In Small Places
Paula Green and Sue Orr share some questions and answers
Paula: The title of our session is ‘In Small Places.’ You grew up in the Hauraki Plains and your new novel, The Party Line, is set there. When you picture the place of your childhood what stands out?
Sue: The absolute flatness of the land and huge skies – those are the things that immediately come to mind when I think about my childhood landscape. To the east, the Coromandel Ranges (and beyond them, alluring beaches) and to the north, south and west, nothing. In between, rolling tsunamis of black clouds or, in summertime, endless blue. And long, very straight roads with power poles disappearing into the space where a horizon should be.
Sue: New York Pocket Book is located a world away from the New Zealand landscape. Do you think it’s possible to feel homesick – or at least emotionally connected – to a place in which you’ve only ever been a visitor? A tourist? And if the answer is yes, in regards to New York, can you explain how this is?
Paula: I felt such a connection with New York on my first visit a few years ago but I think I had a lifetime of New Yorks in my head like a little fantasy park made up of scavenged bits from television, poetry, movies and fiction. The New York I carry in my head has changed and now the pull of return is even greater. It’s slower and not so garrulous. It has quiet spots, like on a street corner or in front of a painting.
Paula: When you go back home now – what seems just the same and what seems different?
Sue: I can drive down on to the Hauraki Plains now and appreciate a kind of lowland exoticism in the landscape, perhaps as a result of watching television set in similar landscapes such as the first series of True Detective (set in and around the swamplands of Louisiana) and the Spanish movie Marshland. I can see that the landscape evokes a certain atmosphere; heavy, brooding, menacing: all perfect for a novel. So that’s what seems different. But the actual landscape feels the same as it always did. It occurred to me recently that such a flat landscape means there’s nowhere to hide. Houses sit close to the roads; they’re not tucked behind hills in little private valleys.
Sue: Does that happen to you too, Paula? Do certain places get under your skin, in the way a person might? Why, for example, did you choose New York to write about and not another of the big cities you’ve spent time in?
Paula: Oh I love the idea of nowhere to hide in the plains. I grew up with hills about me. First Parihaka in Whangarei, then the hills of Wellington, and my constant returns to Auckland. Maybe that is why I only leave hints of private things in my poems and don’t share personal stuff on the internet. Hmm! I lived in London for years and can’t image a Pocket Book about that city. New York was so complex and beautiful and fun. Every day I felt poems taking off in my head.
Sue: Could you ever write about Auckland in the same way that you’ve written about New York?
Paula: That is very tempting! I have a draft manuscript that is set elsewhere and place is important in that. For Auckland, I wouldn’t have that tension between the unfamiliar and the intrinsically recognized. Something very different would happen. What have you done Sue?!? I am very tempted by this idea.
Paula: Your book starts with a woman on the road to the plains which made me think about how much driving you do both in the city and beyond. I was wondering about the space in the car and whether it boosts your writing – you do a lot of it!
Sue: It’s funny, the car journey that opens and closes the book – and breaks up the narrative in between from time to time – came very late in the process of writing the novel. I like the challenge of writing under some sort of imposed constraint. Limiting that particular part of the story to the interiority of the character’s mind, and the physical interior of her car, was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed setting these scenes in an enclosed space after setting the rest of the story in such wide open places. And yes, I spend a lot of time driving at the moment, and writing is always on my mind when I’m not negotiating the terror of the southern motorway.
Sue: Your daughter is now living on the other side of the world, as is mine. Decades ago, this would have meant long gaps between communication, and probably enormous anxiety about their well-being in places unknown. Nowadays, we can contact our children daily, wherever they might be in the world. Their backyards become as familiar to us as our own. How do you think this has affected us as writers, in terms of perceived exoticism of other places?
Paula: Some days I just want a trap door at the bottom of the garden so we can visit even though we chat frequently. It makes a difference that I have spent time where she is. But for me as a writer, this global mobility means we still depend upon imagined communities as much those our senses have experienced. The allure of other places is almost like the allure of new shoes—of testing out a new personality, eating different food, speaking another language. That can be what it’s like writing a poem. You can test out New York in a poem knowing there are myriad constellations of New Yorks in people’s heads.
Paula: Your new book is full of secrets. As a friend you a very good at keeping secrets—what about as a writer? Were there some things you just couldn’t tell?
Sue: As a writer, I could tell everything in regards to “what” – but “who” was another matter entirely. I was really careful to create characters rather than recreate real people I knew. The Party Line is a work of fiction, of course, and none of the events in the book actually happened as they were portrayed. But they represent a true wider world, and the strengths and failings of people inhabiting that world.
Paula: What discoveries did you make when writing the book?
The most profound discovery was that painting a character as purely evil was a cop-out in terms of character development, and ultimately unsatisfying in regards to the writing process. The first draft of the book featured a purely evil character. Early readers of that draft challenged me to flesh him out and make him if not likeable, at least more complicated: someone whose dreadful behaviours might be understood in a small way. He – and the whole book – became more complex and I hope more satisfying as a result.
Sue: Paula, you’ve been writing for much longer than me. What overall developments in your own writing have you observed? How do you feel now about your first poetry collection, when you pick it up and look at the poems? What has changed in your poetry?
Paula: I am very fond of it but I think my writing has got a lot simpler. I have also found the courage to write as I want to write whereas with my first book I wrote in the shadows of poets I admired. I acknowledged some of them in my afternoon-tea poems in the book.
Paula: What do you get out of literary festivals?
Sue: I love the way festivals bring readers and writers together. It’s a wonderful feeling to have readers want to discuss your book with you. Festivals remind us that without readers, there would be no books. I also love that the festivals bring writers and writers together. We’re often isolationist by nature, so when someone like the terrific Nicola Strawbridge herds us into a pen, it’s a fun time!
Paula: I agree. I especially love connections with writers I have never heard of or not read. Going West is like New Zealand’s family festival where as readers and writers we not only share good stories and poetry but excellent food and a glass of wine with a backdrop of bush and birds. Heaven!