Being an ‘emerging’ writer is an interesting thing to be. What is the criterion for emerging? Is it that you are young? Not according to one questioner at the New Zealand’s Emerging Writers session at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012. Slightly unkindly, he observed that Eleanor Catton, Hamish Clayton and Craig Cliff didn’t look particularly young to him, causing each panellist to ‘fess up their age. All under 40, which might be a sign that they are young, because I’m not sure anyone who is not would announce their age from the stage of the Embassy.
Can a writer still be emerging when they have won prizes? That would exclude Catton, whose debut novel The rehearsal won the New Zealand Book Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and Craig Cliff, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award for A man melting.
Perhaps writers are still emerging when they have only written one book so far. So how did these writers begin to emerge?
Catton wanted to break the convention of the coming-of-age novel – the idea that there is some sort of arrival into adulthood.
Clayton had an urge to write but nothing to say so he went to university, thinking that if you want to be a decent writer you need to be well-read. (If only it was that easy, I thought to myself). He discovered that you do have to be very patient for overnight success.
Cliff found that a 21-year-old man alone in a room writing a novel is never a good idea. A few years later he tried again, and it still wasn’t a good idea. Then he thought of trying the short story form, where a first draft can be finished in the first blast of inspiration.
All three are now working on novels set in the past, a departure for Catton and Cliff, but not for Clayton whose first novel Wulf is about early 19th century New Zealand, its explorers and that fascinating and terrifying character Te Rauparaha.
Clayton and Catton saw some problems with the talk around Historical Fiction. For Clayton it is limiting; faithfulness in the rendering of time and place is not the point. Catton sees the problem as the present foisting onto Historical Fiction the things we are most preoccupied with now, resulting in works that exist only to confirm what we already know.
Craig is reading a lot (The story of a New Zealand River was mentioned) and using the part everyone reads in The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the book he is working on, leaving out the bits everyone skips.
This was all very interesting as I don’t read much Historical Fiction. The last book I read in the genre was Wolf Hall, which led to some heated debates. I loved it, but others dismissed it out of hand because of its modern voice. Any dedicated H.F. readers out there with an opinion?