There is no greater gift a writer could give to their own people than a story. Fiona Farrell’s book The villa at the edge of the empire was nominated as one of the best non-fiction books of the year (NZ Book Awards) – a nomination which is entirely and unquestionably deserved. But The Villa is much more than magnificently and subtly narrated story about the Christchurch earthquakes. It is a precious tribute to the Christchurch community, its individuals and every human being ever affected by an earthquake.
Talking to Fiona is as much a pleasure as reading her books. I was very lucky to spend a rainy afternoon with her, talking about earthquakes, writing and other things that make us human.
It will be 6 years on Sunday since the 2010 earthquake. The rebuilding of the city is still going on and it’s proving to be much longer process than anyone imagined. It is almost impossible to describe how long it takes to rebuild a city to anyone, who has not experienced the aftermath.
It wasn’t just one quake. It has been ongoing. We are about to 15,000 aftershocks, each one a minor earthquake. It is such a long drawn out process. It’s not like a war, which has an ending. It has its own timetable, its own agenda and that’s a very, very, long time, beyond human comprehension.
That reminds me of the ending of The Villa, which I find very beautiful. You end it from an assuring, wider, almost cosmic perspective, which works really calmingly after a read, that can possibly be unsettling for many.
Getting that angle on human behaviour is essential. At any one time, when you’re a human being, you have to believe that everything that you do, think and say is quite important, while on the other hand living with the certainty that everything you do, think and say in the great scheme of things is completely irrelevant. You have to hold both realities in your head. For me, this was a habit of thinking that I got into as a child. I had quite an unhappy family and one of the ways I used to cope with it when I was little, was to lie in my bed and think of myself just going up, through the ceiling, until it was all really really tiny. That’s how I handled it as a child. So it’s not some kind of adult philosophy, but an instinctive way. I think everyone has ways of handling unhappiness and finding techniques for survival.
The narrative in The Villa starts very wide, dives deep into the history, with comparisons between Berlin and Christchurch. After that, it nicely narrows and focuses on Christchurch and later on to Avon Loop. I really like the way narration flows from a wide perspective into something smaller.
When I’m writing I often think it’s like making a film, where you use close up and wide angle, and move between the two.
I think it also works very well for people who have experienced the earthquake in Christchurch and everything that followed, but also for people who haven’t had this experience because it gives a reader space to move. I was wondering when you realized while writing that you need to take an outside perspective of what’s happening in Christchurch and visit L’Aquila in Italy. Was that a conscious decision? Continue reading