Complete strangers come up to Fiona Farrell on the street and thank her. This never used to happen. It rarely happens to New Zealand writers anywhere. But it happens to Farrell in Christchurch and it happens because she wrote a wise and important book about the Canterbury earthquakes and the period that followed, called The Villa at the Edge of the Empire. So it happens to her now in shops, cafes and garden centres.
‘I had two yesterday,’ she says, in a voice still fresh with disbelief. ‘I was looking at clothes at [Christchurch boutique mall] the Tannery and a woman came up, very emotional. There is an intensity to their reaction, it feels very personal. They look at you and grab your hand and say thank you. It leaves me feeling quite shaken, actually.’
She is not ungrateful; the response to her book has been ‘amazing’. As she talks, she is squinting into the sunlight in the third-floor cafeteria of the Press newspaper building in a still mostly empty central Christchurch. The swarm of earthquakes started nearly six years ago, on September 4, 2010, and Farrell has been writing about them ever since. There have been more than 14,000 shakes so far. The most destructive, on February 22, 2011, killed 185 people.
And yet? Beyond Christchurch there is still a dreadful thing called ‘quake fatigue’. Or many in Christchurch suspect there is a fatigue, a sense that people think the quakes are in the past and Christchurch needs to get over it. But the unexpected success of Farrell’s book – even publisher Penguin Random House was caught short, as a print run of only 1500 copies sold out in days – shows there is more empathy, curiosity and understanding than some in the media and political classes assume.
Farrell’s non-fiction work is divided into 100 short chapters. The first is a hilarious account of the pompous, bombastic launch of a Christchurch rebuild plan in 2012, with Farrell mocking the bland, reimagined city as ‘Brownleegrad’ in the province of ‘Rugbistan’ – references to the government minister for ‘Greater Christchurch Regeneration’ and his obsession with the national game. But there is anger and sadness in the book too. It catches the range of local responses to the disaster and the often bungled aftermath. ‘Some people see it as an angry political book, which is part of it for me.’
In 2013 she won the Creative New Zealand Michael King Fellowship for a two-book project. Non-fiction is just half of it. The second part will be a novel that Farrell also wanted to title The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, with the two books presented as a box set, ‘but my editor, Harriet Allan, said that’s crazy, they’ll never be able to market it’. Instead, the novel will be called Decline and Fall on Savage Street, which at least maintains the empire theme.
The intense subjectivity of every earthquake experience means it is arguably a good time for creative non-fiction. Farrell’s earlier book of essays, The Broken Book, spanned the pre- and post-earthquake periods. Some valuable journalism followed quickly after the disaster – columnist Jane Bowron’s Old Bucky & Me, reporter Martin van Beynen’s Trapped, several collections of quake photos and interviews – but you could argue that it needed to be transformed in some way if it was going to last. Fiction would take longer to emerge, but creative non-fiction seemed an ideal interim vehicle.
Short accounts by writers David Haywood, Nic Low and Lara Strongman were collected in Jolisa Gracewood and Susannah Andrew’s 2015 anthology of New Zealand creative non-fiction, Tell You What. But the first major creative treatment of the Canterbury earthquakes was by an outsider, Wellington writer Lloyd Jones.
Jones has something of the war reporter or travel writer about him, even when working on fiction, as evidenced in his novels Mister Pip, Biografi and Hand Me Down World, and the earthquakes seemed a natural fit. ‘I am one of those writers who are comfortable wandering with a notebook in my back pocket,’ he says by email from Europe.
His earthquake book A History of Silence appeared in 2013. It could be called an exploratory family memoir that uses the earthquakes as a metaphor for the disruption of surfaces and the release of secrets. Jones says he ‘was extremely upset’ by televised images of the Christchurch earthquakes and ‘I had to go there. There was no doubt in my mind. I made many trips and wandered everywhere until it became clear that the story about Christchurch was one about forgotten foundations. The big surprise for me was how quickly this shifted me to consider my own.’
There were risks for an outsider appropriating a painful local story. When film-maker Gaylene Preston tried something similar with the mini-series Hope and Wire there was a backlash, but Jones seemed to have an imaginative solidarity. He had ‘a state of readiness and anticipation of sudden apocalyptic ruin that Wellingtonians of my generation grew up with,’ he says, and the idea of quake fatigue disgusts him.
‘No one I have spoken to could ever be said to have suffered so-called ‘earthquake news fatigue’,’ he says. ‘I am appalled by the idea and was appalled the first time it was thoughtlessly aired by (notably an Auckland) columnist. In Auckland, more than anywhere else I detected an indifference, one memorably summed up by a businessman who over lunch told a friend of mine that the Christchurch disaster only interested him (and his company) as a ‘business opportunity’.’
Writers might work in isolation but they need an infrastructure. There are the publishers and the funding bodies – and Creative New Zealand helped by offering earthquake recovery grants – and at ground level, there are independent bookshops, festivals and creative writing schools.
On the same day that she was approached by a fan at the Tannery, Fiona Farrell went into the city to launch Christchurch Ruptures, a slim work of opinionated history by local academic Katie Pickles, published in Bridget Williams Books’ BWB Texts series. The launch was at the newly reopened central branch of local independent Scorpio Books; the new Hereford Street shop is just metres from an earlier branch that was closed by the earthquakes and near the site of the original Whitcoulls that sold books in the city from 1882 to 2011.
It was nice symbolism, speaking of historical continuity and regeneration. The place was packed, Farrell remembers. ‘There is an intense pleasure people take in social gatherings I’ve noticed since the quake.’
The city’s long-standing and respected writers’ festival also took on a new urgency after the disaster, and became visible beyond the relatively narrow and rarefied world of literary consumers, by ‘programming sessions that relate to Christchurch experiences, keeping it really relevant and collaborating with other organisations,’ says literary director and novelist Rachael King.
The earthquakes destroyed or closed the festival’s established venues and temporary or transitional venues were found: there was a festival in a large white tent in Hagley Park in 2012 and another in a newly opened hotel on the edge of the central city in 2014. ‘When I’m pitching to people overseas, I tell them about what’s going on here and that we’re firmly grounded in the transitional movement,’ King says. The most famous landmark of that movement is Shigeru Ban’s transitional ‘cardboard’ cathedral which the festival, rebranded as WORD Christchurch, also used in 2014.
When Wellington writer Elizabeth Knox spoke at the 2014 festival she described Christchurch as ‘a city living in memory and expectation, with ghost streets and dream buildings’. That perfect description of the transitional city was within a talk about fiction and imagination called ‘An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms’, which was the inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture. This new tradition, honouring one of Canterbury’s best loved authors, is an example of how the festival is putting down fresh roots in the city.
In the early days of the earthquakes, poets joined journalists in recording the first draft of history. Tusiata Avia’s ‘Mafui’e: 22 February 2011’ is a powerful, nearly hallucinatory account of the strangeness and terror of the disaster, as Avia recounts trying to negotiate Christchurch’s buckling, flooding streets to collect her daughter from pre-school near the Catholic cathedral, a distorted image of which appears on the cover of her 2016 collection, Fale Aitu – Spirit House. It is also good to have the poem collected with 147 others in the recent Leaving the Red Zone poetry anthology edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston, who are local writers with experience in the infrastructure of poetry communities – the journals, the readings, the anthologies.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman may have been the first Christchurch writer to get a collection of earthquake poetry out when Canterbury University Press published Shaken Down 6.3 in 2012. The 22 poems were mostly written in Hamilton during a writing residence at the University of Waikato. Holman remembers waking in the night with an urge to jot down a line. The sleeplessness was typical post-traumatic stress, but he isn’t sure if writing was therapeutic.
‘The primary impulse is the conversation you’re having with yourself, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘I wasn’t too concerned for posterity. I just wanted to report on what had happened.’
Two of Holman’s earthquake poems appear in Leaving the Red Zone. Poems run in chronological order, suggesting a parallel, poets’ history of the disaster, recovery and promised rebuild. It is an inclusive book – there are 87 contributors. Joanna Preston says it could easily have been 10 times bigger.
‘When me and other people were reading earthquake poems, people would ask, where can I get these? My usual response was, ‘I’m sure someone will put one together’. After I had been saying that for about four years, I realised that someone was going to have to be me.’
She contacted Norcliffe and they rushed to have it ready for the fifth anniversary of the February 2011 earthquake. Big publishers were ‘interested but not enthusiastic’, Norcliffe says. Small, local publisher Glyn Strange came to the party, as did a benefactor Norcliffe won’t name, whose generosity meant they could avoid approaching Creative New Zealand for funding and meet the anniversary deadline.
The anniversary nearly snuck up on the city with little fanfare until a 5.7 aftershock on February 14 reminded everyone of recent history and seemed to writer Frankie McMillan ‘almost like a wonderful piece of publicity’ for the anthology. Her poem, ‘Observing the Ankles of a Stranger’, describes helping a tourist through the shaking city (‘in this grandeur of occasion I felt like Joan of Arc’).
As a creative writing tutor at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, McMillan saw how the disaster affected writing students. She and institute director Morrin Rout contend that it took a year before students directly tackled the quakes as a topic. No Hagley students dropped out, Rout says. There was none of the usual attrition and drift. They were shocked and their lives were turned upside down but something about the continuity of the course kept them there.
So-called ‘quake brain’ – the challenges of remembering and concentrating after a trauma – seems to have affected the students as well. ‘I gave them lots of flash fiction, very short stories to concentrate on,’ McMillan says. ‘Their attention spans were not that good. That was popular with them because they felt they were continuing with their writing in a more achievable form.’
The disaster makes disguised appearances in writing. When students write stories about dystopian futures, McMillan wonders if they are transforming their earthquake experiences. She sees this in her own work. ‘I’ve been writing a book [My Mother and the Hungarians and Other Small Fictions] and it’s about dislocation. It probably comes from the earthquakes but I’m not writing directly about the earthquakes. There are the geographical challenges of finding a way around a city.’
Another Christchurch poet, Bernadette Hall, says she found that the quakes took away her language. She mostly abandoned poetry and focused instead on taking photographs: ‘I changed genre. I can’t say they’re publishable. I was searching for the real and the real was right in front of me when I looked around Christchurch. I felt like people were living their own poems, expressing this deep intensity in simple language which was extremely affecting.’
She was in Wellington as a guest teacher at the International Institute of Modern Letters during the worst earthquake year, 2011. Back in Christchurch, she became a patron of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, where she taught before the quakes and where she still tutors a handful of students every year. And finally, after five years, the earthquakes started emerging as a subject in her writing.
To explain this, Hall quotes a line from Pablo Picasso she found in a book by Irish poet Medbh McGuckian. ‘I have not painted the war but I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done,’ Picasso said in 1944.
‘My way of working is like that,’ Hall says, ‘and I can see it beginning to happen now.’
Earthquake-related novels are still scarce. Felicity Price published A Jolt to the Heart in 2014, followed a year later by King Rich, the debut novel of Lyttelton columnist and humourist Joe Bennett. Bennett says he never sought to write an earthquake book but the right image struck him.
A mate named Andy Bean told Bennett the story in a pub. Thermal imaging had apparently shown that someone, a rough sleeper, was living inside the doomed and abandoned Grand Chancellor Hotel in the cordoned-off central city. ‘We immediately agreed it was probably bullshit but, and I think I can speak for Andy as well, it’s a magnificent image,’ Bennett says. ‘You pictured this guy who had been living on the street astonished by the minibar, moving around the building as it cooled in March and April, following the sun round the building, having computed that there are minibars for the rest of his life, wearing complimentary dressing gowns and slippers.’
Yes, a magnificent image. Bennett wrote a newspaper column about it. A year later on an author tour, a man in Lower Hutt asked Bennett if he would ever write a novel. And if so, why not one about the guy in the hotel? ‘It was interesting to get that corroboration that it was a strong story.’
King Rich opens moments after the February 22 earthquake. Richard Jones defies the barricades and hides in the leaning hotel. A dog keeps him company. His daughter sees the earthquake on television and returns from London to look for him. The plot rolls along, studded with Bennett’s poignant and comic observations of the immediate aftermath of the disaster, including the highly premature earthquake memorial service starring Prince William, held just a month after the earthquake. Here is Bennett observing the prince: ‘His hair had thinned, his cheeks had lost their roses and month by month you could just see him becoming his own heavy-jawed uncle. It had been almost cruel to watch.’
‘I don’t see this as an earthquake story,’ Bennett says. ‘It’s a novel that happens to have its genesis in a situation created by the earthquake. I elaborated on it from there. If you set out to write about the earthquake, the quake steals your thunder. It’s done your plot for you. Everyone knows the plot. It out-novels novels.’
That was the problem with many September 11 novels – this terrible thing always had to happen. Bennett read one September 11 novel (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer) and he thought ‘it was bloody awful’, but he doesn’t believe that mass loss of life is an off-limits subject for fiction: ‘You can only be true to the event. As long as I was faithful to the experience and what I knew of what happened, it didn’t seem to me to be sacred turf you couldn’t step on.’
Sacred turf? Funnily enough, Christchurch crime writer Paul Cleave was part of the way through a horror story in which an earthquake strikes while a wedding is happening in the Anglican cathedral, revealing skeletons underneath. Then the real earthquakes hit. The book has stayed unfinished.
Cleave says by email from Europe that he was asked so often about whether he would include the earthquakes in his popular, violent novels that he eventually put a short essay on the subject in an edition of his novel Joe Victim. He explains in it that the event itself is taboo: ‘Could I use it as a plot device? Have a murder victim be found in the rubble of the quake? No. I would never, ever do that. I’m not going to use the earthquake to try and entertain you.’
But he says he would consider writing novels set a year or two after the earthquakes. It is clearly a problem he struggles with.
Farrell has been wrestling with the same issues as she works slowly on the fictional half of her two-book earthquake series.
‘For the longest time, fiction seemed totally inadequate and irrelevant and, in a funny way, had an ethical dimension to it that felt disrespectful,’ she says, ‘whereas fact and poetry, oddly, felt appropriate as responses.’
To guide her thinking, she looked for fiction written at the time of the Holocaust or soon after World War II. She has settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, published in 1948 – ‘A long time later, and in another country,’ Farrell says.
‘Fact outstrips what you can imagine,’ she continues. ‘I think about it a lot. It haunts me, the idea of the people [trapped] under the concrete. Fiction suddenly emerged as being this act of ego. I don’t think you can write a novel about someone being killed in the quake. That would be utterly improper.
Philip Matthews is a senior reporter with Fairfax Media in Christchurch and is on the Word Christchurch Festival Trust.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell