Sarah Forster interviews the awesome Kate De Goldi, a finalist at next week’s childrens book awards, when she goes head to head with veteran author David Hill, horsist writer Stacy Gregg, and Luncheon Sausage Books star Jane Bloomfield.
Kate De Goldi is one of New Zealand’s finest writers. 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. She might win a third time at the awards ceremony next Monday night for her book, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.
What were you like as a kid?
I was a really fairly jolly optimistic kid. I was sort of the boss of all the games, for my sisters and cousins. For me, the key person was my mother who literally smothered me in books. She had a bit of independent income – she was a musician, and she bought books every week. So quite early on, I had a sense of myself as a reader.
I went to a tiny Catholic primary school in Christchurch, and had Sister Barbara as my teacher for five years. She truly was like Maria out of the Sound of Music. She could play the auto harp, and sang beautifully. My profound memory of that time was that we’d write, draw and sing, and I was allowed to write plays and get the class to perform them.
I was kind of dweeby about my reading, too, so proud. I had my own library really, and every now and then I would bestow on my cousins a tour of my library – I would take them through my different books and tell them why they were wonderful.
You were the first self-published author to win the NZ Post Book of the Year (in 2004), with Clubs: A Lolly Leopold Story, a sophisticated picture book that didn’t tick traditional publisher’s age-boxes, right?
With Lolly Leopold, Jacqui and I were sort of in our cocoon of wonderfulness. I’d been writing these stories for quite a long time and I had never found the right form for them. Then I met Jacqui, and the stories became with her, a picture book. It was turned down by, perhaps three publishers, and I can see why. There had never been anything quite like it before it, though, funnily enough, it came out at around the same time as the Lauren Child books (Charlie & Lola), which I think are a little similar in the relationship of text and image. We hadn’t actually seen these books previously – interesting when things like that happen at the same time.
You say your writing always finds an audience. Have you been at odds with publishers over what audience to appeal to?
There was a little bit of a debate for me around The 10pm Question being marketed as a Young Adult book. For me, it was a children’s book. It hasn’t got any of the elements of what I think of as a YA book. The main protagonist isn’t a teenager, for a start. When I wrote The 10pm Question, I had no idea who was going to read it, it was just an urgent story. And it took five years to write it off and on. I was faintly despairing, at times. I just put everything into it that I’d ever wanted to do in a children’s book. And it seemed to work.
The character of Barney Kettle was inspired by your filmmaker nephew. Do you often mine your relatives’ lives for your writing?
It’s irresistible mining stuff around you. Characters are amalgams of all sorts of people. When my kids were little, I wrote books for teenagers, then when they were teenagers I started writing picture books and children’s books. In some funny kind of way I was probably trying to avoid writing about them directly. But I did aspects of my son Jack for The 10pm Question. I didn’t take his life, just a particular tendency of his. He read it, the first two chapters – to make sure it was okay for him, and it was.
I see you are in an event called “Can books change the world?” at the writers festival in Christchburch. What are some of your thoughts on that?
I’m an unashamed believer. I’m someone who’s been constructed by books, my sense of self, how to think about other people, how to understand other people’s realities is largely down to reading. I often say to kids in schools – this isn’t original but from a famous photography book by John Szarkowski called Windows and Mirrors – here is a couplet to use for all creative endeavours: “A good book is both a mirror and a window. It reflects you back at yourself, but it opens out to other possibilities, other worlds too.”
I’ve spent my whole life being in other realities. There’s a huge amount of research now showing that reading makes you rich. Literally – as economic outcomes are better if you’re a reader. More importantly, it makes you culturally rich. And reading fiction helps you to understand other people’s experiences in the world. Now, in this time of my life, I want every reading experience to be good and full, and disturbing – in the best way. I’m reading an interesting book at the moment about book clubs in a Canadian prison, working with long-term inmates – The Prison Book Club, by Ann Walmsley. It’s not brilliantly written, but the content is powerful – men in crisis reflecting on story and character and having strong responses to them, which change them. And I guess for me, it’s clear that a reading habit can literally bounce kids out of poverty. It’s potentially life-changing – a good change agent.
Despite being incredibly busy with your own work, you have always made time to visit schools. What do you get from schools?
It might be my favourite part of my working life, I think. Schools reflect their communities so there is a great variety of schools throughout the country. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to go into them. You get a heartbeat of the country, of the young people. I have massive respect for the teaching profession. I love school cultures. And the students. I find them hilarious, exciting, stimulating, moving… it may sound sentimental, but I feel enriched having gone to them.
What trends in literature are you most excited about at the moment?
I’ve kind of gone back to my true love, which is – for want of a better word – middle fiction, or older fiction. The great group of books that nourish kids between 9 and 12, though there is a dearth of the good stuff at the moment. Young Adult fiction seems to be having it’s day. I’m really happy that there are publishers like Makaro Press, like Luncheon Sausage Press, bringing out good middle fiction, I’m thrilled that those books have been shortlisted for the book awards. I think some really interesting publishing is happening in smaller presses now, where keen, dedicated, imaginative people like Mary [McCallum, at Makaro] and Steve [Braunias, of Luncheon Sausage Books fame] and others are working. I think that’s fantastic.
The other thing I’m interested in at the moment is what is described as illustrated narrative non-fiction for kids. Americans have always done that really well, but there’s been a resurgence of it lately, round the world. Like Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill – where the illustrations tell much of the story in a most beautiful, innovative way. It’s interesting that these books are appearing at exactly the moment that everybody’s saying kids aren’t reading non-fiction books because it’s all available online.
That’s why they are appearing, isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s an endorsement of the book as a much needed object.
Tomorrow: another interview with another likely winner (maybe), David Hill. The winners of the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced on the evening of Monday, August 8 at Circa Theatre in Wellington.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
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