A Loving Surgeon


imagesNovelist and poet Jeet Thayil held the first masterclass for this year’s MA. Easily seduced and readily impressed, I drew a picture of him in a cool denim jacket inside my notebook. I also took some notes, which are presented below:




Everybody knows poets don’t make any money, so they can get away with a lot. Readers have some expectations of ‘correctness’ from a novel while poets are expected to be half-insane.

Keep one continuous notebook for a dedicated period in your life, for everything — grocery list next to class notes, a hard-earned phone number next to a sketch of a bird. It will read like strange and personal poetry in the end.28086987

Poetry loves a list. The structure is so familiar, there’s freedom to be crazy inside it.

It’s a fashionable claim that a poem should stand completely alone, and should not need the context and history it was written in. But how much poorer would we be if we did not know it. Look at Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’. (We did.)



When violence is gratuitous, it is not correct. We’ve seen movies that feel like the director is getting off. It is gratuitous when you can remove violence and not lose anything. Take Homer’s Odyssey, take the Bible — violence is integral to those stories and you cannot remove it. Odysseus monologues on the slaughter he’s about to commit. The slaughter is integral to the tale. Jesus’s disciples were suicides; nobody followed him and expected to live very long.35285194


Jeet echoed James A. Michener: he is not a writer but a rewriter.  At the start of each day, he will go over the previous day’s work and revise or re-write it, which can take several hours.

Reading poetry, before beginning to write, is also a useful practice.

Be wary of the parts you are fond of simply because you had tremendous fun writing them. They may not suit the story. Those might be the darlings to stalk and murder.

Other Experiences

Jeet fielded questions from students, about writing other cultures, or experiences vastly different from one’s own. If you’re not going to risk being disliked, Jeet said, there is no point in writing, and the key to writing such work is paying extremely close attention. To write as a total act of love. The writer as surgeon, lovingly cutting up what he or she sees. Might showing someone and asking, “is this OK” be a good idea? No it will not be OK. It will destroy you as a writer.

During the coffee break I asked Jeet if he outlined his novels. He didn’t. Thank you, Jeet Thayil, for coming from far away and teaching a fantastic masterclass.


Jeet Thayil was a guest at Writers and Readers, The New Zealand Festival, Wellington March 2018. He is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. His most recent novel is The Book of Chocolate Saints. Read some of his poems here.



Notes from a poetry masterclass by Marianne Boruch

photo of Marianne Boruch by Will Dunlap 2

This checklist was compiled by MA student Rebecca Reader from thoughts and suggestions made by Marianne Boruch during the course of a free-flowing conversation at the IIML on 28 July 2017.  Marianne remarked after the fact:

images‘This list of ‘tips’ is interesting to me, a little unnerving though, cast as questions and then imperatives. That gives me pause. I hope I didn’t come across as a bully on these matters since uncertainty is a major element in making poems: always a kind of second-guessing which feeds and keeps open the meditative impulse. But I am very grateful to Rebecca for jotting these down, not as dictums so much as just reflections of a fellow traveller of hers-—and anyone smitten with poems and their making. We’re very lucky, aren’t we?  And that history is allowing us this moment to support our discussing such matters.’



Questions to ask during revision:

  • Does the poem undergo a shift in tone or mood? Does something in the poem change?
  • Is the poem abstract – does it open out into something bigger, have a larger quality and an intention of its own? Writing is alive if it arrives at something more than you had in mind.
  • Is the poem top-heavy with declarative sentences? Have you raised questions? Have you exclaimed? Or brought in urgency and hesitation via fragments?  Vary your syntax!
  • Have you over-explained? Less is more is an old and valuable dictum. Just enough is a useful mantra and caution.
  • Does the poem compress broad themes, times shifts or multiple associations into a small space?
  • Could you get a personal imprint on the poem without using ‘I’? Can a sense of personal juice be enacted through tonal shifts, lively language, surprising phrasing?  When used, the ‘I’ could well be abstracted to avoid the ‘Dear Diary’ effect. Vital discovery about the greater world often comes that way.
  • Is the reader watching the poem’s speaker figure something out? Is there a progression of thought in the poem?
  • Could you shift to present tense to introduce more urgency?
  • Does your white space create the pace and moments of stillness you’re after? Poems are made of sound and silence.
  • Does your poem have a trapdoor, a place where the poem slips inward, into individual realization, no matter how the world outside the self seems the main subject? Treasure that trapdoor which is our secret passage to the interior, the lyric heart of all poems.
  • Could you use a crochet hook to take an image used earlier in the poem and rework it later, even perhaps as part of the ending?
  • Could you flip the order of your closing lines, drop an upper line to the bottom for example, especially if that line is open-ended or contains a question? Most lines are portable and can travel and resettle. Some have serious wanderlust.
  • Have you read the work aloud and removed the padding?
  • Have you befriended your poem by revisiting it over a period of time until it is no longer an exact xerox of your guts? Regular visits with your poem move you beyond your initial state of enamoured shock. Daily meditation over lines that somehow bug you can result in an effective change being made. In short–show up, sit quietly with the current drafts of your poems; give them the time and space to keep revealing themselves to you. That’s what revision is. Patient companionship. Poems are fully alive and separate creatures, after all. They are not their maker. It takes a while to know them. And they often surprise you.

In creating a poem:

  • Be in the process not thinking about the process. When you write, words come through you.
  • Be as quiet as possible and as empty as possible.
  • Be open to images and note why they strike you.
  • Have no idea of where you’re going. Intention isn’t worth much—beyond the initial triggering impulse. Let the words and lines lead you into the poem’s real mystery. (You rarely know what that is at the start.)
  • Don’t be too wilful with research or the poem may not emerge.
  • Use favourite lines or images from poems you’ve read or written to inspire other poems. Waste nothing. Often bits you’ve cut from your earlier pieces make good seed for future poems.

An Interview with Charlotte Wood


by Antonia Bale

The Australian has described Charlotte Wood as one of that country’s ‘most original and provocative writers.’ She is the author of five novels and two books of non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, won the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book of the Year and Novel of the Year, and was the joint winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It has been published in Britain and the US as well as many countries in Europe. In 2016 Charlotte was named the Charles Perkins Centre’s inaugural Writer in Residence at the University of Sydney.

In July, MA and PhD prose and poetry students at the IIML were lucky enough to take a masterclass with Charlotte on building urgency and pressure. Unfortunately Charlotte then lost her voice and was unable to appear at Te Papa for her planned ‘Writers on Mondays’ reading and conversation. This interview is in lieu of that event. MA student Antonia Bale speaks with Charlotte about language, experimentation, Pinterest and writing what you want to write.

Place plays an obviously strong role in The Natural Way of Things but it’s also something that really influences the narrative in Animal People and, to a lesser degree, The Children. Is place a starting point for you?

9781760111236It can be, and definitely was with those three books, even though the place in The Natural Way of Things wasn’t a real place but a kind of dreamy (some would say nightmarish!) no-place. I do find that establishing a setting fairly early on helps me develop characters and plot, because once I have a place I can have my people responding to it, pushing against it, and often, being trapped in it with problematic others. Which can bring about useful frictions and conflicts. What I mean is that if I have a place in which to see the people of my story, I really need almost nothing else to begin a novel. This is comforting if, like me, you are the kind of writer who doesn’t plan from the beginning.

The Natural Way of Things traverses some dark territory– misogyny, how women who speak out about sexual abuse are treated, the media’s role in this – and yet the way you use language in the book is strikingly lyrical and beautiful. You’ve said that you felt that this came about as a response to the darkness in the novel. Can you talk to us a bit more about how you see the relationship between subject matter and language use?

It’s not really a very conscious decision, I have to say, but at a certain point in writing The Natural Way of Things I could see that I was constantly drawing beauty into the story as a way of balancing the ugliness – the moral and spiritual ugliness – of the material. The language in that book is much lusher, much more lyrical than, say, in Animal People. I don’t know if it would work terribly well if I were too conscious of this at the start – it could end up a sort of mechanistic approach, when what you want is for the language to merge very naturally with and arise from the story you’re telling. But I guess the overall point is that stories need light and shade, and with such a dark story, it seemed essential – for me as the writer, as much as the reader – to allow in as much ‘light’ in the form of beauty, and the potential for my girls to perceive beauty – as possible.

At the same time, too much beauty is a dangerous thing in a book. When I was first writing, I mostly relied on the beauty of language to stand in for the absence of other things like plot and strength of ideas and narrative tension. It didn’t work – too much lyricism ends up just making the prose claustrophobic and self-conscious. So now if I feel myself tipping into an overindulgence in the luxury of language, I try to punch a few holes in it with a bit of ugliness or plainness.

 The Natural Way of Things is very different from your previous books. You’ve said that while writing it you really didn’t think anyone would read it. And yet, it has become a breakthrough book. Can you reflect on what this might mean for writers and their relationship to readers? Should writers write what they most want to write and trust that readers will get it?

They most definitely should write what they want to write – but this is tricky territory, because ‘wanting’ is hard to define. I didn’t want to write the book I did, for example! I found it frightening and dark, and while I don’t want to be too dramatic about it, I felt I was entering some really quite horrible part of myself that, at times, felt almost dangerous to engage with. So, I really resisted the darkness of it, and kept trying to write around it, and to make it into a ‘nicer’ book. But that didn’t work at all, so only when I stopped resisting its nature did it begin to work. And once I got the first draft down, then I thought, okay: now make it into art. That’s where the beauty and the hope can come in, from turning a mass of ugly material into a shapely work of art.

I think you have to be honest in taking the big risk of this, because it’s more than possible that you can do all this – be yourself, write what you want to write, trust the reader – and then not be rewarded with readers or praise. It happens all the time. There is absolutely no guarantee that readers will follow you wherever you want to go. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, because what is an artist here for, if not to pursue her own creative instincts?

I discovered with The Natural Way of Things something I had sort of intuited before, but hadn’t really had to rely on: that if you pay close enough attention, and listen to your instincts, a book will tell you how to write it. You have to yield enough to it, and have the humility to accept that you can obey this and still fail. It’s scary! But when the rewards do come, they are so thrilling. You learn a lot about yourself, too.

9781760293345In your interview with Margo Lanagan for The Writer’s Room you said the scrapbooks she makes for her work appealed to you at a ‘non-verbal, gut level’. You used Pinterest in a similar way to gather images to help you imagine the future world of The Natural Way of Things. What did this approach lend you and how did it influence the tone or language of the book?

It was really useful. Seeing Margo’s beautiful scrapbooks inspired me to be more organised about collecting images as triggers and inspiration, which I had always done in a haphazard fashion. Pinterest turned out to be the perfect way for me to collect them, for that book – I’m doing it again now, but so far it’s not proving as useful, so maybe it depends on the book. I made sure it was a ‘private’ board so nobody but me could see it, and then I set it as my computer’s home page whenever I opened the internet. After a while of just collecting images very instinctively, I saw that the colours were mostly complementary, that there was a mood being created by the sombreness (and occasionally downright creepiness) of the images. There was a tonal cohesion to the images that was somehow consoling, even when the book was a total mess. One of the things that’s useful about it, and Margo said the same thing I think, is that it’s a good way of plunging yourself into the mood of the book very quickly.

Margo said this about her images: ‘They’re particularly good for when you get called away from the project and you lose contact with it. If you want to get back into the feeling of it, something like this is much quicker and stronger than reading through the draft that you did and the notes that you’ve made.’

If anyone’s interested, my The Natural Way of Things board is now public – it’s pretty creepy though, so be warned!

Your novels are considered ‘realist’. However, there’s a slightly mysterious presence in Margaret’s car in The Children and in The Natural Way of Things Verla’s fever dreams bleed into her waking life. What does departing from strict ‘realism’ give you as a writer?

It gives you everything. I mean, it allows so many more possibilities – Amanda Lohrey was the writer who crystallised this for me, when she told me in our Writer’s Room interview that she doesn’t trust any novel that doesn’t contain what she called ‘a message from another realm’. We were talking about dreams, and she said that while lots of readers hate them, they can bring in another layer of meaning into a book, and I completely agree.

1562502I don’t know about you, but I feel that a huge part of my life, and my ‘selfhood’ for want of a better word, exists on some other plane than the visible and the tangible. Our thoughts, memories, dreams, anxieties, our relationships, our sense of ourselves, often have very little to do with what can be identified as the ‘real’, concrete world.

It could be because I was raised in the Catholic religion, which quite apart from all the nonsense is full of a very rich sense of mystery, that not to acknowledge this sense of the unknown, the dreamy, the ‘supernatural’, feels to me that I would be ignoring an enormously important part of life. And so to ignore it in fiction seems madness.

From a technical point of view, it’s also a very helpful way sometimes of creating the unease, or the sense of tension and suspense, that helps to propel a reader through the pages. As Lohrey said, ‘small, unorthodox manoeuvres can have potent effects’.

The characters’ names in The Natural Way of Things – Verla, Yolanda, Teddy, Boncer, Maitlynd, Hetty – jump out off the page. They’ve got a kind of moxie about them. They’re quite different to the Geoffs, Cathys, Margarets, Stephens and Fionas of The Children and Animal People. Are names a way in for you in terms of creating character?

It’s very strange – the names in The Natural Way of Things just pretty much arrived out of the blue and did not change (apart from some of the peripheral girls, whose names took longer to settle upon). Again, after the fact, I could see that these quite strange names were part of the feeling of otherworldliness of that book – whereas with the previous two novels, I wanted a very real sense of ordinariness, of familiarity. I wanted the Connolly family to feel almost already recognised by the reader, so the familiarity of the names were a part of that.

None of these decisions are so conscious at the time.

I remember my friend the writer Tegan Bennett Daylight talking about character names way back when we were both baby writers, and how sometimes in writers’ early books characters have very beautiful names, or very dignified, quirky, whimsical sorts of names. You know, nobody’s called Alan. Or Sharon. It’s as if you’re naming your first baby. And Tegan said that if you’re not careful, the characters’ names can ‘stink of your ambition for the book’. I thought that was very astute, and I’ve tried to remember it. Although with The Natural Way of Things I obviously abandoned that altogether!

You’ve said that you chose to set Animal People in a single day as a kind of technical experiment. What other technical experiments have you set yourself? How has this influenced your writing?

6070162It’s helped, sometimes, to have this idea of a technical mark to aim for. With The Children I wanted to push myself on the drama side of things, to get a bit more suspense and tension into my work. Animal People was the one-day experiment, and in The Natural Way of Things I wanted to play around with reality, allowing myself some speculative, non-realist experimentation. With my new work in progress I’m having a shot at a more complex and rather old-fashioned use of omniscience or shifting points of view, but I don’t think it’s working very well. We shall see! Sometimes the technical and craft elements of writing are consoling things to focus on when other parts aren’t working.

In terms of its influence on my work, I’m not sure exactly what effect it has had – I have always had a horror of repeating myself, and wanted to do something quite different with each book. So I guess it has pushed me into new terrain, so far. But the more books you write, the harder it is not to repeat yourself, and I’ve become interested lately in the way visual artists quite often seem to even cannibalise their own earlier work to make new work – they don’t have the same kind of shame about this that writers have (or at least this writer). So I might be relaxing my views on this!

It was such a delight to revisit the Connolly family from The Children in Animal People. What was it like writing a book about a character that you (and readers) already had some context with? Did you consider this a creative constraint? Is it something you’d consider doing again?

It was fun to do that, almost a sequel but really a completely independent book. I found that having the main character of The Children – Mandy – completely offstage and absent in Animal People – gave me enormous freedom to basically start again, yet have glimpses of the family here and there. In one way it was a constraint to have the same characters I guess, but not really, because I thought about it as a completely new book with completely new characters. I just had to re-make them in a new context.

I once said I’d never write about Stephen or that family again – but a very astute bookseller challenged me to write about Stephen in, say, 20 years’ time. Who knows, maybe I will!

In both Animal People and The Natural Way of Things the ending offers something akin to hope or salvation. Is this part of what you think an ending could or should do? 

Hope is an interesting ethical position, and an expression of who you are as a writer. In general, I vote for optimism over despair. I think I’m actually a fairly pessimistic person, but I do see hope as a moral position – if you give up on hope you abandon the possibility of change, and that is a very, very dark place to go. Recently I heard someone say, of the current political climate, ‘we should save pessimism for better times’, which I thought was an astute remark.

I would never, ever tell another writer that an ending ‘should’ be hopeful. Some of the most powerful books I’ve ever read – that have galvanised me into a change of heart or a deep psychological response – have had very pessimistic endings, and it’s that very ending which paradoxically creates the possibility of hope in a reader, the understanding that our only hope is to push back against what might seem inevitable. So, I don’t hold a position on what other artists do, and there’s little I dislike more than one writer lecturing another on how they ‘should’ work. But I suspect that my own endings will generally contain at least the possibility of hope, purely because I can’t accept despair as a personal position. I mean, I accept it all the time in my own life, but you have different responsibilities when you put something on the page for others. Maybe.

You interviewed Australian and New Zealand writers for The Writer’s Room while writing The Natural Way of Things. How did these conversations influence the techniques or approaches you tried in this book? How important is it for your writing to speak with other writers about the process and craft of writing? Do you consider it a necessary lifeline for a writer?

It’s a necessary lifeline for me, but I would never presume to say it’s essential for all writers. The one overarching lesson I learned very clearly from the interviews, in fact, was that every writer has her or his own, specific, idiosyncratic and absolutely inviolable process. Part of learning to write, I think, is learning to accept your own needs and nature, and to respect your own instinct and process.

That said, every single interview I did taught me something exceptionally valuable. It was like an amazing private master class each time. When The Natural Way of Things came out I wrote an article for The Guardian where I pinpoint precise lessons I took from specific writers into writing the book.


For more from The Writer’s Room, Charlotte Wood’s interview with Lloyd Jones can also be found in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

Te Hui Whakapūmau/Māori Students’ Graduation Address 2014 – Hinemoana Baker

Hinemoana BakerKia ora huihui mai nei tātou katoa. Me kii, ko Tukorehe me Ōtākou ōkū marae-a-hapū, marae-ā-iwi rānei, engari ko Te Herenga Waka tōku marae whakatipu kei te Whanga-nui-a-Tara, nō reira tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Thank you to Victoria University and to Te Kawa a Māui for asking me to be here and speak today – a privilege and a pleasure. It’s quite emotional to be back here in Te Tumu Herenga Waka, at Te Herenga Waka, the marae which raised me in many ways, and scores of others over the decades.

It has been nearly 20 years since I graduated right here with my BA in Māori and Women’s Studies (back when there was a Women’s Studies Department) and ten years since my Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. First, I want to mihi to all of you Māori graduands whose day it is today. I mihi to you in the widest, warmest, truest, most deeply felt, most ‘I get what you’ve been through to be here’ kind of way. I want to congratulate you all on what you have achieved and what is being recognised today.

When I was sitting where you are, I felt a combination of things. Relief that the sheer workload was over; excitement; a kind of tired triumph. But I also felt grief – or a prescience of grief – anticipating what changes might come after this day, those connections that would inevitably unravel a little as the future arrived with its new opportunities and demands.

It might seem strange, at a time like this, to talk about sadness. But in the Māori world it’s a natural thing. Whenever we are welcomed in pōwhiri on any of the marae around the country we are invited to grieve, to bring on our dead and our sorrows alongside our celebration.

I believe the true beauty of occasions like this lies in this variegation. As scholars, as thinkers, as Māori and as human beings, it’s part of our duty to remind the world about the beautiful complexity of things.

When I was sitting where you are, it was the sadness of what I was leaving behind that affected me. And not just what I was leaving behind on this campus, but in my life and my life-path up until that point. It was this sadness, just as much as the excitement at what I was about to step into, that made this day in my own history so important and so memorable.

So in this spirit I’d like to share with you some words from a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the turn of last century. His name is Rainer Maria Rilke, and I have found his words nourishing at moments in my life of transformation, of deep and significant transition. He writes a lot about sadness and anxiety, but in this passage from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, he also writes about knowledge, about the limits of knowledge. He writes about the future, and how we may embrace it, how it may embrace us when we least expect it:

If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.

For those sadnesses are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing…

We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes.

We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way, in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

In closing, what I’d really like to do is my best John Campbell impersonation. I feel like exclaiming ‘Remarkable! You are all quite simply remarkable! Marvellous!’ But in fact I’m not sure if that’s John Campbell or David Attenborough. In Māori, I would say: Koia kei a koutou, e – which I think could be loosely translated as bloody good on you all. May your futures step into you today.

Mauri ora

Hinemoana Baker is the 2014 Writing Fellow at Victoria University. Her latest collection of poems is waha | mouth (Victoria University Press).

Emily Perkins – Candour v Confession: on reading Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival this month I met Robyn Davidson, and have since been immersed in her book Tracks. As you might know from the recently released movie of the same name, it’s about her odyssey on foot and camel from the centre of Australia to the coast in the 1970s. I haven’t seen the film but have gone online to search images of various characters who feature in the book, mostly to discover that the real people (‘the originals’) have been usurped by screen-stills of their movie-star avatars. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, or something.

This memoir has got me thinking about the literary difference between confession and candour. There is intimacy to a confession that draws you in, makes you lean closer. I often admire softly spoken people for the effect of their modest pitch. But speaking up and speaking clearly doesn’t have to mean shouting. (I have a theory that this is something women, particularly, worry about, for various obvious reasons.) Tracks reads like a direct, honest book, and involves transformation and soul-searching, but has none of the tinge of confession that we often find in personal stories. Davidson does not position the reader as more or less powerful than her narrating self. She’s not in search of absolution and she accepts there are limits to understanding, even as she tries to expand her own – and ours. If she moves us, that is an effect of the work, not the primary goal, which seems like something simpler, such as exploring, if that’s not too reductive.

If the book were being written now it’s easy to imagine a different and possibly diminished version – even, in our documented age, the self-consciousness of a journey undertaken in order to tell the tale. Back-story, confession, analysis, struggle, revelation, growth. The book as it stands resists that order, refusing to psychoanalyse itself in any simplistic way, and spares the author nothing, good or bad, in all of her incarnations through the desert. It’s beautifully shaped: expansions and digressions are made and much is elided. The shifting tone is anecdotal, lyrical, pragmatic, bewildered, funny and angry, and in leaving questions unresolved the memoir chooses honesty over comfort.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

There’s more that I’m thinking through about this, and if anyone has responses I’d love to hear them. In the meantime here is a distinction between candour and confession I plan to take into my writing and teaching: confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy. A book like Tracks is interested in exploring the larger nature of the story it is telling, leaving an open space for the reader to enter. Before the 18th Century, when ‘candour’ came to mean ‘freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness, outspokenness’, its meanings included ‘openness of mind’ and ‘freedom from malice’. Its root cand also belongs in candle, and accendere: to kindle, to set alight.

Emily Perkins teaches the MA Fiction Workshop at the IIML. Her most recent novel is The Forrests.

Faith and Will – Carl Shuker


So, how do you write, exactly?

Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

Obviously the Ballard here is J.G., in his Paris Review interview. Here is the author of, at his death in 2009, 18 novels and by my count 22 assorted collections of short fiction. In 1984, when he said this, James Graham was 54 and had published 10 novels and 15 of those collections. What lies behind this perfect little quote is an enormous lived treatise on the faith and will of writing.

J.G. is turning irritably in his grave right now, but hear me out.

In 1964, three novels into his career, Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia. In his joyous, playful The Kindness of Women he rewrote his own biography such that she dies after a fall at a Spanish beach resort. He is forced to drive his three children home to their dusty semi in Shepperton, TW17. Imagine that drive.


J.G. Ballard outside his house in Shepperton.

Shepperton, to his readers, is an otherwise banal London commuter circuit suburb luminous with his fiction: its reservoirs clasping drowned light aircraft in their waving weeds; its leafy green über-English foliage poised trembling ready to explode into a precisely and passionately observed tropical rainforest; its residents walking as if lost in a dream, ready for their deviating sexualities to emerge and find their fullest expression on church pews and dashboards.

What he did, just three novels in, his wife dead, age thirty-four, was to drive home to Shepperton with his three bereaved children, and commence the unimaginable task of bringing them up alone and writing his life’s work. And though Miriam died of pneumonia, not of a mysterious concussion in the back of a Catalan ambulance, whether or not he verifiably drove those children home doesn’t matter. Because that is what he did. He drove them home from the place of their mother’s death, and then he drove them to school in the morning, every morning, and came home, poured himself a large Teacher’s at (I like to imagine) about 9:15 (elsewhere in a very generous and humanising admission he talks of it calming his nerves), and commenced on the next 500 to 1000 words of some of the most devastating, numinous, repetitive, terrifying, sad, monotonous, prophetic, hilarious fiction we keep from the latter half of the twentieth century. (Martin Amis called Ballard’s fiction “at once totally humourless and entirely unserious”: his persistently strange work always rewards the paradoxical juxtaposition, and like all the biggies, he always reveals his reviewer.)

This is an act, behind his—and any big writer’s—apparent bravado, Godlikeness, unassailability (I don’t ever think of McCarthy sitting down to Blood Meridian and murmuring “Oh, I just can’t enter into this imaginatively today”): an act of faith, and of will. Because the weird catch-22 or ouroboros of novel writing is that to do the creative, imaginative work of making a piece of prose ring in a reader’s imagination, to raise and fire an undoubted world with bounce and blood and passion such that the reader has total faith in it, you must have faith in yourself. It’s a requirement.

It may sound trite. But consider this: out of nowhere, you’re say 24 and haven’t hardly finished a proper emotion let alone a thing we might call a book, you’re required to have faith that this tiny two-inch corner you’re painting right now will form an inevitable, essential, closely examinable and yet seemingly seamless and unremarkable part of a huge, huge canvas (you know only it’s really big) that you don’t know the exact dimensions of yet. (There’s a not-small element of bluff.) Because if you don’t have that faith then the brushstrokes, the mark making, will be incongruous; tiny, perfect details here; broad evocative strokes out there when you got confident but ran out of time/material/story/whatever. Pacing all wrong. Result: “Patchy”—L. Patchett, Listener. “Uneven”—Michiko Kakutani, NYT.

So because it’s me and not, well, you, I’m actually talking about, back to the first person: the catch: in order to do what I need to do and what I know I can’t do, or certainly have no prior evidence I can do, I must have faith in myself that I can indeed do this miraculous thing. Faith is a synonym here for love of self. But also, over time, as the fiction progresses, for me, faith in the people of the fiction. Faith in the world as it is transformed into the fiction. Faith as synonym for love of world. (Of course what also works is support of community, of family etc., apposite energies or obsessions like anger, loss, love, big passions which can be channelled, etc., Scotch.) Will is the element of getting myself into the position to have faith. “I will, every day, be here at this time doing this thing and if you think I won’t and that I will fuck this up like I fucked those other things up you’re about to get a lesson in will.” Or something equally self-exhortatory, vociferous, not to say strident. This is our only time and our only time in the sun; bitching about publishing and about debt and stress and hard work and tiredness and failure and dumbing down of this and that are just ways of not doing what I really have to do.

Don DeLillo has a lovely bit about will, in Underworld:
“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations.”

It’s a Jesuit talking to a young man. And I can see it’s kind of scary in isolation from the big sepia warmth of that book. It’s not just about set teeth and application of trouser seat to chair, as Kingsley Amis has it. Here’s Ballard, at his desk every morning in his, let’s face it, filthy house, his three children (three children) off at school, with his glass of Scotch, commencing on the next page of the novel, of his alternative affirmation of the psychosexual horror-comedy of the twentieth century.Drowned_World

And before I tell you what he does next, looking down at what he’s written, there’s another thing I might mention, apart from writing, and books, that is the result of this exercise of faith and will. Bill Manhire reports on always feeling like the youngest person in the room. And it’s written all over his face. Seamus Heaney said, “All poets are young poets really, that’s the beauty of it.” It was written all over his face too.

There are writers out there, and unhappy, frantic-seeming people with intense inner lives who haven’t found their work, who only calm under the weight of a task. I think of them like certain teenagers, all power and energy and no direction. Give them a task, give them a weight to bear, precisely calibrated just above their expectations of themselves. And they may bitch and moan, but the weight must be such they are forced to concentrate, and calm. There is a peace.

And there’s more. Because here’s Ballard, 34, with his three children, his debts, no doubt, and his memories of murder, atrocity, torture and starvation. His lost wife. He looks down at what he’s just written and chuckles.GetImage

Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. His books include The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon. Asked to recommend Ballard titles, Carl writes: ‘For new readers I’d say definitely start with the canonical Crash, or for those more squeamish, The Drowned World. And for the wonderful transmogrification of Shepperton: The Unlimited Dream Company.’

Carl is representing the MA year 2001 at the IIML Alumni Reading on Sunday 29 September from 7.30pm at Circa Theatre, Wellington.

Research and Improvisation – Amy Head



For the first time in a while, recently, while I was packing up to move, I put my hands on the folders and clear files relating to each of the stories in Tough (a collection set in the past and present on the West Coast). I’m far less likely to happen on digital files in the same way, and it was the first time I’d looked at this material together as one record. Each story had its own spiral-bound notepad. There were photocopies from library visits and pamphlets from tiny museums in the middle of nowhere (more like sheds, some of them, supervised by no-one). I found an exhibition catalogue and a promo DVD from Solid Energy.


The folders were filled out with print-outs of past drafts – three or four per story. Flicking through the old versions reminded me of entire sections of stories that had been scrapped, like the deleted scenes in DVD extras. It reminded me how unexpectedly modular the stories had been, allowing me to shift paragraphs around when I’d finished the first draft and could see more clearly what the story was about. It was all there: characters whose names had changed, the story I had to rewrite after being burgled.


I especially enjoy the research and discovery phase of developing an idea for a story. At its most ‘method’, this has meant persuading a friend of a friend, a textile historian, to let me try on her collection of hoop skirts. At its most leisurely it meant tracking down and watching old goldrush movies.


Sometimes these diversions were justified. After all, I have to inject the language with my own energy and commitment. I have to make the first draft sparkle enough to keep me interested in all the subsequent drafts, when I’ve switched the paragraph order and changed my mind about tense and point of view, and it’s all an unpacked mess that has to be put back together somehow.

But often, when I’ve forced myself to stay at my desk and write past the point at which the day’s writing began to feel stale, I’ve eventually arrived at an idea or image I’ve liked. I’m not sure that all of the preamble, my holistic approach, which I hoped was building up a unique world, attitude and tone for each story, was actually necessary. Although it may have given the stories the occasional sentence or image, the language and style is far more likely to have been enriched by what I was reading. On my MA year in particular, I was reading more, and more widely, than usual, and being encouraged to try new things.

During an interview for ‘In the Actor’s Studio’, Robert de Niro said he often found he got to the same place in his characterisations by skipping most of the fastidious preparation, instead starting to improvise and rehearse as soon as possible. I wonder if, when I start out in my next project, I’ll find a better balance between preparing and doing from the outset. If I start writing earlier, my subconscious can continue the work while I’m skiving off watching YouTube footage of the world’s highest waterfall, a demonstration of how to put my hair in victory rolls, or Roberto Begnini performing his one-man show about Dante, in Italian, in front of the Duomo.

Amy Head’s first book of stories Tough is published by Victoria University Press. She appears in the Writers on Mondays lunchtime series at Te Papa on 29 July.