Misconceptions and Bruce the cat: a Q&A with Kathryn van Beek

By ReadNZ | Posted: Tuesday September 8, 2020

Dunedin author and illustrator Kathryn van Beek is launching two new books this month: her short story collection PET and a children's book, Bruce Goes Outside.

We asked her to answer ten quick questions.

You’re publishing not one, but two books in August. How did you manage to pull that off?

With luck, determination, and the expertise of the team at Mary Egan Publishing … though I’m not sure I’d recommend running two crowdfunding campaigns during a global pandemic!

How do you juggle your eclectic writing life, which also includes being an illustrator?

This year I’ve also juggled working on a web series called Misconceptions, studying towards my doctorate, and taking on couple of unexpected things that popped up as a result of Covid-19 – including the opportunity to turn PET into a podcast! So my routine is a little all over the place at the moment, but in general I like to write before work and on the weekends. I have a study with two desks in it – one for writing and one for illustrating! I like to write in silence, so illustrating is a bit of a treat because I can do it while listening to podcasts and audio books.

Many of the stories in PET explore themes of reproduction. How closely does this mirror your own life?

I’ve been through laparoscopies and IVF and miscarriage, and those experiences are reflected in some of the stories. Over the past few years I have thought a lot about human and animal reproduction.

As a writer, what are your strategies when the going gets tough?

Aotearoa’s writing community is really friendly, generous and supportive. My twitter feed is filled with people being lovely to one another, and I’m really lucky to live in Ōtepoti Dunedin, which is a UNESCO City of Literature. I’m also a member of a couple of different online and in-person writing groups. It’s this supportive community that I turn to when things get tough.

You’ve become a bit of an activist lately. Please tell us more about the web series you’ve been involved with and why you’ve been lobbying the government.

After going through miscarriage and realising how common it is, and what a terrible experience it can be, I really wanted to make some positive change. When I lost my first baby I felt cloaked in shame, so I began my activism anonymously by writing under a pseudonym and appearing on TV as a shadowy figure with an altered voice. More recently I’ve contributed to a NZ Herald web series called Misconceptions, which aims to bust myths about first trimester baby loss. Alongside this, I’ve been working with MP Ginny Andersen to make a change to the Holidays Act. It’s currently unclear as to whether people who experience baby loss are entitled to take bereavement leave, and we are seeking to change this to make it clear that they are. The Bill has received wide cross-party support, which is really heartwarming. I think it’s important to talk about these uncomfortable topics and help reduce some of the shame and stigma around them.

You’ve studied creative writing at both The Creative Hub and the IIML. How has this helped your writing? Has it changed it in any way?

I studied at the IIML during my tumultuous twenties when I was pretty much fresh out of school. I quit writing soon after to play in bands and establish a career in communications. During a work restructure we were offered ‘resilience training’, which literally changed my life. Realising that I wanted to get back into writing, I started getting up early to work on short stories. I also signed up to the 30 Week Fiction Writing Course at The Creative Hub, which was a bit like getting to do an IIML do-over. Our tutor John Cranna taught us the art, craft, and business of writing. Along with imparting practical writing techniques, he taught us how to critique one another’s work (members from my cohort still provide feedback to one another). He also gave us tips about the business of writing and different avenues for publication. If I hadn’t done John’s course I wouldn’t have these books coming out now.

You’ve won numerous awards for your short stories, some of which are quite dark. What inspires them?

Generally two unrelated ideas collide in my imagination to spark a story idea.

Bruce the Cat became an internet sensation when you found him on an Auckland street in 2016. How has your life changed since then? And Bruce?

I was on track as an emerging short story writer, and then I found this one-day old kitten on the ground and everything stopped! All of a sudden I was caring for an infant (thankfully, cats grow up fast). And then Bruce’s story went global, and I had access to an audience of thousands of people. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity, so knowing that Bruce’s fans like cute things I decided to write and illustrate a children’s book. How hard could that be? Well, it did turn out to be quite difficult. But thanks to Bruce I have learnt a whole lot of new skills, and I’ve had a heap of opportunities. In particular, I really love visiting schools and holding workshops with the kids. And with Bruce’s fans, I’ve raised money for the SPCA and Dunedin Cat Rescue. Bruce himself is fluffy, purry, bitey, naughty delight.

Who are the writers you most admire and who among them has influenced your work?

Renée, Sarah Kane and V were key early influences. I am a huge fan of several Aotearoa writers, including the incredible Brannavan Gnanalingam. I participated in Wellington’s LitCrawl a while back, and part of the package included being picked up from the hotel and dropped to the airport by a LitCrawl volunteer. To my amazement, the volunteer who arrived to collect me was Brannavan. Unfortunately, I had only just returned from the A&E after a bout of what I can only conclude was extreme food poisoning. I do not believe I impressed him with my conversational skills.

You’ve lived and worked all over New Zealand, but now live in Dunedin. Tell us a little about your life there – your studies, dreams, hopes for the future.

Shhh – don’t tell everyone about Ōtepoti Dunedin, or they’ll all want to move here! It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place, filled with friendly and creative people. I’ve had so many opportunities since I moved south. For example, I’m currently working towards a doctorate of professional practice on the topic of writing for positive change. I would like to use my writing to make a positive difference in some way.


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