Born writer

01:43, Jan 31 2009
Rachael King: ``I wanted to write the kind of book I wanted to read _ that was the biggest epiphany I ever had.''

Her family's literary legacy is hard to ignore, but Rachael King is making her own name as a writer. PHILIP MATTHEWS talks to the University of Canterbury writer in residence.

The week Rachael King and her family -- husband Peter Rutherford, 16-month-old son Thomas -- moved from Wellington to a house just off Bealey Avenue was the week of the most notorious of this city's recent boy-racer activity. The soundtrack to a grand prix blared from the streets outside. Broken bottles and debris lined the route to the airport the next morning.

Welcome to Christchurch. But there's bad Christchurch and there's good Christchurch. The latter might be the tranquil and leafy university campus on a cool Monday morning in autumn. The University of Canterbury's 34th Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence is in her office, half-way along a narrow corridor on the third floor of the English building.

The towering wooden bookshelves have exactly three books on them: two paperbacks on the theory and practice of creative writing, and the American hardback edition of King's novel, The Sound of Butterflies. There's a photo of her husband and baby. There's an imminent short-story deadline in black pen on the whiteboard. And that's all. She could have moved in five minutes ago.

But this is luxury, really -- the mental and physical space to write, a quiet plain room, free of distractions. The university residency gives King this office and a stipend of $52,000 -- "more than twice the average income of a writer in New Zealand," she says. "I was wondering where our income was going to come from this year." Rutherford, an actor, gets to be a full-time dad.

By the end of the year, she hopes to have a novel finished, although there's no formal requirement to do so.


Two ideas are competing for her time. There's a historical satire that she describes as "rollicking" and there's a contemporary story in which Canterbury is seen from the perspective of an outsider. This second one is the project she detailed in her application. For a while, she'll flit between the two books until she figures out which needs to be written first.

The second of the two books also gives King the opportunity to take reconnaissance tours deeper into Canterbury. She doesn't know the south well, although her mother, Ros Henry, lives in Christchurch -- her stepfather is retired publisher and Press restaurant reviewer David Elworthy.

As kids, she and her older brother, Jonathan, visited Craigmore, the legendary South Canterbury farm of the late Sir Peter Elworthy -- and some of that setting found its way into her brother's film, the slapstick horror Black Sheep.

You can't escape family. When The Sound of Butterflies was published in 2006, it gave interviewers an excuse to ask King about the creative influence of her father, the historian Michael King, who died in a car accident four years ago this month.

"I tried to tell them that I didn't want to talk about my dad too much but inevitably ..."

She also tried to point out that she mostly grew up with her stepfather and mother, not her father -- and that their influence was at least equal.

"I always knew I wanted to write," she says. "I always did (write) when I was a kid. When I was about 16, I just stopped and started writing really terrible poetry. I suppose when I was about 25 or 26, I started writing stories again."

At that point, with one paper to go on a Bachelor of Arts that had dragged out for eight or nine years, she enrolled in Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera's creative writing course at Auckland University. She had majored in English, after plans to do a double-major in History were scuppered: "I wasn't doing very well at it and then people got wind of who my father was and I could see the look of disappointment in their eyes."

It's a truism, but no-one can teach you how to write. What you get from creative writing courses, and King also did Bill Manhire's one at Victoria a few years later, is an education in writerly discipline -- the need to face up to the blank screen or blank page no matter what -- and an immersion with others who are doing the same thing.

Her project on the Manhire course was a novel that will never see the light of day. She calls it a very New Zealand story, a typical semi-autobiographical first novel -- it was "concerned with exploring New Zealand identity", she explains. She's almost yawning as she describes it.

"It was the kind of book I was expected to write. When I finished it, I thought: I don't really like this book. If I picked it up in a bookshop, I'd probably put it down again.

"I wanted to write the kind of book I wanted to read -- that was the biggest epiphany I ever had. It just gives you so much freedom."

What resulted was a novel in which New Zealand doesn't feature at all. The Sound of Butterflies is set in London and South America in 1904. A man named Thomas -- a name the author clearly favours -- comes back from a butterfly-hunting expedition in a state of mute shock. His wife, Sophie, struggles to understand his condition; the reasons for it are explained in flashbacks that show us a colonial Brazil violently exploited by rubber barons.

 "The horrors worsen in Heart of Darkness fashion," said reviewer Iain Sharp, who wasn't alone in finding the story to be "a gripper".

"As far as I know, no other novels have been set in that rubber boom," King says. "I looked really hard. Which amazes me, because it's such an interesting time."

Instant bestseller? The novel has already gone into its third printing here, and has been translated into five languages. Reviews from the United States and the Britain have been encouraging. Film rights would probably be a tall order, though, given the location -- the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo was an inspiration, but it's also a kind of warning. That tough production just about killed Herzog and his star, Klaus Kinski -- their combined folly was summarised in the enduring image of crew members and assembled Indians dragging a steamboat up a hill and down the other side.

All these foreign sales, all these translations -- she's sure there are people who think that success has come easily. What they don't see are the "years and years of work behind it. I wrote really seriously for 10 years before this novel came out."

And she was never interested in trading on her name. Before the book was published here, she sent the manuscript overseas, securing an agent in Britain. It was important that the book be read and accepted first by someone who had never heard of Michael King. "Good, so at least I know," she said to herself before going on to find a New Zealand publisher.

But the profile that followed is really her second public career: for historians of New Zealand rock music, there's another Rachael King, one who existed prior to this writer in this empty room at the University of Canterbury. The age at which she gave up writing stories coincides with when she took up music, playing bass guitar in a series of bands, starting at Auckland's Northcote College.

At 17, she joined the Cake Kitchen, an ever-shifting band focused around mercurial singer and guitarist Graeme Jefferies. She turned 18 while on the road with Jefferies and drummer Robert Key. After a time, everyone but Jefferies left the band, and King was bass player for a summer with the legendary Dunedin band the 3Ds, at the invitation of old school friend and 3Ds guitarist Dave Saunders.

"The 3Ds were definitely my favourite of the bands I've played in. It was my musical career that never was, because after I left is when they toured America and did all this great stuff."

There were other bands after that -- including Auckland's Bressa Creeting Cake, who were distant ancestors of Goldenhorse -- but "it stopped being fun after a while, the egos involved in playing in bands".

"That was all a million years ago, that stuff. I sold my bass guitar to buy my first laptop."

Which is as tidy an image as you could find of putting away childish things. But being back on a campus has produced a kind of sad longing for those things, too.

"On my first day here, I was walking around with (English professor) Patrick Evans. I got that nostalgic feeling I used to get on the first day of the university year. It was full of possibilities. I had a clean slate, no late essays. Then I realised it was 20 years ago that I was first at university.

"Do they let you come back and do it again? I was always doing far too many other things."

Student mooching, student procrastination: at Canterbury, she thought that maybe she would spend her first week taking in the atmosphere, checking out the library, but all that was done in an hour. Soon she was back in this plain room with its bare walls, staring at the screen, with no excuses.

"As you can see," she says, "there's not a lot to do."


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