About the Series:
“Fun with Friends” is an SF Signal interview series in which I feature fellow SFF authors from Australia and New Zealand. The format is one interview per month, with no more than five questions per interview, focusing on “who the author is” and “what she/he does” in writing terms.
This month for my “Fun with (Australian & New Zealand) Friends” series, I’m talking with New Zealand author, Elizabeth Knox, best known for The Vintner’s Luck (1998), The Dreamhunter Duet – Dreamhunter (2005) and Dreamquake (2007). Elizabeth Knox has been a full time writer since 1997 and has published ten novels, three autobiographical novellas and a collection of essays. Her best known books are The Vintner’s Luck (1998), and The Dreamhunter Duet – Dreamhunter (2005) and Dreamquake (2007). The Vintner’s Luck has won numerous awards, been published in seven languages and made into a film of the same name, directed by Niki Caro. Dreamquake, the second in her Dreamhunter Duet, was a prestigious Michael L Printz Award Honor book in 2008. Creating worlds began early for Elizabeth in the imaginary games she played with her two sisters. By the time she was eleven the games had become one game, an on-going saga set in another world, a game she shared with her sisters and several friends. One day, her father interrupted a discussion the girls were having about the possible results of a secret treaty, by saying, “I hope you’re writing some of this down.” Elizabeth, her sisters and a friend began writing letters between their characters, and stories about them. Elizabeth enjoyed writing and decided that this – writing fiction – was what she wanted to do with her life. She went on to graduate from New Zealand’s Victoria University with a degree in English Literature and has become one of New Zealand’s most successful fiction authors. Elizabeth lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her husband, Fergus Barrowman, her son, Jack, and three cats. You can find out more about Elizabeth Knox and her writing on her website, here.
Helen: Elizabeth, you are one of New Zealand’s most internationally successful speculative fiction authors but have always been based in New Zealand – what are the advantages and disadvantages of that for building an international writing career?
Elizabeth: The great disadvantage to being a writer from here is being without easy social connections to those overseas agents, editors, and sundry others who have a stake in your work. They may love your books, but if you don’t live anywhere remotely near New York or London you can’t go out to lunch, or the book launches, readings, Christmas parties etc, meet those people, and just chew the fat. Chew the fat and be a person to them. There are things you can do, efforts you can make, like being a book blogger, part of that community. I’m not very good at any of that stuff because I don’t like to bother people, and I’d rather spend my writing time on the core business of writing the novels. I do have a blog, Knoxon (that’s a rugby pun) on my website. But my blogs tend to be more essays. I might write them fast, but only after a lot of mulling. I’m a muller.
Over the years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to catch up with people at festivals, conferences and book fairs. The importance of those things to the life of writers, readers, and book professionals is not to be underestimated.
I think the advantages of being a writer from here far outweigh the disadvantages. For a start I’m part of a small tribe of writers, the very fine Wellington/Bill Manhire & IIML/Victoria University Press tribe, who are good for my mental health.
However, the greatest advantage of being a writer from here, rather than a place that is a cultural clearing-house, is that I have intimate access to all this different stuff – landscape, people, history, habits of thinking. If I use my own country – and I want to say ‘poor, obscure and plain’ like Jane Eyre, but I’ll go with economically and geopolitically slight, obscure, and beautiful – if I use my own country the real differences, vegetation, creatures, weather, Christmas in summer, all can seem, to northern hemisphere readers, as much invention as the inventions in speculative fiction. Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage probably depends more on the reader, and how prepared they are to be surprised by things in the book other than just “what happens” in the story. I do tend to think it is more an advantage because it brings into the books freshness and difference, and a view of reality from a different angle – all the stuff speculative fiction is supposed to have!
Helen: How comfortable do you feel with the term “speculative fiction” or even straight-out “Fantasy” to describe your writing?
Elizabeth: The more labels attached to what I do the more comfortable I am, because I think no single label is going to do the job. So I have written speculative fiction, fantasy, literary fiction (and one mystery, Billie’s Kiss).
I don’t think my books inhabit a “between”, say between fantasy and literary fiction. As a writer I’m happiest thinking of myself as one of those maps, correct geographically and nautically, but with the scrolling legend – usually in the south – “Here there be monsters.”
The books that most excited me when I was a young person were largely, but not exclusively, non-realist. So I was eating up Anne McCaffrey and Peter S Beagle and Doc EE Smith. But the books that went into me and made adjustments – to my own aesthetic, world view, sense of story and the scope of the project of fiction – were always literary works. They were Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, Tove Jansen’s Moomin Valley in November. These are the books that really got to me when I was under twenty. The formative stuff. And I have some quotes from writers that have been touchstones for me for as long as I’ve been writing. Either Faulkner, or Annie Dillard writing about Faulkner, said: “Don’t write what you know, write what only you know”. And there’s Katherine Mansfield’s: “I shall tell everything, even how the laundry basket squeaked”.
Writing what only you know is a way of conjuring life in a book. What is valuable, meaningful, and urgent to you is more likely than anything else to carry the charge of life into your work. And making what you invent out of your own particular experience of the world, like the wheezing of a whicker basket, means the inventions begin by having value, if only to you.
Helen: As an author, what are you most trying to achieve with your writing – and does it vary from book to book?
Elizabeth: I’ve always been trying to write literature – though I’m not sure that’s something any kiwi writer is allowed to admit. Trying honestly, doggedly, vainly, bravely, wrong-headedly – whatever. Possibly by choosing to write speculative fiction in at least two thirds of my work I was taking a tricky route. After all literary fiction as a genre – and it is a genre – does have a higher strike-rate for literature. But at a formative time in my life the books (and films) that talked most deeply to me were non-realist, so that is what I ended up writing.
I’ll never be able to know whether I’ve succeeded in my aims, since the most convincing description of what constitutes literature is “Literature is what lasts.”
Ars longa vita brevis – how can any artist ever know what they’ve managed to achieve? But I don’t mind not knowing. At my funeral, when I’ve finally kicked-off at ninety-five, I want to have some Sinatra. And it won’t be, “I Did It My Way!”, it’ll be “Fly Me to the Moon”!
Also I’d like to add this, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Another definition I have of what makes literature “literature” is the life in a work. I was reading an article recently that happily consigned Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard to the “not really literature” box. I’m not going to have that. I’ve been reading Georgette Heyer and musing on what has made her last, and of course it’s the enormous, bright, busy, fun vitality of her books, how deeply engaged in the play of what they’re doing they are. That vitality, the sense of being in the presence of a particular unrepeatable voice, its personality and energy, is art. The same goes for Chandler and Leonard.
Helen: The Vintner’s Luck and the Dreamhunter / Dreamquake duology are probably your most well known books, but you have published eight novels, I believe. Do you have a particular favorite?
Elizabeth: When it comes to my books I’m a serial monogamist, I’m always falling in love with the next one. (Or maybe I’m a polygamist, because I’m certainly not going to divorce any of them.) I always feel confident pointing readers to The Vintner’s Luck, because it has lasted well already. Having said that I think its sequel, The Angel’s Cut, is a better book, and I’m hoping the final book in the Xas trilogy will be a killer! I’m very proud of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. The basic idea of those books felt like a gift, more like an idea that graced me with its presence than my idea. And I will always love my two more obscure novels, the monstrous Black Oxen, and Glamour and the Sea – the realist, New Zealand novel I wrote right before Vintner.
Helen: So what’s coming up for you in 2013?
Elizabeth: I have a YA book coming out in June, Mortal Fire. It’s set in my made-up South Pacific nation, Southland, where the Dreamhunter Duet is set, and in the year 1959. And I have finally finished wrangling my contemporary, New Zealand science fiction novel, Wake. I have to write some agent enquiries about it. (Now there’s a genre!)
I have two projects competing for my immediate attention, one is another science fiction novel, called Tzade, and the other is a book set in Wellington in the 1980s, The Hero Set.
Helen: That sounds seriously busy, but exciting too! I look forward to the new books coming out, but in the meantime: thank you for the interview. I’ve enjoyed it.
About the Interviewer:
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and a 2012 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in her The Wall of Night series, was published in April, and she has recently won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012 for the first-in-series, The Heir of Night. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the first of every month on the Supernatural Underground. and occasionally here on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we
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