Wellington author and poet Kate Camp spoke to Susanna Andrew about the process of writing her memoir and how she ‘got to the bottom’ of herself.
Vivian Gornick once said, “If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organising principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader.” Do you agree with this and if so, what do you think the organising principle is in your book?
I’ve always written with the belief that if you capture something that is really true, specific and feels important to you, it will connect with the reader. Even if our experiences are totally different, there is something about the act of remembering the details that can be profound.
I have a poem that talks about a flaw in the lino in our toilet when I was growing up. While I was workshopping it with my writing group, I heard them say, “Oh, this reminds me of the carpet in my grandparents’ house”, or “Oh my god, that made me remember our kitchen”. From their voices, I could tell how it was bringing their own memories to life.
So, the organising principle of my book is – things that I remember and that matter to me for some mysterious reason – however banal, obscure or humiliating those memories are.
When did you realise that you wanted to write a memoir, and why?
I know the exact moment. In 2015, I was invited to participate in a reading format developed by an Aussie group called Women of Letters. We were commissioned to write and read aloud “a letter to the person I thought I’d be”.
As soon as I saw the prompt, I thought, that’s obvious, I always thought I’d be a mother and I’m not. And then I thought, there is no effing way I am writing and speaking about that in public! But from my poetry life, I know that the things you don’t want to write often turn out to be the things you really, really should write. So, I said yes, and I did it, and when I stepped off the stage, there was such a huge feeling of catharsis and power and I thought, “Wow, this is something I want to do more of.”
Did you discover things about yourself while writing the memoir? And if so, what were they? Did the process work as a sort of self-improvement exercise, like looking deep and hard in the mirror?
When I finished it, I had a strange, empty feeling. Imagine you’ve had a wardrobe crammed with all your sentimental old junk, and you don’t quite know what’s in there, but maybe there’s some hidden treasure, some key to all mysteries. Then you sort through it all, and it turns out there’s nothing magical in there, there’s no long-lost letter explaining it all, no doorway to Narnia. It’s just stuff, like anyone has in a cupboard.
So initially after finishing the book, I would say I felt sort of cleansed but also drained – like I’d got to the bottom of myself. But now I see the process of writing it, and publishing it, as a kind of slow, dawning, coming to peace with myself – all the things I am, and all the things I am not.
Did you find that the memory of certain things changed when you began writing it down or that it was different to other witnesses?
I did check in with a few other witnesses – my family – but I always stuck to my memory of events. To me, it’s a book about my memories, not a factual account of reality.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Two relatively new perfect happinesses in my life are hanging out with our dog, Ruffley, and regular sea swimming.
What is your greatest extravagance?
No question, an amazing Dorthe Kristensen ring I bought myself when we came out of the first lockdown. I knew I had to have it when I realised it was called “Lots of Balls”. It is a lot of bling, and I wear it every day.
Of all your “Kate’s Klassics” (on RNZ’s Kim Hill), do you have a favourite, and why?
The obvious ones: Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre. But for one that’s less often read but just so good, The Go Between by L. P. Hartley.
IMAGE VIA EBONY LAMB, SUPPLIED