A while ago I interviewed New Zealand writer Kay McKenzie Cooke about the process of writing her first novel. Well, I’m happy to report that it has been published and is ripe for the reading. To celebrate the occasion, I invited her back to talk about Craggan Dhu:Time Will Tell, a sweeping intergenerational tale of love, murder and sleeping secrets set in the far south of New Zealand.
1. Congratulations on the huge achievement of publishing your novel! In your own words, how would you describe the book?
I’ll avoid going down the synopsis track. Instead I’ll surrender to the enticement of the invite to describe ‘in your own words’ and attempt to tackle this question by boiling it down to what I personally think the book ended up being about. I believe one aspect is the impact of truth and time on people and their relationships. It touches on held secrets and the potential damage that can result from holding on to them too tightly. It also describes how, instead of the devastation one might expect when potentially damaging secrets are given up, there can simply be relief from which positive benefits are reaped.
In the novel, family / whanau lines are traced, tracked and developed. The book follows a fairly loose historical thread to reveal how in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, events from the past can intersect and make an impact. It’d be fair to say that this is a story about people and the way that events they have no control over can make or break.
The characters in the book are given both first-person and third-person viewpoints and allowed the freedom to speak from either the past or the present in order to explain, or reveal, truths and reactions.
Place is also a feature, with the seaside town of Craggan Dhu featuring as background.
2. In some ways the central character is Craggan Dhu itself, the (fictional) small South Island town that links all of the main characters. This foregrounding of a small town and entering into the psychological life of its residents is unusual, though I can think of two famous precendents in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life and Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone Days. Was there a reason you chose to place so much emphasis, at least in the title, on the town?
I’ve read Middlemarch and loved it. Not as familiar with Lake Woebegone Days, apart from the radio episodes I’ve heard once or twice. The 1960’s TV soap, Peyton Place also comes to mind!
The fictional Southland — or to be even more precise, Western Southland — town of Craggan Dhu (oft-times fondly referred by the book’s characters as Craggie) was always going to be the canvas upon which my book would be drawn, painted, sketched … It helped that it was a place I didn’t have to put much effort at all into imagining, being already housed in my memory and mind. The reason for that is because the fictional town of Craggan Dhu is loosely based on the town, Orepuki, where I lived as a small child.
I know from my own life how prominently a town can figure in people’s lives. I know this not just in a personal way, but by hearing again and again over many years other ex-residents of my old home town speaking of the town as a character. And I have experienced the almost magical instant bond that can form between strangers; as if you’ve discovered a secret code to unstated commonalities; simply because you learn that they too hailed from your childhood town.
Calling the novel Craggan Dhu (Gaelic for Black Rock) became unavoidable. I did try out different titles, but they never sat right with me. I always came back to the name of the place where the story and characters are largely based. I acknowledge that this is entering the fanciful, but it was like whenever I tried to come up with alternative titles, Craggan Dhu would shoulder them away; shove them off.
Also, I figured that having a central locality for a host of characters in a wide-ranging story, would keep gathered what could potentially be something otherwise scattered. It also helped me in the writing of the book to have a still point. As a writer with so many threads to tie together, having a solid place that I could retreat back to, or launch forward from, was a definite aid.
3. As a New Zealander, and a South Islander at that, much of the pleasure of reading your book comes from a kind of nostalgic recognition of the speech, mannerisms and habits particular to the rural South Island. At the same time, local references always seem as if they’d be accessible to a reader who is interested in New Zealand life but doesn’t ‘speak kiwi’. I was wondering whether you were writing for either side of this dual readership, one looking in a mirror and the other peering in the window? And if so, were you writing more for one than the other?
You are right in that I was sometimes looking in the mirror and at other times, peering in the window — so true! And I wouldn’t have come up with that myself, so I’m grateful for the gift of this description. It is exactly how I felt writing this book — that at times I was reflecting my own experiences and memories as a Southlander, then at other times, writing from the viewpoint of being outside of this perspective. Was I writing more for one than the other? I am unsure about that. But I’ll acknowledge that I was driven by a perceived need for the voices of people from the bottom of the South Island to be heard. New Zealand is a north-centric country and I’ll accept that wanting (whether consciously or sub-consciously) to address that fact was at the back of my mind when writing this book. I’m glad that you, Katherine, as a reader with a South Island background, enjoyed the familiar flavour. Perhaps in the end, that is all I want to achieve — to give air to a particular place and its people and for readers to engage with what has been created through doing that.
5. Most of the book’s many narrators are women. They are concerned with things like motherhood, family, navigating romantic relationships, growing up and growing old. Was it your intention to foreground women or was it something that just ‘happened’ organically as you wrote?
I knew that voicing the return to their small, southern hometown by two ageing, female cousins, was always going to be the novel’s foundation. And I knew there would be a granddaughter coming to stay and that her voice would be important. A historical ‘mystery’ was also something I set out to write into the novel. A historical back story that involved a married couple who had immigrated to New Zealand from Scotland, was also a known. And I knew that there would be a male character who would symbolise something good, or something bad; who would bring romance and/or betrayal to the cousins. That there would be a diary-keeping young girl from the past, was also part of the plot I started out with. These were the knowns. The rest I believe did develop organically.
Writing from a female’s point of view came naturally. Writing intermittently about and from a male’s point of view, happened as I launched myself into the writing. Although this never felt difficult, it was more important for me to write from the familiarity of a female’s p.o.v. I also knew that the characters would be ordinary people whose lives bordered on being a struggle rather than a triumph. I wanted to write about the unspectacular day-to-day being forced to come to face to face with the sudden, the extraordinary, the magical, the mysterious or the unexplained. However, I didn’t want this to happen with bells and whistles — or even smoke and mirrors. I wanted these occurrences to be subtle. To be the kind of episodes or events that arrive when the past quietly intersects the present day to day lives and realities of ordinary people.
6. Without giving too much away, one of the strands of the novel involves Scottish early settlers, immigrants to come to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. It’s an intriguing story and I was wondering whether it has a germ of truth in it?
Purely imaginative. Fully fanciful. However, a useful base for me was the fact that I have Scottish immigrants in my family tree. Some of these people were brought to life for me by stories my late Aunty Lorna would regale. She had a passionate interest in family ancestry and the many conversations I had with her over the years, formed for me a familiarity with my Scottish-border ancestors. This proved useful and authentic solid ground that I could stand on as I flew off (mentally speaking) into the imaginative and fictional.
7. You’re launching the book when much of the world is still affected by restrictions caused by the spread of COVID-19. I understand New Zealand has effectively eliminated the spread (for now) and that restrictions are lifting. Does that mean there will be a physical book launch some time in the near future?
As I write this today on the 4th of June, there is talk of us moving down to Level One [back to normal apart from border controls] very soon. I did hear mention of the 8th June as a possible date for this change. If that does indeed happen, a launch would be possible! However, I have a poetry book Upturned coming out any day now and I think that will take precedence as far as launches go. Besides, I’d hate to get ‘launch fatigue’ (or cause anyone else to suffer such a thing.) However, never fear, when the paperbacks arrive from Amazon, I shall organise something in the way of celebration.
8. How can people buy your books?
Craggan Dhu: Time Will Tell is available from Amazon as a paperback back for US$9.93 or e-reader for US$2.99).
Note: Postage to New Zealand is very high at the moment, so until this changes, it would be best to order a paperback from me. A paperback from me can be ordered for $20.00 (NZ) plus postage. Email kmckcooke @ gmail. com for details and arrangements.
Upturned is available for pre-order from The Cuba Press for NZ$25.00 (about US$16.00).