Categories
Author QandA The Disinvent Movement - Susanna Gendall

Q&A with Susanna Gendall

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 novel or 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.

Categories
Book Reviews The Disinvent Movement - Susanna Gendall

Book Review: The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall

The Disinvent Movement by Susanna Gendall is a debut novel of poetic force, laced with a Parisian je ne sais quoi.

This novel isn’t heavy on plot but do not be deceived: Gendall knows how to make magic. The novel is structured into eighty-one fragments, none longer than three or four pages (most are only a few paragraphs long). This carefully crafted series of miniature stories form a web of meaning we are invited to decipher. Simple statements are twisted and turned to examine their multitudes of meaning: as the nameless narrator herself says in regards to throwaway remarks, ‘People threw away so much these days.’ Not Gendall. Even the most mundane can be transformed under her gaze. She gathers together her threads of story like precious treasure with skill and a confident dexterity.

The Disinvent Movement is captivating from the first page and doesn’t let up. Eking out details and connections, we find ourselves engaged in the story of a woman from New Zealand now living in Paris. A woman entranced by borders, boundaries, tunnels, insiders and outsiders, Amazon fires, insects, plants, death, how to find yourself, how to fit in, how to get in. Migrants and refugees and the climate emergency are all alluded to – though never with an interrogation. This novel doesn’t do that, and I’m glad it doesn’t. It would spoil the dream-like haze of this book, the hypnotic tension that hovers over the pages.

The narrator doesn’t quite know where she begins and where she ends, who or what she is. Other characters are telling her she’s like someone else: ‘It was another case of me not acting like myself.’ The Disinvent Movement captures the idea of mutability, of acting or imitating a personality, and the ever-changing essence of our beings. Who are we and can we be different? ‘Some things you just couldn’t do,’ she says early in the novel, but then again, why not? Life isn’t just one thing – it’s many things, many places. Different languages and definitions, different people. Lovers, friends, mothers: each important roles yet they could be filled by anyone. People are replaced and recast; she continues each day trying to understand the hidden mysteries of the world.

She feels out the outside, kept apart from others. But, ‘Once I was out, I wanted to get in,’ she says, and then later, once she was in, she wanted out. Out from a physically violent marriage that echoes her mother’s life. The narrator tries to leave her husband again and again. It takes at least seven attempts, she tells us, for people to leave these relationships. The difficulties in leaving abusive relationships have been well documented in research, and Gendall expresses the problems in exacting prose: ‘Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was about dismantling a whole system of belief.’

Along with her marriage, our narrator begins to question all the implicit rules of society. ‘How had we all just gone along with this whole thing anyway?…Why were we trying so hard to play by the rules?’ Like Kate Chopin’s Edna and many other examples of women in fiction pushing back against the pressures of expectation, Gendall’s protagonist imagines a world where she doesn’t have to abide by the rules. What if, she imagines, things could be disinvented?

This idea leads to the creation of a small protest group – The Disinvent Movement. At their meetings they discuss what they would like to rescind from invention. Comedy ensues yet the pensive mood of the novel is maintained. Our narrator rebels in small ways, looking to remake herself, or the idea of herself. She embarks on a love affair with a man she knows only as Maurice’s friend and takes action in the night to disinvent cars. The Disinvent Movement is hilarious too, in a quiet way. Gendall digs into the dry dirt of human experience, and finds the humour hidden there.

The story fragments often end with double entendres. Gendall refuses to make it neat and tidy. The reader is forced to reinterpret what they’ve read, to reimagine every possible and plausible meaning. With echoes of Livinia Greenlaw and Jenny Offill, The Disinvent Movement is a charming novel with barely a word out of place, prying into questions of how to be, or find, ourselves – if there is such a thing.

Victoria University Press, Contemporary Fiction, NZ RRP $30.00

Categories
Book Reviews Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is the second novel by Meg Mason, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. On the longlist for the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, it’s the story of a woman called Martha: her hollow highs, her life-changing lows, her depression and suicidal ideation. It’s not as grim as it sounds – Mason’s writing is blisteringly funny, that’s also chic and modern in its execution.

The novel follows tall, blonde, and brilliant Martha through the years around 1994 to 2017, as she navigates life with an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, and story moves around in time in fragmented anecdotes, jumping from her fortieth birthday party to her teenage years without skipping a beat, leaving stories unfinished at times, relying on the reader to make the connections and to understand the truth.

Throughout the story, Martha lives in Shepherd Bush with her father Fergus, a failed poet, and her mother Celia, a sculptor. The house is a chaotic nest of love and dysfunction. Martha and her sister Ingrid are close in age, and so alike they could be twins. Their relationship functions as the common twin trope in fiction – so similar and yet so different, so close and yet so disparate. They bond over their anger at their mother’s cold and callous nature, her alcoholic benders, and her sporadic attempts to kick out Fergus before taking him back again. Only there’s something very different about Martha, and it moves her away from Ingrid and everyone else.

Family is important in Sorrow and Bliss, and Martha’s painfully naive about their secrets. Most of the story revolves around Martha’s immediate and extended family: her aunt Winsome, uncle Rowland, and cousins Nicholas, Oliver, and Jessamine. Celia’s sister Winsome has married into wealth and lives in Belgravia, and we come to see the relationship between Celia and Winsome mirrors that of Ingrid and Martha. Each person in this family is in their own way self-centred, shallow, and cruel; although occasionally, they show each other the incomparable tenderness of unconditional love.

However, Martha’s challenges force her family to reassess how unconditional love works. How can you provide support in the face of unrelenting pain and illness? Would it be easier to give up on someone who can’t seem to ‘help themselves’? Many people will read this novel and see the dynamics of the Russell family mirroring their own journey with a family member who requires deep and unending support and understanding. It’s difficult and confronting, but an important story to tell.

While Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha and her journey to understand herself and her family, it’s also about the nature of love and being wanted. Martha lives in a world determined by her relationship to men: her well-meaning father, ill-fated first husband Jonathan, the semi-magical friend Peregrine, the ever-present second husband Patrick. Which men give her what she wants, and which men don’t. Who desires her, and who doesn’t. What an indictment of the way women often live! Finding a way through the patriarchy. Wondering constantly about who is admiring us. Who is loving us. Who might give us what we want. It’s a man who gives Martha what she wants: a psychiatrist, who gives her the diagnosis that makes sense of the lifetime of sadness; and it’s also a man who can’t give her what she wants – her second husband Patrick, who Martha assigns as the demon in her life because of his failure to diagnose her and to see through her lies and make her a mother. At times I ached for Martha to find a woman with whom she could find some peace, yet by the height of the drama, she’s pushed all the women who might support her away.

Patrick is but a shadow of a character in this book: Martha admits as much when she realises she doesn’t once think about his thoughts, his beliefs or his experiences. She’s awful to him, really. Everyone’s awful to him. I couldn’t understand why he continued to be associated with the family. But again, we are only hearing Martha’s interpretation of events. The unreliability of her story comes into play again and again, and it’s frustrating and real and dripping with sorrow as we see characters misinterpret one another.

Because we never hear Patrick’s side of the story, we never understand why he loves her, just that he does, and he’s willing to go through nearly anything to be with her. The love story feels both shallow and so powerful it shatters your heart into tiny pieces.

In a novel with many vivid scenes, Sorrow and Bliss sometimes missed an opportunity to give us more emotional power. A few scenes told in summary or flashback would have had a different impact if they’d been shown as present action. One example of this is when Martha mentions how an email made her so angry she repeatedly slammed the pointed end of her clothes iron into the wall, creating a triangular pattern of dents above her desk. Removing us from that scene, by virtue of mentioning it in only in a few lines during another scene, holds us at arm’s length from Martha and the truth of her lived experience. We’re only given snippets of this fascinating story, and I desired to be let inside the controlled narrative and see what was hidden.

It’s her story, but who is Martha, really? I’m not sure we know her truly, even at the end. We rely on what she’s told by other people, because Martha hides her true cravings and ambitions from the reader and her family. We’re told she’s beautiful – less so than her sister, but in a better way: ‘Father said, ”They might look at her first. But they’ll want to look at you for longer.”’ Several characters tell her she’s brilliant and clever and funny, although there’s little evidence of this in the book. Sadly, due to her illness, her potential is given no room to develop. She’s bounced around from doctor to doctor, provided with prescriptions like a medical guinea pig. What a difference it would’ve made if she’d been diagnosed earlier! Plenty of women can attest to this issue: in reality, women are diagnosed years later than men for almost all illnesses. Lucky for Martha, she has family with money – she’s never homeless, never abandoned. Her autonomy is oppressed under the dictatorship of her illness, but through it all she’s loved and wanted and safe.

Heavy on the sorrow, light on the bliss, Martha is irrational and irritating, heart-warming and relatable. Mason’s writing is fresh and stylish, creating an intimate novel that feels utterly, wonderfully contemporary. It’s bitter and funny with off-hand British humour, which makes up for the times Martha is frustrating enough to throw the book across the room.

Sorrow and Bliss is about legacy and inheritance, the genetic debts our parents pass down to us; it’s about homes and the memories that can be created and misremembered between their walls; it’s about being forgiven and forgiving, about forgetting and about holding each other close. It’s about personal crisis and the damage to those around us, it’s about parents and children and the lives we lead, as opposed to the lives we dreamed of. It’s about desire and being wanted, and about being truthful about what we want in return.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Author QandA Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

QandA with Brannavan Gnanalingam

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.

Categories
Author QandA The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

QandA with Rose Carlyle

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.

Categories
Book Reviews Dance Prone - David Coventry

Book Review: Dance Prone by David Coventry

Early in Dance Prone, the new novel from David Coventry, two members of the post-hardcore band Neues Bauen, Conrad Wells and Tony Seburg, both experience trauma – on the same night, at the same time. Different trauma, although Conrad circles around and around the idea that these events are connected, and the rest of his life is weighed down by the burden of finding peace. Healing is a step too far, for the boys in this band, for the women they abuse and neglect, no matter the depth of their artistic desires and their philosophical interior lives. Dance Prone is a novel that interrogates music and it’s capacity for producing societal change, the bonds of friendship and family, and the manner in which we avoid confronting ourselves with the truth.

Conrad is the guitar player and the driver of the band’s dirty, run-down van, navigating them through snowstorms to each new venue on their 1985 tour. Concerts are described in brutal language, and this vicious vocabulary creates a vivid and clear sensation of a post-punk concert. In these scenes, and everywhere else the music or the songwriting talents of the characters are described, Coventry’s energetic and multi-layered skill with words rises to the occasion. His disjointed and disordered style perfectly suits the themes of destruction and reconstruction explored by the musicians in the book – the breaking down of art’s ideas and meanings. Paloma, the Moroccan artist who moves on the periphery of the novel, when she meets the band at one of the artist colonies run by the academic enigma Joan George-Warren, says they make the ‘music after music after music.’ Dance Prone isn’t a clear cut narrative, either – it’s an attempt to create the novel in it’s essence: looking for the new, resisting the obvious, denying the familiar.

This ambitious desire to resist familiar forms and structures makes for a challenging read at times. Glorious detail (young women in the street: ‘Kiss-me mouths and boots, black lipstick and a kind of low-core goth’; the mention of a goat in the audience at a concert lifted to bleat into the microphone) sit beside sentences that sometimes drift into semantics, deep dives into the meaning of things sometimes as meaningless as cars changing lanes on the LA expressway. A long conversation between Conrad and a minor character named Blair should slow the pace later in the novel but instead becomes the glue to piece the puzzle together – who was raped, by whom? Can one experience be compared to another? Why do we remember and why do we forget? – and I found my concentration was held during these slower, opaque sections because of Coventry’s unflagging dedication to language and literary risk. When a cryptic sentence looms, deliberately vague and elusive, avoiding clarity the way Conrad avoids his feelings and his memories, I had a sense that if I could unlock this one sentence, then I might discover the meaning of the whole novel, or perhaps the meaning of life. So I continued to read, following the words to the next page.

David Coventry’s first novel, The Invisible Mile won the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His author biography explains that this book was described as ‘one of the most gruelling novels about sport ever written’. Dance Prone is also gruelling. Violence, loneliness, blood and sex fill the pages, and between the two novels, it’s clear that Coventry is committed to writing fiction that’s gritty and raw and true. The back of the book is packed with quotes from Carl Shuker and Kiran Dass and Alan McMonagle, all testament to the esteem in which Coventry is held.

Like the band members of Neues Bauen, the novel resists the easy option. It resists an easy read. The structure and language create a story that sits inside itself like a Matryoshka doll; only the dolls are cracked and reordered into a nest that takes time to stack. For those who persist, the novel splits open to show friendships decaying from deception in multiple locations, a haunting read that leaves you feeling desiccated and hollow.

The idea that punk, and many other art movements, is not about destruction, but reconstruction, weaves through Dance Prone. These men (and this book is about men, really, with the women supporting the action from the shadows) believe they can change their world with their music. Only it doesn’t. Conrad is the witness to the devastation, and the beauty, in the attempt.

Categories
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.