The 72nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Gwen Isaac and is from the November 1995 issue. It is an interview with Debra Daley on the occasion of the publication of her first novel. Her latest novel, Turning the Stones, was published to acclaim in April in the UK by Heron, an imprint of Quercus Books.
The intro read:
Gwen Isaac talks to Debra Daley about here, there and her new novel, The Strange Letter Z.
Z IS FOR IDENTITY
Debra Daley returned to New Zealand in 1986 to write the obligatory first novel that everyone has to write about where they came from and their identity. But she couldn’t write it in England, and her country of origin pestered her deepest subconscious. Finally she gave in and exorcised her life experience in the form of The Strange Letter Z. Published here by Penguin and next year in London by Bloomsbury, it is a confident, predominantly psychological novel, revolving around a complex romance that begins and ends in New Zealand.
When she left she had felt it to be “dull and mean-spirited”, with very little tolerance for people with artistic inclinations. After travelling incessantly, she needed to come back and see how it had changed. Sucked back into New Zealand she arrived with Universal Drive tucked safely under her arm. A TV drama about car-crazy kids in West Auckland, it had already screened here, making her known in the industry.
Daley was able to settle into a prolific phase of screenwriting, and after a few years, The Strange Letter Z. Following the parallel lives of the two protagonists, Alexis and Nerida, it begins by describing their respective dysfunctional childhoods in New Zealand that cause them to escape their past. Alexis, ambitious and self-obsessed, becomes a successful linguist who harbours a dark secret. Simultaneously, beautiful but aimless Nerida drifts into a fruitful modelling career. They are fated to fall into a love affair from which they can never derive happiness until they gain self-knowledge.
Daley says she was interested in two characters who seemed to have everything going for them. “With intelligence and good looks they move smoothly through the world,” she says, but adds emphatically, “This is not enough because you still have to know yourself.”
Losing her accent ensured that in England she was never questioned about her origins. And frankly she wasn’t even homesick for New Zealand. “For me New Zealand just didn’t feature,” she says — but then something strange would keep happening. She would open a magazine or a newspaper and the letter Z would jump out at her. At the time this confused her, but she soon realised she must have been looking for the word “New Zealand”.
This almost metaphysical occurrence was a catalyst for her to consider the country she grew up in. Like Nerida and Alexis, she needed to return to rediscover her identity. The letter Z is used as sustained symbolism throughout the novel. Its ominous shape weakens the resolve of the characters to dismiss their past identity.
To Daley’s surprise, she found it impossible to write fiction in London. She had to return to do it. Riding on the profile gained from Universal Drive, she began writing fast turn-around television (Gloss, Open House and Peppermint Twist), as well as writing TV drama and film-script editing. Presently she derives an income from medical copywriting and writing newsletters for the Auckland Area Health Board. It is near-impossible to earn a living from writing here, so all these activities buy her time for her greatest love. “In the perfect world, where I won Lotto, all I would do is write fiction,” she says passionately.
She uses an analogy in the book about Nerida’s training as a photographer being like that of a concert pianist having to do finger exercises for this big moment in front of the audience. For this, says Daley, you must be at your most brilliant — which only comes from practice. She absolutely revelled in the contrast of writing a novel: “Suddenly there was no one looking over my shoulder with a brief, which was very liberating”.
The book took her four years to write, while she fulfilled other commitments. A heavy manuscript was the product of her first draft as she found herself including all her life experience. “I realised to sustain a career as a novelist you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket,” she says. So she completely rewrote it, dropping a lot of material, and leaving the final version of The Strange Letter Z highly edited.
Just as Daley’s restlessness always expressed itself in compulsive travelling, Alexis and Nerida country-hop through the book, providing a range of different backdrops for the progress of their relationship. They drift from one environment to another in an attempt to reinvent themselves, but also because they can no longer cope with their present situation: “They are constantly thinking things are a little difficult here so let’s move on and perhaps there will be some external circumstances that will make some sense of my life.”
Daley is concerned about how people become co-dependent and end up becoming part of each other’s fiction about how to live life. This becomes dangerous as the other person is instrumental in validating your story. Daley’s theories of self-definition through others link in with her interest in human happiness. Nerida and Alexis find happiness through one another, but ultimately remain unsatisfied within themselves “even though he could lie full-length in the dirt and kiss the footprints she had made. . . How could you love a woman utterly and still, it wasn’t enough?”
Daley asserts that our best achievement is to make ourselves as happy as we can. “By interacting positively with other human beings we will increase the quotient of satisfaction in the world,” she maintains. Fate is a useless notion to believe in, in this context. “If you identify the locus of control as external, you are doomed to believe that everything that happens to you is incidental. You must become the writer of your own life by realising nothing is destined to be.”
Despite her extensive screenwriting, she says that with The Strange Letter Z she set out to write something that possibly couldn’t be filmed: “I just wanted to get into the literary world totally, by writing something very cognitive.” She feels she certainly couldn’t write the screenplay because it’s over for her now.
Already her mind is focusing on her next novel, which will be more story-focused and driven by narrative. Its direction has been influenced by her love of genre work, in particular, thrillers. “I didn’t think it would be a thriller, but I am motivated by the satisfaction of thriller,” she says.
The epigraph, taken from Balzac’s short story “Z Marcas”, marks the strong purpose of the novel: “Do you not discern in that letter Z an adverse influence? Does it not prefigure the wayward and fantastic progress of a storm-tossed life? . . . Marcas! Does it not hint of some precious object that is broken with a fall, with or without a crash?” In the story, the letter Z in Marcas’ name becomes a badge of fate, like a defect that handicaps him for the rest of his life. Marcus’ tragedy, like that of Nerida and Alexis, is he believes he is helpless to alter his future, and therefore won’t. They were born, says Daley, with particular personalities that lend to torment, stress and trauma, which make them accepting of their fate.
Alexis’s greatest moment comes at the end of the book when he decides he will no longer accept this storm-tossed life, letting his love for Nerida assist in discarding his destructive persona. As Daley writes, “You love someone to overcome desolation of the soul.”