The Portrait of Molly Dean is former veterinarian Katherine Kovacic’s debut novel about the discovery of a painting that unearths an unsolved murder mystery in 1930s Melbourne. Katherine also trains dogs to ride skateboards and has an impressive family history in church music, writes Julie Houghton.
You have an interesting heritage being surrounded by hymns and church music due to your great-grandfather—what’s the story behind that?
My grandfather was incredibly proud of my great-grandfather so his music was a constant during my own childhood. In 1909, my church organist great-grandfather, Alfred Chislett Lenton, met my great-grandmother (who was a chorister) and in 1928 he was appointed organist and choirmaster at All Saints’, East St Kilda and the family moved to Melbourne. Financially, they were never well off, but Pop considered himself fortunate to be able to earn a living celebrating God through music. My grandfather’s enduring love for both liturgical music and pipe organs meant that we often listened to hymns and of course the sacred music of J.S. Bach. When family trips involved my grandparents, we’d invariably end up in churches along the way, sometimes just to look but often at a service so we could hear the music.
What are you memories of your education at church schools?
I always loved religious education classes at school. The combination of history and miraculous stories fascinated me, and I still remember all the words to my favourite hymns. I took particular notice of the lyrics and music, so I’ve always had favourite hymns such as John Bunyan/Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘To Be a Pilgrim’. Stirring lyrics and a chance for the organist to pull out plenty of stops for a triumphant final verse! I’m very grateful that I attended church schools. I came away with not only a profound understanding of religion, but also a strong sense of respect, morality and compassion.
Your own background is eclectic—what led you to become a vet, and then to change direction?
I’d always been an animal person and was quite academic at school, so veterinary science was a natural choice. I took six months away from practising as a vet to help out in our family company and I decided to explore some of the art history subjects I’d ignored in favour of science, which then morphed into a Master’s degree and a PhD. And I was able to keep working with my parents, which has always been a joy. It’s fascinating looking at how important animals have been in Christianity and in religious art, from the dog who usually appears in St Jerome’s study to the horse in depictions of St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
How do you teach dogs to ride skateboards?
We start very slowly, getting one or two paws on the board and letting the dog feel it wobble from side to side without letting it roll at all. Then we progress to a bit of controlled forward movement, getting a back foot on the board. People stop worrying about their dog being perfect and just have fun, and everyone loves to see their dog on a skateboard. Dogs learn at different speeds so we just give plenty of praise and rewards.
Who are your role models?
My parents have always been huge role models. As far as writers go—where to begin? Ernest Hemingway, and pioneering women like Miles Franklin, Louise Mack (a wonderful Australian author who was the first female war correspondent in Belgium in 1914) and crime writer Charlotte Jay, to mention just a few.
Are there plans for more books?
There are a few more art mysteries for my The Portrait of Molly Dean’s Alex and John to deal with, and I have a couple of other characters sitting in my head, very impatient to tell their stories.
The Portrait of Molly Dean is reviewed on page 13.