Eleni Papanou interviews Tui Allen
Hi Tui. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I have to say, Ripple: A Dolphin Love Story deserves five stars for its originality alone. You’ve truly done something visionary here, and I can see you put your heart and soul into the story. It was a pleasure to read and a pleasure to conduct this interview with you. Before we start, why don’t you tell us the meaning of your name.
I’m a New-Zealander. The tui is a bird, native to my country. It’s slightly larger than a blackbird and appears black from a distance, but the plumage is overlaid with a shimmer of iridescent blues, purples and greens. It has a white tuft at the throat and a tracery of white across the shoulders. They have a beautiful song.
Here’s a picture.
What inspired you to write this story?
It was during my youthful ocean sailing voyages that I found much inspiration that later became the story of Ripple. But it really started even earlier, when as a teenager I discovered the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I memorized The Ancient Mariner and would recite it silently when alone on watch at night sailing across the Pacific. Coleridge and Richard Bach are my greatest literary influences. Although my plot is completely different, Ripple shares three things with AM.
- The ocean setting
- The presence of the spirit world
- A message of respect for the living things of the sea
The non-human point of view is something Ripple shares with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another mind/body/spirit animal tale.
When sailing, we did not use an engine. With just a wing in the wind and a fin in the sea we were like another sea creature meeting whales and dolphins out there in the middle of the ocean, in their own world and almost on their own terms. We could see their majesty and sense their spirituality. These are intelligent beings with brains larger than ours. I remember sailing along making mental lists of the kinds of vocations cetaceans might have. Among many other things, they could be teachers, poets, musicians, doctors, historians, warriors, meteorologists.
However, they could never be accountants, engineers, sculptors or plumbers. All this later found its way into the story of Ripple. There are also two important facts I discovered long ago, that gave rise to Ripple:
- Dolphins evolved tens of millions of years before humans came down from the trees.
- The dolphin brain has ten times the capacity of the human brain to process sound.
You’re based in New Zealand. Are there any places near where you live where you go to do your writing?
I live and work inland, strangely enough. I’m now a cyclist – not a sailor. My current home is a cyclist’s paradise with fantastic road biking and mountain biking routes everywhere. I live in the wilds of the Waikato area which is my birthplace. The office where I do all my writing has a gorgeous view of Mt. Pirongia where I played as a child. I still play there today, as an adult. We can get to the West Coast by bike in a couple of hours, or we can drive there in under an hour. You can see the sea from the top of Pirongia.
What motivates you personally to write?
The plight of the oceans is a big motivation, with my current fiction. I also wrote a lot to entertain my children when they were young, and some of those stories were published and sold internationally.
Do you write every day?
Yes, I write every day though not always on my stories. I build web sites and do all sorts of other things that require writing. I’m a compulsive writer.
Would you define yourself as a spiritual person? If so, how does your spirituality manifest into your storytelling?
I am certainly not religious. But I do feel like a spiritual person. I like to think that every life form contains an inner spark of energy, which returns to a universal energy source when the body dies. I believe that each person should use their own mind and think their way to an understanding of their own spirituality. In Ripple, there are two levels of existence; one physical and one spiritual. I call the spiritual realm “The Hereafter” in the book. The dolphins belong in the physical world, but the deities and the seraphim inhabit the Hereafter.
I read on your website that you think it’s possible that dolphins possess the kind of intelligence that they have in your book. I see that as a possibility as well. Do you believe your work was divinely inspired—that you were somehow granted access to the mind of dolphins?
Consider this: Dolphins have a brain the same size, or slightly larger, than ours. They have been on the planet fully evolved since before humans came down from the trees and during all those tens of millions of years their brain has been free to develop. They do not need to use any of their brain for fine motor control of fingers and thumbs and toes. That must free up even more brainpower. Who do humans think we are to doubt them? They are a huge mystery to our poor limited human intelligence. But the lack is in us – not them. To them we must seem like some newly evolved kind of planetary pest, poisoning their oceans and stealing their food.
As for divine inspiration, my deities are fictional characters. I thought I invented them. But as I wrote this story, it felt as though Father Clement and Sister Sterne were sitting in the corner of the room bossing me around, telling me what to write and insisting I get it right. They were demanding bosses to work for, but also a lot of fun. It felt as though I was just the tool they had chosen to get this very important story through to humanity before it is too late. But what an honour to be the one they chose! Why me of all people on this planet?
Do you believe in reincarnation? Why or why not?
I do think that the spirit goes back to the universe and may continue elsewhere in some other form. The universe is so vast, it would be mathematically unlikely that we would be on the same planet twice without millions of years passing in between. So dying and coming back as someone else with links to those still living? No, I don’t think so. But one unit of spiritual energy experiencing many different life-forms in the universe over many aeons? Quite likely, I think.
I love how you have the dolphins communicate with each other via thoughtstreams. Can you explain to our readers how you came up with the concept?
I came up with that idea by imagining myself inside the head of the dolphin and looking at humans from the dolphin point of view. You hear of people who try to teach captive dolphins to communicate with them via sounds, objects, signals etc. It made me wonder if meanwhile, perhaps the dolphin is trying to get through to the human using a more advanced form of communication in use throughout a “developed universe,” which, by implication, humanity is not part of. That method is thought-streaming. But no matter how hard the dolphin tries, the human just doesn’t get it! Human brains aren’t quite there yet.
In my current story a dolphin finally manages to make limited thought-streamed contact, but only with a sleeping human during a dream.
The character of Ripple is seen as an outcast because no one can understand her talent. How did you come up with her character?
I started to write but kept stalling. So I stopped writing the story and wrote pages of notes about Ripple’s character before continuing. I started with the understanding that she was an ancient tired spirit in a new young athletic body. An interesting mix. This was her last chance to achieve the objective she had sought for all those lives. It gave her enormous motivation, but it also created stress making her quick-tempered and nervous. Also remember the deities had chosen her parents very carefully ensuring she had a blend of their qualities. She inherited beauty, kindness and the capacity to love, from Pearl. Rigel bequeathed her his great intellect, his courage and his legendary physical strength and speed. Both parents had enormous will.
Do you have a favorite character in this story? If so, which one and why?
Ripple for her soaring searching spirit, Father Clement and Squelch for the laughs, Cosmo for his resilience in the face of tragedy, Rigel for being so much like my own stepfather, the seraphim for being like the many naughty but lovable children I’ve taught in my life, who flowered in the end as the seraphim did. Rev for being like my own brothers, Rikoriko for representing healing and new beginnings. I love all my characters in different ways and am grateful to have been so close to them all for so long. Sister Sterne was a little like me as a teacher. I used to drive my students hard at times to get the very best from them. I’m terrified of Erishkigal.
You managed to make many readers care about your characters. Was the reaction you received expected?
I was stunned when the reviews began arriving to find that others were responding just as I’d always hoped and dreamed they would. The very first response arrived by a Facebook posting. I read it and looked out the window in tears and suddenly there were loud explosions and fireworks going off all over the night sky outside my window, perfectly timed for my magical moment as though they were specially for me. I’d forgotten it was Guy Fawkes night! Even when I remembered it didn’t matter.
I’ve made a point of never asking for reviews, so the ones I get are all genuine unsolicited responses.
At the start of the story, Ripple is searching for something, and she eventually finds what she’s looking for. I viewed the theme of your book as not being afraid to seek and live out your dreams. Is this something you intended?
“Not being afraid” you say. Yes, fear often prevents us. Your most vivid childhood dreams and longings may have arrived with your spirit, fresh from the Hereafter. These could be more important than you think. I told my own children never to abandon them. They didn’t. I think it was just one theme of the story but not necessarily the most important.
The necessity to conquer one’s fear in order to live life to the fullest is also another theme you cover in your story. Have you ever had to conquer a fear in your own life that made you feel like Ripple?
Many times. I think, like Ripple, I’m quite a nervous person. But it hasn’t stopped me achieving things once I set my mind to it. These achievements have been sometimes intellectual, sometimes physical and sometimes spiritual. A physical example is the Ironman triathlon which I entered. At times in training I was reduced to tears and the challenge of the disciplines and distances seemed beyond me. But I completed the event itself while smiling all the way.
An intellectual example would be when our navigator left the boat in Fiji, and I had to immerse myself in mathematics to learn to navigate to get our boat home to New Zealand over thousands of ks of open sea in the days before satellite navigation. I’d always hated maths and been weakish at it. But after a long, very rough and dangerous voyage, I made a perfect landfall on North Cape. I thought of that often when Ripple used maths to find her own directions. My mentor was my stepfather, though he was far away at home in New Zealand. He was a great celestial navigator. My true-life Rigel.
Finally, for an example of a spiritual journey, requiring me to overcome fear, I can’t go past writing and publishing the story of Ripple. I’d taken the whole process so seriously but was afraid I would be laughed at. You’re not supposed to write books about talking animals unless your name is Richard Adams.
Why did you have deities narrate the story?
To me it felt as though the deities chose me to write the story, not the other way around. They were perfect for the job as they needed to have lived long enough to have seen Ripple’s previous lives, her Azuran life and still be around to bring Ripple’s story to modern humanity. They also needed to be able to read the future in order to foresee the events of Marcus’s life. Only a divine being would be capable of all this. Talk about writing from the omniscient viewpoint!
Okay, here’s a fun question for you. I can definitely see your book being turned into a movie musical. What voices do you hear portraying Ripple and Cosmo?
So easy to answer that question. How delicious to be asked! If you listen to a song called “Never saw Blue” sung by Hayley Westenra – that is the voice of Ripple in my mind.
The Simon and Garfunkel song “Sounds of Silence” is Maram in his madness.
I’ve actually re-written the words of that song to “oceanate” a few minor land references.
There’s a song called “Your Wildest Dreams” by the Moody Blues which is my Cosmo song. I’ve slightly altered the words for this one too. It played in my head while I was writing. I have a vision in my head of Cosmo zooming between galaxies in a later life thinking about Ripple and wondering if she still thinks of him in her wildest dreams.
And when the music plays
And when the words are
Touched with sorrow
When the music plays
I hear the sound
I had to follow . . (and so on.)
It would make a fantastic animated sequence – a spirit dolphin swirling around galaxies and glowing nebulae with that music playing, finally joining up with the spirit form of Ripple.
There are so many ocean references in the Moody Blues’ music and it feels so spiritual. Another of their songs, with lyrics I’ve adapted, is “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.” This is for when Ripple is looking at the stars, awaiting the return of Cosmo. The chapter has the same name.
What message would you like the reader to leave with after they’re finished with the book?
I could quote Shakespeare from Hamlet and say, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I’d like that to sink into the minds of the people who think dolphins are just animals, no different from cows and sheep – a food to be harvested from the sea. And the people who see the ocean as a useful and unlimited garbage tip. And the people who see the fish in the sea as an infinite lucrative resource for humans.
After visiting your website, I can see you have a true love and appreciation for dolphins. Tell us about the plight of the Maui dolphins. Do you feel your book can help raise awareness to their dwindling numbers?
The Maui dolphins are the world’s smallest and most rare marine dolphin. There are estimated to be fewer than fifty left alive, and they are classified as critically endangered. They live off the west coast of the North Island, including the waters closest to where I live. They are being killed by being trapped in fishing nets. Changes to our fishing zones could help, but the government is more concerned about keeping the fishing industry happy than conserving these animals, and the fishing industry disagree that change is needed.
I sign petitions, go to marches and protests and write letters to the paper, but I’m convinced that Ripple is my most important piece of activism since the consequences of dolphin extinction is the main theme of the story. These world’s most endangered ones live right beside me. Perhaps that was why my deities chose me to write the story.
I appreciate the slogan “Dolphins are Non-human People.” The way you wrote your story certainly made me believe they may even be beyond people. Tell us your feelings about dolphins in confinement. How can we get the message out that they have the right to live free?
The thought of dolphins in confinement fills me with horror. Dolphins in the wild swim vast distances in a day, they dive deep to hunt and have a naturally clean environment with no walls to hold them in. They are joyous animals who revel in their freedom and their social and family networks. In confinement their lives are greatly shortened. Some die of pure depression. They are taught to do tricks by being starved for food until they cooperate.
It is the market for captive dolphins that funds the notorious Taiji dolphin drives in Japan, where dolphins are herded (by cruel processes) into a tiny cove. Then if they are pretty enough, they are torn from their beloved families and sold into slavery for vast sums of money, and the rest are slaughtered on the spot and sold as food. The method of killing is to drive a metal pin into their blowhole to try to minimize the amount of blood spillage (blood looks bad in photos.) It is a barbarous practice.
I ask myself who is most to blame for this? The answer is clear – any person who purchases a ticket to see captive dolphins or any person who stays at a hotel where dolphins are kept to entertain guests.
Are there any links you can direct us to where we can learn more about the hardships dolphins are facing?
Here are some essential ones:
One of the above links is to the WDCS (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society) I donated every cent of the earnings from Ripple for the first six months after publication to WDCS. They are the ones promoting the idea of dolphins as non-human people.
Are there any new projects you’re working on? Perhaps a sequel to Ripple?
I have two projects under way. One is set just after Ripple and includes some of the same characters. It’s called Rigel’s Prayer. I was working on that when another story pushed itself into my brain. This one is set in modern New Zealand on Waiheke Island and has a human character, called Leo, who is a dying musician. He interacts unwittingly with a dolphin musician called Melody.
Is there any advice you’d like to give writers?
If you are about to self-publish, before you click that publish button, pay for assessment and editing and make absolutely certain the professionals you choose for the task are reputable. There are plenty out there who will take your money and tell you what they know you want to hear. Also try to write your book with the help of a group of trusted and capable fellow authors who will critique one another’s work honestly as they write.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t covered?
I’ve heard that readers are unaware that Ripple is set in New Zealand waters. It is difficult to recognize the setting because New Zealand itself was not here twenty million years ago in Ripple’s day. This country is so geologically young, it had not even emerged from the sea at the time. There was nothing here but the few islands which are mentioned in the story.
My personal website with information about Ripple is here.
This is a website I built for the local tourism association. It displays the very rural corner of NZ where I live. Many of the photos are taken by me.
Thank you, Tui, for taking the time out for this fun and informative interview.