A conversation with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the award for literature.
What made you want to become a writer?
When I was a child, I used to write stories a lot, just little chapter books. And I liked school projects that related to history, or English and all those sorts of things. But I think the big impact on terms of becoming a writer came about when I was working as a curator at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt. I used to go and visit people who were working full time as artists. And even though they weren't making much money, they all seemed to have a real sense of purpose and real meaning in their life, because they were committed to their art. I realised that I didn’t want to be the person writing about artists, I wanted to be the artist — except in my case that was being a novelist.
I would have been about 25, but it took about another five years to actually start writing full time. I used to get up very early in the morning, like four or five o'clock and write before I started work each day. After a few years I did the MA in creative writing, which gave me a year to focus on a novel (which was never published).
So how did your journey go from there? After you studied your masters?
I preferred writing novels to short stories. And so I just kept writing. And some of my books were accepted, and some were rejected, but I just kept going. Being married made a big difference because my husband is an absolute champion. He supports me in so many ways and because of that I have been able to stay at home and raise our son and write. My publisher Penguin Random House is another star in my life. I've been publishing with them for almost 20 years now and they are brilliant.
What are some other pivotal moments in your career?
I guess pivotal moments are those that come with success or failure. A major pivotal moment would be getting your first novel published — and getting that phone call from a publisher to say that they're interested in publishing your book. My first publisher was Quentin Wilson from Hazard Press in Christchurch and I will always feel grateful to him. Likewise Geoff Walker at Penguin because he backed me for years and never gave up.
Getting into Bill Manhire’s creative writing course at Victoria was another major moment. I owe so much to Bill. He was my primary supervisor during my Phd and he was kind, generous and supportive. Winning awards or getting a residency like the Robert Burns are big confidence boosters. But having friends who write, like my dear friend poet Sue Wootton, is also really important. They are the ones who keep you going when it gets tough.
What is your process for writing one novel? Do you have several on the go at once?
No, I do one at a time. And I just sit down every day, and I work. I have a strict routine, and I focus on what I’m doing and I don’t deviate. It’s a bit like committing to exercise or training for sport, but in my case I do a couple of thousand words a week, and I just keep going until I’m done. I spend a lot of time polishing my work so each book would take around a year of thinking and research and then a year of writing.
What are you trying to achieve through your art?
I guess I'm trying to raise the profile of regional and South Island writing. Sometimes it can seem as if the main centres grab the majority of the attention, and as a South Islander you can feel a little bit like an outsider. So, I would like to see more visibilty for regional and South Island writers, greater representation in festivals — that type of thing.
Would you say now that you're making a living from your writing?
Oh, no. There’s no way that I would be able to support myself from my writing. It just wouldn't happen. For example, $25,000 from the Arts Foundation represents the amount I'd earn from writing four or five novels. So, that’s eight to ten year’s income as a novelist. That's how important that Arts Foundation money is.
How did you feel when you got the call about the Laureate Award?
I was amazed. It means a lot to me. I’m glad it’s come at a time when I have a good body of work behind me, but also a career ahead of me.
It's a really helpful and meaningful award. It makes me feel that my work isn’t simply being lost in a void. It's an acknowledgement that being a creative person carries worth and value. I think that's pretty important — that the arts are seen to be valued. It's heartening to know that people from outside the inner circle of the arts community are engaged with what you do and prepared to back you. That’s really cool.
Do you know how you will spend the award money?
I've got a novel, Scented, that's coming out in September. It’s the first in a series of five, each one based on one of the five senses. Some of these novels will require a lot of research. So the award will be incredibly helpful to cover costs for travel and research.
Tell us more about Scented
It's about a woman, a university lecturer, who loses her job when the Humanities are restructured. When she loses her job she also loses part of her identity, because that has been so wrapped up with her career. She’s always been interested in perfume and scent and so she tries to recreate the sense of herself by creating a signature scent. This signature scent also raises questions about national and cultural identity.
What got you interested in the five senses?
I've always been interested in landscape and place. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I am interested in non-visual approaches to landscape. For example, instead of looking for the most beautiful landscapes I think about scent — the smell of the bush — or sound, such as bird calls. Approaching landscape in a variety of ways might help us to appreciate the places that are closer to where we live, rather than having to go to ‘iconic’ places like Mount Cook or Rotorua. It’s important that we connect more with our local landscapes, so that the natural world is not seen as ‘other’ to our urban world. I like the idea of finding a private wilderness within an urban landscape.
Every day I go walking. I live in Dunedin and I go either to Signal Hill, which is up above my house, or down through the Northern cemetery and botanic gardens. I usually walk just before dawn, so at the moment (July), it's just as the moon is setting. Signal Hill is an area that's been plantation forestry and it's pretty ugly, a lot of gorse and and second-generation bush. But if you pay attention to the different smells, it is just the most beautiful landscape in the world because the gorse can smell like coconut or surf wax. And the pine trees have a beautiful, resin and green pine needle fragrance. Sometimes, on stormy days, you can smell the salt in the fresh air, coming up from the sea. At other times, it might be that the Greggs coffee factory is roasting their coffee, and you get that smell.
I was also interested in whether or not our preferences in scent was influenced by our cultural background. I am Pākehā, a first generation New Zealander, and I wondered if I had an unconscious bias for the smells associated with my British heritage. Or are my scent preferences influenced by the country of my birth, Aotearoa New Zealand, and my interaction with my local environment?
I wondered if New Zealand has a scent identity of its own? And what would it mean to different people? Would it be the smell of the sea? Or native bush? Or could it be the smell of hay or freshly mowed lawns, or perhaps flax and cabbage trees? So it was just an exploration of my local area through smell.
Is this inspiration from your walking, or is there a part of you that feels a sense of lost connexion with the landscape due to life becoming more technology based?
Well, this is my 11th novel, and most of my novels have been concerned with landscape and particularly the South Island landscape. So the scent aspect is tied to my general interest in landscape.
The Hut Builder, for example, was based in the McKenzie basin and around Aoraki/Mount Cook. That novel was linked to my personal connection to that area and the changes that have taken place during my lifetime. It has gone from being a kind of ‘middle of nowhere’ landscape to being visited by large numbers of tourists and partly destroyed by irrigation and dairy farming. So it's about the changing landscape and how humans are encroaching on to areas that used to be quite isolated and remote. So, the Scented novel is a continuation of work that I've been doing for the last 20 years.
What is art to you and why does it matter?
Art to me is all about wonder. I think it's a bit like nature in that sense. It has the ability to stop you in your tracks and amaze or challenge or inspire you. Art makes your world bigger. I think imagination and curiosity are crucial to the way we inhabit this world, and art gets that.