NZF Writers & Readers – Nick Earls: High Five

This is a review of Nick Earls: High Five, which was a discussion between Nick Earls and Elizabeth Heritage at 5.45pm, Friday 9 March at the NZ Festival Wellington Writers & Readers Festival.

Nick_Earls_High_Five_WR18_c_Candid.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250We are here to discuss Nick’s five Wisdom Tree books, which I haven’t yet read – though I bought Gotham soon after the session.

When he submitted his last novel to his publisher Penguin Random House in 2013, he realised that the next 5 ideas that excited him most were 20,000 word stories, each about Australians visiting countries overseas. Of course, most publishers won’t touch them – they will collect short stories, but not novellas. So he had to design a bandwagon so he could get his novellas published. So he did, a PhD into whether novellas are the future of reading and an economically viable way to publish content: the answer, he has proven with his set of novellas, is yes. The novellas were set simultaneously as e-books, print editions and audio books. Nick appears not to do things by halves!

Elizabeth was a good chair, and the two had a rapport throughout the session. One of her first questions was about how he chose the places for his protagonists to go. Nick says, ‘I wanted to push them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes there were obvious choices, but sometimes I got to be quite creative.’

Many of Nick’s stories have an element of fictionalised reality in them – something Elizabeth came back to with him later in the session. He told us the story of his mysteriously lost ‘great great uncle’ who came to Australia from Ireland in the 1890s. It was a story of bad mental health and misconception caused by psychosis: and the more he researched, the more he realised he wasn’t the only one with this type of story. This formed the central story of Juneau, which was about a father & son seeking a long-lost relative who disappeared during the gold-mining era in the 1890s.

On the topic on another of the novellas, Vancouver, he talked about modern research. The book opens with the character flying from Calgary to Vancouver to meet a long-lost friend who had to be in a university for the plot to work. He found a place that was right for this, then to set his scene accurately, he used Google street view and virtually drove the streets three days in a row.

‘I have taken moments or ideas and watched things come together as they didn’t in the real world. Then I make the most of it.’

This came through in Gotham as well, which is based in New York. He spoke of having to choose his protagonist without appropriation of other lives – this is about an 19-year-old African-American rapper from Brooklyn, which he knew he couldn’t write as. But a 40-year-old rock journo: yes. In this story he wove a family, a four-year-old with the freshness of view of the young, seeing things and realising they are real – a four-year-old who needs to be a superhero for some reason.

‘You bang two narratives together and a narrative happens.’

Nick can relate to being an outsider, which each of his novellas deal with. He emigrated to Brisbane from Ireland, when he was 8. He spent a lot of time in the library – until he could work out a way to speak in an Australian accent. Having been an outsider gives him an excellent perspective of learning from observation. Relating to other cultural voices ‘This makes you to consider whether it is really your place to do that .’

Another interesting point Nick made was that life doesn’t always place you where the action is, but the actions still have consequences – ‘fiction isn’t like the news’. Some things are better observed by the character.

We moved on here to his fifth novella, NoHo. In this, the teller of this story is the brother of the person who wants to be a child star so badly that she made her family upend their lives to get her there. ‘I chose him because I wanted a naive and less judgemental pair of eyes. He is an observer. And he has his own life too.’

Elizabeth noted the intertwined short fiction collection is one of her least favourite forms, but these novellas gave her the buzz of recognition of seeing relationships, without being totally intertwined. Nick seemed happy with this – he wants to make people feel clever.

We then moved into a phase of the discussion that I did my best to keep up with. The question was how he managed three different types of publishing at once.

Nick has done his PhD on just this: to begin with, he looked into how people are reading.

I didn’t realise that the first commercial ebook was Steven King’s novella Riding the Bullet, distributed as a PDF on a computer. There has been a lot of change, beginning in 2007, when the Kindle emerged and ebooks surged – ebooks increased 1270% over three years to 2010. ‘The publishing industry panicked, then focussed so hard on ebooks that they don’t notice the rise of audiobooks.’

Nick noted that the early adopters of ebooks were people who read a whole lot, and they were avid readers of romance, crime and fantasy, meaning the Kindle store was dominated by these genres.

Looking into the change in reading habits, he thought there’s a pitch to made here. The thing with reading novels on ebook – you forget who everybody is by the end of the book. A novella is easy to devote your attention to. It gives you something the short story can’t – you read it in an evening. It’s a better fit with our lives.

At the time Nick wanted to approach audio books too, Audible had worked out they had a revolution on their hands: podcasting was getting longer, and novella sized material was what they were looking for. At the time Nick was pitching to them, they were working on channels in the US. So he figured he’d try something else and said to them ‘why don’t we cast it like an Aussie drama series’ – they said yes, and the marketing for the series used the voices of these actors as a hook.

Nick noted that far from cannibalising his paper book sales, the audio and e-books pushed it – there more synergy than we think across the markets, thanks to reader / listener recommendation pushing the novella through into other formats.

Nick’s had three test for the connections between his novellas: 1. Does it make the work better? 2. Does it not make the work worse? 3. Does it avoid being cheesy?

He is excited about this work and the scope of it into the future. The 20,000 word novel is the largest thing you can hold in your head in one go. He says, ‘I like being able to deal with that intricacy while still having that string in my head.’

I am a brand new fan of Nick Earls’ work and look forward to exploring more of it in the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ.