Interview with Laurence Fearnley – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.

What brought you to writing about mountaineering?

My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.

You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?

They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.

A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.

That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.

At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.

Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.
Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.

Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…

Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.

Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?

The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.

Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.

To the Mountains. Image supplied.
To the Mountains. Image supplied.

What are you currently working on?

I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.

What are you reading at the moment?

Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.

Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!

To the Mountains: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverNic Low (writer of an upcoming book described as “a bicultural response to the Southern Alps”) opened the session by asking author Laurence Fearnley to read a passage from To the Mountains, her recent anthology of alpine writing co-edited with Paul Hersey. She chose Young, short, and loving it by Rebecca Smith, a short account of the mad rush of preparing for a weekend in the mountains while she was still at high school.

To the mountains. Image supplied.
To the mountains. Image supplied.

Laurence explained that the anthology was consciously structured in the shape of a mountain, beginning at sea level, rising towards the bush, glaciers and saddles, up to the peaks and the epics, and then coming down and reflecting. There was also an interesting shift in the style of writing used from generation to generation, with earlier (mostly British) climbers in Aotearoa using very romantic language to talk up the scale of their climbs, compared to the more laconic writing of Kiwi climbers later on:

“The more deadpan the description the harder the climb,” joked Nic.

Most writing was also limited to those of a certain wealth and class until access to the mountains became easier and mountaineering became more democratic in the 40s and 50s. After that came the 70s hard-man stories, full of machismo, before getting into more reflective and gentle narratives like Aat Vervoorn.

Laurence warned that this book is definitely not of the most extreme mountaineering experiences, so don’t look to it for the top 100 climbs. When selecting material they consciously expanded the boundaries from those first ascents and difficult routes (which tends to favour one particular voice), and looked at the experiences of family groups, women who used guides early on, the guides themselves, and Māori experiences in the mountains.

When you include these people, those who enjoy going into the mountains to connect with the beautiful landscape or as an escape from the city with friends, then you realise how many people participate — people who would be overlooked if only looking for those at the peak of New Zealand mountaineering.

Some of these experiences make difficult reading. Anyone even tangentially involved in mountain climbing will know of someone who has perished in the hills, and some of the extracts address that loss along with other miserable experiences on the mountains. “Why do we love suffering so much?” wondered Nic, but of course the flip side is the emotional connection that being in the outdoors can provide, the joy of a successfully completed challenge.

Some pieces in the anthology had me laughing out loud: a group of climbers lugging a bunch of tins of various luxury food items along on their trip, only to open each one to find the same disappointing can of kidneys; Jill Tremain’s ‘Letter to Mavis Davidson’ about being caught out by bad weather for several days and finding her decades-old food stash, getting drunk on the tin of apricots and trying everything to make the stale biscuits more palatable.

These highs and lows are all documented in To the Mountains, the latest in our whakapapa of alpine climbing and literature, so if you’re an avid mountaineer, tramper, climber, or simply interested in some gripping stories of the New Zealand outdoors, I’d recommend having a look. No crampons required.

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Follow our coverage of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

WORD Christchurch Festival 2018: Having coffee with my author friends!

WORD Christchurch Festival 2018 gives me the perfect opportunity to amp up my author-spotting skills, and at the same time think back on my coffee connections with four authors. Because I have friends who write. They are not quite the imaginary friends of my childhood, but as friends go, they are far more real to me than I will ever be to them.

The fantasy coffee friends: Every Saturday morning, after my swim, I meet up with  Michéle A’Court and her husband Jeremy Elwood at a Rangiora café. They’re not really there, but when I read their back page column in the magazine section of the Christchurch Press, I feel so close to them. It is as if they include me in their dialogue, I feel as if I’m a good friend. I’ll need to rein myself in when I attend A’Court’s WORD discussion Let Love In. A stand-up comic, her two books (Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter and How We Met) are just as entertaining as her shows are.

Michele A’Court. Image supplied.

The Book Club coffee friend: Although I’ve never met Catherine Chidgey in person, she feels like a member of my Book Club. We’ve read all of her books, but favour most highly an early novel of hers: In A Fishbone Church. I read that novel in 2001 just after we arrived in New Zealand, and was mightily impressed with it. Chidgey is now 17 years older and wiser (as are we all), so her WORD event Transformations seems very appropriately titled to me. And her latest novel The Beat of the Pendulum (A Found Story) builds on her daily interactions and snippets that have come her way. I love this – it feels like the kind of novel you could write sitting in your favourite café.

Catherine Chidgey. Image supplied.

The breakfast in bed tea-drinking friend: Tom Scott and I meet most days in my home where, over a cup of rooibos tea, I look forward to his interpretation of New Zealand and World events in his cartoons which often feature in the Christchurch Press (to which I still subscribe). He can be wickedly funny and, on occasion, the next day there will be letters of complaint to the Editor. I bet this makes him so happy. I’m looking forward to his WORD event Drawn Out. Here is a man who can write, talk and draw. But “Can He Dance?” is the next big question.

Tom Scott. Image supplied.

The real-time coffee catch-up friend: I have actually enjoyed a coffee catch-up with Laurence Fearnley – at WORD 2012. We chatted for ages about the importance of Place, Belonging and of course Reading and Writing. You can read that interview. At WORD 2018, unfortunately I  have to miss her event because of a programming clash. Also, Fearnley’s event To The Mountains is on mountain writing in New Zealand. Not such a mountain person here. I do hope one of my more outdoorsy friends will pick up where I left off and track down this lovely lady and have a coffee with her for me!

To the mountains. Image supplied.

My Yet-To-Be Coffee Writing Friends: I’d love to chat over a coffee with Chessie Henry, Jonathan Drori and Robyn Davidson, but the joy of my outlook is that it doesn’t actually have to happen. We can meet up for a virtual coffee, at a café of their choice, on any day in the year. They can join my small, but growing, group of imaginary friends – who write!

Chessie Henry. Image supplied.
Jonathan Drori. Image supplied.
Robyn Davidson. Image supplied.

Follow our WORD Christchurch Festival 2018 coverage, and read the WORD authors.

The Beautiful Librarians

The Beautiful LibrariansI get a little frisson of excitement when I am reading a novel and one of the characters turns out to have had superior career guidance and is a librarian. And September was my month of librarian-related reads. It all started with The Beautiful Librarians, a 2015 poetry collection by Sean O’Brien:

The beautiful librarians are dead,

The fairly recent graduates who sat

Like Francoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters

With cardigans across their shoulders

On quiet evenings at the issue desk,

Stamping books and never looking up

At where I stood in adoration.

This Must be the PlaceThen I started to see patterns, and books with library characters jumped off the shelves at me. Like Teresa in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel: This Must be the Place. Teresa meets a young man when she is helping tourniquet his nephew’s wound. He asks if she is a nurse and she replies:

“No, a librarian” she said, adding, “but we do a first-aid course as part of our training.”

Well, let’s just say that he was lucky he got her and not me. But he tracks her down, visiting all the libraries in Brooklyn. Although this really is Love At First Sight (good luck with that all you first-aidy library types), they absolutely do not live happily ever after.

The Quiet SpectacularAnd you might not identify with this particular librarian, but the choice of library characters is wide, and there will be one for you:

Take Loretta, who is a school librarian in Laurence Fearnley’s 2016 novel The Quiet Spectacular and who has embarked on compiling The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women while waiting to collect her son from after-school activities. Hesitant in her dealings with semi-feral packs of teenagers in the school library, she forms a bond with one of them – Chance. No one falls in love with Loretta at first sight, but there is more to library life than that. There’s involvement in even one person’s life that helps to turn it around. Agree?

The Book of SpeculationAnd not all the books I discovered are about lady librarians. The Book of Speculation has a young male librarian – Simon Watson. Simon is a loner who is about to lose his library job.  If the words “crumbling” “mysterious package” and “antiquarian bookseller” are a turn-on for you, then you will love this book. It also has a stunningly beautiful cover.

All these books are recent additions to the library collection. All are well worth reading.  All involve librarians. So all you librarians out there, remember these books as you hand out your gazillionth computer pass, download your umpteenth document and wrestle with the wonders of 3D printing yet again. Know that you still have allure, that your library mystique is still there. And that, at least in the minds-eye of these four authors, you remain A Beautiful Librarian!

Oh my WORD!

Cover of ReachThis morning in a café, three of my favourite things came together for a sort of a bookish group-hug.

First there was the cappuccino, then a book: Reach by Laurence Fearnley, and finally a delicious little custard tart. Life is good. Three ladies came across to find out what I was reading. I love when that happens. Then an elderly man joined in and said that he knew Laurence Fearnley and her parents but he didn’t like her writing. Mountain men don’t argue, he said of  The Hut Builder. She got it wrong. By now the whole coffee shop was becoming quite intrigued.

Cover of H is for HawkAnd that is is exactly the sort of thing that happens at a literary festival such as the up-and-coming WORD Christchurch Autumn Season from 13th to 17th May. That same shared interest in books, authors, reading and ideas. And it’s why I wouldn’t miss attendance for all the world.

This time, I’ve got my sights set on Helen MacDonald and her talk on her memoir H is for Hawk. This is a book about the author’s grieving for her father, a photographer, whose last photo was taken as he collapsed and died.

Grief stricken, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for GBP800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

Cover of The Year of Magical thinkingThe only other book that I have read which deals specifically with grief and grieving is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both MacDonald and Didion, so suddenly bereft, embark on their own spiritual journeys to come to grips with loss. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death are:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

At the WORD Festival event I attended in Christchurch last year, I bought the first copy of Reach that had ever been sold. I know that because I was there when Fearnley told me, and inscribed those words in my new purchase.

Who knows what bookish joys await me at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season this month. See you there!


A novel relationship: WORD Christchurch

Carnival SkyIn all my years of reading and attending Literary Festivals, I have never once been in the same room as a writer and an editor. WORD event The Novel Relationship, with two writers and their editor in the same space at the same time, was therefore a must for me.

The event, “chaired and refereed” by Chris Moore seemed to promise, if not blood on the walls, at least a bit of bruising and the possibility of raised voices. I took my umpteenth coffee, got my pen and paper ready and settled in for the fray.

The two authors were Laurence Fearnley, whose writing I love: Butler’s Ringlet; Edwin and Matilda; The Hutbuilder. She has a new book The Reach, which will be available in September. And Owen Marshall, whose work I have yet to discover. The editor was Anna Rogers and if ever I write a book, I will want her to be the person to guide it to publication. She was great.

They all know one another, so the event got off to a smooth start.

Laurence Fearnley likes a soft edit:

I like an edit that takes into account pace and tone. I like to meander into my sentences. Then an abrupt sentence can happen. The pace needs to match the character progression. I like sentences that walk into the sentence. Anna is good at that with me.

Owen Marshall appreciates that Anna is a writer herself and that they can actually get together to discuss any possible changes.

Editors are the traffic cops of writing, but they can only suggest.

Anna feels that an editor’s job should be in the background:

I’ve done my job if I am not seen.

The tension really ratcheted up when they had to decide who would read first. It was that civil. But I love to hear authors read their own work and I was not disappointed with their renderings.

But my mind wandered just a teensy bit to Lionel Shriver who famously dumped her editor and friend of long standing after she had been disparaging about Shriver’s book We Need to talk About Kevin, ran off with her ex-editor’s husband, married him, found another editor and made a lot of money.

Try as we might (and there were questions about self-publishing and the isolation and smallness of the New Zealand market), this event remained resolutely sweet and fluffy. A little lambkins-frolicking of an occasion. Dare I say it – and any editor would get the machete out I am sure: It was a nice event.

More WORD stuff


Laurence Fearnley: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival is a mere few weeks away – it kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Laurence Fearnley

Cover of Where the rekohu bone singsWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

I am looking forward to catching up with a number of New Zealand authors I admire: Tina Makereti, Charlotte Randall, Carl Nixon, Breton Dukes, Liam McIlvanney and Owen Marshall. I am always interested to hear authors speak about their craft – rather than simply hearing about their latest book, or their subject matter. Charlotte Randall has a fantastic ear for spoken language and is extremely skilled in her handling of pace – which I think must be difficult when dealing with characters who are restricted (captive) in some way. Tina Makereti’s novel impresses me for its handling of voice and time-scale – that she creates a circular type conversation between characters rather than a fragmentary leap from one time and location to another. Breton’s stories are interesting for the way he handles contrast – the mix of the tightly controlled and the open ended which comes through in structure, plot and character. I like the way Liam McIlvanney plays with atmosphere and mood, using a combination of city-scape and character to build tension. And Carl Nixon and Owen Marshall are both just wonderfully skilled authors – understated and subtle, able to get beneath the skin of their characters, brilliant at capturing the ‘ordinary’.

What do you think about libraries?

I grew up in Christchurch and from an very early age went to the city library on the corner of Worcester Street and Oxford Terrace. I remember the wonderful issues desk, the smell of books and the joy of being allowed in the adults section to browse the art books. My parents used to hire paintings from the library – a favourite was by Trevor Moffitt. The thing I still love about any library is being able to get lost amongst the shelves. There are such treasures to be found in the open stacks…all the weird and wonderful books, books that people have laboured over both in the writing and the reading. There is always a great sense of anticipation when entering a library.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor and I went to drama classes run by Neta Neale at the old malthouse in Sydenham for eight years. I would have continued going but when I was 13 one of the (very nice) boys asked me out and I was so rattled that I figured it was easier to stop going to drama than deal with him. I think writing has been my compensation – as it allows me to get into character, make up stories, and, in a way, perform. I think acting and novel-writing have a great deal in common and I’m always interested by people who have crossed over from one to the other.

Cover of The hut builder Cover of Mother's Day Cover of Edwin + Matilda

Chatting with the locals

With Laurence Fearnley in Christchurch

Have you ever fantasised about having a chat with any of our local authors?

Whether this would be a dream come true for you, or your worst nightmare, you might enjoy having a look at some of the interviews that intrepid librarians have already conducted with local authors on your behalf.

What’s it like to get up-close-and-personal with an author whose work you love?

First read that author’s books! Sounds obvious, but… interviewers have been caught short before. You’ll start to feel confident. At this point, don’t be tempted to read other interviewers with their super cunning questions, it will crush you. The day of the interview dawns and you walk with boots of lead to the venue thinking all the while: Why, why, why do I do this to myself? The interview starts and amazingly, the esteemed author is a lovely, interesting talker as well as a gifted writer. At some point there is interview lift-off and you feel high. Back home, you transcribe the interview (this is so much easier to do if you remembered to switch on the recorder). And then it is all over. Until next time.

I counted at least twenty interviews with New Zealand writers at this library link; here’s a couple to get you started:

  • Paul Cleave Christchurch-based author of taut, psychological thrillers who has achieved international recognition
  • Sarah-Kate Lynch and Bronwyn talk food, drink, love and white pj’s in this fun interview
  • Laurence Fearnley  and I love the same book – one of hers – so that was a good start!
  • Fiona Kidman talks friendship and writing with Rachel

Top of my list of Kiwi writers to interview in the future would be Lloyd Jones and Shonagh Koea. How about you? Any New Zealand author you’d like to chat to, and what would you really like to ask?

There were four in the bed and the little one said …

The four in the coffee shop – Jolisa Gracewood, Tim Wilson, Laurence Fearnley and Carl Nixon.

From huts to heaven at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a close-up-and-personal event at the YMCA. The writers all met up at the next door coffee shop for a relaxed chat before the start, and that kind of set the tone. Inside the cosy venue, the stage  was crowded with big chairs and individual craning mikes and a precariously perched pot of yellow bulbs right over Laurence’s head. Jolisa joked that they looked like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young about to break into harmony. But no, the three New Zealand writers, with Jolisa as the Chair, were there to discuss novel writing in New Zealand to-day.

Carl Nixon kicked off with a reading from his new and yet to be published historical romance The Virgin and the Whale. Tim quipped: “It’ll sell better if you re-title it The Virgin’s in the Mail” but Carl is a brave man and just kept reading. Set in “Mansfield” (another name for Christchurch Carl freely admits), the narrator has a chatty, almost flippant tone which Carl hopes will help to lighten the book in the way that Kiwi authors are always being encouraged to do. The reading was warmly received – good luck with the rest of it Carl! Of all the writers it is Carl who has so far had the most success in getting some interest going in the publication of his books overseas.

Tim Wilson has been away from New Zealand for six years working as TV New Zealand’s US correspondent. He said coming back home was like returning to paradise – visually restful, clean and nice smelling. He read from a short story of his called Coming and Going which tackles the topic of Kiwis returning home after periods away, agreeing with Jolisa that it is people who get in the way of returning and resettling. As for the oft proffered advice that New Zealand writers need to lighten up and write for a more international audience, he quoted Tim Parks who said:

Writers write for the whole world, it is readers who are parochial.

Then it was the turn of the little one, who did not say “Roll Over”. In fact Laurence Fearnley is the most prolific of the three authors with eight books published and rolling over is so not what she does. “I only ever write for myself” she said. To Laurence writing is magical, looking at the book you have published in your hand, well – you come over all tingly. There is no better feeling. She read a very moving passage from her latest prizewinning novel The Hut Builder.

So far none of Laurence’s books has been published overseas (and this is a crying shame – trust me). She gets told that they are too New Zealand and, she believes, possibly too sad. Everyone wants jolly and Laurence does not really do jolly.

I start writing a book and I try to do a happy book and happy characters. But then something goes wrong.

Question time brought out an interesting crop, amongst them the issue of multiculturalism in Pakeha writing which was carefully considered by all three authors. The general consensus was that it would be a terrible strain for the writers to have central characters as Maori just because they don’t really know what that feels like and it would be so easy to get it wrong.

The final question came from a woman who confessed she’d not read any of their books but …

Quick as, Tim interjected:

You only have to buy them. You don’t have to read them!

And that’s the end of the Fest for me. It has been great!

“I prefer books to be like a walk up a hill, rather than a walk down a hill”: Laurence Fearnley

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.