Kate De Goldi’s novels and picture books really engage you. A winner of numerous awards, including the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards and the Esther Glen Medal, her books have a specific type of sophistication that respects and challenges her readers. Inspired by her own veracious reading appetite when growing up and a love of the new wave of post war children’s fiction, she builds her novels with cinematic layers that are as much about the set and scenery as they are about the plot.
As with her previous award winning novel, The 10pm Question, there’s a degree of line-blurring when it comes to defining her target age for her latest book, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle. So I have to ask, “Is this book for young adults? Or is this a book that can be read and enjoyed by young and old alike, like the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?” Kate: “Good question. I’d like to say it’s a book that can be read by anyone from 9 – 90, because I think there are some reasonably sophisticated language and ideas at play.”
One of the things that De Goldi says inspired her most recent writing, was the post-war ‘middle range fiction’ that really ‘nourished her insatiable appetite’ as a teenage reader. She says that nowadays the publishing world has been keener to produce age appropriate works, particularly in the young adult space. She wanted to create a book that was less age prescriptive.
In her latest book, From The Cutting Room Of Barney Kettle, we meet filmmaker Barney Kettle, who likes to invent stories, but in this case finds the real oil right under his nose. The book opens with a letter written from a hospital bed by an unnamed man, as he recovers from serious injuries. He introduces his project: a story about Barney Kettle which he writes over many months, as he slowly recovers. He writes to remember the street where he lived, home to a whole raft of strange, weird and interesting people and bizarre, singular shops and curious stories. He writes to remember the last few summer days. Before he was injured; before it all came crashing down; before his world vanished.
“Every filmmaker is a megalomaniac” – the perfect summary of many of the most famous directors – from Fellini to Spielberg to Jackson, all crazy obsessed nutters and brilliant visionaries. Then there’s Barney. “The character of Barney was inspired by my nephew Rowan, who has been making films since he was about 6 years old, corralling his relatives and his whole neighbourhood into whatever project he was up to at the time. His devotion was such that on the day of the first Christchurch earthquake, the day of his first job at a production house, his first instinct wasn’t to dive for cover but to grab the camera and start filming. Which he did. All day! He’s now an animator. Barney is Rowan, but he’s also a bit of me too – as my sisters will attest. He’s someone who’s utterly focused on making something and seeing it all the way through to the end.”
Much of the book revolves around the idea of editing, chopping up, re-arranging, the pieces, all exacerbated by the unexpected but significant event that threatens to take over the story. It’s not hard to find direct links and references to post-2011 Canterbury. Because she grew up there, Christchurch was always destined to be a major character in the book. She actually started writing about Barney and the High Street before the earthquakes but had to stop, “because the coordinates changed. I came back to the High Street that was destroyed. But I couldn’t not include the event, it was a major part of my landscape.”
“I wanted to capture a High Street that was a lively, colourful fantastic place, with layers of history and with its own community. I always wanted to write about children at play in a community is a street like this, the kind that you only get in a city. The kids are kind of parented by the others in the street. They have real relationships with the adults, as well as each other. Anyone with an appetite for eccentric figures will more likely find them here. It doesn’t happen in the gated suburbs, where people are more spread out.”
“This is my, heightened, slightly imagined version of the (Christchurch) High Street,” De Goldi says, “with a slightly personal history too. A couple of my generations have lived in buildings above these shops. We all went to that Basilica for mass. It’s part of my family’s fond, collective history. We remember the shops and people and those days we were there. And now as a Wellingtonian I always go back there for my frame of reference. Even though, now it only exists in memory. Much of the street came down and is rubble now.”
Also an important part of the picture, De Goldi says, was to set Barney living over an old school junk shop. “The kind that Christchurch’s High Street were once full of, with discarded fashions, lawnmowers, TVs and appliances and all manner of bric-a-brac.” The ultimate props room for a filmmaker, and a place of constant visual inspiration.
The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle is definitely one of those multi-layered books that will, hopefully, invite many re-reads as its reader gets older. For the younger reader, there’s the opportunity to explore a world lost forever. For older readers, perhaps a chance to remember a world that is still alive in their own imagination.
Interview by Tim Gruar
The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre, Penguin Random House NZ