Spring 2019




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