Kate De Goldi talks From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, and the Christchurch earthquakes

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!)

Author photo Kate De Goldi_websiteIn 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.

cv_from_the_cutting_room_of_Barney_KettlyYour 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.


cv_annualI 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

Book Review: From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, by Kate De Goldi

cv_from_the_cutting_room_of_kate_de_goldi

This book will be launched tonight at Unity Books Wellington, from 6pm. It will be available in bookshops nationwide from tomorrow.  

I had to slow myself down while reading this book, to better savour the words inside. Halfway through, I already knew I wanted to re-read it. Kate De Goldi is a spectacular wordsmith. Her main characters, Ren and Barney, are alive on the page, so alive that to read their story is to experience it. I certainly experienced a craving for Sultana Pasties, Barney’s favourite biscuit, while reading each evening.

Barney Kettle, as you can probably tell from the cover and title of the book, is a filmmaker. He lives and breathes “thethrillingalchemyofthecreativeprocess”. Though he is only 12, he is certain a successful career as a film director is in his future. After all, he has already produced three 15-minute films. His teacher mum thinks he is a megalomaniac, but also thinks that this is a good thing for a film director to be. He loves nothing more than to be called ‘Maestro’. His 11-year-old sister Ren is his ‘Slash’. She plays the role of producer / assistant director / casting director / set designer / costume manager / location scout / caterer in all of his grandly schemed films.

We enter the world of Barney and Ren from the perspective of an unnamed man in a hospital bed. He begins the story twice, and the story is written, though not strictly alternately, from Barney then Ren’s points of view. The perspectives of each sibling bring a different colour to their story of the street they live on; for their fourth film is to be a documentary called the Untold Story, and it is about the Street and its residents, each of whom comes alive as they are filmed. Bambi, a Canadian acrobat, is just one of these residents: ‘She had performed with a triple trapeze in countless Big Tops; she had lived closely with clowns.’

280px-ChristchurchBasilica_gobeirneAs well as being the story of Barney, this is the story of Christchurch’s High Street prior to the earthquake. I lived in the Catholic boarding school next to the Basilica mentioned in this novel, attending there once a week for mass (and once walking inside the top of the domes). I often walked to town via High Street, and first became aware of how beautiful certain periods of architecture were while walking down it. Kate writes incredibly immersive books – as with the character of Frankie in The 10pm Question, you feel you want to jump up and down with Barney when he is excited, and your emotions plunge with Barney’s as glitches in his grand plans arise.

As well as the story of the Street, there is a mystery, which begins concurrent to the Untold Story with a simple white envelope marked ‘YOU’. We follow the siblings through the homes of their friends, filming as we go, and keeping an eye out for another envelope. One brilliant filming session happens in Montgomery’s, the community bookshop. Suit drops in to purchase his weekly book – a day early – and the siblings ask him what he likes about the shop.

Oh, it’s the ambience…. Then there is the endless potential in the books, the warmth they seem to exude, their heady aroma. The filtered light. And the hush of absorption. The holy feeling of a republic of readers. And the presiding magus – the person who brings us all this. Without Gene’s dedication, and Sarah’s and Billie’s, of course, where would we be? We would be a lesser Street.’

I feel richer for having read about the people of De Goldi’s High Street, from the bookshop to the Nut Shop, the junk shop the kids’ dad runs, to the Living History Museum – an echo of the website created by ex-High Street inhabitants, High Street Stories. I urge everybody to go and get this book and read it, no matter your age. This ode to the Christchurch of yore is phenomenally good.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre Press / Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775535768