Q&A with Kate De Goldi, author of From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle

Interviewed by room 8, St Benedicts School, Wellington

On being reviewed:

Have you ever disagreed with someone’s review of your book?

Once or twice – mostly when I’ve disagreed it’s been around the reviewer’s opinion of who the book is “suitable” for – occasionally reviewers have said that a book seems too sophisticated for a child reader. (I almost never agree with that!) My books have tended to straddle different audiences and that’s occasionally puzzled reviewers.

On the whole I’ve appreciated reviews of my books even if they’ve been critical of certain things. The criticisms have nearly always been constructive and instructive. If you feel a reviewer has taken the book seriously and given it real thought then what they have to say is nearly always useful.

Another thing – a serious writer is always wanting to do better and to test themselves, to try new and challenging storytelling techniques (through the use of language, or structure, perhaps) – to stretch themselves. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And good reviewers will tell you so, while appreciating your effort, and other aspects of your writing. That’s always a good thing.

What book of yours did reviewers like the best?

Probably The 10pm Question. But I’ve been very lucky with reviews of my books in recent years.  From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle has had very generous reviews, too. And I’m very fortunate to have had reviews that go beyond a description of the plot. There aren’t many proper reviews published for children’s books – often titles just get a few lines, which is always disappointing for a writer. A writer needs critical assessment, otherwise they’re writing into a vacuum. Of course, you want your book to be noticed – to get some publicity so it will be brought to readers’ attention. But proper reviewing is more than that: at its best it’s a committed reader giving a thoughtful analysis of the book’s (and the writer’s) strengths and weaknesses and helping a prospective reader decide whether it’s the book for them. And also helping the writer to think what readers seem to be appreciating in their work. Or not!

Have you ever had a negative review of one of your books? How did you feel?

I can only remember one entirely negative review – for The 10pm Question. The reviewer thought the characters were unrealistic – not at all like modern kids.  I didn’t take that review seriously because I don’t believe there is one type of modern kid. These were particular 12 year olds with particular family cultures and particular problems.

Of course, I’ve had negative comments in reviews…it always stings a little. Of course it does! Much nicer getting buckets of praise …  But once over the sting, I’ve often seen that the reviewer has a point – or I’ve thought about the negative comment and decided I don’t agree with it. You have to be both open and tough when you read or listen to reviews. You have to have a strong enough sense of what you’re trying to do with your writing to feel able to disagree with negative comments, to not be cut down by them. On the other hand, it’s important to think hard and honestly about the reviewer’s view.

I should say, too – there are reviewers and readers whose opinions I respect more than others. I think writers listen harder to the readers and reviewers they respect.

On being a reviewer:

How often do you review books?

I talk about children and YA books on the radio (the Saturday programme with Kim Hill) every few weeks. I also write reviews of adult books for a medical magazine (people in the medical profession are big readers).

What’s your favourite genre to review?

I really like having a range of books to review – literary children’s and adult fiction, excellent crime fiction, history, popular culture, memoir, graphic fiction and nonfiction etc.

How do you choose books to review?

I very rarely review books that I don’t like – I’ve come to think there are too many really good books to bring to people’s attention; bagging books seems like a waste of time. I choose new titles – picture book, YA novels, children’s novels, nonfiction. But I often talk about books that have been around for a while. The radio children’s slot is more a general discussion of children’s literature – the history, current trends etc. It’s less of a review slot than an opportunity to enthuse people about children’s books, past and present – most people only know the titles and authors that get a lot of media attention. There’s so much more out there!

For the medical magazine I choose three books (two fiction, one nonfiction) four times a year. Again, I only review books I think are worth reading – I read a lot of different titles and select some very good ones. I still “critique” the books (some I find better than others) but my basis for selection is that the books are worth time and attention.

What do you enjoy about reviewing?

I like having to think about why I like a book (or don’t). I like thinking about how the writer has done it – how they’ve made me laugh helplessly, or cry, or be provoked to think hard. I like trying to work that out then put it into words.

I like the opportunity to read a wide range of books – I think it’s important to have a varied literary diet … your thinking and curiosity expands. It’s also very good practice for a writer – experiencing the myriad ways writers approach their work and learning from that.

Mostly, I like letting people know about books I think are really great. I want other people to read them, to have the same thrill or pleasure or sobering time I’ve had.

How long does it take you to write a book review?

It depends. Some reading experiences are harder to articulate than others. I usually spend a day writing the reviews for the medical magazine. “Talking” reviews (on the radio) are much briefer – and often less precise and concise, which is a disadvantage. With the radio slot I’m really just trying to say – “You should definitely get this book and here’s why!”

What is the best book you have ever reviewed? What was it and why?

Years ago I did a radio review of The RedSshoe by Ursula Dubosarsky – a quite marvellous book and a marvellous writer. The radio review was adequate – I said I thought the book was extraordinary but I never felt I’d conveyed its astonishing artfulness and the wallop it gave. Later I wrote a kind of review – more of a small essay – for a publication which gave me the opportunity to express more carefully why I thought it was such an amazing book. It’s the story of three sisters in 1950s Sydney told through the eyes of six-year-old Matilda. The writer’s triumph is her ability to see the adult world through a very young person’s acute – and sometimes confused – eye. Something is going on and Matilda knows it, but she can’t express it directly. The narrative has fairy tale echoes but the story is realistic. It’s funny and sad and sinister and haunting. I re read it often so I can admire again how Ursula Dubosarsky does it.

Do you ever feel nervous before you review a book?

Sometimes if the book is excellent and complex – it’s often a challenge to convey the true essence of a great book.

Is it hard to review a book you didn’t like very much?

As I said above, I rarely do it any more. I have reviewed a few NZ children’s books critically – trying very hard to be even-handed – indicating strengths and weaknesses as I saw them. It was hard – and the writers were hurt. That’s a difficult situation. I guess I review by omission, now – that is, I don’t talk about the books I don’t much like.

Have you ever written a review you regretted?

Yes. I wrote a review of a play by a NZ writer – 30 years ago. I didn’t like it much and was critical, though that wasn’t the problem. I think my tone was the problem – a little arrogant and show-ponyish. I really wish I hadn’t written it.

What do you look for in a book?

I want to be immersed and transported – by story, character, information, and the music of language. That stands for fiction and nonfiction.

What do you look for in a book review?

A sense that the reviewer has properly understood the book’s intentions and has thought carefully about it and honestly articulated their response.

Do you have trouble balancing your writing and reviewing?

Probably! But reading is a crucial part of a writing life, so it always seems a vital thing to be doing.

Kate De Goldi’s favourite book: too hard to say just one! My criteria here is re-reading: the two novels I’ve gone back to several times, both published in the last five years: Max Gate by Damien Wilkins and The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall. Nonfiction: Zone of the Marvellous by Martin Edmond.

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