Flash Frontier

Interview: Kathryn van Beek on writing for adults and writing for children

Interviews and Features

Flash Frontier: How did you come to creative writing in the first place? What is the first thing you wrote?

Kathryn van Beek: I began my writing career as a playwright when I was straight out of high school. But in my mid-20s, after a bit of a knock to my confidence, I took a break from creative writing to focus on playing in bands and establishing a career in communications.

FF: Your most recent book is ‘Pet’ – a collection of short stories for adults. Can you tell us how you started writing short stories, how the form appeals to you as a writer?

KVB: As part of a corporate restructure, my colleagues and I were invited to attend ‘resilience training’, which encouraged us to identify what we wanted from life and work towards it. I realised I wanted to return to writing, and immediately signed up to undertake John Cranna’s fiction course at The Creative Hub. I have been working hard at improving my craft ever since.

On a practical level, short stories have enabled me to write in snatches of time around work and other commitments. But I also love reading short fiction – and I’ve been spoilt for choice lately with Airini Beautrais’ Bug Week, Breton Dukes’ What Sort of Man, Laura Borrowdale’s Sex, With Animals, and Tracey Slaughter’s Devil’s Trumpet … and I’ve got Leanne Radojkovich’s Hailman on order!

FF: We notice that your book also has animals at the centre of it, much like your children’s stories. Do you always begin with animals?

KVB: Well, my children’s books have an interesting origin story! I was a year or so into taking creative writing seriously again when I was walking home from work and found a tiny, day-old kitten alone on the ground. I took it home and began a high-stakes journey trying to keep it alive. Before too long the kitten, Bruce, went viral, and I had an idea to make a children’s book about him. So I wrote, illustrated and crowdfunded for Bruce Finds A Home, and last year I released a follow-up called Bruce Goes Outside.

I think a lot about animals, and how we treat them, and how we like to forget that we are also animals – and all that thinking flows into the stories in Pet. But I’ve also used the word ‘pet’ to explore the precious relationships in our lives.

FF: Do you find it hard to move between writing for children and writing for adults? Are there some similar themes that you handle in different ways? Do you tend to have happier endings in your children’s books? Are there darker themes explored in your other stories?

KVB: The Bruce books are very different from my short stories. They rhyme, they’re silly and ridiculous, and they definitely have cheerful endings! Some of the stories in Pet are quite dark. Short fiction allows you to go really dark, if you want to.

FF: In May, you were invited to participate in the Dunedin Readers & Writers Festival, in the Story Time Double Decker Bus. Tell us more about this – and do you think there should be Double Decker Bus Stories for adults next year?

KVB: I was paired with the absolutely incredible Swapna Haddow (if you have a child in your life to buy books for, I thoroughly recommend her instant classic My Dad Is A Grizzly Bear) and being part of the festival was so much fun! Swapna and I read from Olveston Historic House, and the other writers read from other venues, and the children were driven around on double decker buses – a bit like litcrawl for tots. But we adults didn’t actually get to ride on the buses! So yes, I think there should absolutely be a double decker event for adults next time, perhaps with an after-dark kind of vibe.

FF: What are you currently reading?

KVB: I’ve recently been totally blown away by Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Carol LeFevre’s Murmurations and Iona Winter’s Gaps In The Light. I’m a big fan of the flash fiction of my former Creative Hub classmate Michelle Matheson, and I always enjoy reading her work. And my book stack currently includes Kyle Mewburn, Janet Frame, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

FF: And finally: What’s next? What are you currently writing?

KVB: I’m polishing up a couple of short stories to have in my back pocket, and I’ve also made a start on something a bit longer – a modern mystery set in Moeraki.

Fool’s Gold

Kathryn van Beek

In summer, when the tussock is gilded by light, Hamish and I run Prospector’s Lodge in our old gold rush town. We’re known for our venison pies.

In autumn, before the town turns white, Hamish hitches the converted horse trailer to our campervan, and we go mining for the farming dollar. This will be my last season for a while. It’s taken five years and twenty-three thousand dollars, but at last we’ve got a mini All Black baking.

We start with jobs in Ranfurly and Palmerston. It’s shaping up to be a hard winter, and the farmers aren’t happy with the news we deliver. We spend an icy night in Oamaru, where our trailer attracts the attention of local steampunks. A man in a top hat admires the neat rows of rivets on the steel encasement, but the technology within is far from Victorian.

I go to bed with a hat on, and still wake up cold. We drink steaming instant coffees on the campervan step before driving to our next job.

It’s one of those farms with a sign out the front: Abortion stops a beating heart. It’s ironic, given the circumstances. But we’re just here to provide information. We’re not here to judge.

The farmer stomps through the mud towards us.

‘I’ve had a heck of a time with foetal wastage,’ he says, instead of saying hello.

‘Ian?’ I ask, extending a hand. He shakes it.

‘Embryo transfers. Waste of bloody money.’

Hamish sets up the trailer. Ian’s teenagers jump on quad bikes, round up the deer hinds and herd them through the crush. The hinds struggle past me one by one, and I scan their bellies. Ian stands nearby with two cans of paint. Pregnant hinds get green dots. Barren hinds get red dots. Pregnant hinds with smaller, less profitable foetuses get red dots.

The quad bikes buzz away and Ian trudges off into a shed. Hamish slides the scanner under my jacket.

‘How’s our little fawn?’ he asks. We both look at the screen. The last time we did this, the image on the monitor danced. Today, it’s a frozen lake.

‘Fuck,’ Hamish says. He throws the scanner on the ground. He shoves the gear into the trailer, kicks it shut, and then kicks it again. I stare down at the dark mud coagulating around my gumboots.

Ian emerges from the shed and approaches me, one hand outstretched.

‘For you,’ he says, handing me a shrink-wrapped package.

‘Thank you,’ I say.

I hold the venison to my chest. The wind is sharp against my fingers.

Kathryn van Beek writes stories for adults and children. Last year she released her debut collection, Pet, also available as a podcast. Her children’s books began when she was walking home one day and found day-old kitten. She took it home and the adventures of Bruce the Cat began, with Bruce Finds A Home and Bruce Goes Outside. Kathryn is a graduate of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
She has won the Mindfood Short Story Competition, the Headland Short Story Prize, Best of the Auckland Zinefest, and several Playmarket and Wellington Fringe Festival awards. Her stories have appeared in Best of Auckland, Newsroom, Fresh Ink and takahē, and her non-fiction has been published in the NZ Herald, the Sunday Star-Times and The Spinoff.
Kathryn lives in Koputai Port Chalmers with Bruce and her other rescue cat, Jager. You can follow Bruce and Jager’s adventures on Facebook.
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