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BooksFebruary 16, 2023

Rat King Landlord: Why Renters United is releasing a free edition of the cult novel


Author and activist Murdoch Stephens has joined with Renters United to run a PledgeMe campaign to reissue and give away for free to renters an illustrated edition of his novel about the inequalities of housing in Aotearoa. We spoke to him, and Éimhín O’Shea and Robert Whitaker of Renters United, about the project.

Rat King Landlord was first published in 2020. What was the impetus to reissue it in 2023? 

Murdoch: Rat King Landlord is one of a few books (see also Milk Island by Rhydian Thomas and Lonely Asian Woman by Sharon Lam) that our publishing collective put out that was widely read by a young crowd. Their word of mouth has kept sales steady. Maybe because on top of clearly being a novel about class, it also speaks to animal liberation, gender expectations and xenophobia. And hey, it is not like rents have suddenly become affordable. So I think – and every author will say this –  that there is still lots of life in the book. Reprint! Reissue! Reanimate! I’m actually still toying with a follow up fan-fic version … watch this space.

I first met Rob from Renters United to talk about the project in late 2020. We had a few drinks and the idea simmered away for a couple of years. But it was only when the current team of Geordie and Éimhín came together that we started planning in earnest. Of course, in an election year it is a great chance to do something slightly different to keep renter experiences on the minds of voters. People seem to think with the property market tanking a bit that things have somehow gotten better for renters. But that just is not the case.

Lawrence and Gibson mostly publish standard sized paperbacks. Why did a tabloid format make sense for this edition? How much does the format change the meaning of the novel?

Murdoch: The main idea was to make an ultra-low cost, full-colour version that we could give away. I asked a friend who worked at Stuff, on a whim, what it would cost. When the price came back it was pretty reasonable. Two years later with price hikes, it was less reasonable. Hence the PledgeMe campaign. Then, when Rob thought of bringing in illustrators, it just made sense to give people full page, full-colour spreads to draw across.

The fear that a tabloid size might have unreadable walls of text is countered by three components: Rob’s excellent design, the regular chapter breaks and the brilliance of the illustrations. 

I also know that tabloid versions can go horribly wrong. I’ve got three tabloid format books on my shelf. The best is a reissue of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings which was a supplement to the Buenos Aires Herald back in the day. It’s a gorgeous thing, with the original images from Hermenegildo Sàbat luxuriously spread across the newsprint. The other two are almost unreadable. Yikes!

How do you feel about the silver and gold editions of Rat King Landlord as a status symbol? That is – what kind of status do they symbolise? 

Murdoch: I feel like people buying the shiny copies are aware of the satire inherent in those pledges: a silver copy for $49 as a homeowners edition and a gold copy for the property speculators (guaranteed 14.9% return on investment!). It was just our way to be clear about the economic differences inherent in these discussions: homeowners can generally afford to chip in a bit more; landlords more so. I guess you could call it progressive taxation. That said, we’ve only had one or two of the gold property speculator editions sold so perhaps that one was a bit on the nose?

More generally, I feel fine about books functioning as status symbols as long as that isn’t all they function as. I mean I’m all for a fully automated luxurious society of shiny things, as long as it is grounded in democracy and social justice. And isn’t it better to calm our middle class anxieties by collecting pretty books than, say, buying a Ferrari?

Tell us about the process of choosing illustrators and illustrations for this edition – how did you decide what to illustrate?

Rob from Renters United: We had a few contacts to draw on from previous design projects and in turn those people were very willing to recommend others. We have now learned there is a very supportive network of illustrators in Aotearoa. In the mix was also a fair bit of Googling and scrolling Instagram. From that research we drew up a long list of illustrators and artists to approach. Because we couldn’t guarantee payment, we wanted to make sure that what we were was as clear as possible so it was easy for artists to grasp the project and figure out whether they could fit it in.

The response was overwhelming to be honest with many supportive messages even from those who couldn’t fit it in. Part of that was producing an initial design where we left interesting shaped illustration spaces so the artists themselves could pick their spot as well as how they wanted to go about illustrating it. Some chose to focus on a scene on their page or spread, others decided to go broader. This has led to a very diverse set of illustrations both in style and subject that we honestly can’t wait to share.

Images from the Renters United edition of Rat King Landlord, with illustrations (left to right) from Robert Whitaker, EJ Thorpe and Hingyi Khong

What response would you like from landlords and property managers who read the novel? 

Éimhín from Renters United: Under the surface of what’s a surreal and bitterly funny novel lies a deeply uncomfortable fact: our society fundamentally privileges those who own homes over those who do not. Housing is a human right, and we’ve allowed it to become a commodity at the expense of the most vulnerable in our communities. Renting as it stands is inherently exploitative and dehumanising. That has to change. 

We hope that landlords or property managers who read this edition (and enjoy the pictures!), also reflect on what it means to profit from human necessity. The problems with renting are systemic and political. We need solutions that are systemic and political.

But for now we also need to recognise that individuals are making these decisions: landlords and property managers should support reforms that make housing more just, stop hoarding housing, and treat renters with dignity. At root, we need them to understand that someone else’s home is not just an address and number in their portfolio. Everything is a choice: increasing rent, neglecting maintenance, discriminating against certain demographics, none of this is predestined and every day they have the ability to either improve or devastate someone’s life. We hope reading this book encourages them to think long and hard about what choices they’re making.

Murdoch: I should return to how we first framed the book: “Not Landlords Who Are Rats, But Rats Becoming Landlords”. That said, I see politics as inherently antagonistic (or agonistic). We can aim for consensus, but in many matters not everything can be win-win. So, I basically don’t care what property managers and landlords think: they’ve closely aligned their personal interests with profiting from a basic human need – shelter – so I suspect they’ll never be part of the solution. 

But that’s all a bit negative, eh? My real hope for the book, outside of giving renters a sense of solidarity, is to forge connections between renters and homeowners. Together, we’re the overwhelming majority. And it is worth emphasising that a system that makes housing a commodity hurts homeowners more than it helps them. We see that homeowners already know this in all the recent surveys where people overwhelmingly agree that housing prices need to drop. 

Briefly, can you tell us about Renters United and what the mission is?

Éimhín: we are an advocacy group that organises renters and campaigns to make renting in New Zealand better for everyone. We see decent housing as a basic human right and our broken renting system as a barrier to realising this right for all. We’re led by renters and are a people-powered organisation who work to change and improve legislation, educate renters and property owners, and to radically shift what it means to rent and be a renter in Aotearoa using a wide range of campaigns and tools. 

What the special edition of Rat King Landlord comes with.

How does Rat King Landlord fit into the broader history of activist literature, and of Renter’s United’s advocacy and campaigns? 

Murdoch: I wish I had a good answer for this! Prior to writing I was inspired by two works of activist literature: first, the anarchist parody polemic The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free where the young lead character experiences revolution in Britain; second, by the novels of Spitzenprodukt (aka Huw Lemmey), including Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell. So in terms of activist literature, my novel is connected to novels that are not only concerned with issues of social justice but are also set in a landscape where activism develops. But hey, I’m open to other folks’ best of activist literature recommendations – message me!

Éimhín: We operate across many different levels of the political landscape and a crucial part of doing so is illustrating and sharing with New Zealanders the realities of renting in Aotearoa but it’s just as important to be sharing a vision for how things could and should be. This project is a really fun and compelling way of sharing that vision, along with a bunch of helpful resources and examples of our work such as our Plan to Fix Renting with a new audience who will hopefully be encouraged to get involved and help us improve renting for all. That we get to help share such a fantastic novel and beautiful illustrations for free with Lawrence & Gibson while doing that is an added bonus. It’s important for activism to be fun! Renters United will be undertaking a variety of campaigns and projects across 2023, this is one part of what will be a huge year for renters.

At the time of writing, you’ve raised more than three times the minimum amount you need to get the project off the ground. What will you use any extra funds towards?

Murdoch: Maybe we under-pitched the minimum amount, but we know people are doing it tough at the moment so we truly did go for the minimum amount we needed to use the cheapest newsprint and to only do 2000 copies. We’re now at the point where we can print on the same paper the weekly real estate supplement uses.

Our stretch goals are to get some cash to the illustrators who have donated their skills so far, to really pump up the number of copies we make and then to pay for the big cost – distribution! After that, we’ll be putting some cash back into the Renters United coffers for their other 2023 projects and, hey, maybe we’ll do a reprint if the demand is there.

Finally, your other novel Down from Upland has been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Congratulations! What does that feel like?

Murdoch: it feels great to be on the longlist and to have the subsequent attention for the book. As with a lot of writers, I just want more people who might enjoy the novel to read it. More broadly, the end of year best-of lists and awards announcements are just a hectic time. A few books make the lists and other great books miss out. Lawrence & Gibson is a publishing collective and we’ve had our fair share of longlistings – six of our last ten books! – but this is my first time and, to be honest, I’m just doing my best to savour the moment while it lasts.

You can pledge to the Special Renters United illustrated edition of Rat King Landlord here. And you can purchase the original edition at Lawrence & Gibson here. You can also purchase Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence & Gibson, $30) from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

Keep going!