The NZ Book Council gathered together, under the watchful questions of Laura Kroetsch, three of NZ’s most accomplished and successful writers: Kate De Goldi, Fiona Farrell and Emily Perkins.
The cold night didn’t seem to discourage attendees, braving the conditions to bustle into the Adam Auditorium and listen to what turned out to be one of the best conversations on writing for a long time. Starting with the question, ‘Do you remember the moment you learned to read?’, the discussion traveled great distances, exploring some utterly fascinating writerly territory. It was almost a topographical exploration of the ways and means of inspiration and influence; a kind of literary orienteering.
The audience were treated to an intriguing, often funny and always fascinating session. From Fiona Farrell’s explicit memory of words first coagulating from squiggles to meaning before her eyes (‘Donuts’ said Robert, ‘for all of us.’) to Emily Perkins describing the impact and inspiration of physical space, be it a house, cathedral or art installation, on her writing process as “experiencing the familiar world, just twisted”.
It’s easy to imagine writers just sitting down and transcribing the book that exists, perfectly formed, in their head. So it’s comforting to hear of the travails of inspiration and the comfort of influence that helps the writing process. De Goldi, Farrell and Perkins spoke about the formation of their passion and how the logic of its expression is harnessed by their weaknesses as writers. “Everything grows out of your incapacities”, said De Goldi when describing building a story with skills refined by the need to compensate for undeveloped areas of technique. “The problem suggests the structure”, Farrell added. “Yes”, said de Goldi, “it’s engineering”. If that sounds a little mechanical then the essence of the conversation isn’t being conveyed well; the synergy of these three women was quite inspiring in itself, each one instilled the session with differing ratios of intellectual and emotional response to inspiration and influence.
De Goldi, Farrell and Perkins all displayed humour, easy charm and obvious intelligence when relating stories of their childhoods, as well as the books, music, history and people that have pulled them into the world of words. As the session approached its end the writers spoke of books that had become a kind of totem to their process, at one time or another. They listed a wide variety of books (see the list at the end of this post) and a variety of reasons for their influence. Perkins, remembering reading it as a 10-year-old, quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick as a book that granted her permission to enter the adult world of words, “Go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, go take a flying fuck at the moon.” She covered her mouth with her hand afterward, slightly embarrassed at the profanity of it. But it was well received and captured something important about the process.
De Goldi perfectly encapsulated the drive of influence and inspiration by saying that, whatever the source, the motive force of these things amounted to wanting to explore unfamiliar territory, “to explore something I don’t understand.”
The NZ Book Council is doing us a great favour by allowing these writers to explore this territory within our earshot.
Some of the touchstone books for the authors:
Fiona Farrell: Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo & Testimony by Anita Shreve
Kate De Goldi: Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne, A Gate at the Stairs and Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
Emily Perkins: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the short story Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff (from the collection Our Story Begins)
(Emily Perkins made The Tobias Wolff short story sound especially fascinating, describing it as a perfectly crafted thing that, in four or five pages, somehow contains everything.)
(It is also well worth reading the Introduction to the most recent edition of Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne written by De Goldi – it’s a wonderful reflection on the book and NZ writing.)