Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mark Amery on Elizabeth Knox

The 32nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine – I hope to resume normal service soon –  is from the September 1996 issue.  (Can’t credit the photographer as I don’t know who it was – will do if anyone can enlighten me.)
UPDATE 1: The photographer was Emily Benefield.  

The intro read:
A hurricane, an earthquake, and the fabric of daily life in 1940s Wellington: Elizabeth Knox’s new novel is also a multi-layered detective story. “You’d get bored if you didn’t set yourself things you had to solve,” she tells Mark Amery.

“I think people do like challenges but they don’t know that they do,” says Elizabeth Knox of readers. “I think people feel incredibly refreshed when they get them. The things that kind of pick you up and shake you around, they’re not the things people think they want, but they want them and need them.
“It’s the same reason people go looking for love. I mean, who in their right mind, who had a peaceful life, would want to do that? Like when I’m exhausted and think, ‘Oh, I’ll go and watch some mindless TV,’ but I’ll actually feel better if I read something decent.”
Knox’s fifth novel, Glamour And The Sea, has things that do “pick you up and shake you around”. For starters, there’s a hurricane and an earthquake. But there’s also challenging fiction within what the blurb calls “a swift windjammer of a novel”. In other words, Glamour And The Sea is one hell of good read.
“You have to live with these things,” says Knox of the complexities in her new book. “You’d get bored if you didn’t set yourself things you had to solve. This one’s a mystery as well, and I wanted it to have a level of plot complexity so you wouldn’t know quite how it would turn out, or quite what was happening. I wanted things to be a surprise, but I also wanted people to realise, even if they hadn’t thought of it, that they’d been given clues.”
Glamour and the Sea is based substantially on the merchant seaman years of her father Ray Knox. But as she notes in the acknowledgements, “This is a novel.” A combination of fact and fiction, it is set in Wellington during the roaring 40s, as Ray searches with ex-US serviceman Sam Thrift for the woman who became pregnant to Thrift’s brother.
“I couldn’t write his biography,” says Knox of her father. “I couldn’t make a whole world out of what he remembered. Also, I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to write a novel about identity. The only way, it seemed, to truly explore the business of identity was to use myself as the person telling the story, as the most-stable possible identity, and to use a voice like an essayist – that conversational, confiding voice – to tell a story that was partly true and partly not.”
Knox became interested in how identity itself is something made from things that are partly true and partly not after thinking about a friend who had changed her name.
“The things that were said of that person weren’t true of the person I knew. Then I realised, when I was talking about my grandmother, that she was someone who wanted to change her identity by changing her name. She thought that the person she started off as wasn’t appropriate. She wanted to commemorate her Irishness and to have humble roots because she had become a poor person, even though she started off as privileged.”
Glamour and the Sea looks at how identity is shaped by how and what we choose to remember, and how history is shaped by the way it is recorded. In the novel Ray Knox has to play detective with a notebook for Thrift, who has memory problems. Knox herself had to play detective with her father’s life, trying to thread together the fragments of his memory with that of other Wellingtonians.
“I was hanging some of it off real events in my father’s life, but while I was interviewing him he told me several versions of some things, and they got progressively more hard on himself. He’d say, ‘No, this is what I actually remember,’ and I didn’t know whether it was all true. Because his memory wasn’t good about some things, he tended to have these crumbling subsidences around things that were traumatic.
“He’s always done this thing of saying, ‘I couldn’t do the things I used to do,’ because he always had that sense of sin. The book became that question of whether you can disavow who you are. There was a quote that I always wanted to use in the book – some European intellectual said it, and right now I can’t remember his name of course – ‘One has to be for amnesty and against amnesia.’
“Over and above everything there’s that sense of how precious living memory is, as opposed to history. And yet memory goes away like all those drowning and submersion metaphors. I take my father’s word, but I’m also appropriating it, turning his memory into testimony.”
So how does Knox’s father feel about being fictionalised? “Nervous. He went along with me willingly, and he doesn’t think I haven’t done him justice, but he feels very strange about it because he can’t read about it as himself and he can’t read it as if it’s not. Because it isn’t himself. I think Ray in the book is quite an affectionate portrait. I might like to wash his dirty laundry, or air it, or whatever the phrase is, but he’s that sort of sweet, naive, volatile person I’ve known all my life.”
It’s also clear from the book that Knox loves Wellington, mapping the city as she imagines her father knew it 50 years ago. She’s particularly proud of the social history in the book. “I was having a ball! It’s funny, you ask anyone you think will know about something, and they go into large amounts of detail but can only remember half of it, so you ask someone else. You just ask questions. So I’m always going, ‘What used to be on this site?’, and you learn a great deal.
“My mother-in-law, for example, had an amazing memory for streets, the order of shops and interiors. I got the decor for about five of the cinemas in Wellington, and then you’d find what trams you took to get where. I didn’t use most of that stuff, but God, I thought it was wonderful!
“There are people who say the novel like that is old hat, but as long as you’re doing interesting things with fiction you don’t have to be like ‘fiction in your face’, in that everything becomes ghostly. I don’t like ghosts in books.”
Knox also uses what she describes as sensory details – image-making, using colourful metaphoric language – which can take the reader by surprise and has helped earn her that “difficult” tag.
“I just love writing like that. I make associations. I constantly go around thinking, ‘What is this thing like? What am I reminded of?’ Sometimes I think I am being fanciful, but most of the time, if I say something is like something, it is. You can see it.
“I just let my brain work the way that the human brain can work, that’s all. How can I explain it, apart from the fact that it’s a talent? But I can’t say that – that ‘I’ve got a talent’.”
Talent, however, she clearly has. Her first novel After Z-Hour won the PEN Best First Book of Prose Award in 1987 and her third, Treasure, was shortlisted for the 1993 New Zealand Book Awards.
Treasure received mixed reviews, and Knox still appears a little sore about those reviewers’ responses. “I think Glamour and the Sea is my best book,” says Knox. “I do! But by a narrow margin. Next to, I think, the neglected, despised and misunderstood Treasure, which has fans who’re completely fanatical about it and say to me, ‘How do you feel about what happened to Treasure?’ –  in these earnest tones – and then go, ‘I was very disturbed by what happened to Treasure.’ And I go, You were disturbed!’ I love that one dearly.
“Everyone treated it like it was a very difficult book, and that of course killed it for the public. I mean, who’s going to go home and read a difficult book? People who did read it were totally taken in. I get people saying they dream about one of the main characters, that they fall in love with him and they dream about him, men and women! That feels like a great achievement.
“I worry about reviewers, because I think they get paralysed sometimes. They’re reading it like they know they have to say something, so they start trying to second-guess it, which gets in the way of the reading.
“They also seem to have this tendency of thinking often that people are quite stupid. It’s like they have to give a product warning, they’re saying readers are going to find this difficult. But those people aren’t stupider than them, and they’re also less anxious, because they don’t have to write a review. They can just read it.”
Just as Knox’s new novel originates from her family, writing is also something of a family affair for her. Her husband Fergus Barrowman is also her publisher and editor, at Victoria University Press.
“I’m so used to it now,” she says. “It is hard being married to your publisher, because you get the disappointments doubly. But he believes in me, he loves my writing, and that’s not just an obliging solidarity.
“He tries to get me to read things that I’m doing and ask me questions – I might get grumpy with him when I don’t want to talk about it, but I’m used to it.
“I’m married to the VUP, basically. I married Fergus and I married the Press.”

UPDATE 2: in the comments Elizabeth Knox clarifies: “It was my father-in-law who gave me the walk-through of old Wellington, and I said, ‘I don't like ghosts of books,’ meaning ghostly books.”  


Elizabeth Knox said...

Stephen, it's lovely to see this back in print! (Married to VUP, indeed!) And I'm pleased to be able to correct a couple of mishearings (my own fault - I talk too fast). It was my father-in-law who gave me the walkthrough of old Wellington, and I said, 'I don't like ghosts of books,' meaning ghostly books.
These probably seem very minor to others, but I'm persnickety.

Fergus said...

The photo (which I have above my computer at work, if that's not too 'married') is by Emily Benefield.