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Taking Attraction on tour

Kevin Rabalais

Ruby Porter was the inaugural winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize for her debut novel Attraction, which launched in May this year. Check out some of the reviews it’s received, like this excellent one in Landfall: https://landfallreview.com/the-biggest-raupatu/

Ruby, along with Rosetta Allan (author of The Unreliable People) was invited to speak at several writers’ festivals in Canada, and Verb in Wellington. When asked how she was mentally preparing to go from the isolated life of a writer to this highly public tour, Ruby was said she was concerned.

Why?

‘I won’t have anything to say.’

Here is Ruby’s account of her recent travels.

Calgary, Vancouver, Wellington

I’ve always been quite a socially-anxious person. I’m bad at small talk. I get so nervous I forget to ask people questions about themselves.

‘First time to Calgary? First time to Vancouver?’ everyone asked.

‘Yes,’ I would say, ‘first time to Canada.’

They always seemed surprised, which surprised me. I don’t know that many people who have been to Canada.

But now I was one of those few. Rosetta Allan and I were invited to the Calgary Wordfest and the Vancouver Writers’ Fest in October. The festivals paid their international writers in cash. The thick white envelope felt illicit to hold. We were put up in hotels with thermostats and baths and mint body lotion. Most writers aren’t rich, but we can act it, for a few days.

In each hotel there was the one room, always on the ground floor, which at night would turn into a bar for the writers. In Calgary, they called it the artists’ lounge. In Vancouver, it was the hospitality suite. On the first couple nights in Calgary I stayed away, a bit intimidated, a bit nervous of what I might talk about. I felt like a fraud around the people touring their third or fourth or seventh book. But by the time we were in Vancouver, I never missed a night.

I was lucky to have Rosetta with me. Rosetta is a talent with words in all situations – not just on the page. At first, all I had to do was follow her from circle to circle. And thinking of what to say wasn’t that hard either – there was an election on. In Canada, they’re still lumped with an antiquated first-past-the-post system. On the TV, huge swathes of a Canadian map were dissected into red, and orange, and blue.

One of those nights, I was sitting with two writers, when one asked the other what it felt like to win the Giller. The Scotiabank Giller Prize is given to the best book of fiction to be published in English in the previous year by a Canadian author. It was the stuff of my daydreams – hanging out, drinking wine with successful and even award-winning writers, and actually liking them, and having them like me. No one who I met was arrogant or elitist and exclusionary. In fact, a lot of them were pretty anxious as well.

Of course, no one invites you to a festival just to drink their free wine and eat their free food and overshare. I had two events in each city. In Calgary, I spoke on a panel called Bionic Woman Writers, and gave the audience a peek inside my wardrobe (and my teenage years) in a speech for The Way We Wear. In Vancouver, my panel was called Buzzworthy Books, and I read at The Sunday Brunch: complete with servings of croissants and coffee and mimosas. At every session, I was talking to and reading alongside writers who literary CVs would dwarf mine. And yet, they all held space for me. They listened to me, and acknowledged me, and made me feel comfortable up on stage.

The weekend after I got home, I was at the Women’s Bookstore Litera-Tea. Up on stage, I decided I would change the passages I was reading. I wanted to do something new. My sense of calm was unnerving. I waited for the panic to hit, but it never came. I knew I could perform them well.

The following weekend, I flew down to Wellington for Verb. Half way through a session with Becky Manawatu and Jessie Bray Sharpin, with the lights on us and a mic bumping my chin, I realised something: I was enjoying myself. I was actually having fun.

My mum Mary had arrived back from Singapore at the same time that I was due to fly out of Wellington. My plane was delayed, so she bought us two smoothies from Wishbone.

I asked her about her conference, and she asked me about Canada.

I told her what I’d learnt about the state of Canadian politics; how Alberta is threatening to cut off oil to British Columbia, and British Columbia is threatening to cut off Alberta’s wine and weed; how you can make more money in a day writing for reality TV (and yes, I learnt, it is scripted); and how, in Canada, if you’re not on Twitter, your publisher will force you to sign up.

More surprising, though, was what had happened to me. There have been few times in my life where I’ve experienced noticeable growth in a matter of weeks. In Canada, I grew in confidence, not only as a writer, but as someone who might have something to say, even in conversations.

Perhaps, one day, I’ll get Twitter

A Unique Journey to each Publication

Kevin Rabalais

A Unique Journey to each Publication

It’s true, I was already a Penguin author when I went back to the University of Auckland in 2017 to complete a Master in Creative Writing. My first historical novel ‘Purgatory’ was well-received for a debut novel, remaining on the NZ Bestseller list for six weeks, and voted by Apple iBooks as one of the top ten books of 2014. I was interviewed on the NZTV Morning Show, Radio NZ, and was a guest panel speaker at the Auckland and Christchurch writers festivals. This response to the novel was both unexpected and wonderful.

When I sat down to write my second novel, I found myself going around and around in circles, unable to find the path through the research and characters that I had developed, to see the actual storyline that would make an interesting and compelling read. What I was missing was a community of fellow writers who I trusted to critique my work, and the positive pressure of deadlines that help to drive the novel forward – so, I enrolled in the MCW.

Turns out, it was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. I made friendships with smart, talented writers – a group we call ‘The Plotters’. I was mentored by the award-winning novelist, short story writer, essayist, and talented Paula Morris (who last year was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, and recently appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in the 2019 New Year’s Honours).

During my Master’s year, the novel I was writing was challenged, changed, developed and produced. In the initial stages of the programme, I was one of two fortunate students to be awarded a Sir James Wallace Master of Creative Writing Scholarship. Receiving the award gave me a significant boost of confidence in my writing ability. If someone else liked my writing enough to give me a scholarship, then surely I wasn’t wasting my time, so I pushed on, very grateful for the accolade and for the faith shown in my work.

By the time the year was over the novel was only half complete, but I had the direction I was looking for. I worked through the summer holidays and on into autumn to deliver the book to Penguin for consideration. Fortunately for me, the Michael King Centre situated in the Signalman’s House, on Mount Victoria, Devonport, had recently reshuffled their residencies to enable emerging writers like myself to take up a two-week residency during February 2018. Two weeks to tune out the world, to enter the writer’s cottage in the garden at the back of the property every day, and write. I can’t express enough how important time is to the writer – focussed, unencumbered time, where all I thought about were the words appearing on the page, the rumble of my stomach when the realisation of hunger hits, and the evening swims in Torpedo Bay when my husband would cross town and join me for dinner.

Michael King Writers Centre, studio window

The subject matter of ‘The Unreliable People’, has been described as ‘bold’ more than once. It’s this same boldness that saw me sending out emails to Russian organisations in search of a writer’s residency in 2016, the year before the Master’s programme. What I discovered is that there are no writer’s residencies in Russia or Kazakhstan, which was particularly annoying since these are the countries my novel was located in. Undeterred, I put myself forward for one of these residencies, asking for time as a literary artist. My application was accepted, and I became the first, and so far, the only New Zealander to take up the St Petersburg Art Residency in Russia.

The last stretch, Korea to Kazakhstan

This year I travelled to Kazakhstan via Korea, to deliver a talk at the conference for the Culture and Literature of Korea and Korean Diaspora, held at the Al-Farabi National University of Kazakhstan, where I presented a paper called ‘Re-establishing Identity Through Contemporary Art – The writing of a novel about the Koryo-saram’. Of the 34,000 Koryo-saram who were exiled to Ushtobe in 1937 by Stalin, only two babushkas remain alive. With the aid of Koryo-saram friends, made through the writing of ‘The Unreliable People’, I was able to travel to Ushtobe ( a round trip of six hours) to spend time with Katerina and Yelena in Ushtobe. The visit was an honour, considering they have turned away many interviewers. However, because of the family connections to my friends, they welcomed me into their homes, took me around the extensive gardens they still keep, and presented me with traditional Korean lunches.

Yelena is now 92. She was nine-years-old at the time of the exile, mid-winter in cattle cars, very Nazi-style. Katerina was 3-months old. Both were lucky to survive, and their parents must have gone to extraordinary measures to make sure they did. Yelena spoke a mix of Russian, and the original Hamgyŏng language – a language mostly lost now due to Stalin’s decree to disallow the use of it. I held her hand as our time together was coming to an end, and she held my hand and kept holding it, right up to the last moment when we had to part. Needless to say, I still feel a strong connection to these beautiful babushkas.

Yelena and Katerina, Ushtobe, Almaty, Kazakhstan

As adventurous as I have been in the writing of this novel, and the research undertaken to experience the world of my characters, I knew too, that it would take boldness on the part of my publisher to take this book to print. To have an editor like Harriet Allan of Penguin Random House feels to me like winning the lottery. After our initial meeting to discuss the novel, I went on to cut some it away, and hone the main line of the story. After this, the book was accepted and signed to a contract. And then the editing work began.

The result is a novel I am proud of. ‘The Unreliable People’ has remained in the New Zealand top ten bestseller list since its launch eight weeks ago. This year, I have presented it at the Auckland Writers Festival, the Al-Farabi National University of Kazakhstan, and have been reviewed and interviewed on Radio NZ, Korean TV, Hamilton Library, and the Blikfang Gallery.

I’ve also had spots at the Hamilton Book Month, Going West Festival, and the upcoming Literatea event for The Women’s Bookshop. And most extraordinarily exciting is where I am now: Vancouver Writers festival and Calgary Wordfest as a guest writer, alongside Ruby Porter. Look who else is joining us!

Readers list for the 2019 Vancouver Writers Festival

The success of this publication, and the one prior, I have not achieved alone. I am so very grateful to the journey and the people around me for the support, encouragement, and the advice I have received from those around me, and the organisations that are there to support writers in the quest to produce good work.

In the end, I believe, we writers are not lone islands at all. Every piece of writing is a new adventure, with new friends to be made around every corner.

Gayoung Yang (Sijon), interpreter, professor, and new dear friend – Al-Farabi National University of Kazakhstan