Taming the monsters

Wellington author Elizabeth Knox explores different worlds and realities in her writing. Photo by...
Wellington author Elizabeth Knox explores different worlds and realities in her writing. Photo by Grant Maiden Photography.
Before her appearance at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, Otago Daily Times books editor Helen Speirs asks Wellington author Elizabeth Knox about the process of writing, blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the invisible monster in her latest novel, Wake.

You've been writing since childhood, and have been a published author for almost 30 years. Does the craft get easier with time?

I don't know that the craft of writing gets easier, but I have a lot of experience. I can be patient when whatever I'm working on takes a bit longer to reveal to me the way in which it wants to be written.

How would you describe the process of writing?

Writing is fun, and enormously hard work. I get so deeply engaged that time vanishes. Then I emerge very hungry. Brains burn calories! Writing fiction, there's also the element of being someone else - or a number of someone elses. That is a great pleasure.

When writing, does a book take on a life of its own, or do you have a very strict idea of the story you are telling and how and who you want to tell it?

I have some feeling for what I want to achieve with each book, and I find my way gradually into it, and through it. I plan as I go, then go back and remove the story's scaffolding once the thing is standing up on its own. However, one of the three books I'm writing at the moment feels as if it somehow already exists as a whole thing in the world (in some world) and I only have to hold open the gate and let it come through.

Your writing is highly imaginative. How would you categorise your fiction: fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, all or any of the above? Is categorisation a positive or negative, a necessary evil or necessary at all?

I've written three autobiographical novellas, collected in The High Jump; a biographical novel Glamour and the Sea; a historical mystery, Billie's Kiss. All the rest of my novels are speculative fiction. What I'm always trying to write is literature. Categorisation can't be avoided. It's human, and probably goes all the way back to ''we should eat plants but not that one''.

Your recent novels Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, Mortal Fire and Wake have recognisable physical settings, yet the fantasy element is so powerful. Why retain any reality? Or is it the blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality that is the attraction?

Fantasy only works when what frames the fantastic feels real. That doesn't mean to say that it must be the world we know. If a fantasy is thoroughly imagined, logical, consequential and vivid, then it feels like a reality. Not ''reality'', ''a reality''. That said, I happen to love the kinds of non-realist works that have a recognisable world with a fantastical layer to it, or an incursion of the fantastic.

This was what Margaret Mahy did with much of her YA [young adult] work. My writing is partly shaped by my pleasure in reading Mahy. Dreamhunter, Dreamquake and Mortal Fire are New Zealandy in setting (I wanted to do things I loved, but freely and slyly). Wake is contemporary New Zealand because that's the way it came to me. That's also why it's scaring the bejesus out of its Kiwi readers: the shock of the besieged familiar. It's also scaring people because the characters are believable, and the stakes - the jeopardy of the story - is serious. Wake is a morally engaged fiction. And I'm very pleased that, for the most part, it is being read that way.

Wake seems to me to have brought your previous novels to an extreme. From vampires (Daylight) and angels (The Vintner's Luck and The Angel's Cut), there are now terrifying invisible monsters and ''zombies''; a recognisable Tasman Bay settlement becomes a killing field. While it can be read as a more conventional survival story, it is clearly highly symbolic and can be read on various levels. I understand it was written in the wake of a couple of traumatic family experiences, are you able to tell readers a bit about them?

My mother was diagnosed as suffering from progressive bulbar palsy (a form of motor neurone disease, from which she subsequently died) and I was her principal caregiver. And my brother-in-law died as a result of an act of intentional violence, leaving behind a wife and four children. The man who killed Duncan went to prison for manslaughter. Those were difficult years for the family, and formative.

Do those experiences make it your most ''personal'' book to date? Was it a form of therapy?

Wake is one of my more personal works. I think I got it right. I think it does what I want and readers have taken it to their hearts. That is heartening, so I guess in that way it was therapeutic. Writing it wasn't, though. It was a struggle. It was a hard book to get right.

Given the novel works on so many levels, is it also your most ''complicated'' creation?

I don't know whether it's my ''most complicated''. I'm writing the final book in the Xas trilogy right now and I've just reread The Vintner's Luck and The Angel's Cut. Talk about deep design, sustained over time. The only reason those books - all three - so far apart in their writing, can ultimately be a single work is that the story itself had its own deep structure, and the author some fundamental, unalterable, personality-based view of human existence. Real complexity - as opposed to performative complexity - can only come out of an author's world-view, their way of seeing.

The title itself seems loaded with meaning - a funeral, in the wake of trauma, and the enlightenment that comes with having to wake up to changes as a survivor. Are those all intended? Are there more meanings?

You got all the meanings. I would have liked to change the title because of the several other books called Wake but I was vetoed, and it was the best.

While we may all have our own monsters under the bed, can you explain what the monster is to you?

I made the monster an invisible one for several reasons. Partly because of the invisible monsters of my formative years: the Dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader [by C. S. Lewis]; the invisible servants in the Beast's castle [in Beauty and the Beast], though that idea is more in Mortal Fire; the monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet, and Guy de Maupassant's Le Horla. It is hard to fathom the rationale, or divine the desires, of invisible monsters. Eros is an invisible monster for Psyche, as well as a lover.

The God we cry out against, rather than to, is an invisible monster. These were my starting points, especially that last. But the Wake is also a character in the novel, alien and protean and capable of change. The Wake operates like a puppeteer at first and deals with its victims according to nothing innate in them. At first. Then it familiarises itself with survivors and uses their passions or addictions or strengths as a lever to overthrow them.

It is impersonally then personally destructive. I was thinking of my mother's MND (impersonal) and the malice that ended my brother-in-law's life. So that's how the monster works. But because of [female character] Sam, the monster starts changing. It begins to understand and appreciate some deep human things. Sam is designed to trap it, but she educates it too. So the book acknowledges the options: monsters can be expelled or they can be civilised and become monsters no more.

The opening scenes with the ''zombies'' are brutal. Is there a risk of alienating the reader, or going into a gothic/horror/splatter movie zone that readers might not be able to take seriously? Or were they necessary to make the point of the horror of the situation thrust upon you/anyone and out of your/their control?

They are maddened people, rather than zombies ... I didn't want to cheat horror readers, hence the full-on opening. (I'm usually dealing with disparate audiences, which doesn't mean compromise, it means each book has to train its readers to read it.

''It'', not what they expect to find themselves reading.) I wanted the novel to move from being a story about physical threat, to being one of psychological threat, and finally one of moral threat, where the last thing the survivors can fail at is not the protection of themselves and others but the comforting of others, and staying true to themselves. Many of the crises in our lives work that way.

Do you hope readers will get their own meaning from it, is that part of the nature of art, or is it frustrating when your intentions are misinterpreted?

Yes. Yes. And naturally.

Is it necessary to take risks as a writer and put yourself on the line?


Is any criticism - whether from your publisher, the public or literary critics - easier to deal with the more experienced you are, or does it still hurt?

Criticism still hurts. I had hoped for a little more energy in the thinking applied to my work as I slowly became a mighty totara. A friend says that the thing about mighty totara is they invite people with axes, but that I shouldn't mind being hacked at with teaspoons. Personally, I think the teaspoons are an affront.

What is your advice for budding writers?

My advice is read, read widely and things that are a stretch intellectually and emotionally, - lest you get the idea that writing is an activity of self-validation. Think of the book you are writing as a bypass machine which will be hooked up to other live bodies long after your heart has stopped beating.

Which of your books is your favourite and why, or is that akin to asking a parent who is their favourite child?

My favourite of my books changes all the time, though I have an abiding admiration for the Dreamhunter duet. Man, they'd make good television! I'm very proud of Wake right now. It's alive! And it nearly killed me.

Who are your favourite authors/books, and which have inspired you the most?

I have many, many beloved authors. My favourite book was Persuasion and is now Middlemarch. The most influential book for me I first read at 16 and it galvanised me in every way and its footprints are on almost every novel I've written. It is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is its inventiveness I love, but more than that the melting changeability of its tone: elegant and stately, antic and mad, fun, it's bitingly satirical, shapely, beautiful, wild and deeply humane. A great book and a very strange one.

As an author, are you worried about the future of the publishing industry?

Yes, I'm worried about the future of publishing, but then I'm worried about the future of all things of real value. The invisible hand of the market is an invisible monster. A monster being nurtured in the fortresses of tax shelters.

Do you like Dunedin? Are you looking forward to your visit?

I love Dunedin. My mother lived there in her late childhood and all through her teens. Dunedin has always been a presence in my life.

What can the audience at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival expect to hear from you?

What I like to do with an audience is just answer questions honestly and thoughtfully. With jokes. Which are not to be mistaken for manifestos.

See her
Elizabeth Knox concludes the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, with Knox@Knox, on Sunday, May 11, Knox Church, 4-5pm. Knox will be introduced by New Zealand author Kate De Goldi.

Read it
Elizabeth Knox's most recent novel Wake is published by Victoria University Press.



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