#LoveOzYA Q&A with Kate Hendrick about FISH OUT OF WATER
Kate Hendrick is a high school Visual Arts and Photography teacher whose novels The Accident and The Finder are published by Text. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.
Her 2022 release, FISH OUT OF WATER, is out now!
Kate chatted to #LoveOzYA’s Stassi Austin about the story, which touches on themes of elite swimming, identity and family violence. You can read their chat below (with, as a content warning, touches upon domestic violence).
For those who don’t know what FISH OUT OF WATER is about, can you describe the book for them?
It’s the story of a fifteen year old named Finn. His whole identity is built around his success as a swimmer, so when something unexpected happens and he makes a sudden decision to quit, he realises he really has no idea who he is outside the pool. He then has to try to figure it out, which means dredging up some things from his past that he has tried hard to forget.
Where did you get the idea for the story from?
It was the culmination of different ideas I had floating around. That tends to be how I start a book: a few key ideas (like a character whose life revolves around swimming, a dad who took off suddenly) and then weave in more threads as I go to flesh it out. It’s a bit like collecting treasures: I see something, like the emphatic way a stranger is talking, or a wheelie bin somebody’s set on fire, and it’s a puzzle piece I can test to see if it will fit in the story. If it doesn’t fit, it gets filed away for another day.
The main character Finn has built his entire identity around swimming and when he makes the decision to quit, his identity is shaken. Why do you think there is so much emphasis placed on finding the right career path at a young age?
I think that in general there is a lot of expectation from society about making life-long decisions at that age, not just in terms of their career. I think for parents in particular there’s a sense of wanting to feel that their kid is set up in life – to have a job, financial security, to be happy – so that means placing importance on making the ‘right’ choices before it’s too late. It’s done with good intentions, but it can really add to the pressure a teenager is feeling, that sense that there’s both an immediately and a permanency to their decisions.
Compared to your previous novels THE FINDER and THE ACCIDENT, what was the writing process for FISH OUT OF WATER like?
Like my previous books, this story definitely evolved a lot as I went. What was different for this book was that I started with a theme rather than a character: I knew I wanted to build it around the idea of choices. Each of the characters is facing a decision, or has made a decision, and the book examines the factors that influence their decision-making, so I was more intentional in the way I structured the book to explore these things.
The theme of domestic violence features heavily in this book. Why was that a topic you wanted to explore?
To be honest, it was not something I planned but rather something that emerged as I started to write. It was one of those instances where the characters’ voices kind of get away from you and in this case, certain conversations started to lead in that direction and it ended up an integral part of the story. In writing from Finn’s perspective, I was exploring how his father’s words and actions have warped Finn’s understanding about relationships and affected the way he views and treats the women in his life. Finn isn’t actively aware that he’s perpetuating the cycle of abuse, they are “just” things that he’s absorbed or been taught as he’s grown up, so the first step in him being able to break the cycle is identifying that these beliefs and attitudes are misogynistic and toxic.
Finn is often challenged on his viewpoint by Aaliyah who often tells him he is ‘self-absorbed’, a ‘golden boy’ and accuses him of gaslighting. Why does trauma often present itself in this way?
Finn goes through a bit of a process in the book of realising that he’s chosen to remember events in a particular light. His sister, Connie, is one of the driving forces in this; she accuses him of ‘rewriting history’ when it comes to their family’s past, as if he has done it intentionally. The reality, of course, is that it’s his coping mechanism. He has to keep telling himself these stories – and dismissing anyone who has a different version of events – because the alternative is unbearable. So we see how his past trauma continues to shape how he thinks and acts.
How has the flow on effect of Finn’s dad leaving affect his relationship with those around him?
Losing the parent he felt most connected to has left Finn feeling disconnected from what’s left of his family: his mum and sister. He blames them in a way for his dad being gone, irrational as that is, and that resentment affects how he deals with them. He is also struggling to reconcile his understanding of his dad – was it possible for him to do terrible things but still be a good guy? – with his own actions and his own evolving sense of self.
Was it important to you to reveal Loki’s sexuality without making it a main focus of the storyline?
Finn has really rigid ideas of what sort of man he should be, about what his dad would expect of him, and this conflicts with what he’s discovering about himself as his friendship with Loki develops. Loki alludes to problems with his own family that have resulted from his coming out, and this acts to reinforce Finn’s fear of what people (in his mind, his dad) would think. So it was really that tension between the two – what he thinks he should be, and what he actually feels – that makes the choice one he really struggles with.
What makes a flawed but redeemable character?
The concept of a redeemable character is always an interesting one, because it tends to naturally lead to the expectation of a happy ending where all mistakes are forgiven and forgotten. I think that, in the end, it’s more about whether the other characters in the story – and the reader – are prepared to accept a flawed character’s efforts to change as “enough”. For me, it was more about examining the process of stumbling self-awareness than in presenting Finn as having fully achieved redemption.
With extremely relevant themes to our society today, what do you hope readers take away from FISH OUT OF WATER?
For me, one of the best things about reading is that good books can put you in the shoes of others, and teach you to see things from a perspective outside your own. Finn is so self-absorbed, it really takes him a while to actually listen and understand that others have their own struggles, and it’s not as simple as they “should” do this or that to solve their problems. So for me personally, this book is a reminder to show a bit of understanding. To remember that we don’t know what is going on in someone else’s life, and what may seem like straight-forward choices we expect them to make are perhaps not so simple after all.