I met up with Laurence Fearnley in a coffee shop for a chat about her writing and her books. She asked: “How will I know who you are?” and I replied: “I’ll be wearing 50 shades of purple”. Pity you can’t see the shoes in the photo!
When I arrived in New Zealand from South Africa twelve years ago, one of the things that I lost was my sense of place. When I started to read New Zealand authors, and your books in particular, I was oddly comforted to realise that I might well have lost my place, but I had instead found yours! So I’d like to start by asking you to tell me something about your sense of place in New Zealand.
That’s a good question and I do know exactly what you mean. My parents came to New Zealand from Manchester and I always felt that we were somehow outside of that experience of the outdoors that all my friends had. My friends would go to motor camps and do that whole Kaiteriteri thing, whereas we always seemed to be a bit more introspective in the way that we went tramping and camping in little tents and things. I think that rather than just assuming a connection to the country, it was that thing of really trying to make sense of it and understand it in a way.
And I think also as I’ve got older and I’ve become more aware of the Maori connection to the land and how you fit in as a Pakeha and all that, my connection has become even stronger. And now I just feel as though I am extremely connected to the land . This is my place and I feel as if I belong here. When I go overseas this is the place I always want to come back to.
A bit like Dean in Butler’s Ringlet where he says: “God’s own country, all right. I’d rather die than leave it.” But if circumstances dictated that you had to live in another country, as happened to me, how would you go about establishing connections to the land in that new place?
My husband and I lived in Germany for 4 years in a town in Bavaria and I would have to say that I really didn’t feel any connection at all to the place except when I was out in the landscape. And the connections came about when I focused in on a much smaller plot of land. Like looking at the grass, the dirt and listening to the birds – but I think I would have to have been there a lot longer to start to feel any connection. So it isn’t easy. I’ve been back to England as well and I feel no connection whatsoever, it feels like a completely foreign country to me.
I find your writing very visual, are you a visual/images person?
I’ve got a very good visual memory. I was really good at Art History because I could remember the pictures! I like looking at things and I like cinema and film and I also like gathering up images. When I am writing a book it’s kind of like gathering up images and arranging them in an album rather than using words. And I think it’s basically because I don’t see myself as a very articulate writer. I think there are some writers who are very good with words – they are often British writers. They can always find the right word.
I tend to create something by either getting into character or by seeing the surroundings and placing the character in those surroundings. I’m not a wordy person, I’ve got no ear for music, I can’t write poetry at all and I’m not very coordinated but I am good at sitting and looking. I like to see what’s in front of me and then look as deeply as I can into that, whereas more articulate people tend to look around the thing in front of them – to mold it into what they want. I like delving into things, the detail, the heart of the thing.
I’ve read all your books, but Butler’s Ringlet remains my absolute favourite.
It’s my favourite too!
When I picked up that book, my first thought was that this was a very brave writer. The cover is arty but not immediately eye-catching and I didn’t have any idea what the words Butler’s Ringlet meant. Then when I flicked through it, I saw all the black and white photos embedded in the text I thought: this wasn’t produced to be sold at book stores in airport departure lounges. This writer is so brave! Are you a brave writer?
No, but I think that because writing takes such a long time (each of my books has taken up to a year to write) I will always write books that I want to write rather than trying to second guess the audience. I always write for myself, I don’t write for anybody else. Butler’s Ringlet was a hard book to write, I wrote it when I was living in Germany. I was feeling quite distant from New Zealand and I came back for a holiday and just loved being back. It was that feeling of being torn, having to be in Germany because that’s where my husband was but really just wanting to be in New Zealand. So it was like that thing: Can you love a place more than a person?
How do you manage to swing those really good covers that you get?
The Butler’s Ringlet cover is one of my photographs and I did have a lot of say in that one. That car was in a ditch near Mosgiel. I took the photo and when I went back a week later, it was gone! Marketing does play a bigger and bigger part in cover designs these days, they seem to have become more blatant and vulgar.
The characters in your books seem to fall into one of two camps for me. They either live in the moment in an almost spiritual way or it’s the negative form of that: they don’t even seem to want to change. Which do you think it is?
Some of my characters just cannot live any other way than the way that they do. They just are. They are inarticulate but deep thinkers, stoic if you like. And then you get characters that are sort of dropped into a fast-moving river, like Maggie in The Mother’s Day and she’s just trying to struggle along. There’s kind of like external forces working on her. I quite like those characters too because I think modern day readers are getting impatient with characters who don’t just get a grip. They want them to get over it, move on, all that sort of stuff. They can’t be bothered with characters who are just doing the best they can. For many, many good reasons they can’t suddenly become what the reader would like them to be.
As a writer, can you ever really relax? Is writing quite stressful?
It’s kind of more magical. It’s kind of more tingly. My process is to write a book in a year and then the next year I kind of take off and spend it thinking about the next book. There’s something magical about getting the ideas for a book together and you let them just lie there and then , for some reason, some of them just stick. You don’t know what’s making them stick. It’s a gut intuitive reaction.
Usually I get about a third of the way through a book and then I completely lose it and have no idea what to do next. I like that because I like books that show a bit of struggle. I like books to be like a walk up a hill rather than a walk down a hill. I like that sense of watching where I’m going as opposed to dawdling along with my hands in my pockets.
Books need to have a feeling (if not of struggle) at least of tension and anticipation and uncertainty as to where the book is going to go next. I don’t like those really polished books, even if they are well written. I start to feel manipulated. I don’t like it if I feel that the author is being too clever. Like Ian McEwan maybe, so clever and self assured. There’s a coldness to writers like that.
How about libraries – any thoughts on them?
I love libraries! I loved when Christchurch library was … in the old building opposite the Police Station. We used to go there when we were kids from a very early age. It was a fantastic library. My dad, who really like art, used to take me into the grown-up section and show me the art books. It was such a thrill. I always go into libraries when I travel overseas as well. I love Melbourne Library Reading Room. I also love going in the stack areas. Sometimes you get books in Dunedin Library which are really old, published in 1891 and you can still take them out. I find that very moving. Although I have an e-reader, I like real books best. There’s no doubt about that.