Harry Ricketts (HR): Did books mean a lot to you as a child?
Kate De Goldi (K De G): They were my whole life really. I was a remarkably sedentary child. My mother’s favourite description of me was “the laziness drips off her”. Then there was a very significant point when I realised that the most singular thing about my life was that I had more books than any other girls I knew, and that that meant something. The really significant reading was when I started being given Puffin books on a regular basis, and the very first one I was given was 101 Dalmatians, which I read to death. I read all the classic books that girls were given, like Anne of Green Gables. I adored Alan Garner and also a wonderful writer called Jennifer Wayne. Barbara Willard remains one of my most enduring favourites. Another was Jane Langton who wrote The Diamond in the Window. I didn’t come across Margaret Mahy till she published The Haunting and The Changeover. The only New Zealand book that I was really aware of was The Runaway Settlers which I read again and again.
HR: When did you start writing?
K De G: I was “good at writing” at primary school, but never finished a thing – long, long stories about all my cousins and what we did on the weekend. And then at secondary school [St Mary’s College in Christchurch], I was wayward, so I never wrote what I was supposed to. What I mostly did was write plays and organise everyone to be in them. They were magnificent productions which involved endless amounts of props. I was obsessed with witches and I remember once taking the stock-pot to school on my bicycle because it was going to be a cauldron in a play.
HR: No fiction?
K De G: As a student at Canterbury, I wrote a story that is like a very poor forerunner of things like Sanctuary, the first part of which was published in the University magazine. The story was an attempt to find myself as a writer or to be a writer. I can remember sitting at the kitchen table with this little orange typewriter that my mother had bought me. She was desperate to find something for me to do because I was “off the curriculum” all the time. It was a very amateur effort really about myself and two girlfriends and the boyfriend of one of these girls. They objected strongly to the nature of the story. It was a bad call on my part and that scared me right off, and I never wrote another thing till I was 28.
HR: How did your first book, Like you, really, come about?
K De G: I had a baby. I was 28, and after six months of being besotted and doing very little except fold nappies and lie around I got a bit – you know – and Bruce, my husband, suggested I write something I had been talking about for a long time. And so I wrote a story about one of my uncles, which wasn’t very good, but it took the cork off the bottle. I then wrote “Parkhaven Hotel” about my grandmother and it won the American Express Short Story Award, and everything just went from there.
HR: So the germ of Like you, really was a one-off story which you saw could be linked to related stories?
K De G: I was very influenced by Frank Moorhouse, the Australian writer who had written “discontinuous narratives”, and also by Alice Munro’s template in Lives of Girls and Women. It took me about five years because I was such an apprentice, and I was terribly po-faced about the whole process. Intimidation was a big thing for me, which was why I wrote under a pseudonym [Kate Flannery]; I basically didn’t want anyone to know that I was doing it. Then once the book was published, I wanted to have a complete change of flavour. I had a subject which I knew would be appropriate for a Young Adult book and so that’s how Sanctuary came about.
HR: I’ve heard you express some reservations about the label “Young Adult”.
K De G: I think the label has passed its use-by date. But I wax and wane on this terribly. Publishers tell you endlessly that YA writing doesn’t sell because teenagers don’t buy books – their parents buy them for them. Booksellers don’t know what to do with YA writing. and it’s scatterised in bookshops. I see YA as an American-led marketing phenomenon of this part of the world. Paula Boock has pointed out to me that in Europe a book is a book, and it doesn’t get narrowly labelled. She suggested that perhaps we should start doing that here. So I feel YA’s not a useful category anymore and I’d like it abolished. Though I do think this also represents where I’m at as a writer. I’ve been champing at the YA limits. I never had a YA audience in mind when I was writing Sanctuary or Love, Charlie Mike or Closed, Stranger; it’s just that I had young adult protagonists. But for all that, the YA books have taught me a lot.
HR: Thinking of Closed, Stranger, it seems to me you push the subject-matter boundaries there pretty hard with the son-mother incest relationship, particularly having the son initiate it. The abusive father is the fictional stereotype of the incest story.
K De G: No, I’ve not come across one where it’s been a consensual relationship between family members, and it’s an unusual circumstance because it’s also an adoptive situation. I was aware that the subject might prove a problem. And just in practical terms it has, stopping the book being read in some secondary schools as a class text. There’re some libraries that won’t stock it; they also find the drug use problematic. In fact, people are a bit more touchy about that side. But, going back to the YA question, I don’t think Closed, Stranger is an adult book exactly. It has a certain sort of knowing tone in the narrative, but, if you want to make a blanket statement about YA work, it’s less ironic than adult work. A YA novel is “get in, get out”. It has to be under 50,000 words, and the narrative has to be propulsive, efficient, economical.
HR: How would you describe the material you’ve dealt with in your YA novels?
K De G: I’m obsessed with familial negotiation, and the YA territory is useful for looking at all that. One thing I like about writing is that the crafting of identity is so out there. That’s the major undertaking of the YA protagonist: the crafting of their identity against the backdrop of family and wider community and ultimately wider culture. It’s a time of exploration, and I could look at family dynamics in a way that interested me. So family negotiation and family dynamics, family history and the dynamics between generations.
HR: What about betrayal? Cat betrays Jem; Max betrays Westie; Charlie worries Sonny has betrayed her. Various parents have betrayed each other. There seems a lot of anxiety about betrayal.
K De G: It’s interesting, what you cast as betrayal – I would have thought of it as loss. It’s the other side of the same coin, isn’t it? I think in a way I am always writing about loss really.
HR: It’s a very rich subject.
K De G: Yes it is, I’m just trying to think about how it comes about. I hate the notion of didactic writing, and the only kind of thing I’m interested in presenting really, if I think of a YA audience, is the complexity of things. And, as for betrayal, it’s self-betrayal a lot of the time, isn’t it? And the family unit is ultimately about betrayal too. I suppose it just comes back to those negotiations of family in the end. It’s how you work out who you are in relation to the family and that often involves bad behaviour. And always there’s some business about setting up measurements between the generations. How you craft yourself as a part of them but apart from them; and there’s a betrayal central to that, because in order to survive you have to part from them. I think that must be it: a sort of fundamental base that you have to betray your family in order to survive. I mean, ultimately you’re going to lose them forever, but you have to lose them in order to go out into the world. I think a recurring element in all my books is that loss of parents, of preceding generations, a loss of history, whether it’s domestic or national or personal. The matrix of families has always been my animating thing in a way that may not be for other people. It’s what I’m writing about at the moment, I think.
HR: Can we finish with a word about what you are writing now?
K De G: It’s a grown-up novel called A Monumental Mason. I didn’t want to write anything for at least a year after Closed, Stranger. But then I decided what I wanted to do was write either a real children’s book or a real grown-up book, instead of that funny twilight territory which is YA. Anyway, I wrote half of it as a children’s book, but it didn’t work in that form. So I’ve started it all over again as a grown-up book, which gives me a lot more freedom and in some ways has returned me to the things I was interested in when I wrote Like you, really.
Kate De Goldi’s Closed, Stranger was reviewed in our August issue. Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books.