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Author QandA Greta & Valdin - Rebecca K Reilly

Q&A with Rebecca K Reilly

  • READ CLOSE: Greta & Valdin is your debut novel about family, love and friendship. We’d love to hear more from about how this novel came into being – the characters, the story, the writing process.

REBECCA K REILLY: I always have to start by thinking up a character as thoroughly and completely as I can before I can start writing. It takes me so long to do this because I really want to know everything that the character thinks and feels about things and how they move and what sort of food they like, whether they could answer a Myers-Brigg test accurately or whether they’re full of lies and self-delusion. I have to do that before I feel ready to drop a character into some kind of unprecedented situation, gently, because I care about them all a lot. I feel incredibly guilty if I make something bad happen to a character, even if they have it coming a bit. I have never been the type of person to find enjoyment in removing a Sims pool ladder.

I enjoyed making up characters and then writing them into little non-sequential, incomplete scenarios for many years. I first thought of the father character in this novel, Linsh, when I was about seventeen. He was a university student who was good at fixing computers and bad at admitting his feelings. Xabi was his flatmate and they didn’t know their two brothers were seeing each other. Then there were more and more characters, some I knew very well and some I didn’t, and some who knew each other and some who didn’t. And they would get together in raw text files and the Notes app, before I went to sleep, outside in the rain on my ten minute breaks from the call centre where I sold international train tickets, or when I would go and stand around in a toilet block no-one used at the University of Auckland instead of writing my dissertation.

Then after a series of unexpected events and personal crises, I decided to take my sort of Guatemalan worry doll bag of characters and try and make them into a proper story. And since I had no idea how to do that, and because I found myself with no commitments to anything else all of a sudden, I thought I had better apply to an MA programme. At that point I had to take out all my characters and decide which ones I could make a whole novel out of, so I chose V because he was one of my favourites, and then decided to play him against his younger sister, Greta, who I didn’t know much about at the time, but I thought I could figure it out. In Wellington, a city where I had lived for one year when I was 19, where our landlord removed all our doors and took us to the tenancy tribunal and I had never been back since.

  • Your novel is genuinely hilarious. How important is humour for you, and how do you think it should function in literary fiction?

Humour is very important to me. I just want to live my life and have a good time. Which I do as much as I can, despite the limits imposed on me by the housing crisis and the amount of money writers are making. As for how I think humour should function in literary fiction, I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I first read the question, in discussion with everyone I’ve met outside their work and at New Flavour, and in a shouty voice message sent when I was exasperatedly trawling the streets looking for the pink supermoon.

I think there is a belief that for a creative work to be ‘good’, it needs to be challenging or difficult in either form or content. I mean, I know this to be true, I’ve read the blurbs of award-winning books, I’ve been to a poetry slam, I distinctly recall everyone in Year 11 English making up dead grandparents for an ‘easy excellence’. And I understand the appeal of working out difficult feelings in text, through writing or reading. But god, isn’t it nice to sometimes feel happy? I suppose this is all to do with Capitalist guilt, where eating things you like and sleeping in and watching really crack up Vine compilations are all bad things to be spending time on. I still sometimes have a thought that I should write a really awful book about a sad man who cries all the time and faces many tough and politically relevant decisions, that this will get me funding and I can pay someone else to dye my hair for me. I shouldn’t do this, it might turn out bad anyway. The book and the hair.

In saying this, I don’t believe myself to be a comedy writer. I have no idea how to write a joke, I don’t think I could write a tight five or a YouTube sketch. I just think people are funny and situations are funny, and funny things happen all the time, so if you write characters that are enough like real people humour is bound to appear somewhere. Also I don’t know what people are going to find funny, in my writing or in my real life. Recently I was crying on the street because I went to see a house and the people were great but the house had a horrendous odour, and let me tell you, my friends thought this was very funny.

  • The cutting observations and interests of your characters were wonderfully creative – they comment on people and cities and the world in quirky and deep remarks. Do you keep notes or a journal in your life to record interesting thoughts about the world to work into your fiction or do they come organically during the writing process?

No! No, I never take any notes. I didn’t even take notes when I was an undergrad. I would spend a long time choosing my new notebooks for the semester and then I would get to the exam and realise I had only written one note, which would always be something like how to pronounce Thomas Aquinas? or PKW = Personenkraftwagen. When I sit down to write a scene I basically know what should have happened by the end of it and then how I get there is a total surprise to me. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about or what the writing brings up for me comes through onto the page and then I go back and delete it if it ends up being a whole page about the discographies of Nelly and 50 Cent, etc. I have a mind full of endless observations and anecdotes. Immediately prior to writing this book I went to the Balkans by myself for three months and pretty much didn’t have anyone to talk to the whole time so all I could do was observe and take photos of signs I thought were funny and save them for later. Maybe my greatest interest is to observe things happening and then remember them later.

  • What writers, films, music, art and other culture would you say has been influential on your art and writing?

I didn’t read books for a really long time, I read endlessly as a child, then found I didn’t like the YA available in 2004 which was all about being a vampire or having a sexy eating disorder or both. I didn’t really know how to find books I would like, not knowing anyone who had an interest in books and not having the internet, so I stopped reading. Then after about twelve years I was reading all these German books for university, and thought this would be a lot easier if the books were in English. So I returned to the book life. Because of this, my writing tends to be informed by books I absorbed into my being when I was twelve and the observations and feelings I went on to experience in my life as an adult. These books include Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, the Anastasia series by Lois Lowry and Emily’s Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary. Every time I look at these books, I think oh goddamn, this is why I’m like this.

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

I’m not sure. I wrote this book because I didn’t think there were enough books about Māori characters that didn’t have anything to do with gangs or violence, and I didn’t think there were enough books where fashionable things happened in Auckland. People have told me G&V is reminiscent of The Idiot, but I can’t say for sure because I started reading it, left it at my friend’s house, and then she told me I shouldn’t read the rest because it was too much like my own life and I’d be upset.

  • Is there a playlist of music that goes alongside the novel?

This is a playlist of G&V vibes, not of the actual songs mentioned in the novel because I don’t think people generally want to listen to a playlist that contains Boney M, John Rowles, and Herbs, unless they’re at a rural sports bar in the late 1980s.

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

Oh it’s horrible, it’s never ending. I’m reading six different books right now and I don’t want to talk about it. I request endless library books and eventually they show up and I have to read them so the next person can also get the email that their turn is here and they too can think, Oh god, that book I requested after I had that really strong cocktail in Queenstown, after I looked at the CookieTime mascot and thought is this what representation for people with gap teeth looks like, then decided it was time to request the latest trending books in literary fiction, all those books are now here and I must get to the library lickety-split before I’ve wasted everyone’s time. Some of the books I’ve requested at the moment are Victory Park, Detransition Baby, Fake Accounts, and Crying in H Mart.

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Book Reviews Greta & Valdin - Rebecca K Reilly Uncategorized

Book Review: Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00 Contemporary Fiction

This debut novel exploring the particular nuance of modern romance and the dynamics of an eccentric and worldly family sets itself apart immediately with its animated style and biting observational humour. Greta & Valdin, by Rebecca K Reilly (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Wai), is set in the author’s city of residence, Tāmaki Makaurau, with swift diversions to Wellington, Buenos Aires and Medellín. Reilly’s zingy and feisty prose makes Auckland seductive and intriguing, a surprisingly perfect fictional setting.

The titular Greta and Valdin are the two youngest siblings in the Vladisavljevic family. Valdin is pining for his ex-boyfriend Xabi (who is also his uncle’s husband’s brother, which oddly seems to be not much of an issue for anyone), and Greta’s in love with Holly, her fellow tutor at the university. Their family, a Māori-Russian-Catalonian blend, is detailed on a character list. This is helpful because there are two Gretas in this novel, joining the swarm of Greta characters in recent New Zealand fiction.

The chapters alternate point of view between the siblings, cleverly building on each other’s experiences. Greta’s headstrong and bursting into adulthood, sometimes more clumsily than she would like. The scenes with Greta and her friends were highlights – they felt animated and warm. Valdin, her older brother, is off-beat and meticulous. He’s left his job as a physicist at the university to host a travel television show, where his awkwardness makes for great content. Both Greta and Valdin are romantics at heart, and they share a dry sense of humour. Their attention to detail feels distinctly personal, and Reilly seems to revel in canny descriptions, indiscriminate in her skewering of other people’s habits and lifestyles. Character’s clothes are reported with lush prose, creating a precise image to bring the character to life. The urban setting and the fascinations of youth brought to mind Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, with its excess and focus on relationships within a material world.

The blurb indicates this novel owes a debt to Shakespeare and it’s easy to see the similarities to his great romantic comedies. Greta & Valdin delights in comedic moments and provides narrative space for characters who don’t conform to gender binaries. There’s a sublime openness to sexuality in the novel, a glorious world in which less attention is paid to the gender of your lover and more to status of your relationship. All the characters are multi-faceted and thoughtfully developed, providing the novel ample room to explore racial issues, love, sex, and family secrets. Although Reilly’s technique of telling the stories of the older family members through conversation felt contrived at times, on the whole she neatly untangled the family spectacle through narrative choices that felt organic and intuitive. The blending of cultural influences in the extended Vladisavljevic family meant plenty of scope for leaning into and subverting tropes and stereotypes.

There are a few writers who can make you laugh out loud the way Reilly can. Her comedy can be dry, but also sharp and icy: her tone is nimble and fresh without succumbing to chatter. There aren’t, however, many writers who can draw out sexual tension in the same powerful way. In a scene partway through the book, when Valdin is talking to a lover on the telephone, I was so overwhelmed I had to put the book down to take a breath, Wow. Able to push scenes to the limit for dramatic purpose, Reilly makes modern romance exciting and compelling in a way that reminded me of Sally Rooney.

Greta & Valdin is an amusing and vivacious romantic drama led by two hilarious and engaging queer main characters, and I don’t think you could ask for much more from a novel in 2021. Slyly political, this novel will charm you and keep you begging for more. While at times the two protagonists were hard to tell apart – sometimes I had to check who was the narrator – the pacy plot and quirky family dynamic more than make up for it. Greta and Valdin are more just two parts of a whole – together they form a unique friendship. Their bond is special and touching, and the novel deftly surveys the brother-sister dynamic, and how families can support and befriend themselves. With her frenetic and vibrant prose, Reilly is a fresh and daring new voice in New Zealand fiction.

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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