Author Rachael King's latest title
Christchurch author Rachael King's first children's book, Red Rocks, has been shortlisted in this year's New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards.
Where magic happens
A comfortable villa in a leafy St Albans street seems far removed from the windswept, rocky shoreline that haunts the pages of author Rachael King's children's book, Red Rocks.
Rachael has made her home in Christchurch with husband Peter Rutherford since 2008, when they moved from Wellington so Rachael could take up a year-long writing residency at the University of Canterbury. The couple have two sons, Thomas, 6, and Alexander, 3.
On the day of our interview, Rachael greets me with an apology for the toys, books and general domestic muddle spread through the kitchen and main living area - the inevitable outcome of life with young children. She shoos me through into the villa's tidier formal lounge, where she explains how the idea for Red Rocks first came to her about six years ago.
She was taking a walk at the time, a new mother with a baby, towards Red Rocks on Wellington's rugged south coast, where there is a seal colony. She found herself thinking about a story that would involve a boy finding a seal skin there and taking it home, only to discover it is the skin of a selkie, or seal-woman. Without the skin, the selkie cannot return to the sea and must stay in human form.
In her book, the boy character, Jake, is spending a few weeks with his father in Owhiro Bay, having flown down from his home in Auckland, where he lives with his mother, half-brother Davey and stepfather Greg. His father lives in a tiny rented house and spends much of his day in a shed above the house writing books about New Zealand wildlife.
While his dad writes, Jake walks to Red Rocks. On this exposed stretch of coastline, where the rust-red rocks rise high all around him, Jake is aware this is a place where magic could happen. He finds what turns out to be a selkie skin in a tiny cave near the sea and decides to take it home.
Stories of selkies go back a long way; the Orkney Islands have many tales about these mysterious shape-shifters, so alluring to men. Many of the stories are about a man stealing a selkie's skin in order to marry her and stop her from returning to the sea. The tales usually end sadly, with the selkie finding her skin again, returning to the sea and abandoning her husband and family.
"I have an interest in Celtic lore; I'm of Irish and Scottish ancestry. When I was 20 or so, I remember reading George Mackay Brown's novel Beside The Ocean Of Time, which involved a young man falling in love with a selkie. It was set on the Orkney Islands. I re-read it again after writing my book.
"In Red Rocks, the story Jake's father tells him about selkies is one that came directly out of my head. I wanted to tell my version of it ... Stories of selkies do come from a different part of the world, but what I was thinking is if we have seals here, why not seal people, too?"
In her tale, Jake meets a mysterious old man, Ted, who lives in a little shack on the beach and seems to know an awful lot about seals and, as it transpires, selkies. Jake's father falls in love with selkie Cara and seizes her seal skin from Jake so he can never return it, thus trapping her in human form. To say more would spoil the story. Let's just say selkies turn out to have a violent streak!
Rachael, 42, feels "pretty honoured" to have been named as a finalist in the Children's Book Awards junior fiction section. "I'm the newbie in a field of old hands!" Also on the shortlist are works by Kate De Goldi and Gregory O'Brien, Barbara Else, David Hill and Jack Lasenby.
"Jack Lasenby was a friend of my Dad's. I knew him when I was a kid. He lived at Paremata, where Dad lived when my brother Jonathan and I stayed with him in his cottage by the sea. He was one of many authors we met over the years," says Rachael, whose home at that time, like Jake's, was in Auckland with her mother, publisher Ros Henry, and stepfather, David Elworthy.
Her late father, prominent historian Michael King and Ros separated when Rachael was four and Jonathan was seven. Jonathan is a creative soul, too, having successfully pursued a career as a film-maker.
Jake's Dad's house in Owhiro Bay is based on Rachael's memories of her father's cottage in Paremata. "It was a little cottage. He'd say, 'I need time to write now, so off you go'. We'd entertain ourselves on the beach. Then, later, he'd take us fishing, and he taught us to row at an early age. His father and mother took me fishing and taught me to row as well.
"My brother and I used to row around the estuary at my grandparents' place all the time. Kids had a lot more freedom back then," Rachael says.
Some lines in Red Rocks feel as though they could only have been written by someone who knows how to fish. Jake is fishing with his father and thinking about what he might catch. "Would he feel the sudden pull of a kahawai? Or the pecking of a mullet?"
Rachael says she included these lines in homage to her father. "It is completely lifted from an essay he wrote about growing up. Those lines are immortalised in the Wellington Writers' Walk along the waterfront and I wondered if anyone would spot that they were actually his words."
Words were her father's forte, too, of course, although his field was New Zealand non-fiction. Michael King is remembered as one of New Zealand's foremost historians. He won awards for his many works of New Zealand history and biography and wrote the best seller The Penguin History of New Zealand.
Some time after her father's death, aged 58, in a road crash in 2004, Rachael and her brother, along with Geoff Walker at Penguin, pulled together a book of his selected works called The Silence Beyond. The title of this collection, published in 2011, comes from an essay Rachael came across while going through her father's papers. It began: "At the age of thirty I found out that my name was not my real name."
It goes on to describe how Michael found out that his grandfather had been Peter Crawley and that his grandmother, widowed in World War I, had changed her name and that of her children to King when she married a New Zealand soldier and moved from Glasgow. It's an intriguing story, one of many in the collection that captures the thoughts of this multi-faceted man, who fearlessly explored questions of Maori and Pakeha identity, yet also enjoyed his share of gossip and good humour.
The collection acknowledges what Rachael's father meant not just to her, but to the country. "I have met so many people who gush about the time he gave up for them and how special he made them feel. He made everyone he met feel important and interesting."
Over summer, Rachael and her family like to spend time at Opoutere on the Coromandel Peninsula, where her Dad lived in later life. "We go out in his boat. His house up in the bush is now owned by Waikato University, but we can go and use it. We did take Thomas fishing a couple of summers ago, but didn't catch anything, but we will take him out again."
Rachael knows her father would have enjoyed Red Rocks. "He'd have appreciated the elemental nature of it and its mythological aspects." Rachael remembers him giving her the set of The Chronicles of Narnia books for her seventh birthday and also reading her Watership Down by Richard Adams. "I grew up loving the idea of children's stories where magical things happen to ordinary children."
Another childhood favourite was The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the wild landscape of Cornwall. "I went to Cornwall when I was 21 and loved it. Those books made me believe there was magic in the world. I still think there is, though not in the literal way I imagined as a child."
Creative writing is something Rachael always enjoyed, but did not pursue seriously until her late 20s. After leaving school, she enrolled in an arts degree at Auckland University and also started playing bass guitar in a series of bands. At 21, she took a year off and went to live in London before completing her degree in 1994. She then began working in radio, hosting an arts programme on 95bFM and selling advertising. This she continued to do, selling for magazines.
A watershed year for her was 2001, the year she completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. There Rachael wrote what she describes as a first, practice novel, before being inspired by a display case of butterflies on her bedroom wall. She thought they would make an attractive book cover; the story inside the book cover grew into an Edwardian tale of a young butterfly collector, Thomas Edgar, who returns to England a broken man after an expedition in the Amazon at the height of Brazil's rubber boom. Published in New Zealand in 2006, The Sound of Butterflies won the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Best First Novel. It was also published in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as translated into eight languages. Rachael has virtually all the various printed editions, along with the display case of butterflies that started it all. "It was a good start to my career. It supported my writing life for a couple of years."
Her funds didn't stretch to first-hand research in Brazil, but she immersed herself in the journals of English gentlemen explorers of the day who had been there. "I also gave it to a Brazilian friend to read to make sure there was nothing in there that would offend anyone and to help me with the Portuguese."
It was a novel that almost didn't get finished. Financial considerations saw her put writing on the backburner for a time while she worked as an advertising manager at Staple magazine to earn money and she also set it aside after her father's death.
"For a year and a half I didn't write a word of it. After Dad died, I thought about how I'd never got to show it to him. I came to the realisation that anything could be around the corner and that if I was going to do something I'd wanted to do all my life then I needed to do it. I had an inheritance that helped immensely with finishing it. It took the pressure off, financially. I think Dad would have been chuffed to know I used it to write a book."
Rachael's second novel, Magpie Hall, also involves a collector, this time a collector of tattoos and vintage clothing, Rosemary Summers, whose grandfather's legacy to her is a taxidermy collection. It's a kind of modern-day ghost story with a twist. Rachael describes it as a 19th century English Victorian novel set in Canterbury. "It's got earthquakes in it as well. A lot of people were surprised when Christchurch got hit by an earthquake, but I wasn't, as I'd done the research and knew about the 1888 earthquake when the spire fell off the Cathedral. That earthquake, which is in Magpie Hall, was in September, at 4.30am. People were quite freaked out when they read that after the September 2010 earthquake!"
These days, Rachael combines writing with part-time casual work at the Children's Bookshop and working as writer in residence at Hagley College. She has a lot of new projects on the go and is proud to admit writing 32,000 words in January alone, although she will not discuss her work in progress.
This month, she will travel to Wellington and Masterton as part of the Children's Book Awards celebrations, and also to the Hawke's Bay Readers and Writers Festival.
She grabs writing time when she can, fitting it in around the family's busy schedule. Her husband works as a drama teacher at a Christchurch school, so shares the child care in the school holidays. "That's when I work from 9am to 5pm - a total luxury for me!"
Rachael recalls the late Margaret Mahy coming to the launch of Magpie Hall and asking if she'd ever skinned a tiger. "She said 'I can't believe you've never skinned a tiger because it reads like you have'. That's the highest compliment one author can give to another."
Neither has she ever touched a seal skin, although she writes so convincingly of it in Red Rocks. There's a deliberately timeless quality to this book. As Rachael herself notes, it's like Jake has gone on "a tech-free holiday" where there are no mobile phones, gaming consoles or TVs. It doesn't leave much: just the freedom to explore and the landscape of the imagination.