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HJ Kilkelly’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)
HJ Kilkelly’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksNovember 22, 2023

‘He didn’t even bat an eyelid’: HJ Kilkelly’s ‘on brand’ author encounter

HJ Kilkelly’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)
HJ Kilkelly’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: co-director of Prospect Park Productions and Ōtepoti Writers Lab, HJ Kilkelly.

The book I wish I’d written

Hands down, The Savage Coloniser, by Tusiata Avia. Sharp, witty, political, thought provoking, conversation sparking, illustrative, informative … it’s all the things I wish I could get on paper, on stage, into the world. 

Everyone should read

Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam because it is the most on the nose, uncomfortable yet utterly compelling book I’ve read to date that speaks to what is so bloody wrong with New Zealand (and many other places, too). I already say to anyone who will listen that this should be a prescribed text for each and every human who calls this country home. So, honestly stoked to be asked this question, lol. 

The book I want to be buried with

Wāhine Toa, by Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace. This book has been with me since I was a teenager, struggling with all the things I couldn’t name about who I was. The illustrations moved me in a way I hadn’t really encountered before, sparking a lifelong love of Kahukiwa’s visual storytelling. The writing opened me up to the world of our atua wāhine, a distinct departure at the time from the more commonly told stories focused on tāne (Maui, I’m looking at you).

The book I’ve pretend I’ve read

the bone people by Keri Hulme. I feel like the worst human for not having read this book. I don’t pretend exactly; I just make out like I’m going to get around to reading it one day. I have tried. Numerous times. I never get past the first or second page, and quite honestly, as much as I want to understand this book and its place in the world, I don’t know if I will ever get there.  

From left to right: the book HJ Kilkelly wishes she’d written and the book she thinks we should all read.

It’s a crime against language to

Create a cookbook that has not been edited or proofread thoroughly. Let’s be real, most normal humans don’t actually read the recipe through properly before starting the process; at best, you read the ingredients, maybe prep, maybe ignore, then bowl straight on in. To get to the end of the recipe and find leftover items that have NEVER been mentioned again since the ingredient list … The Worst.

The book that made me cry

The first book that ever made me cry (and one of only maybe a handful ever) was The Insatiable Moon by Mike Riddell. It’s a haunting, but real, story, told with utmost aroha for the characters. I’m endlessly fascinated by where the invisible lines are in our minds between what is religious experience and what are chemical processes that make us act in certain ways; this book captures that uncertainty so beautifully.

The book that made me laugh

Two Hundred and Fifty ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook, by Alice Te Punga Somerville. For a long while, this book took up residence in the glove box of our car, which I think initially was by accident, but then became a feature, coz ooooh, how relevant it is as we journey around the motu. It’s definitely a “laugh or else you’ll cry when you think about it” kinda buzz, but it’s also bloody funny. Recognisable moments/places/events are captured with such wit and brevity, packing an immense punch into a relatively short book.

The most overrated book

The Edmonds Cookery Book. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it’s basic and it’s meant to be, I get it. Yes, it’s a classic. Personally, I’ve always found the recipes come out just a bit blah, a bit dry, a bit underwhelming and I just Want More. Particularly if I’m going to the effort of baking, I want the results to reflect that time and energy, to inspire me to create more and to make the people I’m feeding feel spoiled. Rock cakes? Hard pass.

Favourite encounter with an author

On my way to see an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in 2003, I was randomly attacked on the street. My nose was broken and there was a LOT of blood, but the choice was stark – go back to our accommodation and clean myself up, and miss the event; or just plod onwards and deal with it. I chose the latter, carried on my wobbly way and gave my face a quick wipe with a wet tissue in a portaloo at the festival. I can hand on heart say I will never forget having my copy of Trainspotting signed by Irvine Welsh, with blood all over my face and T-shirt. I’ve never felt more on brand and unsurprisingly, he didn’t even bat an eyelid.

From left to right: the book that made HJ Kilkelly cry; the one that made her laugh; and the book that has gifted her the best bookish food memories so far.

Best food memory from a book

The epic realism of Émile Zola’s writing is so incredibly realised in his book The Belly of Paris, and descriptions from it have stuck with me since first read. Les Halles becomes a character as vivid as any other, inextricably linking food and the injustices of society through lush tableaus of extravagance and abundance.

“This is where I have breakfast, with my eyes at any rate, and that’s better than nothing.”

What are you reading right now?

Generally, there’s at least one cookbook and one “other” book on the go. At the moment, it’s Āria, by Jessica Hinerangi, which is utterly glorious, relatable and generally kick ass. It has the ability to throw curveballs too and I love that in a book. 

Sam Low’s Modern Chinese contains accessible, make-able (is that a word?) recipes that absolutely pop off the page with deliciousness, yes – but what I love even more is the inclusion of poetry from our current poet laureate, Chris Tse, and fav playwright, Nathan Joe. This book encourages visibility on so many levels and is one of the smartest, most important books around. I’m loving flicking through it daily as it lingers on the dining room table.

Keep going!