Writers’ Round Table | May 2019
Paula: Congratulations on your Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize shortlisting in a rich year for New Zealand novels. Could we begin with each of you saying a little about why this novel NOW for you – a few seeds of the stories, perhaps?
Fiona: The theme for This Mortal Boy had been around for a long time, the idea that the young are vulnerable, even though they think they are immortal. Good young people can have a terrible moment and then lives are changed. One day I picked up a newspaper story that was about Albert (Paddy) Black, the second to last person to be hanged in New Zealand, and that old story from my growing up years came flooding back. I was fifteen, and Paddy was twenty. My era, my time and my concerns. I knew it was time to write the book. Paddy was ‘this mortal boy.’
Vincent: While you’re writing a story you can’t be sure why – or if – this is the NOW book for yourself, or for anyone else. I doubt that one even thinks about that too much until it’s finished, until you can stand back a little, and watch it wobblingly try to find its own feet apart from its parent. Almost anything one says or writes about the Holocaust is likely to be as inadequate as it is, to some extent, intrusive. The telling can go very wrong. But for me, as for many of us not immediately touched by it, it nevertheless was the defining event of the century. I began thinking about the novel, remembering as a child a neighbouring Jewish family who more and more, as I grew a little older, seemed a part of history that was not mine, and yet, however distantly, belonged to all of us. We may try to make that fact fictional as the made-up story of a small number of people, but nothing can erase the way it is, however told, the same story over and over – how our view of humanity cannot be the same, once we know about that piece of history.
Kate: One of the early templates for The New Ships was Shakespeare’s Pericles. I love the T.S. Eliot poem ‘Marina’. That poem draws on a scene from the play where King Pericles recognises his long lost daughter. She was born at sea and he thought her dead. The reunion scene takes place on a boat in Mytilene: I made the arbitrary decision that the daughter in my novel would also be born ‘at sea’, and that the novel would end in Mytilene. That led me to lots of other connections and associations. At heart, Pericles is a similar story to the Book of Job: it’s a pattern of great loss and great restitution. It’s also a resurrection story. I took those themes and patterns with me as I started writing the novel. One of the questions of the book became: can we ever get the dead back? Obviously that we can’t, and yet so much of what has occupied homo sapiens over millenia – creating art, constructing religions – is infused with that longing.
On Landfall Online last year, Chris Else made a distinction between ‘self-regarding’ novels that ‘show an attention to the values of “fine writing” that have tended to dominate our recent new fiction’ in New Zealand, and a novel that ‘is driven by concern for matters beyond itself … [and] is unselfconsciously about something.’ What do you think of this distinction and these definitions?
Fiona: My novels have always been about something or someone. Perhaps I’m just coming into vogue. Nice, but it’s taken a while.
Kate: Well, I’ve gone back to read Chris Else’s review of The Cage in order to respond to this. With all respect to Chris, this seems to me like an unhelpful distinction to make. It seems to me not only to falsely divide novels into two categories, but then also damn novels in both camps as failing: that either they fail to be finely written, or they fail to be ‘about something’. What is this ‘something’ Chris speaks of, ‘something’ that is not ‘self-regarding’, this ‘concern for matters beyond itself’? I suspect it’s a code for ‘something political’.
We could have a very long discussion about what constitutes a political novel. I’m not sure how fruitful that conversation would be. In any case, it seems strange to me to suggest that Pip Adam’s The New Animals, with its deadpan critique of capitalism in the form of fashion, and its keening lament for a broken, plastic-glutted ocean, is not ‘about something’. Equally Baby [by Annaleese Jochems]: I haven’t read this novel, but if it actually does take us deep into the mind of a narcissist, isn’t that, in this moment of history, ‘about something’?
Even Caroline’s Bikini [by Kirsty Gunn] which is claustrophobically obsessed with the nature of writing, and utterly self-regarding, seems to me to quietly mock the logic of capitalism. The novel, in its haplessness, sends-up the idea that a story must be ‘useful’ and must ‘do something’, as the writer-narrator keeps failing to participate economically and nothing ever really is achieved. (Vincent wrote a tremendously insightful review of Kirsty Gunn’s novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He might have more to say about this.)
Having said all that, I greatly appreciate Chris’s discussion of the nature of the cage in Lloyd’s book. I’m halfway through The Cage at the moment. Chris’s idea that the cage is not, or not only, a metaphor for literal incarceration, but also for our inability to enter other minds, and therefore stands in for the predicament of the journalist/ observer: that’s giving me a lot to think about. Perhaps because the literal images of refugees in cages are so strong and ubiquitous in this moment (Manus Island, the US border), I have been finding it hard to think beyond that.
But I’m digressing from the topic here. And perhaps ranting a bit.
Vincent: Almost every writer wants to ‘write well’, however variously that might be defined or however partially achieved, and I doubt that there are many who think that there’s any discord between that, and what they want to write about. Subject and style aren’t like those conjoined twins in Mark Twain’s story, who take each other prisoner during the Civil War. If they seem inseparable, it’s because the writer has put a lot of work into keeping them together. You can’t get away with ignoring either. I’m glad Kate brought up Kirsty Gunn’s novel. It infuriates readers who think they have the novel form nicely sussed. That is one of Gunn’s intentions. The fact that it’s so well written is another political act, her defiance through form.
Lloyd: I’m fiddling with my pens and pencils – I read Chris’s review, but it was some time ago and I’m liable to get something wrong here. But wasn’t he speaking about engagement? The need to respond to the world we are living in?
I think it is a bit simplistic to ask that writers respond politically. It is more complex than writing ‘about something’. A distinction made by Beckett when he was asked by journalists ‘what is Mr Joyce writing about?’ (Beckett was his secretary at the time). Beckett replied: ‘Mr Joyce isn’t writing about anything. He is writing something.’
If we are asked to describe something that is all we will end up achieving. That ‘thing’ we need to write comes within, surely. Something is born of a necessity to tell.
Fiona: Yes, indeed Lloyd. I agree. We either care or don’t care about various things to do with how the world works, or doesn’t. What we care about, what matters, is there in the work. And what matters is fluid and constantly evolving as time passes. Passions change. The young write much about their bodily functions and sex lives, which is fine by me, I used to do a fair bit of that myself, and it’s legitimate and interesting to read, and in its way political, spelling out the human condition and our physical response to it and our right to certain freedoms. But my passion (and experience!) has changed in this respect nowadays, I am passionate about the survival of the young, and the shape of the world they live in, and how as an old person I might still make some contribution to the quality of their lives.
At the risk of appearing self-centred about my own book, This Mortal Boy wasn’t planned as a particular ‘plea’, for want of a better word, but as I wrote it, it became apparent that I was making the case for a better understanding of how things can go wrong for kids and how authority might better understand circumstances, rather than make blanket judgements of the young.
So, in The Cage, Lloyd, I see your passion, and compassion, for the outsider emerging and I wonder how aware you were of this as you began your book?
Lloyd: I am surprised to hear that, Fiona. Considerable indignation is what sits behind The Cage. I was working on something else at the time, but was hijacked by the refugee situation in Europe. I was living in Berlin in 2015–16 time where I was lucky enough to have received a DAAD residency. On a trip to Budapest to team up with my daughter, we ran head on into the situation at Keleti Station where around 3000 largely Syrian refugees (although their number included people from Myanmar, Pakistan and Afghanistan). The dignity of these people was tremendously moving.
I have written about it in an essay for the Massey University Press Home anthology [edited by Thom Conroy] – the sight of women sweeping the edges of a few sheets of cardboard on which families camped. The indifference of the locals and in a few instances straight out belligerent antagonism was very upsetting. But, there was also a cool uninvolved bureaucratic regard from the government.
In The Cage I have tried to adopt that coolness in the language of witnessing. Sport’s reports to the Trustees in the hotel offer a passionless recounting of the strangers’ days. Actually, there is another strand to all this. I confronted a couple of young guys flying a drone over the refugees camped in the station below a street-level balustrade where the locals gathered to look and stare as if they were at the zoo. They were surprised that I took exception. They explained they were making a podcast to show back in Germany. That seemed valid – but not the way they went about it. Months later when my daughter was working in a refugee camp in Greece she sent me a photo of a hoarding the refugees themselves had written: ‘We are not zoo animals.’
Beyond the raw experience, the question – the biggie really – is how to make a piece of art out of it. Moreover how bring the far near. That is why I opted for the fable/allegory approach and shifted the territory to somewhere that looked like home. The hotel, the backyard, the sheep, etc.
Fiona: Yes, I get it. Fantastic answer, and my question was probably a bit wet. The fact that your daughter was working in a camp, all those things that you witnessed and cared about enough to write about them, amount to indignation, passion, call it what you like. It also means that you care and not everyone does. I spent a fair bit of time in refugee territory (Cambodia, the Thai border and Vietnam) in the early nineties, tried to write about it, found it difficult.
Lloyd: It is difficult – establishing the relationship between yourself/narrator and the material, finding a language. Mind you, I find all writing difficult.
Actually, I wanted to bring up the matter of research. There is an enormous amount of research in your book. I found the dialogue and voices of the historical figures very persuasive. The territory of the book overlaps with my own upbringing in the Hutt which is the area the Mazengarb Report targeted. I remember visiting the Naenae shopping centre with my mother and the grassy square designed by Plischke as a ‘European civic space’ covered in bodgies and widgees. By today’s standards they seem as harmless as grass. I don’t think Ebe’s milkbar was still around, though.
However, I did visit the hanging yard at Mt Eden years later – a sinister place. You spoke earlier about the vulnerability of youth, small mistakes leading to life-changing circumstances. Yes, sure. But I’m still wondering what it was in you that made That Mortal Boy such a compelling subject/narrative. I’ve put that a bit clumsily. But perhaps you know what I mean when I say we write from inside out.
Fiona: Oh yes, yes, that hanging yard is still sinister,even though the prison is deserted, or that old part is.
As for the rest, hmm. I know Naenae. My old chap, now gone, taught at the College for 35 years, and our kids went there too. So I went there a lot. The Plischke concept was good, but I don’t think it was really recognized for what it was. The language of the fifties didn’t need research because that was my era, I was a teenager from 1953 onwards, and at one stage a wannabe widgie. I wore my cardigans back to front with the sleeves pushed up and all that stuff, and thought I was very cool and the dance halls in Rotorua were pretty amazing then – blues, rock n roll, all that stuff. I kind of cherish those memories.
Lloyd: Well, I am pleased to hear you’ve stopped doing that – all part of one’s personal evolution. But I was thinking about the politicians of the day – Jack Marshall and co.
Fiona: I knew Jack Marshall (coughs in her hankie). Well anyway, you ask what inner self made me go there. Tough question. I think that although I gave the vulnerability and ‘mistake’ to Paddy Black, I see that my own life could have come seriously unstuck. I had the good fortune to be ‘saved’, for want of a better word when I started to work in a library. As you say, that lifestyle was pretty tame when you look at it now, but those followers had some hefty choices as their lives progressed. I think that I got lucky, I wasn’t destined to be a wild child.
Kate: I love what you say back there, Fiona, about a shifting field of interest. I sort of ‘grew up’ over the long years writing The New Ships, and I feel like both the world changed, and my preoccupations changed. While I wrote it, it always felt at risk of becoming totally incoherent. I feel quite flighty, often, in my preoccupations now, which is perhaps a reflection of too much social media. That feeling of having a massive affective response to the news of the day, but then nothing to follow. I think you said something about this in an interview, Lloyd. That we see something terrible, then go and make a cup of tea.
Adding to our discussion now – a day later – I’m connecting this feeling of futile watching with your descriptions above of Keleti station and Greece, with the voyeuristic strain in our consumption of other people’s traumas and miseries (and I’m really struck in The Cage by the way the locals insist and insist and insist that the strangers describe the Catastrophe – that’s one element of the novel, although not the only one, which makes me feel quite painfully complicit.)
Fiona: I don’t ‘do’ social media because I’m scared of it, the loss of privacy, the addictiveness, see how I’m getting hooked into this conversation already, and of simply not having enough time to do other things. But I am a political junkie, endlessly reading newspapers online. Can I do anything about what I read, besides make donations and worry myself to another night’s sleeplessness?. Well, I have this rather folksy belief that we can be ‘cells of good living’ which, put into practice simply means being a bit kinder to one another,and seeing people for who they really are, and hope that it sticks. So to come back to The Cage and how we respond to outsiders is a part of that, there is work to be done. We still have the power to do and be better. Kate, it is so impressive that you have stuck with The New Ships for such a long time and I wonder how you were able to sustain your belief in the book?
Kate: Oh, Fiona, I lost faith in the book, and in the writing process, for long stretches of that time. I was constantly tempted to start something new, but on some level I realised that I’d just get similarly stuck in the same place. What I needed to develop was skill and momentum, and I realised that ultimately problem was with the author, not the material. I’m still very much learning how to write novels …
That position of Paddy/Albert as an outsider is a strong part of your novel too though: did you have an intuitive feel about the position of the Irish in New Zealand at the time, or was that part of the research?
Fiona: I have a book I return to over and again, a collection of essays by women writers, artists and scientists, talking about their work processes, and a particular one by an American called Virginia Valian, is about how finishing things is the mark of a successful writer, how we learn to place value on what we write. You did it.
My father was born in England of Irish parents (County Cork and County Leitrim). When he came to New Zealand he was lost and never, I think, really found himself, another outsider. Aspects of Paddy are based on my father. But I did go to Belfast in the course of researching the book.
I’d just like to go back to an earlier comment of Kate’s in which she asks if we can ever get the dead back. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s book of essays, Negotiating with the Dead. In the title essay, she explores the journeys writers take into the Underworld. I remember reading this book for the first time when I was sitting on a balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea, and I thought oh my gosh, this is what we do, we negotiate with the past all the time, even the recent past, as I think is illustrated by Kate’s character Peter.
Here is a quote from Atwood’s essay: ‘All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending on how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more – which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.’
I felt pole-axed by this. But there is another quote that I like, perhaps even better, from the French writer Marguerite Duras, who suggested that writers enter ‘the deep sleep of their lives’ when they write. And what I take from this is that, within us, all that we ever knew of the past lies in wait, all our dormant senses that inform us who we are and where we come from, and where our characters are formed, are there, ready to be awakened. Another way of putting it is that when we begin to write we might have an idea of what we are going to write and how things might turn out. But until we get down to it, we don’t know how it is all going to go because it is only in the act of writing that we rediscover what we have always known, through this awakening.
Kate: Yes! That Atwood essay crystallized my thinking about what I was doing in early drafts of my novel: the recovery of the dead became a conscious idea, with Orpheus and so on. On Duras – a navigation between a state of dormancy and a state of awakeness – that captures very well the strange state you go into when writing a novel.
Further to that Atwood quote, and her reference to ‘the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers’: do any of you have an ideal reader in mind when you write? Is the art the thing, rather than the reception of it? Do you ever doubt there’s a realm of readers waiting?
Fiona: Well, I don’t know how it is for the rest of you but once I’ve sat down to begin a novel everything like the audience just moves away. I don’t care what anyone thinks of what I’m writing. Because, if I did, I know I would start self-correcting. I’ve worked in other genres where audience was everything – journalism, television drama, and so on. But writing fiction is different, it’s about following the idea and being true to one’s personal vision. Of course, when the editor steps in, or even before that, you have to ask yourself some questions about how the audience will read the work. But, at the risk of a truism, the writer has to be true to him or herself and that excludes concerns about the potential reader. I care when the book has a cover and is sitting in the book shops. Not until then.
I seem to have been talking a lot. I will leave you all to chat for a few days as I’m on a mission and it may well take me out of coverage. Sometimes the life lived takes over from the fictions.
Kate: I love this essay, ‘What writers really do when they write’, by George Saunders. In Part Four he talks about writing with the reader in mind: ‘imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion”’.
Lloyd: Can I jump in here … to address that comment of George Saunders by agreeing with Fiona (above). Speaking for myself, I’ve never given ‘the reader’ a single thought. At times, it has even seemed presumptuous to believe there might be one. I know how language shifts and stiffens when it is directed to someone (in a good way, finds its honest intent), and I certainly don’t want to disqualify that notion. Except to say if I have a reader in mind then it is myself. And, if I am writing well, then I am listening as intently as I am speaking to. Hoping to go deeper while listening out for any false notes. That’s the writer-reader loop that I am mainly interested in.
Although for years up until his death, my agent Michael Gifkins was my first reader whenever I thought I had completed something. Perhaps at some subconscious level everything I wrote was directed to him as someone I thought worth wanting to impress. Difficult to say.
Kate: My experience was the opposite to Fiona’s. The idea of a reader saved me in The New Ships. There was a particular moment when I had the clear realisation: I’m doing this for someone to read, there’s a real human on the other side of this process. It’s not just me at a desk, muttering to myself. I had been lost for I guess what felt like forever in futile and maybe solipsistic circling around one part of the novel. It was the idea of a reader that finally got me past the looping, got me focused on producing something that could actually be read from beginning to end. It felt like the same shot of adrenalin that you get when you have to stand up and speak in front of people, when real faces are looking back at you, in anticipation.
One decision I made after that moment came from reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, reading those books voraciously on my couch, more or less ignoring my kids and my baby, and having, for the first time in such a long time, that feeling of being lost inside a story, spellbound. My ten-year-old spends a good chunk of her life in that state, and I remember how it feels, but I don’t often get that experience anymore.
Ferrante uses very short sections to structure those long novels, and shamelessly deploys narrative hooks to pull you through into the next one. I tried to copy that. I thought: I’m competing with Facebook, and Netflix and all the rest to get a reader’s attention. So, yes, I feel now like I was trying to do whatever I could to avoid losing a reader, once she’d started into the book. And at the same time, as Saunders says, trying to assume a very smart reader. (There was no shortage of actual smart readers around me when I was working on this in a PhD programme.) Who knows if any of it works in practice, but that was my thinking in the way I finally did write it.
Vincent: I’m late in the day joining the discussion, I’m afraid. I was struck by Kate’s frankness in touching on those circles of solipsism we sometimes get caught up in as we write, hoping that when the prose strikes it will work for others as we would like it to do for ourselves. But, self-centred as it may seem, when we are writing the only reader available is oneself. If we imagine another, that seems to me a kind of ventriloquism. We can’t imagine a reader who reprimands or indulges us, who isn’t ourselves in one guise or another. We hope that our concerns, passions, dislikes, or whatever it happens to be that drives the narrative, will become a shared, communal voice once the story is ‘out there’. But we can’t assume that until print settles it.
Kate: I too experience the solitude, the closed-in world, the silence of creating a story – or perhaps eavesdropping on a story as it unfolds on my keyboard. However, having no thought or conception or hope of a reader did lead me to a very marooned place. It’s not a ‘high art’ line to take, but there it is. I agree, Vincent, that an idea of a reader is a piece of our imagination, but then, isn’t that the business we’re in? This strange matter of imagining other minds.
I also warm to the idea in Saunders’ essay that the famous ‘empathy’ achieved in fiction is not just between reader and character, but also between reader and writer. I like the notion that part of what a reader does in deciphering a text is to imaginatively construct the writer, inching towards an idea of who might write such a text (at least this is what happens if book festival appearances, and on-line interviews and all the other hyper-marketing stuff doesn’t get in first – another reason I love Elena Ferrante is that her anonymity preserves the simplicity of the reader/writer relationship).
I suppose the context in which a person writes makes a difference here too. It didn’t feel presumptuous to me to imagine a reader when I was the second stage of composing this novel: I knew I would be making twelve copies of my work in progress and handing them out to my PhD workshop. They weren’t the only readers I imagined and wrote towards, but they were amongst them. I won’t have that context for my next book, so perhaps it will happen differently.
Lloyd: ‘Wrote towards…’ I like that phrase. And, where empathy truly lies is a good point to make, Kate. I always feel that the reader is a collaborator who fleshes out the thinnest of characters by reading their own life experience back into what they are given. Character to some extent is much a construction of the reader as it is of the writer.
Kate: Yes, that’s precisely put, Lloyd: co-construction. I think of art in general as a field of energy that moves to and fro between maker and receiver through whatever medium the art form takes: paint, clay, stone, wood, a human body as it moves or makes sound, words on a page.
Do any of you have a favourite New Zealand novel (or novels or novelists)? There’s lots of talk about the short story being NZ’s form, but we have a stellar history of novelists.
Fiona: I have some favourite New Zealand novelists. Several. Vincent O’Sullivan, Lloyd Jones and Kate Duignan. Obviously. Novels by Fiona Farrell and Stephanie Johnson are always Events (capital intended). Owen Marshall is ambidextrous, writes novels as good as his famous short stories. Favourite novel? Oh plenty. But I’m pretty keen on a book called The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr. And I love Tina Makereti’s new book, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke.
The mission I mentioned earlier is over, although not as accomplished as hoped. We still hope Pike River Mine will re-open.
Lloyd: I can’t give away trade secrets. Do I have favourite writers? I have favourite books… and they tend to trade up and down according to what next comes across my desk.
Vincent: I hope I’m not picking too many quarrels when I say the phrase ‘favourite New Zealand novelists’ makes sense to me only if we are confining ourselves for some reason, such as a specifically regional history, or for an anthology. A novel by a New Zealander I read in the same way as I do a novel by an English or Australian or Irish novelist. If I say I admire Maurice Gee or Kirsty Gunn, it is because I have read them as I might take up Julian Barnes or John Banville. I don’t read with my hand on my heart, like Aaron Smith during the national anthem.
Lloyd: Quite agree. Writers are internationalists at heart.
Kate: Besides the excellent novels on the shortlist, and, for that matter, the longlist (I’ve read several, but not all), this question got me to thinking about my childhood reading. Some of the most treasured novels of my childhood were by New Zealand authors: The Happy Summer, by Alistair Campbell; all the Maurice Gee books, particularly The Halfmen of O; Alex, and its sequels by Tessa Duder; Joy Cowley’s books, particularly The Silent One. I spent three years from age five living in London with my family, and I think I was voraciously hungry to read about New Zealand then, and afterwards. Witi Ihimaera’s Tangi was an intense reading experience for me as a teenager. I remember sobbing and sobbing. I also have strong memories of studying The New Net Goes Fishing at school. I feel grateful now that those books were there, that they taught me about where I lived. I also read Anne Holden’s Rata, advertised as being about a ‘half-caste’ child at best, I imagine, a problematic book now. Damien Wilkins has one of his characters give a mini-lecture on Rata in Dad Art, which was thought-provoking and made me remember the book for a first time in a long time.
Later loves were and are Janet Frame, Barbara Anderson’s Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Elizabeth Knox, Nigel Cox, Maurice Gee’s Live Bodies and others. There are several newer novelists I find really exciting: Pip Adam, Carl Shuker and Tina Makereti amongst others. I’m glad you mentioned James Poneke, Fiona: the narrator Hemi’s view of London, and of the role he is asked to play within it is fantastically complex and alive. I’m keenly looking forward to new work from Rachael King, Emily Perkins and Anna Smaill too.
Fiona: Witi Ihimaera. Indeed. He’s in a first loves category all of his own. Of the children’s writers you mention, Kate, I have read some to my grandchildren and great grandchildren, but they weren’t around when I was a kid. Or even when my children were so they didn’t have quite the same impact though I know they are wonderful.
Also, I’m interested in your influences as novelists, which are likely to be international, of course.
Kate: I was influenced, in different, specific ways, by several novels when writing The New Ships: Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Teju Cole’s Open City, Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight, and Elena Ferrante, as described above. There are particular things, large and small, I took from all those books. Toibin and Coetzee both fascinate me, Toibin for his seemingly effortless evocation of emotion, Coetzee for his interrogation of ethics within fictional form. So does Jean Rhys – because she centres ‘shameful’, female forms of pain. Paula, I’m looking forward to talking to you about her.
I went through a long phase of reading novels coming out of India. I think this started with Arundhati Roy’s visit to New Zealand, which took me to Salman Rushdie, to Vikram Seth, Manju Kapur and Pankaj Mishra (who actually only wrote one novel, and is now more of a critic/historian). Rohinton Mistry is a great love of mine: A Fine Balance was a devastating book. I’ve enjoyed writers telling stories of the Indian diaspora, such as Monica Ali, and Jhumpa Lahiri. More recently, and from Pakistan rather than India, I very much admired Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. I can’t wait to see her session in Auckland.
It’s obviously a generalisation, but I feel like there’s a super-abundance of story, an exploration both of history and of the complexity of family within the wider setting of culture and nation, that comes through in all of these writers. I feel like that’s what I’m drawn towards.
Fiona: When I was a teenager I worked in a library. The head librarian was a remarkable woman who took my unlettered self and led me to her own reading passions, late 19th-century Russian and French writers. Don’t ask me to go into that in depth, I can barely remember some of them. But I learned something about narrative voice and I think it stuck. And about the great drama of life. I moved on to French women writers like Colette and Marguerite Duras, from whom I discovered that it was permissible to write about what had seemed forbidden topics – sex, desire, longing. In my twenties, surrounded by domesticity and suburbia, I was inclined towards my contemporaries: Margaret Drabble, Marilyn Duckworth for instance, and I remain grateful to them. And I wished that I could write with the purity of Jean Watson in her near-forgotten masterpiece, Stand in the Rain. Book by book, I can’t really remember now, but I was gradually working towards a voice of my own.
The only time I can recall going to a novel for answers was when I struck structural problems with Mandarin Summer. I had been reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work, and I turned to Heat and Dust, which was very helpful, both structurally and atmospherically, as I was writing about Raj people who had gone to live in Kerikeri where I spent part of my childhood.
The big influence on my writing has been Alice Munro, not a novelist at all. A lot of New Zealand writers say this. I think it is because of the similar temperaments of New Zealanders and Canadians (in my opinion). I love the way she loops in and out of small town lives with such elegance and page turning style in her short stories. In the end, we find our own way, listen to those insistent voices in our heads, having ongoing conversations with any number of imaginary characters, both our own and those of other writers. I mean, if I had read Anna Burns’s Milkman while I was writing This Mortal Boy would I have written it at all? I might have been totally intimidated. So I’m glad it happened the way it did; I enjoyed Burns’s book for its own pleasures, not what I might have taken from it.
Lloyd: Alice Munro? Yes. I can see that.
Paula: Thanks everyone for taking part in this conversation. I look forward to seeing you all at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday 14th March. [Note: the prize value for this year’s Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize is $53,000.]