Kate De Goldi is one of New Zealand’s finest writers, a truly inspiring speaker, and an excellent reviewer in all mediums. She has won the overall Children’s Book of the Year twice – in 2005 for picture book Clubs: A Lolly Leopold Story, and in 2009 for The 10pm Question. Last night, she won the Junior Fiction category at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, with From The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.
I had lunch with her a few weeks ago. Most of this interview went up on The Spinoff last week. However, there were a few discussions we had about specifics regarding Barney Kettle that I thought that fans of the book may be intrigued by. So here are the questions that missed out (one includes the very interesting information that Kate is currently writing a script for the film of Barney Kettle!)
In Barney Kettle, the thrillingalchemy of film-making happens as much when editing as it does when making film itself. When writing, do you typically start out with a lot more ‘film’ than you end up with? Are you a constant self-editor?
A book takes quite a long time to gestate for me. I often work on the front end of the book for a couple of years.
With Barney Kettle, the last part of it was written in three months, but it was a long time coming – it’s much more plotty than my other books so there were more mechanics. But the key thing with Barney Kettle was finding the narrative perspective – the unknown narrator. I started it in other ways, and it didn’t have enough depth for me, so I wrote that opening scene as a kind of instruction to myself. I mentioned the children finding the envelopes – at that stage I had no idea what the envelopes were, what they would have in them. But I had to give myself some parameters. I knew I wanted them to be chasing down some mystery as well as making a documentary. So that’s how it always begins. I edit as I go. I don’t do many drafts – I only do one really, but very very slowly.
I tried to work a bit differently with Barney [than with other books]. I had a daily word count – you have to keep on putting the wood on yourself to stop you falling into your old writing ruts, so I gave myself a target word limit once I settled into it. It was a very interesting discipline, and it did move things forward quite quickly, I stopped agonising about sentences until it came to the editing. And the next day I’d go back and discard half of it, but I had still moved forward. But every book’s different.
Let’s talk about the earthquakes. How frequently have you been to Christchurch since, and what is it like to walk around the streets you once knew so well, but no longer recognise?
During the period the earthquakes were happening, my parents were starting to decline. So I was down there a lot, practically lived there in 2010, so I was there for several earthquakes, and Dad only died last October, so I’d been going down every six weeks for five years. My sisters are there, I’m really close to them, and many of my cousins.
Is it coming back? It must have been heartbreaking, the first few times.
It’s kind of unreal really, I’ve talked about this with others before – there’s a different experience of the earthquake for people who used to live in Christchurch and don’t live there anymore, ex-pats.
For the first couple of years, the first year, it was awful. The quakes were going on – the people who lived through it had this total – dreadful – experience – those who weren’t there, who came and went, had a different kind of experience. Christchurch has always been my place, but I’m very aware that I didn’t experience that total life-change. It was more an imaginative change for me.
The most startling thing for me, was this time last year I went down with my daughter to Christchurch to see Dad, he was in care near where we used to live in Shirley, backing on to Avonside. I somehow, in all the three years that Dad had been in care, had never been in that area. And my daughter wanted to go explore to see the houses of her old friends. We turned into River Road and I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a flourishing suburb before. And now it’s vanished. I felt like I was in a film, I felt like I was in Back to the Future. Or like we’d been transported back to the 19th century, before anything was built there.
And I sort of was obsessed with it. I kept going back, took my sister the next day, driving round and round. It was haunting. You could see all the section parameters – the fences weren’t there – but the tree planting was, you could see where houses were. And there were ghost bus stops. There’s a character in Joe Bennett’s King Rich, who – watching the earthquakes from afar – says she feels as though her childhood had been erased. I recognised that feeling.
My earthquake experience is part of Barney Kettle. Writing it was a bit of a lament for that lost childhood, and that lost place. The High Street is representative of the lost Christchurch.
Your sense of place is incredible in Barney Kettle: you could walk from shop to shop with Barney and Ren, or follow them around as Orange Boy and Crimson Girl did – does place for you start from detail, or does it begin broad & get painted in by your imagination?
It comes and goes. I did greatly enjoy a writing day when I was going into a new shop with Barney and Ren, and I was able to describe it. I had such fun. I love thing-ness. That book is just full of stuff. And that’s the stuff of a child’s life – thing-ness. Objects, people, so I just wanted it to be filled with all that sort of stuff. And biscuits.
If there is one thing I wished while reading Barney Kettle, it was to read the zines that Orange Boy and Crimson Girl wrote and drew: have you got your own copies of these, or did they stay in your imagination?
No. I did have to think about them quite carefully, about the 8 pages of them. I had to give a sense of them without completely retelling them. I imagined them quite carefully, though.
Did you ever have a point where you thought, I’d like that to be on the page there?
I did initially think that maybe the zines would be in the book, but it seemed better that it wasn’t illustrated in the end. Actually I’m writing a film script for the book now, it’s been optioned by an Australian film company and who knows if it will ever be made, but they are a fantastic team of people and their MO, when adapting, is to work the author. I tried to tell them it wasn’t a very good idea – cowardice mostly – but they convinced me otherwise. And I’m so pleased. It has been the most instructive experience. It’s been really interesting learning how to tell a story visually. I’m not naturally that good at it, but I’m enjoying learning. They saw the book as very filmic – obviously it has filming in it, but there are the zines too, which lend themselves to animation.
I love zines because they’re such democratic forms of storytelling and they allow for all sorts of capacity – drawing and writing and photocopying and pasting and sewing etc. Quite a lot of the antic humour in Barney comes from the zines I’ve read over the years. I liked making up the zines’ titles in the comic shop. But I liked the idea, too, that there would be a mysterious envelope for the kids to open. With the little story inside, so there are character studies within character studies… It’s quite a populated book.
I am looking forward to getting the finished version of Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris’ Annual, produced with Gecko Press, out this October.
Annual will be the first publication of its kind in New Zealand., and features a dictionary of crazy words that come in handy on car trips, a sophisticated ‘spot the similarity’, a found poem from school newsletters, a maths-nerd’s memoir full of tricky logic puzzles, and top-class fiction that spans Christchurch Botanic Gardens in the 19th C, the loss of a brother, a Kiwi beach holiday, and a Fontanian boarding school.
Kate De Goldi interviewed by Sarah Forster