Emerging Author Kate Mahony speaks to Dave Kavanagh

Emerging Author Kate Mahony speaks to Dave Kavanagh

Kate Mahony is a flash fiction and short story writer from New Zealand. She has dual Irish/New Zealand citizenship through her father who was born in Co Kerry, Ireland. 

She writes fiction for adults, both long short stories and flash fiction.  Her short fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines and in anthologies including Best New Zealand Fiction, Vol 6 (Random House, New Zealand), Tales for Canterbury, (Random Static), 2011, Sweet As, Contemporary Short Stories by New Zealanders, 2014,  Fish Anthology, 2015 (Ireland) Landmarks (Gumbo Press, UK) 2015, and BONSAI, Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press) 2018. A number of her stories have been placed in writing competitions.

She has a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington.

Kate worked for many years as a journalist and feature writer, writing for magazines and newspapers in London (where she lived for seven years) and New Zealand. She has also worked in PR for New Zealand Red Cross, and ALAC (the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand).

She has been a tutor in writing/journalism at Victoria University, and a teacher of short story writing at the Community Education Centre, Wellington.

She is currently working on a novel set in New Zealand and Ireland while continuing to write short fiction and flash fiction.

Dave Kavanagh

Hi Kate. Thank you for taking time to answer our questions. 

Kate Mahony

Thank you, Dave, for the opportunity to be here.

Dave Kavanagh

When did you start writing?

Kate Mahony

From an early age, eight or so. I used to write to the children’s page of a (Catholic) newspaper called The Tablet.  I wrote while at secondary school as well and won some writing competitions.  When I was at university I had some poems and short stories published in a small literary magazine.   I submitted my first short story under a pseudonym and the editor wrote back and said if you are serious about writing you should write under your own name (which I think was good advice).

Dave Kavanagh

You write fiction and flash, why these as opposed to poetry or screenplays for instance? 

Kate Mahony

So apart from writing angst-ridden poetry in my late teens, I have never really been drawn to poetry. I haven’t considered writing  screenplays  – perhaps I should, because I have been told dialogue is one of my strengths, as is  having any number of people speaking in one scene (thanks to the big family of nine children I grew up in).  I discovered flash a long time after writing much longer stories (5000 worders).  The kind editor of Flash-Frontier, an online flash magazine in New Zealand, sent back my first effort about five times with queries before I got it right. Now I enjoy the challenge of the genre and it has really helped me to edit any story down to a smaller word limit when I need to.

My flash fiction explores character traits and hints at the wants of what sometimes seem a strange breed of people, such as the man who likes to befriend young women by offering them a house to stay in (Specialist Topic), or a man who lives with his mother but in his youth was a long-time sperm donor and his progeny are now seeking him out (The Outcome). These kinds of characters.

 My short stories have the length to explore themes such as justice or violence and danger. My short story The Journey which was shortlisted in the Fish Short Story Competition (Ireland) 2015 has a lone female picking up two hitch-hikers on a country road. In Don’t Wait Up (published in Best New Zealand Fiction, Vol 6, Random House, New Zealand) a stranger arrives at the house of a little girl’s grandmother and makes himself at home. 

Dave Kavanagh

You worked for a number of years as a journalist and feature writer, writing for magazines and newspapers in both London and New Zealand. How different is writing fiction to reporting news or writing features?

Kate Mahony

Probably the hardest thing with fiction is the blank screen. Rather than screeds of notes from questions to interviewees or pages of research, I am sitting there with a story I don’t know how to start and sometimes feel I don’t want to. But in other ways there are similarities. Short story writing can be compared to feature writing in that they both require a great beginning which will entice the reader. There’s exposition, description (catching that one little action or expression or jewellery of the interviewee that says so much) and a need for a strong ending. You are also choosing and shaping the material in the best way to tell the “story” and where to start – often in the midst of action.  Perhaps this is why some advice for writing a novel in particular is to “interview your character”. 

Flash fiction has many similarities to short news stories. Getting the story down in so many words, again beginning in the right place, and cutting out all the fat. I like to think the flash story is more satisfying due to the almost hidden layers but… Both help one to write sparsely which is great. Also how to pare the story back if you have overwritten. Some news reporters who start writing fiction say they don’t know how to write longer than the number of words a news story requires.  I have never had trouble with a longer word count!

Dave Kavanagh

How do you manage your time? Do you have a particular writing routine? 

Kate Mahony

 I am more of an intuitive writer and the rules about setting times to write and making an outline for especially longer works are a little alien to me. I do think about the characters or story in my head, and plan out scenes. I also have a huge number of notebooks with bits and pieces in which I very occasionally go back to.   But I will happily re-work and revise once I do have a story (which goes back to my days as an editor).   I may also let a writer friend know I am planning to send them a story in the near future to critique, or enter a short story competition, or submit to a literary magazine.  Those outside deadlines work well for me.

Dave Kavanagh

Tell us a little about the story, I Know This Is Too Strange, what inspired it? And what would you like the readers’ takeaway to be?

Kate Mahony

There is a bird in Australia which collects blue objects of any hue (I once saw a treasure trove of these in my cousin’s garden.) I am a collector, as well. I collect odd, weird little events, situations, scenarios and at some point in my writing the memories or observations pop up, and are turned into highly exaggerated weird stories. So many  what ifs, and how can I make this even stranger?

 My characters in these smaller stories, like Alice in this one, are often introspective and over observant of others and their actions.  In terms of readers’ take away I think this story is about power imbalance.  Here, Alice could be said to take her power back by keeping quiet about her suspicions – which, of course, may only be suspicions.  In a number of my stories people have to make a decision regarding a small or large problem. Sometimes the story ends without revealing the decision the character has made – or perhaps the character is yet to come to a decision (which can annoy some readers). 

Dave Kavanagh

Which writers living or dead do you most admire? And what are you currently reading?

Kate Mahony

I admire the short story greats, the ones who teach me about the art of the short story: Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Colum McCann as well as Lydia Davis and Etgar Keret. Novelists I admire include Anne Enright, John Boyne, Ali Smith, Elizabeth Strout and Lloyd Jones. 

Thanks to Covid-19 and the New Zealand Lockdown, I seem to be watching much more than reading. However, I am keen to re-read Normal People by Sally Rooney as this novel is currently being screened as a drama on New Zealand television (on demand).

I am about to start reading Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, New Zealand). I have read some excerpts and am looking forward to reading the novel itself.

Dave Kavanagh

You are currently working on a novel, can you tell us a little about that?

Kate Mahony

I had written a number of short stories which explore the same background and issues and began to realize I wanted to develop these in a novel. Something similar happened when I was studying for my Masters in Creative Writing.  I had written some short stories (which weren’t going anywhere much) and then wrote a longer story with numerous characters and a strong setting. My supervisor suggested I was trying to write a novel, and to think about changing my project to a novel. Which I did. (I wrote an entire novel in about five months!)

This current work is certainly taking a lot longer than five months. It is set over three time periods with three different main characters whose lives interconnect on the same piece of land. It is moving slowly because I am constantly working out what it is about, who my characters are and doing more research. I tell myself it also means I am getting closer to the real story. I see it as one which is important for me to tell, hence the struggle.  I do know how it ends.   The challenge is getting it there.

Dave Kavanagh

What single piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?

Kate Mahony

The first draft is never the story. 

Dave Kavanagh

Is there any question you wished I’d asked, if so, what is it and what is the answer?

Kate Mahony

Perhaps, what has helped your writing?

And I would say, teaching short story writing classes at the Community Education Centre in my city for five years because this made me think about and research what makes a successful short story. And before that, my own participation in various courses from my first, a week-long course at the Arvon Foundation in the UK, through to university undergraduate courses (short fiction, writing a novel). These and other courses gave me an opportunity to get to know fellow writers and share writing (and writing struggles) which I have found immensely helpful. I’m also part of a regular writers’ group.   

Read Kate Mahony, ‘I Know This Is Too Strange’

Kate Mahony is a flash fiction and short story writer from New Zealand. She has dual Irish/New Zealand citizenship through her father who was born in Co Kerry, Ireland. She writes fiction for adults, both long short stories and flash fiction. Her short fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines and in anthologies

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