Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion
Siobhan Harvey (ed)
Cape Catley, $44.99, ISBN
Fifteen New Zealand writers interviewed by 15 more: 30 of them talking enthusiastically about their craft and themselves. In her introduction the editor suggests that we have been starved of such voices, having had no collection comparable to this for 18 years. This is a dubious proposition. There may have been no book publication like this one, but we have been potentially enlightened over those two decades by “our” writers talking to Kim Hill, Kathryn Ryan, Lynn Freeman, Jim Mora and (on TV7) Finlay Macdonald. Our daily newspapers and such cultural icons as the New Zealand Listener and The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly offer us innumerable “profiles” of writers: part interview, part (intrusive) personal comment. There have been Book Council meetings, Writers on Wheels, writers in schools, publishers’ promotions and Writers and Readers events in several cities. Anyone who has not heard these 30 writers talk over the years has not been listening.
Literary endeavour did not always involve so much public chatter. Once upon a time, most readers had to piece together images of writers by reading between the lines of their works. The results were probably quite inaccurate, since writers – as we are told repeatedly here – assume voices when they put words on pages. Such voices are, of course, metaphorical ones, since the written word is silent, but there is no denying that they can be powerful and hold readers in their grip. They are painstakingly constructed by writers using “words chosen carefully”, and there is some irony in the fact that this phrase is used as the title of a book which – ostensibly – transcribes less careful spoken words. On the whole, the words in interviews seem looser, freer and chattier than those used by the same people in their poems, novels and stories. An exception is Kate De Goldi, who apparently talks spontaneously in well-constructed paragraphs, complete with topic sentences, and, partly for this reason, her interview is one of the more readable items in the book. It is more writerly, more literary, in fact more like an essay than an interview.
Once upon a time (and for those interested in writing strategies, who perforce must be all who want to read these interviews, I am repeating this phrase to create a special reality of myth and legend), people who were inarticulate in conversation sometimes turned to the written word as compensation. To be part of the current literary scene, however, it seems imperative to be a good talker.
Inevitably, most of the talk is self-centred. This is a feature of the genre. When interviewed, writers are expected to talk about themselves, and also about their works, and they rise keenly to this challenge. It would be hard to find more than one or two consecutive sentences in this book that do not have the first person pronoun as the subject of the main clause and of most subordinate clauses as well. Such repetition would not be tolerated in a written work, but talking is a different matter. It is such a different matter that one wonders why this talk has been transcribed for a glossy book rather than issued on an audio medium.
Of course, writers are best placed to talk about their personal habits, but they are less so to talk about the results of their labours. Those who are curious will find out which writers use pens and which computers, which write in daylight and which at night, and so on. But will that kind of information improve the reading experience? For example, when I read Elizabeth Smither’s poem “Here come the clouds”, I imagine her – or someone like her – watching the clouds approach, recalling flocks of birds, then letting her mind merge the vision of clouds returning as the season changes with ideas of migrating birds and finally extending these thoughts by association to all other kinds of migration. Somehow that seems more appropriate than imagining the poet curled up with a rug, a cup of tea and a pile of books to do her regular weekly stint, composing a bunch of poems as her “Sunday treat”.
Problematic in a different way is writers’ talk about their works. Once upon a time, there was a writer who wrote and a reader who read. The roles of reviewer, analyst, critic, student and scholar were played by people not identical with the producer of the work being enjoyed or studied. When a writer writes and then turns around to read and to comment at length on the experience, the result is a kind of short circuit. Instead of travelling out into the world to provide light and heat for others, the energy turns back upon its source. As is widely known, a short circuit leads to a spark, an explosion or a conflagration, and all that is left for the prospective user of the energy – the reader – is to contain the damage and try to put out the fire.
Having said that – and changing metaphors to say that going from reading one interview to reading another and then another is a challenging experience, like eating too much rich food – food for thought, if you will – I think it fair to say as well that there was much in this book that gave me pleasure, amusement and mental enrichment. They’re clever people, these writers, and they’ve given a lot of thought to what they do.
On average, they are probably more conscious of that than many writers of once-upon-a-time. (From this I exclude Henry James, whose technical introductions to his novels have inspired subsequent generations to think long and hard about technique.) These are people who can switch from close third-person to unreliable first-person narrative at the wave of a mentor’s wand. All of them, I believe, have studied or taught at creative writing courses. (Creative writing is the sort of thing that used to be called literary writing, before it was decided that people like Bill Bryson and Simon Schama are not creative.) Our writers know how to say things, but in some cases one wonders whether they have many things to say. And then one is reminded of certain virtuoso pianists who can play more notes per minute, and more loudly, than their rivals but all too rarely make music. When they do, of course, the results are wonderful.
For me the stand-out interviews in this book are those with Elizabeth Knox, Kate De Goldi and Kapka Kassabova.
Knox stands out for the sheer difference and quirkiness of her imagination. From earliest childhood she and her siblings were serious, almost desperate, about creating fantasy worlds that were at once parallel to and escape-holes from the tensions of family life, and it might be said that she has never returned to the kind of reality that makes so many New Zealand writers representative of realism. She is intensely conscious of this state of mind and its history and talks about it here in ways that are only less gripping than the carefully chosen words of her written essays. The story of her mind as told in The Love School: Personal Essays (2009) is even more satisfying to read than this interview, partly because there is much more detail there but also because the essays were written to be read rather than heard.
Kate De Goldi’s interview is rich with ideas and references that point out from the obsessively repetitive concerns that characterise this book in general.
The appeal of Kapka Kassabova is more personal and may not be shared by every reader. I found myself reaching for a notebook to take down some of the turns of phrase she uses for the international point of view that informs her thought: the breaking down of labelled categories, not only ethnic and linguistic ones, but, for example, those that define canons, is refreshing. The thrill of translation is inexhaustible for her, and I liked the way she speaks of “those of us who experience borders and boundaries as ‘straightjackets’ rather than comfort-zone buffers”.
But each reader will find personal affinities. My final words to the contributors are these: I have listened to your speech-forms spurting from these pages and I have found them self-indulgent, entertaining, petty, thought-provoking, soporific, illuminating, laughable, impressive and much more besides – but now, please stop talking and WRITE.
Nelson Wattie is a Wellington writer and reviewer.