to an ex-relative, and discovered that a German film company was producing a film of her book. She had sold the film rights to the German company, and knew nothing more about it. The company might never have shot a film, she said. The German company contracted with a New Zealand company that did not know there was a book, or that it was set on Great Barrier Island. The New Zealand company toured the country for months looking for a site, before they found the island by chance.
Savage called a relative for the first time ever, to thank her for a Christmas gift, and found out the island was crawling with cameramen. Savage flew out to watch the filming. She did not mind watching the film crew change her story around, she said. They had to make some changes, out of respect for the Maori and a delicate political situation. Goat Hill, the taboo place in Savage's book, really is taboo, so the film company chose another for the filming.
A Kaumatoa, an elder, superintended the filming to ensure that the Maori chants, stories or movements with the green stone Patu were accurate. Eva Richard, a Maori actress, begins the film singing a Karakia, and holding an albatross feather. She wears dark makeup on her mouth and chin, imitating a traditional Maori woman's tattoo. Richard has tremendous presence, Savage said: everyone drew closer as she played the scene. "The first thing she said to me," Savage said, "was, 'You know, I'm an activist, not an actress.' " Richard led a famous occupation of a golf course on Maori sacred land. She brought her family's Patu onto the set. Savage said she was honored. It was humbling to see the Maori involved sanction her story.
Savage's story begins with Sarah, a flautist who has just failed an audition (in the book, she is auditioning for Julliard; in the German-made movie, she is German). She lives with her father: her mother, an ornithologist, left the two of them to pursue her work when Sarah was a baby. Sarah goes to visit her mother in New Zealand, for a rest. There, she rescues a wounded albatross, and meets Mako, an angry Maori boy. They are both caught up in stories of the taboo, the curse, on a nearby hill. White colonists, the story said, mined the Maori burial ground for gold, and Savage said this had in fact happened.
This year, Savage finished a rewrite of her new book, Kotuku, a story with a New Zealand theme set on Cape Cod. She teaches studio art, and English to seventh graders at Brook Farm and ninth graders at Winthrop. She and her art classes built the set for the spring production of As You Like It. "The kids are responsive," she said; "they appreciate what you go our of your way to give them." And yes, she does sometimes teach her English students her own books. She brings in the drafts she wrote, so the students can see the editorial comments, and get a new perspective on the process of creating literature.