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An arts background

22 January 2024

Despite best intentions (and a successful career in other fields), it was somewhat inevitable that Dunedin-born Andrea Hotere, daughter of award-winning poet Cilla McQueen and one of the country’s most significant artists, the late Ralph Hotere, ended up writing a novel about art.
Words Rebecca Fox

As a small child, Andrea Hotere was left reading a book in the Museo del Prado while her parents investigated the Madrid museum.

Her parents, poet Cilla McQueen and artist Ralph Hotere, were in Spain on an arts sabbatical and when Andrea got sick of trailing around after them she was left in a room to read, where Diego Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ – one of the most written-about paintings of all time – hung.

“It got into my consciousness. There’s something about it.”

Decades later she returned to the painting as a subject for her first novel, The Vanishing Point.

She grew up in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, with a lot of artists and writers “floating around” her home.

“That was normal for me. I was very lucky … it was quite a rich environment in that regard.”

Her interest in history developed at Logan Park High School thanks to some good teachers.

“I took myself off to the university library in the sixth form to work on my school projects and got a kick out of it.”

That led to studying history at the University of Otago. Enjoying interviewing as part of oral history projects led her to study journalism.

“I always thought I might do something like writing a novel early on, but I think I felt I needed life experience before I ventured down that path.”

In her thirties, when her children were young, she attempted a historical biography.

“I got a bit frustrated. I thought I’m just going to write fiction and make it up. My historical bent was there in the background so I was naturally drawn to something that was going to be historical fiction.”

About that time, she was at home folding laundry and tuned in to an interview on Radio New Zealand. It took a few minutes before she realised the painting they were talking about sounded familiar, although she wasn’t sure why.

“Then I had a look at it and I remembered I had seen it and was quite intrigued when I was younger about the young girl in the painting and I wondered what had happened to her.”

Curious, she began researching the painting to find out more.

“While there is a huge amount of material written about the painting, enormous amounts, I couldn’t find that much about her and I thought that was interesting. She seemed like a young woman lost in a historical story.”

So she began to dig deeper, especially into the girl, the Infanta Margaret Theresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain.

“It wasn’t that she was ignored. She became an empress in Austria and celebrated over the years but I didn’t find a biography of her. The things were quite slight that were written about her.”

The more Andrea looked at the painting, the more intrigued she became with the relationship between the people in the painting and the way it is constructed.

“The way they look out at us to you as the viewer. So I guess the more I looked at it the more it intrigued me.”

Andrea, who lives in Auckland, began a creative writing course with the idea of creating a story around Margaret Theresa.

“Quite what it was going to be at that stage I didn’t really know. It was an adventure.”

She was determined to produce a piece of creative work that was her own.

“Taking the leap from expository writing in journalism … [it] is actually quite hard to let go of that and go somewhere different. You are trying to give people as few clues as possible but just enough so they work it out for themselves.

“In journalism the impulse is to explain and I found when I started there was far too much of that authorial exposition.”

It has taken a long time for Andrea to get to the end of the work but she never lost the excitement or interest in the story.

“When you really launch yourself into the material, sometimes scenes come to you almost like dreams. It begins to take over every part of your life, including your sleep.”

She worked on the novel when she could around her children’s school timetable and the pick-ups and drop-offs, but came to realise she needed a certain amount of discipline around when she worked.
Sometimes it was early morning writing sessions, at other times it was recording her thoughts on her phone in the car or periods of solid time at home where she could write full‑time.

“There were times I put it aside for long periods of time. I put it in a drawer at one point. I certainly wasn’t working on it full-time. I wasn’t able to work on it full-time, so it has had bursts of my fervent attention.”

In hindsight, the first drafts of the manuscript did not have all the components necessary for what she had decided was going to be a “hidden mystery”, which she found quite frustrating.

“Some of those final pieces came in within the last two drafts. Once I had the final revision made, everything came together.”

Given it was her first novel, Andrea found it hard to stop wanting to revise it.

“You want to keep improving it and see things you wish you’d done differently. It had to finish at a certain point.”

Looking back, she especially enjoyed the process of creating the work as she loved doing research.

“I like being in libraries, I enjoy digging around in archives and I’ve found the combination of that with trying to work out from a far distance people’s motivations based on whatever evidence I can glean and using my own intuition is a fascinating process. Kind of daunting at times.”

She has been conscious of not wanting to do exactly what her parents had done, which was one reason she ended up in journalism. She has also worked in television and production.

“I didn’t write about art really for a long time. Dad’s thing was his thing and [I] was quietly doing my own thing, looking at art and having an interest in art.”

It took a while before Andrea felt comfortable about re‑entering the art world, but she did so with a collaborative project on 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship with Priscilla Pitts in 2017.

“It was one of the first phases when I put aside the novel and worked solidly for 18 months.
“At the time, it was really refreshing, as I needed a break from the novel.”

Doing that book, which included her father, gave her the opportunity to enter the world of artists again as she visited them in their studios for interviews.

“The ways they work can be quite different [and that] was really interesting to me at that point.

“It’s a great survey of those artists going back 50 years.”

She found in a “parallel” way it helped with the novel although she did not draw on anything specifically said.

“It was just more time in artists’ studios discussing thought processes that was really enriching.

“I really believe in what artists do. I believe in artists as practitioners and writers; those roles in the arts are super important as they reflect things back to us, if we want to listen.”

She’s on the eve of returning to her hometown for the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, her first as an author.

“I’m honoured. I’ll have family there and mum will be at the same festival. That will be kind of funny.”

Bluff-based Cilla saw part of the book early on. Andrea described her as “pretty restrained” in her comments and both realised writing poetry and novels were different.

Sending her mother the manuscript the first time did leave Andrea on tenterhooks.

“She’s obviously a real literary powerhouse and she has now read the book. She’s definitely been supportive.”

However, Andrea felt the need to do the work on her own.

“I’ve appreciated the feedback when she’s given me some.”

With her first novel under her belt, Andrea says ideas for two more have already come to her. They’re in a similar vein but different.

“I realise I’ve written one book and you think ‘Oh, yay, I know how to do it’ but as they say I’ve learnt how to write that book.

“I think I’ll be quicker next time. They can be all different.”

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