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?
Not really. It was more instinctive. My husband is English and his father had died. He was going over to sort out family affairs back in England a year after his father’s death. I was going with him and once you get across the equator, you feel like everywhere is next door. If you’re in England, you may as well go to Russia! I had, of course, heard of L’Aquila and its earthquake, so I thought, why not go to Italy, find out how another country handles such catastrophe. I have a friend, Kathryn, who lives in Prato. She was born the same time as me. We had cots next to each other, so we’ve known each other forever. I emailed her and asked her if she knew anyone who knows L’Aquila because I knew from Christchurch, how incomprehensible a city post-quake can be. There is just so much that’s going on if you live there, but it’s completely invisible to anyone visiting. So I knew it will be the same in L’Aquila. It turned out Kathryn has a friend who’s a musicologist and had been brought up in L’Aquila. His family had been there for many generations. So I had a wonderful introduction over 2 or 3 days, walking around this little hilltop city, with a man who was utterly engaged with it, particularly musically. He was making a CD of l’Aquilan music, particularly church music. He had an insight into the city, not just into the earthquake, but also what the historical significance of various buildings was. He had amazing, intimate knowledge of the place, plus a strong political impulse, which I share. So we got on very very well and had a wonderful conversation. It felt very moving to see a different culture, with different cultural perspectives, dealing with the same circumstance.
And no one really knows how individuals and society will react after an earthquake, because it is a totally surreal feeling. Most of us take the stability of the ground for granted, it is the only stable, solid point in ever changing environment. And than suddenly, that stability is gone.
Yes, absolutely. All our metaphors and phrases that we use, they talk about “being grounded” or “being on solid ground” or “having a rock solid argument”. All these phrases suggest stability and guarantee unchganging. But it’s not, and when it happens it’s profoundly destabilizing. It changes your whole outlook – in good ways and bad ways.
How soon after the earthquake did you realize this story needs to be told?
The first thing that I worked on after the earthquakes was The Broken Book. I was half way through that in September 2010. I was writing about walking, the psychology of walking, the way it makes me feel, things that I think when I’m walking. I like going for long walks. That book was interrupted. It’s called The Broken Book because it got broken at the point when the quake hit. The first thing I wrote was an essay in that book about walking around the city in September and later on in February. Also, there are little poems in the book, which interrupt the text. There’s a little squiggle in front of each one, which is actually the seismograph of the quake. What I wanted was people to be reading the book, reading the prose, a nice flow of prose and then suddenly there would be little squiggle and a poem. A poem would be about someone hiding under the table or some reflection on the quake … When I was writing that book, we were amongst thousands of aftershocks and I was being interrupted while I was writing. So I wanted the book to reflect that state of mind.
At the end of 2011, I started talking with Rachel Scott from Canterbury University Press, about doing a series of interviews with people about the quakes. I worked with a friend of mine, who’s a photographer and we wrote a book called The quake year, which included those interviews. It felt very important at the time to record the detail of peoples’ stories, because they were so vivid. They all experienced the same event, they all had the same 45 seconds of bang and then, what happened after that is individual. I found it absolutely fascinating listening, as everyone did, to peoples’ stories. About what happened and how they responded. There was a lot of writing in the papers about the actual drama of the earthquakes, which were hugely dramatic, but the writing began to dwindle when it got down to insurance and the post-quake mundane details – though they were anything but mundane for the people experiencing them. Issues over insurance, trying to find a house in the overheated market, unregulated market, trying to find rental property, all these things that began to happen in 2012 and 2013 were largely unattended in the media, except in The Press. The Press of course paid attention to it, but outside of Christchurch all this seemed to be not considered of any interest. So I was bewildered by what was happening here and I began to take notes, stories that people told me. I had a huge number of paper clippings. I put them all together and I was trying to figure out what was going on. And that became the framework, the beginning, the impulse to write a whole book about that, and that became The Villa. So it was quite a gradual process, going through a couple of years. The book itself took a lot of time to write, to put together. But in the meantime I also applied to Creative NZ for a grant to write two books. One was going to be non-fiction and the other one is fiction. I am working on the fiction at the moment and I am still working on it. It is a very slow process for me. I am a painfully slow writer.
Is there anything you could share about the fiction part?
It’s entirely different process writing fiction from writing non-fiction. For instance – when you write non-fiction the events don’t stop at the point of writing. When I was writing The Villa, the quarrel over Phillipstown school was unfolding and at some point, I just had to draw a line under those events. More and more kept happening but I couldn’t keep up with it. The concept of time is different in non-fiction. You have to make a point and say right, that’s as far as I can go. I made a point in spring 2014. I said to myself, anything that happens after that, no matter how fascinating it is, how much it contradicts what’s already happened, how much it confirms, how much it elaborates on it, I would stop. The rest would be for another book. With fiction, on the other hand, you work within a different concept of time. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And the end is understood not in terms of time and consequence, but in terms of our idea of narrative structure. So there is a point at which it feels as if the story is over. And that’s where the ending is. But in real life, the stories never end.
I was wondering how you decided on the form. Because the form is so dependent on the content and your content was constantly changing. There was more and more of it and it must have been spreading in all different directions. It must have been so hard to decide how to structure the story, what’s going to be in first part, ending, in between, how it’s going to be narrated. Was the form changing along the process of writing?
It did change, yes. I would put a piece in one section and I would think, no, it belongs more logically to another section. There was a good deal of shifting the pieces about. It felt like an act of construction. In a lovely way, it felt like a parallel to rebuilding. I thought of the pieces of text as little bricks of texts. I could make any kind of arrangement of these blocks of text, but some things belonged at the beginning, some things belonged in the last chapter. The L’Aquila section was pretty well self-contained, except that I added Seneca into that part. Seneca’s writing about earthquakes and natural questions was really essential to what I came to feel I was doing. What I love about Seneca’s study of earthquakes is that it feels very familiar. He was roughly the same age as me when he wrote about the Pompeian quake, and it felt to me as though a great catastrophe had some of the same impact on him as it had on me. He was trying to write about how you become a worthy and honourable human being in relation to catastrophe. How do you maintain self-respect and dignity and all those good things, when you’re feeling unsettled and tossed about. And not just by a physical event, but also – in his case – by political conditions he was working under. It’s not an exact parallel, but it felt like something familiar was happening. It seems to me it was obvious he would feel like that, living in this incredibly seismically active country in Italy. Just as we live in this completely seismically active place in New Zealand. It has an impact on your whole notion of what it means to be a good human being. It comes right down to that sort of feeling.
All these things were shifting around and when I began writing, it felt as if I was building a structure with lots of bits and pieces in the same way that artist would make artwork out of bits of wood. Making tables and furniture out of recycled timber. It felt like that kind of process. Trying to make something beautiful, coherent and logical out of all these pieces, felt necessary.
Your reference to Seneca reminds me of the part of the book, where you describe the state of Avon Loop after the earthquake. It was cordoned off and there was a curfew for entering and exiting. That, for me, echoed the consequences of Hurricane Katrina in US a couple of years ago, when catastrophe was followed by a failure of humanity, when all moral and social systems failed. I was wondering how far you think Christchurch was from that or is that something it could not happen here?
I think everything can happen everywhere. No country, nobody, is immune. There’s no magic wand over New Zealand that says we are more decent or more calm or more gentle than anywhere else. Statistics bear it out. This is a tiny country, much smaller than the States, but there was for instance, a huge increase in women and children fleeing to refuges. So violence was definitely part of the Christchurch response. People behaved violently towards people in their families. That should be no surprise to anyone familiar with New Zealand history. If you read about what happened to people in the first world war, not the great histories, but the real details in peoples’ lives, appalling things happened to individuals. Maybe on a smaller scale, because it’s a small population, but people behaved really badly towards conscientious objectors, for example. So I think no one is immune to this. But in terms of how Christchurch has behaved post-quake, well … there was goodness and kindness and huge courage, but there has also been greed and indifference and bullying.
You have included a lot of private, intimate personal stories in The Villa. How difficult it is for a writer to gain the trust of people, so they share stories with you. Are people ready to open up to writers?
When preparing this book, I spoke to a lot of people. Some were friends, some friends of friends, some were complete strangers. Some people didn’t want to talk. Perhaps they were in the middle of insurance battle. When talking to people I always make it clear from the outset that what they say would be recorded and written down and I always send the quote back to the person I am referring to and make sure that what I’ve said is what they need to say. I always do this, because it’s a horrible feeling being miss-quoted. It was very to and fro. All the personal stories in the book have been tweaked and adjusted and things have been taken out or put back in. It’s been quite a process just getting the stories absolutely the way people felt comfortable with. It’s quite a delicate adjustment that you have to make.
If we turn now to writers’ festivals. Christchurch just enjoyed WORD last week, Auckland is hosting its own festival every May. How important it is for you as a writer to be able to attend such festivals. How important are festivals for the community of writers?
Festivals weren’t a part of the landscape when I started. That’s been an unexpected part of writing. When I started they weren’t particularly a part of writer’s life. A writer lived inside a little room somewhere and wrote. It was very quiet and private. And then finally Edinburgh Festival and all other festivals started to develop all over the world. They have a common format: the panel or one on one discussion, a conversation, an hour with an author, a poetry reading, a gala opening. But each one is slightly different.
In the last 12 months, I’ve been to several festivals. There was the inaugural Ruapehu Festival, which was up at Ōhakune. It all took place in a hotel at the bottom of the mountain. It was very small, it was very intimate, it was utterly wonderful. It included things like optional pony rides and bike trips. All the writers and readers could go for a bike trip or go for a walk up to the waterfall, as well as having these amazingly intimate, fantastic sessions. Intense and lovely but very small. And then it was Auckland, where there’s – I don’t know how many writers – hundreds. All is taking place in the middle of Auckland at the Aotea Centre, about 4 or 5 sessions every hour to choose from. The marvellous part is that 40 % of the sessions were free and open. So this huge audience came in, including young people. When sessions cost 25 dollars a ticket and you have to pay for the parking in the middle of Auckland, if you can get a park, it’s all too expensive for large numbers of people. But Creative NZ stepped up and made a huge number of sessions free. So it had a buzz that was absolutely fantastic. Ruapehu hosts New Zealand writers, but Auckland has a large international component, so it was opened to the Pacific and to the wide world. Earlier in the year, just before Auckland, I took part in Adelaide’s Writers Week. This is a festival that has been going for years and years and it all happens outdoors, because Adelaide is such a hot town. So we all sat under the trees in the park and they had two stages, back to back, and again, everything was free. So hundreds of people came to the sessions. When you were speaking it was to a huge audience. Because it’s free, the book tent is absolutely pumping. It’s full of people buying books. They don’t need to buy a ticket, so they buy a book. It’s one of the best places for selling books. It’s absolutely fantastic. So festivals are all different. I am about to go to one in England, which again is a small local festival at Salisbury and I am interested to see what that one is like.
I think it is very important to have sessions for free at the writers’ festivals, but even if there wouldn’t be any free sessions in Auckland, I still think the festival would be packed. I find New Zealand a very literature passionate country. It’s amazing to see so many people coming to Auckland just for the festival, just for the love of books and reading.
Yes it is.
This year’s festival in Auckland hosted the event, where the winners of annual NZ Book awards were announced. These awards are monetary. How important are the monetary prizes for NZ writers?
Creative NZ is vital. It really is. And the prizes are vital. The awards, the residencies at the universities, all of those things are absolutely vital. As a writer, you might sell 5 or 6 thousand books and you’re going to get 15% of each of those copies. That might represent the payback for a year or two years’ work. It certainly doesn’t pan out financially. I don’t think anyone goes into writing, thinking they’re going to make a fortune. Some people do, people write love stories, people write crime, people who write for children in particular, they can make good and steady income on their backlist. Because children’s books don’t go out of date. But many writers find it difficult to make a substantial living, unless you are picked up by something like the Booker. It’s not something anyone goes into necessarily with a thought that they’re going to make a fortune. I think people do it for very different reasons. You do it for love and for passion and somehow cobble together a living from various sources. Maybe a bit of teaching or work for radio, though that has become harder as radio New Zealand changes. You try and put together a living and hope that all will work out.
I hope it does work out for all those future writers of NZ, all those voices that need to be heard.
Yes, absolutely. When you are a small country like us, it is absolutely vital. For most of my childhood I lived in a country where the population was under three million citizens and there was only a handful of New Zealand writers, artists, composers, but we had to define ourselves somehow, it’s important. I think we are under siege again at the moment. I think the current mood in the country is very much orientated towards sport and the physical rather than the imaginative and the intellectual. I don’t think they are particularly valued. I think we are a country that values physical achievements. Its heroes are rugby players or people who do acts of physical daring. That is still very highly valued. But probably a whole book needs to be written about that some time!