AN INTERVIEW WITH PIP ADAM
Pip Adam completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2007, and her PhD in 2012. She has published three novels—I’m Working on a Building (2013), The New Animals (2017), and Nothing to See (2020)—and a short story collection, Everything We Hoped For (2010). Alongside her writing, Pip makes the Better off Read podcast, where she talks with authors about reading and writing.
To start us off, Pip, would you be willing to introduce yourself?
Sure. So who am I? My mountains and rivers are in the Jalisco regions of Mexico and in Scotland. My family is Romani so we have travelled and found an unsettled home in many other places. For the last two generations my family has been fortunate enough to live throughout Aotearoa, first settling on the land of Ngāi Tahu. I’m Pākehā as in foreign and tauiwi as in not Māori or normal in this place. Among other things I’m a writer and this year I’ve been the Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence.
We heard a little bit about your latest project near the start of the year. Could you tell us about it now, and how it’s evolved in the months since then? Has your thinking changed much over that time?
I think when I talked to you last the book was about giants in space and the spaceship was powered by sound. Those things still remain. I think for me it’s quite important that I have some constraints. These high-level plot points are what I use as things to keep me on track. Although, as you say, things change and I think that is also a really important part of writing for me. I love that hairline balance between reigning in and letting fly that is completely necessary for me to write a novel.
What’s surprised me as I’ve written is the way more and more thinking and writing from prison abolitionist theory and practice has come into the work. I had this idea that by abstracting the prison system—into a spacecraft—I could show the things I thought were weird about prison. But what’s happened is that I’ve had deeper and deeper revelations about the failure of the prison system.
Also, I’ve started writing this plant-based alien life-form—so that is new. My friend, Kerry Donnovan Brown, was staying just before lockdown and I was struggling with my aliens and they showed me this amazing video about the Cambrian Explosion. What took my interest was the idea that predation comes into being as a means for species to evolve and I was like, What happens if it’s not predation that is the trigger to evolution but some other non-violent trait? So, yeah, there’s a lot more algae and Ediacaran Fauna in the book.
Are there any works—in either genre fiction or literary fiction—that you’re writing in the shadow of?
Well, Solaris is always present in anything I’m writing. I’ve always been interested in writing the non-human—of escaping an anthropocentric world-view and the planet in Solaris is often a touchstone in this. I’ve been listening to The Carpenter’s cover of the Klaatu song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft—and the idea of World Contact Day where Earth people try to meditate out to folk from other planets. This idea of communicating in something other than what we consider language.
There’s a book called Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould, and I’ve been reading a lot about slime mould and other fungi. I’m also reading Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. I think Delaney writes quite amazing far future or life-forms from other places that have evolved differently. I am coming at it a bit from the flank—I haven’t read Overstory by Richard Powers or other fiction work because I am scared it will influence me. If anyone has any recommendations I am quite easy to get hold of through Twitter or Instagram and I would love to hear them.
How much would you say the genre question is factoring into your writing this year? I think you’ve talked about how you perhaps didn’t realise at the time that the ocean sequence in The New Animals reads as almost magical realism.
I always read and still read that section as science fiction—and even more embarrassingly hard science fiction. I did so much research on human bodies in water. And then the first time someone said something like, ‘The lyrical last section’, I was like, ‘What now?’ It’s kind of funny. But I think the book is always written in the reading.
I do like to have genre questions in mind when I’m writing. It really helps me when I think to myself, This is a work of science fiction—or maybe more for this book, This part is a work of science fiction. It helps in my approach to think about the context I’m writing into—the company the work is trying to be part of. I have been thinking a lot about how to tell a love story as well. I have watched a lot of rom-coms. I set myself the task of trying to write a book that doesn’t rely on conflict. Just also, when I say genre, I think literary fiction is a genre like science fiction or romance. The writers I’m ‘talking’ with most when I lose my nerve are Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf—thinking about Orlando as a shape-shifting, time-travel story. And of course I couldn’t even be contemplating this kind of genre plate-spinning act without the work of Elizabeth Knox.
Are you consciously constructing this new project as science fiction?
I don’t think I’m a good enough writer, and I don’t think I’ve read enough science fiction. I talked to M. Darusha Wehm, a writer I really respect, about my anxiety around writing a spacecraft, because this is the first time I’ve ever written about a spacecraft and I’m not sure if I’m writing science fiction. What I remember them saying was that everybody’s always writing their spacecraft for the first time. Whether you’re [Frank] Herbert or [Ursula K.] Le Guin, you’re writing it for the first time. So that gave me some space to think about it that way, but I don’t think it’ll be good enough to be science fiction. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I feel quite uncomfortable about it, because it is just me playing. I feel really nervous about it.
That’s a lot of what science fiction feels to me—authors playing with ideas.
That’s something about genre fiction that’s really interesting. When I read crime, it’s always a subversion of crime. Where’s the pure crime, where’s the platonic crime? Even Sherlock Holmes is a subversion of the twist narrative. You have to know the tropes to understand the subversion, but I’m not sure I’ve read platonic science fiction where all the tropes are at play.
I was reading last year’s Turbine | Kapohau interview with Catherine Robertson, and she’s also talking about how NZ genre fiction hasn’t really been absorbed into the New Zealand popular consciousness the same way NZ literary fiction has.
If you look at our most-read writers, a lot of them are ‘genre’ writers, especially when you bring an international audience into the mix. Catherine’s a really good example, people are reading her like crazy. Like I said, I really believe that literary fiction is a genre. It’s got constraints, and it’s got tropes. I don’t know about ‘popular consciousness’ but people are reading a lot of our ‘genre’ writers. When you look at people like M. Darusha Wehm and Cassie Hart, these folk are writing in big worlds.
Chloe Gong, Sascha Stronach, Tamsyn Muir, Whiti Hereaka.
This is what I think will be interesting about COVID. I don’t think us literary fiction writers have fully worked out how we’re going to integrate the pandemic into our worlds. I think you’ll see a lot of stretching toward other genres as realist writers start to realise they’re world-builders.
I get that—I decided that for now, I’m not going to write things set post-pandemic. My MA project is consciously set in the autumn of 2017, before the pandemic, so I don’t have to write about it.
I did the same with The New Animals. That’s set just before Trump—as I was writing, Trump happened. I wanted to write as if it was a world without Trump. Those decisions are fine, and there will be amazing pandemic fiction. Already there’s been some incredible work, and there will be this reach in fiction for history, future, or other worlds.
In The New Animals and Nothing To See, you also write about bodies changing and metamorphosing into not-quite-real forms. What is it about these ideas and themes you’re drawn to? Do you see this as a kind of thematic continuity between your novels?
It occurred to me a few months ago that I’m actually writing one book over four books. I think of each book as a corrective of the last. These ideas—of bodies in revolt, of finding a place for a body that isn’t seen as conventional—I don’t think I’ll ever answer the questions I have. Each book has been a failure and I love this. I feel like the reason I love the novel is that it is a form that just has to fail and this is the best thing about it.
I hope I’m not misquoting him but when I did my MA Damien Wilkins said that every novel has this huge, gaping problem in it and the writer’s job is to move the reader around that problem so they don’t notice. ‘Oh. Look over here, a brightly coloured bird.’ ‘You think this character is nice but they’re horrible.’ I’ve held onto this idea really closely. It is formative in all my work and I love the idea of inching the reader closer and closer to that massive problem.
I guess what interests me about these ideas is my own relationship with my body which confuses me a great deal. I’ve talked before about not really understanding my body—I’m incredibly clumsy because I have very little idea where my body starts and ends. I never recognise myself in photos. I’ve always experienced my body in flux so I’m interested in what happens when that experience is externalised.
There’s a subtle play in The New Animals around pronoun usage for one of the characters that isn’t acknowledged in the narration. One character refers to Duey with she/her pronouns, while another uses they/them pronouns. Is that another way you’re exploring those themes in your writing?
To start off with, Duey was non-binary. But I just felt like I didn’t have the understanding of that experience. As a person who’s spent large parts of my early life being quite butch, I understand that sort of masculine-presenting but still female experience. So that was a decision I made there, but it was also this idea of self-identification through pronouns. Duey’s the one in control of what pronouns are used, rather than an outsider. For a lot of drafts, Duey was non-binary, but I’m very nervous about borrowing other peoples’ experiences.
There’s a great article, On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. One strategy it taught me was when I’m finding myself wanting to write about people with different experiences from me is to look at the reasons I’m interested in writing about that. When I investigated that with Duey’s character, it was because of my own questions around gender that have been there since I was a kid. That’s what I think that section of dialogue is about, that gender isn’t binary and folk shouldn’t presume. It’s the same in Nothing to See, where the two of them are often referred to as ‘they’.
At a technical level, I’m curious how you approach the art of crafting or planning a novel. Do you take a structured approach, using tools like beat sheets, or do you prefer to be more organic in discovering the story?
I think I can only answer this by describing what I do. To start with I write ‘into the darkness’ so to speak. I just write to tell myself the story, to see what I find interesting. I try to do this as a word count goal every day. I might have chosen a piece of music or an image to keep me on track. I also have those big picture things like, for [my current project] it’s, ‘People with no power grow giant, they are sent to outer space because they take up too much room’. This premise raises questions. This draft zero is never pretty. I am playing round with everything: POV, characters, time, technology, magic—I never limit myself.
As I’m writing this draft I’m also writing myself letters—they might be emails or they might just be a document called ‘Ideas’. In these letters I’m saying things like, ‘Who knows them when they start to grow?’ ‘What other books have been written about giants?’ ‘Here’s a picture I found that’s interesting.’ It’s a conversation. Then, when I have a complete thing, that’s when the work starts. I read it through and I start making connections and listening to it for the voices in it and the way it moves, the pace of it, and I get really quiet at home because I’m trying to carry it all in my head—I’m almost trying to live in that world while I move around in this world. And then it is just reading it over and over again and I have post-it notes and I keep writing myself letters and I try to also live so that living comes into it.
At the moment, I’ve been looking for a mythos for a part of the book and watching a lot of Selling Sunset. That’s starting to leak in and I don’t fight that sort of thing. So—yeah—I’d say, it’s a shambles.
What informs your approach to incorporating a greater or lesser amount of dialogue into a story?
I love dialogue. I love the sound of it and I love the way it sort of kills the author. Everything else is through the narrative consciousness and then dialogue exists in this immediacy where the reader feels like the narrator is just standing there watching too.
It’s interesting you should ask about it because the first part of the thing I’m writing at the moment is told in dialogue. There are long scenes where three people are telling each other large parts of the story.
I know it’s an old movie so probably no one has even seen it but in this film by Richard Lowenstein—He Died With a Falafel in his Hand—there is a scene where one character tells another character a story through a bedroom door. The first time I watched it, my partner said, ‘Wait, isn’t that Solaris?’ And it is. The character is retelling the story of Solaris and I think more than any other single thing that has formed my ideas about dialogue. I love dialogue that is seamless, like it feels real, but I also love dialogue that is performed. I love it when people are saying things that are not true. I love it when people are saying things that contradict what they’re thinking. It’s so hard to do those sorts of moves in fiction but I love trying.
Earlier in the year I read House of Leaves, and I was enamoured by how House actively disrupts the reading experience. You’re interested in that capacity to disrupt as well, right?
I’m never interested in an immersive experience—in my own reading and in my hopes for how people will read anything I write. I’m really interested in the interruption that throws the reader out and into their own bodies and own situation. I tend to use language for that—the ugly sentence, the jarring dialogue, the over-description of things.
How has your writing practice changed over the years since doing the MA and your PhD? I imagine you must’ve been juggling your responsibilities with the IIML, your podcast, and in your personal life too.
I used to think all I wanted was time to write. To be rich and just write all day but I have totally revised that. My writing suffers if it’s all I’m doing. I need to be interrupted. I am a person who always wants to be alone and I don’t think I can write well if I’m alone. Work, family and activism are just vital to my writing.
What does an average week look like for you this year?
It’s kind of glorious. I get to read a lot—one of the best things about the residency has been access to the university library. The online databases are amazing and in my first month here I stumbled across shelves and shelves of Korean fiction. So an average week has a lot of visits to the library—virtually and physically. I write—but I’ve never been a person who can write for eight hours straight, so I have other things I like to do that I sort of see as writing as well. Talking to folk about their writing. Paid work. I’ve had an amazing year talking and working with Maggie Sturgess who produced a magnificent portfolio and Emma Hislop, who I worked with as part of the NZSA Mentoring programme. I really loved Emma’s collection of short fiction. It’s stellar.
For those in the audience—like me—who don’t know as much about what a writing residency entails, could you give us an overview?
One of the most attractive things about the residency at the IIML is that it’s a community. For a long time residencies were more that you went and lived in a forest in a cottage and no one annoyed you. What I really love about the residency at the IIML is that you’re amongst other people who are working to get things done. You’re constantly bumping into people in the kitchen, there’s all the other teaching writers. That’s one of the amazing things about being up there: you’re in a hub where everybody’s having the same problems, everybody’s working, and that’s exciting. The little conversations you have in the kitchen are some of the best parts about it. Rather than being isolated, you’re stepping into something.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to the MA class, and thinking around that. For me, teaching is part of my writing practice, so thinking about how to form a workshop or presentation is useful. At the beginning of the year, I got to speak with the Masters in Composition class over at the New Zealand School of Music Te Kōkī. That was incredible. I’m writing about sound, but the sound art people scare me, because they’re very cool and I’m very uncool. It was wonderful to be able to say ‘Here’s my presentation, here’s what I’m doing.’ They were really generous with their comments, asking ‘Have you heard of this, have you heard of that.’ That was really generative for the book.
That’s quite valuable, to have that opportunity within the university.
It’s huge. And the work I’ve been able to do with the Adam Art Gallery, it’s this really nice kind of spreading out. That’s the other thing about being the Writer in Residence. Obviously you’re the IIML Writer in Residence, but you’re also the university’s Writer in Residence, so you do have access to these people. I was able to have coffee with Tim Corballis, over at the Centre for Science in Society. Raewyn Martyn, who has an amazing work in the Adam. I had a great conversation with her about plant-based polymers.
Do you find that a lot of those smaller conversations end up in the writing?
I really think they do. I don’t think I’m good at small talk, and I think that the people I like aren’t good at small talk, so we get straight to it. Bumping into people like Danyl McLauchlan and Anahera Gildea. There’s a lot of accidental bumping into people, and those are the best kinds of conversations. If I’m just writing, there’s none of that synchronicity. I’m looking for what I want to find, whereas if I’m forced out into the world it’s better for my work. You must have found that as well.
For sure. In the last couple of months of my MA, if I didn’t get out of my head somehow—by having a conversation, or by reading something— I’d start to stagnate. My usual recourse would be to go back to the research, but at a certain point that became an elaborate form of procrastination as well. How do you deal with that situation, as a writer?
Sometimes I get on a tangent. I went on this big side-road recently researching the work of an artist called Christine Sun Kim, who was born Deaf. But, I actually think that following my curiosity can be really useful. In the case of Sun Kim’s work it helped enlarge my idea of ‘sound’ and I think this is the sort of ‘mind-change’ that can only happen when we procrastinate or are truant from our ‘work’. It’s almost like through messing about, my mind is off-guard and malleable, which is different from the rigidity I can work myself into when I’m beating myself up about something not directly to do with writing.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Callum Knight has worked as a cleaner, barista, dishie, chef, and daily briefings editor. His rural fantasy novel draws on those experiences, and his experiences as kiritea Māori, to mash together the mundane and mystical in a small-town New Zealand setting.