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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

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Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Author QandA Uncategorized

Q&A with Fiona Sussman

READ CLOSE: Addressed to Greta is your third novel. How do you see your craft and your focus shifting over your career, and how has it remained the same?

FIONA SUSSMAN: At first glance, no one of my novels resembles the others – frustrating for anyone bent on slotting my work into a single genre. I think this has less to do with shifting focus over my writing career, as more just deciding to write the stories that demand to be told. As I begin on a new work, it is the emotional impetus for the story, and not the prospective audience, that inevitably determines how it will out.

The commonality underpinning my writing is the subject matter. I remain fascinated by those who are forced to navigate the periphery of society because of prejudice, be that towards race, sexual orientation, mental health, physique . . . I have always been drawn to tell the underdog’s tale and remain driven to shine a light on the challenges experienced by those who don’t fall within the narrow margins of ‘the norm’ peddled by Western society.

My third novel, Addressed to Greta, has a strong thread of humour through it. This was definitely a first for me as a writer. However, stacked beneath the humour are more weighty issues. Had I consciously thought about writing a funny novel though, I suspect the humour would have felt forced and contrived. Rather, it arose organically from the protagonist, whose social gaucheness makes her unwittingly funny.

Family dynamics are always at the forefront of your work – even when family members are no longer present, they haunt the protagonists. Greta is desperate to move out from under the shadow of her mother, five years after she’s passed. What is it about families and their relationships that draw you to write about them?

The role of family in the genesis of wider social issues has always interested me and makes for a fascinating lens through which to examine personal and societal problems and successes.

The family unit is really a nursery ground for the next generation, ideally affording a safe, non-judgemental space for personal growth and development. At its best, it offers a solid base from which an individual can venture out into the world to test their evolving persona, and a safe place to which they can always return.

In a dysfunctional family, the unit becomes a place of negative energy, criticism, excessive control . . . and serves to undermine the growth and self-determination of those within it, most especially children.

In Addressed to Greta, Greta’s mother, Nora, imparts her own jaded and cynical views to her daughter – attitudes and beliefs springing from her life of disappointment. No expectation, no disappointment is just one of Nora’s many mantras. Greta learns to live by it too, her mother’s fears shaping her outlook and stifling her development. Even after Nora dies, her cautions continue to wield power over Greta.

It takes Walter, a close friend of Greta’s, to realise that for Greta to live a bigger life, she must escape the long shadow cast by her mother. Walter’s insight and empathy comes from his own experiences, having grown up in a family where he was forced to live a lie.

Greta lives in a very recognisable Auckland, driving from Devonport to her job, and over the bridge to Ponsonby. Do you think writing about the places we live is important, and why?

Often we shy away from setting stories in our own back yard. The ‘other’, the ‘foreign’, the ‘faraway’ or ‘unknown’ always seems more exciting, more exotic, more profound. But there can be real power in the familiar backdrop, lending a story greater relatability and relevance, and giving what sometimes feels like our small local life, value and import.

While fiction generally affords the comfort of a few degrees of separation from our lives, its power can be in the recognisable. In seeing aspects of our life reflected in a story. The sense that a character’s thoughts or experiences or challenges or habitat in some way reflect our own. And in this way the familiar can work to enhance the resonance of a story.

Greta’s travels are incredible – have you travelled widely?

My parents were great believers in education outside the classroom, in particular through travel and books, something they felt to be particularly pressing when we were growing up under the appalling apartheid regime. To never travel (be that physically or through reading) is to believe that the pocket of world you inhabit is the only reality. They were determined to challenge that notion. My husband and I have tried to continue this tradition with our children.

I grew up Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1989 following my-husband-to-be to New Zealand. In some ways, our emigration because of the repercussions of fascist politics, mirrored my maternal grandparents’ emigration from Italy to South Africa to escape Mussolini’s tyranny, and my husband’s parents’ escape from Nazi Germany . . .

After my husband and I completed our medical training in New Zealand, we headed to the UK for work experience, ‘en route’ backpacking around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

England proved a great launching pad for exploring the rest of Europe, and we made the most of this during our three years away, returning home to New Zealand in 1997. New Zealand has been a wonderful home to us in so many ways, and we continue to explore its beauty as keen trampers.

Some years ago, my brother treated me to a week in New York – a place I’d never been before and where he had spent a lot of time.

Then, after my mum passed, we used some of her generous legacy, to take our family to Rwanda, trekking into the Ngungwe Forest National Park and the Volcanoes National Park to see the endangered gorillas and chimpanzees. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience.

I wish I had more space to expand on these standout adventures. I still get excited just thinking about them.

What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?

Growing up, I was hugely influenced by those brave, socially-conscious authors such as Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee , and André Brink, who, despite the heavy censorship operating during the apartheid era, used their pens and position of privilege to document the atrocities of the regime and provoke change. Their works gave me an appreciation for the power of the written word as a tool for change, as did the lyrics of socially conscious Mexican-American singer songwriter Sixton Rodriguez.

Other authors that have impacted my writing (so hard to narrow down) include Ian Cross, Toni Morrison, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Alan Duff, Jesmyn Ward, and George Saunders.

If Addressed to Greta were to be made into a film, who would you cast?

Ha! I like to see new faces on the screen, as I think they give characters their own authenticity. But hey, I reckon Miranda Hart would do a great job of being Greta, and Eric Bana would make a fine Walter.

What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

I have just finished I Wish I Wish by Zirk van den Berg. A tiny gem of book with such emotional depth. The Afrikaans version recently won the Hofmeyr Prize in South Africa.

On my bedside table is Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Fake Baby by Amy McDaid, and Shepherds and Butchers by Chris Marnewick.

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Author QandA Victory Park - Rachel Kerr

QandA with Rachel Kerr

READ CLOSE: Your debut novel, Victory Park, began as your MA thesis at the IIML at Victoria University. Tell us about how that year impacted your writing and this novel in particular?

RACHEL KERR: Well I was incredibly lucky to have Emily Perkins as my supervisor. From the start, she emphasized the importance of depth and imagination over surface things like everything flowing nicely, which can be fixed later. There were practical suggestions such as that it’s a good idea to keep writing forwards in a first draft rather than to be tempted to keep going back and fixing things – which meant I actually got somewhere. We did a lot of work at sentence level, looking at ways of organising words and phrases. The class extensively discussed different approaches taken by authors we loved, both at a philosophical level, and at a practical craft level. It was also very useful if quite painful at times to have my work read and discussed by the group as it helped me get a clear picture of my strengths and weaknesses. One of the challenges I had was that in writing about children, it’s easy for the prose to pick up a whiff of childishness, and I had to work hard against that.

Kara, a bereaved mother of two, forges an unlikely friendship with Bridget, her new neighbour and wife of a disgraced fund investor – and it’s this relationship, and not a love story, that drives the novel. Are you interested in the potential for more novels to interrogate female friendship like you have done here?

I’m certainly interested in novels by other women which do this – I’m not sure my own next book will though. Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall springs to mind as a stunning recentish example. Pip Adam’s Nothing to See. Some of the stories in the epic Sport 47. Female friendships form such a bulwark for women in tough times but can go horribly wrong.

We’d love to hear about the research you did for this novel – meeting people, walking around Wellington, understanding the dynamics of life for many different people. Please tell us about it.

Sure. At the start I read a lot about Ponzi schemes, including about Bernie Madoff, but also various court cases. Almost none of that ended up in the book, and I’d be more focussed about it next time, or maybe hold off on doing so much research until I had a clearer idea how I was going to approach the book. The most useful research I did was spending quite a lot of time in the suburb where the book is set, getting a close up idea of the look and feel. Very broadly, I think much of the ‘research’ for a book is the way you live your life, which can’t help but filter into the work.

Do you have writers, books, art, music or film that you consider influential or inspirational for your writing? 

A couple of writers who I find directly inspirational are Penelope Fitzgerald and Doris Lessing. Not exactly obscure choices but it’s hard to go past them! Both of them have a surface simplicity and accessibility, while doing some fine moral calibration underneath. Both balance the full range of experience in terms of highs and lows, with authenticity and some joy and humour.

In terms of films, I particularly enjoy a well-made documentary. My favourite last year was The Silence of Others by Almudena Carrucedo and Robert Bahar.

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

Emily Perkins recently compared my work to that of Barbara Trapido, so I’ll run with that! In terms of local writers, I felt a real connection with Kirsten McDougall’s first book, The Invisible Rider, in its gentle depiction of characters struggling with the normal difficulties of being decent.

If Victory Park were to be made in a film, or TV show, who would like to be cast?

I’d love to see Rachael Brown, the woman on the cover of the book, given a screen test. Siobhan Marshall (Pascalle from Outrageous Fortune) for Bridget.

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

I’m reading Moetū, by Witi Ihimaera, at one page a day. It has each page in te reo, then English, so I’m trying to understand the reo first.

Half read or TBR includes:

-Clarice Lispector, Collected Stories

-David Coventry, The Invisible Mile

-Sarah Moss, Summerwater

-Kate Camp, How to be Happy though Human

-Chloe Lane, The Swimmers

-Xanthe White, The Good Dirt.

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Author QandA Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

QandA with Catherine Chidgey

READ CLOSE: Remote Sympathy is set in Germany during World War II. Was this novel born from the research for your award-winning novel The Wish Child

CATHERINE CHIDGEY: In part, yes – while researching things medical for The Wish Child I came across a book about cancer treatment in Nazi Germany. Hitler’s mother had died of the disease at a young age, which left a lasting impression on him, and his regime poured huge amounts of funding into cancer research. Such treatments as light therapy, low-vitamin diets, fruit-juice injections, Chinese rhubarb, even hemlock were all touted as breakthrough, miraculous cures – and so was electrotherapy. There was also a powerful anti-smoking campaign that feels strangely modern – although the impetus clearly was to preserve the health of young men so they could fight. Reading that material sparked the idea for Remote Sympathy – the story of a doctor imprisoned in a camp and ordered to save the terminally ill wife of an SS officer using a machine he knows doesn’t work. The plot came fully formed, which is rare for me, and too intriguing to resist.

In other ways, though, I’d been thinking about Remote Sympathy since the mid-1990s, when I lived and studied in Berlin. I took a university paper about German history for foreign students and our professor took us on a trip to Buchenwald – we slept in the former SS barracks. I saw just how close Buchenwald was to Weimar – that cradle of German culture and enlightenment lay just a few kilometres down the hill from the camp. Our professor showed us the stump of an oak tree known as the Goethe oak in the middle of the camp; supposedly Goethe would rest beneath it on his hill walks and write poetry. When the land was cleared to build Buchenwald, the Nazis spared this tree – for them it represented all that was noble and pure about Germany, but for the prisoners it stood for a Germany long lost. The extraordinary contradictions of the site stayed with me, and I knew they belonged somehow in my writing.

The characters in your novel are battling with the blurred lines between what makes someone good, and how to be a parent. How did the dynamic of three characters grow into the backbone of the novel?

The three main characters were there from the start, and the story very much depends on how they intersect. I was interested in writing about the lengths people will go to and the rules they will break in order to save themselves or those they love; the transgressions they will commit. At the lower end of the scale, Dietrich (an SS officer) marries Greta (a Catholic who must renounce her faith). More seriously and more dangerously, Lenard (a prisoner with Jewish ancestry) not only visits the home of Dietrich under flimsy pretexts, but also lays hands on his wife to treat her cancer. As a doctor, Lenard chooses to mislead his patient, treating her with a machine he no longer believes can help, and he maintains this lie even in the face of her worsening condition. Greta and Lenard develop a kind of friendship that in many ways is more intimate than her relationship with her husband, and Lenard enables her to rekindle her renounced faith in secret. All three characters are trying to protect their children from the reality of the camps and the war, although they go about it in very different ways. Lenard divorces his wife and distances himself from her and his daughter in order to try to save them; his decisions are morally complex and I took a long time writing those sections in order to convey those complexities. His letters to his daughter, and Greta’s imaginary diaries, are a kind of confession to their children. Hahn also loves his son, and shields him from the truth of his mother’s illness, but thinks nothing of raiding the toys surrendered by child prisoners at Buchenwald to find a gift for him.

A fourth narrative, written in the first person plural, speaks for the people of Weimar. Tell us how you wanted this strand of the story to inform the rest of the novel?

In the book I use recurring motifs of proximity and distance in many different ways. Lenard’s machine operates according to the principle of remote sympathy – the theory that treating one particular area of the body will positively affect another part some distance away. There is the proximity of the officers’ houses to the camp; the way that Lenard is allowed to get so close to his ‘Aryan’ patient; the way that Lenard and Anna have to distance themselves from one another…and there is also the location of Buchenwald, so very close to Weimar.

An uneasy relationship existed between the camp and the town: on the one hand, local businesses prospered due to the presence of hundreds of officers and the availability of thousands of prisoners for use as forced labour; on the other hand, there was widespread fear of both the SS and the prisoners. After the camp was liberated, one thousand citizens of Weimar were ordered to visit it to see the horrors perpetrated on their doorstep – horrors they had suspected for years, but which had only ever roused in them a remote sympathy. Through this collective voice I examine the enduring question of German guilt and German knowledge of the camps.

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

Would it be completely egomaniacal to choose one of my own books? Although Remote Sympathy is not a sequel to The Wish Child, for me it very much speaks to that novel in that it’s a step further into the darkest heart of German history. In The Wish Child I allude to the Holocaust, but mostly it happens off-stage, with the story playing out in ordinary homes. Remote Sympathy is still concerned with the lives of ‘ordinary people’, but the action moves to the concentration camp itself.

Although I didn’t think about The English Patient while writing Remote Sympathy, I think the two books might have a bit of a chat if they found themselves at a wine and cheese.

If Remote Sympathy were to be made into a film, would you have any dream suggestions for a director or actors to play the main roles?

I would love Jane Campion to bring her particular sensibility to a film adaptation. I’m also available if Wim Wenders calls. I’d like Michael Fassbender to play Lenard, the doctor; Saoirse Ronan to play Greta, his patient; and Daniel Brühl to play her husband, SS officer Hahn. Can I be one of the one thousand citizens of Weimar?

Tell us about your inspirations and influences – writers, music, art or film that have had an impact on your writing. 

German Expressionism took hold of me in my early twenties; I fell in love with the charged distortions of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes, the stark woodcuts of Emil Nolde. I adored, too, the brooding films of FW Murnau and Fritz Lang that not only gestured to the fracturing effects of WW1 but also seemed to foreshadow something terrible to come. German soprano Lotte Lehmann’s recording of the Beethoven aria ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (‘Come, Hope’) is lodged deep in my brain and also appears in Remote Sympathy. I returned to Thomas Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar when I was writing the book; it offers such a richly realised portrait of Goethe’s cultured, humane Weimar. (I was fascinated to discover that the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg quoted the novel in the trial, thinking he was quoting the real Goethe.) Some of my early literary influences were Janet Frame, Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey and Angela Carter.

What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile? 

I’m reading the manuscript of Tracey Slaughter’s new collection of short stories (as yet unnamed) which is to be published by VUP next year, and it’s stunning. Savage, dark, funny, luminous – there’s no one quite like her. I’m also enjoying The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, with its heady family secrets in danger of being exposed. As research for my next novel, I’m reading a lot about high country farming in New Zealand, the intricacies of water rights in Central Otago, and the anatomy of the Australian magpie. I’m looking forward to Tusiata Avia’s new collection of poetry, The Savage Coloniser, and the novel Conjure Women by Afia Atakora.

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Book Reviews Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

Book Review: Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Author QandA Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

QandA with Airini Beautrais

READ CLOSE: Bug Week is a collection of thirteen pieces of short fiction, meandering through time and the globe. Tell us about the intended links – and some of the unintended, surprising ones – that you think give these stories their shape as a collection.

AIRINI BEAUTRAIS: When I first envisioned writing a collection of short fiction, I wanted it to be thirteen unlucky tales of broken hearts and doomed love. I was about twenty-two when I had that idea, to give it some context! Some people say life gets more settled and less drama-filled when you get to your thirties, but mine didn’t. I think I had a bunch of things I wanted to write about, but when I did most of the work on consolidating the stories into a collection, a strong feminist theme emerged. I ended up with a range of female characters of varying ages from childhood to middle age. Other links might be nature and animals, poetry, museums, history, and small towns. These are all motifs I seem to keep coming back to in my writing. I’m really interested in how the past can shed light on contemporary life.

You’re an award-winning poet and essayist – could you tell us about how you find writing across disciplines, and how each style informs the others?

I think genre is probably overstated because it’s convenient for shelving books in a library, and making categories for awards. There are a lot of good books out there that hybridise or sidestep genres. I did my PhD thesis on narrative in contemporary long poems, and read a lot of verse narratives and verse novels. So I think it’s just ‘wherever the wind may take us’ when I sit down to write. Sometimes something feels like a poem, sometimes it feels like an essay and sometimes it feels like a fictional prose story. Sometimes it could be an essay poem or a story poem. Fiction gives you a kind of freedom to tell the truth. Poetry is helpful for concision and lyricality.

The stories often involve human interaction with animals – a clash between artifice and nature, in a sense. Are you interested in the place of human within the animal kingdom?

I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people and the natural environment, and that includes animals. I did an undergraduate degree in ecology and biodiversity so I’m a bit of a nature nerd. When started trying to write about nature I realized it was quite boring to me on its own and it is people in nature that are interesting to me. I went through a phase when I was about twelve of being a primitivist and thinking we should abandon technology and go and live in the forest. Now I have a 10 year old son who has come to a pretty similar conclusion. Climate change really frightens me. I get upset when I look at things like the fires in Australia and the US. I wonder what kind of world my children will be living in after I’m gone. We’re in the middle of an anthropogenic mass extinction event and I think that is one of the greatest tragedies of humankind. So yes, I am interested in our place in that. But I also think nature is a great healer, and animals can heal people. I’m holding one of my cats, Panther, in my author photo, because he symbolises me living my best life. I live with two cats and two children, I’m ridiculously happy and I feel like I can be who I am without self-censorship. Having non-human animals in the house is calming and reassuring.

There are some incredible short fiction writers working right now around the world. Who do you read for inspiration and influence when you are writing short stories?

Some of my influences, both living and dead, have been: Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Jeanette Winterson. Closer to home, Patricia Grace, Emily Perkins, Pip Adam and Tina Makereti are writers I really admire. I’ve also been influenced by poets who have worked with narrative, like Dorothy Porter and Anne Carson. I always feel badly read and like I need to branch out, read more diverse work and keep up with new writers.

Is there a story in Bug Week you might consider your favourite? Why/why not?

I don’t know about favourite but a story I feel I really inhabit is ‘The Teashop.’ It’s about a brothel madam who used to be a science teacher. I got really jaded with school teaching. I hated being called ‘Ms Beautrais’, I hated telling people to remove their nailpolish. I hated the intergenerational distrust between teenage girls and female staff. We should have been supporting and mentoring them, not bullying them into line. We should have been people they could look up to. So I had this dark fantasy about quitting and becoming a dominatrix. I didn’t do that, I just got pregnant and then I got pregnant again. But there’s still time! Esme, the main character in ‘The Teashop’ is really constrained by the fact that it’s the 1960s. She wanted to be a botanist but it was difficult for women to get into the sciences in the early 20th century. So now she’s a middle aged madam and she’s getting to the point where she wants to quit. The only way out she can see is getting married and she doesn’t want to do that either. It’s kind of a story about women and patriarchy and it’s kind of a story about ageing and anxiety. It brings in a lot of threads that are important to me.

In a wider sense, are there other writers or artists that you think have been a major touchstone for your writing career?

Apart from the writers I mentioned above, there are some dead poets I come back to over and over. When I was doing my PhD I read a book based on Dante’s Divina Commedia and I got really obsessed with Dante. I read a whole lot of translations. Although in many ways it’s politically and theologically limited to its time, in other ways, it’s this universal story of having messed up your life, found yourself lying in the middle of nowhere, and needing some help to get where you want to go. Dante is thirty-five at the start of the Inferno. Coming to in a dark wood was something I really related to in my mid thirties as well.

Another poem I keep coming back to is The Waste Land. I don’t agree with Eliot politically or personally but I really love that poem. I did a painting using the lines ‘A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall.’ It’s meant to be this dark horror imagery but for me there’s a lot of female power lurking in those lines. Also I love bats.

I listen to a lot of music and play music, and I love visual art. I don’t know about direct influence on my writing. There were a couple of albums I was listening to a lot while I was writing many of these stories. One was Dive Deep by Morcheeba. My heart was broken and the song ‘Enjoy the ride’ made me feel better. (Stop chasing shadows, just enjoy the ride). The other was quite an obscure album, Scatterlings by Johnny Clegg and Savuka. Johnny was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My parents basically listened to classical music and ‘world’ music. He did a lot of anti-racist work in his life and music. Scatterlings was released in 1982, the year I was born. The song I liked best was ‘Digging for some words’, which is appropriate when you are writing. I think it’s about nuclear war but the lyrics are quite enigmatic.

What are you reading right now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

I am a bad reader at the moment because I work too much. I’ve found 2020 a hard year to read in. I can’t seem to sit down for five minutes at a stretch. I am part way through Book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. I like his writing but sometimes the masculinity gets too much for me. Stuff like where he gets angry at his wife for watching TV instead of cleaning up the house. Come on, Karl. I’m also part way through Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley. It’s a really absorbing read, I just need some quiet time to contemplate it. My to-read list is global and massive. Here are some local authors that are on it (NZers need to read more NZ writing!). I recently bought False River by Paula Morris. I love her essays and short stories; she really interrogates her subjects. And I am really excited about some new poetry collections, The Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila and The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia. VUP has published a lot of good books lately and on the top of my to-buy fiction list are The Swimmers by Chloe Lane and What Sort of Man by Breton Dukes. And I am really excited to get a hold of Laura Borrowdale’s Sex, With Animals. I love how brave she is and how committed she is to her projects, including running the journal Aotearotica. We are so lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people, and the best thing is, we can all meet each other in real life and talk about books over a wine.