Headland Alumni: Where are they now?
The Headland team love to watch what happens next in the writing lives of authors we have published—we find out through Facebook updates, tweets, emails letting us know that their Headland story will now be published in their first book, or exciting new additions to their author bios the next time they submit.
But we thought it would be fun to find out in a more formal way, and to share the news with the rest of the Headland whānau. So here is the next instalment in a series of interviews with Headland alumni, called ‘Where are they now?’ where Headlander Caoimhe McKeogh speaks with Isabelle McNeur about her early writing days, building a writing career, and the aftermath of releasing her first book.
Caoimhe: You were first published in Headland Issue 12 in 2018, with a piece of fiction called ‘Holes’ and this was quickly followed by another piece, called ‘Shaking’ later that year. Where were you in your writing career at that point?
Isabelle: Hoo boy! Pretty damn early. I was in my early twenties then, rather than my wizened late twenties like I am now. I was focusing a lot more on the NZ literary scene, figuring out what could get into local journals, what form I enjoyed writing in, and where those two overlapped—as well as doing a IIML class with you! Probably. The timeline is a little fuzzy, but you sit squarely in the ‘early uni days’ when it comes to IIML classes.
Caoimhe: Those years are a bit indistinguishable to me at this point, too, but I remember being in your class when you wrote the first draft of ‘Holes’! And then, the next year, Issue 12 was the first issue of Headland where I was on the editorial panel; I had to excuse myself from commenting on your piece because I recognised it and Headland has a policy of blind-reading all submissions. The small world of NZ letters… But since then, you’ve done the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, and you’ve really built yourself a career as a writer and got your name out there, appearing at events, doing residencies, and publishing widely with work appearing in places like Newsroom, the Pantograph Punch, Starling and Turbine. What are the main things you learned during that phase of your life, and what would you say to the Headland readers who are just getting started with submitting their writing?
Isabelle: That’s flattering as hell, thank you so much! You make me sound so fancy. AHEM. The main things I learned during that phase of my life are impolite to print, but the main thing I learned about WRITING is what I really want to write, which is: dark, fun, gay YA with happy endings! I’ve found my niche! At least for now. As for Headland readers who are just getting started, my advice would be to apply for everything. Read the guidelines to see what they’re looking for (please god read the guidelines), and if you can squeeze your way into fitting them, cram your work into that submission box! In the early days I just found out what a journal was looking for, I perused their previous issues, then went ham in trying to write something a) I thought they’d like b) I thought was good and c) I enjoyed writing. You’d be surprised how important and difficult it is to find that sweet spot inside that Venn diagram. Wait, no, my main advice: don’t get bothered about the rejections. I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Everybody has. Except Truman Capote, which I am convinced he was lying about. Put your rejections in your ‘writing shit’ folder (dubbed thus so it seems less intimidating) and get on with the next submission.
Caoimhe: And now all that work is totally coming to fruition for you—towards the end of last year, you published your first book, a LGBT YA horror novel called Zombabe, and you have already got another book out called Babylove, which you describe as a 'dark sapphic romance novella.’ What was the progression like for you, going from short stories to these longer forms? And did you write them both at once or in quick succession?
Isabelle: Funny story! I actually started with long form. I’ve been writing at least a novel a year since I was 14. It was what I did instead of studying for NCEA (one of the reasons I had to do a make-up course to get my uni qualifications. BTW, if anyone reading this knows anyone who wants to go uni but didn’t get the points, there’s qualification courses you can do! I did the CUP course at UC! Some random told me about it while I was wallowing in my own filth after high school and it completely changed the direction of my life. I owe my entire Vic uni career to that stranger, whose name I still don’t know). ANYWAY! Novels came first. But short stories and poems? Much faster to write and way easier to publish. NZ journals gobble that shit hard. And some of them want to PAY? Sign me up! So everyone saw that first. But novels are my one true love. And now novellas; a wonderful, contained form I will definitely be delving into more in the future. Re: writing them both at once, I actually wrote the first draft of ZOMBABE in the span of fiveish months right after finishing my Masters in 2020, then put it away for a few years. I started and finished BABYLOVE in 2022.
Caoimhe: How does it feel having whole books out in the world? Have there been any surprises during this process?
Isabelle: Ha! Ha ha ha. Ha. There have been a hundred surprises, some of them wonderful, but most of them are annoying admin issues that require a LOT of emails. How does it feel to have books in the world? Surreal. You’re telling me I made that?
Also, I’m surprised how many times I have to tell people I know that I don’t care if they like it. ZOMBABE is a LGBT Horror YA about a loving found family helping their newly resurrected friend kill and eat local bigots. It’s one hell of a niche. People around me keep assuring me they’ll LOVE it, and I just stare at them blankly. Like—why on earth WOULD you? I’m certain that’s not your niche, and I wouldn’t expect you to love it just because I wrote it. I’m not a kid with a drawing you have to put on the fridge. I don’t like all the art my friends make—not because they’re bad at their craft, just because it’s not my THING. You know? It can be the finest chocolate tart in the world, but if I don’t like sweet things, I’m not going to be into it. And I find myself saying over and over, look, Timothy, I’m not going to burst into tears if you can’t get into the sweet, sweet jive of my gay Horror YA. You’re not a Horror guy, nor a YA guy, and (while a beloved ally) you don’t go out of your way to seek out gay media. I love you, buddy. Go back to reading Tolstoy and watching three-hour long video essays about the folly of orbital space lasers.
Caoimhe: I saw from social media that you were working at a bookshop when Zombabe was released. I imagine that might mean you had a bit more interaction in-person with readers and potential readers than other beginning writers might have had. Were there any strange or exciting moments?
Isabelle: Caoimhe. Caoimhe, Caoimhe, Caoimhe. I am SO glad you asked. Before the book came out in late December I expected the answer to that question would be no, because I only had a month in between the book going up on the shelves and me leaving for the distant, shining, exotic shores of Christchurch. But as it turns out, I had a couple lovely interactions with customers about ZOMBABE! So, fun fact: me and the YA buyer (we have different buyers for different sections of the shop who decide which books get stocked in the shop) didn’t account for how many people I knew would want ZOMBABE, so we only got a few in. Those copies immediately went on hold and/or got picked up by friends, so I had to hit up some people like, ‘Hey! I know you wanted us to hold ZOMBABE for you, but you’re out of town for Christmas and we’ll get more in in a few weeks and I’d really like to have some ZOMBABEs on the shelf during the busiest time of the year. So can we take ’em off hold for now?’ And of course they said sure. Which was great, because I had a lady on Instagram who commented on my post that she was going to come in and buy one. With my friend’s copies now off hold, I immediately rushed to put one on hold for her, an important person who didn’t even KNOW me and thus was much more important than my friend who loved me—and the next day she came and picked it up. She had me sign it for her daughter, who, as it turns out, is a teen who is very into a) gay shit and b) zombies. My ideal reader! That woman still likes my Insta posts, she’s lovely.
The next happened on Christmas Eve. My coworker said, ‘Isabelle, customers for you,’ and I turn around to find a couple who are looking for gay NZ books. Of course, this is one of my areas of expertise. So I narrow it down a bit: we’re looking for their teenage daughter, and that it doesn’t have to be set in NZ, just by a kiwi author. We head over to the YA section. I show them ‘Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues’ and ‘How To Get a Girlfriend When You're A Terrifying Monster.’ They say those books look nice, but their daughter is more into ‘murdery stuff.’ Music to my ears. I pull down my book and give the pitch: ‘How about this gay Horror YA about a found family helping their newly resurrected friend kill and eat local bigots?’ They say that sounds PERFECT. I say, ‘Great! I wrote it!’ And then they get me to sign it. Never thought that perfect storm of a situation would happen—gay NZ YA for a teen who likes murdery stuff? What are the CHANCES?—but it happened in the first week of the book coming out. Couldn’t have asked for anything better. (I also gave them Out Here, the queer NZ anthology. Which I am also in. I swear I wasn’t just hocking them my stuff, I gave them a bunch of options and they picked it. Got me to sign my story, too. Buy more gay NZ stuff, NZ!)
Caoimhe: Back in 2018, you also featured on the Headland blog in the month between your two stories being published here, with a lovely piece about your favourite place to write. Two of your three writing spots were at uni at that point, while you were studying; have you had to find a new writing spot now? Where did you write your books?
Isabelle: I write my books in a comfy desk chair in my bedroom! I’m sitting on the floor right now—I’ve given away my desk chair since I’m moving to the South Island tomorrow (as of writing this) and it won’t fit in my dad’s car. So I will find another desk chair. As I understand it, my dad has provided me with his finest. He’ll probably let me take it to the place I’m moving into in a few months. Maybe I’ll even be an adult and buy my own instead of pinching his. It depends on just how comfy this chair is.
Caoimhe: And finally—what’s next? What are you working on at the moment?
Isabelle: Officially? The ZOMBABE sequel (it’s a trilogy, folks). Unofficially? There have been many dark, fun, gay YA novellas dancing around my mind, and I do want to put at least one other novella out this year. I might write one as a treat after I finish the ZOMBABE sequel’s first draft. It’s a monster romance YA about a merman (merboy?) who wants to find peace away from his violent pack, and a human desperate to prove himself to his family of hunters but finds himself strangely drawn to the first merman he captures. And THEN… no, I’ve said too much. You’ll have to wait.