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Interview: Kathryn van Beek talks about Pet Stories

Kathryn Van Beek talks to NZ Booklovers about her new collection of short stories, Pet.

Tell us a little about Pet.

Pet is a dark and humorous collection of short stories about children, lovers, and other animals. The stories range from a couple of sentences to several pages in length, and each is accompanied by an original illustration. With help from Creative New Zealand, Otago Access Radio (OAR FM) and 17 incredibly talented actors, I’m also turning Pet into a podcast.

What are some of the key themes you are exploring?

I’m interested in our relationships with animals and the cognitive dissonance inherent in those relationships. I’m intrigued by how we do, and don’t, treat non-human animals differently from human animals – particularly when it comes to reproduction. Having spent some time going through various surgeries, fertility treatments and miscarriages, I’m curious about the place of human reproduction in the current era. And I’m interested in how different people have completely different views about all of these things! Those are the some of the undercurrents swirling through the stories.

What inspired you to write this book?

I had been working towards a collection of short stories for quite some time, and when I hit upon the title ‘Pet’ everything started to crystalise. The word hints at animals, but also at cherished things – and there’s a humorous erotic edge to it, too.

What research was involved?

A little bit of desktop research was required for quite a few of the stories. Google and Google Streetview both came in handy! I also asked acclaimed writer Iona Winter to be the sensitivity reader for one of the stories, The Fishhook. Iona's mahi was invaluable - and she actually went on to voice The Fishhook for the Pet Podcast, which was wonderful.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

A few years ago I got into a really good routine of waking up early and writing before work. Then I found a one-day-old kitten on the ground, and that turned my life upside down. First I was busy caring for an infant, then the kitten’s story went global and he became a bit famous, and then I wrote and illustrated a couple of children’s books about him! (Bruce Finds A Home and Bruce Goes Outside.) So my routine went out the window a little bit – but essentially I write in the weekends in my study in beautiful Port Chalmers.

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

Each story could probably have its own song. But to narrow it down to two – I’d pair The Pack with Mama Told Me Not to Come by Three Dog Night, and The Fishhook with Greenstone by Emma Paki.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this collection of short stories?

I’ve had opportunities to meet wonderful people all over the country – other writers, and also readers, librarians, teachers, publishers, distributors, volunteers, and all the other people who make Aotearoa’s literary community the amazing ecosystem that it is.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I think the real celebration will be at the book launches in Dunedin and Auckland.

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

I’m enjoying Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. Lorde was a poet and activist famous for her powerful essay “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House”. I’m also a huge fan of New Zealand literature and I’ve got a big pile of new releases to get stuck into after my book launches!

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m working on a doctorate of professional practice on the topic of using writing as a tool for positive change. I’ve used nonfiction writing as a tool for positive change – for example, by instigating the proposed changes to bereavement leave in The Holidays Act, and by helping to demystify miscarriage by contributing to the NZ Herald Misconceptions web series. I’m interested in exploring fiction as a tool for positive change too.


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