Interview: Elizabeth Kuiper, author of ‘Little Stones’

An interview by Jess Gately

Elizabeth Kuiper grew up in Zimbabwe before emigrating to Perth with her mother. In 2016 she graduated from the University of Melbourne with a degree in politics and philosophy and she is now a writer and law student living in Melbourne. Her debut novel Little Stones was released 1 June 2019 by University of Queensland Press.

Little Stones follows Hannah, a young girl living in Zimbabwe during the reign of Robert Mugabe. It’s a country of petrol queues and power cuts, food shortages and government corruption. Yet Hannah is lucky. She can afford to go to school, has never had to skip a meal, and lives in a big house with her mum and their Shona housekeeper. Hannah is wealthy, she is healthy, and she is white. But money can’t always keep you safe. As the political situation becomes increasingly unstable and tensions within Hannah’s family escalate, her sheltered life is threatened. She is forced to question all that she’s taken for granted, including where she belongs.

Jess and Lizz caught up on Skype for a chat about writing, politics and Lizz’s new book Little Stones.

I read online that your story is semi-autobiographical. So why don’t you start with telling us a bit about your childhood and how that’s influenced the book.

So I was born in Johannesburg in South Africa but I moved to [Zimbabwe] when I was quite young, not even one year old, and I moved with my mum after my parents got divorced. I grew up in Harare, but my grandparents had a farm in rural Zimbabwe so already the similarities with my character are quite prominent. I am white, middle-class, and in Zimbabwe definitely had a lot of privilege and so that’s also what I definitely wanted to convey with my character. Also, raised by a single mum so I really wanted to draw from that experience of having a single working mum and the difficulties of that in Zimbabwe. And yeah, ultimately, because of the political and economic situation having to say goodbye to Zimbabwe and move to Australia. So, I think there’s quite a big overlap, but it is still fiction and huge portions are completely not my own experience.

So, would you say that your character is very similar to you personality-wise as well or is that a bit more fictionalised?

I think there are similarities. I think I probably made her a bit more confident, a bit more sort of precocious than I was because I felt that it made a more interesting character but definitely the love of reading and books that Hannah has, I definitely had. I think to get into the mind of an eleven-year-old is quite tricky, so it was easier for me to think about myself at eleven.

Did you have to do much extra research to get into the mind of an eleven year old?

I did actually because you sort of forget. Like right now, to me, I don’t have children and I don’t really have friends with children so I had to sort of remember, you know, what is an eleven year old like in comparison to an eight year old. You sort of forget. But luckily my mum is a psychologist and she works in a school so she can tell me ‘oh you know, that’s not really age appropriate’ or ‘that’s…’ whatever. Working in a school, she is around kids all the time; she knows what’s up.

You describe yourself now as a writer, a law student and a feminist. How did your experiences in Zimbabwe, and then Perth and now Melbourne, all encourage the views in your book but also the other things you’ve gone on to do?

I think even as a young child growing up in Zimbabwe I was aware—you can’t help but be aware—of the complex racial dynamics. Also, the fact that my mum was a single mum, gender politics as well, and I think she was always quite a strong woman and she always instilled feminist ideologies and we always had those sorts of discussions. And yeah, obviously this stuff was always on the news with Robert Mugabe and I think that was the beginnings of—my borderline foundations for—my interest in race politics.

But then coming to Australia, when I first came to Perth, even though I felt like quite an outsider moving to a new country, I think I sort of realised that because I was white, even though my voice was different or I didn’t get all the pop culture references I was still really lucky and was able to fit in and no one was ever going to say ‘go back to where you came from’. I had enormous privilege. So, then that also started my interest in refugee law, immigration and that sort of leads to me now where I’ve been doing volunteer work, paralegal work, with Refugee Legal.

So there’s this thread of interest in race and my experience as an immigrant and privilege as a white immigrant, being involved in the law, and then in my undergrad I did politics and philosophy and as part of those subjects I did a lot of gender and race politics, and learnt a lot about implicit bias. So, I think that all worked together to form my path as a law student and then also the topics covered in the book.

When you first started thinking about Little Stones did it come to you as a full story already or was it just a character or a scene? What was the process of building that up into something bigger?

So even though I majored in politics and philosophy, I took a creative writing subject in my undergrad and for the assessment we had to write a 3000-word piece of fiction. The advice was to write about what you know, and as a starting point, write a description of your childhood home or a place that is really familiar to you. So I started writing about my home in Zimbabwe and that sort of grew until it became a short story for the assessment piece. And then it eventually evolved from there.

Have you always been writing or was that unit your first experience with creative writing?

No, I’ve always been writing. I was really into it when I was a child. The other day I came across—I’m so lucky my mum saved all these things—in a box, this old story I wrote. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is really good!’ It was about a girl who stumbles across [Liz laughs], she gets given a second-hand bicycle, and then it turns into a magic talking bicycle—and I was like ‘Wow, that’s probably better than anything I’ve written in the past ten years.’ The adventures of the talking bicycle. So yeah, I’ve always been writing.

Now that Little Stones is out, is there more writing that you want to pursue?

Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of weird to think about another big project just because this has taken up so much of my life, and my creativity and my mental energy but I think after I finish law school exams—once that’s all done, I think I will try and dive into something new.

How long have you been writing Little Stones then, if it started as a short story in your undergrad?

So I started off with this short story in my undergrad and my tutor was like, ‘This is really good, you should submit it to a literary magazine’ and it got published in an under-25’s magazine called Voiceworks.

Love Voiceworks!

Yes! They’re incredible! Such a good platform for emerging writers because before that I hadn’t really— I mean, it was a really big deal for me. Then I was invited to speak at an event at The Wheeler Centre called The Next Big Thing and just read a little excerpt from my story. And, in the audience was a woman (who later became my publisher). She was there supporting one of her actual authors who was talking with me that night.

And the next day I got an email that said ‘Hi, my name is Aviva, I saw you speak last night. Really enjoyed your writing. Let me know if you ever have something you want to send to me in the future.’ And I was like, well that’s really cool and a really big deal. And I was like, this is incredibly exciting but then I think I submitted a few more short stories and a few things here and there to other places and they were rejected so I did the classic writer thing of ‘I’m a fluke, the Voiceworks thing was a one-off, I’m not a good writer, I should just stick with what I’m good at, finish my undergrad, go into law’—I had resigned myself to not being a writer.

But then I wanted to keep writing just for my own sake, so I kept writing and continuing on the story and then I was like ok, it would be silly of me not to try and send this on and at least I could get a ‘this is good but come back to us in a year’ or ‘oh this isn’t what we’re interested in’ and stop thinking about it. But yeah, it ended up, I sent it to Aviva, and she ended up asking me to meet for a coffee and the rest is kind of history.

Exciting!

Yeah really cool. But yeah, there was that period of a few years where I wasn’t really writing at all.

Those rejections hit hard, don’t they?

Yeah. Yeah. Which is so silly in hindsight but it was kind of crushing at the time.

But then your bio and your website show that you’ve been shortlisted for a bunch of awards for your short story writing and you’ve won a bunch of awards as well. So was that stuff you did while you were writing Little Stones or once you’d already got your publishing contract and sort of got the confidence again?

I think most of them were off the back of Little Stones or the original Voiceworks story, the Express Media Prize was the Voiceworks big prize—they’re a subsidiary of Express Media and I won the award for best fiction that year. And then the Richell Prize, that was also based on Little Stones.

Then the other ones, like the H.G. Wells one came after I’d secured the publishing contract and I was like ‘okay, yeah I’m going to write again’.

What was the editing process for Little Stones like?

It was really good. I think I had to develop a bit of a thick skin. But at the same time, I was just so humbled by the fact that a publishing house saw something in me so whenever they had critiques, I was like ‘yes! I completely agree and I understand’. But if there was something that I wanted to push back on a bit there was definitely room for that too. In particular on some of the things I was more sure of, like some Zimbabwe-specific thing. They were mainly the authority on everything else but on the Zimbabwe things that was my space.

Also, my grammar is not that great for someone who is a writer, so thank god someone was calling me out on all that stuff!

It would surprise you the number of writers that are not good at grammar

[laughs] Yeah, I like to think big picture stuff.

Was there anything that took you by surprise in that editing process? Or something that really hurt to let go?

No, I think UQP know what they’re talking about and I can’t even remember if there was something because I’m so used to the book being what it is now, in its full form. I wouldn’t even have a clue if something was missing and deleted because it just feels all ready now.

Now that it’s out, you’ve got a full calendar of events coming up for promotion. How did you feel when you first told of all the promotion stuff you needed to do for it?

Oof, so I’m not really good at—events are fine, the events will be good, but I’m not a really good—I’m not really a good social media person. I didn’t really have Instagram until like six months ago, and I just always find it—I find self-promotion really confronting for me because I’m one of those people that sort of is like quite self-deprecating and I don’t take myself too seriously and especially with my friends I’m sort of, you know, like I’m not—a lot of my friends didn’t know I’d secured a publishing contract because it was something I kept quite close to me.

So, then publicity comes to me and they’re like ‘oh you know, please feel free to share the news with your friends and make posts on Instagram’ and a friend of mine—sorry this is a ramble—but I was at a birthday the other night and a friend, he was introducing me to some people I didn’t know and he was like ‘oh everyone this is Lizz and she’s just published a book’ and I’m like ‘oh my god, please don’t! That’s making me really embarrassed and I don’t want everyone to know that! I’m going to go red and get all blotchy.’ And he was like ‘what do you mean, you post about it all the time, it’s all over your Instagram.’ And I’m like ‘yes but that’s… I have to do that.’

It’s a different kind of, you know, a bit of a dissociation, but I’m getting better at that and learning not be embarrassed to promote my work.

Is there something in particular in your upcoming schedule that you’re most looking forward to?

I’ve got the Kill Your Darlings event, the first book club, on the 25th [June] and that I’m really looking forward to because I’m a listener of their podcast and I just finished Call Me Evie which was their book last month or maybe the month before. And I think it will be really cool and it’s one of those things where you hear real authors talking and suddenly you’re going to be one of them! So that will be great.

And the Emerging Writers Festival on the 27th June, that will be really cool as well! The voices are always—there’s lots of diversity, there’s people of colour and lots of women, and voices from marginalised groups so it can be a lot more inclusive and diverse than some of the other writing festivals.

What’s your advice for other new writers looking to get published?

Don’t do what I did and let the rejections pierce you and stop you from writing because there can be a million reasons why you weren’t suitable for one publication and it’s not like—it’s really not the equivalent of trying out for a football team where if you’re good you’ll get in. It’s a very different thing. Your style could be different, they could already have a similar piece, it’s too long, it’s too short, it’s too unconventional, it’s too conventional. So, don’t be dissuaded by the rejection. Just keep writing and keep submitting and push forward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever got about writing?

Ernest Hemmingway, in A Moveable Feast I think, he says this thing that when he has writers block, the task he sets for himself is to write just one true sentence and to write the truest sentence he knows.

And I could be interpreting it wrong, but what I gleaned from that is, when you’re stuck just shut out all the other complicated stuff you have to deal with and just focus on writing something that feels true to you. And it could just be something as simple as the sound of a frog that you hear in your garden and at least once you’ve got that out on the page, once you’ve got your fingers and your mind moving your story will come from that. That was really helpful for me.

Do you have any book recommendations for our readers?

Oh yeah! So, I finished Call Me Evie the other day which I think is really good if you’re into psychological thrillers. It was a new take on the genre, and I feel like it was a really quick read to get into. You’re already there, easy to follow but also really captivating.

My other one would be Less by Andrew Sean Greer which won the Pulitzer last year. And that follows a gay man who is a writer himself—which is great if you like hearing about the literary world, like the pitfalls and all the neuroses of writers—but the basic premise is that his ex-boyfriend is getting married and to avoid the wedding he decides to go and accept invitations to lots of literary events around the world and it’s a really, really good book.

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