Rachael King is an award-winning writer and author of two books for adults, Magpie Hall and The Sound of Butterflies, and one for children, Red Rocks. She is the former programme director of WORD Christchurch and has a new novel, The Grimmelings, due for release in February 2024. She and fellow writer Nic Low share a studio space at Toi Auaha.
We spoke to Rachael about her creative process.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a writer of fiction for children and adults, but I also write book reviews and essays and do a lot of voluntary work mentoring and advocating for writers and books within the arts and the wider community.
What was your most recent project?
The most recent visible project was being programme director of WORD Christchurch for eight years from 2013 to 2021. But since then, I have been working on a middlegrade fantasy novel set in Te Waipounamu, a book of creative non-fiction and other essays, and reviews. My novel, The Grimmelings, is being published in February 2024. I’m still working on the non-fiction project and have two other fiction projects for young readers.
What project have you worked on that you’re the most proud of?
That’s a hard one. Probably WORD, which was absolutely a creative project for me, although the downside was that it kept me from my own writing. I’m pretty excited about my new novel. I think having a ten-year gap between books, and the hundreds of books I’ve read in that time, has meant that my writing is stronger. Is that from gaining wisdom as I get older? I’m not sure. I’m proud that I’ve written an intelligent novel for young readers with depth of characters but also a really good, propulsive, adventurous plot. I hope that adults will enjoy it too.
What is essential for creatives to have in their life?
Virginia Woolf would have said 500 pounds a year and a room of one’s own. So I’m grateful to have had financial support from Creative New Zealand in the past and to have Toi Auaha for some space away from home. I’m cobbling together a precarious living right now, but I look forward to the days when I jump on my bike and ride into town through the cycleways and along the river to Toi Auaha. I arrive feeling excited to get to work.
It’s also essential to have the support of family and friends to do what you do, and a great artistic community around you – people who get what you are doing and why.
What inspires you about Ōtautahi?
The aforementioned cycleways. It brings me joy to not be in a car. I hope the council continues on its bold path because Christchurch is going to be the envy of every city in the future. I love the way Ngāi Tahu stories have been woven through the fabric of the city in the rebuild. I especially adore Tūranga, and before I had my office at Te Auaha I wrote most of my novel there. I confess I didn’t much like Christchurch when I moved here in 2008. Post-quake it has definitely grown on me. I love walking in the Port Hills, going to Riverside markets for lunch, going to Little Andromeda, Lumiere, and all the great festivals.
What piece of advice about your creative work has served you well?
This is very niche but the best pieces of writing advice I have been given:
– Describe the coffin not the grief and related to that: description describes the describer
– Conflict is story
– Character is story
– Read, read, and read some more.
What’s the biggest misconception about your creative work?
I can’t think of any, but I think about children’s writers in general there is a general perception that writing for children is ‘easier’ than writing for an adult readership. I put just as much care into my children’s novels as I do my adult ones. Maybe some children’s writers do coast, or dumb things down, but not the really good ones. If you think about when you ask people what their favourite book of all time is, it’s often one they read at a formative time in their life. What you read as a child can shape your worldview. It’s not to be taken lightly.
What Christchurch artists do you most admire?
I love Bill Hammond’s work – I wrote a short story inspired by his painting ‘The Bone Yard’ which appeared in Bill Hammond: Across the Evening Sky, published in 2021 by the Christchurch Art Gallery. Tusiata Avia is hands down one of our country’s best poets. Nic Low, who I share my office with, is a brilliant writer of creative non-fiction and speculative short fiction. Aldous Harding’s first album embodies the landscape around Christchurch for me – I’m not sure why – and I listen to a lot when I’m writing. Margaret Mahy is my guru.
What artwork/piece of music/performance has taken your breath away?
I’m biased but the collaboration between Tiny Ruins and the English novelist David Mitchell, which was finally staged at WORD last year, nearly three years after I commissioned it, was breathtaking.
What do you wish you’d have known about creative work when you were younger?
Well, I can’t say that I wish I’d known that it didn’t pay very well, because my dad, who was a writer, always advised me to get a ‘real’ job as well. So I went into it with eyes open but still with the hope that something might change, and I could make a living doing what I do.
What’s your favourite hidden secret in Ōtautahi?
I don’t know if it’s hidden but there’s a particular spot I go to on the Crater Rim track where I can sit on a rock overlooking Lyttelton harbour and also look back towards the mountains. It’s a great place to be when the sun has just gone down, when everything has a sort of mauve tint, listening to music that is suitably dramatic. Once I saw the moon rising and it looked like the hills were on fire. It’s a great place for this North Islander to appreciate the beauty of my adopted home without going too far.