Wednesday, August 26, 2015


My book Magpie Hall is currently the Christchurch City Libraries Community Read, which means everyone is encouraged to read one book and discuss it. It's a fabulous idea, and I feel very honoured to have had my book chosen.

On 7 August I gave talk about the research and inspiration behind Magpie Hall, and that evening was the launch event, which included Scared Scriptless actors improvising scenes based on Magpie Hall. I also stood up and had a little talk and took my imaginary soapbox. I thought I'd post those thoughts here for posterity.

It is such an honour to be here, and to have my book chosen to be this year’s Community Read.

I was nervous about speaking today and tonight but this morning I attended my son’s poetry recital competition, and there is nothing like watching a bunch of 5 year olds public speaking for the first time to restore your confidence in your own abilities.

Big thanks to Kim Slack and Donna Robertson and the team at the library who have worked so hard on this, and for taking the initiative to promote reading and a love of local books. New Zealand Book Month is now a thing of the past, after being cancelled two years in a row through lack of funding, so to have the library pick up the slack is fantastic.

And why did we need NZ Book Month and why do we need the Community Read?

Well, just as we need to protect our native birds and fauna from extinction, from predators and from noxious weeds, we need to protect our cultural taonga. Because if New Zealanders don’t buy and read NZ books, who will?

This year the Whitcoulls Top100 has just two NZ books on the list, both of which have won the Booker prize. Last year the Whitcoulls Top 100 had NO NZ books on it.

That’s why we needed NZ Book Month, and why promotions like this are so valuable, to protect our local books from being squeezed out by the latest pot boilers from America and the UK. Don’t let NZ books go the way of the huia, which, incidentally, features prominently in Magpie Hall.

There is good news. 

At the WORD Christchurch writers & readers festival last year we had more than 100 NZ writers and will continue to provide a platform for Christchurch people to hear NZ stories. 

The NZ Book Awards, which, like NZ Book Month, and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story awards, were cancelled in 2015 due to a lack of a sponsor, have been reinstated with a new sponsor, Ockham, and a new $50,000 prize for best novel,which has been provided by a mysterious benefactor, just like something out of a Victorian novel. We have Great Expectations for the 2016 Ockam NZ Book awards. 

And another NZer, Anna Smaill has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, only the 5th NZer to have ever been included in the prize’s 36 year history. But my plea is to not wait until the British approve of our writers before reading them yourself! You have a whole library here full of wonderful New Zealand books, and I urge you to seek out other Christchurch authors of all genres: Jane Higgins, Joanna Orwin, Carl Nixon, Tusiata Avia, Fiona Farrell, Joe Bennet, Margaret Mahy, Helen Lowe, Frankie MacMillan, James Norcliffe, Paul Cleave, Nic Low, Karen Healey to name just a few.

Right, I’m off my soapbox.

I’m here to introduce you to my book Magpie Hall, which I hope is rollicking yet meditative, dark and moody with moments of lightness and humour, a great sticky cake of a novel with many different ingredients, from the art of Victorian tattooing, to skinning tigers and stuffing huia, from the misty windswept moors of South Canterbury to the dark winding lanes of an exaggerated version of 19th century Lyttelton. It’s a love story drawn straight from Gothic Victorian novels and Nick Cave murder ballads, and a modern day story of woman haunted by her family’s ghosts. 

Henry Summers is a collector of curiosities, of wonders, of dreams and sometimes nightmares. Of the lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo and the katydid, of turret shells, brittlestars and the Morpho Menelaus. And he washes up in New Zealand, in the 1880s, sent there in disgrace by his family, where he hopes to gather more treasures for his cabinet of curiosities. Here, he falls in love with a woman fascinated by the tattoos he keeps hidden under his frock coats, and which are all the rage among the aristocracy of Britain.

Rosemary Summers is his great-great grand-daughter, whose beloved grandfather, who passed on to her the family art of taxidermy, has died, and left her his collection. She returns to Magpie Hall to claim her inheritance and to uncover the ghosts of her family’s past, and solve the mystery surrounding Henry Summers and his first wife Dora.

If you know your Victorian English literature you will spot embedded treats from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in White and Northanger Abbey for starters. And if you don’t, I hope it will inspire you to read the books that inspired Magpie Hall.

Now I am pleased to introduce members of the Court Jesters and I'm excited - and a little terrified - to see what they come up with.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

"Literary Cooties."

I read this article by Nicola Griffith with interest and not a lot of surprise, which talks about how books with women as main protagonists don't seem to win major awards. The article analyses several awards from the last 15 years, including the Man Booker and the Pulitzer Prize, and divides them into categories: books by women about women or girls, books by women about men or boys, books by women about both; books by men about men and boys etc etc. The Pulitzer Prize came out the worst off, with no books in the last 15 years having been won by a man or a woman writing about a woman or a girl. The Man Booker was slightly better off with two books by women about women. Awards for children and young adults fare much better.

I decided to check out our own New Zealand Book Awards of the last few years. I had long been aware that New Zealand gives its female novelists the honours they deserve when it comes to this award: ten out of the last fifteen fiction awards have been given to women. What I hadn't thought about was the point of view characters of those books. What I found was rather interesting.

Of the last fifteen award winners, only one is wholly from the perspective of a woman or a girl. What is even more interesting is that the book is by a male author: Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip.

Out of fifteen books, with ten female authors, ten are from a male perspective, and four are from a mixed male/female perspective. Now I haven't read all the books, so forgive me if I have got any of these facts wrong.

So to break it down as Griffith does:

By men about men: 4
By men about women: 1
By men about both: 0
By women about men: 6
By women about women: 0
By women about both: 4

Griffith writes:
"Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties."
She then goes on to propose some possible solutions to the problem and also to ask for help in gathering data on this subject. So I'll be sending her a link to this blog post.

All of this is posted without comment, because to be honest, I don't know what it all means. Do I think women shouldn't write from the point of view of men? I do not! Do I think men should write from the point of view of women? If they want to. Does it say something about our wider serious literary culture that values men's stories over women's? Perhaps. Is it self-perpetuating within the book industry? Absolutely. What will I do to change things? I have no idea.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

On the occasion of my father's 69th birthday.

As today is my father's birthday, and because I marked ten years since his death by introducing the Michael King Memorial Lecture at this year's Auckland Writers Festival in May, I decided it would be appropriate to post that introduction here. There was so much more I could have said as a tribute to him, but I was limited to five minutes and it was an introduction after all, not a lecture, and maybe the occasion of his 70th birthday is when I will write the essay that expresses everything I have to say about him. But until then, this will have to do. Happy birthday Dad.

My name is Rachael King and it is my pleasure to introduce this year’s Michael King memorial lecture.

For those of you who don’t know me, Michael King was my father. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since he died, and 11 years since he stood, not on this stage exactly, but at this festival, and delivered his final Auckland Writers Festival address, entitled ‘Maori and Pakeha - which people and culture has primacy?’ It was a typically enquiring, thought-provoking lecture, and it came at a crucial time in a year, 2003, when the issue of race relations in New Zealand needed level-headed commentators. He went on later that year to publish the Penguin History of New Zealand, and to receive one of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Awards for Literature, along with Janet Frame and Hone Tuwhare, both of whom are also no longer with us. To say Dad was taken away at his prime is an understatement. 

Dad has been recognised in many ways since he died, but I hold a particular fondness for this lecture. He was always involved with this festival; he loved this festival, and he passed that love on to me, right from the beginning, in 1999, when it was a much more intimate affair than it is today. In fact I grew to love festivals so much, I am now directing my own, in Christchurch. [at this point I could hear Dad’s voice in my head saying plug your festival so I obeyed - it’s what he would have done]

There’s nothing like the buzz of a writers’ festival to enhance father-daughter relations and as we lived in different places, the Auckland festival was a chance for us to catch up and bond. I remember meeting him at the Hyatt, I think it was 2001, and he dragged himself away from the writers’ welcome drinks to have dinner with me. He’d had to excuse himself from talking to a nice young writer he’d met called Jonathan Franzen - had I heard of him? I had. I had given Dad The Corrections the previous Christmas, as well he knew.

Dad participated fully and with gusto. One festival he introduced historian Antony Beevor, who was giving a very serious talk at a dinner at the Heritage. Dad’s introduction was outrageously funny - just as funny as anything at the comedy festival that was going on down the road. I’m not sure what Antony Beevor thought about following on from that introduction.

I was talking to someone the other day who always remembered my father at the festival, and what good-natured company he was. The festival was a chance for him to get away from his quiet life in the bush, by the sea, and catch up with his many friends and fellow writers. Many people here will remember him, always wearing his  cream linen jacket: I thought he only had one of these jackets, which he wore all the time, but after he died I found a whole wardrobe full of them.

I’m grateful to the Auckland Writers’ Festival - to Jill Rawnsley who initiated the lecture, and to Anne O’Brien who has carried on the tradition.

I know Dad would have been honoured to know about some of the people who have given lectures in his name: Deidre Bear, Judith Therman, Hermione Lee and John Carey to name just four. Dad would have been thrilled to see how huge the festival has become, to see so many people caring about books and ideas, and he would have been right in amongst it all. He would have loved sitting down and talking with Eleanor Catton,  sharing stories with Alexander McCall Smith, and meeting Huw Lewis-Jones, the “barefoot historian”. Although, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t have bungy jumped from the harbour bridge or gone out to sing karaoke until 4am [all things festival writers did that weekend]. 

Thanks again to Anne for inviting me to come here to speak. It’s the best way I can think of to say to Dad, “You… are… missed.”

[There was a lot of applause at this point which was lovely and I didn't cry]

I want to just read you something he wrote in 2003, a passage that closes The Penguin History of New Zealand. “And most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past  saved the  country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism in other parts of the world. They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country’s future.”

And my father was optimistic and he did like to find the best in people. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come up to me, often at book festivals, and said “oh, I knew your father; or I met your father once; he helped me enormously with this or that, he was so generous with his time.” I don’t know how he did it - he made people feel that they knew him, because he took an interest in them and their lives. He made them feel interesting. He was inquisitive… curious… a quality I personally hold in high regard. 

Dad was deeply interested in the history of New Zealand and its people and this passion is shared by this year’s Michael King Memorial Lecturer Sir Ray Avery.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

On mess.

"You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, “This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.” That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream." - Donna Tartt, a woman after my own heart
I'm definitely in that 'mess' stage. Unfortunately most of the mess is in my head - I haven't even managed to commit much to paper/screen. I have faith that it will all come together - I remember going through a similar stage with Magpie Hall.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Butterflies, Magpies and Selkies - a talk.

This is very late notice, but I am giving a talk to the Friends of Christchurch Libraries tomorrow (October 8), and anybody is welcome to attend. I'll be talking about the research and stories behind my three novels. If you ever wanted to know about the Brazilian rubber boom, taxidermy, Victorian tattooing and Celtic myths, this could be for you. Here's the info:

Date: Tuesday 8 October

Time: 12.30 pm

Venue: Board Room, Fendalton Library and Service Centre
Cnr of Clyde and Jeffreys Road

Cost: Gold coin donation

Speaker: Rachael King

Award-winning Christchurch writer Rachael King talks about the research and stories behind her three novels: The Sound of Butterflies (2006), set in the Brazilian rubber boom of the early 20th century; Magpie Hall (2009), a story of tattooing, taxidermy and family secrets; and Red Rocks (2012), a novel for children which transplants the Celtic selkie myth to the wild south coast of Wellington.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Medals and being batsh*t crazy.

Last week, I was honoured to receive The Esther Glen Medal for junior fiction at the LIANZA Book Awards. It's New Zealand's longest-running literary award - established 1945 - given to "the author of the book which is considered to be the most distinguished contribution to literature for children aged 0-15, by an author who is a citizen or resident of New Zealand." Esther Glen was a Christchurch children's writer, who lived just down the road from where I now sit. She was "part of a close and lively literary circle in Christchurch" (which I'm trying to be; if only other writers weren't so busy writing and were more inclined to form a circle. I think I see more writers in Wellington and Auckland than I do here).

I love libraries and I love librarians, so to be given an award by them is a huge thrill. As I explained on the night, I wrote my last two books in libraries around Christchurch and continue to write there today (I'm at the Tuam Street library right now in fact). I refer to the Tuam Library as my office. I am the unoffical Christchurch Libraries Writer in Residence, having worked in the Central, Peterborough, Shirley, South, Tuam and Sumner libraries. (The only time I don't like working in libraries is when strange men come and sit next to me and pretend to read magazines while staring at me - that just happened. When I moved places, he left. *shudder*)

When I got back to Christchurch and told my kids I'd won an award, they looked at me blankly. So then I told them I'd won a medal. Now that was something they could relate to. It was a shiny thing they could hold in their hands. They made me take it out of the box, put it on a ribbon and wear it around the house like an Olympic athlete.

When I accepted the award, I admitted that I was somewhat surprised. Just why I was suprised is complicated. A lot of people - librarians included - have told me they love Red Rocks, but as a good friend once said, writing makes you batshit crazy. You write a book from the heart and you let it out into the world to be read, judged, praised, admired, hurled across the room, depised and loved. You are constantly being compared to other writers, many of whom are your friends, without asking to be. You compete against other writers, many of whom are your friends, for funding and for awards. And inevitably you will sometimes be found wanting. All writers I know can quote whole lines from negative reviews, but they can't quote any from the glowing reviews. Some of my friends will get one bad review and seven great ones; then they will always think of that book as being 'poorly received'.*

All this means that it pays to have a thick skin. And yet. In order to write, you need to have a thin skin, don't you? If you were not at all sensitive, you wouldn't be aware of all those subtle emotions that go into being human; all the things that you write down to build characters; all the little details you notice about the world and about people that help you build a story on the page.

I wonder if that's why it always takes me so long to get into something new once I have a book published. I put up my shield and it takes a while for it to come down again. Winning an award like this gives you a boost. It blocks out the negative voices that you think you hear in the opinions of others, but more importantly the ones you hear in your head.

Anyway, it's given me fuel to forge on. I'm working on an adult novel and a children's novel, so it may be quite some time before they are finished. I've been joking to my Red Rocks fanbase that by the time I finish the next kids' book, they'll all be too old for it. But I hope not. Here's a picture of my glamorous life. The day after the awards, clutching a beautiful bouquet of orchids that I couldn't bear to part with and planned to smuggle on to the plane, outside the Booklovers' B&B in Mt Victoria (where I didn't stay)... waiting for a bus to the airport.

* For a much more eloquent and entertaining analysis of writers' anxieties and insecurities, I highly recommmend Sarah Laing's graphic blog Let Me Be Frank.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A book tour and some very big weather.

I started writing this on Friday, and it is in danger of becoming out of date before I can finish it, so I'm posting it now... will be back soon to add to it.

I am sitting in my brother's kitchen in Wellington on a borrowed computer, waiting for my flight to Christchurch and hoping it hasn't been delayed. I was due to fly out last night at 7.45pm. I had been worried for days that the forecasted snow in Christchurch was going to keep me out; in the end it was Wellington's Big Storm that kept me in.

And what a storm it was. Pictures emerging this morning were gobsmacking -- of the road torn up along the South Coast, of Island Bay's seawall in tattered chunks. I thought of the children I visited on Wednesday as part of the NZ Post Children's Book Festival week, and hoped that they weren't too scared and managed to stay safe and dry, that their homes weren't damaged.

Horrible weather aside, I had a wonderful couple of days visiting schools to talk about Red Rocks. I was particularly excited to be going to Island Bay and Owhiro Bay schools, as Red Rocks is set in their neighbourhood. When I talked about my initial idea, about a strange woman walking around the streets looking in people's houses, searching for something (her skin, perhaps), I suggested to the children that perhaps it was their houses she might have been looking into. All the kids were familiar with seals and had been to Red Rocks, and many of the children live on Owhiro Bay Parade, where Jake's dad lives. Lots of them had an idea of which house it might be, but of course the house itself came out of my imagination, based loosely on one I had spotted, which had a sleepout on the hill above it (as a few of them do), a perfect writing shed.

At Roseneath school I talked about how I had taken some of my father's words, which I talked about here, and put them into Red Rocks. The teacher pointed to the wall behind me, where the exact quote from the Wellington Writers' Walk was pinned. The kids had studied the Writers' Walk, knew the quote well, and had spotted it in the book. I was most impressed. They presented me with a lovely handmade card when I left, which I'll add to my gallery of Cool Stuff Kids Have Made Me and post soon.

I have a big thank you for John McIntyre from The Children's Bookshop, who drove me around for the day and minded me, and who also managed to sell a few books along the way.

After Wellington, I was on the train to Masterton, where I was taken out for a very nice dinner by David Hedley of Hedley's Books fame. I was dying for a glass of wine at that point, it has to be said. We had never met before but had plenty of bookish stuff to talk about over a good local Pinot Noir.

On Thursday I visited three schools in Masterton: Masterton Intermediate, Solway College and Hadlow School. All were fantastic audiences, and I was ably looked after by Penny from Featherston library who tirelessly drove me around.

That's it for now! I made it back to Christchurch on Friday evening. More soon...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


Avenues, a Christchurch magazine, has very admirably put a writer on their cover - me! I'm very happy with the story, which is one of the more in-depth interviews I've done in my career. It covers all of my books and a bit of my family and personal history, as well as a peek at my taxidermy and weird ephemera collection. And happily, it is available online, right here: Avenues.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Good news!

I am delighted to announce (somewhat belatedly) that Red Rocks is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the NZ Post Children's Book Awards. I am the newbie in a line-up of some big names in NZ children's lit - Kate de Goldi and Greg O'Brien, Jack Lasenby, Barbara Else and David Hill. For information about the awards, and to vote in the Children's Choice Award (hint hint) go here.

To celebrate I have made a public confession of the secret I planted in Red Rocks. The photo below gives you some clue. To read the secret, and the story behind the picture, go to the Booksellers blog.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NZ Book Month Antics.

Here's a picture of me*, yesterday, talking to about 90 kids at the Shirley Library in Christchurch. Being as how it is New Zealand Book Month and the theme is "Books Change Lives", I took along a selection of books that changed my life - books I still own from childhood. The kids seemed fascinated to see the small, yellowed, 1970s versions of books they still read today: Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also showed them an old copy of Under the Mountain and was very pleased to find how many of them had read it, and how many had seen the film. I was able to tell them about how I auditioned for the TV series when I was 10 years old, and how (in my mind) my chances were thwarted by my older brother, who went on to be the voice of Theo in the Radio NZ version, then to  direct and co-write the film all those years later (still rubbing my face in it!).

I then talked about writing Red Rocks and read a spooky passage. One little girl in the front looked so scared I had to keep reading to the end of the chapter so she knew that Jake, the protagonist, was okay and was not actually murdered by seals.

We finished up with some questions from the audience and what great questions they were. Unlike adults at literary festivals, kids really don't hold back. The best one was "What do you like about Red Rocks?" which really made me stop and think. In the end, I said I liked how personal a story it was to me, about how much I had unwittingly inserted myself and my experiences into it, and how my two boys, when they are old enough, will be able to read it and I can use it to tell them about my own childhood.

I'll be doing it all over again tomorrow (Friday March 15th) at Christchurch's South Library, at 11.30am, and very much looking forward to it.

*Thanks to Zac at Shirley Library for the great photos, and thanks to the library for hosting me.