Friday, November 26, 2010

In which two lady novelists converse about writing.

If you liked The Sound of Butterflies do go and buy Kelly Ana Morey’s excellent novel Quinine. I am not saying they are the same book, far from it. But the two books share an exotic, steamy and Edwardian setting, pockets of natural history and, admittedly, a fair bit of transgressive behaviour.

It took me a good few weeks to read (not because the book was slow – I am just slow these days), and I looked forward to getting away from everything and getting into bed with Marta, an Austrian who marries a man she doesn’t love in order to take off for more exotic climes, in this case Papua New Guinea, then German East Neuguinea. I’m not going to give you a plot summary, as plenty of overwhelmingly positive reviews have done (here for starters), but will say that Kelly Ana has created a complete world, with some extraordinary, and never overwhelming, descriptions and some vivid, flawed and loveable characters. She has also done what all good historical novelists need to do, which is hold back on throwing in too much research. As Emma Darwin once said to me: “If you’re thinking about my research as you’re reading, I haven’t done my job.”

As a quick aside, I have to mention that the book has been ill-served by bad proofreading. In many places, it looks as though the editor has made changes to a word, but the original word has been left in alongside the new one. And this book deserves a beautiful, lush cover. It doesn’t have one. What a wasted opportunity.

But those are minor negatives. Quinine is an interesting, easy read, written with sly humour and a love of good character. I had a number of questions for Kelly Ana when I finished it, and in keeping with our tradition (see earlier editions of Black magazine for similar conversations for my book The Sound of Butterflies and her book On An Island, With Consequences Dire) she kindly agreed to answer them for me and let me post them on my blog.

RK: Did you feel that Quinine was still the best title for the book once you'd finished, given how much the book had changed (an understatement - I read the first chapter once that was in the first person, narrated by a girl in Samoa waiting for her father...? Kind of magical realism?)

KM: Absolutely, I never considered any other title. It’s just such a great word.

It did change so much, you’re right. I was so ambitious. But by the time editor Anna Rogers took me in hand I was ready to settle for writing a reasonable good book about three people with a beginning, a middle and an end.

RK: Been meaning to ask... did you sign up for word of the day and then set yourself a challenge to use every word in Quinine? There are more than your usual amount of unusual words in there. Spotting them was like part of a game.

KM: Last Christmas I spent five days reading the dictionary and created a Quinine lexicon… Anna took tons of them out. The words I really loved were the animal descriptive words like vulpine, murine, lupine and psittacine ... only a few of which made the cut. And isn't 'a gallimaufry of gimcrackery' the best way ever of saying, a pile of shit?

RK: It is. What do you think of the idea that if someone is thinking about your research while reading (ie 'gosh, this is meticulously researched') then you haven't done your job properly?

KM: Ah yes, we – editor, two readers and me - had many conversations about that. Readers were fans, editor not so much, so in the end I used my research in a way that I would like as a reader which I think is all you can do. And some of the stuff that I made up I presented as researched, like when the Germans are interned at the hospital in Kavieng, which probably did happen, but I don’t know for sure.

There was also an awful lot of research that didn’t make it … I, for example, know rather a lot about how coral atolls are formed. I was really enchanted, editor, again not so much.

RK: Ah yes, the coral! The coral death scene is a masterpiece. I wanted to ask about whether you had swiped that from a real-life event - did they used to have dynamite the coral? - or if you just decided that a gruesome death was necessary and made it up. I love beautifully written gore.

KM: I needed to kill Bernard and I wanted his death to have that element of complete farce about it, and I do love a good explosion. The idea of dynamiting the coral was more practically driven because that eastern coast of Nuemecklenberg is totally locked with coral, which is why Bulominski’s road was built, and I needed Bernard to be able to get the copra of the plantation, and I had read about dynamiting the coral, which they still do. Strangely one of the few memories I do have of my early childhood are of the coral reefs around New Ireland and the extraordinary sea life they contained. That scene was one of the easiest to write, I do like me a good killing.

RK: Also, I love that you made up the hospital thing, as well you should. That's why I get annoyed when people praise novels for being well-researched (almost a back-handed compliment) because... well, how do you know? How do you know I didn't just fudge the whole thing convincingly? The work is in creating a believable world, not in doing research. Anyone can do that.

KM: I made most of mine up in the end because all I had was one book of historic photographs with really good captions and the Queen Emma biography. Also I have never been to Vienna and can only assume that the storerooms in the natural history museum were originally in the basement. Sometimes you've just got to temper it all with a bit of commonsense I think. But making stuff up, yeah that’s my job.

RK: It was quite unusual to get flashbacks and backstory for quite a main character (Royal) so near the end of the book when things are usually building up to a climax. What was the thinking behind that?

KM: One of my readers went through one of the very last drafts and marked in the times when she started to get bored, and I wrote all of the back stories, which were originally twice as long in one 10 day marathon, and then broke them up and dropped them into the text at those points. I think the back stories work in themselves, and I think my instincts were sound in that you have to change it up when the reader is starting to get bored, but I definitely needed to write more and incorporate them better into the over all flow of the text. Even I went WTF when I was reading the galley and the lady novelist came up … strangely no one’s given me any grief about this.

RK: I love the lady novelist section, although you're right - it does seem to have been written separately. But I don't mind this as it's as though you've dropped in a pastiche of bad romance novel, and that was consistent with the playful aspects of the novel.

KM: One of my favourite novels is Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress one) which was first published in 1957, which is loosely based around the life of Edwardian romance novelist Marie Corelli. It’s monstrously funny, and I think every lady novelist should read it as a cautionary tale. So, yes, ripping off the style was all part of it.

RK: I’ve read and loved Angel. I also saw the film of it recently and it was dull in comparison, although I have picked up some good tips on how to dress as an eccentric lady novelist. Of course when reading about your lady novelist and her brother, I couldn't help think of the brother and sister in Byatt's Angels and Insects (or Morpho Eugenia as the novella is called) and that led on to thoughts of the film version, with Patsy Kensit. So your lady novelist became a pouty Patsy in my mind.

KM: Strangely enough I didn’t read Morpho Eugenia until after I finished Q … imagine my surprise. But I do wonder if some of my love affair with Antonia is that she writes about all the things I love, is a relentless post-modernist and she’s quite prurient. I’m reading The Children’s Book at the moment, which is essentially about childhood sexual abuse (they didn’t put THAT on the blurb) but written in this lovely restrained, arts and crafts, literary kind of way. It’s just the quiet tragedy that stalks the book and slowly destroys lives.

RK: Christo Matthews is a wonderful, vile character. Are all your ex-boyfriends going to be immortalised in your books?

KM: Only the ones I really like. Chris [Matthews] still hasn’t read it, but I know he’ll love it.

RK: I was amused when someone called your book 'more authentic' because you had lived in New Guinea as a child, but you have said that you can't actually remember it. I can't remember anything from when I was 3 or 4. Are you going to milk it anyway?

KM: The authentic thing is odd isn’t it? I’m a writer and I think part of my job is to explore worlds beyond my own experience … you know, stretch myself a bit.

It wasn’t until I sat down and actually engaged with the location that I realised that I didn’t remember a thing about the East Neuguinea time because I was so young. Like you with The Sound of Butterflies I found [TV reality show] Survivor, in my case Samoa, really helpful in terms of understanding how the land sits between the sky and the sea, the way the sky looks when there’s an approaching storm, and the way trees grow … all that stuff you have to get right.

I’m not going to milk it, but you think my publishers might have huh?

RK: You chose quite an old-fashioned narrative voice - the omniscient narrator. Was this so you could talk about things the characters couldn't know themselves? Or perhaps because you wanted one over-riding voice to the novel rather than the voices of individual characters? Or was it just one of those things that happened all on its own?

KM: It is a very old-fashioned novel definitely. Probably my biggest failure as a novelist is structure. It has to be simple. I also have a tendency to wander within the narrative, which I really like, but because of this too, the narrative has to be quite simple. Also because the reader has to take a lot that is completely foreign on board with Q, as well as the subplots, I couldn’t expect them to work any harder by processing multiple POV’s. And last of all – multiple voices, are you mad? So hard. No, I like being an all seeing judge and jury.

* Quinine by Kelly Ana Morey, published by Huia, $35.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Short stories vs novels.

Well, I'm back to writing. Hooray! Life has been rather busy, what with two children and earthquakes to deal with. My spare time has been taken up over the last few months by a project involving the writings of my father, which has been very exciting, but I am glad that for now my part is over, at least until there are proofs to look at. Watch this space.

For the second time this year, I have been commissioned to write a short story. People wrongly assume that short stories are easier than novels. They often think shorts are what you write while you're 'learning' to write a novel. Certainly my novelist apprenticeship involved a lot of short story writing, but the reason I don't write them very often is that they are hard. Much harder than novels in my opinion.

Of course, the main reason I don't write shorts is the same reason I don't really like reading them these days: I prefer to really lose myself in a story, over a long period of time. But at least with a novel, you only have to come up with a good idea every few years, which is about how often I come up with good ideas for short stories. I realised yesterday why I find them difficult, too: it's because the most important part of writing a novel for me is finding the voice or voices of the narrators. Once you have established them, the writing often takes care of itself. So with a novel, it might take me months to get the voice right, a slow process of writing and rewriting the first few chapters. I also get hundreds of pages to explore an idea, or many ideas, to follow it to all its possible conclusions.

But when you're asked to write a short story, and given a few weeks to do it, you think - oh, a few weeks, that's a few hundred words a week, that's easy. But that doesn't take into account the time it takes to establish that voice, not to mention that single, powerful idea that is central to the story. It's worth mentioning at this point that I am compelled to write short stories about once every three years, when a voice pops into my head. So, as you can imagine, trying to find that voice can be quite frustrating when there is a time limit and when you have a few precious hours a week away from family commitments.

As an example, earlier this year I was commissioned to write a story for the Scape biennial at the Christchurch City Gallery. It was to go into the programme, and I was given the theme of the exhibition - Christchurch in the future - and asked to come up with whatever I wanted. Scape was to have taken place in September but a certain seismic event not only meant that it couldn't go ahead to plan, it also meant that many of the works were, well, a little obsolete, since they were dealing with cityscapes and where Christchurch as a city might be headed. In fact, the house I imagined my character living in, on Madras St, now has yellow tape around it and a red sticker on the door, and in reality, all her preoccupations would have heavily shifted after the quake.

But back to the writing of the story: I had very little time to myself at that point, but I really wanted to be involved as it was such an exciting project, and I was actually quite flattered to be asked. So it wasn't just a matter of handing the kids over to hubby for a couple of hours in the weekend and sitting down at my desk to let the words flow dutifully from my fingers: I had to actually come up with an idea. And that took weeks. It took a lot of walking around the city, listening to music, picking up books to read - basically everything except writing. I had a couple of false starts too. I was getting quite desperate. Then, after the deadline had passed and I as starting to feel quite queasy - boom! - up jumped the idea and the voice followed soon after. I was saved. It was a breeze after that.

What I'm getting at though, is that the initial work that went into massaging that idea out of my head was as arduous as it is for any novel. So I prefer to write novels because by the time I have finished one, the next idea has already come along - well, you'd hope so, wouldn't you, when it's usually three years between novels? But those shorts... to write them, to write them well, is a damn sight harder. Maybe if I went back to reading shorts I would get more into the swing of them, take pleasure in the crafting of something so small. But I do love novels. And anyone who thinks the short story is the poorer, littler cousin of the novel... think again.