READ CLOSE: Loop Tracks is set over different time periods – and the closest to present day takes place in 2020, during the level 4 and level 3 lockdowns. There’s been a lot of writers discussing how to manage the pandemic in their fiction, can you tell us about your decision to include this in your novel and why?
SUE ORR: I really felt as though I had no choice about including the lockdowns in Loop Tracks. I was already committed to a real-time narrative for the final half of the book – I’d already decided to continue telling Charlie and Tommy’s stories against the real backdrop of last year’s abortion law reform and the General Election. That was alway the plan – to graft their stories, their journeys, on to whatever played out in New Zealand politically over that period. Of course, Covid and lockdowns weren’t on the horizon when I made those decisions. But when they came along, I simply stuck with my original plan of grafting fiction on to real life. As it turns out, Covid and the extreme lockdown landscape were a gift to me – it was exciting and energising to let real events inform and influence the course of the story. Bubbles were especially useful – who would my characters choose to be with? Who would break the rules? I loved being surprised by their behaviour during lockdown and – as for many real people – there were some seismic shifts in their personalities and their fates over that stressful period. I do understand that there may be some pushback from readers about Covid fiction. But I’ve thought a lot about the fact that when we entered lockdown last year, we all had our own personal, ongoing dramas happening. And they didn’t simply evaporate on day one of lockdown – we had to keep dealing with whatever was going on in our lives. That transition really interested me in terms of my characters’ stories. I hope the treatment of the novel’s ongoing fictional dramas assuages any reader reluctance about reading the Covid parts of Loop Tracks.
Charlie spends a lot of time reflecting on her past in Loop Tracks. Combined with the title, the book made me think about how the past, the present and the future are all interconnected, and if you change one, you change them all, and that all decisions predicate the next outcome. Do you believe in fate, or are our lives predetermined?
I think I believe in a kind of a fate/free will hybrid. What would that be called… willfate? I believe very strongly in being brave, taking opportunities when they come along. The downside of not doing so might be that a door closes on you forever. You’ll always wonder ‘what if.’ I give my kids this advice constantly and often it terrifies them, but so far it’s worked out okay. Of course, you think things through before you make these brave moves and this includes calculating the worse possible outcomes, as well as the best – not only for yourself, but for others affected by your brave decisions. That’s something Charlie didn’t do when she made her decision on the plane at Auckland Airport. She was too young to be capable of the required calculations. I think fate is somehow connected to bravery. Ultimately, Charlie is called upon to be brave – it takes her forty years to find that bravery. Brave people who make good decisions are rewarded with new opportunities. At least, that’s my impression. For Charlie, it’s the opportunity to bump the looping nature of her life off course and find personal happiness.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
I’ve received lots! The first piece of advice I ever received was from William Brandt, my first creative writing teacher. ‘Chase your character up a tree, then throw stones at him. Or her.’ (William says he got that from someone else, but I’m happy to credit him with it.) I’ve done so much of this stone-throwing over the years, I could get a bit part in The Lottery. It has served me well. The advice that felt most relevant in completing Loop Tracks came from my writing group and it was pretty straightforward. Don’t give up. Keep pushing forwards. And that’s the advice I give my own writing students. Just. Keep. Writing. Oh – and also – never totally delete anything. I mean, you might take sections out of a work-in-progress, but keep them in a Spare Parts folder. Because when you’re embedded in a writing project, in a narrative, everything you write, you write for a reason. The reason might not be evident or clear in the moment, but 150 pages on, you will suddenly realise why that scene demanded to be written, and where it now fits. I love that about writing – the subconscious construction of pixels that finally unpixelate.
Tell us about the influences on your writing career and this book?
My writing career has largely been influenced by the years I’ve spent involved with the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. I tried writing fiction for the first time in 2005, when I did the undergraduate short fiction course with William (Brandt). I knew I’d found my passion, even though I wasn’t good at it. I was very unsubtle. I blush even thinking about it. The Masters in Creative Writing followed in 2006 – that was the year I started to understand the power of fiction in its many forms, thanks to the brilliant Bill Manhire. And then, a decade later in 2016, I completed the institute’s PhD in creative writing. That’s when I really learned how little I knew about writing… and that awareness keeps growing. That’s why we write, I think – we keep finding out how little we know. It’s good to know there’s no horizon for learning. As for influences on Loop Tracks – I tend to try and not let myself be influenced by similar works, because I fear accidentally pinching someone else’s tricks and claiming them as my own. So I never read similar texts to the one I’m trying to write – not at the time of actual writing. However, sometimes I will try and capture a certain voice – an attitude, perhaps, for a character. For example, when I was trying to capture some of the older Charlie’s most irrational and unreasonable moments, I’d read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Just to get me in the right cantankerous mood.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Loop Tracks to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?
Hmm that’s a tricky one! I’d like it to be read alongside any book that looks over its shoulder to an event in the past, but the characters have agency in the present. It’s that willfate thing. I shouldn’t mention this, because it’s just going to highlight how perfect her writing is compared to mine, but I love Marilynn Robinson’s connected novels – Gilead, Home, Lila and Jack. I love how the individual stories circle round each other, building a world bigger than the sum of its parts. And I love how fate and freewill constantly rage at each other in those novels.
What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?
I’m reading in preparation for the Word festival in Christchurch at the end of August – I’m in a session with Clare Moleta and Brannavan Gnanalingam, chaired by the lovely Tracy Farr. I’ve just finished Clare’s Unsheltered and my heart will take some time to recover from that profound experience. I’m half way through Brannavan’s Sprigs, and I can tell already that I’m going to feel the same way about that book. It’s all about the characters, I reckon. Like William said. Grow strong characters, deliver adversity, then chuck some more shit their way. That’s where great books begin. The Japanese have a word for the pile of books on your bedside table that will never be read – tsundoku. My tsundoku is teetering, but I keep stress-testing the physics. Most recently Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and the new Edward St Aubyn, Double Blind.