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This week, three Wellington writers will be setting out on a literary roadshow of sorts. The Rocky Outcrop Writers tour, featuring Pip Adam, Kirsten McDougall, and Ashleigh Young, plus a host of guests, will be visiting bookstores, libraries, and galleries across the lower North Island. Recently, Salient had the chance to talk to Pip, Kirsten, and Ashleigh about their work, and writing in general.
1. How would you characterise the Wellington literary scene? Do you think its comparative smallness is good or bad in terms of your careers?
KMD: Cosy. Fun. Supportive. Drunk sometimes (though I hear that the thirty Creative Writing Masters students at Vic had to make do with nine bottles of wine at their intake evening. Read it and weep). Apparently there’s more writers per capita in Wellington than anywhere else in the world. Hopefully that means readers too.
PA: I reckon there is amazing diversity in the Wellington literary scene. Despite it being comparatively small there seems to be a lot of different things going on. A friend and I were talking the other day and we agreed even if we were in New York or London it would still probably feel like our writing community was about the same size, because we would just hang around in a section of a bigger scene but it might lack the diversity we get in Wellington because we would be able to hang out just with writers who write like us.
AY: I was about to launch into an embarrassing analogy with some sort of small furred creature, but thought better of it. Of course Wellington is small, and sometimes you’ll be struck by the feeling of living in one another’s pockets, but somehow I’m constantly stumbling into unfamiliar, exciting writers. Wellington draws a lot of phenomenal writers from overseas too. I still remember with glee the time the poet Christopher Reid came to visit. And August Kleinzahler. It’s amazing who washes up here, who you have the pleasure of talking to. I’m not sure whether Wellington’s size has helped or hindered things for me, personally – I’m only just starting out – but what I have found is that people have been so supportive, enthusiastic, and encouraging that it’s sometimes made me feel like an impostor.
2. How do you feel about the relationship between academia and writing?
KMD: English Lit majors get introduced to many texts and a writer should first and foremost be a reader. Chaucer is hilarious and rude and interesting in terms of form and I wouldn’t have read him if I hadn’t done English. One thing I don’t like about some aspects academia is how writing gets split into literary and non-literary. No writers I know think that way. They think: is this language alive? Does it have electricity? That’s the test of a good sentence. I don’t think Maurice Gee ever set out to write ‘literature’. He just wrote damn good stories. My History major taught me a lot about reading too.
PA: I’ve done a lot of my writing at university, mainly at the IIML, and I teach writing in a university setting, so I may be biased but I think there is something really great about the mix of academic thought and community, and creative writing. I think you can’t write without reading and I think university gives a really good grounding in reading critically which I think has helped me as a writer. That said, I didn’t get to university until well into my twenties so yeah, working was important for me too.
AY: A lot of great writers are also great academics, but it’s not a requirement to be both. Some great writers spend their days in the bowels of Parliament or in IT departments or hefting bags around postal routes. Both academia and writing require deep thought and research and time bent over a desk alone; academia can seem like a natural transition for a writer. And teaching has saved the bacon of many a writer. Not only financially; maybe even psychologically. Being required to crystallise particular ideas in order to articulate them well, to keep reading, to keep enthused about your subject, are all processes that I’m sure can nourish a writer’s personal work.
3. What drives you to your respective forms? When you write, are you setting out to write a story or a poem, or does an idea naturally settle into that form?
KMD: Story drives form for me. I gave up poetry because I was crap at it and I wanted to tell longer stories than the form would allow. My first book, The Invisible Rider (VUP, 2012), suited a shorter form (some stories under 500 words, some over 5k). The current project I’m working on is much longer – longer sentences, longer paragraphs – because the story is driving it that way.
PA: What usually comes to me first is an image. As a kid I watched a lot of television, I didn’t read much, so I think my imagination formed as a picture-making machine rather than a word making machine. So most of the time what I’m trying to do is get that picture into words. The other thing that I think I got from TV is sounds. I often get sounds with my pictures. Like there’s a line in something I’m working on at the moment which goes, ‘we’re running through a wood of disorganised trees with uneven branches and roots that spill from under the ground into the path, laughing’. This came out of me trying to describe an image that came to me and along with the image came that thumping, panting noise you make when you run, like the way it sounds from the inside. So yeah, I used to write poetry but then I fell in love with plot, and a poem can have plot for sure, but yeah, for some reason plot led me away from poetry and into stories.
AY: I’m a total bore on this front. I almost immediately decide whether I’ll be writing a poem, or an essay, or a blog post, or … god, even a tweet. (I tell myself it all counts.) It feels like I have a different brain, a different kind of attention and intuition, for each of those forms.
4. Favourite book(s) of the year so far?
KMD: Right now I’m reading and enjoying Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Also, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and because I’m a runner, Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn. Locally, my fav book last year was Lawrence Patchett’s I got his blood on me.
PA: I read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño over summer. The blurb on the back of the copy I read said something like ‘it reinvents the novel’ and I feel like that’s pretty accurate. It is so unashamedly political, by which it seems brave enough to make comments about the world, but it does this with the most compelling narrative structure and plot. Another blurb said it has ‘the whole of life in it’ and that’s true too. Yeah, I love a big book, the way it takes over your life for so long. At the other end of the scale, I just finished an odd wee book called Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis and that was amazing. I really like Amis, I’ve come to him quite late – I sort of missed the boat. I used to tell people I’d read Money when he was fashionable but I never have. But yeah, Time’s Arrow is one of those great books (like 2666) that makes you reassess your view of the world, it changes your mind, literally. I’m always reading for that, the world confuses me a lot and I feel like if I can just change or break my view of it it might fall into place.
AY: Emma Martin’s forthcoming debut short story collection, Two Girls in a Boat. It is wonderful. Also Aorewa McLeod’s Who Was That Woman, Anyway? I’m going to the launch of Therese Lloyd’s poetry collection Other Animals tonight, and I have a feeling it’ll be in the running too.
More information about the Rocky Outcrop Writers tour can be found at outcroppers.wordpress.com. You can also follow them on twitter: @ PipAdam, @KirstMcDougall, and @Ashleigh_Young. All three have been published by VUP: Pip Adam’s Everything We Hoped For, Kirsten McDougall’s The Invisible Rider, and Ashleigh Young’s Magnificent Moon are all highly recommended. Their tour will hit the Wellington region on Wednesday 20 March, at 6pm (Lower Hutt War Memorial Library) and Saturday 23 March, at 2pm (St Peter’s Hall, Paikakariki). Free admission, all welcome.