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Author QandA Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason Uncategorized

Q&A with Meg Mason

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.

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Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Author QandA Uncategorized

Q&A with Fiona Sussman

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.

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Author QandA Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

QandA with Catherine Chidgey

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.

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Book Reviews Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

Book Review: Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

Victoria University Press, RRP $NZ35.00, Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction

Catherine Chidgey returns to Germany for Remote Sympathy, the same setting as her Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize-winning novel The Wish Child. Though we’re not in Berlin this time: this novel is set in Buchenwald, a labour camp near Weimar. This remarkable and moving novel features a doctor with a failed hope of saving cancer patients with his Sympathetic Vitaliser machine; a young mother with ovarian cancer; and her husband, the administrative director of the labour camp. Together, these stories form an unusual and compelling triangle of hope, despair, fear and courage set against the horror and anguish of the Holocaust.

I sometimes wonder whether art created from the history of World War II can give us a glimpse of the reality, or if they only move us towards a mythologised version of events. Remote Sympathy seems to acknowledge this worry (doesn’t the title itself refer to its place in being able to create sympathy only from afar?) by giving us the narrative as imagined records of history. The narrative is broken into four: letters from Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter, Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the transcribed post-war interviews with Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn; and, finally, the ‘personal reflections’ of the inhabitants of Weimar.

Each character of the novel reveals and conceals themselves in their account of the war. Greta and Dietrich offer parallel versions of leaving Munich and moving to Buchenwald, where Dietrich undertakes a new position at the camp. It can be hard to believe Greta would have been so naive and as ignorant of the nature of the camp as she was portrayed, but this is the point: all our minds are exceptionally clever at deception, we are all of us working to maintain the beliefs we hold, even in the face of extraordinary evidence to the contrary. When Greta falls ill, Dietrich panics, and while thousands die around him, he goes out of his way to secure a miracle – using all his contacts and power to have Doktor Lenard Weber sent to Buchenwald so he can use his Sympathetic Vitaliser to cure Greta.

Dietrich’s narrative offers yet another example of the blinkered mind. His slippery, unreliable interview details the camp in juxtaposition to Lenard’s letters. He’s forceful in his insistence that he did everything to keep the record straight, and when he admits to stealing the gold taken from cremated prisoners, we see an evasive mind unable to comprehend its hypocrisy. He describes the actions of the SS toward prisoners who were dead on arrival at the camp as verification of their goodwill – ‘We did our best with them; even those dead on arrival received their own number.’ Dietrich’s faith in Germany, in the Party, and the Aryan superiority, could easily make him a stereotypical Nazi we’ve seen before, and the introduction of Doktor Weber into the Hahn family villa pulls the story away from cliche and into its own.

In his letters, Doktor Weber doesn’t flinch at recalling both his successes and his failures. He divorced his Jewish wife, leaving his young daughter with her mother, in the hope that doing so might save them both, only to place their destiny to forces outside of his control. He used his Sympathetic Vitaliser (a machine that sent electrical currents through the body, in the hope that the patient will be cured through ‘remote sympathy’) on Greta, aware that he couldn’t help her – and he hid his medical skills when he was in the camp. He didn’t look at medical x-rays of his patients, ‘not because they showed how quickly death can grow inside a person, how little control we have, but because they showed the failure of my grand idea.’ His vanity and selfishness, alongside his generosity of spirit, made him a wonderfully human character.

With their flaws and virtues, the characters in Remote Sympathy showcased the darkness inherent in human nature and the eternal battle of how to recognise evil. When Lenard shows his machine to his supervisor at the Holy Trinity Hospital in Frankfurt before the war, the older doctor says, ‘Sympathy? That’s a few hundred years out of date, at least.’ Chidgey’s novel suggests that sympathy is never out of date, not ever out of fashion, and our ability to care for people unlike ourselves is something to cherish and nourish, lest division forces us apart.

The ‘found’ narratives – the letters, diary, and interview – seemed obvious devices to launch into the story but they don’t detract from the novel: Remote Sympathy is spell-binding, a beautiful and sorrowful elegy to a time in our recent history that still has much to teach us in our modern world. Remote Sympathy lets the reader fully into the interior world of another. They also work toward the theory of how truth can be revealed and also concealed: like the photographs Lenard processes in the labour camp of the atrocities of war, exposing the composed images, the letters, diary and interview capture their story and expose it. One character posits that ‘if there was no evidence of that moment, then who was to say it ever happened?’ The precarious nature of history relies upon our belief in the stories we tell, to ourselves and others. The fourth narrative, the ghostly ‘we’ of the Weimar residents, lends a fairy-tale-like voice to the novel. It felt like an incantation, a chant of warning.

Chidgey’s attention to language and her craft has resulted in a magnificent book full of passages of sublime description and hidden allusion: ‘She breathed in and out, in and out, her eyes fixed on the garden just beyond the open French doors. It was in full bloom: little patches of cornflowers and clusters of purple pansies, and the apple-scented climbing roses trained over a wire archway that led nowhere in particular. And the geraniums: abundant splatters of pink and red, brighter and more profuse than any we’d grown in our Munich windowboxes, glowing in the last of the light.’

I could quote from this novel all day to explain its wonders, but you should read it instead. The words entered my mind, the rhythm and the spark of them sending reverberations through my body: these feelings perhaps only a remote sympathy, but sympathy nonetheless, for the characters, their hope, and their suffering.

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Author QandA Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

QandA with Airini Beautrais

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.

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Book Reviews Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

Book Review: Bug Week by Airini Beautrais

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Short fiction collection

Award-winning poet Airini Beautrais’s short fiction collection, Bug Week, deftly steps from story to story exploring various perspectives – both geographical and personal. Beautrais slides her characters and their lives under her microscope – a young woman trying to move on from heartbreak, a male teacher fantasising about his young student teacher, an older female teacher who has become an ‘object of general revulsion’, an albatross at an open mic night.

I like short fiction. A lot. I enjoy the brevity, the impact of the story. In a collection of stories, the worries and niggles that press on the writer’s mind come through, sneaking and snaking through the characters and the narrations, no matter how diverse. In Bug Week, these are clear – our transgressions and our attempts to disassociate ourselves from the natural world, love and sex, death and birth. Although quite different in tone and setting, the strongest stories from Bug Week reminded me of stories from Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn, particularly Watkin’s story ‘The Archivist’.

Beautrais’s stories are concerned with bodies and flesh and their uses and their decay, pitting humans against and alongside animals. Bodily functions and animal desire give many stories their heartbeat – hands and legs and touching waists and strange naked bodies like ‘peeled crustaceans’. Often the characters dislike bodies, the dirtiness of them. In the story ‘A pair of hands’, the controlled Richard is confronted by the gory reality of our physical selves, observing of the hands that the ‘severed ends were wiggly – lobes of fat, dangling tendons.’ In ‘Bug Week’, the main character likes her lover’s bed sheets clean ‘as if there had been nothing bodily happening in them’. This character is like many others in the rest of the stories, yearning for organisation and cleanliness and purity. ‘I just want some semblance of order in my life,’ she says, but it’s clear containment isn’t possible: nature will burst through any constructs we create to maintain control.

The inevitability of death is the rotting underworld you sense beneath most of the stories. The title story, ‘Bug Week’, is an off-beat entry into the world of the collection. The major themes of fertility, sex, death and boredom are introduced through the unnamed main character who works at a museum. She’s bored in her marriage, disgusted by the banality and reality of her messy life, and embarks on a shortlived affair with an entomologist who spends time in a ‘microscopic daze’. Some charming sentences mingle with the grotesque – the entomologist’s office was ‘piled to the ceiling with filing drawers, each with a little pinned death inside.’

Most of the stories work well, thought a few of them are definite highlights. The story ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ stood out for its light touch and dirty confessional style. Amy, the main character, remembers a friendship and the summer it all fell apart, looking back from middle-age. She details the way she lived, the intimacies of youth, now replaced with the intimacies of motherhood. Regrets are put under the microscope here, and one sentence drew together the bittersweet sadness of aging: ‘Someday I looked in the mirror and saw lines forming around my eyes, the beginnings of grey, and knew that possibilities had narrowed themselves, that I wouldn’t live forever.’

The biological nature of life hides on the edges of many stories. In one story, pregnancy is described: ‘bodies grew inside our bodies and emerged out of them, and screamed, and fed, and grew’, placing the birth alongside a butterfly’s metamorphosis, an emergence into the world.

Another highlight was the story ‘A summer of scents’. Smells and colours permeate all the stories, but this one uses it to greater effect. Beautrais’s style and confidence abound in this story. Again there are references to microscopes and the rank reality of nature – ‘the lake smelled faintly of microscopic algae’. The story centres on the inhabitants of an apartment block in post-Communist Germany, and gently reminds us that life is forever changing. Herr Rabe knows that change is necessary: ‘The other option was to remain here, and that was simply worse.’

The final story is titled ‘A quiet death’, though the death in the story is anything but quiet. The narrator is able to see her body from the afterlife, and she sees it, already ‘savaged by disease’, now defiled and desecrated. Though this is an awful and sickening act, the narrator isn’t overwhelmed. She sees this as merely another moment in which women are destroyed. It’s a sombre ending to a collection of stories that have moments of softness, humour and gristly detail.

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Author QandA The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

QandA with Chloe Lane

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.

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Book Reviews The Swimmers - Chloe Lane Uncategorized

Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Fiction

Content warning: spoilers

Chloe Lane’s debut novel, The Swimmers, follows Erin Moore over the course of one Queen’s Birthday long weekend. The annual Moore family lunch, usually held at her mother’s house in Wellington, is up at the family farm this year – because her mother lives there now. The five days in the novel are a heady, crushing family drama full of mistakes, small glories, loss and love.

The novel begins with Aunty Wynn driving Erin from Auckland, where she now lives and works as an intern at an art gallery, to the family homestead near the Kaipara Harbour. Erin’s life is a classic mid-twenties mess: a fledgling career, a messy love affair, a relationship with her mother that is fracturing further every day. Her mother, Helen, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier, and now her condition has deteriorated significantly. So much so, that she’s moved up north again, to live with her sister and brother. Erin is perplexed at the decision. But as the next five days play out, Erin realises she knows only the woman as her mother, and that she knows nothing about her mother as a sister, as a daughter, as a woman. This is a dynamic that most of us come to comprehend as we grow older: no matter how close we are to someone, they remain unknowable and mysterious even to the end.

The family dysfunction and odd interplay is familiar to most people – aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way? The characterisation is lightly drawn yet compelling, the scenes in which Uncle Cliff and Aunty Wynn have their toast – cosy and alienating at the same time. Erin feels like a loner, but she discovers over this weekend that she’s never alone, that she has a family, whether she likes them or not, that she’s one of the ‘necessary cogs in the one family machine’.

The crisis at the heart of The Swimmers is Helen’s decision to end her life. Wynn tells Erin the plan on their drive north, and the reverberations from the shock of this send Erin into meltdown. She finds herself enlisted to carry out the small details, and the large ones too, that will help her mother’s ‘Final Frolic’ go to plan. Erin is devastated and yet composed. Despite her grieving journey for her mother that began with the first signs of MND, Erin is able to help pull together the necessary ingredients – Nembutal and all.

The first-person narration is hypnotic and engaging. Erin describes the world and herself with punchy language: ‘…whenever I see photos of myself from this time, I think of the expression ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and how much I looked like the opposite…More like I’d been through the wash too many times. Faded out. Less there.’ The prose continues like this, fuss-free and unassuming, which makes the violence of the emotional punch all the more powerful. It’s not a long book, but it pulls you into the lives of Erin, Helen, and Wynn with such force that you cannot escape The Swimmers draft. The ‘Tuesday’ section, the day Helen has chosen to seal her fate, feels much longer than it is. The events of that Tuesday featured several uncanny moments that resembled episodes from my own life, so that I read it sobbing, my whole body upset and reeling. Thinking about it now, my head tightens and I feel overwhelmed with sadness. One simple sentence, ‘We bore it out together’, tightened the moment perfectly with five ordinary words. Lane has captured such depth and heartache, sorrow and truth – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by fiction.

The main character, Erin, is a failure and a success. These two ideas are what the novel grapples with, in many aspects of life – sport, artistic endeavours, relationships. Erin is worried about making the wrong decision, repeating the idea that ‘I didn’t trust myself to come out on top. And that’s what I was afraid of most: losing more than I already had.’ She’s worked hard all her life – trained hard for her swimming races, practicing her art, studying art history, curating her first show, trying to find love – and yet she’s failing at it all. Working hard doesn’t guarantee success. Success doesn’t make someone, or something, good. Wynn, Helen, Erin and her cousin Bethany are all struggling with fear and confidence, ambition and reward. They feel brave, and they make mistakes. They take a chance, they lose. The women – and this is a book populated and interested in women – work stubbornly toward their goals. Some are mundane goals like following the black line up and down the pool, others are considerably more frightening.

The Moore women in The Swimmers are a case study in how we behave under pressure. How we flail around in life when we don’t know how to live. The Swimmers explores beauty and ugliness, in art and in life; it’s a close study of the perfect imperfection of life. The necessary grotesque; the fleeting moments of happiness.

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Author QandA Nothing to See - Pip Adam Uncategorized

QandA with Pip Adam

READ CLOSE: Nothing To See has such an incredible cover. Could you tell us more about the process of design for this book?

PIP ADAM: Working with VUP on covers is really fun. We send ideas back and forward. It’s very collaborative and also acts a really good exercise in working out exactly what the book is about and how best to talk about the book.

My memory of how this cover came about is we were having a lot of back and forward and, although we had some good ideas, nothing was sticking. I think I was being a bit difficult because I wasn’t sure I wanted an identifiable person on the cover.

I was in Sephora in Auckland and there was a poster where two women were cheek to cheek each with different eye liner and I thought, Hmm. So, I found a stock picture of two people cheek to cheek to everyone. Everyone had been talking about asking the incredible Russel Kleyn [https://russellkleyn.com/] to take the photo for the cover. This excited me heaps because I love Russel’s work.

Russell recommended Franca and took the photos and then Fergus laid the cover out. It was very exciting for me. I have never had a real person on my book before and I feel very grateful to Franca – it’s no small thing to allow your likeness to be used to interpret someone else’s art. I particularly like the cover because I don’t think Russel simply mirrored the image – this means both halves of Franca’s face are slightly different. I think this is slightly more un-nerving, which I really like.

If Nothing To See were to be made as a film or TV show, who would you cast in the roles?

I don’t think I would want to cast this myself. I think my answer for this question goes back to my resistance to having an actual person on the cover of the book. I have this hope, which I think is possibly a cop-out, that people will build the identity of the characters for themselves. I’m quite light on description of characters, purposefully, and I think in my head, I often don’t see characters. Instead, I kind of experience them from inside. I hope what this means is that people who read the book can do the same.

I think this was part of the discussion we had around the cover. People were talking about a ‘non-descript’ or ‘unrecognisable’ person on the cover and we always kept landing on this ideal of ‘normal’ that I felt didn’t represent the way I had been trying to write the characters. I think ‘normal’ often means ‘closest to the people in power’ and, like I say, I have this idea that if I write characters the way I do, there’s space for people to insert people who look like they do into the work.

Like I say, I’m aware that maybe this is a cop-out for facing the harder questions around including characters who have experiences different from mine.

I always imagine books existing in conversation with other booksIf you could place Nothing To See with two or three other books that it would ‘speak’ to, which books would they be?

One book I had in mind was Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly because of its interest in addiction and the way it talks about this in a science fiction world. I also have a lot to owe Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous which is a work that holds itself strong as a novel despite being linked strongly with autobiography.

Are there any books or writers you see as the most influential in your writing?

Bae Suah has been incredibly influential. Bae Suah writes the feminine experience like no other writer I can think of.

I also think Nothing to See owes so much to the TV series The Leftovers and the work of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij both of which were a touchstone for the book.

The Leftovers reminded me that what I was more interested in was the lived experience of the people in an unusual situation, than the mechanics of the situation. Tom Perrotta’s book series begins with a preface which explains a lot about the occurrence and it was interesting to see how much information could be left out of the TV show and it still be satisfying.

I am very obsessed with the idea of ambiguity – or the possibility of two things being true at the same time and that’s where I turn to Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij work. I am always in awe of the way they manage to keep two realities alive at the same time – resisting resolution – but still make fully engaging and exciting work.

If there was a playlist to accompany Nothing To See, what songs would you have on that list?

Oddly, there is a playlist for Nothing to See J It includes, music from each of the years the book takes place in, quite a bit of Aldous Harding, Fever Ray, Orchestra of Spheres, Car Sseat Headrest (‘Bodies’ in particular), The Knife and Sufjan Stevens.

Tell me how you challenge yourself as a writer, and how you see fiction writing in particular continue to grow stronger in New Zealand?

I think being a writer in New Zealand comes with quite a few in-built challenges and I guess part of how I challenge myself is by trying to find ways to lessen these challenges for other writers. I’m always interested in ways to make room for other writers because I think this is the only way to strengthen fiction writing. I often fail at these very badly and I guess this is another way I try to challenge myself – it’s tempting when I fail to give up, to retreat back into my privilege where I’m safe, but when I mess up I try really hard to not do this. I think often I expect living this way to be straightforward and like a smooth improvement but it is messy and I fail in all sorts of new ways but I can’t see an alternative at the moment and I want change very badly.

What are you reading right now? What is next to be read?

Right at this moment I am reading incredible work in progress from some amazing writers who I’m working with at a couple of tertiary institutions and through a mentoring programme. I get extremely excited when I read this work. I have also really enjoyed the work in Stasis Journal [https://www.stasisjournal.com] which has been an amazing project.

I am really looking forward to reading Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn and Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann.

Categories
Author QandA The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

QandA with Charity Norman

READ CLOSE: The Secrets of Strangers has a quality of film or television to the storytelling. Do you see your story in your mind like a movie before you write?

CHARITY NORMAN: I do, except it’s perhaps more immersive than a movie. For me, the fun of writing is imagining the entire story as though I were physically present. Much of this story takes place in Tuckbox café. I had a clear picture of the place and drew myself plans of the layout. I thought about sounds – the milk frother, the chatter, the radio, the smells of coffee and toasted sandwiches, and that London-winter-café feeling of warm radiators and cold blowing in every time someone opens the door. I spent time in cafés as part of the research – or so I claimed! Much the same process applied to other parts of the story – a Sussex farm, or a Rwandan hospital.

If The Secrets of Strangers were to be made into a film, are there any actors you’d like to play your characters?

Oh, that would be great! I think I would leave casting up to the experts. Mind you, if I had a magic wand it would be awfully tempting to invent a role for Daniel Craig just so I could look into his eyes …

You’ve written six novels – does it get easier, or is each book a different experience?

It doesn’t get easier. In fact as technology has become more sophisticated and online news more all-pervasive, I find it increasingly difficult not to be distracted. Of course, there are ways in which experience is a great help – for example, nowadays I write a detailed synopsis before I begin, so there are fewer blind alleys. I used to be swamped by self-doubt halfway through but now I’m writing book seven I recognise this symptom as normal, and press on. It takes a long time to put 115,000 or so words into the right order, and there are days when it feels like a chore. I need to be immersed in the story, to let the characters breathe and come alive, to edit again and again and again. None of that gets any easier!

What book has had the biggest impact on you? How has it influenced your writing?

Just one? So tricky! Well, I hugely admire the 20th century Irish writer, Molly Keane, especially her novel Good Behaviour. It’s exquisite – sharp and wry, occasionally vicious and never sloppy; it’s literary without being pleased with itself. Keane never gets her own cleverness get in the way of the story. This book has the most brilliantly portrayed naïve narrator I’ve ever met (or is she as naïve as she pretends to be?). I can never write like Molly Keane, but she is an inspiration to do better.

This book is set in London. Do you think this novel would be different if you set it in a small town?

It would have felt very different. I spend at least a month of every year in London, and most of my family live there, so it’s a second home to me. The city has a glorious vibrancy and I wanted to bring that into this story. People can be trapped in a café together, be very diverse and the chances are they won’t have met, have any acquaintances in common – try that in Waipukurau!

If your book was to be on a bookshelf next to two other books, who would you choose as its companions, and why?

The Long Way, a memoir by the iconic lone sailor Bernard Moitessier, because reading his words makes me remember that the planet is much bigger than its present troubles. And Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, because he is hilarious and brilliant and just seeing the jacket cover makes me smile.

What are you reading now? What is next to be read?

I’m reading Anna Burns’ Milkman. Next on my list is The Cat and The City, by Nick Bradley, which is a fellow BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.