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July 28, 2014 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Emily Perkins Interview

Emily Perkins is a Vic graduate who studied at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). She has published four novels including The New Girl and Novel About My Wife. Perkins is now back at Vic, teaching at the IIML. Her most recent novel The Forrests, published in 2012, follows the titular family from New York to a suburb of Auckland. The novel relies on ellipsis, on the fragmentation of narrative, on scrutiny fixed and released repeatedly on the novel’s central character Dorothy. Through her lens, the reader is privy to a life constituted of banal successes and disappointments, of relationships that form and dissipate. Simon Gennard spoke to her about her writing and the literary culture in New Zealand.

Something I’ve noticed about your work is a kind of non-specificity in regards to place – the setting of Not Her Real Name is very much Wellington, but it also feels like a very malleable place. I noticed something similar in The Forrest’s Auckland. What role does place play in your work?

‘For me it’s about atmosphere. I don’t tend to be led by a specific place. Novel About My Wife is different because that’s very much led by London as a city. I’m very interested in the specifics of place and the effects the environment has on people, but much more in a way that’s about mood and atmosphere than about practicalities, or anything you might find on a map.

So when I put in names of identifiable places, sometimes that’s because it seems a bit less naff than making something up. You don’t want to distract the reader, you don’t want them to be thinking ‘oh that doesn’t sound like that’ or ‘why doesn’t she just say Auckland when she’s saying some horrible invented name.’

The Forrests opens with the jerky camera movements of a father filming his children playing. This kind of fragmentary image seems central to the structure of the narrative. Did you intend to write a novel that reads like a series of fragments, or did it develop during writing?

It was one of those happy accidents, I think, which you have to always been listening out for when you’re writing.

What’s that thing that… Brian Eno, what’s his series of doctrines… Oblique strategies, ‘Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention’ Hidden intention is the key phrase. There’s some instinct at work, I think. Sometimes those things work and sometimes they don’t. It’s just about listening out for it.

Initially, I thought I was writing short stories, and then quite early on I decided to link them together and have it work as that discontinuous narrative. The main impetus for that was an essay by a British philosopher called Galen Strawson that a friend sent me. I was so struck by what he said about the current fashion for narrativity – to talk about all kinds of things in the world as though they’ve got a narrative, this kind of continuous sense making, storytelling way of understanding things that happens in science and medicine and philosophy. Obviously we’re talking about the arts, and he’s questioning that whole idea and talking about the idea of memory, you know people not always remembering themselves as one kind of continuous self, but maybe having memories of different stages of life that feel like they actually were other people. So we’re not necessarily the sum of something continuous, or the logical outcome, but we’re experiencing extremely different things at different times. I know it’s there in The Forrests, but it’s very, very loosely there.

Eleanor Catton, in an interview with The Guardian last year, spoke of the local reaction to The Luminaries, saying “People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45.” What are your thoughts about New Zealand’s critical culture? Is there a kind of hangover from the 20th Century masculinist tradition still present in our critical culture?

I’d say that for a long time three of the strongest literary critics in a mainstream publication like the Listener were Jolisa Gracewood, Paula Morris, and Charlotte Grimshaw. Three women, of roughly my generation.

So I don’t think it is just the preserve of men of a certain age, but I think there are so many other ways which those voices dominate the media. I guess I’m just saying maybe I don’t read that kind of criticism.

I suppose the criticism that I find really interesting and enjoy reading seems to come from all kinds of different voices, and often is couched in essays, and isn’t necessarily what you might be able to get out of a very short book review in the newspaper. It might be on The Pantograph Punch, or on somebody’s blog or something like that. I actually think there are a whole range of interesting and diverse minds writing about things, including literature, maybe not specialising in quite the same way or being published in quite such a boundary way, which might make them harder for people to find.

And I think that it’s also the case that we don’t have robust critical conversations here, or we don’t have as many as we might. There are many reasons for that, a lot of which are quite well documented, but I think that’s a cause for thinking about. I hope that’s changing. I think being able to write and reply to things online is something contributing to that changing. There’s a younger generation who are more comfortable with that.

I mean, if you’re asking about people who review things and have got a set idea of what they want to read and are cross when they’re not reading it, I think that is something for the reviewer to think really seriously about. You know, you need to review the book that’s in front of you, not the book that you want to read. But at the same time, if you’ve got really strong, well developed reasons for your literary aesthetic then you should be able to find them too. So there should be room for disagreement.

How do you write? What kind of conditions do you need?

At the moment i’m doing a lot of my uni work standing up which I really like. Otherwise, I just need to be comfortable, it doesn’t matter where, it really doesn’t.

I like it to be quiet, or just have certain music on repeat so it just becomes atmosphere that I might use to help myself get into a particular mood, or out of a particular mood and into another one. I don’t mind if there are other people around different places. My favourite time to write is mid-afternoon to early evening, but that’s hard to organise because there’s usually a lot of other stuff going on then, and that might just be because it will take me a whole day to wind myself up to that moment. Otherwise I don’t mind writing in the early morning. I never write at night, I can’t do that anymore.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t know about ‘be a writer’, I mean I always liked writing because I really loved reading. I really identified as a reader, more than anything else. I mean, no one ever asks a seven year old ‘what are you?’ ‘what do you do?’ but i felt like, I almost felt like a book. If you know what i mean. I was almost more of a book than a person. So writing is something that I think came naturally out of loving reading in that way.

It wasn’t until I did the course here at Vic in ‘93 that I ever actually finished anything. We had to complete short stories or poems. It was being in that environment with people, with each other’s work, talking about it, you know, it was just the most fun I’ve had. I’d been at drama school and I loved that too and I loved acting, but… I wasn’t good enough at it to put up with everything that you have to put up with, I think.

What do you remember reading as a student?

That’s a really good question, I think it’s such a crucial time for reading, and also, just after finish university is such a crucial time. Books i remember reading, well this is a little bit younger, books when i was 17, 18, 19. It was around the time when Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were first being published. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks’ essay made a big impression on me. I must have read Wide Sargasso Sea sometime around then. Absolutely loved that. I loved Orlando, the Virginia Woolf novella, which was one text I studied here.

I can’t remember the specifics of it now but I feel like quite a lot of what I read was quite politically charged in terms of being about gender. Paul Auster, oh my god, totally got into him around that age. When I think about it now a lot of it’s got a certain chill to it. I don’t know if that would draw me in as much now.

I understand you wrote a testimony in support Potroast’s Creative NZ funding application a couple of years ago. Could you tell me what you think of New Zealand’s small press culture?

Well I think it’s wonderful, and vital. It’s not just people who are coming through the universities who are setting those things up, or through the writing Masters.

I think there are these activities, small presses, websites, and in a much less public way writing groups and discussion groups that are absolutely vital, they are the health of what’s going on. There are some really talented, energised people out there. I think Ya Wen Ho is one of them, and the people who run Pantograph Punch, and it’s something that the university magazines are probably part of feeding as well.

Following on from that: they were initially successful with their funding application, but it wasn’t renewed. And Hue & Cry’s first three books were all crowdfunded. It’s exciting but also kind of precarious.

And that’s always a problem, because it’s okay to have that sort of precariousness when you’re starting out or when you’re younger, and when you’re not trying to start a family, or buy a house, and then that sort of activity just becomes much much harder, to sustain that level of commitment.

I think crowdfunding does really great things, but I really don’t like the idea that we should all be relying on it. You know, start off, prove yourself, get money from people who are more established and can afford it, and want to support it and all of that, but with all that work there’s such a danger of it all going nowhere, and it evaporating. I think what the danger is is that that level of talent and experience doesn’t get supported, particularly around that sort of early-mid career level.

Do you think small presses allow different kind of voices to have platforms?

I think by their nature they do. I mean there’s only so much that everyone can do. If we want to have a variety of voices we have to have a variety of venues for those voices to come from. I think it’s natural that people who set up small presses come together because they’re like minded, they’ve got an aesthetic, they might be politically like-minded, or they might have come through the same kind of experiences and have got some kind of founding ethos.

What are you working on currently?

I’m working on a couple of drama projects, so that’s kind of different for me, and partly, some short fiction. I’m a very slow writer, it takes me quite a while for a book to leave my system and be able to start properly in a fresh way on something else. I’m only ever interested in doing something if it’s urgent and new to me.


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