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Q&A: Alexander McKinnon on Come Back to Mona Vale

Friday 29 October 2021 2:40pm

Author Alexander McKinnon talks about his new book Come Back to Mona Vale: Life and death in a Christchurch mansion.

More about the book

A M McKinnonWhy did you choose to write this book?

Growing up I knew nothing about the family story that lies at the heart of the book. In fact, my lack of knowledge feels barely plausible or explicable now, given what I have learned.
From around 2012 my mother’s family had to proceed through a range of court processes related to the ownership of a family company. This was very complicated and tangentially involved events from around 60 years prior.
It required research to understand and I undertook some of this myself. As I did so I came across names and events that were both new and surprising. It became clear that there was ‘a story’ here but also one that I felt was worth telling on behalf of those who no longer could.

How did entering and winning the Landfall Essay Competition influence your decision to write this book? Or did the book come first?

The book, or rather a book length manuscript, came first. I wasn’t sure what to do with it however and when I came across the invitation for entries to 2020’s essay competition, I thought condensing the then 120,000 words to 4,000 would be a good exercise.
So I had a go at this – and was then unbelievably fortunate that the result was seen as credible by the Landfall editor and staff. Without Landfall I doubt this book would have gone any further than my desk.

Mona Vale coverWas it challenging writing about something so close to you?

The closest aspects involved generally warm memories. Other aspects were more distant, in time especially, from me. I grew closer to events and people as I went. I think this is only natural. Then as I neared the end of the process I started to see some parallels or some significance closer to home. I don’t really know anything about writing books but I have read from people that do who say that sometimes you only realise why you were writing when you reach the end.
I spent some time debating whether writing about it was the right thing to do. I’m not sure there is a definitive answer though demonstrably I decided it was.
Closeness also creates issues of impartiality. Where it’s most important I have tried to be impartial, to weigh evidence and to test my own judgements.

What are you hoping that people will take away from reading it?

A few things. One, that looks can deceive. We all know this but it’s easy to forget. Or rather, I forget it easily. Two, that memory is so organic. By this I mean that we all have our own approaches – and what suits some may seem silly to others – but they’re all equally valid. But also like any organic phenomenon, memory is vulnerable to neglect.
Finally, and this is at risk of being even more moralistic: when an entity – whether a system, a person, a set of rules – takes dominion over another entity, especially a another person – there is a huge amount that can go wrong and hence a huge amount of care that needs to be put into that dominion’s oversight.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the book?

I hope people enjoy reading it and maybe find it stimulates their own thinking – maybe about their own families and their own stories. Maybe also about the way we all sometimes present ourselves.