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Interview: Kate Mahony talks about Secrets of the Land

Kate Mahony grew up on a farm in Hawera, South Taranaki, one of nine children. She worked as a journalist in London in her 20s, and when she returned to New Zealand, she worked for the Wellington Evening Post now known as The Post. Later on, Kate tutored in media studies and journalism at Victoria University. She is a long-time writer of short stories with an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has been published in anthologies and literary journals internationally and in New Zealand. Most recently, her short story Respect was longlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Award. Kate talks to NZ Booklovers about Secrets of the Land, her debut novel.

Tell us a little about Secrets of the Land.

Imogen Maguire, a former journalist, is bewildered when she’s accosted in a Melbourne street by a mysterious stranger who says her grandfather in New Zealand needs her help. But Imogen has always thought her grandfather was dead. The stranger pressures her, seemingly desperate for her help and intrigued, Imogen decides to travel to Taranaki where she discovers her grandfather is very much alive. Despite being made to feel distinctly unwelcome by the old man, Imogen decides to investigate who is trying to frighten him off his farm and in doing so begins to learn why the past is so important to the present.

What inspired you to write this book?

The novel started as a short story about a young girl whose parents have come to Taranaki in 1974 after an IRA bank raid in Ireland goes wrong. She misses Ireland and isn’t happy at school. This developed into the same girl discovering a lost stranger in a shelter on the farm. I needed to find out who was the dishevelled stranger with the Irish accent, where he had come from before ending up in the shelter and what had happened to him.

I came to realise my inspiration was an Irishman who had been recruited from the Otago Goldfields to serve in the British Army in the New Zealand Wars in Taranaki.

He was my maternal great-grandmother’s brother. The novel, however, is not his actual story. What is told is fiction. My character and my ancestor share the same name in the novel and both were recruited from goldfields, my character in Australia and my relative in New Zealand. All else is imagined.

What research was involved?

I grew up in South Taranaki and had visited the famous battle sites there with my family from childhood and knew something about their history. But to learn more about what happened in New Plymouth and coastal Taranaki during this time period, and to get an idea of the geography the soldiers faced and the details of the conflicts and army life, I read books in the National Library collection on the New Zealand Wars. I also read academic articles in journals found online as well as more recent reports like those of the Waitangi Tribunal. For the historic aspects in the Irish chapters (the 1860s and 1970s), I also researched online and had assistance from two friends with a strong knowledge of Irish history (one an academic in history at a university in Ireland).

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

It seems like I had been working on this novel forever. It was very different in approach to writing short stories which can be written, re-written and revised at one’s leisure while also moving on to a new story. In fact, I found it hard even though it wasn’t the first novel I had written. Long back, I had been halfway through my MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington when I showed my supervisor Bill Manhire a short story with too many characters and a complex plot. Bill suggested it was in fact the beginnings of a novel.

I completed that novel in about five months (having to hand out a rough first draft to my classmates to read and critique at the end of that time was another thing!) Secrets of the Land took years not months. Quite a different project. I can’t remember exactly when I started it – possibly 2016 if not earlier.

I knew the ending and the beginning. It was complicated having three different main characters and three different time periods. Folders of photocopied pages of research piled up in boxes on the floor of my study. I workshopped chapters with an editor friend and people in my writers' group. Two author friends read the full manuscript. This also meant revision and thinking further about aspects of the novel. In 2020 I received a New Zealand Society of Authors Manuscript Assessment. My assessor Philippa Werry, who has written on the New Zealand Wars, offered very helpful advice.

Meanwhile, I continued to write short stories and flash fiction (no need for boxes of folders!) and had some of these short-listed or longlisted in competitions and also published in literary journals and anthologies.

If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I would include a mournful Irish one for Michael as he flees Ireland (The haunting though probably over-used Fields of Athenry is a favourite of mine). For the scenes where an ancient grave is found on the farm, I would choose a suitable to Taranaki Waiata, a song of lament for the dead.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Cillian Murphy for Michael, Sam Neill (who has Irish heritage) for the grandfather, Catherine Clinch (from The Quiet Girl) for the young Aoife, Danielle Cormack for the adult Aoife, and Erana James for Imogen.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I enjoyed the challenge of trying to give each main character a life of their own. I also loved researching the background to the different eras. At times I felt as if the soldier character was wanting his story to be told. To that end I had to explore his motivation for fighting a people (whose lives were much like that he was familiar with in Ireland) in a strange land and how he came, in time, to think about this.

What did you do to celebrate finishing Secrets of the Land?

Nothing dramatic because with a novel it never seems finished. Even towards the end of the editing process, I was still working on revisions for my publishers (Cloud Ink Press). But I did celebrate the final revision and proof-reading by heading with my husband Michael to Europe for our daughter and her fiancé’s wedding in Palma de Mallorca in Spain. A total contrast to worrying about each final detail of what has been a big project!

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey. I liked that narrator is a magpie, Tama. He is extremely observant of all the nuances of a damaged relationship going on around him while taking us on a journey slowly and relentlessly to the story’s finale.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Some time back I started another novel with three sisters and a mystery character (I seem to like including mysteries in my character’s lives). Like anything I write it has a complicated storyline. I have written one sister’s story through to the end. My plan is to take up where I left off.

Cloud Ink Press


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