This new book launched in September; we’re glad to sit down with frequent contributor and flash fiction writer Kate Mahony to hear about writing her first novel – and the author shares an excerpt and a new flash fiction too!
Flash Frontier: Your new novel, Secrets of the Land, is a work of historical fiction, taking the reader through the landscape of 19th-century rural Aotearoa. Let’s start with where the story began. How did you think up this idea for the novel?
Kate Mahony: I started with the idea of an unhappy young Irish girl who had recently having arrived in Taranaki, New Zealand, with her parents. She meets a stranger in a shelter on the farm. I then had to imagine who the stranger was and why he was there. I later realised I had been subconsciously relating this to a piece I’d written about my Irish background for a history site about Irish immigrants to New Zealand. I’d recorded that my great-grandmother on my maternal side had come to New Zealand from Ireland to take over land from her late brother who had been in the Taranaki Military Settlers in the 1860s. Like others in the militia, he had been given confiscated land – 50 acres in Okato – by the Government in place of payment. The idea grew from there.
FF: You’ve written other forms, from journalism to flash fiction. What was different about writing this story, as a novel? What did you find most challenging as you shifted from other forms?
KM: There is something satisfying about writing short stories or newspaper articles – the length, the brevity. Sometimes having fewer words is constraining but mostly you have a short piece and you can work on it, revise it, change it easily. With a longer work, there are numerous challenges. Changing something in one part of the novel can mean so many other changes! It can affect the continuity, sending you back to check the dates when events happened or the ages of the characters at certain times. A myriad of things to consider and a lot of detail to keep on top of.
FF: Historical fiction notably traverses the line between reality and fiction. How do you know what to follow from history, and what to make up?
KM: I was very conscious of getting it right. I fictionalised the places where events happened as part of the conflict between the British Army and Māori. However, I also used authentic accounts from historical and academic sources as well as online accounts. When it came to relationships between characters I invented the details. I sent the chapters set at the ‘Big House’ to a professor of history at a university in Ireland explaining I had invented that part of the story and asking her to check that the language, the vocabulary and even details like the food they ate were correct.
FF: Which leads to our next question about historical fiction, how it’s important to get the details right. What kinds of research did you do for this book? And did you learn things that surprised you along the way?
KM: For the New Zealand Wars history I began with the National Library in Wellington. I read the Waitangi Tribunal report, and also reports about what happened in Taranaki during this period. To get the clothing, or the day-to-day details of the Army camp and the forays into the bush, I read accounts from the time, what the soldiers wore and what tasks they had and their reaction to plundering an unoccupied pā in the dead of night, for instance. I read about the kind of insults and abuse army captains shouted at their men and adapted them. (I list these references in the back of the novel.)
For the Irish history, I combined reading and researching along with asking an Irish contact I’d met through family history research. For example, he told me about the ancient Butter Road from Castleisland (where my father grew up) to Cork where the butter was sent to America. This featured in Secrets of the Land along with other fascinating historical details and references he pointed me to.
FF: Of course, with research, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole – to discover worlds that link together and lead to new discoveries, but that may not find a place in the book you are writing. How did you keep your head above water, keep yourself from drowning in the research or message? In other words, how do you keep focus on the fictional elements that keep the story ‘alive’?
KM: My files contain sections of the novel that never made it into the final version. But I think it was all helpful to build up a picture of my characters in particular. I also wrote many drafts. I knew the ending of the story and tried to work towards that with each chapter. Checking (and double checking ) the research became more important in the final drafts. The story was at the forefront most of the time.
FF: You use multiple voices and approaches to telling this story. Can you share a bit about how you came to this, and how those voices helped you find / create the story?
KM: Generally my short stories have all been just a single voice, though I did have one where the thoughts of two characters played out sequentially. It gave a better idea of the first narrator, and whether or not the reader could rely on her story. In Secrets of the Land, Aoife came to me quite early on, and a girl not unlike her had already featured in some of my short stories. Michael was the kind of character who wanted his story told. Imogen was the trickiest. I knew her story, but her character and the reason she was why she was took a while to form. I needed all these characters to tell the story properly so it would unfold like a mystery.
FF: The novel begins:
I didn’t see the man at first. He must have approached me while I had my head down reading a text from Simon and, when I looked up, I saw him close by. Instinctively, I pulled back.
I recognised him as the same man I’d seen earlier in the morning. He’d been standing outside our offices. He appeared to be in his twenties, had black curly hair that waved in the light breeze and a small beard. He could have been a Cillian Murphy lookalike but for his slightly derelict appearance due to an oversized jacket that hung loose on his body.
Did you know this would be the opening lines of the story? How did you arrive at this idea for starting the story?
KM: At one stage the meeting was from the point of view of the stranger, rather than Imogen. Then while drafting, I imagined her reaction. This made the scene livelier so I changed it to her point of view.
FF: We seem to love historical fiction. Why do you think a novel such as this holds for people – why does a story like this capture our imaginations and hearts?
So many people — including those from Taranaki itself – have said they had little knowledge of what led to the New Zealand Wars in the region. They have said they have learned so much and it has got them thinking. People with Irish (and English) ancestry told me their ancestors’ stories of coming to New Zealand and buying houses or land, but often had not really thought about how the land came to be in those ancestors’ hands.
I think many people of Irish descent can relate to Michael and how he comes to think about his involvement. Research as part of the Soldiers of Empire project (cited in Irish Precedents and the New Zealand Wars (www.meetingplace.nz/2020/11/irish-precedents-and-new-zealand-wars) showed that two thirds of the rank-and-file British Army troops who served in New Zealand were Irish. Reports circulating at that time state that the conflict was regarded as ‘detestable in the eyes of the army, officers and men’ who resented their involvement in an unsavoury land grab for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand settlers.
FF: Finally, and related to the above perhaps, the title tells us there is a secret to find here, and you’ve said before that the land is like a character itself. Can you tell us more about how landscape informed the story, and whether that changed the way you wrote it?
KM: Thre’s a literary term, palimpsest, which I think explains this well: ‘Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of successive owners’.
When I was young my mother found a greenstone (pounamu) in a back paddock of our farm in South Taranaki. She brought it home and placed it on the mantlepiece. The farm was in the path of at least two famous New Zealand Wars sites of the 1860s. All these years later, traces of life in that time were still left on the land.
The maunga (mountain) itself is a volcano which erupted thousands of years ago (and could do so again), spewing huge boulders onto the surrounding land. Around the coast, at the back of the mountain, many of those rocks remain in the paddocks still, sometimes gathered in groups by a farmer still trying to clear the land. The rocks speak of ancient history. During a Taranaki winter a biting cold wind comes off the mountain. Regularly, too, there are tornados, where a fierce wind will tear a path through the region, lifting houses off their piles, sending roofing materials flying, knocking down huge trees. Growing up with this, it has made me very conscious of the power of the elements. This is reflected in Secrets of the Land.
For me, a source of inspiration for the key point in the novel was overhearing a conversation between my mother and a cousin of hers. My mother related that a Catholic priest, whom she knew, along with a Māori kaumātua (elder) were asked to bless a farm – and lift any bad spirits – after it appeared members of the family on that farm kept getting rare and fatal illnesses. The family living there felt their land might be cursed. This informed some of the supernatural elements in Secrets of the Land and again spoke to me of the ability the land has to retain what had gone on in that place many years before.
FF: Bonus question:
Do you have a 250-word story related to ‘tree’ that fits the theme this month?
The birds in the trees
A new story by Kate Mahony
At night, the birds arrived. They perched on the trees along the lane to the cowshed and their cries filled the air, drowning out the other noises.
Dad bought and sold cows, often cows in calf. He sold entire herds to people setting up farms, sending the newly tamed milking cows to them on trucks.
After the heifers calved, their offspring were taken from them within a day or two and the cows milked for the first time. Some, grieving and crying for their calves, wouldn’t submit to entering the stall in the shed. They skittered and kicked as Dad shoved them forcibly into the stall and put the milking cups on.
I was pleased when the birds came because their noises drowned out his shouts and their cries.
My father liked a drink in the evenings. A police patrol car followed him one night after a lock in at a local pub. Ignoring their flashing lights, Dad drove on. Close to home, he stopped and ran into the paddocks behind the house of an elderly woman.
The policeman officers waved their torches from the side of the road but weren’t prepared to frighten her by approaching the house. Dad spent the night shivering at the back of the property inside a gap in a boxthorn hedge. He returned home in the morning a free man. He headed off to milk the cows which my brother had rounded up and were now waiting captive in the yard.
Thank you, Kate!
Kate Mahony is a long-time writer of short stories and flash fiction with an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington – Te Herenga Waka. Her work has been published in anthologies and literary journals internationally and in New Zealand. Her short fiction has been shortlisted and longlisted in international and national competitions. She has previously worked as a journalist in both London and New Zealand, and in communications roles. Her debut novel, Secrets of the Land, was published by Cloud Ink Press in September, 2023 and launched at Poppies Books New Plymouth and Good Books Wellington.
About the book
Secrets of the Land
Published by Cloud Ink Press. Available in Whitcoulls, Unity Books, Paper Plus, Good Books Wellington, Poppies New Plymouth, other book stores and from the publisher: www.cloudink.co.nz
I didn’t see the man at first. He must have approached me while I had my head down reading a text from Simon. When I looked up I saw the man close by. Instinctively, I pulled back.
I recognised him as the same man I’d seen earlier in the morning. He’d been standing outside our offices. He appeared to be in his twenties and had black curly hair that waved in the light breeze and a small beard. He could have been a Cillian Murphy look alike but for his slightly derelict appearance due to an oversized jacket that hung loose on his body.
I’d wondered if he might be a beggar setting himself up here on our side of the river. Some of the ones in the city had become even more aggressive in their demands for money. A band tightened across my chest, making it harder to breathe. Was he going to ask me if I had any spare change? My wallet was tucked away in the bottom of my backpack, and I didn’t want to stop and pull it out in full view of him.
When I had seen him on my way to work, I’d had a strange sense he was watching me. It had been unnerving. Now I began to hurry towards where Simon would be waiting at the other end of the small cobble-stoned street. The man stepped in my way. This time I noticed distinctive blue eyes, set back in his face, staring directly at me. I touched my hand to the gold necklace around my neck, something I did when I was nervous.
‘Miss Maguire Baxter?’ His formal approach brought me to a halt.
He had it wrong. It was just Maguire. My business partner Zoe was the Baxter. Then I remembered our business name was listed as Maguire Baxter on the directory outside our building. He must have seen it. ‘It’s only Maguire,’ I said aloud.
His eyes crinkled. ‘Good.’ He sounded relieved. ‘I’ve been trying to find you. And it hasn’t been easy.’ He spoke with an accent, Irish I thought. He had an old-fashioned air about him. When he looked down, his gaze seemed to rest on my chest. My heart skipped a beat. I pulled my jacket closer.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ I said, perplexed, glancing around in the hope Simon had decided to walk down to meet me. ‘I don’t know you. What’s this about?’
He paused, as if searching for the right words. ‘I’ve come about your grandfather.’
This was where he was wrong. It wasn’t me he was after. I was instantly relieved. ‘I don’t have a grandfather.’
The man waited patiently.
‘Not alive,’ I amended my statement. I could have added that I didn’t have a father, either. ‘You’ve got the wrong person, sorry.’
‘No.’ He glanced down at me again as if he were checking I was the right person. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Turn and run from him? ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have the right person. I believe this to be so.’ He seemed to stare at my chest again. ‘Your grandfather’s name is Jack. He lives in…’ He said a long name quickly. I vaguely recognised it.
‘In New Zealand?’ That was where my mother had grown up.
He nodded again.
This was getting even stranger. Simon and I had a trip to New Zealand coming up. It’d taken me ages to get him to agree to go away together. At first I had suggested other places in Australia to visit. But whenever I went to book flights, there was always some activity coming up for his boys that he had to be there for. Then I thought of New Zealand. It was more definite and would take a really major event to cancel. When I told him I’d book the harbour bridge climb and a vineyard tour of Waiheke Island with lunch at a world-famous restaurant, suddenly he was all on board. The boys would be fine with their mum.
He had asked me if I wanted to check out the place my mother had come from. I said no. ‘Aoife only lived there for a short time years ago, before she and her mum went to Australia. And anyway, it’s further down the island off the beaten track somewhere.’
But even if it were closer to where we were going, would I really want to visit there? Aoife had said all those years back that it wasn’t a good place and had hinted it likely had a bad spirit. She had shut down any further questions pretty quickly.
Now I stared at the man in front of me, waiting for him to explain further.
‘Your grandfather needs your help. Desperately,’ the man said. ‘Time is of the utmost.’ This quaint expression had a certain sincerity. It was then I had a horrible inconsequential thought – could it be this man had escaped from one of those psychiatric places in the community? ‘You must help.’ He let out a long breath.
‘You all right?’ a voice behind me asked. I turned to see a man in the uniform of the hardware store on the next street. He had narrowly avoided bumping into me. I realised I had stopped in the middle of the footpath.
When I turned back the strange man who’d accosted me had gone. The man in the store uniform must’ve thought I was talking to myself. I began to walk faster towards the end of the street and was relieved to see Simon standing outside the café. He was checking his phone.