Sunday, October 29, 2023

Q&A with Kirsten McDougall


Photo by Ebony Lamb Photographer



Kirsten McDougall is the author of the new novel She's a Killer. She also has written the novel Tess. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand.


Q: What inspired you to write She’s a Killer, and how did you create your character Alice?


A: In 2019 I took five months off work to write a novel set in remote part of New Zealand in the period between the two world wars. I was dutifully doing my daily word count, then sneaking away to add bits of dialogue to a scene I’d written between Alice and her mother, Louise.


I’m a bit slow, but after a month I realised I was having far more fun writing Alice than I was on my other project.


In Alice I found a character who could represent the way I was feeling about the lack of movement on climate change – the inertia of it and the way it makes you feel, well, what’s the point in me doing anything if no one else is? Who am I against the big corporates and the governments of the world?


Alice was spikey, petty, bored, and to me, very funny. She’s not someone I’d want to be friends with, but I liked her! Her character had enough energy to run and run, so I ran.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Alice and Erika?


A: Competitive, thawing slightly as the story moves ahead. Alice isn’t someone who readily makes friends, and she sees Erika as competition – even though Erika is 15 and a half and Alice is 37. That gives you an indication of Alice’s maturity!


Erika is still full of potential, has a genius IQ and fantastic eye makeup, all things Alice would like for herself.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew I wanted something dramatic to happen, and that not everyone who was alive at the beginning of the book could be alive at the end. I warn the reader of this on page one. So there were tentpoles, but I’m definitely a writer who stumbles around in the dark as she goes.


I think that narrative form has a psychological equivalent of muscle memory in our bodies; we are raised on narrative form through all the videos, games, films, songs, and books we experience over a lifetime, and this absolutely shapes your story, line by line, as you go.


Perhaps the battle is to fight some of those formal outcomes; to make sure you keep yourself guessing and playing with those expectations as you write.


Q: The writer Eleanor Catton said of the book, “Smart, assured, and extremely funny, She’s a Killer is a marvelously eccentric book that both skews and skewers the anxieties of our age.” What do you think of that description?


A: I laughed at the “marvellously eccentric” part of the description, because I don’t think She’s a Killer is eccentric, but then, when does anyone ever think their own work is eccentric? Who me?!


I’m pleased when anyone says the book is funny. I love to make people laugh, and most of the jokes I remember at parties are terrible dad jokes. 


In terms of skewering our anxieties—the book is full of our anxieties, they’re the soup we bathe in daily, and I do think the best medicine for them is to try to find a way to laugh at them.


I love humour because it has this way of puncturing the air a little. When we laugh we relax a bit, we allow some oxygen and creativity into our minds, and that’s the way we will combat some of the very big problems we face as a species—not through getting anxious, but through getting creative.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m highly superstitious about answering such Qs lest the ideas evaporate, but I will say it’s a book about three sisters who are singers, and I’ve always got short stories on the go—they keep my hand in while I’m working my day job.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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