Photo: Robert Cross
AN INTERVIEW WITH CATHERINE ROBERTSON
Catherine Robertson was the 2020 Writer in Residence at the IIML. She’s put out six books since 2011, completed an MA at the IIML in 2015 and still manages to find time for all kinds of other stuff including running a business – Wellington’s hottest new bookshop GOOD BOOKS – and frequently appearing on RNZ’s The Panel.
Catherine jokes that she might be more well known as “Catherine the person who does literary things” than “Catherine the writer.”
Two of the editors, Rose and Olly, caught up with Catherine in November and talked about her current project on the Wainuiomata Cycling Club, wrapping up her Gabriel’s Bay series, and her year at the IIML.
Spending this year as the IIML’s writer-in-residence is a bit of a “welcome back” for you. In the time that’s passed between completing your MA and becoming the writer-in-residence, what have been some of the biggest transformations in your writing life?
I forgot what it was like to walk all the way up from town – those last few steps from Wai-te-Ata Road up to the door are a killer. When I figured out I could catch the 21 bus right outside Vic Books, I became exponentially less fit.
That’s one of the biggest transformations, opening GOOD BOOKS. I’ve also published two more novels, and the next one is due out next March. I did my first ever festival chairing job in 2015 – Auckland Writers Festival threw me in the deep end and gave me David Mitchell and 1800 people in the audience. It was f*****g terrifying, but I’ve had regular chairing gigs since then so I can’t have made a complete hash of it.
I’m still connected with almost all my MA classmates. Some of us are in a writing group that meets every month, and two of us have become bookshop owners: me and Jackson Nieuwland of Foodcourt Books in Newtown. And Jane Arthur did the poetry MA that year, so that makes three of us.
I should also mention that I did the Iowa Writers Short Story summer course at the IIML from December 2005 – February 2006. My classmates included Pip Adam, Gigi Fenster, Mykaela Nyman, Helen Hunter (who did the 2015 Creative Non-Fiction MA), and Nic Gorman, writer and director of the film Human Traces. Far out.
Your project this year is a novel set in Wainuiomata in the 1970s and early 1980s, featuring the Wainuiomata Cycling Club. Tell us about the genesis of this idea.
I first thought this story would make a great film script and then I remembered that I had no clue how to write for film so I’d better turn it into a novel. I pitched it to my publisher and to my amazement they gave me a contract for it. I’ve written six novels for them without an upfront contract – and no guarantee of being published – so this was a Very Big Deal for me. Of course, it also means I have a deadline – it’s due out in 2022, so I’d better get a move on.
For the content, I am shamelessly plundering stories from my husband Dave’s upbringing – he was the son of Glaswegian immigrants who moved to Wainuiomata in the late 1950s. It was an interesting place that expanded so quickly, that by the time he went to high school they’d had to build a second one. Some of the things he describes – there was just tribes of children running around.
He joined the club when he was 11, and by the time he was in his late teens, the club was one of the most competitively successful in the country. The guy who ran it had started lending out bikes to kids. Basically a whole lot of parents got together, put kids on bikes – mainly boys, I have to say – and taught them how to ride and how to race. It transformed my husband’s life. He wonders what path he might have gone down if he hadn’t had that surrogate family and a surrogate dad in the coach that looked after him. It’s an extraordinary story of community, and also him and the troubled young men who joined this club. By the mid to late 70s, they were one of the most competitive cycling clubs in the country
The really sad thing that happened this year was that Dave’s coach, who was absolutely delightful – I interviewed him a lot last year – died suddenly of cancer during lockdown. He didn’t get to see any of the book. And it was his baby. He was an amazing person and I’ll dedicate the book to him.
What has the process of researching this novel been like – any unexpected discoveries you’ve made so far?
I don’t think Dave realises he’s going to be the main character. I think he just thinks I’m interviewing him about the history of the club. But as well as needing to make it a personal story, I need to make it about this community as well. So I’m not sure how I’m going to do it.
So far, I’ve done a lot of interviews and research, including reading all the club’s inwards and outwards correspondence. My favourite letter was one from the club thanking the local butcher for supplying the saveloys for the afternoon teas that were held after every race meet. I texted a photo of the letter to my husband, who texted back: I f*****g hated those saveloys. F*****g hated the afternoon teas too!
One of the cyclists – who now has created an entire cycling museum – has the most extraordinary memory. He was telling us stories about things that some of the team had done, but I’m going to have to disguise them in the novel because they were horrendously illegal. There was one guy who was a kleptomaniac. For a prize he gave this guy just the top of a coffee table – he’d stolen it from his workplace. Over the next few weeks, he gave him the legs. He had to smuggle them out of work.
Your Gabriel’s Bay series focuses on a lively group of characters living in a tight-knit New Zealand town. Is Gabriel’s Bay based on any community in particular?
It’s everywhere. Any small coastal town that you can imagine. I used to spend all my summer holidays in the Bay of Plenty, in Ōpōtiki. Which was fabulous, always. In Gabriel’s Bay there’s some of the little towns that are around there – all sorts of places along the coast that are a bit down on their luck.
I didn’t want it to be a real place because I didn’t grow up in a small town, so I didn’t feel like I had ownership over anywhere. But I also wanted the freedom to have things happen that wouldn’t have necessarily have happened in real life. Which has been really useful for me. If someone tried to get me to draw a map of Gabriel’s Bay I probably couldn’t do it. And I wouldn’t want to, because there might be a whole section that I could invent for other things to happen in.
In the process of writing the Gabriel’s Bay series, have you found your relationship with the cast of characters changing? What’s the experience been like in bringing this series to a close and saying goodbye to these characters?
Actually, this third book was bloody hard work – took me two years, as I had to almost completely re-write my first draft. I wrote the third one as if it was the third in a series, and my publisher wanted the last in a trilogy. So I had to go back and wrap up a whole bunch of storylines.
But I’m very glad that I did the rewrites. I was in a much better frame of mind when I did them, so it’s a much better book. There’s a lot of satisfaction in building a character’s arc across multiple novels – I guess it’s like writing for a full TV series rather than a film or mini-series, more scope. Satisfying, too, to bring the longer storylines to a conclusion.
What were you reading that inspired this series, and its episodic storytelling?
I didn’t want to write another ‘chick lit book’. Or another sort of ‘women’s fiction book’. I wanted to write about grittier issues, but still make it funny. I was sitting there thinking, how am I gonna do this? And in my head I thought I’d do it in a place. A community is like a little petri dish filled with social issues.
And then it suddenly occurred to me that Deborah Moggach, who wrote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Maeve Binchy – an Irish writer, highly successful… a lot of their books are centred on a place. A hotel or a village with interweaving stories. So I ended up borrowing a shit-tonne of books by these authors from a friend. I went through them asking questions: how are you doing this? Who are you focusing on?
When I submitted the first book to my editor, because it starts with one character, she thought it was going to be just their story – only later realising it was going to be about the place and multiple characters.
So I came up with the idea of doing a prologue and having a dog wander around, introduce the town and orient people to the kind of town that it was. I’ve done that with each novel; in the second one it’s a moose, the third it’s a cat. I wanted to name the animals after one-word NZ songs that epitomise the themes of each novel. The first one was Loyal, the second one Nature, the third one Spellbound. Only that last one stuck.
Can you tell us some more about those themes in the novels?
The first book was about loyalty, largely loyalty to a place. How do you keep a sense of community when the community is disintegrating? I wanted to focus on young men too. I had a group of young friends who had left school and were figuring out their next step. I had loyalty to mates, loyalty in partnership, loyalty to oneself.
The second one was about nature and the environment, but also about human nature, gender and sexuality. Eco-activists and all sorts of things going on; a farmer who’s done nothing but farm his whole life, but knows his farm is failing. Then he’s got a whole bunch of eco-people showing up on his land (which I based on those guys in Golden Bay), and of course they have completely different ideas about farming than he does, and he has to come to terms with that.
And the third one is about power. It’s about local politics, and there’s a domestic abuse storyline. It’s also about cultural power and personal power – making decisions for yourself, et cetera.
Are there themes bubbling up for what you want to write about next?
I was asked this question by a fellow writer down south once, and they said, ‘every writer is like a dog with a bone – every writer has a particular bone that they dig up over and over again. What is yours?’ And I’d never thought about it, but I absolutely know what it is: grief and loss. Those themes turn up in every single one of my books, overtly or not.
Tell us about the vision and mission that inspired you to launch a bookstore. What do you see in GOOD BOOKS’s future?
GOOD BOOKS happened by accident. The independent bookshop, Marsden Books, came up for sale after 19 years, and Jane Arthur and I decided to make an offer for it. We were unsuccessful but the day we found that out, we also remembered this space in Jessie Street might be coming up for lease. And here we are. Our vision was to create a welcoming space that encourages browsing and lingering, and has a wide range to suit all tastes. We also wanted it to be a safe and inclusive space, so we won’t stock books by authors who publicly promote hatred and bigotry. We won’t always get that right – there are bound to be grey areas – but we’ll do our best. We’re also the first accredited Living Wage bookshop – that was super important to both of us.
Now being in the semi-rare position of both author and bookseller, do you have any thoughts on genre and how books are read, sold and marketed in New Zealand?
I had only a superficial understanding of genre when I started writing, and if I had, would not necessarily have written books that would boxed me into the ‘chick lit’ category. Once you’re pegged as a commercial writer, it’s hard to be seen as anything but. I think a lot of people who would appreciate the quality of my writing won’t ever pick up one of my books – I know, how sad – tiny violin.
Reviewing has had a massive uptick lately with the re-birth of a bunch of magazines, and with the Coalition for Books and the Academy of NZ Literature co-publishing their reviews with Stuff and the NZ Herald. I (and other authors) loathe New Zealand tables, as New Zealanders still have an irrational aversion to reading their country’s fiction. At GOOD BOOKS, we don’t separate them out, and we encourage people to read them.
There’s an amazing statistic in Australia, which we’d think is fairly similar to us, that thirty-five percent of fiction that Australians consume is written by local authors. The statistic for New Zealand is four percent.
Our NZ canon is very much literary fiction. We haven’t incorporated other genres as well as some countries have – what might be considered commercial genres. Even though over the last thirty years or so far more NZ authors are writing what you’d term ‘genre fiction,’ people still think of ‘the canon’. Those are the kind of books that get the awards, the overseas contracts, and so they’re the ones that get the media attention. But there’s certainly a lack of support for local fiction.
Any idea why this might be the case?
It would be fascinating to really delve into it – would make an amazing PhD thesis.
In a conversation about humour while visiting this year’s MA students, you observed that “the opposite of being funny isn’t being serious, it’s being unfunny.” What material do you think humour allows you to dive into that you think would be harder without it?
People have theorised that humour stems from a deep well of anger, and I’d say that’s true. Humour is a good way to make a point without it being obvious, a Trojan Horse made of jokes. As opposed to satire, where the skewering has to be blatant or the form doesn’t work.
Any tips for writing jokes? Do you find it easier in dialogue, in prose, in different points of view?
First person and close third allow me to most fully represent the character’s voice, thoughts and reactions. Dialogue and internal monologue are my jam: I give each of my characters a distinct tone of voice and vocab, and I can have fun with all of those. I’ll have a character that has no filter and one who’s polite but pedantic. One who’s anxiously desperate to please and one who uses sarcasm as a shield. I also have fun with how the characters butt up against each other, their scraps and banter.
Do you draw much from other genres of comedy (such as stand-up or film)?
I’ve read and listened to humour since I was a little kid. My mum was a big fan of Danny Kaye and Victor Borge, and my grandfather had a ton of Bill Cosby’s stand-up records (thanks for ruining my childhood memories, Bill, you c**t). Poppa also gave me Spike Milligan’s war memoirs when I was about ten, though he cannot have known how much explicit sex they contained. My favourite form of humour is word-play, but I relish great set pieces, too.
Favourite comedy writers – particularly NZ comedy writers that we should put on our radars?
My absolute favourite funny NZ writer is Danielle Hawkins. She’s written four novels while being a part-time large animal vet in the Waikato. I also love Damien Wilkins’ dry humour. My favourite overseas writers include Terry Pratchett, Stella Gibbons and (non-fiction) Emma Kennedy, whose memoir, The Tent, the Bucket and Me must not be read in public unless you’re OK with people looking at you weirdly.
What’s your writing landscape looking like for next year, after the residency finishes?
I’m hoping by the end of the residency I can get the cycling book shaped up. Then effectively I’m taking a big break over summer, pack up my office and hand it over to Pip [Adam]. But I will start writing again, probably in February.
Penguin Random House NZ never had the rights for me publishing overseas, but it was always a courtesy for me not to self-publish the books on Amazon in the UK and the US. But they’ve given me their blessing to do that. So next year I will foray into self-publishing with my first three novels. I wrote a little novella which will be the first time it goes out. And I understand enough about being involved with romance writers – who are so amazing at this stuff – to know how to do it. Even though I am terrified.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS
Rose & Olly regret cutting this interview down by 45 minutes of interesting conversation. Rose has gratefully learned everything she knows about structuring an MA folio from Catherine. Olly thinks Catherine seems like a good role model.