READ CLOSE: Isobar Precinct is set in a very gritty, dark but sexy Auckland. How does the city inform the story you’re telling, and were you ever tempted to set the book in another place?
KASMARA: Ha! Lestari and her friends are people who work too hard, for whom a ‘night out’ is grabbing a samosa while waiting for their bus or stumbling to the nearest food court, and the city they see reflects this utility of movement, so I’m not sure what I did to make it appear “gritty, dark but sexy”, but I’ll take it. Nice!
I never once considered setting the book in a different place: story and location were a package deal from the start. With all the speculative elements going on, I needed to feel grounded inside a city I knew, and particularly, within Karangahape Road. In my twenties, I lived on and off in streets just off K Road and for a while I worked as a barista in a place called The Live Poet’s Cafe which was attached to the Dead Poet’s Bookshop, though they were run by different people. The owner of the cafe, my boss, used to do things like decide that everyone who came in would have macchiatos, no matter what they actually ordered. A friend of mine once asked for a sticky date pudding and was given baklava instead because he thought the baklava looked particularly fancy-pants that day. And he would fawn over some people and be incredibly rude to others, for no reason other than that he was a terrible snob. He used to ignore my then-boyfriend because ‘he looks like a nerd’. I always thought that the boss would make a good character in a novel, and he was in Isobar Precinct fleetingly, but nup, he was an early casualty of a vigorous cull. However the cafe does make a brief appearance – renamed Miss Marigold, at the bottom of the stairs of the Golden Ratio Tattoo Shop. Its barista, Travis, is definitely not based on me.
Lestari’s story isn’t straightforward – the novel twists and turns, delving into time travel and medical trials. Were you drawn to the story by the character of Lestari – a dry, tough yet fragile on the inside tattoo artist – or was it the story idea of the “Q-Tips” that first came to you?
The story came first, however Lestari’s particular arc created what would be the eventual plotline. Initially, two lawyers were the main characters, with Lestari called in as a witness to a trial. 20,000 words later and I could see it going down the route of courtroom drama with the speculative elements and alt-characters dismissed as delusional, but also, I knew I needed someone who was at the centre of things, not on the outside as a jaded observer. So I fired my lawyers. When Lestari became the main character, I could finally see a way forward. I’ve mentioned the lawyers a few times to people who’ve asked me what the book is about, because I think the meta aspect of their disappearing timeline is the funniest thing in it (or rather, not in it). Unfortunately I’m the only one who finds this hilarious.
Tattoos play an important role in your novel, both from a plot point of view and one heavily laden with symbolism. Tell us about your research into tattooing and the role you hoped it would play in your book?
I read a lot on the subject, watched a pile of videos and then when I was close to my final draft, I approached Pip Hartley at Karanga Ink, and Mokonuiarangi Smith at Uhi Tapu to check for inaccuracies. I didn’t want to overload them as they’re both really busy people, so I picked out key sections which needed a close eye – if I skipped anything important, I’d like it to be known that they’re not responsible. I really admire how tattoo artists juggle so many different hats – artistic, design, technical, health, practical, business and people skills, and hopefully this comes through.
Lestari isn’t much of a talker and she gets easily annoyed with the inside of her own head, and so the symbolism came through in a very organic way, via my attempts to sit with her and see things from her point of view. She’s all about getting on with the job, and so the way tattoos reflect what’s going on with the physical, emotional and psychic world, ended up lighting up the page in a way that my often brusque protagonist wasn’t about to.
Lestari’s own tattoos also symbolise how she’s only loosely connected to her mother’s cultural heritage, especially how her antaboga plays only a bit part, while her ouroboros is far more of a ‘character’. One of the culled lawyers was Chinese Indonesian (I’m also Chinese Indonesian), who had stronger ties to the Indonesian community. Lestari is Balinese-Javanese Indonesian on her mum’s side, Pakeha on her dad’s. It was important to me to create characters who reflect the diverse communities we have in Tamaki Makaurau.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Finding a writing routine which works for me has helped the most but I’m not sure if this came from someone’s advice or from trial and error. I like to write surrounded by noise – I used to love writing in Brazil Cafe in Karangahape Road and was so sad when they shut. When plotting, I write in short but frequent bursts, one paragraph at a time, because I have a terrible attention span. I rewrite obsessively however and this is when my focus does kick in. For a long time I thought I would never be a ‘real’ writer because I had the notion that you had to like writing in quiet, artfully arranged rooms with a view, have the ability to remain laser focused for hours and cough up wondrous sentences which only need the lightest of polishes. Aside all that, I love this by George Saunders: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Isobar Precinct to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?
Okay but I feel kind of rude at the thought of my book elbowing in alongside the brilliant writers I’m about to mention. Kindred by the late African-American writer Octavia Butler was an early inspiration. The book is so clever but also really readable. It explores the dynamics and impacts of antebellum slavery through the eyes of a late 20th century African American woman who unwillingly time travels back to a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life (which became the film Arrival). Chiang’s writing has the effect of making me feel smarter for having read it but simultaneously making me feel more profoundly stupid. If I ever came face to face with him, I’d probably just go hide in the nearest bush because I’d be so intimidated. Neil Gaiman! Many of his books, but especially his Sandman series. Also a shout out to Captain Underpants, which my then five-year-old was reading at the time. There’s one in the series – I forget which – where the time travel entanglements get increasingly ridiculous in the funniest ways. It helped me lighten up.
What are you reading now? What is on your TBR pile? I’m reading Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan. It’s so intimate in a peeking into someone’s diary sort of way. I have a ridiculously big TBR pile; being a slow reader doesn’t help. Top of the list is Pip McKay’s The Telling Time. The Republic of False Truths by Alaa al-Aswany. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Hibiscus Coast by Paula Morris. As soon as I heard we’re going to Level 3, I jumped online and ordered books by Jack Remiel Cottrell, Tayi Tibble and Chris Tse. Oh and The Leaning Man by Anne Harre. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming YA novel Spark Hunter by Sonya Wilson. A friend of mine just sent me a photo of Entangled Life by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake. He’s raving about it so it’s also going on the pile.