Q & A with Janet Colson

When did you start writing? Were you a story-teller as a child?

At the age of eight I wrote a story called ‘The Deadly Well’ where people visited a castle on a hill. If their faces appeared in the picture frames that lined the walls, they would drown in the well the next morning.

I graduated to my first ‘novel’, ‘Blades’, when I was twelve. It filled an exercise book. The drama spun around a deadly rivalry between two female ice-skaters, culminating in the murder of one by the other with the blade of her skate.

I grew up in a vicarage, listening at keyholes. People came to the house with problems. I gathered secrets. From an early age I couldn’t understand why the church was run by men and why women put up with it.


What was the inspiration behind writing The Shark Party? Were there certain experiences in your life that you were drawing on?

I drew on twenty years’ experience in major gift fundraising. I work in the arts. You meet a lot of interesting people, and I’ve thought about the different ways people deal with things – wealth, for instance. When you write a novel you throw everything you’ve got at it, but all the events in the book are fiction. The biggest inspiration for me has been the artistic journey itself. I’ve witnessed it in other artists – contemporary dancers, for example – in how they refine their idiom and develop resilience. I was interested in exploring the reactions of the central character, Carla, who is an artist, by placing her in an environment that runs counter to her creativity.


You must have done a lot of research for this book, especially as it is based in New York. Were there any interesting experiences you had with this?

I used to spend more time in New York than I do now that I live in Wellington, but I did visit Manhattan earlier this year when we were in the final stages of producing the book. I was lucky enough to run into NYPD Officers Murphy and Marsh and check a few details about the Domestic Violence Unit operating in the city. One thing was clear – the issue of domestic violence doesn’t make a distinction between the social classes. It’s happening on the Upper East Side as well as in the Projects. The police officers were really excited about the story, so I’m looking forward to sending them a copy of the finished novel!

Another notable moment in my research was about the artists who feature in the book. It was only after I’d fixed on the artists for the novel that I discovered Kurt Schwitters was a big influence on Damien Hirst. Early in Hirst’s career he even made collages in the style of Schwitters. When connections between the artists in the novel started happening on their own, that’s when things got really interesting ….


‘The Shark Party’ is an interesting title. What is the story behind this?

The title comes out of a line in one of the early chapters of the novel. Carla met her partner, Nathan, prior to the story beginning at fictional party given during the period between 2007 and 2010. This was when Damien Hirst’s work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The work consists of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a large tank – hence, ‘shark party’. The line presented itself as a title and it worked for me on a number of levels.


The parties you organised in your time in the UK sound as though they were extravagant, and the story of Prince Charles and Camilla is almost scandalous. Can you tell us more about these?

I wouldn’t say it was scandalous – His Royal Highness greeted Mrs Parker-Bowles, as she was then, with a kiss on the cheek when she arrived at the party at Somerset House. I mean, he didn’t snog her or anything. But royalty and kissing is a funny business, and it turned out to be their first public kiss. The next morning it was all over the papers. It took me a moment to realise it was the same party I’d organised.