Just off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand
Sunny, but mild
Like many of you, I have a very clear memory of the first time Dumbo Feather pinged my radar. I was in the second year of a media degree that was beginning to seem aimless, waitressing to make ends meet, and wondering when my life was going to become hip and bohemian and romantic. (The fact that I was living in a falling-apart sharehouse in Brunswick with a backyard carpeted in cherry blossom only really seems romantic in retrospect.)
Anyway, the owner of the café periodically brought in a stack of magazines, and it was on my all-too-short coffee break that I first came across Dumbo—issue seven, the one with the kite. It was a revelation; long, funny, beautiful and frank. All my vaguely-held aspirations about working in publishing came to a head. Indie media, I thought. Of course. I remember flipping to the front of the mag and checking out the editor’s name, intent on finding out who had made such a thing. I thought she must have been a total rock star.
As it turns out, I was mostly right. Having filled her administrative shoes for the last few months, I can attest to Kate’s chutzpah, determination, and sheer bloody hard work in making Dumbo Feather a success. A one-woman band (with art direction and occasional percussion), she’s built this thing that you’re holding right now from scratch, and kept it going through economic dips and turns. In her last year as editor, she even did it with a baby on her hip.
What stops her from being a total rock star is her lack of ego. Meeting her in person after countless emails, I find her warm, enthusiastic and genuinely engaged with the world. Though Dumbo is infused with her personality, she’s never put a photo of herself in the front, always seeing her role as being in the service of other stories. No smashed guitars or bowls of green M&Ms here.
Though she’s recently moved to her native New Zealand in pursuit of a quieter, more domestic life, Kate remains involved in Dumbo as a kind of elder stateswoman and patron saint. We’re extremely glad to be able to profile her as she begins the next chapter of her life, and to finally give you more than a glimpse of the tremendous woman who made Dumbo fly.
“Dumbo Feather was very self-indulgent: I basically dreamed up my dream job, and made it happen. And it was extraordinary.”
JESSICA FRIEDMANN: It was really lovely to meet you in person the other day.
KATE BEZAR: Yeah, it was good.
Although, for some reason, I thought that you would be taller.
Funny, that. No, I am particularly short—challenged in the height department! I was just at the supermarket before; I had to ask a guy to get some yoghurt down from the top shelf for me. I was mortified.
But you got the yoghurt?
I got the yoghurt. He was very nice and gentlemanly about it.
Good. So… I was having a think about our last chat, and I realised that, although we talked a bit about the seven years you spent making Dumbo—and I’ll come back to them a bit later—we were really talking shop about the magazine, and not about what those years were like for you.
Yeah, right. I mean, they’ve absolutely flown. They were quite different. In the early years, it was very much around that wonderful creative energy and giving birth to an idea, Having just a blank slate was such a joy and privilege to work with. That is quite a different energy to then, a couple of years down the track, saying, “Okay, people love this, but it’s definitely not a successful business yet.” If it’s going to survive, it’s got to become that. Then it became about trying to make it work financially, which was never the side of things that I was all that enamoured of. I struggled with that, and still do to this day, to be honest.
When you think of Dumbo Feather, do you look back and see what you’ve done as 26 individual publications, or as a body of work?
I do actually think of it as a body of work, I think because the issues—they’re not seasonal, there isn’t one about summer fashion, and one about winter fashion. They really are very similar in lots of ways. I look at them on my bookshelf, and it really does feel like that’s the seven years, rather than 26 quarters. That said, each issue definitely has its own rhythm and I was always very particular about getting the mix of people in each issue just right.
At the end of the seven years you have the Dumbo bookshelf, but what does that bookshelf represent in terms of what else was going on in your life at the time?
Well, for a long time, there wasn’t room for anything else in my life. It represents a lot of growth for me as an individual. I went from someone floundering along doing what I thought everyone else wanted me to do with my life, to someone with an idea, to someone who had made that happen, and then it wasn’t just happening, it was living and reaching adolescence and growing. In the latter years, there’s a level of maturity to the mag because of a new a level of maturity in me, as I found the man I wanted to be with for the rest of my life. There’s all of that, reading between the lines, perhaps in some of the subfeature articles particularly. If you look at it closely, you start to see that shift and that change. At some point the tides had changed as well. Not only was I interviewing people, but people were asking to interview me. I got to speak at some wonderful events and people wanted to hear what I had to say, which was extraordinary to me. It was never really meant to be about me at all.
Flipping through some back issues, it seems that everyone you’ve profiled has this extraordinary, sometimes single-minded devotion just to one thing. That takes energy.
Someone said to me once, “Kate, you don’t really profile people with children”. And I hadn’t really ever thought about it. But it is true, and a lot of the people I’ve profiled have been fairly dysfunctional, in the sense that they really have this completely single-minded devotion to what they do. And it takes precedence above all else, including a life beyond that which they are passionate about. That’s not necessarily an extraordinarily healthy thing. I think it’s wonderful in some regards—I was like that for years, too. When I started Dumbo Feather, I was single, I just threw myself into it completely. I worked ridiculous hours, it was the first thing I did while I was eating cereal in the morning, it was the last thing I did before I turned my light of at night. And it needed that, it needed someone to be that devoted and single-minded to it. In retrospect it was extraordinarily like having a child, actually.
And then you did have a child. That decision—to have your first child, and still work full-time at Dumbo Feather—strikes me as extraordinary, in that many, many women feel as though they have to make a choice.
I did four issues with a baby, and I think it was like having twins—typing with one hand, breastfeeding with the other. It’s not all that kosher. I knew that I didn’t ever want to compromise being a mother, but I thought I might have been able to make it work, still doing Dumbo Feather as well. That was what I had hoped, but you never know until you actually become a mum how all-consuming it is. Particularly if you’re a full-time mum and aren’t getting external help. The magazine was always a more than full-time job anyway. So it was only really when I was in the thick of it—Lockie had gone through this phase where he was only sleeping 35-minute stretches during the day—that I started to think “Oh my God, I just can’t do this”. Up until he was about five or six months old, I’d been doing okay, and then it just suddenly got really hard as he became more intense and less of a baby and more of a little boy. Ironically, now he sleeps heaps.
My plan was always just to keep going, and see how I went, and I had managed to structure things so that I was doing far less than ever before. After two or three issues, I started kind of tearing my hair out. It’s just not fun, trying to do two things you love, and doing them really badly. I felt like I was being a really average mother—worse than average—and an average editor, and a far worse than average wife, let alone housekeeper. I think most people like to feel like they’re doing what they do well, and I just felt like I wasn’t.
You start beating yourself up, and you have all those voices in your head all the time going, “This is shit, you’re shit, you’re producing shit”, [laughs] “Your baby’s gonna be one of those little attention-deprived kids who then becomes an attention-seeking child”, all those things go through your head. It’s not a very fun place to be. My whole philosophy is that I want to love what I do. I wasn’t loving it anymore, hence some changes needed to be made.
One of those changes was moving back to New Zealand. I have to say, listening to you speak, I keep getting distracted by the birds in the background.
It’s a pretty divine spot, actually. We’re on a big island just off the coast of Auckland. I say that and people think it’s like Robinson Crusoe, but we have a Woolworths and we have a fire station.
The marks of civilisation: a Woolworth’s and a fire station.
But we have no traffic lights, and we have no McDonald’s.
So it’s a bit of a change of pace?
It’s a total change of pace. And, you know, I walk everywhere, and the little library’s just down the road, the bowling club is my local cafe. The beach is just a hop, skip and a jump away. We’re not on a big piece of land, but we have a decent-sized section that Lockie will be able to run wild in. We also have free-range chooks, but I don’t think those are what you can hear on the phone—you can just hear the native birds. In moving back to New Zealand, moving out here and having a baby, my life now bears absolutely no resemblance to what it did a year ago! So much of my world has changed that it’s actually hard to differentiate whether it’s living on an island as opposed to living in inner-city Sydney, or having a baby as opposed to just being a newly-married couple, as opposed to being a single woman. It’s hard to know which changes are due to what. I was very ready to have a child, in the sense that I felt like I’d kind of achieved some great things with the time that I’d had so far.
Dumbo Feather was a job, as much as it never really felt like a job or work.
And I mean, I wouldn’t say I felt as I’d made my mark on the world or anything, but I’d done stuff that I was proud of, and I was ready to just be a little less self-indulgent, and actually give myself over to something else, that wasn’t so self-indulgent.
You know, Dumbo Feather was very self-indulgent: I basically conjured up my dream job, and made it happen. And it was extraordinary. And I think the biggest thing about becoming a mum, I feel that for the first time in my life, it is so not about me. I’m about tenth down the list of priorities [laughs], and it is so refreshing just to have your head free of the ‘me' stuff. There’s something actually really liberating about just letting all that go and just giving yourself over to something else, a little being that is just completely divine. Well, no, he’s not completely divine—that’s definitely an overstatement—he’s scrumptious but he has his moments. The degree to which you have to surrender is quite extraordinary. For someone who likes to be pretty in control of her life, and what she does, and how she operates, there’s something extraordinarily liberating about saying “you know what, I have very little control over my life anymore”. It’s kinda nice.
Out of all that, if anything does strike me as odd, it’s that you describe your work as an editor as self-indulgent. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that you were so much the fulcrum upon which other people’s stories turned, the conduit for others…
Absolutely, I used to describe my role as a ‘curator' more than anything. I just got to call up anybody I thought would be fascinating, and I got to play with words and images, and work with wonderful designers and writers, and talk to photographers, and it was, as I said, my dream job. That’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of hard yards, and a lot of hours doing shit stuff that completely balanced out the other stuff, but it’s the hard stuff that makes the good stuff feel even better. So I wouldn’t have had that any other way, either.
I did miss those initial stages. I don’t know if the world’s split into just two categories, but there are definitely two categories of people; there are those who love coming up with an idea from scratch and getting it started, and then there are those who are really great at taking that and really making it work. I think I fall into the former category, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love my seven years at Dumbo Feather’s helm. I met some extraordinary people and made some wonderful friends, particularly in the early days. I interviewed a lot of people who were in a similar age bracket to me, and had similar values, and we became really great mates—people like Abi Crompton, from Third Drawer Down, Jodie Fried from Bholu, Rachael Bending from Slingflings, Matt from Zaishu—just really, really super people who I admired and was able to bounce off of for those next four or five years after I met them. They too were young entrepreneurs who were trying to take a beautiful idea and make it work. Those kinds of friendships were invaluable. They were a wonderful part of it.
When you talk about those aspects of community building—I think that’s the best way to put it—was that something that was a deliberate strategy when you started Dumbo, or something that sprang up organically?
In terms of my own community, that wasn’t deliberate at all—that was just this wonderful by-product of what I was doing. I didn’t set out to make friends with great people, that just happened of its own accord, and that was one of the most wonderful bits that I never expected. In terms of building a community of Dumbo Feather readers, that was also something that evolved over time as well—I hadn’t realised quite how strongly people would feel about the magazine, and how strongly its values would resonate with them, and therefore how much they’d want to meet other people who read it, because in turn, the same values would resonate with them too, I guess.
I was curious because in the last few years we’ve become inundated with the language of social networking, and it seems like Dumbo really did inspire its own network before any of this technology was available.
I would have killed for blogging software seven years ago, or a Facebook page. It would have changed my world! It would have done all the things that I desperately wanted to do but had no money to spend on IT, to create a website that did that. I so felt the need for those social networking tools that we now take for granted. We ended up doing stuff physically, rather than online. We’d hold evenings for Dumbo Feather and friends and that was a lovely way of connecting with people, but it’s extraordinary the extent to which you can do it now.
A lot of people write to the magazine—we’re getting emails already—and often it’s ‘Dear Dumbo‘, but just as frequently it’s ‘Dear Kate’. You really put a lot of yourself into the magazine, to the extent that people feel as though they can just write to you, as though they’re writing to their childhood friend. Did you start the magazine realising that you would give so much of yourself?
No. Oh God, no. In fact, I never even put an editor’s picture of myself in the front, because I didn’t want it to be about me—and I still don’t think it is—but I think that people feel, again because they connect with the mag, that they connect with the person behind it. And I did, by default, end up doing a fair bit of writing for it and a lot of the interviews. So people heard my voice, and I think obviously connected with it. Because they were hearing my words they felt like they knew me—far more than they actually, really, do.
Was that something you became comfortable with?
No, not really. I mean, it’s always lovely and it always takes me by surprise when people feel that they can tell me tell me the extraordinary things that they sometimes do… somewhat confessionally. [Pauses] There’s a type of person—Dumbo Feather speaks to a lot of different types of people—but there’s a chunk of people that it speaks to who are extraordinarily frustrated with their lives and where they’re at, who would love to be doing what they would love to do, or out of the situation that they’re in. So I’d often get people writing to me, telling me how stuck they were, and how much they’d love to change what they were doing. They felt like Dumbo Feather was a part of that process—their friend holding their hand along the way.
Well, when we talk about the dumbo feather, we’re talking about the thing that you need but don’t really need to make that change in your life, yes?
Yeah, absolutely. The thing is that you’ve got everything you need in yourself, and you just need to believe. Often believing is the hardest thing. So whatever you need to do to make yourself believe—whether it’s reading Dumbo Feather, practising meditation, positive affirmations—looking up to certain people, or reading other books—whatever it is, you’ve gotta hang on to that.
The dumbo feather is a lovely concept, but we tell people the name of the magazine and quite often—they must have asked you to repeat it, because it’s a bit of a mouthful.
“Dumbo like the elephant, feather like birds of a feather”… yeah, it is a bit of a mouthful.
One advantage is that it makes you stop and savour the name. You do have to think about the words you are saying.
Sometimes I’ve regretted the name, because it is quite obscure, but I like that. It’s definitely spoken to the kind of person who doesn’t mind having to think about something, and put some inquiry into something. I think the whole magazine’s a bit like that, it’s not just served up on a platter saying “Have a quick flick through me”. It’s the opposite, it’s like, “Sit down with a glass of wine and savour every mouthful”. And you might have to—I don’t know—break off a few crayfish legs and suck the marrow out, but…
That’s a great and disgusting analogy. While we’re talking about the name, it does comes from a Disney film, and the thing I always associate with Disney is the very cheesy “follow your dreams”-style narrative arc. Even though the magazine obviously does inspire people—the emails and letters are a testament to that—it can be a bit of a high-wire act, finding a balance between stories that are genuinely inspiring and those that are “inspirational”.
It’s a word that’s very overused and that’s why I deliberately don’t use it a lot, in the preface to the mag or anything like that. I actually think it’s so overused, to a point where it’s off-putting to people. I never wanted the mag to feel too… oh, what’s the word… I guess “self-helpish”. That whole genre of purple crystals and dream-catchers and life quests. You know, the odd dream-catcher’s cool, but that whole very esoteric… actually, esoteric’s not the word. I think you know what I mean, there’s a whole genre of stuff that’s out there that in its own way is fantastic, but I wanted Dumbo Feather to speak to people who weren’t necessarily on a quest or on a path consciously. I wanted it to just speak to anyone who loved great stories, and (tea cup clank) the inspiration thing would be a by-product. So they would then, in reading it, perhaps be inspired to think a bit more deeply about the world and their role in it without being too prescriptive about it.
“Prescriptive” is an excellent word for some of that commodified inspiration that gets around.
I think that’s why I let people tell their stories in their own words. I wasn’t ever interested in me saying, “Right. So the five things you should take away in this interview are x y and z” to the reader. I didn’t want to be prescriptive about it because different things in an interview will resonate with different readers—that’s important. I certainly didn’t know any of the answers! When I started I had absolutely no experience. In doing what I did, I found what I wanted to do, but at that point I hadn’t found what I wanted to do, or my passion in life.
So what brought you, then, to storytelling? You mentioned you hadn’t had any experience really when you founded Dumbo Feather.
No, I didn’t, but when I thought about what kind of magazine I’d wanted to read and therefore create, I really did start with a blank slate. To me, it was really about what I wanted in a magazine, and I realised, the more I thought about it, that I wanted to read something that felt like it had similar values to myself, and when I thought about what those values were, one of the key ones was authenticity. To me, the idea of people telling their own stories verbatim was extraordinarily authentic.
I felt that in a world where so much of what we read is packaged up and regurgitated, into bite-sized, delectable, easily-digestible pieces that look fabulous and sound fabulous, that reading long, wonderful, rambling interviews and ‘hearing' a person’s own words would be, actually, an extraordinarily powerful thing.
Oh Jessica, he’s just waking up…
Well, put him on the phone!
[Laughs] It might’ve just been a little cough… we’re alright. So that was where the key format came from—just five in-depth interviews per issue . I’ve always believed that storytelling is an extraordinarily powerful way of communicating with people, and almost a lost art. Historically, the telling of stories is how we’ve passed on knowledge. I think perhaps the television is today’s fireside, we sit in front of that and we hear stories now, instead of around the hearth, but I wanted something outside of that medium. Hang on, I’ll be back in five. Sorry…
That’s fine. Okay, before you went into publishing, you were a management consultant, and I have to confess, I’m not really sure what that is.
I was a really frustrated management consultant. The best way of describing it is like a business doctor. So the company I worked for would be hired by businesses to fix a problem, and so we’d go in and do a project for three or six months, or whatever, and help them solve something, whether it was trying to figure out which of their thousand products made them money, which were costing them money, things like that.
Did you feel as though that gave you some confidence going into a publishing venture?
Yeah, it did. I was used to going into all sorts of different businesses in different industries, and very quickly working out what made that business tick, whether that was a bank or an airline or an insurance company or whatever. I guess intrinsically, I knew that no business was rocket science. I knew that I could figure out what magazine publishing was all about. So it never worried me that I had no experience in it whatsoever. Most businesses are the same when it gets down to the nuts and bolts.
Still, publishing is a notoriously difficult business to break into, and seven years is a long time in independent publishing. I think it’s like dog years—it probably equals forty-nine mainstream publishing years—but when you factor in that two of those years were in the recession, well, it’s a pretty tremendous accomplishment.
Well, as I said before, it was always just a matter of from one issue to the next. That’s not to say it was ever on its last legs, but I put out the first issue, and I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna see if people like it, and if they do, I’ll do another one. And within days of the first issue hitting newsstands, I was getting extraordinary emails from people. I think I got 100 emails, and I worked out that if one in a hundred people who’d bought the mag had emailed me, that meant that I had completely sold out of the print run. But I later realised that about one in ten people had emailed me. I was hearing what I hoped I would hear, which was people saying to me, “Thank you for creating a magazine that I want to read. You know, I’d given up reading magazines but I saw this thing, this odd little thing at the newsagent, and picked it up for some reason, and it speaks to me.” So then I did a second issue, and then a third, and a fourth.
I think from the very beginning, Dumbo Feather has survived on subscriptions rather than advertising sales. I’ve always liked surviving on readers wanting to pay for magazines and not on anything else, because to me, that means that it’s valued by the people that matter most.
It also means that the readership is tremendously loyal.
Yeah, Dumbo Feather has an extraordinarily intelligent, savvy, thoughtful, soulful readership, who are thinkers, and doers. More than anything, Dumbo opened doors for me. A group of readers in Tasmania got together and decided that they were tired of me having events just in Sydney and Melbourne and they wanted to have me in Tasmania, so they pitched in for my flight, took me down there, and we had the most wonderful dinner party. They each cooked a dish with a local food, and I made some wonderful friends out of it. I will never forget that weekend—it was absolutely magic.
It sounds gorgeous. Okay, I’m going to let you get back to your little boy. But I just wanted to ask how the de-Dumbofication process is going. I imagine it must have coloured the way you saw the world for the last little while.
Yeah, it definitely has. And as much as anything coloured my approach to the world, everything potentially became relevant to Dumbo Feather, so you can imagine any dinner party I went to, where there were people I’d never met before, everyone was a potential subject, or might know a potential subject, for the magazine. Or a topic of conversation was a potential subfeature story, or something that triggered my thinking. A new bakery I might go to—again, it’d be “this is fabulous, I want to know who’s behind this, they’re a genius!” I think it’ll take me a while to get out of that habit, and I don’t know if I necessarily want to, but it just won’t be as intense. I’ll never stop being fascinated by people, their stories, what they choose to do with their lives and how they want to live.
At the moment I’m just loving doing what I’m doing, and there’s enough Dumbo Feather stuff that I still need to be involved in that actually takes up a fair chunk of my time. All of one of Lockie’s two daily sleeps. And then the rest of the time,
I’m keeping house, I’m weeding, feeding chooks, going to the beach with my little boy. And I’m just loving being in that space, and not having feeling like I have this to-do list that’s on steroids,
and that I never, ever seem to be able to get a handle on. I’m very wary of going back to that place, where I just constantly felt like I couldn’t get done what I needed to get done in a day. It was just the most horrible feeling, it was perpetual, just this weight on my shoulders that wasn’t much fun.
I’m sure at some point further down the track I’ll want to do more, or need to do more, and who knows what that’ll be. But I’d like it to be something local. There’s a wonderful community here that I’d like to be more involved in. It’s a very special place that has an extraordinary community and extraordinary values, and there’s quite a strong movement here to keep it the way it is. I’d potentially like to get involved in that. There are also a lot of people on this island with some fabulous stories, so who knows, I might have to end up finding a forum for telling them at some point.