A Writing Trajectory

My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. Some of my short stories are set in the Arabian Gulf where I lived for a year and saw ancient buildings buried by the desert wind, and in Brazil, where I watched wind-fanned grass fires disfigure the Cerrado.  In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer, uprooting trees and sucking moisture out of the earth. During one such blistering wind I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, the following quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls: ‘The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind and everything on earth comes flying past.’ Soon after, I read Jan deBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world and how they affect the inhabitants and the landscape. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind I wrote a short story that was published in Headland 8, When the Wind Blows, which explores the effect a prolonged nor’wester has on several families who live on the Canterbury Plains.

When I was 12 I watched a film on television about a herd of wild horses galloping through the surf. The film was in slow motion and I was rivetted by the way the horses’ manes and tails caught the sunlight and sea spray, and the way light and shadow turned their eyes into dark hollows. As soon as the film finished I ran up to my room to write what I’d seen, thumbing through a dictionary to find new words to help me express my awe. I kept coming back to this story over several years, polishing and re-writing until eventually, six years later, I submitted it for a college assignment in creative writing and received a Distinction. That’s when the idea of becoming a writer seemed possible.

My love of language grew from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy and had travelled to exotic lands, which he told me about in thrilling instalments. He also loved reciting the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow. The books he gave me were of the adventure type that he had loved as a boy: Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines. Not surprising then that my first career choice was archaeologist. Though career plans changed, my interest in what lay hidden beneath the surface remained. In my teens I read the Brontes, Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf. In my twenties I started teaching, got married, travelled, and wrote terrible poetry. In my early thirties, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication, drawing on the landscape and interior/exterior worlds.

My first novel, A Distraction of Opposites, published in 1992, is an example of excavating beneath the surface. What began as an image of a big black spider lurking in the centre of a web became a metaphor for how people can become trapped in sticky situations. The novel examines the world of the subconscious in parallel with the conscious and the story is narrated by the female protagonist trapped by the ‘spider’, a mentally unstable male. I completed this novel while holding the inaugural Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary.

My second novel, Tomorrow’s Empire, explores the rise of a religious fundamentalist and the culture clash between east and west. When I travelled through Turkey I met people who believed the heart had been torn out of Turkey when the republic was formed in 1923. Others rejected the past which they felt was synonymous with the middle ages, and equated civilisation with westernisation. To explore some of these conflicts I wrote a short story, ‘Gul’, which was published in Sport in 1990 and later anthologised in Vital Writing. From that story I began to develop the themes for what later became the novel. It was a long slow process, involving a lot of research over the next ten years and another trip back to Turkey. The more I learned about the history and politics and people, the more fascinated with the topic I became. But it was hard work. I put the manuscript aside for a couple of years while I wrote A Distraction of Opposites, which was set in New Zealand. After that novel was published in 1992, I returned to Tomorrow’s Empire. A grant from Creative New Zealand convinced me it was worth pursuing and I completed a large part of it while I was living in yet another country, Brazil, in 1995.

Living in a culture that had its own set of problems, but which had nothing to do with either New Zealand or Turkey, helped to clarify my focus on the themes of the novel. The two main characters in Tomorrow’s Empire are Celik, a young, highly educated and intelligent Moslem, whose rejection of the Republic’s Constitution lands him in prison, and Sarah a young English journalist. Their relationship acts as a metaphor for east/west misunderstanding. Tomorrow’s Empire was published in New Zealand in 2000, two years after the Iranian President Khatami declared he no longer supported the killing of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses, though the fatwa would remain in place. The previous ten years had seen book burnings in the UK and bombings and killings elsewhere. Sensitivities about Rushdie’s book still ran high. When my New Zealand publisher tried to have Tomorrow’s Empire published in the UK, not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful.

A year after Tomorrow’s Empire was published my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22. She died 13 months later in 2002. In the year following her death I could no longer write. In 2003 my husband and I decided to change our environment and the opportunity came to live and work in Oman in the Middle East for a year. Back in New Zealand I completed a Master’s degree in Creative Writing through CQ University in Australia. Some of the short stories which resulted from this, set in Brazil and Oman, were broadcast on National Radio and one, The Stone, was included in The Best New Zealand Fiction, vol 4.  This story was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.

My reading at that stage consisted solely of books about bereavement. These stories informed my grief when I had no words of my own. They helped me, not to ‘recover’ from my grief, but to learn how to navigate my way through it. However, although there was no shortage of literature on grieving young adult death from suicide or accident, young adult death from cancer was so rare that there was very little material available. I thought that writing my own book might go some way to filling that gap. Because of the amount of research necessary it made sense to tackle the subject as a doctorate. I completed my PhD in 2010. The creative non-fiction part of my thesis, which details my own experience of parental bereavement, was published in 2011 by Canterbury University Press as Sing No Sad Songs

In 2013 I began thinking about a new novel and completed the first draft in 2014 while I was the recipient of the Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Writing Residency. This novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell was published by Mākaro Press in 2019.

The book opens with two characters, Lily and her adult daughter Charlie, who are caught up in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Charlie dies and Lily loses her memory for a time. When she recovers, fragments of her past return to her and she decides to travel back to her native village in northern England with Charlie’s ashes. There she remembers her childhood friend, Christine, who drowned in mysterious circumstances in the old village well in 1956, and her friend Israel who was sent to New Zealand on the British government’s Child Migrant Scheme. Meeting people from her past triggers more memories and leads her to search for answers to questions which have haunted her for decades.

While I was working on this novel, I discovered the New Zealand-based flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier and its store of beautiful short narratives.I loved the use of language in many of these stories and the way a single moment or a whole lifetime could be conveyed in a few sentences and the fact that so much of the story was implicit in what was left unstated. I decided to set myself the challenge of writing in very short forms.

Many of my flash fictions deal with social dislocation, other-worldliness, memory, love, the search for belonging, loss of various kinds as well as new possibilities. The ideas for these stories come from diverse sources – newspapers articles, fragments of conversation, images, memories, but some appear perfectly formed, apparently out of nowhere. One such story appeared as I walked by the river with my dog. The sky was vivid blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. These things filled my mind. And The Gatherers arrived. Retreat West Books in the UK published 57 of my flash fiction stories, including The Gatherers in 2019 in a collection titled Soul Etchings, also available as an ebook direct from the publisher.

Next on the writing trajectory is another collection of flash fictions titled Below Ground – another reference to excavating beneath the surface, in this case the surface of people’s lives, to expose different forms of bullying. Later this year I’ll take up a writing residency in a different city to work on the collection, assuming we’re well and truly out of lockdown then. 

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