Kay McKenzie Cooke is a New Zealand writer of Scottish and Maori descent who lives in Dunedin but was born in Southland, the southernmost province of the South Island. She has published three volumes of poetry, all published by Otago University Press: Feeding the Dogs (2002), Made for Weather: Poems by Kay McKenzie Cooke (2007) and Born to a Red-Headed Woman (2014). Her website, Time & Place, features samples of her writing, beautiful photographs and news about what she’s doing now.
With friend and fellow Dunedin writer Jenny Powell, Kay is a member of J&K Rolling, a travelling duet of self-described ‘outrider poets’. Every so often, like a literary Thelma and Louise, they head out on the road together and share their joy in writing with language-lovers in small South Island towns. Their next whistlestop will be at the Goldfields Cavalcade. Catch them if you can at the Owaka Cavalcade Market on Saturday March 3 at 10.30am.
Kay has nearly finished her first prose book, which I’ve been lucky enough to peek at. I asked her a few questions about her novel experience and with characteristic grace and generosity, she agreed to spill the beans.
1) You’re already well known in New Zealand as a poet, with three volumes of poetry. How would you compare writing a volume of poetry to writing a novel?
Quicker is the word that comes to mind first.
Well … quicker in the short term. Building a poetry collection ready to send off to the publisher, for me takes about four or five years of poem-writing. At first anyway; the scaffold of a poem can be as short to write as five minutes to half an hour; but after that initial writing, there’s the editing, which for a single poem can take many hours of tweaking and polishing. It can be days, weeks, months; sometimes years before I am satisfied a poem is ready. On the other hand a single poem can be done and dusted in a trice.
A novel feels more like a slog; a walk, sometimes through mud; rather than the dippity-skippity, alighting and departing nature of writing and revisiting single poems. I’ve discovered that writing a novel takes stamina and time – extended periods of time (uninterrupted time being the ideal rather than the reality) in order for the train of thought to run the tracks for miles, rather than the shorter dashes a poem is able to survive on.
2) Was writing a novel a real learning curve with unexpected challenges? What did you learn?
It didn’t feel like a learning curve so much as a long straight road I simply had to walk, one foot in front of the other, in order to arrive at the finishing line – which appeared to constantly keep moving forward! The challenge was to keep walking, to remain dogged. The reward was reaching places where suddenly the road begins to run under your feet like a treadmill. That is always a good feeling. It is that rush that keeps you moving on, energised and believing.
Once I began writing, the novel started to write itself. The process of writing itself sparked off previously un-thought-of ideas, thus leading the story to situations and characters I hadn’t consciously started out to create. Much of the process of writing a novel involves allowing the sub-conscious mind freedom to surface. For me however (maybe I’m slow!) this sweet flow of the subconscious floating to the top; to the writing part of my brain – I wonder if that part of the brain has ever been identified? – demands the luxury of decent lengths of uninterrupted time).
This energy flow also requires one to be in the midst of writing; in the mode; in the zone. There is an element of serendipity to writing … maybe a song you’re listening to sparks an idea, or an unexpected phone call or conversation … but in order to catch whatever is there to catch and use, one needs to be doing it.
3) What was the genesis of your novel? What made you decide to go ahead with it?
The genesis may have started as a child. I always knew that I would one day write a book. I didn’t imagine that my first book would be a book of poetry. I thought if I did ever write a book, it’d be a novel. I imagined that it would be a bit like Anne of Green Gables transferred from Prince Edward Island in Canada, to my own hometown in Southland, New Zealand. The fact that it has taken me nearly sixty years to achieve this is possibly neither here nor there. I was always going to do it. Early retirement finally afforded me the time I needed to achieve this lifetime goal.
4) The plot is quite complex, with at least three intertwining storylines, but you make it seem so easy. Did it just evolve or was it something you planned beforehand on paper, or in your head?
I almost followed a ‘How to Write A Novel’ instructions to get off the blocks. I remember working on a plot outline and some background family tree and character information, when Christchurch had its second earthquake, February 2011. But even before then I had started by participating a few times in the NaNoWriMo challenge to write a novel in a month. The work this threw up became the bones of the novel I eventually got down to writing.
Consequently, the novel’s scaffold, in the form of a written plan (or several plans, some surviving, others not) took about ten years to put up. This was largely due to not having solid enough blocks of time and constantly absconding to write poetry instead. Once I decided to really ‘get going’, the writing of the novel took about two years and was formed from the basic idea I had in my head of two cousins returning to the small town where they had grown up.
The plot became more and more complex as the tendrils of history and relationships began to stretch and grow. This is when the novel began to evolve. At times it did become a bit of a juggling act to keep it all flowing together and not become too convoluted for the reader. Often my head ached from the effort and I had to stop and work out family trees and dates of birth etc. Sometimes it felt like I was working on a mathematical puzzle or formula. (Not my forte).
5) I understand the novel bears some resemblance to your own family history. How closely is the story related to truth?
Sometimes a throw-away line from a family member has been all it took to imagine a story around it. Some of the ‘side characters’ resemble my late relatives and they would most likely recognise themselves if they were alive. Other characters are perhaps an amalgam of people I know, or family members. Some of the ‘incidents’ in the novel have been inspired by family tales. Heaven knows whether they are true or or not. However, the main events and characters are all made up.
In saying that, without the pepper and spice provided by my family tree characters and stories, the novel would be very different.
6) Your work frequently foregrounds the land, the weather and your identity as a Southlander and this novel is no exception. How would you describe your relationship to the place you come from?
Earlier I made reference to this urge I have had all my life to write a story set in my home town (and province) which in turn is some indication of the importance I place on this place I know as my turangawaewae (the place where I stand). Even though I left Southland some forty-seven years ago now, it still remains home. For whatever reason the umbilical cord was never cut. My writing will always be stamped with this personality trait. This birthmark.
I have made other homes since moving away from Southland (the city of Dunedin and the province of Central Otago, are two in particular) but my many return trips ‘back home’ to Southland, and the strong memories and associations of place it holds for me, fuel my work at a deeper, more primal level that anywhere else can.
7) What are your favourite novels? Why?
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – because of the irrepressible and brave, red-haired, chatterbox orphan Anne, who is wonderfully penned by Montgomery. As a child I was also particularly taken by the descriptions of the landscape of Prince Edward Island where the novel is set.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I also read this book at a very young age and it has also remained a firm favourite; mostly for its portrayal of Jane (another orphan) and her quiet, fierce strength of character that in the end triumphs over life’s cruel twists and turns. I’m pretty straightforward – I like stories where good conquers evil and kindness shines over cruelty.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – for the charm of this book’s writing voice. It has one of the best opening chapters of any book I’ve read.
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grasse – for the clever intricacies of its plot and, again, the writing voice.
Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – and again, for the writing voice – droll, verging on unremarkable; yet despite this restraint, striking a clarity that I find extremely satisfying.
Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame – Frame’s voice is unique – natural and unfettered by any semblance of pretentiousness or trace of laborious cleverness.
Persuasion by Jane Austen – my favourite of Austen’s work. I admire the expert handling by Austen of plot and protagonist to build tension, contrast, drama, conflict and an overall compelling sense of delayed gratification.
Middlemarch by George Eliot – I like this masterpiece of a novel for its grand sweep of plot, character development and strong sense of time.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, are two novels in the magic realism genre that I’ve enjoyed.
Favourite modern authors (whose books I always enjoy without any particular favourite titles) Tim Winton, Ohran Pamuk, Margaret Forster, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, VS Naipaul, Anne Tyler, Anne Patchett, Ruth Rendell, David Mitchell.
8) Can you describe how you approached the re-writing / revision process?
Once the notes I’d made on plot and characters contained the potential for fully-formed characters, a beginning, a middle and what could possibly be termed a conclusion, I started to write up the story / stories in a linear or chronological fashion (despite dipping in and out of the past), editing as I went because even though much of the advice I’d received (or read) about writing a novel, insisted that for the first draft you just go for it and write without editing, I just couldn’t help myself. I was compelled to correct, add, cut, polish. As I went.
After many edits, corrections, additions and ‘getting facts straight’ (making sure dates lined up etc.) I felt I had a first draft. This was then pored over again with tweaks, removals, additions … until on about the fourth or fifth draft, I felt I had it. Something ready to give to people to read. (Scary!)
I gave the ms (as I was then calling it) to some trusted people to read. Their feedback was valuable and enlightening and meant going back into the work again to either add or remove. One plot suggestion, one which I agreed with and was pleased to accept, meant that I had to change the order of some events. Disturbing the plot this way, caused ripples and currents that had to be diverted elsewhere. At times I felt like I was playing the game of Jenga (a game my grandchildren are far better at than I am) as I attempted to remove pieces without the whole thing collapsing.
This final process all added yet another few weeks to the work.
9) What publishing options are you considering now?
I’ve been told (and personal experience has led me to agree) that it is very difficult to get a novel published in New Zealand. Especially, I strongly suspect, a first novel. There seem to be very few publishing houses accepting fiction.
I am due to get back to a publisher who has agreed to read it through with an aim to p o s s i b l y publishing it. (Something along those lines, anyway … )
It is looking like the self-publishing road (or an e-book publication) may be my best option. (Praying against hope for a brave and discerning publisher willing to back me, is another).
10) What advice would you give to someone who would like to write a novel but is having doubts?
Firstly, feed those doubts a little by considering the strong possibility that finding a publisher at the end of the road, is not a given. I’m tempted to suggest that like first experiences in romance, it is inevitable that your heart will get broken; if not your heart, definitely your spirit. Factor that in to your desire / urge / overriding passion / goal … to write a novel.
If you can weather long stints of writing, only to discover that it’s all rubbish, yet are attracted by the idea that you will eventually strike gold, that the story will reveal itself, the characters will come to life and solidify as real people right there under your fingertips (zip-lining from some mysterious coil of your brain down to the words you are writing. Ah! such a magical, wondrous process). If this idea excites you, then I say, Go for it. You won’t regret it. It’s worth it just for the sense of accomplishment and completion. You have created something unique; brought a book with its own identity into existence. Compared to that feeling, finding a publisher is (almost) irrelevant. Almost.
11) Do you think you will tackle another novel in the future? What’s next on the cards writing-wise?
Interesting Katherine, your use of the verb ‘tackle’. It is of course very apt! When starting to write a novel, it does feel a little like wrangling a creature to the ground; vainly leaping at it in the dark in order to accomplish some form of miraculous flying tackle.
And the answer is yes.
For all of its hard yakker; years of work; I have been well and truly bitten by the novel-writing bug. I will continue to write poetry, because that part of my writing voice will never be stilled. But I know that I have at least one more novel in me. As I was writing this one, I felt like it was only Part One of the story (or stories) I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to let go of some of the characters, or the setting … or maybe more truthfully, they were saying they hadn’t finished with me yet.
Already there are new characters and personalities forming in the subterranean regions of my imagination. Along with the old, there will be new settings (although still mainly in Southland) and characters.
I’ve discovered that despite the gruelling nature of writing a novel, there is something wonderful that occurs. In your fourth question Katherine, you asked if my novel was planned or whether it evolved. My answer indicates that for me, it was a mixture of both. But it is when I could feel the story moving away from my own plan, that the magic occurred. Marvellous and surprising. So rewarding. Needless to say, I’m hooked.