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’. 

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: Wake, by Elizabeth Knox

Wake is available from Friday 1 November.

As I am still in the first few months of my job, I feel very cv_wakespecial whenever a publisher sends in something completely different to review. I saw Wake, by Elizabeth Knox, with the fantastic cover by Dylan Horrocks, and I immediately claimed it as my own. Knox has long been one of my favourite authors, and no matter the genre, her imagination and story-telling flair make her books truly special.

Wake was no exception. While I prefer my post-apocalyptic fiction to open after the gory stuff, once I had opened and closed it a few times, my brain reeling from the grim scenes of a pseudo-apocalypse, this book had me captivated. The story opens as a horrific event unfolds in the fictional Marlborough town of Kahukura, where all the residents suddenly go mad. Mad in a murderous, definite way.

I was intrigued by the nature of the monster – perverting not the private, but the public selves of the dead, taking them to the extreme as they seek conduits for their insanity. One of our survivors, a film-maker, loses his wife in the initial madness to a mad shopkeeper, who shoves money into her mouth until she chokes. There is also a memorable scene of a postie posting himself through a letterbox, among other gruesome occurrences.

Through the madness, we are introduced to several of the survivors, all bar one of whom survived by being outside the zone of madness at the time it began. The survivors include a cop, a truckie, a nurse, a caregiver from a rest home, a teenager, a lawyer, a conservation worker, an OAP, and a fisherman. Caregiver at the old people’s home, Sam was the sole survivor of the initial madness, and as we read on we start to understand what is different about her, and what part she may have to play in releasing the survivors from their unenviable situation.

The world Knox constructs is hyper-real, dealing with the day to day life of what being a survivor of an event such as this means. The survivors quickly realise that not only are they the only ones alive, they are unable to leave the town. Not only this, but the police officer entreats them to act as their best selves, to ensure no blame is attributed to them as they clean up the mess the madness has left behind. The cracks soon start to show, as an invisible monster seeks chinks in their psychological armour.

The shifting perspectives and insights into the main cast of characters’ minds are fascinating. Their differing responses to the atrocities are something that the reader can identify themselves with, and makes for an interesting philosophical query – how would you behave in these circumstances? How long would it take you to crack, invisible monster or no?

Many novels in this genre focus on the loss of things – Knox puts this aside and focuses on the loss of certainty, while the survivors deal compassionately with the dead. There is very little concern with food for themselves – they quickly establish a garden – though protecting the kakapo on the hill becomes challenging.

I encourage fans of Knox, and of psychological horror fiction generally, to pick Wake up. While not by any means an easy book to read at times, it will hook you and keep you until the very end. Brilliant.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

by Elizabeth Knox
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864737700

Words of the Day: Tuesday, 15 October 2013



This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Book reviews
Book Review: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, by Max Hastings

Author blogs
Background on the upcoming novel Wake by @ElizabethKnoxNZ

New Releases
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is out now, and Helen Fielding has a special message for NZ readers! (video)

A beautiful book trailer for The Score, by Adrienne Jansen

Max Rashbrooke is chairing an inequality debate tonight at @VicUniWgtn on Vivian St. Doors open at 6. Shamubeel Eaqub vs Sandra Grey #IsInequalityNatural?

Cilla McQueen is reading tomorrow night 7 pm at Eastbourne library in a joint event with Rona Gallery! She is sparky and…

Book News
Cape Catley Prize for poetry goes to Bayley Johansson, from Pukekohe College.

School Journal will continue to be published by Wellington publisher Lift Education

Fascinating interview on @AfternoonsRNZ with Robin Scholes, talking about Once Were Warriors and Mr Pip

Man Booker Awards News
I am trying to get a few messages to Eleanor Catton on our Facebook page. Or you can steal our cover…

We’re gearing up at NZ brunch HQ for the Man Booker. Commentators @PipAdam & @gtiso stretching their jaws for some live literary commentary. (VUP Books)

Interesting… @guardian Booker prize shortlist sales dip as critical acclaim rises

Paula Morris will be live-tweeting the awards ceremony as @nzlistener

Booker announcement will be on BBC News on SKY from 9.30-10am tomorrow.

Just in case you missed it, @nzlistener has all Booker shortlist reviews unlocked

From around the internet
Could you work for #Lockwood & Co.? Enter the haunted house with Anthony Lockwood and see if you can survive!

Advice on writing advice, from the folks at @AmpersandYA

A wonderful welcome to the new ‘pirate laureate’ (according to his grandson) Vincent O’Sullivan at National Library today.

Readings’ staff member Chris reflects on the joys of sharing books with other travellers when on holidays

The problem with UK literary festivals

Neil Gaiman: Let children read the books they love

The Man Booker will be announced tomorrow at 9.30am, our time. Keep your eyes on twitter (also possibly the prize) – Paula Morris will be live-tweeting for @nzlistener, @FergusVUP will be there, and I am certain @VUPBooks will say a few things. Go Ellie!