My ideal reader, Elizabeth Knox

My ideal reader reads constantly, avidly, and personally. My ideal reader adds something to the domestic scene, looks as comfortable as a cat and as fine as a flower arrangement with a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. My ideal reader reads for me; when I’m in the deeps of writing a novel, he reads the novels I might like to read once I emerge. He also reads the poetry, essays, journals of record, short fiction, biographies, memoirs I might be reading too, and we talk about them.

He urges me towards odd things that don’t count as novels, however they’re marketed, the things that won’t disturb the book in my head – books like Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. My ideal reader doesn’t read fantasy, unless he’s been nagged into it by more than one person in his household, a household of only three. So he’s read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. My ideal reader doesn’t read fantasy, and, according to him, I don’t write it.

My ideal reader reads professionally – and writers trust him and sometimes give him things quite early, so that he is like one of those technicians who knows how to read an ultrasound scan and can say, “There are the kidneys, and they’re looking just fine.”  When he reads manuscripts he reads with good will, always hoping for the best, and when he has trouble with something he walks around the house sighing. When he is particularly happy he picks up things and fiddles with them – that’s how you know he’s really paying attention, how many objects his fingers manage to process as he reads.

One of the reasons I married my ideal reader was because he was a reader. I can remember him congratulating us when, in our first weeks together, we managed to spend an afternoon in the same room quietly reading.

Victoria University Press (VUP) has been my publisher and Fergus my editor since 1987. We married on Waitangi Day in 1989. My being married to my New Zealand publisher is open to various interpretations. I don’t really want to go into that except to say that, like Bill Manhire, Fergus tends to get blame and credit for exactly the same things. And I’ll tell you that Fergus is responsible – for instance, it was he who whenever I was about to be overcome by nervous embarrassment, persuaded me not to give up writing The Vintner’s Luck.

Fergus – the poor man – does tend to get a running commentary on what I’m doing. In the course of the day – one of my everyday days – nothing happens to me apart from what I do, what I’m thinking about how to solve the problems that each book presents, each day in every scene, even when you’re well on in it and think you have a map. Fergus comes home and asks me what I’ve done today, not because he’s monitoring my output  but because I might tell him something that will entertain him. He knows that if I come in from a walk and don’t make eye contact then I  have something I want to write down – he isn’t reverent about this, is quite likely to interrupt me with something, nothing objectionable, an offer of coffee say – I think he wants to see whether I can carry whatever it is I have balanced on my head until I get into my room and shut the door.

Fergus listens to me burbling on about what I plan to do with my characters, what problems I’m giving them, the pros and cons of transposing the first four chapters of my new book into the third person since the reader really needs to see the main character from the outside. That sort of thing. He likes to hear about matters of craft; in fact, he can tell you more about matters of craft than I can because he is more able to make intelligent generalisations about things like point-of-view or tense or register.

He listens to me work out how to do things and, unlike me, remembers my working out. And he has all these other writers who sometimes tell him what they’re doing and why – though not quite issuing a daily weather bulletin, as I do. I guess I talk to Fergus because I trust his interest, the quality of his interest, and because often he’s able to say “That sounds like a good idea” – and I know it’s not just reflex encouragement.

Fergus is involved in my writing, though he never gets to see anything less than 20,000 words of each novel. I always wait till I have that much at least, because he’s the one I want to surprise. And what he says is this, that the books are always very different from how he imagined they’d be from hearing me talk about them and at the same time, reading, he recognises my thinking and remembers what I’ve said.

Fergus does very well living with a writer since most of us are a combination of nervous ninny and megalomaniac. Certainly I know he doesn’t like it when I get into one of those grooves where I go on about being doomed, sounding like Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. Fergus puts up with that – with me insulting him, one of my intelligent and appreciative readers, my first best reader. Bless him.


Elizabeth Knox’s latest novel is DaylightThis Comment is adapted from a contribution to the “Hunting the Snark” panel at New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week earlier this year. 


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