GETTING TO KNOW YOU WITH KIRSTEN MCDOUGALL
Tell us a little about your novel, what readers can expect from it.
Tess is set in small town New Zealand at the turn of the millennium in 1999. It’s a stranger-comes-to-town, gothic-esque love story, told from the stranger’s point of view. Tess is picked up hitch-hiking on the outskirts of Masterton by a middle-aged dentist, Lewis Rose. She is obviously on the run from trouble, and Lewis helps her. There is a crime at the heart of the book. There is also a non-realist element – Tess can read people’s memories. If you were a detective that would be a very useful gift. Tess is a sort of accidental detective, with a past, like all good detectives.
Where did you grow up and what was family life like?
I grew up in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, then when I was 13 we moved to Masterton, where Tess is set. It was a shock to the system. People wore home-spun woollen jerseys and track-pants to town (I was and still am very interested in fashion and dressing up). But I made some good friends there, people who are still in my life. I wasn’t a particularly happy child. I used books as escape and it recently occurred to me that I still sometimes prefer the world of the book to the real world, even though I am a happy adult. I think people who read fiction most days are perhaps after their own 4th dimension to inhabit.
Academic or creative at school?
Academic, although only in arts – I excelled in English and History, and they’re what I majored in at university. Maths and sciences terrified me and I wish this hadn’t been the case. I only ever got creative when it came to writing in English – I loved to write poems and stories.
First job you *really* wanted to do?
Work at the Hard to Find Second-hand Bookshop in Onehunga, Auckland – which I did do – when I was nineteen. I described it then as a house filled with bookshelves and books.
Do you remember the first moment you wanted to write?
There’s no first moment I can locate, just a desire to write from an early age. I’ve always wanted to make things, to build cities with my imagination.
Who are your real life heroes?
Creatively and intellectually – David Bowie. Laurie Anderson. Simone Weil. My friend, the songwriter and adventurer, Leila Adu.
Funniest or most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in?
Last year I walked across a restaurant floor with my skirt tucked right up my underpants. I only realised it when I sat down. I shrieked very loudly. My sons were terribly embarrassed.
DIY expert or phone a friend?
YouTube and my son.
Sun worshipper or night owl?
A book that had you in tears.
The moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout realises that it was Boo Radley who saved her and Jem. He’s standing behind the door and she says, ‘Boo!’. I burst into tears.
A book that made you laugh out loud.
Recently, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Back in the day, Bridget Jones’ Diary. Always, Peanuts.
One piece of life advice you give everyone
If only I were that wise. But the best parenting advice I was ever given and I give it out now is ‘always keep a nappy in the glovebox’.
ABOUT THE BOOK
“At first she was a blur of light and movement on the steaming road.”
Tess is a young woman on the run from a series of bad relationships, parental and romantic. It’s approaching the turn of the millennium when she’s picked up on the side of the road in rural New Zealand by Lewis, a lonely, middle-aged man with plenty of problems of his own.
Reluctantly, Tess is drawn into Lewis’s family troubles, and comes to know a life she never had. But is her ability to see what’s going on in the heads of others a blessing or a curse?
What the Ngaio Marsh Awards judges had to say:
“A real chiller – this short novel hits a lot of high notes, and McDougall’s prose is superb. Her exploration of violence is artful.”
“Tess provides a compassionate and tender portrayal of a damaged girl and the damaged family she becomes involved with. The writing is lyrical and evocative, the plot superbly crafted and the novel slowly and meditatively reveals the effects that injuries from the past continue to inflict on each character.”
“A very fast read, not because it’s a slim novel, but because of the intensity and claustrophobia of this disturbing tale.”