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Interview: PJ McKay talks about The Telling Time

Pip McKay’s travels through the former Yugoslavia informed The Telling Time, however the connections she forged within the local Croatian community while researching stories of New Zealand’s Croatian immigrants, have been inspirational.

Pip holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland (2017) and in 2018, was awarded a Creative New Zealand/NZSA Complete Manuscript Assessment award for the manuscript.

The novel’s opening won the 2020 First Pages Prize, judged by an international panel and Sebastian Faulks, OBE. Pip talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Telling Time?

Gabrijela, a young Croatian immigrant from Korčula, is at the story’s heart. Gabrijela is exiled to New Zealand in the late 1950’s holding close a secret. Thirty years later, her daughter, Luisa, sets off on her own covert adventure, determined to visit Yugoslavia and unpick the family’s past.

It’s called The Telling Time because some secrets, even those lying dormant for the longest time, eventually demand to be told. The novel also encapsulates that fraught ‘coming of age’ period in our lives so often plagued with difficulty, and transports the reader to past eras and to settings that were also ‘telling times’.

It’s a great book club read and will appeal to thinking readers who enjoy a relatable, pacey, character driven story.

Dr Paula Morris describes it as, “A vivid, engrossing family story that crosses oceans and eras, exploring the price two women pay when new and old worlds collide.” For me, this statement sums up the book perfectly.

What inspired you to write this book?

I signed up for fun to an introductory creative writing course with the Creative Hub. As part of the course we had to come up with an idea for a novel and once conceived, inspiration took hold and the idea wouldn’t let me go! My travels in 1989 through the former Yugoslavia informed The Telling Time — this was the nugget, the starting point — I reflected on some decisions we had made at that time, youthful decisions, risky decisions, and then my imagination took over. It helped that Yugoslavia had captured my heart while travelling and that I’ve always loved immigrant stories — people finding their place. The stories of New Zealand’s Croatian community provided excellent material for weaving into a novel and I relish the stories I’ve been privy to and the connections made while researching for this novel.

What research was involved?

A lot! And this was more or less a constant throughout the writing process, even after completing the first draft. Reading literature written by Croatian writers such as Amelia Batistich, and drawing on stories from Steven Jelicich’s book, Distant Shores, was extremely helpful. Added to the mix were personal stories from friends, and people I met through the Auckland’s Dalmation Club. The Cultural museum at this club was a fabulous treasure trove of resources as was the Te Ara website.

Additionally, google searches to try and understand more about the convoluted history of Yugoslavia proved useful. Watching You Tube videos from resources such as NZ on Air and Korčula took up a lot of my time — one video clip in particular on the Jadranka Sardine Canning Factory provided inspiration for my winning pages in the First Pages Prize competition.

To transport myself to 1950’s New Zealand I drew on stories and photos from my parents and books such as Bronwyn Labrum’s Real Modern, and Bee Dawson’s NZ Woman’s Weekly, all were perfect visual reminders. For the 1980’s, TV shows such as Gloss and videos available through Google were helpful for stepping back in time. And going back to my own letters and travel diaries provided inspiration — you could say it was a collaborative effort.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Haphazard! Mainly due to this being a learning process of how to write a novel.

In essence I let myself write and tried to see where the words took me. Often I would come back to something months down the track and realise – Oh! That’s where that can fit.

For me, the point where I started writing has now ended up in the middle of the novel. The chapters in the front part of the novel were written last.

I would hope that my next writing project might be more organised but I think there’s some benefit to an organic approach and seeing where the story takes you – sometimes it’s quite surprising where you end up — in a sardine canning factory for example!

You have won the Frist Pages Prize 2020, can you tell us a little about this?

I’m honoured to be the recipient of the First Pages Prize in 2020. Now in its third year, this competition supports emerging writers worldwide with its annual prize for the first five pages of a longer work of fiction or creative non-fiction. This year, award-winning author Sebastian Faulks OBE, joined the international judging panel. It’s hard to describe my emotions after receiving the call to say I’d won the competition. Given we were still in lockdown, it was as though my ‘bubble’ transmuted to take up residence in my chest, a constant companion releasing celebratory bursts of joy — perhaps while cooking a meal, out walking, writing or reading a book — an infectious feeling, the best possible kind in these strange times, a feeling that’s stayed with me and one that has given me the luxury to dream again. My only disappointment was not being able to meet with the First Pages Prize team and my fellow prize-winners in Paris. Hopefully this might be possible next year.

The competition is in its third year and along with generous prize-money it offers winners the chance to meet with an international literary agent and receive developmental editing on work of their choice. What an inspired idea to create a competition around the opening pages of a novel given this is the hook that grabs the reader and entices them to read on. For me it has been an exceptional experience and one that I would recommend to other writers who are starting out. Entries for the competition are called for in late January/February.

The book has the most gorgeous cover, is there a story behind artwork?

Thank you! All credit must go to my friend and artist, Catherine Farquhar who painted the canvas for me over lockdown. We are both delighted with the result. I gave Catherine a photo of a Tui in a Persimmon Tree — both visual elements used in the book — and we decided together that incorporating a map of the Croatian coastline would work well. The nice thing is that this map is not immediately obvious but something to be discovered . . .

As an aside, the painting of the canvas was also interrupted by lockdown. Catherine had made a start on it in her art studio but she had to voluntarily self-isolate after a trip to Melbourne just prior to the whole country locking down. Fortunately her daughter was able to retrieve the canvas, on the eve of lockdown, and drop it at the top of Catherine’s driveway. We now refer to this as the ‘Great Art Heist’. importantly, painting could resume again. Catherine finished the painting just as lockdown was lifted. We then got it professionally photographed. My niece, Laura Becker, then took this photograph and worked on the design elements to make everything work. It’s exactly what I was after in terms of texture, font and combination of colours. It’s perfect!

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

I’d include songs from both the 1950’s and 1980’s. Maybe, Buddy Holly’s. ‘That’ll be the Day’ and I couldn’t go past songs by Toni Childs such a strong female vocalist of the 80’s, ‘Don’t Walk Away’ would be perfect.

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

Finding someone who has a Croatian background would be a priority for playing Gabrijela. For Luisa, I would love to uncover a brand new talent. In fact I do know a young New Zealand actress who could well be perfect, her name is Georgina Salmon. Just quietly, I think this would make a fabulous movie — think of the gorgeous mix of Croatian and New Zealand scenery for starters!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I’ve met so many fabulous new friends along the way and best of all my mind has been challenged and stimulated like nothing has ever succeeded in doing before. It has truly been my most satisfying project yet — unless you include growing three gorgeous boys into young men!

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It depends how you define ‘finishing’. When I wrote the final word of the first draft and knew that I had a complete story it was 2.30 pm on 13th June 2018 — I know this because it was my youngest son’s 17th birthday and he had given me an ultimatum to finish by this date. As usual I cut it extremely fine — my celebrations at that stage were doing a dance in my office and whooping with delight before setting to and making his favourite birthday meal, Paella.

We celebrated my First Pages Prize win and ‘about to be published’ novel in Akaroa this year. I had my husband, and two of my sons and their partners with us — champagne was present!

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

Bernadette Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other without a doubt. For its originality, the weaving of stories her superb craft. But my MCW classmate, Amy McDaid’s Fake Baby comes a close second.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Taking The Telling Time on a promotional tour around New Zealand. I’ll be fronting author sessions and meeting with book groups to discuss the process of writing, my highlights and struggles along the way, and why lockdown was so influential. I’d like to inspire others who have a passion to write to grab any chance with two hands. I believe that everything is possible with dedication, patience and a touch of serendipity.

I also aim to demystify the on-line world of Amazon and publish The Telling Time as an e-book in October. As with the printed version I plan to do this as professionally as possible.


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