Excerpt from a Reading Journal, 2009
My novel(la) is set at Waitetoko, on the south-east edge of Lake Taupo, where my family has a bach. From the deck of the bach I can see the lake, and to the right is the island, Mototaiko, where Sammie and Lou go to visit the skeletons in the cave in one of the early episodes. Because this place is real and so vivid in so many of my childhood memories, it hasn’t been a major challenge to bring it to life on the page. It was not a fun experience however, to read Kirsty Gunn’s beautiful book Rain just after I had finally settled on a structure for my folio and started writing the sections to be set at Taupo. I’m quite sure that Gunn’s setting, although never actually named, is Waitetoko, or at least within a few kilometres of this very spot. The book’s setting, combined with the focus on the child actors, the partying parents, and the air of unease and danger horrified me! She had already written what I was now trying to write! On closer inspection, this wasn’t the case at all, but I do think it highlighted the fact that water and isolation can help to make just about any story seem slightly dark.
I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of writing the Waitetoko setting; I love the place. Owen Sheers, in Kay’s reading packet states, ‘I fell in love with landscape long before I fell in love with poetry.’ I can relate to that, with emphasis on this particular landscape. Some of my very earliest memories are of watching the dark line come towards us from the west, muddling up the pale water. Or the smell of the trout smoker on the back lawn, or burning my already sunburnt lips on corn-on-the-cob, sitting on that front deck. I wrote my earliest, most horrendous poems with this place in mind. The changing water, the adventures we went on as kids, the perfect January weather, the specific words we only ever used at the bach, like ‘cockabully’ and ‘single ski’ and ‘rollocks’. All this has added to the mystique that surrounds this familiar place for me.
This year, my first in Wellington, has given me another landscape to write about . Since moving to Little Karaka Bay in the middle of the year, and spending more time watching the ferries come and go, and the kids sailing and the brave diving for paua (in August – mad), I’ve started to feel a connection to this area. Again it’s a watery place, but somehow there is a brightness here, it’s not isolated so feels less dark, even though we lose the sun at lunchtime. Part of the joy of living over here is that it’s a good walk into town, so there’s the action and activity of Oriental Bay to watch on my way. I’m getting itchy to write something that somehow includes the mums and prams on sunny days and the frowning joggers. But not till I get this folio out of the way!
Kay has often spoken to me about her strong connections to certain places, Waiheke Island and Golden Bay in particular, and they’ve shown themselves in her work in gorgeous ways. She’s always interested in what I have to say about Waitetoko, so it was fitting that she recommended to me one of the most striking books of my year. The Meadow by James Galvin is like a memoir of a particular piece of arid ground on the Colorado-Wyoming border. We follow a series of earthy, whole characters through their landscape in discrete episodes, and by watching them and their actions, we take in the hundred year history of the meadow. The book has gained a cult following in our class during the year, which I’m sure is at least partly to do with its fresh structure, but also because when a poet as cool as Galvin writes fiction well, it’s like magic. It’s totally jealous-making to see how Galvin treats the landscape he obviously knows and loves so well as if it were a character in itself.
Galvin’s treatment of the weather that in turns punishes and sustains the meadow and its inhabitants is proof to me anyway that everything we need for an authentic canvas for a story is right outside our door, if we know it well enough to use it.
Kay’s preoccupation with place meant that it became the subject of her reading packet too. Another satisfying discussion on an aspect that’s really important to several of the class. Of course the packet was more focussed on poetry than on fiction, but this was useful to me too (now that I’ve learnt a bit more about poetry, I’ve promised myself and some classmates that this summer will be my season of writing poetry). She included an essay by Seamus Heaney called The Sense of Place from the book Preoccupations which explored his idea of ‘two ways in which place is known and cherished.’
Two ways which may be complimentary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension…
Heaney goes on to discuss how this tension results in poetry. Mostly though, it got me thinking about how differently I treat a place that’s been a part of me for a long time, shaping my family life and my childhood, and a place that’s more recent to me.
The Tokyo section of my folio seems to require more rewriting, more attention to bring it to the level of the first, Waitetoko based section. I have a theory that because Waitetoko is more organic and natural to me and the rest of my life, it sits more easily in my head, and therefore comes out more evenly on the page. Tokyo on the other hand, where I returned from less than a year ago, is a place of surreal neon memories and short, intense relationships. I can’t share these memories in a whole way with my friends and family in NZ, all of whom thinks that year of my life sounds like a bizarre adventure. With more time to let it ‘simmer’ away in my head, perhaps Tokyo will gain the kind of mythic quality that I want it too. In reality however, I’m probably just going to have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until it takes on a bit of sheen.
An offshoot of my difficulties with ’voice’ this year is the use of child narrators in the first section. As the year wears on, I’m considering cutting Sasha’s narration, those passages where we get it from her perspective will probably be converted to third-person, which I’m probably going to make a more significant part of the folio. Part of the difficulty is that Sasha is Lou’s childhood friend, and therefore they’re the same age, with similar interests so there is a similarity in tone even though I’ve tried to show their differences in world view due to their contrasting family backgrounds. I am, however, coming to the conclusion that the larger use of the third-person, throughout the whole folio will be more beneficial than the use of Sasha and her outsider’s perspective on the Flynn family and their unorthodox lifestyle.
Kate agrees and thinks it might also be a way of breaking from the kind of ‘puppetry’ I’m having to perform with so many different voices. Sometimes you just have to recognise your limits, and I think I’ll be delighted if I can pull off one authentic child’s voice.
This has been a major worry for me this year, having no children or young family members to observe, but Pat was kind and supportive in pointing out to me that, because everyone has their own version of a child’s voice, their own take on childhood and children as a whole, my memory can serve me just as well. Because I spent so much of my childhood in the setting I’m writing about, with sisters and at the same time that the story is set, my own ideas of the words we used and how we used them are just as accurate as what I could find anywhere else. It seems that all year I’ve needed these ‘leg-ups’ to believe in what I’m writing and the validity and authenticity of how I’m writing it. Lucky me. I’ve got such a supportive bunch around me to keep me going, and keep me confident.
Kay’s been quite inspiring this year, with her wonderful, often dark poems. She’s reminded me that there is beauty in darkness. In the undergraduate creative writing courses at Canterbury, I was singled out for my over-use of dark themes and subject matter in my stories. They were all untimely death, family dysfunction, mentally unhealthy characters hurting each other and themselves, relationship breakdowns. I was determined not to come into this year and write gloomy and depressing stories and poems. But as the year has worn on, it’s become clear to me that the darkness is where the goodies are. I’ve gotten over my fear of it all and am having fun with it.
Owen Marshall’s famous short story, Coming Home in the Dark does a great job shocking the reader with the striking contrast between the beauty of the South Island’s postcard-perfect scenery and a horrible and gratuitous crime that the story centres around. I love this effect; I guess a lot of great New Zealand literature is based around the some principle, seeing as the natural environment is such a great set-up. I am trying in my folio, to show that dark and unsettling nature of water. My isolated setting looks great in the pictures, and you can’t beat it on a good day, but the weather can change so quickly, and like most small inland communities, there can be a strangely suffocating feeling to the place. The second setting, Tokyo, seems to be a more overtly dark and difficult place, but I’m hoping to show in the episodes when the characters get out of the city and into the fresh air, that the gloom and unease goes with them, that the city and its neuroses are harder to shrug off that they think. Carl Shukerexplores the dark and dodgy side of Tokyo amazingly well, but it’s his book The Lazy Boys that was a major triumph of darkness for me this year.
It was written before The Method Actors, but published after, and explores the seedy and violent underside to Dunedin’s student culture. The protagonist, Richie Sauer, heads to Otago University after finishing up at Timaru Boys’ High, and not having any other plan. What follows is his downward spiral into the world of binge drinking, drug taking, rugby (not that Richie plays – he doesn’t do much actually), sexual assault and failure. Shuker’s Dunedin is exactly as I remember it from my visits while at Canterbury (I’d rather live in Timaru). The dark coldness of Dunedin, at times lit by couch fires on Castle Street, perfectly highlights the horror of the characters’ actions. I’ve always thought of Dunedin as a large hole. You go over the hole and down into the depths of a kind of debauched poverty. (My friends flatted on Castle Street). The recent attention on Dunedin from the Bain retrial to the horrific murder of Sophie Elliot hasn’t done much to improve Dunedin in my eyes, and this book certainly didn’t either. I have recommended it to a couple of girls I know who are trying to work out which university to go to next year, which may have been excessive on my part.
The book has been described as partly surrealist, but it all seemed pretty realistic to me. Under his fractured bravado lies Richie’s self-hate and it seems that throughout the cast of characters, no one much likes each other. The only person to act as a true friend to Richie is sixteen-year-old Anna, who is still in high school in Christchurch. She’s really the only ray of light in the book, and she’s dying of cancer. The book is gloomy, without much hope for Richie’s redemption, or for the betterment of ‘scarfie’ culture, but somehow it was completely compelling. It gave a true and truly disturbing entry into a world that is stereotyped as being the ultimate student town.
The story also portrays the unwritten rules of a certain sect of young New Zealand males. Richie isn’t into rugby, so has to prove himself with his drinking habit. He falls in deeper and deeper into a darkness that he’s not sure who has created. And none of the guys around him do anything about it. There’s an incessant need for these guys to feel like they fit in, at the expense of pretty much everything else, so what results is a mob of homophobic, misogynistic, nicknamed clones, but they have to keep it up, or the party’s over.
There’s not a lot of similarity between The Lazy Boys and what I’m trying to write, but it was good for me to see how a book based in such darkness can still be so completely compelling. You know things are not going to come up cleanly for Richie, but you read on anyway, stunned I suppose, that someone is actually exposing this side of the mythical Ootaaago!!!
It’s also been valuable to see how an essentially un-likable main character can sustain the story. My Sammie is no angel, but I’m trying to keep her actions and the people around her interesting enough so that a reader isn’t just going to want to walk away. She’s probably got a little more going for her than Richie Sauer though, if I made her more manipulative and dishonest and selfish I don’t think I’d be able to handle much more time writing her!
I’ve heard certain books described by other writers as being ‘permission-giving’ and there is one particular book that I’ve encountered this year that’s had that exact effect on me. Forrest Gander’s As a Friend is short in its length, told from different perspectives close to the central character, who is a flawed but outwardly compelling person – exciting and physically beautiful. Call me a copycat, but what it really did was prove to me that this structure could work. And showed me again that dark events can create a really strong piece of writing.
This is the partial life story of Les, a charismatic land surveyor in the rural south. He’s also a poet and an unfaithful husband. His wife lives out of town and he visits her in the weekends and spends the weeks living in an apartment with Sarah, his girlfriend who he has promised to his wife is a lesbian.
The first section of the book is The Birth, describing how his teenage mother brought him into the world. It’s a messy scene, but in the hands of the poet Gander, is a striking one:
Oh honey. Dry-mouthed, the widow stands just inside the door and her sympathetic address, lacking sufficient force of utterance, dissipates in the air. Her daughter, not noticing her entrance, rocks on her hands and knees now between the gleaming stirrups, she pants, facing the wall, wiping her face against the mattress. Gasping, she rolls to her side, worn out and huge, her protuberant navel poking like a rivet head through the thin gown. At the front of the gurney, an aide, no older than the girl in labour, wipes a strand of brown hair from her own cheek, her shoulders slumped.
Meanwhile, the pregnant girl groans and rolls onto her back and her fingers clench the mattress. There is a stool along the far wall, a second long-limbed teenage aide atop it, her legs uncurling and curling around the stool’s posts as she surveys the spectacle. Her nonchalance suggests she has seen it all before. She casts a quick glance toward the widow frozen at the door. Their eyes meet. Then the aide stops chewing her gum and turns again to the incredible belly.
And so the world receives Les. And now the lives of Sarah and of Clay – a young colleague of Les’s – will take the weight of Les’s actions. The two middle sections are told from their perspectives. The guts of the story is here. We see through Clay’s telling, the man that Les has grown into. Clay is in love with Les, but also with Sarah, so all is doomed to unravel. When Clay pushes the situation as far as it will go, Les commits suicide and we are lead into the next section – narrated by Sarah as she tries to pick up the pieces and come to terms with the relationship and her loss. The style is a sort of patchy grieving love letter to Les,
Still walking in my socks around the house as though I wouldn’t wake you.
That somehow makes sense of the grieving process.
In the final section, titled Les, Outtakes from the Film Interview, we finally get to hear from Les himself. This is what made me think to end my story with a section of straight dialogue, as a way of clearing up the story so far. I was tempted to leave the last section to Sammie, as she hasn’t had a narrator’s voice anywhere else in the book. But partly because I don’t want to imitate the structure of As a Friendcompletely, and partly because I like the idea that we’re always trying to see her, and follow her, but then she is just gone. The dialogue section isn’t working, so I’m rewriting the whole passage, and trying to slice it into smaller chunks, more in keeping with the rest of the folio. It’s been this book anyway, that has got me thinking about ways to chop and change and place the raw material of my story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Russell currently lives in Wellington. In 2009 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. Her project was a novella manuscript called Sunny.