New Zealand writer Emily Perkins got her start with the short story collection Not Her Real Name, but has since turned to the novel. Her third, much praised novel, Novel About My Wife, is a psychological thriller about a husband trying to piece together the shadowy identity of his mysterious wife, Ann, in the aftermath of her death. He reconstructs the last year of her life: a year in which Tom lost his job, their first mortgage loomed large, and they awaited the birth of their first child, all while Ann became obsessed with a local homeless man she was convinced was stalking her.
Emily Perkins will be a guest of the 2008 Melbourne Writers Festival.
What made you decide to be a writer?
I just always did write, which was definitely something that came out of always reading I think. Out of always being an avid reader and loving just living inside the world of books, or the different world that books created I think quite naturally made me want to express myself within that form. And then it just developed, so I wrote the usual kind of bad poetry as a teenager. And then in my late teens and early twenties I was acting. I went to drama school and all through that time I was writing short little snippets – dialogues and monologues – that didn’t really ever reach completion. And then I enrolled in a writing course at the University of Wellington and that was when I started finished things.
And a visiting publisher from Picador read your work?
The publishing director at Picador at the time was out for the Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. And he was doing something that I now know was fairly unusual actually in the publishing world, he was actively looking for new writers, he wasn’t just waiting for the slush pile to reveal something. And he was just really encouraging and said ‘send me any more stories, as you write them’. Which I did. Now, when I think about it, it seems such a funny thing to do. Sending these individual typewritten stories.
But I guess he asked you to.
Yeah, but I didn’t know that that was maybe not the way you were supposed to go about it.
Do you think that it was maybe an advantage that you didn’t know?
Definitely. You know, that’s the great thing about not knowing, I suppose. And that’s also in a lot of ways that’s the story of New Zealanders in a city like London, or in much bigger places. You don’t know what the rules are, so you don’t know what you can’t do.
Do you think that these days – it seems that these days with those courses, everyone knows what to do. They have a real focus on ‘how to get published’ as well as the writing.
I think it’s interesting that you say that because I think you’re absolutely right. It’s something I really resist as a teacher. I would rather my students were experimenting with language and learning about developing their close reading skills and their critiquing skills and their rewriting skills and learning about technique but absolutely NOT with an eye for publication. Because ... you know, if it happens, it happens. That’s great.
I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that people now pay through the nose for their tertiary education. Now that students are putting themselves in hock for their education and they treat creative writing schools as some kind of entry way into publication and to my mind, that’s absolutely not the role of a creative writing school, or creative writing at an academic level. So, something that you always have to negotiate.
Your first book, Not Her Real Name, launched you onto the scene as a new literary star. What was it like to start your career with that kind of big bang?
When you first publish something, you’ve been writing in the dark, you’ve got no idea what people’s response is going to be. It was fantastic! I don’t want to sound falsely modest, but there was an element of it that surprised me.
Did the success of the first book present a challenge in writing your next books?
I think the real challenge for me, which was a major challenge, was moving from short stories into novel writing. And it’s still something that I feel quite consciously engaged with, I suppose. I was still learning about novel writing ... and I still am, there’s so much to learn because every book is different and you want to write every book in a different way. So you always start over feeling like you don’t really know anything. That was the case, moving from the short stories to my next book, but it’s also been the case for every book after that.
What made you decide to make the move from short stories to novels? Was it ‘that’s what you do next’ or ...
Well, kind of. To be honest, there was probably an element of that. Although now I certainly wouldn’t see the short story as any kind of training ground. I see them as very different forms. But there was a certain amount of expectation that that’s what you do next. But it was also partly because I thought, I didn’t know how to do it, and I was just really curious about that. I suppose I just had a curiosity about novel writing at that stage that I didn’t have about writing short stories.
What was the inspiration for Novel About My Wife?
There were a few different factors. There was this character of Ann, who I knew was this reinvented person. I didn’t really know how or why. I wasn’t sure what she’d done or why she wanted to reinvent herself, but I was interested in whether or not that transformation was possible as a kind of conscious act. I mean, we all reinvent ourselves all the time, but to really try and do it in a wholesale way.
I was also really bugged by this guy in England that I met ... this English guy ... who sort of made this pronouncement about Australians and New Zealanders in London being on the run from racial or cultural issues at home. It was so infuriating. And it was so much so that I thought “maybe there’s something in this. Maybe I can use my kind of revulsion for this perspective in terms of this novel as well. And London I suppose is a kind of influence on this novel. I’d been living there for kind of ten years and there were a lot of different aspects of London that have found their way in there.
It seems that you have great fun poking at the sacred cows of modern society, particularly modern urban hipsters.
I think Tom’s got a certain amount of self-knowledge about that sort of thing. I’m interested in the fact that a lot of us live within a particular presented cultural values system, that we don’t necessarily agree with, but we go along with it. And Tom’s in that position I guess. He’s critiquing it, but he’s absolutely in the tide of it at the same time.
I also liked the fact that Tom was complaining about kiddie bores and pretentious children’s names and ended up calling his child Arlo.
Well, again, it’s different when other people are doing it. And I think it’s particularly true of when people have children. And particularly when a certain type of man has children who’s always maintained that he’s going to be free of all of that, and then suddenly ... it’s like nobody’s every had a child before.
This is the first novel where you’ve really written about having children.
I’m not even sure if it’s the kind of writer I want to be ... but seems that I am the kind of writer who follows my own sort of generational trajectory I suppose. I guess I am following things that I know and have been around. Although obviously it’s a very fictional expression of that. I’d lived in London quite a while and I’d written a couple of short stories set there before but it took me quite a while to feel that I really knew the territory well enough to set something there. So I suppose in a way different stages of life are like different countries, and I’m the kind of writer who feels more comfortable writing about something I’ve been to.
I never quite worked out exactly what happened at the end ... is that something you intended?
Actually, I worked on a couple of earlier drafts where things were a bit more spelled out. But because I really wanted it to be clear that this was Tom’s version of events, this wasn’t the version of events. He had his chance to know Ann and to enter her world when she was in the room with him. And it’s too late now. And he can only guess. He can only make the attempt he’s making. Which I don’t think is a totally doomed attempt, because trying is all he can do. It’s a worthy act in itself. But he can’t ever reach absolute knowledge. And because it’s his book in a sense, I think absolute understanding has to be elusive. For me, the point wasn’t really to have that sort of ‘ohhh!’ moment. When there was more information in there it just felt wrong. It felt like it was shutting the novel off.