The distinguished list of Burns Fellows at the
University of Otago was last year joined by Emma Neale.
Charmian Smith talks to the poet, novelist and editor about the
experience of having time to write.
Poet Emma Neale relaxes at home with children Abe (10) and
Zac (2). Photo by Craig Baxter.
A year as Burns Fellow is such a gift, Emma Neale says. It
allowed her to work on her own writing without having to
undertake freelance editing work or teaching to pay the
It is a tenuous existence being a novelist, poet, writer and
editor, and with the industry changing so much these days,
there is even less certainty than there used to be.
Sometimes, Neale says with a laugh, she wishes she had not
listened to her father, who told her not to train as a
However, the way she sees the world now and the way she
translates experience, processes, relationships, people and
new concepts is so bound up with being a writer that it would
be impossible for her not to write. Literature, whether for
the reader or writer, is so enriching and mind-broadening,
''I don't think there is any better way of teaching us what
it's like to be under someone else's skin. Even other art
forms like film don't actually give the same intellectual
independence that reading does and they don't take us as
intimately into the thought processes of other people and
Neale has published five novels, four collections of poems,
and edited two anthologies of writing, among other things,
and has another novel and more poems under way from last
year's work. The Truth Garden (Otago University
Press), her latest book of poems, was published last year,
part of the prize for the Kathleen Grattan Award for poetry
she won the previous year.
For it she selected poems written over the past few years
that deal with some of the themes cropping up regularly in
her work - relationships, parenting, home and garden.
Her writing often seems to pivot on concerns such as the way
family and context help shape identity, she says.
The novel she was working on last year also shares with her
previous one, Fosterling (2011), a notion of social
exile, she says.
''That tension between how you create a stable and healthy
identity versus social pressures to conform and behave in a
certain way - and you are actually pushed up against that as
a parent too, in terms of what you allow your children to do,
and what their own innate drives are.''
At the beginning of her fellowship year she planned to work
on a novel and a suite of interrelated poems, but both
projects bucked away from her and turned into something else.
The novel went on the back burner because she felt the
emotional territory was too dark to tackle at that time,
while the suite of poems turned into a novel and some
unexpected poems emerged in their place, Neale says.
''I think actually the idea that I had probably all along was
going to be better in prose. I guess I was trying to give
myself a new challenge saying it would be a sequence of
The novel is about a little boy who has been through severe
trauma and bereavement and is living an intense imaginative
life as a way of coping, but it becomes a problem for his
family and his school. Although Neale had originally
approached it as pure comedy, once she realised what kind of
family situation and background a child living like that
would have to have, she knew it would have to be more
complex, she said.
''Because one of the main actors is a child, it has quite a
lot of levity and humour, so it actually still does have, I
guess, a more redemptive quality than the other dark one I
Whereas her fiction tends to explore the question ''what
if?'' more overtly and inhabit a more obviously fictional
scenario, as well as looking at the psychology of characters,
her poems tend to seize on an overheard phrase or capture an
image, Neale says.
''I use that as the seed to grow into something I hope is
musical but also sometimes tells a brief snippet of story. I
suppose some of the poems are more like photographs in words
- they don't all have narratives. They may be moments of
apprehension and vision.''
Although her poems follow life more than fiction, even if
they do spring from something personal, Neale tries to find
something archetypal or mythic that they might feed into, she
''I was asked recently whether it was difficult to be so
exposing in my work, and it reminded me of something Fleur
Adcock said to me once in an interview, and that was people
don't realise how much you censor and discard and frame. You
are only ever making public things that have been very shaped
and crafted and also you select very carefully which things
you are willing to air.''
It is something many people who write poems do not realise,
As the editor of the Otago Daily Times Monday poetry
column, she says a lot of people still think poetry is an
outpouring of emotion that has not been crafted and shaped.
Poems submitted for publication are often deeply personal and
clearly needed to be written as therapy for the writer, but
the writer has not thought about the audience, she says.
''I'm always trying to be as democratic as possible in the
sense of getting new writers and previously published
writers, but my main criteria is I want it to be as good as
When she was a student, Dr Neale vacillated between thinking
she wanted an academic career and wanting to work in
publishing. While she was completing her PhD in London, her
mother and stepfather, Barbara and Chris Else, who run a
literary agency in New Zealand, asked her to do some work for
them meeting agents and publishers to see if she could get
New Zealand fiction accepted by UK publishing houses.
''I felt fraudulent because here I was studying literature
and trying to be a marketing person, but I'd never really
experienced what it was like to write a novel from the
inside. I felt no matter how much academic study I've done, I
can't really know what it's like until I've tried it myself,
so I started writing a novel as a way of being more
articulate about the process, thinking I'd be a
representative of other writers rather than expecting my own
work to have any success.''
She had already been publishing poetry, and sent her first
fiction manuscript, Night Swimming, to the Elses as
part of the apprenticeship. They said they would like to be
her agents, which she found encouraging but daunting as she
had to rewrite the novel several times.
''Each time I remember thinking `this is just too hard. I'm
going to stop' because I hadn't realised how intense it would
all be. You'd feel so depleted at the end of each draft;
you'd feel this has to be it, there's nothing else to call
up, there's no energy left. But then eventually it would
trickle back and I'd have another go.''
Night Swimming was published in 1998.
Her novels take four or five years to complete because she
usually has to fit them around family life - she and her
partner have two sons, Abe (10) and Zac (nearly 3). Although
she did not have to divide her time doing editing work as
well last year, there was a temptation to try to fit an
entire writing career into the fellowship year, she says with
The new year will see Neale back at the University of Otago
from mid year, teaching on the creative writing course.
Before then, it's freelancing again, meeting the deadlines so
she can get back to the novel.
The Truth Garden, by Emma Neale, winner of the
Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry 2011, is published by Otago