In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers
Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams (eds),
Auckland University Press, $29.95
Writers on Writing: An Anthology
Robert Neale (ed),
Oxford University Press, $39.95
In In the Same Room, Vincent O’Sullivan approvingly quotes fellow anthologist Vincent Buckley’s description of The Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry. It has, said Buckley, ‘a strange instinct for durability’. That comment, with all its implications of strength and solid achievement as well as an unwillingness to take risks, could equally be applied to In the Same Room. The 15 writers interviewed here are all leading figures in the ‘received canon’ of New Zealand literature: Bill Manhire, Janet Frame, Owen Marshall, Allen Curnow, Albert Wendt, Kendrick Smithyman, Keri Hulme, Maurice Gee, Hone Tuwhare, Vincent O’Sullivan, Witi lhimaera, Margaret Mahy, C K Stead, Patricia Grace and Ian Wedde. In carefully matching interviewers and authors to ‘encourage depth in the interviews’, and probably to avoid too‑guarded responses from the writers, the editors have, I think, come up with a canny and very rewarding collection. With such interviewers, the initial spadework is well out of the way, while some of their questions may not quite hit bedrock, most of them sink useful shafts into alluvial – and allusive – soil.
The opening interview with Bill Manhire is diverting in every sense: its jokey, ironic ambivalence is great entertainment. Manhire manages at once to be very generous in his responses and adroitly to deflect the discussion with self-mockery. Perhaps it’s an oral version of his hankering to ‘tip the reader off-balance’. He argues that writers speak more than they know, that wisdom is located in the poem, not the poet: ‘I don’t think poets are necessarily any wiser than people who read poetry. I think that some poems can be pretty resourceful, of course’. While he evidently doesn’t want to contribute to the death of the author (‘theory represents the academy’s revenge against the imagination’), he seems very nervous about assigning them any power. This may well be a good thing, given Margaret Mahy’s reflection (in discussing the problem of providing images of women that are both powerful and positive) that ‘it seems to me to be part of human experience that the wielding of power is often the reverse of sensitive, no matter who’s wielding it’.
In Manhire’s lexicon, the imagination seems to be something that reaches out, that humanises: ‘it’s important to be capable of imagining what it’s like to be other than you are’. For both Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy, the imagination is almost dangerous. Frame sees it as a ‘form of courage, daring to explore beyond horizons’, while for Mahy, giving in to that ‘great longing for some sort of … emotional or imaginative extremity’ is liable to take you ‘too far’.
I think the most satisfying interview is Manhire’s largely biographical discussion with Hone Tuwhare. It opens with Tuwhare’s memory of his mother, who died when he was only five or six, as ‘a sick, frail woman’ being bathed by his father ‘in one of those small, oval, zinc-coated tin bathtubs’. Tuwhare is so generous with his memories – all the small concrete details that go to make up a life – that you cannot help but feel a real sense of connection.
The interview that seems most superficial is that with Keri Hulme. Her writing is so extraordinarily powerful, and one of the most powerful things about it – the prose at least – is the element of physical violence (often associated with children) and her preoccupation with participants who are maimed or damaged in some way, either mentally or physically. I have long been waiting for a sensitive interviewer to ask Hulme about this strand in her work, whether she has some irresistible impulse to move the reader to chill or horror. Hulme herself seems obliquely to touch on the issue when she describes her ‘cinema of the head’ – images of things that don’t exist – as being in ‘living, screaming, scent-filled, nightmarish reality’. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Alley’s interview seems content to dwell on generalities.
I also have my doubts about Michele Leggott’s conversation with Ian Wedde. While it offers some penetrating insights, it relies too much on the reader being completely conversant with Wedde’s work. Wedde and Leggott speak a kind of in‑joke shorthand which is probably fine for many readers but which would offer no help at all to, say, a first‑year university student struggling with Wedde’s writing and coming to this text for illumination.
But the collection has some delightful grace notes: Bill Manhire revealing that he is a ‘brilliant ballroom dancer’; Margaret Mahy confessing that as a child she would surreptitiously saw off bits of cinema posters at night with a piece of glass; Maurice Gee reminding us that he once wrote for the TV soap Close to Home (in the New Zealand context that seems almost reasonable, but translate it to another – Patrick White doing dialogue for Neighbours? – and it becomes simply bizarre).
Writers on Writing is an anthology of writers’ comments about their craft, collected to ‘help aspiring writers of all kinds’, as Robert Neale writes in his introduction. It is certainly comforting to realise that Katherine Mansfield procrastinated as much as the rest of us: ‘… the stories wait for me, grow tired, wilt, fade, because I will not come. And I hear and I acknowledge them and still I go sitting at the window, playing with the ball of wool’. And it’s equally fascinating to follow the progress of The Waves through Virginia Woolf’s diary. But it is hard to know exactly whom this book is aimed at. Surely no one but an already able student of literature would tackle passages from Caxton (in the Early English Text Society’s edition!), Sidney, Bacon, Milton and Locke in the hope of useful insights. (Incidentally, a note seems to be missing from the excerpt of Astrophel and Stella.) On the other hand, anyone who has ever put biro to blank sheet would benefit from Orwell’s six simple rules: never use a figure of speech you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if you can cut a word out, do so; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use foreign, scientific or jargon words where there is an everyday English equivalent; and break any of these rules sooner than say anything ‘outright barbarous’.
Orwell aside, those looking for practical advice from the greats on how to improve their writing may well be disappointed by Writers on Writing. However, those interested in engaging with writers’ thoughts as they struggle with their craft will find some inviting casual reading here.
Jane Hurley is a freelance editor and writer.