R Carl Shuker interviews Damien Wilkins
R Carl Shuker (RCS): Do you remember the initial spark of Chemistry?
Damien Wilkins (DW): Yes, I do. I was down in Timaru, where the novel is set. I was hanging out at my partner’s stepfather’s pharmacy. A guy came in dressed head-to-toe in leathers. He parked his Harley Davidson outside, and he came in and came up to the counter, got his little cup and took his little cup outside, swallowed it, and threw the plastic cup in the gutter and roared off on his Harley Davidson. And I said to Russ (stepfather-in-law), “Who was that guy?” And he explained, he was on the methadone programme. So this guy has a little walk-on part in Chemistry. He’s the guy with the Harley, maybe one page.
So I thought, this is kind of interesting, you know, that this kind of thing is going on under our noses. That would have been four or five years ago. So it wasn’t, gee, I must write a novel about that; but it was in the back of my brain. An interesting and weird thing that’s going on all over Timaru, because, as Russ then told me, there were a lot of chemists in Timaru doing this, so he was nothing special. It was being repeated all around – every morning these guys turn up and take methadone. I was quite interested in its both being very open and quite hidden. It’s legally got to be open, so they’ve got to go there, take it in the presence of the chemist, and also the presence of us. You know, Joe Public, who’s there, can witness this thing. It’s open, but it’s also hidden. And that’s what got me interested, from a novelist’s point of view.
RCS: I felt that your satiric edge was sharper and less forgiving – but also funnier – in Chemistry than the last novel, Nineteen Widows Under Ash. Was this a conscious decision, or something that sprang out of characters and milieu?
DW: I write in terms of rhythm. If I can find the rhythm of the prose that’s going to sustain the length of the novel, I’ll go with that. I think the rhythm of the sentences starts to accumulate its own effects, so it’s not as if I think, gee, I really want to be funny or satirical about this situation, or, gee, this is how this character would see this situation. Really, it’s a kind of a gut thing about writing a certain rhythm, and if the rhythm goes off I know that the humour has gone off or everything else has gone off, or that I’m not in control any more. I think that it’s a kind of situational humour, not like people telling gags or something like that, and I think that’s kind of how I’m wired up in terms of a writer. That often I’m thinking – especially in the conversations between characters – that I’m using the way people aren’t speaking or are not listening to each other as a way of generating humour. It’s not funny to them, but it’s funny to us.
It’s humour from situation, and from a belief I’ve got: that you give everyone their moment. So there’s no character in there who’s unredeemed by style. Even the peripheral characters; they just have a few lines to say, but I try to make the situation interesting or odd or amusing. So I guess Nineteen Widows Under Ash was similarly run in terms of a voice and rhythm. Once I got Evelyn’s thoughts and a certain kind of voice, I thought, okay, now I can write a book about her.
RCS: Taken sentence by sentence, your prose has a lucid, dry, minimalist effect. How do you feel about words like “deadpan” and “minimalist” when they’re used in reviews to describe your work?
DW: There are kinds of minimalism and I don’t think it’s minimalist in the way that Carver is minimalist, or that American strain of minimalist writing is, where it’s almost as if you’re against anything that’s ornate in the prose, or in the thinking, or in the organisation of your writing. I think my books are highly organised, very deliberately organised, around controlling ideas and motifs which would probably horrify people like Carver, or those American writers who would probably think that what you do is “tell it like it is”. There’s that kind of straight minimalism which I don’t think I’m part of. But I think this was one of the weird things about the effect of going to the States and doing that writing course [MFA at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, under novelist Stanley Elkin]. I went there with a lot of the writing I was doing at the time, which was full of adjectives and … full of “writing”. Full of voice. But it was quite a stylised, self-conscious, adjectival voice, and once I got there, I thought, no, I can’t do this anymore. Mainly because the people who had taught me all that were sitting there, and they were the masters of it. So I felt I had to reinvent myself. The Miserables is a novel written getting rid of all adverbs, lots of adjectives, all the qualifiers, so it arrives at a kind of pared-down style. Still stylised, though.
RCS: Do you feel this throws more weight on the structuring of episodes, or the novel’s action?
DW: I don’t know. One of the things hopefully you learn is how action in a book shapes the narrative. You learn pace. If I was to think of that first book of stories I wrote [The Veteran Perils]: there’s no pacing in it. It’s all the same pace. And so that’s something that takes you a long, long time to learn – unless you’re gifted it at birth – how to actually pace a piece of writing. That’s something I think about all the time, but that only comes through rereading the chunks as they hit each other. Thinking, what’s happened to that in the meantime? Have I left it too long, or do I want to re-gather that, or is it right to interrupt it?
I guess Chemistry is a book that is deliberately interrupted, and I guess the thing is to work out whether those interruptions are right for where they fall. My organising brain is working out where the speed humps are, and if they’re in the right place. And I like speed humps. I like the sense that you can stop a book, and turn it down some other alleyway that’s previously unexplored or unexpected.
RCS: At Writers and Readers Week in Wellington this year, William Gass made the comment that, in prose, “the art is in the music; without the music, there is only comprehension.” How would a comment like that sit with what you do?
DW: Gass is the extreme, and I love him for it. But at a certain point you decide where you’re going to pitch your tent. Perhaps when I started out, I thought, that’s what I want to do, that’s where I want to go to, this is what I’m interested in. And I discovered it probably wasn’t where I was going to be, for whatever reason. That, in fact, these books that I write, in Gass’s world-view, are pretty conventional novels. But I’d like to think that because I know his stuff and I read experimental stuff, some of that informs what I do. But I certainly wouldn’t claim that all I’m doing is writing a kind of music. But I don’t think Gass is either. You get to certain points in The Tunnel and he has to approach what we all approach. Which is character, psychology, even plot, dare I say it. Some of the stuff he’s working through – you can’t get away from these basic tropes of fiction writing. But I’m always interested in his efforts to try and get away from it.
Gass has written about when he was learning to write. He would put a cup there, and he would write forty descriptions of the cup. Which he now thinks was stupid, and he wasted a lot of time, but coming from where he was in his reading and his theorising, he thought that if he could just get that object onto the page in prose, to replace that cup, in its shapeliness and beauty – it would render that cup obsolete. He talks about prose actually physically replacing what’s described. And that’s why he believes that when you make a book you make a world, you don’t make a vision of the real. You actually make some thing.
RCS: How important is a sensitive ear for dialogue and inflection and slang?
DW: It’s important. But I’m not after completely accurate transcriptions of what I hear when I go down to Timaru. What I’m always after is, how does that person’s line meet or fail to meet the person-above-them’s line? So I’m much more interested in the – it’s not a dance exactly – it’s a kind of weird give-and-take which I hear very, very clearly when I read back dialogue. I think I’ve got a good ear in that respect. I know when to get out of someone’s speech into another person’s speech, and I know how to pull a conversation around so it ends up in a place which was unexpected. That’s where I think I’ve got skill, is dialogue, so it’s not necessarily skill with dialect.
I think someone like Maurice Gee is much more true to life when he gets people to open their mouths. In that he’ll put up with people saying banal things for the effect that this is real life. Whereas I have little patience with that. I’ll always go for the funnier line, as opposed to the more “true” line, or for something more accurate to someone dirtying around in Timaru. That’s just how I’m built, and people might object to that, but I know when I pick up a Maurice Gee book that people will pretty much speak as I hear them speak, whereas I think I’m much more trying to make a nice shape, make a nice pattern out of a conversation. It is something I feel quite strongly when I come to write, that no, I can’t have that person “exclaiming”. I’m always working at getting the pattern right.
RCS: So the dialogue takes you in a direction as opposed to eavesdropping a possibly momentumless conversation.
DW: Yeah. When I’m teaching fiction, beginners’ writing, it’s the thing that’s usually not there. That sense that dialogue can have a shape and can have a sound which actually is aesthetically pleasing as well as doing work for you. I think I still want to have some tinge of something naturalistic, so I’m not saying it’s a Noel Coward play, but it’s got to have that pleasing weight to it. So it’s got a sense of a shape to it. Rather than being ticker-tape or something.
There’s a minor scene in Chemistry when Don and Graham are in the hospital, for Graham’s operation, and they go back to sit outside in the waiting room, and we know that Don’s got certain things on his brain, and Graham’s got certain things on his brain, so how do you run the conversation so you show that, but also stay with them when they speak? There’s a moment, I think, at the end, where Don says, look, you know, are you sure you want me to leave? and you know, Graham says –
RCS and DW: “Frankly Don, I find you oppressive.”
DW: So that’s how you end the scene. When I wrote that line I thought, “I’m out of there now”, because the way the whole scene has worked it seemed to turn it so it’s actually Graham that’s in control in a weird way. Because he has the line. That’s what I mean by getting the shape. You know to leave it on the joke, but it’s also a joke which isn’t throwaway. So I think that’s what I’m talking about. But from looking at the stuff I’ve written I know now that I’m working hard at describing the cup.
R Carl Shuker is a writer and reviewer currently working on a novel in Wellington. Chemistry was reviewed in our October 2002 issue.