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February 28, 2005 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Keeping it in the Family

Katy Robinson’s first novel, The Linoleum Room, deals with the complexity of family, which made us wonder, in the fine tradition of student media, where she gets her ideas. And we thought that Salient Feature Writer James Robinson might be best placed to address that…

For those of you staring at the byline about to reach for your pens and write scathing letters crying out nepotism and other indecent dishonesties, sit down – you are not that clever. The surname is no coincidence: Katy Robinson is my sister.

Not only is she my sister, but Katy is also one of the newest additions to the annals of authordom, with the release of The Linoleum Room by Random House.

At its core, the book tells the story of stepsisters Annabelle and Miia, long estranged but bought together for Christmas, 1999. Annabelle is running from life after finding her half-sister Emily in bed with her boyfriend Tomas and is off to stay with Mia, but finds her withdrawn and pregnant, with her partner nowhere to be found. Emily, Tomas and brother Matthew are in town for Christmas and soon long-buried secrets bubble their way to the surface as the book shifts beautifully towards a sinister and twisted ending. It is hard to give a book credit with a plot synopsis but what can be said of The Linoleum Room is that it is a rich and gothic tale detailing the destruction we bring to the ones we love. It has a gloriously claustrophobic and sinister setting, which, placed against the paranoia and angst of the onset of the new millennium, makes for a dynamic and electric novel.

In my time at Salient I have not had to interview anyone I have had anything even remotely to do with, so it was a little strange to have someone so very familiar to me as an interview subject. It has its ups though – when I woke up two minutes before our scheduled interview time I was not forced to panic in any way. Starting the interview was tough too, conversation flowed but had little to actually do with the book. It was ten minutes or so before we remembered that our two spheres had overlapped and there was work to be done. Five minutes before the end of the interview, Katy’s fiance came down the other line saying that breakfast was ready. If only all interviews were this devoid of the usual pomp, circumstance and order.
However there is a person to profile here, so I best be on with it…

With all the marketing hype and publishing superlatives that come with any new book, it is worth noting that Katy is no stranger to accolade. She’s been in the writing game on some level for over half of her twenty-seven years. Her first writing award came at the age of fourteen with the Hawkes Bay Herald Tribune young writer award and the Frank Sargeson Quote Unquote writing award came soon after. At Canterbury University, the prestigious Macmillan Brown Prize for Writers was won. After a short break, Katy took up a Masters in our own creative writing programme under the tutelage of Bill Manhire, and then a little further down the line we have a book. It is easy to draw a straight line between highlights and say it’s all been easy, but as with the lion’s share of authors it hasn’t all been smooth sailing – a fact Katy acknowledges philosophically. Books will get turned down and some people will invariably not like your work. “Rejection is difficult,” she says, “but you’ve got to expect it. It’s funny because when you are writing you don’t really think about it at all. You write in a bubble and if you start thinking about it you are doomed. Then afterwards it’s a whole other ballgame dealing with rejection, not only from publishers but often from the public too. All these things are just facts of life though – it’s just so tough to get a book out. Harriet [Allan, Random House Editor] gets so many manuscripts and ninety-nine percent of those are turned away. There’s no guarantee and you have to be tireless. On top of that things
have to be marketable and some [editors] just won’t take the risks.”

A major year for Katy was her Master’s at Victoria under Bill Manhire, and as a student of the often unfairly maligned Manhire school, Katy is fierce in the face of criticism of the programme. “People often have it wrong about the Manhire course. People criticise and say that it’s just a place where young authors get rubber-stamped and then they get a book published, which is not true. It’s so much harder than that – it’s not some magical thing that goes on behind closed doors.” A probe into the influence Manhire had on her as an author is rebuked too. “Bill – he’s not persuasive, he’s very background. He’s a great mentor but he’s not didactic. You write the way you write and he’ll nudge you in the right directions, he’ll say, ‘Have you read this person?’ if he can see similar traces but he’ll never tell you how to write.” The Linoleum Room was launched by Manhire himself, which was a huge honour for Katy. “It was awesome, he didn’t have to do that.” It is obvious the respect and admiration Katy holds for Bill Manhire and his course – “The Manhire course is just such a great year. An amazing opportunity to have, to be surrounded by nine other writers and Bill, all critiquing your work, and to all be connected it helps you so much. It’s more a platform than an actual lesson and you get very immersed, reading other people’s writing and reading so many books. I was reading three to seven books a week and will never have the chance to do that again. It turns your mind on.”

How did she end up at the Manhire course? How does one get started down the path of artistic inspiration? Many artists will cry that some sort of higher power drives them to their art, but Katy will have none of the high and mighty ‘greater muse’ argument. “It’s just something I feel I need to do. I don’t have a muse and I can’t explain it. It’s kinda like exercise freaks maybe?” So what was the appeal of writing then? “It was never a conscious decision. I always liked reading and I always knew I was good at writing. I aspired to authors but I never set out to emulate. When you pick something up and it’s fantastic, it’s great. Then you realize your writing pales in comparison and depression sets in!” Favourite authors include… “Toni Morrison and Jeanette Winterston and a lot of other female authors were big with me when I was growing up. Tim Winton is one of my favourite authors of the moment – he’s fantastic.” Don’t go looking for huge comparisons though. “There’s no one I’ve tried to copy. It’s just a process of assimilation into your own style.”

Another huge push down the path is family. The Robinson lineage is very literary – our grandmother, Diana Robinson, is a children’s book author and was a huge inspiration to Katy, and our father was an English teacher, so books were never far from hand. “I guess the family was always a big inspiration. Growing up we always had books around the house and that meant that it never seemed like a strange option.” The input of others went a long way too – “when I was in form two our English teacher encouraged us in our English class to start writing a novel. My sixth and seventh form English teachers were very supportive as well, they encouraged me to write outside of class. They just made me realise that it was all a viable option.”

With writing such a huge part of her childhood, could she ever imagine doing anything else? “Writing was never the be all and the end all, especially in New Zealand where if you don’t want to live in a dirt hut and eat mud you have to make yourself qualifiable in other areas.” The realities of the New Zealand artist are reflected in the fact that on top of finishing The Linoleum Room Katy has worked full-time, only relaxing down to part-time in the months before the books release.

As someone who has ever scratched their head and struggled for words for any reason (essays, speeches, hate mail…) may well understand – coming up with a book-full of words is no mean feat. The Linoleum Room was seven years in the making – a nugget of an idea taken from a setting, then fleshed out into a novel. “I was writing a short film for a friend of mine for her final art school project and I was writing that at my cousin’s farm and I took the idea from that. The farm, the place just evoked a vivid atmosphere which I wanted in my book. Then when I was writing the novel, I had such a strong sense of setting, I would even play CDs as I wrote and it was like I was sound-tracking a movie in my head.”

Setting is an important element of The Linoleum Room, acting as a sinister confinement for the five main characters. As the secrets and pain of their family past come to the surface, they are doubled with such a strong feeling of place that an atmosphere is created that will stay with you long after the final word “It’s a psychological drama and a gothic tale of a dysfunctional family- taken to the extreme. I wanted to explore characters in a heightened, cloistered situation.” Some may wonder as to the autobiographical inspirations of the book. Well, there are none. The goings-on of the dysfunctional family in The Linoleum Room are a far cry from even the most hair-raising Robinson antics.

Now that Katy’s book has been put out to pasture, the future is upon her. “My second novel is doing well, a few details are still in the air and I have to figure out what shape it has to take. It’s quite a different type of book. It’s pretty hard to get cracking on the new book at the moment, with all these things happening with The Linoleum Room. I’ve got to get back to business. It’s not all about book launches and superstardom!”

Days after this interview the book debuted at number two on the New Zealand claim to debuting in the number one spot. There’re always other books, though, and I’m sure Katy’s career will be providing dinner-time conversation for the Robinson clan for many years to come.


About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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