‘Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.’
So wrote the American writer and genius Flannery O’Connor many decades ago. In the Fullwood Room today, contemporary New Zealand fiction writers Laurence Fearnley, Emily Perkins and Jackie Ballantyne were asked by Fiona Farrell what drives, pulls and pains them about the novel writing process.
After listening to the generous, lengthy and true introductions to their work and selves, and before responding to Farrell’s catalogue of excellent questions, each author read from her latest novel. Perkins read first, with a page from The Forrests. Aside from the quality of the prose (this is a classy novel), what was very evident was the life brought to scenes read aloud by the person responsible for their existence, a point also commented on by Farrell. This was true for the excerpts from Ballantyne’s The Silver Gaucho, which focused on the enigmatic and observant ‘one-eyed man’ of Patagonia’s Paso de los Indios, and Fearnley’s Reach, during which she described a diver’s experience of submersion, concluding with the serenely grave line, “He could not imagine being separated from the sea.”
Farrell asked the authors why they wrote novels, and these novels in particular.
Perkins: “I was turning forty, I was thinking about the passing of time, the decades.” Emily Perkins speaks with her hands, her conductor’s fingers making metaphysical pizza dough.
Ballantyne: “This novel just came. I had not planned to write about a gaucho.” (The Silver Gaucho is a popular television programme in Argentina, where she had been travelling.) And, “Writing a novel teaches me more about self than anything else I do.”
Fearnley: “I was desperate to write a novel while I was nearing the end of a PhD. I wrote it in ten months. I had no specific plot in mind. I had the image of sediment, wanting to layer it heavier and heavier. I wanted to throw a stick into a fast-moving river.”
The writers spoke of the difference between reality and believability, of needing to trust what they were writing, to not have cracks in their faith that would allow the weaknesses to come through. Fearnley (right) compared this self-belief to that shown by that famed creator of the urinal ready-made (Duchamp). He had to believe it was art and not a urinal so that everybody would believe it. Fearnley is very funny, during this session careful to offset serious talk of art and faith with self-deprecation (“I look at the crowded shelves in libraries and bookstores, and think, ‘Why the fuck do I bother?'”) Audiences love it when a writer swears.
“What keeps you writing?” asked an audience member, “Rituals, a certain word count, a nine o’clock start?” “Deadlines,” said Perkins. “I need to be terrified.” Terror and desperation had come up several times during different talks at the Festival, reminding me of something that James K. Baxter once said, something like God shifts people with a gun to the head. “I’m a binge writer and a binge reader,” said Ballantyne (left). “When it’s on, it’s on.”
Then, just as my hand began to rise, our time in the Fullwood Room was up. The writers had considered the issues with vigour and wit, warmth and honesty. Their written work stands alone but their voices and views had added value. I left though, descending the thousand stairs to Harrop Street, with the idea still sitting in my head: Haruki Murakami said that for him fiction writing is an unhealthy occupation, requiring the writer to deal with mental toxins as he distils cultural and psychological darkness’s. Murakami deals with it by keeping a strict routine of early rises, running or biking for an hour every day, listening to jazz. Was this the experience of Perkins, Ballantyne or Fearnley? If so, how did they deal with the shock to the system? Walking the dogs up Signal Hill? A quiet pint at Chick’s hotel? Toning down the close attention, the electric pulse of consciousness?
The question would need to wait. Two of the writers live in Dunedin and the third will probably move here, intoxicated by the autumn and the architecture, so the opportunity should arise. Meanwhile, the festival was over and reality waited at home in the form of undone dishes, unwashed clothes, unfed children. Focus on the positives: only fifty-one weeks until the next Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival.
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
‘A Shock to the System’ featured Emily Perkins, Jackie Ballantyne and Laurence Fearnley in discussion with Fiona Farrell.