Hard Times and Pleasure: A Conversation with Kirsten McDougall
Her first book, The Invisible Rider, was published to critical acclaim in 2012. She's also one of New Zealand's busiest and effective literary publicists. Books Editor Sarah Jane Barnett talks to the multi-talented Kirsten McDougall about her second book, the gothic love story Tess, sex, special powers, and what it was like to be nineteen.
Sarah Jane Barnett: Describe the character of Tess for us?
Kirsten McDougall: Tess is nineteen and on the run from trouble. She’s what judgemental people sometimes call ‘white trash.’ She’s scared, but she’s also got gumption.
Sarah: Nineteen feels like a crucible of a time for a woman – you’re on the cusp between the teenage years and the more adult twenties. What were you like at nineteen?
Kirsten: When I was nineteen Ruth Richardson was our punitive finance minister, and youth unemployment rates were peaking. I had recently moved to Auckland and had a job waitressing. After I’d paid for my food, rent and electricity, I was lucky to have $20 left over. Buying a coffee was a big deal. I was a university dropout who wanted to be a writer but I had no idea how to go about it. I was untethered, chaotic, with no obvious prospects.
Tess's experience is different to mine but she shares the same vulnerabilities I had at nineteen. These are hard years, but they are also foundation years – you can sort out what sort of people you want in your life, and they don't have to be your school friends or even your family. You can suddenly decide who you want to be, which is exhilarating and terrifying.
Sarah: One of the main themes of Tess is human connection and human separateness. Tess struggles with isolation and feels alone, but on the flipside often finds herself overwhelmed or used by the relationships she forms. Even though I don’t have Tess’s unique gifts, I could strongly identify with this dynamic. I think many women will. It feels purposefully feminist – was it?
Kirsten: Yes, it is feminist and this is for a few reasons.
The thing for me is I never used to think of my characters as being gendered. I would primarily think of them as a set of behaviours, which conform to a gender, which is ignorant if we want our fiction to reflect the sexual politics of our society. My first book had a male protagonist, and I’d written half a novel with another male protagonist. At a certain point I had to ask myself why I was writing so many males – was I doing this sub-consciously because of male-bias in the world, and in fiction?
At a certain point I had to ask myself why I was writing so many males?
Real life interrupts and informs fiction, and it became clear to me that I couldn’t ignore the imbalances in our gendered world. I couldn’t continue to write stories that centred around nice men (because I often wrote ‘nice men’) when incidents that could have happened 25 years ago when I was a teenager were happening again: such as roast busters, the protesting of rape culture at Wellington College, a Prime Minister who thinks it nothing to pull a woman’s ponytail, and more recently the behaviour of the Orange Administration in the US. Women feel vulnerable, all their lives!
I gave Tess a special power, something that can only exist in fiction. It complicates her life, it makes her open to manipulation and it forces her to be separate from society, so it’s not such a great ‘gift,’ but it does also force her humanity to the fore. She can understand why the people in her life act the way they do and she can pity them, but she can’t always help them.
Sarah: During the story Tess forms a friendship with Lewis, a middle-aged father whose family has been through trauma and grief. I felt touched by how healing this relationship was for both of them, and grief and loss looms large in the novel. Did you draw on a friendship from your own life? What aspects of grief were you wanting to understand?
Kirsten: Tess and Lewis are people desperately in need of a true friend. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to have true friends. True friendships give solace and hope in a hard world. I wanted to show how it feels to have had profound grief in your life, to show how our suffering affects every aspect of our personality and behaviour, and how love and friendship can help mitigate that suffering.
Sarah: I remember reading novels in my teens and twenties where young women explored sex – I’d turn to those pages first! Alongside many other qualities, Tess is a sexy novel. Was sex important for you to explore in order to capture the full gamut of the teen experience? Tess discovers her sexuality during this story. Did that aspect of her character arise while writing the character, or was it in the back of your mind from the start?
Kirsten: I loved reading books with sex in them when I was young, and still do today. (One of the reasons I love Alan Hollinghurst’s novels is because he can write good sex scenes, as does Colm Toibin. Good erotic literature is hard to find.)
Our sexuality is an integral part of what drives us and how we interact with others – I find it fascinating that the key expression of our love and intimacy for another person through fucking can also be used to create fear and control another person, through rape. Growing up in a small town New Zealand as a teenager who was deeply interested in sex was weird and difficult. I would say that my sex education was an abject failure, because, back then, our society had no healthy mechanisms for talking to young people about sex in a positive way. It was all about not getting pregnant and not getting AIDS, which was the new monster when I was a young girl. There was nothing about consent, nothing about pleasure. So everything I learned about sex I learned first through Judy Blume, Jilly Cooper and Cosmopolitan magazine.
I wanted for them to have a moment in their young lives when they felt loved and safe and sexy and good in their bodies.
Tess and Jean have had difficult lives, both have had trouble with their mothers and hence with attachment, and so I wanted for them to have a moment in their young lives when they felt loved and safe and sexy and good in their bodies.
The other aspect of the novel is sexual threat. I remember as a young woman walking down a street alone made me feel vulnerable. Young men and older men would look at you, or jeer at you, or tell you to ‘cheer up sweetheart,’ as if just by walking along the street you were there to smile and look pretty and ease their fragile egos. I wanted to show that threat to the female body in Tess. Some of the great feminist teenagers I know, daughters of friends, tell me that they still get hassled by men when they’re at the beach, or waiting at a bus stop. This makes me angry!
Sarah: You work full-time as a publicist and literary manager. When do you write? Where? What does you’re your writing day look like? Do you have any weird writing habits?
Kirsten: My job as a publicist demands the public, social, talky side of me, whereas writing demands a quiet and focused mind. It’s not an easy balance, but I am those two people – social and talky, quiet and focused.
Currently I don’t have time to write. I wrote Tess and two other unfinished novels, some short stories and essays when I had two days a week to write. Right now I have a full-time job, a family, lots of friends and a naughty fox terrier. I had to give up my study so my eldest son can have his own bedroom so I tend to write with my laptop on my knee on the sofa or in bed. If I could read my own handwriting I’d go back to longhand as I work on a computer all day and after 6pm the last thing I want to look at is a screen.
But to write – when it’s going well there’s no high as good as writing. When it’s bad – it causes me frustration and self-loathing. Writers are impossible people!
Sarah: I enjoyed how spare and direct the language in the novel felt, but also at times intensely beautiful. It felt like Tess’s world on the page. How did you go about this?
Kirsten: I wanted to be true to what Tess knows of the world and how she thinks. Tess is dyslexic. She is very aware of other people’s moods, and of the natural world – the weather and seasons. I wanted her world to feel hyper-real but I wanted to do it in language that was plain and spare, because there is nothing ornate about Tess.
I like what Hilary Mantel said about how she wrote The Giant, O’Brien. She imagined him coming into her study, and sitting down on a chair. How might a giant do this? He would check the chair first to see if would take his weight. As soon as she could visualise this, she could write him. I get that. To bring a character to life I need to think about how they inhabit their bodies, how they move – and only then I can get to how their brains might work.
Sarah: I heard that you changed the end of the novel during the editing process. I loved the ending. It made me think about how complex and contradictory people can be, and maybe need to be. I don’t want to give the plot away, but could you talk a little about the ending and why it needed to change?
Kirsten: I wrote a happy ending. I knew it was wrong, but I thought it was because I’d written it quickly, and I just needed to rework it a bit. Then I met with my editor, the fabulous Jane Parkin. Jane edited my first book, and she’s a brilliant fiction editor – kind, but direct – and she said, ‘This ending is far too comfortable, you need to change it.’ That brought me face to face with my fear of unhappy endings. I said to her that I couldn’t kill anyone off. She patiently explained that there was a middle ground between happy and dead. But still, I couldn’t think of how to end it.
Then I sat in on the George Saunders workshop at the Auckland Writers Festival – what a guy! I love him. I love his writing and he is just a beautiful human being. I asked him a question about endings and he said: ‘If the ending isn’t working, it’s not the ending that’s the problem, it’s the middle.’ So I found the exact middle of the story, and there was nothing wrong with it. But I found the character I needed for my end, right in the middle of my book. How does that work? I really do think that writing involves quite a bit of luck, and one of the writer’s tasks is to stay alert to what that luck might look like.
Sarah: Talking about plot, are you a writer who outlines a plot before you write, or are you someone who discovers as you go (or somewhere in between)?
Kirsten: No! God no! I don’t even like to write shopping lists. When I write anything – short story or short novel, I start with a lump of an idea or an image and try to form it into a story in the writing. Tess came from a notebook idea. I’d written: ‘the story of a girl who can see other people’s memories.’ This isn’t a brilliant idea, but it was enough to give me the urge to find out what this story might be, and once I got going it was enough to write through my frustrations about our rape culture, and also about people’s vulnerabilities, about friendship and love.
When I listen hard to myself, when I somehow manage to dig into my own fears and desires – that’s when the writing works best.
The thing about writing in the dark the way I do is that it’s inefficient. You take many wrong turns on your way through, and you absolutely must learn to be patient. What I do try to have is a midpoint and an end to work towards. I jump around in time as I write – I may get an idea for a scene towards the end of a story and I’ll write that, then come back to the beginning – and try to think about how those two pieces inform each other, what needs to happen in between to make them join up. It doesn’t always work. I have a few failed novels on my laptop. But I’ve also learned that it’s a matter of faith. When I listen hard to myself, when I somehow manage to dig into my own fears and desires – that’s when the writing works best. Of course this is not to deny the many years of reading, and of practicing writing and of failing.
Sarah: Working as a publicist, must you now bring your publicist’s eye to your own book? What would you say to writers about how to do that?
Kirsten: I’m in the weird position of being the publicist for my own book. I know how to publicise books, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I need to make sure I’m pushing my own book as I would anyone else’s at VUP, but I find myself double thinking all the time – am I not pushing enough? Am I pushing too much?
It’s hard to publicise books in this country. The writers whom media want to talk to are few. Even getting review space is tough, even tougher than when I started four years ago. The other issue is that writers in NZ don’t get much practice at talking about their books publicly, and many of them are not that good at it. Doing interviews like this one is good practice, and I’m always grateful to media outlets who give space to our writers. I’d also say practicing with a hairbrush in front of a mirror is useful.
I give two bits of advice to writers who are new to presenting their work publicly: one is, speak into the microphone. I can’t count the number of readings I’ve been to where the writer speaks in and out of the mic and you can’t hear what they’re saying. The other is to be professional – don’t think you can wing it at an event, unless that’s something you’ve been doing for years. Prepare your anecdotes and ideas, treat it as you would any other job. None of this is easy, but if you’ve gone to the effort of writing a book, and a publisher is going to the effort of publishing it, then you owe it to yourself and your publisher to do your best promoting your book.
Sarah: What’s next for you?
Kirsten: I’m starting to write bits and pieces towards my next book. I’m also working hard on my dolphin pose towards a headstand in yoga.
Tess was launched on the 10 August by Victoria University Press. Feature image of Kirsten McDougall by Grant Maiden.