Writers and Readers Week 2012
New Zealand’s Emerging Writers: Eleanor Catton, Hamish Clayton, and Craig Cliff
Reviewed by Sarah Jane Parton
I have to confess something before I start: I haven’t read anything by Catton, Clayton, or Cliff. Not a thing. Of the three, Catton intrigues me the most. Because she’s young (26 or 27, I think), and pretty, and successful. Totally superficial, I know. As a writer and a reader (albeit not of these authors, yet), I wanted to go along to this talk for some perverse reason which I couldn’t even really form in my own mind, let alone say out loud, but here goes, I’ll put it in writing: I wanted to go because I wanted to see if one day I could be them, or if I’d missed the boat, or if I could never even get on it, even if it was docked right next to me with a friendly outstretched hand offering assistance to climb aboard. Hearing them talk didn’t answer this question for me (how could it) and being in their presence didn’t mean I was personally touched by their precocious brilliance (I did really test this out, by sitting right up the front), but it was definitely an insight into the way they think and work.
To differentiate between this and other talks I am attending this week, I have been referring to it as ‘The three Cs’. I wondered, before I entered the Embassy Theatre on Saturday afternoon, if there was much more of a connection between these three authors than their last initial, the perceived ‘stage’ that they are at in their writing careers, and their geographical location. I wondered if we might stop using the term ‘emerging’ as a description for creative folks who have experienced the first flush of success. When talking about contemporary New Zealand writers ‘emerging’ tends to mean “emerging from the vagina of Bill Manhire’s creative writing course soft, wet, and perfectly formed, but still umbilically attached via VUP”. (Disclosure statement: I am currently studying in said course. And I think it’s really good. But I still think this description of the use of the term ‘emerging’ and how it is interpreted in this context is pretty accurate.) I don’t know if I like it – it seems more of a burden than an accolade.
The talk began with Harry Ricketts asking the writers how things began for them in terms of the creation of their debut publications. Catton explained that The Rehearsal was inspired by a conversation with a friend at a concert when she was just 18 or 19 that stayed with her and became the nebulous for the book. I didn’t hear what the conversation was about, as Catton had a beautiful, gentle timbre that I was instantly lost in and it left me forgetting to actually listen to her. Terrible. Sorry. I made more of an effort later on, I assure you. She was also incredibly well-kept – all three writers were, as a matter of fact. They looked like they’d stepped out of a photo shoot backstage. Their hair was tidy, their complexions flawless, their clothes fit them well. They epitomised beautiful youth, and looking at them I was reminded of the Lawrence Arabia song The Beautiful Young Crew. Luckily Harry Ricketts was keeping up appearances for those amongst us who feel that writers should be a little less cover of Dazed and Confused, a little more page 10 of New Zealand Gardener. He seemed really comfortable.
Cliff responded to Catton’s explanation that The Rehearsal began with a single idea by saying that he was very envious of her in her straightforward, seemingly angst-free, process. He spoke of how he tried to write a novel eight years earlier (Cliff is 29) and that he didn’t think “21 year old males should spend that long in a room, doing anything, let alone writing a novel”. Cliff had a dry humour that the audience warmed to instantly. Casually referring to masturbation in your opening statement is a great way to break the ice with an audience of 200 odd strangers, it seems. He said that although he’d always wanted to write, and had seen himself as a writer, when he was younger he didn’t have the emotional maturity to write anything he considered any good. He found that he was much better at writing short stories, which he wrote in the evenings while he was working in an office job. In this way he managed to hone his craft and get enough material together for a collection. This collection became A Man Melting, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book Award.
Clayton’s teeny tiny white stick of a headset microphone was on the blink, and the audience were not afraid to tell him so, yelling out “not working” a handful of times until all of a sudden we could hear him breathing. It was kind of like sound art. He said that it was when he reached his mid-twenties that he realised that writing was something that he should have a “really good go at”. He went to university to study English Literature, believing that to be a good writer he needed to read a lot. He explained that the idea for his debut historical novel Wulf was the result of patiently waiting for inspiration. In the end, the inspiration for the book came in the form of a poem introduced to him by a friend. In this poem, the old English Wulf and Eadwacer, Clayton found a connection to the story of Te Rauparaha. He felt that the ambiguity of the poem paralleled the way that the late 1800s is ambiguously recalled in the New Zealand imagination. He also saw an opportunity to work with the aesthetic structure of the poem and use it to organise a novel. Clayton acknowledged that this connection was purely a work of his imagination, but as a basis for a work of fiction it made perfect sense.
The authors then read excerpts from their books. Catton chose to read a section from The Rehearsal which she had edited further since the publication of the book. In it Stanley, a teenage boy, considers the femininity of the older female secretary at his drama school and ponders over the essential difference between a ‘girl’ and a ‘woman’. Catton spoke about how strange it was that a published book becomes a static reminder of how the author thought and felt at a certain time, and of her desire to continue to amend it – the way one does with memory and conversation. The alterations she made to the reading added a different dimension that offered the audience some insight into the way she perceived the work. I read along from the copy of the book I had brought with me, and enjoyed both the tiny and more significant edits Catton made.
Cliff read a funny short story from his collection entitled Orbital Residence, that unpacked a couple’s relationship breakdown through the course of visiting multiple open homes. Listening to him read, I couldn’t help but wonder if the experience was familiar to him, either through direct or indirect experience. Had he been to open homes? Had he been in a relationship that slowly disintegrated over minute but meaningful differences in taste and opinion? Or was this the story of a friend/acquaintance, carefully retold?
Clayton read a section from Wulf that described an illicit beach cooked meal and the characters who shared it. I had a moment, which wasn’t entirely fair on Clayton, where I thought of how Game of Thrones author George R R Martin likes to frequently describe in detail the food that his characters consume, and how tedious I find this. I know, GOT, awful (and also great), but maybe it’s the super-saturation of Master Chef type programmes and the gazillion cooking books and blogs about eating and general obsession over ‘good’ food and cooking that seems to be a current pre-occupation of the middle class that is really getting my goat. Enough, I cry! Marmite on toast is fine! In saying this, Clayton made connections, in his text, between the way the characters of Wulf ate and the feelings they had about eating and drinking ill-acquired foodstuffs (butter and wine from the ship’s stores) that gave a broader sense of who they were and their historical context. And we do all eat, don’t we?
The key difficulty in this discussion, I felt, was finding points of common interest. Ricketts asked each writer specific questions about their books, but also tried to focus on any commonalities. He did pretty well. All three authors are currently working on historical novels, and discussed the present-day popularity of this genre as well as the process each was engaging in to write their own books. Catton mentioned that she finds herself particularly frustrated by the “tyranny of the real” and wanted to subvert that in both The Rehearsal and her new work, an “astrological murder mystery”. Clayton stated that he finds the talk around historical fiction very limiting. He described a “stoush” between Maurice Shadbolt and Michael King where King confronted Shadbolt about the lack of accuracy on one of historical works, to which Shadbolt replied that it is a work of fiction. Clayton said he likes historical novels that tell us about where we are now. Craig explained how he hoped to do this through his new novel, which deals with shipwrecks in the sub-Antarctic islands.
The session ended with a Q & A where the writers were asked how young they were (all under 40), Catton was queried about her writing process (she explained that her paragraphs first look like poems, full of key words, that she molds into stories), and Clayton was asked if he had had any feedback from Kai Tahu/Ngati Toa on his depiction of the story of Te Rauparaha and his associates (he hadn’t).