Letting the Ghosts In, with Elizabeth Knox, chaired by Steven Gale
Wednesday 12 March, 4.45pm
This is my last missive from the Writers Week that was, and Letting the Ghosts In was the final session in the main part of the festival. I have read most of Knox’s work over the years, and I never miss an opportunity to hear her speak. Chair Steven Gale focussed the talk mainly on Mortal Fire and Wake, the two books released by Knox in 2013, for young adults and adults respectively.
Knox says she started Wake first as an exercise in writing something frightening, then her life got quite dark quite quickly, with her sister being committed, her brother-in-law being killed, and her mother requiring full-time care due to motor neurone disease. This led to her writing a book from this initial story, pouring all her distress and darkness into it. Meanwhile, she had begun Mortal Fire simultaneously because her 80-year-old editor Frances Foster in the USA asked her to do something more for them. Here, Knox quipped, ‘You’d be amazed what you will do for a generous publisher’.
One thing you will know about Knox if you have seen her speak, or if you have read her book of essays The Love School, is that she still plays an imaginary game with her sister Sara that they began when they were young children. This game is just for fun, but Steven Gale identified the discussions as a place where she is essentially workshopping her work – I felt like Knox didn’t particularly agree with this, but went with it cautiously. They now record these sessions that they do via Skype, and Sara (also a writer) is using them directly to write her next novel.
Gale identified that Knox’s talent is creating worlds that have a wafer-thin gap between real & not real – Knox agreed and said her term for this is “fantastic naturalism”. Mortal Fire is written in Southland, the same world as Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, but is more naturally ‘New Zealand’. Knox said that she was uncomfortable trying to set the magical world of turn-of-the-century Southland directly within New Zealand, because of the very particular history that existed in New Zealand at that time, which would need rewritten. The later Southland doesn’t have as much magic, except at the hands of the Zarenes, and its ‘sense of self has taken a blow’, much as the young New Zealand’s had by the 1950s, when Mortal Fire is set.
Knox had some fascinating comments on how to present a young person’s POV: ‘When writing YA, there is no psychic distance between the reader and the character: the invisible author is even more invisible than usual.’ I agree, the closer that young adults / teens can feel to the story’s characters, the more enjoyment they will get from the book.
When speaking about how she constructed the group of 13 survivors in Wake, Knox had particularities about how she came up with each. The police officer was a given, and it needed to be a women for her to be fighting to retain responsibility so stringently. The character Jacob (the nurse) surprised her with how much of a hero he became. The essential element is that each of the characters has specific virtues that the monster can use to try and destroy them. The scene that plays out speaks to Knox’s pain over how much harder it is to look after each other than it should be, within three stages: physical peril, psychological peril and emotional peril.
When queried by Gale over how she made time during her family dramas to write, Knox said she writes because she has to do so to feel like herself. Elizabeth Knox is a consummate author whose work I believe will remain as a watershed in New Zealand literature for generations to come.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ
Elizabeth Knox will appear at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival this May. Head along to see her.