Knox @ Knox at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The final event of the DWRF was Knox @ Knox – or rather, pp_elizabeth knoxauthor Elizabeth Knox (right) at Knox Church. Ably chaired by Kate De Goldi, the discussion focused mainly on Knox’s two most recently released books, Mortal Fire and Wake. As it turns out, both books were very much informed by three events that occurred during what must have been a very hard period in Knox’s life − the diagnosis of her mother’s degenerative and fatal motor neuron disease, the psychotic break of her sister, and the murder of her brother-in-law. Consequently, both Mortal Fire and Wake both involve insanity, people who are trapped, a kind of spectrum of abnormality, from something being slightly off kilter to things being completely off the rails, and finally, being in the position of wanting to help, but being unable to.

Knox described her novel Wake as a horror story in which acv_wake character goes into a town where everyone is “murderously, and extravagantly, flamboyantly insane” and that this book had “frightened grown men” (which, I might add, she seemed pretty pleased about, and which the audience in turn found pretty funny). She described the progression of Wake as a case of the characters being in physical peril, to being in psychological peril, to finally being in moral peril − shifting from the imperative “don’t fail others” to say instead “don’t fail yourself”. Ultimately, both De Goldi and Knox agreed that it came down to moral questions of “what do we owe each other?” and “what would we do in that situation?”

Knox also later noted that horror fiction as a genre taps into very basic feelings of fear, and also “wanting to appease” − as in, praying to be saved − so taps into a sense of our own powerlessness. De Goldi also asked Knox to explain what Knox had meant when, in an earlier conversation, she had talked of a work of hers as “an Elizabeth Knox book”. Knox explained that by this she meant that she had always loved the speculative “what if?” fictions found in particularly fantasy and science fiction, but found herself irritated by certain practitioners in those genres not fully exploring those genres’ possibilities. Her approach was to take a genre and then “try to see what is in the story… [to ask] what is there deep inside this thing that is serious? And archetypical?”

Mortal Fire (which I reviewed last year) is the third in a projected quintet of books cv_mortal_fireset in Southland (the first two being Dreamhunter and Dreamquake). Knox talked about wanting to write a novel with a teenage character who has a problem (in this case, a teenage girl’s problems with her mother, and with no knowledge of her father) but who then comes to realise that she doesn’t understand her own life. Knox also wanted to write a story with a protagonist who drives the action, as opposed to a story with a “kick-arse girl” who is landed in a situation that she just has to deal with (Knox mentioned in passing The Hunger Games as an example of this). When De Goldi asked what makes a novel a ‘teenage’ novel, apart from having a teenage protagonist, Knox said that it was to do with a tonal intimacy, where the reader really feels that the story and characters are theirs. In this way the author had to be present everywhere, but always invisible (that is, not obviously interfering or intruding).

buffy_powterThe discussion was rounded off by several questions from the floor, including one from a mother asking about really great television to recommend to her teenage daughter. As a fan of TV myself, it was really cool to see Knox and De Goldi begin to list their best recommendations, since, as Knox pointed out, novels and television are the only two forms of long-form storytelling still extant. In case you’re wondering, both Knox and De Goldi both raved about the “classic tragedy” of Breaking Bad, and Knox also praised the evolution of storytelling seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the mention of which made me do a little fist pump of joy).

Knox @ Knox was a great event to end the DWRF, and it was extremely encouraging to hear that there is already talk of another Festival in 2015. Given the big crowds at every event I attended, I’d imagine that a 2015 Festival would be more than welcome. Here’s to next year!

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Elizabeth Knox will also appear at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Friday 16 May, at ‘Waking Elizabeth Knox’. 

Finalist Interviews: The origins of Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox

pp_elizabeth knoxIf you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out. We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed Mortal Fire on this blog, and please also see our review of the event Elizabeth did during the New Zealand Festival Writers Week, for further information about this book.

Thank you to Elizabeth Knox for answering our questions:

1.    As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
This is the big question, so here’s my only big answer – starting small.

The basic idea for Mortal Fire came, as many of my ideas do, cv_mortal firefrom my imaginary game (for an explanation of that see my website The basic idea was that a family of magic users have imprisoned their most powerful member in hidden house and, after decades, the original spell has grown so strong that it is strangling the vitality and future of the whole family. And, so far, no one in the family has been able to say about the family’s choices: “This is crazy. This isn’t working.”

I wanted the story to read like a mystery, so needed a mystery solver, in this case a determined girl who visits the valley, knows something strange and magical is going on, and wants to get to the bottom of it.

But before I began the book a number of terrible things happened to my family, one of the hardest of which was that my husbands’ brother Duncan died leaving behind a wife, and four children, the Barrowman nephews and niece to whom Mortal Fire is dedicated. They are south Auckland Pasifika kids. Which is one reason the book’s heroine, Canny, is a Pasifika kid.

Duncan was killed in Rarotonga (where he was with his team on a Golden Oldies rugby tour). The man who killed him went to prison for manslaughter. Some thoughts I had during that man’s trial became the secondary theme of Mortal Fire. (It’s first theme is how you can’t always save people, or spare them. The two books I wrote between 2009 and 2012 have that, partly because my mother was dying of Motor Neurone Disease – which among other things is an exercise in being able to do less and less to help all the time. But also because of Duncan, and my husband’s family, especially the kids. Because of many nights lying awake, thinking in desperation and worry, “What can I do? What can I do?”)

The secondary theme was about our desire to punish people who harm us, and what that desire does to us. When we were in Rarotonga, attending the trial, we all hoped for a guilty verdict. The idea that the guy who did it might get off was awful. But one day, when we were driving on the inland ring road, we passed a sign pointing to the Cook Island prison and went to take a look. We sat in the car for a short time staring across a humpy green field at the long, low building. It had barred windows, each with a single horizontally-hinged shutter. The shutters were propped open. The sunshine was bright and hot and the prison’s interior was just a blackness. Now – I might have wanted the guy to go to prison, but right then the thought of putting any fellow human being in that place and making them stay was quite hard. Or serious. Or just real – it made my desire for this man’s punishment something I had not just to feel, but to be responsible for. So, the trial ended and I came home and I went on thinking about that moment, and my own piteous human hesitation, a piteous human hesitation which the man who drove his truck into Duncan failed to have. It wasn’t that I stopped feeling angry and vengeful, or even thought I should stop feeling that way. It was only that I came to understand that my human hesitation was a far, far more valuable feeling (I mean not just to me – but in life, in the world). And some of this found its way into Mortal Fire.

2.    Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?cv_dreamhunter
I’ve written many books now and there seems to be an endless variety of problems that can turn up during publication each one. Mortal Fire had a straightforward start. My editor and agent chivvied me along. I gave it to them and structural/copy editing and proofing all got underway with FSG in the US and Gecko Press’s Julia Marshall here. A great cover turned up, and really good blurbs from writers I admire (Holly Black and Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link and Delia Sherman). Then my wonderful editor Frances Foster suffered a bad stroke. Frances is still alive and facing daily challenges, but she has retired. Frances was my editor for Dreamhunter and Dreamquake too, and I owe her a great deal, and I’ve missed sharing with her things like Mortal Fire being a finalist in the LA Times Book Awards.cv_dreamquake_

3.    Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
With each book, adult or YA, I just write the book that is there to be written, as faithfully as I possibly can. If I have any useful ideas of an audience it is people who love the books I love. And that’s a wide brief, since I read and love many different kinds of books.

4.    Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Anything by Megan Whelan Turner, Holly Black, Margot Lanagan, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. No other book was a direct inspiration, but these are some of the writers of young adult fiction who continue to inspire me.

5.    Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
cv_night_watchTimes that stick in my mind are these: staying up late in a Tata Beach bach bed with a hammock-like saggy mattress reading Terry Pratchett’s The Night Watch. Lying on a window seat of a bach in Marehau with a view of a rose garden and fruit falling off trees and onto a trampoline then bouncing off like popcorn when you take the lid off the popper. I was reading a formidable, dark book by Roberto Bolano, called 2666. Or, again Tata, two rainy days at the beach reading my first Lee Child books. Or, years ago, looking out over Tata lagoon, and a garden where my four-year-old was playing with round-bellied Burmese kittens while I read an elegant, icy, lethally sad book called The Periodic Table by holocaust survivor Primo Levi.

The thing is, there are times when you’re reading a book that you read the world along with it, and the book reads the world, and the world seems to read the book – especially if it’s a great book, like The Periodic Table or 2666 – or even, in its own way, Pratchett’s The Night Watch.

6.    What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Playing imaginary games (see website). Why? Because I get to be someone else somewhere else – and usually several someones – much more completely than I do when I’m reading, or watching films or TV, or even writing.

– Booksellers NZ material. Please ask if you wish to extract this material in any way.

Aliens and fantastic naturalism, with Elizabeth Knox

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, andpp_elizabeth knox 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.

cv_wakeKnox 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 cv_mortal_fire& 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.

Book review: Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

cv_mortal fireThis book is in bookstores now.

Elizabeth Knox has a knack for creating rich, textured worlds in her fiction. In Mortal Fire, her third YA novel, Knox returns to the ‘world very like our own—but not completely’ that she created in her previous two highly acclaimed young adult books Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. But Knox cleverly approaches the same world from a totally different angle.

Mortal Fire is set in a different city, several decades after the events of Dreamquake, and, in contrast to the well bred, private school educated, white rich girls of the Dreamhunter Duet, Mortal Fire’s heroine Canny is a middle class public school girl whose mother is a Shackle Islander (Knox’s fairly close take on Pacific Islanders) and whose father is a mystery.

Canny is shipped off by her stepfather and rather forbidding mother to the Zarene Valley, on a research trip with her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend. Sholto is researching a terrible mining disaster that happened there.

As it happens, the mining disaster and the strange people who live in the Valley have something to do with Canny’s mysterious parentage—and why she, unlike her stepbrother, can see magical symbols woven into her surroundings.

When you lay out the premise of Mortal Fire in such stark black and white, it’s very easy to think you know where the novel’s heading. But you’d be proven completely wrong. Knox’s meticulous doling out of exposition, handing out of red herrings, withholding of information until just the right moment, and clear decision not to indulge in plot clichés means that the plot never heads in the direction you anticipate.

You find yourself delightfully, engagingly wrong-footed, every time.

Part of what makes the plot so great is that the character of Canny drives it forward at every turn. A hyper-intelligent maths genius who shows little emotion but certainly feels it, Canny’s actions all derive from her intense curiosity and equally intense force of will. She’s also sometimes quite manipulative and impatient with everyone else’s relative stupidity, choices of characterisation that I liked.

It’s rare to see a lead female character (in any medium) who does much more than be pretty and likeable, and in Canny we find a character whose best features are intellectual, not just physical.

Canny’s lightning-fast ability to put two and two together from the barest of clues bleeds into the way Knox has chosen to tell her tale. In general, there are very few moments when a plot revelation is explicitly spelled out, one laborious step at a time. Instead Knox carefully lays out the pieces of her very complex puzzle, then leads you along, trusting that, like Canny, you, the reader, are smart enough to put two and two together.

In fact, my minor dissatisfaction with the book’s final revelation may have stemmed from the fact that this revelation did seem spelled out, in almost the same vein as the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel, when the detective explains everything but you’re not necessarily party to the way the detective worked it out.

In Mortal Fire, though, most of the time you are party to the detective process because you are the detective. Perhaps that’s why the final revelation seemed somehow like a leap (possibly, a leap too far); we weren’t quite as party to the detective process as we had been throughout most of the book.  The fact that Knox largely lets you work things out means that there is quite a lot of exposition, giving this book a somewhat leisurely pace.

This slower tempo lends the book a sense of space, and gives you time to sink into this curious world of Knox’s, where World War Two has happened and where Canny’s friend likes to read My Friend Flicka, but magic also occurs—real, dangerous magic, magic that can command a swarm of bees to chase you.

With every page you come across a new facet of this parallel universe and you realise that this fictional world is somehow genuinely deep, just like our world. Endless possibilities lie folded into every crevice. Here’s hoping Knox lets us return to this imaginary geography again, some time soon.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Mortal Fire
By Elizabeth Knox
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN  9781877579530