READ CLOSE: The narrator in The Disinvent Movement is interested in disinventing the world, one thing at a time. This is a wonderful idea – was this the starting point for the novelor did it come to as you explored your character?
SUSANNA GENDALL: The sections on the ‘Disinvent Movement’ were the first scenes that I wrote, so yes, I definitely started out with this idea in mind. The rest of the novel sort of grew out from there. But I guess the protagonist took this idea somewhere I hadn’t initially anticipated. I’d imagined it as an environmental and anti-capitalist movement, but as I got deeper into the book, it also became about who the character is and her whole conundrum, about her as an ecosystem under threat.
In the notes at the end of the book, you mention that one section started life on The Friday Poem at The Spinoff. Did you always plan the structure of the novel to be fragments, written as lyrical poetry and stories in miniature, or did the novel shift and change as you wrote?
I really liked the idea of fragments – this was a form I’d always been drawn to, and it felt like the right format for the narrator and her story, but I wasn’t entirely sure how they’d all fit together. I decided to just do the writing, and then piece them together. I didn’t start out thinking that I was writing ‘a novel’, though. I thought I’d just see what it turned out to be once I’d finished. This was quite freeing, I think. It wasn’t until near the end that I began to realise it was turning into a novel… This felt like a little joke from the universe, as I’d basically given up on writing one. I’d made several attempts, but they’d all fizzled out. I think I had certain preconceptions about what a novel was, and needed to blank these out in order to write one. The idea of genre has always seemed kind of constricting – I think it would be nice if we didn’t have to call a book a ‘novel’ or ‘a short story collection’ or a ‘memoir’ or whatever. I have fantasies about a bookshop with no sections, just ‘books’. This probably sounds like total hell to the people that sell them, though!
Tell us about your relationship with Paris and why you wanted to include the City of Love in your novel.
I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with Paris – love-hate, possibly? It’s where I live about half the time, and I’ve always felt slightly removed from it – part of the deal when it’s not your home town. This was an aspect that I wanted to bring into the novel – which, in a way, reflected the narrator’s relationship with herself. It’s also a city where anonymity seems part its heartbeat. You can go for weeks without running into anyone you know. I guess I felt that this was the right backdrop for my anonymous narrator.
We would love to know which artists, writers, films, musicians and books have had an impact on your career and writing.
Wow, so many! In a way, everything you read and see and interact with is quietly having an impact on what and how you write . . . but I love Ali Smith and her playful yet political angle. Rachel Cusk’s work also resonates deeply with me, particularly the Outline trilogy. The French director Michel Gondry has been a big influence as well. When I first saw his films, I remember thinking that this was someone who was really pushing cinema somewhere exciting, going beyond plot. The Science of Sleep is a film that I can watch over and over. And, actually, dance has been very inspiring. There’s some really exciting choreographers around at the moment. A few years back I saw four short ballets by Tino Sehgal, Crystal Pite, Justin Peck and William Forsythe, which really shifted my approach to narrative, I think.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like The Disinvent Movement to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
I read The Years, by Annie Ernaux after I’d written The Disinvent Movement, and it immediately struck me as a book that resonated with it – something about the way it blurs the personal and political, and also perhaps the distance she manages to achieve on her own life, as if she is looking down upon it. And perhaps The Notebook by Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf, a dark, unsettling story, which I also read as a meditation on fiction.
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
I’m reading two books at once at the moment, which is unusual for me, but I thought I’d try a new bedtime routine. Moby Dick, which I’ve been trying to get to for years, and which is absolutely blowing me away. The language is so rich and gorgeous . . . And Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann – a 1000-page book written in about three sentences. It’s got a bit of a Ulysses vibe but from the angle of a middle-age woman contemplating just about everything in the universe. I’m enjoying the challenge of reading two big, fat, wonderful books at once. I’m really looking forward to catching up with some of the exciting books to come out of Aotearoa over the past year as well – Bug Week, by Airini Beautrais, The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane. I’ve also been wanting to read Weather by Jenny Offill. There’s so much that I want to read at the moment.
READ CLOSE:Sorrow and Bliss is Martha’s story. Tell us how you came to write the book – how you settled on the narrative voice; the structure and the importance of leaving gaps in her experience for the reader; the decisions you made and how the book changed during the writing.
MEG MASON: Sorrow and Bliss was never meant to be anything other than a Word document, or seen by anyone except me. Because I started it a month or so after quitting fiction forever, at the end of 2018, having spent all year labouring over a book that was horrible to begin with and even worse by the time I’d finished with it. So much time and emotional energy had been wasted producing 85,000 unusable words, I couldn’t imagine ever trying again.
But then. Authors are sometimes asked what ‘makes’ someone a writer, whether its innate ability or something that can be taught or the product of practise and discipline. I just think a writer is someone who can’t help themselves. No matter how hard the work is, the permanent, overhanging threat of it not turning out or ever being published or finding readers if it is, you just have to. You can’t not if you want to feel like yourself and know what you think.
So even though I truly thought my writing career was over, I was compelled back to my desk one day, wanting to put down not even a scene really, just an image that had dropped into my head, of a couple at a wedding going over to chat to a woman who was by herself and having a terrible time with a canape.
For some reason the 600 words or so that I wrote that day, which became the first scene of the book, were a bit flood-gates-y and the rest it just came roaring out. I just had to sit there and type.
The only contributing thing I can identify is my deciding that Martha was just going to say what happened. I wasn’t going to try and make every single sentence clever and novelly, and rammed with verbs and description as I had – so effortfully and disastrously – in the earlier book.
If a character sits down, Martha says ‘he sat down.’ Not ‘he collapsed onto the well-worn, velvet sofa, riven with anxiety, as a sharp wind forced its way through the peeling window frames like ice cold fingers’. If there’s anxiety and a breeze, she’d just say that too or – as to the gaps in the narrative – we just have to figure it out from other things says or doesn’t. That’s why the tone turned out the way it did, sort of flat and prosaic but more the way we really talk, and I think what makes the book a little bit different, and definitely different to anything I’ve ever written before.
Your second novel is concerned with motherhood, and whether Martha could be a good mother, ideas which have also driven your memoir Say It Again In A Nice Voice and your first novel, You Be Mother. Could you let us know a little of your thoughts concerning writing about motherhood and children and why it’s important to you?
I would say, rather than being something I set out to do, my concentration on motherhood was a product of my age and the stage of life I was in when I started writing – 32, with two little children. It’s remained one because all of life is in it – mother and child relationships and particularly, for me, mother and daughter ones. Every emotion and complication and experience is there, so I’m sure there will be a mother and daughter, of some age, in every book I ever write.
If Sorrow and Bliss were to be a film, who would you like to cast to play Martha, Patrick, Jonathan, Ingrid, et al?
Possibly you’d assume the opposite of a writer but I have no visual imagination when it comes to characters and what they look like. I can do you a lovely, detailed living room or a rainy street but the reason there’s barely any physical description in Sorrow and Bliss is because I have no idea how any of them look. Which makes it hard for me to cast them. But if the author is allowed to hover on the corner of a set, I would rewrite the entire thing just so there were parts for Sharon Horgan, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
Your writing has been compared to Phoebe Bridge-Waller’s Fleabag and Sally Rooney. What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?
I’ve been amazed by comparisons to both of those writers, and so grateful. But they’re both such millennial voices and I’m squarely Gen X so its writers of my generation, or earlier ones, who have taught me what to do and how, and impacted me most as a reader. Like Rachel Cusk, who writes in such a straight, sparing way that you’re always caught out by the depth and darkness of the material. Hilary Mantel, for the way she combines such detail with such economy. Janet Frame, for beauty and experiment. But most of all, Nancy Mitford for that incredible blending of humour and pathos and – I think – her inventing a kind of fiction that is literary but funny and accessible at the same time.
I Iike to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Sorrow and Bliss to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Gosh, I love that idea. I remember when I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation when it first came out, thinking afterwards – or possibly within the first few pages – oh, here it is, the perfect novel! Desperately funny and sad and beautiful, such amazing observation and – incredibly – the whole story of a marriage told in one hundred and something pages. That and Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a sort of boy version of the same, are the two novels I would choose as companions for Sorrow and Bliss if I could.
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
I’m not sure why, since I generally tend towards fiction, but I’ve been on a history bender since the beginning of summer and chain-read all of Simon Jenkins’ Short Histories, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and The Six Wives of Henry Eighth. They’re such amazing works for scholarship but they read like novels so there’s no effort involved. But definitely inspiration, for me, in the fact that Fraser had her fifth child in the middle of writing Mary Queen of Scots, 640 pages long, and she didn’t give up or drop dead of exhaustion.
Next, and the second they’re released, in February and May this year, I will be reading Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place.
READ CLOSE: Addressed to Greta is your third novel. How do you see your craft and your focus shifting over your career, and how has it remained the same?
FIONA SUSSMAN: At first glance, no one of my novels resembles the others – frustrating for anyone bent on slotting my work into a single genre. I think this has less to do with shifting focus over my writing career, as more just deciding to write the stories that demand to be told. As I begin on a new work, it is the emotional impetus for the story, and not the prospective audience, that inevitably determines how it will out.
The commonality underpinning my writing is the subject matter. I remain fascinated by those who are forced to navigate the periphery of society because of prejudice, be that towards race, sexual orientation, mental health, physique . . . I have always been drawn to tell the underdog’s tale and remain driven to shine a light on the challenges experienced by those who don’t fall within the narrow margins of ‘the norm’ peddled by Western society.
My third novel, Addressed to Greta, has a strong thread of humour through it. This was definitely a first for me as a writer. However, stacked beneath the humour are more weighty issues. Had I consciously thought about writing a funny novel though, I suspect the humour would have felt forced and contrived. Rather, it arose organically from the protagonist, whose social gaucheness makes her unwittingly funny.
Family dynamics are always at the forefront of your work – even when family members are no longer present, they haunt the protagonists. Greta is desperate to move out from under the shadow of her mother, five years after she’s passed. What is it about families and their relationships that draw you to write about them?
The role of family in the genesis of wider social issues has always interested me and makes for a fascinating lens through which to examine personal and societal problems and successes.
The family unit is really a nursery ground for the next generation, ideally affording a safe, non-judgemental space for personal growth and development. At its best, it offers a solid base from which an individual can venture out into the world to test their evolving persona, and a safe place to which they can always return.
In a dysfunctional family, the unit becomes a place of negative energy, criticism, excessive control . . . and serves to undermine the growth and self-determination of those within it, most especially children.
In Addressed to Greta, Greta’s mother, Nora, imparts her own jaded and cynical views to her daughter – attitudes and beliefs springing from her life of disappointment. No expectation, no disappointment is just one of Nora’s many mantras. Greta learns to live by it too, her mother’s fears shaping her outlook and stifling her development. Even after Nora dies, her cautions continue to wield power over Greta.
It takes Walter, a close friend of Greta’s, to realise that for Greta to live a bigger life, she must escape the long shadow cast by her mother. Walter’s insight and empathy comes from his own experiences, having grown up in a family where he was forced to live a lie.
Greta lives in a very recognisable Auckland, driving from Devonport to her job, and over the bridge to Ponsonby. Do you think writing about the places we live is important, and why?
Often we shy away from setting stories in our own back yard. The ‘other’, the ‘foreign’, the ‘faraway’ or ‘unknown’ always seems more exciting, more exotic, more profound. But there can be real power in the familiar backdrop, lending a story greater relatability and relevance, and giving what sometimes feels like our small local life, value and import.
While fiction generally affords the comfort of a few degrees of separation from our lives, its power can be in the recognisable. In seeing aspects of our life reflected in a story. The sense that a character’s thoughts or experiences or challenges or habitat in some way reflect our own. And in this way the familiar can work to enhance the resonance of a story.
Greta’s travels are incredible – have you travelled widely?
My parents were great believers in education outside the classroom, in particular through travel and books, something they felt to be particularly pressing when we were growing up under the appalling apartheid regime. To never travel (be that physically or through reading) is to believe that the pocket of world you inhabit is the only reality. They were determined to challenge that notion. My husband and I have tried to continue this tradition with our children.
I grew up Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1989 following my-husband-to-be to New Zealand. In some ways, our emigration because of the repercussions of fascist politics, mirrored my maternal grandparents’ emigration from Italy to South Africa to escape Mussolini’s tyranny, and my husband’s parents’ escape from Nazi Germany . . .
After my husband and I completed our medical training in New Zealand, we headed to the UK for work experience, ‘en route’ backpacking around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
England proved a great launching pad for exploring the rest of Europe, and we made the most of this during our three years away, returning home to New Zealand in 1997. New Zealand has been a wonderful home to us in so many ways, and we continue to explore its beauty as keen trampers.
Some years ago, my brother treated me to a week in New York – a place I’d never been before and where he had spent a lot of time.
Then, after my mum passed, we used some of her generous legacy, to take our family to Rwanda, trekking into the Ngungwe Forest National Park and the Volcanoes National Park to see the endangered gorillas and chimpanzees. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience.
I wish I had more space to expand on these standout adventures. I still get excited just thinking about them.
What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?
Growing up, I was hugely influenced by those brave, socially-conscious authors such as Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee , and André Brink, who, despite the heavy censorship operating during the apartheid era, used their pens and position of privilege to document the atrocities of the regime and provoke change. Their works gave me an appreciation for the power of the written word as a tool for change, as did the lyrics of socially conscious Mexican-American singer songwriter Sixton Rodriguez.
Other authors that have impacted my writing (so hard to narrow down) include Ian Cross, Toni Morrison, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Alan Duff, Jesmyn Ward, and George Saunders.
If Addressed to Greta were to be made into a film, who would you cast?
Ha! I like to see new faces on the screen, as I think they give characters their own authenticity. But hey, I reckon Miranda Hart would do a great job of being Greta, and Eric Bana would make a fine Walter.
What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I have just finished I Wish I Wish by Zirk van den Berg. A tiny gem of book with such emotional depth. The Afrikaans version recently won the Hofmeyr Prize in South Africa.
On my bedside table is Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Fake Baby by Amy McDaid, and Shepherds and Butchers by Chris Marnewick.
READ CLOSE:Your debut novel, Victory Park, began as your MA thesis at the IIML at Victoria University. Tell us about how that year impacted your writing and this novel in particular?
RACHEL KERR: Well I was incredibly lucky to have Emily Perkins as my supervisor. From the start, she emphasized the importance of depth and imagination over surface things like everything flowing nicely, which can be fixed later. There were practical suggestions such as that it’s a good idea to keep writing forwards in a first draft rather than to be tempted to keep going back and fixing things – which meant I actually got somewhere. We did a lot of work at sentence level, looking at ways of organising words and phrases. The class extensively discussed different approaches taken by authors we loved, both at a philosophical level, and at a practical craft level. It was also very useful if quite painful at times to have my work read and discussed by the group as it helped me get a clear picture of my strengths and weaknesses. One of the challenges I had was that in writing about children, it’s easy for the prose to pick up a whiff of childishness, and I had to work hard against that.
Kara, a bereaved mother of two, forges an unlikely friendship with Bridget, her new neighbour and wife of a disgraced fund investor – and it’s this relationship, and not a love story, that drives the novel. Are you interested in the potential for more novels to interrogate female friendship like you have done here?
I’m certainly interested in novels by other women which do this – I’m not sure my own next book will though. Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall springs to mind as a stunning recentish example. Pip Adam’s Nothing to See. Some of the stories in the epic Sport 47. Female friendships form such a bulwark for women in tough times but can go horribly wrong.
We’d love to hear about the research you did for this novel – meeting people, walking around Wellington, understanding the dynamics of life for many different people. Please tell us about it.
Sure. At the start I read a lot about Ponzi schemes, including about Bernie Madoff, but also various court cases. Almost none of that ended up in the book, and I’d be more focussed about it next time, or maybe hold off on doing so much research until I had a clearer idea how I was going to approach the book. The most useful research I did was spending quite a lot of time in the suburb where the book is set, getting a close up idea of the look and feel. Very broadly, I think much of the ‘research’ for a book is the way you live your life, which can’t help but filter into the work.
Do you have writers, books, art, music or film that you consider influential or inspirational for your writing?
A couple of writers who I find directly inspirational are Penelope Fitzgerald and Doris Lessing. Not exactly obscure choices but it’s hard to go past them! Both of them have a surface simplicity and accessibility, while doing some fine moral calibration underneath. Both balance the full range of experience in terms of highs and lows, with authenticity and some joy and humour.
In terms of films, I particularly enjoy a well-made documentary. My favourite last year was The Silence of Others by Almudena Carrucedo and Robert Bahar.
I Iike to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Victory Park to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Emily Perkins recently compared my work to that of Barbara Trapido, so I’ll run with that! In terms of local writers, I felt a real connection with Kirsten McDougall’s first book, The Invisible Rider, in its gentle depiction of characters struggling with the normal difficulties of being decent.
If Victory Park were to be made in a film, or TV show, who would like to be cast?
I’d love to see Rachael Brown, the woman on the cover of the book, given a screen test. Siobhan Marshall (Pascalle from Outrageous Fortune) for Bridget.
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
I’m reading Moetū, by Witi Ihimaera, at one page a day. It has each page in te reo, then English, so I’m trying to understand the reo first.
READ CLOSE: Remote Sympathy is set in Germany during World War II. Was this novel born from the research for your award-winning novel The Wish Child?
CATHERINE CHIDGEY: In part, yes – while researching things medical for The Wish Child I came across a book about cancer treatment in Nazi Germany. Hitler’s mother had died of the disease at a young age, which left a lasting impression on him, and his regime poured huge amounts of funding into cancer research. Such treatments as light therapy, low-vitamin diets, fruit-juice injections, Chinese rhubarb, even hemlock were all touted as breakthrough, miraculous cures – and so was electrotherapy. There was also a powerful anti-smoking campaign that feels strangely modern – although the impetus clearly was to preserve the health of young men so they could fight. Reading that material sparked the idea for Remote Sympathy – the story of a doctor imprisoned in a camp and ordered to save the terminally ill wife of an SS officer using a machine he knows doesn’t work. The plot came fully formed, which is rare for me, and too intriguing to resist.
In other ways, though, I’d been thinking about Remote Sympathy since the mid-1990s, when I lived and studied in Berlin. I took a university paper about German history for foreign students and our professor took us on a trip to Buchenwald – we slept in the former SS barracks. I saw just how close Buchenwald was to Weimar – that cradle of German culture and enlightenment lay just a few kilometres down the hill from the camp. Our professor showed us the stump of an oak tree known as the Goethe oak in the middle of the camp; supposedly Goethe would rest beneath it on his hill walks and write poetry. When the land was cleared to build Buchenwald, the Nazis spared this tree – for them it represented all that was noble and pure about Germany, but for the prisoners it stood for a Germany long lost. The extraordinary contradictions of the site stayed with me, and I knew they belonged somehow in my writing.
The characters in your novel are battling with the blurred lines between what makes someone good, and how to be a parent. How did the dynamic of three characters grow into the backbone of the novel?
The three main characters were there from the start, and the story very much depends on how they intersect. I was interested in writing about the lengths people will go to and the rules they will break in order to save themselves or those they love; the transgressions they will commit. At the lower end of the scale, Dietrich (an SS officer) marries Greta (a Catholic who must renounce her faith). More seriously and more dangerously, Lenard (a prisoner with Jewish ancestry) not only visits the home of Dietrich under flimsy pretexts, but also lays hands on his wife to treat her cancer. As a doctor, Lenard chooses to mislead his patient, treating her with a machine he no longer believes can help, and he maintains this lie even in the face of her worsening condition. Greta and Lenard develop a kind of friendship that in many ways is more intimate than her relationship with her husband, and Lenard enables her to rekindle her renounced faith in secret. All three characters are trying to protect their children from the reality of the camps and the war, although they go about it in very different ways. Lenard divorces his wife and distances himself from her and his daughter in order to try to save them; his decisions are morally complex and I took a long time writing those sections in order to convey those complexities. His letters to his daughter, and Greta’s imaginary diaries, are a kind of confession to their children. Hahn also loves his son, and shields him from the truth of his mother’s illness, but thinks nothing of raiding the toys surrendered by child prisoners at Buchenwald to find a gift for him.
A fourth narrative, written in the first person plural, speaks for the people of Weimar. Tell us how you wanted this strand of the story to inform the rest of the novel?
In the book I use recurring motifs of proximity and distance in many different ways. Lenard’s machine operates according to the principle of remote sympathy – the theory that treating one particular area of the body will positively affect another part some distance away. There is the proximity of the officers’ houses to the camp; the way that Lenard is allowed to get so close to his ‘Aryan’ patient; the way that Lenard and Anna have to distance themselves from one another…and there is also the location of Buchenwald, so very close to Weimar.
An uneasy relationship existed between the camp and the town: on the one hand, local businesses prospered due to the presence of hundreds of officers and the availability of thousands of prisoners for use as forced labour; on the other hand, there was widespread fear of both the SS and the prisoners. After the camp was liberated, one thousand citizens of Weimar were ordered to visit it to see the horrors perpetrated on their doorstep – horrors they had suspected for years, but which had only ever roused in them a remote sympathy. Through this collective voice I examine the enduring question of German guilt and German knowledge of the camps.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Remote Sympathy to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Would it be completely egomaniacal to choose one of my own books? Although Remote Sympathy is not a sequel to The Wish Child, for me it very much speaks to that novel in that it’s a step further into the darkest heart of German history. In The Wish Child I allude to the Holocaust, but mostly it happens off-stage, with the story playing out in ordinary homes. Remote Sympathy is still concerned with the lives of ‘ordinary people’, but the action moves to the concentration camp itself.
Although I didn’t think about The English Patient while writing Remote Sympathy, I think the two books might have a bit of a chat if they found themselves at a wine and cheese.
If Remote Sympathy were to be made into a film, would you have any dream suggestions for a director or actors to play the main roles?
I would love Jane Campion to bring her particular sensibility to a film adaptation. I’m also available if Wim Wenders calls. I’d like Michael Fassbender to play Lenard, the doctor; Saoirse Ronan to play Greta, his patient; and Daniel Brühl to play her husband, SS officer Hahn. Can I be one of the one thousand citizens of Weimar?
Tell us about your inspirations and influences – writers, music, art or film that have had an impact on your writing.
German Expressionism took hold of me in my early twenties; I fell in love with the charged distortions of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes, the stark woodcuts of Emil Nolde. I adored, too, the brooding films of FW Murnau and Fritz Lang that not only gestured to the fracturing effects of WW1 but also seemed to foreshadow something terrible to come. German soprano Lotte Lehmann’s recording of the Beethoven aria ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (‘Come, Hope’) is lodged deep in my brain and also appears in Remote Sympathy. I returned to Thomas Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar when I was writing the book; it offers such a richly realised portrait of Goethe’s cultured, humane Weimar. (I was fascinated to discover that the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg quoted the novel in the trial, thinking he was quoting the real Goethe.) Some of my early literary influences were Janet Frame, Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey and Angela Carter.
What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I’m reading the manuscript of Tracey Slaughter’s new collection of short stories (as yet unnamed) which is to be published by VUP next year, and it’s stunning. Savage, dark, funny, luminous – there’s no one quite like her. I’m also enjoying The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, with its heady family secrets in danger of being exposed. As research for my next novel, I’m reading a lot about high country farming in New Zealand, the intricacies of water rights in Central Otago, and the anatomy of the Australian magpie. I’m looking forward to Tusiata Avia’s new collection of poetry, The Savage Coloniser, and the novel Conjure Women by Afia Atakora.
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.
READ CLOSE: The main character, Erin, and both her mother and her aunt, were competitive swimmers. Tell us about why you chose this sport?
CHLOE LANE: I wrote The Swimmers when I was living in Florida. I was a competitive swimmer when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t swum for years. Florida helped me find my way back to it. The pools there are many and stunning, and it’s easy to swim outdoors for nine or ten months of the year, twelve months if you’re a little braver and willing to face the freezing temperatures of the short winter. My life in Florida was simple: I wrote, taught and took classes, and I swam. When I started thinking more deeply about who Erin, Aunty Wynn, and Erin’s mother were, the things they did and loved that helped to make them who they were, swimming was at the forefront of my own heart and mind. In addition to being members of the same family, I wanted there to be something at the beginning of the novel that bound these women together, even if it was only this sport.
I personally love how solitary swimming is. Even when I belonged to a club and trained for hours every day with other athletes, all of us moving up and down the lane with only an arm’s length between us, it was never a team pursuit. Come competition day you’re even more alone. It’s only you up there on the starting blocks. It takes a certain kind of person to be fulfilled by this kind of activity, I think. A self-centered, very focused and determined, maybe even obsessive personality. On the surface the three central women in The Swimmers seem very different, but they all share some of these personality traits: Erin’s mother has lived her life by her own rules, and for the most part done all of it alone, even admirably so; Erin wants to be part of something bigger, but in her heart she’s still too selfish and ambitious to make room for other people; and some of the things the reader learns about Aunty Wynn in the novel reveals how self-centered she can be too. What these women experience over the five days of The Swimmers shakes some of this up, but this is where we first find them, where we begin.
You could never have known how timely the topic of euthanasia would be, with the referendum timed for not long after publication. Are you interested in bio-ethical issues, or was this story driven by character?
I wanted to find out what it would look like for a regular Kiwi family to help take the life of one of their own. I wanted to see the logistics of that play out. But more importantly, I wanted to see what kind of emotional toll it would take on the people involved. The first version of this story was a short I brought to Jill Ciment’s workshop at the University of Florida (UF). It was a grainy piece about a fractured family coming together to scatter the ashes of a recently deceased member. Jill was the one to point out I was trying to cram too much into this short piece and that it wasn’t working. She showed me all the places I could begin to “crack it open” and suggested that I should try a longer form, take my time with it, go deeper. So while this is a story about assisted suicide––that’s what gives the novel its forward momentum––I think of it more as a story about family and some of the ways we get each other and miss each other, some ways we can hurt and save. On the journey to helping Erin’s mother receive a peaceful death on her own terms, Erin and Aunty Wynn do some morally questionable things. Though if I’ve done my job correctly, hopefully it’s what they reveal of themselves along the way, the small ways they change and leave themselves vulnerable, which gives the story its emotional payoff.
The Swimmers looks at beauty and ugliness, at success and failure. It’s a fiction that talks about physical prowess, artistic talent, and judgment: tell us about the process of writing a novel to create a world that investigates these ideas with women as the driving force of the novel.
I went to a girls’ high school in Auckland where it was drummed into us every day and then shouted to us from the stage every school assembly that we were exceptional young women and we could do anything we wanted with our lives. Some of the girls I went to school with were exceptional and now they’re out there in the world doing what they do and ruling at it. For the rest of us, this insane positivity was more of a double-edged sword. Yes, we all deserve to feel good about ourselves, to feel supported, to want and to not be ashamed of that want. But it’s also a bit of a shock to step out into the world and realise you’re only mediocre and that maybe your idea of yourself is not quite right.
For Erin, being able to make art and swim, to be able to do these things at the highest level so that others may experience some level of curiosity or amazement, be moved in some way––that was her dream. Through her failure to achieve this she understands that hard work and sacrifice are important, but that they’re not everything, that if you’re without that thing we call talent or natural ability, then it doesn’t matter how many kilometres you swim in the pool every day. At this stage in her life this is something she is struggling with, being what she thinks of as talentless. This is why she can only see herself in respect to someone else’s achievements. For example, her swimming career vs. Aunty Wynn’s, or how little she has to offer at twenty-six vs. everything Karl’s (her ex-lover’s) forty-year-old wife has to offer.
Some early readers of the manuscript thought it was strange to place art and sport side by side in the book, and for Erin to be as moved by witnessing an athlete in the pool as she was by a painting. I don’t believe these things are actually very far apart. I think about what happens when I walk into a museum or someone’s home and there is a painting hanging on the wall that stirs something inside of me. Maybe I just like the colours, the movement of the brushstrokes, maybe it reminds me of something, a room from my childhood, a place I visited once, or maybe it pushes at a feeling inside of me that I can’t quite describe. But why do I watch sport? Because I like the feeling of my pulse quickening when the person or the team I’m rooting for is doing well or not. And how satisfying is it to witness the human body at its best? I also like to remember what it was like to be fit, strong and quick, though I probably enjoy the sadness of losing that too, of the ways my body has since failed or disappointed me. At the end of it, the best experiences of these things make me feel something, good or bad, fun or dark, and maybe help me know myself a little better. Erin gets that too.
What books, film, art or music have influenced your writing?
Probably the biggest breakthrough I had with my writing, and this was something that happened while I was studying at UF, was letting go of the kind of writer I wanted to be for the kind of writer I could be. Jill Ciment helped me a lot with this. So did Padgett Powell. Padgett’s mentor was Donald Barthelme, and his reading lists included Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Flann O’Brien, and Barthelme. But the one author we read every week, his Collected Stories becoming a sort of bible for Padgett’s class, was the Irish author William Trevor. Some of Trevor’s stories are the singularly most devastating things I’ve ever read, likely ever will read. While I’m writing this I’m thinking about a scene from a Trevor story that I haven’t read in years, but that still pulls at me, tears me up. They’re traditional stories, no games. Reading Trevor made me see that style is style, that it’s in you or it isn’t, and even then if those fun and tricks on the page are not in service of a truckload of humanity, then they’re just that––fun and tricks. Fun and tricks can be great, but Padgett used to quote Barthelme here: “What must wacky modes do? Break their hearts.” I’d been so focused on trying to write with style I’d forgotten what writing can do, the best thing about it. So I stopped trying to write in wacky mode and instead I focused on putting the sentences down on the page in the clearest way possible. It started to work then.
I guess if I could only read one author for the rest of my life William Trevor would be a top contender. Up there with him would be Joy Williams, Alice Munro, Anne Enright and, though she has been less of an influence and more of goddess to worship at the feet of, Flannery O’Connor.
I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see The Swimmers sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.
A couple of books came out while I was working on The Swimmers that I really enjoyed, and that to a lesser or greater extent are narrated by young women at crossroads, while also exploring narratives around difficult families. These are Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. One of my absolute favourite authors is Anne Enright. Her novel The Gathering is one I come back to again and again. She writes about family unhappiness with such unflinching clarity, intelligence, heartbreaking honesty, but also with a humour that is so slight and dark it works like another punch to the guts.
What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
I’m just about finished reading Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, which is so tough and funny and unbelievably moving. I was recently trying to describe Pip’s writing to someone, the often breathless quality of it, and the best I could come up with was that it felt a bit like rolling down a hill where you feel like you’ve lost control, you’re at the mercy of gravity. But before you crash or careen off the edge of the cliff, Pip catches you, and you realise that you weren’t falling, that she was pulling you along and always in control, taking you exactly the direction she wanted to take you. It’s a wild and rewarding ride. Next on my “for fun” list are A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux and Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I’ve also got a few things I’m re-reading in connection to the new novel I’m working on: A Separation by Katie Kitamura, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and Joy Williams’ incredible travel guide on the Florida Keys.
READ CLOSE:Sprigs is set in the world of Wellington private schools. Although there are plenty of characters who are adults, the novel focuses on teenagers – tell us about your research into teens in 2018, and how you created a world full of their concerns and their behaviours and their speech?
BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: My starting point for the teenagers was that the differences across generations of teenagers aren’t as stark as older people think – there are the same concerns and same desires, but all that changes is the technology / media and the argot. So I thought very hard about my teenage years and how we behaved / thought / talked.
I read a lot online, listened to YouTube videos of teenagers, eavesdropped on public transport, and listened to how a lot of younger people talked. That said, I knew I’d never get true fidelity to contemporary teenagers’ language, so I created dialogue that felt real to me and real to the story, and hoped for the best.
I credit contemporary teenagers with being a bit more aware of the world than I was, but I was also conscious that exclusive environments, like the schools in question, have their own rules / logic, that helps shape people.
This is a novel that is deeply concerned with big issues of Aotearoa in our time, sliced through with humour that leans into the absurd irony of life. Do you have any writers, books, or TV or film that you look to as influencing or informing your writing?
I think the biggest influence would be the Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova. She made deeply political and black films until relatively recently when she died. I saw a retrospective of her films in 2013 and it basically reshaped how I thought about tone and empathy and anger. A good starting point for her films would be Melody for a Street Organ, which is about two orphans wandering the wintery streets of Kiev looking for food / shelter, while the adults around them try to rip them off.
Another big influence is the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote about big events and trauma and politics in such personal, harrowing ways. They’re written so gently, but so devastatingly.
In terms of writers from Aotearoa, the biggest influences on this book itself would have been Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (particularly in the way she shows how a subject is constituted and re-constituted via trauma), Pip Adam’s The New Animals, and Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys. I’d also add a new generation of Māori writers are absolutely inspiring in their refusal to compromise their work / politics – I’m thinking of the likes of Tayi Tibble, Anahera Gildea, essa may ranapiri, Hana Pera Aoake etc.. I think they’re showing how to hold true to oneself, while also making radical art (without caring what people like me would think).
I’ve not encountered many novels with a content warning – the closest I’ve seen perhaps would be a copy of American Psycho wrapped in plastic in the bookshop – and plenty of novels I have read include rape. Do you think this should be standard in books, like a classification rating on films and TV?
It’s funny because this has seemed to be a major talking point, and I don’t really understand why! I think the literary community is way too snooty about these. It’s not as if people used to walk into video stores and complain about the warning stickers there. I’ve included content warnings in all except my first book, but this is by far, the most detailed / necessary I think in all of my books.
I think they should be par for the course. The function of art is to manipulate your audience. If one of the ways you’ll be manipulating your audience is via something that is traumatic, then it’s only fair that you give people a heads up, so they can decide whether they want to read it or not. Given this book is about sexual violence, readers should feel more than welcome not to read it, or if they want to read it, they know what they’re in for. People make decisions about what they choose to read or not to read all of the time, and I think this is simply part of helping someone make that choice.
I also don’t see it as a big deal or a free speech issue. I didn’t change what I wrote about in the book. I don’t think I pulled any punches. If you’re not going to be affected by the subject matter or don’t care for the content warning, then you could treat it like how everyone treats the ISBN page and just ignore it.
Almost all the adults characters in Sprigs are flawed, leaving them incompetent and unhelpful for the teenagers who need their care and guidance. Could you tell us about how you see the dynamic between secondary school age children and the adults who run the world they are attempting to navigate, and how it succeeds and how it fails?
I have commonly written about incompetent and ignorant adults, and the way these adults collude with, or create, unequal power structures. I think it’s an obvious point, but just because someone is a buffoon, it doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. I also think one of the major ways structural inequalities are actually and actively maintained is because when adults are put to the test, they end up falling back on self-interested, stereotypical ways. They look for the easy way out because they think it’s the only way to react.
I’m interested in how much someone is shaped by an institution or a particular discursive framework. I think certain types of masculine ideals in particular are very well established for boys by the time they’re teenagers, and they aren’t too different from what adults have also helped define. I remember how much idiotic stuff I believed / understood to be true when I was teenager and young adult (and how I still have to continue to unlearn things).
I was really interested in exploring whether there is room for people to escape these frameworks and if there is agency. And how much the worst of the teenage behaviour is simply a reflection of adult behaviour. There’ll always be gaps and space for people to resist (ideologies have to be constantly re-won, for example), but it will require people to be aware of the frameworks in the first place. And people not to rely on the ‘easy’ way out. While the title sprigs obviously refers to the sprigs on a rugby boot, the part of the boot that allows you to run while in the mud, or to ruck an opponent, I also had in mind plants and growth and buds.
If Sprigs were to be made into a TV series or a film, would you want to be involved in the casting and the screenplay? Would you have any preference for actors or directors?
Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. My background is film (I have an MA in it) so scriptwriting is something I’ve done in the past. However, I’ve often treated my books as something that is done, and I move onto the next thing. I struggle to get myself back into the book once it’s finished.
If this was made into a film / TV series, then I would have requirements though – Priya would have to be played by a Tamil actor, and the director or directors would need to be non-white. This is because the book is also about white supremacy and how non-white people are able to move in such spaces.
I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see Sprigs sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.
I think it’ll sit very nicely alongside two recent Wellington novels – Pip Adam’s Nothing to See and David Coventry’s Dance Prone. Both are brilliant books that similarly deal with trauma and memory and toxic behaviours, and I’d like to think my book touches on similar ground.
What are you reading at the moment? What is on your ‘To Be Read’ pile?
I’m enjoying being able to read for pleasure at the moment! I’ve just finished Dance Prone [David Coventry]. The next books I’ll read, I think, are Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy, Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe, and Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu.
READ CLOSE: Your debut novel The Girl in The Mirror is a racy, pacy thriller – could you tell us about the writing of this book?
ROSE CARLYLE: I feel as though this story fell out of the sky fully formed, and I had no choice but to write it down. I’ve heard other writers (such as Elizabeth Gilbert) describe the feeling that the story chooses the writer, and although I don’t believe in supernatural stuff, there was something a bit spooky about the process.
My sister, Madeleine, and I were both trying to write novels and both considering trashing them and starting fresh with new ideas. One day at lunch, Maddie mentioned she would like to write a twin story. I felt as though I knew what she was going to say before she said it, because I wanted to write a twin story too. When we put our ideas together, the magic happened. We had the key plot points planned within an hour.
So it was as if the story was floating around in the sky, and half of it fell into my lap and half into Maddie’s. We had to put the halves together to make the story complete. Fortunately, Maddie wanted me to write the story, but she has put an enormous amount of energy into it, too. She’s like a pre-editor, helping me shape the story before, during and after the writing process.
Twins are such a fascinating pairing in a novel. Could you tell us why you made your protagonists twins and how that doubling and symmetry works in the novel storytelling?
To me, the special thing about fiction is that it allows you to inhabit someone else’s mind. I don’t know any other art form that creates such a deep experience of living somebody else’s experience. Movies come close, but in a movie you are usually still watching the characters from the outside. When you finish reading Jane Eyre, you feel that you are Jane. Sometimes that feeling persists for a long time.
I wanted to take that idea one step further. If readers love being somebody else, what about a story about a character who tries to become someone else for real? I wasn’t drawn to writing sci-fi or fantasy, so a way for me to explore that idea was with identical twins.
Iris and Summer sail across the Indian Ocean, and you write this part of the novel with such clarity and evoke the feeling of isolation and beauty so well. You obviously have an affinity with the sea and sailing: do you think the ocean and its latent danger will feature in future work?
Yes, I think I can safely say the ocean will feature in future work, because I never plan to write about the ocean, but it always manages to sneak in. I wish I could have depicted the ocean as less dangerous, though. In real life, sailing is not scary. Perhaps one day I will write a book in which the ocean is better behaved.
If The Girl in The Mirror is made into a film, who would you love to see in the role of Iris and Summer?
My kids have been fan-casting the novel since I read them a sample chapter back in 2018. One son votes for Samara Weaving, the other for Margot Robbie, but the running joke in our household is that one of them could play each twin. My daughter, Florence, wants her namesake Florence Pugh. I can only tell you who is perfect for the audiobook and that is Holly Robinson. When I heard her audition tape, I felt as though they found the real Iris. I’m told the audiobook will be ready in August and I’m extremely excited about it.
If The Girl In The Mirror was sitting on my bookshelf, what two or three other books would you hope to see stacked beside it?
I would hope to see War and Peace, The Best American Science Writing of 2019, and The Day My Bum Went Psycho, because I hope that people read all sorts of books—and, like me, don’t have time to organise their bookshelves. I didn’t learn how to write a thriller by religiously reading other thrillers. I believe that everything you read influences your writing somehow, so you’ve got more chance of finding your own voice if you read widely and randomly. I’m a big fan of picking up some forgotten treasure at your friend’s uncle’s bach and reading it in order to learn what was once popular. Or just read it because it’s a book and you’re a reader.
Tell us about some of the books and the writers who have been influential in your writing.
I know I’m meant to list other thrillers, but honestly, some of them are too scary for me. I’m sure there are writers who have influenced me, but I don’t know who they are, because I’ve read thousands of books in my life and they’re all blended together in my brain like a soup that’s been cooking too long. So, my all-time faves include Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, the Russians from Tolstoy to Nabokov, and Marilynne Robinson. How you get from there to writing a thriller is beyond me.
What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?
Now I’m going to contradict myself because I just advocated for serendipitous reading, but I don’t have much time for it these days. As a Kiwi author who is published in Australia, America and the UK, it’s almost part of the job description to keep up with the latest thrillers from all these countries, as well as other notable fiction from anywhere in the world. I also feel that I want to keep delving into the past. There are still some classics I haven’t read, like Don Quixote. Right now I am halfway through Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Then I want to catch up with the latest thrillers by Chris Hammer and Ruth Ware.
READ CLOSE:Dance Prone is your second novel and is concerned with friendship, trauma, and music. Tell us about your musical tastes and how this novel connects and intersects with other art forms?
DAVID COVENTRY: My music tastes run all over the show, but lean towards those termed as punk, post-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, post-rock, on and on. But then again they don’t. I love all the music that appears in this book. But there’s a lot of music outside of the novel love too. I also adore some terrible, dreadful bands, just because they tickle me.
But to name some, my life feels in debt to bands and musicians like Big Star, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, The Gordons, Nico, Wire, John Cale, The Stooges, PJ Harvey, Nick Drake, Blondie, Steve Reich, Joy Division, Lou Reed, NEU!, Slint, Judy Still, Codeine, Galaxie 500, New Order, Television, Minor Threat, Cate Le Bon, The Replacements, Swans, Suicide, Can, Talking Heads, Hüsker Dü, NWA, Brian Eno, Jim O’Rourke, Cat Power, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Dirty Three, The Fall, The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, The Enemy. All the music that was boiling up in NZ when I was a teenager. So many bands, the Flying Nun explosion that was an almost un-trackable phenomena of greatness during the 1980s. Tanker by Bailter Space is an album still does my head in. I heard it the week it came out and I still remember the moment sitting in my flat with my friends going: How? What? What is that sound? It was so heavy but so pretty and strange.I still ask these questions. Things like that were life-changing. But near to every weekend from the age of 18 to near 40 I was in some stinking bar listening to bands – so to name any falls short of the gamut of acts I have loved for a night and never seen again but felt changed by.
Then there’s Bowie. Then there’s lots of folk music. Then there’s Neil Young, the Beach Boys and the Jesus Lizard. Then there’s masses of experimental stuff, electronic stuff. Then there’s Dylan and Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, the Skeptics, and, um, Supertramp. Big Black, Siege, Stevie Nicks and Nina Simone, Mayhem and the Staple Singers. It doesn’t stop, not really. But as an art form, I desire music, and I guess we’re talking rock music here, to aggressively challenge itself to maintain the hard simplicity of what was shaped into rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, but also not kowtow any perceived rubric of what rock ‘n’ roll is. I like the sound of guitar feeding back. Especially if it is out of tune. That has always been more rock ‘n’ roll to me than any rock hero guitar solo.
How this relates to art in the novel is this: writing about music in a fiction setting, the conceptual, emotional and intellectual yield of the form, is near impossible. Hence, I wanted to construct several mirrors of the punk rock scene. So, Paloma and Joan George-Warren. In the novel, Joan is constructing a society that attempts to deliberately mimic the culture of religious institutions, and she does this, she claims, as an act of art. It’s an attempt to understand in a secular setting the effects of the sacred and – let us say – tribal religiosity, its rituals and affects. Which is a kind of narcissistic reflection of what’s occurring as the band travel through the U.S. Punk and hardcore, they kind of operate as a wider art form than what is just on stage, the culture that forms around it might be considered the real art form, a mechanism of societal change and enlightenment. Hence, Joan comes into the text to mirror this and show this idea. And Paloma, she is trying to rectify the historical revisionism occurring in archaeological sites and so on. Which is kinda what punk, in my mind, should also be trying to do if it ever finds itself imitating previous versions of itself. I want punk to be taken seriously as an art form in the novel, hence the multiple mirrors of form. Though, you create mirrors and who knows what people are going to see in them.
Your novel moves about in time – 1985 and then post-millennium, 2002, 2004, 2019. We’d love to hear about how you believe time, especially two decades, shifts a person’s dreams, their fears, and their beliefs about themselves.
Hmm. Time shouldn’t do anything to your dreams, not really. Just fine-tune them. Myself, I have the same drive to make art as I did when I was a young twit with absolutely zero right to be dabbling in any form. In fact, the drive is much stronger now than ever. I don’t feel hindered in any way at all expect by health problems and so on. But fears, yes, that’s something else. They grow stronger as the body weakens, I think.
But certainly, the focus of the intent to make art has shifted. I remember when I was a 16 I told my girlfriend I was going to be a writer. Which is hilarious to me now as I didn’t even read books! I didn’t know the first thing about anything to do with writing except for this belief that I would be one, which is nuts. I didn’t even write, but I was going to be a writer! I decided, too, I’d also be a musician, despite having zero ability until I was about 22 or 23 when I actually began to be able to play the guitar. The drive is a very strange and mysterious thing, but vital. Without it and the crazy belief that goes on alongside it, I wouldn’t have ever done anything. I still have a ridiculous urge to play music, despite having a long career as a failed musician! Only time and energy hold that back.
If Dance Prone were to be a film, would you have any ideas about who should be cast or direct?
This is the silliest, silliest question, but, yes, fun to play. Firstly, the thing about writing a book in first person is that only the author ends up knowing what the main character looks like. The narrator hones in on the looks of the other characters but leaves himself out of it.
However, I was re-watching Twin Peaks: The Return a few weeks ago and there’s the nutso scene with Sam and Tracey in New York, in a room, with a glass box. I was looking at Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield) and I thought: Oh, oh, that’s Conrad. Rosenfield seemed to have the correct disposition of detached forcefulness to play Conrad Welles.
To direct, I think maybe someone like Kelly Reichardt or Andrea Arnold. Definitely a woman. I find myself very tired of men after writing this book! Maybe Crystal Moselle who created and directed the brilliant HBO series Betty. I freaking loved that series.
Let’s say Dance Prone was sitting on my bookshelf, tell me what two or three other books you’d like to see beside it?
The Names Don DeLillo.
Stone Arabia Danna Spiotta
Airships Barry Hannah
The United States of America is a character in its own right in this novel–the book is about road trips through college towns and wandering walks through small towns and sprawling urban cities. We’d love to know more about your own relationship with the USA and your experience of writing about it from Wellington.
I wouldn’t say it’s specifically about any of these things as such. Rather, I’d say these are settings for the book that goes searching for answers to questions of memory, art, trauma, ritual and a very specific moment in punk rock history and how it has echoed through decades. But yes, the USA and Morocco are very powerful settings. And they are the only settings I could think of for the novel. I tried setting it in NZ, but that didn’t work. I thought about the UK, but that didn’t feel right. I needed a much larger geographical and cultural space for these outcasts to move about in. I needed the possibility of heated deserts and whiteout snow.
But yes, I spent a couple of months driving around the USA about 15 years ago. It was great, magnificent and appalling. An immense country full of stupid and great things. It’s always an honour to travel through other people’s lands and you have to pay that back in some way. The thing you learn, obviously, is that it’s very hard to know things about the country. It’s so divisive and diverse in its physicality, in peoples, in dialects, in modes of thought, in sensations of self, tribalism, religiosity, of ideology. I found that the language there of my – if I can say (and maybe I can’t) – peers to be vastly different to how I, or the people I know here in NZ, would approach difficult topics. It puts you on the outside, which is a place of comfort in some ways. I guess it’s the not knowing that draws me to a place. Of always being an outsider. It feels dangerous and danger is always the best trigger to start writing.
Could you let us know the writers and books that have had the most influence on your life and your writing career?
I have a dear friend, now rightly a lecturer in the US, who one day, close to 30 years ago, turned up at my flat in Mount Vic and handed over two books and said: Read these. Tell me what you think. Those two books were Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, and White Noise by Don DeLillo. While I loved the former, it was the latter that changed my life. I was 22 and didn’t really know how to read, as in really read, and it was that book and then Libra by the same author and several others that taught me what literary works were all about. So, yes, Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. That was the initial burst that launched my reading and all, each of those writers had a huge influence, but DeLillo most of all. Then another wave during my thirties. Another in my forties. These day folk like Dana Spiotta, Elif Batuman, Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney, Jamie Quatro are having life-altering effects on me. Miranda July’s first novel got me in a weird place.
What are you reading now? What is next to be read?
For the last several years I haven’t been very well (I have ME/CFS, really messes with basic cognitive stiff) and I haven’t been able to read except in very occasional and small doses. That changed a couple of weeks ago with a surprise reduction of symptoms. I woke up and discovered I could read. I picked up the first book on the nightstand. It was Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. It has been a magnificent experience. Literally, I have been discovering reading again, and it’s like being a kid and seeing your first movie. What a joyful thing. The sudden and beautiful explosions of intellect you didn’t know you had the capacity to grasp. So I’m in the last pages of that and it’s been wonderful. Next up I’m going to read Nothing to See, by Pip Adam. It sounds like a blast and Pip is an excellent, excellent person and I have been looking forward to reading her for the longest time but haven’t been well enough to do so. Then, maybe Sado, by Mikaela Nyman. The release of her novel came at the moment of the lockdown and got lost; it deserves some love. I read an early draft of it two years ago and really look forward to seeing how the book completed itself because it was all there, just waiting.
I would assume Dance Prone would have a playlist – what songs would be on it? Is there somewhere readers can listen to your ideal playlist?
Yes, there is indeed a playlist…..It has near every song or band that is mentioned in the book, plus a few more who the band might’ve been listening to over the decades. Hence, it is really, really long!