Ockhams Round Table 2022
This year’s finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction are novelists Gigi Fenster (A Good Winter); Whiti Hereaka (Kurangaituku); Rebecca K. Reilly (Greta and Valdin); and Bryan Walpert (Entanglement).
The writers talked via Google doc through the month of April 2022, with questions from Paula Morris.
The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards take place in Auckland on Wednesday 11 May.
Paula: Congratulations to you all on the shortlisting. Could we begin by talking about the titles of your novels? Did you have another working title at any point? Do you have any strong feelings about book titles you’d like to share? (Note: one of my friends is adamant about one-word titles only.)
Gigi: This book was unusual for me in that the title came really early, and stuck. I decided early that the story would play out over a short, contained time period. I wanted the claustrophobia of a consolidated plot. I think that the title kept me on track with that, kept reminding me that I was not writing a temporally sprawling story. I nag students a lot about their titles—not just because the title matters, but also because a vague, broad title often points to vague, superficial thinking in the work. When students are struggling to come up with a title this often suggests that they are still unsure what, exactly, they are interested in exploring, what is driving their story.
Bryan: I can’t recall when I decided on Entanglement as the title. Prior to that lost-to-memory moment, I didn’t have one. I just thought of it as the time traveller book and had three files—’time traveller strand’, ‘Sydney strand’ and ‘writing prompt strand’. I’ve been happy to see people observing that the title refers to multiple aspects of the book—the quantum physics term, romantic entanglement, the entanglement of the protagonist with his brother, and the way the different time periods are bound together. It’s not always necessary or possible, but I’m happy when I can come up with a title that is multivalent in that way. It’s the poet in me. Another like that in a recent book was The Overstory by Richard Powers. That said, I don’t have particularly strong feelings about how one should go about choosing a title, which can perform any number of functions. Long titles can be great, like Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
Rebecca: I wanted Greta & Valdin to be the title the whole time, but I pretended I didn’t for two years. I thought it would seem overly confident in the characters to just call it by their names, and I thought that people would call me a third-rate 21st Century Salinger knock-off. I called the original manuscript Vines because I wanted a single-word title with a V theme and there used to be some pointed lines in there about becoming ensnared in the threads of complicated relationships. Then people kept telling me they just knew I’d think of a better title soon. So I opened the floor and received an onslaught of lewd suggestions such as Blue Balls and others it wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat here. One more serious suggestion was By the Time You Read This, which I thought sounded a bit murder-mystery and then when I checked where in the manuscript it said that, the full line was ‘By the time you read this, I hope they won’t be allowing cash on the bus anymore.’ I didn’t think that was really the essence of the book. Then someone at the publisher emailed, how do you feel about just Greta & Valdin and I quickly agreed. In general, I like titles that are distinctive enough to remember, easy to Google and not so long that everyone starts referring to them by an acronym.
Whiti: For a while Kurangaituku had a ‘/Bird Woman’ attached to it–I think as an explanation for those unfamiliar with the pūrākau. In the Reed versions of the story she is almost always ‘and the Bird Woman’. But then as the story became more about Kura reclaiming her voice and her identity, using her name puts her in the centre of her story at last. I have chosen the spelling ‘KurAngaituku’ rather than ‘KurUngaituku’ simply because I was introduced to her as ‘Kurangaituku’ first, and that facet of her was already settled into my brain. I like that there are (at least!) two versions of her–I want more stories of her told. I don’t have strong opinions on titles except that I generally suck at them! My last three novels have one word titles and two of those (both told from first person) I’ve used the protagonist’s name. But I suppose that fits with both of those stories!
Paula: Whiti’s comment about reclaiming a voice for her protagonist leads me to questions about point of view. All of your novels include at least one first-person narrator. (Bryan: you use second- and third-person as well!) What informed this decision?
Bryan: At some point I realised I wanted to have three points of view, partly to distinguish between the three sections. I experimented a bit and chose the first-person point of view for the Sydney section in part because a journal-style approach seemed the best way to most naturally integrate the mix of personal and science into that section. But also the other two sections required a greater level of emotional or cognitive distance. The time traveller is distant from himself—he’s trying to remember why he is there—so using the second person seemed right. The writer on retreat in the Lake Lyndon section needs the third-person perspective to gain enough emotional distance from the material to grapple with and acknowledge what has happened.
Rebecca: I never thought about which perspective to write this book in, I think it was always going to be first-person but I wasn’t sure how many narrators it should have or who they should be, out of the bounty of characters in the story. I think, to me, a lack of communication between characters and a narrowness of perspective was really integral to the plot, being a novel about how revelations about others affect one’s sense of self and how self-perception lines up with external perspectives. One day, in an ideal world, I would like to attempt something like this with a whole host of characters, but I think that two first-person narrators was the right amount of scope for this novel, where the revelations and perspective ideas are coupled with characters who are at two different pivotal life points (mid-20s identity crisis and 30 and calmed down a bit).
Whiti: Because she was reclaiming her voice, this novel had to be in first person–even though I don’t really gravitate towards first person naturally. But strangely, I seem to be tag-teaming my POV in novels: Bugs was in first person, Legacy in third, Kurangaituku is back in first (and my current WIP is in third). I like the idea of distance, Bryan! I think that’s a great way to put it. This novel needed the intimacy of first person–and also the subjectivity and unreliability of it.
Gigi: Rebecca’s comment about the narrowness of perspective really resonates with me. I too wanted that narrowness, and at the same time, I wanted there to be leakage, so that the reader’s vision is wider than the narrator’s. I guess that’s the unreliability that Whiti speaks about. The closeness of the first-person narrator also helps to create the claustrophobic mood that I wanted. But, I do have to say that all of this makes it seem as if I made a conscious choice to go with first person, based on some sort of cost/benefit analysis. There was, in fact none of that. The voice came to me and I followed it.
Paula: What were your influences for this particular book, or things in your orbit while you were working? Reading, music, visual art, a particular event?
Whiti: Because I’ve been working on this novel for so long (ten years is the acceptable lie I tell myself) there have been lots of influences–but a few of the ones that stand out for me are: seeing Fireflies on the Water by Yayoi Kusama and being in that infinity room and feeling like a tiny speck in the void. I also came out of that room wanting to create an experience, one that mesmerised people so much that they needed warning signs about the danger of falling in. Visiting the Wulai district in Taiwan and seeing the mountain ranges that seem to be so tightly stacked together–mountains upon mountains: that is the place I imagined when I wrote about Te Rēinga. Talking with a poet from Norway, Monica Aasprong, while we were writers in residence at Sun Yat-sen university about one of her collections–a book that you opened fully so the leaves make a rayed circle so you can encounter any of the poems. But really, there were so many books and places and people and things that influenced this book–learning how to weave taniko, my baby steps in Te Reo Māori, working on my other books.
Bryan: The most influential event was my three-week residency at the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney, where about a third of the book takes place. Being surrounded by people talking about time was fascinating and motivating—I learned a lot from talking with people, reading books or articles they gave me, or attending student or guest seminars. Even in seminars where I had trouble following the discussion (which was usually), I scrambled to write down as much of the language as I could. And the visit gave me a lot of Sydney texture to add to the book, as well. For part of that visit, my family and I stayed at an apartment of some friends while they were out of town, and the view of the city from their windows made its way into the book, as did several other places we visited.
Gigi: When I think back to the time I was working most intensely on this book, what comes to mind is a small, charmless office. It’s after hours. Everyone has gone home. It’s grey outside and getting dark. The room is overheated and the light is too bright. I feel self-conscious, afraid of getting caught. I need to leave soon. My children will be getting home.
Rebecca: I’m constantly being influenced by things, seeing things and remembering them for later, it’s disgusting. I feel like a pneumatic tube system. One of the real-life things I was influenced by was that I really did see a group of boys playing football in a dusty courtyard, in Barcelona when I was on the hunt for the Claes Oldenburg matchbook sculpture, who is my favourite visual artist. I guess I was a little bit influenced by the Picasso museum on that trip as well, in that I thought it would be funny if my character Xabi had his own small gallery because he hates attention.
I’m influenced by music a lot. I like to give each character their own playlist to keep their vibe consistent. In this book, Greta was influenced by the Frankie Cosmos album Zentropy and the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone album Etiquette. V was influenced by the bands Orange Juice and Love. I think I was also influenced by how hungry I was; someone pointed out that the characters are always talking about how much food costs and how to get free food. I saw a screenshot on my phone the other day of when I had to supply my bank account number to Victoria University to get my advance and the balance was -$945 in cheque and $0.01 in savings, so they were definitely on the money with that one.
Paula: When I ask some writers about the political in their work, they tell me that ‘the political’ is something they avoid, or that they don’t think it applies in any way to their fiction. But I don’t think that’s possible, even if a writer or book is not taking an explicit stand, or trying to make explicit points (heaven forbid). What do you think?
Whiti: I think it is nonsensical to think that you can avoid the political–and if you think you are, then you’re just upholding the status quo. What is the point in creating something if you don’t have anything to say? For me, the very act of deciding to write something and put it in a public space is political–how can it not be?
Bryan: This is an interesting question because there is so much emphasis on the political in literature right now. There is an argument (implicit in this question) that everything is political—that if you’re not aiming for political change, then you are passively making a political choice to support the current paradigm. I acknowledge the truth of the argument. But if that’s what we mean by the political in literature, there isn’t much to discuss: Either we agree all choices are political—active or passive—or we don’t. (It also is not a question exclusive to fiction, as we make the same sorts of political choices, passive or active, when we purchase shoes or go out to eat or take a vacation or choose a neighbourhood.)
The narrower and more interesting aspect of this question to me is whether and to what extent politics should play an explicit role in, or be a motivating force for, a novel—as well as how that might be done and what effect it might have on the reading experience. I’ve enjoyed any number of recent novels with explicit political arguments at their centres—Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet series, Richard Powers’ Bewilderment and The Overstory. The political aspects are inextricable from the power of these books. But there is also a cost for a novel to be so motivated by politics and social statements, even when the authors, like these, are so good. Even as I thoroughly enjoyed those novels, I was always aware of the messaging—was aware an argument was being made; it affected my political or ecological perspective in useful ways, but at times it also created a distance that displaced other pleasures and forms of emotional engagement.
There are benefits and costs to making political issues central to a novel, just as there are benefits and costs to any number of other decisions that get made when writing fiction. Do writers have an obligation to place politics at the centre of their practice? I think about this question a lot. Some say yes, and I respect that stance. But I think to say that political intervention is the only or the overriding value of literature risks impoverishing it.
Gigi: It is hard to imagine a writer who says, ‘I want to publish my work. I want to put words out into the world. But I don’t want them to make a difference.’ As Whiti says, why write if you don’t have something to say? Words change the world. To ignore this is, I think, a political act. So, I agree with Paula when she says that it is impossible to avoid the political.
But why, then, is this question raised? I think perhaps the question is alluding to a fear of being didactic or preachy. The concern is that the writing is so driven by a need to educate that it loses any emotional pull—the displacement and distance that Bryan is talking about. But, in the hands of a good writer, this messaging doesn’t supplant the emotions. Rather, it adds depth and nuance to the characters. I’m about to start reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s End of Days. Her Go Went Gone is, I think, overtly political. And that is why the characters are so nuanced, the story so moving. I suspect that, if we want to change minds, telling people a thing or two is not the way to go. Moving them emotionally might be.
Rebecca: I think that the idea that it’s possible to avoid writing anything ‘political’ stems from the concept of an existence of a neutral person, who’s of a neutral ethnicity, is a neutral age and is exclusively part of neutral communities. To write fiction about characters who fit into this mould is, bewilderingly to me, seen as an apolitical choice, that may be upholding the status quo but not a lot else, and to write about characters who deviate from this is always political and sometimes woke, liberal and hipster as well. Of course, only some writers have access to this perceived world of neutrality and the rest of us just don’t – if we as ‘minority’ writers were to write into this world it would just be seen as a political choice again.
In a novel, for every thing you include you exclude millions more. My perspective is that each novel contains a different set of things and theoretically, if they all came together, they should touch on every kind of human experience, like a neverending shared lunch or a game of Yahtzee with infinite dice. I was just saying last night that I don’t think I would write for publication if I didn’t feel like I had anything different or new to contribute to the pile. Pile isn’t a very nice image, maybe cloud. Although at the same time, as an exhausted person, I would like a turn at being one of the normals and upholding the status quo.
As Māori writers we’re under constant review as to whether the characters we’re adding into the world are good or bad representations of our whole ethnicity. My book has attracted a piece of negative feedback on account of the characters being too middle class to really be Māori, but at the same time I know one of Whiti’s books has a Goodreads review where the reader thought that there were too many books about Māori living in poverty and there should be more books about middle-class Māori like former Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. It’s so boring having to wade through all this sort of stuff before we even get to whether the writing was any good. I should like to have a break and write an apolitical book about a white man who works in copyright law and fears becoming his father, but at the same time fears his son becoming him.
Paula: I’ve been reading the recent Paris Review interview with Jane Gardam and was taken with this thing she said: ‘What I really believe is that there are no minor characters in life or in art. Even the gravediggers in Hamlet—you wonder what their names were, and when you go to check you find you never knew.’
What are your thoughts on this?
Gigi: That quote makes me think of the school drama teacher allocating a bit part to the shy kid with glasses. You know that she wants to help and comfort you. You also know that, actually, you wouldn’t mind getting to play the main role and wear a crown.
Okay, so to actually answer the question: I think it’s no accident that Gardam cites Hamlet on this. Shakespeare’s ‘minor characters’ are so memorable—the messenger knocking on the door in Macbeth, the captain in The Tempest. These characters might have only a few lines, but they are full and rich, and often darkly funny.
I find that fiction students are often looking for the big, grand story—the tortured character in the throes of an impossible dilemma—as if a story cannot be about ordinary people facing the challenges of ordinary lives. I think this points to a misunderstanding of what makes a story. In my darker moments, I fear that it also points to a stunted ability to empathise with others. And emotional superficiality. And lazy thinking.
Whiti: Gigi, your invocation of drama teachers of yore reminds me of a play I was in in high school. I was the ‘main part’ in that I was playing the character the play was named for and I was on stage the entire play, centre back, spotlit and everything. I also spent the entire play (save a few lines here and there) sitting with my head down and arms crossed hugging my knees to my chest. And some of the other players were jealous of that—being on stage for the entire play—because they had ‘bit’ parts. But I was jealous of them—their characters did things, changed what happened on stage and the story. My character was a witness and totally passive.
(Now I need to relate that anecdote to the actual discussion!) I guess how I see it is that it is better to be a ‘minor’ character than a superfluous one—that if a character effects some change then they are vital to the story, even if they only have a line or two.
Bryan: Since Gardam was talking about returning to characters in one of her own novels, I take her to mean that she feels every character in a story has, or should have, the potential to be drawn more fully and to be brought centre-stage. That’s really a great way to think about developing characters—to ask ourselves: Have I provided each character with a thread that I could follow if I chose at some point to return to the world of this narrative and tell it from a different perspective? It is a terrific way to think, too, about teaching character, a reminder of the importance of the empathetic imagination that a writer might cast over every character, however brief their appearance might be.
Rebecca: At university, I also played a character in a play who was onstage the whole time. The premise of the play was that all these different groups of travellers stopped at a kiosk on the side of the Autobahn on their way to their different destinations, and the second half of the play was the same groups stopping at the kiosk on their way back. Upper class opera-goers, a family with teenage girls going to a pop concert, actors on their way to an audition. And I was the old woman who owned the kiosk, sweeping and giving everyone their orders, which I brought myself on the bus from the fish-and-chip shop every night. I was standing on this stage for two hours every night, sweeping and hoping the actors would remember their lines right and didn’t ask me for something I didn’t have under my counter, like five hot dogs. At the end my character won the Lotto.
My writing method is to spend most of the time (years and endless years) developing the characters, for my own enjoyment and as a way to think about things, and the actual manuscript book1.docx, and I hope very soon book2.docx, is a slice out of that invented world which will end up with some characters in it more than others. Like taking a ladle of ambrosia, maybe. So in that way there are no minor characters to me, just characters who feature less from this particular angle. Maybe other writers do other things, but when I read I think a lot about the characters mentioned offhand once. Who’s Mr Bentley, their dad’s frenemy; who’s Jen from the old workplace. What are they all about? One of my favourite critiques of fiction is when people say, no one’s like this, no one does the things these characters do. This book is terrible, no one sends long philosophical emails, no one’s ever reacted this poorly to the news that someone they love is marrying someone else. I think that there are so many people in the world, some of whom are imagining infinitely more people, that surely someone is doing every conceivable act that there is.
Paula: One last question. Is there anything you’d like more (or less) of in contemporary fiction?
Whiti: Oooooh—final question is the most difficult to answer and the easiest to overthink! What is contemporary fiction? I’m not sure! What do I want from it? I don’t really know the answer to that either. I also know that whatever I say there are probably already loads of examples already out in the world—possibly not labelled ‘contemporary’ fiction (again, what does that mean?) but perhaps labelled ‘genre’ fiction.
Paula: Whiti, I just mean fiction being published now by writers who are alive. It can be any genre, including work with historical settings.
Rebecca: I want to see a lot of different things in contemporary fiction. I’m very interested in trends and anticipating what sorts of books might come out next, and also to some extent, what their covers will look like. I want to see what can be done to enliven the realist kitchen sink novel, which I think has been a popular form for a long time in New Zealand. My preference is towards fiction that is zanier on a sentence or scene level, rather than a conceptual one. I can understand weird people but not really weird worlds. I like reading about characters who are generally having a more exciting and interesting time than I am as well, rather than a worse one. When I read I want to be challenged to think about the world and human nature but I don’t want to feel incredibly shit. I get enough of that from reading the news.
I don’t know, I want to see ambitious books and riskier ideas, but at the same time I understand why this isn’t happening so much–everyone is so limited with time and money and having to do all these other things to sustain their lives that I feel like books end up being what someone can reasonably produce in a year rather than something extravagant. And I think that readers can take an algorithmic view of books they read because of the nature of social media and stuff, feeling like we should read books other people are posting about and ones with high ratings in order to feel productive, and then judging the books on whether they live up to the hype, or if the writer is showing enough range and progress across their career, like deciding who should deserve to win a reality competition.
I want to be surprised and excited more than I want to read something that navigates a social issue appropriately or is perfect in technical form. I want to see something weird that works. And on a personal note I want more books set in specific New Zealand cities so that I can keep doing that without shocking any readers.
Bryan: More readers!
Gigi: First of all, I have to echo Bryan’s view. More readers!
I recently went into Unity Books looking for a gift. I gave the woman an eccentric set of criteria. I intended adding, ‘I don’t expect your recommendation to meet all of those criteria. Just one or two would be great.’ The bookseller was off and running before I could get those words out. And back with Gideon the Ninth by New Zealand writer Tamsyn Muir. ‘Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!’ declared the blurb. There might as well have been a mic drop.
The person I gave the book to loved it—not because it ticked all of the boxes. The box-ticking might have made her open the book. But once it was opened, the writing had to do its job. It had to entertain that reader. It had to speak to the longings that reader had. It had to allow her to enter a dream. Because not one of us can say that we know what it is to be a lesbian necromancer exploring a gothic palace in space.
'...we were there as faith-based writers, as believers in the mana of Oceania...' - David Eggleton