Ockham New Zealand Book Awards: Fiction Round Table 2023
This year’s finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction are novelists Michael Bennett (Better the Blood); Catherine Chidgey (The Axeman’s Carnival); Cristina Sanders (Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant); and Monty Soutar (Kāwai: For Such a Time as This).
The writers talked via Google doc through the month of April 2023, with questions from Paula Morris.
The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards take place at the Aotea Centre in Auckland on Wednesday 17 May.
Paula: In New Zealand, readers buy more local nonfiction than fiction – and yet some of us keep writing novels. Why did you write your novel?
Cristina: I think most of the novelists I know will say they write because they don’t have any choice. It’s a compulsion, a hard-wired obsession born of the way we make sense of the world through story. I write novels because fiction is the way I explain truth. For me, understanding is not so much about empirical details but what they add up to. There are few historical facts known about Mrs Jewell, and yet we can recognise the hero she must have been by imagining a story around her.
But the fiction/non-fiction debate is an interesting one, and there is a lovely grey area between the two where most learning happens. Whether you prefer to learn about life from textbooks (written to an agenda with inevitable cultural bias and potentially dodgy source data) or a well-researched fiction (solidly based in time and place with invented dialogue) is personal preference. There is truth and invention in both. Mrs Jewell’s story could be written as nonfiction or a novel. I’ve tried to put her in that grey area between.
Catherine: Kia ora koutou – so lovely to be in your company. I wrote my novel because I had been carrying that title around since 2008 and desperately needed a book to attach it to! Also, as for Cristina, fiction is a compulsion for me…I don’t think I’m much good for anything else. When an idea hits me and I know this is the book I’ll write next, I feel driven to get that story out of me and onto the page; there’s an inner restlessness that is only resolved by writing and finishing the book. I love the thrill of slipping inside a character and living as someone else for the length of a novel…in the case of The Axeman’s Carnival, I got to live as a bird. Why would anyone NOT want that kind of experience?
Monty: Wow, I didn’t know that, Paula – that local non-fiction is more popular than New Zealand fiction in this country. One of the reasons I switched to fiction was to reach a greater audience. I hope I won’t be disappointed. As to why I wrote the novel, most people wouldn’t believe me if I was totally honest. One reason is: I just think we don’t know enough about our own New Zealand history. And that there aren’t enough varied perspectives on that history. Historians bring bias when they write on a topic, whether they are aware of it or not, by virtue of their gender, ethnicity, education, upbringing, how much access they have to written and oral sources and so on, so that no two people produce the same perspective of a past event/s. I wanted to give a Maori perspective (not ‘the’ Maori perspective) of a part of our country’s history and to reach as great an audience as I could. I felt that the novel would give me more freedom to do that.
I’m thoroughly enjoying the challenge and I suspect enjoyment is part of this idea of compulsion mentioned by Cristina and Catherine. Creating something out of what was first just an idea, and seeing it come to fruition is very rewarding.
Michael: I’m loving all your answers to why you write novels. I came to prose from my other world: filmmaking. I wrote a nonfiction book, In Dark Places, about my friend Teina Pora, alongside making a documentary and a feature film about his story. I wrote the book because in 90 minutes of screentime there was only so much I could say about the brutal obscenity of what the justice system did to Teina. Writing the book, I discovered a couple of things. With my other job, a screenplay is a dissolving suture; it holds everything together, then it completely disappears. I am passionate about how a sentence reads, but in two decades of screenwriting, no audience member had actually read a single sentence I wrote. I LOVE that with a book, people actually read the stuff I write!
I also discovered that nonfiction is a hellish tightrope. I was talking about actual human beings who hurt and cry and have been deeply damaged, and on the other hand I was exploring the questionable actions of cops and lawyers and judges who might get fiery and litigious if I represented them wrongly. The legal advice I received on one particular chapter for the nonfiction book was that while everything in the chapter was true, if I included it, I would almost certainly lose my house in the ensuing litigation. With fiction you explore the big truths by making up things that never happened; it’s way more free, and it’s way better on the blood pressure than forever fact-checking and living in fear of being sued!
Paula: Writing fiction offers tightropes of its own: what were the challenges for you all while conceiving and working on your novels?
Catherine: How fascinating, Michael…I think I’ll stick with fiction’s freedoms! Although I do become obsessed with my research, and the need to get my facts straight. One of the main challenges for me was writing convincingly as a magpie (and yes, I know how absurd that sounds, even as I type it). Obviously, Tama’s experience of the world – and of the human world in particular – is very limited, so at the start of the book I wanted him to use expressions drawn from that limited experience. For instance, he describes the house where farmers Marnie and Rob live as ‘yolk-yellow’; he says Rob has ‘riverstone eyes’. Later, as he learns more, his vocabulary broadens – so when he is back in the wild and is learning to fly, having encountered windows in the farmhouse as well as Marnie’s hands, he says that ‘hands of glass’ seem to hold him aloft.
I was also very conscious of needing to get the details of high-country farming life correct. To that end, I was lucky enough to be able to talk to several high-country farmers from Central Otago, and I also picked the brains of my husband, Alan, who grew up on a high-country sheep station. Some of Rob’s childhood reminiscences are lifted from Alan’s childhood (picking mint for pocket money; shooting at the superphosphate man with a toy gun; etc). I was also able to read his late mother’s diaries from that time, which were a huge help in terms of the rhythms of the farming year and the small daily details that bring it to life.
Finally, I spoke to a long-time woodchopping commentator in order to get the scene at the Axeman’s Carnival right.
Cristina: Michael, you say ‘With fiction you explore the big truths by making up things that never happened’. As a historical fiction writer I had to laugh. I’m not going to get sued or lose my house for getting things wrong, but the descendants will come knocking. (Some already have – Jewell, Sanguily and Teer descendants – so far it’s all good.) Also with any fiction writing, and you’ll all know this, there is that obsession to get details right so your readers trust you. Catherine left me believing she probably was a magpie in a previous life and I’ll be watching for the falling feathers when we meet.
So, yes, research was the biggest challenge for me. There were two parts to it. Firstly, the evidential: which of the shipwrecked men had shoes? Dysentery or scurvy giving them the runs? How would they have made soap? How slowly does one die of copper poisoning? Seals or sea lions? Cathead or catshead? Plus (and it’s a biggie) where’s the damn wreck? And secondly, the psychological: what did ‘truth’ mean in the 1860s? How did class, sex, feminism, religion, maritime culture look in 1866? Group dynamics, PTSD, survivors, guilt: what would a woman have to do to survive in that environment for eighteen months?
Monty: Sorry folks, been missing in action for a while. Mo taku he. It feels like I left the dinner table just as the appetisers were being served. My father (90 this year) was admitted to hospital a couple of weeks back and the whānau have been taking turns in a bedside vigil. Now he has contracted Covid. I’ve been observing how much pressure our hospitals are under. I had heard all the talk in the media about our broken health system, but when you witness it firsthand it really is concerning.
But back to dinner. It feels like we’ve been served the entree with this second question. A couple of tightropes for me. Given Kawai is loosely based on a true story, I was always conscious of how my tipuna, from whom I created my characters (I’ve coded their names so only those familiar with the story will know who is actually being referred to), might react to what I have said about them.
Although the book wasn’t non-fiction, I was still writing about real people. So Micheal’s point about the tightrope being ‘hellish’ resonates with me and I imagine Cristina in building out the Jewells and her other characters found this too. I personally felt a sense of duty to represent my ancestors accurately, in so far as what I know about them from the oral tradition or what’s been recorded about them, but at the same time I did not want to demean their mana. I found I was always checking myself about whether I had gone too far when creating tension between my characters.
The other thing that concerned me was what people were going to say when they learnt that I had made very public a story which up until now had been reserved for the marae or hapu or iwi wananga. In time I realised the people that I was really worried about were my pakeke (elders), most of whom have passed on. One day I came to this realisation: what good is this story if it goes to the grave with you? They didn’t share it with you so that you could bury it. That was a turning point for me and it’s partly what’s driven me in writing Kawai.
Cristina: I wish you a peaceful vigil, Monty. Having someone pass is a strong reminder of how history forms. They are no longer directing their story, and must pass it on. When we write tipuna, or other real character’s lives, we do have that responsibility to look beyond the cautious sepia-coloured images of people displayed in history books and to catch their vibrancy. The questions are always there: do I have a right to tell this story, can I do this person justice, how will the descendants receive my telling of this life, what have I missed, is this authentic?
From what I’ve seen Kawai has been universally well received; I hope that’s so. Coding names helps, but, as you say, people who know, know. I debated changing the names of my characters, but decided, in the end, that I wanted Mrs Jewell to be remembered in a ‘retelling’ of a true tale of survival. Women are so often lost from history. I wanted to bring her back.
Michael: Monty, aroha and light to you and your whānau from all of us. Monty and I were on a panel together in Wairarapa recently and we both said that with the development and writing and release of our books we were cats on a hot tin roof. Anxiety might be a word. Terror is another one (for me at least). Maybe that’s the biggest challenge and weird underlying job requirement of being a writer – being the cat that willingly walks out onto the hot tin roof.
Feels like all our answers echo in some way around authenticity, a sense of duty to get important stuff right. I want to mihi my strongest rock of support and advice, the pou matua of my book, Ngamaru Raerino (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Rangiwewehi), who passed away recently. For decades Ngamaru has been a tireless advisor and supporter for Māori storytellers and Māori storytelling, someone who quietly and insistently demanded and ensured responsibility and authenticity in representing te ao Māori, te reo Māori and tikanga. E kore te puna aroha e mimiti ki a koe matua.
My lead character, Hana, is based on a number of strong amazing women in my life, but I’m not in my late 30s, nor female, nor a senior cop, nor a single parent. With prose I’ve imported a process from my other world of film – the story table. Which is pretty much what it sounds: for two or three days you gather a bunch of people round a table whose insights and world experiences are wildly different to your own, and let them loose on your manuscript; inviting them to pull apart what you’ve written, your characters, your narrative. Our story tables had a number of brilliant late-30s Māori women I deeply admire, as well as senior female cops, a just-graduated detective, an ex-Treaty lawyer, firebrand academics, activist performers (Hana’s rapper daughter is pretty much my youngest daughter, down to the same tattoos). Story tables are scary as hell, confronting, thrilling, provoking – and a really great litmus test.
Paula: This collaborative approach is quite different from the idea many people have of writing, that it’s a profoundly singular and isolated experience. (The writer in the garret is still a prevailing myth.) Of course, however much we get from research and discussion, we have to write the words on the page, and novels are a lot of words. As Catherine notes, you have to consider idiom, diction, dialogue. Two of you are writing historical novels: how do you avoid both pastiche and anachronisms? How does language for all of you ground you in time and place?
Catherine: Thinking of you and your family, Monty. It was a precious and overwhelming thing to sit at my 90-year-old mother’s bedside last year.
With my two historical novels – both set in Nazi Germany – I was very aware of the power of language to evoke a particular era and place. It was a formidable tool to wield; I was particularly interested in the manipulation and corruption of language at that time, and what that said about the people using/abusing it. With The Axeman’s Carnival, language is still very much centre stage for me, as it forms the bridge between the domestic and the wild – Tama the magpie’s world and the human world. There’s something uncanny about an animal who can communicate using our language – but what kind of consciousness lurks behind that ability? Is it just mimicking? Performing a cute trick on command? This is a question I wanted to explore…how aware is Tama of what he is saying? Different characters hold different beliefs about this, and that colours the way they engage with him. (I know what I think!)
Cristina: I really love a garret. Occasionally supplemented with 40 opinionated teenagers and a pinch of salty sailors, and with a fierce editor when I get smug and think I’ve finished.
For the question of language in historical fiction, the difficulty is that you’re trying to be authentic in contradictory ways – true both to the language of the past and to the essence of the (perhaps real) characters. The words we use and our language intensity has changed over the centuries, damn your eyes and f**k you. I’m not sure if there are any rules. When it works the book sings; when you get it wrong, it grates.
You can find authentic language by reading contemporaneous novels, diaries, letters, papers etc. and use this as a base for era immersion. However, Victorians were boringly verbose in their writing; even the heroes sound petty to modern ears. Where your modern reader accepts Mr Darcy’s pomposity in the classic P&P, an updated story needs a hero ‘translated’ with more vital language – so avoiding pastiche – but with no anachronisms to lob an immersed reader back to the future. The balance is to use enough, appropriate, specific vocabulary to get the era feel while staying readable in modern storytelling style, ie. remaining authentic to historic characters while not making the heroes sound like dorks.
Michael: Hehe, damn your eyes and f**k you, that’s so funny Cristina! I’m a writer in a garret, don’t get me wrong; my garret right now is our crazy mobile home, converted from a delivery van, and I’ve got it parked up on a hill overlooking Fitzroy surf beach, at my standing desk (we got it cos it’s a two-metre stud), adapting the book. I defer to your considerable expertise, Catherine, and I know research says we’ve given magpies a bad name, but in my head they observe and choose and gather and pick and curate, then from the several million ways that big pile of stuff could go together; the magpie dreams, and constructs their idiosyncratic entirely individual creation, in the way only that particular bird with that particular beak can. Ornithologically I think I just got a D- but I like the metaphor.
Idiom, diction, dialogue – the words spoken by my characters are what I tend to sweat least blood over. They’ve got to sound lived-in and real, of course, and interesting and surprising, I hope. But what they do, their internal processing, how that turns into behaviour that is abhorrent or admirable or just alarming and unexpected; for me all that stuff reveals who they truly are, more than what comes out their mouths. When I’m directing, the biggest thrill possible is in the rehearsal room is when a bold actor gets a good scene, and they say the exact opposite of the dialogue I’d written, or they say nothing at all, and the scene suddenly goes into orbit. I feel like the dialogue I like best in my novels is when the actor on the little screen in my head is doing something really unexpected and fearless.
Monty: Thank you all for your concern about my father. He passed away last week and after the tangihanga there was his kawe mate to attend, as Māori protocol requires. That was followed by my media commitments to the ANZAC coverage. I’ve only just been able to turn my attention to this latest question. Before I answer it, can I say two things: your comments above have much resonance with me, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading all our novels. I am humbled to be in your company – three very different narratives, but each one a riveting read!
As a historian I had the advantage of drawing on years of research when I got the idea for Kawai. My greatest challenge was not the investigation or discussion required but learning how good novels are constructed.
The garret does appeal to me because in my case the solitude it offers is ideal for getting the creative juices going. Each time I drafted a few chapters, however, I had to talk to people knowledgeable about my subject (e.g. an archaeologist, tribal historians) to avoid anachronisms, especially. My editors were helpful in spotting these too.
One of the greatest challenges for me was dialogue. Kawai is set in the eighteenth century when everyone spoke Māori and iwi had their own dialects, more so than today. I was fortunate to find a tribal reo expert to assist me. Ohorere (Jossie) Kaa has had a long career editing Maori language texts and she told me that the challenge Kawai presented was just the distraction she needed in her retirement. We debated how our ancestors might have expressed something in te reo and my editors helped me find the right balance in how much te reo to use in the novel.
Kawai would not read the way it does without the various input by these experts. ‘Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, he toa takitini.’ Success is not the work of an individual, but the work of many.
Paula: Thank you all very much for this kōrero, and to Monty in particular for taking part during his father’s tangi. One final question: is there another book – aside from your own, and those by your fellow finalists – that you would like more people to read? Just one book, one recommendation. (For me it’s usually The Dog of the South, a novel by the late Charles Portis). Fiction, nonfiction, poetry: what is the one thing you’d like someone else to read?
Cristina: I nearly always recommend a choice of New Zealand books to people who ask, but if I’m only allowed one then it has to be the best book ever, which for me is This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson. It’s the story of our second governor, Robert Fitzroy, as a young commander of the Beagle with Charles Darwin aboard. It helped me judge historic people in context, more than that really, helped me see how all people derive from their culture and to understand (and almost forgive) how good people can do dreadful things.
Thanks for instigating this korero, Paula, and for Catherine, Michael, Monty for the chat. Can’t wait to meet you all, in person, soon. And we’re all together again for the HBAF! I’m so pleased to be included in the team.
Monty: I’ll plug a book by a local author: The Girl in the Mirror (2020) by Rose Carlyle, a first-time novelist living in Takapuna. For sheer suspense and whodunnit it’s a book I couldn’t put down. I read it during the second lockdown when I was learning the novel-writing craft. It traverses family dynamics and secrets, deception, resentment, jealousy and lies. There’s lots of other realism too! You appreciate that you are in the hands of a person who knows yachts, sailing and has spent time on the ocean. And while there were one or two times I questioned the likelihood of a dynamic playing out the way it was portrayed in the narrative, these instances were not enough to kill the suspense in this excellent read.
Catherine: I’m so sorry about your father, Monty. I’m glad you could be with him in his final days. Sending you my deep condolences.
Michael, I love the magpie metaphor too! That’s definitely the way I think most writers work. I have many cardboard boxes labelled IDEAS that I rarely sift through, but feel compelled to keep adding to – shiny bits and pieces of stories I stumble across.
Cristina, you can’t go wrong with a good garret…unless of course someone decides to build a new subdivision opposite it, which is happening as I type in mine. (The magpies are none too impressed either.)
As for a book recommendation: Burial Rites by Australian author Hannah Kent has stayed with me for years. Set in Iceland in 1829, it’s the based-on-fact story of Agnes, a young woman awaiting execution for the murder of her master. Kent evokes setting and character in rich detail, and the writing is achingly beautiful – but the other reason for my choice is that we still don’t read enough Australian fiction here, and our books still struggle to find an audience across the ditch. It’s time that changed.
Michael: Deepest sympathies, Monty. All our thoughts and aroha are with you.
I am in total awe of being in such luminous and brilliant company at this table. I pinch myself daily, and hope that it’s as hard to get Mrs Jewell, Axeman and Kāwai right now as it is to get avocados.
I read In Cold Blood at the age of ten. I still have no idea why anyone let a kid read it. Capote’s incredible control of prose grabs the reader, drags them into that farmhouse basement, flinching at the sight of blood and hair on the walls, walking alongside the killers, hearing the squeaking of their cheap leather jackets, smelling the metallic fear in the sweat of the victims. The book makes the awfulness of violence real and lived-in, not observational. For me it completely changed what writing could be and what writing could do.
See you all on the 17th! Should we coordinate wardrobes, so we don’t clash? Ngā mihi, thank you all and thank you Paula, this has been such an honour to be a part of.
Catherine: Looking forward to seeing you all on The Big Night!