READ CLOSE: Bug Week is a collection of thirteen pieces of short fiction, meandering through time and the globe. Tell us about the intended links – and some of the unintended, surprising ones – that you think give these stories their shape as a collection.
AIRINI BEAUTRAIS: When I first envisioned writing a collection of short fiction, I wanted it to be thirteen unlucky tales of broken hearts and doomed love. I was about twenty-two when I had that idea, to give it some context! Some people say life gets more settled and less drama-filled when you get to your thirties, but mine didn’t. I think I had a bunch of things I wanted to write about, but when I did most of the work on consolidating the stories into a collection, a strong feminist theme emerged. I ended up with a range of female characters of varying ages from childhood to middle age. Other links might be nature and animals, poetry, museums, history, and small towns. These are all motifs I seem to keep coming back to in my writing. I’m really interested in how the past can shed light on contemporary life.
You’re an award-winning poet and essayist – could you tell us about how you find writing across disciplines, and how each style informs the others?
I think genre is probably overstated because it’s convenient for shelving books in a library, and making categories for awards. There are a lot of good books out there that hybridise or sidestep genres. I did my PhD thesis on narrative in contemporary long poems, and read a lot of verse narratives and verse novels. So I think it’s just ‘wherever the wind may take us’ when I sit down to write. Sometimes something feels like a poem, sometimes it feels like an essay and sometimes it feels like a fictional prose story. Sometimes it could be an essay poem or a story poem. Fiction gives you a kind of freedom to tell the truth. Poetry is helpful for concision and lyricality.
The stories often involve human interaction with animals – a clash between artifice and nature, in a sense. Are you interested in the place of human within the animal kingdom?
I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people and the natural environment, and that includes animals. I did an undergraduate degree in ecology and biodiversity so I’m a bit of a nature nerd. When started trying to write about nature I realized it was quite boring to me on its own and it is people in nature that are interesting to me. I went through a phase when I was about twelve of being a primitivist and thinking we should abandon technology and go and live in the forest. Now I have a 10 year old son who has come to a pretty similar conclusion. Climate change really frightens me. I get upset when I look at things like the fires in Australia and the US. I wonder what kind of world my children will be living in after I’m gone. We’re in the middle of an anthropogenic mass extinction event and I think that is one of the greatest tragedies of humankind. So yes, I am interested in our place in that. But I also think nature is a great healer, and animals can heal people. I’m holding one of my cats, Panther, in my author photo, because he symbolises me living my best life. I live with two cats and two children, I’m ridiculously happy and I feel like I can be who I am without self-censorship. Having non-human animals in the house is calming and reassuring.
There are some incredible short fiction writers working right now around the world. Who do you read for inspiration and influence when you are writing short stories?
Some of my influences, both living and dead, have been: Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Jeanette Winterson. Closer to home, Patricia Grace, Emily Perkins, Pip Adam and Tina Makereti are writers I really admire. I’ve also been influenced by poets who have worked with narrative, like Dorothy Porter and Anne Carson. I always feel badly read and like I need to branch out, read more diverse work and keep up with new writers.
Is there a story in Bug Week you might consider your favourite? Why/why not?
I don’t know about favourite but a story I feel I really inhabit is ‘The Teashop.’ It’s about a brothel madam who used to be a science teacher. I got really jaded with school teaching. I hated being called ‘Ms Beautrais’, I hated telling people to remove their nailpolish. I hated the intergenerational distrust between teenage girls and female staff. We should have been supporting and mentoring them, not bullying them into line. We should have been people they could look up to. So I had this dark fantasy about quitting and becoming a dominatrix. I didn’t do that, I just got pregnant and then I got pregnant again. But there’s still time! Esme, the main character in ‘The Teashop’ is really constrained by the fact that it’s the 1960s. She wanted to be a botanist but it was difficult for women to get into the sciences in the early 20th century. So now she’s a middle aged madam and she’s getting to the point where she wants to quit. The only way out she can see is getting married and she doesn’t want to do that either. It’s kind of a story about women and patriarchy and it’s kind of a story about ageing and anxiety. It brings in a lot of threads that are important to me.
In a wider sense, are there other writers or artists that you think have been a major touchstone for your writing career?
Apart from the writers I mentioned above, there are some dead poets I come back to over and over. When I was doing my PhD I read a book based on Dante’s Divina Commedia and I got really obsessed with Dante. I read a whole lot of translations. Although in many ways it’s politically and theologically limited to its time, in other ways, it’s this universal story of having messed up your life, found yourself lying in the middle of nowhere, and needing some help to get where you want to go. Dante is thirty-five at the start of the Inferno. Coming to in a dark wood was something I really related to in my mid thirties as well.
Another poem I keep coming back to is The Waste Land. I don’t agree with Eliot politically or personally but I really love that poem. I did a painting using the lines ‘A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall.’ It’s meant to be this dark horror imagery but for me there’s a lot of female power lurking in those lines. Also I love bats.
I listen to a lot of music and play music, and I love visual art. I don’t know about direct influence on my writing. There were a couple of albums I was listening to a lot while I was writing many of these stories. One was Dive Deep by Morcheeba. My heart was broken and the song ‘Enjoy the ride’ made me feel better. (Stop chasing shadows, just enjoy the ride). The other was quite an obscure album, Scatterlings by Johnny Clegg and Savuka. Johnny was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My parents basically listened to classical music and ‘world’ music. He did a lot of anti-racist work in his life and music. Scatterlings was released in 1982, the year I was born. The song I liked best was ‘Digging for some words’, which is appropriate when you are writing. I think it’s about nuclear war but the lyrics are quite enigmatic.
What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I am a bad reader at the moment because I work too much. I’ve found 2020 a hard year to read in. I can’t seem to sit down for five minutes at a stretch. I am part way through Book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. I like his writing but sometimes the masculinity gets too much for me. Stuff like where he gets angry at his wife for watching TV instead of cleaning up the house. Come on, Karl. I’m also part way through Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley. It’s a really absorbing read, I just need some quiet time to contemplate it. My to-read list is global and massive. Here are some local authors that are on it (NZers need to read more NZ writing!). I recently bought False River by Paula Morris. I love her essays and short stories; she really interrogates her subjects. And I am really excited about some new poetry collections, The Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila and The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia. VUP has published a lot of good books lately and on the top of my to-buy fiction list are The Swimmers by Chloe Lane and What Sort of Man by Breton Dukes. And I am really excited to get a hold of Laura Borrowdale’s Sex, With Animals. I love how brave she is and how committed she is to her projects, including running the journal Aotearotica. We are so lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people, and the best thing is, we can all meet each other in real life and talk about books over a wine.