Waiting for the (non-)event
David Geary (DG): Has this lunch interrupted your day?
Emily Perkins (EP): No, I always take a break in the afternoons.
DG: You’re not a binge writer?
EP: Nope. Nor top up.
EP: It’s another heavy drinkers’ term. No, I work regular hours, 10 to 6.
DG: With music on?
EP: Not usually. Sometimes I have mood music. My new novel is about teenage girls. I’m playing Violent Femmes for that energy and songs full of longing.
DG: Do you want to talk about it?
EP: Not really.
DG: You like interviews?
EP: Actually I imagined they’d be more fun. Like the actor who thinks the wardrobe call and haircut will be the best part of being in a play. I’ll talk about The Picnic Virgins, the anthology of new writing I’ve been editing. I was dubious when Fergus [Barrowman], at VUP, asked me, going, “Another anthology, who gives a @#*& ?”. But we had open submissions to find people who hadn’t been published, and asked for contributions from established writers whose main form wasn’t fiction. I had no agenda, no sociological perspective. And it’s been great finding out what’s going on here. Some really free, original, inspiring stuff. Work that asks what is a short story? These people don’t know the rules, but the voices are so strong and playful the rules don’t matter.
DG: You’re into breaking the rules?
EP: I guess. I wrote Leave Before You Go, my first novel, disregarding them somewhat. Trying to capture the everyday strange ongoingness of life. No big watersheds, no pre-structure. Not “novelistic”.
DG: How do you mean?
EP: Well, we take comfort from constructing emotionally pleasing and satisfying narrative. I wanted the challenge to portray life as the random and apparently meaningless thing it can be. Like, in real life, if there’s a volcano that could explode, it probably won’t.
DG: How did it compare with doing short stories?
EP: Novels are much harder for me, no question. With a short story’s brevity the small takes on significance. A raised eyebrow means a lot. You can’t have a novel full of raised eyebrows though.
DG: But isn’t that sort of what you were trying for?
EP: Um … I guess it’s a delicate balance.
DG: The novel raised a few eyebrows with the critics?
EP: Yeah, it got mixed reviews. I don’t think a non-cathartic read went down well here. It fared better overseas.
DG: Do you care about reviews?
EP: More than I should. I guess I just want someone somewhere to receive what I do, to get it. Some saw the novel’s construction as intentional, a comedy of manners, which was nice.
DG: Worst reviews?
EP: Er … worst situation. On the day of my father’s funeral someone asked if I was the Emily Perkins. Then proceeded to tell me it was such a shame I got a bad review on the National Programme that morning. Oh, and a book festival in London. Twelve people turned up, all friends of the local writer I was sharing the podium with. I read something that I thought was hilarious and got no laughs, and no questions after. That was a very personal rejection.
DG: Like the stand-up comic that bombs?
DG: What was your best review as an actor?
EP: Can’t remember. I would have liked it to have been “Emily was convincing”.
DG: Has your dramatic background helped?
EP: I find dialogue easy to write. I test it by reading it out loud. Unrealistic dialogue really annoys me. Although I do get criticised for writing “Um … er” too much. It’s funny though. I did a great masterclass with Peter Carey and he talked about the same things that came up in drama training: taking risks / being in the moment.
DG: Good reviews?
EP: Um … best situation. Three Italian schoolgirls getting me to sign bits of me they’d ripped out of Timeout, even though they had no idea what I did. My dream is that one day I’ll see someone reading my book on the Underground.
DG: You’re interested in your readers?
EP: Yeah. I like the fact that they range from Grey Power to guys on skateboards.
DG: Do you dream of being stocked in international airports?
EP: Love to be. But they have to sell something like 20 in two days or they’re not re-ordered. I couldn’t write one if I tried. I don’t have that sensibility.
DG: You’ve found you have limits?
EP: Um … yeah. I tried to write a play. The guy from the Royal Court said it was like a sitcom.
DG: Is that a bad thing?
EP: He seemed to think so. I guess it lacked theatricality. Plays are a long-term ambition though. I’m not sure why I have trouble with visual stuff. I think ‘cause I have a better ear than eye.
DG: But you’re getting films made?
EP: Sort of. My friend, Brita, has adapted one of my short stories, “Thinking About Sleep”. We had long chats about it. I trusted she could retain the tone and translate it into cinematic language. It’s being shot while I’m here actually. I chose not to be involved, which I’m now finding is really painful. I have this gross feeling that some part of me is being lost on the other side of town as we speak. A short film I wrote in London, I just pumped full of detailed atmospheric description so they’d get what I was on about. To tell the truth, I think I’d be happier having more control and directing my own stuff.
DG: Have you thought about working in other forms?
EP: Not really. Good films impress. I admire that other reality musicians get. I wouldn’t want the life of a dancer, and what are they going to do when they get old?
DG: Jealous of other writers?
EP: No, I don’t read other people’s books and go, “Wow, I wish I’d written that.” I just go, “Wow”.
DG: Thought of living elsewhere?
EP: The States – maybe long enough to find out I don’t want to be there. The stories went okay there. The novel’s out later in the year, so maybe I’ll get a chance to check it out.
DG: We should do a plug.
EP: Sure. Leave Before You Go is getting a B-format paperback print run here.
DG: Do you feel like you’ve made it?
EP: I’m certainly glad I can make a life from writing, which is something I never dreamed of.
DG: Were you lucky?
EP: I had some good fortune. The guy from Picador read one of my stories in Sport then wanted to see more. I just swamped him with stuff till I got a commission. I was lucky that there was no real gap, no lag, while I struggled away with no-one wanting to see my stuff. I don’t feel like I’ve made it. I feel I’m at the beginning of my writing. I’m interested in getting better.
DG: Are you perhaps your own worst critic?
EP: Well, I do rewrites for the cringe factor. I tend to go slow and edit as I go. I like what I end up with. Although I did find with my Sunday Times articles that once a week was too much. I was repeating myself so I stopped that.
DG: Was it a good thing to do?
EP: It’s been good for the profile and I hope it was entertaining. I do enjoy that element of persona, the thing that Bridget Jones’ Diary did so well. And it does give me a chance to plunder my, and my friends’, foibles. Although I did get burnt when an ex recognised himself. I’m not going into that. I’m doing a column in She/More once a month now. It’ll be more themed. I do have the dilemma of “should I save good stuff for a book?” But if it’s good enough, there should be enough juice for both. I also do a weekly fiction serial for the Evening Standard Supplement. A sort of Tales of the City based around a young woman working as a researcher for a private investigation firm. That’s fun.
DG: How are you finding splitting yourself between NZ and London?
EP: I’m always missing somewhere. It’s easier to make a living in London, but NZ is much more relaxed. There’s less uptight formality and structure to social interaction. People come and go organically. Then again, I can romanticise NZ. Dreaming of how I’ll eat breakfast at an outdoor cafe, walk on a beautiful beach and trek through virgin bush. Then I get here and stand around a barbie with old friends. That’s my fault though. I do find the jam of London comforting, just always being surrounded by people. And I’m endlessly curious there. It’s really multicultural too. I mean race there isn’t like art direction in movies, just there for a bit of colour.
DG: What are you doing for the Millennium?
EP: Here. A beach. My 30th birthday is a few days later. It’ll be the non-event of the world. The volcano will not explode.
David Geary is an Auckland playwright.
Emily Perkins has edited a collection of new fiction, The Picnic Virgin, due from Victoria University Press.