Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
As if on the edge of talking: writing a drama of feeling, 19 June
Much of my recent reading attention has focused on discovering an appropriate way to probe the interior lives of my characters. In many ways, this process has been one of forcing myself to go ‘back to basics’, to focus on the nuts and bolts of effective realist fiction — a process which I think is not without merit for a writer at such an early stage of development. This work became necessary after my workshop, when readers identified a tendency to ‘explain’ too much of the action of my novel; when one of my classmates wrote, ‘you should have more faith in your reader.’
As I’ve just explained, in the first term I became attracted to the prospect of writing about ‘characters that think’. So many of the frustrations of my writing up to that point, or with the book as it then existed, seemed to centre around my characters’ rather immature approach to their condition: Melinda’s unthinking progress into isolationism; the heedless partying of some of the minor characters. I felt trapped within the limited psychologies of those characters, and the fact that no one seemed to say anything interesting or think anything significant. I was excited by the idea that I could encourage them to think in greater depth, to give them and my book’s overall texture a greater degree of intellectual rigour and interest.
Reading St Aubyn and Munro at the time, I unconsciously set about the emulation of their techniques. I plunged into discussions of Elizabeth’s emotional state, into the nuances of it, the complexity and subtleties of her feelings. I enjoyed this mode of writing a great deal, and got quite carried away — I wrote whole paragraphs, feeling like an archaeologist of some kind, sifting through the novel’s scenes with a pick and torch that only I was allowed to wield, pausing frequently to hold up what I found to my readers and deliver a quite lengthy lecture upon its significance.
I knew it was a new phase in my writing, and I was seduced by it: I rather suspect that I felt I was entering, in my own way, the fictional territory of Milan Kundera and the Ian McEwan of Saturday, writers that were content to allow their fictions to unfold slowly whilst the full subtlety of its dramas, and how those subtleties were revealed in the behaviour (internal and ‘real’) of their characters, were examined. This increasing tendency toward ‘telling’ is what my readers reacted to, I think; they felt that sometimes this material was extraneous or premature. I was making some kind of shortcut by telling readers what Elizabeth’s emotional state was, without attempting to show its complexities through drama. Here is an example:
Mark made an interesting comment in relation to passages like this one, observing that their tendency toward over-explication is sometimes nearly redeemed by the polish of the language that delivers them (something like that, I can’t find the comment now). That observation, it seems to me, is germane: I was hoping to get away with my guilty pleasure by cloaking it in beautiful language. It’s an old failing of mine, and, interestingly, here its turning up in relation to a failure of dramatisation that is the diametric opposite to the one another classmate, Remy, had earlier identified — my earlier taste for writing action and dialogue only, without ‘boring down’ into the minds of my characters.
Crucially, I had also forgotten three important differences between my book and Mother’s Milk:
1. things happen in Mother’s Milk;
2. its author is brilliantly insightful; and
3. he is also incisively funny.
Put simply, St Aubyn’s intellect is potent. He is able to make observations in his fiction that are quite startling, simply because he has access to a greater insight than I have. He’s brainier. That’s what enables him to, with such scalpel-like precision and economy, dissect his characters’ psychologies to educational effect (in the best sense of that term), all the while cracking an arch joke to flatter our egos and tap on our collective humerus.
Reading these two expert surgeons of interior exploration (St Aubyn and Munro), I sensed that I was attempting to punch above my weight in terms of what I could say about my characters’ internal lives. I searched for a book that employed techniques that might be within reach, and went back to Butler’s Ringlet and my earlier notes to try and establish how Fearnley had made that book work. In February I had been impressed by the book’s ability to render rather delicate emotional experience through the viewpoints of two quite different male characters: one a hale and convivial type, Dean, and the other a more introverted and passive man, Warwick. I was impressed by the way Fearnley was able to counterpoint these two voices, without patronizing Dean, while drawing out the subtleties of their emotional journeys in the book.
It is telling that the climax of one plot-strand of the novel is rendered in that same slow, gentle voice we have come to expect from Warwick:
On looking again at this book I’m rather less convinced that all of its chapters are as successful as I believed in February, but one passage that is, to my mind, successful in preserving this rather charged emotional atmosphere, without smothering the entire episode in it, as might occur in my book, occurs in the moment Warwick’s estranged lover, Sabine, and their son face each other inside a house for the first time since Sabine’s leaving. Clearly, it’s an important moment for these three characters, who have to find a way back to each other, to discover each other all over again, in the process of re-establishing their familial intimacy.
Fearnley makes this happen by giving them something to do. She focuses their attention on a group of feathers that Ecki has collected and brought all the way from Germany, with the express purpose of giving them to his father. It is a metaphorically significant gift, of course, because it establishes a commonality of interest with Warwick, who since his family’s breakup has become a collector of rare and precious moths. Subsequent to this exchange, he is able to spend father and son time with Ecki in the outdoors, collecting mementoes of the wild they can share some talk about. The moment of Ecki’s gifting of these feathers is superbly managed. Warwick receives the delicate gifts, holds them in the palm of his hand,
The mood is beautifully hushed here — charged with feeling, but quiet. Fearnley manages with discretion this moment when her characters are subject to feelings so intense that they are, in a sense, pushed to ‘the edge of talking but unable to do so’. Having received the gift, Warwick wonders what to say in return; finally, he is able to utter only the most simple of responses:
In the passage just quoted, there is another useful phrase to isolate, that one about the son ensuring his father is ‘concentrating on the feathers, according them the respect they deserve,’ because it is precisely this fictional focus upon detail that rewards Fearnley in this scene. All of the characters recognise what emotional significance has been infused into these feathers, and because they do, so does the reader. There is a quite moving few sentences in which Fearnley describes only the fall of one feather from Warwick’s palm to the floor: ‘Ecki moved closer, his eyes intent on Warwick’s hand. The smallest of the feathers caught the shift of air, lifted and floated to the ground ...’. Because the feathers have such emotional significance, this passage aids by its slow description the development of this scene’s gentle, minor-key music. It’s an important theme for me to take out of this scene, I think (and one that will crop up later in relation to Being Dead), as I have already found that giving my characters something to look at, focus on, touch — such as Elizabeth’s viola — can be rewarding in this way.
Significantly, Fearnley is alert to the comic potential within this scene. As I have mentioned, Warwick’s narrative perspective is rather a heavy, melancholy one — his every movement is informed by his feelings of regret and sadness over his perhaps lost, certainly fractured intimacy with Sabine and Ecki. In this scene, Fearnley senses the need for a brief moment of comic relief, and spies it in the entirely recognisable didacticisms of the young son, solemnly engaged in the business of explaining the feathers to his father:
This is a subtle and warm comedy that arises entirely out of the very human moment that is being enacted.
Choosing the limitation of place, 20 June
During his visit to our university, Richard Ford took vocal issue with Eudora Welty’s writings on place. In particular, he rejected Welty’s assertion that fiction ‘depends for its life on place’. ‘No,’ said Ford, with considerable vehemence, ‘no, no, no.’ Throughout that meeting, Ford was big on writerly choices, and what he said to Welty’s piece at this point was, ‘There is no freedom in that idea. You should not be confined unless you want to be.’ (I have quoted here from Susan Pearce’s notes on the masterclass, which appeared subsequently on leafsalon.co.nz).
Shortly before that masterclass, I had made a decision to shift the setting of my book from the imaginary town, Rahoe, to the real location of the Selwyn Huts, near Lincoln — in effect, to set its action in the region I come from, the Selwyn district. I made that decision at the same moment I was reorienting my book as one that would deal with characters that happened to be queer. I felt, and it was certainly more of an instinct than a fully thought out intellectual decision, that placing those characters into that landscape would up the stakes for me, increase the fear factor that had been missing for so long during the drafting of the novel’s previous incarnation (a process which had begun to be characterised by complacency and half-heartedness), because the very issues of sexuality and its relations to intimacy were issues that I had not yet resolved in connection to that landscape I still call home. I needed that fear to get something I wanted to write written, and now I recognise that when I wrote on my wall, ‘This novel must be much more strongly rooted in place,’ it was the business of motivating myself — by scaring myself — to write at a higher level, that inspired that placard, as much as an understanding of what that novel might look like on the page, how it might work. I wanted to be limited by place, scared by that limitation into putting more meaningful work onto the page.
What happened, I think, was that that decision, made for what Eliot Wienberger might complain was the wrong reason, a quasi-therapeutic one, turned out to be, artistically, the right one. The decision to root my new novel in a place I knew thoroughly gave my characters a new wealth of things to look at, smell, touch, move through, get emotional about — the river, the university at Lincoln, their rural properties. The imagination was still working hard at creating those characters and giving them things to do, but there seemed now a more readily accessible fund of the stuff of scenery – the feathers I wrote about in relation to Fearnley’s fiction earlier — for those characters to put their thinking, feeling sensibilities into interaction with.
At around the same time that we all trundled into the Stout Centre to hear Ford speak, I stumbled across while looking for critical works on Below, Patrick Evans’s essay for Kite, ‘Spectacular Babies: The Internationalisation of New Zealand Fiction’. That essay spawned considerable discussion for the criticisms it offered of what Evans identified as the internationalisation of recent New Zealand fiction as produced by Wellingtonians, particularly, those associated with or published by those associated with the IIML and the VUP. That process of internationalisation, Evans argued, had seen some of the distinctiveness of some of the work that was being produced to fade — no, not just the fiction’s distinctiveness, but also its relevance. Works that were set in locales, reals, that were sufficiently generic as to be conceivably located anywhere, Evans argued, were in effect not real to the New Zealand reader, their relevance had, to an extent, disappeared. He quoted the qualm apparently expressed by C K Stead that novels like Black Oxen were, though expertly crafted, so removed from the local that there was, in effect, no ‘national grid’ of the consciousness to plug them into; to mix metaphors in a way Stead and Evans didn’t, these works floated, brilliantly, out there in the ether of international literature, offering less to New Zealand readers of fiction, who were busy living and trying to understand their lives within the shores of the homeland. I have truncated and rather brutalised the argument here for the sake of brevity. It is interesting that Evans writes with some disquiet upon this process of internationalisation, when other commentators have remarked its development with relative indifference, and some have even celebrated it. Certainly there is, as Mark Williams later identified, the sense of a nerve being deliberately probed in Evans’s essay. It was conceived, one suspects, partly in the hope that it would spark precisely the kind of discussion that it did.
All that aside, I found the last of Evans’s comments as useful as Ford’s, and in the same roundabout way; or rather, it was my approach to the issue that had been roundabout. Again, it was the accidental, selfish motivations of the unresolved ego in making at last an effort to be brave that had propelled me as a writer into this position. It was precisely that sense of plugging my imagining, creating mind into the ‘grid’ of psycho-social pressures that were coded into what was, for me, the most readily recognisable ‘real’ I could imagine — the district where my home is located — that was fictionally rewarding, for the reasons I have outlined above. Particularly interesting was the piece of advice Evans offered at the end of his essay. After writing earlier in the piece about Elizabeth Jolley’s comments on place, and the comments of others about Jolley’s use of place, he wrote, ‘Go back to Elizabeth Jolley. Or even better, Alice Munro.’
Now, the choice of those two writers as potential mentors to young writers interested in issues of place was fascinating for me, because, as this reading journal makes clear, those were two writers I had spent much of my reading time during the year admiring, but not for their writing of place; rather, for their ability to write so effectively of the interior lives of their characters, about what we might call the landscape of the heart. Going back to The Well, a book I enjoy more than the rather suffocating yet more placey Palomino, one can see how Evans’s comment works. Jolley’s town is not named, and indeed the town is placed within the overtly fictionalised construct of the novel-as-artifice (see the novelist minor character that talks to its protagonist about the book she is writing), yet there is never a doubt that Hester’s crisis of the heart is taking place within a landscape that could only be found in the Australian hinterland.
Moreover, Hester’s relationship with that landscape is one of fierce, passionate attachment, and that relationship is in fact placed squarely at or near the centre of the book’s fulcrum of upset, because much of Hester’s sexual and emotional disorientation vis a vis Katherine takes place concurrently with the sale of her own farm. She shifts away from the known landscape of the inherited property and takes up residence alone with Katherine in a remote house near the well of the novel’s title — where, as Gerry Turcotte points out, the bogey of sexual threat is located. In the moments of existential terror her emotional crisis precipitates, Hester is continually described wanting only to walk again on her paddocks, through the crops she knows so intimately, gaining a sense of perspective — human small, nature comfortingly big — under the vast dome of the outback night.
That fierce concentration of the novel’s texture on the landscape that its characters walk upon puts me in mind of another writer whose example was in my thoughts when I was re-thinking my novel as one more firmly rooted in place. Annie Proulx’s Bad Blood: Wyoming Stories II contains one story where the protagonist is tortured by the inability to fully realise not a sexual relationship but a familial one — his estranged sons just won’t come and work the Wyoming ranch with him. This man, Proulx writes, has a ‘fierce love’ for his ranch, and it frustrates him that he cannot make his boys share that. Repeatedly, Proulx shows him setting out alone across his ranges to brand his steers and repair his collapsing fences, slowly losing with the passing years his passion for the work — though never for the land, precisely because there is no one he can pass that land to, along with the work that goes with it.
And here we have arrived at the territory of my essay on writing the thoughts and feelings of my characters, because it is by giving her character a fence to go and damn well fix on his own, that Proulx generates the emotional affect of loss that permeates her short story, achieving via a drama of feeling our understanding of the frustrated love for place the character evinces as he interacts with it. It is by giving my characters more of the stuff of scene to work with — more ‘feathers’ — that my semi-accidental decision to root my novel in the Selwyn district enabled the book to articulate the feelings of the characters with more clarity and humour. Ultimately, that decision made the book, I think, more effective as a work of fiction.
Post-script: A party to get your head around things
Hue and Cry Journal, a magazine of art-writing, photography, poetry and fiction edited by Chloe, was launched with a garden party. I was lucky enough to be invited along to listen and look and even read for a while, and before I went along — with my nerves all a-jibber at the prospect of reading — I spent a bit of time considering what the magazine was all about.
According to my fat and unwieldy dictionary — which is really a compendium of word-knowledge, including maps at the back; a point which seems relevant somehow — the term ‘hue and cry’ denotes a loud protest, drawn from an old legal term for ‘a summons for people to join in a hunt for a criminal’. Thinking more broadly, I can see that the title of the magazine refers to the variety of art-works captured within the magazine’s pages — works made up of words, and those made up of pictures. Riffling again through the pages of the Webster’s, I find that the entry for ‘hue’ can mean first ‘colour’, and also ‘a particular shade or tint of a colour.’
Chloe’s editorial includes a section taken from the story ‘All that condensation,’ in which the narrator discovers a toadstool in his or her hallway. The narrator discusses the toadstool’s appearance with a friend, who reveals that she saw it yesterday but mistakenly identified it as a snail. ‘But it’s not a snail at all,’ she said. ‘I can see that now. It’s a toadstool.’ ‘I just couldn’t believe it,’ relates the narrator, ‘What was a toadstool doing growing in my hall?’ The narrator carries on looking at the toadstool and thinking about its appearance in the hallway, trying to work out what it signifies, but is not able to come to any conclusions, nor to formulate any plan for dealing with it. ‘I needed more time to get my head around it. I decided to throw a party.’ Here we have both a hue and a cry: an object that, in a certain light cannot be distinguished from another object, nor its import rationalised, though its wonderful — in both senses of that word — appearance can be appreciated, or at least noted, reported, discussed; some sort of noise, a cry, made about its sudden poking up into the world.
A party, I thought, looking further inside the magazine. A party that helps you get your head around things, things that might be both beautiful and a bit skewed, like the skateboarders that appear to be moving down footpaths in two photographs by Sarah Gruiters and Ahbeyott Mane, but are in fact stationary upon bricks, and like the slippery nature of uttered-via-media truth in Pip’s story, ‘Her Daughter’s Life’. The story takes the form of three versions of a deliberately obfuscatory and self-justifying hand-on-heart episode of ‘truth-telling’ by a narrator who seeks to exonerate some member or members of her family from responsibility for an unspecified crime. The narrator is prepared, so she claims, to move mountains if the truth could be told, and in a sense, that is what she proceeds to do, moving mountains of verbal protection, of language, around in front of some version of the truth that she might — or might not — know is actually the real one. Three increasingly worryingly insistent protests of familial ‘innocence’ follow, pushing around the reader of both the story and the imagined fictional newspaper, the watcher of the six o’clock news, who hovers as a secondary audience of the story’s performance. Joe Public is her intended listener, and he is offered a shifting, baffling noise: ‘she had nothing to say about the documents that he had found. As she said before, they’d been on holiday when it happened. When it was supposed to have happened. Again, she highly doubted that it did happen, but if it had, he had not been there.’
In the end, she arrives at what is a kind of truth, the only one we are able to hang onto — or at least, at the media-consuming level of taking things as they are, as they appear to be. It’s an arrival that is rich in irony: ‘It didn’t matter what they said now. The verdicts spoke for themselves. She had told the truth.’ The knotty energy of the progress from one syntactical construction of truth to another — ‘As God strikes her down she never said such a thing. She couldn’t believe her cousin would say such a thing. She wished she could look her in the eye. She denied it on her daughter’s life’ — enacts, with the reader’s complicity (through the reading energy he or she brings to the piece) the evolution of a highly self-serving and idiosyncratic version of truth formation. We are conscious that her noisy protest has arrived at the same version that we all have to buy into, the verdict reached by the court, even as we are conscious of the alternative versions that exist behind that officially endorsed verdict.
The reader of this story is made to participate in a collaborative project of constructing a reality out of language, and an interesting variation on this invitation is extended in the collaborative discussion that takes place in ‘The Association of Collaboration.’ A photograph that accompanies the text depicts five chairs arranged in a kind of circle in a gallery space, with flow-charts and clipboards on them. A sixth chair sits in the middle of the circle with an emptied crisp packet on it, and two chairs are placed further out, near the wall, suggestive in a way of further observation or even contribution from those parties that might be (or have been) situated further outside. The ensuing record of the discussion, described as ‘an edited discussion transcription from one of our meetings’, is a forsworn effort of writing to ‘reflect the process of working together.’
The organisation of those chairs and that discussion provides interesting comparison with the six photographs of chairs and tables by Olivia Boyle, taken in a basement that Boyle explains, ‘stores things for people to borrow, reasons variable.’ The furniture is arranged in the pattern of a ‘mess in the permanent making,’ as Boyle puts it, a fluid composition that sees tables rest upon tables upon tables, and chairs sit upside down upon other chairs, or the right way up, or on an angle — a space that simultaneously offers up inviting spaces for people to sit down, while other chairs wryly turn the other way, or resist use by resting completely the wrong way up. It’s an amusing series of pictures, particularly the one of a room full of old armchairs. So redolent of family memories and emotional significance, the armchairs are all either retired or waiting for re-use, depending on how you look at it, and in the meantime, they conduct an interaction all of their own, a party amongst themselves. As Boyle has it, the series of pictures records ‘a conversation, involving tables and chairs.’
At the Wellington launch of Hue and Cry, photographs of the skateboarders and the chairs hung about the gallery in enlarged format. Six chairs and a bench were arranged in a corner of the gallery space, empty for the time being, while everybody (especially the readers) talked to each other in the bright, chattery tones of people who were familiar and friendly but perhaps not intimate; thrown together in their nervousness, drinking and looking at the magazine and the photographs. A civilised function, in other words, I thought, in the preamble moment before the main event — the readings. A photographer circulated, taking pictures for the gallery’s records of people talking and drinking complementary beer. After a time, seven readers sat down and the ‘audience’ stood opposite, looking back at us across a space of gallery floor. A mix of poetry and prose was read out, both work of the readers’ own and some drawn from the pages of already published books.
As the pieces were read, and I waited to read mine, I had a strong sense of offering something personal up for communal consideration, entertainment, reflection — much like the moment one speaks up at a dinner party with the line, ‘I’ve got a story to tell you.’ I felt an obligation to both entertain, by engaging my fellow party guests with my tone, by making them laugh at my characters’ jokes, and a wish to communicate the essence of the piece I would read; to convey the emotional meaning that danced around the sentences, slipping off the words, sliding around in connotation and evocation. It was a strong moment of realisation of the idea of fiction as a communication of something personal — some perspective on the world, some subjective slice of it, some imagined journey through it — to some wider community. It was a moment in which I felt Jim Crace’s conception of narrative as collective sense-making of the world.
This seems a bit of a momentous and weighty realisation, and certainly I was nervous and perhaps more than usually primed to over-interpret the significance of a moment. I’d also swallowed a cup of Gisborne Gold in pretty quick time. Nevertheless I continued in my primitivist ‘reading’ of the event as the other writers read out their poems and stories. Ellie read ‘I Believe in Symmetry’, a wry and thought-provoking story on one way of approaching and/or ordering life within the family and within some larger context as well, working around the central organising concept of symmetry. S K Johnson’s reading of poems, meanwhile, tended from intellectually rigorous reflection upon the observed world toward a tender likening of the poet’s love to the soft falling of rain (a similarly moving movement, which I am particularly susceptible to, occurs in Pansy Duncan’s ‘Love Story’, inside the magazine itself).
When I wasn’t distracted, in a delighted kind of way, by the gallery’s still-playing video installations, one of a man repeatedly trying on jeans that didn’t fit, and another of a woman removing her only item of clothing, a pair of red underpants, and placing them in her mouth to chew on them, both of which were in my line of sight beyond the readers, I had the feeling of being in a moment where writers were reading works that, in this vulnerable moment of performance, of making their work perhaps more accessible and public than it would normally be, conveyed their ways of viewing the world, of understanding it, of laughing about it, and feeling some kind of emotional response to it.
Then we finished reading and the line between audience and reader disappeared. The readers’ friends came across the gallery space, and then the readers stood up and left the chairs they’d been sitting in — the chairs remaining as an echo of what had just been, along with the journal that people now began leaving the party with. We sat and stood around, talked and told a few stories, drank a bit more beer, and then we went home. It was a party to help us get our head around things, and it felt a bit like a workshop — except, instead of coffee and cake at half time, there was free beer.