Author QandA She's a Killer - Kirsten McDougall

Q&A with Kirsten McDougall

READ CLOSE: She’s a Killer tackles themes and ideas most of us are aware of, but mostly spend time avoiding: climate crisis, inequality, who deserves to survive catastrophe. Alice’s story forces us to face them head on – did you aim to write a novel that delves into our worst fears?

KIRSTEN MCDOUGALL: Absolutely. I was speaking with climate change scientist Dave Lowe yesterday. His memoir, The Alarmist, came out this year – documenting the past fifty years he’s spent measuring the rise in the atmosphere’s carbon. He wrote that book to tell the story to a wider public, to reach beyond scientists. He wrote it partly out of anger. He’s known the science intimately for decades, we all know the science now, but nothing is happening fast enough to make real change. I laughed and said, that as writers we have rage in common as a motivating factor. I began writing She’s a Killer when Donald Trump was still President. While writing it I continued to read stories of homelessness and poverty in our own country, wildfires in many countries around the world. Writing She’s a Killer was my reaction to all of this.

Although the premise is grim, She’s a Killer is hilarious. We don’t see a lot of comedy in literary fiction – tell us about the use of humour in this novel and how you balanced serious and funny to create your gripping novel.

Well, we all sometimes turn the page rather than read yet another report on how dire the climate crisis is. I knew that if I was going to write about climate and economic disparity, and how we often take a head in the sand approach to all the hard things in our lives then I needed to offer the reader something else. Two of my favourite comedians are Stewart Lee and Reggie Watts. Both use humour to slyly dig a knife under the ribs of the comfortable audience. I admire that kind of art immensely. I’m digging in a knife through She’s a Killer, but I’m also trying to entertain you. I think entertainment and serious ideas can coexist in literature. If we’re to survive the coming years, we’ll need our sense of humour.

Alice has an imaginary friend in the novel, the quietly meticulous Simp. Why did you use this literary device in the novel to reveal Alice’s character? Did you have an imaginary friend growing up (or do you still have one??)

Simp is the part of Alice that stops her from becoming a full-blown sociopath. She is her last scrap of empathy and rational behaviour, but because Alice is so divorced from her feelings, empathy is a concept for her, in the shape of an imaginary friend. I did have an imaginary friend as a child. Her name was Simp. The Simp in the book is fictional. My Simp was real.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Elizabeth Knox: ‘be bloody-minded’. This is the best advice because it’s practical and has nothing to do with vague ideas like inspiration. It reminds you that you’ve got to dig your heels in, do the very best work you can do, and then stand by that work.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like She’s a Killerto be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?

Other people might be better placed to answer this question. As I’ve gotten older my influences have become a big soup in my head. Two writers I’ve admired for years for their humour and insight are Grace Paley and Alice Munro, but my writing is nothing like their writing.

What are you reading now? What is on your TBR pile?

On top are: a reread of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Pink Jumpsuit by Emma Neale; a few issues of Irish literary magazine The Moth; Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price.

What music did you listen to while writing or that inspired the story?

Early Britney. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. A lot of LCD Soundsystem. Underworld’s ‘Bruce Lee’, ‘Tesla’ Omar Souleyman Version. Beats, anger, humour, pop.

Book Reviews She's a Killer - Kirsten McDougall

Book Review: She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall

Victoria University Press, NZ RRP $35.00

She’s a Killer is a wild ride. Stylish and a bit kooky, this Kiwi dystopia is shrouded in the banal and familiar world of the near future, and it bristles with contemporary fear. Kirsten McDougall’s feisty plotting and ever-present wit creates fresh and spicy characters. The drama of the novel forces us to reëxamine the way we view the world, and gives a stark reminder of the troubles we shall soon face.

Set in an indeterminate future where inequality is even more starkly pronounced than the present day, New Zealand is welcoming ‘wealthugees’ (wealthy immigrants from climate-ravaged nations) while Palmerston North riots and locals starve. Māori land is sold off, yet again, by the government for wealthugee survival communes, and people like Alice pay for water by the litre. On the whole, life continues as normal. There are influencers, ultramarathon runners, eyeshadow. It’s catastrophic, and yet, the same.

Our protagonist, the not-quite-a-genius Alice, a woman in her late-thirties, stuck working a job she hates. She’s got glib and ready answers as to why she, with her soaring intelligence, isn’t successful and happy. Instead, she’s malnourished and living in the bottom half of her estranged mother Louise’s delapidated Wellington house. Her only companion and source of joy is a plant growing from a crack in her kitchen bench.

Alice’s one friend, Amy, is married to smarmy architect Pete, and through his connections they’re preparing to move onto the survival commune with their three children (and more sauerkraut than anyone could conceivably consume). Alice worries that Amy is growing distant, and in her distress and loneliness, her childhood imaginary friend, the quirky and insightful Simp, returns. Simp is the only person Alice can truly talk to – due to her estrangement with her mother Louise, they communicate only by Morse code. It’s an imperfect mode for nuanced and insightful conversation, and Alice knows they ‘would die misunderstanding each other – but perhaps that is not unusual.’ Alice should worry that she would die misunderstanding everyone around her: she’s cold and detached and more concerned with how to pay for Botox than about anyone’s suffering in this harsh new world.

Then she meets Pablo, an attractive wealthugee. He takes her for dinner at a restaurant guarded by gun-toting security, buys her wine and brie and the food of her dreams. In response to Pablo’s request to know more about her, Alice’s answer is only one example of McDougall’s impeccable comic timing: ‘Can I answer this in gifs?’

Under the spell of Pablo’s wealth, Alice agrees to be the temporary guardian of his daughter, fifteen-year-old Erika, while he returns to China to negotiate the release of his ex-wife from a kidnapping. Once Erika arrives, the novel’s pace quickens, and Alice is drawn into an elaborate plot to save the planet. Her loyalties are tested and her sociopathic tendencies explored through a amateur-level plot of assassination and upheaval.

The prose tends toward unpretentious, clear and direct, though it’s never boring – every page is studded with spiky jokes. McDougall’s humour is the perfect shade of black. But don’t be fooled – this isn’t merely a funny book. She’s a Killer is deadly serious: wake up or suffer the consequences for your choices.

A glorious monologue by Erika about halfway through summarises the book’s message succinctly: ‘We can see it all around us, people who go without basic things and a few people who own enough stuff for ten households. Economies built on activities that harm us and the water we drink, the air we breathe. But what can we do? We all see it but we do nothing. We’re powerless in these systems we help uphold. Things have gone very wrong because we’re too afraid, too stuck in how we do things. To see how we might do it differently.’

McDougall asks how can we remain blinkered to a world in obvious calamity? How can we continue to live in the ways that we do, understanding the harm our current world does not only to the environment, but to our fellow humans? Our comfort is at the expense of another’s suffering, and we can no longer pretend we are not aware.

Alice and Erika are exceptional: they are geniuses (or at least, one IQ point away). They understand each other and the world in ways other people do not. Alice and Erika also know the limits of their ability, of their understanding, which is not a simple or easy accomplishment. It’s a ‘painful thing’ to know what it is we do not know, ‘which is why most people avoid it.’ There are parallels to the magnestism of conspiracy theories that abound right now. In the face of much uncertainty and fear, people cling to anything that gives them a sense of ‘knowledge’, because the alternative – confronting our ignorance and lack of knowledge – is far too frightening. The resurgence of interest in horoscopes in recent years is part of this, a desire to understand and be guided, instead of wallowing in the uneasy and terrifying world of free will and the unknown.

Alice’s ex-boyfriend Nick is an ‘Influencer’, and his lifestyle is an insightful take on the real world of ‘Wellness experts’. Nick’s social feed spouts wisdoms like: ‘Walk away from anything that gives you bad vibes, there is no need to explain it or make sense of it.’ Wellness Influencers and mindfulness advocates believe this is how you come to be truly at peace within yourself, but it can also be a way to deny the reality of the world, to turn a blind eye to the state of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and to the innumerable injustices of people around the globe. Alan, Louise’s partner, believes that if everyone meditated, we would ease the ‘discord’ and we would live ‘in harmony with the land.’ No doubt meditation has many benefits, but it is true that only by turning and facing these undeniable issues head on will be able to make the changes necessary – if only we don’t leave it too late.

Toward the end of the novel, without revealing any spoilers, Alice and Erika sleep overnight in the bush. During the night, Alice wakes to find a stag standing over them. This is one of the few quiet moments in the novel where the action slows, and the narrative has a moment to breathe, making it a highlight and a memorable moment in the rush of the action. It also features this wonderful sentence, ‘Above its head were antlers like the branching crown of a mad king.’

The unnerving appearance of a wild beast in an otherwise urban novel was timely and unsettling. If the time of humans is coming to an end; this stag suggests perhaps animals might rule the world in our absence. She’s a Killer is fun and fast-paced, and it’s possibly (one point off) genius.