The Immersion Method

For as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned to travel and to seek out the unknown. I was a curious child and felt most alive immersed in books, writing fictional fragments, daydreaming about far-off places, or lost in imaginative outdoor play.

Family responsibilities and financial constraints prevented me from taking up artistic pursuits, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I embarked on half a dozen solo journeys to countries such as Canada, England and Ireland. With only myself to rely on, I tested my capacity to flourish in unfamiliar circumstances and, far from New Zealand, to reflect on what I wanted to achieve in the last third of my life.

Besides working full-time as a tertiary educator, I wrote short stories, though I hadn’t the courage to show them to anyone: I didn’t want to discover I lacked the necessary skills to become a writer. In time, the compulsion to write outweighed the fear of failure, and in 1995 I attended a five-day short fiction course at a Creative Writing Summer School at the University of Otago. There I found like-minded people and a supportive tutor who encouraged me to submit a story to National Radio. To my surprise, it was accepted and broadcast a few months later. My fiction-writing career was underway.

Over the next decade, I had further stories broadcast on National Radio, others published in the NZ Listener, and several appeared in anthologies like Best New Zealand Fiction (Random House 2006). A few won or were shortlisted in national and international competitions. These contributed to my first collection Live News and Other Stories (Steele Roberts 2005). Before this publication, I had co-authored Learning through Reflective Storytelling in Higher Education (Dunmore Press 2002; RoutledgeFalmer 2003), recognised internationally as the first academic text to connect learning with reflective storytelling. Encouraged by these achievements, I felt ready to write a novel.

I soon discovered research for a novel demanded a different approach than research for academic purposes. For starters, ethical approval wasn’t required. Without theories, discipline-based literature or educational research etiquette to restrict me, I could decide what to read and which themes to explore in depth. I felt energised by the freedom of ‘making things up’.

Before I began writing my debut novel Ribbons of Grace (Penguin 2007) I entered an ‘immersive reading’ research stage. For close to a year, I devoured novels, memoirs, newspaper articles, history texts and diaries with the themes of racial tension, alienation, cultural differences, opium trading and gold mining. Rather than take notes, I soaked up impressions. This reading took me from the Otago goldfields to distant Scottish islands, from Windows to a Chinese Past by James Ng to George Mackay Brown’s Orkney memoir For the Islands I Sing, from accounts of fundraising balls for the District Hospital in The Arrow Observer to a PhD thesis by Neville Ritchie on 19th century Chinese archaeology and history in the South Island.


Stromness, Orkney. Photo by stevekeiretsu on / CC BY-NC


The ‘immersive travelling’ phase for this novel involved a solo trip to Orkney, the birthplace of the main male character. To get there I took a train from Edinburgh to Inverness where I boarded a bus to John o’ Groats. I crossed the Pentland Firth by boat, docking at Stromness, a small town on the almost treeless Mainland where George Mackay Brown – memoirist, poet, and newspaper columnist – spent most of his life.

At the height of summer this far north, there is almost perpetual daylight, so I spent much of my four-day stay talking with locals and exploring the countryside. I left the island with a stronger sense of the history, culture, language and people than I had gained through my immersive reading, and felt better equipped to create a convincing Orcadian male character.

Conversations with a Chinese friend about the customs and culture of persons from the Pearl River Delta brought into being a young female Cantonese character living among opium pirates, a lucrative and hazardous trade. Women during that period were forbidden to travel, so I disguised Ming Yuet as a man to give her the anonymity she needed to travel safely to the Otago goldfields.


A Chinese hut in Arrowtown, New Zealand. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


Travel is only one means of gathering information, and I pursued another option with my second novel, Lives We Leave Behind (Penguin 2012; Editions Prisma France, 2013). The novel was written as the creative component of a PhD, alongside a thesis called Memoirs of First World War Nurses: Making Meaning of Traumatic Experiences. I reduced my work hours so I could fly every six weeks to Wellington for supervision with Bill Manhire, and workshops with other PhD students. My work on the novel benefitted from thoughtful feedback – which led to including short male monologues between each chapter, for example – and useful, often unexpected reading recommendations.

In 2013 I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Residency, and given a six-week writing retreat alone in Waterfall Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. My proposal had been to work on a second short fiction collection. If I make a commitment, I like to stick to it. However, in the residency house I was intrigued by the black-and-white photographs hanging on the walls, taken in New Zealand in the 50s. In one, a boy stood behind a younger girl teaching her to shoot an arrow from a bow. The expressions on the faces of the children suggested to me a degree of vulnerability, a need to arm themselves.


Waterfall Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


On my third morning at Waterfall Bay I woke with a cast of characters living on the Vomero in Naples, a 1950s-1960s time-period and storylines for a new novel. I stopped working on a short story and began a novel-writing frenzy. One night a violent storm felled trees on the property and blew open a locked door downstairs. Another night, aftershocks from a Seddon earthquake jolted my castor-wheeled bed back and forth across the wooden floor. Both events drew my embryonic storylines down sinister alleyways.

That year I retired from my tenured tertiary position to concentrate on the novel, The Gulf Between (Penguin Random House 2019). Although I retained an academic mentoring role at work, for most of the year I could focus on writing. Bliss. Or so I thought. Settling into a productive new writing pattern took longer than I’d anticipated. More free time did not equal more words on the page. Immersive reading for pleasure had the stronger pull. Gradually, though, I established a consistent writing rhythm: six hours a day during the week, usually mornings through to early afternoon. My evening reading included books relevant to my project: Moravia by Alberto Moravia; An Italian Journey by Jean Giono; Woman Like Me by Curzio Malaparte; Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante; In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples by Jordan Lancaster; and Fascist Italy by Chris Hinton & John Hite. Onto the wall in my writing den I pinned a detailed street map of Naples and a topographic map of the region of Campania.

Until my stay at Waterfall Bay, I had never intended writing a novel set in Naples, despite a twenty-three-year marriage to a man born and raised in the region. Nor had I accompanied my late former husband to visit his relatives. The reason was the promise my parents extracted from him before they gave us permission to marry: under no circumstances was he to take me, or any children we had, to Continental Europe. I was a seventeen-year-old bride and my husband a decade older, so my parents’ motives were understandable. They wanted to ensure that if the marriage floundered they were nearby to give me support.

I had forgotten all about this until, midway through a chapter of The Gulf Between, a similar scenario appeared on the page. I began to reflect on the complexities inherent in forgetting and remembering, and the notion that solitude, paired with creative receptivity, can resurrect aspects of the past. I also wondered about the consequences if my husband had not honored this agreement. Before long, I was considering what would happen if the fictional husband of my female protagonist made the same promise to her parents, and how their story might unfold if for some reason that promise wasn’t kept.


Naples waterfront. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


A month after returning home from my residency I listened to a Writers & Company podcast in which Eleanor Wachtel interviews novelist Shirley Hazzard. As a young woman, Hazzard lived and worked in Naples for a year. Later she and her husband Francis Steegmuller owned a holiday home on Capri. After Steegmuller died, Hazzard maintained her ties with the island and made regular ferry trips to Naples. In the interview, Hazzard talked of sinking into despair when an earlier love affair had ended, saying: ‘It is incompleteness that haunts us.’

The phrase resonated with me. One of the reasons I write is to bring to completion in fiction what is left unfinished or unresolved in my life, though always through an imaginative lens and drawing on emotional memory rather than recounting direct experience. I felt compelled to continue working on the manuscript, yet the writing felt tentative, the characters detached, and the language flat and turgid. I wondered if I was trying too hard to distance myself from the text and set the manuscript aside, but the characters populated my dreams. Each morning I jotted down what I could recall of their mannerisms and comments, hoping these details would lift them into the realm of thinking, feeling characters with complex histories and perspectives.

In due course, I started writing again. After ten gruelling months, I had produced 90,000 words but I was too close to gauge their worth. It was time to bring this rough draft into the light. Harriet Allen, fiction publisher at Penguin Random House, made invaluable suggestions to improve the pace. She also proposed a structure that overcame the issue of multiple flashbacks interrupting the narrative flow. Three generous friends from a writing group I have belonged to for over twenty-five years also gave me feedback. One, a novelist skilled at suspenseful writing, encouraged me to ramp up the disturbing elements. Another recommended that I write a version entirely for myself, a tactic that allowed me to stop censoring the work and to cease worrying that a reader might take the author for the first-person narrator. The third friend addressed my tendency to overwrite and indicated where I could pull back. Other members of the group made useful comments on sections and chapters.

Somewhere in the reworking of the manuscript, I lost the fear of revealing aspects of my own life, as all writers do when we expose our preoccupations though the recurring themes in our work, and began to write freely, developing and deepening the storylines. Even so, multiple drafts later, I remained dissatisfied with my main characters. When I read Elena Ferrante’s superb Neapolitan quartet, I grew uneasy, since I was writing about Naples as an outsider.

To calm my nerves I entered a second immersive reading phase, delving into Ferrante’s other books and those of Anna Maria Ortese, Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Curzio Malaparte, Antonio Tabucchi, Rosetta Loy, Paola Capriolo, Marina Mizzau, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. I also read the works of outsiders such as Norman Lewis, David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, Jess Walter and Dianne Hales.

These writers’ observations of Italians from the south reassured me, although for months I lacked the confidence to write. Looking back, I think due to my association through marriage I wanted the story to feel authentic to Neapolitans as well as to outsiders. I also wanted to better understand the impact of the war on my late husband who was born in 1939. During the occupation of Naples, citizens suffered relentless bombings and gnawing hunger. Orphaned children fended for themselves in the rubble. Retreating soldiers tossed sticks of dynamite into sewage and water systems; citizens died of treatable conditions because basic medicines were unavailable, and Resistance members were hanged in public squares for their involvement in the September 1943 uprising against German forces.


Maxine’s hotel in Chiaia. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


In May 2017 I set off for Naples, somewhat apprehensive after my reading about endemic crime and corruption, pickpockets plaguing tourists, and the strong presence of the Camorra. A writer’s imagination can easily inflate the dangers of five weeks in Italy.

I flew into Milan and taxied to an inner-city hotel where I met an Irish friend; this time I did not want to travel solo. She and I bused north to the lakes, then headed through Tuscany and Umbria down to Campania and its capital, Naples.

In many neighbourhoods of this city, wealth and poverty rub shoulders. Most have congested streets and pavements, elevated noise levels, traffic snarl-ups, flirting to the extreme, lots of chatter and laughter, and, in central sites, bollarded squares and a significant police presence. A short distance from our hotel in Chiaia, throngs of unemployed local youths shared pavements with North African migrants touting spinners along the waterfront.

On the second day, we joined a walking tour through historical sections of the metropolis. When it ended, I asked Monica, the pleasant young guide, if she was available to accompany us to places featured in a novel I was working on. She agreed and off we set. After a while, given the distances between key locations in The Gulf Between and the prospect of an uphill trek in the heat, Monica approached a taxi driver and haggled over a price.


San Guiseppe, Naples. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


Salvatore turned out to be an asset, inserting himself into the novel with Neapolitan zeal. On our way up to the Vomero, a leafy residential district, as we conversed in gestures, Italian, English and Neapolitan, and Salvatore jammed on his brakes whenever he spotted a photo opportunity, I looked for the best spot to place the villa of my fictional family. None of my suggestions appealed to Salvatore, who took it upon himself to decide where the Morettis would live. He settled on a street that in the past had expensive villas on both sides, with spectacular views of the Gulf of Naples. In recent years, the villas had been replaced by apartment buildings. From there, we traced the route Julia and Ben Moretti would take to Floridiana Park where a significant scene unfolds. We had a lively discussion about which of the two entrances the couple was likely to use.

Once the decision had been made we hurtled down a crowded, narrow and winding street towards Posillipo. Based on my background reading I assumed that a fictional fisherman would live in this residential quarter where the city meets the gulf’s northern arm. Salvatore disagreed and proposed the poorer St Lucia as the authentic option, demonstrating again the value of local knowledge.

Monica and Salvatore’s affable company and familiarity with the city enriched my novel research. Their insider perspectives also proved valuable when I viewed the austere buildings from the Fascist era alongside the ornate architecture from ancient times. As Monica had remarked during the walking tour: ‘Everywhere you go in Naples there is Roman and Greek history beneath your feet.’ Above ground, there remained ample evidence of Mussolini’s rule.

Late afternoon I learned Salvatore had two football-mad young boys who, like Julia and Ben’s son in The Gulf Between, played at junior level for a local team. As Salvatore answered questions about the game, his enthusiasm for the novel — set in his birthplace and featuring his favourite sport — grew. When he and Monica dropped us back at our hotel, Salvatore emerged from the taxi, took my hands in his and pleaded for a cameo role. I agreed, although it meant rewriting a chapter and creating additional spaces for him to appear in the story.

On subsequent days, Monica directed questions outside her experience and knowledge to her Nonna who had lived in Naples all her life. Another family member provided useful information about schooling in the early 1960s. Monica also supplied me with Neapolitan phrases such as Si pazz – you’re crazy – to weave through the book.


Positano, Amalfi Coast. Photo credit Maxine Alterio.


Another morning, as a local bus driver maneuvered his vehicle around a tight bend on the chaotic Amalfi Coast road, I spotted an ideal place to set a distressing incident. Photos that passengers on the bus took of Positano and airdropped to me provided the necessary details for another chapter. When we explored on foot the southern side of the Gulf, impressions gleaned from books were overlaid by the more vibrant reality.

To date, The Gulf Between has been my most challenging novel to write, but personally the most rewarding. Combining fiction writing with immersive reading and immersive travelling enabled me to better appreciate and understand — as much as an outsider can — the impact in the south of the rise of Fascism from the early 1920s on, and the traumatic legacies of World War II on civilians, including my late former husband and his relatives. Gaining these insights allowed me to bridge the gap between what I knew and what remained unknown.

Back home, I drew on my first-hand experiences in Italy to create multi-dimensional characters. Visiting the streets where my fictional family walked, admiring the same sights, going to the same places, smelling calzone fritto, and mixing with a cross-section of Neapolitans enabled me to go deeper into the psyches of my characters. A last creative push and they finally appeared fully formed on the page. The story ceased to be mine. It was theirs.



Maxine Alterio is a novelist, short fiction writer and academic mentor who has published three novels: Ribbons of GraceLives We Leave Behind and most recently The Gulf Between.






Header Photo by photomontuoro on / CC BY-NC-SA

'NZ literature is such a vast and varied thing' - Pip Adam

Read more