AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNE KENNEDY
Interviewed by Evangeline Riddiford Graham and Elizabeth Baikie
When Anne Kennedy first found herself at Victoria University, it was as an undergraduate, studying music composition. She later returned to Victoria to complete her MA in English, continuing a writing career which, since its beginning, has bubbled with intelligence and musicality. In 2016 Anne has returned again to her hometown of Wellington and to Victoria University, this time as the Victoria University/Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence.
Anne has written award-winning short stories, poetry, novels, and screenplays. She has twice been the recipient of the New Zealand Book Awards’ poetry prize, and was a finalist in the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for her novel, The Last Days of the National Costume. Anne has taught at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and the Manukau Institute of Technology, where she is editor of the literary journal Ika.
In October, Anne took the time to answer some of our questions about the place she is writing from, now she is back at Victoria University, nestled into the ‘room with a view’ at the bottom of the stairs in Bill Manhire House.
The Writer in Residence room at International Institute of Modern Letters has been your space since the beginning of this year. What is the room like, and what was the first thing you did to the space to make it yours?Here in Bill Manhire House the writer’s room is big and airy and looks out on hills and trees and birds. The tui flap about a lot, and once a kārearea (no kidding) came and sat on the wire right outside the window. The room has not one but two desks, and I’ve recently (late in the year) started using one as the ‘creative desk’ and the other as the ‘everything else desk’, taking a cue from Anne Carson. Who knows, maybe everything else will really take off.
The subject of writing spaces has preoccupied me from time to time, because I’ve lived in small houses courtesy of the inflated Auckland and Honolulu property markets. In Honolulu, the most populated piece of land in the US, space is of the essence, and I worked on a shelf at the open linen cupboard (ingenious idea, not mine). Pondering all this a couple of years back, I reread A Room of One’s Own and found it to be the same great narrative I remembered, but this time around, problematic. What say you just don’t have a room of your own? That’s most women on the planet.
However, this year I do, and it’s luxury! I did very little to impact on the space – some books, photos of my children. I live in an aural and conceptual world when I’m writing and while space is lovely, and probably stress-relieving and it’s true I do look out the window occasionally, I don’t need things to look at. Writing is in defiance of the material world even though it’s often a representation of it.
With the notable exception of the Michael King Writer’s Centre residency, full time writing has been rare for you in the last twenty years. What’s different, this time around?
Years ago, I used to think I knew what I was doing. Now I know I don’t, even though I have a lot more knowledge of craft. The mirage of writing keeps moving.
Could you talk to us about how ‘the writing life’ compares in the different places you’ve lived?
What comes to mind about that question is not so much the places I’ve been but the cultural climates I’ve lived in, which have mostly been nurturing to a middle-aged, middle class white girl like me. So in some ways, things have got better and more inclusive. But at the same time we’re watching the Humanities being chopped up for cat-meat. While there’ll always be people who transcend their times and circumstances and make art whatever the obstacles, most artists are encouraged (or flattened) by what’s around them. What to do? I don’t think we know yet, apart from to fight the loss of art and culture with art and culture.
The Residency at the IIML has been a return not just to full-time writing, but to Wellington, where you grew up, and where you went to university.
As someone whose work is often anchored in notions of place, what is it like to be writing in Wellington, and what does it mean to write about the place you are living in, as opposed to writing a place from a distance?
I’ve discovered that a written place is always a place of distance. Not long before I came down from Auckland, I wrote a scene set in the Mount Street Cemetery, and I thought, when I come to Wellington I’ll be able to see how it really is. You’d think I would’ve learned because I’ve had this experience before, but some nostalgic part of me never gives up – some determined realist part. But sure enough, when I walk past the cemetery every day, I think of it in the way I wrote it, not the way it is.
We talked about an article in the Listener this September lamenting the lack of readership for New Zealand novels. But here you are, writing literary novels in New Zealand. Why?
Writing a New Zealand novel is about as sensible as buying a Lotto ticket, but I do it because I don’t know what else to do for kicks.
The issue of readership is separate and quite complicated. It’s partly about what we decide is valuable in our small, sport-obsessed and increasingly market-driven (really bad combination) country. We used not to even have this conversation, and we still had literature.
But it was a narrower literature – not literatures – and a different world, and I do think the right kind of campaign could help. About twenty years ago, this issue came up with NZ music, and there was a call for quotas on radio. I remember the debate, with musicians even sometimes on the nay side (‘if it’s good, people will listen’). But the quota idea, essentially a structured advertising campaign, did seem to work.
How to do that for NZ lit? (That was what inspired my occasional Twitter sequence of ideas for forcing people to read NZ fiction whether they like it or not.)
With respect to the relationship between writing place and negotiating the past, could you talk to us about what excites you, and what challenges you, when you set your work in Aotearoa?
Who will write about here, apart from us? We’re still isolated despite fast internet, perhaps more so. Perhaps we used to be like a small town with its own centre, its own Friday night, and now we live on the outskirts of the really big town.
I’ve long been a fan of post-colonial literature – the sense of carving out something different from a perceived centre, that’s exciting to me, and something I want to do more than anything. Being a white and therefore mainstream New Zealander living in the margins of the western world is a complicated position, and that’s why it’s worth writing about.
I think the biggest challenge is finding what’s important about your own times, and that’s something we’re probably not ever quite aware of.
You’ve written screenplays, novels, short stories, and poetry. Do certain projects demand to be placed in a particular form or is it more about feeling your way around the project until the form presents itself? Have you found that the significance of setting in your work changes across genres, for instance?
I don’t know if the setting makes a difference. There are other reasons I go between forms and media, mostly to do with finding the right rhythm for a project. I initially started writing poetry (as an adult) because I thought my fiction didn’t have the rhythm I wanted, and I discovered I quite liked poetry. But then poetry has a burden of rhythm, so when I want to be free of it (sort of), I go back to fiction. Basically my writing life is made up of getting enthusiastic about a form or medium, deciding it’s too something, too rhythmic, not rhythmic enough, and trying another one. Works for me.
Sometimes new ideas, and the headspace for writing them, have to be gone out and looked for. Do you have a touchstone place you go to when you need an injection of inspiration?
I often go a bit bananas in an art gallery. There’s something subconsciousness-raising about getting up close with a medium that’s not your own. I tend to take lots of notes, and sometimes need three handkerchiefs.
How do you protect your writing place from being encroached upon by other things in life?
I haven’t been very good at that since I had children, and that was a long time ago. And with teaching, you have to do what you have to do, there are no shortcuts. Which is why this fellowship has been so valuable to me.
You recently judged the Liberate Your Words 2016 Schools Poetry Award. Could you talk to us about that, and share any words of wisdom you have for aspiring writers?
Reading the poems for this competition was a huge experience, and I still think about it. The winning ten poems are a blast, especially the overall winner ‘History’ by Ioana Yule Manoa, but I was also impressed by so many of the other poems. (Judging a competition is agonizing.)
One aspect that stood out, among many things, was the number of poems about mental anguish, even suicide. It’s tough being young, especially now. I was reminded how I’ve always regarded creative writing is therapeutic (like making anything, like knitting). I admired the courage and facility of these young poets writing about emotional issues that are not just personal, they’re universal. (In the meantime our government, in a stunningly backwards move, continues to slash mental health services.)
In this place, at this time, what are you reading?
I’ve just finished Helene Wong’s memoir, Being Chinese, which is a beautiful and moving book. I felt ashamed and inspired at once reading about the racism that was dealt to the Chinese community here, and how despite that they just got on with it. I’ve been reading what I bring home from Wellington book launches: Nick Ascroft’s Back With the Human Condition, hilarious and serious poetry, a good combination; Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me which I binge-read one weekend and then found myself with a Laing-like running commentary in my head. Lee Posna’s riveting Arboretum. I’m reading a novel by Susanna Moore, Sleeping Beauties, which interests me because it’s set in Hawai`i.
You finish your residency at the IIML early next year. Where will you find yourself come February?
It’s been a fantastic opportunity to be at IIML this year, and I’m so incredibly grateful to the institution and to the folks here. (And thank you, Evangeline and Lizzie, for your thoughtful questions.) I’m already a little jealous that Victor Rodger, the 2017 fellow, is going to be taking over my room and my view and my birds.
Come February, I’ll be back teaching creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology, spending time with my son and my northern friends, negotiating the villages of Auckland, and probably pining a bit for things Wellington and people Wellington.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS
Evangeline Riddiford Graham and Elizabeth Baikie spend their days working in the visual arts and their nights reading, they write in between. They both live in Wellington and have just completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML.