Interview: Margaret Mills talks about The Nine Lives of Kitty K.
Updated: Feb 27
Margaret Mills publishes her debut novel at the age of 91. She talks to NZ Booklovers about The Nine Lives of Kitty K.
Tell us a little about The Nine Lives of Kitty K.
Kitty Kirk was a strong woman in a time when a woman alone had to struggle to survive. She had an interesting childhood, very typical of pioneering life in Otago except that when at the age of 12 she met horses for the first time and discovered that she was a horse whisperer.
Her new-found skill brought her both fame and money but estranged her from her mother who strongly believed in 'keeping your place' so much that Kitty, at the age of 15, rushed into a disastrous marriage with John Craig (pronounced Kregg) a timber worker who needed a wife to get the job. He also was a heavy drinker who kept his family short of money so Kitty had to find ways of earning her own secret stash.
They had four children, three daughters and one son, who died at the age of eight, and the marriage became impossible. When two of her daughters died in a boating accident Kitty left Kinloch. Her remaining daughter stayed with her father. Kitty never saw either of them again. She was now 35 years old and now had to earn a living. Apart from the fact that she was an excellent cook all she had was her skill with horses. She had the strength and determination to have a successful packing business to the wives of the miners at Skippers and became the stuff of legend for her daring rides in what is still one of New Zealand's worst roads in blizzard conditions.
Unfortunately, when the mines closed, she became an alcoholic and very probably a prostitute but she still had friends and she is still membered fondly today, 90 years after her death.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write about Kitty when I was 47 and living in Queenstown. I happened to know about the battle of Omdurman. I had won several prizes in radio quizzes in the Selwyn Toogood era and that qualified me as a know-all. Miss Winnie Mulholland had an uncle who fought at Omdurman, she had the poster on the wall but didn't know anything about it. This qualified me to write about Kitty. Winnie had promised her mother she would 'get the story out' and I got the job. Winnie's mother was an inspiring woman. Among other things she was one of the first women to sign on the first electoral role and voted in the first election.
Over the next six months or I spent many afternoons listening to Winnie and her friends talking about Kitty. I later discovered there hadn't been much fact, just a lot of gossip. All I managed to do was write 12 pages which ended up in the Lake County Museum after Winnie's death.
By then I was back living on Waiheke having lived 27 years in Queenstown. In 2016 after my partner had surgery, I realised that our adventurous days were over and it was about time I got Kitty's story out, so I proceeded to do so.
What research was involved?
The research was huge. My thanks go to two people, Anne Maguire, archivist at the Lakes District who was untiring answering my questions and my son, Brett Mills, who delighted in finding out facts and ruining bits of perfectly good fiction. I couldn't have written it without either.
What was your routine when writing this book?
I am a habitually early riser, always have been, and from the time I started writing again, I had my early cup of tea (all set up so that I could have it without getting out of bed) and then I started work. Although not really work as the story seemed to have come together in my sleep and all I needed to do was wrestle with the computer to transfer it to the page. After all, it had been in my head for years.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Goodbye Dolly Grey was very popular from the Boer war days to early WW2.
My darling Clementine, gold mining song. (I'm not quite old enough for this question.)
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
My granddaughter is working on a series in Queenstown at present as are her father, brother, sister so I consulted her. She sent me a picture of June Osborne in The Handmaiden's Tale and she would be a perfect Kitty.
Sam Neill for Kitty's step-father who was one of my best inventions.
Doubtless Ella will get back to me with other suggestions which I shall pass on. Aren't we getting a tad ahead of ourselves here? We'll have Jane Campion for director and....
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
That I was actually writing a story that I had been carrying around in my head for 40 years and I was fulfilling a promise to 'get Kitty's story out'. It never became a chore and I worked from to 6a.m. to 7.30 nearly every morning. I never became stuck and it took me 14 months to finish, and 27 drafts before I was satisfied.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
When I finished writing the first draft my partner Trevor, his son James and I went to Queenstown and went to dinner with the family.
What is the favourite book you have read recently and why?
I have too many old fiction favourites to choose. I have most of them and re-read according to my mood at the time. For 2020, the fiction that grabbed me the most was Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap.
I was impressed with his characterisation, the subtle humour he wove a the plot, and that one thoughtless action that some people thought justified can break up several generations of a large conservative family. The book stayed in my head for weeks and I think some parts will prove to be unforgettable.
Mary Egan Publishing
Photo credit: David Robie