Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244

A Novel Relationship and The Stars are Out Tonight, at WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers festival, Friday 29 August

Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in their final two sessions.

A Novel Relationship
Friday, 29 August 4pm
Owen Marshall and Laurence Fearnley discuss their new novels, and their experience working with editor Anna Rogers, with Chris Moore.

M: I think we need to open by telling everyone that Rogers said of split WORD-Author_OwenMarshallinfinitives, ‘mercifully, the world has decided we can boldly go, which has made everything so much easier’.
S: She was fascinating, and the close relationship between the two writers and their editor was clear.
M: They were funny, too.
S: Did you not expect that?
M: Well, Fearnley said that she gets nervous about being edited to the point where it can ruin her Christmas. She did say, ‘I once received an email saying I’d used the word “just” 146 times’.
S: What stuck out for me was when Rogers said her editing should be invisible, and that she ‘helps the writer say what they want to say, the best way they can’—
M: And that the best writers were always the ones that valued the editing process. Both Marshall and Fearnley saw it as a positive application to their work.
WORD-Author_AnnaRogersS: It seems we were lucky to hear from her—that there are fewer full-time working editors in New Zealand.
M: While Rogers (left) wants to be invisible, she did say it was noticeable when editing is skipped in the book-making process.
S: I like that, the ‘book-making process’. They did see themselves as a team, the writer and editor. Both Marshall and Fearnley said the editing process helped them see the ‘blind spots’ in their own writing; Marshall said he appreciated an editor with expertise who could ‘interrogate’ his work. Fearnley talked about how there would be parts of her novel that would niggle at her, but that she was resistant to revise because of the domino effect on the novel. A good editor saw those parts too.
M: Towards the end of the session Marshall read us an excerpt from his novel, Carnival Sky, and Fearnley read us a section from an untitled book that’s due out later on in the year.
S: Do you know what that is?
M: I’m not sure. It’s about Quinn, a young artist, and it’s set in fictional Wellington. Something to look forward to!

The Stars are out Tonight
Friday, 29 August 7.30pm
John Campbell introduces Eleanor Catton, Diane Setterfield, Damon Young, NoViolet Bulawayo, Anis Mojgani, Meg Wolitzer, Kristin Hersh. The sold out session was held in the Transitional/Cardboard Cathedral. (all names link to the authors’ other sessions)

S: Holy shit! I mean—can I swear? That was incredible.
M: John Campbell closed with ‘I can’t think of any event in the world that would have been like this’.
S: It’s 10pm.
M: Time to go home.