Gay Buckingham talks to NZ Booklovers about Kākāpō Keeper.
Tell us a little about your book: Kākāpō Keeper is ostensibly an adventure story but it is also a work of creative fiction. Based on fact, it tells the story of fourteen-year-old Andrew Burt who, in 1894, leaves his secure Dunedin home to live in remote and dangerous Fiordland. He is there to help government-appointed Richard Henry in his attempts to save kakapo and kiwi from the newly arrived, fiercely menacing stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats and dogs.
The book introduces New Zealand history, environment and wildlife to the reader, as well as the unpredictable weather, isolation – and vicious sandflies – of Tamatea Dusky Sound, where Andrew doesn’t just catch birds but learns to sail a boat, build a house, cook on a camp oven using limited supplies, and develop a garden. In the process he develops a love for the area, for the clever-but-shy man he is there to assist – and for the birds themselves.
Andrew, who is a fictionalised composite of the four young assistants who lived in Dusky Sound and worked for Richard Henry, also leans learns important life lessons. Over time he is tested physically and psychologically, experiences doubt and apparent success, and is guided by a mentor in the person of Richard Henry towards discovery of authentic values. Eventually Andrew returns to Dunedin with a greater understanding of himself and the world. In the final chapter we also learn what may appear to be failure is not always judged so over time.
The book incorporates historic photos and reproduced documents, contemporary photos, maps, illustrations and information about birds. There are pen and ink drawings done in the style of a Victorian ‘naturalist’, as well as Andrew’s personal notebook of jottings, sketches, correspondence – and complaints.
What inspired you to write this book? I had sailed in the area and was deeply affected by the natural environment and wildlife, and the moving story of Richard Henry’s attempt to save ground dwelling birds from extinction.
What research was involved? Susanne and John Hill’s biography, Richard Henry of Resolution Island, is the definitive work on both man and task. The couple read and transcribed almost all Henry’s notes and I referred to it constantly. Henry’s original material is lodged in Dunedin branch of Archives New Zealand (now available on line at <archives.govt.nz) and it was a hair-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck experience to handle his papers: to read his words and look at his diagrams and sketches. A C and N C Begg’s book Dusky Bay is another fascinating book I referred to constantly. It was great fun to go to the Hocken Library and see photos taken of, and by, Henry. Many of the photos were donated by the real-life mother of Andrew’s fictionalised ‘friend’, Arthur Deans. (The real Arthur Deans was Henry’s fourth assistant.) Note however, the creation of the internal character of Andrew Burt was entirely fictionalised, as were the conversations and many of the details of events.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include. • Sibelius’ Karelia Suite (which opened the documentary about NZ made for the 1970 Osaka World Fair!) • Sinead O’Connor’s Lord Franklin
What did you enjoy the most writing this book? On one level I found the research fascinating but on another level, when I began writing about Henry’s dogs it re-awoke in me the (forgotten) great love I had for a dog I owned as a child.
What did you do to celebrate finishing? I thought I had finished it three or four times, but of course you are never finished until your publisher says you are! To be honest, as it drew to its final close I began another book, also about an NZ child, at an important time in our history, and telling it from her point of view. That has gone off the boil a bit as I have been side-tracked by another project.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why? • Underland by Robert McFarlane – transcendent writing and subject matter; there is nothing I can say to describe it that McFarlane doesn’t do better in the book • I am a devoted fan of Elizabeth Strout, and her two Olive books, plus the spin off from them, is mana from heaven. I’m eagerly waiting for her latest, Oh William, to get here • Mary-anne Scott writes authentic NZ stories, and I love her ability to write in the natural cadence and rhythm of our speech. Sticking with Pigs is already an NZ classic
What’s next on the agenda for you? I really, really, really want to finish a series of linked short stories, set in the Catlins over a period of time. (And find a publisher of course!)
What book do you go back to time and time again to re-read and why? • Children’s books: anything by Roald Dahl, he conveys a wonderful sense of anything being possible – and anything possible is probably fun! • Adult books: Anything by William Trevor or Alice Munro. They are the masters of the short story (as is Elizabeth Strout of course). They share perfect microcosms of truth with the reader, making us feel as if we have greater, more profound understanding of the human condition.