Monday, May 14, 2012

Emily Perkins and Charlotte Wood (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

Although I am very aware of Emily Perkins (she is quite prominent in New Zealand's literary scene), I have never read any of her work. I had never heard of Charlotte Wood until the festival programme came out: her work sounded interesting enough for me to go to her session. I am putting them together because of evident similarities in their work. Both have picked out a single character and examined them against the background of their family.

Paula Morris interviewed Emily: they have known each other for years and are roughly contemporary, although Paula (I think) has remained overseas whereas Emily came back, to reintegrate herself in Auckland. Charlotte grew up in small town New South Wales and has relocated to Sydney. These biographical details are important, because both have firmly located their recent novels in their home towns.

The Forrests certainly seems to have created a stir: it has been published internationally (I have bought my copy from the UK because it was cheaper than in a local bookshop) and there are whispers that it might be a contender for the Man Booker Prize. I didn't get much of a feel for the language in the novel from her talk, but was left with a distinct sense of Aucklandness, at least the Auckland that Emily knows and celebrates. A couple of reviews I have read mention the "profound sensory experience"and her "attention to the sentence, the slow mesmeric pace". I do know that during her reading, I was arrested by a mention of a character's "harlequin teeth", which struck me as an odd description, one which I have trouble extracting any meaning from. The basic narrative of the novel follows Dorothy, an American expat who settled in Auckland (Grey Lynn I suspect) and stayed when her family went back. On the face of it, this doesn't sound very interesting but I am more interested in how this story is told.

Perkins said that she tries to be experimental with each of her works, so that she neither conforms to the normal bounds nor has each book being quite like the last. A significant influence was John Gardner, the American author, critic and writing teacher, although I got a wee bit confused; I think she saw him as setting bounds she wanted to escape. She said quite a lot about her writing process: two points struck me. The first is that she wrote small elements of the book as they struck her rather than in any chronological order. It actually started life as bits and pieces for a creative writing paper rather than as a planned novel. Many fragments didn't make it, and it sounds like lots of massaging was needed before she was happy with the finished product. Second, she needs to write in such a way that it "costs her to continue" because that's how she reveals emotion and grit in her writing.

She has a day job, teaching creative writing at Auckland University (after graduating from the Vic course): I felt envious of her description of the teaching experience - it is seductive, because she is dealing with truly creative people, to the point it satisfies her own urges to be creative (so most writing is out of semester). Asked why she started writing, Emily said it grew out of a childhood of reading, somewhat forced upon her by being unco-ordinated. As for what she is writing next, Emily says she went to Albania and has been writing an Albanian novel ever since, but fears that nothing of Albania will actually show up in whatever does appear.

As for Charlotte Wood, we didn't get to hear quite so much about her, although there was talk of her small NSW town, which has been represented in her earlier novel, The Children. The family returns to this town because their father is dying; this is the story of that last gathering. One of the major preoccupations is the way that we can leave home, go out into the world and do big things (the central character is a war correspondent) and yet when we return to the family, we are 10 again. This creates the question of how to be an adult in the familial context. I ended up with very little sense of this novel's qualities or any real desire to read it. One of the characters does sound a bit fun, a naturopathy entrepreneur with a tendency to express statements "as a mother", as if those who are not mothers will not care. I do think I'll look for a library copy, not so much because I think it is my sort of book but because it has a sequel, which does sound more interesting. Charlotte returned to talking about this book in another session dealing with men adrift.

Stephen stands apart from his family in The Children but he is the central character in Animal People. This is a single day in his life, about four years after the death of his dad.
 He has a dead end job, making sandwiches and chips in some sort of food kiosk at the zoo (Wood was interested in both the animals themselves and that we the people are animals as well). This is an urban novel, set in inner suburbs of Sydney, and has a colourful set of minor characters and is an attempt to straddle the class divide between the haves and the have nots. I'm interested in Stephen himself - there's a scene on a bus where he convinces himself that a package is a bomb and, while knowing the stricture to say something, tries to rationalise the package into all sorts of other possibilities before fleeing the bus and acknowledging he is a coward. Wood says that by making him male, she escapes the recognition that his qualities are her qualities.

He is supposedly a man adrift, although this particular aspect was not really pursued at length in the session devoted to it: he just sounds like he lacks ambition, is a bit of a loser, but still manages to have a girlfriend from the other side of the tracks. I did like Wood's answer to the question of men adrift in other novels: Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe.


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