The detail of a butterfly's wing

By Rebecca Barry Hill

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When Kate De Goldi started writing, she went by the name Kate Flannery out of shyness.

"I didn't really want anyone to know about it. I was very quiet about it," says the Wellington author, sitting by the fire next to her bag of knitting at an Auckland friend's house. "When it came to writing teenage fiction, I thought, well people are going to find out anyway so I went back to using my own name." She'd better get used to the spotlight.

De Goldi is the first person in New Zealand history to win the NZ Post Book of the Year Award and the prize for Young Adult Fiction, as well as being shortlisted for the prestigious Montana New Zealand Book Awards for her novel, The 10PM Question.

No one has previously been recognised at both awards, a feat indicative of the wide-ranging appeal of the book.

"It's enormously encouraging. You can't underestimate what a confidence boost it is, especially if you've worked on a book for a long time. You never really know how it's going to be received." De Goldi is proud she didn't set out to write for a particular audience - she just wrote the story she'd been longing to for years. In The 10PM Question we meet 12- year-old worrier Frankie Parsons, whose anxieties range from whether the smoke alarm has working batteries to fears he has contracted the Ebola virus.

It's his mother in whom he confides his amusing concerns, but she has problems of her own, dysfunctions that manifest themselves in her son.

What makes this such a pleasure to read is the wise and humorous eccentricities of Frankie's family: his three aunts (an "amalgam" of the aunts and great-aunts in De Goldi's family), Frankie's father, known as Uncle George, bitchy big sister Gordana and streetwise older brother Louie.

Then there are Frankie's best friends, the self-assured Gigs, with whom he shares a secret language, and tomboyish new girl Sydney, whose mother's foibles also impact on her life.

Not much happens in Frankie's physical world - it's the subtle interior changes, the realisations, understandings and personal developments that drive the story, a technique that allows us peeks of Frankie's back story. When not in the character's mind the reader is in his home, tasting the exotic cakes his mother bakes, interpreting the mysterious gaze of the woman in his mother's painting, smelling the burned hair from his sister's hair straighteners. Each room becomes like a character.

"I'm very interested in, and I like reading, books where very little happens.

There's a vertical line to the story and it's more about the layering of the characters," says De Goldi. "There's something really interesting about texture. As a child, the paraphernalia and clutter and objects of the life around you is part of your mental furniture. When I'm writing I go back to that memory of knowing those details. But I was very conscious of it not having enough plot. I said to my friend, Paula, I can't get Gigs and Frankie off the bus! They've been on the bus for about two years.' She'd ring up and say, are they off the bus yet?" Born and bred in Christchurch, De Goldi's obsession with books eventually inspired her to try to recreate the pleasures of her youth. She grew up on a steady diet of post-war children's literature - "William Mayne, Betsy Byars, Philippa Pearce. What struck her about these writers, particularly Mayne, was their ability to create texture, stories that moved like caterpillars but with all the detail of a butterfly's wing.

Now a youthful 50-year-old, she has won numerous awards and accolades for her fiction, including the Katherine Mansfield Awards for short stories, and the Children's Book Award in 1997 for her young adult novel Sanctuary.

In 2000 her novel about adoption - Closed, Stranger - won an honour award in the Children's and Young Adult Book Award, and in 2001 she was made an Arts Foundation Laureate. Her book Clubs, illustrated by Jacqui Colley, won the picture book category of the Children's and Young Adult Awards in 2005; that year it also won the overall book of the year, and it also gained the Russell Clark Award at the LIANZA Book Awards.

But there was one tale she yearned to tell, a story that leapt from the pages of her notebook, the scrawls on various characters and agoraphobic conditions she'd come across.

"I have, over the years, spoken to a number of people who have had a parent with a mental illness and it's been very interesting to hear that not only do the families survive, they're all okay. But at various stages, the people around them feel a huge amount of responsibility for their happiness, so I think it's not uncommon.

My son, 19 now, was an anxious child. He was super-conscious - and he still is, in a way â€" of how everyone else is around him. You know, he'll say, are you all right Mum?' It's a personality thing. He's very sensitive. Not so much now but I think it's also a developmental stage. I wasn't a sensitive child, I was too self-involved but I was really aware of adult nuances and adult relationships." It's hard to reconcile De Goldi's reserved manner today with her vivacious stage presence at the Book Awards. During her acceptance speech, which she graciously extended to the community of local children's book writers, she happily described herself as "the slowest writer in the western world" (she's a bit of a perfectionist and a procrastinator, she says), and told an amusing tale of her other life as a creative writing teacher, a role that leads her around the country for the NZ Book Council.

Mimicking the mesmerised Northland kids who sat on her knee listening to her childhood stories, she got big laughs when she said, "Kate De Goldi, you've got a really big nose." In the same week she masterly chaired a panel discussion between international young adult writers Mal Peet and M.T.Anderson.

"I definitely have a performance gene," she says. "I grew up with music in my family and lots of performing at church, which was great for singing and reading aloud. But I do have a shy side, a private side. I think all writers are like that to an extent â€" we sit back and observe. And I'm very aware of that. I remember not feeling part of any particular group and actually I'm fine with that. But I own the words now." You can't argue with that.

* The Montana New Zealand Book Awards will be announced on July 27.

- NZ Herald

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