Not many published authors, especially fêted ones, backpedal and enrol in a creative writing course. But Emily Perkins is no stranger to career reversals – in a former life as an actress, she attended drama school after starring in long-running TV series Open House. When she won the Montana Medal for Fiction in 2009 for her fourth book, Novel About My Wife, Perkins was blissfully ensconced in her studies.
It must take guts and humility to remain a writing student when you’ve won New Zealand’s top literary gong, but Perkins was unfazed. Like many working writers, she juggled a clutch of book-related gigs, one of which was teaching. “When I did Bill Manhire’s course [for which she became its poster gal], it was still just an undergraduate paper and so I didn’t have a master’s degree, and I was teaching on the master’s in creative writing at the University of Auckland and it seemed like an important thing to go through that experience, certainly if I was going to keep on teaching.”
It proved enriching for her writing. “Initially, I was self-conscious, but then realised I didn’t mind falling on my arse, if you like. Maybe it was because I had had work published and putting forward work in class that was pretty awkward wasn’t a problem. I’d been writing enough to know that is just an unavoidable part of the process – you’re at that stage for a really long time when you’re writing a book; it is ungainly and frustrating for ages as it’s coming into existence. I felt quite relaxed about it, and valued the feedback from the other writers.”
That thesis eventually became The Forrests, which has just been released by UK publisher Bloomsbury’s new literary imprint, Bloomsbury Circus, and is the May selection of the Listener Book Club, in association with Booksellers New Zealand. The novel has already been the subject of much hoopla after the Dominion Post reported Hay literary festival director Peter Florence had tipped it for the Man Booker Prize. Florence has a good track record in this regard, having correctly tipped Arundhati Roy, DBC Pierre, Yann Martel and Howard Jacobson, but even so, the paper’s front-page treatment was a little premature.
In the early writing stages, Perkins wasn’t thinking about publication. “I started writing it just thinking about my thesis, and that was helpful in terms of feeling free to take some risks.” Did it also take off any post-Montana pressure? “Well, probably after [the Montana award] that was a really good thing, as I wasn’t thinking in terms of a follow-up to Novel About My Wife or the next thing I did or anything like that, so I was writing it quite freely for a long time.”
This “gorgeous, liberating” time opened up Perkins’s writing. The dark, grief-laden Novel About My Wife was a gear change for her – no more “voice of her generation” reviews. (After all, Not Her Real Name, the short-story collection about self-involved twentysomethings that sealed her reputation, was published back in 1996.) The Forrests led her deeper into new territory. Ostensibly charting the life of Dorothy Forrest, who moves as a child with her family from New York to Auckland in the 1960s, the novel is immersed in the physical world of its main character. It is a profound sensory experience for the reader.
Although Perkins is reluctant to “big up” her book, there’s no doubt she is happy with this latest work. It has stretched her stylistically and creatively. “The thing I like most is that it surprised me; I didn’t know I was going to write it and I’m pleased I’ve written it. “It’s that weird thing where you try to write the book you want to read – that’s always the challenge and it’s hard to get there sometimes, but this is what I am interested in at the moment. And it’s probably very mid-life.” She laughs.
“Sudden awareness of the surroundings.” Meaning? “For me, it’s about noticing, and that is referred to a lot through the book – that pleasure in […] noticing rather than observing, because observing is quite a detached word, and it’s a good word, but it’s got a different tone. ‘Noticing’ is more focused and crisper, and it’s just got a bit more … texture in it, and so for me that’s where the point of view is. “It’s about no matter what’s going on in life we are surrounded by this amazing physical world and it’s got these extraordinary different sensory effects that we experience all the time.”
Writing without a plan, Perkins developed small scenes of a woman’s life. “And I thought, ‘Oh, you can actually put these together.’ And I was interested in that business of sensation. Writing that really tries to convey the physical world on a sensory level to the reader. There’s a school of thought that says prose should strive to be invisible, but why? The texture of words is part of our sensory engagement with the world. I was fascinated by that – enough to want to make a whole book that was really about sensation.”
Central character Dorothy “just made herself on the page. I don’t want to sound airy-fairy about it, but she did just sort of develop… The original drafts were more dense and probably a bit obscure in terms of what was going on, so I had to do lots of clarifying work and lots of opening it up. To me, Dorothy is the book’s conduit for experiencing the world.” The main thread though the book is the relationship between Dorothy, her sister Eve and Daniel, a mercurial figure who “contains all of that longing that we carry around with us for all the lives that we’re not living.
“All the other stuff is part of a lived life and what goes on and might go on in that lived life. And the resonances and connections in life, as well as threads that just get cut off and you don’t ever hear anything more about, because I wanted to get as close as possible to that experience of how it is when we go through time.” Perkins doesn’t write in a chronological order. “I can’t write from the beginning to end of a story.” And it’s hard, she says, to differentiate editing from writing.
“As ever, there was a lot of drafting, cutting things out, putting new material in. A lot of rearranging and restructuring the story, but always trying to be true to the point of view in it, trying to get a sort of energy and pleasure in it. Trying to make it fun… it does ask for quite a lot of creativity on the part of the reader, so that if the reader does become immersed in it, they have a bodily experience. Each chapter has some kind of mood or energy.” Another guffaw. “That sounds pretty hippyish.”
Perkins laughs a lot, and she certainly exudes a mellow contentment. She is happily nestled in her Auckland “village” with her three children and artist husband Karl Maughan – “we’re total Grey Lynn clichés” (something that she wriggles out of defining but might be to do with the “hippyish” comment above). Her longing for London is gone. The difficult years of serious family illness are behind her. She mixes writing and teaching with a permanent half-time job at the university. There are books and screenplays on the back-burner – she has returned to redrafting the long-term project she dubs “The Albanian Book”, set partially in Albania, which The Forrests interrupted. “It’s got a very different tone, this new book, quite different influences. But it’s still at the spotty teenager stage.”
As for that performance itch – she’s adamant she won’t act again – it has probably been satisfied hosting TV book discussion show The Good Word. She’s philosophical about the show’s demise. “We had two years of The Book Show and then four seasons of The Good Word, so I feel very lucky that it’s gone for that long. We’ve had a good run and it’s been lots of fun. As with teaching, I really like the involvement it’s given me with what’s happening with New Zealand writing. “But it’s terrible that TVNZ 7 is closing. So many people are just discovering the channel now, and its arts programming and shows like Media7 serve an audiencethat isn’t otherwise being catered to on New Zealand TV, as well as playing an important archival role.”
Now Perkins has more time, the challenge is making space for writing. “I’m trying this little experimental thing at university… a group of us meet once a week in a room, one of the nice rooms with natural light, and people bring their own creative projects and just sit down and quietly write. “I’m curious to see if it’s going to generate anything for people, and what it’s like writing in a room with other people writing. There’s no interaction at all but we might experiment with music and other environmental changes if we decide to really go wild!”
At least with writing, unlike acting, you’re autonomous. “Well, I think I have the illusion of autonomy. For a certain time, it’s a solitary act, but of course you’re being informed by all these other things around you in the world, in your reading and experience… and then there’s the editing process: I worked with an editor on The Forrests who asked a whole lot of really useful questions that helped when it was in the more obscure draft phase, and answering these questions becomes a collaboration. “And then, of course, there’s the reader… why I say I’ve got the illusion of autonomy is that everyone reads a different book because you’re bringing yourself to it and everything else that you carry. “That’s why I think the ultimate collaboration really is between the reader and what’s on the page.”
THE FORRESTS, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Circus, $36.99); Perkins is appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, May 9-13.
The New Zealand Listener Book Club
To join the conversation about The Forrests, visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub and hashtag #nzlbookclub, or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. As well as a podcast discussion (May 11), book group’s verdict (May 18) and review by Louise O’Brien (May 25), there is a podcast reading from the book by Emily Perkins and a comment thread in which you can post questions for her to answer throughout the month. On May 31, we will be having our first Book Club live event, when Perkins will be in conversation with Arts & Books editor Guy Somerset.