- 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.