Interview: David Whittet talks about Gang Girl
David Whittet is a family doctor, an independent filmmaker and author. Medicine is a constant source of inspiration for David’s writing. Like writing, general practice is about being interested in people’s stories. The inspiration for his debut novel Gang Girl, the story of a young woman’s struggle to escape from the Gang, came to him during a twenty-year stint working as a rural GP in a New Zealand community. David talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Gang Girl.
Gang Girl is the story of a woman’s lifelong struggle to escape from the gang. Alicia is the daughter of a notorious gang leader and dreams of breaking free from the misery of her childhood. The gang stole her childhood. She won’t let them claim the rest of her life.
What inspired you to write this book?
While Alicia was born of the gang, Gang Girl was born of the twenty-plus years I spent working as a rural doctor in New Zealand. Alicia’s struggle reflects that of many extraordinary women I met during my work. At the heart of the novel, we have a strong woman determined to take charge of her own destiny. In these remote communities, many women battle to escape poverty and build a new life for themselves. Their courage is my inspiration and the lifeblood of my story.
What research was involved?
Researching gang culture was an adventure in itself! I was greeted by a Rottweiler when I fronted up to a notorious gangster’s house for an interview. My heart beat even louder than the dog’s barking. I banged on the door. No reply. Muffled voices came from inside. A second Rottweiler appeared.
Eventually, a nine-year-old boy gingerly put his head around the doorframe. ‘Is your father at home?’ I asked.
'I’ll go and ask him,’ the boy answered.
A loud voice boomed in the background. ‘Is it the cops?’
‘No,’ the boy replied. ‘It’s the doctor.’ ‘The doctor? We didn’t call the doctor. Nobody’s sick. Are you sure it’s not the cops?’
‘Positive. It’s the same dude that stitched my hand.’ He shot me an evil look. ‘And it bloody hurt.’
The gangster eventually emerged, his bold, full-facial tattoo radiating an immediate presence. He told me how the gang forced him to have the tattoo as a teenager—it was his gang patch. He went on to describe the ceremony and the pain when the chisel pierced his flesh. I had my opening scene. When he told me about his daughter and her lifelong struggle to escape from the gang, I had my story.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
With a full-on job as a GP, I have to be highly disciplined with my writing. I have reduced my commitment at the medical centre and now have a day off each week dedicated to writing. I also spend a considerable portion of my weekends at the keyboard. And I always have a notebook to hand for those ideas that spring to mind at the most unexpected moments!
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Interesting—I’m making an audiobook with Audiobooks NZ, and we have been talking about this. The lyrics of You’ll Never Walk Alone mirror Alicia’s struggle and her indestructible spirit. Perhaps also a quintessential New Zealand song—Neil Finn comes to mind. And a Māori song from Kiri Te Kanawa to reflect Katērina, the wise woman who unravels the mystery.
You produced a film, can you tell us a little about this?
The film was actually called Amiri and Aroha. The project started back in 2010 as a Māori take on Romeo & Juliet, with rival gangs rather than families. The film was shot in the Gisborne region with an entirely local cast, including Walter Walsh from The Lord of the Rings and Shayne Biddle, fresh from his success in The Strength of Water. I will never forget asking a local gangster to appear as an extra in the film. ‘Me? Act?’ He ran his fingers across the grooves of his magnificent tattoo. ‘You should ask my mate, Ben. He’s a show-off. He’d love that sort of thing.’
His wife came in from the kitchen. ‘You can’t ask Ben. He’s in jail!’
The gangster leapt out of his seat. ‘We don’t use the J-word in this house! He’s temporarily unavailable!’
The film won many prestigious awards on the international film festival circuit, and we subsequently made a film trilogy.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
Travelling with my characters on their journey through the story. I felt Alicia’s pain whenever her dreams of freedom were so cruelly taken from her. I flinched each time Micky’s father beat him. But most of all, I shared their joy whenever they scored a victory over the gang! What did you do to celebrate finishing this book? I took my family out to dinner!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley. I have loved the Seven Sisters series, which has taken me on an extraordinary journey around the world. So tragic that Lucinda has died so young and before completing the series.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
My next novel is finished! In The Road to Madhapur, the lives of an idealistic young New Zealand doctor and an Australian missionary’s daughter collide in a remote Indian village. I have worked in India, and the novel contains some real-life incidents. I am currently working on Threepence on the Carpet, the story of a Kiwi on his overseas experience in London in the swinging sixties. He dreams of being a rock star but is stuck in a dead-end job in a bank. His life begins when he meets Zoe, a new age hippie and starts writing protest songs for the ban the bomb movement.
Alongside Threepence on the Carpet, I have started Blood Cousins, the second book in the Gang Girl series, which continues Alicia’s story. And I have written a screenplay Hīkoi, which I would love to produce.