Author QandA Polaroid Nights - Lizzie Harwood

Q&A with Lizzie Harwood

READ CLOSE: Polaroid Nights is the winner of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize – tell us about how the book started life, and the journey to publication.

LIZZIE HARWOOD: I started it in 1996. It’s published now in 2001. What can I say? I’m slow to get my shit together. It made no sense until Jan 24, 2021 in an online course with Curtis Brown Creative where I realised everything Betty does is to flee her bed because she doesn’t feel safe there. So all of the plotless bar scenes that filled the novel for two decades could work because that’s Betty’s reaction to a traumatic event. I also NaNoWriMo’ed it in 2012 and that’s when I added in the ex dead in her bed and what happens to the villa: I was really sleep deprived with a 5-year-old and 18 month old and things got a little crazy. Plotwise. I submitted my rather chaotic manuscript on the prize deadline day and that felt amazing–to submit it. I’d committed to Betty as a heroine who refuses to be put in a box. Never dreamed I’d win. The Cuba Press team and I worked like possessed pixies on it all winter and voilà. It practically wrote itself. (Joking.)

This is a crime novel at heart – but it’s also about the hard work people do for their paycheck. You focus on hospitality, waiting tables and serving drinks. What drew you to portray the lives of people as they ‘wait’ on others, or serve others?

When you wait on or serve others, you’re observing. What better apprenticeship to being a writer than being acutely aware of whether or not the people your job depends on are happy? From the age of 15 in a Saturday job in my local Helensville café until 30 when I stopped being in the service of royals I worked for back then: I served and observed. Of course, my eyesight is shite so my observations are sometimes more about the emotional temperature of the room.

You’re a co-founder of the First Pages Prize – what did you learn through your work there that you now apply to your own creative practice?

Figure out what genre you’re writing. Give your characters hell. Use what you introduce. Get out of scenes asap and start them as late as possible. No throat clearing.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Hard to track but I think I’m most influenced by place. I was in Paris for almost 20 years, and in Stockholm four years before coming back to Aotearoa a year ago. France slowly seeps into you. Sweden is more in your face–the darkness, 8 months of winter, the interior lighting–it all plays on your mind in a way that’s hard to describe. Liberating but also pretty dark. I had some intense times there. In Paris everything could be a David-Sedarisesque personal essay and you could find a lot of humour in your inadequacies. Which was helpful giving birth there and raising little ones. NZ’s influence is hard to express but here I’m kinda an outsider. Or maybe that goes back to serving and observing.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Polaroid Nights to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

Less books than other media: the True Crime Sweden podcast – Pernilla’s voice haunts me sometimes. The Facebook group The Lost Nightlife of Inner-City Auckland in the 60s-90s – this gropu led me to make Betty a heroine rather than an anti-heroine. Old Polaroid photos – if you have any they’d love to have a convo with Polaroid Nights. They’d probably all get high together and play pool and rip the felt because they have such a chemical reek.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I’ve just re-read In Every Mirror She’s Black by the amazing Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström. I also just read Tim Higham’s Island Notes and Missing Pieces: Swedish Tourists Murders by Ian Wishart which is not new but my mum lent it to me during lockdown. The ending made me cry. I’m loving Force of Nature by Jane Harper. Also dipping in and out of Missing Persons by Steve Braunias. I bought loads at the Auckland Writers Festival and keep going back into The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia. TBR: all of this year’s Ngaio winners!

Is there a soundtrack to the novel?

‘I am the Resurrection’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’ by The Stone Roses that play when Betty and Foster ‘cash up’. Mix that up with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, add in a fever rush of house music from the 90s into early 2000s, throw in OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ some Deelite, and finish yourself off with Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ for a taste of Betty’s childhood.

Book Reviews Polaroid Nights - Lizzie Harwood

Book Review: Polaroid Nights by Lizzie Harwood

The Cuba Press, NZ RRP $37.00

The inaugural winner of the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, Lizzie Harwood’s Polaroid Nights is a funky romp through Auckland in the 90s. Playful in style, this novel has a crime thriller vibe that’s both sweet and gritty.

Betty Moonshadow Asphalt is a ‘hospo’ – she waits tables at the fancy Carcassone. Betty’s flatmates Alabama and Faith are hospos too, and the three women like to work hard and play hard – shifts at work are followed by late nights skipping around the many clubs of Karangahape Road and High Street. These nights usually end with vomit or black outs, but these girls are young, able to shake off the hangover and go to work the next day. They know all the bartenders by name, and the bartenders know them. It’s raucous and messy.

Only a new element of danger has started to taint the scene: someone has started breaking into flats around Auckland, raping women who are at home alone. The Psycho, as he’s known, is based on Malcolm Rewa, and the novel was inspired when Harwood’s own flat was targeted by the notorious criminal. In Polaroid Nights, everyone’s a bit worried about the Psycho, but none more than Faith, who’s given Betty an ultimatum: if she can’t pay her rent and her share of the electric bill by Sunday, she needs to find another place to live. Faith’s angry that Alabama and Betty are out late every night, leaving her alone and vulnerable in the flat – ‘If you’re not home, front door locked, watching crap telly by 2.05am every night, then I’ll get a man to move in who will be.’

Can Betty be home by 2am every night? Can she make enough in tips to pay her outstanding debts by Sunday? The nightly rounds of Quick Oblivion shots don’t make it seem likely. And when Betty bumps into her ex, Truman, later that night at Eros bar, things go from baad to worse, and Betty’s world starts to unravel. Betty and Alabama hate the cop assigned to the case, Simpkin, and decide to investigate the murder themselves. Harwood takes her plot and tests its limits, creating some brilliantly dramatic and funny scenes. One in particular, a confession at a funeral, has a slight farcical element to it – but Harwood sets the tone at the perfect pitch, and it never leans too far into silliness.

Though the material is dark, there’s a frothy lightness to Polaroid Nights that elevates it from trauma porn. There’s plenty of black humour and description of fashion, and Betty’s inner monologue keeps it from getting too deep, though at times this comes at the expense of a more thoughtful dissection of the crimes the book was inspired by.

Harwood’s language and stylistic choices keep the energy high – ‘Margaritas beget margaritas and you feel like you are now sitting on your red raw eyes with your butt peeled, waving in the air’ – and because the violence in the novel is never described in graphic detail, the lurking fear is always outshone by the comic absurdity of the main characters’ antics.

There’s a strong sense of bringing a time and place alive in Polaroid Nights: the characters are fully realised, from the chefs to the dodgy taxi drivers to the random people out drinking at 3am. Polaroid Nights is a fun frolic of a crime caper, a transporting novel about women’s vulnerability.