National portrait: Rachael King, literary director

Author and literary director Rachael King: her writers festival is "very much about the planet and its people".

Author and literary director Rachael King: her writers festival is "very much about the planet and its people".

Books by women in bands – you can barely swing a cat in a bookstore these days without hitting one. There are the acclaimed memoirs of Kim Gordon, Tracey Thorn, Carrie Brownstein​ and Viv Albertine​. But where are the local examples?

Perhaps Rachael King is best placed to write one. Before becoming a writer and the literary director of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, King was a teenage rock musician. Is there a memoir in her about life on the road when you should be at school? 

"It was too short," King says. "If I wrote about it, I would think about a young adult novel because I was 15 when I started playing [in Auckland band Battling Strings]. I was 17 to 19 when I was in the Cake Kitchen. Then I was 20 when I was in the 3Ds." 

What did her parents make of this? "They were pretty good about it, actually. They trusted me. It made me want to be worthy of that trust."

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It is easy to imagine even the teenage King being more sensible and organised than older guys in bands who should know better. 

At one point in her 20s she sold her bass guitar to buy a laptop, which signals the change in direction. But the past always pulls us back. A few weeks ago, she found a video online of a Cake Kitchen track with footage she had never seen before of a Wellington show in 1990. There is King near the side of the stage and mercurial frontman Graeme Jefferies​ crooning before a crowd of students, some of whom also identified themselves 26 years later. 

A small US company reissued the two Cake Kitchen vinyl albums she played on and sent artist's copies. What are these large, strange objects from the past, her kids wondered.

Some of that past will be revisited in her second full WORD festival as literary director, a role she took on after the Christchurch earthquakes. She came south with her family in 2008 for a writer's residency, expecting to stay for just a year, but "circumstances conspired". She gets to feel that she is making a difference in post-quake Christchurch. 

Anyway, that music past. One of the big events revealed in this week's programme launch is a Flying Nun Records night, based on Roger Shepherd's memoir In Love With These Times and featuring contributions from journalist Russell Brown, sound artist Bruce Russell and musicians Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins fame, Jay Clarkson and Graeme Downes. 

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That will happen in a music venue in industrial Woolston in August. Other events will be located in the slowly regenerating central city. King's picks of international authors are Australian environmental writer Tim Flannery, mortician Caitlin Doughty and transgender storyteller Ivan Coyote.

But beyond the names, it is a festival of themes. There are sessions on euthanasia, sex work, grief, US politics, indigenous rights, sustainable cities and crime. Christchurch loves crime. 

Maybe the topicality is embodied in visiting US author David Levithan​ who wrote a young adult book called Every Day, "about somebody who woke up in a different body every day. It was a chance to be male, female, black, white, gay, straight. His talk's about diversity in literature."

It is not too far-fetched to say that a festival curated by King works in a similar way, as a chance to experience diverse points of view. 

But before WORD Christchurch happens, King gets to be a guest writer at someone else's festival. She is in two sessions at the Marlborough Book Festival in Blenheim in late July. The first seems straight-forward, with King explaining the research behind her books The Sound of Butterflies, Magpie Hall and Red Rocks. But the second sounds like an occasion for possible fireworks. 

In a session called "Famous daughters of famous fathers", King teams up with writer Charlotte Grimshaw, daughter of poet, novelist and critic CK Stead. Stead and King's father, historian Michael King, famously "had a love-hate relationship". It is remarkable that no one thought before to pair up two of their kids to talk it over. 

For example, after one exchange of letters in the Listener – these days it would probably be a feud on Twitter – Michael King dedicated a book to Stead with the comment that he, "like an execution, concentrates the mind". Good line.

"I think the conflict between them might have been greatly exaggerated," King says. "They really respected each other. But I'm sure we can come up with some good anecdotes." 

It is rare for King to talk much about being a famous daughter of her famous father. After Michael King's sudden death in 2004, she had to stop saying yes to media requests. 

"I don't like being interviewed for things about him because invariably I get misquoted or paraphrased and because it's something I'm quite sensitive about, I don't enjoy that. If anything is going to be in print about me talking about my dad, it has to be something I wrote myself."

This interview is okay, though? "This is about the experience of talking about him." 

She has avoided being compared to her father, partly because he died before she was published and because he was a non-fiction specialist whereas she works in fiction. When she gets a minute, that is. Her literary director role is one of those part-time jobs that expands to fill up all available time. Her "to be read" stack is usually a pile of books that could fill a spare room. And writing?

"I don't have the headspace [to write]. Even on the downtime, I'm thinking about the festival. I'm hoping to take a few months off next year and get back into it, because I've got so many things I've started." 

There are a couple of children's novels, one about a kid saving the world – the end of the world naturally starts in Christchurch. And there is a tricky historical novel that needs some serious attention. 

At this point, aware that King is a time travel fan – her favourite movie about it is Primer – the interviewer suggests turning it into a time travel novel. If that eventually happens, this is where you read it first. After all, isn't that what you get from the experience of unexpectedly seeing yourself 26 years ago playing a song called, believe it or not, Tomorrow Came Today. It's what writers do.  

 - Stuff


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