The 71st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Janet Tyler and is from the September 1995 issue. It is an interview with Sheridan Keith on the occasion of the publication of her third book and first novel, Zoology, which went on to win the 1996 Montana Book Award for Fiction.
The intro read:
Janet Tyler talks to Sheridan Keith about her first novel Zoology, sexual choices and our animal natures.
GOING TO THE ZOO
Sheridan Keith wanted to call her first novel The Palest Blue You Could Ever Imagine but the publishers, Penguin, wanted to stick with Zoology – a zappy title which should market well. “Stick with” because it’s the name of her short story in Animal Passions from which the novel developed.
The subsidiary characters in that short story began playing on Keith’s mind – what sort of lives, existences had they had? “They wanted to get into the action, so I started to write about them and their lives.”
While Stephen, star of the short story, takes centre-stage again in the novel, the secondary characters, the women in his life who revolve around him in his frustrated, sexually-jaded mind, claim a life of their own. His first wife left him without explanation; his second he discarded mercilessly; and Alexa, the young flamboyantly dressed student (co-star of the short story), he plays with in a half-hearted attempt at reclaiming something of his own uncertain flesh.
Keith could easily have drawn Stephen as a pathetic parody of a fumbling older man lost in his middle-age spread. However it is a sympathetic portrait of Stephen that she has written. “I’m fond of Stephen,” Keith says, speaking in her slow, decisive way, carefully weighing every word
before releasing it. “I can understand how feels. And I can also understand how Alexa feels – she’s really quite baffled by the fact that he’s not really interested in her – after all, she’s young, she’s beautiful, what man wouldn’t be interested in her? Of course, the fact that he’s cool makes her all the keener, and I think young women are attracted to older men, especially powerful older men. They have a sort of aura about them, I think, that is very attractive to young women. And young men are terribly uncouth. In general I think young men are really loathsome.”
Keith pauses with a smile. “I shouldn’t say that because I’ve got two beautiful young sons.”
That Stephen at times appears somewhat bewildered with the turn of events involving the women in his life is not surprising given the author’s philosophy about such things. Keith believes that much of our sexual life happens in a way we don’t understand. As much as we pretend we know what’s going on, and pretend we’re making decisions and taking choices – that’s just it, we’re pretending, we really don’t have a clue – we’re ruled by a process taking place at our subconscious or irrational level, a process over which Keith suggests we have little control. Free will? A paradox we face. “We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice” is an Isaac Bashevis Singer quote which Keith feels sums up the situation.
Says Keith, leaning back in her chair towards the garden outside her sunroom window, exuding presence and a careful kind of wisdom, “We seem to be programmed to believe in free will, and yet if that’s a programme, how can it be free? I wonder just how many of our decisions are really free in the sense that we choose to make them, or do we just rationalise what we want to after the event?”
Given this interest in science, and evolution and the way humans fit into that structure, Zoology is an apt title for Keith’s first novel. She explains that the different agendas of the men and women characters in Zoology are only natural – in that “men and women are geared for different sorts of biological situations”. So despite our proclaimed superiority over all other species, to Keith we are very much part of the basic animal kingdom During the writing of Zoology she went to the Auckland Zoo several times, not something she would normally do. The zoo is where Stephen first met Alexa.
“Zoos are fascinating moral dilemmas. This idea of entrapping animals for our visual pleasure is one of course that is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment. But at the same time they do give you something quite special. They provide some sort of commentary on our own existence. And animals do relate to us, there’s no doubt about it. They look at us and we suddenly see ourselves as animals when we go to the zoo.”
Zoology took about three years to write – beginning from the conception of the short story. Three years is an arbitrary figure, though. Keith says that in some ways, writing the novel took her whole life – all her experiences, all her thoughts, and all her memories. “This is the first novel I’ve written so I didn’t actually know if I could write it or not. I wrote it not knowing what was going to happen, what the story was about, how it was going to develop. I just allowed myself to see, just to write what came, and to see where it went. Initially it went all over the place and I just let it happen. Then surprisingly I discovered that all these pieces did come together in a magical way and certain small miracles happened – you’re living your life at the same time and things happen to you in your life and suddenly you understand how you can fit them in and how that can make a whole out of the pieces you had.”
She describes the writing of a novel as like setting up a big magnet, drawing bits to it. “Then
when you get to the end of the writing, all the bits are there. Some bits come earlier than others, and they don’t necessarily follow a time sequence, so there are some bits missing, but you’ve just got to have faith they’ll turn up.”
Keith says she’s a slow writer, writing a single sentence two to three times, and then reading it aloud just to make sure she’s happy with it. Zoology in some places took five drafts to write. Keith worked to a stringent routine to write it – getting up at 7am every morning, throwing a jersey over her night-clothes, and heading straight for her laptop. She would write for a four-hour intensely concentrated burst, stop for breakfast, and then do “other things” for the rest of the day.
In the middle of writing Zoology, Keith went to England for six weeks on a hunt for antiques (she has recently opened up an antique shop at the front of her house on Auckland’s North Shore). Although she did no actual writing there, the form the novel was to take became clear – to use the Greek tragic form, start at the end and recapitulate.
Knowing that Stephen was going to die, she realised that was the only way she would be able to write the novel – she had to kill him off in the beginning before anyone became attached to him. “I couldn’t bear writing and having him die in the last chapter.” And in England she wrote the opening sequence over and over again in her mind.
Zoology is Keith’s third book. First books, no matter what they are, are always a “terribly powerful thing”, she says. Her first, Shallow Are The Smiles At The Supermarket, a collection of short stories, was short-listed for best first book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. As important as that book is to her, she recognises that her novel will get “some sort of position that is different from those short-story collections”.
Her excitement with the novel, hiding beneath her calm and dignified exterior, comes more from having created the object itself, her own book, than from her words inside. “I do love books as objects quite beyond and apart from anything they say inside. The whole concept of a book, I think, is probably the most wonderful product that humanity has devised.”
She remembers as a child coming up against books as objects on the floor – big books with heavy covers and no pictures on the front so you didn’t know which way to open them. “There was this quite extraordinary learning process of how to open the book, and I can remember being shouted at that if I picked it up by the cover I would break the binding.”
There is no question on which way to open Zoology – the picture on the front makes it obvious. She is proud of the cover – a photograph of a young woman, naked with a butterfly on her breast. The photograph wraps around the spine to reveal Keith herself sitting in the background.
“It was my idea for the photograph to go around, but it was [photographer] Deborah Smith’s idea that I should be sitting at the back. I think that’s a brilliant idea because the whole thing about post-modem writing is that the author is actually there in the text, and this echoes that idea – rather than just a little inset placed on top of the cover.”
She describes the photographic session in the Auckland Museum, early one morning to avoid the model being subjected to any peeping, as a “mind-blowing experience”.
Keith has an interest in photography herself. She has written articles for Art New Zealand and London Magazine on various photographers, had one exhibition of her own photographs, and, in the 70s, opened the Snaps photography gallery. She is fascinated by image-making. “Photography crosses over with my writing. A lot of my writing is very visual and some of my characters are photographers. In a way, writing enables me to be a photographer. I can use a character who becomes a photographer and I can send that person out to take photographs I would like to take.
“I think a lot of writing’s like that. You have a set of characters who are probably aspects of yourself that you would like to be and you send them out to do things that you haven’t got time to do.”
Such as inventing. Keith likes inventing strange things but thinks it far too complicated to have to go through the rigmarole of manufacturing and patents, so from time to time she has a character invent something – and thrills at getting the invention out in the world without actually having to do it herself.
Keith was born in Wellington to a mother whom she describes as creative, strong, and well ahead of her time. “She introduced an enormous amount of culture into our lives. She was into everything – art, music, painting – so I had a very rich cultural childhood in a quite different way from most New Zealand children.”
At school, in Hataitai and later at Marsden, she was a bright but lonely child who was baffled at why she didn’t make friends easily. “I used to try and do what I was supposed to do and they just would not include me. So in the end I reached the point where 1 thought, well, stuff them. I just did my own thing and I think possibly I became quite an observer because of that.”
University at Victoria in Wellington was a combination of English and zoology. She could never decide whether to do arts or sciences, so she did both – despite conflicting timetables and a zoology professor who made a “terrible fuss” over her bizarre mix of subjects. Again she felt something of a misfit.
At 22 she went to London – it was an “amazing” feeling to get away from home, from New Zealand, and from “all that small-minded stuff that New Zealand was like in those days”. London
was quite a different scene with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Mary Quant hype: “It was incredible. My feet didn’t touch the ground.”
Says Keith, “I always had this idea I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t know what to write about then – I couldn’t be open about my experiences at that time. I felt very vulnerable. The letters I used to write home to my parents were just the most superficial letters that didn’t say anything real, and yet at the same time I had this funny idea that I was going to be a writer.”
When she eventually moved back to New Zealand, she began working for Art New Zealand – initially to help them get advertising. She got to know various artists, and managed to get an interview with Colin McCahon – who at that stage was shying away from interviews,
“Surprisingly he agreed to talk to me, so I did the interview, wrote it up and sent it to the Listener. The Listener didn’t know who the hell I was but they certainly knew who Colin McCahon was and they printed it. That was the first thing I ever had published.”
Her first published story, after first being rejected by a New Zealand publisher, was accepted within a week by an English publisher who, from her name, thought Sheridan Keith was a man. She wrote more short stories and was shortlisted in the Reed Fiction Award for 1991’s Shallow Are The Smiles At The Supermarket. Animal Passions followed in 1992. And now, after the excitement of completing her first novel Zoology and having five copies proudly displayed on her bookshelf, Keith is in a “creative pause”.