Set in Masterton in 1999, Tess tells us the story of a drifter with unusual powers. Author Kirsten McDougall explores the world of a girl on the run, who is drawn into the troubles of the family of Lewis Rose, who picked her up one rainy evening. McDougall’s rich language takes us into the centre of these family dynamics, as Tess comes to understand that all families have their secrets.
Sarah Forster asks her a few questions about the book, as part of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Finalist blog tour.
1. What did you begin with, when you wrote Tess? The character, a plot point, a setting? Can you describe the process of writing it?
The germ of Tess was in a notebook I found a few years after making this note: ‘a story about a girl who can see people’s memories’. I actually remember writing that note. I was at the Embassy Theatre waiting for a movie to start. Theatres are great places to daydream in I think – I often have ideas for stories when I’m in a dark, warm theatre.
I began writing Tess at the beginning, with the image of a young woman walking on a back road outside Masterton, with her hair and clothes wet. I didn’t really know what was going to happen to her, but I knew I wanted her to be desperate and down on her luck. When Lewis’s car comes along at first, I didn’t know what was going to happen – whether he’d mean her well or ill. I wrote it quickly, but left it sitting around for a good year before I agreed to let VUP publish it. I’d had a very bad reader’s report on the MS and it knocked all the confidence out of me and it took me a year to let my colleagues at VUP convince me that really it was good enough to publish.
2. Tess lives in a world haunted by the dangerous spectres of men and their desires. I find it interesting to think about gender in crime fiction and the power dynamics afforded by it – can you tell me your inspiration for Tess’s way of living in the world?
Power dynamics affect everything right – they shape our world. The only people who can be indifferent are those who hold the power. Tess has little power, even the strange power she has makes her weird and outsider-ish. I definitely wanted to write about the power men have over women.
There was a period in my life where I hated men, I’d walk down the street scowling at anyone male. I don’t feel that anymore (I’m the mother of two sons!) but I can see I tapped into that anger memory to write this book. The scene where Tess is set upon by some rural bogans on the High St of Masterton – that’s a scene straight out of my teenage years. It’s wrong that a woman shouldn’t be able to walk along a street at night without fearing for her safety. Maybe I am still angry – but I no longer scowl, I put it in my writing.
3. I’ve been looking at articles for the definition of what makes crime fiction just that, and I certainly agree that the novel would fall over without the crime. Yet there are no detectives, no procedural drama, and not even a hint of an autopsy! Were you tempted to go for tropes once you realised the way the plot was leading you.
I actually wrote a scene with Jean and Tess and a cop but it was no good and I couldn’t be bothered to make it good. The energy I can feel in a scene as I write it is how I know if it’s a keeper. If I can’t get excited or I can’t be bothered to continue till I am excited, I know to dump it. So I guess the answer is – tropes need to come of themselves, naturally out of a scene.
It’s lovely my book is up for the Ngaio Marsh Award, but I don’t consider myself someone who has written a ‘crime fiction’. This is not because I have ideas about hierarchies in genre, it’s because I know that good crime fiction has things it needs to do, to satisfy readers who go out and buy crime fiction. I’m reading Denise Mina’s The Long Drop at present. Now, that is good crime fiction – her knowledge and technical skills are really impressive.
Having said that – I’m really not a fan of typecasting books by genre (see my note about YA below). I like to wander into a novel and learn its rules as I read – formulaic books bore me as a reader, and as a writer. I loved them as a child though. I reread all the Famous Five books over and over as a kid because their formulaic quality comforted me. I guess I’m not looking for comfort when I read anymore.
The thing with crime is essentially it’s about boundaries – what society is willing to tolerate and sometimes the line between moral and immoral, right and wrong, just and unjust is very filmy and complex. This is a ripe space for fiction. As a reader, the books I’m most interested in are those ones that explore situations that aren’t clear cut. I like moral ambiguity, I like people who are good and bad in one package. Long John Silver is one of the best characters for that reason, he’s bad but you can’t help really liking him.
4. Staying with Louis, for Tess, is ‘Better than being surrounded by people who wanted something from her, people whose blackness threatened to swallow her up.’ This leads soon to a memory of what she did with Benny prior to running away. Can you speak to the importance of backstory in your formulation of Tess’s further actions?
Well, our history is what makes us who we are. We all behave in certain ways because we hold our histories in our bodies and whether we are conscious of it or not, our childhood informs our adult behaviour. Tess isn’t someone who is able to make great decisions because she just hasn’t had the solid background and support that people need to make good decisions about what they do or who they hang out with.
Backstory can be technically problematic in fiction. It can slow down the action, make for a plodding story. We’ve all read those novels where there’s two or more temporal storylines and you make your favourite, and skim read the storylines you’re less fond of. Tess is a short novel with the focus on one character, so the backstory is brief, just enough to fill you in and, hopefully, ramp up the tension in the present-day action.
I’d like to write a novel with no flashbacks whatsoever. I don’t have anything against them, but I’d like to try, just for the sport of it.
5. Something I had cause to reflect on during my second read of the book was the comparative social status of Tess, in opposition to Louis and his broken family. Was this interplay of social status important to the novella?
Absolutely. From the very first I wanted to write about different classes intersecting. It’s not explicit in the novel – like, ‘This is a book about class’, but it’s very much there. Of course families can be broken no matter their class. In my book Lewis Rose is solid middle class, which hasn’t saved him from having a dreadful time of it.
Tess recognises the beauty of his home from the start – the luxury of space in his house and garden, of the large wooden dining table that shows all the signs of people spending hours around it, of books in a separate living room – these are all things that people with a certain level of income take for granted but Tess has never lived in a house like this because she’s working class poor.
For me, the kindest part of Lewis is that he shares his home with Tess, with someone who it would be easy to assume will nick off with some of your property. He does this out of loneliness, but also because he can see she needs care. Perhaps when you lose what Lewis has lost, you stop caring so much about property.
6. Can you describe the effect on Tess and Jean of their witnessing of the destruction of their mothers? How important is this in bonding them in their relationship?
Tess and Jean bond because they recognise a need in each other that was created because they had shit mothers. I think people can feel need or lack in other people, even within a minute of meeting another person. We’ve all met those people we want to run from at a party because they give off neediness and those people we’re drawn to because we recognise something of ourselves in them; a similar level of brokenness. Both Tess and Jean have a way of toughing it out in the world, hiding their vulnerabilities, albeit badly. The thing about hiding your vulnerabilities is that it’s exhausting. Tess and Jean meet at a point when they’re both so tired of hiding, and they recognise that they can comfort one another.
I’ve come to realise that shit mothers are one of my obsessions in fiction. My next fiction will be even more about this. I have so much to say on this subject.
7. When I finished Tess the first time I thought – well this is a coming-of-age story, I wonder if I could review it on The Sapling as YA. Did you think of this as you were writing – that it might fit in that market?
Yeah, people have said that about it, probably because the protagonists are 19/20 years old. You know, I want people of all ages to read my work, I don’t care how old they are. I have no respect for the YA/Adult divide. I think YA was created as a separate genre for marketing in publishing houses, for ease of shelving in bookshops and libraries and to ease the moral concerns of some parents. I hate it when people get all uptight about what ‘shouldn’t be’ in a ‘YA’ book, like all the panic over Ted Dawe’s Into the River when he won the Children’s Book Award. Surely, the only question should be – is it any good? Is the writing good?
By the time I was 12 I’d skimmed for the sex scenes in many Judith Krantz books – and that’s the crap that’s actually dangerous, books where I got ideas about what women’s bodies should look like, what ‘normal’ sex is, as opposed to the glorious smorgasboard of real world bodies and sex.
The best thing I heard said about YA fiction is that it should offer hope. Who are we to rain on a kids’ parade?
8. Finally, something general! Do you read or watch crime fiction? Give us some recommendations!
I guess if I was going to broadly make statements about what I like I’d say I like ‘whydunnits’ more than ‘whodunnits’. The one thing I really don’t like is sex-crime fiction. I mistakenly took myself and a friend to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside of Me one film festival. I’ve loved many of his films, but this was horrific, about a cop who does these violent sex crimes and I just don’t see the point of making that film.
Is Daphne du Maurier crime fiction? I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. I recently watched Search Party on Netflix – satirical millennial crime fiction which is smart and funny and horrific. I had my Kurt Wallander phase, though some of those books are clunky as. Also, I just saw The Guilty at this year’s film festival, which is a Danish thriller set in a police emergency call centre. The action never leaves the one room and plays out in real time. It was tense and brilliant.