Writers’ Round Table | 2020
This year’s finalists for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction are four novelists: Becky Manawatu (Auē), Owen Marshall (Pearly Gates), Carl Shuker (A Mistake) and David Vann (Halibut on the Moon). The writers talked via Google doc – from locations in Wellington, Otago, the west coast of the South Island and the west coast of the US – between 15 April and 3 May. With occasional questions from Paula Morris.
Paula: This year’s Ockham NZ Book Awards will be a virtual ceremony, broadcast via YouTube at 7 PM (New Zealand time) on 12 May. Not the same as an in-person celebration, but a necessary measure in these strange times. How have you all been spending and dealing with the COVID19 lockdown?
David: I’ve been building my aluminium sailing trimaran in Napa California (wine country) ten or twelve hours per day, so it’s actually been a good way to get through the virus, no time to think about it.
Owen: Lockdown should be no problem for writers — right? Lots of time to write and no interruptions? In fact, I’ve found it very unsettling for a raft of reasons. One is that we shifted house the day before lockdown and now find ourselves in a smaller place with the accumulated possessions of 34 years in the previous house, and no means of selling, donating or dumping any of it. And no technicians available to set up various connections. However, I do have email, and realise my inconveniences are trivial in relation to the difficulties faced by many. I hope you are all coping well.
Becky: Going into lockdown felt very surreal. So much unknown. We have two children and one is a teenager. He’s not over the moon, but our youngest is really relaxed and enjoying all the whanau time. Me and the teen have a deal though; we have to stick with doing this hour-and-a-half loop mountain walk together three times per week. (It’s walking distance from our house, no driving.)
That’s been cool. We chat heaps. We got into a yarn about books the other day, because it concerns me that he doesn’t love, love, love reading, lol, and he started going on and on about how the best books have animals in them. And if they have an animal on the cover, it’s a winner, and by the way he once read a book which had a moose, wolf, bear, I think a mountain lion and a badger. Best book ever, he said. People are so boring, he said. I was in hysterics. Guess you had to be there, but it was funny. It was like a weird motivational TedTalk.
Does the extra time mean you are writing then, Owen? I suppose you don’t really have time if you’ve moved so recently — with all the unpacking.
Owen: I like animals in books too. When rather younger than Becky’s son I loved The Wind In the Willows, partly perhaps because of my father’s enthusiasm for it. Oddly, neither of our daughters, although avid readers, took to it. Fashions and tastes do change, and English whimsy is perhaps too tame for a modern generation. As to my own writing at present — although finding concentration difficult as I mentioned — I have returned to short fiction after several novels. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from Creative New Zealand, which enabled me to make that decision. I find it invigorating to move from one genre to another and look forward to the challenges of the short story after time with longer forms of fiction, and poetry. I envy Becky her mountain walk!
Carl: Lockdown for me is with a two year old and an eight year old, and a nearly fulltime job. The usual parental whingeing I know, but it is REAL. When I’m not with kids or working, I am finding immense satisfaction and peace — as I do with writing — in banging nails into stuff. But, under lockdown rules, I’m fast running out of nails.
Paula: May I pick up on something Owen has said, about changing fashions and tastes re children’s lit? Do you think the same is true for adult lit? Is there a novel you’ve read and loved that you don’t think stands the test of time — or you still love, but is a hard sell to others? I persuaded some of my students in Scotland to read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and none of them found it funny at all.
Becky: I think for me that’s easily related to film (for me because my kids simply won’t read anything I request them to read), eh. Often, I’ll show my kids a film like The Wizard of Oz expecting them to love it, and they don’t as much as you want them to. I feel like fiction is far more robust, in that sense. It ages better.
Thanks Owen, I admit we are very lucky to be able to walk to either the beach or mountain. Missing friends and family a lot, though.
David: I like hearing about the walks and family time and writing time. I find I’m really missing my house in NZ now and regretting selling, because it would have been perfect for this time, sitting in the spa pool to watch the sunset in one direction over the hills and seeing ocean and islands the other direction, going for a run before that on the beach each evening, often going out sailing or hiking or mountain biking in the hills. But I was no longer married and was alone there, so that would have made this time hard, not as free to go see friends. I don’t have kids, so I’m not experiencing the family time boost, but it sounds potentially great, and I wonder if it will be enduring and an unexpected positive effect of the virus.
In California, it’s a shelter in place but not enforced. It’s still possible to drive anywhere and see anyone, but restaurants are takeaway only. Today I noticed a big change here in the boatyard. Several groups of people had parties on their boats, just hanging out together and fixing food together, not social distancing, and one of them said the virus was over. But, of course, the virus is not over. They just want it to be over. I wonder if that mindset is going to be widespread and cause more spreading in the coming month.
Carl: It’s fascinating hearing US details. It’s like the virus targets everything that makes the contemporary US tick. In suburban capital-city New Zealand the birds are back, even deafening. I think about wasps, I think about concrete. I have friends and colleagues who have spent weeks prepping, extending the ICUs, building airlocks. But it’s all eerily quiet.
I so love Lucky Jim and smile right now at the thought of picking it up again, but I get how contemporary audiences might not get it at all. I quote Kingsley to my eight-year-old sometimes, as an example of childish adults and childishness generally: ‘I want more than my share and I want it before anybody else’ for example. Ha ha, don’t be like that naughty man, etc. Still funny, but some of that situational stuff about class and sex just won’t fly anymore. Just zero wings for charming man-children.
And that applies even more so to his later stuff and a LOT of his son’s output. There’s something in the accomplishment (because we shouldn’t doubt that accomplishment in a lot of cases) but coupled with a sense of Look At Me, Being Accomplished, And I Have A Right To You Looking At Me, Because I Am So Accomplished — something grating to younger eyes, I think. There’s something in the tone that doesn’t work anymore, despite the line-by-line brilliance.
I’m thinking particularly of that Amis Senior transcription of a drunken sentence Amis Junior so liked: ‘June I haggle unction.’ Meaning, likely, ‘Julian and I had a luncheon.’ So, yes, that’s brilliant. That’s true slurring. That’s actually perfect. But still there’s this problem of someone ‘having a luncheon’ at all, and being a drunk young man telling a young woman this. It must be hard, as a young reader/writer, to see the good and learn from it when your spine so strongly responds to tone over technique.
Paula: You’re all recording your Ockhams readings via laptops or phones at the moment, for broadcast on our YouTube channel. How does this differ from ‘live’ readings for you? Do you prefer it? Anyone thinking of starting their own podcast series?
Owen: I too loved Lucky Jim. I first read it as a seventh former and used to pull the `sex rites in ancient Egypt’ face and others, but it has dated in several ways as Carl says. It has a pervasive sort of arrogance when read now, although still clever. As to the Ockham readings — I’m clumsy with anything involving IT and much prefer traditional face-to-face communication.
David: Yes, I prefer a live audience to interact with during a reading, and in fact, I like the French model of not giving a reading at all but just having a discussion for an hour and a half. I write my books and then go to France to find out what they’re about. The booksellers there have always read all my books and thought about the connections and ask me things I’ve never been asked before. They make me see as if I’m a reader coming to them for the first time.
What makes France the best country for books by far out of the 30 I’ve visited on book tours is having these independent booksellers in every neighbourhood. Like having a Unity Books in really every part of every town. Imagine that. The US is a desert by comparison, and there’s not much in the Far North either. I struggled to find any book culture in the Far North and gave only one reading there many years ago.
I do have to say that James [from Lotech Media, who provided technical support] made the video recording really easy and pleasant, which I appreciated as a techno dimwit. I did teach courses online long ago in creative writing, and I was surprised that they were better than in-person classes because written responses were so much more thoughtful than verbal ones.
Carl: I haven’t done a lot of festival-type reading until this book, but giving a reading online is both less nervy and less rewarding — there is zero verbal or non-verbal feedback to suggest if you connected or not, if you pulled it off. It’s a mirror reading, really. Some authors are really good at it, but there’s something about the Internet going on — for the author there’s a ton of risk but no confirmation either way, and for the audience there’s a ton of power and no risk. The weight of judgment and exposure is completely skewed and different.
That being said, live readings are a new thing to me — reading has always been an engagement between me and an author in a silence, a heavily engaged and crackling peace. The public aspect of this is still new to me. Though I get the appeal (there’s nothing like hearing Antony Beevor talk in person), and I think I’m getting better at public stuff, it’s still strange.
Becky: One thing I am consistent on is behaving embarrassingly — whether I arrive at an online platform or in person — until I settle in. Read above, with my animal chat, awesome lol! I was fully being silly. I have an overwhelming sense of not belonging, something all we writers live with, don’t we? Or us humans often, eh? I’m not unique for this, I know.
When I was at the Wellington Verb and Nelson Arts festivals, I enjoyed very much hearing the other discussions; virtual doesn’t quite cut it. In Nelson I could clearly see the people in the room, and I enjoyed that, it helped me relax. In Wellington the lights were bright on the stage and so I could not see people’s faces. At first I struggled, but I could still sense the people in the room — they laughed, breathed etc, there was energy there. My first radio interview was a struggle not being able to see the person, but again, I relaxed in the end.
I enjoyed reading the extract of my book in the comfort of my home, and like David said, James did a great job, made it feel a bit fun. My family giggling at me in the background also helped. I’ll never do a podcast series; I detest the sound of my voice.
Paula: May we talk about the private element of writing — that is, writing a book itself, before anything is revealed to another reader, or published? Would you each talk a little about the seeds of the story (for your nominated novel)?
David: I wrote about the genesis of Halibut on the Moon in an author’s note:
Why write about my father again twenty years after Legend of a Suicide? I learned something new from my stepmother. The last time she saw my father, in a hotel in California, he brought his loaded .44 magnum pistol into the room in his toiletries bag. The moment she saw it, she knew it was for her.
Less than a year earlier, my stepmother had lost her parents to a murder/suicide, her father killed by her mother with a shotgun before she killed herself with a pistol. My father seemed to have a similar plan, to take someone with him.
In the end, my father killed only himself, alone in Fairbanks, Alaska, but I kept thinking of this loaded pistol in the hotel room. In the more than thirty-five years since his death, it had never occurred to me, this possibility of him killing someone else first. I wrote a nonfiction book, Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, about someone who killed five and wounded many others as part of his suicide, but I had never imagined my father capable of this.
And there was another disturbing thing. Everyone feels guilty after a suicide, and this is true throughout the world, as I know now from book tours and interviews in thirty countries. Whether you’re in China, Turkey, Norway, or the US, if someone close to you dies by suicide you will feel the same things everyone else does, including a very long period of guilt, surpassed in length only by your rage. The guilt will focus on what you could have done differently that might have made a difference. My father asked me to spend a year in Alaska with him and I said no, then he killed himself after. It’s an unfair guilt, because life is messy and we all could have done things differently. Survivors need to know it was not their fault; it was the suicide’s choice.
But after thirty-five years, I had a shift. I knew that he would have stayed alive longer, at least, if I had said yes to spending that year with him. It’s not my fault, but my decision had an effect. I feel most sorry for my uncle, Doug, who suffered for a long time afterward because he was supposed to accompany my father from California to Alaska and not leave him alone. My father talked him out of it at the airport, convincing Doug he was fine.
So Halibut on the Moon was born of two things: the unsettling new idea that he might have considered taking some or one of us with him, and a new desire to consider how we each failed him in the end — a final stage, I hope, of four decades of guilt.
I use some of our real names here, and the real places, but every scene is imagined, and I’ve found that I’ve lost him, finally, that the Jim here is not my father and I can no longer summon him. But this is the essence of suicide bereavement, to forever continue this conversation with no one. The novel, like his suicide, is not a choice. It is only a momentum.
Owen: Most of my work is concerned with the scrutiny and delineation of character, and Pearly Gates is no exception. People are the most important element in our lives, especially ourselves, and so it’s no surprise that readers come to books programmed to search for character: a considerable advantage for fiction writers in particular. I hope to move from stereotypes to stress the complexity of personality even in ordinary people and the moral issues faced by us all in the business of living.
Pearly is made to realise his own failings and the effects on others of his selfish decisions. His journey is a moral one and the destination ambiguous. The novel has no car chases, no unmasking of international espionage, no melodrama, just the traverse of ordinary life with its mundane surface and mysterious depth. My other main intention, I suppose, is to depict the lifestyle and setting of provincial New Zealand, particular those of the lower South Island. I wished it to be done realistically and from the inside, but also with a degree of benevolence.
Settings are important to me in my own reading, and I try to achieve authenticity in my writing: to show where my characters are as well as who they are. Landscapes and cityscapes affect the people who live there, and people in turn affect their environment, both physical and cultural. So character and setting are themes for me, but I’m aware that what readers take from the novel may be very different from my intentions. And that’s okay.
Thank you, David, for your candid and excellent comment on your own book. I was moved and impressed.
David: Thank you, Owen. I like what you say about landscapes affecting people. In all my novels I’ve really focused on describing the place as a kind of Rorschach test to reveal the inside life of the character. Your book sounds great. I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as I finish this boat. Twelve-hour days still, but done within a month, I hope.
Carl: Many people may not be aware of this, but my parents lived right beside Owen’s house in Timaru for many years. I wasn’t living at home — I was in my twenties, struggling towards some idea of becoming a writer, finishing a manuscript of a novel (The Lazy Boys) sending it out to initial interest and ultimate blanket rejection. I visited you once, Owen, do you remember? With Anna, on a holiday back from Japan. Everything you said went straight into my head without a ripple. You were interested in Japan and you spoke about keeping a writer’s journal there. I have done that at times in my life, but that advice has sown a seed of guilt and a niggling sense of my unseriousness I’ve assuaged with complaints of busyness ever since.
I used to read stories from When Gravity Snaps when I came home, knowing you were there, just twenty meters or so away. My particular favourite at the time was ‘Diseases of the Strong’ — a brilliant story of NZ masculinity where a brilliant man returns from a brilliant career overseas, crippled by depression, and he reaches out to the Nick Carraway-esque narrator for help. It was desperately moving, moving in that way when you know a place and its people, and you know how hard it is or would be for someone from that milieu to reach out in that way.
I also loved ‘A Poet’s Dream of Amazons’ — the poet of the title has a father who loves only rugby and associated NZ tropes, and the son takes great delight in knowing the details of every team in the provincial league and every score, and torturing his boorish father with the details his father knows he doesn’t care at all about. All this was so perfectly right for the Timaru, Christchurch, Oamaru of the time, where time moves more slowly and Owen’s eighties remained essentially completely germane in the 2000s.
The seeds of A Mistake were, for me, those of failure, what it feels like and what happens in the time afterward. The quiet of failure. I was — and still am — very interested in the way our health services, with their centuries-old legacies of paternalism and class, feel only a recent push or need to be transparent around how well they actually perform. I’m interested in the surrender we so willingly undergo when we confront a doctor, and the effects of that system on the mentality of (some) doctors.
All this is fairly straightforward but I got really interested in the idea when I decided my lead surgeon character would be an extremely high-performing woman in a very masculinist, macho milieu like medicine, and surgery in particular. What would happen to a woman who had submerged herself in her work, sacrificed so much to be elite, and then be told by publicly available data she was not as good as she thought she was, despite all she had done to succeed? This too was fairly straightforward conceptually, but I got I hope somewhere deeper when the titular mistake — as these things do — had more complex origins or root causes, if there are such things — than one individual’s actions.
Working this out over a really super-short frame, as compact as I could make it, and as economical as I could make it, was the good challenge. I struggled with the voice, coming off a novel set among highly literate employees of a medical journal. I hadn’t written New Zealand in a long time and when I had it had been feverish, multi-claused, big long paragraphs, set among witty, catty boys, mostly. Then I happened across a Taumarunui singer named Sarah Mary Chadwick, and her song ‘Yunno What’ on the radio. Driving. Her accent was more Bridges than Bridges, her delivery slow, almost excruciatingly awkward. The song is like seven minutes long and it builds from this stilted awkwardness into total transcendent beauty and that was when I knew what the voice was. Monosyllables in the dialogue, strip it all back.
This was how people intimate with one another would speak. And then it all began to sing for me.
David: Wow, such a small world! And beautiful description, Carl. I love it.
Becky: Yes, beautiful alright!
Owen: Yes, Carl, I do indeed recall that meeting. Long ago now, but through Alan and Dawn, our good neighbours for many years, we have been able to follow your successful writing career. South Canterbury is pleased to claim you! Interesting that you say failure is at the heart of your novel. Often, I find more fascination in how an individual copes with failure than with success: perhaps it’s a greater test. Failure tends to strip away pretension and falsity.
Do any others of you share an odd sense of distancing when discussing our writing in this way, when there is such upheaval in the world around us?
David: I agree that the virus has taken over all. The biggest disruption since World War II and biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. It’s hard to get my head around it. We had to take measures to be safe, but those measures are destroying us in an historic way.
Becky: Yes, so odd, Owen. Feels like a lull, the calm, before some very challenging times ahead. (I loved reading the whakawhanaungatanga between Carl and Owen, by the way!)
David, ka aroha koe. I am sorry for you. But I am happy for you that you were able to transmute the loss . . . into something special.
Owen, I liked what you said about it being okay for the reader to take something from the book you didn’t intend to offer — have you always been okay with that? Or does that come with experience? Carl and David, too — how do you deal with this knowledge?
Honestly that’s been difficult for me. Just briefly on my own ‘seed’ — it is mostly desire. Desire to say something. Arundhati Roy sums it up, I think: ‘Fiction is my great love and my first love. The novel to me is the church for writing. It is the most beautiful, complicated, complex way of saying something.’
Like Roy, possibly like you guys too, fiction is my great love and first love. Narrative soothes me. Pieces of plot are pills. Addictive pills. Once you find one pill and you pop that, you wander about high until you need to get searching for the next and the next and the next. Maybe that’s why plot gets a bad rap sometimes, but I like it. Actually, I love it.
And then there is this mana-enhancing privilege of being able to express something. You start out with the seed of wanting to say something, and when you discover you also just might be saying something then, that’s good.
David: Becky, it’s cool to read your thoughts on plot. I never think of it or focus on it, but I like what you say here. And regarding readers, I didn’t have them for 22 years, so I still don’t really think about them. But I love meeting them at festivals and bookstore events and hearing how they’ve connected their lives in some way with one of my books. That’s often been illuminating. I found out, for instance, that suicide bereavement has the same stages and timing around the world. Whether someone is in Turkey or Norway or New Zealand, they experience similar guilt, anger, etc. We’re less different culturally than I had expected. So meeting readers provides insights and context like that.
Becky: Yeah, I don’t think of plot either, really. While writing, at least, the characters are leading the way — that’s just the label it’s given ‘outside’ the experience, I guess. But I mean when you stumble on bits of plot, it’s addictive, eh. I think that’s what I think.
Owen: What a poetic writer Roy is. A great line given from Becky about the novel as the church for writing. Character is the focus for me when writing, but I suppose from the relationships among characters a plot tends to naturally arise. I don’t write for any particular readership, but hope that what concerns and interests me at the time will have relevance for others.
Carl: I remember someone powerful telling me when I was really young that ‘plot has to be more than a series of things happening’ and that haunting me through my first novel. ‘Oh God, my plot is just a series of things happening,’ etc.
I remember dissecting a novel I loved — a brilliant if a little derivative piece of minimalist fiction that affected me deeply — ‘til I understood how it worked like it did. Even if it seemed totally static and tableauish — this happens, then this happens, and it’s all pretty meaningless in the specific details — still, it steadily led toward a place of total darkness, then rose from that (or didn’t — maybe the character carried the darkness away with it). From that I realised something about the mechanics of plot in ‘lit fic’ (if that’s what we’re doing) being based on characters’ responses and changes (or lack of them) in relation to events and choices. Not necessarily on delivering dopamine charges to readers’ brains with development. I.e., some of us at, least, are interested in the revelation and evolution of character in response to change.
In A Mistake I was definitely interested in different pacings of stressor events or powerfully agential actions and lull times afterwards, how things feel to read after major actions. I was stronger, I think, in terms of understanding a reader’s brain absorbing big change and reading on while still absorbing and considering a complex event. The process of composition is so slow that keeping track of a responsive reading brain’s reaction to a fictional event can be really distorted. I got really interested in the power of minutiae.
I got interested in — and I realised that I think a lot of us are interested in — the tiny things people do in a day not necessarily solely as some revelation of their character but as a revelation of their character in response to an event or action and a downtime for understanding and reader computation. So I try to have my cake and eat it at least in this book. Event, then a lull, leading to more or less unpredictable development. I guess this is pretty conventional but for me at least this book didn’t want to be avant-garde in any particular way, and I had no drive or desire for anything meta anymore. I guess that comes down to the contemporary moment.
At least for me, I don’t really think we need reminding we’re reading anymore.
Owen: Interesting, Carl. Yes, plot can be dismissed as merely a mechanical construction that requires less `artistic’ talent than other aspects of a work, but a convincing, authentic and uncontrived plot is a powerful vehicle for issues and character. I think plot is especially useful in the longer form of the novel to contain and give momentum to a full body of words. Some short stories are highly plotted, but because of their intent and brevity others hold attention without one and are over before the absence detracts. The Irish master William Trevor said, `Although a story need not have a plot, it must have a point.’
Carl: That’s beautifully put. ‘Over before the absence detracts.’
David: I agree about not needing meta or being reminded that we’re reading. And what I find interesting is to see that something written with no plan or outline ends up having events and lulls and such and a tremendous amount of pattern even if not understood while writing, and that all of it fits what a reader will expect and want even if the author hasn’t thought of readers at all, simply because we’re still living and writing Greek tragedy whether we like it or not, part of the tradition.
Even something which is not tragedy uses all the patterns of tragedy. Romantic comedy, for instance, is built on the time during which the lovers are separated. I think the reason writing programs in the US are so against plot and thinking of plot or talking about plot is because plot is often the attempt to consciously control a story, thinking an idea can be worthwhile, and so the story doesn’t surprise and do the things it otherwise might in order to come alive. Or, actually, maybe that’s just me and not writing programs generally. I can remember now entire courses devoted to plot in some programs, including where I teach now at U of Warwick in the UK. Some course about the seven plots of all stories etc. But at Stanford and Cornell and Florida State, the best programmes I experienced, no plot.
Carl: We’re expected to be waaaay beyond that kind of thing. But I’d suggest you get way beyond something by learning how to do something and transcending it, i.e., the hard way.
David: What do you mean, Carl? Way beyond which kind of thing? And the hard way about what? I lost the plot here, haha.
Carl: I meant that I think there is a view that literary fiction is supposed to be beyond plot, beyond plain genre, to somehow transcend it. And I think you don’t truly transcend something without being able to do it. So ‘the hard way’ is to learn those genre tricks and then upscale them, mix them up, tweak them for weird, extraordinary, additional effects.
Paula: What were you reading while you were working on your novels?
David: For Legend of a Suicide, my first book, I can say exactly what I was reading and how it influenced me writing particular stories. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Elizabeth Bishop’s poems for ‘Ichthyology,’ more generous voices to counter the Flannery O’Connor school of meanness, haha, the idea that we see who someone is when they’re being awful. These other two offered something else. And for the next story, Carver and minimalism. Then Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women for ‘A Legend of Good Men.’ McCarthy and Faulkner for the novella, Garcia Marquez for ‘Ketchikan,’ Barthelme for ‘The Higher Blue.’ But since then my books have influences that are far less clear to me, and I read a lot of books now before they are published, for review or blurb or books of friends. And I have to read so many books, I sometimes read only the first 50 pages before having to move on. So at this point I can’t even remember what I was reading when I wrote Halibut on the Moon. I’ve written two other novels since then. It’s all more of a casserole in my head now.
Owen: When concentrating on the long slog of writing a novel my reading suffers, and like David my recollection of particulars is vague. I do try to keep up with New Zealand fiction as much as I can, and recall enjoying novels by Fiona Kidman and Vincent O’Sullivan and a variety of flash fiction on websites. I also re-read some Jane Austen and L P Hartley’s The Go-between, a favourite of mine.
I’m interested in ancient history and went again to Cicero’s letters which bring such a marvellous immediacy to a crucial time in Roman history. After this invigorating discussion with you all I will certainly seek out your work to enjoy with a greater awareness of the mind behind the words.
David: Thanks for that explanation, Carl, about what you said about plot. I think that’s really interesting. My favourite novel, Blood Meridian, is genre fiction raised to a higher level (western). Bakhtin said one of the two ways to make great art is to raise the low to a higher level (like a Campbell’s soup can on a canvas).
Becky: I would say that I read Clarissa Pinkola Estee’s Women Who Run with the Wolves, even in part, at some point while I was writing Auē. I definitely read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies over that time, having read her book Fall on Your Knees some years before and wanting more of her work. She is one of my favourite writers. Ann-Marie MacDonald has a very unique way of capturing children’s voices and their innocent take on the world and contrasting them against adult themes. Those themes are often disturbing, but she manages this well and is a master of characterisation.
Meanwhile, I usually read Women Who Run with the Wolves to encourage my braveness and creativity. The book reminds me that having the ability to tell a story is a beautiful thing and should be nourished as if my life depended on it.
The book’s opening lines are: ‘Wildlife and the Wild Women are both endangered species. Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands.’
The author goes on to say that spiritual lands or the feminine psyche have been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles have been forced into unnatural rhythms to please others. One of the book’s focuses is intuition, and it uses retelling of old stories to make the lessons accessible. Stories including ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Manawee’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and of the ‘Dirty Goddesses’ are shared or retold, and the author gives an in-depth analysis of what the stories mean at a deep level, or what they warn of.
The book says our intuitive voices are often beaten back or silenced by our distrust in them.
I have learned this distrust starts and festers in many places where we might be told our thoughts or dreams are wrong or at least not entirely right. Some of the many places doubt can get its hooks into our psyche includes schools, institutions, society, our own homes.
Colonisation has played a monstrous part in working to replace the intuition and spiritual values which thrive in indigenous communities with inferior and destructive patriarchal values.
Maya Angelou said anyone who can read should read Women Who Run with the Wolves and Maya Angelou is an actual goddess (I’m pretty sure I read at least three of Angelou’s autobiographical books including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, while writing Auē too) so now this book (which is probably found in the self-help section of any good bookstore) is one of my Bibles.
Carl: So brilliant and refreshing to read you, Becky. Three white guys from ca. 2.5 generations and … you. There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re doing your work, when I’m doing my work at least. There’s a plan or a rough guide of where to go, what to do next day, that’s fairly hairy maybe, pretty uncertain, but the goal is there. So you turn up and you do that work. Maybe 70% of you is turned on, maybe a character says something or does something unexpected and true, and that’s really cool, great, a buzz, but basically you get the work done that day, the scenes shot, as it were. You turn up and get the thing progressing.
But then sometimes you have a little more gas in the tank, psychically or emotionally, and you say, I’m just going to say a little bit more here — and something new will offer itself up — this is for me so often the feeling people talk about of being a ‘conduit’ for something. You say something, you extend something, you follow a bit more, you go through a door, and something altogether exponential happens (if that word is not now damned through association). You become, or at least feel like, some kind of relay for a signal that pre-existed you and you get to pass on.
I’ve heard people talk about this feeling so many times. Something sings through you. Is it ‘intuition’, your ‘truest voice’? Who knows. But for me that’s always the essential work. Surfing the very crest of an unsurfable wave that came from nowhere. I always find myself laughing at it, the work then. No matter what the material; hard, dark, deeply serious stuff, it doesn’t matter. It makes me laugh because it’s the purest play and I think I’m always looking for that. Most unselfconsciously myself. To have that distrusted, mistrusted, beaten out would be the worst punishment.
Becky: That’s pretty lovely, Carl. ‘Most unselfconsciously myself.’ Love it! All anyone wants is to find their truest voice and that it be understood. What a ride when you do, eh.
A special Ockham New Zealand Book Awards YouTube channel has been set up for the 12 May announcements, which will also be shared live across social media channels and on the New Zealand Herald site. You can hear the four fiction writers – and all other finalists – reading from their work on this channel, under the banner ‘Ockhams Out Loud’.