The Interview – Lloyd Jones
Lloyd Jones is one of New Zealand’s most high-profile and accomplished fiction writers. A former journalist who has travelled the world and lived for extended periods in other countries, he spent 2015–16 in Berlin as a recipient of a DAAD residency. His home is now the Wairarapa region, just outside Wellington. His 1993 book Biografi, which has been described as part travel narrative and part fable, explores a journey through Albania after the fall of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime.
He is the award-winning author of short stories, novellas, novels, essays and, most recently, a memoir, A History of Silence, inspired by the Christchurch earthquakes. His novels include The Book of Fame (2000), a multi-perspective account of the 1905 All Blacks Tour of Europe and North America; Mister Pip (2006), winner of the Commonwealth Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and Hand Me Down World (2010), shortlisted for the Berlin International Prize for Literature. The 2013 film version of Mister Pip was directed by Andrew Adamson and shot partly on location in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.
Along with numerous international residencies, Lloyd received a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008, as well as an Arts Foundation Laureate Award and an Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellowship.
Lloyd was interviewed over several weeks in late 2016 by Bernadette Hall, the author of ten poetry collections, including Maukatere: Floating Mountain, published by Seraph Press in May 2016, with original drawings by Wellington artist Rachel O’Neill. In May 2017 Bernadette will be invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Literature.
BJ: Hello there, Lloyd. In a way, we both find ourselves in a similar position now, I’m thinking. We’ve both ended up in a rural setting, you in the Wairarapa and me in the beautiful Hurunui, 50 km north of Christchurch. Five years on from the devastating earthquake, Christchurch is beginning to stitch itself together again. Otakaro, the river Avon, will at last assert itself as a pathway through the middle of the reconstructed city. You have quite recently located an essential piece of your family’s history, in Hawarden, a pretty, almost abandoned farming settlement just beyond the Waipara Valley vineyards. Thus almost on my doorstep. And here we are breaking our respective silences.
You write prose, I write poetry. I was amazed and intrigued to receive your invitation for a chat.
LJ: I am very pleased you accepted the invitation. I don’t know why you should feel ‘amazed’ or ‘intrigued’. When Paula asked me to suggest a writer to perform the task of chiselling out comment for a Paris Review-type exercise, I wanted to have a chat with a poet rather than a prose writer. I write narratives but in fact, as you once astutely observed at one of those sessions with Victoria University MA students, my writer’s engine is more poetically driven. I was flattered by your observation. I don’t always bring my A game to those sessions. The fault lies entirely with me. I cannot always find the inner performing seal … if you know what I mean. Anyway, I thought I would like a poet to spar with, but one that would be generous with his or her time, and possibly even well disposed towards my work. And finally your name flew to mind, partly because I had just bought your latest book, Maukatere, floating mountain, the lovely collaboration with Rachel O’Neill.
I have come to know North Canterbury reasonably well in recent years after locating a grandfather I never knew (mum’s dad), a sheep farmer in the foothills towards the alps. He is long dead. But a few years ago I sat in his armchair and watched him on film walk towards me. Some years before I happened to buy some land off a sheep farmer in the Wairarapa. It was a great shock to me to discover that the grandfather’s farm at Taruna and the land I live on now at Ruakokopatuna is remarkably similar. Perhaps some kind of genetic hoof print was left on me.
BH: As you note somewhere, perhaps in an interview, other people find their story within yours in ‘The History of Silence’ to some degree or other. As do I, quite a lot actually. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a ghost. He died when I was five so I might have met him, should have met him but he had vanished. There were never any stories about him. A few became clear as I and a couple of cousins started to dig away. Several months ago I located his grave in the Ashburton cemetery. His headstone is the middle of three, all unmarked, little dithers of weeds and dust as a coverlet. My mother, in old age, lived with us for twenty years. I adored her as much as I resented her not trusting herself to me. An aunt, mum’s younger sister, said, ‘Your mother has shut all the doors on the past’.
LJ: That is a beautiful phrase, ‘little dithers of weeds and dust as the coverlet’. When I stood before my grandfather’s grave in Hawarden for the first time, my eye was primed and ready to find such detail but was rebuffed by the cold and grim Presbyterianism of the concrete burial place. At such a moment you look for the life, the missing life, the life that was? Can it be said to be expunged when it occupies a place in one’s thoughts, even as a ghost? I suppose a ghost is a figurative stand-in for the mystery of the life and the unanswered and unanswerable questions it produces. But to come back to your lovely phrase and, in particular, the word ‘coverlet’. A word like that is quite beyond me. It is not in the world I live or imaginatively thrash around in. It is precise, and a detail from a system of thought that is outside my experience. We were not good at naming things, we weren’t encouraged to as children. My interaction with the world was outside of language and largely sensory. Sport, physical movement, salt drying on the skin, the highs of exertion, the blood rush of a physical dare, sheer terror at times, wrestling and fighting like pups. My contact with the world was entirely tactile. Since words name the world much of it was out of bounds to me, intellectually, but not emotionally, perhaps it is no surprise that I would reach for metaphor and prefer the reach and magic of a speculative leap that poetry encourages over the prosaic workings of prose.
The Christchurch earthquake with its language of sediment, abrupt shake-up, fissures, shock after shock, liquefaction … provided me with words that offered direction into my past and ideas to hang on to and explore. It also seemed to validate an inquiry into family history that I had put off until my late fifties. That may seem surprising. But in my family the past was not a place to prospect. Something had to happen to make me glance in that direction. I found it in the misfortune of Christchurch. But back to language and naming things. I have a sense that once we name something, we cease to know it in a felt or experienced way. We are simply ticking off something as ‘known’ the way a young person will glide through the Louvre holding an I-phone up to the Impressionists.
BH: You picked up the word ‘coverlet’ as being something new and outside your thinking. It isn’t a word I use either. But I do have a hugely rich word bag and things spill out, words spring together. My childhood was full of mysterious language and lots and lots of talk. What else would you expect of an Irish inheritance? There was the Latin of the Catholic liturgy. We children learnt Gregorian chant, we sang at more funerals than were good for us. There was a poetry choir. All of this in Presbyterian Dunedin. My dad was born in Northern Ireland into a family of Orangemen. They loved us but their language and their beliefs were out of bounds for us. I’m wondering if it is complexities like this, experienced dramatically in childhood, that turn us into writers. Is ‘unsettlement’ important to you as a writer? You have travelled the world since your late teens. You like to look around, taste the air, measure the hills, ride on the trains. Imagine your way into the lives of the people.
LJ: You have to leave in order hold two places within you. The ‘forgotten’ place is a regret, then a wishful banishment. Then perhaps the memory is severed. Now there is more milk fat on us, more contentment. The sun dial has altered. A few generations on and we look more confidently back than we did in this direction. Yet, against all expectations, something of the shed place lingers, don’t you think?
From Maukatere: ‘There’s the love energy of sweet cicely, a white corsage / and the hectic ferns that riot and roar upwards’. You’ve made a quiet observation there but the blood running through it is pure Irish. And again the world shifts and finds new shapes and accommodations, as in … ‘the wind that got the little boat of gravy going. I mean grieving. The little boat of grieving. That’s what got going. That’s what I really mean’.
Or you don’t. And the poet smiles down at her clever slip. Discovery. I guess that is what we do. Making the world bigger and smaller at the same moment. We start ‘here’. But how we get ‘there’ is often magical, yes?
BH: Ah yes, the little boat of gravy. I’d call that a feint. The hesitation and correction are sort of funny, I guess, but I’d say the move is a feint, an avoidance of the big emotion that’s cloaked for the moment. My dad was felled by a heart attack in front of me when I was 16….. I didn’t speak to my sisters for a year, they told me this only recently … I knew I’d been silent but I didn’t think it had been obvious nor that it had been for so long. So, for a whole year I was silent, inside a huge anger. Not that I knew it was anger. And what could I have said? When your mother was dying, you read to her from Bruce Chatwin’s book about Patagonia. Was Patagonia a feint? Is that why the word burns for me on the page? Or is it your next project?
LJ: Until recently I wouldn’t have known how or why my work has taken the shape it has … but the memoir changed that for me. I suddenly realised, that for years, decades of writing, I had been sailing along without being especially aware that my keel would be fixed to various quests around identity. It seems so obvious now. And that awareness so lately come by is not especially helpful to the production of fiction. In regard to Chatwin’s Patagonia I read it to my mother because in comes in small digestible bits. I don’t think she really took in any of it. Perhaps the sound of my voice was enough, a comfort perhaps.
BH: In its architecture, The Book of Fame looks like poetry. There’s all that space on the page, the words can breathe. The Originals run out, name by name onto the page just as they did onto the field. The moves are recounted, step by step, pass by pass. It’s all the drama I remember back when I was a child, sitting with dad, listening to an All Black game on the transistor radio, he rolling tobacco between little sheets of tissue paper, licking along the edges, left to right and right to left to make them stick. The novel reads like poetry, there’s music there – the English game was ‘plonk plonk plonk, plonk’ – The Originals’ game was ‘dum de dah dum de dah bang whoosh bang!’ And there’s the multiplicity of figurative language, especially metaphor – ‘The English saw a tunnel / we saw a circular understanding’ and ‘The English were preoccupied with mazes / we preferred the lofty ambition of Invercargill’s streets’ – hilarious! Carl Nixon says the book was very easy to set up for the stage.
I was thinking that at one point in the memoir, you are said to be ‘reckless’. When I checked I found that the word was actually ‘rash’. Is there a difference? Anyway, would you say there’s something reckless (rash) in taking a rugby story, even a legendary one, and turning it into poetry? In telling the story of a child made pregnant in her mother’s house by her mother’s lover, the mother unaware? In taking up the voice of young PI girl, this one caught up in the civil war in Bougainville [in Mister Pip]?
LJ: I wonder if ‘fearless’ is a better word. Writers ought to be, need to be, don’t you think? We shouldn’t shackle our imagination. It goes where it goes and we hang on in the hope it will lead somewhere interesting. I don’t believe we should try to fence it (it’s been tried elsewhere, in repressive societies). Nor do I accept that gender politics has any role in literature. Anything worthwhile that is written creates its own rules. The human psyche is the quarry.
Matilda’s voice in Mister Pip came to me in a moment of playfulness (in the language sense). The narrative voice released a part of me which was able to deliver the story that would become Mister Pip. It began with an inward gaze … a tumble of voice and event, and ideas, all that stuff that interests the writer. I created the headspace of someone who just happened to be female and black. Some would then ask how do I know if I got it right. Well, only the reader can provide the answer. The page is where the ‘character’ lives or dies in the reader’s imagination.
There is no-one out there called Matilda. She is not a representative type. This is anathema to anthropologists whose extraordinary conceit assumes that they alone can surface after six months immersion and pretend to know all there is to know about a people and their customs and ways. Now that takes nerve. An academic at St Andrews University (from the anthropology department) challenged the villagers’ response to Matilda following the death of her mother. She claimed she would not have been left alone because of a set of cultural values in place. It’s like a casual observer saying of a woman bringing up three children by herself that it couldn’t possibly happen because of a cultural value in western society that embraces the idea of a nuclear family. The value of literature is it resists type. It celebrates people as individuals.
BH: I have a confession to make, Lloyd. I am unable to make a connection with your Matilda. I may be the only person in the world who has failed to do this. And I’m thinking that my problem is Literature.
It’s as if I experience in Mister Pip your desire that Literature be transformative. And this at Matilda’s expense. So what ensues feels to me more like a morality play than the creation of a living breathing person. Whereas in Hand me down world, where you use a multi-faceted structure that reminds me in some ways of the architecture of The Book of Fame, Ines is someone I believe in entirely. And she has so little to say!
LJ: It is perfectly okay not to warm to Matilda. You wouldn’t be the first. When I wrote that book I was listening hard … I wasn’t out to prove anything … ‘the transformative powers of literature’ is someone else’s phrase, it wasn’t in my headlights. Who on earth sets out to prove something? We need to dig deeper … to that place you cannot see. That is where the listening comes in. That is where Matilda’s voice came from. A great surprise to me as I heard it and at once recognised its place in the world as belonging on an island where I had once reported on a war.
But, surprise, surprise, it is a book about identity. Mr Watts’ identity. The identity of Dickens’ great work, Great Expectations (which version/reading is more potent, the one read or the one remembered?), Dickens himself whom Mr Watts is confused with, and of course the identity of Pip. Oh, and Literature with a capital L. I think it is pretty easy to recognise in the flesh.
BH: I’m about to set off for Dunedin. To the Robert Lord cottage where I am a gap-filler for a couple of weeks. Another of Christchurch’s gap-fillers! Being something of a catastrophist, I thought I should just add this as regards identity … to fill the gap before we get to where we’re going, you and me. I am a 1st and a 2nd child. I am catholic and an Orangeman. My soul is wrenched by music, Arvo Pärt, Thomas Tallis, Tord Gustavsen, k.d. lang, Michael Houston, the New Zealand Youth Choir, among others. And by poetry. Poetry holds me together as does having SPACE around me. And yet I too am a connector and all those years of working as a high-school teacher have made me optimistic about what can happen when open connections are made … the aim being, I guess, in line with a rather lovely old Catholic invocation ….purity of intention …which in my mind has all to do with stance.
LJ: I love that line ‘purity of intention’. That is bang-on. I ought to keep that phrase near my writing elbow. ‘Purity of intention’. Whenever the question of ‘morality in the novel’ comes up as it invariably does at writers’ festivals, we scramble around to provide an adequate response. But ‘purity of intention’ gets to the nub of it, using the right words to describe what must be described. ‘Poetry holds me together as does having space around me’. Very, very nice. Maybe you have to breathe one to appreciate the other. As a child (this child) space came first. Otherwise it doesn’t matter. For some weird reason I just glimpsed you inside a hula hoop!
BH: I used to be able to whirl a hoop up from my waist to my chest when I was a child. But now tell me about Choo Woo. I remember the shock of it, the power, the awful understanding of what human beings are capable of. The kind of terrible truth that you are forced to recognise, for example in Greek tragedy. Medea, driven mad by her husband’s infidelity and in revenge, murdering her own children. Imagination can take us into horrific places as we keep on asking the old question, what is it to be human.
LJ: That novel does raise an important question, one that I happen to be dealing with now in the current project. Once you know something, you cannot un-know it. Once you know the plight of Syrian refugees, you cannot un-know it. You can ignore it and that raises another moral issue to do with resisting or ignoring what we know. As many in Nazi Germany did; as you and I do today since we know what is happening in Aleppo and we know what is happening in Australia’s offshore detention centres but do nothing to show our displeasure, outrage, or move a finger to help those whose sorry plight we are aware of.
This is the father’s problem in Choo Woo. He knows a little and the imagination does the rest. It goes where he wishes it wouldn’t, but goes there in spite of himself and then he is stuck with what his imagination has salvaged. Which is the sexual violation of his daughter. The ghost of fact haunts the novel. This really did happen to a girl in Manawatu. The question that interested me was this. How would the mother’s boyfriend carry out such a thing? It comes back to identity and his ability to slip inside the skin of someone other than himself. The ‘other’ could do what he himself could not. I tried to approach the story from different perspectives. Ultimately that father’s perspective was the only one I felt comfortable with, probably because I am a father.
BH: When my youngest sister’s only daughter was killed in the London bombings in 2005, it was the Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, who made most sense to me. And it was Antarctica that gave me the vehicle, the metaphor for that big grief. Then again, there can arise a surprising energy when metaphor is challenged. Here’s Jenny Bornholdt in her poem ‘Confessional’, written while she was in Menton. She’s watching a crane driver who’s about to finish his day’s work on a building site – ‘then he reached for the red T-shirt slung over his shoulders / and it fell, down through the circle of the ladder like … // like what? Like a red T-shirt falling down the inside / of a crane.’ It works like a close-up shot on the real, wouldn’t you say. It makes reality more real. Such is the slippery multi-sidedness of poetry. And its capacity to bring off a good joke.
LJ: Agreed. Jenny is catching herself thinking … as writers we often do. … how can I turn it into something else. Then she supresses that thought and returns us to the thing itself which is exactly what the eye caught.
BH: You have some great jokes in your stories, Lloyd, the kind of dangerous jokes that shake things up and smash convention. I’ve just been to see Simon O’Connor in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the Fortune Theatre. A brilliant performance. There are moments in your writing which seem taken directly from the theatre of the absurd. That opening scene in Mister Pip where Watts comes in wearing a clown’s nose, dragging his wife behind him on a sled. It’s ridiculous and somehow terrifying. Is he mad? Is he representing a philosophical position? The scene might have come from Waiting for Godot. Is Beckett a writer who has influenced you?
LJ: With Beckett, so much is spun out of so little.
There is a scene in (I think) The Unnamable where he describes someone walking … until he describes the mechanical act involved in walking, you don’t realise how bizarre it is. And that’s the thing about Beckett. He returns us to ourselves in surprising and often hilarious ways …which according to your inner constitution as a reader, can be either distressing or very funny or even a relief, as if a cow had looked up and, briefly, had the capacity to describe a man walking backwards.
Krapp in his anguish and bitterness and massive sense of things lost, has the flesh of the banana to remind him of the world’s nourishment and the skin slowly unpeeled is like the layers coming off his self.
BH: His memory of lying with the beautiful dark-haired woman in a boat on a river, the movement of the water up and down, side to side, gives rise to the sweetest phrases, repeated. It comes as quite a shock amidst the strangled sounds and the taped voice of 30 years earlier. Memory, identity, connection, all that we’ve been talking about.
LJ: Yes, the shedding, the revealing. What appeals to me about Krapp’s Last Tape is the menace of time. It is stored on tapes and regarded covetously but also a little nervously. The scene when he stomps on the tape … the reminiscence about the boat and the woman … he is trouncing his younger self. Now that appeals. Instead of tapes I have a truckload of four AM moments when I sit up and wonder, ‘Did I really say that?’
BH: A man walks out on his wife’s dinner party and ends up in a park at night making love to a Polish woman ( the exotic stranger?) who has artificial legs and happily removes them so that intercourse can be more easily and apparently delightfully achieved. And all the while the little dogs (they each have a dog) explore each other in the way that dogs do. That’s certainly returning us to ourselves in surprising and hilarious ways. It’s laugh-out-loud material, laugh till the tears run down your face. But it also says something about the human need for connection. It’s like that classical notion of eros, the wild passion that connects gods with humans, gods in the form of beasts and birds or even a shower of golden rain.
There’s a powerful metaphor about connection in your wonderful story ‘The Man in the Shed’. There’s the silent solidity of the husband whose wife is carrying the child of a stranger, the man who lives in the shed. She’s strangely placid, she glows in her fertility. She’s shifted into the world of the unborn child where she remains silent. All of this is watched in silence by the boy, their son. Both the parents, ‘of one flesh’ in the old version of the marriage ceremony, suffer flesh wounds by the end of the story. Both are fish-hooked, he by himself, she by him. And then she’s reeled back in. And there’s another baby death. So many babies die in your stories. What is that boy going to remember? And now I’m thinking of these often silent children that crop up in your work, the way they watch and pick up signals from the collapses and invasions of adult life around them.
LJ: You are aware of the silence of the household in which I grew up. The lack of conversation. The lack of curiosity. Life was found outside the house, in the street. Lineage was discovered through sport, identity too. My father was ‘a Petone man’ and in time I would become one as well. Even now, half a century later, I make a point of turning to the back pages to find out how Petone went at the weekend. There were books. That was the anomaly on the home front. How does anyone become a writer? Or ‘why’ is the more interesting question.
In my case, I wonder if it was an act of self-will. In other words, here I am. This is what I have seen. This is what I have made. My mother was a knitter, dad was a welder. It was a household that made things. Made a garden. And against all odds, produced a family that to varying degrees turned out to be successful human beings. Dad’s garage contained a vice, saws, chisels, endless jars of nails and bolts and screws and nuts. I had inherited an old Meccano set, possibly from my older brother. But it held little interest. Mum’s knitting needles and balls of wool lived on the couch. My sisters, when they came home from Europe, made things that no-one in that house had ever tasted before. Risotto. Spaghetti. Possibly ‘Italian spaghetti!’
Language would come later. The great discovery for any writer is to find out that language (as opposed to just words) lives within. I like what Seamus Heaney has to say about the poet Pat Kavanagh. ‘When he writes about places now, they are luminous within his mind. They have been evacuated from their status as background, as documentary geography, and exist as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force.’
I think it took me a while to understand and fully grasp the idea. Journalism got in the way with all its emphasis on the visible and verifiable. Too much emphasis on the eye. I began to learn by shutting my eyes and listening for the voice(s) within. They have to be coaxed out. One must learn to listen and be prepared to go wherever it takes you … even when it resists sense. I am a natural connector or mapmaker or whatever you want to call it. Those kind of writers tend to be magpies and I am definitely one. The magic occurs in the connecting but voice is what makes us believe.
BH: You love being at home in the Wairarapa yet you are so often on the move. Does your writing life demand a certain breaking with settlement?
LJ: I am constitutionally suited to pitching my tent in strange lands. Instinctively I warm to those ancient Chinese and Japanese poets who set so much store in wandering. Something is set loose whenever I leave home with all its certainties and comforts … a loosening up where different elements find one another and spark. Yet the opposite was true with one book, This House has Three Walls. The Heine piece was hoovered up from a walk, undertaken once, twice a day for months in monastic fashion during a particularly difficult patch in my life when a walk was a way of both fleeing and staying on the track. It was a bush walk up a hill. The dead bush of New Zealand made space for a writer in another century and in another city, hamstrung by illness, restricted to his bed with just a nearby window to interact with the world. And my rendering of his conditions offered itself as another window for me to flee to which I did as a matter of course, once or twice a day.
There are other books or sections of books that I have written or dreamt up more or less on the hoof. A good part of The Book of Fame. Sections from Here at the end of the world we learn to dance owe their creation to the discovery of bits of landscape.
Kate De Goldi showed me a cave on the South Island’s West Coast where WWI conscientious objectors lived. You are shown a cavernous space with cathedral proportions and you hear something like that and something is bound to spark. Happenstance, in my experience, usually only comes about from leaving home. Of course you can stumble over something like it in the pages of other people’s work but it is not quite the same as discovering the landscape of your budding story.
BH: Was Berlin such a place for you? Was it a place of great creativity? Did a story or stories bud for you there? Nigel Cox wrote a fine novel from the years he spent in Berlin. In Responsibility, as in your Hand Me Down World, we are led through street after street, not so much on train after train, in a patient establishing of geography, interior and exterior.
LJ : I don’t know if I believe in Berlin being ‘a place of great creativity’. It is not as if the air is more encouraging or the questionable food and appalling service will make you write any better. Yes, the artistic institutions are incredible. And it is a fun and stimulating place to be. I know my way around it, more so than any other city but I wouldn’t say I ‘know’ Berlin. Whoever does? You get to know your bit of it and that bit can change very quickly. Part of the joy of getting away from New Zealand is the immediate and total anonymity on offer.
You’re on a different planet from dear friends, neighbours, family. What’s more it’s a planet of your own making. I discovered at any early age, around 17, that this was a space that suited me. From a writing point of view, you are cocooned that much more with the project of the day. There is just you and ‘it’. The final benefit (for me) is the sense of entering a larger world where serendipity is scaled up accordingly. Hand Me Down World would not have been written had I not been in Berlin 2007/8. The world of that book was the world I lived in. The streets, the Roma, the strange constituency around Warschauer in those days. One reviewer said I must have met someone like the Frenchman Bernard in order to come up with his character, but, no – he is an invention but one that would that would not have occurred to me had I remained in Wellington or the hills of the Wairarapa. I am just one of those writers (apparently there’s a whole tribe of us) who have to leave home.
BH: I really enjoyed Hand Me Down World. You achieved something there that was so striking in The Book of Fame. Catching character in all its depth and contradictions and possibilities in a succinct form, a line or two on the one hand, a short chapter on the other. The architecture of both books is acutely pleasing. As important, I find, as the architecture of a poem where space can provide a reader with room to breathe, to think, to feel, to respond.
I found myself thinking of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg as I read Hand Me Down World. Both novels spring from the passion of a parent searching for a lost child in a dangerous, unstable situation. Coetzee was writing from inside the skin of another writer, Dostoyevsky. You have recently spent a year at the Coetzee Centre in Adelaide. Is he important to you?
LJ: Well, he is clearly a great writer. Waiting for the Barbarians is on my current all-time list of essential novels. Its great achievement is to locate fear without actually directly addressing it on the page. Waiting for the Barbarians picks up the European thread of the story where Achebe’s Things Fall Apart ends. Coetzee considers himself to be part of a European diaspora that left home 500 years ago … and delivered the Coetzees to Africa. It is not a process that suddenly grinds to a halt but is on-going … re-defining and re-negotiating its place in the world. Then, relatively late, he and his wife, Dorothy, leave home and shift to Adelaide, become Australian citizens. Another jolt and not an inconsiderable one. Where might the creative wellsprings sink down to? The old soil? Or the new? Or the place itself? We often think of place foregrounding novels but the more potent ones offer at their core a particular condition. An atmosphere of provisionality seems to sit behind The Childhood of Jesus. In his novel, place, character, identity – all of it is provisional.
BH: What about Diary of a Bad Year? Two narratives that unravel horizontally and a series of short essays as prologues on each page. I’ve read it several times and get quite caught up with it.
LJ: As much as I admire Coetzee’s risk-taking, I found Diary of a Bad Year impossible to read. I persevered because I assumed the failing was my own. I wasn’t ‘reading fit’ for a novel that works in the cross-hatched way that it does. I did not enjoy it as much as his other work but I greatly admired the ambition. The year I spent at the Coetzee Centre in Adelaide was extremely beneficial. The project was to work out my relationship to a seminal event in twentieth century history, one that occurred before I was born. And to work out, if I can/could because it is still on-going, a rewarding and honest approach. It has been incredibly difficult and trying but one which for a number of reasons I feel morally bound to see through.
BH: You have a strong interest in essays. You’ve written many fine ones yourself and published a major series of essays by a wide range of New Zealand authors. What did you hope to achieve by doing this?
LJ: The Four Winds Press with the help of Montana published a total (I think) of 21 essays. Some of them, many of them, were very good. The task as I saw it then was simply to breathe some life into the form of the essay, a form which for whatever reason New Zealand writers have not shown a great interest or enthusiasm for compared to elsewhere. Australia and the US for example. We might have considered it too earnest.
In recent decades, some of the most interesting writing in the world has happened around the essay. Eliot Weinberger and Anne Carson, to mention two obvious examples. Across the ditch, Martin Edmond is doing his bit. And how refreshing to see a younger gen writer in Ashleigh Young embracing the essay not as a side-line but as something more central to her writing work. Two words we should embrace – ‘the novel’ invites innovation, refuses to limit or restrict itself by saying what a novel is; and ‘essay’ meaning of course ‘to attempt’. It seems to me that that is the place which all writing should begin at; it encourages us to step onto the tight rope.
Now we have Awa Press and Bridget Williams Books extending the essay into a longer form. Landfall runs its annual essay competition. Exciting things are underway. All we need now is a Reith-styled lecture – a series of public lectures staged around the country, that are recorded, published and written about in the media with anticipation and savour. Oh, I forgot, we don’t have a media. Radio New Zealand is brilliant. The rest is shameful. But if we had an intelligent and responsible and culturally alert print media, I think this would be a great thing.
BH: Absolutely. By the way, what are you reading at the moment?
LJ: Maybe I should mention what has stuck. Gerald Murnane’s A Lifetime on Clouds. The title was brought back to life in Text’s Australian classics series … hard to believe it has taken me this long to discover it. I’ve been reading everything by Frederick Seidel and Donald Hall, a more prosy kind of poet. I sank into Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, both monumental works, two books I feel sure will be read a century on from now. I am a great admirer of her work … of her commitment, unheralded until the Nobel, and her method i.e. gathering testimony and putting some bones of her own into it. And I just finished Stephen Daisley’s wonderful Coming Rain … powerful, brutal, true. I was in Unity the other day and bought Paula Morris’ essay On Coming Home which I am enjoying and a book of poems by Hera Lindsay Bird. The latter is a breath of fresh air.
BH: She comes up with some pretty good jokes. I taught her in an MA class at the IIML in 2011. She’s one of those Wellington girls who look serene and demure, thick stockings, a mini skirt, a Marilyn Monroe mouth but every now and then there was a sign of a ‘wicked’ girl inside and always a big and unique intelligence. She invited me to speak at her book launch. Here’s what she wrote: ‘I think this book – even though it’s quite different from what came out of the MA year – is a result in many ways of the permission you gave me to be bold and dirty and silly and do all kinds of things I didn’t think poetry was.’ I believe I’d suggested she write some ‘silly songs for an all-girl band’ – to loosen up her style.
LJ: It was good advice. Though I have to say I hate similes. I really hate them. Why not say simply what something is. Of course I imagine she is using ‘like’ … like ‘like’ as an ironic device and in part heeding your advice. Much of her work to date is fun, but it does not leave behind a cast of experience in the way that this from Ted Hughes does (it popped up in a book of essays by Michael Hofmann I have on the go): ‘Farmers resembling the gear, the animals / Resembling the strewn walls, the shabby slopes // Shivery Pakistanis / Wind pressing the whole towards ice // Thin black men wrapped in bits of Bradford / Waiting for a goat to come up.’
BH: How marvellously solid and real. An ambition that shunts away from the Romantics. Did you know that Scott and Wilson and Bowers dragged the heavy volume of Tennyson’s In Memoriam with them on their final trek?
LJ: Did they? The silly buggers. They would have been better off with a can opener or a compass.
BH: Their culture and their ‘identity’, I guess. Their Englishness. And probably their belief. The book was found open on Wilson’s chest when the bodies were discovered. Cherry-Garrard describes the occasion.
The search for identity, even when subconscious, has been an important driver of your imagination. Has writing your A History of Silence memoir sopped up some of that drive? In being, if you like, a resolution? The voice, your voice in it, is open and vulnerable and self-challenging. Finally compassionate and grateful. It is a wonderful example of ‘purity of intention’ and a big step in a new direction for you. It’s a book that I love very much. So, what can follow?
LJ: Well, thank you, that is a kind reading. After a memoir where the ‘I’ is clearly my own voice and centre-stage, it is not easy or even appealing to summon up a fictitious ‘I’ for drafts of various things I have been playing around with. There has been a kind of regathering, a kind of internal re-setting. The work begun at the Coetzee Centre developed an interesting form over the past year I was in Berlin. I am reasonably confident it will see the light of day. On the other side of my desk, I have a draft of a novel/fable sitting on my desk that does depend on an I/eye.
BH: So now you and Carrie [Tiffany] sit at your individual desks in your individual writing huts, not quite two writers under one roof but close. And often writing is an assertion of a writer’s own particular space / need for space. Or is that a false assumption?
LJ: Neither of us is new to this game. We know how a book demands its own space – physical and mental. And that blank look mid-afternoon is not a sign of boredom but of being trapped between the day outside and the book inside.
BH: She loves your work. You say she’s brilliant … will the dance require some fancy footwork?
LJ: Not at all. If we were thirty and both setting out there might be something else at play. But I will be 62 next March. Some of my stories and books have been praised beyond anything I might have reasonably expected. I have an awful lot to be thankful for.